Barbra Streisand: The Ideal Eucharist, Part One

The  entries on Barbra Streisand are drawn both from conversations and from notes compiled by Tenn for what he hoped would be a profile or a chapter in a memoir on "impact."

It is wise to remember where you were and who you were when you fell in love with something or someone or some place. Dickens, I believe, has his greatest impact before puberty is fully rampant, and so many of the movies I loved as a child and as a teenager now show their age, their strings, their tricks. We age away and out of our earliest passions, but they remain within us: They impact us forever, and are a part of the creative biology from which we work.

Other talents are not those from which we age away, but which age us, in the most positive sense. I was born at a time that has allowed me to meet people who remember the emergence of Stravinsky, of Balanchine, of Martha Graham, of Eugene O'Neill. These are but a handful of talents that startled, stunned, and aged their audiences: After seeing the work of these people, it was necessary to put away all childish things, not least of which were our concepts of what dance or drama or music could and should be.

Barbra Streisand aged me.

I cannot recall precisely when I first saw Barbra Streisand, but I distinctly recall the evening when Frank [Merlo] introduced me to an album from which came the most plaintive sound I could recall: pure and sweet but bolstered by so much rage, all of which had been invested in the pursuit of artistic excellence. Rage put to perfect use, and the sound was pure. Purity born of rage.

Great talents, I believe, emerge from some psychic cage from which the artist perpetually seeks escape, or which he or she feels may once again serve as their residence. We run toward art as we flee the circumstances that made it possible.

It is not enough to be angry, but I believe that all art arises from a foundation of rage and regret. The artist is lucky in that he finds the means to sing or write or dance or build or teach; the untalented angry find an art in cruelty or destruction, and the world, I am afraid, is a perpetual battle between these two teams of abused and frightened and confused people, and  we are either saved by the artists or destroyed by the miscreants.

That, my dear, is show business.

That is life.

George Balanchine once told me that art is something to be seduced: One must tiptoe toward one's play or novel or ballet or ballad. Smile, charm, finger, or kiss the muse, and something magical will arise. 

Many work this way, no matter the anger that roils within them.

Barbra Streisand does not do this. There is no need for what I'll call artistic foreplay because she has already conquered and organized and recruited all of her talents, and they would not dream of straying from her orbit, so there is no need for gentle steps, remonstrations, bargains: She owns and controls--masters--her talent, so the art appears. To watch her walk--march at times--toward her audience and the task at hand is exuberating for me, not only because her work delights and astounds me, but because she is a lesson, an example of how it is done.

She makes me believe in my talent, because she so passionately believes in and shares her own.

She makes me believe in all the talents in all of the world.

This is, to me, the ideal Eucharist, if she will forgive me this ecclesiastical presumption.

I am not here to analyze Miss Streisand, and I doubt that there exists an audience that wishes to have my grays spread on a table for perusal, but I recognize the shy, discarded child who had a story to tell, but no idea how it could be done. I acted scenes with my sister and my mother, and soon words were my salvation, friends [with whom] I could spend  time safe and sure of my standing. I think that Barbra Streisand is, first and foremost, an actress, a wonderful actress, who found that fate and a giddy God had endowed her with an instrument that even she does not fully understand. 

And then she could be heard and seen and loved.

She tells stories with the turn of that head, those feline eyes, those hands that end in nails lethal and self-protective: You will listen, she says, and you will learn and you will love, but you will not get close.

There are limits.

Not to the talent, but to the relationship between this artist and her audience.

We might want to understand her, ask her how she does things, and that would limit and define her and--put her right back in that cage from which she has escaped.

The great artists are always in flight.



  1. Amazing. I've read this ten times in a row, now. Very captivating.


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