On This Day: December 3, 1947: A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway

A Streetcar Named Desire opened in New York at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

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Scene 5, Streetcar Named Desire

BLANCHE: Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?

Tennessee Williams lived in New Orleans while finishing Streetcar which, at that time, was called The Poker Night. Here is Kenneth Holditch, who gives literary tours in New Orleans:

[Williams] said from that apartment he could hear that rattletrap streetcar named Desire running along Royal and one named Cemeteries running along Canal. And it seemed to him the ideal metaphor for the human condition.

Tennessee Williams on Irene Selznick, who was chosen to produce Streetcar:

She is supposed to have 16 million dollars and good taste. I am dubious.

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Irene Selznick, Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan consulting backstage at Streetcar

Elia Kazan on scripts:

“One must do one’s best and at a certain point say, ‘I’ve done all I can. I’m not going to make this better.’

I’ve noticed that the best pieces of writing for the theatre I’ve known are complete at birth. The first draft had it — or didn’t. In both Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, I asked the author for no rewriting, and rehearsals didn’t reveal the need for any. Those plays were born sound. The work, the struggle, the self-flaggelation — had all taken place within the author before he touched the typewriter. usually when there is a lot of tampering and fussing over a manuscript, there’s something basically wrong to begin with.”

Tennessee Williams, letter to Jay Laughlin, April 9, 1947, included in The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, Vol. 2: 1945-1957:

I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays. One of them, laid in New Orleans, A STREETCAR CALLED DESIRE, turned out quite well. It is a strong play, closer to “Battle of Angels” than any of my other work, but is not what critics call “pleasant”. In fact it is pretty unpleasant.

In 1947 (when Streetcar was still in the planning stages), Williams saw Arthur Miller’s All My Sons on Broadway and was blown away. Kazan had directed. Williams immediately reached out to Kazan, striking up a correspondence (obviously having Kazan in mind to direct his new “unpleasant” play STREETCAR CALLED DESIRE). Kazan had reservations at first. Williams’ stuff perhaps seemed too fragile, ephemeral, effeminate even. Kazan responded to Miller’s social and political commentary (as a red-dyed Lefty from way back), and Williams’ work is apolitical, although you could make a case that he is the most political of writers, without ever mentioning politics. But read Miller’s and Williams’s work side by side, and you can see the difference. Miller’s plays are openly unabashedly political. Kazan said, “Miller seemed more my kind.” Kazan recognized Williams’ talent but just wasn’t sure if it was his cup of tea as a director. How little we know ourselves at times! Williams’ agent Audrey Wood opened up negotiations with Kazan, also looping in Irene Selznick. At some point, early on, the negotiations broke down and Kazan withdrew his interest, causing everyone to go into a tailspin. Eventually, they came to an agreement, and Kazan signed back on – but before that, Williams wrote Kazan (or “Gadg” as he was known to his friends, short for “Gadget”) a letter. I love these early letters because their relationship has not solidified yet. Theirs ended up being a spectacular collaboration, one of the most important in American theatrical history, but they didn’t know that in 1947.

Tennessee Williams to Elia Kazan, April 19, 1947.

I am bitterly disappointed that you and Mrs. Selznick did not come to an agreement. I am wondering what was the primary trouble – the script itself or your unwillingness to tie up with another producer. Frankly I did not know that you were now in the producing field. Working outside of New York has many advantages but a disadvantage is that you lack information about such things. I have known you only in the capacity of actor and director.

I am sure that you must also have had reservations about the script. I will try to clarify my intentions in this play. I think its best quality is its authenticity or its fidelity to life. There are no “good” or “bad” people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts. Stanley sees Blanche not as a desperate, driven creature backed into a last corner to make a last desperate stand – but as a calculating bitch with “round heels”. Mitch accepts first her own false projection of herself as a refined young virgin, saving herself for the one eventual mate – then jumps way over to Stanley’s conception of her. Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego. That is the way we all see each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition – all such distortions within our own egos – condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions in our own egos, the corresponding distortions in the egos of the others – and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each others naked hearts. Such a case seems purely theoretical to me.

However in creative fiction and drama, if the aim is fidelity, people are shown as we never see them in life but as they are. Quite impartially, without any ego-flaws in the eye of the beholder. We see from outside what could not be seen within, an the truth of the tragic dilemma becomes apparent. It was not that one person was bad or good, one right or wrong, but that all judged falsely concerning each other, what seemed black to one and white to the other is actually grey – a perception that could occur only through the detached eye of art. (As if a ghost sat over the affairs of men and made a true record of them) Naturally a play of this kind does not exactly present a theme or score a point, unless it be the point or theme of human misunderstanding. When you begin to arrange the action of a play to score a certain point the fidelity to life may suffer. I don’t say it always does. Things may be selected to score a point clearly without any contrivance toward that end, but I am afraid it happens rarely.

Finding a director aside from yourself who can bring this play to life exactly as if it were happening in life is going to be a problem. But that is the kind of direction it has to have. (I don’t necessarily mean “realism”: sometimes a living quality is caught better by expressionism than what is supposed to be realistic treatment.)

I remember you asked me what should an audience feel for Blanche. Certainly pity. It is a tragedy with the classic aim of producing a katharsis of pity and terror, and in order to do that Blanche must finally have the understanding and compassion of the audience. This without creating a black-dyed villain in Stanley. It is a thing (misunderstanding) not a person (Stanley) that destroys her in the end. In the end you should feel – “If only they all had known about each other!” – But there was always the paper lantern or the naked bulb!

(Incidentally, at the close of the play, I think Stanley should remove the paper lantern from the bulb – after Blanche is carried out and as he goes to resume the game.)

I have written all this out in case you were primarily troubled over my intention in the play. Please don’t regard this as “pressure”. A wire from Irene and a letter from Audrey indicate that both of them feel you have definitely withdrawn yourself from association with us and that we must find someone else. I don’t want to accept this necessity without exploring the nature and degree of the difference between us.

Scene 3, Streetcar Named Desire:

STANLEY: Stella! My baby doll’s left me! [He breaks into sobs. Then he goes to the phone and dials, still shuddering with sobs] Eunice? I want my baby! [He waits a moment; then he hangs up and dials again] Eunice! I’ll keep on ringin’ until I talk with my baby! [An indistinguishable shrill voice is heard. He hurls phone to floor. Dissonant brass and piano sounds as the rooms dim out to darkness and the outer walls appear in the night light. The “blue piano” plays for a brief interval. Finally, Stanley stumbles half-dressed out to the porch and down the wooden steps to the pavement below the building. There he throws back his head like a baying hound and bellows his wife’s name: Stella! Stella, sweetheart! Stella!”] Stell-lahhhhh!

EUNICE: [calling down from the door of her upper apartment] Quit that howling out there an’ go back to bed!

STANLEY! I want my baby down here. Stella, Stella!

EUNICE: She ain’t comin’ down so you quit! Or you’ll git th’ law on you!

STANLEY: Stella!

EUNICE: You can’t beat on a woman an’ then call ‘er back! She won’t come! And her goin’ t’ have a baby!… You stinker! You whelp of a Polack, you! I hope they do haul you in and turn the fire hose on you, same as the last time!

STANLEY: [humbly] Eunice, I want my girl to come down with me!

EUNICE: Hah! [She slams her door]

STANLEY: [with heaven-splitting violence] STELL-LAHHHHH!

[The low-tone clarinet moans. The door upstairs opens again. Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat.]

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After Kazan withdrew, Irene Selznick, Audrey Wood and Williams exchanged letters considering different directors – Josh Logan, John Huston, Tyrone Guthrie (Williams dismissed the idea immediately: “he is English. This is an American play.”) – none of them felt as right as Kazan, although Logan was the closest. It all ended up being a moot point, because negotiations reopened with Kazan. He was concerned about having Selznick mess up his process, not used to working with her as a producer; as a matter of fact, he originally said he would only direct Streetcar if Selznick were fired. Back, forth, back forth. Kazan negotiated for artistic control (he had mentioned some elements in the script he wanted to have re-worked), also billing – all the usual contract stuff. Kazan was on board. Williams was ecstatic. Wrote to Gadg again.

Tennessee Williams to Elia Kazan, May 1, 1947:

Irene says you think the play needs considerable re-writing. As you never said this, or intimated it, in our talk or your letter, I don’t take this seriously, but I think it is only fair to tell you that I don’t expect to do any more important work on the script. I spent a long time on it and the present script is a distillation of many earlier trials. It certainly isn’t as good as it could be but it’s as good as I am now able to make it. – I have never been at all difficult about cuts and incidental line-changes but I’m not going to do anything to alter the basic structure – with one exception. For the last scene, where Blanche is forcibly removed from the stage – I have an alternative ending, physically quieter, which could be substituted if the present ending proves too difficult to stage. That’s about all the important change I could promise any director, and only that if the director finds the other unworkable.

If you are content with this understanding about the script – then I can just say – “Irene, I want Gadge and won’t take anyone else.” AUDREY and Bill would back me up and I think I could run interference for you all the way down the field.

Scene 1, Streetcar Named Desire:

BLANCHE: How did he take it when you said I was coming?

STELLA: Oh, Stanley doesn’t know yet.

BLANCHE: You – haven’t told him?

STELLA: He’s on the road a good deal.

BLANCHE: OH. Travels?

STELLA: Yes.

BLANCHE. Good. I mean – isn’t it?

STELLA: I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night…

BLANCHE: Why, Stella!

STELLA: When he’s away for a week I nearly go wild!

BLANCHE: Gracious!

STELLA: And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby…

BLANCHE: I guess that is what is meant by being in love.

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Brando, Tandy, Hunter

By May 1947, Kazan’s contract was set. Williams, after a couple of months of crazy negotiations, went to Cape Cod for some “tranquility”. He wrote to Kazan again from there.

Letter of Tennessee Williams to Elia Kazan, May 1947:

Needless to say, I am eager for your ideas. I think this play has some excellent playing scenes but there are also some weak passages and some corny touches. I am determined to weed these out as much as possible before we go into rehearsal. You and I may not agree about exactly which and where these are but I am sure a lot of good will come out of consultation between us. The cloudy dreamer type which I must admit to being needs the complementary eye of the more objective and dynamic worker. I believe you are also a dreamer. There are dreamy touches in your direction which are vastly provocative, but you have a dynamism that my work needs to be translated into exciting theater. I don’t think “Pulling the punches” will benefit this show. It should be controlled but violent. I went to see “All My Sons” again. I was more impressed than ever, the way lightning was infused into all the relationships, everything charged with feeling, nothing, even the trivial exchanges, allowed to sag into passivity. Yes, I think you can try new things in my play. In that sense it might be good for you, and it will certainly be good for me. It is a working script. I think we can learn and grow with it and possibly we can make something beautiful and alive whether everyone understands it or not. People are willing to live and die without understanding exactly what life is about but they must sometimes know exactly what a play is about. I hope we can show them what it is about but since I cannot say exactly what it is about, this is just a hope. But maybe if we succeed in our first objective of making it alive on the stage, the meaning will be apparent.

On second visit to “Sons”, I decided that [Karl] Malden was right for Mitch. I hope you agree. The face is comical but the man has a dignified simplicity and he is a great actor. I also met Burt Lancaster. Was favorably impressed. He has more force and quickness than I expected from the rather plegmatic type he portrayed in The Killers. He also seemed like a man who would work well under good direction.

As that last paragraph indicates, both Williams and Kazan were turning their minds to casting. Williams discussed the casting of Blanche with Audrey Wood.

Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, mid-June 1947:

I would not recommend investment in this show to any friend until that part [Blanche] has been satisfactorily cast. By satisfactorily I mean with a really powerful dramatic actress in the part. [Margaret] Sullavan is strictly compromise on that score. She is the sort of actress that would get “excellent personal notices” but do the play no good: unless she has more on the ball than we derived from her readings. Right now [Jessica] Tandy is the only one who looks good to me and I am waiting till I see her and hear her. Could you leave a piece ($5000.) open until Blanche is cast? Then I’ll know whether or not Mother ought to invest.

Another question: will Tandy be in New York this summer? Could she come East for inspection here? If she was the Blanche we dream of, then I could dispense with the Coast trip which I dread making, as I would probably have to travel alone, and when I got there, would probably be subjected to intense pressure for script changes: the best I can do for this production is to stay in good shape for rehearsals. There isn’t much in the script that should be altered until we know the exact limitations of the Blanche selected and hear the lines spoken. I will do a lot of cutting then. The rewrite on Scene V does not read as well as original but I think it will play better and is more sympathetic for Blanche. (Makes Mitch more important to her).

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Karl Malden, Jessica Tandy

Jo Mielziner signed on to design Streetcar.

Tennessee Williams to Margo Jones, early-July 1947:

Jo’s designs for Streetcar are almost the best I’ve ever seen. The back wall of the interior is translucent with a stylized panorama showing through it of the railroad yards and the city (when lighted behind). It will add immensely to the poetic quality.

Both Kazan and Williams had John Garfield in mind for the part of Stanley Kowalski. Kazan and Garfield went way back to the 30s, in the days of the Group Theatre, and Garfield was now out in Hollywood, becoming a movie star. He balked at the idea of coming back for an open-ended run which would keep him out of Los Angeles indefinitely. So although the trade papers announced that Garfield had signed on to play Stanley (this in early August), that was not actually the case. Garfield only wanted to do it for four months, a limited run, and he also wanted to be guaranteed the role in the film, should it be made into a film. Irene Selznick turned Garfield down, and so they had to, again, look for another Stanley.

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Thomas Hart Benton: Poker Night (from “A Streetcar Named Desire”) (1948)

Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, August 25, 1947 in the middle of the Garfield brou-haha:

The actor George Beban was flown out here from the Coast and read for me this morning. This actor has had summer stock experience and has chased a stage coach in a Grade B Western. It was his first time on a horse. He is more adventuresome than I. I don’t want to put my play under him. He gave a fair reading. He is of medium height with a rather tough and virile quality but he was monotonous, there was no gradation to his reading, no apparent humor or dexterity which comes from experience and from natural acting ability. He read one scene on his feet and his body movements were stiff and self-conscious with none of the animal grace and virility (When I say grace I mean a virile grace) which the part calls for and it made me more bitterly conscious than ever of how good Garfield would have been. I think it was a brutal experience for this actor, and I do regard actors as human beings some of them just as sensitive and capable of disappointment and suffering as I am. I don’t understand why he was put through this ordeal with no more apparent attributes than he showed this morning. Of course it was a great strategic error, if the Selznick office hoped to interest me in this actor, to accompany him with the new scripts, for when I saw that my final scene had been left out I was somewhat distracted from anything else. I am sure, however, that I gave the actor a pretty fair appraisal, notwithstanding this factor. None of us, Gadge, Irene or I, were at all impressed by the screen-tests we saw of him on the Coast.

That leaves us with Marlon Brando, of the ones that have been mentioned to date. I am very anxious to see and hear him as soon as I can. He is going to read for Gadge and if Gadge likes him I would like to have a look at him.

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Ahem.

A couple of days after Tennessee wrote this letter, Elia Kazan took Marlon Brando up to Provincetown to meet the playwright, and to read for the role of Stanley. Brando was only 23 years old, so Williams had originally rejected even the idea of seeing him for the role at all, since in his mind Stanley was around 30. He was too young. Brando had had a couple of New York hits, had gotten some notice already – but he wasn’t a star yet. He also was a terrible “auditioner”, as many great actors are. People who were pushing Brando for the part were naturally concerned that if all they did was have Brando read from the script, he wouldn’t show up well at all. Kazan understood about the difference between audition and performance – that someone can be incredible onstage and be awful at auditions. He had seen Brando onstage and knew he had the “magnetism” that could work very well for Stanley. He sent Brando the script. Brando read it and was very impressed but also scared out of his mind.

Brando to reporter Bob Thomas:

I finally decided that it was a size too large for me, and called Gadg to tell him so. The line was busy. Had I spoken to him at that moment, I’m certain I wouldn’t have played the role. I decided to let it rest for a while, and the next day Gadg called me and said, ‘Well, what is it – yes or no?’ I gulped and said, ‘Yes.’

Kazan then sent Brando up to Provincetown to meet Tennessee Williams. It’s rather a notorious meeting, told by all the different parties who were there – Brando, Williams, etc. Williams was sitting in his beach house at Provincetown, with Pancho, his crazy hot-tempered lover, and a couple of his friends from Texas. Everyone was drunk. The electricity and the plumbing were not operational so they sat there in the gathering dark, whooping it up. This was when Brando arrived from New York. Brando strolled in, assessed the situation, walked into the bathroom, stuck his hand down the toilet to unclog it, and then fiddled with the blown fuses to get the electricity back on.

Imagine a young Brando doing this. Brando was no idiot. I’m sure he was aware that “reading from the script” as an audition was not his strongest point, and perhaps doing a little plumbing and electrical work as the playwright looked on would help his case. Or who knows, maybe it was completely unconscious and he thought, “What the hell? No lights? No toilet? What is WRONG with these people?” Whatever his motivations, when he finished with the blown fuses, he stood in the middle of the living room and started his audition. He only got 30 seconds into it before Williams stopped him. Williams told him he had the part, and then promptly gave him bus fare to go right back to New York to sign the contract. 30 seconds in the beach house living room, reading Stanley – and Williams knew. He’s my Stanley. Not a moment to lose. Here’s money, go back to New York right now, sign the contract.

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Irene Selznick remembers her first meeting with this new young actor, as he signed a two-year contract in her office:

He didn’t behave like someone to whom something wonderful had just happened, nor did he try to make an impression; he was too busy assessing me. Whatever he expected, I wasn’t it. He seemed wary and at a loss how to classify me. He was wayward one moment, playful the next, volunteering that he had been expelled from school, then grinning provocatively at me. I didn’t take the bait. It was easy going after that. He sat up in his chair and turned forthright, earnest, even polite.

Scene 2, Streetcar Named Desire:

STANLEY: Have you ever heard of the Napoleonic code?

STELLA: No, Stanley, I haven’t heard of the Napoleonic code and if I have, I don’t see what it –

STANLEY: Let me enlighten you on a point or two, baby.

STELLA: Yes?

STANLEY: In the state of Louisiana we have the Napoleonic code according to which what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa. For instance if I had a piece of property, or you had a piece of property-

STELLA: My head is swimming!

STANLEY: All right. I’ll wait till she gets through soaking in a hot tub and then I’ll inquire if she is acquainted with the Napoleonic code. It looks to me like you’ve been swindled, baby, and when you’re swindled under the Napoleonic code I’m swindled too. And I don’t like to be swindled.

STELLA: There’s plenty of time to ask her questions later but if you do now she’ll go to pieces again. I don’t understand what happened to Belle Reve but you don’t know how ridiculous you are being when you suggest that my sister or I or anyone of our family could have perpetrated a swindle on anyone else.

STANLEY: Then where’s the money if the place was sold?

STELLA: Not sold – lost, lost!

Tennessee Williams to Audrey Wood, August 29, 1947:

I can’t tell you what a relief it is that we have found such a God-sent Stanley in the person of Brando. It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality or callousness of youth rather than a vicious older man. I don’t want to focus guilt or blame particularly on any one character but to have it a tragedy of misunderstandings and insensitivity to others. A new value came out of Brando’s reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard. He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans. This is a value beyond any that Garfield could have contributed, and in addition to his gifts as an actor he has great physical appeal and sensuality, at least as much as Burt Lancaster. When Brando is signed I think we will have a really remarkable 4-star cast, as exciting as any that could possibly be assembled and worth all the trouble that we have gone through. Having him instead of a Hollywood star will create a highly favorable impression as it will remove the Hollywood stigma that seemed to be attached to the production. Please use all your influence to oppose any move on the part of Irene’s office to reconsider or delay signing the boy, in case she doesn’t take to him.

Brando was signed. Kim Hunter was signed. Malden and Tandy were signed.

Tennessee Williams to Irene Selznick, Sept. 8, 1947:

As for the last scene, I will give it another work-out. I feel that my last revision on it is the best to date. It has not as much “plus-quality” in the writing as I would like. However I think it will play well. Where it lacks most is the dialogue between Stella and Eunice: there is still something too cut-and-dried in the necessary exposition between them. I will try (but can’t promise) to improve on that. It may soften too much. We mustn’t lose the effect of terror: everybody agrees about that.

Scene 11, Streetcar Named Desire:

STELLA: Everything packed?

BLANCHE: My silver toilet articles are still out.

STELLA: Ah!

EUNICE: [returning] They’re waiting in front of the house.

BLANCHE: They! Who’s “they”?

EUNICE: There’s a lady with him.

BLANCHE: I cannot imagine who this “lady” could be! How is she dressed?

EUNICE: Just – just a sort of a – plain-tailored outfit.

BLANCHE: Possibly she’s- [Her voice dies out nervously]

STELLA: Shall we go, Blanche?

BLANCHE: Must we go through that room?

STELLA: I will go with you.

BLANCHE: How do I look?

STELLA: Lovely.

EUNICE: Lovely.

[Blanche moves fearfully to the portieres. Eunice draws them open for her. Blanche goes into the kitchen.]

BLANCHE: [to the men] Please don’t get up. I’m only passing through.

[She crosses quickly to outside door. Stella and Eunice follow. The poker players stand awkwardly at the table – all except Mitch, who remains seated, looking down at the table. Blanche steps out on a small porch at the side of the door. She stops short and catches her breath.]

DOCTOR: How do you do?

BLANCHE: You are not the gentleman I was expecting.

In October, 1947. Tennessee Williams wrote a letter to “Pancho”, his lover and companion.

We start rehearsals Monday. Gadge is full of vitality and optimism. Miss Tandy has arrived in town looking very pretty with her new blond hair and all the script changes have been approved and finally typed up.

Rehearsals for Streetcar began in October.

Here is Elia Kazan, a cunning canny man, who worked with every actor differently, pulling each one aside, whispering, cajoling, manipulating, on how he worked with Brando:

With other actors, I’d always say what just what I want: ‘You do this. No, I don’t like that, I want you to do it like this.’ With Marlon … it was more like, ‘Listen to this and let’s see what you do with it.’ … I’d heard about his parents, but not from him, and I never asked. I treated him with great delicacy. One reason he got to trust me – as a director – was that I respected his privacy… I was always hoping for a miracle with him, and I often got it.

Blanche Dubois, scene 1, Streetcar Named Desire:

Now, then, let me look at you. But don’t you look at me, Stella, no, no, no, not till later, not till I’ve bathed and rested! And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare! Come back here now! Oh, my baby! Stella! Stella for Star! I thought you would never come back to this horrible place! What am I saying? I didn’t mean to say that. I meant to be nice about it and say – Oh, what a convenient location and such – Ha-a-ha! Precious lamb! You haven’t said a word to me!

Williams wrote in his memoirs:

Kazan was one of those rare directors who wanted the playwright around at all rehearsals… Once in a while he would call me up on stage to demonstrate how I felt a certain bit should be played. I suspect he did this only to flatter me for he never had the least uncertainty in his work.

Kazan describes how he would pull Marlon aside and start to give him direction, and in the middle of him speaking, Brando would turn and walk away. Brando would pick up on the subterranean message – walk off and think about it and then try it.

Kazan on Brando:

Look, Marlon was always at arm’s length and he felt safe there, uninspected, unprobed. How much of the potential penetration was based on my insight, as opposed to stuff I picked up here and there, I don’t know… It’s my trade, though. I know where to look, where to put my hand in, what to try to pull out, what to get.

Brando’s feeling that the play was a size too big for him was intensified by the knowledge that John Garfield had been the first choice. He couldn’t get that out of his head, the anxiety that he was second-banana. He would mutter, “They should have gotten John Garfield” in the middle of rehearsals when he was struggling. His insights into the character of Stanley, however, are invaluable. He really SAW Stanley and in my opinion he shows the lie behind that whole “you have to like the character you are playing” malarkey that so many actors subscribe to. (However, Brando was a genius. So we have to factor that in. He is an unusual case). But he didn’t like Stanley. Not one bit. Marlon was strong, athletic, but not an aggressive brute like Stanley. Here he is on Stanley Kowalski:

A man without any sensitivity, without any kind of morality except his own mewling, whimpering insistence on his own way … one of those guys who work hard and have lots of flesh with nothing supple about them. They never open their fists, really. They grip a cup like an animal would wrap a paw around it. They’re so muscle-bound they can hardly talk.

That is incredibly insightful analysis.

A well-known fact now, after one week of rehearsal, Brando moved into the theatre, sleeping on a cot backstage. This was not out of bravado, but out of insecurity. He honestly didn’t feel he could do it. The only way for him to at least attempt to succeed was to never leave the part. He stopped eating, sleeping. He was late to rehearsals. Kazan, rather than being impatient for results, was tender. The other actors were at another level, almost performance-level, as Marlon was still mumbling and wandering around. This was not affectation. This was true struggle. Marlon Brando is so imitated now that it is hard to remember just how revolutionary this performance was. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Brando had great talent, yes, but part of that talent was knowing how his own talent operated, and that meant mumbling, not committing – not yet – holding back, wandering around, and trying to feel his way in. It was very frustrating for the other actors, who were more straight-line Broadway professionals.

Karl Malden describes a moment in rehearsal:

We were rehearsing the bathroom scene, the one where I come out and meet Blanche for the first time and Stanley says, ‘Hey, Mitch, come on!’ Now, as we were working on it, every day would be different. Marlon would come in before you said your line, or way after you said your line, or even before you had anything to say. The best was all wrong.

Anyway, it was just beginning to go well for me for the first time – when you think, Oh, my God, this is it – and boom, he hit me with one that just upset everything. I said, ‘Oh, shit!’ and threw something and walked offstage, up into the attic. Kazan said, ‘What the hell happened?’

‘I can’t concentrate,’ I told him. ‘I was going along beautifully and all of a sudden in comes this jarring thing. It throws me. It’s impossible.’ I was furious and explained that it had been happening regularly. He said, ‘Wait’.

Kazan made a little speech the next day for the cast, saying:

Let’s talk this out right now. Karl, you have to get used to the way Marlon works. But Marlon, you must remember that there are other people in the cast also.

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Scene 6, Streetcar:

MITCH: I told my mother how nice you were, and I liked you.

BLANCHE: Were you sincere about that?

MITCH: You know I was.

BLANCHE: Why did your mother want to know my age?

MITCH: Mother is sick.

BLANCHE: I’m sorry to hear it. Badly?

MITCH: She won’t live long. Maybe just a few months.

BLANCHE: Oh.

MITCH: She worries because I’m not settled.

BLANCHE: Oh.

MITCH: She wants me to be settled down before she- [His voice is hoarse and he clears his throat twice, shuffling nervously around with his hands in his pockets.]

BLANCHE: You love her very much, don’t you?

MITCH: Yes.

BLANCHE: I think you have a great capacity for devotion. You will be lonely when she passes on, won’t you? [Mitch clears his throat and nods] I understand what that is.

MITCH: To be lonely?

BLANCHE: I loved someone, too, and the person I loved lost.

MITCH: Dead? [She crosses to the window and sits on the sill, looking out. She pours herself another drink.] A man?

BLANCHE: He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl …

By mid-October, the cast was ready for a run-through. Stella Adler was in attendance, as well as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy’s husband. After a couple of weeks of trying to “find” the part, Marlon suddenly gave a full-blown white-hot opening-night performance, electrifying everyone present. Nobody forgot that day when they realized they were looking at a young man who was going to be a giant giant star. It made Hume Cronyn nervous. Streetcar was about Blanche, not Stanley. If Stanley was so watchable that Blanche seems incidental to HIS journey, then wasn’t that counter to what the play actually was about? Cronyn spoke to Kazan about it. It wasn’t that Tandy was bad, it was that the CONTRAST in acting styles made Tandy look weaker as an actress, despite her already-long illustrious career.

Later, Kazan said:

Perhaps Hume meant that by contrast with Marlon, whose every word seemed not something memorized but the spontaneous expression of an intense inner experience – which is the level of work all actors try to reach – Jessie was what? Expert? Professional? Was that enough for this play? Not for Hume. Hers seemed to be a performance; Marlon was living on stage. Jessie had every moment worked out carefully, with sensitivity and intelligence, and it was all coming together, just as Williams and I had expected and wanted. Marlon, working ‘from the inside’, rode his emotion wherever it took him; his performance was full of surprises and exceeded what Williams and I had expected. A performance miracle was in the making.

Streetcar opened in Boston for a tryout run and played from November 3 to November 15, 1947. There were bubbling issues with censorship, especially in regards to the rape scene, which was causing controversy already.

During rehearsals, Kazan (in particular) was concerned (along with Hume Cronyn) that Brando’s performance would be so strong that it would tip the balance of the play. More on this later. The reviews they got in Boston were fair, with Tandy getting most of the press. The earthquake that was Marlon Brando wasn’t making itself felt yet. Tandy

Streetcar then moved to Philadelphia for another tryout (Nov. 17-29) before coming to New York for its premiere. The buzz was starting. People were taking notice. The play was sold out, and the reviews were superb. Not just of the acting, but of the play itself. There seemed a consciousness that something big was about to happen.

And then finally, New York.

Streetcar Named Desire opened on this day, in 1947.

On opening night, Tennessee Williams sent Marlon Brando a telegram, which read:

RIDE OUT BOY AND SEND IT SOLID. FROM THE GREASY POLACK YOU WILL SOME DAY ARRIVE AT THE GLOOMY DANE FOR YOU HAVE SOMETHING THAT MAKES THE THEATRE A WORLD OF GREAT POSSIBILITIES.

Tennessee Williams, letter to Jay Laughlin, the following day, December 4, 1947:

Streetcar opened last night to tumultuous approval. Never witnessed such an exciting evening. So much better than New Haven you wdn’t believe it; N.H. was just a reading of the play. Much more warmth, range, intelligence, interpretation, etc. – a lot of it because of better details in direction, timing. Packed house, of the usual first-night decorations, – Cecil B’ton, Valentina, D. Parker, the Selznicks, the others and so on, – and with a slow warm-up for first act, and comments like “Well, of course, it isn’t a play,” the second act (it’s in 3 now) sent the audience zowing to mad heights, and the final one left them – and me – wilted, gasping, weak, befoozled, drained (see reviews for more words) and then an uproar of applause which went on and on. Almost no one rose from a seat till many curtains went up on whole cast, the 4 principles, then Tandy, who was greeted by a great howl of “BRavo!” from truly all over the house. Then repeat of the whole curtain schedule to Tandy again and finally ……….. 10 Wms crept on stage, after calls of Author! and took bows with Tandy. All was great, great, GREAT!

"A Streetcar Named Desire"

Elia Kazan in his memoir on Stanley/Brando and how it tipped the balance of the play: a very revealing anecdote:

But what had been intimated in our final rehearsals in New York was happening. The audiences adored Brando. When he derided Blanche, they responded with approving laughter. Was the play becoming the Marlon Brando Show? I didn’t bring up the problem, because I didn’t know the solution. I especially didn’t want the actors to know that I was concerned. What could I say to Brando? Be less good? Or to Jessie? Get better? …

Louis B. Mayer sought me out to congratulate me and assure me that we’d all make a fortune … He urged me to make the author do one critically important bit of rewriting to make sure that once that “awful woman” who’d come to break up that “fine young couple’s happy home” was packed off to an institution, the audience would believe that the young couple would live happily ever after. It never occurred to him that Tennessee’s primary sympathy was with Blanche, nor did I enlighten him … His misguided reaction added to my concern. I had to ask myself: Was I satisfied to have the performance belong to Marlon Brando? Was that what I’d intended? What did I intend? I looked to the author. He seemed satisfied. Only I — and perhaps Hume [Cronyn, Tandy’s husband] — knew that something was going wrong …

What astonished me was that the author wasn’t concerned about the audience’s favoring Marlon. That puzzled me because Tennessee was my final authority, the person I had to please. I still hadn’t brought up the problem, I was waiting for him to do it. I got my answer … because of something that happened in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, across the hall from my suite, where Tennessee and Pancho [Tennessee’s companion at the time] were staying. One night I heard a fearsome commotion from across the hall, curses in Spanish, threats to kill, the sound of breaking china … and a crash … As I rushed out into the corridor, Tennessee burst through his door, looking terrified, and dashed into my room. Pancho followed, but when I blocked my door, he turned to the elevator still cursing, and was gone. Tennessee slept on the twin bed in my room that night. The next morning, Pancho had not returned.

I noticed that Wiilliams wasn’t angry at Pancho, not even disapproving — in fact, when he spoke about the incident, he admired Pancho for his outburst. At breakfast, I brought up my worry about Jessie and Marlon. “She’ll get better,” Tennessee said, and then we had our only discussion about the direction of his play. “Blanche is not an angel without a flaw,” he said, “and Stanley’s not evil. I know you’re used to clearly stated themes, but this play should not be loaded one way or the other. Don’t try to simplify things.” Then he added, “I was making fun of Pancho, and he blew up.” He laughed. I remembered the letter he’d written me before we started rehearsals, remembered how, in that letter, he’d cautioned me against tipping the moral scales against Stanley, that in the interests of fidelity I must not present Stanley as a “black-dyed villain”. “What should I do?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “Don’t take sides or try to present a moral. When you begin to arrange the action to make a thematic point, the fidelity to life will suffer. Go on working as you are. Marlon is a genius, but she’s a worker and she will get better. And better.”

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Marlon Brando, years later, to Truman Capote on doing Streetcar and realizing he was famous:

You can’t always be a failure. Not and survive. Van Gogh! There’s an example of what can happen when a person never receives any recognition. You stop relating: it puts you outside. But I guess success does that, too. You know, it took me a long time before I was aware that that’s what I was – a big success. I was so absorbed in myself, my own problems, I never looked around, took account. I used to walk in New York, miles and miles, walk in the streets late at night, and never see anything. I was never sure about acting, whether that was what I really wanted to do; I’m still not. Then, when I was in “Streetcar”, and it had been running a couple of months, one night — dimly, dimly — I began to hear this roar.

Scene 10, Streetcar:

STANLEY: Oh! So you want some roughhouse! All right, let’s have some roughhouse! [He springs toward her, overturning the table. She cries out and strikes at him with the bottle top but he catches her wrist] Tiger – tiger! Drop the bottle-top! Drop it! We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!

NY Times review:

December 4, 1947, NY Times

FIRST NIGHT AT THE THEATRE by Brooks Atkinson

Tennessee Williams has brought us a superb drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was acted at the Ethel Barrymore last evening. And Jessica Tandy gives a superb performance as a rueful heroine whose misery Mr. Williams is tenderly recording. This must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwriting. For the acting and playwriting are perfectly blended in a limpid performance, and it is impossible to tell where Miss Tandy begins to give form and warmth to the mood Mr. Williams has created.

Like “The Glass Menagerie,” the new play is a quietly woven study of intangibles. But to this observer it shows deeper insight and represents a great step forward toward clarity. And it reveals Mr. Williams as a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is history of a gently reared Mississippi young woman who invents an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit. She comes to live with her sister, who is married to a rough-and-ready mechanic and inhabits two dreary rooms in a squalid neighborhood. Blanche – for that is her name – has delusions of grandeur, talks like an intellectual snob, buoys herself up with gaudy dreams, spends most of her time primping, covers things that are dingy with things that are bright and flees reality.

To her brother-in-law she is an unforgiveable liar. But it is soon apparent to the theatregoer that in Mr. Williams’ eyes she is one of the dispossessed whose experience has unfitted her for reality; and although his attitude toward her is merciful, he does not spare her or the playgoer. For the events of “Streetcar” lead to a painful conclusion which he does not try to avoid. Although Blanche cannot face the truth, Mr. Williams does in the most imaginative and perceptive play he has written.

Since he is no literal dramatist and writes in none of the conventional forms, he presents theatre with many problems. Under Elia Kazan’s sensitive but concrete direction, the theatre solved them admirably. Jo Mielziner has provided a beautifully lighted single setting that lightly sketches the house and the neighborhood. In this shadowy environment the performance is a work of great beauty.

Miss Tandy has a remarkably long part to play. She is hardly ever off the stage, and when she is on stage she is almost constantly talking — chattering, dreaming aloud, wondering, building enchantments out of words. Miss Tandy is a trim, agile actress with a lovely voice and quick intelligence. Her performance is almost incredibly true. For it does seem almost incredible that she can convey it with so many shades and impulses that are accurate, revealing and true.

The rest of the acting is also of very high quality indeed. Marlon Brando as the quick-tempered, scornful, violent mechanic; Karl Malden as a stupid but wondering suitor; Kim Hunter as the patient though troubled sister — all act not only with color and style but with insight.

By the usual Broadway standards, “Streetcar Named Desire” is too long; not all those words are essential. But Mr. Williams is entitled to his own independence. For he has not forgotten that human beings are the basic subject of art. Out of poetic imagination and ordinary compassion he has spun a poignant and luminous story.

Brooks Atkinson was a longtime “watcher” of Tennessee Williams, and his reviews really showed his thoughtful understanding of what Williams was attempting. Williams loved to hear what Atkinson had to say, and they enjoyed a long private correspondence as well. On December 14, 1947, as the Streetcar uproar was in crescendo, he wrote another piece in the Times, expressing some reservations about the play. Now this is interesting: Atkinson, a discerning perceptive man, felt that the play was weakened because it arrived at no moral conclusion. The playwright takes “no sides in the conflict”. He felt that Williams was limiting himself by refusing to come down on one or the other side.

Williams jotted off a note to Atkinson in response, which gives a feeling of their open communication:

Tennessee Williams to Brooks Atkinson, Dec. 15, 1947:

At last a criticism which connects directly with the essence of what I thought was the play! I mean your Sunday article which I have just read with the deepest satisfaction of any the play’s success has given me. So many of the others, saying ‘alcoholic’, ‘nymphomaniac’, ‘prostitute’, ‘boozy’ and so forth seemed – though stirred by the play – to be completely off the track, or nearly so. I wanted to show that people are not definable in such terms but are things of multiple facets and all but endless complexity that they do not fit “any convenient label” and are seldom more than partially visible even to those who live just on the other side of “the portieres”. You have also touched on my main problem: expanding my material and my interests. I can’t answer that question. I know it and fear it and can only make more effort to extend my “feelers” beyond what I’ve felt so far. Thank you, Brooks.

Irene Selznick describes the opening night:

In those days, people stood only for the national anthem. That night was the first time I ever saw an audience get to its feet, and the first time I saw the Shuberts stay for a final curtain … round after round, curtain after curtain, until Tennessee took a bow on the stage to bravos.

Irene Selznick was the first wife of producer David O. Selznick, and they would divorce in 1948, the separation already having happened in 1947. But he sent her a letter on December 17, 1947 after reading the NY Times review of Streetcar:

Dear Irene: Just read Brooks Atkinson’s rave notice in Sunday’s New York Times … Also, I am in receipt of the most wildly enthusiastic telegram from Bob Ross, who says among other things that you have “one of the most rewarding, stimulating and exciting plays in many a season,” and “a real and distinguished hit.” … Accordingly, I feel justified in sending you most excited and delighted congratulations. It is a joy to know that all my predictions of your success are commencing to come true, and in a big way. I am sure you are well on the road to recognition as the theater’s best and most distinguished producer. Love David

In general, at least in terms of critical acclaim, Brando was not singled out. It is only retrospectively, that people seemed to understand what had happened. But actors knew. Directors knew. Insiders knew what it was they were seeing.

Here is Robert Whitehead on Brando in Streetcar:

There were no models for Brando. His relationship to the sounds and poetic reality of Williams was particularly embracing; what Tennessee wrote, both in relation to the age and Marlon’s sensibility, it all worked … That particular kind of reality existed in a way that it hadn’t ever before.

Here is Maureen Stapleton:

It goes well beyond talent. It’s male. It’s talent plus.

Joan Copeland, actress, younger sister to Arthur Miller, said:

Watching [Brando in Streetcar] was like being in the eye of the hurricane.

Blanche Dubois, scene 1, in Streetcar Named Desire:

They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields!

Dakin Williams (Tennessee Williams’ brother):

Blanche is Tennessee. If he would tell you something it wouldn’t be necessarily true. And Blanche says in Streetcar, ‘I don’t tell what’s true, I tell what ought to be true.’ And so everything in Blanche was really like Tennessee.

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Tennessee Williams, in front of the set being built for the Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire

Posted in On This Day, Theatre | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

November 2016 Viewing Diary

Elle (2016; d. Paul Verhoeven)
I loved it. People HATE this movie. One lady on Twitter said that men should be banned from making films about rape. How you would enforce such a rule is beyond me. Also: No fucking thanks. Nothing is stopping women making films about rape either. Ida Lupino did it decades before anyone wanted to hear it or even had a name for the PTSD that came afterwards. Anyway, I loved it. My review.

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Supernatural, Season 12, Episode 4, “American Nightmare” (2016; d. John Showalter)
I thought this was a very successful episode, but I thought there was a way more elegant way to get across the “family needs to spend time apart” message – which was said, out loud, by three different characters three separate times. Supernatural, this is not like you. Get it together.

Seoul Station (2016; d. Yeon Sang-ho.)
I have not seen the sequel yet, which is on a lot of people’s Best-Of-Year lists, but I really dig this Zombie movie. Beautiful strange animation. Mood of dread. Political commentary too: Zombies are the excuse a State needs to become Authoritarian. Check it out.

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Things to Come (2016; d. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Seen twice this month, once in Hawaii and once a couple of days ago. It opens today. I reviewed for Ebert. It’s wonderful. I am grateful for Mia Hansen-Løve’s films.

95 and 6 to Go (2016; d. Kimi Takesue)
Very emotional documentary about the filmmaker’s grandfather. Keep your eyes peeled. Thoughts here.

Paterson (2016; d. Jim Jarmusch)
It hasn’t opened yet. I saw in Hawaii. It’s on my Top 10. Oh, Lord, this movie is special.

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10 episodes of “Bar Rescue” and “Intervention”
I don’t have television. I did this marathon watch on my final night in Hawaii as the votes were being tallied. I stopped being able to watch. I felt so so alone. “Bar Rescue” is a HOOT. And I love “Intervention.” It makes me feel grateful that I never did drugs except for that one disastrous time.

Port of Call (2015; d. Philip Yung)
A detective/crime-thriller from Hong Kong. I really enjoyed it. Very good acting.

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Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 11, “Appointment in Samarra” (2010; d. Mike Rohl)
I continued my re-watch of Season 6, because I wanted to watch Soulless Sam, my favorite Arc.

Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 12, “Like a Virgin” (2011; d. Phil Sgriccia)
It’s the little moments that get me. “I think I delivered it …” hand over heart. If you’re not familiar with my love of The Perfect Gesture – then that’s a great example.

Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 13, “Unforgiven” (2011; d. David Barrett)
Many reasons to enjoy this episode, the main one being it takes place in my home state. And except for the H.P. Lovecraft scene, when does that happen?

Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 14, “Mannequin 3: The Reckoning” (2011; d. Jeannot Szwarf)
The 1980s style of this episode – with the music and the moody-glam driving montage – is so pleasing and so cheese-ball. And I’ve said it somewhere else: The scene between Ben and Dean is left unresolved. SO GOOD. It does not tie it up in a neat bow. This is not a cry-and-hug-it-out kind of show (or it shouldn’t be). Dean is thrown back on himself by Ben’s behavior and words. It’s brutal.

Supernatural, Season 12, Episode 5, “The One You’ve Been Waiting For” (2016; d. Nina Lopez-Conrado)
The less said about this episode the better. Horrible timing. And I get the sense they thought it would be perfect timing. Fail.

I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016; d. Feng Xiaogang)
Weird (and beautiful) movie that had no business being 2 1/2 hours long. But still: stunning to look at, with a unique visual device (see below). My review.

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Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 15, “The French Mistake” (2011; d. Charles Beeson)
With all of the great stuff in this episode, one of my favorite parts is how in sync Sam and Dean are throughout. They race around like crazy, plotting and scheming and beating up an extra and “acting” and picking up illegal shit at the airport, and it’s like they’re one being. Also, Misha Collins’ death scene makes me HOWL.

Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 16, “And Then There Were None” (2011; d. Mike Rohl)
You know what? The more I think about this episode, the more fucked up (and awesome) it becomes. Five men stand in a locked room, getting penetrated one by one by a thick slimy worm. It’s hard to believe they even get away with half the shit they do, and the reason it works so well is because no one is playing the metaphor in a wink-wink way. It’s deadly serious.

Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 17, “My Heart Will Go On” (2011; d. Phil Sgriccia)
I’m not crazy about this episode.

Supernatural, Season 6, Episode 18, “Frontierland” (2011; d. Guy Bee)
One of my favorite episodes in the history of the show, from beginning to end. “You going to a hoe-down?” Sam drinking sarsaparilla and loving it. Dean’s clothes: “I look good.”

Supernatural, Season 12, Episode 6, “Asa Fox” (2016; d. John Badham)
I’m having some serious issues with this season. I realize it’s a leftover of feeling burnt by the final 3 episodes of Season 11 but something’s off. The spine is missing. And the sense of psychological melodrama which should be pushed front and center. Also, as Jessie pointed out, the “magic” from the witch-twins come too easy. Member Meg slitting someone’s throat, so the blood can pour out so she can make her “phone call”? I prefer the grit and earthiness of the “magic” in the show, not the wave magic wand type of “magic.” It helped ground the whole thing. There are things I liked here. Asa’s mother. The final scene. Jody as Hunter friends-with-benefits. But something’s off.

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976; d. Alfred Sole)
What a find. I watched it for an upcoming essay I wrote from Film Comment, and it’s amazing. The whole thing is on Youtube, FYI.

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Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 1, “Meet the New Boss” (2011; d. Phil Sgriccia)
It’s funny: For a long time, Season 7 was my least favorite. I just didn’t care for it. That just goes to show you how reliable first impressions are. I still don’t find the Leviathan scary (the whole show is about what the Leviathan are PLANNING to do, not what they are ACTUALLY doing), and I don’t like the didactic preachy tone about fat Americans and fructose corn syrup. However: I think this is a really really good season now, with GREAT stuff between Sam and Dean in the first half, as well as the introduction of Garth and Charlie and Kevin. So I am team Season 7 now.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 2, “”Hello, Cruel World”” (2011; d. Guy Bee)
I wish they’d torch the bunker now.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 3, “The Girl Next Door” (2011; d. Jensen Ackles)
I didn’t really like this episode on first watch, but now I really liked it a lot. Also, really good set-up for the blow-out that’s coming with Sam and Dean, a situation that they really explored in-depth. Like: that’s all I remember from the early part of this season and that’s as it should be. The only thing we should care about in this section of Season 12 is Mom returning, but somehow it’s not being prioritized as focused as it should. Missed opportunity.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 4, “Defending Your Life” (2011; d. Robert Singer)
Egyptian cultural appropriation aside, I actually like a lot of this. I like how it’s set up to focus ONLY on Dean’s guilt and the growing chasm between the brothers. This is in Singer’s wheelhouse. Dumb maybe but right on point. The plot is irrelevant, just an excuse, a flimsy structure on which to hang what really matters which is emotional torment.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 5, “Shut Up, Dr. Phil” (2011; d. Phil Sgriccia)
Another one I really didn’t care for and now I think is a hoot. I love the two actors hired for the couple, I love Jenny the assistant, I love the lesbian-yearnings in the best friend. It’s a silly episode (Dean and bees) but it’s fun.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 6, “Slash Fiction” (2011; d. John Showalter)
Super fun. That opening scene shocked me so much on first watch.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 7, “The Mentalists” (2011; d. Mike Rohl)
I believe I have made clear my feelings about this episode and Melanie, in particular. I never get sick of this whole entire story, and this is one of the ones I pop in when I need to chill out, relax, enjoy, put my feet up. It’s really special, a wonderful hour of television: compact, funny, good acting, bizarre.

The Night Digger (1971; d. Alastair Reid)
The second movie for my essay in Film Comment, mentioned above. What a fabulous film. Patricia Neal stars. Script by her husband at the time Roald Dahl. This is her second film post-stroke.

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Green (2011; d. Sophia Takal)
Takal is one to watch, I tell you. Her latest, Always Shine is one of my favorite films of the year (review here. Green is her first. It’s an hour long and it’s excellent.

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Always Shine (2016; d. Sophia Takal)
So good. It opened last week and it’s already gone from the theaters. Bah humbug. See this one once it hits VOD. My review here.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 8, “Season Seven, Time for a Wedding” (2011; d. Tim Andrew)
So disturbing. Sam roofied and assaulted. AND he “consents” once he’s drugged, which makes it even sicker. However, the main reason to see this now is because Leslie Odom Jr. appears as the Crossroads Demon (and he’s excellent and nuanced), and of course a couple years later he literally took Broadway by storm playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton. “Room Where It Happens” really shows what he can do, and where he can really go. I saw the production in its earliest days on Broadway, right after the reviews came out, and everything about it was so phenomenal, but that number … The ovation it received could have been heard across the Hudson.

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938; d. Ernst Lubitsch)
A favorite. Gary Cooper: so so sexy. Claudette Colbert: lovely and funny. A very disturbing plot, if you think about it closely. David Niven is hysterical! Lubitsch doing his indefinable and yet unmistakable Lubitsch thing.

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Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 9, “How to Win Friends and Influence Monsters” (2011; d. Guy Bee)
Terrific. Not crazy, again, about the “look at all the fat people zoning out in a restaurant” thing Season 7 had going on, but I really liked this episode, and love it when an episode features Bobby, Sam and Dean all together the whole way through. Plus Dean stoned.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 10, “Death’s Door” (2011; d. Robert Singer)
One of the best episodes the show has ever done. It makes me cry every time. The look on the little boy’s face as his father yells at him. Jim Beaver roaring at his father. The reveals of Bobby’s life: the wife, his childhood. Devastating. Plus Rufus. Plus the production design which was truly eerie: a lot of care put into it. If the world were fair, this episode would have been nominated for an Emmy.

Citizen Kane (1941; d. Orson Welles)
Watched over Thanksgiving with Mum and my nephew Cashel. Cashel and I went to go see it at The Aero in Santa Monica years ago when Cashel was only in middle school: a really good memory. It was so much fun. But also eerie how much it was commenting on current events.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962; d. Agnès Varda)
A masterpiece.

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Things to Come (2016; d. Mia Hansen-Løve)
My second time this month, for my review which launched today.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 11, “Adventures in Babysitting” (2012; d. Jeannot Szwarf)
Not the strongest episode, but I always enjoy it when Sam and Dean have to deal with children or adolescents.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 12, “Time after Time” (2012; d. Phil Sgriccia)
So much good stuff. “What are you, some farmer-clown?” I lose it every time. “How does that fill you with awe?” Nicholas Lea is PERFECT. “… you morbid son-of-a-bitch.” The way it’s filmed, a replica of De Palma’s lush style. The music (loved the featurette on how they put together the score). I also loved the Jodie-Sam dynamic (and I loved it in the chastity episode too), and always felt the two of them should have hooked up at least once.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 13, “Slice Girls” (2012; d. Jerry Wanek)
“… in FRUIT FLY time …” Dean remembering the possible “accident” that occurred, and how pleasurable it was, before snapping out of it. That’s all Ackles. He’s a ham. I enjoy the episode although I think the Amazon dialogue is SUPER stupid. “Strength, Emma. As in all things.” What the hell. Also: I hope I get to this re-cap (sometime in 2020 at the rate I’m going) because I just want to talk about that hotel room and one of the most gorgeous shots in the history of the show: it all looks accidental, casually beautiful, but it’s clearly not. No surprise Jerry Wanek directed this one. He knew how to highlight his own work.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 14, “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie” (2012; d. Mike Rohl)
Sam’s face when he hears about the “destructo beams.” This is Padalecki’s sense of humor and it makes me so happy. I love the manager of the place smoking a joint on the back steps. Slight error in the casting of the cranky exhausted mother who looks so much like Amy, Sam’s first monster-girlfriend, that I honestly thought she had somehow survived Dean’s attack and had morphed into another character. I love this episode. How on earth could I have thought that Season 7 was weak? So the Leviathans aren’t scary, big whup.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 15, “Repo Man” (2012; d. Thomas J. Wright)
We all know that Supernatural has an issue with compulsively relying on endless Monster Monologues in the third act, but the monologue here takes the cake. It’s about 15 minutes long. Dear writers: if you have to explain yourself for 15 minutes, then your plot is too complicated. Wow.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 16, “Out with the Old” (2012; d. John Showalter)
Fabulous all around. The start-up for real of the Sam-Insomnia arc. I’ve said somewhere before that if I had watched this season pre-diagnosis I might have not been able to continue. To me, that’s not a supernatural representation of a “wall” crumbling in Sam’s brain. That entire thing comes off as “this is what it is like to go fucking nuts.” The voices telling you to do bad things. The agony that is literally so painful that you cannot go to sleep. Agony so agonizing you will do anything to make it stop. Padalecki is so good that it’s actually slightly harrowing to watch since I used to go through that all the time, in cycles now so obvious you could see them on a graph, and it’s lucky I’m still alive to be writing this. I have no idea how I white-knuckled through it. It’s actually hard to watch.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 17, “The Born-Again Identity” (2012; d. Robert Singer)
See comment above about “Out With the Old.” Same. That’s not a supernatural plot-line. That’s what it feels like to lose your mind and to know you are losing your mind. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. And the ECT scene is devastating. It’s hard to make Jared Padalecki look that weak. He’s such a strapping hunk. He’s amazing.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 18, “Party On, Garth” (2012; d. Phil Sgriccia)
“I miss these talks.” Legendary. I love Garth. I love how smart he is and how underestimated he is by the two Winchester Snobs. He KNOWS Bobby is sticking around. He’s a very good hunter.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 19, “Girl with Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo” (2012; d. John MacCarthy)
I don’t think they should have killed Charlie off. She brought something very special to the show. I get it, everyone gets killed, but her energy is something that became essential to the dynamic, and all of her episodes are very special in that they brought out different things in both brothers, mainly Dean. What a breath of fresh air. Dean, pretending to be Charlie flirting, “You look amazing.” And that crazy split screen. So not Supernatural‘s style, but perfect for that circumstance.

Supernatural, Season 7, Episode 19, “Reading is Fundamental” (2012; d. Ben Edlund)
Kevin! Plus Castiel as Healer. I have to say, too: the scene where he “remembers” who he is and smites all the demons is beautifully done. The music, the intensity of it. How SPECIFIC the “magic” is (see comment above about “witch twins”), and also his pain/guilt as he remembers what he has done. Beautiful scene between the two of them in the car as well. I am not a Destiel person but I do love this relationship (or, I loved it. I feel it has long outlasted its usefulness. Charlie added more to the show than Castiel currently does. I get it, his fans would go apeshit. But the show has suffered from not wanting to let him go.) I will not end on that dreary note. I love Kevin. I have no idea why I didn’t like Season 7. I must have been cranky.

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Things to Come (2016) d. Mia Hansen-Løve

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Mia Hansen-Løve is one of my favorite film-makers working today. Her latest, Things to Come, starring Isabelle Huppert, is so wonderful.

My review of Things to Come is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Supernatural: Season 3, Episode 1: “The Magnificent Seven”

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Directed by Kim Manners
Written by Eric Kripke

The title of the episode tells us it’s a straight-up Western: villains riding into town, so-called good guys in their holdout, knowing they might die that night, and maybe one of the so-called good guys is a little bit TOO ready to die? Trigger-happy? Self-destructive? The obvious connection is with John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (and – by connection – Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, of which Magnificent Seven is basically a re-make) You know Dean has seen both a hundred times. The Magnificent Seven came out in 1960, the final gasp of the classical Western. It tells the story of a peasant who hires seven mercenary gunfighters to fight off the bandits who harass his village every year. Seven gunmen arrive, each played by an intimidating gorgeous movie star. Each gunman has his own particular backstory. (Nobody becomes a mercenary gunfighter because he had a happy childhood). Nobody “plays well with others.” (Speaking of which: The last living member of “The Magnificent Seven” has died. RIP Robert Vaughn.)

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Happy Birthday, Jonathan Swift

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“[He is] the most vigorous hater we’ve ever had in our literature.” — Edgell Rickword on Jonathan Swift

Primarily known for Gulliver’s Travels (here’s my post about it) and A Modest Proposal he was also a poet of uncommon gifts.

We’re not supposed to “hate” nowadays. “Hate” calls to mind racists and xenophobes and Fred Phelps’s goons. But there is another kind of hate.

Rebecca West once wrote:

A strong hatred is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere.

Now that kind of hate, I can get behind.

Swift’s contempt has echoed down the centuries, the primary example of satire from which all good satire springs. We live in an extremely literal age. People are MORE credulous now than they were in the freakin’ Dark Ages. Watching people – smart friends – share bogus news and satire pieces on Facebook, thinking it’s real, is an epidemic. What is also an epidemic to the reaction when I point out: “That’s satire.” Instead of, “Oops, my bad …” more often than not the reaction will be defensive: “Well, it might as WELL be true.” Yeah. That’s satire. Jesus Mary and Joseph. Thank you, Onion, for keeping that flame lit.

It’s not news that we live in a culture where there people’s feelings are supposed to be taken into consideration. (Hence: trigger warnings on Ovid. I know making fun of that is like shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s a good short-hand for the exaggerated quality of the situation which will look ABSURD to future generations.) Sensitivity is not bad. It’s progress to care about other people’s feelings. But sensitivity like this – unique in the history of the world – has resulted in the death of Satire. We NEED Satire. It has been one of humanity’s most effective weapons against tyranny.

Due to the downfall of satire, readers don’t recognize it when they see it, which adds to the humorless overly-literal response to satiric pieces. There’s a section in Gulliver’s Travels that is so misogynistic, so vicious, so blatantly hateful, that when I re-read it recently I found myself getting defensive. Pissed off. I then immediately caught myself doing this, and started laughing. Swift, still at it, from across the centuries, still ruffling feathers. So good is he.

Satire is only for the tough-minded.

There is such truth in Swift, and, if you listen very closely, tremendous sadness.

Swift wrote:

I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.

We’re supposed to believe, along with Anne Frank, that most people are good at heart. I never have and I never will. I am glad SHE did and I am glad she stands as an example. But I am not a romantic about human nature. There’s a reason John Adams wrote that he wanted to create a government made up of “laws, not men.” Because men are not to be trusted. Of course there can be bad laws too, but Adams’ point stands. Men are capricious, impulsive, selfish. They cannot be trusted with the keys to the castle. This is a “cynical” view of human nature. I prefer to call it realistic. Swift was perfectly willing to admit that some people had zero redeeming qualities. And he hated them with a passion.

In 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote in a letter to his great friend Alexander Pope:

I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians – I will not speak of my own trade – soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion. By consequence you are to embrace it immediately, and procure that all who deserve my esteem may do so too. The matter is so clear that it will admit of no dispute; nay, I will hold a hundred pounds that you and I agree in the point.

Hate like that is so refreshing to read.

I love it when Gulliver is asked to describe Great Britain, and he goes on and on and on, answering questions about the culture and the government and the law. What is funny is that Gulliver is shocked at the contempt found towards Europe, and tries to stick up for his country. But how he ends up describing his country makes it sound … wretched and incompetent. The section is long, and it builds and builds and builds until …

He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century, protesting it was only a Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments, the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce.

His Majesty in another Audience was at the Pains to recapitulate the Sum of all I had spoken, compared the Questions he made with the Answers I had given; then taking me into his Hands, and stroaking me gently, delivered himself in these Words, which I shall never forget nor the Manner he spoke them in: My little Friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable Panegyric upon your Country: You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice may be sometimes the only Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator: That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some Lines of an Institution, which in its Original might have been tolerable, but these half erazed, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by Corruptions. It doth not appear from all you have said, how any one Virtue is required towards the Procurement of any one Station among you, much less that Men are ennobled on Account of their Virtue, that Priests are advanced for their Piety or Learning, Soldiers for their Conduct or Valour, Judges for their Integrity, Senators for the Love of their Country, or Counsellors for their Wisdom. As for yourself, (continued the King,) who have spent the greatest Part of your Life in Travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pain wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.

Many professional haters have ZERO senses of humor. Oh, they think they are funny, and I see them chortling on political talk shows, being “clever” on Twitter (Bless us and save us from people who think being “clever” equals being intelligent), throwing zingers at their opponents and their witless followers guffaw “Ho ho ho” in response, but there is no actual humor present in any of the interactions. The humor is decadent and corrupt, lazy, a joyless leer. Satire, however, is deadly and gleefully accurate.

Swift used humor like a whip, but he also used it in observations and imagery, such as the following, which still makes me laugh out loud:

There were many times my pants were so thin I could sit on a dime and tell if it was heads or tails.

His poems are often funny, biting and mean. But then he comes out with something heartfelt and yearning and it’s stunning the sincerity and openness with which he expresses that as well (the love poems to Stella, the woman he loved all his life, come to mind).

Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1726-7

This day, whate’er the Fates decree,
Shall still be kept with joy by me:
This day then let us not be told,
That you are sick, and I grown old;
Nor think on our approaching ills,
And talk of spectacles and pills.
To-morrow will be time enough
To hear such mortifying stuff.
Yet, since from reason may be brought
A better and more pleasing thought,
Which can, in spite of all decays,
Support a few remaining days:
From not the gravest of divines
Accept for once some serious lines.

Although we now can form no more
Long schemes of life, as heretofore;
Yet you, while time is running fast,
Can look with joy on what is past.

Were future happiness and pain
A mere contrivance of the brain,
As atheists argue, to entice
And fit their proselytes for vice;
(The only comfort they propose,
To have companions in their woes;)
Grant this the case; yet sure ’tis hard
That virtue, styl’d its own reward,
And by all sages understood
To be the chief of human good,
Should, acting, die, nor leave behind
Some lasting pleasure in the mind;
Which by remembrance will assuage
Grief, sickness, poverty, and age;
And strongly shoot a radiant dart
To shine through life’s declining part.

Say, Stella, feel you no content,
Reflecting on a life well spent?
Your skilful hand employ’d to save
Despairing wretches from the grave;
And then supporting with your store
Those whom you dragg’d from death before?
So Providence on mortals waits,
Preserving what it first creates.
Your gen’rous boldness to defend
An innocent and absent friend;
That courage which can make you just
To merit humbled in the dust;
The detestation you express
For vice in all its glitt’ring dress;
That patience under torturing pain,
Where stubborn stoics would complain:
Must these like empty shadows pass,
Or forms reflected from a glass?
Or mere chims in the mind,
That fly, and leave no marks behind?
Does not the body thrive and grow
By food of twenty years ago?
And, had it not been still supplied,
It must a thousand times have died.
Then who with reason can maintain
That no effects of food remain?
And is not virtue in mankind
The nutriment that feeds the mind;
Upheld by each good action past,
And still continued by the last?
Then, who with reason can pretend
That all effects of virtue end?

Believe me, Stella, when you show
That true contempt for things below,
Nor prize your life for other ends,
Than merely to oblige your friends;
Your former actions claim their part,
And join to fortify your heart.
For Virtue, in her daily race,
Like Janus, bears a double face;
Looks back with joy where she has gone
And therefore goes with courage on:
She at your sickly couch will wait,
And guide you to a better state.

O then, whatever Heav’n intends,
Take pity on your pitying friends!
Nor let your ills affect your mind,
To fancy they can be unkind.
Me, surely me, you ought to spare,
Who gladly would your suff’rings share;
Or give my scrap of life to you,
And think it far beneath your due;
You, to whose care so oft I owe
That I’m alive to tell you so.

Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 in Dublin, but he was ferocious on the point that he was English, dammit. He was educated, but not a brilliant student. He did not really distinguish himself in anything (not at first, anyway). He imitated others. He tried to sound like the other poets of the day. He came into his own in his 30s (late, by any standard). He started writing in the diverse voices that he heard all around him. This was revolutionary. You can still hear how “people must have sounded back then” when you read his poems, and he’s like Kipling in that regard. Swift’s poems clamor with different dialects.

He had a high-level job as a secretary to Sir William Temple in Surrey, but he left and got ordained. He lived in Ireland for a bit, despised it, moved back to England, moved back to Ireland, and wherever he went he left a trail of scandal and intrigue behind him. He had a couple of close lifelong friends, but he also made lifelong enemies. No wonder he wouldn’t fit in in any court, or any royal hierarchy. Any hierarchy in general. He was too much of an individual.

He eventually became Dean of St. Patrick’s, in Dublin, but the upheaval in England after Queen Anne died ruined his chances of advancement. Swift is similar to Christopher Hitchens in many ways in that he is difficult to nail down politically (it is eloquent that The Nation would have had Hitchens on their roster and then given him the boot when they realized what he was about and that he didn’t parrot their party-line, but anyone who has been paying attention to Hitchens all along would not have been surprised at his views, many of which I share – so that was funny, but it’s been going on with him for years). Swift eluded political classification and was seen as a suspicious person because of it. Look out if you don’t agree with the rank-and-file!

He reminds me of many of the Founders, with their deep distrust of Man’s ability to hold power responsibly. Swift believed that no one was wholly trustworthy. Everyone was corruptible, and those who believe they are not corruptible are the WORST. Run for the hills when you meet one of them. He was not a “joiner”, in any way, and that is an extremely unpopular position to take at any time in history (people seem to want to clump up on sides of fences, it’s how we’re built). As St. Patrick’s dean, he did a lot of good, and helped the Irish out a lot. He became obsessed with the Irish situation, writing about it obsessively. His view of things always was Macro, as opposed to Micro, he took a wide view (a key quality of any wonderful satire, one of the reasons why narrow minds today are so poor at it: they can’t see past their own laptop screens). Swift saw things as they were, he had no romantic ideals about Utopias or the inherent beauty of man. None of that nonsense. He despised corruption, and was willing to fight it.

Michael Schmidt’s book Lives of the Poets has a chapter devoted to the intense friendship of poets Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and Alexander Pope. The chapter is called “Three Friends”. Michael Schmidt wrote, in re: Swift’s poetry:

Swift is hard to recommend as a poet because he is hard to quote out of context. There are few purple passages, detachable maxims; the poetry is drawn evenly through the poem in ways that out-of-context quotation violates. The epitaphs, the spoofs, the eclogues, the anecdotes spoken by various voices, the ironic love poems, the first-person poems, will not be broken up into tags like the rich couplet bric-a-brac of Pope. In Swift we come upon a writer who might have preferred to be called versifier rather than poet. There is a difference in kind in his work from that of his predecessors; and he is not “polite” enough to have beguiled his contemporaries into imitation. He stands alone, he doesn’t sing, he never ingratiates himself. He speaks, and he understands how the world wags.

More from Schmidt:

His vexed relations with women, especially “Stella” and “Vanessa”, and his disgust with physical functions, have given much latitude to Freudian interpretations. Disgust informs much of the prose and verse, but so does a real interest in common people, their language, actions and concerns. The verse opens on this area of his genius, and on his darker musings. It possesses the satiric virtues of the prose with an additional element: the “I” speaks, speaks as itself, with an uncompromised acerbity that few poets have masterd. When he died in 1745, Ireland and England were in his debt. The topicality that limits the appeal of some of his prose is itself the appeal of the verse: it catches inflections and remembers small actions now lost — the voices of gardeners, street vendors, laborers … the tone of a cryptic man of conscience speaking of his world, his bitter, life, his wary loves.

Jonathan Swift described style, in writing, as “proper words in proper places”. He himself mastered that in his prose, but also in his poems. There isn’t an extra word in evidence, language has been pared down to its essentials. The verses come to us as though they were born complete. Spoken out loud into a tape recorder in one draft.

More from Schmidt (and this, I believe, is a brilliant point):

In the more ambitious pieces Swift challenges the reader … There is a unique irony at work, not normative, like Dryden’s, but radical: thematic rather than stylistic. This is why his poems, even the most topical, retain force today. “I take it to be part of the honesty of poets,” he wrote, “that they cannot write well except they think the subject deserves it.” The subjects he chose he approached as if for the first time, as if we stepped from the chill, clear world of reason into a world of men.

Samuel Johnson wrote in his The Life of Swift:

Perhaps no writer can be found who borrowed so little, or that in all his excellences and all his defects has so well maintained his claim to be as original.

I will let William Butler Yeats have the last word on Jonathan Swift:

Swift’s Epitaph
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

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Happy Birthday, Louisa May Alcott

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“November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year,” said Meg, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

“That’s the reason I was born in it,” observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was born on this day in 1832. (Her controversial father Bronson was also born on this day.)

Little Women is a perfect book (even with the whole Laurie debacle, and the advent of the German professor which never works for me, to this day. But I had fun reading this essay in The Paris Review about the Professor by Sadie Stein). The book is perfect because of the emotions it touches, the depth of the experience, the feeling that you must, you must turn the page. Not to mention just how much the characters leap off the page. The events are so singular, so unforgettable, that even if I had only read the book once I would still remember: Amy burning Jo’s book, Jo selling her hair, Jo hiding the stain on the back of her dress at the party, the death-vigil, Amy falling through the ice. These are EVENTS that stay in the mind, especially if you first read the book at 10, 11.

It is a book I go back to again and again and again, always seeing something new in it. The characters seemed to grow up with me. When I first read it, when I was 10 years old, I was ALL ABOUT JO. I think that’s true of most readers: Jo is clearly the crowd-pleaser. Jo March remains one of my favorite female characters ever written. It is also a wonderful portrait of a woman going her own way, who has many talents, and tries to find access to that talent, and ways to express it. As a young creative and day-dreaming child, obsessed with fantasy worlds and writing and movies and books – all fictional means of escape – Jo was a potent reminder to continue to develop myself, whichever way my talents took me. You will never please everyone when you buck the trends. You will be judged for living life differently than others. That’s the breaks. Nothing in life is free. But freedom is the most important thing, freedom of the soul, of the mind. Jo represents that.

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As I have grown up, and as I have continuously gone back to the book, the other March sisters have come to the foreground, dominating whereas before I could only see Jo. But these four young women are so sensitively drawn, I see bits of myself in all of them (well, maybe not Meg. I’m sure if I thought a bit harder I could find some similarities)! Parts of me are like Amy (the parts I am least proud of), and I would like to think that parts of me are like Beth. But honestly: Jo is the one. The artist. The tomboy. The independent wild spirit. The one who makes so many wrong choices, but never through mean-spiritedness. She’s flawed, she’s messy, she’s honest and rough.

When I was a kid, I hated the professor with his stupid German accent, and his goofy poetry and his sentimental botched-language wooing of Jo. I resented the fact that he wasn’t Laurie, first of all. And second of all, I just did not understand the appeal of his character. Like: what was it? (Honestly, I still don’t get it. But chalk that up to my own choices in life: I’ve been given offers of marriage too. I turned them all – well, except one – down. I have not gone the conventional way in any way/shape/form. So I have not “settled.” I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a better thing. My life may have been 84% easier if I had settled. But I didn’t. So there you have it. Jo “settling” still seems wrong to me.)

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Louisa May Alcott was forced by her publishers to marry Jo off. She didn’t want Jo to marry Laurie, OR the Professor. She wanted Jo to stay single. And if you really think about it, Jo-as-single is much more logical. It was the choice Louisa May Alcott herself made. She could not submit to the demands of wifehood and motherhood, it would infringe on her writing as well as her devotion to her family. She had to support her father financially in all of his ridiculous exploits. She was a dutiful daughter. She churned out the words that she knew would sell. When she was 15 years old, she wrote in her journal:

I will do something by and by. Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!

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Alcott grew up in Concord, one of 4 girls, born into an activist family. They were abolitionists. Her mother was a social worker. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was an educational philosopher who had a belief in communal living. Bronson Alcott was buddies with Emerson, and part of the Transcendentalist movement. At the time, Bronson Alcott’s views on education were very controversial: He actually believed that students should enjoy learning. He thought it was very important to have a beautiful classroom aesthetically.

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Bronson Alcott’s passion was to see that his four daughters were educated, well-rounded, and part of the intellectual community he lived in. Louisa’s father kept detailed diaries during the raising of his 4 girls, chronicling everything about each one of them. His whole thing was early education – the importance of the first couple of years – and you don’t get the sense that he thought all of that was only good for BOYS. On the contrary. Here’s a snippet of a letter Louisa’s father wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1869, which gives you some idea of who this man was:

Woman is helping herself to secure her place in a better spirit and manner than any we [men] can suggest or devise, it becomes us to take, rather than proffer Consels, readily waiting to learn her wishes and aims, as she has so long, and so patiently deferred to us.

He poured his heart (and finances) into a school which ran for a couple of years but then went under. Bronson Alcott was a foolish man, in a lot of ways, especially financially. Louisa May Alcott eventually would be the sole supporter of her parents. She made a ton of money DURING her lifetime, quite rare for writers, then and now.

In 1862, Alcott (as always, determined to make a living and to contribute financially to her family) traveled to Washington DC to get work as a Civil War nurse. By that point, Alcott had already started getting stuff published – poems, short stories in the Gothic melodramatic vein. She preferred Gothic melodramas to the kinds of books that later would make her name. (She disliked Little Women and found the writing of it extremely tedious.) Her experience as a nurse in the Civil War prompted her to publish a book called Hospital Sketches. (It’s a wonderful book full of incredible journalistic observations that brings the whole era to life.)

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At that point, her publisher asked her if she would write a book “for girls”. Never one to back off from a challenge, Louisa May Alcott sat down and wrote Little Women in two months. She had grown up with 3 sisters and she put her entire childhood and life into that book, even as she hated doing it, and didn’t think the book would amount to much.

Little Women was published in 1868 and was an immediate success. The publisher, within only a couple of weeks of its publication, begged Alcott to get to work on a sequel. So Alcott did. Another smash success. Louisa May Alcott had become a star.

Every book she wrote after that was eagerly awaited for by a breathless loving public. Success had, indeed, come – her childish ambitions to be ‘rich and famous’ came to fruition tenfold … but ‘happy’? Was she happy?

She never married. She ended up taking care of her sister May’s daughter after May died from complications in childbirth. Being a surrogate mother to this young girl was one of the most fulfilling experiences of Alcott’s life. She kept writing, kept publishing, although she began to get ill from mercury poisoning she had received years earlier during the Civil War (she had, like many other Civil War nurses, contracted typhoid fever, and at the time, the proscribed cure was something called “calomel”, a drug laden with mercury).

Near the end of her life, Alcott became active in the suffragette movement. Her father had been a feminist himself. In 1879, Louisa May Alcott was the first woman to register to vote (for the school committee election) in Concord.

Bronson Alcott passed away on March 4, 1888. Louisa May Alcott died two days later.

She didn’t care for the book that made her name, and probably wished that her legacy was different, but that’s okay. It is not for the artist to decide what the audience will embrace. She created something with Little Women that transcends the ages, that pierces through the centuries. And perhaps it’s fitting, in a way, that she wrote it for hire, pretty much. This is evidence that one doesn’t have to sit in an ivory tower and only follow one’s beautiful sensitive star to be considered an artist. There is art, and there is popularity, and sometimes those two things coincide. Being opaque and “hard-hitting” and oblique and morally-serious … good things perhaps, although it can all be a bit school-marm-y – but they are not the only measures of art. Creating something beloved, something that ends up being immortal – like the 4 March girls – is something far far difficult and rare. And all the more precious.

When I was 16 years old, one of the assignments we had in our Drama class was to do a one-person show – maybe 15, 20 minutes long – based on either a real person from history, or a fictional character – and we had to come into the class as that character, and do a monologue – based on our research – and then take questions from the classm in character. I came in as Louisa May Alcott. It was one of my first forays into the one-person show format. I did hours and hours and hours of research for a mere 20 minute piece, because I had no idea what questions people would ask, and I had to be ready for anything! It was great, because I had known nothing about her before that. I had just read Little Women and we had also visited her house in Concord on a family trip (a great thing to do if you are in the area).

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I loved that our birthdays were almost the same. She was a Sagittarius too. A wild untamable prickly un-marriageable spirit, just like me.

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Excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Meg had a quiet rapture, and then brooded over the letter, while Jo set the sick room in order, and Hannah “knocked up a couple of pies in case of company unexpected.” A breath of fresh air seemed to blow through the house, and something better than sunshine brightened the quiet rooms; everything appeared to feel the hopeful change; Beth’s bird began to chirp again, and a half-blown rose was discovered on Amy’s bush in the window; the fires seemed to burn with unusual cheeriness, and every time the girls met their pale faces broke into smiles as they hugged one another, whispering, encouragingly, “Mother’s coming, dear! mother’s coming!” Every one rejoiced but Beth; she lay in that heavy stupor, alike unconscious of hope and joy, doubt and danber. It was a piteous sight, — the once rosy face so changed and vacant, — the once busy hands so weak and wasted, — the once smiling lips quite dumb, — and the once pretty, well-kept hair scattered rough and tangled on the pillow. All day she lay so, only rousing now and then to mutter, “Water!” with lips so parched they could hardly shape the word; all day Jo and Meg hovered over her, watching, waiting, hoping, and trusting in God and mother; and all day the snow fell, the bitter wind raged, and the hours dragged slowly by. But night came at last; and every time the clock struck the sisters, still sitting on either side of the bed, looking at each other with brightening eyes, for each hour brought help nearer. The doctor had been in to say that some change for better or worse would probably take place about midnight, at which time he would return.

Hannah, quite worn out, lay down on the sofa at the bed’s floor, and fell fast asleep. Mr. Laurence marched to and fro in the parlor, feeling that he would rather face a rebel battery than Mrs. March’s anxious countenance as she entered; Laurie lay on the rug, pretending to rest, but staring into the fire with the thoughtful look which made his black eyes beautifully soft and clear.

The girls never forgot that night, for no sleep came to them as they kept their watch, with that dreadful sense of powerlessness which comes to us in hours like those.

“If God spares Beth I will never complain again,” whispered Meg earnestly.

“If God spares Beth I’ll try to love and serve Him all my life,” answered Jo, with equal fervor.

“I wish I had no heart, it aches so,” sighed Meg, after a pause.

“If life is often as hard as this, I don’t see how we shall ever get through it,” added her sister, despondently.

Here the clock struck twelve, and both forgot themselves in watching Beth, for they fancied a change passed over her wan face. The house was still as death, and nothing but the wailing of the wind broke the deep hush. Weary Hannah slept on, and no one but the sisters saw the pale shadow which seemed to fall upon the little bed. An hour went by, and nothing happened except Laurie’s quiet departure for the station. Another hour, — still no one came; and anxious fears of delay in the storm, or accidents by the way, or, worst of all, a great grief at Washington, haunted the poor girls.

It was past two, when Jo, who stood at the window thinking how dreary the world looked in its winding-sheet of snow, heard a movement by the bed, and, turning quickly, saw Meg kneeling before their mother’s easy-chair, with her face hidden. A dreadful fear passed coldly over Jo, as she thought, “Beth is dead, and Meg is afraid to tell me.”

She was back at her post in an instant, and to her excited eyes a great change seemed to have taken place. The fever flush, and the look of pain, were gone, and the beloved little face looked so pale and peaceful in its utter repose, that Jo felt no desire to weep or lament. Leaning low over this dearest of her sisters, she kissed the damp forehead with her heart on her lips, and softly whispered, “Good-by, my Beth; good-by!”

As if waked by the stir, Hannah started out of her sleep, hurried to the bed, looked at Beth, felt her hands, listened at her lips, and then, throwing her apron over her head, sat down to rock to and fro, exclaiming under her breath, “The fever’s turned; she’s sleepin’ nat’ral; her skin’s damp, and she breathes easy. Praise be given! Oh, my goodness me!”

Before the girls could believe the happy truth, the doctor came to confirm it. He was a homely man, but they thought his face quite heavenly when he smiled, and said, with a fatherly look at them, “Yes, my dears; I think the little girl will pull through this time. Keep the house quiet; let her sleep, and when she wakes, give her –”

What they were to give, neither heard; for both crept into the dark hall, and, sitting on the stairs, held each other close, rejoicing with hearts too full for words. When they went back to be kissed and cuddled by faithful Hannah, they found Beth lying, as she used to do, with her cheek pillowed on her hand, the dreadful pallor gone, and breathing quietly, as if just fallen asleep.

“If mother would only come now!” said Jo, as the winter night began to wane.

“See,” said Meg, coming up wiht a white, half-opened rose, “I thought this would hardly be ready to lay in Beth’s hand tomorrow if she — went away from us. But it has blossomed in the night, and now I mean to put it in my vase here, so that when the darling wakes, the first thing she sees will be the little rose, and mother’s face.”

Never had the sun risen so beautifully, and never had the world seemed so lovely, as it did to the heavy eyes of Meg and Jo, as they looked out in the early morning, when their long, sad vigil was done.

“It looks like a fairy world,” said Meg, smiling to herself, as she stood behind the curtain watching the dazzling sight.

“Hark!” cried Jo, starting to her feet.

Yes, there was a sound of bells at the door below, a cry from Hannah, and then Laurie’s voice, saying, in a joyful whisper, “Girls! she’s come! she’s come!”

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Happy (Belated) Birthday, William Blake

“I mean, don’t you think it’s a little bit excessive?”
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. William Blake.”
Pause.
“William Blake?”
“William Blake!”
“William Blake???”
“William Blake!!!”

— BULL DURHAM

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“It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant.” – T.S. Eliot on William Blake

William Blake was a poet virtually unknown in his own lifetime. He was also an engraver. He did illustrations for children’s books, religious books, volumes of poetry, and his artwork is now considered priceless.

William Blake was born in 1757 in London, the third of five children. He went to school until he was 14 and then got a job as an apprentice to an engraver, which is how he ended up making his paltry living. He lived in near poverty for his entire life. He married at the age of 25 the illiterate Catherine Boucher. Blake taught her how to read, and they became collaborators in bringing out volumes of his poetry. He did engravings to illustrate his poems. Catherine was the one who bound the books, and got them ready for publication. The entire thing was a joint production. They did all the work themselves.

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Page and illustration from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”

When Blake was a young boy, he said he looked up into a tree and saw that it was full of winged angels. He spoke about these visions openly and much of his poetry has a phantasmagorical religious transcendence. However, that’s not all there is (and that alone would be enough to put him in the history books). Much of his poetry is also biting social critique, reminiscent of Dickens’ broadsides against enforced poverty, ignorance, cruelty towards children. Blake wrote about the poor, about social conditions, about the overworked children. As T.S. Eliot said of him, “He is very eighteenth century.”

Along these lines, Camille Paglia wrote in Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems:

Romantic writers glorified childhood as a state of innocence. Blake’s ‘The Chimey Sweeper’, written in the same year as the French Revolution, combines the Romantic cult of the child with the new radical politics, whichcan both be traced to social thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is the boy sweep, rather than Blake, who speaks: he acts as the poet’s dramatic persona or mask. There is no anger in his tale. On the contrary, the sweep’s gentle acceptance of his miserable life makes his exploitation seem all the more atrocious. Blake shifts responsibility for protest onto us.

Blake is one of the most quotable of poets. Similar to Shakespeare, his thoughts/images have entered the common lexicon.

Think of a white cloud as being holy, you cannot love it, but think of a holy man within the cloud, love springs up in your thoughts, for to think of holiness distinct from man is impossible to the affections. Thought alone can make monsters, but the affections cannot.

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His long poem Marriage of Heaven and Hell is overwhelmingly brilliant. There is poetry here, of course, unforgettable language, but there is also real thought, real philosophy. If you listen to Blake, he shows you a way to live. He says: “Here. Live this deeply, live this thoughtfully.” Not many poets can do that. They try, but they descend into cliche, pablum. Because ultimately they don’t have much to SAY, and their thought process is like everybody else’s thought process. Dime a dozen. Blake is not. He was unique.

Here is “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in its entirety (accompanied by more of Blake’s engravings).

His poetry is the literary version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh was not interpreting the sky. Van Gogh was painting what he saw. What may seem symbolic or exaggerated to Blake’s readers, was actually how he experienced being alive. His stuff is radical.

Holy Thursday
by William Blake

‘Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames waters flow.

O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Allen Ginsberg helped “promote” William Blake again in the mid-20th century. Blake’s star had fallen by that time. People read “Tyger Tyger” in school, and probably the poems about the chimney sweeps, but everything else? Blake as a Towering Figure had been lost. Ginsberg’s mission was to bring Blake back to the forefront of his culture’s consciousness. He himself had had a transforming moment of connection with Blake. (Understatement, see below.) Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets:

In America in the late 1940s Allen Ginsberg, interested in Supreme Reality, alone and suffering a ‘dark night of the soul sort of,’ his lover Neal Cassady having sloped off, and having himself just masturbated, with a volume of Blake before him – ‘I wasn’t even reading, my eye was idling over the page of “Ah, Sun-flower,” and it suddenly appeared – the poem I’d read a lot of times before.’ He began to understand the poem, and ‘suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it,’ he ‘heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.’ This ‘apparitional voice’ became his guiding spirit: ‘It was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.’ On Ginsberg this ‘anciency fathered Howl, though the Blake simulacrum was aided by the hallucinogens popular at the time, the recipe for Part II of the poem including peyote, just as for Kaddish he was assisted by amphetamine injections. ‘The amphetamine gives a peculiar metaphysical tinge to things, also. Space-outs.’ Blake managed his visions without substance abuse. Ginsberg’s appropriation of the poet of innocence and experience did much to promote Blake to the alternative culture of the 1950s and 1960s.

Blake leant himself to that wild time as a kind of Grant Mentor, although he was from another era entirely. It was an indication of how far his work can travel.

Blake wrote:

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.

He should know.

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The poem I will excerpt today is one of his best-known (and not as dauntingly long as some of his others), and I love it. It is one of the poems he wrote about chimney sweeps (there are more). The poem is an indictment of the society in which he lives, a society that treats its most innocent members with brutality and uncaring indifference. Blake was a visionary poet, yes, but he did not turn his eyes away from earthly matters. Far from it. He saw everything.

There is heartbreak here, too, in the fact that the little overworked/dying child is so young that he can’t even pronounce “sweep” properly yet. It comes out as “weep, weep, weep”, a double-meaning, of course, but every time I read it, I can hear that child’s voice.

The Chimney Sweep

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

Some of William Blake’s extraordinary engravings below:

Christ in the sepulcher guarded by angels – 1805

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Whirlwind of Lovers (Illustration to Dante’s Inferno)

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The Ancient of Days – 1794

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Isaac Newton – 1795

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Gotham Awards Winners 2016

Here is the winner-tally from the Gotham Awards ceremony last night. I was on the nominating committee for Best Breakthrough Performance, and I am thrilled for Anya Taylor-Joy on her win last night. Hugely deserved! This is my second time on this nominating committee and it’s a really fun category because the nominees are just starting out. They are unknowns. A win like this is huge. And see The Witch, if you haven’t.

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Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Witch”

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Space Twin Powers Activated

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Mitchell, Steven, Me

Mitchell just unearthed this photo. I have not ever seen it.

College. In a basement. A local punk band was roaring out its show about 10 feet away in a basement filled with 100 people. (I didn’t know it of course but inside I was already dying for something called Riot Grrrls to be invented). Mitchell and Steven are brothers. Mitchell and I had been friends for only a year at this point. I remember the two of us sitting on the raw wood-plank precarious stairway down into that dungeon, and we both became conscious – at the same moment – of the miracle that the two of us had FOUND each other in this big huge world somehow and we were saying, “So … our spirits were floating through the space-time continuum or something?” “Were we near Jupiter at some point, or ….?” We finally boiled it down to the fact that we were CLEARLY “space twins.” We still call each other that.

In these dark days, it is important to keep in mind what one is thankful for.

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Review: Miss Sloane (2016)

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There are some pretty deep problems with this, for me the main thing was that the dialogue doesn’t sound real, nor do any of the actors (except Mark Strong) get their mouths around it enough so that it lifts off the page.

My review of Miss Sloane is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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