Stopping Steve Martin


Please imagine that it is May 29, 1913, and you are attending the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Nijinksy, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The conductor is Pierre Monteux. In its glitter and glamour and lofty expectations it is an event of highest wattage.

The music has barely begun when the audience, its ears long tuned to the orthodoxies of late-19th-century Romanticism, starts to register its hatred of Stravinsky’s dissonant harmonies. Murmurs are heard. Then hisses and boos, which soon escalate into howls and shouts of protest. Stravinsky defenders argue boisterously with Stravinsky detractors, and some of them come to blows. Brawls erupt in various parts of the hall, and the police are called. But the rioting goes on.

Now please imagine that a representative of the management walks down the aisle to the conductor’s podium and tugs at the coattails of Pierre Monteux. “Maestro, je regrette,” he says, “the audience is not pleased with Monsieur Stravinsky’s music. They say it hurts their ears. We wish you to play something they will like better.”

Monteux stops the music and calls for an assistant to bring him a folder of other scores in the orchestra’s repertoire. He selects a suite of Magyar peasant songs, which the musicians proceed to play. The audience returns to its seats and calm is restored to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Except for its denouement, that account of the premiere of The Rite of Spring is true. A century later it still ranks as the most tumultuous event in the history of classical performance. But in fact Monteux didn’t lay down his baton. The orchestra played every note of Stravinsky’s score, though much of what it played wasn’t heard above the uproar. The band played on.

The band played on because the band always plays on. The actors always keep acting, the dancers keep dancing, the circus aerialists keep swinging from a trapeze. They finish the job they were hired to do, however boring or enigmatic it may be. The audience doesn’t get to stop the show. That’s the ancient contract between performer and ticket buyer. I doubt if anyone in a Greek amphitheater wandered down onto the stage to tell the actors playing Oedipus that the folks upstairs wanted something a little less knotty. The show may be hated, hooted at, slept through, walked out on. But stopped? Never!

Never? Two weeks ago in New York a show got stopped. At the 92nd Street YMHA, one of the city’s most admired cultural citadels, Steve Martin, as advertised, was discussing art, the subject of his latest book, when the management handed a note to him and his co-host, the respected journalist Deborah Solomon. The note told them to stop talking about art and instead talk about Martin’s movie and television career. It turned out that the Y, without telling Martin and Solomon, was also sending the program via closed-circuit television to an outside audience, and those viewers were peppering the Y with emails demanding more palatable fare. The two performers were shaken by the interruption, but they complied and gave the emailers the celebrity pap they wanted.

Reading about the event, I felt betrayed. I was further annoyed when the Y offered to give all the ticket buyers their money back, as if it had committed some shameful act. What’s to be ashamed of? Steve Martin is one of our most serious and versatile artists—not only a comedian but an actor, writer, playwright, musician, composer, art connoisseur, and art collector.

In his remarks to the press afterward and in a later op-ed piece Martin was generous and sweetly reasonable. Not me. I hated seeing him surrender to the illiterati in Twitterville. If that technology had existed in earlier decades we might never have seen Waiting for Godot or the plays of Ionesco or Harold Pinter.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the Y’s auditorium listening to concerts and forums, most of them richly rewarding. If some of them were boring I held my tongue; that’s the contract.

For Steve Martin’s future use, I offer this response to his critics: Listen up, lunkheads! I came to talk about art. You got a problem with that? Get over it.—Steve

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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