The December 17 issue of the New Yorker has Hugh Eakin's profile of ex-Getty antiquities curator Marion True that's pretty fascinating. She makes a good case for herself being the latest edition of Isabel Archer--too highminded, idealistic and American to avoid getting tripped up by the dirty dealing of charming and dishonest Europeans. It might even be true. More institutions than the Getty function on the basis of selective vision.
On the other hand, even the most out-of-it provincial who has anything to do with antiquities knows better. Back in 1983, when the Getty Kouros was in the news, one of my professors brought it up in class. When I said "It looks like it might be hot merchandise," he replied "Of course it's hot! Any artifact from antiquity on the market today has to be hot! It's been stolen from somebody--where else would it come from?"
Don't miss Eakin's earlier article "Notes from the Underground," in the 5/25/06 New York Review of Books, focusing on the European side of the mess.
After months and months of walking Sid past the site, L.A. Mill Coffee finally seems poised to open. Not that there's any signs, but after you hang the chandeliers, what are you waiting for? It looks promising, but can anything take the place of the Backdoor Cafe, even with a rococo mural?
Speaking of creeping swankiness, just across from L.A. Mill, a not-to-be named vintage furniture dealer persists in the heinous practice of using volumes of the Loeb Classical Library as decor items. There are stacks currently resting on a silly chair in the front window. It wouldn't be so offensive if it was the Greek series, but the Latin ...! I realize they're compact and an attractive red, but aren't there copies of Quotations of Chairman Mao sitting in warehouses somewhere?
The obits in the Telegraph and the NY Times are barely polite. Better are the L.A. Times and London Times. I was mentioning them to somebody last night, thinking he would agree with me about their snarkyness, but instead he said, "Yeah, it's incredible there's so much media attention to a person whose music no one in the world ever has listened to." Tis the season.
Among the brighter memories of the mid-1970s is listening to the 1965 Deutsche Grammophon LP of Gruppen and Carre, with Stockhausen, Maderna, Kagel, et. al. conducting. I borrowed it over and over again from the Rockford Public Library. I didn’t realize at the time how unusual it was that I had access to such things.
I’m listening to Gruppen now. The piano and brass make exquisite sounds. But the whole is more than that. There is a pleasant impersonality to it; it’s like a series of landscapes. Call it a train journey through cities and countryside, in fair weather and through storms, in the bustling daytime and serene night-time.
Reading about this strange, difficult person, I prefer to think of the story of Leonard Bernstein screaming "Karlheinz! Sit down!" from the podium, when for a joke Stockhausen stood to accept the applause after a performance of a Morton Feldman piece.
Jacaranda are performing Stimmung next April 12.
It happened in September, but I have to mention Meryl Friedman’s Tug of War. An adaptation of Plautus’s Rudens, based on Amy Richlin’s translation at the Malibu Getty. There was a round platform stage with a few benches and props. Six men—one in drag—and two women (one playing a man part of the time.) A musical ensemble consisting of an accordionist, guitarist, and clarinetist. The worst part of the whole production came right at the start: the cast was dressed in scrupulously tidy versions of thrift-shop motley: torn fancy dress coats and dresses, flamenco dancer garb, funny hats, cutoffs, sneakers. But the first words were novel and funny: they made the Getty’s set legally required speech about refraining from “unnecessary loud or prolonged applause” and made a joke of it. And then we were off.
It made free with Rudens, sometimes straying off into business that came from everywhere but Rome. But scenes, and speeches and bits of business straight from Plautus kept coming, one after another, and it was delightful. The ensemble was a bit too determined to be breezy and zany, but they made the thing move, and were winning. I missed Plautus’s stage picture—the hut and the shrine. I always picture these plays to myself as having an emphatic contrast between the static, unchanging scene and the lively comings and goings of the actors. And translating the shrine into a beach BBQ hut was clever, but completely eliminated the element of piety which, though unrefined and conventional, also adds a pretty contrast to the goings-on. And making a big deal out of “hempus,” a translation of “silphilium,” I guess, made too much of a completely expendable element of the original.
But most of the innovations were both respectful of Plautus and good jokes. Making Plesidippus into a ridiculous Latin peacock, and Ampelisca into a guy in drag, the sack into a trunk, long soliloquies into songs. Richlin stated the problem in the program: “The plays of Plautus were funny, and the main problem for translators is to make them funny now in the same way they were funny then.” Comedy raises a question of immediacy and connection that isn’t so pertinent for tragedy. The strangeness of Hippolytus or Agamemnon doesn’t interfere with their impressiveness—it can even add to it. But that kind of aloofness is deadly to comedy. Unintelligibility and strangeness can be funny, but not remoteness--that at best is just camp.
One of the things that Friedman’s version completely dismissed was Plautus’s significant act divisions. Apparently the act divisions are later additions to the text, but they reflect real divisions in the action. He always ends the act clearing the stage, and it’s always with a significant action that propels what’s to come. Like the pimp storming into the temple at the end of Act 2. It’s a formalism, but it has a tidiness that appeals to me.
Am I wrong in reading surprising attitudes in this play? The prologue introduces the idea of morally judging god. And then there is the contrast implied between the pimp’s impiety and everyone else’s piety regarding Venus. Is Plautus saying pimps have nothing to do with Venus? It seems more like a Christian sentiment.
Another interesting element is the unapologetic classism. A freeborn person and a slave are assumed to be visibly distinguishable—their stations may be accidentally mixed up, but the action of the play—of the gods—is to set them right: Athenians with Athenians, slaves with slaves. Friedman’s rifle-toting Priestess was a perfectly acceptable substitution for Daemones’s two slaves, but again we lost the significant stage picture of the two girls sitting on the altar. I have no doubts that Friedman was correct in eliminating Gripius—it’s just too absurd to devote the last two acts of the play to a character who’s only introduced in Act 4.
This production naturally brings up the question of Louis Zukofsky’s 1967 Rudens, incorporated into his poem “A.” It’s his most appealling work, his Tempest and his Sea and the Mirror. The Zukofsky experts are too cautious. Their reassurances that it is not a translation of Plautus’s play, but an entirely independent creation—a fantasia on the sonic pattern of Plautus’s text—is going way too far. Indeed it’s not the first translation I would hand a Latin-less reader who wants to know what Rudens is about. But it’s definitely the second thing I would offer. First of all, since when is it ever wrong to produce beautiful English verse?
My impression that this was the most gorgeous, accessible and enjoyable part of “A” was confirmed and reinforced over and over again. The anxious warnings that the text is totally opaque are exaggerated. Yes, there are lines and passages that are paratactic and outside of English grammar, but they are the minority. The majority of lines chime along amusingly with the Latin—or at least with an idea of the action. I want to copy out all the passages that particularly delight me, but I’m too tired. Leave it to Zukofsky:
I’ve experienced comedians declaiming wisdom
applauded by the audience out
there - they’re called people – everybody
so divorced going home all
information about rectitude proves useless.
We were eager to love Fresh & Easy, but now we’ve gone and all the enthusiasm seems embarrassing. We were expecting a paradise of prepared food, but in fact there was only a limited selection. The rest of the Eagle Rock Blvd. store was filled with whatever the marketing research had told them to fill it with: Crest toothpaste, Fat Tire beer, birthday cards, etc. Nothing was there because a person liked it, but because the program told them to put it there. And then there is the design. I appreciate them bucking the trend towards more and more glitz, but it went too far in the other direction. All the merchandise was presented in uninflected, undifferentiated rows, separated by wide aisles. It had the air of a mid-1970s conceptual art project. There wasn’t any music, which sounds great but in fact was unnerving. DB: "It feels dead," and that was all there was to be said.
L.A. Opera’s visuals have been so good lately that Don Giovanni came as a shock--a big step back to the bad old days. In 1891 Bernard Shaw wrote "Ever since I was a boy I have been in search of a satisfactory performance of Don Giovanni; and I have at last come to see that Mozart’s turn will hardly be in my time." At least he was spared sets by Boris Kudlicka and costumes by Arkadius. The production was like a bad movie marathon, beginning in The Matrix, proceeding to Tron, pausing at Night of the Living Dead and ending up with Elvis tumbling into Hell. There was also a giant egg-timer leaking silver glitter on the stage. And a new character was introduced; we called her The Spinning Dead Infanta. This makes it sound more fun than it was. It was especially exasperating because the singers were heroic: a good Don, a funny Leporello, and Charles Castronovo, the Don Ottavio, frequently triumphing over a bad environment. Shaw called the music "summer lightning made audible" and sometimes it was.