Category Archives: Commentary

BRENT CARVER DIES: TONY AWARD-WINNING ‘KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN’ ACTOR WAS 68 ·

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY FEB. 12 ** “Lord of the Rings” cast member Brent Carver is photographed during dress rehearsal in Toronto, Oct. 28, 2005. Carver, the Tony-winning star of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” will portray the majestic wizard Gandalf. (AP Photo/Aaron Harris)

(Greg Evans’s article appeared on Deadline, 8/6; via Pam Green.)

Brent Carver, a stage and screen actor who won the 1993 Tony Award for his performance in Broadway’s The Kiss of the Spider Woman, died Tuesday at his home in Cranbrook, British Columbia, his family has reported. He was 68.

A cause of death was not specified.

“Our family is sharing news of Brent Carver’s passing on Aug 4 at home in Cranbrook, BC, his birthplace and favourite place on Earth,” read a family statement. “Blessed with many talents and a natural love of theatre, Brent was always known as a first-class performer, unique in the presentation of his craft, delighting audiences through film, TV, stage and concert performances.”

Chita Rivera, Carver’s Kiss of the Spider Woman co-star who also won a Tony that year, said today, “My heart is broken at the loss of my great friend and amazing artist, Brent Carver. I shall miss him more than I can say.”

Carver began his stage career in 1972, with a performance in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Vancouver Arts Club. He segued to television four years later with a costarring role on the CBC sitcom Leo and Me opposite a pre-stardom Michael J. Fox, although the series would not air until 1981.

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WHAT MAKES THE SILVER AGE OF RUSSIAN POETRY SO IMPORTANT? ·

(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 7/31; Photo: Russia Beyond the Headlines.)

You won’t find another period in Russian literature with such a concentration of talented poets and their brilliant use of the Russian language. Who were these literary geniuses of the early 20th century, and what did they write about?

What is the Silver Age of Russian poetry?

In an attempt to research or at least explain this topic, Russian scholars write heavy tomes and dedicate their whole lives. But we took upon ourselves this brave task in order to give a brief summary to those of you who are interested in Russia. 

The Silver Age of Russian poetry is an artistic period that dates from the very late 19th century and ends in the 1920s. It implies a wide range of poets, genres and literary styles. There is even a broader notion of the Silver Age of Russian culture that includes avant-garde art, theater, cinema, photography and sculpture – which very frequently were created in artistic groups that consisted of people from different spheres. 

The concentration of genius poets found during the Silver Age never existed at any other time in Russian literature.

Was there a Golden Age?

Yes, there was a Golden Age of Russian poetry! And it dates to the first third of the 19th century. In simple terms we call them “poets of the Pushkin era”, because Alexander Pushkin was for sure one of the greatest Russian poets of all time and the most remarkable of that era – and he is still very relevant today. Besides such big names as Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, the Golden Age includes Eugene Baratynsky, Peter Vyazemsky, Vasily Zhukovsky and other poets who are less known nowadays. Later, scholars started to classify all the 19th century ‘classic’ prose authors to the Golden Age, including Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyesky, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Nekrasov. The 19th century was marked by the development of literary movements: from sentimentalism to romanticism and then to realism and naturalism.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 10 – ‘MARY ROSE’ (1920) BY JM BARRIE ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/2; Photo: Unnerving questions … Leon Quartermaine and Fay Compton in Mary Rose at the Haymarket theatre, 1926. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images.)

The Peter Pan author caught Hitchcock’s eye with a Hebridean ghost story about the intensity of mother-son relationships

I have neglected Scotland so far in this series, though I was tempted to include one of the great working-class dramas such as Joe Corrie’s In Time O’ Strife (1927) or Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep (1947). I have plumped for this strange, sinister ghost story, partly as a reminder that there was more to Barrie than Peter Pan and partly because the play has much to say about the anguish of mother-son relationships and the universal grief for loss.

Barrie knows how to make one’s flesh creep. His play starts with a young soldier looking over a shuttered Sussex mansion and forbidden access to an empty room. As he falls asleep by the fire, the past history of the house and its inhabitants comes to life. We see how Mary Rose, daughter of the Morland family, twice disappeared during a visit to a remote Hebridean island: once briefly when she was a girl and then for 25 years when she was a married woman with a young son. Each time, she reappears mysteriously unchanged but, at the play’s climax, she is a ghostly revenant still pining for the son she has lost and searching for her place in the universe.

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THE ‘WILDCAT’ EPISODE, OR, DID BROADWAY LOVE LUCY? ·

(Darin Strauss’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/31; Photo: The New York Times;  via Pam Green.)

With her sitcom over and marriage finished, Lucille Ball fulfilled an old dream: a stint on Broadway. It did not go well.

Lucille Ball in the Broadway show “Wildcat.”Credit…Everett Collection

This is the story of how the most famous and talented sitcom star of her era — and maybe of all time — failed on Broadway.

The star was Lucille Ball. The year was 1960. And she was in a tough spot — in a “depressed state of mind,” as she later recalled.

“I Love Lucy” had just ended. Her marriage had too. The last kiss with Desi fell on the last moment of their last episode. His face in her hair; her blubbering through tears: “You’re supposed to say ‘Cut.’” The final clinch. The next day she filed for divorce.

When your marriage has been, in a way, America’s marriage, what do you do after the love crash dives? Lucille Ball didn’t know, at first. Biographers say she slept and cried on a friend’s couch. “What I do is so meaningless, so unimportant,” she sighed after slinking out to see a play starring Vivien Leigh. “Look what she can do.”

This envy pushed her off the sofa: a footlights career, as Ball put it in her autobiography, was the “ambition of my life.” This was an ambition Lucille-watchers could track. At 17 she’d left her upstate New York high school for Broadway, only to be told: “You just don’t have it. Why don’t you go home?” Later attempts had failed too; “I never made it,” she told a reporter in 1960, “and I want to prove myself.”

Lucille Ball was not only a superstar by 1960. (One measure of her popularity: The nation’s reservoirs dipped whenever “I Love Lucy” broke for a commercial. A whole country, flushing as one.) She was also a trailblazer, a female mogul. Desilu Productions, the business empire she split with Desi Arnaz, her ex, owned the most TV-studio space and was “the single biggest filler of television time” in the industry, as Life Magazine put it.

Now she just had to find a play to star in.

I LEARNED ABOUT BALL’S largely forgotten theater bid when putting together my book, “The Queen of Tuesday.” It’s a novel-memoir hybrid about Ball — and also about my grandfather, and the thorny romance between them. The affair is all speculation but most of the rest is verifiable. (It was family legend that my grandfather and she met at a kind of doom-swept party at which Donald Trump’s father had celebrities throw bricks at a beautiful Coney Island landmark, which is the book’s opening scene.)

Writing the book led me really to admire this powerful, brilliant woman. But in telling this next bit, even the most besotted Lucyian treads warily.

Ball wanted to shoulder a Broadway musical, starring in nearly every scene, dancing and belting a slew of difficult numbers. There were only two issues with that: she was not a good dancer and she was not a good singer. “Not even in the bathtub,” she recalled in that autobiography, “Love, Lucy.” And yet the show she chose, “Wildcat,” required that she both croon and “just about climb walls.”

Or it would require that. Eventually. A play can suffer all kinds of mutations when the most popular star in America joins (not to say hijacks) the production. The writer of “Wildcat,” N. Richard Nash, had conceived of it as a drama — the story of “a woman in dungarees” who swings into a Southwestern oil town with dreams of striking it rich. Unlike the heroines of other plays Ball had read and rejected, Wildcat “Wildy” Jackson, “the cat with more bounce to the ounce,” as she put it in her autobiography, was the kind of “rough-talking, and unbelievably energetic” character she wanted to play.

A phone call from Arnaz — I love this thing! — and, $400,000 later: “It was all packaged and literally taken out of my hands,” Nash told a writer. “The final product had nothing to do with my original intentions.”

In 1960 attendance on Broadway was starting to wobble. And Lucille Ball was the star of all stars. Celestial bodies of such magnitude pull things into their orbit, so why not the theater world? The posters went for the obvious: “Broadway Loves Lucy!” You can hear, even now, the whir of the old calculator, the swish of receipts.

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ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S PUBLISHED WORKS LITTERED WITH ERRORS, STUDY CLAIMS ·

(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/2; Photo:  The Guardian.)

Experts find hundreds of errors in the writer’s works, mostly made by editors and typesetters

Ernest Hemingway’s published writings are riddled with hundreds of errors and little has been done to correct them, according to a forthcoming study of the legendary writer’s texts.

Robert W Trogdon, a leading scholar of 20th-century American literature, told the Guardian that Hemingway’s novels and short stories were crying out for editions that are “as accurate to what he wrote as possible” because the number of mistakes “ranges in the hundreds”. Although many are slight, he said, they were nevertheless mistakes, made primarily by editors and typesetters.

The majority of Hemingway’s manuscripts are held at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where Trogdon has pored over the originals.

He singled out, for example, the 1933 short story A Way You’ll Never Be, which mistakenly features the word “bat” rather than “hat” when the character Nick Adams is explaining catching grasshoppers to the confused Italian soldiers. Hemingway originally wrote: “But I must insist that you will never gather a sufficient supply of these insects for a day’s fishing by pursuing them with your hands or trying to hit them with a hat.”

Misspellings in one edition of The Sun Also Rises, his 1926 novel about disillusioned expatriates in postwar France and Spain, include the bullfighter “Marcial Lalanda” appearing as “Marcial Salanda”, an easy mistake to make because of the similarity of the author’s handwritten “L” and “S”, Trogdon observed. There is also a restaurant called “Ciqoque” when Hemingway meant the real-life Paris eatery Cigogne, again an easy mistake for someone unaccustomed to distinguishing the author’s “q” and “g”.

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THE 40 BEST IRISH FICTIONAL CHARACTERS – IN ORDER ·

(Chosen by Rosita BolandDonald ClarkePeter CrawleyMartin Doyle, and Hilary Fannin for the Irish Times, 8/1; Photo: The Irish Times.)

FROM NIDGE AND CONNELL WALDRON TO GRETTA CONROY, RASHERS TIERNEY AND PEGEEN MIKE, ALL OF THESE PEOPLE EMERGED FROM ACTS OF IMAGINATION – BUT ARE SO DEFTLY CREATED THAT THEY ARE AS REAL TO US AS ANY LIVING PERSON

40. BESSIE BURGESS

From The Plough and the Stars
Play, 1926
It befits an unsentimental classic like The Plough and the Stars that its heart resides in such an unlikely place. Bessie Burgess, the cantankerous, self-demolishing, crowing unionist (“Oh, youse are all rightly shanghaied now!” she spits at her revolutionary neighbours) is ultimately the spine of compassion, quiet heroism and genuine sacrifice amid all the posture and chaos of Seán O’Casey’s street-level view of the 1916 Rising.

39. AISLING

From Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling
Book, 2017
For a modest, sensible twentysomething from Ballygobbard, Aisling has taken Ireland by storm. The first three books featuring her, written by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, are the bestselling Irish fiction titles this century. Compared to “an Irish Bridget Jones”, Aisling is as much in the tradition of a Maeve Binchy or Marian Keyes heroine as she is a rival to Helen Fielding’s creation.

38. CONNELL WALDRON

From Normal People
Book, 2018; TV drama, 2020
Despite being a young man both studying literature and writing it, Connell’s trademark characteristic is an inability to be articulate, especially with Marianne, his love. What Sally Rooney’s creation doesn’t, or can’t, say to her during their school and college years together is partly what makes his character so realistic, frustrating and engaging.

37. CATHERINE MCKENNA

From Grace Notes
Book, 1997
In Scotland, Catherine, a composer, is trying to literally compose her life. She is a new mother, but her partner is abusive. She is estranged from her family back in Northern Ireland. Music and her career-changing composing commission both ground her, Bernard MacLaverty’s novel, and then lift her onwards from where she has been in a paralysis.

36. SADIE JACKSON

From The Twelfth Day of July
Book, 1970
Sadie, a Protestant teenager, is sassy and feisty. As we follow her love-across-the-divide relationship with Kevin, a Catholic, over five books, we grow with them. Joan Lingard’s young-adult-fiction series brought the Troubles home to generations of young people elsewhere and brought fiction home to young people in Northern Ireland.

35 CATHLEEN NI HOULIHAN

From Cathleen Ni Houlihan
Play, 1902
“Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” WB Yeats wondered about Cathleen Ni Houlihan. If so, they must have been as naive as the question. In 1798, a mysterious old lady disturbs a family dinner to sing of blood sacrifice, tell of her stolen “four beautiful green fields”, and lure a young man to join the Rebellion. Thus appeased, she transforms into a girl with “the walk of a queen” and struts away into several more Irish dramas.

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THE HOMEBOUND PROJECT ANNOUNCES LINEUP FOR FIFTH AND FINAL EDITION AIRING AUGUST 5–9 ·

(Via John Wyszniewski, Everyman Agency.)

Laurie Metcalf, Kelli O’Hara, Brian Cox, Austin Pendleton, Daniel K. Isaac, and More Premiere New Work by Craig Lucas, Lena Dunham, Sylvia Khoury, Stephen Karam, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Among Others, with Guest Directors Pam MacKinnon and Scott Ellis

Over $100,000 Raised To Date For No Kid Hungry – Can Help Provide Up To 1 Million Meals For Children In Need

Anonymous Donor Matching All Donations for Series 5 Up to $20,000

Following an “ambitious” (New York Times) debut on May 6 with an “extremely impressive roster of leading actors and writers” (Time Out New York), The Homebound Project is pleased to announce the lineup for its fifth and final edition of new online theater benefiting hungry children affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Co-creators Catya McMullen and Jenna Worsham, along with their all-volunteer team, are also pleased to announce that over $100,000 has been raised to date for No Kid Hungry, a national campaign working to end childhood hunger. Through No Kid Hungry, this amount can help connect kids in need across the country with up to 1 million healthy meals. For this fifth and final edition of The Homebound Project, an anonymous donor will be matching all donations, dollar for dollar, up to $20,000.

The playwrights in the fifth edition of The Homebound Project, airing August 5–9, 2020, have been given the prompt of “Homemade.” Participating actors, playwrights, and directors include:

Brian Cox and Nicole Ansari-Cox in a work by Melis Aker, directed by Tatiana Pandiani;

Joslyn DeFreece in a work by Lloyd Suh, directed by Colette Robert;

A work by Lena Dunham, directed by Maggie Burrows, performer TBA;

Ryan J. Haddad in a work by Christopher Oscar Peña, directed by Jaki Bradley;

Daniel K. Isaac in a work by Sylvia Khoury;

Andy Lucien in a work by Donnetta Lavinia Grays;

Laurie Metcalf in work by Stephen Karam;

Kelli O’Hara in a work by Lindsey Ferrentino, directed by Scott Ellis;

Austin Pendleton in a work by Craig Lucas, directed by Pam MacKinnon;

Cesar J. Rosado in a work by Basil Kreimendahl, directed by Samantha Soule;

Amanda Seyfried in a work by Catya McMullen; directed by Jenna Worsham; and

Johnny Sibilly in a work by Korde Arrington Tuttle, directed by Jenna Worsham.

The fifth edition of The Homebound Project will stream online beginning at 7pm EST on Wednesday, August 5 until 7pm EST on Sunday, August 9. View-at-home tickets are currently on sale at homeboundtheater.org and begin at a donation level of $10. Complimentary viewings for first responders and essential workers have been made possible by an anonymous donor. Each collection from this independent theater initiative is available to stream over a strictly limited 4-day period.

Founded by playwright Catya McMullen and director Jenna WorshamThe Homebound Project is an independent online theater initiative created to help feed hungry children affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Each edition features a collection of new theater works written by homebound playwrights and recorded by sheltering actors.

The Homebound Project features costume consultation by Andy Jean, original music and sound design by Fan Zhang, and video editing and design by Jon Burkland/ZANNI Productions

“The child hunger crisis needs our attention at this critical and traumatic national moment,” says co-creator Jenna Worsham. “We are monumentally grateful for the exquisite work of our volunteer artists and generous support from audiences around the world. As The Homebound Project draws to a close for now, our shared mission to help those most vulnerable during this crisis should and will continue.”

“Hungry children in our country are facing one of the worst crises we’ve seen in our lifetime. But thanks to generous partners like The Homebound Project and its donors, they’re not facing it alone,” said Billy Shore, executive chair of Share Our Strength, the nonprofit behind the No Kid Hungry campaign. “We’re truly grateful for this support that will help feed children during this pandemic and the long recovery ahead.”

“1 in 4 children in the U.S. could face hunger this year because of the coronavirus – and that includes many in New York City,” said Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry in New York. “The Homebound Project is proof that everyone can play a role in helping these kids, whether you’re an actor, producer, writer, director, viewer or otherwise. Kids need whatever strength we’re willing to share in this fight.”

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 9 – ‘THE WORDS UPON THE WINDOW-PANE’ AND ‘PURGATORY’ BY WB YEATS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian,  7/27; Above, Yeats’s masterpiece … Peter Cormican as the Old Man in a 2009 production of Purgatory at the Irish Repertory Theatre, New York. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

A drama in which the spirit of Jonathan Swift haunts a seance and an astonishingly brief update of the Oresteia confirm the poet’s remarkable skills as a playwright

Few plays are more forgotten than those of WB Yeats. Revered as a poet, he’s ignored as a dramatist yet he deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. He cofounded the Abbey theatre in 1904, he put Irish legend and history on stage, and he sought to create a drama “close to pure music”. His output was huge – his Collected Plays runs to more than 700 pages – and I’ve plucked out two of his works that, while vastly different in style, show his fixation with death, expiation and eternal recurrence.

The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1930) is in many ways exceptional: it is Yeats’s only play with a realistic modern setting. Its subject is a seance held by the Dublin Spiritualist Association in rooms once occupied by Jonathan Swift’s Stella. Yeats has much fun at the expense of the visitors – one of whom wants advice about setting up a teashop in Folkestone – but the main concern is to expel an evil spirit who has been haunting past sessions. It turns out to be that of Swift whom we hear – through the medium, Mrs Henderson – bitterly rejecting offers of love from the two women who most adored him.

What is astonishing is the way Yeats pulls off a double trick. Far from being an attack on Swift, the play is a defence of his refusal to beget children because of his dread of the future. But, rather like David Mamet’s The Shawl about a phoney clairvoyant with psychic gifts, the play suggests that the money-grubbing Mrs Henderson may actually have conjured up the crabbed spirit of Dublin’s celibate dean.

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READ ‘REAGAN’S COWBOYS’ ALONG WITH MAUREEN DOWD ARTICLE IN NY TIMES, 8/8 ·

MOB RULE:  JOHN B. ROBERTS II ON THE 1984 REELECTION CAMPAIGN’S SECRET OPERATION AGAINST GERALDINE FERRARO, THINKING OUTSIDE THE BALLOT BOX, AND HIS NEW BOOK  ON MORNING IN AMERICA:  “REAGAN’S COWBOYS”

In the run-up to the 2020 election, Reagan Political Strategist John B. Roberts II looks back at 1984—only  to find a highly controversial president, a terrible economy, and mass protests in the streets.  The parallels go on . . .

Interview with Bob Shuman, Stage Voices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is an issue from the 1984 Reagan campaign that is also important to a millennial–and why?

The economy. Until 1983, America had a terrible economy for a decade. It began with an oil embargo and gas shortages. We waited in long lines to try to fill our cars, at prices that spiked more than 150 percent.  I was a college graduate in 1973.  Jobs were impossible to find, and when you did find them, wages couldn’t keep up with double-digit inflation.  I vividly remember how hard it was to land a job and how it seemed impossible to ever buy a home.  It was really dismal, a lot like it has been for millennials.

Reagan was a highly controversial president, it should be recalled.  There were mass protests in the streets, a difficult economy, Russian interference in elections; the parallels go and on.  For those who do not remember that time, this look backward may reveal that no matter how bad things seem, they can turn around for the better.

Why hasn’t the story of the 1984 reelection campaign’s secret operation against Geraldine Ferraro been told before–and do you think reasons had to do with protecting participants?

By design, only a handful of us knew the full extent of the operation, even when it was happening.  We had lots of people working on the investigations, but they didn’t know everyone who was involved or what people outside of their cluster were doing.  It was a compartmented operation and only I, my colleague Art Teele, and the Reagans’ closest advisor, Stu Spencer, knew the complete story.  In late 1984, an editor at Knopf told me he was interested in publishing a book about the press coverage of the campaigns, which would have included the Ferraro operation.  Stu Spencer asked me not to write it because he thought it might embarrass the Reagans, especially Nancy. So we kept silent for decades.

 

Besides yourself, name the first Reagan Cowboy to come to mind–and who was he or she?

Mac Baldrige.  He was Reagan’s Commerce Secretary and although he was an Ivy Leaguer and successful businessman, he grew up on a ranch and had been a professional roper, a real rodeo cowboy.  In 1988 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.  He and Reagan shared a love of horses and often went riding together.  Baldrige died from injuries in a freak riding accident.  Of course, the second name that comes to mind is Colonel Oliver North, who was a principal in the Iran-Contra affair. He was one of Reagan’s cowboys, whether they went horseback riding or not.   

 

Why was it worth staying with the campaign as you found yourself involved with organized crime?

That’s a really good question.  My mortgage was definitely a factor. But the main thing that kept me on the job was that Reagan declared war on organized crime in 1983.  Attorney General William French Smith ordered U.S. attorneys and the FBI to make the Mafia and other crime groups a top priority.  At the same time Reagan created a high-profile presidential commission to publicly spotlight the dangers.  One question Art Teele and I could never answer was this: was it just a coincidence that a relatively unknown politician with extensive connections to organized crime was picked to run for vice president? Or was the Mafia trying to put someone they could coerce into doing their bidding into the White House?  Because we couldn’t discount that possibility, we stuck with our investigations until the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was defeated.      

 

What do you see as major differences in opposition research then and now?

The dossier of derogatory information British former spy Christopher Steele developed on Trump in 2016 embodies the differences.  Even though the FBI and CIA could not verify the chief allegations in Steele’s dossier, it was used to justify secret surveillance.  The report became part of a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and was shared with the press, senior officials in the intelligence community, and in the Justice Department. Each and every one of those actions would never have happened in 1984, at least not on my watch or on Art Teele’s watch.  They violate every important principle of a democratic election, from abuse of executive authority to potentially introducing Russian propaganda into a presidential campaign.    

We verified the information we uncovered about Geraldine Ferraro before we disclosed it to anyone.  We then required the main news organizations we worked with to independently verify our leads, as a condition of our sharing the information.  We refused to involve Executive Branch agencies in our investigative work, and the one time we found out someone, on our side, had tried to do so, we shut him down.  Without subpoena powers, without court warrants, without FISA court approved eavesdropping, we nonetheless uncovered politically damaging information.  Some of that information led to a congressional investigation, unanimously approved by every Republican and Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, into Geraldine Ferraro’s compliance with the law.  Unlike in recent years, where the Steele dossier’s allegations remain unproven and investigations into Russian collusion have come up empty-handed, the 1984 investigation into Ferraro found numerous violations of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978

The second part of the Stage Voices interview with John B. Roberts II will appear next Tuesday.

Reagan’s Cowboys by John B. Roberts II, available now from McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers 

View on Amazon

Visit the Web site of John B. Roberts II

Read Part 2 of this interview

Photos: North, Guardian; Steele, Business Insider

Interview (c) 2020 by John B. Roberts II and Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

MAUREEN DOWD NY TIMES ARTICLE, 8/8

No Wrist Corsages, Please

Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?

Has America grown since 1984, or will the knives still be out for Biden’s running mate?

By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — On the cusp of Joe Biden teaming up with a woman, I am casting back to my time covering the first woman who was a serious contender for veep.

The feminist fairy tale — which began with women crying and popping champagne on the convention floor in San Francisco in 1984 — had a sad ending. Cinderella with ashes in her mouth.

It’s hard to fathom, but it took another 36 years for a man to choose to put a woman on the Democratic ticket with him. To use Geraldine Ferraro’s favorite expression, “Gimme a break!”

After Walter Mondale picked Ferraro, a Queens congresswoman, the first man and woman to share a ticket had to consider all sorts of things: Could he kiss her on the cheek? (No.) Could he call her “dear” or “honey”? (No.) Could they hug? (No.) Could they tell jokes, as Johnny Carson did, about how angry Joan Mondale would be when her husband kept coming home late and saying he had been in private sessions with the vice president? (No.)

They wanted to be seen as peers, more TV anchor team than suburban couple. Mondale could not seem paternal or patronizing or use phrases like “a ticket with broad appeal.” Ferraro, who walked faster, had to stop bounding ahead of her running mate.

They knew that the way they conducted themselves would forever recast the perception of men and women in politics. So they were wary in the beginning.

As one Democratic consultant put it at the time, “He looked like a teenager on the first date with that ‘How in the world do you pin the corsage on her?’ problem.’’

Before a fund-raiser in New York once, a Democratic official presented Ferraro with a wrist corsage. She refused to put it on. “That I will not do,’’ she told the man politely.

Sometimes, the introductory music for the petite blonde was the 1925 ditty, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” One magazine hailed her as “America’s Bride.”

When the ticket headed South, Jim Buck Ross, Mississippi’s 70-year-old commissioner of agriculture, called the 48-year-old Ferraro “young lady” and asked if she could bake blueberry muffins.

Ferraro’s historic campaign was full of images never before seen on the presidential trail. As she went onstage, Gerry, as she was universally known, would hand off her pocketbook to an aide. Her charming press spokesman, Francis O’Brien, sometimes ironed her dresses — as her main foreign affairs adviser, Madeleine Albright, looked on.

It was fascinating to see age-old customs through the eyes of a woman candidate.

“People hand me their babies,’’ Ferraro marveled. “As a mother, my instinctive reaction is how do you give your baby to someone who’s a total stranger to kiss, especially with so many colds going around? And especially when the woman is wearing lipstick?”

It was the first time a candidate running for the White House had talked about abortion using the phrase, “If I were pregnant,” and about foreign policy with the phrase, “As the mother of a draft-age son.” The “smartass white boys” around Mondale, as many feminists called them privately, got nervous when she talked about being a mother. How could she be tough and a mother, they wondered, not seeing the obvious: Mothers are tougher than anyone. Fearing white male backlash, they tried to control her bouncy Queens persona.

Ferraro walked the same tightrope that tripped up Hillary Clinton when she wondered if she should wheel around in that debate and tell the creeping Donald Trump to scram.

If she got angry, would she seem shrill, that dread word, and turn off voters? The Mondale inner circle wanted Ferraro to play the traditional running-mate role of hatchet man. But Gloria Steinem warned, “Nothing makes men more anxious than for a woman to be masculine.”

George H.W. Bush excitedly proclaimed after his debate with Ferraro that he had tried to “kick a little ass”; his press aide called Ferraro “bitchy”; and Barbara Bush said Ferraro was a word that “rhymes with rich.”

What started as a goose bump blind date with history curdled, as Ferraro got dragged into a financial mess involving her husband’s real estate business.

Right after the Reagan landslide, Democrats began muttering about returning to white Anglo-Saxon men on the ticket and not having any more “feminized” tickets that didn’t appeal to them.

I called women across the country for a magazine autopsy I was writing and was shocked to hear how ambivalent women still were about a woman running the country.

A 36-year-old mother of three from Bristol, Tenn., told me: “I put myself in her shoes. Could I sit down and logically make decisions for everybody without cracking up? I think women in general are weak. I know that sounds awful. But we women know we have our faults.’’

The next year, Ferraro put out a memoir talking about how depressed and paranoid she got, and how much she cried, admitting that she was not “prepared for the depth of the fury, the bigotry, and the sexism my candidacy would unleash.”

She said that Mondale’s male aides were so condescending that she instructed them to “pretend every time they talk to me or even look at me that I’m a gray-haired Southern gentleman, a senator from Texas.” (In her memoir, Sarah Palin aimed her sharpest barbs at John McCain’s aides.)

We don’t know whom Biden will choose but we do know the sort of hell she will endure at the hands of Team Trump. Even after the #MeToo revolution, even with women deciding this election, have the undercurrents of sexism in America changed so much? Hollywood, after all, only just began forking over major budgets to women directors, after years of absurdly stereotyping them.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, Kellyanne Conway, Kayleigh McEnany, Lara Trump and Jeanine Pirro — the Fox Force Five of retrograde Trumpworld — will have the knives out. Conservatives will undermine the veep candidate with stereotypes. She’s bitchy. She’s a nag. She’s aggressive. She’s ambitious. Who’s wearing the pants here, anyhow?

I asked Francis O’Brien if he thought, three and a half decades after he watched the sandstorm of sexism around Ferraro, whether her successor would have an easier time.

“I think it’s the same, in many ways,” he said. “This is a white Anglo-Saxon country founded by white Anglo-Saxon men for white Anglo-Saxon men. Sexism is like race. It’ll pop out. It’s in our DNA. We’re one of the few Western countries where women have never made it to the top.”

But on the bright side, when Chuck Schumer wanted to call Nancy Pelosi a lioness on Friday, referring to her negotiations with Republicans on the relief bill, he checked with her first to see if she would prefer lion.

The Speaker chose lioness.

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Credit…Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

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AUDRA MCDONALD INTERVIEW: “THEATRE CAN’T MISS THIS MOMENT” ·

(Michael Schulman’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/26; Illustration by Nhung Lê.)

Audra McDonald came out of Juilliard in 1993, a twenty-two-year-old with a lyric soprano as pristine as sterling silver, and quickly forged one of the most celebrated careers in Broadway history. A year out of school, she was cast as Carrie Pipperidge in a Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel,” in what was hailed as a breakthrough in “color-blind casting,” and won her first Tony Award for the role. More Tonys followed, for “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” And then more, for “Porgy and Bess” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” in which she played a broken Billie Holiday. She remains the only performer ever to win six Tonys and the only one to win in all four available categories.

McDonald’s plan for this summer was to play Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but, like all live theatre, the production was derailed by the pandemic. Instead, she’s been quarantined at her home in Westchester, with her husband, Will Swenson (her co-star in a 2007 production of “110 in the Shade”), their four children (three from previous marriages and a toddler, Sally), plus their eleven-year-old dog and “about five hundred frogs on the outside,” McDonald said recently. Nevertheless, she has not been idle. In April, she appeared, along with Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski, in a memorable rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” as part of an online concert for Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday. This month, she performed a virtual concert from a space off her garage which she calls the “Chill Room.”

And then there’s the racial reckoning that has spilled over from the Black Lives Matter protests into the theatre world. In June, McDonald co-founded Black Theatre United, along with performers such as Phylicia Rashad, Wendell Pierce, and Billy Porter. At its inaugural town hall, McDonald moderated a conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund. When I reached McDonald by Zoom, she was in her teen stepson’s bedroom; the “Chill Room” was undergoing an emergency chimney repair, and Sally could be heard singing in the hallway. “As much as we try to stay energetic for her, we just can’t replicate a three-year-old’s energy,” McDonald said. “Although we did just find some caterpillars in our garden, and we’re going to watch them turn into butterflies.” Our conversation—about her own metamorphoses, from a demoralized student at Juilliard, where she survived a suicide attempt, to a Broadway eminence to a community advocate—has been edited and condensed.

The theatre, like many industries, has been thrust into a big, belated moment of racial reckoning. As one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, Black theatre artists in America, how have you been thinking about what your role should be?

You need to do what you can to make more space. Every time that we are able to get into the room, I think it’s your job to create more space. I can’t tell you how many young African-American women, students or whatnot, come up to me and say, “I watched you as a kid, and I remember thinking, If she’s doing Broadway, then I can do it. And I can do it as a soprano. I don’t have to do it in the way that society would mainly see me—a sassy beltress.”

Did you have people like that growing up?

For me, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll, of course. Ella Fitzgerald. Obviously, she never did Broadway, but that was Ella’s voice. That was no one else’s voice except Ella’s. And, then, Lillias White I just adored. I had the album of “The Wiz,” which I listened to over and over again. I never thought that I would have the career that I ended up having, but I could at least be there. There was at least space to be taken up by Black women.

I’ve always used my voice to call attention to issues that I thought were important. I’ve been on the board of Covenant House for four or five years now, doing work with homeless youth, trying to give them shelter and education and food and dignity. With Black Theatre United, it’s about all of us saying, “We can’t sit on the sidelines. We can lament everything going on, but how can we as a group effect change in some grander way than just on our own?” As Sherrilyn Ifill said in that town hall, “Everybody has to use the tools in your hand.”

 (Read more)