Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ibsen's Solness, John Lahr's Tennessee Williams, and Morrissey's Morrissey: The Terrible Cost of Greatness

Jonathan Demme's 2013 film of Andre Gregory's stage production of A Master Builder, starring Wallace Shawn as Solness (the elderly architect of the title), Julie Hagerty as his wife, Aline, and Lisa Joyce as Hilde Wangel, reminded me both of how great and of how awful theatre can be. Ibsen's 1892 play is the real star, retaining its fascination and black humour despite the production, the shaky-cam close-ups, the bizarre performances, the awkward dialogue of Shawn's adaptation (although it's no awkwarder than any of the other Ibsen translations I've read), and a totally unnecessary framing device that tries to contain the play's elements of heightened reality and account for its mutually contradictory perspectives by making Hilde Wangel's visit into a fantasy of Solness's dying moments.

There isn't much in the way of dramatic action in Ibsen's play, which consists of a bunch of people talking about incidents from the past that they're fixated on, and which the two people involved remember, or perceive, drastically differently. The other plot, the only thing faintly resembling conventional stage action, involves Solness trying to prevent the draughtsman who works from him from getting married and starting his own career as an architect, because Solness wants to suppress all competition, especially from youth.

Ibsen's Freakish Comedy

The first thing that threw me off (even before I saw the film, actually), was the casting of 69-year-old Wallace Shawn, who looks like he's ready to play Gollum without makeup, as Solness, whom I'd always pictured as a broad-chested, booming, blustery type. But fine, casting against type, fine: there's no reason a small, homely man can't be charismatic. (Solness is supposed to strike women as being able to control their souls.) In presence as well as physical appearance, however, the Ibsen character Shawn seems best-suited to play is Judge Brack, the sleazy blackmailer, in Hedda Gabler – or better yet, Hedda's husband Tesman, the befuddled minor historian.

It's not surprising, however, that a serious theatre artist such as Shawn would be uninterested in those parts, and his interpretation of Solness is, anyway, sensitive. The film and the interpretation of the play behind it are a labour of love: about 14 years prior to Demme's filming of the production, Shawn adapted the play after Gregory brought it to his attention, and afterwards they performed it occasionally for friends. In one of the few positive reviews of the film, in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney defends the framing device, and simultaneously, the casting of Shawn as Solness, although he doesn't explain how Solness is still able to control Kaia.

As the doubtless difficult-to-play Hilde, who is made up of sharply contradictory qualities and is part-symbol, part-unearthly apparition, Lisa Joyce is luminous and appropriately overwhelming, but spends most of the performance on the verge of tears or hysterical laughter, which is distracting. Hilde, true, is yet another proto-Manic Pixie Dream (or Nightmare) Girl, but Joyce takes the “manic” part a bit too literally. Hilde, a role I'd itched to play in my early 20s (not that I'm an actress, but you've got to be dead not to want to play Hilde Wangel in your early 20s and Hedda Gabler in your late 20s), calls for the uncanny quality of an actress like Jennifer Jones, and I also pictured her as much brasher and – except at crucial moments, where the force of her need to believe in him gets the better of her – as in control of every exchange with Solness.

The Master Builder (as the play is usually referred to in English) is, inescapably, about the attraction between a woman in her early 20s and a man who's at least in his 50s. (Apparently the relationship between Solness and Hilde was inspired by Ibsen's relationship with an 18-year-old homewrecking minx whom he met when he was 61.) This ought to be annoying for a female viewer, but one of its pleasures for me even now, at 39, is the way it depicts a comfortably equal relationship between a young woman armed with only her preternatural self-possession and a much older, powerful man. This is in part, I think, because the uncanny Hilde is removed from the social realm, unlike Solness's bookkeeper Kaia, who is completely dominated by him. But it's a sort of side-shoot of the tradition in Anglo-American literature that Harold Bloom memorably referred to as “Heroines of the Protestant Will” and that accounts for how Elizabeth Bennet can hold her own with Darcy – and even refuse his marriage proposal. (Pride and Prejudice has been popularly commemorated as the story of a woman who's desperate to get married, whereas in fact, although Elizabeth has much more pressing reasons to get married than Bridget Jones, she turns down two marriage proposals.)

Elizabeth and Darcy never talked in this much depth, though – or about these kinds of racy topics. To begin with, the film makes Hilde 12 years old when she had an encounter with Solness in which she imagined him kissing her and promising to return when she's grown to abduct her and, implicitly, ravage her. The Wikipedia entry on The Master Builder, on the other hand, makes her 14, which is very slightly more comfortable for a modern audience. I'm not sure which is true to the original, or why the Gregory production would make her younger – although of course 12-year-old girls have sexual fantasies, which is the entire reason for V. C. Andrews. It's possible that a contemporary, pre-Freudian (barely) audience would have rationalized Hilde's fantasy as innocent, whether she was 12 or 14, but I'm pretty sure Ibsen thought it was weird (Solness, after all, has to be prompted to even remember that he did such a thing – or prompted to share the fantasy).

Speaking of Andrews, later Hilde confesses to rape fantasies, couched in the language of Norse mythology – a return to the original, shared fantasy between them in which the (fully civilized and incapable of rape) Solness carries her off like a repulsive troll, or, in this version, a triumphant Viking. It's evident from the rest of the play that Hilde, who freely contemplates and (to Solness, anyway) expresses her perverse desires, identifies even more with the raptor than with his prey. One of the central questions of the play is whether modern man (or woman) has a sufficiently “robust conscience” to be able to realize and seize their desires, whatever the cost to others. Solness is suffering from two neurotic fears: on the one hand, fear of the future, or youth, of which Hilde is the half-enrapturing, half-terrifying symbol; on the other hand, fear of the events of the past, which, he believes, led him to his present position of good fortune, of great social and creative power. Yet he's unable to enjoy that good fortune for even a moment, due to his guilt over its sources and the fear of losing it that stems from that guilt. 

Another question of the play is whether he's right to feel guilty about past actions and wishes or whether what he can't bear is simply the fact of being singled out by fortune for success, and that is the reason for his guilt, paranoia, and delusions. Ibsen was a contemporary of Nietzsche and a direct anticipator of Freud (whose first major work, Studies in Hysteria, was published in 1895), and it never showed more than in this play.

By directing the actors to act, at moments (such as a scene in a kitchen between husband, wife, and Hilde), in stylized, Expressionistic ways that wouldn't be out of place in a David Lynch movie, Gregory and Demme miss the opportunity to contrast the repressed, middle-class surface of the play's world with the forbidden, outlandish desires of the characters, which belong instead to an amoral world of romance, and suggests a lack of confidence in the already adequate bizarreness of the material, which would probably be best served by being presented in as direct and unshowy a manner as possible. A single, brief scene, perhaps the strangest and most devastating (and freakishly comic) of the play, between Hilde and Aline, is acted and filmed in such an unshowy way, to its advantage. 

Oddly, in interviews Shawn speaks of the “naturalism” of the performance approach, in contrast to big-stage theatre performances, which I guess goes to show you the difference between what theatre people and regular people think is “natural.” He has, however, mentioned Ibsen's humour, and his delivery of Solness's line about his marriage right after this scene shows that he has an excellent grasp of that aspect of the writer. Ibsen, like Tennessee Williams, is nothing at all without his humour.

Mad Pilgrimage of the Word

The central theme of The Master Builder, the terrible cost of doing “the impossible,” transcending human and one's own normal limits and achieving greatness, came to mind while I was listening to the most recent audio books I've purchased: Morrissey's Autobiography and John Lahr's mammoth new biography of Tennessee Williams (the hardcover edition is 736 freaking pages, apparently), Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. As the title of Lahr's biography suggests, for two major 20th century artists who upset a lot of people with their sexuality, Williams and the famously “celibate” Morrissey could not be further apart, sexually. However, Mad Pilgrimage turns out to have extremely little to do with sex, and even less to do with the kind of ecstatic engagement in pleasure that the phrase evokes. Instead, it's a relentless, monotonous, depressing slog through the failure after failure – sometimes critical, sometimes commercial, usually both, and in one famous case (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), personal – that, as it appears, constituted the vast majority of Williams's career as a playwright.

Full disclosure: between them, Williams and Lahr all but ruined my life. Williams's reputation, and A Streetcar Named Desire, and Lahr's biography of Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears (which became the basis for the Stephen Frears movie starring Gary Oldman), were the main things that made me, as a teenager, want to become a playwright. And in fact I became a playwright as a teenager, although that was no one's fault but my own, and my first play to be produced was about Orton, for which I used the only biographical material available at the time, Lahr's biography and Orton's Lahr-edited published diaries.

I say “ruined my life” because my playwriting career didn't last, and, for its brief duration (about seven years – which, even more depressingly, a playwright friend who's managed to keep going for decades later told me is about the average duration of a Canadian playwriting career), was characterized, despite considerable excitement over that first play, by agonies of self-doubt and everybody else doubting me, too. If only I'd had Lahr's biography of Williams to inform me that that's what a successful playwriting career looks like. I probably still would have given it up, but out of dread, not defeat. In fact, Williams's experience seemingly only differed from mine in its magnitude and duration (give or take some wealth and fame). Skipping almost all of his apprentice years and skimming his childhood, Lahr's volume more-or-less begins with the original Broadway productions that established Williams as the greatest American playwright of the 20th century (which, since I haven't heard a peep out of American theatre since Kushner's angel plays at the end of that century, probably means the greatest American playwright, period), The Glass Menagerie in 1945-46, and Streetcar in 1947-49. They are dealt with swiftly, with hundreds of pages and decades of life to go and hardly a single ray of hope in any of them.

What emerges is that thanks to the one-two punch of these plays and legendary productions, Williams was permanently crowned the greatest living American playwright, only for critics, collaborators, and he himself to believe that he could never write anything comparable again. He suffered the mindfuck – the punishment doled out to any writer who has the misfortune of writing something well-liked early in their career – of being continually told that he was “great” while also being told that nothing he wrote was any good. And yet he went on writing, decade after decade. His last successful commercially successful Broadway production was in 1961 (Night of Iguana), and it seems like he only managed to keep his Broadway career going for that long by clinging to Elia Kazan, but he went on writing until his death in 1983. Lahr makes it sound like Williams was already feeling insecure and outdated a year after the production of Streetcar closed, and had already started to believe that his creative power was waning. That turns out to be Lahr's favourite note (like Williams's, possibly), and he returns to it again and again despite the fact that Williams still had decades of plays left in him, all of which Lahr treats respectfully.

So... what's the truth? Or at least: what's Lahr's position? Was Williams in fact, as contemporary critics thought, never as good again as in his early plays? Or was he hounded literally to death by homophobic, Oedipal critics while heroically producing a vast, rich body of work that still awaits reassessment, at the lifelong cost of a single moment's peace of mind? Lahr seems to want to have it both ways. (The virtues and flaws of the 12-years-in-the-making book are, obviously, not fully covered here: it has been well-received, but Sarah Churchwell, in The Guardian, gives intelligent consideration to some of its other limitations, such as a time-capsule version of Freudianism.)

Writers and Happiness

I have to wonder if Lahr's presentation of Williams's life is really unusually bleak, or whether my perspective has shifted enormously since I was a teenager devouring biographies of writers (and often turning them into plays). My most beloved biographies from that period (I have read none as an adult: one of the last I purchased, the 1997 trade paperback edition of Lyle Leverich's Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams – a sort of companion piece to Lahr's book, as explained in the Preface to the latter – sat on various bookshelves for years, barely touched), Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde, Gerald Clarke's Capote, Millicent Dillon's A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, and Prick Up Your Ears, were hardly portraits of happiness.

The narratives portrayed, however, were ones in which the writers suffered because they were demon-haunted: undone, sooner or later, by an unhappy childhood, mysterious neuroses, or a self-destructive streak. That only made them seem like glamourous, romantic figures, and seemed like a small price to pay for having a great writer's power and being admired with such intensity. Although Williams has as much of a reputation for demon-hauntedness as any writer, Lahr hardly gives any attention to those demons (which led to alcoholism and drug addiction, which in turn led to increasingly erratic behaviour – all touched on by Lahr in passing), so focused is he on the unending horror of the work's reception – by agents, directors, producers, actors, critics, and the public. 

Williams comes across as a man who, despite at least one close, long-term relationship, really had no life outside of his work, and no peace within it. And not because of any psychological blocks preventing him from doing the work: Williams was no Jane Bowles or Truman Capote, and although he could have a hard time shaping his plays (like any playwright), he was prolific to the end of his life, and enjoyed the work enough to keep doing it after critics started literally telling him to shut up. His lack of peace had to do with the great desire to be successful that was probably, as much as anything, responsible for the success that he did have, and which – as in the fascinating story Lahr tells about his battles with Kazan over Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – filled him with irrational guilt, since he also wanted to be a great artist, and felt that the two desires were in conflict.

I did have one example before me as a teenager of a writer who was famous, well-regarded, prolific, long-lived, and also seemingly well-adjusted, and that was Colette, so there's no rule about writers having to be miserable. It's hard to imagine, however, that anyone could read, or listen to, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, anyway, and come away with the idea that the life of a great and famous writer is something to aspire to. But probably as a teenager I would have found a way to convince myself that it was.

Morrissey's Poison Paeons

Morrissey has also suffered the fate of critics much preferring his early work to his later. I haven't read Williams's late plays (that's a project for another year... or maybe another decade), but I have listened to all of Morrissey's albums since his 2004 comeback at least once, and my feelings about them are most generously captured by Stephen Troussé's remark in a review of the dismal 2009 B-side compilation, Swords: “For a long time now, he's been a great pop star first, a great singer second, and a lyric writer somewhere around fourth or fifth.”

Morrissey's creative power as a writer really does seem to have waned. Yet, as he has often explained, he only exists when he's performing, and he appears to be too proud, or too bored, to rest on his back catalogue, and also to still have a lot to say, even if it's no longer being said in an especially compelling way – and so the albums continue to come out, although it seems as though hardly anyone is still listening. But as the sales of Autobiography have proved, the world is still interested in Morrissey, even if it's not especially interested in Morrissey's current or recent work.

Since it was not released in a digital edition, I bought a paperback copy of Autobiography when it first came out. I think I even had to have it shipped from the States. I gave up on reading it in frustration, however, when I discovered that Morrissey, an undisciplined autodidact, constantly misused words, and that Penguin Classics had not given enough of a shit to properly edit him. Needless to say, this discovery did not reflect well on either of them.

However, in audio version, David Morrissey's vocal performance glides over mere lapses in sense and carries you along on the gist, and anyway who listens to every sentence of an audio book. As many reviewers have noted, the best part of the book is the recounting of Morrissey's formative years (which does not include any close look at his home life: I'm not even sure if he mentions his parents' divorce, or if he does it's in passing). We hear about struggles with authority figures, witness Morrissey's fascination with acts of violence by human beings (i.e. working-class men) and chance (e.g. car crashes), and come along for the ride as he discovers the salvational qualities of pop music, especially in the form of The New York Dolls, David Bowie, and Patti Smith. Morrissey is at his best as a prose writer when penning – admittedly barely comprehensible, syntactically or emotionally, so ambivalent and intense are they – poisonous paeons to the idols and influences of his youth, proving that if he had not been the best pop lyricist of his generation, as well as one of the great pop stars of all time, he would have been an excitingly original pop culture critic.

Just as Mad Pilgrimage zips past Menagerie and Streetcar, Autobiography refuses to linger on The Smiths, and what Morrissey lingers on about those years are his struggles with management and his surprising obsession with chart positions. Then we're on to the rather anti-climactic, and rather longer, rest of his life. To be sure, there's a period in the late 80s and early 90s, when his relationship with the British music press is already, but not exclusively, combative, where, if anything, his fame peaks and his relationship with his audience deepens: when he's surprised by a sudden surge of eroticism in his male fan's reactions to him at shows; when he breaks The Beatles' record for selling out the Hollywood Bowl in the shortest amount of time.

What emerges from Autobiography as a whole, however, is the picture of a gifted, unusual man who defied the odds and became a pop star to avoid the fate of being entombed upon entering adulthood as a working-class male of unspectacular academic ability, but who, in his 50s, is deeply embittered, paranoid, and possibly delusional: about the break-up of The Smiths; about the court case successfully brought against him by The Smiths' drummer, Mike Joyce; about all of the critics and journalists who, he believes, have printed lies about him and tried to destroy him; about the critics and journalists and managers and record companies whose malice and incompetence prevented The Smiths from being more successful, and prevent him, now, from being successful.

It's a personality not a lot different from the one glimpsed at moments in Mad Pilgrimage, when Lahr – in between tales of famous actresses' bad behavior, critics' viciousness, boyfriends' violence or whininess, and silly female literary executors' avarice and ignorance – lets us see what an unpleasant person Williams, too, often was to friends and collaborators. For example, when Kazan complained to Williams in a letter about Williams's repeated blaming of him in the press for the altered ending of Cat, when in fact Kazan gave him a chance to reinstate his original ending before the Broadway opening, I thought of a review of Autobiography in Rolling Stone, in which Rob Sheffield, clearly a fan, finds the sense of humour that one needs to admire the book's thorny merits while objecting that, contra Moz, of course Rolling Stone covered The Smiths in the 1980s, and helped the band a great deal in doing so. In other words, like Williams, Morrissey is a paranoid and self-exculpating fantasist, and nothing he has to say can necessarily be believed.

The change in my perspective is that whereas once I thought that being a great writer was the highest form of happiness, and that therefore, even if a particular great writer was unhappy (and even though many famous writers appeared to have a tendency to be tragically so), that unhappiness was, in the end, superficial; now it seems obvious to me, and yet somehow still shocking, that the ability to write well does not bestow happiness upon one. Perhaps it would, if one could always be in critical favour. But if you're lucky enough to write something that means a lot to a few people, or one of the extremely few who are lucky enough to write something that means a lot to an entire culture, it's human nature for critics to want you to keep writing the same thing over and over, just as it's human nature for you to change, and to want to change; and, after a while of that, it's human nature for critics to then complain that you're repeating yourself, because they see that the culture's changed, or they want new writers of your stature to emerge and see you as Oedipally blocking the way.

Until youth comes knocking at the door.