Janus or Pluto?: (Some) theatre on video and film

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By Scott Ross

The astonishing (and astonishingly beautiful) Justin Kirk in

The astonishing (and astonishingly beautiful) Justin Kirk in “Angels in America.”

Much of my home-video viewing of late has been either of plays transmitted for television or of movies adapted from the stage. Accepting as a given that what is designed for the live theatre can never be experienced in quite the same way through any other medium, the differences in approach and the limitations of form present some interesting contours for contemplation. Take, for example, two filmed stage plays of recent vintage, seen back-to-back, more through random choice than by design. (Or were they? The mind makes its patterns where only chance and whim seemingly prevail…)

Thomas Gibson and Matthew Ferguson as an unlikely potential couple in

Matthew Ferguson and Thomas Gibson as an unlikely potential couple in “Love and Human Remains”

First, Love and Human Remains, the 1993 movie of the Canadian dramatist Brad Fraser’s superb — and, given its unabashed gay perspective, astonishingly popular — 1989 play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Fraser’s is one of the very few plays I have ever made a point of seeing more than once during its local run (at Raleigh Ensemble Players, in 1999.) And what with its author’s sharp, intelligent dialogue and compelling narrative, and the splendid Thomas Gibson in the lead, I had high expectations for the movie… though not, I should add, of its director, Denys Arcand, the onlie begettor of The Decline of the American Empire, arguably the most specious, pretentious, verbose and generally stultifying “serious” movie of 1986. Arcand, as it turned out, acquitted himself well enough here. What didn’t work was what did, so spectacularly, in the theatre: The playwright’s highly idiosyncratic dialogue. Somehow, between stage and screen, something got flattened. It did not seem the fault of the excellent cast, nor necessarily, of the filmmakers. So what, then?

It was only when I moved on to the next item that a possibility, however vague, began to suggest itself. If any play of the past 25 years can be said to be theatrical, surely it would be Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. Unlike with Love and Human Remains, I approached Angels with more than a little trepidation. Even if HBO and Mike Nichols were scrupulously true to Kushner’s proudly un-closeted dialogue and characters, his searing intelligence and his soaring stagecraft, how could this stunningly expansive “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” possibly work in the unforgiving medium of film, whose very realism must necessarily militate against so defiantly un-realistic a project? Yet, as mysteriously as the failure of Fraser’s dialogue to fully correspond with the medium, in Angels Kushner’s lines, so alternately poetic and rhetorical on the stage, virtually sing on film. Again, why? The only sliver of an answer that presents itself to me after lengthy consideration is that Angels is effective precisely because of its fantastic nature, not in spite of it. Although Nichols and Stephen Goldblatt, his brilliant director of photography, are at pains to present a New York as visceral and de-glamorized as possible, the fantasy elements do not sit uneasily in their frame, rendering the movie neither the fish of theatre nor the fowl of the moving picture; rather, as the Angel America herself, they burst the skin of reality. As the pieces fall, a hybrid is born: theatrically-charged, bordered on one side by the fantastic and the other by the actual, yet through some curious alchemy not schizoid but whole. Intact. The elements, shattered, re-form. Which seems somehow perfectly in keeping with Kushner’s keenly bifurcated yet intensely unified pair of plays.

Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn) and Meryl Streep (as the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg): Can the conscience-less ever really be haunted?

Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn) and Meryl Streep (as the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg): Can the conscience-less ever really be haunted?

It hardly hurts that Angels is cast, from top to bottom, with magnificent actors, some of them (Patrick Wilson, Ben Shenkman, the phenomenal Justin Kirk) new to me, others (Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell) more established, and two whose presence alone, I suppose, would justify the phrase “event casting”: Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Pacino, who so often revels in outsized characters, has a field-day blasting all and sundry with the sociopathic arrogance of Roy Cohn’s self-aggrandizement, undone only in this case (the inhuman original being hardly more timorous) by his close-cropped hair for the famously bald Cohn. Was make-up tried, and discarded? Did Pacino balk at shaving his head? The question becomes almost more compelling than Cohn’s race to die before disbarment.

Streep has been a conundrum since I first saw her in 1977, in a small role in Julia. One cannot help admiring the seriousness of purpose, the manifold wigs and accents, each applied with rigorous determination, and the sheer technique — not to mention that sharp-nosed, ovoid face and those eyes that bespeak an intelligence that itself renders her impossible to accept as a bubble-head (and how that must have limited her chances!) But often, the technique itself carried the day, at least for me. The sense of Streep’s characters as lived-in, even grubby, was rare: Her radiant, troubled Karen Silkwood; her cool, unyielding and ultimately heartbreaking Lindy Chamberlin in A Cry in the Dark, which Jodie Foster once correctly described as “beyond acting”; her extraordinarily plangent Lee in Marvin’s Room; and her magnificent Clarissa Vaughan in the film of The Hours. Who can forget her, collapsed on the kitchen floor, her back to the oven, devastated by grief and trying desperately not to let her capacious heart overflow with it? In Angels she gets to show off her versatility (and her facility for accents) as a sly nonagenarian Rabbi, a wry Ethel Rosenberg and a complacent, angry Salt Lake City haufrau. It is that last role in which Streep really shines: Seemingly humorless, Hannah Pitt jousts with the best of them; stereotypically Mormon, yet she both bears her son’s sexual confusion and becomes surrogate mother to the suffering, frightened, maddened and defiant Prior. Everything Streep does as Hannah feels right, spontaneous. This, too, is beyond acting. “Being” might be a better term for it. That definition extends as well to Justin Kirk, whose Prior Walter seems to me (who admittedly missed Stephen Spinella’s original) just about definitive. Hurt, angry, buoyant, defiantly nellie, incalculably brave, Kirk personifies every young gay man in America who woke one day in the 1980s to find himself condemned, betrayed, marginalized, but, through his wit and fervor for life, never wholly defeated.

Without recourse to keeping the plays open on my lap as I watched, and bearing in mind their sheer volubility and expanse, I cannot be sure precisely how close the HBO-produced movie is to the original plays. But it seems to me a textbook case of getting the transition right. Nichols is a variable movie talent, as apt to go crushingly wrong as he is to go triumphantly right. But Angels in America makes a fitting bookend to a film career that began with another adaptation of an epoch-shattering, transitional stage work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


 

Michael Redgrave as Uncle Vanya. (Chichester Festival, UK 1962;  Photo by Angus McBean / Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection)

Michael Redgrave as Uncle Vanya. (Chichester Festival, UK
1962; Photo by Angus McBean / Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection)

The last item on the video menu, if I may be permitted the oxymoron, was likewise deeply satisfying, although on a different level: A 1963 British television transmission of Uncle Vanya in Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed Chichester Festival production. I’m not sure just when, or why, Vanya became (along with Lanford Wilson’s The 5th of July, with which it shares a number of features) one of my two favorite plays. My affection likely began with the farcical appearance of a gun in Act Three but the fullness of my response to this most plangent of Chekhov’s chamber pieces can be accounted elsewhere. As that is too private for this public space, I’ll note only how beautifully both the playwright, and this stunning cast (with one rather glaring exception) convey ennui, and its natural handmaiden, desperation, most notably in Michael Redgrave’s magisterial performance in the eponymous role… although “magisterial” in this context too seems oxymoronic, since what Redgrave anatomizes is hopelessness itself, unrelieved by the occasional revelry which, we assume, must be the only thing that holds the man together. Interestingly, while both Sonia and Dr. Astrov confess (the latter frequently) to having no hope, Vanya never does. He lives, in fact, on it… at least until its last shreds are stripped from him, first by the hated brother-in-law, later by that insufferable academic’s young wife, in whose wholly unresponsive person Vanya siphons all his non-material yearnings.

While the Kultur DVD itself is less than optimal — the original video tape has not aged well in its reproduction of light, which sometimes swallows up the actors, especially Rosemary Harris’ Helena — it is Harris herself who is the graver problem. Usually excellent, here she either settles for, as was directed by Olivier to embrace, melodramatic poses and airy line-readings, her eyes perpetually raised to some middle-distance beyond mere human ken, all of which make her both more ethereal than necessary and less condignly corporeal than required. I have no quarrel with any of the others, and indeed it is a positive benison to have in your living room so rich a set of voices, and faces, from the peerlessly flutey Max Adrian and the prototypically Nanny-esque Sybil Thorndyke to the quietly heart-rendering Joan Plowright and the superlative Astrov of Olivier himself, all too clearly enjoying his own purported misery, yet agonizingly oblivious to Sonia’s infatuation.

But crowning the whole affair is Redgrave’s Vanya. Although his film career stretched from the late 1930s to the mid-’70s, Redgrave was almost criminally underutilized in that medium. Was he possibly not conventionally handsome enough? Could his rich tenor/baritone have been a shade too tremulous, or imitable? Did he perhaps read too “queer”? Whatever the reasons, you have only to watch him at work as Vanya for two minutes to lament how little known he was (and is) to audiences outside of Britain and to appreciate with what fullness he dove into this quintessential Chekhovian “loser.” It’s a performance whose sound, thanks to the superb 1962 Philips LP set, I have long cherished; I’m delighted at last to see the action so beautifully suited to the word.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

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By Scott Ross

The Mobil Showcase logo art by Seymour Chwast.

The Mobil Showcase logo art by Seymour Chwast.

Very probably the last thing one should do if one is a slave, as I am, to chronic depression is either read a Dickens novel, or view the adaptation of one.

Why I chose this moment finally to sit down with the eight and 1/2-hour Royal Shakespeare Company Nicholas Nickleby I really can’t say, except that I’ve had the boxed set of DVDs for years, the depression longer, and I’m not getting any younger. Still… If one has any sensitivity at all, then meandering through Dickens is an act virtually guaranteed to exercise it; when your emotions are raw, close to the surface, and crying jags come easy, it’s going to be a trial. And assaying this particular Dickens novel is just asking for it.

Nickleby TIME coverKnowing the text likely makes it even worse, and Nicholas Nickleby has been a part of my cultural life for over three decades now. I did not see the original London or Broadway productions, but I certainly remember the Time magazine cover story and the attendant controversy over its then-exorbitant $100 ticket price, which now seems the veriest pittance. When it was taped for British broadcast and no American network would touch it, Mobil, to its eternal credit, picked it up and ran it in syndication, over, if memory serves, four consecutive nights. I can still vividly recall the excitement with which I waited to partake of that evening’s installment, and the nearly complete satisfaction it gave me. In the interim came the surprisingly accomplished 2002 movie version, a veritable Secretariat of the cinema by way of contrast, one that somehow managed to encompass the narrative in a mere two hours and 12 minutes. About a decade ago, I finally cracked the novel itself, whose length had always intimidated me. It was a splendid experience, although I did long, finally, for it to end; ennui sets in around the 900th page of almost anything.

Last week it all came full-circle, as I revisited the television edition. I knew the tears would flow and, in my present state, all too copiously. How could they not, what with Dickens’ mastery of emotional manipulation, exacerbated by the magnificence of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s resolutely powerful and magnificently theatrical staging, and pushed through the histrionic stratosphere by David Threlfall’s astonishingly moving Smike and the pluperfect Newman Noggs of Edward Petherbridge?

I recognize in Smike the author’s perennial favorite, the child or youth (usually, but not always, a boy) smashed, or nearly so, by the endemic Victorian system of, on the one hand, callous indifference and, on the other, active collusion in his destruction. We see him in Oliver Twist, in David Copperfield, in Pip, in Jo the crossing-sweeper and, on the distaff side, in the Littles, Nell and Dorrit. Sometimes triumphant, sometimes doomed, yet always striving against insuperable (when not downright malignant) odds. Smike is, in his way the ne plus ultra of the type: Not only shockingly poor, ill clothed and ill fed nor even merely physically crippled but mentally and emotionally damaged, seemingly beyond repair… and utterly beyond resistance to the emotionally susceptible. And, in my heart of hearts I know that Newman Noggs is, like the impossibly decent Cheeryble brothers, too good to be true. But I can’t imagine not being moved by the performances of Threlfall and Petherbridge.

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and the astonishing David Threlfall (Smike.)

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and the astonishing David Threlfall (Smike.)

Threlfall does miracle work with Smike, somehow (and even granting that the actor augments the character’s mannerisms well beyond Dickens’ less extreme description) never asking for pity no matter how piteous the character’s physical tribulations and emotional woes, or how pitiless the vicissitudes that attack him. It is, I think, that very resolution and restraint which make him so unutterably heartbreaking.

The great Edward Petherbridge as the incomparably endearing Newman Noggs.

The great Edward Petherbridge as the incomparably endearing Newman Noggs.

As Noggs, Petherbridge’s every gesture and remark is perfection itself. If ever a character was perched on the precipice of manipulative self-pity, it’s Newman Noggs. Petherbridge has a way of seeming almost casually ironic, as if Noggs’ bibulousness has so simultaneously slowed and sped up his normal reactions that his sarcastic asides and small, bitter observations are barely perceived by his listeners, seemingly uttered without rancor and, indeed, with a kind of self-effacing apology. Timid yet sardonic, incalculably decent but neither overly nor even overtly sweet, he embodies the infinite hope of the essentially hopeless.

The superb John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby, with Alun Amrstrong, unforgettable as Whackford Squeers.

The superb John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby, with Alun Amrstrong, unforgettable as Whackford Squeers.

In this production, even the impenetrably cold Ralph Nickleby is moving, especially in John Woodvine’s stunning performance. So too, against all odds, is Emily Richards’ Kate Nickleby. The novel’s Kate is less a full-bodied character than a set of Victorian poses; she’s Virtuous Young Womanhood hideously importuned and victimized, and she reads as the literary equivalent of all those damsels in distress that render much silent movie acting of the early years so absurdly fustian. (And which Debbie Reynolds memorably poked fun at in Singin’ in the Rain.) Edgar, Nunn and Caird come in for some of the credit here, I suppose, but the achievement is, ultimately, Richards’. Her Kate is intelligent, stalwart, brave, despairing… but never bathetic.

Emily Richards as Kate Nickleby, menaced by Bob Peck's throughly rotten Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Emily Richards as Kate Nickleby, menaced by Bob Peck’s thoroughly rotten Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Ben Kinglsey originated the pivotal role of Whackford Squeers, the appalling Yorkshire schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall, at the RSC. By the time of the taping, Kinglsey was, due to his performance as Gandhi, a major movie presence; in his place was the alternately hilarious and terrifying Alun Armstrong. The protean Bob Peck is, astonishingly, equally effective as the uncouth yet decent John Browdie and the genteel and infinitely damnable Mulberry Hawk. Not only is he virtually unrecognizable as the same actor, his very vocal timbre alters: First deep, warm, resonant and full of bonhomie (Browdie) then high, cold, sneering and filled with malice (Hawk.) It is Hawk who is perhaps the most puzzlingly Iago-like character in Nicholas Nickleby. His every impulse is to the destruction of others, for its own sake, far above the lure of the pecuniary. Even Ralph is more explicable. But as thoughtfully ironic double casting, Peck’s contrasts could not be sharper.

A face only a father could love: Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, with Alaun Armstrong as Mr. Squeers.

A face only a father could love: Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, with Alaun Armstrong as Mr. Squeers.

The same holds true for Suzanne Bertish, who makes a splendidly spiteful Fanny Squeers and a charming Miss Snevellici, both ardent and, ultimately futile, suitors of young Nicholas. Lila Kaye is adorably hammy as Mrs. Crummles and a scarifying termagant as Mrs. Squeers. Of the nominal villains, Janet Dale’s mercurial Miss Nagg is nicely complimented by her hysteria as the absurd Mrs. Wititterly, while Nicholas Gecks’ Lord Frederick Verisopht is the most beautifully delineated of Kate’s tormentors. His features soft, sensual and Byronesque, his manner languid and foppish, he is seemingly indifferent yet becomes the single character who most effectively stymies the machinations of Hawk, at the cost of his own life, which he relinquishes with sad, manful irony. And, being me, I must also note the presence, in several small roles, of Stephen Rashbrook, the most boyishly beautiful of the male actors in the ensemble. He quite literally took my breath away every time the camera caught his almost ethereally lovely face.

Stephen Rashbrook, who does NOT play a vicar in "Nicholas Nickleby."

Stephen Rashbrook, who does NOT play a vicar in “Nicholas Nickleby.”

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and David Threlfall (Smike) on the journey to Portsmith.

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and David Threlfall (Smike) on the journey to Portsmith.

As Nicholas, Roger Rees seems less efficacious to me now than he did in the early 1980s. Too much of his performance is pitched on sheer nerves, his limpid eyes always threatening to overflow, his infrequent outbursts of rage muted rather than enhanced by the emotionalism he displays throughout. It must be a difficult role to get right, and I do not mean to imply that Rees is by any means bad in it. He gets Nicholas’ overmastering decency, and his impulse to compassion, exactly, especially in his interactions with Smike. But at nearly 40, he was a bit long in the tooth to be wholly capable of expressing the young man’s essential naïveté. Charlie Hunnam’s much more youthful Nicholas in the 2002 movie was rather closer to the mark in that respect, and he had the built-in advantage of being young.

Far more problematic is the video direction by Jim Goddard. First, there is the disturbingly occasional glimpse, or sound, of the live Old Vic audience, in a series otherwise obviously taped without one. As Nunn and Caird utilized the theatre itself in their staging, a complete record of the production virtually demanded the spectators’ inclusion. And while I can understand the impulse to capture the thing without the constant, and intrusive, sounds of laughter and applause from the audience, the result is a curious hybrid that does not solve the problem satisfactorily.

Worse, Goddard often places his visual emphases in an almost arbitrary fashion, spoiling Nunn and Caird’s stage tableaux either by focusing in too close on a grouping or, weirdly, cutting away from a moment, or an actor’s performance, to its utter detriment. A perfect example of this striking ineptitude is the moment when the marvelous Rose Hill as Mrs. Gruden ends her hilarious coloratura trillings, begins the verse of her “Farewell” song and only then grabs a lungful of air. Rather than hold on the performer for maximum comic impact, Goddard cuts, incongruously, to Nicholas and Miss Snevellici. His direction is filled with such inexplicable lapses, often numbing when not outright killing the effect of Nunn’s and Caird’s stunningly expressive theatricality. The A&E presentation is likewise annoying: Rather than presenting the series as it originally appeared, the video set climaxes each hour of the thing with end-credits, superimposed over the Old Vic audience going mad for what was, quite obviously, the final curtain call.

Still, as a record of an unforgettable event, this Nicholas Nickleby will do. Aside from the variety and assurance of the RSC company and its directors, and the starkly utilitarian splendor of the settings by John Napier and Dermot Haye, the home video set also captures the late Stephen Oliver’s* superb underscore and songs and David Edgar’s subtle genius at distilling a massive novel, retaining as much of Dickens’ more pointed observational prose as a stage can reasonably contain, presenting the narrative and the characters with fealty, and doing so in a way that is both epic and intimate — and, always, appropriately theatrical. No small thing, that, and for a frustrated actor like Dickens himself, a fitting tribute.

If one has to cry, there are certainly worse things to weep over.

David Edgar.

David Edgar.

*Oliver, a formidable composer of opera, succumbed, as did far too many of his male contemporaries, to AIDS, in 1992.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Why this American is not writing a screenplay

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By Scott Ross

Esquire June 1980

The cover of the June 1980 Esquire famously asked, “Is Anyone in America Not Writing a Screenplay?” While I admit to once collaborating on just such an animal — a crazy-quilt, Python/Ernie Kovacs-inspired series of blackout sketches written with my then best friend during our early high school years — and while I further admit to being very much besotted with movies (of the 20th century, anyway) and to having a reasonably impressive inventory of published screenplays in my personal library, the form is not one I find especially alluring. Even in 1980, when Esquire was posing the question, I had a tendency to roll my eyes, figuratively if not literally*, whenever someone said that he (and it was always “he”) was “working on a screenplay.” By the mid-’70s the phrase had become as much a cultural cliché as “But what I really want to do is direct.” Indeed, if the truth be known, “But what I really want to do is direct” is the second clause of the statement that begins, “I’m working on a screenplay.”

Robert McKee, maintainer of something called “Story Seminar” in which he imparts to the credulous the secrets of screenwriting success (and, as always with these types, has never had a screenwriting success) is somewhat notorious for having noted, “Every epoch has a dominant art form, and the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century is the cinema. The people who create the stories of this art form will be recognized as the great story-tellers of the Twentieth Century.” So — quick! — name me the recognized great storytellers. I’ll wait.

Give up? You might have said William Goldman. Or Robert Towne. Or Arthur Laurents, Paddy Chayefsky, Paul Schrader, or — if you’re especially au courant in these matters — John Logan, Dustin Lance Black, John Ridley, Nora Ephron, Tony Kushner or, just possibly, maybe, Aaron Sorkin. You might even have gone as far back as Ernest Lehman, Betty Comden Adolph and Green, Frank Nugent, Ben Hecht, Phillip Dunne, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Leigh Brackett and Herman J. Mankiewciz. But I’m willing to bet few, if any, of those names occurred to you. Because, McKee’s overly optimistic wishful thinking to the contrary, movie writers are never, ever recognized as great storytellers. Movie producers made sure that never happened during the studio era, and movie directors (abetted by know-nothing critics) have made even more certain it wouldn’t in the decades since. And even if you came up with Woody Allen, Samuel Fuller, Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Richard Brooks, John Huston, Preston Sturges — or even George Lucas — I can almost guarantee you thought of them as directors first, screenwriters second… if you remembered they were scenarists at all. Despite which, Welles for one preferred the term writer-director. “With,” he said, “an emphasis on the former.”

Screenwriters have nearly always been the lowliest men and women on the proverbial totem pole; the bastard-children of the movie biz. Jack Warner may have been speaking for the entire industry (Darryl Zanuck possibly excepted) when he referred to his studio’s scenarists as “schmucks with Underwoods.” Even today, the notion of the screenwriter being available for consultation or (Good God!) actually on the set while his or her script is being filmed is one that places eyebrows just under the hairline and sets mouths to permanent sneers. And, as with directors, screenwriters, however successful, never own their own work.

Although Billy Wilder maintained that “In the beginning was the Word” the word, in movie circles, is worth little, if not actually worthless. Indeed, one waits in vain for a modern-day Robert Riskind to drop a ream of 20-pound bond on the desk of some self-aggrandizing director with the modern equivalent of “Give that The Capra Touch!” Had it not been for one meddling director interfering with, and usually demeaning, their words and stories, Wilder and Sturges would never have become directors in the first place. It is surely no accident that Joe Gillis, aspiring screenwriter, becomes a gigolo and ends up floating face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool. That’s a Wilderian metaphor if ever there was one. Screenwriter: Screw, and discard.

William Goldman says that no one tells the composer how to compose or the cinematographer how to photograph, since no one except a composer understands music and no one other than a DP fully comprehends cinematography. But everyone uses words and believes he or she knows how to write. Or at least, knows better than the writer. I think his axiom is, in the first clause, faulty, as the Hollywoods are full of the bodies of DPs and composers (and art directors, and set designers, and film editors and, for all I know, grips and best-boys) some director or producer or studio functionary thought he knew better than. But his second clause seems absolutely spot-on to me. In the theatre, there is a little thing called The Dramatists Guild, which entity exists to protect the playwright (and the composer or lyricist) from actors seeking to make up their own lines, directors cutting scripts wholesale and producers gutting entire plays that are, suddenly and well into rehearsal, no longer to their liking. In Hollywood, there is only the Writers Guild of America, West. This body can settle disputes between screenwriters assigned to the same project, and arbitrate generally for the overall protection of scenarists. But it is virtually powerless against studios, or producers, or directors, or even actors, doing pretty much whatever the hell they want to a given script before it reaches production, during the filming, and well into post-production. Screenwriters know this. They don’t like it, but they cannot change it. They are gadflies merely, at best annoying, at worst able, during periodic contract negotiations, to shut down anything not already before the cameras. The result of which is the occasional gain for screenwriters, a loss for the culture; the last time we went through that upheaval we ended up with allegedly script-less, alleged “reality” television. We are still suffering from the fallout of that one.

Show me a screenwriter with power, and I will show you a Screenwriter/Producer. There’ve been few of them. Damn few. Carl Foreman, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and William Peter Blatty come to mind, in the past, the Coen brothers in the present. Paddy Chayefsky did not produce his movies, but they bore a possessive that marked them as clearly his. But then, Chayefsky was the exception to just about every rule. And the Coens write, produce and direct their own work, which puts them in an unheard-of category anyway. A playwright has the power, through his guild, to shut down a production if he feels his work is being betrayed by it. A screenwriter is paid, dismissed, and likely never heard from again — unless the screenplay wins an award — which the director will likely claim was really due to him anyway — or brings suit of some kind, which is also rare. If he wins it (cf., Gore Vidal, Art Buchwald, Harlan Ellison) it’s even rarer. And a self-appointed auteur will almost never bring up the screenwriter in conversation, other than to denounce or deride him.

Television is alleged to be a writer’s medium, and perhaps it is. In England. There the play, movie or series episode bears the title “Written by” or just “By.” An Englishman Abroad is not “A film by John Schlesinger.” It is “By Alan Bennett.” In America, no one notices who wrote anything on television. The writer’s (or writers’) credit appears very much as it does in movies — usually, in episodic shows, followed by an interminable list of “Associate Producers,” “Executive Producers” and even “Associate Executive Producers.” † Then, finally, “Directed by.” Writer? What writer?

The fact is if you are a dramatist, there is only one venue in this country that allows you to be the author of your work: Theatre. And the ultimate irony is that theatre — dramatic theatre — is now as dead as Marley. Musicals, yes. Musicals by (you should pardon the expression) the score. Yes, some playwright usually takes home a Pulitzer every year for drama, but his or her plays don’t run. Even Off-Broadway. The working playwright in America now is the writer whose plays are usually done outside New York. And he or she is usually not making a living at it. A working playwright, if he’s lucky and has the requisite education, teaches at a prestigious university. Gone, seemingly forever, is the notion of an American whose sole employment is as a playwright. There are exceptions, but they usually make their real living as screenwriters (Tony Kushner comes to mind.) The days when a young Neil Simon wakes up one morning, sees lines at the Broadway box-office and knows he has made it, are over, presumably for good. There are times when a playwright — this playwright, anyway — wishes he’d never typed his first play-script.

For good or ill, however, those scripts are mine. They do not belong to CBS, or HBO, or AMC, or Universal, or Warners. I decide who can mount them (virtually no one past the initial production, but that’s more or less beside the point.) I decide when a line may be re-written, or a scene re-configured, and I alone will write, or revise, or re-configure. In consultation with the director and with input from the actors, certainly, but unilateral, wholesale revision of my work is not going to happen, unless I’m hundreds of miles away from the production and can only trust that the people who cared enough about my script to actually produce it will respect it, and me as the author, enough to refrain from “creative” meddling.

Would I like to make screenwriters’ wages? Damn skippy I would. Would I trade my autonomy, poor thing though it be, for the monetary compensation of an Arthur Laurents, knowing that both his biggest and most respected hits (The Way We Were and The Turning Point) are going to be utterly emasculated by their directors and their stars? I would not.

Yet one often reads amateur play-scripts whose writers would not only prefer to be writing screenplays, but who actually are. I’m not talking about the use of so-called cinematic techniques. My own preference as a dramatist is to keep the stage, and the action, as fluid as possible, without recourse to cumbersome scene changes and boring inter-act blackouts. This allows not only for ease of staging and design (which, among other felicities, might actually help get your work mounted by cost-conscious companies and producers) but for surprise and dramatic effect. The use of these techniques is debatable, of course; I only know that they work for me, and excite me, as a writer and as a spectator. But that, for good or ill, is deliberate intent, on my part, as a dramatist. What I’m referring to are stage plays that read like screen plays, replete with impossible effects, and equally impossible stage direction. In the otherwise admirable A Shayna Maidel the playwright, Barbara Lebow, includes two scenes, back-to-back, in which the leading character goes from one full costume at the end of the first scene to another, completely new, ensemble at the beginning of the next. No backstage dresser alive could get that woman changed with sufficient rapidity to avert boring the entire audience, and one is left scratching one’s head in perplexity that no one connected with the original production informed the playwright that this was simply not good stagecraft. Or — and this seems somehow worse to me — that Lebow herself did not know better.

The impulse to write screenplays when one is supposedly crafting a play is rampant. One such script I read in college contained not one but several full-scale historical ground and air battles. I’m not joking — or exaggerating. Another alleged “play” by an amateur I encountered a few years ago began with several women convening at a beach cottage (already a hoary device in itself, but let that pass.) At the end of this opener, the women — who are still in their everyday togs, please remember, as they’ve just arrived — decide to go for a swim. The next scene discovers the entire cast, in bikini bathing suits, painfully examining their collective, total-body sunburn. As Jerome Robbins once said to Stephen Sondheim about a static verse, “All right, then — you stage it!” Either the “playwright” knows nothing about stagecraft (in which case, why is he or she writing a play?) or holds the theatre itself in some sort of secret contempt. “But what I really want to do is write a screenplay.”

A personal anecdote that is to the point. When I met the critic David Denby at a local signing for his 1996 Great Books, the owner of the bookstore introduced me to him as a critic and a playwright who had recently won an award and a production for his play The Dogs of Foo. I appreciated her boost, but I knew something she didn’t: Namely, that Denby, whom I admire more than nearly any other contemporary movie critic, despises the stage. He once wrote a long, magnificently pig-headed and astonishingly spurious piece for The Atlantic (“Theatrephobia,” January 1985; look it up) in which, juxtaposing current movies and Broadway shows of the time, he came down fourscore for the worst movie over the finest play. He is a man who, despite his reverence for the plays of Shakespeare (Lear in particular) absolutely loathes theatre.

Denby asked me what the play was about. I replied that it centered on a 1930s movie director very much like George Cukor.

He responded, “Sounds like it might be a good movie.”

Like the prophet, the playwright has no honor in his own country. But he still has more than the screenwriter.

Billy Wilder’s epithet reads, “I’m a writer. But then, nobody’s perfect.” In 1986, while accepting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award as a filmmaker, he defended his primary profession (screenwriting) and, criticizing the bottom-line perfidy of the Hollywood Suits, noted, “Theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power, and the glory.”

Who would ever have thought that Billy Wilder was an optimist?


*And no, Virginia, these two words are not inter-changeable.

†All of which means someone is getting a credit who pretty much did nothing.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross


Post-Script, February 2017
Anent my comments on “reality” television: Without it, would there — could there — have been a President Trump? I rest my case.

Of departed felines, former friends, and tinnitus

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By Scott Ross

3217692
January, 1984. A quondam fellow player (we met during rehearsals for the first southeastern production of Sweeney Todd, at St. Mary’s College in 1982) and uneasy friend is holding auditions for his second production of P.S. Your Cat is Dead. Victor’s persona is one I am never quite certain I really like, and while we share a great many interests in common (theatre, musicals, movies, men) and while he is capable of great kindness, I find him in many ways appallingly spoiled, strikingly closed-minded, overly theatrical and verging on the obnoxious if not actually tipping over and wallowing.
I had been flattered, a year or so before, to be asked by Victor to play the male role in Leonard Malfi’s odd one-act two-hander Birdbath for a course on directing he was taking at N.C. State, and which went well enough even though I neither cared for the play particularly nor enjoyed performing in it. I don’t recall his being an especially insightful director, but he was relaxed enough I also don’t remember any special tension during rehearsals. Still, I wasn’t eager to spend the month and a half of weeknights in his company. In addition, I was going through an extremely rough patch in my own life, having recently been canned from a job and subsisting on a dispiriting diet of temp jobs, car-less and anxious about my future. I had also, after 11 years of occasional acting, grown vaguely dissatisfied with the avocation and simply did not relish the prospect of once again trodding them well-worn boards.

There was another reason for me to be wary: As a teenager I had read Kirkwood’s later novel, based on his play. I went on to read most of his books. While Cat, as a novel, strongly indicated a looming romance between its leading (male) characters, the bisexual burglar Vito and the seemingly heterosexual actor Jimmy Zoole, it’s the only one of Kirkwood’s to embrace that possibility. In Some Kind of Hero, the overt homosexual coupling is born of terror, and not repeated. In There Must Be a Pony, the central character’s sexuality is pretty much ignored. And in the dread Good Times, Bad Times, homosexuality is acknowledged only as attempted rape of an adolescent by an unhinged ephebophile. (And fuck you, WordPress Spell-checker; if I wanted to write, “pedophile,” I would have done so.)

In American Grotesque, Kirkwood’s non-fiction account of the ludicrous prosecution by Jim Garrison of Clay Shaw for the murder of JFK, the authorial “I” only gets near the sexual act in approved, heterosexual, circumstances, when (he would have us believe) he succumbs to one of New Orleans’ more persuasive, female, prostitutes. Something in Kirkwood seemed ashamed of his own sexuality, and when he revised Cat as a play, and despite the bisexual Vito’s desire for it, the author removed all inferences of something homoerotic occurring between Vito and Jimmy. I had begun to distrust Kirkwood’s more-than-somewhat hypocritical prudery on the subject.

But to continue…

On the Sunday night of Victor’s Cat auditions, my best friend Mike and I made certain we were nowhere near the theatre. Would that we had gone somewhere other than my apartment. ‘Round about nine, Victor called. As I was renting the upper floor of his elderly aunt’s home and had no telephone of my own, I couldn’t very well pretend I wasn’t there. Very few actors had shown up for read, he said, and would Mike and I pleasepleaseplease come down to the theatre and audition?

We auditioned. And were duly cast: Myself as Jimmy Zoole (the out-of-work actor whose girlfriend has just left him, on New Year’s Eve; who subdues the burglar who has broken into his home for the third time; who ties the hapless felon to the kitchen sink of his studio apartment; and whose eponymous feline is ailing at the veterinarian’s) and Mike as the new interest of Jimmy’s ex.

We were not exactly thrilled by the news.

Cast as Vito, the hapless house-breaker, was Victor’s friend Chuck Morton. I didn’t know Chuck and had never seen him perform, but he had played Jimmy in Victor’s previous production of the play and was now essaying (or is it “assaying”?) the other lead. That this was not going to be a garden-party was brought home to me on our first rehearsal. Victor chose to meet with Chuck and me solely, to discuss the play and the roles and what he wanted from this production. Since Jimmy and Vito are on-stage almost constantly — alone together, for the most part — this seemed eminently reasonable. Until, that is, Victor kicked off the proceedings by reading aloud to us a newspaper review of that earlier show, emphasizing every negative anent Chuck’s performance as Jimmy.

His rationale was that Chuck had been miscast; that he, Victor, had himself not conquered the problem; and that this was what he wished to avoid now.

I was appalled. I don’t care much for deliberate cruelty, and this seemed to me unconscionably cruel. Had Victor said these things to Chuck in private, that would have been a different matter. But exposing my co-star, whom I had just met, to a string of unflattering critical observations with me in the room was not a move calculated to win me over. I was deeply embarrassed for Chuck, and shamed for myself, sitting there listening to it.

It went downhill from there.

Victor’s penchant for indulging his short temper, a quality I did not care for in his personality, reached its nadir one night a week before we opened. We were rehearsing the moment, shortly to cost me dearly, when Jimmy discovers Vito’s handgun on the counter. He picks it up and, being an actor, plays with it. He aims the gun and presses the trigger. Click. Encouraged, he aims again. Click. A third time. Bang! He falls on his ass from the unexpected recoil. I no longer recall whether Kirkwood wrote it this way in his script, but Victor blocked my actions as follows: First empty round, hold the gun out with one hand. Second empty round, aim it over my shoulder like an over-confident sharp shooter. And, for the bang, hold it in both hands and strike a pose. Simple enough, and reasonably clever. I went through the motions in what I thought was a fairly fluid series of movements. Wrong! Again. Wrong! Finally, Victor demanded, with rising inflections that indicated his annoyance at me, that I count to three for each pose.

Already frazzled, and liking my erstwhile friend less and less by the minute, I had what, for me, constituted a rare moment of public rebellion, no doubt fueled by mounting frustration on any number of fronts. I am normally easy with direction, and seldom show temperament in the theatre except when goaded by commands I either don’t understand, or to which I take strong exception. (I had a similar blow-up on Sweeney during the final dress. I had been trying, without success, throughout rehearsals to get the musical director to help me over that, for me, exceptionally high note on the lyric, “But in tiiiiime…” When he suddenly said, “Use your falsetto voice,” I instantly snapped, “I don’t have a goddamn falsetto voice!” Which, if you’ve never used one, is true enough.) But, in general, I maintain a placid temperament with others, and do not like it one bit when others fail to extend that basic courtesy to me in turn.

My reaction to Victor’s command, spoken with smugness that verged on a sneer, may have been somewhat childish, but I suddenly felt less like an actor than an automaton. I posed, pointed, and spoke, mechanically: “One, two, three.” Posed and pointed again: “One, two, three.” Again, dully: “One, two, three.” This precipitated a screaming fight, the memory of which I do not enjoy and which did credit to neither of us. When Victor remonstrated loudly and without the gloves, I shot back something on the order of, “If you want a robot, get one to replace me!” and stormed out of the hall.

I was quite seriously on the verge of throwing it up. I’d never quit a production before, no matter how miserable I may have been, but this was shaping up to be a major disaster. The less salutary features of Victor’s character were, as happens when a friendship is peaking and about to go into decline, dominating my apprehension of him: When one begins to fall out of love — and a close friendship is in its way very like a romance, without the eroticism — one is finally left only with what one dislikes about the loved one. And there was little about Victor I still liked, let alone loved. Somehow he talked me back into the rehearsal space, and we went on, albeit with very little energy or enthusiasm on my behalf.

As I’ve said, one of Victor’s least salient qualities was a penchant to over-react. More than once I’d been the recipient of an elaborately set-up presentation of some movie or other on laser disc at his parent’s house — although in his 30s, he was still living at home — until the day I finally sighed, “Victor, do you have to make a production out of everything?” The theatre was small, so Victor’s loud sighs from the audience when he was displeased were as audible as the actors on the stage. And, as I was wearing contact lenses at the time, I was also treated to his wildly emphatic body-language. On the final dress, when either Chuck or I — I no longer remember which — skipped a page or two of rather crucial (and complex) dialogue, Victor’s displeasure was as plain to me as my co-star. It was only through the intervention of one of his actor friends that he refrained from stopping the rehearsal cold and forcing us to go back; she, wisely, restrained him, reminding him that, once we opened and were performing for an audience, we would have to find our way back in real-time, flop-sweat and all.

At the final dress, Victor got his quiet vengeance. In reverse order of importance, the characters in P.S. Your Cat is Dead are as follows: The ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, the ex, and, sharing equal weight, Jimmy and Vito. Partly because Victor was enamored of the notion of my being seen typing at a desk (composing my new novel, presumably) as the lights came back up after the final fade and largely, I think, to get at me, I had in essence the first bow. The least, in other words, of four. (Chuck enjoyed the final bow, by himself.) Being assigned first bow is a humiliation I endured twice in my brief acting life, both as the final fruit of friendships hanging in tatters. It’s an insulting, deliberately demeaning thing to do to a performer, and, trust me, the actor knows he’s being put in his place.

But there was more horror yet. The worst, in fact, I’ve ever encountered on a stage, because its effects still dominate my life.

As Victor was producing Cat at a certain theatre in Raleigh, from which entity he’d rented the stage, we were given, as part of the deal, its usual property mistress, Maureen. (Her name has not been changed to protect the guilty.) I was no great fan of this woman, although she’d done me no harm… yet. What bothered me about her was that she allowed herself to be a living door-mat to, and all-purpose gopher and babysitter for, the theatre’s artistic director. He, who, for once, shall go nameless — all three of them — was (and is) an astounding megalomaniac, the classic big fish in the very small pond that was Raleigh theatre at that time, and (along with his then-wife, who admittedly was one of the area’s better actors) a fabled user of others. Maureen, then, could always be counted upon to drop everything in her own life and rush to take care of the pair’s spoiled, bratty young son. She seemed to have little identity outside the reflected glow of their somewhat dust-mottled limelight. I mention all this for a reason. (Wait for it, wait for it!)

It was, then, Maureen’s job to load the handgun I would be using in the first act properly, with two empty chambers and one, strategically placed, stage blank. Now, I no longer remember which night during our two-weekend run this occurred, but I can vividly recall that, as I raised the gun over my shoulder and pulled the trigger, expecting the click, a mind-numbing explosion detonated next to my ear. I had the presence of mind, comprehensible to almost everyone who’s ever performed on a stage, to react, in character, reversing my usual pratfall in favor of a drop forward. But the remainder of the act was experienced by me in a state close to shock — my ear throbbing, every noise on that stage perceived as if through a filter of lead.

This accident is surely forgivable, and would be… if accident it was. I’m not wholly persuaded of that fact. My reasons for what is admittedly a somewhat paranoid doubt are two-fold: a) I was at that time a theatre reviewer for a local weekly, and as such not beloved by many, and certainly not by [Blank-Blank-Blank]; and b) a few nights later, it happened again. The gun once more mis-loaded by Maureen… who was not, to my knowledge, ever notably incompetent or mistake-prone and who would do anything, anything at all, for [Blank-Blank-Blank].

Once, as Ian Fleming observed, may be happenstance; twice, in this instance, omits coincidence and heads, rather pointedly, straight to what Fleming referred to as enemy action.

I didn’t know, at the time, just how much damage Maureen’s little “mistakes” had done, to my hearing and to my equilibrium. My balance has never been what it was before, and I am the unhappy recipient of an increasingly maddening case of tinnitus: What is, most euphemistically, often referred to as “a ringing in the ears” is in fact a chronic affliction I wouldn’t wish on Maureen herself. Barbra Streisand, who also suffers from tinnitus, once summed it up by saying she “can’t hear the silence.” You never do. Ever. And as you age (or as I age, anyway) the volume increases exponentially. What seemed to affect a single inner-ear only gradually takes over both. There has not been a moment of any day in the past three decades when I could, or can, in that eloquent phrase of Streisand’s, hear silence.

The sound of that high-pitched, unvarying static, day and night, for 30 years creates a layer of unexpected tension which, in one already afflicted by high anxiety to accompany his chronic depression, is nearly unbearable. I brought up Cat once, on Facebook, and both Mike and Chuck remarked that they never, or seldom, think about that experience. They’re exceedingly lucky. I can’t go a single day without being reminded.

Lest this little memoir suggest that this production was a complete loss, I should mention two, very pleasant, outgrowths of the process. The first was getting to know Chuck; he’d known Victor long enough, and his own persona is relaxed enough, that he was able to psychically roll his eyes over our mutual friend’s more outrageous demonstrations. Victor’s aged mother was coping with cancer the entire time I knew her son. Sadly, she died while we were in rehearsal. Although Chuck grieved for his loss, as I did, Victor’s slightly melodramatic swoonings led Chuck to remark, after he’d left the room, “It must be tough to be orphaned at 33.”

The second was getting to write, with Chuck, a song for the production. I no longer recall whose idea this was, or why it was deemed necessary, but as a person for whom music is, despite my near illiteracy, an absolute essential and whose passion for lyrics, and lyricists, is nearly boundless, I leapt into this unexpected collaboration with great joy. Particularly since Chuck, who is musical in the very best sense, composed a lovely, lilting melody for my words. We set the lyric together, Chuck suggesting revisions, me re-working phrases, him tweaking the notes. We ended up with something of which I was almost inordinately proud. I also had the great pleasure of performing the vocal on tape, to Chuck’s accompaniment, for the first act opening.

I tried, in the chorus-less lyric, to capture Jimmy’s loneliness, his budding relationship to Vito and the unexpected meeting of two disparate lives, and some quality of Jimmy’s own, questing mind. And, although I likely didn’t recognize the fact then, my own:

How are you feeling?
How is your life?
Is it appealing,
Or reeling with trouble and strife?

Are you acting out your fantasies,
Or waiting all night by the ‘phone?
Are you planning to join the party,
Or pretend you can party alone?

Are you charting out new horizons,
Or sailing without direction?
Are you looking for someone to love,
Or afraid to make a connection?

If you have more questions than answers,
Someone new can make you believe
No matter what time of year it is,
With two,
It’s true
It can be New Year’s Eve…

Although I’m still pleased by the structure, sans chorus or refrain, the lines of each verse until the last ending in a question-mark, I’m now bothered by a couple of things in that lyric. I loathe the use of “party” as a verb, for one thing. (“Pretend you’re a party alone” would be better.) The “phone” and “alone” rhyme is trite. And “trouble and strife” is a ready-made cliché, too overused to be of value.  Still… while the shade of Johnny Mercer is hardly wailing with envy, the rest of the lyric seems all right to me. The music, however, far outshone those words; it’s plangent and quietly bittersweet, and it’s played on my mental jukebox with fair frequency for nearly 30 years.  (Chuck, who plays with the band Bellflower, tells me that, “occasionally they let me sing a lead and sneak in one of my songs,” of which “New Year’s Eve” is one. I asked only that he give me a chance to revise the lyric before he does so again. It’ll never be a classic set of verses, but I do have a few ideas to at least make it a bit less cringe-worthy.)

I did not see Victor for quite some time, after Cat. When we ran into each other one night after a play, he made a point of apologizing to me for his behavior. Likely I did as well, for my own. But the friendship was long-dead by then. Whenever I have expressed to another person a concern that some course of action — doing a play, living together — would risk ending a relationship, I’ve usually been proven right. To my cost, and with absolutely no sense of satisfaction that the outcome was precisely as I suggested was possible. In the case of Cat, my inability to remain firm in the face of my own apprehensions, cost me a lot more than a friend.

Pass the silver ear-trumpet, Eliot.

January 2014


Post-Script

I passed the foregoing to Chuck, who kindly corrected a couple of my errors, and shared his observations. I think, at the risk of coming off a touch self-serving, adding his insightful and beautifully expressed words is instructive. If nothing else, they prove that his heart is kinder than mine.

Chuck writes: Wow. These memories are so vivid for you, Scott, whereas I had forgotten (or repressed) many of them years ago. There was so much else to let go of where Victor was concerned that I have come to think of the two productions I did with him as only the most public of it. Victor was on a journey of his very own that had little to do with reality, and more to do with his perceptions of himself and the world. Being theatrical was all Victor had; it was his entire identity. He was never able to hold a job, and it was thanks only to his many repeated inheritances from an assortment of wealthy relatives that he lived so very well.

Victor had no monetary limitations, so he never did have to acknowledge the real world. The theater was his every dream, but it rejected him cruelly. Despite degrees in theater and directing from some of the finest universities on the planet, he proved to have no talent for any of it. It was a great sorrow to him. I saw him perform several times, and struggled to say kind words after. It was sad to watch a man’s only dream crash and burn.

I stayed in touch with Victor for many years, although our relationship suffered often from Victor’s excesses. I remember a poorly thought out trip to New York, where I burned through my money for the week in the first day trying to keep up with Victor’s frenzied spending at bars and expensive restaurants. I remember a very awkward dinner party at his house where drugs played a role in a disastrous evening. I remember many times running into Victor at area bars and clubs, and tiring of hearing the same stories shouted in my ear time after time. “I just returned from New York where I saw the most FABULOUS play.”

[Personal Note the First: I can attest to the absolute veracity of that statement. It’s Victor to the very “t” in the middle of his name.]

Still, although Victor lived with his father in the same house until his father’s death a few years ago and contributed nothing of value to my life or anyone else’s, you just had to love the guy. It was almost as if his faults were his most endearing characteristic. The stories I could tell – the ’67 Firebird driven drunkenly through the JC Penney’s all the way from sporting goods to women’s wear, the many drunken scenes at area gay bars, and a bunch of loud lunch dates at upscale restaurants all over town (although never the same one twice).

After Victor’s father died Victor was placed in a nursing home where as far as I know he lives today. He cannot move, nor is he connected to the here and now in any way. He has been bedridden with some unknown malady for about ten years now, his infinite money going to keep him alive in a hospital bed with tubes and apparatus. I haven’t been to visit him there in a couple of years, for which I feel somewhat guilty. It is hard not to love a friend who so clearly loved me […]

One redeeming characteristic Victor always had was that he at least meant well. Small consolation for the actual harm he frequently caused.

The production you speak of was the last time I attempted acting. I only dabbled with it for a year or two, and two productions with Victor were enough to convince me to leave it alone. Yes, the production we shared was by every definition a disaster. Even still, I remember it fondly as one of my greatest adventures.

The song we wrote together is the first I ever wrote in collaboration, recorded, and performed in public. I thought it was a good song, and yes I still dust it off and play it once in a while.

The best thing to come from this awful production however is that I came to know Scott Ross. For that reason alone it was worth doing.

[Personal Note the Second:
I hope I conveyed, above, my mutual feelings anent Chuck. I certainly meant to.

I don’t know why I retain such vivid memories of things and places and people and events, when usually I can’t recall without prompting what I did yesterday afternoon. Of course, memory itself is suspect, as I now gather that what we think we remember is often our memory of remembering… which makes rather a hash of almost every memoir ever written, or even any memory we have. Or think we have? Am I remembering what actually happened, or did it not happen at all, or did it happen entirely differently than I remember? When others say they have no memory of events we’ve shared, I now start questioning myself: Did private emotions heighten the sense of things for me in a way that alters reality itself in the recall? Or did I just retain a sharper mental image of what happened, for reasons having to do perhaps more with my emotional states, and my own obsessions?

Is, as the King of Siam would say, a puzzlement.]

 

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

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Note: This was written in 2016. It’ll be (incredibly, to me) 49 years this summer.

By Scott Ross

Forty-seven years ago, on the morning of 22 June 1969, my family was living in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. It was a lovely summer morning, pleasant and dry, and as we didn’t have a subscription to the Sunday Columbus Dispatch, someone had always on that day of the week to walk down to the little general store nearby and pick up a copy of the paper. It was either my turn, or I volunteered, I no longer recall. After I paid for the newspaper, I walked back home, looking at the front page. The banner headline said that Judy Garland had died, at 47.

I was a very naïve child, in many ways. In part, I suspect, because I seldom voiced my inner thoughts, and therefore seldom had my misconceptions corrected. (You get verbally slapped down enough times, you learn to keep things to yourself.) Example: For several years during early childhood I was convinced that the people we saw on television lived inside the box, and somehow magically sprang into action when we turned on the set. The only thing I knew of Judy Garland, at that time, was that she was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, which we watched every Easter. And while I no longer believed that people took up residence inside our black-and-white(!) Sylvania television console, I must still have maintained some notion that film froze the people on it, or that movies were, somehow, live. So Judy Garland’s age really puzzled me. How could that young girl be 47 years old? She looked only a bit older than my sister. And 47 — why, that was 12 years older than my father!

I think of that walk back home every year at this time. Sheltered in the Ohio midlands, in a place that was something between a large town and a small city, I had little idea what was going on in the outside world. (Mt. Vernon is one of my lost Edens; if it was a cocoon it was a cocoon I had been happy to nestle inside.) And that summer, a great deal was going to go on, very soon, in America at least. I certainly had only the vaguest notion, despite odd stirrings within my own self for years, what a homosexual was, and wouldn’t have understood what was about to occur in a place called Greenwich Village. Whether or not grief over Judy Garland’s death had anything at all to do with the furious reactions at Stonewall — the playwright Doric Wilson thought it hadn’t, and he was there — the almost umbilical connection between “Miss Show Business” and many of her gay male fans was very real, and something I would come to understand quite well, some six or seven years later.

Garland obit

When I shared the following dialogue from my play A Liberal Education on Facebook Doric, who has since died, gently set me straight (so to speak) on the tempting Garland connection. When I thanked him and said I would consider revising the scene, he replied that I shouldn’t change a word. I loved him for that. We never met in the flesh, but I miss him. He was a wonderful writer (his play on Stonewall, Street Theatre, should be required reading for every gay boy and girl), a kind man, and a living link to that moment that altered so much, for so many.

Anyway, here’s the dialogue in question:

NICK: David, tell them your theory.

JO: Oh, goodie—theorizing.

DAVID: Well, we were talking—on the way over—about the differences in gay behavior.

JO: There are differences?

DAVID: Not for nothing, sweetie, but some men are gay and some are—
(He stands and throws his arms up and out in a “v”)
gay!

JO: Thanks for the clarification.

NICK: I mean, you take me. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to swish—

DAVID: He tried once. At a New Year’s Eve party? Pathetic.

JO: (Singing) I can’t camp—
(SHEREE joins in)
—don’t ask me.

DAVID: Whereas I might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign. Anyway. I was thinking, about Stonewall. And as far as I can gather, that little shin-dig was thrown by a whole lotta pissed-off drag queens and effeminate Hispanic boys and oh-so-butch ladies—

NICK: Drag queens and nellies and dykes—

JO: Oh, my!

DAVID: Exactly. Has anyone ever made the connection that, the week those girls said, “Get over it, Miss Cop,” Our Lady of the Rainbow had just doffed her ruby slippers for the last time?

NICK: Isn’t it funny to think that Judy Garland just might be the unofficial mother of the whole modern gay rights movement?

SHEREE: Hysterical. Does that make Liza Minnelli the step-mother?

JO: Please.

NICK: You have to admit, if you take anger, frustration and high temperatures and compound them with grief, you’ve got one very volatile combination.

DAVID: So, the next time some slab of overfed gay beef gives me shit for camping, I’m just going to sing him a few bars of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.”

Text copyright 2016, by Scott Ross

And then you destroy yourself: Nixon resigns, +40

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Note: This summer marks year 44

By Scott Ross

I did not start out a Nixon-hater. But as familiarity breeds contempt, the more you know about Richard Milhous Nixon, the more there is to loathe.

Admittedly, I was too young to fully comprehend the man his growing legion of enemies were wont to call “Tricky Dick” (or, to save time, as Philip Roth discovered, just plain “Tricky”) during his Presidency, and certainly prior to it. As a politically naïve pre-adolescent I had even, in sixth grade, been tasked with presenting Nixon’s candidacy in the best possible light for our classroom debate. Diligent if not exactly percipient, I attacked the project with limited gusto, which largely meant committing to memory as much of the President’s numerous campaign brochures — including the flyer that, infamously, depicted him walking the beach at San Clemente in his suit and tie; I wish I’d saved that one—as I could cram into my head and regurgitating it during the event. I threw in some jowl-wagging and Tricky’s patented “Vee” sign for good measure, along with a direct steal from Dickie Goodman’s then-current, now-forgotten, comedy 45, “Convention ’72”: Asked what I thought of my opponent, I intoned, “Well, as the song says, I don’t know how to love him.” It brought down the house.

Interestingly, the opposing statement by the boy who had been assigned McGovern seems, in retrospect, unconsciously yet almost eerily to parallel the actual candidate’s entire run. He trotted out a few, largely negative, comments, refuting me, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. And in our class, as indeed throughout the school itself, Nixon’s win in the eventual polling was predictive; it was a slaughter.

I did become aware, from late 1972 on, of a thing called Watergate. As 1973 began and the re-election landslide receded I, like the rest of the country, heard more and more about the scandal, even as I understood less and less. And as with so many Americans of the time, the thing began to pall; would it never end? The revelations, the testimony, the hearings, the court decisions… for a largely ignorant — or at least, politically uninformed — adolescent, the weekly parade of Time magazines that littered my 7th grade social studies teacher’s back wall cabinets and whose covers were a seemingly limitless recitation of this or that aspect either of Watergate or of the President himself (those steely, unknowable eyes… that determined grimace… those unmistakable jowls) began to take on the aspect of a fad that had long since reached its zenith but that kept on going, replicating itself ad infinitum.

The headline in the Raleigh paper, which I now wish I'd saved.

The headline in the Raleigh paper, which I now wish I’d saved.

The end, when finally it came, felt almost anti-climactic. Even intrusive, as Nixon’s resignation interrupted my family’s annual August trek to the coast that summer. I vividly recall watching the speech on the hotel room television, but the emotional component, for me, was nearly nil. Yet even I (later, whenever the subject came up) found myself parroting my parents’ cries of, “Why can’t they leave the poor man alone?” Archie Bunker was alive and well and living in suburbia. And then like so many Americans, I tried my damnedest to forget.

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Nixon and HUAC investigator Robert Stripling pretend to pore intently over the contents of a rancid pumpkin.

Only as I became more interested in recent history, around the age of 15 or 16, did I begin to put together Nixon’s personal and political biography, and to be appalled at the absolute shoddiness of it. Watergate was as nothing, I slowly recognized, when compared to the squalid, reeking “accomplishments” of this professional serial criminal. From his earliest campaigns onward, the rehearsal of sleazy lies about his opponents (“Even Helen Gahagan Douglas’ panties are Red!”), the hitching of his political wagon to the comet-trains of the rankest anti-democracy fascists (J. Parnell Thomas, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn), the infamous “Checkers” speech (Pat looking to the middle distance, fervently wishing she was anywhere else) … the petulant, premature farewell (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore…”)

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Why, as Esquire used to ask, repeatedly, was this man laughing?

This was the True Nixon. The New Nixon was the Old Nixon, re-packaged, re-branded, and rotten to its core. (As a well-known American magazine used, repeatedly, to ask, “Why is this man laughing?”) And the rot would spread. My, how it would spread!

The uni-ndicted war criminal outlines the "Menu" for Cambodia.

The un-indicted war criminal outlines his “Menu” for Cambodia.

The self-described “Peacemaker” who would end the Viet Nam conflict, spouting his catch-phrase “Peace with honor… Peace with honor…” like a berserk mynah bird, on attaining the White House in 1968 instead deliberately ratcheted it up. Yet all of this, and most of what followed, was as nothing compared to what this man, aided — if not indeed cattle-prodded — by his self-adoring, overweening NSA Advisor, Henry Kissinger, would unleash in the first Nixon Administration: Nothing less than the achievement of instigating the worst genocidal madness of the post-war era. Under the nauseating, and cynical, rubric “Operation Menu,” Nixon and his happy war-mongers (a brace of whom would resurface 20 years later to present the world with “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the gift that keeps on taking) invaded, and bombed, a sovereign, neutral nation, with such ferocity that, ultimately, the mad Cambodian revolutionary Pol Pot would become completely un-hinged, brutally murdering fully one-quarter of his own countrymen and women. It is an atrocity that stands un-rivaled since the Holocaust, and one wholly, obscenely, un-punished.

"John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard." (Wikipedia caption.)

“John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard.” (Wikipedia caption.)

What many of us forget, or never understood, was that the massacre of four students at Kent State in May, 1970, was an equally direct result of the then-secret Cambodian bombings. And most of them were not even protesting that evil event, merely standing in a parking area where the Ohio National Guardsmen had just told them to assemble, when they were cold-bloodedly murdered, by trigger-happy paramilitary thugs, none of whom was ever convicted. (One of the nine wounded, Dean R. Kahle, was paralyzed from the chest down.) Tricky, of course, instantly sprang to what passed for life, inveighing against the kids and warming to his perennial theme of “Us” (the illogically-named “Silent Majority”) against “Them” (dirty, foul-mouthed, violent, privileged, ungrateful little snots who got what they asked for.) In this parade of related obscenities, Nixon’s response to Kent State, via his speechwriter Ray Price, locating sympathy only for the Guardsmen (“a bunch of scared kids with guns”), rises to the top of the stinking heap.

Rosemary Woods, demonstrating (at White House insistence) how she might have erased five minutes of a certain Oval Office tape. (cf Robert Klein's imagined interview in which the President's secretary admits to a circus family background as one of "The Flying Woods.")

Rosemary Woods, demonstrating (at White House insistence) how she might have erased five minutes of a certain Oval Office tape. (cf Robert Klein’s imagined interview in which the President’s secretary admits to a circus family background as one of “The Flying Woods.”

Nixon is recorded — in Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, among other sources — as expressing complete dismay that what he deemed “a third-rate burglary” could take down a President. The break-in itself, whose locale — the Watergate Complex — inadvertently, and tiresomely, gave us a new suffix, instantly appended to all political (and even some religious) scandals, was indeed a paltry affair, engineered, with almost hilarious incompetence, by that functioning nut-case Gordon Liddy. But ’twasn’t Beauty killed the Beast this time; it was the President’s own paranoia, his form-fitted suit of impregnable personal armor and his pathological inability to tell the truth when a lie would serve. Another President, Harry S (for nothing, as Gore Vidal used, gleefully, to note) Truman, famously said of his successor, “Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.” And, as Jonathan Schell observed in his staggeringly apt treatise on the Nixon years, The Time of Illusion, by the end the man’s infamous enemies list had grown to include the entirety of the American electorate. Even without the much-speculated-upon eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in those foolishly vouchsafed reel-to-reel wonders, the evidence was there, plain and unequivocal, if to everyone else except Richard (“When the President does it, that means it is not illegal”) Nixon.

The infamous "I am not a crook" press conference of November, 1973.

The infamous “I am not a crook” press conference of November, 1973.

Senator John Stennis, of the hilariously-conceived "Stennis Compromise."*

Senator John Stennis, of the hilariously-conceived “Stennis Compromise.”*

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Conrad’s brilliant cartoon sums up everything about Nixon and his self-destroying approach to Watergate.

And he nearly got away with all of it, this lawyer who precipitated the gravest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War (and before the Presidential Selection of 2000.) Thanks almost entirely to the instincts, courage and dogged perseverance of “Woodstein” and the Washington Post, even “Tricky Dick” could not escape, if not the criminal court, the judgment of his peers, and of history. Even as he labored without surcease throughout the remainder of his mean, petty, resolutely un-comprehending life to re-position himself to the nation he betrayed so cynically, callously and, it would appear, reflexively, as a vaunted eminence gris, an elder statesman of incomparable worth, and even as those efforts began, against all odds and sanity, to bear fruit… Even as, now, many Americans seem willing, on the one hand, to shrug and forgive and on, the other, to cheer and encase in nostalgic amber… Despite the Fordian pardon… Despite the annual release of yet more (and more ugly, and incriminating) tapes and transcripts… Despite it all… History still accords Richard Milhous Nixon his most fitting legacy: The only sitting President in the history of the Republic to resign the office. The Nixon Library can perform its white-wash, right-wing bloviators near and far can proclaim his nobility, and his greatness. But the facts remain. In spite of all that effort on his behalf, and the complicity of an ever-shrinking national memory, that shameful, and wholly deserved, footnote, will remain, forever attached to the man, and to his Presidency. Nothing so became his office as the leaving of it.

Astonishingly, at his televised farewell to the White House staff, Richard Nixon did, in a jaw-dropping display of seemingly unconscious self-assessment, reveal more than he knew when he advised his loyalists. (This was above and beyond the tired invocation of his father’s lemon ranch and the singularly telling re-statement, “My mother was a saint.” Kissinger observed of Nixon, “Can you imagine what he could have been if he had ever been loved?” Can you further imagine what being that woman’s child did to the boy Nixon was?) His advice to the troops? “Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” Scant wonder, then, that some regard RMN as the most Shakespearean of Presidents: Richard III, invariably, telling us the truth about himself even as he obfuscates to everyone around him. But as Shakespeare, through the mouth of another political dissembler noted, the evil that men do live after them.

To evoke Santayana is by now both wearying, and a little suspect, particularly since so few ever heed his warning. Let’s say instead, “Long live the memory of that evil.” Or should I, in deference to Nixon’s long and nearly peerless, putrid history, amend that to “those evils”?


*Robert Klein: “The Court can’t hear the tapes, the people can’t hear the tapes, the Congress can’t hear the tapes, the judge can’t hear the tapes… But John Stennis can hear the tapes! He’s got the perfect credentials; he’s a 73-year old Senator from Mississippi. He’s just spent six months in a hospital, a veritable Rip Van Winkle… He can’t hear the dinner bell!… The black servants in his house do bits: ‘Hey, Senator Stennis, you can’t hear shit!‘ Perfect man to hear the tapes… Why couldn’t the tapes record that, when President Nixon said to Alexander Haig, ‘Al, get me a deaf senator, I’ll do the rest!'” (From “Wallowing in Watergate” on the Mind Over Matter LP.)

All other text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Why CAN’T Johnny (and Janie) Write… STILL?

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Note: A couple of nights ago I saw a chilling bit of video in which high school students confess they know nothing about American civics. That’s frightening enough. To add a little frisson of horror, one of them pronounced the word “Senate” as Senay.” Draw your own conclusions.

By Scott Ross

The notion, idealistic if not indeed romantic, that education (or at least, access to it) implied literacy was snuffed out in me at 24. During my visit to a very ivy college in Vermont, and picking up a copy of the campus paper, I was appalled by the sub-literacy of the reporters. My subsequent (and brief) tenure as a student at Middlebury rammed home the realization that even being the wealthiest of scions, and graduates of elite Eastern prep schools, did not guarantee literacy. My Freshman Writing professor was even driven, late in the semester, to spend an entire class period going over what I considered the basic, fundamental grammatical elements of composition. Although I had been making freelance money as a published writer for some time, I was not rendered smug by this revelation, that the tony graduates of even tonier Establishment schools, enrolled at a more or less exclusive secondary institution, simply could not write their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag. Could not cobble together the most elemental components of a coherent, thoughtful sentence (let alone paragraph.) Could not write, as our British cousins say, for toffee.

I’m not referring here to writing which is trite, or insipid, in content. I mean the sheer inability by the writer to structure a basic phrase that reads with fluidity and sense. And what really disturbs me is that the careless habits of my own epoch seem to replicate, to expand, to become ever more jaw-droppingly insensate with each each succeeding generation. Not only does there seem no immediate remedy, there seems no hope.

When listening to music at work I am subject to my PC’s Windows Media player. Since most of the discs I bring to the office from my personal collection are film soundtracks, I often have recourse to search the Microsoft “Find album information” application and, just as often, to enter the track listings myself. (Bear with me; I promise this digression has a point.) As I bring only the CD itself to work with me and not the jewel box and inserts, I am usually unable to reconstruct the titles without doing a Google search for the disc, often a specialty-house, limited edition recording. This morning, for instance, I was looking for the titles that make up Jerry Fielding’s score for the bad remake of The Big Sleep. One source listed them thus:

1. Main Title 3:29
2 Meet General Sternwood / Chasing Smut 2:49
3 Marlowe Tails Geiger / The Head Shot 4:27
4 Blood Stains / Owen Taylor / Follow That Van 3:04
5 First Mars, Then Brody / Brody’s Story 2:00
6 Brody Takes A Bullet / Where Is It / Tailing Marlowe 2:22
7 Shadow On The Wall 0:51
8 Late Night 0:45
9 The Man With The Gray Car / Here’s To The Truth, Harry 1:47
10 Agnes’ Story / Hunts Garage / Just Fix The Flats 2:27
11 Cuffs And Guns / The End Of Canino 3:12
12 The Good Guy Never Gets The Girl / Marlowe To Sternwood 0:53
13 The Truth 1:28
14 Blanks / The Last Of Rusty Regan 2:24
15 End Title

The results for Fielding’s The Nightcomers were even worse:

1 1M1 Main Title 2:45
2 1M2 The Smoking Frog 2:08
3 2M2 Bedtime At Blye House 3:03
4 3M1 New Clothes For Quint 0:36
5 3M2 The Children’s Hour 1:22
6 3M3 Pas De Deux 1:26
7 3M4A Like A Chicken On A Spit 0:57
8 4M1 All That Pain 0:59
9 5M1/6M1 Summer Rowing 2:04
10 6M2 Quint Has A Kite 1:01
11 6M3 Act Two Prelude: Myles In The Air 0:55
12 6M4 Upside Down Turtle 1:36
13 7M1 An Arrow For Mrs. Grose 0:32
14 7M2 Flora And Miss Jessel 1:12
15 7M4 Tea In The Tree 1:02
16 7M5 The Flower Bath 2:22
17 8M1 Pig Sty 1:38
18 9M1 Moving Day 0:55
19 9M2 The Big Swim 3:32
20 9M4/10M1 Through The Looking Glass 2:42
21 10M2 Burning Dolls 2:07
22 10M3/10M4 Exit Peter Quint, Enter The New Governess; Recapitulation And Postlude 2:01

Do you notice anything?

If you don’t, I’m sorry to tell you that you, my dear, are part of the problem.

So is the WordPress spelling checker, which doesn’t notice the plethora of needless, and utterly mind-numbing, capitalizations of connective and modifying words that any reasonably well educated user of English understands implicitly are, even in a title, written in the lower case.  “Where Is It”: Aside from having no punctuation mark, the two upper case “I”s are unnecessary. Ditto the capital “O” in the “on” and “T” in the “the” of “Shadow On The Wall”… Both “with” and “the” in the first phrase and “to” and “the” in the second in “The Man With The Gray Car / Here’s To The Truth, Harry.” The “the” in “Just Fix The Flats.” The “and” and the “of” in “Cuffs And Guns / The End Of Canino”… and on and on and on throughout both sets of (or should I say “Both Sets Of”?) track listings. After scanning the first few such barbarisms the eye begins to glaze, the mind to becloud. Even song, or music cue, titles cannot be capitalized willy-nilly and without recourse to proper usage. Somewhere, I like to think, the shade of the very intelligent Jerry Fielding is shaking his head in disgust.

Yet a worse thought obtrudes: Was the composer himself responsible for this? Since a) these things show up regularly, on every music website, regardless of the composer whose work is listed; and that b) one never used to see these errors on the old soundtrack LPs,  I rather think Fielding — and Bernstein, and North, and Williams, and Barry et al. — are off the hook.

Never mind for the moment that, on the evidence of one’s emails and even a casual glance at social media commentary, spelling is at an all-time nadir and correct punctuation has gone the way of the dodo even in the so-called papers of record… particularly regarding the possessive; even the New York Times prints “CD’s” when what surely is meant is “CDs.” Unless the unspecified item in question belongs to Charles Dance, Cecil DeMille or (who knows?) Claude Dukenfield. For these and other careless, mindless errors I now see no remedy short of enforced mass re-education, compulsory brain-washing or, perhaps, in the most intractable cases, cerebral surgery. But whence this weird, manic, almost obsessive, adherence to (if I may be permitted the use of a phrase most often seen in an economic context) over-capitalization? Is it total ignorance? Guess-work? Or worse, the complete conviction of the “writer” that he or she is on the side of the linguistic angels? Surely it didn’t come from the physical evidence around them; even the splashiest picture-storybooks for children usually get this right. Or at least, they did when I was a child.

Look: I am not the finest speller in the world. I routinely bottomed out of spelling bees in grammar school, and no innovation of modern technology has been of greater boon to me than SpellCheck. But if, as and when I am unsure of myself, I seek the answer. When I was in fourth grade, a representative of Funk & Wagnalls (infamous to us then as the slightly suggestive punchline of a wonky Dick Martin running-gag on Laugh-In) visited our class. This was during the Punic Age, when such sops to naked capitalism in the public schools raised no eyebrows (they should have) and were appallingly routine. In any case, and although I’ve long since divested myself of the physical talisman itself, I’ve never forgotten the little pin-back buttons the agent passed out. They read, “We never guess. We look it [not “It”] up.” F&W were appealing to us, not merely to get our parents exercised about investing in a pricey set of encyclopedias; the publisher was, however market-driven its reasons, inveigling us to check our sources. To be better than we were. The motto of my state (Esse quam vederi: “To be, rather than to seem”) builds, in a philosophical manner, on this. That of my eventual college, Hampshire, goes further: Non satis scirie. “To know is not enough.” To think you know, and to act on that misapprehension, is altogether too much, as well as too little. How much human misery might have been avoided else? Not that anyone but cranks such as myself are made miserable by poor (or non-existent) grammar. But if an error is indulged in long enough, it lodges in the popular lexicon, and becomes permanent.

That’s One Hell Of A Horror For Me To Contemplate.

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Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross