Monday, August 10, 2015

Metropolitan Life

Our Nation's Capital, by and large, is not an excitable city.

It is not, truth be told, a particularly cosmopolitan nor even an especially loveable one, either.  After two years of living here, I will admit only to a kind of mild, respectful admiration toward the place, the sort of feeling one might have for a colleague with whom one works perfectly well but in regard to whom one remains, nonetheless, almost entirely non-sympatico.  Despite being increasingly a middle-aged fuddy-duddy of early hours and set habits, I still have more of an affinity for higher-strung places - Cairo, say, or Bangkok - or ones that have more obvious charms (Amsterdam! Madrid!) than the staid and self-satisfied District.

That said, it does have its moments, and I encounter one each morning on my new commute.  I'm on a line of the Metro (a sadly aging memento of we'll-all-be-living-in-the-future '60s optimism, its gleaming Logan's Run concrete stations now dank and damp-stained, its escalators a chronic system-wide embarrassement) that runs above ground across the less-than-mighty Potomac (how can a river be dull? This one manages.).  The view, if not quite to the level of this piquant historical scene, is undeniably lovely - a swathe of blue-green water, the leafy far bank, and a quick vista of the monuments, so unlikely, unpractical, and in the case of General Washington's so soaringly out of proportion with the rest of the low city.  It's a nice little moment of eye-candy before the plunge back into the subway tunnel and the quick walk to work.

It is, undeniably, a very American thing, this view and this federal city: an attempt at imperial glory subverted by the throngs of tourists and by the local residents, who use the great patches of lawn for picnics and for exercise, jogging along the low embankment next to the water and stretching on the steps of the domed imitation Pantheon that houses Mr. Jefferson.  We have, us Americans, if nothing else an undeniable talent for undercutting pretension in many forms - architectural, political, artistic.

I've been thinking about that sort of thing not just because of my twice-daily view (I try to sit, in the evenings, facing backward in the train, so I can see the city recede as I head toward the exurban domesticity of home), but because of what I'm reading at the moment, the latest from the inexorably prolific and almost infinitely charming Mr. Ethan Mordden.

All That Glittered is yet another once-over-lightly (and amusingly) look at American show biz from an author who has already taken us through a decade-by-decade chronicle of Broadway musicals, a comprehensive history of the inadvertent genius of the Hollywood studio system, and a definitive overview the many permutations of female movie stardom, among many other facets of the entertainment universe.  Subtitled The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959, the book drops us into the transitional theatre of the First World War, barnstormers and Belasco giving way to the Theatre Guild and O'Neill, and takes us to the end of the era in which theatre was a true national pastime, before it lost all ground to movies and, especially, the explosion of at-home diversions on the little black-and-white idiot box.

I especially like Mordden's take on the '30s stage screwball comedies, the ones that informed so many Hollywood classics (often based on theatrical originals), works that he sees as particularly defining in terms of American character of the age.
"...[T]here's a lovely notion behind the industrious storytelling: with but one life apiece, why not enjoy ourselves?
You Can't Take It With You [Kaufman and Hart's landmark domestic comedy, the basis for decades of sitcoms to follow, about a big-hearted family of kooks pitted against and prevailing over a family of WASP sobersides] also underscores the thirties observation that all the interesting Americans are screwballs or screwball-friendly. That is, intelligence and imagination alone are not enough: one must have independence and as well, a tolerance not only of others but of oneself. Those who are Different are the referees of democratic liberty - Alexander Woollcott, for instance, or Bette Davis. Eleanor Roosevelt or Orson Welles.  Fiorello La Guardia or Gypsy Rose Lee."
Isn't that lovely?

"Intelligence and imagination alone are not enough." You have to figure out how to magnify - how to celebrate - the individual things that make you tick.  If you do, you get to be Gypsy; if not, you're doomed to be Gloria Upson.

Washington, I fear, is a town with more than a touch of the Upsonian.  On a fine summer morning, though - or even, as today, a gray one, the clouds lowering over the lowslung skyline as we came in toward another week at the office - one can forgive the place, at least a little.  It may be prosaic in patches, bureaucratic (in the extreme), even corrupt. and, all the gentrification in the world notwithstanding, more than a little down at heel, but it has even so a certain something.  It will never, in my heart of hearts, be Cairo (or even Boston), but I suppose it's home.


  1. As I read this, I can almost hear the dulcet tones of Alistair Cooke reading one of his weekly Letters from America. Fabulous. Jx

    1. Flattery will get you anywhere, you scamp. I do adore the letters, even though us Yanks were raised on Cooke mostly as a distingué public-television host rather than a journalist.

  2. Oh, dear. So many things about this entry urge me toward a deep nostalgia that I feel I should resist -- the postcard view, so reminiscent of the cards we received from friends when I was a child; Mr. Mordden's books on my former world; your selection of the Kaufman and Hart play which I've done in more than one production, each slightly madder than the last. And then I compare it all to the current rather drab life and comfort myself that, at least, I have anchorage and no fear of the cat food aisle. The things we're grateful for, eh?

    1. Ah, well - as usual, Mr. Sondheim got it right - "Lord knows at least we were there - and we're here!" I sometimes miss being at the edges of the bright Life That Late I Led, but what fun to have the memories, and there really is something to be said for peace and quiet (as long as its occasionally interrupted, of course).

  3. Is it a drab life? Or is it simply the current definition of 'home'? I think sometimes we're all too caught up in the quotidian to smell the proverbial roses no matter where we are, and fond reminiscences perhaps preclude thoughts of future adventures or indeed "interruptions"...

    Remember, "life's a banquet..."

  4. What a handsome blog. Mine is penny-plain, but I'm only a notch above Luddite on these machines. Thanks for support.

    Ethan Mordden

    1. Yoiks! In Jo's immortal words, what richness! Thrilling to have such a visitor, and I do hope you come on back anytime you like. Your work, after all, is something of a touchstone in these parts...