Archive for the ‘Plays’ Category

Saajan Fernandes (Irran Khan) and Lla (Nimrat Kaur) in The Lunchbox (2013)

Marion (Dame Janet Suzmann) and Solomon (Khayalethu Anthony) in Solomon and Marion (2014)

Dear friends and readers,

This weekend I managed to see and want to recommend two poignant (and at moments comic) dramatized stories from abroad about an unexpected or unlikely couple finding meaning and solace in one another. This seems to be almost a theme of this year: it’s the core of Philomena too. They are both parables about contemporary lonely and politically shattered lives in large cities and small country towns.

The first is easier to reach as it is a film, directed and written by Ritesh Batra, and still in theaters and where Izzy and I went had a reasonably large audience in the auditorium. As she wrote, it is probably wise to read about dabbawalas at wikipedia first — though it is not necessary as the opening sequence takes you on a journey of the lunchbox in question from the house of LLa, the housewife who put the hot delicious food in its containers, through the streets, trains, carts, and to the office and desk of Saajan, the managerial clerk who is lucky enough wrongly to receive it. The film is as much a study of the lives of modern Indians living in over-crowded Mumbai (Bombay), individually isolated, lonely, and with little chance of doing anything personally fulfilling.

Since I’ve been reading about the supposed universal paradigm underlying most screenplays in cinema, it felt beautifully ironic to find myself watching a film which does not fit into this, mostly because it’s not western in origin, and its patterning is a much modified descendent of the popular 2 and 1/2 hour extravaganza of music, dance, and story Bollywood is famous for. I’ve no doubt that Syd Field and others would still say that in the first ten minutes of the film we are introduced to the main characters (the two principals), and the dramatic premise and situation of the film: they are lonely, without any friend.

Saajan is an office worker, a widower, spending long days in a impersonal overcrowded place, traveling amid crowds to and fro, and then sitting with his books; Lla is a housewife whose husband is unfaithful and she is stuck at home with only an aged woman (auntie) who is taking care of a dying husband above stair to talk to. The carefully prepared lunch Lla is making is intended to appeal to her husband but arrives at the wrong place, she realizes this, and she and Saajan begin to correspond, so private writing selves emerge. The central phase does show the two characters’ needs and obstacles put in the way: how are they to find out one another’s names, and meet and become fully realized friends — perhaps lovers? There are plot points which take the movie in other directions: an orphaned young man, Shaikh (Nawwasudden Siddiqui) is to replace Saajan who is retiring, and slowly wins over the older man to the point Saajan begins to share this lunch with Shaikh and Shaikh offers Saajan another outlet and distraction (as they slowly become friends during their temporary relationship). Finally Saajan and Lla arrange to meet face-to-face, a meeting to which LLa comes and where she waits fruitlessly for hours and hours; Saajan does finally get himself to come (late), but he does not have the courage to show himself as he feels he is so much older than she and will not be attractive to her. The acting by Khan is as usual superb — the man is pitch perfect in gesture, face, body language – and Kaur and Siddiqui more mutely implicitly appealing.

Nonetheless, the review in the New Yorker was harsh and declared the film meandered and went nowhere, was a muddle,”a slight undeveloped anecdote.” Another reviewer sounded surprised that the movie is attracting audiences. These are signs that indeed this film has a counter-prevailing structure, one that is partly cyclical for the arrival and departure of the lunchbox occurs over and over as do these notes, the housewife’s day, the worker’s evenings before the TV, the young man’s training. There are moments that music breaks out showing the origins of the this other structure; on the other hand, it felt like an epistolary novel dramatized; the notes could have been emails were this set in New York City. It used the still reprehended over-voice repeatedly:



I will say that the lack of the paradigm working forcefully and a forward thrust of action in the film extends to a lack of resolution and puzzle and disappointment at the end for both Izzy and I. It was not that we were insistent on the couple getting together and retiring elsewhere — in the film a longed-for idealized place for retirement, Bhutan, but we couldn’t understand what what is literally happening at the film’s very end. Near the film’s close she sends Saajan the lunchbox with empty containers in it, so hurt is she that he did not come to the rendez-vous; he answers explaining that he was there but unable to show himself to her, but it seems to take her time to decide to come to his office to see him and in the interim he retires and when she shows Shaikh informs her wrongly Saajan has gone to Bhutan. She hurries home and within a day or so, prepares a suitcase and her one daughter’s things, and takes the immense step of leaving the husband and traveling to Bhutan. In fact Saajan has gone to a cheaper place he had originally intended to go, Nashik, found it worse than where he was living, more desolating and returned to his apartment. He seems to look for her but does not go to her house (as he does not know where it is) and is last seen on a train but not one going outside of India but rather within the city.

The wikipedia article informed me that he was going in search of Lla, implying that he would discover she had left for Bhutan and follow her. If the feel of the film was that we were seeing how tragically easy it is for chance and human irresolution to get in the way of happiness, then I would not complain. Instead it simply lacked clarity and I was left sad and (as Izzy said) longing for them to become a couple. Perhaps though its inconsequent ending made it yet truer to our lives today.


You will have to find the play by Lara Foot (she was also the director of this production) done in another theater. It was the last of many places performed at the Kennedy Center over the last 21 days: a “World Stages” festival where plays and acting companies from around the world were brought together, as many as three or four done a day, some as dramatic readings and some with panels to discuss the performance afterward. There were exhibits from London, Paris, and South Africa, of life-size puppets and human figures in what looked like carousels: these were recognizable figures from plays, operas, the arts. Drawings of costumes from costume designers.

It made me sad to go there today as this was just the sort of event Jim would have loved to go to: he would have bought tickets for at least several of the plays, we would have attended readings and perhaps even panels (though he was not as keen on this kind of thing, finding the talk all too often silly, or coming from a conventionally moralistic point of view. I had bought myself two tickets, the other for a play from Iceland, a romance taking place during the financial crisis of 2008 (the couple in the banner above were in that play), now overcome by decent social governmental measures, and I had forgotten to go. A Freudian oversight? I had underlined a dramatic reading of a story from the horrifying seige on Fallujah inflicted on its people by barbaric US military acts: I did remember that but it was so cold that day and without the car it is a trek for me to get to the Kennedy Center because of waiting for a bus that comes once an hour. I had bought my two tickets during the time when my license was still un-suspended and had fully expected to be able to drive to the Metro and then take the train.

Today and yesterday Izzy and I did have this positive thing occur: we learned that we can order a much cheaper Uber cab, a small taxi like vehicle and it cost me just $6 to be taken to the station, and for the two of us just $8 each way to and from Shirlington. When we would go with Jim, he’d take the car all the way to the Center and pay $20 to park, go early and eat at the Terrace theater (a much overpriced meal); parking at Shirlington is hellish to find and it costs at least $15 so I now feel I am free to call for the Uber cab — when I can get the app on the iphone to work.

But to Foot’s play. Janet Suzman plays Miss Marion, an aging white African woman, a widow living on an isolated farm to whom comes Khayalethu Anthony, or Solomon a young black African man sent by his grandmother, once a housekeeper for Miss Marion and now worried she is in need of help and company. Their interactions are interwoven with her soliloquies given the excuse that she is writing letters to her married daughter, Annie, living in Australia. It was 90 minutes of intensities with no intermission. It opens with a fearful nightmare sequence.

Solomon and Marion

What emerges is she had a son who was brutally murdered by a gang of bullying thugs when he was in his teens; after that she and her husband separated. Solomon was there at the murder as a witness and he has come because he wants to tell her a message her son sent to her, and confess that he was a coward, fearful of coming forward as a witness lest he be murdered and his sisters and mother and aunt raped and murdered. Her daughter is angry because her mother will not come to Australia to live with her, but Marion cannot leave the only home she has known and all the things in it that stand for her memories.


The play had some weaknesses: the language was sometimes clichéd and the actual story played out before us didn’t altogether make sense. The ending where the two principals are reconciled as they sit in front of a TV together and plan to get an extension cord so they can plug it is was touching but too added on. It was strongest in its images — almost like a film. Suzman in the dark leaning over her stove, sitting in a chair, a blanket over her legs. The two eating together; he doing things for her, like painting the wall. He wears the son’s shirt by mistake — or not mistake as the shirt fits so well.

Janet Suzman

Jim and I had seen Suzman twice: once in London and here at the Kennedy Center in a production of Coriolanus where she played another mother, Volumnia. Her strong performance stirred within me a shared heartache and loss and yes courage. In the program notes I read that not only ago during a rehearsal in South Africa of Hamlet, with Janet Suzman as director, an actor, Brett Goldin was murdered too. She has been brave enough to speak out against some actors who pander to the theory that someone other than Shakespeare (usual candidate a dissolute nobleman, the Earl of Oxford) wrote Shakespeare’s plays.For I have tried to enact some courage — how else could I still be here? I found myself looking about and wondering (as I sometimes do) where Jim has gone, where he can be, as he was here only it seems a few short months ago, so strong, a healthy 64 year old man. He was literally devoured by a malevolent disease which has reached epidemic proportions and not only is no one doing anything preventive or fundamental to stop this killing and death in howling pain, while he died he was heartlessly fleeced and coldly barely tolerated as a treatment opportunity to make money on. Marion’s boy was killed by an over gang of thugs, my beautiful man by a silent stealthy one. How many people in the audience around me sitting there most of them with a companion had lost friends and lovers and children to cancer. It’s kept invisible.

As I got out of the bus about a block away from my house (I was lucky and as I came out of the train, I just caught the bus on time), it began to snow, sleet, ice and rain on me. I wished so intensely he were walking beside me and alive to feel the blessing of these freezing waters.


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Meryl Streep (Violet Western), Julia Roberts (Barbara Fordham), Bernard Cumberbatch (Little Charles Aiken)

Dear friends and readers,

Since I’ve now come across several reviews of the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s powerful play, August: Osage County, including misogynistic diatribe by David Denby (he resents the way Streep looks, the way Roberts behaves so stonily) in the New Yorker, I thought I’d briefly defend the film and urge people to go see it.

First it is another in a long line of depictions of US family pathologies as peculiarly hellish: the first I know of are by Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night); the tradition carries on in Tennessee Williams’ work (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Miller (Death of a Salesman), Albee (Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf); it’s found by women (Hellman’s Little Foxes). We see it in the TV serial drama, Breaking Bad: in US life violence lies near to the surface, and family life instead of being a halcyon retreat (as is claimed) mirrors the terrific demands for competition, success, pressure on people to make big sums of money, the desperation over worldly failure, and if in real life most people don’t jump on one another to physically punish one another, they do the next best thing: corrosive excoriating needling, sexual too.

The terrain is that of Nebraska: the flat failed rural world; the escapes the same, pills, alcohol; the miseries the spreading cancer epidemic: Violet (Streep), the wife has mouth cancer; Ivy Western, her middle daughter had ovarian cancer caught early and a hysterectomy. It’s fine in US life to practice serial monogamy so we have three daughters with no permanent husband: Barbara (Roberts) is now aging and her husband (Ewan McGregor) has turned to a younger woman who does not pressure him to succeed so much; Karen Western (Juliet Lewis), the youngest sister settles for a conscienceless rake (Dermot Mulrooney); another, Ivy Western (Julianne Nicholson) more sympathetic) falls in love with Little Charles (Bernard Cumberbatch), her cousin who is raked over by his mother for not growing rich: they are to discover they are half-siblings. His legal father (Chris Cooper) is the only person besides Ivy to show him love and respect. Betrayal, deceit, secrecy, ignorance of all political and larger realities. There is some love or at least loyalty to this fragile ideal of family as the grown children all show up after Beverly Western (Sam Shepard) their father kills himself by drowning: a failed poet-professor who had no world to belong to.

As in other of these types of plays, there is the problem of what the characters scream at each other about: in all of them it’s sexual humiliation, lack of monetary success, scorn for men who are “weak” (not ferociously competitive, not macho males); who takes pills, who is an alcoholic, who betrayed whom. It’s a dark mirror of us, a concave house of tricks. The special emphasis here is on the loneliness and despair of the women.

It did not falter on the screen. The opening up to landscape gave it greater pictorial resonance with a play’s typical reliance on subtleties of debate within the language. It was not so claustrophic as it probably was on stage: I thought the film of Who’s afraid with Burton and Taylor similarly improved by having the characters go to a tavern and wander around a parking lot half-drunk. Comedy was brought in as here. Tellingly cars (people still imprisoned together — who likes a traffic jam?) figure in this opening up in both and in Nebraska:


Also arrivals by bus (little Charles); long shots of the house as people drive up to it. Some scenes shot within a screened porch at a distance. Julia Roberts last seen heading out on the highway in a truck.

A theme not brought up much is that of the aging single woman. Violet was very moving to me as the widow now left alone with no meaning for her life; Barbara as the tough exterior woman now going to live lovelessly (her daughter is deserting her); all of the women but Ivy lack any kind or trusting relationship. This is the product of a kind of rootless life where sympathy is not the central value, and sexual looks far too valued. I didn’t cry at the end because I felt the losses that were shown were irreparable and that there had never been anything to cherish; these traumas and cruelties went too deep for tears. I stretched my arms out wide and pulled them together to try to release the tension communicated.

Another is that of mothers and daughters. It’s said — and truly — that as who your father socially was, and who his father, determines your destiny (whether you are male or female); so for a woman the relationship you have with your mother can destroy or make you, or how she treats you is central. And from that point of view, Violet is kinder than allowed: she did not much help, but she did not destroy her daughters. One of them, Barbara, resents deeply how her mother failed to help her, how her mother is weak, and would like to get back, but is restrained by pity as well as remembered love. We see them clash again and again. I suspect the dislike the film received came from the popular audience irritated by this central mother-daughter paradigm. Who cares? would say most men. Many women might turn away from what they see, not want to see themselves in any of the three mother-daughter paradigms the movie provides at all.

The play or movie is another important play mirroring another phase of US culture’s destructive soul-destroying history: curiously the relatives all sit down to dinner together, keep a surface veneer: the result of our cruel economic policies, exclusive social lives, segregated spacial layouts. Everyone holding on, nightmare upon nightmare and finally they physically attack. Only the Spanish maid seems to have any patience for compassion.


The performances are terrific, not overdone at all, especially those of Streep and Roberts as mother and daughter. Miller gives us sons and fathers; Williams shows us spouses and siblings; Albee fathers and daughters. Now we have mother and daughters.


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Kate O’Hara of An Eye for an Eye by Elisa Trimby

Dear friends and readers,

More than a week ago now a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies finished reading Trollope’s powerful Anglo-Irish novella, An Eye for an Eye. We’ve been having a sort of Anglo-Irish year and a half, having now read (in this order) just before (but not directly after one another), The Kellys and O’Kellys, Castle Richmond, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. The links I provide will taken the reader to group reads of these books a different group of us read on the same list-serv some ten years ago.

The Macdermots of Ballycloran was the first novel the first list-serv group for Trollope I ever was on read together (we chose it because it was Trollope’s first novel), and the reading and book is the subject of the first chapter of my book, where, with its second chapter on all the other Anglo-Irish books of Trollope (excluding the Phineas books) I argue this set of books is a powerful sub-genre, a series whose books share a group of characteristics and repeating motifs; Trollope maps its landscape (and thus Ireland). I wrote in my book it’s:

a place apart, filled with characters who have little hope, who encounter cruelty, hardship and indifference with a combination of pragmatic acceptance, stern heroism, mythic gestures and extravagant fantasies. It is a place ‘especially unhappy’, rural, archaic, primal in customs. When it is realistic, we explore paralysis. When it is romantic, we find ourselves in providential, picaresque or gothic worlds, in the latter of which uncanny happenings are at home. Sutherland remarks that when an English novelist turned to Ireland he evoked ‘a vein of Celtic romance and pathos’ unavailable in English novels.

Well it won over a new set of people (plus me, and any other old-timer). I’ve assigned it twice to my students, have read good student papers on it, and I again wrote about their reaction, how they identified with the young hero and heroine whose lives are destroyed by ethnic, religious, class prejudice.

The best of Trollope’s critics, Richard Holt Hutton, who identified Trollope when he tried to publish anonymously, saw the novella as one where: that two decent people are destroyed by the inhumane twisted mores of our society. Hutton writes: “Of all the strange perversions of which the moral nature of men is capable probably none is stranger than the tendency of certain socalled “social obligations” to override the simpler personal obligations in certain men’s breasts, an dyet to work there with all the force of high duty, and all the absoluteness of an admitted destiny.” Hutton goes over all the characters and how [the hero] Fred is led by them and the place in England to do what he is ashamed of [not marry Kate after he has impregnated her], to tell himself he owes more to “society” than his conscience or God; a “sacred promise” become a thing of “contempt” when what is contemptible is not making Kate is true wife. Hutton does not blame Fred but he shows how he is hardened.

This time I will quote from my book:

An Eye for Eye is a small masterpiece. Nearly all those who have read and written about it have pronounced it a stark, passionate, and poetic romance of surpassing merit. Richard Holt Hutton, Trollope’s contemporary, and still one of his best critics, thought An Eye for an Eye would ‘take a high place among Mr Trollope’s works’. He said ‘there is something in the atmosphere of Ireland which appears to rouse his imagination, and give force and simplicity to his pictures of life’. Holt analysed the novella as a ‘tragic story of mastering passion and over-mastering prejudice, — of a great sin, and a great wrong, and great revenge’ and ‘family pride’, one with a full array of subtly observed real characters’. An Eye for an Eye is a ‘story which no man without a very powerful imagination could have written’.

Lady Scroope, Fred’s adopted stepmother has prided herself on her austere Christian life, but ‘the strange perversion of which the moral nature of man is capable’ leads her for the sake of her family’s prestige first to hound Fred to break off with Kate, then to forbid him to marry her. When Kate becomes pregnant, Lady Scroope hints to him if he cannot desert Kate, he can live with her without marrying her (Eye for An Eye, pp. 156-64). The novel teaches us — most unusually says Holt — that moral justice demands that its hero, who feels contempt for the girl he has seduced, shall still not desert her.

John William North, “Requiescat in Pace,” for Jean Ingelow, Poems, 1867 — it could be Fred wandering on the Moher cliffs

What gives An Eye for an Eye the power to astonish and keeps the reader compulsively turning pages is the dilemma the book turns on — the struggle between Fred’s pragmatic and proud ambition which prevents him, a young man upon whom rank and money have been unexpectedly thrust, from offering to marry Kate, and his equally intense desire to escape reponsibility and social ties in order to lose himself in a wild landscape of dreams. There is something deeply appealing to him in the tender love of a wholly undemanding girl (pp. 62-64, 66-67, 71, 81). This is also one of Trollope’s many novels whose meaning cannot be understood apart from, and whose events could not have happened anywhere but in its particular landscape (pp. 189-94).

A suggestive photograph by Carleton Watkins (1865-66)

Trollope’s uncanny insight into Kate’s mother’s character is absorbing. Mrs O’Hara married against her family’s advice and found herself isolated and married to a betrayer, a low-life drone. When her husband deserted her, she came to live in a cottage on the Moher cliffs; her only friend is a Catholic priest, Father Marty, who encourages Fred because Father Marty thinks Fred a great prize, especially for Kate (pp. 52-60). Mrs O’Hara allows the courtship to continue because she is moved by her daughter’s silent plea that before Fred her life in isolation was no life (pp. 42-43).

Trollope presents Mrs O’Hara as a woman who has been driven to the edge of desperation by a hard cold society; Fred’s refusal to marry Kate awakens in her a latent ferocity created by her past, one of which Fred was only half-aware and which frightened him (p. 65). Fred cannot foresee this last blow to her pride will be one blow too many for Mrs O’Hara to sustain without resorting to some form of crazed behaviour.

An Eye for an Eye is structured as an explanation of how Mrs O’Hara’s mind came to disintegrate suddenly — it opens with her madness. After I read it for the first time I compared it to Elsa Morante’s 1974 La storia, a fictionalised history of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century as experienced by Ida [Iduzza] Ramundo:

An Eye for An Eye is written as a flashback. It opens with a one and one-half page ‘Foreword’ in which we met a woman in a private asylum ‘somewhere in the west of England’ [in the manuscript Trollope wrote 'Ireland']. She sits quietly all day, occasionally uttering the same phrases over and over, ‘An eye for an eye . . . and a tooth for a tooth. Is it not the law?’ And her attendant agrees ‘An eye for an eye, madam. Oh, certainly. That is the law. An eye for an eye, no doubt’. The book isan unraveling of this opening image, an explanation of who the woman is and how she came to be there, of the meaning of her formula repeated ‘a dozen dozen times’ a day. Morante takes 656 pages to get us to a remarkably similar page and one-half where Iduzza similarly goes mad when one day she comes home from work to find all she had left to value gone. Her beloved disabled young son lies dead on the floor. We are told she spends the rest of her life repeating and muttering a strange series of syllables no-one understands. They are the words of the child who was an epileptic and thrown out of school because he was thought an idiot. When nine years Iduzza finally dies (the last paragraph of this book), we are told she had really died the day her son died. Iduzza has been shattered and destroyed by four years of terrible war, isolation and despair.

In a book of one-quarter the length Trollope presents us with a similarly desperate woman who has severed herself from all other people because she has been scorned as well as betrayed, and when her treasure, Kate, is betrayed by Fred, we watch her gradually strained beyond endurance lose all control until on the cliff, when she is once again asked to listen to Fred refuse to marry Kate, she pushes him to his death.

In Trollope’s and Morante’s novels we are made to feel what the hierarchies of society cost the vulnerable. The epigraph of Morante’s novel is a comment by a Hiroshima survivor: ‘there is no word in any human language capable of consoling the guinea-pig who doesn’t understand why she died’. This epigraph applies to Thady in the Macdermots and the lovers in An Eye for an Eye.

The novella ends tragically; it is intense as are Trollope’s other novellas. The one closest to it for poignant ironic romance is Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite whose stories show strong resemblances, and which itself is a closely analogous story to Henry James’s Washington Square, with the daughter dying unfairly turns against her own father and her maid. Since James was so hard on Trollope, it’s not that often noticed how James reads Trollope assiduously as each Trollope novel is published and how much James owes to Trollope as a source.

A scene found in Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square which has an equivalent in James’ and Trollope’s novellas alike

I can’t recommend it too highly.


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Emblematic logo for production

Dear friends and readers,

I write to urge anyone reading this who lives within driving or Metro (or walking) distance of the Artisphere in Arlington where a group of Washington Shakespeare Company players are performing Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author — to go see it! It was still in inexpensive previews; I say this not that the play is costly to go to once “opened,” but as explanation for why I can find no photos of the cast in costume or acting out their roles on line, only some photos of the cast out of costume.

It’s superb. I’ve seen only one version of Pirandello’s play before, a film on PBS, and it didn’t begin to convey the strong tragic center of the story that the characters are (apparently) driven to repeat over and over, though we get to see them do it but once. That’s enough. The trauma of their seething feelings is so exhausting to them that it becomes farcical at the edges; we feel in our minds there is something absurd about their hysteria and yet the events of their lives are not much worse than any other family, and probably banal or par for the course for many a life. I had recalled that a troupe is researching a play, and as the director begins to get annoyed with them, these characters in black barge in seeking their author who has disowned them. No wonder. This is a parable of incest, adultery, emotional and economic betrayal, unjustified accident death, mortification, driven continual ceaseless hurt which is intended to be a kind of nightmare mirror. The director at first tries to get rid of them, but finds himself having to allow them to take over his stage and soon is trying to direct them too; he cannot stop them from acting out their story until its final conclusion. Along the way there are many comments about drama, about reality and illusion (the stage takes a beating here), comedy over the actors’ response to these real characters who are indignant at the idea they are just a game.

I don’t know which of the principals to praise more: Bruce Alan Rauscher as the director (I saw him recently in Marathon 33, marvelous there too), the great Brian Hemmingsen as the father, the truly perfect (such an off-putting word but it’s accurate) acting of Nanna Ingvarsson who is pitch perfect down to the way she walks so lightly at one point as she moves over to the older son she is grieving for. The hardest role which demanded the most emoting is the Stepdaughter: Sara Barker was up to it. Joshua Dick so quiet during most of the play startles the audience when it’s his turn to act out his inner seething self insisting he made no scene, there was no scene. The little girl who drowns very sweet. Liz Dutton as Madame Place suitably over-the-top arch, complete with red whig and high voice.

The director Tom Prewitt perhaps had a core idea of the gothic meets the wry comic. The stage was done minimally as the company is not rich, but it was more than adequate to the case. We are watching a rehearsal after all. The translation by Carl R. Mueller seemed perfectly naturalistic.

If you value evenings of high theater, this is one to go to.


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Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).

Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.

Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.


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An internet photo (we do not yet carry an ipad camera as a regular thing)

A cat curled up in its pod (Detail from A Lady with a Harp below)

We spotted the turtles before we did the pussycats, probably because the turtles moved and the pussycats didn’t. Also we were out-of-doors and it was earlier in the day.

Saturday morning our plan was to return to Madison Square garden & exchange our 5 o’clock train on Sunday for one much earlier in the day since for Sunday the reasonable prediction was much colder and heavy rain all day, and thus far our three visits to NYC had involved much living in the streets, walking, eating, watching, strolling, gazing. We’d had our Starbucks coffees and croissants in Bryant Park on the usual teetering pastoral green chairs and wobbly table while reading the New York Times, then succeeded in the exchange ($120 extra), taken the subway up, and entered the Park at 76th and found ourselves in the Ramble.

A lovely thick green lake with people rowing beckoned, so we got on that path, and following the stones I thought I saw a fake (stone sculptures very small) set of 4 turtles sitting very still on some stone or log. In Alexandria, where we live there are fake ducks in some of the ponds so life-like you think they are bobbing for fish. We came up to the log and I thought I saw one of the turtles move its head. Nothing unexpected. Often in Alexandria I see real live ducks come up to the fake ones. But then a much smaller size turtle began to climb the log. It struggled to pull up, and almost fell back, but somehow held out and heave-ho, up it got. Then I saw another turtle on the log appear to squiggle in response, and realized the whole lot of them were alive. This new medium-sized one, then four adults, each with a flipper on the others, and finally a very tiny baby turtle, at first hidden by the mother and facing another way.

We had happened on turtle pond. Over across the other side, nests of turtles.

I don’t know how long we walked, it was such a beautiful morning, in the 70s, sunny, breezy. We passed by some area where people were bird-watching: cameras, binoculars, special outfits, alert-looking with books all announced this. One man smiled from a bench and said hello as we passed.Past a playground named after its benefactor (the one with the three-bears statue) took us to the piazza before the Met museum and we went in.

It’s a vast people’s playground nowadays. We tried two of the exhibits and found one was done from a curator’s perspective (the Bernini clay models a vast distance from the blown up photos of the spectacular installation art (so to speak) everywhere in Rome, another mindless (how people love to fake photographs with no sense of what this implies). On the roof this Escher contraption for which one has to get a timed-ticket. So we visited a couple of favorite places — a room of Hubert Roberts badly hung and badly in need of cleaning amid the formal detritus, all uncomfortable to live in, of the super-rich 1% of ancien regimes (“period rooms”). This day for a time the museum, with its continual atavastic scary animal-like bizarre gods (a middle eastern room) and high hierarchical (wealthy, war-like) subjects (everywhere), reminded us how 90% of art has ever been deplorable.

Jim joked to a guard, where is the nearest elevator. He not getting it, I said “we want to get out.” “Get out!” the astonished man smiled. “Don’t we love it here?” I excused myself that my feet were hurting and I am old. He pointed to a corridor leading to stairs and an elevator.

I don’t mean to say it was all loss. A few good moments here and there. The Hubert Roberts. A Reynolds of a small woebegone young boy aristocrat not yet trained out of his humanity. And Marianne Dorothy Harland (1759–1785), Later Mrs. William Dalrymple by Richard Cosway (English, Okeford 1742–1821 London), which used to be exhibited as A Lady with Harp:

Bad picture, absurd posture, showing off what luck had thrown the young woman’s way (as long as she obeyed all materialistic and rank demands), it had nonetheless caught my attention because of the title (I thought of Austen’s Mary Crawford, of Mansfield Park fame), and when we went over what did we notice but that 200 years ago people were providing pods for cats to curl up in — just the way our scared-y cat Ian loved to. The thought crossed our minds that in this era only rich cats might have this luxury, but then when over an hour later we happened on a museum-school we had never heard of before, the National Academy Museum, and went inside to view its collection, we came across an American picture with a perhaps not quite so rich little girl and lo and behold near her feet, a cat curling up in a more home-made pod.

We’ve become very fond our our two pussycats and as a consequence stronger animal lovers, more alert to the presence of cats than we’ve ever been before and to how others treat them and other animals too. I’m convinced we were too young when we had our dog, Llyr, and were not sensitive enough to her presence and needs.

We spent 5 days & nights to NYC, the first full day of which I had attended a Burney conference, and the second morning I was with a long-time (constant) Janeite friend and her son. I’ll blog about the conference separately on Austen reveries. Herewith is another travelogue, a record of Jim and my good times together away from home. And again our choice was the exhilarating tolerant good city.

For the first time ever we bought ahead for all 4 evenings plays we wanted to see. The last three times we’d been back to the city this year and last year too we had had some good times, but managed never to see even one serious play. A combination of family emergencies & tragedy, the reasons we had come to the city, and just plain bad luck had got in the way: nothing on at half-price tickets we wanted to see or there between times when the opera or ballet is on or when the Delacorte did one of its marvelous performances of Shakespeare and other plays.

So we determined to make up for lost time. After Obama’s empty-chair indifferent performance against an exultant bully-boy Romney, we needed their inspiriting rebelliousness. How do New York City’s stages differ from those of DC, Virginia, & Maryland? Well, with no effort and on particular aim to see anything closely commenting on the political and economic catastrophe wreaked on the world for the last 30 years by a succession of US reactionary militaristic regimes and all their allies, client states, collusive victims and flunkies, three of the four did just that, and the fourth was not far off.

I’ll begin with the most magnificent and powerful of the lot, the great Brian Friel’s Freedom of the City, at the Irish Repertory Theater, on 22nd and 6th (not far from where Jim and I lived for well over a year — 22nd and 10th)

Joseph Sikora as Skinner dressed up in the Mayor’s robes, Napoleonic hat on head, cavorting about on the Guildhall

The play’s occasion was the slaughter of 13 people when on January 30, 1972 British soldiers shot down a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Ireland (“Bloody Sunday” it became known as). The Commission and judges set up to investigate found no one responsible, no soldier or officer was tried or even disciplined. Only in the last 10 years has another enquiry been set on foot which reversed the findings of the early court and the Tory PM apologized.

Way too late. One of the awarenesses Friel’s play brings home to the audience is the three people who in the play stumble by mistake and panic into the guildhall will never be brought back. Nothing can ever undo what was done nor make up for it. The fantasy elaboration is to put before us three characters, Michael, an embittered young seemingly permanently unemployed man who longs to live a productive self-respecting life with wife, children, goals, good work; Lily, an impoverished mother of 11 living in a condemned shack behind a railway, with no hope of any improvement in her life or for that of her family (she has had no access to contraception), and a loner outsider, Skinner, refusing to be coopted into, or justify the stupefying displacements and compromises the other two seem silently to accept — all the while endlessly talking. These three inside are interwoven with the cold impassive judge coming to his inexorable conclusion they are dangerous armed terrorists, using the evidence of a constable, and a psychiatrist; a ludicrous professor with her deconstructionist understandings; a reporter. Hovering over them the British soldiers armed, in camouflage outfits, with terrifying weapons at the ready. I reread the play tonight and was so moved. I can’t find any reviews so link in just the wikipedia article on the play itself.

At the Booklyn Academy of Music The Paris Commune, a Cabaret by Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman as directed by Steven Cosson. BAM is now made up of 3 (!) theaters: beyond the opera house, this modernistic building with its black box, and another I saw across a parking lot disguised as a green park.

Most people seem not to have heard of this bloody slaughter, much less know that as many people were killed by the French military in this 4 month period as were murdered in the 1792 Fall Terror so often detailed as a peculiarly horrific occasion in order to indite the French revolution. Basically what happened was the people of Paris took over the gov’t of France and for a time succeeded in holding on and beginning to reform and plan a sort of new deal (separation of church and state, no night work, pensions, remission of rents, ease of debts). This time it did not take the armies of four countries (England, Prussia, Spain and Russia united to defeat Napoleon’s armies) to crush and slaughter the rebellion.

Daniel Jenkins as the baker

Cosson and Friedman present the incident by a combination of rousing songs, actively rebellious character types in soliloquies and scenes interspersed with (ironic) songs of a soprano (Offenbach) and citizen types (baker and his wife, seamstress, politician). Everyone had to work very hard to give us a sense of a large crowd in frenetic activity. The language at the end and final song made the parallels with our own time and the recent destruction of the Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere.

Cock: the title refers as much to the staging of the play (in an apt cock-pit) as the lead actor’s penis

Cock by Mike Bartlett has (I think) an unfortunate title. It is not at all pornographic, not salacious: I took it to be the playing out of the lives of three unlucky people involved with a self-indulgent bisexual young man, John (Cory Michael Smith): M (Jason Butler Harner) the unfortunate male lover who supports him in a fantastically expensive apartment in London, W (Amanda Quaid), a young woman he meets and brings to a dinner cooked by M; and John’s father, F (Cotter Smith) who wants his son to marry and produce grandchildren. The acting is superb, controlled; I didn’t find it funny but rather poignant, a stinging representation of relationships endured under the circumstances and pressures of our era.

The two brothers confronting one another with Kathleen McKenny as Katherine, Dr Stockmann’s wife, as moderating influence

The least exhilarating (the proscenium stage realism creaks) and yet most directly relevant and at moments suddenly so eloquent was the fully (elaborately) staged Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in a new translation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz in an elegant Broadway theater, formerly the Biltmore now called the Manhattan Theater club (probably the first time Jim and I had been to Broadway in years). The acting was again superb, minor and major roles, but especially Boyd Gaines as Dr Stockman who has discovered the water of the town is contaminated, and Richard Thomas as his brother, Peter, a politician. Reviews have been rightly excellent (see highlights). I just wished that the central speech was not against what the majority wants or needs. Ibsen’s language derives from his own rebellion against the restrictive social mores of his country and class when what is on the minds of US people today is a political and economic and military oligarchy enforcing vast capitalist profits for a very few at the expensive of the decent lives and the earth itself for everyone else.

The four theaters were all just about filled. We also in the DC area do not have a population which goes to the theater like this. To be fair, we are talking about millions living in, close to, or near Manhattan, while in my area we have suburban distances to travel and theater is scattered across the area. This matters.

What else did we do?

Mickalene Thomas: this tiger cat image conveys some of the glittery texture of her work

We made it to the Brooklyn Museum for the first time in a few years, and were fascinated by Mickalene Thomas’s determined reversal images of much French impressionistic and white male art in The origin of the Universe: she replaces the white men & women with black women, and her pictures of the natural world and art in-doors sparkle with glitter and bold colors. It’s true that central to her project is supposed shock, but what has not been emphasized anywhere I can see is there is a story she tells here: of her and her mother’s supportive relationship (many of her pictures are of her mother), of her mother’s hard life (one where she endured physical abuse in a coerced marriage for many years). If you go, you’ll find this one touching rather than just about hard success. We again saw Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, some favorites in the American collection (new ones brought up) and the kind of odd new art (like a covered wagon made out of Christmas lights) found everywhere in active museums nowadays. There is a real attempt at the Brooklyn to mirror its surrounding population’s history and culture too. We were too tired to go very far into the Botanical Gardens once again.

We did, though really look at some some 300 out of 7000 [!] pictures said to be owned at the National Academy of Art. We just happened on the place later in the afternoon. A thin townhouse, its sign for an exhibit of self-portraits by women artists caught my eye, and we went in. It was like a trip through the history of American academic art, and quite revealing it was — we spent 2 hours there. Modernity and women’s art first hit these people around 1970, but they are making up for lost time. I now know what one of my favorite modern artists, Jane Freilicher looks like. Unfortunately, the feel of the place is exclusive, the behavior of some of its patrons snobbish, and online they don’t share much. By contrast, the Neue Galleries make the experience comfortable for all, even non-members. (This business of membership is creating little coteries — one is now found on the fourth floor of the Metropolitan museum.)

I won’t omit Lord and Taylor’s flagship store. Everyone who looks like they have money enough to spend is welcome. It too is filled with lovely art: really nice women’s clothes (probably men’s too) galore set out beautifully. I discovered that just like Kohl’s, L&T today indulges in putting prices on garments they don’t mean. When you get to the cash-register you just may find (not always) several different sales at once. The styles, choice, price and help everywhere account for the store becoming filled by the time Jim and I left. I bought myself a new fall jacket — and when we got back to the Princeton threw out my now ragged black one. Bras, a warm hat, neat thin woolen elegant gloves. I had to restrain myself not to go for more.

And we didn’t miss bookstores. At the Strand I got myself a new edition of a new translation of Lampedusa’s masterpiece, Il Gattapardo (complete with new introduction, notes, appendices), a new volume of Leopardi, a pleasurable and not too untrue anthology of bellestristic essays on Central Park (well chosen and inroduced by Andrew Blauner), a novella by Wm Dean Howells, A Sleep and a Forgetting, I’d never heard of.

Jim did not buy himself any new clothes nor books. I should perhaps have labelled this blog good or magical moments from our celebratory time away: Jim’s 64th birthday (yes we sang the Beatles’ song) and our 44th wedding anniversary. He seemed content to be open to experience, have it accessible, among the endless stream of people, seemingly sleepless once you go outside, staying again at the Princeton, enjoying what we did, being alive together at liberty. We ate out in fancy restaurants two different evenings, once Italian, and (recommended) once French (a place called the Marseille). We inhabited the bar for a time each night, and twice were content just to dine on its snacks, and sometimes talking with the other like-minded circumstanced inmates.

As I trundled my bag behind me on our way home through the tunnel and a narrow space where another person was standing I said to her, “I don’t want to hit your feet” so she smiled obligingly moved them.


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Peggy Ashcroft in her fifties (promotional photo)

Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Edward (Walter Fane) floating down the river (2006 Painted Veil)

Dear friends and readers,

Here am I trying to keep my word and make shorter blogs. I’ve two movies to urge you to see. Rent them at Netflix or buy or download from Pirate Bay and luxuriate in the beauty of the photography and depth and sensitivity of what’s presented: Dennis Potter’s rightly valued 1980 Cream in My Coffee and John Curran and ron Nyswaner’s wrongly ignored Painted Veil (a film adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel).

In the first case you want see more Potter-scripted films of the 1980s, and in the second you will long to read Maugham’s novel.

Jean now old, first near close up (Peggy Ashcroft, 1980 Cream in my Coffee)

I am now able to say a Dennis Potter film can be as stunningly powerful as people say. He is a much praised (adulated) script writer of the 1980s in BBC and other British TV films and plays. I had tried two films, both with great actors: in the first I found Bob Hoskins continually breaking into song, as a working class man holding up his pride against great odds, half-broken puzzled, seemingly bewildered, yet continually breaking out into song. In the second Michael Gambon (the great Gambon Ralph Richardson calls him — and certainly nothing comes up to his Squire Hamley in Davies’ 1999 Wives and Daughters out of Gaskell), Gambon anticipated the time I saw him on stage doing a Becket play. I realized Beckett plays hate drama; they are set up so actors can do so little. In that one Gambon was imprisoned in a can; in the Potter he was swathed with bandages in the last stages of dying life in a hospital. A situation rich, but it was like watching Beethoven making some music instruments can hardly play. Yet in both I was unbearably moved.

This time the script was doable and utterly fulfilled.

Here the great presence is Peggy Ashcroft: it takes a while to realize we are watching the same couple. First Jean and Bernard, when old coming back to one of these genteel style elegant hotels that are so endemic in British novels and plays (especially plays, think Separate Tables) when he is very old, ill, dying and she a woman cowed for many years by his irascible bullying and hard nasty spiteful even tongue, picking at her:

First of series of photos panning hotel and beach (Cream in my Coffee)

Then series of photos of elderly couples

Then from one to another versions of youth

Sitting in room (Ashcroft and Lionel Jeffries)

Second, as young Jean and young Bernard over 40 years ago they had stolen away for a weekend before they married, apparently very much in love, soft focus photography

(Peter Chelsom as Bernard, Shelagh McLeod as young Jean)

Placed against the second older version we slowly begin to see how what was to come – an embittering life — is anticipated, but also how it could not quite have been predicted. Like life too much is enigmatic. We see during this time the young Bernard despises the young Jean partly for her lower class origins and partly for coming away with him before marriage. Young Bernard’s father is killed in an accident during the three days (bad luck) tehy are away, and he returns home to a narrow repressed somehow very English lace and there is this dreadful scene with his harridan mother who wants to control him and prevent this marriage. How she scorns Jean.

(Martin Shaw as glamorous matinee idol singing songs like “You’re the cream in my coffee/you’re the salt in my stew … “)

But while young Bernard is gone, young Jean succumbs to the kindness, and aggressive romantic words and gestures of the orchestra singer, a cad type. Lonely, feeling herself denigrated and uncomfortable, she gets “squiffy” (very drunk) and is half-coerced (but only half) into spending a long pleasurable night with him – more than any she ever had with Bernard. When Bernard returns, there’s no sign he guesses and yet …

The life to follow he has gotten back.

The bitter ironies, poignancy, plangency, occasional comedy of the two relationships and what we glimpse about the hotel, by the pool, on the beach are caught in songs whose lyrics comes out as on the spot precisely awful. You’re the salt in my stew. Right. Lots of these 30s to 40s songs. Fast forward and instead of creamy violins and big band we have hard rock and they are just as ironic, just as false.

The way each place is filmed, the dialogues just reeked to me of England and English people of a certain milieu. I need to see it again and read an essay I have on Potter’s films, but will tell a joke Jim and I had.

I said to him, we never went to such a place when we lived there. It was beyond us. We didn’t have the money. When we returned 20 years later or more (1990s), we were way beyond that and would know it’d be miserable snobbish and somehow tawdry in all its efforts. We went to Landmark recreations — a joke too time capsules and all that. He stopped and said he has never known anyone who went to such places. Did they ever exist? are they a myth that captures something in English class ridden minds?

Why do Edwardian stories and films seem to speak home to us? Forsyte Saga (which I’m watching the 1967 version of over these two months now — 26 one hour parts — about which I’ll be blogging soon), Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs. Maughn’s post-colonial Painted Veil is a brilliant epitome of this subgenre.

In part the greatness of the film is sheer photography: breath-taking beauty in China, especially of waterways, slow montage, background French music, evocative:

What it’s about is two people finding themselves as they journey “out” into a wild natural place and leaning some humility and tolerance; the triangle is contrasted to another couple, disillusioned ugly man, Waddington (Toby Jones, as great as Gambon) who lives with a native girl, in a kind of retreat from the world both came from — with records from the 1950s. This anticipates or imitates (depending on whether you are thinking of Greene’s novel or the recent film with Michael Caine), The Quiet American. Edward has left his cushy job in England to do research in China and she can get no one to marry her so she follows him.

Toby Jones as Waddington explains how he came to live there, and how the girl he loves was rescued from a short life of beating and prostitution

I’m writing about this partly because I’ve seen it so mis-described. A denigrating way of describing hero and heroine dominates all blurbs: “shunned by scientific research husband,: wife “ignites passionate affair;” or “British medical doctor trapped … in loveless marriage with faithless wife …” We do have the Maugham triangle of the selfish woman who takes over the shy young man and seems set to destroy him. But this is not what happens at all. We see his science is a form of self-gouging and how she turns to want to help him, the school (Diana Rigg is a nun running the place), the helpless women, all the diseased people. We see the way the tribal leaders are murderous towards one another and so no help can come from there:

One of her stations of the cross

One of his

It ends in tragedy — reminding me in its savagery of Before the Rains. This is like Paul Scott: while written by a white man, it is a take from a point of view that shows the European corrupt. She gets to go back and gives birth to a child; we last see her rejecting the old life, her old lover, and walking with the child away. Older now than when I read the book, Of Human Bondage (blotted out in my memory probably by the film’s take and Bette Davis as Bitter Destruction with Leslie Howard in the abject role), and aware Maugham was homosexual (he lived in south France with his partner).

I’d like to read the book and then re-see film. We’ve said we’ll do it on Trollope19thCStudies. Alas it was a flop, so no features or voice-over commentary.

An intense psychological investigation in the context of sharp disillusioned picturing of snobbish colonialism, it’s a heroine’s text, Watts turned a perhaps misogynistic story into one of a heroine coming of age (she was one of the producers).


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Michael Benz was a superlative Hamlet — within the limits of the kind of acting used

Dear friends and readers,

Jim and went out last night to see the London Globe company act Hamlet at our Folger Shakespeare Library. Like last time (8 summers ago now, in the Globe Theater itself in London where we were groundlings), the company’s way of doing the plays left me cold. They again enacted actors acting the parts. For me the result is too stylized.

The dress this time reminded me of the way people costume the rude mechanicals in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and before the play started two actors, one playing Polonius (Christopher Saul) and one Claudius (Dickon Tyrell, a superbly effective presence even in stylized patterns), mingled with the audience. They were people like us you see, their costumes not so different from ours. The era imitated was 1940s mostly, with Miranda Foster having her hair in a snood, buns on top of her head, seamed stockings, 1940s pump shows. One problem was, why 1940s? This choice of era was not addressed. Like the Shenandoah play, the company do it in the light. Minimal props. I loved all this in a way. And I can’t really complain that they depend wholly on the lines spoken beautifully in a talk way. That means you’ve got to listen — and you appreciate the words both how they still speak to us and how they are Elizabethan in feel, outlook, nuance. But during the intermission I heard people talking about how hard it was for them to keep up, to follow. Those who had read the play rejoiced. I’ve read it many times so I could follow. I loved the folk dancing before and aft. They do get across the comic moments of Shakespeare’s even most pessimistic of plays.

A couple of the younger actors were weak. There were but 8 of them, lots of thoughtful doubling. Tom Lawrence most notably as Horatio stood out as somehow embodying a quintessential English Renaissance player look. The actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came in with sheepish comic looks, carrying suitcases, tennis rackets, vacation stuff. The whole feel alluded to Stoppard’s play — so the aesthetic control could be broken to allude to another art world.

But finally I prefer modern psychological enactment because I was not moved until near the end. The acting keeps me at a distance: the pace is too quick, and the gestures somehow slightly frozen, graceful in frenetism would be the way I’d characterize the Hamlet-Gertrude hard encounter. The American Shakespeare Company players (formerly Shenandoah express) do their plays using modern psychological mimesis with direct connections to our lives and norms today. I also much preferred the more abridged Hamlet we saw this summer: this Globe version was shortened too, lines sweated, here and there a speech omitted).

Go see it as an attempt to bridge the past into the present.

For a list of the company, director and notes, see Globe on Tour with Hamlet (they come to the Folger).


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Dear friends and readers,

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (ABC/Palomar, 1969) opens with a prologue I didn’t understand until late in the movie. We see people training a horse, something seems to go wrong, and it’s shot dead with a gun. A small boy is part of the sequence. Since I’m more than 40 years too late seeing it (I know I have often been out of it) I’m not going to worry about giving away the ending of this once Oscar-nominated widely-seen and justly still-remembered film.

It’s that the film comes full circle. At its close its heroine, Gloria (Jane Fonda), beyond the desperation which made her talk with great bitterness throughout the movie and act out the extreme choice of trying to win a lot of money from a dance marathan; Gloria, I say, wants only the release of death. She asks her dance-partner of weeks, Robert (Michael Sarrazin) to shoot her in the head with a hand gun as she can’t manage this herself. He, another wounded soul, but one whose pain emerges in a responsive passivity, obliges. During the course of the movie his face has dissolved into fragments of memory of a distraught childhood where he looks like that initial boy and then turns into the present young man apparently answering a serious charge in court. We were headed to this moment all along, only we didn’t know it.

A moment where he is trying to inspirit her

I’ve wanted to see this movie since Jim and I went to a play by June Havoc (we were told) which presented itself as a three-hour enactment of a 1930s dance marathon. The bill seemed to suggest the later movie was somehow indebted to the earlier play, and had been an effective experience and social critique I thought. I’ve learnt since then that in fact the memoir the movie is based on, Horace McCoy’s novel was written in 1935, while June Havoc’s memoir was 1959 and probably indebted to McCoy and the play written in the later 1960s indebted to the movie.

There are so many places where the play parallels the movie, only in each case the movie is stronger or (if you prefer) bleaker, bitterer, takes the story to its logical conclusion. For example, when at the close of the long marathon, the hard driving MC, Rocky (Gig Young), well-named (his facial expressions, suits, way of holding his body reminded me of Romney) tells Gloria she had better accede to marrying Michael for the amusement of the audience in order to make $200 to $300 because otherwise the costs of her food, bills, maintenance will be charged her if she wins the prize and leave little left-over, Gloria refuses to go through with the wedding. In fact, she dresses and leaves. What’s the point? IN the play, the couple agrees to wed fakely. It makes sense that destructive and cold sexual encounters would occur as they do in the movie (not the play). That an aging man would die, Red Buttons as Harry Kline:

and it would be lied about. The movie makes explicit as the play never did, that the marathon embodies a series of unacknowledged or perhaps distorted American values, and “the American way of life:” never give up, all can win, let’s cheer the losers for trying so hard and then dismiss them; it’s fine for us to enjoy watching misery and striving against unfairness, let the losers suffer; winner takes all, each for him or herself.

We see the actress who collapses near the end of the play go mad in the movie. She had wild dreams of being discovered which the MC encouraged; he steals her fancy dresses lest she offend the audience; and slowly exhaustion puts her over the top in the shower:

Susannah York delivers an unforgettable performance as Alice LeBlanc (blank, also ironically named)

The play had the advantage of going on for 3 hours and using the present audience members as members then. Jim told me we did clap when the dancers were singled out and asked to perform — the difference is that we know they have not been there for weeks but otherwise we are cheering them on. The songs were updated, not necessarily of the 1930s which they were in the play.

In the movie those who perform this way have money thrown at them which they scurry about picking up off the floor. It has live people. The movie did carry on for 2 hours (long for a movie) and of course the camera could give us surreal sequences of suffering we can’t get in real life. Apparently these marathons would include periodic races where those who were left were forced to run around the stage and the last three to cross a line were out. The close-ups here were powerful as the people fell and stumbled and drove themselves and one another.

The parallels with reality shows and viewer-voting contests made the film feel fresh once again — like today. And we are having a depression now too. 23% of New Yorkers are unemployed. The actual figure for unemployment across the US is said to be near 25% in some populations (black, young, disconnected) if you count everyone not just those still looking for jobs, and this omits those with part-time jobs and jobs with very low pay.

I found from the responses of my friends on facebook, it’s too large to urge people this one is a “must-see.” Several had seen and remembered it. But if you haven’t or if you only half-remember it, rent it from Netflix.

The film won one academy award and was nominated in 8 categories, nominated for Golden Globes, BAFTAs and the like. It reminded me of how Jane Fonda’s career as a serious actress came to an end after she was so vilified for her role in trying to stop the Vietnam war: once it was over, the roles she took were compromising kind of conventional women roles. In screening The Ox-Bow Incident for my students last spring, I had occasion to watch a documentary on her father, Henry, and learnt that he deliberately chose thoughtful serious roles in liberal and radical films (e.g., also The Grapes of Wrath); in this film she was following in his footsteps.

Wikipedia says:

The actress at first declined because she felt the script wasn’t very good, but her then-husband Roger Vadim, who saw similarities between the book and works of the French existentialists, urged her to reconsider.

Meeting with Pollack to discuss the script, she was surprised when he asked for her input. She read the novel with a critical eye, made notes on the character, and later observed in her autobiography, “It was a germinal moment [for me] . . . This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant.” Experiencing problems in her marriage at the time, she drew on her personal anguish to help her with her characterization.

In one memorable moment in the film Gloria is remembering her childhood and a dog that got in everyone’s way. She seems to have had affection for it, but it becomes wounded somehow (crippled) and she takes it downstairs and places it on a pillow. She then grimaces intensely at what happened to the dog next. I hoped I was not expected to imagine she had shot it. But if she had, she punished herself for it by enacting the same fate for herself.

Young may not resemble Romney literally (though he does have the same squarish face), it’s more in the expression as slick bully-boy plays at making himself humanly appealing.

If you see it, you can ask yourself if you really want this MC for president.


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Promotional image for Mitzi’s Abortion

Dear friends and readers,

I was saving up a few events from Capitol Fringe to make a third omnibus blog treating of four shows (See Midsummer … In Full Swing and Midsummer … Pinky Swear … Hamlet), but find that I now insensibly have somehow gone to five, never wrote about the final gala afternoon at Castleton and have another evening coming up, this time Alice in Wonderland “as conceived by the Manhattan Project under the direction of Andre Gregory.” Jim bought us what’s called bulk tickets (you get a discount this way) and we added on another, so when the 3 weekends are over, we will have seen 14! Thus I had better hurry up and write reviews thus far.

I’ve discovered the question people ask genially, concisely, is, Which are your two best? Of the five we’ve seen since I last wrote, we’ve seen a small dramatic masterpiece, a play done with hardly any props or costumes, just the actors acting their hearts and bodies out: Elizabeth Heffron’s Mitzi’s Abortion. It’s this play that prompts me to write this blog as I hope it will eventually gain a place in the American repertoire. If I include the previous 5 Capitol Fringe events, the second finest original work I’ve seen was Andrew Simpson’s Outcasts of Poker Flat. The finest adaptation of a classic, Hannah Todd’s Hamlet. A great cabaret group (without trying to compare to others): Pinky Swear.


The Young couple

Mitzi’s Abortion takes the over-wrought attitude towards abortion that has taken over the public media: the young woman who finds herself pregnant, Mitzi (brilliantly acted by Natalie Cutcher) begins by quietly doubting whether she wants to go through with this pregnancy, as it is truly inconvenient in every way: the father, Chuck (also done expertly by Christian Campbell, who alternates as an expert at a podium lecturing to us on supposed phases women go through when they are pregnant) is about to be deployed to an American war abroad somewhere; they have little money, are not married, don’t live together, the list goes on. By the end of the play, when she’s had a late term abortion (which is presented as if it’s done on a 16th century birthing stool when it’s not) of a fetus which developed in a deformed manner so it is an anancephalic non-viable entity – that is, the baby if it could survive, would be without a brain; but of course it could not as it lacks a vital organ to run a human body, when she’s had a late term abortion, I say, she saves what we are told are its bones, has these cremated and is determined to hold a funeral. She sits over this box weeping hysterically.

I half-think or would like to think that we are not simply to identify with what this girl has gone through, now feels and thinks and has become. It’s obvious she’ll never get pregnant again. She breaks up with the father — on very good grounds. In contrast, when told she is pregnant, he begins with absolute joy at this proof of his masculine prowess, a sign of just how powerful his penis is and how effective his sperm, with no doubt “they” should go through this pregnancy. (I’ve seen this use of the third person plural pronoun before — my view is the pragmatic real one: he’s not pregnant, she is.) He moves to horror at the news of what these technological tests have to say, to saying how he doesn’t blame her at all and she’ll do better next time, and maybe she needed to take better care, to demanding she carry this dead entity to term. There are other contrasting voices. Towards the end Mitzi’s father (John Kevin Boggs) is overheard telling older male friends how years ago these were women’s issues, men didn’t get involved, and he just overheard his mother going off for her “fix” (abortion) and coming back and nothing was said. She went for two such fixes, didn’t die and the family was spared all this. It’s implied that she did suffer but was also freed of nature’s cruelties and injustices. Mitzi’s mother (Elizabeth Richards Bailey) is humoring her daughter at the funeral; “whatever” you want, I’ll do to help you through this — as she did the abortion, bringing magazines, sitting with or near her daughter the whole time, no matter what berating talk the daughter aimed at her.

But I half-think not since the play dwells so insistently on this idea there’s a baby inside this girl and she begins to take on an attitude that its fate is more important than hers and her grief is treated with such dignity and serious gravity. As I watched her with that little box, I remembered (as perhaps some other women in the audience did if they have had such experiences and miscarriages are very common), my miscarriage which turned into an abortion to save my life (I was bleeding to death in a small Kendal hospital), and how I asked what caused the miscarriage and what had been done with the fetus. I was told by a British nurse that often these miscarriages are “nature’s way” of “washing away” something that was not developing right and not to worry about the fetus; it had been disssolved in the blood and was gone. I remember feeling sad but also relieved. When I was under the terrific pain of the miscarriage, I had one thought: get rid of this pain, make it stop, and they did or had.

The play included a scene with an insurance agent (Louise Schlegel) who tells the doctor the insurance people will not pay for a termination as that is not allowed. No abortions. But they will pay for care of the anancephalic baby as it lies dying, which it must. She says she hates these rules, but there they are. She suggests to Mitzi that had she not been attached to a machine to test the fetus, Mitzi would not have known anything was drastically wrong (except she had stopped gaining weight as she should have been), had the nearly stillborn baby and then it would have died. So go ahead and do that as the cheapest easiest thing.

Easiest? walk around for 3 months with a dying or dead thing in you; just then it was continually kicking as a frog would.

Mitzi’s mother goes to her church (improbable place to go, but for her to defend her daughter against this group’s prejudices was part of the point) to beg for $10,000 to cover the termination. The doctor finds a way around the rule by redefining what he’s doing (this may have been improbable) and they go through with this termination.

The play has much doubling. Louise Schlegel also plays a 16th century midwife who just turns up on the stage — a dream figure. Her arms are covered with blood scars. It seems she was burned at the stake as a witch. She did in her time try to help women abort children too. Barbara Ehrenreich has written a historical pamphlet, persuasive, arguing that huge numbers of the witch trials were ordeals inflicted on women who worked as health professionals in effect, sometimes midwives. They were blamed and by the 17th century a ferocious attempt was made to stifle them and replace them with men and institutional control of women.

John Kevin Boggs also plays Aquinas who gives us the church’s positions over the ages, contradictory. His soliloquys were filled with ironies and very funny.

What we are shown is a deeply morbid self-destructive culture. Everyone who is not a professional dresses in rather poor clothes. Entertainment is Esperanto meetings, going to fast good joints; they shop in supermarkets whose array of food choices (and magazines) is depressingly meager. Their choices are limited by their range of understanding. Chuck argues that Mitzi has no right to try to spare herself since he cannot spare himself in whatever country he is deployed in. Killing or being killed is clearly not what he would have chosen as his life’s work to have a salary and place.

I fear many leaving that theater would simply have identified with Mitzi and not realized that she was driven to bring this on herself by all the cultural artefacts, economic and social pressures, deluded norms that shape her every thought. Heffron’s play is really also a portrait of contemporary US life.


Sean Pflueger as the father with his son

Not the worse done, but the worst show I’ve seen thus far was the horror opera Jim and I saw Saturday afternoon, Sean Ffleuger’s Children in the Mist, an adaptation of a short story by the best-selling gothic-horror writer, Stephen King . We were told it was an abridgement even though it took 2 hours and was at times tedious and repetitive. Jim said the music was “uninteresting,” and when I reminded him that to me Philip Glass’s music seems endlessly repetitive, he said it wasn’t, but subtly nuanced and continually stimulating. I know Pflueger’s music felt dull and didn’t arouse me to nervousness and distress the way Glass can. It reminded me of other contemporary American operas we’ve seen in that the centers were were not individual soliloquies, but rather everyone singing apparently meditatively, a huge folk ensemble, only it did go on making me restless (while I feel I could never tire of listening to Copeland’s music). The language was demotic, very short kinds of sentences one might hear in a supermarket or drug store. The only general statements were about God and how one must live for one’s children.

It was not the music or even lack of intelligent utterance that made the opera pernicious. Rather it was the story and characters and meaning. If (as I think she meant to), Elizabeth Heffron exposed the wretchedness and delusions fostered by our cryingly (egregiously) unjust social and economic arrangements, rules, reinforced by the way we use our machines, this one made that sickness into reality that we as people cannot escape, one engineered against us by mysterious forces we can call God. It was a sick experience. I turned to ask Jim what he thought. He came out with the word “sick” first.

We probably should have left, but I was curious to see if the play had anything intelligent or redeeming about it. I had read with my students this term 3 chapters of Bob Dixon’s Catching Them Young. One of these is an analysis of popular fantasy and supernatural stories given to children: he shows these are 20th century versions of the worst aspects of religious allegories, starting with Pilgrim’s Progress. Evil is a mysterious force; people are bad, sinful and deserve to be punished; the way they can atone for what they are is passivity and obedience to their authorities, especially the Godhead. Then when they die, they are rewarded partly by escaping a violent hell. He only included authors like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien (yes), Ursula Le Guin, Madeline L’Engel and the syndicate creations like Star Trek, so I never thought about books for adults. Now I know something of why Stephen King appeals.

I could say that poor Mitzi and her family would certainly have found copies of Stephen King at their local Safeway. As Dixon says, how can such a book teach you anything helpful in getting through life with some fulfillment? There was no sense in this opera anywhere that the explanation for the evil mist enveloping the town and killing people as if they were being painfully electrocuted could be anything but God. Half the people stuck in a supermarket cling to a woman who rants over her Bible, but the other half have no argument against this half when they refuse to succumb to hysterical praying. They just look irritated and try to flee the religious fanatics; this is the best Pflueger can come up with.

The opera’s climax includes the most violent and stubborn of the religious fanatics trying to kill those seeking to flee the situation. Many die, four escape. The four get into a station wagon that is soon out of gas, so our chief hero turns around and shots them dead with a gun. (Of course everyone has guns.) He is not left standing, oh no, a military soldier suddenly runs in and tells him, all is under control and he can return to his apartment now. We are to take this as a kind of relief. All clear go the sirens.

It put me in mind of the way Muslims pray five times a day. The stoges who work for and in the American theocracy were before me. The composer had the chief role in the cast. I noticed a few people left at intermission and the applause was not strong. However, in the audience near me were some “big” people in the festival who put on plays and act in them and they appeared very proud. The auditorium was pretty full.

Best and worst? One could say Pflueger is contemporary. Two days before we saw Children of the Mist, there had been this huge circus at an Aurora cinema where thousands gathered at midnight, taking their small children, to see another supernatural fantasy about good and evil with lots of killing, only to be interrupted by someone with real powerful weaponry (intended for wars) who massacred as many people near him as he could. Children in the Mist is the weak pablum sold to the minds of the people who go to such movies, those of them who do read.


What else have we gone to at the Fringe? In the Company of de Sade, written and directed by Timothy R. King. This was actually very preachy — as is Sade. The cliched story of a group of people trying to put on a play was the core of the plot-design, and the players came out individually to tell us their sad histories of unemployment, despair, or high dreams of an acting career. There was especially at the opening obligatory transgressive sex not so much enacted but suggested symbolically. The basic text was Sade’s Philosophy of the Boudoir, and what we really saw was people bickering with one another over their discomfort with the roles they were expected to play, the conditions of employment and some of their own dreams of self-esteem, who they are.

The play is interrupted by a “Christian” woman with a gun (she had only this one pathetic gun and yet it was formidable as it could kill or wound others quickly) who loathes “free sex” and our atheistic society. Bit of black humor here. She rants and raves and finally the actors jump her and she is killed by accident. But at least silenced. Everyone is discouraged and the rehearsal ends for the evening, leaving on stage only one actor who appears to have read Sade, be sympathetic with his libertarian and anarchist ideals and the actress who has befriended him. They are left alone and lonely by this body. Curtain falls.

Had the actors not been directed to try to entertain us by becoming so loudly argumentative or amuse us by self-denigrating jokes about sexuality in general or their own, it would not have been bad. I suppose in the context of the two plays I’ve gone over in this blog the characters on the stage were at least not self-destructive, tried to keep calm and through Sade’s story and words presented complicated political ideas and the quirks of human nature driven by need, vulnerability, self-delusion. I think the play could use more work.


Maazel owns a huge swathe of land in Rappahannock

Two musical shows and one — what shall I call it — dud. I enjoyed both musical events. Jim and I discovered that when we went this past Sunday to what looked like a long program of “bleeding hunks” (Jim’s terms for this), famous arias, scenes, moments from famous operas, we had stumbled on (or least I had for I didn’t realize this is what we were going to) the graduation recital of the whole summer school. Every single young adult aspiring singer and all the young adult musicians were there, and, under the direction of their many teachers, in the lovely festival theater Loren Mazeel’s money built, they put on a smashing show.

Number after number of some of the most moving, witty, subversive, and traditional single arias, duets, trios, several singer-scenes, and two powerful monologues took about 3 hours of performing time. They began small with lighter pieces (“Cinque … dieci” from Le Nozze di Figaro), the transition was one of Jim’s favorites, Rossini’s Duetto buffo di due gatti, two young women singing miaow and hissing and making cat yowl sounds to invigorating music, and we ended with final scenes from Don Giovanni (Jim predicted the powerful baritone young man singing Leporello would indeed have a career as his voice has unique feel and range, was memorable), Eugene Onegin, Der Rosencavalier. I realized it was a graduate recital (like Isabel had only she was the only one to sing for two hours) when I realized most of the audience were parents and relatives and the young people were going home this afternoon or tomorrow.

I have increasingly ambivalent feelings about Castleton. In-between the acts, we walked onto his terrace and looked out at his 600 acres. Nearby the most picturesque of gardens, a place to boat, a fountain, all sorts of employees everywhere. We are invited to come partake of this man who is indeed representative of the 1%. He is filthy rich. He does good things with his money but because he and others have so much, the people of Mitzi’s Abortion and Children in the Mist have so little. The tickets are not cheap to Castleton and I often have the feeling of invading a particular’s man’s house. Each year the arrangements for refreshments and snacks are different; not everything is announced to everyone (games of exclusion and inclusion played). He decrees what he wants to share and what he doesn’t. Jim mentioned that Mazeel was wrong not to have subtitles or surtitles for the gala. He has the system in place. He has more money coming out of his ears than he knows what to do with. He has rebuilt the theater in the tent three times. Was it that he or his employees just couldn’t be bothered? It would have been a lot more enjoyable to me had I known what the words for in each scene. I was not there as a “proud” family member.

I rejoice for the strong heathly excellently fed dog I saw trotting along side Mrs Maazel (well fed herself, much much younger than her husband, an ex-actress) but the rest of us are called upon to take positions just to eat and have shelter whose central purpose is to protect this place, this man’s wealthy, it’s asked that we give up our lives doing bad, corrupt or just foolish things to keep this establishment going.

Pam Ward singing Somewhere over the Rainbow

Izzy came with us to this summer’s contribution by Carla Huber’s In-series folks: an evening of song by Arlen and Berlin. Jim didn’t chose the events we went to because they were in keeping with one another and would enable me to write a coherent blog, but it does turn out this way. Whoever chose the songs stuck with depression era cheer. While at first it was indeed spirit-uplifting to listen to songs like “Let’s have another cup of coffee” (another piece of pie), to be asked to smile, smile, smile did become enervating. There was not enough plangency and when the evening ended with the singers holding up signs saying that they still believed in the American dream, to a chorus of “God Bless America” this was too much.

Tellingly, it was tamely done. We needed more “The Man that Got Away” and less “I love a parade.” Fine poignant moments were the irresistible (nostalgic) “Over the rainbow” and “Last night when we were young.

Well, what was the dud? If gentle reader, you are still reading and remember my references? the one-woman show we saw last night on a (foolish) impulse it turns out: Monique Holt called her far more than one hour performance Men don’t Listen to Naked Women. She did sign that line but it had no thematic shaping. We found ourselves in a show meant for deaf people; Holt signed everything and a man spoke the language for the sign-impaired. It seemed to me she was taking advantage of the enjoyment deaf people seemed to be having of a performance done in sheer signs. She didn’t need to have a real program (so to speak). It was slapstick, with occasionally superficially innuendoes; she made comedy out of people who smell. I noticed the couple of times she even came near something controversial (like the banks being bailed out to the tune of billions and not yielding an inch to stop foreclosures), she punted; she hesitated and seemed to sign how she wasn’t really angry at what had happened. It was a contentless hour. Did she think her audience doesn’t have any information?

My two worst (another version of this question people ask one another under the Baldachinno tent), if I take the previous 5 we went to into account, was this Men Don’t and Madame (the lame musical about Helena Rubenstein at least had a reasonable story, was trying to show something of the woman’s life and character). Men don’t show cost us more than usual as we didn’t buy it as part of our bulk.

What happened was we did miscalculate time intervals. After Mitzi’s Abortion we had a lovely yummy meal in a Chinese restaurant on Chinese restaurant row, which is near the center of the Fringe where the ticket booth and the baldacchino tent are, and the two shows we had bought for. We had egg rolls, a single eggplant claypot we shared, beer for him and white Riesling wine for me. But there were more than two hours in-between and we thought we might get bored sitting in the tent and I can’t walk that much and it was not that cool anyway. Turned out we would have done better to sit said tent which was at the time right next to a repeat performance of Pinky Swear. We could have heard it clearly and drunk more Prosecco together.

Next time we’ll know better and stick with our planned choices. Four more to go.


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