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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Brief encounters

May 1st, 2010

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

Anyone who’s survived for sixty-seven years and been even peripherally involved in the arts has met famous people, now defunct, from time to time. The trick, it seems to me, is to write about those meetings without sounding like a name-dropping show-off. Unless you’re warren.pngfamous yourself, and even then, maybe it can’t be done. So with apologies in advance, here are four men who marked my mind. I don’t claim I got to know any of them well.

My first notable encounter with a Notable involved Robert Penn Warren. He was the uncle of a Yale classmate and was teaching at the university at the time.

During Christmas break of our senior year, my classmate invited me to a New Year’s Eve bash at his parent’s place in Connecticut, where Warren was one of the guests. The family called him “Red,” but I didn’t dare, because I revered his poetry and novels, and although I wasn’t in one of his classes, I did attend a seminar with Cleanth Brooks, with whom he wrote Understanding Poetry. Calling the great writer and critic “Red” would have been an act of lèse majesté to me, the equivalent of calling T.S. Eliot “Tom.”

But I don’t think Warren would have minded if I’d used his nickname at the party. He was a genial man, and he got happily hammered that evening, along with everyone else, including me and my classmate. I got loose enough to ask him a few questions about All The King’s Men’s new relevance to the burgeoning civil rights movement, in which he was very much involved. He was delighted to hold forth at some length, sipping away at his bourbon (he was a loyal Kentuckian), and always pausing to ask me a few sharp questions in return, both to make sure I’d taken in what he’d said and to coax me into coming up with a few insights of my own. I came up empty, at first, but he was a patient teacher, and he finally got something out of me that made him smile and nod. I wish I could remember what I said.

He was living in nearby Fairfield, and he’d brought the champagne for the midnight celebration, several bottles of the best, which he’d set down in the back yard to chill because there wasn’t room for them all in the refrigerator. But it had been snowing all day, and when he remembered the champagne, at around 11:30, he peered out the back window to see that the yard was a featureless field of white. He swore eloquently and grabbed the nearest warm body — me, as it happened, because he’d been finishing a thought about a what-if meeting between Huey Long and Martin Luther King when he looked out the window.

We staggered into the snow. He was four sheets to the wind by then, as was I, and we crawled around freezing our hands as we probed down in search of the bubbly. He was amused by his own carelessness, but he went on about Dr. King and “The Kingfish” (one of the nicknames of the controversial Louisiana governor upon whom the novel’s Willie Stark is based), saying the two men would have understood one another thoroughly because they both loved the spotlight and the sound of their own voices.

We got chilled and soaked through, but we found all the bottles and carried them all, a little unsteadily, back inside in time to pop corks at midnight (well, maybe a few minutes after). I never met him again, but that half-hour spent on my hands and knees next to one of the greatest poets, novelists, and critics in America, hunting for booze in the snow, while he talked about Long and King, southern white populism, and Negro (his term) rights, will remain with me as long as my memory still works.

Many years later, I was acting as my brother Karl Kirchwey’s stop-gap helper at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA n New York, where Karl had just been appointed director. Karl had launched a search for a fully-qualified assistant, but he needed someone to do filing and basic office scut-work in the interim. I was “between jobs,” as actors say, and needed money. So I filled in for a few months, and the job turned out to be fascinating, although Karl’s predecessor as director of the center had left because she’d suffered a nervous breakdown, and the chaotic state of the files reflected her state of mind.

burgess.jpgThe best thing about my time at the Poetry Center was that I not only got in free to all the Monday Night Readings by famous writers, but met some of them. The one I remember most fondly was Anthony Burgess, who came to read from The Piano Players, a novel he’d just completed, which drew on his memories of his raffish father. My wife Patsy and I were devoted to Burgess’s work, and when Karl invited us to meet him before his reading, I was a little apprehensive. One of the Monday Night Readings’ previous guests had been Paul Theroux, another writer we admired, and he’d turned out to be a bit of a shit during the Q&A session that followed his reading.

I hoped Burgess wouldn’t prove to be another disappointment, brilliant, incisive, funny and wise on the page, but an egomaniacal intellectual snob in person. And I already knew Burgess had led a tempestuous life, which included a sporadic problem with booze.

I needn’t have worried. The Y was a pretty important stop on Burgess’s book tour, and he was traveling with his Italian wife Raina. Thanks to her, he was in a relatively abstemious phase. She hadn’t cut him off entirely (that would have been well-nigh impossible) but she kept a clear eye on his alcohol intake.

Karl had met the Burgesses’ plane the day before the reading, and he invited Patsy and me to join them that evening, along with his own wife Tamzen, at an Irish pub not far away from the Y. Karl explained to Burgess that he’d have picked an English pub but there were none that he knew of in the city. It didn’t matter: the Irish place delighted Burgess. It not only served pub food like bangers and mash, but Guinness stout, on tap, not in bottles, drawn with easy precision by the barmaid so that there was just a half-inch of head in the pint glasses to tickle the nose. Burgess was very happy with the food and the Guinness, and he expressed large gratitude to Karl for his thoughtfulness.
He was entirely gracious to Tamzen, and to me and Patsy, and we got over our awe quickly as he made perceptive remarks about the changes to New York City since his last visit, chatted about the new book and the reading, and told a couple of funny stories (needless to say, he was a master story-teller) about the perilous temptations of book tours. He cited W.H. Auden’s wry poem about landing in yet another unknown city and quoted the poet’s urgent question, “…what will there be to drink?” That got him a sharp look from Raina, but he chuckled and told her he was just having her on a bit. He restricted himself to a single pint of Guinness.

He drew me and Patsy out about our knowledge of his books, but with sincere curiosity, not a trace of vanity, and seemed genuinely delighted that we’d read everything he’d written and could talk about the books with a measure of intelligence. The little supper party ended early, and he invited us to join him and Raina, with Karl and Tamzen, of course, for a late breakfast next day at the apartment one of his literary friends had lent him for the night. “You call it ‘brunch’ in the States, don’t you?” he said. “What do you call a meal in the middle of the afternoon? It’s ‘tea,’ of course, in Britain. Maybe it’s ‘lupper’ here.”

The brunch went even better. He was in a fine mood and encouraged us to call him by his first name. “But it’s pronounced ‘Antony,’ not ‘Anthony.’ Doesn’t make a whit of sense, of course, but that’s one of the many differences between American and British English, and actually, the American pronunciation of a lot of words is probably closer to the way Shakespeare or Chaucer pronounced them.”

And he was off on a wonderful rap about the evolution of English from Anglo-Saxon through Old and Middle English to the Early Modern English of Shakespeare (he called him what sounded like “Shakspair”), and went into the inexplicably sudden vowel shift which took the brogue out of English and resulted in the “proper” English upper-class Brits speak today. “Nothing to do with proper or improper,” he said, “just another takeover of English by aristocratic snobs who speak one way and despise anyone who doesn’t. Some of the regional dialects which preserve the old pronunciations still survive, but they’re dying out, thanks to the telly and the newsreaders who all speak ‘BBC-Received,’ a ghastly combination of pretentious Oxbridge drawling and just enough Cockney to persuade the ordinary yobs they’re still working-class blokes.”

That got Raina interested, and she started to talk about the way the vibrant regional dialects of Italian were beginning to die out because of school education in “standard Italian,” which she described as a sort of compromise language based on Tuscan, which was instituted after Garibaldi united Italy in the nineteenth century, so that people from Sicily and Venice and Naples and Turin could understand each other.

All this was happening rapid-fire, and once Raina got going, Anthony-Antony interrupted her in Italian to dispute a point, and she defended her argument heatedly. At the time I didn’t speak a word of la bella lingua, let alone any of its variants, and Patsy had only a basic grasp of it from her time as an art student in Rome, so we couldn’t follow those little Italian flareups. But they were affectionate, and I felt privileged to be there, for Antony had met Raina because she had translated some of his novels into Italian, and I thought it was like listening in on some of the arguments they’d had during the process.

The two finally went back to English, and Raina, who was obviously Burgess’s tour-manager, took Karl aside to go over the details of the reading that evening. Tamzen, a trained singer with an extensive knowledge of music, drew Burgess out about his four-movement novel Napoleon Symphony, and Burgess was off again, talking about how he’d based his book on Beethoven’s Eroica because Napoleon’s life had four distinct movements, all variations on a theme of achieving glory and losing it, just like the music.

It was heady, wonderful stuff. I brought up Burgess’s Re Joyce and told him how much it had helped me find my way through the Irish writer’s grand, baffling last hurrah. Burgess said, “Yes, well, of course Joyce meant Finnegans Wake to be the end of the novel, a sort of literary ‘après moi, le déluge.’ Thank God he was wrong, or I’ve wasted my life writing fiction.”

He hadn’t. The reading went wonderfully, and the only time Burgess showed a bit of temper was during the Q&A period, when he had to endure questions about the movie Stanley Kramer had made of his A Clockwork Orange. He said that he’d never seen it, and never would, because Hollywood had stiffed him on payments for the rights to the novel. He mentioned his unsuccessful lawsuit briefly, and the costs of it that had almost paupered him, and ended by asking, “If all you wanted to do was talk about one of my old books why did you come here to hear me read from my new one?”

That silenced the capacity crowd in the Kaufmann Auditorium, and he recovered his aplomb and handled the last questions about The Piano Players with affable wit. I remember one of his answers, imperfectly, because the reading was a long time ago. He said something like, “Of course the book’s about my father. Every writer writes about his father, when he isn’t writing about his mother.” His own accent during the reading was as plummy and posh as the Queen’s. Well, he’d already demonstrated for us, off-stage, that he could shift between East-Ender to Mancusian to “Shakspair” Early Modern English and jump right to Dublin Irish, depending on the story he was telling, as easily as changing hats. And he’d decided the well-heeled audience in the Kaufmann expected the famous British novelist to speak nothing but the Queen’s English.

I wrote a play awhile back, and it led me to encounters with two more famous people. I was in an acting workshop led by Gene Lasko, a brilliant teacher and a fine director, who had worked with Arthur Penn on most of his movies as an acting coach to the stars of them, and as second-unit director. Actors in Gene’s workshop were required to do weekly scenes, and I took one out of my play and asked two of my fellow-students to rehearse it with me and perform it in class.
Gene, and the rest of the students, gave high praise to the actors, and he called me the next day wanting the full text of the play. He read it, said he thought it had promise, and told me that he’d like to cast the two other roles from members of the class and develop the play by presenting scenes from it in the workshop over the next month or so.

His casting choices for the other two characters were dead on, and after they did each scene in class, I jotted down in my notebook the criticisms of the play from the other students, rating them on a scale of one to ten: one for the grumpy comments from the actors Gene hadn’t cast, who thought they would have been better in the parts and thought the play sucked anyway so who cares, on up to six or seven from actors who weren’t quite as blinded by ambition and said the play was interesting but needed work. Never came up with a perfect ten. Gene Lasko’s own notes were a lot more precise, and I worked with him outside class to get the play in better shape.

The acting workshop, sponsored by the National Academy for Television Arts and Sciences, was run along the lines of the far more prestigious Actors’ Studio (before it became a vacuous celebrity TV show), and although none of us had been admitted to it, obviously, or we wouldn’t have settled for NATAS’s imitation, good as it was, Gene was a member of its Directors’ Wing. He persuaded Elia Kazan, who had taken over the Actors’ Studio after Lee Strasberg’s recent death, to bring in my play for a semi-staged reading, actors still holding their scripts, but moving around a little.

It took some time, but eventually Gene brought us all to the hallowed building on West 44th Street. The actors were decently rehearsed, although still a little jittery and high-strung, exactly the way actors ought to be before an important, one-time-only performance. Some of them had already learned most of their lines and barely had to look at the scripts in their hands.

I was a big bag of barely ambulatory jelly. Gene had whipped the play into better shape than I could ever have managed by myself, helping me hone the script, and had gotten performances, even at this rough stage, from my friends in the workshop, that brought nuances and colors to my characters beyond anything I’d dreamed when writing their dialogue. Gene hadn’t promised me that a successful reading at the Actors’ Studio would lead eventually to a full production of my play, but the Studio had already begun to put on plays created in-house, on its own small stage, for limited “showcase” runs, and a few of them had been picked up by commercial producers for off-Broadway and even Broadway presentations, where everyone, even the playwright, actually got paid.

I didn’t exactly have visions of sugar-plums dancing in my head as I arrived for the reading, but I did feel a little like one of Clement Moore’s children on the night before Christmas, at least half convinced Saint Nicholas would show up.
The reading went better than my fondest hopes, all the actors fully inhabiting their roles and giving my lines powerful curves and twists that made them more arresting and urgent than anything I’d heard even when I tested them by reading them aloud while I was writing the play. Even though the NATAS workshop scenes had gone well, I hadn’t fully believed the whole play was any good until the reading ended. I was almost in tears.

There was a spatter of applause from the small group Elia Kazan had invited to the reading: a few other members of the Studio’s Directors’ Wing, a couple of playwrights whose work had already been launched by the Studio. No famous actors — it wasn’t an actors’ session that night. But as my glow faded to manageable size and my eyes dried, I was a little surprised to see Norman Mailer sitting next to Kazan. Neither of them was clapping. I had time to wonder why Mailer was there, and remember, dimly, that he’d made a movie of some kind, which he’d financed, written, and directed. I hadn’t seen it, and I didn’t know how it had been received. But as my memory kicked in a bit better, I recalled that he was one of Kazan’s friends, and that Kazan had helped him with his movie project. Mailer’s face was as expressionless as Kazan’s.

I stole a glance at Gene, and his own face had turned to stone.

Kazan’s appraisal of the play was brutal. He ticked off the reasons that it was lousy, literally on his fingers. Forefinger: a trivial, contrived plot. Middle finger: a whiny loser of a male lead. Ring finger: preposterous secondary characters cobbled up only to billboard the playwright’s stale message about the cruel treatment visionary artists get from the Philistines who run the world. Pinky: a female lead without a shred of allure. Finally, thumb: an ambiguous ending that had been a cop-out even when Edward Albee did it a little better in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I couldn’t connect the play I’d written with Kazan’s synopsis, but I was too stunned to speak. Kazan at least praised my actors, and they filed past me silently, keeping their distance, as if I carried the plague. Gene rose and murmured his appreciation to each of them as they passed. Then he sat back down, because Kazan wasn’t finished. He lit into Gene personally, and I realized that his attack on my play had less to do with its failings than with some long-festering problem between him and Gene. I knew that the leadership of the Studio had been hotly contested after Strasberg’s death, and although Gene wasn’t in contention to head it, Kazan evidently thought Gene supported one of his rivals. He said the fact that Gene would bring in such a bad play made him worry about Gene’s capabilities as a director, and intimated that he might have to re-evaluate Gene’s membership in the Directors’ Wing.

I felt miserable over Kazan’s harsh dismissal of my play, but worse for Gene, who had to sit there like a schoolboy enduring a tongue-lashing in the principal’s office. And endure it he did, although I knew Gene had a lively temper himself: actors, and people in general, who let their egos get in the way of their work infuriated him. But the episode was a pure example of the power displays that rule the theater and the movies, and Kazan was thumping his narrow chest like a gorilla in full threat mode, demonstrating that on Actors’ Studio turf, he was the Alpha Male.

In the ruckus I’d almost forgotten Norman Mailer, no stranger to Alpha Male threat displays himself. He was a lot more famous, in a wider world, than Kazan, and all he had to do was clear his throat impatiently to shut down Kazan’s attack on Gene as if he’d turned off a faucet. He ignored Kazan completely and turned his blunt prizefighter’s face to me, his blue eyes glinting.

Oh, God, Mailer’s going to beat me up! I thought. He was already getting old, and he looked it, but I knew he liked to fight. And I didn’t.

But all he did was frown briefly, as if gathering his thoughts, and when he finally spoke his voice was measured, even kindly. “Toby, I don’t think you have a play here, at least not yet. I don’t agree with everything Gadge said about it — I liked a lot of it, your actors were good, and Gene did a fine job with the direction. But then, as the critics of my movie reminded me pretty harshly, scripts aren’t my strong suit.” He waited, and Kazan finally chuckled dutifully: the boss gorilla had made a joke!

“But I do know a little about prose fiction,” Mailer went on, “and I think you have the makings here of a fine short story. The characters are interesting — the self-destructive man, the strong woman who loves him but is losing patience with his weakness and self-pity, and the two other women — well, they’re so crazy they aren’t really human any more. I mean, one of them thinks of herself as nothing but an outlet for the voice of God, right? So they’re more like the Furies from Greek myth, come to punish the hero for wasting himself and his talent. Well, think about it. There’s not enough, hmm… dramatic action in the piece to make it a play that’ll grab audiences. But a tight little story, maybe two of them, one for each of the Furies… you see what I mean?”
I did and thanked him. I thanked Kazan as well, more stiffly — and no, I certainly didn’t call him “Gadge.” Gene and I left, and I thanked him, too, much more sincerely, to keep him from apologizing for the way the reading had gone. The stakes had been a lot higher for him than for me, and he was looking pretty beat-up.

He recovered, of course. The NATAS workshop went on for a while but finally petered out when the network TV studios lost interest in it and stopped giving us a rehearsal room. The Actors’ Studio turned into a televised ego fest for established stars. “Gadge” Kazan died, and so did Mailer (I never knew if he had a nickname). Gene Lasko’s still alive and well and goes on teaching actors not to emote. My play’s gathering dust in its box, and I never did get a short story out of it. But I turned the material into three linked memoir pieces that were published in this magazine. •

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