Culture Watch

Title bout

Titling, as every schoolperson knows, is a complex game; multiple considerations figure in the minds of authors, columnists, editorial boards, producers, and other namers of things. As title consumers, though, we’re at liberty to like or dislike, and I dislike one current naming trend. It originated (probably) at that moment a few years back when the New York Times, having added six or eight columns of analysis and opinion opposite the editorial page, decided to call the innovation by its in-house nickname, the “Op-Ed Page.” And for some time it’s been the top of fashion.

No mystery about how that “Op-Ed” name came into being. The idea was to avoid the impression of heaviness, stodginess, remoteness left by the already existing columns—to confer instant familiarity, and solve the solemnity problem. (Go ahead, reader, call it what the insiders call it, relax like us, don’t be tight-assed, be offhandintimate-irreverent with this new institution within an institution . . .) It’s likely that similar considerations figure in the other packages that offer material for public consumption under private, inhouse nicknames. Items like “The Back of the Book,” a culture column by Roger Rosenblatt in The New Republic, which echoes the time-honored, offhand-intimate-irreverent label, within the magazine trade, for review and miscellany pages. Or (not to multiply examples) Jack Gelber’s New Play: Rehearsal, the title of the latest play by the author of The Connection—an allusion, presumably, to the offhand-intimate-irreverent avoidance of official titles by theater pros gossiping about new productions amongst themselves.

But etiology isn’t my business. I’m concerned solely about comfort, and the case is that I don’t feel comfortable saying the words “Op-Ed Page” or any comparable titles. I’m bothered partly by the assumption implicit that everybody knows or wants to know the speech styles of city rooms, green rooms, and the like, and also by the hint of social availability, staged bonhomie—promises of palship on which nobody plans to deliver.

Your barkeep at “Eddie’s” named Bill is cordial to clowns off the street who, ordering their brew, address him automatically as Ed. It’s part of the job. But the breeziness of proprietors of literary oases obviously blows only one way. A sociable heart bent on fanning with the “Op-Ed” folks couldn’t possibly make it to the elevator bank in the lobby of the Times without an appointment or a piece; the place crawls with fuzz. Arriving early once at a huge conference room at Ford Foundation headquarters, I sat reading my paper in perfect silence for a quarter-hour with the other person in the room, a stranger to me, who was also reading (no nod, no meeting of eyes); not until the hosts appeared and introduced us did I learn that the first early bird—no glad-hander he (or I)—was back-of-the-bookman Roger Rosenblatt.

A bas skin-deep intimacy. The column in your hands is called—with respect, Sir or Madam, with respect “Culture Watch.”

Flourish & jab

“Both Tennyson’s ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’ . . . and Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ would be more easily accessible to less sophisticated readers if stripped of peculiarly Shakespearean allusions in their titles. They would also be worse poems; but from the point of view of the way in which titles continue to do complex work of labeling and glossing, they have an off-putting quality. Suppose they had been given early-Yeatsian, quasi rubric titles, ‘She who Will Not Be Returned For Waits in Her House’ and ‘After all the Quests Are Over, He Seeks the Dark Tower,’ for example. ... It is these matters with which a useful typology of literary titles must concern itself. The rhetoric of the title—not merely what it directs the audience’s attention to, but how, and with what gestures (flourish? jab? insinuation? deadpan pseudo-labeling? etc.) it does the directing.” John Hollander, VISION AND RESONANCE: TWO Senses of Poetic Form.

Open mike

A week or two before adjournment, and the Butz incident, the wire services were induced to move a distressing but piquant set of conversational exchanges between Carl Albert, speaker of the House, and Nelson Rockefeller, Vice President. The exchanges occurred while the two men were awaiting, on the House rostrum, Dr. William F. Tolbert, president of Liberia, who had been invited to address a joint session of the Congress, and Dr. Tolbert’s congressional welcomer, Senator Brooke. The passage in its entirety, recorded from an accidentally open mike by the House press gallery, ran as follows: Albert: Are there many Liberians that are mulattoes? There are?

Rockefeller: Most are strictly blacks. Albert: Real black, huh?

Rockefeller: But they’ve got a class system—the blacks that went back to Liberia and took on all the characteristics of the southern whites. And they treated the local blacks.

Albert: They never let the local blacks get in on anything?

Rockefeller: Oh, no. They’ve slightly changed their speech, but only slightly. Albert: But only slightly.

Rockefeller: Ed Brooke is a one-man receiving committee.

Albert: Yeah, he’d be a slave if he were—over there.

Rockefeller: (chuckles).

On a subsequent television program Martin Agronsky, reflecting on Speaker Albert’s remark about the Senator as putative slave, offered the gloss that, in Liberia, blacks who aren’t full-blooded fare badly. Caroline Rand Herron and R. V. Denenberg offered another gloss, in the Times, on Mr. Rockefeller’s jocular reference to Senator Brooke as a “one-man receiving committee"; the Senator, they wrote, is known for his “less than dynamic work habits.”Carl Rowan, political columnist, expressed outrage on TV at the episode as another example of the racism pervasive in high places. National Public Radio, for its part, disclosed that President Tolbert spoke that day to a paper House: many members were off electioneering and their staffs were dragooned into attending to spare the President the embarrassment of vacant seats. And, in the sequel, Senator Brooke disclosed that both Albert and Rockefeller had apologized to him by phone, the Speaker later issuing a formal statement averring that he held the Senator in “the highest regard.”

The quotient of racism in the exchanges is troubling, but the colloquy has other aspects of interest—not excluding the standard-form conversational inconsecutiveness—and noticing them isn’t necessarily uncaring. Human bits. The Speaker’s curiosity is at once relaxed and deferential. The Vice President, sharing his thumbnail info, is easily obliging and unpedantic. If there’s amusement at any who overvalue the ceremonial role, there are also traces of awareness of the accidental character of place and prestige. The shared, unarranged irreverence is like a beam of truancy in the dark gray of correct deportment—time out from the obligation to be impressed with other officials’ self-estimates so that they will be impressed with one’s own (all, one understands, pro bono publico).

Even the harshest fragment—Albert: Yeah, he’d be a slave if he were—over there. Rockefeller: (chuckles)—is humanly suggestive, not merely mean. Shrewd, powerful, humorous, Carl Albert nevertheless presents a short, unimposing, and inelegant figure to the world; not one-tenth as clearly as Edward Brooke is he, for the eye, a man of distinction. What a wonder, what delicious illicit pleasure for him to contemplate the upheaval and transformation of the tall, poised, superbly tailored, physically gorgeous Senator into “a slave”! And what an unlikelihood that the chuckler on the rostrum wasn’t sensing as he chuckled the nature of both the racist and nonracist fantasies momentarily gripping the Speaker of the House! “Heh-heh,” indeed. By report, House gallery staffers pleaded with newsmen not to use the recordings; it was the National Black Network that forced the story out. Glimpses of the day-to-day manners of democratic officialdom, not to mention knowledge of the climate of racism in high places, are increasingly hard to come by in the age of interview by appointment, privilege of review, permission to revise. Right on to the Black Network for raising the lid.

Prize play

David Rabe’s Streamers, which won last year’s New York Drama Critics Circle Award, was given a new production this past fall, under Mike Nichols’ direction, by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival. The third work by this playwright to take the agony of the Vietnam War as its theme, Streamers is set in a stateside Army barracks dense with fear (enlisted men half-paralyzed by the imminence of their departure for Saigon) and relief (enlisted men home from the war, passing days in nonstop drunken ecstasy). The story told is about a human explosion occurring when two soldiers, one homosexual and the other maddened by rage at the invulnerability of the systems that entrap him, venture to show their immediate neighbors the depth of their own shamelessness.

Surprisingly, given current lack of interest in old-time dramatistic values, the play’s strong points are “development” and “construction.” Intimations of friction between the characters are paid out carefully before the inevitable blasts of violence—two shattering onstage murders committed by a crazed black. Thereafter a descent from the crisis of terror, through boozy whimsy and monologue, to exhaustion and a quickclick final blackout at precisely the instant a question about Ultimate Meaning is posed. The blood on the glossy-waxed, bronze-stone stage floor (no barracks was ever this posh) of the beautiful Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center had to be mopped up within seconds of its being let, if the retreat from violence was to be successfully managed; playwright and director found plausible, pointed means of doing the job.

Neato, in a word. That very neatness, however, combined with two other elements to diminish Streamers’ vitality markedly. One was the overfamiliarity. in recent American stage history, of the question controlling the action, namely: Which is worse, Homosexuality or Homosexuality-baiting? (Strip “serious" American drama, from mid-century on, of this question, and you virtually strip American drama—i.e. Albee, Williams, others—from living letters.) The other defect was the total predictability of the people. Minus A Pole or An Italian or A Jew, the cast of characters composed a lit’ry squad—as conventional as sonnet form -a good black, a bad black, a straight-arrow midwestern Mr. Clean, a sensitive homosexual, two tough, middle-aged, hard-drinking, “swashbuckling” first sergeants, sons of What Price Glory’s Flagg. (In the intermission I heard one lady tell another that her son had told her they had sergeants exactly like these in the real Army. But given the absence, over the last century, of models for sergeants other than Laurence Stallings’, what else, I wondered, could they have?)

If the critical reactions to this playwright trimmed, spoke of promise, encouraged modesty, carping would be out of order. But severity itself seems to go ape for Rabe. (“An achievement of consequence”: John Simon.) Streamers as prizewinner reconfirms, I think, that drama is still the most airless American literary art.

Eureka, eureka

On the West Coast last month, heading south, aware I was in redwood country but with all other homework undone about the special California turf I traversed, I leaned on a local guide in one town on the way for advice about eating, and was sent to a spot on “Second Street.” Descending the hill from my billet I walked through a standard, small-city, downtown wasteland —and then suddenly, after a few blocks, found myself amidst handsome, clean-lined buildings, gleaming wood and brick exteriors, no signs, no shlock. The Old Town Bar and Grill, my destination, proved to be a restored music hall, spacious, immaculate, balconied, with college-student waitresses in fresh grannies serving first-class plain American food, a splendid crowd of all ages, toddlers to old folks, dancing to an extremely accommodating rock band (amps down until 10 P.M.). A solitary stranger at the bar was drawn as easily into talk as, I imagined, he would have been in 1900, a rigger or drummer pausing for drink and news. I learned that I was in the middle of a historical reconstruction, that there’s local as well as federal money in the enterprise of recovering “Old Town" to sight, and that some businessmen and other local taxpayers aren’t wholly sold on the project, knowing more serious uses for money. Checking the area out again in the morning I saw a dozen blocks of exceptionally evocative urban Old West, remarkable for the absence of obtrusive annotation, self-consciousness, chilly antiquarianism. (Street-level occupants include furniture refinishing and print shops, natural food emporiums, boutiques—working companionable folk.) Eureka, California, in Humboldt County: star it on the map.

Real name: Champ

Everything about All—Norton last September felt sad beforehand, nor was the aftermath roses. At the physical exam the champion and entourage showed up with picket signs abusing the challenger’s movies (Norton has had a few bit parts in films) as porn. The picketers shouted an exceedingly boring chant (“Norton Must Fall”). Ticket sales started slowly and never picked up. The day of the fight cold weather with a hint of irreversibility came in. and the Daily News carried matched shots of Ali and Walter Alston (retiring that day) over a box that said, simply. “Autumnal Years.” The off-duty cops, furious about what they saw as a city breach of faith about money, were planning devastation at Yankee Stadium, and there were several wild chases up and down the infield aisles - uniformed police in pursuit of ticketless toughs allegedly let in by the o.d. demonstrators. The prelim card was a disaster, one kid being taken out bambam-bam within barely sixty seconds of leaving his stool, and although fall breezes were blowing, the heaviest wave of dope smoke I’ve ever breathed soughed in as my son and I came out of the tunnel into the green, suggesting that soon no spectacle on this earth will be sufficient, in its naked essence, to please. And then of course there was the champion’s clowning before the fight started, cheerleading the crowd (“Norton Must,” etc.), and his dishevelment in the middle rounds, and the morning-after protest about the decision . . . Disappointments, disappointments.

There was, however, A Moment, and people who had resolved beforehand to consider the fight Ali’s last, regardless of outcome or retirement, people determined afterward not to be present when the inevitable occurs (“It has to happen, it happens to everybody,” said the man behind us), have doubtless fixed it firm in memory. We’re in the fourth round, Ali boxing brilliantly, handling his man with authority, joy rising in the crowd— Slap this turkey, Ali, slap him! Ali is dancing, he’s taunting Norton, floating, stinging, jabbing, flourishing, recalling one of his best past selves, happy in his work, incontestably more graceful and flexible than his opponent. The sight takes hold of the place and all at once at this moment, a chorus starts—AhLEE! Ah-LEE!—a great shout rocking the stadium, levitating it, then abruptly shutting down, losing its way, distracted by a patch of counterpunching. Whereupon the champion lifts his right arm high, ducking and slipping a shot, lifts his hand aloft above the ropes, gesturing to us, yes, and for an instant, eyes on his man but ears to the stands, Ali conducts as though with a baton, organizes the crowd-chant, tells it to get its shit together, find the beat.

Anything here to blame? But of course. Nevertheless it was a performance by one aware of the entailments of self-promotion and self-advertisement, prepared to deliver on all promises—to fight, to amuse, to block blows, slip blows, cheer for himself, attend our cheer, to make every scene a scene.

Ah-LEE! Ah-LEE! “To beat the champion,” he told the papers in the morning, “you have to whup him.” Ali was most unwhupped in round four, and that we’ll remember awhile.