Category Archives: History


(Donna Ferguson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/25; Photo: JM Barrie, who shared a deep friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images; via Pam Green.)

Newly unearthed correspondence shows deep respect between Peter Pan and Treasure Island authors, who never met

They are two of the greatest writers in history and they were also the greatest of friends. But they never met, and the importance and intensity of their relationship has never before been fully understood.

Now, the lost letters of JM Barrie to Robert Louis Stevenson – missing for over a century – have been found in a cardboard box in a library archive and will be published for the first time in a forthcoming book. The letters reveal how ardently the young Barrie both adored and admired Stevenson, who was an older and more established writer. A year into their friendship, which was initiated by Stevenson, Barrie wrote to him: “To be blunt I have discovered (have suspected it for some time) that I love you, and if you had been a woman…” He leaves the sentence unfinished.

He also imagines in the letters that he and Stevenson are related and were descended from the same Scottish family, a fantasy that allows him to open up to the older man about the intimacies of his family life and his close relationship with his mother.

Treasure Island had already been published when the two authors began corresponding in 1892; 12 years later, Barrie went on to write his own masterpiece, Peter Pan, about a dangerous amputated pirate, a young boy and a journey to a far-off fantasy island.

He repeatedly fantasises in his letters about meeting Stevenson, who had left their native Scotland in 1879 and was living in Samoa to improve his health. In one letter, Barrie even writes a funny, self-deprecating playlet – never seen before – in which he imagines himself visiting Stevenson’s 314-acre estate, and Stevenson “glumly” saying to his wife about Barrie: “Perhaps he will improve after he has rested a bit.”

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(Andrew Kleidon’s article appeared in the Door County Pulse,  10/23; Photo of Hallie Flanagan, Door County Post. )

A Quick and Decisive Blow to Progressive Theater

In fewer than three years, the Federal Theatre Project’s (FTP) Living Newspaper and Negro Theatre Units were making great strides in creating new work for a post-Great Depression nation that promoted social progress and racial equality, but they were not the project’s only branches to produce compelling theater for new audiences. 

When Hallie Flanagan was appointed to run the FTP, she set out to create a program with integrity. In producing new theatrical work for her audiences, many of which had never seen live theater before, it made sense to focus on creating high-quality experiences that spoke directly to those audiences. 

That approach included incorporating themes of social justice, desegregation, workers’ rights and housing reform. Flanagan was already known for being the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship and for creating Vassar College’s experimental theater program, so she was well versed in the potential of the art form to push societal change by speaking directly to the audience. 

In 1939, only four years after the FTP was established, Congress pulled funding from the program and put thousands of artists out of work nationwide after a series of hearings in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Citing material produced by the Living Newspaper project that promoted workers’ unions, as well as plays created by the Negro Theatre Unit that called for racial equality, the committee launched an investigation into the FTP on the grounds that communist sympathizers may have infiltrated it or that it may have been promoting socialist propaganda.

The FTP’s new works were not the only ones under fire by the committee. Close to 10 percent of all work produced by the project was cited as problematic, including classic pieces and works by Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw. The committee also deemed children’s theater productions unacceptable, including Revolt of the Beavers for its negative depiction of worker exploitation by anthropomorphized beavers. 

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These broad-brushstroke accusations against theatrical literature would perhaps seem more fitting a decade later – during Joseph McCarthy’s rise to prominence – but they offered an early glimpse at just how broad the definitions of communist behavior would eventually become.

Congress ultimately pivoted to a conclusion that the average American would not find theater to be a meaningful use of taxpayer dollars. That seems to be a hard line to argue, considering that FTP productions were wildly successful, especially in areas with first-time exposure to theater.

The very nature of being government funded allowed FTP productions to be available to audiences at a very low cost, and often free, which meant that entertainment and progressive messaging was available to the people who needed it most. By defunding the project, the government dealt a blow to both the economy and the social welfare of the country. 

Some of the oldest theater in the world was written as social commentary that poked holes in the status quo, so it’s hardly surprising that when theater artists have the basics they need to create productions without worrying about their success or failure, the work they produce will reflect their place in the social hierarchy. Hallie Flanagan argued on the committee floor that the work the Federal Theatre Program had created was as American as it could have been, and that the program’s messaging reflected democracy. 

“Our Federal Theatre,” she said, “born of an economic need, built by and for people who have faced terrific privation, cannot content itself with easy, pretty or insignificant plays … We have been given a chance to help change America at a time when 20 million unemployed Americans proved it needed changing. 

“And the theater, when it is any good, can change things … Don’t be afraid when people tell you this is a play of protest. Of course it’s protest – protest against dirt, disease, human misery … Here is one necessity for our theater – that it help reshape our American life.” 

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(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 10/15.)

Long before the Bolshoi was founded in Moscow, this leading Russian theater was a favorite with emperors and empresses, and then in later years, also with Soviet leaders.

1. Russia’s main imperial opera and ballet theater

Today, the honor of the best-known Russian theater probably belongs to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. However, long before it, by decree of Catherine the Great, the Imperial Theater of Russian Opera and Ballet was founded in St. Petersburg in 1783. Russia had theaters before Catherine, but it was she who created the Directorate of Imperial Theaters. The theater belonged to and was subordinate to the royal court and was funded from the royal purse. Its repertoire included Italian opera and chamber music, ballet and ballroom music, as well as French and Russian drama productions.

In 1802, the French choreographer Charles Didelot arrived in St. Petersburg and headed the ballet troupe of the imperial theaters. In 1847, the ballet troupe was joined by another French choreographer, Marius Petipa, who trained several generations of professional dancers in Russia and staged more than 40 ballets, turning Russian ballet into one of the world’s best.

2. At first, Mariinsky was the Bolshoi

The Bolshoi Kamenny (Big Stone) Theater in St. Petersburg that no longer exists

The history of the Mariinsky Theater began with the construction of the Bolshoi Kamenny (Big Stone) Theater in St. Petersburg in 1784. It was the first permanent theater in the Russian Empire and one of the largest theaters in Europe. Incidentally, its historical building was similar to the future building of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, which was built in the 1820s. The future Mariinsky Theater was based in the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater, until 1886 when a new building was constructed. The Bolshoi Kamenny Theater was then rebuilt and handed over to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which is still located there.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky's opera 'Eugene Onegin' premier, 1879

On the stage of the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater in St. Petersburg the Russian musical theater was born. In addition to French and Italian operas, it began to produce original Russian operas. That was where Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar and then Ruslan and Lyudmila had their premiere. That was also where Petipa’s innovative productions – Le CorsaireDon QuixoteLa Bayadere, and Giselle – were presented to the public for the first time. There, Petipa, having become friends with Pyotr Tchaikovsky, staged the legendary Sleeping BeautyThe Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

3. It changed its name several times

Maria Alexandrovna Empress of Russia

The theater got its current name in 1886, after it moved from the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater to another building, where it is located today. It was called “Mariinsky” in honor of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Alexander II, and who was a great admirer of the theater arts.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the theater was stripped of its historical name, since all references to the tsarist heritage were being erased. In 1935, the theater was named after a revolutionary leader, Sergei Kirov, and became known as the Kirov Theater.

At the behest of its new artistic director, Valery Gergiev, after the collapse of the USSR the theatre’s historical name, Mariinsky, was restored in 1992.

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(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 10/5.

(Public Domain; Tretyakov Gallery; Anefo / Croes, R.C. (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Poetry is usually lost in translation, especially when written in Russian, which is a complicated language with its own rhythm and rhymes. Russians are not only a reading nation, however. We are also a poetic nation and any person you meet will know a dozen poems by heart. Here are great poets whose works Russians have grown up on.

1. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

We just couldn’t start with anyone else. “Pushkin is our everything,” Russians often say. He is without a doubt our main poet. During his relatively short life of 37 years (it’s common for Russian poets to die young), he created poetic works in all possible genres, and also wrote drama plays and a verse novel, Eugene Onegin, which has a unique ‘Onegin stanza’ with a strict inner order of rhythms and rhymes. It’s hard to find a topic that Pushkin would not dwell on through his poetry: from love and friendship, to freedom and loyalty to the state, and finally to a sense of art and life, and the very special feelings that a man feels as he gets older and his life is coming to an end. 

Must read Pushkin poems: 

  • I recall the wondrous moment
  • I built myself a monument, one not man-made
  • A letter of Tatyana to Onegin (From “Eugene Onegin”)

Read more about Alexander Pushkin here.

2. Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)


Lermontov lived just 27 years, and like Pushkin, he died after being injured in a duel. He first gained fame as well as official disgrace after blaming St. Petersburg high society for Pushkin’s death (The Poet’s dead! – a slave to honor -/ He fell, by rumor slandered). For this poem he was exiled to the Caucasus region. Lermontov is best known for his romanticism in poetry where he put his lyrical character in opposition to the rest of the world. The poet is also keen on the image of the Demon, a fallen angel who is alone against the universe. Inspired by the Caucasus and its legends, Lermontov wrote two brilliant long poems: Mtsyri and Demon. He is also an author of the frequently staged drama, The Masquerade, where a protagonist falls into insane jealousy and kills his innocent wife. 

Must read Lermontov poems: 

  • Death of the Poet
  • Borodino
  • I go out on the road alone…

Read more about Mikhail Lermontov here.

3. Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-1877)

In the history of Russian literature Nekrasov was first of all important as a reputable editor of the main literary magazines, Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland), where he published the best works from the most prominent writers of the era, including Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Goncharov and Ivan Turgenev. In his poetry, Nekrasov was first to uplift the ‘low’ peasant language, and was first to raise the issue of the serfs’ sufferings. His most famous work is a long epic poem, Who Is Happy in Russia?, where he tries to define and outline all of Russia’s problems and looks for people who live happily in Russia… Spoiler: they can’t be found. 

Must read Nekrasov poems: 

  • Who Is Happy in Russia?
  • Russian Women
  • Grandpa Mazai and the Hares 

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(from The New York Times, 9/21; Photo: The Forward;  via Pam Green.)

The actor recalls a chance encounter that led to a memorable performance.

Sept. 21, 2020

To the Editor:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and I shared a gondola in Venice during the 500th anniversary of the Ghetto in 2016. I was filming the “Merchant of Venice” segment of the PBS “Shakespeare Uncovered” series, and when her boat broke down, I invited her to share mine.

She stood no higher than my shoulder, which startled me, and even now in my memory, our first meeting is one of surprise, because her quiet, assured stillness projected something much bigger and stopped me cold. I imagine it affected everyone the same way; it was calming. Her bodyguard was just about twice her size, and my sense of him was that he was so proud to be her protector.

She and I sat next to each other in the ride to her hotel, and I invited her to act with me in the trial scene from “The Merchant of Venice”; I’d been scheduled to appear in a mock-trial appeal of Shylock’s verdict. She instantly agreed, and it’s on tape somewhere.

After we did the Shakespeare scene, there was an imaginary argument of Shylock’s appeal between real-life international lawyers and scholars, with Ruth as chief justice. They then retired to chambers for half an hour, and when they returned, Chief Justice Ginsburg found for Shylock on several grounds, one of which was that counsel for the defense, Portia, did not have a license to practice law, but also that Shylock, if he had known of the deadly consequences of his actions, would have never insisted on the pound of flesh.

Further, if he had been aware and still insisted, then he was obviously mentally incompetent, therefore not responsible for his actions.

The simplicity, the logic, the clarity of her decision revealed the woman herself, her grace, her intellect and, most of all, her humanity. And now, of our great loss.

F. Murray Abraham
New York

(Read in The New York Times)



(Elif Batuman’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 9/1; photo: In Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” staged via Zoom by Theater of War Productions, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic.Photograph Courtesy Theater of War Productions.)

A theatre company has spent years bringing catharsis to the traumatized. In the coronavirus era, that’s all of us.

In Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” staged via Zoom by Theater of War Productions, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic.

“Children of Thebes, why are you here?” Oscar Isaac asked. His face filled the monitor on my dining table. (It was my partner’s turn to use the desk.) We were a couple of months into lockdown, just past seven in the evening, and a few straggling cheers for essential workers came in through the window. Isaac was looking smoldery with a quarantine beard, a gold chain, an Airpod, and a black T-shirt. His display name was set to “Oedipus.”

Isaac was one of several famous actors performing Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” from their homes, in the first virtual performance by Theater of War Productions: a group that got its start in 2008, staging Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for U.S. military audiences and, beginning in 2009, on military installations around the world, including in Kuwait, Qatar, and Guantánamo Bay, with a focus on combat trauma. After each dramatic reading, a panel made up of people in active service, veterans, military spouses, and/or psychiatrists would describe how the play resonated with their experiences of war, before opening up the discussion to the audience. Since its founding, Theater of War Productions has addressed different kinds of trauma. It has produced Euripides’ “The Bacchae” in rural communities affected by the opioid crisis, “The Madness of Heracles” in neighborhoods afflicted by gun violence and gang wars, and Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” in prisons. “Antigone in Ferguson,” which focusses on crises between communities and law enforcement, was motivated by an analogy between Oedipus’ son’s unburied body and that of Michael Brown, left on the street for roughly four hours after Brown was killed by police; it was originally performed at Michael Brown’s high school.

Now, with trauma roving the globe more contagiously than ever, Theater of War Productions had traded its site-specific approach for Zoom. The app was configured in a way I hadn’t seen before. There were no buttons to change between gallery and speaker view, which alternated seemingly by themselves. You were in a “meeting,” but one you were powerless to control, proceeding by itself, with the inexorability of fate. There was no way to view the other audience members, and not even the group’s founder and director, Bryan Doerries, knew how numerous they were. Later, Zoom told him that it had been fifteen thousand. This is roughly the seating capacity of the theatre of Dionysus, where “Oedipus the King” is believed to have premièred, around 429 B.C. Those viewers, like us, were in the middle of a pandemic: in their case, the Plague of Athens.

The original audience would have known Oedipus’ story from Greek mythology: how an oracle had predicted that Laius, the king of Thebes, would be killed by his own son, who would then sleep with his mother; how the queen, Jocasta, gave birth to a boy, and Laius pierced and bound the child’s ankles, and ordered a shepherd to leave him on a mountainside. The shepherd took pity on the maimed baby, Oedipus (“swollen foot”), and gave him to a Corinthian servant, who handed him off to the king and queen of Corinth, who raised him as their son. Years later, Oedipus killed Laius at a crossroads, without knowing who he was. Then he saved Thebes from a Sphinx, became the king of Thebes, had four children with Jocasta, and lived happily for many years.

That’s where Sophocles picks up the story. Everyone would have known where things were headed—the truth would come out, and Oedipus would blind himself—but not how they would get there. How Sophocles got there was by drawing on contemporary events, on something that was in everyone’s mind, though it doesn’t appear in the original myth: a plague.

In the opening scene, Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic. Oedipus’ subjects come to the palace, imploring him to save the city, describing the scene of pestilence and panic, the screaming and the corpses in the street. Something about the way Isaac voiced Oedipus’ response—“Children. I am sorry. I know”—made me feel a kind of longing. It was a degree of compassion conspicuous by its absence in the current Administration. I never think of myself as someone who wants or needs “leadership,” yet I found myself thinking, We would be better off with Oedipus. “I would be a weak leader if I did not follow the gods’ orders,” Isaac continued, subverting the masculine norm of never asking for advice. He had already sent for the best information out there, from the Delphic Oracle.

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(Yuras Karmanau’s article appeared in the Mercury News, 8/23; photo: Thousands of people gather for a protest at the Independence square in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged–AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky.)



Video shows armed Belarus president as protests roil capital

Thousands of people gather for a protest at the Independence square in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

MINSK, Belarus — More than 100,000 protesters demanding the resignation of Belarus’ authoritarian president rallied Sunday in a vast square in the capital and later marched through the city, keeping up the massive outburst of dissent that has shaken the country since a disputed presidential election two weeks ago.

Sunday’s demonstration overflowed Minsk’s sprawling 7-hectare (17-acre) Independence Square. There were no official figures on crowd size, but it appeared to be 150,000 people or more. The demonstrators then marched to another square about 2.5 kilometers (1 1/2 miles) away.

Protesters say the official Aug. 9 presidential election results that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in a landslide are fraudulent. The size and duration of the protests have been unprecedented for Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people that Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

Video from Belarus on Sunday showed the beleaguered president carrying a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest as he got off a helicopter that brought him to his working residence amid the 15th straight day of protests.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/16; Photo:  Pointed arguments and rounded characters … Polly Lister in Votes for Women at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, in 2018. Photograph: Mark Douet.)

Our series ends with a passionate play about gender politics and women’s rights that still rings true

When Elizabeth Robins’s play was first produced in 1907, it was billed as “A Dramatic Tract”. But that sells it short. The play offers a passionate argument for female suffrage but is much more than propaganda. It is a richly invigorating piece about the interaction of sex and politics – a theme pursued the same year by Harley Granville-Barker in Waste. But where his play was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, Votes for Women was successfully presented at the Court theatre in Sloane Square, London.

Robins herself is a fascinating figure. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1862, she moved to London in 1888 and became a pioneer on several fronts. She was a fierce champion of Ibsen, was the UK’s first Hedda Gabler and went on to appear in The Master Builder, Little Eyolf and John Gabriel Borkman, in which she played Ella Rentheim. Her friendships included George Bernard Shaw and Henry James – there’s a wonderful letter to her from the latter, written the night before he saw Borkman, saying “Go it, Ella!” As well as being an actor, playwright and novelist, Robins was a political activist and prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by the Pankhursts.

Robins’s belief in direct action is evident in Votes for Women. The first act is country-house comedy charting male condescension towards what was dubbed “the woman question”. But the vitality of a fiery feminist, Vida Levering, attracts the aristocratic Jean Dunbarton, who is engaged to a Unionist MP, Geoffrey Stonor. The real surprise comes in the middle act, which puts a Trafalgar Square suffragist rally on stage. Not only that: Jean, attending with Geoffrey, realises that her fiance was the man who once impregnated Vida and seemingly abandoned her. In the Ibsenite final act, Vida confronts him. If the play were an Edwardian melodrama, she would exact sexual revenge. Here she seeks something infinitely more practical.

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(James P. Pinkerton’s article appeared on Breitbart, 8/12; Photo: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress.)

Male Democrat presidential nominees don’t always do a good job of vetting their female vice presidential choices. Admittedly, there’s only been one such instance in the past, back in 1984, when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate—and she didn’t work out so well.

So to put that history in baseball terms, the Democrats’ historic record is no hits, one error—or .000.  

Today, of course, in 2020, Joe Biden has just picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, and so we’ll see how the Democrats do in their second outing with a lady at bat.

Yet in the meantime, we might gain some insight into the proper vetting of a running mate, or lack thereof, from a new book by John B. Roberts, Reagan’s Cowboys: Inside the 1984 Re-election Campaign’s Secret Operation Against Geraldine Ferraro. 

Roberts knows—because he was there. Beginning in the late 70s, Roberts had worked for Ronald Reagan; his immediate boss, however, was Lyn Nofziger, the hardboiled D-Day-veteran-turned-reporter who had served as press secretary in the Gipper’s very first campaign, his successful 1966 bid for the governorship of California.  

Roberts gets right to the point: “During the 1984 presidential campaign, I and a colleague were put in charge of a secret investigation of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate.” That colleague was Art Teele, Republican lawyer who had earlier served in Reagan’s sub-cabinet.   

Roberts continues, “This book is my political memoir of how the White House and Reagan-Bush ’84, the president’s reelection committee, handled the unprecedented challenge posed by a female vice-presidential contender.” And he adds, “The details of how our opposition research operation was run and why it was so effective have been kept secret for decades.” 

As Roberts relates, he was first persuaded not to reveal any of his activities at the request of Stuart K. Spencer, who had been Reagan’s top political adviser for nearly a quarter-century. And yet, Roberts adds, the recent flap over Christopher Steele, the peddler of the now-discredited “Russia dossier” on Donald Trump, got him thinking that people should have a better understanding of how opposition research should function in a campaign.  

Thirty-six years later, Roberts obviously believes that the details of his work—in contrast to the Steele dossier—can withstand scrutiny. The Steele document, which was so widely spread by an over-eager MSM in 2016-7, then provoked Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which haunted the Trump administration for more than two years. And yet, Roberts writes, the Steele dossier “is more appropriately thought of as a product of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.”  

How the dodgy Steele dossier metastasized into a run-amok inquiry will be the subject, of course, of many books. And yet in the meantime, we have Reagan’s Cowboys to show us how legitimate opposition research can be collected, assembled and utilized. So the Trump campaign might take note.  

For his part, Roberts was well-qualified for the role. He has, shall we say, hovered around the federal intelligence community for the entirety of his career, and so the ideas of discretion and compartmentalization came naturally to him; of all the people working on the Ferraro case, only he and Teele knew all the details. 

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/10; Billy Russell in The High Bid at the Mermaid theatre in 1967. Photograph: Tony Gibson/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock.)  

James’s rich dialogue and clashing-cultures theme make his country-house play worthy of a renewed offer

Henry James had a love-hate relationship with the theatre. He had boyhood dreams of becoming an actor, wrote first-rate dramatic criticism and aspired to be as successful a playwright as novelist. But his hopes were shattered at the first night in 1895 of his play Guy Domville, which was roundly booed by the gallery. I would still argue that he was a natural dramatist and that, among his later works, The High Bid eminently deserves revival.

The play had a tortuous history. It began as a one-act piece, Summersoft, created for Ellen Terry but never staged. In 1898, James turned it into a short story, Covering End. That came to the attention of the actor-manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who commissioned James to rewrite it as a three-act play. Driven by what he called “the lust of a little possible gold”, James complied, but the loot was not forthcoming. After its premiere at the Edinburgh Lyceum in 1908 and five matinee performances in London, the play quietly expired until it was successfully revived by Bernard Miles at the Mermaid in 1967 and, less happily, in the West End in 1970 with Eartha Kitt in the key role of an American widow, Mrs Gracedew, in love with the English past.

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