James Wolcott's Wild in the Seats is a pacy, stylish, juicily informative salute to the 100th anniversary of one of the 20th century's defining cultural moments -- the premiere of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring, in 1913. Fortunately for the reader, back then people shocked by an avant-garde ballet didn't just sit there and clap politely at the end for fear of looking "uncool." On the contrary, they booed and hissed and generally made their feelings known as freely as a bunch of drunk soccer fans, and the result was one of the most raucous as well as important theatrical evenings in history.
A master of the cultural essay, Wolcott begins this one in the midst of our unshockable, distracted, gadget-obsessed present. Four friends are dining at a trendy downtown restaurant. There is much chatter about Mad Men, Justified, and other culture-vulture phenomena as beautiful women sweep by, soon followed by "the Talmudic study of the menus." Then something strange,unexpected -- perhaps even "shocking" -- occurs, halting conversation and soon, like a mysterious signal from the past, leading the author to the subject of his book.
Using eye-witness accounts by everyone from Jean Cocteau ("the James Franco of his day, only incalculably more adept") to Gertrude Stein, Wolcott creates a multifaceted account of that legendary evening in Paris, ponders its meaning, and points us firmly back in time without ever losing sight of how what happened 100 years ago continues to influence the present. For those, like myself, who "knew" about what happened that night without really knowing anything at all, this book is a vivid and concise introduction. You can almost smell the sweat flying off the dancers' bodies as they boldly soldier on despite the jeers and catcalls. Today, as Wolcott states near the end, there are no longer "rival factions of opposing tastes clustered in the theater," making a similar scene almost unimaginable. And one of the things I most appreciated about this book is the modesty with which he articulates his hope, but not certainty, that had he been in the audience on May 29, 1913, he would at least "not have been among the booers."
The implicit acknowledgment that art CAN be difficult, and that few of us are capable of instantly appreciating a revolutionary, game-changing masterpiece when we haven't been, ahem, informed in advance that it IS a masterpiece, and that this includes Mr. Wolcott himself, is an especially nice touch coming from such a famously sharp-eyed critic and essayist.