America, America, they shed their clothes for thee Puritans be damned: It doesn’t take Nathaniel Hawthorne to know that libido is as American as apple pie. Celebrating that randy impulse—alongside such other U.S. institutions as fireworks, barbecue, and cold beer—is America F*ck Yeah!, Wasabassco Burlesque’s annual tribute to purple mountains and fruited plains, seasoned with a well-honed sense of raunch. And aside from the customary tassel twirlin (courtesy of firecrackers like Dangrrr Doll and Nasty Canasta), cowboy Chris McDaniel will perform some jaw-dropping tricks with a lariat and bull whip, and DocWasabassco emceeing as Superman.

Fri., July 4, 7 p.m., 2014


Scibblers Ahoy!

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville may seem obvious titans of American letters today, but in the 1850s, one had resorted to a desk job, and the other was on the verge of suicide. Hawthorne had become history’s most overqualified “as told to” hack, having written a biography of school chum President Franklin Pierce, who reciprocated by appointing him American consul to Liverpool. Melville, Hawthorne’s young acolyte, had at age 30 already authored the great American novel, but the critics deemed Moby Dick insane and vulgar. Distraught, he set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, on the way stopping in England to see his friend and hero.

This literary layover supplies the plot for downtown veteran Len Jenkin’s obscure yet intriguing Kraken, which is less valuable as historical biography than as a meditation on the path of the artist. Like a 19th-century My Dinner With Andre, the story pits a practical bourgeois versus a wild mystic; Melville’s brooding passion scares Hawthorne, but forces him to confront his own timid complacency. (Ironically, we see Melville eventually succumb to bureaucratic drudgery himself.) A “kraken” may be a mythical predatory sea monster, but it’s inner demons that drive Jenkin’s drama, which is conveyed with complexity, poetry, fantasy, and even song.

While Hawthorne and Melville (acted expertly by Augustus Truhn and Tom Escovar) are drawn with depth and sensitivity, Jenkin surrounds them with a less consistently engaging supporting crew. A sweet-faced angel of death—a tart literary critic from the afterlife—provides some eerie moments, but her sporadic narration and emcee duties become precious. A pair of cockney carnies lend some class conflict, but Daphne, a tattooed whore, doesn’t offer much more than the usual folk wisdom; her abusive husband/pimp, a “wandering Jew,” is more refreshing as an unlikely analogue to the two homeless Yankees. Mrs. Hawthorne makes an appearance, too, but seems wasted without anything distinct to contribute, though a couple of “local color” roles are rendered with welcome flair by Richardson Jones.

The production—elegantly spare yet dry—neither fully exploits nor counteracts the script’s static discursiveness. Director Michael Kimmel lets Jenkin’s dense text breathe, but the slow-paced, intermissionless two-hour staging could use some more wind in the sails. For those patient on the voyage, though, Kraken does dock at a satisfying port.


Adieu, Japan!

Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Orhan Pamuk spent most of their twenties in their bedrooms, meditating on the themes that would drive their fiction. In contemporary Japan, a growing number of young people (the hikikomori) seclude themselves in their rooms for more obscure reasons. This strange phenomenon provides the starting point for Yoji Sakate’s dazzling reflections on physical and spiritual confinement. Despite their self-imposed isolation, Sakate’s characters declare their longing for connection through recurring images of a globe and the starry skies. The infinite space within their heads is bounded by a nutshell.

Director Ari Edelson and designer Takeshi Kata conjure a remarkable staging. Virtually all the action takes place in a skewed-perspective box too small to allow the actors to stand upright. But the vitality with which figures pop into and out of openings in the walls, floor, and ceiling offsets the setting’s inherent claustrophobia. With the aid of Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, the stage space at times takes on an eerie flatness, like a movie screen or manga panel come to life. The cast is solid, if at times hampered by funny voices, a step too close to the Second City show the play structurally resembles; David Wilson Barnes and Ed Vassallo’s back-to-back detective/samurai act is particularly memorable. It might come in a coffin-like box, but this witty, bizarre, and intensely moving production is a rare gift.


Mercurial Emulsion

The earliest movie audiences shrieked in fear at film footage of an oncoming train. With what wonder did people greet the first daguerreotypes, unique, shimmering images engraved by daylight upon silvered plates of copper, offering up the human face and figure in uncannily clear detail? Were these likenesses the product of science or witchcraft, a record of mere appearances or an unsparing account of the soul’s hidden recesses?

“There is a wonderful insight in heaven’s broad and simple sunshine,” says Holgrave, the hero of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel
The House of the Seven Gables, who rushes into a career as a daguerreotypist, as did the real-life Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, Boston partners whose achievements are celebrated in a glorious show currently at the International Center of Photography. “While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface,” Hawthorne’s hero continues, “it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it.”

“Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes,” organized by Grant Romer of George Eastman House and Brian Wallis of ICP, presents over 150 works. Southworth, who trained as a pharmacist, and Hawes, an itinerant painter, transformed this new photographic medium into a kind of psychic X-ray, which they trained upon a nation in crisis. Boston, where Southworth set up shop on a fashionable avenue in 1841 and was joined two years later by Hawes, at the time enjoyed a reputation as the “Athens of America,” its abolitionists rubbing elbows with advocates of women’s education and transcendental philosophers. The city’s social, moral, and intellectual elite—its stern men of justice and fiery preachers, energetic merchants and doe-eyed poetesses, literati, reformers, and spiritualists, alongside society brides tied up in ribbons and little boys with pet rabbits—all passed through their studio, pausing just long enough beneath the broad skylight to preserve their likenesses in mercurial emulsion.

In their pictures, politician Daniel Webster’s bald pate and bulging middle are molded into an image of implacable authority, while Reverend Rollin Herber Neale’s distant gaze and ecstatic hairstyle evoke a sublimely illuminated spirit. Lola Montez, the Irish-born “Spanish” dancer and sexual adventurer, leans gracefully on a column, wrapped in white lace, while the weary, unglamorized features of social activist Dorothea Dix suggest a personality cherishing plainness as a virtue.

And of course there are the legions of unknown, like the beplumed equestrienne with meltingly soft flesh, the elderly couple whose harshly lined features seem to stare accusatorily from beyond the grave, and the pudgy little girl in an off-the-shoulder dress, whose mouth is a study in sweetness. There are pictures taken postmortem, most heartbreakingly of infants posed as if sleeping. And there are marvelous portraits of the Southworth and Hawes families.

Nancy Southworth, Albert’s sister, who helped in the studio, gilding frames and arranging drapery for the ladies, married Josiah Hawes in 1849, the year her brother set off to make his fortune in the California gold rush. Chastened and no richer, Albert returned two years later. By then, daguerreotypes—one-of-a-kind, fragile, and weighty—were losing ground to more portable and infinitely reproducible paper prints, including cartes-de-visite. With their focus on artistic quality for a rarefied clientele, Southworth and Hawes never made much money. But their partnership lasted for over another decade, during which they stuck by the daguerreotype, prizing its subtle tones, glowing surfaces, exacting detail, and unparalleled illusions of depth and adapting it to new uses. They photographed warships in Boston Harbor, frost on a windowpane, the first surgical operations performed under anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital, and funerary monuments at the newly opened Mount Auburn Cemetery. Many of the notables who had sat for their camera were interned there.

Were they aware that their own oeuvre constituted a vast memento mori, like that beautifully landscaped park where the living could grieve and picnic at leisure? Probably not. What these busy, restlessly inventive artists valued, above all, was the precious illusion of animation they managed to extract from a medium that in other hands rendered its subjects cramped and wooden. And yet . . . weren’t the long, still poses the daguerreotype required a kind of little death? And wasn’t it easy (in a time and place where the Beyond seemed just around the corner) to imagine some layer of spirit residing in these evanescent, glimmering surfaces? Today the chill in the basement galleries at ICP (necessary for the preservation of these vulnerable works) feels almost sepulchral, while the haunting company gathered there fairly springs to life.


The Fear

Charles Baudelaire had Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Camus had James M. Cain, and Michel Houellebecq, poet of sour libertinage, has . . . H.P. Lovecraft. Houellebecq’s 1991 monograph H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life reinvents the preeminent pulp horror writer of the ’20s and ’30s according to a familiar pattern: A French author discovers and adopts an American primitive. Lovecraft, however, had primitives of his own.

Gaunt, pallid, and lantern-jawed, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born in Providence, Rhode Island. His parents were emotionally unstable; he suffered from nightmares as a child, had a nervous breakdown at 18, and developed into a reclusive, nocturnal creature. He was also a writer’s writer, who composed tens of thousands of letters and whose stories, published mainly in Weird Tales and Astounding Stories, were posthumously anthologized by his acolytes. In 1945, Edmund Wilson considered HPL’s newly constituted oeuvre and cracked that their real horror was “the horror of bad taste and bad art.” But then Wilson didn’t care much for the cult writer Franz Kafka either; in any case, HPL has been welcomed into the Library of America, to sit on the shelf alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, while Wilson yet remains a thing on the doorstep.

The typical Lovecraft tale is an academic paper thick with fake citations and newspaper articles that inexorably gives way to an account of indescribable horror—”emphatically inflated passages,” per Houellebecq, wherein Lovecraft abandons “all stylistic restraint, where adjectives and adverbs pile upon one another to the point of exasperation.” This linguistic hysteria parallels the experience of the protagonist, generally a solitary antiquarian who, through a book or dream, has come in contact with the extraterrestrial crustacean slug Cthulhu and the other monstrous Old Ones who once ruled our dimension and are forever looking to find a way back in.

Many of Lovecraft’s tales involve Miskatonic University in Arkham, an imaginary college town in north-central Massachusetts. Others are set in “the wild domed hills of Vermont” or the “ancient Massachusetts seaport” of Dunwich, a “dying and half-deserted” town that reeks of “the most nauseous fishy odor imaginable.” Of the so-called great texts, few fail to mention “the hideous Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” kept, under lock and key, at the Miskatonic U. library.

Lovecraft’s immersion in invented scholarship, if not his sense of place, proved irresistible to the younger writers who formed his cult, and he encouraged them to elaborate the Cthulhu mythology. Lovecraftians now include all manner of professional occultists, heavy-metal bands, and devotees of role-playing games. Several editions of the dread Necronomicon have come into existence.

Houellebecq discovered Lovecraft at 16: “I had not known literature was capable of this.” But if each HPL story is “an open slice of howling fear,” the work is something other than literary.

For Houellebecq, Lovecraft is a poet of revolt, who glorified inhibition and found sexuality repulsive. His fantasies were fueled by a metaphysical hatred of life and a denial of the real. His universe includes “not a single allusion to two of the realities to which we generally ascribe great importance: sex and money.” This could hardly be said of Houellebecq—although he does turn Lovecraft into his philosophical precursor. Houellebecq’s HPL believes that the human race is doomed and our actions are as meaningless as “the unfettered movements of the elementary particles”—the very title of Houellebecq’s 1998 novel. Lovecraft is an existentialist: “Life has no meaning. But neither does death.”

Ever the bad boy, Houellebecq further praises HPL as a reactionary who “considered democracy to be an idiocy and progress to be an illusion.” Actually, Lovecraft was a sort of anti-modern modernist who read Nietzsche, Freud, and Proust, referenced the pseudo-anthropology of The Golden Bough and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, cited Einstein and the discovery of a ninth planet, and whose tales were based on the creative abuse of quantum physics and non-Euclidian mathematics. Houellebecq appreciates Lovecraft’s giddy geological time. (There’s a Lovecraftian aspect to the “great metaphysical mutation” described in The Elementary Particles.) But mainly Houellebecq enjoys the scandal of Lovecraft’s racial obsessions.

HPL boasted of descending from “unmixed English gentry” and expressed a dislike for immigrants in his first published poem. The crucial event in his life was a brief marriage (to a Jewish divorcée seven years his senior) and relocation to New York. The 24 months that the writer spent in the Mongrel Manhattan (and Brooklyn) of the mid 1920s marked him forever: Here, Houellebecq argues, the writer “came to know hatred, disgust and fear.” By his own accounts, Lovecraft’s personal Sin City was a behavioral sink populated by “monstrous half-breeds,” “rat-faced Jews,” “hideous negroes [resembling] giant chimpanzees.”

Lovecraft, per Houellebecq, “brutally takes racism back to its essential and most profound core: fear.” He is an extremist—and the “evolution of the modern world has made Lovecraftian phobias ever more present.” Like Bruno’s in The Elementary Particles, HPL’s racism reacts against the regime of genetic competition. This hatred induced a “trance-like poetic state” and his most fabulously lurid writing.

Noting Lovecraft’s recurring image of “a grand, titanic city, in whose foundation crawl repugnant nightmare beings,” Houellebecq quotes a letter giving a particularly gonzo account of the “awful cesspool” of the “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid” Lower East Side. It is, he points out, “indisputably great Lovecraftian prose.”

Lovecraft’s best-known sentence is the opening line of “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” In that, his may be a more intriguing mentality than even Houellebecq allows.

A materialist and an atheist, Lovecraft considered the Cthulhu Mythos a burlesque religion. This penchant for self-parody has been largely unrecognized— although Jorge Luis Borges, who included a few paragraphs on Lovecraft in his 1967 Introduction to American Literature, characterized his tales as “comic nightmares.” And so has HPL’s place in the New England tradition—save for Borges, who compares Lovecraft to Hawthorne (as HPL did himself) and Joyce Carol Oates, who hilariously suggested that the Cthulhu Mythos expressed “a mock Transcendentalism in which ‘spirit’ resides everywhere except possibly in human beings.”

America’s 17th-century frontier was as uncanny for Lovecraft as for its first white settlers—and no less haunted by mysterious presences. “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets glint without ever having caught the glint of the sunlight.” It is “a lonely and curious country” with “stretches of marshland that one instinctively dislikes . . .” The sickly offspring of Cotton Mather (“Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches . . .”) and Michael “The Day of Doom” Wigglesworth, as well as Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson, Lovecraft is heir to Puritan gloom and theological intolerance. His fantasies push the Salem witch trials further into apocalyptic paranoia.

Evoking a sense of a vast, unknowable wilderness, as well as a degenerate present, Lovecraft draws on the Puritan impulse to scare the living bejeezus out of his audience with a mad xenophobia and a deep disgust that perhaps compensates for the (unacknowledged?) knowledge that it was his people who persecuted the Quakers and murdered the Indians. Lovecraft’s dread of the Old Ones is suffused with guilt. It wasn’t sex that he most feared but the return of a historical repressed.

J. Hoberman is the Voice’s senior film critic and the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (just out in paperback from the New Press).