San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



September 1964

The Theater on Mt. Tamalpais
Riotous Despair
An Exemplary Church
Community versus Collectivity
On the Brink in Southeast Asia
Wagnerian Tartuffery
San Francisco Art Festival
What a Week!
James Baldwin’s Amen Corner




The Theater on Mt. Tamalpais

Off and on these many, many years, when hiking in Marin County, I’ve paused at the amphitheater on Mt. Tamalpais and wondered why it was hardly ever used. Its site is certainly one of the most magnificent on earth. There are few “Greek theaters” in Greece itself that have so spectacular a backdrop, and the ancient Greeks gave a lot of thought to the siting of their theaters and temples, and they had as fine a landscape as ours to work with.

It is not true that it is fog bound. Once the fog is in, it usually lies below that elevation. Furthermore, the south side of Mt. Tamalpais isn’t all that foggy. There are not many places in the world where, in the dry season, the weather is as reliable. The Romans built an outdoor theater in Chester, on the Welsh border near the Irish Sea. They seem to have given it plenty of use, in a climate as unreliable as any anywhere.

Some twenty years ago I wrote a series of plays on the themes of classic Greek tragedy. I used to dream about producing them in the Mt. Tamalpais theater. They’ve been performed in Paris, New York, Tokyo, and in American colleges from Howard in Washington to Washington in St. Louis, but nobody has ever so much as sniffed at them hereabouts.

I don’t care whether I am ever done there or not anymore, but I would certainly love to see the ancient Oedipus, Orestes, Iphigenia and Phaedra meet their destinies against the sea and Bay and sky and distant City. But I don’t insist; anything will do if it’s good enough. Shakespeare, Strindberg, Molière — this is a major setting for major drama. Why can’t it be used? Why is this wonderful place ever vacant on weekends from May to November?

So more praise to the folks who organized the jazz show last week — John Coppola, Fred Mergy, Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete, Malvina Reynolds. It was a thoroughly enjoyable jazz concert, by top local musicians, devoid of the high pressure, turmoil and Barnumism of Monterey.

To tell the truth, it was a worthy jazz double of my favorite musical event, “Music at the Vineyards,” which was going on at the same time. Charles Mingus’s prayer had at last been realized — “Get jazz out of the dirty cellars, the underworld, the ruthless exploiters!” Here it was, where it sounded best. And not far from Farwell Taylor’s old place where Mingus and his friends worked out the new music for the pleasure of their wives and girls and kids and comrades — no lace stockings, no dope, no cover charge.

Let’s hope that now the puzzling chastity of the mountain theater — which seemed to have been wedded in single strictness to the Mountain Play alone — has been violated, many beautiful things will happen there.

[September 2, 1964]



Riotous Despair

The City of Brotherly Love spends a week under control that differs little from martial law, after days of rioting. Vietnam breaks down once again. The Congo stays broken down. Riots come and go in a half dozen American cities. Mods and Rockers enjoy a riotous summer in Great Britain. They even have riots in Moscow and Stockholm. India, the creation of Gandhi, seems to manage some kind of riot somewhere in its vast expanse every 24 hours. Disorder spreads over the world like an illimitable corrosive stain.

It is not due to race. Blond Nordics riot with each other in Sweden. Mods and Rockers are both lily white. It is not due to poverty. The drive-ins in Marin County, the beaches in the southwest corner of San Francisco are in a chronic state of mild riot, night after night. The rioters drive sports cars and hot rods. They are the ultimate achievement of the Affluent Society.

Very few people are willing to face what is happening all over the world, in Russia, in Rumania, in Rochester, New York. It’s like death. The fool in his heart has said, “It can’t happen to me. I’ll beat the rap, somehow.” Yet all the time in every living being death moves nearer, second by second.

The very people who dispose of the dead, who were once called grave diggers, now call themselves a variety of foolish ambiguous names and thrive on providing the survivors with a highly specialized service. What service, really? A carefully processed illusion that nothing has happened. Nothing to worry about, anyway. Even the people who exterminate your aged pet dog talk an obscenely evasive gobbledygook.

So it is with what is happening to modern civilization. We are just at the point of breakthrough into a Utopia more noble than Plato’s Republic or Bellamy’s Looking Backward. But we are also, perhaps for that very reason, at the point of breakdown. Perhaps we are past it. Perhaps we are sliding irreversibly into incurable chaos and the time has gone when we could salvage ourselves and our civilization.

It is certainly not the profit system or socialism, democracy or dictatorship, that is to blame. We are all in the same Niagara-bound boat together.

I think I know what it is. All over the modern world people have lost any sense of personal identity. They look inside themselves and they don’t find any self there at all. For the person who doesn’t suffer from this anomie, this depersonalization, the tragedy can never be completely real. Dozens of people have come to me in recent years and said, “I’m breaking down. I don’t know who I am. I can’t find any center from which I operate. I can’t find any me. Am I going insane?”

Gabriel Marcel, the Roman Catholic “Personalist” philosopher and playwright, calls it “enucleation.” The lens is gone from the eye and the eye is no longer an eye. The hidden vital center of the cell, with its chromosomes that ensure its perpetuation and its mysteriously arranged molecules that preserve its integrity — the nucleus is lost, it has drained away somewhere when no one was looking. Nothing is left but some shapeless, irritable jelly that twitches under the blows of its environment.

More and more people, in a world of two billion souls, are becoming simply vehicles of despair. It is despair that loots liquor stores in Harlem or murders Hindu or Muslim in India. As long as he is alive, man has a driving force, a demand for life, that persists even after belief in life is gone. The fuel still drives the car after the ego at the wheel has died. Empty vehicles of catastrophe, vessels of wrath, they sweep down the streets of all the Baghdads, dragging by the heels the dismembered criminals who have defrauded them.

Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, has a career, a life of influence and dignity. He can’t understand rioters. The point is not that they may have been instigated, whether by provocateurs paid by Southern bigots or Red Chinese. The point is that they were instigatable. They were empty, and hate and despair poured into them like gasoline into a Molotov cocktail.

Mr. Wilkins is somebody, and I don’t mean that ironically. He is a valuable and dedicated member of the community. Have you ever seen a riot? A lynch mob? I have. Rioters are nobody. There is nothing there to dedicate. There is no more community than there is in the atoms being battered around in a cyclotron.

It’s not just rioters, illiterate adolescents in America’s worst slums. There are computers and cyclotron operators who feel that way, stenographers and maybe generals, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Parker, Dylan Thomas, the four-time loser in the gas chamber and the most photographed belle on the society page. Most of the people in the world still probably don’t, but the percentage who do grows daily.

They too are creeping towards some sort of breakthrough point. Into what?

[September 6, 1964]



An Exemplary Church

Fellowship Church is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. Howard Thurman, who with the late Alfred Fisk founded the church and shared the first pastorate, will be back in San Francisco for the festivities. There will be a dinner for him at the Fairmont on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 17, and he will preach the sermon on Sunday the 20th. They are planning an art exhibit and various other social and cultural events during the month.

Fellowship Church, in case you don’t know, is one of San Francisco’s most creative religious institutions. It has been a pioneer in effective interracial relations and in community responsibility and has been a model for similar efforts elsewhere.

When the Japanese-American community was evacuated during the war the leaders of their largest church approached Dr. Fisk, who was a professor of philosophy at State College and also an active Presbyterian minister and co-chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and suggested that he take over the church and serve the burgeoning Negro community that was replacing the evacuated Japanese.

In the days when it was located in the heart of the Negro ghetto, Fellowship Church carried on a great variety of social, educational and cultural activities, closely tied with the neighborhood. I think it was work like this, which was shared by a number of other churches and groups, which made the difference. San Francisco was not really prepared in any way to absorb such a sudden increase in its Negro population. Yet it did, and with far less friction than most communities.

That race relations got off to a better start, and were met with maturity and understanding in the early days, was due in large measure to the leadership of men like Howard Thurman and Alfred Fisk. And it was due as well to the enthusiastic cooperation of all sorts of volunteer workers and teachers who pitched in to the onerous work of building the foundations of a neighborhood community.

In recent years the church has been forced to move — the heart of the old Fillmore District of course was torn down — and it has assumed a wider community, rather than neighborhood responsibility. It is still interracial and nondenominational. The present minister, John Mangrim, is a Negro and a leader in civil rights work, the congregation is about half and half, white and Negro, with a few people of Oriental ancestry. They have very close inter-communion with the predominantly Chinese congregation of the Buddhist Universal Church on Portsmouth Square.

If we had a hundred churches like this, of assorted denominations, between Van Ness Avenue and Golden Gate Park, we would be better equipped to handle our community problems. Of course we have almost that many church buildings. So — a welcome back to my friend Howard Thurman, and another 20 years of success to Fellowship Church.

[September 9, 1964]



Community versus Collectivity

Dr. Howard Thurman, founder of Fellowship Church in San Francisco, one of the first churches in modern times to have an interracial congregation, and pastorate as well, is back in the Bay Area for their 20th anniversary. One of the subjects on which he has been talking is “The Quest for Community.” Following up last Sunday’s column, this is precisely what I had been planning to write about.

What lies at the basis of the profound illness of modern society, whether capitalist, Communist, or “middle way,” whether affluent or impoverished?

It is the loss of personal identity. In the slums of Leopoldville, the penthouses of upper Fifth Avenue, the garden suburbs, more and more people are unable to discover any meaning in themselves for themselves.

The reason for this is that modern society becomes, more and more, a pile, a heap, a collectivity of atomized, homogenized units, the indifferent data of statistics. Community, free vital relations with other living beings, grows more and more difficult. And only in communion with others can true individuality be realized.

Although communion grows more difficult, the revolt against collectivity grows too. The elite write books of sociology or poetry, or fiction protesting the emptying of man. Ordinary people simply withdraw. Adolescents in Harlem “drop out” of schools which offer them nothing of significance in their immediate lives and take up gang life which does, though on the lowest and most dangerous level.

More remarkable still, the moral acceptance of atomization and homogenization grows too. Other sociologists write books approving of the values or lack of them of the collectivity. People enjoy living in housing projects where nobody knows anybody else, in garden suburbs where the technocrats while away their boredom with switch clubs and gang bangs, in Telegraph and Greenwich Village apartments where the Madison Avenue types shed their grey flannels and basic blacks after work, tog themselves out in skin-tight jeans and turn on the hi-fi and fire up the pod.

It is no sooner uttered, than the criticism of collectivity is uses to produce more collectivity in the name of community. To quote my friend Paul Goodman: “At least in the middle class that fills the colleges, this technique of socializing is unerring. The result is a generation not notable for self-confidence, determination, initiative, or ingenuous idealism. Its result is unique in history: an elite that has imposed on itself a morale fit for slaves. Everybody apperceives in the same way. There is no need for dialogue.”

Our affluent society is destroying itself with its appetite for things. Unless we can reorganize our densely populated world into a hierarchy of communities in which men can experience each himself amongst selves, we will perish under a heap of things. Says Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, “You cannot treat either a group or an individual as a means to an end without robbing it of life substance.”

“From the standpoint of Leninism,” said Stalin in 1933, “the collective economies, and the Soviets as well, are, taken as a form of organization, a weapon and nothing but a weapon.” “One cannot expect,” says Buber, commenting on this remark, “in the nature of things, that a little tree you have turned into a club will put forth leaves.”

Art or politics, neither has meaning except as it embodies the relation of persons to persons. A civil rights law or the production of a play are significant only in action — in living terms of you and me. Beauty and justice have no content unless they are taken hold and shared by people, one to the other. Religion is indeed the opium of the people if it is not communion. Psychiatry is a pernicious fraud if it tries to adjust the mentally ill to still sicker tendencies in the spiritually impoverished mass society. The neurotic are perfectly right in withdrawing, it’s just that they don’t know how to withdraw effectively.

Mental health is more abundant life — a life of personal realization shared with other realized persons. We live on the brink of a society of leisure for all. Will this mean only ever growing, even more unsatisfied appetite for things — for objects, whether we call them wives, husbands, lovers, children, television sets or Ferraris, or even Picassos or prayers? Will it mean continuously deepening appreciation of other selves like you and me? Will it mean the opening up of new channels of ever richer dialogue, the true speech of person to person?

Unless we can restructure ourselves and our society so that man as an end in himself comes back to his own, as an individual person growing in a community of persons, this revolution our machines are making for us in spite of us will destroy us before we ever get out to torment the other unknown selves on other planets and amongst the stars.

[September 13, 1964]



On the Brink in Southeast Asia

Long before the French were defeated in Indo-China it was a dogma of American bipartisan foreign policy that the hinge of power in the Orient was the great Southeast Asian peninsula, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia. Here the door would swing into the future — an Australian Chinese Soviet Republic in the twenty-first century, or a pacific Free China of one sort or another.

SEATO was created as a door jam to control this new “Open Door.” Here the first maneuvers of brinkmanship were played, and the word was coined.

The door jam has long since disintegrated. We have never left the brink since Dien Bien Phu, but continue to teeter like a diver on the edge of a high springboard. Meanwhile, under the brink the ground crumbles away and we are far out over the edge.

It is amusing that the very people whom the radical right consider dangerous eggheads are the State and War Department expert advisors who have insisted that we hold fast. I have talked to them, as I have to Mendès-France, who chaperoned the French withdrawal and the American takeover. These are the people who first insisted on the pivotal nature of the power struggle in the Southeast Asian peninsula.

American troubles began in the first Eisenhower administration with the payment of political debts to small-minded mediocrities with what were thought to be exotic sugar plum assignments. In the course of those first four years we realized our mistake and tried to reform. Today it looks as though the damage had been irreparable. Back in those days one of the leading commentators said, “You can’t run a foreign policy in the trickiest region on earth with unemployed used car salesmen.”

For years now we have had no alternative but a holding operation, a limited war which we hoped was a war of attrition with our side as top dog. The only other possibility has been all-out war against the largest nation on earth. The only moderately stable regime in the peninsula is Cambodia, and they want nothing to do with us.

Who is being attritioned? How much American money is being poured into these jungles and rice paddies every hour? Money is cheaper than life, certainly, but it isn’t buying anything or anybody that will stay bought.

I, myself, expect the present administration to start a steady drive for a settlement between now and election day. I should imagine it will involve neutralization of the entire area, with a tacit agreement to put up only token opposition to the admission of Red China to the U.N. either this year or next. In other words, we can expect the State Department to accept De Gaulle’s position as a basis for bargaining.

Of course this will lead to a frightful outcry from the right, but the alternatives are pretty grim. Grim or not, they may be, geopolitically speaking, the wisest choice — but the public is far from being ready to accept them. And then — Eisenhower promised a negotiated peace in Korea as soon as he was elected. Some people of course called him an agent of the Kremlin, but not very many — not enough to make any difference.

The electorate, for better or worse, is usually for peace at any price. Woodrow Wilson knew that.

[September 16, 1964]



Wagnerian Tartuffery

“Well,” said I to the boss when I turned in last Sunday’s piece, “thank heaven opera season is coming up and I can stop writing about religion or where are we all going. I’m beginning to sound like a common scold.”

Alas, what should I go to at the Opera House but Parsifal. I have never understood why this thing holds the stage even at the Wagner temple of Bayreuth. Long ago James Gibbons Huneker said of it, “You see a lot of women-hating men, deceiving themselves with spears, drugs, old goblets, all manner of juggling formulas, yet being waited upon by a woman — a poor, miserable witch. In Act II, you are transported to the familiar land of Christmas pantomime. A bad magician seeks to destroy the castle of the noble knights, and evokes a beautiful phantom to serve his purpose. There are spells, incantations, blue lights, screaming to make the blood run cold.”

So my mentor, in lines that have been quoted at every American performance by unnumbered critics. My former landsmen and schoolmates, Brockway and Weinstock, use the words “ill, weary, petering out, dubious, ripe beyond palatability, rope of shoddy, phosphorescence of decay, silly, sickly innocence, sanctimonious, neurotic, completely undigested twaddle, portentous machinery with singularly stale and flat results, nothing moves, shrill, strident, pale, negative, stultified action, plainly dreary” — all in two pages, and in addition quote once again the famous Huneker passage. I don’t know what Shaw said about it, but it must have been something.

It’s all so unclean. My daughter Mary said it was like a seance with a very expensive Gypsy fortune teller. Nietzsche was right when he broke with Wagner and saw him as one of those muddy minded vulgarizers of ideals who were busy dealing Western civilization blows from which it would never recover.

Whatever musical invention Wagner had once, by Parsifal it had become sludge, washing around in a dirty, empty mind. It isn’t even limburger and sauerkraut religiosity, it’s just maundering. You look at your program and you discover you’ve scribbled it in the dark with all sorts of funny cracks and despairing yelps, and then you realize you’ve been trouncing a tar baby. It is best to pass by on the other side of the road, wagging your head.

The production didn’t help. The front scrim was almost impenetrable and peering through it for hours produced noticeable eye strain. At the back were three or four more layers of scrim against which they kept projecting the Rorschachs of the Weltgeist. Poor Irene Dalls hardly ever got up off the floor but had to wallow around like somebody in a Mandan, North Dakota imitation of Martha Graham. They’ll be calling her Dusty Dalls backstage for the rest of the run. God knows, she tried, and deserved a better fate. Why don’t people refuse such roles?

And as for the Opera — if they want to use up all the surplus scrim they got cheap from the camouflage department after the last war — why not put on Pelléas and Mélisande? Now that’s a real opera, and as scrimy as all get out. The general effect is that something went wrong with the aquarium pump, but it is great music and a moving, actable plot. Besides, it’s frightfully chic. As probably the most perfect expression of Art Nouveau, we’d be riding the crest of the current revival.

The next show we saw just happened to be, in a sense, about precisely Wagner, Parsifal and all that jazz — Ronny Davis’s Mime Troupe in a commedia dell’ arte version of Molière’s Tartuffe. What a pleasure! How clean and bright! After Parsifal I certainly felt somebody needed his mouth washed out, and Tartuffe got me back to sanity, sanitized and deodorized.

Davis gets better all the time, himself as actor and director, and his people as actors with a real new style. It’s all so free and easy, like a bunch of bright kids doing it for pins. And it is so thoroughly in the immemorial comic tradition now dying out under the demands of a sterile professionalism in this TV culture. Outside the Chinese theater, we’ve had nothing like it in town since Louie left the Kearny Burlesque.

So I haven’t been able to avoid religion in this piece, because, not only are both Parsifal and Tartuffe explicitly concerned with that subject, but Molière was a profoundly religious man — like Rabelais — and his plays have a hidden evangelical power, like the Gospel parables. While Wagner — do you really want to know where all this fake religiosity came from? Go back and read the documents and correspondence. He wrote it shamelessly and cold-bloodedly for one thing only — money.

[September 20, 1964]



San Francisco Art Festival

Today San Francisco’s 18th Annual Art Festival opens on the Fulton Street Mall in the Civic Center and will run through next Sunday. The hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

About two thousand artists and craftsmen will participate. The purchase prizes amount to $5000. Dance groups and musicians will perform, and the Mime Troupe will give their Tartuffe, poets will read, there will be demonstrations of arts and crafts.

The poetry readings, in which I, as a poet, am especially interested, will be at 4 o’clock on Saturday and Sunday and will be largely confined to younger people, just beginning to be known. This is a fine idea, at least in this instance, but it raises the crucial problem that besets all these shows, whether in Paris or Capetown.

No community has been able to persuade its leading artists to continue showing after they become successful. I was one of the founders of the Chicago No-Jury Show, and showed with similar “Salons des Refusés” in other cities I’ve lived in. Back in the twenties the open show, where anybody could exhibit who put up the modest fee and took care of his own exhibiting, was, all over the world, the place where you saw the most vital painting.

Those were also the days when I could buy a Kandinsky for $200, a Gleizes for $300, an Ozenfant for $100 and a Moholy-Nagy for $50. All these people showed in open shows, as did Marsden Hartley, Hilaire Hiler or Stuart Davis in America. In addition, there were always lots of lovely naïve paintings by self-taught bootblacks, fry cooks and society ladies.

Today, dizzy with success, our leading artists are too nice to demean themselves by associating with Sunday painters and elderly lady watercolorists. “It cheapens your product,” they say.

The brutal fact is that the art racket today, including the leading artists, most critics, magazines, dealers and galleries, is far more mercenary than the most ruthless so-called capitalist enterprise. The sons and grandsons of George P. Babbitt search their consciences for any slightest failure of social responsibility, while the descendants of the revolutionary painters of the first quarter of the century have become the Babbitts and even the Robber Barons of the nineteen sixties. It is in the ranks of the formerly dedicated and idealistic that Marx’s famous “cash nexus” makes its last stand with characteristic savagery and lack of foresight and insight.

A community art festival is one of the finest activities a city can engage in. The depersonal political structure, the convenient arrangement of conflicts called society, both pass away and for a brief time are replaced by true community, engaged in an activity intrinsically noble.

But the great panjandrums of painting can’t afford to associate with the purveyors of inferior commodities. They are too busy posturing as pariahs, outcast and rejected enemies of the bourgeoisie, latter-day Van Goghs, Artauds, and Rimbauds — at $14,000 a year in their academic chairs and $5000 a picture in their fashionable galleries.

[September 23, 1964]



What a Week!

That was the week that was! Burton’s Hamlet in the movies, James Baldwin’s Amen Corner at the Actor’s Workshop in a splendid production by Frank Silvera, Der Rosenkavalier, Otello, and Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Opera, Damascus at the International Repertory Theater, and a comprehensive show of one of the great masters of Cubism, Albert Gleizes, at the San Francisco Museum.

All of it presided over by the full moon of San Francisco’s midsummer, which comes in the weeks other places call Indian Summer. This is our own season, after the bulk of the tourists have gone, our finest days and nights, which we keep for ourselves, and you can’t say we don’t do our best to enjoy it.

Beginning with Figaro the Thursday before, we’ve certainly had a run of superlatively beautiful operas. Figaro is one we do very well under any circumstances, but this time the cast was perfectly balanced. Everybody could sing and act as well, really act. Furthermore, the cast included about half the girls I’ve fallen in love with in the past couple of years. Reri Grist was a sparkling Susannah, and Lee Venora, in the least engaging part in the script, stole the stage whenever she was on. (I want to see this girl as Mélisande.) Pilar Lorengar, in both voice and person, gave off exactly the right note of dreamy elegance.

The ultimate word in dreamy elegance in all the arts must be Schwartzkopf in Der Rosenkavalier. This is one of the great experiences of the life of art. I sometimes think I could see her once a month in the same role the rest of my life and never be sated.

The Gleizes show called back all my own youth. On my wall are pictures I painted long, long ago and brought with me when I came to San Francisco. They owe much to this special style of geometric synthetic cubism. Gone these many years are the religious subjects like his that my first wife, Andrée Rexroth, and I painted together — a Blessed Virgin in the robes of the Immaculate Conception, but holding the Christ Child, who in turn is holding a chalice with a Host above it, on either side St. Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. I think it is still in the possession of the former Anglican Bishop of Japan.

Seeing Gleizes’s Crucifixion and his Triptych, those far away years came flooding back — just like Marcel Proust when he ate that cookie he’d never tasted since childhood.

I have never heard of a comprehensive show of Gleizes in all these years, although, at least programatically, he was one of the most important painters of the first quarter of the century. As an historical and theoretical pivot he may have been more important than any of his colleagues. Unfortunately, just as an artist, he was not all that good. Certainly he was inferior to Juan Gris, with whom he shared the leadership of a purified, formal Cubism, let alone to Picasso, Braque and Léger.

The other night Ronnie Davis said, “Hmm. Looks like Lonner is going to become the Max Reinhardt of San Francisco.” Sure does. The new home of the International Repertory Theater is one of the most comfortable and efficient intimate theaters I have ever seen anywhere. Ernst Lonner has a special talent for the Pre-War One “theater of revolt,” and unusual sympathy and understanding of Strindberg. Besides this, Lonner is the last exponent of the production and direction styles of the Middle Europe of those days.

If you want to know what the theater in the transition from Naturalism to Expressionism was like, the International Repertory Theater is the place to find out. I don’t know how he manages to connect so perfectly with this tradition. He is about my age, and by the time I was grown up, the long, sad tale of theatrical counterrevolution had begun.

Damascus is not only the first full-length Expressionist play, it is a shameless record of Strindberg’s own madness, his struggle against it and his final victory. Like all revelations of the mad, it can be embarrassing in its clutching intimacy, but clutch it certainly does.

If you are going to unveil the most personal details of your life and loves, you have to be a very great soul to get away with it. Strindberg, when he says, “Look. This is me as a schizophrenic,” is deeply moving. Certain contemporaries, when they say, “Look at me, I am a heel,” are just plain ordinary embarrassing.

Lonner’s production and direction work like beautiful machinery. It is astonishing how efficiently he moves his people, modulates their speech and plays on your emotions. Expressionist techniques are just beginning to be revived and they are reviving the theater.

“Great,” say I, “let’s go back to Reinhardt and see where we got lost and start over.”

[September 27, 1964]



James Baldwin’s Amen Corner

I usually reserve my opinions about the arts, music, theater, for the Sunday column and Wednesdays try to concentrate on social questions of various sorts. Today I’m going to make an exception. I’m going to do some thinking aloud about James Baldwin’s Amen Corner, now at the Actor’s Workshop.

In the first place, go see it. It’s beautifully acted and directed. Bea Richards, who plays the lead, is an actress of exceptional skill, with her own uniquely personal tone. I hope Frank Silvera can get bookings for the play both around the country and in Europe. A world tour would make them all famous.

Would it make them successful ever after? It might by now, although the wonderful all-Negro Hamlet that toured the world from Hollywood a generation ago had no such effect. Its cast came home and went back to work as postal clerks, movie extras, and servants.

The reason I think it should tour Europe it that it gives a true picture of an important segment of American Negro life — besides, of course, I wish the company all the success they deserve. Nobody gets lynched. No rich white women rape Negroes or vice versa. Nobody has an illegitimate baby by Young Massa. Nobody takes dope. Nobody says, “I hate all white men,” or vice versa. In fact, the very word “white” only occurs a couple of times in the play and then quite fortuitously.

For 50 years, from Englewood in Chicago to the Haight-Fillmore district in San Francisco, I have lived in the Negro ghetto most of my life. Baldwin has an infallible ear. The people in his play sound just like many of my neighbors — at least the ones that form the congregations of the store-front churches. And they each sound different, accent, inflection characteristic bywords, reflect the strictly defined caste structure and origins of even so small a Negro community.

It is not the best play ever written. It gets pretty sentimental at times, and the cast can get astonishingly lachrymose. But there is nothing false about it. This is the way it is.

By being faithful to the modest facts of Negro life, by portraying tragedy which is only commonplace, Baldwin has not just created a work of art which, though small in scale, is genuinely heroic. He has done something which contrasts most significantly with his recent career as a “race spokesman.” The moral issues are universal. The basic plot could happen to Eskimos in Baffin Land or to the gilded rich in Presidio Terrace. But the picture of a starved and inhibited people in the midst of American life is unforgettable.

It is not a “smashing indictment.” You’re not asked to sign anybody’s protest. You are left with certain inescapable conclusions to mull over, quietly, at your leisure. Injustice recollected in tranquility, to misquote Wordsworth. So, in the long run, this play is far more effective than Baldwin’s searing oratorical protests, and equally important, it is not an indulgence which cripples him as an artist.

The best propaganda is, as always, the faithful, careful job of artistic integrity which avoids all hint of overt propaganda.

[September 30, 1964]


“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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