Tuesday, November 25, 2014

This Day in Yankee History (Joe DiMaggio, Best—and Loneliest—Player of His Time, Born)

November 25, 1914—Joe DiMaggio—the first “five-tool” baseball player, the first to sign a $100,000 contract, a figure celebrated in popular culture as perhaps no contemporary was—was born the eighth of nine children to Italian immigrant parents in Martinez, Calif.

In his short 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway has his simple but brave Cuban fisherman reflect on the New York Yankee. "I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing, the old man said. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."

Would he ever. The slugger knew the life of a fisherman, all right, and the smell of dead fish on his father’s boat convinced him that the family business would not be his. Poverty not only left him without riches but without formal education or any of the polite social graces. What it did give him was a goad to extraordinary achievement.

"A ball player has to be kept hungry to become a big leaguer,” DiMaggio told a reporter from The New York Times in 1961, 10 years after his retirement. “That's why no boy from a rich family has ever made the big leagues."

That hunger is usually forgotten whenever baseball fans try to make sense of DiMaggio’s assets. As much as the next person, I’m in awe of the grace and uncoiled, explosive power of the swing that led Boston Red Sox infielder Bobby Doerr to point out that his American League rival “hit balls like rockets, with top-spin, that exploded past third basemen. It always seemed as if he hit the ball hard. Every at bat."

Surely other players, then and now, possess astonishing physical gifts. But DiMaggio’s were welded to an all-consuming competiveness. When brother Dom, a centerfielder for the Red Sox, made a set of acrobatic catches that deprived him of as many as eight runs batted in that day, he could scarcely speak to his sibling when they dined that night. At the height of his 56-game consecutive hitting streak in 1941 (a record still unsurpassed), he was wound tight—caffeine- and cigarette-addicted, sleepless.

DiMaggio’s obsession with getting the best out of himself so that he could lead his team to victory—a question that not only won him three Most Valuable Player awards, but the Yankees 10 pennants and nine World Series titles—was all-consuming. It left him little if any interior life outside the game itself. His two marriages (including, most famously, to Marilyn Monroe) ended in divorce; he ended up estranged from his only son; and even the teammates who knew he was their meal ticket regarded him as a loner who “led the league in room service.”

As time went on, money not only became DiMaggio’s means of ascent but also his armor and validation. His failed holdout for more money after his second successful season led—incredibly—to booing by fans upon his return—and a resolve that he would not lose the upper hand in negotiations with management again.

After his career, DiMaggio became even more grasping. His lawyer, Morris Engelberg, won him lucrative advertising contracts and memorabilia-signing appearances, but they never seemed enough.

Quote of the Day (Benjamin Disraeli, on How Man is a ‘Being Born to Believe’)

“Man is a being born to believe, and if no church comes forward with all the title deeds of truth, he will find altars and idols in his own heart and his own imagination.”—British politician Benjamin Disraeli, speech at Oxford (Meeting for Society for Increasing Endowments of Small Livings in the Diocese of Oxford), November 25, 1864, in Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1886)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Photo of the Day: Alligator, Hilton Head, SC

Before this month, the only time I had ever seen an alligator was on a bayou tour in Louisiana in the mid-1990s. But that trip took place between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so the only creature of this kind I saw up close was a little fellow, six inches and safely domesticated, whom our guide affectionately labeled “Elvis.”

Comparing Elvis to the kind I saw in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve in Hilton Head, S.C., reminds me of a famous scene in the 1986 hit movie Crocodile Dundee. “That’s not a knife,” the Aussie adventurer says when confronted with a mugger’s switchblade. Then he brandishes his own longer bowie knife. “That’s a knife,” he explains.

I suppose that my brother, my sister-in-law and I might have glimpsed even more alligators had we come in the far warmer summer months, but the full-size scaly water creatures we came across in the one-hour tour of this preserve’s freshwater lakes conducted by H2O Sports more than satisfied my expectations. There were not only one to two dozen “Elvis”-style baby alligators that we could strain our eyes to see on the shore, but at least a dozen fully grown (i.e., 10-12 ft. long) gators—including mamas who were highly protective of their young.

Under a canopy of Spanish moss, we made our way, in an open, 12-passenger electric boat, through the preserve’s Lakes Joe, Thomas, Mary and Chapin. Our genial English tour guide, Nick, showed us a specimen of an American alligator’s teeth, as well as live examples of them.

The alligator in the photo I took here was male. If you want to know how the female of the species reacted upon sight of us, let me put it this way: The hiss we heard was not of the loud “I’m going to eat you—Die!” variety so much as the low but unmistakable “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep away from my young!” kind.

Not everybody gets the hint, though. While down in South Carolina two weeks ago on vacation, I was astonished to hear that signs had been posted for the benefit of Hilton Head golfers, advising them, in no uncertain terms, that if any ball they hit ended up next to an alligator on a course, they should simply leave it alone and walk away. I wondered how stupid someone had to be even to require such a warning.

“You’d be surprised what can happen to a bunch of guys on a golf course who’ve had a lot to drink,” I was told.

Quote of the Day (Noel Coward, Letting a ‘Highbrow’ Playwright Have It)

“My worst defect is that I am apt to worry too much about what people think of me when I'm alive. But I'm not going to do that anymore. I'm changing my methods and you're my first experiment. As a rule, when insufferable young beginners have the impertinence to criticize me, I dismiss the whole thing lightly because I'm embarrassed for them and consider it not quite fair game to puncture their inflated egos too sharply. But this time, my highbrow young friend, you're going to get it in the neck. To begin with, your play is not a play at all. It’s a meaningless jumble of adolescent, pseudo-intellectual poppycock. And you yourself wouldn't be here at all if I hadn't been bloody fool enough to pick up the telephone when my secretary wasn't looking. Now that you are here, however, I would like to tell you this. If you wish to be a playwright, you just leave the theater of tomorrow to take care of itself. Go and get yourself a job as a butler in a repertory company if they'll have you. Learn from the ground up how plays are constructed and what is actable and what isn't. Then sit down and write at least twenty plays one after the other, and if you can manage to get the twenty-first produced for a Sunday night performance you'll be damned lucky!”— Noel Coward, Present Laughter (1939)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Flashback, November 1934: Hellman’s ‘Children’s Hour’ Acclaimed, Banned

By the time the curtain came down on the opening-night performance of The Children’s Hour at Maxine Elliott's Theatre on November 20, 1934, it was impossible to miss the irony in the title of Lillian Hellman’s drama. Whereas Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beloved fireside poem of that name had evoked “voices soft and sweet,” Hellman’s tragedy traced the consequences of a lie told by a mean-spirited little girl—and, for good measure, confronted the taboo subject of lesbianism.

There are, though, more ironies associated with the circumstances of this production and how it reflected the playwright’s life than in the script itself.

By now, it is obvious that in her late-life memoirs, Hellman engaged in all kinds of prevarication. She created autobiographical fancies not so much to deny shameful incidents in her life as to transform herself into a heroine no one could be—and, exhibiting the same trait as the girl Mary Tilford of The Children’s Hour, to tear down others (notably, Ernest Hemingway).

Though Hellman would continue to write for the theater for more than two decades, the hallmarks of her subsequent style would be present here: unflinching engagement with provocative subject matter; writing the kind of realistic, “well-made play” that began with Henrik Ibsen; clearly definable lines between good and evil; and a resort to melodrama.

In the early-to-mid-‘70s, it was fashionable to regard Hellman as a champion of liberalism and free thought because of her defiance of the House Committee on Un-American Activities; as an avatar of feminism, as one of the first women to enjoy a string of successes on Broadway; and as perhaps a more accomplished memoirist than a playwright (or screenwriter), given her bestselling trilogy An
Unfinished Woman
, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time.

All of these notions, the passage of time revealed, were overstated, and The Children’s Hour in certain ways shows why. As its protagonists—two women who run a school who are smeared by a vengeful student’s false accusation that they are engaged in a lesbian relationship—attempt to recover their livelihoods and reputations, they are unable to make any headway, even with the support of one woman’s fiancĂ©. An utterly reasonable doctor, the latter is unprepared—in the same way that mainstream liberals would be at the height of McCarthyism, Hellman would later feel—to fight a pathological liar. Implicitly, an abuse of power on a small scale—the destruction of lives in a small town—becomes repeated and magnified in American society as a whole.

In The Children’s Hour, the personal might certainly have been political, as a later generation of feminists would say—but sisterhood was hardly powerful. The two teachers, Karen and Martha, find no support from other women for their cause.

Just how high the stakes were in this production can be seen in the comment by Hellman’s producer (and, with the departure of longtime companion Dashiell Hammett for Hollywood, her temporary lover) Howard Shumlin, “This play could land us all in jail.” The first strong hint of trouble came when one actress after another turned down a chance at the two major roles, which offered what should have been catnip to them: some of the strongest, most complicated characterizations seen on Broadway to that point.

The playwright may have cultivated the image of a tough woman who refused to be intimidated by powerful men. (She even later claimed that, when theater owner Lee Shubert slapped her leg down while ordering her to “get your dirty shoes off my chair," she shot back: “I don’t like strange men fooling around with my right leg, so don’t do it again.”) But, in light of all the high stakes for this show, her drunkenness on opening night might have been more than simply a case of the jitters for a first-time Broadway dramatist.

Even after casting was finally done, censorship proved a difficult obstacle. In London the following year, the Lord Chamberlain, working only from a script, forbade permission to mount the show “because of its theme.” Similar bans went into effect in Boston and Chicago, with the result that, even in some of the most liberal, urban places in the United States, audiences could not see The Children’s Hour until the film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine opened in 1962.

As I discussed in a recent post, Hellman’s posthumous reputation was darkened by both a libel suit she relentlessly pursued against Mary McCarthy and the revelations produced during the discovery phase of the litigation about Hellman’s distortions of her personal history. In contrast, The Children’s Hour was accompanied by contretemps concerning an unjust accusation that she had followed history too closely.

The critic John Mason Brown took Hellman to task for not acknowledging, in the program’s playbill, that the conflict in the play had been inspired by a Scottish case in the Victorian Era. But Hellman, no more than other playwrights, was under no compulsion to write in a playbill about a historic incident that she had, in effect, translated for modern audiences—and in any case she had, in a newspaper interview broadly distributed before Brown’s comments, mentioned this case that had inspired her.

In the wake of the gay-rights movement, many critics no longer see much dramatic tension in the lesbian theme that seemed so sensational in the 1930s. But audiences that have had the chance to read The Children’s Hour or see it performed have no such qualms, for they agree with Hellman’s contention that lesbianism is not the principal point of the play.

That was reinforced when Hellman adapted her play for the screen in 1937. Her screenplay circumvented restrictions on depicting gays and lesbians in Hollywood’s Production Code Administration by converting this homosexual triangle into a heterosexual one. She was not unduly bothered by this change, she observed, because the play was actually about the power of a lie.

Critics have generally regarded that initial adaptation, These Three (1937), as superior to the later version helmed by the same director, William Wyler—even though the passage of a quarter-century had allowed Wyler to depict the lesbianism charge with a freedom impossible before.

In fact, modern audiences are likely to regard Hellman’s theme of the destructive power of gossip and deceit as even more relevant today than when she wrote the play. Twenty-four-hour cable television, the Internet and social media have vastly expanded the geographic reach of an accusation—and, as many distraught teens and their parents have discovered, the resulting harm to reputations.

Not that Hellman regarded adolescents—or, for that matter, younger children—as innocents. Four decades before movie audiences would be stunned by devils who took on the form of children in The Exorcist and The Omen—two decades before theatergoers tried to come to grips with the spectacle of the homicidal girl at the heart of Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed—Hellman had shown, through spiteful sprite Mary Tilford, that teens could, as easily as King Richard III, “set the murderous Machiavel to school.” So much of the seepage in dramatic intensity in the third act of The Children’s Hour occurs simply because Mary, who sets the plot in motion, can no longer spin her webs.

Though censors tried to hinder productions of The Children’s Hour at every turn, contemporary reviewers were, by and large, far more generous to Hellman. When the board that approved Pulitzer Prize selections bypassed Hellman for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in favor of Zoe Akins’ less problematic adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novella The Old Maid, critics reacted with such consternation that they created an alternative, the Drama Critics' Circle Award. (Hellman would be honored with that prize two times: for Watch on the Rhine and Toys in the Attic.)

No Hellman drama would equal the 691 performances of Hellman’s Broadway debut—though The Little Foxes (1939) has become more of a favorite with regional theater companies (including a 2009 Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production, which I reviewed here).

Much to her chagrin, the questions raised about Hellman’s veracity seriously devalue her value as memoirist. But the critics of her stagecraft have also been proved wrong by time. Not only have her themes demonstrated continued relevance to modern audiences, but actors have also found her roles substantial, as demonstrated with The Children’s Hour by the West End appearance of Elisabeth Moss as Martha and Keira Knightley as Karen at the Comedy Theatre in London three years ago.