Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kings and Creativity

There was an echo in the house the last week of January. My house. On Sunday evening, January 25, I’d seen ‘Pippin’ pop-open at the Mark Taper Forum. The co-production with Deaf West Theatre – which literally halved the title character for a House of Sight & Sound – left me reverbeatin’ with those feelings of the late-late ‘60s. (When they’d become the early ‘70s.)

Pippin is a variation on Pepin, the powerful father and ineffectual son of Charlemagne, or Charles I. The original show opened on Broadway weeks before Richard Nixon’s re-election, in 1972 which means it came at the tail end of the most subverted Presidential election in American history. (As far as we know.)

Nixon’s pursuit of ‘Imperial Presidency’ – the title of the Arthur Schlessinger wake-up tome published the following year – led many artists to compare him to kings. Paul Conrad did it in his amazing string of 'L.A. Times' editorial cartoons, Steely Dan and Jefferson Airplane did it in rock songs, and Stephen Schwartz certainly was ready for the tie-in when he wrote music and lyrics for ‘Pippin.’ In contrast to folks like Charles (and Richard), who crave Kingdomination, ‘Pippin’s' second act offered representatives of the ordinary life. The woman who becomes 'Kid' Charlemagne’s true love, describes herself as “your average ordinary kind of woman, competent and neat, making life a treat.”

The lyrics may not be Fagin and Becker (who that year released, in ‘Kings,’ with expectant lines like “We’ve seen the last of Good King Richard; ring out the past his name lives on; roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher”), but it makes its point about being satisfied with one's even share.

Two nights after ‘Pippin’ opened, the echo came while listening to PBS’ NewsHour. In tribute to writer John Updike, who had died that day at age 76, portions of an interview conducted by Jeffrey Brown were replayed. The conversation had been part of Updike’s 2003 promotional of a new collection of short stories.

Brown asked, “In the Foreword, when you’re describing writing short stories, you write, ‘My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due.’
What does that mean, ‘to give the mundane its beautiful due?’”

“I worked hard at that sentence,” Updike said, “‘cause I was trying, you know, having challenged myself to say what did I think I was doing, I then had to find the phases for it. But I’ve always had, I think, even before I began to publish, this notion that the ordinary, middle class life, was enough to write about. That there was enough drama, interest, relevance, importance, poetry in it.”

“You didn’t need the grand, epic,” Brown assumed.

“I was stuck for my own limits, really, with middle class life, or the mundane let’s call,” Updike responded. “And so I was trying to serve my story, encapsulate some aspect of life as I was experiencing it, or observing that this was a time when the American way of life was coming in for a lot of hard knocks, some of them deserved, but nevertheless, I thought that somebody should be bearing witness to the kind of ordinary life that was going on.”

He was speaking of that same era which, like failed joke tellers always say, you had to be there to appreciate. Much too much rhapsodizing has been made of it. Those who were there still have it in their bones. While it couldn’t make the morrow, it still salts the marrow.

How beautiful that Center Theatre Group will now present the real end of King Richard’s public performance, in ‘Frost/Nixon,’ opening weeks after this weekend’s Academy Awards will bestow – according to most critics including TIME’s Richard Corliss – an Oscar upon theater’s own Frank Langella.

Looking forward to more echoes at the March 12 opening of that production, starring Stacy Keach and Alan Cox.