Scene4 Magazine: Arthur Meiselman
Arthur Meiselman
Of Vivaldi and Women

June 2013

Of Vivaldi

I have seen and heard the magnificent Yo-Yo Ma play Vivaldi live at Carnegie Hall. And now I hear him again as I sit spinning on the cd drinking in the laser light. (I obviously have a very large cd player!)  What he and Vivaldi accomplish is the carrying of music as close to the edge of a merged media experience without betraying its purity.

In the early 20th century, many critics and scholars considered music to be the purest of the art forms. The purest because it was self-contained, non-representational, a dimensional world that provided its own, unrelated sensory experience. Incidental and background music, songs, opera, musicals (representational by design) dilute that purity. And with the advent of film, music becomes a co-dependent in an uneven marriage of media.

Someday, somewhere, someone will take the beauty of Yo-Yo Ma and Vivaldi into their hands and pour it into the flow of other media as a singular, magical dimension in which we can experience the art of our lives… alone.

Until that time, I'll keep spinning in a bath of red light... remembering.

Of Women

What do you know about self-possessed loneliness? Bone-aching, silent, time standing-still loneliness. Probably very little. An aloneness that the titillation of television or drugs or books or music, even suicide holds out no hands of hope. Maybe you've seen it portrayed. I doubt it. Today, on the stage and screen actors seldom have the desire, the technique, the talent to reach for and caress such a delicate state of life.

I saw it on stage once. She was an actress with a lovely face, muted red hair, a slight, carved, always present touch of a smile. Her voice had a soft rasp that allowed her to trail words beyond hearing as they resonated in the glance of her eyes or surprising changes in her hands. She was playing a young woman who lived inside of herself, unable to look away from a disability, draped in an almost impenetrable veil of shyness. The character was overrun by her mother and embraced but not elevated by the loving support of her brother. She lived in two dimensions, flat often monochromatic. The third dimension lay behind her eyes with images only she could see. When she tried to bring these facets together it only drove her deeper into herself.

The actress worked patiently, carefully, in living watercolors. She slowly drew her audience to the character, surrounded them, and suspended their belief in the outside world. I was breathless... but only on the discovery that the rhythms of her speech and movement had affected the rhythm of my breathing and nearly stopped it. Her performance was so non-ending that she could have come back after the curtain calls and simply sat on the stage for an hour or so... the audience would have stayed on.

The actress was Piper Laurie, a 'chick-a-dee' starlet with a very pretty face from Hollywood's technicolor assembly line. She had left that success to emerge as an actor and an artist. The play was The Glass Menagerie at a theatre near Lincoln Center in New York City. The rest of the ensemble (and they had achieved that) included George Grizzard, Maureen Stapleton, and Pat Hingle. Some years later, when I tried to reach for what Piper Laurie had created and couldn't because the actress couldn't deliver, the best I could do was to layer the performance with the music of Satie's Gymnopedie. It was all memory.

I saw the same creation once more. I was working summer theatre near Lake George in the northern mountains of New York state.  Her name was Irina. She and her husband were Russian actors and had come to America after WWII as "displaced persons". For a number of years they ran a small theatre in this summer resort where they produced Shakespeare, Chekhov, other classics. Then he died. He was the last of what she had... they had lost their child and their family in the war.

At this performance, there were about 70 people in the small theatre. When the lights dimmed, the curtain opened, sweeping to both sides with a touch of faded elegance. There she was, standing still, lit with a small trouper-light. She walked, from one corner of the stage to the other, a languorous walk threaded from the center of her chest, a quiet steady cross from upstage right to downstage left. In all the theatre I've seen since, I've yet to see anyone else do that again with such a daring, hypnotic effect.

After a moment, as the light focused on her, she began removing her clothes, everything, until she was naked. Not a sound from the audience. Then she began to speak... Ophelia's last speech from Hamlet, a verse from Rilke's Duino Elegies, then she stopped, looked at the audience, began again. Quietly at first, she spoke about her life in Moscow, the war, her travels to America, her husband, their love of theatre. She never sat, occasionally she walked, once she turned her back to the audience, once she covered herself with her hands and arms as if to withdraw when she spoke of her daughter.  For a little over an hour, she created a portrait of a woman lost in the time of her memories, like an old tintype photograph kept under glass in a bell jar. She painted that same delicate self-possessed loneliness with the music of her voice and the careful, unpredictable changes in her face and body.

When it ended, and the light faded, there was a moment of silence and then the audience applauded. She did not take a curtain call. So they left, and I sat. Eventually she came through the curtain, looked at me and said, "You like?" I said, "I like." You see, I knew Irina (or thought I did) quite well. She had come to a performance at a nearby summer stock playhouse and saw me in The Man Who Came To Dinner". I played the irrepressible Richard. She saw it and me and took me... under her wing, her arms, the rest of her. She was in no way like the woman she portrayed in that gripping performance. She painfully hated her husband, painfully despised the Europe she knew, painfully loved what she was doing. She was 51 and I was 23 and she taught me that I knew almost nothing. About being a man - less than nothing. About women - even less. She showed me, in her memory-embraced aloneness, that the art of acting exists not in the mind of the beholder but in the mind and sensibilities of the performer. That a life in art is truly a life alone.

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©2013 Arthur Meiselman
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Arthur Meiselman is a playwright, writer and the Editor of Scene4.
He also directs the Talos Ensemble and produces for Aemagefilms

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
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June 2013

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