Thursday, March 4, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jacques Barzun, on Morale-Sapping Gadgets)

“Many of us affect a tone of irony about gadgets, as if we lived always in realms above and dealt with trifles only during rare descents from sublime thoughts. The truth is that more and more of the important things in life turn on pinpoints. Our frustrations begin in trivialities — a telephone out of order, a car that will not start, a claim check whose number has been misread. The thing in cellophane that cannot be got at — plain to the sight but sealed like an egg — is the modern version of the torture of Tantalus. Catastrophes we will deal with like heroes, but the bottle top that defies us saps our morale, like the tiny arrows of the Lilliputians that maddened Gulliver and set his strength at naught.”— Columbia Univ. teacher, historian, educator, cultural critic and administrator Jacques Barzun (1907-2012), God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced With a Few Harsh Words (1954)

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Quote of the Day (Daniel Levitin, on Diverse Users of Music's Power)

“The power of music to evoke emotions is harnessed by advertising executives, filmmakers, military commanders, and mothers. Advertisers use music to make a soft drink, beer, running shoe or car seem more hip than their competitors. Film directors use music to tell us how to feel about scenes that otherwise might be ambiguous, or to augment our feelings at particularly dramatic moments. Think of a typical chase scene in an action film, or the music that might accompany a lone woman climbing a staircase in a dark old mansion: music is being used to manipulate our emotions, and we tend to accept, if not outright enjoy, the power of music to make us experience these different feelings. Mothers throughout the world, and as far back in time as we can imagine, have used soft singing to soothe their babies to sleep, or to distract them from something that has made them cry.” —American-Canadian psychologist, neuroscientist, musician, and record producer Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006)

Photo of Daniel Levitin taken at McGill Alumni London Talk Series, Dec. 17, 2015, by Quebec 2015.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Photo of the Day: Woodworking Shop, Hancock Shaker Village, MA

I took this photo in late August 2017, while on vacation in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, when I spent an afternoon visiting Hancock Shaker Village. Among the 20 historic buildings left over from the religious community here was its woodworking shop.

Their religion required simplicity—clean lines, utility, and proportion—but did not preclude the community’s resort to innovative technology such as water turbines, and it has proven highly compatible with modern notions of sustainability and responsible land usage.

Massive workbenches served as specialized workbenches and storage spaces for tools. Wide surface areas allowed cabinetmakers to lay out all the parts of a cabinet. Large tool cupboards and smaller portable chests were useful in organizing the rest of the shop space. The products of this shop continue to be valued as the ultimate in beautiful craftsmen-built furniture.

Quote of the Day (Samuel Butler, on Making the Most of Words)

''Words are not as satisfactory as we should like them to be, but, like our neighbours, we have got to live with them and must make the best and not the worst of them.''—English novelist and critic Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Samuel Butler's Note-Books, edited by Geoffrey Keynes and Brian Hill (1952)

Monday, March 1, 2021

Photo of the Day: A Black Reconstruction Senator’s Residence in Washington, DC

The striking property here—2010 R Street, Northwest—might look much like any other in DC’s elegant Dupont Circle neighborhood. But the marker outside indicates another story.

When I passed by while on vacation in November 2015, I never could have anticipated that the life and times of Blanche Kelso Bruce—born on this date in 1841—might possess even more relevance now than it did when I read the inscription explaining why his home had been selected as part of the African American Heritage Trail in our nation’s capital.

Bruce was one of the most striking figures in the Reconstruction Era, the post-Civil War period when freedmen sought greater economic opportunities and achieved fleeting political equality with whites. In an era of polarization, with racism and reaction ever-present threats to his gains and those of the base that propelled him to prominence, he was obliged to step carefully through multiple political minefields.

This past week, I saw a meme on Facebook questioning the need for Black History Month. The remarkable rise of Bruce—the second African American to serve in the U. S. Senate and the first to be elected to a full term—and his equally astonishing fall back into relative obscurity demonstrate that there might be more need for this collective commemoration than many Americans would care to admit.

A runaway slave from Virginia, fathered by his white master, Bruce made his way west of the Mississippi, where during the Civil War he taught black children in Kansas and Missouri. After the conflict he worked as a steamboat porter out of St. Louis, then moved down to Mississippi in hopes of finding more opportunity. His business sense proved acute, as he turned an abandoned cotton plantation into a thriving property over the next decade.

Large, imposing, and gifted with a strong voice, Bruce possessed a charisma that attracted the attention of the Republican Party. Soon he was accumulating political IOUs along with his real estate fortune, holding simultaneous Bolivar County offices as sheriff, tax collector and superintendent of education. With the help of Black Republicans and Gov. Adelbert Ames, Bruce was selected by the state legislature to serve a term in the U.S. Senate.

With both blacks and whites suffering in the economic collapse brought on by the Civil War, Bruce sought to work in the interests of both groups and forge a biracial electoral coalition. For whites, he advocated for internal improvements and financial incentives, including federal funding to control flooding and the creation of a channel and levee system for parts of the Mississippi’s edge. For blacks, he ardently promoted black servicemen, including pressing for integration of the armed forces.

But as an “aristocrat of color,” Bruce lost some favor with his African American base, and whites were not generally inclined toward him to begin with, even though even the likes of fellow Mississippian Lucius Q. C. Lamar, a former secessionist, acknowledged his intelligence and moderation. With Democratic forces gathering strength back at home in an attempt to suppress the African American vote, Bruce didn’t even try for a second term, stepping down in March 1881.

After several years of continuing participation in Mississippi politics, Bruce returned to the nation’s capital. serving as register of the U.S. Treasury and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. He and wife Josephine—the first black teacher in the Cleveland public schools and the daughter of a prominent mixed-race dentist before she wed the Senator—remained fixtures on the local social scene, living at their R Street property from 1890 to 1898.

Bruce’s career is a reminder of how far all Americans can rise when they are presented with adequate opportunities to match their own drive and ambition. It is also evidence of how those gains may be lost when powerfully entrenched forces mobilize to exploit fears of an uncertain new political and social environment.

Quote of the Day (Poet Richard Wilbur, Translating Moliere With Verve)

“I may be pious, but I’m human too:
With your celestial charms before his eyes,
A man has not the power to be wise.
I know such words sound strangely, coming from me,         
But I’m no angel, nor was meant to be,
And if you blame my passion, you must needs        
Reproach as well the charms on which it feeds.
Your loveliness I had no sooner seen
Than you became my soul’s unrivalled queen;
If, in compassion for my soul’s distress,
You’ll stoop to comfort my unworthiness,
I’ll raise to you, in thanks for that sweet manna,
An endless hymn, an infinite hosanna.
With me, of course, there need be no anxiety,
No fear of scandal or of notoriety.”— French playwright Moliere (1622-1673), Tartuffe (1664; English translation by Richard Wilbur, 1965)

Richard Wilbur, born 100 years ago today in New York City, was as honored as a poet can get: the second poet laureate of the U.S. following Robert Penn Warren, as well as a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner. His work reflects his belief, as stated in a Paris Review interview, that “the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.”

Though it is uncharacteristic of the bulk of his work, Wilbur’s translations of Moliere, Voltaire, and Racine plays have their own unique merit, with Moliere in particular fulfilling what I usually choose in a “Quote of the Day” for the first and last days of the workweek: humor to get readers through tough hours.

I encountered Wilbur’s Tartuffe translation in a high-school anthology, and it made me eager to watch this comedy about a religious hypocrite when the Circle in the Square production was aired on public television in the 1970s. The excerpt above, I think, will give you an idea of its sprightliness, with its rhyming couplets rendering the playwright in as close an English approximation of the joy and wit of the French original as it may be possible to get.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Appreciations: Neil Simon’s ‘Prisoner of Second Avenue,’ on the Suddenly Redundant Male Worker

In his heyday, Neil Simon’s niche as Broadway’s king of comedy would have been secure if only for his nearly 50 produced plays. But his extraordinary run of hits over three decades made him the most wildly successful American playwright of the post-World War II era.

Over the last quarter-century, he slipped from that lofty perch. Attempted revivals of both his 1963 hit, Barefoot in the Park, and his more acclaimed Brighton Beach Memoirs foundered.

Mysteriously, whether through the punishing recent economics of mounting a straight play, the bad luck associated with individual productions (Plaza Suite, projected as a star vehicle for real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, closed before it could open because of the COVID-19 lockdown), or even the altered tastes of comedy-conscious fans, this former Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had become the forgotten man of American theater by his death 2½ years ago.

At first glance, the best prospects for his resuscitated reputation might lie with two of his more acclaimed later works, Lost in Yonkers or the more autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound). But another, further back in his career, presents a vehicle more relevant to the COVID-19 era.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which premiered 50 years ago this coming November on Broadway, marked a notable step in the evolution of the playwright. In the 1960s, while alternating between comedies and musicals, he had stuck to a format marked by nonstop one-liners, incorporating the style he honed as a TV comedy writer for Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show.

But with a new decade came a growing seriousness, first evidenced in The Gingerbread Lady, about an alcoholic actress. The Prisoner of Second Avenue dug deeper into this new seriocomic vein, uniting Simon’s keener interest in the decay he increasingly glimpsed in New York City with the travails of a middle-aged male suddenly made redundant at the office. Imagine a somewhat more comic Death of a Salesman, but for the white-collar set.

The play was brought back to my attention several months ago when I saw the 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft (pictured) as, respectively, advertising exec Mel Edison and his concerned wife Edna (assuming the roles played originally on Broadway by Peter Falk and Lee Grant).

When I viewed it on the big screen, it made no lingering impression. Indeed, how much could a teenager always told his life was ahead of him understand an angst-ridden urban professional suddenly aware that half his career, if not more, is over?

Mel’s dilemma registers far more forcefully now. Today, so-called “mature workers” face similar issues: adapting to an office environment and job market increasingly inimical to the middle-aged.

“I’m gonna be 47 years old in January,” Mel complains in the first scene. “Forty-seven! They could get two twenty-three-and-a-half-year-old kids for half my money.”

That fear turns out to be all too prescient. Mel ends up unemployed, as have countless real-life counterparts in the last half-century. Age discrimination remains common even though it had been banned under federal law only a few years before Prisoner of Second Avenue premiered. It may be the most blithely practiced and most persistent form of discrimination left.

Unemployment plunges Mel headlong towards a nervous breakdown. “I don’t know where or who I am any more,” he confesses desperately. “I’m disappearing, Edna. I don’t need analysts, I need Lost and Found.”

Suddenly feeling superfluous, he putters around the apartment for most of the day in his pajamas, isolated save for one dangerous connection to the outside world: talk radio. “How many people you think listen to the radio at ten o’clock in the morning?” he informs Edna. “Everybody is working. But I heard it. And as sure as we’re standing here in the middle of the room, there’s a plot going on in this country.”

When Simon wrote his comedy-drama, Rush Limbaugh and his imitators had not yet reached nationwide audiences, but New York had its own progenitor of right-wing talk radio with Bob Grant—unnamed here, but, as he was already attracting local notoriety at WMCA, the probable inspiration for the paranoid delusions to which Mel is now susceptible. Now “open to channels of information twenty-four hours a day,” Mel is suddenly a stronger believer in “the social-economical-and-political-plot-to-undermine-the-working-classes-in-this-country.”

Simon foresaw the all-encompassing, even contradictory nature of the right-wing conspiracy theories more and more common these last three decades: “It’s not just me they’re after, Edna. They're after you, they’re after our kids, my sisters, every one of our friends. They're after the cops, they’re after the hippies, they’re after the government, they’re after the anarchists, They're after women's lib, the fags, the blacks, the whole military complex.”

“Who?” a bewildered Edna asks. “You mentioned everybody. There's no one left.”

As loving, understanding and resilient as Edna is, she finds it difficult not to pulled into Mel’s emotional whirlpool. In this case, the claustrophobia of their East Side apartment becomes progressively corrosive, as the couple begins sniping at each other.

Even Edna’s attempt to sustain them through her work only exacerbates her husband’s worthlessness as a breadwinner. The relationship, while it guards against loneliness, also irritates because of its by now stifling closeness. More than a few couples, I suspect, will find it an accurate reflection of their own marital tensions.

I wonder now if Lemmon’s prior association with Simon screenplays (The Odd Couple and The Out of Towners) might have misled some critics as to the nature of this role. The earlier characters were first-class neurotics, with a superabundance of internal sensors rendering them helpless before outside stimuli.

In contrast, Mel’s distress is triggered by an outside convulsion—the sudden loss of his job. Three plays later, Simon would create one of the few bombs of his early career with God’s Favorite, a retelling of the Book of Job. But The Prisoner of Second Avenue seems like a practice run for that.

Parallel to Mel’s nervous breakdown is the one that New York, in those pre-fiscal crisis years, was also experiencing. The signs of outward disorder—a breakdown in services, rising crime and civic incivility—are reflected within the Edisons’ building, as they cope with a nonfunctioning elevator, no water, lack of air conditioning or heat, a robbery in their own apartment and obnoxious upstairs neighbors.

In the end, Mel’s initial roar against his crumbling universe (“If you’re a human being you reserve the right to complain, to protest”) is exposed in all its futility. Like the more famous bearer of his surname, he must “invent”—or, in this case, re-invent: a new form of living and acceptance of what lies outside his control.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue has not run on Broadway since it closed in 1973 after nearly 800 performances. To my knowledge, its most high-profile revival since then was not here in the U.S. but in Great Britain in 2010, in a West End production starring Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl,

Somehow, this very dark dramedy deserves to be seen again. Though much of the action relies on physical interaction between Mel and Edna that may be difficult to perform under present circumstances, I hope that some creative director will try to reimagine it for the kind of Zoom production that so many theater companies are attempting these days. Audiences will be surprised at how well Neil Simon anticipated our own confinement—as well as how expertly he made us laugh and weep over disruption and isolation.