“An audience, for anything in the arts, does not pre-exist. It is part of what is created.” — Renata Adler, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker

The phrase “a laughter of inner devils” stems from a passage found late in Edith Wharton’s great novel The Age of Innocence. In chapter 33, Newland Archer and his young, vacuous wife, May, host an intricate farewell dinner for May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska, who will sail for Europe the following day—never to return to New York society.

It is the last occasion on which Newland and Ellen Olenska—in love with each other without having become lovers—will be in the same room at the same time, their parting words guarded exchanges of small talk under the watchful eyes of their dining companions.

. . . and it became clear to Archer that here also a conspiracy of rehabilitation and obliteration was going on. The silent organisation which held his little world together was determined to put itself on record as never for a moment having questioned the propriety of Madame Olenska’s conduct, or the completeness of Archer’s domestic felicity. All these amiable and inexorable persons were resolutely engaged in pretending to each other that they had never heard of, suspected, or even conceived possible, the least hint to the contrary; and from this tissue of elaborate mutual dissimulation Archer once more disengaged the fact that New York believed him to be Madame Olenska’s lover. He caught the glitter of victory in his wife’s eyes, and for the first time understood that she shared the belief. The discovery roused a laughter of inner devils that reverberated through all his efforts to discuss the Martha Washington ball with Mrs. Reggie Chivers and little Mrs. Newland; and so the evening swept on, running and running like a senseless river that did not know how to stop.

Rather than explain away my own meanings, I leave it to the individual reader to determine in his or her mind what parallels I might foreseeably draw between Wharton’s lapidary dissection of the mannered, Old Money sensibility of the 1870s and this present retrospective of my ventures into arts criticism during the period 2002-2009.

The majority appears as originally published, with my assessment of Capote slightly lengthened. Inevitably, the urge to revise and tinker with these 200 or so revivals proved irresistible—a process on-going as long as there’s an Internet. Or a me.

N.P. Thompson
October 18, 2010

npthompson [at] yandex [dot] com