Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Psalm 104

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar (Happy Birthday, Nechama!), and thus the second day of Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon. Every Rosh Chodesh, Psalm 104 (verse 19a: "He made the moon for the appointed times") is recited at the end of morning services, and whenever it is, I remember this story:

November 30, 2000 was the one-hundredth yahrtzeit of Oscar Wilde, an event marked as the day approached by a number of events around New York. I recall attending an exhibit at the (then unrenovated) Morgan Library, and I also attended the culminating event, a series of readings on the day itself at the Jefferson Market Library. (I seem to recall it being mentioned at the event that the building had some connection to Wilde's famous visit to America.) Presenting were such luminaries as the renowned playwrights Peter Shaffer and Edward Albee, the actresses Cherry Jones and the late Kim Hunter, and others, including the not-yet-Speaker Christine Quinn.

Shaffer preceded his readings with a personal story: When he first came to America, he worked at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in a low-level position. (I was just there yesterday to see their exhibits, thus further provoking the memory.) Then, he heard of an opening in the Library at the Arents Tobacco Collection. "One of those rooms off to the side of the main reading room, open only to those with special permission, soft chairs, quiet surroundings- you've passed those rooms, you know what I mean," as he put it. The audience, mostly literary types, nodded in agreement. The job was easier, more prestigious, and paid better than his current position, so he applied for it, and was told to be there at 1:00 of an afternoon to be interviewed by George Arents himself.

Arents, who had made his money in tobacco, had then turned his attention to collecting every single work he could find that mentioned the plant- certainly including books, pictures and the like about tobacco, but even works notable for other reasons that mentioned it only in passing. Shaffer figured that he might never have a chance to enter the room again, and so took his lunch break at twelve and came to the appointment an hour early.

The librarian let him in, and allowed him to look over the collection. Shaffer began flipping through the card catalog and came to one entry: "The Importance of Being Earnest, a Play in Four Acts". Wanting to impress the librarian with his knowledge, he said, "But The Importance of Being Earnest has three acts!"

"Ah, no," said the librarian, and he opened a special drawer and removed four plain-looking school-type notebooks. It was the original manuscript of the play, in Wilde's handwriting, one act per notebook. Wilde had been asked to shorten it to three acts by the play's producer before it was first put on. The play had earned its place in the Arents Collection because of the following lines:
Lady Bracknell: Do you smoke?

Jack: Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.

Lady Bracknell: I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.
The four act version was not then widely available (it's now published in some versions of the complete works), and Shaffer spent the next hour reading the treasure. "And," he concluded, "It's nowhere nearly as good as the three-act version. Wilde was wise to revise it." (I've seen this sentiment in a number of places.)

Just as he was finishing the play and putting it back in its drawer, the door opened, and George Arents himself was there, a somewhat...crotchety elderly man in a wheelchair. "Wheel me," he said simply. And so Shaffer began wheeling him down the long corridor leading to the main reading room. (Another knowing nod from the audience.)

The trip was quiet, and Shaffer could tell that things weren't going well. Trying to make a good impression, he leaned over and asked, "Mr. Arents, would you happen to have a copy of the Guttenberg Bible in your collection?" (The Library does, indeed, have a copy, which I saw yesterday, exhibited next to the original Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, of all things.)

Arents favored Shaffer with a sidelong glance and then replied curtly, "The tobacco weed is not mentioned in the Holy Writ."

Shaffer then sheepishly told us, "I knew I shouldn't have said anything, but I...just...couldn't...help it. And so I leaned over again and said, 'But surely it is written in the Book of Psalms [104:32b- today's Psalm- NL], "He toucheth the mountains, and maketh them smoke"?'"

Arents turned and gave him a good, hard look, then simply said, "Wheel me back."

Ruefully, Shaffer finished, before starting his readings for us, "I didn't get the job."

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