San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



May 1966

May Day
Voluntary Social Engagement
Some Vital Black Theater
Make Way for Big Dances
Sophocles and the Black Theater
Cathedrals and Culture
Some Visiting German Highbrows
The Future of Catholicism
The Real Fame of San Francisco
Musical Provincialism and Modern Drama
France and Our Wines




May Day

May Day now means “Help! Help!” Once it meant “Revolution’s a-coming, better watch out!”

In 1934 the Artists’ and Writers’ Union, which I helped to organize and which among other things was responsible for the murals in Coit Tower, marched in the May Day parade up Market Street.

It was a big parade and ours was a big contingent. At the head of our group we carried a beautiful flag, designed by a beautiful girl member — 13 red and white stripes, charged with a rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” The most popular flag of the American Revolution. We had not gone far before one of the point captains came up to me and said, “Sam Darcy says get that petty bourgeois counterrevolution flag out of the parade.”

“Tell Sam Darcy to go ——” said I. (Darcy was the District Organizer of the Communist Party.)

We got more cheers than anybody else from the spectators along the curbs, and rightly so. Our banner meant that we were staking a claim to a tradition older and sounder and far more honest than that represented by Comrade Darcy . . . and far more revolutionary.

Tomorrow I am invited to participate in this committee on cultural activities in San Francisco which has been set up by the Mayor, to advise the two specialists in urban problems, Knowles and MacFadyen, imported to straighten things out by Harold Zellerbach.

I’d like to use this column to speak my piece. I hope I won’t be considered unethical in thus anticipating the meeting.

The overwhelming rejection of Proposition B, the Opera House bond issue, was a vote of no confidence in the Establishment. And why is there no confidence in the Establishment? Because it clings to social forms, mechanisms, attitudes, which have no relevance whatever to modern society. It does not even know that most of the artistic activity for which San Francisco is famous so much as exists.

Mrs. Patron has never heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, much less that his books of poetry have sold over 250,000 copies. Ann Halprin’s dance group can rock Europe and appear in the Teatro Fenice in Venice, the world’s most beautiful theater. Yet she has never performed in the Opera House and the Establishment, with few exceptions, in unaware of her existence.

If either Ann or Ferlinghetti were ever seen or read by the Establishment they would be rejected as crazy, subversive and obscene. Conventional critics may be hurt by the intellectuals’ allegation that more important contemporary music comes from the Both/And, an “obscure jazz room on Divisadero Street,” than from our gorgeous Opera House with all its stellar events. But alas, it is true.

If that’s unacceptable — since Gerry Samuel has been connected with the Oakland Symphony and the Aptos festival he has produced more vital contemporary music than the SF Symphony has in its entire existence.

Ronnie Davis was expelled from the parks, although San Francisco was famous in every theatrical magazine in the world for having his Mime Troupe performing free in the parks. A musician performing at the Both/And, relaxing between sets, quietly talking to his wife, was rousted by the police. A former entrepreneur of the Mime Troupe, Bill Graham, has been subjected to unbelievable harassment by the police for running rock and roll dances at the Fillmore Auditorium. To all this the Non, and now Anti, Establishment artist replies: “Don’t Tread On Me!”

I am not taking sides in the brouhaha, I am just stating facts, as a sociological commentator.

It would seem that I am to function on this culture committee as the representative of the avant-garde, our man from Uncle Picasso. If the Establishment thinks I am the avant-garde, this shows how the Establishment thinks.

I am 60 years old, the author of over twenty books, most of them very lucid poetry, concerned largely with love and nature, those Established platitudes. My reading is confined largely to classic literature and scholarly books, and my listening to Renaissance and late Medieval music. But I know what’s happening, Mr. Smith.

San Francisco, like the rest of the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, is falling apart. It’s what Toynbee called schism in the soul. The intellectual elite, whether French Cardinals or Russian poets, or San Francisco dancers, are seceding from this society. We are witnessing the moral equivalent of “No taxation without representation.”

It’s what Teilhard de Chardin called the great waves of moral strikes against the principles of our civilization which, he predicted, will replace the economic and political strikes of the early twentieth century.

If Toynbee and Teilhard be treason, make the most of it. But, say the modern artist and writer and intellectual and student, “DON’T TREAD ON ME.”

[May 1, 1966]



Voluntary Social Engagement

How do you attack the problem of our so obviously disintegrating society? You don’t do it by arresting adolescents for dancing and holding them until 2 a.m., abusing them and their parents and trying them like criminals.

Oh, how I do wish some flunky had told my daughter, “Stay away from controversial places.” My worry is that she does precisely that. I guess she is too sophisticated, and like her father, seldom engages in controversy unless paid.

I am so tempted to let my hair grow below my shoulders, go barefoot, sprout whiskers, I would so love to be rousted.

One hostile cop can undo all the work of a dedicated peace officer like Lieutenant Andreotti, and all the money spent on community relations, and furthermore he does it every night.

Meanwhile, a little triangle of churches in the Haight-Ashbury does do something, does attack the problem where it starts and with answers that mean something to the people whose problem it is.

You think poverty and ignorance and demoralization are social problems? First off, they are far more serious problems to the poor, the ignorant and the demoralized, and it is to them that answers and solutions must be given, not to some abstraction called “society.”

Each in its own way St. Agnes, the Roman Catholic parish, All Saints, the Anglican, and Howard, the Presbyterian church, have assumed community responsibility for all the people about them, churched or unchurched.

Howard has just opened a neighborhood coffee shop. Let’s hope it proves successful, a congenial gathering place for everybody round about, a focus for a revitalized community spirit, like the very successful similar places now dotted over the map of Chicago.

At St. Agnes a Sister who grew up in the neighborhood has 16 to 18 girls from Lone Mountain busy on a tutorial program. This is much more than just helping the “culturally deprived” youngsters in the vicinity with their homework. The girls cannot avoid playing the roles of volunteer social workers and community trouble shooters.

This is as it should be. Until the sicknesses of our society are met with true vocation, dedication at the point of the infection, nothing will happen. Real, rather than phony, wars on poverty will be won by people who work for nothing, not for $12,500 a year.

A few years ago All Saints was practically empty on Sundays. Now it is a bustling center for all sorts of neighborhood activities, and a spiritually awakened and crowded church as well.

As our society becomes ever more affluent and better educated, maybe the day will come when all the exciting dirty work will be done freely, for nothing but fun.

It is, for instance, quite impossible to hire for money the kind of people who should be attendants of the mentally ill. I’ll probably not live to see it, but the shambles of our psychopathic hospitals will never be cleaned up except by people who work for the love of God, the love of their fellows or a sense of social duty.

[May 2, 1966]



Some Vital Black Theater

The really significant things that happen in the cultural life of a great city and that help to solve the ever-increasing problems and ease the ever-increasing tensions, seem to be by definition self-starting and self-financing.

Meanwhile around us arises an immense skyscraper of pie cards founded on pure slush.

The interesting thing is that nothing has changed in the physiology or the body politic for all the massive infusion of gold. This is the way creative activity has always evolved. Autonomously. The ominous thing is that today it meets with ever-increasing hostility from the affluent and sterile cadres of the official glittering superstructures.

Bill Graham’s sorely persecuted dance hall is only the most recent and shocking example of an official rage stimulated by what detective stories call a nameless dread. Another is the incoherent demoralization into which the very mention of the name of Saul Alinsky throws the powers that be, especially over in Oakland, that toddling town.

Are musicians, talking to their wives during intermission outside the stage entrance to the Opera House, rousted by the police? Yet no music by an American composer under 35 which can even remotely be compared to the work of John Handy, or for that matter, Flip Nuñez, has ever been performed by the SF Symphony, or for that matter, in the building by anybody.

I have before me as I write, as they say, a neighborhood grocery ad paper with a feature story by a Negro high school boy. It is a clear, succinct, no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it, objective account of a controversy. This lad is a leader in his school and in his community, alert to all the vital issues around him. He could easily do a weekly column on “What are the wild youth thinking?” and make more sense than the oldies who get pots of gold for their syndicated expertise.

True, he is seldom on the side of the Establishment. He is the one who challenged Kevin O’Shea to a basketball game to decide the freeway issue. He is not now and never has been a member of a taxpayers’ defrauding organization.

Here beside his story on my desk is a leaflet from Black Arts West. Marvin Jackman and Ed Bullins have taken over the old American Theater on Fillmore and are showing two one-act plays, Flowers for the Trashman and A Minor Scene, by themselves in the order named. With them is Donald Garrett and the Natural Sound Representatives playing jazz. They aren’t running on Ford money or Rockefeller money or that government money anybody can have for free. Neither is the other Negro group, the Aldridge Players.

Now it is true that Mr. Jackman and Mr. Bullins are what are usually called Black Nationalists, slightly milder versions of Mr. LeRoi Jones. Their motto is “Back to the caves, whitey!” His is “Back to the grave!” Parenthesis. Since this column was first written, the guardians of culture, otherwise known as the fuzz, have closed up the Black Arts repertory theater. The company is now making sure it has no fire or other violations and will reopen soon.

Most American Negroes, from the days of Back to Africa movements after the Civil War, through Marcus Garvey, through the crazy Communist slogan “A Soviet Republic in the Black Belt” of the thirties, down to the present Muslims, have rejected all programs of secession from white America. James Baldwin asks, “Who wants to be integrated into a burning house?” The answer is, I fear, the American Negro.

The trouble with LeRoi Jones is that he is totally white-oriented. His attitude towards the Negro is exactly that of Senator Eastland or Jack Kerouac, or any Klansman or far-out hippy. He glorifies the Negro’s disabilities and deformities which are the end result of centuries of slavery, persecution and slander.

Marvin Jackman and Ed Bullins share with Don Worden, Welton Smith, Mary Lewis, Arthur Sheridan and a number of other people around the Bay Area a somewhat different attitude. They know a vast deal more about Negro life, both in American and Africa, and they aren’t very interested in what the Other Race thinks of them, much less in making savage in Greenwich Village nightclubs for the Vassar babies in their mutant minks. They are out for cultural, social, ideological autonomy, for the liberation of all those values inherent but now suppressed or distorted in the American Negro race.

Like any expression of a militant minority, writing of the kind they do suffers from the dangers of over-enthusiasm from a built-in claque. But so what? The plays at the American Theater are not inspired by house servants of the White House or directed towards the hungry i or the Village Vanguard. They are about the people in the Bull Pen, the old Fillmore District, and are being performed on Fillmore Street, for, hope is, the people they are about. Shalom!

[May 8, 1966]



Make Way for Big Dances

It is commendable of Jack Shelley that he sufficiently realized the gravity of the situation to call a conference on the problems of the new teenage mass dance movement.

We are going back to the days of the great dance halls — 63rd and Cottage Grove in Chicago of the 20s, when there must have been a couple of square miles of dance floors packed every weekend night.

This means there is going to be a lot of loot, it’s a big-time entertainment business, and the most powerful single bloc in big-time entertainment business is The Organization. They in fact eventually controlled, and then by their methods destroyed, the dance halls of the 20s.

If they get their nose under the rug it’s not long before there’s no rug left, no floor, no house around it. It is essential that we prevent any battle of the dance hall interests before it gets started.

The best way to do it is to remove the whole thing from the arena in which it can get started. The kids have the right idea. They want open-air dancing in the Civic Center, adjacent to what used to be Marshall Square. What’s wrong with this? I was shocked to see it given a flat veto, with no serious discussion.

Is it a policing problem? It seems to me policing a street dance and protecting rather than rousting the kids would be a very wholesome and educational activity for the police, as well as the kids.

I have on my desk letters from New York and Chicago asking me to sign protests against what would seem to be a concerted drive against activities like those at the Longshoreman’s Hall and the Fillmore Auditorium. On the other hand, a rich young man with the very best connections, especially in Illinois, gets a center spread in a national newsweekly when he goes into the business in New York, in a big way, at big prices.

Certainly Polk and Larkin Halls would be easier to handle and may be the best solution, but besides this, the Park and Recreation Commission has got to give. They themselves should come up with proposals for creative use of the parks, especially the parks on either side of the Fillmore District and those in the Mission.

Why shouldn’t the little redwood open-air theater in Golden Gate Park be used for poetry readings? Why shouldn’t there be Sunday afternoon jazz concerts in the Fillmore parks? Why shouldn’t the annual arts festival be diffused over all the city’s parks? Why not a series of neighborhood dances? So they are hard to handle. Watts was harder. And The Organization, you don’t handle it, it handles you.

[May 9, 1966]



Sophocles and the Black Theater

Through the surviving fragments of a Roman popularizer of world history, quoting an obscure Alexandrian Greek historian, we know that the plays of Euripides and Sophocles were performed in Afghanistan, near the present city of Kabul, in what was then the last free Greek state, a remnant of the far-off Greek kingdom of Bactria.

Again we hear of Greek drama at the courts of what would later be called the Huns in the same regions of inner Asia. A locally made pot from the Punjab with a scene from Sophocles’ Elektra can be seen in a museum in Lahore.

I thought of this as I watched Sophocles’ Oedipus the King at Delta College in Stockton the other night. I was there taking part in a panel on the golden age of Greek culture. We had Greek food and dancing, the discussion, and then the students put on the play.

We were a long way from Athens, in, as far as Sophocles would feel if he came back, a much stranger land than Afghanistan. The play was pretty good, well designed and directed, and the students were charming. Sophocles was still alive.

What is this Western Civilization that got under way in the fifth century B.C. and is now coming to its end? How did it all get started?

Scholars and philosophers have debated the matter ever since, and our little panel came to no conclusions. How can we preserve what is left of that heritage and keep it meaningful in this new Dark Ages we have been entering since 1914?

Maybe the future ages won’t want such a heritage at all but will respectfully hand history back their tickets.

I’m off now to North Carolina to conduct discussions on the topic Religious restatement in an age of faithlessness. Then back here to do the same thing at the Bishop’s Ranch over the Memorial Day weekend. We, in this particular present in which we find ourselves, are given the task of making the past meaningful to a future which will bear very little resemblance to it.

I was reminded, watching Sophocles in Stockton, of a conversation some years ago in Paris with the poet Sedar-Senghor and another Negro intellectual who has also become a head of state. Said Sedar-Senghor, “You hope to see a Black Africa in the forefront of civilization, with the plays of Racine and Sophocles performed on the shores of Lake Chad. I hope for an African civilization in which my traditions are most meaningful, and my ancestors, like yours, were cannibals.”

Sophocles today competes with African sculpture, Chinese poetry and Buddhism for the attention of a new kind of civilization. What will get through and how will it be transformed when it does?

When LeRoi Jones was out here he was very sarcastic about the Aldridge Players performing The Trojan Women. He obviously hadn’t read the play, or he would have realized the entirely new meanings imparted to a Greek play about slavery by a Negro cast.

My one objection to SF State’s drama department is that they almost never “intercast” — presumably with the hoary excuse that it “destroys the illusion.”

How about a Negro girl as Cleopatra? Why not some Negroes in Leon Katz’s otherwise excellent production of The Lower Depths? Or how about de-Russifying Gorky’s play and giving it an all-Negro cast? What lower depths is most meaningful to our experience?

I don’t know what good it will do to recommend a last month’s magazine, but you can try the second-hand magazine shops or write the publishers if you want it badly enough. (1820 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill.) Anyway, the April issue of the Negro Digest is given over to a discussion of the Negro in the American theater. There are articles by Frederick O’Neal, LeRoi Jones, Ossie Davis, Ruby Lee, James Baldwin, Robert Burg, Woodie King, and our own Ed Bullins.

The most radical in their approach are LeRoi Jones and Ed Bullins, but their radicalism is radically different. Jones’s article is an incoherent tirade, designed to frighten and thrill white people, a kind of Bela Lugosi playing Uncle Tom.

Ed Bullins writes in clipped, closely reasoned sentences and marshals all the arguments for a truly indigenous, truly autonomous Black Theater.

Actors of course can be, and are being, “integrated.” As a playwright, Bullins has a more difficult and acute problem. He wants to tell it the way it is, and he wants Negroes to come and see and listen.

Against him is the rejection of the mulatto culture of the Negro middle class and the censorship of the white authority, which will accept plays full of slashing razors, dope, violent miscegenation, but which cracks down on dialogue which authentically reproduces the speech of the Negro “Lower Depths.”

The Digest reprints from the Negro press. I wish some local publication would reprint Bullins’s article from the Digest. I wish him luck. Salaam.

[May 15, 1966]



Cathedrals and Culture

There is a close correlation between the controversy over the new Roman Catholic cathedral and the chronic fume and fret over something called “culture.” The only way to talk about culture is the way anthropologists and other scientists talk about it, and that means that baseball games, dance halls, television, are all “culture.” And so is religion.

During the meeting of the Zellerbach committee and the next day at another meeting — a culture teach-in — at San Francisco State College, I brought up, as forcefully as might be, the point that we must enable the artists’ culture to diffuse and decentralize, out into the neighborhoods, where it can make and sustain contact with ordinary people.

If we do not, we will only be widening the already existing gulf that separates the society into antagonistic groups. Already, as Jack Shelley, a smart politician — that is, somebody sensitive to forces in what the anthropologists call culture, if not the intellectuals or the Establishment — as the Mayor said, Proposition B, put forward in all innocence, revealed a state of affairs very close to class war.

After that meeting I said to Father James Dempsey, “I don’t want to sound too holy, or I would have pointed out that we are always talking about the same problem in the church. It’s the old story of red brick bishops versus the apostolic life. “Cathedrals are all right in their place, but what we need is the sacramental life immersed in the life of the people. We need mass and meditation in the homes, a movement like the French worker priests. We need the same thing in the arts in the modern city. As of now we persecute those who try to create a sandlot baseball team in the arts.”

Last week we saw the State College production of Webster’s White Devil. This is one of the greatest plays in English, quite the equal of many of Shakespeare’s. Five nights and it was gone, never to be seen again. It was beautifully done, with more good actors than I can name and spectacular performances by Donna Setrakian and Leon Katz. Everybody in the Bay Area at the least should be given a chance, if they wish, to see it. And what will happen to the actors when they graduate? A couple may go on in the theater. For the rest, it will be just a memory of a few hours of glory — “when we were very young.” Yet society needs them now and will need them more in the years to come.

The strangest letters to Dick Nolan were those from Catholics accusing him of being anti-Catholic. Don’t these people read the Catholic press? Don’t they listen on Sunday?

Never forget, the Jews have survived to this day because the basic rites of their religion are domestic — an ever-present help in time of trouble. And that’s where the arts belong. After all, a menorah is an object of art.

[May 16, 1966]



Some Visiting German Highbrows

Since I last wrote I’ve been Down South, giving a lecture at Davidson, a small men’s college near Charlotte, North Carolina. N.C. was lush and bosky after our rather sterile California landscape already drying up for the long summer sleep.

The audience was intelligent and alert, and the campus highbrows as with it as such students anywhere. Like most good small men’s schools, they seemed more mature than students at Berkeley or Harvard — what used to be called, when I was little, “college men.”

Much of our conversation was “beating the boy,” talking about The Problem. If they were a gauge, racism in the middle-class South is withering away, and will soon be limited to rednecks and their demagogues.

Unlike people at Duke and Chapel Hill, they didn’t seem to be very actively engaged. They were still the Silent South, the civilized people who don’t speak up. But of course, they are isolated, more campus bound, than the big schools.

It was a real pleasure to be at a school with only a thousand carefully picked students, where “campus” still meant green lawns and stately trees and not half-done Bauhaus Barracks and heaps of gravel and holes in the ground.

Then, back in San Francisco, a series of dinners for sundry members of the German writers’ “Group 47.” This is a loose association of mildly left-of-center intellectuals, formed in 1947, with the primary aim of returning German writing, and Germany itself, to the mainstream of world culture, from which it had been cut off by Hitler.

Most of them still think of themselves as rebels, but their rebellion, like that of the British Angry Young Men and the American Beats, has been institutionalized.

They too are now part of the Establishment — at least the Junior Establishment. And they are singularly unsympathetic to the new worldwide movement of voluntary alienation, the New Youth, the New Left, what I have called “the subculture of secession.” They don’t know it is there. Like the cops and the deans of women, they think it’s all beatniks and dope fiends.

I liked Walter Höllerer best, a curious, dynamic and engaging man. Günter Grass and I got in a conversation about Bert Brecht. To him Brecht was an agitprop writer, a literary apparatchik. Brecht’s personal gospel of humanist duplicity, so profound and so wily — and so successful in an age of terror and despair and destruction of the individual, escaped him. The conditions under which Brecht not only operated but flourished, the seemingly omnipotent Enemy he outwitted, outflanked, and hamstrung, all this was something this younger man had never faced. American interest in Brecht was to him “provincialism.”

The impressive thing about all of the “Group 47” people I met was their divorce from the German past, the recent past of abortive revolutions and putsches and cyclonic intellectual battles of the Weimar Republic, as well as from the future. None knew much about the new world of ideas that is emerging from the shambles of the old — the Catholic Left, the Neo-Marxists, the extreme libertarianism, the people who have come up out of a radical Existentialism, whether religious or secular, the people, in other words, who are the theoretical, philosophical, religious and academic reflection of the subculture of secession with its folk rock, far-out jazz, and hoax art.

“Group 47” thinks it is the New Wave, but it still seems to be what it started out as, a movement of people who found themselves far out on the periphery of world culture and who are still struggling to get back to the center — a revolt against provincialism.

This is the problem of Ibsen, or Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It is not mine. Today the capitals where things are really breaking loose into the future are Barcelona, Warsaw, Belgrade, San Francisco.

We took Günter Grass to dinner at Orsi’s with Marguerite Ray. Marguerite was as charming as ever. Orsi really spread himself for a sumptuous repast and the headwaiter said Günter Grass spoke beautiful Italian, a compliment which was the ultimate in fine Italian hospitality. This is certainly one of the friendliest of San Francisco’s great restaurants.

* * *

Hereafter this column will appear on Sundays, Tuesday and Thursdays instead of Sundays and Mondays. Part of the time, at least for a while, I will be writing in the weekday columns on dining out. My opinions on food and wine seem to generate as much reader response as those on art, religion or politics.

[March 22, 1966]



The Future of Catholicism

Everybody worries about San Francisco’s cultural life. The other day I was asked to talk to the girls at Immaculate Conception Academy on the subject. They were alert girls, high school seniors, and asked a lot of sensible questions.

I wonder if I was able to convey to them the profound difference there is going to be between the world I entered when I left high school and the world that will develop about them in the next 20 years.

The very situation in which we were having our talk will change past recognition — the Dominican Order, the habits of the sisters, the structure and aims of Catholic education — in 1986 they will all have altered, by the processes now already in operation.

Any astute observer can form a rough picture, a general outline, of the life of the church 20 years hence, because the changes will be motivated by clearly defined principles and will take place within a context which is by nature unchanging.

One thing that is certain, Catholic education will diffuse out into society. Hitherto it has been a shelter, a shield against the secular society, some have said that it was the principal factor in the ghettoization of Catholic life. It was an ingathering of the lambs, into a fortress sheepfold, to protect them from the wolves that prowled the secular society.

It didn’t do a very good job of insulating its charges, and it, with a few notable exceptions, did an ever poorer job of both ordinary educating and of educating a laity awake to, and able to make full use of, the tremendous cultural riches of the Catholic tradition.

All that is changing. Like the church itself, the movement is no longer centripetal, inward, away from society, but centrifugal, outward into the turmoil of the world, into active responsibility for all men, everywhere.

The old system of parish church and school, inherited from a society based on agriculture and small handicrafts and fixed from generation to generation in one locality, never had much meaning in the modern city. But now, as life becomes more unstable, more depersonalizing, more migratory, it may well take on new meaning.

With its system of neighborhood centers, the church, if it lives up to the injunctions of Pope John and the Second Vatican Council and really does go out to all men, regardless, is certainly strategically located.

Its forces are already deployed for diffusion, outpouring. Tutorial programs, after-school recreation, cultural programs of all sorts, here and there parishes are beginning to take up such responsibilities. The job is not one of proselytizing, making converts to Catholicism, it is just simply restoring community to our faceless and friendless and faithless cities.

[May 24, 1966] 



The Real Fame of San Francisco

Went to Poly High to see my daughter Mary play the madwoman in The Madwoman of Chaillot. Daughter or no, I thought she did pretty good. Lord, what a line load! More to memorize than Hamlet.

Many of the cast were excellent, better than lots of people in the local little theaters. The two other madwomen, the President, the rag picker, acted like real pros. President was Steve Tookas, the young man I wrote about recently who does the column for the neighborhood newspaper. Some radio or TV station should give him a regular spot as the authentic voice of youth. He’s sure a lad of many talents.

Once again, all that work and only two nights’ performance. It was the most mature and ambitious high school drama department performance I’ve ever seen and deserved to tour other high schools.

When are we going to use the rich resources we have? When are we going to put the main emphasis on the development of indigenous talent and stop using Foundation gold to import unemployed hams from Broadway? When are we going to set up that complete curriculum in the performing arts, from Frederick Burk Grammar School, to Lowell, to SF State? We need a ballet department that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way, because for ballet there is no other way of doing it. The best start at about five or even younger.

As it is, the people we do produce go away, from Yehudi Menuhin to Isaac Stern to Mort Subotnick and now to Robert Erickson. They don’t all leave for the bright lights of Babylon either. Erickson goes to UC San Diego. At least these people had minimal employment, considering their talents, while here.

For jazz, it’s Nowhereville. Where is Charles Mingus? Where is Ornette Coleman? Where is Dave Brubeck? They were all here once. Even most of the Dixieland Revivalists have left. I’ll lay you bagels to chitlins that soon John Handy and then Vince Guaraldi will find they can no longer afford to live here.

San Francisco is not famous for Josef Krips. It is famous for its artists’ culture, which it can no longer afford, which it scarcely knows exists, and which it actively discriminates against whenever it happens to notice it.

Probably the person with the biggest world reputation now living here is the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Believe you me, the cops don’t come into the Opera House and say to Josef Krips, “Clean this place up or we’ll take you in,” as they did to Ferlinghetti in his City Lights Bookshop. Not one person in a hundred will believe I’m not joking when he reads that Ferlinghetti is so famous — and that’s the joke.

[May 26, 1966]



Musical Provincialism and Modern Drama

The Frenchest person I ever met was a friend of my mother’s, a milliner in Elkhart, Ind., who hadn’t been back to her homeland in 30 years.

When I first came to San Francisco, and the local French colony was still thriving, I found persevered here on the other side of the earth, the social and intellectual world of the Second Empire, vanished from France in blood, iron, and tears 50 years before.

Last week one of my colleagues referred to the programming of the next season of the San Francisco Symphony as the standard Germanic repertory. That’s right — of the last years of Bismarck and Franz Joseph and the early years of Wilhelm II.

In Britain now they have mortuaries where they deep-freeze you when you die and store you away until the science of medicine catches up with the resurrection of the dead.

There’s nothing like the provinces for embalming and preserving indefinitely ways of life long vanished from the metropoles, and nothing like émigrés lost in the hinterlands for cherishing and accentuating and emphasizing and glorifying all the peculiarities which time has banished from their native countries.

Is this really the kind of musical diet San Francisco audiences prefer? How many people are voting with their feet and staying away? How can the opposition manifest itself? Picket? Write letters about Josef Krips and Philip Boone?

It’s a pity union standards are in the way or it would be possible to set up a Free Symphony, a kind of symphonic Salon des Refusés, and demand that the City find a home for it, and see how many people would come for a series of programs that would reflect contemporary taste — not just modern music, but modern taste in the world of the past.

Why is the programming of the Chamber Music Society, or even Music at the Vineyards, so much more catholic in taste, as well as more up to date? They play plenty of Beethoven and Brahms, too, and do it with understanding.

Why is the programming of the Spring Opera slipping backwards, while that of the big fall season is slowly forging ahead? The recent Monteverdi Poppea in Berkeley was splendid, as a concert. I am convinced that this opera does not have to be sung, even when given in Italian opera houses, as a sort of highly decorated and costumed oratorio. I think an inventive director and choreographer could make a real, active, eventful music drama out of it.

True, you’d have to get singers who would mind — but who wants to hear Callas or Sutherland sing Monteverdi anyway? This is just one suggestion — the potential repertory of unsung or seldom heard but musically and dramatically powerful operas is practically endless.

I was glad to see my old friend Arnold Gingrich give them what’s what at the latest Kulturkampf — the pow-wow of the State Arts Commission at the UC Medical Center. Sounded like I’d written his speech.

Buildings aren’t culture, they’re real estate. The possible tax-free corporation patronage for cultural activities is many times any amount of money any local government could put up. The problem is to get it out of them.

I say, all the elected representatives of the people know about culture is that Gene Tunney read Shakespeare. If they’re under 55, they don’t even know that.

A Man’s a Man [by Bertolt Brecht] at the Encore is a wonderful show, quite the equal of anything the Workshop has done to date. Even Grover Sales had ought to like it. It is certainly contemporary enough, and aided by General Ky, gets contemporarier every minute.

It makes an interesting contrast with The Brig at the Playhouse. Both are about the destruction of the person by militarization. A Man’s a Man is a bitter, satirical parody of a cheap German music hall comedy of the Twenties. It is not just that its humor is biting, it bites deep. It is frighteningly profound as well as profoundly funny.

The result is not unlike the best drawings George Grosz was making at the same time. Behind the satire is another kind of comedy, drawn from the deep wells of an indomitable humanism, that humanism Bert Brecht cherished and kept pure with such cunning, even to his death.

In The Brig the denunciation of the militarization of the soul of man is delivered at the top of voice. It is so strident, so shocking, that the average square audience, and all audiences are average and square, simply will not accept it, either as symbol or as reality.

Humor, it has been said, is a controlled violation of the sense of proportion. What control’s Brecht’s black humor is humanism — an abiding sense of the tragic dignity of man.

Without this control, The Brig is sure enough shocking, but it is without final reference, and so not permanently artistically believable.

This does not mean I don’t think it is a good play, well done and certainly well worth seeing. It is. But it is most interesting seen on successive nights with A Man’s a Man, which is a great play, well done.

[May 29, 1966]



France and Our Wines

People have written me asking me to explain if I can the French rejection of American wines in the recent Prisunic American festival night and following week of promotion of American products. (Prisunic, and its competitor Monoprix, are French imitations of Woolworth and Kress.)

It is very simple. The whole promotion stunt failed, not just the wine sale, although similar English, Spanish, German and Italian affairs had been successful.

The reason is, as anybody who has lived in France in recent years knows, the relentless barrage of anti-American propaganda that deluges press, magazines, books and the air waves and theater.

Even the French Communist Party attacks the American Communist Party, and papers like Témoignage Chrétien [Christian Witness] are highly critical of the American church, and most especially, and in my opinion quite justifiably, of the American bishops who voted for a “nuclear deterent” at Vatican II.

California wines are much more full bodied, much richer and higher in alcoholic content than all but a few Spanish wines. They are also put on the market younger than even the cheap clarets and burgundies sold at the Prisunic — though not that of the Beaujolais or the bulk wines.

Just as De Gaulle is supposed to be making the USA pay through the nose, ours, not his, for Roosevelt’s contempt, so legend has it that the American wines situation is due to that fellow the Ur-Birchers used to call “the madman in the White House.”

The story is that Roosevelt was a whisky and cocktail drinker, and all he knew about wine was that it was made by those upstate Republicans who refused to receive him or his wife socially. So, when Prohibition was repealed, he got in his licks. The brutal fact is that if our good wines are aged as long as the best French wines, they have accumulated so much taxes that they are priced out of any possible market.

It is perfectly true that a 1939 Haut Brion, Château Lafite, Château Ausone or Clos de Vougeot would bring a fantastic price, too, but our California wines cannot compete with such reputations.

Higher priced than the grand cru wines of France are certain fantastically expensive wines of the Rhine and Moselle. This is a market I have never understood. Such wines do not keep well over five years, they are usually supported with sugar syrup while fermenting, and the lesser northern wines, in poor years at least, are blended with Spanish wines, imported in tanks at low prices.

Our Traminers, Rieslings, and so forth, are far stouter and can be aged indefinitely, as their Spanish like numbers.

Don’t worry about the French taste in wine. They drink Algerian port, pseudo claret from the regions of Narbonne and Arles, foxy wines from grapes crossed with wild American vines, and the enamel removers put out by the peasant cooperatives.

One “Nuit Américane” at the Prisunic with a folkrock band and a couple of movie stars is not enough to sell them California wine. First they have to be sold America.

[May 31, 1966]


“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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