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In Praise of Robert Lowell

The Old Glory

by Robert Lowell, directed by Jonathan Miller
American Place Theater

Obviously, we cannot ask that reviewers from the Manhattan dailies know a great play from a bad one. Few people ever have managed that. How expect it of a man, largely untrained, who must rush to his office after a single performance and deliver sentence without time to think or question his feelings? It is probably too much, also, to ask that reviewers recognize great dramatic direction. That demands a conceptual and emotional grasp over a total work of art. How expect that from a man who has given his life to the socalled communication media—that is, to the control and prevention of anything exceptional (including excellence) in thought or feeling? I had hoped that we could demand the ability to discriminate great acting. Yet even a country boy like myself should have known they would either ignore it, or would praise it together with inferior work, so keeping the world safe for mediocrity.

My first response to the reviews of Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory—especially the reviews by Taubman and Kerr—was simply to shriek, “Foul!” But what could anyone have expected? To begin with, I am not sure that there was any need to invite the daily reviewers; the American Place Theater has both foundation support and a subscriber list. If such reviewers are invited unnecessarily, we can only attribute that to advanced masochism. If one is shocked by their reviews, we must attribute that to a delight in righteous indignation. Yet many worthy dramatic performances must invite these reviewers and ask their support; that may be the case here. Many have fared far worse than Lowell’s plays. Some have hoped that if we complain loudly enough, these reviewers would be replaced. Ridiculous. They are doing exactly what they are paid for. Almost every large organization in the culture is dedicated to enthroning and perpetuating mediocrity; this is true of armies, industries, universities, and most especially the communication media—they must control, by suggestion, a populace which has more freedom than it can use or bear. It is no surprise that this control becomes immediately a weapon to stomp out excellence and preserve the comfort and security of a mediocre public and its mediocre controllers. It would surprise us only if these media should pick reviewers who could encourage fresh perception, fresh ideas, an open competition of wits and insight. You can’t expect self-sacrifice.

Then let not thy heart be troubled. Expect your opponent to act after his nature, or you become victim to your own rage. If you must sit down by these people, bring the long spoon. You may get lucky and grow strong, whereupon they will come over and join you. Then you have got problems!

The Old Glory by Robert Lowell touches at least tangentially upon this. It consists of two plays: My Kinsman, Major Molineux, based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story; and Benito Cereno, based on Herman Melville’s novella. Their opening on November 1 was the first full-scale production by the American Place Theater—which was specifically conceived to present work by new American poets, fiction writers, and playwrights. The occasion was an immense success. I have never been in a more excited and hopeful audience. We may yet have a theater of our own, and a body of plays which later times will want to preserve. Add this new creative theater, add Robert Lowell, Jonathan Miller, Lester Rawlins, and Roscoe Lee Browne to the best of the playwrights, directors, and actors already on the scene, and we have every reason to hope for at least ten years of real creative vigor. But we must also expect opposition from those who would suffer or perish in such an atmosphere.

When Jonathan Miller decided to come here and direct Lowell’s plays he was warned by British friends that the one thing he could not hope for was an ensemble performance. That, precisely, is what this company gave him. Each member moved energetically to strengthen his own part within the total fabric of tensions; at no point did individual egotism break or strain that fabric. One would have thought the company had played together for years.

This ensemble excellence was led, in Benito Cereno, by two most satisfyingly brilliant performances: Lester Rawlins as the Yankee skipper Amasa Delano, and Roscoe Lee Browne as Babu, the revolted Negro slave. Rawlins has a tremendously complex role: at once shrewd and blundering, worldly and provincial, just and vengeful. He unfolds the character with a splendid command of gesture, of bearing, of vocal range and idiosyncracy. As vocal creator, he seems at least the equal of of Ellis Rabb or Paul Sparrer. By the end of the evening, Amasa Delano was considerably more real than most of my acquaintances.

Roscoe Lee Browne, as Babu, has a less complex role—he must portray chiefly two opposed qualities: a cunning pretense of servility and the final change to savage rage. The complexity lies in Babu’s relation to the audience. Browne plays him so cannily, so charmingly, that even while we know he is cheating us, we cannot will him to stop. This helps us understand Delano’s dilemma, and makes his final slaughter of Babu an act of tragic implication. Evil Babu may be; we sympathize both because he was oppressed, and because he is so charming an oppressor. Besides, it is an infinitely poorer world without him. His death implies not only the impending death of Benito Cereno, the noble Spaniard with whom he has exchanged oppressions, but also the weakening of Captain Delano, who in committing this act threatens the freedom of his own mind and compromises the benevolence of his authority. This accounts for that unforgettable, eerie wail which follows Babu’s death and which ends the play. Much of this thematic richness proceeds directly from the energy and charm of Browne’s performance.

Yet all this brilliance might be mere distraction without Jonathan Miller’s direction. He becomes, at once, one of our very finest directors. This is more obvious in the first play of the evening, My Kinsman, Major Molineux, where his contribution is so great that we must almost consider it a collaboration. This play, which Lowell describes as a political cartoon, is about a young man, Robin, who comes to Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, looking for his kinsman who is governor of the British forces. As he searches the city for the man who represents, to him, authority and temperate rule, he meets all the various figures of a people moving toward violence. Major Molineux, by the time Robin finds him, is already in the hands of the rioters.

The problem in staging this is the passivity of Robin—he can only hunt, and not even that very actively. The interest must lie in what he sees and what is done to him, not in what he does at least until the last moment. Miller meets the problem admirably—by treating the play lyrically, much like a ballet, or media dell’ arte. All the characters, excepting Robin and his brother, are made up and costumed in black and white. Those who do not wear characterization wigs, wear white skulls painted to show the internal partitioning of the brain into sections and stereotypes. Next, all movement and speech has been highly stylized and the whole brilliantly lighted and set to briskly satirical music. Not for a second are we dealing with the historical city of Boston. These are abstractions to be found in any state and, more important, in the internal society a man forms from the conflicting forces of his own emotions.

At the play’s climax stand two crucial scenes—in the first, Robin sees his kinsman savaged and killed by the natives. Standing to one side, horrified, he pleads for the Major’s life—yet unconsciously holds before himself the snake-flag of rebellion. Shortly after, despite the horror he has witnessed, he decides that he will stay, after all, and live in this bloody and rebellious city. It is a shocking decision; perhaps both the play and the production hurry over these two crucial scenes too swiftly for the audience to grasp their full significance. I can’t complain much—it was the most exciting production I’ve seen in ages.

Let me return, then, to the crucial question—Benito Cereno, which Lowell describes as a realistic tragedy. Most readers surely know the Melville novella, but a few words’ summary may help, especially since there are differences. The Yankee captain, Amasa Delano, boards a disabled Spanish ship to find its captain, Don Benito Cereno, apparently overcome by misfortune—storms, clams, yellow fever, scurvy—and only kept on his feet by the constant attentions of his faithful Negro servant, Babu, Gradually, however, Delano realizes that the ship has really been taken over by its cargo of Negro slaves; Babu is in actual command. After being captured and forced to watch the butchering of the Spanish crew, Delano manages to recapture the ship. Finally, in an act of pure vengefulness (though taunted to it by Babu, himself), he kills the revolted Negro.

The two plays, then, are thematically related: each is a search for the figure of paternal authority and goodness in power—Don Benito Cereno or Major Molineux—who is already in the hands of rebellious powers which will destroy him. The endings, however, differ, although each involves a shocking choice: where Robin decides to live as best he can among revolutionaries, Captain Delano destroys them. This suggests one possible distinction between comedy and tragedy.

Yet, finally, I do not think Benito Cereno is a tragedy. True, it has much of the effect—the cumulative power, the near-choral effects of the Negro slaves, the measured movement, the gloriously resonant language, the profound political and psychological implications. Still, I feel it is a different kind of play—just as I feel The Trojan Woman is not a tragedy, and for a similar reason. It does not deal with the man who acts, but with the man who observes or suffers. Tragedy deals with the person who commits a terrible deed (MacBeth, Medca, Ocdipus); with the Id and our need to purge it. Like Major Molineux, this play centers on the ego-character, Amasa Delano. I suspect that a tragedy would either have to focus upon Babu, who does great wrong, or upon a more extended investigation of Delano’s act in killing Babu. Sophocles’ Electra, for instance, ends with a similar murder, but we have been expecting (and partly desiring) that act through the whole play. Delano’s act is comparatively unpremeditated and, dramaturgically, somewhat arbitrary: a surprise ending on stage demands more preparation than in a story or poem since the audience can’t set its own pace.

This is related to a problem of the play’s texture—one which all the reviewers except Richard Watts bitterly complained against: the central section of the play is long and somewhat dull. While watching it, one is sure that is a flaw. Later, however, when the ending comes down with such rockslide force, one cannot be sure. I, at least, can’t tell how much of the final power was developed during passages which seemed dull at the time. I am reminded of something Bertrand Russell wrote:

All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives contain uninteresting stretches. Imagine a modern publisher confronted with the Old Testament as a new manuscript submitted for the first time…”My dear sir,” he would say, “this chapter lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little….Pick out the high lights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length. So the modern publisher would speak, knowing the modern reader’s fear of boredom. He would say the same sort of thing about the Confucian classics, the Koran, Marx’s “Capital”, and all the other sacred books which have proved to be best sellers. Nor does this apply only to sacred books. All the best novels contain boring passages. A novel which sparkles from the first page to the last is pretty sure not to be a great book.

I want to reserve judgment on this point, but I do have some speculations. If a fault, it is certainly not to be cured as the reviewers suggest—by having people onstage bash each other with shovels.

Though the mind has periods of calm or depression, that is not because nothing is happening, but because the action has gone underground. In Melville’s novella, a certain suspense is maintained because Captain Delano is busy searching for underground activity. In Lowell’s play, however, Delano gives over the role of searcher to his bosun, and himself sits on deck to be passively “entertained” by Babu and his fellow slaves. These “entertainments,” I suspect, may not adequately advance the play. From almost the beginning, the audience has known what happened aboard the Spanish ship. The hints given by the “entertainments” do not yield that sort of excitement; neither do they inform us why Babu wants to give clues and hints, nor why Delano won’t understand what we have long known. They defect our interest from Delano to Babu without, I fear, adequately deepening our understanding. At the same time, this movement of interest and empathy from one character to another has not yet become so demanding a feature of the play that it can supersede other tendencies of meaning.

Changes made since the script was published in Show magazine have very much strengthened the play’s thematic unity. At the same time they have reduced the melodramatic rise toward violence in this mid-section of the play. I think this a step in the right direction, yet it is possible that the effect intended to replace that melodrama may not yet be fully realized.

I hasten to interpose, however, that one would never raise such questions about most American plays, any more than one would ask whether they are tragedies. This play aims at levels of response most of our plays dream not of. The crux lies in Lowell’s mastery of language. Here is none of the bilge Williams or O’Neill calls poetry. Here, instead, is language of absolute rightness to its speaker which, yet, broadens his range of reference into a universe of discourse. Again, here is a theme profound enough for tragedy: the establishment of order in the state and the psyche at the cost of killing off the energetic and rebellious forces. Amasa Delano dares not consider the justice of Babu’s claims, the brilliance of his savagery. What else but failure of that kind leaves us in the doldrums of mediocrity?

After the opening, two nights before the election, someone compared Captain Delano to L.B.J.—which, though unfair to Johnson, does enlighten the play. Things seem to be looking up. Johnson, Lowell, Miller, American Place—I hope they all stick around for a while. The world doesn’t often give you a second chance like this.

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