Remembering Harry


I was Harry’s teacher at Yale. In one of the epigraphs to the last chapter of Harry’s book, Harry quotes Sylvia Plath: “I think I made you up inside my head.” I think that refers to Harry. One of the great things about teaching or judging a playwriting contest is that you get to see talent before anybody knows about it. A few years ago I was a judge in a contest and picked a play out of a box, and I thought I’d gone mad. It was Angels in America. I called the other two judges and said, “This is great!” I always remember the first time I had that feeling was in 1978 when I was going to be teaching playwriting at Yale. All the admissions arrived. I picked out of the box a play by a man. I looked at the application form and I saw that his mother was a goddess and his father was a playwright. And he’d just come back from Bali. I read the play, and it was so original, the voice so extraordinary, that I said, “Oh, this’ll be fun.” Because you can’t teach playwriting, you just get people in a room when you all talk.

            It was an extraordinary year — it was Harry Kondoleon, Keith Reddin, Tama Janowitz, and OyamO, and I’m sure there was a fifth. There’s always a fifth person in the class you can never remember. That time, ’78 through ’80, during Bob Brustein’s tenure at Yale was extraordinary. The class was a revelation for me, to be able to continue writing, the way writing feeds you, what it was that Harry and Keith and Tama and OyamO gave to the class, to the room, and to watch them grow. Then the next year the class was taught by me and Arthur Kopit and Derek Walcott and Jean-Claude van Itallie, and the class just consisted of us disagreeing with each other, everybody was yelling, it was thrilling.

            In that class that first year, Harry wrote the play that became the title play of his collection Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise. I just bought a copy of it the other day. I was happy and shocked when I opened it up and it was signed by Harry. I was very moved to have that. I always loved to see a play begin in a class and end up in a book, and what made me happiest about this play was that the lead woman in the play was named Adel, the name of my wife. He loved Adele, and Adele loved him. Harry had that great capacity for having people falling in love with him.

            I would like to read from Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise:

CARL: A poet? How long are you going to keep sending the same five poems to The New Yorker? You think they’re amnesiacs?
BETHANY (Spitting out each word): I HOPE YOUR BOOKS DON’T SELL! … You think you’re God. A little miniature God — A fraud. tI
Enter Alvin.
ALVIN: I had a visitation.
ADEL: Alvin!
ALVIN: I had.a visitation. On Park Avenue. I saw God. BETHANY: Alvin, I don’t love you anymore. I don’t know what love is. I hate love.
ALVIN: Beth, you’re back.
CARL: Alvin, Ade1 and I are getting back together. ADEL: What?
AL VIN: I saw God standing in a kind of kitchen. ADEL: On Park Avenue?
ALVIN: It was indescribable. Sharp knives and forks, a huge cutting board, all kinds of vegetables.
CARL: Alvin, are you all right?
ALVIN: Everything’s in season. There’s no frozen food. It’s like paradise.
ADEL: What did he say, Alvin? What did God say? ALVIN: He didn’t say anything.
ADEL: Nothing?
ALVIN: God doesn’t say anything because he knows all the recipes by heart.

            Later on in the play Adel says, “I don’t want to be alone, I’m afraid. I don’t want to be alone, forgive me. I don’t want to be alone, I can’t.”
The epigraph Harry chose to close Diary of a Lost Boy is by Meister Eckhart. “Listen then to this wonder! How wonderful it is to be both outside and inside, to seize and to be seized, to see and at the same time to be what is seen, to hold and to be held — that is the goal where the spirit remains at rest, united with our dear eternity.” To see and be seen.

I was thinking about that extraordinary book party that Steve and Cathy Graham had for Diary of a Lost Boy. I talked to Harry the next day and he said, “Oh, did I depress people? How did I look?” I said, “Harry, I’ll be very frank with you. I was quite worried when I got there. I knew you weren’t supposed to come out of the hospital, and you came. When I arrived, you were on the ground floor getting into the elevator, looking extraordinary, with this bright red jacket on, with this bright gardenia in it. Then you got out of the elevator and sat by the fireplace and signed books and it was brilliant. It was just like Harry. Later I was going around the room. I was sitting on the sofa across from the fireplace, and I saw you from three-quarters behind, and I thought, you know, Harry does look terrible. He just looks awful. Then I looked further, and the person was wearing black. I thought, Wait, did Harry change? I got up and looked around further, and I realized it was a very anorexic model by the fireplace.” Harry had changed seats, he was still sitting there in his red jacket with everyone around him laughing. He said, “You thought I looked better than an anorexic model?” He laughed and laughed and laughed. I treasure that laugh.

This is the last paragraph of his book. “My face is down in the dirt, but make no mistake, it is a beautiful place. Even the little bowls of bread soaked in milk Kim has left near the oak tree for me only enhance the landscape which is God’s presence. Even the dead flowers must be groomed and honored, and by leaving them we leave death, and those are the attachments of this world. Fear be gone! Please do not feel sorry for me — I go to some place thrilling!”

When Harry came home from the hospital, I called him and said, “When do you want me to come over?” All I could think about was those last lines I read of Self Torture that he’d written 16 years before, in our classroom at Yale: “I don’t want to be alone. Please don’t leave me alone.” When I asked Harry when I could come over in the middle of March, he said, “Oh, John, every moment is booked. I’m so taken care of. But this is what I just realized — I’ll never be alone again as long as I live.” There was a bitterness in that and a resignation and a joy and an acceptance. And all I can think of is that a part of us will always be a little bit alone because of the absence of Harry. Thank God for these writings

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