Sexuality and the artist: Is there really a dividing line between the public and the private?
Attempting to go deeper into the Toronto pianist's psyche than any other of the previous 18 biographies and analyses, Clarkson tries to put labels on every single one of Gould's female relationships.
Near the end of Chapter Six, Clarkson quotes Gould friend, former CBC producer John Roberts: "Glenn liked to call himself 'the last puritan,' but if you knew about the women in his life, you could hardly call him that."
Clarkson wants us to know about the women in Gould's life, ostensibly so that we can have a better appreciation for the many layers of his art, as interpreter as well as creator and thinker. But, ultimately, the story can't help but become an exercise in wild speculation, peppered with little details that make me feel like someone spying through a bedroom window where someone forgot to draw the drapes.
Putting Gould and his girls aside last night, and waking up to "What's gay got to do with acting?" Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian's response to the controversy over "Straight Jacket" a recent Newsweek article that questioned the ability of gay actors to portray straight characters, made me think about how, when all is said and done, the deeply personal really is a part of our relationship to art and artists, no matter what nobler ideals we may pay (chaste) lip service to.
Near the end of his article, which reveals that gay actors continue to be afraid to talk publicly about their sexuality, Ouzounian writes: "In fact, do we need to know anything at all about the personal lives of the performers? Best to just look at what they do on stage or screen and leave the rest behind."
My colleague's sentiment is virtuous. I can't count the number of times that very thought hasn't crossed my mind in the course of my work, as I am sure is the case with every other conscientious journalist. But that doesn't erase the fact that human beings have an intense curiosity about the personal details of other people.
Let's put aside the obvious excesses of TMZ and its print equivalents near the supermarket checkout. We want to know about J.S. Bach's frustrations with the fusty burghers of Leipzig, Mozart being kicked in the ass by the Archbishop Coloredo, Johannes Brahms's infatuation with the daughter of Clara Schumann -- a woman he had loved, too, who happened to be the wife of one of his best friends.
Somehow, in some way, these events and emotions either contribute or detract from the artist himself.
The large-scale reconciliations of private and public are the most obvious -- and difficult -- and, in the world of music, who is a greater evil genius than Richard Wagner, lothario, deadbeat, anti-Semite, and operatic genius? The only reason I began to listen to Wagner's music was because I had become a music critic and could no longer avoid it on principle. It didn't take long for me to realise what the rest of the world already knew, that his later operas really are something extraordinary, not simply in the context of the 19th century, but in the context of all of Western music history. Knowing that Wagner was a schmuck (it's more satisfying to use a Yiddish word) actually deepens the experience of his art, for me.
As I sat through The Flying Dutchman at the COC earlier this month, I kept thinking about the parallels between the doomed, wandering captain, desperate for a woman's redeeming love, and Wagner's own escapades with women. The choice of subject matter is no accident, on a subconscious level.
Getting back to the matter at hand, I think the point of interest is not the sexuality itself. Who the heck cares what Gould's or Sean Hayes's kissing preferences are? As Ouzounian points out, an actor's bad performance is the fault of the script, the director or a lack of talent. They may be suffering from a migraine headache on the day of that performance.
But what does, I think, add to the art, is the artist's underlying attitude toward his or her sexuality. To use some of the most obvious examples, how much of the pathos in Tchaikovsky's music is due to his struggle with homosexual desire? How much of the brittle surface of Stephen Sondheim's characters comes from his own personal experience of love and loneliness? Did Maria Callas see herself in the mirror as a fat, unloved teenager to the end?
If we didn't read letters, interview friends and listen to gossip, we would be missing out on a dimension of each artist's legacy. But, like everything else, there are boundaries of good taste and fairness -- usually nearly invisible.
So, do Clarkson's musings on the private loves of Glenn Gould add to our appreciation of the artist? I think they do. Despite making me feel like a voyeur, Clarkson helps add some more context to the bundled-up figure, whose baggy winter clothes become a metaphor for a lost soul wrapped in a security blanket.
Do we need to know who Gould had for a post-concert quickie in the dressing room? No. Is Gould, the artist, somehow diminished by my knowing about the tryst? No. That's because his legacy is more compelling than that.
Update: Please see Richard Ouzounian's response, below.
Comment from Richard Ouzounian:
Really liked your blog response to my article today, but there is one point of disagreement.
I agree with you that knowledge of what happened to Bach, Sondheim etc. can help us understand their work as creators, but the danger when it comes to interpreters, especially on stage and screen, is that the line grows much fuzzier.
If Sean Hayes is gay, does that mean he cannot play a straight character? If we knew "the truth" about Tom Cruise, does that mean we wouldn't believe him as a romantic action hero? Alas, the truth in a lot of this world is "yes".
In the middle ground lie those like Gould. No one cares if a classical pianist is str8, gay, or likes doggies. But a knowledge of that fact might help us understand him better.
But if we were to discover that George Clooney played for the other team, would it hurt his commercial viability in the kind of films he makes?
Think about it!