Rehabilitating the culturally derailed is as delicate a task. It is a slow and painful process, which requires patience and compassion of the highest order, testing determination and faith as one faces heart-breaking defeats, which overshadow what little progress is made. It is a way of life based on devotion and hope, which gains the strength to continue from short-lived miracles that give theater precedence over soccer. True to this devotion Imma never gave up on me, biting her lips and moving on in spite of my falling-asleep-in-the-middle-of or refusing-to-go-see forms of art, which enrich the soul of civilized people. Over the years progress has been made, but this last Saturday I think we might have taken a step back. I find the courage to write about it knowing that my awareness is a good sign, so much so that I will admit from the start that to a degree I am at fault. All I am asking of you the objective reader is to help me put the pieces together and get back on track.
It all started on Saturday at approximately 4:20 PM when Imma asked me if I would like to go to San Francisco. San Francisco always spells culture if it starts that late in the day. ‘Who else is coming’ I asked knowing that culture on such short notice meant that someone else had to be coming otherwise I would have had to be primed days in advance. ‘Nehama’ Ima answered. Knowing Nehama I knew that with the exception of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ she did not like movies so it had to be a play.
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’
‘That’s by Tennessee Williams isn’t it?’
‘Isn’t he the same playwright who wrote The Glass Menagerie?’
As learned as the set of questions might seem – they pretty much summed up my knowledge of Te nnessee Williams and his work. You see, I am from Arthur Miller’s side of the house, which unfortunately is not as profound as it is true. When I went to high school the country was divided into two and only two schools of thought: those who had to study ‘All My Sons’ and those that studied ‘The Glass Menagerie’ for their English finals. Each side of the house staunchly defended its play in front of the other in a manner that would have made our teachers proud:
‘All My Sons portrays moral dilemmas in a stirring manner’
‘What are you talking about; it’s so obvious – you can guess the end without reading Cliff Notes…’
‘If that’s the case, what would the Menagerie be?’
‘A simple story with a very powerful undertone…’
The teachers’ pride would dissipate instantly when we finally got to the essence of the debate:
‘All my sons is longer’
‘Glass Menagerie is more difficult to pronounce let alone spell…’
It was about fundamentals, that superseded literature or its value, it was about school pride over who had to work harder, not for the sake of grades but for the sake of garnering pity and therefore respect from the other party. It was a struggle that was never decided, eventually everyone graduated and life went on. But somewhere among all these cynical students there were a few who grew up to love plays and theater – Ima was one of them.
When it came time for Ima to select a mate my name made its way into the list of candidates. My name came up because my twin sister, who was Ima’s neighbor at the time, brought it up. My sister had the cultural qualities that Ima expected to find in a civilized human. As they got to know each other Ima became intrigued with the idea that there was a male who was as genetically close as non-identical twins could be to the intellectual qualities that she found in my sister. In my defense I must say that I was pretty up front about the amount of work remaining to be done on top of my sound genetic foundation. Ima quickly put her mate-to-be through a series of tests targeted at identifying my cultural boundaries. I remember failing Verdi’s ‘La-Traviata’ test flat out, a humiliation which I made worse by taking pride in managing to fall asleep without snoring. Ima did not think much of this failure: ‘some men take many years to like opera and some never do.’ Having established that my boundaries were closer to the basics, Ima lowered the bar significantly. I got a passing grade when we watched a wonderful performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in the ‘Sultans Pool’ beneath the stars of a crisp Jerusalem autumn night against the backdrop of the walls of the old city illuminated with floodlights. The setting was so romantic yo u had to be emotionally decapitated to fail. Seeing that I passed, the bar went a little higher and I was asked to wait for six hours in line to see the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in London. We visited the Uffizi in Florence and went on to marvel at the statue of David in the city’s cathedral. Much has been said about the statue of David portraying the youth gathering strength before the decisive battle with the Philistines and Goliath jeering him and his fellow Israelites. As far as I was concerned David should have had his hands somewhere else and the jeering would have stopped.
The road to marriage was almost open, but not before I passed the Louvre test. The easy part came first. The easy part was the statue of Venus de Milo – who in their right mind doesn’t love that statue – a piece of eternal pornography. Remember that this was years before the Internet put porn at one’s fingertips. Knowing that the Venus test was potentially biased Ima r an me by the Mona Lisa test. This was as much a test of integrity as it was a test of appreciation of art. If you know the almost mystical aura that the Mona Lisa has as a work of art, you know how disappointing it is when you finally find yourself in front of her. At first you think that you still have at least a hundred feet to cross before you stand in front of Mini-Lisa. The picture is small, quite colorless and Mona – God forgive me – is as ugly as a woman can get without being a transvestite. ‘That’s it?’ I blurted, instantly regretting my honesty knowing what was at stake. ‘I want to marry you’ was the answer – well it wasn’t that simple but we have to move the story along.
As we drove to San Francisco I faithfully played my part from ‘Defending the Caveman’. I was quite and happy to be so. The girls chatted about Nehama’s son who happened to be going through quite an interesting time serving in the ‘Bo rder Patrol.’ ‘He was going crazy standing at road blocks’, Nehama was saying. ‘So what did you do about it?’ Ima asked. ‘You’re not going to believe this’, Nehama answered. ‘After eighteen months of watching his misery I picked up the phone, dialed up and down the chain of command and got him transferred in a week’. ‘Nehama, that’s so not like you’, Ima complemented. Tali, who had also tagged along, pitched in that her son was living up to the challenge at Cornell. ‘He was transferred to work with undercover security units that hunt down the sharks of the underworld’, Nehama continued. ‘That sounds like a lot of suspense in his young life’, Ima responded. ‘Yes, but you know Dror [my son] nothing interests him for long, all he cares about right now is a double major in physics and electrical engineering’. ‘Well that’s great isn’t it?’ Ima asked. ‘It is but you know Dror’, Nehama continued to lament in a lethargic tone, ‘he probably will not do what it takes to pass the qualifying exams’. Even from within my autistic bubble I got it – Nehama was eating what she cooked all these years – a brilliant boy whose parents took extra care to focus only on his faults so that he would figure out on his own how to become perfect. The boy was fulfilling a parents’ prophecy of screwing up every opportunity he had in life just to prove his parents right. Tali reiterated that Edan was living up to the challenges at Cornell – you see the university is not only challenging academically but also cold in the winter. My mind wondered off hoping that Dror’s talent would outweigh his anger as he walked on-and-off the concourse of self-destruction. Between Dror’s real life struggles under fire and Edan’s achievements in his academic cocoon we got to the city, made it through traffic and parked on the sixth floor of Geary Theater’s parking garage without incident. The caveman had delivered the goods. Now it was my time to follow.
As a caveman would have it we had an hour and half to kill before the play started. As the girls planned it we had an hour and a half to buy tickets which placed us on the left side of the second floor balcony, stroll down to the inside-Macy’s-at-union-square-cheese-cake-factory, bypass the two hundred people who stood in line for a mushroom bun, buy illustrious pieces of cheese cake, walk back down to the street, up the block, stroll through the art galleries, cross the street over to Starbucks, have coffee and cheese cake, walk back across to the theater, take the elevator to the fourth floor and sit down in our seats with two minutes to spare. ‘You know we might have a problem understanding their southern accent, all the more so when we’re sitting up here’ Ima said. Nehama gave Ima a tired ‘win-a-few-loose-a-few’ look. Tali decided to hold the high ground and responded that she had little trouble understanding English. I gave Ima full credit that she knew exactly what it meant to watch a play from seats that cost a quarter of what other seats in the house cost, and braced for the worst which hit us with all its fury shortly thereafter.
It’s been years since they stopped raising the curtain at the Geary Theater. For some reason directors prefer settings where the curtain is up as the audience enters the theater. Perhaps it is a way of letting everyone deal with his or her fears beforehand. The fact that there was only a bedroom on the stage troubled me. After all there was so much you could do in a bedroom with thousands of people watching. ‘There will be a lot of dialog in this play’ I told myself. Indeed there was, even though it got off to a promising start – a young lady shed her dress and remained in her undergarments and started calling seductively to a man in the bathroom who was apparently her husband readying herself for what was not to be – but I did not know that at the time. A hulk of a man wearing only boxers hobbled in with a cast on his ankle and sank into an armchair for all to admire his physique while he ignored his wife’s alluring calls. Most of the audience was more interested in him then they were in her, so the director decided to have him slip into something more modest and put him into a pair of new silk pajamas which to the best of my understanding had no symbolic meaning – it was simply what was available on the set.
I spent the first act staring down the actresses cleavage sitting fifty feet above her and a little to her left. I sat there not understanding why the man on the stage was not staring at what I was. The playwright had obviously decided to take an hour of my time to give us the background through a bedroom scene where nothing happens. The woman’s name was ‘Maggie’, and she was the frustrated fe line after whom the play was named. Her unloving alcoholic husband, named Brick, thwarted her sensual advances. The name Brick was most likely more than a coincidence but I could not find it within me to analyze deeper meanings. Brick was bemoaning the suicidal death of his homosexual friend ‘Skipper’. Maggie had allegedly seduced Skipper into an episode of heterosexual infidelity to keep their homosexual relationship at bay. This was taking place on the sixty-fifth birthday of ‘Big Daddy’ – the patriarchal plantation head who unknown to him was suffering from terminal cancer. The greater family had gathered to quarrel over the inheritance rather than to celebrate the birthday. Maggie, not being able to conceive would do everything she needed to do in order to survive in this immoral game. I swelled with pride realizing that I understood that Maggie most likely made up the story about seeing a gynecologist in ‘Memphis’ who had found that there was noth ing wrong with her. This was all a plot to have her and Brick win over Big Daddy’s sympathy. By the end of the first act we had all this information and I was ready to go home.
I tried to make my point during the intermission, which to my dismay, was to be one of two, only to be thwarted by a loving wife with a growing impatience at my lack of appreciation of the ‘acting qualities’. ‘But we get it, there’s nothing new here’ I argued: ‘Failed marriage, betrayal, homosexuality, and struggle over the affection of a patriarch whose death is immanent – what else is new?’ To me it seemed like a pretty profound argument – Tali stared at me with an I-am-with-you look. Nehama was fast asleep. Ima ended the discussion: ‘It is how it is presented not what is presented that matters, it was never done on a hot tin roof’. Somehow I had missed that subtlety. In principle Ima was right. The ancient Greeks knew the formula of tra gedies by heart, there were no surprises and yet the whole population would go to the theater whenever they got back from fighting the Persians. However in practice I was not enjoying the play.
The second act started with Maggie fully dressed. My only reasons for staying gone, I found it harder and harder to watch what we already knew play itself out. You see, unlike movies, watching a play is all about knowing exactly what is going to happen and appreciating how it’s done – rather than enjoying the suspense of what would happen when Angelina Jolly pulls a gun on Brad Pitt. The second act was all about straining the nerves of the audience playing out the lie in excruciating detail. Big Daddy is met with a fanfare from Gooper (Brick’s brother), Mae (his wife), their children, and Maggie. Using all the weapons at her disposal to curry favor with Big Daddy, Mae has her brood of five neck-less (I got that one) children play ‘Dixie’ on a combination of ins truments to greet him. Big Daddy’s wife ‘Big Mama’ Ida joyfully delivers jubilant news about his medical report. Big Daddy a clean bill of health. The plot thickens until finally Big Daddy forces Brick into a no-holds-barred discussion of his drinking and his total disregard for the family’s fortunes. He interrogates him repeatedly, presses home his relationship with Skipper, Maggie intervenes to tell her version of the truth. After she leaves Brick finally admits to running away from the lies exposing the fact that Big Daddy is dying. With the climax reached – it would be all-downhill from now. At least I knew the recipe I tried to comfort myself realizing that there was still one more act to come.
To my dismay the third act proved me wrong about the recipe. In the end Brick is determined to make the lie about their having a child come true, he summons Maggie to the bedroom and asks her to dim the lights, knowing that all of us would soon be leaving. We woke N ehama and walked to the car. As we drove back home Tali said that she would have probably liked the ‘book’ version better. Ima mentioned that it was a ‘play’, I knew that.
Now you tell me, was this really a setback in my cultural rehabilitation?