People clamor that it is good to be busy. Sometimes I question that thought, especially when I have press deadlines, when cinema publicists are wondering where their reviews and articles are and I’m exhausted from seeing a play on Broadway that I must review the following day.
So my travel to Paris in September of this year was exquisite because it took me away from the NYC helter skelter night life of an entertainment journalist. In Paris, la Rive Gauche, the pace is not as fast, the imperative not as overwhelming.
I could casually take photographs of the rainbow colored and salubrious fresh vegetables, sumptuous steaming paella flavoring the air with delicious spices along with other items folks lined up for in the open air markets.
I did write but at a more leisurely pace. I could do casual interviews of musicians and star Anne Carrere of Piaf! The Show.
I could have a casual chat with Rita Duffy about her brilliant installation The Souvenir Shop-marking the 1916 Rebellion, at the Irish Cultural Center. At the Irish Cultural Center, I could speak with Irish poet Pat Boran, and I could cover the goings and comings of playwright Rosary O’Neill in her celebration of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
Rosary O’Neill has more than a cursory connection to Beckett and Degas. She has thoroughly researched both men’s lives and has written plays about each. Her play about Beckett, Beckett at Greystones Bay received a focused reading in Paris in a downtown venue this September. It was directed and acted by Brendan McCall.
Earlier in the summer Barrett O’Brien directed and acted in the role of Beckett in a staged production of Beckett at Greystones Bay at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As a result of that production, O’Neill collaborated with the director and upon his suggestion, expanded the work into two acts. O’Neill’s Beckett is being developed for future focused readings and productions in Paris and back in the US.
O’Neill’s love of Degas began when she first appreciated his work as a young child. It blossomed when she was a Drama Professor at Loyola in New Orleans, Louisiana where she founded the nonprofit theater company, Southern Repertory which produced a number of her plays.
It was during the time she ran Southern Rep, that she researched Degas’s life and discovered that he had strong familial ties to New Orleans where he stayed for about six months during the tumultuous era of reconstruction seven years after the Civil War. Fascinated by Degas’ relationship with his brother Rene’s wife, Estelle Musson, and intrigued by Rene’s spendthrift lifestyle which bankrupted the Degas fortune along with the crash in the cotton markets during and after the war, O’Neill marshaled her talents and wrote Degas in New Orleans
This year marks the centennial year of Degas’ death. O’Neill, who has collaborated on productions of her two act play Degas in New Orleans has enjoyed seeing her work performed in regional theater in Texas and Louisiana. The play has received focused readings in New York City and New York where it caught the attention of professional musician and Bard College professor David Albert Temple, who wrote music for the play and collaborated with O’Neill to make Degas in New Orleans, The Musical.
Their collaboration which included producer/director Deborah Temple and a cast from a regional performing arts high school, brought the musical to New York City where it was performed in a one-night-only show. Prior to its New York premiere, the production was performed in upstate New York at Bard College’s Black Box Theater.
The musical like the play focuses on Edgar Degas’ time spent with his mother’s relatives, the Mussons. It intimates the potential for a love relationship with his brother’s wife, Estelle. Surely, if his brother had not bankrupted the family fortune after the crash of the cotton trade (a painting of the family’s cotton office hangs in the New Orleans Museum of Art, as does his portrait of Estelle Musson with lovely red peonies), the situation would have been very different for the painter. Degas would most likely have stayed in New Orleans to pursue the possibilities of love with Estelle and to help her pick up the pieces after his brother Rene deserted her for her maid America. His painterly subjects would have been of the city of New Orleans, family portraits and perhaps even his cousin Norbert and his wife who were mixed race and free persons of color. But alas, Edgar had to return home to financially support his father, who was suffering a near breakdown because of Rene’s wantonness wracking up gambling debts.
It would have been a magnificent tribute to Degas to mount a production of either the play or the musical Degas in New Orleans in New York City in celebration of the centennial of Degas’ death on September 27, 1917. Currently, the process is on hold. However, O’Neill’s play about Degas and the strong cultural ties between New Orleans and Paris are being studied by the students at the Sorbonne. French Professor of Contemporary Literature Joseph Danan will be examining Degas in New Orleans as contemporary literature. Additionally, the play will have a focused reading in French at Columbia University’s center at the Sorbonne at Reid Hall. It is an event that is a first-of-its-kind.
Rosary O’Neill has made friends of visiting artists in residence at the Irish Cultural Center where she will be staying as her work is being studied and performed in Paris. She will continue to write, speak and share with the visiting Irish artists in residency at the Center, and be stimulated by their support and brilliance.
The Irish Cultural Center is the go-to place for events that highlight the strongly rooted Irish experience in Paris. It serves as an amazing resource for the community, students from the Sorbonne and visiting artists who are looking to feel at home in Paris. O’Neill is enthusiastic about her stay at the Center, and is happy that she, in a small way, is continuing to affirm links among the learning centers of the Sorbonne, the Irish Cultural Center and New Orleans. It will be a pleasure to cover the readings of her plays Beckett at Greystones Bay and Degas in New Orleans.
Edward Degas, one of the most renowned and beloved of the French impressionist painters and sculptors is most often associated with paintings and drawings of the dance. His pale ballerinas in pink, blue, green and white tulle evoke an ethereal world of striking still points of movement. Their delicate loveliness is a gossamer of bodies twirling, bending, stretching, leaping, pirouetting, balancing, posing and dressing. His dancers spark fantasy and mythic beauty. There is not a pose, position or action of the mystic ballerinas that Degas has not rendered in painting or drawing, so avidly possessed was he with ballerinas.
Why did ballerinas stir him? The haunting melodies and beautiful rendering of Degas in New Orleans by Rosary O’Neill, with music and arrangements by David Temple, incisively directed by Deborah Temple suggest a reason. When Degas visited his brother and beloved sister-in-law Estelle, her daughter Jo danced ballet and wished to be a ballerina in Paris. This and other symbols whisper through the characterization, song, direction and staging in what can only be described as a consummate production which which premiered at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore in New York City in a one-night showcase. The musical connects the tragic time Degas spent with family in New Orleans before he was famous to the evolution of his greatness as the founder of Impressionism.
It opens with the spotlight on the painter Degas reminiscing about his visit to America. He begins with a song of remembrance about the time he lived in New Orleans where his mother was from. He sings of the key family members with whom he lived, family whose unreconciled relationships with him would impact his life and art after he returned to France. Degas (Trevor Kowalsky in a sterling and evocative portrayal of the painter), sings Temple’s wistful melody of nostalgic longing, “I have a picture in my mind,” as the play flashes back to the roiling events in the Degas family household.
The in-laws/cousins, the Mussons, live on Esplanade Avenue in a New Orleans of 1872 that is raging against the carpetbaggers in the last days of Reconstruction. It is the beginning of the racial terrorism that blossomed like deadly nightshade and continued into the twilight of the 20th century. During Degas’ introductory song which sets the events and succinctly reveals the back-story of his visit to the most French city in America, the director has skillfully created the interior rooms of the Degas House. It is here the painter stayed with his brother René and tried to help out the family financially. He was also in New Orleans to escape the tumultuous events occurring in Paris during the days of the commune.
For this memorable opening scene (which also serves as the closing scene of Degas’ flashback), director Deborah Temple cleverly stages a tableau of the characters who are instrumental in spurring on the transformation of Degas’ personality and art: his brother René Degas (Tom Bloxham is wonderful as the arrogant, cruel and duplicitous brother), René‘s Father-in-law, Michel Musson (Patrick O’Shea rings out this sexist, racist, humorous curmudgeon), Mathilde Musson Bell (Elizabeth Lococo in a superb and well grounded performance), Didi Musson (the excellent and heartfelt Natalie LaBossier), René‘s wife Estelle Musson Degas (the exquisitely acted, operatically talented Lucy Makebish), and most poignantly the budding ballerina Josephine (Jo) Balfour, who is Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage (in a wonderful portrayal by Sarah Newcomb).
Together, the sisters (Didi, Mathilde and Estelle), and René subtly effect the influences that sideswipe Degas’ well being to devastate his emotions. O’Neill and the Temples have deftly drawn Degas’ family trials. One cannot help but intuit that this period in his life greatly influenced his career and was a turning point. The superb production and eclectic music (in an amazing rendering of different styles) David Temple ingeniously uses to infer the past and in some numbers suggests hints of blues and jazz that we associate with New Orleans in the present. The cogent directorial elements and memorable songs emphasize the import of Degas’ stay in New Orleans as a time of sorrow, loss and pain, and suggest that these obstacles ultimately served to strengthen him; no doubt they contributed in helping pave the way for his entrance onto the art scene.
Of the three Musson sisters, Estelle, who remains loyal to his adulterous brother René, is the one who breaks Degas’ heart. Degas is unable to shake his lifelong love for her which he nobly expresses and which he more nobly understands will never be consummated because of Estelle’s integrity and sanctity. O’Neill with the help of Deborah Temple’s direction and the adroit actors (the uber talented Makebish is stunning in the part of Estelle and Kowalsky is powerful as her soulful, haunted Edgar) brilliantly weave Degas’ love into a force which compels him toward a spiritual attachment with Estelle and her daughter ballerina Jo. The director wisely stages Jo as a central figure; throughout we see her practicing her positions as she dreams of flying away, perhaps to Paris to one day join the ballet. Jo also hopes with a great and tender love that her mother Estelle who has become blind and attempts to hide this fact from Edgar will one day see again. Encapsulated in Temple’s wistful song, “I dreamed that I could fly,” Estelle and Jo sing to each other echoing these and other yearnings which we later discover never come to pass.
The play develops smoothly following the arc of human foibles and is faithful in following the history of Degas’ life when he stayed in New Orleans. In the flashback Degas arrives at the house and there is great joy and a sense of wonder and appreciation for the painterly cousin, brother-in-law and brother. As the action progresses, we learn why. The family perceives Degas to be the savior who will make everything right for them since they are in a state of physical, mental and emotional devolution. Initially unaware of this situation, Degas is happy to see the one he has always loved, Estelle, whom he knew when she and her sisters visited him Paris. This is his first time in the new world and he has a positive and outlook about America and New Orleans which family letters have kept alive for him.
But family was not forthcoming about their condition or the cultural circumstances of New Orleans after the Civil War. The longer he stays, the more his awareness grows; he begins to understand the darker elements consuming the city and his family. O’Neill’s play and the production masterfully reveal the series of devastating pictures the situations paint for Degas. As a result of these dramatic scenes and the misery he sees and experiences, on his return to Paris he will be forced to emotionally vitiate his suffering through his art. The economic portrait of his family who live in cramped quarters is borderline squalid. We see this especially in the second act when New Orleans floods: rats drop from trees around the house, the family takes in as many homeless as they can to help their neighbors at their own expense. The city is reduced to a fetid swamp whose filth can never been expunged or wiped away. The song “Rats” sung by America (a terrific job by Mickey Lynch and the company) is humorous, dark and revelatory of the city’s torpor, want, financial devastation and foreboding.
By degrees reality stencils terrifying images on Degas’ soul. He discovers Estelle is blind and pregnant though they can’t afford another baby. René has not paid off the debts which are increasing exponentially and threaten to bankrupt the family in New Orleans and France. René and Michel seek the oblivion of alcohol and drink throughout the day, becoming willful, argumentative and confrontational. Mixed race cousin Norbert Rillieux, who was a wealthy free man of color before the Civil War, is being threatened daily by the White League, a white supremacist group growing in political power.
What horrifies Degas most is that René has “turned his back” on beloved, beautiful Estelle and is having an affair with America, a married woman who tutors the children. America (Mickey Lynch is superb), has gradually insinuated herself into the family and by the play’s conclusion is ruthlessly running the household, the sisters and René as she arrogantly steps around Estelle who “sees nothing.” Didi, who loves Degas and wants to be with him in Paris, tells Estelle that René is cheating on her. She does this in a jealous fit of rage after Didi discovers Degas loved Estelle. Estelle tries to be stoic but she eventually confronts René who lies to her. Estelle is a tragic figure caught in circumstances from which, as a woman, she will never escape or rectify. She must just try to survive and prevent her newborn from dying. Degas is appalled at the family’s deterioration and Estelle’s lifestyle. All has turned from the joy of his first weeks with them, symbolized by the song they sang to unmarried Didi for her birthday celebration (“The Sunny Side of Thirty”). Now there is only chaos, argument, racial tensions and impoverishment.
O’Neill has created interesting parallels between the family’s deterioration and the decline of New Orleans which has not recovered economically and whose white citizens angrily blame on Reconstruction politics. Degas learns that many of the white males have joined the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia to take the city and the South back from the Northern marauders. Mathilde’s husband Will and Father/Uncle Michel are important leaders and they have shunned Norbert from their family and most probably would not stop his being lynched. Even René has been persuaded to their side.
As Norbert’s wife Emily (Liz Louie is terrific as a free woman of color who is angry, fearful and sorrowful as she recognizes a new, terrifying city), sings of the augmenting racial hatreds in Act I (“Don’t Matter If You’re Free”), and in Act II when she tells Degas that she and Norbert are leaving for Paris fearing for their lives (“Time to Say Goodbye”). Degas acknowledges New Orleans is a dangerous, racist and demoralized city. In comparison to France and Paris which are havens of justice, New Orleans is reprehensible. Degas is further unsettled when a letter arrives to announce that his father has gone bankrupt and has been thrown into prison. René’s mismanagement of finances and importunity with money have economically destroyed the family in Paris and in New Orleans. When Edgar confronts his younger brother, they argue and he almost pummels him but restrains himself. He is not a brutal man; he will use his hands for painting. René kneels to him for forgiveness, but Degas is powerless to change his brother or the circumstances. He must leave for Paris to help whom he can help, his father. Somehow, he must restore the Senior Degas to wholeness and pay off the creditors. Painting is his only way out.
At the end of the play in a song reprise when Jo leaves for the convent, Jo and her mother again sing “I Dream.” It is a magnificent moment, for we understand the tragedy of hopes never realized: Jo dies of malaria at 18; Estelle, having never regained her sight, is abandoned by René who marries America and goes to Paris. Only Degas’ dream is realized, the dream which establishes him as a world-class Impressionist painter. O’Neill implies and the production so beautifully reveals that the fires of his greatness have been stoked in New Orleans. The regrets of an unfilled love with Estelle and the sorrow of his failure to to stop his family’s and especially Estelle’s decline become the emotional sources of his art.
This intriguing and memorable musical, Degas in New Orleans, creates a new vista for understanding Edgar Degas’s life and work. In appreciating the impact and importance of the painter’s time in the crescent city, the production reveals the extent to which influences born of tragedy can be translated into great good. And it shows how spiritual love and remembrance can be translated into artistic genius. Whether or not the symbolism of Jo’s wish to go to Paris to be a dancer is rooted in fact, O’Neill’s characterization of Jo coupled with Temple’s melodic compositions and Debrah Temple’s high concept production values anchor Degas’ love for Estelle and her daughter which is historically accurate. The work illuminates the idea that Degas’ ballet dancers are a tribute to Estelle’s daughter who “flies” in the still point of his artistry. In his work during the time he was in New Orleans and his work afterwards, Degas remained inspired and he dreamed. Through these dreams he was able to direct his career onto a completely new path, helping to establish an artistic trend which is globally loved today.
Edgar Degas most probably carried his love for Estelle and Jo to the grave, a spiritual attachment which Degas in New Orleans conveys. After seeing this incredibly realized production, we know that if not for that fateful visit, we would not be able to appreciate the 24 works he painted in the Big Easy such as “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” or his three paintings of Estelle completed at the Degas House. As for Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage, Jo, whose wish to go to Paris and be in the ballet was cut short?
Perhaps she got their after all. Degas’ loving remembrance of her, manifested in his numerous paintings of the ballet, is the triumphant iconography of his work. These paintings, sketches and sculptures of ballerinas when not loaned out to museums around the world, have remained in Paris and in France through wars, protests, floods and plagues. It is vital that the meaningful connections between Paris and New Orleans in Degas’ life and work be acknowledged. The wonderful Degas in New Orleans is a step in the right direction to uplift the life and work of this incredible artist for the upcoming 100th year anniversary of his death in 2017.
The production was awarded a generous grant from Red Hook School District in New York and was produced by Deborah Temple with the Red Hook Performing Arts Company.
Much of the background (setting 1872, New Orleans) ,of the Musical, Degas in New Orleans written by Rosary O’Neill, music composed by David Temple, is gathered from biographies written about Edgar Degas.
The World Premiere of Degas in New Orleans produced and directed by Deborah Temple with the Red Hook Performing Arts Club is being presented at The Bard Fisher Center. The dates are Thursday, December 18th and Friday, December 19th at 7:00 pm. It is being presented at Red Hook Central School District on Saturday, December 20th at 7:00 pm and Sunday, December 21st at 3:00 pm.
About Edgar Degas, the Background for Degas in New Orleans
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) has been regarded as a founder of Impressionism because he was a key organizer of exhibitions of those painters who designated themselves as spontaneous and painted en plein air (in the open air). However, he disliked the categorization and preferred to be noted as a realist. He commented, “What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” (Armstrong, 1991, p. 22) His scenes of Parisian life, his experiments with form and color and his friendship with several key Impressionist artists, for example, Mary Cassatt and Édouard Manet, connect him intimately to the Impressionist movement (Roskill 1983, p.33), even if he denied it himself.
The eldest son of a wealthy banking family, Edgar’s artistic talent was recognized early by his father. Degas wanted to improve his artistic skill, so in his youth, as was done in Paris, he spent time copying the Italian masterpieces in the Louvre. Later, Edgar traveled to Italy in search of copying the greats: Michelangelo, Titian, and other Renaissance painters, visiting various churches to see the works on display. Not stuck in the past, Degas enjoyed studying modern artistic techniques, including photography and engraving. In searching about for his life’s work, he studied law to help with the family business as most sons did. But he decided against it and ended his law career in 1855 to pursue his early love of painting, sketching and drawing.
Degas had family in the US, his mom’s family, the Mussons. It was his Uncle Michel Musson and his daughters who lived in New Orleans on Esplanade Avenue in what is today known as “The Degas House.” After the Civil War broke out, and the conflict increased in intensity, the Musson sisters, Edgar’s cousins, were sent to France which is where Edgar first became acquainted with them. The youngest cousin, Estelle (Tell), lost her first husband during the War, while pregnant with their daughter. Despite Edgar’s affections for Tell, it was Edgar’s youngest brother, René who married her and took her back to live in New Orleans. René amassed tremendous debts, ruined the business and eventually had to be bailed out by Degas, after Degas returned from his stay in New Orleans. It is his trip to New Orleans to visit his brother and the family when he discovers the family crisis and his brother’s negligence to the business and his own family.
Composer David Temple’s Observations Related to the Musical World Primere ‘Degas in New Orleans’
Degas joined the National Guard to fight for France during the Franco-Prussian War. During rifle training, his eyesight was found to be defective. And it was on his subsequent visit to New Orleans that he realized his right eye was permanently damaged: “What lovely things I could have done …if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me. To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that. And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill.” In years to follow, he lost his ability to read and to identify colors, and he worked more and more in sculpture, a more tactile medium. By 1891, he would write, “Ah! Sight! Sight! Sight!… the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.”
Edgar’s own failing eyesight most probably increased his empathy and affection for Tell who he discovered had gone blind after she returned to New Orleans with René. Edgar expressed his feelings in a letter to a friend: “My poor Estelle, Rene’s wife, is blind as you know. She bears it in an incomparable manner; she needs scarcely any help about the house. She remembers the rooms and the position of the furniture and hardly ever bumps into anything. And there is no hope!”
Tickets are selling fast. But you can call Bard Fisher Center’s Ticket Office to purchase tickets.
WHEN: THURSDAY, December 18 and FRIDAY, December 19 at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets are $10.00/$8.00 students and seniors available in advance for Thursday and Friday night performances at the Fisher Center Box Office, 845-758-7900/6822 and sold at the door. Click on the dates (December 18, December 19) in the calendar for tickets.
PERFORMANCES AT RED HOOK CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL
WHEN: SATURDAY, December 20 at 7:00 p.m. and SUNDAY, December 21 at 3:00 p.m. at Red Hook Central High School.
Tickets are $10.00/$8.00 students and seniors. Tickets for the Saturday and Sunday performances will be available at the door at Red Hook High School.