Sunday, February 26, 2017
Ivan and Porgy
Ivan and Porgy
By MARK SLONIM, New York Times (December 2, 1958) [JB - regrettably am unable to gain internet access to the original article.]
THE MUSES ARE HEARD
An Account by Truman Capote.
A year ago, in December, 1955, the cast of the American production "Porgy and Bess" and others associated with the company, including writers and journalists, a total of ninety-four persons (and two dogs), went to Russia to give performances in Leningrad and Moscow. In "The Muses Are Heard," Truman Capote, who had joined this enormous troupe, gives an amusing and slightly ironical reportage of the memorable trip. The title of the book comes from the Latin saying, "inter arma silent Musas." One of the Russian interpreters attached to the company by the Moscow Ministry of Culture kept repeating these words in all his speeches--and he made quite a few of them: "When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent; when the cannons are silent, the muses are heard." Apparently, the arrival of "Porgy and Bess" was interpreted by the Russians as the end of the cold war and of the cannon era; it is questionable whether Truman Capote attributed the same significance to his journey.
Before making the voice of the muses heard to the Russian audiences through "Summertime," "I've Got Plenty of Nothin'" or "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing," the Negro singers and dancers, stagehands and office workers and friends had to board the Blue Express in East Berlin and travel for three days and nights across the snow-covered fields of Poland and Russia. They endured all sorts of miseries and discomfort in the old-fashioned second-class sleepers, tried hard to understand the halting English of the Russians, and did not hide their disappointment when, instead of a feast in a truly Muscovite style, overflowing with vodka and caviar, they were offered watery broth, veal cutlets and yoghurt with raspberry soda in a shabby dining car.
Leningrad also proved to be rather baffling. The "de luxe" hotel assigned to the company has been built some fifty years ago; it had magnificent chandeliers and cracked bath tubs, and its restaurant looked like a cavern. Shopping was made impossible by the outrageous rate of exchange and high prices--a dish of ice cream, one dollar; a piece of chocolate, five fifty; and the language barrier made real communication with the natives hardly possible. Mr. Capote visited night clubs in the company of an obliging Russian who spoke English, but judged them dull, and their patrons prudish and poorly dressed. In general, the Americans found Russian parties lacking in gaiety, and on Christmas Eve Negro musicians revolutionized the hotel restaurant by showing what real hot jazz meant.
Mr. Capote did not see very much in Leningrad and he did not write a book on Russia. He simply reported his fragmentary impressions: he saw a man being beaten up in a public square, he met a crazy musician who knew a few words of English and kept repeating "help!," he went to a ballet and even committed the mistake of attributing to the Soviets what was the heritage of the nineteenth-century artistic past. He looked at the paintings in the Hermitage Gallery and at the exhibits of the anti-religious museum in the former Kazan Cathedral; he discovered that he was followed in the streets of the city by a man in dark glasses, probably for "protection," as some officials explained it to him. He watched some conditioned reflexes of government employees, who all said the same thing in identical terms. All these details, added one to another, in a kind of literary mosaic, do give a feeling of reality and do convey a flavor of Russian life.
The same method is used by Mr. Capote in his delightful character sketches. He speaks much less of Russia than of the members of the company; he notes down their conversations, their idiosyncrasies, their human frailties. The publicity-bent director, the flippant blonde secretary (Radcliffe '52), Mrs. Ira Gershwin studded with diamonds and deliberately optimistic, a couple of Negro actors determined to make front-page headlines by getting married in Moscow, the shabby and hungry lady as Russian interpreter--all these brittle and humorous portraits are vivid, precise and witty. They range from serious ones, such as that of Ambassador Bohlen and his wife, to outright grotesque, such as the caricature of the Russian Orlov who had fallen for the blonde secretary.
The little episodes of the company's life in Leningrad, of their rehearsals and their debut in the huge Palace of Culture which opened the "Porgy and Bess" triumphal career in the Soviet Union, are all bubbling with mischievous spirit and piquancy. "The Muses Are Heard" is not a chronicle or a diary or a travelogue. By no means is it a book on Russia of the sort hasty travelers offer us in every language. It is a record made by a brilliant writer in a casual, almost flippant manner--but with such freshness, with such light strokes and subtle innuendos, that the book reads like a highly enjoyable, charming story.
Mr. Slonim is author of "The Epic of Russian Literature" and other books."