The Inman Diaries
Arthur Crew Inman, the program notes to Intermezzo’s opera The Inman Diaries tell us, was a Boston recluse who shut himself away from 1919 - 1963, devoting himself to a diary that grew to 17 million words. From all that verbiage, has sprung several fruits: a two-volume edition of his famously long diary, edited by Harvard professor of literature Daniel Aaron, a play (Camera Obscura) by Lorenzo DeStefano, and a documentary film, From A Darkened Room, also by DeStefano. There is something primal and promising in Inman’s retreat into darkness; from those shadows, and all those pages of Inman’s diary, composer Thomas Oboe Lee distills a marvelous music.
This production, the sixth to be commissioned by Intermezzo during its six-year history, played for three days only this past weekend at the Tower Auditorium of the Massachusetts College of Art, at 621 Huntington Avenue. The players of the piece--Ray Bauwens as Inman, Gale Fuller as his dissatisfied wife Evelyn, Sepp Hammer as the treacherous Danish driver, Otto, and John Whittlesey as the even more audaciously treacherous family doctor, Cyrus--were all in fine voice, with Hammer seeming to sport the most powerful singing voice of all: he seemed to be restraining himself so as not to overwhelm the others.
The small orchestra did first-rate work, with James Busby conducting.
The lighting was moody, affecting, sometimes mysterious: the set, with gemlike islands of furniture scattered about a space defined by heavy black curtains (fitting for Inman, who prized quite and employed heavy drapes to shut out light and muffle sound) was like a collage from memory, or a scrapbook come to fully dimensional life; thank William A. Fregosi for both the lighting and the set.
The libretto by Jesse J. Martin, drawn as it was from the two-volume abridged version of Inman’s 155-volume document, works to compress Inman’s life and writings into a coherent, concise, and shapely work of art. Martin faces a twofold, perhaps threefold, challenge here, as he aims to explore Inman’s extremely insular life, sketching in the contradictions of a man who wished fervently to be a famous diarist and yet chose to live like a hermit. Wisely, Martin adopts a view of Inman as witness to the trends and events of the 20th Century.
But the dramatic architecture of the 20th Century, as monumental and monstrous as it was, is given only a glance in this work, which concentrates far more fully on Inman himself. We hear about Inman’s contempt for Roosevelt, and this tells us something about his character in and of itself, as does his hesitant admiration for Hitler; but aside from a few straightforward polemics, and a conversation over a chessboard with an African American woman about racial equality (he plays the white pieces, she the black, but even this touch comes to naught when the chess men end up scattered across the floor), it seems that those heavy drapes mute the sounds of financial collapse, armies on the march, and civic progress as much as they screen out any any other external noise (save that of the Prudential being built, a cacophony that finally proved too much for Inman; he took his own life in 1963).
The diarist needed to have something to write about, of course, and Inman decided that if he couldn’t bring himself top face the wider world, then the wider world would have to come to him. The opera reflects how Inman placed ads in the paper offering to pay people to come and talk to him about their lives: this fascinating twist is charged with dramatic possibility, especially given Inman’s habit of seducing his lady visitors. But in the execution--and perhaps in the interests of time?--we see less of the lives that Inman explores (and in some sense exploits) than we might like.
What we do see carries a charge of moral ambiguity tinged with madness. A young woman named Therese (Erica Brookhyser) describes her first orgasm to Inman, and it’s a sly, if somewhat ribald, comment on his character’s mix of avid interest and divorcement from the world that when she sums up with the words, "I came," his puzzled response is to wonder where she’d been.
Scenes like this leave us primed for some sort of armchair adventure into the changing sexual mores of the century, and we do get a glimpse into the mindset of the times when Inman muses that his diaries are meant to house a grimy, total truth of sorts, to hold nothing back, that they will shock future generations (if only he’d known that the sorts of antics he got up to would serve us not as fodder for daytime chat shows). When the local Watch and Ward Society catch wind of what Inman’s up to, the opera charges briefly into a nasty power play which Dr. Pike describes after the fact. But the plot is entirely taken over in short order by Inman’s discovery that Evelyn and Dr. Pike are having an affair. The arguments and suspicions that follow are mundane; even Inman’s observation that he had encouraged his wife to seek other lovers (just not the good doctor!) fails to spark, and the stifling confines of Inman’s life seem to close in on the story.
Even this too-familiar territory might have been beautified with high-flown language (that, too would be fitting, for Inman was a failed poet), but Martin restricts himself to a curiously flat vernacular that sometimes seems at odds with the lyrical quality of the music. The libretto consists of straight-on conversational exchanges; there are no flights of imagery or metaphor, no nesting of emotions or complex interleavings of meaning. Otto might have some of the most striking lines when he threatens, "Firing me could bring trouble to your door. Firing me could make you a laughingstock front-page story."
But the force of brute, thuggish threats perhaps oughtn’t get place of pride, lyrically speaking. When Therese is describing her orgasm and compares it to "one of those toy buzzers people shock you with as a joke," it’s a letdown: the moment cries out for more--more passion, more lust, more excitement by way of entranced, transporting language. Martin may be sticking with the words in the diary; if so, that seems something of a shame. The language is that of prose, of novels, maybe even of Mamet plays, but it seems out of place here, set as it is into Lee’s music. Is it a comment on the inadequacy of words to sum up the experiences of a lifetime, even a lifetime lived within the darkened confines of Inman’s apartment walls?
The most honest, passionate relationship in the opera is that between Inman and the building’s handyman, Billy (Jason McStoots), who takes a liking to the shut-in, even lingering to tinker with his wheelchair (which seems to be an affectation: Inman is frisky enough when it comes to his female guests, and other than his pounding migraines--which the music mimics on occasion with profound, booming percussion--he seems to have no need for a wheelchair). When Billy moves away to marry, Inman takes it personally, declaring himself abandoned.
Indeed, this cry becomes the heart of the piece, as one by one the loves Inman has brought into connection with his own peel away; his wife leaves after 28 years of marriage, Dr. Pike dies, and though it’s not specified, you can’t help but conclude that even Kathy O’Connor (Kristen Watson), the young woman for whom Inman expresses a paternal love, finds her way out of Inman’s tightly circumscribed life and into one of her own. In the end, with the noise of the Prudential building going up next door driving him to the edge, and no one left to stop his rush toward oblivion, Inman puts a gun to his head; the opera stops there, feeling not like a tragedy but like a passing glance into something strange, a little repugnant, and yet (in the way imagination has of filling in details) colorful and compelling.
by Thomas Oboe Lee (music) and Jesse J. Martin (libretto)
September 14, 15, 16 at Tower Auditorium, 621 Huntington Avenue, Boston.