Salad days

Edited January 29, 2020

Yesterday I was delighted to find in my mailbox Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture, Megan Vaughan’s survey for Methuen Drama of that peculiar critical pursuit in which I played some small part from 2003 through 2010 or so under a variety of titles, primarily Superfluities Redux but also this eponymous journal. I can’t imagine there will ever be a more reliable history of the period: Megan’s done her homework, and rather astonishingly she must have spent years tracking down so much of my writing, little of which I’ve taken the trouble to preserve. She has also been a theatre blogger herself, and her prose is delightfully light-footed as she traverses the international canvas that we bloggers smeared our paint across in those halcyon days.

Not that I didn’t wince on occasion, but that’s hardly her fault, and the selection she made from my own blog is characteristic enough of my writing at the time. The tidal wave of the past didn’t sweep me off my Proustian feet as I paged through the book, but when Megan says on the first page of the introduction “The theatre blogosphere has made a more significant and far-reaching contribution to theatre — its practices as well as its profile — than anything else in the twenty-first century” — my gosh, I’m not so sure we were up to that.

What we were primarily up to, I think — Laura Axelrod, Isaac Butler, Mac Rogers, Garrett Eisler, Matthew Freeman, Rob Weinert-Kendt, and the rest (all of whom are well represented in Megan’s book) — was explaining ourselves to ourselves, each other, and whoever else might find us of interest. We could go on at whatever length we liked, and our comments sections invited responses that were sometimes more illuminating than the original posts themselves. It was a virtual community, and like any passionate community, it generated argument, good will, friends, collaborations, enemies, and interested bystanders. And where are they now? Well, burnout was always a risk; a lot of us have families and kids, which generate the need for earning a decent wage and cut deeply into the keyboard time; for some of us, passions have shifted; for others, there are new opportunities. (For me, the blog led to brief stints writing about theatre for the New York Times and the Guardian.) And Ben Brantley, as he was back in 2003, is still the lead theatre critic for the New York Times, and Jim Nicola is still the Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Workshop.

I still have warm feelings for all of these people, and am proud of whatever we were able to do at the time, but in the U.S., at any rate, there doesn’t seem to be much of a blogosphere of any kind any more, for theatre or anything else; Twitter and Facebook have marginalized the individual voice into closed, monetized systems, parasitic on our privacy, that permit us to block or unfollow anything we disagree with, while we bloggers let it all out into the open, whether our readers were in our “friends” or “followers” lists or not. Happily, Megan reports in her book that things may be different in the U.K. Blogging as a critical form continues to have a life there, as well it should. The landscape’s far different now — and thank god that the form is far more heterogenous than it was when we started out, all those cisgendered white middle-class people with university educations. Ultimately, it is to be wished, the young newcomers from across the spectrum will lead criticism and theatre itself to newer and more hopeful horizons.

A few days ago, Megan groused a bit that I’d retired so much of my own material from those salad days, but it seems a lifetime ago. Some of the material I deemed worth keeping around is still available; there’s Word Made Flesh, a collection of several essays first published at my theatre blog and, though it’s now out-of-print, I’d still sign my name to it; and these notes on Richard Foreman, I feel, are substantial enough to keep in the archive. In print, I also contributed to this collection of Foreman plays and this collection of essays about Howard Barker, a quite different animal indeed, who also drew my critical attention at the time.

Foreman retired from theatre making about the same time I retired from theatre writing, and given the great impact his theatre and theory had on my own sensibility and temperament, I suppose that’s no surprise. I’m not sure what I’d write about drama and theatre now, these many years later, and sometimes I’m curious as to what I’d say. But a tip of my hat to Megan, who reminded me that once I had a great deal to say indeed.

Sanity kit for January 2020

A few fragments I’m shoring against my ruins this month (my apologies to T.S. Eliot for cribbing line 431 from The Waste Land). I’m hoping to meander through these in this space soon, I promise:

A toast to … 2020

Cafe Katja.

From all indications, it looks like Americans and the human race generally will be even more idiotic in 2020 than they were in 2019. Stupidity and hatred will fill Facebook and Twitter feeds at the speed of light (literally so, with all that fiber optical cable), never mind its encounters in the flesh, and to me laughter is a healthier response to all this than tears and the gnashing of teeth, second only to stupidity and hatred as the sentiments that flow through the internet.

So any list of resolutions put together in the twilight of this year may be at the same time a strategic defense plan for next year. Any personal resolutions of mine are none of your business, but here at my internet lemonade stand, I plan to be selling more writing about the great Mark Twain; perhaps his only real satiric descendant, R. Crumb; the great American music of the past and my continuing efforts to learn the guitar to play some of it for myself; and whatever barricades I can shore up against the flood of imbecility we’re in for in 2020. I do continue to bear in mind, by the way, that I contribute my own stream of imbecility to that flood; I’m not that different from anybody else. As Twain once wrote, “Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect.” That goes double, perhaps triple, for me.

So here’s to you, my four regular readers, with my wishes for a tolerable 2020; that may be as good as we’ll get. Let’s work together on our jokes; I’ll be working on a few, as usual, over my semi-official New Year’s cheer this Friday at Cafe Katja. See you on the other side.

“Useful, with a pleasant degree of humor”

A gentle reminder that you still have a day or two to prepare for the new year with the purchase of your 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac, North America’s oldest continuously published periodical, now in its 228th year. Since its founding by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, the almanac has proven indispensable, and you can still find in it a wealth of information about the weather, gardening, herbal remedies, snappy household tips, your pets, tides and the moon, and 1,001 other topics. Issued from the bucolic haven of Dublin, NH (which looks to me like a pretty attractive place to live right now), the Old Farmer’s Almanac still comes with a small hole drilled in the upper-left-hand corner, making it convenient for hanging in your kitchen or any other appropriate room of your house. It is as much a hymn to nature and simple living as Thoreau’s Walden — and a damn sight more useful. Other information in the 2020 edition, according to the publication itself, includes:

  • Noise: why it’s bad for our health and how people — since the beginning of time — have been fighting against it.
  • 20/20 for 2020: Eye-catching insights on this optical year, including an eye test to see if ancient people would consider you an elite warrior.
  • What the size and shape of toes says about their owners.
  • Donkeys, their extraordinary memories, and their link to the world’s most expensive cheese.
  • Why the best-trained dogs have the best-trained humans. Plus: Top 10 Halloween costumes for furry friends.
  • Unlocking the mysteries of weather extremes by looking to the Arctic.
  • Growing flavorful tomatoes in a fraction of the space. Plus: the best day to eat a tomato!

Pick up your copy today at your local general store. And if you have a moment, learn a little about the history of this fine publication below. (Those who wish to learn a little more about that history can enjoy George Lyman Kittredge’s The Old Farmer and His Almanac, published in 1904 by William Ware and Company of Boston and available online here.)

Santa Claus’ letter to Susy Clemens

The mantle of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, decorated for the Christmas season.

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone.

Mark Twain’s Christmas prayer, first published in the Boston Globe on December 25, 1890, is also mine, but on the eve of my next visit to the Mark Twain House next week, I also wanted to pass along his “Letter from Santa Claus,” written for his three-year-old daughter Susy in 1875. The letter was likely written in the billiard room/study of the Hartford mansion on Christmas Eve of that year and demonstrates the warmth of Sam Clemens’ love for his family; it’s been kicking around the internet for a while, but there’s no time like the present to read it one more time.

I’ve just finished reading Life on the Mississippi; after a few years of enjoying Twain’s writing in a haphazard fashion at best, I’ll likely make a resolution on New Year’s Eve to read and write more about it in the coming year. For now, though, Santa Claus to Susy Clemens, 144 years ago.


Palace of St. Nicholas
In the Moon
Christmas Morning

MY DEAR SUSIE CLEMENS:

I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown peoples’ alphabet, you used the characters that all children in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use; and as all my subjects in the moon are children and use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your and your baby sister’s jagged and fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you and the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself — and kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice mannered, and about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letter which you dictated there were some words which I could not make out for certain, and one or two small orders which I could not fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls has just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star away up, in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star and you will say: “Little Snow Flake,” (for that is the child’s name) “I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.” That is, you must write that, with your own hand, and Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light and thin, for the distance is great and the postage very heavy.

There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be “a trunk full of doll’s clothes.” Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody and I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen doorbell rings, George [Griffin, the Clemens’ beloved butler] must be blindfolded and sent to open the door. Then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet and take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tiptoe and not speak — otherwise he will die someday. Then you must go up to the nursery and stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed and put your car to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen and when I whistle through it you must speak in the tube and say, “Welcome, Santa Claus!” Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not. If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color and then you must tell me every single thing in detail which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say “Good-by and a merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens,” you must say “Good-by, good old Santa Claus, I thank you very much and please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star tonight and she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay window; and every fine night I will look at her star and say, ‘I know somebody up there and like her, too.’” Then you must go down into the library and make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, and everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon and get those things and in a few minutes I will come down the chimney that belongs to the fireplace that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want — because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery chimney, you know.

People may talk if they want, until they hear my footsteps in the hall. Then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my footsteps at all — so you may go now and then and peep through the dining-room doors, and by and by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room — for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die someday. You must watch George and not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holystone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; and whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty and somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little sweetheart?

Good-by for a few minutes, till I come down to the world and ring the kitchen doorbell.

Your loving SANTA CLAUS
Whom people sometimes call “The Man in the Moon”