The Lunatics Take Over The Asylum
Following up on the truncated literary listicle, courtesy of my good friend Nick Benson, I'm going to give you a top-ten list of classical/theatrical performances you can watch from the comfort of your own cozy couch. It includes opera, plays, and a few movies that are mostly filmed performances.
The first I’m going to recommend is actually a play within a play within a movie whose title alone made it instantly famous: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, usually shortened to Marat/Sade. Written in 1963 by Peter Weiss, a German/Swedish avant-garde writer, graphic artist, playwright and experimental filmmaker, it burst on the scene and made waves everywhere with its stunning originality and black humor.
It took theater of the absurd one step further to theater of the insane, with dramatic elements borrowed from both Brecht and Artaud, the unrivalled masters of the day, but was considered by Weiss himself as simply a “play with music.” Ha. It was made into a movie in 1967, directed by Peter Brook and starring Clive Revill as Marat, Patrick Magee as de Sade, and Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday, that justly won a bouquet of international awards.
The backdrop is the French Revolution, and it’s literally about the lunatics eventually taking over the asylum. Block off two hours and sit down and watch this disconcerting and bizarre drama – I’d even recommend putting on a straitjacket if you have one lying around – that depicts the age-old class struggles (proletariat vs bourgeoisie vs aristocracy) and asks if true change can be brought about by changing society, or whether that change has to come from within.
Marat is a passionate advocate of the rights (and virtues) of the common people, the sans-culottes in this particular revolution, and de Sade is a cynical pragmatist, chortling on about the fallibility, corruptibility and irrational madness and cruelty of the mob. He may loathe the aristocracy with an undisguised glee, but he has a hateful disdain for the ragged masses, and distrusts them and their excitable, irrational appetites implicitly. Deeply. Magee is mesmerizing as the Marquis, and the scene where he takes of his shirt and casually bares his back as Glenda Jackson whips him with her hair is one of the most perversely but undeniably beguiling and erotic flagellations I’ve ever seen.
I had heard about this movie when I was living in Hong Kong, but I had to wait until I returned to the States to see it since there weren’t any VCRs in China at the time. I finally found it in an “adult” store in Little Five Points in Atlanta, run by an HIV-positive gay couple who called it a mash-up between The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Munsters. Their tossed-off comment turned out to be precisely genius. I was camped out in a tiny extended-stay motel called something like the Pineapple Inn, but I can’t remember any of the details except I think it was around the corner from the Claremont Lounge, where I ended up sharing a room for a couple of months with an Apache transvestite. Don’t ask.
Stunning movie – a wild, quiet flaming and thoroughly entertaining indictment of Robespierrean idealism (a token love of the poor, but really just ill-disguised hatred of the rich), burning with more feverish insanity and flamboyant clownish impudence than that hotel, or even the city as a whole, had probably ever experienced, or at least since Sherman scorched his way through.
That said, I did just watch Marat/Sade again on YouTube last night, and it’s a still a dynamite and disruptive hoot.
I think everyone should be immersed in, or at least aware, casually in passing, of the important archetypal mythological stories told and retold throughout history that used to be part of a classic liberal education – they’ve been around for thousands of years for good reason – and if I as in charge I’d start off with Sophocles and his timeless Athenian tragedy Oedipus Rex, first performed around 429 BC. In a nutshell: Oedipus had become the king of Thebes while unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father, Laius (the previous king), and marry his mother, Jocasta, whom he had taken as his queen after the death of Laius and for solving the riddle of the Sphinx.
The play begins with Oedipus searching for the murderer of Laius in order to end the plague that was ravaging Thebes at the time, unaware that the killer he is looking for is none other than himself. At the end of the three-act drama, when the truth comes out, Jocasta hangs herself, while Oedipus, horrified at his own unwitting patricide and incest, confesses to his daughters and then gouges out his own eyes in despair, literally blinding himself to the awful consequential reality of what he’s done.
Fate, free will, irony and the tragic flaw, hamartia, all figure into this enduring masterpiece, and since human nature doesn’t change, the Oedipus Complex, as it’s now known, is obviously still relevant to us today. Freud said that “His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — it is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.”
I can’t recommend the William Butler Yeats-directed 1957 film version highly enough – it’s performed in oversized masks, as was done back in Sophocles’ day, which disconcerted me a bit at first, but then won me over. By the end I found this staging thoroughly engrossing and genuinely more emotional than I thought it would be. Anyone who watches this and isn’t moved to tears when Oedipus has his two daughters taken away from him has a heart of stone and probably laughed at the death of Little Nell.
That said, a little Shakespeare memorization goes a long way in terms of mental discipline and cocktail party oneupmanship, so I thought I’d include one of my favorite gems here for your mens sana in corpore sano pleasure, “The quality of mercy,” except I just realized it’s from The Merchant of Venice, not The Tempest. What the heck, I’ll excerpt it anyway since it’s my blog:
When mercy seasons justice.”
Heading on down the list, I’m going to include two classic American chestnuts, with caveats. I saw Death of a Salesman last year at a small regional theater, and even though I thought it was superbly done, it’s slightly past its prime, like an aging lady that has accidentally stayed on the train one stop past her destination. I would recommend it mostly as a curiosity, a historical artifact worth studying as a theater aficionado, archeologist or cultural historian. Yes, the struggles depicted are universal and ever-valid, but the presentation is heavy-handed and the acting too broad and broadcast-y for my tastes. If you want to check it out, the 1985 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich is available on YouTube.
Similarly, I saw Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in a regional production, and again, it seemed dated to me, but it was low-key and quaint enough and not too preachy. There is a charmingly-minimal filmed stage production on YouTube posted by Joseph Jimenez under the title “Our Town Full” that is bare-bones but has enough style and clunky, understated heart to make it worth your while. And the non-rhotic accents are authentic.
I’ve saved a particular bugbear for last, even though a lot of you are going to disagree with my take on it, and even I don’t really like what I think about it. But before I go in medias res I just want to tell you about another theater experience I had a few years ago that’s unrelated to anything I’ve discussed, but I hope will shed some light on my vision of the world and how I’m trying to reconcile my 20/200 myopic parallax view with reality. The musical was The Lion King, and it was playing at the Minskoff Theatre, where it’s still running after more than 9,000 performances. It’s the third longest-running show in Broadway history and has earned Disney over one billion dollars, making it the highest grossing production of all time.
I went to the show with my wife and three children, and the first thing that bowled me over was 42nd Street itself – the Disney-ification was so total and unironic, I thought we had taken a wrong turn into a Brigadoonish Twilight Zone episode. I used to work as a waiter on 44th Street, and would walk down 42nd Street almost every night after my shift to grab the bus at Port Authority for Hoboken where I lived in a basement sub-let. Back then there were pimps and peepshows, hookers smoking cigarettes, or crack, and “luggage” stores that sold drugs and pornographic videotapes in the back. The Howard Johnson’s on the corner of 46th, even then a Runyonesque remnant, a requiem in orange pleather and green jello, had installed blue lights in the bathrooms so the junkies couldn’t see their veins to shoot up.
There were a couple of “live” movie houses, like Peepland and Show World and if I remember correctly there was even a Pussycat Theater at one point. These places all showed “arty” films sometimes between the endlessly-looped bump and grind to try to stay afloat in the sea-changing landscape of Giuliani’s moral gouaching of a third-worldish paradise, or at least that’s what it seemed like to fatuous, hormonal me. I saw a few underground gems at that time like I Spit on your Grave, and Rita Jenrette’s total turkey Zombie Island Massacre, as well as up-to-then unknown foreign films that may even have made their American debut in one of these ignominious places like Do you remember Dolly Bell? and Street of Crocodiles by the Quay Brothers, a macabre marionette morality tale that I remember mostly for its emotional emaciation and infatuation with carcasses of fleshy meat.
But anyway, we get out of the taxi and enter the huge lobby of the theater. We wait in line to get our tickets, and something seems somewhat odd to me but I can’t quite place my finger on it. We finally get our tickets and walk up the grand staircase to our I have to admit excellent seats. We’re sitting in the theater waiting for the curtain to go up and I’m still trying to figure out what wasn’t quite right. The show starts with a tremendous “Here comes a lion, father/Oh yes, it’s a lion!” song joyously belted out by the entire cast as they poured through the aisles and up onto the stage. The costumes are enormous and surrealistic puppetish, witty and justly-celebrated, and the choreography and lighting are, of course, spectacular. It finally hits me. Everyone working at the theater –security, ticket takers, concession stand personnel, ushers, and bathroom attendants, if there were any, were black. Everyone in the cast – lions, tigers, bears, hyenas, giraffes and elephants were also all black. The show was about Africa, don’t you know.
But every single person in the audience was white. I checked, and kept checking. Absolutely everyone I could see, and I could see everyone except the audience in the balcony, was white. There’s nothing wrong with this, and I present it without comment or judgment. And I’m sure my experience wasn’t a one-off – I would venture to guess that the majority if not the overwhelming majority of the audience for The Lion King was and is always almost exclusively Caucasian, and the worst kind – expensive suburban and upper West Side Lululemon do-gooders – for the worst reasons.
So, whenever I’m in a situation like this, or even if I’m watching a movie where something seems out of whack, I always try to switch the roles and see if that changes the effect or helps reconcile the disconnect I’m experiencing at all. So in this case, imagine a Disney musical about a prototypically white myth or all-American morality tale, playing in a famous theater on 42nd Street, that features an all-white cast, staffed by an all-white crew, but is attended by an entirely black audience. Just think about that for about 30 seconds – it’s inconceivable.
I saw A Few Good Men at the Lee Street Theater in Salisbury, North Carolina a few years later, mostly because it starred my nephew Anthony, and my brother got me a free ticket. Otherwise, the cash bar would have been the deciding factor for a big, fat ‘no thanks.’ And my other plans for that night fell through – even though you bailed on me, Honey Doo – I still love you! Seriously, it was an immaculate staging, nothing hayseed about it at all, and I enjoyed the entire vibe, especially my nephew’s performance, enormously. But I had a lot of concerns about the play itself, however, and the unmistakable message it was sending: the Marines are bad.
Basically the plotline is the same tired liberal narrative we’ve seen over and over again, but this time in uniform: old white guy colonel has incompetent uppity black corporal murdered on an extrajudicial “Code Red” order, and then gets his dramatic comeuppance when beautiful female JAG lawyer and idealistic protégé prosecutes this big bad wolf who is, of course, found guilty. The Hollywood movie directed by Rob Reiner and starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore grossed a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office.
Yawn. Are there corrupt officers in the armed forces? Yes. Is there racism? Yes. Is there hazing and “conduct unbecoming?” Of course. Are there beautiful and talented women lawyers? Yes. Is Tom Cruise a good actor? I’m kidding. But it is the best movie I’ve ever seen starring his sneer. All fair enough. But let’s play the role reversal game again.
I don’t mean to make everything and specifically plays political, but when they are intentionally politicized to send an unambiguous and self-righteous gotcha! message, without even a nod to nuance or both-sides-of-the-aisle perspective, and then gloat about their moral superiority, I think it’s necessary to at least throw in a counter-opinion to see what sticks. It’s like some twit saying that the Marines are a terrorist organization and they should be eliminated because, well, Lee Harvey Oswald.
It’s this pervasive and invidious mentality, universally taught in schools today, of a deductive-only thinking liberal narrative of “tolerance” for everything except critical dissent – here’s the truth, memorize it – that spells almost more than anything else the end of days for all free-thinkers, unapologetic capitalists, now-closet conservatives and old school-of-hard-knockers, if there are any of us left, everywhere. Instead let’s go back to critical thinking and inductive reasoning – here are the facts and the data and as many eyewitness accounts and original material that we can find – what do we make of it? Where does the truth lie? You can argue that we’re only taking about a play here, and that’s it’s supposed to be entertainment, but I’d reply that everything matters, and when this insidious message of equality and victimization is hammered home enough times, especially by attractive movie stars, it starts to resonate and reshape, for the infinite worse, the way that millions and millions of people view the undeniable unfairness of the world.
The future of education is online, kids. Everything’s there for the taking, the best of the best by the best, and almost all of it is free. And you don’t even need a library card. David Mamet, a playwright extraordinaire and personal hero – his muscly prose and unapologetic manliness, spewed with Irish adjectives and colorful contempt – put his writings high on my list. There’s even a word that’s been coined to describe his immediately-recognizable expletive-soaked diction: Mamet speak. I remember watching an interview where he was telling a story about his daughter who had just gotten a Fudgsicle out of the freezer and he said something to her like “Make sure you close the fucking door.” She told him to “Watch your language, Dad.” He said the words that came out of his mouth were what put that ice cream in hers.
I was bowled over by his script for The Verdict starring Paul Newman and Charlotte Rampling, and his book Bambi vs Godzilla is a vicious, hilarious, icy-keen expose of the truths, lies and unctuous clank of the Hollywood movie machine. His two must-see plays are Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed The Plow, starring Madonna once upon a time, but I became an even bigger Mamet fan for life since his outspoken and very public conversion to our side of the fight, his pugnacious and merciless crew-cutting down of the self-loathing hypocrites and potato-skinned ideologues he used to call his friends. Even though he received his BA from Goddard College, when an interviewer once asked where he went to school he said “My alma mater is the Chicago Public Library. I got what little educational foundation I have in the third-floor reading room, under the tutelage of a Coca-Cola sign.”