Monday, March 5, 2012

Guest Post: "Shared Silence" by Ben Robinson

[post 248]

Ben Robinson's decades of writing credits include the book  Magic & the Silent Clowns and a recent article for this blogopedia, Keaton the Conjuror, where you can also read more about his long and fascinating career in magic.

Just to get into this topic, I would like to acknowledge three brothers who influenced my formative years: Felipe, Matty and Jesús Alou. They were from the Dominican Republic and they all sailed in a small craft about 110 miles in tough winds and choppy seas to North America, where they were given immunity from prosecution for “un-authorized” fleeing of their native country. They came to the U.S. and they all played professional major league baseball at the same time. In fact, Felipe managed in the majors until 2006 and his son Moisés regularly ripped the cover off the ball in an impressive career for six different teams.

Of the three, I think Matty and Jesús were the sluggers. And while no slight athlete himself, Felipe played for a time with the NY Yankees, where I first took notice of these three amazing brothers, one of whom recently departed for that great playing field in the sky.

I think we human animals like to know that family can succeed. I believe the Alou family must have been pretty proud to have three boys all making doubles and triples, catching fly balls, listening to cheering fans…and even…hitting a game-winning home run in their home stadium! They all played baseball before the so-called “steroid era.” The salaries in the Alou shining years was not the money Derek Jeter leaves as a tip.

Two generations: Moisés & Felipe Alou
Nah, the Alou brothers no doubt played baseball for one thing and one thing only — the game itself. This is dedication we admire. We notch it up in the record books and we continue to write about it.

There are other teams relatives played for too. This story really begins in a wagon show traveling the German countryside from Dornum to Essen to Brazl and then on to the periphery of Poland. The wagon master is a magician. I like to think he resembles the wagon show led by the Max Von Sydow character in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece The Magician.
Fannie and Levi Schoenberg on
their 50th wedding anniversary.

His name is Louis, or Levi, or Ludwig, or whatever he felt like calling himself that day…but the last name was always Schoenberg. Being a magician in the 1800s in Germany wasn’t so bad if you knew of another fella also doing the same thing at this time named Alexander Herrmann and his brother Carl. By the way, the Herrmann brothers were just two of eleven children and their father was also a magician, amateur though he was. But, we digress.

Now, Levi Schoenberg’s daughter came to the US and later married a tailor named Sam Marx. They had six sons, one dying in infancy named Manfred. The second eldest son of Minnie Schoenberg and Sam Marx was named Adolph. He later formally changed his first name to Arthur. His brothers called him “ah-dee” but somehow Arthur sounded more American, maybe with a bit of pluck in it at that? (Some contend, perhaps rightly, that “Adolph” became “Ahdie” that naturally morphed into “Arty” and then became formalized as “Arthur.”)

Now, this name-changing family, a metamorphic spirit at least, had by then traveled from Dornum, Germany in 1838 to the Yorkville streets of Manhattan c.1899. The century is about to change and the older magician smokes his cigar with pride and says from the stoop of East 93rd Street, “Ach, it is goot tube E in Ah-meer—ick-a. Yah! Ha!”

He conjured for his grandson. Levi Schoenberg, somewhere in his 90’s was only too happy to school his 12-year-old grandson Arthur in sleight of hand…the magician’s tradecraft.

Flash forward.

1914: Some unremarkable vaudeville house is sending over eleven acts a day on a crusty stage, in a small town, where the locals are less than feeling sympathy for the actors and energetic comedians. Arthur Marx is backstage, maybe downstairs in a basement lit by an undependable bulb, playing five-card stud poker. Around the table are his professional gambler brother and his other brother, filling the table area with cigar smoke.

 “And here’s a card for you…Harp-o.”

 “And here’s one for you, Leo the chicken chaser, you’re Chick-o.”

“Ay you’re easy, c'mon Grouch-o, take a card!”

Speaking was a monologist named Art Fisher. Knocko the Monk was a popular comic strip of the day and Fisher was batting out cards like baseballs to cartoon players. He was tagging Arthur, Leonard, and Julius Marx with the names that would thunder across movie screens for over a billion people beginning in 1929, even though they had been the toast of Broadway for over five years already.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, meet The Marx Brothers!

In 2014, it will be a hundred years on the nose that this happened, and that thunderous noise you heard back in the Twenties when the Marx boys were cutting up stages is about to happen again…really.

If you search on that new-fangled typewriter called a computer, you will see the CGH Society. They are the ones promoting this event of the Marx Brothers getting their world-famous names. The celebration will be called a “Global Day of Laughter.” People yelling out their windows that they are “sick and tired of it and they are not going to take it anymore” will be replaced by bulbous, knockdown glee…what would happen if the planet laughed?

Now the head of this whole shebang is none other than Bill Marx, Harpo’s eldest son. To get the resumé out of the way, let’s just agree he’s a world-class musician who has done every type of music, from concert hall broadcast shows of his solo performance on piano to cult film scores like Scream, Blacula, Scream! and Count Yorga, Vampire.

Harpo & Bill Marx
Recently, I had the pleasure of Bill’s counsel during the blackest of times a writer can face — otherwise known as one’s editor. The cuts were deep, and I was bleeding red ink. Bill sent his reply. It consisted of the link you are about to watch and then we’ll talk about it, okay? Really, stick with it. Don't move. Don't answer the phone or surf the web, just spend 4:33 with it. It will make you feel something.

Now, obviously we need to establish who wrote this masterpiece, and it is none other than the legendary avant-garde composer, John Cage.
John Cage

Given the tenor of the work, it might be thought a bad gag to pull this off, but actually, there is considerable skill involved in silence. And, who better to perform this masterpiece other than a man who is a Juilliard-trained master musician who just also happens to be the son of a vaudevillian who learned to entertain the world with only silence — albeit with a few horns honking, and uproarious laughter from the audience.

Harpo Marx was not a silent performer, but he was the silent Marx Brother.
"Harpo was much more than silent performance. It is what he did with his silence that was his performance."
— Ben Robinson

I think as the Internet spins its international cocoon around all of us with buzzing 24-7 images and sleepless information, we need to embrace silence and study it.

Just as I said seriously the day after 9/11: Send in the clowns. The jester told the king the awful truth in King Lear;  likewise Feste in Twelfth Night — the message is clear: we ought to be listening to our fools.

I believe that which makes us laugh is that which is truthful to some. What can be more truthful than silence? Physical comedy sounds loud. But, physical comedy can also be deft, fleeting and stealthy, like the ninja. Understanding this will give one a fine appreciation of nuance and focus, unlike the broader bits that, as they used to write, “left ya chewin’.” Meaning, you were worked up by what you saw. Silence does something different. We can analyze silence in earnest, but we can’t hold it in our hand.

Can comic truth be . . .   silence?

Some Links:
Harpo Speaks!, an autobiography by Harpo Marx, with Rowland Barber
Son Of Harpo Speaks! A Family Portrait by Bill Marx
This blog's 2009 birthday tribute to Harpo Marx.
The official John Cage web site.
Ben Robinson's web site.
Purchase Magic & the Silent Clowns by Ben Robinson


Anonymous said...

William Marx's drsamatic and VERY silent piece performed while sitting with perfect musical posture in front of the Steinway Grand piano was simply brilliant... and stunningly silent! So silent, was it, that I could actually hear myself think!! Thank you Mr. ben Robinson, for bringing the art of higher silence into a brighter light --one that shines with such symphonic intensity. I am currently reading your wonder-filled treatise on Magic & the Silent Clowns and gaining further insights into what extraordinary genius Keaton, Chaplin, Marx and Lloyd exhibited and share with the world through their images on film without sounds. Thank you for your contributions past, current and future to this often unknown and (when known) unappreciated genre of performance art! And please continue to post more of your illuminating blogs! Jonathan Levey (Montreal)

Anonymous said...

Zen Buddhism and the I Ching had much to do with Cage's compositions.

"The I Ching became Cage's standard tool for composition: he used it in practically every work composed after 1951."
Wikipedia on John Cage