by James Bowman
President and Mrs. Truman at a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner
According to The New York Times, “State by State, [the] Democratic Party Is Erasing Ties to Jefferson and Jackson.” I’d have thought that “ties” were things to be “cut” rather than “erased,” but it turns out that “erased” in the once-favored etymological sense of “rooted up” is what the headline writer meant.
On the face of it, this exercise in forgetting is absurd. Because your ex-heroes didn’t do a couple of centuries ago everything that’s on your agenda today are they not only to be demoted from hero-status but treated as if they had done nothing? They didn’t know and could not have foreseen what your agenda today would be! Can you get more blinkered and arrogant than this in your attitude to the past?
But when you come to think about it a little, such an erasure makes a bit more sense. For the true progressive, the past is always going to be an embarrassment. Once you have chosen incrementalism as your path to a utopian future, you have committed yourself to a political process and therefore to compromises of one sort or another with the forces of reaction. And once those forces have been weakened to the point where they can no longer demand compromise, or so many compromises as they formerly demanded, you won’t want to be reminded of your past accommodations with those whom it has become more and more safe to regard as simply evil-doers in the lurid melodrama you have made of history.
Indeed the compromisers themselves may come to be regarded as evil, as Jefferson and Jackson now are by many if not most in the Democratic Party on account of their having owned slaves and, in Jackson’s case, mistreated American Indians. Ideally, the progressive will end up in the same place as the revolutionaries who regarded the reactionaries as evil-doers from the beginning and who need to re-start history’s clock at Year Zero on assuming power—it just takes him a little longer to get there. But the revolutionaries, too, because they must live in the real world rather than the utopian one of their imagination, are frequently embarrassed by the past and find that the evil ones have a bad habit of cropping up in unexpected places. That’s why Orwell’s Big Brother needed the Ministry of Truth to make sure that inconvenient memories of his own past found their way to the memory holes.
Scrubbing Jefferson and Jackson from the once proud history of the Democratic Party suggests that that party’s progressives are already becoming comfortable with their Orwellian future. One Stacey Abrams, the minority leader of the Georgia House, is quoted in the Times article as saying “that the state party stripped Jefferson and Jackson from the name of the dinner to tell ‘the entire story of our party’”—by which of course she means the entire story as amended by dumping all memory of everything that it did and everyone who was in it up until the day before yesterday. The logic by which, insofar as possible, all memory of the party’s support for slavery and segregation has been eliminated from its “entire story” is only being carried to its logical conclusion in getting rid of Jefferson and Jackson.
Ironically, as the Times article points out, “President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of modern economic liberalism, was particularly devoted to elevating the two men, rushing to complete the Jefferson Memorial so his party could have a monument to compete with the Republicans’ Lincoln Memorial.” In other words, by calling attention to Jefferson’s achievements, FDR hoped to gloss over his party’s past association with slavery. How long before Roosevelt, too, four times elected president with the help of segregationist voters, will have to be wiped from the party’s memory? How long, indeed, before those who are now denouncing Jefferson and Jackson as un-persons are themselves reduced to the same status because of some unforeseen and unforeseeable accommodation of their own with the forces of evil? At least we evil ones stand by our own.
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Written on Skin / Credit: Richard Termine
I tend to keep my guard up when I hear that a new piece of music is being praised to the skies. Perhaps this is partly cynicism; but I find in a lot of music criticism today a tendency to give a blanket (if often tepid) seal of approval to any new piece of music that manages to make its way to a concert stage, informed by a desire to convince the public not to be afraid of new compositions. An admirable sentiment to be sure, but pretending that there are no uninteresting new pieces (imagine a world in which critical consensus praised every new play, or every new film to appear before the public) hardly seems conducive to a robust discussion around the art form.
So I approached George Benjamin’s 2013 opera Written on Skin, which had its U.S. stage premiere at the David Koch Theater last Tuesday, with optimistic skepticism. It has widely been heralded as the greatest new opera in decades, a masterpiece unveiled before our eyes. The last American premiere to be so hyped, back in 2014, was Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which was supposed to be daring, even revolutionary, the explosion into maturity of a talented young composer with an original voice. To me, it sounded like warmed-over Glassian minimalism, an aesthetic I find largely vapid to begin with. The music asks little of the listener, in terms of either emotional or intellectual challenge, even if it is awfully pleasant.
Written on Skin is a different beast. It is raw, powerful, taxing, and often excruciatingly violent. And for all of these reasons, it is captivating. Its tale is one of illicit but passionate love, its conclusion a horror that allows no room for grief. Whatever joy there is to be found in the story and libretto comes in short, intense flashes that are always in danger of being swallowed up by the darkness around.
What few shortcomings there are in this work—and there are a few—are to be found in the libretto by Martin Crimp. There is a lot of strong poetry here, and the narrative structure, despite allowing the audience to remain ever one step ahead of it, is strong. The framing device, situating the stagehands and supporting characters as malevolent “angels” viewing the scene, is an intriguing one, though it leads to a lot of self-referential statements by the characters of the narrative, which can be off-putting. The staging, by Katie Mitchell, is the original production from the Aix-en-Provence Festival, presenting a small, drab house whose mood is entirely dictated by the lighting—warm and homey under full floods, forbiddingly dreary in the dark. The presence of sanitized-looking staging areas, in which costume changes occur and set changes are prepared, gives us a feeling of complicity in the dispassionate, morbid fascination of the “angels.”
The chief strength of this piece is Benjamin’s marvelous score. Like the libretto, it has its moments of serenity, but there is little comfort to be found in it—even at moments of apparent dramatic tranquility, the realization of the characters’ inner turmoil in the music is often harrowing, as when the jealous husband slowly awakes from a deep slumber, accompanied by vicious jolts of strings and brass.
Benjamin employs a tonality that has a sharp edge but feels accessible. His music is richly expressive, indulging in no superfluous or opaque gestures, and maintaining just enough texture at all times to sit just a hair under the singers. Benjamin’s orchestration is by no means lavish, but it does not feel spare, either, and his vocal lines, rather than the wandering or darting qualities favored by many modern composers, are hauntingly direct.
The performances given during Tuesday’s premiere were stunning, top to bottom. As Agnès, a young woman forced into a marriage with a much older man, Barbara Hannigan was dramatically transfixing, her voice clear and bright, often just on the edge of piercing. As her lover, a young bookmaker known only as The Boy, the countertenor Tim Mead was a cool presence onstage, matching the temperament of his straight, flute-like voice. Christopher Purves, playing “The Protector,” as the husband is known, made us feel guilty for feeling any touch of compassion for him, but we did so anyway, almost until his final, inhuman act of violence. And, not to be left out, Alan Gilbert gave by far the best performance I have ever heard him lead, drawing dark, intense playing out of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and constructing the arc of the score as surely as though he had conducted the piece a hundred times.
Approaching its fiftieth season, the Mostly Mozart Festival is having its moment. A festival whose main attraction is a seasonal orchestra playing Classical and Romantic standards will fill seats, but will struggle to be more than a local attraction. Mostly Mozart, by facilitating major events like this one, is transforming itself into a destination, and the results have been a boon to locals and visitors alike.
Wednesday saw an odd program at Avery Fisher Hall. Odd, but intriguing. At either end were Mozart’s two immortal G-minor symphonies, about as good a hook for a concert as exists.
In the middle was a set of vocal selections with the baritone Matthias Goerne, one of today’s great recital singers. The Bach cantata Ich Habe Genung was straightforward enough—or it should have been, at any rate. In the first aria the oboist, Randall Ellis, seemed painfully uncomfortable with his obbligato part, as though he were reading it for the first time—which can’t have been the case, since the same program was presented the night before, concurrently with the opera across the way. And the third and final aria was a wreck, coming apart completely at one point and only reassembling when the players gave up trying to make music and concentrated just on blurting out the right notes at the right times.
There followed three orchestral transcriptions of Schubert lieder, and while their preparation felt more solid than that of the Bach, their purpose was unclear, other than to give Goerne a chance to shine in his best repertoire—which he did, in spite of some sweeping arm gestures that danced on the edge of comedy. The first two, An Silvia and Alinde, transcribed by Alexander Schmalcz, added little to the original pieces, relying on unimaginative and rudimentary orchestration—doubling plucked strings with timpani, and the like. And the third, Der Erlkönig, in the transcription by Max Reger, was entirely predictable—simulate the frantic left hand of the piano part with frantic violins, double the Elfking’s vocal lines with woodwinds, and we’re set.
Writing from Tanglewood a few weeks ago, I mentioned my frustration with a common tendency to treat Mozart’s works too cautiously, as though too rough an approach might break them. So it was with Louis Langrée’s interpretation of Symphony No. 25. Anyone who has heard this symphony (and that’s a huge number of people, whether they realize it or not) knows that this is not a timid piece; it is urgent, it is aggressive, it has teeth. Langrée led it with tasteful, urbane detachment. It was clean and it was cute, but it essentially missed the point.
No. 40, the “Great” G-minor, was inspired by contrast, and even on its own terms. It was sprightly and energetic, its Andante rapturous, its Menuet noble and graceful, its finale tart and bristling. This was Mozart the way Mozart should be: spirited, imaginative, witty, and—like the man himself—impishly playful under that veneer of propriety.
One of the common jokes about the Mostly Mozart Festival is that it rarely lives up to its name, especially now that contemporary music is earning a larger place in its programming. One might say that Mozart comprises a plurality of the festival, and in some years even manages to form a majority coalition of the Classical–Romantic bridge with Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
We had Mozart and Beethoven together on last weekend’s weekend program at Avery Fisher Hall. The conductor was Cristian Macelaru, a young Romanian currently serving as “Conductor-in-residence” of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has an unusual technique, snapping quick, wide strokes with the baton. It seemed the orchestra had some trouble settling in; the impetus in the opening measures of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 was unclear; the player’s articulation was specific, but the syntax of the music remained a mystery. The easy lyricism and tender sighing of the Andante were marred somewhat by suspect intonation in the strings. The final two movements, though, turned around somewhat, especially the allegro Finale, which developed into a lively conversation by the end.
Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is just about bound to be the main event on any program on which it appears; unlike many concerti of its period, it is a powerful enough work to stand up to any symphony that a conductor is likely to throw at it. Lars Vogt’s rendition was an excellent one, a considered and earnest reading that concentrated more on the ideas of the piece than on its virtuosity—a good thing, too, since he rushed through and jumbled a lot of his passagework.
The opening of this concerto is unforgettable, a sudden ray of sunlight from the piano that never lingers quite long enough before the first theme is introduced. Vogt on this opening chord was more penetrating than glowing—not quite the way I imagine it, but completely convincing. The only complaint I can really lodge against this performance, in fact, comes from the second movement, and it again concerns Macelaru, who kept too tight a leash on the low strings in their roaring interjections. A group encore, the Larghetto from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, was lovely, though a bit on the long side.
Friday’s concert was probably the last time I will set foot in Avery Fisher Hall before it becomes David Geffen Hall at the start of the New York Philharmonic’s season. Renaming a beloved public space is always a contentious matter—many critics and concertgoers still have not forgiven David Koch for putting his name on what was then the New York State Theater across the plaza, and some insist on referring to it by its former name, or by the familiar riff “the venue formerly known as … ”
They are of course entitled to hold and express their political views, and I won’t debate those views here. It is worth pointing out, though, that when Koch made his gift of $100 million for the renovation of the theater, he did so with the understanding that it could be renamed after fifty years. The directors of Lincoln Center, after having paid the Fisher family a small fortune to take Avery’s name off of the New York Philharmonic’s home, publicly (and wisely) said that they would also impose a limit on any naming gift for the hall this time round, but new namesake David Geffen was having none of it: eternity, or bust.
Will snarky observers henceforth refer to the building as “the venue to be known hereafter and—in spite of some very serious objections—without expiration as David Geffen Hall”? I guess that’s a bit of a mouthful.
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This week: Summer Reading, Dance at Socrates, and the Abduction From The Seraglio.
Fiction: Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh (Back Bay Books): It is said that houseguests, like fish, begin to stink after three days. Though good novels have a longer half-life than either of the above, summer lends itself to the slim text, just as it does to fresh fish on the grill. Humor, lightness, and delicacy are the order of the summer day, and though set in rainy Wales, Evelyn Waugh’s early satire of desultory life in a provincial boarding school fits the bill. Short enough to finish before the guests depart, it can serve as a welcome respite from the ongoing requests for “more ice” and “clean towels.” Reading Decline and Fall is certainly a better alternative to finding oneself “in the soup,” like the unforgettable Captain Grimes; that the book turns in at just over three hundred pages (not nearly as slim as I had thought) is a testament to the breeziness of Waugh’s then-nascent prose and the book’s ability to captivate. —BR
Nonfiction: Accidents of Fortune, by Andrew Cavendish (Michael Russell Publishing): Anglophiles of the World, Unite! Accidents of Fortune, a slender, companionable volume by Andrew Cavendish, aka Andrew Devonshire, the eleventh Duke of that name, is the perfect late-summer entertainment. Published in 2004, just weeks after His Grace’s death at 84, the book covers all but one of the Duke’s major passions: politics, books, art, horse racing (“Straw,” his colors, are the oldest registered on the Turf), charities of various sorts, and above all Chatsworth, perhaps the most stately of English Stately Homes, whose 300 rooms, extensive gardens, superb library and art collections, and thousands upon thousands of acres of surrounding grounds and pleasances make it one of the crown jewels of English Baroque architecture. It’s been home to the Cavendish family since 1549. Andrew’s ascension to the title was due to a sniper’s bullet, which killed his older brother Billy in 1944. I met the Duke only once, towards the end of his life. He instantly impressed me as a charming, well-mannered, unassuming man of the world—exactly the character that peeps out of these quiet but cultured and well-written pages. Andy, as I would not have dared to address him, seems to have been almost universally beloved. A spirit of decorous gratitude for all that fortune had brought him suffuses these pages, and a most attractive spirit it is. I first became aware of him through his association with Heywood Hill, the great London bookshop in which he had a controlling interest. The comic novelist Nancy Mitford, his sister-in-law, famously worked there during the war (there is a Blue Plaque to commemorate her tenure). I was lunching once with an English friend at Brooks’s when he confessed that he was something of a “cluboholic.” He currently belonged to twelve London clubs, he explained, and was just about to join a thirteenth, Pratt’s, just around the corner and owned by the Duke of Devonshire. To save confusion, he continued, one addressed the staff indiscriminately as “George.” “That’s so English,” I thought, a contention that another English friend confirmed when, hearing about Pratt’s, he remarked that “At the Beefsteak we call them all Charles.” This fact is completely irrelevant to the subject of this agreeable book but telling it allowed me to defer mentioning the one great interest of the eleventh Duke missing from his memoir: his avid, not to say notorious, interest in, and pursuit of the opposite sex. —RK
Poetry: Yeats2015 (Through December 31, 2015): Some writers get only a single day each year for the public to celebrate their lasting cultural achievement; others get none. In truth, I was unaware until recently of the existence of “Yeats Day,” which commemorates the legacy of Ireland’s foremost modernist poet. But 2015 is a special year for Yeats, being the 150th anniversary of his birth. And so “Yeats Day” has been expanded to “Yeats Year,” or as the Irish tourism authorities have it, Yeats2015. With a full schedule of events from art exhibitions to interpretative dance through the end of December, anyone with an abiding interest in Yeats should find something to capture his interest. But with all the events taking place in Ireland, the only way to experience Yeats2015 in person is to slouch towards Sligo, as it were. —BR
Dance: “Dance at Socrates” at the Socrates Sculpture Park (Through August 22): This Saturday is your last chance of the summer to see “Dance at Socrates.” The free, open-air resident dance festival at Socrates Sculpture Park along the East River in Long Island City, Queens, now in its third season, is produced by the newly minted Cypress Hills art nonprofit Norte Maar. This final week features new work by Meagan Woods & Co. and Julia K. Gleich, the organizer of the festival, with an appropriately artful dance inspired by the paintings of Jack Tworkov. —JP
Music: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), by W. A. Mozart, performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe: I’ve been a little unkind to Mozart lately—but a new album from Deutsche Grammophon gives us a fresh take on one of his first major successes, the singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Diana Damrau leads the cast as Konstanze, taking on one of the most difficult roles in the coloratura repertoire, including the infamous show-aria "Martern aller Arten." Rolando Villazón plays opposite as her beloved Belmonte, and the superb Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. —ECS
From the archive: Yeats revisited, by C. H. Sisson: Though Yeats Day has passed, the namesake’s year is ongoing. As such, we present C. H. Sisson’s 1989 review of the first volume of Yeats’s Collected Works.
From our latest issue: Exhibition note, by Mario Naves: On “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” at the Studio Museum, Harlem.
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The Trio Zimmermann/ © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli
At the Salzburg Festival, as elsewhere, opera productions hog most of the attention, but there is a variety of offerings, including chamber music. Last night, the Trio Zimmermann played in the Great Hall of the Mozarteum Foundation (and a great hall it is—glittering, inspiring, and beautiful).
The Zimmermann of the Trio Zimmermann is the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. His partners are Antoine Tamestit, a French violist, and Christian Poltéra, a Swiss cellist.
As I have noted several times—in this post, for example—there are two standard lines in musicians’ bios: First, the musician is totally committed to chamber music; second, the musician is totally committed to new music.
Tamestit’s bio tells us that he is “a dedicated chamber musician.” My thought: Well, he’d better be—he has a viola career. (Poltéra’s bio, by the way, tells us that he is “a passionate chamber musician.” I have emphasized the word, which is even better than “dedicated.”)
Listen, let me not joke too much. Last summer, in a review from Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, I said there had been “an unaccompanied viola recital. Have you ever heard of anything so odd?” At the end of that review, I said, “Antoine Tamestit is an excellent musician—a musician’s musician—and a credit to his instrument. If you had told me that one of the best recitals or concerts of the year would be a solo viola recital, I might have doubted you. But it was.”
On the Trio Zimmermann’s program here in Salzburg were three works, three string trios. The first was the one in B flat, D. 581, by Schubert. He wrote it when he was twenty.
The three players began absolutely, perfectly together. That proved a sign of things to come. They also played with true musicality. Within a few pages, you could relax—you knew you were in the hands of very, very capable people. What a gift, to be able to sit in the audience and not be nervous for the music or the performers!
The performers’ playing was songful and rich (though not heavy). In the middle was Tamestit, the violist. He was in the middle in more than one sense: He was in the middle of the stage, physically, between the violinist and the cellist. And his sound was in the middle of the playing. He is a great asset, Tamestit.
Incidentally, I once heard a violist say that the role of his instrument, in the orchestra, is to be “the cream in the Oreo cookie.”
Schubert’s final movement is the rondo, marked “Allegretto.” It’s not easy to find the right tempo here, and the Zimmermann did. The music was unforced and unrushed, and it never dragged. And Schubert’s Gemütlichkeit pervaded the hall.
Next on the program was Hindemith’s String Trio No. 2. In the Zimmermann’s hands, it was just as good as the Schubert, if not better. It occurred to me that I was starting to take the players’ precision for granted. They were “as one” (if you’ll forgive the cliché). They were also unfailingly musical. And each player, individually, was making a fine sound.
They did a service to Hindemith, whose composition was beautiful, exciting, and interesting, in equal measure.
After intermission, there was just one composition, a big one, Beethoven’s String Trio in E flat, Op. 3. He wrote it when he was twenty-one. In the first movement, the players managed to suggest some of Beethoven’s bigness and uncontainability. Some pages were quasi-symphonic (but not overblown). Other pages, of course, were duly intimate.
Throughout the work, we could hear Beethoven’s budding “strangeness.” I have used Harold Bloom’s highest encomium, which he applies to authors, and which I sometimes apply to composers. Beethoven’s off-kilter rhythms, for example, still catch the attention. In any event, the Trio Zimmermann did full justice to his Opus 3.
Let me now ask a rude question, or at least an impertinent one: Is there such a thing as too much string trio, even in a great concert? I believe so, yes. I think I would have bade farewell after the Beethoven—but these players sat down for a quick encore, which turned out to be an excellent idea.
The encore was a scherzo, full of pizzicato—don’t hold me to it, but I believe it was from Hindemith’s first string trio. In any case, this piece has a Scaramouch quality, which the players brought out to a T. They played with their clockwork precision, and their flair.
The audience thundered its appreciation. Honestly, the applause for the Trio Zimmermann was longer and louder than the applause had been on Friday for Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic, after Brahms’s Second Symphony. The trio should definitely have called it a night.
But they sat down for Schubert’s String Trio in B flat, D. 471, which has one movement, the composer never having finished the work. (He would later do that to a symphony.) This was a mistake, on the Zimmermann’s part. They played the piece beautifully, of course. But it was too long, and too mild, for this juncture of the evening, and it deflated the hall. After the last note, people got out of there like a bat out of hell.
The cliché is right: Always leave ’em wanting a little more. And by all means, don’t overstay your welcome.
In the first row, there was a little girl—an adorable little blond girl—about four years old. That’s an unusual sight at a chamber concert. As far as I could tell, she was good as gold, from the beginning of the evening till the end, though she fidgeted a bit during the Schubert encore.
Regardless, she heard a first-rate concert of chamber playing. Absolutely, 100 percent first-rate.
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In memoriam: Robert Conquest, 1917-2015
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by Kyle Smith
Georgia Engel, Christopher Abbott, and Lois Smith/ Photo: Matthew Murphy via
In the 1970s, the actress Georgia Engel played the sweetly aloof girlfriend and bride of anchorman Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now 67, she has changed little—she has the same eager, daft smile and the same singsong, nursery-school-teacher voice. It hardly need be said that she would make an ideal choice to play a serial killer, a psychotic or even a vaguely sinister bed & breakfast owner who seems reluctant to explain what happened to either of her two husbands.
It is the latter role that Engel plays, marvelously, in Annie Baker’s circuitous, funny and unnerving new play, John, at the Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street through September 6. Baker, whose last play The Flick won her the Pulitzer Prize last year at age 33, writes three-hour plays that tend to take place in a single setting with a small cast. Characters test the audience’s patience by speaking in banalities interrupted with frequent long pauses, and the reading-room quiet of the (in)action on stage often induces naps in audience members, whose snoring in turn makes it even more difficult to hear. Tickets for John are only $25, though, so consider it implied that you should use the savings to invest in an espresso, maybe a double.
Even so, John may not hold you in its thrall: it’s a 195-minute, two-intermission piece that guards its secrets, releases them only at lengthy intervals, and can be read any of several ways. Nevertheless, for playgoers who enjoy theater with aspects of a puzzle, it is a stimulating evening. It might be premature to call Baker a “genius” (The Daily Beast), but she is not to be dismissed either. Baker’s voice is developing impressively, and if her trademark in previous plays has been the inarticulacy of her slacker characters (The Flick was labeled “mumblecore” by Natasha Simons), the cupboard of Baker’s thoughts is ample, especially in John.
The play is a sort of implied ghost story that takes place entirely on the ground floor of a chintz-infested bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the end of November. The doddering owner-manager Mertis (Engel) is a shuffling, harmless old thing who exists almost silently in the shadows among the doilies and the flowered upholstery and the knickknacks. At right is a bookcase holding a collection of ceramic winter cottages. Next to it is a fully decorated Christmas tree. A young Brooklyn couple, Elias (Christopher Abbott, a Seth Rogen type) and his girlfriend Jenny (Hong Chau, ditzy and passive-aggressive) arrive late in the evening. They are on their way back to New York from her family’s home in Ohio and intend to spend a day or two exploring the nearby battlefields, Elias being a Civil War buff. Between the two of them exists an unspoken tension, and Jenny is obsessed with an American Girl doll that is part of the decor. It’s an exact copy of a doll she possessed as a girl, and lately on a visit to her childhood home she grew obsessed with the idea that the doll hated her for being boxed up and placed in the basement. Jenny, trying to be humane, cut some windows in the cardboard box to make things more bearable for the object.
Baker creates the sense that violence could erupt, but instead such shocks as arrive are largely the ones we learn about when characters talk about their back stories—about history. Segue to the War Between the States: the B & B itself once served as a hospital, and so many limbs needed to be hacked off in July of 1863 that the discarded arms and legs formed a ten-foot pile outside the windows. Mertis delivers this piece of information, like all the others she dispenses, as dispassionately and fondly as she offers plates of Vienna fingers or cups of chocolate tea. About subjects closer to her own history she is less forthcoming: it isn’t till about halfway through the play that we learn she has a husband, who apparently is in the house somewhere, though no details are offered about why no one else has seen him. Moreover, she once had another husband, someone who died in an unfortunate accident that is, again, not described in a satisfactory way, though Mertis, Georgette-like, is so feather-brained that it’s difficult to tell whether she is intentionally withholding information or simply is unaware how strangely incomplete her personal reminiscences sound to others.
A fourth character (impeccably played by veteran actress Lois Smith, whose career spans from Elia Kazan’s East of Eden to HBO’s True Blood) adds a bizarre twist to the proceedings, but to say more would perhaps be to say too much. Her name is Genevieve—a near-match for Jenny. Via Genevieve we begin to learn that the past is, as in Faulkner, not dead, and not even past. There are discussions of whether the house is haunted: certain rooms, Mertis says in her sweetly oblique way, are simply “unreliable on certain nights.” Christmas tree lights blink on and off. The piano to the left begins to play itself. Oddness fills the air.
There are no men named John in the play, and yet there are two men named John in the play, one in the present and one long ago, each looming strangely over the relationships of the characters onstage like a harvest moon. In the final minutes, Baker skillfully coaxes the two together, ending the proceedings with a devastating one-liner that settles a point of suspense even as it clarifies John’s larger theme. This may not be an especially wicked or devastating black comedy, but it’s a droll and deftly designed one. Baker is a playwright on the march.
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This week: A Continued Remembrance of Robert Conquest and Lincoln Center Happenings.
Fiction: The Egyptologists, by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (Penguin): With the death last week of Robert Conquest (memorialized here fondly by his friend, Roger Kimball), we recall perhaps his least-known work. While Conquest was justifiably lauded for his works exposing the horrors of Soviet rule, he had a much more playful side, as evidenced by his affection for (often bawdy) limericks. The Egyptologists, written with his longtime chum Kingsley Amis, is a sendup of the minor interests of Englishmen, and the lengths to which they will go to keep said interests from their wives. Long out of print, perhaps renewed interest in Conquest (and abiding interest in Amis) will spark a reissue of this slight, entertaining work. —BR
Nonfiction: Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, by Michael Dirda (Pegaus): “As readers of Browsings will discover in the weeks to come, I’m pretty much what used to be called a ‘bookman.’ This means, essentially, that I read a lot and enjoy writing about the books and authors that interest me. Sometimes the result is a review, sometimes an essay. But my tone aims to remain easygoing and conversational, just me sharing some of my discoveries and enthusiasms.”
So begins the first essay of Michael Dirda’s new published collection, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Over the course of one year, Dirda (a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic, book columnist for The Washington Post, and New Criterion contributor) wrote one essay a week for The American Scholar. Dirda’s immense knowledge of some of the most intimate facts about literature (“When Yeats decided that his poems had become too ornamented and flowery, he took to sleeping on a board.”) will delight readers of all levels. —RH
Poetry: Penultimata, by Robert Conquest (Waywiser): Better known than his fiction, but still less recognized than his historical writing, Robert Conquest’s verse also displays his inimitable talent. Though a few of his limericks have been oft repeated, specifically his meditation on the death tolls of Lenin and Stalin and his reworking of Jacques’ “Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It, Conquest was a clever versifier beyond the merely comic. Perhaps Christopher Hitchens put it best in praising Conquest’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner.” Befitting its title, Penultimata was Conquest’s second-to-last book of poetry, preceding only Blokelore and Blokesongs. —BR
Art: “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and Friends” at the National Museum of American Jewish History (August 27 – November 1): Mark your calendars (especially if you have children) for the debut of a new exhibition on the art of a beloved children’s illustrator. Following the recent successes of Curious George (at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2010) and Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline (at the New York Historical Society), the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia is entering the fray with a retrospective on the work of Bernard Waber. Famous for his series of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile stories, Waber was an artist of considerable skill, and his drawings are sure to delight both the young and youthful. —BR
Music: “Mozart’s 40th Symphony,” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (August 11-12) and Written on Skin, by George Benjamin, performed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (August 11, 13, and 15): The Mostly Mozart Festival will dominate Lincoln Center this Tuesday (and throughout the week) with two competing programs: in Avery Fisher Hall, the Festival orchestra will perform Mozart's beloved g-minor symphonies, Nos. 25 and 40. Add to that a Bach Cantata and a selection of transcribed Schubert lieder with the baritone Matthias Goerne, and this looks like one of the best programs of the summer.
Contemporary music aficionados will not want to miss the presentation at the David Koch Theater across the plaza, the American stage premiere of George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin. This dark tale of passion has been widely hailed as the most important opera in decades, and will play only three nights this week. Alan Gilbert will lead the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the original 2013 production by Katie Mitchell. —ECS
Theater: [ai] at The Brick Theater (Through August 22): When Ayn Rand moved to America from the Soviet Union, she didn't plan to write fiction. She preferred films and plays. Working in New York and California, she even had some success: in 1932, she sold a screenplay and three years later, her play The Night of January 16 opened on Broadway. It's fitting, then, that The Brick Theater in Brooklyn has adapted her famous novella Anthem for the stage. The dystopian story takes place in some future society that has criminalized individuality—when the protagonist, EQUALITY 7-2521, makes an astonishing discovery, he sets himself apart from his peers and pays the price. It's also fitting that the show, called [ai], is a devised piece, a collaboration rather than a single artist's vision. Staunch Objectivists and skeptics alike should give this production a chance, as the artists "do not wish to take sides on whether one point of view is superior to another." —JB
Film: Metropolitan, at Lincoln Center (Through August 13): Attention UHBs: The Lincoln Center Film Society is celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Metropolitan with a week-long run of Whit Stillman's landmark debut, recently restored. All urban haute bourgeoisies not attempting to take a yellow cab to Rick Von Sloneker's in the Hamptons will have to find their way to the West Side for this screening. —JP
From the archive: Singing ceremonies, by Robert Conquest: Our remembrance of Robert Conquest continues with his final feature for The New Criterion, a review of Clive James’s poetry. We look forward to John O’Sullivan’s tribute to Conquest in our forthcoming September issue.
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Louisa Krause and Mathew Maher/ Photo: Joan Marcus via
What's the theater version of mumblecore?
That indie film subgenre, characterized by hyper-naturalistic dialogue and low budgets, could easily be identified as the wellspring of The Flick, the intimate and intensely observational play about a suburban single-screen theater and the painfully ordinary employees that work there. Though the term usually is delivered with a smirk, the very best of this category (Kicking and Screaming, Cyrus) are earnest examinations of the minute that sketch larger themes about who we are, really, deep down.
Sam Gold, fresh off a Tony win for directing the musical Fun Home, lends his careful touch to this play as well. The Flick is no stranger to prizes: in its Off-Broadway run last year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
We open on Sam (Matthew Maher), a down-on-his-luck junior manager of the theater, who’s imparting his years of wisdom to new recruit Avery (Aaron Clifton Mosen). This involves some fairly detailed cleaning methods, quite a few warnings, and an enraptured description of the aloof projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause). Yes, that’s “projectionist”—between that and the 1970s color scheme in the theater, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a period piece. It’s contemporary, as least as far as that goes: any work that discusses other contemporary works at the time it’s written is going to feel dated even a few years later. The conversation Sam and Avery have later about films of the 21st century ends at Avatar (2009), which feels positively quaint at this point.
In our up-to-the-minute society, a play that deals at length with the last gasp of celluloid in a digital world could be as outmoded as that reference. There’s no longer a debate about which form is better in any circles except the auteurs’; theaters and patrons have overwhelmingly embraced the digital revolution. For Avery, this is a transition to be mourned—“You can’t really even call it film anymore,” he laments. There is something ironic and more than a little funny about watching a play about the dying of American film.
Avery, a cross between Urkel and Rain Man, has a certain skill: he’s aces at “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Some of the most pleasurable moments of the play result from Sam throwing out two names and watching Mr. Mosen perform a kind of brilliantly calculated silence before he recites the answer, not without satisfaction. When it comes to all things film-related, Avery has strong feelings. (At times, the reliance on film comparisons takes away from the emotion of the work itself; the climax of the play rests on a speech from Pulp Fiction, which feels pastiche.) It becomes apparent that the movie theater is Avery’s safe place from the trials he’s facing in his everyday life; a one-sided phone call with his therapist heartbreakingly reveals a history of depression and a botched suicide attempt. He’s on a break from college, whereas Sam and Rose very much need their jobs as a semblance of a livelihood. Sam and Rose have their own issues; Sam has harbored a painful crush on Rose for years and Maher delivers a perfect performance of this type of passive-aggressive would-be suitor. These subtleties of the characters’ situations hang quietly over the conversations in, and during repeated cleanings of, the empty theater, until they land, as they must, in the second act.
Character development in the play is a zealously guarded affair, and details are laid down judiciously over the course of three hours, an unusual length for works of this sort. This is a side effect of Ms. Baker’s naturalistic approach to dialogue: you wouldn’t hear a stranger’s life story within a few minutes of meeting him, so here things are held back, revealed accidentally through a stray opinion about a film (tough girl Rose’s favorite is Million Dollar Baby) or an aside. Larger things, too, come to light through the mundanities of minimum-wage jobs; when Rose and Sam attempt to nonchalantly draw Avery into their weekly profit-skimming, he’s forced to point out that in their small town, in a theater owned by an “angry white guy with a truck,” he’s likely to be blamed if they get caught. The utterly blank confusion on the others’ faces could be called that difficult word “privilege,” or simply obliviousness.
This slow pace is not a friend to all theater-goers; the production has been dogged by walkouts and complaints about its length that the artistic director felt compelled to respond to. But the show’s minimalism and mild affect is charming, befitting the themes it espouses about valuing authenticity in a mad world. Possibly the audience was looking for Avatar and not expecting Ghost World, a spiky film about misfits that’s interested in these same slow and inevitable consequences of human interaction. It may try your patience, but The Flick is thoughtful, searching, and uneasy to rush to judgment, which is valuable. It belongs to a rare class of art that can still take its time. Perhaps that, like the celluloid in question earlier, is also on its way to extinction.
The Flick can be seen at the Barrow Street Theater in New York through January 10, 2016.
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18th-century French painting galleries at the Louvre. © Musée du Louvre 2015 / Antoine Mongodin
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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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