B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



April 1962

Poetry and Song, French and American
Religion and the Enhancement of Life
Our Ailing Symphony
Golden Gate Park
Casals and Strindberg
The Lamentable Cuisine of Los Angeles
Splendid Ballet
The Atomic Arms Race
Damn Yankees and a Casals Oratorio




Poetry and Song, French and American

Sitting down to write this column, I am a little tired because I have been busy for the last few hours putting together a show for the San Francisco Poetry Festival coming up June 21. I think we’ve got it shaped up. I hope so, because it is a scheme dear to my heart.

As everybody knows, the great trouble with American poetry is that almost nobody reads it. In recent years a movement for the oral presentation of poetry has spread from San Francisco over the country. Any poet of any reputation at all with sufficient stamina could now make a good living on the college poetry reading circuit. The schools have discovered that it is one of the most popular, as it certainly is the cheapest, assembly programs they can get.

This is all to the good, but still it is a limited and specialized audience. After school is over and the kids have gone out into the world, there surely isn’t much poetry lying around.

A few years back Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I revived the reading of poetry to jazz. It was very popular, and very successful. In no time at all we found ourselves in the big time of the entertainment business, seriously considered as a brand new gig in the pages of Variety. And then the Beats pulled the rug out from under us. Soon every Greenwich Village and North Beach bistro had a barefoot bearded boy reading free verse doggerel to a pawnshop saxophone. That was the end of that.

There is another way of doing it, though. The average person who listens to Edith Piaf, Juliette Greco, or Germaine Montero does not realize that the majority of the numbers on most of their records are by very well known poets indeed.

In the middle of the last century the French poet Charles Cros (who incidentally invented the phonograph) was himself a café chantant entertainer. Yvette Guilbert made Ronsard’s sonnet “When you are old and seated by the fire” a popular song. Aristide Bruant, whose café was immortalized by Toulouse Lautrec, wrote a whole batch of songs that are possibly the greatest poems of low life ever written. Germaine Montero sings them on an Angel Record. Brassens, the lyric social satirist, one of the most popular entertainers in France, is an excellent poet. No contemporary satirical poetry in English can remotely compare with his.

Not only do the singers write poetry, really poetry, for their lyrics. The leading poets of France are sung in cafés chantants and night clubs. Apollinaire, Eluard, Prévert, Queneau, Cocteau, Desnos, Jacob, Cendrars, Aragon, Mac Orlan, Carco — the leading poets of the last generation — I have heard them all sung in clubs to typical melodies of the café idiom.

The younger people are carrying on the tradition even more vigorously. One of the most enjoyable records I have is the harpist and singer Douai singing songs by the editor of Poésie, Pierre Seghers.

If we could only get something like this started in America maybe we would have a breakthrough into a vitally interested adult audience. There is no point in putting down the environment as beneath the dignity of poetry. What is wrong with American poetry is that almost everything imaginable is beneath its dignity. Homer and the troubadours sang for audiences not a whit different. The medieval Goliards were out and out barflies.

It’s the other way around. The problem is to find poems by American poets that say something to people who are not literary specialists. Sex, candy and bloodshed, the subjects that interest the widest audiences, interest few poets, or it they do they keep quiet about it. Most contemporary poets write complicated poems about how hard they find it to count their thumbs.

Anyway, I have gathered up some typical café songs by major French poets, and got a jazz musician to write some “club tunes” to some modern American love poems, and got a pretty and melodious girl to sing them. It should be a gas, and best of all it should be foolproof. You have to have some sort of skill all along the way and I don’t see how it can be invaded and destroyed by the human airedales.

If it goes over, maybe we can move it to the Eye or the Onion and after that who knows, maybe we’ll have started a sounder and more enduring craze than the late lamented “poetry and jazz.”

[April 1, 1962]



Religion and the Enhancement of Life

During most of last week I was conducting a seminar at Big Sur Hot Springs on “Religious Restatement in an Age of Faithlessness.” A subject to which we found ourselves returning again and again was the role religion plays in the enhancement of life. Perhaps this is its primary role, if we confine ourselves to people’s behavior rather than to their beliefs about why they behave, religiously, the way they do.

Certainly all religions, even atheistic ones like Buddhism, deal with the ultimate significance of life. So does philosophy. But religion embodies significance in acts, in responses of the whole man. Philosophy reduces significance to notions. So the total response of religion transfigures life in a way philosophy does not.

The arts do this too, but in a different way. They adorn life, but they do not demand commitment. Bach or Cézanne, you can take them or leave them alone.

One of the things we are always being told is that in our modern secular society, this enhancement of life is withering away. Discussing this question during five days of intense conversation, I think some of us began to wonder if this were in fact true.

Because Christianity arose in a period of disillusionment, alienation, life tedium, “failure of nerve,” so many religious apologists seem to believe that if they can just convince us that we are living in the same kind of time, we will all join up.

There is no question but that we are living in a period of widespread social disorder. There are groups and tendencies in society headed all too obviously toward disaster. There are millions of people who are hopeless, frustrated, frightened. It seems to me there is a difference. We know it. This is a highly self-conscious age and its very self-consciousness is a powerful corrective.

I once shocked Vance Packard severely by pointing out to him over lunch that he was himself a hygienic device of the Madison Avenue he has devoted himself to exposing.

Similarly, religious leaders like Niebuhr, Tillich, Maritain, Dawson, Buber, Berdyaev are not broadcasting to us from another planet. They are themselves highly articulate members of the same society where nerves are failing and lives are tedious. They are all demanding that we might have life, that we might have it more abundantly.

Such a demand is meaningless if it is not widely accessible. Then it is not a demand, but a pious hope.

Before you can enhance life, you’ve got to have it, at least in considerable measure. Today in America and Europe, in the very society that is supposed to be disintegrating, men are well enough, well educated enough, and possess enough leisure to begin to ask the important questions in very large numbers indeed.

I doubt if they were any better off in the “Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries.” Then, too, we are self-critical enough to seek for the sharpest questions.

On her deathbed, Gertrude Stein asked, “What is the answer?” Nobody replied. After a bit, she said, “What is the question?” and so died.

[April 4, 1962]



Our Ailing Symphony

Each year when the time comes round when I should, as a critic responsible to the community for which I write, say something about the San Francisco Symphony, I become mute, autistic, negativistic. I withdraw. I shirk. Little waves of anxiety pass over me like hot and cold flashes. A couple more years and it may give me a full-blown breakdown.

George Szell’s letter has made the job a mite easier.* At least I too can say, “I am under the impression the Emperor doesn’t have any clothes on,” without fear that I am delusional. I’ve talked to musicians, in the Symphony and out, I’ve talked to other conductors. I’ve talked to guest artists, actual and potential. And I’ve talked to what remains of a steady audience. Maybe I am hallucinating, but if so a lot of other people are, too.

The reason I say this is that almost every week I read things about how never before was Beethoven’s Sixth given a reading of greater mastery, never before was nobility of expression pushed to greater heights, and I begin to think there is something in this theory of the fourth dimension. I seem to have gone to some other concert, in some other time and place.

Any piece of music that has any importance at all must have, before all else, two characteristics. It must exist as a whole. Not only must it have a beginning, a middle and an end. It must start at the beginning, go somewhere, say something, stop after having said it. Following from this unitary conception, it must have its own characteristic expression, its reading, its necessary interpretation. There is wide variation possible here, but however wide, it is variation within clearly defined limits. This is what jazz musicians mean when they talk about “swing.”

The greater a work of art, the richer its possibilities of interpretation. There are many ways of swinging Mozart, but they all differ from the way one reads Palestrina or Sousa. This grasp of a unitary conception and its convincing interpretation is the primary job of a conductor. Anybody can beat time, and a metronome can do it better than a human being.

When an orchestra doesn’t know what it is expected to say, and doesn’t know how it is expected to say it, everything falls apart. What happens ceases to be music and becomes an excruciating nervous ordeal. No art provokes more empathy than music; it influences our bodies directly; our response is a kind of hidden dance. If a lot of horns and fiddles tootle and saw for a couple of hours, all at cross purposes, the result is complete physical frustration in the audience. They come away twitching with unfulfilled expectations, like conventioneers from two hours of strip-tease.

After months of symphony going, this is precisely how I feel. I find it almost impossible to believe that every Thursday night could be, without exception, a positively unpleasant experience. It doesn’t matter that almost every concert features a guest soloist. It doesn’t matter that the musicians keep their eyes averted from the podium and cue off the concertmaster. Even the most powerfully willed guest conductors find themselves unable, in the time at their disposal, to buck the deep-seated demoralization.

I have gone this year out of a strong sense of duty, and believe you me, it has had to be strong.

The audience has been under no such compulsion. It has voted with its feet. The Oakland Symphony is booming. All sorts of people, including the gentleman I always refer to as my sentimental and sardonic colleague, have discovered that if they want to hear symphonic music, they had best cross the Bay. Chamber music concerts are jammed. Frustration seems to have actually increased the demand.

The audience at the San Francisco Symphony is dwindling away. With it is dwindling support. San Francisco is not the Renaissance court of François Premier. No one man can support a whole symphony orchestra single-handed. No one critic, however respected and learned, can persuade people they are hearing things they are not. This is a symphony, not a séance.

The prospect before us is pretty grim. Not only can’t we go on another year this way. We have got to turn around in our tracks and undertake a long, grueling regimen of rehabilitation. Faced with the present situation, the greatest conductor that ever lived could not work miracles overnight. His problems are not going to be just musical, they are going to be therapeutic.

[April 8, 1962]

*The San Francisco Symphony had been in a bad way for several years under the conducting of Enrique Jordá, but the problem came to a head with this letter from the great conductor George Szell. “Engaged as guest conductor for two weeks in spring 1962, Szell walked out after the first week, plainly dissatisfied with the orchestra’s condition, despite the musicians’ sincere efforts to raise their performance levels to his exacting standards. Of course a polite cover story was offered and the whole thing might have blown over. Alas, a local critic took it upon himself to write Szell a chiding letter which elicited a blistering reply — published in the Examiner — condemning the orchestra’s condition as `the saddest state of musical affairs I have encountered in any American or European city during the almost fifty years of my active conducting career.’ ” (Scott Foglesong, “Transition Years at the SF Symphony”)

Golden Gate Park

Last Sunday I took the children bicycling in Golden Gate Park. San Francisco weather has only a vague relationship to the calendar. It was a full summer day. All the world was out. The cherry blossoms were blooming, everything was bright and new.

I never cease to wonder at Golden Gate Park. There are certainly no public parks in the Northern Hemisphere to compare with it. Kew Gardens, the Bois de Boulogne, the Pincio, look small, worn and starved in comparison. The great Chicago parks have size, but they are unimaginatively landscaped.

The mixing of dark and light, slender and round trees, the interplay of lawn and foliage and water, the long vistas and sharp details — these are unequalled by anything I have ever seen.

In my young days, bicycling through the park, I used to come on little John McLaren, only slightly larger in fact than his memorial statue, directing the sawing of a limb or the planting of a clump of bushes. What an extraordinary art his was. Music flows by in a continuous present. When the poem or picture is finished, it is there for all to see and enjoy, including its creator.

McLaren designed Golden Gate Park with visions of beauty in his mind that would not come into full realization until a generation after he was dead.

I often wonder if I am unjust, but it seems to me that the nobility of McLaren’s conceptions is slowly being eroded. Bit by bit civil servicitis and the itch of immediate demands gnaw at the integrity of what is, we too seldom realize, one of the world’s great works of art.

If highway engineers proposed to draw a narrow line of concrete across Rembrandt’s picture of his brother, there wouldn’t just be a frightful outcry. Everybody would agree they were demented and they would be put away.

I can’t imagine anything more absurd than sacrificing a park, of all places, to the demands of the automobile. A good many people would probably agree that we’ve allowed the highway engineers to destroy far too much of the park already, and we shouldn’t allow them any more destruction.

But how about no automobiles in the place at all? Last Sunday the traffic of cars was so dense that it seriously interfered with all the other uses for which the park had been designed.

Horseback riding has been made so complicated and expensive that it is hardly worth the trouble, and, for youngsters, who whatever their skill must ride in guided parties, no fun at all. Bicycling is forbidden on the paths, and on a clear Sunday, dangerous on the roads. The restaurants are gone these many years.

Maybe I suffer from old timeritis. Still, I’m glad I won’t live long enough for children, marching around some niggardly open space amongst 200-story skyscrapers, to get a breath of fresh air and be initiated into the delights of walking with one’s legs, to paused in their serried ranks and ask, “Grandpa, tell us what it was like before the population explosion.”

[April 11, 1962]



Casals and Strindberg

An eventful week. Adele Addison with the Oakland Symphony — this young woman not only has a voice of wonderful power and lyricism, but she is possessed of the most extraordinary skill in manipulating it. I know of no one else who can sing modern, close to unsingable music with such an air of effortless abandon. In addition, she has both beauty and brains — possibly it’s the latter that is responsible for the fluent skill.

Casals with the San Francisco Symphony — and what is there to say? I’ve said it before. In my opinion this man is the greatest living artist, interpretive or originative, in any medium. He is as great as Stravinsky, and greater than Picasso. Part of his greatness depends on his executive power, his absolutely unintimidatable delivery of himself. Mostly, however, I think it is the result of a nobility of the soul we hardly expect to find in our naughty age, but identify with the heroes of the remote past. When he speaks, in words or music, it is with the accents of one of the grander souls from the pages of Plutarch.

Dinner at Orestes — when I am going to something at the Civic Center, this is where I find it most convenient to eat: Orestes or L’Alouette.

Orestes always reminds me of the Lapi in Florence, and I imagine that is just what the management intends. The food is largely Florentine in style. The service is skillful and unobtrusive. A man plays “Lili Marlene,” “Arrivederci Roma,” “Ciao, Ciao, Bambino,” and similar lovely, syrupy, Old World corn on the squeeze box. The atmosphere is an excellent American imitation of the sort of high-class grill frequented by Tuscan bankers and brokers and traveling opera stars.

Specialties of the house are frog legs sauté, medallion with wild rice, rolatine à la Oreste, chicken Toscana. Joe Piccinini, the host, is easy and affable and considerate. As a matter of fact, for years food in Florence has been sliding downhill, or down the Arno, and you’d be hard put to find many restaurants as good in that tourist trap.

The Dance of Death at the Encore. Shaw said it was the greatest play ever written, which is just Shaw. There’s no disputing that it belongs high in anybody’s list of the Hundred Best Plays.

As the years go by, Strindberg rises in everybody’s judgment to the position of unique greatness in modern drama. Who is to compare with him? Possibly only Chekhov. Certainly not Pirandello, and not the inhuman Shaw. How right Strindberg was to insist that he was a far greater dramatist than Ibsen!

The Dance of Death is a stark, unadorned presentation of the marriage of irrational and irreducible hostility that is one of the besetting illnesses of our age. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the impact, which is as direct as a bullet. Once again we are dealing with “executive power, unintimidatable delivery,” and this is one of the qualities that makes Strindberg so great, and gives him a nobility Ibsen can never approach. Sure, I know he was mad as a hatter. For long periods of his life any doctor would have diagnosed him as a rather advanced psychotic. Nevertheless, behind the destructive paranoia and ungovernable rage that ruined his personal life, as an artist he somehow managed to live in a world of compassion and magnanimity that was almost saintly. And what an artist!

The tempo of The Dance of Death is kept going steadily, and advanced and retarded, a hidden melody of torment that these three people play on their lonely island in one sordid room. Hundreds of little dramatic refinements, like notes in a symphony, are worked into the texture with a skill that never falters. This is a play that beats — like a tortured heart.

The Actor’s Workshop people give it their best. I first saw it before the First War when I was a little boy. At the time I wondered if life was really like that anywhere. Now, middle-aged, I found their interpretation completely convincing. Life is like the play, yes, but the play is heartbreakingly like life.

[April 15, 1962]



The Lamentable Cuisine of Los Angeles

Santa Monica. — When I was a boy, before I had ever come west, I remember reading a column by O.O. McIntyre in the Chicago Herald and Examiner which went something like this:

I am staying at the most expensive hotel in Los Angeles. Across the street is a push-around cafeteria run by too elderly ladies who are Christian Science practitioners in their spare time and, out of the goodness of their hearts, provide the citizens with a complete 25-cent plate lunch.
       In curiosity I wandered into the cafeteria and ate a lunch. I was amazed to discover that the food in the hotel was indistinguishable from the food in the cafeteria. The only difference was that the elderly ladies provided colored toothpicks.
       Then, day by day as we visited Chinatown and Italian restaurants and Mexican restaurants, I discovered that all the food in southern California, as in London, is perfectly indistinguishable, whether it is labeled suey gow or chili con carne or Poulet Kiev of Blue Plate Special. The only difference is, some is thick and some is thin, as in steak or soup.

So I was in some measure prepared for the wonders of the high cuisine of the Southland when I came to man’s estate and visited it myself.

The remarkable thing is that, despite the explosion of gracious living that has erupted all over the American landscape on the shores of the illimitable river of gold that irrigates all our other-directed life — nothing has changed south of the Tehachapi. It is still all one Blue Plate Special.

What is it? Does the smog destroy the taste buds? It is certainly not the heritage of the Middle West. For the epicurean magazines and the wine fanciers’ guides have penetrated the wide-lawned homes of Fort Dodge and Osceola.

In fact, as in England, where all publicly purveyed food, whatever the label, is really a species of shepherd’s pie, it is quite possible to get a decent meal in the decent obscurity of a private home — even the homes of the brilliant lights of the industry sometimes serve genuine comestibles.

I think columnists owe a responsibility to the public. Periodically we should issue warnings, like the Weather Bureau. After all, people do visit Los Angeles totally unprepared for the flavorless sybaritism of the Post Modern World.

Be not misled by French or Italian or Chinese names or by waiters in white ties. Best prepare yourself by a month’s strict regimen in the standard dishes of the Automat or Foster’s. When it says “mahi mahi” or “beef Stroganov” or “chicken gumbo,” don’t believe a word of it. It’s all made by mad scientists out of soy beans in the cellars of the Rand Corporation.

Oscar Odd McIntyre, across the obdurate waste of the years, I salute you!

(P.S. As a matter of fact you can eat well in southern California — at $30 a plate. A number of such boîtes have sprung up of late years.)

[April 18, 1962]



Splendid Ballet

Gee whiz! What an opening for the season of the San Francisco Ballet! Not only have they surpassed themselves, they have surpassed my expectations. I have had three criticisms of the company — provincialism of décor and costuming, conservative taste in music, refusal to permit the slightest romantic or mimetic softening of a now out-of-date modernist-classicism. In the last few years these faults have been withering away apace. Tuesday night there was no evidence of them whatever.

The program opened with Lew Christensen’s Danses Concertantes to Stravinsky’s music. It was brisk and bright and witty. The only blemish was the obvious strangeness of the stage, which resulted in a constant slight feeling of imprecision. The dancers were still having trouble connecting with the floor plan. Also, everybody looked a bit nervous and over-rehearsed.

Such are the usual vicissitudes of a first night, especially a first night in a theater where the kindest thing to say about the stage is that it is not very hospitable.

From the opening bars of the prelude, the new piece, Jest of Cards, was enthralling. The audience pricked up its ears at Krenek’s bright sparks of percussion and sat alert, ready to be impressed. It certainly was. The opening choreography was in a new tumbling style, a little like the Hindemith piece last year. This seems to be a genuinely original idiom Lew Christensen and some of his students are developing out here. It resembles German Post-Expressionist work. But Germany is a long way away and when time and space have transmuted them, influences have become just inspirations.

From the moment of his entrance, looking like a White Leghorn, if White Leghorns were fighting cocks, Mike Smuin dominated the show. It is not just that, as the Joker, he was the central character of the ballet — he dominated by sheer dance power. This young boy has an eagle eye and an elephant’s memory. It is extraordinary how much he has learned from the Kirov dancers, especially the athletic young man who danced the Blue Bird. Yet Mike cannot have seen them more than a very few times.

Most male dancers, however “noble,” bore me to tears. I guess I have sat for hundreds of hours altogether watching white-thighed beefcakes bound about slapping their legs together, wishing they’d get on with the show. Mike is something else. He dances with authority, and he has that authority because as a dancer he means something by everything he does.

The audience applauded the pure geometrical stage set. When it began to move around in a good old-fashioned but alas forgotten Constructivist manner they were delighted. When the Kings and Queens came on, 20 and 30 feet high and looking for all the world like those awe-inspiring giant birds at the Zuni Pueblo, the audience emitted one long collective gasp of delight. Zuni Pueblo, yes, but also they looked somewhat like Janko Varda’s collages, and something like Tatlin’s Tower, that dream project of Russian modernism of the early twenties.

At the end, in came Mike, in an entrance straight from Meyerhold. Like a detective story, it would be cheating to give it away — but like the first onion in the first cocktail it was all that was needed to give the ballet final distinction and unforgettable character.

The Bizet Symphony in C was lovely, anybody who couldn’t do a lovely dance to that lovely melody in the second movement has no business dancing. It is the kind of lyric curve that shows Sally Bailey at her best, and she gave it her best.

The other three étoiles were in top form. I’ve never seen Fiona Fuerstner look so happy; she seems to be outgrowing the hardness that has always given a tinge of iron to her dancing. In all three pieces Virginia Johnson was cast in frolicsome soubrette roles which she takes to with élan. Jocelyn Volmar is one of those dancers whose finish and mastery are so competent they run the danger of being overlooked in summaries of this kind . . . yet “perfectly satisfactory” is something you can say of few artists.

To me especially it’s a great pleasure to watch Sue Loyd move into the rank of étoile. Aren’t there supposed to be five of them is a properly organized company? The Christensens may permit five stars, as long as the word is kept decently in French — but they boast they have no ballerinas — let alone assolutas.

Most up-and-coming young dancer of the evening was Finis Jhung. This young man doesn’t just look oriental — he looks like a Siamese tomcat. People have said that the Christensens hold down anybody who tries to develop a highly individual style. This may be in a measure true of the girls but, for sure, Mike and Finis can have no complaints.

Gee whiz! A splendid evening.

[April 22, 1962]



The Atomic Arms Race

By the time this column gets into print the first bomb may have exploded above that island named for the night on which angels appeared in the air singing, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” Let me say at the beginning that I agree completely with Linus Pauling and Bertrand Russell in their charges that we are victimizing unborn generations with the genetic effects of radioactive fallout and that we are headed straight towards a war of complete extermination of the human race. Who denies this?

I have nothing but contempt for those who assure us that an atomic war is not going to hurt, much, and that atomic warfare does not differ in the moral issues it raises from any other kind of warfare in the past.

Neither President Kennedy nor Chairman Khrushchev agree with the school of thought represented in the public mind with Edward Teller. Both of them agree with me — or with Linus Pauling or Bertrand Russell. At least they have said so enough times. Presumably they are the two best informed men on the subject and know what they are talking about.

Yet, barring a miracle, both sides will resume atmospheric testing this summer, and will continue it indefinitely.

All mankind is caught up in the overwhelming inertia of power politics. Nobody can break away — at least nobody in power. Even at its best, politics is not a moral art. It is the art of the expedient. This may be sufficient when politics is concerned with the location of freeways or even, give time, with the extension of the franchise in Alabama.

The issue of atomic warfare poses the ultimate problem, the problem that mankind has never been able to solve. Today it is stated as simply and starkly as possible. Either the human race learns, and that quickly, to moralize politics or the species will cease to exist in the not too distant future.

A power struggle which can only end in the mutual extermination of the combatants and of all the bystanders as well is the final expression of the politics of despair.

President Kennedy has said that we can look forward to 30 more years of the Cold War, the arms race, and power maneuvering in the former colonial world. And then what? What lies at the end of this? A kind of radioactive decay of the human conscience? What is the answer?

I believe that at present the only possible answer open to the individual is precisely individual. Demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and Times Square are not going to stop this avalanche towards death, and for one very simple reason — there are no comparable demonstrations in the Red Square and on the Nevsky Prospekt.

All that we can do is to so act as individuals that we, within the tiny limits of our individual power, keep the moral issues alive and constantly before the eyes of those to whom the power of decision has been delegated.

If we are men of peace we can point to the possibility of a world at peace. Against despair we can raise hope. Our hope can have meaning and content for all men as despair cannot at all.

It is that or nothing. Nothing at all.

[April 25, 1962]



Damn Yankees and a Casals Oratorio

I debated going to the Palace Court to see Damn Yankees. After all, as my little daughters say, “You haven’t seen a ball game since the Black Sox scandal.”

Still, the score is by one of the better tunesmiths in the business, Joe E. Brown is always amusing, and I just love the elegant setup. So — I can just pretend it’s about Martians or the customs of the Watusis.

It turned out to be a lovely show. At one moment, when he does a takeoff on Erich Von Stroheim, Joe E. Brown is more than hilarious (I do suggest he add a monocle, it’s all the scene needs) and he is pretty funny all the time.

Best of all is the actor-director, Oliver Cliff. What a pleasure it is to watch this man work. Everything is always under control and within two minutes of his first appearance he has reached out and tapped the most remote and indifferent member of the audience — as so engagingly, too. Damn Yankees is not supposed to mean anything, but Marion Bell as the faithful wife gives it an additional dimension. This is a very talented lady and I wish she’d get more roles hereabouts.

Carnival. No. Any show about the circus is shooting fish in a barrel. The cast could come on, read their lines off their cuffs and fall down and they’d still send the audience. The only really poor picture Chaplin ever made was The Circus, yet it made money. Carnival has some very well constructed scenes. The duet between the — the word is not “villain or villainess” but “lady and gentleman rascals” — while he hems her in with swords in a trick box is true theatrical ingenuity. In this instance it is simply not well enough done. And so it goes; scene after scene is wasted by sheer lack of skill.

They seem to have cast this production by standing the old vaudeville scale of values on its head. Best in the show are a couple of dogs, next the jugglers, next the midgets and so on down. Nevertheless and notwithstanding, the audience left in raptures. As far as they were concerned it might have been “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog Goes to the Circus with Mother.” It just goes to show, as the star of the road show Suzie Wong remarked to me once, “It’s strictly an audience show. Besides, what do you want me to do, Lady Macbeth?” Ah, show biz.

Consistent readers of this column may recollect that come Christmas time I always wonder aloud why we can’t have a Christmas Pastourel of the sort they have all along the Mediterranean. It has always seemed to me that this is a perfect subject for opera, oratorio or ballet — or, like Le Coq d’Or, all three together. Potentially at least, this is precisely what Pablo Casals’s El Pessebre is.

The libretto is a rewriting, and in Catalan not too extensive a one, of the Catalan ballad of the pilgrimage of all sorts and conditions of men to the manger in Bethlehem. This is the same folk opera that has always been so dear to my heart in Provence under the name of Pastourel Maurel. These are the figures in the extensive crèches that are common to the whole Mediterranean shore and which are supposed to have originated in Naples.

In Provence, they are called santons, and you can buy about 30 different characters at the Monoprix, the French dime stores — fishermen, farm women, scissors grinders, two fools, two aged men and an old shrew, hunters, millers, miners, cowboys, gypsies, milkmaids, even a lawyer. The conception is extremely touching, all the world gathered at the birth of the Prince of Peace, and obviously it is endlessly colorful.

Casals has taken this folk conception and distorted it not at all, only etherealized it. And etherealized it he certainly has. I have seldom heard such ennobling music. Yes, I know, sometimes, especially at the final Hosanna and Gloria, it sounds like César Franck. I even know that for long passages it sounds something like Gounod’s Mireille — but so what?

It is true that El Pessebre is probably the last nineteenth-century composition it will ever be possible to write. But who but a barbarian cares about idiom as such? Would it have been better in the idiom of Stockhausen? Both the folk music of Catalonia and Provence and the style of the late-nineteenth-century oratorio are swept up and transcended by musical power and greatness of heart.

Not musical sophistication, there is nothing of Poulenc’s or Prokofiev’s or Stravinsky’s mocking rewriting of the classics. On the contrary, if Casals as a composer is not naïve he is at least innocent. What does that mean? Purity and simplicity of utterance expressing purity and simplicity of intention.

So I suggest to the Christensens that they think about casting El Pessebre as a ballet-opera like Le Coq d’Or with the next Spring Opera costumed and on tiers behind the dancers. It’s something I for one have wanted to see all my life.

[April 29, 1962]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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