Steinbeck, Sontag, and Boulez

For anyone who follows the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout's 'dramatic' wanderings throughout America, it is known that theatre is thriving throughout this land. This is certainly true in Tucson, AZ.
03/30/2016 04:22 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2017

For anyone who follows the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout's 'dramatic' wanderings throughout America, it is known that theatre is thriving throughout this land. This is certainly true in Tucson, AZ.

The Arizona Theatre Company has recently put on a compelling run of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. George, played by Jonathan Wainwright, is wiry and full of barely contained energy. Lennie, played by Scott Greer, was appropriately disheveled, manic yet contained, and innocently, if murderously, simple. Crooks and Candy, the nigger and old fart respectively, were played with a subtle richness of humanity by Chike Johnson and James Pickering respectively. The supporting cast was equally exceptional. Occasionally a few of Steinbeck's characters, such as Curly and his wife, are underdeveloped. But even these thin roles were handled with panache. The staging could be described as modernist cowboy, with clean and lean lines. The play reminds just how strong Steinbeck can be.

Steinbeck forces us into a review of the problem of the treatment of the mentally ill and, for that matter, euthanasia. On the same day that I saw the show a disturbed man in Seattle sat in a very high tree for the day, unwilling to come down. The event and show certainly brings to bear on the question of how to deal humanely with the mentally disturbed. George killed Lennie so that his demise, which was sure to come, would be less grisly. How we confront the problem of mental illness now seems caught in delusional politics where freedom seems to trump humane care for those who can't take care of themselves. At least George 'oversaw' and looked out for Lennie. Is there anyone who really looks out for our mentally disturbed? Shouldn't they be placed in institutions where they can actually be taken care of- R.D. Laing and Erving Goffman notwithstanding?

Lennie is shot by George at the conclusion of the play before the posse of men led by Curly can find and shoot him themselves. In this version the last image seen is that of Lennie splayed in a small stream of water which formerly connoted life. Perhaps the reference is also to the river into which Lennie leaped in another and earlier time at George's suggestion, a demonstration of Lennie's gullibility and George's wiliness. The audience burst into a standing ovation at the end. I found that troubling, still reeling from the emotional shock of Lenny's death, and the emotionally distraught state of George, having had to do the deed of killing his best friend. How does one shed that shock to the system so quickly?

I arrived home in a state of excitement and agitation, not unusual for me following attendance at a wonderful artistic performance. I turned on the TV, as is sometimes my want, to help me chill out, and was confronted with the scenes of wanton Islamic terrorist murder in Belgium and President Obama doing the tango in Argentina. I wondered if there wasn't a connection of events, namely a difficulty with empathy, or the inability to sustain or confront emotion, whether of that created by art or that found in real life.

Having enough, I turned to the Bourne Identity, which seems to play perpetually, just moving from station to station and time to time. Its gratuitous violence is overwhelming but also alluring. As the heroine got sick over one of the many killings, I got sick of myself for watching what I have seen too many times. As I turned the TV off, I thought of Susan Sontag. In an interview she is asked by her interlocutor if she doesn't occasionally desire to turn on the TV. She pauses, smiles, pauses again, and then says something like the following: No, I really don't. I know you find this hard to believe, but let me say it again- I don't have any desire to watch TV. (Which was say, she had lost her taste for popular culture.) And by the way, I wish some of my earlier essays (One can assume she is referring to Notes on Camp, et. al) would just fade away. I was young and foolish when I wrote them.

Which finally led me to think of another among the recently dead, Pierre Boulez. Enough has probably been written about him for me not to pile on. His career as a composer was ultimately small and thin, as he had a hard time, like Lenny (Bernstein, that is) it would seem, actually sitting down and finishing pieces. Also, his music is remarkably unmemorable, although in his piano works he very occasionally makes a quiet statement that has some emotional depth. Sadly he didn't take his teacher Messiaen's dictum to heart, that "melody is supreme", as this is a category in which his music is notably lacking. Like Sontag, he was brash in his youth, taking off and bashing many of his previous compositional betters, most notably Schoenberg. He then ended up conducting the music of those same composers in his illustrious performing career. Was this his way of saying "I was wrong", and thus there was no need for a written or verbal apology? Perhaps. Or was he constitutionally incapable of saying he might have been wrong? At least Sontag had the decency to do just that, even with her backsliding and caveats.

Neither Boulez nor Sontag proved nearly as successful as creators as they did at re-creation in the case of Boulez, or talking about others and their creation, like Sontag's On Photography. Steinbeck's artistic achievement, in its emotionally clear and direct approach, holds up.