San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



September 1965

After the Watts Riot
Two Books on the Berkeley FSM
More on Wine
A Promising Fall Season
The Quiet Center
Performing Arts
The Latest News
Unfashionable Opera Reviews
Race Issues and the Arts



After the Watts Riot

It seems to me there have been just about enough post mortems on Watts. However, the enthusiastic response to my own two modest columns of observations has me puzzled, and I feel I should make matters clearer. I have received complimentary letters from the complete spectrum — of color and politics. If southern belles and race militants both think I’m right, I wonder if I am not either totally wrong or misleading, or just plain platitudinous. I’ll try to be coldly objective, like a scientific observer from another planet.

First, it is far later than we think. Young Negroes are simply rejecting outright the prospect before them. They want a total change, right now, while they’re around to enjoy it. They are refusing to continue in, or grow up and enter, the kind of life this society is prepared to grant them. In many, possibly the majority of instances, they are not prepared for any other, but their attitude is: “That’s your problem, Whitey. You made it the way it is, now make it over, now.”

Civil rights, educational schemes, poverty programs, political representation — it may look as if all these things were being opened up with great rapidity and maximum good will on the part of the white community. They are not. You may think it unjust and ungrateful of him, but the young American Negro feels that he is being paid back an enormous debt of 400 years’ standing in bits and dribbles. He feels that he is being fobbed off with token payments on the interest, and he wants the principal, now, in cash.

Every delay, every political run-around, every hypocritical or temporizing speech in the conflict over school desegregation or the administration of the poverty program, here, now, in San Francisco, is just another twist in the baling wire tying down the safety valve on a boiler that was ready to explode before these programs were ever started. If the delay continues, the boiler is going to bust, just like it did in Watts. I’m not taking sides — I’m stating a fact.

For years the leaders of the civil rights organizations have been telling the white society that it was all they could do to hold back violence and channel protest into socially constructive action. They have been called Communist agents for their pains. The wrath of Watts was directed against Dick Gregory, John Lomax, the Negro press and politicians, Martin Luther King, the local Negro clergy, just as much as it was against the Mayor and Chief of Police.

There are no end of problems the Negro community must solve for itself once it gets the chance, but the basic problem is a white problem and it must be solved immediately. Those who stand in the way of solutions, on boards of education or civic or federal committees, are inciting violence and endangering the lives of you and me. If hell breaks loose in Hunters Point, a CORE button, a sixty-fourth part of Negro ancestry, a Negro spouse, or “some of your best friends,” even dozens of them, aren’t going to do you a bit of good. You’re going to be “Whitey,” which is nigger spelled backwards. Of course this is an appalling situation, and there’s no justice to it whatever. There is still time to forestall it, but very little time.

[September 1, 1965]

NOTE: For the situationists’ much more positive take on the Watts riot, see The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy.



Two Books on the Berkeley FSM

Whenever the Bolsheviks wanted to eliminate their opponents, they accused them of being “objectively” agents of the enemy, the White Guards, the imperialist powers, the capitalist class, the Fascists, the Nazis, the Japanese. Stalin managed to make “objective” the most bloodstained word in any Indo-European language. Lenin laid down a very simple principle — “who-whom” — who speaks or acts for whom? or as we used to say in Latin, cui bono? to whom is the benefit?

Today, with all sorts of revolt, protest, dissent, seething and bubbling all over the world, I have come to make my own judgments on something like the principle, Who stands to benefit in each instance for each specific rumpus, and why? I am moved to write about this by two paperbacks that have showed up for review: The Berkeley Student Revolt, edited by Seymour Martin Lipset and Sheldon S. Wolin; and Berkeley: The New Student Revolt, by Hal Draper.

Objectively, both these books are textbooks or basic collateral reading in current history and sociology, rushed out in time for autumn classes all over the country — and I presume they’ll be gobbled up in other countries, too. In other words, if you’re lucky to pick the right course, you’ll be able to get two to five credits studying yourself “making history.” To whose benefit?

There are two aspects of these books, the oldies and the youngies, and two specifically interesting aspects of the activities of each.

First, there is the profound moral revulsion, the disgust with the basic premises of our rapidly disintegrating civilization. This is instinctive, devoid of specific program, spontaneous in action, largely personal in results, and it involves immense numbers, a majority of the most perceptive and intelligent youth in any one place, and the same proportions in colleges and even high schools in every country but, presumably, China, where such things are not permitted.

As is only too apparent in these two books, the Berkeley revolt did not focus on the root causes of this disaffiliation or nausée as the existentialists call it, at Berkeley. The vast majority of student activists in response to sociological questionnaires revealed that they were quite content with what is wrong with Berkeley. They didn’t think it was too big, in fact they had all come there voluntarily because it had a larger population than some nations. They believed that the administration and faculty were doing their best to provide the best possible education.

The issues of the revolt were juridical and technically administrative and they remained so, but only acquired a strong emotional coloring. Speakers like Paul Goodman, who attack the very foundations of both the educational system and the “youth culture,” were applauded not for the real content of their criticisms, but because they were “on our side” and against “them.” In other words, the revolt was caused by deeply embedded basic factors, of which only a tiny minority were even aware, and focused in action on secondary or superficial aspects . . . it was an unconscious revolt — just like Watts.

As for the oldies, the faculty spokesmen, theoreticians, and programmatic elderly youth, they had the answers, plenty of them. Again with only a tiny handful of exceptionalists, these answers were political, they were the long ago bankrupt programs, resurrected from these people’s own youth in the days before the last war. They were trained speakers, with an impressive array of social analysis jargon, developed in long gone years of, as Vanzetti said, “talking on windy street corners to scornful men.”

Here at last was their chance, the masses were in motion. Each one had his program, the end product of a generation of radical factionalist infighting, “tempered like steel in the fires of the class struggle” indeed. Surely if presented with sufficient force everybody would be converted — to each mutually contradictory program simultaneously, because each was the only correct one.

This leads straight to the extraordinary malice of the inter-oldies’ polemics. Their attacks on one another are utterly foreign to the moral and psychological context — the actual revolt of youth — in which they occur. For this reason all their quarrelsome wordage seems completely irrelevant. Who? Whom? Does youth really listen? Is a new Fifth International, with a new thirty-two point program, going to come out of all this? No. As one fellow said to me quietly after Isaac Deutscher’s speech this summer, “He blew his cool.” Who is buying? Few indeed.

There is no great difference between these salesmen and the recent displays of fall clothes. “Just the jumper to go limp in.” “If you plan to climb the fence, be sure to wear culottes.” “A crazy raincoat to resist firehosing.” I say, or in other words, come, come.

[More on this subject one day soon.]

[September 5, 1965]



More on Wine

In answer to requests for information about low-priced table wine, sold by the gallon, I’ve been trying some of the bulk products of the better wine makers. I must say they are all pretty good for the money, at least those I’ve tried so far — Almaden, Louis Martini, Charles Krug.

I was forcibly reminded of the column by Sydney Harris depreciating California wines, which began these wine pieces of mine. There do not exist any French wines of the type sold in grocery stores and the Monoprix and Prisunic (big French chain stores) which even remotely compare with ours.

Furthermore, age does wonders with them. I recently got a bottle of Louis Martini Mountain Zinfandel which had no vintage date but which gave evidence of being several, possibly 8 or 10, years old. It certainly brought me up short with astonishment. Zinfandel is far from being my favorite wine grape: I don’t care much for the faint raspberry-like flavor. But this bottle was like one of the best Rhone wines, a Chateauneuf de Pape or even a Hermitage, or again, like some of the finest richer Spanish wines. Yet “Mountain” prefixed to the variety seems to means the cheaper line with most California wine makers.

I do wish I could have given a glass of it to Sydney Harris. I wonder, being an ex-Chicagoan myself, do the inhabitants of that city drink anything but Capone moonshine? Would he have known the difference?

Speaking of Spanish wines, let me recommend the shop of my old friend John Wilde, the Atlantic and Pacific Trading Company, on upper Market Street. He has what may well be the finest selection of Spanish wine anywhere, including Spain itself. He has other business interests and seems to import Spanish wines more as a hobby. He certainly loves them passionately and is most knowledgeable about them.

It is unfortunate that most Americans know Spanish wine only from the cheap bottles found in baskets in cut-rate liquor stores. Those aren’t bad at all for the modest price, but there are many excellent wines, mostly grown in the Riojas district, which compare favorably with all the first and second growth French wines.

The climate and soil in the major wine-growing regions of Spain are much like ours here in California, and so the wines are similar, very bright and rich, with high flavor, and low in tannin and those mysterious substances that make wine “flinty” or mousy.

If you drink wine regularly at dinner, you can call the wine maker direct and get an assortment of 24 of his best wines and then drink your way through the case at leisure, making notes. In a very few months you will have sampled all the truly fine California wines and will be an authority.

I did this in July with the new Christian Brothers varietals, as I told you. August was given over to Almaden wines of the year 1960. One of the most delicious spicy wines I have ever tasted is their Gewürztraminer. Gewürtz means spicy, the wine has a faint aroma of quinces. Try it with filet of sole or breast of chicken.

[September 8, 1965]



A Promising Fall Season

The Summer “season,” now one of the most active in the country, draws to an end and San Francisco’s own Fall season for us inhabitants begins, and everything is coming up orchids.

The Actor’s Workshop has its schedule straightened out. They dropped some of the old chestnuts they had thought about doing and now plan five plays solid enough to satisfy everybody — a long-ago Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Edward the Second, Molière’s Don Juan, Strindberg’s The Father, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Saul Bellow’s The Last Analysis.

That Bellow is a great writer is to my way of thinking a myth manufactured by the elder politicians of the Partisan Review, and he is, to date at least, simply not a playwright at all. However, he has rewritten this piece and who knows, it may come off.

The fact that I don’t like the plays written by the General Staff of America’s Cultural Front seems to distress the boys at the Workshop. I don’t notice that my panning of Tennessee Williams’s Milk Train had any effect on the box office. Still, when I do praise something, it does up the take, but for the great Bellow and the great Williams, the nut, I’m sure, will always be handsome enough to stand a little cavil. As for the rest of the schedule, I think it’s just dandy.

Even more impressive are the new plans for the Encore. As we all know, when it comes to original plays by the locals, Herb and Jules were somewhat to seek, tastewise, don’t you know. The only good one they ever did was by George Hitchcock. The rest, including Blau’s own effort, were frighteningly bad and most conventional.

The scheme now is to use the Encore for the genuine San Francisco School, a group of avant-garde writers famous from Omsk to Reykjavik to Hobart but so far with scant honor in their own bailiwick, and for other new young vital et cetera playwrights. There’s talk about Maguire’s Point Conception, Ferlinghetti’s Routines, and maybe even Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid talking Mick McClure’s lion language.

They should get Allen Ginsberg in a corner and make him write a play. Or drum up a committee to ghost it, and just let him sign his name. Tennessee wouldn’t be in the running; you’d have to beat them away from the ticket office with ball bats. Real problem seems to be a very limited cast, maybe only four, available for the Encore.

I hardly need to play up the autumn schedule for the Opera. This is without a doubt one of the most extraordinary lists of twelve operas ever put together in the U.S.A. You just don’t know how lucky you are, you people, you. Each opera is, in its own special way, substantial both musically and dramatically. Lulu is certainly the best opera ever uttered by the Schoenberg school, and Wedekind’s plays, great enough on their own, were greatly improved by being shortened and combined into one.

Another thing, the opera offers a field day for designers up on the latest — the revival of the opulent and snaky art of the 1900s. I hope a lot of people took my advice and went to see Lulu when it was given at the Playhouse as straight drama but from, substantially, the opera libretto.

As Lulu is to 20th-century German music, so is Pelléas and Mélisande to 20th-century French music. In fact, Pelléas is probably greater than any other Nabis, all the last Romanticisms that were snowed under by the Classical Revival spearheaded by the Cubists. As an integral work of art, it is at least as good as any poem of Mallarmé’s, and certainly any painting by Puvis de Chavannes or Maurice Denis, or any novel by Huysmans and ilk.

The only work to compare with it as sheer all-encompassing summation of the sensibility of an epoch was done in architecture, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Horta’s Tassel House, Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, Mackintosh’s Glasgow Art School, and, of course, our own Willis Polk’s Hallidie Building.

In the last few years the demimale lace panty set have taken up Tiffany glass and all that and priced it out of the market, and made the whole revival of the taste of the first decade of the century a very very dear camp — like $450 for a desk lamp, and God knows what price for the few paintings by Klimt left in existence.

I don’t care, as Eva Tanguay used to say back in that Beautiful Epoch. I was there first. I just love all that jive. Yvette Guilbert singing Renée Vivien set to music by Busoni, now that’s what I call Art, and so did my mother. Anyway, I saw Mary Garden in Pelléas and Mélisande when I was just a little bitty shaver and I intend to go and have a good cry, right in the midst of all that misty music.

When is the San Francisco Symphony going to give us some similarly adventurous programming? I ain’t all that young, I can’t wait another twenty years.

[September 12, 1965]



The Quiet Center

Last week I was away, in a cabin deep in the woods, recollecting myself. No papers. No radio. No phone number. I go away as often as I can, which is not very often. Sometimes I write. Mostly I don’t even think. I just contemplate — the forest, the world beyond it, myself, or the object of contemplation that comes when the mind empties itself of itself. Sometimes all existence seems to slip into focus. All its violence and tragedy and disorder take on a form and meaning that the mind can grasp briefly. Then the turmoil of existence seems a matter of scarcely perceptible changes of phase, like an ever so slightly varying colored light shifting over an immense diamond.

A message got through to me. The paper was going through a change of phase, and this column along with it. Now I will be, for a while at least, on a page of writing on general cultural matters. The column won’t change much. It’s just me anyway, what I think about what interests me, whether it’s jazz, or conservation, or painting, or the Free Speech Movement, or racial equality, or civic affairs, or war and peace, or chamber music, or international politics. But The Man said he’d like it if I led off with some general observations about culture.

You may not think so, but I was making such in the first paragraph. What holds a civilization together, and makes the difference between creative growth and decay? What is the foundation that underlies and sustains all the activities of a people and energizes and forms that special unity we call culture? Peace. The peace which comes from the habit of contemplation. It is not intellectual knowledge of the unity of human endeavor, nor a philosophical notion of the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is an inward sense and an abiding quality of life, a temper of the soul. It is not rare nor hard to find. It offers itself at moments to everyone, from early childhood on, although less and less often if it is not welcomed. It can be seized and trained and cultivated until it becomes a constant habit in the background of daily life. Without it life is only turbulence, from which eventually meaning and even all intensity of feeling die out in tedium and disorder.

Culture. Back there in the city orchestras are rehearsing, painters are painting, singers are warbling scales, actors are learning parts, writers are pacing the floor or pounding the typewriter. People are struggling to achieve their ends, to make themselves known, to make money, to find love, a million million little electric charges of acquisitiveness surging through a huge dynamic field. What holds it all together? Only that inward peace in which acquisitive tensions are resolved. To the disorderly it is disordered. To the rapacious, man is wolf to man. To the futile, life is meaningless. It does not have a meaning which can be summed up in a mathematical equation, an order with a conclusion which can be demonstrated by infallible logic. There is no “proof” of existence. There is only creative response. The source of that response is the quiet habit of openness to a harmony which is beyond the individual, but which contains and fulfills him.

When this creative response and its sense of the wholeness of life is widely diffused through a society, we can speak of culture or civilization. The society is alive and growing. As it dies out, the society withers. When it is gone the society is dead, though it may last, massive and sterile and affluent, like a golden mummy, for centuries, or, on the other hand, be only a geographical expression for vast chaos and misery.

[September 13, 1965]



Performing Arts

There’s an assortment of things I’d like to write about for this column, with not much connection between them.

First, the Opera. So far, this has been, as Alex Fried called Meistersinger, a very bouncy season all round. Andrea Chenier is not my idea of a well-organized opera, nor of very good music, but it went over surprisingly well. Die Fledermaus is of course an overt romp, but it is also one of those angelically innocent human products that make you hope the race may someday become generally sane and well and good. Besides, this time it’s got a bevy, or covey, of my favorite women, Costa, Grist, Cervena, and a member of my family, my former secretary, Marguerite Ray.

Since I really only go to the theater to look at beautiful women, I can’t complain. They’re all such nice girls, too. It’s not easy to get nothing but nice girls on an opera stage. As you know from the papers, some of them are in the business of being holy terrors, and singing is just incidental. I think one of the most remarkable things about the San Francisco Opera is precisely this bounce in most everything it does, which is a reflection of the wonderful [illegible word] Kurt Adler is able to build around him. At the same time he insists on efficient direction, adequate rehearsal, opera as music drama, rather than a concert of overdressed stars.

Second subject, Jerry Ets-Hokin’s latest blast. Is the Opera House a playground of the rich? I think Jerry only goes to the subscription series and then never takes a peek at anybody above the boxes. This is a notion derived from believing everything you read in “Maggie and Jiggs.” After all, it isn’t life, it’s just the funny paper.

The vast majority of people who attend the Opera House for concerts, ballet, symphony or opera are members of the old-time “learned” professions, doctors, lawyers, and so forth, and their wives, and an ever-growing number of the new professions from electronic engineers to advertising men, and so-called career women — these on the main floor and boxes, and above them the miscellaneous white-collar and middle-middle classes, and above them the young and the proletariat. The rich are in the boxes, although many of the box holders are in fact professional people, and sparsely sprinkled through the main floor.

It is true that we should have more activities designed to get the sort of things done in the Opera House out amongst the people. Although we have all sorts of school programs and special performances now, we could use a lot more. The answer, certainly, is not to starve or cripple the Opera House.

The answer is to get music, dance and drama out into the neighborhoods. Every school and many branch libraries have an auditorium. These are practically never used at night or for programs unconnected with the school or library. Just as we lock up our school playgrounds for the hours when they are most needed, so the city is full of facilities for the performing arts which are unused for months on end, even by the institution itself.

We need much more of the public parks, especially during the summer tourist season and during our own Indian Summer season. Why not poetry readings in the red-district? Why not use the bandstand for other things besides the Municipal Band? If all sorts of commercial enterprises can take over and disrupt the Civic Center, why not more things like the Art Festival? The possibilities are endless, and the alternative is a city that is a Bay Window Watts.

How about corporation patronage, Jerry? You’re a corporate executive. Practically all the big corporations that have buildings of their own have very nifty auditoriums in those buildings. Think of what it would do for the old Image to have a PG&E Chamber Music Series or Shell Tape Music Concerts or Southern Pacific — what would that be? Honegger’s choo-choo and railroad music concert, conducted by Maestro Beebe.

We are going to have to face the fact that in a computerized society we will have to provide all sorts of things to keep people out of mischief. Man does not live by portable radio alone. Live performing arts are far more spectacular sports. Unlike television, the spectator is drawn in and involved. The next step is active participation in the music or dance or drama.

The final step is the domestication of the arts. Trotsky used to envisage a world in which everybody, after the revolution, would paint, sing, play instruments, act in very local neighborhood theaters, all for their own satisfaction. Well, the revolution has come. It isn’t the one the Bolsheviks had in mind, but come it has. And now we’ve got to teach people to like strawberries and cream, or they are going to tear down the house.

[September 19, 1965]



The Latest News

Sure confusing. It’s a real miracle the papers are coming out at all.* Last night I spoke to a friend whose job was largely chair borne up till now. “How’s things in the shop?” “Frantic. I was there to 5 this morning.” It’s like the old days of the wild Chicago newspaper business I grew up in. Everybody from the Top Man down is working like beavers full of benzedrine to turn out a newspaper that will still be better than the ones before the change. Everybody except us columnists. All we have to do is think. And answer all the questions everybody, without exception, asks you. Questions to which nobody has the answers.

It’s the greatest thing that has happened to San Francisco since the geostatic disturbance of 1906. In this business it’s a byword that “San Francisco’s a great newspaper town.” I guess it is, people sure take their papers seriously, for which we are all duly grateful.

It is pure accident that I wrote a piece last week about calm, contemplation, meditation and general peaceableness in the woods. I am always surprised and immensely flattered by the fan mail columns like that bring out. There is a catch phrase, “superficial journalism,” which seems to carry the implication that superficiality is the quality to be expected and ever that it is what the great public wants. I think this is no longer true, if ever it was. Today the superficialities, except for bits to fill holes in the makeup and enliven the diet, can safely be left to the airwaves.

What does it all mean? That is what the modern reader wants to know as he faces the deluge of news from all over the world. Of course nobody really does know the answers, but at least the journalist can envelop the puzzles of life in a tissue of plausibility.

As Louis Aragon, the French poet, said when he gave up surrealism and went into politics, “Why should we spend our time manufacturing synthetic nightmares and call them art? All we have to do is pick up the daily paper to find real, factual events far more fantastic than the wildest dreams of surrealism.”

“America Needs Indians” has the answer. Tonight at the Committee, 622 Broadway, at 8 and 10:30 p.m., they are giving a sensorium. A sensorium is like a happening, only more so. Color, sound, food, drink, smells, voices, Indians dancing, non-Indians dancing, all designed to turn you on to giving Washington D.C. and New York back to the Indians so the rest of America can retire to the reservations and sit in the sun. Sounds like just what the doctor ordered — the real meaning of all the hard news of the 20th century.

[September 20, 1965]

*In late summer 1965, the two San Francisco newspapers, the Chronicle and the Examiner, negotiated a merger of sorts, under which the Chronicle became the city’s sole morning daily while the Examiner changed to afternoon publication, and the two produced a joint Sunday edition.



Unfashionable Opera Reviews

Opera is three weeks old, so it’s about time for a glance back. As usual I seem to be a minority of one. (Until two books and a magazine copped that title, I planned to use it for my autobiography — due out at long last late this winter. Now I’m going to call it “An Autobiographical Novel,” although it contains fewer lies than most autobiographies. I just thought it would give the Dewey decimal system fits.) Anyway, to return to our muttons, I don’t seem to agree with my colleagues about anything.

I thought Andrea Chenier was a lousy choice, explicable only if the stars wanted to sing it. The music is absurd, hackneyed and disorganized, and so is the plot. Our contribution was excellent. It was beautifully staged, and the men did their best to direct it, musically and dramatically. But the final comeuppance was that old Nelly Melba-Caruso scene. Man, like I don’t dig it, man, it’s a bad scene. I thought the only singers on the bill of fare who worked were Sona Cervena and Richard Fredricks.

La Bohème I thought simply appalling. Renata Tebaldi is as incongruous a Mimi as Joan Sutherland is as most anything. Furthermore, everybody on stage seemed to be in a different theater. One was doing the Met Bohème, another La Scala’s, another London’s, and several seemed to be doing Toledo, Ohio’s. My theory is, if these people don’t come to the rehearsals, don’t pay them — no matter who they are.

Die Fledermaus I thought splendid. It was directed with great aplomb and efficiency. The cast was perfect, everybody fitted the part. Again I especially want to plug Sona Cervena, who I don’t think is getting the breaks from the critics this season. True, her singing of Prince Orlofsky was full of color, character and throaty accents. So what did you want, Bach? Like pure and abstract? Besides, she looked terrific — like Renée Vivien or Michael Strange, the trousered and monocled poetic Barrymore wife who used to steal the show from anybody — Duse or Galli-Curci, whenever she appeared in a box.

I thought the computerized stage sets were an absolute camp, as they should be for a show like this. Again, like it’s Strauss, man, Johann Strauss. It ain’t a libretto by Strindberg with music by Webern and it don’t need no decor by Picasso. All those flouncy clothes were crazy, and the mysterious comings and goings of props, flats and flies was hilarious. The final note of contrast, Mary Costa’s chaste Edwardian walking dress, in a blue used nowhere else in the show, was a real inspiration — besides being very Mod indeed. She still had it on when I called back stage. I hope she takes it home and wears it or my daughter, who gets Mod-er and Mod-er, will steal it, because it looks like a real dress, not a costume. So did they all for that matter.

Who can quarrel with anything Reri Grist does? She first appeared, as I remember, as a Mozartian soubrette. This is a type which seems to attract very snippy little snips. I know one who is one of the most beautiful girls under 5ʹ4ʺ in the world, one of the loveliest voices, one of the best dressed women, and one of the most disagreeable personalities. Reri Grist is a living angel, and sings like one. True, she hasn’t got the power of a steam calliope. I think directors should shelter and nurture her voice — it is very easy to overwhelm it from the pit.

The only criticism from my colleagues I agree with is that Mary Costa worked too hard in the song “My Homeland.” But so? I thought she was acting the part of a singer at a prince’s ball. Otherwise she was in fine voice, and I’m crazy about her anyway, so she can do no wrong. I do think Mary should always remember to cool it. She is a hard, conscientious worker and her temptation is to overdo. When she’s relaxed, she’s all the bear desires, if you know what I mean.

The men were all fine, but I don’t go to the theater for the men. In fact, I’m always disappointed in the Symphony when Ann doesn’t play the harp. Still, and again, Wolansky is one of my favorite people.

As for the speaking parts. Gee, fellows, it isn’t really nonprovincial to run down hometown talent. The clown in the last scene is usually a clown by nature, not by art. Scott Beach was by far the funniest one I’ve ever seen. He’s got several bits this year and I think he’s great and the opera should be encouraged and applauded for hiring him and Marguerite Ray. Marguerite, of course, is a personal friend and I think everything she does is just perfect. Still, I do agree that the play needs a new translation to take the sawdust out of the lines. Maybe Ogden Nash. Why not?

Lulu I’m going to do at length later. I’ve been writing about it ever since this column started. It, like Fledermaus, is great theater, which is what opera should be. Opera is the last stand, now that the sissies are redesigning the circus and burlesque is dead, of pure theatricality. If the divas don’t want to mind, diva go home. We can hire five great singers for the price.

Oh, yes — the ballet was great. Paul Hager and Kurt Adler gave them some room and Solov finally had a chance to show what he could do. Penelope, Lynda, Dave and Thatcher were really swinging, and was Lynda Mayer really singing, or just making a mouth? I thought I heard a clear sweet voice like Vera Zorina when young. You don’t suppose we’ve got another Vera Zorina do you?

[September 26, 1965]



Race Issues and the Arts

All sorts of things happening with The Race, as we used to say on the South Side when I was a kid . . . “It’s a great day for the race.” “What race?” “The colored race.” You should really go see In White America. It makes considerably more sense than the recent productions of LeRoi Jones, the Greenwich Village Simba. It is a step toward an epic-theater treatment of his history of the American Negro. Someday we are going to get a play of this kind on this subject of really massive scope and depth. This isn’t it, but it is certainly well worth seeing.

Furthermore, in a city like ours where everybody but the NSDGW (that means Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West — bet you don’t even know who they are) is uprooted and cut off from his American traditions, whether black or white, any historical presentation is informative. Most Californians don’t know what happened, whether at Lexington and Concord, along the Underground Railway, or in the Reconstruction days when Negroes tried to civilize the South.

There is only one trouble with all this recent activity in drama and literature about the American Negro. It concentrates on situations of manifest conflict and horror. This is an easy way out. It gets audience response but it doesn’t dig down to the real agony, the real dilemmas.

Of course I believe in eliminating instantly all forms of overt discrimination, segregation, and educating if possible every vestige of prejudice out of both white and black. This is no easy task, but when it is done, maybe we can start tackling the really hard problems. The most tragic consequences of race relations as we’ve lived them in this country since the Norsemen started killing the skraelings are buried deep in all of us. It is going to take a hard-rock mining operation to get at them, much less get rid of them. Race fear and hate and contempt have made all of us, of all colors, a nation of sick people.

It doesn’t do any good to compound the sickness with profitable sensationalism. Altogether too many people, whether blondes or burrs, share Senator Eastland’s attitude towards race relations — they just like it that way. The “I hates yo’, whitey” school of literature has become a hot commodity, with whites, of course.

This column is going to bed before the conference of Negro writers at the Playpen on Divisadero Street over the weekend, called by the editors of Black Dialogue. Let’s hope they thrash out some of these questions; last year at Asilomar they were avoided. Claude Brown, author of Manchild [in the Promised Land], just out and probably the best of the up-from-Harlem life stories, will give a talk. It should be worth hearing, as his book is sure worth reading. This is the way it is, baby. Read it if you want to know. I’ll let you know what happens at the conference.

[September 27, 1965]


“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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