Saturday, December 22, 2012

Random Shooting

A bomb dropped on a metropolis will do a massive damage unlike a bomb dropped on a rural area; similarly, a random shooting in a vast farmland will kill perhaps one unfortunate farmer and injure a cow or two but a random shooting in a dense urban area will easily massacre a hundred citizens at once. A stringent control of firearms may not be called for in the countryside but mandatory in cities and certainly in any crowded place.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Soho Rep's Uncle Vanya

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is one of the most frequently performed   I saw two productions in 2012, two in 2010, and three more in 2003. 

The latest Uncle Vanya was the Soho Rep’s production last summer (07.29.12), the highlight of the season, based on the new vernacular translation by Annie Baker (the author of Circle Mirror Transformation. for which she received OBIE Award for Best New American Play). For older plays -- like Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw -- I am partial to the "stilted" language appropriate to the period costumes.  But in this version, the production itself, directed by Sam Gold, was consistently "naturalist" to fit the language of Baker's translation, and it was very impressive. In the tiny space, which is normally a black box, seats were arranged on two stepped rows of platform on the long sides where we sit as on the floor, nine places in each row, and  four rows of five places on the two narrow ends accommodating altogether an audience of 76.  The scene consisted of a wooden open-rafter ceiling over the central arena space, with faked skylights, a few sofas and armchairs, a little table with a samovar, then a large sign over one narrow side saying Uncle Vanya in Cyrillic alphabet ДЯДЯ ВАНЯ.  These two scene components together with the Russian addresses (like Ivan Petrovich and Sofia Alexandrovna) and the Russian folk song by a guitarist during the scene changes created effectively the Russian atmosphere; the costume is contemporary as is the acting style in conformity with the very vernacular speech. The effect is that the audience is made to feel like casual guests to the household where a family drama is enacted; it's like being in the home of a distant relative populated with family members and their friends and neighbors, coming and going, and you are sort of watching the goings-on from the periphery.  The characters talking as they exited to the corners of the arena really sounded like they were heard speaking from another room.  In the second half, Act III and IV, the samovar and most of the furniture were removed, and the characters often sat on the floor like the audience themselves. In short, it was lifelike in the feel of immediacy, the opposite of being stagey; and all the actors were wonderful performers, truly responding to each other rather than from a scripted speech.  

Earlier in the same week (07.26.12), I went to see Uncle Vanya in the production of the Sydney Theatre Company, featuring Cate Blanchett.  Ben Brantley of New York Times, evidently madly in love with Blanchett, extolled the work as striking a difficult balance between tragedy and comedy.  She was no doubt delightful. But she overacted and thus drew too much attention to herself, often with uncalled-for laugh gags, evidently the choice of Andrew Upton, the co-director and her husband. Chekhov, to be sure, called his earlier play The Wood Goblin a comedy, of which Uncle Vanya was a later elaboration, as he did Ivanov and The Cherry Orchard, but  the subtitle he gave Uncle Vanya was Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts, adopted from Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. The play, so overwrought, becomes too consciously a performance for the audience.  For the intimate scene at the end of Act II between Yelena and Sofia/Sonya, in the Sydney production, for example, they inconsiderately romp around having a pillow fight; in the Soho Rep, production, they sit close to each other cross-legged under a dimmed light and giggle and cry like two teenage girls in a bedroom but quietly so as not to disturb the professor, very touchingly and appropriately since, when they are prompted to dance together, Sofia goes out to ask him if it is all right to play the piano and comes back to report that he said no.

Lev Dodin’s Uncle Vanya in Russian, performed at BAM in 2010 (04.10) by his Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, was intensely theatrical with the title role assertively acted by Sergey Kuryshev as also characterized by the three huge haystacks in the set, oppressive and yet assuring.  It was impressive most of all in the tight ensemble playing achieved, as is well known, in the extensive rehearsal in which actors are said to learn all the roles (within the gender line) so that each actor knew in performance all others in their roles intimately and empathetically.  This perhaps accounted for the remarkably rich expression of intermingled frustration, anger, sympathy, compassion, hope, and resignation, not simply melancholy.   I found the intimate scene of Elena/Yelena and Sonya very moving; I found certain deliberate emblematic details, like Professor Serebryakov’s galoshes in full view of all, expressive of his authority and dominance over the family even in absentia. Acting was so precise, in fact, that (knowing the play well enough in advance, of course) we could see what was going on and almost understand what was being said without reading the subtitle (as was the case, too, in their Three Sisters last April).  It was very Russian, and memorable.

The merit of Boomerang Theatre’s Uncle Vanya, seen later in the same year (10.10.10), was clarity rather than depth, competently performed by eager actors, enjoyable as an exercise for the audience to get acquainted with the play for the first time or for going over it as a review. 

David Mamet’s 1991 PBS version on PBS, which I saw on tape early in 2003 (02.04) was, not surprisingly, more Mamet than Chekhov, with an uneven cast and haphazard acting, with Ian Holm’s Dr. Astrov the only vaguely remembered element in the production. It lacked humor and hence Chekhovian irony.  Three weeks earlier (01.13.03) there was also a production by the now defunct Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater, which made the satire more fully into a comedy with a sudden turn to tragedy near the end.  Between these two (01.28.03), I was at BAM when London’s Donmar Warehouse performed their Uncle Vanya in Brian Friel’s new translation, directed by Sam Mendes (in repertory with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). It boasted a simple but effective set and a stellar casting -- Simon Russell Beale (Vanya), Emily Watson (Sonya), Helen McCrory (Yelena), and Mark Strong (Astrov); acting was good.  Still, there was something in Mendes’ direction that left me unconvinced.  It lacked the cohesiveness that made the Soho Rep’s production so satisfying, despite the discomfort of sitting crosslegged for two hours, and so vividly memorable.

Violent Society

A society that celebrates violence cannot escape being a violent society, and it is doomed to remain violent with no escape from violent actions since it is incapable of censuring them.  It is not enough to tolerate violence to create a peaceable society; it must actively condemn it.  The recent mass massacre in a Connecticut school, a rerun of the Columbine massacre, makes it patent that the problem lies in our society’s underlying violence.

Psychologically unstable individuals existed everywhere at all times and always do, and one way or another, one time or another, they work havoc; there is no way preventing it, no way even predicting it.  But before the age of fire arms, the damage was small. A gun can slaughter many in a single action.  Gun control, even if less aimlessly debated than heretofore, is no solution. Guns are already widely spread among the citizens; there are too many supporters of gun sales; and restricting sales and possessions will only promote undercover gun trade.  The proposal to arm school principals and teachers is insane; the proposal to man school yards with police is absurd.  Improving mental health care is no guarantee that potential malefactor can be so easily identified in advance of acting out their violent fantasies. 

It is essential that the society realizes that children taught that the show of physical strength -- in the form of hitting and clobbering -- is bravery as a way of solving a conflict or of defending one’s right grow into adults with a penchant for destruction of property and lives as a means of resolving anger, general or targeted.  Teaching children to manage anger without violence early in life is of utmost importance; and yet they are today given, if not toy guns, full exposure to fashionable movies and video games which inculcate in them the excitement of vicarious shooting and killing.  It is sad that politicians are virtually silent on this obvious fact; it is deplorable that the media is failing to address this point.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


I say humbly that everything I do is amateurish, even in my professional pursuits, but I take the liberty of understanding the term amateur in its literal but also true sense as it was adopted in 18th century England, together with its Italian counterpart dilettante, referring to a person who is truly, thoroughly, and totally in love with whatever is the object of her or his pursuit.  In this sense, I am a proud dilettante, humbly.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Soho Rep Proudly Presents. . .

The Soho Rep’s latest presentation carries a memorably ridiculous title: We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915. The play concerns the genocide of a Bantu tribe early in the 20th century. Meta-theater in itself is not a new idea; but the playwright, Jackie Sibblies Drury, setting up the event as a rehearsal in search of the characters. The play opens with the announcement of the play’s subject and the unnamed characters. Then, the development from the playfully awkward first scenes to the culminating drama of high emotion. in which the rehearsing actors find themselves intractably enmeshed in, was ingenious, powerful, and totally engaging. The audience seated on folding chairs closing in on the action is forcibly drawn into experiencing the actor’s emotions. No less than the playwright, the director Eric Ting’s craft, especially in the use of the pauses and declamations was truly admirable as was the work of the lighting and sound designers.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Quotes about me

If I am asked to describe myself, I will provide these three quotes:

1) “Mattina   
         I am filled
         with immense light.)
                 -- Giuseppe Ungaretti
Every morning, rain or shine, I meet a glorious new day with infinite possibilities.
2) “If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.”
                  -- John Cage
It is my firm belief that we find beauty everywhere, even where we least expect to find it, and it is a great joy when we find it.

3) “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”
            -- Heraclitus

This statement, which I discovered in my first year in college, stayed with me all my life for its insight into the constancy of nature’s caprice and the infinite variety underlying the simpler order of things, like that of the individual leaves of a foliage.  Kamo no Chômei opens his essay, An Account of my Hut, with a line that expresses the same thought but more literally: “The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

Met's new Un Ballo in Maschera

The opera was sung beautifully by a super cast -- dramatic Radvanovsky as Amelia, thoughtful Hvorostovsky as Renato, weighty Alvarez as the king Riccardo, and sprighlty Kathleen Kim as Oscar, thoroughly Verdian; but David Alden's updating was silly with a sterile abstract set offset by a mural-size Rubenesque Fall of Icarus -- all quite pointless -- and a comical costuming and choreography to boot.The painting is splendid, nonetheless.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mirror magic

We all look in the mirror every day and believe that we are looking at ourselves.  But the face I see in the mirror is in reverse and half in size; so, it is not the same face that others see when they see me.  With a second mirror we can reverse the reverse image but it is then reduced to a half again.  Alas, we can never know how we look to others who see us. Photographs shot by another?  Photographs lie.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I describe myself as a scholaholic, and that is what I am, and, if it is an ailment, I suffer it willingly and contentedly. 

Scolari in Italian refer to school children, pupils.  Older pupils are studenti. Grown-ups who study to learn and learn to study whatever subject professionally are called studiosi in Italian. 

The word “scholar” in English is, indeed, double-edged; it may designate a student or a recipient of a scholarship on the one hand, and a learned person, on the other, who exhibit eminent scholarship in the tradition of medieval scholastics,.  So, as a child I was a scholarly scholar, earned scholarship as well as scholarships in higher education, and made a career more or less as a scholarly scholar.  In fact, being a scholar requires an insistent pursuit of a particular subject with an indomitable curiosity that is not uncommon in a child. 

In the course of my life I thus became addicted to scholarship and found myself an incurable scholaholic.  Whatever the subject, if I am interested, I cannot help digging in deep to excavate and investigate. It started in my childhood and never ceased to this day.  It is a lifelong habit. 

I became keenly aware of this fact in the decade since my retirement.  Once a scholar, always a scholar, as is said of priesthood.  Being a scholaholic is a habit, not too different, really, from the kind worn by nuns and monks.  It is a child’s habit, essentially childish, and I realized that even at an old age I love dressing like a school girl, as I habitually do: a frilly blouse, a short pleated skirt, leggings, and Mary Janes.

Waxing waistline, mine

I found with horror that my waistline was waxing fast.  As I was getting ready to go out to the opera not long ago, I put on a nice grayish ankle length skirt to match the blouse and it didn’t fit.  I tried to pull up the zipper by holding the breath to depress the stomach as best as I could but it was in vain; my waistline was almost two inches in excess of the skirt’s waistband. I pulled out another suitable maxi; and it didn’t fit either.  I tried one more, and that was no good, too.  I didn’t have any more time to waste.  So, I took off the blouse and found a loose one-piece dress to wear and went out.

All my life I was slim; in my young days I was skinny.  I am still slender except around the girth.  Three years ago, when I cleared the house in Swarthmore and moved to the apartment in New York, I had to reduce my wardrobe to a third or less. In the process I tried on all the skirts and dresses, long and short, to eliminate everything that I could not fit in.  It was, therefore, appalling to discover that any item in the closet ceased to fit after mere three years.  In fact, I could wear these skirts a year ago; I remember having worn them to the opera a season ago.  But I had no choice; there was no chance they could be altered.  I deposited them in the shopping bag of clothing for the Goodwill and wondered how many other pieces of clothing have become too small.  It was deplorable.  It was too depressing to try and find out.

My waist, of course, did wax and wane occasionally but only slightly so that it sufficed to reposition the button to extend the waistband or, once in a while, tuck it in a tiny bit with a safety pin, never more than a half inch in or out.  It was disconcerting.

A few days later, however, I had an epiphany.  If the skirt couldn’t be modified, there is an alternative.  I could modify my waist. 

I never had to watch my diet until I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 14 years ago.  I learned to cut down on sweets and starches and eat a lot of raw vegetables.  I have a feast of a small serving of ice cream no more than once or twice a year; I avoid desserts and never developed a habit for snacks between meals, or even a taste for them.  I never liked fast food; I don’t cultivate soft drinks. I never consumed a large quantity of red meat, or meat in general. Two years ago, I suffered a gastric hemorrhage, and I started to abstain from the wine at the table. I do some exercises every morning -- twenty times each of stand-on-your-toes-and-stretch, touch-your-toes, and raise-your-arms with feet apart.  I walk up and down three flight of stairs for my apartment except when I have both hands full of grocery and other stuff.  Living in New York, I get plenty of stair exercises almost every day, going up and down the subway stations. So, what else can I cut out?

I found plenty.  I could, first of all, stop having a midnight snack before going to bed, which I got into the habit of having, feeling I needed it since my bedtime was normally between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m.  I used to have cookies with tea (decaf since last year) and kept a supply of cookies though I had only a few each time; or else I had crackers with peanut butter or cheese, or assorted nuts. I could start cultivating crudités -- carrots, celery, and broccoli, if I had to have a snack.  I could also stop having, except sporadically, bagels, Danish pastries, muffins, and croissants, and yes, pizza, too; I never liked doughnuts much anyway.  I have pasta once a week at most but I could reduce the serving size.  I shall climb the apartment stairs unless I am carrying a load almost too heavy to lift.  I got started on this regimen five days ago; and I already feel a difference. I could do some more exercises specifically designed to reduce the waist. 

Dieting prompted me to get a bathroom scale, and got a digital one.  It arrived yesterday, and promptly I weighed myself.  I weighed only 116.6 pounds, naked, this morning.  So, I’m not fat -- no old age spread.  It’s just the waistline that has been waxing and it needs to be willing to wane. I’m keeping the tight skirts too tight to wear.


PS. Controlling the midnight snack or skipping it, I was successful in reducing the weight down to 114.6 in two weeks.  Four weeks after that, I was down to 112.2, and the waist measured three inches less.  Pasta, I learned, can add a pound quickly.  Mid-January, I was up to 114.6, again.  Weighing every morning and observing my diet, I discovered that weight and waist are not exactly correlated.  Deep-breathing exercise has kept the waistline trim, and I am again wearing those skirts I could not fit in two months ago.

PPS. Writing in May, I record that the waistline discipline has been successful beyond expectation.  By mid-February, I was down to 110.2 pounds; from late March through April, I went further down to 107, and into May I weighed in the 105 range.  For a woman 5’4” high, even with light bones, this weight is perhaps too low; I could perhaps readjust my diet.  The good news is that my waistline has gone down four inches; it is now 28 inches, and good many skirts got too loose and I had to move the buttons.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wise fool

The price of being intelligent is the pain of living among fools; the reward of being a fool is the pleasure of continuously learning from others.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pina's Swan Song

Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal came to BAM in mid-October to perform her final work three years after her passing in 2009. I know her at least three later works by this doyenne of the dance world since 1973, all very memorable: Für die Kinder von gestern, heute, und morgen, 2002 (BAM 2004), Nefés, 2003 (BAM 2006), and Vollmond (Full Moon), 2006 (BAM 2010).  The latest, awkwardly titled “. . .como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si. . . (like moss on a stone)” certainly does not measure up to them.  On 12 June, it had its premiere in Germany, five days after she was diagnosed with cancer, which took her life three weeks later on 30 June. This circumstance may explain the lack of dynamic energy, at times almost fearful, that we find in her major works.  Like her other works, the work is shaped like a vaudeville show, dance pieces alternating with laughter-provoking skits, literally a combination of “Tanz” and “Theater” in the name of the company.  The absence of a narrative arc, without noticeably strong pieces in the middle to engage the audience, necessarily gives the impression that the work is a bit repetitive and flat and too long. But in the often surrealistic skits, like the first scene in which a woman on all fours is lifted stiff like a table by male dancers as she yelps like a dog, and, even more, in the lively choreography, we find Pina’s hallmark, which I enjoyed not just nostalgically but in itself.  Female dancers wore familiar elegant evening dresses of vibrant colors, down to the ankles, and they dashed and leapt, their long luxuriant hair, now flying away every whichever way, now twisted and tangled around with fingers, with such exuberance as no dancers elsewhere ever match in doing, and their ensemble movements dazzle us in speed and complexity.  They are mesmerizing.  The piece ended by repeating some scenes that opened it, as though it ran out of breath as of ideas.  Melancholy pervaded as it closed not with a bang but a whimper. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fun Home, the Musical

The Public Theatre put on stage Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic as one of its Public Lab program.  I saw it this afternoon, the last day of its run, and was duly impressed, though it received no critical attention in the New York press. Before going, I was doubtful of its success; I couldn’t imagine how this intellectually intricate memoir could be staged.  The author explores her quest to come to terms with her father’s life and death and records it in sophisticated and richly detailed drawings combined with thought-provoking prose and learned literary allusions.  Inevitably, the staged version was an abridged edition; still the main themes of the book were effectively captured in the adaptation.  Lisa Kron, author of and one of the Five Lesbian Brothers, whose I saw in 2005, wrote the lyric, and the talented musician, Jeanine Tesori, composed the music.  A cast of nine sang and acted on the piano accompaniment; Sam Gold directed it with a sure hand.  The musical format, in fact, made it possible for the stage version to intersect the past and the present, as in the book.  On one side of the stage was the table at which Bechdel was at work drawing, and on the other a versatile interior of the Funeral Home, where past events were enacted with Alison now as a young girl and now as a teenager.  The production used projections, some of Alison's childish drawings as well as some from the book.  The actors in the role of Bruce and Helen, Alison's parents, as well as Alison herself, not only were excellent; they looked amazingly like them as we know them from the book, as did the baby sitter Roy.  A child actor Sydney Lucas as Small Alison was sprightly and confident in her acting no less than in her singing. The music was expressive; the songs dramatic.  Obviously, Bechdel's memoir can not be condensed into a two-hour musical; the texture of details was lost and missed.  But the artist-author’s memory salvaged in momentous fragments and joined in staggered time sequence is fully recreated and very memorably. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Rhinoceros from Paris

Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist satire, Rhinocéros, is a play deeply imprinted in my mind because the power of the demagogue to persuade the populace and change the political climate of a society that the play demonstrates is all too real to me who grew up in wartime Japan.  When I read it, I was totally convinced of its allusion to Nazism though it was written in 1959, long after its spread in Europe.  I also found the play visually concrete though it is heavily verbal in writing and for this reason chillingly vivid in my memory that I was convinced I had seen it produced on stage sometime somewhere. But I could not find it in my record, TheatreLog.  So, the production of Rhinoceros by Le théâtre de la Ville from Paris, performed at BAM early in October, was new to me, and it struck me as a lively show, more a spectacle than a literary drama, in the hands of the director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota,  Throughout the play, Ionesco’s characteristic verbal acrobatics was noticeably played down, perhaps wisely to make it easier for the audience to capture the sense.  In the scene of the town square in Act I, the web of overlapping repetitive dialogues were markedly edited down, especially the exhilarating parroting of the lines in two simultaneously delivered conversations.  Then, for the turmoil of the townspeople at the approaching roar of a stampede off-stage the chorus of haphazard exclamations is replaced more summarily by the crowd’s collective surge from one end of the stage to the other, beautifully choreographed  for sure and visually effective.  In Act II, the visual corollary of the vertiginously confused arguments is overwrought in the partial collapse of the scaffolded office set that seem to fling the office workers metaphorically off onto the herd of rhinoceroses.  The menacing masks of the animals that line up behind the actors in Act III, again threatening as a spectacle, make Ionesco’s metaphysics a bit too melodramatic.  All the actors were very good but Serge Maggiani was superb in portraying Bérenger both in manipulating his body and and his lines, so that the prelude, added by the director, in front of a scrim downstage where he speaks a monologue about his innate defeatism was perhaps redundant.  Hugues Quester as Jean, also good, was a bit too much of a bully but perhaps appropriately since he is the first to become a rhinoceros.  The rare occasion of hearing French beautifully spoken on stage was a special pleasure.

The Tempest not so Tempestuous

The opera The Tempest by Thomas Adès, first performed in 2004 in London and now at the Met, was boring and disappointing, or, to put it mildly, unappealing to my taste.  I didn’t think there was much of Shakespeare’s drama in it.  First of all, the Bard’s lines were almost totally lost in the librettist Meredith Oakes rewriting, supposedly for improving them for easier singing. But, then, more seriously, the words sung could hardly be heard, the music, itself eclectic with little character of its own, failed or made no effort to support the words and capture the unique cadence of the English language, what Henry Purcell 300 years ago and Benjamin Britten more recently excelled in, granted that in the case of Ariel, Audry Luna’s high-pitched coloratura, if one can call it that, the inaudibility of words made some sense.  Most outrageously, however, Robert Lepage, an eager beaver for a novelty at any cost, made Prospero into an impresario of the mockup Scala, a conceit hard to imagine more conceited. There were some fine moments, as any less successful work is privileged to have.  The opening scene of the storm at sea, a projection of waves on a sheet with slits to accommodate bobbing figures, with a stormy dissonant music on the orchestra, was very effective.  The duet of Miranda and Ferdinand at the end of Act II was full of lyricism, though the backdrop of the sunset beyond the calm sea toward which the couple walk away, was a cheap Hollywood scene.  Simon Keenlyside, as expected, sang beautifully throughout; and Alan Oke’s Caliban was superb musically and theatrically. Verdi didn’t retain Shakespeare’s words because he used the libretto in Italian, and yet he captured the spirit of Shakespeare’s drama in Otello, Falstaff, and even Macbeth, and Britten illuminated the Bard’s poetry in his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  “Inspired, audacious, and personal,” wrote Anthony Tommasini; he may be right. More Adès and Lepage than Shakespeare, I’d say less than happily.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Storm Sandy's Side Show

The hurricane Sandy, dubbed Frankenstorm, weakened somewhat when it reached here in New York City last Monday.  If it brought a howling gale and driving rain, I was not aware of them as I slept through Monday night; I noticed only occasional gust of wind the next morning that only now and then shook the skinny gingko across the street from my window.  I had light; and I had water.  The residents along the water’s edge in Lower Manhattan were mandatorily evacuated, and we soon learned of the tremendous water damage in the subway system and the total power down south of 39th Street. On Sunday, anticipating Sandy’s arrival, I was imagining that Tatzu Nishi’s installation, “Discovering Columbus,” a modern living built around the statue of Columbus six stories above Columbus Circle, to which I had a timed ticket at noon on Monday, would be shaky and exciting, but, not surprisingly, the admission was promptly cancelled.  Then, musing on the plays I was booked to attend, I was amused how appropriate it was that Monday night I had Stephen Belber’s new play “Don’t Go Gentle,” which draws the title from Dylan Thomas’ familiar poem which goes: “Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave in at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  The play was cancelled and I was able to reschedule it to Saturday; so the Tuesday fare was even more fittingly “Happy with Wild” at Public Theater; but this was also eventually cancelled.  I looked forward to the opportunity Wednesday evening of hurtling myself into the raging tempest to get to Lincoln Center for the opera at the Met, which in ironic coincidence was Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, or, if the storm by then had subsided, I thought I could at least adventurously wander through the dark forest of the Central Park to Prospero’s isle since all the public transportation in the city was shut down on Sunday at 7:00 p.m.  Lady Sandy by then had come and gone, alas, and busses started running Wednesday.  By Thursday, it was clear that such musings were frivolous when we learned that the entire Lower Manhattan remained dark -- no power, no light, no phone, no radio/TV, no internet, no hot water or even cold water where the pump to send water to upper floors of high rise apartments stopped working, and no bus and no subway.  As of Friday, the power has not returned yet and the subway was only partially restored.  Living in the Upper (Far) East Side, I was fortunate.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Il Trovatore 2012

I heard Il Tovatore last night at the Mett. It delivered passion as an Italian opera, especially Verdi, always should but doesn’t.  Guanqun Yu, a Chinese soprano most of us have never heard or even heard of before, sang Leonora, and she set the tone.  From the very fist appearance in the palace garden, singing “Tacea la notte placida,” her voice rang commandingly.  It was not only beautiful in itself and beautifully modulated, but it was also deeply felt, and she got better and better, especially in duets.  The excitement was all the greater since it was a new voice.  Two male leads, Vassallo as Il Conte di Luna and Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Manrico were good too.  It is perhaps in relation to Leonora’s passion that Dolora Zajick's Azucena was somewhat toned down in the effect of horror in her recounting of the burning stake.  I recall I was more moved by Giulietta Simionato and Fiorenza Cossotto.  I hope to catch Stephanie Blythe as Azucena later in the season.  I like this David McVicar production and the set by Charles Edwards featuring over fifty steep, narrow steps along a wall.  I always worry if Ferrando will safely come down and up again.  Morris Robinson, despite his weight, made some 30 steps back up to the landing quite nimbly.  It is a versatile set that, revolving, makes different scenes.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Killing is Killing

Killing is killing, I insist.  Killing is killing -- by hand, with a weapon, or dropping bombs. Killing is killing, lawful or unlawful.  Or, is killing lawful unless it is considered unlawful?  Or, conversely, is killing unlawful except in those cases where it is sanctioned by law? 

The dictionary definition of “murder” is “unlawful killing,” which suggests that killing can be lawful in certain cases, and it is not hard to think of generally accepted instances of lawful killing: slaughter of enemies in a battlefield, execution of condemned criminals, and killing in self-defense.  Justification in these instances is a sanction set by certain human authority, and to that extent it is arbitrary; killing is lawful or unlawful depending on the rules set by human law.

The Sixth Commandment states, “Thou shalt not kill,” without fine prints. Yet Christians and Jews alike exercised killing through history as did other believers.  Biblical commentators thus debate that the commandment most likely should be understood to mean, “Thou shalt not murder.”  We are instructed that the term in the Greek text was “φονεύω/phoneuó“ which meant both “to kill” and “to murder,” and so the English translation could go either way.  The Hebrew text, we are told, also uses the word ”ratzákh/רצח” which had a broader meaning covering both “kill“ and “murder.”

Killing is deliberate when it is premeditated and malicious -- another definition of “murder.”  Is killing then justifiable unless it is deliberate and malicious?  Or are we to understand that killing is deliberate and malicious unless deemed lawfully justifiable?  We come back to the same two questions.  What constitutes the exception -- lawful killing or unlawful killing?

Lawful killing is an annoyingly slippery concept, however.  Law is not absolute.  If capital punishment is lawful, criminals are justly executed; when it is abolished, execution is no longer just.  An enemy a combatant is intent on slaying lawfully ceases to be one a moment after the truce, and then it will be unjust to kill the same individual who had been an enemy but no longer.  At the war’s end the battling foes become innocent citizens if not friends.  If a man in self-defense shoots another and kills him prematurely at the perceived threat on the understandable assumption that he will be killed if he delayed his action, is the killing justified, or is it justified only after being injured first but alive enough to act in defense as it is possible if he had been attacked by a knife, say, rather than a hand gun?  In dueling, when it was legally practiced, killing was justified in the name of honor. Is killing justified when exercised in defense of the family honor to avenge the killing suffered by a member of the family generations earlier in the hand of the killer in the rival family?  Is killing in a crime of passion ever permissible?   Killing of a human being in a ritual sacrifice was practiced in some cultures in the past.  Suicide, considered honorable in one culture, as in the ritual harakiri, is unjustifiable killing in the sense of taking a human life. As to when killing is lawful or unlawful, justifiable or unjustifiable, the distinction fluctuates.  But in one respect it is clear.

It is noteworthy that the person killed in most killings deemed justifiable is seen to be not only dangerous but despicable and therefore deserve to die.  Intruders are vile, criminals are wicked, the enemy in a combat is foul and by extension all the members of the enemy tribe or nation are considered evil even in recognition of innocence of most of them as individuals; they are only unfortunate victims even if inescapably.  “You dirty cur,” a knight shouts as he pierces his lance in the breast of his combatant.  Conquerors treat the natives of the land of their conquest as subhuman and don’t have qualms about annihilating them. Captives in a war are often treated as being less than human, enslaved or imprisoned.  In a religious war, the opponents are infidels who are morally inferior or even depraved; zealots are eager to see non-believers demolished.  So, in genocides, atrocities are committed in the belief that the victims en masse are destined to be decimated.  It requires a sense of superiority over the potential victim to be able to accomplish the slaying of another human being.  Killing easily seems justifiable when it is done to those judged to be inferior as a being.  But if we truly respect a human life, no killing is conceivably justifiable.  Killing, in whatever form, is immoral, lawful or unlawful. 

Killing seen in this light is an extension of aggression, often an escalated action done reciprocally in response to another aggression; and aggression is an exercise of power fueled by anger.  If one killing induces another in revenge, it might be said in reverse that every killing is motivated by another and therefore inevitable and to that extent justified.  But if the initial killing is damned, so are the succeeding killings it caused.  In short, anger leads to aggression, and aggression to hostility and violence; and, violence in excess results in the willful destruction of goods and lives.  

If anger is contained, there will be less killing.  Yet, in most known societies, anger sadly is condoned, if within limits, and, so, fighting in defense of one’s ground, property, and life is glorified as bravery. Those who fail or are unwilling to fight are disdained as cowards even when they refuse to fight on principle rather from the lack of physical prowess.  Boys are often taught to fight to assert themselves; they are egged on to smack, smite, slug, and strike, to knock down and win by physical force with a show of strength, that this is bravery and righteousness. Resorting to violence to resolve a conflict is seen as moral strength even though, deplorably, it can easily accelerate to killing.   So, there will be no end to killing in the human race until it learns to manage anger better and cultivate tolerance and compassion from childhood instead of show of force as a manly virtue.  But that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, and tragically killing will go on.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Red Dog Howls

The New York Theatre Workshop solicited a comment from the audience, and I wrote the following.  "I came to see Red Dog Howls last night, 26 September.  I was lured by the promise of Kathleen Chalfant's appearance, and her characterization of Rose, the hardened survivor of the Armenian Genocide, was credible, if a bit overwrought, and her histrionic climax gripping.  I am not familiar with the earlier plays by Alexander Dinelaris; but this one was rhetorically overstrained and dramatically flat like a history lecture in its effort to be political; as it often happens with a play which tries to be explicitly political the impact is doubly dissipated, dialectically and theatrically.  Plays that excite us instruct us implicitly.  The character of Michael addressing the audience aggravated this problem; and Alfredo Narciso's talent was wasted."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writing about Death

We are advised that we write, if we write, about what we know from first hand experience, even if it is a fiction that we write.  So, we write about the death of others as we observed it and wept over it and describe the sorrow we had experienced.  But of dying we can only write from imagination because we are no longer in a position to write after experiencing death first hand, with the exception of a rare instance, of course, of a person writing after having been revived from what was mistakenly taken to be death.

Beautiful things

I love beautiful things.  Who doesn’t, you might say.  I mean I really love beautiful things, inensely and passionately; they touch my soul and elate my spirit.  I not only love beautiful things but delight in discovering beauty in all kinds of things which escapes the attention of most people who miss it by failing to be more mindful of what they see and hear and feel.  I love all beautiful things --  natural and artificial; bodily and mechanical; visual, audial and tactile; culinary, sartorial, and behavioral; concrete and abstract; material and spiritual.  Call them art or non-art, beautiful things are beautiful.  John Cage, whom I esteem, said in his characteristic Zen spirit: “If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.”


Zealots sadly never realize, for the most part, that they are zealots, in the belief that they are only zealous, that is, passionate and dedicated to the cause they espouse, blind to other causes espoused by others.  If they had eyes to see them. . . buy they don’t and that’s why they are zealots.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Gift for my 80th Birthday

Anticipating my 80th birthday, which comes on 30 January 2013, I decided to celebrate it with an extravagant gift as I had never dreamed of receiving.

I taught at Swarthmore College exactly 35 years.  I started in 1966 as Assistant Professor.  I already had three-year experience teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI; but I finished my doctoral dissertation only then which I had promised in the interview in January.  I was promoted to Associate Professor two years later and to Full Professor in 1975, appointed the chair the Art Department at the same time.  In 1993 I was awarded the William R. Keenan, Jr., Professorship.  I retired in June 2001.  My career as an art historian was my tenure at Swarthmore. 

It is an overstatement to say that Swarthmore made my career, as a friend warned me.  Still, I say that Swarthmore allowed me to shape and develop my career the way I wanted, and I am deeply indebted to the institution for this reason.  I was given a free rein to teach new subjects of my own invention, like “City,” “Cinema: Form and Signification,” “Philadelphia: City and Architecture” “Hollywood 1939,” “Everyday Things,” and “Streets,” aside from the standard subjects in Art History: “Michelangelo and his Times,” Rembrandt and his Times,” “Florence,” and “Roman Heritage.”  I was trusted to organize the Department according to my design; I made Studio Arts, formerly extracurricular, into a creditable program and brought it together with Art History into one Department of Art.  

A good college prides itself on its superior faculty, and I enjoyed wonderful colleagues in all departments.  But it is the students that endow a college with distinction, and I had the fortune of having had remarkable young people in my classes.  It is my belief that there is no better way to learn a subject than teaching it, and nothing inspires me more than inquisitive and imaginative minds that challenge me hard continually.  They made my day-to-day duties a tremendous pleasure.  Moreover, many of them remained fast friends for years and decades after graduation and remain so to this day and form the circle of my best friends, near and far.  I owe Swarthmore more than a successful career and far-reaching education through teaching; so much of my happy life was nursed and nurtured by the College and its students.  This is what prompted me to make endowment donations to Swarthmore College.

Such donations are normally made after one’s demise by the bereaved -- relatives and friends -- in memory of the beloved.  I chose to give on my own while alive, not without an ulterior motive; I wanted to have a measure of control over the use of the income from the endowments to promote those areas of intellectual endeavor which represent my interests that I had held while teaching and which also represent my belief that these are the areas the College has been neglecting and/or needs strengthening or expanding.  I wanted to oversee the use of the fund as best as I can because it is my hard-earned money that I had saved by exercising frugal living through my career.  

I started with a smaller endowment of $25,000 “to support a visiting lecture or lecture series in the Mathematics and Statics department colloquium with a preference for topics in geometry, topology, and history of mathematics,” the subjects motivated by my desire to fulfill my alternative ambition for a career in mathematics which never materialized.

The second proposal was another smaller endowment of $25,000 for Silent Cinema, an important cultural artifact of ever expanding importance in scholarship, preservation and public interest; its resources are global. I wanted to support public showing of silent films, eventually the annual Silent Cinema Festival that should make Swarthmore known for it nationwide, a sequel to my pioneering effort in creating Cinema Studies.  The proposal met some resistance, however, and I agreed to expand the scope as the endowment to support “curricular, scholarly and public events that explore history of cinema, especially silent cinema, such as the annual public screening of silent films from worldwide sources, in recognition of its historical, cultural and cross-cultural importance.”

Then, for the Endowment for the List Gallery I donated $100,000 to support “a variety of educational initiatives, “ including “a student fellowship in curatorial studies, the publication of exhibition catalogs for emerging artists, on-site sculpture and installation projects, and the hiring of technical and administrative assistants.”

Finally, I contributed a $125,000 fund for Humanities Research Fellowship to support “students in the humanities by providing grants to encourage and facilitate historical research, original scholarship, and professional development, with a preference for Italian Studies, Japanese Studies, and Performing Arts.”

The approval of the donations and their documentation have now been completed, and I am ecstatically happy to have accomplished the giving, by which I am leaving behind tracks of my teaching career for decades to come in the form of a modest effort to assure the Arts and Humanities, the essential core of Liberal Arts Education, into the distant future.  For this reason I consider my Endowment program the most extravagant gift to myself in celebration of my upcoming 80th birthday.

Back in May, it occurred to me that I crossed the Atlantic 60 years ago; and coincidentally I discovered my diaries from those years which made me reflect on the extraordinary course my life had taken me through.  This, in turn, prompted me to think of my  80th birthday and the idea of making a big occasion of it with this gift.

Friday, September 7, 2012

60 Years Ago, 4 - UC Berkeley

I found another diary last week, covering my first months at UC Berkeley, jotted down in a date book with a space for two dates on each page.  The entries were therefore brief and at times fragmentary; there were days with no entry.  Late in January, I made several trips to Berkeley, and made the move on 10 February.  Prof. Schneider drove me down. 

I was received as a guest for the transition period at the home of one Mr. Long at 1195 Euclid Ave., about whom I have regrettably no memory, except that his kindness is repeatedly noted.  I was treated as a family member.  After three weeks, the University’s Bureau of Occupation found me a place for room and board in exchange for housework, and moved in on 5 March, and it was the home of the distinguished political scientist Professor Robert Scalapino (Ashby St.).  My task was nominally house cleaning, kitchen work, table setting and serving; but my diary is peppered with entries simply saying “Tired, tired, tired,” or “I’m so tired.” At the end of the semester, I applied for another place for student-work home closer, this was the home of another professor of political science, Eric Bellquist, at 2251 Hearst Ave., closer to the School of Architecture on the north side of the campus.  It was said to be largest private home in Berkeley, and the room assigned me was 11.5’ x 13.5’.  The task was considerable lighter; they had a regular house cleaner, and my task was cleaning up after breakfast and dinner, some garden work,  and babysitting for the couple’s young son.  When I first cleaned the kitchen, I washed the top of the refrigerator and Mrs. Bellquist thought I was going overboard; I remember this though the diary does not make note of the incident. The couple was warm and generous, and I was able to concentrate more on my studies.  I felt pampered.

In June I spent days looking for a summer job in an architect’s office; but with no experience I was not successful.  I had occasional odd jobs, like mowing and washing windows.  At the end of the summer, out of dire necessity, I wrote home for help, and I was sent $200 converted through a stock company with a branch in the US., this was the first and the last time I imposed on the family.  The diary ended on 17 September.

The following two summers I got a job as a counsellor at camp near Fort Ross, where I learned to ride a horse and befriended J. B. Blunk, then a ceramicist, now a sculptor.  After that I got a job drafting in an office of architects and engineers, full time during the summer and 20 hours per week during school years.  With this income and the scholarship from the University, I felt secure.  The architecture program led to the Bachelor of Architecture in five years; but after three years I changed to the old four-year program that led to A.B. in architecture in order to proceed to the Master’s degree in art history.  I completed the thesis for M.A. in January 1961 after starting the doctorate program at Harvard University.  A year later, I got a fellowship to go to Rome, where I stayed till the summer of 1963 and started teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design as an assistant professor of Art History.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Malado's Governor's Island

Malado Baldwin, Governor's Island, 2007

Last Saturday I visited Malado Baldwin’s studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, talked with this lively, articulate, and multi-talented artist, saw her numerous works, large and small, in all kinds of media, fell in love with this small painting and bought it.  The painting encapsulates the pastoral island against the Manhattan skyline, enthralling in the contrast of shapes -- geometric and woolly -- and of colors from green to pink, and charming in the clumps of trees that I read as a scrimmage of dancers with fluttering feet, which wavers and may at any moment may disperse.  It is one of the set of four shown in the New York Studio School’s 2007 Alumni Exhibition , and in my opinion the best of them.