New York Through Kids’ Eyes

One of the benefits of marrying Kristine twelve years ago (July 15 was our anniversary) is that I acquired, with no effort, six grandchildren. Four of them visited us this past week.  Whenever you host visitors, you can’t help but experience your town through their eyes. This visit had the added aspect of urging us out of the isolation that the pandemic imposed on us. Coming up with things for the kids to do meant we had to re-engage the city.

Monday, we went to Operation Escape: End of Days.  We were locked into a room and told that the fate of the earth somehow depended on our solving the puzzles necessary to escape the room. We had one hour. A throbbingly ominous soundtrack began. I joined my mostly younger teammates to do my part. They took off and left me in the dust. I couldn’t figure out one damn thing in the room. They saw patterns and correlations and, with shouts of discovery, went from challenge to challenge with a speed that dazzled. Forty-five minutes later, they placed the last prop in its proper place, completing some kind of magnetic circuit that caused a lock to unlock, and the door sprang open. The attendant told us that 45 minutes was an unusually fast time.  Kristine and I had contributed nothing. But watching four teenagers work enthusiastically towards a common goal made our hearts light.

Tuesday, we went to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience  located on a pier on the lower east side by the East River. Imagine that Van Gogh’s canvases are eggs. Imagine that someone continuously cracks the eggs to serve them over easy. Imagine that more and more eggs are cracked, so that images from different paintings appear, melt, transform, disappear and are replaced by more images. All this accompanied by passages culled from the popular end of classical music. (Inevitably, one passage sampled was from Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition.) It didn’t much matter in which of the three rooms one sat, the same images were splashed across all the walls. I don’t know what one gains by blowing them up rather than, say, seeing the program on a nice big monitor, but the time passed pleasantly enough, and my eye was constantly delighted. It couldn’t help but remind me of the episode of Doctor Who in which Van Gogh was whisked via the Tardis to a modern exhibit of his work to enjoy the knowledge that eventually he will be appreciated and celebrated.

Wednesday, we hopped the Staten Island Ferry to a space in the new-to-me Empire Outlet mall by the St. George terminal to see Eyes on New York.  It was a pleasure to be a member of an audience again (though it was a sharp contrast to the last show I saw before the pandemic, Lauren Yee’s harrowing exploration of art and genocide, Cambodian Rock Band). Eyes is presented by the same folks who offered The Ride, a bus ride tricked out with video and soundtrack to accompany a tour of a chunk of Manhattan. Eyes’s most responsive audience I think would also be people visiting the city. (It has little dialogue, so those not fluent in English wouldn’t miss much.) There is a slight premise – an out-of-towner (a clown with a red bow tie carrying a suitcase that won’t stay closed) wants to familiarize himself with the city and meets a few New Yorkers who try to be useful. Is he a tourist or is he here to start a new life? I couldn’t tell. But, aside from references to the subway, Central Park and a bit involving a rat dragging a giant piece of pizza, the show had little to say about New York.

Never mind. The project has pulled together a company with long resumes to sing, dance, contort, and defy gravity. I’m guessing that this project is offering the first chance in a long time for this eclectic group of artists to perform in front of live audiences, and I was delighted to be there to see them return to a public stage. An added pleasure was that the intimacy of the venue gave me a chance to enjoy subtleties of their acts more than I would at a normal circus. I was especially taken by Randy Kato’s mastery of the Cyr Wheel, sometimes bracing himself against the edges of a large hoop with hands and feet as it swooped in circles around the stage (looking like Michaelangelo’s Vitruvian Man, but with clothes on), sometimes dancing in counterpoint to the hoop’s revolutions. A veteran of the Eliot Feld troupe, Kyla Ernst-Alper brought elegance to her aerial routine, and Samantha Greenlund, a veteran of the Moulin Rouge (the Paris club, not the Broadway show), danced with sinuous precision. The grands? They enjoyed it a lot, and then they prowled the outlet mall.

Thursday, we trooped down to SoHo to the Museum of Ice Cream. Silly me, I was expecting to learn something serious about, yes, ice cream. Maybe step into a kitchen where I might be able to put a few different elements together and invent my own new flavor? Instead, it was a tromp up and downstairs to different rooms mostly painted pink, fitted out with different props and backgrounds offering opportunities for people to photograph each other. Every now and then we got a little taste of ice cream. No, I didn’t get the point. Why call something a museum if it isn’t one? I was the grinch in the gang. The kids had fun, snapping photos and goofing around.

And then the kids went back home to Rochester. They seemed to have a good time. I had a good time watching them have a good time.

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From “Crime in the Streets” to “West Side Story”

Watched a clumsy but fascinating film called Crime in the Streets. It started as a 1955 live TV play by Reginald Rose presented by the Elgin Hour, directed by Sidney Lumet. A young John Cassavetes starred as Frankie, a member of a street gang called the Hornets. Robert Preston was featured as an idealistic social worker who tries to reform him. Reginald Rose, the writer, is best known for writing 12 Angry Men for TV and film and helping to create the TV series, The Defenders. Not being able to find a recording of TV version of Crime in the Streets, I can’t comment on his original script, but clearly there was something there that attracted interest in expanding it into a film.  Perhaps the success of Rebel Without a Cause attracted interest in pursuing the trend of pictures about juvenile delinquents.  (Anybody remember Jerry Lewis’s The Delicate Delinquent?)  The connection would be made explicit by casting Sal Mineo, one of the stars of Rebel, as a similarly conflicted young man in Crime.
 
Originally, Lumet was going to make his feature debut with the film version of Crime, but he got sidetracked, and he later had the good fortune to make his feature debut instead with Rose’s 12 Angry Men.  Somehow, Don Siegel became attached as the new director. Siegel at his best (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Line-Up and The Beguiled) was a muscular, straightforward storyteller. But, despite some strong staging and camera work, he couldn’t overcome the preachiness of Rose’s screenplay. Cassevetes played Frankie again. Robert Preston, otherwise occupied when it came time to film was replaced by James Whitmore, who was stuck with the worst of the moralizing.
 
The set design is more interesting than the text. Siegel had one huge set built to convey the world of Frankie — a street, stores, an alley, fire escapes, Frankie’s apartment. (It couldn’t help but remind me of the settings of the film version of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, both of which also dealt with crime in tenements packed with the poor.) With the exception of a few shots at the beginning, the entire film was shot on this set, and we get to know it in detail.
 
The script is awkward, earnest, clunky. What I found most interesting is how scenes from this resembled scenes in West Side Story. There is an extended passage in which the members of the Hornets mock the social workers who want to help them. You expect them to break into “Officer Krupke.”  The actor who on TV played a gang member called Glasses (because, yes, he wore glasses) was David Winters. Soon after, Winters played Baby John in the original stage production of West Side Story, and later played A-Rab in the film. I can’t imagine the resemblance of these scenes escaped him.
 
Also in the cast of both the TV and film versions was Mark Rydell, who later became a director who made some very good films indeed.  And, of course, Cassavetes wrote and directed some of the key American independent films.
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Ride Share

In 1992, a former cab driver named Will Kern drew on his experience to whip up a bracing entertainment called Hellcab. An actor played the driver and an ensemble of six played something in the neighborhood of 30 passengers who occupied the back seat during one shift on Christmas Eve. It didn’t pretend to be a comprehensive portrait of Chicago, but an awful lot of contrasting humanity passed through that vehicle. The scenes ranged from farce to near-tragedy. The constant was the driver, professionally required to be disengaged but with a persistently stirring moral sensibility that drew him to sometimes cross the line. The driver in Hellcab was nameless and we had no sense of his history.

Almost thirty years later, playwright Reginald Edmund offers us Ride Share. There are points of comparison. Like Kern, Edmund draws on personal experience driving Chicagoland (though not in a cab but in his own car as part of the gig economy), and again, we encounter a stream of characters. Except that we encounter the characters as seen from the perspective of the driver. And the driver has a name, Marcus. He also has a history. He was a Black executive and was accustomed to throwing his money around (he spent $85,000 on his wedding). Suddenly and brutally laid off, he finds he has no choice but to begin driving just to bring something in. So his perspective of the passengers is informed not only by his former privilege but his current exile from the world in which he used to flourish. Inevitably, because he is a Black man and many of his fares are white, issues of race arise. If Hellcab’s driver was a lens through which we saw a variety of characters, Ride Share’s focus is on Marcus and on how a sudden shift in status makes him question the assumptions of his life and tempt him to behave in ways that would have previously been unimaginable.

It’s a solo piece performed by Kamal Angelo Bolden in a video production directed by Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway. In some respects, it resembles the extraordinary series of solo pieces for the camera Alan Bennett wrote called Talking Heads, pieces in which, although characters confided in us with candor, we in the audience frequently arrived at quite different evaluations of the action than they offered. Many of the characters in Bennett’s collection were aging ladies who mostly were discovered sitting. Marcus is younger and more kinetic. Though he clocks a certain amount of time in the front seat of his car, he also dances and glides and, at one point, leaps onto the roof of his car. Hodge-Dallaway’s camera captures it all, but maintains a sufficient distance that we never give up our own perspective to Marcus. We are sympathetic to his outrage, but we hope that it will not lead him to the self-destruction he flirts with.

During the pandemic, many theaters found ways to employ video technology to keep telling stories. It will be a relief to return to real spaces, of course, but I expect that, having tasted the artistic possibilities of video, we will see a stream of projects from these companies designed to bring theatrically-rooted projects to audiences who would be unlikely to visit them in person. Aside from its own considerable value, Ride Share offers a tantalizing preview of what might come. Back in the 1950s, during what has been termed the Golden Age of TV Drama, the constant stream of original plays from the Philco Playhouse, Playhouse 90 and the like often showcased the first drafts of projects that went on to be developed for stage and/or screen (eg, The Trip to Bountiful, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Days of Wine and Roses, Marty, The Miracle Worker, etc.). I hope that video theater might turn into a similar ground for the development of new works. There is certainly a potential film in Ride Share.

 

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Living Up to the Dream

I’m close to the end of Bauhaus – A New Era, a German TV miniseries that tells a story of Walter Gropius and his relationship with a student, Dörte Helm, against the background of the arts school Gropius founded in Weimar after WWI. It’s currently running on MHZ Choice, a streaming channel that features foreign-language TV. (MHZ is also the home of two great French series, a cop show set in Paris called Spiral and a series about the German occupation of France during WWII called A French Village.)

Gropius started the Bauhaus with a declaration that it would be a school for and a community of artists. He wanted to pioneer new artistic ideas to respond to the twentieth century. He also announced that there would be no discrimination between men and women.

He indeed founded the school and the influence of much of the work that came out of it surrounds most of us who live in cities today, as Tom Wolfe wrote in his controversial indictment of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House.

Part of the point of the series (created and directed by Lars Kraume) is that it was one thing for Gropius to articulate noble ideals and another for him to start his school and another to keep it open in the face of conservative critics who could influence the funding. So, yes, Gropius fell short. But, the Bauhaus movement accomplished much.

Artists have a habit of proclaiming their ideals. They then tend to be worked over when they fall short of their ideals. Lin-Manuel Miranda is being worked over for aspects of In the Heights and Hamilton. This couldn’t help but remind me of J.K. Rowling, who has used much of the fortune she made from her Harry Potter books to subsidize organizations to combat poverty and violence against women and promote literacy. Lately she has been under attack from former friends for opinions she has published regarding gender politics.

This reminds me of Alan Ehrenhalt’s 2001 essay in the NY Times, “Hypocrisy Has Its Virtues.”  He suggests that there are different kinds of hypocrites.  One kind is the person who doesn’t believe what they proclaim and makes statements strictly out of self-interest.  Ehrenhalt cites Senator Joseph McCarthy as a model of this sort of bad hypocrite.  And then there are the people whose actions sometimes belie their ideals.  He cites 19th century British prime minister William E. Gladstone as a good hypocrite.  I won’t explain why because I prefer you to read Ehrenhalt’s article for yourself.

Part of Ehrenhalt’s thesis is that people who fall short and berate themselves for falling short often are the ones most motivated to redouble their efforts and do notable and useful things.  Flail them too severely when they fail and we may discourage their continued efforts, and society will be the poorer.

 

 

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Hemingway

I think the first time I became aware of Ernest Hemingway was in the wake of his death. In 1961, my dad took me by L to the Bryn Mawr, a discount movie theater on Chicago’s north side, to see a reissue of Gone With the Wind. I guess I had just turned eleven. I was already a movie enthusiast, but I remember thinking GTTW tedious. (I haven’t watched it since.) We were on our way to the stairs up to the L to take us home to Evanston when my dad saw a headline on a paper on the newsstand by the doors to the station. I can’t remember the exact words, but the essence was that Hemingway was dead.

My dad was pretty quiet as we climbed the stairs. I may have asked about that, and I think he may have said that Hemingway was a writer who had written a lot of stuff he liked.

Later, I saw some of my father’s early attempts at short stories and the Hemingway influence was palpable. (He chose not to pursue writing fiction. He put all his attention to writing PR for universities and supporting his family. Since I was in that family, I appreciated that.)

My dad would not have been mistaken for striking a Hemingwayesque kind of figure. Thin, balding, kind but not given to expressing his emotions. He had a suspicion of people who strutted and postured (which Hemingway did compulsively). Some of this, I’m guessing, had to do with experiences in the army during WWII where he saw lots of bullies and moral idiots pushing around people who didn’t have the rank to stand up to them. (He did a number of things in the army, including typing transcripts of courts martial, writing for papers distributed to those in the service, a little translating while in France. He saw no combat, but after the war was stationed in a French town and was shocked and scarred by the violence some of the French took on each other to settle wartime scores.)

But I could see a connection between him and the writer he admired. Hemingway may have often been a gasbag in person, especially when he had too much to drink or was hitting on a woman, but the best of his writing reflects the stoicism of a midwest WASP upbringing, and my dad, too, was a stoic midwest WASP. (My mom was a Pittsburgh Jew, and I have always been thankful for the mix of his reticence and her explosiveness – well, thankful for those influences on my work. My mother’s explosiveness in person when I was a kid was sometimes enough to drive me from the house.) Sometimes his stoicism was dangerous. If he didn’t feel well, he wouldn’t complain. A few times, my mother overcame his reluctance and dragged him to a hospital, and the doctors told her she might well have saved his life. (Of course, this is what she told me, but he didn’t contradict her.)

These thoughts come to mind because of (you guessed it) the Burns-Novick PBS documentary, Hemingway. I suppose a lot of people who write for their livings will do as I couldn’t help but do – compare my ideas of what a writer should be and do with what Hemingway was and did. On the one hand, he promoted an image that tipped into the embarrassing. On the other hand, some of those sentences nearly bring me to tears. It’s wrenching to find that someone who could write wisely could also live so foolishly and wastefully.

But his obsession with writing – to him it was life and death – is something I can’t claim I can (or would want) to match. Writing seems often to have been torture to him. For me it is a pleasure and a relief. I love finding stories to tell, I love sharing them with others, I love reading and watching the stories others come up with. Hemingway felt competitive with other writers. I find the company of others who share this enthusiasm brings me great pleasure.

Saturday I finished a two-day intensive of teaching playwriting. My basic lecture on technique. I taught three hours Friday night and about another five on Saturday. Anticipating the class (and guessing how long it would take), I couldn’t help but wince at the work ahead. Once online with the group, though, the time sped by and I was so grateful to have their company. Grateful, too, that the assignments they wrote overnight were so good and gave evidence that the theory I asked them to assimilate was something they not only grasped but ran with.

I don’t imagine I have written anything to compare to Hemingway at his best. (Well, he did try to write a play and it wasn’t any good. Yes, my plays are way better.) But I don’t envy him. His life collapsed into agony and self-destruction. I mostly am enjoying myself. I can’t wait to tell or read the next story.

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Remembering Preston Jones

In the mid-1970s, I was assigned a piece by an in-flight magazine distributed on American Airlines. The story focused on three playwrights who first came to the theater community’s attention in regional theaters. The three playwrights were David Mamet, Marsha Norman and Preston Jones. I interviewed all three by phone.

I was friendly with Mamet from our days working with some of the same people in Chicago, so that was easy. The interview with Norman was the beginning of a relationship, which has continued to the present, as we both serve on the Dramatists Guild Council, and I interviewed her again for my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. My only contact with Preston Jones was the phone call for the article, and he didn’t say very much.

I think he didn’t say very much because I was calling from New York, and not too long before he had made his Broadway debut as a playwright and been shot down by the New York critics. The debut was an unusual one – three plays performed in rep under the title Texas Trilogy. The plays had been enormously successful in Texas and around the country before the New York run. My hunch is that a call from the place that had slammed the door on him was no his idea of pleasure. I don’t have a copy of the article handy, but I remember barely squeezing three or four quotable sentences out of him.

As it happens, Texas Trilogy didn’t last long enough in New York for me to see any of the plays. I gather he wrote a few more plays before he died at age 43 in 1979. I didn’t get to see those either.

I have finally caught up with one of them via a TV production dating from 1980. The Oldest Living Graduate is a portrait of an aging and cranky landowner in a small Texas town in 1962. Colonel Kincaid graduated from a Texas military academy and saw action in WWI, an experience that remains vivid in his memory. (Several of those who were students with him at the academy were killed.) Now, stuck in a wheelchair, he is in a permanent war with the modern world, and he is having a particular struggle with his son, Floyd, who wants to convert a chunk of the family property into luxury lake front homes for rich people. Kincaid is not exactly a lovable character. He is a racist and he is impossible to the people with the unlucky task of looking after him. What keeps us engaged is that occasionally he reveals a gentler, poetic side.

I don’t think it’s a lost masterpiece. It is constructed so programmatically that much of its plot is telegraphed. But the best passages are reminiscent of another Texas dramatist, Horton Foote, in that they provide what feels like an authentic sense of the cadences and perspectives of a small town in that state. It is an affectionate but clear-eyed view of people unashamed of their insularity, and I would guess that one would encounter people similar to these characters on a visit to certain towns in Texas today.

I can particularly recommend the TV production now available through Amazon Prime. Directed by Delbert Mann (one of the legendary figures of the golden age of live television in the Fifties and the Oscar-winning director of the film Marty), the cast is astonishing – Henry Fonda, George Grizzard, Cloris Leachman, Henry Dean Stanton, John Lithgow, Penelope Milford, David Ogden Stiers and a very young Timothy Hutton. Grizzard won a well-earned Emmy for his performance as the colonel’s wheeler-dealer son, but the dazzler for me is Leachman. Those who know Leachman primarily from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Young Frankenstein may be surprised by how she utterly disappears into the role of the colonel’s beleaguered daughter-in-law. In fact, it took me a minute to realize it was Leachman on the screen. (Another staggering performance from her worth digging up is in a TV movie called The Migrants written by Lanford Wilson. She looks as if she stepped out of a Walker Evans photograph. Film buffs will also remember that she won an Oscar for her searing performance in The Last Picture Show.)

The production was shot live in a Dallas theater in front of an audience, and the actors do well both projecting to the house and maintain sufficient restraint to meet the requirements of television. It’s not a great American play, but it’s a valuable one.

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Encountering Rose Franken

Continuing to wander through obscure corners of American playwriting, I have stumbled across a forgotten phenomenon.  A writer named Rose Franken created a character who appeared first in a series of stories for Redbook, then in a series of eight novels, then as the leading figure in a Broadway play, then as the lead in two movies, then as the title character for a radio series, and then at the center of a short-lived TV series.  Her name was Claudia.  Indeed, one of my students tells me that her mother named her after the character.

I’m not going to make exaggerated claims for this material, but something about the character obviously made a big impression on readers at the time.  Claudia is a sensitive but not well-educated woman who marries a slightly older and more sophisticated architect.  They are happily married, but the combination of her lack of sophistication and her spontaneity leads her into various scrapes.  Though Franken denies much of a tie between the character and herself, reading Franken’s autobiography, When All is Said and Done, I keep finding links between her experiences and her heroine’s; including the fact that both Claudia and husband David and Franken and her second husband retreated from the city to run a farm in Connecticut.

In her memoir, Franken (yes, distantly related to Al) tells story after story on herself in which she blunders impulsively into good fortune, and more than a few in which following hunches paid off.  Perhaps you remember the character of Penny in You Can’t Take It With You started writing because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her house.  I wonder if Kaufman and Hart took inspiration from the fact that, according to Menken, that is exactly how her writing career started.  She sat down at this felicitous typewriter and began to knock stuff out, mostly for the amusement of her first husband (a doctor).  He thought it was good and he encouraged her to seek a publisher.  She opened the phone book and started sending out her first novel.  It was rejected by everyone until she was reduced to one last choice — Scribner’s.  She marched into their offices and asked to see Charles Scribner and instead was foisted off on some underling who promised to read her stuff.  The underling was the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, and he published her book and stayed a friend for the rest of his life.

Then she thought she’d write a play.  She sat done and wrote for three days, one act per day.  The play was called Another Language and, though she ended up loathing the producer for his underhanded dealings, it was a hit and was sold to the movies.  (The film stars Helen Hayes.)  Along the way, she discovered an amateur actress and insisted she be in the play.  When the film was made, that actress made her screen debut.  Which is how Margaret Hamilton found her way to Hollywood.

Franken decided to try to adapt her Claudia stories to the stage in a play called Claudia.  John Golden offered to produce it.  Gertrude Lawrence wanted to play it, but Franken said no, she wanted an unknown.  Oh yes, though Franken had never actually directed anything, she persuaded Golden to let her make her directing debut.  So Franken held auditions and found an actress whose major credit had been understudying Emily in Our Town.  Golden thought she was nuts but gave way.  Dorothy Maguire opened in Claudia in 1941 at the Booth Theater.  The show was a huge hit (722 performances) and Maguire was a star.  (Franken also discovered Maguire’s standy-by, who then opened the touring cast and had some luck herself — Phyliss Thaxter.)  When the 1943 film was made, Maguire played the part again, and then in again in the sequel, Claudia and David.

Please understand that I’m not claiming that Franken is a lost American master, but I’ve read the scripts of Another Language and Claudia and they hold up better than most of the scripts I’ve read from the time.  And I’ve read some of the Claudia short stories, and it’s easy to see why newlyweds bonded with the character and followed her year after year.  I’m two-thirds of the way through Franken’s autobiography, and, though I occasionally catch her unpersuasively claiming niavete, most of it rings true.  And throughout there are little encounters with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Howard, etc.

The autobiography was published in 1962 and much of it is about how wonderful her second marriage was.  So it was a surprise to read the obit of her second husband, William Brown Meloney, and discover that they must have divorced shortly after the book came out.  I am a little surprised by how much this disappointed me.

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Both Your Houses

I was determined to witness the moment when Joe Biden overtook the Orange Thug in Pennsylvania. I plopped down on the sofa in the living room under the illusion that this might happen at 2AM (which is about the time I usually go to sleep). I didn’t want to watch TV nonstop, so I thought I’d knock off another play in my ongoing tromp through American dramatic writing of the past.

As it happened, the next play on my plate was Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses. Never heard of it? It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1933. You’ve probably heard of Maxwell Anderson, though, right? The guy who wrote some of those attempts at verse plays about English royalty. Sounds like a lot of fun, right?

Well, Both Your Houses is a surprising work. Not a verse play. It is about an idealistic young Congressman named Alan McLean who comes to Washington DC and discovers, to his dismay, that much of the business of government is based in corruption and payoffs to people who only occasionally think of their responsibility to the people. He decides to fight the corruption around one particular bill, and, though he has his innings, he finds the system is designed to frustrate reform.

I’m guessing this sounds familiar. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, right? Both Your Houses, as I say, dates from 1933. Mr. Smith, the classic Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, from 1939. My friend, the film historian Joseph McBride, who wrote the definitive biography of Frank Capra, tells me that this is not accidental. Mr. Smith is an unacknowledged adaptation of Both Your Houses. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to Anderson’s play but gave no credit to Anderson in the credits. The screenplay is credited to Sidney Buchman and the story to Lewis R. Foster. No mention of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that preceded it. Kinda stinks.

But, to be fair, Buchman and Capra added stuff that wasn’t in Both Your Houses, particularly the relationship between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur. Both Your Houses is sharp and rigorous, but as I read it I had no emotional investment in anybody’s relationship. Alan McLean was indeed the hero, but he was also a charmless pain-in-the-ass. I was on his side because he was right, not because I had any particular affection of him as a character. (His sidekick, a woman nicknamed Bus, was a lot more fun, but there’s no romance there.) Both Your Houses is admirable and surprisingly cynical, but …

But Mr. Smith grabs you emotionally and doesn’t let you go. The developing love story is deeply affecting, and the sight of Jimmy Stewart fighting to the point of exhaustion on the Senate floor is one of the great images in film history.

Contemporary audiences tend to think of Mr. Smith as a rah-rah patriotic film, but in fact it offended a lot of Washington when it premiered. Even Capra-sized, the view of casual corruption in the legislature was pretty strong stuff. It took for the film to reach a general public to be embraced and loved.

Anyway, I alternated between reading Both Your Houses and checking out the TV. And grabbing the odd nap. And then it was nearly 5AM and the Pennsylvania drama wasn’t finished. At this point, I decided to haul my weary tail to bed. I woke up at about 11AM to find that the moment I hoped to witness happened about two hours earlier.

The news that our contemporary Jimmy Stewart has prevailed against the most corrupt, vicious asshole in presidential politics (beating even Richard Nixon for the title of chief villain among presidents) … Yeah, I know Stewart was a conservative, but he was also a genuine hero and had integrity, and I think he’d be better casting for Biden than Carrey.

Oh God, I get to hope realistically for this country for the first time in years.

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Election Day Distraction

Don’t know if it’s true for anybody else, but I’m just trying to get this day out of the way. Latest avoidance tactic, an hour or so at the City Diner with my dog at my feet, reading some chapters in Jan Herman’s biography of William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, about Wyler shooting Mrs. Miniver and trying to find his place in the war. The analogy is inexact, but I sometimes feel as though we’re living through our version of the Blitz – trying to adjust to a general threat to all and still hold onto decency.

Yesterday, I finished watching Fred Wiseman’s four-and-a-half-hour documentary, City Hall. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the Wiseman films I’ve seen (and am very aware there’s quite a bit I haven’t). City Hall joins In Jackson Heights (his film on that neighborhood in Queens) and his epic about the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, as my three favorites of his. Each in its way, without tub-thumping, is about democracy. In both Ex Libris and City Hall, we see endless meetings of people in office uniforms sitting in flatly-lit rooms around conference tables discussing points of policy, strategizing procedure, speaking in full paragraphs. Sometimes the ear goes a little dead, but the people on the screen stay engaged and most are informed by moral passion. And then Wiseman takes us out into the community where the decisions made around those tables have real-life impact on the citizens. There are also occasional flat-out gorgeous shots of the skyline and the parks and the residential areas in contrast to the banality of the office scenes, reminding us that the work in these cramped rooms is taking place within the larger context of the beauty and exuberance of the city. (Ex Libris takes us to a variety of neighborhoods around New York City, City Hall jumps around from neighborhoods of pristine row houses to places where the residents are kept awake by rats.)

OK, 4 ½ hours is a long time to go (or not to go) in one sitting, and I didn’t. And I’m guessing that, when it is finally run on PBS (one of the funders), most people will record it to DVR and watch in installments. But, no, it shouldn’t be chopped up into episodes. It is important to be aware constantly of its size because a city is a big fucking place, and all the stuff we watch is happening pretty much simultaneously. I watched it by renting it through Film Forum for 48 hours for $12.00. Well worth it. (And I’m happy to have sent some change into FF’s coffers.)  Link: Film Forum — City Hall

As for reading, mostly I’m bouncing between the Wyler biography, an oral history of the directors of the “Golden Age of Television” called The Days of Live: Television’s Golden Age as seen by 21 Directors Guild of America Members by Ira Skutch, and reading or watching older American plays.

I’m afraid it was inevitable that this brought me to the film version of Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Green Pastures. The genesis of the play was in the work of a white writer named Roark Bradford who, in his 1928 book, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, said his work was based on the preaching of Black preachers in poor parishes teaching the gospel by drawing on imagery that would have been familiar to their parishioners. So a day in heaven is pictured as a fish fry, etc. Green Pastures was an enormous hit for its time, running for a long time on Broadway and maintaining its popularity through touring. It was twice presented to overwhelming response on The Hallmark Hall of Fame in the 1950s. With its huge cast and chorus, it also offered employment for years to countless Black performers, most notably Rex Ingram, who is a strong presence in three leading parts (including “de Lawd”) and made a career of performing in different productions. (He also played the genie in The Thief of Baghdad and Jim to Mickey Rooney’s Huckleberry Finn.)

But, yipes. With the exception of Ingram and Eddie Anderson as Noah, everybody is presented as child-like and simple. For all the good intentions, it is agonizingly condescending.

This reminded me of another theatrical retelling of the Bible I saw years ago in London, the National Theatre’s production of The Mysteries, written by Tony Harrison (adapted from traditional texts) and directed by Bill Bryden. This was an environmental production made up of three full-length pieces: The Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday. As some critic whose name I can’t recall observed about the production, it existed simultaneously in three time periods. The first, the Biblical times when the stories take place. The second, the period just before the arrival of Shakespeare when local craft guilds in English towns would embrace the responsibility of retelling the story in terms related to their work and lives. And the third, the present (a/k/a 1985), with folk-rock music and counter-cultural influences still holding on beyond the 1960s. The show was videoed and is available on YouTube with what appear to be German subtitles. Allow me to recommend one particular link in which the actors portray the butcher’s guild telling the story of Abraham and Isaac. After they finish the sequence, featuring muscular, stirring language and wrenching performances, they pull out their long, straight butcher’s knives and dance, and the climax of the dance is a transformation that is theatrical gold. This happens a little after four minutes into this link, and I urge you to watch it. More than 30 years after I first saw it, this makes me gasp.  The day I spent at this show easily is among the dozen most exciting things I’ve seen in my life.

There is a palpable distinction between the ersatz folk material of Green Pastures and Harrison/Bryden’s Mysteries. The transformation of the stories of the Bible aren’t reduced in The Mysteries but inspire awe, and the guild members the actors play, though not sophisticated, are viewed as possessing collective genius that inspires eloquence. Anyway, if it took enduring Green Pastures to remind me of The Mysteries (and to have the pleasure of sharing it with you), then I suppose it was worth it.

And I’ve managed to get through more than an hour of this day writing this.

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Two Contrasting Plays

I continue my casual tromp through plays of the past, alternating reading from an anthology of early Pulitzer Prize-winners and an anthology of postwar African-American plays.

The two most recent plays I’ve encountered, by coincidence, are about flawed Black authority figures. The Amen Corner (published in 1954, premiered in 1965) by James Baldwin is about a pastor named Margaret facing a mutiny in her Harlem church.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom by Paul Green (premiered in 1926 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, a company founded by playwright Susan Glaspell where Eugene O’Neill did early work) is about a Black fieldworker named Abe in the south whose drive to start a school triggers violence by local whites.

As I say, both leading characters are drawn as flawed. Margaret’s religious rigidity not only leads to her being overthrown but losing her family. Abe’s obsession, which includes his propensity to strike out physically at family and foe alike when frustrated, leads to destruction of his family and his own death. One can admire both characters’ commitment to their goals while being dismayed at the collateral damage they cause. I am reminded of the title character in Ibsen’s Brand, another uncompromising obsessive whose purity of purpose proves self-destructive.

A key difference between The Amen Corner and In Abraham’s Bosom is that Baldwin was a Black writer and Paul Green was white. Baldwin’s stepfather was a preacher with whom he was frequently in conflict, so it’s reasonable to suppose there are autobiographic elements in his play. The son in The Amen Corner wants to be a musician and his mother tries to block him, much as Baldwin’s stepfather tried to put obstacles in the way of Baldwin’s interest in exploring the theater. Paul Green was raised in North Carolina and found himself sympathetic to Black communities (not something calculated to make him popular with many of his neighbors) and this led to his trying to write honestly about the South, alternating between writing plays about white and Black communities. Before Black writers began to find a place on Broadway in the Fifties, Green was among those progressive whites attempting to write dimensional Black characters and raise awareness of American racism in the American commercial theater. (He co-wrote with Richard Wright the first stage dramatization of Wright’s Native Son, which has recently been supplanted by a warmly-received new version by Nambi E. Kelley.)

I was also struck by the resemblance between In Abraham’s Bosom and Deep are the Roots, a 1946 play by Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow (a pair of white writers). In Deep, a Black WWII veteran returns as a hero to his Southern hometown. When, as in Abraham, his plans for the future turn out to be different than those the white hierarchy of the town have in mind for him (they want him to run the local poorly-funded school for Black students), he becomes a target of their resentment and barely escapes with his life. (Deep was a substantial hit on Broadway. It was directed by Elia Kazan and ran more than 500 performances. Usually a success of that consequence would have triggered a pickup for a film version. But, surprise, Hollywood refused to touch the subject matter.)

I don’t claim that any of these are particularly strong plays. And reading In Abraham’s Bosom induces cringes, with all of the dialogue for Black characters rendered in labored dialect. But thematically, I found them fascinating.

I just looked at my Pulitzer anthology to see what the next play I’m to read is. Skipping over the plays I’ve already read or seen (including O’Neill’s long and torturous Strange Interlude, which I saw in revival on Broadway with Glenda Jackson), and the next one will be … Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures. Uh, OK.

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