Take Me to the World: Evening Primrose in Quarantine

Movies Features Stephen Sondheim
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Take Me to the World: <i>Evening Primrose</i> in Quarantine

For Anthony Perkins’ hidden-away poet Charles Snell, the world outside is cruel. For the object of his affection, Ella Harkins (Charmian Carr, Liesl in The Sound of Music), it may be magisterial, home of the liberation she’s craved since she was a child essentially trapped in the very department store that Charles wants to adopt as his new home. In James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1967 cult TV musical Evening Primrose, there is no Utopia that’s compatible for either of them; they will feel trapped either way, and their romanticizing of one space or the other will spell their doom.

As of this writing, I’ve left the house no more than four times in the last four weeks, but even those fleeting moments of fresh air, open space and the vibrating liveness of the world outdoors are less scenes from a Utopic rejoining of a functional, idealized landscape and more banal and painful reminders of what’s been lost, the question of resurrection (natch) uncertain. As I become trapped between states of becoming an agoraphobe and the natural restlessness of being cooped up inside for a month (I’ve become well acquainted with the minute brush strokes of paint on the walls of my room), the “outside”—not even said breathily or romantically—becomes a paradoxical reminder of the potential disappointment of emotional and political reality. I do not share the ecstatic feeling that Ella hopes for. Which is to say: Hiding away or dreaming of what can be recovered—well, neither has served me much comfort.

In the tsunami of think pieces about what you should or shouldn’t be doing while in quarantine—if you should write King Lear, if you should just watch Lost, if we are, indeed, slaves to an economic system which seeks to drain us of hope whichever way is up—I observe peers and their irrepressible ability to be productive and find myself painfully envious. However much my happiness is predicated on productivity, I like writing, I like being able to express and explore ideas and opinions. I would have loved to be able to renounce the world and write all of the essays and watch all the movies I had ever wanted. So the inside hasn’t been much of a balm, with the political and personal repercussions of pandemic swelling in my mind. And when it’s all over, as many have said, there’s not going to be a “normal” to go back to; the return to the world is less anodyne than one would hope. There’s grief, of course, and there’s ambivalence, Sondheim’s speciality.

The hour-long musical, directed by Paul Bogart for ABC Stage 67, refuses to shed its weirdness (Charles comes to learn that there’s an entire society of people that live in the department store, filmed where the Stern Brothers’ store used to be, Fifth and 42nd in Manhattan) or its darkness (the community’s austere matriarch, Mrs. Monday [Dorothy Stickney], constantly reminds them of the danger of the Dark Men, unknownable phantasms possibly responsible for other would-be members’ disappearances). Most crucially, it refuses to relent to a single, consistent emotional register.

Sondheim and Goldman intentionally set up Charles and Ella as doe-eyed, melodramatic archetypes. Charles sees (or projects) the poetry of the real world he’s rejected in Ella’s clinquant eyes; Ella sees that Charles embodies an idea of the world she once was a part of, the memory of it. Of the sky, she sings, “It was blue as ink, or at least I think.” Of the crush that consumes him in that constricted, yet expansive space, “Ella, gay as a Tarantella, pure as a lark singing a capella.” These perspectives are almost fundamentally incompatible with one another. Their romanticization of one another—and what kind of place for which each character effectively serves as synecdoche—are diametrically opposed: Charles is a product of one kind of urban, oppressive, consumerist, thankless world; Ella is the product of another oppressive, consumerist, thankless world. And yet, they believe that one will give the other the freedom they have so desperately craved.

It must have been Perkins unusual naivete and gaity which led to his casting as Norman Bates; even in Psycho, he reads more pathetic—a nebbish, like someone who has yet to figure out how his body works and how he, himself, is supposed to work in the world—than creepy. Accordingly, Psycho has, over the years, begun to be tinged with melancholy for me, or at least with regard to Bates’ fate. A desponance, too, lingers in Perkins’ eyes, like world-weariness, appropriate for a poet who decides to exit the world. (Appropriate, too, for a 35-year-old bachelor confronted with the meaning of marriage after the sexual revolution, as he was the original pick for Bobby in Sondheim’s Company.)

With only an early Sunday to film, Bogart gives the store the same emotional incongruity as its lyrical content: Halls and rooms are full of all the products anyone would ever want (which certainly explains the appeal to Charles), but the floors are long, extending deep into a black abyss, while the surviving black and white kinoscope heightens the contrast between the garish light of one section and the darkness of a pathway that leads into a chasm of unknowability. What was once a paradise—being alone in a gigantic store, watching Perkins dance merrily, singing “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here”—is really a purgatory, contentedness possible at the cost of happiness and freedom. But then, Charles would surely argue, isn’t that true of the outside world?

In Evening Primrose’s final song, “Take Me to the World,” we fully understand that its contradictions and paradoxes are rooted in the same problem, and the same dissatisfaction. As the two “camp” in the middle of a factitious wood scene, Ella fantasizes, “Take me to the world that’s real… Take me to the world where I can be alive.” Her pleading transcends the artificiality of the space, her desire nearly enough to make the fake store scene real. But Charles shoots back, “The world is better here, I know, I’ve seen them both.” He describes the ways in which there’s no place for them outside; the cruelty of the world will not only cast them away, but disintegrate their love for one another. The space beyond the walls of the store will undoubtedly change them and corrupt them; in a place with a melange of external factors, their passion would not survive. When confronted with the possibility of leaving the store, Perkins looks battered, like all of the memories of how unfair and pitiless being alive can be flooded all of Charles’s synapses, pummeling the rest of his body with palpable pain. Though Charles soon cedes to Ella’s wishes, one can’t escape the idea that, for both of them, heartbreak is intrinsic to hope. He knows what will become of them, and perhaps in a way, she does too. Their romanticism will be their doom. But isn’t it a thrill?

I think that’s why I can’t force myself to “enjoy” time in quarantine, nor to conjure chimera in the form of normality. I have the privilege of a full time job, but the precariousness of whatever happens next, in a fairly value neutral manner, drills itself into my head. If the precariousness will drive you mad, then I understand Ella and Charles’s impulses: falling in love with someone, the idea of someone, the idea of another place, until they all melt into the same thing and become real and tactile when little else in this world, as it is or ever was, can be.

Maybe they had a point. Everything feels more intense in self-isolation. Without the aid of the outside world mitigating and modulating emotion, the distraction of external factors, little waves of pleasure or excitement become blasts, or what would have been a minor pulse of melancholy now exerts the aggressive power of the undertow on the shore. I’ve found myself weeping at three episodes of Frasier, at George Cukor’s Holiday, at Evening Primrose, of course. At who knows what next. In a way, it’s a little bit of a balm to be able to feel so fully. Reminders of a fantasy. Frank Rich once wrote, “To be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals.” Maybe heartbreak is the only way to survive in the world.

I hate to be self-aggrandizing; I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m worried that the emptiness I’ve found indoors is also waiting for me outside.

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