Archive for July, 2012

Steve Beall (old man Tiresias), Melissa Marie Hmelinick (Tiresias as woman and his mother) and Christ Stinson (Oedipus, the boy, the king) in Stephen Spotswood’s We Tiresias

Jung Weil as Esther Parkr, Kenny Littlejohn as Chad Rollins & Hilary Kacser as Annie Tripper in adaptation of Sartre’s Huis Clos

Dear friends and readers,

We felt very good coming home from our last play (or event) of 14. We participated in this summer season as we had for the 10 months of HD operas at the Met in our local movie house. We’d again had a good time, though one of a different kind: there’d been the people in the tent, talk with other audience members who seemed to us to be very much people of our own spirit (we even met people of our own age who belonged or could belong to the Princeton club), with the people who made up the crews (mostly young). We’d gone nightly to and fro on the Metro (I bought several Smart Cards’ worth), walking about the DC Times Square area all around Gallery Place. We’d eaten out twice (I drank nearly 12 proseccos — what I couldn’t finish Jim knocked back), and of the many entertainments, all that we had seen were done with intense idealisms, on no-cost budgets (basically empty of scenery, often in condemned buildings), a testament to the human spirit and a DC community.

These last four I mean to write briefly about cannot be said to reflect our American culture just now the way the five I treated of (including Castleton representing the 1%) in my previous blog. Three were older or adaptations of classics, 2 British in origin, 1 French; and the fourth a modern re-telling of the Tiresias story which stuck close to the outline of Sophocles’s Oedipus story and the conventional view of Tiresias as a hermaphrodite.

Mitzi’s Abortion and The Outcasts of Poker Flat remain my two best, but I admit The Infinite Jest’s (actually the WSC people) produced an absorbingly effective Rosencrantz and Guildensterne were Dead, and Stephen Spotswood’s We Tiresias was brilliantly acted, probably directed and at a couple of moments personally moving for me. This No Exit needed to be more threatening, more uncanny, more chilling, and the 1960s Alice in Wonderland, has dated badly, to the point it seemed emptily whimsical (tedious), too much aimed at children except perhaps the Humpty Dumpty scene.


The real obstacle to praising R&G as much as I’d like to is it was cut down and we lost much of the player’s longer speeches, the actors he led were turned into mimes and acrobats (funny, highly theatrical) and we lost just about all Hamlet’s speeches and I did remember the splendid film version (with Oldman, Roth & Dreyfuss). They had so few props, and the supporting cast (so to speak), meaning Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia (Shakespeare’s central personages) were weak or flaccid, melodramatic at moments, wooden (the Hamlet) at others.

Nevertheless, keeping in mind these are not characters much on stage and they were further cut, within the range of the abridgement, the principals, R & G, and the player king were a marvel.

Mundy Spears as Rosencrantz & Bill Gordon as Guildenstern

Jeffrey S. Clevenger’s attractive player king (as Jennifer Georgia was perhaps more effective than the two principals). I can’t find a photo of him in costume so offer this of him as Shylock in a previous Shakespeare production:

The abridger chose to keep all the lines about death, and so the play emerged as a kind of “no exit” except through death, which is nothing, an absence, a gap, terrifying. The experience was carried by the speeches and interactions of Mundy Spears as Rosencrantz & Bill Gordon as Guildenstern. They voiced the lines with great clarity and I listened absorbed. I got a great kick out of the player king’s burlesque mockeries and reinforcements, done with panache.


The problem with No Exit, which I suggest emerged from the juxtaposition as a kind of companion piece, was the adapter and director were too concerned to persuade us we were watching dead people. The players, Hilary Kacser as Annie Tripper, Kendawg Littlejohn as Chad Rollins, and Jung Weil (also the adapter) as Esther Park were too quiet, too sombre, not theatrical enough — though I admit the photos I found remind me that there was a good deal of physical interaction (perhaps they were chosen for this.

Rehearsing with the director

In the 1990s Jim and I saw a WSC production of No Exit and I still recall Nanna Ingvarsson as Annie Tripper as smoking neurotically, never sitting still, an electrifying outpouring of virtuoso words. I think this production wase trying for the creepy, with Thomas McGrath, as the Valet as a gothic half-zombie in a suit who never blinks his eyes. The character’s memories of the evil deeds they did, the people they miss and who are missing them, the world outside the walls was seen on a movie screen through black-and-white images. We were in a world of sad and exacerbated ghosts whose torture was what they had in their minds, rather than one another.


A matching still to the one above: each of the actors dominates in turn

We Tiresias was the one that spoke personally to me. Perhaps I identified with the aging male actor, Steve Beall, who stole the show with his wry asides to the audiences, and who I’ve seen from time to time here in Washington repertoire productions (recently Marat/Sade at the Forum). He spoke of how he gets no respect, & so did I none from the female shit running the English comp department last summer (she has treated me continually with great implicit disrespect). But I also found myself entering into the case of Oedipus’s mother holding his hand as they walked about, sexually available to Oedipus as Jocasta and yes for a time Tiresias as female. I’d never seen the Tiresias story made the focus of a play; always it was on the margins, usually with John Gielgud in the role (joke alert).

It had a flaw. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern lives on because its language has content; the wit is in service of examining beliefs, norms, acting, life. We Tiresias had not enough insight through words — plays are dependent on words for their core meaning. We were supposed to enter into the emotionalism of a given character and not led to think about what was happening. The language was just not distinguished enough either — though better than the demotic supermarket interchanges of The Children of the Mist, and spoken eloquently by the players.

We can though feel for the old man left lying on the floor, the anguished stages of a woman’s life, and an Oedipus forced to admit the truth of his experiences.


The revival of the 1960s Andre Gregory’s production of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, directed and produced by Betsy Marks Delaney was disappointing and boring — I couldn’t keep my mind on it. Though I enjoy the Disney film and think it a masterpiece of a cartoon, it is meant for children, and much of what was dramatized by Delaney came from the first volume of Carroll’s book (like the Disney film). Children fear getting too big, being too small to defend themselves; the caterpillar sequence is about being bullied as a child. Though a Looking Glass is different in mood and feel; yet even there the playwright seems to me to have thrown away characters as simply eccentric. For example, the white queen. The most effective moments were Humpty Dumpty’s, his anxieties, and his sad ending.

A friend remembered that we had seen Meryl Streep play the part of Alice in this version in the 1970s. She had been so slender that she was literally carried by relays of people across the stage. Jim remembered we saw an Alice in the 1970s aimed at burlesquing this one as pretentious and silly. That’s probably not fair to this one, but honestly I couldn’t find any discernible plot-design or character development.

As the festival came to a close, I thought about how this time it seemed the plays had less money than ever for props and costumes. Many of the venues were still condemned buildings, though this time nearly all were air-conditioned — the heat there this summer is burning. The actors were eager and self-effacing. Most all had day jobs. As a society we need them, to bring us together, to show us ourselves. The people running this festival perform a large miracle each year and are insufficiently supported.


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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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Hugh Goldwyn Rivere (1869-1956), The Garden of Eden (1901)

Dear friends and readers,

Stirred this past spring by Rodrigo Garcia’s film adaptation of George Moore’s novella, Albert Nobbs (featuring Glenn Close and Janet McTeer), when a friend on Trollope19thCStudies proposed we revive the group readings and discussions we used to have on that list-serv, I said let’s do George Moore’s Esther Waters and then Albert Nobbs. Id long wanted to read Esther Waters, as one of those reputably great and powerful Victorian/Edwardian novels I had (somewhat unaccountably) never been assigned in any classroom, never even owned, nor tried to read. I wanted to do the full novel first as I usually like longer novels better, it had such a good reputation, and both together, might make a really satisfying new experience.

Well two of us have read Esther Waters together and when I come back from a brief time again in next week (we go to Vermont for 7 days), we mean to go on to Albert Nobbs. Esther Waters is a compelling novel, richly written, persuasive, humanely moving; its plot design is unexpected (it takes turns one does not expect as life often does), characters complex, and its social message humane. It has been somewhat misrepresented. It is usually talked of as a novel which exposes the “baby-farm” trade in later 19th century England as if this were the core, central, dominating and most shocking thing in the book. It’s there and important, but it’s not dominating, just one of several devastating experiences Esther has when she become pregnant, has a child out of wedlock, is fired, ejected from her parents’ house, and must work long hours in service even to survive so is forced to put the child out to nurse. She does not realize until a few weeks later that this recommended place means to let the child die. When she does, she snatches her darling back, and at great sacrifice to herself, holds onto him, keeps him in good health by paying someone to take good care of him while she again works in another house.

Emilio Longoni (1855-1932), Reflections of a Starving Man (1894)

It’s also said to be naturalistic, a book in the tradition of Zola’s L L’Assommoir, Frank Norris’s Octopus, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Stephen Crane’s Maggie of the Streets, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Thomas Hardy’s novels represent the most read British version of this school nowadays, with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath the best known recent American masterpiece. Naturalistic novels by women include Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and Gone to Earth. These novelists all present life for real and expose the lies and hypocrisies used to support systems of privilege and power. Unlike Dickens say, they show real sex, much more graphic brutality as a system, real war (e.g., Crane’s Red Badge of Courage) is a literary Naturalist text), real criminality, and most of all the wretched real working lives of poor people ground down by their jobs and lack of opportunities. Certainly Moore shows us the last, and rejects religious fundamentalism and repression, but he really does not adhere to a belief in determinism to the extent that human life is entirely shaped by environmental and social forces. Human will does come into play. Moore also has sequences where his characters enjoy themselves, act out some of their dreams, know romance and he marginalizes the more abysmal miseries. Esther stoically survives even if she has periods of real hunger. The emphasis on Esther’s strong will and highly individual character is not typical of naturalistic novels. The thing is Esther (and William’s) choices are so limited and her strength goes only so far. So the critique of society’ structures and norms is all the stronger (I feel).

I found myself strongly identifying with the character and becoming personally involved. It reaches out to us today. And I’ve written my blog to show this.


Robert Walker Macbeth (1848-1910), Rainy Day (book illustration)

To cover with the first third to half of the novel or so (Chapters 1-27), each turn of the plot is not conventional altogether so you are ever worried what will happen next. I worried because I really cared for the heroine.

One early central sequence is a realistic depiction of an upper class household, Woodview, with a number of servants (a real un-blown-up Downton Abbey) The Barfields have a much more typical rich establishment. Not so very many servants, one women for cook and housekeeper for example. It’s here Esther is half-coerced into having sex with, William Latch, a stableman she is in love with and gets pregnant. There is much on betting on the races: it reminded me of how Thomas More thought dice so stupid and mindless and boring, but what if everyone does it and many bet lots of money, then (unless you are like me who does not until today know how US football is played) you have to pay attention.

There is a strong demonstration of class mobility. Mrs Barfield is religious in the way of Esther, and tries to teach her to read. They are companions. The Barfields, the people Esther works for were working class not that long ago, and they could and do fall again due to the husband’s gambling habits.

We are kept at a distance; Esther has individuality and courage. She’s not abject. On the rolling in the hay, we are not to see her as having sex with these young men, for when William does make his advance, you see she wanted marriage first. She does give in, but it was half-coerced, she was half-drunk and she refuses him the next time. She manages very well in the family group despite an abusive father (about whom she can do nothing to protect her mother). We see the importance of women’s relationships throughout the novel: Fanny Hill takes this parodically (see how the prostitute and madam collude is Cleland); here we will see a generous employee, a supportive landlady can make a big difference. William is a convincing rat — unlike Hardy’s Alec D’Urberville who practically twirls his mustache.

From London: A Pilgrimage, text by Blanchard Jerrold, pictures by Gustave Dore

We are to admire Esther for her stubbornness; it’s part of what makes her survive. She is tempted say to leave the baby with the baby-farmer, but her tenacity and self-respect gives her the courage to wrench it away and leave. She might have been more tactful with William, but I feel we are to assume she was just about raped, really coerced and is angry with him. She also is naive socially and doesn’t even think of manipulating him at this point. By the time she is with Miss Rice (the novelist-lady who hires her as a kind of paid-companion aide) she does so think. It takes time to learn.

We are indeed to feel William could not have felt much when he turns round and marries money.

The book is daring and not daring. The depiction of a near rape for example — it’s the sort of thing Hardy presents in Tess but more frankly. So when Esther later in the book is walking outside one day she meets up with Margaret Gale, another ex-servant of the Barfields. Margaret has become a streetwalker or prostitute; this is presented discreetly because Moore is not horrified and shows Margaret to live a hard life but she is surviving and in some ways better off than the servants who works from dawn to dusk for almost no money at all. Margaret has breathing time and makes a bit more money.

George John Pinwell (1842-75), At the Pawnshop (1867, The Quiver)

We see how miserably men treat their wives — how power corrupts. Much beating of women, casual and deliberate too. This is the era when the first courts decided a woman has the right to leave a man who beat her.
How deep and supportive is Esther’s relationship with her mother who husband regularly systematically beats her, keeps her pregnant, who eats the best food in the house because he controls his salary. How people of the lower classes are torn apart by the economic system, forced to move far away from one another and spend long hours of soul killing work. Body destroying too.

On hospitals, I don’t know when the pernicious practice started to stopped, but as early as the 1840s in Gaskell’s Mary Barton no worker (apparently powerless to effect this just by being sick) person apparently can get into a hospital without an employer writing a letter asking the hospital to take him or her in. By Esther Waters, this has been codified into tickets. It’s pernicious because if you displease the person who has the power to write such letters or tickets, you can’t get medical help. Obviously that can be and was used against strikers or anyone the person thought not respectable or simply didn’t like. No one talks of this much and I wish I knew more, especially when in the UK it was stopped. Perhaps WW1? sometimes wars have some unintended good effects. You’d have had so many near death, how could you stop to “vet” them by asking for letters from empowered types.

I’d like to stress the emotional honesty of the opening sequence. Nothing overdone, nothing forced. I had an experience this weekend of watching a group of relatives casually mistreat a paid home companion — nothing anyone would object to except they didn’t give her the respect of an equal human being and are planning to drop her as soon as they can with no warning. I admit I did nothing at all except (perhaps hypocritically I don’t know) salving my conscience by at least asking after her relatives, home, concerns. I know “home-aides” are still excluded from various forms of social legislation in the US intended to help domestic paid workers.

When Esther snatches back her child and after a period at the workhouse (which we don’t see — an important difference from purely naturalistic novels), Esther begins to prosper; she is hired by Miss Rice partly because Mrs Lewis gives her some slack: she is allowed to live there without paying the rent until she can. Then again a relationship forms. Fred Parsons, a evangelical type asks her to marry him, and she likes his family and they are prepared to accept her, child and all.


John Everett Millais (1829-96), “Robert Lyon and Hilary”

The marriage between Esther and Fred never occurs. In the middle to near the end of the book (corresponding to the second volume, Chapters 28-33/34), the book takes an unexpected turn. Esther is driven by her passions (erotic) which her mind cannot fully control. When she unexpectedly meets William, she shows herself drawn to him, unable to say no. We are to feel she finds William irresistibly sexually attractive, and she is really just not allured by Fred. The point made early about how Fred is small, meager and does not turn her on (so to speak) is part of this. We are supposed to find Fred’s particular brand of evangelical Christianity overdone. It did help him to accept Esther though as well as his mother. The portrait is complex.

I was much moved by the chapter in which Esther tells Fred she must marry William, or to put it more narrowly at the moment of the chapter, she must go live with him and hope that he will get his divorce, marry her and be a good father to his and her child as well as husband to her. The book is famous for its depiction of baby-farms, but I think this chapter is as important — the asserted thoughts and feelings behind her decision are probably still inculcated in women today. We know from the novel’s text and this scene itself that she is also intensely attracted to William physically as she is not to Fred, and that she is ambitious to be a tavern-owner and finds the prospect somehow glamorous.

To again bring in identification, again I parted company from Esther. I would not have left that baby with that baby-farmer and certainly would have gone back, taken it away and taken my chances. So I would certainly have married Fred. Esther fears the boy, Jackie, will hold her decision against her and stop loving for for giving him a different father than his bio-dad (as we would call Wm today).

I also think perhaps — now referring to Moore’s being daring and yet not daring — Moore lacked the nerve to marry Esther off to someone else when the child’s father was around. It’s an ancient idea that fathers have even primary rights over their children. We are perhaps supposed to feel that she feels tied to William emotionally and physically because she’s had his child, i.e., it is “natural” for her to prefer the father of the child. How quickly Mrs Lewis accepts William as the boy’s father notice.

William is not good husband material at all. He’s proven that thoroughly. He’s a gambler, and as presented for all she knows, he’d hit her. No I might have stayed stay away and married Fred all the quicker, hoping that if William presented himself as the father after Fred married me, that Fred would understand. He has understood about the child out of wedlock. In fact here Esther seems to me to make a serious mistake — not to be blamed as we are all creatures of unknown emotional forces within us, and one is sexual attraction. She was in love with William originally and she only began to love Fred after Fred was so good to her.

Austen would say esteem and gratitude are much better grounds for marriage than sexual attraction and shows this in her books. I agree.

One of the weaknesses of the book is we don’t see enough of Jackie and he is not characterized individually. Since so many of Esther’s decisions, indeed her life story hinges on her having gotten pregnant and having given birth to a living child and then decision to bring him up with love and care, to have him hardly there at all and then there just archetypally weakens the book considerably. We lose sight of how much part Jackie is playing in Esther’s decisions. Her anger at the child preferring the father’s goodies, her breaking the new toy might seem so selfish and again the old angry resentful Esther emerging (but then again why not? why should she not be angry? it’s from such anger revolutions emerge) without sufficient justification. But she is justified. She has given all to that child. The child becomes frightened as he knows he cannot depend on this fleeting father and is willing immediately to give up toys, suits, if he has his mother’s promise to be there always.

He would have accepted Fred. I thought Fred eloquent and clearly that he sees through that Esther does not love him and that is partly sexual and that she is ambitious.

Now what could have happened is Wm does not get his divorce, does not marry Esther, she has another child and Wm is a lousy husband. Instead we fast forward to a year later and are told it all went well. And William is presented as kind, sexually satisfying and doing well in his public house for Esther and Jackie, until he is threatened with fines and closure because he also brings customers by running a betting shop on the second floor. Fred comes to warn them about this — and also lecture them.

Maybe after all I would not have married Fred. I did myself marry someone I thought might give me an enjoyable life. I didn’t want someone who was (as I had seen all my life growing up in a working class lower middle home) who would be afraid to spend the money he made, would sock it away and not spend it — as to to accumulate something towards what? safety? paying for your old age in yet another compromised situation of half-misery and loneliness. And I have enjoyed what the money would buy that we had had and keep to the courage (with him there) of living today and telling myself when the morrow comes (if it does) then I’ll act if I must however I see it out of my own character. Yes Fred’s a banal killjoy

Still I might not have gone to live with William either. By marginalizing the great dangers — that Wm would not be able to get a divorce, that she might have gotten pregnant, that he might have left her in a far worse situation, Moore dodges this. In life one can’t or I might not have. After all Esther had a good situation living with Miss Rice and she need not have done anything. She could have offered say to go away for a couple of weekends and let someone take photos and do the trial but not had sex with Wm (as it seems they don’t use contraceptives) until marriage.

Another unreality is that Esther has not gotten pregnant again. That makes their lives so much easier. Moore ought at least to account for this by suggesting she now can’t or it’s difficult for whatever reason. And again by Chapter 41 Jackie is still kept at a distance; it’s as if she doesn’t have a child.

Apparently Moore is not interested in that kind of trajectory of tragedy, women as victims. He has shown us abused women but really it’s part of what he wants to show is working class life. Early in the novel he did say Wm and Esther were a good pair, would work, and could have made it and we begin to see them make it now as in one paragraph we are told that Wm got his divorce easily and he and Esther married and a year has passed. Really so easy? Moore is not a naturalist writer as naturalists would have gone for this story of Esther probably defeated at one of these turning points.

“Urban Smoke,” an illustration from Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain, the later 19th century

We move back to chapters about racing and betting taking over the working people’s lives (to be fair, as well as drink for solace) — as with Trollope, one has endure these chapters because Moore himself went to the races, bet, and liked to discuss horses. Also racing was common, horses were ubiquitous until the car emerged and I suppose it’s partly natural that they should have become a “toy” for pleasures as well as a “instrument” for hard work. The poor horse was an abused creature and still is or can be.

The 24 hour a day presence of a child in your life often changes it utterly, if you’re it’s mother, and especially if you have no financial or emotional support to enable you to fulfill yourself too. And that’s not what Moore admits to. Perhaps because he’s a man and hasn’t experienced it himself.

Some things to emphasize: here and there I see naturalism influencing the book. The description of the whole experience and raced of Derby day, beginning: “This was the last race,” especially where the landscape is described at length and the narrator sees this from the perspective of “William struggled with the crowd …” It’s very Hardyesque.

Also the beautiful effective description in the book of both the town and countryside: all have their beauties: “a Cockneyh pilgrimage … ” Lovely and yet so real because of the perspective.

Here and there too sex between Wm and Esther is done justice to.


Millais, A Chill October (1852)

The last third and conclusion of the book (Chapters 34 to the end).

Sarah’s story. As in Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho where at the close suddenly we switch to another minor heroine and have an intense even more frank replay of Emily’s ordeals, so i Sarah near the end of the book we have a harrowing replay of Esther’s. Thrown out of her house, she takes up with Bill. As he has done before, Moore only alludes to the core of the story: we see her a year later thrown out by Bill and are only told of how he forced to be a prostitute to support him. Then how she is so easily saved by Esther. In naturalistic books by Zola, Upton Sinclair, Dreiser and other top naturalists, Sarah would have perished – as she would in real life probably. But Moore does tell the story, and he emphasizes how erotically enthralled she is by Bill — conveys it. This one gripped me.

Meanwhile Esther and William are threatened by his ill health (he seems to have TB), the animus and needs of their neighbors to stop them being a betting center, and the aftermath of Fred’s visit to warn them. Then I was much moved by the persuasive, creditable — utterly believable account of William’s descent into a fatal illness of TB and gambling as a wild addiction while his house is attacked for being a betting place, he is fined and forced to close. I see now that Sarah’s story serves as a catalyst for the house’s exposure.

Because William and Esther testify on Sarah’s behalf, they call attention to themselves and their house, and the police raid them. The judge is as harsh towards them as he is towards Sarah.

I was strongly angered as I am meant to be by the judge’s hypocrisy: Moore’s point is that there are two sets of laws, one for the rich and the other for the poor. The rich can gamble and do what they want and the poor are despised and hunted down for the same behavior, half abetted by other of their own poor people because what is really wanted is that the poor work work work very hard and remain “respectable” and not bother the luxurious life of the rich whom the poor serve. Someone like Fred Parsons is actually serving the rich when he insists that (justifiably) that gambling, drinking and what other pleasures are available be strictly controlled to keep the poor minimally comfortable.

The book here fits into the naturalistic type of novel — these all strongly critiqued the capitalist system, from the above angle as well as that of the natural world people can’t fight. People do have sexual desires, they have children out of wedlock, they get sick. The way Wm gets sick, the money it costs, the way the hospital works, that he cannot get to “Egypt” is the result of his poverty. He caught his first bad cold and TB by going to race-tracks as a bookie and then switched to keeping this in the house as his health would no longer take the punishment of the courses. I did underline one example of imagery typical of the naturalistic novel: “She [Esther] grew frightened as the cattle do in the fields when the sky darkens and the storm draws near” (chapter 41, p 318)

The way William’s final death scenes first in the hospital and then moved into his own house are handled is touching. We see how far we are from the 19th century pious novel as there is no religious imagery or ideas here.

I kept thinking that Esther might turn to Fred in the end as she shares his ideas, but it is more fitting (I feel) for this work of art to end where it began. She has to support herself, has nothing, has her son. She is too old to do the job as a laundress so must “go out to service,” cannot live on her own supporting the boy at school. He will now have to go to work too.

I liked the ending and it felt fitting but I would say that at many of the turns of the story I felt Moore was inventing as he went along. There was no first outline.

So we see her by chance (and also fairy tale) return to Woodview, the house she worked in earlier with Mrs Barfield again as her congenial employer. She fulfills an older version of her position as this woman’s friend-Servant.

Elin Danielson Gambogi (1861-1919), The Sisters (1891)

It is not unrealistic to present the mistress and maid as friends. Many were, and there was not always a large distance between them. We see that in Roger Scatcherd’s wife in Trollope’s Dr Thorne who spends her time with her housekeeper

I am feeling I am ending where I begun but this book reminds me I am not. I am very different from the person I set out as and have had some measure of success with my husband so we need not live as other people’s servants with no time or place of our own or life to create of our own.

Tyler, my friend’s response:

Yes, it is a stoic ending. Quite sad. It’s as if all Esther’s life ends up being worth is that she had a son, and he could be killed in war as you say. It is not tragic like other naturalism novels – I’m most familiar with Zola’s, which tend to be depressing and disastrous in their endings, but it is still sad. It does come full circle, and in the friendship between Esther and the mistress, seems to suggest perhaps that time is the great leveler. In just a few generations, the Barfields rose up the social ladder and now they have fallen back down some and Esther has gone up some and they are almost equal, and simply time and the beat goes on and perhaps all is vanity in the end. It will be interesting to read another book by Moore now to see the similarities and contrasts.

It is a stoic ending, but it is also a kind of full circle. I was much moved by the last moment as Esther looks at her soldier son, and we are reminded how he could lose his life at any moment. He took that job as soldier partly to make money. We see the three of them standing against a fall landscape, the tone of the book sad, sombre autumnal.

I very much look forward to reading Albert Nobbs. As a piquant note: Janet McTeer starred in the film adaptation of Mary Webb’s naturalistic early 20th century Precious Bane, so she starred in the film adaptation of George Moore’s Albert Nobbs.


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Alexander Cockburn, a recent photo

Dear friends and readers,

For a long time I was a subscriber to the Village Voice so that I should not miss Alexander Cockburn’s columns. I didn’t worry about him the way I have his heroic brother, Patrick (who has spent years wandering around the Middle East reporting what actually occurs and staying alive despite his blue eyes, so I know he must be recognized by many as a true friend), and be relieved when I saw a new column (an example of a typical column), but I was aware Alexander’d been around for a long time and yesterday when I read he had died of cancer, was not surprised. Today there have been many obituaries, columns, blogs honoring him, his writing, his views, his courage, his integrity, his career.

I probably can’t add to what has been said: I can qualify though. Repeatedly I keep coming across the assertion this or that writer didn’t agree with Cockburn on many issues, e.g., Jesse Walker. Why this need to distance oneself? Even Anthony Gregory feels this need to qualify, though at least not on grounds Cockburn was too much a man of the left. I admit in late years (in the Progressive Populist for example), sometimes Cockburn’s rhetoric seemed to turn him into yet another overly-fierce, reductively distrustful voice. I put that down to the increase of not just reactionary rhetoric but shameless buying and selling, killing, (in effect) lawless imprisonment, legislation which increases homelessness, unemployment, the destruction of middle class jobs, job security, any social safety nets to the extent that thousands and thousands are now dependent on food stamps to keep from starvation. Now we have the threat that the small help Obama’s Affordable Healthcare bill will offer people will not only be repealed, but only Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Cockburn’s language, stances, and jokes register this.

So, in his honor, I copy and paste one of his parodies that Jim found on a blog called Blood and Treasure. Tonight I have in mind especially anyone who talks of balance in seeking effective gun control legislation after the blood bath in Aurora at midnight at the first screening of a new stunt-man violent move, The Dark Knight:

Why Eat Human Flesh, transcribed from the McNeil-Lehrer report:

NEIL: Good evening. Reports from the Donner Pass indicate that survivors fed upon their companions. Tonight, should cannibalism be regulated? Jim?

LEHRER: Robin, the debate pits two diametrically opposed sides against each other: the Human Meat-eaters Association, who favor a free market in human flesh, and their regulatory opponents in Congress and the consumer movement. Robin?

MACNEIL: Mr. Tooth, why eat human flesh?

TOOTH: Robin, it is full of protein and delicious too. Without human meat, our pioneers would be unable to explore the West properly. This would present an inviting opportunity to the French, who menace our pioneer routes from the north.

MACNEIL: Thank you. Jim?

LEHRER: Now for another view of cannibalism. Bertram Brussell-Sprout is leading the fight to control the eating of animal fats and meats. Mr. Sprout, would you include human flesh in this proposed regulation?

SPROUT: Most certainly, Jim. Our studies show that some human flesh available for sale to the public is maggot-ridden, improperly cut, and often incorrectly graded. We think the public should be protected from such abuses.

I can also add an insightful informative interview of Cockburn by Amy Goodman.

Finally, see Defiant to the End; people who knew and loved him, The Nation; the Boston Herald.

And here is Counterpunch.

He will be missed. We need many more people like him.


A recent appearance in debate

An appropriate poem — by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light …


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One of my many favorites: Ross (Robin Ellis) takes Demelza (Angharad Rees) to her first assembly ball (one of several climactic moments in Demelza, From 1975-76 Poldark, Season 1, Part 6)

Dear friends and readers,

This morning on Twitter I found “retweeted” to me as a follower of Amanda Vickery, Robin Ellis’s deeply grieved message that Angharad Rees had died. Here is an obituary, and from BBC News more memories. She was Welsh; in her debut she played Marie Melmotte in Simon Raven’s adaptation of The Way We Live Now and her career included playing the heroine of the 1984 mini-series adapted from Winston Graham’s 1898 historical fiction set in Cornwall in 1898, The Forgotten Story. She was 36 when she first began playing Demelza.

A relatively young age to die, no? I had just this weekend made a separate page on my website for all my Winston Graham, Poldark and historical & Cornish fiction materials gathered thus far, plus a working bibliography and announced it on Austen Reveries as I’ve written so little over there about 18th century historical fiction of which Graham’s books are superb realizations. I also (as a result of the Austen Reveries blog) have learned there is online a Winston Graham Literary Society (and message board) which I’ve joined. Here I’ve learned are the latest videos online.

Angharad was Jennet of Elston in a 1984 TV Robin Hood. That’s intriguing. Not Maid Marion, not the aristocratic lady either. I did think her perfect for the role of Demelza as written by the screenplay writers and directed by the film-makers of the first mini-series season. The 2nd season had some problems, not because of her, but because more parts were needed to convey the great inward complexity of the women characters in the second trio of the Poldark novels.

The night before the trial accusing Ross of inciting a food and scavenger riot (From 1975-76 Poldark, Season 1, Part 8)

A poem in honor of her:

Flower of the Living Desert

It is too sudden
For our sluggard sight
This unfolding flower:
The time compressed,
The blossom magnified,
By cunning lens.

Two swift the petals
Come unshuttered;
The huddled stamens quivering
Pale creatures of the dark
Exposed to a fierce light.

Watching a crimson bud
Flare to a fiery disk.
Its beauty bursting like a cry —
We came too close to hidden marvel
Uncovered by a cold and convex eye.
— Mary Winter, from Faber Book of Movie Verse, ed. Philip French and Ken Wlaschin

The kind of quintessential generic guarded shot of Angharad Rees as Demelza Carne Poldark alongside Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark favored by newsprint


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Karen Lange reading entries aloud (Pinky Swear)

Dear friends and readers,

We’ve seen four more productions, and, as might be expected, since we are going to twice as many this year as we went to last (Izzy is going with us but 3 times and last time she went to nearly all), we did at last find ourselves at a real dud. But we’ve also had two memorable, so alive, stirring, and very contemporary experiences.

Pinky Swear is an all girls’ band, raunchy, angry, sexy; they are “in your face” in the way they apparently break all sexual taboos. They don’t quite break all, but they break several: dildos abound; they get into quarrels, they insult one another, are sarky, their songs range from a desire to fuck or be fucked, to grating irritation with the nature of life, to (sometimes) romantic longing and muted heartbreak. Masturbation is the way to go as you can do it anytime. If you can’t have the one you love, love the one you’re with was this year’s theme.

All four: Karen in the back, next to her Allyson Harkey the guitarist Christina Frank, and with the black tambourine Toni Rae Brotons

Last night (Thursday), there were three young men with them as support band, and sometimes they played music from the 60s and 70s; while I enjoyed these (they were written before the performers were born), I thought the electrifying moments came from the contemporary music, the stances the girls took.

The witty and wry Karen Lange who read aloud slips of paper on which members of the audience were asked to write the “weirdest place they had sex.” The weird experiences were not that transgressive, or odd or wild. One read loud: “We had sex under a bush in Central Park. The gravel underneath was a problem.” That prompted jokes about what positions the gravel would make most uncomfortable. Then there was a second on having sex in Central Park, and Karen remarked Central Park must be a busy place at night. The singers said they were going to put some of these on face-book, but I could not find any. An informative pdf. They were in the large (but un-air-conditioned) Baldacchino Gypsy Tent next to one of the central bars and meeting places of the Fringe.

Since the tent is across the street from the (famed) restaurant, poets-reading and performing theater space, Busboys and Poets, Jim and I went there for our dinner afterward. I had a pizza, scotch and ginger ale, and Jim had beer and burger and fries. The night was hot, but there was a breeze, and we sat outside under an awning near a working fan and were happy.


Tonight (Friday) we saw a spectacularly well-acted Hamlet. Powerful, fast-moving sizzling performances, especially by 1) Christ Genebach who was Hamlet and his father’s ghost, and the player king: he was just magnificent; his face and gestures reminded me again and again of Ralph Fiennes; and 2) Sandy Gainum as Gertrude and the Gravedigger, she probably was directed to be this sentimental and shocked Gertrude when Hamlet comes to her in her bed to tell her not to go to bed with Claudius, but otherwise she was sharp, gesturing and face just right, ever on the move. Raven Bonniwell did another unlikely doubling of Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Osric and was particularly good in the first two. As Laertes Billy Finn was violent emotionally as well as physically. The final duel is not with swords, but fists and the two men murder one another with blunt knives.

Directed by Hannah Todd, it was said to be much shorter than the original, abridged. And it ran only 1 hour and 40 minutes, but that is not just one hour (as most of the events are) and a lot was included. Horatio was the only major character cut; they chose to sweat lines rather than cut whole soliloquies. The director’s notes said she saw the play as a violent one, an outcropping of Hamlet’s feverish imagination, trapped by his own fantasies. The play began with Hamlet half-dreaming on the floor and ended with him dead in the same posture. He and all the players were driven people. I felt we really experienced the play. There was no intermission and that helped sustain the move.

Chris Genebach as Hamlet

Everyone clapped hard, and people stood for the performers whose lines had come so swiftly and naturally (it seemed) off their tongues. The company calls themselves the Flashpoint theater and their specialty is similarly abridged classics. Lauren Katz also thought it one of the strongest productions of Hamlet she’d seen in a while.


You can’t win ’em all. Wednesday night we went to a musical based on the life of Helena Rubinstein in America, Madame it was called. The performers had worked very hard, the costumes were lovely, the choreography was well-worked out; the problem was the content of the lyrics and “book” and story line. Excruciatingly lame, sentimental where they should have been prosaic, including even a love duet which belonged to Carousel, and a major male role going to an actor who was wooden and couldn’t sing.

Apparently the management of the whole festival is aware of which shows are not likely to please or lure an audience, as this one was held in small basement room of a church, there were few chairs, and even these were not filled up. To be fair, here’s a reviewer who saw some good things in the show and tries to like it

Two of the actor-singers rehearsing


Not as tedious (we stayed at Madame because we felt we’d hurt the actors-singers’ feelings), but their musical rock show nowhere as good as last year (Finn McCool) and last year not as good as the spectacular brilliance of the year before (Oreisteia), Dizzy Miss Lizzy Doing the Brontes was something of a disappointment. The idea of each rock show has been the same: interweave some story or intense anguish or misery with the upbeat of hard rock. This time it was the Brontes and I’ll give it to them, they didn’t pollyanna the story of these four finally unlucky geniuses. The frustrated outcast Branwell became an alcoholic; Anne died so young; Emily unable to integrate at all into any social life and dying fairly young; and Charlotte left alone, also unable to build a life of fulfillment with people gifted like herself, also dying, of a miscarriage; their isolated lives as children on the moors.

Narrator, Branwell and accompaniment

Izzy came with us and I can’t better her commentary.

It’s true that Jim and I probably didn’t get all the jokes because we didn’t recognize some of the pop references. It’s hard for me to believe I was the only person in that tent besides the performers who had heard of Anne Bronte — does no one watch PBS movies? there was a splendid Tenant of Wildfell Hall, with real stars in the leading roles, and on most of the listservs I’ve been on, admittedly literary ones, people have read this and/or Agnes Grey (a governess story). I was the only person to clap and call Yay! when “Anne Bronte” came forward and told us the titles of her novels. A woman sitting next to me told me she had never heard of Branwell Bronte, so I recommended Daphne DuMaurier’s powerfully passionate The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte, which reprints what is left of his poetry. Considering the lamentable state of ignorance then about the Brontes, I suppose it’s picky of me to complain Dizzy Miss Lizzy did not seem to know that Emily was a great poet, but still I wish they had known it. Some of her verses set to rock might have stirred the audience.


Redbreast, early in the morning
Dank and cold and cloudy grey,
Wildly tender is thy music
Chasing angry thoughts away.

My heart is not enraptured now,
My eyes are full of tears,
And constant sorrow on my brow
Has done the work of years.

It was not hope that wrecked at once
The spirit’s calm in storm
But a long life of solitude,
Hopes quenched and rising thoughts subdued,
A bleak November’s calm.

What woke it then? A little child
Strayed from its father’s cottage door,
And in the hour of moonlight wild
Laid lonely on the desert moor.

I heart it then, you heard it too,
And seraph sweet it sang to you;
But like a shriek of misery
That wild, wild music wailed to me.

I go out to plays, to operas, see movies, look at pictures, listen to music, even walk in landscapes for the same causes I read. These experiences are meaningful to me, speak to me at some level that counts, help me endure. Funnily of these four, the one I came away with repeating an idea the artists had voiced was Pinky Swear. Karen had a song whose refrain was you end where you start out, find yourself what you were. That’s my case. Soon I shall be driven to retire (they are beginning to harass me at GMU because they want me to turn my English humanities into a business computer-based course and I cannot) and I find I end where I began.

Just being me, living alongside Jim, and the real irony is what I love after the few human beings who I am attached to and whom I hope are attached to me are books precisely those I started out with (Austen among them) and a set of 18th century historical romances, whose hero and heroine were norms for me in my conscious teenagehood: the Poldark series.

It’s not that Hamlet does not have much to say. But I’ve read and seen the play so many times it’s hard to have a fresh reaction. Maybe I did tonight. When Hamlet took Yorick’s skull, and said to his imaginary lady, to this you will come, I identified. I’ve few teeth, bad feet, my lower back hurts, my hair grey, my handwriting is terrible (when I go to make a letter it’s hard to make it come out clearly and often I will write another letter or number than the one I consciously intend), I’ve forgotten multiplication tables (and never could do percentages, fractions, long division), I can’t read late into the night or watch movies without napping, when I get on the Metro people actually immediately get up to give me a seat. Yes to that I am coming.

Do people know Sylvia Plath also drew? yes, lovely touching drawings of everyday things, houses, street scenes. Here’s a pair of shoes I can no longer wear except for a few minutes at a time unless the miracle of really soft leather is achieved.

Sylvia Plath, Large Size Shoes (maybe she thought she had “big feet”)


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Cast of Outcasts of Poker Flat (composer Andrew E. Simpson)

Dear friends and readers,

Every year I know we are well into “middle summer” when our Capital Fringe Festival begins. It’s been going for six years, and this is the fourth year we’ve attended. From July 12 to 29 from late morning to late night performing arts shows are done across DC, from plays to musical concerts, to films, solo artists to bands, in all sorts of venues, chiefly inexpensive ones (sometimes without air-conditioning where the building has been condemned). A comforting note for us occurred when Jim showed up to buy our tickets. He was first on line, and the chief woman organizer, Julianne Brienze, came out from her office, and kissed him, welcoming him by name (“Jim!”). We (Jim and I) may never have won one of these attendee awards (the Washington DC performing arts community gives out awards to the most devoted theatergoers), but we are apparently recognizable (last year we were probably an unusual spectacle of middle-aged people dancing at the last concert of the summer’s nights) and I know I recognize other hard-core audience members. Like Alan, who was second online and for $300 buys a ticket which covers all shows.

The festival began on Wednesday, but we were still in NYC so did not start until Friday evening when we went to Andrew Simpson’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat, a one hour chamber opera based on Bret Harte’s famous short story.

The story is a tragic poignant piece. Like other “classic” 19th American century texts given NYC children to read in the 1950s-60s (at least in the NYC schools I attended), Harte tells of characters traveling in the vast wilderness to find or to build some kind of new life for themselves, becoming stranded in an inclement place with no food and no shelter, and after a considerable struggle dying. (Think o f Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth which was assigned to a class I was in during 10th grade.)

What makes Harte’s different from those assigned in my school is the major characters are not the usual respectable middle class types, and they are angry and resentful at how they are treated by others. After all, they too are struggling to survive and those who pretend to more piety are just luckier. Two prostitutes, a gambler, a drunkard and thief, and the two normative lovers (innocent, meaning well, but poor) are our protagonists. Still they do betray as well as support one another. The tragedy is partly brought on by Uncle Billy, a drunkard and thief who steals their horses. Not enough food, freezing cold, successive snow storms do the trick. Harte’s story is told by the gambler, Oakhurst, who kills himself; the opera is equally divided between the characters who all have an aria (or so it seemed to me).

They called themselves The Timberline Players who do American and modern operas. The composer was at the piano dressed as a bartender-attendant (he was called “The Professor” as he is one) of the 19th century, and played with real feeling. The young singers were very good — the singing was strong and felt full and resonant. They have few costumes and props so have to convey their content through their gestures, and simply costume changes. It was a moving mesmerizing hour in a church assembly room. I liked how the characters turned to one another, and gradually it was clear there was no real difference between the women called whores and the newly married woman.

Most events are no more than one hour, and time inbetween shows is not long so you could get to see three weeks worth of shows, 5 a day.

The courtiers (chorus) with our heroine, Desiree (Julia Hardin)

On Saturday we drove to Rappahannock, Central Virginia, to Castleton Festival, to see Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, inspired by Bergman’s film, Smiles on a Summer Night. (Sondheim based his Passion also on a film rather than the 19th century novel the film was adapted from.)

If you go over to the website, you will see that the Castleton festival hosts and provides training for a group of exceptionally gifted graduate music students and everything done is by these students — except perhaps leading the orchestra, directing the productions, fund-raising and the like. For the first time I saw a real weakness in the group: it was due to the engimatic and over-the-top noble opening of the Sondheim’s, with characters modern ambitious 20 year olds may not be able to connect with. A trio is sung where the older hero wishes to be able to have sex with his wife, the young wife wants to put it off, and the man’s son sings of his anguished non-conformity. It is also true that we couldn’t hear all the singers clearly or very well, and the actors did seem embarrassed by some of the story turns (the man who cannot get his wife to have sex with him).

But by about half-way through the first act, particularly the introduction of the wry comedian, the wronged-wife, Charlotte, the opera came alive. The people in their roles started to be believable, the production began to jell around the time of the irresistible “A Weekend in the Country.” The play and characters became very moving in the second half. Not just that Sondheim’s powerful music and intelligent sophisticated lyrics carried it, but that the individual actor-singers were superb. Julia Hardin who played Desiree did “Send in the Clowns” better than anyone I’ve ever seen.

The Castleton production seemed to embrace the kindly perception that we must accept our ridiculousneses, love one another and ourselves as best we can, knowing all the while how needy, foolish, vain, frightened we all are. I liked the simple scenery of a wood with a mansion just out of sight, the Edwardian clothes (especially Charlotte’s outfits).

I wish there were many more contemporary musical plays, for it is really only contemporary art that can speak directly to us of our concerns through an adult humane perspective. Older operas often are based on pernicious ideas, celebrate the powerful and hierarchy; while not all do, and there are attempts to make the opera speak differently to us than intended, there really is nothing like Britten, Sondheim and some other of the contemporary writers of musical plays I’ve seen at Castleton and elsewhere.

We have bought for Wolf Trap Barns theater twice this summer, not to omit what we hope to see and hear during our week in Vermont in early August. We are staying in the 19th century Landmark Amos Brown house and from there will go to plays, an opera, museums and swim in a nearby lake. One lives only once.


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