Commentary Magazine


Topic: actor

Bookshelf

• It would be an understatement to say that Mary McCarthy’s novels haven’t aged well—I don’t know anyone without tenure who now reads them—and I can’t say that I get much out of her essays, either. But Memories of a Catholic Girlhood still has its admirers, myself (with reservations) among them, while the drama criticism that was collected in 1963 in a volume called Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962 hasn’t dated in the least. This trim little volume is still available in paperback, if only after a fashion—it was reissued a few years ago by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, a print-on-demand publisher—but it deserves much wider circulation.

Theatre Chronicles is prefaced by a very funny essay in which McCarthy tells how a young Vassar graduate with no apparent qualifications other than the fact that she was sleeping with Philip Rahv came to be the drama critic of Partisan Review:

I was a source of uneasiness and potential embarrassment to the magazine, which had accpted me, unwillingly, as an editor because I had a minute “name” and was the girl friend of one of the “boys,” who had issued a ukase on my behalf. I was not a Marxist; I should have liked, rather, to be one, but I did not know the language, which seemed really like a foreign tongue….

The field assigned me was the theatre, because, just before this, I had been married to an actor. It was often debated whether we should have a theatre column at all. Some of the editors felt that the theatre was not worth bothering with, because it was neither a high art, like Art, nor a mass art, like the movies. But this was also an argument for letting me do it. If I made mistakes, who cared?

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• It would be an understatement to say that Mary McCarthy’s novels haven’t aged well—I don’t know anyone without tenure who now reads them—and I can’t say that I get much out of her essays, either. But Memories of a Catholic Girlhood still has its admirers, myself (with reservations) among them, while the drama criticism that was collected in 1963 in a volume called Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962 hasn’t dated in the least. This trim little volume is still available in paperback, if only after a fashion—it was reissued a few years ago by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, a print-on-demand publisher—but it deserves much wider circulation.

Theatre Chronicles is prefaced by a very funny essay in which McCarthy tells how a young Vassar graduate with no apparent qualifications other than the fact that she was sleeping with Philip Rahv came to be the drama critic of Partisan Review:

I was a source of uneasiness and potential embarrassment to the magazine, which had accpted me, unwillingly, as an editor because I had a minute “name” and was the girl friend of one of the “boys,” who had issued a ukase on my behalf. I was not a Marxist; I should have liked, rather, to be one, but I did not know the language, which seemed really like a foreign tongue….

The field assigned me was the theatre, because, just before this, I had been married to an actor. It was often debated whether we should have a theatre column at all. Some of the editors felt that the theatre was not worth bothering with, because it was neither a high art, like Art, nor a mass art, like the movies. But this was also an argument for letting me do it. If I made mistakes, who cared?

McCarthy was not always the most reliable of autobiographers—that, too, is an understatement—but her rueful confession has the smack of plain truth. So do her theater reviews, which are remarkable for the cold-eyed, clear-headed way in which she saw through the pretenses of a great many people who continue to be handled with kid gloves by far too many critics. It was McCarthy, for instance, who said that Eugene O’Neill was “a playwright who—to be frank—cannot write,” that Orson Welles “has always seemed to secrete a kind of viscous holy oil with which he sprays the rough surfaces of his roles,” and that Stanley Kowalski, the Napoleonic Code-spouting anti-hero of A Streetcar Named Desire, was something less than a believable portrayal of a recognizable human being: “Dr. Kinsey would be interested in a semi-skilled male who spoke of the four-letter act as ‘getting those colored lights going.’”

Like most critics, McCarthy had her limits, the chief of which was an inadequate appreciation of theater as spectacle. Her orientation was almost entirely verbal, to the point that one occasionally suspected her of having reviewed scripts rather than live performances. Thus she was incapable of grasping the fundamentally spectacular virtues of the young Welles’s Elizabethan revivals or the young Marlon Brando’s acting. At the same time, though, it was salutary to hear on a regular basis from a drama critic who insisted that a play must ultimately be held to the same literary standards as a novel:

“Yes,” some people will agree of a play by Tennessee Williams, “it is badly written, but it’s good theatre.” I have never been able to make out what this expression means, exactly. “Strong” situations? Masochistic grovelling? Sexual torture? Is Sophocles “good theatre”? Is Shakespeare? Apparently not, for the term is always used defensively, to justify a kind of shoddiness, which is held to be excusable for the stage.

And while one comes away from Theatre Chronicles suspecting that McCarthy had no great love of theater for its own sake, it is untrue that she was only capable of writing well about that which she disliked. The mark of a good drama critic is the ability to know a good thing when he sees it—and the courage to say so regardless of fashion or political pressure. Not only was McCarthy fearless, but she was even capable of appreciating art to whose style she was temperamentally unsympathetic. Who would have guessed, for instance, that she would have written one of the most intelligent contemporary appreciations of Our Town? Or that she would have responded so favorably to Laurence Olivier’s intensely theatrical, textually high-handed film of Hamlet?

I was still in college when I first ran across McCarthy’s theater criticism, and had seen next to none of the plays she reviewed. As a result, I responded more to her wickedly precise phrase-making than to her capacity for thoughtful judgment. After having spent the past four years writing about two plays a week for the Wall Street Journal, I now know exactly how good Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles is: I rank it with Stark Young’s Immortal Shadows and John Simon’s Uneasy Stages as one of the handful of first-rate collections of theater criticism to have been written by an American.

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Bookshelf

• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

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• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

That a considerable number of German artists approved of Hitler, or at least cooperated more or less willingly with the Nazi regime, is incontestable. As I wrote four years ago in COMMENTARY:

The list of distinguished non-Jewish artists who left the country after Hitler came to power is brief to the point of invisibility when placed next to the rogues’ gallery of those who stayed behind, in many cases not merely accepting the inevitability of Nazi rule but actively collaborating with the regime. The composers Carl Orff and Richard Strauss, the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the actor Emil Jannings, the stage designer Caspar Neher—all these and many more were perfectly prepared to make their peace with Nazism.

Gottfried Keller, the central character of The Savior, is a small fish in this big sewer, a good-but-not-great violinist who in the last weeks of World War II is forced to take part in a a grotesque “experiment” devised by the music-loving commandant of a forced-labor camp. The purpose of the experiment is to find out whether exposure to classical music will raise the spirits of the camp’s demoralized Jewish inmates high enough to increase their efficiency. Later on in the novel, we learn that Keller was once engaged to a Jewish musician who gave him the opportunity to emigrate to Palestine, but that he chose to remain in Germany instead, and by book’s end we come to realize that this fateful decision has made him an “accomplice” (Drucker’s word) to the Holocaust.

This is Drucker’s first novel, but he has written many program notes for the Emerson Quartet’s concerts, and from time to time he disgorges undigested chunks of technical language that betray his inexperience as a writer of fiction (“An accelerando leads to a Presto that plummets from the highest to the lowest registers, where the music briefly regains its repose”). For the most part, though, he tells his terrible tale with an appropriate plainness. Moreover, Drucker is well aware of the difficulty of saying anything meaningful about the Holocaust through the medium of fiction, going so far as to put the following words into the mouth of one of the inmates of the unnamed camp portrayed in The Savior:

I can’t tell anyone here what I’ve seen. It would be a useless repetition of their story, of what they’ve seen; it would be self-indulgent, a way of asking for sympathy. There’s no place for sympathy here. Only an outsider, who understands maybe one-millionth of it, could feel an emotion like sympathy.

Does The Savior add to our understanding of the camps? Not really. But what I did find striking was its author’s willingness to engage directly with the implications of Hitler’s homicidal dream of purifying German art and culture through mass murder. The commandant is made to speak for all the artists and intellectuals who allowed themselves to share that dream, whether in whole or in part: “You’re surprised to find a cultivated man in charge of such a place. But then you have no idea how closely these camps are related to the core of our culture.” And were they? That we should still be asking that question is a measure of Adolf Hitler’s dark victory over the German soul.

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Bookshelf

• Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, now playing at 59E59 Theaters through July 1 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is the talk of Manhattan—or at least that part of Manhattan whose residents go to the theater fairly often. I raved about it in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, describing it as “a cycle of eight head-bangingly funny plays that leaves no possible doubt of Mr. Ayckbourn’s seriousness—or his ingenuity.” Alas, Intimate Exchanges, like most of Ayckbourn’s 70-odd plays, is (A) out of print in the U.S. and (B) doesn’t read nearly as well as it acts, while Alain Resnais’ French-language film version, Smoking/No Smoking, is not available on video. If you can possibly get to Intimate Exchanges, or any other Ayckbourn play, by all means do so. (Relatively Speaking, one of his earlier efforts, is playing at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse July 12-28.)

And if not? Then allow me to direct you to The Crafty Art of Playmaking (Palgrave/Macmillan, 173 pp., $22.95). Practicing artists rarely take the time to sit down and write books about how they do what they do—they’re usually too busy doing it. I don’t know what possessed Ayckbourn to make himself an exception to that rule, but his nuts-and-bolts guide to playwriting and directing, originally published in 2002, is one of the most readable and revealing books ever written about the stage.

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• Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, now playing at 59E59 Theaters through July 1 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is the talk of Manhattan—or at least that part of Manhattan whose residents go to the theater fairly often. I raved about it in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, describing it as “a cycle of eight head-bangingly funny plays that leaves no possible doubt of Mr. Ayckbourn’s seriousness—or his ingenuity.” Alas, Intimate Exchanges, like most of Ayckbourn’s 70-odd plays, is (A) out of print in the U.S. and (B) doesn’t read nearly as well as it acts, while Alain Resnais’ French-language film version, Smoking/No Smoking, is not available on video. If you can possibly get to Intimate Exchanges, or any other Ayckbourn play, by all means do so. (Relatively Speaking, one of his earlier efforts, is playing at Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse July 12-28.)

And if not? Then allow me to direct you to The Crafty Art of Playmaking (Palgrave/Macmillan, 173 pp., $22.95). Practicing artists rarely take the time to sit down and write books about how they do what they do—they’re usually too busy doing it. I don’t know what possessed Ayckbourn to make himself an exception to that rule, but his nuts-and-bolts guide to playwriting and directing, originally published in 2002, is one of the most readable and revealing books ever written about the stage.

Part of what makes it so interesting, of course, is that it’s not so much a how-to-do-it book as a how-Ayckbourn-does-it book. He is best known for writing comedies with unhappy endings about members of the British middle class who are too proper to get what they want out of life, and The Crafty Art of Playmaking contains several sections that shed light on that fascinating preference:

We often dismiss our light comedies and farces as trivia with nothing to say. With the successful ones, this is generally untrue. . . . We are most of us by nature secretive creatures. We guard our inner selves carefully—even sometimes from those we love. In making characters reveal themselves they must be given a cause, a motive. The classic, slightly corny one is to get them drunk. Otherwise, they probably only open up through desperation, or anger, or deliberately to hurt each other or, most usually, because they’ve no idea they’re doing it.

But Ayckbourn, who has been running a Yorkshire theater company for the past quarter-century in between writing plays, is a pragmatist who never lets his private obsessions stand in the way of getting the curtain up, and most of the 101 “obvious rules” that are the heart of The Crafty Art of Playmaking are universally applicable to any production of anything: “Information gleaned indirectly by an audience is far more effective. . . . Explore the unsaid. If it’s clear enough the actor will say it for you. . . . Concentrate on the truth of the scene. Let the comedy take care of itself.”

In addition to these rules, The Crafty Art of Playmaking is salted with acute observations gleaned from hard experience, some aphoristic (“Charm is very difficult to write”) and others illuminatingly expansive:

There is no requirement for the actors to be consciously “funny.” On the contrary, there’s no quicker way to kill the comedy should they attempt to be. . . . If you ever see an actor giving a scene of yours a helping hand with a bit of extra comic business, there can be one of three reasons for this: either the scene is badly written, or it has been misunderstood and misdirected, or it’s being played by a poor or unconfident actor with no judgment.

Reading this brief book in tandem with the equally penetrating Notes on Directing, by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich (RCR Creative Press, 160 pp., $19.95), is the next best thing to watching a play being rehearsed.

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Hantaï and Savall, Beyond “Authenticity”

Time was when music journalists were obsessed with the fashion for “original instruments” or the “authentic approach” in early music. Now that this trend is (fortunately) losing steam, musicians can be judged on how directly and memorably they communicate, regardless of their or their instruments’ so-called “authenticity.” In a concert at the Metropolitan Museum on Wednesday May 9, some remarkable early music specialists performed, including the French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï and Jordi Savall, the Catalan player of the viola da gamba.

The lean, bespectacled Hantaï (b. 1964) physically resembles a young Rudolf Serkin. His performances of excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Second English Suite made trills into microcosmic explosions in a way unmatched among contemporary harpsichordists; he probably has no equal other than his mentor, the Dutch legend Gustav Leonhardt. His recital partner, Savall—a veteran musician and mainstay of Europe’s concert circuit—played quirky, characterful works by baroque oddballs like Tobias Hume, a British-born professional soldier. In Hume’s strangely vehement A Souldiers Resolution, Savall’s pizzicatti flowed softly and naturally. A bearded, grave figure, Savall has the stage presence of a seasoned actor and is clearly willing to take any technical risk to convey the meaning of the oft-neglected music that he performs.

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Time was when music journalists were obsessed with the fashion for “original instruments” or the “authentic approach” in early music. Now that this trend is (fortunately) losing steam, musicians can be judged on how directly and memorably they communicate, regardless of their or their instruments’ so-called “authenticity.” In a concert at the Metropolitan Museum on Wednesday May 9, some remarkable early music specialists performed, including the French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï and Jordi Savall, the Catalan player of the viola da gamba.

The lean, bespectacled Hantaï (b. 1964) physically resembles a young Rudolf Serkin. His performances of excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Second English Suite made trills into microcosmic explosions in a way unmatched among contemporary harpsichordists; he probably has no equal other than his mentor, the Dutch legend Gustav Leonhardt. His recital partner, Savall—a veteran musician and mainstay of Europe’s concert circuit—played quirky, characterful works by baroque oddballs like Tobias Hume, a British-born professional soldier. In Hume’s strangely vehement A Souldiers Resolution, Savall’s pizzicatti flowed softly and naturally. A bearded, grave figure, Savall has the stage presence of a seasoned actor and is clearly willing to take any technical risk to convey the meaning of the oft-neglected music that he performs.

To seek further insights into this kind of artistry, I tagged along the day after the concert on Hantaï’s visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s fabled instrument collection. There, Hantaï tried his hand on such rarities as a 1720 fortepiano made by the Florentine craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori. (Hantaï is a master technician, as well as a harpsichordist: he spent most of the intermission on May 9 onstage, bent over the harpsichord rented for the occasion by the Museum, fervently trying to tune it, leaning in deeply to hear the subtle variations in tone.) As Hantaï raced through chunks of demanding pieces like Bach’s Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, museum visitors stopped with their jaws agape, as if Bach himself was playing the Metropolitan’s old instruments.

Performers like Savall and Hantaï, idiosyncratic though they are, offer needed, insightful views into the essence of Baroque music. Hantaï has recorded a dozen of the best CD’s of harpsichord music by Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Georg Telemann, and many others, most recently for the excellent small label Mirare; Savall has recorded works by Marin Marais and François Couperin, as well as an excellent anthology of early European music. The old question of authenticity becomes completely irrelevant when confronted by musicianship of this quality.

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