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.