B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Classic Ballet and Chinese Theater
Whos Backing De Gaulle?
Budapest String Quartet and Russian Opera
Academicizing the Avant-Garde
The Chaos of Decolonization
Volpone and Ash Wednesday
Sometimes I wonder. Im always telling people that San Francisco is the worlds least provincial city, and then something happens to make me eat my words.
The other night at the Chamber Music Societys performance of Stravinskys Mass, a brawny young man was filing out behind me at the intermission and I heard him say to his doting girl, I dont like things like that. What has all that outworn ceremony and ritual got to do with modern life? It doesnt mean anything to Stravinsky, thats for sure hes one of those Russian atheists.
Of course the concert, recorded for KPFA on the Petrillo Fund, was free and anybody could come, and too, Im sure you could find similar remarks in the boxes in London or Paris.
My picture of San Francisco as the modern Athens or Florence got a little fuzzy around the edges. Then I recalled a remark of Alfred North Whiteheads, in a lecture to the Harvard Business School. You gentlemen doubtless imagine that if I were to return to ancient Athens, I would be accorded a heroic welcome. On the contrary, if I kept my courage and integrity I might well be forced to drink the hemlock. Otherwise I would probably be ignored. The most popular visitor from our age to theirs would be Mr. Jack Dempsey.
What was in fact most impressive about the Stravinsky Mass, which, by the by, I have never heard better done, was its deeply felt Catholic piety. Few modern Masses show such respect for the meaning of the words, or realize so movingly the dramatic tension of the reenactment of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
Stravinsky of course knew what he was doing when he wrote the music but too many conductors seem to have difficulty in reading his intent. Not Gerry Samuel. This mans musicianship, and his disciplined sympathy, his comprehending identification with the artistic expression of another in his case others, both composer and instrumentalists at once never ceases to astonish me.
Empathy is like viable and the verb to contact and the utterly misused trauma, a word I eschew. It is not a synonym for sympathy. It means Einfühlung nervous and muscular identification with the object of an esthetic experience, literally feeling one with it. Most people, like most conductors and actors, assimilate the artistic experience to themselves. Great conductors and actors, and I suppose great livers, too, assimilate themselves to the object of the experience.
For all I know, Mr. Samuel may be without religion, at least I rather doubt that he is a Russian Orthodox Catholic with considerable sympathy for the French Roman Catholics, Maritain, Mounier and the Personalists. It is all too easy to make Stravinskys later religious choral music sound like a dodecaphonic outboard motor. Samuel, guiding the utterances of singers and musicians, made it sound at once devout and joyous, and curiously intimate personalist, if you will the dialogue of I and Thou.
Why dont we do things like this in our local churches? I am all for the liturgical revival, the dialogue Mass, and lots of plain song. Still, once in a while the larger and better trained choirs in our Anglican and Roman Catholic churches might undertake something vital and unhackneyed. Lent and Holy Week are coming up. The literature is enormous. The opportunity is unlimited. Music not only soothes the savage beast, it attracts the indifferent and troubled agnostic. And a great Mass, even if its by Beethoven or Verdi, is best when it is actually a Mass in a church and not an oratorio.
It doesnt necessarily require a big choir to sing some of the finest liturgical music. I will never forget the Good Friday I chanced on in the Anglo-Catholic parish in St. Louis that was singing Byrds St. Johns Passion and Mass of the Pre-Sanctified. Three clergy, four cantors, a choir of 12, and the congregation. A simple, rather poor church, as most churches of that persuasion are, on the edge of the slums and the Negro ghetto, with the neighbors for singers, but, or perhaps I should say, therefore, it was one of the five or six great musical experiences of my life.
Byrd is my favorite composer, and one reason is the chaste simplicity of his means. He was simple by nature but also perforce. His Latin Masses were written for the underground Elizabethan Roman Catholic Church and were literally for four or five voices, not for four or five parts of a choir. Of course, he also wrote two Great Services for the Established Church.
In our Post-Christian Age we are all underground and the intimacy of William Byrd or Igor Stravinsky speaks directly to our secularized hearts.
[February 3, 1963]
Although I try to pay close attention to everything that Ruth Page does in ballet, I had missed both Carmen and The Merry Widow, the pieces she did here this season.
Carmen was good, but more or less what I expected sexy (Miss Page is the inventor of the hottest pas de chat used as a passing step in ballet), colorful, violent, like Chicago, in other words. Or, as I observed to my daughter, very Ben Hechtian.
However, when those things crawled out of the wainscoting and crept around Don José mewing, Take me to your leader, it was pretty darn scary.
The Merry Widow was something else. Ruth produced this first seven years ago, but somehow Id never seen it. What a ballet! It left us all stunned. Von Stroheim should have seen this! Then, too, Danish guest dancers Kirsten Simone and Henning Kronstan really look like Mae Murray and John Gilbert were trying to look . . . besides, of course, being one of the worlds very finest dance pairs.
That wonderful old movie was one of the indelible theatrical moments of a lifetime, but Im afraid this Merry Widow takes precedence. In fact, Im now pretty timid about ever going and seeing the movie again. I doubt it would bear the comparison.
All sorts of things going on this week. Deborah Remington has a show at the Dilexi. I have always thought of this young woman as an accepted leader of contemporary San Francisco painting, both representative of what we are doing and unique and special as herself. Somehow her recent shows have been passed over lightly. She is eminently worth seeing.
Chinese theater at the Great Star on Jackson St. Time was there were three Chinese theaters in San Francisco, all showing every night, and after 10 oclock, the hour when things really heat up in the Chinese theater, they cost 35 cents. Now we have only short seasons, and only one show, and the prices are the same as any other theater. But at any price, its worth it. This is still the greatest of all theatrical traditions. A steady course of two weeks of the best Chinese plays would teach our local actors and directors more than years of the most famous Western drama schools. Yet Ive discovered to my horror that few even of the most curious of San Francisco theater people have ever bothered to go.
Joseph Roisman, first violin of the Budapest Quartet, injured his back, and so they are now a Trio. But the program this Saturday is one of the finest theyve ever given. From Charles Mingus to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw theyre my favorite musical group, large or small, playing any kind of music. By definition the experiences of the sense, even the most esthetic, are seldom completely satisfying. For me at least, the Budapest always is, so Im going, Trio or no.
[February 6, 1963]
General De Gaulle is as good at grabbing headlines as ever was Liz Taylor. Belgium reels, Germany splits, Italy rallies to our side, the noise is terrific. But notice the General was right when he said nobody would do anything drastic and in due course the uproar would quiet down.
Past the headlines, past the think pieces, notice what is happening on the financial pages.
Kicking Great Britain out of the Common Market* is, one would think, a major event in the economy of the world, and a crisis certainly in Britain itself, and, if not a crisis, surely a most disturbing factor in the economic expectations of France, Germany, Italy, and for that matter, the United States. The disturbance might be for good rather than bad, but you would think that it would send out visible waves and repercussions in all directions, readily visible on the seismographs of the economy.
Yet what has happened? The stock exchanges and bourses of the world have taken this terrific crisis, which has stirred up a tornado of big-mouthed words amongst all the politicians, with profound equanimity. Even the London Stock Exchange seems to have responded favorably. There is a slow drift downward of the London market, but this is due to internal causes, and seems to have been somewhat arrested by the passing of the threat of the Common Market.
What is going on here? If De Gaulles act was as unexpected and as drastic as the politicians would have us believe, it might well have triggered a world economic crisis like the 1929 stock market crash. It did nothing of the sort. It was met with optimistic calm. I havent the answer, Im just asking the question. One thing Im sure of, things arent what they seem.
Another question. Where is the money coming from? Geopolitical adventures of this sort are not embarked on without absolutely reliable financial backing. De Gaulle has always accused the Bank of England and the major American financial institutions of raiding the franc and manipulating Frances credit for political reasons of their own. On his march to power, during the fatal May Days [of 1958] when he established the Third Empire or Last Republic or whatever it is, he is supposed to have made overtures to the British and American big money and been turned down.
He did not have to make overtures to the Germans. They had more hard money than they knew what to do with, skimmed off the top of the billions the Americans had poured into the country and most carefully not wasted in bribing the uncommitted and underdeveloped emerging nations. They jumped at the chance, from where they had been kneeling at the door with their bags of gold.
At this moment France is financially as solid as a rock. The franc is off about two mills, which is about as hard as it ever gets. Note that the mark is harder than the dollar as hard as that measure of solvency, the Swiss franc. Nobody seems to be worried, and there seems to be plenty of money to finance the Generals New Europe, whatever it is going to be.
I am inclined to doubt that, just before his famous press conference, the General got a cable from our two leading financial institutions: Go in and give them hell, Charley, were with you all the way. But somebody gave him the equivalent of such assurance and I dont think it was Nehru.
The Russians read the financial pages too; in fact, as Marxists that is their specialty. And so this week, having apparently spent some time dreaming about a revival of the Franco-Soviet Pact, Pravda has gone into a severe flap.
Some of these fellows are old enough to have been at Rapallo when the Russians and Germans went behind the backs of the Allies and set up a gentlemens agreement for a military and economic exchange program. German officers and cadres, disarmed and deprived of troops at Versailles, got a chance to play war games in Russia with Russias unlimited manpower. The Red Army cadre, which had all the faults of anything organized on a crash program, in exchange got the finest military instructors in the world.
Germany has lots of money and lots of power, no longer very hidden. France, considered as a major power, has no economy to speak of and very little money. De Gaulle has unlimited ambition and the atom. After Hitler the Germans are perfectly willing to let somebody else be ambitious. Gloire is one thing theyre not interested in. But the rest of the equation can be filled in by any idiot, and the trained economists in the Kremlin are not idiots.
Besides, some of them were at Rapallo, and so were some of the Germans.
[February 10, 1963]
*More precisely, De Gaulle had vetoed Britains entry into the Common Market.
I dreamed I died and went to heaven and they turned me over to a pretty blonde angel like an Intourist guide. As we were going from cloud to cloud I noticed off in the distance a bunch of angels clapping their wings and cheering and throwing their harps in the air.
Whats that? I asked. Oh, thats Cloud 9, she said, theyve just been listening to the Budapest String Quartet by Telstar radio.
After the concert last Saturday, I played, as I often have, some records of the Budapest and the leading Quartet of the last generation the Flonzaleys. What is it that is new in the Budapest, that is also new in, for example, Casals? Absolute authority, yes, but what gives them such absolute authority?
I know all the words. I can make like the most learned program notes for people who want that kind of talk. The actual fact is, I dont know, and I dont think anybody else does either. You could give Ph.D.s in handicapping and teach the Baltimore System in grade school, and thered still be horse races with winners and losers. For some things in life there arent any answers, just as Sophocles used to say.
For some of you people who I hope Im converting to a taste for chamber music, dont forget there is a benefit concert Sunday for the San Francisco Chamber Music Society, Leo Smit playing a very meaty program on the piano. Tickets can be ordered by mail from the society at 1044 Chestnut, admission, $3, sponsor, $10. Seven of the $10 are tax deductible.
The Chamber Music Society is my favorite organized body of people in San Francisco. I think I prefer it to the Board of Supervisors or even the NAACP.
Long, long ago a Russian opera company was stranded in America and watered in Chicago and I got a chance to hear all the stellar pieces of the Russian repertory. Ever since, Ive never missed hearing any rendition, amateur groups, movie-operas, Russian festivals for the simple reason that, in spite of their common fairy tale settings, Russian operas seem to be more for adults than any other kind. Most opera is like science fiction it has an unmistakable odor of childishness about it. Including Wagner? Especially Wagner.
I took the whole family to Kaschei the Immortal and we had a wonderful time. I think this is the best job the Russian Music Society has done to date. The music is splendid, very Stravinsky, with key warring with key and considerable chromaticism, actually atonality, going on at the same time. It is a great pity they couldnt get the orchestration, since it is supposed to be Rimsky-Korsakoffs most advanced and most felicitous, and few people have ever been better at getting effects out of an orchestra.
Finally, a strong plug. Do try to take in at least one show of Chinese opera at the Great Star Theater. The Chinese people alongside you will be glad to explain whats happening, and its an experience youll never regret.
[February 13, 1963]
One evening, just after doing a bit on Roccas Restaurant, I came into the place and there was sitting a rival columnist, complete with blonde. With a broad grin he said, I always believe everything you say. I always believe everything he says, too. And I always, or almost always agree with Alexander Fried. You know how it is, if youve gone into many movies you know that all newspapermen think alike.
Anyway, I dont want you to get the impression that the paper is undertaking a campaign. The Top Brass did not issue a memo Get the S.F. Art Institute and the Art Association. We just agree.
Ive been thinking for some time of doing a piece, or a series, on the new academy of domesticated revolt. The upcoming San Francisco annual art show is an excellent opportunity. What is wrong with this event is not that it is reactionary or exclusive in the old way that such shows used to be, but that it is insufferably academic. That the new academy is institutionalizing those forms and attitudes that were once the property of those who rejected and condemned the academy, doesnt make it any less academic.
After the first World War a tremendous revulsion swept over the world in the arts, as in politics, those who were felt to be morally or ideologically responsible for the catastrophe were turned on by the young with violence and loathing. The whole structure of liberal humanitarianism was not only called into question; organized groups and disorganized individuals everywhere attacked it with dynamite.
The average man in Russia, whether worker or peasant or intellectual, was convinced he had been betrayed and was sick with disgust. The Bolsheviks were able to organize this revulsion into an anti-liberal, anti-humanitarian political regime. It was precisely the rejection of the humane values of German social democracy that attracted the young to the nationalist and pro-Nazi movements.
In the arts, Dadaism was the popular and sensational expression of this rejection and alienation. The artist who exhibited a log of wood with an ax attached and the legend, If you dont like this piece of sculpture you dirty bourgeois, make one of your own or the other who wanted to mount a loaded pistol pointing out from the frame, with a card attached: Tirez sil vous plaît [Please pull (the string attached to the trigger)] these people did not believe that the academy was reactionary; they believed it was lethal, and organized society along with it.
Years later, Allen Ginsberg was to write one of his funniest lines who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism . . . with little foreknowledge that he would himself shortly be part of the pseudo-Dada academy. This is what has happened. The nihilism and disorder (the technical term is antinomianism) which arose from the broken heart of Europe in 1918 has become a gimmick peddled in all the academies of the world, a do-it-yourself kit complete with instruction book in 30 languages and pictographs for those who cant read.
In 1918 its price was a broken heart. Today it doesnt cost a thing; it is one of the perquisites or is it prerequisites? of the Welfare State.
A couple of years ago my friend Léon-Gabriel Gros, editor of Cahiers du Sud and feature writer for the Marseilles daily, Le Provençal, came up to see me in Aix, all agog. He was going to what was still French Equatorial Africa on a story. Hed never been that far south and was very excited about the new culture being created by all those lads with rising expectations, due to be liberated in a month.
Look, said he, here in the Conakry paper it says they are having an exhibition of the work of the local art students. I wonder what it will be like? Im curious to see how the new generation is transmitting their heritage from the great tradition of African sculpture.
Uh-huhn, said I, Gaby, youre very naïve. I bet you 2000 francs it will be indistinguishable from the Rue de Seine, 10th Street, or the California School of Fine Arts.
Two weeks later he showed up for lunch with a large portfolio. Out of it he took, with a grin, six watercolors, done by a boy at the lycée in Conakry, a boy whose father was serving a sentence for cannibalism. They looked like mules, an infertile cross between Sam Francis and Deborah Remington. Spengler was right! said he, and paid over the 2000 francs.
I have been informed by researchers on the WPA that I was the first abstract painter in the Bay area. May be, but I long now for the good old days of Ralph Stackpole, Ray Boynton, Rinaldo Cuneo, Maynard Dixon and Spencer Macky. Then I was a big toad in my own puddle. Now I am just an aging tadpole, stuck in the drying mud. Gee, Id like to see that old gang of eucalyptus and eschscholtzia and naked lady painters. Come to think of it, Id much rather see them than the 1963 Annual, and I know that, sight unseen.
[February 17, 1963]
When you say to a French waiter, My old, with the humble request for a thousand pardons I would like to call your attention to this punaise in my potage, he has a ready and invariant answer: What about the Negroes in the South?
So its nice to know that the French Ambassador objects to French womanhood in the person of his wife sitting next to rather pale beige diplomats, of however high a rank. Lets hope it restores our perspective. Essential to an understanding of Europe in Rexroths Law, viz: If you want to know what America would be like if the South had won the Civil War, look at France.
There is a lot of talk of what is known in theater jargon as intercasting, a word formed, I presume, on the analogy of intermarriage and integration. This means simply casting plays regardless of race, so you might get a white Hamlet and a Negro Ophelia, or even a white Othello and a Negro Desdemona. They tried this out at the Mission Community Center in Anna Lucasta with Marguerite Ray as Anna. Marguerite also played, to great acclaim, Sadie Thompson at the Shasta Summer Theater.
I am all for this, all out in the smaller theaters, and step by step in the larger. I am willing to concede that the Actors Workshop directors are not yet prepared to violate the theatrical illusion with a Negro Duchess of Malfi, although I would myself if I were in their place. But somebody should make a start pretty soon.
I know the problems. In fact, now that it is all over I am willing to divulge the incident that derailed the experiment in the Mission. When the second play came up, the young man who played the juvenile lead in Anna Lucasta demanded a previously negotiated proportion of whites and Negroes in the casting and the resulting rumble led someone to call the police. When the players showed up the street was full of squad cars with lights flashing, and they, who had not been informed of these demands, refused to get mixed up in it at all.
However, the other night, watching Ibsens Wild Duck at the International Repertory Theater, I got to thinking how easy it would be to take plays like this and transmute them into an American setting. Partly this was due to Arthur Meyers Texas accent, which gives the roles he played in this and in Rose Bernd a distinctively Negro flavor. But the remarkable thing about both these plays is that they could be cast with over half Negroes with no violation of theatrical plausibility whatever.
And the further remarkable thing is that nothing could demonstrate more clearly the fact we so often forget what we call race prejudice in America is shown towards peasants and working men and servants of the same race in Scandinavia or Germany, let alone France or England. The problems and tensions and tragedies and comedy are perhaps not identical, but so closely alike that they are perfectly convincing when transferred to our own contemporary situation.
Heres a chance for somebody enterprising to put some of the many talented Negro actors and actresses hereabouts on the stage in full-fledged roles.
[February 20, 1963]
Burma is blowing up or blowing off again. As usual the political alignments are immeasurably confusing to the outside observer. I imagine they would be just as confusing to a Burmese politician whod been off on an Antarctic expedition for a couple of years.
Whats going to come of all this new freedom? We think of The Congo cockpit as exceptional and we hope the chaos will be temporary there. As a matter of fact the senseless internecine struggle in The Congo is typical and there is certainly no historical evidence permitting us to believe that it will not last indefinitely.
Its just that in The Congo few people are well educated enough to give a veneer of ideology to their capers if you can veneer a caper. Paraguay in the news today is one of the most benighted areas of the earths surface, comparable to Afghanistan and Abyssinia it has been free since 1814.
What good has freedom done Paraguay? Dont tell me it has been the victim of Yankee imperialism and Dollar Diplomacy. It is one Latin American country that can function as a control, because it certainly hasnt. The Guggenheims or United Fruit might have done it a lot of good. It couldnt be in worse shape.
Yet Paraguay started out under the most ideal conditions of any land in the history of colonialism. Even the most atheistic and anticlerical social theorists, anarchists, communists (with a small c), socialists, look back on the Jesuit Indian communes of Paraguay as the one time Utopia was given a chance and really worked. Utopia was obliterated by the rapacity of the liberated Paraguayans and where are we now?
Syracuse University Press has just published a book Yesterdays Rulers: The Making of the British Colonial Service by Robert Heussler. This is essentially a study of the recruitment policies of Major Sir Ralph D. Furse, the man who picked the colonial servants or administrators for a generation. The qualities he looked for he found mostly in members of the British ruling class with Public School and Oxford or Cambridge educations. They were courage, firmness, dignity, sympathy, physical and moral stamina. There was no extensive special training.
These were the men who made the Pax Britannica work. They established conservation services in equatorial Africa and geological surveys of the Himalayas. They suppressed slavery over much of the earths surface. (It still exists in free Abyssinia and Afghanistan, and of course in our little colony of Saudi Arabia.)
I believe that the real reason for the decline of imperialism is that there are no men like this left. Students at Oxbridge and Camford couldnt care less. They have no desire whatever to go out and muck around in some bloody desert or jungle bringing democracy, waterclosets and toothpaste to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies.
Its not that the demand for freedom is irresistible. The impulse to shoulder the burdens of civilization for somebody else has left the imperialist nations. It is certainly not true that capitalism has changed and imperialism is no longer profitable. It never was profitable.
On the other hand, what have you? India is doing well enough. Burma is certainly not an uncivilized country; in fact she has produced in recent years some of the most remarkable international statesmen of our time. Yet, like India, these people represent a tiny elite, floating on an illimitable mass, like a lotus petal on the Ganges.
In 1948-49 the British were busy preparing the Burmese for freedom. They were bringing young Burmese officers to Salisbury Plain and training them in the Royal Air Force. These lads sat about in their very British mess and laughed and joked with very British camaraderie. Once trained, they went back to Burma and had at each other with their bright new planes and bombs in a Mad Hatters civil war.
That summer I was walking about England, and one afternoon visited Stonehenge. While there I noticed a small brown man in a tropical uniform taking pictures, drawing, and writing notes. He came up to me and asked, Excuse please, is possible you are scientist, geologist, paleontologist, archaeologist? No, I said, I am a writer, but I have written on those subjects. Excellent, sir, said he, is possible surrounding objects could be natural phenomena?
In a few weeks into that mans hands was delivered the power of life and death over thousands of peasants who had never heard of John Wesley, Campbell, or Trotsky, or even the King of England.
[February 24, 1963]
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There will be comparatively few people in churches in America today, and fewer will partake in the ancient ceremonies and have their foreheads marked with ashes while a priest says, Remember, oh man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
Four hundred years ago all Europe did so; today not even very many Roman Catholics will find time or inclination to recall that they are dust and unto dust shall return. Certainly not in America, where expectations never cease to rise, and least of all in California, where only the most subversive elements ever die. Good Californians just fade away and their presence lingers on as a sentimental melody in Parks of Happy Rest.
I thought about this coming out of the Actors Workshops sumptuous performance of Ben Jonsons Volpone. Once, too, it was the custom to close the theaters for Lent. Today I doubt if there are many places you could go in San Francisco where you could find a sharper Lenten lesson an astringent antidote to the foolish optimism by which so many people live.
Volpone is one of the great bitter comedies of all literature; in fact the only other one that is as great is Machiavellis Mandragola, which I do wish someone hereabouts would get around to putting on. Both say the same thing there is a great deal of utter depravity and rascality loose in the world, and this state of affairs warrants neither optimism nor pessimism. It is comic, or tragic, depending somewhat on the circumstances, but primarily on your point of view.
Not only is our present economic structure based on the assumption that nobody ever dies, but our social services operate on the assumption that there is no such thing as good or evil these are purely relative terms. May be, but not in the sense that contemporary psychiatrists or social workers use them.
Ben Jonson. and the unknown Neolithic men who invented fasts and days of atonement, thought they were relative, too. They thought human evil and folly were so relative to the abiding goodness of life that they were funny.
Perhaps that is why the enlightened professional guides of modern society dont believe in evil they greatly overestimate its power when they try to define it. There is nothing comic about Miltons Satan; he is the obvious hero of Paradise Lost and bears, as has always been remarked, a distinct resemblance to Cromwell. Baudelaire managed to believe in the Devil without believing in God. His Devil seems silly to me, but to him he was an ever-present terror.
In the Middle Ages, as men knelt for the ashes on Ash Wednesday, they could look up on the church wall at a painting of the Last Judgment, with the dead rising and the bad guys being poked into jaws of a comic dragon by some very funny looking imps.
Even the existentialists, still close to the ancient tradition, know that evil and death are absurd in the face of the transcendent hope and love and faith of which men are capable. And so, the audience, filing out of Volpone the other night, said to each other, How very like Beckett or Genet.
[February 27, 1963]
“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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