"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Loony Tunes–Who Said That Older Means Wiser?

“Too soon old, too late schmart’, worried Herb Stein now that he was old enough to know better but not old enough to have figured out what’s what.

Not so when he was a young man.  Math-smart, Mediterranean good looks, charm, and the confidence of Casanova, Herb had been a Lothario, a champion, and a success.

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“What happened?”, he said as he straightened the papers on his desk.  “How did this happen?”

Life is commensurate just like the stock market.  The higher the return, the higher the risk; or the more fulfilled your younger days, the less fulfilled your older ones.  Had Herb not been the envy of classmates, colleagues, and friends and loved by so many women, he might not have been in such a funk. 

Moe Blatt, on the other hand, had never been remarkable in any way.  In fact he had been unremarkable – homely but not ugly; uncoordinated but a decent swimmer; neither very smart nor very dumb; religious, studious, and responsible; he never excelled at anything, dated late and poorly, and went to dental school.

When Herb met Moe after many years, he found him blissfully unconcerned about old age.  So chipper, in fact - which he had no right to be – that he was irritating, a bother.  How could this plain, uninspired, nebbish be happy?

As happens to most formerly talented, attractive men, Herb Stein began to unravel after a certain age.  He wasn’t so much concerned that he had not had sex for a long time, but that he couldn’t remember what it was like.  Worse yet, he wondered what all the fuss was about.   His days revolved around the boxwood bushes out front, keeping the basement dry, watching the finches at the birdfeeder and – to his credit, he thought – reading all of Lawrence and Conrad.

Image result for images finches at a bird feeder

There was nothing wrong in all this, par for the course at his age when nothing remarkable or surprising was supposed to happen.  It was an age of preparation not surprises, winding down not up; minor satisfactions not epiphanies. 

Yet he was unhappy because he could not erase his boogie nights, nor his Indian lovers, nor his adventures in the South Pacific from his memory.  They persisted not as pleasant dreams but reminders of what he had lost. 

The Law of Commensurateness has another application – the more energy one has as a youth, the more twitchy, nervous, and quirk-ridden one is in old age.  The energy never dissipates or disappears. It just is transformed from a positive, outwardly directed force to a corrosive inner one.
Herb swung between obsessive worry and dull, obstinate despair.  Both took a degree of mental and psychic energy which made Herb even more depressed about his age and angry at himself for twisting in such useless cycles.

He fidgeted, couldn’t sleep, nitpicked and never sat still.  There was no outlet like there had been before.  No young love, no carousing, no irresponsibility, no toots – nothing to verify that he was still alive and kicking; nothing but a relationship as dry and brittle as old parchment, an aching body, and a house that needed constant repair.



His friends became worried about him, especially those who knew him in college and had travelled with him in Africa. They had somehow evaded the Law of Commensurateness and turned the enthusiasm of their youth into something at least aspirational.  They had refused to become bitter let alone endorse bitterness as Herb had and took things in stride with an occasional skip. 

Herb was too smart to become batty with old age.  Compared to Helen Bright, for example, he was a model of good sense, maturity, and good humor. 

Helen was smart, sharp, and attractive but after years of living in the shadow of Abel Bright, a brilliant physicist who had worked at the Fermi Labs and later tenured at Harvard.  Helen never got a say or even a say-so, so complete was her husband’s authority.  The Law of Commensurateness worked to her disfavor, for with no outlet for her exuberance and vitality, she became a magpie, a voluble, prolix woman to whom no one paid attention. 

She had been stunning as a younger woman, captain of the swim team at Wellesley, svelte, strong, and confident as she went to New York to work in publishing.  She quickly and completely fell in love with the charismatic Abel Bright, but not long after their marriage she had been completely subsumed.  He was the light, she the shade.  He the crystal and silver, she the tablecloth.

He died at 65 after a short illness; but Helen was never able to recover her former energy; and according the Law, had become an impossibly chatty and insufferable old lady. After so many years seeing her as the acolyte of her brilliant husband, their friends could never see her otherwise after his death.  Chattier and chattier and battier and battier she became until she died at 81.

Bert Alison had been Herb Stein’s classmate at Harvard and like Herb had led a charmed, privileged, and full life as a young man.  As he aged, he matured along a predictable path.  He gradually gave up his life of sexual adventure and risk, became a partner in a K Street law firm, and seemed to be headed for an equally predictable retirement in Palm Beach or St. Bart’s. 

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Yet he too was unable to escape the Law; and his social, moral, and personal conservatism did him in.  As he got older he began to resent his life of planned mediocrity.  It wasn’t so much that he regretted the lost days of his youth – time passed, nothing to moan about there – but that by 30 he had trapped himself into the most pedestrian, ordinary, and life without sparkle possible.  Try as he did after retirement, he could not shake his stolid foundations.  You cannot invent humor if you have been humorless, or charm if you were pedantic; and yet he tried.

Not only did he fail to reinvent himself, but he created a weird caricature of himself, drawn from The Count of Monte Cristo , the movies of Errol Flynn, and Paul Newman.  As an aging boulvardier he was ridiculous.

Image result for errol flynn images

It is ironic that those who are most concerned about getting old before they are shmart are the least able to become wise; and the nebbishes get there without trying.  Of course their wisdom is unconscious – falling asleep in a chaise longue without a care in the world doesn’t exactly qualify for a spiritual epiphany – but that was cold comfort for the likes of Herb Stein who until the end of his life kept trying for a ‘meaningful’ discovery.

Perhaps at the very end of his life his thoughts turned to his green-eyed Persian beauty or to the hyacinths on the Niger, or even to High Mass; but then again perhaps not.  Deathbed conversions are one thing, but coming to your senses is another altogether.

“The smart are doomed to be loony”, said a friend at Herb’s funeral. “Alas, I will never be either”.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Lyrical Isolation Of 'The Glass Menagerie' - A World Without Time

Many of the women in Tennessee Williams’ plays have a poetic fragility – an ability to describe the lost worlds they inhabit with a lyricism that is unmatched in modern theatre.  Laura in Menagerie is perhaps the best example, but she is in the good company of Alma in Summer and Smoke (and especially in Williams’ re-write Eccentricities of a Nightingale) and Blanche in Streetcar.

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All of these women share the same Williams’ paradox – they live in this rich, Southern world of the past, a world of gentility, manners, and morals, but want to be saved from it.  Laura’s gentleman caller, Blanche’s Mitch, and Alma’s Tom are all these hoped-for but yet feared saviors.

Laura lives in the closed world of her house in a poor section of St. Louis.  It is on an alley across from a dance hall and has none of the grandeur, openness, and warmth of the family’s Delta home.
On both sides of the building [where Laura lives], dark, narrow alleys run into “murky canyons of tangled clotheslines, garbage cans, and sinister lattice-work of neighboring fire escapes”. The meaning of these alleys is clear if the reader recalls Tom’s picture of “Death Valley”, where cats were trapped and killed by a vicious dog.  The predicament becomes a symbol for his factory work, murderous to his creative imagination. 
For Laura the alley represents the ugly world from which she retreats to gaze into her tiny glass figures.  For Amanda, too, the alley is the world of her present, hopeless poverty amid confusion from which she retreats into her make-believe world of memory and pretense. Inside the apartment where she tries to create an illusion of gentility, her husband’s portrait grins at her futile efforts (Tishler, The Glass Menagerie: The Revelation of Quiet Truth)
Her fragility or her madness – and the distinction is important in these Williams plays where women, because of their sensitivity to the roughness and horrors of the real world and their inability to adjust it, retreat and isolate themselves in a fantasy of the world long before left behind.  They are lyric poets whose existence is important as almost religious lights (his stage directions indicate that the lighting for Laura should resemble that “used in early religious portraits of female saints or Madonnas”). 

In the real world, they are suffering from a madness similar to, but not as acute as that of Rose, Williams’ sister; but in the world of the plays, they are visionaries, saints.  Williams himself says: “Personal lyricism is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life”.

The critic Frank Durham says: "It is the myth of the alienated, the lost, seeing some sort of tenable posture in the present chaos.  It is the poet’s vision” (Tennessee Williams: Theater in Prose).

The religious tone is not limited to this lighting effect, but is central to the play, for Laura’s isolation is more than just a poetic or secular visionary one, but a religious one – she has seen an apocalyptic vision and stands pure and unsullied within it.  Religious imagery occurs throughout – the gentleman caller’s name is O’Connor, meaning fish, the symbol of Christ.  The unicorn (Laura’s most precious glass figurine) since Greek times was a symbol of purity and grace which could only be caught by a virgin.  

Image result for christian cross medieval art

The vulgar play that Tom sees is a religious one where Malvolio turns water into wine and then goes on to turn it to beer, then whisky.  The scene where Tom, the Savior, enters, is in the Readers Version, announced as The Annunciation.  While some critics see the play as a very Christian play (books of criticism have been written about the religiosity of Williams’ works) and deconstruct almost every utterance through this lens, it is more reasonable to interpret the play as stated above – the fragile poet as visionary who sees the horror and absurdity of the real world and who retreats into the fantasy world of her past.

As Nancy Tischler says:
Unable to adapt to the modern scene of electrodynamics, [Laura] lives in a world of candlelight and fantasy.  The encounter with the machine age is brief and useless…Unlike Tom (her brother) Laura seems not to feel the ugliness and entombment of heir lives.  Incapable of this violence, she never steps into the world for fear it would be impossible to bear.  She merely stands on the brink and catches what she can of its beauty without becoming part of it – a lovely picture of the simple Rose who all through her brother’s (Williams) life represented to him everything good and beautiful, soft and gentle.
Williams’ conviction was that the modern world was not a good place and becoming worse not better.  He saw a very unstable and frightening world of 1939 when the wrote Menagerie. The Great Depression was still destroying people’s lives and world war imminent. The times were the worst he and most Americans had ever seen; and his conviction is understandable.  In his early plays, while not a social reformer, he was a social critic and had periods of fringe belief in an apocalypse caused by the idiocy of Man.  Retreat from this world was a natural, logical, state, not a neurotic and maladjusted one.  The alley, in a play of symbolism, represents this dirty, degrading, and hostile world.  As Tischler states:
Moving from the Deep South to St. Louis for his story, Williams retains the memory of the South, as a haunting presence under the superimposed Midwestern setting,. The audience, never seeing the gracious mansion that was the scene of Amanda’s girlhood, feels its remembered glory and its contrast to the mean present.  Awareness of the past is always an element in Williams’ plays.  His characters live beyond the fleeting moments of the drama – back into a glowing past and shrinking from a terrifying future.  For both Amanda and the later Blanche of Streetcar, the South forms an image of youth, love, purity, all of the ideals that have crumbled along with the mansions and the family fortunes.
 Image result for streetcar named desire images blanche

At the same time his characters have the belief that the world outside cannot be all that bad.  After all, they all have memories of the idyllic past on the Delta.  Amanda often sits on the fire escape (again in a play of symbols, the escape to that past) and dreams of it. As symbolically, the illuminated picture of the departed and vagrant father sits in prominence on the mantelpiece – a smiling, confident, purposeful figure who left the sanctuary and went out into the world.  The gentleman caller is relevant on many levels – he is a prospective husband for the virgin Laura.  He is her Savior, as above; and he is the symbol of a world which could be. She wants to be saved by someone as pure and noble as herself but stronger to blunt the oppression of the world while protecting her spiritual virginity.

Image result for images fire escape glass menagerie

Inevitably, she is not saved:
At the end of Jim’s rapturous evocation, the illumination of his passage in Laura’s life is completely gone: “The holy candles in the altar of Laura’s face have been snuffed out. There is a look of almost infinite desolation”.
After a pause of crushing despair, Laura “opens her hand again on the broken glass ornament.  Then she gently takes his hand and raises it level with her own.  She carefully places the unicorn in the palm of his hand, then pushes his fingers closed upon it...
Laura retreats to the only refuge still available: “She rises unsteadily and crouches beside the Victrola to wind it up”. This slight motion underlines Laura’s renunciation of the world; it makes clear, as Nelson has noted, that “she will never allow a Jim O’Connor to happen to her again”.
The characters in the play move in and out of time, and in and out of their isolation.  Laura takes the brief but disastrous step to trust in the gentleman caller, but then retreats forever.  Amanda has never been able to escape the real poverty of her life except by fugues to her past.  Tom struggles to leave his sister and mother and their fantasy worlds, but finds he cannot exist in the real world without them.  He realizes that he has neither the delicate nature which gives Laura her poetry, nor the lyrical past of his mother.

Williams sums up this play and his very personal feelings that led to it:
In this continual rush of time, so violent that it appears to be screaming, that deprives our actual lives of so much dignity and meaning, and it is, perhaps more than anything else, the arrest of time which has taken place in a completed work of art that gives certain plays their feeling of depth and significance….If the world of the play did not offer us this occasion to view its characters under that special condition of a world without time, then, indeed, the characters and occurrences of drama would become equally pointless, equally trivial, as corresponding meetings and happenings in life (Five Plays by Tennessee Williams).
In Menagerie time is stopped because of the countervailing forces of reality and fantasy.  They are deadlocked, stalemated.  Neither one exists except through the illusions of the play.  We are never in the real world, nor in the remembered world of the Delta.  Time is at a standstill because all is happening in imagination.  Only the brief encounter with Jim O’Connor breaks the stillness of no-time for an instant, and then he is gone and the world goes back to stasis.  Isolation is restored.