On Christmas night I was alone thinking about Jewish things like Chinese Food and Action Movies, when my good friend Josh called me up and invited me to his family dinner.
(For more info on Josh and the wonderful farm he runs, go to www.fishkillfarms.com. The best eggs you'll ever have in your life.)
Anyway I was being really indecisive about going for some reason until I heard those 4 magical words: "We're Drinking Expensive Wine." His Dad had just retired and received a fancy bottle as a gift. I was invited to mooch. I felt awkward. I asked how expensive it was. I figured if it was under $100, I'd go. Over $100, I wouldn't. But over $500, well that's crazy, I'd go. "The average bottle goes for around two thousand. Auction bottles can reach five."
I sprinted to the subway, pushing an elderly couple out of my way to catch the train, and flew uptown. I got there and looked at the most expensive bottle of wine I had ever seen: a 1971 Petrus Pomerol.
I was curious to the point of insanity. What does $2000 taste like? How many different flavors does it have? How drunk will it get me? Will my tongue ever be the same? Will I suddenly be able to speak French? Will all women now find me irresistible? The suspense was killing me.
Josh poured me a glass. I took a sip. Swished it around in my mouth. Looked like an idiot.
And swallowed. It tasted so...simple. There was only one flavor. One incredibly simple flavor. Whereas most wines have hints of this and hints of that, this was the same consistent flavor from first sip to last. Like a perfectly ripe cherry. And it was mind-blowingly good.
In that way it reminded me of truly great art. Of how simple it seems. How effortless. When I listen to a Beatles song or watch Back To The Future or think about that great Eve Best production of The Homecoming or the David Cromer Our Town or my recent favorites The Starry Messenger and Circle Mirror Transformation, they all seem so completely, obnoxiously effortless. Like those artists just happened to spit up one day and this thing was born.
Of course that's not what happened at all. Those people toiled for months, years even to make it seem effortless. Tennessee Williams wrote draft after draft of Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley was originally named Ralph. And for your viewing pleasure here is a sample from one of those drafts. It takes place the morning after Stanley has had his way with Blanche:
Blanche and Stanley are groggily awakened by a telephone that rings seven or eight times. Stanley picks it up.
STANLEY: Yeah? Good.
He hangs up.
BLANCHE: What was it?
STANLEY: I have a girl, a daughter.
BLANCHE: How very, very unfortunate. Poor little girl!
Stanley notices fingernail scratches all over his shoulder. He shoves Blanche away.
BLANCH: (laughing) Remember you took me. It wasn't I that took you. So if you got somewhat more than you bargained for, Mr. Kowalski...if you hadn't suspected a lady could be so awful...violent...could give such a wild performance when aroused...try to remember the way it started, not I but you, putting dynamite under the tea kettle. Ha ha!
(And yes, Williams really did write this dialogue. You can see for yourself if you visit the University of Texas in Austin where several of his drafts are kept.)
The point is not how bad this is, but how much Williams slaved away to make his play seem like it could never in a million years include this dialogue. He worked his butt off so it would seem like he didn't. So that everything would feel more organic. More believable. And simpler. Because that is the goal after all. To make art that seems like it exists by itself, created by no one, only syphoned through some lucky conduit.
And so when I struggle to finish a play (and believe me, I'm struggling up a storm as we speak), I think of those hard-working French feet mashing grapes for months in 1971, crafting a single amazing flavor that for a mere $2,000 a bottle, we can taste today. And in thinking about that single amazing flavor, I remind myself of the Petrus Pomerol Rule of making good art:
When in doubt, simplify.