The Hamilton Duel

 | 

Experiencing the unexpected is one of the things I love about live theater, so I would love to have been in the audience when the cast of Hamilton decided to explain their position to vice-president-elect Mike Pence the weekend before Thanksgiving. (Although I would not have been happy if it had been my first experience with the play.) I support the right of the cast to exercise their free speech, and I agree with those who say they were respectful and sincere. They even silenced the booing. Sort of.

However, I wish the cast had trusted their art more. Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play. Storytelling is a powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful way of expressing a message, because it touches the heart as well as the mind. It’s the reason I’m so passionate about film. And when you add music, the power increases exponentially. The lecture simply wasn’t necessary.

I remember the night I saw Hamiltonshortly after it opened, before I had heard the music or the hype. It was a transformative experience, and I’m glad it wasn’t marred by a post-performance lecture. I stayed at my seat until the last chord of the postlude and applauded one more time. The music stayed with me as I left the theater. The play ends with an epilogue focusing on the women in Hamilton’s life and what they did to preserve his legacy and his writings after his death, and I thought about their contribution to the cause of liberty during the Revolution.

Everything they said in their speech was heartfelt and important. But it had already been said in the play.

As I walked to the train station, I contemplated the rich heritage portrayed in the play, particularly as demonstrated in the casting of ethnic minorities in all the major roles and most of the ensemble. It made me think more deeply about those revolutionaries we usually see depicted in brocade finery and speaking the king’s English, men who were actually more like the Occupy movement of our day. It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before. It also helped me understand the royalists’ position better, and how hard it must have been to give up a way of life that had been comfortable and familiar to them. Would I have been willing to sacrifice all that I have for the ideal of freedom?

In short, I got it, in my mind and in my heart, through the storytelling and the music. The audience who saw the play with Mike Pence also had an unforgettable experience, but I doubt that it was focused on the music or the story.

It made me wonder whether I would have been a royalist or a revolutionary, something I never questioned before.

Like the characters they play onstage, the actors took a risk Friday night. It wasn’t a risk to their lives but to their livelihoods. I admire their courage and their sincerity. But they weren’t the only ones at risk that night. I can only imagine the consternation of the Secret Service agents as they tried to move their charge from the crowded theater before the curtain calls were ended, as they are instructed to do. Transitions are always the most dangerous time for a Secret Service agent, so it must have been a nightmare for them when the cast invited the audience to take out their cellphones to record the speech, and everyone reached into their purses and pockets! They put everyone at risk at that moment. Fortunately Secret Service agents have better training than cops, and no one was trigger-happy. I’m sure they surrounded Mr. Pence with their bodies, ready to take a bullet rather than use one. But there could have been a tragic outcome as everyone reached for those phones.

So yes, the cast of Hamilton had every right to say what they said, just as those who argued both sides of the issue that weekend had every right to express their opinions. I just wish the cast had trusted their art to tell the story and convey the message by itself. Perhaps they could have invited Mr. Pence backstage to talk to them about his experience and their hopes in a meaningful way. They knew he was coming, so they could have arranged it ahead of time. Then the news story might have been about Mr. Pence’s response to the play, instead of everyone else’s response to the lecture.




Share This


Revolution by Revolutionary Means

 | 

When Barbra Streisand announced Hamilton as the recipient of the Tony for Best Musical on June 12, it was the most anti-climactic award in the history of awards shows — everyone knew it was going to win. (I knew it the moment I saw the show, even without seeing the other potential contenders. It’s that impressive.) Yet it was the most electrifying Tony show in ages, precisely because Hamilton was going to win. Audiences across the country would finally get a taste of what everyone had been talking about, because at the Tonys the casts of each nominee for Best Musical perform a medley of scenes from their show. The cast of Hamilton closed the night and brought down the house.

Hamilton has become a nationwide phenomenon this year, with people who have never attended a Broadway show purchasing the cast album and reading the Ron Chernow biography on which the play is based. Even the Treasury Department has been caught up in the newfound enthusiasm for its first Treasurer, announcing, after years of promising that a woman would replace Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, that Jackson would be replaced on the twenty instead. Hamilton has had that kind of influence.

Hamilton erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion.

So does the play live up to the hype? It’s just a bunch of rap songs and hip-hop dances, right? Anyone could do that. It’s street entertainment, not Broadway! And the show isn’t even accurate — they cast minority actors for the major roles of Washington, Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette and the Schuyler sisters — only King George is played by a white man. Doesn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda — who wrote the music, lyrics, and book, and stars in the production — know anything?

As a matter of fact, Miranda knows plenty. His decision to use rap, hip-hop and minorities for Hamilton was carefully calculated to tell a richer, truer story than racial “accuracy” could have achieved.

Let’s start with the rap. To the untrained ear (and the untrained rapper) it’s the laziest form of rhythm and rhyme, seeming to ignore all rules about meter and feet so as to shove as many syllables into a single beat of music as the human mouth can manage. It’s also associated with minorities and outsiders. Miranda chose rap for both reasons. “Rap is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story. It has more words per measure than any other musical genre . . . It has density, and if Hamilton’s writing had anything, it was density,” Miranda explained to Graham Messick in an interview for 60 Minutes. “Hamilton spoke in whole paragraphs, so the opening song of our show is this crazy run-on sentence":

How does a bastard, orphan,
son of a whore an’
a Scotsman,
dropped in a forgotten
spot in
the Caribbean
by Providence,
impoverished in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Well, OK — you have to hear the rhythm and tone to experience the passion and cleverness of the line. But trust me — when it’s sung, it works. Miranda says he took weeks to get each couplet right. “Every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote. It took me a year to write ‘My Shot,’ which is Hamilton’s big ‘I want’ song,” he says. He imbues his lyrics with the playfulness and creativity of a Cole Porter (one of his early influences) but with a decidedly non-Cole Porter ferocity. It took six years to write the show, financed in part from his success with his Broadway debut In the Heights, also a Tony winner for Best Musical.

And what about those minority actors? Here’s the effect it had on me: it erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted, upper-crust-accented aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion. It reminded me forcefully that the colonists were themselves immigrants, and the Founders were outsiders who were working against the powerful government, not part of it. In essence they were the Occupy movement of their day, but they weren’t sitting around waiting for someone to fix the injustices they saw. They risked everything they had, even their lives, and they were not “throwin’ away their shot” — their one shot — at freedom and self-government.

It made me realize, too, that the founders had the mental, physical, and financial resources to focus on just one battle — one shot — for political liberation from the monarchy of King George. They did not have the power or resources to overturn all injustices at once. Thomas Jefferson recognized the evil of slavery and in his draft of the Declaration of Independence furiously inveighed against the slave trade. But that was a battle that would have to wait for another day. Just as Martin Luther King focused on civil rights for black Americans and left the fight for gay rights to the next generation, so the Founders blazed the trail for political freedom but left the fight for racial and gender equality for generations to come. Future generations will look back and criticize us too for not recognizing the needs of other marginalized groups. The Founders had the power and resources for “just one shot,” and they would likely have failed if they had tried to shoot in every direction at once.

The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Miranda also recognizes the important influence of the women who surrounded Hamilton, particularly the three Schuyler sisters, one of whom he married and another of whom he loved. Peter Stone included women to some extent in 1776, with John Adams’ letters to and from Abigail and Jefferson’s visit from his wife Martha as he is writing the Declaration. But in 1776 the women were mostly back home in Massachusetts or Virginia, wearing their pretty gowns and taking care of their lovely homes. They show up for a moment but remain mostly offstage, while the men create a nation. By contrast, the Schuyler sisters and other women in Miranda’s cast and chorus are an ongoing, integral part of the action.

The decision to cast actors in multiple roles also adds to the message of liberty as a living movement. I was keenly disappointed when Lafayette went back to France at the end of Act 1, because I had been so enamored by Daveed Diggs’ charismatic performance. Not to worry — Diggs returned in Act 2 as Jefferson, with an even greater intensity and charisma. This was not a money-saving tactic on the part of the producers; in fact, all the actors whose characters die in Act 1 return in Act 2 with new roles. This technique reminds us that revolution is not about a single person. The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Sadly, many of the actors who created the roles of this landmark play are leaving the cast this summer. I’m grateful I was able to see the original cast — it’s a moment I will remember as vividly as I remember seeing Les Miserables in 1985 with Colm Wilkinson and Patti Lupone. It was still in previews; the music was brand new, and it was breathtaking. I look forward to seeing what the actors of Hamilton do next.

But the beauty of this show is that new actors can enter the roles and the message will remain. As Miranda points out, in America we would keep changing leaders, and it would work. We didn’t need a monarchy. So my hope is that when a touring company comes to a theater near you with its new leaders in the roles, Hamilton will still have its message and its passion — that it doesn’t need a Miranda or a Diggs. Music and theater arts schools had better start adding rap to their repertoires, because Hamilton is going to be touring for a long time to come.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hamilton," directed by Thomas Kail. Richard Rogers Theater, New York.



Share This


A Collaboration With History

 | 

Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian are both familiar to readers of Liberty. Their most recent contribution, memories of Nathaniel Branden, appeared in these pages in February.

On April 17, their film, 1915 — co-written and co-directed by Alec and Garin — opened in theaters throughout the country. It concerns a mysterious director who, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, stages a play in Los Angeles to bring the ghosts of a forgotten tragedy back to life. Liberty interviewed Alec about this very independent film.

Liberty: Alec, will you give us a little perspective on recent events around this film?

Alec: On April 24, 2015, 160,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles (and many hundreds of thousands more across the world). They were marching to commemorate and demand justice for an event that took place 100 years ago, on the other side of the world. You may be wondering whether such a thing has ever happened before, but something like it had just happened in 1915, which is set in 2015, on a day very much like the one this April. A few years ago, we saw this scene coming, even if few people thought we were sane when describing it. In our movie, you hear and see glimpses of approximately 160,000 people marching on the streets of Los Angeles, while inside the walls of one haunted, historic theater one man named Simon tries to recreate the reason for their marching, and contrive a destination for them.

Liberty: Why did you set the story in a Los Angeles theater?

Alec: In a theater, history is repeated night after night, with the same actors, each time with different results. So while it might seem on the surface like a fantastic, abstract setting for such a weighty subject, it is for our story an entirely genuine and even “realistic” one. The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

What makes an actor good or bad, a performance true or false or in between? We thought these were important mysteries, especially for a story about how the past carries on in the present, how memory and denial can affect a life in so many ways. The professional challenges of an actor seem very much aligned to the historical burdens of contemporary Armenians. Both inherit a script, a story, which they are impelled to enliven, to honor, to serve . . . or if they can’t handle it, to rather ostentatiously ignore.

The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

Certainly the sense that theater is dead, or dying, or is constantly said to be dead or dying, is not at all beside the point. Simon, the mastermind of the film, is a true believer in the magic of theater, and he is convinced that one great performance can actually change the course of history.

Liberty: Where did you find your actors?

Alec: All over the world. We knew of Simon Abkarian (Casino Royale, Gett, et al.) and Angela Sarafyan (Twilight, Paranoia), the two leads, and wrote and named their parts for them from the beginning. They were the first two to read the script and expressed an instant desire to assume their roles. There are only two things no actor can just pretend to have: intelligence and face. In Simon and Angela we found two faces no one is likely to forget.

Angela lives in Los Angeles. Simon, one of the top stage and screen actors in France, had to fly in from Paris. The vastly talented Nikolai Kinski, whose last name will be familiar to film buffs, cancelled all his gigs and flew in from his home in Berlin. We had admired Sam Page in Mad Men and House of Cards. Jim Piddock is a prolific and beloved comic actor who comes from England. The rest of our cast we discovered through auditions, set up by our sharp casting director. That is how we found eight-year old Sunny Suljic, who delivers a stunning performance in his feature film debut.

Liberty: How long did you work on this film?

Alec: We began to write the script in May of 2012. We began to raise financing in May of 2013. Our first day of shooting was April 27, 2014. We shot for 20 days. The film was released theatrically last month. On opening weekend it was the #2 debut film in the country, in terms of per-screen box office.

Liberty: What was your greatest difficulty?

Alec: That is like asking someone to choose his greatest ex-wife. All of our difficulties were great, great difficulties. Creatively, the biggest frustration in moviemaking is when you can’t afford to fix your mistakes. The author of a book can go back and rewrite a poor paragraph. He does not need $20,000 to buy a vowel — nor does he have to work around the fact that the letter F is stuck in a Belgian cop show until September.

Liberty: What was your greatest pleasure?

Alec: Those moments on set when our imagination was brought to life in surprising and superior ways — by the actors, the production designer, the cinematographer, the makeup artist, the costume designer, the composer. We had masters in each field and together they did a masterly job. They worked tirelessly, sleeplessly, and with an absolute passion and dedication, not to display their own virtuosity, but to make 1915. Thank God, too, because this was a fragile project that could not withstand any too-major outbreaks of idiocy. Knowing that various talented pros are working as hard as you are and thinking as deeply as you are about how best to realize your vision makes you feel good.

By the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

A note here for future filmmakers. The most important thing is not to experience glories on set, but for the audience to experience them on the screen. Too often the one does not lead to the other. You will realize this in the editing room and thus meet your greatest pain. But we were speaking here of pleasures, and I suppose the collaborative vitality and professional excellence I mentioned is the reason most directors never want to retire.

Liberty: How long have you and Garin been working together? What skills does each of you bring to the project? That is — who is better at camera work, editing, writing, directing, or whatever? Have you collaborated previously?

Alec: We have collaborated on a number of things since middle school: newspapers, screenplays, foreign presidential campaigns, revolutions, poker. We are both writers by origin and Garin is the author of an acclaimed memoir, Family of Shadows. This was our first fictional film. Our only prior experience in filmmaking was a series of TV ads we produced for a presidential campaign designed to overthrow a monstrous post-Soviet regime. Overthrowing a paying audience is an entirely different task.

Some directing duos specialize; we do not. We were equally involved in, and equally ignorant about, all technical matters. The writing process began by forming an outline and splitting scenes but by the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

Our vision was for a certain kind of film that had never been made before, to tell a certain kind of story that had never been told — that is, indeed, impossible to tell. So the only valuable skill we brought to the enterprise was that of how to bluff.

Liberty: How many times did you get into a fight?

Alec: Never in public. At this stage, even in private, our fights are mostly fought in silence. By the time one of us opens his mouth, the winner has already been decided, the loser wrapping tape, and what’s left is to clean up the mess.

Liberty: Why should libertarians be interested in 1915?

Alec: Because it is a unique, mysterious psychological thriller that ought to provoke them intellectually and possibly lead them to some deep surprises. It has a lot of layers and secrets and even humor. You might hate it, but you won’t be bored. You will want to find out what happens in the end. In short, it should be a rewarding dramatic ride that might awaken some new feelings and questions about the personal meaning of history.

And it is a controversial movie for almost anyone who watches it — not politically controversial, but spiritually. It poses a different challenge for almost every kind of viewer. One of the dramatic themes in the film is the quest for freedom in the face of trauma, and I’m sure that many libertarians have contended with this in their own lives, this case of reality assaulting an idea.

Liberty: If people aren’t near a theater where 1915 is shown, how can they see it?

Alec: Well, the HD digital version can be downloaded from www.1915themovie.com and also from iTunes and Amazon, to be watched at home. I invite them to do so. Oh, and skeptics can even see a trailer. My policy is to only listen to unqualified praise, but Liberty readers who watch the film and run into me at the dog-track can cite the voucher code MENCKENISMYFATHER to tell me exactly what they think.




Share This


The Forgotten Gibbs

 | 

Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



Share This


Reverse Order

 | 

Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.


Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.