Off of the kitchen of my upstairs apartment is an unheated hallway and at the end of it is a carpeted staircase leading down to the driveway. The space is both an entrance and a smoking lounge. The screen door at the bottom of the staircase has been broken for years. It was left open one night last November, and in the morning the first ten stairs were covered in snow. I walked over the snow for over a month, leaving boot prints until the snow compacted to ice. I never tried to scrape it out of the breezeway. I started to like it there.
I memorized Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy during my senior year of high school. The desolation of winter was ending. Sheets of ice floated down the river through downtown Monroe, Michigan toward Lake Erie where they would dissolve. I was forced to digest the somber material and hold it inside of myself.
The assignment seems reasonable: students should be able to memorize and recite one of the greatest pieces of poetry. But there is a darker side to the task. The soliloquy argues for suicide and explains the temptation to exit the world in times of struggle. I copied it in red ink on the cardboard back of a notebook and recited it to myself quietly in the computer lab. I became obsessed with the line, “to grunt and sweat under a weary life.” I wrote it over and over again on my arm during classes and pulled my sweater over my wrists. As I contemplated the “undiscovered country,” I chewed on my fingernails and stared straight forward, unblinking.
After the class had done their recitations and walked to lunch, I expected relief. As I closed my eyes to sleep that night, I saw the poem scrawled behind my eyelids. Though the soliloquy haunted me less and less, internalizing it cut me up inside and left me cold.
Charlie Parker, the great jazz saxophonist, said,“They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” An artist of the highest order, Parker was also famous for his addictions. He tooks drugs, not as a part of his artistic method, but to escape from the inability to share his vision. He snorted nutmeg, shot heroin, and was often found passed out in diner booths surrounded by spent Benzedrine inhalers. For all his virtuosity, he still needed to escape.
Before a famous recording session in 1946, Parker, already passing in and out of consciousness from shooting heroin, drank a quart of whiskey. He missed the first two bars of “Max Making Wax” as the other players waved at him to start. His legs were unsteady when he started to blow into his saxophone. As he tried to play the track, he staggered and ended up playing with his back to the microphone.
That same day he recorded “Lover Man.” Parker’s producer had to hold him up to play. He wrapped his arms in the space between Parker’s chest and his saxophone and felt him heave with deep breaths. His producer had to bolster him. It was the only way that Parker could continue. Parker’s knees wobbled and his cheeks puffed as his sax sang with bitterness. He missed his entrances. His trumpet player kept yelling at him to “Blow!” This exhortation can just barely be heard in the recording. At the end of some of his lines, the sound quiets and broadens as he stumbles backward, away from the microphone. Toward the end of the song, during the trumpet solo, Parker continues to play underneath, unable to connect to the romantic tone of the song. Parker fights the trumpet’s melody, harmonizing in minor and turning the song sour. Despite all of the flaws, some jazz men consider “Lover Man” to be Parker’s greatest recording. It captures his pain and isolation.
Parker, like many artists, needed to escape from the inadequacy of his ability to share his vision. What could Parker give his audience with his frantic descending runs or his high delicate trills? He could not release his emotions as he felt them. He could only try to give a sense of his truth and had to hope that his listeners would understand. Philip Levine writes about Charlie “Bird” Parker in his poem “Call it Music,” which describes the tenderness of Howard McGhee, the great Detroit bebop trumpeter, as he cared for Parker in his depression.
[Parker] saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,
shook his head, and barked like a dog—just once—
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him
he’d be OK. I know this because Howard told me
years later that he thought Bird could
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.
Parker wanted to connect and transmit the devastating energy that threatened to tear apart his mind and body. For a man who felt so deeply, sometimes the only thing that could help was a descent into the ether of sleep, if only for “an hour or more.” The hope is for respite.
The lyrics of his classic “Yardbird Suite” hint at his artistic torment:
It’s hard to learn
How tears can burn one’s heart
But that’s a thing that I found out
Too late I guess, Cause I’m in a mess
The song is upbeat, like most bebop tunes, but Parker’s lyrics are woeful and bitter. He didn’t write many lyrics for his charts, but these seem stored up and spent on a song which doesn’t reflect their tone. He had to share them; he needed to let some of his pain out. Bebop musicians suffered because the up-tempo nature of the music did not allow for lament. They only had blue notes and minor runs to show a sense of loss, of pain. The gulf between the lyrics of “Yardbird Suite” and its melody show that Parker’s meaning and sense of the art could not be communicated in a single object. The tension between form and emotion was too great.
In his short 34 years, he tried to communicate his truth. Despite his addictions and vices, he fought his pain to play and display his virtuosity when he could. It was just all so short and brutal. Some listeners find the truth and brilliance of his music in the silence between the solos, when Parker would let his sax fall across his chest, wipe his forehead, and stare dead-eyed at the microphone brimming with sadness and hope. Levine recounts what McGhee thought of Parker 30 years after his death:
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note
going out forever on the breath of genius.”
The rehearsal process for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman began in October and continued until the show’s run in mid-November. Those were hard weeks. The cast had to memorize a script that has depressed and sobered audiences since its premier in February of 1949. We had to keep it all in our heads. Then we had to act it out, repeating the words to cement them into our minds.
I was cast as Biff Loman, the son of the principal figure, Willy Loman, a salesman down on his luck. It is a demanding role. Biff yells, lies, and weeps as Miller juxtaposes a young, hopeful version of the character conflicts with the reality of what Biff becomes later in his life. Biff’s dreams of quarterbacking the University of Virginia football team evaporate as he learns of his father’s extramarital affairs. Biff holds on to the pain that his father’s affair caused him for the next 16 years.
Preparing for the role forced me to fill in the time gap in Biff’s story. Miller shows him at the ages of 18 and 34, but leaves the intervening years out of the story. As I told the story of those years when Biff was a shipping clerk, a farmhand, and a thief, I found myself tracing my future. Where will I be when I am 25? What bitterness and resentment will I hold on to? When Miller shows Biff at 34, he is harrowed. He holds on to old dreams and delusion. He has to come terms with his hatred of his father, who suffers from dementia. The role forced me to ask the hard questions. Fourteen years from now, how damaged will I be? How will time and experience injure me? As I filled in his narrative and reflected on my own, I became tied nearly inextricably to the character.
After training myself to fly into a frenzy in an instant, my emotional walls thinned. I would glance at a book in the library and tear up, not over the content of the book, but simply over the idea that someone could devote himself to something like writing a book. I felt as if my eyes were always searching, unfocused. I chewed my nails to the cuticle. I massaged my temples to relax my face, which had habitually tightened into a scowl.
The lines ran through my head, particularly the final exclamation, “I’m nothing Pop, I’m nothing!” When I delivered this line at the end of the play, crying, my body wanted to fold over on itself: I was spent. Walking home after rehearsals, I fought my shoulders to stay upright, trying to get out of the slumped, world-worn posture I adopted for the character. Emotionally exhausted, I went to bed early looking toward the morning. I prayed each night that I would waken as myself.
The final scene of the play takes place at Willy’s grave. Biff says that his father had all the wrong dreams as stands at his mother’s side. She weeps on his grave, unsure of her new, bittersweet freedom. By the end of the scene, my scowl felt carved into my face. My eyes sunk into my skull. I still had to come out for bows. I couldn’t manage to smile in front of the audience. I had been another person for two hours, experienced his pain while revisiting and confronting my own. The audience, after the bows, sat in silence and quiet thought. In a single performance, I was able to transmit only a piece of the last two months’ torment.
By the time of Saturday’s afternoon performance, I felt that I had little left to give the show. I said the lines, I made sounds that passed for crying, but I couldn’t summon the emotion which had made the previous performances exciting and harrowing.
After the show that afternoon, my mother and my grandmother took me to dinner. My grandma Nina, who is getting older and has been rather forgetful, became frustrated and confused when ordering food. It reminded me of the stories I had heard about Nina’s own mother who underwent severe dementia in her later years. Toward the end of her life she could hardly recognize my grandma. During their visits, though she had stopped eating and her weight had dropped to 60 lbs, she would become scared and try to hit her own daughter. My grandmother said that though she could hardly feel her thin, veiny fists, they hurt worse than anything. The story of Willy’s descent into madness and Biff’s struggles with that reality echoed through my own grandmother.
Her story bolstered me. I suffered through the last performance and, though I felt empty afterward, felt like I did the role justice. As storytellers, we connected to each audience member who, in hearing our story, revisited his own. As I recovered from the role in the few weeks before winter break, people told me stories of sick old men, of struggling salesman, of young people wondering what success actually was. As my emotional walls firmed up again, I was grateful for these stories. It made those performances worth whatever they cost. The cast had forged a connection with the audience that transcended pure entertainment. We touched hearts.
Eventually, the snow melted in the breezeway during one of those strange, warm December days that blow over Southern Michigan like a hairdryer. The script drifted from my memory. My face relaxed and I corrected my posture. I warmed up. I could sleep without dread of the next day.
Art is a sacrifice. Poets and writers wring themselves dry as they tell stories and pen verses. Painters and sculptors obsess over perspective and verisimilitude. Charlie Parker discharged the contents of his lungs into a saxophone to express the truth, to bridge the gap between himself and the world. When he couldn’t, the pain became worse than anything, and he had to escape. Performers hold their emotions in for weeks to try before releasing them without reservation before an audience. The hope is that they can touch someone else. It is a brutal pursuit, the creation of these gifts, these sacrifices.
When Charlie Parker said that there isn’t a boundary line to art, he meant that the creation and sharing of our gifts draw us together without thought of alienation or discomfort. I think of the hands I shook and the stories I heard in the lobby after the play. I think of Parker and of those sturdy arms around his chest when he blew “Lover Man” into existence. It is love, this creation, and it draws us together.
Mark Naida is a junior studying English and French.