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Robin Field, the Peter Pan of Reason
In the 1980s, I devised, and performed a few times, the “routine” reproduced below. (What inspired me to do so is a story in itself.) In the show, I actually use the magic tricks to make philosophical points.Here I will tell the story about what inspired me.
In the 1980s I belonged to a local Objectivist club, and one day I received a flyer from them titled “An Evening with Robin Field.” It began by quoting a review:
“What is so? How do you know? So, what should you do?”The flyer announced a local performance of the work in question, whose full title was Three Questions: A Philosophical Oratorio. I was immediately intrigued: striving in my own sphere to give musical expression to some part of the Objectivist worldview, I suddenly realized I was not alone.
The concert was held in the Toronto Conservatory of Music on January 28, 1984. My reaction was such that I wrote the following letter to Mr. Field:
I am writing to tell you how much I enjoyed and was intrigued by your performance of “Three Questions” on January 28 at the Royal Conservatory of Music here. …He wrote back:
Thank you very much for taking the time to write me with your impressions of my show. Yours was the first letter I received following the Toronto performance. It’s a pleasure to sign your program—which I’m enclosing with a few other things.
“To Rodney Rawlings—Thank you for your words
of encouragement—Just the response I hoped for.
Consider the cassette and booklet [the work’s libretto] a gift. They’re versions of the show I used to sell. … I offer you these in gratitude for your comments, and because you seem particularly eager to study the contents and structure of “Three Questions.” …The inside front cover of the libretto told me more about him:
“Robin Field is an extraordinarily gifted young man,” exclaimed Backstage when he opened in Look Me Up. … Variety agreed: “Robin Field throws away Jessel, Jolson and Durante in mini-impressions in a strong pianolog.” Dom DeLuise agreed and brought Robin to national exposure as his protege on Merv Griffin.In my long reply I told him about my own songwriting and my performing as a magician. I praised his lyrics, saying “Not only do they suit the music, rhyme accurately (except for some artistically justified deviations) and inventively, and exploit fully the beautiful effect of incantatory repetition …, but they pluck their ideas and turns of phrase from a wide range of possibilities. … “The Universe” is lovely. … Here again the fine use of repetition. Here again the fine use of repetition.”
Robin soon replied: “Well, we seem to have succeeded in overwhelming each other. Your long letter … has remained a highlight in my personal life for weeks now. … you are the first to analyze [Three Questions] in such detail and from so many perspectives of specialized knowledge. … I’ve probably read your letter 20 times by now.”
I lost contact with him in 1991. However, thanks to the Internet I have been able to learn a bit more about Robin’s subsequent career—for example, his teaming up with entertainer Dottie Burman to create a musical comedy album for which he wrote the music. The last I heard, he had decided to concentrate full-time on composing.
A more recent photo. Copyright 2005 Annie Hughes.
Details About Three Questions
… I spent about three weeks creating Three Questions, give or take. Actually, I’d written three of the songs as independent creations nearly a year before conceiving the oratorio. … Once the whole idea came to me, those songs served as the landmarks I could write up to and away from. And, to complicate this answer somewhat, the song-titles medley wasn’t completed until after an experimental performance of the work. …Three Questions: A Philosophical Oratorio consists of sixteen sections, nine of which are sung and seven of which consist of verse recitations. Some of the latter are what are known in show business as “pianologs”—monologues with piano backing. Most of the sung sections are actual songs with minimal intellectual content; the others, however, do present significant ideas and several of them are a bit lengthy to be regarded as songs in the usual sense. In general, a sung section is followed by a spoken section and vice versa, except at the beginning and the end of the oratorio where singing predominates.
I would like to present some sound clips from my personal copy of Three Questions (dated 1978). The performance on this cassette apparently took place before a small audience of friends and Objectivists. Here is how Robin was introduced:
Since I regard the opening sequence as one of the best parts of the Oratorio, I will present it in full:
The phrase “three questions” is an allusion to Ayn Rand’s essay “Philosophy: Who Needs It” (1974), where she says:
Suppose that you are an astronaut whose spaceship … crashes on an unknown planet. When you regained consciousness …, the first three questions in your mind would be: Where am I? How can I discover it? What should I do?These questions, as Rand goes on to explain, correspond to the three main branches of philosophy: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics. Thus, in this opening sequence the theme of the work is presented: the audience is being urged to consider the importance of philosophy to their lives.
The next section makes the point that everyone indeed has a philosophy, and it is imperative that one be aware of it and make sure it is a true one. Here, three similar but contrasting melodies flow out of one another. The first tune, it may be noted, uses the mixture of rhythms employed by Leonard Bernstein in his West Side Story song “America”:
“Everyone Has a Philosophy” [excerpted]
In the next section, which is the longest so far, Robin gives a mini-outline of the history of philosophy from the Orientals and the Greeks to the modern era:
In “First Things First,” Robin invites the listeners, in his speaking voice, to “start all over” in exploring philosophical questions. Here the piano is silent for the first time. “The most important thing to me / Is me. … And so, I guess, the most important / Thing to you is you. / But then again, I’m not / The first thing ever to occur.” This line of thought leads the speaker into the song “Cause and Effect,” whose basic message is “Something must antecede / Before a thing can be.”
The next section, “Way Back,” is a rhymed pianolog that segues into the next song, “The Universe”:
“Way Back” and “The Universe” [excerpted]
“What Is So” is another unaccompanied verse recitation on the axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness. It is a natural lead-in to the song “Awareness,” which makes the point that “Every thought starts from there: / I am and I am aware.” That song has a piano interlude:
“Awareness” instrumental passage
There follows the spoken “How Do You Know?” without accompaniment, which describes reason, emphasizes that it must be used by man’s choice, and points out that man’s fallibility necessitates a specific procedure in thinking, known as logic—the recognition of Aristotle’s Law of Identity. This is Robin’s excuse for the next rollicking, comedy song, a romp of glorious drunken nonsense:
“A Is A” [excerpted]
Now, as far as Robin is concerned, he has covered the first two questions, and he moves on to the final one in the rhymed pianolog “So What Should You Do?” This section deals with Ethics, which is identified as depending upon the two previous branches of philosophy, Metaphysics and Epistemology. Robin summarizes in verse Ayn Rand’s theory of the metaphysical basis of morality and its epistemological implications, and covers her discussion of each of the virtues named in Galt’s speech. The section is, in fact, the culmination of the work intellectually. It ends:
The most important thing to meHowever, it is not yet the climax. First, there is a song about taking responsibility for the course of one’s life: “I Took It from There.” The words include, near the end, “Someone once showed me / It was all up to me. / And then I took it from there.” This may be an allusion to Rand’s influence on Robin’s own life.
Next come dramatic chords announcing a reprise of “Everyone Has a Philosophy,” signaling that the oratorio is drawing to a close. The choppy, “America”-like rhythm of the earlier version is gone, replaced with a straight-ahead succession of triplets. This is another of my favorite sections; the way the melodic counterpoints snake and weave around the words is ravishing. This time, the theme is the social effects of mistaken philosophy. Robin begins with Politics, the fourth of the five major branches of philosophy:
“Everyone Has a Philosophy (II)” [excerpted]
Now we come to the true climax of Three Questions. This tour de force gives Robin Field the chance to show more of his entertainment skills, among them his talent at mimicry. Still on the subject of the social effects of mistaken philosophy, Robin turns to our cultural atmosphere and its impact upon the individual’s deepest attitudes about life. In a stroke of genius, he presents a medley of our most famous and popular songs through mini-impressions of various well-known performers, choosing those specific titles and lyric lines that reflect the pernicious commonplaces of our day:
“Everyone Has a Philosophy (II) [medley]” [excerpted]
The wind-down of Three Questions consists of some brief verses and a final ballad. The verses are titled, appropriately enough, “Three Answers”:
“Three Answers” [excerpted]
Robin closes with the song “Living,” whose meaning is best summed up in its last verse:
This, Robin wants us to see, is the cashing-in, the reward for correctly answering the three questions that “hold the key / To man’s relation to Reality.” It is no accident that the first few notes of the oratorio, which introduced the song “Three Questions,” are derived from this last song, and that the piano passage serving as the transition to the second song “Everyone Has a Philosophy” is also based on it. We have a framing device within a framing device.
Literary AspectsConsidering the fact that, as he freely admits, Robin dropped out of high school, the writing talents displayed in the oratorio are remarkable. To repeat some of what I said in one of my letters: “[Not only do y]our lyrics … suit the music, rhyme accurately (except for some artistically justified deviations) and inventively, and exploit fully the beautiful effect of incantatory repetition …, but they pluck their ideas and turns of phrase from a wide range of possibilities. Many of them stand up as straight poetry, once one allows for unmetrical lines caused by pick-up, extra, and tied-over notes which have no poetry-like mates, in the music.”
To be exact, song lyrics seldom read as good poetry on the page, since poetry and lyrics have different organizing principles. However, the creation of lyrics calls for specialized literary skills that have much in common with those needed for poetry.
The writing ability shown in the oratorio may be partly explained by the author’s show business background: there are many parallels between art and entertainment, and in fact they are often one and the same, as in the performing arts. Also, Robin undoubtedly learned a lot through his study of the great popular songs and their lyrics.
Here are a few samples of the rhyming skills and wordplay that are everywhere in Three Questions:
Philosophers are men who thinkSome of my next observations may be of interest only to those acquainted with poetic theory.
Among the poetic and devices used is assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds in a noticeable way. Assonance is a sort of internal rhyme—a correspondence that does not necessarily occur at the ends of the lines or any other rhyme-points, and does not insist on complete rhymes. In the samples above, notice “change” and “strange” on successive lines; although these words rhyme, they are not placed at the rhyme-points and so are merely assonantal.
There are also instances of alliteration, or the repetition of consonant sounds: “This digging in the dogma / Hasn’t turned up any answers.” “Digging” and “dogma” here are alliterative.
A common error committed by those who attempt to write verse is to make the line endings correspond to syntactical breaks. A good poet knows that it is better to create a tension between the sentence structures and the poetical structures. Robin shows that he knows this in such passages as: “The most important thing to me / Is me. That much is true.”
Another mistake avoided in this work is to present an identity as a rhyme, as when some writers put “wait” and “weight” at the rhyme-points. However, the poetic device known as echo—repetition of a word or idea for effect—appears in abundance, notably on the words “philosophy” and “philosophies” in “Everyone Has a Philosophy.” Robin also gives us an interesting variation on this device when he echoes “philosophies” with “philosophy’s.”
The rhyme scheme used in the various sections that are not sung is usually abcb, which provides more flexibility for the intellectual content that prevails in these sections. The scheme abab, however, requiring two rhymes instead of one, does appear at times in “Everyone Has a Philosophy,” which presents ideas in both of its incarnations; the reason may have something to do with the fact that the words are sung.
Robin employs a good mixture of male and female rhymes, always a good idea. A female rhyme ends on an unstressed syllable, as in “Bentham, meant them” and “society, propriety.”
“Everyone Has a Philosophy” exhibits another resemblance to the spoken sections: the stanzaic structure used, 16 lines consisting of four groups with the rhyme scheme noted above. The only time this structure is departed from in the intellectual sections is when Robin discusses each of the seven virtues (as presented in Atlas Shrugged) in turn. The sudden resort to quatrains (4-line stanzas) gives the passage a climactic feel, and indeed the presentation of the virtues makes up what might be called the intellectual climax of the oratorio.
Musical AspectsIn his second letter to me, Robin wrote:
Basically, the words came first. But I almost never write lyrics without a clear musical idea in mind first. I’ve made a study of all the composers and lyricists you named, too—to which I would add Gilbert and Sullivan, Kern, Porter, Arlen, Styne-Comden-&-Green, etc.Musically, the oratorio exhibits a great deal of variety. There are patter songs, ballads, up-tempo numbers, a medley, and comedic songs, exploiting a wide dynamic range. Included are several musical jokes. The numbers are all of very high quality with effective and distinctive piano accompaniments that make occasional use of counterpoint and solo interludes.
The songs have well-defined tunes usually match the content well—possible exceptions being where arguments are presented in song, as in the reprise of “Everyone Has a Philosophy” where capitalism is explained. (But in that case the musical and structural interest somewhat compensates for this.)
Not surprisingly, the more dominant the music becomes in the oratorio, the less reasoning it attempts to convey. One might also think that there would be an inverse relationship between comedy and musicality here, but happily that is not the case. The two funniest numbers are also very tuneful.
Intellectual ContentIn general Three Questions displays a good knowledge of Objectivism, and perhaps is based upon one of the series of recorded lectures that have been offered on the subject. Robin, in fact, was at one time running Ayn Rand study groups. However, in this work intellectual values often defer to entertainment values. In other words, Robin from time to time takes what might be called “artistic license” with the ideas.
The “history of philosophy” at the beginning of the oratorio is the occasion for a string of witticisms as well as the summation of the Objectivist position on each of the great names. The song “Cause and Effect” makes the point that “Something must antecede / Before a thing can be,” which is not an exact way to state Rand’s position: that causes are things and effects are actions rather than other things. This misconception, if that is what it is, is continued in “Way Back,” a transition passage leading the listener back in time in a quest for the ultimate cause of everything, which turns out to be “The Universe.” Interestingly, that song comes just before “What Is So?”—which is the first of the three questions, and to which the song would be the proper answer.
“The Universe” is a highlight, both as entertainment and as faithful explanation—a perfectly appropriate, beautiful avowal of the primacy of existence. Even as verse on the page, without the music, the lyric makes a good impression.
The spoken section “What Is So?” concerning the second of the three questions is followed by the song “Awareness,” and thus it is framed in music about the two concepts it discusses, existence and consciousness. The discussion and the lyrics express the ideas quite accurately. The same can be said for “How Do You Know?” including its preamble to the next song.
However, that next song, “A Is A,” ignores doctrinal accuracy altogether for the sake of laughs. The Law of Identity is invoked in answer to Plato’s doctrine of the Forms, which does not quite hit the nail on the head. But as the nonsense proceeds, you stop caring. This treatment may reflect the fact that axioms are not subject to proof anyway—so why bother too much?
“So What Should You Do?” admirably compresses and expresses the ethical theory of Objectivism, while maintaining a sprinkle of humor. The ending quatrains dealing with the virtues are straightforwardly serious, however, which at this crucial point drives home the basic earnestness of purpose in the whole performance. Next comes a song stressing the importance of personal responsibility for applying those virtues, “I Took It from There.”
In the second part of “Everyone Has a Philosophy (II)” the medley implicitly attacks much of the clichéd thinking of our age: that love is the answer; that others’ happiness is our responsibility; that passivity is good; that the man-made and the commercial are inferior to the natural; that it is a sin to be rich; that fatalism is sophisticated; that self-pity is acceptable; that confusion and defeat are man’s lot; that you should pretend to be happy if you are not; that everything will be OK as long as you did it “your way.”
Since the medley quotes many famous songs, which Robin has presumably admired and studied, we must assume he knows that more benevolent interpretations may be made of many of these lyric thoughts. Just the same, most of the lyrics probably do partly bear the imprint of today’s false philosophies, and Robin is not the person to get picky if there’s an outside chance of snagging some applause and milking some laughs.
Besides, the medley serves a crucial intellectual function: it covers Esthetics, the last remaining branch of philosophy to be touched upon.
“Three Answers” shifts so suddenly back to serious mode that the effect is comedic; but it is a good summary of the proper conclusion to be drawn from the concert: “… what we should do / Is choose a Rational Morality. // Any other course will only / Lead us to destruction.”
It is not the avoidance of evil that is important, however, so we end, thoroughly correctly, with a paean to “Living.”
The Significance of Three QuestionsOn my web page, “Music, Melody, and Songs,” I opine that only successful works of art are worth analyzing in terms of technique, because the standard artistic devices are quite easy to incorporate into an artwork and the real challenge is to effectively integrate them to each other and to one’s purpose. By “successful” I do not mean popular or profitable, or even a critical success; I mean artistic victory, in the sense of masterfully communicating a worthwhile message.
By that standard, Three Questions was, as I wrote to Robin, the first really successful “Objectivist” work of art I had encountered up to then—that is, the first whose intention and effect was to put over the specifically Randian universe. I had read short stories and poems, seen paintings, and listened to music ostensibly devised to embody the philosophy, but I had perceived a forced and artificial quality in them. It takes more than “heroic” images, figures, poses, and gestures done with skill, and more than characters doing and saying things in accordance with Rand’s theories, to truly express that viewpoint with the power of art. What is so often missed in these efforts is the complete incarnation of ideas in every detail that comes from being guided uninhibitedly by one’s sense of life, one’s true internalized opinion of man’s existence.
Many Objectivists cannot do this, even assuming they have the needed skills, because they really do not trust themselves and feel they must try to imitate Ayn Rand. Others, more willing to be free and easy, nevertheless create works that seem distinctly darker or fuzzier than anything Rand’s universe would conceivably imply. In both cases, there is a diminishment of the art’s power to move others as the artist would wish.
The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have profoundly altered our culture, not just because of the ideas they proclaim, but also because they draw us into a world seen wholly in terms of those ideas, and make us think, “I like this. There is something important here.” If an artist truly wants to be a leader, not only must he have something to say, but also the words must be truly his own and he must know how to motivate people to listen.
In Three Questions, it is clear that Robin Field speaks with his own voice and can hold an audience in the palm of his hand. His many-faceted background in light entertainment—vaudeville, impressions, acting, pantomime, radio, theater, cartooning, puppetry, and ventriloquism—makes him a fitting representative of that joyous, benevolent American sense of life which Objectivism defends. As I told him in an early letter, the persona he portrays in the performance is like nothing so much as Disney’s Peter Pan: “fearless, laughing, confident, able, free, independent, victorious.” Even his real name—Robin Field—has the same rhythm, and sounds a bit like it belongs to some mythical natural sprite out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
To my knowledge, Robin Field is the first truly Objectivist composer—the first to write a work giving successful artistic expression to the philosophy.
The Ayn Rand ConnectionIn Robin’s second letter to me, he wrote:
Yes, I met Ayn Rand when I attended Dr. Peikoff’s live courses in New York in 1976 and 1978. But no, she never heard my show. Nor, to my knowledge, has Peikoff. … However, Dr. Peikoff has expressed interest in seeing a performance whenever it’s possible—so I’ll be sending him an invitation to an engagement I’m working on at NYU next month.In the next few years, he never mentioned this again, which might mean that Peikoff either never caught the show or never communicated to Robin what he thought of it. Another possibility is that Peikoff disliked the work or disapproved of such an irreverent approach to Rand’s ideas. In my reply I had cautioned Robin that this last might happen (despite the fact that an acquaintance of mine had told me the professor played “a mean piano”).
In all probability, Rand never saw the show. Especially in her later life, which coincided with this period, she had little interest in creations by her admirers. But one wonders whether, if she had seen it, Robin Field’s persona might have stirred memories of her younger self as described in Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand—the Ayn Rand, happier, more serene and true to her own vision, who had once banged pots behind a drape to provide sound effects for a girl friend’s comedy routine, and “laughed uproariously at her jokes.”
That image alone is enough to convince me that, in a way, Ayn Rand and Objectivism come full circle in Three Questions.
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