May 24, 2011

Bob & Bert

In honor of Dylan's 70th, and because I just reckoned with another Midwestern Jewish artist's relationship with Brecht, it's worth revisiting this juicy piece by Jason Zinoman after Chronicles came out. If Woody Guthrie gave us the folkie Bob, it may have been Brecht who gave us Bob in full, according to Esther Harcourt, a former graduate student at Victoria University in New Zealand:
“Dylan inherited Guthrie’s role as voice of the people,” Ms. Harcourt said in a recent interview, “but the European influence of Brecht allowed him to experiment and undercut that role and create a more complex voice that wasn’t always as morally black and white.”

Ms. Harcourt argues that the influence of Brecht is the missing piece of the answer to the much-debated question of why Mr. Dylan moved away from the folk and protest scenes in the early 60’s. His songs took on a more personal, surreal and often ambiguous style that, like the work of Brecht, often complicated the audience’s relationship with the hero of a song.
Below, a historic moment Harcourt hails for its "Brechtian irony," ostensibly because the opening protest song ("When the Ship Comes In," with its shades of "Pirate Jenny"), offered at a nonviolent civil rights demonstration, concludes with violent Biblical imagery. Fair enough, though I think the real drama starts after the 3:00 mark, with Dylan telling civil rights activists not to blame Medgar Evers' killer because he's "Only a Pawn in Their Game," urging them instead to make common cause with poor whites against the ruling class. I guess that's the other kind of Brechtian.

The Broad Standard

I was underwhelmed by the current revival of Anything Goes, but I found Sutton Foster riveting; like Kelli O'Hara or Raul Esparza, or any of her overqualified generation of musical theater triple threats, she brings as much bone-deep conviction to her singing and dancing as she does to her acting. I'm not sure she's capable of a false moment; her blazing sincerity even shone through that awful Shrek makeup.

But there's been a strain of thought about her performance as Reno Sweeney that, as talented as she is, she's not a broad—that the brass in her voice is not matched by her performance or her type; that she's essentially too soft, too much of an ingenue. Well, I see what the critics are saying—Foster certainly doesn't have the edge or the bite, nor the Greek-mask glare, of a Lupone or Merman. But I wonder, for one, if that's the only way to play Reno. More to the point, I wonder whether Reno is even a character per se, or just a cluster of showstopping songs and period attitudes.

Then last week I was introducing my son to The Wizard of Oz and it hit me: The best template for pondering Foster—with her toothy, all-American sincerity, her easy but not default vibrato, her game and goofy side, her touch of vulnerability, her gift for genuine joy and surprise—is early to mid-period Judy Garland, from roughly Meet Me in St. Louis to Easter Parade. This is Judy after her eager child-acting days but before she was a hot mess, before her performances got querulous and brittle and in many other ways fascinating (cf. A Star Is Born). You might call later-period Judy a "broad," but what would you call middle-period Judy? Ingenue? Soubrette? Girl-woman? Do these categories matter?

I'd venture that Sutton Foster is similarly sui generis, which is why I don't particularly care whether her Reno fits a type; it's enough that it fills the stage, and then some.

Below, two flavors of Judy from a favorite film; I find it hard to watch her now without thinking of Foster.

A Joke With a Short Shelf Life

Seen on Nassau Blvd. in Greenpoint this morning.

May 23, 2011

Mamet v. Brecht: The Wrong Fight

Though he's a bit shrill about it, Eric Alterman has done due diligence in taking apart the politics part of Andrew Ferguson's fawning piece about David Mamet's "conversion" to the right (which is news to precisely no one who's been paying attention since at least Oleanna). Which leaves it to me to elaborate on a few theater-related lacunae, which pretty much cluster in this paragraph about Mamet's new book of essays on American politics:
The Secret Knowledge begins with a parricide—a verbal throat-slitting of the leftwing playwright Bertolt Brecht, father to three generations of dramatists, especially those who, like Tony Kushner or Anna Deavere Smith or Christopher Durang, make agitprop the primary purpose of their art.
Durang is the giveaway here. Though I don't agree that "agitprop" fairly describes Kushner's or Deavere Smith's intentions or results, at least I know what Ferguson is talking about. The inclusion of Durang stinks of some lazy Google research, which I imagine thus: "Damn, I need a third name to round out the list...What about that guy with the play about how Catholicism sucks--what has he done lately? Here we go, Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them. Bingo!"

We go on:
For most of his career Mamet revered Brecht too: It was the thing to do. The reverence came to an end when he finally noticed an incongruity between Brecht’s politics and his life. Although a cold-blooded—indeed bloody-minded—advocate for public ownership of the means of production and state confiscation of private wealth, he always took care to copyright his plays. More, he made sure the royalties were deposited in a Swiss bank account far from the clutches of East Germany, where he was nominally a citizen.
Yeah, all right—Brecht is a fat target on the hypocrisy front, but is this news to anyone? And does this render his plays bupkus? But there's worse to come:
“His protestations [against capitalism] were not borne out by his actions, nor could they be,” Mamet writes. “Why, then, did he profess Communism? Because it sold...The public’s endorsement of his plays kept him alive; as Marx was kept alive by the fortune Engels’s family had made selling furniture."
Lost me there, Dave-O. Not only would I never measure Brecht's life by his plays, or vice versa, can you, of all dramatists, honestly not see that it's possible for someone to be both a sincere true believer and to be compromised in one way or another? Indeed, all true believers are hypocrites to one degree or another. Except, of course, for that sellout Brecht, lighting his cigars with his millions while he kicked back in his East Berlin palazzo.

The more I think about it, the more this feels like a bit of sleight of hand. Is Brecht really a relevant "father" for Mamet? Why not tackle two influences closer to home, like, say, Arthur Miller or Harold Pinter? Mamet owes each a huge debt as a dramatist, and both were men of the left. Not card-carrying Communists who eagerly submitted to living in a Soviet client state, mind you, just garden-variety lefties (with Pinter, by the end, representing a particularly thistly variety) who, while critical of Western democracies and capitalism, lived reasonably happy and productive lives within them.

Why, I wonder, wouldn't Mamet apply his newfangled rightwingery on two forebears so much closer to him aesthetically than the German epic poet? I can't say for sure, but I can venture a guess. One of the more honest and clarifying moments in Ferguson's piece comes late in the piece (if you can get through it). After sketching a flippant series of straw-men arguments against the liberals he allegedly knows, whom Mamet finally damningly convicts of the crime of thinking like a "herd," and by contrast portraying his own political journey—no joke—as a Whitaker Chambers-esque story of individualist, free-thinking courage, Mamet's breezy new book leaves even his admiring reporter momentarily in the dust:
The prose moves very fast, and some of the arguments seem to be missing a few essential steps; premises rocket to conclusions on the strength of sheer outrage. The conversion is complete: This is not a book by the same man who told Charlie Rose he didn’t want to impose his political views on anybody. At some moments—as when he blithely announces that the earth is cooling not warming, QED—you wonder whether maybe he isn’t in danger of exchanging one herd for another. He told me he doesn’t read political blogs or magazines. “I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. “Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.”
Aw, fuck, I give up. A cranky conservative, a so-called "tragic" conservative—I could imagine and even distantly admire Mamet in those terms, as a sort of Beckett-y Archie Bunker. The real scandal here is that David Mamet has become a movement conservative. And for true-blue movement conservatism, the "left" means Communist/collectivist/totalitarian—hence the straw-burning of a Brecht not even John Fuegi would recognize rather than a reckoning with Miller or Pinter, two Western liberals who lived and worked squarely within the Western democratic tradition (and in Miller's case, in as irreducibly and proudly an American milieu as any preening patriot). But these are writers with whom a conservative would have to constructively engage, and perhaps concede that a spectrum of respectable right and left ideas coexist under Anglo-American late capitalism, rather than simply dismiss out of hand or tar as pandering cynics. And this, I suspect, is a parricide even this wayward son can't enact on his progenitors Pinter and Miller; better to pass over their legacies in silence.

The Secret Knowledge just arrived at my office today, from the Penguin imprint Sentinel, which also brought the world Mike Huckabee's Do the Right Thing, A Patriot's History of the United States by Larry Schweikart (my high school history teacher, I swear to God) and Michael Allen, and The Persecution of Sarah Palin by Matthew Continetti. I will withhold further judgment till I read it (and American Theatre may review it), but I confess I checked the index first: Brecht, check. Miller and Pinter, no dice.

P.S. I guess it's relevant, and only fair, to point you to Mamet's terse but heartfelt eulogy for Miller.
Update: Hunka adds some salient thoughts.

May 20, 2011

Season Survey

Roughly once a quarter I write about Broadway shows for the Catholic journal America, and though I wish I had seen the relatively amazing Jerusalem and the surprisingly (to me, at least) sharp and smart Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo by my deadline, I had plenty to cover with The Book of Mormon, The Motherfucker With the Hat (the title of which, interestingly, gets a more full printing in this Catholic magazine than in the New York Times), Good People, and War Horse.


May 19, 2011

Shaggy Days Are Here Again

photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times

I enjoyed the premiere of Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen's Shaggs musical back in 2003, so I'm especially happy to see it finally make it to New York with the original Dot (Jamey Hood). My feature for the paper of record is here.

May 18, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Lynn Nottage may well be the one black playwright of whom it cannot be said that she amassed her many awards on her race and gender." -John Simon, reviewing By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

If I read that correctly, his choice of words ("the one black playwright") means he's lumping in August Wilson and Derek Walcott in there along with Lorraine Hansberry, Suzan-Lori Parks, etc. (though "race and gender" slightly confuses the issue).

He isn't even trying to hide his prejudices anymore, is he?

May 17, 2011

For the Children?

Today George Hunka offers us a lengthy and despairing quote about the depredations of collective human behavior from critic George Steiner, which is all fine and well. But Hunka adds his own spin in what I presume is his own intro, saying:
A context for the 21st century tragic consciousness, from critic George Steiner. In its refusal to acknowledge this, American drama remains in the hands of children.
I don't engage with George Hunka very often, for reasons I've mentioned before, but I'm moved to challenge him here. Who exactly is he calling "children"? Artistic directors? Playwrights? The audience? Critics? I know a lot of foolish and benighted people who toil in the theater, and several in greater positions of power and influence than I would like, but I wouldn't go so far as to question the adulthood or seriousness of the entire field.

And I'm curious, for the record: Would George call Oskar Eustis, Martha Lavey, or Bill Rauch, just to pick a few names off the top of my head, "children"? Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Kristoffer Diaz, Tracy Letts--"children"? Come to think of it, I'm also not fond of "children" as a default putdown; like the word "amateur," it's a shorthand that needlessly dismisses a whole category of people. (And I should add that a not inconsiderable segment of the American theater actually creates work--even "drama"--for children.)

There's a lot one could say about the state of the American drama, its parlous economics and its apparent irrelevance to the mainstream of our culture, that I might take seriously, and on balance George does contribute meaningfully to this dialogue. But I just have to call this sentence out for making him look more sloppy and snobby than I know he is.

UPDATE: On the other hand, George's post today on tragic consciousness is a good one. I don't share his monomania, but he has seldom expressed himself more forcefully than here:
If suicide is not a viable option or course (as Schopenhauer believed), the question then becomes, in the brief light between birth and death, what one is to do with oneself, how to perceive and interpret the world and behavior with which one is presented, and how one is to conduct oneself in a world fallen by its very nature. (The tragic consciousness seems to be the only means by which the twentieth century itself makes sense; to view it through a comic or melodramatic prism is either madness or idiocy.)
What's most striking here, given our recent back-and-forth, is the religious language, though that should hardly be surprising. Tragedy, after all, assumes brokenness--or fallen-ness, to use George's word--which perforce assumes prior or essential wholeness. The question for the 20th century drama and beyond has always seemed to me to be, Can we have tragedy without gods? Maybe so (cf. the work of David Simon), but it seems clear enough to me that the language and logic of tragedy is at the very least informed or haunted by a religious sensibility.

May 16, 2011

Koch for Kushner

I haven't blogged about the Kushner-CUNY contretemps, leaving it in the capable hands of Superfluities and Playgoer and Parabasis, but I couldn't help but notice who had rallied to Tony's side in the struggle, with a personal letter: former mayor Ed Koch. Yes, the same Ed Koch who's the subject one of Angels in America's biggest (if now slightly musty) laugh lines, when Belize phones Prior after Roy Cohn is wheeled into his ward:
BELIZE: Get out your oven mitts.
Guess who just checked in with the troubles?
The Killer Queen Herself. New York's number one closeted queer.
PRIOR: Koch?
The ex-mayor was peeved about it when the play was on Broadway (some choice back-and-forth here and here), but he's apparently forgiven and/or forgotten.

Next thing you know he'll be defending Larry Kramer.

May 11, 2011

The National Jukebox

The Library of Congress has put a ton of early recordings online, playable for free. It's a treasure trove (and a time-suck), so I'll just leave you with this charmer, from the category "Humorous Songs."

(h/t TPM)

May 10, 2011

Still No Word From Mary

In Jesse Green's painstakingly balanced 2009 profile of much-revered/much-reviled playwright Arthur Laurents, who died last week, Green couldn't get composer/lyricist Mary Rodgers Guettel to speak to him--or rather, the only quote he could pry from her on the record was a terse and telling, "Call me back when he's dead." As Jason Zinoman's new oral history of Laurents is any indication, Mary Rodgers Guettel is still keeping her counsel on the subject. But the best quote has to be Patti LuPone's final thought: "Arthur was a lot of human being."

May 3, 2011

The "Universal" Measure

photo by Simon Annand

Must a play be universal or ageless to be great? Doesn't theater, that most ephemeral of art forms, really live only in the moment and space of a particular performance? Do we watch theater (and by "we" I don't mean only critics, but I am especially thinking of critics and critical viewers) with a double consciousness, one that checks and balances our immediate enjoyment or discomfort against some kind of larger judgment--a voice that wonders, But is it really great? or, Will it stand "the test of time"? Shouldn't the first and fundamental "test of time" for any play be how well it keeps our interest for its immediate running time?

These thoughts have all come to mind since I saw Jerusalem last week, and since I've heard a consistent drumbeat in the more skeptical reviews that have said, essentially, Yeah, Mark Rylance is great and all, but...the play is pretentious/overstated/long/too English, or to put it one encompassing putdown, from Backstage's Erik Haagensen, "three hours and 10 minutes of windy bollocks"–a grisly anatomical metaphor if I ever heard one, and one which, perhaps inadvertently, evokes the play's colorful conception-by-bullet tale (a conceit which, incidentally, Tom Waits told a version of back in 1987).

I know what the critics are talking about, and yet...and yet...I think David Cote is on to something when he struggles to describe what Rylance is doing:
New critical terms should be invented to explain how this actor (previously glorious in La Bête and Boeing-Boeing) transforms voice and body, the way he can underplay and overact in perfect harmony, making the most eccentric business credible and logical. He Rylances.
I couldn't agree more with the palpable sense that I don't know exactly what I saw in Rylance's performance, but I know I saw something. I've not only never seen a performer go further with a performance, I've never had a performer take me further; I wasn't just sitting back and watching him do his virtuosic thing; he brought me along to a place I hadn't been before; I guess that's why they call it "moving."

No, I'm actually not sure if it's a "great" play; I might even actively object to it, if I felt, as Haagensen and others do, that playwright Jez Butterworth is merely "lionizing" Rylance's skeezy drug dealer/gypsy Johnny "Rooster" Byron, or that our sympathy/complicity with his eccentric journey is a simple matter of identification and "rooting" for a character we "like." I don't believe that any great performance is that simple and reducible, actually, let alone about any really great character. And I for one can't look the gift horse of Rylance's performance in the mouth; in this case, it is so much more than enough that Butterworth's play and Ian Rickson's production give Rylance the chance to enact this complicated, irreducible feat eight times a week in our vicinity; I can't be bothered with the quibbles, frankly.

Another way I'd put it is this: When an actor's performance is this capacious, and the world he creates in/with a show feels like a self-contained universe unto itself, as this does, how much more "universal" does it need to be? A visit to the universe that is Rylance's Rooster Byron is among the rarest riches the theater has to offer, and so, yes, I recommend the show without reservation (though, actually, you probably will need a reservation).

And though I certainly wouldn't put Butterworth's play in the same league as Joe Turner's Come and Gone, my feelings about Jerusalem remind me of a realization I had in connection with the Wilson play's exquisite 2009 revival:
As with any powerful theatrical gesture, fully articulated in a richly imagined world, the symbols in Joe Turner don't mean something else–they signify and stand for themselves, within the context of the play; and one measure of a play's greatness is how well the play itself can stand for the world, or a world unto itself.
I can't defend every excess of Butterworth's play, but this world-unto-itself feeling is how Jerusalem played for me.