Monday, September 13, 2010

Canon Holes

Until I brought my daughter to see the stripped-down, genius production of Our Town that just ended a marathon run at the Barrow Street Theater, I had never read or seen the play. Which is kind of amazing. But all too common.

I went to a good high school and a good college (one that imposed a "core curriculum" in which we were supposedly exposed to the basics) and was even a History and Literature major, yet I missed out
on a whole lot of classics. I know virtually nothing about Greek mythology, have only read one Faulkner novel (and didn't like it much), and have yet to read any Dostoyevsky -- just to name a few canon-holes that haunt me.

On the other hand, there was a nearby movie revival theater that every day showed a different double feature (Harold and Maude/King of Hearts, e.g.). One year I saw a mind-numbing 134 movies, including most of the works of Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Malick, et al.

Meanwhile, pop culture keeps churning out imperatives that you HAVE to see in order to participate in the national water cooler discussion. (A.O. Scott in the Times yesterday posited that TV has overtaken movies in this arena.) In college, some friends and I jokingly envisioned a future New Yorker cartoon of an old man rocking on a porch, captioned "The only person who never saw E.T."

As an adult, I have eschewed certain pop culture imperatives almost as an act of defiance -- I may be the only person who will never read The Lovely Bones or The Da Vinci Code, or who will probably never see Avatar. It's partly about not wanting to give my entertainment dollars where they've already made a fine profit, partly a mistrust of anything that massively popular. Partly, I'm sure, it's just misanthropy. But also I feel like there's still so much timeless material to digest -- like Michael Ritchie/Jerry Belson's brilliant seventies movie Smile, which I just caught up with thanks to TCM. And I can't believe I'd never seen it, considering how much I loved Ritchie's other movies The Candidate [see previous post] and Downhill Racer

I recently heard a terrific American Theater Wing interview with David Cromer, the deservedly lauded director of the Barrow Street Our Town (who, as it happens, dropped out of both high school and college). Cromer staged a lot of revivals before doing a new play, saying that with new plays, "You have to kiss a lot of frogs, and I'm not patient." He said the version of Our Town he used was, like many of his other productions, from the 1941 Modern Library book Sixteen Famous American Plays co-edited by Bennett Cerf. (Apparently, the Wilder estate wasn't thrilled that he used this version, as it was modified after publication.)

By total happenstance this summer in a used book shop, I found a $3 copy, and bought it. Here's its table of contents: They Knew What They Wanted, The Front Page, The Green Pastures, Biography, Ah Wilderness, The Petrified Forest, Waiting for Lefty, Dead End, Boy Meets Girl, The Women, "Having Wonderful Time," Our Town, The Little Foxes, The Man Who Came To Dinner, The Time of Your Life, and Life With Father.

I realized I have only seen three movies of these (Front Page, The Women and Dead End) and no productions of the rest. So -- more homework. Dostoyevsky will have to wait.

The whole point of Our Town is the evanescence of life and the importance of registering the meaning in the seemingly day-to-day. Thanks to the stellar production of the play (and to Cromer), I am inspired to skip a few more of today's frog-kissing diversions (after catching up with last night's Mad Men, of course) and chew on some more works that were meaningful 70 years ago, though of course some of them will have aged back into frogs.

What classics are missing from your brain shelf?


Biffles said...

David, I think that we all have canon lacunae (see, I majored in history and lit, too) -- nobody read ALL of that in school, and many of us chose to fill in holes selectively. For example, I've read all those plays because from the age of 13 or so on I read the "Best American Play" series that came out every year for years. I think that using our own interests/obsessions to fill in the w/hole, after what we were forced to read, is the way to go. And, although I have read The Lovely Bones, I have not read The Da Vinci Code or seen Avatar....or even The Matrix. Shocking.

Sal Nunziato said...

I never made it to college. I didn't even finish high school. But I went through a period when I felt I had to catch up on what I missed, at all costs. (3 weeks, sitting at the bar at the Hard Rock on 57th Street, reading David Copperfield, for example.)

I did read The Da Vinci Code and did not see Avatar. But that was because I was interested in The Da Vinci Code and could care less about Avatar.

Biffles says it well.

"...using our own interests/obsessions to fill in the w/hole, after what we were forced to read, is the way to go."

Postscript to the Hard Rock-

I forgot the book on the bar before I finished. I called them up to ask if it was returned to lost and found, and the woman replied, "David Copperfield? Do you really want it back?"