Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, By Peter Ackroyd

His was the most beautiful corpse I had ever seen.  It seemed that the flush had not left the cheeks, and that the mouth was curved in the semblance of a smile.  There was no expression of sadness or of horror upon the face but, rather, one of sublime resignation.  The body itself was muscular and firmly knit; the phthisis had removed any trace of superfluous fat, and the chest, abdomen and thighs were perfectly formed.  The legs were fine and muscular, the arms most elegantly proportioned.  The hair was full and thick, curling at the back and sides, and I noticed that there was a small scar above the left eyebrow.  That was the only defect I could find.

Well, there’s a dainty dish for Halloween day, served up by novelist Peter Ackroyd (born 1949).  Ackroyd is one of our most celebrated novelists and essayists.  His gathered criticism, The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (2001), reflects a lively and opinionated intelligence; these little gems are among the finest things he’s written.

Ackroyd’s biographies are justly famous, and his monumental Dickens (1990) may be the last word on the subject.  Written in the manner of a Victorian novel, Dickens demonstrates the importance of form matched to content.  He has also produced excellent biographies of Turner (2005), Blake (1995) and Thomas More (1998).

Most of his novels are equally distinguished, especially to this reader The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) and our subject today, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008).  Readers expecting the usual hugger-mugger of less accomplished supernatural novelists, turn elsewhere.  But … if you are interested in a novel of ideas that is equal parts chiller and historical novel, then this book is for you.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is a wonderful mix of fact and fancy.  Ackroyd’s conceit is that Victor Frankenstein himself was a friend of Percy and Mary Shelley, and was there for that storm-driven evening in Switzerland when the Shelleys, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori sat around, telling ghost stories.  That evening led Mary, then 18 years old, to later write the novel Frankenstein (1818).

The novel includes a great deal of actual historical incident (Shelley sent down from school, the drowning death of his first wife, Byron’s friendship with Polidori), while skillfully inserting into it the story of Frankenstein and his monster.  But, more than anything, what Ackroyd is playing with is the Romantic novel of ideas, and the notion that Olympian notions of transcendence and heightened sensibility can be very dangerous things.  Frankenstein – himself neither poet nor artist and, perhaps, an indifferent scientist – dreams of lofty achievement and elevated sensations.  Does that drive him to commit horrible acts … or, worse yet, to create life in a mad ambition to usurp the powers of God, and then refuse responsibility for the life he has created?

More importantly, does Frankenstein’s Monster truly exist, or is it an extension of his own fears, evil ambitions, or, perhaps, a suppressed homosexual desire for Percy Shelley?

Like Dracula, the “meaning” of the Frankenstein Monster has altered with each decade since first created by Mary Shelley – the book can be interpreted as everything from a female-free reproductive paradigm to a socialist tract.  If succeeding generations have grappled with the overarching meaning of the Monster, why should Victor Frankenstein himself be exempt?

Ackroy’ds Monster – like that of Mary Shelley – is no mute, shambling zombie, but, rather, an articulate and vengeful revenant.  He did not ask to be brought into this world and, cannot understand human cruelty and apathy.  Eventually, like Milton’s Satan, he believes that it is perhaps better to do evil than to do nothing at all.  That, perhaps more than anything else, is the true meaning of Halloween.

Here’s another snippet, where the Monster confronts Frankenstein after murdering Shelley’s first wife, Harriet:

“I wished you to notice me.”


“I wished you to think of me.  To consider my plight.”

“By killing Harriet?”

“I knew then that you would not be able to throw me off.  To disdain me.”

“Have you no conscience?”

“I have heard the word.”  He smiled, or what I took to be a smile passed across his face.  “I have heard many words for which I do not feel the sentiment here.”  He tapped his breast.  “But you understand that, do you not, sir?”

“I cannot understand anything so devoid of principle, so utterly malicious.”

“Oh, surely you have some inkling?  I am hardly unknown to you.”  I realized then that that his was the voice of youth – of the youth he had once been – and that a cause of horror lay in the disparity between the mellifluous expression and the distorted appearance of the creature.  “You have not lost your memory, I trust?”

“I wish to God I had.”

“God?  That is another word I have heard. Are you my God?”

I must have given an expression of disdain, or disgust, because he gave out a howl of anguish in a manner very different from the way he had conversed.  With one sudden movement he picked up the great oaken table, lying damaged upon the floor, and set it upright.  “You will remember this.  This was my cradle, was it not?  Here was I rocked.  Or will you pretend that the river gave me birth?”  He took a step towards me.  “You were the first thing that I saw upon this earth.  Is it any wonder that your form is more real to me than that of any other living creature?”

I turned away, in disgust at myself for having created this being.  But he misunderstood my movement.  He sprang in front of me, with a celerity unparalleled.  “You cannot leave me.  You cannot shut out my words, however distasteful they may be to you.  Were you covered by oceans, or buried in mountains, you would still hear me.”

We hear him still, nearly 200 years after his conception.  Frankenstein’s Monster is that which in each of us is both abject and terrible.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Richard III, With Mark Rylance

It’s not often the Shakespeare’s Globe productions make it to the US, so when they arrive it is cause for riotous celebration.  So … it is with a great deal of disappointment that I report that the recent production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Belasco Theatre starring Mark Rylance (born 1960) is an ill-conceived, ramshackle conception.  This is a great shame as Rylance is one of the most gifted actors of his generation – however, I doubt I have ever seen a more wrong-headed interpretation of Shakespeare’s crookbacked anti-hero.

Problems with Richard III start at the top and the rot continues down.  As written, Richard is a charming monster.  He revels in his villainy, and his constant asides to the audience make us complicit in his monstrosity.  His ego is enormous and his self-satisfaction over the most wretched and heinous crimes become droll in his endless self-regard and delight in manipulation.  In short, it is a role for an actor with a High Comic sensibility.

Sadly, High Comedy is not in Rylance’s bag of tricks.  He is an expert Low Comedian, and while he does get laughs with Richard, the overall conception never comes alive.  Imagine Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau disguised as Richard III, and you get the idea.  There is a great deal of business between Rylance and the audience in the first few rows, where he is mugging for a response, while some of his most malefic lines are thrown away as under-the-breath asides.  This is not High Comic villainy, it’s a homicidal Nigel Bruce.  It is a novel approach, but that is all.

Richard III is presented in repertory with Twelfth Night, and in strives to recreate an Elizabethan theatrical experience.  True to the time, all women’s roles are played by men.  I have seen this work wonderfully well in the past (I recall the troupe Cheek By Jowl in a series of Shakespearean productions at BAM 20 years ago that were stunning), but the effect here is more Monty Python than Renaissance theater.  Joseph Timms, as Lady Anne, is so heavily made up that he seems more like a waxwork figure.  (White pancake makeup applied with a trowel, one would assume, to ape portraits of Elizabeth.) Sad to say that equally dire is Samuel Barnett, as Queen Elizabeth, who unfortunately resembles Timms in makeup to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to tell one from the other.

Richard the III is really Richard’s play, and there aren’t many other good roles; however, what is here is poorly played.  Angus Wright, as Buckingham, looks and sounds like Raymond Massey … and is just as bad an actor.  But perhaps the most egregious offender of the evening is Kurt Egyiawan as the Duchess of York, and later as Richmond -- in a lifetime of watching Shakespeare on stage, I have never seen a more wretched performance.  Only Liam Brennan, as Clarence, seems to make something of his part.  I hope to see more of him in the future.

Tim Carroll directs and makes rather a hash of it.  The staging is unimaginative and, at times, simply ridiculous.  Troubled by dreams of his victims, Carroll parades them backstage in white sheets holding candles; more Our Gang than Halloween horror.  How such a gruesome play was rendered so bloodless may be the great mystery of this production.  It ends with Richard and Richmond locked in mortal combat – but it never convinces.  Nor does it help that – in an attempt to create a true Elizabethan experience – the entire cast gather onstage at curtain’s fall and pad through a clumsy quadrille.

We are seeing Twelfth Night later this week; it is Stephen Fry’s Broadway debut, and perhaps his intelligence, taste and sense of fun will positively impact on the production.  We can but hope.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Garrick Ohlsson at People’s Symphony

Last week we told you about People’s Symphony Concerts – which have been in existence since 1900, when they were founded by conductor Franz Arens.  World class musicians – both emerging talents and old masters – have been the mainstay of People’s Symphony, and each and every year the lineup grows more impressive.

So, I was greatly excited when an amateur musician friend told me of a concert he heard in San Francisco where Garrick Ohlsson (born 1948) played.  That same concert was in the offering at People’s Symphony and the early verdict was … it was not to be missed.

Nor did Ohlsson disappoint.  The concert at Washington Irving in Gramercy Park last Saturday evening was simply splendid.  Dressed in impeccable tie and tails, Ohlsson is showman enough to command the stage in any venue, and once he sat behind the Steinway piano, he held the audience spellbound for more than two hours.

Ohlsson opened with the very familiar Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (1879) by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  This warhorse is a mainstay of classical music stations, and one would expect its allure to dim with over-familiarity.  Not so under Ohlsson’s skillful playing; it was fresh and alive and the line of Brahms’ music clean and clear.

Ohlsson followed with Fantasia on Ad Nos, ad salutarem undam, S. 259 (1850) by Franz Liszt (1811-1886), easily my favorite piece of the evening.  This is Liszt at his most ornate and outlandish, and Ohlsson played the Adagio with tremendous gusto and the Fuga with deep sensitivity.  If you are not an aficionado of Liszt or his music, this piece may well change your mind.  It demands quite technical virtuosity, and Ohlsson plays it with brio.

The program continued with Selection from Etude for Piano (1915) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), which I found amusing, but undemanding.  Debussy has never been wholly to our taste, but the Pour les sixtes was quite wonderful and almost enough to make me reconsider my opinion on this polarizing composer.

Ohlsson ended with Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49 (1841), by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).  It is a work of deep, emotional tenderness, and it was beautifully rendered by the pianist.

Garrick Ohlsson has a worldwide reputation for his Olympian interpretive and technical prowess.  He was born in White Plains, NY, and began his piano studies at age 8.  He has won too many awards to be fully chronicled here, but they include the Chopin Competition in Warsaw and the Avery Fisher Prize.  His 2013-14 season will include recitals in Montreal, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angles, Seattle and Kansas City, culminating in February at Carnegie Hall.  In January, with the Boston Symphony, he will present the world premier of a concerto commissioned for him from Justin Dello Joio; he will also play, this year, works by Beethoven, Schubert and Charles Tomlinson Griffes.  If you have even the remotest interest in virtuoso piano playing, be sure to see out Garrick Ohlsson this year.

One parting word about People’s Symphony.  There are still some tickets let for their three, concurrent series, but numbers are limited.  It remains the best deal for New Yorkers passionate about music that I have ever come across, and subscriptions will not be regretted.  The can be found at:

Friday, October 25, 2013

Why I’m a Marxist, Part III: Harpo

Today we look at the most beloved of the Marx Brothers, Harpo Marx.  We must also pause for an unpleasant confession: when we here at The Jade Sphinx first became enamored of the Marx Brothers, we not only disliked Harpo, we loathed him.

Strong words, we know, but let us explain.  While growing up, comedy was for me a verbal exercise – a concentration of wit and wordplay.  Comedy came down to the written word and its skillful delivery.  Comedy was something said.  Slapstick, pantomime and clowning did not possess the elements of wit and intelligence, to our minds, and were simply degraded … funniness.

Fortunately, with age comes wisdom (or a distant relative of it, in my case), and now Harpo is perhaps my favorite of the team.  Not simply because I have been able to overcome my linguistic prejudices and finally recognize his comic genius, but, more importantly, because I see the real and elemental sweetness of the man shining through his work.

Of all of the Brothers Marx, Harpo had much the happiest life.  Groucho said Harpo had a talent for happiness, and that comes through in everything he does.

Harpo was born Adolph Marx in 1888.  He supplemented the family income with piano and harp playing, and joined the act as a comic.  Though he originally spoke in his onstage appearances, reviewers were quick to praise his skills as a pantomime and physical comic.  Knowing a strength when it was pointed out to him, he became a mute act and comedy history was made.

If the Marx Brothers movies are studies in surrealism, then Harpo is the most surreal of them all.  It is no surprise that he was loved by Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and other absurdists.  Like a character from a Looney Tunes cartoon, the rules of time, space and dimension that rule all of us do not seem to apply to Harpo.  He is able to pull lit cigarettes, candles or steaming cups of coffee from the pockets of his pendulous jacket.  Dogs lean out of tattoos and bark at the audience; he can make a payphone payoff a jackpot.  He is virtually indestructible, and though he can be hurt, it seems as if his corporeal self is made of stronger stuff than are we.

But for all of the invincibility – he is the only Marx Brother who is vulnerable.  Harpo is capable of great acts of kindness, self-sacrifice and sweetness that are impossible to the more self-absorbed Groucho and Chico.  In more ways than one, Harpo was the soul of the act – the most outlandish of them all was also the most human.

If Harpo was undisguised ID, it was the ID of a basically good child.  He was ruled by lust, hunger and enthusiasm, but never self-interest, enmity nor malice.  We may wish for Chico’s wiliness, or Groucho’s Olympian wit, but we long for Harpo’s soul.

Harpo married Susan Fleming in 1936.  He was the only one of the performing brothers who married once and married happily.  They adopted four children: Bill, Alex, Jimmy and Minnie.  He is recorded as having told fellow comedian George Burns: I would like to adopt as many children as I have windows in my house.  So when I leave for work, I want a kid in every window waving goodbye.

Though Harpo received very little formal schooling, he was good friends with most of the Algonquin Round Table, including critic Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943), who may have had a homosexual passion for the comic.  Groucho thought spending time with the Round Table was “like swimming in a shark pool,” but Harpo seemed to hold his own, mostly by being such a good audience.  When Woolcott was parodied in the 1939 comedy The Man Who Came Dinner, by George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) and Moss Hart (1904-1961), Harpo was transformed into the character Banjo, memorably played by Jimmy Durante (1893-1980) in the film version.  Harpo and Woolcott, however, both played their fictional selves on the Los Angeles stage – and what your correspondent wouldn’t have given to have seen that!

Later in life, Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks.  And did he ever, at long last.  His final public appearance was in 1964, when he appeared onstage with comedian Allan Sherman (1924-1973) to announce his retirement.  Once he started talking, it seemed as if he would never shut up.

Harpo died just six months later from a heart attack following open heart surgery.  Many people have recorded that it was the only time they saw brother Groucho cry.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Harpo was not mute and spoke with an old, New York accent.  If it does not destroy too much of the illusion, you can hear him here: 

Watch any of the Marx Brothers films, but especially those from Coconuts (1929) to A Night at the Opera (1935).  It’s enough to make you a Marxist, too.

Harpo With His Real-Life Children

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why I’m a Marxist Part II: Chico

We continue our look at advanced Marxism with a profile of perhaps the most underrated Marx Brother, Chico Marx.  (For all intents and purposes, we will consider Zeppo, handsomest of the Marxes, as interchangeable leading man.)

Chico is often dismissed as a one-joke character: a zany Italian immigrant accent waiting for a misunderstanding to happen.  That is only true as far as it goes; Chico’s art was much more subtle than one would think.

First, there is the question of Chico’s ethnicity.  Is he represented “as” an Italian, or some mad simulacrum of one?  I, for one, am never sure.  I am reminded of a scene in Animal Crackers (1930), where Chico recognizes a fellow conman in disguise:

Ravelli (Chico):    How is it you got to be Roscoe W. Chandler?
Chandler:             Say, how did you get to be Italian?
Ravelli:                 Never mind—whose confession is this?

Chico has often been dismissed as “the third one,” or, more ridiculously, as Groucho’s straight man.  What both assessments fail to consider is that Chico could be screamingly funny with the right material.  In Duck Soup (1933), Chico is a spy snooping on President Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho).  Here is his report to the foreign ambassador:

Monday we watch Firefly's house, but he no come out. He wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game and we fool him. We no show up. Thursday was a double-header; nobody show up. Friday it rained all day. There was no ball game, so we stayed home and we listened to it over the radio.

Chico has his best moment in A Night at the Opera (1935).  There, he, Harpo and the Zeppo stand-in (Allan Jones) are disguised as famous aviators who travel to America … by steamship.  At the reception welcoming our heroes Chico recounts:

Friends, how we happen to come to America is a great story. But I don't tell that... The first time we started, we get-a halfway across when we run out-a gasoline and we gotta go back. Then I take-a twice as much gasoline. This time we-a just about to land. Maybe three feet. When whaddya think? We run out-a gasoline again. And a-back we go again to get-a more gas. This time I take-a plenty gas. Well, we get-a halfway over when what-a you think-a happened? We forgot-a the aeroplane. So we gotta sit down and we talk it over. Then I get a great idea. We no take-a gasoline. We no take-a the aeroplane. We take a steamship! And that, friends, is how we fly across the ocean!

However, it is now time to put down the notion that Chico was Groucho’s straight man once and for all.  Very often the verbal highlight of a Marx Brothers film is the duologue between Groucho and Chico.  What is amazing about these verbal fisticuffs is that…. Chico usually wins.

We have become so accustomed to Groucho being the genuine wit of the group, and that his verbal dexterity was so powerful that mountains would fall before him, but simply watching the films demonstrates that Chico almost always gets the better of Groucho.  And that is because Chico wields his own version of Groucho’s greatest weapon against him:  he is impervious to logic.

These set pieces often start on a very prosaic level and become increasingly more surreal and absurd, often because Chico is either taking everything Groucho says literally, or his own brand of absurdity is more impervious.  Here, for example, is Chico guarding a speakeasy when Groucho comes to the door.  The password to get in is “swordfish,” and Chico lets Groucho have three guesses:

Baravelli:    Who are you?

Wagstaff:   I'm fine thanks, who are you?

Baravelli:    I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password.

Wagstaff:   Well, what is the password?

Baravelli:    Aw, no! You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell what I do. I give you three guesses. It's the name of a fish.

Wagstaff:   Is it Mary?

Baravelli:    Ha-ha. That's-a no fish.

Wagstaff:   She isn't, well, she drinks like one. Let me see. Is it sturgeon?

Baravelli:    Hey you crazy! Sturgeon, he's a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.

Wagstaff:   I got it! Haddock!

Baravelli:    That's-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.

Wagstaff:   What do you take for a haddock?

Baravelli:    Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.

Wagstaff:   Say, I'd walk a mile for a Calamel.

Baravelli:    You mean chocolate calamel. I like that too, but you no guess it. Hey, what-sa matter, you no understand English? You can't come in here unless you say 'swordfish.' Now I'll give you one more guess.

Wagstaff:   (to himself: Swordfish. Swordfish) I think I got it. Is it 'swordfish'?

Baravelli:    Hah! That's-a it! You guess it!

Wagstaff:   Pretty good, eh?

Chico was the oldest surviving of the Marx children (brother Manfred died in infancy) and the first to pass away.  He was born Leonard Marx in 1887 in New York.  He was, in many ways, the wild Marx.  A gambler and hustler, he never met a card game or a chorus girl he could resist.  And though he was a chronic philanderer, his two wives and daughter doted on him.

Though a disaster as a gambler (eventually his brothers had to take his financial matters in hand themselves … mainly to keep Chico from being killed over gambling debts), he was a wonderful manager and schmoozer.  He managed the act after mother Minnie Marx died, and his connections at MGM got the team out of Paramount and over to Metro, where they made two masterpieces, A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), under the auspices of wunderkind Irving Thalberg (1899-1936).  Between films, Chico toured with a Big Band, The Chico Marx Orchestra, with singer Mel Torme.

The Brothers Marx seem to run true to form onstage and off.  When Chico died in 1961, his funeral was held in the Wee Kirk O’ the Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  A rabbi officiated for a Jewish fake Italian in a replica Scottish chapel.  At the funeral, one of the speakers described Chico in terms unrecognizable to both friends and family, prompting Harpo to lean over to his surviving brothers and say, “when I go, do me a favor and hire a mime.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why I’m a Marxist Part I: Groucho

Okay, I’ll admit it – I’m a Marxist.  I’ve been a Marxist for as long as I can remember, dating back to my earliest years of grade school.  And I don’t see it changing any time soon.  I’m a Marxist for life.  (Note to the NSA: this is an old, venerated American tradition called humor.  Just go with it.)

Hard as it is to believe now, but at one time it was possible to be young in the US and have aesthetic and emotional attachments to cultural artifacts of previous generations.  When I grew up in the 1970s, it was just as easy to be a rabid fan of The Marx Brothers or, say, Bela Lugosi, as it was to appreciate Elton John or The Beatles.  Culture was a more amorphous stew of new and old, good and bad, the tried-and-true and the newly emerging.  Radio dramas from the 1940s could still be heard in reruns on radio along with Top 40 programs, and late night television was awash in classic American cinema.  It was a wonderful time to grow up, if one was awake, because the great kaleidoscope of American culture was spread out before you.

That has largely changed.  Our culture has become too fragmented, our viewing and listening habits too balkanized, and our deep and abiding suspicion of anything remotely challenging has shrunken the offerings of our cultural landscape.  It is, I believe, the sneaking suspicion that something not contemporary may be too challenging -- too slow, too much story, not loud enough – that has consigned so much of American culture, both high and pop, to the contemporary dustbin.

Not so just a few decades ago.  And no figures from the Golden Age of American pop culture loomed larger – in college campuses or grade school playgrounds – than the comedy team The Marx Brothers.  It is arguable that the Marx Brothers were more popular in the 1970s than they were in their heyday of the 1930s.  It is a success story that has no real equal in American entertainment, except, of course, for the continuing popularity of the more proletarian Three Stooges.

During this reclamation, the aging and increasingly frail Groucho Marx (1890-1977) managed a one-man show at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and appeared on just about every television venue that would have him.  It was a wonderful coda to a remarkable career, and one that, we hope, made up for many real-life disappointments and setbacks.

Born Julius Henry Marx in New York, Groucho was pushed into show business by his mother, Minnie.  She was convinced that a family act would be a hit, and all five brothers would eventually work onstage as a team or separately.

Chico, the oldest brother, was a compulsive gambler and womanizer who seemed, oddly enough, to be mother’s favorite.  Things came easily to Chico, and Groucho resented that.  Harpo, who clearly had some kind of undiagnosed learning disability, was often the subject of Groucho’s most condescending jokes.  However, Harpo was a genuinely happy man – he had a talent for happiness that Groucho lacked.  (Indeed, Groucho was deeply suspicious of happiness.)  The two younger brothers, Zeppo and Gummo, never really embraced show business, but Groucho felt a responsibility towards them, and often made arrangements to further their careers and businesses.

In fact, Groucho played father to his brood of brothers, something that their real-life father Sam could never quite pull off.  It is perhaps this early imposition of responsibility and obligation that soured Groucho so early in life, and made his private relationships so fraught.  He married three times, twice to women young enough to be his daughter, and spent his sunset years with a conniving adventuress who sucked away his energy and cash while trying to establish herself as a Hollywood player.

But, whatever messiness of his private life, Groucho was probably the most gifted comedian of the 20th Century.  He had all the gifts: he looked funny, his voice was funny, his walk and mannerisms were funny; he was a gifted physical comedian and a comedic lord of language.

Groucho’s métier was the insult; this has been much degraded of late, but with Groucho it was an art form.  Groucho’s insults relied on real wit, not merely funniness, which is, in the final analysis, the ultimate indication of intelligence.  We could easily fill up multiple pages with examples, but here is one delirious scene from Horse Feathers (1932).  Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, romances college widow Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd) in a rowboat while she tries to steal information on the upcoming college football game:

Wagstaff:   This is the first time I've been out in a canoe since I saw The American Tragedy.

Connie:       Oh, you're perfectly safe, Professor, in this boat.

Wagstaff:   I don't know. I was going to get a flat bottom but the girl at the boat house didn't have one.

Connie:       Well you know, Professor, I could go on like this, drifting and dreaming forever. What a day! Spring in the air.

Wagstaff:   Who, me? I should spring in the air and fall in the lake?

Connie:       Oh, Professor, you're full of whimsy.

Wagstaff:   Can you notice it from there? I'm always that way after I eat radishes.

The football team's signals fall out of Wagstaff's coat pocket into the water and drift by Connie. He boasts that he has a second set of signals in his other pocket: Luckily, I've got a duplicate set in my pocket. I always carry two of everything. This is the first time I've only been out with one woman. Then, she attempts to use baby talk on him to divulge Huxley's football signals:

Connie:       Do you know, Professor, I've never seen football signals? Do you think a little girl like me could understand them?

Wagstaff:   I think a little girl like you would understand practically anything.

Connie:       Is gweat big stwong man gonna show liddle icky baby all about the bad footbawl signals?

Wagstaff (startled): Was that you or the duck? 'Cause if it was you, I'm gonna finish this ride with the duck.

Connie:       If icky baby don't learn about the footbawl signals, icky baby gonna cwy.

Wagstaff:   If icky girl keep on tawking that way, big stwong man gonna kick all her teef wight down her thwoat.

The Marx Brothers made some 13 films in all; some brilliant (Duck Soup, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races), some awful (At the Circus), but all worth seeing, even if for only occasional glimpses of genius.

In the 1950s, Groucho became a solo act, serving as quiz master for You Bet Your Life on both radio and television.  Here was Groucho in his element – talking to a broad cross-section of people and deploying his killer wit.  Oddly enough, this was Groucho’s most celebrated star turn before his great revival in the 1970s, and though amusing, You Bet Your Life was never as inventive, transgressive or fall-down funny as his classic films.

If you have not seen the early Marx Brothers films – particularly the films made at Paramount: The Coconuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup – do so without delay.  They are among the most wonderful artifacts of American pop culture.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Mischievians, by William Joyce

Just in time for the holidays, William Joyce returns with a delightful new picture book. 

We here at The Jade Sphinx do not hide our admiration for the animator, illustrator, author William Joyce (born 1957) one of the great talents of our age.  We think that he is, in many ways, a modern-day Winsor McCay (1867-1934), an artist-showman with a distinct genius for entertaining children of all ages.  For some time he has been involved in the creation of a series of books centered on what he calls The Guardians of Childhood – creating a cosmology that explains the origins of beloved figures from childhood folklore from Santa Claus to the Man in the Moon.  (And we will review his latest prose novel in the series, The Sandman and the War of Dreams.)

His latest picture book, The Mischievians, however, is not part of the Guardian series, and is something of a palate cleanser for those following the series.  It is also completely unlike his earlier picture books, in that it is not a narrative story but, rather, a playful notebook/encyclopedia on Mischievians – the little gremlins responsible for missing socks, hanging boogers, bellybutton lint and a host of other social ills.

The book was Compiled with illuminations by Dr. Maximilian Fortisque Robinson Zooper, MD, PdD, LOL, OMD, QED, & Golly Gee.  Done while snapping his fingers in the air.  Just kidding.  Mayb  (the final e is stolen by a sneaky Mischievian).  So, we know already that we are in the realm of Joyce at his most raucous and, perhaps, his most naughty. 

The book details questions asked of Zooper by two children eager to know more about the forces at work that create smells, lose socks and enable embarrassing situations for us all.  And Zooper responds, outlining the various types of Mischievians with full-color illustrations.

The illustrations are quite wonderful, some done in Joyce’s customary luminescent Golden Age of American Illustration style, while many of the paintings of the Mischievians are completely alien to his other, published work.  These drawings, with all of their febrile energy and boundary-pushing intensity, owe more to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (1932-2001), famed hot rod and bubblegum card illustrator.  But Joyce’s revamped sense of design is evident everywhere in the book, from the purposely faded and heavily-used cover (looking like a much-thumbed schoolbook) to the constant little hands of Mischievians everywhere, taking the very letters from the page.  Once again Joyce demonstrates that book design (and books themselves) are not static enterprises, but sources of both fun and motion.

Here’s a sample of the delights found in The Mischievians:

Dr. Zooper, you know when you look in the mirror and see a booger dangling out of your nose and you know it’s been there maybe all day and everybody has probably seen it?  Did a Mischievian do that?

Yes!  This mischievous duty is performed by Danglers.  A small group of Danglers live in your nose.  Their only job is to lure the nervous Booger out of the nostril.  (Boogers are notoriously shy.)  Once out, Booger discover that they love to see and be seen.  When the Booger is visible, the Danglers return to their hideout in your nose.  Never by embarrassed by a Booger that is dangling.  A dangling Booger is a happy Booger.

Do I have to leave the Booger dangling?

That’s between you and your Booger.

Here is William Joyce as you’ve never seen him before.  A hoot from start to finish, The Mischievians is good, old-fashioned mischievous fun.  Recommended for all children, and for the young at heart.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection

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Proving once again that they are the country’s premiere museum-without-walls, the Dahesh makes its treasures available to New Yorkers in one of the most stunning shows I have seen in years.

Housed in the Museum of Biblical Art, Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection features some 30 works from the Dahesh collection, all masterful pictures by leading 19th Century French academicians.  The exhibition traces the renewed interest in Biblical myths following the expansion of biblical archeology and the advent of photography, which produced travel books with pictures of the Holy Land.

As co-curator Sarah Schaefer of the Dahesh (with Alia Nour) writes in her exhibition notes:  One very important way that artists modernized the representation of biblical subjects was by creating what they considered more historically “authentic” images, stimulated by popular interest in the Holy Land beginning in the late eighteenth century.  As travel and communication to the Middle East became more feasible and desirable, artists explored Egypt, Jerusalem, Hebron, and other significant sites in order to produce more “objective” representations of the Bible.  Some sought to depict biblical monuments in their contemporary form, while others saw the people of the Holy Land as living relics of a distant past.  … For those artists who were unwilling or unable to visit the Holy Land, there were countless travel accounts, prints, and eventually photographs that documented the region.  It was thus possible to create what the public considered a “true” image of the biblical past without having actually seen the sites mentioned.

The show, which opens today, is has many stunning pieces.  Oddly, most of them are not the ‘showcase’ pieces, but, rather, things that are remarkable in-and-of themselves.  More important, this exhibition demonstrates how essential the male nude was to the academic tradition, and how drawing the figure led to virtuosic, finished work. 

Very interesting is Alexandre Cabanel’s (1823-1889) Death of Moses.  But while this picture is quite remarkable, more interesting still is the drawing hung along side of it, which is a graph drawing of the finished painting, blocked out in grids for final painting on the massive canvas.  Cabanel actually changed God’s pose from the test drawing to finished painting, and it is a fascinating insight into the creative process.

Also beautiful is Joseph’s Coat Brought Back to Jacob (1841) by Jules Ambroise Francois Naudin (1817-1876), which is a masterful painting combining both the historic and neoclassic strains of art.  The figures are clearly and cleanly depicted, and the emotion telegraphed beautifully, but it is rather cold in the final analysis.

More captivating is what might be the most interesting piece in the exhibition, The Last judgment, a drawing by Paul Chenavard (1808-1895).  Chenavard was an Enlightenment Era freethinker, so his feelings for religious paintings must always be interpreted.  This massive drawing, which must be about 40x80, will happily reward hours of study.  In many ways a meditation on Michelangelo’s Judgment Day painting on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, Chenavard spins his own take on the Christian cosmos.  Christ is paramount, and, like Michelangelo’s Christ, this is a beardless, curiously human Jesus.  (There is no halo.)  In the lower corner of the picture is a crowned figure entwined with a giant serpent.  Is this Satan?  Or the Archangel Michael?  The figure is ambiguous and multi-faceted.  While speaking with co-curator Alia Nour, she told me that “Chenavard delighted in ambiguity.  Being a humanist, he drew very human figures, and it is left to the educated viewer to interpret the meanings of his cosmos.”

For this viewer, however, the most beautiful picture in this exhibition is Abel’s Offering by Hans Andersen Brendekilde (1857-1942), dated 1908.  This picture alone is worth going to this stunning show.  In it, Brendekilde depicts Abel leading a long train of sheep along a sunlit landscape.  On the pyre before him is a sacrifice to God; the sheep watch as he gesticulates towards heaven and the smoke lifts the remains on a fellow lamb towards the heavens.  It is a stunning, pagan note to add to a Biblical exhibition; though created in the early days of the 20th Century, it is a wonderfully pagan piece of art.  It cuts deep to the heart of a primal paganism, and the composition perhaps borrows something from the painters of the American West, Charles Marion Russell, in particular.

The exhibition was hung and designed with a sure hand by Dean Ebben.  Ebben restored and re-stretched and re-framed the massive Christ and the Children (1894) by Franck Kirchbach (1859-1912), which is a large-scale painting of a type seldom seen today.  It is a wonderful piece of work and a heroic installation.

Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection is the first exhibition under the auspices of the museum’s new Director, Richard P. Townsend, an accomplished art historian and museum professional.  Townsend has previously held curatorial and leadership positions in the Museum of Latin American Art and Price Tower Arts Center.  If the show is an indication of his tenure-to-come, The Museum of Biblical Art has chosen wisely and well.

We here at the Jade Sphinx have had a special relationship with the Dahesh.  Mainly, this is because we share a similar vision: that the artist is the creator of beautiful things, and that art is the celebration of beauty.  It is a position out-of-tune with Modernists and Post-Modernists, but beauty always will win out over time.  Be part of the avant garde and return to the past of Academic portraiture.

The Museum of Biblical Art is at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street, and admission is free.  For more information, call 212.408.1500.

Joseph's Coat Brought Back to Jacob

Thursday, October 17, 2013

W.C. Fields By Himself, Edited by Ronald J. Fields

For those who thought we at The Jade Sphinx had procrastinated by waiting three weeks between posts, what would be the response when I confess that it took me 40 years to get around to reading this book?

I well remember when W.C. Fields By Himself was first released.  I was just 10 years old and already obsessed with the movie comedians of Hollywood’s Golden Age, perhaps W.C. Fields (1880-1946) most of all.  Media coverage was extensive.  Ronald J. Fields, grandson of the great man, had gathered his grandfather’s papers, saying, this book is really the autobiography that W.C. Fields would have written.  I merely compiled his own letters, writings, and thoughts; wrote the commentary and a short introduction.  I think this should become the definitive book on W.C. – not padded out with anecdotes and reminiscences that cry for credibility, but rather, a portrait of W.C. as he perceived himself, as he actually lived – the true story.

Was the 40-year wait worth it?  Well, yes… but for all the wrong reasons.

First off, this book is not a biography, nor the first draft of an autobiography.  What Ronald Fields did was, simply, take his grandfather’s papers and place them in some sort of coherent order – and even that is not strictly chronological.  There is no real effort to weave a biographical narrative around them, there is no insight or context, and much of the book seems padded (nay, bloated) with truly incidental correspondence.  (Do we really need nearly 15 pages of Fields’ letters to his wife, explaining why he’s sending a $15 check instead of a $20?  Wouldn’t it be better, for example, to explain their marital difficulties and simply reprint a letter or two?)  What Ronald Fields really did was gather what he had (both the deeply interesting and the merely tedious) and left it to the dedicated reader to make sense of it.

But, while this sounds like a deep criticism of the book – it’s not.  It is merely disappointment at a presumed biography/autobiography.  If you are interested in Fields, think he is funny, or want to know how the mind of one of the last century’s most creative funnymen worked, than this book is a goldmine.

Here is Fields in all of his contradictions – the sweet man who could be genuinely nasty, the generous family man who hated charities, the lover of freedom who liked J. Edgar Hoover.  You may not know the coherent story of his life once reading W.C. Fields By Himself, but you will know the man.

Here, for example, is Fields writing to studio head Jack Warner once Warner asked for a contribution to his favorite charity.  Warner thought if Hollywood’s elite did not contribute to his favorite charity, the country would descend into Communism:

Dear Mr. Warner:

Thanks for your letter of January 29, which, by the way, is my natal day.

I am sorry my notation on your letter was not more lucid and so cryptic.  I apologize.  I know that you are a busy man and it is fine of you to champion these worthy causes and I, like yourself, am adverse to Communism.  I never wish to see it rear its ugly head in America.  I appreciate and have enjoyed to the fullest our liberties and our freedom to do as we please, providing we do not break any of the laws of our country, not to be brow-beaten and threatened as I understand these unfortunate people are in Russia.

However, I thought your letter of January 19th had a Communistic lash and I think you were quoted in one of the trade papers as threatening to expose all those who did not contribute an amount according to your ideas.  That is still your prerogative – to expose me and ruin me with the public and drive me out of moving pictures.  I know what I’ll do, I’ll go to India and become a missionary.  I hear there’s good money in that too.

I still want to take care of charities in my own way and personally.  I think this is one of our inalienable rights.


W.C. Fields

It is the “I know what I’ll do, I’ll go to India” that really sells it. 

Then there is my favorite letter in the book – to the Christian Science Monitor after they panned his masterpiece, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.  Clearly, Fields did not suffer fools gladly:

Dear Editor:

On January 28th in the Year of our Lord 1942, the Christian Science Monitor printed:

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: W.C. Fields acting out a story with results that are by turns ludicrous, tedious, and distasteful.  There is the usual atmosphere of befuddled alcoholism.

If the chosen people decide that the Christian Science Monitor is expressing the thoughts of the majority of the people in the United States, it is possible they would bar me from their studios and bar my pictures from their theaters, which would force me into the newspaper business.  And if I used your tactics I might say:

The Christian Science Monitor: Day in and day out the same old bromides.  They no longer look for love and beauty but see so many sordid things that Mary Baker Eddy did not see in this beautiful world she discovered after trying her hand at mesmerism, hypnotism, and spiritualism before landing on the lucrative Christian Science racket.

Why I play in a picture in which I take a few nips to get a laugh (I have never played a drunkard in my life) I hope that it might bring to mind the anecdote of Jesus turning water into wine.

And wouldn’t it be terrible if I quoted some reliable statistics which prove that more people are driven insane through religious hysteria than by drinking alcohol.

Your very truly,
A subscriber,
W.C. Fields

“The lucrative Christian Science racket” is a sentence for the ages. 

In retrospect, it’s perhaps for the best that I waited 40 years to wade through Fields’ papers – we never needed him more than we need him now.

W.C. Fields By Himself can be found on all major used-books sites, such and  For the Fields enthusiast, it is essential reading.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The New Season of People’s Symphony Concerts Opens with Pianist Lise de la Salle

We have covered the wonderful work done by People’s Symphony Concerts in these pages before.  The series was founded in 1900 by conductor Franz Arens.  The goal of People’s Symphony was to bring the best music to students and workers at affordable prices.  In its first year, more than 7,000 people squeezed into the old hall at Cooper Union to hear Arens, the son of an immigrant farmer, conduct the first series of People’s Symphony Concerts.  As a music student in Europe, Arens was too poor to attend many concerts in his youth.  When he returned to New York, Arens was determined to find a way to bring music to students, teachers, workers, and others unable to pay high ticket prices.  Since those early years, hundreds of thousands of Peoples' Symphony Concerts audience members have heard the world's foremost concert artists and ensembles at the lowest admission prices of any major series in the country.  During the first season, subscriptions for the five concerts ranged from $.25 to $1.25 and single tickets went for as little as $0.10 each. 

Current manager Frank Salomon, ably assisted by David Himmelheber, continue a tradition of incredible (and increasing) value to New Yorkers who are serious about music.  The duo run the program, which includes two different series that play Saturday night at Washington Irving High School, near Gramercy Park, and a third series which runs Sunday afternoons in Manhattan’s Town Hall.  The auditorium at Washington Irving has just been fully renovated, with new seats, refinished floors and an upgrade of the doors and trims.

Each year, some of the most prestigious names in classical music participate in People’s Symphony Concerts.  In more than 20 years your correspondent has attended PSC, I have seen such leading lights as the Guarneri String Quartet, Garrick Ohlsson, the Julliard String Quartet and Richard Stoltzman

The 2013 season started last Saturday with a wonderful performance by French pianist Lise de la Salle.  La Salle, 25, has emerged as one of the most acclaimed artists of her generation.  She began playing piano at the age of four and gave her first concert at nine in a live broadcast on Radio-France.  At 13, she made her concerto debut with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in Avignon and her Paris recital debut at the Louvre before going on tour with the Orchestre National d’Ile de France. At 16, she came to international attention with her Bach/Liszt recording for Naive which was selected by Gramophone as "Recording of the Month."

De La Salle has given recitals in Berlin, London and Paris, as well as New York, and has made concerto appearances in Lisbon, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg and Lyon, and is equally renowned for her frequent performances in the Far East. She will soon make her Philadelphia Orchestra debut and her first appearance at Carnegie Hall as soloist with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

In her first PSC concert, de la Salle played the Bach/Busoni Chaconne with perhaps an expertise that was a bit too cold-blooded to be emotionally moving.  The 6 Preludes by Claude Debussy was played with a sure hand, richly conveying the delicate, solitary notes that resounded throughout the hall.  (Washington Irving has, perhaps, the best acoustics outside of Carnegie Hall.)

De la Salle was most masterful in her playing of Robert Schumann’s Variations on the name "Abegg" in F major, and his Fantasie C Major, Op. 17.  Her understanding of the rich vein of romanticism and feeling to be found in Schumann was quite remarkable – I have seldom heard Schumann done with such empathy and virtuosity.

The pianist made a fetching impression in her gold and purple evening gown, and her regal bearing set the right tone for the evening.  All-in-all, it was a wonderful start to what promises to be another sterling season of People’s Symphony Concerts.

Jade Sphinx readers interested in tickets for this year’s season can log onto: for more information.