Last night your correspondent went to the theatre to see a new play, “Maple and Vine,” put on by the American Conservatory Theater at the Curran in San Francisco. Written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Mark Rucker, the play – as the liner notes say – explores the lives of Katha and Ryu, who “have become allergic to their fast-paced modern lives. After they meet a charismatic man from a community of 1950’s re-enactors, they forsake cell phones and sushi for cigarettes and Tupperware parties. In this compulsively recreated world, Katha and Ryu are surprised by how much they are willing to sacrifice for happiness.”
That’s the pitch, anyway. The “charismatic man,” Dean, belongs to an organization called the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence – which may or may not be a not-so-subtle reference to the American quasi-medievalist Society for Creative Anachronism. The SDO, it turns out, owns a “Truman Show”-style gated community somewhere in the Midwest, which is permanently ensconced in the year 1955 – the era of Eisenhower, cars with fins, A-line skirts, mayonnaise slathered casseroles and Lucky Strike cigarettes. Everyone is expected to play their part and the community even has its own Authenticity Committee to enforce the retro “experience.” But, as in any good suburban melodrama – from “Babbitt” to “Lolita” to “Blue Velvet” – our heroes uncover the dark underbelly of their seemingly perfect and balanced “Ozzie and Harriet” community, replete with sexual repression and racism. In the end, Katha (now Cathy) and Ryu decide to stay on, while Dean, like a shunned Amish, eventually retreats to the outside world to pursue his gay lover.
“Maple and Vine” is both a witty paean to “simpler times” and a warning to any who attempt to pursue the past at the expense of coming to terms with the present – and with themselves. And it couldn’t come at a more interesting time.
Faithful D.net myrmidons know that we have a decidedly…er…ambivalent relationship to retro-eccentricism and its practitioners. We love a good Gatsby-style garden party just as much as any dapper-minded fellow would. We like classic cocktails. We like old cars. We love history, and we love history’s characters. But we remain at a certain flâneuresque critical distance.
The world champions of retro-eccentrism remain the artists McDermott and McGough, who have lived in a perennial bubble sometime between 1900 and 1920 for the past 30-odd years. But they are closely followed by people like Johnny Stokes, a San Francisco-born gentleman famous for tooling around the city in his vintage 1937 Buick in full Dashiell Hammett fig. Others are less devoted but no less engaged, preferring to display their retro plumage on the weekends while holding down high tech jobs by day. The Art Deco Society – for whose magazine your correspondent has written – is famous for its exacting standards of authenticity, while Britain’s Chaps, led by Gustav Temple, have made a version of retro-dandyism into a cause for the betterment of all mankind. The Chaps sponsor numerous events, have their own musicians and even dedicated comedians.
Lately, retro-eccentrism has taken on a new life as more and more people become aware of these “alternative lifestyles,” perhaps ironically, via social media websites like Facebook and Pinterest. Of course, costume operas like “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire” and even “Game of Thrones” have played their parts. A few people have even made their retro-inspired lifestyles into successful businesses. More power to them.
Today, the New York Times published an article following the death of a quasi-socialite named Alan Z. Feuer, who for years lived a life of charity balls, tailcoats and top hats – charming his way through Manhattan’s ladies-who-lunch not unlike Kevin Kline’s character, Henry Harrison, in the 2010 film, “The Extra Man.” But, it turns out, Feuer was not, as he sometimes hinted, the poor scion of ancient Austrian blue-bloods but the son of a Jewish immigrant saloonkeeper. In the end it didn’t matter because Feuer played his part so well that, rather than making others feel small, he made them feel important. The article quotes Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky, a genuine international socialite: “There’s nothing wrong with that at all — with being a character.”
We have always maintained that dandyism, in its purest form based on the classic texts, is not a cause or a movement or a hobby or a radical self-reinvention – or really even a “lifestyle choice” as expressed in the current parlance – but rather a historical, literary and cultural phenomenon, a slightly jaundiced critical lens through which some view a complex modern world. Dapperness and social grace are merely its most obvious outward expressions.
Still, we are as impressed as anyone can be by the retro-eccentric’s kind of dedication. For many, like Feuer and others we know, it’s just plain fun. Others use it to advance in a subculture inside a mainstream culture from which they feel alienated. Still others, like Dean from “Maple and Vine,” seek to remake the world into a romanticized version of an imaginary past – even while they can’t escape their own.
We’ll take the fun and leave it at that.