Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Accept No Substitutes—Mark Twain is the Greatest American Writer

Mark Twain in first flush of success.  1867

Note:  This first appeared in this blog in a slightly different form on November 30, 2010

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 in the insignificant village of Florida, Missouri shortly after the memorable appearance of Haley’s Comet.  His family soon moved to the very significant and bustling river port of Hannibal where he grew to be a lad of a more than standard issue impulse to mischief and a disdain for authority.  He vastly preferred idling along the river front to school work, but was quick and clever with words.  After his father died, his family sent him to apprentice at the age of 15 to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his responsible older brother Orion. He graduated from printer’s devil to typesetter and occasionally contributed unaccredited comic sketches to the paper. 

By the time he was 18 he itched to get out from under his family’s thumb and headed east where he easily found work as a type setter in New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.  In his spare time he haunted libraries and educated himself.  Returning home in 1857 he fell in with legendary Mississippi River Pilot Horace Bixby on a trip to New Orleans and studied with him for two years until he earned his pilot’s license. For almost two years he plied the river earning a princely salary of more than $250 a month and the prestige of the most important job on the river.  

When the Civil War closed the river, the young man briefly joined his Hannibal friends in a company of Confederate Volunteers.  Without hearing a shot fired Clemens quickly determined that the boring drudgery of a soldier’s life was not for him.  When his brother Orion secured appointment as secretary to the Republican governor of Nevada territory, the two set out on an adventurous trip by stage coach to the west. 

Clemens tried his hand as a gold miner in Virginia City, but soon decided it was too much work.  He went back to newspaper work for the Territorial Enterprise.  His tendency toward scathing satire often got him in trouble and he often wrote under various pseudonyms, including one incorporating a term from depth sounding on the Mississippi, Mark Twain.  That one stuck.  But he soon had too many enemies with horsewhips and—worse—pistols and decamped for San Francisco in 1864.

In the City by the Bay, Clemens returned to reporting.  He also fell in with a lively literary crowd that included local color writers like Bret Harte and Artemus Ward as well a young poet, Ina Coolbrith.  Under their influence he submitted some of his sketches to Eastern publications.  When The Saturday Press in New York published his mining camp story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in 1865 he found himself a national celebrity and much in demand.

In 1866 he took an assignment from the Sacramento Bee to visit the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).  His accounts of that trip and his first ventures on the lecture stage recounting them, made him in demand as a travel writer.  In 1867 the San Francisco Alta California sponsored Twain, as he was now professionally known, on the Quaker City steamship tour of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Holy Land

That was a hell of a lot of living for a young man still in his early 30’s.  And Mark Twain used it all, every bit of it, beginning with Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim's Progress, his account of his European adventures, published in 1869.  It sold an astonishing 70,000 copies in the first year alone.  He followed it up in 1872 with Roughing It, yarns from his journey west, gold mining adventures, and Nevada newspaper days.

Between those two books Clemens met and fell in love with Olivia Langdon, the beautiful sister of a friend.  The Langdons of Elmira, New York were wealthy and socially well connected to a world of the Eastern liberal elite.  Despite their mutual adoration, Olivia spent much of her time trying to tame Clemens’s blaspheming tongue, cure him of his fondness for cigars, and make a decent Christian out of the admitted heretic.  

The couple spent a couple of years in Buffalo, New York where he edited and had an ownership stake in the Buffalo Express. After their first child and only son Langdon died of diphtheria at 19 months, Clemens sold his interest in the paper and with the earnings of his first two books built a handsome mansion for Olivia in Hartford, Connecticut.

The seventeen years spent in the Hartford house were the happiest and most productive of Clemens’s life.  His three daughters, Suzie, Clara, and Jean were all born there and doted on by their father.  His circle of friends widened and deepened from next door neighbor Julia Ward Howe to the editor and Christian socialist William Dean Howells.  He entertained and admired Fredrick Douglas and casually welcomed the increasing parade of fans, famous and ordinary, who made the pilgrimage to meet him.  Exposure to new ideas broadened him—and drove him further to the left politically with each passing year as he also became ever more disenchanted with smug Christianity.   He embraced full social equality for Blacks and other minorities, heartily endorsed women’s suffrage—and made one of the most widely circulated addresses by a man on the subject—and endorsed labor unions, gladly accepting an invitation to speak to the Knights of Labor.

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today published was in 1872 shortly after settling into the new house.  It was Twain’s first foray into the novel and was written in collaboration with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. A satire on speculation and political corruption, the book was moderately successful and spawned a long running theatrical version featuring the blowhard promoter Colonel Beriah Sellers.  The book gave Twain the courage to try his hand at more novels.  

He turned to his own Hannibal childhood for the inspiration of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, followed by his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn eight years later.  By that time Twain had matured as an artist and in addition to good fun and a rousing adventure yarn, Huck Finn, partly inspired by The Odyssey, included sharp barbs at slavery, social snobbery, mob mentality, and literary romanticism.

Among the books completed in Hartford were the novels which explored class, caste, and power—The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889.) The later was one of the first works of fiction to employ the notion of time travel and deserves to be considered a forerunner of modern speculative fiction. There was also more non-fiction—A Tramp Abroad based on a second trip to Europe in made in 1878 and published in 1880 and Life on the Mississippi, his 1883 look back at his time as a Mississippi River boat pilot.  There were also numerous newspaper articles and sketches as well as speeches and lectures.

Clemens was also trying his hand at business.  He started a publishing house with his nephew by marriage, Charles L. Webster & Company.  The publishing company got off to a good start when it issued the memoirs of Clemens’s friend, former President Ulysses S Grant.  Grant was dying of cancer of the jaw and out of kindness, Clemens paid him a huge advance to secure his family’s financial future.  Luckily it turned out that Grant was an exceptionally fine writer for a general and he book was a huge success.  Later projects, however, fared less well.  A biography of Pope Leo XIII sold fewer than two hundred copies ruining the company.

Clemens was also an enthusiast for new inventions and his investments in them led to disaster.  The worst was the Paige Typesetter, a promising new invention to speed up the tedious and expensive work of setting type by hand, as Clemens himself had so often done as a young man.  The invention worked tantalizingly well but was complicated and too prone to mechanical failure to be practical.  Clemens sank nearly $300,000 (equal to more than $7.5 million today) of his own money and Olivia’s inheritance on it between 1880 and 1894.  Then, just as it was about to be perfected the Linotype rendered it obsolete.

As his debts piled up, Twain wrote furiously.  He undertook any newspaper or magazine work offered and dashed of hasty, not fully conceived novels like Tom Sawyer, Detective and Puddin’ Head Wilson to try to bring in revenue.  He turned more and more to the lecture platform where he was in great demand.  His performances, mixtures of readings from his works and seemingly off-the-cuff observations were masterful monologues and would be the envy of any stand-up comic today.

None of it was enough.  Clemens’s close friend, a Standard Oil executive named Henry Huttleston Rogers stepped in and took over his finances.  He transferred all of his copyrights to Olivia to protect income from them from creditors then declared bankruptcy.  Roger personally managed the household finances with a thrifty eye on the bottom line while Clemens undertook a world girdling speaking tour to repay all of his creditors, even though the bankruptcy absolved him of his obligations to them.  The tour stretched from 1894 to 1900, but Clemens returned home with enough money to pay every one off and start again clean.

A series of personal tragedies stalked Clemens in the last years of the 19th and early years of the 20th Centuries.   The death of his beloved daughter Suzie of meningitis in 1896 was a huge blow from which he never fully recovered.  He battled increasing depression when Olivia passed in 1904.  In 1909 both his close friend Henry Rogers and daughter Jean died within months.  Only Clara remained.

The succession of deaths caused Clemens to re-examine religion.  He was already deeply skeptical, although for Olivia’s sake he had often tried to open his mind to Christianity.  Twain’s serious 1896 novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte explored a topic that had fascinated him for more than 40 years.  He based the 17 year old Joan on his own Suzie and examined her more as a revolutionary heroine than a mystical figure. He considered it his best work, but the public disagreed.  

After Suzie’s death he became increasingly bitter at the notion of a God that would allow such pain and suffering in the world.  Twain last novella The Mysterious Stranger told of the visits of Satan to earth over various periods in history.  He wrote three versions over several years, but declined to publish any of them out of respect to Olivia and Clara.  A version miss mashed from all three manuscripts was published in 1924.  Now considered a classic, it was every bit as controversial as his family had feared.

Another, even more bitter, look at Christianity, Letters to the Earth was considered so shocking that it was withheld from publication for fifty years after Twain’s death.  Other manuscripts, including the complete versions of his Autobiography were held up for 100 years.  A version of the Autobiography, which Twain dictated from his bed, was published in serialized form as Chapters of My Autobiography in the North American Review in 1906 and ’07.  It was published as a book in 1927.  But the massive transcriptions contained much more material, which Twain knew to be scandalous.

In 2010 the first of three volumes of the complete Autobiography was published and became an instant best seller, making Mark Twain the first writer to have original material published and attain that status in three different centuries.  As Twain predicted, it contains “shocking” material with more promised in the remaining two volumes to be released over the next two years.  Here is a sample: 

There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.

If his views on religion had soured, his political views had become extremely radical.  The Spanish American War and the brutal suppression of the Philippine Rebellion were the last straws.  Twain declared himself an anti-colonialist.  He co-founded the American Anti-Imperialist League in 1901 and spent the last ten years of his life crusading for justice for the “colored races of the world.”  He penned pamphlets, lectured until his health gave out and was equally as scathing to European as American imperialism.  He grew to hate war.  In 1905 he submitted his caustic War Prayer to Harpers Magazine, normally eager to publish anything by the great writer, but they rejected it as unsuitable for their female readership.  Because of contractual obligations, Twain was barred from publishing it elsewhere.  It did not see the light of day until 1923.  It has since inspired anti-war protesters from the Vietnam War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clemens’s views were becoming revolutionary.  He commented on his evolving views when he told an interviewer, “When I finished Carlyle’s French Revolution in 1871, I was a Girondin; every time I have read it since, I have read it differently–being  influenced and changed, little by little, by life and environment ... and now I lay the book down once more, and recognize that I am a Sansculotte! – And not a pale, characterless Sansculotte, but a Marat!”

Despite his hatred of war and violence, he endorsed the abortive 1905 Russian revolution.  “I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt.”

He passed many of these ideas on to one of his last protégés, the deaf/blind student Helen Keller with whom he spent many hours of conversation through her interpreter Anne Sullivan, after first meeting her in 1896.  He encouraged his friend Rodgers to pay her tuition at Radcliffe.  Keller owed her awakening to social justice and socialism to Clemens and Anne Sullivan earned the title Miracle Worker from him.

Sam Clemens and Mark Twain—the two personalities now so intertwined that it  was impossible to tell them apart—died as he predicted the day after Haley’s Comet reached the nearest point to Earth on its return in 1910.  He suffered a heart attack on April 21 at Redding, Connecticut.

And Twain’s legacy?  Just this: the best damn American writer ever.  Period.  No argument allowed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Busby Berkley—A Life as a Production Number

Directing dancers in Your in the Money, Golddiggers of 1933

Busby Berkeley William Enos was born into a theatrical family on November 29, 1895 in Los Angeles.  His mother, Gertrude Berkeley, was an actress in the Tim Frawley Repertory Company and his father the director.  He was named for two other troupe members, ingénue Anne Busby and leading man William Gillette, soon to go on to fame playing Sherlock Holmes in the long running play that he wrote himself.  The two were godparents to the child.

Young Busby made his own theatrical debut with his parents at the age of 5.  But like many theatrical children, he was eventually sent to boarding school.   He entered the Mohegan Lake Military Academy near Peekskill, New York at the age of 12 and graduated in 1914.  After three years of working for a Massachusetts shoe company, performing in local amateur theatricals, leading a dance band, and playing semi-professional baseball, he enlisted in the Army for World War I.

Berkley was commissioned a second lieutenant of Field Artillery.  He showed himself to be particularly adept at leading the troops through the intricacies of field drill.  He later credited that experience for inspiring his work as a stage choreographer moving his dancers in complex patterns across the stage.  After Armistice he was also charged with camp moral and produced entertainments and shows for the troops.

After the War, he went to New York to enter the family business.  Now using his mother’s maiden name, he drifted almost accidentally from acting in small parts to staging dance numbers for shows.  Not a dancer himself—a fact that he kept secret from his performers—he developed a style less dependent on fancy footwork than on mass movement on the stage in geometric patterns framed by elaborate sets and flashy costumes. 

He quickly caught the eye of master producer Florenz Zeigfeld who put him in charge of production numbers for his hit A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Zeigfeld’s biggest star, Eddie Cantor, was so impressed with his work on Whoopee! that he asked him to accompany him to Hollywood to create the dance numbers for the film version of the show produced by Samuel Goldwyn.  At first he was limited to creating the choreography, but the film director still had control of camera shots and lighting and the editor of assembling the footage.  Berkley convinced Goldwyn to give him total control over all aspects of the production numbers.

That first film introduced many of Berkley’s signature devices including the parade of faces, close-ups of the faces of the lovely Goldwyn Girl dancers.  He continued to work on Cantor’s enormously popular musical comedies.  He took the overhead shot featuring dancers making kaleidoscopic patterns first used in MGM’s Dancing Lady, and made it bigger and more elaborate.  It became the signature of his epic production numbers.

After a string of hits for Goldwin, Warner Bros. snatched Berkley up in 1933 for their extravaganza 42nd Street staring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.  Two of Berkley’s production numbers, Shuffle off to Buffalo and the closing title number, were dazzling and secured his reputation as the top in his field.

His next film, Gold Diggers of 1933, re-uniting many of the cast members of 42nd Street, was even bigger and established its own franchise.  Tailored to Depression audiences, the film opens with the fabulously glitzy We’re in the Money sung by Ginger Rodgers and an epic, much more serious piece about World War I vets, obviously inspired by the Bonus March, The Forgotten Man.

Through most of the ‘30’s Berkley had his hand in a string of Warner Bros. hits including, Footlight Parade, Fashions of 1934, Dames, Gold Diggers of 1935, and Gold Diggers of 1937In between he enlivened many Warner’s musical programmers and occasionally got a chance at directing a whole film, beginning with the 1933 drama She Had to Say Yes.

When interestm in the big production numbers that had been a welcome escape for Depression audiences waned, Berkley was even given the opportunity to direct one of the gritty crime dramas for which the studio was famous—They Made Me a Criminal staring John Garfield.  He repeatedly, however, clashed with the rising star on the set and soon found himself without a studio home. 

But not for long. MGM snatched him up to helm a musical with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  This brand of come-on-gang-let’s-put-on-a-show musicals were on a significantly reduced scale than the extravaganzas Berkley had produced at Warner’s.  Babes in Arms was the first of several films starring Garland including Strike up the Band, with Rooney; Ziegfeld Girl; Babes on Broadway, again with Rooney: For Me and My Gal, Gene Kelly’s debut; and the final Rooney-Garland film Girl Crazy.  Once again, however, Berkley’s dictatorial methods on the stage alienated his star.  Garland, by now a studio box office powerhouse, had him replaced half way through Girl Crazy.

Rather than pay him off for the unfinished work on Girl Crazy, MGM loaned him to 20th Century Fox for The Gang’s All Here staring Alice Faye and Benny Goodman.  The film was Berkley’s first in full three-strip Technicolor, which he took full advantage of in the most memorable number, Carmen Miranda’s Lady in the Tutti-frutti Hat.

With their biggest star refusing to work with him, pickings were slim at MGM after that.  Berkley did a couple of down scale musicals with B stars like Joan Leslie.   On another minor musical, he was downgraded again to director of musical numbers for Romance on the High Seas with Jack Carson as an uncharacteristic leading man, Janice Paige, and the film debut of Doris Day.

Old pal Gene Kelly got him the director’s chair for Take Me out to the Ball Game in 1948, but Kelly choreographed and produced his own dance numbers.  It was Berkley’s last job as a director.  But it did connect him with rising MGM star Esther Williams.

It was back to strictly doing choreography in musicals for Jane Powel, Betty Gable and Dan Daily, and Tony Martin.  All pleasant but unmemorable.  Then MGM teamed Berkley with Williams for the spectacular water ballet sequences in a string of Esther Williams hits.  He re-created the lavish production numbers, including the over-head shots and gigantic stages of his early Warner musicals in dazzling Technicolor and in the water.  With Williams he also had a star who did not mind his demands and perfectionism.  Williams credits the water skiing number from Million Dollar Mermaid, mostly done in one continuous shot, as her favorite.

When Williams decided to retire to become a businesswoman and wife, Berkley’s usefulness to the studio was nearly over.  They let him stage dance numbers for a weak re-make of Rosemarie with Howard Keel and Ann Blythe.  Then they cut him loose.

He drifted, directing some episodic television, but was mostly idle.  In 1962 MGM did bring him back, partly at the insistence of star Doris Day, to stage musical numbers for the lavish production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo.  Despite much hype, the film was a critical and financial failure.  It was Berkley’s last movie.

The release of the nostalgic MGM compilation That’s Entertainment revived interest in old musicals in general and Berkley in particular.  So did the rise in availability of classic films on VHS tapes and classic movie TV channels.  Berkley found himself in demand as a speaker and lecturer at college campuses.  He was even commissioned to do a cold remedy commercial in his old style.

At the age of 75 Berkley came out of virtual retirement to direct a stage adaptation of the 1920’s musical No, No, Nannette which also featured his old Warner Bros. star Ruby Keeler.

Berkley’s personal life was deeply troubled.  He drank, had a notorious temper, and philandered openly, often with his personal pool of chorines.  He was married six times.  A nasty alienation of affections law suit involving comedienne Carol Landis made headlines in 1938.  Even worse, so did three jury trials for killing three people in an automobile accident after an evening of partying and drinking.  Despite hitting a car head-on in the wrong lane, there were two hung juries before a final panel produced a not-guilty finding in 1935. 

Berkley died of natural causes at the age of 80 in Palm Springs in 1976.  He was survived by his last wife, Etta Dunn.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Summer of ’68 Chicago Style—Grant Park Afternoon

Norman Mailer opined,  Hayden with back to the  camera  was pissed.

Note:  Previously posted in a slightly different version on The Third City blog.

Everyone knew that Wednesday of Convention Week was going to be the Big Day.  That’s when the Democrats down at the International Amphitheater were supposed to select their Presidential candidate.  The press and cameras of the nation were on hand for the event. 

For the first time I had a running buddy when I left the church Movement Center that morning.  My friend Amy came with.  Amy stood a good 5 foot nothing.  She had short black hair, deep brown eyes, and a little mole on her upper lip.  Cute as a bug’s ear.  Hey, I was 19 and noticed such things.  But I would never dream of putting a move on her. She was so intensely serious, in her 20’s and a dedicated SDSer of the community organizing stripe.  Out of my league, for sure.

I met Amy when she was working with 49th Ward Citizens for Independent Political Action (CIPA), in Rogers Park in the spring of ’67.  She gave what would now be called technical advice and support to our high school organization—the fighting Liberal Youth of Niles Township (LYNT)—which may be the best acronym ever—when we put on a program called Up Tight About the Draft? That summer she helped get me credentialed as the youngest voting delegate to the New Politics Convention held at the Palmer House where I met—or at least shook hands with—Rev. Martin Luther King and assorted other movement leaders and/or heroes.  And it was Amy who got me my glamorous slot as baby sitter, cook, and dishwasher to the high school kids back at the Movement Center.

We took the EL down town.  It was a very pleasant day, the warmest of the week, but still cool enough for me to wear my denim jacket.  Tuesday the city was under a high haze or light clouds, but that day there was a glorious clear blue sky.  Most of the seating in front of the Band Shell was taken when we got there.  Speechifying had already begun.  The park swarmed with cops in their baby blue helmets, but they seemed to be keeping their distance.

We found a spot just to the left of the seats but within ten feet or so of the stage.  We had a very good vantage point for the program.  Phil Ochs was there to sing again, but this program was more about the speeches.  Boy was there a parade of them.  All of the by now usual suspects-- Dellinger, Gregory, Ginsberg, Rubin, and Hayden made appearances.  

Then Norman Mailer was introduced.  He was the only man in the park in a three piece suit.  He looked just like the crumpled photo that had been showed to me at that party back at Claire’s earlier in the summer.  Maybe his mop of curly hair was a little longer, a little more hip.  Mailer had a lot to say.  At least it was stuff we hadn’t heard a couple of times already.  But he was full of himself and droned on.  Tom Haden prowled the edge of the stage not far from me, growing angrier and angrier.  He wanted to move the program along, but Mailer was too into his moment.

While we were listening to speeches in the Park, so were delegates in the Convention Hall who were debating a Peace Plank to the Platform proposed by Eugene McCarthy’s forces.  Word got to the rally that it had been soundly defeated.  As the crowd booed and jeered the noise someone started to haul down the flag from a pole on the right of the stage, just across the crowd from us.  I couldn’t get a good view, but evidently a gaggle of cops surged forward to arrest him starting a small melee around the flag.  After he was dragged off others succeed in bringing the flag down and hoisting a shirt smeared with real or fake blood.  It later turned out one of the hoisters was an undercover cop.

Realizing that this would bring a full scale assault the word went out for Mobe marshals to deploy around the crow.  I never heard the call, which undoubtedly saved my ass.  Most of those in the seats were unaware as the cops closed in from three sides, swinging their clubs.  The line of marshals was pinned against the seats, many beaten senseless, including Rennie Davis.

The crowd stampeded many falling and stumbling amid the seats.  The cops beat them unmercifully where they fell.  Amy and I had room to maneuver and stayed out of harm’s way.  We could see a few objects being thrown back into the police lines, but the battle was one sided.

If you ever say the movie Medium Cool, you may remember a blurred shot of the red-headed leading lady streaking across the screen in terror.  Haskell Wexler was filming with his cast on the scene and they were caught up in the attack.

After a few heart pounding minutes, the police retreated dragging their prisoners with them.  People began to attend the wounded.  I dabbed blood from a few broken heads from the collection of my father’s old handkerchiefs that I carried in the old ammo pouch on my utility belt. 

From the stage Dellinger and Hayden tried to regain control of the crowd.  Except that they couldn’t agree on what we should do.  Dellinger wanted to go ahead with the announced big march from the rally to the Amphitheater.  Hayden, recalling the tactics of Lincoln Park wanted people to break up into small groups to try and infiltrate the city then join up on Michigan Avenue for a march.

Like most of the crowd, I decided to stay with the March.  I figured there was safety in numbers.  The far more adventuresome Amy, I believe, opted to go with the small groups.  Anyway, we got separated.

We lined up on a sidewalk alongside the Band Shell, but headed north, probably to get to the nearest bridge over the Illinois Central tracks.  But we were unable to move.  The police blocked the march for lack of a permit.  Dellinger and others tried to negotiate a deal to let us pass.  We stood in that long line for at least an hour.

After while, a small knot of cops, a couple of brass in uniform and hulking Red Squad cops in mufti, came down the line.  They had a young guy with them—either a stool pigeon or an undercover agent.  He was picking out people in the line and identifying them as one of the Red Squad goons scribbled furiously.  When they got to me one of says, “Oh we know who this guy is.” I didn’t recognize the guy from either of my two earlier personal encounters with Chicago’s finest. Now I admit with my cowboy hat I stood out, but I was astonished that any one as insignificant as me would be even be noticed.  Later I figured that because of the SDS folks, our Movement Center was probably under much more intense surveillance than other places.

After it became apparent that the March was going nowhere, the crowd began to break up to try and find a way out of the park.  This was not easy as most paths were quickly blocked.  A large group of us wandered the park like Moses in Sinai looking for an exit.  We were hemmed in at a distance on either side by cops. 
We came on a set of tennis courts each surrounded by 10 foot high chain link fences.  But there were narrow open doorways and on the far side an opening to what looked like an open road to the south.  Those in the lead plunged into the courts. I dutifully followed, but was sure that once a two or three hundred of us were inside the cops would shut the gates and we would be trapped.  I will never know why we weren’t, but it was an immense relief to get out of those cages.

We were finally headed north on Columbus Drive.  We knew Balboa was blocked, so we tried to get across the tracks at Congress.  But the first Illinois National Guard troops we had yet seen were blocking the way.  The same was true at Jackson.  A suburban mom type in a respectable sedan drove passed us up to the road block.  Where she came from or how she got there I don’t know, but she didn’t seem to be a demonstrator.  She had picked up an injured kid who was in the back seat.  She argued with a Guardsman that she just wanted to get the kid to a hospital.  The trooper was having none of it.  She tried to inch forward, which is when another Guardsman punctured her front tire with a bayonet.
Somehow, I was near the head of the crowd by the time we got to Monroe where the bridge, remarkably was left unguarded.  Just at that moment we could see the Mule Train of the Poor People’s Campaign, which had a permit, coming down Michigan Ave.
To be continued…

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Eugene O’Neill Checks Out

O'Neill and 3rd wife, actress Carlotta Monterey.

Note:  A version of this first appeared in this blog on October 16, 2010.

Eugene O’Neill was born in a trunk, or pretty close to one, in a cheap theatrical hotel right on Times Square in New York City on October 16, 1888.  65 year later O'Neill died in the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, on November 27, 1953.  As he lay on his death bed, he reportedly murmured, “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room.”

His father was James O’Neill, an Irish born actor who had early success as a matinee idol leading man, but settled into staring in an adaptation of the Count of Monte Cristo in more the 6000 performances on stages great and small.  He was constantly on tour, except for an annual summer hiatus at Monte Cristo House, a comfortable summer cottage he built in New London, Connecticut. 

Young Eugene toured with his family until he was old enough to be sent to Catholic boarding school.  He hated the experience and soured on the Church, but found solace in reading.

At his father’s insistence, O’Neill enrolled at Princeton but was suspended for drunkenness and rowdyism before completing this first year.  To escape his father’s ire, he headed to Honduras to try his hand as gold prospector.  That ended with a bout of malaria.  

After recovering O’Neill signed on the first of several tramp steamers.  He spent a few years as a merchant seaman, a brutally arduous job—especially in the hellish boiler rooms where men spend hour upon hour hand stoking coal into the burners.  As evidence from the plays he set in this milieu suggest, O’Neill joined the Marine Transport Workers Union of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who were fighting kind of a guerilla war for livable conditions with quick on the job actions and direct action.  During his down time on board these ships he battled depression, read, and began to write.  He also fell into the sailor’s life style of periodic, intense, binge drinking in port, going broke and having to return to sea to eat.  He did find enough time “on the beach” to marry Kathleen Jenkins in 1909 and father a son, Eugene O’Neill, Jr.

A few years of this broke O’Neill’s health.  He spent several months in 1911 and ’12 in a sanitarium recovering from consumptiontuberculosis.  While hospitalized, he invented his own regime of reading the Greeks, Shakespeare and other classic drama and then the daring new European realists—Ibsen,  Strindberg, and Chekhov.  He began writing furiously, crafting mostly one act plays based on his experiences at sea.  Within a few years he would have “a trunk load” of scripts.

After leaving the hospital, O’Neill soon shed his wife and settled in the fertile, bohemian environment of Greenwich Village, where he mingled freely with other writers, artists of all sorts, and passionate radicals.  Among his closest friends was the young Oregon born journalist Jack Reed.  In 1913 Reed produced the Patterson Pageant which brought hundreds of actual strikers from the great IWW silk workers’ strike in Patterson, New Jersey to the stage of Madison Square Garden to re-enact dramatic episodes of their on-going struggle.  O’Neill was involved and may have written unaccredited dialogue.  He also had a brief affair with Reed’s lover and future wife, the radical writer Louise Bryant.  Despite the proclaimed commitment of all three to the free love promoted anarchist Emma Goldman and her lover Alexander Berkman—who was also Louise’s editor as a regular contributor to The Blast—the triangle was emotionally draining for all of them.  O’Neill’s dalliance ended when Bryant married in Reed in 1917 and the couple went to Russia to cover the Revolution.

But before Reed left, he invited O’Neill to join him and Bryant in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the summer of 1916.  It was to be the second season of the Provincetown Players, an ambitious, avante guarde theater project meant to bring new work to the stage.  Several other Greenwich Village writers and artists also made the trip including painter Marsden Hartley, artists William and Marguerite Zorach, the Hobo Poet Harry Kemp, editor of The Masses Max Eastman, and critic and novelist Floyd Dell.  They joined George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell, and others who had begun producing plays on a ramshackle pier the year before.

The group had already rejected plays that O’Neill had published privately with the help of his father.  But he had plenty more stashed in that famous trunk.  One evening in Cook and Glaspell’s home, O’Neill pulled out Bound East to Cardiff, a one act play about a dying sailor.   One of the group read the play aloud in the front room as O’Neill paced nervously in another.  The group was stunned by the simple power of the play. 

It was produced on the pier that summer, beginning O’Neill’s long relationship with the Provincetown Players.  That fall, the Players launched a New York City venue on a makeshift stage in a Greenwich Village brownstone at 139 MacDougal Street.  Bound East to Cardiff was among the first plays produced.  Over the next two years O’Neill had six one-act plays presented: Before Breakfast, Fog, The Sniper, Ile, The Long Voyage Home, and The Rope.

The Provincetown Players, although a great nursery for new ideas and playwrights, was limited in its early years by amateur acting.  After Reed left for Russia and other founding members drifted away, however, new attention to performance and acting improved the quality of productions and began to get the attention of Broadway producers. 

In 1920 his first full length play Beyond the Horizon opened on Broadway.  It was a domestic tragedy of two very different but devoted brothers in love with the same woman.  The play was not only a success, it won the first of four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama awarded for his work.

O’Neill was now engaged in intense, non-stop writing and would produce an astounding body of work over the next few years.  At his side in the early ears were his second wife, writer Agnes Boulton who he married on April 12, 1918 and their two children Shane and Oona.  Oona grew up to marry Charlie Chaplain.  The marriage was troubled by O’Neill’s heavy drinking and obsession with his work.  In 1929 O’Neill abandoned the family and married actress Carlotta Monterey who had appeared as the object of obsession in his play The Hairy Ape.

Meanwhile, O’Neill’s plays triumphed.  His first big commercial success was The Emperor Jones about the rise and tragedy of a sleeping car porter to dictator of a Caribbean Island that was obviously Haiti opened in 1922.  His devastating retelling of the prostitute with a heart of gold cliché, Anna Christie, won a second Pulitzer in 1922 despite O’Neill’s dissatisfaction with it as “too easy.” 1924 brought Desire Under the Elms, in which he used the conventions of Greek drama for the first time. 

O’Neill’s most experimental play yet, Strange Interlude opened in 1928 starring Lynn Fontanne.  The four hour play was produced with a dinner break and Greek masks and featured the inner dialogues of a woman playing out all of the roles of her life—daughter, lover, wife, friend, mother.  Its heavy use of Freudian symbolism and frankness about sex shocked audiences, but it won yet another Pulitzer.

Mourning Becomes Electra in 1931 returned to the Greek drama for form.  It is really a cycle of three plays based on the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus but set in the Civil War era in a small New England town with the Townspeople acting as a Chorus.  The plays were performed in one very long night of theater.

The next year, O’Neill set out to prove that he could also write comedy.  Ah, Wilderness! was almost a fantasy of what his own youth might have been—if his father had been sober and wise.  The play landed an unexpected star—George M. Cohan in one of his last parts and one of his few appearances as a dramatic actor in a play he did not write.  Young Elijah Cook, Jr., now best remembered as the gunsel in the film The Maltese Falcon, was the stand-in for the youthful O’Neill.

O’Neill and Carlotta lived, fought, separated and reunited in various retreats where he tried to stay sober and write.  First was a chateau in the Loire Valley of France, then a home at Sea Island, Georgia called Casa Genotta.  In 1937 they moved to Tao House in Danville, California using the prize money from his 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature.

A Tao House, O’Neill began work on his most ambitious project—an 11 play cycle chronicling an American family since the 1800s. Only two of these, A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions were ever completed.  Other plays exist only in fragments, outlines and notes.  As he worked, O’Neill’s health deteriorated badly.  Not only did he continue to suffer from depression and alcoholism, but his lungs had been damaged by tuberculosis.  Most devastating of all, he was developing a Parkinson’s like tremor that was making it hard to hold the pencil he used to compose in longhand.  In despair he abandoned the play cycle and turned to introspective pieces, all of them plainly autobiographical.

He completed and published The Iceman Cometh in 1940, but it was not produced for seven years.  Set in a desperately rundown Greenwich Village saloon in 1912, the play is famous for the long, confessional soliloquy of Hickey, the charismatic salesman.  Many consider it to be O’Neill’s masterpiece.  It has competition for that honor with O’Neill’s next play.

Long Day's Journey Into Night was not produced until 1956, when it created a sensation.  It is the reality flip side to the comedy Ah, Wilderness! and is transparently autobiographical.  Set in the summer retreat of an actor—obviously O’Neill’s father—and his family in 1912, the period just before O’Neil entered the sanitarium for treatment of his tuberculosis.  The father and the two competitive sons are all alcoholics.  The mother is addicted to morphine.  In one long night the family disintegrates amid mutual recriminations, self-denial, and occasional flashes of anguished affection.  The play earned O’Neill a last, posthumous, Pulitzer.

O’Neill never finished a final draft of Moon for the Misbegotten, a sort of sequel to Long Day’s Journey focusing on the character based on his older brother.  Despite O’Neill’s instruction that the manuscript be destroyed, the play was produced on Broadway in 1957, and like the other last plays, has often been revived.

In 1943, O’Neill’s palsy had progressed so far that he could no longer hold a pencil.  To his despair, he discovered that he could not compose by dictation.  He left Tao House and began living in isolation in San Francisco hotel rooms.  The last ten years of his life, one of his children dead and estranged from the other two and in an evermore tenuous relationship with his often absent third wife, were literal horrors.