30 January 2018

Four Actors

by Kirk Woodward

[Readers of Rick On Theater may know that my friend Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to this blog, is a long-time fan of mystery novels.  Among his most favorite series are the Erle Stanley Gardner novels about the indefatigable (not to mention undefeatable) attorney Perry Mason.  A devotee of the books and short stories (on which he’ll blog shortly), Kirk’s also a fan of the original television series starring Raymond Burr which ran from the 1950s into the 1960s.  I’m a fan, too, and we’ve each been watching the reruns on cable TV lately; we get different platforms on different services, so we don’t see the same episodes at the same times, but not long ago we both caught the four episodes filmed while Burr was recovering from an operation.  To cover for his absence, the series producers, Paisano Productions and CBS, brought in four prominent actors, two from the world of film and two from then-current TV series, to take the roles of the lead attorneys in the murder cases usually handled by Mason.  Kirk saw an opportunity to examine acting, especially—but not exclusively—TV acting, using the four contiguous 1963 episodes as examples.  So give “Four Actors” a read; I think you’ll find Kirk’s analysis of some aspects of acting edifying—and the look back at some old Perry Mason shows is kinda fun, too!  ~Rick]

A great deal has been written about the art of acting (including on this blog), much of it fascinating, but acting is difficult to write about. One reason is that to describe a performance of any size in detail is a daunting task, but, on the other hand, to zero in on a trait or several traits (as the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr frequently did) risks oversimplification.

There is also a memory problem: how much of a performance on stage can one recall afterward? Even with a superior memory – something a reviewer surely needs – is there space in which to publish a description of a performance in detail? When Bernard Shaw reviewed performances of the same role (Magda in the play Heimat, written by Hermann Sudermann in 1893) by Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) and Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), his review (in the London Saturday Review, 15 June 1895) was one of the longest he wrote. It takes up seven pages in the volume of his collected reviews.

And theorizing about acting isn’t much easier than describing it, as illustrated by the wide variety of ways the subject can be approached. (A convenient sample can be found in the classic collection of essays Actors on Acting, published in 1949, edited by Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy.)

I can illustrate this problem by posing a classic question: is acting basically an internal or an external process? Typifying answers to this question are the Actors Studio (highly internal) and traditional British acting (highly external). The answer surely is that acting is both internal and external, in varied degrees of emphasis depending on the actor, the play, and so on; but this answer has hardly quieted the debate.

With the advent of film, video tape, and digital recording, fortunately, acting performances can now be studied over and over, and much can be learned from such study. One highly interesting example of contrasting acting styles can be found in four episodes of the original Perry Mason TV series (1957-1966). (For information that follows about the shows, I am indebted to the compendium The Perry Mason Book: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s Favorite Defender of Justice, published in 2014, by Jim Davidson.)

In 1962, Raymond Burr (1917-1993), who was in his sixth of nine seasons with the first Perry Mason TV series, had what was described as minor emergency surgery but was in fact the removal of an intestinal tumor that turned out, to everyone’s great relief, to be benign. Burr missed the filming of the four episodes we will discuss; brief instances of his talking on the phone with his substitutes were filmed after he got out of the hospital.

Four actors took Burr’s place as the lead attorney in the four episodes he missed: Bette Davis, Michael Rennie, Hugh O’Brian, and Walter Pidgeon. I will briefly comment on the acting in these shows, and at the same time try to identify issues about acting that are raised by the performances of those four actors in those episodes – which have been released on video and can also be encountered on stations that rerun the show’s episodes.

“The Case of Constant Doyle” (season 6, episode 16, originally aired January 31, 1963)

“Constant Doyle” is the name of the character Bette Davis (1908-1989) plays in this episode – a tribute to Davis that was one of only two times in the series that a character name was used in an episode title. (The other was “The Case of Paul Drake’s Dilemma.” Ordinarily an episode title in the series would be something like “The Case of the Constant Doyle,” referring to an object or a situation.)

Doyle, Bette Davis’s character, is the widow (and former law partner) of an attorney whose reputation has been besmirched, and as she solves a mystery involving a young man arrested for a petty crime, with much larger implications, she clears her husband’s name as well.

In 1963 Davis’s career was at a difficult stage. She was fifty-five, not old by everyday standards but old for Hollywood (especially women), where she was no longer a top box office attraction. (She had, however, just finished filming the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which would significantly boost her career.) There was hope that the Perry Mason episode might lead to a new TV series for Davis, although this did not happen.

Fans of Davis’s work reflect in web postings enthusiasm for her performance as Constant Doyle. To my mind her performance is erratic and “stagy.” Davis did some stage work (including a lead in Tennessee Williams’s play The Night of the Iguana in 1961, quite a histrionic play in itself), but most of her work was in movies. It seems fair to say, though, that her acting style became increasingly mannered and baroque, a fact memorably displayed in Baby Jane and its 1964 sequel Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte

To put it another way: I don’t find her performance in the Perry Mason episode to be believable. But what do we mean when we say a performance is believable?

We might mean that if we saw the same person say the same words and do the same actions in everyday life, that behavior would be convincing to us. A moment’s reflection will show that that is seldom if ever the case. The simple fact that a piece of behavior is being performed before an audience changes the nature of that behavior. Add the conditions of the theater, a film set, or a television studio, and the result would definitely seem strange to us if transplanted to everyday life.

When we say a performance is believable, surely we mean believable in the context it’s presented in. One would hardly suggest a real life King Lear to walk in a pub, order a drink, and chat mildly about the weather. King Lear exists in the context invented by Shakespeare for his play, and a “believable” actor in the role is one that behaves appropriately in that context. In that sense, Davis simply does not strike me as believable in her role as Constant Doyle – or as a lawyer, for that matter. She seems to me constantly (sorry) to be a performer, rather than a person in the particular context of a particular script.

Comment on the web, however, often disagrees with me, which brings up another issue about acting, namely, the hopes and expectations we as audience members bring to and project on an actor’s performance. Bette Davis is a much admired performer and, although she hardly brings a “soft” dimension to her work, even (perhaps for that reason) a beloved one. Is an admirer justified in saying she’s wonderful in the role because she’s Bette Davis?

A stalwart aesthetician might say no, but I have no right to say that, because I do the same thing all the time. A best practice in reviewing is that a reviewer ought to analyze a famous person’s performance as though the person were unknown, and vice versa. Personally, however, I seldom do that. If I am an admirer of a particular performer, it is hard for me to admit that anything that artist does falls short of the mark.  In that respect I resemble, I imagine, many fans of Bette Davis. 

“The Case of the Libelous Locket” (season 6, episode 17, originally aired February 7, 1963)

Michael Rennie (1909-1971), appearing at the time of this episode as the TV incarnation of Harry Lime in The Third Man series (1959-1965) but best known perhaps for his role as Klaatu, the visitor from outer space in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), plays a law professor, Edward Lindley. A student in one of his classes believes she’s killed a dance instructor – except that no evidence of that murder can be found, until the instructor is found dead the next day, murdered at a different time in a different way. Lindley, who at the beginning of the episode has belittled the profession of trial attorney, decides to defend the student himself (with a bit of encouragement from Perry Mason, seen, as in all four of the episodes discussed here, talking on the phone, in this case from the hospital).

Rennie’s performance, to me, is tentative and halting. (The Perry Mason Book says that “Lindley [note – the character, not the actor] seems diffident, out of his league, bland, and generally unappealing.”)

Not so fast, though – because the character Rennie plays is also uncertain how to proceed in defending the case, since he has little or no trial experience. Am I responding to the actor or the role?

The acting issue raised here, then, is that of the relation of the actor to the script. If my observation about Rennie’s performance is correct, is it the actor or the character who lacks assurance and confidence? (Or, of course, is it both?) Has the actor’s personality overwhelmed the script, or is the actor simply carrying out the script’s requirements?

Reviewers frequently point with conviction to a director, an actor, or a script as the reason for something that happens in a production, but in many cases it’s difficult to be sure who’s responsible for what, and some highly dubious assertions can be made.

For example, I recall a production of Bernard Shaw’s play Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1900) in which reviewers generally blamed the script for the production’s weaknesses, when in fact, as far as I could tell, nearly every element of the production, including the acting, the direction, and the set, had the effect of sabotaging an excellent play.

The lesson I take from this subject is that we need to be careful when making statements like my “Rennie’s performance seems tentative and halting.” That impression, if accurate, may be Rennie’s fault; or he may be doing exactly what the director told him to do, or what he thought the script demanded. In deciding who’s responsible for what in a production, a little humility is perhaps not a bad thing.

“The Case of the Two-Faced Turn-A-Bout” (season 6, episode 18, originally aired February 14, 1963)

No apology is needed for the performance of Hugh O’Brian (1925-2016), best known for his performance from 1955 to 1961 as the title lawman on TV’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (still running when he made his Perry Mason guest appearance), as Bruce Jason, a former World War II spy turned attorney, in a frankly pretty improbable story of international intrigue, including mysterious papers that could have a huge effect on public opinion; representatives of foreign dictatorships freely wandering around Los Angeles chatting about their government; and a doppelganger.

The Perry Mason Book says that O’Brian “handles the role competently, but comes off a bit smug – a quality Gardner always cautioned about.” Competently? The man is sensational – relaxed, in control, commanding every scene he’s in, polished, smooth, droll, entertaining. Smug? Absolutely – see the previous sentence! O’Brian breezes through the preposterous plot in high spirits.

Hugh O’Brian was also, in “real life,” a smart, funny man. Wikipedia gives us this glimpse of his mind: when he married, fairly late in life, “the couple spent their honeymoon studying philosophy at Oxford University.” From the same source, we have this glimpse of his humor: after his original last name (Krampe) was misspelled in a program as “Hugh Krape,” he changed his name because “I didn't want to go through life being known as Huge Krape.

The acting issue here is that of personality versus, well, acting. Is O’Brian giving an acting performance or is he essentially just lending his personality to a role? My own response to this question is that at least he has a personality to lend. Many of the performers we really want to see are “characters” in their own right.

For example, I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about Bette Midler (“Two Greats,” 3 May 2017), who has just finished up her role as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly on Broadway. Midler is and apparently always has been an outsize and vivid personality. She certainly brings that personality to the role of Dolly. However, she doesn’t use her personality to burst the bounds of the musical; she lends it to her role.

An actor who in effect ignores a script and imposes her or his personality on a play or film is another matter. Zero Mostel (1915-1977), for example, was accused of doing this in the later part of his run as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and was widely reported to be unpopular with both the director and the cast. I only saw Mostel once, in a preview performance of a revival of Ulysses in Nighttown (1974) on Broadway, and what I remember best is that Mostel at one point “broke character” and imitated an actor who bobbled a line.

O’Brian doesn’t impose his personality on his Perry Mason episode, but he certainly pours a great deal of what appears to be his own charm and energy into a head-scratcher of a script. He stays within the bounds of his character (such as the character is); but he fills it to the brim.

“The Case of the Surplus Suitor” (season 6, episode 19, originally aired 28 February, 1963)

I have a memory of seeing Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984) at the Brown Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, in a road company production of some Broadway play when I was a teenager, but I don’t remember much about his performance there. On his Perry Mason episode, Pidgeon plays Sherman Hatfield, a lawyer who takes on a case involving a struggle for the European rights to an electronics company, and, of course, murder.

Pidgeon’s performance on his Perry Mason episode is a delight. I spent a lot of time analyzing why I thought so – was it, for example, because of the richness and quality of his voice, equal to that of Raymond Burr’s? Finally I realized what struck me even more: Pidgeon is a terrific listener.

“Acting is reacting,” the saying goes, which implies that the actor has to listen to the other character in order to be able to participate in a scene. Similarly, the acting technique of Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) is based to a considerable extent on training an actor really to hear what the other actor is saying. In another example, the actor James Garner (1928-2014) wrote in his autobiography that he learned acting while appearing on Broadway as a juror in the Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1954), in which he never spoke a word and only listened and reacted.

Listening is an essential of the actor’s craft. What sets Pidgeon apart as a listener is that he is an animated, active listener, essentially a participant in everything going on in a scene, even – or especially - when he’s not speaking. With a mobile face and a great deal of energy at his disposal, he listens so actively that one almost experiences the moments when he’s listening as two actors are speaking.

What’s more, he listens so completely to what’s happening that his spoken responses practically seem to bounce out of him. Unlike Bette Davis and Michael Rennie (but not Hugh O’Brian) in their Perry Mason episodes, Pidgeon doesn’t gather his thoughts and then speak; he is always on the mark. He has taken in everything that’s been said and he is ready to move the scene forward . . . which he does, with enthusiasm.

*  *  *  *

Acting is a fascinating subject. There’s always more to be said about it, and we are fortunate to have the four episodes of Perry Mason discussed here as examples of the craft.

Perhaps I should also say a word about Raymond Burr, who so memorably played Perry Mason in the series.

Burr makes a big impression – that’s no secret. For one thing, he was a big man, and he had a sonorous voice. But his acting is minimalist – it almost all takes place in his eyes. When he raises his voice, the effect is thunderous. He is not like any other actor I can think of. But surely that’s an important fact about actors – like snowflakes, no two are alike.

[At the top of “Four Actors,” Kirk says that a lot has been said about the art and craft of acting even on ROT.  Almost all my performance reports and most of the other review-like posts say something about acting and actors, and many of the other posts often include comments on acting or make some point pertinent to the art.  By my spot count, however, nearly 25 posts are specifically about acting or discuss it in significant terms, including “Acting Shakespeare,” 5 September 2009; “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” 1 November 2010; “Herbert Berghof, Acting Teacher” by Kirk Woodward, 1 June 2011; “David Mamet On Acting & Directing,” 16 August 2013; “Acting: Testimony and Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013; “The Father of Actor Training: François Delsarte,” 4 January 2014; “Why Acting Matters,” 10 and 13 February 2016; “Those Guys” by Bilge Ebiri (T magazine, New York Times), 11 December 2017; and quite a few more.

25 January 2018

"Beckett by the Madeleine"

by Tom F. Driver

[One of the most important Samuel Beckett documents is Tom F. Driver’s interview with “Beckett by the Madeleine” in which Beckett stressed the distress, the mess in the world today, and dismissed any overt religious interpretation of Waiting for Godot.   This text is reproduced  from: Stanley A. Clayes, ed., Drama and Discussion (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 604-7.  Diver’s interview was originally published in Columbia University Forum 4 (Summer 1961): 21-25.]

Nothing like Godot, he arrived before the hour.  His letter had suggested we meet at my hotel at noon on Sunday, and I came into the lobby as the clock struck twelve.  He was waiting.

My wish to meet Samuel Beckett had been prompted by simple curiosity and interest in his work.  American newspaper reviewers like to call his plays nihilistic.  They find deep pessimism in them.  Even so astute a commentator as Harold Clurman of The Nation has said that “Waiting for Godot” is “the concentrate . . . of the contemporary European . . . mood of despair.”  But to me Beckett’s writing had seemed permeated with love for human beings and with a kind of humor that I could reconcile neither with despair or with nihilism.  Could it be that my eyes and ears had deceived me?  Is his a literature of defeat, irrelevant to the social crisis we face?  Or is it relevant because it teaches us something useful to know about ourselves.

I knew that a conversation with the author would not settle such questions, because a man is not the same as his writing: in the last analysis, the questions had to be settled by the work itself.  Nevertheless I was curious.

My curiosity was sharpened a day or two before the interview by a conversation I had with a well-informed teacher of literature, a Jesuit father, at a conference on religious drama near Paris.  When Beckett’s name came into the discussion, the priest grew loud and told me that Beckett “hates life.”  That, I thought, is at least one thing I can find out when we meet.

Beckett’s appearance is rough-hewn Irish.  The features of his face are distinct, but not fine.  They look as if they had been sculptured with and unsharpened chisel.  Unruly hair goes straight up from his forehead, standing so high that the top falls gently over, as if to show that it really is hair and not bristle.  One might say it combines the man’s own pride and humility.  For he has the pride that comes of self-acceptance and the humility, perhaps of the same genesis, not to impose himself upon another.  His light blue eyes, set deep within the face, are actively and continually looking.  He seems, by some unconscious division of labor, to have given them that one function and no other, leaving communication to the rest of the face.  The mouth frequently breaks into a disarming smile.  The voice is light in timbre, with a rough edge that corresponds to his visage.  The Irish accent is, as one would expect, combined with slight inflections from the French.  His tweed suit was a baggy gray and green.  He wore a brown knit sports shirt with no tie.

We walked down the Rue de L’Arcade, thence along beside the Madeleine and across to a sidewalk cafe opposite that church.  The conversation that ensued may have been engrossing but it could hardly be called world-shattering.  For one thing, the world that Beckett sees is already shattered.  His talk turns to what he calls “the mess,” or sometimes “this buzzing confusion.”  I reconstruct his sentences from notes made immediately after our conversation.  What appears here is shorter than what he actually said but very close to his own words.

“The confusion is not my invention.  We cannot listen to a conversation for five minutes without being acutely aware of the confusion.  It is all around us and our only chance now is to let it in.  The only chance of renovation is to open our eyes and see the mess.  It is not a mess you can make sense of.” 

I suggested that one must let it in because it is the truth, but Beckett did not take to the word truth.

“What is more true than anything else?  To swim is true, and to sink is true.  One is not more true than the other.  One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess.  When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me.  I am not a philosopher.  One can only speak of what is in front of him, and that now is simply the mess.”

Then he began to speak about the tension in art between the mess and form.  Until recently, art has withstood the pressure of chaotic things.  It has held them at bay.  It realized that to admit them was to jeopardize form.  “How could the mess be admitted, because it appears to be the very opposite of form and therefore destructive of the very thing that art holds itself to be?”  But how can we keep it out no longer,  because we have come into a time when “it invades our experience at every moment.  It is there and it must be allowed in.”

I granted this might be so, but found the result to be even more attention to form than was the case previously.  And why not?  How, I asked, could chaos be admitted to chaos?  Would that not be the end of thinking and the end of art?  If we look at recent art we find it preoccupied with form.  Beckett’s own work is an example.  Plays more highly formalized than “Waiting for Godot,” “Endgame,” and “Krapp’s Last Tape” would be hard to find.

“What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art.  It only means that there will be new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else.  The form and the chaos remain separate.  The latter is not reduced to the former.  That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates.  To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artists now.

Yet, I responded, could not similar things be said about the art of the past?  Is it nor characteristic of the greatest art that it confronts us with something we cannot clarify, demanding that the viewer respond to it in his own never-predictable way?  What is the history of criticism but the history of men attempting to make sense of the manifold elements in art that will not allow themselves to be reduced to a single philosophy or a single aesthetic theory?  Isn’t all art ambiguous? 

“Not this,” he said, and gestured toward the Madeleine.  The classical lines of the church, which Napoleon thought of as a Temple of Glory, dominated all the scene where we sat.  The Boulevard de la Madeleine, the Boulevard Malesherbes, and the Rue Royale ran to it with a graceful flattery, bearing tidings of the Age of Reason.  “Not this.  This is clear.  This does not allow the mystery to invade us.  With classical art, all is settled.  But it is different at Chartres.  There is the unexplainable, and there art raises questions that it does not attempt to answer.” 

I asked about the battle between life and death in his plays.  Didi and Gogo hover on the edge of suicide; Hamm’s world is death and Clov may or may not get out of it to join the living child outside.  Is this life-death question a part of the chaos?

“Yes.  If life and death did not both present themselves to us, there would be no inscrutability.  If there were only darkness, all would be clear.  It is because there is not only darkness but also light that our situation becomes inexplicable.  Take Augustine’s doctrine of grace given and grace withheld: have you pondered the dramatic qualities in this theology?  Two thieves are crucified with Christ, one saved and the other damned.  How can we make sense of this division?  In classical drama, such problems do not arise.  The destiny of Racine’s Phèdre is sealed from the beginning: she will proceed into the dark.  As she goes, she herself will be illuminated.  At the beginning of the play she has partial illumination and at the end she has complete illumination, but there has been no question but that she moves toward the dark.  That is the play.  Within this notion clarity is possible, but for us who are neither Greek nor Jansenist there is not such clarity.  The question would also be removed if we believed in the contrary—total salvation.  But where we have both dark and light we have also the inexplicable.  The key word in my plays is ‘perhaps.’”

Given a theological lead, I asked what he thinks about those who find a religious significance to his plays.

“Well, really there is none at all.  I have no religious feeling.  Once I had a religious emotion.  It was at my first communion.  No more.  My mother was deeply religious.  So was my brother.  He knelt down at his bed as long as long as he could kneel.  My father had none.  The family was Protestant, but for me it was only irksome and I let it go.  My brother and mother got no value from their religion when they died.  At the moment of crisis it had no more depth than an old-school tie.  Irish Catholicism is not attractive, but it is deeper.  When you pass a church on an Irish bus, all the hands flurry in the sign of the cross.  One day the dogs of Ireland will do that too and perhaps also the pigs.”

But do the plays deal with the same facets of experience religion must also deal with?

“Yes, for they deal with distress.  Some people object to this in my writing.  At a party an English intellectual—so-called—asked me why I write about distress.  As if it were perverse to do so!  He wanted to know if my father had beaten me or my mother had run away from home to give me an unhappy childhood.  I told him no, that I had had a very happy childhood.  Then he thought me more perverse than ever.  I left the party as soon as possible and got into a taxi.  On the glass partition between me and the driver were three signs: one asked for help for the blind, another, help for the orphans, and the third for relief for the war refugees.  One does not have to look for distress.  It is screaming at you even in the taxis of London.”

Lunch was over, and we walked back to the hotel with the light and dark of Paris screaming at us.

The personal quality of Samuel Beckett is similar to qualities I had found in the plays.  He says nothing that compresses experience within a closed pattern.  “Perhaps” stands in place of commitment.  At the same time, he is plainly sympathetic, clearly friendly.  If there were only the mess, all would be clear; but there is also compassion.

As a Christian, I know I do not stand where Beckett stands, but I do see much of what he sees.  As a writer on theater, I have paid close attention to the plays.  Harold Clurman is right to say that “Waiting for Godot” is a reflection (he calls it a distorted reflection) “of the impasse and disarray of Europe’s current politics, ethic, and common way of life.”  Yet it is not only Europe that the play refers to.  “Waiting for Godot” sells even better in America than in France.  The consciousness it mirrors my have come earlier to Europe than to America, but it is the consciousness that most “mature” societies arrive at when their successes in technological and economic systemization propel them into a time of examining the not-strictly-practical ends of culture.  America is now joining Europe in this “mature” phase of development.  Whether any of us remain in it long will depend on what happens as a result of the technological and economic revolutions now going on in the countries of Asia and Africa, and also of course on how long the cold war remains cold.  At present no political party in Western Europe or America seems possessed of a philosophy of social change adequate to the pressures of current history.

In the Beckett plays, time does not go forward.  We are always at the end, where events repeat themselves (“Waiting for Godot”), or hover at the edge of nothingness (“Endgame”), or turn back to the long-ago moment of genuine life (“Krapp’s Last Tape”).  This retreat from action may disappoint those of us who believe that the events of the objective world must still be dealt with.  To say “perhaps,” as the plays do, is not to say “no.”  The plays do not say that there is no future but that we do not see it, have no confidence about it, and approach it hopelessly.  Apart from messianic Marxism, where is there today a faith asserting the contrary that succeeds in shaping a culture?

The walls that surround the characters of Beckett’s plays are not walls that nature and history have built irrespective of the decisions of men.  They are the walls of one’s own attitude toward his situation.  The plays are themselves evidence of a human capacity to see one’s situation and by that very fact to transcend it.  That is why Beckett can say that letting in “the mess” may bring with it a “chance of renovation.”  It is also why he is wrong, from philosophy’s point of view, to say that there is only “the mess.”  If that were all there is, he could not recognize it as such.  But the plays and the novels contain more, and that more is transcendence of the self and the situation.

In “Waiting for Godot” Beckett has a very simple and moving description of human self-transcendence.  Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo) are discussing man, who bears his “little cross” until he dies and is forgotten.  In a beautiful passage that is really a duet composed of short lines from first one pair of lips and then the other, the two tramps speak of their inability to keep silent.  As Gogo says, “It’s so we won’t hear . . . all the dead voices.”  The voices of the dead make a noise like wings, sand, or leaves, all speaking at once, each one to itself, whispering, rustling, and murmuring.

vladimir.  What do they say?
estragon.  They talk about their lives.
vladimir.  To have lived is not enough for them.
estragon.  They have to talk about it.
vladimir.  To be dead it not enough for them.
estragon.  It is no sufficient.
vladimir.  They make a noise like feathers.
estragon.  Like leaves.
vladimir.  Like ashes.
estragon.  Like leaves.

In this passage, Didi and Gogo are like the dead, and the dead are like the living, because all are incapable of keeping silent.  The description of the dead voices is also a description of of living voices.  In either case, neither to live nor to die is “enough.”  One must talk about it.  The human condition is self-reflection, self-transcendence.  Beckett’s plays are the whispering, rustling, and murmuring of man refusing merely to exist.

Is it not true that self-transcendence implies freedom, and that freedom is either the most glorious or the most terrifying of facts, depending on the vigor of the spirit that contemplates it?  It is important to notice that the rebukes to Beckett’s “despair” have mostly come from the dogmatists of humanist liberalism, who here reveal, as so often they do, that they desire the reassurance of certainty more than they love freedom.  Having recognized that to live is not enough, they wish to fasten down in dogma the way that life ought to be lived.  Beckett suggests something more free—that life is to be seen, to be talked about, and that the way it is to be lived cannot be stated unambiguously but must come as a response to that which one encounters in “the mess.”  He has devised his works in such a way that those who comment upon them actually comment upon themselves.  One cannot say, “Beckett has said so and so,” for Beckett has said, “Perhaps.”  If the critics and the public see only images of despair, one can only deduce that they are themselves despairing.

Beckett himself, or so I take it, has repented of the desire for certainty.  There are therefore released in him qualities of affirmation that his interpreters often miss.  That is why the laughter in his plays is warm, his concern for his characters affectionate.  His warm humor and affection are not the attributes of defeatism but the consequences of what Paul Tillich has called “the courage to be.”

[Tom F. Driver (b. 1925) was the Christian Century’s drama critic and a Union Theological Seminary faculty member.  I have posted several pieces about Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot on Rick On Theater; see “History of Waiting For Godot,” 30 March 2009; “Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 1 April 2009; “More Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 3 April 2009; Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” 17 April 2009; Waiting for Godot,” a performance report, 31 October 2016; and “Beckett Trilogy: Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby,” another performance report, 1 May 2016.]

20 January 2018

Two Kabuki Reviews (2014)

[As readers of Rick On Theater may know, I’m a big fan of Kabuki, one of the traditional theater forms of Japan.  I’ve blogged on it a couple of times in the years I’ve edited this blog: “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” posted on 1 November 2010, and “Grand Kabuki (July 1985),” 6 November 2011; Kabuki has also made an appearance on other posts, most prominently “Theater and Computers,” 5 December 2010.  A little over three years ago, the Heisei Nakamura-za of Tokyo came to New York City with the 19th-century play The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree, based on a story by Sanyutei Encho.  Below are two reviews of that production at the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center (7-12 July 2014).]

by Charles Isherwood

[Isherwood’s review appeared in the New York Times’ “Arts” section on 9 July 2014.  (The reviewer has since left the paper.)]

A Kabuki Drama at the Lincoln Center Festival

“Protect the Prada!”

That’s an admonition you might expect to hear screeched over a boozy lunch on the Upper East Side, when a glass of cabernet takes a fall. Instead, it’s being offered with a smile by a genial Japanese actor in a kimono in the Kabuki drama being presented as the opening night offering of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. He offers the advice while passing out plastic ponchos to the first few rows of audience members, who are soon to be soaked by the overflow of the onstage waterfall that is one of the many lively effects in this splendidly entertaining show, “Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki,” which translates (rather awkwardly) as “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree.”

Presented by the venerable Heisei Nakamura-za company, a theater whose roots date back several centuries, the production manages the nifty feat of blending Kabuki tradition with contemporary innovation. Despite the language barrier (headphones provide simultaneous translation), the resulting show, at the Rose Theater, easily draws us into an elaborate melodrama about a samurai turned artist, his loving wife, the evil usurper who seduces her and seeks to kill him, and, well, lots more.

Although that waterfall in the second act is indeed a bit of a marvel, the most jaw-dropping spectacle on view is the quick-change performance of Nakamura Kankuro, who plays three major roles. He’s Hishikawa Shigenobu, the painter who falls victim to his enemy’s machinations, and later returns as a ghost; Shosuke, Shigenobu’s loyal if addlepated servant, who is blackmailed by the villain into betraying his master; and Uwabami no Sanji, a rogue allied with the villain but with his own ambitions.

Mr. Nakamura, the eldest son of a revered Kabuki actor who died in 2012 (he shares his name, as is traditional), differentiates the roles with the natural versatility of a Western actor of similar wide-ranging gifts. And yet central to the thrill of his performance is recognizing when he has shifted from one role to another, often in the blink of an eye, and usually when two of the characters are sharing a scene. The audience, primed to the appeal of these seemingly miraculous changes, applauds each of them as if it were a burst of fireworks.

To cite just one example, during a climactic scene in which Shosuke enters a temple to announce the grievous news that Shigenobu has been killed (he knows because he was an accomplice), his news is laughed off, because the monks insist that Shigenobu is resting. Soon Shosuke has disappeared into a crowd and, within seconds, Shigenobu (or is it his ghost?) stands before us, ready to put the crowning touches on a painting. The marvel of Mr. Nakamura’s performance, aside from the charm of his characterizations (particularly the comically put-upon Shosuke), resides in these illusions, which are all the more impressive given the elaborate kimonos, wigs and makeup that define each of his three characters. At one point during a recent performance, Mr. Nakamura even switched roles as two of his characters collided in one of the theater’s aisles, just a few feet away from me. I still couldn’t tell you exactly how the feat was performed.

But Mr. Nakamura’s bravura performance is just one of the many rewards of the show, which hews to the stylistic hallmarks of traditional Kabuki but also features interludes in which minor players amble among the audience members, trading comical small talk in English (“One actor, three parts — amazing!”) and joshing with them (“Next time, upgrade,” one says to the viewers in the cheaper seats), while tapping away at their smartphones. The seamless manner in which classical style and contemporary humor are blended speaks to the smart stewardship of Mr. Nakamura, who inherited the reins after his father’s death.

Mr. Nakamura’s brother, Nakamura Shichinosuke, portrays the onnagata role (a woman’s part played by a man) of Oseki, Shigenobu’s wife, imbuing her with demure dignity and pathos, her downcast eyes almost always shying away from meeting those of others. He moves with a silky grace, and under the stark white makeup and elaborate black wig can scarcely be recognized as a man. The other major role, of the archvillain Namie, is imposingly filled by Nakamura Shido, a superb actor firmly in the Kabuki tradition, his slanting black eyebrows signifying his malign intent, his mouth a thin slash of menace.

At moments of highest drama, signified by the clapping of wooden blocks by musicians at the side of the stage, the actors strike classical poses that they accentuate with exaggerated repetitions or arch gestures. These, too, are cheered by knowing audience members as beloved set pieces of the genre, and by the end of the show, you may find yourself happily applauding them, too.

It is probably advisable to read the synopsis before the play begins, if only to familiarize yourself with the general flow of the story. Still, this could make your head spin, as the convolutions appear far more tortuous when reduced to prose than when enacted onstage. If you find yourself bewildered trying to track the characters and their relationships in the early going, when a subplot about the previous dark deeds of Namie, performed under another name, are described, just wait; things will sort themselves out pretty clearly.

But even should you get lost for a while in the mechanics of the narrative, there are visual pleasures to salve your confusion. The production’s design, relying heavily on beautifully painted flats, is both sumptuous and elegantly simple. Scenes depicting various settings — Shigenobu’s household, a restaurant, a temple, that flowing waterfall and the titular tree — are separated by the ceremonial drawing across the stage of a huge curtain painted in stripes of black, white and dark red that is itself an eye-pleasing delight.

The Lincoln Center Festival’s theatrical offerings this year are skimpy: just this production, which runs through Saturday, and Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, to be presented in August, after the festival traditionally ends, and not in the vicinity of Lincoln Center but at City Center. (Go figure.) But the pleasures of the Heisei Nakamura-za company, returning for the third time, are such that this production, with its high theatricality, low comedy, subtle musical accompaniment, choral interludes and lush designs, can almost be regarded as a festival in itself.

Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki  (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree)

Based on a solo narrative created by Sanyutei Encho, sets and costumes based on traditional design; lighting by Ikeda Tomoya; sound by Naito Hiroshi. A Heisei Nakamura-za production, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, Boo Froebel, producer. At the Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall,  60th Street and Broadway (Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle). 7–12 July 2014. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Performed in Japanese, with English translation via headset.

WITH: Nakamura Kankuro (Hishikawa Shigenobu/Shosuke/Uwabami no Sanji), Nakamura Shido (Isogai Namie), Nakamura Shichinosuke (Oseki), Kataoka Kamezo (Matsui Saburo/Unkai), Nakamura Kannojo (Yorozuya Shinbei), Nakamura Sanzaemon (Senjyu Shigezaemon), Nakamura Kosaburo (Takeroku), Nakamura Choshi (Okiku/Otatsu) and Sawamura Kunihisa (Ohana).

*  *  *  *
by Joan Acocella

[This review appeared in the New Yorker on 28 July 2014.  Joan Acocella has written for the New Yorker, reviewing dance and books, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998.]

For people accustomed to the cooler precincts of modernist and postmodernist art, it is often a joy to reëncounter older, messier forms of theatre, with coincidences and murders and the like. Therefore, when I arrived at the Rose Theatre for “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree,” the Kabuki company Heisei Nakamura-za’s contribution to the Lincoln Center Festival, I was not surprised to find the lobby packed with people spending too much money at the snack bar and looking as though they were going to a soccer game.

Here, with considerable abridgment, is what happens in “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree.” The distinguished painter Shigenobu and his wife, Oseki, have a new baby boy. Hanging around the neighborhood is a self-styled samurai, Namie, wearing a hat the size of a washtub, with a nasty smirk on his face. Shigenobu announces that he’s leaving town to create a dragon painting for a famous temple. Incredibly, he entrusts the care of his wife and son to Namie. The minute he’s gone, Namie plies the family servant, Shosuke, with drink and persuades him to kill his master. On the day that Shigenobu is to finish the painting, a crowd gathers at the temple. Shigenobu enters, looking peculiar. He fills in the final detail, the dragon’s eyes. Then he mounts the altar and—poof!—he vanishes. Shosuke has carried out his assignment: Shigenobu has become a ghost. Namie now persuades Oseki to marry him, but he’d prefer not to be encumbered with the child, so he tells Shosuke to take him to a waterfall and drown him. Once Shosuke leaves, Namie instructs his henchman, Sanji, to follow the servant and kill him after he has killed the baby.

By now, it’s clear that the primary virtue of “The Wet Nurse Tree” is not its plot, which you can barely follow. Another confounding factor is that the play is full of quick-changes. Nakamura Kankuro VI, the thirty-two-year-old star of the show (and a co-director of the troupe), plays three roles—Shigenobu, Shosuke, and Sanji—and much of the audience’s pleasure derives from his shape-shifting from one role to another within a given scene. Sometimes it’s as if Kankuro can’t walk behind a tree as one character without emerging on the other side as another. Remember when Shigenobu, or what looked like him, disappeared into the altar? Well, an instant afterward another man appeared in an adjoining room of the temple. “Sanji!” the people there cried. “We didn’t notice you here before!” That’s because he wasn’t there before.

At the waterfall (a real one—spectators in the front rows were given raincoats), Shosuke and Sanji battle to the death. While Kankuro plays one man, the other may be played by a second actor, who keeps his face averted. Or we are shown a big bush in which he is supposedly hiding. Then Kankuro switches. And, the minute the baby is tossed into the water, the actor’s third persona rejoins us. Shigenobu’s ghost, white-faced and dire, appears at the top of the waterfall, looking like Zeus, the bolt-thrower. He demands his son, who is still alive, and gets him. You look from one to the next of the three characters and ask yourself which of these costumes has Kankuro in it, and how long that situation is going to last.

The virtuosity is breathtaking: not just the speed of the costume changes (how do they switch the wigs so fast?) but the acting skills, the fact that Kankuro can speak like a servant one moment and like an immortal the next. It’s more than speaking, though. Much Kabuki movement is a kind of dance, rowdy or ceremonious or whatever is required. The actors hitch up their robes to show you what their legs are doing.

The virtuosity is not just a thrill in itself; it is the motor of comedy. Compared with some other forms of Japanese theatre—Noh, for example—Kabuki had humble beginnings. It was made by common people for common people. The story goes that in the early years of the seventeenth century a certain “shrine maiden,” Okuni, had a female troupe that gathered on a dry riverbed in Kyoto and staged shows described as “kabuku”—which, according to Heisei Nakamura-za’s program notes, is an archaic word meaning “tilted” but also implying “strange” or, perhaps, “risqué.”

These shows, which were hugely popular, were soon banned, as, later, were similar theatricals using boys as actors. It seems that both groups offered sexual services as well as dramatic entertainments, a typical pairing in vernacular theatre of the time. Since the mid-seventeenth century, Kabuki, with rare exceptions, has been performed only by adult males, handing down their skills from father to son. (The Nakamura Kabuki dynasty is nineteen generations old.) Women are played by onnagata, men who specialize in female roles. Oseki, Shigenobu’s wife, is played, with porcelain delicacy, by Nakamura Shichinosuke II, Kankuro’s younger brother, who directs the company with him.

Heisei Nakamura-za does not perform on riverbeds, but it does preserve something of Kabuki’s populist origins. According to the press release, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, the father of Kankuro and Shichinosuke, and the head of the troupe until his bitterly mourned death, from cancer, a year and a half ago (he was only fifty-seven), said that one of his goals was to strengthen “Kabuki’s happy-go-lucky, slapstick, naughty quality.” Hence, I believe, the disorderly plots and the razor-sharp stagecraft. Kanzaburo wanted to restore to Japanese audiences a comedy of awe and hilarity, a picture of life as variety and surprise. The closest analogy in American art is probably the Saturday-night movie. It is not irrelevant here that Kabuki is a commercial enterprise. Other forms of Japanese theatre, such as Noh and Bunraku, subsist on government funding. Kabuki lives on ticket sales.

It seems to me that Kanzaburo may have been a little too modern-minded: he inserted a lot of meta-theatre into his work. In this production of “The Wet Nurse Tree,” which is his (the play began its life as a story in a Tokyo newspaper, in 1889), a rather sinister tale is interrupted again and again, between scenes, by a bunch of rowdies coming out and telling us one thing or another. They’re the ones who distribute the raincoats, and they come back with mops and pails after the waterfall episode. They refer to the review—a favorable one—that they got in the Times. They express bewilderment over the plot of the play. “Plus, everyone’s name starts with an ‘S,’ ” one of them says. (In case you think Namie is an exception, it’s an alias. The character’s real name is Sasashige.)

These guys were cute, but I tired of them. I also think that Kanzaburo may have gone too far in ramping up the slapstick. When Shosuke and Sanji were engaged in what was supposed to be mortal combat, they looked a lot like a couple of kids having a water fight in a swimming pool. Again, it was fun for a while, but not for as long as it lasted, and, if fun was what this episode was about, how do you explain that scary ghost sitting at the top of the waterfall?

Still, I don’t feel quite right about second-guessing a man who was trying to keep a four-hundred-year-old theatrical form alive as a commercial enterprise. Also, he made wonderfully subtle decisions at certain points—the end, for example. The villainous Namie, of course, has to be eliminated (to our disgust, he is still married to the nice Oseki), but the person who gets to do the deed is Shigenobu’s child—who is now nine years old—and he uses a pretty silver sword that looks like something out of “The Nutcracker.” Down goes Namie, and what seems to be a flame-shaped holograph appears in the air—obviously Shigenobu’s spirit, avenged at last, and proud of his son. Everything here is just right: dignified and ritualistic—a dance—but also a little sweet, a little funny. 

15 January 2018

'Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait'

A number of years ago, when I was doing research on Leonardo Shapiro, the avant-garde stage director about whom I’ve written several times on this blog, I looked into one of the artists he named as influences, Pudlo Pudlat (1916-92), an Inuit painter and printmaker.  (I’ve blogged about Leo a number of times for Rick On Theater; see, for example, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009; “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009; “Brother, You’re Next,” 26 January 2010; “New York Free Theater,” 4 April 2010; “War Carnival,” 13 May 2010; “‘As It Is In Heaven,’” 25 March 2011; “Acting: Testimony & Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013; “Shaliko’s Strangers,” 3 and 6 March 2014; “Mount Analogue,” 20 July 2014; and “Shaliko’s Kafka: Father and Son,” 5 and 8 November 2015; as well as “‘Two Thousand Years of Stony Sleep,’” an early piece of writing by Shapiro himself, 7 May 2011.)  I’d never heard of Pudlo—Inuit commonly use only one name and this is how the artist is internationally known—but as I looked more deeply into him and his art, I found an engrossing and revealing subject. 

As readers of ROT know, I fancy myself a devotee of art, so I pursued the story of Pudlo and discovered that the artist, his work, and Inuit art just interested me.  On a visit I made to Quebec City in December 2000, a center of Inuit art, and later one to Vancouver in August 2003, I learned some general facts about the art of the Inuit people, which has an interesting, and I suspect unique, history (which I’ll précis in a moment).  Ever since then, I’ve had an interest in Inuit art so when I read last August that the George Gustav Heye Center, the National Museum of the American Indian branch in lower  Manhattan, was hosting an exhibit of works by three Canadian Inuit artists, I suggested to my friend Diana (who’s my usual theater companion but who also has an abiding interest in art and art museums) that we make a trip downtown to see it. 

We left the visit until the end of run of Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait (10 June 2017-8 January 2018) and didn’t get down to Bowling Green until Sunday, 7 January.  (We were further delayed, beyond plain, old procrastination, by the nor’easter of Thursday, 4 January, the original date of our planned visit to the museum.  At the last minute on the 7th, furthermore, Diana didn’t feel well and dropped out.  I had figured she probably didn’t know Inuit art or New York’s NMAI as neither are well known to the general public.  Part of my reason for going to the show had been to introduce her to both of them, but I went downtown on my own anyway.)  

The word akunnittinni, according to Andrea R. Hanley, the exhibition curator of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, loosely means “between us” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people.  (If you are my age or older, you are probably more used to speaking of the people of the arctic as Eskimos but, especially in Canada, the current, and preferred, name is Inuit.)  A Kinngait Family Portrait displays a family gathering among an Inuk grandmother, mother, and daughter: Pitseolak Ashoona, Napachie Pootoogook, and Annie Pootoogook. The three women “are known for illustrating life’s intimacies within their Arctic communities and families, as well as life’s challenges.”  They are the “us” in akunnittinni and what’s “between” them is what the Smithsonian’s press release characterized as a “visual conversation” with one another.

Kinngait, the Inuit name for the remote hamlet of Cape Dorset on Dorset Island in Nunavut, the Canadian territory established as an Inuit homeland in 1999, was the home of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family of artists—a family with a strong artistic identity that has contributed significantly to the reputation of Kinngait art.  Kinngait’s nicknamed the “Capital of Inuit Art” and artists from the area are renowned worldwide for their prints, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, produced in places like the now famous Kinngait Studios since the 1940s.  Almost a quarter of the town’s working residents is employed in some aspect of the art business.

Eskimo, which is still used in the U.S., especially in Alaska, refers to several native peoples, including the Inuit.  The term Eskimo is a foreign word applied to the Inuit and other peoples by outside tribes.  Its most likely etymology is a Montagnais word meaning ‘snowshoe-lacer.’  (The Montagnais are a group inhabiting the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec and Labrador.)  In Canada, however, the word is believed to be derived from an Algonquin word that means ‘raw meat-eater,’ and although linguistically this is less likely, the belief is widely held in Canada and the word Eskimo is considered derogatory and racist.  In any case, the Canadian government officially recognizes the people of the far north, including Nunavut, as Inuit, the name these native peoples use to refer to themselves; the name Eskimo is seldom heard in Canada today.  Inuit, by the way, is plural; the singular is Inuk, which means ‘person.’  The native tongue of the Inuit, as I stated above, is Inuktitut, one of the official languages of Nunavut.

The Inuit people were a nomadic culture of hunter-gatherers in the arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska well into the 20th century.  (There are also significant populations of Inuit in Denmark and Russia.)  Following the fish and game of the far north as the ice receded, living in igloos (which means simply ‘house’ and may be made of ice and snow, corresponding to the familiar image we have, but is also commonly built from stone, sod, mud, skins, or any other convenient material), and moving from spot to spot as the hunting, weather, or terrain necessitated. 

Traveling by dogsled across land and in umiaks or the smaller kayaks across water, an Inuit family or clan could not really afford to carry much with them that wasn’t of immediate practical value in their harsh life, so decoration was minimal, and artwork, even on practical items, was uncommon.  (The 2001 Inuit-produced—also -directed and -acted—movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner gives a dramatic glimpse of this lifestyle.)  What little there was was carved ivory or bone.  A change occurred in about 1945, however, when the Canadian government encouraged Inuit and other native peoples to settle in towns and villages, learn cultivation and other domestic skills, and give up the nomadic life they’d known for centuries.  I won’t get into the socio-political implications of this change (except to suggest that it wasn’t entirely insensitive and cold-hearted as the world around the Inuit had changed and their subsistence existence was becoming untenable), but the sociological effect was profound.

The Canadian government saw that the move to permanent habitation in towns and villages left many Inuit without traditional livelihoods or even pastimes.  This was mostly true of the men, as the women were able to transfer their traditional responsibilities of homemaking and child-rearing from the nomadic existence to the permanent one with little significant change (except, of course, that they now got their material needs from stores instead of the wild).  The men, on the other hand, were the ones who lost their customary occupations.  Looking around for something with which to replace the lost income and work, the government lit on art and established training programs and outlets for whatever the Inuit produced, even supplying them with the materials they needed. 

In what may be one of the rare examples among artificial cultural redirection, the plan succeeded wildly.  I guess the Inuit had a hidden tribal talent for making terrific art, and they started a co-op in 1958 to market and determine the prices of their work so that they wouldn’t be ripped off by gallery owners and dealers or, in turn, cheat the buying public.  Inuit art took off in popularity and desirability in the south.  Over time, some artists became recognized, such as Pudlo (on whom I blogged on 28 September 2009) and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family, and art museums began organizing exhibitions of Inuit works.  Collectors, first in Canada then in the United States, began to buy the art.  As making art supplanted the fur trade as the region’s principal employment, whole villages lived off the art turned out in their community studios, some making it, some marketing it, some managing the studios; printmaking became a profitable concern. 

Over 70 years now, Inuit art has become established and while it started as naïve work, it now has a sophistication and dynamic that compares easily with the works of American Indian artists in, say, the Taos art colony area (coincidentally, near where Akunnittinni was organized at the IAIA).  In both cases, too, the themes and subjects developed from strict focus on traditional culture to an embrace of the whole universe around them—in the case of the Inuit, the Canada of the Europeans and the technology of the middle- and late-20th-century world.  Though many Inuit artists work in a naturalistic style, carving animals or scenes common to the Canadian north, many others work in symbolist and abstract styles that draw on indigenous images and refer to the style of Inuit art that developed in the post-World War II years (there not having been a true indigenous precursor).  The media used by Inuit artists has expanded as well, from simple carvings to sophisticated soapstone sculpture, painting, drawing, lithography, and all the forms commonly used by Western artists.  Among the most popular subjects I observed in Inuit art when I was in Quebec and later in Vancouver at the other end of the country were native animals, Inuit figures, and the mysterious and majestic inuksuit, a form nearly ubiquitous in the galleries and shops all over both cities.  (I have an Inuit sculpture entitled Inukshuk and I blogged on the subject of the carving in “Inuksuit,” posted on 10 August 2011.)

A little history of NMAI: George Gustav Heye (1874-1957) opened his private Museum of the American Indian to the public in 1922 to house and display his own collection of Native American art.  He’d started collecting in 1903 and he established the Heye Foundation in 1916 to oversee it and promote the study of Indian art and culture.  The museum was located at 155th Street and Broadway in Harlem until it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and moved to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in 1994.  The Smithsonian took over Heye’s museum in 1989 and opened the main building for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in 2004.  The George Gustav Heye Center, now a satellite of the larger NMAI, maintains its own permanent collection (based on Heye’s original holdings) and exhibits. 

The Hamilton Custom House, which also houses the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, the National Archives at New York City, and a branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is a splendid Beaux Arts building built in 1907.  It served as the U.S. Custom House in New York City until 1973 (when its customs function was moved to 6 World Trade Center) and in 1979, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) saved the building from demolition.  A restoration having been completed in 1987, the building was renamed for the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury (under whose jurisdiction customs fell until 2003) in 1990 with Moynihan’s sponsorship.  Designed by St. Paul, Minnesota, architect Cass Gilbert (1859–1934), who had once worked for McKim, Mead & White (Washington Arch, 1892; the main campus of Columbia University, 1893-1900; the Brooklyn Museum, 1895; New York’s former Pennsylvania Station, 1910; and the James Farley Post Office in Manhattan, 1913; among many other significant buildings), the custom house is architecturally stunning in its own right.  A National Historic Landmark (1976) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (exterior and interior, 1972), the custom house on its own is worth a visit.  It’s a magnificent Beaux Arts building with many stunning architectural and artistic details (outlined in “Architecture & History” on the Heye Center webpage at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/architecture-history/) and serves as a magnificent example of the re-purposing of historic architecture. 

According to Hanley, the art works of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie Pootoogook “provide a personal and cultural history of three generations of Inuit women whose art practices included autobiographical narratives and chronicled intimate and sometimes harsh memories and historically resonant moments.”  (Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait, curated by Andrea Hanley, was organized by the IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.  It appeared there at the MoCNA from 22 January through 1 April 2016.)  The Ashoona and Pootoogook works, says Hanley, “also include sardonic references to pop culture, which now infuses everyday life in Kinngait, as well as nuanced depictions of family and village life.”  Patsy Phillips, director of the IAIA, observed: “The grandmother painted more romanticized versions of the story she heard—of how the culture used to be.  The mother drew more of the darker side of the stories she heard [while] the daughter’s were much more current.”

Pitseolak (1904–1983; some accounts give her birth year as 1907 or 1908) was born on Nottingham Island (Tujajuak) in the Hudson Straights in the Northwest Territories (part if which is now Nunavut).  She spent her childhood in several camps on the south Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk) coast.  She was a member of one of the last generations of Inuit to grow up in the centuries-old traditions of the North American Inuit—or, as the artist characterized it, “long ago before there were many white men.”  She married Ashoona, a hunter, in 1922 or ’23 in a marriage arranged by her uncle after her father died about a year earlier, and she bore 17 children, only six of whom she raised to adulthood.  (Though some died as children, others, as was the custom, were raised by other Inuit families.)  Pitseolak was the matriarch of a large family of artists, including at least five children—sons Namoonai (1926-2002), Kaka (1928-96), Koomwartok (1930-84), Kiawak (1933-2014), and Ottochie Ashoona (1942-70), all sculptors, and daughter Napachie, a graphic artist—and three grandchildren—Ohitok Ashoona (b. 1952, sculptor), Shuvinai Ashoona, (b. 1961, graphic artist), and Annie Pootoogook (graphic artist).  (A note about Inuit names: Inuktitut has its own writing system, and when names and words are transliterated into English, there are often spelling variations.)  Pitseolak’s husband, Ashoona, died at 40 years of age during an epidemic in the Nettilling Lake area, near the south end of Baffin Island, in the mid-1940s (around 1944 or ’45), leaving Pitseolak to raise their young family on her own. 

Pitseolak, by then in her 50s, settled permanently in Kinngait/Cape Dorset in the early 1960’s where she was encouraged to try drawing as a way to support her family after the death of her husband.  She’s said drawing also served as an emotional support for her, and it’s little wonder that images of motherhood were central to Pitseolak’s art.  She was among the first Inuk in Kinngait to start drawing, beginning with stonecut prints, and one of the most prolific.  Despite the sad circumstances that initiated her drawing and a life of hardship, Pitseolak’s art mostly depicts a positive view of the Inuit way of life remembered from her childhood.  According to Christine Lalonde, Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, “scenes of deprivation or suffering almost never appear in her drawings,” and, indeed, the sample on exhibit at the Heye Center demonstrated this trait (which we’ll see is in contrast to the drawings of her daughter). 

(Stonecut, not to be confused with the more technically complicated lithography, is a process much like woodcut or linocut—all forms of “relief” printing—which the Kinngait printmakers have refined.  The first step is tracing the original drawing onto the smooth surface of a prepared stone.  Using India ink, the printer outlines the drawing on the stone and then chips away the areas that are not to appear in print, leaving the uncut areas raised, or in relief.  The raised area is inked using rollers and then a thin sheet of fine paper is placed over the inked surface and the paper is pressed gently against the stone by hand with a small, padded disc.  Only a single print can be made from each inking of the stone, so the edition takes time, care, and patience.) 

Remembrance of Inuit society of her youth shows up clearly in Pitseolak’s Games of My Youth (stonecut and stencil, 1978), in which four Inuk girls are at play, two of them playing an Inuit ball game while a third is hanging in mid-tackle of an opponent, and in Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins (stonecut and stencil, 1976), with its family of seven Inuit in traditional garb peering out of an igloo.  Another example of this subject is Migration towards Our Summer Camp (lithograph, 1983), a collection of images of a smiling Inuit clan on the move in traditional clothing for a trek through the tundra, wearing backpacks and carrying harpoons, accompanied by dogs and pack animals, transporting fishing and hunting gear.  The most iconic (and earliest) of Pitseolak’s works on display here was the 1969 Dream of Motherhood (color stonecut on paper), a fanciful image of a woman with long braids and her hands in the air, fingers extended, carrying two children atop her head in the hood of her parka.  (The garment is in fact an amauti, a traditional Inuit parka specifically designed for the hood to serve as a baby-carrier.)

Pitseolak made close to 9,000 drawings during her 20 years in Kinngait.  Her prints, rendered in muted, mostly earth colors, have appeared in every annual print collection since her work was first published in 1960.  Her best and most authentic drawings were of “the old Eskimo ways,” as she said, a way of life firmly imprinted on her memory.  In the conventions of Inuit art, this is known as sulijuk, ‘it is true’ or ‘it is realistic’—which indicates artists depicted elements of Inuit life as they saw it, without interpolating much of  their own imagination.  Pitseolak received several honors in her lifetime, and her work has been the subject of several projects.  In 1971, the National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary based on her book, Pitseolak: Pictures out of My Life (McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2003).  In 1974. she was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy and she received the Order of Canada in 1977.  Pitseolak died in 1983 and is buried behind the Anglican Church in Kinngait.  She had promised to work on her drawings and prints until she was no longer able, and she fulfilled the vow.  Her vast legacy of art work is currently on long-term loan at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Toronto where it is being photographed, documented, and exhibited.

Born at Sako, a traditional Inuit camp on the southwest coast of Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Napachie (1938–2002) was the only surviving daughter of Pitseolak; along with her four sculptor brothers, and her graphic-artist sisters-in-law, Mayureak (b. 1946,  wife of Kaka) and Sorosiluto Ashoona (b. 1941, wife of Kiawak), she was part of the prominent and renowned Inuit artist clan.  In the mid-1950s while living at Kiaktuuq, she married sculptor and printmaker Eegyvukluk Pootoogook (1931-2000), son of an important camp leader, Pootoogook (1887-1958), a graphic artist and carver who later become one of the main printers at the Kinngait Studios.  (Like her mother’s, Napachie’s marriage was arranged.)  Napachie, Eegyvukluk, and their 11 children (who included daughter Annie Pootoogook, a third-generation artist) moved to Kinngait in 1965 and, just as her mother had, took up drawing; she sold her first drawings at age 25 (1963) for $20.  Since then, Napachie’s work has been included in almost every annual collection of Kinngait prints.  She created works until her death from cancer at 64, leaving a legacy of over 5,000 prints and drawings.

Napachie used a vigorous, energetic figurative style to bring to life narrative scenes depicting both personal memories and ancient stories depicting local current, mythical, and legendary figures.  Following classes in painting and drawing at the Kinngait Studios, after 1976, she drew landscapes and interiors using notions of spatial composition of Western techniques.  Although many of her early prints and drawings presented a rhapsodic depiction of Inuit spiritual beliefs, the focus of her work since the mid-1970s, as exemplified by those featured in Akunnittinni, was more on recording the traditional home life of the Inuit people, “including,” as the exhibit text put it, “darker aspects that  were left out of her mother’s more idealistic representations.”  

Indeed, according to Will Huffman, marketing manager at Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, the marketing division of Kinngait Studios, Napachie revealed aspects of her culture that many Inuit would have preferred not be seen by outsiders—a characteristic that reminds me of Native American artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), on whom I blogged on 20 March 2011.  This can be seen in 1994’s Alcohol (colored pencil and ink on paper), which depicts a woman holding a small child while handing a kneeling man a bottle of (presumably) liquor—or is she taking it away from him?  On the floor in front of the man—her husband and the father of the toddler?—is a  broken bottle.  He’s holding a fat stick (a weapon?) and his mouth is open wide as if he might be yelling at the woman, while sprawled on the floor behind him is another man, sleeping or passed out.  The reference is clearly the alcoholism that plagues Inuit (as well as other Native American) communities with hints—the stick—of the domestic violence and abuse that is also an endemic problem among Inuit.

In Male Dominance (ink and colored pencil on paper, 1995-96), Napachie presents five weeping women surrounding a man wielding a long knife; on the ground by his knee is a small bow with an arrow.  He’s looking out at us, smiling in self-satisfaction.  The six are connected to each other by a rope, symbolizing the utter dependence of Inuit women on men, who could abduct them as wives, even if they were already married.  (There is, as Hanley, who’s Navajo, puts it, a broad streak of “contemporary indigenous feminist” emphasis in all three artists’ work, but particularly Napachie’s.)  If a man desired another Inuk’s wife, he could just kill his rival and take the man’s wife for his own.  Napachie habitually incorporated inscriptions (in Inktitut, the artist’s only spoken and written tongue), and on Male Dominance, she wrote:

Aatachaliuk is scaring women to ensure his domination, before he claims them as wives, after slaying his male enemies.  He did this to hide his soft side.

Trading Women for Supplies (ink on paper, 1997-98) is a portrayal of a Caucasian captain of a whaler exchanging materials and supplies—a jacket and a duffel bag of cans and boxes—to an Inuit man in a parka for a woman.  “The captain from the bowhead whale hunting ship is trading materials and supplies for the women,” inscribed Napachie.  “As usual, the man agrees without hesitation.”  In the drawing, according to Edward J. Guarino, a retired high school teacher from Yonkers, New York, and Inuit art collector who lent some of his holdings for the show, the artist “documents the sexual exploitation of  Inuit women by men, both Inuit and non-Inuit.”

Arguably the most grotesque and shocking picture in the exhibit was Napachie’s Eating His  Mother’s Remains (ink on paper, 1999-2000).  It’s an image of exactly what the title says: a man “is chopping up and eating his mother’s rump before leaving.   He is also preparing to take the human remains by wrapping them in seal skin and using the rope to bind it.”  While cannibalism wasn’t ever part of the Inuit culture, it was practiced rarely in the event of extreme famine and Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto and an expert on Inuit art, wrote: “. . . I expect that someone had told Napachie about this particular man.” 

Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), born in Kinngait, was the daughter of Napachie and Eegyvukluk, and the granddaughter of Pitseolak.  By the time she was born, the Ashoonas and Pootoogooks were firmly in the middle class as a consequence of their artistic endeavors.  Annie began drawing in 1997 at the age of 28 and quickly developed a preference for scenes from her own life, becoming a prolific graphic artist.  In 2003, Annie’s first print, an etching and aquatint drawn on copper plate, was released.  The image, entitled Interior and Exterior (not included in the NMAI show), is a memory of the artist’s childhood, lovingly recording the particulars of settlement life in Kinngait in the 1970s.  Her first solo exhibition at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto in 2006, and winning that same year the Sobey Art Award (which came with a prize of $50,000 Canadian, the equivalent of about $48,000 U.S. today)—as well as her participation at Documenta 12 (a quinquennial exhibit of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany) and the Montreal Biennale in 2007, established her as the leading contemporary Inuit graphic artist of the period.  At Documenta, Annie exhibited not as a native artist as her predecessors from Kinngait had commonly been classified, but as a modern artist.

After the sudden acclaim, Annie moved from Kinngait to Ottawa in 2007, but the spotlight that had been turned on her wasn’t a positive development for her artistically or personally.  She created little new art in the years following the move (there are no pieces of Annie’s work after the early 2000s in Akunnittinni) and began living on the streets and along the banks of the city’s Rideau River, falling into drug abuse and addiction.  In 2010, she started a relationship with William Watt, who became her common-law husband; they had a daughter in 2012.  (Annie had two older sons, now adults, who were adopted by relatives.  Her daughter, named after her mother, Napachie, was eventually also adopted.)  Around that year, she began drawing again, making one sketch a day which she sold for cigarette money, about $25 or $30 each; her Kinngait works were selling for $1,600 to $2,600 a piece at her Toronto gallery. 

Four years later, on 19 September 2016, 47-year-old Annie Pootoogook’s body was found in the Rideau River in Ottawa.  While her death hasn’t been ruled a homicide—the cause of death was drowning, but the medical examiners couldn’t determine if the renowned artist drowned herself or if she was drowned by someone else—the Ottawa Police Service continues to investigate the death as suspicious.

Annie’s artwork, mostly drawings on paper with ink and colored pencil, broke with conventional traditions of Inuit art.  Her subjects were not arctic animals or serene scenes of nomadic existence from a time before settlement life; rather, her images reflected her experiences as a female artist growing up, living, and working in contemporary Canada.  Her art depicted a community experiencing transition and conflict as the old ways of her grandmother and mother clashed with modern Canada.  (In this aspect, Annie was following in a path blazed by one of Inuit art’s most illustrious old-timers, Pudlo, who made room in his  art for modern technology alongside the traditional Inuit and arctic images.  Pudlo, however, didn’t see 20th-century phenomena as clashing with Inuit life; they’d become part of it.)  Taking inspiration from her grandmother and mother, nonetheless, and following their lead in the sulijuk tradition, Annie depicted the life of her community in flux in bright, vivid colors in contrast to Pitseolak’s subdued palette.

Like her grandmother, Pitseolak, before her, however, Annie was an instinctive chronicler of her times.  She filled her domestic interiors with details such as clocks and calendars, graduation photos, and Inuktitut messages stuck to the fridge in modern Inuit kitchens.  Indeed, unlike much conventional Inuit art, in which figures are usually isolated in ambiguous, white backgrounds, Annie filled her pictures with fully-limned settings, usually interiors, like little stage sets.  Her graphics record the incursions of the mainstream culture into Inuit life, with images of technology like ATM machines, television, videogames, mobile phones, and snow mobiles.  The death of her mother, Napachie, in 2002 led Annie to explore themes of mortality and spirituality.

The theme of the inclusion of modern technology in everyday Inuit life appears with a touch of humor in Watching the Simpsons on TV (pencil, ink, and colored pencil on paper, 2003), a hyper-detailed scene of the interior of a contemporary Inuit home with the young mother and father either dressing to go out into the cold or doffing their outerwear after coming home, while their small child, bundled up in his or her parka, is standing facing away from us, staring at Marge and Homer Simpson on the television set right in front of his face.  In its simplicity and directness, Annie’s drawing could be a one-panel cartoon: it tells a whole story at a glance and makes a comment on a social phenomenon in a subtle and amusing way. 

2003–04’s Family Sleeping in a Tent (colored pencil and ink on paper) works the same way: we see two couples snuggled in sleeping bags on a pair of double mattresses in a huge tent.  Around them are all the conveniences of a modern campsite: camp stove, Coleman lantern, CB radio, a can of “camping fuel,” a radio, and a clock.  (With all that equipment, you know they got to the campsite in a truck or an SUV!)  As a bonus benefit, it’s interesting to contrast this drawing with Pitseolak’s Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Annie drew Family Sleeping as a deliberate homage to her grandmother’s Family Camping.  The younger artist clearly felt a special connection to Pitseolak since included in this exhibit are two prints which are direct and specific references to the older artist: 2006’s Pitseolak’s Glasses (collagraph on paper), which simply presents the late artist’s familiar black-framed glasses (Jason Farago described them as “Nana Mouskouri-style eyeglasses” in the New York Times—for anyone who knows who that is!), and Portrait of Pitseolak (collagraph and ink on paper, 2003-04), portraying Annie’s grandmother standing alone before a blank, white background—a reference, I suspect, to the convention of her grandmother’s and mother’s practice—wearing not a traditional Inuit parka, but a dark gray, modern jacket, buttoned all the way up, over a red skirt with green flowers, with a gray polka-dot head scarf tied under her chin, carrying a brown wooden cane in her right hand and a yellow, polka-dot bag in her  left.  Pitseolak’s wearing the signature glasses in the portrait.  (A collagraph is a form of monoprint created from a collage of textures that have been glued onto a rigid surface.)  Edward Guarino, the Inuit art collector, calling the poignant and touching Glasses “a masterpiece,” characterized the picture as “a contemporary still life that is also a moving symbolic portrait of a beloved family member who has died.”  Of the affectionate Portrait, Guarino wrote that it’s “at once a remembrance of a beloved family member as well as the likeness of a celebrated artist and a portrait of old age.” 

Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait is a very small show, displayed along one wall of the corridor outside the Heye’s permanent exhibit gallery.  There are only 18 prints and drawings, six from each of the artists.  Each one, however, is  exquisite, providing a glimpse of the later work of the three women that, at least according to the IAIA’s Hanley, exemplified each one’s style and main themes.  The works of Pitseolak Ashoona and Napachie and Annie Pootoogook are also remarkable because each  print or drawing tells a little tale; you can’t describe most of them, as I imagine you’ve noticed, without recounting the story behind the image. (Napachie, of course, actually inscribed her works with the story she’s illustrating.)  However small the selection of works, though, the “discourse and dialog” among the three artists, as Hanley terms it, is nonetheless powerful.  Furthermore, spanning nearly 40 years, the pieces on display at the Heye Center also chronicle how the family’s life and the world of Kinngait have changed over time.  (The three artists’ lives actually covered well over a century of Inuit history.)

On the website Hyperallergic, Christopher Green wrote that the exhibit “moves past the belabored topics of market making and the in/authentic modernity of Cape Dorset printmaking to pursue matrilineal discourses internal to the community.  The effect,” he continued, “is an inward-looking familial history, rather than one . . . that focuses on the needs and desires of southerners.”  Pitseolak’s works, asserted Green, demonstrated “the long line of generational knowledge that reaches back to precolonial life,” while Napachie’s pictures represent a “foray into particularly contemporary issues that were not necessarily present in Ashoona’s work.”  The art critic declared, “It is the work of Annie Pootoogook that most strikingly demonstrates the ways traditional Inuit family life has been integrated into the modern North,” and insisted, “Her drawings alone are reason enough to see the exhibition.” 

Jennifer Levin wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “The exhibition shows . . . a humorous eye for detail and an impulse to tell stories about family life.”  In Akunnittinni, which Levin covered at MoCNA, it’s Napachie’s work that “stands out as the most shocking in its reflection of Inuit life,” she observed, but Annie’s “vibrant work” displays her “edgy insistence on present-day life in the Canadian Arctic.”  The critic summed the show up by observing that it “shows that, like family and cultural traditions, some artistic concerns are passed down, mother to daughter to granddaughter, as each generation turns to drawing for its own reasons.”

In the Inuit Art Quarterly, Michelle McGeough (also writing about the Santa Fe exhibit) remarked:

The exhibition . . . gives each artist space in the intimate gallery to present their unique individual visual depiction of Inuit history, positioning a life lived on the land prior to settlement living alongside stories of the contemporary realities of Northern life.  This arrangement gives the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the individual artists’ articulation of northern life and oral traditions.

Of the works of Pitseolak on exhibit, McGeough noted that “the artist’s prints brilliantly demonstrate her mastery of line and composition and her ability to eloquently render the movement of a body through space.”  Her daughter, Napachie’s “narrative imagery depicts a much harsher reality for Inuit women.  She does not shy away from uncomfortable topics, and in doing so, challenges any idealized notions one might have of northern life.”  They are “dramatic depictions of oral traditions and a collective history marked by change.”  McGeough continued: “In contrast, Annie Pootoogook’s artistic sensibility is shaped by the sweeping thrust of modernity in Canada’s North.  Infused with popular culture references, her depictions of contemporary life focus on the personal and intimate.”  The IAQ critic added, “The viewer instinctively knows she shares a very personal relationship with the subjects whom she depicts.” 

In the New York Times, Jason Farago dubbed Akunnittinni “touching” and remarked that while the three artists “each established quite distinct artistic vocabularies,” nevertheless “beneath their divergent styles were common concerns about the wages of modernization, as well as the role of art among families and communities “  The Timesman observed that Pitseolak’s pictures “depict seals, dogs, ballplayers and a camping family as hard-edge figures afloat in fields of white,” while her daughter, Napachie’s, “engaged with social concerns in their community, including alcoholism and the abuse of women.”  Annie Pootoogook “took that present-tense orientation even further,” continued Farago, “completing raw but often humorous drawings of contemporary life in Cape Dorset.” 

[I recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the art and artifacts of the American Indian, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful and all of which is eye-opening, pay a visit to the Heye Center, a little-known  gem of New York City culture at the southern tip of ManhattanLike all Smithsonian facilities, it’s free and open every day (including Mondays, the traditional dark day for museums, and holidays except Christmas Day) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Thursdays).  The address of the Heye Center is 1 Bowling Green (on Whitehall Street, an extension of Broadway, at Stone Street) and its phone number is (212) 514-3700; the website is at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/.]