Sometimes, all you have to do is flip the title and the author's name and -- you got something.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
"As the births of living creatures at first are ill-shapen, so are all innovations, which are the births of time."
From Of Innovations
Friday, December 6, 2013
It is just so easy to make fun of Nascar; the noise, the crowds, the meaningless devotion to speed. Then there's the bloodthirsty anticipation of flame-outs and fiery crashes. It's all just so awful, isn't it? Beneath contempt.
Now, admit it, queen. Much as we thrill to the perfection of the overture to Carousel, however unforgettable the night Tyne Daly opened in Gypsy, much as we treasure our rare Barbara Cook vinyl, for all of us who love musical theater unreservedly, there is also, always. a secret, blushing fascination with the flop. How can one resist the tales of what might have been, or better yet, what should never have happened?
Who among us hasn't paused to study the carnage of some unnatural disaster, stared spellbound at the collapse of some grand folly, marvelled at the waste and devastation of some truly spectacular mistake?
Among my theater books and Broadway memoirs, hard-by the wonderful Ethan Mordden histories, and my James Agate Egos, and the rest, I still treasure Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, by Ken Mandelbaum as a special favorite. (If you've not read it, do. The horror, the horror.) That book inspired a long and satisfying, if largely fruitless search for the original cast recordings of many an otherwise lost and unknowable show. It also gave me a taste not just for the neglected little gem, but also a new appreciation for the really Big, Bad Idea.
Just above, nine blue-thighed beauties at the Tony Awards. This photograph represents perhaps the only truly happy moment anyone connected with the show these boys were in ever experienced that night. Please note the obvious, healthy vigour, the pure, youthful innocence on those handsome faces, because this may also have been one of the few evenings when no one in this cast was not in a cast. Still, aren't they pretty?
When I saw the new book by the co-writer of one of the most notorious shows in recent Broadway history, I knew it was something I had to read. Truth be told, I've been waiting for this book for years, at least since I read some of the original press coverage, certainly since I first saw the hyphen in the title, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and knew there was something very, very wrong. Too true. Since I read the book, it's been announced that the show is closing on Broadway, and moving to Vegas. And there we are.
Glen Berger's new book is the story of one Big, Bad Idea after another, but the one that seems clearly to have led to all the others is right there. on just page twenty-three. It's the Spring of 2005. The author's just been hired on to write the thing, based on one rough scene, which even he admits he wrote on spec, in one night, as something of a lark. The producers liked it. He was in. Berger's long collaboration with the director and co-writer, Julie Taymor has barely begun. There is, as yet, no show. Berger has just met for the first time with the composers Bono and "The Edge" of U2, and as Taymor & Berger walk away from that rather heady encounter, Berger offers the following:
"Finally, I blurted out, 'You know, Julie, in a certain light, Spider-Man the Musical is kind of a ridiculous idea.'
Julie frowned, furrowed her brow, and said, 'Ridiculous? I don't think so. No.'
She wasn't just serious, she was solemn. I stammered out a 'Oh -- but I'm certain -- well, no, I didn't really think that either.' But now I was scared. I just assumed everyone thought this project was potentially ridiculous. Obviously it wouldn't be ridiculous by opening night, because Julie Taymor would make sure of that. But -- hoo -- was I really working with someone who hadn't once entertained the notion that perhaps a musical about Spider-Man was... just... you know... ludicrous?"
There it is. There's the show, the book, the whole sad story, as it were, in roughly one hundred words. Note the italics -- the dashes -- the ellipses...
To quote Glen Berger again, "hoo."
Millions of dollars and much, much later, on the very edge of Taymor being fired and Berger among others being sued by her, at least according to the author, the director herself will finally say something of the kind to her erstwhile collaborator; ridiculous indeed.
In his book at least, Berger is at some pains to give the lady, always, her due. If anything, he's surprisingly kind, even affectionate, if not obsequious, in his respectful portrayal of her here. Remember, by his own confession, he was an active participant in getting Taymor the boot. It's frankly a fascinating, perhaps unintentionally disquieting thing to read; all that kow-towing before, during and now after the fact to the genius of Julie Taymor.
What, if anything, Julie Taymor will ever say or write about this show, in Berger's book we have at least one side of a surprisingly complicated story. Complicated and no. It's true, there were entirely too many moving parts in this contraption, too many people with a stake in the show, and an opinion of it. Just moving all the dramatis personae on and off, even in just Berger's book, can be a bit of a chore. Nevertheless, from it's inception, the fatal flaw in this show would seem to have been in the collaborator's making of it in the first place.
It was, frankly, a dumb idea. Good shows have been made from less, and worse, it's true. As this book shows, if anyone might have made something from this particular nothing, it ought to have been Taymor. This, after all, is the woman who made The Lion King into a Broadway Behemoth, the great cash-machine that it is still. That was clearly the problem here, ironically enough. (Any discussion of that show, which I've seen and enjoyed royally, always reminds me of something another of Taymor's former collaborators, the actor and comedian, Mario Cantone said about it in his one man show on Broadway. The actor hilariously explained at some length why he turned down the chance to play Timon on Broadway, after creating the role in an earlier workshop. When his audience clearly expressed some shock at his bitchiness about this now beloved Broadway institution, Cantone, devastatingly, shrieks, "It's a PUPPET SHOW!") Perhaps then the Big, Bad Idea here, the point of departure for all the years of bad ideas to come, was not Spider-Man The Musical, while that is certainly bad enough, but trying to make of such a thing another Taymor spectacle; another inflated children's cartoon, decked in pennants and masks, and weighted with adult metaphor, in other words, another Lion King. What this show was perhaps always destined to be was what it will shortly become when it transfers to Las Vegas: Cirque de Spider-Man.
Berger bears a larger share in that than almost anyone else on "the creative team." He wrote the version that cut most of Taymor's more labored metaphysics and unworkable production numbers from the final show. Even he seems to find this betrayal almost as unforgivable as Taymor did. But then, unlike the lady genius, poor little Glen wasn't making Lion King money, or really any money at all until and unless this Spider-Man made it onto the stage and into the black. His ultimate justification for sticking it out and sticking it to Julie Taymor? His kids gotta eat. As arguments go, his is not without an obvious merit.
And now he's written his revenge, after a rather cringing fashion. For me at least, this last little betrayal was more fun than I might admit without blushing. Hope he's made some money at last. Hope Taymor does something more worthy of her talents hereafter. Hope all those adorable Spider-Boys can stay out of the hospital.
Hope the next guy to collaborate in a major Broadway debacle keeps such careful notes of the process.
Not that I'm hoping for a crash again, or anything.
Break a leg, everybody.
"A man in his short life can see but a little way ahead, and even in mine wonderful and unexpected things may have come to pass."
From The Lesser Arts
Thursday, December 5, 2013
December, and still no moon
rising from the river.
home from the beer garden
stands before the open closet
her hands still burning.
She smooths the fur collar,
the scarf, opens the gloves
crumpled like letters.
Nothing is lost
she says to the darkness, nothing.
The moon finally above the town,
The breathless stacks,
the coal clumps,
the quiet cars
whitened at last.
Her small round hand whitens,
the hand a stranger held
while the Polish music wheezed.
I'm drunk, she says,
and knows she's not. In her chair
undoing brassiere and garters
and waits for the need
The moon descends
in a spasm of silver
tearing the screen door,
the eyes of fire
drown in the still river,
and she's herself.
The little jewels
on cheek and chin
darken and go out,
and in darkness
staining her lap.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
This set of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne should look familiar to just about anyone who has ever browsed a used bookstore in the United States in the past sixty years or so. I must have seen them, all-together or in forlorn, stray volumes, in shops from Pittsburgh to Petaluma. Never much tempted to buy them. They aren't much to look at in their plain slipcases, with their brown spines. Prettier out of their boxes than in, I suppose, and well enough made as books, but... still.
This edition was published by the classic books club, Heritage Press, now defunct. It was the rather poor American cousin of the English Folio Society, and has aged not nearly so well. I've never collected Heritage Press. I never much cared for their mid-century, culturally aspirational, if ultimately rather suburban design. They tend to be the kind of big, busily illustrated books that always came in slipcases, with instructions, printed in a convenient pamphlet that could be read instead of the book. The kind of classics that have "IBSEN," and "SHAW" printed horizontally on the spines, and were meant to be stacked rather than shelved in otherwise sparsely decorated Danish-modern. This set of Montaigne, published in 1946, doesn't look much like those books, though no better for that.
I've now read Montaigne in a number of translations, from my dear Trenchman, in the old Oxfords I first bought thirty years ago, to the modern Donald Frame that usually stays on my bedside-table. Until I'd read those, I confess, I could never make much sense of the earliest English versions, like the wonderfully wild Florio (1603) and the more faithful if still antique Charles Cotton (1685 to 1700 or thereabouts.) Don't quite know what made me consider this Heritage Press set finally, unless it was the usual collector's itch for variant editions. But, I did finally buy the ugly old thing when it came across the Used Books Buying Desk at the bookstore where I work. The translation is by one George B. Ives, a name unknown to me, and seemingly to even the good Wikipedians, bless 'em. In my researches, I did find one curious item, among Google books; an advertisement from 1900, for the Neale Company's "Superb Library Edition of the Only Unabridged Translations of the Novels of Honore de Balzac." His Montaigne is dated 1925, thus contemporary with Trenchman's for Oxford. From the introductory matter in the Heritage Press volumes, I gather Mr. Ives was a Harvard man. That's nearly as far as I've got.
Except, for the rather surprising detail, also taken from the introduction, that this translation by poor Mr. Ives became somewhat notorious, when first published, as "the fig-leaf edition." Acting on the advice of Charles Eliot Norton, himself among other things, Harvard's first Professor of the History of Art, friend and editor of Emerson and Carlyle, and one of the last of the great New England Brahmans, poor old Ives was induced to expurgate all of the earthier passages of the great Montaigne. When the Heritage Press decided to reprint this "fig-leaf" edition in 1946, as they were prompt to point out in the introduction, they restored all the naughty bits, using E.J. Trenchman's translation! As I've said, poor ol' Ives. Here's a man whose publisher in 1900 could brag of as having made "the Only Unabridged Translations" of Balzac, now remembered, if at all, as the bluestocking who made Montaigne fit for Boston!
What's even more curious about the strange history of these books, is the fact that the one thing that did attract me to this set, now that I'd had a proper look at them, was the third volume, consisting of the translator's "Notes Upon the Text," but more importantly, "a series of Comments Upon the Essays by Grace Norton. " Now that, folks, would be Miss Grace Norton (1834 to 1926,) the sister of no less a personage in our little story than that stuffy old bird, Charles Eliot Norton.
That's Grace, right there, in a photograph probably taken sometime in the 1860s. There's a very good biography of her brother, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton, by James Turner, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1999. That's where I got the photograph above. From the same source, I learned the rough outlines of Grace Norton's life, which is a predictably circumspect narrative of devoted service and spinsterhood in which she proved something of a second mother to her brother's brood when his wife, Susan died after the birth of their sixth child. However, though her brother's biographer makes little mention of the fact, Miss Norton proved to be something more than just another Victorian auntie. She became in fact a respected literary critic and writer in her own right, and most interestingly, in her day, perhaps the most important scholar of Montaigne in the United States. Privately educated, with a particular appreciation for French literature, she did a fair whack at translating Montaigne herself, it seems, and wrote no less than three books on the great essayist. (Titles I think I may just have to have printed up for me on the bookstore's Espresso Book Machine, now I think about it.)
Of Ives' translation, now I've had a chance to read a bit of it, I can't say there's much to recommend it. Trenchman seems to me much smoother; less stilted and made up of better English altogether; both as to the choice of words and the structure of the text. As for example, the opening line of Montaigne's "Of Repentance", which Ives makes, "Of Repenting."
First, from Ives:
"Others shape the man; I narrate him, and offer to view a special one, very ill-made, and whom, could I fashion him over, I should certainly make very different from what he is; but there is no doing that."
And now E. J. Trenchman's translation of the same, in two lines:
"Others form man; I describe him, and portray a particular, very ill-made one, who, if I had to fashion him anew, should indeed be very different from what he is. But now it is done."
Where to begin? "Form" is better than "shape," "describe" is better than the rather eccentric choice of "narrate," "and portray a particular" is both better and nicer than "offer to view a special one," etc. Even that seemingly rather simple choice to have the new, brief, very conversational sentence, "But now it is done" makes far more sense as read than that last, very odd dependent clause in the Ives. The bays to Trenchman, I think, every time.
Oh well. Ives' notes seem quite thorough, if annoyingly packed away in this separate, third volume. Still, good to have. But really, the whole justification for having bought yet another edition of Montaigne in English, I have to say, must be the "Comments by Miss Norton" on each essay. These are wonderful! She is everything, it seems, that poor old Ives was not (though he must have been a nice man, as she was willing to help him with his translation and new edition, it seems, in any way she could, unlike her famous brother who would seem to have done the man nothing but harm.) In her "Comment" on the famous essay, "Of Experience," for example she briefly explains how the original title, De l'Exercitation uses a word "that has almost passed out of the French language." She goes on, "It is used by Montaigne not quite in it's Latin sense (one of its senses) of practice, but, rather to signify the result of 'practice' -- experience. And he did not propose to write of 'experience' in general, but of the experience of death." That's a better summary of this famous essay than I've ever read -- not that she doesn't go on to discuss it further, she does. She also answers, with delightful common sense, the great puzzle of this most famous, and famously rambling essay, when she states, "... the subsequent pages have nothing to do with death. They are another Essay -- and a most admirable and interesting one..." perfectly true, and perfectly charming example of plain, Yankee wit.
I could stand a great deal more of that than was provided by the Heritage Press. As for Ives, I haven't much use for his translation, his fig-leaf, or for the man who suggested it, the great, Charles Eliot Norton. Old bore. But dear old Aunt Grace? Her, I want to know better.