Thursday, October 31, 2013

Walking Out of a Play

Did I really do that?

It is ancient history now, but I had never walked out of a theatre performance before.

Yesterday I was in search of online reviews of the 2007 production of the musical Parade by SpeakEasy Stage here in Boston. It had been a popular show with which the local company was closing its 2006-2007 season. Broadway success and Tony nominations a few years earlier had probably made it easy for most local reviewers to see this production as good news for the company and good news for the Boston theatre scene. But I had walked out.

When intermission came that May evening in 2007, I turned to my partner and told him I would meet him and our friends at the end of the evening’s performance. I may have said something like “I just can’t take any more of this.” I had sat long enough looking down our row of seats with everyone laughing and applauding at the end of each musical number. No one seemed the least disturbed by the Southern stereotypes being perpetuated on stage, actors and actresses whose exaggerated drawls seemed enlisted to communicate their characters’ ignorance and at times their ethical slyness.

Parade is an unusual musical about a lynching in 1913 Georgia. Leo Frank, a Jewish man from the North who married a Southern Jewish woman and settled in Atlanta, has been falsely accused of the strangling of one of his former employees. With a basis in history, the story ends with a Southern mob descending on the jail where Frank is serving out a life sentence: they take him out and hang him.

Yesterday I discovered that not everything written about the performance in 2007 communicated unqualified delight. What I read reminded me of factors with which I was struggling in silence while I sat through the first half of the play. In her review in, Jan Nargi described the play as “inflammatory and unapologetically stereotypical.” According to former Boston Globe-reviewer Thomas Garvey, “Parade wants to think of itself as daring, but no Broadway show would venture into the moral territory that a truly probing examination of the Frank case would require. Thus there's a void at the heart of the musical…”

I continue to reflect on what motivated the action I took that night. It was the first walking out I had ever done. It was the first time I had claimed the right with this group of friends to do something else that I alone preferred to do – or not to do something I clearly had no taste for.

Who was I that night? I think over events in my life the three years before that evening in 2007. I was a man who three times in a single year had traveled home to a Southern city to bury people who used to sit around the holiday table with him. I was a man who a year later watched hours of television coverage as his Southern hometown underwent the unprecedented destruction of Katrina.

And on the stage that evening in 2007 were Southern parents and children, Southern friends, Southern family. On the stage was a Southern city. On the stage was Southern death. But none of the usual sympathy in the face of death was what the play intended to evoke or make room for.

Later that night I stood before a group of friends who had followed my partner and me to our home. At one point I attempted to explain to everyone why I had done what I did earlier. No one in the room that night seemed to know what to say to me.

I expect that these people who knew me found it hard to understand my doing anything like what I had done. Not only had I walked out but I had not asked anyone’s permission before I walked out of the theatre for the length of the second half of the show.

I broke some rules that night, I guess?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Playing Virgil in Paris

More than once during our weeklong stay in Paris, my friend Kathleen called me her Virgil. The allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy was both generous and characteristic of my learned friend. I was not leading her through anything close to the epic circles of hell and purgatory, although a major world capital can be a daunting landscape to negotiate.

Having written about a tour through the underworld for the Roman hero Aeneas, the classical poet Virgil was an understandable guide for Dante to summon into his own epic. A visitor to Paris on multiple occasions, I may have seemed to Kathleen the same kind of reliable and well-informed travelling companion.

Kathleen and I have been not only friends but colleagues for a quarter of a century. The conference we were attending would claim only part of the week, though, and our evenings were always free. Where ought we to eat? What interesting sites were close to our hotel? When destinations warranted other modes of transportations, how would we negotiate taxis or the Metro? This visit was not Kathleen’s first to the French capital, but she admitted she was not a planner.

And I am a planner.

The week before our arrival at CDG, I had used Mapquest to print out maps showing walking routes from our hotel to restaurants and museums and churches we might want to visit in the neighborhood. From my office at work I ordered tickets for a concert performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Salle Pleyel on a Friday evening. An hour before meeting up with Kathleen one morning, I went to a nearby Metro stop and purchased a carnet of ten tickets from the kiosk for our rush-hour trips to the conference center in the 19th. I either called restaurants myself to make our dinner reservations or engaged the concierge to help me with that task.

If Kathleen thought of me as her Virgil, she did things for me that Dante did not do for his Virgil. She let me take her to places that had a sentimental value for me. She helped me buy a simple begonia from one Monceau florist at the end of the rue Mouffetard and sat in Saint-Medard while I brought the flowers to a side altar in that favorite church of mine. At every lunch and dinner she moved effortlessly into the kind of significant conversation that I love, each of us probing both our own history and our friend’s. She offered me a day on my own if I wanted it and so made possible a solitary venture into the Marais and lunch at a restaurant another Boston friend of mine had recommended.

I am home now for two weeks. Last night I turned the heat on in my New England apartment for the first time this season. I walked from room to room and lowered the storm windows. I made the bed with flannel sheets.

Friends call and write. We tell stories and make plans.

Thank you, Kathleen.

Thank you, Paris.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Landscape Now Wholly Autumnal

It is a year since I last visited the writing cabin of Edwin Way Teale on a Saturday morning in late October. The companion with whom I had traveled to the writer’s two-hundred-year-old farm in northwest Connecticut took this picture of me without my knowing.

“A landscape now wholly autumnal,” to use words from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal. The words are quoted by Lawrence Raab in his own poem “Hawthorne on His Way Home.” I have written about Raab’s poem more than once in this blog over the years.

It is a landscape in keeping with the man walking down the road. It is a landscape in keeping with a man walking away from a part of his history. The winter that would follow this solemn autumn afternoon might benefit from a steady companion, but it might just as well be faced alone, standing outside the familiar comforts, snow falling.

I know now that I was frightened this time last year. I was a man sixty years old and in a month I would turn sixty-one. It may not seem a big difference in age, but for someone who had just spent months getting used to his fifties’ being over, the approach of sixty-one was a definitive move into the new decade.

I am much less frightened after the year that has passed.

Monday, October 7, 2013

In Paris by Week's End

I am going to Paris. Again.

There are work commitments claiming certain days there, but other days are unscheduled and uncommitted. They are available for caprice.

One of the first days of every visit to Paris I inevitably stop before some corner flower store. Nowhere on my list of things to do or places to go have I included this or any florist’s shop windows. In tracking in advance the time and location of organ concerts and gallery exhibits, I tend to forget the beauty of fragile petals opening on a stem in a Paris flower shop window.

I have purchased flowers once from such a store and walked outside with them in my arms.

I have ordered flowers once and had them waiting in a Paris hotel room.

I have been given flowers once on a Paris sidewalk, bought minutes before from a flower store about to close for the night in the eighth arrondissement.

Flowers are a language I understand. I usually forget until I get to Paris that I can speak it and understand it even there.

I am not a tourist when I look at flowers in Paris. They are not a souvenir. They are not a memento. They are what they would be if I saw them in a florist’s window in Boston or New York or New Orleans. They are a tribute to the person who gets stopped in his tracks by them. They are a tribute to the person who has to catch her breath when they first lie in her arms.

They are extravagance.

They are an extravagance that so suits Paris.

On the other hand, no one sees a photograph I take of them and exclaims, “Ah, Paris!” Only I know the story they tell of the Seine and the streets that lead down to it and the dream I get to live when the flowers and I walk together down those streets.

Image from Artisan Fleuriste