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You Spin Me 

The ethnomusicologist and the flack tell a beguiling tale of influence

Wednesday, Aug 16 2006
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There are probably few people in the history of the 20th century less likely to crop up in a play together than Harry Smith and Edward Bernays. Considered by many to be the father of public relations, Bernays (1891-1995) was as brilliant at selling ideas and products to the masses as he was at selling himself. He turned America on to everything from Ivory soap to Calvin Coolidge, all the while promoting himself as a "counsel on public relations" and the nascent PR industry as a bona fide social science. Harry Smith (1923-1991), on the other hand, was a terrible businessman. A beatnik ethnomusicologist, archivist, experimental filmmaker, artist, and practitioner of kabala, Smith sponged off his acquaintances and lived from hand to mouth. Besides his abstract movies, Smith's best known contribution to modern life was his record collection. The Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), comprising three volumes of two vinyl records each culled from Smith's vast treasure trove of 1920s and '30s American ballads, gospel, and blues songs, played a major role in the folk music revival and cultural shift of the 1950s and '60s, influencing the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Unlike the characters in most plays that contrast two conflicting personalities for dramatic effect (Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, and Denis Johnson's Purvis being three that spring to mind), Smith and Bernays, though more or less contemporaries, inhabited separate worlds. As the well-connected nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays collected famous clients the way Smith collected old 78s. The two men probably never met. Yet in Gary Aylesworth's beguiling new play, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, Smith's and Bernays' lives and ideas intersect and reverberate across the decades to convey something about the insidious nature of spin.

Smith and Bernays never address each other directly in this plotless riff on their lives. Instead, Aylesworth — proving himself as fascinating an actor as he is a playwright — conveys the wild contrasts between the two characters with a bipolar panache that makes us feel like we're listening to a musical conversation, if not a verbal one. While the hunched, bespectacled Smith spends most of his time slouching at the foot of a stepladder against red lighting, jabbering on in a nasal voice about kielbasa and occultist Aleister Crowley like a basement Quasimodo, Bernays relays most of his recollections of a life lived in the public eye from a white wooden chair under a white light on the opposite side of the stage. Even in his 90s, Aylesworth's larger-than-life Bernays is wily and vivacious, punctuating his prose with self-satisfied tummy taps and wags of the index finger for emphasis.

Neither character is particularly attractive. But while it's easy to forgive Smith's gentle eccentricities, Bernays, with his blustering speeches about "molding public opinion," becomes increasingly odious — part figure of fun, part freak of modern mass culture. The moment in which Bernays, a Jew, talks about his PR books being used by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels is pure Grand Guignol: Lit at a steep angle by a strong light, Bernays looks like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. And when a younger version of Bernays at his professional prime barks orders at one of his subordinates or sweet-talks a society lady into staging a PR stunt for American Tobacco on the phone, he does so with two curly Martianlike antennae sticking out of his ears.

Aylesworth's presentation of these two very different characters' existences conveys a deliberate agenda. The playwright's portrait of Bernays is in some ways more complete than that of Smith — we see Smith only in his rickets-suffering, cantankerous old age, while Bernays is represented in his youth, in his middle years, and at the end of his life. His Uncle Sigmund even makes a few appearances, stroking a Cuban cigar in a decidedly slimy way. Yet the odds are clearly stacked against the "high priest of spin": See That My Grave Is Kept Clean is really Smith's play.

Smith's freewheeling, free-associating spirit and primary passion — folk music — permeate the production. Its very title comes from a song first recorded by blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928, captured on Smith's Anthology, and later reworked by Dylan. The rumpled set, with its emphasis on the arcane (assorted musical instruments, mismatched furniture, scattered records, and three Japanese rice balls winking at us from a desktop — a Zen take on the executive stress toy), works like a physical representation of Smith's mental state. The protagonists' monologues are framed by the patter of a radio folk-music disc jockey (Peter Newton), who divides his set between playing tracks from the Anthology and interviewing both characters, and spouting off against a whole range of societal dysfunctions, from America's reliance on antidepressants to the onslaught of the propaganda machine in contemporary society.

Newton's smooth-talking DJ seems to be channeling Smith: His stream-of-consciousness banter jumps from subject to subject like a needle skipping tracks on vinyl. Even more intoxicating are the actors' renditions of 15 songs from Smith's Anthology. Scattered throughout the play, tunes by old-timers like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Carter Family, and Mississippi John Hurt burst with renewed life through Aylesworth and Newton's passionate string- and percussion-accompanied duets. With all this, it's hard not to fall head over heels for Smith and all he stands for. Hell, I forked over more than $80 for a copy of the Anthology the very next day.

Aylesworth might want us to identify more closely with Bernays than Smith, but at a deeper level, the playwright demonstrates just how slippery and untenable his agenda really is. For Bernays isn't the only spinmeister here: The relationship between Smith's vinyl-spinning interests and Bernays' spin-doctorly ways draws the two characters subtly together. Ultimately, the bias toward Smith spins on its head with the realization that the ethnomusicologist could never have created the Anthology — and influenced the important cultural shift of the mid-20th century — if it weren't for the PR-led mass consumerism upon which the record industry was founded.

If you come out of this play with your soul and head spinning out of control, don't be surprised. Aylesworth's own spin-doctoring is so clever that he leaves even Bernays behind. For as much as his play criticizes mass consumerism and corporate greed, Aylesworth also understands the modern problem of being caught between the desires for a simple life and for a life filled with modern conveniences. Listening to the crackly recordings by those long dead Depression-era artists brings the problem home for me personally: I probably wouldn't be hearing these old troubadours if it weren't for my iPod and, more subliminally, Apple's clever advertising campaign in support of it.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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