In Which I Encounter Bohemian Grove
The first I heard of Bohemian Grove was my senior year at Berkeley. I was talking to a guy I had a crush on who would years later go on to write a novel hailed in the New York Times for both the power of its prose and the attractiveness of its author photo, a development which pissed me off and thereby taught me things about myself. At the time of our Bohemian Grove talk I didn’t know any of this would happen. I had a crush on this guy, but also a sense of my own value — I was just back from Berlin where I had been spending my junior year abroad, I was dating a French guy — and this guy was talking to me about having worked at Bohemian Grove over the summer, and obviously expecting it to mean something to me, and it didn’t, at all, and then he explained that it was summer camp for the rich and powerful, the Illuminati if you will, although we didn’t use that term in common parlance then. It was 1998.
And then, of course, it came up with other people, and everybody, by which I mean my father who is my yardstick for what I should know, had heard of it, and it became another marker on my internal map of the social layout of the world, California in particular, and then twenty years later, after I had moved to Sonoma County where the Bohemian Grove is actually located and the local alt-weekly is called the North Bay Bohemian, I found a stack of beautifully bound small books in my local used bookstore.
The paper was that thick paper and the headings were in different color ink than the text and there were illustrations and what they were was a collection of the Bohemian Grove plays. I wanted to own them all. As it was, I settled for buying one of them and not reading it and explaining to my husband what Bohemian Grove was. Then I read him aloud the best bits of a copy cached on the internet of Phillip Weiss’s amazing Spy article where he snuck into the encampment which I found via this really good Gawker article by somebody who, like the boy I had a crush on, worked at the Grove. There are so many fantastic details in the Weiss article, and the one I found most nauseating was not the ineffable Henry Kissinger-ness of Henry Kissinger or the men peeing everywhere, but the gin fizzes served in bed at 7 a.m. You should read it.
And then I kept thinking about the plays and then I bought one for my best friend who went to Berkeley with me and then I made my father buy one when he was out visiting and the primary emotion undergirding all of this was a vast acquisitiveness, and then I decided I wanted to write about them, which allowed me to buy a bunch. I kind of wanted to just buy them all, but they are not super-cheap and there are a ton of them, so I carefully sorted through and selected around eight, also a copy of the club rules and past officers and a copy of the club history from 1969. I had this idea that I was going to really put together something of substance about the Bohemian Grove.
The Most Boring Plays In The World
Now, having read almost all of my supply of Bohemian Grove plays I can only thank god that I did not buy more, because if I had bought more I might have felt obliged to read them and with every Grove play read my will to live plummets. This afternoon I walked by a cyclone of wasps in a strip mall, so many wasps that I thought at first they were gnats and then they were so big and there were so many of them and it became clear that they were wasps and although a storm of wasps is an intrinsically interesting thing, it is made more interesting by not being a Grove Play.
The Grove Plays are in some sense literally ageless — the 1995 play (Marco Polo) could have been mounted in place of the 1962 Grove Play (Agincourt) without anybody being alarmed by anachronism. Some of this is probably accounted for by the age of the authors — the introduction to the 1973 Grove Play has the author talking about his childhood during the First World War — but probably more of it has to do with reference points. Italo Calvino, after all, wrote Invisible Cities in 1972, but you would not know that such a thing existed from reading the Bohemian Grove Marco Polo. If all you had to reconstruct literature from was the assembled Grove Plays you could not begin to conceive of Invisible Cities as a thing that language could do.
The goal of the Grove Play seems to be to take a story as widely known as possible (either literally, as in the re-telling of Treasure Island, or more figuratively as in the immensely sad Irish play The Grass Is Red) and to tell it in exactly the way people familiar with it would expect it to be told. This is the St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Agincourt, the Grove version of Henry V: “We are but few, and as a noble few we stand as brothers to fight or die for a cause that is right and with the love and protection of Almighty God!” I have never read Henry V, but I knew enough to know, sort of, the vague music of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” enough to check that point off on the boxes of things I expect from my Henry V re-telling, enough to feel that the vague roadmap in my head is being followed.
I was trying to tell my husband about this and he was saying how apparently being a master of the world doesn’t give you any additional insight into the world, which forced me to confront the fact that among the people writing in and acting in and watching these plays were and are people who actually make decisions about going into wars and who will fight in them and who will be killed in them, not to mention all the other ways people get hurt and die not being given their proper share of the goods of the world. But also I wanted to start laughing because the whole idea of insight is so alien to the Bohemian Grove play experience that I had forgotten about it as a thing plays could do.
I cannot decide if the people writing these plays knew they were writing a flat pointless version of life or not. It reminded me of the way that third graders who have no idea what a buttercup looks like will include them in school-mandated poems about spring and not even know, when they do it, that they don’t know what a buttercup is. And maybe the plays are the masters of the world deliberately hiding all the things they know (you cannot imagine how many videos and articles about the satanic implications of Bohemian Grove there are on the internet; how many videos titled something like, “Alex Jones takes on the Bohemian Grove,” and it makes me nostalgic for Peter Weiss’s time when the protestors of Bohemian Grove were left wing, which seems so much obviously better.). But maybe the plays are just evidence that the masters of the world don’t actually know anything about the world. Or maybe they know things about the world but the idea of connecting the things they actually know about the world to the things they write for the Grove Play seems bizarre and pointless and masturbatory to them.
None of which means that the plays aren’t saying things; they are saying all kinds of things. It’s just that they say, in the ways we expect them to say, the things we are used to hearing from our ruling class, and so it feels like they’re not saying anything. I keep wanting to describe the plays as apolitical, but they’re not apolitical at all — a decision to make Lincoln an indisputably good man while not really taking a position on slavery as an institution is not apolitical at all. It’s vast assurance combined with the blandness of a dominant narrative that gives this false impression. And the very lack of insight, the lack of anything remotely personal, whether on purpose or not, reinforces that.
To be clear, there are plenty of overtly horrifying things in the plays. There is a casual racism so pervasive that I’m tempted to not give any examples, but instead I will refer you to the preface to The Golden Cave: “While suggesting the East his tunes have none of the whine and tinkle of the Orient, a cacophony which seems to appeal to tone-deaf Indians and cobras.” But I was braced for that; I knew to expect that. What I hadn’t been expecting was the total absence of life, the weird echo-y feeling of a landscape devoid of any recognizable figures.
My Total Absence Of Methodology Leads To A Lot Of Unanswered Questions
Each Grove play includes a complete list of its predecessors, and they supposedly started up in 1878. (Also, according to both copies of the bylaws I picked up, the Grove started the idea of outdoor productions of Shakespeare, which seems improbable.) These are the plays I read: Tetecan (performed in 1950), A Soldier And Mr. Lincoln (1961), Agincourt (1962), The Bucaneers (1964), Red Is The Grass (1971), The Golden Cave (1973), Maximilian! (1984), Marco Polo (1995), The Three Musketeers (1998). I also bought Fools In The Forest (1951) and was completely unable to make myself read it. I started at least twice, hit the line, “My attempt in this, the third grove play of my authorship, is to bring back simplicity to the High Jinks,” and gave up.
I am missing entirely the early years — the bookstore didn’t have any of the super-early ones, and also I picked out my selection based on cover and illustrations and some attempt to scatter the decades. Tetecan, An Aztec Tragedy was by far the worst, which also made it in some respects the best — by virtue of being actively bad it was less boring. The prose of most of the plays that I read was neither good nor bad — it slipped through the mind, blithely and immediately trundling the best-worn tracks. Lincoln is conscientious and folksy and anguished, D’Artagnan is rash but upright. Vermont country folk say things like, “William, this jest can’t be true.” The jest there is to stand in for just; you maybe were thinking that I was mocking the exalted prose put into the mouth of Vermont country folk, but nothing could be further from the intention of the Grove play authors. The country folk are always country folk, albeit with a certain brand of charm and spiritual enlightenment by virtue of being country folk.
Tetecan rises actively into badness. The word “lascivious” appears in the stage directions no less than three time to describe the dances of the young Aztec maidens (presumably played by middle-aged Grove attendees as opposed to old ones?). But maybe its interestingness says something about the historical trend of the Grove plays. A more serious scholar of the Grove plays would read them all and chart this out. I can only tell you that the second-most interesting Grove play that I read was Red Is The Grass, and it was interesting mostly because it’s a giddy concoction of every Irish stereotype and it’s both bland and dewy-eyed about the IRA killing people, an attitude that the American ruling class only seems to manage in the context of the IRA and which weirds me out. Basically everybody dies in the end: “Dennis fires and kills Morgan. Windstrom, James, and Ryder fire and O’Connor is hit. He crawls down the path seeking safer shelter as Dennis whirls and fires at Windstrom, who rolls down the hill and lays dead. James fires and kills O’Connor. Dennis fires at the hillside and Ryder returns his fire. Dennis falls dead.” Also the British villain saves the life of the un-villainous British guy at the cost of his own; in that sense no position is taken.
If I were a better person I would input every word in every Grove play into a computer and then it would spit out the secret message the ruling class is sending us, and if I were a better person I would write a 50,000 word dissertation on what it means that in 1984 the Grove mounted a play whose central tenet was that Maximilian I of Mexico was a man whose main fault was a too pure nature. It means something, it means lots of things, but I am a small-minded and frivolous person and I cannot get over how boring these plays were, how boring it would be to watch them and to act in them and to write them. It wouldn’t be easy; it would be immensely hard work, and it would be boring work.
Too Cool For School
There was a time when I worked in a corporate-ish environment with a lot of people who were smarter and more interesting and better looking than me, and we all went went on a corporate retreat together. There was supposed to be a scavenger hunt. I said I was not going to go on the scavenger hunt; I said I was going to sit by the pool and read my book. And one of the women on my team in the scavenger hunt said, “Don’t be too cool for school.” There is no way for me to tell this story without suggesting that I think I’m a better person for not going on the scavenger hunt because on some fundamental level I do think I’m a better person for not going on the scavenger hunt. Which is why I have to tell you that this woman was one of my favorite people there. She was ridiculously smart and also funny and she did not take herself seriously even a little bit. It would never occur to me to think that I am cooler than her; she is self-evidently cooler than me. And still I said no; I went to the pool. Everybody seemed to have a really good time on the scavenger hunt; they came back laughing and closer than ever. I could not stop thinking about this when I read, twice, the Bohemian Grove bylaws and history as transcribed in 1969 and 1973. The motto of the Bohemian Grove is “Weaving spiders, come not here.” It is on the front page of the bylaws. It sounds like an invitation to a sort of pleasing laziness, which, honestly the 7:00 a.m. gin fizzes, nauseating as they are, reinforce. But the text makes it clear that this is not so. The 1969 edition says, “Participation and appreciation are the twin cornerstones of membership in Bohemia. A true Bohemian at heart, when first elected, will not wait to be called upon; he will hunt around for an activity he can enjoy, a niche into which he can fit, without waiting for the Jinks Committee or some other source to crook a summoning finger.” The 1973 edition wants us to know that “in Bohemia they do not ‘also serve who only stand and wait.’” I am always over and over again sucked in by the surface aesthetics of things like the Bohemian Grove, that California arcadianism paired with real power, but belonging to the Bohemian Club seems like the worst thing in the entire world.
The Caine Mutiny
Herman Wouk, who wrote The Caine Mutiny, was a member of the Bohemian Club. I’ve never read the book, but I’ve seen the movie, in which Humphrey Bogart is the captain of a ship, goes insane, has a mutiny raised against him, the mutineers are tried by court martial, Humphrey Bogart goes nuts on the stand, the mutineers are acquitted, happy ending! Except that it is revealed in the end that Bogart was pushed into madness by the villain of the piece, who manipulated one of the mutineers. It’s a much better put together story than any of the Grove plays, but it is not hard to imagine it as a Grove play. I say that even though I’m pretty sure the movie made me cry. I thought of Herman Wouk a fair amount when I was reading the plays. Some of this is because he wrote an essay about the Bohemian Club for its hundredth anniversary which gets quoted a lot in articles about the Bohemian Club because it’s so dumb — it ends with the line, “Achievement can make any man an insider; that is the strongest basis for the survival of Bohemia.” But also because when I was just graduated from college I saw a version of The Caine Mutiny that was put on by the prisoners in a private prison in a small town in south Colorado. I was invited to go because I was a newspaper reporter in a nearby small town. It was the first time I had ever been to a prison, and it was very weird, because on the one hand I was invited so that I could tell the world how nice things were inside this prison that people were making money off, not just incidentally, but explicitly, intentionally. And on the other hand, the prisoners were genuinely delighted I was there, even though the reason I had been invited was to show the world the greatness and humanity of the conditions under which they were held captive. They were putting on this play and they wanted it to be good and they wanted it to be recognized as good. And it was a play about power and responsibility and standing trial and I don’t know if they really acted it super-well or if I just remember it that way because it seemed like such a complicated and interesting thing to be seeing. There are probably no videos anywhere of that play and I would be unable to look up the names of any of the people who acted in it and meanwhile there are five hundred copies of the Grove plays for sale right now. And Herman Wouk takes the time to tell us how important the Bohemian Club is.
To say that this is a bad state of affairs is self-evident, and yet in the face of the inanity of the plays themselves feels radical. The members of the Bohemian Grove, talented and well-meaning as they may or may not individually have been, wrote bad plays, and the plays were and are bad in a way that made the world worse, and the fact that we are living in a world that they made is also bad. If I were in a Bohemian Grove play, a member of the Bohemian Club would now do something noble to save my life which would either cause me to re-think the error of my ways or would confirm me in my villainy, but we are not, and I am grateful for it.