Friday, January 30, 2009

2 February 1809

The Walnut Street Theatre at 9th Street in Philadelphia first opened its doors on 2 February 1809. To celebrate their 200th anniversary, the Walnut has mounted a new production of A Street Car Named Desire. A German director friend groaned at the news; she cattily if wittily remarked: a chestnut on Walnut! But it’s a great play. And in September 1947 it happened to premiere at the Walnut starring Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden and Marlon Brando. People who have seen the subsequent film may not understand how the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency eviscerated the play.

The play moves slowly by contemporary standards, slow as a novel, slow as the Mississippi. It’s set in New Orleans. Blanche Dubois played here expertly by Susan Stevens arrives at her sister’s house in the French Quarter -- only to “blanche” at the violence and sexuality of her Polish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Jeffrey Coon). The play is easily construed as a 40s Freudian battle between Blanche and Stanley for the soul of Blanche’s sister, Stella (Sandra Struthers). Stella is the vibrant and healthy star to which the ethereal Blanche and the carnal Stanley can only aspire.

Stanley wins. He breaks Blanche. “Whoever you are,” a confused Blanche says to the psychiatrist who leads her away at the play’s end, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Williams himself finally succumbed to just such a liquor and pill-fueled madness. And what did the Hays Office change?

The Blanche in the play had unknowingly married a closeted gay man. When she learned the truth, she cruelly drove him to suicide. Such things happen; and their representation ran uncensored on a Philadelphia stage in 1947. But a mass audience in a 1950s movie house could not be subjected to, as they said, degenerates and perverts. Williams was forced to re-imagine Blanche’s husband as poet. He was a poet killed by his wife’s bad notice.

Vivien Leigh, who played Blanche in London and in the subsequent film, considered the change ludicrous. Leigh of course knew madness firsthand. And yet, as a poet myself, I kind of like the film’s suicidal husband. My aunt said very mean things about my verse. If I had shot myself like Blanche’s husband, she’d have felt really bad. I should have done it! It’s too late now though. My aunt ultimately went crazier than Blanche. But the etiology was not some guilty Freudian unconscious. It was a brain tumor.

Yes, being a poet can be a serious bitch. Nor is it ever easy being gay -- even in 2009. The beautiful gay daughter of two of my most brilliant friends recently killed herself. Yet perhaps it’s easier to be gay now than it was in 1947. Some things may eventually change for the better. People used to believe in progress. Great plays like Street Car Named Desire help.

[Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon posted an earlier version of this “review” the morning after opening night in their lively Philly Art Blog:
It is festooned with photos and a clip from the film.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Village Voice

I’m very grateful to the Village Voice. They discussed or at least mentioned me or Unmuzzled OX some dozen times. I was briefly their junior art critic; David Bourdon was the senior critic. (By the time of his death David was my closest friend.) The Voice even published my only cartoon! Oddly enough, when Reagan was elected president and the NEA was ordered to exclude Unmuzzled OX, Artists Space, Franklin Furnace, etc., the info was leaked to the Village Voice -- but I refused to read the articles! By that time I was angry at them for their handling of my art criticism. And they were no longer writing me up. I retaliated by boycotting the paper for at least ten years. That taught them a lesson. And me too.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Happy 200th birthday, Edgar Allan Poe, quoth the Inquirer; and by the way Edgar was really a Philadelphian. I also read in this morning’s paper that Americans are bribing Afghan tribal leaders with Viagra. Remember the attempts to kill Castro with a cigar? An older friend and former neighbor worked in government in the ’60s and early ’70s. Robert Kennedy would phone him every Monday morning. “Is he dead yet?” Meaning Castro. My friend, a graduate of Yale and friend of Bill Buckley, never seemed able to remove a cigar from his mouth; he thus appeared to mumble. That was a cover, I thought; he was old but he was scary. The last time I saw him and his wife, she had purchased a huge bag of pigeon food and he was going into J & R Cigars. I’ve always figured killing Fidel with an exploding cigar must have been his idea.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


James Castle (1899-1977) was a outsider who spent his life on his family’s farms in Idaho. He used spit and soot and sticks to draw. He uses all sorts of common papers. Then, more interestingly, he recycled cardboard logo-smeared commercial packaging. He sews such cardboard into a flat sculpture which winningly evoke, say, a Marisol maquette.

When I arrived at McGill in 1964, I rambled about Mount Royal, and happened on a cemetery where I found piles of discarded tombstones. They were of a uniform early twentieth century vintage with a French Canadian name, dates of birth and death, and the phrase < Deaf mute. Yikes! Political incorrectness through eternity? But the Archdiocese of Montreal had clearly repented this insensitivity. It was in 1964 deconsecrated rubble. I carted a stone home as a memento mori.

My son’s mother is a sign-language interpreter. The Castle show is a hands-on favorite with Philadelphia’s disabled. Remember the pinball wizard who happened to be deaf, dumb and blind? Tommy? Castle focused. He saw more than most artists, although he heard nothing and spoke nary a word. He spent a few years at an Idaho school for the deaf but he soon rebelled. He never learned to sign. He was illiterate.

He was fascinated by man’s creation. He mastered perspective and loved alphabets. Of course, as well as a large loving Catholic family, he knew farm animals personally. He made charming sculptures of chickens, daffy ones of ducks, grand ones of geese. He explored metaphysical nooks with the simplest of means. As an adult, he re-drew a photo from his own childhood. It is his only self-portrait. There are a few slightly erotic collages. Did he improve his lot? Or merely ponder it all? I suspect he was a happy man.

[Here's a link to the Philly Art Blog and the original of this piece plus many photos: --
His retrospective at the Philadelphia Art Museum closed January 4].