Aaron Sorkin's secret? Like all first class professionals he is humble. "I kind of worship at the
altar of intention and obstacle. Somebody wants something. Something's standing
in their way of getting it. They want the money, they want the girl, they want
to get to Philadelphia — doesn't matter. And if they can need it, that's
even better. Whatever the obstacle is,
you can't overcome it like that or the audience is going to say,
"Why don't they just take the other car?" or "Why don't you just
shoot him?" The obstacle has to be difficult to overcome. And that's the
clothesline that you hang everything on — the tactics by which your characters
try to achieve their goal. That's the story that you end up telling. These rules are all in a sixty-four-page
pamphlet by Aristotle called Poetics. It was written almost three
thousand years ago, but I promise you, if something is wrong with what you're
writing, you've probably broken one of Aristotle's rules." Good advice. Unfortunately we aspiring playwrights will never become an Aaron Sorkin, even if we stick to the rules meticulously. First step is to know the craft. Then it all depends on what you do with it.
It's perfectly right to suspect emotion when we ought to let reason rule. However, not least since Daniel Goleman coined the term emotional intelligence the general prejudice against emotion has generally been given up. Why then do critics always take offense when my shows get sentimental? My goal as a a musical librettist is to elicit emotion. I'm satisfied if I see the audience touched, moved, stirred. I want them to laugh and shed tears. While laughter is mostly tolerated, tears usually irritate critics. With a loud groan they complain: Kitsch! While I confess that I may sometimes fail, I know that the audience is very well able to distinguish between real and false emotion. I readily accept their verdict, knowing that Kitsch is never enough.
Last week Ronald Dorkin died aged 81. He was
widely respected as the most original and powerful philosopher of law in the
English-speaking world. In Oxford he was the successor of the famous H. L. A. Hart
whose analytic and positivistic philosophy of law he attacked all his life. He insisted on a rights-based theory of law which he expounded in his first
and most influential book, Taking Rights Seriously (1977). An unapologetic
liberal Democrat, Dworkin was always aware that law and in particular
adjudication were, as he once put it, "a branch of morality" and that
moral responsibility is a risk we must take. "If we are to be
morally and ethically responsible," he wrote, "there can be no turning back once we find,
as we have found, that some of the most basic presuppositions of these values
are mistaken. Playing God is indeed playing with
fire. But that is what we
mortals have done since Prometheus,
the patron saint of dangerous discoveries. We play with fire and take the
consequences, because the alternative is cowardice in the face of the unknown."
"Creativity is not democratic" is written above the door of the Chanel Studio in Paris, where Karl Lagerfeld works. He was not the one who put that dictum there, but he certainly has internalized it. There's a lot of truth in that statement, a maxim for the theater. Actors, stage hands and musicians need to be told what they have to do. They may hate a director who acts like a dictator, but they despair of one who shows indecision. In the late 60's and 70's there was a time in Europe when some theaters practiced "grassroots-democracy", a period that was artistically barren. On all stages a sigh of relief was heard, when in the 80's directors started again to take over responsibility. In the record business the days of Clive Davis, Sigi Loch and Ahmet Ertegun will always be remembered as the creative years of pop music. Those were record bosses who had the guts to invest in a production they liked, even if the rest of the company - especially the marketing guys - had turned it down.
We all remember that the children of Israel danced around the Golden Calf while Moses was on the Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. What we probably forgot is the cruel punishment of the reckless dancers. A furious Moses told his faithful Levites to "go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor". The Levites did as commanded and slaughtered 3000 fellow Israelites in one go, women and children included. Only one of the culprits was spared, ironically the ringleader of the calf-worshipping. Yes, it was Aaron who happened to be the brother of Moses. As much as I tried to stick to the original story, you will not see that mass murder in my new musical. I'm sure that Moses killed those people to please God. After all he was educated at the Egyptian court. I, however, have a problem imagining God as a tyrannic and bloodthirsty Pharao.
Friedrich Nietzsche said I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time because he rejected all forms of glorification. A generation earlier, the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to publicly notice that God did not mould man in his image, but man moulded God in his. Naturally in a patriarchic and monarchic society God was a kind of super king. We have lost our belief in kings. Obviously the crisis of religion has a lot to do with the rise of democracy.
It was not foresight that made me write an article on professor Joseph Ratzinger in the early 60's, only interest in an intellectual theologian. I was a 17-year old high school student then, writing articles for a news magazine in Stuttgart. If I remember it right my report on the pugnacious Catholic came to the conclusion that this man would possibly change his rigid old-fashioned church for the better. O boy, how wrong I was! Nevertheless I never have been deceived by the rustic appearance of Pope Benedict XVI. Being a brilliant intellectual strategist was what made him become Pope. I doubt his health problems are the main reason for his resignation. It may as well be an ingenious stunt to thwart a Vatican plot or a desperate defense against intrigues meant to prevent him from influencing his succession. Most probably his opponents were caught totally unaware by this last move.
Maurice O'Connor Drury, a Cambridge a student of philosophy taught by Ludwig Wittgenstein at Trinity College, Cambridge, remembered that Wittgenstein exclaimed after one particularly fatuous paper at the Moral Sciences Club: "This sort of thing has got to be stopped! Bad philosophers are like slum landlords. It's my job to put them out of business." So when Wittgenstein met Karl Popper on 25 October 1946 in a crowded Cambridge room the meeting soon turned into a loud and aggressive confrontation. The two philosophers disliked each other so much that they came to blows. Rumours spread that Wittgenstein got up, went to the fireplace and attacked Popper with a red-hot poker. Another good reason to sympathize with Ludwig. Not because I like his thinking better than that of Popper (I do!). Only because this story shows that he was an emotional man with a temper.
In the 60's we all admired Bertrand Russell as a great philosopher and a fighter for peace, justice and freedom. When Wittgenstein met him to ask a most important question, Russell was already a celebrity. First he became the mentor of the young man, later he was his opponent.
“It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic. If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him.”
Why am I fond of Ludwig Wittgenstein? Not because he has sad eyes, although those eyes talk to me. Not because he was so smart that the professors who examined him had to confess they did not understand his tractatus. And certainly not because he was so totally honest that he was a terror to his fellow human beings. I admire him because he put his thoughts in plain, clear sentences. And I love him because he taught me that everything that can be said can and should be said in a straightforward way, and that things that can't be said simply should not be said at all.
Grant had many shortcomings, but one trait of character outweighed them all: His stubbornness. In December 1862, Grant launched his first
attempt to capture Vicksburg. The problem for Grant was how to "get
at" the city. It sits on a high bluff abve a sharp bend in the
Mississippi. Its guns commanded the sharp bend in the river at De Soto Point. A
direct approach was decisively repulsed. Rather than return to Memphis for the
winter and wait for the waters of the Mississippi to recede in the spring,
Grant initiated a number of other attempts to "get at" Vicksburg. In
attempting to reach the dry ground east of the Mississippi. In early 1863,
Grant undertook two engineering projects to get south of the city. The first
was the attempt to dig a canal to
permit the passage of naval transports from the Mississippi above Vicksburg to
points south without exposing them to the fire of the Confederate batteries.
The second was an attempt to connect a network of rivers and bayous in the
bottomlands of northeast Louisiana. Boths plans failed miserably. Now Grant
attempted two timemes to get directly at Vicksburg from the north. Both
operations failed. In late March, he moved his army down the west bank of the
river. After several setbacks they reached in late April the east side of the
river. From there he led his army far inland to Jackson before he turned back and laid siege on Vicksburg. I was now in the enemy’s country, he writes in his Memoirs, with
a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of
supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy.
All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December
previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the
accomplishment of this one objective. The Confederate defenders repulsed
several direct assaults against Vicksburg’s lines, but, cut off all support,
the city had to surrender on July 4, one day after Lee was defeated at
Gettysburg. It had taken Grant 8 months and about 17 failures to succeed. During
that time his superiors and the press in Washington lost all confidence in him
and the campaign. But not for a moment Grant had considered giving up. Granted his strategic skill was admirable. But he wouldn't have taken Vicksburg without stubbornly ignoring all setbacks and sticking to his goal.
It's impossible to explain why I'm feeling a kinship to certain people, most of them dead. Something subconscious knows about an inner connection. There is an understanding that makes us soul mates. This sounds very esoteric, I can't deny it, but I don't know how to describe it differently. As one of those "relatives" of mine I regard Ulysses S. Grant, the anti-militaristic Civil War general. Until 1861, he was a complete failure, an aborted farmer, an incompetent clerk, an occasional drunkard. Three years later, he was the commanding general of the United States Army. What his success makes so compelling is that he was not a brilliant genius. He didn't even enjoy the soldier's life and thoroughly hated war. There were days when he hardly spoke a single word. But his autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, one of my favorite books, is a great literary work.
German charm and grace of a Beethoven, a Mozart, a Weber; he also lacks the
flowing, cheerful fire (Allegro con brio) of Beethoven and Weber. He
cannot be free and easy without being grotesque. He lacks modesty, indulges in
big drums, and always tends to surcharge his effect. He is not the good
official that Bach was. Neither has he that Goethean calm in regard to his
rivals... Wagner's art is an appeal to inartistic people; all means are
welcomed which help towards obtaining an effect. It is calculated not to
produce an artistic effect but an effect upon the nerves in general...
Wagner does not altogether trust music. He weaves kindred sensations
into it in order to lend it the character of greatness. He measures himself on
others; he first of all gives his listeners intoxicating drinks in order to
lead them into believing that it was the music that intoxicated them.“
1876 Nietzsche wrote in his diary: "“Wagner is a born actor. Just as Goethe was an abortive painter, and Schiller an abortive orator, so Wagner was an abortive theatrical genius. His attitude to music is that of the actor; for he knows how to sing and speak, as it were out of different souls and from absolutely different worlds." That is a true but very kind description. I compare Wagner to an exhibitionist. Every bar he composed yells: "See how big and beautiful it is! Feel how I can arouse and excite you!"
What I like about great operas is their ironic distance to life. Theater should never try to be naturalistic because it is by definition a play, and musical theater takes us into a fairy world where people sing instead of talking. Opera at its best tells comic or tragic stories playfully, that is with a loving smile. This is very true of all operas Mozart composed. His music makes fun of the story's characters, in a good-natured, understanding way. Also, Verdi's and Puccini's tragic arias heighten rage, despair and heartache far above ugly reality, turning the expression of those feelings into an invisible description of human weakness to which we can knowingly give a nod. When I mentioned this observation to an opera buff some time ago he was taken aback, almost offended. Most probably he was a Wagnerian.
Not long ago, Al Pacino was Inside the Actors' Studio where he gave a wonderful interview. With respect to the large variety of roles he has played, he said: "You're as good as the chances you take". That is a proud and self-assured sentence, and it made me thinking. All creative people - and aren't we all creative people? - should expand their range, constantly trying to do new and daring things. Anything less is no challenge, and if you are not challenged, you're really not at your best. There is of course always the risk to fail. Even the best of us reach limits. Finding out where those limits are is one of the reasons we take chances. If we're afraid to fail we don't deserve to be talented. Better to fail trying something new than keep on following those worn-out paths. Regarding my own work: Maybe the musical in general doesn't need innovation, but I need to change the style and themes of my musicals or I betray myself.
As my readers probably know, the Broadway production of "Rebecca - The Musical" was delayed indefinitely last September, just as rehearsals were about to begin. While the authorities and some journalists are trying to find out who was the mastermind behind the criminal activities that caused the downfall of the production, the victims lick their wounds. I have many regrets, and probably the greatest is that we lost a fantastic cast and a dream team, headed by the legendary Australian director, Michael Blakemore. I still hope we will work together some day soon. Until then I am gratefully remembering the creative discussions we had. Among the experiences we shared was that people in the theater are always asking "What are you doing next?". Michael explained that to me: "For us theater people there is not much safety in the present, none in the past, but in the future it can at least be imagined."
Roswitha currently enjoys reading The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. She came across a place in that book which she liked so much that she read it to me. "Fate,"Zafón writes, "does not make house calls; you have to go see it." What a great sentence. While it is true that fate often drops by very unexpectedly, you can't call it to your door. If you wish to change your life you'd better start moving your ass to get out of your comfort zone.
Have you ever heard of Eadweard Muybridge? I hadn't until I read the NYT Review of a new non-fiction book by Edward Ball ("The Inventor and the Tycoon"). I've learned that Muybridge was, mildly put, an eccentric genius. He was also an inventor, a photographer and a murderer. His patron was Leland Stanford, an American railroad tycoon, best remembered today for founding the Stanford University. Stanford loved horses. He wanted to know how they run, and in 1872 he turned to Muybridge to find a way to photograph their movement. It took the ingenious man a year until he found out how to do it. His "serial photographs" of galloping horses, shot by 12 cameras, proved that horses lift all four feet as they run. Muybridge also found a way to project the photographs onto a screen through a machine he called a zoopraxiscope. When the lighted photographes appeared in quick secession, Mr. Stanford was the first one to see a movie. The image seemed to gallop. That was the very beginning of the history of film.
Every now and then I will use this blog to introduce some of my heroes. Two days ago I presented Harold Prince who was and still is the mentor of my work as a creator of musicals. With him I had a lot of discussions, we worked together and met socially. It seems odd that I should feel a similar closeness to other people who I admire but never met in person. One of them is Saul Bellow. His Herzog I read like a report about my inner life. Bellows writing touches me like only certain pieces of music do. Nevertheless he was one of those theoreticians to whom, as he writes in Herzog, "one must show the door".
That said, you may want to read what Bellow says about the change in literature of which he is an important part. I found this the other day in the Paris Review: "For a long time, perhaps from the middle of the nineteenth century, writers have not been satisfied to regard themselves simply as writers. They have required also a theoretical framework. Most often they have been their own theoreticians, have created their own ground as artists, and have provided an exegesis for their own works. They have found it necessary to take a position, not merely to write novels. In bed last night I was reading a collection of articles by Stendhal. One of them amused me very much, touched me. Stendhal was saying how lucky writers were in the age of Louis XIV not to have anyone take them very seriously. Their obscurity was very valuable. Corneille had been dead for several days before anyone at court considered the fact important enough to mention. In the nineteenth century, says Stendhal, there would have been several public orations, Corneille's funeral covered by all the papers. There are great advantages in not being taken tooseriously. Some writers are excessively serious about themselves. They accept the ideas of the “cultivated public.” There is such a thing as overcapitalizing the A in artist. Certain writers and musicians understand this. Stravinsky says the composer should practice his trade exactly as a shoemaker does. Mozart and Haydn accepted commissions—wrote to order. In the nineteenth century, the artist loftily waited for Inspiration. Once you elevate yourself to the rank of a cultural institution, you're in for a lot of trouble."
I remember the 1970's as a time of unlimited possibilities. I had finished my studies, quitted a legal career and started to work as a pop lyricist and record producer in Munich. The city was vibrating with life, the air was filled with music and opportunity waited at every corner. My hairdresser was a young woman who owned a shop named MCM. The acronym stood for Modern Coiffeur Munich and at the same time for her name Mara Cromer, Munich. Mara's good looking husband was a DJ in a well known dance palace in Munich's trendy Schwabing district and at the same time a mostly jobless actor. He dreamed of fame, and it hurt his self-esteem that some of his celebrity friends were treated with more respect than he. Some day Mara exhibited an array of luggage in her "salon". I was informed that her husband had designed those bags and suitcases for himself, but that he could have them made for her customers too, if anyone would be interested. One year later, MCM was a small company offering exquisite luggage, two years later it was a well known brand in Europe, three years later it was a worldwide fashion phenomenon. Mara was now the wife of a billion dollar entrepreneur. Believe it or not, she remained what she was: My favorite hairdresser. In the Munich flagstore of MCM there was a little room where she cut my hair in the 1980's, until disaster hit the company. But that's a story of the early 1990's which were the extreme opposite of the miraculous Seventies.