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Bob Bernard's Corner: Bottom's Up!

An Appreciation of the Bar

By Bob Bernard

Mr. Elwood P. Dowd, an affable tippler, opined: “Nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. They tell us about the big, terrible things they’ve done and the big, wonderful things they’ll do.”

The “us” in Elwood’s life is his co-protagonist, a 6’3” pooka - a white rabbit (invisible to most people) - whose genealogy is rooted in Celtic folklore. Elwood did commission a local artist to memorialize their friendship.

     
James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in the 1950 motion picture Harvey

Elwood is correct: Very often, it is a scene in a bar which serves as a significant transition point for the storyline of either an opera or a film. To wit:

Operas Films
Falstaff Crocodile Dundee
La bohème Fräulein
La Fanciulla del West      From Here to Eternity
La Traviata On the Town
L’Elisir d’Amore Pirates of the Caribbean
Peter Grimes Star Wars
Wozzek The Godfather

L’Elisir d’Amore is in accord with Elwood’s observation that a bar serves as a vehicle for the protagonist’s life to (hopefully) progress from bad to good: Matthew Polenzani’s Nemorino was initially dissed by Anna Netrebko’s Adina early on (Met 2012), but then – with the (attributed) help of the product of Dr. Dulcamara’s portable bar – he is ultimately warmly embraced by Adina at opera’s end.


L’Elisir d’Amore

To be sure, a bar’s locale does not always result in a transition from bad to good. Sometimes the progression is from good to bad. In the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, Burt Lancaster’s Sgt. Milton Warden experiences first the "big, wonderful" thing of a romantic swim with Deborah Kerr’s Karen Holmes and then the "big, terrible" thing of a knife fight in a bar with Ernest Borgnine’s Sgt. Fatso Judson.


From Here to Eternity

In opera, sometimes a highly tragic progression follows a scene in a bar, the story particulars devolving from bad to worse.

  • In Act Three’s pub scene from Peter Grimes: Grimes, despairingly mourning the death of his 2nd apprentice (and being blamed for it by the community), is encouraged by Captain Balstrode to commit suicide by taking his boat out to sea and sinking it.
  • In Act Two’s beer garden scene in Wozzeck: Wozzeck sees his common-law wife Marie dancing provocatively with the Drum Major, is emotionally driven to kill her, and then, following a drunken scene in the tavern, returns to the murder scene and drowns while carelessly attempting to wash Marie’s blood from his hands.

Compounding the permeating sadness in the final strains of these two tragedies, they each close with a scene of communal acceptance and penetrating despair. 

  • In Peter Grimes: The next morning, the community begins its day anew as if nothing has happened. There is a report from the coast guard of a ship sinking off the coast. This is dismissed as "one of these rumors."
  • In Wozzeck: The next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie's body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie's son, who continues to play.


Peter Grimes


Wozzek

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Elwood’s mother advises him early on: “In this life, Elwood, you must be either oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.”

Elwood and I agree. Sometimes, if a protagonist is not to be seen at story’s end, it is easier to accept that he be merely invisible, and not dead...


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Author: Thomas Lady
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