Wednesday, April 13, 2011
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
When James Baldwin’s first play, “The Amen Corner,” opened in 1965 its neighbors on Broadway represented the spectrum of dramaturgy: from “Danton’s Death” to “The Zulu and the Zayda” with Maurice Chevalier somewhere in the middle. Coming as it did from the pen of one of the major African American political essayists in the U.S. “The Amen Corner,” must have been kind of a surprise because the story’s central theme was not the internal workings of the Montgomery Bus Boycott or development of the sit in as strategy but rather the personal struggles of a woman preacher and her family. It felt almost like soap opera to some critics.
But soap is how the world turns! In many ways it is in the theatre that Baldwin most reflects his dramatic interior life that is kept at bay in his more intellectual essays and in his novels. Both “The Amen Corner” and “Blues for Mister Charlie” (1964) dig into the frayed emotional lives of the characters and the ‘movement’ is the context not the total content.
Baldwin’s approach presages Robin Morgan’s feminist credo: ‘the personal is political.’ Baldwin understood that “Freedom is personal… [it is]…a complex, difficult—and private—thing .” It is in his drama that Baldwin reveals a variety of personal vulnerabilities that might remain cloaked by his intellectual acuity in his books of essays.
“The Amen Corner” is, at its heart, an exposition of Baldwin’s personal struggle with religion and his family, especially his (step) father David. “Blues for Mister Charlie” is the cri de coeur of a man who’s spirit lives despite the brutal murders around him.
Baldwin’s other (and more obscure) play “Giovanni’s Room,” (WHOSE SCRIPT I’M SEARCHING DESPARATELY FOR!!!) is based on his novel. And despite it being set in Paris and its characters being white, not black, perhaps, it is the most personal of them all. The parallels between the novel’s progress and that of Baldwin’s emotional relationship with lovers in general and with the younger Swiss painter, Lucien Happersberger are both tenuous and obvious. Even though the novel predates their break up by several years I think it illuminates the kind of rejection Baldwin lived with all of his life and had come to anticipate. Certainly Lucien’s ambivalence about his sexuality didn’t inspire confidence in Baldwin. But evidence of the depth of Baldwin’s love for Lucien lies in the fact that he maintained a profound relationship with him despite his desertion of Baldwin to marry not just anyone—but Diana Sands, the star of Baldwin’s play, “Blues for Mister Charlie.”
The dramatic conclusion of the novel and the play—the death of Giovanni—does not neatly represent the more mundane resolution of Baldwin’s heartbreak—the two remained close friends as only queer people can do. The ending can, however, be read as a powerful evocation of the emotional turmoil through which Baldwin lived when, like his character Giovanni, he is abandoned by his lover and by the Black writers he admired.
It was with the publication of “Giovanni’s Room,” despite warnings that the homosexual nature of the central relationship would ruin his career that Baldwin finally comes fully into himself as an adult, African American man. The ghosts of religion, of his father (as represented by the many Black militants who disparaged him) and his own reservations are vanquished. It is this wholeness that might have aided him in living through the enormity of his heartbreak(s). Baldwin worked for many years on the theatrical adaptation of the book. The workshop production at the famed Actors Studio in New York in 1965 as well as another in Turkey did not result in the Broadway production Baldwin had hoped for. It did, however stand as a testament to the deeply emotional life that Baldwin lead and how insistent he was that the personal journey he made as a lover of men not disappear under his reputation as a writer of and about the Civil Rights Movement.
Having spoken out loud, Baldwin insures that his passion for life live on—both on the page and on the stage.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
“I starved in Paris for a while, but I learned something. For one thing I fell in love.”
So James Baldwin is quoted in Randall Kenan’s biography (Chelsea House), and it’s there that I started thinking about Baldwin’s relationship to his novel, “Giovanni’s Room.”
The beautiful symmetry of the idea of starving being balanced by falling in love is amazingly simple yet fully expressive of the experience. Love fills you up in a way that nothing else can…not even French food.
“Giovanni’s Room” was a revelation in 1957—it was written by an African American man; was set in Paris and about the love affair between two men...not African American men. Editors, activists, anyone who could catch his ear warned Baldwin against publishing the novel. It would ruin his career…they said. Writing for magazines; activism in the Civil Rights Movement; career as a novelist—all threatened according to naysayers.
In some ways that response is not surprising in the context of the brutality evidenced in that historical moment: The US military had to be used to escort young Black kids to whites-only schools. Fourteen-year old Emmett Till was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi because he was suspected of speaking to a white woman. Demonstrators found themselves assaulted by bone-cracking fire hoses. Realtors and neighborhood associations conspired to keep neighborhoods white. Every ugly impulse that had remained unspoken was now howling across the country.
Underlying much of the anxiety, treachery and betrayal of human rights was/is acute erotophobia. The Puritan roots of US culture are insidiously destructive; they helped keep women in the kitchen, to make birth control almost unattainable, keep victims silent about sexual abuse, prevent sex education in schools…and on and on. All this while women were increasingly objectified as if that would contain and control the danger of sexual desire.
The convoluted nature of this culture’s relationship to sexuality and how it was visited on Black slaves makes it understandable that African Americans did not want to hear a story about sexual desire and certainly not between two men.
But as Baldwin said: he fell in love. It was with Lucien, a charming, handsome Swiss nascent painter, eight years his junior who he met in a sketchy Parisian bar frequented by what he called “ambivalent men.” It was the full feeling of love that Baldwin was working his way toward expressing.
“Giovanni’s Room” is not a happy-forever-after tale but the core of the story is the inexorability of love. It is a love that has the certainty of the tides which must be recognized. This is what people were afraid of in the 1950s as they warned Baldwin not to publish his book. This is what people are afraid of today when they pass laws decreeing who can be family to whom. Or when they bash queer people on the street.
Things have changed and yet they haven’t.
But Baldwin published the book and it’s still in print more than 50 years later. Giving credence to one of my favorite rallying cries from the early Gay Pride marches: An army of lovers can not fail!