Friday, October 24, 2014

Three for the Road

Some ostensibly very different works of fiction are discussed  here, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, John Updike’s The Maples, and The Portable Library of Jack Kerouac.  But they are tied together in some ways, particularly as I read them somewhat concurrently over the last month or two -- mostly during our trips to Alaska and Seattle -- and each in its own way has struck a chord in me.

After reading McEwan’s Saturday which I thoroughly enjoyed, everything taking place in one day (Saturday, naturally), I read his Solar -- a good story but not in the same league as Saturday.   I had never read Atonement, his highly praised and ultimately filmed novel, something I must get to doing.  I was looking for something a little lighter from McEwan for our recent trip to Alaska and Seattle, and I stumbled upon his Sweet Tooth, a mystery and a love story, and written from a woman’s first person point of view.  Much in the novel is about writing itself, a novel within a novel with detailed outlines for some short stories as well, all fitting together like a literary jig saw puzzle.

It takes place during the paranoid cold war 1970s when a young Cambridge graduate, a mathematician by training but a compulsive inveterate reader by avocation, Serena Frome, joins the M15, the British intelligence agency.  Ultimately she moves up the ranks and is given a “soft” assignment, nothing too dangerous, of following young British writers, ones that M15 might think would benefit by clandestine financial support, in the hope that their writings might have some use in the macro setting of the cold war.  So, the beautiful Frome is assigned to bestow a grant to a young writer, Tom Haley.  How was she to know that they would fall in love, his never realizing her association with M15 (thinking she represents a nonprofit group that bestows literary endowments)?  Where there is such a secret there are the underpinnings for tension throughout the novel and McEwan capitalizes on every twist and turn.  To say any more is to give away an ingenious ending to the novel, where everything finally coalesces.

But how real life enters and is transformed by fiction is at the heart of the novel.  As an example, Serena and Tom discuss probability theory (as a reminder, Serena is a trained mathematician).  Tom doesn’t get it.  But ultimately it enters one of the short stories he is writing   He gives it to Serena to read.  She fails to see how it coalesced in the creative process until she tries to go asleep and in that state finally realizes how Tom did get it:  As I lay in the dark, waiting for sleep, I thought I was beginning to grasp something about invention. As a reader, a speed-reader, I took it for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. You pulled a book from the shelf and there was an invented, peopled world, as obvious as the one you lived in…. I thought I had the measure of the artifice, or I almost had it. Almost like cooking, I thought sleepily. Instead of heat transforming the ingredients, there's pure invention, the spark, the hidden element. What resulted was more than the sum of the parts…. At one level it was obvious enough how many separate parts were tipped in and deployed.  The mystery was in how they were blended into something cohesive and plausible, how the ingredients were cooked into something so delicious.  As my thought scattered and I drifted toward the borders of oblivion, I thought I almost understood how it was done.  Just a wonderful description of the creative process, how life is reflected and filtered by a writer’s story.

This is a page turner, somewhat of a classic spy story, besides being a primer on writing itself.  Ian McEwan is becoming one of the more interesting writers of the 21st century.

But I return, now, to a different kind of 20th century story (actually stories), having had the pleasure of concurrently reading Updike’s The Maples Stories. Although these were published during his lifetime, they have been posthumously issued as an “Everyman's Library Pocket Classic” in hardcover, a volume to treasure.  I had read most of these before, but to read the eighteen stories that span from 1956’s “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” to “Grandparenting” published in his favorite venue The New Yorker in 1994 is to view the life of the great literary man himself.  It took Adam Begley’s brilliant literary biography, Updike, to see that “the Maples” were in fact Updike and his first wife Mary.  The closest Updike had delved into autobiography was his work Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, published in 1989 but that is greatly about his growing up in Shillington, PA. 

The Maples chronicles the jealousies, infidelities, the love and the hurt, and the intimacies and the breakdown of his marriage.  Consider the aching beauty of his writing, so finely crafted in this description of when Richard Maple picks up his wife Joan in his car to finally go to court for their no fault divorce:  She got into the car, bringing with her shoes and the moist smell of dawn. She had always been an early riser, and he a late one. 'Thanks for doing this,' she said, of the ride, adding, 'I guess.' ‘My pleasure,' Richard said. As they drove to court, discussing their cars and their children, he marveled at how light Joan had become; she sat on the side of his vision as light as a feather, her voice tickling his ear, her familiar intonations  and emphases thoroughly musical and half unheard, like the patterns of a concerto that sets us to daydreaming.  He no longer blamed her: that was the reason for the lightness. All those years, he had blamed her for everything - for the traffic jam in Central Square, for the blasts of noise on the mail boat, for the difference in the levels of their beds. No longer: he had set her adrift from omnipotence. He had set her free, free from fault. She was to him as Gretel to Hansel, a kindred creature moving beside him down a path while birds behind them ate the bread crumbs.

“Grandparenting” which takes place well after the Maples divorce is an act of atonement for Updike as it brings together the now divorced Maples one last time to participate in the birth of their first grandchild  It ends with the plaintive “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory,”  Indeed, Updike is for the ages.

a "beat" copy
And what could be more different from Updike than Jack Kerouac’s Portable Library which I managed to fit in here and there, making it mostly bedtime reading.  I read On the Road ages ago so that and his other writings in the Portable Library edition seemed new to me. Oh, man, this is the beat generation, a step before mine, but I remember it well as it played out in the late 50s and 60s.  Kerouac writes with a pulsating persistence, almost stream of consciousness, as if he just cannot fit enough life on a physical page.  It throbs with energy as he tries to absorb the “real” underbelly of America in every place imaginable, with the help of drugs, alcohol, sex, and, man, cool beat music.  It’s almost as if he did not live in the same world as an Updike who crafted his sentences like a sculpture.  No, Kerouac was more like a Jackson Pollack, frenzied by getting the colors of life just right (to him), writing in riffs like Charlie Parker (both mentioned by him in his writings). 

Here is just one breathless paragraph from his Jazz of the Beat Generation (1949) after hearing a rendition of “Close Your Eyes:”  Up steps Freddy on the bandstand and asks for a slow beat and looks sadly out the open door over people's heads and begins singing "Close Your Eyes." Things quiet down for a minute. Freddy's wearing a tattered suede jacket, a purple shirt with white buttons, cracked shoes and zoot pants without press; he didn't care. He looked like a pimp in Mecca, where there are no pimps; a barren woman's child, which is a dream; he looked like he was beat to his socks; he was down, and bent, and he played us some blues with his vocals. His big brown eyes were concerned with sadness, and the singing of songs slowly and with long thoughtful pauses. But in the second chorus he got excited and embraced the mike and jumped down from the bandstand and bent to it and to sing a note he had to touch his shoe tops and pull it all up to blow, and he blew so much he staggered from the effect, he only recovered himself in time for the next long slow note. "Mu-u-u-u-sic  pla-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay!" He leaned back with his face to the ceiling, mike held at his fly. He shook his shoulders, he gave the hip sneer, he swayed. Then he leaned in almost falling with his pained face against the mike. "Ma-a-a-ke it dream-y for dan-cing"-and he looked at the street out-side, Folsom, with his lips curled in scorn-"while we go ro-rnan-n-n-cing"-he staggered sideways-"Lo-o-o-ove's holi-da-a-a-ay"-he shook his head with disgust and weariness at the whole world-"Will make it seem"-what would it make it seem?-everybody waited, he mourned-"O-kay." The piano hit a chord. "So baby come on and just clo-o-o-o-se your pretty little ey-y-y-es" -his mouth quivered, offered; he looked at us, Dean and me, with an expression that seemed to say "Hey now, what's this thing we're all putting down in this sad brown world" -and then he came to the end of his song and for this there had to be elaborate preparations during which time you could send all the messages to Garcia around the world twelve times and what difference did it make to anybody because here we were dealing with the pit and prune juice of poor beat life itself and the pathos of people in the Godawful streets, so he said and sang it, "Close-your-" and blew it way up to the ceiling with a big voice that came not from training but feeling and that much better, and blew it through to the stars and on up-"Ey-y-y-y-y-y-es" and in arpeggios of applause staggered off the platform ruefully, broodingly, nonsatisfied, artistic, arrogant. He sat in the corner with a bunch of boys and paid no attention to them. They gave him beers. He looked down and wept. He was the greatest.

Old home, still essentially the same
It was only after reading The Portable Jack Kerouac that I realized I have some ‘six degrees of separation’ with him.   Over a period of 12 years he lived within two miles of where I lived as a kid (92-18 107th Street, Queens, NY), first at his parent’s house at 133-01 Cross Bay Blvd, Queens, NY and then for five years at 94-21 134th Street, his frequently hanging out at Smokey Oval Park on Atlantic Avenue, where I used to practice with the Richmond Hill HS baseball team. This park was later renamed the Phil Rizutto Park as Rizutto played at Richmond Hill High School, and was a classmate of my father’s. 

Then, another association from my past: a close friend early in my high school years, Paul Ortloff, apparently began a relationship with Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, when he was attending Cooper Union for art.  For the first nine years of Jan’s life Kerouac had denied being her father but after a blood test he acknowledged the fact.  She only met her father two or three times.  As one might imagine, Jan, was psychologically damaged by this rejection which haunted her for her entire short life (died in her mid 40s) but as a teenager she fell head over heels in love with Paul.  I can understand why.  He was charismatic, bright, and as Jack Kerouac was to the Beat generation I suppose Paul was to psychedelic and tattoo art.  I wrote about him when I first started this blog, trying to capture some of my personal history (reading the entry today somewhat distresses me, because of the lost opportunities and its candor):  He was a rebel with a James Dean aura. In later life Paul became a psychedelic artist. His road to that distinction was paved when he first learned to carve simple tattoos into himself using India Ink, graduating to having professional tattoos injected all over his body. He and I would go off to a Coney Island tattoo parlor on the subway for those. For some reason, I hesitated doing the same (probably because I was very allergic to pain!). When I read John Irving's haunting and enigmatic “Until I Find You” I couldn’t help but think of Paul.
Paul on right; Me second from the left

Paul and I lost contact well before we graduated from high school, his going his way into psychedelic art, ultimately moving to Woodstock, NY, my going the so called straight and narrow.  Reading about him in James T. Jones’ Use My Name:Jack Kerouac's Forgotten Families brought up a lot of memories, but his relationship with Kerouac’s daughter was unknown to me at the time.  Of course I cannot verify any of this other than Jones’ account.

Interesting where reading takes you. All three of these books brought me inward, a self examination at this stage of my life.  So in spite of their differences, to me there is commonality other than the fact I read them sort of concurrently and mostly during our trip to Alaska and Seattle.  Simply put, they spoke to me very personally, one about writing, one about the marriage and craft of the short story by a writer I deeply admire (and miss), and the other about a parallel universe, one of which I was aware, but only lived through tangentially.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Connecting the Notes

One of the things I get to do in this blog is editorialize about, well, almost anything.  Things that catch my eye sometimes have a rumination period.  Such is the case with two fairly recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and thoughts I’ve expressed about American popular culture and the state of American education.  Perhaps the reason I still subscribe to the Wall Street Journal is that in spite of its now Rupert Murdochian slant, one I lamented when Sarah Palin became associated with his empire (yikes, that was almost four years ago!), is that it has expanded its “life and culture” coverage, delivering consistent high quality. 

First, to set the stage I quote from Philip Roth – from an interview earlier in the year with a Swedish journalist (not the WSJ). He so eloquently described the losing battle that teachers and parents are having with “the moronic amusement park” of popular culture, omnipresent in our traditional media and the Internet: The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy....Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

It brings up the obvious issue of cultural values.  If our youth is being dumbed down to such an extent by the scores of pop figures rolling off the American Idol / America’s Got Talent assembly line each year, slavishly lionized, what kind of a future is there for classical music, opera, serious theatre, and literature?  To what extent is our educational system itself responsible?  And what can be done about it?

Terry Teachout, the now reigning theatre critic of the Wall Street Journal, addresses the popular culture side of this equation in his recent article, Pop Go the Highbrows. He cites as evidence the “devolution” the Kennedy Center Honors. In 1978, the first five recipients of that once-prestigious award were Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein. This year’s honorees will be Al Green, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin and Sting, with the peerless ballerina Patricia McBride thrown in to humor the highbrows.

He goes on to say Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, got it just right when he wrote the other day that the Kennedy Center Honors have degenerated into “one more temple of celebrity culture, magnifying the fame of already familiar faces....The logic that has taken hold of the Honors is one of pop triumphalism: it’s not enough for pop culture to dominate the mainstream; it must colonize the spaces occupied by older genres and effectively drive them from the field.”

The following day the WSJ published Joanne Lipman’s A Musical Fix for American Schools. Perhaps you too have long lamented the state of our educational system, particularly the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots, and how our educators are low in our value system, paying a great teacher a mere fraction of what we pay other professionals, lawyers, doctors, business people,  you name it, not to mention entertainers and sports figures.  In 1990 when I returned from a trip to Japan, it became particularly obvious to me and I wrote an article, Why Johnny Can't Compete noting that "quality education is truly available to all in Japan and it is widely perceived to be desirable.  Japanese teachers occupy a high status in society and are well paid.  Illiteracy is virtually unknown."

Lipman’s essay hit me as an epiphany.  It’s not only about paying our better educators more, holding them higher in our esteem than other professionals; it’s about radically revamping our educational system.  Music democratizes education, allowing every child to participate on an equal footing, teaching cooperation, and “research shows that lessons with an instrument boosts IQ, focus and persistence.” Among the key points in the article:
            *Music raises your IQ
            *Musical training can reduce the academic gap between rich and poor districts
            *Music training does more than sports, theater or dance to improve key academic skills
            *Music can be an inexpensive early screening tool for reading disabilities
            *Music literally expands your brain

Why shouldn’t our educational system incorporate extensive music education (and by that I don’t mean only music history, but, more so, musical theory and practice, classical music as well as  jazz for its improvisational characteristics) into its curriculum?  Perhaps if students are able to perform those forms of music, the tide can be turned against, as Roth puts it, society’s most unthinking people.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

“This Is the Way We Were” – OUR TOWN at Dramaworks

Our Town is probably the most widely performed play in American theatre.  Who hasn’t seen it, even at the high school level (my son played George Gibbs in his high school production)?  As many times as we’ve seen the play our one regret was not being able to attend the Westport Country Playhouse’s production with Paul Newman as the stage manager in June 2002.  Its brief run there ended before we returned to Connecticut from Florida for the summer.

So now we finally had the opportunity to see what a professional theatre company would do with the play.  In celebration of Dramaworks’ 15th season, it has staged a beautiful, memorable rendering, with the largest cast in its history, many veterans of other Dramaworks shows.  As J. Barry Lewis, the play’s Director and Dramaworks’ Resident Director, said at the lunch and learn the afternoon before the first preview performance, this company had grown so much artistically over the years that it wanted to put their own imprimatur on one of the most revered plays in American theatre history. 

Dramaworks cast discuss the play
Most of the twenty one actors in the play have appeared in other Dramaworks productions, so it was a reunion of sorts, a celebration of their theatre community -- and community in general -- with its choice of another Pulitzer Prize winning play (the company has performed at least one in each of its 15 years).

Dramaworks also put its own spin on the set.  Although it is the traditional minimalist set, with no props other than the chairs and tables (actors miming their use of everyday implements such as kitchenware), the backdrop could be anyplace backstage circa 1938 when the play was written (although the play covers the years 1903-1913, set in the mythical Grover’s Corners of New Hampshire). It is evocative of New England. It speaks of earlier times, a simpler way of life, but life, nonetheless, as we all still live it in all its cycles. The minimalist set asks us, the audience, to use our own imagination, enter the play, and to fill in the blanks. 

Our Town Set
So why does this play never tire, in spite of the number of times we’ve seen it?  It is a play about everyman – us – and it is a celebration of what it means to be part of a community.  It’s about the transience of life, something we become increasingly aware of as we age, putting our brief humdrum existence in context (“The cottage, the go cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will. Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”). It is a call to find beauty and meaning in the ordinary. 

The play is like a fine piece of music, where Act I: Daily Life is the exposition, meeting the characters and witnessing their routines, ones they go about sort of unconsciously as they comment about the weather and the ordinary details of their day.  Act II: Love and Marriage is the development section, where the characters and the themes are now more in focus; something of consequence is happening, a wedding, perhaps the most significant event in our lifetimes (“People are meant to go through life two by two,  ’Tain’t natural to be lonesome”).  Act III: Death and Dying is the recapitulation, but, now with an entirely different and solemn look at the characters when they realize their daily life must be lived, and every day, every action, cherished ("Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?-every, every minute?"). The omniscient Stage Manager then sums up, continuing to pass through the fourth wall, directly wishing the audience a good night.

We never tire of hearing the great masters of classical music, and similarly that is why seeing Our Town again (and again) is welcome.  We listen for the variations, the spin on the performance a conductor might put on a piece of music and the virtuosity of the musicians, and in this case what a director will do with the tabula rasa of the stage and bringing out the talent of the actors. 

How fitting that the Stage Manger role should go to Colin McPhillamy whose previous performances in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Exit the King, Copenhagen and The Pitmen Painters were outstanding.  He is the consummate actor (and fellow blogger). He gives a tour de force performance inhabiting the role of the authoritative, omniscient guide for the audience, easily transitioning to briefly becoming a character in the play and then back again as the “stage manager.” It must be a difficult role to play. McPhillamy perfectly describes it in his blog.  “A man both of the town and beyond it, able to move in several directions in time and with the prescient knowledge of things to come and things past. His voice joins with the author's in the play's great invitation: to notice.”

Arguably the other leading characters in the play are Emily Webb and George Gibbs, with their marriage the center of the play’s loose plot line which gives rise to the play’s major themes on what it means to exist.

Emiley Kiser, a Dramaworks newcomer, plays Emily Webb.  She’s direct and likable, to George who marries her, and to us, the audience.  Yet she dies a young woman, only 26 years old giving birth to their second child.  Emiley Kiser is the kind of actress who just radiates her youth, making the transition from teenager to young adult on stage, the perfect choice for the fabled girl next door in the mythical town of Grover’s Corner.

George Gibbs is played by another newcomer, Joe Ferrarelli, an all-American boy, baseball is his sport, who hopes to go to college but settles down with Emily instead.  He takes the path of most of Grover’s Corner’s youngsters, 90% of them staying in the same town as they were born.  Ferrarelli plays his role with the breathless expectation of the future, a life with his childhood (albeit secret) sweetheart, one that he takes for granted will last, well, forever. 

The other major roles are all played by Dramaworks’ veterans and their experience and love of working together shines in their professionalism.  These include Kenneth Kay (Dr. Gibbs), Elizabeth Dimon (Mrs. Gibbs), Patti Gardner (Mrs. Webb), Dan Leonard (Mr. Webb), and Margery Lowe (Mrs. Soames).  Other members of the cast are Michael Collins, John Felix, Cliff Goulet, Dave Hyland, Hal Johnstone, Char Plotsky, Allie Beltran, Sawyer Hyatt, Joshua Stoughton, Justin Strikowski, Patrick A. Wilkinson, Nick Arenstein, and Ashley Horowitz.

In addition to the first-rate acting, it’s the “other things” that distinguish a fine professional production from a very good amateur one, specifically the set, lighting, sound, and costumes.  Of course professional companies usually have the facilities and the budget to excel in these areas, but one also needs the inspiration and the creativity for them to soar.  I already mentioned the scenic design, but a special mention should be made about the lighting, designed by the same person who handled the scenic design, Paul Black. With lighting, he captured the characters bathed in moonlight, drew the audience focus to certain characters while keeping others in dappled shadows, and making the characters in the cemetery seem, well, other-worldly.  The lighting was not obtrusive, but greatly enhanced the production.  Costumes of the period were spot on, thanks to Robin L. McGee’s efforts and when you needed to hear that railroad in the distance, sound designer, Matt Corey was right on cue.  Indeed, it’s these little things that help make a brilliant professional production.

Finally, it takes a special director to bring all of these elements together into a seamless, fulfilling creation.  J. Barry Lewis had never directed Our Town during his long career and it took a confluence of events to bring him to Grover’s Corner at this time, with a theatre company reaching maturity, with actors uniquely qualified for the roles, and professional designers and a stage well equipped to bring out all Thornton Wilder intended.  A deft director’s hand is critical to avoid the sense of sentimentality and to focus on the weighty universal truths behind the cycle of life of the play’s characters.  He is careful to capture the humor Wilder interjects here and there as well as to counterbalance the tragic elements.

So once again Dramaworks kicks off its season with a classic American play, one about a town in the early 20th century, about us.  At one point the stage manager speculates about what the townspeople should put in a time capsule they are planning. He thinks this play itself should be among the artifacts, "So - people a thousand years from now - this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. - This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying."  Theatre to think about!