There are those who see things so clearly that they become visible to everyone. It beggars belief that Joan of Arc could mobilize the French and defeat the English, but she did. A teen-age peasant girl with cropped hair and limitless faith, leading men twice her size and twice her age.
We have a friend who is filming his marionette Joan, a project many years in the making. We saw some of the footage, unedited, and it is stunning. When she sees Saint Michael, you know that he’s only in her mind, but still he’s there, and you catch your breath.
Joan sees, believes, and takes us with her. Steven, her creator, has worried and gnawed and revised this story over the years, and now his own vision embraces Joan and takes us with her.
We are here in his house because today we will attend the funeral of Leon Katz, who died Tuesday at the age of 97. We had no sooner returned from our Southwest tour than we learned the news, climbed into the Prius and headed back to Los Angeles to pay respects.
Farewell? No. Joan has been ashes for centuries, but she is still real. As long as her story is told, as long as there are artists like Steven to remind us, that overpowering vision is as powerful as ever.
Leon is like that. He’s a lighthouse, tall, powerful, blazing, and the moment you close your eyes you still see the flame. He took millennia of theatre, the stories of us and of our ancestors, and made them tangible and indelible. If these words could be erased like a website, we would lose much of our soul, but Leon and Steven won’t allow that.
“Go up on the roof at night
In the city of the soul
Let Everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!
As a writer, you have to believe in the power of words. Dots on the page or puffs of air, they can give birth to the embrace of love or bombs from the sky or the interstate highway system. When it comes to the death of a friend, though, you can find that your tongue’s numb and the keys are gone mute on your laptop. Whatever comes forth, from the great need of something coming forth, sounds like baby babble.
Leon Katz is dead. He was 97. Secondarily, he was a playwright, director, dramaturg and scholar. Primarily, he was a teacher. Always, he was a friend. After an extended stay at Vassar, he said, he resolved never to remain at one school long enough for the sense of permanence to grab him, and he faithfully modeled the peripatetic. We encountered him at Stanford, where I attended his seminars, we performed in his adaptation of The Possessed, and he acted the role of Saul in my production of D.H. Lawrence’s David. His performance was unforgettable, despite a hideous struggle to learn lines—an object lesson that brilliant minds differ in their capacities.
Later, we re-encountered him in 1969 at a performance of The Living Theatre, and he brought our puppet staging of Macbeth to Pittsburgh around 1979. Since then, we’ve visited many times, most recently in L.A. a few years back, always with that odd combination of gracious hosting and instant plunge into rabid, spirited dialogue on theatre, politics, and life.
You always felt that you were a uniquely beloved friend and that your work was, above all, important to him, while you knew that you were one among a vast network of ex-students and colleagues who saw him as a unique force of … what?…exploration? His gift as a teacher was to respond vehemently to the human heart of a piece of work, whether a Greek tragedy or a melodramatic potboiler like The Castle Spectre. His lectures were those of a man who lived the literature, not as examples of a period or genre but as documents of souls struggling hard to be born.
His own plays included some of the blackest and most scatalogical I’ve ever read, though his most popular was an adaptation of the Italian commedia The Three Cuckolds—the purest delight. From conversation, one gleaned very little of the details of his life, and certainly there were some very dark ventricular alleyways in his heart. I’m sure he left some people with scars: who does not?
In his office, there was shelf upon shelf of materials of a life-long scholarly work on Gertrude Stein that, well into his nineties, he was struggling to finish. I’d be surprised if he ever did, but on our last visit, I joked that the guilt was probably keeping him alive. So in fact he may have written the final line.
A few glimmers of memory:
* His speaking of Lear as the greatest journey in literature, and saying why.
* His deep cynicism: that progressive politics were hopelessly doomed, yet avowing that if we didn’t continue the struggle as if success were possible, we were simply less than alive.
* His honesty in critique: always respectful, yet as concrete as if he himself had an equal stake in the work.
* His statement that, as a teacher, his goal was always to broaden one’s views, not to shrink them. He loved Claudel’s The Satin Slipper, despite the fact, he said, that Claudel himself was a vile bigot: in teaching it, his goal was to open students to its beauty, not to the prune soul of its author.
* His chastising me, in a seminar, for calling the text of a Greek tragedy a “script.” He was right in detecting a whiff of youthful condescension in my vocabulary, but in 50 years’ retrospect I could argue validly that the classics we read today were only the scripts of much fuller theatrical events. I wish we could have had that debate.
All this, of course, being the thoughts of an old man (75) grieving the death of an older man (97), over the basin-and-range horizon of the years. The phrase that comes to mind, amplifying Dylan Thomas:
“Rage, rage against—and wonder at—the dying of the light.”