FOLLOW THE VODKA: Introductions

Today we’re excited to premier a new regular columnist: writer/producer/director Robert Estes!

Photo for Theater Pub

A few weeks ago, I was asked by SF Theater Pub if I would like to write an occasional, recurring entry for their blog wherein I would discuss a play while having one of my favorite drinks in one of my regular bar redoubts. Hey, I’m not an actor, I’m the booze relief.

Seriously, though, I’d feel remiss in writing about theater and drinking without acknowledging that there’s often a very troubled relationship between theater people and booze. I only got into theater in my 43rd year on the planet, and, then, shortly afterwards, for some reason, I began really looking forward to an artfully made drink. Often, when I mentioned grabbing a drink after rehearsal or performance, I was surprised how quickly and strongly that the theater person would say that they don’t touch a drop. The sharpness of the words instantly conveyed their painful journey to abstinence. In a future post, I’m sure that I’ll take up the tense relationship between the bipolar world of theatrical enterprise and problem drinking.

For now though, I’ll just say that I tend to follow my mother’s rule, “I like to drink, but I don’t like to be drunk,” which is sort of the perfect excuse for anything, “I like to drive 140 miles an hour, but I don’t like to crash.” Still, I find so far for me that drinking is often a necessary complement to the inherent anxiety of the theatrical endeavor as well as just being my way of following Montaigne’s warm advice that we should allow ourselves to cultivate one vice.

Although it is great fun to enjoy the drinking vice with other theater people, I also love going to places where not only it is unlikely that I’ll know anyone, it is unlikely that anyone from the bay area will be there. Such a place is The Buena Vista near Fisherman’s Wharf, where they serve, as many of you already know, rows and rows of Irish Coffees to throngs and throngs of tourists, so that I’m sure the place is often on the unwritten but ever-present avoid list of many native San Franciscans–although “native” in this use probably just means anyone that has lived here longer than someone newly arrived and much less cool than them.

Since I have pretensions of coolness, I rarely order the Buena Vista’s Irish Coffee; rather, I quite knowingly order one of their martinis, which, like milkshakes come not only with a glass but also with the accompanying tin, a very nice bargain. Tonight, in honor (or more accurately, in lack of honor) of reading Anton Chekhov, I’m having a Vodka Martini; yet, if I were being annoyingly true in spirit to Uncle Vanya, I would just be pounding vodka shots. I’m also reading what I consider to be the best Chekhov biography (although it is not a proper biography), which is a book of his letters entitled Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, edited & annotated by Simon Karlinsky, translated by Michael Henry Heim. Interspersed among the many letters are sparkling essays on thematic and social concerns, and voluminous, yet concisely written footnotes—all of which are first rate and engaging and help greatly in gaining a deeper understanding of his works.

But nowhere in the whole book do they discuss the key character trait of Uncle Vanya’s Astrov–which leads directly to an understanding of his descent in the play–his vodka drinking! In the very first scene, when asked if he’d like a shot, he says no. Soon enough, he relents and has a shot, but with bread, so that the effect of alcohol will be lessened. By the end of the play, he’ll have the shot of vodka and specifically decline the bread —he most assuredly finishes the play as a confirmed alcoholic.

Naturally, Astrov’s alcoholic trajectory is not a happy thought or a thought that brings much comfort when sitting in a bar alone on a Monday night at midnight having a double vodka martini (oh yeah, that tin I mentioned before is definitely an entire second drink), but the beautiful part of the Buena Vista is that you can always talk to the people next to you because they’re not from here, they want to know where you’re from and they want to tell you where they’re from, it’s great. They’re tourists! Ugh!
But I love “tourists!” I love any group that gets some kind of derogatory name attached to it. In the 1980s, everyone would put down “yuppies,” even people who looked and acted completely like yuppies. I thought I was a yuppie. I was young, urban and sort of professional. Would you rather be an YSUPIE? Young, suburban, professional—and with a horrible acronym? Nowadays, everyone puts down “hipsters.” I wish I could be a hipster! But I’m not cool enough. As I thought a few months ago, my only true goal in life is to be the first yupster, so that I can be the most put-down person ever!

So I think these thoughts which seem to come from some unknown yet central part of myself as I sit in the bar and re-read the letters of Chekhov, particularly this one from March 4, 1888:

“The people I’m afraid of are the one who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, non indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all their forms…Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”

Wow, I suppose each person reading so much clarity would find their own sentence of bliss, but for me sitting in the bar, I now instantly recall when reading that letter for the first time decades ago how strongly the simple sentence “I look upon tags and labels as prejudices” pierced my own thoughts. And I hope and I think that reading that letter is why I’ve often felt like I was a “yuppie” or a “hipster” or a “tourist.” I would rather join with the labeled than be one of the labelers.

As Bill English of SF Playhouse says, theater is an empathy gym. And I do feel that the great reason to read Chekhov’s letters or attend one of his depressing plays—well, let’s face it, depressing is the typical can-do American’s putdown of the apparently terminally stalled nature of his plays—is that ultimately pained empathy is more beautiful than glossy positivity.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not really falling into the vice of labeling—a vice that I do not want to cultivate. It’s just damn hard for me not to label people that I disagree with politically. Of course, it’s easy to label the red state politicians, but I even caught myself labeling the other side in the current blue debate. The labels seem to be getting more extreme: “corrupt” for “hypocritical,” “deranged” for “misinformed,” “treasonous” for “just plain wrong.” But the thing is, some of the politicians that I don’t agree with are deranged, or close to it. Eek, well, Theater Pub Blog, an extended political handwringing is not on offer here, but I just want to note the obvious tension between trying not to label and seeing that right now in politics it is almost impossible not to do so.

Just for instance, I come back to an example of labeling that Chekhov once described that I wonder if many in San Francisco would not find perfectly valid: he said that in a dispute between a landlord and a tenant, so many people would automatically know who was in the right simply by the labels “landlord” and “tenant.” Some would instantly know the greedy landlord was to blame, others would say the scoundrel tenant. It almost seems that not using labels in this instance is a denial of the current reality in San Francisco.

So with my frustration about keeping a basic equilibrium about humanity as I try to figure out what is labeling and what is not and my simple desire to retain my usual enjoyment of human personality in all its contradictions, I find sitting in the Buena Vista, talking to people from all over the place is actually kind of soul-inspiring. Yes, you jaded San Franciscans, if you’re tired of all the hipster irony and yuppie, I mean techie, consumerist overreach, come on over and talk to Clare and Bill (from Ohio!), who are apparently completely irony-free and don’t know tech from teach. But they’re extremely nice, and gracious enough to treat yours truly to an Irish Coffee. Now I’m definitely not cool enough to pass up that action.

Cheers until next month and another adventure in pairing the perfect cocktail with a play!

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2 comments on “FOLLOW THE VODKA: Introductions

  1. […] our new columnist, Robert Estes, I find great comfort in the writings of Anton Chekhov, whose empathy for our funny little human lives is still bracing over one hundred years later. […]

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