In Pages from the Arts we review books on the subjects of what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, who has retired from the Dallas Public Library and is now based in Urbana, Ill.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts, Chicago-based theater critic Karen Topham reviews P. Carl's Becoming a Man; and Ritchie reviews new biographies of actress Elaine Stritch and blues-rocker Janis Joplin, and a detailed look at a great, unfinished, American story-song.
Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition
By P. Carl
Simon & Schuster
Released Jan. 28, 2020
There are many transgender memoirs on the market these days (I’m working on one myself), but you would be hard-pressed to find one that is more thoughtful and philosophical than Becoming a Man by P. Carl. The author, a recently transitioned 52-year-old man who is known to theater lovers as a dramaturg, playwright, and Distinguished Artist in Residence at Boston's Emerson College, does not focus, as do many of his peers, on his physical transition. Rather, in clear and at times almost poetic prose deriving from the multitude of questions his new life engenders, he seeks to discover just what being a man means and what, having spent half a century as a woman, he is able to add to that narrative.
“Can I, can other white trans men, bring something new to the conversation about white masculinity?” he asks. His book is not a definitive answer to that question but instead a deep dive into how a newly minted white man in America tries to discover what it really means to bridge the gap between genders. “Like a newborn who is expected to drive sixty-five miles per hour down the highway, but...can’t see above the steering wheel,” Carl is thrust into the fast lane as an adult male without the attendant socialization and without a clue how to navigate all of the changes that transition brings. Not the least among these is his (formerly lesbian) relationship with his wife. It’s all a lot more difficult than merely adopting new pronouns.
Carl, borrowing a term from W.E.B. DuBois, sees himself and other trans people as having “double personalities.” The journey, he says, is “an untangling of two bodies, two distinct personalities, and two lives lived.” The result, which he acknowledges, is a book that itself has a split personality, at times looking back gently at his life as “Polly” (Carl uses the deadname frequently throughout the memoir) and at others trying to “convince you I was always only Carl.”
This dichotomy is easily recognizable to trans people, especially to those who, like Carl and I, transitioned later in life. Having spent so much time fighting against our true selves and living the lives our bodies dictated, we are naturally shaped by our experiences even though we have always internally been ourselves. Carl’s notion of “doubling” realistically captures this sense of duality and provides him a completely candid platform from which to explore both the confusion and otherness of being trans and all of the newfound privilege that transition has brought him. But it is more than that: it’s a “survival tactic” that describes the lives of not only trans people but “people of color and women and queers,” all of whom know “how to perform two different versions of themselves depending on the context.”
But Carl is, by his own acknowledgment, “not a philosopher,” nor does he set out to write “a treatise on the ontological nature of being.” His book is extremely personal, stuffed full of remembered anecdotes of his childhood in Elkhart, Indiana, his parents, his sessions with his therapist, his marriage, and his travels as he contemplates how his transition affects them all. Of his mother, he wonders, “if I’m not (her) Polly Precious, what can we be to each other?” But his mother never could see who he really was. Though trying for her sake to be her “good girl” while growing up, Carl became “angry and lethal” behind the facade of the straight-A student and tennis star, developing a nearly permanent and semi-secret rage that only waned after transition, when the joy of being himself overwhelmed everything else. Living in a body that suddenly understands how to “feel everything all the time” instead of the one that felt as if feelings could drown him, Carl feels alive for the first time.
Through all of this, Carl, former director of Howlround Theatre Commons, ruminates on what, exactly, gender even means, recognizing that “the entire architecture of our culture” is founded on it. Though he expresses admiration for young people who explore their places along the gender spectrum, he places himself firmly within the binary: he is a man, period, though he recognizes that the very notion of masculinity is “in a state of serious crisis” created by the proliferation of its most toxic elements (some of which, like his father’s racism, he admits that he has “ingested”) even as he strives to avoid the “burnt-out masculinity that is still at the center of American life.” He feels it is a form of masculinity like something from a John Wayne movie, with no nuance and “reduc(ed) to guns and horses and cocky man talk.” But as he revels in conversations and experiences, he has with men who know nothing about his past, he says he has “never been visible like this before.” It amazes and confuses him.
“Being a white man married to a white woman is just so pleasant, so easy, and so terrifying. What have I gotten us into?”
Whatever it is, it is far better than feeling self-destructive and angry, as he was during his younger days, emotions that led to spending time in a psych ward whose purpose, he came to believe, was “not to heal you, but to make you stay sick so that you can function alongside the lies of a country steeped in them.”
Becoming a Man is very much a product of today’s American culture, a contemplative reflection on what being a white male means in the age of Trump and #metoo written by someone who has seen that culture from both sides of the gender divide. It is part personal memoir, part anthropological discourse on Carl’s discoveries about maleness, and part philosophical exploration of what these discoveries mean about modern American males. It’s also beautifully written, with lengthy and absorbing sections on, for example, his father’s passion for Westerns and his own journey of discovery in the Dolomite Mountains. It’s bluntly honest, too: Carl does not hide anything; nor does he pull punches, acknowledging his own faults at every step. He may not uncover all of the answers to what “becoming a man” means, but his book, which takes nothing for granted, is solid evidence that he understands how to be one.
— Karen Topham
» Karen Topham, the first American teacher to transition on the job, is now a Chicago-based critic who runs the website chicagoonstage.com.
» Read P. Carl's essay adapted from Becoming a Man in the New York Times
Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
By Alexandra Jacobs
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
Whenever I hear Elaine Stritch’s original cast album recording of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, I wait for it — “Does anyone … still wear … a HAT?” What a way with one word.
Could anyone truly capsulize the whirling dervish that was Elaine Stritch? Alexandra Jacobs comes close, in her partly biographical, partly anecdotal rendering of an amazing life — a life arguably filled with “shouldas.” The roles Stritch shoulda played, but didn’t; the nominations/awards she shoulda received, but didn’t; the men she maybe shoulda married, but didn’t (though she did finally take the plunge in her 40s). Fortunately, the author was able to tap into a goldmine of actual “Stritchisms,” copious reflections from the woman herself, which add much to the book’s texture. In her 50-year career, Elaine Stritch truly ran the gamut, personally and professionally, yet leaving an undeniable mark on her worlds. As Jacobs states in her introduction: “She insisted on being seen and heard, felt and dealt with. She skirted high culture, low culture, and everything in between.”
Born in 1925 Detroit, Elaine Stritch made her Broadway debut in 1946 and would eventually earn four Tony nominations for the straight plays and musicals Bus Stop, Sail Away, Company, and A Delicate Balance. Walking away empty-handed time and again became increasingly painful for Stritch; when she finally Tony-triumphed for her one-woman 2001 “Special Theatrical Event” Elaine Stritch At Liberty (which I was privileged to see), TV cameras cut away from her heartfelt, but lengthy speech before its conclusion, saddening many viewers and fans, let alone Stritch herself, who had waited years for that moment. Nevertheless, after decades of near-misses, a Tony was finally hers.
Stritch revered live theatre above all other performance modes, though she did occasionally venture into film and television (the latter activity especially ironic, as she accumulated multiple Emmy Awards over the years for one-and-done small-screen appearances). As Jacobs puts it: “[Elaine had a] lifelong respect for the ‘legitimate theater’ — whatever subsequent forays she made into television, movies, talk shows and cabaret, the straight play remained a lodestar. Even at 83 … she would be gamely schlepping to Brooklyn and popping out of a garbage can in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.”
Stritch once commented to a co-star: “All my life, I’ve been ‘and’ billing.” In other words, not the above-the-title star of the show per se, but still managing to steal applause and critical notice for memorable supporting on-stage moments. But she longed for the classic leading roles, as well, and felt herself to be in unspoken competition with, for example, Angela Lansbury, who seemed to nab all the parts Stritch might have been right for — e.g., Mrs. Lovett, Auntie Mame, and, above all, Mama Rose, the part Stritch coveted the most. Between her stage appearances, occasional recordings, and larger-than-life presence in New York newspapers and tabloids, hers was a constant presence and eventful life, but haunted by demons as well.
She began drinking at an early age and didn’t seriously embrace AA until her later years. Between that, her natural irascibility and outspokenness, and her tendency to ad lib bits of onstage “business” not necessarily found in the scripts, she often became a challenge to directors and fellow performers alike, though she could be warm, generous, and vulnerable when least expected.
As for relationships, there were probably too many to count, though she came close to permanence with actors Gig Young and Ben Gazzara. While deeply longing for marriage, she remained single until finally wedding fellow actor John Bay in 1973 when Stritch was 48. He died in 1982.
Jacobs weaves a fisne narrative, blending anecdotes illustrating Stritch’s voluble yet usually irresistible personality, with substantive behind-the-scenes descriptions of, for example, the stage production and cast recording of Sondheim’s Company, arguably Stritch’s finest hour. Several of Sondheim’s “greatest hits” later became signature songs for her, as she often performed them for benefits, including “Broadway Baby,” and the ever-so-true “I’m Still Here.”
In 2001, at age 76, with the writing assistance of John Lahr and under the direction of George C. Wolfe, Stritch turned her remarkable life into At Liberty, the solo show which likely introduced her to a new generation and brought fond memories to many others. The work would not only win Stritch her long-deserved Tony Award, but lead to a spin-off recording, a book, and documentary. Opening on Broadway soon after the 9/11 attacks, it also served as respite of sorts for the entire city, as Jacobs comments: “At Liberty was like nothing else on offer that shattered season, and its elemental candor was balm. Some people told [director] Wolfe this was the first time they had laughed since the attacks. Scores of others who had struggled with addiction or merely frustrated ambition saw in Stritch someone who’d refused to give up, had endured and triumphed.”
Elaine Stritch died in 2014 at age 89. Jacobs summarizes: “What was Stritch’s talent exactly…? It wasn’t beautiful singing, though she became an expert at cadence and modulation. It wasn’t really acting per se, since most of the characters she played were variations of herself. …It really was entertaining, the root of which means ‘to hold together.’ In a drawing room or from a stage, Stritch could command the entire space. In solitude, she gathered people around.”
Alexandra Jacobs offers a lively Elaine Stritch tapestry, going the distance in bringing us a nearly indescribable force of theatrical nature.
— Cathy Ritchie
Janis: Her Life and Music
By Holly George-Warren
Simon & Schuster, 2019
People who think they know Janis Joplin, 1960s musical icon, will likely learn much from this well-written and detailed look at her rise, glory, and 1970 death from a heroin overdose at age 27. Holly George-Warren’s research on all things Joplin is commendable, and the book benefits greatly from the author’s access to the singer’s lifelong voluminous written correspondence, especially to family back in Texas.
What surprises are in store for readers? For one thing, Janis Joplin was a book-loving intellectual, who never toured without something to read close at hand; her frequent appearances on Dick Cavett’s television talk show revealed charm and a keen intelligence, mixed with deep passion for her art.
Also: before she discovered Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton and became permanently enamored of the blues, Joplin’s primary talent and creative outlet lay in visual art. In her early years, she drew, painted and illustrated for herself, classmates, and whoever was around to notice.
She was also widely knowledgeable about, and intrigued by, the mechanics of record production; bootleg audiotapes and film footage reveal her in full producer mode, as she consistently asserted herself and her preferences during recording sessions.
And Joplin was also deeply connected to her Port Arthur, Texas family, always hoping for parental approval, and wishing to share with them the wide-eyed wonder she felt with each new achievement. As the author describes: “Though swiftly becoming the queen of the counterculture, Janis still craved her parents’ love, even as her fan base grew, perhaps even more so. Her letters at the time read not only as a chronicle of her rising fame but also as a testament of her need to be tethered to her family. It was a need that neither Janis nor the Joplins consciously realized.” Janis Joplin was, by most accounts, an enthusiastically life-embracing woman.
George-Warren cannot and does not ignore the more troubling aspects of Joplin’s daily life and career. The singer was best described as extremely promiscuous with both men and women; though she did have several longer-term relationships (including a broken engagement which wounded her deeply), one-night stands were the norm.
And while Joplin initially eschewed use of heavy drugs in a clear preference for liquor instead, she did eventually become addicted to the heroin which blighted her final years and led to her early death. All that said, hers was a restless soul, permanently devoted to music, her one true passion in life. As George-Warren states in her introduction: “Just four days before her death on October 4, 1970, she told journalist Howard Smith, ‘You are only as much as you settle for.’ Janis Joplin never settled.”
This biography skillfully takes readers back to a tumultuous time in America’s cultural history, as reflected in its boundary-breaking music. Joplin was part of all that, and George-Warren offers deep detail about her years with Big Brother and the Holding Company and the paths she crossed with other icons, often sexually. As we all know, the 1960s was a heady era in this country, and George-Warren guides us well.
Late in her life, Joplin was interviewed by the young journalist Johanna Schier Hall who is quoted by George-Warren: “‘I look at Janis with a feminist filter,’ Hall offered. ‘She invented herself as this bawdy blues mama — there wasn’t anyone like her. She created herself and walked her own path, and that was difficult.’”
In this readable, thorough book, Holly George-Warren has given readers a newly multi-faceted view of a human cultural touchstone we perhaps already thought we knew. So many decades have passed since Janis Joplin’s death that a new and deeper appraisal was probably long overdue for us all. Thankfully, this author has delivered just that.
— Cathy Ritchie
The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song
By Dylan Jones
Faber & Faber, 2019
“I am a lineman for the county…”
Whenever I heard that opening line back in the late 1960s, I knew I was in for a verbal and musical treat, since “the Wichita lineman was still on the line,” thanks to composer Jimmy Webb and the song’s debut performer Glen Campbell. This three-minute work has, in fact, been proclaimed by many to be one of the greatest songs ever written. And now we get to read all about it.
British arts journalist Jones has given us a brisk, delightful “biography” of a seemingly simple story-song that has since become a time-honored classic, even though composer Webb readily confirms that the work is “incomplete” — “Lineman” in fact became so famous, so fast, that he never got around to adding a third verse. Jones offers a compact yet thorough look at a great song and how it grew.
Jimmy Webb, now 73, was born in Oklahoma and raised in Wichita Falls, Texas. He wrote “Lineman” at age 21, but he had already achieved notice with an earlier ballad, “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” also brought to vinyl life by Glen Campbell. Webb’s other masterworks would include “Up, Up and Away,” “Where’s the Playground, Susie?,” “The Worst That Could Happen,” “Galveston,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” “If These Walls Could Speak,” and perhaps arguably his most infamous composition, the seven-minute “MacArthur Park,” which became non-crooner Richard Harris’s dubious claim to vocal fame (the song was also covered by Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer, among others). For his part, Glen Campbell came to Jimmy Webb’s world already sporting a stellar reputation as perhaps the best “session” guitarist in recording history. Jones skillfully blends the men’s separate and interweaving paths on the road to “Lineman,” with the help of extensive reflections by Webb himself, now living in Long Island and still performing.
Along the way, Jones includes his own reactions to, and experiences with, “Wichita Lineman.” The ballad boasts a couplet that Jones and other experts consider simple yet extraordinarily expressive: “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time.” Webb’s song may only consist of two verses, but his lyric powers were generally conceded to be exquisite.
And the finished product itself brought its own technical qualities to the tables; as Jones quotes a producer: “‘It’s a good song, but a brilliant record … the perfect product of the old studio system. There’s just enough ornamentation but not too much … It’s the kind of record they literally don’t make any more for lots of reasons. If they did make it now, they would ruin it by filling in all the gaps through which it breathes.”
Another opinion shared by Jones: “‘As an idea, “Wichita Lineman” is the most perfect song that’s ever been written … It’s a song that you don’t grow out of, you grow into. It creeps up on you and never lets go … It was the right time, right place, right singer, right song. In that respect, it’s perfect.’”
This song “biography” is an entertaining hybrid, offering a snapshot of the America that allowed “Wichita Lineman” and its creators to become late-1960s musical/cultural movers and shakers, and illustrating the personal journeys of the two men largely responsible for the phenomenon, along with Brit Dylan Jones’s own reactions and contributions to the discussion. A quick, worthwhile read, bound to inspire enjoyable “re-listenings” to a remarkable piece of music, and the powerful story it tells.
— Cathy Ritchie
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
- August 2017: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September 2017:A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October 2017: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November 2017: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.
- December 2017: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
- January 2018: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
- February 2018: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale.
- March 2018: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.
- April 2018: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May 2018: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June 2018: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July 2018: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August 2018: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September 2018: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October 2018: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
- November 2018: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
- December 2018: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.
- February 2019: A book about the past and future of the New York City Opera; the script to Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man
- March to October: On hiatus
- November/December 2019: A memoir by Dallas arts philanthropist Donna Wilhelm, trailblazing women of comedy, a rembrance of Woodstock, and the script of Elise Forier Edie's The Pink Unicorn.