Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Not Your Father's Beatitude

It's comforting to know that not everyone looked at the 1950's and said, "What a great decade!"  We have Congress, lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy, seeing Commies behind every rock and protecting American freedom by forcing people to sign "loyalty oaths."  We have society clamping down again, after it loosened up a bit to accomodate, well, war.  We have African-Americans agitating for the same freedoms at home that they enjoyed in the rest of the world (see "war" above).  We have Elvis.

In short, a lot of the violence and social upheaval that boiled over in the 1960's happened because it was all bottled up in the pressure-cooker of the 1950's.  I'm not going to repeat John Clellon Holmes here; I'm going to recommend that you read him for yourselves, by clicking here for the article he published in the New York Times in 1952, characterizing his tribe. 

Some of that tribe included Allen Ginsberg, (in the hat at right), and Jack Kerouac, (the man on Ginsberg's right).  The other members you may know are Gary Snyder, the poet, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where a lot of poetry and literary rebellion happened.

The interesting thing about the Beats is that they were non-conformists who non-conformed in the same ways.  Most of them were gay, or bisexual, they all drank to -- here comes an understatement -- excess, recreational pharmaceuticals were their chosen path to spiritual enlightenment, and they disavowed materialism, stealing only when they absolutely had to.

And they wrote.  Dear whiz, how they wrote.  Poetry, essays, novels -- it all flowed from them like a stream, and like a stream, there's quite a bit floating around in there that you wouldn't want to encounter on a full stomach.  They also captured, in all of its unresolved anguish, the disillusionment of their generation.  They didn't package it for mass consumption; they didn't WANT mass consumption.  They wanted to be left alone to tell the truth as they saw it.  This was not a popular activity in mid-century America.

Thing is, they were right about so much of it.  Mainstream America wallowed in materialism, unthinking hawkishness, shallow intellectual life, and bland, watered-down spiritualilty. (Even as I write this, part of me thinks, "And this has changed, how?")

The telling of their own inconvenient truth produced no small measure of persecution. They were hauled into court on obscenity charges.  They had many bad trips, and I don't mean to Atlantic City.  They took involuntary vacations in mental institutions.  They occasionally died young.  Their influence, though, spread throughout a generation, and echoes down to our own.  Not so many people have read Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," but a LOT of people have listened to Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, U2, Rage Against the Machine,  and dozens of other musicians who trace their roots to the Beats.

Like lots of people who live fast and die young, the Beats inspired hero-worship and beatification (that means elevation to sainthood).  The truth is a lot more complicated, because like most of us, the good and bad in them are intertwined.  Some of those who made it out, Ginsberg among them, felt later that they'd done unintentional harm to thousands of people in the 1960's who bought into the philosophical hedonism and didn't realize the addictions, poverty, and disenfranchisement they were also buying.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Drama Queens (and Kings)

The Twentieth Century turned out to be a heyday for American drama. The theater had languished for a long time under a bad reputation and worse publicity. American playwrights didn't do themselves any favors, either. Think about those guys in the 18th Century -- remember any of them? There's a reason for that.
But after World War I, America changed, dramatically speaking. It loosened up a bit. It began to realize the artistic value of live theater, and theater began to attract some lively minds.
The first of these was Eugene O'Neill (photo at right, thank you Library of Congress). O'Neill is hard to classify, so we won't try -- his work is insightful, deeply true to human psychology, and sometimes borders on the surreal. His play The Emperor Jones was one of the first times a literary white person used black people in serious drama. His 1920 play Beyond the Horizon won a Pulitzer Prize. Other successes included Desire Under the Elms, Ah, Wilderness!, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey Into Night.
For generations, high school students have been forced to read and over-analyze Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie, and perhaps have missed the depth and power of this playwright. Williams created plays that stood on the strength of their characters and the subtle tensions that require the audience to pay attention. Many of his plays were made into wildly successful films, and they include A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (my favorite), Suddenly Last Summer, and Camino Real.
Among the great tragedies of American Literature is the death of Lorrainne Hansberry of cancer at the age of 34. This talented playwright created A Raisin in the Sun, a play loosely based on
her family's experience of trying to move into an all-white Chicago neighborhood. The title comes, of course, from Langston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred," and could be used to describe the attitude of the family matriarch, Lena Younger, as she determinedly makes a down payment on a house in a neighborhood that she believes will be happier for everyone. Hansberry was the first African-American on Broadway, with a black producer and a black cast, which included Sidney Portier playing Walter Younger. The play was a huge success, and has been adapted for film several times, once starring Danny Glover.

Arthur Miller unwittingly provided the view of the Salem witch trials that everyone remembers. His play, The Crucible has been made into a film, and his characters have superseded the historical ones in almost every way. If you don't believe me, remember how convoluted the discussion of the witch trials was last fall, as we tried to sort out what was history and what was Miller. He also wrote Death of a Salesman, and other plays that have since been made into films. Miller wrote drama for the radio, a challenging medium, since the plot had to be carried by voice alone -- no movement, appearance, facial expression, or stage direction.

Drama continues to be a fertile field for American writers. There's something about live performances, with their potential for great success or merely great suckage, that draws audiences. In a movie, everything has been smoothed out and made perfect; in a live performance, the chemistry (or lack of it) is happening right before you -- you're watching something be created in the moment. Long live live theater!