The Unrealized Potential of Take This Waltz By Leonard Cohen In The Gin Game Part 2: The Tragic Poignancy Of Love Touched But Not Grasped

Introduction: The Gin Game & The Dance Scene

In Part 1 of this post, The Unrealized Potential of Cohen’s Take This Waltz in The Gin Game Part 1: The Basics of the Play and Its Add-on Dance Scene, I provided basic information about D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” and its dance scene as groundwork for an explication of the bipartite thesis I stated in that preceding blog entry:

I contend that (1) the use of this specific song is key to the dance scene, which itself, though not part of the original script, exponentially enhances the drama and pathos of the play and serves as catalyst for the audience’s investment in the fate of the characters and, by the way, (2) the scene’s full potential is not realized because of the manner in which the music is implemented in the orthodox, playwright-sanctioned production of the play.1

Today’s post will focus on the specific uses of the dance scene and its music as well as my argument that the music could have been used to greater effect.

The Significance Of The Outcomes Of The Gin Games

At the center of “The Gin Game” is the cruel cosmic joke that we humans cling tenaciously and desperately to the very flaws that can destroy us – even when those faults are made all too apparent. Psychiatrists call the tendency of individuals to repeat a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again “repetition compulsion.” Fonsia and Weller are the elderly poster children for Repetition Compulsion.

In “The Gin Game,” Weller, who cajoles Fonsia into playing gin and teaches her the rudiments of the game, becomes increasingly frustrated to the point of apoplexy as Fonsia wins hand after hand, all the while maintaining her veneer of sweetly innocent decorum to the point of apologizing for winning, further antagonizing Weller.

This repeated scenario of Fonsia’s victories over the pompous and laughably over-reactive Weller is initially pleasing and genuinely funny to the audience, providing more than enough cues for anyone familiar with movies or TV to infer that “The Gin Game” is a romantic comedy with the familiar Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy story line in which the sweet but shrewd – and a tad shrewish – female wins the the crusty male curmudgeon’s heart, which on analysis, turns out to be composed of gold.

A sense of hope is boosted, for example, by the contrast in appearance of Fonsia and Weller before and after their first meeting. When first seen, Weller wears “terry-cloth slippers, khaki pants, a pajama top and an old brown wool bathrobe” while Fonsia is clothed in “faded pink slippers, an old housecoat, and a cardigan sweater.” Encouraged by their first contact, Weller next appears in “a jacket and tie, khaki pants and loafers,” and Fonsia “looks like a different woman [in] a print dress, a rose-colored cardigan, and open-toed sandals.”

What was comical and hopeful, however, turns threatening and tragic as Weller proves unable to tolerate the assault on his brittle ego caused by the ongoing losses at gin. His increasingly lurid language and escalating violence (e.g., throwing over the card table after yet another loss) drive Fonsia (and likely the audience) into a psychological retreat.

Fonsia, however, cannot ultimately withdraw from the battle, even when it is clear that the only victory she can win will be Pyrrhic. She is herself rigidly insistent, because of her embedded history of unfulfilled hopes, on protecting her own facsimile of self-esteem at all costs and consequently approaches every interaction with the presumption that others, especially men, will attempt to attack, cheat, or abandon her.

This combination of traits prevents Weller and Fonsia from achieving more than a momentary connection and ultimately dooms their chance of forming an enduring relationship.

Because both characters are locked into their self-sabotaging personalities, conditions deteriorate until the final game turns into a furious no-holds barred battle that leaves both contestants dismayed, mortified, and – rightfully – frightened.

The Waltz As Redemption

The counterpoint to the mutually assured destruction, to use an especially appropriate Cold War term, of the card games is the dance Fonsia and Weller perform which offers the sole glimpse of genuine joyousness and selfless human connectedness in the universe created in “The Gin Game.”

Or, as Coburn puts it,

It’s [the dance is] essential because it offers a moment where we come to a full empathy and appreciation of the two characters and how close they, for a moment, get to where we want them to be. Not in some sentimental romance of old age or anything like that, but just having something in their lives that is enriching and making them happy. We certainly aren’t well down that road but we’re hinting at it with this dance. And then the dance reveals some of the psychological elements of lost abilities in Weller. And Fonsia can then get so much closer to him and feel so much for him when he has to sit down and can’t continue with the dance. It gives her a real feeling for Weller that perhaps is expressed as well as it can be in that moment.

The dancing demonstrates, in fact, a number of qualities that make it a remarkably apt means of portraying a potential route of rapprochement standing in contradistinction to the battleground of the gin games. For example,

  • The card games separate the players by a table and the cards while the dancing demands a physical embrace. In an early scene, in fact, Weller moves from sitting on the side of card table adjacent to Fonsia to a chair opposite her to prevent his seeing the cards in her hand. The card game exists in the antagonistic gap between the individuals; dancing exists in the coordinated touching and transient union of the two individuals.
  • The card games are mechanical, governed by a list of rules and regulations while the dancing is lyrical, allowing and encouraging variation from the standard format.
  • The card games position Fonsia and Weller as opponents, exacerbating their conflicts, while the dancing positions Fonsia and Weller as partners, permitting them to (temporarily) shift their behaviors to act in concert, benefiting themselves as well as their partner.

The mood shift from the card games to the dance is brilliantly clear-cut. The card games are filled with rancor, bitterness, attacks, insults, and rage. Compare that with this storyboard view of the dance scene.

The Dance Sequence Storyboard

From left to right,
Frame 1: Fonsia hears the music begin and is caught up in a revelry.
Frame 2: Weller allows that the music is “all right, but it’s too long.”
Frame 3: Weller complains that “Those lyrics, they’re crazy.”

From left to right,
Frame 4: Fonsia pleads/lures/entices Weller to dance with her.
Frame 5: Weller accedes to her wishes.
Frame 6: Fonsia reacts with delight to Weller’s agreement to dance with her.

The dance begins at the point portrayed in the graphic atop this post. Just prior to this, Weller motions Fonsia to him when they step together to dance, reciprocating her motions enticing him (see Frame 5).

From left to right,
Frame 8 & 9: After beginning with a standard, cautious box step, Fonsia and Weller accelerate, twirling and spinning youthfully and happily.
Frame 10: Fonsia and Weller gleefully take each other in, joyously celebrating their dance.

From left to right,
Frame 11: Immediately following the joyful moment, Weller’s leg gives out.
Frame 12: Fonsia commiserates with Weller’s lament that he “used to dance all night,” responding “so did I.”
Frame 13: Weller invites Fonsia back to the card table.

The sequence is also nuance-suffused with multiple details highlighting or reinforcing motifs. Beyond those mentioned already, one notes, for example, that Weller’s leg doesn’t buckle during the spinning and twirling but surrenders to fatigue immediately following that glimpse of happiness, emphasizing that, while old age may have intensified their weaknesses, the cruxes of Weller’s and Fonsia’s problems are their characterologic flaws rather than their physiological or intellectual deficits secondary to aging. Again, quoting from Coburn’s commentary on the PBS web site,

I’m more interested in showing the psychological aspects of getting older, but, of course, physical health does play a part in that. Weller knows that dancing is something that he was once even noted for and he knows this is going to be extremely difficult for him because he’s been having great difficulty with his leg. Fonsia doesn’t realize that. He tries to go right over that, as though it doesn’t exist, and they do dance but he has to give it up after 20 seconds or so. There’s that great loss of things that we used to be able to do that we can no longer do. So the physical is a big element in the despair in getting older.

In fact, one of the few instances of true empathy between the two characters is Fonsia’s observation that she too used to “dance all night.”2

The entire dance scene, from the time the two characters appear on-screen until the segment ends with them returning to playing cards, is less than three minutes. The dancing itself lasts less than 30 seconds. Yet, as the author intended, the scene opens the audience’s eyes to what is possible for Fonsia and Weller and develops an empathic bond between the characters and those watching the play.

That, my friend, is dramaturgic efficiency.

The Use of Take This Waltz in The Gin Game

That Take This Waltz serves as a fitting accompaniment for a waltz, a dance step appropriate to the characters, their setting, and the needs of the play is important but also self-apparent. The effect of the song’s lyrics, however, is less obvious and is part and parcel of my argument.

Readers may recall from yesterday’s post the playwright’s own description of the music:

About two weeks later, while having dinner with my wife, we were listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz.” And this is a very curious piece. It’s strange in that the lyrics are, in some cases, bizarre, but they are such beautiful harmonies. I started to see how a dance scene could offer a moment where we come to a full appreciation of the two characters as they get as close as we want them to be. [emphasis mine]

Coburn’s recounting of the event resonates with this comment from Julie Harris,

We’re all very excited about it [the dancing] because it’s a wonderful scene. He’s found the perfect piece of music, Take This Waltz by Leonard Cohen. You know Leonard Cohen? It’s quite a poignant piece of music … [emphasis mine]

And, indeed, these “bizarre,” “poignant” lyrics are positioned as the alternative to the rigidly logical rules that regulate the gin games. Extrapolating, the implication is that logic and intellect, the provinces of the head, can’t cure problems of the heart. To communicate between two hearts, to overcome the psychological flaws that preclude two individuals reaching out to one another requires something that is, like Take This Waltz, surreal, beautiful, and touching.

The Staging Of Take This Waltz And Its Effect On The Audience’s Comprehension Of The Lyrics

Observing the staging of Take This Waltz is best accomplished by viewing the video of the dance scene from the PBS production of “The Gin Game” in the player below. I suggest watching it twice. First, enjoy an overview of the dance. On the second viewing, focus on the lyrics of Take This Waltz being sung in the background with the goal of determining the words and phrases the audience can hear and understand.

To my ears, the only reliably clear words from the start of the song until the dialog between the characters halts while Fonsia motions Weller to dance with her and Weller silently decides to fulfill that request are the refrains, Take this waltz and Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay. During the described interlude in the dialog, these lines from Take This Waltz are sung:

Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand
This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

In Cohen’s lyrics, the line, Dragging its tail in the sea, is followed by the verse that begins,

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews

and continues for three stanzas.

In the play, however, Dragging its tail in the sea marks the end of the lyrics; the remainder of the version of the song used in the play, which serves as accompaniment for the actual dancing, is purely instrumental. When the dancing ends because of Weller’s leg giving out, the song ends as well.

The rest of the original lyrics of Take This Waltz are either buried beneath the actors’ lines or are expunged altogether.3 Take This Waltz plays for most but not all of the three minute dance scene. Given that the shortest version of Take This Waltz I can find on a Leonard Cohen CD is a few second less than six minutes, simple arithmetic reveals that at least half the song, as Leonard Cohen performs it, has been deleted in the version used in “The Gin Game.”

That only a fraction of the song’s lyrics are accessible to the audience places Weller’s comment that “Those lyrics, they’re crazy” in a new light. This observation, which echoes a similar comment by Weller earlier in the play, is, I suspect, meant to substitute for a full rendition of the lyrics, i.e., the author, through Weller, tells the audience that lyrics are crazy – or as Coburn himself calls them, “bizarre.”

This course of action may have been chosen because it’s more efficient.4

Or Weller may announce that the lyrics are “crazy” to relieve the audience of the burden of puzzling it out for themselves, i.e., Weller’s declaration is the means to assure that the audience “gets it.”

Came So Far For Beauty

Eliminating a portion of a song, even an excellent song, does not, of course, necessarily decrease the value of the song’s function in a play. Obviously, alterations to music used in movies and theater (when that music was not written specifically for those purposes) may be necessary for practical reasons (e.g., Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, AKA Ode to Joy!, seems a dandy piece of music and at just over an hour of playing time, is not, as symphonies go, an especially lengthy work; yet, even dedicated playgoers might flinch at the prospect of a play consisting of 90 minutes of dialog plus 60 more minutes of the Ninth Symphony. As they (should) say, a little of the Ninth goes a long way) or issues intrinsic to the film or play (e.g., switching pronoun genders in love ballads to match the play’s cast or changing the tempo or length of an orchestral work to match the action on the screen).

Whether or not a different staging of Take This Waltz, especially one that would feature more of the lyrics, would offer any enhancements to “The Gin Game” is a legitimate question.

There is, admittedly, more than a tad of a bit of hubris involved in my answering that query. After all, D.L. Coburn has a Pulitzer Prize for “The Gin Game”5 while I have – a blog. There’s also the matter of my attempts to read Coburn’s mind despite my lack of psychic credentials. And, I carry the biases of one who is a Leonard Cohen fan more than a D.L. Coburn fan; I tend, for example, to see “The Gin Game” as a backdrop for Take This Waltz and to find myself wondering if Coburn considered doing a musical version of the play, turning the Bentley into an all-Cohen, all the time cabaret.

Nonetheless, my perspective, now that all the necessary analysis has been done, is simple to explain but neither trivial or the mere product of my Cohenthusiasm.6 As an audience member, I want the chance to discover and experience for myself the same enchantment and gratification Coburn felt when he first heard the “strange” song, Take This Waltz, with its “bizarre” lyrics and “beautiful harmonies.” I want to share the excitement of Julie Harris extolling the “poignant” and “perfect piece of music.” That sounds much more interesting than being told by an actor playing Weller that a character like Weller would find the words to the song “crazy.”

And, I have one additional argument to offer:

Now in Vienna there’s ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

Oh I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallways where love’s never been
On a bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz it’s been dying for years

There’s an attic where children are playing
Where I’ve got to lie down with you soon
In a dream of Hungarian lanterns
In the mist of some sweet afternoon
And I’ll see what you’ve chained to your sorrow
All your sheep and your lilies of snow
Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
With its “I’ll never forget you, you know!”

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz …

And I’ll dance with you in Vienna
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder,
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, Oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It’s yours now. It’s all that there is

  1. The only production of “The Gin Game” I’ve seen is the video of the PBS version of the play. Since the PBS TV screenplay was adapted from the script by the playwright, D.L. Coburn, my working assumption, until shown otherwise, is that the staging of the dance in this production is in line with his intentions and instructions. []
  2. OK, it did occur to me that this would have been an excellent opportunity to use Cohen’s “Do I Have To Dance All Night.” See The Best Leonard Cohen Song You’ve (Probably) Never Heard » Heck … []
  3. Early in the song, other words can, with special effort, be understood but are otherwise obscured by the actors’ dialog being spoken simultaneously. Surely, an audience intent on following the action of the lay would not make out many of the lyrics other than those noted and the success rate in comprehending even those lines, especially if the audience member has not previously heard Take This Waltz, would likely be low. []
  4. The economical use of time is, obviously, important, especially for the the TV version of the play since it has discrete, rigid time restrictions; it could be that because of the less demanding timing of the live theater, stage productions of “The Gin Game” use longer versions of the song []
  5. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded before the dance scene was part of the play []
  6. That said, it does seem a lost opportunity to forgo using a Leonard Cohen recording of Take This Waltz in the play, given that there is no reason the song has to be performed live. The version of Take This Waltz on The Essential Leonard Cohen is one of the singer’s more melodious vocalizations, is easily understood, and seems well worth the extra three or four minutes. []

0 responses to “The Unrealized Potential of Take This Waltz By Leonard Cohen In The Gin Game Part 2: The Tragic Poignancy Of Love Touched But Not Grasped

  1. Elizabeth Bacon-Smith

    Hi 1HeckOfAGuy ~

    I enjoyed your analyses and commentary in both of these sections. I’m one of those you mention who has heard of it, but didn’t really know what it was about. Reading all that you’ve written makes me want to see it. I love the compassion that can be seen in Fonsia’s delivery of “…I’ve seen them.”

    The same as happens with Fonsia in this film clip, I am magnetically drawn and turn away from the moment at hand, whenever I hear strains of a Leonard Cohen song. With her focusing her attention toward the space in the partially-open door, from whence the song is being heard, I feel the audience may be, as well… with the grumblings of Weller possibly becoming more a part of the background. You’re seeing me qualify this comment, as this is my own reaction to it, with its being Leonard’s song. [I only wish they would use his own recordings for these purposes, as for me, they would bring the very best to the productions… perhaps, too costly having to deal with the copyright people? At any rate, this singer does it well.]

    Even if the audience isn’t as drawn as I am to the song and its lyrics playing in the background, if one subscribes to the idea of subliminalities in film, as I do, there remains an impact on the audience through the lyrics, and they contribute to the overall ambience and mood of the scene and its message. My observations may all be part of amazing coincidence, or there may have been some intent by the one placing these snippets in this scene. Since everything appears to be so exacting in its production, it seems that the decision to include part of this song may have been done in an exacting way, as well. These are the lyrics that at least I hear very clearly here, before they begin to dance:

    (a) ” . . . there’s 10 pretty women” ~ for me, this is significant as it underscores this being a nursing home, where women vastly outnumber the men. Never mind what he says about the rest of the people there, when he’s grousing about everything, as it is. The fact is that the song is emanating from a dance class, where people are up on their feet and engaged. They also have families and friends who come see them, so he is left with this one pretty woman, as the others are involved with other people.

    (b) ” . . . to cry” ~ the sadness that abounds in this play/film [and in nursing homes, in general] makes this a fitting, emotional statement. Each in their own way, they are crying, as well.

    (c) ” . . . where the doves go to die” ~ a fairly apt description of a nursing home, where the once active, high-flying dove-ly elderly do just that… with each of them being that, too.

    (d) ” . . . there’s a piece that is torn from the morning” ~ the timing of this, for me, imparts two messages… first, this is how aging and old age feel, things aren’t whole and fresh like they once were… second, it coincides with Weller’s talking about the residents when the sheets get changed. This is an action where the sheet is the piece that is most often removed from a bed with a tearing [“gets torn”] movement, and it happens in [“from the”] morning. The fresh, clean sheets create a feeling of ‘newness’ for people and likely for the elderly, as well… a few moments of going back to the way life once was… the sheets symbolic of that.

    (e) ” . . . and it hangs in the gallery of frost” ~ old people, hanging around, waiting to die, in the gallery [the nursing home, itself, where people are assembled like parts of an exhibit] of frost [the colour of their hair, as well as a description of the rigidity of their bodies, the coldness that has set in with their spirits].

    (f) ” . . . chair with a dead magazine” ~ chairs with old, outdated magazines abound in nursing homes for the elderly. “Dead” here serves, again, two purposes… the other is that these people are nearly dead, as well… magazines that once were bright, colourful, alive, and in date; they are now old, ‘dull,’ and out-of-date, some considering themselves… and maybe considered by others… as the same as dead.

    For me, the lyrics that I hear before they dance lend to the poignancy of the dance itself… that in those moments together, they come alive, vibrant, and step in time with each other and the day.

    Thank you, Dr. Guy, for a really excellent analysis of the play/film that I now very much want to see because of you and all that you brought to my perception of it. Thank you for the clips and the lyrics of Leonard’s songs. I, too, am absolutely committed to him.

    Elizabeth Bacon-Smith

  2. Elizabeth Bacon-Smith

    Hmmm, DrHGuy ~

    I never finished what I had intended to say, so now need to add a second posting.

    Continuing with the lyrics that are audible and understandable to me, as they come in the lapses of dialogue:

    (g) ” . . . a hallway where” ~ nursing homes tend to be filled with hallways, noticeable by their feeling of emptiness, and especially so when they are lined with people in wheelchairs who may or may not be in connection with reality as we know it.

    (h) ” . . . where the moon has been sweating” ~ an image of the moon, that is so often associated with serenity in the sky and a feeling of peacefulness with eternity. Now, the moon has been sweating, not necessarily so peaceful with the idea of eternity.

    (i) ” . . . in a cry filled with [footsteps] and sand” ~ the cries come in many forms in a nursing home, filled with the many footsteps from the past, which are so few now… and with the sand, the cries are filled with the proverbial sands of time, so few of the grains left in the upper portion of the hourglass, as their time and their footsteps are coming to an end.

    (j) ” . . . take its broken waist in your hand” ~ you’ve already noted this as one that is clearly audible… it’s what he literally does with her ‘broken’ waist as they dance.

    Thanks you, again, for your wonderful analysis, DrHGuy.

    ~ Elizabeth

  3. Elizabeth Bacon-Smith

    I like your Footnotes system, Dr.H.Guy. My own footnote to all I’ve said is that the alternative is that I’m simply wrong :wink: ~ still, they needed to select what portion of the song they would use, and based that on something.

    ~ Elizabeth