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Mencken, the musical: The Sage's other side

The Baltimore Sun

Coming to the Maryland Historical Society on Sept. 15 is The Artist: A Drama Without Words, the world premiere of an opera written by H.L. Mencken, with music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Louis Cheslock.

So, you didn't know that the Sage of Baltimore wrote an opera. Well, kind of.

It began life as an experimental play written by Mencken in 1912. Four years later, it became the Vagabond Players' first production.

The play, called "a drama without words," consists of the unspoken thoughts of a visiting German pianist and those of his audience and critics during a recital.

"Mencken purportedly never saw the original Baltimore production as he was literally glued to his seat at a dress rehearsal, having sat in a freshly shellacked chair. Perhaps wisely, he elected not to attend the main event," wrote David S. Thaler, a Baltimore businessman and noted Mencken collector, in a monograph commemorating its restaging.

"When I got wind that Elizabeth Schaaf, the Peabody's archivist, had discovered the libretto for The Artist, I decided that I would get Roger Brunyate, director of the Peabody Opera Theatre, to do it," said Thaler, who with his wife, Carolyn, underwrote the current production.

"It's sort of PDQ Bach-ish and over in about 25 minutes," Thaler said. "The whole thing was a labor of love."

What Schaaf had discovered was a libretto for the play that had been scored only for piano by Louis Cheslock, a longtime Peabody professor of music, and used only instrumental music by Beethoven.

Cheslock, who died in 1981, was a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra violinist and an old friend of Mencken's.

He was also the last surviving member of the Saturday Night Club, a group of Mencken cronies who met weekly for nearly 50 years to play music and drink beer.

"The backstory is we don't know why Cheslock did it and was it ever performed. We have no evidence that it was, or perhaps it was just for the Saturday Night Club. We just don't know," Thaler said. "And no one in the Mencken world or at Peabody could answer this question."

The only known public mention of the play, said Thaler, was a column by R. P. Harriss, also an old Mencken friend and former Evening Sun colleague, in the Baltimore American in 1962.

In his column, "The Lively Arts," Harriss described the play as one of "Mencken's early fooleries."

"A comic playlet by the late H.L. Mencken titled The Artist about a piano recital, is the basis of a short opera buffa just completed by Louis Cheslock," wrote Harriss.

Harriss' piece only adds to the mystery of whether it was performed.

"On stage, a long-haired German pianist is playing a Beethoven sonata and thinking soulfully about the good brews and plump frauleins of Munich," he wrote.

Navigating a challenging scherzo causes the pianist's audience to swoon.

"What passion he puts into it! His soul is in his fingertips," said The Virgin, one of the play's characters.

"A human pianola," replied A Critic, another character.

"Anybody coming from across the Atlantic is instantly superior to anyone who is home-produced. That's the point of Mencken's play. It's also a debunking of musical pretensions," said Brunyate.

He added: "It's also a clever piece of musical trivia and a charming joke."

The Artist, which will be performed at 5 p.m. at the historical society's headquarters at 201 W. Monument St., is part of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's annual daylong celebration that marks Mencken's Sept. 12, 1880, birthday.

In addition to essays by Thaler and Brunyate, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast, published by Oxford University Press in 2006, contributes a lively and entertaining essay on the Saturday Night Club.

However, don't look for The Artist to be performed anytime soon at La Scala or the Metropolitan Opera House.

"People will not weep. This is, after all, not Puccini," Brunyate said.

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