Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles

Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles

by John Lahr


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"What a talented, wonderful, and complete writer."-Mel Brooks
"By far the best thing about my stuff I've ever read."-Arthur Miller
"These are wonderful portraits."-Edna O'Brien
"The high-water mark of theatrical reportage. Exhilarating! Smart! Lahr gives as much thunderous pleasure as the great entertainers he writes about."-Richard Avedon
"There's never been an American critic like John Lahr. His writing exalts, honors, and dignifies the profession and, more importantly, the art."-Tony Kushner

Author Biography:Praised by the New York Times Book Review as "probably the most intelligent and insightful writer on the theater today," John Lahr has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, most recently for his work at The New Yorker, where he has written about theater and popular culture since 1992. Mr. Lahr has written sixteen books, among them the novels The Autograph Hound (1973) and Hot to Trot (1974);Light Fantastic:Adventures in Theater (1996);The Orton Diaries (editor, 1996);Notes on a Cowardly Lion:The Biography of Bert Lahr (California, 2000);Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation (California, 2000);and Prick Up Your Ears:The Biography of Joe Orton (California, 2000).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585670628
Publisher: Abrams Press
Publication date: 09/01/2000
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.28(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.21(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Praised by the New York Times Book Review as "probably the most intelligent and insightful writer on the theater today," John Lahr has twice won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, most recently for his work at The New Yorker, where he has written about theater and popular culture since 1992. Mr. Lahr has written sixteen books, among them the novels The Autograph Hound (1973) and Hot to Trot (1974); Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theater (1996); The Orton Diaries (editor, 1996); Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr (California, 2000); Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation (California, 2000); and Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (California, 2000).

Table of Contents

Woody Allen
David Mamet
Frank Sinatra
Arthur Miller
Liev Schreiber
Irving Berlin
Wallace Shawn
Eddie Izzard
Neil Labute
Bob Hope
Ingmar Bergman
Mike Nichols
Bert Lahr
Mildred Lahr

What People are Saying About This

John Lahr

From the Author:

I grew up in the household of a star. My desire to chronicle entertainers and to bring the reader as close as possible to the mysterious connection between personality and performance is, I suppose, a way to fathom my own beloved but elusive father, Bert Lahr. I want to answer the unanswerable question of this mutant breed: why are they that way? Recently, rereading the galleys to Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles, I was surprised by a theme that came through many of the detailed interviews. These influential public figures — Mike Nichols, Frank Sinatra, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Roseanne among many — were each in their own way, it seemed to me, driven by more than an ordinary exhibitionist's need to be the center of attention. (Of course, there's that.) In their various arts, they were seeking either to recreate or reverse the defining parental gaze which is the primary agreement about personality, as the child psychologist D. W. Winnicott puts it "I look, I am seen, therefore I exist." These stars don't just want to be visible; they want to be received and reflected back by the audience in a certain way: the safe, lively, nonjudgmental, attentive gaze of the parent, what Tennessee Williams calls, "as rapt and undeliberate as the act of breathing."

In the case of Sinatra (a man whose mother, Dolly, alternately beat and idealized him as a boy and for whom, as an adult, he was never enough) his survival was what Shirley MacLaine aptly dubbed "the Mother audience." MacLaine toured with Sinatra and wrote about how he worked to create the stillness, attention, unequivocal adoration. "He desperately needed her to love him, appreciate him, acknowledge him, and never betray his trust," she wrote of Mother audience. "So he would cajole, manipulate, caress, admonish, scold and love her unconditionally until there was no difference between him and her."

On the other hand, Mike Nichols, who arrived in America from Berlin at the age of seven in 1939 and who was by then already permanently denuded of all bodily hair because of a reaction to a defective whooping cough vaccine, sought ways to disarm the judgmental dismissive gaze. "Staring is something that makes me absolutely nuts," Mike Nichols —who thinks of the public as "something to be controlled and tamed" with jokes — told me. ("I used to have a mental image of cracking a whip when I was talking to the audience. I could control them with jokes," he said.) Nichols also was not properly taken in by his parents. "My father wasn't too crazy about me," Nichols said; and the aggression of Nichols's mother became the material for some of the finest Nichols and May satires on manipulative, persecuting parents. ("'ll have children of your own. And, honey, when you do, I only pray that they make you suffer the way you're making me. (Sobs) That's all I pray, Arthur. That's a mother's prayer"). When Nichols found improvisation, he found a way of unlocking his intelligence and his wit. He couldn't perform with anyone else but May; and here, his conversation is very revealing. "For me, it depended on a certain connection with 'Elaine' and a certain mad gleam in her eye." The mad gleam meant, as he explained to me, "Oh, fuck, I know where you're going. That's a great idea you've just had, and when you get there I'll be ready." The focus — reminiscent of the parent's empowering gaze — was inspiring. The very act of improvisation put the performers in the most fragile and vulnerable of child-like positions; they could be annihilated. "We had to figure out something, or we would disappear, each of us," Nichols says. In May's eyes, Nichols felt safe and contained and sure of his power. (He would later find a similar containing attentiveness in his wife Diane Sawyer. "All of her is available all the time," he says.)

The need to evoke a thoughtful, meaningful response from the mother, "to get through" as a child is precisely the defining activity of Ingmar Bergman as an adult. In his books and films, Bergman has made a legend of his cold, unhappy childhood. "I was sure I was an unwanted child," he has written. And, in a rare interview, he told me: "Already as a little boy, I had to figure out how to get my mother warm. When I was five, I started to train myself to read my mother, her way of thinking and reacting. Then it went from my mother to the people surrounding me." This childhood maneuver became his greatest directorial asset. "He's a camera," the grande dame of the Swedish theatre, Anita Bjork, says. "He looks at you and sees everything." Bergman's uncanny, prolonged cinematic scrutiny of the face — "No one draws so close to it as Bergman does," Francois Truffaut says — originates in a desire to get under his mother's skin and to see himself reflected back with love in her eyes.

A psychiatrist friend of mine once observed that children sleep with the light on not to keep demons away but to ensure being seen.

The light that these icons are compelled to generate through their art (after all stars have to glow) works much the same way. Great entertainers have access to these infantile yearnings; we pay top dollar to have them put us back in touch with them. The alert, accepting gaze they seek in the public eye recapitulates the parental one and gives a sense of safety to a fragile self. It signals to them — that simplest and most profound thing — that they are okay in themselves.

—John Lahr

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