Friday, November 09, 2007

Camino Real

TO SAN FRANCISCO THE OTHER NIGHT, there to see, for the first time in just short of fifty years, Tennessee Williams's play Camino Real. This is not the Williams you know, the Williams of The Glass Menagerie, or The Rose Tattoo, or A Streetcar Named Desire. Those plays, however heightened their expression may be, are more or less realistic.

Camino Real is purely fantastic. In two acts divided into sixteen scenes, referred to by the play's on-stage commentator Gutman as "blocks," it depicts a time-travel collision of familiar characters—Don Quixote, Casanova, the lady of the Camellias, and the average-Joe Kilroy—stranded in a broken-down Spanish-language third-world provincial town, on a bleak plaza between the sleazy Siete Mares hotel-restaurant on one side and the flophouse Ritz Men Only upstage on the other, hoping for a seat on a flight that may or may not get them out of this Godforsaken place before Death, in the offstage menace of the Streetcleaners, hauls them off into Forgetfulness.

We were interested in seeing it because just short of fifty years ago I wrote incidental music for a production of the play at the Uinversity of California, Berkeley. I think this was done by the theater arts department of the school, though I can't be sure. A friend, Arlyn Christopherson, had seen an announcement in the student newspaper, the Daily Californian, to the effect that music was wanted for a student production of the play. I applied, was interviewed by the director—Robert Goldsby, who went on to greater things—and somehow persuaded him, or more likely was persuaded by him, to read the script, attend the blocking rehearsals, and come up with some music.

It's a long time ago, and the music is not at hand. There were several cues: a languorous 15/8 blues in g minor for saxophone and accompaniment and the Streetcleaners' strident take-offs on the Dies irae (scored for sopranino recorder, because the flutist didn't have a piccolo) are the only ones I recall.

Nor did I recall the play, apart from a couple of the characters. But Wednesday night at Actors' Theatre, in San Francisco, perhaps half the lines drifted through my mind just a fraction of a second before I heard them delivered on stage. It was an eerie experience, made eerier by my proximity to a dear old friend who I met through the experience, for he played flute (and sopranino recorder) in the band.

I wrote about all this in my memoir:
In any case I soon found myself cobbling together a series of musical vignettes for this production of Tennessee Williams’s early, experimental play Camino Real, an odd, vaguely Symbolist thing whose meaning eluded me entirely but whose magical mood lent itself to my imagination. I was to provide the orchestra as well as the music, so I kept the forces small: trumpet, violin, flute, bassoon, piano and drums. In Santa Rosa I had already improvised a moody, jazz-like blues in five-four time, heavily influenced by Carma’s beloved Music for Barefoot Ballerinas, and it was easy to adapt that to this new purpose. I wrote out a short instrumental introduction to the play, and peppered the action with a number of shrill parodies of the Dies irae, for Death was a prominent member of the cast.

It was fascinating to attend the early rehearsals, the readings and the blocking. I’d met, somehow, a pianist, Duncan Pierce, who was willing to play reductions of my score at the rehearsals; and through him I found a trumpeter, Phil Lesh, already a member of the musician’s union and therefore required to participate in this unpaid work under a pseudonym (he would later trade trumpet for bass guitar and help found The Grateful Dead). I don’t remember where the bassoonist came from. Duncan took on the percussion part as well, and even provided his own bongos.

Someone had told me that the flutist in the Oakland Symphony, Jean Zeiger, was willing to play new music for nothing, and I called on her, encouraged by the fact that she lived on North Street, across the street from the one childhood home I remembered fondly. But her schedule didn’t permit her to help, and she recommended a student, Kendall Allphin, who lived in a shabby apartment in a Victorian cottage down on University Avenue, next to the big lot, now empty, that had been a coal-and-feed store before the War, where Dad had sewn up burlap sacks for a living when I was born.

This recommendation was the most lasting and wonderful event associated with my first appearance as a composer, for Kendall became our closest friend. I spent hours at his apartment, with Lindsey and without her, and he spent hours at ours, almost always with a jug of cheap red wine that we bought in those days for seventy-five cents a gallon, supply your own jug. He was funny and smart, musical and well-read. He was a New Englander with a broad New England accent, and had flunked out of MIT and gone to the arty Reed College in Oregon, and had as many anecdotes to tell about his early college days as I did not have about mine.

He played passable flute, but could not play the piccolo, so he resorted to a sopranino recorder for those Dies irae cues. He was supporting himself, after a fashion, by giving recorder lessons, mostly to elderly wives of University faculty — a tiny but regular income that would later be passed on to me.
Kendall remains, of all this ragtag pit-band: a true friend, drinking buddy, arguist. We were witnesses at his wedding, a few years later; we dine together every New Year's Eve, we four, aging together against the odds.

And we all went last Wednesday to see Camino Real; perhaps we will every fifty years. The play makes more sense now than it did a half-century ago—more sense and less. Like so many other things—La Dolce Vita; surrealist poetry; women; symbolic logic—it is less mysterious, more stupid. Well, not stupid in every case, but deflated of its exoticism. And the streetcleaners are both more shrill and less, more physically present, in a sense, yet less menacing.

* * *

AN ARTICLE IN THE CURRENT issue of Preservation magazine, Anne Matthews's "How did this old place sound?", considers the sounds and silences of places from the past, and introduces to me the Japanese concept mono no aware, which I should have known but didn't. I looked it up at Language Hat, which I depend on for such things, and was directed to a post by Jonathon Delacour, whose blog is clearly one to be read.

I'm not sure Camino Real, or, more precisely, seeing it once again after nearly half a century, represented mono no aware for me, or more precisely awakened that emotion in me. It certainly isn't the emotional content Tennessee Williams meant the play to arouse, I'm sure of that; there's too much fight in it for that—it's more like Williams's dramatization of the mood of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," whose other recurring line, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light", has always seemed undignified to me; undignified and ungrateful. And, come to think of it, perhaps this was also part of Williams's take on Thomas; and perhaps part of the mysterious power of Camino Real comes from the tension of that ambivalence.

Whatever the source of the mystery, a great deal of its expression, I realize now, especially having just read Anne Matthews's article, is in the silences between the sounds of Williams's poetic dialogue. The poetry is often intentionally bathetic: "Do you call that a kiss?" "I call it the ghost of a kiss: it will have to do." But the lines themselves, however plain and commonplace they are, rise beyond their everyday prose because of the silences and the rhythms of the dialogue in which they're set. Camino Real is a very musical play, even without the music I wrote for it so long ago—music no one asked me to supply to this production, bien entendu.

Actor's Theatre did a good job of the piece, barring a bit of overplaying here and there among the minor characters. The production, like the play, gains as one's memory reconsiders it. It's worth seeing: details here.

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