Wednesday, March 31, 2010

This Day in Civil War History (Pickett Loss Spells Doom for South)

April 1, 1865—Robert E. Lee called on Major General George Pickett to save the Army of Northern Virginia, just as he had assigned him the task of breaking the center of the Union line at Gettysburg. But at the Battle of Five Forks, Pickett’s failure was more catastrophic—and more personally embarrassing—for it left Richmond vulnerable to Northern troops. Pickett may have reached “the high-water mark of the Confederacy” on July 3, 1863, but on April Fools’ Day nearly two years later he produced its Waterloo.

What actually happened at Five Forks—and the larger relationship of Lee and Pickett—was only rumored until after Pickett’s death 10 years after the disaster. Subsequent accounts from Civil War veterans and historians chipped away at the romantic cavalier image of Pickett, revealing a commander unprepared when the Union broke the back of Lee’s resistance.

As the winter of 1864-5 drew to a close, Ulysses S. Grant saw in the declining manpower of the Confederate Army a golden opportunity to end the siege of Petersburg, capture the rebel capital, Richmond, and bring the war to a conclusion. He instructed General Philip Sheridan to move south and west of Petersburg, falling on Lee’s right flank while cutting the rebels’ access to a key supply line to the city, the Southside Railroad.

Typically, Lee tried an aggressive maneuver—an attack on the Union at Fort Stedman—but when Grant’s vise remained as strong as ever, the Southern commander-in-chief ordered Pickett to halt the advance of the Army of the Potomac. After a day’s marching, Pickett repulsed Sheridan’s cavalry at the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House. But, with still more Northern troops on the way, Pickett retreated back to Five Forks, waiting in the rainy predawn darkness to see what would transpire next.

The next day, Sheridan’s hopes of striking at Pickett before he had a chance to breathe were set back when Major General Gouverneur Warren couldn’t get his men positioned soon enough to attack. “Little Phil” was so hotheaded that he had even gotten into an argument with a superior, George Meade, the year before, so he certainly wasn’t going to accept Warren’s plausible excuses (bad maps, muddy roads) for the delay. He relieved Warren, effectively short-circuiting the career of a hero of Gettysburg.

If only Sheridan could have seen how this momentary lapse actually worked to his advantage! Maybe Pickett was too exhausted to think straight after the last several furious days of marching and fighting. Whatever the case, when Pickett didn’t see action developing early on April Fools Day, he decided it was just fine to accept an invitation to a wonderful Virginia tradition: a shad bake.

There were several problems with this:

* Pickett, General Thomas Rosser, and cavalry commander General Fitzhugh Lee (Robert’s nephew) took off without telling anyone where they were going.

* The shad bake took place in Hatcher’s Run, which was surrounded by so much woodland that it muffled the sounds of gunfire and cannon from any nearby battlefield. (Rumors circulated that whiskey at the celebration didn’t keep the generals' senses alert, either--but that's impossible to verify.)

* The morning of April 1, Pickett had received a note from Lee that, in contrast to the Confederate commander’s sometimes ambiguous orders to subordinates earlier in the war, this time could hardly have been more explicit: “Hold Five Forks at all hazards. Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Railroad.” In other words, this was the worst possible time for Pickett to be away from his troops, and he should have known better.

* No matter how adept the junior commanders were in placing troops, they could not coordinate their actions without guidance from above.

The Federals didn’t attack until 4 pm, but by the time Pickett made it back the fighting was already halfway over. Sheridan’s total of killed and wounded—800—exceeded Pickett’s (600), but the real story lay in the prisoner count—2,400 men that Pickett and Lee could ill afford to lose.

The loss at Five Forks meant that Lee had to abandon the defense of Petersburg and Richmond. His last desperate hope—to flee west—ended a little more than a week later, in the surrender at Appomatox Courthouse.

After Lee’s movement had been cut off at Sayler’s Creek, he relieved Pickett—now down to only 60 men under his command—and two other generals from further duty. The two other generals received their notices, but not Pickett. Lee, not happy to see Pickett still around headquarters, reacted with an asperity rarely seen in a general known for courtliness: “I thought that man was no longer with the army.”

Though Pickett would serve as a pallbearer at Lee’s funeral five years after the war, Five Forks capped a relationship that had been quietly, steadily deteriorating since Gettysburg. Lee had deep-sixed Pickett’s post-battle report on Gettysburg, troubled that it blamed everyone but himself (including other generals who’d fallen on the field of battle) for the losses sustained by his division. In contrast, Pickett was angered that Lee had ordered a charge so futile that he was left with no division afterward. The last, awkward meeting of the two men, after the war, was followed by a typical Pickett remark to an associate that the “old man” had gotten his troops killed at Gettysburg.

George Pickett had cut quite the picture during the war with his tailored uniform, gold spurs, and long brown hair that curled at the shoulders. One person taken by this image was LaSalle (Sally) Corbell, who ended up marrying him.

Sally Pickett was the Southern counterpart to the widow of another soldier involved in Five Forks, the Union’s George Armstrong Custer. Both Libby Custer and Sally Pickett would see their husbands die within a year of each other—Pickett in 1875 from scarlet fever, Custer in 1876 at Little Big Horn. Both commanders, known for their impetuousness as well as their tonsorial styles, were fools for love, and their wives repaid their love—all the way until their own deaths in the 1930s, a half century after their husbands'--by writings that fiercely defended their men.

In one respect, however, Sally had her Northern counterpart beat: Her memoirs, swallowed whole at the time, now bear, in spots, the strong whiff of fiction. Consider the following:

* In an attempt to stake out her claim as the “Child Bride of the Confederacy”—supposedly marrying Pickett at age 15—Sally sliced five years off her age.

* She presented her husband as a largely simple, pure man, but he was known to imbibe, at least some--and, years after the fact, a rumor took hold that he could did even more than that.

* She claimed that none other than Abraham Lincoln had helped her husband get admitted into West Point, not bothering to explain how Lincoln—an Illinois Congressman at the time—would become interested in a Virginian with no connection to his district.

* She published a book of letters supposedly written by her husband, but they are so filled with facts that the general could not have known at the time that, historians have concluded, Sally herself must have written them instead.

Now that, folks, is love.

Quote of the Day (Alexander Pope, on Poetic Cliches)

“These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.”—Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism” (1711)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (Jefferson Starship, on the Power of Music)

“Sometimes the music's a doorway
Out of the darkness into the light.”—“All Nite Long,” lyrics by Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Jesse Barish, and Grace Slick, music by Pete Sears, Craig Chaquico, and David Freiberg, from the Jefferson Starship Earth LP (1978)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (Denise Richards, Badly in Need of a GPS)

“It would be such a drag if the paparazzi finds our hotel, especially since we can’t even find it ourselves.”—Denise Richards, on Denise Richards: It’s Complicated, describing a less-than-idyllic Hawaiian vacation, quoted in “Sound Bites: TV,” Entertainment Weekly, August 1, 2008

In The World Is Not Enough, a James Bond film from the Pierce Brosnan era, Denise Richards portrayed Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist.

All who think this stretches all conceivable bounds of credulity are even more likely to snicker upon reflecting that Ms. Richards is also, in real life—at least as evidenced in the above statement—not too familiar with the concept of maps.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

This Day in Literary History (“Haircut,” Lardner’s Masterpiece of Small-Town Cruelty, Published)

March 28, 1925—The evolution of Ring Lardner—from accomplished sportswriter/editor to master of the American idiom, to, quite simply, one of the finest short-story writers of the last century—advanced another step with the publication, in Liberty Magazine, of “Haircut,” a virtuosic exercise in unreliable first-person narration.

For a long time, you could turn to almost any anthology of American fiction covering the last hundred years and find “Haircut”—or, better yet, get your hands on an entire volume of his short stories at your local library. It’s getting harder and harder to find both, at least if my experience today is any indication.

Nowadays, fiction anthologies, like history textbooks, have to cover a longer time period—and encompass ethnic and racial groups long excluded from such books. In effect, what this means is that the “Big Three” of American fiction in the first half of the last century—Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner—will remain in the anthologies, but the likes of Lardner and his East Coast contemporary, Damon Runyon, will get squeezed out.

When I finally turned up “Haircut” today, it was from 200 Years of Great American Short Stories, a volume edited by Martha Foley in 1975. It figures—that’s when I discovered Lardner, in my freshman year of high school, in another anthology of the time.

I hope American students today aren’t missing out on the chance to read Lardner. It’s not just that, like Mark Twain, he progressed from journalism to pitch-black satire. It’s also that his influence runs through the American literary pantheon over the last few decades:

* F. Scott Fitzgerald, his great and good friend, not only admired his manifold literary gifts, but also paid tribute to his friend in the 1934 novel Tender Is the Night, in the form of Abe North, the sarcastic sidekick of Dick Diver whose alcohol-fueled downward spiral foreshadows his companion’s.

* Ernest Hemingway, who used the pseudonym “Ring Lardner Jr.” when working on his high-school newspaper—and who used Lardner’s device of repetition for heightening irony in much of his early fiction, such as The Sun Also Rises.

* J. D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye protagonist, Holden Caulfield, cites Lardner as one of his favorite authors—and who also employs a narrator of limited self-awareness.

Covering the Chicago White Sox exposed Lardner not just to the baseball players but to people from every walk of life everywhere they played, and he soaked up all these idioms. After he turned away, in disillusionment, from covering baseball following the “Black Sox” gambling scandal, he was left with an enduring appreciation of this motherlode of oral culture—and a more hardened cynicism about stupidity, greed, and callousness.

Nine years before “Haircut,” Lardner had started using first-person narration in what was, in effect, an epistolary novel about a baseball player, You Know Me, Al. Over the next decade, he spiced his fiction with turns of phrase that—certainly at the time—sounded fresh and new (e.g., “he gave her a look you could have poured on a waffle”).

In 1924, Lardner had come up with the collection How to Write Short Stories (With Samples). He was increasingly casting his unillusioned, Swiftian sensibility on a whole range of characters, capturing them in their raw state—unpolished, barely literate, deceptive or morally blinkered.

Which brings us to “Haircut.” Lardner gained his great fame in the 1910s and 1920s as a humorist, but this tale is really about humor’s cruel misuse. That misuse not only defiles the perpetrator, but also Whitey, the barber who narrates the tale without understanding its import.

I found only one clear instance in the story of the type of humor that Lardner’s readers had come to love. It comes when Whitey explains why, unlike other barbers, he only charges three instead of five dollars when taking on the job of shaving corpses:

“I just charge three dollars because personally I don’t mind much shavin’ a dead person. They lay a lot stiller than live customers. The only thing is you don’t feel like talkin’ to them and you get kind of lonesome.”

That anecdote comes as true relief in a story that gains in moral horror as it goes along.

An excellent analysis of “Haircut’s” meaning can be found in this analysis from the blog “Dark Party Review.” Still, some additional points can be offered on how Lardner achieves his stunning effects.

Whitey recalls to his visitor the good old days in this small town, before Jim Kendall died, when he and sidekick Hod Meyers used to regale the community: “I bet they was more laughin’ done here than any town its size in America.”

At first, we believe we’re in the presence of a person given to rough but not nasty humor (“Whitey, your nose looks like a rosebud tonight”). But already, small hints of doubt appear about what Whitey is actually telling us.

Jim’s favorite seat, for instance, is next to a spittoon, suggesting his coarseness. And why do other customers at the barbershop instantly jump out of this chair when Jim arrives? Is it because he has an honored place in the shop or, as we suspect more and more as the story proceeds, he’s a nasty piece of work that it’s best not to cross for any reason?

Each time Whitey tells us something complimentary about his customer—that he was “comical,” “a card,” “a caution”—we learn something new that immediately makes us revise everything the barber says: Jim’s a lout whose wife would divorce him if it didn’t leave her in even more dire circumstances. He loses his job as a salesman because he’s a drunk. And he’s given to nasty practical jokes that humiliate family and anyone who annoys him, even total strangers.

Jim’s comeuppance comes at the hands of a mentally challenged man on whom he has played one of his characteristically mean jokes before. The narrator remains equally clueless about how Jim met his fate and why it was so deserved.

“Haircut” was a masterpiece of its kind, a near-primer in how to alert readers that what one character says varies drastically from the facts of the case. Lardner would produce several more short-story collections and a 1929 comedy with George S. Kaufman, June Moon, before dying of a heart attack in 1933.

Quote of the Day (Rev. Thomas Doyle, on the Pope and the Abuse Scandal)

“Pope Benedict is a micromanager. He’s the old style. Anything like that would necessarily have been brought to his attention. Tell the vicar general to find a better line. What he’s trying to do, obviously, is protect the pope.”—Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, formerly of the Vatican embassy in Washington, on the pope’s management style and possible culpability in the mushrooming sexual abuse scandal, quoted in Nicholas Kulish and Rachel Donadio, “Abuse Scandal in Germany Edges Closer to the Pope,” The New York Times, March 12, 2010

Eight years ago, I argued strenuously with a longtime friend about the sexual-abuse scandal making virtually daily front-page news in the United States. After much back-and-forth about the need for Boston’s Cardinal Law to resign, celibacy, and the attention span of the public, my friend asked: “How much you want to bet that once Iraq is invaded, the media stop covering this?”

Hmmm…well, define “stop.” Since the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, seven American archdioceses (not including, interestingly enough, Boston, the original epicenter of the controversy) have filed for bankruptcy as a result of ruinous lawsuits stemming from the scandal, as did the Oregon Province of the Jesuits. Since my friend and I had our spirited discussion over coffee, total settlements and awards arising from these American claims in just these past eight years have amounted to more than $2 billion.

And, whenever the Church commented on a fractious social issue—abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, health care—you can bet there was a columnist out there to wonder by what right this institution that shielded child molesters could contribute meaningfully to any public discussion of the matter in question.

I well remember my feelings of burning anger and shame as I sat in my church on Palm Sunday eight years ago, thinking of how The Boston Globe and The New York Times were beating the drum of the abuse scandal. Yet here we are, eight years later, and those drums are louder than ever.

One phrase in particular from today’s Passion narrative, in the Gospel of St. Luke, leaps out at me: “the time for the power of darkness.”

This time, scoffers about the scandal can’t claim, as my friend did, that it’s largely confined only to Boston (itself a questionable proposition, even eight years ago)—it’s spread to Ireland, Italy, and Germany, where, of course, it is now perilously close to the current pontiff.

That is why, less than a week after The Times began its above-the-fold stories about Benedict’s handling, as archbishop of Munich and Pope John Paul II’s head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of predatory priests, the Vatican reacted, with what was, for this slow-moving relic of a medieval court, something approaching warp speed. It castigated the media for acting “with the clear and ignoble intent of trying to strike Benedict and his closest collaborators at any cost.”

This won’t do. For all too many people with a long memory, it’s reminiscent of Cardinal Law’s blowup against the Globe—nearly a decade before the steady acid rain of stories about other abusers fatally eroded his moral authority—for what he deemed too much coverage of an early abuser, the Rev. James Porter: “By all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe."

When I first read the news of Benedict’s involvement in these abuse cases before his assumption of the papal tiara, what immediately sprang to mind was the matter raised by Rev. Doyle, a canon lawyer who, 25 years ago, saw the American hierarchy ignore his warnings about the grave financial dangers posed by abuse scandals then in their infancy.

Doyle’s concern, boiled down, is the logical consequence of the question posed by Howard Baker in the Senate Watergate hearings about President Nixon: What did he know, and when did he know it?

Nixon lost power because enough people sensed that he was so obsessed about every little detail of White House operations that it was impossible for him not to know about the connection of the Watergate burglars to his own reelection committee. Ronald Reagan survived his constitutional crisis—the Iran-contra scandal—because it was easy to conceive of him being blissfully unaware of even matters that would seem glaringly obvious to others.

In which of these two lights will Catholics view Benedict? The one the Vatican is trying out is a variation on Reagan’s. By necessity, it can’t exactly duplicate Reagan’s strategy, or longtime observers of the Church hierarchy would laugh them out of existence, as you can see in Fr. Doyle’s response.

The new trial balloon, then, sent up in today’s New York Times, goes like this: Benedict was a micromanager, all right—but he focused on doctrine, not administration. His service as archbishop of Munich was not terribly long—five years—before he was called to Rome. He left to others the fine points of personnel management.

Some of the coverage of the scandal has already engage in overdrawn conclusions, notably the suggestion that Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) headed the Vatican office with responsibility for the scandal for a whole quarter-century. (See National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen Jr.’s dispassionate discussion on when Ratzinger did finally receive responsibility for the scandal worldwide--2001--as well as other aspects of the media coverage.)

The Vatican strategy/explanation also has the advantage of dovetailing with an obvious aspect of Benedict’s personality: he is shy, reserved, far more comfortable with discussing abstruse points of medieval theology (or, for entertainment, playing his piano in private) than in engaging in give-and-take with others. That tendency has left him tone-deaf at times as to how his words and actions appear (e.g., when his quote of a Byzantine emperor on Islam during a speech at Regensberg undercut his larger, less objectionable, role on faith and reason in the secular order).

Ultimately, though, this picture presented by papal defenders won’t do. Even if true, it will undermine Benedict's authority anyway, as people will understandably ask why this cleric—who, according to today's Times article, scolded dissenters from his policy of having schoolchildren take First Communion and Confession in the same year—didn’t pay more attention to the offenses that led to the transfer of at least one priest under his jurisdiction.

The more likely possibility is that at least some elements of the stories going around now are true. Reporters at mainstream media outlets are unlikely to give Benedict the benefit of the doubt that they permitted John Edwards, for instance, when the first stories of his transgressions surfaced. Unlike the former Presidential candidate, little personal warmth exists between the pontiff and reporters, and even less ideological agreement.

In other words, there’s no reason for reporters not to salivate at the biggest story of their careers, one that could get them a Pulitzer, as the Globe did seven years ago for its coverage of the abuse scandal in Boston.

Instead of anathemas, the Vatican would be better off delivering explanations filled with facts and historical context. If the facts point to Benedict's personal knowledge that the pedophile priest in Munich had been transferred to someplace else and that this new assignment involved exposure to children, not just a request for forgiveness, but a papal resignation would be in order.

If such extensive knowledge is not the case, he still owes it to the faithful to apologize for his lack of effective oversight, to force the resignation of European (and any remaining American) archbishops who shielded abusers, and to spell out exactly what is being done now to ensure that the coddling of pedophiles doesn’t recur.

True, belief in the faith should rest not in a particular priest or pope but in the tenets of Jesus. But people see the possibility of God through the people who minister to their deepest needs. That faith has been needlessly undermined through the hierarchy’s mishandling of all too many cases. Before healing can take place, truth and atonement must occur—including from the very top.

Above all, the Vatican should put aside any thought that this scandal will go away if it ignores it. As the American archbishops learned, to their discomfort and their flock’s greater distress, it won’t. More pain is in store. Better to deal with it now, before the damage worsens.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

This Day in Jazz History (Erroll Garner Makes Mark in Concert Hall)

March 27, 1950—The Cleveland Music Hall, long a Midwestern mainstay on the classical music circuit, hosted an artist entirely different from its usual restrained fare: Erroll Garner, a jazz pianist-composer who compensated for an inability to read music with an uncanny ear, a stunning aural memory, and an infectiously joyful improvisational style.

Later in the decade, Garner became the first jazz artist represented by Sol Hurok since the classical impresario had booked Benny Goodman in Carnegie Hall before WWII.

Every artist—heck, every person—should have a champion, someone who will beat the drums incessantly for you, or go to bat if, in effect, you can't. Garner’s champion was his longtime manager and executor of his estate, Martha Glaser, who not only helped secure him the booking at the prestigious Cleveland venue, but who, five decades later, sharply (and, in my opinion, rightly) upbraided Ken Burns for omitting him from the epic public-television history Jazz.

Burns’ contention that Garner wasn’t a “seminal innovator” is questionable. What isn’t is Garner’s personality. The warmth and good humor that poured from his keys accurately reflected his demeanor. (You can also sense this in the image accompanying this post.)

If Burns (and, presumably, at least some of the consultants for his series) were not too high on Garner, the overwhelming majority of his fellow musicians didn’t make the same mistake. One such musician, Art Blakey, had, like his fellow resident of The Hill section of Pittsburgh, taken up the piano.

That is, until Garner completely outclassed him at the instrument one night, and the owner of the hall strongly urged Blakey to turn to the drums—which he did.

Like many jazz musicians, Garner died far too young—in this case, at age 55, from lung cancer—but in addition to his many reworkings of jazz standards, he also composed 200 songs of his own in his truncated career, including “Misty.” You might have heard Jane Monheit bring her rich, creamy vocal delivery to the tune, but decades ago people became most familiar with it on the small and big screen.

Throughout most of the Sixties, listeners of the Today Show awoke to the strains of this lushly romantic jazz instrumental. When the producers switched to a different one in the early 1970s, composer Ray Ellis’ “This Is Today,” they might have wished they hadn’t. Someone noticed that it sounded a lot like the Godspell hit “Day by Day,” and sued for copyright infringement.

Around the same time “Misty” was fading from the TV picture, it gained new prominence in Clint Eastwood’s film, Play Misty for Me. The director who, over the last four decades, has probably done more than any other to employ jazz themes in his films, found an evocative artist in the first movie he helmed that had a contemporary setting.

Like many fans, I came to Garner through his 1956 recording, Concert by the Sea, where I became intoxicated by his “four-in-the-bar” left-hand technique and introductions that turned the basic melodies inside out. I've bought several other CDs of his work since, and they all leave me convinced that his departure from the music scene left a gaping hole unable to be filled.

Quote of the Day (Nicol Williamson, Exerting Fatal Thespian Charm)

“Dear fellow, I know you’ve heard tattle, but don’t believe a word. I’m in top, fighting form. And I haven’t touched a drop in over a year.”—Actor Nicol Williamson, misleading playwright Paul Rudnick about his widely rumored misbehavior and all-around insanity, quoted in Paul Rudnick, “Personal History: I Hit Hamlet—Behind the Scenes at a Broadway Fiasco,” The New Yorker, Dec. 24, 2007

I think we can all guess what happens next—Paul Rudnick looks back at the table and notices “a brandy snifter, a wine bottle, and a beer mug, all of which had been recently emptied into Nicol.”

The unexpectedly painful—literally so—1991 collaboration between the playwright and the contemporary of fellow actor-hellraisers Burton, Harris, and O’Toole, I Hate Hamlet, was supposed to be a comedy, but staging it became a horror show. Reading Rudnick’s account of the proceedings, you almost want to grab him and yell, the way you might at one of the criminally stupid teens in Halloween and its increasingly formulaic ripoffs, “Run! Run for your life! Run now!”

Omnivorous reader that I am, I don’t always get around to reading everything I want. For years, I’ve clipped articles out of magazines and newspapers, promising myself to read them eventually. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

My rediscovery of Rudnick’s hilarious reminiscence came at an opportune point, giving me some much-needed chuckles at a time when I could use them. I’ve linked to the article in the hope that you, faithful reader, might also avail yourself of this humor-layaway plan.

“Crazy ain’t criminal,” Bob Bernhoft, one of Wesley Snipes’ attorneys, advised a jury during the actor’s trial on income-tax evasion charges. “If it were, half of Hollywood would be in prison.” The jurors evidently bought that concept, since they acquitted Snipes on felony charges, despite the fact that he paid no income tax on $38 million in income. (Don’t try the latter too-clever-by-half maneuver at home, folks.)

You can extend the range of the territory envisioned by Bernhoft across the continent to Broadway, and its essential truth remains. (Latest case in point: Megan Mullally’s self-destructive exit from the Roundabout’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart.) But Nicol Williamson—I’m not sure, outside of John Wilkes Booth, that you’re going to find a nuttier actor than this one.

Whenever film aficionados speak of George Cukor’s A Double Life—the 1947 drama that finally won the beloved matinee idol Ronald Colman a well-deserved Oscar—there’s a lingering feeling that its premise of an actor getting a wee bit too much into his role in Othello might be a tad…exaggerated.

Stuff and nonsense. The Bard represents a kind of Bermuda Triangle for the unwary actor—Hamlet, particularly so. Daniel Day-Lewis has concentrated on film rather than theater over the last two decades, especially after he walked off a National Theatre stage in the middle of a performance of Hamlet, convinced that, in place of the ghost of Hamlet's father, he was talking to his real father, Cecil Day-Lewis, who had been dead at that point for 17 years already.

But Williamson’s variety of madness leaves that far in its wake, like an ocean liner charging away from a huffing-and-puffing tugboat. And, no matter how intensely Winona Ryder, Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, or whatever other media-flavor-of-the-month might be covered, the British actor can regard them with a lofty disdain.

Theater fans will remember—admittedly, more and more vaguely, with the passage of the years—how Williamson, as the ghost of John Barrymore, in the attire of his most famous role, had literally stabbed co-star Evan Handler during swordplay.

Yet Rudnick’s retrospective will, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father might say, “harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/ Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,” etc. with these other incidents:

* To get into the mood for the comedy’s séance scene, the cast held a real séance in Rudnick’s apartment—at the end of which the door opened a crack. Did “some cackling, chaos-seeking, heedless Barrymore imp” make an appearance, as Rudnick speculates? Well, do you have a better explanation for everything that happened afterward?

* The star allegedly propositioned the stage manager, then launched a campaign to get her fired.

* Williamson drove everyone insane with other inappropriate actions, this time affecting the performance-in-progress—e.g., sometimes offering audible advice to other actors while still onstage, other times slipping off when, as Barrymore’s ghost, he was supposed to be eavesdropping on the proceedings.

But one question has always troubled me: What on earth could have provoked to the incident that forced poor Handler from the show? I think I found the clue in one of Williamson’s brainstorms (delivered, of course, in a 3 am phone call to Rudnick): Why not eliminate Handler altogether and let Williamson handle his lines, too?

“Oh, I know just what you’re thinking,” Williamson tells the astonished Rudnick.“Of course I could play both parts easily, but Andrew [Handler’s character] is intended to be what, twenty-six years old? And you’re wondering, Will the audience accept me as twenty-six?”

Friday, March 26, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” Published)

March 26, 1920—This Side of Paradise, the first novel of 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published by Scribners, garnering strong sales and acclaim for the author as the voice of a generation.

As a more world-weary Fitzgerald xplained in his 1937 essay “Early Success” (posthumously collected in The Crack-Up), his publisher had chuckled at the rookie author's expectation that the book’s sales would not exceed 20,000. Five thousand, he was quickly set straight, would be great for a first-time novelist. “I think it was a week after publication that it passed the twenty thousand mark,” Fitzgerald observed drily.

Let’s stipulate this up front: This Side of Paradise is not The Great Gatsby. But every author has to start somewhere (Shakespeare, after all, had Titus Andronicus), and the novel did give Fitzgerald a perspective that he never really lost, despite the epic battle with alcohol he was about to wage: that of a disciplined, professional author.

Even on its own merits, This Side of Paradise doesn’t lack for distinction. It would take hard experience and an obsession with aesthetics that began to take hold (though still fitfully) with the creation of The Beautiful and Damned, but even at this point Fitzgerald was demonstrating that he was incapable of writing a bad sentence.

In this novel and his two subsequent short-story collections, Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age, he was already showing, according to the late novelist-critic Thomas Flanagan, an “uncanny ability to evoke atmosphere, moods, energies, through his deployment of sounds, colors, lights, shadows.”

From a cultural perspective, the novel might have been significant in another way: I can’t think of an earlier American work of fiction that became famous precisely for its picture of the younger generation. Before this, the public had not cared particularly how youth thought or behaved. After the Great Crash, it would take another two decades—until, I’d say, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—before serious attention began to be paid to young people again.

Why the attention in the Twenties? The youth who came of age after World War I were different. The automobile gave them unprecedented freedom from their elders, including in sexual matters. Furthering their radical estrangement from traditional mores, the war disabused them of all notions of military glory, and Prohibition was creating a nation of lawbreakers.

Fitzgerald’s alienation took an additional form: the collapse of his Roman Catholic faith. The 1919 death of spiritual mentor and surrogate father Fr. Sigourney Fay, an Episcopal convert who had, for a time, heavily influenced the novelist, severed his last connection with the faith of his ancestors.

(Incidentally, Fr. Fay—who inspired the novel’s worldly Monsignor Darcy—also led a young, tall actress to choose a first name that would mark her as distinctive. We know Susan Weaver these days better as Sigourney Weaver.)

Any notion of becoming the voice of “The Jazz Age” was way beyond Fitzgerald (who, it should be noted, like future frenemy Ernest Hemingway, actually preferred classical music) as he wrote furiously in the summer of 1919 in his hometown of St. Paul, Minn. He was just a young guy who wanted to write—and to win the hand of a young Southern beauty he had fallen in love with but was in danger of losing because he didn’t have enough money.

A half-dozen years ago, I toured St. Paul, soaking in the atmosphere in which Fitzgerald grew up. In his childhood, the financial travails of Fitzgerald’s parents, Edward and Mollie Fitzgerald, took them to several residences. These homes remain privately owned, and the city does not have a Fitzgerald museum. (One residence, however—the apartment building at 599 Summit Avenue where Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise—made the National Register of Historic Places.)

Even without a museum, however, a half-day’s walk will take you through Fitzgerald’s childhood and early adult haunts around beautiful Summit Avenue and its network of side streets just below the Cathedral of St. Paul, in a neighborhood known as Ramsey Hill.

The gracious homes on this sweeping boulevard and its environs--one of the best-preserved Victorian neighborhoods in America--still attract St. Paul’s most famous citizens, including Garrison Keillor, who broadcasts his radio show A Prairie Home Companion out of a restored theater renamed in the novelist’s honor.

It is estimated that there were more than 100 structures in St. Paul associated with Fitzgerald, mostly in a 12-square-block area. Remarkably, approximately 80 still exist.

While Scott attended Princeton, Edward and Mollie relocated to 593 Summit Avenue, part of a brick rowhouse built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Four years later, in 1918, they moved again, to the 599 unit on Summit.

Here Scott repaired in July 1919, at the end of a series of failures or anti-climaxes: dropping out of Princeton because of poor grades; an Army stint in WWI in which he never saw combat or even went overseas; a New York advertising job that he loathed; rejection by Scribners of his first attempt at a novel, The Romantic Egotist; the breakup of his engagement to southern belle Zelda Sayre, because she feared he couldn’t support her; and a week-long bender over this romantic failure. “I was in love with a whirlwind,” he later wrote, “so when the girl threw me over, I went home and finished my novel.”

Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins, though rejecting The Romantic Egotist, had given Fitzgerald hope that it could be salvaged. In his parents’ “house below the average on a street above the average,” Fitzgerald, looking to stake his claim as a writer, worked tirelessly for the next three months.

When particularly consumed by his work, he’d use a speaking tube outside his room and order meals to be brought up. Onlookers gazing up at Fitzgerald’s guest room on the third floor would have seen the shadows of paper pinned to his curtains and walls – evidence of heavy revisions to his work.

And then…Success.

After he received Maxwell Perkins’ letter accepting This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald ran up and down the street, stopping cars to tell everyone. “That week the postman rang and rang,” Fitzgerald wrote, “and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning into a world of ineffable topflightiness and promise.”

Success brought him Zelda. Within two weeks after publication of This Side of Paradise, the two were married in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

Ahead of them lay a celebrity so luminous that a Hollywood producer suggested that they should play their fictional counterparts from This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine and Rosalind Connage, in a film version that never came to be. Also ahead, of course, were a nomadic existence, marked by a double tragedy that neither headstrong, lovestruck youth could anticipate.

Quote of the Day (Goethe, on Humility)

“The masters’ works I look upon,
And I can see what they have done;
When looking upon this or that by me,
What I should have done is what I see.”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Humility” (1815), in Selected Works (Everyman’s Library Edition)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Quote of the Day (Leo Tolstoy, on Love)

“And all men live not by the thought they spend on their own welfare, but because love exists in man.”—Novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), What Men Live By (1881)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (“So Young,” For Sharon Corr’s 40th)

“Cause we were so young then
We are so young, so young now
And when tomorrow comes
We’ll just do it all again.”—“So Young,” written by Sharon Corr and performed by The Coors, from the CD Talk on Corners (1997)

The lady in the picture, Sharon Corr, is violinist and backup singer for The Corrs, who hail from Dundalk, Ireland. The other group members are sisters Andrea, the band’s lead singer, and Caroline, drummer and also backup singer.

(Oh, there is someone else. Jim, I believe he calls himself—who is supposed to play guitar and keyboard, but who is mostly around, I’ll bet, to shoo away the many, many guys on both sides of the Atlantic who pester his sisters.)

Well, Sharon—who, incidentally, has written a number of the group’s songs--turns 40 today. More power to her, says I.

In her honor, play “So Young,” which she wrote about her parents, who gave their family its love of music. If you wish—and I have a suspicion that many of my male readers do—watch this effervescent video of the group on MTV Unplugged.

Whatever pleases you, but let this song remind you of the moment in your life when you were carefree and thrilled to be alive.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Quote of the Day (Patrick Henry, On Liberty)

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”—Patrick Henry (1736-1799), Speech to Virginia delegates, March 23, 1775, St. John’s Church, Richmond, Va., urging them to vote for his resolution putting the colony “into a posture of defense...embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Burke Urges “Conciliation With America”)

March 22, 1775—Pleading with colleagues in the House of Commons to exercise “legislative reason,” Edmund Burke called for backing off measures that would lose Britain its American colonies.

Nowadays, the Anglo-Irish Burke is probably best known as one of the early great proponents of conservatism, as propounded in Reflections on the Revolution in France. But his notion of conservatism was not the frequently knee-jerk obstinacy that often passes for that nowadays, but instead a philosophy that ameliorated injustice through legislation that did no damage to a cultural heritage.

The son of a Catholic mother, Burke pressed for better treatment of Irish Catholics and an end to mistreatment of Indian colonials—and well before Parliament came around to the idea, forcefully advocated the suppression of the African slave trade.

One of Burke’s greatest orations, Speech on Conciliation With America, solidified a reputation he had carved out, in an early speech opposing the Stamp Act, as one of the high-profile defenders of America in Westminster. In fact, this latest speech was delivered 10 years to the day that Parliament enacted the Stamp Act, the first step in what historian Barbara Tuchman would describe as a self-destructive “March of Folly.”

Things had gone from bad to far, far worse by the time Burke rose to speak. Parliament had forcefully rejected a proposal by former Prime Minister William Pitt to remove soldiers from Boston. Instead, what was on the table now was the New England Restraining Act, which called for prohibiting New England trade to other nations and banning New England ships from North Atlantic fisheries.

Burke desperately tried to persuade his colleagues from this additional punitive measure, realizing that the result would be the loss of much of the territory that the nation had spent 170 years to bring into being. Parliament might have the right to impose taxes on the colonists, Burke suggested, but that didn’t mean it should exercise it.

Unfortunately, the effect that Burke had upon his colleagues was, at least at first, negative. I was surprised to read several weeks ago that this politician—someone who, the history books all say, was a great “orator”—was actually, at best, an indifferent speaker. Other members found it difficult to endure the harsh sounds coming from his throat, not to mention his Irish accent.

Lawyer-politician Thomas Erskine, no mean hand at winning a crowd over himself, was present when Burke rose on this day in defense of the colonies. Years later, he observed that Burke had—as he had done on so many other occasions –emptied the chamber, a consistent phenomenon that led him to be nicknamed “dinner-bell Burke.”

(In fact, if you want an American counterpart to Burke as someone whose contemporary reputation as an orator was far less than what we believe it to be today, look to Thomas Jefferson. Historian Roger Kennedy has made the extraordinary point that not once in his entire career did Jefferson utter two audible words in a public address.)

But Burke’s closely argued, ringing address had a larger impact than the foregoing might explain. He made sure to have his speech published, increasing the audience far beyond his original audience.
The address—part of a larger decade-long effort by Burke to restrain King George III from regaining much of the royal authority lost by his two Hanoverian predecessors—pinpointed six factors that made Americans resentful of Britain’s long-distance micromanaging:

* the love of liberty fostered by their English heritage;
* their form of government—provincial assemblies dependent on popular rule;

* the dissenting Protestant impulse in the Northern colonies;

* slaveholding in the South, which, though Burke abominated slavery, he also admitted made those who were free even more anxious to preserve the liberty they had;
* American leaders' high level of education, manifested especially in the law, which “renders men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources”; and

* geography—or, as he pointed out, “three thousand miles of ocean [that] lie between you and them.”

Burke’s brilliance and status as a member of Samuel Johnson’s literary circle led many in Great Britain to reconsider the mother country’s course, but by this time it was too late. The die was cast, and in only a month the “shot heard round the world” would be fired at Lexington.

Song Lyric of the Day (Stephen Sondheim, Showing He’s “Still Here”)

“I’ve run the gamut, A to Z,
Three cheers and damnit, C’est la vie,
I got through all of last year, and I’m here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here
Look who’s here, I’m still here.”—Stephen Sondheim, “I’m Still Here,” from Follies (1971)

Yes, I know I just wrote a post the other day about Sondheim. Well, what of it?

Sure, there’s a voice inside—the kind that many bloggers probably hear—saying, “Wouldn’t it be good to offer a little variety? Vary the ol’ subject matter a little bit?”

I hear you, faithful reader. But I also obey the insistent impulse of most bloggers: I write as I please. And right now, what pleases me is to pay tribute to the greatest craftsman of American musical theater for the last half-century today, on his 80th birthday.

Stephen Sondheim’s musicals have been, as often as not, orphaned at their original premieres, only to be taken up by later generations. One of these was the one that first got me listening to his music in a sustained way: Merrily We Roll Along, which told its story of middle-aged disillusionment backwards through time.

I wish the Roundabout Theatre had chosen to stage Merrily rather than the revue on the boards now, Sondheim on Sondheim. The latter might have its crowd-pleasing stars—Barbara Cook, Tom Wopat and Vanessa Williams—and a kind of best-of format. But it sounds to me a little safe—everything Sondheim, most emphatically, has rejected in his art.

Follies is not only central to the Sondheim canon, but with time, I think, it’s entered the larger sphere of the very select American musical canon. Think of its relationship to the musical the same way you might compare Lonesome Dove to the western: an examination of an endpoint of an American era, and, in a sense, a particular American art form.

For the plot of Follies—a reunion of “Weissman” (read: Ziegfeld) girls—Sondheim summed up nearly half a century of seminal figures of the American musical, including mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Sigmund Romberg. But that whole tradition is then deconstructed—there are no happy, romantic endings, simply a weary acceptance of one’s experience—and the whole projected forwarded into a nightmarish phantasmagoria of dreams unrealized.

“I’m Still Here” might be my favorite among this dazzling collection of musical pastiches. There are all sorts of reasons to love it:

* as a kind of through-the-years history lesson, with fun but more obscure allusions than, for instance, Don McLean’s “American Pie” or Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (for a complete rundown of the meaning of these references, see this helpful guide from June Abernathy). How many Americans today can tell you what Brenda Frazier, Major Bowes, or Abie’s Irish Rose means?

* as an example of Sondheim’s dazzling wordplay. My favorite: “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp,/Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp,/Then you career from career to career.”

* as an anthem of show-biz veterans’ indomitability. As WNYC-FM deejay Jonathan Schwartz remarked on his show yesterday, “I’m Still Here”—based, according to an interview of Sondheim by Chicago’s Gary Griffin, upon the life of Joan Crawford--has become the preferred tune of actress-singers of a certain age, including Yvonne DeCarlo (who originated the role of Carlotta Campion), Carol Burnett, Polly Bergen, and Elaine Stritch.

But I think its relevance is even more extensive. No profession beats show business for the variety of its cruelties, the way your career can be upended through personal demons, changing fashions, economic downturns, shifting politics, or simply capricious tyrants inexplicably given charge of your destiny at crucial moments.

“I’m Still Here” is not a kind of defiantly theatrical “My Way,” but an alternately rueful, witty reflection on human imperfection, a tale of endurance in the face of such repeated and various indignities in the entertainment world that it builds to the level of majestic, thrilling heroism.

Sondheim’s first up-close and personal experience with show business—as a gofer for Hammerstein for the experimental musical Allegro—was just such a failure, and he’s endured a full share of his own career and personal setbacks (e.g., the ‘60s disappointment of Anyone Can Whistle and his collaboration with Richard Rodgers, Do I Hear a Waltz?, plus a mid-Seventies heart attack that forced a change in his lifestyle). He wrote “I’m Still Here” for a character, but today, it can serve as his own cry of the heart.

Happy 80th birthday, Mr. Sondheim.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Song Lyric of the Day (“Day by Day,” on What to Pray For)

“Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day.”—“Day by Day,” from the Godspell soundtrack (1971), music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Several weeks ago, driving in my car, I heard “Day by Day” for the first time in what seemed like decades, and suddenly I wasn’t traveling to a place but to a point in time—the early Seventies, with all the requisite bell bottoms, long hair, wide sideburns, love beads, and debates about how to make the message of the Gospel relevant to youth.

Listening to the song, I was struck, in a way I hadn’t been four decades ago, by “Day by Day”'s repetitiousness. There's not much beyond the refrain. But it didn’t matter. It moved something deep inside, like a stream surging beneath a frozen surface.

I still haven’t seen the stage or film versions of the musical of which this wildly joyful song forms only a part, Godspell. But in the early Seventies, when the tune became a hit, I swear that I heard it everywhere I turned—and each time, it lifted my heart.

Both of my brothers, a few years older than myself, must have heard it even more than I did. Theirs was the time when the Catholic coffeehouse culture really came into their own, complete with youth outreach by priests and guitar-driven folk masses. I’m sure somebody must have picked up a guitar at one of these settings and started to harmonize on this song.

Stephen Schwartz’s musical arrived on the scene within the same year as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Though there were some angry murmurs about the clown makeup and other cultural accouterments employed to retell incidents in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Schwartz’s creation never excited the controversy that JCS did.

Part of it might have had something to do with the message of songs like “Day by Day.” After all, aren’t the “three things I pray” at the heart of the Lenten journey so many of us take?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

This Day in Rock History (Sgt. Elvis Back in Studio)

March 20, 1960—A little more than a month after receiving his sergeant’s stripes and three weeks after completing military service, Elvis Presley entered a Nashville recording studio to reclaim his position atop popular music’s throne.
For Elvis Is Back!, his first LP after returning to civilian life, he wanted to show he could do more than just rock ‘n’ roll, that he had a voice versatile enough to match his widely varying tastes in genres. He wanted to prove, for a new generation that was already showing an alarmingly fickle interest in their musical heroes, that he had staying power.

Only to some extent, The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll succeeded.

The first single from the sessions at RCA Studio B, “Stuck on You,” was rushed out within 48 hours after he ambled in with buddies/backup musicians Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. It debuted at #84 on the charts but, to the relief of Elvis and manager Col. Tom Parker, it didn’t stay there long, rising to #1 within three weeks.

I never heard “Stuck on You” until about 10 years ago, but I immediately loved it. With a comfortable groove and sly, insouciant lyrics (“Gonna run my fingers thru your long black hair/ Squeeze you tighter than a grizzly bear”), Presley could sing it in his sleep.

But that wasn’t necessarily the music that Elvis wanted to play anymore. And maybe that’s why he reportedly was not that high on the song (supposedly referring to it as “Stuck in You”).

A musician has to be careful about changing musical direction. Too jarring a shift and you get booed by your original audience (Dylan at Newport), or suffer such a catastrophic fall that you never really get over it (Phil Ochs, dressing in a gold lame jacket a la Elvis late in his career).

I remember that, about 20 years ago, Bruce Springsteen said he wanted to be a professional musician into his sixties. That kind of wish means that if you change with age, your audience will go along with you. Had his own appetites and demons—and Col. Parker’s deeply flawed career management--not interfered, Elvis might have been able to achieve something similar.

It certainly started that way with Elvis Is Back! It’s not a radical change in direction, but it showed all the styles in which he could excel: not just rock ‘n’ roll but blues (“Reconsider Baby”), R&B (“Such a Night”), doo-wop (“Soldier Boy”), pop (“The Girl of My Best Friend”), and a cover of “Fever” that, in its quietly incendiary way, makes you ask, “Peggy Who???”.

Elvis set the tone in these sessions, not just as singer but as producer. Chet Atkins, manager of operations for Nashville at RCA, rounded up the various musicians, and for awhile he tried to steer the proceedings.

But the latter task became hard when Elvis showed up an hour late for his 6 pm slot, then ordered out Krystal burgers, then loosened up with gospel music. Then, and only then—several hours later—were Elvis and the boys ready to get down to the task at hand. After manfully trying to match this pace, Atkins shortly gave up, bid the boys goodnight, and waited for the results the next day.

"Colonel" Parker had already scheduled Elvis while he was still in the armed forces for a high-profile TV appearance within a week of the studio engagement: on the variety show headlined by Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board wasn’t the Rat Packer that Presley liked the best musically—that honor belonged to Dean Martin—and, given comments that Sinatra made about rock ‘n’ roll three years before (a “rancid aphrodisiac…sung played and written for the most part by cretinous goons”), you’d expect the matinee idols of two generations to approach each other warily.

But each man had something the other wanted, and so they approached the “Welcome Back, Elvis” edition of Sinatra’s ABC-TV series with a professionalism that grew into mutual respect and, eventually, cordiality.

Sinatra, anxious to succeed on TV, was willing to pay Elvis $125,000—a record amount for a performer up to that time for appearing on a variety show—plus the cost of tuxes for Elvis and his band.

For his part, Elvis wanted to prove he could perform more mature fare. Many believed he could never again achieved the roaring success he had before his induction. If he couldn't prove them wrong, he certainly wanted to generate significant momentum toward a long-term career.

Sinatra provided a role model for reinvention. At the beginning of the Fifties, he was considered a washed-up teenybopper idol. Yet, in a few short years, in what still ranks as one of the great show-business comebacks, he had reached undreamed-of (for him, anyway) levels of esteem as a serious actor—and had managed to turn what seemed like a liability at the time—coarsening voice chords—into an asset that allowed him to project different textures of world-weariness and jauntiness into the Great American Songbook.

From the perspective of today, Elvis’ work at this time—which also included “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”—ranks as among his best in the Sixties. Unfortunately, the soundtracks for the dreck into which Col. Parker was steering him—interchangeable Elvis-music-and-chicks flicks—outsold this better stuff.

Elvis was now in a time not just of personal, but professional uncertainty. (He still was not over the death of his mother, which had occurred when he’d been inducted into the army—and many observers of the King think he never did get over it.) Just as Sinatra had been, to an extent, eclipsed by rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis would soon be overshadowed by the British Invasion.

Yet by decade's end he would prove, as Ol’ Blue Eyes did, that he had more big comeback in him.

Quote of the Day (George C. Scott, on Film vs. TV Acting)

“In feature films an actor is fortunate if he can get 40 percent of what he’d like to have into the finished product. In a television series, that percentage has to go down—I would say—to 20 percent, if you want a wild figure. Any kind of emotional involvement is almost nonexistent, and emotionalism is one of the tools of any respectable actor—qualified emotionalism, restrained emotionalism, these are important things. If you happen to be lucky enough to be neurotic and can go to pieces on the spur of the moment and do it four more times, then you should make a fairly good television actor. In a large sense it is not even satisfactory acting.”—George C. Scott, commenting on the CBS cancellation of his series East Side, West Side, quoted in “The Show is Over, But the Actor Is Fuming Still,” TV Guide, July 1964, collected in TV Guide: The First 25 Years, compiled and edited by Jay S. Harris in association with the editors of TV Guide (1978)

If the Oscar-winning actor felt this way in the 1960s, what would he think of TV as a medium now, nearly 50 years since East Side, West Side aired?

As far as network TV was concerned, he’d probably snort sardonically at all the reality shows and think how lucky he’d been. His series—whose daily grind and failure after less than a year led Scott to vow never to do another—had been scheduled because of one of those small windows of opportunity that open up between one media era and another. (In this case, the networks needed urban, character-driven dramas such as this one, The Defenders and The Naked City, to balance or replace violent programs coming in for heavy criticism by pressure groups.)

Critics loved it, but audiences mostly stayed away from this show featuring a social worker and his assistant (Cicely Tyson, in a landmark role at the time for an African-American actress). For several years after the show was canceled, according to an in-depth, perceptive history of the show by Stephen Bowie, its failure had “come to exemplify within the television industry the kind of programming that was too dark, too controversial, too unglamorous, too depressing, or simply too good to catch on with a mainstream audience.”

Scott returned to a network series for Mr. President—a sitcom which ran on Fox from May 1987 to the following April--for the money, he bluntly told the media. As he aged, he found that TV specials provided more congenial vehicles for his talents (e.g., A Christmas Carol, a TV movie on Mussolini) than film. One suspects that he would find cable TV series the best venues today, as have an increasing number of 40+ actors and actresses.

Maybe he’d even get the “percentage” to which he referred in the above quote all the way up to 30 or 35 percent. After all, what can an actor do, if not hope in the face of reason?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quote of the Day (Senator Feinstein, on Losing)

"Winning may not be everything, but losing has little to recommend it." – Attributed to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

This might be the most admirably candid quote about American politicals that you’ll read this year. It accounts for so much—the endless, nitpicking partisanship on every blessed thing; the rampaging egomania that makes Presidential candidacies bloom constantly; the ceaseless hunt for money.

Naturally, it was said before the current debate—and coming vote—on President Obama’s health-care proposal.

Earlier this year, Senator Feinstein got into trouble with just for admitting the obvious: that Obama’s plan, up to that point, simply did not have enough votes for passage.

After the projected vote on the mammoth proposal on Sunday, we’ll see which party is the bigger loser. It’s not going to be pretty, folks.

Obama has to win this vote. That’s it. Do or die. He can’t be seen as having devoted so much in terms of time and resources, to the virtual exclusion of darn near everything else, and come away with nothing.

As for Republicans, do they care at this point about losing? The fight has energized the base and given them an opponent they can unite against.

Of course, “winning” might not do either side the kind of good it guaranteed in the past. A “no” vote would seal the GOP reputation as needlessly obstructionist. But a “Yes” might only set in stone, among a certain part of the population, the Democrats’ reputation for salting otherwise worthy legislation with unwholesome deals.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

This Day in Theater History (Rodgers, Sondheim Collaborate on Dud)

March 18, 1965—The old Broadway musical met its future—and the results weren’t pretty. Composer Richard Rodgers, already a legend of the Great White Way for songwriting partnerships with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, teamed with lyricist Stephen Sondheim on Do I Hear a Waltz?, which opened on this date at the 46th Street Theater.

As Sondheimphiles like myself eagerly await the broadcast version of his 80th-birthday tribute from earlier this week, it’s worth recalling that the current Grand Old Man of musical theater almost didn’t make it to this point. Thirty-five years ago, audiences and critics certainly noticed in his collaboration with Rodgers—an adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ play The Time of the Cuckoo—a certain all-around smooth professionalism, but also a lack of heart and play-it-safe mentality at fundamental odds with the two men’s best work.

Running 220 performances, the show made back half of producer Rodgers’ investment, so it wasn’t a fabled megabomb on the order of the 1981 musical monster mash Frankenstein. But the backstage tension among the songwriters produced a dud not only signaling that Rodgers’ golden touch had fled, but convincing Sondheim that, come what may commercially, he needed in all future projects to work on both lyrics and music.

The musical was a classic example of how creative differences can expose underlying, even more significant problems arising from temperaments. Rodgers and Sondheim had known each other’s work for nearly two decades, and enough surface respect existed for what they had accomplished to date for them at least to be willing to work together.

But both men were, in a sense, paying a debt to a ghost: Hammerstein, whose death from cancer in1960 had deprived Sondheim of a tough but caring mentor and Rodgers of a cautious but dependable collaborator (a necessity for Rodgers’ sanity, given the course of his earlier partnership with the wildly inventive—but chronically drunk and tardy--Hart).

One of the most poignant scenes I know of related to the world of musical comedy actually never took place on a stage, but instead at the Plaza Oak Room in New York. As described in Rodgers' memoir Musical Stages, the dying Hammerstein, picking listlessly at his food, advised his partner to choose a younger man in any future songwriting partnership. (“You’re the most successful team on Broadway,” a star-struck man at a nearby table exclaimed obliviously to the two men. “Tell me, why do you look so sad?”)

Rodgers disregarded the advice at first when he made his next musical, No Strings, assuming lyricist as well as composer duties himself, but thought better of it with the passage of a few years. An obvious candidate for Hammerstein’s place was Sondheim. In certain ways, he resembled Rodgers himself—both precocious, from a well-off background—and had gained increasing regard in the theater community for his work on West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

But Sondheim had his own ambitions: He wanted to write lyrics and compose music. He had chafed at his collaborations on West Side Story and Gypsy because his ambitions in this direction were temporarily stymied.

The problem was that he let himself be talked into a show that made no sense. Librettist Arthur Laurents and his friend Mary Rodgers—Richard’s daughter—persuaded him to set his ambitions aside. Working with a musical-comedy giant like Rodgers would also be “an honor,” he thought.

“Horror show” would have been more like it.

Outside factors would have made this a difficult creative period in any case: a miscast leading actress (Elizabeth Allen, hardly the aging heroine that audiences had previously expected and sympathized with), a British director (John Dexter) who cavalierly treated actresses and artistic partners.

But when you also have a senior partner who’s already done your job and thinks he’s pretty good at it himself; who, as producer, essentially has more creative control than you; who is a homophobe working with not merely one gay man (Hart) as he had done before, but two (Laurents and Sondheim); and who is a sophisticate whose charm is being increasingly eclipsed by alcoholism and depression--well, it's not going to be pleasant.

And the atmosphere became potentially combustible when Sondheim and Laurents allied to beat back Rodgers’ proposal to soften the contours of the female protagonist. And it had to have been positively toxic when, in front of the entire cast and crew, Rodgers declared Sondheim’s lyrics “Shit.”

Audiences merely ratified what its creators knew already: the show lacked cohesion. Its failure might have bruised Rodgers, but by this point the runaway success of the musical version of The Sound of Music (for which he contributed additional music) undoubtedly soothed him.

Sondheim was not so lucky: He would not make it back to Broadway until the 1970s, when a trilogy of shows with Hal Prince—Company, Follies, and a Little Night Music—cemented his status as the new king of the musical.

That acclaim also led to a Newsweek cover story in which the one time young-man-in-a-hurry—now accomplished middle-aged musical maestro—took a cold revenge of sorts on the man who had enraged him nearly a decade before. Hammerstein, he declared, was “a man of infinite soul and limited talent; Dick is a man of infinite talent and limited soul.”

Quote of the Day (Chicago’s Daley, Continuing a Time-Honored Political Tradition)

“[Mayor Richard M.] Daley is an unreconstructed old-school pol: rarely glimpsed without a suit jacket, fluent in the ancient political rituals. He is especially good at going to wakes. ‘He has a style—he goes in a little early,’ John Schmidt, his former chief of staff, said. ‘It lets you get in and out, because no one else is there.’ ”—Evan Osnos, “Letter From Chicago: The Daley Show—Dynastic Rule in Obama’s Political Birthplace,” The New Yorker, March 8, 2010 (subscription required)

I was half tempted to use this quote yesterday, but I thought better of it when I asked myself: Which picture accompanying it would appeal more to readers: an aging, fleshy Midwestern pol or a screen goddess whose flaming hair was the best argument ever made for Technicolor?

Maureen O’Hara is beloved in a way that Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago (known dismissively in his younger days as “Richie,” though “Richard II” might be more appropriate now) can never hope to be. But the Windy City’s current hizzoner-for-life is, in his own way, as steeped in Irish tradition as the leading lady of that St. Patrick’s Day perennial, The Quiet Man.

Forget all the last-of-the-bosses, last-hurray hooey you read 33 Christmas seasons ago when Daley’s father—the big-city boss sputtering and gesticulating at the 1968 Democratic Convention held in his city—went to his eternal reward. It took a little while, and the son had to add to his coalition some groups (e.g., African-Americans, gays) that the old man would never dream of courting.

But now, the young (or, shall we say, not-quite-so-young anymore) Daley bestrides his city almost as powerfully as his father ever did.

Some practices from long ago remain enduring. “I figure, what’s wrong with a little nepotism?” a suburban bed-and-breakfast owner asked me when I was in the area five years ago. “As long as the city works, who cares?”

Those two sentences explain the enduring power of the Machine, despite decades of reformers’ efforts to change matters. Somewhere, the first Mayor Daley is smiling.

Adding skin and bones to this skeletal explanation for the Daley family’s continued success is Evan Osnos’ fine profile in The New Yorker from a few weeks ago. As with Ryan Lizza’s deeply perceptive 2008 background piece on the political roots of candidate Obama, it shows how politics works in Chicago. If you’re an idealist, you’ll approach it the same way a meat-eater 100 years ago would have regarded Upton Sinclair’s description of the legendary stockyards in The Jungle.

In certain ways, Osnos’ vivid piece goes rather easy on the mayor and his family (including airily dismissing the longtime claim that Richard I helped steal votes for JFK in the 1960 Presidential election). But there’s much of political and personal interest here, from the younger Daley’s early awkward entrance into the political arena to his wary relationship with the English language.

(Daley fils, a communications professor hired for his first mayoral campaign concluded, tended “to misstate the obvious, invent words never imagined by linguistic researchers, introduce irrelevant material, and demonstrate anger at seemingly uneventful moments.” The late essayist Michael Kelly was only slightly less devastating in an August 1990 GQ profile: “The more he feels attacked, the more disjointed his speech becomes, a collection of fits and starts punctuated by an idiosyncratic use of the word ‘fine.’” Hmmm—a bigtime pol with a father who also managed to mangle the English language…who does that sound like? At least on the linguistic front, it appears that Richard II and Bush II might have a common evolutionary forebear.)

Still, I wish Osnos might have explored a bit more Daley’s penchant for early arrivals at services for the departed, which will remind many of the hilarious section in Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah when Mayor Frank Skeffington appears at the wake of “Knocko” Minihan--and upstages the corpse.

(By the way, before we go any further: Can we all please tip our tweed caps to how the Irish have enriched popular lore with wonderful nicknames in the political realm?

O’Connor used so many in his novel—not just “Knocko,” but “Ditto” and “Footsie”—that he could have had a second career as a headline writer for the sports pages. Caught up in a minor-league scandal involving Chicago’s Richard II was John “Quarters” Boyle, a campaign operative convicted of pilfering $4 million in change (yes, including quarters) from toll booths. And nobody should forget Al Smith lieutenant John “Fishhooks” McCarthy, who has earned a large place in any short book on political prayer with this--perhaps apocryphal--supplication: “O Lord, give me health and strength. We’ll steal the rest.”)

Many readers, like Adam in O’Connor’s marvelous novel about the urban political machine (inspired by Boston’s mayor, James Michael Curley), might be a bit stunned by the seemingly irreverent attitude of the mayor and his cronies at what is supposed to be a solemn religious service. But Thomas J. O’Gorman’s “Sorry for Your Troubles,” a consideration of the wake in the Winter 1998 issue of The World of Hibernia, notes that for the Irish, it is “an intimate expression of national character, a curious blend of religious devotion, social support, and cultural cohesion--the linchpin in the pantheon of Irish loyalties.” (In certain Hibernian quarters, the obituaries are known variously as “the Irish funnies,” “the Irish racing form,” or “the Irish sports pages.” You know—the first thing you read when you get up in the morning.)

Those impulses—devotion, support, cohesion, loyalty—are at the heart of machine politics, too. They’ll excuse a lot—and in the context of the O’Connor novel, that very much includes the deceased as well as his gabby, sometimes oblivious mourners.

Knocko, you see, was not a man of sterling character in life: “A little runt of a man….Thin as a snake…and mean as a panther.” These ways did not win people to his side: indeed, “If friendship with Knocko were to be the basis for attendance at his wake, it could have been held in a phone booth."

But Knocko’s wife—a “grand woman” who had been good friends with Skeffington’s own wife—belonged to the mayor’s social circle. And so, the mayor came to the service of a man he had no use for—and, along the way, he and his men cemented allegiances and exchanged information essential to any cohesive unit such as theirs.

How did Richard I of Chicago employ the wake as a political intelligence activity--in much the same way as his son (something Osnos’ article clearly implies)? How does it differ from Skeffington’s method? I wish Osnos had delved into this at least a bit. The anecdote lingers, endlessly suggestive on the ways, far less obvious than money exchanges, by which a well-oiled political operation works…

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Maureen O’Hara, On Her Ethnic Legacy)

“Do you realize what you’re trying to do to my children and grandchildren? You’re taking away their right to boast about their wonderful Irish mother and grandmother.”—Actress Maureen O’Hara, after telling a judge she couldn’t accept American citizenship because she had been mistakenly classified as English instead of Irish on her U.S. citizenship application, quoted in Eileen Murphy, “O’Hara Fights to be Recognized,” Irish Echo, November 4-10, 2009

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” Published)

March 16, 1850—Nathaniel Hawthorne, born on the Fourth of July, became the first author of a truly great novel with an American setting and themes with The Scarlet Letter, which was published on this date by William D. Ticknor & Co. (later renamed Ticknor & Fields).

His classic—expanded, at the suggestion of his publisher, from a short story into longer form—described one quintessentially American dilemma—the conflict between community mores and individual freedom—and was written in the face of another with particular relevance today: how to make money when you’ve lost your job.

Unlike 21st-century Americans, Hawthorne did not lose his job because of lying, cheating Wall Street types but because of lying, cheating political hacks. True, he wasn’t the convivial type in his post at the Salem Customs House. But, as Louise Hall Tharp noted in The Peabody Sisters of Salem, Hawthorne was innocent of the unsubstantiated complaints used to oust him from his job: that he had preferred fellow Democrats to Whigs; that his writings were overtly political; and even that he had been “loafing around with hard drinkers.”

Remarkably, the loss of employment freed Hawthorne to pursue his bliss. In six weeks, wearing what wife Sophia called the “shining look” he had in the throes of creative inspiration, he had crafted a “romance” (a term he preferred to “novel”) carefully plotted, deep with psychological overtones, and pointing the way toward a different form of national fiction that exchanged the simple form of allegory for the more ambiguous but richer mode of symbolism.

In the last decade, I’ve visited two Massachusetts sites associated with Hawthorne: the “Old Manse” in Concord, occupied by him and Sophia right after they were married, and the “House of the Seven Gables” in Salem, the inspiration for his follow-up to The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne was never really at home anywhere, though. In Concord, he was ideologically unsuited to the Transcendentalist impulse of fellow residents Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott.

And Salem may have been where Hawthorne was born, where he worked (at the Customs House, in the late 1840s) and where the Puritan ancestors who haunted his imagination (including one of the hanging judges of the Witchcraft Trials) had settled. But the novelist wanted to be rid of it at all costs. "I detest this town so much that I hate to go into the streets or to have the people see me,” he wrote.

That’s the kind of Gloomy Gus the melancholic writer was. Why was he so sensitive about having “the people see me”? A large proportion of those people, I gather, were women so startled by his good looks that they had to restrain themselves from openly staring. I can just hear all my male readers saying, “I don’t understand—what’s the problem with that?”

A college professor of mine who taught Hawthorne in an American literature class posted in his office a cartoon that depicted a crowd of Puritan women with dour faces and scarlet A’s on the breasts of their gowns—except for one female at the center, smelling broadly. She had an A+.

The humor aside, The Scarlet Letter features one of the most vibrant heroines in our entire national canon. In the triangle involving Hester Prynne, her lover, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and her husband Roger Chillingworth, Hester alone emerges as persistently resilient, brave and unrevengful.

In her collective biography of the Concord literati, American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever offers up editor and pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller as a possible model for Hester. Both women were outsiders because of scandalous affairs that produced children out of wedlock, but by the time he wrote his novel Hawthorne looked on Fuller with a good less sympathy than he did his fictional heroine.

A character is often far more an admixture of different real-life elements than biographers might admit. For certain aspects of Hester’s persona—her deep and abiding passion, her selflessness, the sense of initiative that sustains a sensitive, haunted lover—Hawthorne need have looked no further than Sophia.

This talented artist from a progressive family devoted herself to Hawthorne's needs and those of their three children. No better example can be found than in her reaction to her husband’s dismissal from his job.

Sophia more than fulfilled Nathaniel’s expectation that she would take the bad news “better than a man.” Once he finished telling her, according to Tharp, she opened up a drawer in her desk and presented him with $150, which she had managed to save through creating lamp shades and fire screens. She assured him that additional household economies she would practice would keep them going.

And so it occurred. Hawthorne was able to concentrate on a work that sold out its first-edition run of 2,500 copies in a mere two weeks, and that remains an indispensable text on the sinful, morally murky American past, with sins--sexuality that creates individual chaos, vengefulness and hypocrisy in the larger community--difficult, perhaps impossible, to expiate.