San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



October 1963

Questioning Psychiatry
Superlative Opera
Declining American Power
The Taming of the Shrew and The Queen of Spades
The Wine Festivities
Invigorating the Cultural Life of the City
Eddicient Spending




Questioning Psychiatry

On the same day last week, two people were making speeches at opposite ends of California.

Here in San Francisco a psychiatrist was taking his colleagues to task for their unscientific methods, faddism, frivolous experimentalism, and increasing evidence, carefully swept under the rug, that proven or even provable results are none too abundant. Down in Mad City, where the orange groves used to grow, the frazzled fringe of the far, far right was listening to one of their leaders lump psychiatry, mental health and psychoanalysis into that great heap of Red conspiracy which includes fluoridation of drinking water, Earl Warren and city planning.

Now I am for a large number of things the Birch Society is against, but I recognize that most of their discontents with American life are traceable to some genuine stimulus, if not rationally understood cause.

The revolt of the radical right, like the revolt of the Cubans against Batista, did not take place in a vacuum; it is not the result of a sinister plot by bad men who just enjoy being evil. If we take up one by one the things they are against and try to figure out why they are against them, we can learn a great deal about the forces operating in American society.

Some years ago I was in Washington having dinner in Harvey’s with an old friend who used to be a psychiatrist here in San Francisco. From his conversation, although he named no names, it was obvious that a very appreciable number of the people who were running the country were spending an hour or more each week on some headshrinker’s couch. When I ventured the opinion that this was an extraordinary state of affairs, and possibly an ominous one, he agreed.

“I know,” he said, “when I first came here, we used to sit around in The Club and discuss our cases as examples of mental illness. Almost imperceptibly over the years, I can notice the increase in our conversations of subtly disguised questions of public policy.

“Sometimes I wonder who is running this country. I look at myself in the mirror and feel like a mad scientist in the funny papers.

“At the same time I know perfectly well that I am not a member of a bona fide scientific discipline at all. Psychiatry is still a ragbag of fads and fancies and unproven hypotheses, when it is not just up-to-date superstition. We have yet to prove, even to ourselves, that just as many patients don’t make spontaneous recoveries as ever get well from our treatment.

“Furthermore, we are unable to police our own ranks because we don’t know what should be permitted and what should be censured, what is ethical and what is unethical. If you include everybody who claims the privilege of monkeying with disturbed human minds, psychiatry is the one specialty where the writ of the Hippocratic Oath does not run.”

This is the cynical judgment of an overworked psychiatrist who may have had too much wine after a hard day — but it bears thinking about, and it helps to explain the irrational rejection of all mental health work by the very people who may need it badly.

[October 2, 1963]


Superlative Opera

After getting off to what it would be kind to refer to as a somewhat lumbering start, the opera has picked up, and if it keeps going, will make one of the finest seasons we have ever had in San Francisco.

Mefistofele was thoroughly enjoyable. Boito, most famous as Verdi’s librettist, was a curious composer. Certain people in the history of the arts stand out in lonely isolation as launchers of modern movements that never moved beyond themselves. Roger was such a composer, Busoni was another and quite different one. As opera music goes, Boito’s is exceptionally highly wrought, as full of felicities as a pudding of plums. It has one outstanding fault — like many gifted beginners and amateurs, he has too many novel ideas, and does not bother to connect them to one another.

I sometimes think that professionalism means mastery of linkages, in poetry, movies, fiction, ballet, music, in all the arts which are extended in time.

Mary Costa was a delectable Margherita. She is one of the best die-ers in the business. In the sack in Rigoletto, or shaking with the fear of death in Traviata, she is unsurpassed. Rich is the word for her voice, and every year it gets richer. She’s one of my favorite people.

Tozzi of course is Tozzi. He doesn’t have that special all-conquering arrogance that enabled Chaliapin to make flimsy roles into overwhelming experiences, a talent that in practice was misleading. I found his Mefistofele lighter, more Italianate, than some I’ve seen, but convincing, nonetheless.

Samson and Delilah was still better. McCracken made an engaging innocent out of the strong man, bouncing about with his false whiskers waving in the air and looking for all the world like a cross between Jerry Ets-Hoken and Muriel Rukeyser. What he seemed to be registering in most of the duets was pride and joy at his wife’s performance. Rightly so, she was terrific. I’ve seen Delilahs that I would gladly exchange for any lady barber picked at random off skid row. She gave the part just that depth of entangling schmaltz it needs.

Saint-Saens was a rather frigid piano virtuoso whom I remember mostly for his splendid long white whiskers. His Samson and Delilah only goes to show what little we demand musically from opera. It is actually one of the most impressive of the minor masterpieces of the standard repertory, and yet it reminds you of Cab Calloway at his best. That’s not a joke, the swing bands reached about the level of historical development of Saint-Saens, and in Samson there is a distinct saxophony swing that is of the essence of its musical meaning.

Georges Prêtre is a masterful conductor and brought all this out, in fact, as conductor both of stage and pit, he got more out of Saint-Saens than anyone I have ever heard. Sandra Warfield didn’t only sing and act, when she started to do the bumps and grinds between those crucial pillars, I thought they’d tumble down before their time.

If the San Francisco Opera Company never put on another piece after this The Barber of Seville it would justify its existence. This is one of the best shows I have ever seen anywhere. In the first place, like Carmen, it is a practically flawless opera. It is perfectly planned; music, acting, decor, all must be coordinated, but when they are, the effect is theater at the highest level. You are enveloped, enchanted, carried away by illusion.

All too many operas are just vehicles for singers and, no matter when they were written, decadent as music and meaningless as theater. Opera at its best is simply theater at its highest exponent, a blend of all the arts into one dramatic unity. That is why people who just go for the music and listen with closed eyes to the warbling statuesque divas of excess embonpoint only reveal their own limitations. Opera to be great demands the most consummate care to carry the most complete illusion. It is then one of the few total aesthetic experiences.

Beaumarchais’s hilarious comedy, so carefully retooled to bring out its operatic virtues by Sterbini, Rossini’s fluent, enchanting music, the unparalleled opportunities for stage business and decor — all you need is a conductor with power and insight and a stage director with comic imagination — and a good cast. Everything conspired together in this new production of ours to — to what? — to absolutely enrapture the audience, and to make operatic history. Everybody sang like larks and scampered around like monkeys. This opera needs no ballet, it was itself a continuous dance. It was all so good that you had to take thought to realize just how good Reri Grist was. She sang like an angel and I hope we get her every year in one vivacious role or another.

[October 6, 1963]



Declining American Power

Are there storm warnings flying? Are things getting a little more ominous? Are we skirting the edges of political and economic crisis, or are things just leveling off after the long post-war period of boom and tension? The curious thing is that after two centuries of the “science” of political economy, nobody knows.

Chancellor Adenauer is going, the man once referred to by cynical European journalists as the American Secretary of State, or as the Charlemagne of Vatican Europe. There is little doubt that, whoever his successor is, German policy, both internal or external, will turn in new directions — mostly away from America.

After the war we built a “Continental System” patterned on Napoleon’s. Just as we got it working, it outlived its usefulness. If it had not, de Gaulle would not have been able to challenge it — and challenge it he has, for all our brave whistling in the dark.

From Greece to the Ngo family in Southeast Asia the American-led array along the southern border of the Communist countries is in chronic disorder. Since this flanking wall fell down someplace every six months, all the time we were building it, we don’t notice what bad shape it is in now unless we pay strict attention.

We started out so short a time ago to make a great leap forward in Latin America. We have leaped from mess to mess. Our money was going to buy honest democratic government for the benighted brothers south of the border. What we got was worse corruption, worse dictatorships, worse and worsening economic policies. It’s all we can do to protect the very lives of the few enlightened men who are our friends, like Bettancourt. There’s a new junta for breakfast in the morning paper every week.

Genuinely unbiased observers like Gunnar Myrdal believe that American power, the greatest the world has ever seen, is not effective because of the chronic depression of the economy. (The nice word for it is “sluggish.”) Five and a half million permanently unemployed, a declining and already comparatively low growth rate, a steadily deteriorating balance of payments, rising credit inflation, and at the same time, unmarketable surpluses and overcapitalization in many, especially our older, basic industries — these are poor cards to hold in the international poker game.

The peculiar thing about this game is that we have the deal and can, quite honestly, deal ourselves any kind of cards we want. There is every indication that right now we are in a period of shuffling. How the cards lie when this deal is over remains to be seen. One thing for sure, the hand we play will be made up of cards which stand for positions of internal strength or weakness.

What we look like in Santo Domingo or Vietnam depends on what we in fact are at home.

[October 9, 1963]



The Taming of the Shrew and The Queen of Spades

Covering Shakespeare productions at the Actor’s Workshop is getting to be a dilemma. It’s hard for a critic to figure out a new way of saying, “It’s wonderful. Be sure to see it.” At the risk of boring my readers, I have to say it again. I can’t imagine a better job than their current Taming of the Shrew.

It is curious that this play should be so popular with husband-and-wife teams down the centuries. They have almost all played it. Even Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and Lunt and Fontanne. It was extremely popular all through my childhood, probably because it was thought relevant to the activities of the suffragettes. Women flock to it, dragging their husbands, who by and large don’t care for it. After the show the women are always in a bad temper, but they keep coming.

I remember disliking it intensely as a small child in a production with somebody like King Baggot, which resembled nothing so much as a scene from The Balcony with male and female roles reversed.

It is easy to play it that way, and so played it’s disagreeable. Robert Simons has emphasized the business of the Induction, and presented the play proper as a “play within a play.” This enables him to interpret it in a formalized, Commedia dell’ Arte style, filled with fulsome capers of tramp actors, not unlike Ronnie Davis’s Mime Troupe, or pre-stripper American burlesque. So seen, the unpleasantness evaporates in rowdy rumpus and wholesome fun. It’s still got enough sexual battledore and shuttlecock in it to appeal to all the lady lawyers, PR girls, personnel manageresses, and executrixes, who love to be told that woman’s place is kirche, kinder und küchen, without believing a word of it. Aristotle called it catharsis.

The night I saw The Queen of Spades, the Opera House was far from full. This is a pity because it was a splendid job. Why, oh, why are opera audiences so set in their ways? I love Tosca and Aida and Traviata and Butterfly, but I don’t want to see them all every single year. And I do want to see plenty of revivals of seldom-performed operas, and even, if that is possible, good new ones.

One thing about Russian operas, they were written for adults. The Queen of Spades is certainly adult enough, in plot and music. It’s a very sick adulthood, but grown-up nonetheless. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as a highly symbolic and very unhappy homosexual dream, taken straight out of a Freudian casebook. If we did not accept the artistic conventions of the Romantic agony, and if we did not temper our enjoyment with plenty of gentle irony, we would burst out laughing every few minutes.

Nothing shows better the all-pervasive influence of extremely romantic notions of human relationships than the fact that we see nothing absurd about such balderdash, but, on the contrary, are profoundly moved.

Moved we are. Few opera plots, and little operatic music, make a more convincing equation of love and death. Of course lovers commonly die in opera, usually of tuberculosis. But Pushkin and Tchaikovsky say flatly — Love is Death — in capital letters, as though they were one terrible god. For this reason the high point of the opera is not any of the hysterical clutching and love making, but the swan song of the Queen of Spades herself, the Venus of Petrograd, the playing card that means death. It is a cry for lost innocence — the frightfully aged beauty, disrobed by her maids, slips into the hallucination that she is a young girl again. There is no question but what the singer, whoever she may be, is handed a show stopper on a silver platter. However, not everyone can stop the show even when given the most favorable opportunity.

Regina Resnik was stunning, so much so that she not only stole the show, her wonderful performance almost obliterated everything else. And it was wonderful not just as a bit of acting, it was one of those moments where all the elements of opera came together in one overwhelming synthesis. She was beautifully costumed and staged, vocally flawless, dramatically gripping. The whole house sat breathless on the edge of their seats and exploded when she finished.

[October 13, 1963]



The Wine Festivities

My inclination is to cast a very jaundiced eye indeed on most Festivals and Weeks, especially those that have no other purpose than to promote the commercial interests of some industry. No other country goes in for them like we do, and no other state to the extent that California does.

H.L. Mencken never tired of making fun of them, and rightly so. Nothing is more ridiculous than phony “folk” activity, as nothing is more enjoyable than the real thing.

Wine is different. There is something about wine that lifts it above the status of a commodity. Not for nothing is it important in the sacred meals of the Jewish and Christian religions. Not that it is intoxicating, but that it lifts up and warms and illuminates the soul of man.

Wine and bread are proper symbols of the blessing of man by nature, of all the beneficent aspects of the universe. So the celebration of the wine harvest, coming last, at the very end of summer, is the culminating expression of man’s joy in the bounty of the earth.

I know we have a national Thanksgiving Day, founded in the New England the Norsemen called Vinland the Good. It’s a long time since the warm years around 1000 A.D. when the grape flourished by Plymouth Rock, and the Pilgrim Fathers, when they arrived, found little use for wine in their annual Thanksgiving, though they seem to have appreciated the fiery benefits of rum.

In California we are much more favored by nature. We must be the second or third wine-producing region in the world. We have plenty to be thankful for and to be thankful with — we can lift up the goblet with beaded bubbles winking at the brim, we don’t need to make do with a turkey wing or a slice of pumpkin pie. They are fine in their place, but even they are improved with wine.

So, I am all for the Wine Fair this coming weekend at the Civic Center. California notoriously is a land where civic holidays tend to turn into commercial gimmicks. Here is one time when the annual fair of one of our major industries should have all the character of a genuine celebration, a real folk expression. Certainly there is nothing gimmicky about the program. The emphasis is all on opera, folk song, folk dance, and on genuine achievement in the fine and subtle art of producing wine.

Wine and the kind of people who make it and who drink it with wisdom have had a big share in making northern California a land of wise and easy living, more given to art and song than other places. Our wine is our pride and joy and we can give thanks for it in proud and joyful festivities.

[October 16, 1963]



Invigorating the Cultural Life of the City

In my young days in Chicago I used to know an old anarchist, of ancient American stock, descended from the congenital exceptionalists, the square pegs in round holes, who once made up a considerable portion of the population of this country — the founders of group marriage cults, religions with fantastic diets, moneyless credit unions, wilderness communes and funny money political parties.

Unlike most anarchists, he was a regular and consistent frequenter of the ballot box. However, he had one invariant platform and one perennial candidate. He always voted yes on all measures that proposed to spend the capitalists’ money, and he always wrote in his own name for each and every public office. I know just how he felt.

The candidates for Mayor of San Francisco have discovered that there are votes in culture. However, I think they have misconceived the target.

True, in this city of laissez faire, dolce far niente [pleasant idleness, literally: sweet doing nothing], wein, weib und gesang [wine, women and song], there are a vast number of potters, weavers, barefoot dancers and Sunday painters at large — many of whom vote. The best way to get the votes of these people is to promise them something, preferably money. Every barbershop quartet would like a slice of the hotel tax money, every concert artiste making her debut on the autoharp would like to get out of paying rent for her concert hall. The candidate for Mayor can tell them all he will do something for each and every one.

As a matter of fact, he can do nothing of the sort. The office of Mayor of San Francisco has strictly limited funds at its disposal, and all temptations to drastic action are decidedly inhibited by the city charter.

The important issue in this campaign is the future character of San Francisco. It has been one of the world’s most successful communities because it has provided its citizens with a rich and meaningful life in a setting of great beauty. By and large the public services have facilitated the special kind of life we enjoy here, at least they have not stood in its way.

This is becoming less and less true. As a machine for living, the city is running down.

The abundantly satisfying cultural life of San Francisco not only attracts a big tourist business of a different kind than goes to Las Vegas, it attracts a different kind of permanent settler, and a different kind of new business than goes to Chicago or Tucson. This is what we have always had to sell — if someday we discover we are no longer selling it, we will find out that we are no different than anyplace else.

So the campaign pitch should not be to the bearded vote, but to the most enlightened sections of the business community, and to the people generally. We need a Mayor pledged to both conservation and adventure who will give leadership and inspiration in the struggle to keep what we’ve got that’s good and make it better, and who will help to find new forms for a new San Francisco that will keep it a city we want to live in.

As for the arts specifically, the possibilities are strictly limited. The Mayor can coordinate the activities of the Arts, Planning and Recreation-Park Commissions and the Board of Education more than they are at present. He might aid in setting up a sort of clearing house and booking agency which would distribute plays and concerts and exhibitions throughout the Bay Area — so that, for instance, an excellent play that now only runs two weekends at State College might go on the road to other schools and public institutions around the Bay.

This would be only an aspect of an absolutely essential responsibility, the coordination of all conservation and development activities of the entire Bay Area community.

He could put new and lively people with expert knowledge on the Arts Commission.

He could give leadership in planning a center for the performing arts of the sort that is being built by other cities around the country — and he could try to ensure that an investment of this kind will have up-to-date professional advice.

He could facilitate the use of the parks and the auditoriums of the schools for neighborhood performances of theater groups, and of the halls of schools and offices of public buildings for the exhibition of local paintings.

A good slogan would be — “Get art out of the museums and Opera House and into the neighborhoods.”

He can urge disinterested but expert advice in the distribution of the hotel tax. Beyond this, whoever the new Mayor may be, he can do relatively little, but what little he does is going to make a big difference to all of us, in thousands of subtle ways, in the years to come.

[October 20, 1963]



Efficient Spending

I hope you have noticed how the candidates in our local election vie with one another in promises to spend the electorate’s money.

If anyone said, “Elect me and I will oppose every penny of new expenditure,” he would be put down as a rock-ribbed reactionary from the Lunatic Right. If he promised to block all legislation, he would be regarded as crazy. Why? Are we all Jeffersonians or not? Do we believe that the least government is the best government? Go down to your neighborhood club — for any candidate — they’ll welcome you, whoever you are. Nothing is easier than getting into politics. Once in, you’ll discover that it consists almost entirely of people rattling tin cups. Violinists, psychiatrists, garbage collectors, firemen, aviators, they all are shoving and trampling for position at the public trough.

You will find that every problem facing the community is being met by somebody with a proposal to spend a large sum of money. Is it true that this is the way to solve public problems? Sometimes it is, when it is a question of construction of essential facilities, for instance. But in many cases the problems of our community life could be solved by intelligent planning and coordination, by the opening up of existing facilities.

Slowly you begin to realize that the problems are being created or sought out to enable the candidate to make promises, not the other way around.

Most of the problems of public policy are capable of solution by imaginative and daring administration — by leadership. In some cases the more money we spend, the worse fix we get into — as witness our national agricultural program, a conglomeration of fantastically expensive contradictions, chaos compounded, the end result of thirty years of rash promises.

Certainly the job of a municipal leader should be largely one of intelligent coordination. Public health, welfare, public works, education, planning, safety and order — in activities like these money is no substitute for efficiency, expertise, insight, the ability to delegate authority and encourage initiative.

Ideally the candidate who submits the most careful and economical plans, not the most expensive promises, should get the vote. But this assumes a responsible electorate, and alas — people vote for pie in the sky, each voter sure that he will get a taste, if not a tiny cut.

[October 30, 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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