DING DONG THE HITCH IS DEAD: Christopher Hitchens, Garland Wright, Reza Abdoh & Meditations on Genius Cut Short
I suppose that one of the advantages of being terminally ill is that people come to appreciate you more while you are still alive. In this way, our heroes have the opportunity to go out like champs, to settle scores, make the most of their celebrity and bully pulpits respective to the medium in which they chose to do battle. Christopher Hitchens leaves behind a large body of writing as well as podcasts, panel discussions, interview sand some stints as a TV pundit. As a result of theater being a temporal medium, this is far less true for the directors Garland Wright and Reza Abdoh. By virtue of Reza making more experimental theater that incorporated video in his productions, there were capable people on hand to document his work. Garland has virtually no internet presence, reduced to a regional footnote in spite of being one of the great American directors of his generation. All three men burned bright while alive and perhaps even brighter as a result of their battles against dread disease and their causes. The lifestyles they maintained were connected to their illnesses and their supersized output—the triumvirate of art, life and sickness unto death formed a hypnotic golden triangle—as if the combination created a metabolic steroid who’s side effects are lethal. In so doing they showed us how to die with brilliance and honor but give little assistance in navigating the vicissitudes of actually living.
British-born aesthete journalist and political gadfly, Christopher Hitchens died the day before yesterday on Thursday, December 14th of pneumonia, a complication of cancer of the esophagus. Like many of his readers who never met him in person, I feel as if I have lost a friend nonetheless. If you don’t know of him afore to now, you have the luxury of Google, YouTube or, if you are feeling old-fashion, you can hop on Amazon.com and download one of his books to your Kindle. (I prefer the Spalding Gray mode of literary consumption by way of audiobooks. The memoir Hitch-22 being a favorite of mine as the author himself narrates.) To read the Wikipedia entry for the recently late Mr. Hitchens is to immediately be sucked into his polemics. His vacillating screed on the War in Iraq, Mother Teresa and women not being innately funny are all irksome but bulletproof in their caustic erudition.
Unsettling still is that his prolific output was generated frequently under the influence of alcohol and always while smoking cigarettes. In what can be only described as an Advance Memorial or Literary Viking Funeral, his lifelong friend and erstwhile target, Martin Amis said recently, “You could have a long lunch with Hitch which would turn into a long dinner. And then you went to bed at four o’clock in the morning reconciled to a hangover that would last half a week. You’d wake with a groan 12 hours later to find that Hitch had written two 3000-word pieces about John Locke and John Stuart Mill. This is one of the most galling things about him. He could hold his drink, stay up all night and then go on some TV program….” Galling indeed as I struggle to churn out my meager 1,500 words against time, financial ruin and a nasty chest cold—pitiless in comparison to spinal taps, chemotherapy and Nucleotide Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors—but I digress.
In his tremendously insightful book On Writing, the sci-fi author, Stephen King summed up the perilous dance of tobacco and art making quite nicely. “I think it was quitting smoking that slowed me down; nicotine is a great synapse enhancer. The problem, of course, is that it’s killing you at the same time it’s helping you compose.” I believe Hitchens’ own father also died of throat cancer. My body has some sort of safety mechanism that is now in full tilt as I careen into damnéd middle-age. (Blurg!) If I myself smoke and drink with any consistency I will inevitably induce a debilitating case of bronchitis, as I presently and moronically maintain. My paramour was in the shower and thought I had brought a dog home. With the water running she mistook my coughing for barking. You would think coughing up meaty, yellow and green lung cookies let well alone the death of a parent would be a great inspiration for substance cessation. Some of the smartest people behave in the stupidest ways, present company excluded, of course. ::sigh:: If only the converse were true….
Garland Wright was not above a Drambuie or seven after rehearsal in addition to being an unabashedly heavy smoker. Back when Bartlett Sher was Bart the one-time mentee at the Guthrie, he told me how the floor of Garland’s car was lined with empty Winston cartons and how the unluckier interns chased after him with ashtrays. I remember in a workshop of “Edward II” at Lincoln Center, Resident Dramaturge, Anne Cattaneo gave him special permission to smoke in the back stairway—this in a highly anally retentive institution and from diminutive but no-nonsense Anne, who did not carve a foothold at LCT for 20+ years being a pushover. Like Hitch and Reza, Garland was effusive and charming to the point where you felt smarter for having interacted with him. Exactly like the culture, the British Theater is very tough to crack as a foreigner. As soon as you open your mouth in the UK, uttering anything but the Queen’s English, they say you automatically go down a class. The converse was true when one interacted with one of the three lost greats of whom we currently are speaking. I miss the hand up and the panoramic view from that elevation.
After unceremoniously stepping down from a ten-year tenure as Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Garland became co-chair with JoAnne Akalaitis of the Julliard Directing Program of which I was a member of the flagship class. In spite of valiant effort to keep it afloat, the Program essentially died with him as he had the map of it in his mind. Explaining this to people who don’t know of Garland’s career or the Juilliard School beyond mere name recognition (“Oh you went to Juilliard? What instrument do you play?”) feels like describing the Twin Towers to someone from Billings, Montana who never saw them in the 35 years for which they stood. Garland was short, charismatic and slightly affected much in the way I’ve seen Hitch carry himself on television and the internet. While still in school I remember sitting on the couch outside Michael Kahn’s office with Garland as he complained of having a rigorous colonoscopy that was part of his cancer treatment. “That’s private stock,” he said ruefully and then laughed as we riffed on notions of who has “keys to the cellar” and “access to the cave” (pronounced ‘kāv‘). Garland died in 1998 at age 52, ten years younger than Hitch. Had they ever met, I like to think they would have gotten along famously.
Three years earlier, Iranian avant-garde theater artist, Reza Abdoh died of AIDS at age 32. Admittedly, I did not know him so well as a person but was more of a groupie for his work. I once traveled 17 hours by train and boat to see one of his shows in Hamburg, Germany. After the performance I introduced myself in stammering Persian of which I ashamedly only speak a few words. Then I turned around went back from whence I came before the summer school I was attending noticed I was AWOL. Another show of his I saw over 20 times. When I first encountered his multisensory, nonlinear, cacophonous pieces he had already contracted full-blown AIDS and was mainlining the rage against his fast approaching death directly into his work. Being a hardcore ADHD-dyslexic growing up, seeing a Reza Abdoh production was like coming home, like someone finally found a way to communicate with me where I could not help but listen with rapt attention. Some audience members described these very same experiences as theatrical hell occurring on a nightmare landscape. But in Reza’s world where you were totally complicit, you were also completely free. God was literally a Puerto Rican drag queen and there was no crime you could have committed that would deny you her love. When I heard of his passing I was devastated, wandering around my apartment for days, fending off bouts of sobbing and depression.
Reza has been on my mind because there is a symposium on his work this coming Monday — The Legacy of Reza Abdoh at CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre. (FYI there are massive student rallies to protest tuition hikes and their mistreatment by CUNY public safety officers being formed as of late. This is a sidebar but of potential interest or concern depending on which side of the barricade you find yourself in the next couple of days.) There will be videos of his work show and panel discussions with former collaborators, all free and open to the public. To the experimental theater neophyte it might be very worthwhile. But I am torn unto whether or not to attend myself… I mean what will I gain by going? Solace? Inspiration? Or will it just be a painful reminder of what is irrevocably lost?
My title for this piece of writing was the first thing that popped into my head yesterday morning when my sleeping companion told me of Christopher Hitchens’ death. I felt it then (or, at least mean it now) as a tolling church bell sounded in mourning more than a bunch of Umpalumpas celebrating the melting of Elphaba Thropp. Yet the contradictory subtext remains… in addition to plain old sadness, there is anger and confusion. Would Reza’s work have touched me as deeply if it was not paid for with the diseased fire in his blood? Would Garland’s theater and Hitch’s writing be as brilliant if they did not have the synaptic fuel of nicotine to amplify their already brilliant minds? Or the balm of booze to quell their restless souls? One can’t ever say one way or the other. It is impossible to judge, rendering closure just as untenable. Irregardless these questions burn in perpetuity with the added luster of guilt in having entertained them at all.
The savage limbo of losing the paradox that was these great men (all queer as the day is long, by the bisexual) spills over into my own humble biography. On the whole, I have no idea what to do with myself. Most of the freelance theater jobs that kept me afloat have dried up with our shitty economy. Do I go back to school (again!) and get my PhD in some esoteric field of study like Avant-Garde Theater of the 90’s? Do I go get some menial job in film or TV where my double-sided theater c/v can’t even be used as scrap paper? Or perhaps I should just chuck it all and volunteer for OWS while working as a Barista at Starbucks who I hear offer health benefits and stock options (the latter, sadly not the former… not yet any way >:-)
For now I am going curl up with some theraflu and a nice audiobook, maybe Letters to A Young Contrarian or Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone. If you have any thoughts or suggestions unto how to live please post them below…
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