Category Archives: History


(Lauren Shook’s article appeared in Shakespeare and Beyond, 1/7; via Pam Green.)

In 1608, famine plagued England. Preachers responded with sermons begging the gentry to show compassion for the poor, King James I responded with royal proclamations against grain hoarding, and Shakespeare responded with Coriolanus, a Roman revenge-tragedy.

Likely composed in 1608 and staged c. 1609-1610, Coriolanus opens with starving citizens storming the stage with rakes, pikes, and clubs, demanding that the Roman government release corn (a catch-all term for grain) to them. Within the first 20 lines, the citizens plan to “kill” Caius Martius, the play’s hero, whom they deem the “chief enemy to the people.” They believe Martius has been hoarding corn and that killing him would secure “corn at [their] own price” (1.1.7-11). The citizens also target the Roman government. They believe that their “leanness,” “misery,” and “sufferance” benefits both Martius and the Roman elite. “Let us revenge this,” exclaims one citizen, “with our pikes ere we become rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge” (1.1.19-24). The citizens are a dangerous bunch. For an early modern audience, revolt against the government and threatened murder of Rome’s famed warrior Martius are treasonous acts.

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As East Germany crumbled in 1989, actors were centre stage. Andrew Dickson discovers how had theatre had survived under communist rule, with its censors and secret police spies. Focusing in particular on the playwright Heiner Mueller he explores the brilliant creativity and unique relationship with audiences that made theatre so important. But there were compromises and setbacks too. And after the end of communism actors and writers struggled for relevance – though Mueller’s work on global themes is enjoying a revival today.

Producer: Chris Bowlby

Editor: Penny Murphy



(Derek O’Connor’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 9/23.)

Derek O’Connor remembers the actor, who was a giant of Irish theatre

I never saw Diego Maradona play football. I never saw Nijinsky dance. And I never saw Miles Davis play the horn.

But baby, I saw Donal McCann act.

So, you know what? Fundamentally, I’m good.

I’m not quite sure that they make actors like Donal McCann any more. I’m not quite sure that they ever did. Twenty years after his passing, McCann is far from forgotten. Talk to anyone with a passing knowledge of Irish theatre, and chances are that they’ll acknowledge him as a giant, one of the greats, a master of the form.

But then talk to someone who witnessed him ply his trade – scratch that, his vocation – and the tone changes to one of reverence, of something resembling awe, a single question left unspoken . . . How did he do that?

I came to the party late. The first time I saw McCann onstage was in a Gate Theatre production of Juno And The Paycock, playing Seán O’Casey’s poetic wastrel Captain Boyle. Little more than a decade later, he would be dead at the ridiculously early age of 56, from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t see him on purpose, either – I was on a school trip. Juno was (as it remains now) on the Leaving Certificate curriculum. An enthusiastic English teacher – one Declan Fitzpatrick – insisted we experienced the work onstage.

Captain Boyle is one of the great archetypes, in that the character so exquisitely personifies a particular strain of Irish male, as prevalent now as ever. With a pitch-perfect wingman in the shape of John Kavanagh’s wired and wiry Joxer Daly, McCann’s Boyle was both pantomime turn and Falstaffian tragedy, sometimes within the same scene, sometimes within the same sentence. I had never – and have never since – seen anyone so utterly alive on the stage. How did he do that?

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Photo: The Irish Times


(from the Guardian, 9/20/19.)

20 September 1960 Promoting her latest play, The Lion in Love, Delaney says ‘I would rather write a terrible play than a mediocre one’

Surrounded by a clutch of journalists and looking, in a grubby white mackintosh and a hastily tied scarf, her usual determinedly unfashionable self, Shelagh Delaney was busily parrying questions about her love life and her taste in clothes.

A press conference to herald the Manchester opening of her latest play, The Lion in Love, had produced a large attendance, for to journalists Shelagh Delaney is the nearest thing to a homegrown, contemporary Garbo.

She has not, apart from the tall austerity of her height, anything like the looks but she has the same talent for creating, almost in spite of herself, racy headlines. The proscenium arch of the Palace Theatre had, for instance, chosen to collapse on the arrival of her already controversial play and it was announced that the Manchester opening would be delayed for a day.

In between denying that she was engaged to be married and defending her taste in clothes, she found some time to talk about the theatre. She does so in a modest, down-to-earth way and values herself in a different sort of language from the gossip columnists’ now hackneyed line about the “slum girl from Salford who has arrived in the West End.”

Photograph: Tom Stuttard/The Guardian

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Listen on BBC Radio 3  

Lauren Elkin, Lisa Appignanesi and biographer Ben Moser debate Susan Sontag’s life and ideas with presenter Laurence Scott, focusing in on her 1966 essay collection, which argued for a new way of approaching art and culture. Ben Moser is the author of Sontag: Her life and work which is out now. Lauren Elkin teaches at the University of Liverpool and is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City. She is researching Sontag’s time in Sarajevo in 1993 when she staged Waiting for Godot during the Siege following the declaration of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence from Yugoslavia. Lisa Appignanesi is a Visiting Professor in the Department of English at King’s College London and Chair of the Royal Society of Literature Council . Her books include Everday Madness, Simone De Beauvoir, Freud’s Women. You can hear more from Lisa including her BBC Radio 3 interview with Susan Sontag if you search for the Sunday Feature

Afterwords: Susan Sontag

Producer: Luke Mulhall



(Rosalyn Sulcas’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/13; via Pam Green.)  

The Théâtre du Châtelet is reopening after a two-and-a-half-year makeover, with a new artistic director and an inclusive new mission.

PARIS — The workmen were everywhere. Backstage and onstage, they were hammering, banging, gluing, carrying, laying tarpaulin, shimmying up ladders and shouting, “Attention!”

In the auditorium, a team checked the red velvet seats, making sure that each was in the correct position. On the stage, performers rehearsed, apparently oblivious to the controlled chaos all around.

“Parade,” a ballet whose original production was a collaboration between Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, premiered at the Châtelet in 1917.CreditElliott Verdier for The New York Times

It was a week before the scheduled opening, on Friday, of the Théâtre du Châtelet, one of Paris’s most famous stages, which has been closed for a two-and-a-half year, $34.7 million renovation. In one of the lobbies, a large table had been set up for a group of inspectors who had spent the morning examining every aspect of the renovation. They were deciding whether to give formal permission for the theater to open.

“It’s all going to be fine,” said Ruth Mackenzie, the Châtelet’s artistic director. “That’s what I keep telling everyone.” (She was proved right; the commission pronounced a “favorable verdict” at the end of the day.)

Ms. Mackenzie, 62, is small, forthright and cheerful. When asked about her, everyone said the same thing: She is a powerhouse who doesn’t take no for an answer.

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Photo: The New York Times




Morris Ernst (second from left) defending Gustave Flaubert’s November in court against charges of obscenity, New York City, 1935

(Chabon’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 9/26 issue)

 This essay will appear in somewhat different form in Fight of the Century, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, to be published by Simon and Schuster in 2020 to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union.

It was a setup: a stratagem worthy of wily Ulysses himself.

The conspirators were Bennett Cerf, publisher and cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, general counsel of the ACLU. The target was United States anti-obscenity law. The bait was a single copy of an English-language novel, printed in Dijon by Frenchmen who could not understand a word of it, bound in bright blue boards, and sold mail-order by the celebrated Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company. When Cerf and Ernst first began to conspire in 1931, the novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was the most notorious book in the world.

“It is,” the editor of the London Sunday Express had written nine years earlier, sounding like H.P. Lovecraft describing Necronomicon:

the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature….All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words. And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the name of Christ—blasphemies hitherto associated with the most degraded orgies of Satanism and the Black Mass.

Regarded as a masterpiece by contemporary writers such as T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, celebrated for being as difficult to read as to obtain, Ulysses had been shocking the sensibilities of critics, censors, and readers from the moment it began to see print between 1918 and 1920, when four chapters were abortively serialized in the pages of a New York quarterly called The Little Review. Even sophisticated readers often found themselves recoiling in Lovecraftian dread from contact with its pages. “I can’t get over the feeling,” wrote Katherine Mansfield, “of wet linoleum and unemptied pails and far worse horrors in the house of [Joyce’s] mind.” Encyclopedic in its use of detail and allusion, orchestral in its multiplicity of voices and rhetorical strategies, virtuosic in its technique, Ulysses was a thoroughly modernist production, exhibiting—sometimes within a single chapter or a single paragraph—the vandalistic glee of Futurism, the decentered subjectivity of Cubism, the absurdist blasphemies and pranks of Dadaism, and Surrealism’s penchant for finding the mythic in the ordinary and the primitive in the low dives and nighttowns of the City.

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(Eric Grode’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/11; via Pam Green.)

It often seems like safety first on Broadway, but the commercial stage has historically been home to shows that push buttons — and ring alarms.

The marketing campaign for the Broadway-bound “Slave Play” is following the time-honored tradition of leaning into its controversy, with pull quotes like “Gaudily transgressive” and “Gruesomely sexy.” Assuming the transgressions and sexiness carry through to the Golden Theater, “Slave Play” will find itself part of a rich history of productions — many of them transfers from the more licentious lands of Off Broadway and London — that shocked audience members upon opening on Broadway.

To this day, classics like “Lysistrata,” “Tartuffe” and (as any Fox News viewer can attest) “Julius Caesar” can raise hackles centuries later. Here are several more plays that caused controversy — and frequently made sure to point that out in their ad campaigns.

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Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times



(Alison Flood’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/16.)

Hailed as one of the most significant archival discoveries of modern times, text seems to show the Paradise Lost poet making careful annotations on his edition of Shakespeare’s plays

Almost 400 years after the first folio of Shakespeare was published in 1623, scholars believe they have identified the early owner of one copy of the text, who made hundreds of insightful annotations throughout: John Milton.

The astonishing find, which academics say could be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times, was made by Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren when he was reading an article about the anonymous annotator by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Bourne’s study of this copy, which has been housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, dated the annotator to the mid-17th century, finding them alive to “the sense, accuracy, and interpretative possibility of the dialogue”. She also provided many images of the handwritten notes, which struck Scott-Warren as looking oddly similar to Milton’s hand.

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Fiona Shaw, BAFTA award-winning star of Killing Eve, joins Matthew Parris to explore the life of one of history’s most remarkable actresses whose name has slipped from public memory. She inspired Stanislavski’s ‘method’, changed Chekhov’s mind about acting, and took Chaplin’s breath away – the nineteenth-century performer, Eleonora Duse. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, professor of English and Theatre Studies at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps Fiona and Matthew uncover the drama of Duse’s life, both on and off the stage. Producer: Camellia Sinclair.