The Peripatetic Reviewer
With the staging of Pal Joey in 1940, music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hart, and book by John O’Hara, the musical theater on Broadway took a significant turn for the better; now for the first time the text, the music, and the lyrics became a carefully integrated, skillfully built up composition. Kurt Weill had much to do with this, for his Threepenny Opera, while it failed in its American production, showed how the songs could be used to advance the action rather than stop it. American composers listened to Kurt Weill and profited. Prior to Pal Joey the American musical comedy was a collection of turns and tunes any one of which could stop the show, as did Helen Morgan’s in Show Boat, but only rarely did those songs add to the essentials of the story.
In his article “A Nice Gershwin Tune,” which Leonard Bernstein published in the Atlantic in April, 1955, he made this distinction plain in what he said about Gershwin: “Each work got better,” he wrote, “as he went on, because he was an intelligent man and a serious student, and he worked hard. But the American in Paris is again a study in tunes, all of them beautiful and all of them separate. He had by that time discovered certain tricks of composition, ways of linking themes up, of combining and developing motives, of making an orchestral fabric. But even here they still remain tricks, mechanisms borrowed from Strauss and Ravel and who knows where else. And when you add it all up together it is still a weak work because none of these tricks is his own; they don’t arise from the nature of the material. . . . When you hear the piece, you rejoice in the first theme, then sit and wait through the ‘filler’ until the next one comes along. In this way you sit out about two thirds of the composition. The remaining third is marvelous because it consists of the themes themselves; but where’s the composition?”
After Pal Joey it is easy to name the “new” musical comedies in which the lyrics, the dancing, the humor, and the story were all subordinate and revealing parts of one composition. Here are the big seven: Lady in the Dark, Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady.
Almost without exception these American hits were panned when they opened in London, even though they played to packed houses year after year. Part of this is the vinegar with which English critics besprinkle most American folk art, but chiefly it is because our form of musical theater is not done by the English; what they prefer is the revue — Cochran’s Revue, for example, in which the talented trio Beatrice Lillie, Jack Buchanan, and Gertrude Lawrence did a series of numbers, sometimes on their own, sometimes ensemble. This is the traditional English fare, probably derived from the music hall, and the London critics see no reason why it should be altered. The English revues are ingenious, and they are remarkably cheap to produce, as witness Tunes on a Shoestring; perhaps one might say that in the matter of their economy they are better adapted today to the British pocketbook. But sometime one of the London critics will realize that the “new” musical theater on Broadway demands more careful composition, better timing, and a finer sublimation of all those elements than what had gone before.
Songs and the composer
THE LIFE THAT LATE HE LED iS the rather artificial title of GEORGE EELLS’S biography of Cole Porter (Putnam’s, $6.95), and the reading of it, like listening to his tunes, turns my thoughts back with nostalgia. When Cole Porter sailed for France in early July of 1917 (the book is in error on this date), he was a young Yale graduate with a headful of tunes, and a gift, a very real gift, for rhyme. I was on the Espagne, and night after night heard him sing his most popular tune of that moment, “I’ve a shooting box in Scotland; I’ve a château in Touraine.” His war service in Paris was largely a matter of convenience to Mr. Porter. He met some dazzling people, who found him entertaining, and chief of them the beautiful Linda Thomas, a wealthy widow nine years his senior, whom he married in 1919. From then until the late twenties he and Linda indulged their vanities at St. Moritz, in Paris, and in several huge palazzos they rented in Venice. They led charmed lives, entertained spectacularly, and Porter’s contribution to the theater was minimal. “Cole,” says the biographer, “one of the first men to operate a speedboat on the canals, was a particular favorite of Princess Jane’s. For him Venice was a succession of days lazed away at the Lido, of elaborate social functions, of equally elaborate practical jokes and of experimentation with what at the moment happened to be fashionable and distracting. (‘I tried opium once. Found it overrated,’ he said.)” Since the wit which was to distinguish his later songs has not been preserved in letters or remembered conversation, these early pages read like a faded copy of Town Topics.
From his not very successful Hitchy-Koo of 1919 until he began work on Fifty Million Frenchmen, Porter had made no serious bid as a composer. Then, as his biographer puts it, Cole dropped his pose as a playboy, put himself in the hands of two professionals, Louis Shurr and Ray Goetz, and got down to work. Good musical comedy was not easy to afford in the Depression, but the best of it came from Noel Coward, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter; and a medley of some of Porter’s big hits would include: “Let’s Do It,” “You Do Something to Me,” “Night and Day,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Easy to Love,” “Anything Goes,” “You’re the Top.” Here are the sophistication, the wit and power of suggestion, and the unquenchable melody Porter was drawing on.
It is tragic that at the height of his success he should have been critically injured while riding on Long Island. The first examination called for a double amputation. Linda, who was in Paris, knowing her husband’s amour-propre, refused permission. For the rest of his life, Cole was never long without pain. His legs had to be broken and reset seven times, and in the end one was amputated. Yet it was in these two decades of endurance that he did his best work. This is for me the most vital part of Mr. Eells’s book, the time when he knew the composer and gained from him an insight into Cole’s friendships with Monte Woolley, Howard Sturges, Dr. Albert Sirmay, and Bella Spewack, who badgered him into doing Kiss Me Kate, the best thing he ever wrote. The author sometimes has difficulty separating the good from the mediocre, and I grow as bored as Linda was with Cole’s business activities in Hollywood. As in so many theatrical memoirs, there are too many openings, too many members of the cast, too many theater parties. It is the man’s gritty gaiety and his courage and skill in continuing to write when again and again he had been counted out that one remembers.
The Tate in trouble
In the second volume of his autobiography, BRAVE DAY, HIDEOUS NIGHT (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $6.95), SIR JOHN ROTHENSTEIN gives a brave, generous, and vital account of his triumphs and trials as director of the Tate Gallery. Sir John is an urbane and attractive writer dedicated to encouraging what is best in contemporary British painting. His book, as the title implies, falls into two parts: “Brave Day,” his guardianship of the collection during the Blitz, when the gallery itself was gutted, and “Hideous Night,” the acrimonious debate touched off in 1952 in Parliament and the British press as to whether the Tate and its director had been misusing the funds. For me, as, I think, for most Americans, the first half is far the more rewarding.
The relations between the Tate and the National Gallery had been allowed to settle into a state of dusty confusion long before Sir John came on the scene. Both were stateowned, the National Gallery the mother, the Tate the offspring, more audacious in its championing of what was modern. The Tate was allocated such a trifling sum for acquisitions that the National Gallery had repeatedly to come to its support, granting it the purchase price of new pictures from endowments which were not always scrupulously respected. To make things worse, the Tate had foisted upon it by political favoritism some troublemakers on the staff who would not collaborate with Sir John and whom he had a devil of a time removing.
These were the Augean stables he inherited in 1939. There was no filing system, correspondence had been shoved anywhere, or pilfered; and the storage of pictures not hung and thick in dust, included thirty-four Turners never seen by the public and the best of them still unstretched. That Sir John could have accomplished so much before the Blitz is remarkable, and the moral in this for Americans is what might happen in Washington were our National Gallery placed on the same budget as the Smithsonian, with the latter having the final say. Heaven forbid!
Sir John assumed office with two working principles: first, that the aura of the French Impressionists had unfairly depreciated the respect for British painting, and he meant to right this balance; second, that the enthusiasm for modern art was too often accompanied by a superficial acceptance. He knew that war was coming and that all the valuable works in the Tate would have to be hidden in castles or country houses remote, dry, and with only enough water pressure in case of fire. It was well he did so, for early in the bombing the Tate lost its roof and virtually every windowpane. Sir John was swift to befriend the British and refugee artists, and to exhibit their work, when possible, in the still airtight rooms of the National Gallery. The accounts of his visits to artists like Pasmore, Wyndham Lewis, Augustus John, Paul Nash, David Jones, and Kokoschka are warm and perceptive, and often resulted in acquisitions of gifts to the Gallery. His description of the six weeks which Stanley Spencer spent with him and Elizabeth, his American wife, should pass him through the pearly gates. Britain was blessed to have an art director as perceptive and sympathetic as he; and so were we, for his first showing of modern American painters in the Tate — which Sir John put through at the war’s end at a cost of $30,000, when pounds sterling were scarce — did both parties immense credit.
At the insistence of his chairman, Sir John remained mute throughout the public inquisition, which began in 1952. The storm that blew up was a savage one, alienating him from trustees like Graham Sutherland, making him seem responsible for slovenliness in high place, and dimming for a time the gratitude the nation owed him. His friends stood by him more staunchly than did his chairman, but he had the gratification of knowing that the Tate was a far richer institution than it had been when he took hold. No one can fault him for wanting to make a clean breast after all these years.
Ernest Hemingway was a good journalist; he was well schooled during his months on the staff of the Kansas City Star, and after the First World War his correspondence for the Toronto Daily Star was his only means of subsistence in France until under the prodding of friends he began to gamble on his short stories. BY-LINE: ERNEST HEMINGWAY (Scribner’s, $8.95) is a large collection of Hemingway’s reportorial pieces. The ones that most appeal to me have to do with his fishing for marlin in Cuba or for trout in Europe, and those in which he covered the Spanish Civil War, 1937—1939, and the invasion of Europe in 1944. I don’t think he was at his best in the Orient when he was writing for PM, and I have a distaste for his biggame hunting.
William White, who made the selection for By-Line, says that “Hemingway soaked up persons and places and life like a sponge.” This is true, and it is equally true that he had a way of putting himself in command of the situation, of embellishing reality to make a good story even better. Of the war pieces from Spain, “The Chauffeurs of Madrid,” “The Flight of Refugees,” “Tortosa Calmly Awaits Assault” are admirable for their terseness, pity, and the foreboding of defeat.
Hemingway needed his correspondent’s credentials to get where he wanted to be, but once on the spot, he violated the conventions by ceasing to be a noncombatant. His affiliation with the French partisans who gave him the honorific title of “Captain,” his part in the liberation of Paris are told with an air of bravado in “Battle for Paris” and “How We Came to Paris,” both written for Collier’s in the autumn of 1944, but he did not violate censorship, and the toughness with which he writes about war is the result of his identification with and love for the fighting man. “War in the Siegfried Line,” in which a tank destroyer chews up one after another of the bunkers filled with SS troops, gives back to the Germans the brutality they had inflicted on others. On occasion Papa goes too far in his self-appointed role as commander. In “Voyage to Victory,” in which he continually advises the commander of a landing craft on how to come in on Fox Green Beach, the Navy lieutenant, a veteran of the landings in Africa, Sicily, and Salerno, is preposterous. I don’t believe it happened that way.