The Horn

City Lit Theater Company

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

By Adam Langer

Kerouac may have coined the term “beat generation,” but John Clellon Holmes was its first novelist, chronicling the frantic lives of way-cool hipsters in 1952 in Go and introducing the world to the beats in a famous 1952 article in the New York Times Magazine. His more talented contemporaries may have gone on to greater success, and certainly Holmes’s death, in 1988, was not accorded anywhere near the press given to the recent demises of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Still, at its best, Holmes’s writing gets into the same gritty, breathy, stream-of-hipness groove that characterizes Kerouac’s best “subterranean” writing.

Holmes’s other major fictional work, The Horn, was published in 1958, before he settled into relative obscurity in Connecticut, producing mainly magazine articles and literary essays. The novel reads like a nonstop be-bop escapade, layered with riffs, solos, doleful passages, and bursts of improvisational brilliance. Diving headfirst into the low-down world of winos, juke joints, and dope fiends, Holmes tells the story of the last night of Edgar Poole, aka “the Horn,” a taciturn, iconoclastic tenor-sax genius with the talent of Charlie Parker and the luck of a skid-row drunk.

Holmes’s prose is a lyrical explosion of beautifully seedy urban imagery and insider hep-cat jazz speak, bopping along to its own syncopated rhythms. Plunging us completely into this hopped-up jazz world, Holmes writes about “the thick-fingered bassists with a bad beat; the whorehouse professors in celluloid collars; the dance-hall elegiasts too drunk to see….The nervous tenors who rushed the drums, and frowned, and blew short choruses; the coked-up clarinets and u-h-h-h groaning piano men and Juilliard theorists….The show-off guitarists in flashy sports shirts, the wind-breaking drummers addicted to Juicy Fruit, the cool flutists tootling six-bar breaks on ‘Fine and Dandy,’ and the severely flanneled trumpeters who were too hip to blow….The girl intermission pianists, resolutely ingenue in chokers and not much decolletage, who invariably played a three-minute version of the ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ and tippled brandy between sets; the belters with a belly, the sexy wenches with whiskey in the voice, the pert silky torchers.”

The power of a passage like this is difficult to dispute, but one thing The Horn is not on its surface is theatrical. Read to oneself, Holmes’s descriptions sound like vital and furious music. But declamatory speech flattens out their musicality. There are dramatic images throughout the novel, but many are of the sort that lose their impact when literalized. Consider Holmes’s description of Poole’s rebellious, scornful playing, which “sounded the moronic horn of every merciless Cadillac shrieking down the highway with a wet-mouthed, giggling boy at the wheel, turning the American prairie into a graveyard of rusting chrome junk; the idiot-snarl that filled the jails and madhouses and legislatures; some final dead-wall impact.” How can you dramatize that more effectively than it reads on paper? Maybe some gravel-voiced old-timer like Studs Terkel could make the language sound even more convincing. Maybe a horn player like Charlie Parker or Von Freeman might be able to convert that prose into music, but even then it would be rough going.

City Lit’s talented adapter Mark Richard–who’s had considerable success bringing the works of P.G. Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, and Franz Kafka to the stage–is dutifully faithful to Holmes’s text. And that’s the major problem. Unlike the words of Bertie Wooster, which translate easily into hilarious comic monologues, Holmes’s authentic beatnik style presented as dramatic narration sounds either satiric or dull. And trying to re-create Holmes’s jazz haunts in the staid surroundings of the Steppenwolf Theatre studio just adds a layer of phoniness to the enterprise. Placing a jazz band behind a see-through scrim atop a raised platform will not successfully evoke Holmes’s smoky universe, no matter what.

The reasons Richard was tempted by Holmes’s novel are obvious–this is a classic, and the characters are exceedingly well drawn. The disconnected story line, as the Horn’s friends and competitors recount his history on the last night of his life, suggests in theme and structure August Wilson’s flashback mystery Seven Guitars. Poole is a particularly fine creation, the down-on-his-luck alcoholic genius who’s consistently alienated those around him by always having to have it his way and who “would be a slave to no one, not even the genius inside him.” Victor J. Cole’s performance is breathtakingly realistic, laced with biting humor and desperation, suggesting a more energized version of Dexter Gordon’s world-weary jazzman in Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight. And much of the ensemble, directed by Ron O.J. Parson, is effective as a variety of jazz musicians.

Holmes’s disjointed narrative, imitating improvisational jazz, works well on paper, but onstage the plot often seems unfocused and remains uninvolving. Ron Wells plays a slim, bearded hanger-on who describes the scene in the manner of a slightly hipper Our Town stage manager, but the narration doesn’t so much immerse us in Poole’s story as distance us from it. In the first act–as Wells and some of the other characters trade off monologues, and key lines of dialogue are repeated in an echoing tone over the sound system–Richard’s Horn comes perilously close to a well-performed but woefully earthbound readers-theater exercise. Matters improve in the second act, when Richard dispenses with much of the narration and presents some of the flashbacks as straight drama. A wonderfully nostalgic, wistful scene in which Poole hops a freight car and encounters a young man and a pathetic dust bowl waif (Leslie Zang) is unequaled by anything else in the play.

But though this moment re-creates one patch in the American historical tapestry, The Horn is primarily about jazz, and that’s the area in which this production is least effective. The estimable Mwata Bowden, chairman of the trailblazing Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, provides the music direction, leading an ensemble of talented high school and college musicians. Their music is always competent and occasionally inspired. But there’s no way they can successfully represent the breadth and emotion of Edgar Poole’s supposedly legendary playing.

Having the actors play air saxophone while the jazz ensemble does the real playing behind them is not particularly convincing either. The musicians and Richard may be doing the best possible job they can with the material. But some works are better left on paper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Horn theater still by Suzanne Plunkett.