OUR TOWN

David Cromer's Off-Broadway production of Our Town, at the Barrow Street Theatre in Manhattan, has been getting lots of press attention and some extraordinary reviews.  Frank Rich in The New York Times devoted a very insightful column to it, relating the play and this production to the profound crisis of spirit currently afflicting the nation.

mardecortesbaja is happy to offer this equally insightful report on the production by Paul Zahl, who was lucky enough to see it last week.  Cromer's staging ends with a startling coup de theatre which Paul discusses in his report and which you might not want to know about if you're planning to see the show, so I've segregated that passage on a separate linked page.

If you weren't planning to see the show, and if you're within striking distance of New York City, I think Paul's report, and Rich's thoughts, might get you to reconsider:


                                                                                   [Image©Scott Prior]

PILGRIMAGE

by Paul Zahl

Wednesday afternoon I took the Vamoose bus from Bethesda, Maryland to the Port
Authority in Manhattan and arrived basically in time to take the subway down to
Christopher Street for the 7:30 performance of
Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre.  It was a pilgrimage for me, because I am
influenced just now by the wisdom of Thornton Wilder (below) and had heard a
lot about this particular production.



 


Charles Isherwood had written in
The New York Times of a “. . . surprise Mr.
Cromer springs — a beautiful feat of stagecraft
that transmits the essence of Wilder's philosophy with an overwhelming
sensory immediacy.”


Terry Teachout had written in
The Wall Street Journal, “I don't use
the word 'genius' casually, but Mr. Cromer may fill the bill.”


Moreover, Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder's literary executor who is a
friend here in the Washington area, had blessed the production.  'Tappy' has seen almost every
production there is or ever shall be.



 


So . . . a brief stop by a West Village video store that specializes in
movies like
From Hell It Came and The Black Sleep (which has the
only discussion of the difference between Presbyterianism and
Anglicanism to occur in a 1950s “B” horror movie — no kidding) and then
straight into the theater.


 


I don't want to talk about the initial staging — in which the actors are
set within the audience, in and through the side and transverse aisles,
and at one point are even asked to read lines of the play.  I had seen
this before.


 


But I would like to reflect on the meaning of the play, as a pilgrimage
to me, which the staging finally makes possible.  Act One of
Our Town
is full of the gossip and interplay of the people of Grovers Corners,
New Hampshire.  It presents two families, the Webbs and the Gibbses, as
they are in mid-career, going about their business with what we today
call “decency”, love for one's immediate family, and some elements of
Christian sympathy.   The “theme song” of the play is established in Wilder's use of
the hymn, “Blest be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love”.
There is also a tragic character, Mr. Stimson, the defeated alcoholic
choirmaster of the First Congregational Church.

Director David Cromer ups the emotion of Act One by universalizing
the characters through their everyday 2009 casual clothing and by
getting the actors to show their inward lives through concentrated
facial expressions and some intense action in pantomime.  Thus Mrs.
Webb and Mrs. Gibbs reveal their inner drives through stylized, driven work in their kitchens.

You know you're being gotten to when young George Gibbs breaks down as the result of his
father's oblique and rather mild scolding of his son for neglecting his
chores at home, at the expense of his mother.  George goes completely to
pieces with remorse, and it is so like an adolescent boy!  What I am
trying to say is that Act One goes for the inward life of the
characters and is not content with the outward words and situations. 
There is no sense of our being in the year 1910.  We are rather in
2009, with every family's unhappiness and missed opportunities in the
field of love.


                                                                                                
[Image©James Estrin for the NYT]

 

The text of Act Two goes a big step further as the
inwardness of Emily and George's wedding is brought out in their
tortured recriminations with their parents in the church.  It's Wilder
writ large.  This is to say that Emily's entrance into the church is
her “inner” entrance, and George and his mother , perfectly portrayed
by Lori Myers, act out his resistance with no mediation between thought
and act.  This is absolutely wrenching — the unhappiness and also the
initial nobility of every marriage that has ever taken place.  The
blistering Stage Manager, played by Scott Parkinson, 'preaches' here a
little, and that is correct, as he is now playing the Minister.  Again,
everyone is in street clothes of the year 2009 so there is nothing
local or 'contextual' to draw the audience away from the universal
situation.  If I had any criticism at all of the direction, I would
lodge it only and solely at the conclusion of Act Two, where Mrs.
Soames' comments about happiness are underscored a little too much.


 


Now for Act Three, the famous Act Three, the Tibetan book of the dead. 
I never liked this act, speaking personally, because it seemed too
bleak, as if there were no real or warm heaven.  (Note that William
Cameron Menzies, director of the later
Invaders from Mars, designed
the canvass of the dead in the Hollywood version of
Our Town, with
William Holden and Martha Scott.   It is the high point of that film,
the dead standing, not sitting, on an autumn hillside.  The hillside
looks like the one Menzies designed for
Invaders, and that's an
organic connection in the history of film.)


 


In any event, I was now beginning to anticipate a “surprise”, about
which all the reviewers had written.  I assumed that it would probably
have to do with George's grieving gesture at the end of the Act, which
has been staged in many different ways since the play's first
performance in 1938.  Was George going to assume a crucified position
as Alec Guinness did at the end of the original Broadway production of
The Cocktail Party, which my mother saw and has never forgotten?  Or
might Emily come back from the dead, as she did in the filmed version
of the play — a change that Thornton Wilder himself approved?  What
was going to happen?

[Click here to find out what does happen in Cromer's production — those of you who might see it and don't want to be forewarned of the surprise are advised to skip this section and just read Paul's conclusion below.]

 

I have sometimes said in talks and sermons that psychology explains
everything, and psychology explains nothing. 
Our Town embodies this
view of life, that the inwardness of the characters explains
everything, that the outwardness of life escapes everyone, and that we
are all actually waiting for a time when, to quote the title of an
early 'compressed play' by Wilder,
The Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead
“And tell me about your identity then, Mrs. Smith,” the Stage Manager says in Act Three.


 


The Barrow Street Theater production of
Our Town, performed in the
late Winter and Spring of 2009, is a religious masterpiece.  I wish I
could preach this message.  I have tried to do it, and failed almost
completely.  I am trying to do so still.  It is a theme that can never
be exhausted.

Paul Zahl is a preacher and theologian, and dedicates the above essay to Mary McLean Cappleman.

OUR TOWN COUP DE THEATRE


                                    
[Image©James Estrin for the NYT]

I noticed first that the dead characters were all facing different
direction in the space.  They weren't lined up in rows, but were at
angles with one another.  I noticed too that when the stars were
mentioned — and here Wilder sounds like Spinoza, whom he loved, and
Thomas Carlyle, whom he does not mention — the characters all looked
up as one at the sky.  All of them are sitting there looking for
something.  The play states this, and the director has gotten all of
the dead characters to stare in front of them, slightly up, with faces
of intense, determined concentration.  They are not resigned nor are
they really at peace.  They are looking forward.  They never deviate
from this, except when they look up, as one.

 


Then Emily takes her famous fantasy journey back to the morning of her
16th birthday.  (Here I begin to cry even as I write this.)  And then
the surprise happened.  I wasn't ready for it, I wasn't looking for it,
I wasn't expecting it.  I didn't even realize it was happening — until
I smelled something.  Bacon and eggs!  A curtain in the back of the
theater opened, revealing the morning of Emily's birthday, but this
time… the characters were in period dress, the kitchen was decorated
and fitted exactly as a kitchen would have been in 1910, and the snow
was falling outside the kitchen window and the sun was rising, with its
beautiful rays penetrating and lighting up the scene.  This time, no
exaggerated gestures, no 'inwardness' at all — just a family breakfast
on a beautiful winter's morning, with real bacon and eggs being cooked,
and Mrs. Webb looking as if she had stepped out of an old family
photograph.  What is going on here is the physical beauty and
historical specifics of a day in the life, a concrete day in the life
— and the characters are completely lost in it.  No inwardness, no
'feeling', no reflectedness; and yet all the unnoticed loveliness of a
Spring morning in Chevy Chase, or on Macomb Street with Brutus the dog
and an overnight seventh-grade blood brother.


 


Thus when Emily gave her famous speech — 'Goodbye, Grovers Corners' — she
did not turn to the audience, nor even to the poignant, vivid, colorful
scene before her (hitherto, all the actors had been in grays and browns
and blacks, all muted and blending into each other.) Rather, Emily
turned inward and bowed her head and turned away from the audience, and
grieved for what she never saw.  And then the Stage Manager bade us
good night, and the lights went out.  Fade to black.


 


What I take this all to be about is exactly what Charles Isherwood said
in his review for the Times — “… a feat of stagecraft that transmits
the essence of Wilder's philosophy with an overwhelming sensory
immediacy.”  It's not just the bacon and eggs — it is the alienation
of human existence.  We neither see what's happening on the surface nor
do we see what's happening below the surface.  The characters in the
breakfast scene at the end of the play are completely unaware of the
beauty and actual lyricism which exists all around them.  The
characters in Act Two are aware of the emotions underlying everything,
but not of any “God's-eye” cutaway that is required for the meaning of
those events to be understood.  The characters in Act Three  are
looking forward — there is a little teleology here and I was reminded
of John Steinbeck's 'loss of teleology' in his mid-career — but to
what?  They are certainly not looking backward.  The dead have, to use
Kerouac's phrase, 'retired from Samsara'.  They don't 'like it' —
Wilder's line — when the living come to call on them on their windy
hill.  They are definitely not looking backward.  And they are so far
from the particularities of the winter light of a 16th birthday, and
the 'odorama' of the memory, that Emily can barely express her loss, so
absorbing and consuming it is.

Back to the main body of Paul Zahl's report on David Cromer's production of Our Town (scroll down for the conclusion).

SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE SIX)

The sixth page of “Serum To Codfish
Cove” by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which
Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.

More thrills and spills for Donald as Barks introduces a third line into his hurtling narrative.

I'll be
posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to
Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.

CASINO CARPET GALLERY


                                                                                                                               © David Schwartz

David Schwartz, professor of gaming studies at UNLV and author of Suburban Xanadu, has posted a section on his web site devoted to
photographs of casino carpets. For those who love casinos, the images
can be strangely evocative, since these are the magic carpets that
transport one to realms of hope and desire and degradation, silently
and largely unobserved. They are busy, silly, slightly insane — as
befits the places they adorn.


I have never consciously noticed the design of the carpet from the El
Cortez pictured above, but I know it subliminally — it brings back the
smells of stale cigarette smoke and beer and well-handled coins that
pervade the place, a place that always makes me sad . . . but in a good
way.



The mere image of the carpet almost brings a tear to my eye — and t
he very idea of a casino carpet gallery is just unspeakably cool.


Check it out here:

Casino Carpet Gallery

SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE FIVE)

The fifth page of “Serum To Codfish
Cove” by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which
Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.

Nice transition into the dynamic action sequence above, in which the panel borders get bent out of shape along with Donald.

I'll be
posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to
Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.

D. H. LAWRENCE ON MOBY DICK

A hunt. The last great hunt.

For what ?

For Moby Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary,
monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath,
having so often been attacked; and snow-white.

Of course he is a symbol.

Of what ?

I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.

— from Studies In Classic American Literature

Image by Rockwell Kent.

MEMORIAL DAY: THEY ALSO SERVED

General Grant's horse Cincinnati, photographed at City Point, Virginia in 1865.  A fine looking animal — one of the unsung heroes of America's wars, from the Revolution to Afghanistan, who worked and suffered and died in service to the nation.

Remember them, too.

The image comes from Shorpy, an extraordinary site that presents vintage photographs in high resolution.

THE LIFE OF THE MIND: CEILING ZERO

Check out Tom Sutpen's Illusion Travels By Streetcar for a brilliant, though ultimately depressing, parody of academic film writing.  Sutpen channels the voice of Prof. Thomas Marlowe, “chair of Film and Media Studies at Tait College
in Culver City, CA, and author of the groundbreaking 2003 study If I
Were King: Identity Politics, American Cinema and the Emerging
Framework of Global Patriarchy, Ur-Fascism and the Foundations of
Radical Monetarism and Ideological Order in the Era of the Hollywood
Studio System: 1935-1937
(published by Produit d'appel Press).”

The professor offers some comments on Howard Hawks's Ceiling Zero.

Sutpen's parody is depressing because it's harrowingly close to actual academic film writing.  Prof. Marlowe's work could get published by any number of academic presses today, who would not read it, of course, because like much academic prose it is unreadable — some editor would simply note the phrase “Global Patriarchy” and think, “This Prof. Marlowe is one of us”.

The blogosphere is creating its own style of bloviation about film — a combination of Augustine's Confessions and the Cahiers du Cinéma style at its most antic — but one can still detect a human presence behind most of it.  The academic style could be created with a not-very-sophisticated computer program, one that generated ideological catchphrases and embedded them in barely grammatical English sentences unconnected to each other by either logic or common sense.  Prof. Marlowe has got the method down pat:

For any transformative reading of Hawks that is sufficiently
diversified in application to be of critical interest in the context of
Ceiling Zero, his systemic use of patriarchal symbology can be defined
by film theorists in such a way as to oppose the capacity of any
underlying conclusion. I suggested in my book that these results would
naturally follow from an assumption that the descriptive power of
images is, apparently, determined by a system of neural sensation
exclusive to genres. One consequence of this approach, which I
outlined, is that a critical intuition is necessary to impose an
interpretation on seemingly irrelevant contexts. Comparing the
theoretical usefulness of
Ceiling Zero in comparison to Red Line 7000
and
The Crowd Roars, we see that the critical foundations developed
earlier suffice to account for that conclusion as it applies to any
rational understanding of cinema.

SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE THREE)

The plot thickens in this third page of “Serum To Codfish
Cove” by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which
Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.

I'll be
posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to
Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.

THE GREAT EAST RIVER SUSPENSION BRIDGE

The one New York landmark that never failed to astonish and delight me, however many times it presented itself to my view in all the years I lived on the island of Manhattan, was the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's one of the most beautiful and dramatic structures ever created.  Writing in Harper's Weekly on the occasion of its opening, in 1893, architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler said:


It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable
monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote
posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not
a palace, but a bridge.


The image above is by Currier and Ives.

SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE TWO)

The second page of a story published in 1950 called “Serum To Codfish
Cove”, by the legendary Carl Barks, found on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which
Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.

I'll be
posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to
Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.

SERUM TO CODFISH COVE (PAGE ONE)

The legendary Carl Barks drew Donald Duck comics for about 25 years starting in 1942.  He didn't have a spectacular graphic style — what he did have was a stunning narrative efficiency, great imagination and irresistible charm.

This is the first page of a story published in 1950 called “Serum To Codfish Cove”.  I found it on Rodney Bowcock's Comics and Stories blog, which Mr. Bowcock has sadly just abandoned.  It was a great site.  In his introduction to this story, Mr. Bowcock observed that it would have taken another comic-book artist at least twice as many images to tell the same tale.  In Barks' hands it just flies along, without ever seeming rushed or abbreviated.  It's also great fun.

I'll be posting the whole thing (ten pages in all) as a tribute to Barks and to Mr. Bowcock, whose blog will be missed.  I wish I'd taken the time, back when I had the chance, to tell him how much I enjoyed it.

VAN ALLSBURG AND PARRISH

I'd never really noticed it before but Chris Van Allsburg's illustrations seem to owe something to the black-and-white illustrations of Maxfield Parrish:

Same diffusion in the surface treatment, same bold modeling of solid forms beneath it.  In terms of composition, Parrish was attracted to tableaux, which gives his images a flavor of the theater, while Van Allsburg uses more dynamic angles emphasizing spatial depth, which feels more cinematic.