Some Worldplay Exemplars

 PETER USTINOV: “President of my own country at last.”

In a comic spoof of the Cold War the versatile actor, dramatist and director Peter Ustinov donned the antiquated military garb of a mythical country somewhere in middle Europe to tame the aggressive posturing of the Soviet Union and the United States. “Concordia,” so christened for the film, was in fact an imaginary world of longstanding for Ustinov, dating back to the boyhood self who witnessed, at the tender age of eight or nine, the messy wringing of a chicken’s neck. “There was…only one way in which I could keep a grip on myself in this vile world of grown-ups, and that was the establishment of an imaginary country, to which I owed total allegiance. The first article in the constitution of this land was that no chickens would have their necks wrung” (1998, 278).

As an adult, Ustinov recalled that the constitutional features and legal reforms of Concordia took on a “growing reality” which had “a geographical position, an outlook of its own, and problems…” More than that he was unwilling to reveal: “Immediately you begin to share secrets of this kind, you begin to entertain, and the utility of such a place, and its reality, are destroyed” (278). It only remained for him to say of his worldplay, “It is not Utopia.”

It was, nevertheless, a useful guide to artistic freedom and unfettered political conscience. In a career that spanned six decades, Ustinov had involved himself as actor or director or both in over 81 films, written over a score of plays and other prose writings, staged some operas, tried his hand at set and costume production/design—and won a couple of Oscars, several Emmys and other artistic awards for his efforts.

In the later part of his life, these activities took a back seat to his work as Goodwill Ambassador on behalf of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)—for which he was highly regarded. “…[M]y [imaginary] nation helped me beyond all measure to acquire the fully neutral stance necessary for such a job,” he wrote, and for his role from 1991-2004 as President of the World Federalist Movement, a non-government organization dedicated to global democracy. “[W]henever a grave international situation develops, I react not as an Englishman, nor as a Russian, nor as one who is sometimes in America, France, Switzerland, or Germany, but as a life-President of my own nation” (280).

“[E]veryone must have a country,” Ustinov declared (281). His had served him well.

Reference:

Ustinov, Peter. (1998). Dear Me. London: Arrow Books. (Originally published 1976)

***

FAIRFIELD PORTER: Mapping Edfaloba.

Fairfield Porter gained prominence as a realist painter and art critic at work in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s. In conversation with others, he often recalled the imaginary world of Edfaloba which he invented with his brother and some friends. Inspired by the books of H.G. Wells, he remembered, “[M]y brother Edward, older than I, and I and two neighboring girls spent a lot of time making up a country on Mars; and we drew maps of it and discussed its sociology and that sort of stuff” (Cummings, 1968). The children christened the shared play with an acronym composed of their names: EDward, FAirfield, LOuise, BArbara.

The young Fairfield drew a beautifully detailed map of this Martian land, noting the variety of topographical elevations and environments, as well as the train lines that ran its length. On recent inspection of the map, one of Porter’s sons recognized it as a “reduplication” of Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, where Porter’s family spent their summers.

Fairfield carefully assigned four sections of the island to each participant in play, keeping for himself certain choice bits corresponding to the great house and the cove where the children swam and sailed (Lawrence Porter, personal communication March 20, 2008). “We pretend everything in Edfaloba runs by sunlight,” the young boy wrote to his aunts in December of 1918, “and people store it to make a light in night time” (cited in Spring, 14). The following year, he used his architect father’s drafting equipment to draw a portrait of ‘The Martian’ before a towering edifice of windows and landing ports for saucer-like flying machines.

No known personal reference connects this childhood worldplay with Porter’s adult endeavor. Nevertheless, his son ponders whether the artist’s drawings and paintings functioned as “a kind of spiritual home,” fashioned in much the same way that the child had constructed the private, yet shared community of Edfaloba. Porter was a “heroic eccentric” who developed his own style as if certain giants of 20th century art—Cezanne, Picasso, Mondrian—had never put paint to canvas. “It was as if he lived in an alternate world with an alternate history, which, defiantly, he really did,” writes one critic (Schjeldahl, 2000, 123).

Perhaps Porter did make comment on the value he placed in his childhood worldplay, at least obliquely. In one of his poems he describes an intense, intimate understanding of the building block constructions of his autistic son, Johnny: “The angled words around a square/Compose a fort of wooden walls,” he wrote, “A blockhouse space of different air,” an ordered “presence” where before there had been emptiness. Again and again, “imaginary buildings” and imagined worlds, whether composed of blocks or maps or paint on canvas, call out for construction. The creative spirit, he seems to be saying, is as elemental as this.

References:
Paul Cummings, Interview with Fairfield Porter at Southhampton, New York,      June 6, 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Peter Schjeldahl. (April 17, 2000). “Stern Beauty, How Fairfield Porter reinvented realism.” The New Yorker, pp. 122-123.

Spring, Justin. (2000). Fairfield Porter, A Life in Art. New Haven: Yale University Press.

***

LEO LIONNI: Terrariums in Parallel.

An only child, little Leo Lionni spent much time in his room, “[t]he temple of his aloneness.” There he tended his multifarious collections of sea shells, beetles, butterflies; there he drew, painted, carved, glued and modeled on a little art table made just for him; there he arranged his terrariums into “vaguely perceived dramas” of hunger, joy, love, hate, fear, and death, by planting twig trees for snakes slither and slide in their hunt, by digging caves where real toads might hide from imaginary hawks. His was a childhood of “making things” (Lionni, 1997, 1) and making things happen like any “important scientist”, any “celebrated artist” (Lionni, 1997, 201).

The young Leo grew up to be a graphic designer, specializing in advertising design, then a well-regarded magazine art director. But despite his pioneering work in design, he also wanted to be an artist. At age 50, he decided to devote himself to drawing and painting full-time. Quite unexpectedly, the result of a chance game with his grandchildren, he ended up also devoting himself to the writing and illustrating of picture books for children. He became famous the world over for these stories, including Frederick, Swimmy, Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse and other tales of fish, mice, and caterpillars.

Much later in life, when writing his autobiography, Lionni “suddenly realized that the dimensions of my children’s books are exactly the same as those of my terrariums.” The animals protagonists of his well-known fables were the same as those he kept in his childhood room; the paper landscapes they inhabited on the page were the same as those he built with real materials of nature. “My miniature worlds, whether enclosed in yesterday’s walls of glass or in today’s cardboard covers, are surprisingly alike. Both are the orderly predictable alternatives to a chaotic, unmanageable, terrifying universe” (Lionni, 1997, 20).

Both involved worldplay, too. And why not? “Everything I know now [as an adult] I knew as a child,” Lionni once remarked. “The only difference is that now I have an awareness of it and am able to articulate it” (cited in Lingeman, 1977).

Indeed, Lionni understood yet another of his adult endeavors to reflect his childhood invention of imagined places and spaces. Even as he produced story after story for children, he also poured himself into drawing, sculpting and casting in bronze a garden of strange flora, wholly derived from his imagination. In 1977 an exhibit of these drawings and sculptures took place at a New York Gallery, coinciding with the publication of Parallel Botany.

Written like a scholarly treatise, this adult book presented in mock-erudite form the discovery and botanical classification of a hitherto unknown vegetal kingdom of parallel—in other words, imaginary—plants. Such, for example, is the Tirillus mimeticus, a plant “so perfectly camouflaged in its habitat of black volcanic pebbles that is it not discernable by normal visual means” (1977, 66).

Despite a certain outlandish fun, the fictional text is littered with nuggets of fact and the serious inquiry of non-fiction; it is, as Lionni cites the poet Marianne Moore, an imaginary garden with real toads in it. Lengthy introductory material takes issue with work by well-known scientists (D’Arcy Thompson and C. H. Waddington) on biological growth and the aesthetics of organic form. It raises questions about the relationship of art to science and the imaginary to the real. Ultimately, Lionni argued, the discovery of new frontiers in both science and art require “a spirit of invention, an originality of method, a freedom of interpretation normally suffocated by the enormous weight of accepted ideas…” (1977, 177).

References:
Lingeman, Richard R. (November 13, 1977). Book Ends; Imaginary Plants Finding a Home…The New York Times Book Review, p. BR24. Retrieved March 31, 2008 from Times Select (The New York Times Archives), http://www.nytimes.com.

Lionni, Leo. (1997). Between Worlds, The Autobiography of Leo Lionni. New York: Alfred A.Knopf.

Lionni, Leo. (1977). Parallel Botany. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

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