Sunday, March 31, 2013

This Day in Theater History (‘Oklahoma!’ Starts Rodgers on Partnership With Hammerstein)

March 31, 1943—With Oklahoma premiering at the St. James Theatre, composer Richard Rodgers did more than gain the greatest success of his career to date. He also gained a partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, whose lyrics might not have exuded the wit and sophistication of his prior collaborator, but whose reliability and adaptability enabled the pair to rewrite the rules of American musical theater.

On the night of his greatest triumph, Rodgers met a specter of his recent past, his gnomish, tortured, now former, partner. Instead of seething with jealousy, however, Lorenz Hart demonstrated the generosity of spirit that enabled so many people to put up with him for so long, despite his often maddening irresponsibility. “This show of yours will run forever,” he congratulated Rodgers at Sardi's restaurant.

He was not far off: the musical comedy ended up running for 2,212-performances, the longest-running musical in Broadway history by the time it closed. It ended up being revived another four times on Broadway, as well as being played in regional theaters and high schools all across the nation, and even the world. (For an example of the latter, see my prior post--my real-life "Glee" or "High School Musical," if you will on my own experience as a cast member of the show.)

It could have all been Hart’s, but he had demurred on adapting Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs when Rodgers had brought it up. The alcoholic Hart refused to go into a sanitarium to become clean and sober; he was on his way to Mexico. At this point, Rodgers brought up his ace in the hole. If Hart couldn’t do it, he had someone else in mind for the job. Who? Hart asked. Oscar Hammerstein, said Rodgers.

“There’s no better man for the job,” Hart said. “I don’t know how you put up with me all these years. The best thing would be for you to forget about me.”

I was reminded of this turning point in the lives and careers of both men in Robert Gottlieb's article in the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic Monthly on their "Dysfunctional Partnership." It resembles Stefan Kanfer's equally fine assessment of Rodgers in City Journal several years ago in that it doesn't disclose many new biographical details, but it does a good job in analyzing what is already known about them.

Rodgers was saddened that his quarter-century association with Hart, another alum of Columbia University, was coming to an end, but also more than a bit relieved. For all the worldly brilliance he brought to his lyrics, Hart also brought endless aggravation, requiring constant rescue from binges when  he needed to work on a show. Two decades later, speaking to the star of a musical he worked on alone, No Strings, Rodgers told its star, Diahann Carroll: “You can't imagine how wonderful it feels to have written this score and not have to search all over the globe for that drunken little fag.''

If the nastiness in that comment was immense, so was the frustration. Rodgers would display little of that in his relationship with Hammerstein. The latter, the lyricist behind the landmark musical Show Boat (1927), was in an immense dry spell—no major hit in over a decade—and he could be slow at times, but he could be found and he was dependable.

Hart’s lyrics sprang from his own mordantly funny personality; he was, in a sense, best fitted for the Roaring Twenties. Hammerstein, though from a wealthier background than Hart’s, also came from one considerably less raffish, making him ideally suited to take on all manner of characters, including for "cowboy musical' subject matter that Hart couldn't abide. (See my prior post on the death--and, more important, the life--of Hammerstein.) He is often declared to be the best librettist in the history of Broadway musicals: he wrote the “book” for the musicals himself, and knew which dialogue cues could be turned into song. And, as demonstrated in Show Boat, with its unprecedented integration of music and plot, he was unafraid to break with convention.

And so it proved in this case, too. Most obviously, Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated a ballet by Agnes de Mille into the action. But even from the beginning of the show, they signaled that they were after something quite different from anything seen before: “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” dispensed with the usual opening chorus line to feature a lone cowboy, the hero Curly McLane.

The creation of the song illustrated Hammerstein’s method. The lyricist had originally written, “The corn is as high as a cow pony’s eye,” until a walk in a cornfield showed him that the stalks were far higher. Quickly, he turned it into “as high as an elephant’s eye.” 

Finally, Hammerstein was passionately liberal, a man who celebrated Americana even as he reminded the nation of its unfinished business with prejudice (e.g., "Carefully Taught," from South Pacific). The musicals he created with Rodgers over the next 16 years would prove an ideal cultural export from a country whose liberal humanitarian virtues were about to triumph in one major war and would be trumpeted against another totalitarian adversary in another, "cold" one.

Quote of the Day (George Herbert, With the Music of Easter)

“Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
                                                  With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
                                                  Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.”—British poet George Herbert, “Easter,” in The Temple (1633)

The image accompanying this post is the painting The Resurrection of Christ, by Raphael (1499-1502).

Saturday, March 30, 2013

This Day in Religious History (Cranmer Named Archbishop of Canterbury)

March 30, 1533—Thomas Cranmer achieved the dream of many British clergymen, before and since, when he was formally consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet the cleric’s immediate actions demonstrated that he was now in a position of extraordinary ambiguity, even danger. First, though he had secretly taken a wife while on a trip to Germany in the past year, he kept her out of public view lest he anger his monarch, King Henry VIII, who still believed in the Roman Catholic norm of priestly celibacy.

Second, though he was also obliged to take an oath of obedience to the pope along with one to the king, he insisted, in a secret oath immediately taken before it, that allegiance to the pontiff extended only insofar as it was consistent with loyalty to Henry.

The second action, in fact, underscored a prime concern of Cranmer for the next two decades: words. Words had the potential to bring him to the scaffold, as it would his clerical colleague, Bishop John Fisher, and a layman renowned for his intellect and faith, Sir Thomas More.

Yet words were also what he worshipped fervently only slightly less than God. They comprised his extensive library, which, at 700 volumes, exceeded not only private collections but those of Oxford and Cambridge in his time; they were what he insisted that students know thoroughly, as part of the Bible, when he taught at Cambridge; and they were the weapons he would use to transmit Protestantism and contribute to the literary landscape of Great Britain.

There is little if any reason to doubt that Cranmer was the most controversial figure of the English Reformation. If there is any historian who doesn’t agree that Henry was a capricious, cruel king, I would like to meet him. Similarly, for all the expert revisionism supplied by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell remains best known as the ambitious roughneck who speeded the looting of the abbeys and the execution of those who ran afoul of Henry in the monarch's quest for a wife who could make him happy and produce an heir.

In contrast, Cranmer is seen, depending on one’s point of view, as the courageous herald of a new faith, a slippery theological facilitator of his king’s desires, or as a vacillating prelate who watched—and, on occasion, revised—what he wrote or said.

This post won’t review this contentious question. It will confine itself to how he got his position in the first place, and to an area on which much more agreement rests: his secure place in English letters.

Cranmer owed his position partly to an accident of fate: a plague, the so-called "sleeping sickness," that drove him away from Cambridge and out to Essex, where he was staying in the same neighborhood where Henry was lodging. It came to the attention of Henry and his counselors that Cranmer had found a justification for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (a passage from Leviticus 20:21 against wedding the widow of one’s brother) and a means by which to implement it (a decision by the nation’s canonists and universities that marriage with a deceased brother's widow was illegal, thus bypassing the by-no-means-certain approval of Pope Clement VII).

At the direction of Henry, Cranmer put aside all his other labors to securing the monarch’s desire. In the summer of 1532, the death of Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury allowed Henry to replace an aged prelate who had finally dared to break with him over his increasing estrangement from Rome with someone far more compliant.Yet the new appointee, undoubtedly sensing what he might be in for, delayed his return to England for seven weeks in the hope that something might happen to prevent the appointment. But the paperwork came back from Rome (an institution that would, in time, excommunicate Cranmer) and he began his uncertain and dangerous work.

Within two months after his consecration, Cranmer had granted Henry his divorce. Amazingly, as others (including Cromwell) incurred the monarch’s displeasure and suffered the fatal consequences, Cranmer managed to outlive the king.

Cranmer’s dramatic death in 1556, in the short reign of the Catholic Queen Mary—first recanting his views, then publicly recanting the recantation, thus bringing about his immediate execution—secured his place among Britain’s Protestant martyrs. In the decade before his death, however, he made a lasting contribution to the new faith and his nation’s language.

In 1549, at Pentecost, his Book of Common Prayer was introduced, followed by a revision three years later. Written in English, it embodied his belief that services should be conducted in a nation’s language rather than the universal language of Latin mandated by the Catholic Church. Together with the King James Bible introduced in the following century, it formed the foundation of worship in now-Anglican England.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907-1921) aptly summarized the influence of Cranmer through The Book of Common Prayer: “There is all the difference in the world between the crude bareness of the Litany as he found it, and its majestic rhythm when it left his pen.” Though not the sole author of the book, he is generally acknowledged as its prime mover and principal inspiration, in a way considerably different from the more committee-written King James Bible.

Through the following centuries of British life, as the country’s flag came to be flown through a worldwide empire, the cadences of The Book of Common Prayer became instilled in millions. Cranmer’s use of idiom, cadences, imagery, repetition, contrast and general rhythm impressed itself on the ear and heart. Using the simplest, most monosyllabic of (usually Anglo-Saxon based) words, he managed to imprint on generations of worshippers—and even those of his countrymen who have long fallen away from the faith—sentences and phrases impossible to forget:

We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”

Give peace in our time, our Lord.”

“Deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil.”

“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

“In the midst of life we are in death.”
Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”

This work has also contributed phrases that have become titles of well-known books: P.D. James’ Devices and Desires, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. It has also even informed the work of others who have not shared the prelate's beliefs in any manner, such as Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. Even New Yorker literary critic James Wood, an avowed atheist, on the 350th anniversary of its slight amendation, noted that the “acute poetry, balanced sonorities, heavy order, and direct intimacy of Cranmer’s prose have achieved permanence.”

Quote of the Day (Peggy Noonan, on the Iraq War’s Cost to the U.S. and GOP)

“No one quite knows or will probably ever know the exact financial cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is interesting in itself. Some estimates put it at $1 trillion, some $2 trillion…. [NBC national affairs writer Tom] Curry cites a Congressional Budget Office report saying the Iraq operation had cost $767 billion as of January 2012. Whatever the number, it added to deficits and debt, and along with the Bush administration's domestic spending helped erode the Republican Party's reputation for sobriety in fiscal affairs.”— Peggy Noonan, “Can the Republican Party Recover From Iraq?” The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2013

You can read from here to eternity all the analyses of what ails the Republican Party. The general tone about its problems with Hispanics, gays, women, you name it—i.e., that the party has just sustained a huge gash in its well-heeled ocean liner, and that all aboard have spilled into the icy waters, where they’ll drown in the near future—sounds awfully familiar to me. I read similar obituaries about the GOP in 1977, after a shellacking over Watergate and an intraparty nomination slugfest left it without control of the White House and Congress. Come to think of it, I heard the same thing about them four years ago, before they assumed control of both houses of Congress. Much of the same wailing could be heard about the Democrats, in fact, in the 12 sorry years before Bill Clinton was elected.

Think of it another way: The party fielded a hapless candidate that New York Times columnist David Brooks rightly likened to Thurston Howell III of Gilligan’s Island, and it still polled 47% of the vote in the last Presidential campaign. A full-fledged economic or military disaster tagged to the Obama administration would put the Oops! (sorry, I mean Opposition) Party back in business.

But Peggy Noonan’s column, I think, is onto something important. Tones, even policies, on social issues can be adjusted. But the Iraq War delivered a body blow that the Republican Party, and the nation, could ill afford to sustain.

“Did the Iraq war hurt the GOP? Yes,” the former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan bluntly admits. “The war, and the crash of '08, half killed it. It's still digging out, and whether it can succeed is an open question.”

The damage to U.S. lives is, in comparison with other U.S. wars, not so steep: roughly 4,000 deaths, plus another 2,000 for Afghanistan. The two combined are roughly comparable to losses sustained in the Spanish-American War and the far less-well-known subsequent struggle to quash the Philippine independence movement. But they pale in comparison, both in absolute terms and as percentages of the total population, with deaths in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the American Revolution, Korea, Vietnam, WWI, WWII, and the Civil War.

But the cost in other ways is as bad as these other wars, perhaps even more so. Noonan’s column—which should be required reading at GOP headquarters—takes note of how the war affected perceptions of its foreign policy, the meaning of conservatism, the dominance that began with Reagan, dissent within the party, and the reputation of its Washington establishment.

But the fiscal damage caused by the war—the one alluded to in this quote--might be most insidious. Following the war, no Republican really had the right to complain about deficits caused by President Obama—they began on George W. Bush’s watch. More than a few longtime party members knew this, which is why, for instance, Noonan's normal criticism of Democrats was considerably more muted in the '08 Presidential campaign, and why Christopher Buckley, son of the founder of the modern conservative movement, came out and actually endorsed Obama. The rising tide of right-wing discontent about Dubya’s domestic spending would not have risen so sharply without war-worsened budget deficits. That energized the libertarian/Tea Party wing of the GOP, with consequences its Establishment members are still trying to contain.

The low-level civil war now occurring among Republicans nearly claimed a prominent victim a few weeks ago. For years, Chuck Hagel had a well-deserved reputation for fiscal and social conservatism, and had even supported President Bush’s invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. But his increasing criticism of the conduct of the war and those who supported it left him, in a real sense, as a man without a party. His onetime Senate friends on the Republican side of the aisle can't abide that he was right to question the disastrous military policy perpetrated by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, or that his disgust with the Iraq War was so complete that he refused to endorse old friend John McCain for Presidents. He begins his term as Secretary of Defense with neither bone-deep loyalty from Democrats nor good will from his former GOP colleagues.

There are other costs to the Iraq War, as we take stock this month 10 years after the Bush administration turned the War on Terror into a bridge too far:

*A more polarized electorate. Even as the GOP Establishment has been discredited and the Tea Party emboldened, the most socially liberal faction of the Democrats has taken firmer control on the other side of the partisan divide.  Increasingly limited space exists for political centrists of either party, not to mention the spirit of compromise.

* A politicized intelligence unit. Dick Cheney conclusively demonstrated how easy it was to shift intelligence estimates toward the conclusions that one highly influential administration official wished to draw. It is a foregone conclusion that the citizens of other nations, already ambivalent (or worse) about America, might recoil from any suggestion that we might be facing a mortal threat. Now, U.S. citizens, remembering those phantom WMDs, are likely to do so, too, even if the suggestion comes from a Democratic President.

* Strengthened isolationism. Reluctance to use military force is a good thing, but now that they are back in power, the Democrats are facing increasing pressures against using non-military means as well. At this point, foreign aid is squarely in the sight of budget-cutters. Now, it is China that is in a better position to use its financial resources to further geopolitical aims. Rest assured that those aims will not be for humanitarian purposes. And that brings us to the biggest victims of all in the Iraq War…

*The Iraqis themselves. Now, after a decade of death, dysfunction and division, they face their future—though the word “they” must be highly qualified in a country now experiencing the ethnic cleansing of Christians and other minorities by Islamic militants, harassment and worse against women’s rights activists, and a government still all too internally fractious.

God help the Iraqis—because, courtesy of a former Republican administration and its then-compliant, now-confused, Iraq-wrecked allies in the legislative branch--the United States is no longer of a mind to do so again anytime soon.