A Tribute to Charles Marowitz
by Jan Baughman
(Swans - May 19, 2014) There are few Swans contributors that both Gilles d'Aymery and I have had the good fortune to meet in person; one such creative soul was Charles Marowitz. Gilles met Charles and his beautiful wife Jane when they made a trip to Boonville; I met them and their son Kostya over a wonderful dinner at their home in the hills above Malibu during a business trip to Los Angeles. I was nervous and intimidated about meeting Charles. In our e-mail correspondence, he could appear direct and abrupt. I would send him editing questions and often get a brief answer, sometime in all caps, though always polite and often ironic. He simply signed them "Mwtz." Yet in person I was immediately at ease. He was gracious and curious, lavish with Jane, and fiercely proud of Kostya. A passionate and prolific man of culture beyond words, and never short on wit.
Charles had the knowledge and ability to critique anything and everything, from theater to movies, music to books, comics to dancers, and politicians alike with clever irony, a keen eye, and creative wordplay that could uplift or annihilate. He often took on politicians through his fictional interviews, saying just the thing we would say to Barack Obama if we had the opportunity, or penning a scalding letter to George W. Bush from Vladimir Putin. He interviewed William Shakespeare in his imagination, and T.S. Eliot for real -- giving Swans an exclusive, never-before published conversation he had with the great poet circa l957-58.
Here is an excerpt from his classic review of the movie Dinner With Schmucks, in which, as typical, he doesn't mince words, but creates his own entertaining story out of a rotten movie. You just have to laugh -- unless, of course, you're on the receiving end:
There are some films that are so toxic they justify being sued for inflicting brain damage. Films that literally corrode the spongy tissue of one's hippocampus to an extent that inflicts permanent and irreparable damage.
[...] Allow me to suggest that the term "Schmucks" is perhaps the wrong choice for the nature of the character played by Steve Carell. A schmuck -- bluntly -- is a penis and, according to Leo Rosten, the High Priest of Yiddish vernacular, "a detestable fellow; a son of a bitch." Which cuddly Carell is not. It might more suitably have been called Dinner For Shlemazels; that's to say, someone who causes "an uproar, a fight, a confusion -- a lot of rhubarb." Or possibly a shlemiel, which according to Rosten is "a foolish person; a simpleton; a submissive and uncomplaining victim. A poor shlemiel, as Rosten suggests, is the kind of guy who always gets the short end of the stick. The shlemiel is the kind of guy who "falls on his back and breaks his nose." Or it might have been more appropriate to title it Dinner With A Nebbish, a "nebbish" being "an innocuous, ineffectual, weak, helpless, or hapless unfortunate. A Sad Sack. A Loser." Rosten illustrates with an anecdote. "A nebbish pulled into a parking place on a busy street in Tel Aviv. Along came a policeman. 'Is it all right to park here,' asked the nebbish. 'No,' said the cop. 'No?! But look at all those other parked cars! How come?' -- 'They didn't ask,' the cop replies."
Charles rarely missed an edition, and often would contribute two pieces if he had something timely to review, and yet a political development occurred on which he absolutely had to comment. Over time, we formed a virtual relationship that became actual; yet in the Internet age there is always the distance and the keyboard that one can hide behind, creating a barrier that cannot be penetrated through satellite or cable. Such was the case with Charles, who at some point during his nine years of contributing was hit with Parkinson's Disease. He endeavored to maintain a sense of normalcy and share his work, until he no longer could, and ultimately his words fell silent.
Perhaps his June 29, 2009, poem, Sonnet For Seniors, was the closest he came to revealing his condition and the futility of discussing it:
Let us bewail our ills to one another;
there is no better way to spend the time.
I'll describe my spasms and my twinges,
you, the curse of green catarrhal slime.
Let's compare the vestiges of surgery,
the stitches and the swelling and the sludge.
But let us not indulge in perjury
Nor overstate, hyperbolize, misjudge.
Who is the greater victim in this game;
the one that cruel Nature's most abused?
Who's more hobbled, mutilated, lame?
Scant of breath or mentally confused?
(While the body frolics in decay,
The mind observes, distant and blasé.)
It's impossible to imagine the fiesty and acerbic Charles being weakened by this horrible disease, but clearly, that is how he wanted it -- he didn't want pity. The New York Times obituary quoted Charles as saying, "Maybe I don't suffer fools gladly..." -- what an understatement! This makes it all the more meaningful that he chose Swans with which to associate his contrarian self and share his last few prolific years.
Charles wrote the following in response to the death of playwright Arthur Miller (A Death In The Family):
"The death of such a writer, like the passing of all iconic artists, means little to nothing in terms of bereavement because the longevity of certain works of art are literally deathless. I will honor the memory of Arthur Miller by re-reading his plays and hoping for tasteful and exciting revivals of his best work. His death is as incidental as his life was ineradicable."
So too will we honor the memory of Charles Marowitz. Charles always did, and always will, have the last word. To quote a great man, His death is as incidental as his life was ineradicable.
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