Monthly Archives: April 2018

Louisa May Alcott


I am reading Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (1863) in the 1960 Harvard University Press edition edited by Bessie Z. Jones, which, if you can get your hands on it, is the best available edition, but there are many editions in print.

Read it. It’s around 90 pages long, not counting the introduction.

It is marvelously written. I know a good writer when I see one.

My mother loved Little Women. She read it as a girl, could not put it down, and was tremendously affected by it.

My wife read and loved it.

As have countless other women. It is an enduring classic (which I have never read).

I have always thought, without really knowing, that I would have found Alcott, had I read her, to be old fashioned and dated; her plots perhaps contrived, her novels sentimental, her writing flowery.

Her style is of its time, she uses many words that have become antiquated, but can she ever write! Richness of vocabulary, sharpness of observation, penetrating insight, a capacity for wit (including self-deprecation) and the sardonic insight, deftness of characterization, sympathy for human suffering without mawkishness, a sharp eye for human failings and stupidity as well as callousness (including that of hospital personnel), felicity with words, and a distinctive style. A gift for imagery: metaphor and simile. So much for the unsuspecting reader to admire and delight in.

The book is a first-person account of her experiences as a nurse in U.S. Army hospitals in Washington, DC during the Civil War.


— Roger W. Smith

    April 2018

piling on (the Cosby trial)


Regarding the Bill Cosby trial.

And his conviction last week.

Newspaper accounts noted that the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania district attorney, Kevin R. Steele, asked that Mr. Cosby’s $1 million bail be revoked, suggesting he had been convicted of a serious crime, owned a plane, and could flee.

This prompted an angry outburst from Mr. Cosby, who shouted, “He doesn’t have a plane, you asshole.”

Judge Steven T. O’Neill said he did not view Mr. Cosby as a flight risk and said that Cosby could be released on bail but that he would have to remain in his nearby home. The judge did not set a date for sentencing.

Cosby was convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault, all felonies, each punishable by up to 10 years in state prison. Cosby, the former star of the 1980’s television program “The Cosby Show,” lives in an expensive compound outside Philadelphia. He is appealing the verdict, which could potentially delay his imprisonment. Cosby is 80 years old and is legally blind.



The prosecutor’s remark about the possibility of Cosby fleeing prior to sentencing, possibly in a plane, remined me of comments of mine in a recent post on this site:

“the punishment of Anthony Weiner”

the punishment of Anthony Weiner

I wrote as follows:

Trials are a game. Like kids playing tug of war, Old Maid, or Monopoly. Or sports contests. The two sides — prosecution and defense — only want to WIN. (And, to run up the score, if they can. Just as a football team doesn’t want to win by 3 points if they can manage to win by 30 points, prosecutors argue for as long a sentence as they can manage to see imposed, no matter the justness of it.) Perhaps — probably — to bolster their resumes. In the process, what’s fair and what the explanation for misdeeds might be — and many other considerations that ought to be taken into account in resolving thorny questions of motivation, guilt, responsibility, accountability, and so on — get brushed aside.

The truth and what’s fair are irrelevant. Compassion for the individual on trial is considered irrelevant, not to the purpose. …



The prosecutor knows, everyone knows, that Cosby is not going to flee. He is a celebrity known to all — concealment and absconding would be impossible. He is 80 years old and legally blind.

So, what is the point of the prosecutor’s request, and of his making the remark?

Lawyers (a prosecutor has a law degree) are supposedly educated persons with an undergraduate degree and a JD. Which means they are capable of making a distinction between what is reasonable to claim and what is patently absurd. So that, when the prosecutor makes such a claim, it is not a case of ignorance or incapacity. It is rather a matter of intentional heedlessness of what is pertinent and relevant; and of wanton cruelty.

It is simple cruelty, the desire to inflict maximum hardship upon the defendant. A sadistic desire to do so. To find any and all possible means, including the littlest, to inflict an onerous burden upon — as many afflictions and indignities, of a cruel, petty, and malicious nature, entirely uncalled for and unneeded — to humiliate and degrade, the defendant. The same things are done continually in prisons.

This little detail of the trial shows what our criminal “justice” system is really about. Not justice or fairness. Not restitution or rehabilitation. Unquestionably not. It is about winning at all costs and seeing convicted persons suffer as much pain as can possibly be inflicted.

This is not justice. It is institutionalized sadism. It works in ways large and small. From the courts to the prison system.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 29, 2018

“you can’t live in a vacuum”


“You can’t live life in a vacuum, just listing your grievances without thinking that often people have other views of what’s going on.”

— sententious advice I recently received (May you be spared from such sermonizing.)



how I actually live:

“And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.”

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”


— posted by Roger W. Smith (a great admirer of Whitman, from whom I have learned and profited much)

   April 2018

the ABUSE of bad words






I recently went to a doctor for a checkup. He asked me how frequently I urinated. He cautioned me, “Don’t drink water in the evening and before you go to bed. If you don’t drink water, you won’t wake up so often during the night because you need to pee.”

He’s a professional, an MD. Couldn’t he have said urinate?

I used to see a therapist who was from an older generation. He was careful about language. He wrote a book about Charles Darwin’s medical history and an illness the latter suffered from most of his life that was never diagnosed and may have been psychosomatic. He noted that Darwin often suffered from flatulence. That was the right word to use for the context.

Now we have the “pee tape.”

As discussed in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times.

“Lordy, Is There a Tape?”

By Michelle Goldberg


The New York Times

April 16, 2018

Whatever you think of the former F.B.I. director James Comey, he has started a long overdue national conversation about whether the pee tape is real.

“I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said in his hotly anticipated interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday night. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”

Comey was referring, of course, to a claim in the dossier about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia compiled by the British ex-spy Christopher Steele. While in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, Trump reserved the Ritz-Carlton’s presidential suite, where Barack and Michelle Obama had stayed previously. Citing multiple anonymous sources, Steele reported that Trump had prostitutes defile the bed where the Obamas slept by urinating on it, and that the Kremlin had recordings. …

Like Comey, none of us know what really happened at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, and we may never find out. As outlandish as the rumor is, however, the idea that Trump would shy away from good press out of principle is far more so. To seriously discuss this presidency, you have to open your mind to the truly obscene.

And so on.



The whole discussion makes me feel uncomfortable. I am not interested in what happened in a hotel room in Moscow.

So does the use of words such as pee in connection with the President or, generally, in formal discourse.

The pungent Anglo-Saxon words we have in our language are an essential part of it. In private conversation, in situations that call for explicitness or frankness, sometimes (if not often) in literature, occasionally in public, such words are not inappropriate and are called for. They certainly shouldn’t be banned, any more than one should, say, try to pretend that parts of the human body do not exist.

Such words can be effective in private or in public when used sometimes for emphasis or shock value. They can liven up a conversation. (At other times, they can deaden it.) Using pee or shit, say, in conversation where there is a familiar relationship already and politeness or restraint is not required; using fuck for emphasis at times. Salty sailor’s talk is not necessarily out of bounds.

But such words often become overused, or are used inappropriately in public or in the wrong contexts and situations when they are more likely than not to cause embarrassment or discomfort, and where a more polite (usually Latinate) alternative exists. And, their overuse can cheapen discourse, or deaden the impact of a potentially powerful word such as fuck, which one sometimes hears repeated over and over again to the point where it becomes annoying to the ear, just as a too loud, monotonous, second rate punk rock band can.

And some words — such as fart — can sometimes make you squirm, make one feel downright uncomfortable.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 18, 2018

“vanity of vanities; all is vanity”


The news depresses me.

It is too much, far too much, about trivialities presented as matters of grave concern to the nation and body politic.

It is not informative and instructive and is in fact rebarbative. It induces feelings of unpleasantness.

Well, one might say, what do you expect? We are talking about unpleasant realities. A dalliance with a porn star?

I might think it important to know about unpleasant realities such as the My Lai Massacre, waterboarding of Guantanamo Bay detainees, gas attacks on civilians (including children), or the latest shooting by a police officer of a black person. These are the kind of facts and atrocities that should be brought to light in all their horror.

I sometimes, in fact often, “look” with curiosity, perhaps fascination, perhaps with Schadenfreude and/or with a frisson of something like pleasure or titillation — as one might at an accident with people wounded or killed, perhaps lying in the street — at the latest salacious news item. I read the latest revelations, am curious, yet quickly tire of them.

The Trump tormentors are worse than Trump himself.

The fascination with him, the eagerness for his downfall, are the product of misdirected energy, of mass morbidity, of sick minds engaging in an Elmer Gantry style revival meeting where everyone is whipped up to a state of anti-Trump frenzy and moral fervor, with them seeing themselves as the righteous ones.

Hounds yapping at his heels. How his adversaries take pleasure in the hunt, as do others vicariously. It could be you or I who is the hunted one, in a different context.

Trump is not worth the attention. He’s the president. He is entitled to a modicum of respect.

I hope he is not reelected.

No one deserves to be spied upon and to have their private life exposed. No one’s home should be entered by snoops unexpectedly when they are still in bed.

A sinner, a lawbreaker should be able to consult with his or her lawyer (or a priest or anyone else) in confidence.

No one’s computer, cell phone, or private papers should be confiscated.

This includes Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Of course, they will try to find a statute or law that says they can.

Laws should be enacted and enforced to protect people from harm to their persons. Not to be used as a pretext for entrapment, guilt by association, selective prosecution, or witch hunts.

Trump should be allowed to govern until his term ends.

People should direct their attention elsewhere: to constructive and creative enterprises, to commerce, and to social betterment.

The public has fallen into a morass of warped public moralizing and hypocrisy, which is much worse than Trump’s depravity; and, were there a Truth Commission that could strip all men of their “garments of probity” and show them as they actually are, with their sins made public, the feeding frenzy would never end and hardly anyone would be able to don the mantle of respectability, hardly anyone could remain in public office because of hitherto unknown transgressions against private morality or public decency.

Let’s (but I know no one is listening) have a civilized discussion/debate about the ISSUES.

Donald Trump is a womanizer. I don’t care. So are or were many other prominent, successful men. So are or were men of my acquaintance, many of whom I have admired for other reasons.

Is it good to be a womanizer? On the personal level, it depends on all sorts of factors and may be of great concern, justly so, to persons affected. Donald Trump’s behavior, any man’s, is of legitimate concern to his wife. And those affected by it, including women to whom he behaved improperly. It’s not my concern. If my next door neighbor committed adultery, I might disapprove, but I would leave it to his wife to decide how she wants to deal with it.

Should I myself be caught doing anything I know most people wouldn’t approve of, I would not want it to come to light.

The economy seems to have improved under Trump. I’m not an economist. I actually agree with a few policy initiatives of his administration, but I disagree vehemently for the most part with his views and actions and don’t like his administration. I wish people would (as many are) devote their energies to trying to defeat these policies and elect a new president in 2020.

“Saints” and paragons such as FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had affairs. J. Edgar Hoover is considered to have acted deplorably by spying on King with the aim of discrediting him. Thank God we didn’t have to spend day after day or night after night reading about or watching news programs about King’s dalliances and all the sordid details.

— Roger W. Smith

    April 2018




A reader of this blog and I had an email exchange about this post on April 16. The following are excerpts (the reader’s comments are in italics):


Donald Trump started a lot of this media buzz about himself by himself –initiated by him, i.e. going on the Howard Stern Show many times and it is said, feeding dirt about himself to his friends in the tabloid business. Now, decades of these playboy habits and coverage, it is hard to quell — old habits, old image, and all that.

my response:

Yes, Trump — before he was running for president — loved to get attention as a naughty boy and playboy. The image won’t leave him. But, I still don’t like the way things are playing out now. And how about Clinton? A lot of liberals were willing to put up with him and he was a womanizer. Not just someone playing around and having affairs, but having oral sex in the oval office with a White House intern much young than him.


Secondly, both the porn star and Playboy bunny have generated the buzz by going to the tabloids in 2016 — rather than the mainstream media digging up embarrassing dirt on Trump on their own — out of the blue. Think Jennifer Flowers suing Clinton.

my response:

It’s true that they started a lot of this, not the Times or the Washington Post. That’s a good point.


Third, James Comey went on record yesterday, in an interview, stating that Trump is not insane or going into dementia. Comey said Trump follows conversations and understands everything and is above average intelligence. Comey continued that Trump “is not fit to be president’ — on moral grounds (and the women factor is just one small reason).

my response:

We can question Trump’s personal fitness on moral grounds and as a person. But, the voters elected him. Some people used to say Nixon was sort of a madman with a bad personality. You don’t impeach a president or sue him in court for being what some think is a lowlife, jerk, or amoral guy. A president could be removed for disability — can’t perform the functions of his office. Trump is not unfit, even if you don’t like him or think he’s a bad person.


Fourth, like you, I have a sacred regard for the office of president. But, you would be the first person to protest if your government was not doing the moral thing, i.e., ongoing war for years in the Middle East, the dismantling of the EPA and Consumer Affairs.

my response:

I thought George W. Bush was totally wrong to go to war in Iraq. I don’t like what Trump is doing on the environment or other issues that, say, Obama, was the opposite on. Too bad for me. He’s the president. The solution: try to see that he’s not reelected.

preparing for a trip; advice from a travel maven


In the summer of 2016, I went on a trip with a friend to Spain. I was frantically trying to get ready at the last minute, to make sure I had done everything I intended to do before leaving. This included stuff on my computer at home, cleaning my office room, and so forth — not just packing and the like.

Everyone told me to make it a point to get to the airport early, at least two hours before.

On the afternoon of my flight, I was frantically trying to update some files on my computer which I thought I needed for the trip, which did not have to be done. I left at the last minute, forgetting my passport. I called my wife on the way to the airport in a panic. She was not home. Fortunately, I reached her on her cell phone. She retrieved my passport and brought it to me. We met at the entrance to a subway station in Queens where I was about to take the so-called Train to the Plane to the airport.

I got to the airport perhaps 20 to 25 minutes before departure time. Fortunately — very fortunately — getting through the air traffic control line was quick. I thought I would make the flight.

I had to get to something like Gate Six. I didn’t realize that the distance between gates is very long. I was walking for what seemed like seemed forever before I reached Gate Six, hauling my luggage, sweaty and totally out of breath.

I reached the departure gate about ten minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. “Welcome,” Mr. Smith,” an attendant said. “Glad you made it. You’re the last passenger to board.” She did have to ask my name. The cabin door was shut and the plane took off just minutes later.



I am now about to leave on a twelve-day trip to Ireland and Denmark.

A word to the wise from a wiser but often clueless traveler.

Don’t start preparing for the trip at the last minute. And, given that traveling begets stress and disorientation, try to slow down and to not get distracted or over-taxed mentally by giving yourself too many things to do.

Do things backward.

Set priorities. Put aside as much as you can for later. After you return. For example, organizing my books and files. An article which I was going to write. They can wait, I told myself.

My wife said yesterday, “You should start packing now.” I thought to myself: I always leave it to the last minute. Then I realized she was right.

If you do not do such things as packing two or three days ahead of time, you will forget things. Like the battery charger for my camera that I might have left without. Or the plug adapter for my iPhone that I will need in European hotels.

More broadly, one needs to slow down and take a deep breath.


— Roger W. Smith

    April 2018




It seems that there is a greater lesson here. When faced with a big undertaking or change, when the adrenalin starts flowing, people often seem to act — instead of trying to be as calm and as focused as possible — almost manic, more than usual. In other words, to meet the demands of expending energy in an anticipated undertaking which is new and exciting, but perhaps can raise one’s blood pressure, one ratchets oneself up a notch or two. Which is not necessarily bad, but then one starts doing all sorts of things that perhaps don’t really need doing or are a distraction. Something like that.

I get very excited about a trip and love to travel, which is as it should be, but there are all sorts of mundane hassles associated with traveling, such as (but not limited to) making sure you don’t lose anything. I have lost my passport once and credit cards several times. And, even if you control for these factors, you never know quite what to expect. No trip can be planned that carefully, and I like to be spontaneous. So, at least in my case, what seems to happen is that I get too energized or frenzied as the event approaches, when it would behoove me to stay focused and not do additional things to distract and occupy myself. But I get overly busy trying to do everything before I leave, including things I don’t really have to do at that moment, and sometimes neglect to do the things that are required. I suspect that this kind of analysis could be applied to many other situations where demands are made upon oneself that are not quite the same as the routine ones of daily living — it could be something as seemingly (but not really) routine as an examination or job interview or a death requiring one’s presence at funeral observances.

It seems that life sometimes works at cross purposes on people’s energies and on their psyches. It excites us, but also confuses us. We need change and excitement. We also need time to relax and reflect. Both are necessary to psychic wellbeing. Keeping the two in balance can sometimes be difficult.

another concert; thoughts about Bartók


Last night, Tuesday, April 10, I saw a chamber music concert by the Artemis Quartet at Carnegie Hall which consisted of Beethoven’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3; Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17; and Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1.

I had great seats. The Artemis Quartet played splendidly. Sitting at the front of the concert hall, I could really appreciate their musicianship.

The most engrossing piece (they were all splendid) — the one that by itself seemed to make the concert (it seemed as if others in the audience felt the same way) — was the Bartók.

It is my opinion that Bartók has one rival, and none other, for the designation of best composer of the twentieth century: Shostakovich.

You know when you hear the second Bartók quartet (and the five others composed by him) that you are hearing something different than anything composed before. It is such fresh, intriguing music, yet it’s not avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde. It is beautiful, haunting, arresting. And totally convincing — the quartets as compositions, that is.

It seems so fresh and new, made of sounds and harmonies one has never heard before. Yet, somehow the musical idiom seems as if it has been time tested and proved in a “musical furnace.” A key may be that the daring harmonies and rhythms are based on a substratum of folk music known to Bartók and used by him. Brilliantly used, and fused with a modern idiom. It’s music that is both old, or traditional, and yet entirely new. A hundred or so years after its composition, it sounds entirely fresh.

I thought of Stravinsky, the first among equals, the pacesetter, of the avant-garde composers of the early 20th century. He broke new ground with daring rhythms and orchestration and new sounds. But I feel that Bartók’s music has much more staying power. His quartets alone, which are surpassed by what other composer’s? (Beethoven and perhaps Shostakovich; but I think Bartók’s quartets outrank even Shostakovich’s), are proof positive of this.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 11, 2018


on poverty


“In civilised society, personal merit will not serve you so much as money will. Sir, you may make the experiment. Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most. … When I was running about this town a very poor fellow, I was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty; but I was, at the same time, very sorry to be poor. Sir, all the arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil, shew it to be evidently a great evil.”

— Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.; 20 July 1763)



Poverty is not glamorous, as Samuel Johnson said. When I first came to New York, I lived, on a meager salary, from paycheck to paycheck. I had just enough money to pay my bills, and not much for luxuries such as entertainment or dining out. I used to worry about having enough money in the bank at the end of the month to pay the rent. My bank account was a few hundred dollars.

Worse than impoverishment, it seems, are the constant stress and worry that come with it.

I am not rich and have never been. But, I am more established now, financially as well as otherwise. I am no longer living at the margin. This means that I don’t have to worry from day to day about having enough money for expenses. I know that I can pay my bills, and if, say, I indulge myself with some non-essential purchase, I may ask myself whether I should have made the purchase, but I know that I will be able to pay the credit card bill when the time comes.

I wish to obtain an out of print book. There is a copy available for sale online for a hundred dollars. That’s a lot, but I have to have it. I’ll pay! A must-see Haydn oratorio is being performed at Carnegie Hall? I’m going! Whatever a ticket costs, whether it’s fifty or a hundred dollars.



An observation I would make based upon experience is that: If you have enough and don’t have to worry about money, irrespective of whether you would be considered rich, it behooves one to pay a little more for quality. It makes sense.

A couple of examples.

For a while, I was getting haircuts from a local barber at a cost of about seventeen dollars including a generous tip. I realized over time that he was not giving me good haircuts. He would rush through the haircut and would never fuss over me or provide any extras that some barbers provide as part of a normal haircut. I never looked good. It occurred to me recently that I should find a better barber. I found a barber shop in in Manhattan that I have been going to for the past few months. The cost for a haircut there is about thirteen dollars more per haircut with a generous tip. I look a hundred percent better.

I probably get a haircut about nine or ten times a year. So, the extra cost works out to about 120 or 130 dollars more per year. For me, the difference is negligible; it’s well worth it.

Similarly, my wife and I shop at a local Italian grocery where one can purchase quality foods. We could obtain such items cheaper at a supermarket. But the Italian store provides quality and is a pleasure to shop at. (It is quite popular.) A few dollars more does not concern us.

And, when it comes to dining out — including the occasional meal with my wife, or eating in Manhattan restaurants when I am in the City during a weekday — I don’t think that much about price. I try to choose the best place. This does not mean very high-priced eating establishments, which I do not patronize, since to me, to do so would make no sense — I am not a gourmet. What I am thinking of is when there is a choice between a cheap place with inferior food and a slightly better place. Without hesitation, I will choose the better place if I can find one.



A final thought. This, I think, is crucial to keep in mind.

If one is poor, one doesn’t have the luxury of opting for better service. One should always keep this in mind so that things are kept in perspective and one doesn’t assume a snobbish “let them eat cake” stance; or look down on the poor for their poor choices in, say, eating establishments or dress. If you are making minimum wage and can barely afford the rent, if you are a single parent who can barely support your children, keeping one step ahead of impoverishment is a constant preoccupation. So, when you eat out, which you may be doing because your job doesn’t give you time to cook, you have to choose the cheapest place, and thank God there are McDonalds’s and such places where one can fill one’s stomach. Luxuries and entertainments permitted are few. If your kids need a haircut, a low-cost barber is the only choice. One can’t consider paying ten dollars or so more for a better haircut, as I now do. One is always looking for bargains.



I think back to the stress of my early days as a wage earner living in the City. To have enough money for a date, a restaurant meal, a concert, a sports event, or whatever was often problematic. I was not totally deprived, but each expense had to be weighed, came with the nagging thought that it might deplete my pocket money and leave me short at bill paying time.

I am glad those days are past for me. That I can purchase books ad libitum and pay a bit more for good service. My life is less stressful now. Poverty isn’t glamorous, as Johnson observed so acutely.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2018

hatred that feeds a psychological need


It has a life of its own.

Feeds on itself.

I have seen it, depressingly, in my own life. Where the hatred is or was directed at me.

It is a fire which smolders and then rages, out of control. It is fueled of and by itself, from an inner demon or demons in the hater. (“The jealous are possessed by a mad devil and a dull spirit at the same time,” says Lavater.)

Nothing can seem to bring it under control. It can only be dimly foreseen and will take you by surprise by its ferocity. The only thing the object of the hatred can do is to try and stay away from the fire. No remonstrances will do any good.

Rational thought is not applicable here. Thee, O Victim, should not feel and should not think for a moment that you deserve it. It has nothing to do with you — it is all manufactured in their petty, jealous minds — and there is no basis for it. You will be called all sorts of names and subject to the wildest unfounded allegations. Try to ignore them, hurtful as they may be. It’s not about you. It’s about them. Their frustrations, regrets, jealousy, all projected upon you.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2018

thoughts on another concert … on performers … on acting


Last night, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall by the pianist András Schiff. The program consisted of:

Robert Schumann, Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 24

Brahms, Three Intermezzos, Op. 117

Mozart, Rondo in A Minor, K. 511

Brahms, Klavierstücke, Op. 118

Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BMV 869

Brahms, Klavierstücke, Op. 119

Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-Flat Major, Op. 81a, “Les adieux”

The program notes told me where the title “Les adieux” came from. I never knew.

The Schumann variations — his last work, written near the end of the composer’s life — were brief but lyrical and engaging, very Schumannesque. I was glad to have the opportunity to hear them.

The Bach piece made me think of some other composer.


LISTEN, I told myself, and think who. What do you hear?

Not what period or style. Not, what am I SUPPOSED to be hearing? But where have I heard such music, such sounds before?

It came to me, Scarlatti. Domenico Scarlatti. I Googled “Bach and Scarlatti” when I got home. I found out that there are some who believe that Bach must have been familiar with the music of his contemporary Scarlatti, but no one knows — there is no evidence one way or the other. Well, I think he must have been.

András Schiff played brilliantly. Flawless execution. Technical mastery. No histrionics. He lets the music speak for itself.

He concluded with Beethoven’s “Les adieux” sonata. What a performance. Every note tells. Beethoven’s architectonic mastery, lyricism, and power on display. Note I said “Beethoven’s.” The pianist made it so.



On the way home, I got to thinking about artistic performers in general. By extension, I was thinking about actors as another class of performers who succeed or fail, in the final analysis, measured by how well the work — a film or play — comes across, just as András Schiff had me thinking about Beethoven or Bach (and Scarlatti) more than about András Schiff. And, with a well-made product, “the seams don’t show.”

The inferior performers are always trying to impress you. They make it about them. This is true of inferior actors. By which I mean actors who are perhaps competent; talented, if not highly so; who get rave reviews; who can do something most people couldn’t, but who are not really great and are usually overrated. Skilled at their craft, but you know they’re acting.

They manage somehow to always call attention to themselves and their mannerisms, their “tricks,” like a vain musician or conductor perhaps showing off.



I’m Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. I’ve got the wide-eyed innocence of a young man having his first sexual experiences down. Or Ratso Rizzo. I can do the raspy voice and a limp.

I’m Jeremy Irons playing Charles Rider or Claus von Bülow. I’m always raising my eyebrows. I’m affecting jejune awe; or, conversely, hauteur and world-weary disdain of the disillusioned middle aged middling artist.

I’m Meryl Streep playing Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice. Note, moviegoer, that I’ve mastered a Polish-American accent.

I’m Jane Fonda playing a hooker in Klute. See me chew gum, “go through the motions” in bed, and look tough.

I’m Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. I’ve got the right costume for a ditzy seventies girl and the right mannerisms — the halting speech, for example. In Father of the Bride. did you see how I played the ditzy housewife, beaming at everyone and everything at the wedding?

I’m Humphrey Bogart in the role of Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg. See me do my best to impersonate a crazy person.

I’m Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident. Note how I keep my mouth open or jaw clenched as appropriate and manage to always look nonplussed and overmastered by events.

As opposed to true mastery of the thespian’s art.

For example:

William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson in The Graduate. They ARE Benjamin’s parents — sixties type, wannabe cool, middle-aged fuddy-duddies who are really out of it.

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver. It seems as if the film is a documentary about a couple and their family in an English town during World War II, that they really are a married couple — that they are not acting.

John Gielgud in Brideshead Revisited IS Charles Rider’s difficult father — he’s not John Gielgud playing the part of Charles Rider’s father. Anthony Andrews. He IS Sebastian Flyte.

Burt Lancaster IS the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Robert Mitchum IS the stable helper and friend to the boy, Tom Tiflin, in Lewis Milestone’s wonderful film The Red Pony.

David Niven’s stupendous performance as Major David Angus Pollock in Separate Tables.

Jason Robards in A Thousand Clowns, who WAS the boy’s eccentric uncle. And, William Daniels and Barbara Harris, who really ARE neurotic social workers, or so it seems. It seems as if two such types were recruited from actuality (from a real welfare agency).

Robert Blake IS Perry, the murderer who is hung at the end of In Cold Blood, the film based on the Truman Capote novel.

Robert De Niro in various films. He is so into the role, he becomes the character. He makes the other actors in the film better.

Robert Preston, who WAS the music man. And, Shirley Jones, who WAS the prim, sweet librarian.

Other great actors and roles which come to mind are Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, Alastair Sim and Mervyn Johns in A Christmas Carol, Donald Crisp as the stern but not really unkind Yorkshire father in Lassie Come Home, and José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac. And Burt Lancaster (already mentioned above) in numerous films.

To say nothing of the lead roles in great films of foreign directors such as Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu. Take Chishū Ryū, for example, who starred in in many Ozu films. He never seems to be acting. The actor seems to be “conterminous” with the screen persona.

The best actors — the great ones — do something similar to musical interpreters such as András Schiff who leave one spellbound, and whose playing makes an indelible impression while making the music unforgettable.


— Roger W. Smith

    April 6, 2018