Of Two Minds: Can The Best Man Win?

Anyone who has as much respect and appreciation for the niceties of the English language as Gore Vidal has will realize, if perhaps only after the final curtain has fallen on The Best Man, that the title is not simply ironic but prognostic: the best man, whoever he may be, cannot be declared if the fight and choice is between just two candidates.  The ostensibly “better” one of them might win, but not, grammatically speaking, the “best.”  Now, the man whom Vidal favors—and expects the audience of his political comedy The Best Man to root for in the play’s fictional contest for Presidential nomination—is not just a man of his word, he is a man who uses each word properly.  The political banter is no mere wordplay: in The Best Man, grammar and morals are one.

Like any wit, Vidal’s central character, William Russell, takes language seriously.  He is not beyond lecturing and flinging the grammar at anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of that book, a volume that the upright man carries in his head.

Russell, proper right down to that noun, is proud to have the last name of a noted philosopher; and, as a thinker, it strikes him as morally wrong to allow others to put words in his mouth.  He would rather write his own speeches—“It’s a shameful business, speech by committee,” he declares—but has come to terms with the fact that his busy schedule dictates otherwise.  What he will not brook, though, is ungrammatical speech. “Please tell the writers again that the word ‘alternative’ is always singular.  There is only one alternative per situation.”
In the dramatic situation of The Best Man, “alternative” is clearly the wrong word, just as choosing the supposedly lesser evil is the wrong approach to casting votes.  Like the dilemma of the two-party system, the either-or decision to which the unquestioning responder is restricted calls for something better: the rejection of the supposed choice as spurious and misleadingly restrictive.
“May the best man win!” is the choice platitude of Russell’s opponent, Joseph Cantwell, whose last name, more than the name of Russell, suggests that the playwright cares less about his characters than about the philosophies for which he makes them stand and fall: they are metaphors for what politics can reduce us to when all we care about is making a name for ourselves.  Both Russell and Cantwell are stand-ins for the figures we imagine—hope and fear—politicians to be; beyond that, they aren’t at all.  “A candidate should not mean but be,” the literary playwright has Russell quip; as a character, Russell is not meant to be anything other than the mouthpiece Vidal means him to be in this verbal play of true versus nominal values.
Asked whether he thought that “a president ought to ignore what people want,” Russell replies “If the people want the wrong thing, [. . .] then I think a president should ignore their opinion and try to convince them that his way is the right way.”  How to do right and what is “right” are the questions The Best Man aims at encouraging us to ponder.  Russell answers by taking his opponent by his clichéd expression and extricating himself from the either-or bind that threatens to turn him into a man no better than Cantwell.
Vidal, too, attempts a way out here, a synthesis of satire and sentimentality, cynicism and hopefulness, as he demonstrates Russell to be the “best” man, after all, by proving him to be the better one.  The solution is as noble as it is grammatical—but it is rather too neat and ponderous, especially since the alternative “message” Vidal communicates is more tired than the dirty politics from which he derives a modicum of dramatic tension.
“And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons,” Russell and Vidal tell reporters and audiences early on:

Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics.  The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.

Who, today, would buy that little nugget of shopworn sentiment?

Few, no doubt, even bother, as they are more likely to have come to sample the wares on display in the latest Broadway production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.  The cast is headed by two sentimental favorites—Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones—whose presence, however lively, takes some of the bite out of the 1960 play, which now provokes nothing more effectively than nostalgia: a longing for politics that never were.  Like politics, the business of staging a show is too much of a “popularity contest” to rely on a playwright’s words to win us over.  Reading the script now without seeing the assembled personalities—Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack—before me on that evening in May, I can better appreciate Vidal’s best lines—but, as a play, The Best Man remains ultimately unconvincing.

Sizing up his competition, Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope once interrupted one of his narratives by attempting witty remarks about Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, labeling  the latter “Mr. Popular Sentiment” and the former “Dr. Pessimist Anticant.”  With his showdown between “Popular” Cantwell and “Anticant” Russell, Vidal demonstrates that wanting to be both satirical and sentimental means doing justice to neither; the sentiment feels calculated, the wit pointless. In the noble experiment of making dirty politics cleaner, everything comes out rather muddy in the wash.

Come On Up, Eileen; or, Wonderful Yorkville

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.

Yes, Second Avenue (pictured) is looking rather worse—and far less flashy—than it did when the street was lined not with gold, but with gals who may or may not have a ticker made of that precious metal; you know, ladies whose line, like the subway’s, is well below.  Wonderful Town is not without hints of darkness, but, as in many musicals of the 1940 and ’50s, the shadier urbanites are colorful caricatures rather than delicately shaded characters.  And if Wonderful is now not as well liked as it was when it premiered, this may be owing to the fact that, even though the characters are based on real people, the assembled Christopher Street portraits are cleaned up so thoroughly as to make them look like stock figures in a formulaic pastiche.  That said, the musical still offers a glimpse at life during the Great Depression and remains translatable—and relatable—to anyone who can read between all those half erased lines of none-of-your-business.

Not that I need to step out of my old apartment to get that sinking Ruth and Eileen feeling.  The two women struggled to find work and put up with a lot while waiting for a break, a wait that, in Eileen’s case, ended at the age of 26 in a fatal car crash.  Journalist Ruth McKenney immortalized her sister and saw—or made us see—the bright side of their hardship and the squalor down in their dingy, downstairs domicile.  Indeed, when I first caught up with My Sister Eileen, sitting in an Upper East Side park listening to a 1948 radio production starring Shirley Booth, I assumed it to be a comment in the post-Second World War housing crisis.  And it is this crisis that hits home today.

If ever I write another autobiography—the one I penned somewhat prematurely at age 14 was discarded once it had served its purpose of communicating my pubescent angst to the girls in my class, whom I knew it was pointless for me to pursue—I might take a lesson from Ruth and look on the proverbial if sometimes elusive silver lining when I reflect on this morning’s knock on the door.  An eviction notice was posted on it and my old apartment is once again contested territory.  I am writing this—while culture beckons unheeded—sitting at the shaky dinner table that, for many years, was stacked with books, student essays, and the drafts of my MA thesis and PhD dissertation.  No, this town would not feel half as wonderful to me if it weren’t for that table, this apartment, and for the friendship that made it possible—and indeed desirable—to come back for a visit, year after year . . .

The Lion in Winter Wonderland; or, What’s That Fir?

Once a year, in the run-up to Christmas, my better half and I make the seemingly interminable journey from Wales to London for some seasonal splurging on art and theater. Now, I don’t travel all the way east to the West End to waste my time on pap like Dirty Dancing. This isn’t snobbery, mind; I simply can’t thrill to a feast of re-processed cheese and the prospect of paying for it through a nose bigger than Jennifer Grey’s old one. Besides, why raid the bottom shelves of our pop cultural cupboard when I’ve got a heaping plateful of squandered opportunities to chew over? During the days of my graduate studies in English and American literature, I had little money to spare for Broadway theatricals, which is why I now tend to seek out revivals of plays I missed the first, second, or umpteenth time around—drama with some history to it, be that pedigree or baggage. James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter has a bit of both.

As an added attraction, the current Theatre Royal Haymarket production also has the ever Ab-fabulous Joanna Lumley, whom I first saw on stage in the 2010 Broadway revival of La Bête. Lumley plays caged lioness Queen Eleanor opposite Robert Lindsay’s Henry II, the husband who keeps her under lock and key.  Witty and fierce, The Lion is a domestic drama fit for the tryingly festive season. All the same, the darn cat is in a confounded state of seasonal disorder.

What those stepping into the auditorium from the audio-visual onslaught that is Christmas time in the city cannot but gasp at is that even Henry’s halls are decked: his French chateau, anno 1183, features a regal Tannenbaum, no less. It certainly had my eyebrows raised to the alert level of WTF: you might expect a Green Knight, surely, but a bebaubled evergreen?

The proud Lion is prepared to pounce, though, ready to defend itself against “turbulent” critics crying bloody murder in the cathedral of culture. Goldman acknowledged that his “play contains anachronisms” such as the “way . . . Christmas is celebrated.” As he states in the notes duly reprinted in the playbill, the ahistorical trimmings are “deliberate”; “though it deals carefully with history,” The Lion “remains a piece of fiction.”

Towering over the assembled branches of Henry’s living family tree, the familiar, dead one serves as a reminder of the storyteller’s presence.  The needling transplant from our present day tells not only of the author’s intervening re-inventiveness but also of his obligation to make that past relevant: the dramatist does not simply stage history; he fashions it. To withhold evidence of this intervention would mean to falsify, to deny the hand and mind involved in the process of transcribing.

Goldman was nonetheless concerned that this never-evergreen might overshadow his research and cast doubt on his responsible interpretation of verifiable historical events. “This play,” he pointed out to his audience, “is accurately based on the available data.”

The elephant of a dislocated trunk aside, The Lion is refreshingly unself-conscious; it is a deluxe soap free from the by now irritating additives of postmodernist reflexivity. For all its modern day translations—of which only its pre-gay lib treatment of the 19th century construct of homosexuality struck me as dated—it affords a close look at historical figures that rarely seem human to us in the accounts of battles and political maneuverings.

If Goldman reduces the sweep of history to an intimate first-family portrait, he chose a subject that warrants such an approach; as historian John Gillingham argued, what “really mattered” to Henry II “was family politics,” in the belief of the failure of which he died. Far from being a Peyton Placeholder, Goldman’s “Christmas Court that never was” has been assembled to bring historical intrigue home.

Ladykillers Instinct; or, Marcia Warren’s Profession

“What’s your great online discovery,” an interviewer asked Marcia Warren, star of the current West End production of Ladykillers.  To this, the veteran of stage, screen and radio replied, “What does online mean?” It is just the kind of answer most of us expect—and want to hear—from someone past middle age, which makes hers such a sly response.  Warren remains in character, as Mrs. Wilberforce, kindly old landlady to the killers, giving us what we find so reassuring and endearing about the senescence we otherwise dread.  She may or may not be joking—but she sure has earned the right neither to know nor to care.  Looked at it that way, being past it becomes a shelter, a retreat beyond trends, updates and upgrades whose seeming simplicity appeals to those who cannot afford to be quite so nonchalant about technology, who feel the pressure of performing in and conforming to the construct of the present as a digital age.  Not to know or willfully to ignore—what luxury! Young and not-so-young alike find comfort in this deflecting mirror image of our future selves.  It’s a Betty White lie we use to kid ourselves .

We enjoy making light of old age; and those of us who have half a conscience enjoy it even more to be presented with elderly people or characters who are not simply the brunt of yet another ageist joke but are in on it—and cashing in on it as well.  We laugh all the way as they take our laughter to the bank.

We want older folks to be feisty because it comforts us to know that, even in our declining years, there are weapons left with which to fight, however futile the fighting.  The middle aged, by comparison, are past the prime against which the standard their looks and performances are measured; it is their struggle to conceal or deny this obsolescence that makes them the stuff of deflationary humor.  We don’t laugh at Mrs. Wilberforce; we laugh at the bumbling crooks whose willfulness is no match for her force shield of insuperable antiquity.

It is this nod to nostalgia as a weapon against the onslaught of modernity that makes Ladykillers such a charmer of a story.  And what makes it work on the stage just as it works on the screen is that the 1955 original requires no update: the Ladykillers was born nostalgic.  It hit the screens—in fabulous Technicolor, no less—at a time when, after years of postwar austerity, the British were ready to look back in amusement at their wants and desires and all those surreptitious attempts to meet them.  Sneers turned to smiles again as greed was finally being catered to once more.

Eluding those who try to will it by force, fortune winks at those who wait like Mrs. Wilberforce, a senior citizen yet hale, clearheaded and driven enough to enjoy a sudden windfall.  It is a conservative fantasy that appealed then as it appeals now, especially to middleclass, middle-aged theatergoers eager to distract themselves from banking woes and pension fears, from cybercrime and urban riots.

Familiar to me from radio dramatics, Warren’s name was the only one on the marquee I recognized as I decided whether or not take in what I assumed to be another one of those makeshift theatricals that too often take the place of real theater these days—stage adaptations of popular movies, books and cartoons like Shrek, Spider-Man, or Addams Family with which the theater world is trying rather desperately to augment its aging audience base. Written by Graham Linehan and directed by Sean Foley, this new production of The Ladykillers fully justified its staging.  There is much for the eye to take in; indeed, it owing to an able cast—and the lovely, lively Ms. Warren above all— to prevent the ingenious set and special effects from stealing this caper.

In the real, honest-to-goodness make-believe beyond the online trappings of which she claims to be ignorant, Warren gives us just what we want.  After all, acting for our pleasure and acting out our desires is her business.  It’s the oldest profession in the world.

“The lady of the house speaking”: A Bucket for Myra Hess

Eve Arden is Our Miss Brooks. Joan Collins is Alexis. Estelle Getty, Sophia. Whatever else these ladies did in their long stage, screen and television careers, they have become identified with a single, signature role they had the good fortune to create in midlife. Grabbing their second chances at a second skin, they experienced a regenerative ecdysis. The character or caricature that emerges in the process obscures the body of work thus transformed. Another such anew-comer coming readily to mind is Patricia Routledge, who, for better or worse, makes us forget that she has ever done anything else before or since she took on the role of Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances back in 1990. Would she forever keep up the charade, or might she yet have the power to make this our image of her disappear? Could she spring to new lives by kicking that Bucket? Those questions were on my mind when we drove up to the ancient market town of Machynlleth, here in mid-Wales, where Ms. Routledge was scheduled to make an appearance in a one-woman show.

Well, it was bucketing down that afternoon, which, had I been metaphorically minded at that spirit-dampening moment, I might have taken as an omen. Not that the rain had the force to keep the crowd, chiefly composed of folks scrambling to make the final check marks on their bucket list, from gathering in the old Tabernacle. Here, the stage was set for Admission: One Shilling. Not much of a stage, mind; there was barely “room for a pony.” Piano, I mean. But little more than that piano was required to transport those assembled to 1940s London, where, for the price of the titular coin, wartime audiences were briefly relieved from the terror of the Blitz by the strains of classical music . . .

The music, back then, was played by British concert pianist Myra Hess who, though much in demand in the United States, put her career on hold to boost the morale of her assailed country(wo)men. Hess did so at the National Gallery, a repository of culture that, at the outbreak of war, had taken on a funereal aspect when its paintings were removed from the walls and carted to Wales to be hidden in caves for the benefit of generations unborn and uncertain.

Meanwhile, those living or on leave in London at the time were confronted with a shrine that held none of the riches worth fighting for but that instead bespoke loss and devastation. From October 1939 to April 1946, Hess filled this ominous placeholder with music; much of it, like her own name, was German—a reminder that the Nazi regime and the likes of Rudolf Hess had no claim to the culture they did not hesitate to extinguish if it could not be made to serve fascist aims.

Taking her seat on the stage, the formidable, elegantly accoutred Ms. Routledge seemed well suited to impersonate Dame Myra as a woman looking back at her career in later life. It mattered little that Routledge did not herself play the piano while she reminisced about the concerts she had given. Selections from these performances were played by accompanist Piers Lane, who filled in the musical blanks whenever Routledge paused in her speech.

Writing that speech posed somewhat of a challenge, considering that Hess never published a diary. According to her great nephew, who created this tribute, the script is based on press releases and radio interviews. Indeed, the entire affair comes across as a piece made for radio, if it weren’t for those occasional darts shot at no one in particular from Ms. Routledge’s eyes, frowns that remind you of irritable Ms. Bucket’s priceless double-takes.

Perhaps, it does take a little more—and a little less—to pull off this impression. On the air, we could hear Dame Myra Hess at the piano. If the performance were more carefully rehearsed, or edited, we would not have before our mind’s eye the script from which Routledge reads throughout. We would not require the distractions of a screen onto which photographs of the wartime concerts are projected. We would not be as distanced from the life that yet unfolds in Hess’s own sparse words.

Never mind that Admission: One Shilling has about as much edge as a Laura Ashley throw pillow. What got me is that I felt as if I were attending one of Ms. Bucket’s ill-conceived candlelight suppers, whose decorous make-believe remains ultimately unconvincing. I found myself hoping for something undignified—a pratfall, even—as if I had come to see this woman but not come to see her succeed. Such, I guess, is the lasting legacy, the curse of Hyacinth Bucket that, as I exited, I was wondering what Sheridan might have done with the money . . .

Murder on the Cathedral Radio: Rudy Vallee and the WPA

”Whatever your own political views in the matter may be. . . .”

Diplomatic, cautious and propitiatory, those are hardly words you would expect to hear coming from the close-miked mouth of crooner Rudy Vallee, one of the 1930s most popular—and insipid—radio personalities. After all, Vallee was not emceeing America’s Town Meeting of the Air; his chief ambassadorial function was to promote middlebrow culture and represent the makers of a certain leavening agent. Yet that is just the preamble with which the old Vagabond Lover segued into the dramatic portion of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, which, on this day, 25 June, in 1936 presented what sounded very much like an endorsement of one of the Roosevelt administration’s latest projects, notwithstanding Vallee’s assurance that the views of the program’s producers and sponsors—in contrast to the debates from the Democratic Convention broadcast elsewhere that evening—were “strictly neutral.”

The calculatedly catholic Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour took variety to the extreme that evening, featuring vaudeville song-and-dance duo Alan Cross and Henry Dunn, “Gags and Gals” cartoonist Jefferson Machamer (who would have liked to talk “sex” but was told that the subject was “never mentioned” on the air), comedian Bert Lahr (whom Vallee’s writers sent to the dentist), swing vocalist Midge Williams (referred to as a “small bundle of dark dynamite”) . . . and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Natch . . .

Murder had come to Broadway some three months earlier, in March 1936. As stated by contemporary critics Ernest Sutherland Bates and Alan Williams in their book American Hurly-Burly (1937), Eliot’s play “as offered by the WPA was finer than anything produced during the season at any price.”

Yet rather than merely extracting scenes from the celebrated drama, Vallee’s program offered a dramatization of a “true story” that had “happened only a little while ago,” namely the behind-the-scenes story of how the Broadway production was cast.

As Vallee’s writers have it, an aging stage actor enters the offices of the WPA, declaring: “I’m looking for a job.” He claims to have been in the acting profession for thirty-three years; but lately he has only been pounding the pavement in hopes of treading the boards again. He is referred to the Federal Theatre Project, where, by the kind of miracle that smacks of Victorian melodrama, he is greeted by producer-manager George Vivian, an old friend of his from his days in London’s West End.

Soon, the actor is given the chance, however slight, of auditioning for Broadway director Edward T. Goodman, who is still trying to cast the role of the Archbishop. As many listeners tuning in to the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour would have known, the old actor got the part—and, as Bates and Williams summed it up,

gave a magnificent performance in the role of Becket.  When Murder closed he re-appeared with another splendid characterization in Class of ’29, but at the end of the season he was promptly reclaimed by the commercial theater.

That actor—playing himself in the broadcast version of his story—was Harry Irvine, who, aside from Murder and Class of ‘29, went on to appear on Broadway in several dramas by Maxwell Anderson, including Joan of Lorraine starring Ingrid Bergman and Anne of the Thousand Days starring Rex Harrison.

Vallee commented that “the sequel” to this story was “yet to be written,” by which he was not referring to any attempts to follow up Murder with Resurrection. “The name of Harry Irvine appears again,” Vallee predicted. “He is very much in demand now. You’ll see him in pictures before long. Hollywood is taking care of that.”

Irvine responded to these not entirely fulfilled prophesies and commented on his good fortunes by reciting one of his speeches from Eliot’s play:

We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
But in the life of one man, never
The same time returns. Sever
The cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

As much as he was in the center of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour playlet telling his story, Irvine was little more than a cog in the wheel, an example of the “true story” extolling the wonders of the “relief project” that gave “the actor out of work” a “helping hand.”

“In the larger cities all over the country these past few months,” Vallee reminded his audience,

dark theaters have been opening, idle actors have been finding work.  Reason: The Federal Theatre Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration in Washington.

So why, radio having benefitted most from the Depression and the closing of popular playhouses, did an ersatz revue like Vallee’s program now celebrate the policies through which actors returned to newly reopened stages? Well, considering that the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour was an East Coast production—whereas Lux Radio Theater had just left New York for Hollywood and abandoned its Broadway format—it stood only to gain from the renewed activity along the Great White Way. Given that the performers who appeared on variety programs of that period were deemed somebodies largely owing to the name they had made for themselves in other media, Fleischmann’s, far from being neutral, depended on its theatrical ties—and stage actors like Harry Irvine—to fill its weekly roster of acts.

Listening to slickly commercial variety programs such as the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, I realize that escapism is not so much a matter of production as it is a manner of consumption, a way of tuning out rather than tuning in. No form of entertainment, however trifling or shallow, can entirely escape the role an alert listener may assign to it—the role of telling us about the time in which it was created.

“Because there is always someone left out”: Bennett, Biography, and the Habit [of Framing] Art

I might as well come right out with it, dissentient, fractious and uncharitable as it may sound. I don’t like Alan Bennett—popular British playwright, memoirist, and frequent reciter of his own words—whose latest work for the stage, The Habit of Art, was beamed from London’s National Theatre into movie houses around the world this month. He irritates me. Why, then, did I number among the sizeable crowd this satellite event drew at our local cinema? Truth is, I kind of like that he irritates—unless he does it with the sound of his voice, a querulous whine the exposure to which theater audiences, unlike radio listeners, are generally spared. In The Habit of Art, Bennett does it—that is, doesn’t do it for me—in the way he packages or frames what I think he is trying to capture.

At this stage in his career, Bennett is about as stuffy as an old whoopee cushion. Once in a while, he stands up to lecture, letting his characters—all stand-ins for himself—disseminate lines that stand out not merely by virtue of their brilliance but by the less-than-virtue of being borrowed for the occasion as if they were quotations taken from what could have been the draft of an unpublished essay. Then, sitting down again, he, in his frightfully British way of rendering himself human and opening up to us—and of confusing secrets with secretions—carries on about bodily functions as if he were out to revive the Carry On series. The habit? O, fart!

“That’s Auden farting, not me,” one of Bennett’s characters, Fitz, insists after doing so audibly. Whether caught breaking wind or urinating in the kitchen sink, that’s still W. H. Auden, the distinguished poet, with whose short yet (since?) intimate friendship to composer Benjamin Britten the play is ostensibly concerned. Ostensibly, because Bennett is not about to humor those curious about the private lives of two fellow gay artists, reunited in 1972 to discuss a collaboration that does not come off, by delivering some kind of Sunshine Boys routine. In its roundabout way, The Habit of Art refuses to be about any one thing. It isn’t Auden letting go. It’s an actor portraying him in a rehearsal of a play whose Author, also on the scene, seems unsure about just what it is all about—or at least unable to convince his players.

To say what he needs to say, Bennett’s Author feels compelled to move a biographer into the frame of what he is anxious to preserve as his composition; Bennett does the same in order to explore that frame and explode it. In other words, Bennett is rehearsing his failure—or inability or unwillingness—to restrain himself for the sake of art by acting out passages from his decidedly golden notebook.

A kind of Greek Chorus, the biographer is the Author’s device, just as the sensitive, defensive Author is Bennett’s. That is, the device is similar, but the purpose is different. In Bennett’s play, the unassuming actor assuming the part of the interviewing, interjecting biographer is aware of being a device and resents it. Since his character is based on a real person (radio broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter), the actor wants his role to come across as real even as he is made to walk in and out of Auden’s quarters like the Stage Manager in Our Town. Nothing seems real here aside from Bennett’s artistic struggle.

Although the actor does not have to emit gas to prove his character’s humanity, he—that is, the biographer in spite of his extra-autobiographical self—is confronted with Auden’s request for a sex act the performance of which was the job of the callboy for whom the biographer is briefly mistaken. Enter the callboy proper. He, not Auden or Britten, is the character referred to, albeit obliquely, in the Author’s play Caliban’s Day, the troubled rehearsal into the midst of which we are plonked.

Meanwhile, Fitz, the less than letter-perfect actor set to play Auden, is not amused by this Caliban, nor by Caliban’s Day, a dramatic monstrosity that also features talking furniture (“I am a chair and in New York / I seated his guests and took in their talk”) and an exchange between Auden’s Words and Britten’s Music, performed, in the absence of the two unfortunate thespians assigned those parts, by the jovial Stage Manager and her hapless assistant.

It is through Fitz that Bennett responds to the frustrations of theatergoers eager—if increasingly less so—to get closer to a poet whom, after witnessing this closed-door run-through of what is about to go on public display, it would be nigh on impossible to romanticize as bohemian: “There’s no nobility to him,” Fitz protests, “Where—this is what the audience will be thinking—where is the poetry?”

Not that I was expecting, even from an audiophile like Bennett, any reference to “The Dark Valley,” Auden’s 1940 contribution to The Columbia Workshop. Dramatically underscored by Britten’s music, Auden’s monologue for radio is a collaborative effort that speaks, more directly and poignantly than Bennett, of love, death, and the secrecy that is the death of love:

Under the midnight stone
Love was buried by thieves.
The robbed hearts weep alone.
The damned rustle like leaves.

Taking center stage instead is a professional sex worker. Bennett’s Author does his utmost to justify the callboy’s presence, insisting that his request performance is neither uncalled for nor gratuitous. As the only surviving witness of that fictionalized meeting between Auden and Britten, the young man is recalled from obscurity to tell us what he would want to get out of the exchange if he, a Caliban among Prosperos, were to have his day:

I want to figure. He goes on about stuff being cosy, England and that. But it’s not England that’s cosy. It’s art, literature, him, you, the lot of you. Because there’s always someone left out. You all have a map. I don’t have a map. I don’t even know what I don’t know. I want to get in. I want to join. I want to know.

Neither the Author, whom we are not encouraged to take seriously, nor Bennett, in all his tongue-in-cheekiness, convinces me that the boy truly wants to be in the know; above all, he wants to be known. And, for some reason—a touch of Death in Venice, Habit with its built-in commentary suggests—Bennett lets the youth voice his demands on behalf of all the faceless boys that Britten and Auden may have privately enjoyed while enjoying critical success.

But the boy—played by a self-conscious twenty-nine-year old—does not figure. If anything, he disfigures. He, like anyone who ever catered to Auden’s bodily needs, cleaned his kitchen sink or inspected his carcass, is generally “left out” for a reason. After all, is it really such a revelation that an artist may be rankly human, that, stripped of the artistry for which he is known, he stands before us as homo mephiticus?

Bennett, to borrow a line from myself, is “like a boar chasing Adonis for the sweat on his thighs.” That we are unknowable to each other is old hat. To add that, if we do get to know what others did not mean to share, we might end up with more—or less—than we need to know is hat decomposing.

Bennett means to share, though. He means to share what it means to create, to critique, and collaborate, what it means to be old, what it means to be gay, what it means to be public, to be private, to be popular, to be British, to be human. Now artsy, now fartsy, he means to let it all out, and say, too, how difficult it is to say anything, let alone everything and the kitchen sink. Yet, as Scream 3 drove home back in 2000, postmodern self-reflexivity is as dead as a nail in a mortuary’s door, a door that, if left open, releases nothing but the ptomaine wafting our way when storytelling is permitted to keep turning and feasting on itself.

However breezy this exercise in framing and dismantling may be, nothing quite this undisciplined and self-indulgent can be any longer mistaken for fresh air. It’s just a hard-to-kick habit of art, and a rather bad one at that.

Mother, She Wrote

“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.

Related writings
“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”

Letters of a [Class] Betrayed: Opera Without Soap

I am not inclined to manual labor. If I lift a finger, it is likely to come down on what isn’t grammatically up to scratch or else to add a few scrapes to my scalp as I take some rambling bull by the inkhorn. There has been a little more of that going on lately—teaching and editing—and, my furrowed pate notwithstanding, I am heartily glad of it. Yet as much as I relish being back in the game after suffering the indignity of being benched for the better—or, rather, worse—part of the past five seasons, the academy has never felt like a home court to me. It is as if, carved into the trunk of my family tree however rotten, puny and lacking in shelter it might be, are memos more emphatic than the certificates of achievement now gathering dust in the drawer I am so little inclined to tidy. Instead of considering myself invited as I enter places of culture and learning, I still feel at times as if I were crashing a party.

Program and ticket stub for Letters of a Love Betrayed

You see, I was born into that endangered social stratum known as the working class. It is an origin of which I am mindful, though neither proud nor ashamed. At least, I am not ashamed of it now. I used to be as thrilled about it as Ann Blyth’s character in Mildred Pierce, even though my parents bore a closer resemblance to Lana Turner in Imitation of Life—that is, too busy to notice that living up to their aspirations left their offspring in the dust they raised as they tried to shake the dirt clinging to their roots. At any rate, stuck in that cloud of dust was I, an asthmatic kid who couldn’t afford to hold his breath at the off chance of parental attention.

Not to suffocate under the rubble of post-Second World War Germany, my parents had to put their noses far closer to the proverbial grindstone than I ever did. Their generation, aided by American interests, pulled off the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle,” a sleight-of-hands-on approach to the lasting trauma caused by total war and final solution, the coming to terms with which would have required equipment far more difficult to handle than shovel and broom.

I am not so disingenuous as to pass off my staying put as a form of sit-down strike, of giving the clean-and-cover-up efforts of my parents’ generation the spotless finger; but apart from the months I ill served my country working as a hospital orderly or the hours I spent cleaning apartments in New York City to help finance my college education, I remained sedentary for much of my life.

So far, it’s been a life spent lost in thoughts, ensconced in writing, and plunked down for performances that artists work on studiously for our delight and instruction—the kind of delight my father found it difficult to accept as serious work and the instruction he thought less of than the empirical knowledge that, along with calluses, is the badge and perquisite of the experience-hardened laborer.

I suppose it is easier for the worker—not to be equated here with the impecunious—to aspire to material possessions instead of culture and learning, since exposing yourself to something that poses a challenge rather than promising instant gratification requires still more work on the part of those who have little time and less energy to spare.

Now, my comparatively indolent existence permits me to spare that time; yet, as if my conscience and buttocks alike had been shaped by Protestant work ethics, I often feel rather uncomfortable. I’m not one to pooh-pooh the benefits of resting on one’s Popo (as dainty Germans call the posterior); but, there is nothing like wriggling in my seat in hopes of improving my mind to convince me that the calluses—and I—belong elsewhere.

I had that impression sitting through Letters of a Love Betrayed, a new opera by Eleanor Alberga (libretto by Donald Sturrock). Reading about it, I was intrigued by the promised fusion of Latin rhythms and a neo-Gothic romance based on a story by Isabel Allende, but felt let down by a score that to my untrained ear sounded forbidding, unmelodious, and, worse still, forgettable. Perhaps, the perceived cacophony was the result of a clanging together of too many stereotypes. Whatever melo- Letters possesses is all in the drama; derivative and contrived, it is creakier than a chair that has been squirmed out of too often.

I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I felt like a tired, vitamin deprived miner lured into a soup kitchen of the arts, the drama being a concession to what is assumed to be his tastes as he is being fed a presumably healthy diet with a none too musical spoon.

As I sat down again to express my thoughts on the matter of what’s the matter with me, I kept wondering whether what I was responding to so angrily was utter musical rubbish, dreck worse than the grime to which I chose not to expose myself, or whether my inability to open my mind was dictated to me by my past, a past unfolding in letters of a class betrayed.

“I’ve Got a Little List” (and the Hot Mikado Isn’t on It)

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 . . .

Related recordings
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