31 December 2008

Exit Interview

In a wide-ranging interview with this blogger, George W. Bush revealed today that he is black, and thus the first non-Caucasian President of the United States.

“I accept that, in the long run, I’m probably not going to get much credit for the stuff that I’ve done,” Bush told this reporter. “That’s the way this game is played, this history business. And I’m comfortable with that. But I’m not going to sit around while people say Barack Obama is going to be our first black President. I’m the one who broke the color line, and I want credit for that.”

President Bush has conducted a number of interviews in recent weeks, as well as giving several retrospective speeches, all designed to define his legacy as he leaves office. He has portrayed himself as a man of unyielding principle, who launched a just war in Iraq and who made “compassionate conservatism” the political philosophy of his eight-year administration. This is the first time he has admitted negritude.

Moreover, Bush says he is blacker than President-elect Obama. “His mother was a white woman. You can’t say that about either of my parents,” the President said. “I’m 100 percent African.”

Natural rhythm

Asked to square that assertion with the fact that his father was President, yet not the first non-Caucasian to hold that office, Bush explained that his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, had a brief affair with the family chauffeur during the early years of her marriage to George H.W. Bush.

“We kept it hushed up because Whitie didn’t want the scandal,” President Bush said, using a family nickname for the senior Bush, whom he also refers to as “Poppy Bofay” and “The Man.” For fear of embarrassing Mrs. Bush, and out of concern that publicizing his race might alienate conservative voters in the South and elsewhere, Bush continued to avoid questions on the subject until now.

However, he said, it has been no secret that he possesses natural ability in sports and dance, a weakness for snack foods, and an extremely large penis. He conceded that his race has been less apparent in his administration’s public policies, but he defended his record. “I have to be President of all the people, not just my own people,” he said. “You can’t show favoritism. That’s not what this job is about. It’s hard work.”

Bush’s natural father, Eustus Shexnyder, died in 1974. Surviving him is another son, Eustus Junior, who, upon learning that his brother is President of the United States, quit his job on the faculty of the Yale School of Law, and allegedly robbed a liquor store before leading police on a high-speed car chase. No trial date has been set.

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30 December 2008

Class of 1979

Unusual suspects: Karen Strecker and Judy Horak, seated,
with Kevin Pask and Bill Madison, standing.
Richardson High School Senior Prom, 1979

“Fill this out about your SENIOR year of high school! The longer ago it was, the more fun the answers will be!! REPOST with name of high school and graduating year in the subject box. Send this to all your friends, but don't forget to send it back to me.”

A friend has forwarded to me this little questionnaire, of the kind that gets circulated endlessly in e-mails, always with the exhortation to pass it along to as many other people as possible. Ornery sort that I am, I usually let such things drop.

Today I’m trying a different tactic. Instead of ignoring the questionnaire, or alternatively clogging everyone’s e-mail with my responses, I’ll post my answers here. Yet as I answer, I’m struck by the lusterless flatness of these questions, their resolute failure to illuminate much of anything: this ain’t the Proust Questionnaire, alas. So keep scrolling. After I’ve finished with the original set, I’ll raise — and answer — a few questions of my own.

1. Did you date someone from your school?
“Date” isn’t the word to describe what happened. Enough said.

2. Did you marry someone from your high school?
Not yet.

3. Did you car pool to school?
No, I walked the three blocks to campus — with the result that I was hit by a car as I crossed Coit Road, my sophomore year. The William V. Madison Memorial Stoplight was erected shortly thereafter.

4. What kind of car did you have?
A yellow Dodge Colt station wagon, known widely as “The Banana.”

5. What kind of car do you have now?

6. It’s Friday night...where were you?
Eating Mexican food, then going to the movies with Kevin Pask and Karen Strecker.

7. It’s Friday night...where are you? (now)
I’ve been asking myself the same question.

8. What kind of job did you have in high school?
I was an office assistant at my father’s engineering firm.

9. What kind of job do you do now?
I’m a freelance writer.

10. Were you a party animal?
Au contraire.

11. Were you considered a flirt?
By whom? I suspect most people considered me a rather hopeless case who’d never find love, much less lose his virginity; and my attempts at flirtation typically elicited the sorts of responses that a stray dog gets when he begins to hump your leg.

12. Were you in band, orchestra, or choir?
High school marked the end of my musical career. Though I performed in a musical play, Something’s Afoot, my one solo line was dubbed by another actor, David Arment, who hadn’t made his entrance yet; I retreated to straight drama. My activities were numerous, however. I was a member of the editorial staff of the high-school newspaper; I held office in the Italian Club (first in the history of the state of Texas) and participated in French and German Clubs; and in an advisory capacity to Jim Millerman, our senior-class president, I nearly got the poor guy expelled.

13. Were you a nerd?
Affirmative, Captain. Sensors detect signs of opera records in the subject’s bedroom. Setting phasers to say, “Ni!”

14. Did you get suspended or expelled?
No, but see above.

15. Can you sing the fight song?
Did we have one? I wouldn’t know. I never attended a single sporting event, and I sneaked out of pep rallies whenever possible.

16. Who was/were your favorite teacher(s)?
A long list — that includes many of the names listed on the right-hand side of every page of this blog. Though there were a couple of disastrous nincompoops on the faculty (are you reading this, Jim Mymern?), I managed to avoid most of them. I’m quite lucky to have studied with such a terrific group of people.

17. Where did you sit during lunch?
I honestly don’t remember. Did I begin my unhealthy practice of eating at my desk during this period? (That would have been a desk somewhere in the journalism classroom.) In any case, I was most likely to be found wherever other kids from the newspaper staff might be.

18. What was your school's full name?
J.J. Pearce Senior High School

19. When did you graduate?

20. What was your school mascot?
A mustang, copied blatantly from Southern Methodist University.

21. If you could go back and do it again, would you?
Would I have to make the same mistakes?

22. Did you have fun at Prom?
Yes, beginning with a memorable pre-dance picnic dinner in a local cemetery. Because we went as a foursome, and because the girls attended a rival high school, we were able to attend two proms in one night. That proved sufficient, and I’ve never been to another.

23. Do you still talk to the person you went to Prom with?
Not often enough, in the case of Judy, but I know how to reach each of them when I need to — and I often do.

24. Are you planning on going to your next reunion?
I might go, but the word “planning” connotes a greater concentration of thought than any that I can claim on this subject.

25. Do you still talk to people from school?
Yes, including the recent and very happy rediscovery of the lovely Jean Dirks, after she stumbled across this blog. I’m also in touch with a few teachers: Carlene Klein Ginsburg and Anna Morini, and over the years I’ve been in and out of touch with Zona Ray and Melinda Smith.

Don’t we know each other so much better, now that we’ve shared? Let’s try a somewhat different approach.

What books read for class meant the most to you?
The Great Gatsby, by default, and Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire (which I not only read but enacted in both my French and drama classes). Outside the classroom, the first volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time formed all my expectations for young manhood, despite the fact that I was a middle-class suburbanite in Dallas and not an Eton and Oxford man on the go in London between the wars. I read Powell as a result of Kevin Pask’s shoving the books at me, in what I now recognize to have been a mostly futile effort on his part to foster in me an intellect worthy of his companionship.

What pop song do you remember most vividly, and why?
This is a cheater, because I didn’t begin listening to pop music until I was in high school — again, at Kevin Pask’s urging. I’d like to cite something significant, like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” or amusing, like the Ramones’ “Teenage Lobotomy” (one of the late Keith Kaski’s enduring gifts to me), but I fear that the honest answer is Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Less pop song than one-act opera, it dramatizes the thrills and risks of what I desperately yearned to spend my Friday nights doing.

It’s interesting to note that the pop songs I heard in high school are among the last for which I have no visual associations: MTV hadn’t started yet, so the mental images I retain of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra,” and Walter Egan’s immortal “Magnet and Steel” — all of which played endlessly on the radio in those days — are entirely my own.

Be honest: would you have made it into an Ivy League college if not for the influence of Kevin Pask?
Of course not.

What was your greatest success? Greatest disappointment?
I regret to inform the various North Dallas businessmen’s lunch groups who bestowed fancy plaques on me that winning prizes for essays on “What It Means to Be an American” no longer seems worthwhile to me, though I’m sure the admissions officers at Brown were duly impressed, and it didn’t hurt to know already how to strike the patriotic nerve when I wrote for Dan Rather. My greatest triumph was, in all likelihood, interviewing Beverly Sills for the school paper, simultaneously meeting my idol and launching my journalistic career. The greatest disappointment may have been not winning one of those fancy plaques for a performance of Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone, in which I played Creon. We poured our very guts into that show, but the judge gave the trophy to some competent repetition of frippery by Neil Simon instead. This prepared me only a little for the failure of Rags, seven years later.

The more personal successes and disappointments I shall save for another time. Maybe.

What was your mood in those days?
At the time, I thought I was melancholic to the extreme, and bragged about it, for it seemed a sort of intellectual achievement; but in retrospect, I was a resolute optimist. All the world seemed possible then.

What or whom do you miss most?
My potential.

Snapshots! Cite a few moments when you glimpsed a larger world.
a) Along with Margaret Guttes, I raked leaves in Mrs. Morini’s yard one autumn afternoon. Though I’d always been a teacher’s pet, this was an exceptional experience, inviting me into a teacher’s home and entrusting me with responsibility. Mrs. Morini rewarded us with home-made chicken soup, with pasta and grated parmegiano cheese in it. I think she must have paid us, too, but it’s the soup I remember.

b) Kevin and I went to New Orleans at Spring Break, without a chaperone. Wine! Women! Song! Et cetera! We attempted (and failed) to find Walker Percy; on the way back from Covington, the Banana broke down in the middle of the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge. And the waiter at Antoine’s corrected my French: what I wanted, he insisted, was “petty poise,” not petits pois. In like fashion and at the same restaurant, Kevin, fed up with my constant pointers on etiquette, loudly reminded me to “Be sure to slosh it around in your glass a lot” when it came time to taste the wine.

c) One day I visited the staggeringly beautiful Laura Semrad at the cheese shop where she worked. I sampled every variety on display, primarily as an excuse to linger in her radiance, before buying one rather pathetic little Gouda. “Come back soon,” Laura’s boss said, less kindly than you might assume, because she added, “Next time you’re hungry.” At the time, I knew nothing about cheese. Now I know too much.

That should do, for now. I expect it’s a sign that I’m turning into an old crank: get me started on memories of my bygone youth, and I don’t know when to stop. Sort of like Proust, don’t you think?

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26 December 2008

The Purr and the Pause

My single encounter with Eartha Kitt consists entirely of a hurried backstage introduction, in the course of a commemoration of the March on Washington, in 1993. My encounter with Harold Pinter was even less direct: I happened to be in Sayles Hall when Brown University bestowed on him an honorary degree, a decade earlier. There was considerable question at the time whether Mr. Pinter would address us formally, his nose being out of joint over some public controversy. The inevitable joke was that he would offer instead an especially prolonged and pregnant Pinter Pause.

In all likelihood, I’d never have thought of them in the same breath, if their obituaries hadn’t appeared on the same day. Yet as artists they both achieved the highest goal: the creation and maintenance of a distinctive and durable, immediately recognizable and ultimately influential voice. As Pinter had his pause, so Kitt had her purr. You could no more mistake a Terrence Rattigan play for Pinter’s than a Pearl Bailey recording for Kitt’s. (And that’s no insult to Rattigan or to Bailey.) In the theater, each artist applied the voice to disparate ends, but each voice was heard in the outside world, too, speaking out on matters that had slight connection to conventional art. In matters of politics and social injustice, the purr and the pause were not without claws.

The most notorious story of Eartha Kitt is that of her cornering Lady Bird Johnson at a White House function and upbraiding her for the Vietnam War. Kitt brought the First Lady to tears, and she was convinced that LBJ picked up the telephone that very day and blacklisted her. A black list is of course a conspiracy: it requires both instigation and complicity. I can black list George Lucas, and I have done so, but no one else cooperates, and so he continues to earn a handsome living and to do as he pleases. In Kitt’s case, we can’t be sure of a conspiracy, since no one admitted such a thing, and since the sudden decline in her performing engagements coincided with the rise and dominance of rock, an art form for which she showed scant affinity. As a self-styled sex kitten, she was already long in the tooth. In short, as others have observed, she might have had trouble finding work even if she hadn’t spoken out at the White House that day.

But speak she did, despite the professional risks, which were considerable. She presents a striking contrast to Barbra Streisand, who with atypical demureness and hardly a cross word accepted a Kennedy Center Honor this year from the hand of George Bush. Kitt at the top of her game might have accepted such an award — but to a President who stood for everything she opposed, she’d have given a scorching, seething piece of her mind in return.

The case of Pinter is different. Associated first with the “Angry Young Men,” British playwrights who blasted through the hoary gentility of English theater in the 1950s; and then established as a public intellectual, Pinter could speak out with the backing of likeminded friends and committees, and with little risk to his career. Receiving a Nobel Prize during the Bush years has been tantamount to an invitation to denounce the American President, and Pinter accepted readily.

Victor Hugo and Emile Zola suffered exile for their political views. Pinter did not, and yet he showed a certain kind of courage, and defied a certain risk. To write, even for the stage, is an introverted process, and one sits alone in a room to do it. To engage in the affairs of the outside world requires propulsive gumption and the recognition that, by attending the protest rally, you will miss the boat of your inspiration and never complete, or begin, the scene that might have hoisted you toward Parnassus.

The character of Pinter’s work is less clearly linked than Hugo’s or Zola’s to progressive social beliefs; he more nearly resembles Samuel Beckett, his friend, whose politics remain stubbornly submerged in all but one play. Pinter may be a transatlantic descendant of Mark Twain, whose work betrays little hint of his fervent, outspoken anti-imperialism. (American culture ignores Twain on every social issue but race, and with rare exceptions — Susan Sontag, John Kenneth Galbraith — it doesn’t admit public intellectuals at all; perhaps for that reason I was late to grasp the concept.) Yet despite the relative comfort of the platforms from which he spoke out, Pinter serves as a reminder: it is not enough to write.

One could argue that neither Eartha Kitt nor Harold Pinter managed to change the world. But I would argue that it’s too soon to tell — and that, in any case, there’s no reason not to try, as they did.

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20 December 2008

Majel Barrett Roddenberry

Smart woman, foolish choices: in What Are Little Girls Made Of?, Christine Chapel fell for a robot, long before she fell for Spock.

In my adolescent heyday as a Star Trek fanatic, I got to meet most of the principal crew of the Starship Enterprise at sci–fi conventions in Dallas, but the Big Three eluded me: Kirk, Spock, McCoy. Nurse Chapel was in most regards a minor recurring character on the series, but Majel Barrett, the actress who played her, boasted a credential that other cast members couldn’t match. She was married to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the series. Only the biggest conventions could afford to invite Roddenberry, not least because he was a two-fer, accompanied by his wife. She never made it to Dallas while I was growing up, and my autograph collection remains incomplete.

Christine Chapel wasn’t a terribly compelling character, in my young eyes. Really, Barrett’s other roles on the series — as the voice of the ship’s computer, and as the second-in-command, Number One, in the pilot episode — seemed more dimensional. In retrospect, that’s curious. Nurse Chapel is an ostensibly brilliant medical professional, but her outstanding character trait is a completely goofy, hopeless crush on Mr. Spock. She of all people should know that the kind of romantic passion she seeks is biologically impossible in Spock. And yet she pines on. What teenager doesn’t, at one point or another, do something similar? We know, on some level, that we’re acting like fools, but we can’t help ourselves — especially where love is concerned.

Where no woman would go thereafter:
Number One, second-in-command
(She wore trousers instead of a miniskirt, by the way)

Though I might have identified with Christine Chapel, I identified with Dr. McCoy instead. Among the women on the show, I infinitely preferred Nichelle Nichols, as Lieutenant Uhura; and I was drawn to the stunning Grace Lee Whitney, as Yeoman Rand, sensing in her a pained vulnerability that turned out to be real, and that somehow evoked my nascent impulses to gallantry. The women of the Enterprise were a strange lot, running around in those miniskirts, seldom speaking, and never commanding so much as a landing party: this was the Sixties, after all, and even in a socially progressive futuristic fantasy, some possibilities — such as feminist empowerment — remained unimaginable. Except perhaps to the fans of the show, who yearned to see Uhura in the captain’s chair. (A black woman in charge! Now that would have been impressive. Instructive, too.)

Barrett married Roddenberry shortly after the original Star Trek was cancelled, and she participated in every subsequent incarnation of the series, whether playing the cat-woman M’Ress in the animated version or Deanna Troy’s mother (a nice comic turn, in most episodes) in The Next Generation. She remained the voice of the ship’s computer, and according to her obituary in The New York Times, she recently completed recording the computer’s lines for the next Star Trek movie.

Barrett represents a kind of continuity, then, that dovetails nicely with the overall optimism of the Star Trek universe. It depicts a future in which human beings haven’t destroyed each other in nuclear war on Earth, where similarities among races and species are more important than differences, where science geeks and computer nerds are the heroes — and yet, where men and women go on acting much as they always have.

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18 December 2008

Listening to ‘Grey Gardens’

When Scott Frankel first told me he was writing a musical based on the Maysles Brothers’ film, Grey Gardens, I was skeptical. Make a musical out of a documentary? Why not start with something easier — like Nanook of the North?

I’d never seen Grey Gardens at the time. But one look was all it took to make me a believer. The film depicts Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith, in their ramshackle, eponymous mansion in East Hampton. Reclusive, eccentric, possibly mad, Big Edie and Little Edie sing constantly — to music no one else can hear. Scott’s score (to lyrics by Michael Korie, with a book by Doug Wright) permits us to enter into the madness, and to locate ourselves within the Beales.

‘Grits’ in the worst possible taste: Ebersole as Big Edie in Act I

The show ran both Off- and on Broadway, and I saw it both at Playwrights Horizons in 2006 and at the Walter Kerr in 2007. In both productions, I marveled at the powerhouse performances of its leading ladies, Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, both of whom won Tony Awards for the show. Now Albert Maysles has produced a new documentary about the making of the musical; it airs Tuesday, December 23, as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, and I urge you to watch.

The Beales came to public attention when the town of East Hampton tried to condemn Grey Gardens, which had fallen into disrepair and squalor, and was overrun with cats and raccoons, besides. Big Edie’s more glamorous niece, Jacqueline Onassis, bailed them out, but not before the story hit the New York tabloids. By the time Albert and David Maysles filmed the Beales in 1975, the scandal had died down (though the house was still a wreck), and the women reminisce, bicker, and philosophize with élan. It’s one of the oddest pictures I’ve ever seen.

The success of the documentary rekindled Little Edie’s dreams of a career in show business. Ultimately, she never quite managed stardom in any conventional sense, but she set trends in the fashion world with her highly distinctive style, and her “staunch” character in the face of adversity has made her a role model for generations of gay men. She explains both style and substance in “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” the opening number of Act II.

The musical begins on the eve of Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy, in the summer of 1941 (a reminder that the Kennedy–Bouvier connection got off to an early start). Big Edie is portrayed in Act I by the same actress who then plays Little Edie in Act II, set in 1975. The tangled similarities between mother and daughter — the qualities that unite the women and drive them to distraction — are made flesh for us. Scott’s score pretty much traces the development of the Broadway musical, as Big Edie prepares numbers to sing at the engagement party in Act I; my favorite, “Hominy Grits,” is pitch-perfect in its utter lack of taste. (In the old days, such numbers were called — brace yourselves — “coon songs.”) The music gets more complex as the show progresses, and by the time we get to the emotionally charged “Around the World” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” in Act II, Scott reveals a raw lyricism that leaves few unmoved.

Like mother, like daughter, like us:
Ebersole (Little Edie) and Wilson (Big Edie) in Act II

I’ve known Scott since 1986, when he was a rehearsal pianist for Rags, and his success is thrilling to me. Like the women and the movie that inspired it, Grey Gardens is defiantly odd; at times, it was hard to believe that such a strange piece was playing in a commercial theater. But, by golly, there it was, and it was glorious to see that Broadway still could find room for individuality, amid all the mass-produced entertainment machines that clog that fabled artery today. Scott’s got a new show, Happiness, coming in February to Lincoln Center Theater. I can’t wait.

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16 December 2008

Horst Tappert

I suspect the murderer drank wine:
Wepper and Tappert in
Inspector Derrick

Horst Tappert has died, at the age of 85. Although unfamiliar to most U.S. audiences, who have television detectives of their own to fetishize, Tappert is known the rest of the world over as “Inspector Derrick,” a level-headed sleuth who kept safe the streets of Munich. John Paul II was a fan; so were my in-laws, and so am I.

Derrick is in most ways the antithesis of an American detective series. It relies more heavily on music than on noise: one memorable episode concerned a murderous gigolo who seduced his victims by playing a recording of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer.” If there was ever a chase scene, during the 25 years of the show’s production, I missed it; guns were present but seldom if ever fired, except by bad guys, who inevitably were held accountable. Stephan Derrick is a man of few words, and fewer actions; he pursues the guilty by fleetness of mind but at a measured pace of foot. Like a less talkative version of his contemporary, Peter Falk’s Columbo, Derrick ensnares his prey with shrewd attention to the evidence and an infallible understanding of human psychology.

Derrick’s foil and faithful sidekick, Harry Klein (Fritz Wepper), is younger and more excitable, and he was known on occasion to sleep with a suspect — something that Derrick would never, ever do. The series recognizes that other points of view exist, but it confirms that they are inefficient. Derrick is always right, and Klein is right only when he heeds Derrick. This became awkward as Herr Wepper aged, and was expected to know better, but such is life.

Derrick was a symbol of the New Germany: calm, reasonable, determined, successful. Tappert himself was drafted into the German army and held as a prisoner of war during World War II, but all of that past was forgotten in Derrick’s quest for justice. As the series was produced, Germany might be divided, and beset by the Bader-Meinhoff group and its copycats, but Derrick remained unified, as it were, in his purpose. He never talked of politics, and he was wonderfully accepting of others, so long as they obeyed the law.

He spoke excellent French, when dubbed for the audiences of my adopted homeland, but he needed little translation in the booming European economy, simply because he got the job done. He looks more like the manager of a bank (and Tappert was a bookkeeper by training) than like the hero of a television series, but that is the point. Crime in the real world is more often banal than melodramatic, and it is by banal means that crime will be punished. My advice to politicians in Germany and throughout Europe is to be more Derrick-like whenever possible: shut up, pay attention, and do what’s right. I wish he were Chancellor right now.

For many years, Derrick ran just after the lunchtime news on France 2, and it’s still running in that time slot on France 3. It’s shameful perhaps to admit, but I often watch the news while I’m eating lunch, and I continue to watch while Derrick does battle with the forces of evil. Though I may sometimes nod off after a good meal, I do so in comfort, knowing that Derrick will prevail. That is Horst Tappert’s enduring gift — to all of us.

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Horton Foote

Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter), James DeMarse, Devon Abner and Maggie Lacey in Dividing the Estate

On my return to New York next month, I hope to see Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate, currently on Broadway. (Such is my luck that, now that I’ve written this, the show probably will post a closing notice.) Mr. Foote’s writing fascinates me. It speaks so eloquently of my own background that it’s a wonder I manage to write anything at all: almost anything I could possibly say about Texas, Mr. Foote has said already, and profoundly. Maybe that’s why I was the rare student who didn’t write about family, when I was in graduate school.

Mr. Foote’s characters resemble my family, both in general attitudes and, sometimes startlingly, in specific traits. My mother had the same impression, and she seized the opportunity a few years ago to ask Mr. Foote whether his family had known hers. Possibly so, Mr. Foote believed; some of the names rang a bell. The distance between Goliad, my mother’s hometown, and Wharton, Mr. Foote’s, isn’t great, yet what strikes me as more important is the proximity between Goliad and Harrison, the name Mr. Foote gives to Wharton in all of his writing. One needn’t drive to get from one town to the other. One needs merely to listen.

Mr. Foote has written a great many plays, and several films, and I can’t claim to know more than a fraction of them. Just keeping up with the newest plays is a busy job. The gentleman is 92 now, but very much active. While in New York in October, I spoke with Roy Harris, the production stage manager for Dividing the Estate, who reported that Mr. Foote, requested to revise a scene, submitted the requested changes the very next day. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that: he’s been playwriting a very long time, and he surely knows what he’s doing.

New York critics tend to compare him to Anton Chekhov, and I understand the comparison. His plays are witty, not comic, and though his characters talk at length, it very often appears on its surface to be piffle. With Mr. Foote as with Chekhov, one has to listen between the lines to hear the truth. Yet the analogy goes only so far. Mr. Foote’s work is more firmly grounded in place than Chekhov’s: very few of Mr. Foote’s plays could be transplanted from 20th-century Harrison, in the way that productions of Chekhov’s plays often are set far from 19th-century Russia.

In some respects, Mr. Foote’s plays are closer to Greek tragedy than to Russian naturalism. Actual dramatic incident is kept offstage; plot developments are more likely to be announced by a messenger than enacted before the audience. And though Mr. Foote has yet to employ a chorus (to my knowledge), his characters do comment at length on a given predicament; they recount old stories and invoke heroes long gone.

A Horton Foote play unfurls gradually, subtly. I’ve encountered critics and “civilian” audience members who find that pace to be tedious; they grow impatient with the characters’ refusal to speak their minds directly. Welcome to the South, folks.

Mr. Foote’s Wharton/Harrison, like my Goliad, is more Southern than Southwestern. It depends on a practiced gentility to hold together the straining social fabric. We have made a habit of not coming to the point, of prettifying our feelings, of obscuring our desires and resentments. This applies to race, obviously, but also to other big subjects, particularly money and sex, and in all of Mr. Foote’s work that I’ve seen, from the screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird to The Young Man from Atlanta, at least one of these topics is central.

It was during the production of The Young Man from Atlanta that I got to know Mr. Foote a little — which may help to explain why I refer to him as “Mr. Foote.” He’s a Southern gentleman, and I could no more address him by his first name, or even as “Foote,” than punch him in the nose. I helped to produce a profile on him for CBS Sunday Morning, and I sat in on the interviews conducted by his fellow Whartonian, Dan Rather. (Over the course of their time together, they discovered that they’d been delivered by the same doctor.)

Mr. Foote’s physical resemblance to Clarence the Angel, the character played by Henry Travers in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, is at first startling and then endearing. He may be an angel, or close enough, in his gentleness and wisdom, and I’ll always remember his kindness to me and, above all, to my mother. Their conversation seemed to bring him as much pleasure as it did her. She reminds me that he told her how he learned to write dialogue and to tell stories: by listening to the conversations of his lady relatives.

(Her implication may or may not be that I need to spend more time listening to her. She is a Southern lady, after all, and unlikely to come out and say such a thing directly; I must guess at her meaning.)

Much of Mr. Foote’s concerns a past I don’t know, yet it chimes precisely with the stories I heard from my grandmother and from my Great-Great Aunt Letitia, stories that are repeated now by my mother and her sister, and that may be repeated by my cousins and me, in our turn. One of Mr. Foote’s most memorable characters is Mrs. Carrie Watts, the protagonist of The Trip to Bountiful, a lonely old woman in search of her girlhood home and of a past that, if it ever existed, she can’t find. Because Mr. Foote has written so much and so well, I have a better chance of being nothing like Mrs. Carrie Watts. I can always find my Bountiful in the pages of his plays.

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15 December 2008

The Blagojevich Defense

SPRINGFIELD, IL — Details recently made public in the corruption case against Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich have shocked many Americans. Accused of scheming to trade an appointment to the U.S. Senate for money and other favors, Blagojevich is heard on surveillance tapes to make statements with breathtaking disregard for law and propriety. His language is especially foul, an epithet-laden vernacular more often associated with the gutter than with the statehouse. Yet that language may prove central to the Governor’s defense, say legal experts.

“It all boils down to the Constitution and the separation of powers,” explains Dusan “The Enforcer” Sonovavich, a prominent Chicago attorney. “You got your legislative branch, your judicial branch, and your expletive branch. If the chief expletive of the State of Illinois does something, it ain’t [expletive] illegal, and ain’t nobody from the judicial branch gonna do a [expletive] thing about it. You can’t stop an expletive from carrying out his official duties. You can’t do jack [expletive].”

According to Sonovavich and other legal scholars, Blagojevich’s best bet will be to plea not guilty by reason of profanity.

“Juries have a long precedent for overlooking this kind of [expletive],” agrees Alberta Manicotto, a professor at the Wacker School of Law & Automotive Repair. “They understand that this is the normal way of doing business in the State of Illi [expletive] nois. Juries [expletive] love this stuff. And the ones that don’t want to play along — you don’t hear much from them anymore, do you, you [expletive] [expletive] [expletive] little [expletive]?”

A spokeswoman for Blagojevich confirmed that the Governor has no intention of resigning, and that he is looking forward to carrying out his duties, including appointing a new U.S. Senator, vetoing any attempt by the Illinois General Assembly to remove him from office, and [expletive] his wife, as usual.

However, Blagojevich is open to taking a leave of absence, if Fran and Barry Weissler will put him into the national company of Chicago for four weeks. “Not as Billy Flynn,” the spokeswoman said. “He wants to play Velma. He’s got great [expletive] legs and a great [expletive]. He’s sitting on a [expletive] goldmine here.”

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13 December 2008

A Return to the Neighborhood

One of the happiest moments of my research into the life of Madeline Kahn has been the discovery that, in the mid-1960s, she appeared in a revue with Betty Aberlin; shortly thereafter, Aberlin became the leading light in the little repertory company of human beings on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where I first became acquainted with her work. She and I are now engaged in a lively e-correspondence, and I’m looking forward to meeting her. Every line of our exchanges has been a pleasure for me — with one exception.

Betty Aberlin informs me that, as of September, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is no longer part of the regular PBS programming. Individual stations continue to have the option to carry the program, but many won’t; others may run only one episode per week, demolishing the carefully constructed developmental lessons that are the heart and soul of the show. When PBS’s change of policy was announced, a website, savemisterrogers.com, was set up to link “neighbors” and to coordinate whatever efforts may be possible; though the policy has gone into effect, all hope is not lost. If you’re in the States, you’re urged to let your local station know your views — especially if you’re a parent with small children.

Prior to September, the website solicited testimonials from those parents, and other former children. Learning of the emergency too late to do much good, I’d like to tell you why Mister Rogers is important to me — to this day, despite the fact that I’m grown, and that the youngest of my godchildren are now older than the target audience. The value of Mister Rogers is enduring and universal, if only one has access to it. To restrict or to seal off that access would be a waste, a crime, quite possibly a catastrophe.

From the beginning, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was like nothing else on television for children. It was quiet. It was still. Though it hardly seems possible, children’s television has gotten only noisier and more violent since my boyhood, to the point that nowadays, when I visit my godchildren (I’m not singling out anyone, mind you), I have to retreat, sometimes for days, to some quiet spot, just to recover. I can see that such kids might be perplexed, at first, by the tranquility of the Neighborhood.

Each episode begins with Fred Rogers’ arrival at the house — which is not his home, and not ours, but a space reserved for us, with no other purpose than to learn and to share. Rogers observes a series of rituals that reinforce this idea of specialness: he sings “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” he hangs up his jacket and puts on a sweater, he changes from loafers to sneakers, he feeds the fish, he speaks to us.

There are no child actors in the studio, to stand in for the viewer, as there are in other shows, notably Sesame Street, which also uses Muppet characters such as Elmo and Big Bird to present childlike points of view: in the Neighborhood, the viewer is an essential member of the cast. Fred Rogers speaks to the camera, and in doing so, he speaks directly to the individual viewer. Our relationship is unfiltered, intimate, and ultimately sacrosanct. Mister Rogers wears no funny costumes; he doesn’t pretend to be an uncle, teacher, or anything but a neighbor. Everything that follows will be for us, a kind of conversation in which we “discuss” topics.

In the later series, these discussions are treated thematically, with each week dedicated to a particular topic. Though of course Fred Rogers can’t hear us (if we do answer him), he anticipates the questions a child might ask, then answers them: these are monologues, and yet they are interactive, long before the concept of interactive television was defined. Episode builds upon episode. The themes are dramatized, most often in the central segment of each episode, set in the Land of Make-Believe. If Fred Rogers is talking about how it feels to get a new baby brother or sister, then in Make-Believe King Friday XIII and his loyal subjects may act out those anxieties, when we learn that Queen Sarah Saturday is having a baby. Does that mean the queen will love Daniel Striped Tiger any less? The characters talk about their feelings.

Many of the characters are hand puppets, most of whom were operated and voiced by Rogers himself. Several “real people” actors appear, but they bear exalted titles (Betty Aberlin is “Lady Aberlin,” niece of King Friday) or wear fantastical costumes (Bob Trow becomes Bob Troll or Bob Dog). A toy trolley transports us to Make-Believe and back; like Fred Rogers’ sweater and sneakers at the beginning of each program, the Trolley underlines a kind of boundary. What happens in Make-Believe is distinct from what happens in Mister Rogers’ house, just as what happens in Mister Rogers’ house is distinct from what happens in the rest of the world. There’s no chance of a child’s acquiring the unrealistic expectation that, in her own life, the cat will begin to speak, or her toy boomerang will ever perform the tricks that Lady Elaine Fairchilde’s Boomerang Toomerang Zoomerang did. (Mine certainly didn’t.)

Always a Lady: Betty Aberlin, in the Real World
Photos of Betty Aberlin courtesy of Ms. Aberlin

But the Land of Make-Believe gives us a chance to explore feelings, ideas and their consequences, without hurting anything real. At the end of each segment, the Trolley returns us to the Neighborhood house, where Mister Rogers, sometimes aided by other neighbors, reflects further on the theme of the week. By the end of the week, we have all absorbed the lessons.

Each episode ends with a song, either “Tomorrow” or “It’s Such a Good Feeling,” as Mister Rogers hangs up his sweater, puts on his loafers, and returns to the outside world — always with the reminder that, “You make each day special, just by being you.”

This is powerful stuff, every bit of it. Other educational programs are flashier, but Fred Rogers was a specialist. He was teaching his audience about feelings, not phonics or math, and he understood that his lessons would require a calmer, more sheltered environment, with minimal distractions. Some of this wisdom was born of necessity: when he started the program, his operating budget was $30. Yet some of it was sheer genius, and Rogers crafted and maintained his environment meticulously.

As a viewer gets older — as I did — certain aesthetic virtues in the program become more apparent. My friends at Opera News tout the importance of unforced, conversational singing, especially in song repertoire. Now I see that the perfect model of our ideal can be found in the baritone John Reardon, who made frequent visits to the Neighborhood. (Rogers wrote several short operas for the program, primarily to illustrate a developmental theme, but with the secondary result of giving many children, including me, a first exposure to the art form.) The other cast members sang much the same way, and a similar aesthetic turns up in their acting. In talking with puppets, Betty Aberlin demonstrates a centered naturalness and emotional transparency that my acting teachers tried (mostly in vain) to bring to our interpretations of Chekhov, for example. That she had me completely convinced that she was a high-school girl from Pittsburgh is but one measure of Aberlin’s talent.

As I grew older, I came to appreciate the grace and subtlety of Fred Rogers’ musical compositions. “Just for Once,” as I’ve mentioned, remains one of the most poignant love songs I’ve ever heard. The songs were arranged and played by the late Johnny Costa, a brilliant jazz pianist, and though I’ve traveled far, I’ve seldom heard anyone to rival Costa’s inspiration and technique. “Handyman” Joe Negri is an accomplished jazz guitarist, “Officer” François Clemmons a gifted operatic baritone and the founder of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. Offering musical art of this caliber to unsophisticated children may seem like squandering a precious gift, yet don’t children deserve to hear good music? And how will they ever learn to appreciate good music if they’re not exposed to it?

Ditto good acting and thoughtful writing. Fred Rogers was adamant — fierce — about the quality of his program. As you see, every aspect of it was carefully thought-out. Unfortunately, few among us have thought about the show with equal care.

It was never meant to be hip, not even in the 1960s, so naturally it isn’t hip now. There’s almost never any cartoon animation, of the kind on which other children’s programs rely; the colors aren’t garish and the sounds are quiet. In his own performance, Fred Rogers presents a gentle persona that strikes many people as fey, simply because it isn’t macho. But there’s method in his unaggressive manliness. When I began watching the program, the United States was at war, and violence among young people had risen to crisis levels. Fred Rogers presented an alternative: his puppet characters don’t bop each other, as other puppets and cartoons do; and his lessons focus on channeling or controlling anger and other feelings into non-violent expression. In his on-camera demeanor, he was equally a man of peace.

That was a revolutionary posture, in its time, and you would have trouble convincing me that it wouldn’t be so today — when the United States is at two wars, and violence among young people remains at crisis levels. We need Fred Rogers now.

Sadly, he became such an icon that his image fell into other hands, some of which have shaped it unrecognizably, with lasting effects. Somewhere, some standup comic came up with a simple, rather stupid riff — Wouldn’t it be funny if Mister Rogers were a child molester? The answer, of course, is no, yet people laughed anyway. That riff spun off into endless variations, in innumerable comedy routines, with the result that otherwise sensible people of my acquaintance now dismiss Fred Rogers as creepy. Look at the program, for Pete’s sake. He’s not creepy. He’s speaking to an audience of four-year-olds in a language they can understand, about issues of importance to them (and to the rest of us). Yeah, he’s got a distinctive speech pattern, and it’s easily imitated, and too easily mocked. But that shouldn’t prevent us from hearing what he actually said.

As a viewer, I came to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood early in the show’s history (it was still called Misterogers’ Neighborhood, and Betty Aberlin had yet to make her first appearance), but a bit late to make up part of the target audience. Nevertheless, as a first-grader I was still trying to cope with my feelings — and I still am. The lessons rang true. They still do.

It’s easy to see Fred Rogers’ influence in a couple of realms of my adult life. By writing fiction, exploring a theme within the parameters of an imaginary setting, am I not every day returning to the Land of Make-Believe? The first operas I ever heard (as opposed to discrete arias) were his; now opera is a cornerstone of my aesthetic and emotional life.

Another influence may be a little harder to see. I continued watching the show long after I was, officially, too old for it. As a kid in Texas, I was daily confronted with a violent machismo in direct and painful contrast with Fred Roger’s gentle peace. I found hope in him: that, yeah, you could go on to lead a productive life even if you weren’t a brute. At school, I was bullied without remorse: insulted, spat upon, and beat up, day after day. But in the afternoon, I could always rely on the fact that at least one person would tell me I was special — would like me, not abuse me, precisely because I was special.*

If that sounds pathetic, so be it. There are days of my junior-high existence that I might not have survived at all, if I hadn’t had Mister Rogers to come home to. People talk about the “soothing” quality of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet the word is too poor to describe the sustenance I found there.

Times change, tastes vary. Fred Rogers may ultimately become one of those great philosopher–teachers whose lessons we must learn to apply for ourselves, because he’s no longer around to do the job for us. My godchildren weren’t devoted followers of his program, but I was, and so I have tried to be as sensitive to them, as Fred Rogers was to his television friends: as patient, as caring, as wise.

It is a hard thing to be a good grownup to a child. There may be no task more difficult. And that task will be only more difficult if we don’t — if we can’t — from time to time consult Mister Rogers, and locate ourselves within his Neighborhood. He already did so much of the work for us, and it’s right there, waiting for us to make use of it.

Besides savemisterrogers.com, there are a few other good links, and the more we click on them, the more we may persuade the Powers That Be that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is still relevant and meaningful to us. So click away!

Family Communications is the organization Fred Rogers founded to help families get the most out of his television program, and to make parenting a little easier.

PBS’s official Mister Rogers site boasts lots of interactive features — and it’s the site whose counter the PBS programmers are most likely to notice.

*Within a few years, my girlfriend would begin referring to me as “her Special.” I don’t think she knew she was invoking Fred Rogers — that might well have been creepy, in this context.

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12 December 2008

Bettie Page

The death of the pin-up model Bettie Page is not, at first blush, the sort of topic with which I might be expected to concern myself in this space. Upon further reflection, however, one immediately sees important similarities between Bettie Page and Joyce DiDonato, for example, starting with their great hair and their maintenance in curious surroundings of a disarming Mid-American wholesomeness. Susan Graham was costumed like Bettie Page in a recent production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride here in Paris. (No one knows why this is so, but it’s a fact.) The subject is entirely within my customary purview.

Moreover, Page’s work can tell us something of the nature of modeling — and thereby something of the nature of art itself. Not since it was revealed that one of Henri Matisse’s nude models went on to become a Catholic nun have we had a better opportunity to reflect on the question of what the subject brings to the representation in any work of art. Indeed, because Page was photographed more often than she was painted, it is easier to see her contribution to the art made in her image: Matisse could with a brushstroke manipulate our perceptions of Sister Jacques-Marie, and he wasn’t interested in naturalism (or obtaining a recognizable likeness) anyway; whereas a photographer can only frame, light, and airbrush so much. Some part of the expression comes from Bettie Page, not the camera.

The situation can be understood perhaps better by considering the art of film acting. Among my classmates at Brown, and everywhere in France, there has been a tendency to fetishize “auteur directors,” and to dismiss actors as trained animals or objects. A bad performance can be made good, or a good made bad, through staging, upstaging, editing, and other fundamental tools of a director’s art. Yet consider the case of Katharine Hepburn, or Madeline Kahn. Even when the movies are substandard, these ladies project a persona, a carefully crafted artistic statement; in some cases, it’s not even clear the directors are aware of what the actors are doing. The actor, too, is an auteur. (So is the singer, like DiDonato or Graham, no matter what loony “concepts” a Eurotrash stage director may impose on her.) A certain expression asserts itself despite the control that another artist wields.

To be an artist’s model, to be a photographer’s model especially, is to be an actor in the blink of an eye. Yes, Bettie Page’s performance is framed, defined, limited, set up by someone else. But she is acting. Within a specific context, she provides a considered response — an interpretation — a performance. If she were merely lovely, we might not look at her anymore, a half-century after the pose; if she were merely a manipulated image, we surely would not hail her as a pre-feminist icon and sexual revolutionary. “There’s nothing dirty or shameful about this,” she tells us, again and again, in image after image, no matter what she’s doing or which photographer took the picture. With the benefit of hindsight, and the knowledge that there are plenty of worse and exploitative photographs to be taken, we agree with Bettie Page, and we take her message to heart.

I began to question the dynamic between artist and model several years ago, when Jean Rather painted Her Conversations with Gauguin. It’s a remarkable piece, perhaps not an outright rebuttal but a principled objection to the serenely objectified Tahitian women who decorate Gauguin’s best-known works. Far from serene, far from still, Rather’s brush races furiously across the canvas, in jagged tangles. The image is agitated, even angry — at sexism, racism, colonialism, at all those things that lie so far beneath the surface of Gauguin’s paintings. “There is more going on here than met your eye, Monsieur Paul,” Rather’s painting seems to say, and the result is a more honest and complex portrait — and a disturbing one.

In old age and as a Born-Again Christian, Bettie Page embraced her pin-up work — but she also depended upon its continued marketing for her livelihood, and without it, she might have died in poverty. Though many of her best-known images were taken by women, and though she insisted that she worked by choice, not by force of others, some of those images are frankly disturbing and recall ugly scenes, photography as a kind of abuse. Because of the blithe freshness of her appearance, we find it easy to believe Bettie Page’s account, and to ignore the possibility that the reality may have been less wholesome. Most of the images are more whimsical than pornographic; we’re not ashamed of them, and we find different ways to co-opt Page’s image in other contexts: as any number of comic-book heroines, beginning with Veronica, in Archie & Jughead; as innumerable rock singers; or as the young woman who sells tickets in a certain Left Bank cinema. The image of Bettie Page becomes a display of woman’s self-determining power.

Yet — I underscore — it’s Bettie Page’s artistic representation of herself that permits us to interpret and reinterpret her message so benignly. As with any photographic images, we see only what the camera frames, and everything else around it remains unseen and unknown to us. Those images were directed and controlled, both artistically and financially, by people other than Bettie Page. She acted, yet she was also acted upon — and acted upon yet again, when those images were put to their intended use, which is not art criticism. She could guide the viewer’s interpretation only so far, yet the degree to which she succeeded, first in her poses and later in her public statements, is remarkable. She commands our respect.

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11 December 2008

Furore! Furore! Furore!

She sings insanely well.

On Tuesday morning, I looked out the window to see snow falling in the garden in Beynes. Snow is a rare occurrence in this part of France, in recent years, yet it seemed only fitting that the macrocosm should reflect the importance of the day. For in Paris that evening, Joyce DiDonato made her début at the Salle Pleyel, joining Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques for a concert of arias featured on her new album, Furore!

Happily, Joyce’s appearances in Paris aren’t nearly so uncommon as snowfall — though, like the snow, she didn’t linger long, and she’s on the road again. The concert was spectacular in itself, and also as a marker of Joyce’s upward trajectory. When she made her début at the Opéra, as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, she was far from well-known — anywhere. It was almost a 42nd Street moment: as if Hugues Gall, the Intendant at the time, threw her into that leading role with the exhortation, You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!

That was 2002. Now, with other leading roles and concerts under her belt in this city, and an exciting solo album on its way to record stores worldwide, her stardom isn’t in question here. The Parisian public knows her, adores her, awaits her each appearance and greets her rapturously. “Gratitude” is Joyce’s word, but I’ll borrow it: I’m grateful to share such moments in her career.

Tidings of Comfort and Joyce:
Signing autographs at the Salle Pleyel
Photograph by Michael Benchetrit©

Furore! is a collection of mad scenes — or portraits of intense psychological distress, at least — by George Frideric Handel. Years ago, a friend summed up the emotional range of that composer with this assessment of Giulio Cesare: “Happy, sad, angry, sad, happy — the end.” Though influenced unduly by his analysis, I did eventually add a couple of emotional colors to that list, by hearing more works and other insightful singers. Yet Joyce’s approach to Handel was — and remains — a revelation to me. She makes Handel’s notes as expressive as Shakespeare’s words, and delves deeply into the genuine emotions behind them. Each aria becomes a soliloquy, and I have entirely revised my opinion of a composer I loved but never took very seriously.

It was interesting, too, to watch Joyce as an actress navigate the treacherous waters between full-out representation of the scene (which, out of narrative context, would risk making her look — well — nuts) and mere recitation (which would prove decidedly jarring). She struck a nice balance, I thought, registering just enough anguish in her facial expressions and gestures to assure us that, yes, she did know what she was singing about; and keeping the rest of her body still.

Distraught, as usual: Singing Dejanira in Hercules
(This kind of thing happens to Joyce all the time, you see.)
(Onstage, that is.)

Musically, she found distinctions between each character, and even more impressively, between each verse. The da capo structure of a Handel aria is “A–B–A”: a first idea is expressed; a second, contrasting idea follows; then the first idea is repeated and elaborated on. Remember, all the characters she was portraying up there are driven mad, most of them due to a lover’s infidelity; and then, each individual character necessarily repeats him- or herself. The lyrics are interchangeable; Handel provides only so much musical variety to keep these people separate in our minds, and Joyce and the orchestra have to provide the rest. How? Beats me. But it’s thrilling to hear.

I’m always happiest when she can play with the rhythm, stretching and snapping phrases, and she got to do a lot of that, especially in the second half. She gave us all kinds of ornaments and effects — absolutely required in Handel, in which the singing is supposed to compete with the elaborate sets and costumes, mechanical dragons, sword fights and explosions of the original productions, in the 18th century. (Everything about a Handel opera, properly done, should make the audience gasp.) Sometimes on Tuesday night, she might whiten her tone for a haunting, mournful effect; or she’d employ a messa di voce, the phenomenally difficult gradual crescendo and decrescendo of a note or line. She popped out runs, trills, roulades and every kind of firework, high notes, low notes, you name it. It was a helluva show.

Working with different conductors and orchestral ensembles means adapting the interpretation of an aria. Therefore, the way Joyce sings Ariodante’s numbers with Rousset now differs in some respects from the way she sang the role in a staged production in Geneva last year, with Kenneth Montgomery; the way she sings Dejanira’s numbers, from Hercules, won’t be the same now as it was in 2004, when she sang the role at the Palais Garnier, with William Christie. I’m dying to ask her about this process of reinterpretation.

Photograph by Michael Benchetrit©

And I may get a chance, because I’m lucky enough to know the lady. Close readers of this blog will recall my regret that I never had a Diva moment — reenacting the scene in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film, in which a young man walks with a singer through the empty streets of Paris at dawn. Well, it was only 2A.M., but I had an umbrella, Joyce obliged me, and Michael Benchetrit took a picture to commemorate the occasion.

An occasion, you must observe, that is even more rare than snowy days in Paris.

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07 December 2008

Piaf at the White House

Mesdames, Messieurs, le Président des Etats-Unis

An article I came across, sometime during this long campaign season just (mostly) past, suggested that liberals are hamstrung during any contest with conservatives because we can’t bring ourselves to think the way they do. That is, certain kinds of conservative political thinking are so irrational that normal people can’t put themselves in the other fellow’s shoes; instead, we find ourselves saying, “Nobody could really think that.”

When I was at CBS News, the suspicion was widespread, if not universal, that the conservative commentatrix Laura Ingraham, at the time a consultant for the News Division and no older than the youngest among us, didn’t believe a word of what she said on camera: she let fly the most outrageous things she could think of, we believed, merely in order to attract attention — and air time — and money. That gimmick, like her short skirts, worked very nicely for her, we had to admit, though we were too easily shamed to follow her example. I hear much the same being said of the far more outrageous Ann Coulter, as if she were simultaneously Finley Peter Dunne and Mr. Dooley, a writer and a comic persona at once. We almost envy Coulter’s ability to think like a frothy-mouthed lunatic. We could make very nice careers for ourselves, if only we could think that way, too.

Apparently, conservatives have no trouble anticipating liberal thought, which is one way they so often smash us at the polls. This fundamental rift goes beyond mere politics or cognition, however. Transcripts of acting President George Bush’s recent interview with Charles Gibson, of ABC News, suggest that cognitive and affective thought among certain conservatives may be wholly beyond the scope of other people’s brains. To put it simply, I spend my entire life in regret, whereas George Bush is a kind of Super Piaf, who regrets nothing at all. I can’t imagine what life must be like for such a person. Easier, perhaps, except for those one lives with.

In his interview with ABC, Soon-to-be-Citizen Bush cited, as the only regret of his eight years in the White House, that the intelligence in the weeks leading up to his invasion of Iraq was not “different.” He referred — of course — to the discovery that the promised “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” the primary justification for the war, did not in fact exist in Iraq.

This was a far cry from apologizing for the war (although some U.S. newspapers interpreted it that way) and a far cry from taking any personal responsibility for his decisions. Though he skipped an opportunity to emphasize, as he usually does, that the U.S. was right to invade Iraq, regardless, he did repeat the outright lie that Iraq had forbidden access to United Nations inspectors in the weeks leading up to the invasion. (In truth, the U.N. inspectors pursued their investigations right up until they fled the country — of their own accord — because Bush was about to start bombing Baghdad.) And he persists in making it sound as if the evidence indicating the presence of WMD were nothing but “slam dunk,” though parties inside and outside his administration expressed considerable skepticism at the time.

We’ve been through this and through this with Bush, and reasonably we shouldn’t expect him to change his tune: leopards will change their spots before Bush admits the lies and mistakes that have characterized his war in Iraq. That war is, after all, one of the very few things he can claim as his own; take that away, and he’s got a freakishly blank slate to show for his eight years in power. Yet we marvel anyway that Bush doesn’t regret his part in the failed economy; the poisonous political climate in Washington; the rollbacks of civil rights for blacks, immigrants, and homosexuals as a direct result of the policies of the party he ostensibly leads; the nightmarish federal response to Hurricane Katrina; or the irresponsible aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Doesn’t he regret hiring “Heckuva Job Brownie”? Doesn’t he regret not firing Donald Rumsfeld or Alberto Gonzales?

Politics long since ceased to be the arena for admission of responsibility, much less fault: that would mean showing weakness, which is fatal. Even Congressmen who have been caught with their trousers down insist they’re innocent, as if their willies have been taken out of context somehow. Why should a President express regret, when a Congressman does not? And even in the Age of Oprah, we must concede that a network-television interview may not always be the place to unburden one’s secret soul. But still! Couldn’t Bush have thrown us a crumb? We, who do not agree with him, simply can’t believe that, with a record so sordid, he sincerely can’t find any other sources of contrition.

Why we seek some proof that Bush is somehow related to us, as a species, I don’t know, but there it is. We are disappointed — when not outraged — by each fresh reminder that his brain is wired differently from ours.

And, I suspect, we are somewhat envious, too. How nice it must be, to live that way!

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05 December 2008

On Reading Proust in French

I have been doing lately something I hadn’t done since I was 18: reading Proust in French. During freshman year, I was assigned to read Combray, the first part of À la recherche du temps perdu, in a discrete edition, as part of a class that was designed to make me a literary analyst and theoretician. Instead of theory, though, I opted for praxis, for while the prose of Proust — even in French — didn’t pose too many difficulties, I found most of the theory pointless, when not impenetrable. Brown boasted one of America’s first programs in semiotics, and my friends rhapsodized over the signs and signifiers in the Recherche, while others unlocked its hermeneutic code, and heaven knows what else: Proust was their baby, and they guarded him jealously from those who approached him with any purpose other than theirs.

I might have been intimidated by these people, but I wasn’t — at least, not where Proust was concerned. I recognized in Combray the beginnings of an awfully good story, evocative scene-setting and characterization, flashes of genuine wit and currents of deep feeling.

Often I had to look up the words I didn’t know, always troubled by the forlorn image of a character in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a Swedish student who passes a summer’s holiday in France by reading Proust with a dictionary. (Powell has a gift for these snapshot summations of awkwardness and alienation, most famously in the episode of Widmerpool and the sugar-caster; the images stick with you long afterward, much as the sugar stuck to the pomade in Widmerpool’s hair.) Yet I had the feeling that Proust meant for certain words to be unfamiliar, to give the reader pause; he even coined several, much as he invented paintings, books, and pieces of music about which he wrote exactly as if they were real, until a cultivated person responds with something like alarm: “Should I know that work? I must look it up.” The real obstacle within the prose was the sheer mass of it: it made me sleepy, and I never got through more than three paragraphs without nodding off.

In the opening passage of Combray, Proust describes nodding off over a book, and the momentary confusion, upon awakening, of text and reality; for him, this is one way in which a story insinuates itself in the subconscious. It is how we take possession of the writing. He would approve, I think, of my catnaps: they were not signs of boredom with his work but of absorption in it.

He had created a universe, which according to his rules would be not a place but a time and a way of thinking. In order to enter into that universe, I realized, I would have to immerse myself more fully than was possible for a struggling college student, distracted by other books and by the business of his life. Sometime before graduation, Rick Moody announced that he’d read the entirety of the Recherche, in English, but the job had required a summer, during which time (as I recall), he had mono and wasn’t good for any other occupation. Another friend, Jean Rather, sequestered herself in the garden for a summer, too, during which time her family were forbidden to approach her until she finished her reading. Cursed with good health, of a kind that would have baffled Proust, and lacking a garden, I would have to pick my moment to sit down with him, as I dearly wanted to do.

When at last the time came, I read him in English. I wasn’t ready for the original. Though I was living among French people at the time and speaking the language on a daily basis, my return to literature in French was achieved by easy stages: Astérix comic books; then Alain-Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes, a kind of “young adult” novel that Proust himself admired; then shorter Balzac and the plays of Racine (which are absurdly easy) and Voltaire (less so); then longer Balzac and shorter, then longer Flaubert; and then the 20-volume odyssey of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle.

Reading Proust in French, all the way through, is still a distant goal. I mean to do it, but honestly — when will I find the moment? There is so much yet to be read! Not a word of Victor Hugo — how is that possible? Can I truly call myself a quasi-Frenchman if I haven’t read Les Misérables? And do I not owe it to myself to read more of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir than the high-school adaptation, notable for its brevity and its expurgations, that I read for Carlene Klein Ginsburg’s class? (That little book was so bowdlerized, I have since realized, that I do not in fact have any idea what the plot of the real novel is, and I am embarrassed, in retrospect, that I listed it among the books I’d read recently when I applied to colleges.)

It’s possible that, one day, I’ll arrive at Sainte-Beuve, and thus be able to appreciate Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve; and if I read widely enough, I may be able to appreciate the stylistic parodies with which — I’m told — Proust dotted the Recherche. Well, maybe. Of all the qualities of French literature, style remains the slipperiest to me. If you were to set a passage from Mme de Sévigny, that great stylist, against a passage from Amélie Nothomb, I’d know the difference, sure, but anything subtler than that will elude me.

Even as I busy myself with other writers, I’m aware that I have lost something in translation of Proust. The effects of him in English were powerful. My philosophy changed by the page; my aesthetics were transformed. Once Proust has hooked you, you can’t look at time or people or a painting, you can’t hear a conversation or a piece of music the same way. The ground begins to shift beneath you, and you will spend the rest of your life looking for something to hold onto — as his nearly-nameless narrator does. How much more powerful that effect would be if I were to receive it directly, undistilled, untranslated!

Of course, that would mean wading through his paragraph-long sentences in a language that is not native to me. Focusing on the words, already a challenge in English, would have to become, for a time, my life’s calling.

For my birthday this year, Bernard gave me a little book called Jalousie, which purports to be a short novel by Marcel Proust. It is in fact an extract, roughly two chapters, from Sodome et Gomorrhe, which Proust published in a literary review primarily to piss off the publishers of the complete Recherche. In a sense, then, I am going over old ground. But that is — one can’t stress this enough — precisely what anyone who has read Proust will spend the rest of his life doing.

So I am treated to a rediscovery of a long party scene at the home of the Prince de Guermantes. It’s much, much funnier than I remembered it, almost a drawing-room comedy. At this stage of the Recherche, the narrator has only just discovered the Baron de Charlus having it off with Jupien — that morning — and his growing awareness of “inversion” (homosexuality) colors much of his perception here. (Spoiler alert! By the end of the Recherche, the narrator will conclude that almost every character is gay, and leading a double life.) Charlus attends the party, and he is in sublimely bitchy form, which the narrator, knowing more about him now, is better able to appreciate and to analyze. The Baron is one of the supreme creations of literature, and it’s great fun to spend time in his company again.

We’re also concerned with poor old Swann, ostracized now for his unsuitable marriage to Odette and for his undisguised support of Col. Dreyfus. The Dreyfus Affair becomes a central conflict in the Recherche: lines are drawn, friendships demolished and unlikely alliances forged, society shaken. When I began to read Proust in English, I knew almost nothing about the Affair, and so I compared it to the O.J. Simpson case, which was playing out at the time. This was a mistake on my part, because among people I knew, opinions about the case didn’t vary much. Perhaps indeed the case called into question the nature of justice in America, whether it is possible for a black man — or a wealthy man — to get a fair trial. Perhaps indeed there were legitimate reasons to suspect that Simpson, like Dreyfus, had been set up with falsified evidence; perhaps we did struggle to reconcile a corrupt, racist system with the brutal murder of two unlucky people. Was the path to judgment somehow worse than the crime itself?

Yet all-consuming as the Simpson case was, in those days, it was a sideshow, not a revolution. Proust would have dismissed it in a few pages — which is not, you understand, his usual treatment of topics that interest him.

Soon, Albertine will make an appearance, visiting the narrator in his apartment, and the promised theme of jealousy will expand beyond the ballroom to the bedroom. That scene, as I recall it, is a doozy, and I’m looking forward to it.

Much of my reading of Proust will necessarily be sentimental, always, and I might have benefited from greater study of theory and interpretation. I surely ought to familiarize myself better with Bergson and Ruskin before delving further into Proust. Yet I wonder whether more skilled readers are moved, as I am, by the death of the narrator’s beloved grandmother; whether they gasp, as I do, at the rise of Mme Verdurin or the brilliance of the housekeeper Françoise; whether they strain, as I must, to hear the “little phrase” of the composer Vinteuil when they are alone with a lover.

Rediscovering Proust, in this new way, has brought me back to those moments, the feelings I had: about the death of my own grandmother, about the rise and brilliance of people I’ve known, about the Chopin nocturnes I used to listen to while reading, and while falling asleep over the pages. These things are, ultimately, what one can hold onto — all that one can hold onto, Proust says — and so long as I have his books, they will always be within my grasp.

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