Between Christmas and New Year...
Tonight we showed yet another musical at the Tyneside Café, our regular Sunday night event, which is linked to teaching my course on musicals – something I'm teaching for the first time in ten years, to my surprise, as I discovered when I looked through old records.
Musicals are, to be brutally truthful, a bit hard to take, especially for an entire year – the melodies are too catchy and they stick in your head, and there are emotional ties for me that are – well, hard to bear, actually. A lot of famous shows don't mean that much to me, but my favorites, especially a lot of Sondheim, are deeply plugged in to strong feelings of vanity, anguish, excitement, loss – all those things that get a bit much after a while, especially if you're on a schedule of classes and events where they come up regularly.
Our choice for the time between holidays was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Strangely enough, although we've just had to revise our winter schedule of screenings – the café has a glass front, and Tyneside Cinema management suddenly noticed its implications, meaning that we can no longer show any films that have problematic ratings, because the management can suddenly see, as if in a vision, an eight-year-old waif wandering the streets of Newcastle late on a freezing Sunday night, suddenly horrified and ruined by, say, Chicago, which we showed before we got the news about the ratings, though all of this should get fixed when they create a screen curtain at the front that can be lowered, which is promised in a couple of months, and hey, you don't complain about sentence structures like this in Proust, do you? – despite a lot of things that suggest it should have a Pretty Definite kind rating, Rocky Horror is unrated!
Which just goes to show you.
M. had never seen it – and, strangely enough, C., who runs the film series, had never seen it either; though his wife had. Which makes them, in Rocky Horror parlance, virgins.... M. loved it, fortunately.
As for me, I remember being utterly dazzled by Tim Curry's performance when I first saw it in the late 70s – and it remains absolutely astounding: the density, the web of cross-references, the manic energy – his ability to completely grip every second of a scene, the intense and constantly changing surprises... obviously the role of a lifetime.
(Annoying that we can't just say Rocky, isn't it? – as though I would write about a Stallone film!...)
And the madness of various scenes, which I'd half-forgotten – although the whole does have too many endings, it really is a powerfully constructed piece of work, an amazing film. Two young women came up to me afterwards and thanked me for showing the film – they'd seen it before and loved it, had in fact become the kind of fans who looked for midnight showings and dressed up properly for them; but they were glad to see it straight through just once – though they really wanted to shout out the appropriate lines in response to what was going on onscreen...
Walking back in the icy night to get a taxi with M.; he has given me a birthday gift – Nietzsche, of all things, in a nice edition – but he is concerned that I may be irritated with him. I laugh at this – don't I express my irritation almost too easily, with him? – and we always get over such things very quickly.
But, perhaps because of the contiguity to Rocky Horror, it reminds me of the links between drama and actors, narcissism, emotions unbearable or fascinating, and exaggerated projections that are so hard to handle –
Home. It is only 10 pm, but for the past three days, I have been recovering from Christmas very, very slowly – today's major achievements were showering, changing the bed, and vacuuming, which suddenly seems like quite enough. So: early to bed....
But of course I usually wake in the middle of the night these days. My cue for getting up is needing to pee – since my 2009 stroke, the fragile neurological processor that slows renal functions when you sleep (from an evolutionary viewpoint, it developed so that we could sleep through the night) has been broken, as it generally breaks in older people, sooner or later. And I've gotten comfortable with this – there is historical evidence that many people up through the 18th century thought it normal to sleep in two segments, with a time of reading or drinking tea or some such in between (do those choices sound a bit elderly? oh well: you could do other things with your time awake in the night, of course) –
And all the above – musicals, theater, narcissism, death, shining brightly on stage – are clustering in my imagination.
I look up Charles Ludlam online. If Rocky Horror in 1973, and Richard O'Brien, who is now openly (partly) transgendered, and a lot of flamboyantly sexual gay/trans theater before the 80s, all seems to cluster around certain themes – and, in fact, to be an especially flashy aspect of general truths about theater people, and problems of narcissism – and yes, I know my sentences are exceptionally long and diffuse tonight, but hey the connections are cross-linked through a number of levels –
then Charles Ludlam, and the great, lost Theater of the Ridiculous, also seems to be connected to all this.
Do you know how sad it is that there is so few fragments of films with Ludlam in them? As I tell my students in the musicals class, it's amazing how much major theatrical and dance work is utterly lost – stills are mere suggestions, video is a late invention, film is expensive – and so many, many people have burned brightly on stage, then vanished forever. Ludlam exists in a few YouTube videos – a Madeleine Kahn sitcom, horribly written and in low resolution, but well played by the two of them; two more sharply self-conscious short films – the rest has evaporated. As in the haiku: snow melts into air....
But you must read the book of Ludlam's stage plays. Especially the eerily, wisely existential/Buddhist/camp Caprice, and others of the middle and later plays.
Ludlam... I never saw him perform; when I was given a grant to live in New York for three months in the spring of 1987, just after my own HIV diagnosis, I was confused, overwhelmed but excited and envious, about all the famous names and buildings. I still hadn't processed my own diagnosis (is there a continuing link between death and acquisition here? because I bought a lot of books in New York, then didn't plan a way to get them home to California – a mess cleaned up by L., who was not at all pleased about it at the time); and, in 1987, New York was as much stalked by death as was San Francisco, as was, increasingly, Los Angeles – among many other cities...
And that spring night when I was walking home, through the Village; and passed a black-painted store front, obviously an off-Broadway theater – I now know, the Theater of the Ridiculous itself – and was stunned: it was covered with candles, with cards, with pictures, with flowers – Ludlam had just died, and this outpouring of love and grief, hundreds of candles lighting up the silent, empty street...
Yes, I am trying to get to my point. Or points. Sorry.
The things there are to say – brief fragments of several larger structures, that fit into each other in complex ways –
this particularly ecstatic presentation of the self ('don't dream it, be it'); the excitement of theater –
narcissism, not because self-regard is a bad thing, but because it suggests a wound, a perpetually painful bleeding that lies beneath the theatrical self –
that time of an intensely exaggerated, eroticized, gay/trans stage self: of Tim Curry's work, of Ludlam's, of fellow-traveler Madeleine Kahn's – though of course this is merely an example of the vast world of theater, which has always, or at least often, been like this –
and the sense that we connect to these things partly because of their glorious energy and passion, but also because of the narcissistic pain that we can sense, underneath –
that we may find these things easier to see in those who died in midlife: Ludlam, Heath Ledger – that it may be harder to see an older Tim Curry and not think, so what have you done lately?, but that he has then had the time, the life, to continue to grow and change; and that is even better than symbolic power followed by too-early death –
and my own change, my own shift in being: that, although all these things are still in me, in my own versions and with my own referents, they are no longer unbearably painful:
that I can perhaps talk more easily about my favorite dramatic scenes and their associated emotions;
that riding out the emotional breakers of a class on musicals, or if I were to teach it again a class on AIDS, without being utterly overwhelmed by the emotional/existential tangle of the narcissistic universe that always has that black hole in its center, is more possible –
and so –
The larger tangle here is clear enough, to me at least. Connections between myself, theories of narcissism, my own changes over the past months –
and the awareness that there is that in me which is really healed, which is changed enough to be experienced without unbearable pain.
Which is, I guess – although admittedly subtly, structurally, at a level almost vast enough to be impossible to perceive – a big deal.
And now it is only a couple of hours until a midwinter dawn... and I am satisfied that I could only make this clearer, more logical, if I spent hours on it. Which isn't going to happen tonight.
Good night; back to bed....