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This spring, the Yale Repertory Theatre premiered Radio Golf, the final installment of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about African Americans in the twentieth century. The plays are arguably the most celebrated long-term project in contemporary American drama, and six of them were premiered at the Rep. Six is a lot, says James Bundy, dean of the drama school. “Nobody is more closely associated with the Rep than August Wilson.”
The Wilson-Yale collaboration began in 1983, when Lloyd Richards, then the drama school dean, selected an unknown play that an unknown playwright had submitted to the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference. After Richards produced Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Rep, it went on to Broadway and a Tony nomination. Its author, who would twice win the Pulitzer, made Yale his venue of choice for new work.
“Every playwright is looking for a home,” says Wilson. “To have a relationship with a theater where you know you can go back is very important to the development of work.” In the 1980s, when the collaboration was at its height, Wilson says, the Rep would sometimes commit to doing a play even before it was written. (But then he’d “sort of panic: ‘I’ve got to really come up with something.’”) Students were always assigned to his plays in those days. “In essence Yale became the first one to hire the students they’d trained. That always struck me as a wonderful idea. You’re getting the best of the best, so to speak. You’re working with someone very talented at the beginning of their career.”
Lloyd Richards retired as dean of the drama school in 1991, and Wilson premiered four of his plays elsewhere. Nevertheless, says Malcolm Johnson, a theater critic at the Hartford Courant for more than 30 years, “there’s no doubt that because of August and Lloyd, the Rep trained a whole generation of black actors. They would get established stars, like James Earl Jones, and students like Charles Dutton ['83CDR] and Angela Bassett ['80, '83MFA]. It became a school young black actors wanted to work at, and they wanted to work on August Wilson’s plays.”
Johnson says the Rep’s tight focus on African American theater shifted after Lloyd Richards left. But the Rep continues to emphasize new plays. Does Bundy hope to find the next great new voice? “Sure,” he says, “but the kind of phenomenal success August created for himself can’t be predetermined. All you can do is remain open to what’s new and to celebrate it.”
The first scene of Cat People (1942) says a lot about its producer, Val Lewton, and why his low-budget horror movies remain so memorable now.
Fashion artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian emigre, is drawing a panther at the zoo in New York. Dissatisfied, she crumples the picture and tosses it on the pavement. Bystander Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a self-described “good plain Americano,” picks the paper up and tosses it in a wastebasket. Irena discards a second drawing as Oliver starts a conversation, and he throws this one away too. Soon the new acquaintances depart the scene, but not before Irena drops still a third failed picture on the ground, where the camera follows it as it is borne on the breeze, scuttled among the leaves, and overlaid with shadows from the cage: the panther, impaled by a giant sword.
Lewton (1904–1951) had artistic anxieties just like Irena's. Himself an immigrant from Russia, Lewton wrote racy pulp novels before finding work in Hollywood in 1934. Eight years later, he got his big break: a contract with RKO to produce small-budget horror films, starting with Cat People. But like Irena, Lewton doubted the worth of his pictures. “I’m to work on such wretched and uninteresting material,” he wrote his mother and sister. “I’m not an artist,” Irena tells Oliver. There’s a placard above the wastebasket in that first scene that reads like a note from Lewton to himself as he started producing B movies: “Let no one say, and say it to your shame, that all was beauty here, until you came.”
Yet as any viewer of his films knows, trash was beauty for Lewton. Despite their schlock studio-assigned titles (I Walked with a Zombie, The Curse of the Cat People), the eleven films Lewton made for RKO between 1942 and 1946 stand out for their extraordinary melancholy beauty, much of it centering on throwaway moments. Beauty for Lewton lay in what is failed, shameful, not good enough. Oliver, the good plain American, puts trash in its place, but the first scene of Cat People pleads for us not to put trash in its proper place but to study it where it lies. The forgotten picture, made by a foreigner and seen for an instant, tells an important story.
That story has a lot to do with World War II. Lewton’s horror films never mention the war, but it lurks in them all the same, informing their pathos of the disregarded. War movies of the time were about grand fates and noble missions—a propaganda of clenched fists and brave smiles. Nowhere in these spectacles could you find “the tiny morbidly life-worn detail,” in film critic Manny Farber’s words, that savored of actual lives. But the tiny moment, in the tiny film, pointed to the frailty and portentous melancholy of individual experience. “A broken piece of pottery will often bring us closer to Greece than the Laocoon,” an art critic wrote once. Val Lewton’s pictures, with their vivid sadness of the forgotten, are fragments of the home front.
The “Tender Little Experiment” That Worked
Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella The Light in the Piazza tells the story of Southern matron Margaret Johnson and her pretty daughter, Clara, on vacation in romantic Italy in 1953. One day, a gust of wind blows Clara’s hat off her head. The Italian man who rescues it is young and handsome, and despite the language barrier, the two fall in love immediately.
It’s the kind of story, in other words, that might be perfect for the soaring melodies once composed by Richard Rodgers. As it turns out, the idea was once suggested to Rodgers by his daughter Mary (a successful Broadway composer herself). He declined, but some 40 years later, it has been realized by Mary’s son, Adam Guettel '87. The Lincoln Center Theater production of Guettel’s adaptation won six Tony awards in June, including Guettel’s for best original score. It runs through January 1.
That second story—about picking up the dropped torch, not the hat—is the kind that’s often told about Guettel, casting him as the heir apparent and savior of American musical theater. After such a buildup, it would be an understatement to call The Light in the Piazza eagerly awaited. Four years in the making, the show moved from a workshop at the Sundance Institute to a production at Seattle’s Intiman Theater in 2003. The next year, at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, one critic called it “the future of the American musical.”
No show could live up to all those expectations, particularly not a romantic chamber musical that Guettel calls “a tender little experiment.” For his part, the composer is eager to deflect attention from his legacy and historical role. As he tells it, Piazza’s success is a story of strategy, of the dogged efforts of all the institutions that helped the show develop and gain exposure. “It’s not a Cinderella story,” he says.
The musical’s plot isn’t quite a fairy tale, either. Clara’s mental development, we eventually learn, was stalled years before when she was kicked in the head by a pony. The show’s drama, accordingly, lies in Margaret’s decisions. Should she protect her daughter or allow her happiness, however short-lived? Should she inform the Italian family of the secret she’s never explained to Clara herself? The questions don’t disappear with the happy ending.
If there is a Cinderella story here, it’s the emergence of the actress playing Margaret, Victoria Clark '82. After 20 years of sidekick roles, Clark got a star turn that won her the Tony Award for best actress. She reveals with a heartbreaking truthfulness Margaret’s suppressed longing, her guilt about the accident, and her pained realization that her own marriage is empty. Her character’s decision to let go of Clara is, Clark says, “a kind of redemption,” and she makes that redemption believable.
Some critics have been appalled by Margaret’s decision—one called the plot “icky.” But the show makes a bet, Guettel says, that the longing for romance is universal. Guettel’s surging melodies express that longing, the language the lovers share.
To expect The Light in the Piazza to usher in a new Golden Age of musicals is to believe in fables. The moral Guettel provides is less lofty: “When something is moving and not badly mishandled by producers and marketers, it can get attention.” That’s a smaller hope, as seemingly insubstantial as the light that serves as the musical’s metaphor for love. But it’s no less worth celebrating.
John Morton Blum, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, is publishing a murder mystery: An Old Blue Corpse (Publish America, 2005). The victim dies in the first few pages after eating poisoned chocolates.
Y: How did you come to write a murder mystery? Not your usual line of work.
B: I decided 10 or 12 years ago that I wanted to write a novel, and the only thing my talent would permit would be a whodunit. So I wrote a couple. The first was terrible. The second was more promising. But a dozen houses rejected it, so I figured I should go on to other things. It had been fun to write a novel; I didn’t regret it. But I ripped it up and took it off my hard drive.
Y: You erased it! If I wrote a novel, I’d at least keep it around as a memento.
B: Oh, I’ve written and erased several books. But after many years, one morning my agent called me up and said a new publishing house was soliciting manuscripts. We had to find an old copy and have it retyped.
Y: I have to ask you if it is a roman a clef.
Y: But it’s set at Yale and describes a search for a new president. And the retiring president is nicknamed “the King.”
B: Yes, Arthur Stiles is like Kingman Brewster ['41] in what he stands for. But as for the other characters—I made these people up. Of course, their attributes by and large are attributes one has seen in one’s colleagues over the years.
Y: For instance, the attributes of the main character, who is a historian—
B: It’s not me. About my size, but I have never played hockey, and I don’t have a friend who’s a woman law professor.
Y: Uh-huh. What about the others?
B: The humanist who wants to be president is simply one of 85 people who’ve wanted to be president—not at Yale necessarily, but at whatever institution they teach in. The senior trustee is also a composite of several very rich, sports-oriented trustees of the last 50 years. If you meet enough of these people, it’s not too hard to draw a little bit from each one to make up a fake person.
Y: The social life on campus is rather lively.
B: Love affairs are, I think, not very common in New Haven. But my goodness, they were endemic in Cambridge! So I moved them.
Y: Why are there more affairs at Harvard than at Yale, do you think?
B: More competitive. (Laughs.) I think, actually, it was more a function of date than of place—of when my wife and I lived in the two different places. Right after the war—1945 to 1960—there were a lot of marriages that had been made in haste. And they trembled at a certain point, and then you had illicit new combinations. We were fairly naïve about it, and the first time we heard of somebody in such a situation we were shocked; two years later, we took it as routine as the morning Times.
Y: The book is really about academic politics. Is it reliable guide to how Kingman Brewster’s successor was selected?
B: Anything but. The search half of the book uses what I know about the academy, but I don’t think you should use it as a map. It’ll do pretty well as a cartoon.
Between the Lines, Cultural Connections
Making a joyful noise unto the Lord is pretty common. But three congregations—the Free Church Psalm Singers of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, the all-white Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky, and the African American parishioners of the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist Association in Eutaw, Alabama—do it in remarkably similar, mysterious ways, vocalizing in a centuries-old practice known as line singing.
For the past two years, School of Music professor Willie Ruff has been connecting the dots, drawing line-singing lines between far-flung communities in a search for the roots of certain sacred singing traditions. Ruff (who celebrated 50 years as a member of the legendary Mitchell-Ruff jazz duo with a Yale concert at the end of April) investigated the churchgoing habits of Scottish immigrants who settled in the southern United States as long ago as the 1700s. His search has already been chronicled in several TV documentaries and countless newspaper articles. On May 5 and 6, he hosted the representative Scottish, Alabaman, and Kentuckian choristers in New Haven for the Yale Conference on Line Singing, culminating in a “singing service” at Battell Chapel.
An edition of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America and an important source for line singers, was on display at Beinecke Library for the duration of the conference, but that was as textbound as the confab got. Each session began and ended with song, and often the music, not the erudite deconstruction of it, was center stage.
The academics—including Katherine Smith of Scotland’s Dundee University and Robert Forbes of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition—treaded carefully around any hot-button issues of cultural appropriation and influence. “Nobody is saying,” declared Douglas Kelly of the Reform Theological Seminary in Raleigh, North Carolina, in his talk on “Religion and Life in the Gaelic World of Colonial North Carolina,” “that the slaves—or, more happily, the free men—got their whole musical tradition” from white and Scottish antecedents. But Presbyterian and Scottish Gaelic styles seem undoubtedly to have been blended into the mix of African American Protestant worship music in the southern states.
The Scottish visitors, numbering about a dozen, opened the show, in heavily accented Gaelic quasi-hollers that at times resembled humans mimicking bagpipes. The Indian Bottom singers followed, 24 of them, with harsher, southern tones enlivening standards such as “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and “In the Good Old Fashioned Way.” The Sipsey River contingent was the most conventionally (to modern ears) harmonic of the ensembles, soulful in its stirring melodies. In a manner that was vaguely ritualistic yet decidedly non-theatrical, they began singing in their pews, then slowly walked en masse to a semicircular position in the performance area, then clasped hands and shook their arms up and down in unison as they increased the tempo of their a cappella music.
The evening ended with lengthy closing remarks from a grateful, visibly overwhelmed Elder Elwood Cornett of the Kentucky choir, who had earlier closed the Thursday afternoon section of the conference with a call for handshakes and hugs. At that time, he and his choir had been invited to lead the room in a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Cornett explained that they usually sang it in a way that might not be easily recognizable. Their version was in the line-singing format with which the conference- goers had become well familiar: a single (usually male) voice begins chanting a psalm (apparently using the original biblical text, not a songbook or hymnal, as a guide), and before he has finished each line, the choir has joined, in an agreeably loose harmony. Not quite a call and response, it’s more of a call to commune. The initial singer’s opening lyrics are immediately overwhelmed by the rest of the choir, and the effect is transcendent in a social sense as much as a musical one.
Cornett and his fellow singers led a more conventional “Amazing Grace” to close the concert on Friday, and the result on the audience was magical. Borders had dissolved, labels evaporated. The crowd sang along for a while, then—lost in a frenzy of joyous hand-clasping, hugging, and celebration—subtly and respectfully turned the singing into a chorus of conversations, warm feelings, and awestruck grins. It wasn’t just singing anymore, or academic chat, but an honest-to-God joyful noise.
Watching the Watchers
Matthew Pillsbury '95 gingerly sets his tripod beside my bed, among my shoes. Atop the tripod, he mounts his camera, an old Deardorff 8x10 with a boxy wooden case, an accordion body, and a dark cloth cape that drapes over the photographer. Pillsbury ducks under the cape and examines his subject: my computer screen. He adjusts the camera angle, the focus, and the tripod. When he is satisfied, he turns off the lights and opens the shutter. Click. Working by the light of my screen, I begin to type.
For the past two years, Pillsbury has made long-exposure photographs of people watching television and working at their computers. He calls this series “Screen Lives.” The exposures range from about a half hour to three hours, and the dominant light sources are the screens themselves. As people move during the course of the long exposure, their figures become blurred and faint. In the photographs, they seem to be visiting specters, insubstantial beings flitting through a solid world, while the radiant screens glow white hot.
These haunting pictures have earned Pillsbury acclaim, including representation by a major New York City gallery, and his work has been acquired by, among others, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Pillsbury estimates that most people spend six to eight hours a day in front of their screens. “I’m not being critical,” he says. “I just feel it’s something that needs to be looked at or questioned as part of our lives.” He includes himself in the estimate; in addition to a couple of hours a day watching television, he uses his computer to scan and print his photographs.
Pillsbury came to television late in life. Born to American parents, he grew up in Paris in a household without a television. His parents wanted him to focus on other, healthier activities. But he is not convinced the strategy worked: “When you remove something from someone, it tends to be something they obsess over in an unhealthy way.”
Pillsbury began the “Screen Lives” series in the fall of 2002, while a graduate student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Looking to take portraits, and searching for a point of interest, it occurred to him that he and his friends watched the same television shows. He did some background research and discovered that almost nobody had tried to photograph people watching television.
Pillsbury has photographed his screen-gazing subjects in all types of activities—some of them eating, some pounding on treadmills, some alone, some with spouses or family. He photographed one couple having sex, illumined by the nightly news. (He left the apartment during the exposure.) His subjects constitute a strange society, an assemblage of lonely figures and half-seen gestures hovering around luminous machines.
Yet the photographs are also intimate portraits, capturing his subjects' homes, their personal possessions. To illustrate the point, Pillsbury shows me several of the images on his computer. He clicks open a portrait of Calvin Trillin '57, an old college friend of his father's, watching The Sopranos. Pillsbury zooms in on the book titles—books on food, books on New York. Then he opens the portrait of his former photography teacher, Lois Conner '81MFA, sitting at her computer. Detail by detail, he shows me her life as a photographer—carefully labeled negatives of photographs she took in China, hanging strips of black tape, a tool for fixing cameras. We look at the image together—Pillsbury seated in front of his computer, me standing behind him. The grey light of a foggy New York afternoon streams in through the windows. Silent for a moment, we contemplate the screen.
Chloe Does Yale
The cover entices: on a background of hot pink, a curvaceous woman clad in a fig leaf discards her bra. I’ll admit it: I’m looking forward to a jaunt through the realm of undergraduate eros. My guide will be fictional Yale Daily News sex columnist Chloe Carrington (the creation of real-life News sex columnist Natalie Krinsky '04). My 18-year-old son also finds the prospect inviting; I retrieve the book from his bedroom.
But like Chloe, the book turns out to be a tease. Yes, Krinsky’s characters talk unremittingly about sex. But actual first-hand accounts? Few, and artless.
As I start to recognize that the erotic promise of the novel will go unfulfilled, I find myself wishing to hear less about corpus humanum and more about corpus sapientiae -- less about men, more about mens. After all, Chloe is studying at a rather good university. But, alas, she’s no scholar—a junior English major who hasn’t read Cheever and who daydreams through Harold Bloom’s Faulkner lecture.
Back to sex, then. Might she provide insight into campus social psychology—what drives the anonymous hook-ups, the naked parties? No such luck.
Maybe it’s just me. So I ask my son: did he like the book? “It was boring,” he replies. “There wasn’t even any sex.”
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation
It’s 1803, and Amy Balcourt longs to leave behind the tedium of English sheep country to become a spy in her native France. Born Aimee, Vicomtesse de Balcourt, Amy hopes to join the anti-Napoleon League of the Purple Gentian to avenge the death of her aristocratic father. (Papa was guillotined during the Revolution.)
Amy sets out for France, flanked by sensiblecousin and dragon-lady chaperone, hoping to ferret out that elusive master of espionage, the Purple Gentian himself. Will she find him? Yes, on page 40. Does he turn out to be erudite, deeply moral, single, and incredibly good-looking? Yes, he’s “a towering golden Adonis,” and a wealthy English lord for good measure.
Amy has a “cupid’s bow of a mouth” and her hero “a sardonic brow” and “an air of easy assurance.” And the framing story—in which a graduate student in history at Harvard discovers Amy’s letters while doing research for her dissertation—is less interesting than the improbable main plot. But the reader can forgive all that, because the story entertains.
The J.A.P. Chronicles
Isabel Rose’s nasty-but-readable revenge fantasy checks in on former bunkmates at Willow Lake Camp and finds their just desserts are bitter. Back then, athletic Wendy led the pack; meek Beth copied stylish Dafna; Jessica was the dramatic one, and Laura the funny one; and Ali was the outcast. When they’re 32, filmmaker Ali decides to create a documentary about their “defining moments” and discovers the manicure tables have turned.
Rose moves briskly through each woman’s fall from grace, but her characterization is often as shallow as her characters themselves (Ali’s purple hair signals she’s a rebel). Still, anyone who spent summers drinking bug juice and sneaking smokes down by the waterfront will relate. Those who find the title term offensive—unlike Dafna, who proclaims with satisfaction that “JAPPY rhymes with happy”—need not bother.
More Books by Yale Authors
Floyd Abrams 1979LLB
W. John Archer 1968
Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor of Law, Yale Law School, and Jennifer Gerarda Brown, Senior Research Scholar, Yale Law School
Ian Ayres, William K. Townsend Professor of Law, Yale Law School, and Gregory Klass
Ulrich Baer 1995PhD, Translator and Editor
H. H. Bradshaw 1958
Elise Broach 1985, 1990MPhil
Nicholas Brown 1952PhD
Carol Bundy 1980
Stephen Burt 2000PhD, Editor
William B. Carey 1950, MD
George W. Carrington 1942
Nan Cohen 1989
Rachel Devlin 1998PhD
Robert H. Ferrell 1951PhD
Stanley Flink 1945W, Editor
Walter Frisch 1973
Denise Gigante 1987
Lori D. Ginzberg 1985PhD
Ruth Grobstein 1957PhD, MD
Bruce Hesselbach 1972
Danian Hu 2001PhD
Jill Kargman 1995 and Carrie Karasyov
Colleen Kinder 2003
Harlan Krumholz 1980BS, Professor of Cardiology, Epidemiology, and Public Health, Yale School of Medicine
Stephen Lassonde, Lecturer in History, and Dean, Calhoun College
Sydney Lea 1964, 1972PhD
Thomas E. Lovejoy 1964BS, 1971PhD, and Lee Hannah, Editors
Julia Reinhard Lupton 1989PhD
Patrick J. Lynch, Director, Yale School of Medicine Media Services, and Noble S. Proctor
Samuel A. MacDonald 1995
Dale B. Martin 1988PhD, Professor of Religious Studies, and Patricia Cox Miller, Editors
Christie McDonald 1969PhD, Editor
David B. Moyer 1972MD
Yale Daily News Staff, Editors
Thomas Pinney 1960PhD
Isabel Rose 1990
Adam Rothman 1993
Stephen Sandy 1955
Dorothy G. Singer, Senior Research Scientist and Co-Director, Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center, and Jerome Singer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Co-Director, Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center
Jeremi Suri 2001PhD
Richard N. Swett 1979
David Teten 1992 and Scott Allen
Henry Ashby Turner Jr., Stille Professor of History Emeritus
Harlow Giles Unger 1953
Benjamin Wheeler 1982, Gilda Wheeler, and Wendy Church
William H. Willimon 1971Mdiv, Editor
Peter Kurt Woerner 1968, 1970March
Stranger in a strange land
Moneywort is a charming, yellow-flowered ground cover native to Europe and Southwest Asia. Sometime before the 1870s, it was imported to the United States to grace gardens. But when the specimen shown above (now part of the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s botany collection) was collected in Connecticut in 1894, Lysimachia nummularia had escaped from cultivation. Once in the wild, moneywort can crowd out native plants—as do many other species, imported to this country either deliberately for horticulture and medicine or inadvertently.
The exhibit “Landscape Under Siege: Invasive Plants of Connecticut,” at the Peabody, highlights moneywort and other bad actors on the environmental stage. “Invasives are bullies,” says botanist Nico Cellinese, collections manager of the Yale Herbarium and co-curator of the exhibit. “But when they were brought here, no one was really thinking about the problems the plants might cause.”
The exhibit’s watercolors and etchings, by members of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, show the beauty of the plants; the Peabody herbarium sheets chronicle the history of the invasion. Cellinese notes that nearly half of the U.S. species on the threatened and endangered lists got there as a result of being pushed out of their native habitats by nonnative invaders. The nation spends more than $100 billion annually on control efforts, chiefly around farmland. “It’s a battle you often can’t win, so it’s better to try to prevent invasions in the first place,” Cellinese says.
Muslims' Contributions to Medieval Medicine and Pharmacology
Medieval Muslim physicians originated the fields of gynecology and embryology and were the first to incorporate surgery into the study of medicine. A display of historic Arabic and Persian manuscripts from the Medical Historical Library tells the story.
Norfolk Chamber Music Festival
Among this year’s performers are the Fine Arts Quartet, the Tokyo String Quartet, and the Appalachia Waltz Trio.
Yalephabet: The Twenty-Six Roman Characters from Inscriptions at Yale University
The final project of the Art of the Printed Word seminar features a series of 26 broadsides depicting each letter of the alphabet, as found carved on the Yale campus.
Yale Guild of Carillonneurs
Fans of the 54-bell carillon in Harkness Tower, the eighth largest in North America, can enjoy free, hour-long concerts Friday evenings during the summer. Bring a picnic supper and chairs or blankets.
Northern Shores: Recent Paintings by Howard Fussiner
The rocky coasts of Maine and Cape Breton Island are featured in these studies of light and color by Howard Fussiner (b. 1923), a painter whose reputation goes back to Manhattan of the 1960s.
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