My Favorite Thing That Is Getting Twenty Times as Much Money as The National Endowment for the Arts in H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
Expenses necessary for the manufacturing of advanced batteries
This is not an exercise in disparaging said projects, but just a reminder of where the arts stand in the priorities of our elected representatives. Again, it’s a question of proportionality, and a double standard about jobs in the arts as opposed to jobs in, say, the manufacturing sector. Though, last time I checked, artists still bought food and clothes and housing and cars, just like everybody else.
And, while we’re at it, a couple of objections to increased government funding of the arts that I’ve seen batted about lately. As for the objection that arts organizations are better off getting their funding from private philanthropy, I’ll remind you that such charitable foundations are finding their giving capacity diminished by the implosion of a banking industry that, despite already getting their incompetence covered by taxpayers, still gave out billions in bonuses rather than, perhaps, reimbursing some of the philanthropic organizations whose money they lost.
Under a number of estimating techniques – OLS, Tobit and Fixed-Effects – this research has provided evidence that, on average, government grants have the potential to crowd-in private donations to nonprofit performing arts organizations in the range of $0.14– $1.15. … Overall, there is a lack of evidence that government grants have a negative impact on private donations and some evidence that government grants have a small positive impact on private giving to performing arts organization.
One other thing: as of this writing, neither the Senate Appropriations Committee nor the Senate Finance Committee have approved drafts of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that contain funding for the NEA.
My lovely wife and I were perusing some of this month’s promotional swag here at Soho the Dog HQ, which included this very fun DVD: Great Voices of the Golden Age, a collection of 1960s-70s TV appearances by the likes of Christa Ludwig, Galina Vishnievskaya, Gundula Janowitz, &c. (Irmgard Seefried singing Werner Egk? OK, we’re in.) Some of the sound quality in orchestral selections either hasn’t aged well or has been a bit over-restored (I know Janowitz’s voice has way more bloom than that), but the voice-and-piano repertoire sounds great, and the performances are consistently good.
But within also lies a cautionary tale. A favorite around these parts, Rita Streich, is represented by several appearances from the INA archives. Now, here’s a still from an April 16, 1964 broadcast:
And here’s a still from a March 7, 1965 broadcast:
OH MY GOD IT IS THE SAME DRESS. Yes, she has those sleeve-length things in the second picture, but that doesn’t hide the fact that she’s wearing the same gown for two different concerts. I mean, that’s shady enough for a prima donna to do under any circumstances. But on network television? French network television, no less? Isn’t that some sort of impeachable diva offense? We’re big fans, so we’ll forgive her, but let aspiring singers be warned: frugality will out.
Today, we take a musicological stab at getting to the bottom of an enduring mystery: when exactly John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department, met Sherlock Holmes. (Real mysteries aren’t seeming quite esoteric enough—we’re going after fictional mysteries now.) Sherlockiana scholars and mavens have long debated this point. The most commonly cited date is 1881, first calculated by William S. Baring-Gould, but 1884 has its adherents as well. In fact, I’ve found every year between 1881 and 1885 proposed somewhere. Here’s the problem: the only date of reference we know for sure from Watson’s account of their meeting (as written by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet) is July 27, 1880—the Battle of Maiwand in the Second Afghan War (Maiwand is a village northwest of Kandahar). Watson was wounded in the battle, convalesced in a military hospital at Peshawar, and made his way back to London, where, after an unspecified passage of time, was introduced to Holmes in the laboratories of St. Bart’s Hospital.
It was upon the 4th of March, as I have good reason to remember, that I rose somewhat earlier than usual
Later, Watson paraphrases newspaper accounts of the murder at the heart of the story, including this report on the whereabouts of the victim from the Standard:
He was accompanied in his travels by his private secretary, Mr. Joseph Stangerson. The two bade adieu to their landlady upon Tuesday, the 4th inst., and departed to Euston Station with the avowed intention of catching the Liverpool express. [emphasis added]
This has become the main point of departure for those who reject the 1881 date, as it wasn’t until 1884 that March 4 fell on a Tuesday.
What muddies the waters on this point, though, is Holmes’s love of music. As Watson tells it, on that March 4th, on the way from the murder scene to an interview with the constable who found the body, Holmes remarks:
“We have a good working basis, however, on which to start. We must hurry up, for I want to go to Halle’s concert to hear Norman Neruda this afternoon.”
And later, after the interview:
“I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon. There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. And now for lunch, and then for Norman Neruda. Her attack and her bowing are splendid. What’s that little thing of Chopin’s she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.”
Holmes knew his violinists: the Moravian-born Wilma Norman-Neruda was one of the most celebrated soloists in Victorian England. Her association with the German-English conductor Charles Hallé was long and fruitful, to the point where, after the death of her first husband, Norman-Neruda and Hallé would marry in 1888.
The problem is, Norman-Neruda never played a London concert on March 4th in any of the years in question. One solution to the discrepancy is that Watson conflated two dates into one. (Certainly, in the telling, Watson and Holmes pack a lot of coming and going into that March 4th.) Madame Norman-Neruda performed on the 5th of March in both 1881 and 1884. From an advertisement in the Times on March 2, 1881:
SATURDAY POPULAR CONCERTS, St. James’s-hall.—On Saturday afternoon next, March 5, the PROGRAMME will include Mendelssohn’s quintet in B flat; Beethoven’s Pianoforte Trio in E flat, op. 70; Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses for pianoforte alone; and Handel’s Sonata in D major, for violin (by desire). Executants—Mme. Schumann, Mme. Norman Neruda (her last appearance this season); MM. L. Ries, Straus, Zerbini, and Piatti. Vocalist, Miss Marian McKenzie. Accompanist, Mr. Zerbini. Commence at 8.
(Yes, that’s Clara Schumann at the piano.) The 8 o’clock time is a typographical error. The Saturday Popular Concerts always started at 3. What’s more, on March 5, 1881, St. James’s-hall was otherwise occupied at 8:00, with Hallé conducting Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust (a work he introduced to Britain the previous year.)
Proponents of an 1884 date have a one-day-off afternoon concert to point to as well. As advertised in the Times on February 29, 1884:
MORNING BALLAD CONCERT, St. James’s-hall, on Wednesday next (the Last Morning Concert of the Series), at 3 o’clock. Artistes:—Madame Carlotta Patti, Miss Carlotta Elliot, Miss Mary Davies, and Miss Damian; Mr Edward Lloyd, Mr. Maybrick, and Mr. Santley. Pianoforte, Miss Margie Okey. Violin, Madame Norman-Neruda. Mr. Venables’ Choir. Conductor, Mr. Sidney Naylor.
3 o’clock would require some alacrity on Holmes’s part, but even a late return would still be around the dinner hour.
But notice what Holmes says: “I want to go to Halle’s concert.” Which means he probably wasn’t referring to the Wednesday afternoon Ballad concerts. Throughout the 1880s, Hallé was most associated with Saturday popular concerts and Wednesday evening chamber concerts—the Ballad Concerts were run by the Boosey brothers, of the publishing firm, and it was their name that most often turned up in reference to them. Holmes was obviously a habitué of London concert halls; his reference to “Halle’s concert” would most likely have meant either Saturday afternoon or Wednesday evening.
Now, in 1882, March 4th did fall on a Saturday. The problem is, Mme. Norman-Neruda didn’t play. As advertised in the Times on March 2, 1882:
SATURDAY POPULAR CONCERTS, St. James’s-hall.—On Saturday afternoon next, March 4, the Programme will include Beethoven’s quintet in C major, op. 29; Schumann’s pianoforte trio in D minor, duo concertante in A minor for two violins, by Spohr; and pieces by Scarlatti, for pianoforte alone. Executants—MM. Joachim, L. Ries, Straus, and Piatti. Pianoforte, Miss Agnes Zimmermann. Vocalist, Mr. Harper Kearton. Accompanist, Mr. Zerbini. Commence at 3.
So here’s the possibilities:
March 4, 1881. The Standard is wrong (or Watson has misread it), and Watson has conflated two days into one.
March 4, 1882. The Standard is wrong (or Watson has misread it), and Holmes is mistaken about the performers on the day’s concert.
March 4, 1884. Watson has conflated two days into one, and Holmes is mistaken about whether the day’s concert is a Ballad Concert or a Popular Concert.
Two discrepancies for each date: which are the most easily explained away? My vote is for 1882: Holmes’s assumption that “Halle’s” concert will feature Mme. Norman-Neruda is understandable, and, moreover, one that would only be made by someone who was an avid-concertgoer—a Saturday Popular concert without her during this period is the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, there’s this report from The Musical World, dated February 18, 1882:
Popular Concerts.—The engagement of Mdme Norman-Neruda, begun so recently and terminating so much sooner than anticipated, has in one sense been satisfactory, and in another unsatisfactory, to the constant patrons of Mr Chappell’s excellent concerts—satisfactory, because the highly-gifted lady violinist was never pliying with more technical finish, or more admirable expression, than now; and unsatisfactory, because the curtain closes in so unexpectedly brief a time upon a delightful episode in the present season.
(“Mr Chappell,” by the way, was the owner of St. James’s-hall, so any concert given there could conceivably be referred to as his.) The implication is that Mme. Norman-Neruda was scheduled to continue appearing at the Saturday afternoon concerts for some time longer than actually occurred in 1882. Holmes’s assumption seems more reasonable. Indeed, when Holmes returns from the concert, he doesn’t mention who performed:
He was very late in returning—so late, that I [Watson] knew that the concert could not have detained him all the time. Dinner was on the table before he appeared.
“It was magnificent,” he said, as he took his seat. “Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”
“That’s rather a broad idea,” I remarked.
The 1882 date clears up the difficulty of physically getting Watson from Maiwand to Baker Street in less than a year, but also corresponds with Watson’s glancing “over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ‘82 and ‘90” in “The Five Orange Pips.”
Now, there’s another point of contention among Holmes experts about the mention of Norman-Neruda, and that’s the piece that Holmes hums to illustrate her abilities. “What’s that little thing of Chopin’s she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.” This detail bugged Raymond Chandler no end; as he wrote to a friend in 1950:
. . . what did Chopin ever write for the violin at all? And even if in those comparatively civilized days (compared with ours) violinists had already descended to the vulgarity of arranging music for the violin which was never written for it, I find it hard to believe that so astute a lover of music as Mr Sherlock Holmes would pick out such an item out as worthy of mention, much less going to hear.
My own feeling is that Watson/Conan Doyle misheard Holmes, who was referring not to Chopin, but to Spohr—Mme. Norman-Neruda made a specialty of Spohr’s virtuoso violin works throughout her career. Maybe Holmes was humming this theme from Spohr’s 7th Violin Concerto:
Maybe not. But Chandler is right about how astute a music-lover Holmes is—all the more notable, since, as Watson notes, the rest of his knowledge is entirely along practical lines, to the point where he isn’t even aware of the Copernican theory of the solar system. In “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes takes a break from a progressing investigation to see Pablo Sarasate in concert (there has been some scholarly speculation that it was Holmes’s mention of both Sarasate and the future Lady Hallé that inspired the teenaged crime-story aficionado and aspiring poet Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto to adopt the name Pablo Neruda); in “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” we learn that he is an expert on Paganini; and at the end of “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” Watson tells us:
As to Holmes, he returned refreshed to his monograph upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus, which has since been printed for private circulation, and is said by experts to be the last word upon the subject.
Now, if you’re wondering as to the practicality of nearly 2000 words on the real-world accuracy of what is, after all, a work of fiction, first off, I say to you: you’re no fun anymore. But there is a philosophical point. In his 1993 Norton Lectures at Harvard (published as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco similarly gets under the hood of The Three Musketeers, trying to figure out exactly where d’Artagnan and Aramis live in Paris—the hang-up being that they seem to live on different streets, but it’s actually the same street with different names—the rue des Fossoyeurs and the rue Servadoni—in different historical periods. And this says something important about the susceptibility of us, the readers:
That [Sherlock] Holmes isn’t married we know from the Holmes saga—that is, from a fictional corpus. In contrast, that the rue Servadoni couldn’t have existed in 1625 we can learn only from the Encyclopedia; and the Encyclopedia’s information is, from the point of view of the textual world, irrelevant gossip. If you think about it for a moment, it’s the same sort of problem that was posed by the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.” We know very well as empirical readers that wolves don’t speak, but as model readers we have to agree to live in a world where wolves do speak. So if we accept that there are speaking wolves in the wood, why can’t we accept that there was a rue Servadoni in Paris in 1625? And in reality that’s what we do and what you continue to do if you reread The Three Musketeers, even after my revelations.
For Eco, the Encyclopedia represents our understanding of the actual world, and fiction isn’t built to expand that Encyclopedia. “The encyclopedic competence demanded of the reader,” he says, “is limited by the fictional text.” Or, as Eco puts it later, “fictional texts come to the aid of our metaphysical narrowmindedness”—which is a problem when fictional narrative strategies start to bleed into our perception of the actual world.
Eco tells the story of the British submarine Superb, which numerous press outlets reported as racing towards the Falkland Islands on the eve of that 1982 British-Argentine conflict, even though the ship, in reality, never left its base in Scotland. “Everybody cooperated in the creation of the Yellow Submarine,” Eco muses, “because it was a fascinating fictional character and its story was narratively exciting.” Eventually, Eco gets to the literary heritage of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and how that fiction’s perniciousness was reinforced by fitting a pre-existing narrative pattern that had wormed its way into popular consciousness. Eco warns of fiction’s habit of shaping our perception of life:
At times the results can be innocent and pleasant, as when one goes on a pilgrimage to Baker Street; but at other times life can be transformed into a nightmare instead of a dream. Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters.
“Our quest for the model author,” Eco proposes, “is an Ersatz for that other quest, in the course of which the Image of the Father fades into the Fog of Infinity, and we never stop wondering why there is something rather than nothing.” The fictional Dr. Watson caught a hint of this in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”:
I walked down to the station with them, and then wandered through the streets of the little town, finally returning to the hotel, where I lay upon the sofa and tried to interest myself in a yellow-backed novel. The puny plot of the story was so thin, however, when compared to the deep mystery through which we were groping, and I found my attention wander so continually from the action to the fact, that I at last flung it across the room and gave myself up entirely to a consideration of the events of the day.
Drew McManus at Adaptistration rather flatteringly named this space a winner of the “Premios Dardo” award, which is one of those chain-letter sorts of awards where a winner in turn hands the award to five friends, &c. You know, kind of like the Grammys. Neither Drew nor I are particularly sure when, where, and why the “Premios Dardo” originated (you know, kind of like the Grammys)—dardo means “dart” in Italian. But it also means this—
So the rules are, I get to name five other winners. Enjoy your tanks, honorees!
Tears of a Clownsilly. For being the blogger most likely to wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect, after which he would write a post about it that referenced Curtis Mayfield, Josef Hauer, and Richard Rorty, and would still make me laugh until coffee came out my nose.
Bradley’s Almanac. For letting me vicariously still feel like I know something about the Boston music scene, even though I’m old and like to be asleep by 11:00. In the morning, sometimes.
The View From Here. For intelligently holding down the fort in my old hometown until I return in glory, a combination of Lenin and MacArthur, to take the reins of absolute power to the deafening cheers of the grateful masses.
The final paragraph was cut for space—it’s not absolutely necessary, but I liked the comparison:
“In opera buffa, it usually ends when all the falsity is discovered,” Ganz goes on, “like the end of ‘Figaro,’ where everything is revealed, and all is happy.” But in “Simon Boccanegra,” falsity and division have done too much damage. “The truth is all revealed here, too, and I guess it’s redemptive, but it’s too late for a truly happy ending. It’s part of the price,” Ganz says. “And that’s also part of the truth of the story.”
In addition, one off-topic story: at one point, the discussion got sidetracked into a discussion about The Godfather, which, as it turns out, the entire executive board of the United Farm Workers went and saw one night when it first came out. “For about a year afterwards,” Ganz recalled, “every executive board meeting was mostly just acting out scenes from the movie. César [Chávez] used to end every discussion by saying, ‘We’ll just make them an offer they can’t refuse.'”
We’ll finish up inauguration week with this non-story that nevertheless made it to the front page of The New York Times:
The somber, elegiac tones before President Obama’s oath of office at the inauguration on Tuesday came from the instruments of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two colleagues. But what the millions on the Mall and watching on television heard was in fact a recording, made two days earlier by the quartet and matched tone for tone by the musicians playing along.
Lest any right-wing blowhards see this as cannon fodder, I should point out that George W. Bush did the same thing. I heard John Harbison, who in addition to his composing, is president of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, tell this story: the Fund got a call from the Bush inaugural committee, who wanted to do an arrangement of “Fanfare for the Common Man” for heraldic trumpets (you know, the kind you always see in movies about the Roman Empire—hmmm). Anyway, they replied no, we’ll license the original, but no arrangements. So at the inauguration, a recording of “Fanfare for the Common Man” was piped in while the heraldic trumpeters played, well, nothing. (Actually, given the Copland Fund’s disinclination to allow occasional arrangements, I wondered if Williams’ choice of “Simple Gifts” was not just an homage, but a deliberate replacement for Appalachian Spring.)
Given what little regard I’ve held for the rest of the previous administration’s actions, the fact that I found that merely an amusing story is a good sign that I don’t think there’s much to last Tuesday’s sleight-of-hand, either. Am I in a minority in not expecting presidential inaugurations to conform to the dictates of the Dogme 95 movement? But then, I’ve always regarded the theatrical nature of politics as intrinsic to the practice, not a dishonest added layer.
This is not to say that politics is nothing but stagecraft, but that effective politics is policy and stagecraft working together. It’s been interesting to watch Obama’s approach to stagecraft, especially the way that, as he’s gotten closer to power, he’s muted his talent for rhetorical flight: his convention acceptance speech was more sober than his keynote in 2004, and his inaugural address was more subdued than either. Obama seems to have an instinct for a fundamental rule of political theater: the inverse relationship between the effortfulness of stagecraft and the perception of substantive policy. Compare, for example, Bush’s Bruckheimer/Simpson “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier adventure with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s telegram announcing VE Day.
In fact, while Obama has been garnering comparisons with JFK, I think Eisenhower might also be a useful model. Eisenhower is an interesting case: someone with a mastery of language (he wrote speeches for MacArthur, for gosh sakes) who nonetheless primarily used that mastery to avoid obvious rhetorical effects rather than indulge in them. (Even Ike’s famously rambling press-conference answers, according to his press secretary, were purposeful obfuscations rather than aphasic incompetence.) The results weren’t always satisfying—I wish he had taken an earlier and stronger position against McCarthyism, for example, and his approach to civil rights was sometimes excessively cautious—but, on the other hand, by the end of his term, McCarthy was gone, and Brown v. Board of Education happened on his watch.
Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts”—which I rather liked, for the record—was certainly more introspective and modest than triumphal, which might signal just how much of the “No-Drama Obama” culture of the campaign will be imported into the new administration. If they adopt some measure of Eisenhower’s minimalist style, that’ll be just as much of an aesthetic choice as non-stop stirring inspiration would be—there may be a deliberate attempt to save the rhetorical high notes for particular situations. (After all, Eisenhower’s characterization of “the military-industrial complex” probably wouldn’t have resonated so deep if he had been prone to tossing off a lapidary phrase like that once a day.) But given that even newsreel footage of FDR’s fireside chats were re-staged and re-recorded, unless the purpose is fraudulent content, I’m not that concerned whether it’s live or on tape.
With the advent of an Obama administration, there seems to be an inchoate expectation—one, it should be said, based on not much concrete evidence as yet—that the arts are going to finally get the government attention they deserve, with the Quincy-Jones-inspired petition for a cabinet-level Arts Secretary probably the most prominent effort on the Web. I’ve always thought that was a good idea, on the grounds that a lack of high-level advocacy has contributed to the underfunding of arts initiatives. So what would constitute an appropriate amount of federal support for the arts? Well, you can calculate an intriguing ballpark figure based on, oddly enough, the auto industry. And according to the auto industry, the federal government should be annually funding the arts to the tune of twelve billion dollars.
It’s no secret that American automakers have been in trouble for some time. There’s a number of reasons why—the turning radius on the Chevy Cobalt we rented last week being but one datum—but the point is, with the economy gasping for breath like Violetta in Act III, the automakers have come, hat in hand, to beg for money from the government. And to make their case, they did what arts organizations like to do—they cited an economic impact study.
Last November, the Center for Automotive Research released a memorandum on what would happen if the Big Three automakers suddenly stopped or contracted production. Here’s what it had to say about the worst-case scenario—a complete cessation of operations within the next year:
In economic terms, the rapid termination of Detroit Three U.S. operations in 2009 would reduce U.S. personal income by over $150.7 billion in the first year, and generate a total loss of $398.2 billion over the course of three years. The impact of this personal income loss on fiscal government operations at the local, state and federal levels include an increase in transfer payments, a reduction in social security receipts and personal income taxes paid. The net impact of all three of these categories is negative on the government balance sheet, resulting in a loss to the government of $60.1 billion in 2009, $54.3 billion in 2010, and $42.0 billion in 2011—a total government tax loss of over $156.4 billion over three years.
That’s calculated from the loss of jobs in the car factories, indirect or supplier jobs, and spin-off jobs (those jobs that would be lost from the decline in income among the first two groups)—in other words, it’s an attempt to measure total economic impact on the affected communities. If you add up the three-year totals of lost income and lost tax revenue, you get a yearly average impact of $184.9 billion.
How’s that compare with the arts? Well, according to the 2007 Arts and Economic Prosperity III study by Americans for the Arts, arts organizations generate $104.2 billion annually in personal income, and $29.6 billion in tax revenue. That’s a yearly total of $133.8 billion.
So that means that the Big Three automakers’ yearly economic impact is about 1.4 times that of the “non-profit arts and culture industry,” as Americans for the Arts puts it. Which is interesting, since in the past year, the auto industry received 120 times as much federal money than the arts.
The bulk of the government’s bailout response to the financial crisis has been in the form of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP—that’s the $700 billion figure the media has been tossing around. According to The New York Times, out of that, $17.4 billion in loans so far is going or has gone to General Motors and Chrysler, two-thirds of the Big Three. (That doesn’t include automakers’ financing arms, such as GMAC.) For the record, the 2008 budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was $144.7 million.
Extraordinary times, apples and oranges, &c., &c.—but isn’t the crisis hitting arts groups just as hard? Maybe the Baltimore Opera isn’t too big to fail, but what about The Metropolitan Opera? The troubles of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles might pre-date the financial crisis, but so do the auto industry’s; does MOCA get a bailout? How about the Detroit Institute of Arts? Do the math: based on the TARP money collected by automakers and the relative economic impact, the corresponding amount of annual arts funding would be $12.4 billion. Do you expect the government to hit that mark? Me neither. But then the government ought to be telling us one of two things: either what makes the auto industry so special, or else what makes the arts so unloved.
With inauguration coverage currently on in the background, it’s the perfect time to quote Jacques Offenbach. No, really. The collocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the swearing in of the country’s first black president has occasioned much discourse on the state of race relations in the U.S., most of it somehow centered around whether we’re in a “post-racial” society or not. At the very least, we’ve turned a page, even if the book remains open—but the issue of race is so ingrained in American history that it’s hard to get an objective sense. Which is why my mind has been turning repeatedly over the past couple weeks to this very curious story that Offenbach relates from 1870s New York.
But I must not close this chapter on American theatres without mentioning a little hall where I heard the minstrels.
There all the actors are negroes; the chorus consists of negroes; the servants are negroes;—cashier, manager, superintendent, men and women, all black!
On sighting the stage, I perceived a negro orchestra, playing tunes more or less fantastic.
But great was my surprise on becoming aware that I was the object of their special attention, and that they were pointing me out to one another. I could not believe that I was known to so many negroes; but, nevertheless, I must confess I was delighted to find that such was the case.
The performance was sufficiently comical to induce me to remain to the end. What was my astonishment on returning, after the first act, to witness a renewal of the same manifestations towards me—that is to say, the musicians again pointing me out to one another. This time they were all white, as white as the bakers in the Boulangère. I became prouder than ever; but, alas! there was deception in store for me. I was informed they were the same musicians, and that, from the manager to the servants, they were nothing but sham negroes, who alternately painted and washed their faces three or four times every evening, according to the requirements of the performances.
Offenbach devoted a chapter of his travelogue to thoughts on the American ideal of liberty, alternately bemused—blue laws against Sunday drinking are a particular annoyance—and cutting. For example, this sarcastic report: “Negro emancipation is another grand reform! The dear negroes are free, perfectly free; let me tell you how,” he wrote. “They cannot enter either the cars or any other public conveyances; on no account do the theatres admit them; and if they are received in the restaurants, it is only to wait on the white guests. This is an illustration of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” But then again, Offenbach knew something of discrimination. He goes on:
The proprietor of the Cataract Hotel, at Niagara Falls, had the following advertisement inserted in the principal daily papers:
“Being a citizen of a perfectly free country, and having the right to do as I please in my own house, I have decided :
“First and only Article —’From and after this day, Jews will be excluded from this hotel.'”
As you might expect, Offenbach finds a way to get the last laugh: “It may be interesting to add,” he drily relates, “that after a lapse of two years this liberal hotel-keeper was compelled to give up his establishment for want of business.”
Offenbach’s observations are sanguine enough that I don’t begrudge him his wit, but, fundamentally, what provides him a target for poking fun—with varying degrees of force—is American idealism, and idealism is a pretty easy target: ideals are, almost by definition, rarely met.
Whether the incoming administration can live up to the enormous expectations placed on it remains to be seen. But this inauguration does live up to the “historic” epithet that’s been applied so it so often over the past weeks—not just because of race, not just because of the challenge of this particular moment in time, and not just because, so often over the past several years, the better angels of our nature seemed to be hopelessly on the defensive. It’s that, for one day at least, the grandiose nature of American idealism fuels more optimism than disappointment. That’s a history Americans are born into as well—and every so often, that subjective viewpoint becomes a privileged one.
On a cool Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama. It was one of those clear wintry days when the sun bedecked the skies with all of its radiant beauty. After starting out on the highway, I happened to have turned on the radio. Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera was on the air with a performance of one of my favorite operas—Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. So with the captivating beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti’s inimitable music, and the matchless splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive—especially when one is alone—was absorbed into meaningful diversions. . . . Not long after I arrived a friend was gracious enough to take me by the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where I was to preach the following morning. A solid brick structure erected in Reconstruction days, it stood at one corner of a handsome square not far from the center of town. As we drove up, I noticed diagonally across the square a stately white building of impressive proportions and arresting beauty, the State Capitol—one of the finest examples of classical Georgian architecture in America. Here on January 7, 1861, Alabama voted to secede from the Union, and on February 18, on the steps of the portico, Jefferson Davis took his oath of office as President of the Confederate States. For this reason, Montgomery has been known across the years as the Cradle of the Confederacy. Here the first Confederate flag was made and unfurled. I was to see this imposing reminder of the Confederacy from the steps of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church many times in the following years.
The Lucia Dr. King listened to on the way to Montgomery was broadcast on January 30, 1954, and featured Lily Pons as Lucia, Jan Peerce as Edgardo, and, as Normanno, James McCracken, who made his Metropolitan debut with this particular production.