San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



November 1963

Best Opera Season Ever
Frivolous Picketing
A Crisis of Leadership
A Loyalty Oath for KPFA
The Sickness Runs Deep
Labor’s Faltering Image
Superlative Theater
The Kennedy Assassination




Best Opera Season Ever

The San Francisco Opera has just completed what was without questions its best season. Not only that, it was one of the best seasons any opera company has given, anywhere. There were so many good things about it I’m going to have trouble getting them all into one column.

In the first place, there was a tremendous step forward in programming. The Queen of Spades, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Capriccio, are almost never given in America, and seldom outside their native countries. Forza del Destino and Samson and Delilah are far from common. Mefistofele, at least since the death of Chaliapin, has not been a popular opera.

The Queen of Spades has never been performed in America without laying a very large egg; there seems to be a jinx haunting it. In spite of its successes on NBC television, when it was given here some years ago, Carmelites is still waiting for adequate production elsewhere in this country. The excuse at the Metropolitan or Chicago is always financial — such novelties lose too much money, half the audience stays away. They certainly didn’t here. There were either full houses or a few unnoticeable scattered empty seats. Even for Mefistofele, which most people know beforehand is a difficult opera, a little silly, with puzzling music, the complete audience showed up, listened with attention, responded with enthusiasm.

We have proven that imagination pays. The cost of mounting a new opera is tremendous. If our audience will accept modernist schematic sets and permit other cost corners to be cut, there is no reason why, next spring and fall seasons, we should not see more new or forgotten exciting things.

The potential is almost limitless. It’s hard to believe how many good operas have been written. Virgil Thompson once listed an imaginary opera season of things he’d always wanted to hear. Half of the pieces I’d never heard of; in fact I hadn’t heard of about a quarter of the composers.

In the second place, there has been a tremendous leap forward in direction — both musical and stage direction. The stage has been loosened up, the chorus now makes work, moves around, behaves like real Tyrolean peasants or Philistine courtiers or whatever, instead of standing like dummies or marching up and down in batches like wooden soldiers. Grouping and interweaving movement gives new meaning to old familiar scenes.

This applies to the principals as well as to the chorus. Wonderful singers, who can act with their voices, but not with themselves, like Price or McCracken, if they are kept busy and moved about enough by the director, can give a reasonable imitation of acting — whereas, if they are left to their own devices, and just stand, bend, bow and stoop, or dash about and wave their hands, you soon catch yourself listening with your eyes shut.

By and large there has been improvement in the design department. The sets for La Sonnambula were dreadful, and for Mefistofele were silly, and for Samson, shall we say a bit on the cinema side? But the other new ones were both thrilling and in perfect taste, and the new Barber of Seville was a joy and wonder to behold.

Another outstanding accomplishment was the accurate and imaginative casting. Of course everybody expects Schwarzkopf to be perfect in Capriccio as she is in its companion piece, Der Rosenkavalier. But Resnik as the dying goddess of love and death in The Queen of Spades held an inchoate plot together by her own sheer dramatic force. As for the Carmelites — it was hard to believe that those weren’t the actual nuns, imported by time machine from the French Revolution. Flawless casting of that many women is rare enough in a musical comedy, and these were opera singers, a breed difficult to mix at best.

Last, the ballet finally got a break. It had much more room to maneuver and was able to give a far greater measure of its talents to the ensemble. Sometimes in the past I have wondered, watching the dancers struggle on the space of a hall carpet, if Kurt Adler dislikes ballet or Lew Christensen dislikes opera, or both. This time the ballet was really used, let’s hope next year it is used still more.

Notice that all the factors I have mentioned depend on management and direction — not on the singers themselves or the musicians. In other words, “we” did it — this is what the San Francisco Opera Company as such accomplished, and a history-making accomplishment it was.

[November 3, 1963]



Frivolous Picketing

In my day I have marched in a fair number of picket lines, and I have never walked through one. I am all for peaceful picketing, the rights of assembly, petition and demonstration. But I am beginning to wonder what is going on.

In the last few weeks a number of leading citizens, including Adlai Stevenson and Earl Warren, have been assaulted by pickets, Dictator Tito canceled his trip across the country, and Femme Fatale Nhu was driven into tearful seclusion. There is seldom a day when there is not a group of pickets in front of the White House; sometimes they are there all night; so too for the United Nations Building in New York. In fact, there are pickets here and there all over New York; it seems to have become one of the town’s favorite outdoor sports.

The Reds and the Right picket each other, the Negroes picket the whites and now the whites are beginning to reciprocate. Anti-vivisectionists picket the Pound, anti-fluoridationists picket the Water Department. Tito’s pickets dress up like skeletons, Mme Nhu’s like burning monks. Public buildings with no real connection with the picketed person or cause are rendered inaccessible, and the police, who, I hope, have better things to do with their time, are called up by hundreds to keep order.

A bunch of honest workingmen out for a raise in pay are lost in the shuffle.

This craze for marching up and down with a placard began with the movements for racial equality and against war, and has now spread to every imaginable pressure group, however small or eccentric. Fortunately, the really massive demonstrations are still the pacifists and the race organizations who, whatever you might think of their objectives, are committed to nonviolence and carefully trained in the techniques first developed by Gandhi.

In the last few weeks it has become apparent that the itch to picket has come over people who have no such commitment and no self-control and often no leaders to control them in spite of themselves. The Stevenson and Warren incidents show that a potential for violence is generating, as senseless as it is serious.

The reductio ad absurdum was the use of racial demonstrators here last weekend for political purposes in a campaign where race was not an issue.

I do not believe that the right to picket should be abridged. But I do believe that the spokesman for public opinion should make it clear that most of these activities are not picketing in the ordinary sense, but demonstrations staged, often by frivolous and insignificant groups, primarily for publicity, and often deliberately for their nuisance value.

If everybody with an unpopular cause starts taking to the streets and walloping one another with the sticks of placards, we are going to end up like the last days of Weimar Germany — but this time as farce.

[November 6, 1963]



A Crisis of Leadership

“CADRE: The framework or skeleton of a regiment or other military unit, usually consisting of at least the commissioned and non-commissioned officers around whom the newly enlisted men may be formed when the unit is raised to full strength, recently popular in civilian application.”

So says the dictionary. As Stalin used to say, “Comrades, the problem, comrades, is the problem of cadres,” in the days when he was trying to fulfill the Five Year Plans and suddenly noticed he had killed off all the technical, professional and administrative talent in the country.

Here in San Francisco we have a very similar problem. We haven’t purged out cadres; they have withered away. We are suffering from a serious crisis of leadership. We don’t need a man on horseback or a Big Brother or a knight in shining armor at the top, but we do need young, aggressive, imaginative, fearless, uncompromised (you can add four or five more adjectives) leadership all down the line. We need administrators and experts, and social workers and nurses and street sweepers who, when presented with situations that require active decision, are ready to say, “OK, let’s get on with it. I’ll take the responsibility.”

For most of my lifetime San Francisco has greatly resembled Zuni Pueblo, the most socialized and other-directed community on the continent. Everybody takes shape from everybody else, like a heap of pillows. Nobody assumes responsibility, it’s just emanated from the group, and in minimum doses. Let well enough alone was fine as long as enough was really well — but it is no longer. Vast changes have already taken place for which we have made no adequate adjustment. They are only a token of an onrushing revolution in our way of making a living and living together that is already upon us and will soon overwhelm us if we do not bestir ourselves.

Automation with its attendant evils and blessings, an economy of superabundance, wholesale change in the urban structure, increasing leisure, radically altering racial and class patterns — all this implies a revolution that will make Marx’s look like the untroubled drowsy centuries of ancient Egypt. To conquer this new world which is opening up before us we need “commissioned and non-commissioned officers” who have Harry Truman’s famous card on their desks, “The buck stops here.”

Do we have a vocation for leadership, at the top or bottom? A year or so ago I was at a party with a political expert, one of The City’s real pros, and a man of considerable wisdom and cultivation. We were sitting about, discussing just this subject with several of the brightest and most successful young businessmen of the community.

“OK,” said my friend, “why don’t any of you run for office? I can make an almost certain promise you’ll be elected. If you don’t like the Democrats, go to the Republicans, they’ll make the same guarantee. People like you simply won’t assume responsibility. If you would, the voters would gobble you up.”

Everybody looked embarrassed.

All sorts of people with daring, imaginative ideas about our community life in their own private capacities, function in public purely as corporate personalities. Called from their boards of directors to advise public bodies, they say, “My duty to the stockholders is to maximize profits on a short-term basis.” This is Mad Alley slang for “fast buck.” They don’t believe in the fast buck. They don’t even believe that it is good for business. They know it kills the goose — the city — that lays the golden eggs. In all too many instances short-term “maximization” is long-term disaster. Yet they go on, with a kind of business college automatism — hardly anyone breaks free.

When a handful of bankers and industrialists ruled the town, back in the Robber Baron days, when one of them cleared his throat, the town jumped — usually in the right direction. Today all too many financial institutions are at the mercy of the lowest common denominator of their borrowers.

Yet the young men who want to be up and doing and on their way exist. A press that gives them voice and an administration that gives them tasks — not “jobs” — might be amazed at the turnout. An awful lot of people are tired of a community life that suspiciously resembles sleeping off a hangover.

[November 10, 1963]



A Loyalty Oath for KPFA

The Federal Communications Commission is after radio station KPFA again. This time the FCC wants all persons in position of responsibility to sign an oath that they have not been and are not now You Know What, and if so, when and for how long.

I have a strong suspicion that this request is anything but harassment, that, in fact, the FCC wants documents it can present to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the House Committee on Un-American Activities that will clear matters up once and for all. In other words, they are trying to do the Pacifica stations a favor.

Alas, good intentions or no, the request is a perfect example of the inability of the bureaucratic mind to comprehend any other frame of reference than its own. The dominant influence on both board and staff of these nettlesome radio stations is not Communist, it is in fact the furthest possible ideology from Communism. It is Quaker, Friends’ Service Committee, civil libertarian, individualistic, Jeffersonian, old-fashioned American. Its most passionately held principles are personal responsibility, individual integrity, total intellectual freedom.

This involves, as it did with Jefferson, or for that matter does with Barry Goldwater, resistance to encroachments of the modern monster state into the realm of ideas, morals, faith, intellectual controversy and the rights of conscience.

Since no other radio station is being asked to submit to such oath taking, and since the persons responsible for policy have already testified under oath before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, there is a very good chance that the majority of the members of both staff and board will, having consulted their Quaker Inner Lights, stand on their consciences and refuse to take an additional and discriminatory oath. If that happens and the stations are closed down, American culture will lose, gravely. In the Bay Area KPFA is our most valuable single cultural asset.

What is gained by all this?

Everyone knows that these oaths have a reverse effect. Members of the Communist Party by definition do not believe in the sanctity of an oath — therefore they always are the first to line up, sign and swear. The people who refuse are the unreconstructible democrats and rugged individualists who are America’s best defense against Communism.

Nor is the threat of perjury prosecution effective. When a Communist is caught out in such an oath, prosecution turns out to be fantastically expensive, and conviction almost impossible to obtain.

I certain am all in favor of exposing the Communists boring from within our society, but I think we need to develop better methods of so doing, and to discard those which in fact conceal actual party members and instead mislabel those who are often their most steadfast opponents.

Kenneth Rexroth will speak at 8 p.m. tonight at the Jewish Community Center, California St. and Presidio Ave.

[November 13, 1963]



The Sickness Runs Deep

“Union Threatens to Block Employment of Negroes at Mel’s Drive-in.” “Cambodia Renounces U.S. and French Aid.” “Goulart Ignores Alliance for Progress in Key Speech.”

It so happens that when those headlines appeared, I was reading The Morning After by Brian Crozier, foreign affairs expert for the British magazine The Economist. This is the story of what happens after the Good Guys win, the state of affairs in the new nations that have come into existence in the past fifteen years. It is not a pretty tale.

I ended last Sunday’s column with the word “hangover” and I might just as well keep on going from there. It is beginning to look as if we were headed into a quarter century of permanent hangover, the result of overindulgence in noble sentiments and good intentions.

In both domestic and foreign affairs we all get together around a table, black, white, brown and yellow men, jolly good fellows together, and drink toast after toast to Virtue. Then comes the cold gray morning after, and Virtue is only a terrible headache that no aspirin can cure.

Senator Ellender created a frightful uproar around the world when he said, after a tour of Africa, that he had not found one new nation capable of managing its life unaided. Had Adlai Stevenson or Ralph Bunche said the same thing, there would have been considerably less commotion. Such a judgment is especially nasty coming from a Louisiana Bourbon. Everybody knows it’s true. Only a handful of newly liberated African states, led by Nigeria, are capable of managing their life at all, aided or unaided.

Most of the continent has been abandoned by the European powers because their former territories presented them with insoluble problems, not just the dilemmas attendant on the relationships between imperialism and its subject people, but permanent problems, built into the very soil of the country. Europe left Africa because it had ceased to be profitable. If it wasn’t profitable for the skilled operators in London, there is certainly no reason for assuming it will suddenly become profitable for the amateurs in Lagos.

The sickness runs deeper still. Africa is an environmentally poor continent. Indonesia is potentially one of the richest regions on earth. Yet it has practically ceased to be a nation, but has become a cockpit of demagogy, chauvinism, unbridled rascality and utter incompetence. This is certainly not due to lack of help. Both Russia and the United States have poured money and expertise into the country, and it has all been sand down a rat hole.

I don’t know what Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia is up to. I met him years ago when he was still king under the French, and he impressed me as an extraordinarily astute young man. Malaysia, Nigeria, India, and Cambodia are usually described as the most viable of the new nations. (Viable, a fashionably misused word, is a medical term meaning “capable of sustaining life after birth.”)

However, if my next-door neighbors were Laos and Vietnam, I think I would have learned to make every effort to keep my nation unencumbered by powerful friendships. As a ruler of a Buddhist nation he protested against the follies of the Ngo regime, follies that were permitted if not encouraged by their American masters. As a human being he must have been appalled by the ruthless cynicism with which they were swept off the board when their usefulness was over.

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. Electioneering, on the other hand, is the art of promising everybody something, and the gaudier the promise, the better. When in the course of human events the promise confronts the possibility, the result is usually a severe hangover.

Which brings us back to Mel’s Drive-in. When the placards have all been stowed away and the beatniks are no longer singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” what then? What in fact are we doing to solve the hard economic and social realities that underlie segregation and discrimination?

“Kennedy Administration Faces Crisis, No Civil Rights Bill in ’63!” So there will be a Civil Rights Bill in ’64. But what kind of crisis will the Administration face after the bill is passed if nothing is done to implement it all in the maddeningly complex reality of American life?

Freedom is a magic word, but after the magic incantation is spoken the rabbit has to jump out of the hat, or the trick hasn’t worked.

[November 17, 1963]



Labor’s Faltering Image

The AFL-CIO has met in solemn conclave, eight years old as a united or reunited organization. A good deal of wordage in speeches, news, and publicity releases has been devoted to stock taking, inventory, reappraisal. By and large this reappraisal has been anything but agonizing. It has been smug. The leadership have exhibited, on a platform often shaken by bitter factionalism, a truly remarkable unanimity. Perhaps they have themselves all joined one union — the Washington Local of the Scenery Painters.

As a matter of fact, the labor movement in America is in a bad way. It is declining in membership relative to the working population. At the same time this working population is itself declining drastically, relative to the rest of the population.

Whole categories of labor have become obsolete. Industries, especially textiles and coal, have vanished from entire geographic regions. All over the Appalachians union locals close, paid-in welfare funds evaporate, the population is left living on relief checks in a gutted countryside. At the other extreme, well-organized semi-skilled workers in certain key industries enjoy the incomes of lawyers, doctors or small town bank presidents.

The CIO was set up to organize the unorganized. It organized about half the previously unorganized industries, and a very much smaller numerical proportion of unorganized workingmen. The united AFL-CIO promised a new drive for the unorganized. Today that proportion has declined and attempts to enter new fields, or old fields in which organization had come apart, have failed, dramatically and expensively.

The publicity from headquarters makes much of the union contribution to the solution of the pressing problems of our time — race relations, automation, housing, welfare, peace, education. As a matter of fact in every one of these areas the labor movement, whatever the professions of its leaders, is fighting a delaying action. In most instances the membership is reactionary personally, man for man, as anyone who knows anything about working-class race attitudes knows. The leadership is reactionary by default because it does not have anything resembling a social program for the latter half of the twentieth century.

It is the height of absurdity that Marx’s program, drawn up in 1848 for the latter half of the nineteenth century, should still compete successfully for men’s allegiance over half the world.

The shocking thing is that the American labor movement has lost widespread public confidence. People have ceased to believe that the working class is a progressive force in society. Not just people, but most ominously, young people. Youth has awakened in recent years and campuses are overrun with peace marchers and sitters-in and freedom riders and all sorts of uproar.

Do these obstreperous youngsters look to the labor movement for help or inspiration? Indeed they do not. They look on it with profound suspicion, distrust, or contemptuous indifference.

This is the truth, and if Mr. Meany and Mr. Reuther don’t believe it, let them ask their children at the breakfast table.

[November 20, 1963]



Superlative Theater: Lorca, Pinter, Chekhov

In twelve years the Actor’s Workshop has evolved into one of the most efficient groups in the history of the American, or any other, theater.

The name “workshop” is fitting indeed. They function something like one of those highly skilled shops that turn out working models for inventors and machine tools that are too subtle for the ordinary plant. I don’t mean that their work is experimental. It is the end product of long training in fluent cooperation and exquisitely detailed skill.

They have been widely criticized because they are a closed corporation, the female stars are married to the directors, the male leads pass all the important roles around amongst themselves. This may be hard on youngsters trying to break in or work their way up in the company, but there is no other way you can achieve the scrupulous polish that has become the Workshop’s identifying signature.

Theatrical efficiency is rare. Those companies that are always in phase, never out of balance, are always closed corporations, family affairs, with everybody married to everybody else and the children promoted from the ranks. This was true of Stanislavski's theater, of Piscator’s, as well as the Kearny Burlesque of happy, happy memory.

It so happens that at the moment they’ve got the cast segregated, the females at the Encore in [García Lorca’s] The House of Bernarda Alba, and the three principal male actors at the Marines’ Memorial in Pinter’s The Caretaker. I have already written about the beautiful coordination of Bernarda Alba; The Caretaker is smoother still. Pinter is not the world’s greatest playwright, but he is possibly the most concerned, the least frivolous, the most moral, if you will, of the playwrights of the new theater.

Ionesco and Genet are often embarrassingly cheap and silly, their plays are full of straight commercial pitches to a self-satisfied highbrow audience. Beckett for years has been turning out sausages, scarcely perceptible variations on Waiting for Godot. Pinter is far from being an allowed clown or a kept révolté; he is truly worried, truly wants to speak to the hearts trapped at the depths of the human condition. His principal fault is a certain British lower-middle-class obviousness. Tom Rosqui has a long soliloquy in The Caretaker that he makes as convincing as may be, but the play would be greatly improved if it were thrown out altogether. It dots every i and crosses every t ten times over, but still worse, it crosses too many i’s and dots too many t’s and so subverts the tragic meaning of the role.

But what a pleasure it is to watch Symonds, Rosqui and Phalen work. They’re like three daring young men on the flying trapeze. They fly through the air with remarkable ease in a play that must be gruelingly hard to make convincing. They make the point, which was muffed in London and New York — can the all-compassionate Buddha nature prevail against the imbecile ruin of the world? Saintly recluse and flip hipster are both truly charitable. Each is his own way has solved the mystery of life’s terrible consequences, but they are powerless against an old man who is utter waste incarnate, spokesman for the billion billion salmon eggs that waste away unfertilized and the giant stars that burn meaninglessly in space.

Ernest Lonner is one of my favorite people. He is a man of great theatrical wisdom and the only local representative of the style of the heroic age of the European theater. In 22 months he has made the International Repertory Theater another group that is truly coordinated, that can take a good play and turn out an organic unity, a theatrical whole, where everything fits into one unified experience. This is the only kind of directorial talent that means anything, and it is far from common.

Furthermore, he has tough material to work with. His outstanding actor is Arthur Meyer, whose personal style is strong theatrical meat indeed. Carole Cowan, Billie Dixon, Karyl Hoff, are actresses with plenty of talent, but with powerful individualities that demand voice. Carole Cowan is on leave but the rest of this company of sharply defined individuals combine to give a wise, ironic, and deeply comic reading of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a play that has been hackneyed to death by the grand tragedians of 60 years of little theaters.

It’s not hackneyed this time, but fresh and moving.

[November 24, 1963]



The Kennedy Assassination

What struck down President Kennedy? Hate.

It does not matter how the hate is qualified. The left may suspect the right and the right the left. The assassin may have been solitary, he may have been the tool of others.

The man who killed Mayor Cermak and shot at Franklin Roosevelt said, “I belong to nothing, and I suffer.” In his deranged mind he felt himself totally outcast from the human race.

Behind the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, stretched tangled webs of plotting, silent complicity, and irresponsibility which historians have never been able to unravel. We may never know fully the details of the murder of President Kennedy.

We do know that that debonnaire man, fundamentally innocent and of good will, was caught in a snarl of hatreds and exterminated, senselessly, to no end, to the benefit of no cause however bad, like a fly caught in a gear box.

For two centuries men have been playing with hatred as a political instrumentality.

The most influential political philosophers of our time have taught that the manipulation of hatred will bring about a community of love. Men have laid hold of the awful power of hatred as they have the power of electricity or of the atom, and have proposed to use it for what they conceive to be the good of men.

But hatred is not neutral like the forces of nature, it is a moral force, a force of the human soul. It is the force of positive evil, and it always kills.

Think of the assassinated of our time — the Czar in a cellar, Trotsky in exile, Negro children at Sunday school, Oriental dictators dragged through the streets by their heels — the weaving mob of hate snarled for a second and a life was snuffed out — sometimes innocent, sometimes guilty.

Who are the weavers at the loom? All men who believe that this instrument and this power can bring anything but disaster and death.

President Kennedy has been called a martyr in thousands of pulpits. Martyrs die for a cause. If out of his death comes an awakening to the great evils loose in the world, and in which we are all involved, he will indeed have been a martyr.

Otherwise, God knows what hideous beast, its hour come ’round at last, slouched towards Dallas to be born.

[November 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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