Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco



The Film Elektra
By the Waterfall
The Mime Troupe in the Park
The Chinese Theater
Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary


The Film Elektra

Movies have become so hyped up in recent years that I find it difficult to judge them. They seem to be made mostly out of blood, nitroglycerine and benzedrine. And skillfully, too, to wring the last erg and decibel of response out of you. So I stay away.

I find that the typical foreign film, full of sadism, pornography and fake social criticism, literally depraves my sensibilities. I lose my discrimination. Since my discrimination is what they pay me for, I just can’t afford to throw it away in indulgences that differ little from the Roman amphitheater.

So I am very chary of making any judgments about movies nowadays. However, I don’t think I’ve been oversold this time. I honestly believe that Michael Cacoyannis has made one of the great films of all time. Elektra bears comparison with the classics of the heroic age of cinema. It is obviously influenced by certain of them, notably Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, and the work of Pudovkin, Ilya Trauberg and Dovshenko. I’d have to see Joan of Arc again to be sure whether Elektra is as good, better, or not quite so good. But it is very close indeed.

“Hate kills,” said Euripides, and all of his plays about the House of Agamemnon demonstrate that hate kills first of all the hater. His Electra and Orestes are the first juvenile delinquents, true sociopaths, in literature.

Irene Pappas is the Euripidean Electra; caught up in an act of heroic vengeance, she is meanly vindictive, concerned primarily with the clothes, jewels and baths that have been denied her, and yet still terrible, the archetype of all the daughters who have ever said “My mother is a whore,” as they faced the judges who were sentencing them for incorrigible hostility to society.

Nothing shows the skill of Cacoyannis more than the compression of Euripides’ great choral odes into a few lines, spoken by a marvelously manipulated chorus who not only move like great dancers, but who are perhaps the best speakers of poetry I have ever heard. Besides, every frame of the choral sequences is organized with consummate artistry, an evolving, flowing, black and white space composition of maximum impact. The overall effect is almost unendurable.

The audience sat on the edges of their seats, enraptured, and at times wept. I have seldom seen an audience so moved, certainly never by a picture that is the total opposite of the sex, sadism and cooked sensations of the currently fashionable highbrow movie. [...]

[6 March 1963]


By the Waterfall

Thirty-five years ago or so I first started hiking around the long high ridges and deep wooded valleys of northwestern Marin County. Less than an hour’s drive from the city, it is to this day remarkably sparsely populated, a land of a few vast dairy farms, still little changed by man. Several of my books were written in a cabin in Devil’s Gulch, buried in the dense woods on the west side of Mt. Barnabe, beside a narrow waterfall.

Last week I stopped at the headquarters of Samuel Taylor State Park to get permission to use the hikers’ and riders’ camp in Devil’s Gulch, which is now part of the park, and was amazed to see on a large map — “Staircase Falls,” “Rexroth Cabin.” Well, well. Me and John Muir. Not only that, but the Sierra Club had marked with removable yellow plastic ribbons a hike to that very spot for the coming weekend.

I walked to the waterfall while my little girls were fixing up around camp. The cabin had long since crumbled into ruins, but nothing else was changed. All was just as it was the rainy autumn evening in 1928 I first stumbled on this hidden cul de sac in the steep forest. The little cabin was less than 10 feet square, hardly higher than its piled rock fireplace. The door was open, there were pots and pans, an oil lamp, some old quilts hung up out of the way of mice and wood rats, and a primitive shower bath built over the stream. In the still autumn twilight, with the yellow maple leaves falling over it, cabin, clearing and waterfall looked just slightly ominous, like something in a fairy story.

I stayed the night, back then in 1928, and in the next few months met most of the people who used the place. Nobody knew who had built it.

Later in the next gully a somewhat more substantial cabin was built by one of the groups that used the first place. It was considerably larger and stood directly over the confluence of two cascades, like the retreat of some Japanese Buddhist saint. It still survives as a tumbled ruin.

In the course of time all the people who used either cabin drifted away or outgrew such activities, and I was left in sole possession. Twice during the war, when it was impossible to get to the Sierra, I spent the entire summer in the larger cabin. Whenever I had some thorny literary job to do, I would go over and work in solitude until it was done. Then the property became a State park and I was evicted.

Last week, sitting in a little patch of sunlight at the foot of the waterfall, I felt as though I might just have found the place a few minutes before. There was no mirror to show me my changed face or my gray hair. If I looked down at my body — it was dressed in just the same clothes — jeans, red shirt, ankle length boots. I thought over the long intervening years, that now seemed to have slipped by imperceptibly. Deaths and marriages, two children, 13 books, travel about the world — had the maple and Douglas fir beside the waterfall grown or decayed? Had the number of ferns increased?

Down below, along the main stream, things had changed. During the war the range was badly overgrazed and in a couple of years the water tore loose great trees along the banks, the meadowy shores were changed to cobbles; thistles and poison hemlock grew everywhere. The damage of overgrazing is sudden and dramatic, the healing processes are slow indeed. However good care the park authorities take of Devil’s Gulch, I will never live to see it as once it was.

I sat by the waterfall and watched the golden laurel leaves spin down into the pool. A mourning dove moaned softly off in the woods, red tailed hawks screamed, playing together in the sky, a doe and two fawns crossed the clearing, unaware of my presence.

Had all those years really been? Maybe I had drowsed away in the warm sunlight amid the sound of falling water and dreamed it all — the Depression, the War, books, paintings, girls, the achievements and troubles of a life. I looked behind me, the cabin certainly was gone; but when I looked at the wet greenish black cliff and the twisting water I sank into their own timelessness.

At last the sunlight went away and it grew chilly. I got up and went down the steep trail, and back down the valley to the campground and my busy daughters. I was a little stiff — I must have sat too long by the waterfall.

[30 June 1963]

NOTE: One of Rexroth’s most beautiful poems, The Signature of All Things, takes place beside this same waterfall, with golden laurel leaves spinning down into the same pool . . .


The Mime Troupe in the Park

Ron Davis finally got his way and his Mime Troupe has been performing in the parks on Saturdays and Sundays. I’ve been getting publicity releases from him — he sounds happy as a mudlark.

Last week they were in Duboce Park, a block away from me, so we went over to watch. They did a Commedia dell’ Arte version of Machiavelli’s Mandragola. They were so authentic you had no difficulty at all imagining yourself back in Venice in the 17th century, watching a bunch of tramp actors down from Bergamo for the fair. Disheveled clowning, ragbag costumes, bawdy ad-libbing, a plot not only classic, but immemorially traditional, and under the slap-happy style (slap-happy of course derives from exactly this kind of theater) a vast deal of skill and polish.

Audiences in the parks in the Western Addition or the Mission turn out to be no different than those 300 years ago in Italy or 2000 years ago in Greece or Alexandria. They loved it. Let’s hope this is an entering wedge, and that eventually we will have all sorts of musical and dramatic activity in the parks. I can think of few better ways to raise the muscle tone of a flabby community.

Sooner or later out of the spectators will come participants. And then, what more pleasant way to spend your time? Dog fights spill into the audience, drunks add their two bits to the dialog, dozens of toddlers cluster tight against the stage and gawk at the actors, you sit on a greensward, enameled with daisies and bask in the sun under a sky like bluing — the latter of course, in San Francisco, if you’re lucky.

The Playhouse is putting on two one-acters by Brecht, The Exception and the Rule and The Quicker the Better. These are amongst the finest examples in our time of the same kind of theater as the Machiavelli. Unsubtle as a soapbox speech, stylized like a drill team, played without settings and with rudimentary props and costumes, Brecht’s agitational theater is based entirely on the vulgar theater of the squares and fairs, old probably as the beginnings of town life.

I don’t see any reason why, after a successful run at the Playhouse, which I’m sure they’ll have, they shouldn’t move these two plays to the parks in the footsteps of Ron Davis. No question but that they’d go over.

How about Godot? It’s been played by all women, by Negroes, by Japanese, in concert halls and night clubs, by everybody but Singer’s Midgets, why not in the theater des planches where it so manifestly belongs?

And isn’t there some place in the park system of San Francisco where we could have a Sunday afternoon jam session?

Anyway, we’re in better shape here in San Francisco than is New York. I will never forget New York’s Finest driving the folksingers from Washington Square. I stumbled on it quite by accident, and still have difficulty believing that I wasn’t hallucinating — red faced bulls throwing girls around by their pony tails and beating them across the buttocks with night sticks, bearded beatniks with their faces running with blood, weeping as the defenders of law and order kicked in their guitars — it was quite a sight, must have done worlds for the New York tourist business. Really made you want to settle.

I have only one criticism of Davis’s troupe — their jokes about religion. The venal and lecherous monk is a standard figure in this type of theater, in Italy, Greece or China and Japan. He should quite rightly be treated with a broadside of bawdry and mockery. I doubt if Davis himself is religious in any orthodox sense because he does not distinguish between this socially hygienic humor and the mockery of religion itself. Some of the jokes are not funny, but acutely embarrassing — furthermore, they may cause him trouble if some bigot wanders by and overhears them.

And, as a last note — the finest, most vital theater in this tradition, as great as the Greeks or Elizabethans, is here now, represented by one of its most accomplished, classical-style companies — the Foo Hsing Children’s Theater, now playing at the Great Star on Jackson St. Don’t miss them if you value theater at its purest. As I said when they were at the Masonic Auditorium, there is nothing childish about them. They are far more accomplished than the adult Chinese troupes that have visited San Francisco since the last war. They still have a week to run, a repertory of the most loved plays of 700,000,000 people.

[21 July 1963]

The Chinese Theater

The Foo Hsing Troupe extended its run at the Great Star Theater on Jackson St. for an extra week — until this coming Tuesday. They have played to absolutely jam-packed houses every night, and well they might. I have gone as often as I could, and I have no doubts but that this is the best Chinese theater we have seen in America in just about 30 years, since Mei Lan Fang was here.

Today, Sunday, they will play all of Lady Precious Stream in two parts, matinee and evening, a total of about seven hours. Monday evening, Lady White Snake, one of the most popular of all oriental plays, known also in slightly different forms in India, Southeast Asia and Japan. Tuesday they close with Ten Beauties in Chariots, a female military play, full of banners, battles, love and acrobatics — the very thought of it is dizzying.

It is a little unfortunate that the Foo Hsing Troupe is always featured as a children’s company. They are in fact more finished actors than almost anyone in the Chinese theater who has appeared here since the war.

Children’s theater in China does not mean what is does here. There is nothing whatever childish, prodigious or amateurish, much less cute, about these people — quite the opposite. They are contemporary representatives of a most ancient tradition in China — and let’s remember too that the Children of the Revels and others were amongst the leading Elizabethan companies.

If you are interested in the theater and miss this, you will always regret it; this may well be the last time that the Peking style of the classic theater of China will be seen at its purest and best in the Western world.

However, I’m not at all sure you can get in. The other night we sat in the last row in the balcony squeezed into some courteously vacated “house seats.” One of the editors of the Chinese World was SRO even though he had just written a rave editorial on the front page. If you can’t get anything else, try for cancellations.

You don’t have to understand the dialogue: most of the Cantonese in the audience don’t either. There is an English synopsis in the program, and your Chinese neighbors know the plays by heart and will be glad to explain. Anyway, the dialogue doesn’t matter much, because this is really and truly pure theater, its major impact is independent of the spoken word — like a silent Chaplin comedy.

Although there is a large library even in English on the history of the Japanese theater, nobody seems to know much about the origins of the Chinese theater, or its connections with the very similar theater of India and Greece. We do know that plays of Euripides were performed in Greek Bactria, what is now Pakistan, shortly before the beginning of the Christian era.

The Chinese theater is not only formal, highly stylized, concentrated on theatrical essentials, like the theater of Greece, India, the Commedia dell’ Arte, Molière. It is like them in fact and in detail. Many a Chinese comedy might as well be by the Greek Menander or the Roman Plautus; many a romance by Beaumont and Fletcher, many a “bitter comedy” like Golden Lotus which I saw the other night, and which is the source of the novel well known in English, might be by Machiavelli or Ben Jonson.

When we see Greek tragedy or Renaissance comedy performed in the traditional style, it is always more or less cooked, archeological, the end product of scholarly research. Tradition for us was really broken off long ago. We are revivals. In the Chinese theater we see the living reality, stretching back into the most remote times, like a kind of Sequoia of the arts which has endured and grown while Western cultures came and went.

Years ago when we had three Chinese theaters and the show only cost 35 cents, I was usually the only Caucasian in the audience. Today you see every race, white, Japanese, Negro.

Chinese theater is popular locally, and it could be a most valuable tourist attraction if properly handled. We have the makings of a company in town, working at other jobs, and leading players can always be imported from the Orient. This costs money. Chinese theater is nothing if not lavish. However, the phenomenal houses for the Foo Hsing Troupe show that people will come.

Maybe interested parties should start thinking about reviving a permanent show house in Chinatown. The Chinese community has always been most generous in contributions and I certainly can think of far less profitable things now being done with that hotel tax money.

[4 August 1963]


Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary

I’ve just been reading an advance copy of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. It’s a bone chilling story. Serge came out of a French jail where he had been imprisoned as a boy anarchist, was traded off to the Bolsheviks in an exchange of hostages, and became one of the founders of the Comintern. He began to drift into opposition some years before Trotsky and ended up in Siberia. By some fluke he was allowed out of Russia just ahead of the total purge of the generation of the Revolution.

He lived through the similar purge of the Spanish Loyalists by the Bolsheviks, escaped to Marseille at the fall of France — where I had a brief correspondence with him — and finally to Mexico, where he died a few years ago.

What a tale! In the first place, Serge is by far the best writer to occupy so high a position in the Bolshevik apparatus. Lunacharsky, onetime Commissar of Culture, of whom they were once so proud, was an amateur and dilettante by comparison. Serge was the author of several moving novels, and a man of great humanity and sensitivity. So his book is simply better written than any that might be compared with it.

Trotsky was rigid, spiteful and vain, and stayed an unreconstructed Bolshevik to his terrible end. Alexander Berkman’s The Bolshevik Myth and Anton Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma are the only other books that lay bare the moral catastrophe of Bolshevism without in turn compromising their authors to a greater or less degree. But neither of these men were very good writers; they were professional libertarian revolutionaries. Serge was both.

It is a relentless blizzard of death, this book.

It could be called an orgy of name dropping — Stalin drops the names into the cork-lined cellars, and Serge records them, on and on, the roster of the Revolution. Generals, poets, professional assassins, agents and double and triple agents, scientists, scholars, artists, beautiful girls and bewhiskered cranks — we all know the story, but Serge knew the people. They come alive, seen not with Trotsky’s epigrammatic malice, but with pity and understanding, and then they die, and Serge feels each death himself. Something in him dies each time. There is no “Shoot them like pigeons!” (Trotsky) in this book.

Something died in a whole generation in the long drawn out moral collapse of the Russian Revolution. It’s not just that the age of revolutionary hope came to a pitiful end. After the Moscow Trials the conscience of humanity was maimed and has never quite recovered.

When I was a boy I believed, and my father believed, and his father had believed before him, that life was going to be different and better everywhere, for all men, and very soon, and that this better world would be relatively easy to achieve. It was not just radicals that believed this — J.P. Morgan believed it and the Pope and the Emperor Franz Josef.

It didn’t turn out that way. We are still in the midst of turmoil and insecurity. The majority of the people in the world are worse off than they were in 1863. Only in the privileged nations have living standards risen; in Africa and Asia and much of South America they have fallen. Tyranny has replaced inefficiency over much of the earth, and turned out to be more inefficient still. The Czar, the Kaiser, the Empress Dowager of China look positively benevolent and efficient in comparison with half the rulers represented in the United Nations.

Have we learned anything? Experience is the poorest of all teachers, but after the 443rd time some burnt babies fear the fire. Have we learned that man cannot enter Utopia by taking thought, by writing manifestoes, or by killing people?

Here at home we fought the bloodiest war in history to that date to free the Negroes. The slogan the NAACP adopted a couple years back was, “Free in ’63.” Now they are tapering off on its use. At the same time, it’s fashionable to be truculent and accuse the white race of universal discrimination, persecution and prejudice. Nobody remembers the boys lying dead in windrows at Shiloh or Antietam.

“Marxist” professors mumble about an economic conflict between northern industrialism and southern agrarianism, nobody remembers Marx’s writings — he thought it was a great moral, revolutionary struggle. We killed almost as many people as Stalin, and what little all that death accomplished did not even earn the dead thanks from the living.

[8 September 1963]


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.