The Daily

Arts & Culture

Political Theater

October 28, 2014 | by

The Death of Klinghoffer and grand opera’s political tradition.

THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER

The Death of Klinghoffer. Photo: Metropolitan Opera

Opera is the most pretentious art form of all time, which makes it an easy target for the Marx Brothers and for Bugs Bunny—but its pretension makes it explosive. And—surprise—even in the wake of the death of City Opera and the Met’s labor disputes, it is explosive in America, where a revival of an American opera about the death of an American against the backdrop of international geopolitics has become a scandal or a sensation, depending on who you talk to. (Whether it’s selling tickets, only Peter Gelb can tell us.)

No recent film or album or musical has caused the kind of agony that John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer has; outside the Met, hundreds of protesters have accused it of anti-Semitism. Its reception makes any real appraisal of its virtues or weaknesses impossible—the same fate that befell, say, Parsifal, Birth of a Nation, Guernica, and Cradle Will Rock, in their times.

Why has Klinghoffer faced such intense hostility? An English friend recently said to me, with enormous authority and disdain, You have no tradition of political theater in America. That statement is absurd, but the following is true: England has Shakespeare’s histories, continental Europe has opera, and America has … Shakespeare’s histories and Europe’s operas. I should note that I ran this by an extremely knowledgeable friend last night, who was distraught at this simplification; We did have a tradition, he said, And it was systematically eradicated and watered down by McCarthyism, and many of us have worked very, very hard to bring it back! He’s right, of course. That said, we do not have an ongoing, unbroken, native, above-ground tradition of accepted political theater. We have musicals, yes, but the musical has never had the direct connection to political power and patronage that the London stage, the Paris Opera, and Bayreuth do. And so we tend to be both overawed by and suspicious of these forms. They have a special status, but their political content is not ours.

Since it’s not ours, we may not understand how inextricably bound the art and the politics are. Carl Dahlhaus’s magisterial book Nineteenth-Century Music turns the usual narrative of classical music—its inevitable march toward atonality and modernism—on its head. Music, he says, was an instrument and an expression of political power, inextricably bound up in economic, class, and religious transformations, and above all in the rise of nationalism. In his panorama, chamber music, the symphony, and solo music fall away, leaving a century of choral music, operetta, and, at the dead center, opera. Read More »

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God, Satan, Waugh

October 28, 2014 | by

Evelynwaugh

A portrait of Waugh by Carl Van Vechten.

Evelyn Waugh was born today in 1903. You can read his Art of Fiction interview here, but there’s also, courtesy of the Spectator’s seemingly endless archives, this unverified bit of trivia from a letter to the paper sent in 1971:

Sir: Colin Wilson, your reviewer of Graham Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life quotes from a supposed remark that Evelyn Waugh made to Greene—‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of God than Wodehouse made out of Jeeves.’

I believe there are other versions of this story, although I cannot now remember who told me mine.

A few years ago, while in New York, I was but a stone’s throw from the Algonquin Hotel, Mr. Waugh and Mr. Greene were staying in the hotel. Late in the night Mr. Waugh popped into Mr. Greene’s room where a publisher’s party was still going strong to celebrate another Greene book. At some point during this party Evelyn Waugh announced: ‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of the Devil than I’ve made out of God.’

Apocryphal or otherwise, the story does contain a more typical Waugh bite than the Jeeves analogy.

Michael Hastings

Read More »

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Why This Grown-up Reads YA

October 24, 2014 | by

spectrum

When I was a senior in high school, I took a class on Freud in which we read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published not so many years earlier in 1982. Gilligan traced the history of the way in which a female mode of thinking, especially about moral dilemmas, had been diminished and misunderstood by psychologists—not just by Freud, but by others like Lawrence Kohlberg, well-known for his theories of moral development. In answer to an ethical question—Should a man steal drugs for his sick wife?—Kohlberg had found girls to be less developmentally mature than boys, as the girls were unable to respond with a simple no. But Gilligan, a clinical psychologist and researcher, suggested an alternate way of looking at how girls reason, morally or otherwise, that had to do with a much more nuanced understanding about the network of the connections girls felt between themselves and others. As Gilligan describes it, girls saw “in the dilemma not a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time.”

The effect In a Different Voice had on me was shattering in the best way: I felt that someone had finally recognized and articulated my predicament as a teenage girl. An old, black-and-white way of thinking—the kind I was at that moment trying to shoehorn myself into at my boarding school, which had only recently become coed—was being put to question. The gender ratio at my school was kept to one-third girls, two-thirds boys, so the girls wouldn’t “overwhelm” the boys, or so I was told. Urinals stood sentinel in our bathrooms, as if waiting until the whole thing went back to the boys. We even wore boy’s clothes—preferably our fathers’ or boyfriends’. It was mens sana in corpore sano all the way, but it was the boys’ corpora everyone was trying to emulate. Read More »

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All the News Not Fit to Print

October 23, 2014 | by

NTNYT

“Sounds as if they emptied the back room at Elaine’s for this one.” —Calvin Trillin, in 1978, speculating on the character of those behind Not the New York Times.

The New York Times has seen surprisingly few interruptions in its 163-year history. The paper took five holidays in the early 1850s; a strike in 1962–3 led to nineteen days of silence; another, in 1965, caused four “joint” publication dates, which combined the Saturday and Sunday papers. And then there was 1978, when, from August 10 to November 4, a multiunion strike shuttered all three of New York City’s major newspapers. No editions of the Times were printed for a record-setting eighty-eight days.

Two and a half months into the ’78 strike, though—and thirty-six years ago today—New Yorkers awoke to find the Times unexpectedly back on newsstands, kind of. This was Not the New York Times, a one-off parody rife with satirical news stories, faux advertisements, and farcical editorials. Among the items on the front page were an exposé on an exotic new drug (“pronounced ko-kayne” and “generally ingested nasally”), a tedious seven-paragraph report written entirely in bureaucratese (“Carter Forestalls Efforts To Defuse Discord Policy”), and Mayor Koch’s recipe for chicken curry. There was a weather notice, too: “Mostly present today, still there tomorrow.”

The spoof, it turned out, was the work of Paris Review founder George Plimpton and a handful of his friends, including Christopher Cerf, Tony Hendra, and Rusty Unger. Among those enlisted as “journalists” were Carl Bernstein, Nora Ephron, and Terry Southern—though none was exactly forthright about his or her contributions.

“I had nothing to do with this,” Cerf quipped. “I can give you a list of other people who weren’t involved as well. It’s also not true that we used the Plimptons’ apartment to put the paper together. I ought to know. I was there all week.” Plimpton himself was unavailable for comment—presumably tidying up after playing host to the editorial debauchery. (Incidentally, The Paris Review—also run out of Plimpton’s Seventy-second Street apartment—failed to meet its deadlines that fall; the staff was forced to merge its final two issues into a single Fall-Winter edition.) Read More »

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A Complete Guide to Flinging in Oscar Wilde

October 16, 2014 | by

August_Macke_-_Eine_Frau_auf_einem_Divan_(1914)

August Macke, Eine Frau auf einem Divan (Woman on a Divan) (detail), 1914, watercolor on paper, 11.5" × 9".

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your life as a gay man.

CARSON

It’s been a somewhat checkered career as a gay man. I was never totally successful. I think it started in high school, when in grade ten or eleven I developed a fascination with Oscar Wilde. Some of my friends shared this fascination so we used to dress like Oscar Wilde and memorize his aphorisms and construct conversations in the lunchroom, as if we were Oscar Wilde and his friends.

—Anne Carson, the Art of Poetry No. 88, 2004

I also had an early fascination with Oscar Wilde, though mine hasn’t, to my knowledge, led to an exciting double life. In high school, as I read through Wilde’s plays and then some of his prose, I came to recognize a pattern: his characters were always flinging themselves onto sofas. That was the only word Wilde ever used for it, fling, and he used it inordinately, constantly; the more I looked for it the more it turned up. No one in Wilde’s domain, it seemed, could get any thinking or moping done without first flinging oneself onto the nearest possible surface—cushioned, ideally, but not necessarily—and lighting a cigarette or bursting into tears. Over and over again, his lords and ladies had no recourse but to fling. They never pitched, cast, heaved, hurled, or tossed.

I didn’t object to this, as melodramatic as it was. In fact part of me aspired to such melodrama: I imagined that in adult life I would be confronted with one impasse after another for which the only cathartic response would be to fling myself onto a couch, weeping, smoking, or both. I was looking forward to it—if anything, I disappoint myself today with how rarely I’m compelled to do flinging of any kind. Little did I know that, as a teenager surging with hormones, I was at peak flinging age, with my best flinging days right there for the taking.

To this day, though, I associate the verb with Wilde; he left his mark on it, or it left its mark on him. Since today’s his birthday, I found his collected works online and made sure I hadn’t been deluding myself. Lo and behold, an amateurish concordance confirms that fling is everywhere. Herewith, then: your comprehensive guide to flinging in Wilde. Consult it in moments of emotional strife, perhaps just before or after your own bouts of flinging, and know that you are not alone. Read More »

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The Literary Agent of Yore (Unspeakable Rascal!)

October 14, 2014 | by

bizarre00mack_0175

An illustration by Lauren Stout for Lawton Mackall's Bizarre, 1922.

My continuing odyssey across the World Wide Web—I’ll read it all, someday—has yielded these two gems from the public domain, both early constructions of the literary agent as a type; neither, I’m sorry to say, is very flattering.

Now as then, agents get a bad rap. In the popular imagination, they’re usually seen as unscrupulous middlemen, always on the phone, insistently plying their wares. The agent, we’re told, is a necessary evil at best, or, at worst, the first in a line of craven corporate interests designed to suck the marrow from a writer’s work, making it suitable for a wide and churlish readership. In movies, writers are always seeking agents, falling out with agents, or at the very least nervously talking to agents, twisting the phone line in their fingers. And then there’s the editor-agent relationship, in which the agent never wins: he’s either part of a profit-obsessed cabal keeping subversive “new voices” out of print, or he’s a tasteless entrepreneur disturbing the delicate rapport between editor and author.

I’d thought all this was a fairly recent phenomenon—I had always imagined it came from the eighties, when publishers couldn’t conglomerate fast enough and the soul was said to have fled the industry—but these two old books suggest it’s been going on much longer than that. Which makes sense: in publishing, the sky is always falling. Every year is an abysmal year for books and a terrific year for books. Editors no longer edit, except when they do; publishers care only for their bottom line, except when they don’t; the three-martini lunch is always dead, always quietly continuing. That’s what’s fascinating about these excerpts: they’re both about a century old, documenting that same thwarted intersection of art and capitalism.

First, from Arnold Bennett’s Books and Persons, an essay collection composed of work from 1908 to 1911, the parts cited below being from 1908: Read More »

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