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An Ugly American

Comrade J.V. Stalin made a whole series of extraordinarily valuable and interesting remarks about . . . the artistic representation of historical figures.

--Nikolai Cherkassov,

Soviet film actor

I’m coming to the conclusion that the more data historians uncover, the less chance we have of understanding the people who shaped the past. My pessimism isn‘t confined to the noisy arcades of popular entertainment, with their truth-bending Pearl Harbors and Patriots -- even biographical scholarship experiences pendulum swings between reverence and iconoclasm, from apotheosis to expose. Quite apart from the effects of newly discovered facts or factoids, such fickle reversals may result from evolving social attitudes and freshly acquired political allergies. Often they are simply the expedient response to having an 800-pound gorilla sitting on an artist’s chest -- Stalin passing the popcorn to Nikolai Cherkassov (Ivan the Terrible) in a Kremlin screening room, or the more modern demands of “cultural sensitivity.”

Theater tends to rely upon three ways of presenting historical figures: dramatized biography (Sunrise at Campobello), iconographic pageant (The Will Rogers Follies) or apocalyptic interpretation (A Huey Newton Story). These presentations can be, as above, ensemble dramas, full-blown musicals or one-person shows. John Belluso‘s play The Body of Bourne is a bit of a hybrid: It comes with an ensemble yet has the feel of a solo show.

Largely forgotten today, Randolph Bourne was a pioneer advocate of education reform and a persuasive social essayist whose voice, along with those of people like John Reed, Max Eastman and Walter Lippmann, created the chorus of intellectual dissent that eventually became the modern American left. During World War I, his pacifist articles in the Atlantic Monthly, Seven Arts and Eastman’s The Masses made lonely appeals to reason in a land gone mad with patriotic hysteria. Bourne was also a handicapped individual, whose botched forceps delivery had cruelly disfigured his face and whose early bout with spinal tuberculosis had left him dwarfed and hunchbacked. Social alienation, then, was no abstraction to Bourne, who became one of the century‘s first champions for the rights of immigrants, workers and the disabled.

The show is powered by the ebullient and graceful performance of Clark Middleton, who effortlessly carries the proceedings on his character’s misshapen shoulders. (His sardonic vulnerability recalls Herbert Grunbaum‘s brief scene as Filch in the beggar’s costume shop in G.W. Pabst‘s 1931 film version of Threepenny Opera.) The Taper production, directed by Lisa Peterson, retrieves a visionary titan from oblivion yet, unlike its subject, never seems willing to examine Bourne’s life in full, serving instead as a kind of introductory course to the man, an appreciation rather than an understanding.

The Body of Bourne‘s calendar narrative begins at the beginning, with his “messy birth,” and ends with Bourne’s death at age 32 during the 1918 influenza epidemic. In between are the early years of schoolyard taunts and a home life spent under the roof of a stern uncle who thwarts his enrollment at Princeton. Later, there‘s Bourne the young man in vocational purgatory, transcribing Mozart and Chopin into player-piano sheets for a tyrannical boss. Eventually he matriculates to the comparative paradise of Columbia University, which is followed by a grand tour of Europe and the series of anti-war pronouncements that indelibly marked Bourne as a dangerous radical.

Peterson’s production uncoils with the sweep of a historical newsreel as names, dates and quotes are projected against backdrops, and a chorus of actors proclaims this data or intones the highlights of Bourne‘s career. Rachel Hauck’s relatively spare set employs a few props and bits of furniture, along with flats that appear as towering walls, against which Christopher Komuro‘s projections are flashed -- a smart architectural strategy that speeds the story along without deflecting attention from the cast.

Some scenes come off a little jejune, particularly the interludes representing Bourne’s prewar European travels with his friend Carl (Stephen Caffrey), and, in the evening‘s sole nod to cross-casting, Peterson unwisely has a woman actor (Jenny O’Hara) play Max Eastman. Beyond this, however, there lies a more fundamental problem: In trying to bring to light a forgotten handicapped figure, Belluso and the Taper reduce Bourne to a kind of commemorative-plate hero rather than expanding him into a real person. The play, which was first developed through the Taper‘s Other Voices Project for and by disabled artists, and Peterson’s staging do this by infantilizing Bourne, by presenting him as a cute and altogether charming waif. The Taper production plays down his physical deformities by taking away his hump -- which is, in fact, mentioned in the play -- and all but ignores his disfigured face. (Middleton is given a malformed ear; we‘re supposed to infer the rest.) We could very well leave the theater thinking that Bourne’s main handicap in life was his height. This Bourne is less a John Merrick than he is a variation on Gunter Grass‘ Oskar Matzerath, a precocious boy who has never physically matured.

No doubt Belluso and the Taper felt that if their man was going to stand in the spotlight, it had better be a very sympathetic one. But it’s one thing to say, “I‘m writing a play about Joe Blow because I think he’s an interesting and worthy character, and I intend to portray him in an admirable light.” That‘s legitimate, and so is the practice of using such a hero to advance a certain cause or belief. Where it gets sticky is when Joe Blow is prettied up, and worse, when the parts that are made over would have lent crucially to our interest in the person and his predicament.

This problem becomes most evident in a scene, set outside New York’s Century Club, in which Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick (yes, Edie‘s great-uncle), upon meeting Bourne for the first time, quickly decides against inviting his esteemed writer in for lunch. “I . . . I didn’t realize,” sputters Sedgwick (Nicolas Coster), “that you were . . . well, that you were handicapped.” It‘s a heartbreaking scene in which Middleton, all shivering imp, plays off wonderfully against Coster’s frosty Brahmin, but ultimately we‘re left puzzled. Why would Sedgwick refer to Bourne as handicapped, going so far as to suggest that Bourne keep his body concealed by his cape should they enter the club? Because of that ear? Because he’s short? (No shorter, I recall, than the actress playing Max Eastman.) In the end, The Body of Bourne may remind audiences of an earlier Taper production, Mark Harelik and Randal Myler‘s 1988 Lost Highway: The Music and Legend of Hank Williams, an airbrushed stage bio of the legendary country singer that focused more on his songs and puppy-love relationship with his wife than with the demons of booze and pills that would consume him (and set the self-destructive tone for many a future pop star).

There are no such qualms in Orson’s Shadow, Austin Pendleton‘s play -- across town in the tiny Black Dahlia Theater -- peopled by real-life icons who, despite their physical or artistic beauty, are capable of acting like human gargoyles. Its story is a semifictional account of an attempt, by British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, to persuade Laurence Olivier to hire Orson Welles to direct him and Joan Plowright, Olivier’s mistress, in a production of Ionesco‘s Rhinoceros, while Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Apart from Robert Machray‘s spellbinding impersonation of Welles, the Black Dahlia show, directed by Matt Shakman, takes wing because of the irritating humanity with which Pendleton has imbued his characters -- not in a humiliating tabloid view of famous people, but in a simple acknowledgment that such luminaries are likely to bray, just as we do, when they make themselves jackasses over the same appetites and jealousies that possess us all.

In other words, Pendleton doesn’t limit himself with the need to make his famous characters dashboard saints, yet neither does he ridicule them. Belluso‘s The Body of Bourne, to its credit, is never overly respectful of its subject, but his inability to really relax with Bourne prevents us from meeting the person of whom John Dos Passos, in 1919 (from the USA trilogy), wrote, “This little sparrowlike mantiny twisted bit of flesh in a black capealways in pain and ailingput a pebble in his slingand hit Goliath square in the forehead with it.”

Sometimes the highest reach of art is ugliness.