The Masters on the Movies

“Outrageous ventroliquisms” is how Richard Howard describes his poems in which he assumes the voices of other people, often historical figures such as Cosima Wagner, Oscar Wilde, Verdi, or Toulouse-Lautrec. He even dramatizes a conversation between John Milton’s daughters as their father dictates Paradise Lost.  In his poem The Masters on the Movies, Howard imagines what five literary figures might say after going to the movies: Henry James after seeing “Now Voyager”, Joseph Conrad after seeing “Lost Horizon”,  and Willa Cather reacting to a screening of “Queen Christina.”  (All five poems can be found in Howard’s book, Talking Cures, Turtle Point Press, 2002.)
In setting these marvelously inventive poems,  I worried about how to engage the listener who had never seen these movies (or didn’t remember them).  And I wondered how the poems would be understood in real time, not read but  sung — and at a rate determined not by the reader but by me and the conductor.  So I decided to add a small group of actors who recite lines from the movies. These lines are intended to tell the movie’s story in as few words as possible.
The result is a piece with three overlapping sonic layers: the three Masters (James, Conrad, Cather) as soloists; the small group of actors, and the chorus. The chorus has an unusually complex role: they have to incorporate the personalities of the masters and movie characters, but they must also convey such non-semantic entities as state of mind, foreboding, sense of time, or memory. In short, they take on the role of the orchestra in an opera; without them the characters are vacant and there is no drama.

The Masters on the Movies was commissioned in 2006 by Hobart and William Smith Colleges for their extraordinary chamber chorus, Cantori. The group is directed by the incomparable Robert Cowles.


It is 1885, the year Henry James published The Bostonians, and Howard imagines what James might have made of the movie Now, Voyager — in particular the frumpy Miss Charlotte Vale, a depressed Boston Brahmin who, under Dr. Jaquith’s care, escapes her domineering mother, embarks on a Caribbean cruise and meets the love of her life, the charming, handsome – and married — Jerry Durrance. The trip is a success: Charlotte is “metamorphosed” from ugly duckling to a swan, “odorous / with erotic reminiscence.” What “chiefly glows” for James is that Charlotte is now a “Changed Woman,” who “understands when she is spoken to.” Charlotte not only recites from Whitman, as the good doctor taught her, (“Now, Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find,”) but she obeys Whitman’s imperative and begins to take charge of her own life. As Howard’s James concludes: “Even if, my dear, / we don’t reach the sun, we will at least / have been up in a balloon.”




Joseph Conrad’s dark tale of political intrigue, The Secret Agent, was published in 1907, and Howard imagines how Conrad might have reacted to the 1937 Frank Capra classic “Lost Horizon.” In The Secret Agent an innocent boy is blown to bits by an anarchist’s bomb, so Conrad will have none of Shangri-La or its population of utopianists. His disgust even spills over to his outright condemnation of movies in general (“… affording nothing more / in the way of art / than a flickering distraction to dolts / condemned to sit in darkness, mental life / utterly suspended, watching patterns / of pretense gibber and squeak before them.”) There is, though, one scene where seemingly young Maria leaves Shangri-La and “becomes before your eyes a ruined hag.” Howard’s Conrad contemplates how “… human matter / could accomplish such disintegration / without passing through long lasting pangs / of inconceivable agony.”  Maria, like Stevie, has become a metaphor for life itself: we’re here one moment and gone the next. Life is lived in an instant. Or as Howard’s Conrad concludes: “… ages of pain / can be lived between two blinks of an eye.”



In 1934 a second movie version of Willa Cather’s novel A Lost Lady was released (the first was made ten years earlier) and Cather, after seeing it, is reputed to have forbidden any more sale of her work to Hollywood. The movie tells the tale, effective in its own terms, of a queen whose love for a foreigner is so unpopular with her xenophobic subjects that she is forced to abdicate. But poet Howard creates a Cather impatient with dumbed-down screenplays, and her warm reaction to arguably Garbo’s best performance as the Swedish queen is overpowered by her annoyance that the movie avoids all matters of Christina’s impressive accomplishments, such as her friendship with Descartes, or any of her astute political decisions.  Howard’s Cather, who confesses that her “own imaginative knowledge is of loss, / the consequent action of what I write / is of loss as well,” finds a “grain of truth in one moment:” the movie’s most famous scene where Garbo, eyes closed and arms stretched out as if she were blind, tries to memorize the quaint, rustic room she has shared with her doomed lover Don Antonio.


The Masters on the Movies

Cantori, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Robert Cowles, director

Score available through American Composers Alliance (BMI)