28 February 2010

'The Orphans’ Home Cycle': Themes & Performance

[In the first installment of my report on the Signature Theatre’s production of OHC, I discussed the background of Foote’s composition of the plays that became the cycle and some of the history of the première production. In the second installment, I’ll comment on some of the themes that I believe Foote was working on and evaluate the performance and staging of the production.]

Before I venture into my attempt to evaluate the production, let me make a few remarks about what I think Foote was up to. Unlike Morris Louis, the painter I recently reported left little behind to explain his work, Foote left literally volumes. (Aside from scores of interviews and articles about his writing, Foote published two memoirs--Farewell in 1999 and Beginnings in 2001--and a book of essays--Genesis of an American Playwright, 2004. Michael Wilson, the director of OHC, used Farewell as a resource during rehearsals.) First off, the playwright’s own statement gives a hint: "Early on, I said to myself that I would like to write a kind of moral and spiritual history of a place.” Even Foote saw that this objective sounded a little “pretentious,” but that’s what he set out to do. Director Wilson stated that he thinks people who see Foote as a miniaturist have misunderstood his work, but I think OHC is, on one level, precisely a portrait of a town and an extended family limned in minute detail, focusing on carefully selected events that spotlight, in Foote’s estimation, the deeper truths of life in America. Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal called the cycle “’Our Town’ in macrocosm”--doing in nine acts what Thornton Wilder did in three. I don’t think Foote applies the artistry and sociological clarity to OHC that Wilder did to OT, which, for all its apparent sentimentality is a tremendously clear abstraction of early-20th-century American life. Foote’s American portrait is much more tied to particular people and their peculiar histories. In Cousins, a play all about family connections both past and present, one character accuses Horace of being obsessed with the past. He is, because he and Foote both believe that our history helps define us; Horace’s past has surely made him what he is. He is set on the path that leads him through the span of the plays because of what happens to him in his childhood either because it shapes him directly--being abandoned by his mother, left to fend for himself as a small child, dropping out of school in sixth grade--or because he struggles to overcome or change his heritage--losing his father at an early age, being shut out by an emotionally distant mother, dismissed by an even colder step-father, watching his future wife dominated by a martinet father make him seek out a family of his own and become a diligent and caring parent. It’s his past that teaches him to want these things and make him go after them so singlemindedly.

Within this objective, to use an actor’s term, are more universal themes that Foote’s exploring. Cousin Minnie tells Horace in Cousins, “A family is a remarkable thing, isn’t it? You belong. And then you don’t. It passes you by.” An orphan is someone without a family, and Foote’s daughter characterizes her grandfather, the real-life avatar of Horace, as “a semi-orphan.” In Valentine’s Day, Horace tells his wife, “I am no orphan, but I think of myself as an orphan, belonging to no one but you. I intend to have everything I didn't have before. A house of my own, some land, a yard, and in that yard I will plant growing things, fruitful things . . . .” A theme Michael Wilson stressed in rehearsal was “the search for home and identity,” and Horace is constantly creating a family and a home because he lost both when he was 12 and never got them back until he was old enough to build them for himself. Horace is obsessed with his past because that’s the hole he’s trying to fill in his life.

The sweep of the cycle, which begins with a death (Horace’s father) and ends with one (Elizabeth’s father), is ultimately about Horace’s efforts to make himself into the kind of man he wants to be. He had come from Southern aristocracy--one ancestor had been governor of Texas (a fact of Foote’s family history as well), but the family never came out of the devastation of the Civil War and Restoration. Then what was left of the family is taken from Horace as his father sinks into alcoholism, his mother leaves the home, his father dies, and he’s left alone in Harrison. Even his father’s friends and relatives who promise to look after him disappear: his father’s law partner, John Howard, dies suddenly, his cousin George Tyler becomes a drunk, and his Uncle Terrence Robedaux is an “overeducated fool” who reads Greek and Latin, but can’t do anything, as his Thornton relatives constantly point out. Finally, his grandmother Robedaux, unable to face the death of her son, leaves Harrison and sells their home, leaving Horace in the care of his mother’s family, who essentially turn him loose. The family can’t even afford to put a tombstone on Paul Horace’s grave. Out of this, Horace becomes determined to make himself into something better, a responsible husband and father. Hallie Foote says of her grandfather, he “had nothing [but] turned out to be this sort of upstanding guy”--and that’s what happens over the nine episodes of OHC: Horace invents himself.

Foote himself said that part of the scope of OHC is to portray the changes wrought by the passage of an era in the post-bellum South. I’m sure that’s true--it is in the plays--but first of all, it forms the background of the more personal--or, at least, human--stories Foote’s telling, and second, it’s not a subject about which we know little, at least in dramatic terms. Of greater impact, I think, is Foote’s exploration of his own question, “How do people stand everything that comes to them? Why is it that some people find a way to deal with the tragedies that come their way and other people unravel?" He even has Horace ask a nearly identical question in 1918. Foote has said that this is an abiding question for him, and his daughter also repeats it. In OHC, the question most often refers to the deaths that seem to surround Horace and his family. At the time his father dies, his former partner dies, too; right after Henry Vaughn dies at the end of the cycle, the Robedauxs’ young housekeeper, Gertrude, drowns on a fishing trip. In between, every episode includes several deaths, many of which are almost shrugged off. It may be that when Foote reduced each play to the one hour of its most dramatic content, all those deaths, which may have just been part of the passing scene in the longer versions, became salient. When they’re strung together in the cycle, the plot begins to seem like a litany of mortality.

In addition, while I’ll accept Foote’s own assertion that he’s examining how people cope with what’s handed them, when Horace asks, “How can human beings stand all that comes to them? How can they?” no answer comes back. In fact, someone always seems to be asking a similar question, and the response it always draws is, ‘They just do.’ I don’t know if Foote’s telling us that no one has the answer or he just didn’t--and maybe in real life that’s the best answer anyone can give, but in drama, if you’re going to raise that question, especially if you’re going to make a point of it, you ought to have a more philosophical answer at hand. If not that, then make the point that it’s a question no one can answer. I suspect that’s actually the playwright’s intent; he also said, after all, “I believe very deeply in the human spirit and I have a sense of awe about it because I don’t know how people carry on.” Maybe his tacit way of addressing this mystery is dramaturgically effective and I’m just too literal, but downplaying it, despite the frequency with which Foote raises the question, seems more off-hand than focal, more dismissive than significant. And maybe that’s why I’m not a playwright.

I think I’ve gone on long enough about the undertaking that the production of OHC represents and Foote’s themes and objectives and I ought to address the staging of this trilogy. So here goes.

Actually, it’s not terribly hard to evaluate the production as a piece of theater--or three pieces, as it were. The work of all the artists is top-notch. I’m sure if I think about it, I could come up with some quibbles, but overall, no one misses much that I could see. And when I take into consideration the prodigious effort that the trilogy represents, it’s somewhat amazing that no one stumbles. A lot of the credit for this obviously goes to Michael Wilson, who coordinated all the work that culminates in the three-part production and kept everyone on the same track. From the reports, he also had a hand in revising the scripts for the nine-play assembly, not least because he and Hallie Foote did the final editing after the playwright’s death four months before rehearsals started. (I also assume that James Houghton was engaged in much of the process as well, though clearly less directly than Wilson.) And because of the nature of the plays, their setting in the earliest years of the 20th century, in a milieu that was almost certainly unfamiliar to everyone in the cast (except, of course, Ms. Foote) and design team, and Horton Foote’s invocation of music, dances, customs, and lore of his native region, the efforts of Kirsten Bowen, Signature’s Literary Associate and the dramaturg for the production, and her staff were probably invaluable; indeed, her own description of what the literary team did makes that evident. The literary staff pulled together scads of materials---photos, diaries, descriptions, documents, and the like--that helped bring the details of the century-old world of small-town southeast Texas to life for the designers, actors, and director. For three hours each night, this company manages to create a series of snapshots of the world Foote envisioned and draw us into it for a time. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment; I’ve seen performances, far simpler than this one and set in a more accessible time and place, where the cast and director didn’t manage to inhabit a believable world and I sat outside the experience watching actors acting. And this troupe did it while covering a span of almost three decades and while some of them were playing more than one character. (If there ever was a show that demanded a non-star ensemble, this is it, by the way. Not only does the dynamic of the world of Harrison, Texas, need the kind of enveloping acting to create and maintain the snow-globe universe--one actor, taking off from Cousin Minnie’s line about family, said that the company has formed a temporary family--but a star actor might burst through that glass globe and unbalance the performance.)

This isn’t to say that the whole experience is without flaws or problems. I can’t avoid being impressed with the achievement because it’s so daunting to contemplate, but I do wonder if the result is as impressive as the effort. I’ve already hinted at a few textual issues--the litany of deaths, the unanswered and unanswerable question Foote keeps asking--and I suggested that some of the problems might be caused by reducing longer plays meant to stand on their own to one-hour episodes of a coherent cycle. I’ve seen eight of August Wilson’s 10 black-experience plays and I had the sense that one or two were written not out of inspiration but duty. I felt one, for instance, was composed because themes to be developed later had to be introduced, so the playwright came up with a plot to fit the need, not because he had a story to tell. Another play seemed to have been created because Wilson knew he had to have a play for a missing decade, so he wrote one to fill the gap. With Foote’s nine plays, I sometimes had the same sense even though his cycle isn’t tied to such a specific pattern. Michael Feingold in the Village Voice criticized Foote’s dramaturgy as occasionally an “expository motor [which] seems to hum without moving anything forward.” Cousins, which seems like an excuse to set out a display of Horace’s family tree and demonstrate the importance of history to him, feels gratuitous to me, (It is, interestingly, the one play that spans the greatest distance, moving from Harrison to Houston and back to Harrison.) Cousins also epitomizes a more pervasive problem with OHC: there are so many characters, especially family members, that it was impossible for me to keep track of them and to keep them all straight. (Because different actors sometimes play one character, this difficulty’s exacerbated.) In fact, The Story of a Family (of which Cousins is the second act) is much less engaging than The Story of a Childhood, the most intriguing section of the cycle. And 1918 seems to exist in order to show the devastation of the flu pandemic, but once we know it’s going on, it’s hardly a surprise when Horace succumbs and then we learn that baby Jenny has died. (We certainly know that Horace will survive since the story would end if he dies.) The Death of Papa is less predictable--though the title gives away the central event, of course--but feels attenuated, as if Foote needed to fill in facts he determined were important for the end of the chapter and put them all into the last play.

The central character, Horace Robedaux, is a bit of a problem, too, I think. The cycle’s the dramatic equivalent of a Bildungsroman, the story of the development of the protagonist, and Horace is the classic unbeschriebenes Blatt, the blank page. He’s a little like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace--he walks through his own story like a spectator more than a participant (much less the prime mover). The story happens to him, but he doesn’t propel it. I was never much of a lit student, so I guess that works in prose, but it has problems in drama. It means the center of the play is a cipher. Like Bezukhov, Horace is a lens through which we see the other characters and the events of the story, but a lens isn’t active. This has nothing that I can see to do with the performances of Bill Heck or the two young actors who play Horace at 12 (Dylan Riley Snyder) and 14 (Henry Hodges), who all did fine work. (I read one comment--on a blog--that complained that the two boys had missed the strength of the character, but I don’t believe either actor missed much of anything. Reviews that mentioned them, praised their work.) The fault here is that the character’s written that way and no actor or director could alter that. In fact, Heck communicates a great deal of Horace’s inner turmoil, the confusion or pain he feels as life seems to single him out for special battering, with often subtle shifts in his body or face. One excellent example is when Mr. Vaughn, having softened to his new son-in-law, gives Horace a priceless gift: a box of books that had belonged to Paul Horace Robedaux. Foote’s simple words of thanks don’t even begin to express the emotions Horace is feeling at that moment; but Heck’s face and manner do. (This isn’t to say that Heck doesn’t manage some big moments as well. His descent into malaria in Lily Dale along with the accompanying dementia is very effective--and affecting.) Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post called Heck “a modern-day Gary Cooper”--which I think is a little much, but you get the idea (unless you’re too young to remember Coop).

A lesser problem is that the characters are unbalanced by gender. While Horace has bad parenting models in both father-figures (his own father, his father-in-law, his brother-in-law, his step-father) and mother-figures (his mother, his mother-in-law, his sister), the women are generally stronger personalities than the men, who run the gamut from drunkards, gamblers, and loose-livers to killers. Corrie Robedaux has the gumption to leave her husband, a drunk who can’t provide for his family, a choice that would have been horrendously hard at the turn of the century. She may have been a lousy mother, abandoning her son, but she pulls herself up and makes a life for herself and her daughter. Mary Vaughn is cowed by her stiff-backed husband, but after his death, she becomes the family matriarch. She makes a mistake when she turns the family holdings over to her son to manage, but she wrests them back when he proves incompetent and untrustworthy. Elizabeth Vaughn defies her father to marry Horace and faces ostracism only to prove she was right in her judgment. Claire Ratliff, who vacillates over whether to remarry and, if so, to whom, ultimately makes her decision based on what she thinks is best for her family. She chooses an older, established man because he can provide for them and because her children like him. Even Lily Dale, Horace’s willful sister, self-centered and petulant from childhood through her adult years, goes after what she wants and gets it. (Foote, according to his daughter, was pretty much raised by the women of his family--his mother, grandmothers, and aunts. They were also the ones who told the stories--presumably from their points of view--that the future playwright was listening to in Wharton. His female characters are often praised as more vivid than his males.) I don’t know that Foote was making a conscious point that women are stronger than men or are more responsible for the way we come through our hardships, but if he wasn’t, he’s inadvertently done that anyway.

It’s hard to pull out one or two actors who do better jobs than the cast as a whole--as I said, this was a true ensemble production. With a cast as large as this one, it wouldn’t have been surprising to find an actor here or there who wasn’t in the world of the play or somehow didn’t connect with a scene partner or a particular moment. I never spotted anything like that. Oh, sure, an actor stumbles over a line here or there--can you imagine keeping all that dialogue in your head, especially actors like Maggie Lacey, whose principal role is Elizabeth, or Bill Heck, who’s in every play but Convicts? (The Story of a Family had just opened on 26 January, just over a week before I saw it.) So, I don’t even count those inconsequential bobbles. You want guaranteed line-perfection, see a movie! But the entire cast is immersed in the world Foote created and Wilson translates onto the stage. (Three of the actors--Lacey, Heck, and Bryce Pinkham, who mostly plays Brother Vaughn--took a trip to visit Wharton, Texas, in the break between the closing of the Hartford presentation and the start of the Signature performances. They met many of the people around whom Horton Foote had grown up--descendants in some cases of the characters in the plays--and saw the places featured in the plot, including the family gravesite where Paul Horace’s real-life counterpart is buried. Pinkham recounts how Heck and Lacey stood before the graves of Foote’s father and mother, the Horace and Elizabeth of OHC.) I can’t say anyone hits a false note. Most of the acting is pretty low-key; I’d say it’s almost film acting with the extra energy needed to work live in a theater. There’s occasional scenery-chewing--not uncalled for--such as James DeMarse’s portrayal of Soll Gautier, the alcoholic and delusional plantation owner in Convicts, who progressively becomes so demented that he doesn’t remember who’s alive and who’s dead. (In his white fright wig, he looks a little like Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol after he’d been visited by Marley’s ghost.) He’s so distracted in the end that he has Horace read to him from Civil War-era newspapers he has stashed in his house, then instructs his hired hands to order his coffin built in preparation for his imminent death. (After a gallows-humorous bit where Gautier lies in his coffin and everyone thinks he’s died there, he ends up dying quietly in a chair, gripping Horace’s hand as the boy is reading the old papers.) Gautier is a thoroughly despicable character--cheap (he never pays poor Horace), dishonest, mean, paranoid--but DeMarse’s portrayal makes him sympathetic. Of course, there are many drunks in the nine plays, and their scenes are always higher-energy than the surrounding ones, but they’re never out of line or over the top.

DeMarse, in addition to his tour-de-force appearance as Soll Gautier, also depicts Henry Vaughn, Horace’s stern father-in-law, as a man who cares deeply about his family but only knows how to hem them in to protect them. (Diana suggested that she’d like to see DeMarse play Lear because he was able to portray both anguish and strength in the same character. He does that, no question, but I’m not sure that alone prepares him for Lear, especially since DeMarse lists no classical roles in his bio.) Other cast members who do noticeable work include Maggie Lacey, who aside from Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux plays Inez Thornton, one of Horace’s aunts, an actress of strong and secure manner, but who displays it in a softness of demeanor and behavior that makes Elizabeth the calm center of the storm that always seems to be swirling around her husband. And I can’t get away without some comment about Hallie Foote, who’s been playing her father’s women with a sharp tongue and tough spirit for so long that she almost seems to be living the plays rather than acting in them. (She appears mostly as Mary Vaughn, Elizabeth’s mother, but also does turns as Asa Gautier Vaughn, a slatternly, mean drunk, and Elizabeth Hill Robedaux, Horace’s grandmother and the matriarch of the boy’s father’s family. I’ve also seen her in Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. I assume she’s appeared in other writers’ plays, but I can’t imagine what she’d be like.) To name other actors whose work stands out would be to replicate the cast list, I’m afraid. (I will add one observation: Henry Hodges, as the young Horace who’s not quite a man in Convicts, works with DeMarse in that gothic scene I described above with just the right hint of fear, amazement, and determination not to freak out.)

Speaking of the acting essentially also refers to the directing here, since no cast could have pulled this effort together without the guiding hand of a director. So whatever I’ve said about the actors goes just as forcefully for Michael Wilson. His decision, with scenic designers Jeff Cowie and David M. Barber, to put the sets on moving platforms and use sliding panels to delineate the rooms and other spaces was certainly one prompted by considerations of efficiency, but it enhances, even underlies, the cinematic sweep the production exhibits. Silently and seemingly effortlessly, each setting shifts into the next while at the same time, retaining the atmosphere and feel of the ones that came before and the ones that will come after. (There are unifying elements that remain from scene to scene such as the panels’ covering which resembles a country quilt and the backdrop painting of a sun-lit field extending off to the horizon.) The projection of the title of each part and then the title and year of each act (realized by Jan Hartley), while it smacks of Brechtian distancing, is more a tactic to help us enter the world Wilson and the actors create in each episode. Less like the Brechtian labels of his Epic Theater, they are more like the captions under snapshots in a family album. And Wilson has taken another technique that looks Brechtian but works in reverse: each section of the cycle opens with a silent pantomime of a significant image evoked by the three plays that evening. The Story of a Childhood introduces us to the three Horaces--the boy, the teenager, the man--in an almost film-like montage; The Story of a Marriage starts with dancers whirling around the stage while Horace searches for a partner; The Story of a Family begins with silent mourners, shielded from a downpour under umbrellas, parading across the stage. If the staging of the scenes was dictated by necessity and practicality, these kinds of touches go a great way to raising OHC above the level of mere storytelling into metaphoric theater art. (Since I mentioned the dancing, which figures conspicuously in The Story of a Marriage--choreographed by Peter Pucci--I must remark on the prominence of music in OHC. Wilson and John Gromada, who did the original music and sound design for the production, took their lead from Foote’s musical preferences--he was reportedly listening to a lot of Charles Ives while composing the cycle plays, for instance--and have included music and songs both evocative of the period and pertinent to the mood and themes of the episodes, some live, some on records to which the characters listen, and some “soundtrack,” which permeate the production throughout. Music is important to the Robedaux world: Elizabeth teaches piano and Lily Dale is a composer.)

As long as I’ve brought up the design aspects of the show, let me finish them off. In an undertaking as vast as OHC, it would be impossible to get anywhere, much less achieve this level of accomplishment, without the tech people fully on board and working with the director in tandem. As seamless as the set concept is, as integral as the sound and music are, I also have to add that the lighting and costumes are both as much a part of this remarkable whole as any other single part. David C. Woolard faced the surely daunting task of creating scores of costumes eliciting the first three decades of the 20th century, clothes for children, African-American plantation workers and house servants, men both prominent and down on their luck, women of wealth and some in straightened circumstances. But he couldn’t just take fashion plates out of period magazines or sketches from old Sears catalogues; he made designs that added to the characters, spoke of the themes, reflected the locales. It is praiseworthy that no one on the stage is wearing a costume. They are all wearing clothes--their clothes. (A few words here, too, about Mark Adam Rampmeyer’s wigs and hair-dos, of which there are many: if the actors look like 100-year-old tintypes, the hairstyles are the . . .ahem . . . crowning attribute.) And Rui Rita’s lighting makes all of this blend and come alive, whether sunlight through a window in a parlor or the moon through the leaves in the forest or the atmosphere lighting of an interior scene, it smoothes the edges or sharpens the focus as needed so that the little fragmentary sets become whole rooms, verandas, shops, or hospital waiting rooms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production--at least I can’t think of another one--that demands the coordinated effort of all the artists the way OHC does. Again, it must have been Wilson’s attentiveness that kept all the contributors in tune, like the sections of an orchestra, but each artist also had to keep in touch with all the others.

I don’t want to end up giving the wrong impression. OHC is not the greatest theater I’ve ever seen by any measure. I’m immensely impressed with the technical accomplishment, putting this huge event together and doing it as smoothly as Wilson and his team have done. I’m not sure the writing is the same achievement in the sense that, unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings, it was written in parts separately and independently over dozens of years. I don’t think Foote ever thought that one play would have to dovetail with another when he wrote each of them, unlike Tolkien (or J. K. Rowling), who set out to create a whole, integrated universe. Still, Foote did do that in the end, so we have this portrait of a particular small town inhabited by a specific group of people who show us (to paraphrase Thornton Wilder)--the way they were in the provinces south of Houston at the beginning of the Twentieth Century,-- . . . the way they were in their growing-up, in their marrying, in their living, and in their dying. But while I can’t fault the acting or other production aspects, I can’t make myself say OHC was an astounding artistic achievement. I’m thrilled to have seen it, but in ways similar to the way I was thrilled to have seen Tamara, the peripatetic play at which spectators followed one character as she made her way around different rooms of the Park Avenue Armory, but not the way I felt (and feel) about having seen Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides. The one was a major curiosity, cleverly conceived and executed; the other was a major artistic and theatrical accomplishment that has permanently shifted the way I think of theater. OHC falls somewhere in between those, but closer on the continuum to Tamara than Les Atrides.

25 February 2010

'The Orphans’ Home Cycle': Background & Production History

My theater partner, Diana, and I subscribed to the Signature Theatre this season in order to see its monumental production effort, The Orphans’ Home Cycle. Horton Foote’s final project, OHC is a nine-play, three-part series that recounts the fictionalized story of his father and the three families that came together in the first quarter of the 20th century in and around the little town of Harrison, Texas (the stand-in in many of Foote’s plays for his hometown of Wharton). The production, a cooperative endeavor with Connecticut’s Hartford Stage which presented the series first, was scheduled so that each part opened separately about a month apart. Only once all three parts had opened were there days on which you could see the nine plays in order over three consecutive nights (plus a couple of marathon weekend performance lasting all day long). In the original schedule (the production has been extended at the Signature, amid talks of a Broadway transfer in the fall), there were only two such three-day stretches, both in February. One set of dates was Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 3, 4, and 5 February, and the other set was at the end of the month. Diana and I made our reservations for the early dates, but we made that schedule way back last summer and we didn’t get the actual paper tickets, so when I wrote the dates in my calendar, I wrote down the end-of-the-month set and went all fall thinking I had to wait until late February to see this production. I watched the reviews come out for each section, most of them more than enthusiastic. (Ben Brantley in the Times absolutely raved about the first two parts--his review of Part One said the cycle “promises to be the great adventure of this theater season”--though he cooled down to a mere boil for Part Three. Joe Dziemanowicz called OHC a “home run” in the Daily News.)

So on Wednesday night, 3 February, when I got a call from Diana at the theater wondering where I was, I was shocked. Of course, I went to see Parts Two and Three on the nights we’d scheduled, but I had to see Part One out of order on Tuesday, 9 February. I’m a little disappointed not to have seen the plays, which take place chronologically, in order, but to be frank, it’s not a vital consideration--especially since I managed to get to Part One so quickly. (9 February was the first presentation of Part One after the one I’d missed.)

To be honest, I don’t really know how to approach this report. OHC is more than just a play; it’s even more than three plays--or nine plays. I hate to use the expression because it’s such a public-relations cliché, but it’s an event. Aside from whatever artistic accomplishment it represents or what it shows about Horton Foote and his life’s work, OHC is an immense logistical achievement. So let me start with a little production history/background and see where that leads.

To start with, the plays tell the story of Foote’s father (Albert Horton Foote, Sr.--the playwright is actually Albert Horton Foote, Jr.), here called Horace Robedaux. The cycle spans the years 1902 through 1928, from the death of Horace’s father, Paul Horace Robedaux (the stand-in for Foote’s paternal grandfather, Albert Foote), to the death of his wife’s father, Henry Vaughn, and relates the interconnected lives of the Robedaux family, the Vaughns, and the Thorntons (the fictional counterpart to Foote’s paternal grandmother’s family). The family relationships are fairly complicated, in great part because they all include extended family members such as first and second cousins (and at least one second cousin once removed); one of the plays, Cousins (number eight in the series), is almost a litany of Horace’s relations by blood and by marriage. I imagine this was all part of Foote’s childhood world as most members of all the families stayed in or near Harrison/Wharton (where everyone knew everyone else anyway), so they all had contact with one another all the time and even often had influence. Keeping the relationships straight, a hard thing to do, is tremendously important for the members of Horace’s family, too. (Coincidentally, my mother and my aunt, her sister-in-law, went through a version of this family-tree inquiry last Thanksgiving in behalf of a cousin who, oddly, is related to me on both sides of my family. If you don’t think that’s confusing . . . .)

Foote actually started on the plays as early as 1960 when he wrote The Night of the Storm as a teleplay for the DuPont Show of the Month. (It aired on CBS in 1961.) Foote’s first attempt to tell his father’s story, it later became Roots in a Parched Ground, the first play in OHC. In 1974, on the advice of Stark Young, retired theater reviewer for the New Republic and Theatre Arts, Foote began writing the plays that would become the story of his father’s childhood and his courtship of and marriage to Foote’s mother, called Elizabeth Vaughn in the plays. By 1974, he’d written eight of the plays, starting with 1918 (the seventh play in the cycle); he added the ninth, The Widow Claire (the fourth play), in 1979. He gave the series the name Orphans’ Home Cycle from a line from “In Distrust of Merits,” a 1944 poem by Marianne Moore: “The world’s an orphans’ home.”

Between 1975 and 1980, Foote directed workshops of three of the plays, Courtship (1975), 1918 (1979), and Valentine’s Day (1980), at HB Playwrights Foundation in the West Village. (It was in those workshops that Foote’s daughter, Hallie, just starting out to be an actress, originated the role of Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux, her fictionalized grandmother.) Foote also produced indie films of the three plays (which featured Hallie Foote and her brother, Horton, Jr., and sister, Daisy). Almost all the cycle plays saw productions on stage, film, or TV, including the 1991 feature film Convicts, starring Robert Duval, Lukas Haas, and James Earl Jones. Only Cousins hadn’t been presented before the Hartford staging. Although Foote conceived of the plays to stand on their own as individual productions, he did want to see them performed together. In 2007, Hartford Stage commissioned the playwright to adapt the scripts into a nine-play cycle of one-acts. In January 2009, New York City’s Signature Theatre Company joined with Hartford Stage to co-produce the three-part cycle. Foote completed drafts of all nine scripts just before his death at 92 on 4 March last year. Michael Wilson, the artistic director of Hartford Stage who’d staged several of Foote’s plays in the past, presented the series first in Connecticut, 27 August-17 October 2009; the Signature productions, at the Peter Norton Space on far West 42nd Street, began previews on 29 October 2009 with Part One opening on 19 November, Part Two on 17 December, and Part Three on 26 January 2010. (In January, the Signature Theatre also announced the extension of the OHC production, originally scheduled to end on 6 March, through 8 May. Around the same time, director Michael Wilson and producer Daryl Roth disclosed plans for a Broadway transfer in the fall.)

(Wilson and James Houghton, artistic director of the Signature, have also announced that they’ve nominated OHC for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. The plays have been published by Grove Press, although considering the publication dates, the texts are not the same as the edited versions that form the cycle presented in Hartford and New York, on which Foote was still working when he died last year. The plays are published in the same order and in three volumes, but they’re not divided up the same way as the production: Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, and The Widow Claire came out in 1988; Courtship, Valentine’s Day, and 1918 were released in 1987; and Cousins and The Death of Papa were published in 1989. There are also other editions of some of the texts, and my guess is that the plays will become staples in acting classes and directing programs for years to come.)

Altogether, the plays cover 26 years and include 67 roles (including characters like Horace Robedaux at different ages), played by 22 actors. Many of the cast appear as several different characters; others play the same person at different stages of his or her life--a number actually do both, like James DeMarse who plays plantation overseer Soll Gautier in Convicts and then appears as Henry Vaughn, Horace Robedaux’s father-in-law, from 1916 through his death in 1928. Bill Heck is first seen as Paul Horace Robedaux, Horace’s father, in Roots in a Parched Ground and then as Horace from age 20 through 38. (Two other young actors play Horace at ages 12 and 14.) Each play is set not only in a different year, but a different place and many have multiple locations, so there are literally dozens of sets. As the play moves from 1902, barely into the 20th century, to 1928, just before the Wall Street crash and with World War II on the horizon, the clothing of the characters keeps pace with the changing fashions of the day. There must be scores of costumes, especially women’s dresses, as well as accessories, hand props, and wigs. I’ve never been backstage at the Peter Norton Space, but I can only imagine that the Off-Broadway theater is a rabbit warren of set pieces, costume racks, prop tables, and actors behind the scenes. There are days, all Saturdays, when the theater runs all three parts in one day, the sections starting at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m. That means the cast is on stage, with a one-hour afternoon break and then a two-hour evening one, for 12 hours. (In Hartford, the theater arranged for breaks and meals at a hotel near the theater. I don’t know what the Signature, which is located on 42nd Street all the way over near 11th Avenue, has set up. I’ve done two shows in a day, but never three and never different plays. Still, I know from experience that getting out of the theater building even for just a few moments can be very refreshing psychologically--it cleared the cotton clogging my head.)

So, that addresses the “event” aspects of this production. I have to say that I can’t imagine how a commercial producer plans to approach this for the proposed Broadway transfer next fall. (The original announcement was for an immediate shift into the Neil Simon Theatre for a limited run after the current engagement ends this spring. Wilson, Roth, and Houghton quickly realized that that couldn’t work because of the logistics of the move. They cited considerations of marketing the commercial production that would require more time to put into action. As commentators have remarked, this isn’t the usual Broadway fare. Two recent multi-play productions on Broadway, the Neil Simon Plays (Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound) and Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests both closed without recouping their investments. The Simon Plays did so poorly at the box office that they didn’t even complete the rep pairing, closing BBM early without even opening BB. Some analysis of Norman indicated that tickets sold inconsistently because potential spectators weren’t sure whether or not they had to see all three plays or whether the order in which they were viewed made any difference. OHC could run into some of that same confusion. To start with, it’s not only nine plays over three evenings, probably already a hard sell, but each part takes three hours. That means either going late, which will discourage some suburban theatergoers, or starting early (as the Signature’s been doing), which could cramp the schedules of working spectators. Planning how to handle marathons interspersed among days when only one part of the trilogy is staged is another difficulty, and the producing consortium (which also includes Jeffrey Richards) will talk with the producers of The Norman Conquests and the recent Lincoln Center trilogy, Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, about how to handle this arrangement best. But in addition, OHC has all those sets, costumes, and props to juggle--and to pay for at Broadway contract rates. And let’s not forget that cast of 22, immense for a Broadway house, especially in the current economy. (Houghton says that raising the money for the transfer has not been a problem so far.) Furthermore, there’s nary a big name in the cast. (Hallie Foote, a Tony nominee for Dividing the Estate last year, is the only actor in OHC whose name, aside from her late father’s, someone outside the theater might recognize, and she’s hardly a star.) Now, I’m not disparaging the work of any of these people--they’ve formed an excellent ensemble in all respects--but as we’ve seen over the past few years, non-musical commercial productions, especially dramas, need star names to succeed on Broadway. However deplorable that situation is, it seems to be a fact. Analysts blame the lack of stars for the failure of the Simon Plays and the lackluster performance of Norman despite good reviews. (In my opinion, it would be awful if the producers replaced any actors with stars to sell OHC, though that could happen.) Now, I’m not at all saying that this transfer shouldn’t happen--or that, if it does, it can’t succeed. I’m just wondering out loud if it can work--though I applaud the impulse to try it.

When I mentioned my reservations about the commercial venture, my subscription partner, Diana, offered that the cycle might make a good movie--or, better, a television series. She may be right, too. It’s a little like Roots on a more limited basis, or, as Diana suggested, The Forsyte Saga. In fact, PBS has occasionally produced American stories, and maybe a Texas miniseries would work on non-commercial TV better than on a commercial stage. After all, it’s almost perfect for the medium as it is--each play, an episode, is already an hour long. Subtract the few minutes accumulated for set shifts that wouldn’t be needed in a taped series, and you have room for the credits and the intro. (In 1987, The Story of a Marriage, comprised of Courtship, On Valentine's Day, and 1918, appeared on PBS’s American Playhouse as a five-part mini-series. This shouldn’t be a deterrent, however, because PBS has aired remakes in the past. The aforementioned Forsyte Saga first showed up in 1969 and then in a new version in 2002.)

The Hartford and Signature production of OHC is one of the first--perhaps even the first--première or major production of any of Foote’s plays at which he wasn’t present in the rehearsal room. Both Signature, which has produced Foote’s plays over many seasons, including one devoted to his works, and Hartford, where Michael Wilson has staged several Foote scripts over his career, have counted Horton Foote as a valued friend for many years. When Wilson approached Foote to prepare the nine plays for presentation as a unified cycle, I’m sure the director, and later Houghton of Signature, figured the playwright would be around to dispense his advice, wisdom, and intimate knowledge. When Foote died (in Hartford, where he’d been working on the scripts) before the plays could even go into rehearsal starting last July, the post of informed insider fell to actor Hallie Foote, Horton’s daughter and, for several decades now, his most inspired interpreter. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like for her to work on these plays. The actress has played a character based on her own grandmother when she originated the role of Elizabeth Vaughn Robedaux in the HB Playwrights showcases of three of the cycle plays (directed by her father). In the current production, she plays her maternal great-grandmother, Mary Vaughn; her paternal great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Hill Robedaux; and her great-great aunt, Asa Gautier Vaughn. Hallie Foote said that she knew her actual paternal grandmother, Harriet Brooks Foote (called “Hallie,” too), but “never knew her as a young girl,” and even knew her great-grandmother slightly. But she would have grown up with her father’s stories of his family as well as the tales from other relatives. (One of the things apparent about the Robedauxs-Thorntons-Vaughns in Foote’s plays is that they all stuck close to Harrison, so they were always around to talk. If the Footes-Hortons-Brookses in Wharton were anything like their fictionalized avatars, they did, too.) What must it be like to play characters based on members of your own family like that? To be a member of a cast, one of 22, but also the authority on the real-life basis for the plots, characters, and settings? I can’t begin to imagine that.

I guess it’s time now for a plot summary and episode breakdown. I’ll be as succinct as I can.

Part One: The Story of a Childhood: In Act I, Roots in a Parched Ground (1902-03 in Harrison, Texas), 12-year-old Horace Robedaux’s father, a once-prominent lawyer, is dying of drink and dissolution. Horace shuttles back and forth between the house of his father’s mother, where Paul Horace lies near death, and that of his mother’s mother, where the Thornton family sits singing to guitar music; he doesn’t quite belong anywhere. His mother, Corella, separated from Paul Horace, decides to take the boy’s younger sister, Lily Dale, to Houston, where she’d been working as a seamstress. Horace is left behind in Harrison with the feuding Robedauxs and Thorntons because Corella’s new husband-to-be, Pete Davenport, doesn’t want him. The boy stays with his mother’s family, quits school, and sets out to find a job so he can earn enough money to put a tombstone on his father’s grave. Act II, Convicts (1904 in Floyd’s Lane, Texas), opens on Christmas Eve and Horace, now 14, has taken a job clerking at the store on Soll Gautier's plantation. Gautier, an alcoholic and deranged Confederate vet, uses convict labor to replace the slaves he lost after Emancipation and while Horace is there, he witnesses the convicts’ harsh treatment. He sees the shooting death of one convict, the death from untended illness of another, and finally, the death of Gautier himself. Act III, Lily Dale (1910 in Houston), has 20-year-old Horace making a rare visit to his mother and sister. Corella Davenport has sent Horace the train fare to Houston when she believes her husband will be in Atlanta a week on family business, but they are all surprised when Davenport returns early and finds Horace in the home. Horace's presence stirs up difficult feelings for his mother and sister and Corella tries to reconcile her children and their stepfather, who is also angry with Lily Dale because she’s been seeing Will Kidder, a man he doesn’t like. (Davenport relents and even gets Kidder, whom Lily Dale eventually marries, a job at the rail yard where he works.) At the end of Horace’s aborted visit, he collapses, ill with malaria (a recurring problem in southeast Texas at the time). Even Davenport won’t turn a sick man out, and Horace spends days in delirium on the Davenport’s living room sofa, recovering from his near-fatal illness. While he was ill, Horace learns when he awakens, the store near Harrison where he clerks has burned to the ground, leaving him without a job to return to even as his family sends him off on his own again.

Part Two: The Story of a Marriage: Act I, The Widow Claire (1912 in Harrison), opens on the night before Horace leaves Harrison for business school in Houston. He calls on the widow Claire Ratliff. Over the course of the evening he becomes further entangled in the lives of Claire and her young children. The young man treads back and forth between his boardinghouse, where his roommates are out carousing and playing poker, while Claire makes a decision about her future--whom she will marry. Once again, Horace shuttles between emblematic places--a potentially domestic, welcoming home with Claire and the temporary, rootless domain of gamblers, drinkers, and wastrels. Horace, having few prospects, is left alone in the end. In Act II, Courtship (1916 in Harrison), Elizabeth Vaughn has been seeing Horace Robedaux against the wishes of her parents, especially her wealthy and prominent father, Henry, who thinks Horace is wild and irresponsible. While a dance is underway nearby--Mr. Vaughn doesn’t allow dancing in his family, though both his daughters have secretly learned how--Horace pays a visit and Elizabeth must make a choice between him and her family. She confides in her sister Laura that she will marry Horace if he asks her. Act III, Valentine's Day (1917 in Harrison), begins on Christmas Eve, and Horace and Elizabeth, living in a rented room, are planning for their future. Though Elizabeth, who has just given birth to their daughter, Jenny (named for her older sister who died in childhood), hasn’t seen her family since she and Horace eloped on Valentine’s Day, the couple get an unexpected visit from Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn, and the couple reconcile with her family. Meanwhile, Brother Vaughn, Elizabeth’s ne’er-do-well brother, is doing poorly at Texas A&M and has gotten into debt from gambling and, he confesses to his sister, he needs money to pay for an abortion for a girl he’s gotten pregnant. Mr. Vaughn finds himself drawn to the Robedauxs’ little home despite his original reservations about the match and he offers to buy the couple a house. Horace accepts the offer, but only if the house is put in Elizabeth’s name so he’s not seen to have married her for a house.

Part Three: The Story of a Family: Act I, 1918 (1918 in Harrison), opens as the Spanish Flu pandemic strikes Harrison and the Robedaux family is hit particularly hard. Several family members have died from the illness and even Horace is stricken. While he’s ill, Elizabeth catches the flu, too, and is unable to nurse her gravely ill husband. Tragically, baby Jenny doesn’t survive the epidemic--a fact which Horace doesn’t know until Elizabeth tells him after his recovery. She also informs him that she’s expecting another child. World War I is raging in France, and Brother Vaughn wants very badly to join the troops but his father won’t let him enlist until he’s 18. The Armistice occurs near the end of the act as Harrison celebrates with parades and speeches; Mr. Vaughn, as the town’s leading citizen, is urged to participate in the ceremonies. At the start of Act II, Cousins (1923 in Harrison and Houston), constant rain has been devastating the cotton and cane crops, ruining the economy of Harrison. Horace, who has just opened his own haberdashery shop, is losing business as potential customers economize on clothes and accessories; some days he makes less than a dollar’s worth of sales. Horace is called to Corella's hospital bedside in Houston when she faces another in a series of operations. There’s a kind of uneasy accommodation among Horace, Pete Davenport, and Will Kidder, as the Robedauxs, Thorntons, and their in-laws attempt to sort through their complex family trees. Kidder has become wealthy from oil speculation, an investment Horace had turned down as too risky; Kidder’s wife, Horace’s sister Lily Dale, remains as spoiled and self-centered as she was in childhood. The past haunts Horace’s cousin Minnie Robedaux Curtis and has a pull on Horace as well. In Act III, The Death of Papa (1928 in Harrison), the sudden death of Elizabeth's father sends the Vaughn and Robedaux households into a tailspin while Horace struggles to keep his store open and support his family. Mrs. Vaughn places Brother Vaughn in charge of her estate, but he succumbs to the temptations of drink and gambling again and nearly impoverishes his family. Mrs. Vaughn decides to leave Harrison. Horace and Elizabeth’s young son, Horace, Jr., has become a voracious reader, to the consternation of some of his kin, and demonstrates an insatiable curiosity about everything around him. This final act of OHC ends in hope, but without a clear prediction of what the future will bring. Unbeknownst to everyone, of course, is the looming Great Depression and, following that, the start of another world war. "Don't be too sure about anything, Big Horace,” warns Brother Vaughn portentously at the end. “Not about anything in this world."

(A sidelight about 1918, the first episode of Story of a Family: My father was born just under a week before the Armistice, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” Because that was in the midst of the flu contagion, Dad was born at home since hospitals were considered unsafe for pregnant women and babies because they were full of contagious influenza patients. This is irrelevant to OHC except that my link with this historical event always makes me take particular notice of stories with it as the background; Alice Childress’s Wedding Band is another play in which the epidemic figures.)

[In the second installment, to be posted in a few days, of my report, I’ll cover some of the themes I believe Foote was working on in OHC and make an evaluation of the performance and staging of the production.]

20 February 2010


[In my report on an exhibit that featured photographs by Man Ray (“Art in D.C,” 18 January), I made passing reference to an exceptional Dada exhibit at the NGA and MoMA 3½ years ago. Man Ray was a participant in the Dada art movement and I had made reference to an impetus for the movement that paralleled one suggested for the focus of artists like Ray on African art, the subject of that portion of the 2010 report on ROT. Here’s a somewhat revised version of the report I made at that time on the show. (I saw the exhibit first in Washington but it was such a large show and so interesting that my mother and I couldn’t finish it in one stretch and had to leave when the museum closed. I picked up the last part of the Dada exhibit when it moved to New York City some months later. There are some remarks below about the differences in the two displays.)]

While I was in D.C. in April 2006, I went to Dada, a vast show at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. A big show, occupying numerous galleries and requiring several hours to view, the Dada show had opened in mid-February. It turned out to be a lagniappe in that we went on a whim and it turned out to be fascinating. We had planned to check out Dada (the exhibit bore that one-word, two-syllable title) for an hour or so, then go over to the nearby Renwick Gallery for a show on Grant Wood (he of American Gothic fame—perhaps the most parodied painting in the world, after the "Mona Lisa") for another hour. WRONG!

The Dada show was not only too big for such a quickie, but it was way too interesting. With most art shows, I skim the panels and labels, checking out one or two that catch my eye but devoting most of my attention to the art. That's usually sufficient—and besides, the exhibit brochures usually reprint all the same text as the panels provide, so I can read it afterwards at my leisure. [This is no longer true. Sadly, most museums have abandoned the publication of exhibit brochures since I saw this show. ~Rick.] But Dada, which was as much about history, philosophy (including political philosophy), and sociology as it was about art, demanded that I read every panel not just to understand what I was seeing, but to put it in the right context within the exhibit. It was like a self-guided illustrated lecture. As it was, after four hours (and having skipped lunch), my mother and I had to stop for a snack and because we wanted to see a Dada music performance that was scheduled for 4 p.m. outside one of the galleries. (The National Gallery closes at 5 p.m.) We had to zip through the last couple of rooms—which housed the displays of Dada from Cologne, New York, and Paris. (The exhibit, on tour from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was organized by venue: Zurich—the birthplace of Dada—Berlin, Hanover, Cologne, New York, and Paris.) And it wasn’t strictly just an "art" exhibit, either: besides painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and other usual forms of art (though, of course, in the Dada vein), there were films and lots and lots of printed works, including posters and flyers for Dada events (both the events—readings, exhibitions, performances, and so on—and the posters announcing them were Dada!), books, journals and magazines, signs, illustrations, sound poems, and just about anything else you could come up with in the years between the World Wars. (Included, of course, was Marcel Duchamp's famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—Fountain: a urinal mounted on its back and "signed," R. Mutt, 1917.)

(The poster for Dada was a reproduction of a Duchamp travesty of the “Mona Lisa” with a beard and mustache painted on the model’s face and the letters “L. H. O. O. Q.” written underneath. Read in French, the letters sound like "Elle a chaud au cul," which is a vulgarity—literally, ‘She’s hot in the ass’—that means something like, "She's hot to trot." Ooohhh, those Dadaists!)

Much of Dada's work was in and about new technology—like the films, for instance. (It's ironic—and Dadaistically appropriate, I think—that technology is both a bugaboo and a fascination for these artists.) Indeed, in some cases the technology wasn't even advanced enough to accommodate the works' demands. That musical piece, The Ballet mécanique, a composition for mechanical pianos (16 baby grands) plus other automated instruments (drums, xylophones) and noisemakers (sirens, bells, fans) could not be properly realized until the advent of computers made it possible to coordinate and control the instruments in the way that the composer, George Antheil, had intended. (Antheil died in 1959, some years before the start of the computer age.) I think that's very Dadaistic in itself. (Additionally Dadaistic is the fact that the composition was intended to be the score for a Fernand Léger film; however it not only didn't quite coordinate with the movements on the film, but, at 27 minutes, it was too long to fit the 16-minute film. The film was shown in the exhibit, silently.) The score is cacophonous, as you might imagine from the fact that it's Dada music—but the whole thing (only a 10-minute segment was performed) was a delightful and anarchistic experience. By the way, there were no people involved; aside from the invisible hands who set the Rube Goldbergian thing up and the lone guy who came, started the computer, and punched a few keys, the rest was strictly NHI: “No Humans Involved.” What a hoot.

Dada, you may know, evolved out of the aftermath of the start of World War I, the first mechanized war. (A brief silent film composed of documentary footage from World War I screened continuously at the entrance to the exhibition. With images of modern weaponry, gas masks, and brutalities of war, the film provided a historical context for the exhibition.) It was first a reaction to the horrible destruction technology—not limited to military tech—visited on humankind, but it quickly became a response to all forms of regimentation, oppression, suppression of thought and ideas, conventionality, and conformity. The movement started on 5 February 1916 at the Café Voltaire in Zurich. Avant-garde writers and artists from both the Axis and the Allied nations who had moved to neutral Switzerland at the outbreak of the WWI gathered at the café to participate in a cabaret in which they expressed their disgust at bourgeois society and the destructiveness for which the avant garde, often rejected and even suppressed in countries like Germany, believed that culture was responsible. The performances demonstrated a hallmark of Dadaism: they were simultaneously playful, amusing the audience by turning back to the games and carefree activities of children, and critical, making comments and scoring points about the subversion of language they believed had been corrupted by established journalism and literature and the behavior that had become highly circumscribed in adulthood. As the group of iconoclasts grew and even expanded its activities, the participants chose a name, Dada. A whimsical-sounding word, it seems to have been selected because it was flexible: in German, it’s baby talk; in French, it means ‘hobbyhorse’; in Russia, it means ‘yes, yes.’ (Another explanation has it that Romanian-born Tristan Tzara, one of the movement’s leaders, used to utter the phrase “da, da” which means ‘yeah, yeah’—like ‘yeah, right’ in contemporary usage—as a frequent sarcastic refrain.) Like the name, the movement could be seen to mean whatever someone wished.

The Dadaists were purposefully provocative and relentlessly anti-establishment—even (or especially, perhaps) with respect to the art establishment. They weren't, however, without a considerable sense of humor; some of their work is profoundly silly. (It would not be incorrect to say that Monty Python was fundamentally Dadaistic.) Duchamp's Fountain, for instance, was submitted to an exhibit (mounted by the Society of Independent Artists, which Duchamp, himself, had helped start) with the specific intention that it would be rejected. (What the Society said, according to the NGA's guide, was: "The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art.") Duchamp used a pseudonym so that he could subsequently write a defense of "Richard Mutt." (The signature “R. Mutt” has several, relatively complex interpretations which I will let the readers look up for themselves. They are among the many word games and puns that Duchamp favored, such as the title of his da Vinci travesty. Another of Duchamp's pseudonyms was "Rrose Sélavy," which sounds like "Eros, c'est la vie”—"Eros, that's life"!)

Fountain, in its way, is emblematic of the Dada movement and its approach to art. One of Duchamp’s “readymades,” as he called them (he used the compound English word, sans hyphen), it’s an example of an ordinary object which the artist transforms into a work of art merely because he selects it and decides to display it. By doing so, Duchamp was from one perspective being amusing and frivolous. Selecting such as object as a urinal was an act that struck some as hilarious. At the same time, others found Fountain offensive and even indecent. Contemporaries of Duchamp insisted that art was important to the everyday lives of ordinary people, but Duchamp had here taken something useful and practical and made it useless by turning it into art. “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance,” the artist published in The Blind Man, an avant-garde journal he helped found. “He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—and created a new thought for that object.” Consumers of art who had previously disagreed over how to judge a piece of art aesthetically now found themselves confronting the very definition of the term art. Duchamp and other innovative artists were raising the serious and profound question, What is art?

One of the aspects of the show, the largest collection of Dada works ever assembled (448 works), which was so fascinating was that despite Dada's limited span in terms of time (only about 1916-24), location (those half dozen cities, with Zurich and Berlin by far the most active), and practitioners (a handful of iconoclasts, some of whom worked virtually alone in their hometowns to carry on the movement—such as Kurt Schwitters in Hanover), Dadaism had an influence far beyond its immediate reach. (It has always amused me that Dada, the extreme of anarchistic expression in its day, was founded in Zurich, the financial and banking capital of Europe, therefore the center of steadiness, rationality, and convention. If you envision Zurich as a man in a gray flannel suit topped with a gray homburg, Dada is the red high-tops he's got on his feet! It also seems suggestive that Tom Stoppard found the fact that that city was home simultaneously to Lenin, Tristan Tzara, and James Joyce dramatically provocative enough to compose Travesties, one of my favorite of his plays.) Anti-establishment, anti-conventional, and anti-regimentarian, what the Dadaists did for all time was redefine art and expand the idea of what we can use to make art. And we're all the better for it. It sounds simplistic and hyperbolic, but after Dada, nothing was the same: they had let the imp out of the bottle, and it could never be put back in again. (On 16 June, the New York Times ran Michael Kimmelman’s review of the Dada exhibit at MoMA, where it moved after Washington. At one point, Kimmelman said of the aftermath of Dadaism: "Such became the world of modern art, and either you are the sort of skeptic who thinks that art went to hell in a handbasket, or you see that Dada opened art up to the everyday and we are its beneficiaries." He seemed to have come down on the side of those who take the second perspective. I think I said something pretty similar—at least to the last part of the sentence—above. I don't know Kimmelman, but apparently, at least on this point, we had similar thoughts.) Despite their philosophical basis, however, many of the works on display in Dada are quite beautiful—especially those of Hans Arp (who, in the spirit of Dada, is also known as Jean Arp) and Sophie Taeuber—though to be honest, many others never rise above charming or even just intellectually interesting. Of course, while they were reestablishing the boundaries of art, the Dadaists were also redefining the criteria of beauty—at least for themselves.

In Washington, we covered the sections devoted to Zurich, Berlin, and Hanover—easily the bulk of the show—before we had to break to catch the Ballet mécanique. That left out the cities of Cologne, New York, and Paris. So on Friday, 30 June 2007, since my mother was visiting New York City and we hadn’t seen the newly-redesigned Museum of Modern Art, opened about 2½ years earlier, we got ourselves up to MoMA. The Dada exhibit was the main attraction there at the time, but we initially went to see the new building and to look at a couple of the smaller shows. However, before we left, we had a look at the end of the Dada show which I’d had to rush through before the music demonstration (which wasn't at MoMA) and the National Gallery's closing. I'd never done that before—seen part of a show in one museum and another part in a different museum. What I noticed that I hadn't really before was that a core of the Dadaists really got around. The main artists from Zurich not only found their ways to Berlin, which isn't surprising, but were also in Paris and New York at various times during the short life of Dada. There were home-grown Dadaists (Man Ray in the U.S., for instance), but Duchamp, Tzara, Arp, and some others helped spread the word by not only mounting shows in these other cities, but staying for a time and doing work there. (Duchamp, for instance, essentially started the New York Dada movement with Ray and one or two others after the French artist came for an extended visit in 1915.) I guess that could account in part for the great influence Dada had despite its short life and small coterie of practitioners.

There did seem to be a difference between the set-ups for the two Dada exhibits. The NGA's configuration appeared less haphazard in organization—it seemed easier to go from display to display and not have to meander all around a large space in a haphazard fashion. The MoMA set-up almost seemed like a warehouse, with items and display cases all over the floor space so there was no way to progress from one to another systematically. I didn't feel that I was able to get a real sense of the content of the three rooms I saw at MoMA in the same way I did at the NGA. My impression is more of a jumble. But I'm also not sure that that feeling doesn't derive from the fact that I saw the National Gallery first, and that was the model I had in my head. It was like seeing Burton's Hamlet first, then seeing Branagh's. You might tend to measure Branagh against Burton, even though the two are really independent interpretations with, let's say, equal validity—but the Burton is the base impression in your mind, so that's the measuring stick. If I'd seen the MoMA before I saw the National (and if I'd seen it from the beginning, instead of jumping in near the end—and if I'd been fresh when I saw it, instead of at the end of the visit to MoMA . . .), I might feel very different. (Oh, Heisenberg—why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?) But that doesn't change the fact that I did have a different experience, even if the evaluation is biased.

I guess my experience of the Dada show at MoMA was a little Dada itself. Maybe it was meant to be. But as someone or other said of Chekhov's dramas: plays about boredom can't be boring. An exhibit of Dada probably shouldn't itself be Dadaistic. (I made a similar point somewhere else once: ". . . anarchy works best when ideas are concrete, but it proves counterproductive if the ideas themselves are evanescent." Just my humble opinion, of course.)

I did, however, see something "new" at the MoMA Dada (not to be confused with Mama Dada—or, for that matter, the Mamas and the Papas) that I hadn't caught before. This wasn't really because of the layout, but because the last sections contained this material. I remarked earlier that technology was both a societal curse the Dadaists struggled against, and a fascination for them as artists. Well, several of the artists whose works were in the Cologne (which was a very small section), New York, and Paris parts made art that was inspired by technology—machines, to be exact. Even Jean Arp, whose works were all through the exhibit, didn't have mechanical art in the other sections, so I never saw this assembled as it was at the end. There were both drawings or paintings and sculptures (or assemblages, really) that were evocations of machines or made of machine-like parts. Some were clearly invoking the darkness of technology, the danger and menace, but others were almost celebratory. (I didn't note, I'm sorry to say now, if the same artists made some of each approach, or if one treatment was from some artists and the other from different ones.) So the dichotomy of feeling about this new aspect of society—remembering that Dada was, at first, a response to WWI, the first mechanized war with its war machines (planes, tanks, and machine guns)—was very clearly manifest in these later pieces.

I was a little surprised to learn that there were Dada plays—or performance pieces, as it were. These guys (and a few gals—Dada was a male-dominated movement) turned their hands to almost everything. I'd been brushing up on my theater history a little when I went to the Dada show, and I’d recently read the part that covered the years around WWI; several Dada plays and performances were mentioned. I don't think any of them were as influential as the visual art the Dadaists made, but it looks to me like they did have some influence on the Absurdists a few decades later. (Some of the same impulses must have been at work as well. Just as the Dadaists came out of the aftermath of WWI, the Absurdists came out of the aftermath of WWII and in the midst of the Cold War—an absurdity in itself, you might say.) I haven't read any Dada plays; I've only read about them. I guess some are available in print, though I don't know how accessible they are or even if they're in English, but most seem to have been ephemeral—one performance and it's gone. (There is one book by former NYU professor Mel Gordon called Dada Performance. I don't know if it's got texts in it, though, or is just a discussion and analysis.) The Dadaists who got into performances—it was really more like Performance Art, now that I think about it—were more focused on movement and body shape. (It’s reminiscent of Meyerhold's "biomechanics"—I wonder if there was any cross-over, like maybe Meyerhold got his inspiration from some of this work.) They worked a lot in dance—no texts to preserve. (They were also interested in "words" and they investigated both words as sounds and just vocal noises. The Dadists called these works "sound poems" and some are recorded, but they wouldn't work too well on a page.) Their performance work, however, though some were text-derived, seems to have been mostly visual. (I also gather that some of the "performances" weren't plays, but poems or prose pieces the authors either read and "enacted" or got performers to enact for them. On a page, they probably wouldn't look like plays, even Dada plays.)

The Dadaists were the predecessors to the Surrealists—many of the same artists switched over, most conspicuously Marcel Duchamp. But the Situationists were descendents of the Surrealists and shared a lot of their philosophy with the Dadaists. For instance, Duchamp and the Dadaists had their "readymades" (Duchamp's Fountain, most notably), but the Situationists had their détournement where they reused someone else's work with totally different intent. (I always think of Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lilly?, but his is a complete joke, and the Situationists had a sort of point—about creativity and the ownership of art. The technique's the same, though. To be sure, Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. is an example of both applications.) The Surrealists weren't political, per se, while the Dadaists were entirely political. So were the Situationists, who started as an art movement and became a political one. They were instrumental to the 1968 student uprising in Paris, for example. Dada was serious about its point(s), but they could be very silly (as I think I said in my evaluation of the exhibit). The Situationists could be, too, but I get the impression that they took themselves far more seriously than the Dadaists did. Dada's political action was mostly to stick a finger in the eye of the establishment. They didn't seem to be destructive or want to overthrow society as it was—just redirect it. The Situationists were seriously revolutionary and anarchistic. The Situationists, for example, published a book—I don't think I ever knew what the content was—which was bound with a sandpaper cover so it would ruin the books next to it on the shelf. Their methods may have been silly in the end, but they really did want to overturn the status quo. (The Dadaists didn't have "meetings"—gatherings at the Café Voltaire or other such places, but not conventions. The Situationists had "internationals"—just like the commies, although not so well attended.)

The Dadaists were deliberately anti-aesthetic—at least that was their intention. It's little wonder, it seems to me, that an artist might renounce conventional beauty in art—just as the Dadaists saw the destructiveness of machines and technology and abandoned soothing aesthetics for more provocative techniques. Oddly perhaps, as I asserted earlier, the Dadaists could still create a kind of frightening and disquieting beauty—like the menacing splendor of a lava flow, say, or the chilling grace of a shark. Aristotle said that we get pleasure in drama even from seeing things we would regard with disgust if encountered in reality because we learn from them, and learning gives us pleasure; the same must be true of art in any form. The Dadaists were clearly trying to teach us something and maybe that helped defeat their own anti-aesthetic impulses.

To end this column on a Dadaistic note, let me throw in a pertinent joke. Actually, it’s my adjustment on a Surrealistic riddle that made the rounds years ago. The Surrealist version goes like this:

How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?


The Dada version would go like this:

How many Dadaists does it take to change a light bulb?

GHOTI!!!!!! *

*Ghoti is pronounced 'fish': gh as in 'enough'; o as in 'women'; ti as in 'nation.' (It's a trick question I used in some of my writing classes when I talked about English spelling and pronunciation.)

15 February 2010

Morris Louis

[In my recent report on art in Washington over the year-end holidays, “Art in D.C.” (18 January), I wrote about an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum of works by Anne Truitt, a member of the Washington Color School. I mentioned another Washington artist, a contemporary and colorist colleague of Truitt’s, Morris Louis (1912-62), and made a superficial comparison between her art and his. In the late fall of 2007, I went to an exhibit of Morris’s paintings, also at the Hirshhorn, and I’m publishing on ROT an expanded version of that short, two-year-old report.]

On Wednesday, 21 November 2007, my mother and I took the bus down to the National Mall in Washington to see Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and exhibited earlier at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. There were four series in the 28-work Louis show—I think they are all the series he created in the short time he worked in this vein—and three are wonderfully vibrant and brightly colored: Florals (1959–1960), so called because the streams of intense color appear to blossom out from the center; Unfurleds (1960–1961), with streams of opaque color that flow in from the sides over an unpainted surface of plain, white fabric; and Stripes (1961–1962), tightly grouped bands of pure color producing a rainbow effect. His first series, Veils (1954, 1958–1959), does what the name suggests. After staining the canvas with bright colors, he "veiled" them by overstaining the colors with a wash of gray, brown, or black. (The series names designate the different ways in which Louis dripped and poured the paint. The works have individual titles, but they aren't really his—he didn't title his works; his widow, Marcella Louis Brenner, gave them titles, mostly letters from the Greek or Hebrew alphabets.)

Morris Louis, born Morris Louis Bernstein in Baltimore, began studying art in his home city at the early age of 15. He moved to New York in 1936 (where he legally dropped his last name) and stayed there for four years, working for the WPA’s Federal Arts Project. Louis, an Abstract Expressionist, started as a Realist—though he destroyed almost all his early works and what remains are his experimental color works from the '50s and '60s. He returned to Baltimore and began experimenting with the newly-developed acrylic paints, beginning with Magna, a medium made especially for him by friends in the paintmaking business in New York. Louis moved to Washington in 1952 and in that decade, working largely outside the New York art scene (of which he was never fully a part) with other Washington artists like Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis, helped develop what became known as Color Field painting—simultaneously establishing the Washington Color School. (Color Field painting is one of the two branches of Abstract Expressionism in the United States. The other is known as action painting, the style which characterizes the best-known works of Jackson Pollock.) The principal tenet of the colorists was to cover their canvases with unified blocks of bright, pure colors. Like all abstract painters, Color Field painters rejected the representation of identifiable figures. In addition, colorists also eschewed symbolism in art, feeling that even abstract forms distracted viewers from experiencing the pure color. There weren’t supposed to be any subjective, emotional connotations in the hues or forms on the canvas. Red was just a color, not an expression of passion. The painting was just art, nothing more meaningful or symbolic. It was all supposed to come to a pure sensation of enjoyment. The focus on purity of form strongly links Color Field painting with Minimalist art—as we saw in the exhibit of Anne Truitt’s work. Louis, for instance, pared his paintings down to just what he felt was necessary, the bare minimum to create his effects.

Between 1954 and 1962, the year of his death, Louis created about 600 canvases. At the same time, the artist was a perfectionist and harsh self-critic: between 1955 and 1957, he destroyed some 300 of his own paintings as unsatisfactory. Even in the cramped confines of his suburban home in Washington, however, Louis was able to make large paintings; the size of his canvases (the ones at the Hirshhorn were all 8-14 feet on a side) seems to conflict with the fact that he created them on the floor of the tiny dining room of his apartment. Louis was an early experimenter not only with color but with new media like acrylics and unprimed canvases. (There was a companion exhibit following the Louis show that demonstrated the hardships in conserving some experimental paintings, including those like Louis's. It seems that these artists, focused on creating new effects and exploiting new materials, never considered how their works would age.) In 1953, Louis and his fellow D.C. artist Ken Noland (who just died this past 5 January) visited New York where they saw paintings by Pollock and Franz Kline, another Abstract Expressionist. The two Washington painters also paid a call on Helen Frankenthaler at her New York studio where she introduced them to the idea of pouring the pigment to stain unprimed canvases. Louis has said that Frankenthaler, essentially the founder of Color Field painting, created “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” The exposure would have a profound effect on Louis’s own work from then on. Within two years, the painter had begun to produce the works that made him famous, the subject of the Hirshhorn’s Morris Louis Now. It was the first such retrospective in the U.S. since 1986.

Conventionally, artists prime their canvases with a base coat of some neutral paint—usually white—to prevent the oil-based pigments from bleeding into the fabric itself; the color stays on the surface of the primer. What Louis began to do, first with oil paint then with acrylics, was "stain" the canvas—allow the color to seep into the untreated fabric—to create thin swatches of intense color. By soaking into the untreated canvas, the streaks and fields of color also gave the impression of depth. (We ran into an acquaintance of Mom's at the exhibit, a docent at the Hirshhorn, and she said the backs of the paintings are as vibrant and striking as the fronts.) The oil paint created a corona as the oil spread beyond the edges of the color medium and was thus hard to control, so Louis switched to the new pigments made with acrylic (principally Magna, the first acrylic medium invented for artists) which he could manipulate more precisely. He didn't brush his pigment onto the canvas, which he also left unstretched so he could twist and fold it in any direction—he poured or dripped the thinned pigment. (In the beginning of this experimental stage, Louis took a leaf from the new book of Jackson Pollock who was just beginning to work on his spatter and drip paintings.) He nearly always let the pigment run off the edge of the canvas; you can see where his work started, but they have no "end." In fact, since Louis worked on his canvases in sections, never seeing the whole thing at once, and he didn’t work on a frame or stretcher, some of his paintings were trimmed and cut after he’d finished them so there might not even have been an “end.” In some cases, the little gold-rimmed frames put around the canvases when they were mounted for display—often the first time Louis would have seen the whole painting—put an artificial perimeter around the art, circumscribing the paintings in a way that the creation hadn’t. (Only one painting in the exhibit was entirely contained within the dimensions of the canvas.) The results are various stripes or washes of translucent color bursting off the canvas in random shapes that invoke flowers or flames or sunbursts.

The Veils are the most worked of the paintings at the Hirshhorn, with the additional covering of the layer of dark stain over the vivid colors underneath. In contrast, the Unfurleds make the most use of unpainted space as Louis left large expanses of the canvas bare, often framing the whiteness with pigment. The effect of these paintings comes as much from the blankness as from the color, bringing to mind the concept of “negative space” of which painter and teacher Hans Hofmann spoke. Playwright Tennessee Williams explains the idea in his pay Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?:

LOUISE: Did you set something on the table?
NORA: I just set down the upside-down cake on a vacant spot on the table.
LOUISE: There is no such thing as a vacant spot on the table.
NORA: — Ow, but there was a space with nothing on it, I didn’t move anything, not a thing, not an inch!
LOUISE: The spaces on the table are just as important as the articles on the table. Is that over your head?
NORA: I’ve seen your pitcher of ice tea on the table and glasses for it.
LOUISE: The pitcher of ice tea and the glasses for it are part of the composition.
NORA: — The what of the what did you say?
LOUISE: In painting there’s such a things as plastic space.
. . . .
LOUISE: If you’ve ever looked at a painting in your life you must have observed some spaces in the painting that seem to be vacant.
NORA: I’ve looked at paintings in the museum, dear, and I’ve seen vacant spaces between the objects painted.
LOUISE: The vacant spaces are called plastic space.
NORA: — Ow.
LOUISE: The spaces between the objects, as you call them, are important parts of the total composition.
NORA: — Ow?
LOUISE: What would a painting be without spaces between the objects being painted? . . . . Nothing. And so the spaces are what a painter calls plastic.
NORA: Plastic, y’mean, like a plastic bottle or --
LOUISE: No. Plastic like the spaces between the objects in a painting. They give to the painting its composition like the vacant spaces on my table give to the articles on the table its arrangement. . . .
. . . .
LOUISE: The articles on the table, including the spaces between them, make up a composition . . . .

(“Plastic space,” which Williams attributes to Hofmann and further defines in the novella Moise and the World of Reason, was never actually a term used by the art teacher. Williams, who was an amateur painter himself, knew Hofmann in the 1940s and was also friendly with Lee Krasner, a painter who had been a Hofmann student, and her husband, Jackson Pollock, whom she had introduced to Hofmann and who had attended some of the teacher’s lectures.)

Exactly how Louis created his effects is uncertain as no one has ever duplicated the pouring technique he used. While he didn’t use brushes or easels, or even frames, he did occasionally fasten his canvas to a support. Much of the time, however, Louis manipulated his canvas so that the poured acrylic paint would flow across it and stain it in different and unpredictable streams. Because the studio he made out of his dining room was so tiny, he worked on his paintings in sections. The artist was never able to see a whole painting at once, much less more than one canvas at a time. One thing’s pretty certain, however: the results are . . . okay, I know it’s a cliché, but there’s no other adequate word—luminous. By diluting the paint, the color staining the canvas is transluscent rather than opaque. Whether poured in ribbons or broad washes, the colors are rich and intense. As a result, the paintings shine with light and, well, color. They shimmer and vibrate and run off the canvas as if they were still wet. (Several reviewers described a “just-painted” quality of the 50- and 60-year-old works in the exhibit.) While Noland’s colors are confined and finite, hard-edged and controlled—his work formed a bridge to the newly-emerging style of Op Art—Louis’s colors bleed and overlap in unruly and startling combinations. Like other Abstract Expressionists, Louis rejected literal (or literary) meaning for his art. (The artist left little in the way of written interpretation or explanation of his intentions.) It is supposed to be all about the color, the paint, the textures, and the technique. It is raw color and raw form that evokes raw feeling at a visceral level. Baltimore Sun art reviewer Glenn McNatt even insisted of Louis’s art: “It mostly eludes critical analysis. Louis' paintings resist interpretation because no theory seems quite expansive or wise enough to encompass them.” But, as Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post asserted in his review of the exhibit, “But—sorry, guys—humans are such deeply ‘literary’ creatures that we'll find a story and meaning in anything and everything we see. Our entire brain is geared to take a wild mess of ‘abstract’ stimuli and read it as an image of some world outside our head.” And so, I saw flags, flowers, leaves, sunbursts, Technicolor tornadoes, jewels, and all manner of other vibrant and delight-inducing images which Louis apparently never meant for me to see. Tough!

(Gopnik’s column, “Back to Color School: Four Lessons on Morris Louis,” 30 September 2007, an expository treatise rather than strictly a review, was four small essays to "interpret"—admittedly on a very personal basis—different aspects of one painting, 1954’s Breaking Hue, in the exhibit. The writer called this “reading” the painting. The first part focused on the colors and Gopnik's tag-line for this section was: “So much for ‘Breaking Hue’ as a purely abstract patch of red.”)

Louis died on 7 September 1962, just before his fiftieth birthday, from the lung cancer that had been diagnosed just two months earlier. The illness had gone undiagnosed until too late, just as his career was taking off. (In the days when my folks were partners in the Gres Gallery, a highly-regarded showplace near Dupont Circle, Louis used to come around to try to get a show, but the managing partner didn't want the gallery to be known as a Washington artists' gallery, so she kept rejecting him.) Until the end of his life, he’d had few paintings exhibited, but his prodigious work at the end of his life was about to launch him into the ranks of the famous and successful. (Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the middle of the 20th century, was a champion not only of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, but of Louis himself. It was Greenberg who had introduced Louis and Noland to Helen Frankenthaler.) The work of his last eight years, from the Veils through the Stripes, were not only the basis of Louis’s fame and position in the continuum of American art, but began a shift in technique and approach initiated by other young artists who adapted his staining and pouring practices and the use of the new, synthetic paints because they flowed more freely than oils. Louis’s own work, such as that on exhibit in Morris Louis Now, continues to excite and stimulate strong feelings itself, too.