Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Of These Matters

In his 1956 New York Times review of Baldwin's novel, Giovanni's Room, Granville Hicks wrote:
      "Mr. Baldwin writes of these matters with an unusual degree of candor and yet with such dignity
       and intensity that he is saved from sensationalism."
 The 'matters' he was talking about were the romantic entanglement of the main character, Giovanni, a marginally employed bartender in Paris, who falls in love with an American tourist, David, who happens to be on vacation with his girlfriend/almost fiance. Hick's review was both generous and cautious.  Given the period and this culture's erotophobia in general and homophobia specifically this novel was not what was expected from the nation's preeminent young essayist on the Black Civil Rights movement.  

I've written a lot of literary and film reviews and I can feel Hicks shaping his words carefully so that his appreciation of Baldwin's work is clear.  He compares him to Proust and admires his style; at the same time he's quite restrained.  I haven't read other work by Hicks so I can't honestly say if this is he usual writing style or if it was a special tone for the New York Times and the anticipated backlash.

Although many people think I use Baldwin's words in the play--I don't.  The Granville Hicks quote is the only place where I use any words other than those of my imagination.  As I prepare to go to NYC to see the reading of the updated version of the play I reread the full review Hicks wrote. When I did I realized I had fallen in love with the quote and used it to help set up a monologue but I hadn't really taken in the full review. I had also not thought about what it probably took for him to write favorably about a "homosexual novel" featuring all white characters written by a young African American. 

Their New York City was a very different one from the one I'll visit next week.  In 1956 people still spoke in full sentences with words of more than one syllable. ( I meant that as a simple observation rather than being snarky,sorry.) And they wore shapely clothes and admired philosophy and ideas.  Okay, it was also segregated, still run by robber barons and who knows what other degrading history I've glossed over in my glowy look back!

But it is still NYC and theatre and actors and directors and audiences...and words.  So I am going to read some more Granville Hicks to find out who he was, how he came to understand Baldwin's novel and be brave enough  speak kindly of it in print.  Despite the censorious nature of the culture in which he made his writing career Granville Hicks understood that Baldwin was writing about "the rareness and difficulty of love" and wasn't afraid to say so.  That's what "Waiting for Giovanni" is about to and I hope someone will say that about it back east.

It will be fun to be back in Baldwin's...and Hicks' town!

Monday, January 2, 2012

A glorious greed

"The writer's greed is appalling. He wants, or seems to want, everything and practically everybody, in another sense, and at the same time, he needs no one at all."

James Baldwin's observation about a writer's need is both accurate and chilling.  In one sense Baldwin was thrusting his writing out into the world as if it was a life raft that could help float us to freedom.  In another way, just like many of us, the raft is also for him.  It's meant to buoy up ego, to help love find its way to him.  In the satisfaction of a story well told (whether fiction, non-fiction, poetry, song or play) comes a desperately craved moment of validation.

But it's only ever a moment.  Then the writer climbs back into a carapace and begins again, almost oblivious to the world outside, at the same time taking everything.  The cycle of how a play emerges from that hidden place inside a writer's life reveals that greed. It's a cycle that is shared by all the artists collaborating on the project.  Since it's rarely a straight line from typewriter to stage lights sometimes only the hunger the writer has inside can urge the work forward.  

"Waiting for Giovanni" grew out of a blend of those urgent needs--both Baldwin's(as they were perceived by me watching that raft float by) and my own.  I always imagine that I'm writing something that will maybe save someone's life...or change it...or at least give them something to think about for more than 10 minutes.  I push, cajole, call out...whatever it takes to get people to come sit in the audience and see what I have to say...what Baldwin still has to tell us.

After an amazingly successful run in San Francisco...sold out for almost the entire run...figuring out where it goes from there is not easy.  A theatre group in New York City is doing a public reading of W4G in January, and unlike the previous road the play has traveled now it is in the hands of someone else who is new to it.  The group will cast and direct and present their vision of  my vision of Baldwin's vision. Scary.  Magic.
It's only a reading; no commitment; I'm not even sure I can get any producer types to come and listen. I'm going to send off a newly edited version of the piece next week like it's a life raft and hope people need to climb on board.