The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Imp of the Perverse

In today's anecdotes, I do not come out particularly well, but, well, that's blogging for you.

So, la Caterina likes on a Saturday evening to listen to Oscar Brand's Folk Song Festival, a show with which I have a love-hate relationship (actually, more of a love-snicker) relationship. Now, don't get me wrong, some of the stuff he plays is quite good, but there's a fair amount of curiosities and some stuff that just hasn't dated well. And then there are some songs that rouse in me what Edgar Allen Poe famously diagnosed as the Imp of the Perverse.

You don't know the term? Let me give you an example. A few years ago, a good friend of mine, who will remain nameless here, forevermore (hey, I'm explaining a concept from Poe, remember?), attended a revival of a dark, brooding drama by Leo Tolstoy, at the Mini Theater (aptly named; the small house made what happened patently obvious to the entire audience). We were in the first or second row, dead center.

Now, here's how the New York Times described the play:
This deeply religious play follows a man who has lost his way: a philandering servant, Nikita (played by Mark Alhadeff as a somber brooder) conspires to kill his boss, marries the man’s wife and then sleeps with his own stepdaughter. And he’s just getting started. Tolstoy doesn’t search for psychological explanations for this behavior or bother to posit that all of us have the capacity for depravity. He seems instead to blame desperate poverty and greed.

Translation is always tricky, and while Mr. Platt doesn’t shy from the ugliness of these characters — he describes violence with a frankness that may shock some people — he is unable to escape the stilted, museum-piece feel of the play. Nikita’s noble father, Akim (Steve Brady), seems more like a collection of tics than a real character, and some of the exposition will remind audiences that the playwright was better known as a novelist.

Then again, there’s so much drama (adultery, drunkenness, poisoning) on the march toward redemption that there’s no time for Chekhovian discussion, character development or any ambiguity. Tolstoy just keeps increasing the stakes of the immorality until he reaches a climax with a powerful, unsparing scene in which Nikita, prodded by his mother, Matryona (played with great √©lan by Randy Danson), kills his newborn child.

It is a jolting moment, one that brings to mind Edward Bond’s baby-killing scene in “Saved,” written almost 80 years later.
Now, I am sorry, but I saw that play, and my friend were guffawing openly all through that "powerful, unsparing scene," which was the most melodramatic fustian I have seen since D.W. Griffith retired. And you can write me off as a philistine, if you will, but my friend? She's a Literature MA with an abiding love of Russian Literature and Tolstoy in particular, and she was howling, if anything, more loudly than I was. I swear to you, I thought for the first half hour or so that the thing was a spoof. When I realized it wasn't, I was too far gone--it made the whole thing funnier.

Quite understandably, the cast glared their hatred at us, as tears streamed down our cheeks and, oh, the horror, we kept laughing at the "jolting moments" being enacted before us. The whole show struck as some Vincent Price Grand Guignol black comedy, a la Theater of Blood. I am quite sure that we spoiled that performance, but we just couldn't help ourselves--no words of mine can convey how ludicrously overblown the self-impressed reveries of the various characters came across, and every time we regained control, and swore to behave, another Monty Python moment sent one or the other of us up again.

Which brings us back to Folk Song Festival.

One night, Oscar cues up this little gem:



Now, this strikes me funny--riotously so, I have to confess--because of its striking similarity in arrangement, progression, and overall gestalt, to "Secret Agent Man." No, really:



So, I'm imagining Patrick McGoohan as the narrator, enacting (60's action show style) the metaphorical struggle between the two wolves for la C's amusement, and generally being a grinning ass over the whole thing. The very next day, a good friend of mine is giving a talk, and making a point about human nature, and illustrates it with the story of the two wolves.

I was, of course, doomed.

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