Saturday, May 01, 2010

Misunderstood American Masters #3: Thornton Wilder

When Annie told me she was going to play Mrs. Webb in a local production of Our Town, I tried to talk her out of it. She’s trying to get a story collection ready for a Memorial Day prize submission deadline, and plays eat time like stoners eat Cracker Jack. But it wasn’t just that. I had seen Our Town when my high school mounted the play in 1967, and I remembered it as corny, sentimental small town schmaltz – hardly worth learning all those lines, wasting two months of rehearsals and giving up all those balmy Spring nights for.

I wonder about that initial reaction now, having been marinated for weeks in the words of Thornton Wilder, running lines and watching various versions of the play. My memory might have been playing tricks on me; or maybe I was just too young to really appreciate the harsh truth and the austere beauty of what may just be the Great American Play. As the Stage Manager, says, discussing the time-capsule cornerstone for the new bank being built in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire:

…Y’know Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ‘m is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts and – the sales of slaves. Yes, every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney -- same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then. So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone, so the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us – more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight. See what I mean? 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.

The play is deceptively simple. Its three acts show a day in the life of Grover’s Corners New Hampshire, circa 1901; the marriage of George Webb and Emily Gibbs, three years later; and a graveyard scene nearly a decade after the wedding. The production design is minimalist, to say the least. At one point stage-hands roll a trellis into view “For those of you who feel you have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager remarks. He’s a curious conceit, this Stage Manager. He narrates the play, comments on the action like a one man Greek Chorus. But the characters on stage are aware of him; they talk to him. At his request, Mr. Webb, the editor of the town newspaper, steps up to deliver the “political and social report” on the town for the audience. Mr. Webb is aware of the audience, too, it seems – he even takes questions from them. His wife and her neighbor, Julia Gibbs come and go at The Stage Manager’s command. He thanks them for their ‘scene’ – at once a purely realistic conversation and a Pirandello-esque exercise in theatrical self-awareness. Are these actors talking to their “Stage Manager” – as actors? Or is it the characters themselves talking to … the author? Us? God? The mystery resonates through the play, an unanswered question that renders Our Town strikingly, almost abrasively, modern, for all its apparent folksiness old-fashioned charm.

The Stage Manager certainly has an omniscient point of view. Telling us about Joe Crowell, the newsboy, he says:

Joe was awful bright – graduated from High School here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech – MIT. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin to be a great engineer, Joe was, but the war broke out and he died in France. Yes sir, all that education for nothing. What business he had picking a quarrel with the Germans, we can’t make out to this day, hut it all seemed pretty clear to us at the time.

He sees the future, he leads the dead Emily Gibbs briefly back into the world of the living at the climax of the third act and most of all he helps us see the long view, the great context in which these characters lives are set. It comes out in so many details, at almost every moment of the play, from the Stage Manager (marrying George and Emily in Act Two) talking about the “other witnesses” – the ancestors, “millions of them” to George’s sister Rebecca telling him about a letter her friend got from the Minister when she was sick. She says the address on the envelope read like this: “Jane Crofut, the Crofut Farm, Grover’s Corners, Sutton County; Neew Hampshire; the United states of America; continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; The Earth; The Solar System; The Universe; The Mind of God. And the postman brought it, just the same.”

In a letter to his friend Alexander Woolcott, dated January 27th, 1938, Wilder laid his intentions out clearly:

Our reviews say that it is a nostalgic unpretentious play with charm. But what I wrote was damn pretentious…The subject of the play I wrote is: the trivial details of human life in reference to a vast perspective of time, of social history, of religious ideas … if it had been written as a picture of rural manners, it would have been written differently … [Stage manager actor Frank Craven] is lovable and we’re grateful for that. But, oh, for that deep New England stoic irony that’s grasped the iron of life and shares it with the house.

In fact the play is anything but sentimental. It’s harsh, it’s brutal. It’s merciless, in a way. No one gets what they want. Emily Webb, who loves to give speeches (“It was like silk off a spool”) and thinks she’ll do it all her life, marries a farmer nowhere near as bright as she is and dies in childbirth at age thirty. Her brother Wally dies on a Boy Scout trip when he’s barely a teen-ager. Her mother-in-law, Julia Gibbs, never achieves her life-long dream of going to Paris, France (“Only it seems to me, once in your life, you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and they don’t even want to.”) She sells a valuable piece of furniture but that money doesn’t pay for a trip abroad. It goes to buying her son a trough for the farm livestock. She does get to make her husband French toast, though. We only realize the ultimate disposition of Mrs. Gibbs’ ‘legacy’ at the end of the play when both she and her daughter-in-law are dead and sitting in the graveyard and it shouldn’t matter any more. But it still hurts. Even the fact that Emily loves the trough, with its modern automatic drain and refill, wounds us somehow. She settled for so much less than she should have had.

But still she wants to go back. The other shades advise her against it, but she insists, and the Stage Manager with an inscrutable deference, allows her to re-live her twelfth birthday. In perhaps the most moving and justly famous moment of the play, she finds it unbearable, and flees back to the grave yard. She says:

I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first; Wait! One more look! Goodbye! Goodbye, world! Goodbye, Grover’s Corners – Mama and papa – Goodbye to clocks ticking – and my butternut tree! – and mama’s sunflowers – and food and coffee – and new ironed dresses and hot baths – and sleeping and waking up! – Oh Earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you. (to The Stage Manager) Do any humans ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute

And he says, “No. Saints and poets maybe. They do, some.”

Maybe the Stage Manger is right when he quotes the ‘scholars’ who believe there’s nothing living above us, among the stars, “just chalk – or fire.” But elsewhere in the play he says there’s “something eternal about every human being” and you feel that when you watch the play and you feel it in the play itself, still vivid and moving and troubling more than seventy years after it was written, thirty five years after the author’s death. Despite the harshness of life, despite its cruel twists of fate, its mean compromises and its relentless defeats, without a scrap or filament of the sentimentality for which it has so often been derided, Our Town shakes us awake for a moment or two, makes us really look at the world outside the theatre, feel the mild night air around us, take the hand of the person we love beside us, reach for that sainthood of awareness, that elusive poetry of now.

Misunderstood American Masters #2: Norman Rockwell

If one picture is worth a thousand words, then any randomly selected Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover could replace pages of scornful academic writing about the spiritual danger of kitsch and the aesthetic disease of sentimentality. For most people, Rockwell defines ‘corny’. He’s become a generic term, the commercial branding for the fake and the trite. Kleenex means facial tissue, Thermos means vacuum flask; and Rockwell means cheese.

Rockwells’s paintings are lies – the world he depicts never existed. Doctors never humored little girls by giving stethoscope examinations to their dolls; jovial policemen never sat chatting at the soda counter with cute runaway little boys (complete with all belongings tied into a scarf at the end of a stick). Boy Scouts may indeed salute the flag, but not generally while standing in front of the Liberty Bell. When members of the tea-party movement whine about taking their country back, this is the country they’re talking about – the idealized, homey, sugar sweet middle America of Normal Rockwell. But no one likes a steady diet of sweets and this man’s work could put a hypo-glycemic into a diabetic coma.

That’s the critical consensus as we move tentatively into the second decade of the twenty-first century.

I won’t say it’s wrong, but I will say it’s wrong headed. It’s simplistic. It’s incomplete. Of course he produced hundreds, even thousands of sentimental icons – gossips and baseball players and big turkey dinners: that was his job. He was an illustrator, and he was proud to be an illustrator. He was one of the best, ever. But he was also an artist, and he could have been a great one, right up there with Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, if he had made different choices. No, you can’t deny the cascade of saccharine imagery, revealing what Orwell referred to as “A talent that extends no farther then the wrist”. Orwell was talking about Salvadore Dali, about whom who Nabokov famously remarked that he was “Norman Rockwell abducted by gypsies as a child.” But there are other pictures, only few, perhaps, but more than enough of them to rehabilitate his reputation, where the purity of his feeling and the skill of his art came together like a storm surf wave hitting the backwash from the steep beach, and lifting into something wild and unique and unrepeatable.

I have always been haunted by a painting called “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, which depicts a pick-up nighttime jam session in the back room of titular Vermont establishment, just glimpsed through an open door. Part of it is the detail, the hanging clippers, the leaning broom, the old fashioned barber chairs slumbering in the late autumn darkness. It seems like late autumn in that painting, with the fire smoldering in the woodstove. And then there’s the sense of small town intimacy, together with the sharp spike of exclusion: we are staring through the window-mullions that subtly frame the image, perhaps drawn by the faint sound of fiddle music, eternally on the outside, looking in. It’s a vision of community, with a note of isolation like a minor key change from that bluegrass violin. You want to try the lock, (of course the shop will be open), slip inside, and listen for a while. But you start off down the deserted street again, buttoning the top button of your coat. Winter is coming on. There’s a chilly wind blowing off the mountains.

Then there’s “Freedom from Fear”, the second and most affecting of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series. Though not the most famous – the praying heads, gaunt working man standing up to make a point at town meeting, the giant roast turkey brought to the table by the smiling grandma (“Freedom to Worship”, “Freedom of Speech”, “Freedom from Want”) are all better known – and more simplistic. It’s hard to imagine Rockwell’s craggy proletarian rising to fight the Domestic Partnership article on the warrant, or a squabbling miserable family, barely assembled and bickering, at that Thanksgiving table. Do any of those worshipping folk have an abused alter-boy in the family? I don’t think so. That’s not Rockwell’s world. But just when Rockwell’s world begins to seem hopelessly, absurdly, cornball, he gives the one more picture in the series: a mother and father tucking their two small children into bed for the night. There’s no hype in this picture, none of the forced sentimentality that mars the other pictures: the father didn’t even put his newspaper down before joining his wife in the nightly ritual (they had evening newspapers in those days). But it speaks volumes to me -- and, I suspect, to every other parent who has had the privilege of performing that simple daily ceremony.

Finally, I love Rockwell’s clear-eyed and unblinking conscience, his tough, New England political acuity (The “Middle America” slight was always a few thousand miles off: he lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Look at his de-segregation painting, “Problem We All Live With”. A negro girl (this was 1964, the cover of Look Magazine) walks to school in what is obviously her best white dress, clutching her books, surrounded with a four-man honor guard to protect her from the rabid bigots just out of the picture (about where we’re standing, looking at the painting, actually). The work is rendered subtly from her point of view, though presented at some distance from the stark parade. Rockwell’s image emerges from the little girl’s height – all we only see the men from the neck down, making us feel small and vulnerable, pulling us into her perspective. She’s a tiny heroine ... but she’s also just another kid, nervous about her first day at school. Somehow Rockwell evokes the big picture of America’s fraying social fabric and still presents the tiny exact specific reality of one moment in a little girl’s life, simultaneously.

Well, I promised myself I’d keep this talk of pictures to a thousand words and I’m about to go over my limit. That’s OK, though.

The pictures speak for themselves.

Misunderstood American Masters #1: Billy Joel

Americans like categories. We like naming and judging and filing away our public figures: Jimmy Carter was a wimp, James Brown was “The hardest working man in show business”, Thomas Edison was a kindly old tinkerer.

That Jimmy Carter was a tough, shrewd politician with a far-sighted agenda we’re only now catching up to; that James Brown spent as much time drinking as he did singing; that Edison with a ruthless businessman who tried to crush all his rivals (including Nicola Tessla, who championed at AC current in universal use today) … we forget about all that. We don’t want to hear it. We prefer the snap shot.

This type of thinking has caused a gradual distortion in the way we view of some of the most beloved artists of the last century. I’m thinking in particular of Billy Joel, Norman Rockwell and Thornton Wilder. They seem like a bizarrely diverse group but they share a common stigma of misapprehension, and they all deserve better.

Starting at the bottom of the list, we have Billy Joel, silent since the 1990s – apart from some undistinguished ‘classical’ compositions that have done nothing to burnish his reputation. In fact they continued the corrosion of our esteem, by reiterating his role as a skilful but insignificant mimic … parroting Rachminoff and Chopin now, instead of Smokey Robinson and Paul McCartney. But then, the critics always hated him, even during his heyday – and he hated them right back. He closed his show for years by shouting ‘Fuck you, Ken Tucker,” and the war of words continues to this day, with Tucker and many others. I was irked and saddened to read a recent article in Slate magazine by Ron Rosenbaum titled “The Worst Pop Singer Ever: Why, Exactly is Billy Joel so Bad?” Of course the title takes it for granted that we all agree with Ron – the badness itself is a foregone conclusion: an unfortunate excrescence of the 8os, like the Charlie’s Angels hair styles and the polyester leisure suits. It’s the critical equivalent of asking “When did you stop beating your wife?” To claim you never did such a thing in the first place requires dismantling the question and separating out the implicit assumption from neutral inquisition.

So let’s start: Billy Joel wasn’t bad.

And he wasn’t arrogant either, despite Rosenbaum’s assertions. A song like “Big Shot”, for instance, where he berates a nameless friend for acting like a pompous clown, was actually addressed to himself – a piece of ‘man in the mirror’ chastisement that went right over Rosenbaum’s head.

Billy Joel was always emotional and he could never maintain the distance from his own emotions that night have made him seem cool. He couldn’t dress up and role-play like Bowie; he couldn’t strut like Jagger, or muster David Byrne’s chilly ironic panache. He just laid it all out there and hoped that honesty and a catchy tune would carry the day. Often, they did. Critics called him corny, and he was, at times. But I choose not to judge him by his worst efforts; that’s a cruel standard, and a mendacious one.

Take a song like “This is the Time” from his forgotten 1986 album The Bridge. It starts with this evocative image of a coastal town in winter:

We walked on the beach beside that old hotel
They're tearing it down now
But it's just as well,

And moves on to sharp-edged but poignant warning about time and romance, framed in the setting of erosion and decay:

This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever
These are the days
To hold on to
Cause we won't
Although we'll want to.

The sharp edge in that song, like a cold wind off the Atlantic, cut across most of his music, with a tonic realism that denies the notion that the downtown guy was nothing but a soft-centered sentimentalist.

From “You May be Right” (Glass Houses, 1980)

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you're looking for
Turn out the light
Don't try to save me
You may be wrong for all I know
But you may be right

Remember how I found you there
Alone in your electric chair
I told you dirty jokes until you smiled
You were lonely for a man
I said take me as I am
'Cause you might enjoy some madness for awhile.

From “Only the good Die Young” (The Stranger, 1978)

You said your mother told you
All I could give you was a reputation
Ah she never cared for me
But did she ever say a prayer for me?

Come out, come out, come out Virginia
Don't let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
Sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well, will be the one
You know that only the good die young

There are many other examples; he’s full of surprises. But beyond the lyrics, Billy Joel has one of the great rock and roll voices – or perhaps I should say, he has three of the great rock and roll voices – a screamer, a crooner and a straight-ahead band-fronting tenor. And he writes the music for all of those styles. The people who try to critique him for the most part know nothing about music theory or composition; most of them can’t even carry a tune. People who know music, like Paul Simon, respect Billy Joel’s achievements as a tunesmith. But don’t take Paul’s word for it – or mine. Ultimately Billy Joel’s reputation will endure because of the music, long after the carping critics and internet scolds have been forgotten.

Paris Hilton's Lost Poem?

Scholars dispute the provenance of this small masterpiece. But the Paparazzi references seal it for me. Tabloid hacks were stunned by the first publication. But those who know her best just smiled.

For the record, I never went to 29 Palms with her. Ok, maybe once. But we were both too drunk to remember anything about it.

No one understands me
No one cares
No one helps me
Everyone just stares
Except you
Except you
Except you

No one touches me
No one feels
No one reaches out to me
Everyone just steals
Except you
Except you

No one listens to me
No one hears
No one sets my blood on fire
Everyone just leers
Except you

And you are gone
Into your Joshua Tree silence
Your Mojave horizon line glare.
The lawn sprinkler snickers
Wind pushes a beach ball across the empty pool
You are gone but you remain
Like the flare in the eyes
After the flash bulb dies.