Spotted this evening along the river at the Frogtown Art Walk.
"The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society."
-Emma Goldman, Living My LIfe, 1931
When I first puzzled over The Persians 40 years ago, the idea that I might someday see a theatrical production never entered my head. It would never happen. But last night it did.
And this was just the latest in a series of productions that have consistently avoided the more familiar and audience-friendly parts of the classical repertoire (Antigone, Oedipus and the Bacchae) in favor of pieces that defy modern tastes and conventions: Hippolytos (2006), Plautus’s Rudens (2007), Agamemnon (2008), Peace (2009), Elektra (2010), Trojan Women (2011), Helen (2012), Prometheus Bound (2013). The Getty’s program is a brave, high-minded gift to the public.
The Persians is very ancient, but unfortunately still relevant: military over-reach, The West versus The Mid-East, empires in decline, the arrogance that comes from wealth and technology, …. It’s amazing that the top playwright of Athens could stage a play based on recent events—unheard of—that presented the enemies of Athens as exotic but noble and worthy of sympathy. Instead of a victory parade, Aeschylus provided a warning against over-confidence.
Aaron Poochigian’s translation was clear English, bucking the tradition of English versions of Aeschylus that are harder to understand than the original Greek (Browning, Benedette, etc). SITI Company bravely adhered close to the text, not even omitting the extended—and tedious—inventories of names of fallen Persian generals and sites of battles.
The challenge of The Persians is that there is next to no action. The only events are the entrances and exits—and there are only seven of them. Siti’s production last night staged the first of these—the Queen’s first appearance—exactly right. She approached the chorus magnificently costumed, trailing an endless gold train, solemn and unapproachable. It was terrific, but nothing like it happened again.
One of the conceits of SITI's production was that the principal characters were played by members of the chorus. Instead of a new actor making an appearance, chorus members simply stepped forward and began speaking in a new voice. It's admirably egalitarian, but it created moments of confusion, the worst of which was the appearance of the Ghost of Darius. This is the Big Dramatic Moment #1 of the play. It’s meant to be eerie and impressive, but SITI's spirit-possession presentation rendered it a muddle. Though, once the audience realized that Stephen Duff Webber had become the Ghost of Darius, it delighted in his clear-sighted commentary. But why discard the theatrical jolt of Darius rising up from the underworld?
SITI’s previous Getty production (2011) also suffered from misguided tinkering with the chorus, transforming Trojan Women into a single eunuch. They need to get over this.
Despite the wrongheaded conceit, the strong cast was able to make itself felt. Ellen Lauren as the Queen not only made an impressive entrance, but made the amphitheater ring with her powerful voice.
Long narrations are another challenge, and the central one in The Persians is a killer. But Will Bond described the destruction of the Persian army and navy with more animation than I thought possible.
Other than the Queen’s gold train, the costumes weren’t nearly grand enough. Aeschylus intended them to be especially magnificent; it’s the set-up for Big Dramatic Moment #2—the entrance of Xerxes in tatters. We didn’t get that contrast, but Gian-Murray Gianino and the chorus managed to make the play’s concluding dirge compelling.
A traditional part of the evening’s excitement is the last page of the program, where they announce next year’s play. So it seems September 2015 will bring a new Medea by Luis Alfaro. I’m looking forward to it. But are we ever going to see another comedy? Did the neighbors really complain so much about the laughing? What if we promise to laugh quietly?
[Image: The Queen & chorus contact the spirit of Darius, from BroadwayWorld]
Last week, LAPL notified me that, as per my request, they were holding a copy of Bark: stories by Lorrie Moore for me at the Silver Lake branch. “Who is Lorrie Moore?” I replied. Two pages into the first story I remembered: the woman who wrote the story about the girl freeloading her way through Africa, that ends, decades later, with her falling off the top of a skyscraper. “Oh, her.” Yes, her.
I don’t understand the title, but it doesn’t matter. The eight stories are all masterful astonishments. LM has the gift of writing about ordinary people in ordinary situations in a way that makes them breathlessly exciting. She has a variety of arrows in her quiver. Her descriptions are admirably clear and concise. She has an ear for dialogue. Without being pretentious, she hints at bigger issues: the first story takes place during the first Gulf War, and the last takes place just after Michael Jackson died. She can wrap things up with an ingeniously unexpected paragraph, as in “Wings,” the longest and most difficult of the stories. Difficult because it’s about two jerks: KC, a talentless singer-songwriter-performer, and her handsome, parasitic boyfriend Dench. She befriends an elderly neighbor, who changes his will to benefit her. It’s very Wings of the Dove (as in the title and opening epitaph), and the ending is suitably Jamesian: we get a glimpse of KC, comfortable in a new life of service and good works, nevertheless remembering the day, a lifetime ago, she first met Dench:
… she had wondered whether it would be good to love him, and then she had gone broodingly to the window to look out at the street while he was singing and she had seen a very young woman waiting for him in his beat-up car. It had been winter with winter’s sparse afternoon stars, and the girl was wearing a fleece chin-strap cap that made her look like Dante and also like a baby bird. KC herself had been dressed like Hooker Barbie. Why had she put this memory out of her mind? The young woman had clearly driven him there—would she be tossed away? bequeathed? forgotten? given a new purpose by God, whose persistent mad humor was aimless as a gnat? She was waiting for him to come back with something they could use.
I hadn’t realized it until I got home, but the upper right corner had been gnawed on the copy I borrowed from LAPL. A dog, apparently. Everyone’s a critic.
ISC did a beautiful production in 2008, and it was time to revisit it. But what a strange play; it’s one of the genuinely funny ones, but nothing amusing at all happens until Viola and Feste exchange nonsense at the beginning of the third act. The first two acts are devoted to setting the scene, which is dark. Illyria is a dysfunctional city.
Most of the action is generated by the fact that the characters are unable to communicate with each other—either because they are too self-absorbed (Orsino, Sebastian), or because they are play-acting (Viola, Olivia, Feste), or because they are numbskulls (Sir Andrew, Sir Toby).
The atmosphere of misunderstanding is accentuated by little exclamations of frustration uttered throughout the play, in Shakespeare’s most piercingly plainspoken style:
“What should I do in Illyria?”
“Take the fool away.”
“Your fooling grows old.”
“You are too proud.”
“I was adored once, too.”
“Nothing that is so, is so.”
The word “peevish” comes up a lot, and rightly so. All these people are dishonest, discontented, and too lazy, vain or silly to sort themselves out.
In Act 3 the first crack appears when Feste admits, “I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words.” Then in Act 4, Antonio’s impassioned outburst—the first public utterance of an earnest thought in the play—shatters the stultifying Illyrian routine. Orsino and the police can make nothing of his “Virtue is beauty,” of course, but Viola is awoken.
And what about Malvolio? He’s a wet blanket, not a villain; hardly meriting the demeaning practical joke he’s subjected to. Yes, it serves the purpose of demonstrating that his austerity and self-control is a sham—like Olivia’s grief. But where Olivia is rewarded with an utterly unexpected answer to her desires—Sebastian—Malvolio is banished and forgotten.
And so the play concludes with the bores and the bullies all handsomely rewarded. Fabian’s vindicatory speech at the end is a desperate attempt to soften the sourness with intellectual justifications. But the real consolation comes when Feste steps out of this hopeless Illyria, to sing that “The rain it raineth every day.” He doesn’t offer arguments, but notes the world going on.
David Melville’s Feste was first-rate. The part also gave him opportunities to sing, which he does charmingly—especially with Julia Aks (Fabian) accompanying him on accordion. I also appreciated his pre-performance shout out to the Illyrian Neighborhood Council.
Danny Campbell excells at disreputable old men, and his Sir Toby blazed like a star.
André Martin’s Sir Andrew was as hilarious, as his Don Armado in Love’s Labor’s Lost a few years ago—he’s obviously developed a special knack for playing absurd scorned lovers. I think Shakespeare wrote a lot of these parts: More, please.
A strange week. My most compelling literary experience was deciding to stop reading Canetti’s Auto-da-fé after 206 pages. The final straw was coming across, in the latest Bookforum, Gary Indiana’s description of Canetti as “a self-important windbag,” which put precise words to the impression I was getting. I’m keeping my copy; I might find my way to finishing it some other time, but not now. It was depressing me: the humor, the satire, the allegory, the absurdity were all so heavy and boring.
The only thing interesting about it was considering it as an example of Pretentious Square Modernism—the genre traditionally favored by the Nobel Prize committee. Canetti obviously admired Kafka, Joyce and Kraus and other modernist masters, but his appreciation was not accompanied by any insight into their artistry. He misunderstood their art as spiritual propaganda. Being a vulgarian and a square, he sought to transmit The Message in a Big Book. The Big Book was intended to be epic, intricate, irrefutable, and above all impressive.
Just think: Auto-da-fé came out in 1935, the year Borges published A Universal History of Infamy, a year after Waugh’s Handful of Dust and Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves. Quite a contrast between literature that’s alive and dead. Canetti’s ambition to impress is the antithesis of what’s really valuable in modernism, as also seen in the works of Mann, Roman Rolland, Sartre, Broch, Gaddis, even Beckett ….
[Image: Sartre’s translator, Hazel E. Barnes on TV 1961]
It took me all day to realize how good Ship of Fools (2010) was. I glanced at the photos and the video yesterday morning, noted the august melancholy of the last work of an admirable artist, and went out in search of something more cheerful to look at.
In fact, I spent the rest of the day driving through the construction site that is the West Side, up Colorado, down Venice, Culver City, and Wilshire. Massive disruption in the name of circulation, progress, and money: Southern California was putting on its own tribute to Sekula all around me. All that inchoate, but significant ordinariness, of which Sekula was a supreme poet.
Sekula’s portraits of Novorossisk crewmembers seem straightforward, but are far from simple ...
Likewise the set documenting men moving bags of sugar: it’s process art and investigative journalism, but also a warily lovely composition. Sekula’s oddly compelling colors will someday be clichés of art chatter.
And he really has a gift for capturing light and water. Churn (above) the seascape of the sky and the water and the ship’s wake, is an image Turner would have admired. The goodness of Sekula is that his critical acuity about the shipping industry did not preclude a feeling for its Odyssean romance, which he suggests is not yet extinquished.
At first the title seemed to refer to me, not the writer. The first 168 pages presented a formidable fortress wall, excluding all but the hardiest readers. In terms of boredom, Proust’s presentation of Little Marcel’s anxious wait for his mother’s goodnight-kiss was scintillating fun compared to Knausgaard’s stupefyingly circumstantial account of the failed attempt of two provincial Norwegian teenagers to crash a New Years Eve party. And, as weird as he is, Little Marcel is never as big a jerk as young Karl Ove, who, in Part One, we glimpse at several stages of awfulness en route to adulthood. But then, in the last 20 pages, Spring arrives, then July, and an unexpected, drunken party at his Dad’s. The light, for me, dawned.
Part Two concludes with an 140-page account of Karl Ove and his older brother Yngve cleaning their grandmother’s house, after their father died there. I suppose long ago one of the Greeks wrote a Hercules in Elis, describing the cleaning of the stables of King Augeas, but it hasn’t survived. So Knausgaard's revolting, brilliant, compelling, excruciating account stands unique in literature.
It’s not that it’s deadpan—Knausgaard’s language often takes flight. And it’s not that it’s plotless episodes—Knausgaard imposes order on his material, like Proust, by echoes, analogies and repetitions. The beauty is KOK’s focus, in every episode, on the immediate, palpable, and sensuous physical reality. He doesn’t dismiss second-hand experiences, histories, or other people, but he’s not so concerned about them. It’s poetic in the sense of focusing on the sensual and emotional content of his immediate situation. Whether it’s a novel or a memoir, it has no faith in explanations.
“A gust of wind blew across the yard. The overhanging flaps of the table cloth fluttered. A napkin went flying across the lawn. The foliage above us swished. I lifted my glass and rank, shuddered as the acidic taste hit my palate, and once again recognized that clear, pure sensation that arose with approaching intoxication, and the desire to pursue it that always followed.”
[Image: Spring cloud study (Constable, 1822)]
Last Sunday night was perfect for picnicking and a concert.
The music of Cavalleria rusticana unfolds with the logic and dramatic inevitability of a symphony; from the first note to the last, one ravishing tune after another. It’s so concise there’s not one lull. Mascagni eliminated recitative, subplots, comic relief, and all the boring claptrap of antique dramaturgy that Mozart, Beethoven and Verdi meekly submitted to. And yet, he finds time for ample orchestral interludes (which Scorcese used unforgettably in Raging Bull) and songs—choral and solo—which sound like spontaneous, genuine singing.
Stuart Neill was tremendous as Turiddu, the simpleton who pays for his infatuation with his life; an act of justice that remedies nothing. Equally powerful were Michelle DeYoung (his discarded Santuzza), Nancy Maultsby (his mother), Tamara Mumford (the icy Lola), Christopher Maltman (Lola’s enraged husband). Just as important & impressive were the L.A. Master Chorale and the Children’s Chorus.
Cavalleria lost nothing being presented without sets, costumes or stage effects. If anything, the concert format emphasized its amazingly modernist swiftness. And the cast could focus all its energy on singing. Boy did they!
Pagliacci shares the same concision and focus. The music is less magnificent, but the drama is more compelling. Moreover, the conceit of the play-within-the-play, and the private lives of the actors spilling tragically onto the public stage, the tears of the clown, provide indelible poetic images. And it, too, dramatizes “justice” that provides no solace, as Nedda dies for her infidelities. As embodied by Julianna Di Giacomo she was utterly familiar, fascinatingly strange, and mesmerizing.
[Image top: Scene from Cavalleria rusticana (Rauzzini, 1891) Image below: cover of the piano reduction of Pagliacci (1892)]
HBO’s version of Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart begins with Ned arriving by ferry at Fire Island, depicted as a lovely arcadia of happy, beautiful, available men. Within a half-hour, the scene switches to another journey: Ned’s host Albert arriving by airplane at Phoenix. After raving with dementia during the flight and puking in his seat, we see his dead body being carried off the plane. The Phoenix medical authorities refuse to deal a victim of AIDS, so his lover and mother have to arrange a back-door cremation. Heaven and hell: welcome to the 1980s.
Heart is a depiction of those first years of bewilderment and horror. From everywhere suddenly came stories of deaths, and stories of sick people and their friends and families encountering brutality. The stories were so grotesque they didn’t seem possible in 20th century America.
And so the horror was followed by exasperation and outrage at the fact that the wider (straight) world, the authorities, responded with excuses and indifference. Many of us discovered that we were no longer living in the 20th century but in the Middle Ages, and not in America but in some broken-down Third World outpost that didn’t even have the gumption to acknowledge it had a problem.
It was a discovery of how politically disenfranchised the community was. Visibility had not translated into political clout. We had isolated ourselves, pretended we were autonomous. As a result, no one with any power gave a shit; nobody needed to. Kramer takes special pains to finger the closeted gay men in positions of authority (journalists, civil servants, politicians) who went out of their way to obstruct action to protect their careers.
In a way, it’s an extension of Kramer’s critique of gay culture in Faggots (as far as I remember it): a culture that was out and proud but so self-absorbed it was incapable of caring or communicating.
The emergence of a gay community support network in response to the crisis changed that forever. But Normal Heart isn’t satisfied with that. Kramer in 1985 already found the focus on palliative services misguided. The trajectory of the drama is such that it could have been titled, Why ACT-UP Happened.
All of which makes clear that The Normal Heart is not merely a personal view, but a self-portrait. This is not an ego trip, but where the art comes in--the art that makes the history bearable. If Kramer is unsparing of gay men more concerned about being sex-positive than dealing with the situation, and expresses contempt for activists who employ moderate means to achieve moderate goals, he doesn’t spare himself. The Ned Weeks character radiates a love of confrontation so passionate that you wonder what the fight is really about. This sense of perpetual emergency eventually became itself a problem for AIDS activism, but circa 1987 it was just what the doctor ordered.
If Kramer doesn’t spare himself, being played by Mark Ruffalo is quite a consolation. Julia Roberts seems determined to make up for all those years playing glamorous gals and remind us what a compelling performer she is. Her office assistant was played by B.D. Wong, who coincidentally also appeared HBO’s 1993 AIDS docu-drama And the Band Played On.
Of course it was a period drama. HBO did it well, without overdoing the period looks. Some sublime Roxy Music and Tom Tom Club on the soundtrack was sufficient to place me, at least, in 1981.
But on the other hand, it also seemed to be an up-to-date reminder of how AIDS remains a stigma more than a disease. And how, after decades of activism and breakthroughs and treatments, the silence (which still equals death) still obscures it from view.