19 February 2018

Perry Mason (Part 1)

by Kirk Woodward

[Kirk posted a recent article, “Four Actors” (30 January), concerning the acting of the guest stars in four episodes of the Perry Mason television series.  I pointed out then that Kirk’s a devoted fan of the Mason mystery novels (as he is of the entire genre).  Back in 2006, he wrote an essay about the novels for a site called Perry Mason TV Series (http://www.perrymasontvseries.com/wiki/); Kirk’s article, “Perry Mason,” is at http://www.perrymasontvseries.com/woodward/.  The post below and Part 2 on 22 February is a lightly reedited version of that essay. 

[“Perry Mason” isn’t about acting, of course, but mystery writing (and writing in general).  I’ve never been a reader of Gardner’s novels, but I found the essay (which I first read when it was originally posted on line) fascinating.  I guarantee you all will, too, possibly because the novels are not familiar.  (Those of you who have been fans of Gardner’s writing will find interest in seeing if you agree with Kirk’s points or not.)  Between Part 1 and Part 2, you’ll find that Kirk covers most of the salient points of the Mason mystery books, and he’s done it with his customary insight and style.]

Introduction

For years I have read, re-read, and enjoyed the Perry Mason books by Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). Generally speaking, a mystery reader becomes immersed in a series for two reasons: affection for the main character or characters, and an imaginative response to the world of the stories. Those are certainly my reasons for enjoying the Perry Mason series, and my pleasure is increased by my inability to remember the solution to any mystery, which means that I can return to it time after time without being bored.

I’m not sure that books that have sold so well (it is still the third best selling book series of all time) need much of a defense, but I have the impression that the positive qualities of the Mason books are not always sufficiently appreciated. In this essay I want to help correct that situation by addressing both complaints and strengths. I have discovered after years of reading that some of the emotional wellsprings of the books are not exactly what one might expect. Those discoveries are included in the material that follows, which I present according to themes.

There are some eighty Perry Mason novels, plus a novella and a short story. Gardner published his first Mason novel in 1933 and continued to write them until his death in 1970, at the age of eighty. In my opinion the books written in the forties and fifties are probably the strongest as a group, but there is little falling off in quality through the entire series; they are all fun to read.

A “prototypical” Perry Mason mystery should include the main cast of characters, including Sergeant Holcomb, the boorish police sergeant, as well as Lieutenant Tragg; it probably should involve a switch in guns, a Gardner specialty; and it should end in a courtroom. I would propose The Case of the Long Legged Models (1958) as a classic example: a gambler is killed over his IOU’s and Mason defends the gambler’s daughter when she’s charged with the murder of the man who killed her father.  For his defense, Mason must sort out three identical guns which he manipulates until no one can follow where each gun was and who had it when.

For illustrations in this essay, however, I will use The Case of the Grinning Gorilla, published in 1952. Gardner was sixty-two years old at that time – he was approximately ten years older than the twentieth century. Guns are not a major feature in Gorilla, in which Mason, at a public administrator’s auction, buys a packet of memorabilia of a woman who drowned herself; after the murder of a man who’d been interested in obtaining the woman’s diary, Mason finds himself facing a hypnotized gorilla. But in other respects it is an excellent representative of the corpus, and a colorful and imaginative story.

(The titles of Mason mystery novels, unlike the television episodes, all begin with The Case of the . . . In referring to Mason books I will use only the parts of the titles that are unique.)

Women

Someone told me once that the Perry Mason books appeal only to men, not to women. I can’t imagine that this is true – I have known women who love the books – but we may begin by recognizing that Gardner displays characteristics in his writing that cry out to be labeled male chauvinism. Numerous times a woman getting out of a car “shows a glimpse of shapely leg,” or nylon. Women are sometimes described in terms of their physical appearance, in a sort of barroom or smoking club tone.

But in contradiction to this somewhat sniggering masculine attitude is the redoubtable Della Street, Perry’s secretary, treated by him almost always as an equal – consulted and relied on, not just for her looks (there we go again), but for her brain. In Stuttering Bishop, published in 1938, Gardner makes a deliberate point about women’s capabilities when Della makes several deductions that would not have occurred to Paul Drake. After Paul says that women simply aren’t cut out for detective work, for example, she notices blood stains in a car, upon which Paul says: “You’ve got a good eye, Della.”  And lined up with her are a number of smart, self-sufficient, self-motivating women (as well as Bertha Cool, the detective, who with her sidekick Donald Lam has her own series of books, written under the name A. A. Fair). Consider the following, from Sleepwalker’s Niece, published in 1936. Mason is talking with a golddigger:

“I understand the woman is a nurse. Think of it, Peter Kent marrying a nurse!” 

“What’s wrong with a nurse?” Mason asked.

“Everything,” she replied, “so far as Peter Kent is concerned. She has to work for a living.”

“And a mighty fine thing,” Mason said. “I like women who work for a living.”

In Velvet Claws, the first Mason novel, published in 1933, Mason mentions that Della’s family was rich and lost its money (the Great Depression, which began in 1929, was a recent event), so Della had to work.

Gorilla is mostly a book about men – perhaps appropriately, considering the gorilla theme! But Helen Cadmus, the beautiful stenographer who hoped for a movie career before disappearing from a ship, is shown in her diaries as sensitive and intelligent, and Fern Blevins, although no rocket scientist, has a lot of what used to be described as moxie. We can say that even the women in the stories who define themselves in relation to men, also have their own lives to lead.

Race

The same can be said about Gardner’s attitudes toward race. As a practicing attorney Gardner specialized in representing Chinese immigrants, so he had experience with treating members of minorities as individuals rather than as stereotypes. The early books do contain portraits of grinning Negroes, devious Asians, and shiftless Hispanics (for example, in 1940 in Baited Hook); but quite soon these are replaced by a different attitude: “minorities” are people, with feelings, ideas, and experiences of their own. In the late novel Fabulous Fake (1969) Mason defends a young black man pro bono; the man has been accused of theft because he is walking through a white neighborhood carrying a paper bag (his lunch) when a robbery takes place, and is only exonerated when someone else is arrested for the crime.

Gorilla handles race in a particularly interesting way, by using Chinese culture as a recurrent theme. The restaurant staff behaves in what could be considered a stereotypical way, with the waiter portrayed as stolid and imperturbable. Perry and Della discuss their “fortunes” seriously, speculating on the roles of fate and chance. Later, when a client is upset, Perry quotes the fortune he received, “Courage is the only antidote for danger” – particularly appropriate for his life – and recommends familiarity with Asian proverbs. At the end of the book, another “fortune” provides the book’s emotional conclusion.

Gardner’s treatment of an ethnic group, then, shows nuance and creativity. Whatever his prejudices and inherited limitations may have been, he ordinarily treats people as people.

Writing style

Could Gardner “write well” – was he a “good writer” – and are not the Perry Mason books in fact badly written? Gardner built his career by producing on demand: he wrote what he needed to in order to make a living. But when style was required, he was excellent, as many of his short stories attest. Consider the following, the opening of the short story “The Valley of Little Fears” (published 1948, possibly written earlier). I love the rhythms of this passage, and how much it accomplishes in a short space:

This thing is true of the desert, the first time you feel its spell you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. If you hate it, your hatred will be founded on fear.

Those who know the desert claim you never change that original reaction, no matter how long you live in the sandy wastes. In that they’re wrong. I know of one case where the rules didn’t work. The desert is hard to figure, and you can’t make rules about it.

The Perry Mason books put a premium on dialogue and on speedy narrative. The jacket cover notes (author unattributed) to Seven Complete Novels (Avenel Books, 1979), in an excellent critical evaluation of Gardner’s writing style in the Mason books, points out that

Each of these stories is a murder mystery written with stunning economy of characterization and dialogue, moving from an intriguing beginning, through intricate plots and subplots, to the crescendo of a battle of wits and expertise in the courtroom to a climax that is always unexpected.

Arguments about “good writing” tend to point toward a generalized notion of “beautiful style”, and often to forget that to be “good,” writing must succeed at the purpose for which it is intended. Gardner’s purpose is fast-moving narrative and dialogue. This purpose lends itself to dictation – a method of writing suited to a dialogue-centric style – and Gardner did frequently dictate his books. This practice may not be a flaw, though; perhaps partly as a result, the speeches in the books are varied, well characterized, lively with slang and idiom, and, needless to say, fast-paced.

While Gardner’s dictating his books may have contributed to their lack of “literary” style, it also surely contributed to the quality of the dialogue, which is colloquial, character-based, and flexible.

It is true that Gardner has his favorite expressions – many times someone is said to “take a button and sew a vest on it” – but for this reader at least, such affection for particular phrases is part of the charm of the series.

Subjects of particular interest

But there are two subjects in the Mason books (in addition to crime and the law, of course) on which Gardner writes with particular eloquence, two subjects dear to his heart: the undeveloped American West and wilderness, and dogs. In particular, as a writer he seems almost to relax (as do Perry and Della) when his stories leave the cities and head for the mountains and the deserts, as in Drowsy Mosquito (1943), Rolling Bones (1939), and many short stories. He seldom bothers to describe the physical properties of a scene unless it involves the desert or the mountains:

Down below the desert stretched interminably. The tall, weird shapes of the Joshua palms cast long, angular shadows. Over on the right snow-capped mountains turned to a rosy glow in the rays of the setting sun. Then the desert gave way to mountains, piling up in jagged, tumbled peaks until the crests became covered with dark green pines. A lake flashed into view. (Runaway Corpse, 1954)

As for dogs, Gardner loved them; they play a role in the plots of several books, and Mason displays deep familiarity with their behavior, as for example in this passage from Drowning Duck (1942):

“They’re nice dogs,” Mason said. “Peculiar thing about canine psychology. They hurl a challenge at you, and you stand still and look at them, and, as we lawyers say, ‘the issue is joined.’ You keep right on going about your business, and show absolutely no fear, and almost any dog is inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

Gardner was not anti-cat, however; the behavior of Careless Kitten (1942) is crucial to the solution of the plot, and it is one of two books named for cats, as well as for birds and other animal life.

Aside from his interest in the west and in animals, Gardner is consistently interested in what goes on in life. Subjects as varied as racetracks, modern art, corporate management, beauty contests, real estate, ducks, photography, detergents, casinos, waiting on tables, farm-bred trout, Hollywood, motel management, prospecting all are grist for his mill.

Aristotelian structure

The Perry Mason books have both internal and external climaxes. The external is the moment when the case swings Perry’s way. As with classical Greek tragedy, this is followed by a denouement, in which the situation is resolved, sometimes (though by no means always, as it sometimes seemed on TV) with the public confession of the guilty party. The internal climax is the moment when Mason suddenly sees the true configuration of the events of the mystery. (This is equivalent to Nero Wolfe’s pushing his lips in and out, in the Rex Stout mystery novels, but for Mason it happens in various ways.) This moment is always at least implied in a Mason book; sometimes it is not described, but we know it must have occurred. The false connections melt away, and Perry understands what must have really happened.

The structure of the Mason novels is in fact highly Aristotelian, typically including an exposition, a rising action, an inciting incident (almost always the murder), a climax, and an unraveling. However, Mason is not a tragic hero; instead, he is both the protagonist and the one who restores order to a society torn apart by the worst of all crimes, murder. His client is innocent too (with a qualified exception or two), at least of murder – not always of wrong behavior. Frequently clients get themselves in trouble by making dubious decisions (for example, in Screaming Woman of 1957, Perry’s client, a salesman, tries to talk his way out of being arrested by the police, with the opposite result). Many of the books provide examples, and very often the clients lie to their attorney as well as to the police.

Lawyers

Perry Mason is a lawyer. To Gardner, who was himself a resourceful and capable attorney, this is explanation enough for Mason’s actions. A lawyer’s duty is to fight for the client. On the other hand, it is worth noting that although Gardner holds in the highest esteem the ideals of the legal profession, he does not idolize lawyers as such. The Mason books are full of inept or crooked ones, like Nathaniel Shuster in The Caretaker’s Cat (1935), Banner Boles (not a practicing attorney, but trained in the law and all the more dangerous on that account) in Lucky Loser (1957), or the excellently named “Old Attica, the shyster” in Half-Wakened Wife (1945).

In Gorilla Mason finds himself teamed with the young attorney James Etna. The two attorneys exercise considerable professional caution before they join on the case, and collegiality once they do. Mason always observes legal etiquette, and makes sure his young associate gets to take part in cross-examination at the trial, although he also keeps him in line – explaining why, so his junior associate will be able to grow. Sidney Hardwick, a lawyer for another group of characters in the story, is resourceful and willing to use the status of his client to manipulate the district attorney’s office for his own purposes. He gives the impression that he works the margins of the law as Mason does; one also gets the impression that his faith in justice is as not as high.

As an attorney, surely Mason appeals to readers everywhere because he returns his phone calls. Anyone who has tried to get a lawyer – or anyone else – to call back knows how glorious this is. Mason may not answer his mail (he hates to), but when a client needs him, he is there. No wonder he doesn’t like unimportant cases.

Gardner periodically mentions that Mason has multiple clients, and occasionally introduces one; on the TV show it generally seems as though he has only one client at a time, and devotes all his attention to that one person. In the books we see Mason accepting pro bono work (Hesitant Hostess, 1953), and shifting appointments so he can concentrate on the most important case of the moment. The man can prioritize. His clients are of all sorts – young and old, rich and poor, attractive and unattractive, cooperative and uncooperative, sympathetic and unlikable, naive and manipulative, sometimes pure as the driven snow, sometimes so shifty that they ought to be guilty, even if in fact they’re not.

Gardner, like Abraham Lincoln in his days as a trial lawyer, enjoyed tricky defense strategies – not dishonest ones, but strategies that take advantage of every nook and cranny of the law. We see Mason home late at night, reading the advance decisions (Hesitant Hostess). He keeps a file of unusual decisions (Singing Skirt, 1959), as did my father, also a lawyer. [Kirk’s grandfather, also a lawyer, founded the firm in which his father practiced and wrote a chronicle of his life as an attorney over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Kirk composed “A Lawyer and a Life” (11 November 2010) for ROT based on that memoir. –ed.] The fact is that Mason stretches the limits of the law in order to carry out what he considers (to borrow Star Trek terminology) its Prime Directive: to represent and defend his client to the best of his ability. This principle often leads him to the edge of both trouble and the law. One sympathizes with the police.

Judges

Gardner doesn’t spend a lot of time personalizing judges; they almost certainly appear as they would to a lawyer – fairly remote figures with individual traits worth noting primarily for strategic reasons. Mason is on personal terms with some (1954’s Restless Redhead, the posthumously published Fenced In Woman of 1972, 1965’s Beautiful Beggar), and he does his best to gain an advantage from what he knows of a judge’s personality (Careless Cupid, 1968).

Some judges in the series are tougher than others. None are visibly corrupt or unable at least to listen to Perry’s arguments, although many express strong reservations about Perry’s tricks, especially his habit of turning preliminary hearings into conclusive trials. But the ethos of the books requires that Mason have at least a fair chance before the Court, something he seldom gets from the police or the District Attorney.

In another installment of this article we will look at how the practice of law is presented in the Perry Mason books, and at the interesting “family” structure that Gardner develops as the series of novels progresses.

[Kirk notes above that the Mason books are still popular and selling well even after over half a century in print.  Apparently that wasn’t always the case.  Kirk told me that the Mason novels were out of print for some years at one point, but are now being reissued by Ankerwycke, which is the publishing arm of . . . the American Bar Association!  (I never knew that the ABA had a “publishing arm”!  I imagine Gardner was an ABA member, but they must feel Perry Mason is a good ambassador for the profession.)

[I hope readers enjoyed the first part of Kirk’s “Perry Mason.”  Log back on to Rick On Theater in three days to pick up Part 2 of Kirk’s discussion of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries.  There’s plenty more yet to be said (including a brief look at the popular TV series as it relates to the books), as I’m sure you’ll discover.]

14 February 2018

"History of Valentine’s Day"


[In the past, I’ve published posts marking various holidays when the schedule for Rick On Theater coincides with the date of celebration.  I thought, since today’s Valentine’s Day, that a history of the unofficial holiday celebrating romantic love would be fun.  The article below was posted originally on the website History.com in 2009 and has been reposted annually (at http://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day).  I’ve amended the History version a little to include some dates of figures and events mention in the article]

Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from? Find out about the history of this centuries-old holiday, from ancient Roman rituals to the customs of Victorian England.

THE LEGEND OF ST. VALENTINE

The history of Valentine’s Day—and the story of its patron saint—is shrouded in mystery. We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and that St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. But who was Saint Valentine, and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?

DID YOU KNOW? Approximately 150 million Valentine's Day cards are exchanged annually, making Valentine's Day the second most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine [226-269 CE] was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II [Claudius Gothicus, 210-270 CE] decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death [on 14 February].

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl—possibly his jailor’s daughter—who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

ORIGINS OF VALENTINE’S DAY: A PAGAN FESTIVAL IN FEBRUARY

While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial—which probably occurred around A.D. 270—others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.

VALENTINE’S DAY: A DAY OF ROMANCE

Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”—at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius [reigned 492-496 CE] declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans [1394-1465], to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt [25 October 1415]. (The greeting is now part of the manuscript collection of the British Library in London, England.) Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V [b. 1386; reigned 1413-22] hired a writer named John Lydgate [1370-1451] to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois [1401-37; Queen Consort of England, 1420-22].

TYPICAL VALENTINE’S DAY GREETINGS

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology. Ready-made cards were an easy way for people to express their emotions in a time when direct expression of one’s feelings was discouraged. Cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings.

Americans probably began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland [1828-1904] began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. (An estimated 2.6 billion cards are sent for Christmas.) Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.

[Valentine’s Day 2018 coincides with Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent in the Christian religion.  The cultural clash has been covered extensively in news reports so I won’t replicate them.  I will note, however, that the calendrical coincidence is the first since 14 February 1945—73 years ago—and won’t occur again until 14 February 2024 and 2029—six and 11 years from now.  (In a further temporal concurrence, Easter Sunday, the end of Lent, will fall this year on 1 April . . . also known as April Fool’s Day.)] 

09 February 2018

'The Yellow House'


[I’ve written about Leonardo Shapiro and his stage work quite a bit since I started Rick On Theater back in 2009.  (See, for example, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009; “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009; “Brother, You’re Next,” 26 January 2010; “New York Free Theater,” 4 April 2010; “War Carnival,” 13 May 2010; “‘As It Is In Heaven,’” 25 March 2011; “Acting: Testimony & Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013; “Shaliko’s Strangers,” 3 and 6 March 2014; “Mount Analogue,” 20 July 2014; and “Shaliko’s Kafka: Father and Son,” 5 and 8 November 2015; as well as “‘Two Thousand Years of Stony Sleep,’” an early piece of writing by Shapiro himself, 7 May 2011.)  

[I’ve probably mentioned at one time or another that I first met Leo and saw his work in 1986 at the Theatre of Nations in Baltimore.  Then a biennial program of the International Theatre Institute, an agency of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—it now no longer keeps to a regular schedule—its aim is to bring together theater artists and performances from all around the globe to one city for a few weeks—from 15 to 29 June in ’86—to promote world theater and international  culture.  He and his company, a revival of The Shaliko Company which he started in 1972 in New York City, had brought their current production, The Yellow House, a performance piece in which the painter Vincent van Gogh is viewed through the medium of his letters to his brother, Theo, an art dealer in Paris.  (The artist’s correspondence has been published in Vincent van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 3 vols. (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, [1958]).)  After the performance at the North Hall of the 1857 Peabody Institute near the Washington Monument at Mount Vernon Place and Washington Place in north Baltimore, I interviewed Leo.

[I was on assignment as the editor of the American Directors Institute’s in-house newsletter, Directors  Notes, to cover the Theatre of Nations, the first (and still only) TON held in North America.  I ended up also writing up the festival for The Drama Review.  (That report ran as “Theatre of Nations” in TDR in the spring issue of 1987 and a much abbreviated report was also published as “World Theater Artists Meet in Baltimore” in Directors Notes in September 1986.  I posted a version of the TDR article as “Theatre of Nations: Baltimore, 1986” on ROT on 10 November 2014.)  I not only saw as many as three performances a day, but conducted formal interviews with some of the artists, and hung out at Club 45, the pop-up café-cum-bar behind one of the performance venues that was an oasis for the artists and performers at TON, to schmooze and kibitz.  Leo Shapiro was one of the artists I interviewed, in a session the day after I saw Yellow House.  I’m probably not giving anything away if I admit here that I was greatly taken with Yellow House, possibly the most striking production at TON and one of the most memorable ones I’ve ever seen. 

[It was four years later that I met Leo again and then two more years until Richard Schechner, editor of TDR, asked me to do a profile of Leo and Shaliko; I spent the better part of a year shadowing Leo as he worked, searching his files and picking his brains and memories.  The impression of that remarkable performance I witnessed in Baltimore six years earlier had never left me—in fact, it was the principal reason I took Richard’s assignment to write about Leo and Shaliko.  I’m going to try to recreate some of that sense of astonishment I felt that evening in 1986.  I warn readers, however, that while Shapiro’s theater work put an emphasis on language—he was a poet before turning to theater—his was a theater of performance as well—he was also a devotee of jazz—not literature.  Merely reading about his productions, including The Yellow House, deprives us of the full impact of seeing them performed.  I’ll give it a try, though.]

In 1986, with the first professional production of The Yellow House, The Shaliko Company’s performance piece about Vincent van Gogh based on his letters to his brother Theo, company founder and artistic director Leonardo Shapiro (1946-97) began creating what he designated as “Original Collaborative Work.”  Though this effort (from 1986 to 1992) overlapped his work on “New International Plays, Commissions, and Musical Adaptations” (1981 to 1990), it marked a change in the kind of material that occupied most of his attention.  (Shapiro designated Shaliko’s earliest period, from 1972 to 1977, as “Meetings with Classical Texts.”  The company disbanded until the director re-formed it in 1981 for a single season, and then again in 1983.)  Instead of finding texts that spoke to subjects of interest to him, Shapiro began creating pieces for what he wanted to communicate.  The pieces—Shapiro didn’t like the word, but agreed that they “are basically ‘theater pieces’ as opposed to ‘plays’”—were far larger in scope than Shaliko’s previous work, and drew on more and more diverse sources for materials and themes. 

Additionally, though Shaliko productions had always been site-specific, adapting to fit the performance spaces in which they were presented, works like The Yellow House and those that followed were changed, sometimes radically, to occupy each new venue.  Furthermore, when he recast Yellow House after its developmental workshop, he actively put together a new ensemble to explore this latest direction of his work.  A lack of money and the consequential lack of a permanent home base, however, prevented complete success in this endeavor.  (The company was dissolved again in 1993, a little less than four years before Shapiro’s death at 51.)

Having conceived an intense interest in Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) early in his life, Shapiro spent time at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam while at the 1976 Holland Festival with the Shaliko production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (which starred former member of the Living Theatre and founder of the Open Theater, Joseph Chaikin, 1935-2003).  In 1982, when he was experiencing “a personal crisis,” Shapiro conceived the idea of a play about the artist, using some of the paintings (especially 1889’s Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, he said) as “settings for action.”  (This was, of course, 35 years before filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's 2017 release of Loving Vincent, an animated film created from many of van Gogh’s paintings.)

Shapiro wrote a first script of what would be known as The Van Gogh Project in the summer of 1984 and that June, he used parts of it in a workshop at the Quebec International Theatre Fortnight (Quinzaine Internationale de Théâtre de Québec) in Quebec City.  Shapiro began developing The Yellow House, still called The Van Gogh Project, in a November 1984 workshop with students and faculty of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was then artist-in-residence. 

After reworking the script and reconstituting Shaliko, Shapiro mounted a new version of the performance piece, now entitled The Yellow House, at Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in Manhattan’s East Village.  As Jerry Rojo (b. 1935), who designed the mises-en-scène for La MaMa and, later, the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, explained, the La MaMa production “had a very different feeling” than the one at Trinity, which had been designed by Shapiro and his students, because “all we used in the New York production was the furniture.”  The New York production, designated in the program as a “Work in Progress,” ran from 12 February to 2 March 1986. 

Following the New York “experimental production,” Shapiro did additional work on the literary and performance texts based on what he’d learned from the La MaMa workshop.  “The show [at La MaMa] was too dark and too focused on Van Gogh’s personal problems and his madness,” specified the director.  “I wanted to make the joy of the work and the process of creation more present than the madness.” The show that ran two hours and 45 minutes in Hartford and one hour and 45 minutes in New York, would now run an hour and a half at the Theatre of Nations international theater festival in Baltimore, where performances were scheduled from 21 to 29 June.  It was at the Peabody on the evening of Friday, 27 June, that I saw Shaliko’s The Yellow House—still dubbed a “work in progress”—and was introduced to the work of Leonardo Shapiro.  (I didn’t see the Van Gogh Project workshop at Trinity College, nor did I see The Yellow House at La MaMa.) 

(Shapiro had plans to take a finished Yellow House on tour in Europe over the summer of 1987 and then return to perform it in its completed form in New York at the La MaMa Annex—renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre in 2009—in March 1988.  He was never able to raise the money to realize these plans, however, and, as Shapiro pointed out numerous times, La MaMa’s Stewart, 1919-2011, didn’t generally permit the mounting of plays at her theater that had already been presented elsewhere in the United States.  Still, even as late as 1992, Shapiro harbored hopes of mounting a final production of Yellow House in New York or abroad.)

The text of Yellow House that I saw was compiled by research and workshops with different groups of actors from the letters of van Gogh and other documents.  The director and creator, though, admonished, “While the words are important, they are not the essence of the piece . . .” and stressed the theatricality of The Yellow House.  It’s non-linear so a narrative is hard to assemble as Yellow House depicts what Shapiro called “Van Gogh’s heroic struggle to resist disintegration.”  J. Wynn Rousuck of the Baltimore Sun (25 June 1986) said it’s a portrayal “of the thin juncture between genius and madness.”  In the Baltimore City Paper, David Bergman (11-17 July 1986) felt that “Shapiro thrusts the audience quite literally into the center of the madness . . .” with his use of a kinetic set and staging the performance all over the North Hall space so that actors were often standing right beside spectators and even addressing them individually. 

In New York, Theo van Gogh was performed (by actor Paul Walker) as an unseen voice on tape.  The character was cut by the time the show came to Baltimore, but Shapiro had a notion, never articulated either from the stage or in the program, that the audience was Theo.  Spectators were “always addressed as Theo . . .,” and though it was never acknowledged, “that’s the [actor-audience] relationship we assume[d].”  The director maintained that “the goal of doing that show was to make the audience feel like Theo and respond that way, with that kind of generosity and understanding.”  Jo (Janet Langon), Theo’s wife, who was a minor character in Hartford, became, especially with the final elimination of Theo as a character in Yellow House, the mediator and the voice of both Vincent and Theo—the artist and society.  In the play’s prologue, Jo directly asks the audience Yellow House’s central question: ”Now that they’re gone who will carry on the courage and generosity of the vision?” 

The play covers the span of van Gogh’s life, from his youth in Holland to his death near Paris.  There are scenes of him as a young man, preaching to miners, and at the the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy—but most of The Yellow House, as the title suggests, takes place in locations in Arles (where he lived from 1888 to 1889).  The settings are all pulled from van Gogh paintings (as Shapiro’s original notion suggested: Van Gogh’s Bedroom, The Night Café (1888), Gauguin’s Chair (1888), Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, Crows Over the Wheat Field (1890), and, of course, Starry Night (1889).  But Yellow House isn’t a bio-play like  Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) or even Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990); if we stick with movies, it’s more like 1999’s Being John Malkovich by  Spike Jonze, only more psychedelic and hallucinogenic. 

I’m not certain how early in his life Shapiro became interested in van Gogh, but it may have been around 1965, when the incipient director was a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  This conclusion is based on the possibility that Shapiro’s interest was sparked by Antonin Artaud’s writing about the painter in “Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society” and other writings which were published in the Artaud Anthology in 1965, a book which I believe Shapiro read at that time.  (It’s certainly possible that Shapiro had already conceived an interest in van Gogh before this time, but he made no mention of the painter in discussions with me of his early childhood or his high school years at the Windsor Mountain School in Lenox, Massachusetts.  At Windsor Mountain, in fact, Shapiro was fascinated with Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519, whose name he adopted: Leo Richard Shapiro became Leonardo V. Shapiro in 1960.)

(Theater theorist and Surrealist poet and essayist Artaud, 1896-1948, saw Vincent van Gogh, an important exhibit of 173 paintings which ran from 24 January to 15 March 1947 at the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris.  In February of that year, after having read psychiatrist François-Joachim Beer’s “Sa Folie?” [“His Madness?”], a description of van Gogh as a degenerate, in the Paris weekly Arts on 31 January 1947, Artaud started Van Gogh, le suicidé de la société, though it wasn’t published until September.  On 16 January 1948, Van Gogh won the Paris Sainte-Beuve prize for the best essay published in 1947, the only literary award Artaud ever won.  Illustrating “Sa Folie” was a print of van Gogh’s Corridor in Saint-Paul Hospital, a painting Shapiro used in the New York production of The Yellow House. 
                                                         
(Though there are other translations of this essay and other Artaud works, I believe that Shapiro knew, read, and probably owned Artaud Anthology, because the director made other references to Artaud which correspond to the volume’s content and translations, especially the David Rattray rendering of the surrealistic poem “All Writing is Pigshit . . . ” which Shapiro quoted in a 1970 theater column he wrote for the New Mexico commune newsletter Fountain of Light—and which I posted on ROT on 29 December 2010.)

Shapiro began working on a van Gogh theater piece six years after that trip to Amsterdam, “when I was 36 and thinking of killing myself.”  He was identifying with van Gogh who, he believed, had been “suicided by society” when the painter was 37, but when Shapiro had finished Yellow House four years later, he was already 40 and “had missed jumping out my window of opportunity.”  Working with composer-singer-violinist Julie Lyonn Lieberman (b. 1954), Shapiro and his team created The Yellow House as a vehicle for the painter’s “personal testimony about the life and the mission of the artist,” a recurring theme in Shapiro’s work. 

That the image of van Gogh, whom Shapiro considered the quintessential courageous artist and would certainly have seen as an art-martyr, would attract the director makes a great deal of sense, of course.  In alluding to Artaud’s surrealistic essay, Shapiro suggested some of the parallels he saw between himself and van Gogh.  Artaud, who also saw similarities between his life and the painter’s, particularly in his own nine-year commitment to psychiatric hospitals for schizophrenia (1937-46), focused in his essay on the suppression by societal institutions—doctors, scientists, asylums—of the non-conformity represented by van Gogh and his art. 

For both Artaud and Shapiro, society suffers spiritual poverty as a result of the suppression of such individuality.  Like Artaud, Shapiro felt that van Gogh’s art was “wildfire, atomic bombs, whose angle of vision, compared to all the other paintings popular at the time, would have been capable of upsetting the larval conformity of the” societal establishment of his day; it didn’t attack just the “conformity of manners and morals” but society’s institutions themselves.  Van Gogh wasn’t just a pest, he was a truly dangerous force, “[f]or a lunatic is a man that society does not wish to hear but wants to prevent from uttering certain unbearable truths”—a characterization very like the one Shapiro applied to oracles and artists in general.  Like the poets in Plato’s republic, van Gogh had to be removed from society, hence he was declared insane, marginalized, locked away, and finally driven to suicide.  Van Gogh, in the terms with which Shapiro characterized David Wojnarowicz (1954-92), an artist whom he greatly admired, was “the canary in the mines.”  (I blogged on Wojnarowicz on 15 March 2011.)

Furthermore, like Shapiro himself, van Gogh was a difficult man whose personality created rifts with most of those with whom he came into contact, including, as Theo van Gogh (1857-91) remarked to his wife, the painter’s best friends.  Vincent’s brother wrote to their sister, “It seems as if he were two persons: one, marvelously gifted, tender and refined, the other, egoistic and hard-hearted,” a characterization that fit Shapiro, too.  “It is a pity that he is his own enemy,” Theo van Gogh continued, “for he makes life hard not only for others but also for himself.”  How different Shapiro’s career might have been had he not shared this characteristic as well. 

But van Gogh was also committed to his art, despite the lack of acceptance from the dealers, critics, and even other artists.  (Van Gogh had a famous love-hate relationship with painter Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903, with whom he shared the little, yellow house in Arles, France, for nine weeks in 1888.  Gauguin appears as a character in The Yellow House, played in New York by Olek Krupa and in Baltimore by William Verderber.)  The painter was destined, his brother predicted, to be “appreciated by some but not understood by the public at large.”  Nonetheless, he insisted on pursuing his own vision, no matter the consequences:

Believe me, in art matters the saying, “Honesty is the best policy,” is true; rather more trouble on a serious study than a kind of chic to flatter the public.  Sometimes in moments of worry I have longed for some of that chic, but thinking it over I say, No, let me be true to myself, and express severe, rough but true things in a rough manner.  I shall not run after the art lovers or dealers; let whoever wants to come to me.

“I do not care a penny for the world’s opinion,” van Gogh declared in an unambiguous statement that Shapiro undoubtedly relished, and further noted that

he who wants to accomplish something really good or useful must neither count on nor want the approval or appreciation of the general public, but, on the contrary, can expect that only a very few hearts will sympathize with him and take part in it.

As Shapiro stated, he’d worked on the van Gogh piece expressly “to learn about courage”: the project had come out of his own “search for courage and a way to do real work and not rely on technique.”

Like Shapiro, too, van Gogh took an uncompromising view of what art and artists should and can do.  “I want to do drawings that touch some people,” the painter wrote, but even more, “I draw . . . to make [people] see things which are worth observing and which not everybody sees.”  His sister-in-law, Johanna (1862-1925; called “Jo” in Yellow House), pointed out after his death that “Vincent had often wanted to paint things that were impossible, for instance the sun.”  As for the real subject of his paintings, however, van Gogh insisted, “I . . . will not let myself be forced to produce work that does not show my own character.”  The painter proclaimed, “I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”  Being an artist, both he and Shapiro believed, means “[a]lways seeking without absolutely finding.”

This principle was the artist’s own expression of “testimony,” a performance technique Shapiro developed with Shaliko.  In Yellow House, Shapiro explained, it was manifested as “using Van Gogh’s words without pretending to be him; to talk directly one-to-one, actor to audience” not simply to present a play, a fictional story, but to use the text as a way to communicate with the spectators, to concentrate “on the interaction between actor and audience.”  (I blogged on this technique in “Testimony & Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013.)  Shapiro asserted that he’d always intended testimony to be “a principle mode of performance, but somehow at La Mama . . . narrative took precedence over the real world inhabited by the actors and the audience.”  The reworking of the script after New York focused in large part on developing this aspect of the script and the production, including writing a new scene, entitled “Testimony,” that came third in the production.

The Yellow House was Shaliko’s first deliberate experiment with testimony, though it figured in previous works, albeit in rudimentary form.  Building on the established Shaliko technique of asking questions, and inspired by van Gogh’s own “testimony,” Shapiro intended Yellow House to consider courage and the artist’s struggle to find a role in society.  Describing one moment in the performance, Shapiro explained: “[T]he actors address the audience directly as themselves—using Vincent’s words . . . but speaking for themselves as actors, artists and citizens . . . .”  The technique, in simplistic terms, is akin to Stanislavskian acting except that instead of finding elements of the characters in themselves, the actors make personal connections to aspects of the role—which Shapiro sometimes spoke of as “cross-documentation.”  This technique is combined with the Brechtian practice of an actor commenting on and criticizing the character and the situation.  While testimony started in The Yellow House mostly as direct address to the audience, it appeared afterwards in subtler manifestations. 

In The Yellow House in New York and Baltimore, four actors played different aspects of one character, Vincent van Gogh, and Shapiro explained that they each played a different role: Young Vincent (Elena Nicholas), the Painter (Judson Camp in New York; Brian Mallon in Baltimore), the Mirror (Olek Krupa in New York; William Verderber in Baltimore), and Self Portrait (Cristobal Carambo).  (At Trinity, one actor played the character.)  As their labels suggest, Shapiro didn’t see them as “characters,” but as “roles”—the various roles van Gogh played (or in which society cast him) in his life; this form of “role-play” Shapiro called “psychodrama.”  (I examine this Shaliko acting principle in the second part of “Testimony & Role vs. Character.”)

As a collaboratively built piece, The Yellow House changed as it developed.  At Trinity in 1984, it had been “frontal, chronological, direct [and] biographical,” but when the piece was restaged at La MaMa in February 1986 and then at Baltimore’s Theatre of Nations in June, it had become more intricate, less linear, and more metaphorical.  Set designer Rojo created an environment first for the long, narrow second-floor theater at La MaMa (the stage is 22 feet wide and 30 feet deep), then for the huge, vaulting 35-foot-by-100-foot North Hall of the Peabody Institute.  The two designs were very distinct, and Shapiro exploited the special qualities of each space. 

At La MaMa, for instance, “it was all head-on,” Shapiro explained.  “The good part of that was we were able to use this deep perspective” to get “the feeling of depth,” placing van Gogh far upstage on the fire stairs of the theater.  Behind him was a rear projection of the artist’s 1889 painting of Saint-Rémy, Corridor in Saint-Paul Hospital, “so you get depth behind depth behind depth,” added the director.  “That’s how I made that small space work.”  They performed “a lot of scenes way up behind the theater, so you’re really looking very hard through.  And that’s very good for van Gogh—depth.  But [with only a 16-foot ceiling,] there isn’t any height.”

Contrastingly, in his most striking theatrical effect in Baltimore, Shapiro used the high, vaulted ceiling at the Peabody to create his climactic moment.  As soon as he saw the North Hall while scoping out the available performance spaces in Baltimore, he chose it for The Yellow House.  “I like the height and the windows,” said the director to himself.  “That’s what I liked about the room.”  Projecting van Gogh’s Starry Night onto the 30-foot-high ceiling, Shapiro had Cristobal Carambo (as Self Portrait) climb up a rope 23 feet into the “sky above St. Remy” where he stood on a pipe to “paint” the picture.  “As soon as I saw that room, I knew I had to do something like that,” he effused.  He felt that the effect “made The Yellow House into a kind of passion play,” revealing “the religious, artistic, and social impulses in all of us.” 

As an illustration of how Shapiro reconceived his productions for each performance venue, the evolution of what the director called “the Ascent” is revealing:

The script had always called for Vincent to transcend the bars of St. Remy and paint Starry Night, but before Baltimore, we didn’t have the height to make it possible.  At Trinity, using only one Vincent, we made plywood cutouts of the stars, the Cyprus trees, and other features of Starry Night which we flew in in a three-dimensional arrangement and on which we projected a slide of Starry Night from the front (that is, from the center of the audience).  Van Gogh stood there and pretended to paint it.  At La Mama, with its four Vincents, the Mirror (the protagonist at this moment [Krupa]) was painting Starry Night in his cell beyond the back wall, shown by rear screen projection.  Young Vincent [Nicholas] came in and pulled a large (20 feet by 30 feet) white scrim out of the cell and diagonally across the stage, as if Vincent’s canvas were being stretched across the theatre.  On this was projected Starry Night.  All four Vincents stood on chairs to help paint it.

In Baltimore, the Self Portrait [Carambo] painted Starry Night after climbing a rope up 23 feet, where he stood on a pipe to paint.  The picture was projected on the 30-foot high ceiling.

Starry Night was the final spectacle of the TON Yellow House, but the performance also started with a site-specific effect.  Those big windows in the North Hall, seven feet wide by 16 feet tall, had inspired Shapiro as well.  They were left exposed, with the curtains pulled back so that when the show began at 8 p.m. on the mid-June evenings, the sun was still shining in from the real world outside.  It was all the “lighting” designer Marc D. Malamud used until the daylight from outside faded gradually until sunset a little after 8:30 as the performance progressed.  (The room once had skylights, but a false ceiling had long ago been dropped beneath them.  Shapiro mused that it “would be great to do it like that.  To figure it out so that you started at the right time and went right through.”) 

Malamud and Shapiro hung theater instruments outside the windows as well to use for the testimony scene so that they could match the “color and quality” of the outside light to the stage lights inside.  In a scene set inside Vincent’s house, Rojo aligned the house’s window with the ones of the North Hall so that Vincent opened his window and pointed out to a real Baltimore landmark and said: “[T]his could be the center of a new renaissance”—acknowledging the real world.  (The Peabody is within view of the Walters Art Museum, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Baltimore’s Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Place, among other sights.)

As I noted earlier, The Yellow House also reintroduced the Shaliko technique of the multiple casting of one role.  Shapiro had used this technique before, but in Yellow House, four actors, including a woman and an African-American, played van Gogh in various avatars.  In one remarkable scene, three Vincents, all dressed the same (in a representation of 1889’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, appeared together as the Painter (Camp/Mallon) painted his Self Portrait (Carambo) from his reflection in the Mirror (Krupa/Verderber)—as they conversed with one another (or themselves, as it were). 

Shapiro also used Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s music and songs as the voices of characters on stage.  He explained that “Van Gogh was inarticulate and rough . . ., and yet his letters are so eloquent.  I wanted him to stand on stage unable to speak . . . while someone was singing the words of one of his letters.”  In an interview, Shapiro commented about these devices, reminiscent of practices in certain Asian performance forms.  At the time, Shapiro said he knew nothing about Asian theater and that the resemblance was certainly not conscious.  (He surmised he might have absorbed this effect through his long-time study of Bertolt Brecht who was influenced by Asian theater forms.)  In retrospect, Shapiro concluded, he’d “stumbled on very early without the slightest knowledge” that he had done so, the “essence” of Asian theater: an emphasis on storytelling and a “complete redefinition of the concept of dramatic action,” the spectator-performer relationship, and the way both the actors and the audience relate to the story.  (It’s interesting to note that van Gogh, himself, was influenced by Japanese art.) 

The Asian-theater similarity goes even farther, and reveals another of Shapiro’s long-time goals.  The Yellow House, which Shapiro described in publicity as an “image opera,” also began the exploration of the synthesis of arts in performance with Kabuki and Beijing Opera as paradigms.  This Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk was also a principle of one of Shapiro’s significant influences, Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940): “Wagner’s idea of a new theatre which would be a dramatic synthesis of words, music, lighting, rhythmical movement and all the magic of the plastic parts.”  (Meyerhold, arguably an inspiration for almost all avant-garde theater people who came of age in the 1960s as Shapiro had, maintained a life-long interest in Asian theater which was one of the central influences on his work as a director.)

Though previous Shaliko shows had included music and dance—or at least choreography—with The Yellow House Shapiro began complecting music, sound, dance, movement, speech, poetry, and slide projections more and more into his pieces.  The director saw Yellow House as a “musical dialogue involving singers, musicians, actors, and set.”  Theater technology, as represented by projections like the van Gogh paintings at La MaMa and TON and, later, videos, also became increasingly integral to Shaliko performances.  In other productions, Shapiro also used recorded voices, electronically distorted speech, and on- and off-stage microphones. In the Trinity  performances of The Van Gogh Project, Theo van Gogh’s voice was heard over a microphone from off stage.  At La MaMa, Theo’s voice was on tape.   

While the La MaMa workshop was performed largely on the stage, however much Shapiro extended it beyond the back wall, with the audience out front, the TON performance space was essentially a huge room with a raised recital stage at one end.  Rojo lined the room with 16-foot construction scaffolding (not coincidentally, the same height as the windows) on three sides, leaving the recital platform open (for the musicians).  Shapiro (who’d been constrained not to alter the room itself) felt the “versatility, verticalness, cheapness, and roughness” of the scaffolding “subverted some of the room’s formality and prissiness.”  The viewers were seated along the sides of the room while the action took place all over the center of the space (including near enough to the spectators for the actors to speak to them) and on the scaffolds.  In contrast to the New York performances, the Baltimore presentation was much more environmental.  The Yellow House sets were even interactive: when van Gogh goes mad, the furniture danced in mid-air, manipulated like marionettes by the actors, themselves, in full view of the audience. 

Just as the set was a vital element in the performance, however, the music and singing, composed and performed by violinist Julie Lyonn Lieberman (b. 1954), was also integral.  John Strausbaugh of City Paper (4-10 July 1986) remarked that the text “was less a dramatic script than an oratorio.”  This was intended, as Shapiro asserted, “to reveal the psychic activity with extended moments and images.”  In Baltimore, Lieberman and a cellist (Pam Devier) played and sang on a tall platform at one end of the hall (at La MaMa, Rojo had a balcony built above the audience’s heads)—but members of the cast also sang, chanted, and otherwise vocalized from the performance area.  Shapiro dubbed the show “an image opera,” and Strausbaugh called the music “as much an environment as the set.”  (In his review of the New York presentation, Victor Gluck contended in the theater trade paper Back Stage on 28 March 1986 that the concept owed “much to the Theatre of Images” of Mabou Mines, Lee Breuer, Robert Wilson, and Richard Foreman.)  The music and singing, declared Stausbaugh, “provided both the emotional and narrative context for the piece.”

The Yellow House was perhaps Shaliko’s prettiest production.  Director Shapiro and designer Rojo derived the colors for the set and other production elements from van Gogh’s last painting, Crows Over the Wheat Field, dominated by blues and a deep, intense yellow color. (This fact contained its own small irony: the cadmium yellow pigment was significant to the painter because it evoked the bright, hot sun of Arles, but it also contained arsenic and may have helped cause van Gogh’s madness because he had a habit of sucking on his brushes.)  Though essentially ignored by critics outside Baltimore (there was one review of the New York production), it received excellent notices at the Theatre of Nations.  Non-linear in structure and surrealistic in design, it was visually stunning, captivating audiences and critics alike. 

The presentation at La MaMa received one sole review, in Back Stage (published almost a month after the last performance), in which Victor Gluck wrote that the production “as a visual experience . . . was absolutely startling.”  While complaining that as drama, “it was quite fragmented and sketchy,” Gluck declared that “it brilliantly captured Van Gogh’s psychological states of mind.”  He also proclaimed that the performance “was always startling and always intrigued the mind, the ear and the eye.” 

The TON production garnered a few more notices, but they were all local—no national press covered the festival as heavily as it deserved—and the weekly City Paper ran two reviews, one covering the whole event and the other on The Yellow House alone.  Both, though, came out after the Theatre of Nations had folded its tents and left town.  First up was John Strausbaugh’s “The Color Yellow,” in which he described the Shaliko production as “boldly staged.”  Reporting that Shaliko had “totally transformed their performance space . . . with an ingenious environmental set,” he added, “The staging made brilliant use of the entire room.”  The Yellow House, wrote Strausbaugh, “was a busy, highly stylized production that filled this space with an imagistic interpretation of Van Gogh’s troubled life.”  It was “an almost operatic interweaving of music and text.”  The reviewer described the painting scene with the three van Goghs I mention above as “gorgeous” and characterized the scene in which the set pieces “literally danced in the air” as “a great moment of theatrical overload, very like being stuck in Van Gogh’s mind and being barraged by a chorus of mad, conflicting voices and visions.”  The Yellow House, summed up Strausbaugh, “was crammed to bursting with ideas and images, words and actions and music.”  He went on:

There was so much going on, at such a constant pitch of intensity and ingenuity, that it was sometimes overwhelming and exhausting.  Mounting a production that was both this monumental and this meticulously detailed was a feat of heroic, obsessive vision worthy of its subject. 

David Bergman’s omnibus City Paper column, “The Party’s Over,” followed Strausbaugh’s review a week later and he called The Yellow House “a devastating play.”  Of the three-Vincent painting scene, Bergman labeled it “unforgettable” and declared, “I have never seen schizophrenia so convincingly handled on stage.”  He also called the Starry Night climax “one of the most beautiful stage images I have ever seen.”  (He concluded his article by averring, “The gesture summarized what the festival was all about—the power of artists to make another world.”)

In Baltimore’s daily Sun, J. Wynn Rousuck called the play a “highly inventive piece that’s “an intriguing study . . . suffused with a sense of the sanctity of the creative life.”  He, too, praised the three-painter scene as the performance’s “most stunning effect.”  Lieberman’s songs and Jo’s narration “bring to life the written words and inner thoughts of this plagued spirit.”  Rousuck was so taken with The Yellow House that a decade later, when Shapiro’s production of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov came to Baltimore’s Theatre Project from Albuquerque, the Sun reviewer reminded his readers about Shapiro’s “extraordinary work about Vincent Van Gogh” (31 October 1996) which had been “stunning” enough to "take your breath away” (12 November 1996).  (The theater artist hadn’t come east with his Riverside Repertory Theatre Company cast because he was too ill to travel.  Leonardo Shapiro died of cancer at home in New Mexico, where he’d gone to retire in 1993, on 22 January 1997.)

[I think that Yellow House was the most potentially successful of Shapiro’s work in terms of critical and audience reception—had it only received the kind of attention it deserved, especially at the Theatre of Nations.  It’s more accessible than Strangers, arguably the theater piece that most realized the principles and techniques Shapiro developed with the Shaliko Company (see my post on 3 and 6 March 2014), but it still demonstrates the theatricality, the space use, the synthesis of arts,  and so on.  It’s also a recognizable topic—people know about van Gogh—and it’s an exploration of something audiences understand intuitively.  Shapiro agreed that Yellow House was “pretty” and “not too rough . . . to be popular,” as he recognized that some of the Shaliko projects were.  The Baltimore theater festival was largely ignored except as a local event (even the Washington Post didn’t cover it, much less the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, New York magazine, VarietyTime, or Newsweek.  As you see, those Baltimore reviewers that did write about The Yellow House essentially raved over it.  Had the show garnered that kind of attention out of New York or nationally, it might have allowed Shapiro to raise the money for that unrealized European tour of Yellow House and a final New York production of the finished theater piece.  Nothing probably could have prevented Shapiro getting the diagnosis of bladder cancer the director received in July 1995, but had Yellow House gotten the kind of press coverage I think it should have, the end of Shapiro’s career might have been very different.

[I don’t put footnotes on Rick On Theater, but all the quotations in “The Yellow House” are sourced; I will be pleased to furnish any reader who’s interested with the citations for them upon request.  The sources, some of which aren’t published, run a gamut of Shaliko documents, articles and essays written by Leonardo Shapiro, reviews and press coverage of Shaliko’s and Shapiro’s work, interviews with Shapiro and  his colleagues and associates conducted by me, interviews of Shapiro conducted by other writers (some published and some not), transcripts from video tapes, and several other resources.  I won’t append a list of sources here—it would go on for pages—but I will list the reviews I quoted at the end of “The Yellow House”:

·   Victor Gluck, “The Yellow House,” Back Stage [New York] 28 March 1986: 42A.
·   John Strausbaugh, “Theater: The Color Yellow,” City Paper [Baltimore] 4-10 July 1986: 28-29.
·   David Bergman, “Theater: The Party’s Over,” City Paper [Baltimore] 11-17 July 1986: 28.
·   J. Wynn Rousuck, “‘The Yellow House’ Paints a Brilliant Picture of Van Gogh,” The Sun [Baltimore] 25 June 1986, sec. B: 1, 3.
·   J. Wynn Rousuck, “Shapiro’s Chekhov,” The Sun [Baltimore] “Like” [magazine sec.] 31 October 1996: 28.
·   J. Wynn Rousuck, “Theater review; Avant-garde director takes wing with ‘Seagull,’” The Sun [Baltimore] 12 November 1996, sec. E: 3.

[If any reader wants to verify a citation, leave a request in the Comments section for this post.  Just a reminder, however: not all sources will be available to the public and others may be hard to access because they exist only in non-circulating collections like the New York Public Library Billy Rose Theatre Division.]