Wait­ing: Select­ed Nonfiction

Eliz­a­beth Swados
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

This slim but wide-rang­ing vol­ume shows the com­pa­ra­bly slim but wide-rang­ing Liz Swa­dos — com­pos­er, author, direc­tor, play­wright — to excel­lent advan­tage. The top­ics cov­ered include her upbring­ing in a Jew­ish fam­i­ly lib­er­al­ly cursed with men­tal ill­ness to her own his­to­ry of bipo­lar dis­or­der and a gallery of unfor­get­table char­ac­ters, includ­ing sev­er­al eccen­tric rel­a­tives and such cre­ative lumi­nar­ies as Peter Brook, Mar­lon Bran­do, and Ellen Stewart. 

Through­out, Swa­dos appears as a cre­ative artist pos­sessed of both deep empa­thy and strong bound­aries, able to get her casts, which tend­ed to include untrained, non-pro­fes­sion­al (and often deeply trou­bled) ado­les­cents, to deliv­er out­stand­ing work with­out exploit­ing them or feel­ing any need to save” them. The pieces that doc­u­ment her cre­ative process­es —espe­cial­ly her reimag­in­ing of the Book of Job as a clown show — are par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling, as is her trib­ute to her schiz­o­phrenic broth­er, Lincoln. 

Per­haps the most intrigu­ing moment in the book recounts how her uncle Kim, an art direc­tor and artist of some renown, late in life received a gen­er­ous com­mis­sion to paint a series of real­is­tic por­traits of the lead­ers of the Third Reich. The fam­i­ly was pleased that Kim was final­ly doing well finan­cial­ly, and Swados’s father approv­ing­ly not­ed that the por­traits were quite accu­rate. Swa­dos mus­es, Does any­one remem­ber that we’re Jews?” 

Swados’s prose style is delight­ful through­out. She is a firm believ­er in direct declar­a­tive sen­tences that pull no punch­es. Because of their pos­ses­sive and pos­sessed rela­tion­ship to sound,” she writes, com­posers need to be tyrants.… Jeal­ousy and cru­el­ty are not unusu­al in any of the arts. But in music, wicked tongues and devi­ous behav­ior are com­mon. It’s an anti­so­cial occu­pa­tion.” Such writ­ing is as refresh­ing as it is rare.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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