- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2002

Leave it to Norman Mailer to cause a rumpus. Even at 78 and supported by two canes as he walks, the writer is a masterful performance artist. He proved this once again at a sold-out reading Friday in the Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan Theatre of the play "Zelda, Scott and Ernest," which raised nearly $25,000 to benefit the library and the PEN/Faulkner Awards for Fiction.
The rumpled-looking Mr. Mailer had the role of his literary mentor, Ernest Hemingway, while his friend George Plimpton portrayed F. Scott Fitzgerald in an orange imitation Princeton tie. Norris Church Mailer, the writer's sixth wife, was Zelda Fitzgerald in black velvet and a flowing black-and-gold robe. Mr. Mailer's delivery was suitably gruff; Mr. Plimpton's notably Ivy League tones were well-rounded; and Mrs. Mailer, an Arkansas native, oozed a silky Southern accent.
Based on the trio's letters, essays and published works (as reconstructed by Mr. Plimpton and former Capitol Hill resident Terry Quinn ), the script has as a key theme the edgy rivalry alternately friendly and sharp among the three, with Zelda definitely the much-put-upon loser who curtailed her own talents in favor of her husband as she slowly slid into insanity.
The three writers-turned-actors, who received only honorariums and expenses for their effort, were charming and mock combative by turn.
Striking as the verbal ripostes were, what galvanized the audience most of all came in the question-and-answer session that followed. Mr. Mailer used questions about language and literature in the Jazz Age to focus on America's culture and conscience following the events of September 11.
"What currently is lacking is people with any kind of American mythos," he said, taking a cliche potshot at popular culture as represented by television and summoning as his example of a positive mythos the lives and work of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds.
"We need myths more than ever because of the inroads of technology," he continued. "We are dumbing down, and popular culture is getting lower and cheaper. Democracy depends on the beauty and culture of language. Despots rely on the debasement of language. For democracy to survive, which is a very daring adventure, good language is crucial to it."
It was then that he segued into criticism of language used by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, especially their use of the words "evil" and "cowardly" in the context of the September 11 attacks. National Public Radio President Kevin Klose , speaking out from the audience, countered that perhaps Mr. Powell "was trying to identify the attack as being done to unsuspecting people."
Like a bulldog, Mr. Mailer wouldn't let go. He cited Winston Churchill's famous World War II "Blood, Sweat and Tears" speech for comparison. "He roused our notion of what Western civilization is capable," Mr. Mailer said, adding among other things, that "it is very dangerous to start exterminating people we know nothing about." In America today, Mr. Mailer continued, there is "a tendency to avoid the larger questions. We need to move into these profound but terrifying questions at the beginning of the 21st century, such as 'Will this planet survive?' Maybe this is egregious vanity, but it may be up to novelists to give politicians and social scientists some clues. None of us are doing our immense duty at this point."
He then had the immense grace to admit, "Maybe it's time to quit," at which point Mrs. Mailer quoted spontaneously the famous last lines of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," which are, in part, "so we beat on, boats against the current," and the audience breathed a sigh of relief along with polite and appreciative applause.
Folger Library Director Werner Gundersheimer signaled a formal end to the proceedings, saying that the program had been "one of the most memorable" performances on that stage.
"I loved it. I wish we could have gone on," former Rep. James W. Symington said at the start of a champagne-dessert reception that followed. "It was right on the money."
"It's certainly standard in America today. You always come back to September 11," French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang told Mr. Plimpton, who was standing tall in the midst of the crowd.
"But we're getting over it," was Mr. Plimpton's graceful reply.
Ina Ginsburg played it safe, praising "the wonderful diction and voices" throughout.
"If I were a comedian, I would not want to play Washington," Mr. Mailer joked when asked about audience reaction to his remarks as he autographed books for a long queue of admirers.
Even Crystal City was included in another diatribe against what he called the "corporate architecture" of the area.
"It's the ugliest square mile in America," Mr. Mailer ranted. "You could get a lot of tourists to come here just to see it."


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