Sunday, October 31, 2021

Halloween Horror Treat: Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’

“The Reverend Murdoch Soulis was long minister of the moorland parish of Balweary, in the vale of Dule. A severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful to his hearers, he dwelt in the last years of his life, without relative or servant or any human company, in the small and lonely manse under the Hanging Shaw. In spite of the iron composure of his features, his eye was wild, scared, and uncertain; and when he dwelt, in private admonitions, on the future of the impenitent, it seemed as if his eye pierced through the storms of time to the terrors of eternity. Many young persons, coming to prepare themselves against the season of the Holy Communion, were dreadfully affected by his talk. He had a sermon on 1st Peter, v. and 8th, 'The devil as a roaring lion,' on the Sunday after every seventeenth of August, and he was accustomed to surpass himself upon that text both by the appalling nature of the matter and the terror of his bearing in the pulpit. The children were frightened into fits, and the old looked more than usually oracular, and were, all that day, full of those hints that Hamlet deprecated. The manse itself, where it stood by the water of Dule among some thick trees, with the Shaw overhanging it on the one side, and on the other many cold, moorish hilltops rising towards the sky, had begun, at a very early period of Mr. Soulis's ministry, to be avoided in the dusk hours by all who valued themselves upon their prudence; and guidmen sitting at the clachan alehouse shook their heads together at the thought of passing late by that uncanny neighbourhood. There was one spot, to be more particular, which was regarded with especial awe. The manse stood between the high road and the water of Dule, with a gable to each; its back was towards the kirk-town of Balweary, nearly half a mile away; in front of it, a bare garden, hedged with thorn, occupied the land between the river and the road. The house was two stories high, with two large rooms on each. It opened not directly on the garden, but on a causewayed path, or passage, giving on the road on the one hand, and closed on the other by the tall willows and elders that bordered on the stream. And it was this strip of causeway that enjoyed among the young parishioners of Balweary so infamous a reputation. The minister walked there often after dark, sometimes groaning aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayers; and when he was from home, and the manse door was locked, the more daring schoolboys ventured, with beating hearts, to 'follow my leader' across that legendary spot.”—Scottish fiction writer, poet, essayist, and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), “Thrawn Janet,” in The Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Charles Neider (1969)

Some readers are likely to have encountered Robert Louis Stevenson in their childhood, as a poet. Far more people will experience him secondhand, through the many Hollywood adaptations over the years of his adventure novels like Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae.

But I was delighted to find, in adulthood, that he was also a master of short fiction, especially in the horror genre. I blogged previously on “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Body Snatcher.” Equally remarkable in its way is a story I discovered only recently, “Thrawn Janet.”

The quote leading off this post also begins Stevenson’s tale. In its tense sense of atmosphere, it is as powerfully foreboding as anything to be found in the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

It is also, in a sense, a trick—written, unlike the rest of the story, written in conventional English. But the atmosphere of evil is so densely concentrated that readers are dying to know what will occur next.

For the majority of readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect, much of the ensuing tale requires patient, intense concentration. Some translations exist, but I read it slowly—an experience that reminded me of encountering Canterbury Tales in Chaucer’s original Middle English. But dispensing with a translation can be done and is worth the effort.

The unfamiliar verbiage in this short story starts with the first word of the title, a strong but necessary hint about the nature of this tale. “Thrawn” is Scottish for “twisted,” indicating the sinister force in this story.

Just as Stevenson produces a change in narrative direction after the opening, he also effects a change—a “twist,” if you will—in characterization and voice.

The Rev. Soulis, who sounds initially like a Scottish fire-and-brimstone counterpart to one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan divines, was, we learn shortly, a rationalist of Enlightenment bent in his younger days, disbelieving the belief of his congregants that the woman he wants to hire as his housekeeper, Janet, could be a witch.

Horror is about altered mental states after an encounter with the inexplicable. By this standard, the horror of “Thrawn Janet” lies less in Satanic possession of Janet than in the haunted, demon-obsessed minister that Rev. Soulis becomes through his encounter with her.

The image accompanying this post, illustrating Stevenson’s story, is an 1899 etching by the Scottish painter and printmaker William Strang (1859-1921). 

AddamsFest 2021 Concluding in Westfield, NJ

Early last week, finding myself in Westfield, NJ, I started wandering around the downtown of this railroad suburb of New York. Catching sight of the local theater, the Rialto, I was struck by the door illustrations of figures I knew from a TV sitcom of my childhood: Morticia, Gomez, Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, and Grandmama—i.e., the Addams Family. That ghoulish crew appears in the photo I took then that accompanies this post.

The Rialto, as it will be for the last time on Halloween today, was the center that day of AddamsFest2021, centered on the macabre genius of Westfield native Charles Addams, who created the above-mentioned figures in a series of cartoons for The New Yorker.

From that prestigious perch, Addams’ comically bent characters have gone on to appear in the Sixties series starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones as couple Gomez and Morticia; a pair of early 1990s films with Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston in the same roles; a Broadway musical; and, in the last couple of years, two animated features.

For the fourth year, Westfield celebrated Addams with a series of exhibits, family-themed events, and movie screenings (including Addams Family II, which premiered this past weekend at the Rialto). East Broad Street, for instance, became “Morticia Drive” for the past four weeks. There was also Morticia and Gomez's Mask-erade Ball, Charlie's Ale Garden, Addams Family Fun Day, talks on the origins of Addams’ artistry and his life in Westfield, and a joint exhibit of his work with that of “texturalist” Suzanne Heilmann.

When I walked into the Rialto for a peak at this exhibit, the theater included an artwork from Addams’ teens in the late 1920s that prefigured his later fascination with the creepy environment of the Addams family: “Dudley,” a life-size illustrated skeleton that resided for almost a century on the second floor of a barn on the town’s East Dudley Avenue before it was removed for this occasion.

Young Addams found plenty in the environment of Westfield to feed his future work, including cemeteries and scary old Victorian homes that led him to “stare at them for hours imagining the ghosts inside,” he recalled in a 1976 People Magazine profile.

The work of Addams, in a career spanning 50 years, now resides in the permanent collections of The New York Public Library and The Library of Congress. As seen in AddamsFest, Westfield is where it all started. 

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Henri Nouwen, on the Reason for Icons)

“[I]cons … are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.” —Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen (1932-1996), Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons (1987)

Saturday, October 30, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Sopranos,’ on Carmela’s Relationship with Her ‘Good Man’ Tony)

Carmela Soprano
[played by Edie Falco, pictures]: “He's a good man. He's a good father.”
Dr. Krakower [played by Sully Boyar]: “You tell me he's a depressed criminal, prone to anger, serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?... You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You'll never be able to feel good about yourself. You'll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about, so long as you're his accomplice.”
Carmela: “You're wrong about the accomplice part, though.”
Dr. Krakower: “You sure?”
Carmela: “All I did was make sure he's got clean clothes in his closet and dinner on his table.”
Dr. Krakower: “So ‘enable’ would be a more accurate job description for what you do than ‘accomplice.’ My apologies... Take only the children—what's left of them - and go.”
Carmela: “My priest said I should work with him, help him to become a better man.”
Dr. Krakower: “How's that going?”— The Sopranos, Season 3, Episode 7, “Second Opinion,” original air date Apr. 8, 2001, teleplay by Lawrence Konner, directed by Timothy Van Patten
I have not yet seen The Many Saints of Newark and am not sure when I will. But it is hard for me to imagine the prequel to The Sopranos matching the original in quality. The above dialogue, in its emotional anguish and clear-headed moral insight, illustrates why.
The aging Dr. Krakower is one of the few mental-health professionals who recognize early on that it is not possible—certainly not at this stage—to “work with” Tony. 

Carmela is right in only the most limited sense: her husband is capable of love, both towards herself and their children. But that only proves that he is human, not that he can be changed.
Dispensing with the jargon of the latest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Dr. Krakower speaks in old-fashioned terms about guilt, shame, and, without explicitly using the words, “fidelity,” “responsibility” and “complicity.”  
He does not say what viewers increasingly recognize as the series goes on: that, for all her anger at her husband, Carmela will not make the irrevocable decision to leave her husband because, with her beautiful house and the implicit power he gives her to harm others to cross her, she benefits materially from her association with him.

"Blood money," the phrase that the psychiatrist uses to explain that advantageas well as his own refusal to accept her money from this session—inverts the label used by the faith Carmela cites as her thin fig-leaf for sticking with Tony.
There are no monsters as frightening as those that exist in our reality. This Halloween weekend, with geysers of blood spurting on TV sets and across screens, it is worth bearing in mind that Tony Soprano and his kind walk among us.
They might not have been concocted from the lab of a mad scientist, but—through whatever combination of genetics, culture or personality experience—they have become sociopaths, with enormous potential to spread their infection throughout society. (To see the characteristics of this type and how Tony fits it, turn to Alex Li San's 2020 post from Medium, Are You a Psychopath?”)

In fact, Tony’s longtime therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, finally breaks with him when she realizes he not only fits the definition of “sociopath” but also that his very sessions with her have—to borrow Krakower’s term—“enabled” her client.
As a mobster, Tony can wield power unavailable to Dracula, Frankenstein or the Wolf Man: he can direct the resources of a criminal enterprise as far-reaching and populated as any business to affect how people work and even whether they live. But his status only makes him the ultimate example of a particular form of sickness.
Consider that description by Dr. Krakower: “depressed criminal, prone to anger, serially unfaithful.” That describes a brand of toxic masculinity found far more often than just in the netherworld of organized crime. It is also shorthand for the domestic abusers in every socioeconomic niche in American culture.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Song Lyric of the Day (‘The Dick Van Dyke Show,’ on ‘The Joy of Livin’)

“When you find the joy of livin'
Is lovin' and givin'
You'll be there when the winning dice are tossed
“A smile is just a frown that's turned upside down,
So smile, and that frown will defrost
And don't forget to keep your fingers crossed!”—“Theme of The Dick Van Dyke Show,” music by Earle Hagen, lyrics by Morey Amsterdam (1961)
Some years ago, I was astonished to discover that the theme for The Andy Griffith Show had lyrics, and that the familiar tune—whistled on the sitcom by its composer, Earle Hagen—had lyrics. The song, “The Fishin’ Hole,” had even been sung by star Andy Griffith.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, then—but I was!—earlier this month, when I heard another Hagen composition for a beloved TV classic, The Dick Van Dyke Show, sung—with unheard lyrics—by its titular star, Mr. Van Dyke (shown here, with series creator Carl Reiner playing his boss, Allan Brady), in an ad for MeTV.
Griffith sang the lyrics for his show on an album, Themes and Laughs from “The Andy Griffith Show,” in 1961, at the height of the show’s success and his own middle-aged vigor. Van Dyke was in his 90s when he performed his theme song, but the years seemed to fall away as he exhibited his traditional ebullience.
I’m not sure why the words by co-star Morey Amsterdam (who, on the show, played Buddy Sorrell, the friend and writer colleague of main character Rob Petrie) were never heard throughout the sitcom’s five-year run. No matter. It just goes to demonstrate that the award-winning comedy—which, incidentally, premiered 60 years ago this month—still has the capacity, all these years and treasured memories later, to surprise viewers.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Quote of the Day (Cherry Jones, on How Theater Makes People ‘Feel Less Alone’)

“The plays I love and the parts I love are the ones that make people feel less alone. That’s a huge part of great art for me – human beings comforting one another with their shortcomings. That’s what theater does so brilliantly....The celebration of an extraordinary life is not going to make you feel less alone. But the examination of a flawed life or a life gone wrong or a life almost extinguished by shortcomings then brought back from the dead, that’s what makes us feel less alone. I’ve listed all of my shortcomings to you. Now if you would tell me all of yours, we’d have an evening of consolation and laughs. And that’s the theater.”—Tony Award-winning actress Cherry Jones, quoted in Alex Witchel, “Cherry Jones, at the Peak of Her Powers,” The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 22, 2013

The image accompanying this post is a detail of a photo of Cherry Jones taken on Apr. 18, 2009, by Kathleen Tyler Conklin, when Ms. Jones was in Paris, TN, her hometown, to raise funds for the Heritage Center and the Lee Academy of Arts.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Quote of the Day (William Wordsworth, on a Man Out in a Storm)

“One who was suffering tumult in his soul,
Yet failed to seek the sure relief of prayer,
Went forth—his course surrendering to the care
Of the fierce wind, while mid-day lightnings prowl
Insidiously, untimely thunders growl;
While trees, dim-seen, in frenzied numbers, tear
The lingering remnant of their yellow hair,
And shivering wolves, surprised with darkness, howl
As if the sun were not.”—English Poet Laureate William Wordsworth (1770-1850), “Composed During a Storm,” in The Sonnets of William Wordsworth (1838)

With yesterday’s nor’easter—one that, with flash flooding in my area of New Jersey late morning, then a return engagement in the evening—I was grateful to be in my house, and dreading anything even remotely like the damage caused in early September by Hurricane Ida.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Norman Cousins, on ‘The Case for Hope’)

“The case for hope has never rested on provable facts or rational assessment. Hope by its very nature is independent of the apparatus of logic." —Editor-essayist Norman Cousins (1915-1990), “Hope and Practical Realities,” Saturday Review World, Dec. 14, 1974

Monday, October 25, 2021

Quote of the Day (Alexander Pope, on the Obliviousness of Fools)

“Out with it, Dunciad: let the secret pass—
That secret to each fool—that he's an ass.
The truth once told (and whereby should we lie?),
The queen of Midas slept, and so may I.
You think this cruel? Take it for a rule,
No creature smarts so little as a fool.”—English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), An Epistle from Mr. Pope, to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735)

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Joseph Mary Plunkett, on Christ, the Reaper)

“The sun rose up at midnight,
The sun rose red as blood,
It showed the Reaper, the dead Christ,
Upon His cross of wood.
“For many live that one may die,
And one must die that many live—
The stars are silent in the sky
Lest my poor songs be fugitive.”—Irish poet, journalist, and patriotic martyr Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916), “The Stars Sang in God’s Garden,” in Joyce Kilmer’s Anthology of Catholic Poets, with a supplement of more recent poems edited by Shaemas O’Sheel (1939)
(The image accompanying this post, a detail of the painting Christ Crucified, was part of the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, by the late Italian Renaissance master Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594).

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Psycho,’ With a Subtly Suspenseful Sequence)

Milton Arbogast [played by Martin Balsam]: “I'm a private investigator. I've been trying to trace a girl... that's been missing for, oh, about a week now from Phoenix. It's a private matter. The family wants to forgive her. She's not in any trouble.”

Norman Bates [played by Anthony Perkins]: “I didn't think the police went looking for people who aren't in trouble.”

Arbogast: “I'm not the police.”

Norman: “Oh, yeah.”

Arbogast: “We have reason to believe she came along this way. Did she stop here?”

Norman: “No one's stopped here for a couple of weeks.”

Arbogast: “Mind looking at the picture before committing yourself?”

Norman: “Commit myself? You sure talk like a policeman.”

Arbogast: “Look at the picture, please.”

Norman [looking at it]: “Mm-mmm. Yeah.” 

Arbogast: “Sure? Well, she may have used an alias. Marion Crane's her real name... but she could've registered under a different one.”

Norman: “I tell ya, I don't even much bother with guests registering any more. One by one, you drop the formalities. I shouldn't even bother changing the sheets, but old habits die hard. Which reminds me...”

Arbogast: “What's that?”

Norman: “The sign. A couple last week said if the thing hadn't been on... they would've thought this was an old, deserted...”

Arbogast: “You see, that's exactly my point. Nobody'd been here for a couple weeks... and there's a couple came by and didn't know that you were open. As you say, old habits die hard.”— Psycho (1960), screenplay by Joseph Stefano based on the novel by Robert Bloch, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I am afraid that, for all its formal cinematographic brilliance as an experiment in low-budget Gothic horror, the lesson of Psycho for subsequent filmmakers lay less in how to scare audiences—i.e., how to make them feel delicious tingles at the back of their necks over something that might or might not occur—than in how to shock them, with depictions of gore (though much of this, given censorship regulations of the day, was simulated).

But moments of anticipation, a tightening of mortal stakes for the film’s characters, did exist, even though they were not of the conspicuous kind present, for instance, in the famous shower scene. Such was the encounter—a portion of which I’ve excerpted here—between Norman Bates and Arbogast, a detective hired by the employer of embezzler Marion Crane.

What the audience knows—but Arbogast doesn’t—is that Marion has been stabbed to death in Bates Motel. But in the lines I quoted above, Norman—despite his attempts to stonewall the detective—has made a slip.

It's the slip that a nervous person, hoping to fill a conversational void or to add a detail that might add more weight to what he's said, might make. It’s a small error, maybe the kind that you or I might not immediately realize in the ebb and flow of a conversation. 

But Arbogast immediately pounces on Norman’s contradiction. He pursues the accidental disclosure that people have indeed stopped at the motel, and he uses it as an opportunity to persuade a now-tenser Norman to allow him to check the motel register and establish that Marion, under an assumed name, checked in. 

From there, the conversation gears shift rapidly. Little physical action occurs between Balsam and Perkins that would constitute a normal marker of suspense (a body dangling from a cliff, say, or two arms reaching for a gun).

No, the suspense lies in what is said and what is not—Arbogast's flat declaration that something is amiss (“If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jelling”), followed by his increasingly confrontational, accusatory questions (“Did you spend the night with her?... Then how would you know she didn't make any calls?”) and Norman’s stuttering responses and sweating attempts to end the conversation-turned-interrogation.

Alfred Hitchcock didn’t give his actors much direction, believing that he’d chosen them for their skill and that they’d figure out how to play their scenes. Here, Martin Balsam justifies that faith.

Over the course of his long career, the character actor won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the mid-Sixties comedy A Thousand Clowns, acted in classics like Cape Fear, 12 Angry Men and Murder on the Orient Express, and appeared before a sizable weekly audience as Carroll O’Connor’s Jewish business partner in Archie Bunker’s Place.

But as Arbogast, he made the most of short screen time and limited plot function to suggest character dimensions not apparent in his dialogue.

The audience already knows something about Norman—his shyness, his domination by “Mother,” his weirdness beneath that nice-young-man exterior. But here, Balsam establishes Arbogast.

Well-schooled in his craft, the detective is cool and confident but also can be blunt, brusque and maybe cockier than this setting previously unknown to him might warrant. 

He has learned that something has happened here. But, once he glimpses “Mother” in the window in the house on the hill, the chief instinct of his profession—curiosity—leads him to disregard the chasm between his knowledge and the real situation.

His entry into that dark, foreboding house is inevitable, then, as is his ill-fated encounter with “Mother” on its stairs.

In October, which has become the de facto month for horror depiction on film and television, Psycho holds pride of place. The sequence I’ve discussed supplies many of the sinews of this classic—and, following the surprise dispatching of the focus of the first third of the movie, Marion, follows with that of Arbogast, whom we had only shortly before expected to relentlessly pursue her killer and bring him to justice.

The detective proved inadequate to the task. Blessed with the intelligence to sense a crime, even one different from the embezzlement he’d been hired to investigate, he still lacked the imagination to comprehend the level of insanity and evil—not to mention the danger that represented to him—in this sleepy backwater of the American Southwest. Who could?

Song Lyric of the Day (Joni Mitchell, on ‘Where the Wealth's Displayed’)

“Where the wealth's displayed
Thieves and sycophants parade
And where it's made
The slaves will be taken.” — Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, “Dog Eat Dog,” from her CD of the same name (1985)

(The photo of Ms. Mitchell accompanying this post came from an Asylum Records ad from 1974.)

Friday, October 22, 2021

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ As a Bragging Hubby is Quizzed by a Cop)

[Roger has been bragging to wife Carol and Sis about how he defended himself and then chased a mugger. A detective has come to their home to take Roger’s statement.]

Police Detective [played by William Conrad]: “Let me ask you this, if I may: How tall was the assailant?”

Roger [played by Harvey Korman, pictured] [glances back at Carol, nervously]: “How tall?”

Detective [looking up from writing in notebook]: “Yes, from the ground up, of course.”

Roger: “Uh…” [leaning over, whispering so Carol won’t hear]: “Five-three.”

Detective [taking more notes] [loudly]: “Assailant was five feet, three inches.”

Roger [grimacing as he looks at Carol, who now has a skeptical look on her face]: “Yeah, I’d say that was about it.”

Carol [played by Carol Burnett]: “Kung Fu strikes again!” [Makes karate-chop sign, frowning.]

Detective: “And how old would you say he was?”

Roger [standing up, angrily]: “Look, is all this necessary?”

Carol: “How old would you say he was?”

Roger: “Uh…uh…about sixty.”

Carol: “The big six-o!”

Roger: “Well, he was a wiry guy…looked dangerous.” [raises fists]

Carol: “You mean to say you chased a five-foot three, 60-year-old man a block and you couldn’t catch him?”

Roger: “Well, I almost had him. He hit me with his cane.”

[Carol walks away.]

Roger: “Where are you going?”

Carol: “I’m going into the bedroom. I just hate to laugh in front of company.”—The Carol Burnett Show, Season 6, Episode 23, “Carol and Sis” skit, original air date Mar. 17, 1973, directed by Dave Powers

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Quote of the Day (W. B. Yeats, on Literature, ‘Always One Man’s Vision of the World’)

“Literature is always personal, always one man’s vision of the world, one man’s experience, and it can only be popular when men are ready to welcome the visions of others. A community that is opinion-ridden, even when those opinions are in themselves noble, is likely to put its creative minds into some sort of a prison.” —Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet-playwright William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), “An Irish National Theatre” (2008), in Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats, Vol. 4 (e-book edition, 2015)

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Quote of the Day (Thomas Mann, on ‘The Artist's Highest Joy’)

“Thought that can merge wholly into feeling, feeling that can merge wholly into thought — these are the artist's highest joy.” — German novelist and Nobel Literature laureate Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Death in Venice, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter (1911)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Quote of the Day (Stephen King, on Horror Tales and Morality)

“Within the framework of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile.” —Novelist Stephen King, Danse Macabre (1981)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Tweet of the Day (Laura Benanti, on Fantasy Football)

“If I ever say the words ‘my fantasy football team,’ just know it is code for ‘I've been kidnapped please help me.’"—American singer-actress Laura Benanti, tweet of Aug. 29, 2013

The image accompanying this post shows Ms. Benanti during the curtain call for the Radio City Music Hall New York Spring Spectacular. It was taken Mar. 22, 2015, by slgckgc.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Freeman Dyson, on Science, Religion and Unsolved Mysteries)

“Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe. Why are we here? Does the universe have a purpose? Whence comes our knowledge of good and evil? These mysteries, and a hundred others like them, are beyond the reach of science. They lie on the other side of the border, within the jurisdiction of religion.”—Physicist, tech visionary, and author Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), acceptance speech for the 2000Templeton Prize for Progress in ReligionMay 16, 2000

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Quote of the Day (Zach Helfand, on the Umpire’s Strike Zone)

"For many years, an umpire’s strike zone was like an extension of his personality. Some umpires were literalists, uncompromising. Some preferred expediency; their boundaries were enormous. No matter who was working, when it rained suddenly everything was a strike. [Joe] West, the record-holding umpire, is a burly man with a Carolina drawl who moonlights as a country singer and used to pal around with Merle Haggard. He told me one umpire described the old standard for learning the strike zone as ‘You call them strikes until someone goes, “Hey!”’ Another of his friends liked to say, ‘The strike zone is like a television set, and every now and then you need [Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager] Earl Weaver or Billy Martin’—the Yankees’ volatile manager in the seventies and eighties—'to come out and adjust the knob.’ Martin once sent an umpire a Christmas card that read ‘I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.’ On the inside, he wrote, ‘Because you sure had a horseshit summer.’ Video evaluation has reined in some quirks, but the strike zone still changes measurably depending on the score, the team batting, and the pitcher’s race.”— Zach Helfand, “Invasion of the Robot Umpires,” The New Yorker, Aug. 30, 2021

You can be forgiven for thinking that in this offseason, San Francisco Giant manager Gabe Kapler might be sorely tempted to pull a Billy Martin and send Gabe Morales an unpleasant holiday greeting.

The first-base umpire did little to slow down—and, I’d wager, much to accelerate—the movement towards the video-evaluated decisions chronicled by Helfand in his New Yorker piece. In Thursday night’s deciding game of the Giants-L.A. Dodgers NLDS playoff series, Morales sent Wilmer Flores and the rest of the Giants to an aggravated, sorrowing postseason by calling a third, game- and series-ending strike on the first baseman.

Most of the rest of the civilized world believes that Flores checked his swing. That sentiment was not undercut in the slightest by Morales' feeble post-game explanation of his decision. ("I don’t have the benefit of multiple camera angles when I’m watching it live. When it happened live, I thought he went, so that’s why I called it a swing.")

The call certainly short-circuited any chance that Flores could have kept the rally alive long enough to tie the score, or maybe win the game. No amount of talk about how it was a game for the ages will salve the wounds of Giant fans.

Forget about masks, chest protectors, and leg guards: During a game, an umpire’s best equipment are ear plugs, so he won’t tune out insulting references by managers and fans to his ancestry. After a game, he is well advised to avoid any electronic medium that talks endlessly about the contest and his role in it.

Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine yelled out on behalf of her beloved Mets, “Hey ump, I’m blind, and even I can tell that was a ball!” Her taunt provoked much appreciative laughter and cheers at Shea Stadium back then. I suspect that from now on, more than a few Giant fans would echo her.

(The image accompanying this post, if you haven’t guessed, comes from Bull Durham, with Kevin Costner’s catcher Crash Davis being tossed from the game for arguing a call by an ump.)

Friday, October 15, 2021

Quote of the Day (P. G. Wodehouse, on a Valet’s Unusual Literary Taste)


“‘The sky is the limit. State your desire.’

‘Well, sir, there has recently been published a new and authoritatively annotated edition of the works of the philosopher Spinoza. Since you are so generous, I would appreciate that very much.’

‘You shall have it. It shall be delivered at your door in a plain van without delay. You’re sure you’ve got the name right? Spinoza?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘It doesn’t sound probable, but no doubt you know best. Spinoza, eh? Is he the Book Society’s Choice of the Month?’

‘I believe not, sir.’” — English humorist P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975), Joy in the Morning (1947)

The valet (and Spinoza aficionado) in the above quote is Jeeves, the indispensable wingman to his utterly clueless employer, Bertie Wooster. They were embodied for a transatlantic TV audience in the 1990s series Jeeves and Wooster, starring (from left to right in the accompanying photo) Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Wooster.

I’m not sure I would want to live in a world where, in one country or another, the creator of this duo, P.G. Wodehouse, would not be a book society or book club’s Choice of the Month.  

Born on this day in 1881 in Guildford, England, he had, by the time of his death 93 years later, published 90 books, 40 plays, and 200 short stories and other writings. He is also, at one and the same time, one of the most polished stylists and funniest writers in the English language.

As good as it is to discover Wodehouse on one’s own, it is even better to hear his work read by a fellow master craftsman. Such was the case in February 2018, during the one-man show John Lithgow: Stories by Heart. One of the two tales conjured up by the versatile actor at that marvelous matinee performance was Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.”

For a fine introduction to Wodehouse for newbies, see this fine appreciation of the comic novelist by blogger Robert Pimm.

Joke of the Day (Rhea Butcher, on an Unusual Breed of Witches)

“What do you call a group of really tidy witches? A self-cleaning coven.”— American stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer, and podcast host Rhea Butcher, quoted in “Laugh Lines: Scared Silly,” Reader’s Digest, October 2018

The image accompanying this post is, of course, Elizabeth Montgomery as witched-turned-perfect-suburban-housewife Samantha Stevens on the Sixties sitcom Bewitched.

This is how much she wants to fit in: to clean her house, she uses a vacuum cleaner rather than her usual way to get what she wants—wiggling her nose!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

This Day in Musical History (Loesser’s Saucy ‘How To Succeed In Business’ Takes Broadway)

Oct. 14, 1961—Capping a postwar era in which the executive suite became a cultural preoccupation, the satiric How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre and promptly became a smash. An adaptation of a 1952 bestseller by Madison Avenue maven Shepherd Mead, the musical went on to post 1,417 performances and win the Pulitzer Prize.

But before achieving critical and popular success, the production (hailed as a “sassy, gay, and exhilarating evening” by the Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr) had to overcome almost as many obstacles as its main character, the relentlessly ambitious window-washer J. Pierrepont (Ponty) Finch.

The irreverent show represented the last Broadway triumph of composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, who had scored his big hit over a decade before with Guys and Dolls, and the first for actor Robert Morse, playing the go-getting protagonist.

The Eisenhower era burst of American prosperity led the entertainment industry to question the notion of success, on film (Executive Suite, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Apartment) and TV (Rod Serling’s Patterns). But seldom has the subject been dealt with in such a cheeky manner as How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

Ponty’s aim: Reach the top of at the World Wide Wicket Company. His method: Gain the trust of president J.B. Biggley. His obstacles: Biggley’s idiot nephew, Bud Frump (played on Broadway by Charles Nelson Reilly) and Hedy LaRue, whose employment depends less on her typing and shorthand skills than on her obvious anatomical charms.

Although Loesser had written the book for his musical-opera hybrid The Most Happy Fella (1956), he turned the job over this time to Guys and Dolls collaborator Abe Burrows. Loesser’s songs now sprang more organically from the material, a seamless web of the kind of romance found in other musical comedies with a wealth of targets from the world of business: nepotism, the junior executive, diet fads, the ad campaign, the secretarial pool, the office break, and sexism.

In the entire wonderful history of American musical comedy, the lyricists who rivaled Loesser in wit can be numbered on only one hand. 

In one number, he could send up the old-boy network that ran corporations, their sentimental collegiate ties, and the objects of their hatred as sports fans (the “chipmunks”) in “Grand Old Ivy.” 

In another, “I Believe in You,” he penned the kind of love song so often found in musicals, except this time the hero was directing the sentiments to himself as he looked in a mirror—the kind of ironic distance between words and action that Stephen Sondheim would demonstrate mastery of a decade later.

But Loesser and Burrows (who also directed) were fortunate indeed in finding a lead with the manic, zany energy to play Ponty, who assiduously applies the lessons of the kind of American self-help manual dating all the way back to Ben Franklin’s The Way to Wealth.

With his elfin build, gap-toothed smile, and irrepressible energy, Morse was a theatrical Huck Finn, somehow making likable a character with more than a few unsavory Sammy Glick aspects—and was rewarded for his efforts with a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

Even having the right lead didn’t guarantee success for the show, though. Along the way, according to a 50th anniversary retrospective Playbill article by Mervyn Rothstein, the show had to contend, before its opening, with:

*the replacement of original choreographer Hugh Lambert with Bob Fosse, who, with practically no time left for preproduction work, had to figure out the show’s numbers at night with wife-muse Gwen Verdon;

*a near-disastrous decision by producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, frustrated by an underperforming out-of-town box office, to rename the show—only to be successfully argued out of the idea by press agent Merle Debuskey; and

*Loesser’s short-lived exit from the show over co-star Rudy Vallee’s never-ending rehearsal insistence on improvements—a departure ended only when he got Feuer to agree to punch out the 1920s crooner when the production concluded (which was never acted upon).

How To Succeed has been successfully revived twice since its original production, featuring turns by Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe as Ponty. 

Morse, Vallee and Michele Lee (who took over as love interest Rosemary later in its run) repeated their roles in the 1967 movie adaptation—which, though it did not enjoy the success as on Broadway, is still regarded as a largely success transfer to the big screen.

The years after the show brought different fates for veteran Loesser and rising star Morse.

Loesser never again reached the heights he’d enjoyed with Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed. His 1965 musical, Pleasures and Palaces, closed out of town. As critic Terry Teachout notes, in a perceptive essay in Commentary Magazine, the songwriter—depressed that rock ‘n’ roll was rendering his brand of music obsolete—had given up his craft entirely before his death in 1969. 

His demise occurred before he could see revived interest in the Great American Songbook tradition in which he had played such a part through his work in theater and on film (including the saucy—and now rather controversial—Christmas song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”).

Increasing alcohol abuse in the Seventies and early Eighties led Morse to the hell of the dinner-theater circuit and even unemployment. But a turn towards sobriety resulted in him winning a second Tony for his turn as author Truman Capote in the 1989 drama Tru, and since then he has worked steadily again in film and on TV.

It was through the latter medium that, now-wizened, the former boyish star achieved his most recent burst of fame, as ad agency founder Bertram Cooper in the long-running cable series Mad Men

You can bet that showrunner Matthew Weiner didn’t mind any memories viewers might have had of Morse in his earlier turn sending up the Sixties business world. Weiner even allowed Morse a sendoff unusual even for that series by having him staging his goodbye as a musical number.

Quote of the Day (Albert Camus, on Ignorance)

“One always has exaggerated ideas about what one doesn't know.” — French novelist and Nobel Literature laureate Albert Camus (1913-1960), The Stranger (1942)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Song Lyric of the Day (Paul Simon, With Insight Into Contemporary Thought Processes)

“All lies and jest

Still, a man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest.”— “The Boxer,” written by American singer-songwriter Paul Simon, released by Simon and Art Garfunkel on their Bridge over Troubled Water LP (1970)

Happy birthday to Paul Simon, born 80 years ago today in Newark, NJ.

Some years ago, a late, dear friend of mine described Bob Dylan as the master poet of his generation and Simon as the master psychologist. There was more than a bit of the poet in Simon, too, but time has borne out that the Grammy-winning musician is indeed an explorer of the soul in all its rootlessness and alienation.

From “The Sound of Silence,” his first big hit with Art Garfunkel, through “American Tune,” the wistful elegy he created in the Watergate era, Simon—for all his concern about the nation’s politics—has largely preferred to comment obliquely on what’s roiling the country through meditations on what lies beneath rather than explicit protests.

Even “The Boxer,” which he admits to writing in a period of frustration over harsh criticism of his songwriting (the pugilist’s departure from the ring paralleled his half-hearted wish to exit the music scene), has come to take on a different cast. The title character “disregards” the warnings of others away from his change of life and embrace of a violent occupation, in favor of what he prefers: the “lies and jest.”

It’s not a bad forecast of what contemporary politics has become: groups refusing to listen to others, putting aside history and wiser counsels for more seductive siren calls, leaving them none the better for the experience.