I’m a fan of New York City’s Public Theater, so I was especially cheered to read about its new world première musical February House this month. How could one not be chuffed about a play that focuses on W.H. Auden‘s house at 7 Middagh Street, and the miscellany of writers, composers, and artists it attracted for housemates?
I read about the production not in a New York paper – at least not initially – but rather in Jim Holt‘s charming post in the London Review of Books blog:
Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it ‘February House’, because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. … Other than that, however, they seem to have had little in common except a commitment to their art and to not ever being bored. Cocaine is snorted in “February House”; bedbugs are extravagantly shuddered over; a good deal of whiskey is poured.
The LRB piece dwells on Auden’s mysterious connection with the number 7 and his grubby living habits throughout his life. In a later residence, writes Holt, “So squalid was everything in the dusty, cold and bottle-strewn loft that [Igor] Stravinsky later told Edmund Wilson that Auden was ‘the dirtiest man I have ever liked’.”
Wish I could be in New York City to see the production (music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, based on a book by Seth Bockley.) I’ll have to settle for Dwight Garner‘s description in the New York Times:
Sparks fly early and often. When Auden pretentiously blurts to McCullers that “I am a thinking-sensation artist in the Jungian sense, whereas you are clearly a feeling-intuitive type,” she takes out a flask, eyeballs him as if were a space alien, and says: “Uh huh. Gin?”
Auden seemed to enjoy McCullers’s impudence. He is, after all, the man who said, “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”
Auden and McCullers are a pure and defiant literary odd couple. Both stoke your imagination in February House, in part because of their youth, in part because both wrestle with where their obligations to art end and their obligations to politics begin. They are increasingly obsessed with what Lionel Trilling, in “The Liberal Imagination,” called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”
One quibble though, the NYT piece refers to “something once said about Pauline Kael and The New Yorker magazine: She gave it sex, and it gave her class.” The comment (as his hyperlink hints) was said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (using him and he rather than it) – and it was famously said by Katherine Hepburn.
His closing quote, however, is undisputed Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.”