Category Archives: History

WHEN THE WRITERS TOOK POWER: DREAMS OF UTOPIA BEFORE THE NAZI NIGHTMARE ·

 

(William Cook’s article appeared in the Spectator, 11/15.)

Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918 by Volker Weidermann reviewed

Today Munich is a prosperous and peaceful place — Germany’s most affluent, attractive city. Wandering its leafy avenues, lined with handsome apartments and shiny new BMWs, it’s hard to picture anything remotely revolutionary happening here. However, exactly 100 years ago this cosy bastion of conservatism was overrun by one of Europe’s most unlikely revolutions, led by an idealistic theatre critic called Kurt Eisner. For a British equivalent, imagine a socialist insurgency led by Kenneth Tynan. Of course, like all well-intentioned revolutions, it was doomed to fail.

For several chaotic months, Eisner’s Free State of Bavaria teetered between tragedy and farce, before succumbing to a vicious counter-revolution led by the Freikorps, the violent forerunners of Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts. Yet while Hitler’s unsuccessful Munich Putsch has become a staple of school history books, Eisner’s (briefly) successful power grab has been virtually forgotten. Volker Weidermann’s dramatic book brings the turbulent events — and, above all, the frenzied atmosphere — of that bizarre interregnum back to life.

Thankfully for the general reader, Weidermann is a journalist rather than an academic, and so this is a compact and colorful account, with the breathless pace of war reporting rather than the ponderous, long-winded prose one usually associates with German history books by German historians. Many of the proponents wrote extensively and eloquently about their experiences, and Weidermann draws heavily on these first-hand accounts to great effect. By favoring impressionistic reportage over background detail, his narrative is sometimes a bit confusing, but it gives the reader a vivid sense of what it actually felt like to live through this exhilarating and terrifying time.

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FINTAN O’TOOLE: TESTING PATERNITY–COLM TÓIBÍN ON THE FATHERS THAT SHAPED WILDE, JOYCE AND YEATS ·

(O’Toole’ s article appeared in The New Statesman, 10/24.)

How the complicated relationships between three writers and their fathers left its mark on Irish literature.

“All women become like their mothers,” says Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. “That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” Left hanging there, of course, is the implication that the son’s tragedy is that he becomes like his father instead. In Oscar Wilde’s own case, that might not have been such a terrible thing, at least for his creative productivity. Colm Tóibín’s sparkling little book on Sir William Wilde, WB Yeats’s father John and James Joyce’s father John Stanislaus, seems originally to have been called “Prodigal Fathers” – the phantom title appears on the inside flap of the cover. It may have been dropped because of Sir William, for whom the word – with its implications of wasted talent – is a poor fit. But it certainly works for John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. And yet the joy of Tóibín’s erudite, subtle, witty and often deeply moving biographical essays is that one generation’s paternal prodigality can become the next generation’s powerhouse of neurotic energy.

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EDITH WHARTON: ‘THE SHADOW OF A DOUBT’ (HER NEWLY DISCOVERED PLAY–LISTEN NOW ON BBC RADIO 3) ·

Listen  

World premiere of a newly discovered play by Edith Wharton from 1901, starring Phoebe Fox, Francesca Annis, Paul Ready, David Horovitch and Don Gilet.

Introduced by Laura Rattray, Reader in American Studies, University of Glasgow
Adapted for radio by Melissa Murray
Directed by Emma Harding

Long before she achieved fame with her novel, ‘The Age of Innocence’, Edith Wharton wrote a number of plays. But they were all believed lost until two academics, Laura Rattray and Mary Chinery, discovered the complete manuscript of ‘The Shadow of a Doubt’ in 2017. Wharton’s play – which pivots on the issue of assisted suicide – was about to be staged in New York in early 1901, before the production was abandoned for unknown reasons.

Kate, a former nurse, has recently married above her class to John Derwent, whose first wife Kate had nursed following an horrific accident. But others are suspicious of Kate’s social ascent. And others have knowledge that could destroy her.

Kate Derwent…..Phoebe Fox
John Derwent…..Paul Ready
Sylvia Derwent…..Rosie Boore
Lord Osterleigh…..David Horovitch
Lady Uske…..Francesca Annis
Dr Carruthers…..Don Gilet
Clodagh Nevil…..Alexandra Constantinidi
Bobby Mazaret…..Cameron Percival
Footman…..Lewis Bray
Mrs Fullerton…..Emma Handy

Photo: WBUR

GETTING WILDE IN AMERICA: OSCAR WILDE’S SEARCH FOR FAME AND HIMSELF ·

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, poet and wit. Original Publication: People Disc – HL0151 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Jeffrey Meyers’s article appeared in the Spectator, 10/23.)

In January 1882, a still little known 27-year-old called Oscar Wilde began his year-long, coast-to-coast, 15,000-mile grueling lecture tour throughout America. The ostensible purpose was to publicise the US tour of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, whose precious aesthete Bunthorne — ‘what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!’ — was partly based on Wilde. The real motive was to advertise himself and become a celebrity while searching for his true sexual identity.

Victorian men had to hide their homosexuality, but Wilde found a way to flaunt his real feelings. Wearing a theatrical costume while behaving outrageously on stage, he used his ambiguous sexuality to provide entertainment. Marriage in 1884 and two sons with sissy names (Cyril and Vyvyan) as well as male lovers (Robbie Ross in 1886 and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891) were still in the future. Wilde did not marry to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. He fell in love with an attractive woman, but discovered that his deepest erotic yearnings were for men.

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HAROLD PINTER ON POLITICAL DRAMA: ‘ALL I’M DOING IS USING MY IMAGINATION’ ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/30/01.)

Pinter’s political plays tell the world things it would prefer to forget about the prevalence of torture and tyranny. Michael Billington meets him as he prepares to play a sadistic interrogator in One For the Road

What exactly is political theatre? It can be a means of debating public issues, as in the case of David Hare and David Edgar. It can be a source of information, as with the Tricycle’s docudramas including, unforgettably, The Colour of Justice. But it can also, as Harold Pinter has shown, be a means of creating resonant images of suffering; of checking our tendency, in Pinter’s phrase, “to shovel the shit under the carpet” when it comes to the abuse of human rights.

Pinter’s political plays are enjoying a sudden revival. Mountain Language and Ashes to Ashes are showing at the Royal Court. Pinter is at the New Ambassadors next week playing Nicolas, a brutal government interrogator, in One For the Road. All three shows then head for New York’s Lincoln Center as part of a two-week Pinter festival, one that includes the Dublin Gate’s productions of The Homecoming, Landscape, and A Kind of Alaska, Pinter’s own Almeida versions of Celebration and The Room, and a rare revival of Monologue.

When you consider that in October Pinter will direct No Man’s Land at the National with Corin Redgrave and John Wood, that he’s written a film version of King Lear, which Tim Roth hopes to direct, is the subject of a BBC Arena profile and next spring picks up the European Theatre Prize in Taormina, it’s clear that, at 70, he’s not exactly subsiding into slippered serenity.

But, despite the punishing schedule, when I meet Pinter for an early evening tipple in his Holland Park study, he seems perfectly relaxed. Only the well-thumbed copy of One For the Road on his drinks table reveals the actor still anxiously getting to grips with his lines: Pinter wryly admits that just because he wrote them, it doesn’t mean he automatically knows them. But although this 1984 play about interrogation and torture is produced worldwide, doesn’t it pose an aesthetic problem? If we accept from the outset that torture is evil, doesn’t that kill the dramatic tension?

“I agree,” says Pinter, “it’s often difficult to make political drama dramatic. I believe that Nicolas in One For the Road should be, as it were, hung, drawn and quartered. Equally, the system of linguistic censorship I’m writing about in Mountain Language is an act of palpable oppression. I can’t find a way of apologising for either the man or the system. I can only hope to describe what happens accurately. But where Mountain Language is a series of brutal images, One For the Road is, I think, more complex. When I get up on that stage, I won’t be acting a monster, although he is certainly monstrous – but a man. Nicolas is a desperate man who seeks validation from his male victim, talks about his love of God, country and nature, and is always trying to find a philosophical basis for his actions.

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Photo: Blouin Artinfo

IS SHAKESPEARE HISTORY? THE PLANTAGENETS (BBC RADIO 4) ·

Listen: Is Shakespeare History?  

 In Our Time

In the first of two programmes marking In Our Time’s 20th anniversary on 15th October, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Shakespeare’s versions of history, starting with the English Plantagenets. His eight plays from Richard II to Richard III were written out of order, in the Elizabethan era, and have had a significant impact on the way we see those histories today. In the second programme, Melvyn discusses the Roman plays.

The image above is of Richard Burton (1925 – 1984) as Henry V in the Shakespeare play of the same name, from 1951

With

Emma Smith
Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, University of Oxford

Gordon McMullan
Professor of English at King’s College London and Director of the London Shakespeare Centre

And

Katherine Lewis
Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Huddersfield

Producer: Simon Tillotson

THE DRAG AND BURLESQUE SHOWS KEEPING BERLIN EDGY ·

(Emily Manthei’s article appeared in the Daily Beast, 9/7; via the Drudge  Report.)

The city’s reputation as an epicenter for fetish and fantasy is part of what draws more than 12 million tourists per year; but locals know that hedonism is only the beginning.

 

Frederic Schweizer

Like most first-time visitors to Berlin, I came to the German capital in search of a party. Conjuring the Weimar spirit, an art-nouveau flyer for Boheme Sauvage led me to a pillared playhouse and group of flappers and dandies armed with a secret code. Inside was an evening of vaudeville, complete with cabaret piano man, an absinthe fairy serving green spirits, and a va-va-va-voom burlesque dancer removing layer after layer of costumed extravagance onstage until all that remained were be-tasseled pasties.

Berliners don’t party in half measures. They love costumes, historical and histrionic.

The city’s reputation as a European epicenter for fetish and fantasy is part of what draws more than 12 million tourists per year; but locals know that hedonism is only the beginning. Party performances like drag and burlesque are as political as they are entertaining, thanks to a culture of subcultures that champions queer, minority, women, and gender-non-conforming performers on safe stages and in party zones tightly controlled by discerning (or, some might say, discriminatory) bouncers. In this environment, anyone can feel empowered to express themselves.

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https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-drag-and-burlesque-shows-keeping-berlin-edgy

Photo: The Daily Beast

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CARYL CHURCHILL ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/2.)

Caryl Churchill at 80: theatre’s great disruptor

She has made every theatre trip an adventure into the unknown, with a relentless urge

Caryl Churchill, who will be 80 on 3 September, was once compared by a fellow writer to Pablo Picasso. At first, it seems a bizarre coupling: a bull-like Spanish painter-sculptor and an intellectual British dramatist. But, as you think about it, the comparison makes sense. Like Picasso, Churchill has an active political conscience, has had a big influence on succeeding generations and is a restless experimenter with form. That last quality is, for me, the key to an extraordinary career that has yielded close to 40 plays and made Churchill an iconic figurehead.

Given the surge in plays by women in recent years, one forgets just how isolated Churchill must have felt when she set out. She began writing at Oxford but, while raising a family in the 1960s, focused exclusively on short plays for radio. She had her first stage play, Owners, put on at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972 at a time when there were scarcely any role-models for women dramatists. Ann Jellicoe, another experimental dramatist, was the only major woman writer to have emerged from the Court’s chauvinist culture, Shelagh Delaney had flared like a rocket with one hit and then fizzled out and Agatha Christie had her secure niche in the West End. Otherwise, that was just about it. To whom was a young woman dramatist to turn for inspiration?

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Photo: The Guardian

THE NEW YORK TIMES REVIEWS NEIL SIMON ·

(Erik Piepenburg’s and Jason Bailey’s article appeared in the New York TImes, 8/26.) 

A look at the work of Neil Simon over the decades reveals a prolific chronicler of New York City life who examined angst, romance and ambition through a comic lens, whether for the stage, film or television. Critics, like audiences in general, were mixed in their response to Mr. Simon’s comedy, which tended toward shticky one-liners and heart-squeezing monologues. Here is a look at his most notable works, how The New York Times reviewed them and (when available) where you can stream them.

‘Barefoot in the Park’ (1963)

Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford starred on Broadway in this “bubbling, rib-tickling” comedy, as Howard Taubman wrote in his review, about the strains of marriage on a young couple living in New York City. The show, Mr. Simon’s first big Broadway hit, was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best play, with Mike Nichols winning for best director.

“Mr. Simon evidently has no aspirations except to be diverting, and he achieves those with the dash of a highly skilled professional writer,” Mr. Taubman wrote.

The play inspired a 1967 film adaptation starring Mr. Redford and Jane Fonda (a “carelessly knocked-together film” with “plenty of gross exaggeration of the embarrassments of callow newlyweds,” Bosley Crowther wrote); a 1970 ABC series with a black cast; and a 2006 Broadway revival with Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet (and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi).

The 1967 film is streaming on Netflix and Starz, and is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime VideoiTunesVuduGoogle Play and YouTube.

‘The Odd Couple’ (1965)

This comedy about mismatched roommates Felix (the clean one, played by Art Carney) and Oscar (the messy one, played by Walter Matthau) was another Broadway smash for Mr. Simon. The play ran for 964 performances and received four Tony Awards, including for Mr. Simon (in the “best author” category) and Mr. Nichols for direction.

In his review, Mr. Taubman wrote of Mr. Simon: “His skill — and it is not only great but constantly growing — lies in his gift for the deliciously surprising line and attitude. His instinct for incongruity is faultless. It nearly always operates on a basis of character.”

The play was turned into a 1968 film starring Mr. Matthau, in a reprise of his stage role, with Jack Lemmon as Felix. In The Times, Renata Adler called it a “very funny, professional adaptation.” Mr. Matthau and Mr. Lemmon reunited for the 1998 sequel “The Odd Couple II,” written by Mr. Simon.

popular 1970s TV sitcom featured Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon starred in a CBS remake that ran for two seasons from 2015 to 2017. “It’s an interesting experiment,” wrote Alessandra Stanley in her review.

A female version of the play, starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, opened to mostly negative reviews on Broadway in 1985. “The comedy plants itself four square on the stage of the Broadhurst and defies its author, director and players to make it make sense,” Walter Kerr wrote in The Times.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played Oscar and Felix in a 2005 Broadway revival that received mixed reviews. Ben Brantley said the play gave the impression “of one of those latter-day sitcoms in which the characters dream they’ve been beamed into an earlier, vintage television series. Which means that the talented stars of this ‘Odd Couple’ are indeed odd men out.”

The 1968 film is available for rental or purchase via Amazon Prime VideoiTunesVuduGoogle Play, and YouTube. The original 1970 series is streaming on Hulu, while the 2015 show is available on CBS All Access.

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WILLIAM SAROYAN 110 ·

(from Armenia, 8/31/18.)

“Although I write in English, and despite the fact that I’m from America, I consider myself an Armenian writer. The words I use are in English, the surroundings I write about are American, but the soul, which makes me write, is Armenian. This means I am an Armenian writer and deeply love the honor of being a part of the family of Armenian wrtiters.”

August 31 marks the 110th birthday anniversary of Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning Armenian-American writer William Saroyan.

The writer’s anniversary will see the inauguration of his house museum in Fresno. The grand opening event will be open to the public and held on the campus of California State University of Fresno.  A documentary, musical performances of songs written by Saroyan, a recitation of his writings, and remarks by the founder and board members of the foundation will be part of the event.  Two of the songs will be a debut performance, having never been played for the public.

William Saroyan was born on August 31, 1908 in Fresno, California to Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, Armenian immigrants from Bitlis, Ottoman Empire. His father came to New York in 1905 and started preaching in Armenian Apostolic Churches.

At the age of three, after his father’s death, Saroyan, along with his brother and sister, was placed in an orphanage in Oakland, California. Five years later, the family reunited in Fresno.

Saroyan decided to become a writer after his mother showed him some of his father’s writings. A few of his early short articles were published in Overland Monthly. His first stories appeared in the 1930s.

Among these was “The Broken Wheel”, written under the name Sirak Goryan and published in the Armenian journal Hairenik in 1933. Many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family. It has been translated into many languages.

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Photo: Williamsaroyanfoundation.org