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.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. John XXIII, on Jesus and ‘The Law of Love’)

“God has engraved his law on men’s hearts; he has revealed it through Moses. It is a strict law, and sometimes it may seem a hard one. But when Jesus, the Redeemer of the world, came down to join us he explained it and made it gentler, giving it a new, fascinating and appealing character. It is the law of love, of forgiveness, of wise judgment; it is the law of forbearance, according to the various circumstances, always provided that there be no question of violating the Lord’s commandment. Therefore the true Christian, serving one master only, is on the right road and has nothing to fear.”—St. John XXIII (1881-1963), Days of Devotion: Daily Meditations From the Good Shepherd, translated by Dorothy White, edited by John P. Donnelly (1967, reprinted 1996)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Photo of the Day: A Break From a Dreary Sky

It doesn’t sound very extreme, but throughout the morning and half this afternoon, my area of northern New Jersey was in the grip of a gray drizzle. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the droplets from the sky ceased, and I waited impatiently for the sun.

When the sky opened at last, I made a break for it. My restless spirit took me on a 20-minute drive to Pascack Brook County Park. As I neared the entrance to the 79-acre park, the combination of the sun and the snow left on the ground produced a white curtain of light rising from the still-icebound pond.

Had the sun come out earlier, I’m sure throngs would have lined the path encircling the pond. Still, I didn’t mind. The few walkers who did turn out made me smile, consisting as they were of parents with very young kids and dog owners with very small pooches. (I mean, small enough to deposit in a handbag, had they wanted.)

Puddles were as deep as they were widespread, but no matter: It was worth it to bolt out the door, take a drive, and come away with this photographic memory of how I seized the day.

Quote of the Day (Tommy Lasorda, Assessing His Catcher’s Speed)

“If he raced his pregnant wife, he’d finish third.”—Los Angeles Dodgers manager and Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda (1927-2021), on catcher Mike Scioscia, quoted in Houston Mitchell, “The Late Tommy Lasorda Was Known As Much for His Quotes As for His Managerial Acumen,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 8, 2021

I was going to use another quote from the late Dodger legend—one of those classic locker-room inspirational mottoes. But as soon as I saw this one—well, let’s just say I knew I had spotted a winner!

(The image accompanying this post, showing the retired Lasorda in his honorary capacity as spring training manager, was taken March 12, 2010, by Djh57.)

Friday, February 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Archibald MacLeish, on Hate and the Threat to ‘The American Idea’)

“America cannot survive if the American idea is repudiated. Nations are not made by territory, or the greatness of nations by extent of land. Nations are made by commitments of mind and loyalties of heart, and the nobler the commitment of the mind, the higher the loyalty of the heart, the greater the nation. If the American proposition is no longer the proposition to which the American heart and mind were committed at our beginning, then America is finished, and the only question left is when America will fall.”—American poet-statesman Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “Must We Hate?”, The Atlantic, February 1963

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Munsters,’ As Grandpa Explains Why Herman Blundered Around in His Dungeon)

“Schnooks rush in where angels fear to tread.”— Grandpa [played by Al Lewis], to daughter Lily, on how son-in-law Herman sneaked into around the lab in his dungeon, setting off a lightning bolt that “disfigured” him (i.e., made him look like a human being), in The Munsters, Season 2, Episode 17, “Just Another Pretty Face,” original air date Jan. 13, 1966, teleplay by Richard Baer, directed by Gene Reynolds

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Photo of the Day: New Jersey’s Big Melt

Throughout the past month—and especially after the blizzard that afflicted my area a few weeks ago—New Jersey residents have been praying for an end to the cold and snowy weather. Judging from the last few days, that request now seems to have gone straight from our lips to God’s ear.

All around my house, for instance, the height of the snowbanks I erected out of necessity a few weeks ago—and kept adding to every couple of days with several more inches—has now noticeably diminished. It was even more apparent this afternoon in one of my favorite places for walking, Overpeck County Park, near me in Bergen County NJ.

As you can see from this photo I took, the sun was out strong, creating puddles everywhere. Thankfully, the snow has been able to melt gradually, over a few days, so that we have not been beset by a flood to follow the blizzard.

A meteorologist on the news channel I watch said early tonight that we should get average to warmer temperatures compared with the seasonal norm over the next 10 days.  That should help keep our reservoir from going dry, at least for a while.

Only one “weather event” at a time, please! Okay?

Quote of the Day (John Sayles, on Writing Screenplays With Budgets in Mind)

“[When writing for independent film producer Roger Corman], [h]e would always say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about the budget.’ Then the poor directors would come squealing, ‘I’ve only got $800,000 to shoot this thing!’ I wrote a science-fiction movie for [director] James Cameron. The fun with that was that anything I could think up, if he liked it, he would invent it. Even if the technology didn’t exist. He’s so good at that stuff that there were no restraints in the storytelling. When I’m writing for myself, though, it’s different. For instance, the movie I’m about to make in Mexico is half in Spanish. The minute you have any subtitles in a movie, you’re talking about a much smaller potential audience. So you have to worry about what it’s going to cost. The minute you have any kind of action or adventure in a movie you probably increase your chances of selling it overseas, and so you can think about a little bit more of a budget. Of course, action-adventure usually costs more to make.”—Screenwriter-director-actor John Sayles quoted in “Back to Craft: David Goldsmith Speaks With John Sayles,” Creative Screenwriting, Volume 9, #4 (2002)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (William Butler Yeats, on How ‘Love is the Crooked Thing’)

“Oh, love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,  
For he would be thinking of love  
Till the stars had run away,  
And the shadows eaten the moon.”—Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet-playwright William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), “The Young Man's Song,” in Responsibilities and Other Poems (1916)

(Thanks to my friend Peter for bringing these wonderful verses to my attention.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

This Day in Literary History (Death of John Keats, Romantic Poet Who Influenced Fitzgerald)

Feb. 23, 1821—John Keats, an apothecary student who, in just a few years, switched to writing some of the most heavily anthologized verses of any poet, died at age 25 in Rome, where he had come for relief that winter from the tuberculosis ravaging his lungs.

Keats’ truncated life and his requested epitaph on the tombstone he asked not to bear his name (“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”) fostered a posthumous image of an essential sickly, solitary, and melancholy spirit. That image only hardened with the dissemination of the more famous of his 54 poems, which emphasize deep self-consciousness, as well as the publication of the great elegy by friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adonais.”

To a large extent, that image was at variance with the facts. The 240 letters of his to family and friends that survive reveal a livelier, more antic—and, I would argue, more attractive—spirit.

Touched by the deaths of, in turn, his father, mother, and younger brother, Keats was all too familiar with the concept of living on borrowed time, and he emerged from these traumatic experiences not just uncoiled but unleashed on the world, with a demonic energy that led him to master, in turn, his literary studies at the boys’ academy at Enfield, medical studies at Guy’s Hospital, and in-depth reading of the likes of Spenser, Drayton, Milton, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and his friend Leigh Hunt that led him to create what recent biographer Lucaster Miller calls his “vertiginous originality.”

His correspondence also demonstrates that, far from being the sensitive “Adonais” envisioned by Shelley, Keats rebounded nicely from negative reviews of his “Hyperion” (1818).

Besides his undoubted wizardry with words, there is another reason why Keats fascinates me: this most intensely lyrical of English poets influenced the most intensely lyrical of American novelists, my literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, the title of his second-best novel, Tender is the Night, is drawn from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.”

(This YouTube clip has the novelist reading the poem, with considerable feeling.)

In addition to the poet’s lush, sensuous imagery, Fitzgerald may have felt an affinity with his life. As outlined in Jonathan Bate’s braided biography of the two, Bright Star, Green Light, the resemblances include the following:

*Young manhoods reached in convulsive wars: the tail-end of the Napoleonic conflict in Keats’ case, World War I in Fitzgerald’s;

*Youthful exclusion from the privileged classes: for Keats, as a Cockney orphan; for Fitzgerald, as a Roman Catholic son of a father who could not bring his wife the financial security brought by his father, a rich grocer;

*Muses both bewitching and torturing: for Keats, Fanny Brawne, the young woman next door, whom he wanted desperately to wed but couldn’t do so without the money; for Fitzgerald, not one but two: Ginevra King, a pretty socialite believed to be the model for the elusive Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, then Zelda Sayre, whom he did marry, only to become entwined in their mutual tragedy;

* Obsessions with beauty, loss and the evanescent moment: For Keats, brought on by intimations of the mortality of family members and himself; for Fitzgerald, by the striving for wealth and tragic sense that its attainment brought not so much happiness but instead waste and corruption.

(On the Web site “Interesting Literature,” guest blogger Laura Inman offers an unusual take on Keats as a Stoic philosopher who came to believe that this program would, in Inman’s words, offer “a program for achieving a tranquil life that finds value in adversity.”)

Quote of the Day (Anthony Trollope, on England’s ‘Perils of Winter’)

“The comic almanacs give us dreadful pictures of January and February; but, in truth, the months which should be made to look gloomy in England are March and April. Let no man boast himself that he has got through the perils of winter till at least the seventh of May.” —English novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), Doctor Thorne (1858)

Monday, February 22, 2021

Quote of the Day (Clive James, on the Ghastly Barbara Cartland)

“Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”—Australian man of letters Clive James (1939-2019), on a TV appearance by romance novelist Barbara Cartland (pictured), “Wedding of the Century,” in Clive James on Television: Classics From the Observer, 1972-1982 (2017)

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Photo of the Day: Fountain, Saddle River County Park, Ridgewood NJ

Many times over the past couple of decades, I’ve circled the wild duck pond in Saddle River County Park, north of where I live in Bergen County, NJ. But until this afternoon, I had never done so while so much of the surroundings in this suburban arcadia were taken up by snow and ice.

Most of the pond, it turned out, was still frozen over. But after two days when the thermometer exceeded 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the small northern part of the water had opened up, concentrating the attention of walkers like me, in a way it never had been in the non-frigid seasons of the year, on this fountain.

So I eagerly photographed this moment in time, this promise of better things, so needed now, in this season of death, in this region and even this country.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on Gratitude and the Richness of Life)

"In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich. It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others."—German Lutheran theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition, edited by Eberhard Bethge (1997)

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Song Lyric of the Day (Jimmy Webb, on the Resilience and Reincarnation of the ‘Highwayman’)

“I'll fly a starship
Across the universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again.”—American singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb, “Highwayman,” released on his El Mirage LP (1977)

Jimmy Webb’s song, which came to him in a dream, did not score a hit for him or good friend Glen Campbell. But its four stanzas allowed solos for mutual friends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, who not only used it to climb the charts but also as the inspiration for their own country supergroup, the Highwaymen.

The aging and mortality at the heart of the song now figure into the fate of the quartet who recorded it. Cash and Jennings have already passed, and earlier this month the 84-year-old Kristofferson announced his retirement, leaving Nelson—who will turn 87 two months from now—as the last man standing.

In times past, a legend like Kristofferson might have concluded his career with a lengthy, lucrative concert tour. But COVID-19 has altered these plans, like so many others.

In what form will the Highwaymen exist after death? Who knows? It’s impossible to say if either traditional forms of Heaven or Webb’s notion of reincarnation will come to pass. (It may be especially difficult for Kristofferson, who—as the blogger at “Saving Country Music” reminds us in an affectionate post-retirement tribute—has been a Rhodes Scholar, military officer, helicopter pilot, Army Ranger, songwriter, singer, and actor.)

But country music’s Highwaymen—“wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,” to borrow Dylan Thomas’ phrase—might encounter a different afterlife given to only a few: musical immortality. Would Kristofferson ever have dreamed, for instance, that “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Me and Bobby McGee” would still be played?

But here they are, roughly 50 years after he recorded them, and the lyrics are also being sung by new artists. The odds are good that they will continue to be, long, long after he and Nelson “reach the other side” to join Cash and Jennings.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Quote of the Day (David Blight, on America’s Two Rights Revolutions and Their Reverses)

“Today, Americans live in a country forged by Reconstruction and remade again by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the profound social movements that forced their passage. Pluralism and equality were born and reborn in those two revolutions, which took place a century apart. But the events of recent years, especially during the Trump era, serve as a reminder that no change is necessarily permanent and no law can itself save protect Americans from their own worst impulses: racism, nativism, authoritarianism, greed. The past few years have revealed the potency of sheer grievance, whether born of genuine economic travail or ludicrous conspiracy theories. It should be clear to all now that history does not end and is not necessarily going to any particular place or bending in an inevitable arc toward justice or anything else.”—Yale historian David W. Blight, “The Reconstruction of America: Justice, Power, and the Civil War’s Unfinished Business,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2021

(The image accompanying this post is an engraving of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a post-Civil War attempt to help millions of former black slaves and poor whites in the South.)

TV Quote of the Day (‘Veep,’ As Selina Weighs an Upcoming Vote)

Mike McLintock [played by Matt Walsh]: “Which way are you going to vote?”

Vice President Selina Meyer [played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus]: “The way my principles and conscience tell me to go.”

Amy Brookheimer [played by Anna Chlumsky]: “...Ok...”

Selina: “Which way do you think that should be?”— Veep, Season 1, Episode 5, “Nicknames,” original air date May 20, 2012, teleplay by Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci, directed by Tristram Shapeero 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jane Lubchenco, on How the U.S. Can Move ‘Beyond Polarization of Science’)

“A vibrant democracy requires informed citizens. Decision makers will typically consider a range of factors—values, economics, politics, and opinions of peers or family. But science should also be at the table. Opportunities to participate in science can help demystify science and make it more accessible. Seeing how it is used in making decisions can help the nation move beyond polarization of science. Messages and actions from the country’s leader matter.”—Oregon State University environmental scientist and marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, “Restoring Expertise: Four Ways President Biden Can Bring Expertise to the U.S. Government,” Scientific American, February 2021

Song Lyric of the Day (George Strait, Anticipating the Current Texas State of Mind)

“Amarillo by morning
Up from San Antone
Everything that I've got
Is just what I've got on.” —Country music singer George Strait, “Amarillo By Morning,” written by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser, covered by Strait and released on his LP Strait from the Heart (1982)

Just before I wrote this, I googled current weather conditions in Texas and found it was 32 degrees in San Antonio and 10 degrees in San Antonio. And that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius.

Over the last few weeks, my neck of the woods, in northern New Jersey, has been pelted with one snowstorm after another. (Come to think of it, that’s exactly what’s happening right now.) But Texas is another matter. Nobody expected what they’re getting now, so nobody prepared for it.

So yesterday, we had front-page headlines from both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about the deep freeze that has massively disrupted the state’s electricity grid, forcing many out of their homes in search of a warm place to stay. The mayor of Colorado City in the Lone Star State has even felt the need to resign, after constituents took serious offense to his Facebook post disclaiming the local government’s responsibility to help in the emergency, climaxing with the Darwinian suggestion that “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish (sic)."

In the 1970s, many state drivers, disdaining speed limits as a means of energy conservation, sported the bumper sticker, “Drive 80 and freeze a Yankee.” How many ever dreamed that they themselves might freeze?

So, I guess Strait, singing the above lyric by Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser, anticipated the privation and even desperation produced by the current crisis. There’s one thing he didn’t expect, however: in this auto-centric state, the man in his song might not even be able to get on the road with all the traffic accidents. Who would ever expect the Texas Department of Transportation to issue a winter storm advisory to stay off the roads?

It is hard not to read all the news articles and social media chatter without seriously worrying about what is going on down there. So pray for Texans—very much including those on the road from “San Antone” to Amarillo.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (Walt Whitman, on How ‘Every Hour of the Light and Dark is a Miracle’)

“To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is
  spread with the same,
Every cubic foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs,
  of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.”—American poet and editor Walt Whitman (1819-1892), “Poem of Perfect Miracles,” in Leaves of Grass (1856 edition)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ As Barney Recalls Reading in Childhood)

Deputy Barney Fife [played by Don Knotts]: “I read all them childish classics. I was an avaricious reader.” —The Andy Griffith Show, Season 4, Episode 12, Opie and His Merry Men,” original air date Dec. 30, 1963, teleplay by John Whedon, directed by Richard Crenna

Monday, February 15, 2021

Quote of the Day (Abraham Lincoln, on Influencing People Through ‘Kind Unassuming Persuasion’)

“When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and true maxim that 'a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.' So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing him of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause is really a good one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than herculean force and precision, you shall be no more able to pierce him than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interests.”—Future U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), “Address Before the Springfield Washingtonian Temperance Society,” Feb. 22, 1842, in The Papers and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume One: Constitutional Edition, edited by Arthur Brooks Lapsley (1905)

Unfortunately, this sound advice was ignored by too many of Lincoln’s countrymen in his own time—and, I’m afraid, events are proving, in our own.

Happy Presidents Day!

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Photo of the Day: View From Terrace, Edith Wharton’s ‘The Mount,’ Lenox MA

Nothing about Edith Wharton ever feels old and tired for me—not her luminous fiction, not the details of her life, and not her the home in which she lived toward the start of the 20th century, The Mount in Lenox, MA.

While here in this beautiful estate, Wharton wrote the first books that secured her reputation, The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.

But tonight on TCM, as I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1993 meticulously filmed adaptation of her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, it was easier to imagine the restless aristocrats played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder taking tea inside this beautiful home, gathering in its cozy library to puzzle out their romantic destinies—or, in the photo I took here while on vacation in this Berkshire landmark in late August 2017, strolling about in the garden just off the back terrace, perhaps in a crowd brought together for a wedding or archery contest, but isolated by their powerlessness to reach their elusive country of personal freedom.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Dorothy Day, on How People Pray ‘Through the Witness of Their Lives’)

“Does God have a set way of prayer, a way that he expects each of us to follow? I doubt it. I believe some people—lots of people—pray through the witness of their lives, through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people. Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?” — American journalist, social activist and Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day (1897-1980), The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus, edited by Carolyn Kurtz (2017)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

This Day in Art History (Death of Benvenuto Cellini, Celebrated, Scandalous Renaissance Man)

Feb. 13, 1571— Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier, and musician who chronicled his multiple creative interests and tumultuous escapades in a frank and celebrated autobiography, died at age 70 of pleurisy in his native Florence.

“Renaissance man” has come to be shorthand for a prodigiously talented individual who engages in multiple pursuits. But, aside from Michelangelo, who wrote commendable poetry, and Giorgio Vasari, a pioneering biographer, no other great craftsman of the period besides Cellini left a literary record that could be mentioned in the same breath as his visual one.

Unlike Michelangelo (who wrote verses on an unnamed love) and Vasari (who focused on other artists), Cellini was a born raconteur, holding forth in characteristic hot-tempered, boastful, witty, and loyal fashion on himself and, to a lesser extent, his views on the theory of art. He vented about his adventures voluminously, over nearly a decade, in his La Vita di Benvenuto di maestro Giovanni Cellini (“The Life of Benvenuto Cellini”)—and still hadn’t completed the project at his death, as he interspersed this with more than one hundred poems, two treatises on goldsmithing and sculpture, and several discourses on art.

Ironically, while defending his visual primacy among his peers (at a time when his contentious personality had sidelined him from new commissions), Cellini furnished a strong counterargument: that his real talent lay with the written word, rather than with his products as a goldsmith and sculptor.

In one chapter of his autobiography, Cellini catalogues his meticulous preparation for his bronze “Perseus” sculpture, followed by a description of how he save his creation from destruction by fire and was congratulated by his assistants for helping them to have “learned and seen things done which other masters judged impossible.”  

But the artist can’t leave it at that: he must also write how the two men he suspected of trying to sabotage his latest masterwork said “was no man, but of a certainty some powerful devil, since I had accomplished what no craft of the art could do; indeed they did not believe a mere ordinary fiend could work such miracles as I in other ways had shown.”

At this late stage of the Renaissance, readers are beholding a new kind of artistic consciousness: a man unapologetically basking in his personal glory. Cellini has presented not just an advertisement for himself in his own time, but for his undying fame in the eyes of posterity.

His autobiography offers up a new persona: a creator passionately committed to his art, cynical in his fashion (“When the poor give to the rich, the devil laughs,” he recalled the wife of a rich Roman banker telling him), and defiant of conventional morality. He even surpassed Caravaggio, whose aggressiveness (hitting waiters, slandering rivals) climaxed in flight from Rome for killing a man in a street fight. Cellini openly admitted to three killings: of his brother’s murderer, a rival goldsmith, and an innkeeper. Only the protection of Popes Clement VII and Paul III saved him from punishment.

(There were some limits to Cellini’s alarming candor: contemporary mores meant that he could cop to vainglory and murder, but not to bisexuality, even though several indictments and even convictions for sodomy were path of his rap sheet in both Italy and France.)

Other Renaissance artists have inspired novels and/or films (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, Caravaggio in Derek Jarman’s 1986 movie named for the painter). But how many such figures have become the subject of operas?

Yet Cellini has—not once, but twice, in Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns’s Ascanio and Hector Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. The dramatic, even over-the-top, elements of the artist’s personality lend themselves to the genre. Nevertheless, it would have disappointed the ego-driven Florentine that neither opera has entered the canon of musical theater (though the overture of Berlioz’s work is frequently performed in concert halls by orchestras, as seen in this YouTube clip).

For a fascinating overview of Cellini’s life, see Harold Sack’s November 2019 post from the blog SciHi (i.e., “Science, Technology and Art in History”).

(The self-portrait of Cellini in the image accompanying my post is a sketch now held in the Royal Library in Turin, believed to have been drawn sometime between 1540 and 1543.)

Quote of the Day (Samuel Johnson, on Gratitude)

“Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.”—English man of letters Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

The image accompanying this post is a portrait of Dr. Johnson by his friend, the English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792).

Friday, February 12, 2021

Quote of the Day (Phyllis McGinley, on Reasoning With a Six-Year-Old)

“I call that parent rash and wild
Who’d reason with a six-year child,
Believing little twigs are bent
By calm, considered argument.

“In bandying words with progeny,
There’s no percentage I can see,
And people who, imprudent, do so,
Will wonder how their troubles grew so.”— Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), “The Velvet Hand,” in Times Three: Selected Verses From Three Decades (1961)

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Quote of the Day (Catherine Deneuve, on the ‘Charming’ Burt Reynolds)

“He was a charming man. He had a great sense of humour. I remember going to his trailer and everything was monogrammed. He said: 'If I could have, I would have put it on my toilet paper.'”—French actress Catherine Deneuve, on working with Burt Reynolds on Hustle, quoted in Nick Foulkes, “I Was a Symbol, I Suppose,” The Financial Times, Jan. 12-13, 2019

Burt Reynolds—born on this day 85 years ago in Lansing, Mich.—occupies a niche in film somewhere between Steve McQueen and George Clooney, two other actors who made the transition from TV regular to big-screen star. Reynolds possessed considerably more skill and self-mocking humor than McQueen, but did not display often enough Clooney’s ambition and daring. At its best, his career amply reflected his laid-back charm, but at the time of his death in 2018, I was dismayed that it could have been so much more.

The dominant theme of Reynolds’ career was a refusal to take the game seriously, starting with his appearance in Cosmopolitan Magazine, where he wore a grin and little else. It was burnished by approximately 60 Tonight Show appearances in which he might say or do anything—shaving half his moustache, spraying whip cream down Johnny Carson’s pants, even joking about how bad some of his films were.

He certainly appeared in movies that any actor would have been proud to have made—notably Deliverance (the one that put him on the map), Starting Over (my favorite of his, when he was inexplicably deprived of an Oscar nomination), and Boogie Nights (which did get him a nomination, along with a short-lived second comeback). But out of 63 films—and given the power he enjoyed at his career height—that list seems paltry.

Every actor in the business long enough will have stinkers in his resume, so Reynolds can’t be faulted for that. An entertainer also makes the most of his assets, and Reynolds maximized his good looks and that ever-present twinkle in his eyes, to such an extent that he ranked only behind Robert Redford as the top male box-office star of the 1970s, according to the Web site Ultimate Movie Rankings.

So, why did his star sink in the Eighties? Several factors account for it, I think:

*Taking the easy paycheck and easy way out. In one sense, Reynolds only mirrored what Hollywood as a whole has done, increasingly so in recent years: go for the seemingly easy score, especially through sequels. Make Smokey and the Bandit? Fine. But by the time he got to Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, the well had surely run dry. The same thing happened with Cannonball Run II. It didn’t help that his screen persona carried over insistently, with little variation, to yet other films.

*Poor career choices. Reynolds admitted he made a big mistake in turning down the chance to appear as James Bond, but his errors didn’t end there. A 2018 article in Variety catalogued roles that others rode to career triumphs, including Harrison Ford (Star Wars), Richard Gere (Pretty Woman), Bruce Willis (Die Hard), and Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest AND Terms of Endearment—both of which won the actor the Oscar that forever eluded Reynolds).

*Bad health. While filming City Heat with old buddy Clint Eastwood, Reynolds suffered a broken jaw when he was hit in the face with a metal chair. Instead of going to the hospital, he took painkillers. Before he received a diagnosis of temporomandibular disorder and was treated appropriately, he lost considerable weight, leading to rumors that he had AIDS. That put an additional chill on his career prospects for two crucial years in the mid-1980s.

*Sexism. The Cosmopolitan photo session that made Reynolds notorious—and, he suggested with some justification later, kept him from being taken more seriously—may have been sparked when the magazine’s editor, Helen Gurley Brown, taunted him by asking him before a Tonight Show audience if he was sexist. (Later, off camera, she made the offer of the session, according to Brooke Hauser’s 2016 biography of Brown, Enter Helen.) Moreover, as I discussed in this prior post on the making of the disastrous Switching Channels, Reynolds exacerbated what already promised to be a complicated production by telling co-star Kathleen Turner “something about not taking second place to a woman,” as she recalled. With her star then in the ascendant and his close to nadir, it was a foolish thing to say and irredeemably disrupted their chemistry on the film.

Maybe the best concise description of Reynolds, with all his virtues and faults as an actor, came in this statement, released after his death, from TV showrunners Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who created their early ‘90s comedy Evening Shade for him: “Burt won the Emmy for best actor during our first season. He was sweet, brash, exasperating, hot-tempered, generous and wickedly talented. To be sure, it was a wild ride. R.I.P. Burt. May your star never go out."

I’m afraid it has already dimmed, though, and it may continue to do so.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Photo of the Day: Making Themselves at Home

With two sizable dumps of snow over the last two weeks—and only minimal melting, and pedestrians disinclined to cut across icy green expanses—these creatures found a welcome environment in Veterans Park, a short walk from where I live in Englewood, NJ. When I saw they weren’t objecting, I took the attached photo

Quote of the Day (Victor Hugo, on Misery and Humanity in Different Classes)

“There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.”—French novelist-poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Les Miserables (1862)

(The image accompanying this post shows Fredric March as Jean Valjean in the 1935 film adaptation of Les Miserables, co-starring Charles Laughton as nemesis Inspector Javert.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Appreciations: Christopher Plummer, Prince of Players

“No matter what I do between, the stage always beckons and gets me every time. I suppose it's because there are no tedious retakes, no endless waiting, no cutting-room floor upon which I can end up. Once on the stage, we are thrown to the lions, no barrier comes down between us and the mob; everything is exposed, dangerous and now."—Canadian Tony- and Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer (1929-2021), In Spite of Myself: A Memoir (2008)

The death this past weekend of Christopher Plummer at age 91 concluded a career lengthy and storied enough to land his passing on the front page of The New York Times.

Like Falstaff (the one role he scoffed at playing in his last years because it required a fat suit), Plummer had many a time “heard the chimes at midnight.” Indeed, it was nothing short of miraculous that he survived into his nineties.

Reading In Spite of Myself is likely to induce in a reader the worst case of drunkenness by osmosis since Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Plummer was such a champion hell-raiser that around 20 years ago, when I visited the place that thrust him into the spotlight in the 1950s, the Stratford Festival, one aficionado of the longtime Canadian theater institution was still shaking his head over a drinking binge by the actor from years before.

With his keen intelligence, matinee-idol looks, vigorous libido, and epic thirst, Plummer could have easily sunk into sodden self-parody as John Barrymore had. But he credited his third and last wife, Elaine, with curbing his wild ways, and he proceeded to do much of his best work well into old age.

Unlike, say, Nathan Lane, whom I blogged about last week, Plummer had a significant film career. Early on, he appeared in the most high-profile vehicle imaginable, the blockbuster musical The Sound of Music (which he insisted afterward on terming The Sound of Mucus).

Although he felt his role as Captain Von Trapp to be woefully wooden and thin, he found later parts far more suited to his talents, including in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King; a personal favorite of mine, the Sherlock Holmes thriller Murder by Decree; and three films that netted Oscar nominations, The Last Station, All the Money in the World, and Beginners (the last of which earned him the coveted trophy, at age 82, making him the oldest actor ever to win the Academy Award for supporting actor).

But it was the stage, with its audiences reacting, its rich classic texts by Shakespeare, Sophocles, Rostand and Shaw, and its never-to-be repeated moments, that clearly catalyzed Plummer. His transatlantic theater appearances were sensations.

Much to my regret, I missed Plummer on the three different times I visited Stratford in the 1990s and 2000s. But I caught him on Broadway in the winter of 1982, and it wasn’t just any play. It was Othello, a production of fire (James Earl Jones, as the Moor of Venice) and ice (Plummer, in perhaps the greatest of all villain roles, Iago).

New York Times critic Walter Kerr called Plummer’s Iago “quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time.” I was hardly prepared to argue that point. I barely noticed then an up-and-coming young actor named Kelsey Grammar as the easily gulled Cassio, and, despite the admiration of Jones and Plummer, had little use for Diane Wiest as Desdemona. Instead, I was intent on how Plummer’s Iago devised his intricate spider’s web to ensnare Jones’ Othello.

That February night, as Plummer let his resonant voice drop as Iago vowed to turn Desdemona’s “virtue into pitch,” the atmosphere in the Winter Garden Theatre turned darker and chillier than what awaited us on the street.

That production, which began at Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Theatre, was booked for a limited Broadway run but was so popular had to be extended twice. Nevertheless, all was not well backstage.

The problems began in initial rehearsals, according to Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, when the original director, Peter Coe, was sacked, after his impolite suggestion to Jones that “Mr. Plummer is mopping the floor with you.” A new director, Zoe Caldwell, on good terms with both leads, dissipated much of the animosity, but the issue Coe identified remained: Plummer was, astonishingly enough, “mopping the floor” with Jones.

During the play's run, I heard scuttlebutt that Jones was annoyed by Plummer. In his memoir, Plummer, while praising his co-star’s “great authority” in the role, thought he had decided to “restrain and underplay the great moments of surging poetry.” Nor did it help that Jones objected to the unexpected laughs that Plummer elicited.

How much did this barely suppressed bristling reflect honest differences in interpreting the play? How much derived from the leads’ egos? In the end, it didn’t matter. Those like myself fortunate enough to witness one of those shows will remember how an old play took on new life amid this clash of theatrical titans.

Jones shouldn’t have felt badly about coming off second best to Plummer. Over 60 years in the theater, the Canadian channeled his flamboyance and astuteness into a well-earned reputation as an international prince of players. He brought to his craft an abiding love, realizing that acting had:

“…taught me music, poetry, painting and dance; it has introduced me to the big bad world outside; it has made me face rejection; it has taught me humour in its blackest and gentlest forms; it has made me think; it has even taught me about love. It has shown me the majesty of language, the written word in all its glory, and it has taught me above all that there is no such thing as perfection -- that in the arts, there are no rules, no restrictions, no limits -- only infinity."

(The photo accompanying this post shows Christopher Plummer at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, September 2007. Source: ; author: gdcgraphics at )