A certain … joie de vivre

Richard Foreman’s “Rhoda in Potatoland” (1975). Photo: Kate Davy.

Last night I was reading for pleasure Richard Foreman’s 1975 play Rhoda in Potatoland (Her Fall-Starts). This is how I do most of my reading these days, for pleasure; there’s much to be said for recreation. Not that most people would consider the reading of Foreman’s densely-layered dramas to be much fun, though I do; certainly they’d celebrate the entertainment value of the plays he directs in the theater. But to me, Foreman’s dramatic texts have their own special pleasures, and Foreman himself has never insisted on the indivisibility of his own texts and the way he treats them for the stage. Indeed, he has encouraged other directors to take on his work. And of course, most of the plays he produced for his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre were published, inviting a readerly approach.

I suppose it’s a peculiar kind of pleasure. I wouldn’t call it intellectual; it’s more of a response one would have to a poem, operating on many levels simultaneously. In a 2008 interview with Julia Lee Barclay, Foreman said, “I think [my work is] very emotional. The thing I think about is feeling. Feeling can be emotional and it can also be intellectual. But it’s feeling, colors, sadness. There’s a lot of sadness in my work. It’s elegaic, realizing death is coming. You know, death is coming to me soon and that is certainly informing my work.”

Death always has informed Foreman’s work, but that’s not all that’s informed it. Life is there too, often delightfully. The conclusion of Rhoda in Potatoland, especially, celebrates the joys of the protean consciousness that he encourages (reflecting, too, his magpie approach to theater as well as experience itself). The same text reflects Foreman’s charmingly humble approach to experience, as well as a characteristic play on the words “body of knowledge.” I find it very comforting and cheerful this morning, and just about right:

But is it nonsense? You see, when I call upon my own knowledge, when I do that, it only shows me (my knowledge) the very tip of its wing. Is it therefore, as I had assumed, my knowledge?

I do not possess it. In what sense, then, do I call it my knowledge?

It is a body of information to which I have occasional, peripheral access. As opposed to other bodies of knowledge. But are there bodies of knowledge? Of course not. There are a composite of partial accesses (other people, myself at different times) and the overlapping of these gives the illusion of a body. Knowledge.

But what is it that is overlapping?

A certain … joie de vivre.


Friday roundup

A few items about William Gaddis flew over my transom this week: a recording of comments he made about religion and his novel The Recognitions back in 1994 and a recent essay about his novel A Frolic of His Own that appeared in The Millions. Marilyn is on her way to Paris next week to perform, among other things, a program of the music of Charles Ives and Ruth Crawford Seeger (a program she’ll repeat in New York in October), so she’ll unfortunately miss Metrograph’s screening of Elaine May’s fine Mikey and Nicky next Saturday, September 24.

Despite a flurry of interest in her music following the publication of Judith Tick’s biography in 1997, Ruth Crawford Seeger remains something of a well-kept secret — as, indeed, she was through the 1930s, when she flourished (to the extent that she ever did). Radicalized by the events of the Great Depression and a feminist, Crawford Seeger composed music that some critics said placed her in the front rank of American “ultramodernists” such as Charles Ives; later, she pioneered the research of American folk music (she was Pete Seeger’s stepmother), returning late in life to composition before her early death in 1953, when she was only 52 years old. Her career as a composer was marred by the sexism rampant in the American composition community of the time. Marilyn will be performing the Nine Preludes for solo piano; below is an excerpt — the first two movements — from Crawford Seeger’s best known work, the String Quartet 1931, performed by the Playground Ensemble.

I’ll be haunting the Hideaway later today; we’ll catch up next week.


A Philadelphia-style dark night of the soul

mikey-and-nicky-md-webOn your must-see list for next week should be Elaine May’s classic 1976 Mikey and Nicky, screening at the elegant Metrograph theater on the Lower East Side on Saturday, September 24. The story of two low-grade hoodlums on the lam from a hitman through a Philadelphia night, it features fine performances from Peter Falk (then best known as the trenchcoat-clad Detective Columbo), John Cassavetes (fresh from directing the 1974 A Woman Under the Influence, which starred Falk and Gena Rowlands), Ned Beatty, and New York acting legends William Hickey and Sanford Meisner. The film had a rather nightmarish production and post-production history, with May going overbudget and shooting far more film than Paramount, the studio, expected; eventually Paramount took the film away from her, then put it into limited release, thus burying it. Years later May restored the film and came up with a final version.

Mikey and Nicky is an often brutal meditation on betrayal and the impossibility of male friendship. The elliptical, broken dialogue and the seemingly casual, even clumsy hand-held camerawork obscure the tight, concise script and textured mise-en-scene — like John Cassavetes’ own films, it all seems improvised. Its precision, however, permits the expression of a dark, empathetic understanding of these two men, friends since childhood, and the film’s eventual tragic end.

Stanley Kauffmann called Mikey and Nicky “the best film that I know by an American woman,” a disservice to both Ms. May and the film: it’s certainly one of the best films by any American director, male, female, or other, and forty years have not tarnished its reputation; indeed, it grows in stature. I urge you to see it at the Metrograph on September 24. It is no longer available on any streaming services or on DVD (a 2004 DVD release from Home Vision Entertainment, now out-of-print, is going for over $100.00 on Amazon these days), a situation that I hope will be rectified soon. Cristina Álvarez López wrote about the film last year for Fandor:

A perfectly reversed rhyme frames the film, insisting once more on the vampiric bond between the two men, and pushing it to its most dramatic effect. Mikey and Nicky starts with a door that, after much hesitation and some violence, is opened, allowing the reunion of the two friends, welcoming the possibility of salvation. And, in a devastating, superbly constructed ending, another door is painfully bolted and barred: a blockage splitting the space, disjoining the bodies which, nonetheless, melt in a common disintegration. …

And from Jonathan Rosenbaum:

… May might be the least sentimental woman storyteller since Flannery O’Connor in her stark refusal to sweeten the pill. If her relentless realism evokes the epic sweep of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, her narrative still manages to cram a lifetime of troubled friendship, rivalry, money, and pain into the vicissitudes of a single night. And when women figure in the pivotal margins of this tragic tale, May is every bit as merciless as she is towards her two leads, whom she clearly loves as well as fears.

There’s also this from Richard Brody, published in the New Yorker last year. Below, a short excerpt from Mikey and Nicky:

William Gaddis, justice, and the law

gaddis_frolicA few months back, The Millions ran this perceptive essay by Greg Gerke about William Gaddis’s second-to-last novel, the rather neglected A Frolic of His Own. Well noted:

Gaddis’s propulsive style of writing blends the chilling admonitions of the great Russian novelists and T.S. Eliot with the evaporating social order seen in the late-20th-century America. He took the detritus of our age (TV and radio commercials, print ads, etc.), churned it about in his outraged mind, and delivered an art as timeless as the ancients, but obeying the oft-quoted dictum: Good artists copy, great artists steal.The book speaks to our moment, not only in terms of authorship, entitlement, and an oligarchy created by the corporate-political police state, but also because we are still the same people of ideology. However, now that we are armed with the technology to more easily harass and destroy each other, even Gaddis couldn’t anticipate how we easily we would cede our humanity for fame and fortune at other people’s expense.

Read Mr. Gerke’s full essay here.

William Gaddis on religion and The Recognitions

In 1994, William Gaddis delivered the keynote address at an International Writers Center conference entitled “The Writer and Religion.” The address itself was published in The Rush for Second Place as “Old Foes with New Faces.” In his introductory remarks, Gaddis discussed his own visit to a monastery, the tension between the “ascetic” and “aesthetic,” and one interpretation of The Recognitions as a Catholic work. It’s a rare chance to hear Gaddis’s voice, given his disinterest in interviews:

William Gass’s introduction of his old friend at the same conference is also illuminating: