What a week it was! Artists Without Walls is an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the arts, whether a spectator or a practitioner, or indeed, both. The group get together once a month at the Cell Theatre, West 23rd Street, NYC, not too far from the famous Chelsea Hotel. You’ll find poets, actors, writers, singers, musicians, orators, dancers, and once in a while, you may even meet an art historian! The atmosphere is electric; it encourages creativity, imagination, and very importantly, friendship and discussion between like minds amongst the audience and the performers. Everybody is welcome at Artist’s Without Walls. Their next gig is on 27 August – check it out:
As it happened, that same week I had been researching in New York Public Library about Ireland’s participation in the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the theme of which was ‘The World of Tomorrow’. It was all about modernity, engineering, technology, science, and the arts – a vision of the future and hope amid the tail end of the economic depression. The New York World’s Fair took place on Flushing Meadows in Queens. A former rubbish tip that was drained and cleared for the occasion, the site was a metaphor for everything the organisers wanted to change and modernise at that time. It is now a well-known public park, usually called Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and famous for its sporting facilities, the New York Hall of Science gallery, a botanical garden, the Queens Theatre in the park, a zoo and many other facilities:
In the year or so leading up to the opening of the New York World’s Fair, Flushing Meadows was landscaped and divided into sites on which enormous pavilions were built, each designed in a sharp modernist style and decorated by some of the best-known artists of the era. Among the attractions were huge water features, sculptures, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, car show rooms, a blimp landing pad, and the famous Trylon and Perishere buildings that featured on posters and advertisements. Many nations were represented at the event, and encouraged by a mesmerized press, millions of people visited the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940. The site was clean, well-engineered and well-organized – a homage to modernity in the face of World War Two.
I’m always interested in the reality of historical situations, and anxious to find out more of the social history of the times, I read EL Doctorow’s book about growing up in New York, in which he portrays the atmosphere of excitement of the event as seen through the eyes of a young man. It is a great read for anyone interested in the history of the topic, and the effect of the Fair on the people who visited.
The week of intense research came to an end with a treat (always necessary when working hard!). A friend organized tickets for Broadway, and on Friday night we were sitting in the lovely old Lyceum Theatre (built in 1903) waiting for The Nance to begin.
Starring Nathan Lane as Chauncey Miles, The Nance is ‘set in the twilight of burlesque’ in 1937 New York (New York Times). It was important to Chauncey Miles that he always wore a dapper suit, tie, and top hat for his performance. His burlesque depended on humour, a wealth of facial expressions, and a little wave of his right hand accompanied with the bye-line “Hi, simply hi”.
But the play is set in 1937, and it soon becomes clear that the authorities were out to clean up Manhattan before the world’s press and millions of visitors arrived to marvel at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The clean up led to the closure of male, or rather, ‘men in suits’ burlesque theatre. As his career, and ultimately, his life, collapses around him, the final scene is heartbreaking.
After numerous police raids, and the eventual closure of the theatre where he’d played the role of The Nance for many years, the only way that Chauncey Miles could get work was to dress as a woman. Officialdom didn’t mind that because he was ‘in character’, but for Chauncey, it was a humiliating end to a long career in show business. Standing, spot lit, to the side of a lamp post, and dressed in an expensive but well-worn satin ensemble, The Nance had become a burlesque parody of himself, and of modernity too. There is a moment when he drops the mask, and begins to cry in anguish, grieving for his lost private life, for his loss of stage identity, for his lost love, and for a life that will never be the same again. The World of Tomorrow that was going to encompass all things new, had no use for the reality of life for Chauncey Miles, and many more like him. Nothing new there. History is littered with new beginnings that forgot the old, the lost, the poor, the out of work, and the lonely. Several of Édouard Manet’s paintings of Paris illustrate the point.
There is something symbolic and sad about a ‘dark’ stage, where old ghosts still roam, and where there is little by way of illumination to aid empathy and understanding. But as Leonard Cohen says ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. Outside, on Times Square that Friday night, there was lots of light, and there were people everywhere. We were all enjoying the carnival atmosphere. It took a few minutes to adjust – and then I remembered – it is the twenty-first century and everyone is welcome, right?
“Hi, simply hi!”