Category Archives: Commentary


A Presidential Election Year Is Like the Wild West . . .

When rumors about Geraldine Ferraro–the first woman vice-presidential nominee by a major party in U.S history–reached First Lady Nancy Reagan during the 1984 presidential election, a secret operation was launched to investigate her. It revealed Ferraro’s familial ties to organized crime and the extent to which she would have been subject to pressure or blackmail by the Mafia if elected.

Written by an insider responsible for running the investigation, this never-before-told story goes behind the scenes as an incumbent president’s campaign works to expose a political opponent’s mob connections. Part detective story, part political thriller, the narrative features all the major players in the Reagan White House and 1984 reelection committee, with revealing anecdotes about Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Reagan’s Cowboys – McFarland

View Reagan’s Cowboys on Amazon

John B. Roberts II got his start as an author with a play that he wrote and directed for a school performance in the fourth grade. His first professional work as a writer came when he and a college buddy scraped by through a dreary English winter to launch a magazine in London. When State Department exams required him to go back to America, he wrote magazine and newspaper articles for the airfare home. To get the money back to London, he took a temporary job on a presidential campaign. Sixteen years later, after two terms in the White House and a decade as an international political consultant, he made a mid-career switch back to writing fulltime.

For the last two years, he has been criss-crossing America’s backroads towing a retro-mod Bowlus Road Chief travel trailer while exploring America’s “fly over” country for a travel book.
His latest novel, “Stripping Lolita,” is in revision.

“Reagan’s Cowboys” is a true account of the 1984 Reagan-Bush reelection campaign’s secret operation against Geraldine Ferraro, America’s first female candidate for vice president on a major party ticket. It will be the first book to expose the hardball political tactics used at the pinnacle of American politics.

Roberts was The Mclaughlin Group’s senior producer and creative collaborator with television host John McLaughlin until his death in 2016. He has written thousands of shows and interviews for world leaders, celebrities, experts, politicians, and authors. In 1998, he launched CNCB’s top-rated talk show, “The McLaughlin Special Report.” As a freelance producer, he works on assignment around the world, from exotic locales such as a remote atoll in Tahiti to world capitals like London and Madrid.

When he isn’t writing books, articles, or TV shows, he can be found drawing and painting, or wandering remote byways in his 1984 CJ7 Jeep.


(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/1; photo: Exemplary freshness and vigour … Roy Williams, pictured in 2008. Photograph: Sarah Lee/the Guardian.)

Our new series on lost theatre classics begins with an exceptional play about the dashed hopes of a middle-aged Jamaican woman

When the theatrical lockdown ends, I suspect there will be a temptation to rely on the established canon. But over the next 12 weeks I will be exploring, in reverse chronological order, some forgotten plays from the last 120 years. I’ve confined myself to plays from the British and Irish rep but feel free, as the list unfolds, to add your own suggestions.

The No Boys Cricket Club (1996) was Roy Williams’s second play and was written in his final year at Rose Bruford College. You could say that it deals with a subject with which we have become familiar: the dashed hopes of first-generation Jamaican immigrants uneasily settled in Britain. But several things make this an exceptional play.

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(Philip Oltermann’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/29.)

Extra legroom and no interval: Germany plans for post-lockdown theatre

Berliner Ensemble unveils auditorium with most chairs ripped out, but some left in pairs, for a socially distanced audience who can visit the toilet during the play

Going to the theatre after the coronavirus lockdown could be not just a novel but a more pleasant experience, if the plans of Germany’s leading theatres are anything to go by. There will be generous legroom for spectators and a more casual attitude to toilet breaks.

As Germany continues to relax social distancing restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, playhouses in most cities are still waiting for an official date when they can reopen their doors to the public. The Berlin senate announced on Friday that open-air cultural events will be allowed from 2 June, but theatres are likely to remain shut until September. Venues such as the German capital’s Berliner Ensemble, however, are already providing a glimpse of what drama could look like in a world of social distancing.

The theatre by the River Spree, founded in 1949 by Bertolt Brecht, has spent the last week uninstalling 500 of the 700 seats in its main auditorium, to allow for a viewing experience that adheres to government requirements of a 1.5m safety distance.

“We simply could have blocked seats or taken out only entire rows, but that would have looked ghostly,” said artistic director Oliver Reese. Instead, the theatre went with an arrangement resembling a gap-toothed smile, with 70% of seats arranged in pairs. “We want to create an experience that is special, that will anchor itself in people’s emotional memory.”

When the first production opens, which is likely to be on 4 September, there will be no interval, to avoid a crush at the toilets where social distancing would be hard to guarantee. Instead, spectators are allowed to dash to the loo whenever they need. “It will be a new experience, with new rituals.”

Ticket prices, Reese said, would stay the same since they are already subsidised by the state. “If we were to put up ticket prices, that would send a fatal signal to a society in which a lot of people are struggling for their livelihoods at the moment.”

Private Berlin playhouses such as the Grips youth theatre, which could only fill 70 out of 360 seats under new distancing rules, said they were hoping to make up their losses at the box offices with expanded subsidy schemes from the city’s education senate.

There is a striking contrast between subsidy levels for theatres in Germany and theatres in the UK, where it is more difficult to reduce capacity and still make enough income to cover running costs. According to the British producer Sonia Friedman, most theatres need to sell 60% of seats just to survive. 

In Germany theatres were among the first establishments forced to close their doors as the spread of the pandemic accelerated in mid-March, amid fears that crowds of people crammed together in a closed space made them the perfect environment for the virus to spread.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Times Newspapers/Shutterstock (219454a)

(Gordon Cox’s article appears in Variety, 5/27.)

Larry Kramer, the writer and influential gay activist who pressed the U.S. government and the medical establishment to respond to the AIDS epidemic, has died. He was 84.

Kramer died Wednesday from pneumonia, his husband David Webster told the New York Times.

Earlier in his life, Kramer was a screenwriter with credits including “Women in Love” and the 1973 musical “Lost Horizon.”

Spurred by the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, Kramer became a fierce activist and an impassioned writer, and one of the earliest and most vocal advocates for AIDS research, treatment access and institutional recognition of the gay community so hard-hit by the disease. He is best known not only as one of the founders of both Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, but also as the writer of novels and plays including his 1985 work “The Normal Heart,” his urgent, agitprop depiction of the early days of the AIDS crisis.

A prominent and contentious voice in the gay community, Kramer fearlessly put forth hard truths and controversial opinions, as when, in a 1983 editorial, he urged gay men to stop having sex until more was known about AIDS and how it spread.

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(Cathy Park Hong’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/21; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

The cast and crew of “Wolf Play” were on their third day of tech rehearsals at Soho Rep in Manhattan in mid-March. “We were doing this complicated boxing scene, and we had the smog machine and the costumes, and it looked awesome,” said Hansol Jung, who wrote the play.

It was just days before the opening, and as the scene ended, the company’s three artistic directors came in and announced the production was closing. “They were crying as they told us,” Jung said. “It felt so weird saying goodbye to something that didn’t yet exist.”

Jung’s “Wolf Play was one of eight productions of works by playwrights of Asian descent that were cut short or canceled in New York City this spring because of Covid-19. Just as these playwrights were finally ascendant in downtown theater, the pandemic not only aborted their moment but unleashed a wave of anti-Asian discrimination across the country.

As a Korean-American poet and essayist, I have witnessed a thrilling renaissance of Asian-American literature in the last few years that has kicked aside conventional tales in favor of stranger, more uncharted narratives. When I began writing in the early 2000s, the publishing industry mostly seemed to look at Asian stories as if they were testimonials of tragic immigrant lives. We were condescended to or treated like content farms.

Now I’m reading books by Asian-American authors that are as varied in style as much as content, and I was eager to see how this experimentation has spread to theater. But because of Covid-19, I didn’t have a chance to see any of these productions. I had to make do with their scripts.

Jung told me in a phone interview that she was used to a scarcity model. If a major theater programmed a play by an Asian-American, she used to joke that her chances were shot for a production there the next season. What a dream then that for a few weeks in 2020 so many Asian-American plays were up.

Subjects ranged from a Cambodian band to Korean divers; from international adoption to a Hitchcockian murder mystery. The plays are bold and often outrageous (I detected Young Jean Lee’s acerbic influence in a few scripts). From noir to porn to rock musical, these playwrights deploy genre to pickax their way into the nebulous inner lives of characters traumatized by migration, racism or genocide.

Favoring Brechtian devices over conventional realism, many of these playwrights write Asian-American characters with a self-conscious knowingness that they’re centering Asian bodies before a white audience. Often, they break the fourth wall or use multimedia — like Christopher Chen’s LCT3 production “The Headlands” — to unseat any preconceived notions thYESe audience may have of the Asian race.

“I think a lot of playwrights who want to get into the meat of racial issues use experimental theater to get underneath reality,” said Chen, whose noir-inspired play delves into the mysterious death of a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco.

Sometimes, just as the audience identifies with characters, the playwright unmasks them, exposing the scaffolding of the plot. The goal is not to please, or to entertain, but to provoke.

An influential playwright who uses avant-garde techniques to explode racial myths is Young Jean Lee. Following on the heels of Reza Abdoh and Suzan-Lori Parks, Lee projects her own prickly unease about her race onto her audience through scathing satire and bait-and-switch plotlines.

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It is no little task to carry over to the stage those principles which were created in painting, music, and the other arts that had gone so far ahead of us. Will the speaking voice ever be able to express those delicate nuances of emotion which are heard in the orchestra and its instruments? Will our material and definite body be able to take on the unexpected contours and lines we see in modern painting? (MLIA)


(Lanre Bakare’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/21; Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA.)

Sonia Friedman calls for rescue package to save more than 1,000 theatres from permanent closure

British theatre ‘on brink of total collapse’, says top producer

Sonia Friedman calls for rescue package to save more than 1,000 theatres from permanent closure

British theatre is on the “brink of total collapse”, according to one of the industry’s most successful producers, who has called for an urgent government rescue package to prevent more than 1,000 theatres from permanently closing.

Sonia Friedman, the producer behind West End hits such as The Book of Mormon and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, made the prediction in an article for the Telegraph , in which she said the performing arts faces “the real possibility of complete obliteration” without substantial government support.

“Without an urgent government rescue package, 70% of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year,” she wrote. “More than 1,000 theatres around the country will be insolvent and might shut down for good.”

The producer said the loss would be “irrecoverable” and said that without intervention the country would watch as over the next six months “our arts and cultural organisations will have to spend their reserves until there is nothing left”.

She added that many will have no alternative but to enter administration.

Friedman is the latest arts figure to call for more support from the government as theatres begin to make redundancies and enter into administration. On Wednesday, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum announced it was going into “hibernation”, with staff being notified their jobs were at risk.

(Read more)


(The post appeared first in The New York Times, 5/15; photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Before my scheduled preview performance of “The Present,” a new show from the Geffen Playhouse (rebranded as Geffen Stayhouse) in Los Angeles, I received — via FedEx, after a failed delivery from the Postal Service and a series of increasingly panicked emails — a letter with strict instructions. I was to download Zoom and join a meeting 15 minutes before showtime. There would be, bold type informed me, “no late seating.”

On Wednesday, just shy of 11 p.m. (the perils of seeing a California show on New York time), an enthusiastic stage manager checked me in and I took my seat — a rickety Ikea chair in kicking distance of a teetering pile of laundry. My husband sat nearby on the edge of an unmade bed strewn with children’s toys. I had meant to pour a glass of wine, but we’d emptied the last bottle days ago.

“The Present,” created by the Portuguese conjurer Helder Guimarães, is a magic show, and I struggle to imagine a setting and sobriety level less conducive to enchantment. But this is a pandemic. As with bandanna masks and homemade hand sanitizer, we make do.

David Copperfield disappearing the Statue of Liberty and the peculiar success of Criss Angel notwithstanding, magic has always struck me as particularly dependent on liveness — a duel between the nothing-up-my-sleeves hand and the watchful, untrained eye. Put a camera between them, and the odds no longer seem fair. (Video sequences in live shows can feel miscalculated, too, a wrongheaded attempt to scale up what should be intimate, a tryst dressed up as an orgy.)

But last year, while researching the psychological illusionist Derren Brown, I lost several nights, happily, to his old TV series. And routines by the card assassin Ricky Jay — that watermelon! — bear watching on repeat. Knowing remote prestidigitation could work, I spent the two weeks after booking my ticket to “The Present” lurking and squinting and nervously participating online and on the phone, exploring how. The magic word of the moment? Your Wi-Fi login.

I began with Noah Levine, a familiar face beneath a quarantine beard. In “the before” (is that what we’re calling it?), I had twice seen his “Magic After Hours” show at Tannen’s Magic. With the help of the Atlas Obscura and Airbnb platforms, he has now developed “Backstage With a Magician,” in which he promises to perform tricks from his “secret lair,” which looks a lot like a Brooklyn apartment. At showtime, he greeted us in front of a credibility bookcase — “Gravity’s Rainbow,” manuals on card and coin magic, a crystal ball. He has taken to wearing a Nehru jacket. We cope however we can.

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(Alex Ross’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 5/11.)

He’s a political activist. His repertory is vast. And, during Germany’s shutdown, he streamed more than fifty performances from home. It’s made him question what a concert can be.

On March 10th, the German pianist Igor Levit played Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Piano Concertos at the Elbphilharmonie, the hulking concert complex in Hamburg. It was his thirty-third birthday and, it turned out, his last public concert for many weeks. The next day, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, delivered a dire warning about the scope of the looming coronavirus pandemic, and performance spaces began closing across the country. At the time, Levit had a full schedule before him. He had recently issued a boxed-set recording of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, and was playing Beethoven cycles in several European cities. He was also preparing to tackle an arcane colossus of the piano literature—the seventy-minute Piano Concerto by the early-twentieth-century composer-virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, a hero of his.

“That next day, the eleventh, was kind of a shock day,” Levit told me recently, in a video call from his apartment, in Berlin. “On the twelfth, I was shopping in a grocery store, and I had this thought: What if I live-streamed a gig?” He peered into his phone with a grin. He is a trim young man with sharp features, a high Mahlerian hairline, and a thin growth of beard. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Love Music Hate Racism.” He speaks rapidly and incisively, his English nearly as good as his German. Sometimes he seems more mature than his years, poised and oracular; at others, he comes across as an antic, restless member of his digital-native generation.

Levit went on, “When I got home, I did what I usually do, which is to throw a thought into the public arena without thinking about any consequences. I went on Twitter and said, ‘O.K., I’m going to play for you guys tonight at my place.’ After having tweeted that, I realized, Hang on—I’ve never streamed anything, I know shit about streaming, I don’t even know if Twitter allows thirty minutes of streaming, I have no camera stand. I had a total panic. I was sending messages to friends: ‘Do you know how streaming works?’ And this tweet was already out there. It was a catastrophe. I ran to the last electronics store that was still open, and got some stuff for twenty-four euros.”

I saw Levit’s tweet and tuned in. The setting was familiar, because I had met with him there the previous summer. He lives in a spacious, airy, sparely decorated apartment in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, with plate-glass windows overlooking a park. His instrument is a 1923 Steinway B that once belonged to the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. At 7 p.m., Levit pressed the Record button on his smartphone and trotted in front of his newly acquired home-Webcasting equipment, dressed casually in a black-and-gray pullover shirt and black pants. He gave a brief introduction, in German and English: “It’s a sad time, it’s a weird time, but acting is better than doing nothing. Let’s bring the house concert into the twenty-first century.” He then tore into Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, in a fashion typical of him—precipitate, purposeful, intricately nuanced. It was an imposing structure aglow with feeling.

Other pianists of Levit’s generation may have achieved wider mass-market fame—Lang Lang and Yuja Wang come first to mind—but none have comparable stature as a cultural or even a political figure. In German-speaking countries, Levit is a familiar face not only to classical-music fans but also to a broader population that shares his leftist, internationalist world view. He has appeared on mainstream German TV shows; participated in political panel discussions; and attended the annual gathering of the Green Party, playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. It was no surprise that Levit’s inaugural live stream attracted attention, though I was taken aback when the number of viewers climbed into the tens of thousands.

In the following weeks, as Levit kept Webcasting each night, a convivial online community formed around him on Twitter and its Periscope app—a self-described “Igor Familie.” Periscope includes a chat-room sidebar, with hearts floating up the screen like bubbles. Most comments were in German, but there were salutations from Nairobi, Tokyo, and Montevideo. Some viewers made musicological points—“New harmonic structures become transparent,” one person wrote when Levit tackled Brahms’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor—while others discussed the pianist’s facial hair, T-shirts, and footwear. “Hard rock fan from Düsseldorf is thrilled,” one commenter said. Levit delivered short talks, usually focussed on the music at hand. He never spoke at the end, though emotion sometimes surfaced. Once, halfway through Schubert’s sublime Sonata in B-flat, he buried his head in his hands, hiding tears; he did the same after Morton Feldman’s solitary, unearthly “Palais de Mari.”

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(Harkup’s excerpt appeared in Shakespeare & Beyond, 5/5; via Pam Green.)

View book on Amazon.

What would it have been like to live through the plague outbreaks of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? And what insight does that give us into the mentions of plague in Shakespeare’s plays?

Kathryn Harkup has looked at the science behind literature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the mystery novels of Agatha Christie, and she turns her attention now to Shakespeare with a new book, Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts. In it, she devotes a chapter to the plague, excerpted here.

There were at least five major outbreaks of bubonic plague in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime and though these outbreaks didn’t reach the devastation of the Black Death, they all had a major impact on the population, particularly in towns and more populated areas. Wealthier Londoners often took Chaucer’s advice, written during the Black Death, to ‘run fast and run far’. At that time there were few uninfected corners of Europe that you could run to. At least a quarter of Europe’s 75 million population died in the mid-fourteenth century.1 The plagues of the Renaissance were a different matter. Escaping the city during the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century outbreaks would have significantly improved a person’s chances of survival. Shakespeare was fortunate to have a house and family in Stratford that he could retreat to when plague appeared in London.

There was some recognition that plague was contagious, even if the mechanism was far from understood. Some suspected it was brought to London by foreigners. Others tried to blame outbreaks on an unusual alignment of the planets. The 1593 plague was blamed on the position of Saturn in the night sky ‘passing through the uttermost parts of Cancer and the beginning of Leo’ as it had done 30 years earlier when there had been another terrible outbreak. Shakespeare was certainly aware of the planetary theory, as in Timon of Athens the playwright has Timon urge Alcibiades to take revenge on Athens: ‘Be as a planetary plague, when Jove / Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison / In the sick air’.

The mention of vice in the same passage acknowledges that many saw plague as punishment from God. It was just reward for the licentious living for which city dwellers were renowned. This position was difficult to maintain when priests, expected to visit the sick and dying and therefore especially susceptible to infection, suffered particularly high mortality rates from the disease. What was clear was that when one person died of plague others closely associated with the sick often became ill themselves.

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