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October 26, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....

Books: Mark Twain? Is he still dead?

A number of our regular readers attended undergraduate school at Denison University in central Ohio.  Of the many moderately famous Denison alumni is one Hal Holbrook, the actor who made his early reputation with his one-man review, Mark Twain Tonight.  I understand the piece began as a senior theater arts project Holbrook undertook at Denison.  Not much plot, but a lot of fine, cynical, funny talk - all from what Twain wrote.  And it launched Holbrook's substantial career as an actor.
Mark Twain seems to be still hanging around, if only in aphorisms.  As someone who sometimes listens to the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts from Lincoln Center, I am often reminded of what Twain said of Richard Wager - "His music is better than it sounds."  You have to smile at such things.
And Mark Twain comes up again this week in the book news with the publication of a play he wrote, long lost... and finally in print.  Well, perhaps it was not so much lost as tossed aside because it wasn't very good. 
Here are the details:

Is He Dead? : A Comedy in Three Acts; A New Play by the Master Satirist! Mark Twain; Edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin; University of California Press: 234 pages

Justin Kaplan, the fellow who wrote Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, reviews the play in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.  Kaplan doesn't like it.

Kaplan points out Twain did write for the stage: a loose dramatization of The Gilded Age  - basically a one-character show, with the popular comedian John T. Raymond as Colonel Sellers.  Kaplan says this was an immediate success that led Twain to overestimate his talent as a writer for the stage.  And "Ah Sin," a play he wrote with Bret Harte about a Chinese laundryman, drew only dwindling audiences in Washington and New York.
Curiously at the curtain call on closing night of "Ah Sin" Twain gave a speech that thanked the producer, Augustin Daly, who had edited the text of the play to tighten it up.  Twain saw where things were heading.  The more Daly had cut, Twain explained, "the better the play got. I never saw a play that was so much improved by being cut down, and I believe it would have been one of the very best plays in the world if his strength had held out so that he could cut out the whole of it."
Well this latest play was unearthed at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library, by Shelly Fisher Fishkin. 
Twain wrote "Is He Dead?" in Vienna in 1898, when he was still dealing with the death of his favorite daughter, Susy, and working his way out of bankruptcy.  Farce and satire cheered him up. Fine.

The "He" and nominal hero of "Is He Dead?" is the Barbizon painter of peasant life, Jean-François Millet, celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for "The Angelus," "The Gleaners" and "The Sower." 

Kaplan explains:
Like Twain himself at one point, the stage Millet is deep in debt. He considers suicide, but his students talk him out of it. Hatching a farcical scheme, they fake his death and stage an elaborate funeral to put his name before the public, bump up the price of his work and engage competing dealers, royalty and millionaires in a frenzy of acquisition. Among the 18 or so characters in the play (an unwieldy number to begin with) are a German, Hans von Bismarck, speaking in a Wiener schnitzel accent; "a young Chinaman," whose pidgin English includes the dismissive "Go helly!"; and an array of minimally characterized Hindu, Spanish, Turkish and Irish art students. They entertain themselves with a characteristic Mark Twain running joke about a Dachshund: "It is a mighty long dog.... Is it a real dog, or only a design for a new kind of dog?"
Sprinkled throughout the three acts and 138 pages of "Is He Dead?" are other familiar Twain shticks, some of which had seen happier days and have a warmed-over feeling.

It seems this is thin gruel.  But the "discoverer" and editor of the lost play, Fishkin describes "Is He Dead?" as "a champagne cocktail of a play not too dry, not too sweet, with just the right amount of bubbles and buzz."

I suppose this is a matter of taste.  But Twain knew better, and after a series of rejections by Bram Stoker and other producers of the day, he consigned this "so-called play" (his phrase) to the trunk.   He was a wise man.

As for something more substantial on Mark Twain, Christopher Hitchens in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly reviews Fred Kaplan's new biography of Twain.  I don't think Fred and Justin, above, are related.  The book?

The Singular Mark Twain
by Fred Kaplan Doubleday: 736 pages
Hitchens doesn't think much of Kaplan, but still loves Twain.
... the work of Samuel Langhorne Clemens is in the proper sense inimitable. But it owes this quality to certain irrepressible elements - many of them quite noir - in the makeup of the man himself. I reflect on Mark Twain and I see not just the man who gave us Judge Thatcher's fetching daughter but also the figure who wrote so cunningly about the charm of underage girls and so bluntly about defloration. The man who impaled the founder of Christian Science on a stake of contemptuous ridicule and who dismissed the Book of Mormon as "chloroform in print." The man who was so livid with anger at his country's arrogance abroad that he laid aside his work to inveigh against imperialism. The man who addressed an after-dinner gathering of the Stomach Club, in Paris, on the subject of masturbation, and demonstrated that he had done the hard thinking about hand jobs. Flickers of this enormous and subversive personality illumine Kaplan's narrative, but only rarely, and then in the manner of the lightning bug that Twain himself contrasted with the lightning.
The review is detailed and lively.  I recommend slogging through it.  Click this to get there:

Film: Bleak Chic (a subset of "chick flicks") examined...

As I was compiling this week's issue of Just Above Sunset a friend called and said she had just seen the new film about Sylvia Plath and thought it was wonderful.  Late in the week I had read David Edelstein's review of the film in Slate - "Dead Poet's Society: Sylvia makes a fetish of suicide."
Edelstein is blunt:
Complaining that a biopic of Sylvia Plath is oppressively bleak is like complaining that a sauna is oppressively moist.  Bleakness, it may be argued, is the whole damn point, and it obviously did oppress Plath, who in her last months was probably happiest when fantasizing about her own suicide. ( The act was successfully carried out in 1963.)  That said, there is something uncomfortably voluptuous about the bleakness of the new film Sylvia (Focus Features), directed by Christine Jeffs from a script by John Brownlow: those lowering English skies, those histrionic strings (by Gabriel Yared), those howling winds on the soundtrack for most of the grueling last half-hour.  The movie opens with the horizontal head of Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) while her voice recites some famous lines from "Lady Lazarus": "Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well." The head opens its eyes and stares into the camera, there's a fade-out, and then a bent tree sits in the middle of the screen, its leaves blowing off in a single gust. Less than a minute into the movie, I was already thinking, "This is too Sylvia Plath for words." It's Bleak Chic.
Edelstein has much more to say in his analysis, but you get the idea.
Well, Gwyneth Paltrow is gorgeous and talented.  But I think I'll wait for this to be screened on cable television, and even then I may skip it.

Music: The First Viennese Vegetable Orchestra is touring again.

Did you know that The First Viennese Vegetable Orchestra - www.gemueseorchester.org  - is now promoting its second CD with a series of concerts throughout Europe?  On their website you will find this:
The First Viennese Vegetable Orchestra plays music exclusively on vegetable instruments: carrots and cucumbers instead of guitars and drums.  Or a cuke-o-phon and radish-marimba instead of laptop and sampler. The music presents a transfer of electronic music pieces and structures to the instruments of the vegetable garden.
The First Viennese Vegetable Orchestra consists exclusively of vegetable-based instruments, although where necessary, additional kitchen utensils such as knives or mixers are employed. This creates an autonomous and totally novel type of sound which cannot be achieved with conventional musical instruments. Marinated sound ideas and canned listening habits beg for expansion! This music is a playful departure from the conventional way of looking at vegetables as mere means to still an appetite. The instruments are subsequently made into a soup so that the audience can then enjoy them a second time.
Larry Lash in the Financial Times comments:
Before a show, the nine orchestra members go produce shopping and spend about four hours honing their particular devices.
Carrots play a major role: Some are hollowed out and made into flutes capable of mean trills; others are lined up like a xylophone; a few get grated. Gourds are slapped, peas and celery snapped, leeks used as drumsticks on pumpkins. Perhaps the prettiest instrument, the gurkophon is made from a cucumber with a carrot mouthpiece and a red pepper bell.
Is this all pretentious artifice? Not on your life. The music is unique, fascinating and bizarrely charming (as are the players). The repertory is specifically devised for live performance and is largely percussive, although the instruments capable of tone can sing out with unexpected beauty.

One work was generated by a computer and transcribed for vegetables ("This is not easy," explained the deadpan narrator). The group even offers covers of songs by electronic pop bands Kraftwerk and Radian.
When guest artist Franz Hautzinger added his trumpet to the ensemble, it seemed an alien invasion. After a literally smashing rendition of "Automate," a concerto for 18 tomatoes, the group served a fine soup made from the detritus of the performance, permitting the audience to heighten its sensory gratification.

These folks may not tour North America, but our European readers might want to catch them.  This last week, Friday night, (24.10.2003) they performed in Belgium / St. Truiden / http://www.debogaard.be - and should any of you catch a performance, send a review.