Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In the Bleak MidPinter & Rossetti's Poem

The Homecoming changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just the vessles of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defense. Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken.

John Lahr, The New Yorker

But like most great art The Homecoming operates on a mythic as well as an immediate level. It insists that some shadowy part of you is part of it. It burrows under your skin and festers.

Mr. Pinter, you see, knows where you live.

Ben Brantley, The New York Times

Then he knows I live about 60 blocks away from the current Broadway revival. Lahr and Brantley’s writing about this happening homecoming was so compelling that I bought myself a ticket to the Boxing Day matinee.

It was not a life-changing experience, but I am very happy to have seen Ian McShane onstage. He is a solid, self aware actor. He knows where to locate, where to center his character, and that makes him a compelling artist to watch. I am a huge Deadwood fan, and loved the perfect match-up of Swearengen and McShane. He certainly calls on some of the territory he explored through Al in his portrayal of Max, his much less successful Brit cousin.

Brantley has a very clear review of the revival here.

I do not know Pinter’s works, so let me offer a fresh, nonacademic perspective. The story in a nutshell is this: an English philosophy professor working in the US brings his English wife to London to visit his family, whom she has never met, and she decides to stay there, as wife, mother, and whore to his 2 brothers and father. In generous terms, it’s an updating with sly twists on a Levirate marriage, if we want to throw some Old Testament its way; well, the wife is named Ruth.

Max, the patriarch, has three grown sons, whom we’ll call Hewy, Dewy, and Louie—-taking our cue from Pinter’s playful nature—-and a brother, Uncle Donald, of course.

When we first meet Professor Hewy and his wife Ruth, she is a bit catatonic. When they run into brother Louie, she wakes up and starts to flirt with him when Hewy has gone up to bed. Shades of things to come.

When Max first meets Ruth, he’s abusive, relentlessly calling her a whore, a scrubber. Hewy stands up for her, finally convincing the family that she is his WIFE, the mother of their three children. Oh. Then. All is sanctioned, all is well.

Until . . . Ruth alludes to her life before her marriage, before she met Hewy and had her children. She tells Louie she had been a model-—no, not of hats.

It’s a quick, slippery slope to her making out on the couch with Dewy, while Max, Uncle Donald, Hewy and Louie look on. Hewy is now the catatonic one, glued to his chair. Stage to black. When we come back, Hewy is still in that chair, Dewy comes downstairs—he’s been upstairs with Ruth for two hours,

When she comes down, Max and the boys have hatched a plot to ask her to stay with them, rather than returning with her husband to their children. She’ll have to pull her own financial weight; no problem, Louie is a pimp and he can get her work for four hours a night for bread and milk money. That way she’d have her days free to service them, and cook, and clean.

Ruth decides to stay—-she negotiates terms she wants. Hewy says goodbye, he can manage their kids as Ruth takes her place in Max’s chair, now the center of this London family.

It’s a funny play, in a discomfiting way. Ruth enters this house of losers, and decides she can be queen. Anything to save her from the life of an academician’s wife. That is pretty funny.

But it’s also bleak, that marriage could be so repressive that a woman would walk away from her family so easily and into such a bizarre situation.

There are hints that it’s the mendacity of our lives that causes such psychic damage to relationships. Uncle Donald reveals a secret, that Max’s wife and best friend were lovers before they died.

Besides the hints that Ruth’s pre-marriage life was promiscuous, I think there are hints that Hewy isn’t really a professor of philosophy. In Act 2 brother Louie starts teasing/grilling him with some psycho-babble questions about the nature of reality and the logic of Christians tenets. Hewy isn’t able to retort at all. He keeps saying something like “that’s not my province.” If he had Ph.d in philosophy, he would at least be able to psycho-babble back in kind. And there are people who think Hewy and Ruth may not be married, because Hewy restates it SO many times.

One reading of this little tale is that the lies need to be exposed in order for the characters to start to return to health. Hence Ruth “wakes up” and takes control when her true nature is uncovered. (Keeping in mind that that "true nature" is Pinter's fantasy.)

This made me think of Dennis Potter, a challenging playwright whose work I do know. He took this idea to a further extreme in his 1976 Brimstone and Treacle. Pattie, who is brain damaged in a car accident, is brought back to consciousness when she’s raped by Martin Taylor, the young man whom her parents let into the house. Martin is likely Satan, the Devil incarnate, and so we see that evil is conjured by all the lying surrounding Pattie’s accident, including her father’s adultery.

Pinter doesn’t have that sense of evil in his house. It’s just Max and the ducklings being clods, as my grandmother might have called them. The story is told with remarkable economy of line, both verbal and visual. It is a good night at the theater.

And the Original Rossetti Poem to Song

English carol singing was much enriched in 1906 when Gustav Holst set a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti to music. In 1909 Harold Darke reset it as a more complex anthem, one of the most beautiful of all time.

This arrangement is Bob Chilcott, and sung by my very own choir at Ascension Roman Catholic Church in NYC, under the direction of Preston Smith.

In the bleak mid-winter / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone;/ Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/ Snow on snow, / In the bleak mid-winter / Long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him / Nor earth sustain; / Heaven and earth shall flee away / When He comes to reign: / In the bleak mid-winter / A stable-place sufficed / The Lord God Almighty, / Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim / Worship night and day, / A breastful of milk / And a mangerful of hay; / Enough for Him, whom angels / Fall down before, / The ox and ass and camel / Which adore.
Angels and archangels / May have gathered there, / Cherubim and seraphim / Thronged the air, / But only His mother / In her maiden bliss, / Worshipped the Beloved / With a kiss.
What can I give Him, / Poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd / I would bring a lamb, / If I were a wise man / I would do my part, / Yet what I can I give Him, / Give my heart.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Verbum Caro Factum Est

‘Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the blog,
holiday cheer was stirring,
Or was it the nog?

I heartily recommend making this a participatory post: go mix up a batch of nog for yourself. Here is a top recipe. By using Hagen Daz as the base, you don’t have to get all the milk and sugar together yourself.

•Let 1 pint of vanilla Hagen Daz ice cream melt
•beat 6 egg yolks until they are thick and light
•fold the yolks into the liquid ice cream
•slowly pour in 1 cup brandy, until a smooth base results

•let the base rest overnight in the refrigerator

•to serve, stir in 1 cup heavy cream. Garnish with grated nutmeg.

And so we have come to the yearly night of the dear Savior’s birth. Hmm. Nonsequitur? Maybe more Latin will help.

Verbum caro factum est/ The Word was made flesh

Et habitavit in nobis/ And lived with us

et vidimus gloriam ejus/ and we saw his glory,

gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre/ the glory as of the only-begotten by the Father

plenum gratiae et veritatis./ full of grace and truth.

The “holiday season,” whatever that generic, consumer, institutionalized idea is, has a life—-make that an overblown life—-all its own. It builds through shopping days, now beginning back at Halloween, stopping first at Hanukkah. Then on to Santa’s visit and an even more generic idea of the beauty of winter, where snowflakes are the important motif. Then the celebration of the New Year, when we finally get clear of it all.

If, along the way, the "holiday season" encourages someone to actual cheer or kindness or generosity, then it has some meaning.

As a Catholic, I have to say the whole December experience is increasingly dismal. “MACY’S Santaland and the tree at Rockefeller Center notwithstanding, many New Yorkers are not celebrating Christmas,” wrote Seth Kugel in the New York Times. Good grief. I know Santa and big trees are cultural artifacts of Christianity, but they are not the celebration of Christmas, though for some they have become the end unto themselves.

There is a great throw-away line in the Wikipedia entry on Christmas, that it has a “dual status as a religious feast day and a secular holiday of the same name.”

That’s really it. Two very different things that have the same name.

The secular holiday, in my view, has run amok.

The religious feast, which is a solemnity, is still to mark the birth of the Redeemer of the human race who became Man out of love for a suffering people in great darkness.

Happy to report that the nog recipe works for everyone across the holiday spectrum.

For practising Christians, I offer Cantique de Noel, which captures all the hope and potential for life that entered the world in that manger.

Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels' voices!
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born;
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night Divine.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Friday, December 21, 2007

"Too Many Christmas Trees": An Allegory for Our Times

We have all now heard of the Dad in California who took his 3 kids to find the perfect Christmas tree, got turned around and discovered they were lost. Seriously lost. In peril for their lives lost.

This story is one for the books in so many ways:

“They had left the Paradise Pentecostal Church of God about 2 p.m. Sunday and drove up to the forest with a saw, light clothing and soft sneakers. After searching for an ideal tree and cutting it down, Dominguez said, they headed the wrong way and reached an unfamiliar road. They turned back, but before long Alexis was exhausted, he said. That night, they huddled close under the branch awning." (

So—-they leave church, near the town of Paradise, no less, and on their way home, they almost meet their maker.

“CHP pilot Steve Ward and flight officer David White found the family after spotting the word "help" stomped in the snow, Hagerty said.“

No one believes this when it’s in a movie.

They were in that culvert for THREE NIGHTS. (No Christian symbolism there.) The rescue effort was first hindered by one snowstorm, and the California Highway Patrol was on their last pass of the evening, because of another storm, when they saw the HELP in the snow.

It is a testament to the instinct for survival that they came through this ordeal to enjoy hot chocolate at the hospital.

One side of me likes this comment left by someone on the site, after a string of mawkish platitudes:

"This stupid futz of a father hauls his innocent children out into the mountains to kill a tree for Baby Jesus. He exposed them to mortal danger for this stupid custom ----- which derives from Germanic paganism.

Good luck, dad, in the ensuing custody battle with your ex.

As far as axing trees ----- how about we DON’T kill something for Jesus?

And, don’t even get me started on Santa."

But there is a point to this tale that haunts me.

The kids had on light sweaters and sneakers because they were just going to make this little pit stop after church, chop down a tree, and be on their way.

They didn’t realize that their reality was changing, imperceptibly, at first. If we were making a movie for Lifetime, this scene would be so easy to shoot: the kids run from one tree to the next: “Oooh, this one,” “No, no, this one” zigzagging to yet a more beautiful pine “Ahh, this” one—-until they turned around, and it was as though the trees, for a sinister purpose all their own, had moved and cut off the path the family had taken. (Hmm, not being able to find the path in the wood. Dante, anyone?)

What changed by tiny degrees was now an almost incomprehensible situation. They went from cutting down a tree to facing the hour of their death. We make assessments all the time about how complex or difficult what we want to do is—-hence the kids stopping by the woods on a snowy evening in sneakers.

Their tale vividly depicts how fragile that fabric of our lives is. Every day our reality can change instantaneously. In our own blog family we were reminded of this when Dennis Perrin’s sister-in-law was murdered in a random act of violence, and Blue Girl’s beloved cousin died. The fact that most days we don’t experience seismic shifts can lull us into complacency.

But seismic shifts don’t only occur around death—-they happen in the office and personal relationships, where one day the imperceptible changes take horrible shape in the form of a divorce or a project that crashes and burns.

We can try to be as alert and self aware and guarded a possible, but sometimes we’re just looking at that next scotch pine, and thinking about where we need to be later, not appreciating that our “later” may be in a very different place than we planned.

Well, Steed and I are planning on watching The Avengers, "Too Many Christmas Trees," one of our very favorite episodes. Right after I just hop down to Gristedes to buy some popcorn. I don’t need a coat, or my purse, I’m just running across the street . . . . .

Saturday, December 8, 2007

"Lyrics I Write of You . . . "

Having a broken ankle has changed my morning routine. The boot is heavy and uncomfortable enough to make the crowded morning subway too difficult to negotiate. When I can build in an hour of travel time, I take 3 buses. Otherwise, I take a taxi. It’s wildly outside of the budget, but I’m not going to Europe in the near future, and so it’s my travel money that I see quickly ticking away on that meter.

I don’t like taxis. Too many drivers aren’t very good at their job, the stop and go traffic is maddening, and I end up at work rattled before the first morning fire.

Then every once in a while . . . .

The other morning I had a lot on my mind. I got into a cab, and the first good sign was that the driver knew that the all-around best way to get from the Upper Upper West Side to dead midtown is to take the South Drive through Central Park. Many drivers think it’s just a scenic route, but the smart ones know it’s the way to go. So when my guy turned left on 100th street to head into the park, I knew I was in good hands.

He had the radio on low, playing some sort of Swing music. It was happy and engrossing, and I asked him to turn it up. The tune filled the cab and was heating up as we merged into the South Drive.

The Northern part of Central Park is very terraced and the road winds into the terrain beautifully. On this overcast December morning, the air looked slightly silvery, with the last of the late autumn gold and russet leaves punctuating the grey scenery as we grooved along.

This guy was a great driver, and I was actually enjoying the whole experience, when the song ended and the next sound was THE downbeat.

There are just a few songs that I can name in one note. “Thunder Road” is one, and Bunny Berigan’s “Can’t Get Started” is another.

The downbeat of "Can’t Get Started" makes my spine tingle. Written by Vernon Duke, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, it belongs to Berigan. I know every note of that piece, every breath place and embellishment of the solo. I love the words; they makes me feel connected to every thought about man/woman there has ever been. I love Berigan’s casual, easy voice; I love his diction.

I've flown around the world in a plane
I've settled revolutions in Spain
And the North Pole I have charted
still I can't get started with you

It makes me think of my father, who first introduced me to the song when I was very little, and who warned me against Sinatra’s updated lyrics.

On the golf course, I'm under par
Metro-Goldwyn have asked me to star
I've got a house, a show place
Still I can't get no place with you

Cause you're so supreme
Lyrics I write of you
I dream, dream day and night of you
and I scheme just for the sight of you
baby what good does it do

I've been consulted by Franklin D
Greta Garbo has had me to tea
Still I'm broken hearted
Cause I can't get started with you

I’m always swept away by the time Berigan starts the last verse runs. And it was no different in this cab, driving through the woods of Central Park in the middle of our neurotic concrete, at the beginning of a day that was going to have a lot of headaches, absolutely none of them important. It was a comforting moment because it was random. I could carry an iPod and program the song for any ride, but I like to let the universe be the cosmic DJ.

Berigan died in 1942 when he was 33 from alcoholism, straight cirrhosis of the liver. That’s a lot of pain. But 65 years later, he’s giving a lift to two New Yorkers just trying to make it through the day. These musicians, man, they are no mere mortals.

Please listen. And enjoy J.B. Handelsman's New Yorker take on the classic.

The West Drive of Central Park at West 70th Street. (Photo: Susan Farley for The New York Times)