In the closing pages of his memoir As If: An Autobiography, Herbert Blau writes of The Actor’s Workshop production of King Lear that he had staged in 1961 (a young Andre Gregory was assistant director), reflecting on “the dark energies there.” Like a smooth flowing current, Herb opens the first pages of what was to become the unfinished chapter, “This Old Life,” of the second volume of his memoir by returning to the King’s “dark energies,” as he confronted retirement after more than six decades of teaching. We are proud to include in PAJ 105 this last piece of writing by a great man of the theatre and a great friend, who died on May 3, 2013, at the age of eighty-seven.
During the spring I had been in the process of overseeing the transfer into digital files of many old cassettes of PAJ interviews, Herb’s among them. (“The Play of Thought” is in PAJ 42, now online in an audio clip and pdf on the journal’s website at www.mitpress journals.org/paj). I recall very well our 1992 meeting on Halloween evening as Gautam Dasgupta, Herb, and I sat talking while the yearly parade boomed several floors below us on Sixth Avenue. I called Herb, a theatre intellectual more than an academic, a “lapsed modernist,” which he wouldn’t admit to, before returning in his beloved Jamesian circularity to reconsider the charge, owning that “I am not quite sure whether lapsed or prelapsarian.” Herb, who taught in the English department at the University of Washington—Seattle, had a great commitment to language, especially poetry. He loved quoting texts in long, dialectical sentences that are full of wit and tough-minded assessments. He was interested in works of art under scrutiny that were invested with the historical power they had earned from history. In our conversation, Herb articulated what amounts to a personal manifesto:
Art is what happens when I think better of myself. To the degree that there’s any purity in that, it accounts for the discrepancy between what I am and what I’d like to be. I can at some level, even when I fail in art, respect myself more there than I can in reality. Which is to say, I’m known to myself more acutely in art that I am known to myself outside it. This is not all egocentric. Art for me has always been the means by which I become more available to myself, and thus more responsible.
Herb was a great personal friend and mentor to me, in addition to being a steadfast supporter of PAJ, a man to whom I turned many times over three decades for advice and for the pleasurable exchange of ideas. We first met at the University of Maryland in 1976, the [End Page 1] year PAJ was founded, at The New Theatre Festival, when he was teaching there. What was remarkable about Herb is the correspondence he kept up with so many students and colleagues and artists throughout his life. It also struck me as the mark of generosity of the man that when he answered letters and e-mails he always referred to every point that was addressed to him before continuing on with his own news or thoughts. In an exchange only months before his death, when I wrote that I had just read the new book about Gertrude Stein and the Vichy era, he answered about her inclusion in his classes, and in the same note I also remarked that I was reading Edna O’Brien’s book on James Joyce, to which he responded that he had recently reread Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, now that he had more free time. He was someone who always seemed fully present and engaged. Ironically, in so much of his writing, including his 1982 PAJ Publications title, Blooded Thought, he would use as a point of departure the opening line of Hamlet, “Who’s there?” Shakespeare, Beckett, Brecht, and Genet were always there for him as sources of energy that he returned to again and again to comprehend the disturbances of illusion.