Thursday, February 5, 2015

Encores! Presents: Lady Be Good

What a joy it is to live in near the good people at Encores!  As readers of this column know, Encores! is dedicated to recreating vintage musicals that have not seen the light of day for decades.  The team, led by Jack Viertel, resurrect book, orchestrations and choreography of these lost treasures, and the result is often nothing less than magical.

That alchemy was in evidence this week when the team recreated Lady, Be Good, with score and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, and a book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson.  The original Broadway production opened in 1924 – a 90 year old musical! – and starred the team of Fred and Adele Astaire.

The story is gossamer thin – brother and sister Dick and Susie Trevor are evicted, leaving them on their bed in the street.  In order to eat (and find a rich wife for Dick), they crash the garden party of socialite Jo Vanderwater; however, Dick really loves Shirley Vernon and wonders if he can sell his affections for money.

Meanwhile, Susie meets a charismatic hobo back from Mexico, who may (or may not) be heir to a fortune.  Add to that a scheming lawyer, mistaken identity and comic hijinks both high and low, and you have the makings for one of the first Broadway musical comedies.

Where to begin?  The cast that Encores! has managed to gather is marvelous.  Danny Gardner and Patti Murin star in the roles originated by the Astaires, and they consistently hit just the right note of light screwball musicality.  They open the show with the delightful Hang On To Me, a song that has fallen into some undeserved obscurity, but is quite special in its lilting beauty.  Also terrific is their syncopated number, Swiss Miss, which guys everything Swiss, from chocolates to cheese.  (Good thing the Swiss are not currently protected by the P.C. police…)

Jeff Hiller and Kirsten Wyatt shine incandescently in the supporting comedy roles, and sell We’re Here Because in a manner to bring down the house.  Watch for both Hiller and Wyatt in the future … they are meant for great things.

Douglas Sills has the plum role of shyster lawyer J. Watterson Watkins.  Sills – his slick 1930s handsomeness working to good effect – has a wonderful voice and superb comic timing.  The Encores! performances are really staged readings, and Sills manages to milk the necessity of holding bound copies of the play’s book for maximum laughs.  He nearly walks away with the show tucked neatly in his jacket pocket, along with his showy pocket square.

Colin Donnell shines as Jack Robinson (yes, that’s the name), the hobo who may also be an heir.  A sweet-voiced juvenile, he shows to great effect both musically and comically.  His duet with Patti Murin, So Am I, is a charmer.

Special mention must be made of Broadway legend Tommy Tune, in a special cameo as the Professor.  In a medley of rich, primary colored costumes, the leggy Mr. Tune comes onstage whenever the plot needs a lift – age has not withered Tune, and his smiling interruptions are great fun.  Even today, Tune radiates good cheer.

Rob Fisher is the guest conductor of this edition of Encores! and Lady, Be Good was directed with a deft and light touch by Mark Brokaw.

As always with Encores!, the show is open only a brief time.  The last performance of Lady, Be Good is February 8.  Buy, steal or beg a ticket – it’s not to be missed.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Party (1968)

I had so much fun reading American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller, that I decided to briefly write about some of my favorite comedies.  So it was a double bit of serendipity to learn that the 1968 cult hit The Party recently made its way to Blu-Ray and DVD.  If you have not seen this film – and it’s unlikely that you have – get yourself a copy.  You will not be disappointed.

The Party is the only collaboration between Peter Sellers (1925-1980) and director Blake Edwards (1922-2010) that was not a Pink Panther film.  In fact, after shooting the second Panther film, the hilarious A Shot in the Dark (1964), both men vowed never to work with one-another again.

Edwards then conceived a film that would be a tribute to the great silent clowns of his boyhood.  According to Edwards, his childhood was largely an unhappy one, save for the moments of transcendence afforded by such clowns as Buster Keaton (1895-1966) and Harold Lloyd (1893-1971).  He often allowed this silent-screen era slapstick sensibility to creep into his work (look, for instance, at the epic pie fight in The Great Race), but a strictly silent film was a challenge he wanted to set for himself.

Always contemptuous of the Hollywood scene, Edwards conceived of a silent film about an incompetent and accident-prone actor, blackballed by Hollywood but inadvertently invited to a swanky soiree where he wreaks havoc.  The initial screenplay was little more than 60 pages long, and was mostly the set-up for gags that would be improvised on the set.

But who would star in it?

After much internal debate, Edwards decided to bring the project to Sellers, who instantly fell in love with it.  Edwards encouraged Sellers to create a character – a fish out of water who was basically decent, but inherently accident-prone.  Out of whole cloth, Sellers fashioned Hrundi V. Bakshi, the world’s worst actor.  The Party opens with Sellers as Bakshi starring in desert opus Son of Gunga Din, ruining take-after-take and unexpectedly demolishing the key standing set. 

However, his ends up on a party list rather than a kill-list, and from that simple premise, Edwards and his cast improvised the movie, shooting in sequence to ensure that the story flowed properly.

The Party is a remarkable film for its time, and for ours, as well.  The story is so lose and improvisatory, and the narrative arc, such as it is, so fluid that one could easily mistake it for a French comedy of the era.  That Edwards was able to get away with such a high-cost gamble is quite an achievement, and it seems unlikely that something similar would happen again today (unless it involved ray guns or superheroes). 

In addition, it is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film.  Though there is dialog, very little of it moves the story forward, and most of it would take up some three single-spaced pages of text.  It’s not surprising that so many people have been either confounded or disappointed in The Party; it’s the world’s only all-talking silent movie. 

The root of its genius is that both Edwards and Sellers understood on a deep and profound level physical comedy.  They were able to mine gold from simple set-ups.  Here is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film:  Bakshi desperately needs to relieve himself, and finally finding a lavatory, struggles with his environment:

The film resided in limbo for a while, never really finding its audience.  I was lucky enough to see it on late-night television in my boyhood before it seemed to vanish completely.  Since its release, it has acquired something of a cult following, with many ardents of both Sellers and Edwards championing it as their best film.  We wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is something very special, off-the-beaten-track, and splendidly funny.

Happily, Sellers is surrounded by a talented supporting cast.  Special kudos must go to Steve Franken (1932 – 2012) as the drunken waiter – who nearly steals the film with hardly a word spoken.  Franken was a familiar face in both movies and television, and this film will make you wonder why he was never a bigger star.  His comedic timing is flawless, and one wishes a follow-up movie would be built around his character.  Former screen Tarzan Denny Miller (1934 –2014) is especially fetching as cowboy-western star “Wyoming Bill” Kelso, and J. Edward McKinley (1917 – 2004) as the host deadpans superbly.

Fans of period cinema would find much to savor, as well.  Few films scream a 1960s sensibility more than The Party.  Its Henry Mancini (1924-1994) score will either charm or repel you; in addition, the romantic lead is Claudine Longet (born 1942), who is one of the great mysteries of the 1960s.  Quite popular as a singer and actress, she has evaporated into well-deserved obscurity.  Why was she so popular?

Though not to all tastes, The Party comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller

We started the year dipping into a delightful surprise – American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller.  Arranged alphabetically, Miller enumerates the countless tropes so frequent in American comedy circa 1900-1966, and why they were funny and what they tell us about Americans of old.

Miller creates an artificial cutoff of 1966, citing anecdotally that the upheavals of the 1960s resulted in a seismic change in what America meant and, consequently, what it meant to be an American.  One would think that this is an invitation for Miller – a professor at Bennington College in Vermont and the author of Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects – to take potshots at the Great American Century.  However, such is not the case at all, as Miller rightly sees the downside of our social “progress.”  More often than not, it would seem to Miller that the America of the 1920s, 30s and 40s was a funnier, and perhaps, better place than the country we know today.  (A sentiment with which we here at the Jade Sphinx are in full agreement.)

The book has entries on a wide array of laugh-getters, including falling safes and anvils, pratfalls, milquetoasts, flappers, hash, hobos, outhouses, rolling pins, castor oil, dishwashing husbands, nosey neighbors and noise – and that is just scratching the surface.  Miller also talks about many of the formerly great venues for this humor, including full-page comic strips, radio comedy, silent movies, and of course, joke books. 

Coming in at 544 pages, one would think that American Cornball more than overstays its welcome; however, one wishes the book was longer and some of the entries more detailed.

Miller’s particular genius is not just in enumerating instances of a comedic trope, but wondering why they were (or are) funny in the first place.  Miller has keen insight into the human condition, and finds many of his observations in the arena of the ridiculous.  Though not a philosopher like G. K. Chesterton (quoted, incidentally, in this volume), Miller’s worldview is that of an expansive humanist with a predisposition to the comic rather than the tragic. 

The encyclopedia format keeps the observations loose and light, and this also proves to be one of the few flaws in the book: when Miller really has something to say (which is often), he is hamstrung by his format.  One hopes that he will follow-up American Cornball with a collection of essays of greater depth and fewer topics, as there is much more for him to say.

But what he does say here is terrific and to be savored.  I read through the volume with a goofy smile plastered on my face – and how could anyone resist a book that cites the Three Stooges, W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers a source material?

Here is an example of Miller at his best, rifting on the subject of pain:  There is, as far as I know, not one scene in all of Henry James where a character of either sex sits on a thumbtack.  I haven’t read everything by Henry James, but I’ve read enough to know what the rest must be like, and nowhere do I see a thumbtack penetrating an unsuspecting buttock.  Stubbed toes are also few and far between, if they occur at all.  And unlike all those hapless dads on America’s Funniest Home Videos, the males in James’s arcadia never get it in the balls.

Good stuff, that, but better still, here he is midway on his discussion of morons:  In our culture, “That’s not funny” really means “It’s wrong to laugh at that,” which is why we sometimes say it even while laughing.  “That’s not funny” is only secondarily a report on the speaker’s true reactions, though it can be an effort to train those reactions.  If you strongly disapprove of something and therefore insist it isn’t funny, that isn’t quite as dishonest as insisting that O.J. Simpson was never a great running back because you hate the psychopathic asshole he later became.  No, it’s more like refusing to find an actress beautiful because you hate her personality.  Given the determination, you really can suppress your sense of humor, like your sense of beauty.  But if you say, “There’s nothing funny about mental retardation, and for the life of me I’ve never understood why anything thinks there is,” you must be either a hypocrite or a saint.  Either way, you’ve clearly forgotten the jokes of your childhood…..

Then there is this, on farting:  Before it became permissible to discuss farts openly, our forebears relied on all kinds of substitutes— from ducks to tubas, from foghorns to balloons. It may be that the fully lifelike simulation of farts became possible only with later improvements in sheet rubber, but in the pre-whoopee epoch it wasn’t necessary or even desirable for a noisemaker to sound exactly like the real thing; it just had to sound like something sometimes used to symbolize the real thing. Novelty makers are always boasting about how “realistic” their products are, but in this case, realism wasn’t wanted.  Instead, aspiring practical jokers were offered a range of metonymies and metaphors.  Even in our unembarrassed age, the whoopee cushion itself still claims to imitate a “Bronx cheer” or raspberry—not a fart but the imitation of one made by buzzing the lips in what linguists call a bilabial trill. (The reason that sound is called a “raspberry” is that it is or was cockney rhyming slang for “fart,” via “raspberry tart.”) The sound is the best simulation of a fart we can produce with our normal speech apparatus.  In the early 1930s, when whoopee cushions took the world by storm, raspberries too were in fashion, at least on the funny pages—both Dagwood and Popeye had recourse to them now and then.  A little later, Al Capp gave us Joe Btfsplk, the world’s biggest jinx, easily recognized by the small black cloud—a personal fart cloud? —hanging over him at all times. When asked how to pronounce Joe’s surname, Capp would respond with a raspberry, adding, “How else would you pronounce it?”

I loved American Cornball, and spent much of the past few weeks reading it aloud to all and sundry.  This is a treasure for anyone interested in humor – and a perfect gift for those without a sense of one.  Highly recommended – and Mr. Miller, more, please.

Friday, January 23, 2015

You’d Do It For Randolph Scott…

Today is the birthday actor Randolph Scott (1898-1987) and we here at The Jade Sphinx are delighted to participate in the Randolph Scott Blogathon, sponsored by Toby Roan and his wonderful site, 50 Westerns From the 50s.

In thinking about the many attributes of this fine performer, I came to realize that he was not only a capable Western performer, but someone who personified the most admirable attributes of a Western Hero.

Born George Randolph Scott, this tall, handsome Southerner hailed from Virginia.  From a well-off family, he attended private schools (which, clearly, added a level of polish that was evident in his acting), and was an excellent athlete, concentrating on swimming and football.  When the Great War came around, he enlisted and saw action in France.  He returned home and went to college, dropping out before earning his degree and joining his father at the textile firm.

But … something about acting has also intrigued the handsome Virginian, and he moved West, thinking of a career in the movies.  He worked as a bit player and extra in several films, and then worked on stage to further develop his abilities.  After time he garnered a contract from Paramount, and went on to star in a series of Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey.  His first important, starring role was in Heritage of the Desert (1932), and he went on to make 10 B Westerns for Paramount in their Zane Grey series.  A Western star was born.

Well … not quite.  In his early career, the Virginian starred in a wide variety of movies, including musicals (including turns with Shirley Temple!), comedies, crime pictures and adventure movies.  He appeared in everything from the science-fantasy She (1935) to the musical Roberta, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

But it was in Westerns that the Virginian made his most significant impact.  He would appear in more than 100 films, but the majority of them would be Westerns.  In his early Westerns, he is capable – and, in bigger-budgeted pictures, often the second banana.  But as he aged, he brought to his Western performances a gravitas, a hardness, and a touch of tragedy.  He wears stoicism like a suit of armor, only emerging from under it to write wrongs and mete out justice.

His face and body only improved with age.  As the Virginian entered his 50s, he lost much of his callow handsomeness, leaving him with an impressive, sculptural beauty.  It is a handsome face, but one carved from stone, with all the strength and impassivity associated with rock.  His muscular frame became leaner and harder as the Virginian aged into indestructability.  It is almost impossible to imagine, in these days of films made almost exclusively for addled children and undemanding adults, such a mature action hero.  But the maturity and the gravity were key ingredients to the Virginian’s later greatness; without them, he was diminished.

This Western persona hit its stride in the 1950s, and was particularly majestic in a series of seven Westerns he made with director Budd Boetticher (1916-2001).  Each and every one is a small masterpiece in its way, with the best being Ride Lonesome (1959).  When introducing people new to Westerns to the genre, this is usually the film I chose … and if you only see one Western, it may as well be this one.

When thinking about Scott and his Western screen persona for this retrospective, I realized that the actor had seemingly walked off of the very pages of the first great Western novel, The Virginian, written in 1902 by Owen Wister (1860-1938).

Like the nameless Virginian, Scott was a tall, handsome native of that state.  Like Wister’s hero, he would come to represent all of the virtues of the Western Hero – justice, chivalry, integrity, mercy and a sense of honor.  He is a straight-shooter, a man of moral substance and of self-respect.  He has seen it all and it has cost him much; but it has not made him bitter or hateful … merely watchful.  He is self-possessed and a gentleman around women, but not a ‘ladies man’ in the traditional sense.

For all of his exterior hardness and privacy, there is warmth and approachability in both Virginians.  There is a flinty hint of laughter around the crinkles of his eyes, and a wry humor.  Both Virginians live simply, speak honestly and are nature’s noblemen.  As the narrator in Wister’s novel says, often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.

Scott’s final film was the excellent Ride the High Country (1962), which may be only good film by Sam Peckinpah.  In it, Scott and fellow-Western star Joel McCrea (1905-1990) are aging lawmen tasked with transporting gold across the frontier.  Both have lived hard lives, and both have seen the world change too much.  During the trip, one of the pair plans to make off with the gold and fund a comfortable retirement.  Playing against type – Scott plays the potential thief.

The real joy of High Country is the continual interplay between McCrea and Scott.  Originally, the roles were to be reversed, with Scott playing the honest and honorable lawman, and McCrea the more cynical, out-for-what-he-can-get ex-lawman.  However, during the initial reading, both realized that switching parts would be more effective, and they were entirely correct.  McCrea’s flat, Midwestern delivery is perfect for the moral compass of the picture, and Scott, in the role of a lifetime, uses his rich, Virginian accent to great effect as he makes sardonic, pithy remarks throughout the film.  In fact, his running commentary is one of the most satisfying elements of the screenplay, and the timbre of his voice is essential. 

Throughout the 1950s (and much of the 1940s), the Virginian focused primarily on Western films, and he brought to his performances the full weight of his screen image, and he played upon audience expectations of who he was and what he would do.

There have been many Western stars who rode tall in the saddle, but the Virginian, Randolph Scott, was one of the most impressive.  With his calm demeanor, steely reserve and moral compass, he was a reflection of the best part of ourselves.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Adventures of Zane Grey

There are several authors of our great American Western Myth.  Certainly the fountainhead of it all was William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917), the great frontiersman, scout, Indian fighter, actor, showman and mythologist.  We have written about Bill in these pages previously, and he remains one of the few historical personages whom we would have liked to have known personally.

But the myth of the West quickly evolved – dime novels (often written about western heroes currently alive when they were first written, such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp), the nascent film industry, and, of course, both literary and visual arts.  We have looked at several Western artists in-depth, but up till now have not given the written word its due.  And there is no better way to write this wrong than by starting with one of the most prolific – and successful – western writers of all time, Zane Grey (1872-1939).

Born Pearl Zane Grey, the young writer had a supportive mother and an abusive father.  (His father was a dentist, so obviously he had a taste for inflicting pain on others.)  This baleful influence would often leave Gray surly and distant.  He would be plagued by intense moodiness or depression for most of his life, and one wonders if the root of his black mood was his oppressive father.

Fortunately, Zane was befriended by an older man named Muddy Miser, who encouraged Zane with his interests in baseball, fishing and the outdoors.  He also was a great reader of Zane’s early writing … how many mentors like Muddy have made all the difference in an artist’s life, one wonders?

Zane and Muddy shared a taste for early Western fiction, and would devour pulp adventure novels about the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody.  Zane’s first story was a Western, Jim of the Cave, written when he was only 15.  His father found the story and tore it up before beating young Zane. 

Like many abused children, Zane followed in his father’s footsteps, going into dentistry like his dad.  He would assist his father on dental work, until the state board of Columbus, Ohio, where they were living at the time, intervened. 

Young Zane went to the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry.  He was something of a baseball star, and juggled aspirations of being a writer or sportsman.  Upon graduation, he bunted and became a dentist, setting up shop as Dr. Zane Grey in New York City.  (Oddly enough, another figure who shaped the image of the American West, Doc Holliday, was also a dentist.)

While on a canoeing trip in 1900, Zane met the 17-year-old Lina Roth, known as Dolly.  It was, after his friendship with Muddy, the most important meeting of his life.  Unhappy as a dentist, frustrated as a sportsman, Dolly copy-edited and encouraged his writing.  Dolly was the secret of Zane’s success, and an extremely patient woman.  Dolly found the money for Zane to self-publish his first novel after it was rejected by publishers, was a tireless editor and polisher, managed his extensive business affairs once he became successful, and, most generously, turned a blind eye to his many marital indiscretions.

Zane’s earliest novels include many Westerns, and it is clear from the beginning that he found his muse among the cacti.  He was an avid traveler, hiker, fisherman and hunter, finding the raw material for his Western tales in the great outdoors.

Zane was never a darling with the critics – he was a successful popular novelist, and, to boot, wrote within a genre that had not yet gained critical respect.  However, he was in incredibly successful author and one of his novels, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) has since been evaluated as something of a masterpiece.

If you are to read only one Zane Grey novel (and your correspondent recommends reading many!), then Purple Sage is the one to pick.  It is the story of a woman, Jane Withersteen, who struggles to escape from Mormon influence in Old Western Utah.  Zane is not a fan of religious fanaticism, and he sees polygamy and religious control as smokescreens for greed, lust and oppression. 

It is with his protagonist, Lassiter, that Zane hits a deep and resonant cultural note.  Lassiter – like Owen Wister’s Virginian – is a black-clad loner, soft-spoken, laconic, respectful of women and the weak, and quick on the draw.  It is the template for Western heroes from Randolph Scott to Clint Eastwood.

There are five film version of Purple Sage (one even staring Tom Mix!), and it was in the movies that Zane found his greatest audience.  Many of his Westerns were adapted into films, and was even the baisis for a television series, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (which ran from 1956 to 1961).  Nearly every major Western film star has appeared in an adaptation of his work, including the focus of tomorrow’s post, Randolph Scott (1898-1987).

Riders of the Purple Sage is avaialbe for free download nearly anywhere on the Internet, including the invaluable  It, along with most of Zane Grey’s Western corpus, comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s In the Pan, by Charles Marion Russell (1915)

Here it is, a New Year, and already we at The Jade Sphinx are thinking about the past.  To be exact, the past that makes up our great American Western Myth.  We spent the holiday season happily listening to Christmas carols, reading some of our favorite seasonal texts, and, of course … thinking about Westerns.

You mean you didn’t?

This Christmas we made our way through more of the Zane Grey (1872-1939), corpus, reading more of the letters of cowboy artist Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), watching a western with both (and I kid you not!) Ronald Colman (1891-1958) and Gary Cooper (1901-1961)… and thinking about Randolph Scott (1898-1987).

We will look at all of these this week, but let’s open with a droll evocation of where winter is heading this year with Russell’s wry and wonderful Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan, painted in 1915.  The work is oil on canvas, mounted on Masonite, and it currently resides in the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, OK.

It’s no secret that we here at The Jade Sphinx love the work of Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist.  The boyish Russell went West in his early youth, and worked as a cowboy, watching the waning days of the American West with an artist’s eye.  He didn't seem to be very effective in the saddle, but it was all Charlie wanted and he was happy.

Charlie spent his artistic life drawing and painting the West that loomed so large in his personal myth.  This delightful picture from 1915 is Charlie at his puckish best.  A man of expansive, genial good humor and a delight in a good joke, Charlie was not immune to including humor in his work.  Indeed, humor is one of the integral human experiences, and any aesthete is bereft if he does not fully embrace the lighter side of life.

Clearly our cowboy has done some winter hunting, but he was just a little too close to the edge of a gorge.  He’s bagged his meat, but how will he get it from the outcropping on which it fell?  Aside from the simple narrative of the painting, there is the sound emotional tenor of the work, which is … yeah, I’ve had days like that.

It was part of Charlie’s genius to set the work in the dead of winter; it would not nearly be as witty as a picture depicting a summer scene.  The cold, the snow and the barren quality of the landscape all conspire to make the hunter’s challenge all the more grueling.

Again, let’s look at Charlie’s simple mastery of the medium.  The dominant color is blue, but … look at what he does with it.  Various shades of blue depict everything from cavernous depths, stony distances, cloudy skies, ice on the precipice, and the snow itself.  There are even hints of blue in the rifle-barrel and upon the lighter-colored horse.  Such versatility of shade, warmth and cold, and gradation of a single color is remarkable.

Charlie is also a master of body language.  The vexation of the hunter is comically rendered without being over-the-top; the horses merely indifferent or simply miserable at being out in the weather.

Look at the circle formed by the horse’s nose pointing at the hunter, the gun butt pointing at the ram, the ram pointing to the scrub, pointing back at the horses.  Charlie’s sense of composition was unerring.

It is astonishing that a painting that so deals with death can also be so light-hearted.  Charlie creates a pyramid shape to draw attention to his hunter by having a dead steer create the left foundation, and a tangled mass of withered scrub form the right.  But it is never gloomy or dour; in fact, it only calls to mind the quote by Mark Twain, who wrote, life is just one damn thing after another.

Tomorrow: Zane Grey!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Some Notes on the Christmas Spirit

A Christmas Illustration By William Joyce, Holiday Artist Deluxe

Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy 2015 to all of our friends and readers.

We here at The Jade Sphinx are in the Christmas spirit – and have been for several weeks now, despite the fact that our neighborhood, our city and our country seem to be in a fairly dire place.  Our lives are very disrupted and in constant flux….

But we are still in the Christmas Spirit.  But, at this late date, just what does the Christmas Spirit mean? 

Well … I’m one of those people who is always predisposed to be happy.  I’m a happy man.  And, though I’m most happy at Christmas, I don’t think that’s quite the reason.

I think, for me, being in the Christmas Spirit is being aware of our time and the experience of being alive, and then enjoying it.  Being aware of passing time encourages you to be grateful for the many blessings that you have, for still being alive, for realizing that the world, no matter how terrible things sometimes are, is full of wonders and marvels.  It means reconnecting with the young person that you were, and seeing the world through the eyes of a child.  Of realizing possibilities, of feeling joy, of remembering that we are all human beings who are somehow inter-connected.  And of being happy – even when you don’t want to be.

In short, Christmas is a time for recognizing the miracle of our lives.

And, to be honest, I simply adore all the things that come with Christmas.  I love Christmas trees.  I love Christmas music – both traditional carols and popular Christmas songs.  I love the decorations and the garland and the mistletoe.  I love tinsel.  I love the traditions that are hundreds of years old that are briefly given life once again, only to immediately fade from our modern world.  I love the way people change and the kindnesses and recognition of the season.  I love the whole thing – it’s the centerpiece of my year.

Christmastime is an oasis.  An oasis not just in the course of the year, but in the course of our lives.  In the course of 2014 we did many things.  But Christmastime is a period that is completely removed from that bustle of activity.  It is a brief moment when people really do seem to be of good cheer, and to recognize one another and to live, too briefly, a little differently.  For me personally, it's a moment to reconnect with my sense of wonder, because wonder throbs through Christmastime like a powerful current hums through a high-power cable.  And, more importantly, it's a moment for me to realize that I'm alive, and that's a pretty terrific and wondrous thing.

We will resume blogging in the New Year!  Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Batman says, "and I don't smell!"

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Friend, Ebenezer Scrooge

Few books are more consistently misread than A Christmas Carol (1843), by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).  Everyone has seen some adaption of the story – featuring anyone from Basil Rathbone to Michael Caine to Mr. Magoo – or, more ubiquitous still, some parody or sendup of the tale.

Ask anyone what A Christmas Carol is about, and almost certainly they will tell you it’s a parable about greed.  Ebenezer Scrooge, they will tell you, is a miser, hoarding his money at the expense of his employee, Bob Crachit, and refusing to use a portion of it for the common good.  His late partner, Jacob Marley, sends to him the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, they will go on to say, showing him the error of his ways, and he reforms by becoming more generous.

That, however, is not the story Dickens wrote, nor the lesson he wished to impart.

Scrooge as miser is a woeful misreading of Dickens’ story.  The great sin of which Scrooge was guilty was not a niggardly withholding of money, but of personal warmth, distancing himself from the rest of humanity, and refusing his place in the community. 

Again and again the mighty Ghosts of Christmas haunt our protagonist with his refusals of human interaction, not mere miserliness.  As a boy, Scrooge was left at school during the holidays, alone and unloved.  His mother is never mentioned, and his father only in passing (‘he is so much kinder now’), but not in any way that demonstrates he loves his son.  Worse yet, Scrooge’s beloved sister Fran dies early; and Scrooge is later apprenticed to a man who provides one of the few positive influences of his life, Mr. Fezziwig.  But the lessons of Fezziwig do not take, and Scrooge turns away his chance at lifelong love by allowing his fiancée, Belle, to leave him.  Scrooge devotes himself to business, not simply to grow rich and comfortable, but to fill up his ever emptying life.  He keeps fellow human beings at a distance… alienating his one relative, his nephew Fred (presumably Fran’s child), and closing himself off from his colleagues or employees.

The great tragedy of Scrooge is that we see him as an imaginative boy, delighting in childhood tales of Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe … and we watch that boy almost obliterated by the unimaginative and unforgiving man he becomes.  What the Ghosts do, in essence, is connect Scrooge with his inner child.

Few authors wrote of children with the insight and intelligence of Dickens; perhaps that is because he was one of those few adults gifted with a childlike sense of wonder.  Mind – not a childish sense of wonder, for that rare commodity is no such thing.  Dickens, as Scrooge would, too, after his visitations, was able to see the world with the clear-eyed view of a child, and reprioritize what’s important.  As Dickens himself writes in the book, for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.

Though not a children’s novel by any stretch of the imagination, A Christmas Carol has been read and enjoyed by children for more than a century.  This is fascinating, because a great deal of children’s literature (most notably Peter Pan) is about putting away childhood things and parting ways with wonder and childhood passions.  That is the way, these books argue, to health.

Dickens, on the other hand, believes in an integration of wonder into the adult for successful and happy maturity.  Scrooge becomes whole by adopting the wonders of his vision of the Christmas Ghosts.  They are not, like a visit to Neverland, temporary, but permanent.  This is much to our taste.  We here at The Jade Sphinx like our heroes (and worldview) to incorporate wonder!  Bravo Dickens.  At ‘em Scrooge!

If you are visited by Christmas Ghosts tonight, we sincerely hope that the experience is as terrible, as wondrous, and as life-affirming as that of Ebenezer Scrooge.  We could wish you no greater gift.

A special Christmas message tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It’s Christmas Day in the Workhouse, by George Robert Sims (1877)

Sometimes even bon vivants develop a social conscience.  Such was the case of George Robert Sims (1847-1922), dandy par excellence, who wrote humorous pieces for such magazines as Fun and The Referee

Like most aesthetes, his eyes were always open, and Sims saw the awful conditions created by the Poor Law of 1834.  Though a dedicated gambler and gamesman, Sims made a great deal of money as a playwright and journalist.  Sims wrote detective fiction, and would often discuss current, real-life criminal cases with fellow friends Max Pemberton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  He would die destitute and largely forgotten, except for one searing poem, summoning all of his indignation at conditions of the poor. 

First published in 1877, It’s Christmas Day in the Workhouse was much parodied or dismissed as mere sentimentality, but now, more than 100 years after its composition, it seems as fresh, compelling and … true as ever.

Sims wrote in his memoirs that after his poem was first published, it was vigorously denounced as a mischievous attempt to set the paupers against their betters.  Class warfare, indeed.

Following the success of his poem, Sims gave lectures on the need for social reform. After one of these meetings in Southwark, Sims was approached by Arthur Moss, a local School Board officer, who told him the terrible poverty that large numbers of working class people were experiencing in London.  He then offered to take Sims of a tour of the district.

Shocking images from the tour were seared into Sims’ brain.  He decided he would try to find a way of bringing this information to the notice of the general public. He approached his friend, Gilbert Dalziel, the editor of a new illustrated paper, The Pictorial World who agreed to publish a series of articles by Sims on the living conditions of people in London.

Illustrated by Frederick Burnard, the articles were later published in a 1889 book, How the Poor Live. Articles originally published in the Daily News appeared in another volume in 1889,  Horrible London.

Sims also wrote many popular ballads attempting to draw attention to the plight of the London poor, a selfless undertaking that raised public opinion on the subject of poverty and led to reform legislation in the Act of 1885. 

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,
And the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the table,
For this is the hour they dine.

And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They've paid for — with the rates.

Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
With their "Thank'ee kindly, mum's!'"
So long as they fill their stomachs,
What matter it whence it comes!
But one of the old men mutters,
And pushes his plate aside:
"Great God!" he cries, "but it chokes me!
For this is the day she died!"

The guardians gazed in horror,
The master's face went white;
"Did a pauper refuse the pudding?"
"Could their ears believe aright?"
Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
Thinking the man would die,
Struck by a bolt, or something,
By the outraged One on high.

But the pauper sat for a moment,
Then rose 'mid silence grim,
For the others had ceased to chatter
And trembled in every limb.
He looked at the guardians' ladies,
Then, eyeing their lords, he said,
"I eat not the food of villains
Whose hands are foul and red:

"Whose victims cry for vengeance
From their dark, unhallowed graves."
"He's drunk!" said the workhouse master,
"Or else he's mad and raves."
"Not drunk or mad," cried the pauper,
"But only a haunted beast,
Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,
Declines the vulture's feast.

"I care not a curse for the guardians,
And I won't be dragged away;
Just let me have the fit out,
It's only on Christmas Day
That the black past comes to goad me,
And prey on my burning brain;
I'll tell you the rest in a whisper —
I swear I won't shout again.

"Keep your hands off me, curse you!
Hear me right out to the end.
You come here to see how paupers
The season of Christmas spend;.
You come here to watch us feeding,
As they watched the captured beast.
Here's why a penniless pauper
Spits on your paltry feast.

"Do you think I will take your bounty,
And let you smile and think
You're doing a noble action
With the parish's meat and drink?
Where is my wife, you traitors —
The poor old wife you slew?
Yes, by the God above me,
My Nance was killed by you!

'Last winter my wife lay dying,
Starved in a filthy den;
I had never been to the parish —
I came to the parish then.
I swallowed my pride in coming,
For ere the ruin came,
I held up my head as a trader,
And I bore a spotless name.

"I came to the parish, craving
Bread for a starving wife,
Bread for the woman who'd loved me
Through fifty years of life;
And what do you think they told me,
Mocking my awful grief,
That 'the House' was open to us,
But they wouldn't give 'out relief'.

"I slunk to the filthy alley —
'Twas a cold, raw Christmas Eve —
And the bakers' shops were open,
Tempting a man to thieve;
But I clenched my fists together,
Holding my head awry,
So I came to her empty-handed
And mournfully told her why.

"Then I told her the house was open;
She had heard of the ways of that,
For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,
and up in her rags she sat,
Crying, 'Bide the Christmas here, John,
We've never had one apart;
I think I can bear the hunger —
The other would break my heart.'

"All through that eve I watched her,
Holding her hand in mine,
Praying the Lord and weeping,
Till my lips were salt as brine;
I asked her once if she hungered,
And as she answered 'No' ,
T'he moon shone in at the window,
Set in a wreath of snow.

"Then the room was bathed in glory,
And I saw in my darling's eyes
The faraway look of wonder
That comes when the spirit flies;
And her lips were parched and parted,
And her reason came and went.
For she raved of our home in Devon,
Where our happiest years were spent.

"And the accents, long forgotten,
Came back to the tongue once more.
For she talked like the country lassie
I woo'd by the Devon shore;
Then she rose to her feet and trembled,
And fell on the rags and moaned,
And, 'Give me a crust — I'm famished —
For the love of God!' she groaned.

"I rushed from the room like a madman
And flew to the workhouse gate,
Crying, 'Food for a dying woman!'
And the answer came, 'Too late.'
They drove me away with curses;
Then I fought with a dog in the street
And tore from the mongrel's clutches
A crust he was trying to eat.

"Back through the filthy byways!
Back through the trampled slush!
Up to the crazy garret,
Wrapped in an awful hush;
My heart sank down at the threshold,
And I paused with a sudden thrill.
For there, in the silv'ry moonlight,
My Nance lay, cold and still.

"Up to the blackened ceiling,
The sunken eyes were cast —
I knew on those lips, all bloodless,
My name had been the last;
She called for her absent husband —
O God! had I but known! —
Had called in vain, and, in anguish,
Had died in that den — alone.

"Yes, there, in a land of plenty,
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered
for a loaf of the parish bread;
At yonder gate, last Christmas,
I craved for a human life,
You, who would feed us paupers,
What of my murdered wife!"

'There, get ye gone to your dinners,
Don't mind me in the least,
Think of the happy paupers
Eating your Christmas feast;
And when you recount their blessings
In your smug parochial way,
Say what you did for me, too,
Only last Christmas Day."