Oct. 6, 2010

The Man in the Yard

by Howard Nelson

My father told me once
that when he was about twenty
he had a new girlfriend, and once
they stopped by the house on the way
to somewhere, just a quick stop
to pick something up,
and my grandfather, who wasn't well—
it turned out he had TB and would die
at fifty-two—was sitting in a chair
in the small back yard, my father
knew he was out there, and it crossed
his mind that he should take his girlfriend
out back to meet him, but he
didn't, whether for embarrassment
at the sick, fading man
or just because he was in a hurry
to be off on his date, he didn't
say, but he told the little,
uneventful story anyway, and said
that he had always regretted
not doing that simple, courteous
thing, the sick man sitting in
the sun in the back yard would
have enjoyed meeting her, but
instead he sat out there alone
as they came and left, young
lovers going on a date. He
always regretted it, he said.

"The Man in the Yard" by Howard Nelson, from The Nap by the Waterfall. © Timberline Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1921 in London that the literary organization PEN was founded by the novelists C.A. Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy. The acronym PEN stood for "Poets Essayists and Novelists." Its original members included George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad. PEN had three goals:

1. To promote intellectual cooperation and understanding among writers,
2. To create a world community of writers that would emphasize the central role of literature in the development of world culture; and,
3. To defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses.

It is still around today and probably most visible in this country as part of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.

It was on this day in 1600 that the opera Euridice was first performed, at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. It is the oldest surviving opera.

Euridice was performed for the wedding celebrations of Henry IV of France and Maria de' Medici. It was written by Jacopo Peri, a beloved composer and singer. He had already written Dafne a few years earlier, which is considered to be the first opera, but that music has been lost.

Euridice is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the gifted musician Orpheus falls in love with the beautiful Eurydice, but just after their wedding she is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus is heartbroken, and he journeys to the underworld, to Hades, to try to bring her back. He charms the king of the underworld, also named Hades, and his wife, Persephone, and they agree to return Eurydice to Orpheus on one condition: that he get all the way back to the upper world without looking back to see if Eurydice is following. He almost makes it, but right as he is walking out into the sunlight he turns back, and Eurydice is still in the underworld, so he loses her forever. Peri not only wrote the opera, but he sang the role of Orpheus. The climax of the opera came during "Funeste piagge," or "Funeral shores," when Orpheus begs Hades and Persephone to release his beloved.

Peri wrote a long preface to Euridice, in which he explained the new musical form he was working in, which we now call opera. He said that he was trying to write the way he imagined the Greeks would have, combing music and speech into the ultimate form of drama. One of the people who came to Florence to see Euridice was Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. And he probably brought his servant, Claudio Monteverdi. A few years later, in 1607, Monteverdi premiered his first opera, L'Orfeo, which was also a retelling of the legend of Orpheus. Monteverdi elevated the opera form to new heights, and L'Orfeo is considered the first truly great opera, with all of the dramatic orchestration and lyrics that are so central to the drama.

In 1858, Jacques Offenbach wrote the operetta Orphée aux enfers, which made fun of contemporary political figures like Napoleon and had the gods dancing the can-can.

These days there is a popular new opera based on the legend of Orpheus, a "folk opera" by Anaïs Mitchell, called Hadestown. Mitchell is a singer and a composer, like Peri, but her version is quite a bit different from that of the Italian opera masters — it uses all the same characters and the basic plot, but it is set in post-apocalyptic, Depression-era America, and Hades is both the underworld and an old mining town ruled by a tyrant named Hades. Mitchell sings the part of Eurydice, with Justin Vernon from the band Bon Iver as Orpheus, Ani DiFranco as Persephone, and Greg Brown as Hades. There is no can-can in Hadestown, but there is folk, ragtime, jazz, indie rock, and the blues.

It was on this day in 1789 that Louis XVI was marched back to Paris, from the Palace of Versailles, by a mob of angry Parisian women.

A day earlier, a crowd of about 7,000 women had marched on Paris's city hall, the Hôtel de Ville. A young girl beat a drum, and women chanted, "Bread! Bread!" and, "When will we have bread?" There was widespread hunger in Paris, and even though it was the harvest season there was a severe grain shortage, nowhere near enough bread to go around. Many of the women carried some sort of weapon — a knife, pike, or scythe.

They didn't get anything accomplished at the Hôtel de Ville, so the women decided to march to Versailles, where the king was staying with his wife, Marie Antoinette, and their son. They dragged two cannons behind them, to add to their set of weapons. They were joined by other women and some men too. The crowd marched through the rain to Versailles, about 12 miles outside the city of Paris. They burst in on the National Assembly, the transitional body that was supposed to be representing the people in negotiations with the king, but the women felt it wasn't very effective since they were still all starving.

After disrupting the National Assembly, they turned to vicious chants and threats against Marie Antoinette, including the suggestion that they tear out her heart and stew her liver. Late at night, they broke into the palace and headed for the queen's chambers, and she barely escaped through a secret passage. The crowd kept calling for the queen, and finally she came outside and stood on a balcony, unarmed, and faced the crowd, while they pointed muskets and weapons at her. Suddenly, the women were impressed at her bravery, and they changed their shouts to "Vive la reine!" or "Long live the queen!"

But the royal family gave in to the demands of the women. And on this day in 1789, a long line of people headed back to Paris: the king, queen, and their son, the dauphin; deputies and soldiers escorting the royal family; a train of wagons full of flour from the royal bin; and thousands and thousands of women, singing triumphantly, "We have the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's son. We shall have bread."

It was on this day in 1889 that the famous cabaret Moulin Rouge opened its doors. It was in the Montmartre district of Paris, a district that had been historically outside the city limits, where the local nuns made wine and Paris taxes did not apply. It evolved into a center of entertainment and drinking, the home of artists, and a popular locale for nightclubs like the Moulin Rouge.

Moulin Rouge means "red windmill," because the building itself had a giant red windmill on top. The cabaret was at the base of the large Montmartre Hill, and in the days of Louis XIV, the hill had been covered with windmills. In the early days of the Moulin Rouge, one of its attractions was a giant stucco elephant as tall as a building, and for a franc, men could go inside one of its legs and watch belly dancers. The can-can is said to have originated at the Moulin Rouge.

The artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made the Moulin Rouge famous with his posters for the cabaret, featuring showgirls and customers at the bar.

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