… its own sorrow suffices to the day … As a dreamer on a dream: ‘Believe me – oh! believe” — Sheridan LeFanu in the nostalgic House by the Churchyard (1860s novel, much loved by James Joyce)
Clarence: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? — screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946
Friends and readers,
Izzy and I are getting through this season better than we did last. Today she was listening to Brahm’s and she is busy re-orchestrating and singing anew. Read the lyrics of Better Days by Goo goo Dolls; it’s a contemporary New Years and Christmas carol:
This inventing new contemporary forms to speak to us is my subject this evening.
For some decades now we — meaning those of us who want to have some authentic experience each year during the Winter Solstice validating the idea that life is good — have been in need of some contemporary story or set of characters that can evoke confirmation. Setting aside the religious myth of 1st century AD coming out of the Mediterranean world, and the medieval Christmas rituals that still holds sway in churches and account for some of the content of ancient folk Christmas carols and some pre-18th century classical music, the originating Christmas matter for the domestic family holiday for some 150 years, a Victorian orgasm of retrieval and relief from feared death into joy through ghostly intervention was by Dickens: A Christmas Carol. I suggest this one no longer quite does. Recent dramatizations show actors very uncomfortable in a number of the roles, from the eagerly deferent Crachit to the sacred disabled (dying) boy. Actors can do the narrator but Scrooge? Alistair Sims (1951) seems to me the last actor to invest the part with credibility. So Dickens’s story matter is appropriated and transformed into defenses of Christmas for children or read aloud dramatically on stages to select audiences: it still has power, as a graphically anti-capitalist story showing the immiseration, disease and death caused by wide-spread abysmal poverty and the system that makes it, and the famous retorts (“Are there no workhouses?” “Ours is a competitive business, sir,” says the undertaker). But that’s not what this insistent “holiday” season is after.
Individually redemptive ghost tales, which it is too (and is a Victorian speciality, as seen in Margaret Oliphant), stories of true charity and forgiveness enacted (Trollope pretended to think this was what was wanted), and more recently, the 1930s childification of Miracle on 34th Street (what’s wanted is to prove to children there is a Santa, a kindly god rewarding you with presents) are become obsolete in their pure form too. For my part I don’t believe The Nutcracker ever touched any heart, much less the stilted opera Hansel and Gretel.
Patterns of family life and the way friendship works in the later 20th or early 21st century world are now too far from what’s found in the candidly aptly titled It’s a Wonderful Life where the hero is persuaded out of suicide by the star-become-angel Clarence (seeking promotion), though it does seem to enact what’s wanted today by some, about the closest thing as a domestic family story to rally round. Even there literal minded people prefer concrete details that remind them of their own lives. Who can believe in a wife like Donna Reed enacts? or the whole town giving up their savings to save the hero who saved them. (It’s worth remembering that the film though praised by a few critics, was originally a commercial flop and called gloomy or depressive; only when put on TV and a couple of decades later did it seem to speak to people.)
So new parables come along — as do new songs for Christmas in new tempos and genres. To stay with movies, I’m told that Love Actually has had some purchase with its intertwined stories of deep anguish as everyone attempts for the sake of everyone else to be cheerful and loving or at least have sex with, smile at, exchange presents with one another. The opening gives the moral spoken so confidently by Hugh Grant:
PM (v/o): Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the Arrivals Gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed – but I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified, or newsworthy – but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Before the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge- they were all messages oflove. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you’ll find that love actually is all around …
duly sent up by the ultimate burlesque of Bill Nighy’s inimitable rock song, Christmas is All Around Us. It gets away with its sentiment by sheer bravado, fast pace, many stories, over production, loud music, and farce.
My own recent favorites have been Joyce’s Dubliner story, “The Dead,” and John Huston’s moving adaptation, and Whit Stillman’s quietly realistic Metropolitan (an appropriation of Austen’s Mansfield Park).
But this season here in DC (and specifically Arlington), a new candidate has come along, well relatively new as it played on TV in 1966 in one of the Hallmark Hall of Fame dramas: a two hour dramatization of two stories by Truman Capote (won an Emmy at the time), “A Thanksgiving Dinner” and “A Christmas Memory,” which is been utterly reconceived by Russell Vandenbroucke, and in this production directed by Tom Prewitt. Sure, if we think hard about what we are seeing, we have a disabled woman, an elderly aunt (Miss Sook, played by Charlotte Akin) allowed to act out antics with Buddy (Seamus Miller) a lonely equally misfit boy, but the fable is not meant to be seen from a medical and socially realistic standpoint (see Time Treanor); Nelson Pressley of the Washington Post understood what the dream-memories are for: they compensate. The stories as played became a gay older man’s version of Dylan Thomas’s analogous A Child’s Christmas in Wales: both use a child’s perspective centrally, intermixed or corrected by the older man’s voice. At Theater on the Run (as at the Folger Shakespeare years ago when Jim and I took our two daughters), it’s essentially a long lyric soliloquy, poetic, demanding a skilled actor who walks in and out of a dramatization by actors of the cherished memories he is confiding, which come from Capote’s life.
I thought what made the production authentic (not meretriciously getting up Christmas feeling) was that the story was presented as a nostalgic memory, so we need not worry how accurate it is; that’s not insisted on at all. It’s a magical interlude, funny, touching and melancholy all at once. The narrator is also not interested in validating Christmas or the Thanksgiving holiday as such, but the relationship as he remembers it between his aging powerless aunt and himself as her loving young friend, Buddy as having given them what happiness they knew during the short years of Capote’s young childhood. Vandenbroucke’s script is continually qualifying the boy’s memories by providing enough for us to see the people all around, including a family, school bully (Devon Ross), even the dog (Liz Dutton) tolerate what they see is a delusion, taking from it what they can use to shore up egos, appetites, and as part of a party (e.g., fruitcakes). “A Thanksgiving Holiday” was stronger because there was more of a story and it was less drenched in sentimentality; it was a story of a young boy badly bullied, and the ending moral as given by the aunt was wrong (a conventional insistence on adhering to social conventions as the right thing to do). “Christmas Memories” was saved by the sudden swerve to tragic close: we learn that Truman was sent away to school by his mid-adolescence, that the dog died, and aunt was left alone to write to the boy as best she could.
All the actors were superb, and as they had little props but lighting and costumes they needed to be; but the presence who carried it was the narrator, Truman remembering, Christopher Henley, who invested in it a vindication of the deep compassion and courageous sense of humor of a man once mocked in public media for his sexual orientation. My friend, Phyllis (who was with me) marveled at his performance.
It’s too late for me to recommend this production as it ended tonight but any reader can take it as a recommendation for the later season of this company. The WSC has taken different forms, been in a number of stable venues and has a long honorable history; I’ve reviewed other of its productions over the years. See their face-book page for the coming A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I do have a contemporary poem for tonight about the value of cherished memories:
The Forgotten Room
A sort of house within a house,
Neglected through forgetfulness:
The heavy frames now locked and rusted,
The beveled stairs now soft with dust
And generous passageways
Redoubled like a maze
Each turning that I must.
Have I forgotten I once lived here?
Can I remember how to live?
A gleam of sun from hidden skylights
Is just enough to wander by
And marvel at the space
In such a secret place,
Mysterious room I try.
Pulleys in cupboards, beaded panels,
Something like a ball-room’s scope,
Yet all contained within the heartless
Commonplace from which I start,
That daily shape I fill,
The present time I kill.
Forgets to play its part!
The stature that a ruler marks
Is accurate, though temporary:
Birthdays are a kind of keepsake
When children’s ages make their leaps,
And measuring lets them grow
On a wall
The pencil slowly creeps!
I too was once that growing thing.
The world assembled its surprises
And bathed me in a hopeful aura
Which fed a burning at my core.
And now I hardly know
If there is still aglow,
Since I have faced
And hope for nothing more.
Still, I have found it in my dreams
And opened an unlikely door
For my forgetfulness to enter
And to be lost itself. What then
If I must wait until
Such strange time as I will
Loved threshold once again?
— John Fuller
Tomorrow evening my neighbor-friend, Sybille and I will go to the Folger Shakespeare Christmas Concert of an early 18th century composer’s Four Seasons, matched with poems (so the musical is like 19th century pictorial music), interspersed with playful Christmas songs by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (also 18th century): “The Season Bids Us.” We reach back before Dickens.
We have, Izzy and I both, avoided all malls.