San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



March 1960

Beckett and Ionesco
Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and the Modern Jazz Quartet
Drama and Community
In Praise of Amateur Shakespeare



Beckett and Ionesco

By now I guess everybody who planned to see Ionesco’s Jack and The Chairs that the Actors’ Workshop has been giving at the Encore has done so. The plays were held over by popular demand for several weekends. This last sentence is usually used for super spectacles, light comedies and an occasional mystery. That in San Francisco it should be applied to plays by Ionesco, Beckett, Adamov, Genet, Arrabal, the whole new school of theater, never ceases to astonish wandering highbrows from Manhattan and points transatlantic. Not only that — but Sam Beckett’s Endgame is coming next, “returned by popular demand.” As far as local popular demand is concerned, the boys could still be playing Waiting for Godot to full houses. It was threatening to become San Francisco’s unofficial City Anthem when the actors finally took it off because they were tired of playing it. What sort of new and strange “popular demand” is this?

Don’t let anybody fool you, these playwrights may be the sensation of Paris and London, but they don’t draw any such audiences there. They hardly draw audiences at all in Great Britain, where their plays are put on before tiny clubs. In Paris, up until very recently, they played in tumble-down converted nickelodeons, with really amateur casts, straight out of the American Little Theater movement of the twenties, to indifferent audiences, largely of foreigners, for very short runs. In New York, they flopped, hard. There must be something to this notorious San Francisco sophistication. Maybe we are creating the basic patterns of mid-twentieth century culture here. Everybody says so — the networks, the news services, the picture magazines, BBC, the European weeklies. The news has even penetrated Hollywood; alas, as yet only on the Grade B (or is it C, or possibly even X?) level.

I think the real difference is that the rest of the world has come to these new plays with overly self-conscious attitudes. They are not all that intellectual. “The Theater of Anguish,” “Theater Cruel,” “Anti-Theater” — balderdash. The first thing that comes to mind after the curtain comes down in Jack is, what a vehicle for Buster Keaton and Zazu Pitts in their salad days! And then, fine as the Actors’ Workshop people are, you realize how much Buster Keaton and Zazu Pitts would have improved the play, tightened it up, given insistent pace and, not least, meaningful contemporary reference.

Possibly in Bordeaux they still need to satirize the folkways of the French lower middle classes of the middle of the last century. But there are far greater evils and follies abroad in modern Paris, and San Francisco, too, for that matter, and a satirical art which beats only dead dogs is, perhaps, not “Anti-Theater,” but it is certainly anti-satire. It leaves the audience with comfortable feelings of amused superiority. Likewise The Chairs. This is potentially a fulminating cap of an idea: Properly hitched up, it could set off a charge of TNT. But again, good as our actors, Symonds, Linenthal and Israel are, and they are splendid, think of Laurel and Hardy and Ben Turpin. The upper classes may just be discovering this theatrical medium, but it has been there under their noses all the time, in the tent shows at village fairs and in the low dives of the slums of Paris or Berlin. When we saw Waiting for Godot in San Francisco we immediately recognized it for what it was, a deepened and enriched burlesque routine, a wonderful chance for four broken-down, wino, gravel-voiced, unemployed, burleycue clowns to put across what they really thought about it all.

Beckett is a great dramatist. He touches all the hidden nerves that lie at the sources of life and at the same time he is a perfect conjuror of all the enthusiastic monkeyshines that are the pure essence of show business. Ionesco, no. His plays are clockwork mechanisms of dramaturgy. They race and rattle along, ominous ticks are heard in the air, bells ring, the cuckoo bird pops out and says, “Angel Food” in deaf and dumb hand language — but the characters are completely devoid of interiors. The objects of Ionesco’s satires are not relevant. Everybody can have a relaxed time disapproving of the feudal imbecilities and servilities of a bygone concierge of a ruined castle in Graustark or of the stultifying lives of the petty bourgeois families of the French provinces, three generations ago. This is entertainment, not drama, and if its exoticism didn’t throw us, we’d recognize it as pretty commercialized entertainment. Think on the other hand of the impact if the Old Man and Old Woman of The Chairs were called Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima and the scene was the closed mansion of a “progressive” millionairess, off seeking strange gods in Haiti for the winter season. Think of the things wrong with the contemporary American family or the contemporary French one (the same things, by the way, and don’t let any Francophiles tell you any different) that might have given substance to the story of Jack.

No. This is not humour noir — black humor of bitterness and revolt — it is just plain theatrical merchandise — light comedy with a few gimmicks borrowed from the surrealists and existentialists. Its much vaunted “mystification” is no more mysterious than the inexplicable goings on that used to go on in the Marx Brothers or Olson and Johnson — it’s just a little more clumsy, and so seems highbrow to misguided Americans.

Right now in Paris there is an Ionesco on, all about how everybody in a village gets a new disease, rhinocerositosis, and turns into rhinoceroses, except one indomitable soul who says, “No! Never! Not me! I am human and human I shall remain.” The parable is obvious. Too obvious. Too convenient. The Communists can say, “He means Fascism.” The Fascists can say, “He means Communism.” The chauvinists may say, “He means Americanism.” There’s something in it for everybody. And who is it who accuses our mass media of never treading on anybody’s toes? After all, everybody’s human, nobody’s a rhinoceros, yet.

Still, this whole new departure in drama is refreshing. It does mean new style, new formulas, new kinds of plot, and the return of the theater to its popular base in ancient, enduring folk forms, the circus clown, the burlesque comic, the nightclub turn. Nobody anywhere does it any better than the Actors’ Workshop. Furthermore, they say they want plays by local writers, they want to build up our own kind of new departure in the theater. (They, to hark back to last week’s column, do have sets by Bob La Vigne, and even a show of Bruce Conner out in the hall!) Coming up soon is a new play by James Schevill. I wish others hereabouts who think they can write would come up with some plays. Whose medium is this anyway? I say, after watching the rather aimless and trivial dilemmas of Jack, “Buster Keaton belongs to us! And besides, we’ve got some real dilemmas, absolute honeys.”

[March 6, 1960]

[Rexroth essay on Samuel Beckett]



Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and the Modern Jazz Quartet

Lawrence and Kirby Ferlinghetti came up Friday night, fresh from a triumphal tour of the west coast of South and Central America. They had been to a big Inter-American scholarly, literary and artistic conference in Chile, where Lawrence, along with Allen Ginsberg, had represented the United States. I suppose Ferlinghetti does represent America. He is a genuinely popular poet. Very few novels, indeed, sell more copies than his Coney Island of the Mind. He reaches at least as large an audience as ever did Vachel Lindsay or Edna St. Vincent Millay or Ogden Nash. Is it the same audience? I think so, pretty much. It will infuriate him to say so, but he says what those poets said, to the same kind of people, only he says it in the middle of the twentieth century, a generation or two later. He is more up to date, more sophisticated, but so is his audience. Those poets seem corny to us today, but who is going to seem corny to the new readers of poetry in 1985?

Certainly, he represents a common American type. He thinks as does his wide audience. His responses to life are theirs. The strong swing rhythms of his poetry are just the rhythms of their speech developed and pointed up. Like the three popular poets of the last generation, and like e.e. cummings, who is a much more popular poet than his funny typography would lead you to think, Ferlinghetti’s responses to life, like his expression of them in poetry, are common ordinary American ones, simple, sensuous, passionate, and sarcastic and cynical when faced with fraud, pomp and falsehood.

If he is going to be grouped with the Beatniks, the definition will have to be revised, because he is a remarkably well bred Beatnik — degrees from Chapel Hill, Columbia and the Sorbonne, an old Baltimore family with connections among the early Sephardic settlers of the Virgin Islands, perhaps still the highest toned lot of First Families still extant, and in addition he is a very successful businessman, and quite a homebody. I am sure he doesn’t think of himself in these terms. No matter, everybody has to get himself into some kind of “state” to write poetry.

Ginsberg is another question. He is a product of the years of the Korean War, the McCarthy epoch, the height of the Cold War, the days when extermination of the human race seemed every minute just around the corner. A lot of young people responded to the frustrations and terrors of those days with bitter, incoherent rebellion. The world has moved on since. The young people are approaching middle age, if not maturity. The rebels have become part of the popular mythology of television, the movies, the picture magazines, because, alas, they have been found to be, in the words of a famous book and movie, “rebels without a cause,” whose rebellion will not make any difference, let alone hurt anybody. I don’t think Ginsberg represents us. I think he represents a time, and a short one at that. It looks as though the public response has trapped him for good in that time, “typed” him as they say in Hollywood. I hope not, for he’s got a lot of talent, and we certainly need talented, genuinely popular poets who can say what people want to hear said. I looked over the stack of clippings Ferlinghetti brought back, and I must say the South Americans seemed to sense this distinction between the two writers.

Later in the same evening I went over to the Blackhawk to take in the opening of the Modern Jazz Quartet. If I’m going to write about something like this, I usually take someone else along, because I am really more interested in other people’s reactions than in my own. This time I went alone. This time there was no question about who was representing who. This was us, modern America, being portrayed to ourselves, by ourselves, on the very best terms. Around the world they may not think as much of T.S. Eliot or Ernest Hemingway or American movies or Abstract Expressionist paintings as they might, but everybody thinks our greatest contribution to the arts of the world today is our best jazz.

What superb showmen the Modern Jazz Quartet are! They could come on the stand and talk to each other in deaf and dumb language and never touch an instrument, and still hold the audience. They stand there, quiet, at ease, attentive to each other and the audience, waiting for the beat, and the radiation comes out and penetrates everybody in the place. This is real projection, great “audience personality.” Some very great artists don’t have it at all. Miles Davis was here the same night and I didn’t go. He doesn’t have it; he is a beautiful musician, but he is a bitter, unhappy man, and I can feel his insecurity as I watch him play. I prefer him on records, but I prefer the MJQ in person.

Of course, it helps to have something to “project,” and they certainly have it. The music is polished, but never glossy, like diamonds. It is refined but not high toned, like aviation gasoline. It is musically complex, even learned, but the audience never knows it, unless they themselves are musicians. It always swings, as so much ultra modern jazz seems to find it hard to do. The audience was not just attentive, they were a bit excessive, almost reverent, and sat still as little mice. Even the bell on the cash register at the bar had been disconnected.

I imagine the Blackhawk is the only club in America that ever thought of doing that. It may be shabby and stuffy. It may look like a low dive in a B picture, but the owners have discovered how to bring musicians and audience together and keep them relaxed and happy, and as any musician will tell you, that is a rare, unheard of accomplishment.

The leader, John Lewis, and I did a radio interview the next day and we talked of just that — of how jazz has outgrown the rowdy, semi-underworld conditions under which it grew up. It is a great problem, this, finding exactly those new conditions where the audience can be at once relaxed, entertained and attentive, so that the musicians can give the best they’ve got in them. The Blackhawk and a couple of other jazz rooms in San Francisco know how to do this, but there aren’t many other places. I mean there are almost none, maybe six in the rest of the country. This is why jazz musicians dread “the road,” and why some of them have become famous for their dissipations. Faced with such working conditions, any other artist would just give up his art. Imagine Pablo Casals trying to play cello in front of a betting window at a race track and you can form some idea.

The music, as always, was splendid. And who says it isn’t both “funky” and musically always interesting? Of the pieces I had not heard, “Ralph’s Blues” was little bits of blue and mellow counterpoint chasing each other around. “Pyramid,” dedicated to Mahalia Jackson and full of her profound sense of the inner meaning of the spirituals, was musically influenced by Stravinsky’s recent work, but so subtly and independently that I am sure few people noticed.

You can’t take care of everything. As I came back in after a breather, out came an expense account crowd and one said to the other, “Man, ain’t that a dive? Ain’t that a weird atmosphere? Ain’t that a wild hot band?” Oh, well, think of where Jelly Roll Morton made his best music.

[March 13, 1960]



Drama and Community

Two weeks ago I went to Congregation Beth Israel’s celebration of its first hundred years of life as part of the community of San Francisco. I have been wanting to get a chance to say something about it ever since, and now, a little late, with my apologies, here it is.

(Maybe I should explain, once and for all, that, due to the way I write this column and the days on which that part of the paper is made up, it can never be hot news. Many things will have gone by before I ever get around to expressing myself publicly about them. That is just as well — I prefer to do my recollecting in tranquility, and I just haven’t got the energy to function as a sizzling guide to the latest and best — not within the margin of a week anyway.)

You may remember, the anniversary party took the form of a lavish gift to the city — a free performance of the oratorio Queen Esther in the Opera House.

It was an event of considerable splendor: Had the performers been in costume, it could have been called a “spectacle” without any irony or exaggeration. There was the Municipal Chorus, the State College Chorus, most of the San Francisco Symphony, four soloists, a narrator, and the composer, Marc Lavry, flown over from Israel, to conduct. The Opera House was packed. I don’t feel moved to “criticize” it, as I might if it was one of Beethoven’s last Quartets or a Webern Sonata. The music was sumptuous, if not very deep; everybody committed himself commendably; Leona Gordon as Esther was lovely and sang well and with more identification with the role than is usual with oratorio soloists; Howard Thurman, whom many of us had known and loved when he was here as co-pastor of Friendship Church, made a magnificent Narrator — and why shouldn’t he have? He has one of the most stirring speaking voices in America; so stirring, in fact, that he came close to stealing the show.

At one point, just before Esther’s solo at the climax, there was some delicate, sensitive musical writing, a haunting phrase passed back and forth from one soloing instrument to another, and at the end, after what seemed innumerable climaxes with full brass, cymbals and tympani, the whole orchestra and chorus got going at once, all out. All we needed was the cannon from the 1812 Overture. The audience just loved it.

Musical criticism is not the point here. This was a social event in the true sense of the word, a normal, healthy function of society (with a small “s”) at its best — the gift of a congregation to a community. This was the spirit in which it was performed and in which it was received.

What was most impressive was the close, ingathered, intense community atmosphere. This is not a roundabout way of saying there was something specially Jewish about it. Far over half of both audience and performers were not Jewish, and an appreciable number were Negroes. Nevertheless, the whole thing did have something that you do find in the Jewish community in just this specific occasion.

The Feast of Esther is called Purim, and on Purim the children of the family dress up in lace curtains, paper crowns and scraps of velvet and act out the old Bible romance for their assembled elders. Afterwards everybody drinks wine and eats cakes called “Haman’s ears” or “Haman’s pockets” and has a real family festivity. In spite of the crowded stage and the thronged auditorium, that’s what took place the other night, a Purimspiel, a family play in the parlor. It was more than “audience identification,” it was real community, the rock and foundation on which the greatest drama has been built in the greatest periods.

And why not? Everybody knew and loved the old story. Its morality seems barbarous and a little vindictive today, but still there is a great nobility about Queen Esther, and there is something else, something that stirs the blood and shakes the bones, the secret of the deepest drama. Scientific critics have pointed out that “Esther” is just a different English spelling of the name of the Babylonian goddess Istar, older by thousands of years than Aphrodite and Venus. Whether the story ever happened or not, its plot reflects the ritual of the ancient Spring New Year, when the Goddess of Fruitfulness took a new mate, the King of rebirth and growth for the coming year. Stories like this stir impulses, dreams and hopes that were forming when men were learning to polish stone and sow the seeds of wild grass. The sharing of these great myths, however primitive their origins, is what holds us together as civilized men. Every generation reinterprets them for itself. They saw the coming of iron and of the hydrogen bomb, but their meanings have not been used up.

The Chinese drama, Japanese Kabuki and Noh plays, Greek tragedy, Oedipus and Electra, Shakespeare, The Tempest and King Lear, Ibsen’s Master Builder, down to Beckett’s Godot, all the finest theatrical experiences, they all do this — they involve the audience in the reliving of its most ancient memories, and they create the same feeling of close community.

It doesn’t have to be a “great” play. Most Chinese plays are nothing as written literature. Last year at Christmas we were in Aix-en-Provence and we saw the Pastorale Maurel, a folk opera of all the ages and conditions of men and women of modern Provence coming with the Three Kings to Bethlehem — shepherds, drunks, fools, shrews, barbers, millers, hunters, scissor-grinders, and a wicked, wicked Gypsy who is converted at the last minute. It was little better than an amateur production, though it was very sweetly sung and acted, but it revealed the human heart of Provence as nothing else could.

I wish there could be more things like Queen Esther. I wish every natural community in San Francisco could find within itself resources to make similar contributions to the great community of which it is a part. In this case the Musicians’ Union donated the musicians’ wages, the choruses donated themselves, but still the whole thing cost a lot of people a lot of time and money, and one man, who shall be honored but anonymous, put up quite a fabulous sum.

Money is important, but a sense of community is more so. How nice it would be if the next Catholic Church that has a centennial would put on Everyman or a cycle of Miracle Plays; if, come Moon Day or New Year’s, the Chinese did a really polished performance of one of the plays from The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Three Kingdoms; if the Japanese did a couple of Noh plays and a Kabuki play by Chikamatsu. Who remembers when Mimi Aguglia, perhaps the greatest actress in American in her day, used to play the Verdi in Goldoni and D’Annunzio? I’d love to see something like that again. We could do it. It is the possibility of this sort of thing that makes San Francisco the place it is. They call it culture.

[March 20, 1960]



In Praise of Amateur Shakespeare

Shakespeare in town. King Lear at the Golden Hind, Hamlet at State College and then on tour of schools in the Bay Area throughout April. Too many people put down performances like these as “amateur,” and so miss the opportunity to see something of Shakespeare’s every year, year in and year out. Not only that, but I, for one, greatly prefer simple, moderately amateur or student productions of Shakespeare to most of the more sumptuous efforts of the commercial stage and its great names.

In the first place, they are more like Shakespeare. They are usually more or less like the stage of Shakespeare’s day, with few or no changes of setting, and therefore rapid pace, with simple costumes that convey clear ideas of the characters, and with a forthright, no-nonsense sort of acting. Shakespeare on Broadway or in the movies is usually a “vehicle” for a star and this almost always throws the play out of balance. Big names have power. Stars and directors can force their special interpretations on Shakespeare, and they tend to do this very self-consciously. If you have seen an awful lot of Shakespeare I guess this is all right, but I certainly would not wish to have made my first acquaintance with him via the last movie versions of Hamlet or Macbeth. Student actors who try such eccentricity just flunk the course and are never cast.

Shakespeare may be very deep and complicated and psychological, but it is my opinion that he is too deep and complicated and psychological to be trusted to the “interpretation” of any but the very greatest actor or director. His profundity, insight into human motives and character, his sense of the unending interrelatedness of men and their actions, all these things should be allowed to come across the footlights on the simplest terms. Behind the rich Elizabethan language his own art of drama is a pure and lucid medium, so transparent that we become aware of its tremendous depths only as we ourselves acquire depth, insight, experience, wisdom, if you will, to bring to it. We judge our own lives, our own selves, in plays like these and those of the Greeks.

Doubtless the great tragic heroes of Shakespeare mean very much to a famous international star, but his rather gaudy and tempestuous life, as he brings it and projects it through Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear, is not my life or yours, and so, all too often, we get less, not more from the play. Speak the lines clearly and simply, the poetry will come through, it doesn’t need to be interpreted. The most vulgar cannot miss the slapstick, the blood and thunder, the broad jokes, the pathos. The wise will find wisdom past philosophy. The job of the actors, the director, the designer, should be just to let Shakespeare do the work. So I go to all the Shakespeare I can find and I always take my children. I hope I gain each time in insight, and they, for sure, are never bored, although they are only 5 and 10 years old.

Some day I would like to write about King Lear. It is a special play, unlike any other, a sort of savage, terrible comedy. The spirit which moves all through it is a comic, not a tragic spirit. And the structure is that of a conventional comedy. It is as though Shakespeare had decided that comedy, if pushed far enough, could find a sorrow, and a pity and terror, beyond tragedy. This is a big and different subject. First things first — today there are some things I want to say about Hamlet.

All great actors want to play Hamlet, even Charlie Chaplin. Of all Shakespeare it is the play most easily corrupted by special interpretations, and it is the one which benefits most from modest, straightforward presentations. It is enormously popular, everybody in the world likes Hamlet except Mr. T.S. Eliot. People like it for reasons you might never suspect if you sat down and spent a couple of years reading a small part of the vast mass of Hamlet criticism. It is a simply plotted, fast-paced action play. It has everything in it that you can find in the paperbacks in the rack at the drugstore — a ghost, a mystery, adultery in High Society, social satire, suicide, a family scandal, a rebellious son, a shipwreck, and buckets of bloodshed — “The Floating Virgin, or the Case of the Poisoned Cup.”

It is one of Shakespeare’s most profound plays, but its profundity is so simply presented that a large portion of the world’s critics, literary and academic souls knowing little of life, have missed it completely. Hamlet has become the very name for a mind divided against itself, for the man who cannot act, for the sick will. Time and again the play has been treated, not as a work of art, but as a psychiatric case book. Oedipus Complex, death wish, impotence, incest, mother fixation, and not least, plain ordinary schizophrenia, the psychological critics have found them all. You would think, if you never read the play but just some of the critics, that nothing goes on in it more decisive than nail biting.

I think the facts of the story reveal quite the opposite situation. Hamlet is proud, sensitive, impetuous — the typical Renaissance prince. His virtues and faults are the standard aristocratic ones. Contrasted to him are three essentially comic middle-class characters, the family of Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia. Polonius is a pompous, dimwitted bureaucrat who has forgotten nothing and learned nothing in a long life. Laertes is an overgrown innocent, half way between a Joe College type and an Organization Man. Ophelia is far from a heroine, so weak willed and weak witted that she permits her father and brother to forbid her to see Hamlet for no better reason than inverted snobbery. It is she who is destroyed by her inability to make up her mind and act with courage and conviction.

Once Hamlet becomes convinced of his stepfather’s guilt he moves steadily and carefully towards his destruction. The only interruptions are those necessary to create suspense and make a play. It is his impetuosity, his rashness, not his procrastination and will-lessness, which is his “tragic flaw.” In a moment of rage and folly, he kills Polonius. This action is the key which unlocks all the rest of the play. Once it is done there is no turning back. From it flow, inexorably, all the terrible consequences. And the point is that Polonius’s murder is not just a pathetic accident. Polonius is carefully drawn as just another of the vast mass of nonentities that take up space on the earth — as a man so trivial that he is beneath the wrath of a hero, so far beneath, in fact, that to permit oneself to become angry at him, let alone to destroy him, destroys all heroic value. The hero is autonomous, he moves himself and others. But the man who permits himself to become trapped by involvement with fools loses all ability to act for himself and is swept away in a torrent of events as senseless as a shower of falling stones.

Such, I think, is the Hamlet which emerges from the modest and direct, amateur if you will, presentation. In the long run I think this simple wisdom is more profound than all the passing fancies of amateur or professional psychiatrists who have so confused the play.

[March 27, 1960]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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