A few weeks ago, my better half and I were up in Manchester, England, to do research for an upcoming exhibition. While there, we had the good fortune of catching a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town starring Welsh girl gone West End Connie Fisher as Ruth. Though not quite the real thing, this revival of a Broadway musical version of a play (turned movie, turned sitcom) based on a series of magazine stories inspired by the personal recollections of an Ohioan in Gotham did manage to evoke some of the magic and the madness of life in the titular burg. And now that I’m back, the residential misadventures of Eileen and her sister come to mind each time I walk down Second Avenue in my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Like the McKenney siblings, whose Greenwich Village basement flat was shaken by blasts heralding a subway line then under construction, folks up here in Yorkville have been dealing for years with the pre-math of just such a subterranean project: the noise, the dirt, the traffic jams, the shut down stores, the narrowed sidewalks, the fenced in pedestrian passageways that make you feel like a laboratory rat . . . and the rats themselves.
I call them inventory days, those first few weeks of a new calendar year. It is a time when I play secretary to myself, when I organize and catalogue, shelve and throw away, when I look back at the places I’ve been to, the things I have done, the people I have met. Perhaps, I am getting it all wrong: the year is crisp—so, why am I rehashing what has been, obsessively reconstructing the past with the aid of notes in my calendar, correspondences, receipts and ticket stubs? I am not attached to the material evidence of my prior whereabouts and activities, mind. I jot down what I can glean from each scrap of paper and discard it posthaste. The records are gone, but my recordings of them remain. Such nonchalance is the prerogative of a diarist: not to feel obliged to prove—let alone account for—his or her existence to anyone else. I recount events in order to make them count rather than become accountable for them . . .
You can’t take it with you—but does that mean I should dispose of whatever I have consumed? I am not quite so indifferent when it comes to artifacts that, unlike my mind and body’s scant body of work, might be of consequence to posterity. I feel free to dispose of a photograph of myself after I scan it; but I am uneasy about doing the same to a piece of ephemera such as this souvenir program (from my collection of motion picture memorabilia). May the copy be a feast for greedy eyes as long as the original is removed from greasy fingers.
Sure, I enjoy surrounding myself with meaningful objects; but, my childhood teddy bear excepting, I am not attached to belongings. To have is utility; to hold, futility.
The chance of having and not holding is what attracted me to the immaterial world of radio dramatics. These days, I mostly collect what goes into one ear and, playing with it, delay the moment at which it comes out of the other. I amass what has no mass: digital recordings, not the physical vehicles on which they used to be stored (shellac, vinyl, magnetic tape).
Everything I have gathered is at my fingertips, nothing is filed away. My world and my vault are one. The files are backed up (this much I have learned from past losses)—but they are ready to go wherever I am. I can take it all with me; and doing so rather than storing things away enriches my life.
That said, I have to learn to cut short my inventory days; last year, they lasted for months. To cut a long time in storage short, I have booked a trip to New York this January. No doubt I will be both gathering new stuff for living and, as my past record tells me, look back and catch up. I know my failings. No saints need apply to preserve me.
“Take Back UR Power Now,” the letters on the marquee read. I am standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Whose power? I wonder. Who took it? Who lost it? And just who is telling me—or anyone else reading—to seize it? Take it from me, perhaps? Do I have it? Did I ever have it? Am I supposed to have it? If so, to do what with? Storm the box office? Take to the stage? Tear down the building and plant a tree? A windmill? Hold it. Is this one of those tiresomely postmodern Barbara Krugerisms? As my friend Clifton once put it, “I could look [it] up . . . but it’s more fun to speculate.”
The imperative “Now” intrigues me. It strikes me as incongruous, anachronistic. And, yes, antagonistic. It does not seem to denote the “Now” of 2011, my “Now” on this bright, sunny afternoon spent in one of the most frivolous locales in the western hemisphere. The look of the venue, the somewhat run-down surroundings, the slogan and its lettering transport me back to the early, bleak, violent, recession-shaken 1990s. Why am I thinking race relations? Could this not just as well be some hackneyed Tea Party catchphrase? Or else, a sign of things to come . . .
The time is ripe for warping. I’ve just been to Grauman’s Chinese, placing my palms into the imprints left by stars long gone out. I’ve been taking in all those names on the Walk of Fame, and it felt like treading on gravestones. And I arrived here, at the Music Box, transported by a longing, by the kind of nostalgia I am so wary of.
I did not expect to be reminded of the 1990s, to be taken aback instead of simply being taken back, if that were ever achieved ‘simply.’ Sure, I was prepared to be late. Seventy-five years late, to be exact. If it were in my power, I would be standing here, back in line with hundreds of other enthusiasts, to take a gander at Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler, or Claudette Colbert. Not on the screen, mind, but live and in person. The Music Box, after all, was once the venue for the Lux Radio Theater, a Monday afternoon extravaganza hosted by showman-director Cecil B. DeMille. Merle Oberon, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford. Back in the summer of 1936, they were all here. I am in awe.
That is why I have come to this spot—on a Monday afternoon, no less, as I would later realize. I was dreaming. Now I feel tired out, and a little bit stupid, having caught myself chasing after ghosts. It is as if I had been hoping to get hold of the breeze stirred up by some wispy number long since mothballed. The spirit of the place does not “send me,” as swooning teenagers used to call it (the state of swooning, I mean). If anything, it sends me back to where I started this reverie. It takes me back into the ether, the mythical non-space I can fill, at will, with the voices of Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler . . . as they were performing for millions of listeners, broadcasting live from the Music Box stage. It takes me back.
Wait. When was it again that I discovered these recordings for myself? The early 1990s. Well, what do you know! I guess, looking at that marquee, I have been forced to catch up with myself, and I find that self wanting, historically lost to the world. Years spent circling in representations of a past not alive to my being. Is it time to take back whatever I squandered? Is there still time? Do I have the energy to matter, the power to mean? I wonder . . .
I have said nothing yet about my trip to Germany. It was not any old sightseeing tour, mind; nor was it a carefully mapped out homecoming, which makes it all the more difficult to capture in a few indifferent words. The thing is, I had not been to my native country in over two decades; and, during that time, not going back to what folks presume to be my home evolved into a programmatic, defining rejection of the notion that home equals country of origin. I vowed never to return, except in a pine box. That I did go back at last, in the similarly confining encasement that is the cabin of a budget airline craft, required a great deal of preliminary introspection—and a leap over the shadow to which I had tried to relegate my past.
On a night rendered restless by thoughts of loss and futility—a life in danger and a life wasted in the refusal to be faced—I belatedly tuned in The Couple Next Door, a late-1950s serialized radio sitcom. Written by and starring Peg Lynch, whom I had once seen performing one of her husband-and-wife sketches during an old-time radio convention, The Couple controlled the crowds with which my thoughts were teeming. It comforted like no cotton coverlet could, warmed like no drop of Scotch. Though not soundly, I did sleep that night, wrapped up as I was in a cocoon of sound . . . a quilt to muffle the guilt I felt for not returning sooner and for being defined instead by a quarter century of negation . . .
While not entirely lacking in fancy or imagination, I generally avoid speculating about roads not taken, avoid taking in prospects retrospectively by asking “What if . . . ?” What if I had never gone to America? What if I had not left again some fifteen years later? What if what I had left had not been a country whose majority had just re-elected George W. Bush? While I would not go so far or sink so low as to substitute that “What if” with a nonchalant “So what,” I much rather ask “What now?” or justify whatever decision I made with a defiant “So there!”
I suppose dismissing the value of such speculations by arguing that any alternate of myself would not be myself at all is a way to avoid accusing myself of not always having chosen the best or most sensible path. Perhaps, a little foresight might have worked wonders greater than could ever be performed by getting myself worked up wondering, in hindsight, what I might have been; but to compound the failure to see the future with the failure of facing up to the past as is strikes me as perversely self-destructive . . .
Now, this is not about me sighing for what might have been. Since I don’t ask “What if,” such regrets rarely present themselves—itself ample justification for not indulging in morosely remorseful constructions of alternate biographies. This is about the alternate history I took with me on that trip back in early November 2004, when I left America for a new life in a part of the old world I had never seen let alone set foot on. The book in my hand luggage was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—which, I thought, was just the volume for the occasion, just right for the moment of leaving behind what had been home to me and what, owing to the hysterical war-on-terror politics in the shaping of which I had no right to take part, had felt increasingly less like the freest, the friendliest, much less the only place to be.
In The Plot Against America, Roth considers what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to become President, largely on the strength of a persuasive if false—and unfulfillable—promise of “an independent destiny for America.”
Roth conceives of an alternate 22 June 1941, five months after Lindbergh’s inauguration, while yet adhering to the historical fact that it was the day on which the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was broken when the former nation embarked upon Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer the latter.
On that 22 June in AR (Anno Roth) 1941, Lindbergh, as President, addresses his countrymen and women by expressing himself “grateful” that Hitler was waging a war against “Soviet Bolshevism,” a war that “would otherwise have had to be fought by American troops.” Listening with dread to that address over the radio are the central characters of Roth’s nightmarish revision, a Jewish family from New Jersey who are terrorized by the thought that the pursuit of an ostensibly “independent destiny for America” means the alignment with a regime engaged in the Holocaust, that putting America first means putting an end to their civil liberties, which means “destroying everything that America stands for.”
“The terror of the unforeseen,” Roth writes, “is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” Good histories, including alternate ones, may yet provoke terror by not swaddling in the paper logic of hindsight causalities what, however palpable, is yet uncertain and unascertainable as events unfold, and by reminding us not to mistake the unforeseen with the unforeseeable.
I remember opening The Plot sitting at a New York airport named after another American president and finding myself distracted by a German family visibly disquieted by the book’s cover art. There, staring at them was a swastika, the symbol of the terror that could have been foreseen. I was so self-conscious of this act of provocation that I was unable to read on; and once I had arrived in Wales, I was too absorbed in my own altered state—the detachment from what I had known and been—to have much use for any engagement with any alternate past one.
This week, for no particular reason, I picked up the book anew, and I read it as a commentary on two historical pasts—1941 and a 2004 (mis)informed by 11 September 2001—that somehow seems too comfortably remote, the anxieties that had given rise to its creation and my purchase of it being past as well. I can now amuse myself by pointing out that the day I read the abovementioned passage in Roth’s book coincided not only with the anniversary of that imaginary radio address but also with the birthday of Lindbergh’s spouse Anne; I can appreciate references to popular radio programs (“You should be on Information Please”) and personalities like Walter Winchell that render The Plot verisimilitudinous, conveniently to extract them for the sake of yet another cursory entry into this essentially escapist journal whose raison d’être was the sense of homelessness and estrangement I felt when I arrived in Britain on the eve of Guy Fawkes, that celebrated plot against King and Parliament.
What if I had not mislaid—and not even missed—The Plot all these years? What if I had avoided the impulse of discontinuity, of creating for myself a virtual space and time capsule of extra-historic hence fictitious isolation and had made more of an effort instead to participate in the real debates that are shaping my future? By refusing to ask myself “What if . . .?” as I belatedly re-enter The Plot I seem to be defusing Roth’s argument, fully aware that, by doing so, I may well expose myself to—rather than becoming exempt from—that certain “terror” of not foreseeing.
I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.
Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”
Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.
Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.
Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?
While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.
I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.
That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.
Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.
“There’s no family uniting instinct, anyhow; it’s habit and sentiment and material convenience hold families together after adolescence. There’s always friction, conflict, unwilling concessions. Always!” Growing up in a familial household whose microclimate was marked by the extremes of hot-temperedness and bone-chilling calculation, I amassed enough empirical evidence to convince me that this observation—made by one of the characters in Ann Veronica (1909), H. G. Wells’s assault on Victorian conventions—is worth reconsidering. It is not enough to say that there is no “family uniting instinct.” What is likely the case during adolescence, rather than afterwards, is that the drive designed to keep us from destroying ourselves becomes the one that drives us away from each other. Depending on the test to which habit, sentiment and convenience are put, this might well constitute a family disuniting instinct.
Not even a mother’s inherent disposition toward her child—to which no analogous response exists in the offspring, particularly once the expediencies that appear to increase its chances of survival are being called into question—is equal to the impulse of self-preservation. I was twenty when I made that discovery; the discovery that there was no love lost between my mother and myself, or, rather, that whatever love or nurturing instinct, on her part, there had been was lost irretrievably.
Years ago, I tried to capture and let go of that moment in a work of fiction:
An early evening in late October. She stands in the dimly lit hallway, a dinner fork in her right hand, blocking the door, the path back inside. The memory of what caused the fight is erased forever by its emotional impact, its lasting consequences. The implement, picked up from the dining table during an argument (some trifle, no doubt, of a nettlesome disagreement), has not yet touched any food today.
In one variant of this recollection, she simply stands there, defending herself. She wants to end the discussion on her terms. In another version (which is the more comforting, thus probably the more distorted one) she keeps attacking with fierce stabs, brandishing the fork as if it were a sword. Was it self-control that kept her from taking the knife instead? She is right-handed, after all.
Though never hitting its target, the fork, brandished or not, becomes indeed an effective weapon in this fight. It’s an immediate symbol, a sudden and unmistakable reminder that it is in her hands to refuse nourishment, to withhold the care she has been expected to provide for so many years, and to drive the overgrown child from the parental table—and out of the house.
“Get out. Now!”
She is in control and knows it. She will win this, too, even though the length of the skirmish and the vehemence of the resistance are taxing her mettle. It has been taxed plenty. In this house, coexistence has always been subject to contest, as if decisions about a game of cards, a piece of furniture moved from its usual spot, or even the distribution of a single piece of pie were fundamental matters of survival. In this house, anything could be weaponized. In this house, which since the day of its conception has been a challenge to the ideals of domesticity and concord, has slowly worn down the respect and dignity of its inhabitants, and forced its dwellers into corners of seclusion, scheming and shame, it is only plaster and mortar that keeps those walled within from hurling bricks at each other.
“I want you out of here. Now. Get out. Out.” Her terse words—intelligent missiles launched in quick succession at the climactic stage of a traumatizing blitz—penetrate instantly, successfully obliterating any doubt as to the severity of her anguish, and, second thoughts thus laid waste to, even the remotest possibility of reconciliation.
This time she really means it. She screams, screeches, and hisses, her words barely escaping her clenched teeth. It is frightening and pathetic at once, this sudden theatrical turn, an over-the-top rendition of the old generation gap standard. Yet somewhere underneath the brilliant colors of this textbook illustration of parent-child conflict and adolescent rebellion is a murky layer of something far more disquieting and unseemly—something downright oedipal.
Words, exquisitely vile, surface and come within reach but remain untransmitted, untransmissible. Addressing her in that way is a taboo too strong to be broken even in a moment of desperate savagery. Instead, the longing for revenge, for a reciprocal demonstration of the pain she, too, is capable of inflicting, will feed a thousand dreams.
Ultimately, it is fear that becomes overpowering. There is more than rage in her expression. It is manifest loathing. Two decades of motherhood have taken their toll.
At last, she slams the door. A frantic attempt to climb back inside, through the open bathroom window, fails when she, with a quick turn at the handle, erects a barrier of glass and metal.
The slippery steps leading to the front door—now away from it—feel like blocks of ice, a bitterness stinging through thin polyester dress socks. There was no time to put on shoes. This is a time to evacuate. Humiliated, cold, and terrified. Thrown out of the house.
Now, contrary to what these fictionalized recollections suggest, I’m not one to cry over spilt mother’s milk; besides, I did return home—through that door—and stayed at my parents’ house for another excruciating two years. It would have been far smarter and far more dignified to let go and move on. I had clearly outstayed my welcome. The realization came to me again the other night when I went to see the A Daughter’s a Daughter, a cool examination of what may happen to close family ties once both mother and child reach maturity. The playwright, who resorted to the pseudonymous disguise of Mary Westmacott, was none other than mystery novelist Agatha Christie.
So, I oughtn’t to have been surprised by the lack of sentiment in the portrayal of a parent-child relationship that goes sour once the expiration date has passed. Think Grey Gardens without the cats. After all, in guessing games like And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders, Christie reduced human suffering to a countdown. And when she went back to the nursery, it was mainly to borrow rhymes that provided titles for some of her most memorable imaginary murders, the ruthless precision of which was a kind of voodoo doll to me during my troubled adolescence.
Still, I was surprised by the chill of the unassuming yet memorable drama acted out by Jenny Seagrove and Honeysuckle Weeks in London’s Trafalgar Studios that December evening. I was surprised by a play—staged for the first time since its weeklong run in 1956—that was not merely unsentimental but unfolded without the apparently requisite hysterics that characterize Hollywood’s traditional approaches to the subject.
To be sure, A Daughter’s a Daughter is hardly unconventional. It is not A Daughter’s a Daughter’s a Daughter. Modest rather than modernist, controlled more than contrived, it is assured and unselfconscious, a confidence to which the apparent tautology of the title attests. Yes, a daughter’s a daughter—and just what acts of filial devotion or maternal sacrifice does that entail? How far can the umbilical bond be stretched into adulthood until someone’s going to snap?
The central characters in Christie’s play reassure anyone who got away from mother or let go of a child that, whatever anyone tells you—least of all arch conservatives who urge you to trust in family because it’s cheaper than social reform—survival must mean an embrace of change and a change of embraces.
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople); or, There’s No Boat ‘Sailing to Byzantium’”
“Caught At Last: Some Personal Notes on The Mousetrap”
“Earwitness for the Prosecution”
“On This Day in 1890 and 1934: Agatha Christie and Mutual Are Born, Ill-conceived Partnership and Issue to Follow”
I am hardly the go-getter type. My goals are even more modest than my needs, which is to say that a full and fulfilling present day matters more to me than any future success for the prediction and preparation of which I lack the foresight. Among my few ambitions is it to amass volumes enough to have one of the most comprehensive private libraries devoted to turning the volume up—to American and, to a lesser degree, British radio and to the dramatics of the air in particular: published scripts, contemporary criticism, and latter-day assessments of the so-called “golden age” of radio.
Until now, matters were complicated by the fact that I never had my own shelves on which to store such records of radio’s past. Well, I’ve got the bookshelves set up in my room at last. Nearly five months after moving into our new old house, I once again enjoy ready access to the appreciable if generally unappreciated literature of the air.
Back in November 1923, a critic of Radio Broadcast magazine observed that since libraries and radio have similar aims, it was
surprising that they have not cooperated nearly as fully as they might. Much of the radio broadcasting is instructive and entertaining; and so is it with the books on the library shelves. Radio is ever improving the musical and literary tastes of thousands of listeners-in, who, having their interest aroused, may find increased pleasure from music or literature—and the libraries can supply the latter.
Some twenty years later, what there was of radio literature hardly reflected the programs enjoyed by millions on radio. Calling it a “sad observation,” Sherman H. Dryer remarked in Radio in Wartime (1942) that
in the twenty-five years of its life few serious or critical books have been written about radio. The literature of radio is divided into two main parts: anthologies of “best” broadcasts, or vocational texts—How to Write for Radio, Radio Direction, How to Become an Announcer.
To these two kinds of books, Dryer—among a few others like Robert Landry, Francis Chase, and Charles Siepmann—added a small number of critical studies on radio broadcasting; and, two decades later, there emerged a market for nostalgia and history.
As Max J. Herzberg put it in Radio and English Teaching (1941), radio “need not be a substitute for the library; it can result in more and not less frequent use of books.”
I find that, tuning in, I not only turn to books on radio, but go in search of related material, original sources and histories. In other words, radio does not merely compel me to set up a shelf for books devoted to the subject; it continues to educate me about Western culture, the histories in which it dealt and out of which it arose. Looking at the faces of long forgotten performers and reading about their once famous acts tells me a lot about the boundaries and hazards of any pursuit of happiness defined by popularity and the statistical apparatus relied upon for its measurement.
The by now unpopular culture of radio dramatics has proven an academic and professional cul-de-sac for me; but my interest in and commitment to its study has remained nearly undiminished. As I said, I am not very ambitious—which is precisely why I feel free to continue the pursuit of what doesn’t seem to get me anywhere . . .
This, by the way, is my 701st entry into the broadcastellan journal.
At the risk of sounding like a loser at a Vegas spelling bee, I am a serious eye roller. Like a roulette wheel on an off night, each circulation marks the extent of my displeasure. The other night, I was really taking my peepers for a spin. Judging from such ocular proof, you might have thought that more than eyeballs were about to roll. Indeed, it seemed as if I were going to face the Lord High Executioner himself. Instead, we were merely going to a production of The Hot Mikado. I just couldn’t warm to the idea of going camp on a classic that seems least in need of burlesque—or Berlesques, for that matter. Not that this stopped middle-aged troupers like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Groucho Marx to play “Three Little Maids” (as part of a war relief benefit broadcast); but, at least, those tuning in were spared the visuals.
If I was less than enthusiastic, it was mainly on account of Charley’s Aunt. That dubious Victor/Victorian dowager had way too many nephews—and “they’d none of them be missed, they’d none of them be missed.” Cross-dressing has long been on the none too little list of circus and sideshow acts that are more of a source of irritation than of hilarity. One strategically placed banana peel does more for me than two oranges nestling in a bed of chest hair. It’s a fruit’s prerogative.
The origins of my aversion date back to the time when I began to realize that what I needed to get off my chest one day was something other than the fur I was not destined to grow in profusion. I was about twelve. Still without a costume on the morning of the annual school carnival, I let my older sister, who was as resourceful as she was bossy, talk me into wearing one of the skirts she had long discarded in favor of rather too tight-fitting jeans. Being dressed in my sister’s clothes was awkward for me, considering that I was fairly confused about my gender to begin with, certain only about the one to which I was drawn. More than a skirt was about to come out of the closet, and I was not equipped to deal with it.
Responding to my calculatedly nonchalant remark that the costume was some kind of last-minute ersatz, our smug, self-loving English teacher, Herr Julius, told the assembled class that, during carnival, folks tended to reveal what they secretly longed to be, which, apparently, went well beyond the common desire not to be humiliated. No wonder Herr Julius did not bother to don a mask other than the one with which he confronted us all the scholastic year round.
Matters were complicated further by my wayward anatomy. Let’s just say that it didn’t require oranges to make a fairly convincing girl out of me; I was equipped with fleshy protuberances that earned me the sobriquet “battle of the sexes.” I wondered whether I was destined to shroud myself in one pretense in order to drop another. That, in a pair of coconut shells, is why cross-dressers and any such La Cage faux dollies were never to become my bag. And I’ve got a lot of baggage.
What has that to do with The Hot Mikado, the show I was so reluctant to clap my eyes on? As it turns out, not very much. I had been mistaken about the gender of the performer playing Katisha, the character on the posters advertising the show (pictured).
Far from being some newfangled cabaret act, The Hot Mikado is seventy years old this year. Appropriating presumably WASPish entertainment for a younger and less exclusive audience, it was first performed in 1939 with an all-black, extravagantly decked out cast headed by the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the title role. The currently touring Watermill production—which is soon to conclude in Girona, Spain—updates the carnivalesque spectacle in retro-1980s colors, with Manga and movie inspired costumes, as well as assorted references to Susan Boyle and British politics. The music is still jazz-infused Gilbert and Sullivan.
Set “somewhere in Japan” and produced at a time when Mr. Moto was forced to take an extended Vacation, the anachronistic Hot Mikado was all jitterbug without being bugged down by pre-war jitters. It is outlandish rather than freakish, amalgamated rather than discordant, qualities reassuring to anyone who has ever felt mixed up or unable to mix. A few bum notes aside, the production was hardly an occasion for any prolonged orbiting of orbs. The joyous spectacle of it kept even my mind’s eye from rolling, from running over the bones, funny or otherwise, that tend to tumble out of this Fibber McGeean closet of mine . . .
Greek war relief special (8 February 1941), featuring Frank Morgan, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Groucho Marx singing songs from The Mikado
“Hollywood Mikado”, starring Fred Allen (11 May 1947)
Chicago Theater production of “The Mikado” (22 October 1949)
The Railroad Hour production of “The Mikado” (5 December 1949)
As I was saying: what is wanting here is continuity, some sort of story on the go, a sense of goings-on ongoing, of the so on and so on and so on. It would be laziest to claim, as I have done, that what prevents me from turning a seemingly random clipbook into the attraction that is the yet to come is largely owing to the kind of clippings for which this (mis)nominal journal is reserved. Instead of looking ahead, I keep on hearkening back. As I recall, which is what my kind of introspective retrospection calls for, my life always seemed to unfold in hindsight, not so much enveloped as developing. I know better than to regard history as a series of acts perpetrated rather than ideas perpetuated—but that knowledge does not prevent me from living ahistorically. According to J. B. Priestley, I am bound to regret this.
For the most part, mine has been a life apart; many are the instances, momentous events even, in which I just was not in the moment. What was I feeling when the Berlin Wall fell? My diary won’t tell you. It only refers to the event in passing—and with detachment—as something that would have been “noch for kurzem undenkbar” (unthinkable even a short time ago). “Undenkbar,” perhaps, since I had never given it much thought.
I recall being revolted by David Hasselhoff’s “Looking for Freedom,” a 1989 chart topper all over Europe, but was not aware that the song’s popularity was owing to political events then in the making, let alone that Hasselhoff was part of the revolution (as claimed, with tongue firmly in cheek, in a current BBC Radio 2 retrospective). I never made the connection. Nothing seemed to connect, least of all with me. My existence, as I saw it, was coincidental and inconsequential.
It is not for nothing that my generation was known as the “no future” generation. Life in the Western middle of Europe was, to many, solely dependent on the whim or disposition of two world leaders, on a red telephone, and a scientist’s finger on a long-range missile switch.
I came briefly into contact with my past self when, on a recent weekend in London, I looked into the fresh faces of my nieces, whom I had not seen in over twelve years since I steadfastly refuse to set foot again on German soil. I never did make peace with my native country, and, as much as I enjoy a good Schlachtplatte (literally, a battle or slaughter platter, which is a dish of assorted meats), I’d much rather rely on German exports than return to the scene of inner turmoil.
The belated realization that, growing up in the Rhineland, I had never witnessed a celebration of Armistice Day, seen a World War I memorial (of which there is one in nearly every village here in Britain) or witnessed the annual spectacle of lapels sprouting poppies, only deepened my suspicion that it was the shame of defeat that rendered causality ineffective in a post-1918 German construct of history, and that what was being commemorated elsewhere was victory rather than the failure to insure it.
As the fatalism expressed in the grating conclusion of the most recent installment in The Final Destination series of disaster horror suggested to me, causality without social or moral responsibility is a mere exercise in predictability. “We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and glood and anguish.” J. B. Priestley keeps saying as much in An Inspector Calls, the previously maligned 1990s production of which I caught again on said trip to London a few weeks ago.
“You’ve a lot to learn yet,” pragmatic and presumably self-made Mr. Birling advises the younger generation, anno 1912.
And I’m talking as a hard-headed, practical man of business. And I say there isn’t a chance of war. The world’s developing so fast that it’ll make war impossible. Look at the progress we’re making [. . .]. Why, a friend of mine went over this new liner last week—the Titanic—she sails next week—forty-six thousand eight hundred tons—and every luxury—and unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable. That what you’ve got to keep your eye on, facts like that, progress like that—and not a few German officers talking nonsense and a few scaremongers here making a fuss about nothing. Now you three young people, just listen to this—and remember what I’m telling you now. In twenty or thirty years’ time—let’s say in 1940, you mighty be giving a little party like this—your son or daughter might be getting engaged—and I tell you by that time you’ll be living in a world that’ll have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares. There’ll be peace and prosperity and rapid progress everywhere—except of course in Russia, which will always be behindhand, naturally.
Mr. Birling is blind not only to the signs of the time but also to his responsibilities in designing the future while consigning the present to waste and ruin. Even when given the chance in Priestley’s fantastic setup, he is incapable of turning hindsight into insight. Knowledge, after all, is not synonymous with understanding. As much as I keep rejoicing in Mr. Birling’s fall—a delight dimmed by the knowledge that his is our downfall by proxy—logic dictates that I fall well short of understanding the consequences of my own ahistorical ways.