Category Archives: Books

PHYLLIS WHEELER INTERVIEW ON “THE LONG SHADOW” ·

Author Phyllis Wheeler talks to Bob Shuman, at Marit Literary Agency and Stage Voices, about her YA novel The Long Shadow, a Huckleberry Finn story for the 21st century.

A white suburban, contemporary 14-year-old moves from racism to empathy as he travels through time. He is saved from hypothermia by a black man, and then, finding himself in 1923, works to prevent the lynching of the black man’s grandfather.

Praise for The Long Shadow

“A book that can make a difference . . . a good history lesson without being offensive to anyone.  I like the friendship that blossomed in the story. . . .”–LaShaunda Hoffman, author of Building Online Relationships and also publisher of SORMAG, Shades of Romance Magazine, the award-winning online magazine for readers and writers of multi-cultural literature (sormag.blogspot.com)

“Full of interesting characters . . . [The Long Shadow has] heart, humor, and a great overall theme. . . . Complex subject matter, woven into enjoyable fantasy. . .”–John HendrixNew York Times bestselling illustrator and author of many children’s books, including Shooting at the Stars and John Brown: His Fight for Freedom 

Wheeler runs her own editorial firm in St. Louis and has written for daily newspapers, been a deacon, and worked on airplanes as an engineer. 

Music: “Tupelo Train” by Chris Haugen

Phyllis Wheeler, phylliswheeler.com
Bob Shuman, BobJShuman@gmail.com

 

MARCEL PROUST’S IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME WITH DEREK JACOBI (LISTEN NOW ON BBC RADIO 4—LINK BELOW) ·

Listen 

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation from the French of Marcel Proust’s allegorical reflection on time, memory, art and love.

It begins with the vivid memory of a young boy’s childhood summers spent in the French countryside of Combray and the long nights waiting for his mother to come and kiss him goodnight. The young Marcel takes beautiful walks with his parents and has his first sighting of the young Gilberte Swann, daughter of family friend and well-connected Parisian Dandy, Charles Swann and his wife, the courtesan and seductress Odette de Crecy.

Cast:
MARCEL (narrator) ………Derek Jacobi
FATHER ………Oliver Cotton 
FRANCOISE ………Susan Brown 
MOTHER ………Sylvestra le Touzel 
GRANDMOTHER ………Joanna David 
TANTE LEONIE .……Pamela Miles 
GILBERTE (girl) ………Mary Glen 
ODETTE …………..Bessie Carter 
SWANN ………… Paterson Joseph 
MADEMOISELLE VINTEUIL/PROSTITUTE …. Charlotte Blandford 
THE DUCHESS DE GUERMANTES (Oriane) …………… Fenella Woolgar 
MADAME DE VERDURIN ………Frances Barber 
PIANIST …………Daniel Whitlam 
DOCTOR COTTARD …………Lloyd Hutchinson 
MARCEL(boy) ………Isaac Watts 
MONSIEUR VERDURIN …………Jeff Rawle
FEMALE FRIEND……….Phoebe Marshall

Translated and adapted from the French by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Produced and directed by Celia de Wolff
Production Co-ordinator: Sarah Tombling
Recording and Sound Design: David Chilton and Lucinda Mason Brown
Executive Producer: Peter Hoare

A Pier production for BBC Radio 4

INGMAR BERGMAN, NOVELIST ·

(Daniel Mendelsohn’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 4/18.)

The Best Intentions

by Ingmar Bergman, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate

Arcade, 298 pp., $16.99 (paper)

Sunday’s Children

by Ingmar Bergman, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate

Arcade, 153 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Private Confessions

by Ingmar Bergman, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate

Arcade, 160 pp., $16.99 (paper)

Toward the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander, a beautiful young boy wanders into a beautiful room. The room is located in a rambling Uppsala apartment belonging to the boy’s widowed grandmother, Helena Ekdahl, once a famous actress and now the matriarch of a spirited and noisy theater family. As the camera follows the boy, Alexander, we note the elaborate fin-de-siècle decor, the draperies with their elaborate swags, the rich upholstery and carpets, the pictures crowding the walls, all imbued with the warm colors that, throughout the first part of the film, symbolize the Ekdahls’ warm (when not overheated) emotional lives. Later, after the death of Alexander’s kind-hearted father, Oscar, who is the lead actor of the family troupe, his widow rather inexplicably marries a stern bishop into whose bleak residence she and her children must move. At this point, the film’s visual palette will be leached of color and life; everything will be gray, black, coldly white.

But for now, vivacity and sensuality and even fantasy reign. On a mantelpiece, an elaborate gilt clock ticks, its golden cherubs preparing their mechanized dance. Nearby, a life-sized white marble statue of a nude woman catches the boy’s eye. When he blinks, she seems, Galatea-like, to come to life, one arm moving as if to beckon him to pleasures he has not yet even imagined; he blinks again, and the statue is just a statue once more. At that moment a violent rattling wakes him from his reverie: the maid is pouring coal into a stove.

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NOW ABOUT THESE WOMEN: STRINDBERG, POST-BERGMAN—FARBER/ALI/ CLARK/ULLMANNS/MORE  (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Bob Shuman

The frantic sex in Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Miss Julie, directed by Shariffa Ali and retitled Mies Julie, now playing at Classic Stage Company (CSC) until March 10, provides a contrast to Liv Ullmann’s stately 2014 film version; but, in both, viewers are left staring at semen-stained underwear on the floor.  Other current Strindberg directors, like Victoria Clark and Arin Arbus, make Strindberg (1849-1912) conventional for our time—they can’t unleash him or really take him seriously, although Alf Sjöberg did so in his 1951 film on the daughter of a count who sleeps with a servant–a classic, which opens up the story, on the order of Birth of a Nation. Ullmann, who has directed A Streetcar Named Desire and can see Strindberg’s influence on Tennessee Williams, encloses her Miss Julie in an Irish castle, but her apparent lack of budget (this is really a filmed play) and two hour running time undermine Strindberg’s brevity and pace (Farber’s setting is a farmhouse in the Karoo of South Africa, and she relentlessly brings her inter-racial version in at 75 minutes; Strindberg timed the original at 90). 

Farber’s other changes include making the third character, Jean’s mother (Vinie Burrows, of the sheet-metal screech), instead of his intended, and giving the idea to start a hotel, to Julie, instead of Jean (James Udom).  Elise Kibler seems too young and unglamorous to be playing the title role, although a friend corrected me: “She’s not that young.”  She is a tomboy, though, who still seems imprinted from parochial school, and the audience is stunned by her voracious entry  into sex, not unlike when reading the reminiscences of Linn Ullmann in Unquiet (Norton, 2015, 2019), in which the author, daughter of  director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2017), himself no stranger to Strindberg (Americans may recall his production of Miss Julie, brought to BAM in 1991, starring Lena Olin  and Peter Stormare) pretends not to discuss the final part of the life of her father: as a teen, though, she describes wanting an older lover to keep “doing it” and when she comes, it surprises them both: “How sudden and violent it was, like shame, like betrayal.”

Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm, 1961

Udom kisses Kibler’s foot: “Kiss my foot; fucking do it!” (in The Dance of Death, also playing a CSC—the boot is kissed, the fetish Strindberg calls for in both scripts).  Udom continues up the lower leg, matching Julie’s boldness. Liv Ullmann, in her film, shows that Julie and Jean are really children, which is a point also repeated in Ingmar Bergman’s corpus; in fact, her Julie, Jessica Chastain, appears to be stunted in terms of her emotional growth, because of the early death of her mother:  Kibler and Udom, however, seem to be experimenting, “playing with fire” (they’ve known each other all their lives).  On the evening of the annual Freedom Day celebration, neither has ever been so fearless or unaware of the messiness of love.  Ali’s direction, at a kitchen table, with African drumming, music, and a ghost, however, may be one variation of Strindberg’s play that outdoes even the playwright, regarding misogyny: Farber’s reconstruction includes a death even more violent than that of the original. 

Although it does seem as though women artists trying to solve Strindberg, usually in their favor, are part of a current trend, the idea is actually not new.  The concept goes at least as far back as Trifles, the 1916 play, and curriculum staple,  by Susan Glaspell, which is an obvious riposte to Miss Julie, and also includes killing a canary; but here, the man in the relationship is killed, not the woman.  Arbus’s direction of The Father, in 2016, asked the audience to laugh at Strindberg, as she analyzed him in a multiracial context, rather than via the kind of homogeneous society he wrote in; nevertheless, Laurie Slade’s 2013 BBC production was compelling because it was brutal.  New York producers equate entertainment with comedy, but Strindberg, whose play The Dance of Death, about the death spiral of an aging couple—and which has influenced, in a hasty, incomplete tally, Bergman, Brook, O’Neill, Albee, and Ionesco–while not unfunny, poses an issue for casts, because without appropriate transitions (an actor has supplied the correct terminology), his sentiments can play like laff lines: “there are no real men today.” Actors may want the instant gratification of the audience response, but Strindberg is on to something deeper;  yet, this production’s vigorous actors, Cassie Beck, Richard Topol, and Christopher Innvar, using an adaptation by Connor McPherson, are only finding identifiable contemporary counterparts to Swedes of 1887; not essences.  Maybe a clearer way to say this is that they seem to be playing at their roles, but they haven’t become them yet. 

For a successful immersion into Strindberg-like characters, one might watch Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjo in Scenes from a Marriage, where Strindberg is quoted.  What the director, Victoria Clark, does bring to her production, which also plays until March 10 (this reviewer can recall an earlier production at CSC, in 1984) is an interest in movement, literally allowing the actors to present choreographed dances of death during the evening.

The mundane questions Linn Ullmann thinks to ask her father, Ingmar Bergman, during the end of his life, in Unquiet, A Novel, do nothing to illuminate an understanding of August Strindberg, by his foremost contemporary interpreter and literary inheritor.  Bergman only allowed Ullmann to see him for one month every summer–on a remote Swedish island, from which her mother successfully freed herself, in the sixties.  Unspoken depicts a daughter continuing to inhabit the isolated landscape, in an obsessively repetitive text, Joycean in some sentence lengths, and often banal in the points made, along with a bad copyedit (a lack of understanding of the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, is apparent, for example).  Nevertheless, her book (true in all of Linn Ullmann’s work) has been highly influenced by her father’s film techniques and writing, as well as her mother’s books, Changing and Choices.  Ullmann documents a man “vanishing,” as Bergman describes it, agreeing with Strindberg, in The Dance of Death, that “growing old is horrible,” passing his artistic legacy on to an observer, whom he might not even recognize.

Visit Classic Stage Company

View Unquiet on Amazon

Production photos: Joan Marcus

Linn Ullmann photo: Berliner Zeitung

Press: Blake Zidell/Adriana Leshko

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

 

WHEN THE WRITERS TOOK POWER: DREAMS OF UTOPIA BEFORE THE NAZI NIGHTMARE ·

 

(William Cook’s article appeared in the Spectator, 11/15.)

Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918 by Volker Weidermann reviewed

Today Munich is a prosperous and peaceful place — Germany’s most affluent, attractive city. Wandering its leafy avenues, lined with handsome apartments and shiny new BMWs, it’s hard to picture anything remotely revolutionary happening here. However, exactly 100 years ago this cosy bastion of conservatism was overrun by one of Europe’s most unlikely revolutions, led by an idealistic theatre critic called Kurt Eisner. For a British equivalent, imagine a socialist insurgency led by Kenneth Tynan. Of course, like all well-intentioned revolutions, it was doomed to fail.

For several chaotic months, Eisner’s Free State of Bavaria teetered between tragedy and farce, before succumbing to a vicious counter-revolution led by the Freikorps, the violent forerunners of Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts. Yet while Hitler’s unsuccessful Munich Putsch has become a staple of school history books, Eisner’s (briefly) successful power grab has been virtually forgotten. Volker Weidermann’s dramatic book brings the turbulent events — and, above all, the frenzied atmosphere — of that bizarre interregnum back to life.

Thankfully for the general reader, Weidermann is a journalist rather than an academic, and so this is a compact and colorful account, with the breathless pace of war reporting rather than the ponderous, long-winded prose one usually associates with German history books by German historians. Many of the proponents wrote extensively and eloquently about their experiences, and Weidermann draws heavily on these first-hand accounts to great effect. By favoring impressionistic reportage over background detail, his narrative is sometimes a bit confusing, but it gives the reader a vivid sense of what it actually felt like to live through this exhilarating and terrifying time.

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FINTAN O’TOOLE: TESTING PATERNITY–COLM TÓIBÍN ON THE FATHERS THAT SHAPED WILDE, JOYCE AND YEATS ·

(O’Toole’ s article appeared in The New Statesman, 10/24.)

How the complicated relationships between three writers and their fathers left its mark on Irish literature.

“All women become like their mothers,” says Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. “That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” Left hanging there, of course, is the implication that the son’s tragedy is that he becomes like his father instead. In Oscar Wilde’s own case, that might not have been such a terrible thing, at least for his creative productivity. Colm Tóibín’s sparkling little book on Sir William Wilde, WB Yeats’s father John and James Joyce’s father John Stanislaus, seems originally to have been called “Prodigal Fathers” – the phantom title appears on the inside flap of the cover. It may have been dropped because of Sir William, for whom the word – with its implications of wasted talent – is a poor fit. But it certainly works for John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. And yet the joy of Tóibín’s erudite, subtle, witty and often deeply moving biographical essays is that one generation’s paternal prodigality can become the next generation’s powerhouse of neurotic energy.

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ON KAREN FINLEY IN:  ‘GRABBING PUSSY/PARTS KNOWN’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Karen Finley’s set design for Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known is made up of flowering plants of pink and white and pastel colors—and for an early section of one of her monologues (three are read today: one a poem, written in the hours before curtain), she speaks as a film of time-elapsed lilies and orchids break into bloom behind her.  Blown-up, they appear comic and sexual and too fragile,  which, of course, is part of what Finley is, too, but on Saturday, October 27, she finds she is someone else, as well: an artistic first responder, to the eleven deaths at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  She is playing at La MaMa, as part of the Call to Action weekend, a gear-up for the midterms and an opportune moment to publicize her new book, from which proceeds will be given to Planned Parenthood.  People who don’t believe that all actors must be liberals, as if it’s in their DNA, instead of it being more convenient or concessionary for their careers, do believe Finley’s activism, even if they disagree with her politics. They know that, famously, she has been attacked by the right, as part of the NEA4—and she still can be brought up derisively, as “the chocolate-smeared woman,” in Ann Coulter’s writing (Finley’s Tawana Brawley-inspired monologue actually goes way back to the ‘80s, however; probably a signal that the conservative columnist needs fresh material). 

Standing in front of her script, which rests on a music stand, now, in her stylish black-and-white performance shoes, pink top, black capri pants, and an academician’s glasses—her hair is loose and red–Finley seems taller than she appears in photos:  a distinguished Commissar of the left, like a Katarina Witt–not only because she also posed for Playboy.  As a veteran of the culture wars, the actress toes the party line—and she does so aggressively, fueled by the anger that has never left her, jumping on Trump’s “bleeding eyes” remark from the 2016 presidential campaign and bringing up, exasperatedly, “the obsession” with Hillary’s deleted e-mails—“30,000 of them,” should the number have been forgotten.  Unlike Camille Paglia,  Finley’s association, her alignment with the Democrat party—and mistrust of practically everything else–may not always serve her writing—which does not seem able to get above the political; above her politics–and which in Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, could possibly be described as Beckettian punditry.  She knows how to pace a show, though—how to start and stop her work, how to move in and out of character, which may not always make for writerly, well-made theatre.   She works with tension that can explode—and she is superior as a performer and in improvisation–even as her own plays tend to invoke others, such as: Come Back, Little Sheba; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; or even her own previous work, for example We Keep Our Victims Ready.  Actually, it can be difficult to think of Karen Finley in a sustained role of length, although she should have been seen, when she was younger, as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew–as long as she could change the ending.  Perhaps she’s  really an illusionist, always impatiently waiting to direct a new mirage, although now, she states, she has been moved to use “poetic” space, where she can keep her script with her and provide minimal movement–as opposed to playing on a traditional stage, theatrically.  

Don’t think she has gone too soft, though. She’s “one angry bitch,” she cautions, “never in a good mood and that’s on a good day.” In Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, Finley goes off on, among others, Catholic priests, Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and border separations: Her speech can be sarcastic, mocking, hysterical, overly hurt, decisively Midwestern, and even like that of a Southern preacher or witch hag. Yet the person she reminds one of most is . . . Rush Limbaugh.  She’s a shock jock, it’s true:  she doesn’t need to play off anyone, and she can rant and go into stream of consciousness: “It’s my body . . . not Sessions’s . . . not Jared’s . . . This body.  You’ll not own my body.  It’s my body.  Pussies speak out!”  In her public meltdown, amid free-floating anger, desperation, black comedy, anguish, outrage and outrageousness–on the day when it is learned that eight and then eleven have been slaughtered—she confides, as everyone must:  “I’m really trying to do something with this life.”

Looking at the vases and containers on the stage, the flowers seem funereal.   Yet the show must have been conceptualized weeks, if not months, ago.  This gathering couldn’t have been what was originally intended, but Finley has been working fast and doggedly to incorporate the new reality–leaving behind the remains of an event with an entirely different meaning: a memorial.  

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit La MaMa

Photo credits, from top: Notey;  La MaMa;  Shuman, Mandatory Credit: Photo by JARED WICKERHAM/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9948253an)
The Star of David memorials are lined with flowers at the Tree of Life synagogue two days after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 29 October 2018. Officials report 11 people were killed by the gunman identified as Robert Bowers who has been charged with hate crimes and other federal charges .
Vigil for victims of synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh, USA – 29 Oct 2018Variety

ICONIC DRAMA BOOK SHOP PRICED OUT OF THEATER DISTRICT LOCATION ·


(from CBS Local,  October 26, 2018)

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – The curtain may be closing for good on a staple in the performing arts community as the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan’s Theater District is being priced out of its lease.

“This was the first place I ever went to when I moved to New York City,” said Lachlan Quertrnus. “Whatever you need is here.”

Like most actors just starting out, this shop is where he finds new plays and monologues for classes and auditions.

“I can’t even tell you how many people who have documented hours here,” he said. “It’s so important to the community.”

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GETTING WILDE IN AMERICA: OSCAR WILDE’S SEARCH FOR FAME AND HIMSELF ·

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, poet and wit. Original Publication: People Disc – HL0151 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Jeffrey Meyers’s article appeared in the Spectator, 10/23.)

In January 1882, a still little known 27-year-old called Oscar Wilde began his year-long, coast-to-coast, 15,000-mile grueling lecture tour throughout America. The ostensible purpose was to publicise the US tour of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, whose precious aesthete Bunthorne — ‘what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!’ — was partly based on Wilde. The real motive was to advertise himself and become a celebrity while searching for his true sexual identity.

Victorian men had to hide their homosexuality, but Wilde found a way to flaunt his real feelings. Wearing a theatrical costume while behaving outrageously on stage, he used his ambiguous sexuality to provide entertainment. Marriage in 1884 and two sons with sissy names (Cyril and Vyvyan) as well as male lovers (Robbie Ross in 1886 and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891) were still in the future. Wilde did not marry to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. He fell in love with an attractive woman, but discovered that his deepest erotic yearnings were for men.

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SIMON CALLOW: TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’S BEST FRIEND ·

(Callow’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 9/27.)

The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin

edited by Peggy L. Fox and Thomas Keith

Norton, 392 pp., $39.95

There can scarcely be a better-documented dramatist in the Western world than Tennessee Williams. His most recent, and best, biographer, John Lahr, counts forty books written about him since his death in 1983.1 Not that he was exactly unknown during his lifetime. After his epoch-making Broadway debut in 1945 with The Glass Menagerie and his subsequent and precipitate anointment as the savior of the modern American theater, his progress both as a writer and as a man was closely interrogated by the usual authorities. In this process Williams, like many a guileless artist before him, colluded, responding with a running commentary on the phenomenon of himself; in his startling essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” published in The New York Times in November 1947, just before the opening of his second Broadway play, A Streetcar Named Desire, he unsparingly describes what happened to him after the triumph of The Glass Menagerie. “I was snatched,” he said,out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence, and from the precarious tenancy of furnished rooms about the country I was removed to a suite in a first-class Manhattan hotel. My experience was not unique. Success has often come that abruptly into the lives of Americans. The Cinderella story is our favorite national myth.

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Photo: Literary Hub