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Jewish World Review June 24, 1999 /10 Tamuz, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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A Cafe Called Time: A Play In Three Acts --
THE STAGE: The set remains the same throughout, but capable of varied lightings. A Greek Revival facade in the background frames the action, which features the same characters throughout each generation, but with different names, dreams, hopes and follies. Costumes, music, lines and the general tempo of the action leave the impression that everything is changing; nothing does.

Act I: The overture. It is a cloudy, windy, humid morning, typical of the city, the state and the region in early June and the mind's eye. All the old has been made new at the newly restored old state house -- the picket fence, the gurgling fountain on the front lawn, the golden eagles and fasces on the fenceposts. Even the begonias are new, fresh, tiny. Only the rusting old cannon and triangle of cannonballs hint at the real basis of transient authority.

On this quiet Monday morning after the speeches and fireworks at the rededication Saturday night, the crowds and the politicians have mercifully departed. A trucking company is hauling away the last of the temporary tables on the front lawn, and the air of stale oratory in the air is almost gone. So are the cheers and applause of two presidential election-night victories. Only two ghostly figures from those celebrations remain on the portico as Everyman walks up the steps, but the First Couple now wear New York Yankee caps. Their smiles are fixed, as on a campaign poster. They appear to be fading.

When the territorial governor, John Pope, assigned the job of designing a capitol for Arkansas to architect Gideon Shryock, the governor had a clear idea of the effect he wanted to create: "The capitol should be near, and if practicable, in view of the river. A State House, built with taste and elegance, would command the admiration and respect of the passing stranger, and have a moral and political influence on the whole community.''

So is our architecture supposed to lift us, sanctify space and make us aware not only of our surroundings, but ourselves. Down Markham Street, soon to be Clinton Avenue, another temple of history is even now being premeditated with much the same aim: to command the admiration and respect of the passing stranger. (It is futile to hope that the natives will be fooled.)

Everyman pauses on the lawn. Here is where Brooks' troops faced Baxter's as Reconstruction ended in 1874, with the federals interposed to keep the fragile peace between the two factions, the two civilizations, or maybe two barbarities. Kosovo really shouldn't be foreign to anybody in Arkansas, or in the Old Confederacy.

When the winning faction finally installed its governor, the secretary of state, one J.M. Johnson, complained that the long besieged building smelled of "sour bacon and human beings.'' Reality is forever interfering with our soaring ideas of history.

The one authentic aspect of all efforts to elevate history is the need for illusion. The old State House was built of slave-made bricks, but scored to look like real stone. The presidential library to be erected down the street will also be designed to exert a "political influence on the whole community.'' (Surely, no one will have the execrable taste to voice the hope that the coming Clinton Library will provide a moral example, too. American society already suffers from a surfeit of irony.)

At the great door to the old capitol waits Clio, hostess and muse of history, in flowing gown, smiling sweet as Jocasta to Oedipus when times were good. "But let us go indoorsl'' she soothes. "All my care is you, and all my pleasure yours.'' Curtain.

Act II: A visit to Secessia. Everyman knows just where he wants to go inside the new old state house. He is looking for some center of gravity in this too-remodeled mi}`of{the Jefversonian and Victorian, of the sublime and ridiculous. He passes the vast, riotous bouquet that has been placed at the bottom of the stairwell, big as a whole garden, pausing only to admire the handiwork of the balustrade and to look up and around the circling staircases at the anticipated dome that isn't there. Like its old state house, Arkansas remains unfinished. It is the land of the future and, one suspects, always will be.

Then it's up, up, up to the old Senate chamber, formerly the House. Or rather the old House chamber that became the Senate. (For a small state, Arkansas is capable of producing confusion out of all proportion to its size.) With its double fireplaces, wooden floors, desks from the age of Calhoun and Clay, the room is a model of what Jefferson called republican simplicity.

The airy room is a great improvement over the current, cavernous House chamber at the massive state Capitol across the way, with its pari-mutuel voting machine. In this high-ceilinged room, at such a desk, in a hard-backed chair, one might be able to think, even rise to duel, rather than just punch in a vote.

There are ghosts aplenty in this room, but unlike the current Capitol, no ghost voting. (That's Arkansas slang for the practice of voting some other representative's machine.) Here each member of the convention that was called to consider secession in 1861 stood and answered for his vote. And in the end, only one -- Isaac Murphy of hilly Madison County -- refused to bow to folly and stood by his single, solitary No!

And as the mob hissed and menaced, from the balcony there came ... a bouquet of roses. It had been tossed at his feet by another who loved the Union, the widow Trapnell. And the secesh murmurings desisted. Though the folly persisted -- not just in 1861, but in 1957, when Orval Faubus triggered a constitutional crisis over school integration. Isaac Murphy had seen all too far.

This state's official calendar has its holidays to honor Confederates, and it should. Their valor, their chivalry, their sense of duty were worthy of a better cause. But it has not a single holiday for a Unionist. I feel like organizing an Isaac Murphy Society to honor the day one sentient voice stood alone for the Union.

A proposal: On the sixth of May each year, at three in the afternoon, let future generations listen again to Isaac Murphy stand and deliver his lone, glorious No! to the awful proposition that "the United States of America is hereby forever dissolved.'' Heaven forbid. And let a lady drop flowers at his feet.


Act III. The Greek Chorus. Why settle for Greek Revival when you can have the real thing? Bidding adieu to Clio, who really isn't much of a cook, Everyman stops to say hello to the Hronases -- all three generations -- at the Wallace Grill, where he can have a late breakfast and step through another door to the same South. Hronas is Southern for Kronos, Time in Greek, the god who dispels Chaos and these days imposes his own tyranny. Mr. Hronas is from Olympia, Mrs. from Crete. The Time family has the best of both mythic worlds, the gods and the minotaur.

The Greeks knew all about having a head of state blind to his own hubris. Sophocles would make the perfect commentator on the Age of Clinton, and he'd probably irritate today's liberals as much as he did antiquity's, given his obsession with fate and character.

But what is tragedy in Sophocles has become unwitting parody in Dick Morris' talk of triangulation, his pallid imitation of Machiavelli.

Memory beckons. Every midsized Southern city has at least one Wallace Building waiting to be brought out of suspended animation. Sipping his coffee at the counter, Everyman adjusts his straw hat and slips into an Edward Hopper painting ("Nighthawks'' by name) and thinks of Clio and Kronos and the Giddens-Lane Building, the Wallace's twin in Shreveport, La. That's where, circa 1961 -- when he still thought of Southern history as the past instead of an inescapable present -- he'd idled away a morning talking to Julius Long, Huey and Earl's older brother, the white sheep of the family.

Now, on a June morning in Arkansas, he can still hear the hum of the oscillating fan droning on in that cramped little office, and the snap of Mister Julius' galluses as he told the old stories and snorted with the old contempt at all that is corruptible, at the sour bacon of politics, at human beings. Julius Long didn't have to read "All the King's Men'' -- he had lived it.

And now, 40 years later, but only an instant in the mind, in the Cafe Kronos, a phrase from Faulkner comes back as the cafe fills with bilingual banter in two demotic languages, Suthun and Greek. Yes, of course it would be Faulkner who noticed: Here the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. Oh, the South! The South, the South, the South!


06/22/99: Amazing stories from D.C. Comix
06/17/99: George W.'s first mistake
06/08/99: Hail to the chief?
06/02/99: In praise of failure
05/26/99: Betrayal in the making: let's not make a deal
05/20/99: Israel's big switch: new era or just a mood swing?
05/18/99: Free our kids: revive the land of opportunity
05/13/99: This war will end --- or spread
05/11/99: South Sider comes through
05/07/99: There is no substitute for victory
05/05/99: A Tale of two colonels
05/03/99: It's the culture, stupid
04/30/99: Bumpers' 'B.S.'
04/27/99: An American tragedy: the fall of Kenneth Starr
04/23/99: Presidents and the press
04/14/99: A revealing moment
04/14/99: War Day by day
04/12/99: Just a few questions
04/06/99: The problem with the Left
04/05/99: The problem with the Right
03/30/99: But can he convince himself?
03/26/99: Short bursts
03/24/99: Once more into the quagmire
03/17/99: Big time in Little Rock
03/15/99: Our own Roger Taney
03/09/99: A different ‘Waterfront’
03/05/99: Law and disorder
2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
2/25/99: Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99: Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99: Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99: Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99: Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate