Performing Arts

“History is the Thing that hurts”: In Memoriam Herbert Blau

Photo by Dick Blau.
Photo by Dick Blau.

Herbert Blau died on his birthday last week. There will be tributes, of course. There will be many people talking about how “influential” he was shortly before they run off to the next middle-class, middle-of-the-road night of performing arts in this middle-class, middle-of-the-road community. They will talk about Professor Blau in the abstract, as a bit of history to be taught and then promptly ignored.

This is not one of those. This is tribute to a man who was my idol, my mentor, and, finally but most importantly, my friend.

I’m still inclined to feel, though not averse to theory, that in thinking over a life there’s no perception without what we can’t help feeling–regret, dismay, shame, and, even in a warp of the worst, some nostalgia too, verging as it may on what we’d rather forget. Among the liabilities of remembrance is that it can’t quite manage that in the embrace of what’s remembered.

There is this perpetual myth that artistic people are all bourgeois, silver spoon types. Herb was anything but bourgeois. When he talked about “the people” it was not some abstract Marxist term or some coterie of Ivy League snobs. It was a term that grew out of a childhood of fist fights, racism, marginal poverty, and the brutal lesson that life simply does not care that people want it all to be pretty.

It may have been because my father was there, but Nutchie was so startled when, crying in a rage at being forced to fight, I went with unceasing fury head first into his groin, grappling, butting, kicking, throwing punches wildly, through whatever he did, that he backed off himself. The turnaround would have been impossible without an accompaniment, of course: cocksucker, motherfucker, shithead Italian prick! the repertoire was endless, out of neighborhood fuck-you contests, fuck you too and up your ass (which you still can’t print in the Times), but with a pedagogical dividend that came in later years.

I always knew what he meant because we shared so much in common. We both grew up proletarian: his father, a plumber, mine, a steelworker. We both grew up with daily racist conflicts: he got into fist fights with anti-Semites, I got into fist fights with over-privileged ofays who desperately needed a beatdown. Both of us learned to channel our sense of the world’s relentless brutality into sport: he took up football, I took up baseball. We both skipped grades in school. We both found our eventual outlets in books. We both became chemists. We both forsook chemistry for the arts. He was in so many ways like a soulmate to me, a vision of myself in the future, a moral and intellectual standard to remind me not to lose faith in this most unintellectual of societies.

We have been living through a period of prolific activity and non-ideas. I don’t mean outright hostility to ideas, which might mean philosophical conflict, but the systematic conversion of ideas to negotiable coin in an era of adjustment.

So I took the news hard when my friend Laura told me that Herb had died. I imagine Herb leveling some appropriate witticism about at least having the sense to die on his birthday so that people would know exactly how old he was and the Wikipedia entries wouldn’t forget the date. I know of course that as Herb said there is no perception of his life without what I can’t help feeling. I will not apologize for it. He wouldn’t, either.

Dear Herb,

What an odd year. After threatening to do it in September, the folks in New York City dropped the axe on us. The reasons are numerous, they claim.

A single year of thoughtful critical writing on performing arts in Seattle could hardly be expected to have turned things around after twenty years of neglect. But it was a great start, and I quite agreed with Jose: this project is not done.

To that aim, I have rekindled an old name with deep connotations in this city: The Seattle Star. We began on Jan 1st, 2012. It’s a legitimate attempt to bring the practicing artists back into arts writing. Along with the continuing project of raising the bar for arts writing in Seattle, I’ve also reached out to local playwrights, poets, painters, fiction writers, photographers, graphic designers, comics artists and The Whole Sick Crew, if you’ll allow me to quote Pynchon.

Obviously I’ve bitten off quite a lot. Such is my nature I’m afraid. There have been many naysayers along the way but there is great promise. We simply have to deliver on the promise. The reminder, of course, as you once wrote in The Impossible Theater is: “Those who make half-revolutions dig their own graves.”

My editor killed my interview with you. I think it’s time for a resurrection of sorts. We should talk soon. The weather seems finally to be abating and it’s much safer now to scale those steps to your house.

You know I’d never have done all this without you. Thank you for all your hard work. You inspire me constantly to ever greater heights of complete madness–in the best possible way.

Yours,
Omar

 

That was my last letter to Herbert Blau. I wrote it on a February morning. I had just celebrated the birthday of The Seattle Star, and felt oddly optimistic about most things. The last time I had left him we was uncharacteristically dour. I thought it would be good to return some optimism to his life so I sat down at the computer and typed out those few lines. True to form, he wrote quickly back:

Hi Omar,
 
Sorry about that axe falling, but you seem indefatigable, and the activity unceasing. But then, you know what I feel about the impossible. Just back, actually, from a seminar that I’m teaching this quarter, “Traditions of the Avant-Garde.” And that oxymoronic notion, suggesting that what’s been resisted, contemned, bypassed, or ignored, has become canonical, may be a testament to the what you’ve been daresaying to the naysayers.
 
Anyhow, if you want to talk about it all, let me know. Thursdays and Fridays, sometime Saturday, late afternoon, are best for me.
 
Best,
Herb

 

Over the following months we talked on the phone and in person. Finally we had a chance really to talk at his house one beautiful late summer day. Overlooking Magnuson Park and the sparkling water of Lake Washington, I mused that being in this house was as far from his upbringing as it was from mine. Stranger still to live in it, I imagined.

With or without faith, and unlike Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, there was a there there in Brownsville, though you might not have wanted to be there, even secure in faith like my grandmother, in the vicinity of where she lived, because it was turning increasingly black. This was, in actuality, the more dubious margin of Brownsville through which, with urine smells on the train platform and sour pickles down below, the cramped, redolent Jewish district drains, with an intractable damp sorrow, into something more heterogeneous, even some Gypsies there, who might have predicted–in one of their fortune-telling “parlors,” a curtained hovel in a doorway, with beads around a lamp–what in aching, ruinous, impoverished time all of it came to be.

“I’m putting together the last bits for the final part of my autobiography,” he said. “It’s been a long process.”

“Writing it–or living it?” I asked with my typical irony.

“Ah, the living has been easy. Making sense of life is the hard part.”

Yet he made so much more sense of it than I ever will. Herb wrote twelve books and numerous articles, not simply about theater but about the entire performance of the human self in contemporary life whether on the proscenium stage or the theater of the street.

When I began The Seattle Star, I thought deeply about how he had changed my life and influenced my thoughts about the performing arts. His books, The Impossible Theater and Take Up the Bodies served as spiritual guidebooks when I first became interested in theater in the middle of the 1980s. I’ve read everything he’s written, often with frustration and skepticism, but always with great inspiration. Over the years, we discussed, dissected, dissented together. Not nearly as often as I should have liked, by far–but enough to turn me into a deeper thinker and a better soul. And, true to form, I have run into the exact same problems he diagnosed fifty years ago, only worse: I regularly encounter people now who claim Herb had a deep effect on them and changed their lives, but these people are vainglorious egotists, intellectual frauds, and amoral semi-citizens, far more concerned with their own images in the theater than they have ever been with the theater itself.

What do you say about those actors and directors who go to Equity meetings to speak up on working conditions or racial discrimination or the United Nations, but who then appear in one fraudulent drama after another, dramas that demean them as people, or vacuous musicals that impact the very condition their union was born of, and who—asked by the President what they can do for their country—would have been hard pressed to find an answer unless they gave up their careers?

As we sat there in his living room that late summer day, I was supposedly interviewing him about his thoughts on the contemporary local theater. Mostly, however, we talked about his son Dick Blau’s photography, Georges Braque and my personal photography project linking all four hundred Seattle parks with visual hypertext.

“See,” he said, “that’s the kind of project people should be doing. The digital world is here and has been for awhile, but artists are largely clueless how to deal with it. I’ve been working on this essay ‘Megaphonics and Telegraphics: The Digital Humanities’ but it’s a hard sell.”

The reflective paradigm needs some drastic revision, because in the age of mechanical reproduction, or, at the leading edge of advancing capitalism, digital image manipulation, the parameters of the social have also broken down.

Quietly I sat, nodding, thinking of the inscription Herb wrote in my copy of The Dubious Spectacle after it came out.

For Omar–
who is dubious in the right way
Herb

 

“Why are there separate art schools that have no reflection of cross-disciplinary practice?” he asked me. “We’re so stuck in all these ludicrous definitions. I read the journals and can’t believe half these things. Our modern art is so flaccid, bloodless. Like our theater. We have to rethink what we mean by theater. The lines are no longer distinct between the arts, and haven’t been for years. Performance spaces all accommodate various kinds of performance. So-called theaters show films, dances, circus–all these things. And the local restriction is such a sad thing. Everything travels these days. Students travel, everyone in your generation travels. But you’d never know it by looking at our stages. Judging from the plays, I doubt most people here even know Europe or Asia or Africa exist.”

Whether it is linear, cyclical, a vortex, a set of concentric rings or a Chinese puzzle box, a retrospective hypothesis or, as they say in deconstruction, an originary breach, history is the thing that hurts. And what really hurt at the time is the realization that they didn’t really believe, my teachers, those anecdotes from the history books that I had been taking to heart.

“It’s no good,” he finished flatly. “The world’s shrunk, but it’s still far larger than we seem to be able to fit onto a platform.” Leave it to Herb to come up with such a perfect turn of phrase.

That phrase has stuck with me. Herb and I would talk often about me laboring on in spite of a complete lack of hope of changing anyone’s mind about anything or even getting people to think about something, anything beyond the anodyne and the cliché. Neither of us were optimists. Both of us were painfully aware of history proving that optimism was a sure ticket to insanity. But in spite of the hopelessness of it all, he kept on writing all the way till he died. If he did, I probably should, too.

So I do. I often hate it. Despite what people say, writing is not easy. It is brutal, futile, irredeemable. Keeping history alive by writing probably means nothing to anyone. And yet–Herb would refer me here to Beckett, I’m sure. Going on is the only choice. Until, of course, everything stops. It has stopped for Herb. I am left to trudge along.

History is the thing that hurts.

I last saw Herb in person on October 16th, 2012. The occasion was a lecture series at the University of Washington called, “Why Live?” He was as cheerful as ever about the state of the arts in America–which is to say, not at all. Nevertheless, he was excited about Saint Genet’s upcoming work, as he told me, and had high praise for new interdisciplinary projects that were popping up. We talked awhile, again about his son Dick, whose photo book Living With His Camera had just been reviewed in the VASA Journal on Images and Culture. I told him I would stop by soon, once I was done with soccer season.

I never did.

I called him one last time around Passover, but received no answer. I assumed he was probably just working on his next book. I knew he was ill. I had no idea how bad the cancer really was.

“The tragic thing about death,” wrote Malraux, “is that it transforms life into a destiny.” It was Herb’s destiny to be one of the great thinkers of the American theater. It was Herb’s destiny to inspire three generations of people to love the theater beyond narrow definitions of it. Above all, it was Herb’s destiny to be one of the only theater practitioners in American history to hold that the moral imagination and the ethical commitment of artists was equally important with whatever work they happen to do. That integrity shines through everything he wrote and everything he did. It is precisely what made him a great human being, and precisely why people who claim to love the arts did not understand his intensity and his passion. Dubious, truly, that they ever will.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in the stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

 

I do not grieve well. I am too used to death. All I can do is sit and close my eyes. In that darkness, I can see quick, pyrotechnic lights. They write on my mind the destiny of Herbert Blau, my mentor, my friend. They write a legacy, a history I uphold to the bitter end.

History, indeed, is the thing that hurts.

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net