News & Politics

A Really Odd Paean to Lorraine Hansberry


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February 9, 1967, Vol. XII, No. 17

Baby, You Could Be Jesus in Drag

By George Tabori

At 2 a.m. or some other threatened hour, with the whole fat crew calling for our blood, the authentic cry of the age is not Mr. Ginsberg’s howl or some astro-banality that comes chirruping through space, but that cray from the Dallas Plaza, uttered not by an artist, yet as artistic as it is un-American, My God, they’re killing us all. In those moments it is invariably Agatha Christie who seems the candidate for writing the definitive history of U.S. Arts and Letters. After all, our mortality rate is high enough to be suspect, and that ancient lady-hack has a nose for foul play. She might start with the Mysterious Case of Fitzgerald, found with a highball in his hand. There is O’Neill near the end, trembling so hard he could not write. And Barrymore, walking off the stage in the middle of a scene, trailed by guffaws, puking his way to dusky death. And Hemingway, looking down the barrel of his shotgun. Or Monroe, trying to make that last phone call. Or James Dean and Pollock, wrapped around a wreck. And Odets saying one day, “I can’t stomach this!” and soon thereafter developing a cancer in that same stomach. And so on ad nauseam.

I think of them, as of Lorraine Hansberry, not as dead but as murdered.

This is not so much a matter of mysticism as of adhering to the conspirational theory of history, the onl-y valid one I know, for it reaffirms cause and effect. I mean, things don’t just happen, someone makes them happen, frequently a bunch of guys around the boardtable, a situation is created, it always boils down to what man does to himself. I think we ought to stop accepting responsibility for our own assassination. In most cases it’s the government that overthrows the people. Bombing for instance, is a form of criticism and vice versa, and when a good man dies in the middle of a gesture one might fruitfully ask Who done it? But don’t ever blame the poor patsy and his unsatisfactory mother. And don’t blame “us all.” There is no universal guilt, only a cretinous maneuver to absolve the guilty by spreading the horse-manure all around. Crime, as Miss Christie knows, may be obscure but it is never unconcrete. In other words, I don’t believe that the death of an artist is a medical matter. One doesn’t commit suicide, one is driven to it as one may be driven to liquor, cancer or, the worst of them, silence.

All of which may sound extravagant nonsense, especially to those who have been brainwashed into accepting the argument that the customer is always right. He never is, in the arts. Our typical critics are Truman, Khruschchev, or Walter Kerr; little Neroes sitting high up in the bleachers in this Roman Circus, ogling and goggling, knowing that they like what they like, and shifting the burden of proof to down below where the blood is. And when you are pushed into the arena and the lion leaps, they say, Look at the dear zombie, too sensitive, can’t take it, tough shit. Thus, a performance, in any medium, is judged only by the performer’s accomplishment, never mind that the spectator is too fat, too square, or too criminal. But even a walk-on will tell you that a performance is like the sex-act, and there are responsive as well as tightassed audiences. The buck is always passed on to us, it is we who succeed and fall, not they, which is as silly as the old Hungarian proverb: “There are no frigid women, only incompetent men.”

At any rate, the casualty list is appalling and certainly higher than anywhere else. It is now becoming impossible to move, as Shaw would have it, from adolescence straight to senility. I hardly know anyone in my field who is old and gray and full of sleep. Perhaps the most judicious thing the U.S. artist can do is to die, and die real fast. Then his price and his repute may grow. The tastemakers won’t treat him as a whore of a grapefruit. He won’t be buggered by the Bitch God if, God forbid, he succeeds and won’t be shunned as a leper when he fails. Critics, who have told him to shut up and go away unless he goes down on them, may exhume him with charity and perception, even as he begins to moulder. Once he is dead his face is lovely; he no longer quite timely and, therefore, no longer a threat. But as long as he lives he is always a menace to national security; he may at any moment insist on Rilke’s demand that “you (bastard) must chang your life.” And the Others, Them, They, don’t want to change; they want art to change, hence this frenzy of fads and fashions. And, man, if you don’t want to be a household pet or a bric-a-brac, drop dead.

There are several suitable ways for the artist to die. His death need not be clinical or biological, thought it helps. He can for instance die by shutting up or selling out or repeating himself or even by accepting certain dinner invitations. You can only lose your virginity once and death is death, and it comes whenever the artist surrenders his privilege to grow, not necessarily old, but at least up. And this is rarely possible with all this cannibalism around, this voracity, this guzzling, this crazy pediocracy of ours with its dirty-old-men-like lech for the young, as if youth were a virtue and not an embarrassment. I often receive queries from students and bohunks abroad. They want to know Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Substitute your favorite corpse.) I find it increasingly difficult to explain why Thornton Wilder isn’t writing plays or Lillian Hellman is so silent or Tennessee Williams so unhappy; why some of our best actresses are in loony bins or why, when casting for a leading man, one always ends up looking for names in a graveyard or the British Players Guide.

Kafka died young and two of the best Russians are in jail (though jail is not a bad place for a writing course.) I’m not suggesting that the artist abroad is rich or happy or full of years but, typically, is a grizzly man, with a proportion to his life, and a modicum of fulfillment. He is allowed to finish the job he set out to do — Matisse, crippled but carrying on; Picasso, still doing his morning fandango; Mann, finally finding the levity he’s been looking for; Brecht, finally doing his plays as they should be done; and above all Giacometti, reaching at last that state of grace we all wish for, where he no longer wishes to please anyone, not even himself, but simply does the work for the sake of work.

If Miss Christie, or any other criminologist, were interested in revitalizing art history by turning it into a penny-dreadful. I would have a heroine for her. When Lorraine Hansberry had died, I felt no grief, only rage. At a panel-discussion after one of the last performances of her last play, when it was my turn to address the audience,I found myself struck dumb, because what I really felt like saying to all those seeming-ghostly, seeming-white, seeming-fat faces out front was. Piss off, you killed her. Which would have been needlessly discourteous. So I stammered and waffled about personal memories. Later it occurred to me that my rage was hers; if she had been in my place that night she would have blown up in a blaze of fury about someone like herself dying. She was au fond a furious lady, half-kid, half-queen, with that extraordinary regal radiance that came from her negritude and femininity. Her life and death is being documented now on WBAI-FM in a spangled and fascinating autobiography, affectionately arranged by Robert Nemiroff and narrated with exhausted elegance (another form of rage) by Ossie Davis. If you’re a would-be assassin or suicide, criminologist, historian, or just a plain old victim, and have missed the first three hours on January 22, you should listen to the second part on February 9, 7.15 to 10.15 p.m. The program is called “Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words”; and some 60-odd actors and actresses are reconstructing a life and a crime, some fruity, some plummy, some wet-eyed, and none as authentic as Lorraine herself or her closest projectors, those other regal and radiant kids, Diana Sands and Cicely Tyson. What you would hear is not so much a memorial tribute which, however affecting, could be a drag, but Lorraine Alive and an exercise in confession, the portrait of a triple non-threat; for she was black, was a woman, was a writer, and therefore the perfect victim, by being the three most difficult things an American can be. She was split down the middle and is now being put together, somehow; quite legendary, a young black girl who wants to care, wants to live, wants others to live, cries out as thought it had never been cried out before, “I’m going to write!”, comes to the Big Apple, the only thing she likes is the snow, falls in love, writes a play, is discovered or, shall we say, kidnapped, carries her success with both grace and agony, writes another play, won’t repeat herself, is dismissed and patronized, goes on writing (she left three or four plays behind), and one day there she is crouched in a very white hospital sheet, and she dies.

I’m not much of a criminologist, but listening to her words, some from her black, young stomach, some from her precise, argumentative mind, I thought I found some clues. There she is, with well-to-do parents, which means she is both the exception and the rule, but a slum is a slum. And she says, “Consequently one swiftly learns how to play alone.” And there she is, terrified of planes and elevators, and one night, having coffee, the faces of Michelangelo, Einstein, Robeson, and a lot of clowns staring down at us, she says, “Success is a bleach.” And there she is, walking in a New York street, and some white boys call out, “Hey there, hot chocolate!”, and then she says, “Baby, you could be Jesus in drag but if you’re brown they say you’re sellin’.” And in a poem she says, “O love, love, do not die,” with a P.S. “You came, you bastard.” And here she is again, always asking, “What kind of revolutionary am I?” Her brother is angrily handsome, and she writes, before her first opening, an exquisitely proper note to her Mom: and there she is, fiddling with a taperecorder and singing, not terribly well, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” And she prefers Ibsen to Strindberg, she gets mad at Camus and despair, worships O’Casey, and asks in her diary: “How much of the truth to tell?” She came to our garden one night rustling in silk and satin, and was angry-articulate about something I can no longer remember; only her vehemence, as if she had been silent for, say, 300 years. But I know I was worried about her regality and intellect, however much I admired them, for they were obviously inadequate to cope with her ancient rages. She was never more warm, more brown, more childlike, more girlish, more at peace than at the hospital, which scared me so that, to my shame, I did not go back later to see her in her last travail.

I hope this portrait of hers will be played again and again for historical-sanitary reasons and turned into a school-book, or even an evening’s entertainment on some stage. What’s the point of creating, almost annually, the Young Hero in order to kill him off, if they’re not going to partake of his flesh and blood? I wish I were one of those proverbial Inspectors in Miss Christie’s simplistic tales who lines up all the suspects and at last points at the butler or what-have-you. But of course it isn’t as simple as that. What ate up Lorraine, I think, is the general pollution of this artist-fucking world, the constant threat to the self. She wanted to care, to learn, to teach, to sing, to celebrate love. She was perhaps the last bridge between the black and the white shores. If she had lived on she might have refused to carry this awful traffic, or even the burden of love, to find, as other blacks find, that hatred is a liberator and the hell with love, which has degenerated into an excuse for more injustice. It’s a terrible thought but she might even have taken off those faces of Einstein and Michelangelo, to feel less motherless with only Robeson and the clowns.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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