Edith Sitwell defined eccentricity, the private theatrical, thus: “Any dumb but pregnant comment on life, any criticism of the world’s arrangement, if expressed by only one gesture, and that of sufficient contortion, becomes eccentricity.”
When it breaks the surface of the water: A fat, shy, brown boy in a swimming pool twirls underwater and then breaks through the surface, covered with gems and diamonds. And his hair is like seaweed or like a seal’s cap; he is very beautiful. Ganymede or Hephaestion.
How did you learn such grace, so young a boy?
I cannot know anyone’s solitude. I am content to stand in relation to Timm Williams, as to someone who sought a limelight in which to portray himself. Of the private theatrical that propelled him thence I can say nothing. And yet that is the theme that interests me. That is the theme of Prince Lightfoot’s career and theatrical martyrdom. Of the bathroom mirror as the imagination of a public life, I am prepared to speak. I substitute my own longing, my own solitude, which had nothing to do with the compulsion to make or to wear an Indian costume.
I used to study the theater ads in the Sunday
New York Times
. I absorbed the style of them, the ads; the style of New York in the fifties. Theater posters of my youth were drawn. This was an aspect of technology. The only feasible reproductions were drawn images transferred onto plates. Photographs could not at that time be so easily or so cheaply reproduced.
I would isolate one poster as emblematic of what I most liked, a poster by Morrow—if I said the ubiquitous Morrow, you would not know what I was talking about. But you would recognize the poster for
. The play. The image seems to have been sketched with a mascara brush and a tube of lipstick.
On the poster, the glitter of rhinestones and the jangle of bracelets are suggested by confetti jots of colored pencil. There is always a certain weightlessness and a certain whoopie to the best theater posters. And the best find new ways to convey the oldest theatrical bleat:
The eponymous possibility, too, is irresistible. Someone “as” or someone “in.” An irrational hope within the human psyche is the hope of finding one’s role, a role that will represent one—the Marschallin, Hamlet, Margo Channing—as opposed to one’s puritan authenticity. The role is the immortal part; we but transient spirits.
Richard Rodriguez in “The Reading Room.” Timm Williams as “Prince Lightfoot.”
At curtain: The young man enters through a door, stage right. He carries with him a valise, an overcoat, an Indian headdress. The setting is a sitting room in a boardinghouse near a New England college campus. It is afternoon. The room is empty, except for a large Victorian settee, pumpkin-colored, soiled, torn, too large to evacuate—which faces away from large double windows recessed in a slanting wall. This is obviously an attic room. The windows are closed. Empty bookcases line one wall, stage left. There are unfaded patches on the wall where pictures have been removed. There is an empty coatrack upstage. The young man surveys the room, sets down his valise in front of the settee, places his overcoat upon the valise. He notices the coatrack, crosses, hangs the Indian headdress upon it. He peeks through a door, stage left. He walks behind the settee to open the double window . . .
. . . Emotion stirs within the orchestra pit, which is a cauldron of muddle, attempting to clarify. Emotion laps at the apron of the stage throughout the scene and will eventually flood the narrative, for this is a musical.
It is not the song per se that we lack in our real lives. There are plenty of songs in the world. It is the song-within-narrative that we lack, of which there are many types. There are choruses, duets, trios. There are patter songs, simple ditties. It is the promise of a song at the right moment that we lack; the transfiguring song. What most matters is the soliloquy.
The soliloquy is an occasion for explanation. For putting one’s case before oneself in private (privacy is represented by direct address to the audience). Theatrical soliloquy achieves what private deliberation attempts, what prayer attempts, yearns for, but can never seem to accomplish in life. I suppose the completing reciprocation would be applause—some immediate response, miracle, or show of grace (as represented by confetti on the poster).
Within the theater, there is the pathetic veracity of the orchestra pit. Loneliness is a chord or a descending scale. Anger is a drum. Danger a trombone, as Carmen turns over the fated card. Epiphany is ethereal—a zither, a harp, triangle; something such.
“One” is the auditor, but also someone else: It is that your mother or father or your brother is in the kitchen, wondering why you find this stuff so compelling. They end up knowing the songs—how could they not? They are blasted with them, day and night. But they assign no narrative power to the songs, as you do. Occasionally, transparently, to please you, they will make a request. But you can’t just play that song in isolation. They are so stupid. You must earn it; work up to it. To them, these are just songs. Inexplicable songs, screechy, brassy, overheated songs; unlovely voices.
The Original Cast Album was an imprimatur of sorts, to certify “this really happened,” nightly, before an audience of 900 people. Gertrude Lawrence actually performed the role, spoke the lines, moved in costume through the narrative of a life onstage. Thus, a kind of reality extends from the rapt imagination of the teenager on his couch, to the recording studio on West Fifty-fourth Street, to the stage of the St. James Theater, to the mind, the life, the loneliness, the disappointment of the poet, the lyricist, sitting at a table—some arrangement of lamplight and ashtray and zither—inventing a posthumous adolescence, inventing a luminous future.
The young man throws open the double windows—his gesture elicits a tingle from the pit, a sustained anticipatory threshold through which passes first the drum, then the rocking harmonium of bass and oboe—the vamp—but as yet un-freighted with melody. The young man surveys the quad below, turns, walks around the settee; a cymbal beat joins the drum; he tests the cushions, sits, then reclines; abruptly stands, walks to the coatrack, lifts down the headdress, places it on his head; returns to the settee, sits cross-legged, “Indian-wise,” folds his arms, sings:
When I think of Tom
I think about a night
When the earth smelled of summer
And the sky was streaked with white,
And the soft mist of England
Was sleeping on a hill . . .
In four stanzas, three choruses, he will tell you everything about his life so far and what his hopes are and where he’s bound and what he has left behind. He will reveal an inner life that separates him from the narrative. Sings:
I remember this,
And I always will . . .
There are new lovers now on the same silent hill,
Looking on the same blue sea,
And I know Tom and I are a part of them all,
And they’re all a part of Tom and me.
Her voice will conceal with deportment that she is too old for the part by a decade or so; why she uses so much eyeliner. Gertrude Lawrence had a tendency to go flat and she had to fight to get her songs transposed down a third. All the disappointments of her life—and yours—converge on the shore of this reverie. The song laps at the hem of her gown. She can see fragments of her coming life stored in the wings, flotsam beginning to lift on the tide of music—hatboxes, a writing desk, a deathbed. She turns to face the audience; she opens her eyes preternaturally wide to the spotlights focused upon her. Then, from the diaphragm, the first step onto air:
Hello, young lovers, whoever you are,
I hope your troubles are few . . .
You turn up the volume so they can hear it in the kitchen—this part, where the orchestra seems to breathe like a field in summer. You know very well what a field in summer sounds like, but you prefer this redeemed version. So that, henceforward, as you walk a country road, the field will become this, an orchestra! Or this part, the finaletto to act one, the pompous kettledrum amuses; the orchestra becomes an aural equivalent of a curtain’s plunge.
But they never do hear it. Life intervenes. The phone rings. A thought springs from their inattentive heads. Or the vegetables come to a boil. The coffee grounds which have sat all morning must at this moment be emptied into the pail with that
thump, thump, thump.
Someone flushes a toilet. Or someone turns on the tap. The spell you are broadcasting is so fragile it can be drowned by a kitchen tap.
James Woods, in a recent essay, construes soliloquy in the theater as “blocked conversation.” In my youth the musical comedy soliloquy was the perfect vehicle for blocked homosexual emotion—self-effacing epiphanies, reconciliations to disappointment. Vows. Examinations of conscience, rather as the church taught. The song about how much I love him but he’ll never know it.
And he never did.
I once had a teacher who wrote in a letter, “Tell me the truth, even if you have to dissemble.” Dissembling was the specialty of Broadway musicals. The storylines were scrupulously heterosexual. What could I have heard in them that made me think they explained me? It was this: The innocent characters were so wonderfully compromised by the actors who played them; by the writers and musicians who created them. The scar tissue on voices. The makeup on faces. Youth! The wicked stage! The jaded legend refreshed the innocence of my youth.
Musical comedy songs were more real than my life because they were articulate and because they had ligaments of narrative attached to them. For today’s young queers and lonelys, these songs must seem quaint and campy and not useful. But they were never campy for me—for us?—they only became camp in the attempt to share them without embarrassment. It became necessary to distance ourselves from memories of a solitude so comic, perhaps, and yet so rich and so holy—huge balloons of rhyming thought hung in the air, lapidary, efficacious, memorable—and the world (represented by the narrative) stopped.
The emotion of these songs is both retroactive and proac tive. Once you have fit your own emotion to these words, the words will forever after find your emotion; will, at some unforeseen time, explain your emotion to you, unbidden.
And the narrative resumes.
Many years later, long after I leave Stanford, I will be pursued in print by some puritan professor there for exhibitions of ethnic self-hatred in my writing. Yes, as a child, I dragged a razor blade against the skin of my forearm to see if I could get the brown out. I couldn’t. A clandestine experiment. Just checking. Did I hate my brown skin? No. Would I rather have been white? I would rather have been Jeff Chandler. Jeff Chandler would rather have been Lauren Bacall, according to Esther Williams’s autobiography.
And yet I remain as much a puritan as any American. I remember, as a boy, being perplexed by a real-estate agent (a neighbor) wearing a red fez and riding a miniature motorcycle in the Shriners’ parade.
I went to a performance of
Death of a Salesman
in New York last year. I had a box seat very near the stage, at a raised and acute angle. I could see into the wings. The wonderful actress who played the wife became so emotionally engaged in the final scene, the graveyard scene, she could not come out of her grief at the end of the play. She had to be helped to her bows by the other actors. This interested me.
I have noticed, during speaking engagements, that I sometimes feel a freedom to weep, to assume voices, to carry on in public, to channel in shameless ways. This freedom alarmed me the first time I entered it, because I was not sure how to get “out” or back to myself, to straighten myself, as a puritan must.
I only mean to suggest we live in a nation whose every other impulse is theatrical, but whose every other impulse is to insist upon “authenticity.”
In his book
Philip J. DeLoria, a Native American academic, describes the long habit of white Americans to undress themselves as Indians, from Boy Scouts to Natty Bumpo, the Improved Society of Red Men, all the way back to the Boston Tea Party.