I would like to offer a hearty mazel tov to Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who has been awarded the Order of the British Empire (or O.B.E.) from Queen Elizabeth II for “showcasing British art in America.”
Only duty compels me to ask, however: What’s wrong with the picture?
Mr. Joe Melillo, O.B.E., is, of course, an American who runs a leading American theater. For him to receive the Order of the British Empire—motto: “For God and Empire”—for services to British theater doesn’t look quite right.
Apart from the fact that the British Empire no longer exists, particularly in America, what concerns me is that the O.B.E. is one of the most junior British orders of chivalry. It’s just typical of the Brits to think Americans will settle for anything British. If I were Mr. Melillo, I would say, “How dare you!” and turn down the lowly O.B.E.
A Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E.) would be better, though not as good as a knighthood. An O.B.E. makes you a mere Member of the Order of the British Empire, as opposed to a Commander. Even so, David Bowie recently spurned a C.B.E. Are you surprised? He’s obviously holding out for a knighthood.
After all, Mick Jagger is now proudly Sir Mick, of all ludicrous things. Small wonder the outraged Keith Richards called him “a disgrace” for accepting the “paltry honor.” In selling out, Sir Mick, the former rock outlaw, had become what he’d always wanted to be: a fine, upstanding gentleman of the Establishment. Not that I’m suggesting Mr. Melillo, O.B.E., and his Next Wave Festival are heading in the same direction, but you can’t be too careful.
The first actor to reject a knighthood in modern times was Paul Scofield, God love him. Many years ago, I was fortunate to interview the sculptor Henry Moore, then thought of as the greatest living Englishman. He was a plain-speaking Yorkshireman of transparent modesty, and when I asked him why he refused a knighthood, he replied, “’Enery Moore has been my name for 70 years, and ‘Enery Moore it shall remain.”
Mr. Melillo, O.B.E., kindly take note: The cool thing to do nowadays is to turn down any honor that harks back to the glories of Empire and Britain’s imperial past. Michael Frayn turned down a C.B.E. and, recently, a knighthood. Harold Pinter and Alan Bennett have both firmly rejected knighthoods. Albert Finney has long since made it known that he never wants to be known as “Sir Albert.” Helen Mirren, a declared socialist, declined a C.B.E., but recently succumbed to a Damehood. On the other hand, the committed socialist Vanessa Redgrave accepted a C.B.E. before she became political and later declined a Damehood.
I’ve never understood British socialists who can’t wait to kneel in abeyance before Her Majesty. No doubt Sir David Hare had his reasons. My friend, Sir Harold Evans, was rightly knighted for his services to journalism and ping-pong, but I still call him “Harry,” except, of course, on black-tie occasions. The first actor in history to be made a lord, incidentally, was Laurence Olivier. But it suited him: “Lord Larry.”
Does the Order of the British Empire suit Joe Melillo of Brooklyn, I wonder? He can proudly display the medal—or gong, as the British call it—on his lapel next Fourth of July. Meanwhile, let’s all take heart from the following true story:
One of the finest actors in England never to be offered a knighthood was the late Michael Bryant, who for many years was a brilliant staple of the National Theatre. On the night that Judi Dench was elevated to her Damehood, he was playing Enobarbus to her Cleopatra. As they turned upstage together, the slightly deaf Mr. Bryant was heard to say to Dame Judi in a loud stage whisper: “I suppose a fuck’s completely out of the question now?”
I must admit I wasn’t too keen when a friend of mine asked me to join her for an evening of flamenco at Theatre 80, St. Marks Place. All that drama. Then again, the last person I saw stamping and preening a lot was an ex-wife of mine. Suppose she was in the show?
I’m afraid my experience—or ignorance—of flamenco goes back to childhood, when exotic performers who looked like Antonio Banderas, only taller, came to town. They were costumed as glittering bullfighters and did this very angry dance that made a lot of noise. And the women were also exotic and very angry, too. And then we all went for an ice cream.
Obviously, when it comes to flamenco, I’m no expert. But, feeling guilty, I joined my friend Wendy to see the troupe she admires so much, who are known as Noche Flamenca. “What’s the essence of flamenco?” I asked her earnestly.
She thought for a moment. “Oh, love, sex, death and God. That’s about it. What else is there?”
Nothing. There is nothing else. And that’s what I found in the company of this wonderful troupe, for the whole of life was held within their staggering skills. It was the most fantastic thing. We go to the theater sometimes to escape, we go expectantly or skeptically or not even in the mood. Not quite there. But when the truly remarkable happens onstage, we’re immediately shaken out of our everyday mood. And then we’re unmistakably, gladly, always there.
I would say that to my untutored eyes, the Noche Flamenca achieved the miraculous. Within four or five minutes, they took me into another world—their world. Martin Santangelo, the artistic director of the 10-member troupe led by the masterful dancer Soledad Barrio, has firstly created an extraordinary sense of timelessness. The Noche Flamenca belong uncannily to history, and they belong uncannily to the present, like a surreal dream we can never solve. To see Ms. Barrio perform is to witness a dancer in awe of life who isn’t quite human. She transcends the human like some ecstatic animal, a pure instinct, a spirit speaking to spirit. The percussive energy is phenomenal, of course. But what ultimately transpires is the grave beauty of a dark lament.
To be sure, there are the virtuoso set pieces of joyful release. But it is the depths of the soul and its unfathomable mystery to which these fine artists aspire. They confront nothing less than the mystery of life. Life does not defeat them. It humbles them.
Soledad Barrio possesses the near-secret knowledge called the duende—which Goethe defined when he attributed to Paganini “a mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher has explained.”
"All that has dark sounds,” wrote Lorca in Theory and Function of the Duende, “has duende. It is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action. To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline. All one knows is that it turns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that it breaks with all styles, that it compels Goya, master of greys, silvers and of those pinks in the best English paintings, to paint with his knees and with his fists horrible bitumen blacks.”
Try to see Noche Flamenca if you can. You will be astonished.