Category Archives: History

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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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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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 8 – ‘SAINT’S DAY’ (1951) BY JOHN WHITING ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/20;  photo: Pioneer … John Whiting, right, with CE Webber and Enid Bagnold at the Arts theatre in 1951. Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images.)

The critics howled derisively but this challenging story of the violence lurking beneath

 Where does it all begin? Is there a moment that marks a radical shift in style and tone in postwar drama? The textbooks tell us that the London premieres of Waiting for Godot (1955) and Look Back in Anger (1956) are pivotal landmarks. I would argue, however, that John Whiting’s Saint’s Day (1951) erected a decisive signpost to the future. Critically trashed in its day and rarely seen since, it contains themes and ideas that were to become staples of modern drama.

The play’s history is extraordinary. It won a new play competition, organised by Alec Clunes at London’s prestigious Arts theatre, to celebrate the Festival of Britain. Staged at the Arts in September 1951, it was greeted with the howls of execration that theatre critics traditionally reserve for anything truly innovative. “Of a badness that must be called indescribable,” thundered the Times. That same paper published a letter from leading theatrical lights – including Peter Brook, Tyrone Guthrie, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud – that passionately defended the play. But the damage was done and although Whiting went on to write other plays, including Marching Song and The Devils, he never acquired a secure foothold in British theatre.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 7 – ‘SKYVERS’ (1963) BY BARRY RECKORD ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/12;  Riveting drama … from left, David Hemmings, Chloe Ashcroft and Phillip Martin in Skyvers at the Royal Court. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock.)

Reckord’s unflinchingly honest social document pinned down the flaws in a UK education system that consigned an underclass to a dead-end future

Why are there so few good plays about school life? A handful have achieved iconic status. Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004) was once voted the nation’s favourite play. Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (1948) is a moving study of despised teacher. Nigel Williams’s Class Enemy (1978) captures the anarchy of an inner-city school. But, good as Williams’s play is, it is more than matched by Barry Reckord’s Skyvers (1963). The piece had a fierce champion in the late Pam Brighton, who directed a superb revival in 1971, but it remains curiously little-known.

Reckord’s story is significant. Born in Jamaica, he studied at Cambridge, became a teacher and then a full-time writer who, as Yvonne Brewster has said, “laid a foundation for later emerging Caribbean playwrights such as Mustapha Matura, Michael Abbensetts and Alfred Fagon”. All found a home at the Royal Court in the 60s and 70s, but it was Reckord who paved the way.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 6 – ‘OCCUPATIONS’ (1970) BY TREVOR GRIFFITHS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/5,)

The collapse of the 1968 protests left this incisive political dramatist searching for answers – and his response delved brilliantly into the dilemmas of revolution

Aside from Comedians (1975), the work of Trevor Griffiths is shockingly neglected. Yet he is one of the most questioning, intelligent political dramatists Britain has ever produced. Why does no one revive The Party (1973) which marked Olivier’s farewell to the stage? Why does the BBC, as we celebrate the NHS, not reshow Griffiths’ TV play about Aneurin Bevan, Food for Ravens (1997)? Above all – assuming theatre ever returns to something like normality – how about re-examining Occupations, which is a genuine modern classic?

First seen at the Manchester Stables in 1970, Occupations was given a superb Buzz Goodbody production, starring Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley, the following year by the RSC. Like a lot of Griffiths’ early work, the play was a response to the failure of the 1968 revolution in France. But, rather than deal directly with recent events, Griffiths finds what he calls a “historical correlative” in the abortive socialist uprising in Italy in 1920. We see Christo Kabak, a Bulgarian communist and representative of the Third International, arriving in Turin to await, and even influence, political events.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 5 – ‘OWNERS’ (1972) BY CARYL CHURCHILL ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/28; photo: Urge for ownership … David Swift and Jill Bennett starred in Owners at the Royal Court. Photograph: Frank Barratt/Getty Images.)

The writer unleashed her gift for black comedy to excoriate British attitudes to property and possessions in this sprightly drama

Caryl Churchill is rightly admired for many qualities: her formal inventiveness, her questing intelligence, her dystopian vision of everything from cloning to climate catastrophe. But she has one gift that is rarely discussed: her wild humour. It is there in the sudden eruption of a 10-foot bird into the family brouhaha in Blue Heart (1997) and in the backyard banter in the more recent Escaped Alone (2016). It is also vividly present in one of her earliest stage plays, Owners. Given that the piece had a brief run at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972 and, as far as I know, only one revival, it is one of Churchill’s least-known works yet cries out to be rediscovered.

On the surface, it sounds bleak. It is about the urge for ownership and shows Marion, a rampant property developer, eating up everything around her: she’s not only prepared to turf two old friends, Alec and Lisa, out of their top-floor flat but seeks to claim the passive Alec as a lover and forcibly adopts the couple’s new baby in exchange for cash. The play has a lot to say about landlords and tenants and is full of intimations of Churchill’s later work. The English belief in the sanctity of property is central to the historical documentary, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976). When the go-getting Marion states her philosophy as “be clean, be quick, be top, be best” you also hear the voice of the Thatcherite Marlene in Top Girls (1982).

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 4 – ‘BLOODY POETRY’ (1984) BY HOWARD BRENTON ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/22.)

This magnificently honest play about the Shelleys and Byron’s summer of sexual experimentation raises difficult questions about the cost of utopian aspirations

Howard Brenton’s output is massive. I reckon there must be more than 50 plays ranging from early, disruptive pieces including Revenge and Christie in Love (both 1969) to mature historical studies such as 55 Days (2012), about the trial and execution of Charles I, and Drawing the Line (2013), charting the arbitrary partition of India. But if I had to pick out one work that deserves regular revival, it would be Bloody Poetry which deals with a utopian experiment in living, and describes both its aspirations and resulting angst with magnificent honesty.

Brenton leans heavily on Richard Holmes’s book Shelley: The Pursuit for his story. He shows the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, meeting up with Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. The plan, in Byron’s words, is that “we will all go communist” which, in reality, means a summer of free love, shared creativity, book talk and party games: the most significant of these being a shadow-play in which the group enact the parable of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In the more sombre second half, we see the aftermath of the experiment: Shelley, forever haunted by the ghost of his first wife, pens some of his greatest poetry and Mary writes Frankenstein yet love is betrayed, lives break up, children die. Was it all worth it?

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 3 – ‘THE COUP’ (1991) BY MUSTAPHA MATURA ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/15; The Coup, with Tony Armatrading as Black Lightning. Photograph: Ivan Kyncl/ArenaPAL.)

A Caribbean-set ‘play of revolutionary dreams’ acquires a chilling new relevance when protests confront the legacy of colonialism

 

Although I admired its ambition, I was sceptical about The Coup’s structure when I reviewed it at the National’s Cottesloe theatre (as it then was) in 1991. Looking at the play again, in the light of current events, has given me a whole new perspective.

Mustapha Matura, who died last year, once said that his constant aim was “to examine the effects of colonialism, political and psychological, on the colonisers and the colonised”. The Coup, which deals with a fictional revolution in Matura’s native Trinidad and Tobago, has suddenly acquired a new and chilling relevance.

The two islands have always been at the mercy of foreign invaders. Columbus staked a claim to Trinidad in 1498 and General Abercromby acquired it by force for the British in 1797. Tobago, having first been captured by the French, also passed into British hands before the islands eventually achieved independence in 1962. Given such a past, it is hardly surprising that nationhood came to seem a chimerical concept.

In Matura’s play we see an imprisoned Trinidadian president seeking to regain power by playing off the rival factions during a military uprising. But, although the play has scenes of wild farce, it is clear what Matura’s real target is: the brutal legacy of colonialism, which the president himself defines as “a loss of our sense of history”.

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