From 'Album Of A Director'

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FILM JANUARY 1, 2007

From 'Album Of A Director'

The more I learned from CD and worked with the company and learned of the theater’s past, the more I wanted the company to be my future. The more I believed in the company principles, the safer I felt with them wrapped around me and the less I wanted to spend time at anything else. The mere fact of my graduation would make no difference in the centering of my life. I wanted the company to take even more of my time after graduation than it had been taking. I wanted the company to move from its university setting to a being of its own and to grow in recognition. My best friends in the company felt the same.

One day in CD’s office during my last year in school we were talking about the old days, his old days. As an adolescent in his upstate town he had played Donalbain for two performances when Modjeska had come barnstorming through as Lady Macbeth. He had spent every possible moment in the wings listening to her, and he could imitate her, complete with delicate Polish accent. It as late afternoon as we talked, that lazy time of surging feelings at the end of a day. I felt linked. I wanted never to leave this atmosphere, the company of a man who had touched the receding past and who wanted to keep it from receding, wanted to carry the best of it on. I took a leap. I told CD what I had been thinking about the company, how I wanted it to march forward from a beautiful enterprise that we supported to a beautiful enterprise that could support us. So that I could give it all my time. I told him that all I was doing really was persisting in ideas that he had taught me. I would never be much of an actor--he had convinced me of that. I simply wanted to put my life in the company: to play such parts as I could, stagemanage, write plays for the company occasionally, possibly some time in the future even direct.

He listened very attentively, leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his bespectacled head. He pursed his thin mouth, then he said, “Yes. You’re the only one who could take over. You’re the only one with the vision.”

Even today, writing the words, I feel the pang of pride, the wonderful ache of a limitless future.

He never repeated that remark to anyone that I know of, nor did I. Nor did he ever say it again to me. But he said it then. And later he and I often talked between ourselves and with other members about some of the ideas I had raised that afternoon: a move away from the university base, into a full-time life, into self-sufficiency. Some of the people in the company were too tied with obligations, too settled in jobs, to consider such a move. For me, for most of the younger members, who were most of the members, it seemed just a matter of time before we found the means to move. Probably, I measured it secretly, only a few years after I graduate.

My parents, even though those were black Depression days, grumbled very little at my unconventional and to them, wispy plans: at least they understood why my time was used as it was, four nights a week for rehearsals and weekends for performances. Other people, relatives, and friends, shrugged, as if I were eccentric or going through growing pains. (I was only nineteen when I graduated.) Most of the girls I knew either were involved with the company, like Enid who was my “steady,” or were a bit starry-eyed because I was a member.

So I didn’t look for any other kind of career when I graduated. I didn’t want to get entangled or lie too much to employers. I had a few odd impermanent jobs that didn’t entail commitment to the boss. I wrote a lot of things and sold a few. I squirmed along in money terms, meanly and grubbily, with no kind of bohemian joy in grubbiness, with worn clothes and with small change in my pockets. A dollar bill was something of a thrill.

I spent much of my time with CD, although no more than he spent with other men in the company outside rehearsals. He spent almost no time with women, alone or in groups. I went up to his penthouse apartment across from the university only by invitation or after a telephone inquiry, but I went quite a lot. It always excited me to be invited up for a drink after rehearsal, either with or without others. Sometimes on a boring Sunday, after a week spent more or less with him, I telephoned him from home and was sometimes asked to come down for an hour.

And sometimes I was invited to stay overnight, to sleep on the sofa in the living room, although my home was only half an hour away. There was never any real need to stay, but once in a long while CD would say, always abruptly and brusquely, “It’s late. You may as well bunk down on the sofa if you like.” I would always accept, would call my mother and tell her that we had been working and that I was needed early in the morning.

I felt privileged whenever I was with him. He was, stubbornly and somewhat haughtily, what I wanted to be in the theater and much of what I wanted to be as a man: wise, skilled, stoic, courteous, Roman. Away from him I parroted him in manner and even used some of his anecdotes as my own. I couldn’t smoke cigarettes, as he did much of the time--I had a pipe--but I liked cigars, and very rarely he gave me one of his. It was always, as when I’d thanked him for taking me into the company, some sort of occasion. His cigars were no better than the ones I bought once in a while, but they tasted better. (“No cigar ever made was worth more than a nickel” was one of the worst pieces of pseudowisdom I ever had from him.)

Preparatory hours I felt them, preparatory to a great, shaped, aspiring life, when I was in his apartment, sitting across from this big pasty-faced man with slit eyes and a fringe of dirty red hair around his bald pate, as he leaned back in the green-cushioned Morris chair he had inherited from his English mentor, a drink on the flat arm of it, and in his light baritone read to me, to us if there were others--Shakespeare or old poets--or told stories or read from books on mysticism--Ouspensky and Bragdon--to which he professed to subscribe. Of course, I can see now, it’s easy to see now, that, outside the theather where his conservatism had purpose and was lit by his talent, he was a very narrow man, full of social and political pronouncements that were ignorant and bigoted. I can see that his views of women were both sentimental and dirty. At the time I could see his narrowness, but I thought it was his way of discrimination, somehow aristocratic; and though we always disagreed politically--he called me a Red because I liked Roosevelt and read socialist literature--I liked our disagreements because they formed still a different kind of tie with him. As for his comments on women, with their lofty worldliness and gold-toothed chuckles, they seemed to admit me to a club of grownups.

Everyone has had at least one teacher who meant a great deal to him. The difference here was that I expected to be with CD for life.

There was another oddity. In spite of everything between us, I knew that he didn’t really like me. He admired me in several ways, he had some expectation of me, he praised much of my writing, and from time to time, because of these things, I felt a small glow of affection from him. But in any quick and spontaneous way, he didn’t respond to me as he did to some of the other people in the company.

Partly this was my fault. I had decided through my progress in all my schools and adulation from past teachers, through early publication in lots of little magazines, and of course through my early acceptance into the company, that I was some sort of superior person, the superiority not yet specific but nevertheless certain. My conviction of this often made me arrogant or facetious, both of which must have been hard to take.

But mostly CD’s fundamental reaction to me was chemically instantaneous, not caused by this or that action. In an almost primal animal way, he was never completely unguarded with me even when he as closest and most affectionate. Besides, he had a strong residue of rural anti-Semitism. He was teaching in a university with many Jewish students, so it was meant as a special mark of favor to me, as one of them, if he made a small anti-Jewish crack in private. I laughed at his anti-Jewish cracks that seemed to me maturely wicked and conclusive. The idea that CD could be homosexual--a condition I associated honorably with the past, with Julius Caesar or Michelangelo--was not conceivable to me. It would have shocked me greatly. It would have changed my cosmos.

Still, the thought crossed my mind at that moment, as a possibility for two other people; and I felt that he had felt the same flash and knew that I had felt it. But I thought that it had affected him the same way: only as a recognition of how apt the moment would have been for two others.

Absolutely nothing happened. He gestured toward the bathroom and said, “You’d better get along and wash while I make up the sofa.” When I came out of the bathroom, the sheets and blanket and pillow were all in place and his bedroom door was closed. When I woke the next morning, he was making breakfast for us. He peered over his glasses at me. “Bacon’s done, eggs will be ready in a few minutes.” In the daylight there was no touch of that late-night feeling.

But I knew that it had happened, and I was sure that he knew. In the morning I thought that, if a move had been made the night before, I would have been horrified. I might easily have said so simple-minded a thing as “But professor, what about Enid?” She was not only my “steady,” she was in the company.

because I valued the implication that I was “not like them.” It was an ambition of many American Jews in those days, particularly of my generation, to be “not like them.” I meant the laughter, I felt only the slightest twinge of discomfort far back in my mind. Still the communion didn’t bring CD and me as close as he was with others, some of whom too were Jewish but about whom he was in no way wary.

[…]

One Sunday night in my last year at college CD asked me to go with him to see Boris Kraft’s new revival of one of his old repertory pieces. I was delighted. …

When we left, I was tingling. To have been there with those two men at that meeting! What possible importance the meeting could have I wasn’t sure, but it was those two men, talking professionally. I didn’t want to break out of that atmosphere: I walked CD to his apartment house fifteen minutes away. He, too, was apparently feeling exhilarated. At the door he said, “I feel like reading aloud for a bit. You can come up if you want to.” Of course I wanted to. As he unlocked his apartment door, he looked at his watch and said, “It’ll be late before long. You might want to stay over. In which case you’d better phone your parents now.” Of course I telephoned--my poor mother was used to these calls around midnight--and said I wouldn’t be home to sleep, there were things I had to talk about with CD.

He sank into his Morris chair with a drink and some books. He pushed his brown-rimmed glasses lower. He read some poems. I smoked a pipe and listened. He read from old copies, full of notes, books that he had used as a student at Columbia. They seemed to me crusted with riches.

In that penthouse apartment the night closed tightly around us like a fist, condensing the space. CD’s brass gooseneck reading lamp became a circle of light within a circle of black. He finished the fifth or sixth poem--Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” one of his favorites--and closed the book. He seemed just slightly uneasy, instead of in his usual fairly cool command. Just slightly. It crossed my mind that if we were two other people, this might be the moment when the teacher made a sexual advance toward the student. I knew what homosexuality was. I knew it existed, but that was al. there was no question of tolerating it in friends; the subject never arose, whatever secret lives there may have been. It was never talked about except scoffingly or, at best, pityingly. In my own life, all it meant was a contradistinction to healthy male companionship and affection, but it had nothing to do with my life or the lives around me as far as I was aware. All of us knew CD had no women friends except the wives of friends, that he often had young men staying in his apartment. But the men were mostly members of the company, as far from homosexuality as I was, or former students who now lived out of town and stayed with him when they came to the city. None of us speculated much about CD’s sex life. Once in a great while he would give us the gold-toothed grin and say something about “pajama parties,” and that seemed to me maturely wicked and conclusive. The idea that CD could be homosexual--a condition I associated honorably with the past, with Julius Caesar or Michelangelo--was not conceivable to me. It would have shocked me greatly. It would have changed my cosmos.

Still, the thought crossed my mind at that moment, as a possibility for two other people; and I felt that he had felt the same flash and knew that I had felt it. But I thought that it had affected him the same way: only as a recognition of how apt the moment would have been for two others.

Absolutely nothing happened. He gestured toward the bathroom and said, “You’d better get along and wash while I make up the sofa.” When I came out of the bathroom, the sheets and blanket and pillow were all in place and his bedroom door was closed. When I woke the next morning, he was making breakfast for us. He peered over his glasses at me. “Bacon’s done, eggs will be ready in a few minutes.” In the daylight there was no touch of that late-night feeling.

But I knew that it had happened, and I was sure that he knew. In the morning I thought that, if a move had been made the night before, I would have been horrified. I might easily have said so simple-minded a thing as “But professor, what about Enid?” She was not only my “steady,” she was in the company.

Now I think I only thought those things the next day to protect myself. If there had been a move toward me that night, I might at that moment have thought it was right to happen, that it had been considered for me and found right. I had trusted this man with so much that I probably would also have trusted him in that. Now I think the only reason it did not happen was that fundamentally he didn’t like me.

If it had happened, my whole life might have been different, not perhaps because of one homosexual experience, or subsequent experiences, but because it could have changed relations forever between CD and me and some future actions of his.

No such flash ever happened between us again, although for a time I saw no less of CD, although I stayed overnight in his apartment once in a while.

Stanley Kauffman is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffman

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