Extreme beauty XXVI: Bernini's St. Teresa

I saw an angel close by me. . . I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to be thrusting it into my heart, and to pierce my entrails, and when he drew it out, he seemed to draw my entire being along with it, leaving me on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great. . . it made me moan.

With those words--brazenly sexual in its implications--as inspiration, the 17th-century phenomenon that was Gianlorenzo Bernini created, to the eyes of the world, his life's crowning achievement and, undoubtedly, his most beautiful creation: the Cornaro Chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome (1647-1652). The centerpiece of the Chapel is Bernini's immortal altar, on which the seizure-ridden Spanish saint/mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, takes center stage, captured by Bernini moments after an angel, perched on top of her, darted an arrow or spear straight inside her heart, so she claims, thus inducing an earth-shattering sensation in her that most people today would immediately recognize as an orgasm and nothing else, for what type of pain is there that could make one faint from such overpowering ecstasy? Whatever the case may be, Bernini's St. Teresa is definitely Baroque at its most baroque. The golden rays of the sun that Bernini so masterfully integrated into the scene add luminosity to the afterglow that Saint Teresa is experiencing before our eyes and God's. Converting pain into carnal ecstasy is a feat in itself for us mere mortals, requiring practice on a regular, preferably daily, basis, but to actually depict the whole thrilling occurrence--in marble nonetheless!--is an altogether superhuman task, but of which Bernini--undisputed master of his instrument--rendered so effortlessly, as though, when he was sculpting the swooning figure, he were merely stroking its contours as he would a mass of clay.


Extreme beauty XXV: Sondheim's Passion

That sadness in your eyes
That day
When we glanced
At each other in the park. . .

All this happiness
Merely from a glance
In the park.

With those absurdly simple but ingenious lines, Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning masterpiece, Passion, begins. This has always been Sondheim's forte: deceptively simple lyrics begin a song or a scene before blossoming into larger themes of increasing complexity, the brilliance of which has never been surpassed in the entire history of the American musical theater. Actually, the show opens a few lines before the excerpt above is sung, in what has got to be the sexiest opening scene Broadway had ever seen up until that point in 1994, the year the show opened. The scene I'm referring to involves two lovers, totally naked, sweating it out in bed, singing of their love: "I'm so happy, I'm afraid I'll die in your arms." The romantic in Sondheim conveys--in the style of a haiku--both aurally and visually the orgasm(s) that had just occurred, from which the lovers, the incandescent Clara and the handsome Giorgio, are basking in its afterglow. No other opening scene since then has captured an audience's attention in such a visceral way. But the heart of the story transpires between the platonic love (at first) that Giorgio, a few scenes later after that eye-popping bed scene, shares with the almost grotesque Fosca, a woman who suffers from severe melancholy of which Giorgio can only heal through affectionate words of love. Sondheim, ever the non-traditionalist, encapsulates the nature of their relationship in six simple words: "They hear drums, we hear music." But then the composer's genius goes into overdrive with a series of heart-rending "letter scenes," a highly effective and affecting "invention" much in the style of Onegin's Tatyana but not at all like it, for the three lovers read (or sing) aloud the other's letters, often containing sentences of staggering beauty, thus reiterating the observation that people in love--truly in love--tend to know what the other is thinking or feeling even before the beloved knows it herself: You in me, me in you. . .

I wish I could forget you,
Erase you from my mind
I wish that I could love you. . .
A love that, like a knife,
Has cut into a life
I wanted left alone.
A love I may regret,
But one I can't forget.

In five succinct lines, Sondheim paints a scene that give new meaning to the martyrdom that is unrequited love:

Fosca: "Do you think my heart is good?"
Giorgio: "Yes, I do."
Fosca: "How do the good hearts beat?
Can you distinguish them from the bad?
Listen to mine. My heart says it loves you.

I was all of thirteen when I saw Passion for the first time, in its original run on Broadway. What does one know at that age? But even then, I somehow sensed an extraordinarily profound thing unfolding before my eyes and ears. This was not Cats, Les Misérables, or Phantom of the Opera, but musical theater elevated to high art, the subtle beauty and magnitude of which would take me years before I understood full well its meaning and myriad revelations: "Die for me? What kind of love is that?" "The truest love." "To die loved is to have lived." Passion in an unforgettable experience in the theater that reveals the power of a visionary's inexhaustible imagination, artistic originality, and featuring lyrics that appear to say very little--stark, devoid of embroidery--but yet says it all: "What is love unless it is unconditional?"


Misty American Memories

The cast of characters that populate the "dream world" of Tennessee Williams often find themselves wishing--in vain, so it seems--that someone, anyone, would whisk them away to some far-flung and unknown planet, the farthest from earth the better--anywhere, but "here." Laura, the heroine of the playwright's other masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, is a young woman who is constantly on the verge of self-discovery, but, due to a debilitating disability that hinders her from achieving just about anything she wants to achieve, never actually goes beyond the suffocating confines of a cramped St. Louis apartment and an overbearing mother whose idiosyncrasies (well-meaning, of course) could probably drive any sane person to the precipice. Laura, unlike Blanche, is sensible or sane enough to know her limits, but then, like Blanche, shuns the life she's been handed by retreating, without fanfare, into a world entirely of her own invention, a world in which a handful of loyal subjects, in the form of miniature unicorns made of glass, are under her watchful and loving care. When the curtain rises to reveal the living quarters of the Wingfields--seemingly enveloped at first glance in a mist of diaphanous fog--the vulnerability of the characters are laid bare. The foundation on which these lives are based hint at Williams' own colorful family, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the role of Laura, who, directly or indirectly, is modeled, too clearly, after the writer's own "troubled" and beloved sister, Rose. The beauty and pain of this line--spoken with anguish by Laura's brother, Tom, towards the end of the play--is quintessential Tennessee, in its unequivocal, rapturous use of language and his shameless love of it: "I didn't go to the moon, I went much farther--for time is the longest distance between two places. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow."
Tennessee Williams, in almost all of his plays--in fact I'm quite certain in nearly all of them--gave us "illusion that had the appearance of truth," and, through the sheer force of his protean, once-in-a-century talent, and his voracious, unquenchable thirst to capture the human condition in brutal candor and grace, offered and gave us "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." What a gift he has given and left the world with, a world in which illusion and truth are blurred, distorted beyond any comparable recognition that we constantly confuse and mistake the two on a daily basis. Tennessee, in Menagerie, in Streetcar, helps us to differentiate and recognize the truth and the illusion that make up the fabric of our lives a little more accurately and clearly.
Above, Odilon Redon's majestic pastel, Pegasus (c. 1900, Hiroshima Museum of Art), is a most apt image to accompany this post, don't you think? You see, Redon's a current obsession for me, and, as a matter of fact, to my eyes his strange and mystical paintings somewhat allude to the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams, or, in this case, vice versa. Like the master playwright, Redon was drawn to the mysterious and the fragile, the fleeting and the indelible. To peer into his canvases is to peer into the opulent forest of the subconscious, as we do when we watch a Tennessee Williams play. They are far removed from reality yet so utterly realistic all the same that we come away more aware of the world and ourselves than when we first came inside the theater.