Monday, November 30, 2009

This Day in Film History (Brooks’ “Pandora’s Box” Delivers Lulu of an Impact)

November 30, 1929—Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Louise Brooks, but German director G. W. Pabst did, immediately hiring her once Paramount Pictures freed the restless starlet from her contract.

Die Buchse der Pandora, a.k.a. Pandora’s Box, premiered on this date in Berlin, one day before this second of two Pabst-Brooks collaborations opened in New York City.

American critics were as unimpressed by Brooks as studio execs. As the actress recalled years later, the general tone of the reviews went, “Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer. She does nothing.”

Nowadays, of course, film aficionados—especially critics—feel differently. With her dancer’s body, flapper smile and trademark black bangs, the free-spirited Brooks set a standard for unapologetic amorality on screen that shocked in its own time and remains provocative to this day.

Her character Lulu, a kind of Zelig of carnality, turns up seemingly everywhere, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake, until, in her one act of kindness, she agrees to forego sex for pay with a penniless stranger: Jack the Ripper.

Brooks, who also worked with Pabst on Diary of a Lost Girl, came to revere the director for “his truthful picture of this world of pleasure which let me play Lulu naturally,” in what she termed the “childish simpleness of vice.”

The actress had another reason to be grateful to the director, besides his careful but sure-handed guidance of her performance: he had gone to bat for her at a critical time.

Waiting in his office when Pabst received the cable from Paramount stating that he could have Brooks was another actress whose knowing lasciviousness was not what he had in mind for the passive temptress Lulu. Germans would come to resent the fact that this landmark role would go to an American rather than one of their own, but within a year, with The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich would make her mark anyway.

In certain ways, Brooks’ life after her iconic performance was not unlike Lulu’s. There was the same allure to men and women (including, reportedly, not only Dietrich but Greta Garbo); the same string of lovers who couldn’t forget or get over her; the same headlong descent (in Brooks’ case, not just leaving Hollywood but taking up drink and escort work); the same financial maintenance by lovers (or, in the case of CBS head William Paley, an ex-lover).

But, against all the odds, Brooks’was saved from destruction by the power of art—both the acting that absorbed her energy for only a decade of acting, and the film writing on film she began in middle age. Her essays, featuring both her piquant takes on the magic of cinema and her memories of legends such as W.C. Fields and Humphrey Bogart, were good enough to be collected into Lulu in Hollywood.

As for her acting, well, let’s put it this way: In her seventies, living in seclusion in Rochester, N.Y., her image in Pandora’s Box was still enough to obsess the critic Kenneth Tynan, who tracked down the actress and profiled her in the 1979 New Yorker article, “The Girl in the Black Helmet.”

Her image has become so indelible--even for those who might not immediately recognize her name--that Jonathan Demme paid a knowing tribute to her by naming Melanie Griffith's wild alter-ego "Lulu"--and giving her the requisite dark bangs to go with it--in Something Wild.

Quote of the Day (Winston Churchill, on the Political Advantages of Accepting Responsibility)

“The Government majority for their part appeared captivated by Mr. [Stanley] Baldwin's candour. His admission of having been utterly wrong, with all his sources of knowledge, upon a vital matter for which he was responsible was held to be redeemed by the frankness with which he declared his error and shouldered the blame. There was even a strange wave of enthusiasm for a Minister who did not hesitate to say that he was wrong. Indeed, many Conservative Members seemed angry with me for having brought their trusted leader to a plight from which only his native manliness and honesty had extricated him; but not, alas, his country.”—Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (1948)

I really love the photo accompanying this post, don’t you? It shows the leader of Britain in its “finest hour” at age seven, a veritable bulldog-in-training. The stance is not far removed from that of 60 years later, when photographer Yousef Karsh, according to legend, yanked the PM’s ever-present cigar away, provoking this world-famous image.

More often, the statesman delivered instead of received provocations. From the moment he came squirming, kicking and bawling into the world on this date in 1874, in a ladies’ cloakroom in the family ancestral home Blenheim Palace, Sir Winston Churchill threw out of their comfort zone virtually everyone who came into his orbit.

An architect of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Great Britain, Churchill was, on a personal level, the product of just such a relationship. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, an up-and-coming Conservative politician, married Jennie Jerome, a Brooklyn girl seemingly out of the pages of Henry James and Edith Wharton, with money (courtesy of her father), beauty and admirers (including the Prince of Wales) to spare.

Winston arrived seven months after their wedding. Whether born prematurely, as the family insisted, or as a result of a conception that took place before vows were exchanged, as at least several biographers suspect, Churchill simply “never could,” as William Manchester noted, “wait his turn.”

What good is reading—or, for that matter, writing—a blog if it tells you what you already know, or confirms your ingrained prejudices? Look, if you want to find examples of the British statesman’s eloquence (imbibed, I was delighted to learn, from memorizing passages from the Irish-born Tammany Hall politician Bourke Cockran, an orator so intimidating that William Jennings Bryan didn’t dare share a platform with him), look elsewhere. If you want to take issue with the traditional “Last Lion” narrative of his life (particularly as it relates to his benighted attitudes toward Ireland, India and Iraq), you’ll find plenty to find on the Web for that, too.

But if you want to discover another aspect, albeit in a minor key, of the writing mastery that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953; if you want to discern more about the rhetorical strategies that made everyone, friend or foe, move to the edge of their seats when he rose to speak in the House of Commons; or if you simply want to understand how he carved out his place in history, then consider the passage I quoted and the circumstances that inspired it.

In this first volume of his Second World War memoir, Churchill has just related a pivotal episode in his “wilderness years” out of power: the astonishing spring 1935 admission of error by his own Conservative Party head and Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, in disputing backbencher Churchill’s warning that Hitler’s Luftwaffe would achieve parity with the Royal Air Force within the year.

When the truth came out, Baldwin ‘fessed up. Well, sort of. He didn’t confess to covering up, but to getting wrong “my estimate of the future.” But that was enough for the country, which promptly accorded him even higher approval ratings.

As he wrote, Churchill found himself in an ambivalent position toward his predecessor once removed at Whitehall. On the one hand, this former young-man-in-a-hurry, who had seen his own climb up “the greasy pole” of politics stalled at key points (his management of the Dardanelles campaign in WWI, his strident opposition to Indian opposition more than a decade later), was still smarting over the genial Baldwin’s election to a post he thought he deserved.

On the other hand, he had eventually sat in the same position as Baldwin and knew the challenges and second-guessing to which responsibility subjected heads of government. The angrier Churchill sounded toward Baldwin, the greater license it would afford others to react with similar harshness toward himself. So, despite the fact that he rarely consulted Baldwin in the war, Churchill delivered a tamped-down, even amiable appraisal of his predecessor once removed in his memoir:

“Our differences at times were serious, but in all these years and later I never had an unpleasant personal interview or contact with him, and at no time did I feel we could not talk together in good faith and understanding as man to man.”

If only that was all there was to it…

But elsewhere, in the same account, Churchill wonders how Baldwin got away with his inaccurate reassurance to the public at all—specifically, why no Parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the true state of affairs concerning German airpower and what the government did (or didn’t) know about it.

So Churchill concedes his former leader’s “candour” and “native manliness and honesty,” but he fully intends to drag him before the bar of history. In this case, words and even good intentions are not enough—the real consequences of policy decisions have to be considered. It all comes full force with a single short, ironic phrase, abruptly halting those rhythmic cadences he’d learned from Bourke Cockran: “but not, alas, his country.”

Game, set, match: Churchill.

I admit to another reason for interest in this episode: the periodic outcry that American Presidents “accept responsibility” for disastrous policy mistakes. John F. Kennedy was absolutely baffled that his popularity could balloon after he took the blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and I’m sure that Jimmy Carter remains equally nonplussed why his similar admission of error for the failed Iranian rescue mission did nothing to raise his.

This past week, we have another, more curious instance of this: the urging of Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations, that President Obama should, like JFK, accept responsibility for his recent trip to Asia, where the President’s bow to Japan's Emperor Akihito occasioned ridicule in some quarters.

I expected conservatives to be bent out of shape about Obama’s well-meaning gesture. But I find it positively strange that Gelb, a liberal Democrat, could liken what was, at worst, a public relations faux pas on the part of the Obama administration, to JFK's military operation, which:

a) cost lives,
b) did not succeed in its purpose of driving Fidel Castro from office, and
c) underscored foreign perceptions that the Yanqui colossus of the North would once again interfere with Latin American internal matters.

Gelb should re-read Churchill to understand the kind of momentous foreign-policy mistakes that really require accepting responsibility—and then he should consider how capricious history can be in apportioning blame.

Baldwin’s responsibility for what Churchill called “the gathering storm” is not unlike Calvin Coolidge’s for the Great Depression in the United States. The popularity of both leaders as they left office eroded within only a year or two, though not as drastically as their hapless successors.

While private correspondence and the reminiscences of friends indicate that both men were aware of the grave risks their nation was facing, historians still fault them for not doing more to confront challenges while there was still time to avoid a cataclysm.

I guess it’s natural that so many continue to dispute the nature of Churchill’s legacy just as much as the manner in which he came into the world. For all their seeming sophistication, historians can act with as much wrongheadedness as anyone else in weighing a person’s life. Most of us understand that the people we meet never are totally good or totally bad, but the passions of politics inevitably color how we see people with great power or influence.

In this regard, I think that the philosopher Isaiah Berlin best captured the essence of Churchill’s personality when he spoke of “the hedgehog and the fox.” The fox, he noted, knows many things, but the hedgehog understands one really big thing. Stanley Baldwin, with his exquisite sense of the public pulse, and particularly what would play with respect to India and the abdication crisis surrounding King Edward VIII, was a classic fox; Churchill, in contrast, by grasping the enormity of Hitler's evil early on, conformed to the pattern of a hedgehog.

Like Pope John Paul II, the stubbornness that could prove so off-putting on so many occasions steeled Churchill's will for the supreme test of his career: upholding the autonomy of the individual human being against the world’s greatest totalitarian power.

I’m not sure I would say that Churchill could influence historical judgments as much as he could history itself. But the judgments in his memoirs, such as this one on Baldwin, are far more trenchant and quotable than the average career retrospectives of today’s statesmen.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

This Day in Classical Music History (Puccini Dies With “Turandot” Unfinished)

November 29, 1924—Giacomo Puccini, who assumed the mantle of master of Italian opera from Verdi, and who lived with as much tumult as he chronicled in La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, died of cardiac arrest amid radiation treatment for throat cancer in Brussels, Belgium. Death deprived him of the chance to complete his final masterwork: Turandot.

In two years of blogging, I can’t recall offhand ever posting anything about opera. But goodness knows that as much drama exists in this creative genre as any other I’ve written about. And when I inadvertently came upon the current Puccini exhibit at the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, what I discovered proved irresistible.

I hadn’t been in the venerable New York landmark at Madison Avenue and 36th Street since a couple of years before its recent renovation. In fact, I came for an entirely different exhibit entirely there: one about Jane Austen. (More on this at a future date.)

I’m still not sure that I like the majority of changes done to Pierpont Morgan’s plush but comparatively cozy little abode. (I think I could have gotten used to that library very, very well, thank you!) The museum might also seriously contemplate more and easier-to-read directions to help visitors work their way up and down floors and through the galleries.

But, if the expanded space means the institution will be able to mount more exhibits such as this one—and the concurrent ones related to Austen and William Blake—all to the good.

Celebrating Puccini” contains approximately forty items related to Puccini's career, including original manuscripts, first-edition librettos, personal letters, a period poster and playbills, souvenir postcards, and other rare materials.

I didn’t know that Puccini got himself into a scrape with a servant girl that, when exposed, led to the poor young woman’s suicide. I was also fascinated by the sometimes-stormy relationship between the composer and conductor Arturo Toscanini, who went from high regard to estrangement (over differences concerning WWI and the value of some of Puccini’s later works) and back again.

By 1924, composer and conductor had reconciled, but it was getting late in the game for Puccini. It turned out that what he believed to be a cold was actually throat cancer. Even with all of that, Puccini might have been able to complete his race against time to complete Turandot if only librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni had sent him their material a bit sooner.

At the request of Toscanini, Franco Alfano completed Turandot. At the opera’s premiere in 1926, when Toscanini came to the section where illness had forced Puccini to stop, his longtime collaborator stopped the orchestra, laid down his baton and said, “Here the opera ends because at this point the Maestro died."

“Celebrating Puccini,” lasting through the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, is on exhibit through January 10.

Quote of the Day (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the First Sunday of Advent)

“Thus we live today under the shadow of his coming, not some dreaded disaster or some fate, but the coming of the God of justice, of love, and of peace. Not finding our own way to God into the future, but receiving the future from God. We know that we cannot go to God, but God comes to us, enfolding us in his unbelievable grace, otherwise our life is lost, and our waiting is in vain. We can only wait, watchfully wait; that means patiently waiting, totally deaf to those who would sow doubts in our mind, blind to every power that stands between us and that future which God wills for us. One thing is needful: the conviction that we shall see God, we shall hear God, we shall receive God, we shall know God, we shall serve God. In some incomprehensible way, God will—otherwise nothing, absolutely nothing else, counts.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Advent Sunday” sermon, November 29, 1931, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, edited and translated by Edwin Robertson (2005)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

This Day in Rock History (Lennon Joins Elton John Onstage in Final Concert Appearance)

November 28, 1974—After four hours of high-energy rock ‘n’ roll from opening act Kiki Dee and headliner Elton John, the 17,000 fans at Madison Square Garden this Thanksgiving night could not have imagined what could top what they’d already experienced. But when Elton coaxed visibly nervous friend John Lennon onto the stage to play, a collective gasp issued from the audience, followed by tumultuous applause for the ex-Beatle.

Among the surprised fans that night were my friends Brian and Karen. I’m sure they would agree that this was among the more memorable concerts they’ve ever attended.

In retrospect, of course, it became far more than that. Little did anyone know that for the next five years, Lennon would drop from sight, becoming a househusband in the wake of his reconciliation with wife Yoko Ono and the birth of their son Sean; that he would only emerge from all of this to record his album Double Fantasy; and that his murder at the hands of Mark David Chapman in 1980 would make his time onstage at the Garden his last public appearance.

Lennon’s appearance was the result of a dare between himself and Elton. The ex-Beatle met the Liberace of rock ‘n’ roll in Los Angeles during Lennon’s 15-month separation from Ono, a period of sexual experimentation fueled by drunkenness and desperation that he later described as his “lost weekend.”

The two British musicians immediately hit it off, and Elton played piano and sang a duet on the uptempo “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” from Lennon's Walls and Bridges LP. Unlike the other Beatles, Lennon had not had a #1 hit as a solo artist, but Elton believed that this would be the one.

Lennon was so certain it would not be that he accepted Elton’s bet: if the song topped the charts, Lennon would have to perform with him onstage. In mid-November 1974, the unlikely became reality, and Elton called to remind him of their friendly wager.

Backstage before the concert, Lennon was terrified at what he’d gotten himself into. He not only did not have the backup musicians with whom he’d played a few years before—the Plastic Ono Band—but he feared he would suffer by comparison with Elton, a force of nature onstage. The stage fright soon manifested itself in physical symptoms, as he threw up backstage.

Though the great majority of fans that night were surprised, there was a smaller number who had gotten wind that he might show up. One of them was Yoko, who managed to get a seat close to the front but out of her estranged husband’s direct sight line.

A good thing, too: She had sent two boxes of gardenias before the show—one to Elton, the other to Lennon. “Thank goodness she’s not here,” Lennon reportedly said. “Otherwise I know I’d never be able to go out there.”

Imagine if he’d known this—the audience would never have been treated to the sight of the legendary Beatle, in a plain black suit and dark glasses (a nice physical contrast to Elton's glam-rock attire), walking out gingerly to play “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (Lennon had played guitar on Elton’s recent cover version), “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” and a last, somewhat uncharacteristic “number of an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul. This is one I never sang, it's an old Beatle number, and we just about know it." “I Saw Her Standing There” brought the crowd to its feet in a final frenzy.

Yoko made her way backstage, where she was photographed holding hands with Lennon. Shortly after the new year, with Lennon announcing that “our separation was a failure,” the two were back again for good this time.

Sometimes a concert is memorable because of the electricity a superstar generates, as in the three times I saw Bruce Springsteen. Other times it might be memorable largely because of the tragic circumstances that ensued shortly after, as when Harry Chapin died within a week after I saw him at the Dr. Pepper Music Festival at Pier 84 in New York in 1981. The Lennon appearance at Elton John’s “garden party” was a rare example of both.

I think Lennon, had he known his last time onstage would be in New York, would be tickled pink. My friend Brian alerted me to an interview that Lennon gave deejay Dennis Elsas, now included in the “Archives” section of WFUV-FM as part of a tribute to the musical legend.

In the conversation, Lennon spoke of his delight at living in New York, where the occasional fan requesting an autograph would make him feel “known enough to keep my ego going, but unknown enough to be able to get around.” That openness and innocence—qualities that few, if any, celebrities have been able to enjoy in our modern age of the stalker—left him prey to the madness of Mark David Chapman in December 1980.

Song Lyric of the Day (Together in the Holidays, “If the Fates Allow”)

“Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow,
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”—“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” music by Ralph Blane, lyrics by Hugh Martin (1944)

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the climax of Meet Me in St. Louis, the Vincente Minnelli musical which opened on this date in 1944. The lyrics, sung by Judy Garland to a tearful Margaret O’Brien, were reworked by Martin at the strong urging of the older star, who said people would think she was a monster for singing such sad words (“Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more”) to a little girl.

Martin lightened up the song even further for Frank Sinatra’s 1957 album, A Jolly Christmas. Nevertheless, an ineffable melancholy continues to cling to it, no matter which version is sung.

Several years ago, one of my uncles—who, sadly, passed away in October—told me how much “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” meant to his generation, and particularly to his family, who had their youngest son serving in the South Pacific in World War II. One line particularly struck home, he recalled: “If only in my dreams.”

The Blane-Martin song came from the same era and, I think, from the same pressures. The lyrics constantly employ equipoise: “here” versus “miles away,” “olden days” versus “now,” “happy” versus “troubles.”

But for anyone undergoing a transition—including watching my uncle’s generation pass from the scene—the song hinges, like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” on one line: “If the Fates allow.” As she sang, Garland—for all her youth and considerable show-business savvy—sensed that the song depended on contingency and transience. Among the many songs she sang throughout her career, this would rank among the half-dozen with which she is most associated.

In its nostalgia for a gentler time and its tentative, fragile optimism, Meet Me in St. Louis and its most heart-tugging song are more than just holiday evergreens; they’re prime, poignant pieces of Americana. More than a few people know what it’s like to “muddle through somehow” amid the noise of a seemingly cheerful holiday.

Friday, November 27, 2009

This Day in Business History (Death of Elizabeth Coleman White, Blueberry Lady of NJ)

November 27, 1954—Elizabeth Coleman White, who created an indelible but perfectly edible part of the Garden State by introducing the nation’s first cultivated blueberry, died at age 83 of cancer, on Whitesbog, the 3,000-acre family plantation in New Jersey’s Pinelands where she collaborated on her great boon for the state.

By 2007, New Jersey had harvested 54 million pounds of blueberries. But the multibillion-dollar industry would not have taken off without her dogged pursuit of what many believed impossible.

Today, blueberries come in two varieties, wild lowbush and highbush, with highbush outnumbering lowbush by more than 3 to 1. Before Ms. White began her research, however, no highbush blueberries were cultivated at all in the United States.

Long familiar with cranberry cultivation from helping father at Whitesbog, she turned her attention seriously to blueberries when she came across a 1911 U.S. Department of Agriculture report outlining botanist Frederick Coville’s theories on this.

Coville and White each possessed something the other lacked: he, a formal, extensive scientific and horticultural background; she, financing and a kind of field laboratory--the family plantation--where hypotheses could be formulated and experiments conducted. Soon, he accepted her invitation to come to Whitesbog to study the blueberry problem more intensively.

White’s tall figure became a familiar sight in the swampy areas around her home as she stopped to quiz woodsmen about everything they knew about the blueberry: plant vigor, resistance to cold and disease, flavor, texture, productivity and the time of ripening.

But "Miss Lizzie" didn’t stop there:

* She asked people to list wild bushes that contained the best berries in a 20-mile radius around Whitesbog.
* She provided incentives for reporting information to her by a) offering bounties from $1 to $3 each for marking the largest berry on each bush, and b) naming new varieties after these finders.
* She documented in detail the growth and character of each berry variety.

Coville used White’s field work to cross-fertilize varieties until he came up with a commercially viable blueberry in 1916.

Nor did White’s contribution to horticulture end there:

* She introduced cellophane to package blueberries for shipment to stores for sale.
* She helped establish the New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative in 1927.
* She rescued the native American holly—and where would we be in the holiday season without that?

Nancy O’Mallon has directed a 45-minute documentary on Ms. White, available on DVD, called The Mighty Humble Blueberry. You can see a portion of this on YouTube here.

Quote of the Day (James Agee, on Silent-Film Comedy)

“When a modern comedian gets hit on the head, for example, the most he is apt to do is look sleepy. When a silent comedian got hit on the head he seldom let it go so flatly. He realized a broad license, and a ruthless discipline within that license. It was his business to be as funny as possible physically, without the help or hindrance of words. So he gave us a figure of speech, or rather of vision, for loss of consciousness. In other words he gave us a poem, a land of poem, moreover, that everybody understands. The least he might do was to straighten up stiff as a plank and fall over backward with such skill that his whole length seemed to slap the floor at the same instant. Or he might make a cadenza of it-look vague, smile like an angel, roll up his eyes, lace his fingers, thrust his hands palms downward as far as they would go, hunch his shoulders, rise on tiptoe, prance ecstatically in narrowing circles until, with tallow knees, he sank down the vortex of his dizziness to the floor and there signified nirvana by kicking his heels twice, like a swimming frog.”—James Agee, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” Life, September 5, 1949

Where do you begin to consider the contributions of James Agee, born on this date 100 years ago? It’s impossible to consider him reaching old age, just as it is inconceivable to think of John F. Kennedy—who likewise died at age 46, after a life of increasingly heightened risks—to have done so.

I first encountered Agee in his sensitive and moving semi-autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957. For those who find Thomas Wolfe a baggy monster of a novelist, this work—another novel about life in the South, with a traumatic death at its center—is an appealing alternative. (Agee’s death, just before an appointment with a doctor about his heart troubles, occurred on the anniversary of the demise of the father he commemorated unforgettably in that book.)

Agee was also a masterful journalist (Let Us Know Praise Famous Men), poet, screenwriter, and letter-writer (Letters to Father Flye). But as a lover of cinema, I also deeply value his film criticism for Time and The Nation. The quote above comes from perhaps his most influential essay, which revived interest in silent clowns Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. Has there ever been a better description of the near-balletic grace required to succeed in this form?

Essayist Phillip Lopate, with characteristic verve, offers a fascinating but by no means uncritical assessment of this compelling writer and personality here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Dickens’ “Tale of 2 Cities” in Boffo Final Installment)

November 26, 1859—As thousands of readers devoured the last serial installment of Charles Dickens’ latest novel, A Tale of Two Cities, they quickly committed to memory the dying words on the scaffold of hero Sydney Carton: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done…”

Dickens must have felt the exact same way. An actor wannabe and, by financial necessity, a careful watcher of his income, he had spent the last two decades fulfilling audience expectations and peering over publishers’ shoulders concerning his business rights.

On the Saturday that his story of the French Revolution came out in its seventh and eighth installment in the inexpensive magazine he edited, All the Year Round, the indefatigable author could have, if he were so inclined, paused to rest and smile at the reception he was receiving. But I doubt if he did.

After all, he had to be up and making a success of his new magazine—soliciting, editing, even rewriting contributions from others, writing essays of his own, and, when the muse bid him to do so, serializing his next novel, Great Expectations, there, too. You’d do the same thing, I guess, if you owned 75% of the venture, as Dickens did.

Melodrama had been shaping Dickens’ approach both to his work and his life. He loved to act, and in his preface to A Tale of Two Cities he noted that he first conceived the idea for the novel while performing in his friend Wilkie Collins’ melodrama The Frozen Deep.

My post from yesterday on Collins’ The Woman in White touched briefly on a clandestine relationship that began while Dickens appeared in The Frozen Deep: the one with actress Ellen Ternan. But the play also got him to think about recreating his own version of the self-sacrificing hero in that melodrama.

The novel was Dickens’ 12th, but only his second set outside his own period. (His first historical novel, Barnaby Rudge, had as its backdrop the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.) While Collins inspired Tale’s denouement, another friend, Thomas Carlyle, provided essential materials for historical background—his own work, The French Revolution, plus materials used in researching that history.

In a famous essay on his indebtedness to D.W. Griffith and Dickens, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein credited the British novelist with planting the ideas of the close-up and “parallel montage”—i.e., a "shifting of the story from one group of characters to another." It was perhaps forced by circumstance, as Dickens puzzled increasingly over how to maintain interest, from one installment to the next, while ensuring that his novels, when appearing in book form, cohered from beginning to end.

Daniel Pool’s Dickens’ Fur Coat and Charlotte’s Unanswered Letters points to the turning point in Dickens’ development as a novelist: his 1848 agreement with publisher Bradbury & Evans that he would be paid for his full 20 “numbers” or installments.

Without having to write self-contained installments, as he had been forced to do previously (lest lack of reader interest induced the publishers to pull the plug on the novel), he could now integrate his books more strongly. “Notice how patiently and expressly the thing has to be planned for presentation in fragments, and yet for afterwards fusing together as an uninterrupted whole,” he wrote aspiring novelist Jane Brookfield, specifically citing A Tale of Two Cities.

He might have been a master entertainer who knew how to make readers laugh, cry, and hunger for his next work, but Dickens didn’t provide similar happiness to those who worked with him. His dispute with Bradbury & Evans, over their refusal to publish his letter denying improprieties with Ellen Ternan, led to a parting of the ways. They had to watch as he returned to his old publisher Chapman & Hall, naming them the distributor of All the Year Round.

A Tale of Two Cities also marked Dickens’ last collaboration with longtime illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1882) — better known simply as "Phiz." (One of his illustrations from the book is in the link accompanying this post.) While monthly editions of All the Year Round continued to have illustrations by Phiz, the cheap weekly editions of the magazine made publishing this work impracticable.

There was also the matter of Dickens’ evolution as an artist to consider. Like Anton Chekhov and Woody Allen, Dickens began, in Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, as a humorous writer, before mingling in far more serious elements as time went on.

Phiz’ strength—rambunctious humor—was of increasingly marginal interest to the serious Victorian audience Dickens was now courting. The novelist decided, without explanation, to end a partnership that had greatly enhanced the reception of his work. This was hardly the manner of the lovable entertainer that his public had gotten into the habit of bringing into their home every year like a friend--especially Christmas, when one of his magazine's issues had one of his contributions about the importance of kindness and thinking about other things besides money.

Quote of the Day (George Washington, Proclaiming a Day of Thanksgiving in the New Nation)

“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to 'recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness':

"Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

"And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.“Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.”—President George Washington, 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This Day in Theater History (John Wilkes Booth Appears With Brothers for Only Time on Stage)

November 25, 1864—In their first and only performance together, three members of America’s first great family of tragedians—Edwin, John Wilkes, and Junius Booth Jr.—appeared in a benefit at New York’s Winter Garden Theater. Outside city streets on that night, eight agents of the Confederate Secret Service (CSS) spread mayhem by setting fires in several Broadway hotels—just a small portent of the chaos that John Wilkes Booth would unleash six months later.

Most visitors who pass by the statue of William Shakespeare on Literary Walk in Lower Central Park are unaware that at least one source of the funds for this work by John Quincy Adams Ward derived from the Booth brothers’ benefit--an estimated $3,500 to $4,000, by later accounts. And still fewer realize that the play in which they appeared was about assassination: Julius Caesar.

Given his subsequent act of madness, you’d think that John would have taken on the role of assassin—but instead, he played Marc Antony. To his way of thinking, though, this might have made sense—Antony not only was a major character with that “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, but he’d managed to alter the course of events seemingly tilted against him through charm, eloquence and guile—something that Booth hoped to do now, a growing number of historians believe, as an agent employed by the CSS.

Instead, the role of assassins fell to the brothers at odds with John for his Confederate sympathies. It fell to Edwin Booth to play the conscience-stricken conspirator Brutus. You might argue that his character’s inner torment had echoed in his own life the last few years. He was still sorrowing over the death of his wife, actress Mary Devlin, the prior year; in a way, he would never really get over it.

The role of Cassius, assumed by Junius Jr., would have really suited John. You remember why Caesar disliked Cassius, right? He "has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much; such men are dangerous."
Junius, though the least talented, might also have been the least conflicted of the three Booth brothers. He would eventually not only leave acting by becoming a theater manager, but even get into another business entirely—hotels.

The political differences separating Antony from the two conspirators mirrored the divided loyalties of the trio of brothers. John was an increasingly loud Confederate sympathizer; Junius exhibited merely Democratic leanings; while Edwin would have nothing to do with John’s views. As it happened, Edwin had become a particular favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s, as the theater-loving President saw him in four plays in eight weeks in 1864.

Subsequent correspondence shows that Edwin had tried unsuccessfully to secure John during the summer. Besides the usual itinerant schedule that many actors maintained then, another factor unknown to Edwin might have limited John’s availability: his increasingly strenuous efforts to aid the CSS.

John by this time had already formulated plans to kidnap the President. It would only be in the new year that he would change his mind and decide to kill Lincoln instead.
The Booth brothers were reviving, in their own fashion, the tumultuous life of their father. Junius Brutus Booth, considered the first great tragedian to appear over a prolonged period in the U.S., fled England as a 25-year-old in 1821, deserting his wife and two-year-old child to run away with a Bow Street flower-seller, Mary Ann Holmes, already pregnant with Junius Jr. The couple claimed to have wed shortly after coming to the U.S., because it was not recognized. Because the wife he left behind did not learn of his second family until 1846, then would not grant him a divorce for another five, all nine children he had with Mary Ann were conceived out of wedlock.

Junius Sr. possessed a reverence for life, teaching his children not even to hurt a fly. But he was also mad for much of his adult life, a weakness exacerbated by drinking bouts. While performing Othello, he aroused the fires of others in his company that he would really smother Desdemona with a pillow. He could disappear for days on end and even be found on city streets naked.

Decades later, as his sons rose to prominence, it was natural for some to compare their styles of performance. Edwin was striving for a more naturalistic style, while John imitated the grandiloquence of his father. One Cleveland theater manager wrote that John “has more of the old man’s power in one performance than Edwin can show in a year. He has the fire, the dash, the touch of strangeness.”

Ah, strangeness—the quality that can win multiple awards from fellow thespians—and turn you into someone with a dangerous political monomania. That fall, Booth was meeting up in Montreal with representatives from the CSS. In October, a ciphered letter was sent from Richmond to Booth: His "friends would be set to work as directed."

CSS agents were already at large in New York that night. In the aftermath of the multiple fires, more than 200 people were rounded up and the newspapers were filled with talk about how the government had to be more careful about restricting Southerners in the North.

Of course, the eight real saboteurs escaped.

Oh, one other thing: one fire was set at the LaFarge House, adjacent to the Winter Garden, around 9:20 pm. Though quickly extinguished, it set off tremendous consternation next door at the Winter Garden. It took Edwin Booth, a police inspector, and a local judge to soothe everyone’s nerves at the packed audience.

When John murdered the President months later, Edwin withdrew in shock and sorrow from the stage for months. It was not until January 1866, when he returned to the Winter Garden, in the role he had begun immediately after his benefit performance with his brothers—Hamlet—that he was able to resume his career.

Quote of the Day (Wilkie Collins, on the “Woman in White”)

“There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments…All I could discern distinctly by the moonlight, was a colourless, youthful face, meager and sharp to look at, about the cheeks and chin; large, grave, wistfully-attentive eyes; nervous, uncertain lips; and light hair of a pale, brownish-yellow hue.”—English novelist and playwright Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), The Woman in White (1860)

Read over that quote again. In its pathos and, especially, rising dramatic tension, it’s not hard to think that it comes from one of Charles Dickens’ later novels.

In some ways, in fact, we can think of Wilkie Collins—Dickens’ junior by 12 years—as the writer who, on the written page as well as in private life, pushed to a logical conclusion everything his longtime great friend and mentor did in these years.

The Woman in White, though not Collins’ first novel, was his first major success. The thriller began U.S. serialization in Harper’s Weekly on this date in 1859, one day before it was set to do so in the author’s native Britain, in the Dickens-edited magazine All the Year Round.

(What an extraordinary amount of thrilling literature that readers received in that single issue of the latter: not only the first installment of Collins’ book, but the last of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.)

What did I mean about Collins pushing “to a logical conclusion” everything Dickens did? Well, consider some of the ways that The Woman in White resembled, then diverged from, Dickens’ Bleak House (1853):

* Bleak House split between an omniscient, third-person narrator and a first-person one; Woman in White features five first-person narrators.

* Bleak House concerns itself with the maddening vagaries of the law; Woman was written by someone who broke off legal training after his father’s death allowed him to pursue what he really loved--writing. The latter book’s narrators were meant, in effect, to sound like witnesses at a trial.

* Bleak House, with its Inspector Bucket, might be thought of as the first detective novel; Woman might be considered the first novel narrated (at least in part) by an individual who functions as the “detective” of the plot by unlocking a mystery. Collins is generally regarded as the master of the Victorian “sensation novel”—a genre in which the commonplace facts of life collide with subject matter bound to shock the mores of the time: substance abuse, sexual transgressions, and insanity. That genre also further developed the beginnings of the modern detective story pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe.

* Bleak House spawned three adaptations for the BBC; Woman was spun off as a stage play in the 1870s (written by Collins himself), twice for the “Beeb,” then turned into a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I should also point out a few other ways in which the lives and/or works of Dickens and Collins reflected, in sometimes odd ways, on each other:

* Bleak House and Woman deal with secrets; their authors had their own, of a sexual nature. Dickens left his wife of two decades for Ellen Ternan, a young actress he met while taking part in Collins’ The Frozen Deep; for years, Collins maintained two separate households with two different women—a set of irregular relationships that increasingly alienated him from Dickens.

* Dickens’ daughter Katie married Collins’ sickly brother Charlie.

* By the end of the 1860s, Collins had become addicted to laudanum, and his novel The Moonstone would explore opium and laudanum addiction; addiction to opium would also prove a key plot element of Dickens’ unfinished 1870 novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which Collins, it was discovered years later, privately criticized as a product of an exhausted man).

I started The Woman in White a few weeks ago before being forced to put it down because of other projects. I’ve begrudged every minute I’ve spent away from the book since.

The first thing a modern reader notices about it is that it’s long—more than 600 pages in the edition I own. The quote above hints at why it bulks up so much, but also why it’s been adapted so much to the stage, screen and television—much like Dickens, Collins’ frequent collaborator in theatrical ventures.

Can you imagine what an editor like Gordon Lish—who made the minimalist Raymond Carver howl over his excisions—would do with this passage? Forget about three adjectival phrases to a noun, as Collins resorts to here, or two, or even one such phrase—poor Collins would be reduced to nouns and verbs!

But the effect of all of this verbiage is unforgettable—cinematic, really, in a way that the setting—a moonlit Hampstead heath—by itself couldn’t totally convey. Long after you’ll close the book, you’ll not soon put out of your mind, if ever, the image of the solitary, sad title character.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quote of the Day (Jay Leno, on George W. and Laura Bush—and Libraries)

“The George W. Bush library design was unveiled by former First Lady Laura Bush. Did you know that she was a librarian when she first met George? Did you know that? In fact, she's the only thing he ever checked out of a library."—Jay Leno

Monday, November 23, 2009

Quote of the Day (Kate Braestrup, on Being “As Loving As You Can”)

“Be as loving as you can, as often as you can, for as many people as you can, for as long as you live. Why should we do this? Because."--Kate Braestrup, “Laugh, Pray, Love,” Reader’s Digest, December 2009/January 2010

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Quote of the Day (Harry Eyres, on Science and Religion)

“Science gives us repeated and intensifying warnings that the earth, our home, is in bad shape, and that we are causing potentially disastrous disruption to the great planetary systems of weather and cleansing and renewal. But it leaves us in the lurch, with the bad news. Religion and religious art, at their best, can offer communal means both of mourning our inescapable losses (think of the Bach Passions) and of celebration. Intellectual proofs on their own have never been enough to change human behaviour; we need emotional reconnection.”-- Harry Eyres, “Does Science Need Religion?”, The Financial Times, November 13, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This Day in Film History (What Happened on “William Randolph’s Hearse”?)

November 21, 1924—Three Hawaiian guitarists played at the funeral of Hollywood player Thomas Ince, but the man who had just made a deal with him and thrown a birthday party for him was not among the industry friends who gathered for the sad event.
Those were only the latest of the bizarre, inexplicable events surrounding his hurried departure a few days before from the yacht of William Randolph Hearst. The incident sparked a three-quarters-of-a-century scandal and mystery involving the tabloid publisher; his mistress, silent-film comedienne Marion Davies; and Charlie Chaplin, who had been paying Davies a great deal of attention.

The Ince case was addressed directly onscreen in Peter Bogdanovich’s fine 2002 drama, The Cat’s Meow, as well as in a mystery co-written by none other than Heart’s granddaughter, Patricia Hearst, Murder in San Simeon. What fewer people realize is that it formed a long-unknown backdrop to the controversial, thinly fictionalized version of the publisher’s life, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Ince ended up on the 280-ft. yacht, the Oneida—subsequently nicknamed by Hollywood wags “William Randolph’s Hearse”—because Hearst and Davies wanted to throw a party in honor of his 43rd birthday. There was no reason for the producer-director not to come—the vivacious Davies threw the type of galas that people talked about for the rest of their lives, and Hearst wanted him in a good mood as they moved to conclude a major business deal. (Hearst desired to use Ince’s Culver City studios as a base for Cosmopolitan Productions, the production company he’d used to propel Davies to stardom.)

In his epic life of the publisher, The Chief, David Nasaw sounds like one of those exasperated historians forced to slap down innumerable far-fetched conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination in Dallas: “Today, seventy-five years after Ince’s death, there is still no credible evidence that he was murdered or that Hearst was involved in any foul play.”

I, for one, am also impatient about every cockamamie conspiracy theory that comes down the pike. Unfortunately, so many odd things happened after Ince stepped aboard the Oneida on the 15th that it’s impossible not to believe that something happened and that somebody wanted badly to hide it. The only question is, what was being hidden?

Hearst’s initial statement claimed that Ince had, after that night, complained of acute indigestion. A doctor took him off the yacht and escorted him home, where he died a couple of days later.

Here’s the problem with this:

* Virtually none of the guests aboard that night could agree on what happened.

* No logs, records or photos exist of the events.

* Hearst was known to keep a gun aboard the yacht.

* Only one guest that night—the doctor escorting Ince off the yacht—was formally interrogated by the authorities.

* Ince’s body was cremated before an autopsy could be concluded.

* Ince’s widow, having received a trust fund from Hearst, took off for Europe as soon as she could after the cremation.

* One guest, Louella Parsons, movie editor for the New York American, insisted she had not been in attendance, even though she had been seen at the studio, waiting to depart for the yacht. Hearst rewarded the extraordinarily ambitious Parsons for her see-no-evil stance with a lifetime contract.

* Another yacht guest, actress Margaret Livingston—Ince’s mistress—had her salary raised afterward.

Most of the subsequent speculation about Ince’s fate resulted from three factors: a) the extremely cozy relationship between Davies and Chaplin (which even Nasaw catalogs at some length); b) Hearst’s realization of, and jealousy over, this; and c) the paranoia of Hearst, one of the inventors of modern tabloid journalism, that his beloved Davies—not to mention the wife he would not leave and did not wish to hurt—would be badly damaged by scandal.

So, what did happen? Take your pick, but just remember: In Hollywood, whatever you hear, no matter how unlikely, there’s at least an 80% chance it could be true:

* Hearst hired an assassin to shoot Ince. (This theory was credited by later San Simeon guest Herman Mankiewicz, who used it in a screenplay called American—which, once Orson Welles heavily edited it, became Citizen Kane. Welles dropped Mankiewicz’ incident to make it just a wee bit more possible to claim his film was not based on the publisher’s life--and, of course, avoid a libel suit.)

* Hearst found Chaplin and Davies together, went to find a gun, causing Davies to scream and Ince to come out to help—only to be accidentally shot by Hearst.

* Hearst and Ince were together, looking for medication late at night to soothe his indigestion, when Hearst mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him.

* Hearst, Chaplin and some other guests were struggling over the gun when it went off, with one bullet entering Ince’s room and accidentally killing him.

* One of the newer theories, trotted out in a 1997 Vanity Fair article, is that Hearst accidentally stabbed Ince through the heart with Davies’ hatpin.

The rumor that threatened to blow the case wide open came from Chaplin’s secretary, Toraichi Kono, who told his wife that Ince was bleeding when he’d been taken off the yacht. San Diego D.A. Chester Kemple heard so much scuttlebutt coming out of this that he brought inb Daniel Carson Goodman, a Cosmopolitan exec who no longer actively practiced medicine but had escorted Ince off the boat, to see what he had to say.

According to another guest on the boat, Gretl Urban, Hearst had warned Goodman as Ince was taken off the boat not to let anyone know the producer had been on the Oneida. Was Hearst nervous about violating Prohibition? Or was there something more?
Aside from the issue of Hearst's own possible culpability, there was the matter of Davies' involvement. Two years before, a welcome-home party thrown by her sister on Long Island had ended suddenly when another female guest fired a bullet into the mouth of her husband. (This was most inopportune for Hearst, as he was in the middle of a gubernatorial campaign in New York.)
Gretl Urban wrote later that after getting off the boat, Goodman had "completely lost his head and fabricated so many impossible tales and acted so super-discreet that the press and everyone else ashore were convinced he was covering up some horrendous crime." But whatever he said to the San Diego authorities, the D.A. seemed disinclined to pursue the matter. Kemple issued a subsequent statement saying he was satisfied with what he heard, and that anything else related to Prohibition infractions would have to be investigated by the L.A. District Attorney. The latter never followed it up.

At this stage, given that no other witnesses were formally questioned about the events, we are unlikely to know what transpired that night. But it seems pretty clear, given the several people connected with the events who were suddenly amply rewarded, that Hearst had gone to extraordinary efforts to buy their silence.

Quote of the Day (Voltaire, on Tending One’s Garden)

“ 'Work then without disputing,’ said Martin; ‘it is the only way to render life supportable.’ "
"The little society, one and all, entered into this laudable design and set themselves to exert their different talents. The little piece of ground yielded them a plentiful crop. Cunegund indeed was very ugly, but she became an excellent hand at pastrywork: Pacquette embroidered; the old woman had the care of the linen. There was none, down to Brother Giroflee, but did some service; he was a very good carpenter, and became an honest man. Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide:

“ ‘There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.’

" ‘Excellently observed,’ answered Candide; ‘but let us cultivate our garden.’"—Voltaire, Candide (1759)

From one end of the year to the other, we’ve listened to much about an anniversary involving an intellectual who upended old pieties. It’s too bad that this intellectual who is hogging world attention is Charles Darwin--a scientist whose writing ability has been massively overhyped and whose influence on racial eugenics has been downplayed--rather than Voltaire, whose Candide was published 250 years ago this fall.

Earlier this week, on my way to a different exhibit in the city, I stopped across from the main branch of the New York Public Library and saw a banner for “Candide at 250: Scandal and Success” inside. I had time, curiosity about an author I read with considerable pleasure in college, and consuming interest to see how on earth Leonard Bernstein and Hal Prince thought they could adapt this relatively short book to the stage.

My college course delved extensively into the French philosophe’s relationship to prior thinkers in the Western tradition (both he and Montaigne regarded non-whites as different rather than inferior), and touched briefly on the specific inspiration for his great satire: philosophical optimism, Gottfried Leibniz’s attempt to justify the ways of God to man, even in the face of tragedy. The Lisbon earthquake, a shattering event, seemed an irrefutable answer to all of that, Voltaire felt.

It wasn’t until I visited this exhibit, however, that I realized that:

* Candide appeared almost exactly four years after the earthquake;

* Voltaire, a former admirer of Alexander Pope, had now turned violently against the English poet for his advocacy of theodicy;

* By the end of 1759 alone, Candide had gone through 17 editions (the NYPL is one of only two libraries that have copies of all 17);

* Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas appeared the same year as Candide and shares with it many of the same characteristics (though not, of course, the dark humor).

Bewilderingly, the exhibit was showcased on the first floor in a room so small that I almost missed it. I’m not sure why the library gave it so little space, given that the subject matter is close to the heart of library director Paul LeClerc (who, the exhibit tells us, required permission from the Catholic bishop of Worcester, Mass.—two centuries after publication, mind you—to read the book during his college years). (Remember that Candide was on the Vatican's Index of banned books for years.)

Among the items on display here:

* the manuscript of the book;

* the red briefcase in which Voltaire carried the manuscript;

* a Houdon bust of the author;

* illustrated editions over the years (including one by artist Rockwell Kent involving a censored drawing);

* reimaginings of the novel in the 20th and 21st centuries, including by Terry Southern (displayed here--a redacted report by an FBI agent about what Connecticut neighbors were reporting about the author and his wife), and the graphic novel; and

* stills from Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 comic operetta, which flopped after its premiere only to find new life—this time, minus Lillian Hellman’s preachy libretto—on Broadway 18 years later.

Candide is not at all a novel of character complexity, but still lives because it makes the reader laugh out loud. If it remains on the Literary Humanities reading list at Columbia University, where I first encountered it, I hope that students coming to the book this semester or next will be strongly encouraged to visit the exhibit, which runs between now and April 25, 2010.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Theater Review: “After Miss Julie,” Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Co.

Count on a New Yorker to ask an impertinent question. At a post-show “talk-back” discussion matinee last month for After Miss Julie, presented by the Roundabout Theatre Co., one audience member couldn’t restrain himself: “Why did Roundabout think it necessary to put this very dated British play on in New York?”

Ouch—it must have hurt the staff of the Roundabout to hear that. Patrick Marber, after all, had updated—well, okay, at least reduced the interval between then and now by half----from August Strindberg’s fierce, pathbreaking 1888 drama, to the night of the Labour Party victory in the U.K. in July 1945. And the Roundabout hadn’t just gotten anyone for the adaptation—Marber had street cred with the buzz-worthy flicks Closer and Notes on a Scandal, and the nonprofit theater company had worked with him previously on Howard Katz. What could go wrong?

If the fall theater season were baseball, then the Roundabout would be batting a healthy .333, with one hit (Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, which I’ll review soon) out of three times at bat (the three shows that I have seen, or plan to, by year's end, anyway). But Bye Bye Birdie has endured some of the most ferocious reviews for a musical that the company has ever presented, and After Miss Julie would probably be DOA by now if it had been mounted by a for-profit theater company.

The “revisal”—a revival of a classic that goes beyond a new production to offer a revised script—has become practically de rigueur with Broadway musicals, whose producers undoubtedly hope that critics will stop using the dreaded cliché “dated” (maybe that audience member I saw was a critic in sheep’s clothing?).

But a revisal of a straight play has now become quite the thing, too, with John Millington Synge and Chekhov, among others, coming in for this treatment. But guess what? It doesn’t mean the results are any better.

In a way, Marber—who wrote this originally as a 1995 BBC teleplay—has attempted to do what directors of Shakespeare have done over the centuries: i.e., prove a playwright's continuing relevance by staging his plays in every time but his own.

You can almost see the wheels turn in the minds of the Roundabout powers-that-be, still in their default Anglophile mode (Sunday in the Park With George, The Philanthropist, The 39 Steps, etc.) from the last several seasons, as they considered the new setting: Hmmm…the action takes place on a night when a conservative party, after years of trying, all-consuming war, gets turned out of office resoundingly by the electorate in favor of the progressives. It’s a new dawn! So familiar! Our Blue State, Manhattan-centric audience will have no problem connecting the dots here!

But here’s the problem—Marber and director Mark Brokaw have juiced up the action (the evidence of two characters’ intercourse becomes all too evident to a third), as well as the dialogue (one lover uses the F-word), but it’s like colorizing a classic 1940 film noir: the new tones don’t enhance the impression left but detract from it. Amazingly, they’ve sensationalized and sexed everything up, only to leave a less searing work.

They did so by disregarding one of the central dictates of Strindberg’s dramaturgy: “The joy of life is in its cruel and powerful struggles.”

In detailing the fall of the young aristocrat Miss Julie, following an impulsive, mad tryst with one of her father’s hired help, the Swedish playwright vented instincts and beliefs that more than a few people would find objectionable today: misogyny and a Darwinism as relentlessly predetermined as any credo created by John Calvin. His male servant, Jean, follows as rapid an ascent as any heat-seeking missile. Strindberg doesn’t bother to justify or sugarcoat this vision.

There’s nothing moral about any of this, any more than there’s anything remotely moral about large animals circling prey. It simply is.

In seeing how well Strindberg’s then-shocking psychological drama would translate into today’s terms, Marber & the Roundabout might have recalled the cautionary tale of Arthur Miller, who decided to adapt Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People for Broadway. So much made the play pertinent to the era of the Red Scare, Miller thought, especially the unwillingness of the townspeople to tolerate dissent. Oh, there were problems, too, with Ibsen’s version, such as the hero’s propensity to spout then-fashionable eugenics theory (very unfashionable after WWII), but Miller would take care of that.

Miller did, all right—but in the process he eliminated Ibsen’s mockery of the hero-doctor’s own naïve idealism, which made the play simultaneously entertaining and complex. The American’s Dr. Stockmann, then, became a humorless, hectoring saint that no Broadway audience wanted any part of.

Something of the same syndrome is occurring onstage at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. Strindberg’s style is as blunt as a roundhouse blow out of nowhere that sends one to the canvass; Marber, attempting to show the characters’ occasional tenderness, mixing in his own reflections on sex, class and power, exhausts himself and the audience in the process.

Not that this is a complete wreck of a play, as a number of critics have implied.

Marber displays a welcome penchant for one-liners, as when John (Strindberg’s renamed servant Jean), compares, with deep satisfaction, a bourbon he has just drunk with that night’s landslide loser, Sir Winston Churchill: “Robust, hearty…and finished.”

The third character in this love triangle, another servant, Christine (Kristin in the original), comes off as stronger, in certain ways, than in the Strindberg version. Marin Ireland brings such intelligence and asperity to the role that many audience members will wonder why on earth John decided to cheat on Christine.

The hinge actor in this production is Jonny Lee Miller, who renders John as a credible mix of ambition, sexual desire, and hyper-awareness of social norms.

Sienna Miller doesn’t fare as well as her onstage colleagues. What’s the problem? Terry Teachout, the normally sound Wall Street Journal critic, wrote recently that Ms. Miller “has no more business playing a classic stage role than I have posing for the cover of Vogue. The Roundabout Theatre Company should be ashamed of itself for asking her to do so.”

Mr. Teachout has a problem with the Roundabout trading on her glamorous appeal. Other critics can't get out of their minds that a young, scandal-plagued thespian is playing a young, scandal-plagued aristocrat. But if actors’ pasts are going to be reviewed alongside their current performances, who will be left to step on a Big Apple stage?

As for Ms. Miller’s looks, they work, at least initially, to the production’s advantage. It takes an extraordinary force to induce John to risk everything for which he’s striven for years, all for the sake of a fling with an arrogant woman who makes the mistake of stooping below her station.

With the help of costume designer Michael Krass, Ms. Miller, appearing in the servants' kitchen unexpectedly to demand a dance from her dad's handsome chauffeur, freezes the action. No woman in white has created so much havoc in the male libido since Lana Turner drove John Garfield around the bend in the film The Postman Always Rings Twice. Ms. Miller should not be reproved for trying to expand her dramatic range, nor should the Roundabout be scolded for permitting her to do so.

No, I’m afraid that Marber is at fault for the holes in After Miss Julie. Strindberg had already provided so many motivations for Miss Julie’s erratic behavior that he created one of the most coveted female roles of the last century and a half.

Marber has tossed in additional unnecessary motives that make a difficult task—explaining Miss Julie’s path to self-destruction—even harder than it has to be. No, I’m afraid that this time it’s the playwright, not the blonde, who’s the dumb one in this production.

Movie Quote of the Day (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, On “The Old Juice,” in “Adam’s Rib”)

Amanda Bonner (played by Katharine Hepburn): “You haven't tried to see my point of view. You haven't even any respect for my, my, my…”

Adam Bonner (played by Spencer Tracy): “There we go, there we go, there we go - Oh, oh, here we go again. The old juice.” (She begins to cry because he refuses to understand her strong feelings and point of view.) “Ah, guaranteed heart-melter. A few female tears...”

Amanda: (sobbing) “I can't help it.”

Adam: "...stronger than any acid. But this time they won't work...”

Amanda: “I didn't...”

Adam: “You can cry from now until the time the jury comes in and it won't make you right and it won't win you that silly case.”

Amanda: “Adam! Please...”

Adam: “Nothing doing...” (He leaves the room, upset about their argument)

Amanda: “...please try to understand.”

Adam: (He returns) “Ah, don't you want your rubdown? You want a drink?”

Amanda: “No.”

Adam: “Do you want anything? What, honey?” (She kicks him in the shin) “Ow!”

Amanda: “Let's all be manly!” (She marches offscreen)—Adam’s Rib (1949), screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, directed by George Cukor

Perhaps the greatest entry in the greatest man-woman screen team in the history of movies, Adam’s Rib premiered 60 years this past Wednesday. This tale of lawyers working opposite sides of the same case was, believe it or not, based on real-life attorneys William Dwight Whitney and wife Dorothy, who represented actor Raymond Massey and his wife, then divorced each other and married their clients in one big, happy, amicable pair of marriages, sort of like if Noel Coward had written a real-life American comedy about lawyers.

One reason why I find this movie superior to all the other Tracy-Hepburn films is that the leads receive not just solid, but brilliant support from the likes of David Wayne, Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen, and especially Judy Holliday. Hepburn and Tracy stumped for Holliday when Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn didn’t want her. Holliday’s brilliant performance gave her irresistible momentum in landing her Oscar-winning role as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday the following year.

Maybe the reason why Tracy and Hepburn were so gracious about promoting Holliday was that they were confident enough in their own abilities to know they wouldn’t suffer by comparison. The scene I just quoted demonstrates why.

Now, my favorite scene from the film is the “licorice” one involving Adam, Amanda and flirtatious neighbor Kip. But the above quote is better at demonstrating the interplay between the two leads. The Gordon-Kanin script gives them some great dialogue, but half the fun lies in watching what Tracy and Hepburn let you infer between the lines.

Hepburn’s Amanda, though highly intelligent, is so competitive that she resorts to other means besides the mind—her emotions and her feet—to prove a point. And Adam, for all his stodginess and scorn for “the old juice,” returns abashed when he thinks he’s hurt her feelings.

Better than the script can show, Tracy and Hepburn let you see that Adam and Amanda enjoy a marriage of equally matched human beings—certainly equally foolish, but, despite their powerful feelings about their case, equally warm and loving, too.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quote of the Day (Peter Drucker, on the World’s Knowledge-Based Economy)

“The productivity of knowledge and knowledge workers will not be the only competitive factor in the world economy. It is, however, likely to become the decisive factor, at least for most industries in the developed countries.”—Peter Drucker, “The Future That Has Already Happened

Peter Drucker—born 100 years ago on this date in Vienna, Austria—is not only considered the father of modern management but also, I learned from an article in the Fall 2009 Bulletin of the Special Libraries Association’s Business and Financial Division, the first to use the term “knowledge worker.” As such, he is extremely important in my profession.

His first use of the term, back in the 1970s, illustrated how far ahead he could be of his time. In the 1950s, while American industry was still riding high, he provided, in effect, a blueprint for Japanese growth by calling for belief in the worker as an asset to a corporation that should be trusted.

By 1984, during the decade of greed, he was arguing that CEO pay was out of control. His stark warning then, about the growing managerial tendency to fire thousands even as their own earnings mushroomed, remains painfully relevant and piercingly honest today: “This is morally and socially unforgivable, and we will pay a heavy price for it."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This Day in Theater History (Bergen-Originated "Owl" Unites Alda, Ludlum)

November 18, 1964—Alan Alda and Robert Ludlum (in the image accompanying this post) reached the top of their professions within a year of each other in the 1970s, but a decade before the M*A*S*H star and the master of the paranoid thriller had collaborated on a far different project: the two-character comedy The Owl and the Pussycat, which premiered at Broadway’s ANTA Theatre on this date.

The three-act comedy originated from a mostly New Jersey braintrust before its 427-performance run on the Great White Way, at a theater that, for almost two decades, furnished various kinds of entertainment—celebrity-studded productions, burlesque, a repertory company—to audiences in Bergen County: the Playhouse on the Mall, one of the nation’s first professional theaters owned by, and located in, a shopping mall.

I was only dimly aware of the history of the playhouse at the former Bergen Mall in Paramus—and not at all of this particular episode—until I came across a retrospective by Glenn Garvie in (201) Magazine.

Several reasons make this play and venue worth recalling as cultural history:

* to show the surprising livelihoods pursued by celebrities (in this case, Ludlum) before they make it big;

* to spotlight the moment when a celebrity (in this case, Alda) receives their first significant notices;

* to highlight the sometimes-jaw-dropping transitions a property can undergo before landing in cinemas; and

* to trace not just why some institutions last, but why others don’t.

If you’re like myself, if you’ve heard of The Owl and the Pussycat at all, it’s because of the 1970 movie starring George Segal and Barbra Streisand.

That adaptation was dramatically changed from the play that theatergoers saw in New Jersey and New York, not just because of the usual challenges in “opening up” the action but because Streisand’s hooker character had been played originally by the talented African-American actress Diana Sands. (You might recall the latter—who died all too young—from the film A Raisin in the Sun.)

An interracial romantic comedy—and not just an interracial romantic comedy, but one featuring a prissy male writer and a bawdy female prostitute—was close to TNT in the 1960s. It was one of many risks, though, undertaken by Ludlum.

Arts management—in effect, Ludlum’s business as producer at the mall—represents far more of a crapshoot than other industries such as retailing. In an enterprise such as a chain retailer, once the brand is launched, even if a visionary founder leaves, relatively competent managers can keep matters on an even keel, at least for awhile.

The arts are different. Promoting plays is not like selling cornflakes, and the challenges of handling high-talent but high-maintenance thespians are not like those of stretching out all one’s low-paid sales clerks over an entire schedule. Although a product might be known (or will be in short order), even a well-known play or leading man might not be enough to save a show torn asunder by critics.

From what I’ve heard, Ludlum had personality to spare—a quality that did transfer over from one profession to another. Nearly 30 years ago, as a stringer for a local paper, my editor told me about her encounters with Ludlum, who, like Alda, had been a longtime resident of Leonia, not far from the theater:

“Very, very nice guy,” she recalled. “When his first novel came out, he autographed my copy. ‘Not bad,’ I thought after reading it. When his second book came out, he gave me a copy, too. ‘Pretty good, too, but it sounds a bit like his first,’ I thought. When the third appeared, same thing. That’s when I realized he was writing the same book all over again.”

All of this was part of the creation of the Ludlum Brand—something that other bestselling genre writers, such as Mary Higgins Clark and John Grisham, to name a few, have learned how to do since then.

In later years, Ludlum would equate “suspense and good theater.” He certainly had experience with the latter. In the 1950s, he worked primarily as a stage and TV actor, including appearances in some 200 television dramas, before becoming a producer at the North Jersey Playhouse.

The venue for that—the Grant Lee Theater in Fort Lee—didn’t satisfy Ludlum. He approached Allied Stores, the department store company that owned and developed the new Bergen Mall in that burgeoning retail capital of the U.S., Paramus, about working a playhouse into their plans.

Allied was amenable to the idea. The Bergen Mall was not yet enclosed, but, like many of the other large centers being constructed at the time, it wanted to create an image of, if you will, a suburban downtown. (Think of plenty of retailers, plus more than enough parking, and you’ll get the idea.) They would eventually add an ice-skating rink and a bowling alley, too, to their lineup, so a theater fit right in.

Ludlum’s proposal was audacious: a theater for every new mall built by Allied. I’m not sure how close they came to fulfilling this ideal, but even getting it started in Bergen County was an undertaking. The space created by architect Drew Eberson reflected more of his vast experience in designing cinemas than stages per se, but in the end, he had managed to come up with the first legitimate theater built on the East Coast in more than a generation.

None of Ludlum’s novels could have compared with his decade at the Playhouse on the Mall in terms of bizarre events and individuals, unexpected reverses, paranoia, disasters and hairbreadth escapes:

* A leading man died midway through one production's run, requiring an emergency stand-in, Ralph Meeker, for the last six shows;

* Before the Playhouse was built, a middle-aged, unemployed stand-up comedian from Englewood hung out in the lobby of the exhibition hall where the plays were first staged, his eyes bulging as he offered fabulous deals on aluminum siding. Eventually tiring of his sales pitch, the comic busted out on his own—though Rodney Dangerfield never returned to the Playhouse as cast member or standup comic;

* Shelley Winters chose to appear in the Playhouse’s production of Two for the Seesaw, even though she was already committed to the film The Young Savages. The solution: Winters rehearsed with Sydney Pollack for Seesaw on the stage adjacent to Savages, flew back east, traveled with motorcycle escort from Newark Airport to Paramus, and acted with her leading man for the first time on opening night. The result: in the actress’ words, “perhaps my best performance on any stage.”

* On the second night of his appearance in a pre-Broadway tryout of a new play, comedian Jackie Mason—not long after being banished from the Ed Sullivan Show—panicked in the last two minutes and walked off the stage.

* Another comedian, Henny Youngman, disrupted the timing of one show with so much ad-libbing that an Actors’ Equity hearing was called to compel him to stop the practice.

* Arlene Francis was a popular attraction at the playhouse, but also made special demands: lots of makeup for her sensitive skin, a special gel on lights so she would appear to best advantage, and even, on one occasion, approval of a coffee table for the set.

In addition to bringing in celebrities, Ludlum also liked to salt his productions with youngsters who later went on to greater fame. In early 1968, a 23-year-old brunette first made the chorus of The King and I, then stayed longer, into the winter, as a bit player in This Was Burlesque. Four years later, Adrienne Barbeau was playing the divorced daughter to the title character Maude.

Another future CBS star also got a career boost at the Playhouse. Alda ended up headlining at the playhouse six times, though Owl (written by Bill Manhoff, himself a Newark native) attracted the most positive notices.

By the time I got to know the Playhouse on the Mall, for a matinee performance of Cabaret in my senior year of high school, it was eight years after Ludlum departed, determined to try for a career in writing novels.

Several successors had either been edged out or thrown up their arms at the prospect of reviving the venue, and the idea may well have crossed the mind of the producer at the time of my visit: Mike Iannucci, husband of Ann Corio, whose This Was Burlesque was putting fannies in the venue by putting on performers who shook theirs onstage.

Elsewhere in the mall was a Carmelite chapel. By 1979, Iannucci might have believed that, all things considered, some sort of supplication to the Almighty might be in order, since he was being forced out by Allied Stores for failing to keep up with the rent.

A couple of years later, the Playhouse was being used again, this time by the Center Stage Company, a group that had started out in my hometown, Englewood, and had staged revivals of works like Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s The Incomparable Max. I was pulling for the group to succeed, since I liked their choice of plays and a classmate of my oldest brother’s was in the troupe. But their effort, too, collapsed.

In 1986, Allied Stores finally announced that the theater would close for good, with the space converted to retail use.
But as the song goes, everything old is new again. The Bergen Mall has now been redeveloped as Bergen Town Center, and the shopping center industry as a whole, in looking for non-retail tenants to supplement their store lineup, is returning to something like the original conception that many developers had for the industry.
You have to wonder, given that, if, risk or no risk, theaters might not play a part, in more large retail environments, as tenants. After all, theater fans don’t forget the magic of make-believe, and I’m sure that there are many people like myself who can still summon memories of a play or performer at the Playhouse on the Mall.