My investigations on teaching cells and heredity lead me to a nifty Nova documentary on running the Boston marathon, which in turn lead me to look for poetry about marathons. The resulting Google search turned up a variety of poetry reading marathons, including an Emily Dickinson one two days after my wife’s birthday. It also turned up a Taylor Mead poetry marathon, an octogenarian poet and former colleague of Andy Warhol, who is interesting to view but inappropriate for middle school. This lead to an interest in live, beat and slam style poetry. I am tired of the slam clips I’ve seen, and just the definition of a “poem” and a “slam” and the limits of the genre. And then Brother Theodore popped into my head, and lead to this….
He’s not a poet, but a monologist. So what. His stories are silly and odd. I first saw him on David Letterman in the mid 1980s, when Dave was still hip and very late at night. While living in NYCity and working in publishing, I dragged my girlfriend to a show that she did not appreciate other than having gone out. Novelty wins points, but she did not get it. I don’t think I did, either, but I enjoyed it a bit.
Show the clip. It’s clean. If you muck about on YouTube you’ll find more, but the sound quality wavers. I have included a written piece below it that may or may not be his words or simply a tribute to the man. It is secondary, but interesting (note some of the language and images).
1928: It’s a new day in Germany. Every single one of the 52 titles your father publishes says so, reporting on fashion and beauty and health: gone are corsets, repression, and the stuffy air of the old, Prussian way of life, here are the two beautiful words, “Weimar”, the home of the Enlightenment, and “Republic”, the inverse of the old world of Kings and Princes. Everything is full of life and light: that new jazz music, the new houses made of glass and steel, the great department store, KaDeWe, founded the year you were born, the new women, with their slim figures and short dresses, the automobile, and the telephone, and the aeroplane.
But you, you want nothing of it: you’d much rather listen to Gustav Mahler, or old songs from your grandfather’s day. You love poetry: not only that of your own country, of Goethe, of Schiller, and Novalis, but the French Symbolists, Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the English Romantics, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and especially Edgar Allen Poe, the American, and even those new poets -your father calls them hacks- H.P.Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. You read them for their darkness and their silences. In Cologne, you took what your father called “useless” courses — art and philosophy, as old and as deep as the University itself, but delighted in the near-contemporary works of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and the emerging Expressionist movement.
You’ve always been this way, as far as you can remember. Your mother (and your nurse) despaired to know the cause, and you’re sure you’ve gone through every treatment available to cure it: mineral water (in every orifice, plus much bathing –just your luck you live near most of the major spas), special diets (your parents seemed to have a different one every week), exercise in the Turnhall(ditto), drugs, psychotherapy, sunbathing, everyone’s either trying to pull you into a new age or drag you back to a more natural one…Doctors can find nothing wrong with you. You’re perfectly healthy, short, but very fit, with a rich, musical voice, a square jaw, sparkling dark eyes and high cheekbones, and although you’re not looking to marry any time soon, very attractive to the ladies, whom you treat with the manners of the Hapsburg court.
You’re standing out in the terrace, looking out over the woods, to where the clouds rage in a Spring rain. Your mother is telling you to come back to the party, where they’re all drinking wine and cocktails, and…would you read some poetry? All the girls love you. “Speak. You speak Goethe’s poetry, with Goethe’s authentic voice. You are a scholar, a corpsman, with a baccalaureate from Cologne.”
“And besides,” she says, smiling. “what’s so bad your Father’s money won’t fix?”
You rejoin the party, where in the corner, some bearded gentleman is loudly holding forth on “the charnel house of the modern kitchen” and the merits of nudity and vegetarianism…
The ladies nod, yes, yes….
1938:It’s ten years later. You’re fighting for your life, and all the Nazis want is your father’s money. You live in a place that no one a few years ago would have ever thought could have been possible: a slave labor camp in a town heretofore distinguished only by an art school.
And you’re beginning to see that life in a horror novel is not so thrilling, when you wake up in it every morning, to shit and blood and the dead bodies that smell like decaying pigs. You’ve seen people torn apart by German Shepherds, the noblest of dogs!, with SS standing by, laughing.In some ways, it’s as if the diet doctors had taken over the country — time and time again, you’ve heard the Jews — your people! — described as a pestilence, a plague, a disease rotting away the national fabric, like one of the diet doctors’ ailments.
But you learn something. A sense of humor. A dry, mordant, biting sense of humor. They can’t take that away, can’t make me feel like I’m a piece of rancid pork waiting to happen, I’m a poet, a scholar from Cologne, who speaks in the true voice of Goethe….And then it hits you. All your adolescence, you’d heard of the smell of dead bodies being described as being horrific, the worst ever thing you can smell. And all the diet doctors talking about the charred and boiled corpses of animals…And it’s true. Corpses aren’t the worst, they smell like…bad meat! You laugh, and laugh and laugh over again, and know that you can never be frightened again.
The SS has agreed to release you, and guarantee the safety of your family, if you will give over the family fortune for one Reichsmark.
You walk free six weeks later, to Switzerland, with the help of your mother’s friend Albert Einstein.
As for the rest of your family, as you found out later, the Nazis lied.
1958-72 It’s twenty years later. You’re married, finally. There’s this thing, called ‘sick humor’. You’ve been a chess hustler, (and deported for same), a janitor at Stanford University (and beat 30 of their professors in a simultaneous chess match). You never thought of yourself as ‘strong’, or ‘tough’, but you are, a compact little package, that can deal with anything from dock work to mean drunks. At one point, you wanted to be in movies, and met Orson Welles, but you never made it past bit-player status. Although you sometimes teach German (as a tutor and substitute teacher) you’re now a comedian.
Not like the others, who’ve honed their craft in vaudeville and up in the Catskills, you speak to those you know. College students. Other survivors. People who understand. Your English is excellent, but for the accent that sounds foreign even for a German, which only you seem to know, is miles more educated than those Easterner peasants everyone calls “Yiddish” (you pronounce your semi-blasphemous name as “T’hay-a-dor-(ə), as you’ve been taught to pronounce Attic Greek). You’ve moved to New York, and there it is you will stay.
You’ve ditched any hope of introducing Goethe to anyone but your students, so you stick to Poe, and pastiches of things you’ve read, the pessimistic philosophers, the Symbolist poets, the wild Expressionist writings you recall, even the diet doctors, whose vehement sermons you deliver with the screaming demogogery of a National Socialist, in a Walpurgisnacht of dark imagery, as the audience screams and cries with laughter, and nervously laughs with fright..you call it “stand-up tragedy”. Now and then, you’ll become gentle, and pay court to a young woman who strikes your fancy: at your suave charm, she shrinks away, as if you were a rotting corpse.
Because of your dark clothing they call you “Father”, or “Brother”, it
seems to suit you, and you rarely correct them. You play night clubs, coffee houses, you cut a 45 (a makeover of “Berenice”), and now and then, you’re on television.
Television! Yes! The Joey Bishop Show, Merv Griffin, even Johnny Carson. Life couldn’t be better, eh?
1974:It’s the mid-Seventies. The country is a vapid wasteland, as far as you’re concerned. Everyone smiles and wants to be in California, the beatnik era is over, rock music gives you a headache, and there are these odd-looking young folks in black who look like Nazis roaming around. Yeah, it was fun, but the nightclub act petered out after awhile, and Johnny Carson blackballed you after you remarked (to a guest from the Hemlock Society) that you know at least five methods of suicide (having seen them at Dachau) — “and all of them work!” (with laughter and smiles). Your son tells you that you should take it easier, stop bicycling everywhere. On your days off, you take long walks in Central Park and elsewhere, musing on death and the nature of life.. But there’s a place that wants you, that ordinarily holds magic acts…could you do midnight shows? The ads read “Master of the Macabre” and have a sprightly Expressionist caricature of you. You agree, but ask for an admission price of only four dollars. The man is insisting on ten, or even more…just look at how well “Cabaret” did! No, you say, who is going to want to see an old man?…
1980- 2001 The ads read Brother Theodore, with a photograph, place and time. Nothing more. People don’t need anything more. Your backdrop is simply black, you have a table, a chair, a cup of water, and a chalkboard. You do two shows: one on “Foodism”, where you try to talk people out of eating, and one on “Quadrupedalism”, where you demonstrate how much better life would be on all fours. Sometimes, you switch off, mid-show. It’s always the same, and yet, always different. Some people seem to come around every week.
You’re back on TV, and this Letterman person, he’s always interrupting…but a whole lot of young comedians claim you as a major inspiration. Woody Allen, Bogosian, Seinfeld…
Oddly, the older you get, the more people like you: the girl whose cheek you kiss is more likely to pull towards you, than to push you away, these days. (You establish a way to ditch her a moment later, to keep the show going, but see her beaming — his! the one!– as she leaves.) The ferocious-looking young people, with their leather and spikes and Aryan looks, smile and wave if they see you on the street.
“Servus!” you call back,”Bruder Corpsmann!”, not caring if they can understand.
And they glow.
You smile, too. When people talk to you out of character, they’re charmed and amazed, not by Herr Doktor, but by you. How well-mannered and well-read you are, your tale (that a few years before was hardly believed) of despair and survival. “Where there’s death, there’s hope!” you joke, knowing that you are finally having the last laugh. They want to know what you really eat and drink. “Ah, Chinese take-out. Macrobiotic foods. Meat, drink not so much. And my doctor tells me no, but sweet things. All sweet things. I get enough exercise doing shows: but really, try creeping a few times a week! You want to be as old as I, do the same.” Your girlfriend is fifty years younger than you, and to see babies and flowers makes you feel light, and peaceful. At night you dream of becoming a swan, swimming in the East River. Someone asks about your girlfriend.
“You know, I’m not half bad of a lover.”
I can only think yes, I’m sure you were, you devil.