San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



January 1967

Finland Sparkles
Tourist Tips for Finland
Finland’s Coherent Soul
Finland’s Superb Theater
Finland’s Good Example
The Arts of Finland
The Mastery That Is Sweden’s
Vital Theater in Sweden
Explosive East Germany
Sexual Liberation in Denmark
Gracious Copenhagen
A New Song Star in Europe
A New Film’s Classic Spirit
The New Bonapartism




Finland Sparkles

HELSINKI. — Here we are in Finland, a country I’ve always wanted to visit and had begun to wonder if I’d ever see. Of all the people who have gone to make America, the Finns are amongst my very favorites, and their country turns out to live up already to my expectations.

We went off on a Finnair Caravelle in the sunset and a strong north wind blowing. Soon we were above the low ceiling and under the winter stars. I should imagine in the long summer daylight the flight over Denmark, Sweden and the Baltic would be quite a spectacular sight, but we saw only the spectacular stars.

The Finnish character began to manifest itself before we ever started. The waiting passengers were more relaxed and friendly than similar German groups alongside them, waiting for the next gate. When the stewardesses showed up they were pretty girls, full of bounce, who acted like they were off on their first airplane ride to visit grandma.

The direct flight to Helskinki takes less than two hours — the flight from Berlin to Hamburg about 45 minutes. After the overcrowded shuttle planes operated by the three Allied airlines in Berlin with their “we couldn’t care less, you’re our captive customers and have to deal with our attitude,” the atmosphere of convivial service on Finnair was another startling contrast.

There were fresh newspapers in at least six languages. There was an excellent dinner, chicken with mandarin sauce, rice with pimentos, green beans, cake, a banana, and a choice of wines. I had a good and authentic Beaujolais — 15 cents in tourist class, free up front, and one of those wonderful Finnish liqueurs made of Arctic wild berries.

On only a couple of the airlines in all the world have I ever encountered such attentive girls. It was as though they were special emissaries of the Department of Tourism, out to make you very welcome to Finland before you ever got there — experts in advance hospitality.

We landed in a fine snowstorm, pine trees and snowy roads under street lamps and Christmas lights, and then we were out in Helsinki and through a perfunctory but brisk customs — 25 degrees Fahrenheit and just enough dry snow falling to make us feel like we had arrived with Santa Claus. There was our friend Jubani Jaskari [spelling unclear] to greet us and we drove through the pine-wooded suburbs into the glittering and spacious city.

Don’t laugh, but Helsinki is like San Francisco. It is a relatively small city which is the capital of an exceptionally highly civilized area, so with only about 500,000 people it has all the cultural amenities of a major capital — museums, opera, ballet, theaters, symphony, chamber music, all far beyond that to be found in, say, Lyons or Sheffield or Cincinnati. I doubt if there are many places where Ubu Roi, Waiting for Godot and the Farquhar-Brecht Trumpets and Drums are all playing on the same weekend.

It certainly sparkled for us the first night — that is the first impression — everything, the great shop windows full of goodies, the coffee shops with hip young people who were so much less dragged out than those in Berlin or London, and not interested in being conspicuously evil, and the people themselves sparkling, as though life was always Christmas Eve.

The Finns themselves tell you that everybody is sullen in the long winter darkness and that they are a naturally taciturn and formal people. Maybe a revolution has taken place since the Second War amongst the taciturn races, because the Dutch, who are certainly the most ebullient and talkative people north of Naples, still describe themselves in terms of the Dutch stereotypes of two generations ago. I had a lot to do with the various Finnish Workers’ Clubs in the labor movement between the wars and I never thought of them as frisky, but frisky they are now.

We put up at the Hospiz. This is an excellent hotel, run by the NNKY, the Finnish YMCA. Don’t confuse it with the hotels run by the Y or the Salvation Army in America, England, Germany or France. It is not cheap by European standards, it has rooms with baths and showers, equipped with modern Finnish furniture, about like a good American motel, and yes, it has a sauna.

Hospiz NNKY is thoroughly Finnish. The only sign of religious sponsorship is a notice that alcoholic overindulgence and conduct offensive to Christian moral customs are forbidden. And a wall motto in each corridor, “Jesus Christ is here.” That’s fine with me, so much better than being blinded in the lobby by flashlight [two indecipherable words] at Brigitte Bardot. It is all as clean as the falling snow and you could not just eat off the floors but actually perform surgery on them.

[January 1, 1967]



Tourist Tips for Finland

HELSINKI. — Why go to Finland in the winter? Obviously because then it is most Finnish. The Baltic archeology and the lakes and forests are certainly among the finest summer vacation lands in the world and with unsurpassed accommodations, up to the best international standards, but in the long red and gold autumns and under the snow Finland is mostly just Finns, Swedes and Lapps, and the country sheds the superficial resemblances to Minnesota and Manitoba.

What about the language, which even Swedes born in Finland can’t speak very well? Get a phonetic phrase book with lists of foods and other necessities and try to say the common courtesies at least.

You will discover that people with hard languages, like the Welsh, Basques, Finns, Turks, Hungarians, are immensely flattered if you try, even if they answer you immediately in English. They are not like the French!

It is pretty hard in Finland to get far away from someone who doesn’t speak English or German or both, and the people in the services speak basic tourism English. But menus are usually in Finnish and Swedish only, so unless you get a kick out of roulette cuisine, best get a little book.

Hotels are not cheap. In summer there are student and other hostel accommodations, but in winter these are mostly occupied by resident students going to school.

In the literature packet on the back of the seat before you on the Finnair planes there is a largish booklet all about Finland, from modistes to glassware to golf courses and in it is something I’ve never seen before, that all the other airlines could well copy — a hotel guide, like the German Varta or the Italian Annuario Alberghi.

Sort out the code for accommodations at the price you want to pay, the stewardess will help you if you wish. When you land, there is a girl who will make reservations for you and off you go in a cab.

This won’t work, naturally, at the height of the season when you should make reservations in advance if possible.

Minimum price in this guide is about eight Finnish marks for a single (3.20 marks to one dollar). Frommer’s correspondents have recommended still cheaper prices in Europe on Five Dollars a Day, but they are mostly open only in summer.

Food is proportionately cheaper than hotels. Restaurant prices range from a little more than a dollar a meal up in good places. The Kestkartano, behind the big Stockman department store, is one of the best and most Finnish. Don’t be misled by the waitresses in national costume and the folkloristic decor, it is not a tourist trap, but truly authentic.

Finnish food is not the world’s most exciting or highly spiced, but on their own terms the Finns are excellent, careful cooks, experts at fish and game. If your tastebuds haven’t been ruined by cigarettes and martinis, you’ll find that many of their apparently bland and simple dishes are remarkably subtle.

What is best about Finnish restaurants is what is best about Finland — perfectly honest, spontaneous hospitality.

[January 3, 1967]



Finland’s Coherent Soul

HELSINKI. — Most everybody knows that there are more significant resemblances between the Finns and the Japanese than certain peculiarities of grammar. Both nations were gifted with an exceptional sense of design, of ability to order the environment, and with it, the relations between people.

As Japan gets swept deeper and deeper into the maelstrom of a sick civilization they seem to be losing at least the latter capacity. Not so the Finns.

They think they have terrific social tensions. May be, but no one thinks they are irresolvable — while ours, and the Japanese, seem less capable of solution every day.

Further, the Finnish sense of order never had the compulsive character of the Japanese, social relations have not degenerated into rigid, inhibiting rituals. So their sense of design is easier, more organic, less slick.

Furniture, glass pottery, silverware, jewelry, the Finns do the best in Europe. Helsinki looks like a city which has always been populated by architects.

Not just modern work, not just the grand old man of Finnish arts, Aalto, and his better disciples, or the classic work at the beginning of the 19th century, but the apartments and offices from the ’80s and ’90s have an integrity and dignity, singly and massed along a street, you do not find in other cities, and never in America, except perhaps along Michigan Boulevard in Chicago.

All you have to do is look down Mannerheim Way or the Esplanade or Alexander Street, and you think, immediately, “This is a people with a coherent soul.”

The beautiful textiles and jewelry you can buy in America come from a universally shared instinctive feeling for effectiveness in things. Things work in Finland. Waste and gimcrackery and senseless conspicuous consumption are kept at a minimum.

So to a person fresh from a society and economy founded on waste, Finnish life seems to have a richness and durability of meaning that American life does not just lack, but actively denies.

Like the Japanese, the Finns have created a kind of apocryphal antiquity for themselves. They too have a synthetic epic, put together by an intellectual from fragments of folklore. But where the Japanese Kojiki and Nihongi are over 1000 years old, the Finnish Kalevala was the work of one man, Elias Lönnrot, just a century ago.

Finland as a clearly defined entity is younger than the United States, so we cannot plead our own youth and their ancient traditions as an excuse.

Perhaps that is it. Finland is somewhat like America would have been if our young traditions had not become warped in the youth of the nation, if Jefferson and Adams still meant what once they did in Virginia and Massachusetts and the dreams of Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln had come true. “Decently and in order,” says the Prayerbook. America was once decent and orderly, remember?

[January 5, 1967]



Finland’s Superb Theater

HELSINKI. — The theater plays a bigger role in the lives of the Finns than it does in the lives of any other Occidental people, even the Russians.

Finland has a population of about 4.5 million, the city of Helsinki, 500,000, two other cities are over 100,000. There are 12 theaters in Helsinki, 35 professional theaters in the country as a whole, and several thousand amateur and academic groups.

Actors and other theater workers are unionized, receive professional class salaries on two-year contracts, and enjoy a wide range of social security benefits.

The state and the municipalities contribute about 60 percent to the costs of most theaters.

Tickets are cheap. One in three Finnish citizens attends a theater at least once each season. In addition, Finnish TV and radio give a great deal of time to drama of the highest quality.

Good modern plays from the Polish, American, Czech appear in Helsinki shortly after opening in their homelands.

I believe Godot was first performed outside France on KPFA and shortly thereafter by the brand-new Actor’s Workshop, but the first professional production was in Finnish.

Topal’s After the Carnival, yet to be performed in the U.S., was on Finnish TV not long after it opened in Prague. So it goes.

My own plays have never been performed in San Francisco, nor even considered, although they have been done all over the world — including Helsinki radio.

But they also do Calderon, Goldoni, Ostrowski, Minkiewicz, Sophocles and modern Japanese.

Helsinki certainly has a far more vital theatrical life than does New York — Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway and academic theater all combined.

I have already fallen quite in love with Finland and I greatly regret that we have so short a time to stay and must be off on our ’round the world journey.

We have pressed a lot of theater into our visit and I am a little dizzy. Each show we’ve seen has been, not just as critics say, a great theater experience, it has been in one way or another a revelation of new meanings.

First, Waiting for Godot. Almost all productions, including the first at the Théatre Babylon in Paris, used too young and too slick actors. Godot should be done by thoroughly worn out old Burleycue types, by men who have grown old in the theatrical underworld, without however growing hard.

Buster Keaton might have managed, but Bert Lahr was so obviously a rich, slick successful comic. Vladimir and Estragon should be gentle, Pozzo a decaying fraud, Lucky out of life altogether.

Well, that is just the way it was in Helsinki. No director who saw it could have failed to gain great illumination in his reading of the play. I left feeling I had seen the real Godot I had been seeking since first I saw the play so long ago.

Equally revelatory, but in a different way, was King Ubu. We last saw it in San Francisco played by the Mime Troupe as a cruel romp, as it might have been done by the boys in Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. The Finnish director, Kalle Holmberg, kept the naïveté and the cruelty, but he turned it into Brechtian epic theater, with amazing results (like, but better than, Hancock’s Brecht-Marlowe Edward II).

The fact is that Ubu, read with a jaded eye at home, is not a very good play. Its potential is entirely at the mercy of the director and his actors, they can do anything they choose — if they have the ability.

The Finns were perfectly trained, totally coordinated, knew exactly what the director wanted. The result raised the play a good many rungs up the ladder of dramatic art into levels occupied only by a few major modern comedies.

Alfred Jarry’s text is pretty much end-of-the-century bourgeois baiting. This production was an exposure of the Great Lie of power in all its sub-bestial evil. The lobby was decorated with blown-up photos of the Vietnam War from the U.S. wire services, and portraits of the world’s political leaders from Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, to Johnson the Second, Mao and Erhard. The Chinese embassy objected, so they were all taken down and their places occupied by blow-ups of the news stories — in 10 languages — of the censorship. It all fitted.

I never expected to be profoundly moved by Ubu — but I came out shaken — with the urge to hurry back to San Francisco State and do just the same show, rag costumes and charred scrap bomber sets and all.

Next to see the current international success, Tango, by the Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek, directed by Jack Witikka, who did Godot and played Vladimir. This is a unique contemporary play, the nearest thing to Shaw anybody could manage in an age far closer to madness than his. It is a parable of, first, the failure of nerve of the revolutionary generation, the attempt of the next generation to restore meaning to life, and the overwhelming of all by the moral underworld.

Witikka handled it exactly as if it was 1913 and he was doing Shaw — utterly different from the theatricalism of his Godot. The effect was, behind all the tomfoolery, blood-curdling. Not the least blood curdle was the way the man from the underworld modeled himself exactly on Jack Kerouac.

There is probably less “human self-alienation” in Finland than any other country on earth, but it is most significant that these plays should be on at once in Helsinki, all concerned with the failure of revolutionary optimism and its replacement by the mystery of irreducible social evil.

Two hundred years of enlightenment, 50 years of socialism, and alienation has increased, not decreased. What went wrong?

[January 8, 1967]



Finland’s Good Example

HELSINKI. — Goodbye to Finland was very hard to say. I had the strangest desire to stay and become a Finnish citizen. It is certainly my favorite country, not too rich, not too poor, efficient without being compulsive, full of people who like people.

Of course it has conflicts. Between the wars it was close to being a Fascist state.

After the Russian revolution the Finns fought a particularly vindictive civil war, which the Whites won.

The Winter War did much to unify the country — in case you don’t know, the Finns, to the wonder of the world, fought the mighty Bolshevik Empire to at least a draw.

Much of this unity was destroyed in the second war with Russia when Finland was occupied by the Germans and the resistance and the collaborators were both more active than in other countries.

Today Finland has what is essentially a Popular Front government, the only one in Europe which has ever worked efficiently.

Still, you wonder what would have happened if the Americans had permitted such governments in France and Italy — especially the last chance, under Mendès-France, before de Gaulle seized power. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad.

Certainly all Western Europe is in a chronic political crisis — but Finland is not, nor are Norway and Sweden. Writing this sentence, it dawns on me that political instability in Europe is strictly proportionate to American and Russian influence.

Do you think Ulbricht is stable? Salazar? Do you think de Gaulle is really independent, that France is not whipsawed by the Big Two?

Something has got to give pretty soon. The world is not going to continue in so grave a state of tension. Towards the end of the Kennedy Administration, I wrote a column from Washington in which I said that, talking to people in the White House circle I discovered that they were all deep in a funk of frustration, all the great programs were running into deadlocks, all the crises were chronic, nobody had any answers.

In the interventing years the administration of Johnson the Second has covered up deadlock, frustration and crisis, with first noise, then war. From Africa to urbanism, from the Common Market to the Berlin Wall, from the cotton surplus to school desegregation, it all gets worse.

You have to see it from the vantage point of someplace like Helsinki to realize just how worse it’s got. Why not just turn the world over to the Finns?

Just before I left I decided to get myself measured for a suit by the Finnish designer of clothes and fabrics, Oili Mäki. This young lady and the whole story of Finnish art are worth a column in themselves, because it is through Finnish fabric and silver and bowls and so forth that all Americans now come into contact with Finland whenever they enter a large department store.

[January 10, 1967]



The Arts of Finland

HELSINKI. — As a final roundup of all my experience of Finland I have just finished rereading the Kalevala. This is the Finnish national epic and its influence is as great as ever was Homer’s on the Greeks.

Like so much else in the Finnish tradition, this is not really an ancient work but quite a modern one, yet its roots go back into the prehistoric.

Early in the last century a country doctor and amateur philologist, Elias Lönnrot, began collecting the folk songs and narrative ballads of the peasantry, especially those of the people in the most remote regions along the borders of Lapland and the forests of Karelia.

He became convinced that these songs all went together to make up a connected epic narrative, similar to Homer, or the German Nibelungenlied. In this assumption he has been proven wrong, but no matter.

As he reworked the incoherent folk materials into a whole, he produced the most successful expression of what used to be called a national consciousness, and in contemporary slang is called a national self-image, in all modern literature.

The Kalevala saturates Finnish life. Its deep resonant evocation of the natural environment, the rich dark green or snow white land of forests and lakes and pastures where peasants and herdsmen, hunters and fishers go about their timeless ways, its strong matriarchal bias, its ironic acceptance of the tragic nature of life, its dry humor, its praise of intelligence and hospitality as the prime virtues — all these elements go to sustain the unique Finnish character to this very day and amongst the most advanced sections of the intelligentsia as well as amongst the common people.

Finnish glassware and ceramics, and the most functionalist bent-plywood furniture, all embody a sense of form that goes straight back to the folk art.

The puukko, the knife which is the universal tool and weapon of peasants and hunters and carried by Finnish soldiers, fits perfectly at the beginning of a sequence which leads to the most recent silverware and cutlery.

Nowhere is this powerful continuity with the past and with the environment so manifest as in textile design. The famous ryijy rug now popular all over the world goes back to prehistoric times as a basic type, and the designs on the most modern grade imperceptibly back into the finest examples of the cottage industry of the 17th century.

On the other hand, rugs by Oili Mäki, Eva Brummer, Toini Nystrom and the other remarkable women, all connect directly to modern Finnish painting.

The textile artist whose work today most appeals to me is Oili Mäki, a most inventive and dynamic young woman with a fine sense of what is most native in design.

Before I left I ordered from her a suit, an Arhippa suit, a narrow wale-corded fabric of dull reds and browns, collarless, closed with bronze buttons and a brooch like a Scottish cairngorm.

It puts Carnaby Street to shame and should make Liberace go hang himself. Yet I also look like some ancient Finnish hero from the Kalevala who had been miraculously preserved, clothes and all, deep in an oxygenless peat bog. Wait till you see it! I promise to wear it to the Opera. Wow!

[January 12, 1967]

NOTE: Rexroth discusses the Kalevala in Classics Revisited.



The Mastery That Is Sweden’s

STOCKHOLM. — Down out of the snowy sky to Stockholm, regally dressed in three feet of new snow. Paris is, or rather was, gracious and feminine. London still looks imperial, though the empire is gone, and very masculine. San Francisco is, or was, enchanting and permissive. New York is crazy and full of sexual hostility.

Maybe such adjectives are just travel journalism — but Stockholm really is noble, with a most specific nobility.

If a city is a genuine community, it always expresses itself in its own architecture, in a sense of mass unlike other cities. This is why the post-modern glass skyscraper is so wrong and so is the whole style that goes with it. The Mies Van der Rohe ice cube tray destroys whatever community exists and prevents any new one from forming.

The characteristic cubical massiveness of Swedish architecture of any period makes Stockholm look like the capital of a vaster race than the ordinary, a city of spiritually outsized men and women.

The other Scandinavian capitals do not give anything like this impression, although, by and large, the architecture in Helsinki and Copenhagen is more “interesting” — for different reasons.

It is easy to see why others, the Germans and the English, have called the purer Nordic people a master race. Stockholm is a masterful city.

Partly I think this results from the actual physical planning and control of a number of extraordinary kings and queens, whether of ancient Viking blood or descendants of a French revolutionary.

Read Strindberg’s history plays, or go to Verdi’s Masked Ball — as F. Scott Fitzgerald said of the rich, “They’re different than we are.”

Under the deep piled fresh snow the massive buildings look like deep-bosomed, strong-armed Viking queens in white furs and dull yellow great coats.

Americans with English traditions behind their own think of the Viking Age as westward looking — Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Vinland the Good. We forget that time was when the Swedes held all Eastern Europe in a network of fortified trading towns linked by long boats on all the rivers from Berlin to the Volga. Their dragon-headed ships controlled the Black Sea trade and crossed the Caspian to land horsemen for raids far into Persia.

Swedish-ruled Russia appears in the first light of history as a culture much like that of Canada and our own Middle West in the days of the voyageurs.

They went southward with slaves, especially plump blonde Slavic girls, amber, gold dust and furs, northbound with silks, objects of art and manufacture, coined money, wine, spices and even olive oil.

Soon they were the bodyguards of the Byzantine emperor and the captains of his fleet, and then they founded the first dynasty of Russian rulers.

All this wealth gravitated back towards Sweden, with its holy cities and its immense wooden temples, scattered amongst whose ruins have been found thousands of coins and jewels and carvings of gold and ivory from all the Mediterranean and the Orient.

It was not just Gustavus Vasa or Gustavus Adolphus or Queen Christina — down to the 19th century, all Swedish history seems to be a living epic, even the fools and madmen and weaklings are bigger than life, like the characters in the sagas.

Now the Swedes no longer wade ashore, long swords in hand, burning savage towns or overcivilized monasteries and capturing screaming girls and slaughtering praying monks. They have settled down to being “the world’s most successful nation.”

It seems to bore them. The intellectuals all complain about it. Stockholm has exceptionally high suicide, divorce, juvenile delinquency rates and youth given to marijuana, riot and free love. There is the strongest Provo movement outside the Netherlands and jazz is a national institution.

Sweden may be highly successful, a thoroughly organic society without the totalitarianism that goes with what the concept “organic” implies — but it is disheveled around the edges.

They may not be a master race, but even in disorder the Swedes give the impression of being masters of themselves and of their fate.

And my, but they’re civilized. Nothing shows this better than the impeccable taste of the paintings in both the National Museum of Art and the Modern Museum. Peggy Guggenheim’s collection was on display alongside the permanent galleries of modern painting and the contrast was noticeable indeed.

Peggy’s was impersonal, collected on the advice of Max Ernst, Herbert Read and a few other experts who were her personal friends. Like the New York modern museums, it is a committee collection, the common denominator of fashionable taste.

Stockholm’s permanent modern collection, on the other hand, reflects the cohesive taste of a highly integrated culture, as the National Museum does that of a line of rulers with their own special, highly cultivated traditions.

Furthermore, both museums show complete self-confidance — there are plenty of Swedish painters, and rightly so, because they are remarkably good in every period.

There are some splendid Tiepolos and a big-bottomed beauty by Jordaens which is at least physically a greater rear view than Boucher’s La Petite Morphi, some Rembrandts which are more congenial to me than those in Amsterdan, some fine De Hoochs, and in the modern collection some almost abstract expressionist storm scenes by Strindberg.

If you weren’t told, you would guess they were by Strindberg. You can’t see Strindberg anywhere else I know of, nor can you see the wacky campy très très gai false naïve Nils von Dardel, who invented spoof Art Nouveau.

[January 15, 1967]



Vital Theater in Sweden

STOCKHOLM. — First night in Stockholm we went to see Ubu Enchaîné at the Student Theater — Ubu, that nasty old lecher, is following me around Europe.

This was not the grand production of the Helsinki Ubu Roi, but a bunch of kids having a romp, rather like the Mime Troupe but not so sarcastic. In fact, they just couldn’t act all that alienated, but they had great fun.

The play itself is more relaxed and good humored than Ubu Roi. I’ve never seen it in English.

Somebody in San Francisco should do the whole Ubu cycle. Maybe me at San Francisco State once I get back home.

Next, Witold Gombrowicz’s The Wedding at the big state theater. Why, why, why don’t we give these plays that are all the rage in Europe when they’re new, but have to wait years until Eric Bentley gets around to giving them his stamp of approval?

The Meteor, The End of the Carnival, Marski, The Bedbug, Tango — in the U.S. they are highbrow academic theater, if and when they get translated; in Europe they are smash hits.

The Wedding is a great show — theatricalist with a vengeance, almost a talking ballet. It isn’t “theater of cruelty” or “alienation” or “epic” or any of those other terms so fashionable now — though to a layman it seems more modernist still. Essentially it is old-time Expressionist theater, like Kaiser or Toller, revived with strong doses of Polish existentialism.

It is certainly contemporary, but it is also very like one of Strindberg’s most Expressionist plays.

It is about two soldiers who come to a bombed-out country inn. A hideous ancient innkeeper appears with his wife, who claims the hero as her son.

The rest of the play is taken up with the crowning of the innkeeper as king of a world of nightmare figures, and his “son” as prince, and then the long, always frustrated efforts to marry the “prince” to the “princess” — the idiot servant girl of the inn. Eventually everybody turns out to have been dead.

This is the trouble with The Wedding, as with so many Expressionist plays and with the movie Caligari. It was all just a flash of hallucination as the hero lay dying — the old Six Who Pass While the Lentils Boil or the Chinese play, The Stone Pillow, or that novel by Golding. It is most annoying to be told, after two hours of weird visions, “We were only, only fooling!”

Nonetheless, it’s a great play and the direction, by Goran Eriksson, was superb. It would make a great opera with music by one of Poland’s far out new composers.

I have been saying for years that usually with a repertory taken exclusively from Bentley’s anthologies, our highbrow theater is a generation behind the ordinary middlebrow theater of Europe. Gombrowicz is one playwright we can catch up with.

[January 17, 1967]



Explosive East Germany

WEST BERLIN. — After years of general impoverishment and sluggish development, the East German economy began to pick up about 1962. Partly this was due to a political change of line, partly to a change of policy in Moscow, partly to international factors.

With the onset of “Liebermanism” in Russia, control of industry began to pass from the Communist Party bureaucrats to the engineers and factory managers.

Simultaneously, the organization of the COMECON countries as vassals of Russia, each with its own department in the division of labor of supplying the Master State, broke down. The Iron Curtain countries began to develop a considerable self-sufficiency — autarchy — and then to compete with one another.

Meanwhile, the influence of Yugoslavia, formerly an outcast, began to increase until, at least in theory and in structural reforms, the Yugoslavs, not the Russians, were leading the East.

Since the potential in even the poorer half of Germany is greater than in Czechoslovakia or Poland, this partial liberalization of the economy resulted in a great surge forward. For the past three years the growth rate of the East German economy has almost equaled that of the West. However, all statistical figures still lag about 25 or 30 percent behind the West.

Now that East Germany is no longer cold-bloodedly exploited as a vassal, it exports more to Russia than it did before and has far more for home consumption. There has been a great increase in new housing and a noticeable improvement in the standard of living. There has also been a steady increase in the power of the new technocrats and managers.

The fact is that the economic life of the country has become too much for the old bureaucrats to control in the old way.

This has not meant a loosening of the grasp of the Ulbricht regime. On the contrary, no longer able to boss the technocrats, they have turned to the writers and artists.

East Germany still lies under the dense fog of Socialist Realism and anyone who tries to criticize the institutionalized vulgarity of the Old Guard, even from the point of view of Socialist Realism itself, is mercilessly suppressed.

The explanation is simple — they have nothing else to do with their time.

The result is that East Germany is in many ways the most progressive of the Iron Curtain countries economically, and yet is certainly the most reactionary artistically and politically.

Obviously such a situation cannot endure. Pressures are being generated which are becoming irresistible. Either the regime will have to give soon and give very decidedly, or there will be an explosion.

[January 19, 1967]



Sexual Liberation in Denmark

COPENHAGEN. — Down to Copenhagen — the weather turned warm and all the beautiful snow left Stockholm in a night and Copenhagen was positively Mediterranean, with people sitting outside the cafés on the Kongens Nytorv and drinking glog — mulled wine.

Once again we stayed at a religious, “temperance” hotel (the beer they serve is near beer), the Mission Hotellet on Longangstraede just back of the city hall square. It is cheap, clean, rooms with or without a bath, and the food in the dining room was quite good.

Too many good restaurants in Copenhagen to begin to name them. We ate in the hotel or in the basement grill of the Grand Café on Kongens Nytorv — the food is the same but the crowd is more congenial than the seedy posh upstairs.

Copenhagen, like Amsterdam, has one of Europe’s biggest airports. Over-the-pole travel has made it a favorite port of entry to the continuent. So, since the Second War, it has become crowded with tourist shops and entertainment. Unlike most places, for instance San Francisco’s North Beach, this has not destroyed it.

The night clubs are reasonable and the entertainers very good — the jazz is excellent. The hundreds of antique stores are honest. Tivoli is one of the world’s great summer gardens. Even the ladies of joy are reputed to give at least value received.

“The Paris of the North”? Maybe. But also Paris without the clip.

All this tourism, coupled with the fact that Denmark is far more dependent on the U.S. and far more subject to American interference, makes Copenhagen a softer city than Stockholm. No one would ever compare Stockholm to a kept woman. At least she’s charming and honest, Copenhagen.

And yes — it’s true what they say about Denmark. It is completely sexually liberated. Hard-core pornography is sold on newsstands in the airport. Girlie magazines are totally, aggressively revealing textbooks in intimate anatomy. Birth control is universal, abortion easily arranged. Boys and girls of 12 read the pornography — just like in America, but openly. Premarital sex is about as common as in the U.S. — but it is admitted.

All this has quite the opposite effect our censors and smut hounds imagine. Relations between young people are easy and relaxed. The sexual tensions that bend the walls even in youth and bohemian places like the I and Thou or Vesuvio’s, not to speak of the steno-jr. executive snake pits on Montgomery Street, simply do not exist at all in a place like the bierstube down the street from the Mission Hotel.

The lack makes Danish young people seem sexless to most foreigners. The leering, bottom-pinching, jealous-tantrum capers of the Latin races or the endless dueling with meat axes of American “love” might get you committed in Copenhagen.

As a result, domestic life is less troubled. Since divorce is easy, it is as common as in America — but it is totally different. People agree to part — there is none of the life-destroying malevolence of the typical California divorce, where criminal, and I mean criminal, lawyers have invented an expensive sadism for movie actresses.

[January 22, 1967]



Gracious Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN. — It is not just the post-war tourism explosion, or the new relaxed morality, or the exceptional prosperity — all you have to do is look at Copenhagen to realize that it has long been a gracious city and the Danes a gracious people.

The architecture has a queenly fantasy about it — influence from France, England, the Netherlands, all combined with a characteristic rather feminine whimsy and the skyline topped off with the most extraordinary steeples in Europe, green bronze in color and twisted and filigreed like the work of a village champion whittler.

The city is beautifully planned — but it was planned while growing, not like Hausmann’s Paris or Wacker’s Chicago, reconstructed geometrically all at once.

Incidentally, the merchants who stubbornly oppose closing Grant Avenue and other shopping streets in San Francisco should visit Copenhagen’s long, closed shopping street, the Stroget, see the crowds and talk to the merchants.

I would like to recommend Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day most especially for its Copenhagen chapter. He and his wife love the city and know it better than any except Amsterdam.

The great State Museum of Art is closed and the Ny Glyptotek is rather disappointing — except for one of the world’s largest collections of Gauguin, including several fans. Yes, fans. The National Museum is one of the best archeological and ethnographic museums in Europe.

Luckily, Witchcraft by Denmark’s great 18th-century playwright Ludvig Holberg was playing at the Royal Theater. He lived midway between Wycherly and Sheridan and combines many of their virtues, though he is usually called the “Danish Molière,” a most misleading comparison.

It was a terribly funny play, a kind of comic Crucible, in 18th-century costumes but in modern stage sets. The direction was 1966 theatricalist — rather like Hancock and Estrin. The program was full of blurbs and essays linking Holberg with Artaud and Brecht, which was just fashionable chatter.

Actually the production, like The Marriage in Stockholm, was essentially operatic and balletistic. Makes you realize why you like opera and ballet — there only in the long, dark years of reaction did a true conception of total theater survive.

Also — once again, so enjoyable a play by Holberg makes you realize how impoverished our best American repertory is — think of all the major playwrights we never see, and never will, unless we travel.

In Berlin as I am writing this: Verdi’s Masked Ball, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Calderón’s Dame Kobold, Katajew, Vitrae, Lange, Noel Coward, Lorca, Pirandello, Piliau, O’Flaherty, Goethe, Schiller and three musical comedies. Just West Berlin, and all the same night!

[January 24, 1967]



A New Song Star in Europe

WEST BERLIN. — Julie Felix — half Spanish-American, half Welsh, very fetching young fox from Santa Barbara — is the most popular folk singer in Europe, with concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic and Albert Hall in London, appearances before all the crowned heads that are left from Addis Ababa to Oslo, best-selling records, TV shows.

All this fame is only two years old. She arrived in Britain in 1964 completely unknown, after haphazardly drifting around Europe for two years, and after a whirlwind course of concerts, TV, records, has become a public institution like Danny Kaye and the Beatles.

One of the more remarkable things about her singing is its appeal to everybody. She is as popular with the middle-aged and elderly as with the very young, with the squares and with the most way out.

She naturally invites comparison with Joan Baez, not just because of her repertory, but because she also somewhat resembles her physically. She is a brunette with long dark hair and solemn eyes and a very calm and collected way with her.

She doesn’t have Joan’s remarkable purity of tone nor innocence of delivery, but her repertory is becoming more hip.

Principal difference is that Julie is a more cooperative audience personality, though not necessarily a more powerful one. She is out to see that her projection gets across, that the people out there identify. Joan may be stunning in a reserved way, but Julie is more beguiling.

She has just about reached the top in Europe. I suppose next year should come an American tour, which, it seems to me, though I wouldn’t want to tell Enrico his business, could well start off at the hungry i.

Every year for 100 years people have come back from Europe and complained about how it’s getting more Americanized every day. In the last couple of years this has changed, this side of the Atlantic has been saturation bombed with folk, jazz and rock, until now it is more American by far than America.

It is rather a pity, because the old “Continental Style” cabaret acts are vanishing, and even the French café chantant singers are being crowded and to survive are aiming their acts at an eventual American tour. You can find Mort Sahls, Phyllis Dillers, Bob Dylans, Mammas and Poppas, of every complexion and in every language.

Another thing that’s being crowded is good jazz, which is becoming more and more something for specialists and most of them middle-aged.

Julie Felix is rather an exception. Since she has grown up as an entertainer entirely in Europe, she lacks the chrome-plated carapace of the American entertainer. A U.S. tour worries her, she has no desire to grow such a shell. We could do with some of her gentleness.

[January 26, 1967]



A New Film’s Classic Spirit

WEST BERLIN. — Here in the old mansion where we have been living on the shores of the Wannsee in Berlin, the young filmmaker George Moorse has been busy making a picture of The Foundling by Heinrich von Kleist.

This is probably the most psychologistic fiction of German romanticism, the story of a lost boy saved from the plague who grows up to destroy all his adopted family, physically at length, but first, more subtly, he destroys them psychologically.

Just a half kilometer away, beside the same lake, Kleist and his mistress committed suicide, the morning after having supped in what must still be one of the worst hotel restaurants in Europe.

Moorse and his cameraman Gerry Vandenberg are very considerable artists, but the most impressive single thing about the picture is the extraordinary youth who plays the foundling, Titus Gerhardt.

Tall, thin, impassive, with a most uncanny way of moving himself, Titus doesn’t do much acting, he just plays himself, somnambulistically stalking? Strolling? The motion is more like swimming around in the picture like an inhibited gibbon.

Lon Chaney Sr. would have given five of his personal make-up boxes, three humps and 20 gimp straps to have got this lad in London After Midnight.

It is right to mention Lon Chaney — or his great director, Tod Browning — alongside George Moorse, because his pictures show very strongly his identification with the classic past, with the great days of the movies before they started to talk back.

Although The Foundling and the most recent picture which is now showing in America, Zero and the Universe, are full of ironic, mocking echoes of the fashions of modern film, from the verismo of Bicycle Thief to the spotlighted expressionism of the last Dreyers, these little whimsies all disappear in the overall effect, which is that of the high point of Hollywood film.

This was the time, from about 1927 to 1932, when Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovzhenko were hitting the serious directors in The Industry with maximum and novel impact, the days of the best Mamoulian pictures, of the great series of Vidors, especially Billy the Kid, and of the most Russian of all American movies, the now forgotten Midnight.

It was also, of course, the days of the spectacular swan songs of German cinema, the skillful nerve twisters of Lang and Pabst. This was the time when 20 or 30 immortal pictures were turned out in a year, and we just took them for granted and thought things would always be like that.

Zero and The Foundling are distinctly Moorse’s pictures. They are characterized by a growing sense of rhythmic cutting, by direction that controls tempo or rhythm, and by consistent treatment of the cinema as a visual art. Zero is a Charley Chase comedy about Yin and Yang and also — it’s hard to believe it is not — “The Jerry Ets-Hokin Story.”

In spite of an impressive score by Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman’s trumpeter, and some ominous Dick Tracy-Dragon Lady dialogue, it is essentially a silent picture. It is conceived for the eye and only accompanied by the ear. They are both black and white pictures, but perhaps their most outstanding single quality is their rich “color,” as photographers call it. This special richness of color gives Moorse’s pictures a feeling of softness in comparison with the hard and piercing impact of Italian postwar film. It certainly makes for a much more organic movie.

You feel, after 20 years of looking at Italian films, that it is all pretty much a matter of dial settings and stop watches and you wish they’d come up with some new figures.

A recent large and lavish book on the Italian film, with them all in it, looks as if it was illustrated with stills all taken from the same movie.

[January 29, 1967]



The New Bonapartism

WEST BERLIN. — We are about to leave Germany and start off around the world and now I want to take a last political look around Germany.

When the Grand Coalition (of Socialists and Christian Democrats) came into existence I was tempted to write a long and sarcastic piece. Here certainly was a union of the unprincipled, a shameless get-together to divide up the swill in the trough. No principles, only power.

May be. But, political sentimentalists to the contrary notwithstanding, power, as it consolidates and grows, generates its own principles. The same is happening with the Grand Coalition that happened with the grand coalition that put de Gaulle into power in 1958. It is turning into a government of political technocrats, mobilized to meet a national emergency but continuing as a “regime of all the talents” to create and guide a totally new political course.

What is the emergency? It is the collapse of the Atlantic System. It is not a revolt against American political leadership, because the Administration of Johnson the Second is abandoning American leadership of Europe.

It is, if not a revolt yet in Germany, certainly an attempt to break free of rigid American financial control. The reason is simple, Europe is slowly sinking into the quicksands of the extraordinary American wartime depression.

The Kiesinger-de Gaulle conference and the Rome conference represent the first steps towards a new “Continental System.” This is an ancient term, the key to Bonapartism.

Long ago I said in this column that de Gaulle was to be understood only as the latest of the Bonapartes. So far, he has also been the most successful. He has got the most at the least expense.

What went in Paris when he met Kiesinger and Brandt? The Hallstadt Doctrine. Germany now is prepared to serve as a land bridge between France and the East.

Against this, the anachronistic structure of East Germany will not stand a year — it must change somehow.

The presence and the economic power of U.S. arms purchases and Armed Forces will go. The occupation is going to be phased out. With it will go NATO as at present constituted, because NATO is really only a sentimentalization of the occupation.

The support of American policy outside Europe went, too. Watch Germany follow the lead of France toward a European “neo-colonial” policy in Asia and Africa instead of an American one. This of course means refusal to be involved in Vietnam in any way — very handy to the government, because the outcry against Vietnam is deafening.

And last, Kiesinger’s summarizing statement hinted that Germany would stand with France against Great Britain — no admission to the Common Market without consent to doubling the price of gold.

If the French can swing this maneuver in the next years they will gain more — and against the U.S.A. — than they ever gained at Austerlitz or lost at Sedan. This is the new Bonapartism.

[January 31, 1967]


“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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