Review: Oscar: “Bugger! Queer! Sodomite!” sang the chorus.

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

On an extremely cold Sunday afternoon in February, I attended the Philadelphia Opera Company’s production of the opera Oscar.  There has been a lot of enthusiasm about this production beyond  the expected buzz that a premier would cause. Recently, the Free Library of Philadelphia discovered three unknown manuscripts of Wilde in its basement as it was in the long-going process of digitizing its collection. Because of this find–academics and scholars are quite astounded–and the accompanying exhibit at the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a good deal of Wilde paraphernalia, the arrival of an opera based on the Irish playwright, poet and bon-vivant seemed particularly timely.

I don’t attempt to be any sort of expert on opera.  I know the stories of several of the most famous and can recognize the melody of several of the more familiar arias, but other than that seeing an opera is basically always a jump into the unknown for me.

And perhaps because of my inexperience, I found the music to be the least memorable part of a very memorable performance.

First the story itself is a mesmerizing tragedy–a tragedy in the literal sense of a great man falling and a tragedy in the “man-on-the-street”  sense of a heartbreaking story.  Wilde, one of the most famous personalities of his time, is brought into court for crimes of “gross indecency”–which in 19th century England meant homosexuality.  And while his friends arrange for him to escape to France before the trial commences, Wilde believes its the honorable thing to stay and fight the case in court.  And of course, Wilde loses.  He is found guilty and his years of hard labor at Reading Gaol, make up the second half of the performance.

And secondly, the staging and the sets were extraordinary.

The opera begins when the orchestra finishes the overture and the house applauds. During this applause, Oscar Wilde makes a curtain call, coming through the curtains,

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

accepting the applause–which has now been combined with recorded applause–to thank the house for its generous reception to Lady Windemere’s Fan. We then move quickly to Wilde talking with his friends about his options in the celebrated court case. (There is a bit of slapstick with two Keystone-Kop type henchmen that are busy poisoning Wilde’s name among innkeepers so he cannot get a room anywhere. He ends up hiding at his friend Ada Leverson’s house.)

The court case–a circus in itself–was mounted as a Fellini-esque carnival with the jury represented as so many toys from a child’s toy box. There were tumblers and rocking horses, clowns and rag-dolls.  The judge, when he appeared, popped out as a jack-in-the-box, all loose-limbed and spineless with a simpleminded smile on his face. The scene closes the first act.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

As bizarre and surreal as the court-room scene, the next scene is stark and daunting. Wilde is given his prison clothes and his hard labor. And throughout he is haunted by the presence of his beloved Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas whose father initiated the criminal action. (Actually, Bosie’s father’s initial action was leaving a calling card for Wilde that called him a “posing sodomite.”  addressing him.  Against the advice of his friends, Wilde charged him with libel.  It was during this libel case that evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality came to light and allowed the crown to prosecute him for “gross indecency.”)

In the opera, Bosie has no lines or any singing.  He is simply an ethereal character who throughout both acts flits into Wilde’s memories. He is played by Reed Luplau, a dancer whose sinuous moves are both graceful and haunting. In prison, he climbs upon Wilde’s prison bars like some avenging angel.

Bosie--Lord Alfred Douglas--haunting Wilde before the trial.

Bosie–Lord Alfred Douglas–haunting Wilde before the trial.

When Wilde is released, he is a broken man. He left England for the continent and spent three years in poverty before dying in a shabby Paris Hotel. Oscar Wilde was 46 years old.

The opera has been reported as being written by Theodore Morrison (with John Cox as co-librettist) with the countertenor David Daniels expressly in mind. And the visual is a very good one, for Daniels at times looks very much like Wilde.  As a countertenor, however, the voice to me seemed much, much too high–almost a falsetto at times–and off-putting. Contemporaries had noted that Wilde had a “lilting” voice, but I don’t know if that accounts for  high pitch.  Wilde was a relatively big man and that voice does not seem to fit the body.  An acetate (of dubious authenticity) of Wilde recording Reading Gaol at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 replicates a higher-pitch voice, but that–it can be argued–could be a result of recording speed and early technology.  Nevertheless, to me it seemed unreal, at odds with those around him–including his friends.

The music itself was atonal and the lyrics seemed pedestrian. One would expect more wit coming from the mouth of Wilde.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

whitman

Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman in Oscar

In front of the desk where I write there are two bookcases. The one holds volumes of poetry. The other biographies.  I happened to look up–for assurance–to see if my Oscar Wilde biography was there and was pleased to see that it sat next to Justin Kaplan’s life of Walt Whitman. For I forgot that Whitman’s ghost is also a character in Oscar. As a narrator–he mentions that the events of the trial and imprisonment took place five years after Whitman had died and fifteen years after he had met Wilde in America– he seems to serve as the maitre ‘d to the pantheon of literary greats that line the wall in the first and final scenes. His brilliant white suit and steely-grey beard at a touch of gravitas, that seems to rise above the nonsense of British legality and the circus of Wilde’s trial.

In the end, Wilde dies and enters the halls of literary greatness, escorted by Whitman himself.

Movie Review: A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’Ete) dir. by Eric Rohmer

I began writing this post back in September.  And then I let it fall fallow.

And I only have posted three things since then and nothing at all in December. (I wrote about one movie, one short story, and one novel.)

And now I see that A Summer’s Tale itself has just now been released on video.  I am late for the movie goers–but maybe not for the cinephiles.

*     *     *     *     *

In the middle of September, there was a spate of perfect days. The air was beginning to get crisp, but the skies were clear and there was still plenty of daylight left. I had the evening clear for some reason and I decided to treat myself:  dinner and a French movie.

U.S Poster for A Summer's Tale

U.S Poster for A Summer’s Tale

I stopped at one of my favorite spots–National Mechanics–and had my usual, the cheese board and three glasses of red.  I love eating alone. I love

French poster for "A Summer's Tale"

French poster for “A Summer’s Tale”

people watching, I love reading while I eat.  After the meal, I rushed the two blocks to the movie house–it was not crowded.

A Summer’s Tale is an odd story and one whose history I could not get to the bottom of.  It was filmed as the third of Rohmer’s four part cycle entitled Tales of the Four Seasons.  It was released in 1996, but unlike the other three seasons it was never released in the U.S. until now. Why?

I couldn’t find out.

There is certainly nothing controversial, nothing titillating, nothing faintly erotic.  (In fact, some might argue that it is rather boring, sort of “Greg Brady goes on vacation and gets in–oh boy–girl trouble”!)  So why?  I have still not gotten an answer.

The film follows young Gaspard, a young mathematician and aspiring musician. He arrives on vacation on the Breton coast, expecting to meet up with his girlfriend, Lena. But Lena does not show when he thought she would.

In the interim, Gaspard is befriended by a quirky waitress Margot who, although having her own designs on him, tries to fix him up with her friend, Solene. Everyone seems to be attracted to Gaspard, but he is confusingly aloof.  There are conversations between the different pairings, but they are not particularly revelatory. Unless, that is, if you find the self-involvement of young people in a resort town to be a revelation.  All we know is that Gaspard struggles with this odd triangle of women in his life.

Then, Lena shows up.  Was Gaspard exaggerating his relationship with her?  Was he deluding himself?  For when she shows up, she is not as smitten with young Gaspard as he was with her in her absence. And she certainly would not have passed up the chances for romance that Gaspard did.

And so the film ends, with Gaspard still torn between the three young women on his summer vacation–and–shades of every sit-com ever–finds himself having promised to escort three different women to a nearby island. But by now, we the viewers are no longer interested in his choices  (Although, we have begin rooting for the waitress who seems the most grounded of everyone.)

Perhaps, the cause of the 18 year difference between A Summer’s Tale’s European release and its U.S. release was that the film was simply not very interesting.

Or maybe I am missing something.

Review: My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

Book cover of the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

Cover for the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

The narrator of Alfred Hayes’ novel works in Hollywood. That is all we know. He is semi-separated from his wife; he lives alone for months at a time in L.A. and for months in New York with his wife, though his marriage, from his perspective,  is a failed and sad relationship.

In fact, the narrator finds his life and work as a failure. He sees no value in the work he does, although, as he says, the studio pays him handsomely. (He states that he is a “writher” rather than a “writer.”) He condescendingly (and somewhat snobbishly) observes the people around him, their vanities and egos, their manipulating and positioning, their theatrics and ambitions.

At a party one night, the narrator–bored with this gathering at an expensive beach house–steps outside for a smoke and sees a young woman walk into the sea. When she goes under, he rescues her and resuscitates her. And thus begins a relationship that he did not want to happen. That the woman is disturbed is revealed gradually, and she is much more than simply a young girl with unrealized Hollywood dreams.

Initially, it is her cynicism towards the business, towards love and towards life that draws him to her, that allows himself to give in to what he is also trying to hold back from. And as the two become more closely entwined–and as more of her anxieties are displayed–it becomes apparent that the two of them are very similar, a realization that is devastating to the narrator. In truth, it may be that it is the narrator whose face is now “for the world to see.”

The narrator’s deliberate and reflective thinking, his cool, detached observations, his knowing emotional cover-up, all work to create a modern anti-hero, an existentialist who is “forced” to live and work in a world that celebrates the superficial and is built basically on the dissemination of lies. It is a taut and harrowing read, a tale of self-discovery, acceptance, and angst.

My Face for the World to See was originally published in 1958. At the time, Hayes was more known as a scriptwriter. He had twice been nominated for an Oscar, had written successful screenplays for films directed by Fritz Lang, John Huston, and Fred Zinnemann, and also wrote many pieces for television including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.  As a novelist, he was most celebrated for The Girl on the Via Flaminia,  and as a poet, for “Joe Hill” which was later put to music and became an anthem for workers’ rights. (Joan Baez famously sang it at Woodstock. See below.)

The New York Review of Books re-issued My Face for the World to See in 2013, with an introduction by the film critic, David Thomson.  But this novel is by no means a Hollywood novel. Apart from the brief description of the initial party where the narrator rescues the suicidal young woman, there is no glamor, no behind the scenes peeks, no tabloid scandals. There is simply a couple of apartments and the narrator’s self-examination and his lover’s revealed past.  It is discrete yet raw, fast-paced yet thoughtful.  It is memorable novel that deserves this re-issue.

And here’s a treat. A sweetly innocent Joan Baez singing Alfred Hayes’ “Joe Hill” at Woodstock. Enjoy:

 

Review: “The Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass

"I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river." Gass "in the heart of the heart of the country." P.179

“I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river.” William H. Gass “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Because of some administrative hic-cough, I was sent two copies this weekend of the same book: William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I had not heard of it, although I recognized the name of the author (and immediately confused him with the novelist, William Gaddis). Having two copies, I gave one to my friend Tim Dougherty, who very well may be the best-read person I know.

Here was the text he sent me later that day:

John,

Thanks so much for the book. Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is a seminal postmodern short story. The collection is one of my favorites, and the new edition blows my flea market paperback out of the water. And now I can throw that one away!

Who’d have thunk it.

So, on my train-ride to work the next morning, I read “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”  The story is the final piece in a collection of the same name that includes two novellas and three short stories, but I went to the last story right away.
And it is everything that Tim’s message had intimated.

First it is broken into short chunks with headings such as “People” or “Weather” or “Places” or “My House.” It is a sort of stream of consciousness, movie-like postcard of a town in Indiana and the people who live there, and at the same time it is a self-portrait of the narrator who has lately lost love (through death or separation I am unsure) and who is both crushed and buoyed by the vastness of the Midwest.

But it is the language that is so remarkable, that stands out yet does not make a show of it. There are exquisite lists. This is the narrator describing a neighbor’s basement:

...stacks of newspapers reaching to the ceiling, boxes of leaflets and letters and programs, racks of photo albums, scrapbooks, bundles of rolled-up posters and maps, flags and pennants and slanting piles of dusty magazines devoted mostly to motoring and the Christian ethic. I saw a bird cage, a tray of butterflies, a bugle, a stiff straw boater, and all kinds of tassels tied to a coat tree.

And here he is describing the town itself in a section called “Vital Data”:

There are two restaurants here and a tearoom. two bars. one bank, three barbers, one with a green shade with which he blinds his window. two groceries, a dealer in Fords. one drug, one hardware, and one appliance store. several that sell feed, grain, and farm equipment. an antique shop. a poolroom. a laundromat. three doctors. a dentist. a plumber. a vet. a funeral home in elegant repair the color of a buttercup. numerous beauty parlors which open and shut like night-blooming plants. …

But it is his memories of the lost love and of lost childhood, the feelings of being trapped in a dying world, and his description of the decadent monotony of small town life that resonates the most, in which the fiction writer becomes one with the poet, and where the language becomes as integral to the story as the story itself, where inside and outside, the public and the private, that which is thought and  that which is felt, all merge into one.

It is majestic and memorable.

And I can’t wait to finish the rest of the collection.

Movie Review: Pride, directed by Matthew Wurchus

The very essence of the movie Pride

The very essence of the movie Pride

They called her the “Iron Maiden” for good reason. She was the toughest politician in a male-dominated world–and perhaps feeling she had to overcompensate as a woman–she felt the need to be tougher than her male counterparts.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

Perhaps no one felt the wrath of Margaret Thatcher’s steely resolve (some might say steel-heartedness) more than the the British coal miners and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). After Thatcher’s government announced its immediate plans to close 20 of the nationalized coal mines and its future plans to close 70 more, the miners walked out on strike.

The strike lasted a year, a hard and violent year, with Thatcher’s government not blinking and the miners returning to work, having lost much of their substantial political, social, and economic clout. For many, her dealings with the coal miners defined her.

The film Pride, directed by Matthew Wurchus and written by Stephen Beresford, plays out against the miner’s strike, already nine months in progress.  At a Gay Pride march in London, gay-activist Mark Ashton gets the idea that since oppression is oppression no matter what, and if Maggie Thatcher has her steel boot on the necks of the miners’ union, then the LGBT community–which knows something about oppression itself–should step in and lend its support. And so the organization, “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” is born.

Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton in the film Pride

Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton in the film Pride

The unions did not want their help.

And so, the London gay community–rebuffed by the officials of the union– brings it support and it funds to a little Welsh mining village instead. There is tension, lines are drawn among the villagers, and there is also some great fun as the the more open-minded villagers get to know their visitors from London.

Pride is a comedy with a social awareness. There is drama with villains and heroes, with domestic and social conflicts, with intolerance and the haunting shadow of AIDS and Thatcherism. But it is, nevertheless, primarily a comedy, the type of comedy that comes about when two incongruous groups come together.

For instance, there is a scene when a dozen of the Welsh villagers come to London to attend a benefit concert–The Pit and Perverts Benefit–which succeeds in collecting a huge sum of money for the miners. After the concert, the villagers accompany their hosts to a variety of gay clubs and discover–and giggle–at much of what they learn. It is comedy straight out of The Full Monty but instead of strippers we have the gay community.

The benefit concert features Bronski Beat, and is indicative to how great–and fun–the soundtrack is. From protest songs to disco numbers, from Billy Bragg to the Communards, from the powerful union song “Bread and Roses” to Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk.” The music is essential, and it captures the excitement, the power and the heartbreak of the times. (The Communards’ poignant song “For a Friend” was actually written for Mark Ashton who died of AIDS shortly after the events of the film took place.)

Miners supporting the LGBT

Miners supporting the LGBT

Pride is a fun and a “feel-good” movie. It opts for lightness rather than heaviness, although there is a heavy cloud blowing in, which we feel the effects of in the final credits. But it is a fine gesture in defiance of Thatcherism. (In my opinion, the film Brassed Off may be the best look at the devastation that Thatcher’s policies wreaked on the coal miners and their families. Peter Postlethwaite’s speech at the end of that film should be shown in every government/history/social science class.)

But Pride doesn’t have to be Brassed Off.  It doesn’t need to have a heart-stirring speech.  It is what it is–a  sweet film that is provocative without being preachy. And it does what it does well. It doesn’t hit you over the head with its message, but we know the message is there all the same. And it’s an important one.

Photography, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and blogging again

It’s been a while since I posted something on this site.  There have been several reasons:  I’ve had to write for another blog for work but that really didn’t take that much time; I was working hard with painting and drawing; and it was a very busy summer with many short bursts of travel.  I have also become obsessed with blipfoto, a photography site that challenges a person to post just one photo every day.  Sometimes, I am very pleased with my photos (I live in a very interesting neighborhood in a very interesting city) and sometimes I am just rushing to get one posted before the day is through.

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

I posted this photo on line last week of my turntable playing a Joni Mitchell album. Sardonically, I called it a “vintage music delivery device.” A lovely woman from Ireland (and you should see the photographs she takes!) wrote to me and asked if the song playing was “A Case of You.”  It wasn’t but I wrote back to her and told her how that song and the album it appeared on Blue are among my very favorites. And like all great music,  it is somehow emotionally and viscerally connected to us through memories.

The cover of Joni Mitchell's Blue

The cover of Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In the song “California,” for example, my good friend Jim had misheard the lyric from “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Vogue” as “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Boll,” so he checked out the writer Heinrich Boll to see what everyone was talking about. Twenty years later, when I first met him, he was still reading Boll. Fair play to him there!  I remember one friend–who was living with a guy who had been drafted but who went AWOL at least three times that summer to materialize in the same beach-bar–singing “My Old Man.”  I don’t know why but her singing “We don’t need a piece of paper from the city hall” has always stuck in my head.

Blue was the soundtrack (there were many soundtracks) to that young summer in a beach town that was free and happy and exciting. It seemed no matter what apartment or hovel you found yourself in, it was playing on the stereo. It…or Moondance …or After the Gold Rush.  It was a good summer to be alive.

So thanks soletrader for bringing up “A Case of You.”  Somehow, I have lost the vinyl album but I do have it on CD. In the days when I used to drive more often, I would pop it into the player and would  skip forward to “A Case of You,” playing it over and over again and singing along the entire time.  (Unless, that is, if it were Christmas time. Than I would select “The River.” And play that over and over again.)

But to be honest, every song on Blue is masterful, not a bad one in the bunch. From “My Old Man” to “Carey” to “The Last Time I saw Richard.”  Perhaps what makes this so is the honesty of both the words and the performance. There is pain in her voice. There is wisdom. There is experience.

Male or female, we have all been there.

So here she is, herself, singing “A Case of You.” Enjoy. (Excuse the pop up info-bytes about Joni Mitchell)

 

 

Book Review: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Samuel Beckett
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Coincidences are no more than that, though I am very well aware of the research on them. (Freud once stated that  there were no such things as accidents, but I believe coincidences to be a lesser, less conscious form of accident. In the latter, the subconscious is directing you towards what might seem to be a accident but is actually rooted in one’s memory, suppressed or on the surface. Coincidence, on the other hand, is simply the awareness of a multiplication of events, of which one wasn’t completely cognizant or prepared for beforehand.)

So anyway, I attended an intense two-week workshop on education-on assessments and feedback and good old Bloom’s taxonomy. However, much of it was rooted in the teachings of Augustine–and much of the feedback I received  referenced Dante.

Before the workshop, however, I had bought a book, Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett. I knew it was something I would need to concentrate on–a 52 page short-story, accompanied by 58 pages of annotations, and complete with an introduction,  copies of the original typescript, letters from Beckett’s publishers, and a bibliography. This was not simply reading a short story, but sort an academic adventure. The type of diversion I hadn’t had in a while.

Cover of Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones

Cover of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

And so I waited until my Augustinian-laced workshop was over.

And then I began reading.  After I got  through the introduction and  into the story I began to smile. It was Augustine all over again with a large dollop of Dante.  In the first three pages alone there are five allusions to Augustine and four allusions to the Divine Comedy. And the main character, Belacqua, is given the nickname, Adeodatus–the name of Augustine’s illegitimate son.

So why all this hubbub about a short story that was written more than eighty years ago?  Well, Beckett had written a collection of interrelated short stories entitled More Pricks than Kicks.  Right before publication, however,  his publisher asked if Beckett would add a final story to the collection, to fatten it up, so to speak.

Beckett agreed, except there was one problem.  All the characters in the collection were now dead.  And so Beckett wrote “Echo’s Bones,”  which told the story of the dead Belacqua’s return to life in his short interim between death and eternity.  The publisher rejected the story, stating that it was too dark, too odd, and that it would make readers shudder.  And so More Pricks than Kicks was published as it was originally intended, and “Echo’s Bones” was assigned to the crypt of oblivion.  Until now.

The title refers to the mythological figure Echo, who tragically fell in love with Narcissus. (He was never a good catch for any woman. Too much competition with himself alone!)  Anyway, when she died, all that was left were her bones and her voice. Thus, we have “Echo’s Bones.”  If the editors had only known how perfectly the story’s title would foretell the nature of Beckett’s future work: a work of spotlighted voices–often disembodied (Krapp’s Last Tape), often body-less (HappyDays), and often flowing in a rushing stream (Ponzo’s soliloquy in Godot).

The plot is secondary to the wordplay, the erudition, the humor, and Beckett’s world view. Quickly: the dead Belacqua suddenly finds himself on a fence in a empty Beckettian landscape. A woman arrives and brings him to Lord Gall, a giant of a man with a paradisaical estate which he will lose because he is sterile and lacks a male heir. He convinces Belacqua  to bed his wife, in hope of an heir, but–in a twist of telescoped time–the woman gives birth to a daughter.  The story concludes with Belacqua conversing with his own grave digger (from an earlier story) and searching his own coffin for his body. The story ends with a familiar phrase in Beckett’s work and letters: “So it goes in the world.”  These are the last words of “Echo’s Bones,” but they are also the last words of “Draff,” the final story in the version of More Pricks than Kicks that was ultimately published.  A phrase that Beckett had picked up from the Brothers Grimm story “How the Cat and the Mouse Set up House,” it is a phrase that encapsulates Beckett’s life view and one that he used often even in his personal correspondence.

While I respect and love Beckett’s drama, I particularly enjoy his early fiction. Still under the influence of Joyce, Beckett, at this time, was  full of his verbal powers, delighting in the wordplay, and confident in his free association. It is always, for me, a treat to read.