The Blue Raccoon

Monday, April 28, 2008

Some Blathering Following A Quiet
Does one ever recover from the Democratic primary malady?

I'm reading Richmonder James Branch Cabell's early novel, The Cords of Vanity--A Comedy of Shirking of 1909 (re-edited and republished 1920), to gain some understanding of the rarefied mindset of his social class to provide persepctive for this book I'm endeavoring to write. [The image above is via the Virginia Commonwealth University Special Collections site].

This, along with Ellen Glasgow's more realistic and far less self-conscious Romance of a Plain Man, are providing invaluable and insightful glimpses into this time and place.

Glasgow mentions the suffrage question, includes cruelty to animals, but even in her book African-Americas are tangential, uneducated people, lacking individual character. Cabell's Townsend character refers to his mammy. These two writers occupied the same city, though not a similar realm of existence as businessman and firebrand editor of the Richmond Planet, John Mitchell Jr. He was running weekly tallies of the lynchings of blacks, and the purported reasons for the crime. And none of them were sending checks to support the muckraker socialist Adon A. Yoder and his Idea.

Now, Cabell never needed to work, that is, in the time-clock punching way--he was descended of two storied Virginia families and his daddy married well. But he was the artist in the family, and as such, experienced the loneliness of loving a city that held him in suspicion and further expected him to accomplish something significant, and then after he built 52 books, forgot him.

Cords is, as his biographer Edgar MacDonald described, an almost painfully autobiographical novel. The protagonist Robert Etheridge Townsend is James Branch Cabell's alter ego. Richmond becomes Lichfield.

He strove to be an epigrammatic word smith, oh so witty and droll. For this reason, among others, he is a personal hero, though I shall never match Cabell's preciosity--I'm not by half as well-read or educated--I, instead, seek relevancy.

Townsend of Lichfield was sort of dating, with intention of marriage, a young woman of means named Rosalind Jemmett whom he kind of forgot about while writing his first and unfortunate novel. They patch up and take up. He spends the summer holidaying with Rosalind and her family's well-off friends. Here, he waxes proto-Fitzgeraldian.

"They were a queer lot. They all looked so unspeakably new; their clothes were spick and span, and as expensive as possible, but that was not it; even in their bathing suits these middle-aged people--the were mostly middle-aged--seemed to have been very recently finished, like animated waxworks of animated people just come from the factory. And they spent money in a continuous careless way that frightened me.
But I was on my very best, most dignified behavior; and when Aunt Lora presented me as "one of the Lichfield Townsends, you know," these brewers and breweresses appeared to be properly impressed. One of them--actually--"supposed that I had a coat-of-arms"; which in Lichfield would be equivalent of supposing that a gentleman possesses a pair of trousers."

Then at one point he finds wealthy widow named Elena Barry-Smith -- (sounding like Cabell's wife, Priscilla Bradley Shepherd, though Elena has no children, and goes off to marry someone else due to Townsend's arty dawdling and protestations--and the chronology is too soon) -- who is acting as though she's not interested, and he woos her, making great and ardent claims, even that he'd become a prominent citizen and seek office. This comment leaped out considering the current season:

"I will even go into civic politics, if you insist upon it, and have round-cornered cards in all the drug-stores so that everybody who buys a cigar will know I am subject to the Democratic primary. I wonder, by the way, if people ever survive that malady? It sounds to me a deal more dangerous than epilepsy, say, yet lots of persons seem to have it -- "

Firehouse Cabaret Reviewed

The writer still says you should go; despite quibbles here and there.

'Firehouse' Offers Change of Pace


The modestly entertaining "Firehouse Theatre Cabaret" brings back the concept of a revue.

Like some shows done in New York in the 1950s and'60s, it's a mixture of sketches -- in this case, actual 10-minute plays -- and songs with a slightly skewed perspective.

This year's cabaret is in the hands of Scott Wichmann, who not only acts and sings in the show but also directed it.

There are few pleasures in Richmond equal to seeing Wichmann perform; he's like a cyclotron, full of energy and magnetism. His singing is especially skilled in this cabaret; he does wonders with Gershwin's "Sweet and Low Down" and Ray Charles' "Hallelujah."

There's a pleasantly loose jazz trio backing up the singer-actors, with a basic black set by Tad Burrell and well-executed lighting by Mike Mauren.

Wichmann has good supporting players to work with. Jude Fageas opens the evening with "But I Was Cool," an Oscar Brown Jr. song, and he uses his lanky frame and versatile voice to embody a geeky grace.

Alia Bisharat sings a soulful version of the Mack Gordon-Harry Warren "At Last," and Lisa Kotula ably joins Wichmann in the absurdly amusing "Date with a Stranger" by playwright Cherie Vogelstein.

But the other playlets are lackluster. Ellen Melaver's "Isabelle" is flat; Jamie Brandli's "Clowning Around" is silly; Jeffrey Sweet's "The Award" is just mildly amusing; and Mary Miller's "Ferris Wheel" echoes "Date with a Stranger" a little too much.

And while the playwrights are honored with full program bios, you have to wonder why there are no credits at all for the songwriters, including Rodgers and Hart, or for songs borrowed from the scores of "Brooklyn" and "Avenue Q."

Yet this is enough of a change of pace from the usual theatrical fare to make it worth seeing. Get to the theater early, buy a drink and snag a table. You'll feel like you're in a nightclub, you'll have some laughs and you'll enjoy some tunes. Not a bad night out.

The Best Parts of the Merlefest

The Avett Brothers, their full-bore, fierce Friday night mainstage set. So earnest, energetic and entertaining, these boys from Concord, N.C. A mixed blood child of newgrass, The Proclaimers, Kurt Cobain and The Beatles. Dancing erupted up front, but without enough space, thus the audience began hefting chairs in fire brigade fashion, passing them overhead and out of the way, and for a while the plastic seats danced in the air, as though performing a blue grass-flavored peformance-art piece.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group of young African-American musicians playing as a string band in the tradition of Upper Piedmont Carolina's banjo and fiddle music. Joyful, wistful, spiritual, surprising-- their version of Blu Cantrell's "Hit'Em Up Style" gets the crowd roaring.

The Waybacks, with John Cowan, presenting classic Led Zeppelin tunes, on the Hillside Stage, with intermittent rain. Who knew Jimmy Page played all that on an acoustic instrument? Yup, those are fiddles, a banjo, drums and guitars. Two words: A-mazing.

• And just meandering around, listening and watching as all types and sizes plucked, picked, and fiddled just for the fun of being among others who also enjoy the music.

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