Kenneth Rexroth

Three Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1960

Jean Genet and Ornette Coleman

What did you see in Babylon, father, father? Not an awful lot. Most of my time was spent doing programs and rounding up future program material for WBAI, our own KPFA’s new sister. The big news in New York right now is WBAI’s impact on the city. It is blowing the dust out of a lot of musty corners and whistling through a number of rat holes and the New Yorkers don’t know what to make of it. At least the Establishment doesn’t. Most of the holders of imaginary power in highbrow New York circles haven’t had a new idea since they were expelled from the John Reed Club in the late ’30s, and they persist in trying to fit us in their broken strait jackets of worn-out ideas.

The audience response, on the other hand, has been terrific. But this is all old stuff to people in northern California who have been listening to KPFA for ten years. Louis Schweitzer, the man who gave us the station, was certainly news to me. He is one of the most vital men I have ever met, and the only man of great wealth I ever heard of who is totally committed to direct action social responsibility. Just eating lunch with him is thrilling — but that’s a long story and should be a column by itself.

There is a big show of Monet at the Museum of Modern Art which will be showing up in San Francisco one of these days. It is fine to see, good to come back to Monet after many years (I grew up in Chicago, which is full of Monets) and enter once more into these paintings entirely given over to the movement of light and air. Monet is worth looking at for what he had to say on his own terms, not as an “influence” on Philip Guston.

Theater? I can’t recall, offhand, anything in the world that interests me less than the commercial Broadway theater. Once in a long while I get enticed into one of these things and I have never been able to get the joke. Off Broadway right now is pretty tame. Most of it is routine Little Theater Chekhov and O’Neill and all that. There are a couple of corny reworkings of the Classics — Don Juan and Orestes, to wit. Me, I may be over-refined, but I think they’re vulgar. Then there is Genet’s The Balcony, which is a horse of another color. Genet, as you may have read, is a reformed thief and stud-roller who learned to write in prison and who has a lovely talent for blarney that would put Jack Kerouac to shame. Most of it, besides, is about subjects of low life, nasty, brutish and short, which would scare that innocent young man out of his sandals.

This play is about a brothel whose inmates pay money to act out charades of authority. Gas men who dress as bishops, plumbers as judges, clerks as generals. (Don’t believe the news weeklies, it’s about as sexy as a VD clinic.) The exigencies of a passing revolution force them to assume their make-believe roles for real, and the old struggle of the two levels of the Social Lie rolls over and begins again. The actors are a bit highfalutin, but they create a powerful illusion. Once you have escaped from it, you immediately begin to wonder, “Is this true?” It isn’t. Society is stuffed as full of evils as a Christmas goose of prunes and nuts, but these evils are not liable to so simple an indictment. Completely rash overstatements like this are sentimental, and so the play is melodrama or farce and not great comedy. But what a gift of gab! And what theatricality! There in the small nightclub floor-show “stage” of the Circle in the Square, Genet creates an all-mastering illusion by sheer force of words. It is a little like Marlowe or Thomas Kyd, the old intoxicating Elizabethan rant. I’d like to tape it and broadcast it on KPFA. And I hope they do it here very soon.

The best thing on this trip was the music of Ornette Coleman. This is the young man who, almost single-handed, has launched one of those periodic revolutions without which jazz would become a sport of musicologists. He is playing the Five Spot to jam-packed audiences every night, rain or shine, a large percentage of them other musicians. It is significant that the top-notchers, Coltrane, Mingus, the Adderly brothers, and the rest, all think he is terrific.

The second string, especially the perennial side men of the bop revolution, think he is a fake. The reason, of course, is that they have a vested interest in their own stale novelties and are terrified of being crowded at the trough. I was a little dubious myself, and recently asked John Lewis during a radio interview, “Is Coleman really good?” He answered simply and flatly, “Yes, he is just as good as they ever come.” If you know music — can read score or whatever — all you have to do is listen. This is jazz that uses every musical resource, dissonance, polyrhythm, twelve-tone scales, polytonality, special tone color effects — everything you can find and pull out of four musical instruments.

Coleman himself, as you may know, plays a plastic saxophone with a special fleshy tone color, and he makes it do tricks like Yma Sumac. He pushes it back and forth to the absolute limits of its range, it gulps and scoops and vibrates — Paul Whiteman would have given a lot of money to have had some of these effects in the concert version of “Oh, By Jingo,” but with Coleman it is never corny, because the end in view is an enriched musical experience, not a trick.

Modern jazz is mostly harmony-oriented, most numbers are really toccatas or chaconnes — “Theme and Variations.” Seldom do you get even the rather thin melodic and contrapuntal interest of the best Dixieland.

Ornette Coleman has restored melody to jazz. Even his new drummer, Blackwell, weaves a constantly varying percussion melody around the other instruments. Hayden’s bass is even more melodic, very seldom is it just pedaling, usually something is happening, vital elements are being built into the melodic structure. Besides, like all the others, he pulls all the color out of the instrument he can get. Midway in the first number I suddenly pricked up my ears and looked at his hands. He wasn’t using the conventional positions at all, but crawling up and down the long neck of the bass like a crab. The results were wonderful. I just hope he doesn’t get a permanent bursitis. People always ask, “What is that thing Don Cherry plays?” He tells them it is a Pakistani yeti whistle or some such tale. It is a triple-curled B-flat horn which must require a superhuman head of wind to blow, especially since he plays it with a flat, dry embouchure that makes it sound like imaginary music.

All this is just to let you know, not that I am “in the know,” but that contrary to what you might have heard, nobody in jazz knows better what he is about than these four men. Most important, it isn’t a lot of scrambled Boulez and Monteverdi. It is jazz, funkier far than jazz has been in a long time. You could not only dance to it, you could roll and bump to it. It is even unconsciously “folkloristic.” The whole group is from the Southwest, and behind them you can hear the old bygone banjos and tack pianos, and the first hard moans of country blues — you can even hear modern Texas dance bands, Johnny Ace and Lloyd Price. I have not spent such nights of pure musical joy and excitement since we used to get together at Farwell Taylor’s or Jack Bryant’s cellar joint and work out the first patterns of the new jazz that came at the end of the war. For years Ornette Coleman wandered up and down the Coast and nobody would hire him. If the Hawk or the Workshop doesn’t get him here soon, I’ll rent a hall myself.
[May 8, 1960]

The Execution of Caryl Chessman

Once in a while it may do us good to look back at a catastrophe or crisis from the perspective of a few days of past time.

While I was traveling around the country observing the growth of new unity and purpose in other communities, California was marching, step by step, towards an act of social disintegration of such folly and waste that hardly an informed person believed that it would ever really happen. The victim is dead and his agony, however horrible, was a matter of brief time. Men die far worse deaths every minute. His executioners are ruined and demoralized men. The society which produced this act is now in permanent bitter conflict with itself, a conflict which shall not be resolved until the possibility of at least this form of mass psychosis is done away with forever.

Someone once said that the English Puritans objected to bear-baiting, not because of the pain it caused to the bear, but because of the pleasure it gave to spectators. He was under the impression he had scored a witty point against the Puritans. I am about as far from being a Puritan as can be imagined, but I think this principle is one of the foundations of all social ethics. Vindictiveness, terror, persecution, cruelty often ennoble their victims; they always degrade the society in which they are permitted to flourish. The society which institutionalizes them eventually perishes. They are like voluntary cancers, these institutions, and the day of reckoning is certain, and usually soon. War-crazed Assyria, Revolutionary France of the Terror, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, how quickly the day of retribution comes! Vindictive false justice gets its own vindication from history.

I am not what is usually called a religious man, but any discussion of capital punishment demands a more or less religious approach, because it is itself a religious rite. It is the ancient rite of the scapegoat, one of the oldest ways in which society atoned for its own sins and assuaged its own guilt. Today we are no longer men of the Late Stone Age, and however much it may once have served the purpose of social hygiene, today it has turned into its opposite. It intensifies all the guilts rampant in society, it identifies every man in the community, not with acts of social good, not with penance and amendment of life, but with a deliberate act of positive evil. This is why, in the historic cases of Dreyfus, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, the Reichstag Fire Trial, the Moscow Trials, the public cry for blood has mounted, not diminished, as the conviction of the victims’ innocence spread through society. The catechism speaks of a sacrament as an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual reality. The shocking ceremoniousness of capital punishment is the outward visible sign of a kind of anti-sacrament, a real Black Mass, which drives men apart, each to his own guilty vengeance, and which is always there, gnawing at the sources of communion amongst men like a rat, like a cancer.

“It doesn’t hurt, it will be over in a minute,” the warden and the chaplains say. What has this got to do with it? Stalin, crazy with blood, at least killed his victims shamefully, in secret cork-lined cellars. The issue is not the death of a man or a few minutes of agony. We have used science to ensure the ceremoniousness of this rite.

The beginning of the Machine Age gave us the guillotine, electricity gave us Sacco and Vanzetti, biochemistry gave us Caryl Chessman, as physics gave us Hiroshima. Go back and read the eyewitness stories of the 2nd of May. What is shocking is not the gruesome death, far from painless, far from quick, far from silent, but the demonic liturgy, the ritual performance, which involves society directly in responsibility — you and me, personally, in vengeance and the absolute rejection of charity — without which, as was once observed, we are only empty vessels of sounding brass — robots, automatons.

What about our proxies, the men who took our responsibility? As happened once in the Sanhedrin, they have chosen expediency and it has ruined them. There is one man who will never be President or vice president, there is another who will never be governor, there is another who has thrown away the confidence of his race. How easy, we think, it would have been to have acted nobly. How easy to choose the greater ultimate good than the lesser immediate good. Do we? You and I, individually? Which is more important, water rights, elections, conventions, or the power to rise and become, in the words of Anatole France, “a moment in the conscience of mankind”? Over that weekend many people held before the eyes of the Governor the great example of Governor Altgeld, who destroyed himself politically by an act of moral courage and so became one of the few heroes who have ever held public office. Does this present man, now that the great opportunity has passed, turn over and over in his mind a parody of Vachel Lindsay’s greatest lines, “Sleep softly, partridge forgotten, under the red tape”?

What about the living man, the man who committed the act, who was our unbloodied hand? Let us not forget that society does not kill the criminal, some single actual man does it — not for an abstract society, but for you and me separately and severally.

And us, you and me, finally, who choose the easy way out when the way of responsibility and love is too difficult? We are the ones who suffer permanently in gas chambers and on gallows as long as they endure. The victims are soon dead. The most heart-rending words in the chanting of the Passion in the Catholic Church in Holy Week are not “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” but three terrible syllables, in answer to the question, “Shall I let this just man go, or shall I give you the robber Barrabas?” and the people answered, you and I answered, “Barrabas.”

Vengeance is sweeter than justice, and easier to come by, but it is deadly and certain poison.
[May 15, 1960]

Kabuki Theater

This coming week the Kabuki Theater from Japan will be here, and in our family, for one, we are all going. Our two little girls are devoted to Oriental theater and we go to all the shows in Chinatown and to Japanese and Chinese movies, at least to those that reproduce the conventions of the old time theater. I can imagine nothing more entertaining for children, including the circus.

When my oldest daughter was 4 she loved to get dressed up in kimono and swords and give a performance of Benkei on the Bridge, a Noh play which she had seen just once in a movie. I see they are giving some episodes from The Forty-Seven Ronin on the second bill. This should hold spellbound even those little boys who care for nothing but horse operas on television.

Really great Japanese troupes seldom leave the country. About 30 years ago the Kengeki Theater played here for several weeks — mostly to a Japanese audience, in what is now the Marines’ Memorial Theater. There was a Kabuki company at the World’s Fair. A few years ago a popularized and feminized version of the Kabuki toured the world and came to San Francisco, where it played to enthusiastic, crowded houses.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the company and the girl star were violently attacked for misrepresenting themselves. True, they were not authentic Kabuki, but I thought they were fine and so did the rest of the family. We went every night. This coming week will be the real thing, the most beautiful and the most profoundly moving theatrical form left in the world.

Is “it’s fine for the children” good theatrical criticism? It certainly is. The greatest plays in history deal with permanent and characteristic human types involved in relatively uncomplicated situations, the simple predicaments all men everywhere might get into. True, the heroes and heroines and villains may have quite complicated responses to those simple situations, but these complications must be, as they are in life, deeply imbedded in clear and definite actions.

Psychological and moral depth must be there, but there only to be discovered by those in the audience who themselves have such depth. These qualities cannot be written on the surface or they destroy the integrity of the action. The surface meanings of the action must be such that anybody but a fool could understand them immediately. It seems to me that this defines a drama which can be understood at its simplest level even by children.

I have always taken my girls to every performance of Shakespeare, no matter how amateurish, that turned up in San Francisco. They never seemed to have the slightest trouble understanding what was going on. True, the understanding was in their own terms — but they kept track of the actions and enjoyed the jokes and thrilled to the tears and deaths. Behind the surface they saw lay mysterious tangles of the human mind that critics and psychoanalysts will argue over for centuries. I suppose that it is in this way that the greatest drama can be said to “teach life.” From our first experience we are tempted to take the pill by the sugar coating, but in drama, without the sugar coating there is no pill.

This does not mean that great drama is not true to life — that is the way life is. They may not deal with the most wholesome subjects, or with situations that we think of as common in our society, but who would deny that a child, or the simplest adult mind, could understand the great Greek tragedies of the family troubles of Orestes and Oedipus?

On the other hand, simplicity in itself is nothing. It must be like the lead at the tip of a pencil — the sharp point of action behind which lies a whole instrument or vehicle, made up of troubled and struggling human minds. At hand we have two perfect examples, both, it so happens, dealing with the Orient. The World of Suzie Wong is not a vulgar and trivial play because it makes prostitution attractive. It is immoral because it falsifies life and reduces human motives not to a simple, but to a silly pattern.

Its star is one of the most beautiful and talented young actresses I have ever seen in my life. Is it “good entertainment”? I think not. If you are easily moved, it’s fun to watch, but afterwards you feel tricked. You do not feel tricked by A Winter’s Tale or The Merry Wives of Windsor, both of which, incidentally, were written for no other reason than to make money.

So with the Japanese Kabuki and Noh plays. You may feel a little like a non-Catholic who has strayed for the first time into a Solemn High Mass on Whitsunday at a cathedral. Everything is in an incomprehensible language. Every motion is accompanied by mysterious music and outlandish chanting. The actors are busy doing things for no apparent purpose, yet they behave as though each act had the most tremendous import. Everyone is robed in the most splendid garments of red and gold. People treat each other with the most elaborate courtesy.

You say, “This is all a meaningless ritual.” Then suddenly, for no reason you can tell, it all slips into place and you are caught up in the dramatic illusion, carried away by the spell. Gradually you realize, by means of the very ritual itself, that the performance is dealing with the most important issues of life, stated in the noblest terms.

The vulgar theater pretends to be realistic. Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Kabuki, each is a more fantastic illusion than the other. Kabuki is far more formal than classical ballet, and like nothing that ever was “really” on heaven or earth. Yet when you come away you don’t feel tricked. Instead, you feel that, for a little while you have lived on another planet, where the ordinary life we live is restated in noble terms, with a beautiful clarity and ritual elegance.
[July 10, 1960]

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