A Life in the Key of Moe's
I recently heard that Moe Moskowitz played the title role in the 1950’s New York production of “Ubu Roi” by the Living Theatre. This strikes me as important for two reasons. First, it reminds us that the best work in the avant-garde theatre has always been done by deeply cultured people. Secondly, it reminds us that California and New York are inextricably linked in their artistic goings-ons—that the New York cultural scene is heavily populated by Californians, and the California cultural scene is saturated with native New Yorkers: condescension expressed by one scene for the other is essentially posing.
It is also delightful to think of Moe inhabiting the role of Ubu—gesturing broadly, roaring out the startling text written by the gifted Alfred Jarry in the 1890’s. To give you an idea: Ubu is related to the traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows, which in turn evolved from the comic turns of the Italian commedia del’arte. Punch behaves abominably, criminally, and consistently escapes all consequences for his actions. Good “bad-boy” fun. One thinks Moe would have known just how to do it.
Moe’s Books' own Elliot Smith has given us a vivid picture of how Moe may have brought a little of his New York Ubu to his California Moe’s:
We were pleased to see that Judith Malina's Living Theatre is celebrating its 60th anniversary by opening a new performance space and reviving Kenneth Brown's harrowing "The Brig" (http://www.livingtheatre.org/). Moe's Books has a connection to the radical theater's first incarnation in New York in the 1950s. When Malina and her life companion/collaborator Julian Beck staged Alfred Jarry's scatalogical farce "Ubu Roi" it was none other than Moe's Book's founder Moe Moskowitz who played the role of the grotesque Pere Ubu.
It was a role tailor-made for Moe: Pere Ubu is larger than life, a Rabelaisian creature of vast appetites, and is dismissive of social niceties and conventions. He was the creation of the self-described "poet and ‘pataphysician’" Alfred Jarry, a major figure in the avant-garde of late 19th-century France; you can read more about him in Roger Shattuck's fascinating The Banquet Years. Jarry used to dress as Ubu, speak nonsense in a deadpan style and walk a lobster on a leash. His life was his art.
The same could be said of Moe. The counter of his bookstore became his theater, where he gave public performances on a daily basis. He was never shy about sharing his opinions, his good humor or his dim sum. Customers could find him singing along with the background music, smoking (or later simply chewing) his cigar, and holding court on the issues of the day.
Beyond the “Ubu” itself, though, the Living Theatre production links Moe intellectually to many people and art movements. Jarry himself served as the influence—both as a writer and a personality—on a dizzying range of cultural phenomena that define the early 20th century: Symbolism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism; Picasso, Artaud, Ionesco and Beckett. It feels right to think of Moe as being a part of this challenging heritage, and of ourselves as having reaped the benefits in turn through his bookstore.
Thinking of Moe in relation to Jarry brings some aspects of Moe to the fore. Jarry was multi-talented: he won academic prizes in five languages as well as physics, and wrote novels, plays and stories; Moe was gifted in the visual arts as a painter and framer, as well as a violinist, performer, social thinker and all-around champion of books. Jarry was socially outspoken in his contempt for the bourgeoisie; Moe was politically defiant in his stance against government incursions on freedom. Mostly, though, both Jarry and Moe lived their lives in the arts with enormous intensity.
Happily, there are limits, too, to any parallels between Jarry and Moe. After all, the picture of Jarry riding through town on his bicycle using a pistol to clear his path speaks of a different era. Jarry starved himself into a stroke in his early 30’s, and died a tubercular alcoholic at 34; Moe smoked and drank to whatever extent during years when these served as the social “signs” for hyper-intellectuality—and then achieved enough moderation in health matters to enjoy a full family life and a successful professional life. Moe’s meaningful excesses were in matters of culture—and on this point he sounds not so much like Jarry himself as like Jarry’s mother. Todd London, sometime Literary Director of A.R.T. wrote, “[Jarry’s mother] valued music and books in a way that seemed improper to her pious Catholic neighbors, and regularly made a public spectacle of herself…going out in what Alfred [Jarry] later remembered as Spanish toreador clothes.” Rather than see Moe in Jarry’s excesses, we had better see in Moe the professional success of the actor who played Ubu in Jarry’s own production of his play in 1896. That is, after playing Ubu for Jarry, Monsieur Firmin Gemier went on to careers as both actor and director, and then headed the legendary Théâtre de l’Odeon in Paris; after playing Ubu for the Living Theatre, Moe made a bookstore that became and remains a significant force in the intellectual life of the country through its patrons.
Writer Harriet Renaud—a native New Yorker, a close contemporary of Moe’s, and my mother—writes:
As far back as my Berkeley memory goes, most queries got answered by a swift, mantra-like chant of two words: "Try Moe's." Having landed here from far away, throughout my early Telegraph Avenue indoctrination, whether I was on the prowl for an early American dictionary or a Phillip's screwdriver, it seemed to me I was relegated to Moe's.
Eventually, I learned that you went to the funky, musty, crowded huge store for books—old, new, out-of-print, beautifully bound, paper, in-your-face on the counter, unreachable, hidden on another floor, found with luck. And what everybody knew when they sent you to "Try Moe's" was that there was the bookstore where you would find the book you wanted, and pretty often the book you loved.
When I was in elementary school in the early- and mid-1960’s, Telegraph Avenue was a destination for an evening walk. My family would pile into the station wagon after an early dinner, and we’d make our way down from the hills over the university to Telegraph Avenue, tostroll. My parents strolled in front, holding hands, and my two brothers and I strolled behind, punching each other. Just above the Avenue, we’d stop in at George Good’s, where my father would know all about sleeve buttons and vents on beautiful men’s jackets; along the Avenue, we’d enjoy the trees and window-shop; down the Avenue, we’d wander around entranced in Fraser’s, the design shop to end all design shops—elegant, playful, spacious, an education for the eye. And the climax of The Stroll was inevitably Moe’s Books.
While Moe and my parents chatted, I looked around the store and formed ideas about Life. The goal of Life, I could see plainly, was to have a home lined with bookshelves full of books mostly from Moe’s Books, to have expressive paintings on the walls—including maybe some of one’s self—to have classical or jazz music playing, to have knowledgeable people around and at the ready to help, and to enjoy good conversation with a stream of visitors. I can’t say those ideas have always made my Life easy—but I can say that they have never really changed.
I was 12 in 1968, and after school my friends and I would walk through the broken glass from the riots around the University, in bare feet with psychedelic drawings on our hands. Our destination, Moe’s. It was always open, even when everything else on the street was closed from the tear gas. This was the place to go to spend allowance money. We studied the used records in the big boxes, learning about Ma Rainey and Antonio Jobim and spoken word—and buying up what we could for one dollar apiece or less.
In high school, we went to Moe’s to find out how much a book cost. Our interest in the cost wasn’t in the price itself. The cost of the book told us its value—told us where it stood in the field. A tiny hardback with a high price told us that, even if we didn’t know what it was, it was special and we should pay attention. On the other hand, if a big book by an author we loved had a low price, it meant it was a minor work and we should keep moving.
As an undergraduate student at U.C. Berkeley, my classmates and I went to Moe’s to buy the books for our classes. Out-of-towners not in-the-know bought new books in the student bookstores; we sidled down to Moe’s and bought on the cheap—using the money we saved for obscure books of poetry, and coffee around the corner at the Renaissance Café.
As a doctoral student at Berkeley, Moe’s was simply a second home. I lived in a graceful apartment a block away, and did my research at Moe’s on the early European avant-garde, moving between the new books in the Art section and the collectibles on the 4th floor. It is from that time that I own an original volume of poems by Isadora Duncan’s brother, Raymond, inscribed in his own hand as a gift to Maurice Maeterlinck, and an original program for a Diaghilev ballet. At Moe’s, I had resources among the best in the world, and that fact gave me important confidence in my studies.
In the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, I was running an independent arts-related program. and Moe was warm and respectful of my work. I would come into his shop, and catch him behind the counter, perhaps at a curmudgeonly moment—then see his face soften when he saw me. He was always interested. Next to the shop helpers helping, and visitors visiting, we’d have a Good Conversation among the walls lined with books, chatting over the music, with the painting of him looking down at me from over his shoulder. And he’d tell me which floor and where I could find the book I was looking for.
It’s a toss-up whether Moe’s always had the books I wanted, or whether I learned what books to want from Moe’s.
- Taipei, May 2007
© 2007 Lissa Tyler Renaud
Lissa Tyler Renaud: PhD; Director, Actors’ Training Project in Oakland, California; popular classical/avant-garde recitalist; recognized theatre director and body alignment practitioner; regularly published on contemporary theatre training; currently Visiting Professor of Theatre, Taipei’s National University of the Arts