San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



May 1962

Social Integration
Shakespeare, Ibsen, Swan Lake
Juvenile Delinquency
Originality versus “Self-Expression”
The Constant Dread of a Hideous Extinction
The Spring Opera
Racial Bridges
Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers




Social Integration

What I want to talk about is not really a race problem. It is a problem of acculturation, the adjustment of one group of people to the culture of another. Since in the northern California cities it involves mostly Negroes, all sorts of spokesmen for the Negro race shy away from it, pretend it doesn’t exist, protest if it is discussed, wish it would go away.

In San Francisco over 50 percent of all crimes of violence are committed by people who happen to be members of the Negro race, which forms slightly more than 9 percent of the population.

This is not due to the accident of skin color and hair texture. It is due to the fact that they are recently migrated southern American peasants, not underprivileged, but people who have hitherto enjoyed no privileges whatever. They are unused to mixing at all with the dominant group in the society. They are totally unprepared for urban living, even less prepared for the gaudy prosperity of the “typical American worker.”

Thrown into the whirlwind of an industrial, depersonalizing society, many of them come unglued. White southern peasants, recently migrated to Chicago’s West Side, constitute an even more serious problem for exactly the same reasons.

Drastic police methods can pare away at the crime rate and make the streets a little safer at night, but in the long run this is not a police problem. It is a problem for educators, recreation and health officers, for the churches, and for all other groups that give society cohesion and direction.

It must be met by special programs and special techniques. Abolishing legal and social disabilities is not going to integrate these people. They don’t know they are gone. Some of them don’t even know they were ever there.

We have to go out and integrate them deliberately, help them to understand the society in which in fact it is quite possible even now for them to function with considerable happiness and efficiency. If this is discrimination, we will just have to make the most of it.

At the present time New York, Milwaukee, several other communities, have embarked on special educational programs, special integrative activities in other fields, with considerable success. Unfortunately, this is all still on a token basis. Four hundred, no not even 4000 special students are going to solve the problem of Harlem.

The Ford Foundation has a study of this very question under way in the Bay Area right now. I for one think that if the social agencies of San Francisco would face up to this problem, instead of beating around the bush, and attack it head-on with a large-scale, coordinated general plan we’d get somewhere, somewhere we could call an efficiently integrated community, and for a lot less money than we now spend on emergency, makeshift measures.

The alternative is drift — drift towards the four square miles of social sickness that is called Harlem.

[May 2, 1962]



Shakespeare, Ibsen, Swan Lake

It seems that there is just too much going on altogether. I’ve a good mind to spend next week in the country and write about nature. However, the Spring Opera is coming up, and that I won’t want to miss! It’s sure tiring, this being a professional man about town!

Henry IV, Part 1 at the Actor’s Workshop, beautifully costumed and staged and acted with taste and insight. I knew that Robert Symonds would make a convincing Falstaff, and so he does, but a little too benign for my reading of Shakespeare’s intention. There is more of the evil four-flusher of [Harold Pinter’s] The Birthday Party in the character than the acting tradition gets out of it or than, I suppose, the public will accept. Anyway, Symonds’s is a completely convincing job.

Strange what Shakespeare did with these historical plays. He gave Elizabethan Englishmen an Italianate Renaissance past that they in fact had never experienced, and he gave the House of York a black eye from which it has never recovered. Yet how little he influenced the national character. Exceedingly few members of the British Power Elite have ever been anything at all like the voluble stormy people who strut in gold and velvet in the historical plays. And that, I suspect, is a lucky break for history.

Hedda Gabler at the International Repertory Theater. I apologize for not having gone to this earlier and so urged you to see it. This is an extraordinarily competent amateur group and a more than competent director.

I’ve seen a lot of Heddas, including the greatest of all, Alla Nazimova, before the other war, when I was but a little tiny child. Carol Cowan is certainly one of the better ones. How do these traditions perpetuate themselves? She is much too young to have ever seen Nazimova, even in a bad movie. Yet she reads the part with the same arrogant perversity and even finds, somewhere in the theatrical collective unconscious, much of the same business. Or does this all come from the director, Ernest Lonner? It doesn’t come from Ibsen, because the text is pretty ambiguous.

It occurs to me that, as it is played in the mainstream of the best Ibsen tradition, every character in the play suffers from one form or other of what the Freudians, at least, would call suppressed homosexuality. Everybody is driven by blinding guilts that surface only in violence.

Guilt — hostility — destruction of the integrity of the self and others . . . this has become the pattern of much of modern life. Was it so back in the good old days before Baudelaire and Dostoevsky started writing about it? I wonder. The literary evidence would seem to me to indicate that the misery that is now commonplace in suburbia was once the special privilege of a few Roman Emperors.

Mr. Lonner announces some Strindberg coming up, notably The Ghost Sonata. This is one of Strindberg’s best. It is often called the first Expressionist play. I certainly intend to see it, and I only wish I were acting in it.

Carol Cowan is one of the best actresses working in the Bay Area now and I’m curious to see what she will do with one of Strindberg’s women, so much more subtile wenches than the monolithic Heddas and Noras of Ibsen.

Saturday matinee I took my girls to the new Swan Lake. I am afraid we are going to have to face up to the fact that Lew Christensen doesn’t like Swan Lake and does it to satisfy the customers. It was much too fast, so that all the melancholy legato of Tchaikovsky’s special “swing” was lost. It was so fast that it was brusque, and whatever that neurotic sweet-voiced Russian was, he was never brusque. This made it impossible for anybody to give a convincing interpretation of her part except Virginia Johnson, who luckily had the only role in the ballet which is fast to begin with.

I wish there was some way to convince Lew that Swan Lake is not a sentimental Romantic ballet. It is, in fact, the acid test of balletistic insight, the final balletomane’s ballet.

Ann Halprin’s Five-Legged Stool at the Playhouse. Goodness gracious! What a caper! I’m usually allergic to both modern dance and electronic and concrete music. They make me sneeze and itch. But not this. This is Anti-Dance, as the “théâtre cruel” of Beckett or Genet is anti-drama.

It is a grimly moving experience because it completely meets the demands of its own special taste and skill. The trouble with most apostles of alienation is that they aren’t very good artists. Ann Halprin certainly is, and so is Joe Landor, who did the sets, and Morton Subotnick, who did the music.

It all adds up to something pretty scary.

[May 6, 1962]



Juvenile Delinquency

I think I may, if you all will permit, go on for a while about the problems of juvenile delinquency, interracial hostility, the rising wave of crimes of petty theft and irrational violence, the danger and disorder loose on the once peaceful streets of San Francisco.

After all, everybody else is writing about it is the papers, and most important, it doesn’t stop. Since last Wednesday there’s been a whole new crop of muggings, purse snatching, and violent attacks.

Last week I said it behooved us to face up to this problem and start doing something. What is there to do? The most important thing we could do would involve a change in our present economic system. I don’t mean overthrowing capitalism or anything grandiose like that, but, in a sense, something far more important.

What do all the countries with a rising rate of juvenile delinquency have in common? Not capitalism — Russia has her “hooligans,” her stilyagi; Sweden, the welfare state par excellence, has the highest juvenile delinquency rate in the world. It is not racial or class tension. Japan and Sweden are both about as racially homogeneous as it is possible for a country to be. Both have more serious problems than the United States.

Denmark, in most respects almost indistinguishable from Sweden, has a remarkably low delinquency rate. What factors are operating here? It think that, first, for delinquency to appear at all, the given society must have a steeply rising standard of living. Greece, Turkey, Paraguay are not bothered with the problem. But this is not in itself enough. Germany and France have lower rates than England.

In Denmark, the standard of living is rising just about the same as in Sweden. However, in Denmark, the minimum school-leaving age is 14. In Sweden it is 16. In addition, Denmark has an effective vocational training and apprenticeship program.

In every case where delinquency is becoming uncontrollable a rising standard of living has been coupled with the disappearance of meaningful work for teenagers. The state has done this deliberately, by raising the school-leaving age and in some instances actually forbidding the employment of youths.

Society has done it, within the family, by not insisting that the old economic family is still desirable, that life is happier if everybody, from the toddlers dusting and drying the dishes to the kids with paper routes and the big boys with gas station jobs, is, in some way, doing his share.

If each member of the family has some responsibility, he then has, within the family, his own proper, organic authority. Those who themselves have responsibility and who share true authority respect it in others.

Secretary of Labor Goldberg said recently, “There is a very real, very strong and very decided relationship between employment opportunity and delinquency.” Too true.

But meaningful work for teenagers is not going to appear out of noble sentiments. To offer it we must make small but basic changes in our economic system as it now operates, human changes that may turn out to be far-reaching indeed and that may, as changes always do, antagonize vested interests and established creeds.

[May 9, 1962]



Originality versus “Self-Expression”

The other evening I was engaged in a panel discussion of art, artists, society, responsibility and all that noise. When the moderator announced that there would be just one more question from the audience, my daughter Mary put up her hand.

Said she, “Doctor So-and-So says that art is great only when it passes beyond formulae. I am a ballet dancer. Ballet is an art that consists almost entirely of formulae. What happens to the art of ballet when it passes beyond its formulae?”

Answered Dr. So-and-So, “I guess it becomes modern dance.”

In the tones of an old Quaker lady giving somebody a gentle chiding from the facing bench, Mary said, “I thought as much,” and sat down. It was a lovely note to end the evening on, and hard not to believe that “we planned it that way,” as FDR used to put it.

I’ve been thinking about that, looking at the Annual at the San Francisco Museum and at the Chinese Show at the De Young. Here in one case is a typical exhibition of a moment of aberration in the long history of art. All these contemporary painters are professional individualists. They are in the business of being as original as they can possibly be. As a matter of first principle they discarded every formula and sought only to be true to their Selves the moment they set brush to canvas.

How professionalized they are, too! What a business modern art is! The lay public is still unaware that the selfless, idealistic world of the plastic arts has become a savagely competitive snake pit and wolf den that would make George Babbitt and his friends look like Hindu fakirs. There is probably no business of any sort in the world today as ruthlessly commercialized as modern art.

The hottest commodity is originality. Yves Klein started out rolling paint-smeared pin-up girls on the canvas. He passed on to selling canvases painted exactly the same color of blue all over. I hear that he now sells rooms from which he carefully removes all pictures. But he sells, and how.

On the other hand, out at the De Young are rooms filled with paintings all painted according to the strictest formulas, by amateur gentlemen who wished only to paint like their friends. They traded their pictures back and forth like the quiet, unassertive elegances of a civilized conversation in which any outstanding originality was in the worst possible taste. They were scholar gentry, most of them were statesmen, some were emperors. If anything interested them less than their Selves, it was money.

Yet what happens? With hardly an exception the paintings in the Annual are sterile, provincial, utterly academic imitations of the more spectacular art dealer-manufactured reputations of the past 10 years. They are devoid of any vestige of originality. If they express any Selves, those Selves have been so processed by kindergarten, culture and couch as to be more alike than any two peas.

It seems only yesterday, and it was only a few years ago, that I met Tàpies, a wild man fresh escaped from Barcelona, the lion of the dealers and critics and fainéant [idle] ladies of Paris — a manufacturer of genuine hand-painted guaranteed novelties. Now on the walls of the S.F. Museum are a whole passel of Tàpieses, ground out like wienies, just like they’re ground out in all the art schools in all the provincial cities of the world. What was the question? Nothing happens.

Each of the Chinese painters is inescapably the utterance of a person — that person and no other. On each of them could be hung the cliché, “Who touches this, touches a man.” And they are the utterances of complete persons, full of grace and wisdom and peace and humor. They don’t speak of their Selves at all. On the contrary, they speak of you — the spectator, and of the world and life that have changed essentially not at all since Sung Dynasty China in the 11th century, or whenever. Depending on what you bring to them, everything possible happens.

I suggest that we go all out next year and don’t compromise on any half-way fashionable fashion mongers who are now just a little dated anyway. Let’s go whole hog and have Yves Klein be the One Man Jury. Maybe this time he’d even tear down the walls and leave nothing but Self-Expression, Night, and the Fog.

[May 13, 1962]



The Constant Dread of a Hideous Extinction

For the next few weeks I intend to take up, seriatim, a number of the problems connected with juvenile delinquency, petty or unmotivated violence, vandalism, social hostility.

Perhaps it might be possible to discuss some of the leading personalities involved in trying to do something — Carl May and his struggles, Mary Kohler, the mental hygiene activities of the local Health Departments, intensive efforts — if any — of the Recreation and Education Departments of the Bay Area cities.

This should run for quite a spell. Not only is there a lot to talk about, and only 500 words once a week to do it with — but in actual fact, I guess the community might well benefit from a permanent weekly column devoted to no other subject! Never fear, I will move on to other matters in due course.

First off, having read a mess of books on juvenile delinquency, only one of which, not by an expert but by a journalist, Roul Tunley’s Kids, Crime and Chaos, makes much sense. I would like to say just a word abut the Emperor’s New Clothes of this whole subject. There is one thing everybody shies away from — everybody except the kids, who, if you ask them, will tell you, if they trust you, in short order. This is the fear of death.

You realize, I realize, everybody else over the age of 10 realizes, that before you get to the end of this paragraph, the sky may light up and we will all be dead. Mankind today is living under the constant dread of a hideous extinction that may come without warning at any moment. This has produced a whole gamut of new responses to life, an end-of-the-world morality which is slowly, subtly, corrupting society like leukemia. We are trying to cope with ever-growing behavior patterns of the apocalypse.

Experts may sit around mahogany tables and discuss “going steady” under smoke screens of couch slang and sociological euphemism. What it actually means is the adoption of the erotic relationships of youth and early maturity by children in the very beginning of adolescence.

Ask the kids. They’ll tell you. “It won’t be long now before I’ll get my Friends and Neighbors (draft notice), if they don’t set the Bomb off first. I might as well live while I’ve got the chance. The grown-ups got us into this. We are not responsible.” The italics, as they say, are mine, and you can read that last sentence in a variety of ways.

But it is not just overt, conscious behavior. When an animal is trapped, face to face with the threat of death, things happen to his body chemistry. The end result of these changes is extreme hostility discharged in action against his enemy.

Every time a jet bomber soars overhead, or a flight of pursuit planes roars off in the night, a minute quantity of adrenalin leaks into the blood of everybody who listens. Its effects accumulate. But there is no enemy for the trapped animals in our bloodstreams to bite and scratch. We can’t strike back, and if we could, whom should we strike? Khrushchev? Edward Teller? The Communist Party? The fuzz? Dad and Mom? Some loaded square walking down a dark street?

The enemy cannot be found. He is invisible — the moral inertia of mankind.

Perhaps this is not the biggest factor in our spreading social chaos. Will anyone deny that it is an important one? Remember, another civilization once fell to pieces and gave way to barbarism and superstition. Pagan society had come to believe, with much less reason than we, that the end of the world was imminent and it was in no way prepared to meet or transcend the apocalypse.

[May 16. 1962]



The Spring Opera

So far I’ve seen only two of the Spring Opera productions, Manon and The Barber of Seville. Manon was thoroughly enjoyable and I am looking forward to The Abduction from the Seraglio — which I’ll have seen by the time this is in print.

Looking over the repertory, I wonder if this season is going to come up to the last. The Barber of Seville was a disappointment. Marilyn Horne did the best she could to redeem a situation that began to deteriorate from the men’s first arias. She has a lovely voice and winning ways, but it was four to one. One girl can’t make an opera. I don’t know what was wrong. The casting looked very convincing, but one singer couldn’t seem to find his range, the other had difficulty recollecting his part, and so it went, building up to the kind of mild, all-pervasive imprecision that can be fatal to operatic comedy.

Lee Venora was a charming Manon. She not only sang with excellent taste and acted with conviction, she changed most convincingly from act to act. Manon is what the movies call a talcum powder epic, the people not only grow older, but the girl herself slides down the primrose path to disaster. I don’t know how Lee Venora manages to put on the effect of years of sinning with each change of costume, but she certainly does.

The contrast between the flirtatious child of the first act and the enervated, slightly lewd — the French word is leste — kept woman of the second pulled me up in my seat. “What? What happened?” This is the whole point of Manon, of course, four stages in the fall of a fallen woman, and it requires no small talent to put it across, not obviously, but subtly, with only the slightest changes of tone and gesture. Too bad Lee Venora was too young for Cavalcade.

Last year Spring Opera started off with terrific bounce, full of youth and ginger. To justify itself, it has got to keep it up, young singers and conductors, inventiveness in direction and décor, and possibly most important, imagination in repertory.

It is simply not true that to get the audience you’ve got to concentrate on the well-polished chestnuts. The tickets are cheap, the audience will come, an appreciable number of them couldn’t tell the difference between Wozzeck and Orfeo anyway. A show like this is supposed to pull out all kinds of people who have never been to opera before.

I am just frightfully sophisticated. So frightfully sophisticated that one of my favorite composers is Puccini. I just love Tosca. This is the mid-twentieth century. The middle-brow hard core of opera-goers are not all that sophisticated. They have good taste. They think Tosca is a dog.

In the arts, only the truly jaded love dogs. Or is the repertory selected to titillate the weary nerves of me, Jimmy Schwabacher, Alexander Fried and Arthur Bloomfield? I for one find such considerations very flattering, but I just wonder if it might not be possible to tap the enormous repertory of seldom-performed works, both modern and classic.

The Abduction from the Seraglio certainly deserves more frequent production than it gets in America, and this is a step in the right direction, albeit a most conservative one. On the other hand, I am not so sure about The Pearl Fishers. Maybe I am wrong. As I say, before this gets in print I will have found out.

I do think there should be more emphasis on local talent. There are plenty of people around here quite competent to handle the secondary roles of almost any opera ever written and they should be given first chance. I feel this is a valid criticism of the main opera season in the fall. Surely it applies with doubled force to the Spring Opera.

Youth, flexibility, inventiveness and imagination, openness to local talent — these are the principal justifications of a venture like the Spring Opera. They are what it is for, at least so it seems to me. And they are just the qualities that should draw new audiences.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for the Spring Opera. There are very few theatrical or musical events in the Bay Area I enjoy more. Musically speaking, The Barber of Seville could have been improved, but it was still great fun. After all, it is an uproarious comedy by the worldly-wise man who financed the American Revolution.

[May 20, 1962]



Racial Bridges

Since the rising juvenile delinquency and street violence rates are partly and admittedly a reflection of the changing racial make-up of San Francisco, one of the main points of concentration, it would seem to me, should be on developing the self-regulating mechanisms of the natural communities formed by the racial and national minorities themselves.

Even under the worst conditions, when minorities are confined to ghettos, like the Negroes were in Harlem before the Puerto Ricans came, or the Poles in Chicago, or the Jews 50 years ago on the Lower East Side of New York, or the Chinese in San Francisco, the enforced community does develop its own interests and activities, and, often in defiance of the police, its own quiet and invisible methods of policing itself.

It is a fact that, as ghettos break up and segregated minorities diffuse into the general population, tensions increase at first and the delinquency rate rises. What might be called “total ghettos,” like the Jewish Hassidic community in Williamsburg or like San Francisco’s Chinatown a generation ago, have no delinquency rate whatever. Chinese Americans to this day, with their still surviving powerful family traditions and inner group life, hardly ever appear in juvenile court.

Only the Boers and the White Citizens’ Council think the ghetto can be revived. It is socially inefficient and morally evil. But the natural community is far from evil. Properly utilized, its traditions and folkways, its subculture, even the normal preference of human beings for people like themselves, are tremendous assets, not to segregation and discrimination, but precisely to integration.

It should be evident that this applies even to official agencies, the police, social and public health workers, probation officers, recreation workers. I do not believe that social services of this type should be segregated — allowed to work only with members of their own race. But they certainly can form a bridge between the smaller and the larger communities.

How many Negro policemen walk beats in the Fillmore District or in Butchertown? Any Negro plainclothesmen? Policewomen? How many of Latin-American ancestry? How many of any group now occupying a tension area in our changing society? How about the probation officers and psychiatric social workers?

A healthy community must regulate itself. When a subcommunity or a subculture is drawn into the wider community but still regulated from outside, responsibility will simply not develop — but defiance will.

As long as the leadership of the subcommunity feels left out, they will waste their time in irrelevances, which means that they will be wasting socially valuable talents.

If they feel that it is still “their” school system, and not everybody’s, we will have foolishness about Huckleberry Finn instead of responsible action.

As long as the policeman or the social worker is The Man, a lot of people aren’t going to mind unless they have to.

[May 23, 1962]



Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers

There is nothing a critic can do more fraught with peril than to write about a show before he’s seen it. It might of course not even take place. Any doubts I might have had about the Spring Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers were completely unjustified. The single set was artificially nowhere and the costumes were unimaginative, but these were the only faults and they didn’t seem to matter.

It’s a lovely opera, one of the most charming ever written, with dreamy melodies that sound like Buddy Collette with the Modern Jazz Quartet. It is an ideal vehicle for Lee Venora, and she turned out an idea performance for it. Some people criticize her voice as “too young.” Here was a role, and tunes to go with it, just made for such a young voice.

Let me say that I for one don’t object in the least to what critics mean by “youth” in a girl’s voice. What do they want? Mme. Schumann-Heink as Juliet? There are only three other parts — all male — and Verreau, Ludgin and Macurdy were equally good and perfectly balanced.

It is balance that determines the success of an operatic performance. When singers, dancers, designers, orchestra, composer, librettist, are all in phase, you may not have the greatest art known to man, but you certainly have superlative entertainment. So it was with The Pearl Fishers — an evening of, as the poet says, sweetness all compact.

Whoever had the happy notion of having Magana Baptiste do the Ceylonese dances should be given a Happy Notion Medal. Not only was she fresh and good, but she seemed to be having such a good time herself.

What a loss Bizet was to music, and to opera especially. He had such clear and definite ideas, and such a sure sense of theatricality. Compare Prosper Mérimée’s heavy-handed, psychologistic story with the incandescent speed and the concentration of Carmen. The libretto of The Pearl Fishers would be absurd without Bizet’s music, but he transforms it and makes it meaningful.

He was only 25 when he wrote it and he lived only 12 years more. I’ve never heard the music, much less seen The Fair Maid of Perth or Djamileh — but Carmen, The Pearl Fishers and L’Arlésienne Suite are quite a gift for one young man to leave to posterity — three flashing crystals of musical clarity.

It is curious to think that both The Pearl Fishers and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio were considered very exotic music when they were first performed, and sounded as outlandish to their audiences as Balakirev does to us. Mozart of course just sounds like more Mozart now. In fact the Abduction is not one of his mightier efforts and merges with wallpaper music of the sort turned out by Vivaldi or Schumann.

The Bizet piece does sound exotic, but with a new exoticism of Time. Listening to its languorous Second Empire Orientalism you could see, all about you, ghosts of men and women in stocks and crinolines, straight out of Constantin Guys, looking most exotic and all whispering, “C’est incroyable! C’est trop exotique! En effet, une musique sauvage!’’ Which is what I’ll just bet they did, en effet.

Another Spring Opera season has come and gone, and I for one want to repeat what I said last week, this is one of the most enjoyable theatrical and musical experiences available hereabouts. Long may it flourish.

An announcement from the San Jose Opera — this is an all local company. This year they are doing Fledermaus, Tosca, Bohème, Butterfly, and a West Coast premiere, Regina. I don’t know how good they are, but I am all for them.

Until we have a provincial season in each of the major California towns, with largely local companies, we are never going to be able to provide the rising singer with the training ground that the small cities of Italy can offer. This alone is enough to warrant support for opera companies in Fresno, Bakersfield, Santa Barbara, Stockton, Sacramento and San Diego.

“Young voices” indeed! I’ll never forget the ethereal, ivory-skinned Greek girl I once heard sing Traviata in Vicenza. Of all the small army of dying Violettas, hers is the one that haunts me still, and to which I compare all other performances. Or Graziella Sciutti, who must have been, as they say, little more than a child, at Aix-en-Provence. Or Lee Venora last year as Juliet.

Of course all three of these girls are wondrous pretty, and maybe I’m just an old roué, but I know what I like.

[May 27, 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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