November 19, 2008

Friedrich Durrenmatt, Plays and Essays

"If we consider how art is practiced these days, we cannot help but notice a conspicuous drive toward purity. The
artist strives toward the purely poetic, the purely lyrical, the purely epic, the purely dramatic. The painter ardently works to
create the pure painting, the musician pure music; and someone even told me that pure radio represents the synthesis
between Dionysos and Logos. What is even more remarkable for our time, which is not otherwise renowned for its purity,
is that each and everyone believes he has found his own unique and therefore the only purity. Each vestal of the arts has,
if you will, her own kind of chastity. Likewise, too numerous to count are all the theories of the theatre, of what is pur theatre,
pure tragedy, pure comedy. There are so many modern theories of the drama, what with each playwright keeping three or
four at hand, that for this reason, if for no other, I am a bit embarrassed to come along now with my own theories. . . "

--p 237, 'Problems of the Theatre'

It amazes me to realize that I've owned this book for several years and only now, when it caught my eye among a jungle thicket of books pilled everywhere, many of them on the floor, stacked in rows a little haphazard (there've been instances of toppling) where a shelf had been, and collapsed under their weight--we had clearners coming and you can't really leave books piled high on a rug that's to be cleaned, not unless you want 'em wetted and shampooed and the rug under them badly cleaned if at all, so I was stacking 'em in the closet, quite a few went into gaps on the other shelves, whatever worked basically but of course I found my fingers tripping over titles and a small pile on top of one shelf forming a to-read list, and finding the one I most wanted to reread was this Durrenmatt collection, what do I discover immediately but that I've never read in all these years the first of its two plays, Romulus the Great? Why would somebody who's an actual Durrenmatt fan overlook for so long such an unconditional masterpiece of the theatre? Sure, if I'd read it ten years ago I might barely have registered the sly theatricall allusions, to Antigone and so on though. . . could hardly have missed the farcical parody of Shakespeare's assassination scene from Julius Caesar--the action after all takes place on the ides of March, 476, but the conspirators against Rome's last Emperor Romulus aren't an organized party of citizens, they come together accidentally, each separately concealing himself and when they do come together with one intent--as Romulus alone anticipated, having planned things so they must--they're scattered at the last minute by a sudden cry: "The Teutons are coming!" (which they are, but not for another twelve hours). Like history itself, the great scenes of epic historical theatre are played the first time as tragedy, the next time as farce. (Romulus has been a completely inactive Emperor, living in retirement on an estate. His great passion has been chicken breeding, and his chickens are all named after predecessors on the Imperial throne. He eats their eggs for breakfast, and when they don't reliably lay any longer, the chickens for dinner. The previous evening it was Caligula.)

I'll stop here describing the play, since you might as well discover its qualities yourself. Don't wait as long to read it as I did.

The other play in this collection is The Visit, though I'm pretty sure from his introduction that the editor Volkmar Sander would have preferred that it be The Physicists:

"Of far greater weight and of comparable stature to The Visit, though not quite so popular. . . is [The Physicists], written in 1962"

Do you get the same feeling I do, that this is an editors indirect protest at an inclusion/exclusion imposed upon him by a publisher? For personal reasons I think it's unfortunate The Physicists wasn't included here, because I've read The Visit more than once, but i've never been able even to find a copy of The Physicists elsewhere. Not only that, the one time it's played in Toronto friends and I missed seeing it because we were too new to the city and couldn't find our way to the theatre 'til well past the first intermission. Bugger.

One of Durrenmatt's great metaphysical satires in detective novel get up, The Judge and His Hangman, is included as well, and two fascinating essays, 'Problems of the Theatre' and 'A Monster Lecture on Justice and Law'.

"We writers are often reproached with the idea that we are nihilistic. Today, of course, there does exist a nihilistic art,
but not every art that seems nihilistic is so. True nihilistic art does not appear to be nihilistic at all; it is usually considered to be
especially humane and supremely worthy of being read by our more mature young people. . . People call nihilistic what is merely
uncomfortable. People are now saying that the artist is supposed to create, not to talk; to give shape to things, not to preach.
Certainly. But it becomes more and more difficult to create 'purely' or however people imagine the creative mind should work.
Mankind today is like a reckless driver racing over faster, ever more heedlessly along the highway. And he does not like it when
the frightened passengers shout: "Watch out," and "There's a stop sign," "Slow down," or "Don't kill that child!" Moreover, the
driver hates it when someone asks who is paying for the car or who's providing the gas and oil for this mad journey, to say
nothing of what happens when he is asked to show his driver's license. After all, unpleasant facts might then come to light. . . "

--pp 259-260, "Problems of the Theatre"

November 16, 2008

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

I've been reading Hemingway's complete short stories just to see if I'd been judging him too harshly all these years. It appears I haven't been judging him harshly enough. What kind of mass hypnosis are the people under who insist Hemingway innovated a lean, economical style--'the Iceberg style', which was named 'multum in parvo' in Ancient Rome and described a style thousands of years old even then? 'A Reader Writes' is one and three quarter pages long, and only the letter embedded in it is necessary to tell the story; the frame device is a laborious description of the letter writer deciding to write to an advice columnist in the newspaper, followed by an even more laborious account of her thoughts after writing the letter, none of which adds anything to the thought process already revealed in the letter. It would be a slight enough story even at half a page, but that's its correct length, and it's typical of the percentagest in more serious, and lengthier, stories such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. On average his best stories are about twice as long as they should be if his aim is any degree of concision.

I'll grant you though that it's hard to say in some cases how much overwritten a story is because his other consuming vice, a persistent mislaying of tone and emphasis, makes it difficult to know what was intended, and therefore what the natural length of the story might have been. 'A Natural History of the Dead' starts out promising, and might have turned out remarkable if he'd kept to his initial idea--describing the battlefields he's witnessed from the laconic, emotionless perspective of a scientist, a satiric technique that if well handled produces a mood the opposite of detachment (see Swift's A Modest Proposal). Alas, unlike Swift, Hemingway is concerned to make it impossible for literal-minded readers to think badly of him as coldblooded, so he keeps breaking in with sentimental effusions. The flaccid floundering this occasions is not pretty to watch:

"Most of those mules that I saw dead were along mountain roads or lying at the foot of steep declivities whence they had been pushed to rid the road of their encumbrance. They seemed a fitting enough sight in the mountains where one is accustomed to their presence and looked less incongruous there than they did later, at Smyrna, where the Greeks broke the legs of all their baggage animals and pushed them off the quay into the shallow water to drown. The numbers of broken-legged mules and horses drowning in the shallow water called for a Goya to depict them. Although, speaking literally, one can hardly say that they called for a Goya, since there has been only one Goya, long dead, and it is extremely doubtful if these animals, were they able to call, would call for pictorial representation of their plight but, more likely, would, if they were articulate, call for some one to alleviate their condition."

The sentimental overwriting, far from taking you viscerally into the pity and horror of the scene, has the opposite effect--blocking even an effective picture arising in the mind's eye (sure, I can do Ernest bloated too).

Goya understood multum in parvo far better than Hemingway ever did. Find a well-printed copy of 'Los Caprichios' and take your mind off this bloated nonsense.

November 14, 2008

Groucho Trilogy (a modest revue)

Down below (ratatatatata)
Down Below(ratatatatata)
Sat the devil talking to his son
Who wanted to go
Up above(ratatatatata)
Up above(ratatatatata)
But the Devil said listen lad
Listen to your dear old dad

Stay down here where you belong
The folks who live above you don't know right from wrong

To please their kings they've all gone out to war
And not a one of them knows what he's fighting for

'Way up above they say that I'm a Devil and I'm bad
Kings up there are bigger devils than your dad

They're breaking the hearts of mothers
Making butchers out of brothers
You'll find more hell up there than there is down below

One can only speculate on the reasons Irving Berlin was embarrassed every time Groucho Marx--the only one who ever did--sang this song. It's as bold, imaginative, witty and daring as any lyric he ever wrote, but perhaps as his success waxed with the ongoing years he lost the desire to be, or to have it thought that he ever had been, daring. Groucho in a letter incorporated into the memoir Groucho and Me told Berlin that with all the great songs he'd written, he could afford to have it known that he'd let slip the odd turkey, but anyone who's heard his heartfelt rendering of it in An Evening With Groucho Marx, the Carnegie Hall concert, will know Groucho's real sentiments. He thought it was a great song that should be kept alive in people's memories. He was happy at every opportune moment to sacrifice the hundred dollars Berlin had promised to pay him each time he didn't sing the song. I think it'd be better for the world at large if this song and not White Christmas were his best known and most often recorded number.

This is one of many stories told in Groucho and Me (but I've gone to the Carnegie Hall concert for its rendition of this lyric. The quoted version in the book, and in the lryic sheet on Google, is less concise, so I suppose Groucho's rendition is a lyrical collaboration between the two. A good many of the same stories are retold in An Evening With, some of them more succinctly. It's in the book however that he developed the easygoing memoir style that (along with about a dozen great songs) drove the Carnegie Hall concert, and about a third of the book is just as good and didn't get into the concert. About a third of it would have been worth trimming, but two thirds of a fine book is two thirds more than you can find between most book covers.

In Groucho and Me he says the two films the Marx Brothers made with Irving Thalberg were their best, but in later years the first film that came to mind when interviewers posed the question was 'the war picture'--Duck Soup, which I think was far and away their best film but what do I know? I missed a golden opportunity to sell Enron stock at its highest posted value, just before the bottom fell out. What stopped me was that I didn't own any Enron stock, otherwise I'd have made a killing.)

The Groucho Letters is more uneven, but there are quite a few comic high points, some from other correspondents such as Fred Allen and Harry Kurnitz. A letter about attaching a remote control to his television to mute commercials seems prescient, even more so one to the President of Chrysler urging him to stop advertising speed so much and start advertising (and improving) auto safety and reducing carbon monoxide emissions. Ralph Nader didn't get around to tackling this subect for at least another decade, but then he'd have been in High School when this letter was written.

I've only begun Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, but so far it seems a slighter book than Groucho and Me.

I have a friend in Hollywood... I think I do, but I'm not sure. [laughter] His name is Harry Ruby [applause] and he wrote a lot of songs that I've sung over the years...
Today, Father, is Father's Day
And we're giving you a tie
It's not much we know
It is just our way of showing you
We think you're a regular guy
You say that it was nice of us to bother
But it really was a pleasure to fuss
For according to our mother
You're our father
And that's good enough for us
Yes, that's good enough for us

November 5, 2008

The Days Ahead

From a Toronto Star report by Royson James (Nov 5) on election night in Selma, Alabama:

" 'I just feel overjoyed that God let me live to see this day--after the long struggle we had,' says Alice WEst, who alone registered 300 voters here at a time when that could get you killed.
'I just wish my husband (Lonzy) were here. He'd be so proud. He was in jail for the movement almost as many times as we slept together.' "

I'm quietly optimistic. I do hope the Messianic expectations being attached to Obama blow over quickly, because 1) a Messiah is a bad enough leader in an autocratic society--it's just about the worst leadership model possible in a democracy; 2) hopes keyed well above the possible might dangerously fester on contact with the inevitably plodding pace of change.

Some changes, particularly in domestic policy, might happen very quickly with a Democratic majority in the house and senate as well as the White House, but I don't know how long it'll take the most dedicated administration to wean the U.S. from its most dangerous foreign policy delusion. Obama may not even more than half agree with me on what that delusion is, but I expect he'll talk a great deal less than George Bush did about the War on Terror, and if he keeps his word will end the most disastrous phase of that war, the occupation of Iraq. He won't come right out and say, even if he believes, that the War on Terror has been a bountiful gift these past seven years to militarists, weaponeers and terrorists the wide world over, and far from containing the threat of terror has dramatically increased it. (Bin Laden if you'll remember endorsed John McCain. Or whoever that was presenting himself as Bin Laden--has there been serious voice analysis recently I wonder?) What he will do I hope is gradually help America's citizenry withdraw from their highly hyped Fear Fix.

Look at what's happened since 9-11--what has actually worked, not in some cases, not in most cases, but in all cases to prevent terrorist acts, contain terrorist cells and save actual lives? Dedicated police work backed by solid intelligence. The intelligence was available to head off 9-11 if infighting among the intelligence services hadn't prevented it being taken seriously. Has the war in Iraq prevented a single act of terror? No, it's provided a fertile breeding ground for terrorist action and training ground for tomorrow's terrorists. And reconstructors.

What we can rationally expect from the beginning is a President who realizes other nations exist, and doesn't use preemptive strikes the way he once used whiskey and cocaine--that's enough to be going on with for starters, and after that we'll see.

November 4, 2008

Congo Situation

The photos were taken by my neice Ula on a recent working trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a happy and remarkable trip during which she worked with a number of local companies on dance and theatre workshops and studied the work of Congolese companies. It was a tremendously inspiring trip, she made many remarkable friends, and she's profoundly concerned about the crisis beginning to well up there again. The BBC stories she cites are a good place to start if you want to know more about the current situation, and the photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale is one of many sources for more background on the situation, as is an article in the Independent from May 2006. The photos say a great deal about the beauty of the land and its people.

Subject: Trouble in DRC Congo

Date: Sat, 1 Nov 2008 12:38:51 +0100

I am very worried about the situation in Eastern Congo -
The area where I visited this summer, which was enjoying
a relative moment of calm has since become flooded with refuges
descending from the North where rebels are fighting, threatening to
start a next civil war.

The friends I visited in Goma who run an art center say their
building and grounds are becoming a refuge for friends and
young people who live on the outskirts of town.

I hope recent diplomatic efforts will end the fighting
and the displacement of thousands of people.

You can read these links for more information:

My prayers are with those in Goma!