Batavia, New York
When our friend the avant-garde playwright asked my wife to appear in his latest production, Lucine didn’t realize she was going to have to make her own abacus. No, she wasn’t playing Cleopatra’s accountant, but rather the modern châtelaine of a resort hotel on the shores of New York’s Chautauqua Lake, whose very name is redolent of uplift, of sedulous self-improvement, of the earnest aspirational Protestantism of the 19th-century Chautauqua movement — ‘the most American thing in America’, Theodore Roosevelt called it — whose spirit lives on in the nearby Chautauqua Institution.
Lucine and her castmates wore togas. (Don’t ask why; I don’t know.) The slippage of one actor’s toga led to a wardrobe malfunction à la Janet Jackson in the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The woman sitting next to me, whom I had met just minutes before, whispered urgently, ‘This may be too much information, but I can’t take my eyes off that man’s nipple.’ I nodded commiseratively, sipped my coffee and stared at the table.
Oh, and before I get to the Lesson to be Drawn from this Experience, I should mention that the play also featured a teenaged girl dressed as young Arthur Schopenhauer, reading passages of and glosses on the doleful Danziger’s impenetrable prose. One memorable line began, ‘Ontologically speaking…’
Meanwhile, my wife wandered the coffee house stage, shaking her head vigorously and muttering ‘Poodles, poodles, poodles’, which in my lowbrow enthusiasm I urged her to phrase in the way that Goober, cousin of television’s Gomer Pyle, had intoned ‘Judy, Judy, Judy’ when doing his Cary Grant imitation. Lucine’s actorly instincts, as usual, were superior to mine. (With a few clicks of this infernal machine upon which I am typing, we learned that Schopenhauer said that he preferred the company of poodles to ‘common bipeds’; literary mystery solved.)
You will not believe me when I say truthfully that it all came off just fine, a strange and wonderful production, despite the penultimate scene, a Japanese tea ceremony so interminable that the clocks ran backwards. Nothing quite like the magic of live theater, eh? Men’s nipples! A ‘Sez who? Sez me’ duet set to Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2! Arthur Schopenhauer gags!
To get in the mood, as it were, we visited the Chautauqua Institution a week before the show went up. Earnest lectures on the Issues of the Day were being delivered, consciences were being examined for Bad Thoughts, red MAGA hats and people who work as milkers or cashiers or black-toppers were nowhere in sight. We were mainlining mainline Protestantism. As we walked the winding avenues, past million-dollar summer homes, a middle-aged man aglow with edification greeted us. ‘We’re having talks this week about white privilege!’ he burbled.
‘That’s appropriate,’ said my wife, surveying the grounds.
Yes, the man really did say this. I could almost hear the strains of ‘Venus in Furs’ as I pictured him squealing ecstatically while a well-compensated and Ivy-credentialed person of color scourged his pale flesh with hot words of reproach.
We fled Chautauqua for the long ride home. We hadn’t time on this excursion into southwestern New York State to drop by neighboring Lily Dale, which also figured into the play. Lily Dale is the venerable spiritualist colony in which no one ever dies; or, if they do, they can be rung up on the spectral hotline for $100 an hour by a middling medium. Our house, 100 miles to the north, once was dwelt in by Genesee County’s most prominent early 20th-century spiritualists. When we bought it 27 years ago, the New Age divorcee who had saved it from the wrecking ball told us that it was haunted, and that ‘pixies and fairies frolic in the flower beds’. I’ve seen a few boozing it up in our kitchen now and then, but as far as I know they’ve left the flowers unmolested.
Schopenhauer meets Chautauqua is exactly what the theater world needs now: homegrown, grassroots, locally accented plays that bring to life the idiosyncratic America that Taylor Swift and Netflix and the Department of Homeland Security would bury under the rubble of plastic and paranoia.
A pertinent, pathetic story: in 2009, Rocco Landesman, President Obama’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, visited that Middle American metonym Peoria, Illinois. The purpose was to demonstrate the vitality of theater in the heartland. How did Peoria demonstrate said vitality? Perhaps with a play about native son Richard Pryor, or a fantasia on the farm equipment industry, or some punked-up medley of the mellow tunes of Peoria’s own Dan Fogelberg?
No. The community theater entertained him with a performance of Rent. How obediently they lapped up their betters’ sloppy seconds. The Peorians demonstrated their colonial servility, their abject and imagination-less acceptance of Mordor’s culture-widgets.
Ontologically speaking, they dead. The poodles, however, keep on barking.
This article is in The Spectator’s November 2019 US edition.