Tuesday, February 20, 2007

George Washington

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
--- George Washington, (signed by John Adams in 1796) Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11, 1797
It is worth noting the "Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, Barbary" when sent to the Senate for ratification, passed unanimously. Only the third such unanimous vote in the young Senate's history. The vote was unanimous without debate or dissent. Imagine the hew and cry by the present crop of American Puritans if such a vote, containing such language, were held today.

As we celebrate the birthday of our first President, at a time when wearing one's religion on one's sleeve is all the rage - NeoPuritans and Politicians alike - observe the death of the Father of our Country:

It is interesting to note that the Father of our Country spoke no words of a religious nature on his deathbed, although fully aware that he was dying, and did not ask for a man of God to be present; his last act was to take his own pulse, the consummate gesture of a creature of the age of scientific rationalism.
-- Brooke Allen, The Nation
If only we had leaders of such private and sterner stuff today. Happy birthday, Mr. President.

Monday, February 19, 2007

My Afternoon with a Poet Laureate

Mother of Georgia

I’ll always be grateful I had wine with lunch that day. Just enough wine, in fact, to loosen and relax my inhibitions sufficient unto gregariousness. Otherwise I’d never have walked up and simply presented myself to the poet laureate of the USSR. Let alone wind up spending the afternoon with him.

It’s early April 1990, Tbilisi, Georgia. Back when Georgia was still a Republic in a Soviet Socialist Union of the same. As my companion and I return from our repast to the InTourist (don’t ask) Hotel, I suddenly recognize the lanky figure unfolding himself from the cramped confines of the car stopped in front of us. “Oh my God,” I thought to myself, “that is the first poet to criticize Stalin, the artist who demanded literature should be judged by aesthetic, not political standards. The author of Babi Yar, the poem which inspired Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony!” Well - maybe if I’d been sober I’d have thought all of that. What really came into my mind and right out of my mouth was, “It’s him!” I dashed over to the thin, quiet man at the curb side, “Mr. Yevtushenko, I just want to shake your hand!” I exclaimed, extending my arm.

Looking up into those kind eyes, I remember thinking to myself how elfish he looked for a man so tall. He focused his attention on me for a second a two, broke into a smile, and in perfect English replied, “An American, how delightful; whatever brings you to Tbilisi?” And he shook my hand. I stammered something about being an actor in town shooting a children’s film in conjunction with Kartuli Telefilmi, with a cast of Georgians and Americans. Another, broader, smile, “These are remarkable times,” he said, “if you’ve finished filming for the day, why don’t you join me in my room for a glass of splendid Georgian wine?”

And I did. We scrupulously avoided any talk of politics – being an approved hotel for non-Soviets, the rooms were most likely bugged – this was confirmed as we entered the suite and he silently pointed to the ceiling, placing an index finger to his lips. Georgian independence was thick in the air all around Tbilisi during my time there, and I followed Yevtushenko’s lead. We spent the better part of an hour sipping a delightful vintage and discussing art, poetry and the indigenous people of Siberia (he was especially intrigued by my Yupik heritage.)

It was a meeting and an afternoon I shall never forget.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Public Profession; Private Man

We confuse celebrity with talent and artistry with commodity. This is somewhat understandable in the world of cinema where actors and performers are literally larger than life; arguably so in the weird, cool, bluish light of television; flat-assed wrong for people working on the stage.

In a universe where bottom-feeders like Perez Hilton [sic] shriek, "Why did you become an actor, then?!" - where preadolescent girls are answering career queries with the response, "I want to be a celebrity." - Where older, injury-challenged professional sports players muse into microphones, "I guess I'll become an actor." - it's time to draw a line in the sand.

As a successful stage actor, I live out in the Kuiper Belt of somebody-ness, yet even here in the cold, dark region of attention-getting the feature writers and publicity managers of our newspapers and theaters want to know more. About. Me.

That makes it considerably harder to do my job. My job is to sublimate myself and allow the character to step forward. I become a vessel - hopefully - where the ghosts of these varied creatures I portray may inhabit, allowing us to become a spokesman for the creator - the playwright. The less known about me, the better to suspend your disbelief and convince you I'm the character you're listening to and watching. I want your attentions to center on the ideas of the play, not on my comments to a journalist. It isn't about me.

And, yes, I am aware that blogging is a profoundly public and revealing act; but I'm in control here and this is as far down the beach as you may go...

On Climbing In Trees


And when you rise from water in the evening
(For you must all be naked, with soft skin)
Climb up your big trees while a very gentle
Wind blows; and the sky should be quite pale.
Seek out the bigger trees with tops that rock
Slowly and blackly in the evening air.
And in their foliage await the nightfall
With wraith and bat hovering about your brows.


The little leaves of the undergrowth are brittle.
They’ll cut and scratch your backs which you must heave
Up through the branches; thus it is you clamber
Not without groaning, higher up the tree.
To rock oneself on the tree is quite delightful.
But do not flex your knees to do this! No,
Let the tree be to you what it is to the treetop:
Each evening, for centuries, it has rocked it.

-- Bertolt Brecht

Critics and Theatre

Critics and artists are binary star systems, circling in tight orbit, one the other. In some creative fields a gravitational symmetry is struck, but it is in the theatre where the greatest unbalance and distance between the circling partners occurs. Reviewers are White Dwarfs using their exigence to diminish the Gas Giants of theatre people, seeking to occasionally shine more brightly than the artists they're covering. American Theatre does not suffer a lack of gifted artists or a lessened level of thoughtfulness or proceed with immature silliness. The Theatre is haunted by illiterate, apathetic, and unsupported criticism. To quote Robert Brustein,
I am not talking about boosterism or cheerleading; I am speaking of the kind of intelligent support that F. R. Leavis once gave to D. H. Lawrence, Edmund Wilson gave to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Jean Nathan gave to Eugene O’Neill, the intelligent mentoring that helped these writers to learn and to grow. What we have instead today is something I have come to call Himalaya criticism, after Danny Kaye’s famous rejoinder, when he was asked how he liked the Himalayas: "Loved him, hated her." In other words, thumbs up, thumbs down. Judgments based on ignorance, arrogance, and relentless opinionating.
We return then to the Colosseum where the Emperor’s mood, whim, or agenda on any given time and day determines worth. The focus is no longer on the performer, but rather on the celebrity nastiness, ego and attentional needs of the destroying angel – the White Dwarf – of the Reviewer. It becomes all about them and not about the art.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Friends and Relationships

Trust is not commanded, it is an act of creation. It is earned. Just as the accretion of trust over time is a gradual affair, like some stalactite growing in a cavern chamber deep within, its abrupt loss can be seismic; great chunks of inner strata suddenly fracture, smash to the floor and the very bedrock of one’s soul may shift and realign. Old bridges collapse; new cracks and faultlines appear.

It can break your heart.