Posts Tagged ‘tom stoppard’

Tobias (John Lithgow) with his sister-in-law and occasional lover, Claire (A Delicate Balance, directed by Pam MacKinnon)

Henry (Ewan McGregor) with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), at first his mistress and then his wife (The Real Thing, directed by Sam Gold, David Zinn set design)

I am so much accustomed to be alone — Madame Max, in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn

Dear friends and readers,

While in NYC I went to two great plays performed greatly. Well, maybe the actors playing The Real Thing needed to project depths of emotions much more, only the highly verbal intellectual continually witty script was in the way while in A Delicate Balance Glenn Close played Agnes with such balance, discretion, strength that one was almost as fooled as she pretended half to be so that I didn’t quite realize their topic was the same thing: deep betrayals and treacheries (only one aspect of which is adultery).

Agnes (Glenn Close) with Tobias, apparently all serenity if you don’t listen to her words: she opens and closes the play with how she’s about to go mad

A similar confidential moment between Henry and Annie (The Real Thing)

Happily the plot-summaries and character sketches for both plays are on-line so I need not retell the matter. Both are plays you should read before you go.

I had unexpected experiences in both theaters. I never expected to find Albee Jamesian (all I had seen before was the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Burton, Taylor and Sandy ) but Glenn Close or her director brought this out and a strong unexpected unusual form of feminism: an ambivalent portrayal of the woman who keeps it all in, who will not openly admit to the pain, adultery, betrayal, so she becomes “luminous.” James often emits such solemn and vague or not explicit terms for something some character does we are to admire — at the cost of everything real in her; that darkness is stronger in James than it felt in this production-play. Until now just about all the plays by Stoppard I’ve seen, have had as their central focus, play-acting itself and the theater, or there is a great poet or literary person whose life he is exploring; I’ve also seen farces and he does like to avail himself of a previous work which he rewrites from another angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is no aberration).

The Real Thing is directly about the emotional life of a marriage, of two marriages or three depending on how you reconfigure the characters (Henry and Charlotte, Max and Charlotte, Max and Annie, Henry and Annie), and it was done through intellectual battles of wits — it’s hard to see how it becomes popular, but the theater was full and I expect some of that was the name of the playwright and the stellar cast (all young stars, and I heard people recite where they had seen the actor/actress before). People were listening and laughed at the right spots; perhaps it was a more intelligent audience than usual who could see themselves in these characters. I read half-way through the text last night and it is singularly bare of any indication of how the actor should play the part or stage setting. At any rate the characters were continually half-discussing their adulteries, acting them out, judging them, singing about them through 50s pop songs (said to be Henry-as-Stoppard’s favorite music)

Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), Henry’s wife at the opening of the play (Real Thing)

Max (Josh Hamilton), sometimes a “real” betrayed husband and sometimes a character in a play by Henry who is a betrayed husband (Real Thing)

The Real Thing had fine actors: you had to be to convey the complexities of language of the material. Ewan McGregor had the lead role, a surrogate for Stoppard. At first I was thinking as I watched and left the theater, the problem with this The Real Thing about the intense pain one can know in marriage or through the dependencies of love is what is shown is not common, at least among those few people whose marriages I have known something for real about while A Delicate Balance is the more universal.

But then I realized A Delicate Balance also had at its center adulteries casual and long-term and emotional disloyalties about other thing as important (one’s writing and politics in Stoppard’s play, one’s life career and friendships hard to sustain in A Delicate Balance). And I thought about how many couples I know and my own experience of sexual and other unfaithfulness. The real difference is Stoppard treats adultery and bitterness so frankly while Albee keeps them contained (that balance Close maintains — like a Henry James character). I dare say the commoner thing is to pretend in the way of Albee’s characters, not to look or act upon hurt.

At first I had a hard time in Stoppard’s play figuring out what was happening: sometimes the characters were characters in a Stoppard play, sometimes a bad play (of course not by Stoppard); sometimes characters in the reality of the play. But in a tiny first break in the first act I whipped out my trusty cell phone (a handheld computer) and read wikipedia’s summary just as I had in the first full intermission of A Delicate Balance: then for both I could get immersed. Many are the uses of our World Wide Web with its shared worlds. Oh how the loss of net neutrality threatens us in “small” and large ways.


What was remarkable about A Delicate Balance and made it a comment on The Real Thing is how Glenn Close played the lead heroine deeply sympathetically — as in a Henry James story, we were to admire her as “beautiful” and “tremendous” without being explicitly told that she was holding the whole household together by her magnficient hypocrisy, her act. Agnes as Maggie Verver (I hope my reader has read The Golden Bowl) whose father, Adam, marries Maggie’s prince-husband’s lover, Charlotte (the same name as Stoppard’s heroine) in order to remove Charlotte from Maggie’s prince husband though he likes neither Charlotte nor that prince.

If you read the criticism of the play (and wikipedia) you get a diatribe on Agnes as all repression, and (surely a sign something is seriously wrong) the moralistic rigid Edna who with her husband, Harry has fled her apparent in fear and shows up in Close’s apartment and proceeds to blame and carp and blurt out corrosive rebarbative descriptions of the others (especially Julia, Tobias and Agnes’s many-times divorced daughter, come home once again and wanting her room in which Edna and Harry have taken up temporary residence). Close’s clothes were of peaceful colors (as the guy, majoring in theater who sat next to me and talked to me said), signalling how she was holding the best emotions to the fore in all the scenes luminously (as James might have said), with intense bravery and pain.

Agnes (Glenn Close) in a rare moment showing how betrayed and bitter and hurt she is, her sister, Claire, having fallen down (she drinks heavily, but maintains she is not an alcoholic, or no more than the others)

Were it not for her fake act, her sister, Claire would be out on the streets, Tobias incapacitated by fear and his own need to support others he calls his friends in order to believe in some good emotion somewhere.

I had chosen to see A Delicate Balance because I so admire Lindsay Duncan in all the roles I’ve seen her in, and I gather she played Claire utterly differently from Elaine Stritch (who did it caustically, a hard caricature of a drunk) and Maggie Smith who was wry, insouciant, amoral. This Claire was warm, witty, appealing, the only one in the room who could comfort Julia.

Julia (Martha Plimpton), on her fourth break-up (A Delicate Balance)

The “thing” is that it doesn’t help to tell the truth, it doesn’t help to verbalize or articulate in The Real Thing. Similarly there is (seemingly mysteriously) Tobias and Agnes don’t demand that Edna and Harry tell them what has so terrified Edna and Harry that they must retreat to one of Tobias’ and Agnes’s bedrooms, namely Julia’s:

Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins) (A Delicate Balance)

The characters in The Real Thing achieve their best relief when they put records on of familiar 50s songs — creating a kind of nostalgia in the audience for a comfort that never was. I did find the performance too brittle and the transitions into song awkward. The play is of course about Stoppard (his marriages, his “low” tastes in music, his playwriting) and Henry had the funniest undercutting lines. The characters in A Delicate Balance do once in a while lose it, and we get this great emotional outpouring, but it does not seem to provide much release. The funniest moments were Clare’s (playing an accordion) and Harry’s (Bob Balaban is a remarkable actor, he was inimitable in Gosford Park)

It has been for me a deep treat to go to the theater and really have a deep or thoughtful or exhilarating or grief-striken or funny experience — it was with Jim I first went and he who taught me to go, and where. London has great theater too (and we went when we were there to the National Theater, Old Vic, and RSC especially) — both London and NYC attract the best as best paid and respected; in other cities English speaking you can have greatness too — here in DC sometimes, in London often. (There is a lot of junk in NYC too). Jim would have enjoyed both plays; had he been alive, both are the sort of play we’d have seen together and talked about over drinks afterward.


Group scenes

I’m aware that readers coming to this blog have wondered why I write the way I do, why I often go on at length, why so many. It’s always been out of loneliness, even with Jim, but when he was here, my blog was prompted by our talk, and after I’d write it, we’d talk about what I’d written. Now I write out to try not to feel so alone in the silence. I trust I am talking to someone who comes here and reads these even if mine are imagined sounds and more than 99% of the time I’ve no idea what the reader is thinking or how responding.


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Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother (Matthew MacFayden) and Kostya Levin, the 2nd major contrast to Anna (Domnhall Gleeson)

Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley): a cut off promotional shot (not in film) of her in a long red robe, filmed from afar (as described); she’s fulfilled the promise of Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of Carribean (2003), The Duchess (2008)

Friends, readers, if you see one extravaganza of costume, virtuouso acting, stunning shots, from a brilliant book, let it be Wright and Stoppard’s Anna Karenina. Stoppard and Joe Wright have translated Tolstoi’s masterpiece into a filmic masterpiece which uses a theater combined with far shots on location (contradicting what is led into and out of) and substituting stylized comedy and at times operatic rushes of scenes for Tolstoi’s realism, with a great deal of effective help from Keira Knightley (she ought to get the Oscar for this), Matthew MacFayden (is there a type left he has not played), Jude Law as Karenin (another actor who escapes typing and as the unimaginative yet intense and idealistic husband searingly hurt is not recognizable)

Law dissolves into the blackness of this brooding shot;

and luxury casting for minor parts (Olivia Williams as Stiva’s mother; Shirley Henderson as a very nasty woman at the opera who humiliates Anna for sitting by her in a box; Michelle Dockery as the frozen friend who will be seen with Anna anywhere, everywhere because society is all:


What made it was Stoppard’s use of the theater (to be expected from Stopppard, given his oeuvre) together with Wright’s Lawrentian sexual drenching and effective juxtapositions of crashing and still scenes. The film opens in a theater, ends in one; at the same time into the theater (which is again and again redone) is projected the most realistic of happening, people, animals events and they are used with striking insight and effect. Sometimes the characters are wandering about in a deep backstage where they meet other characters and suddenly the scene switches to a real house, or field, or street or the train. Then inside the theater Anna walks into a blended home environment and is asking permission of Karenin to visit her incorrigibly promiscuous brother, Stiva, in order to persuade Stiva’s many-timed pregnant wife, Dolly —

Kelly-MacDonald-in-Anna-Kareninathewifewho acceptsblog
After Anna goes to live with Vronsky, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), says she wants to invite Anna to hers, but she does not — utterly conventional and kindly throughout and this a normative moment, common film-making

— to forgive him. Anna then walks out into a train, powerful real, a trip where she meets Vronsky’s mother. This first one ends suddenly someone throwing himself or be mistake getting caught under; we return periodically to the train station and of course end there is a terrifyingly held moment as she stands there just before the final leap.

Here’s a six-minute clip offered by Wright online to show his film: his theatrically staged sequence.

The film’s worst flaw is seen here: the wooden acting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky until about half-way through the film when he seems to become an electrifying center of whole scenes — as when he drives a horse across a stage too roughly, the poor animal falls with a crash, moans, groans, and as Vronsky T-J shoots the beast. The character is so real in the novel, so fully examined, as a very ordinary man whom the singular Anna is attracted to for his sweet easiness, congeniality. In Tolstoy, Anna’s guilt preys on her and makes her prey on Vronsky. Karenin has a depth of feeling, but is emphatically rigid once he sees his husbandly devotion goes for nothing with Anna. After conquest, Vronsky grows irritated as Anna becomes frantic with her losses.

Perhaps the film-makers thought this paradigm nowadays would not be liked so they made their Vronsky sustainedly in love. He is driven to throw Anna off when the society’s treatment of them and her suspicions of him because he is accepted and goes about with beautiful women still tear them apart. T-J may have been picked because he is nearly as beautiful as Rupert Freud (he was that type). Anna pretends not to care about the ostracizing, but she does. She misses her son. Where T-J is effective is after Anna (as it were) goes mad and he can match her inner wildness with a distraught aggressive sensuality.


So as the movie progressed, the whole experience of film-making may have engulfed T-J and he came up to it. He did what he needed to do in the scene where he furiously and meanly drives a horse to the ground and then shoots it to death. This is the most savage scene in the film and montage, placement, are intended in filmic ways to make a woman stop and think before marrying a man such as Vronsky.

Keira Knightley has become a great actress and Matthew MacFayden has again proved himself one as insouciant comic Oblonsky. She is actually somewhat heavier than she used to be. She now has upper arms. Her wardrobe is just spectacular. More than that it’s aesthetically right in so many scenes.

One stands out in my mind: she’s in a scarlet red robe standing by a window, everything else dusk or grey and white light. She’s smoking and staring out the window. Vronsky In some of the traumatic scenes beginning in the last quarter her face begins to take on a new look. You would not recognize her. I long to see it again the way I did her in The Duchess. I’d say The Duchess (based on Amanda Foreman’s take on the life of Georgiana Spencer) was self consciously feminist and that came out of the material adapted.

In the movie the material is proto-feminist: the point is made repeatedly that Anna cannot escape Karenin, she cannot take her child; it is she who is ostracized, she who is powerless to act freely. An emphatic contrast is made between her brother, Oblonsky whose casual adultery with a governess (of course fired) the film opens with; she visits his wife, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) and with no trouble really gets Dolly to forgive him, and by the end of the film Oblonsky is back having affairs again. Neither his appetite or job is at all disturbed until the last moment of the film, when he and his again devoted forgiving and pregnant wife have Levin and his wife, Dolly, to stay with them. We see Stiva (of all people) grieving behind a door.

It’s quite different from Tolstoi’s novel, some of departures necessary to make a somewhat misogynistic religiously seen adultery accepted The primary moralistic Levin story in the book (it ends the book) is made tertiary in the film. Levin is sucha an other as Eliot’s Adam Bede. In Stoppard’s version Levin has much to learn from Kitty who when she first saw him was a shallow ancient regime flirt. Levin who works alongside his peasants (troubling them by so doing according to Tolstoi) would have ejected his alcoholic brother, who have been bankrupted by gambling, especially with his ex-prostitute wife. After Kitty realizes Levin’s “worth” and marries him, and comes to the farm, Kitty sponges down the brother with the help of this “whore” and she and her sister-in-law become linchpin types within a family and agricultural system. This is in Tolstoi (minus any concern for reform).

The medium itself throughout, reasserting itself: a theater:

Are we on stage? in the lobby? in a street with snow? it’s a fantasia


But for me Anna’s story is what matters: in Stoppard she is an open rebel at first — after meeting Vronsky; she is not a cow, not a sowing instrument. Both Tolstoy and Stoppard’s Annas want an individual life, companionship, conversation and yes good sex.

In these novels, a long period of erotic awakening turns into a similar slow burn of disillusion and then, despairing, self-destruction. Amidst this we keep our souls alive.

To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive. — R. L. Stevenson

Anna_Kareninathe dancingblog

In Tolstoi Anna does not stand for these principles — or they are presented as evil and perverse, unreal, disguises for sinful appetite. I read the novel as I do Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves where the princess has fallen for a Jungian animus. Vronsky is a type descending also from Austen’s S&S (Willoughby), and includes motifs like Trollope’s Burgo Fitzgerald’s cruelty to his horse in CYFG? signalling what he would be to a wife or mistress.

The whole paradigm originates in the 18th century and is usually presented as a warning lesson for the awakened woman. This is how Roger Shattuck in his Forbidden Knowledge sees it. He inveighs against the alternative view which urges women and men to liberate themselves. Recent women’s novels use the paradigm to show women’s lack of freedom, e.g.,. Sarah Waters’ (Affinity); A. S. Byatt’s Possession. When gone into personally with no imposed lessons it’s still verboten, and you can find women novelists using pseudonyms; one great one is an Italian novel, the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment.

One long swoon


I expect that Wright and Stoppard are hoping to have this Xmas hit (remember The King’s Speech?), to win over Les Miserables. I did love the costumes and far shots. This is a favorite, again a cut-off shot from the Net but in the film we see a wide scene of a platform, snow, mist, hear the sounds, and then zero in on her in that outfit:



It’s not happening as yet in my local moviehouse. The theater was only half full. Why? it’s a woman’s story as told, not a man’s. Recently I’ve watched a series of films by women: Agnieska Holland’s The Secret Garden and Washington Square were among them. Again, both make explicit the tabooed point of view that is left implicit in the original text and by viewers sometimes overlooked or denied, with a far greater delicacy of approach. Here is a more delicate moment which might make us remember a cutting painful scene in Emma: Wright and Stoppard opt for playfulness; Levin and Kitty try to reach one another through alphabets:

Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin

What makes this a male film out of a male book? In Tolstoi is the great sympathy Wright gives the conventional male (that’s why Levin survives into the film too). In this clip that Wright authorized on line we have both males, Vronsky and Karenin; in Tolstoi it’s Anna who is contrasted to Levin; here the contrast is Vronsky (macho promiscuous male) versus Karenina (Mr Knightley under great strain in an amoral court world). The film ends with Levin and his wife sitting down to dinner with Oblonsky (who has to retreat for a moment) and his and Karenina who ends up in the meadow with his and Vronsky’s child, with Anna under the ground.

Shall we feel for male who holds society up, Karenin or the male who disrupts it, Vronsky? and it’s not fair that Stiva, however he loved his sister, gets away with it. (D. H. Lawrence stuff; see also Atonement). By contrast, Tolstoi’s book is with Anna (ultimately the most moral character in the book) and Levin (the second most, on a conventional plain) as his tragic and hard-working poignant cynosures; they are sincere, authentic. They do not resign themselves like Oblonsky’s wife Dolly.

It is a woman’s film because it dwells on women, how they look, we are invited to gaze at them again and again as women and as men.

I’ve never read the whole novel. As with Moby Dick where I skipped alternative chapters: I was so irritated by Levin I passed all chapters with him as focus. That left me with a much slenderer novel, half the structure. I’m also not sure whose text I read, who was the translator. Nowadays that makes me ashamed — not the reading every other chapter.

This film makes me want to read the whole novel, slowly, or listen to a great reader read it. Does anyone know of any powerful great reader who has done this on MP3s available generally?


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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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Abby Wood as Ruth Carson and Jim Jorgenson as Dick Wagner, Australian journalist for London Globe (roles originally played in the ’70s by Diana Rigg and John Thawe)

Dear friends and readers,

Brief review: we saw Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day at the WSC last night and despite its manifest decency of perspective, and how well performed it was, the play was tedious. The first by Stoppard I’ve ever found so — though now come to think of it, he is wordy, and very like Shaw in the centrality of debate to his plays. The Admiral pinpointed the problems: how journalism (its subject) as a paying profession had already been ruined when newspapers owned destroyed the unions by moving to Wapping; that the troubles of 1970s are today overtoppled by destruction of profession 20 years later by a combination of advertising and daily immediate articles going to the Net, ruthless destruction of any progressivism in major papers, not to omit (to be fair) the subject of the play: determined murder of journalists who dare to report truths of colonialism, capitalism, militarism. Finally, that Stoppard is unable to present a credible portrait of a sexually aware, awakened, adult woman as the central presence of a play. Most of his plays have few or no women (The Invention of Love is a case in point) or they are marginalized (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) or we have a 12 year old (Arcadia). It was good to see such a full audience, rejuvenating to see that other areas of this soulless cement building with its hospital-like corridors and white-washed vast spaces were housing dancing, another play and nearby (around the corner from the wide highway right by the place) two restaurants enlivening up the audience. In one corridor drinks and pizza are now served too.

But how hard it is to get up a human cultural people-friendly world in these inhumane spaces and difficult-to-navigate (much less park in) environments. an award was given out to an audience member for being such a devoted goer-to plays for many decades. He made a touching speech about how now he means to get new shoes as his are quite worn out. We do have a wonderful set of repertoire companies in DC and I write often about them (especially the WSC, e.g., on their Richard III and Mary Stuart) in order to support them.


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Renee Fleming as the Countess bowing before the audience after the opera was over: we see a wide portion of the whole set from on high

Dear friends and readers,

Before too much time goes by, I want to praise and recommend going to see the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. The Admiral, Izzy & I saw it in HD movie form this past Saturday, and I had this feeling of being transported quietly, of feeling touched in a tranformative distanced way that made me feel life could be so valuable if people would only live it according to its true pleasures — poetry, song, kind and/or courteous manners, good food, self-respecting dress.

The opera (as people who mention it usually quickly remark) was written during World War Two and is written as a kind of antidote to the horrors and terrors and cruelties of that conflagration, not so much to shut it out or pretend it’s not happening, but to carve a place, an interlude of refuge to remember and return to in our minds or memories. I never realized it’s set in 1770s. An overt allusion shapes it: Talleyrand said of the time before the French revolution, “Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be.” He meant of course rich people which then and now means the privileged and lucky. In this opera we are asked to forget that such wealth and leisure and lack of insecurity was dependent on keeping a huge proportion of the population in servitude cheaply (and this cruel kind of arrangement is one the Republican reactionary party of the US is trying to return the US to), and I surmise one reason the opera is often not done in 1770s costume but in a generalized early 20th century one (say 1920s) is to make the viewer forget this immediate context and somehow abstract the experience into an ideal realm where no one is hurt from what we see.

I’d say its key is that it was made so intensely pleasurable I just didn’t want it to stop — and I felt the audience about me felt the same. When at the close, the production design and director teased the audience by step-by-step ending it, each time putting out more lights in the room, and then not yet ending it, one could feel the audience hold its breath, and hear laughter as each time we did not yet end. The opera began to “click” as this mood of rich quiet gratifications around the time the ballet pair came in, and we had the comedy of the thwarted absurdities of the classic ballerina. Then we had vexed quarreling between the poet (Olivier sung by Russell Braun) and composer (Flamand sung by Joseph Kaiser) over whose art was more important (and which man therefore more worthy the countess), which brought in the impresario (La Roche sung by Peter Rose) to sing the second best and longest aria of the opera, a justification of theater itself.

We see the principals circled round La Roche

The quarrel was a kind of pastoral version of Net debates I’ve experienced. You could call the opera an 18th century conversation piece (a favorite kind of genre painting of the era).

Fleming’s last aria was the crown of the piece — what was so unusual was the mood was cheerful, an upbeat genial hopeful melancholy (!). The role at the close is a reprise of her countess on Der Rosencavalier made political — the gossamer quality of her dress may be called symbolic.

Fleming in the shimmering silver dress that seemed to float on air: her rich typology made the opera even woman-centered — we have no less than 4 (countess, count’s sister, ballerina, diva)

This cheer was central to the opera too — it was filled with visual jokes. When the hired ballerina and her male danced came into the room to dance for the assembled group, the ballerina was thwarted in comical ways and we watched her from the perspective of the people in the room: Clairon (Sarah Connolly), the sister of the count (Morton Frank Larson) looked especially taken aback at the wild configurations of the ballerina’s legs as they neared Clairon’s body space. After the two Italian singers burlesqued their behavior while singing exquisitely, they sat down to eat cake and drink wine provided by the countess. The diva’s eating mounds of cake was made funny — such a human and natural failing, so sensual and sticky. When these privileged people left (for Paris — apparently they are in a country house), the male servants came in and comically discuss what we’ve just heard debated, with self-reflexive ironies like, What next, they’ll put servants in operas? Then the prompter came on in visibly frazzled dress and state, claiming to be the invisible spirit of it all, the genius loci hidden away under the floor, enabling everyone else to carry on. It made me smile.

On facebook where I put a brief message about the opera, a friend commented

Wasn’t it great! I went by myself (husband is grading papers) and the woman next to me, who was very chatty before the start, fell asleep and was snoring a tiny bit. This didn’t really bother me. I thought the whole thing was the most delightful confection. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the whole thing.

I agreed:

The story went sort of slow and not much happened. I think a man on the other side of Isobel slept for a bit. It’s not just because I’m so into Austen that I thought of Austen’s Emma. Emma may be said to be Austen’s attempt to write a story about people were nothing much happens, a more rigorous form of realism. Well, the comparisons of usual opera as outlined by La Roche with their impossible unreal gods and goddesses, continual miraculous doings, heroic and tragic deeds, all well beyond the norms of verisimilitude with what we were watching make the same point as Austen’s: here are the real emotions these extravaganzas Write Large and lose sight of partly. The Emma project thus becomes an antidote to the war at the time, a spot of “civilization” (narrowly defined in upper class European terms) before any of the world’s most famous recent revolutions (French, Russian) occurred.

This evocation of a Canaletto in ruins found on one Met site suggests the Met was indeed referring to the revolution with the theme I suggest:

She (my friend) compared it to a Moliere comedy, The Misanthrope, and also the film The Red Shoes about a ballerina torn between love and ballet:

I thought of a Moliere comedy, because Madeleine with her suitors reminded me of Celimene in Misanthrope. And the brother-sister pair, too. But in Moliere the suitors would have been poor artists–here they were good (though vain and not very good husband material), and she really has an opportunity. I also kept thinking about the movie The Red Shoes, in which a woman is caught between two men, one of whom believes ballet is the highest art and the other that music (especially his own music) is the most important art. Apparently the director of Red Shoes wanted to direct a movie of Strauss’s life a few years after Strauss died, so maybe they were influenced by the opera, though in their work something does happen.

I objected but also agreed and generalized out to the theme as often presented in the 18th century:

I probably wouldn’t think of Moliere because I see him as so anti-feminist, savage satire against bluestockings (bad-mouthing word but appropriate here to Moliere’s plays). Strauss’s opera celebrates the countess and is fond of the other three women: Clairon, the ballerina, and the Italian opera singer. But I see your point. In the 18th century the emblem of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (comedy and tragedy in a Reynolds painting of Garrick):

Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy (Virtue) and Comedy (Vice)

was a frequent underlying archetype; it probably goes back to the Renaissance. I think there is something like this in Sidney’s Arcadia, certainly Spenser’s Faerie Queene — Una v Duessa. I wished I could remember Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia play (also about the arts) more.

She conceded the anti-feminism of Moliere’s perspective:

Of course, you are right; poor Celimene never had a chance.

I don’t know why people who write of this opera persist in calling it a curiosity or feeling uncomfortable about it, since most operas are implicitly deeply conservative in their presentation of numinous and upper class figures, traditional myths, and irrational feelings as what must rule the world. It’s just honester, done with startling clarity and self-awareness and the intelligence that shines through is another part of its comfort. It can make a viewer hopeful that the world could be better since such moments and experiences can and (for a couple of hours on stage) have been.

Maestro now taking final bows with prompter, dancers, male servants seen too

Small pleasures for the 18th century lover were all the references to 18th century theater and art: the best and radical operas are Gluck’s (this is pre-Mozart with his revolutionary Marrriage of Figaro and Masonic Magic Flute), the reference to the group putting on a Voltaire play (Tancred).


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