Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Capote, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Truman Capote, 1959. Photograph by Roger Higgins.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper
Photograph Collection. Public domain.
There is a wonderful tragicomedy—which always seemed to me a happier branch of absurdism that, after watching, didn't leave me feeling suicidal as, say, Krapp's Last Tape might—and my favorite play in this genre is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. I've seen the movie because I live in a part of the country where there isn't much theater. The eponymous characters are minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (whom I'll call R&G) are more about expediting the drama than flesh and blood characters as Hamlet is. T.S. Eliot alludes to them in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
In writing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard raises the point that most of us are not Prince Hamlet. I am an attendant lord, "at times ... almost ridiculous—... the fool." Stoppard rewrites Hamlet from the point of view of the ordinary, mortal functionaries and factotems that most of us are. Occasionally the two plays converge so Stoppard's play becomes Shakespeare's, but most of the time R&G are not onstage, and there is some delightful absurdist banter to fill the spaces. Occasionally I see Hamlet's drama rush by in the background.

 Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) & Guildenstern (Tim Roth)
failing to grasp the significance of one of their many
missed opportunities at unwitting scientific invention.
One of the two, I forget which, repeatedly misses opportunities to make great scientific discoveries because he is constantly but unwittingly creating the circumstances that led up to them in the history of science—Archimedes sat in a bath and the water rising around him was just the right nudge for him to bump against the epiphany and cry out, "Eureka! I have found it!"—but when Rosencrantz sits down in his tub, he just gets the floor wet. Playing with paper he unwittingly invents a propellor, but once again they don't have the wit to appreciate the potential of what they have accidentally invented. And that's the point: as attendant lords, deferential tools, and fools, they lack the wherewithal to seize what they see and forget discoveries. They witness the world the way I watch TV: passively and unprepared to act as principals in the human drama. All this isn't to say I'm watching Dumb and Dumber. What I'm watching is tragicomedy, which is a way of saying what I hear some people say now and then: that there are about five thousand people in the world who matter—I suppose they mean people who would be characters in a comprehensive history of the world—and I am not one of them.

You probably remember that the usurper uncle, sick of his nephew's moping, sends Hamlet to England with R&G, who bear a note to the English king asking him to dispatch the prince forthwith. However, Hamlet is pretty shrewd, finds the letter, and replaces it with one of his own composition. As a result, the English king orders the immediate hanging of R&G and the play comes to an end. This is, by the way, the reason that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Extraordinary Hamlet returns to Denmark in time to engage in that widely fatal swordfight, but I don't get to see that because my play ended back in England when our ordinary protagonists died.

I recently watched Capote, which is about Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) in the time that he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, about the killing of the Clutter family in Kansas in November 1959. I read In Cold Blood when I was in high school, and I didn't see the movie until some years afterwards. I didn't read a lot of novels in high school—that came later—and that alone tells me how compelling the book was for me. But I remember that the book was compelling, and I remember some of the captivating and, I offer myself as witness, unforgettable scenes. Truman Capote called In Cold Blood his "non-fiction novel," and, yes, that is the trick that makes it so readable: it reads like a work of great fiction, but it is true down to the gory details.

Capote was no post-modernist out to make me aware of the boundaries of narrative by tapping on the curtain: he remains the man securely behind the curtain to whom I pay no attention. Perhaps the post-modern literary mores have seeped by osmosis into my skin. The prevailing view holds that post-modernism—the English Department sometimes calls it PoMo for short—is not a taste I can take or leave in the way I might or might not get a slice of mango cream pie in the cafeteria. Postmodernism is a juncture in history, and I can't turn it down any more than I can time travel. I might think I hate PoMo, but it's crept inside me, a parasite of narrative desire, impossible to cure, and it drives my appetite, and I hunger for stirrings behind the curtain. I want the man behind the curtain to stop the action and acknowledge that I can see the apparatus. The opening sequence of Ingmar Bergman's Persona finally begins to make sense. I want the production of the story to be part of the story. So in this way Capote has to be made as a post-modern remake of In Cold Blood, or perhaps as the tragicomic version. What I'm hinting at here is that if Capote's great masterpiece In Cold Blood is like Hamlet, then Capote is that book's (& movie's) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker magazine from December 1951 to February 1987, fascinates me because he was another man behind the curtain for so many important authors. He was guru, nursemaid, personal adviser, and editor to the most important writers in America across that thirty-five-year period, and he was certainly no less influential than the great editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's in the generation before him. Carrying William Shawn around in a blog is like having a blasting cap loose somewhere inside my shirt, and the danger is that it might explode at any second, and then I would have to tell you all about J.D. Salinger, James Thurber, E.B. White, Lillian Ross, Dwight Macdonald, and a whole lot of people I'm forgetting to mention. Let's just say that for thirty-five years Shawn was venerated by the literary world for holding a steady course at a magazine that successfully blended a standard of perfection, a position from which it did not talk down to its readership (about the only American magazine that can claim that), and a sense of humor.

If you bear all that in mind for a moment, you can imagine my awe as the movie Capote dramatizes a long distance telephone call between Truman Capote and William Shawn. On the surface, the content here seems routine. Capote is telling Shawn that the story is bigger than what he expected, and that he needs more money and more time. It is the declaration of intent to write a masterpiece. Yes, people declare genius and grand intentions all the time, but Capote came through with it (although the movie shows that the writing was agony—I want to say it just about killed him).

TRUMAN (on phone)

Mr Shawn?



I'm writing a book. It's too much for a single article — this town,the killers most of all — you will be stunned by Perry Smith — 

Why? What has he —

Not much yet, but I know. I can sense him. He's desperately lonely, frightened.... I have questions — are you ready?

Would it matter —

How much more money can you send me? How quickly can you get Dick Avedon out here to take some pictures? 

Whenever anyone brings up Richard Avedon—the familiar, diminutive form of his name used only by those who knew him personally, people from among those five thousand—I think of My Dinner with Andre, which happens to be co-written by Wallace Shawn, the son of William Shawn. Wallace Shawn's co-writer and co-star in the Louis Malle film is Andre Gregory, who casually drops Avedon's name at a dinner conversation:
And then I guess really... the last big experience of this kind took place that fall. It was out at Montauk on Long Island... There were only about nine of us involved, mostly men. We borrowed Dick Avedon's property out at Montauk. The country out there is like Heathcliff country. It's absolutely wild.
Shawn père et fils, Avedon, Capote, Gregory may all number among those five thousand, yet all the mechanics of production—Avedon, whose "fashion and portrait photographs helped define America's image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century" (NY Times), called out to Kansas to photograph murderers; Capote concerning himself with the ephemeral details behind an eternal book—are trivial compared to the result. In Cold Blood holds a place at the great literary banquet of the twentieth century. The necessary preoccupation with quotidian details when one should be writing echoes the missed opportunities of invention in R&G Are Dead. Even Capote's footwork necessary to investigate, research, and write the book still seem less than the book itself: the tiny details of life and death kaleidoscopically merge in a sum greater than its parts, a synergy, a transubstantiation....

When Capote says to Shawn, "I can sense him. He's desperately lonely, frightened," he is writing a summary or perhaps glossing over an attraction that he feels toward Perry Edward Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr). As I perceive that relationship, it's not homosexual as his relationship with his lover is, but the homosexuality might have paved a way for his sensitivity to the killer. Toward the end, it's clear that Capote's friendship with Smith is only a pretense to draw information from his prime witness, one of the killers. He particularly needs Perry to tell in his own words the story of the night that he and Richard Eugene Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) went into the Clutter house. But in the beginning this "desperately lonely" and frightened individual is like Capote's doppelganger, an anti-Truman, with whom he shares a similar childhood history of abuse. There's almost a sense of, "I didn't turn out this way, but I could have."

In Capote's book, two friends of Nancy Clutter, the 16-year-old daughter of the family that was killed, go to the funeral home before the funeral and convince the funeral director to let them see Nancy's body. Her head is completely wrapped in a sparkly cotton cocoon reminiscent of cotton candy.

Yet in the movie, it's Capote we see in the funeral home, and managing to find himself alone with the four coffins, he opens the daughter's and sees her in her burial dress and the cotton cocoon.

Now I have a phobia of dead folks. It's hard for me to go to funerals. So the first thing I think when I see Capote opening a coffin is that he is very dedicated to his job, dedicated to the story above and beyond any propriety or fear of the dead, but of course I'm projecting my phobia onto him. But with more time to reflect, with some distance from the movie, what strikes me here is the variation in the story. Was the visit of the friends to the funeral home a fiction to hide Capote's improper visit? That might be unknowable. But it's a point in the story analogous to when we see R&G in the foreground doing their tasks as the play passes in the background and Shakespearean characters hasten down the corridor. Whether Nancy's friends saw it, or Capote himself saw it, that cotton cocoon finds its way into the book.

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