Swans Commentary » swans.com April 20, 2009  



Singing Along With Marowitz


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Marowitz, Charles: The Sounds of Music, Early Recording Artists, World Audience, Inc., N.Y.C., 2008, ISBN: 978-0-9820540-4-8, illustrated, 268 pages, $25.


(Swans - April 20, 2009)   The university soothsayers now tell us in numbers and long words that high and popular culture are at last joining hands. But were they ever really strangers? The ongoing career of Charles Marowitz would seem to say no.

He worked with Peter Brook on the latter's epoch making King Lear and afterwards in The Theatre of Cruelty season. Since the first put in a good word for Lear's corrupt daughters and the second relayed the ideas of Antonin Artaud who died mad, this was hardly sailing down the mainstream. But Marowitz had no intention of "setting up shop in Brook's shadow" and stepped aside to continue the experiments he had begun with his In-Stage group at the British Drama League. This led in 1968 to the founding of The Open Space, the first permanent theatre in London committed to Ezra Pound's watchword, "make it new."

Marowitz again fought his way up river in Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic: A London Theatre Notebook 1958-71. On the one hand, the young, earnest author invokes European high-art dramatists to assail British staidness. But on the other hand -- and this is the point -- he never ignores the triumphs of popular entertainment. In Durrenmatt's The Physicists, Marowitz thought Bela Lugosi would have been ideal in a main role. The best review in the book is of Spike Milligan, the manic, improvising comic who, in the dull Oblomov, "threads the play like a scarlet ribbon weaving a crazy pattern around drab burlap."

Two decades later in Alarums & Excursions: Our Theatres in the 90s, Marowitz is still paddling his own canoe controcorrente. But in that truculent collection of reviews in defense of serious theatrical art, popular artists keep turning up for praise. Jerome Robbins "created half a dozen new milestones." Frank Sinatra has an "effortless, ethereal manner" and an "ability to reaffirm the ordinariness of simple human sentiments." Marowitz applauds Jerry Lewis for whom "if it wasn't outrageous, it wasn't comedy." George Burns is "class not crass."

Meanwhile, Marowitz kept writing plays that, however new in the way he developed them, took off from authors heard of by even the middlebrow public: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Conan Doyle, Brecht, and the Parisian boulevardiers. On the brow map, Marowitz never really settled down at one address, low, high, or middle. A constant in his criticism goes some way to explain it. He's struck with awe and respect for what he (and, I believe, Kenneth Tynan) called high-definition performance or supreme, one-off artistry applied to material from anywhere on the scale of popularity. It could be Laurence Olivier in Oedipus or Lenny Bruce on a good night, Glenda Jackson in Chekhov or Don Rickles, "shtick-laden, post-Catskillian, and Vegasized," but making Marowitz laugh.

It's obvious that a sharp nose for comedy is another constant of his criticism:

Over the years, I dutifully did my homework and discovered that without the pinnacles of vaudeville; i.e., the performances of people such as Nora Bayes, Eva Tanguay, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Bert Lahr, Bobbie Clark, Bert Williams, Willie and Eugene Howard, and the Marx Brothers, there would never have been a legitimate stage in the twenties and a fully formed Broadway musical theatre in the thirties. It was vaudeville, and particularly the early vaudeville lampoons and burlesques of Weber and Fields, which cultivated the ground that allowed the American theatre to come to full flower in the subsequent decades. (Alarums, page 202.)

So we begin to see how the author could move from the relentless experiments of the Open Space to the unrelenting sentimentality of the popular tunes of 1900-1950 invoked in Sounds of Music. It's that same search for high-definition performance. He's not interested in your great-grandfather's barbershop quartet. Secondly, trenchant though his criticism has always been, he knows that:

There is often an unbridgeable gulf that separates connoisseur opinion from public taste and in that gulf you will find as many bloated corpses of critics as you will the debris of productions which have foundered. (Alarums, page 166.)

And in the third place, the man has a secret vice. He loves showbiz of all sorts, even old pros jerking tears with high octane sobbing about mother.

In Confessions, page 66, Marowitz remarks of Joan Littlewood's Oh, What a Lovely War that the music hall score conveys the "lace trimmed romanticism of the early 1900s" and that the inspiration of the play came from a Black and White Minstrel radio show devoted to the songs of the First World War. It's from these popular songs "that one gets the full picture of an overcivilized society forced to cope with instincts of brutality it had almost rationalized out of existence. The songs have a unity and a drama all their own, and, if they were lifted from the body of the production and performed by themselves, would still have a shattering impact and tell a terrible story."

In Sounds of Music Marowitz gives us a less poignant drama than that of Britain in WWI. It's the broad reflection of American society in its popular music. He feels that the sheer quantity of songs amassed between 1900 and the beginning of WWII increased the chances of "the highest specimen of its kind" a true "standard." These objects of his admiration, the work of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, and others, he defines superbly as "perpetually replenishing."

Marowitz's approach is not through our ears, though the book makes us want to run out and get hold of the recordings straightaway. Nor is it through the words of the songs, though he does cite many of them. True to his delight in peerless performance, he tries to suggest its impact by the lives of the exceptional artists who composed and presented the songs to the public. This results in a couple of dozen potted biographies interrupted now and then by pages of genial comment on how the songs tie in with social change. The tone is decided celebratory with a touch of the bravado typical of the vice-ridden: "I and others of my persuasion are well aware that we are part of what is patronizingly referred to as a 'niche public'... We are drawn to people who share our own enthusiasms and recoil from those who do not."

"Modernism," says Marowitz, "was as much part of the dynamic of popular music as it was the artwork of Picasso or Duchamps, the innovations of Stravinski and Satie or the writings of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot or James Joyce." This is strikingly evident in one of the themes he underlines in the songs, the changing attitudes of, and toward women. One wonders what tunes Sister Carrie hummed when Theodore Dreiser set her down in the febrile Chicago of 1889. After a spell in a sweatshop, she, not so dumb, plumped without guilt for the life of a kept woman. This was unheard of behavior in the serious American novel. So was Carrie's eventual decision to give up dependence on men altogether.

It was just about then that Sophie Tucker had a message for her butter-and-egg man who split the week between her and a family in the suburbs: You've got to see momma every night, Or you can't see momma at all. And like Carrie's protector, Tucker's sugar daddy would soon have more to worry about. She threatened him in another song, Poppa better watch your step. And when the bust-up came Tucker sang it, not with tears, but as "a blast of unregretful assertion of independence." Carrie's setting aside of men was rerun by the legendary Nora Bates, five-times married, who so dominated her husband and stage partner Jack Norworth that he "was lucky to have retained even his b.v.d's" when Nora donned the pants.

But Dreiser's character, based on his sister, never reached the sexual freedom of the songsters. Tucker dealt in innuendo. But Helen Kane with her Boop-boop-a-doop was the "the salacious younger sister to Minnie Mouse." With Elsie Carlisle, we climbed into bed. My Handy Man (He shakes my ashes, greases my griddle/Churns my butter, strokes my fiddle -- and that's not all). Marowitz notes that the 19th century songs celebrated legitimate and loving matrimony. Let's Grow Old Together. In the new century, adultery rears its head. If You Talk In Your Sleep, Don't Mention My Name. By the 1920s marriage has turned sour. My Wife's Gone to the Country, Hurrah Hurrah.

Other themes emerge from these buried treasures. Motherhood took top of the bill as the century opened. Al Jolson, down on his knees, faking a tear, was top offspring in mom-worship. But Eddy Cantor sang nearly as loud, I Want My Mammy, and there were echoes from coast to coast. I'd Love To Fall Asleep And Wake Up In My Mammy's Arms, Was There Ever A Pal Like You, and more, many more. Dad only got in the door in drag. Daddy, You've Been A Mother To Me. Marowitz recalls with irony that in the 1930s and 40s the fashion would change to "red-hot mamas" and in our glorious present to the ubiquitous "motherfuckers."

Another raft of songs he places under the headings of Lost Paradise and The Great Escape, which, again, recall obvious opposite numbers in high art. The move from the country to the city had generated a nostalgia that songwriters packaged non-stop. Every point of the compass got its tune from pianos in Tin Pan Alley. You could sing your way from Moon Over Miami, through Beautiful Ohio to Hello, Frisco with a hundred musical stops for gas in between. The tenacious romance with the South was a carryover from the 19th century that refused to call it a day. Of course most of the tunesmiths that made rhymes with Dixie had never changed out of long underwear. It should be noted that migrating blacks saw things differently. J.B. Lenoir's Down In Mississippi (Down in Mississippi where I was born/Run catch the last train out alive) and Alabama (I never will go back to Alabama/That is not the place for me) are typical of a current of the blues that pictured the South as a hellhole.

On page 152, Marowitz forsakes irony:

Certain songs can bring tears to our eyes and it doesn't matter if they are corny or maudlin or just plain stupid. Our memory banks are always open and transactions are taking place at every moment of the day or night. Far from being embarrassing or corny, such moments can be both revelatory and therapeutic. They remind us of things which, despite the accretion of years, we have never forgotten. Occasionally, they even instigate sudden escapes and fateful returns.

That Swanee River view of the South brings to mind the blackface minstrels whose years of glory extended to the end of WWI. Jolson and Cantor, Russian-Jewish immigrant stock, and Bert Williams, a West Indian black, were the peak performers with Louisiana-born Al Bernard, a kind of honorary Negro, close behind. It's a subject that brings Sounds of Music into the present with a bang. Bernard, late in life, was wary: "In the old days we didn't mean any harm by 'taking off' the lower class Negroes and using such words in records as 'nigger', 'coon' and 'shine' because that was what they called each other." Speaking of Collins and Harlan, specialists in "coon songs," Marowitz says, "The attitude toward blacks, despite the racist terms employed, was not hostile or aggressive; it was often bemused and appreciative but today, after the era of the Civil Rights movement and the achievements of the NAACP, the terms are so loaded it is impossible to imagine these numbers the way they were heard in the early 1900s." (But heard by whom? Blacks had no choice but to chuckle too.) That is certainly true of the "picaninny" songs of Nora Bates sung in "coon dialect."

Alas, this may be one area where high and popular art are not converging. Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones surely belongs to the first category. When the Wooster group recently presented it at Chicago's Goodman Theater, director Elizabeth LeCompte's attempt to rid the play of racist venom backfired. O'Neill's main character, Brutus Jones, is a gross stereotype of a black man. LeCompte had a white woman play him in black face, the intention being to spell out the fact that Jones is a racist cliché. The critics liked it, but there were objections from the popular seats. A blacked-up white face can still be hurtful.

Bert Williams, Marowitz tells us, had to black up his black face. "The Black Imposter" was an educated man who liked to read philosophy. How did he feel recording The Phrenologist Coon or My Little Zulu Babe? A pity O'Neill didn't put Williams at the center of a tragedy instead of those pale Irish New England drunks. That would have anticipated Jean Genet. (In fact, Caryl Phillips has written a serious novel about Williams, Dancing In The Dark.) According to Marowitz, the sense of Williams's signature-song, Nobody, was that the mistreatment of blacks marginalized them to the point of "invisibility." You can only wonder if Ralph Ellison took the hint in writing Invisible Man. That would have proven an impressive coming together of all the brows.

Sounds of Music isn't an encyclopedia of early recording artists (big figures are missing); it's not a catalogue of early recordings (there's little data on recording houses, dates, serial numbers and backup musicians); it's not the best place to find the words of the greatest songs (only some are cited); nor is every artist's career given the same treatment (favoritism reigns). With its contents chosen by a single pair of ears, Sounds of Music falls between all the stools. But stoop down and scoop it up quickly. It's one of passion's gems, outrageously personal and completely unconcerned with the latest thing or, for that matter, with the up-turned noses of the uninitiated. Marowitz likes this stuff. He likes it a lot. Love Is Like That (a 1931 song by Benée Russell).


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 20, 2009