Category Archives: History


(Natalia Chekotum’s and Liza Pyrozhkova’s video appeared in the Kyiv Independent, 8/8; Photo: Kyiv Independent.)

Launched in February last year, Russia’s war against Ukraine has taken a toll on Ukraine’s culture. Russia has razed to the ground many museums and churches, destroying priceless works of art. So far, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture has documented over 1,600 cultural facilities damaged or destroyed by Russian forces, but the actual number may be even higher.

As Russian forces blew up the Kakhovka dam, resulting in massive flooding in the south of Ukraine, the water severely damaged the house of Ukrainian self-taught artist Polina Raiko in the occupied town of Oleshky, Kherson Oblast. The Polina Raiko Charitable Foundation is raising money for the restoration of the house.

Visit the Kyiv Independent


(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/20; Photo: Jose Llana, left, and Arielle Jacobs as Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in “Here Lies Love” at the Broadway Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

Jesse Green saw “Here Lies Love” in 2013 at the Public Theater (standing) and on Tuesday at the Broadway Theater (sitting)

Here Lies Love

It’s the applause — including my own — I find troubling.

Not that there isn’t plenty to praise in “Here Lies Love,” the immersive disco-bio-musical about Imelda Marcos that opened on Thursday at the Broadway Theater. The infernally catchy songs by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, performed by a tireless and inspired all-Filipino cast, will have you clapping whether you want to or not. Their chunky beats, abetted by insistent dance motivators, may even prompt you to bop at your seat — if you have one.

Because the real star of this show is the astonishing architectural transformation of the theater itself, by the set designer David Korins. Opened in 1924 as a movie palace, more lately the home of “King Kong” and “West Side Story,” the Broadway has now been substantially gutted, its nearly 1,800 seats reduced to about 800, with standing room for another 300 in the former orchestra section and a 42-inch disco ball dead center.


The folks upstairs, if not the mostly younger standees below, will surely recognize the visual reference to Studio 54, the celebrity nightclub where Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, danced away the last decade of her reign while impoverishing her people. That she would probably adore the over-emphatic atmosphere of “Here Lies Love” — with its lurid lighting by Justin Townsend, skittering projections by Peter Nigrini and earsplitting sound by M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer — is, however, equivocal praise.

For here we are, at the place where irony and meta-messaging form a theatrical-historical knot that can’t be picked apart. Which is why, as you clap, you should probably wonder what for.

Is it for Imelda (Arielle Jacobs), the beauty queen who rose from “hand-me-downs and scraps” to become the fashion-plate wife of the Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos? Is it for the ruthless Ferdinand himself (Jose Llana)? (His landslide election in 1965 elicited some Pavlovian cheers the night I saw the show.) Or is it for Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), the opposition leader who was Imelda’s former beau? (Having spurned her in their youth, he was later assassinated by forces thought to be close to Ferdinand’s regime.) All get equivalent star treatment here.

The confusion of sympathies is just where Byrne and the director Alex Timbers want us. Avoiding the near-hagiography of “Evita” and yet unwilling to bank a commercial production on a totally hateful character, they aim for a middle ground that doesn’t exist, yet mostly hit it anyway. Their Imelda is a victim of poverty and mistreatment, dim despite her cunning and innocent by reason of inanity. When Filipinos fully turn against her during the People Power revolution of 1986, she is more mystified than crushed. “Why don’t you love me?” she sings.

(Read more)



(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/4; Photo: Divine … Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Richard II. Photograph: David Hou.)

A disco king hits the dancefloor, Beatrice and Benedick’s romcom gets a feminist framing and Lear faces dystopia as the revered rep company returns in full force

Drive west of Toronto for over an hour, beyond a hamlet called Punkeydoodles Corners, and you reach the village of Shakespeare, with a pie shop and truck centre bearing the Bard’s name. Up the road lies Stratford, an affable town where Romeo Street leads you to the banks of the river Avon (pronounced, unlike its English cousin, with a short A).

Here, 70 years ago this month, the inaugural Stratford Shakespearean festival took place beneath a leaky canvas tent roof, with Alec Guinness holding court in Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well, both directed by Tyrone Guthrie over a six-week season. It almost didn’t happen: a black hole in the finances meant an emergency meeting was held the day before Guinness set sail to determine whether he should bother making the journey.

The festival’s success gave Stratford, which was settled in 1832, a theatrical reputation to match its British namesake – an improbable achievement for this former railroad town, which is surrounded by farmland. Canada’s largest theatre festival, it now runs for more than half the year, with 13 productions staged in four different buildings in 2023, including the striking new Tom Patterson theatre, named after the journalist who founded the festival. Visitors who remember the early tent years are still returning, prompted – as is tradition here – to take their seats by a fanfare played live outside the Festival theatre. The musicians – with four herald trumpets and a parade snare drum – assemble to announce each performance there, as popular a local custom as the annual release of swans into the Avon.

Maev Beaty as Beatrice and Graham Abbey as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford festival. Photograph: David Hou

You could, perhaps, be forgiven for expecting those shows to be something akin to ye olde heritage Shakespeare, preserved in aspic for tourists fitting a matinee around trips to the city’s smart eateries. But there are no mothballs in this season. Actor turned artistic director Antoni Cimolino, whose Stratford roles have included Romeo and Laertes, tells me they resist the idea of a “house” approach to productions. “If Shakespeare seems dusty and old, we haven’t done our jobs.”

Take the opening of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Chris Abraham and bookended by new scenes written by Erin Shields, known for previous feminist takes on King Lear and Paradise Lost. Staged on Julie Fox’s lush garden set, with succulents including outrageously phallic cacti, this comedy does not open with the usual back-slapping, macho banter about the “feats of a lion” in war. Instead, Maev Beaty’s Beatrice rises amid the audience, as Allison Edwards-Crewe’s Hero appears upstage before a mirror that resembles both a huge moon and a band of gold.

In a wry, softly saucy prologue, Beatrice invites us to consider the expectations faced by Hero specifically and by all women then and now. As well as providing ample satire – “it is exhausting to be innocent,” says Beatrice, with a witty rhyme about Hero needing to mute the strumming of her “private lute” – this is a canny way of ensuring we focus from the start on the inner life of a character whose reticence is all the more marked by the quicksilver exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice.

‘If Shakespeare seems dusty and old, we haven’t done our jobs’ … the Stratford Festival theatre. Photograph: Stratford Shakespeare festival/Richard Bain

Shields’s prologue is true to Beatrice’s wit and the spirit of Much Ado as, with the gentlest waft around her groin, she reminds us that “nothing” was once slang for vagina. The play unfolds with a lighting level that allows the audience to see each other, essential for some deft crowd work at the edges of the Festival theatre’s beloved thrust stage, with its pioneering design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. The venue fits an audience of 1,800 but no one here is further than 65ft from the stage.

(Read more)



(Helen Shaw’s article appeared in the New Yorker, June 5, 2023; Photo: Grissom says that the playwright gave him a life-changing mission. Illustration by Valentin Tkach.)

James Grissom says that he met the playwright and his famous muses, and quoted them extensively in his work. Not everyone believes him.

Sometime in September, 1982, James Grissom, a twenty-year-old English student at Louisiana State University, receives a life-changing phone call from Tennessee Williams. It doesn’t come completely out of the blue: Grissom had sent a fan letter to the playwright, enclosing a picture and a few short stories, and asking for advice. But the response, Grissom would write decades later, surpasses his wildest hopes. When he picks up the receiver, a rough voice drawls down the line, “Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”

On the phone, the famously dissipated playwright tells Grissom that he is having a creative crisis. He has always begun his plays by imagining a woman walking across a stage, “announced by the arrival of a fog,” but he hasn’t seen this fog in years: the calcifying effects of time and “monumental accretions of toxins self-administered” have left him unable to write at his “previous level of power.”

Grissom drives from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and, at the Court of Two Sisters Restaurant, Williams dictates to him a list of writers, directors, and (mostly) actresses. Grissom jots the names down on a menu. Williams wants Grissom to convey his thoughts to these muses—specific praise, a memory—and then find out what Williams has meant to them. “I would like for you to ask these people if I ever mattered,” the playwright says.

So begins “Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog,” a book by James Grissom, which was published by Knopf in 2015. (Knopf is the publisher of several New Yorker collections and writers.) Grissom’s haunted, nonlinear, detail-rich book intertwines interviews with the playwright (who is by turns garrulous, melancholy, transported, resolute) and Grissom’s subsequent wide-ranging conversations with those who influenced him. In “Follies,” Grissom writes that, in the course of five days that September, the two men—one a seventy-one-year-old giant of American letters, the other a lanky college student scribbling notes in a blue exam booklet—pinballed around New Orleans while Williams talked about his favorite performers, his faith, his lovers, his great plays, and his determination to return to work. In the St. Louis Cathedral, the white wedding cake that towers above Jackson Square, Williams bought Grissom a rosary, naming each bead for an inspiration: Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Stella Adler . . . the catalogue went on.

Grissom recounts that weeks before Williams died, in February, 1983, the playwright called his house and left a message: “Be my witness.” It took Grissom six years, but once he moved to New York he began reaching out to the names on his list, bearing Williams’s words as his calling card. It’s astounding the interviews Grissom managed to get—the book includes a constellation of twentieth-century luminaries, among them Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando. There are also less widely known figures, like the elegant trouper Marian Seldes, who won a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, and two women who performed in revivals of “The Glass Menagerie”: Jo Van Fleet and Lois Smith, who won a Tony in 2021, at the age of ninety, for her role in “The Inheritance.” Grissom chronicles a remarkable intimacy with his subjects. He describes sitting with Stapleton as she drinks Blue Nun sweet wine; talking with Hepburn over bowls of ice cream; and lying in bed next to Kim Hunter, the original Stella from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” so they can listen through the wall to a play at the theatre next door.

Victoria Wilson, a legendary Knopf editor whose writers have included Anne Rice and the biographer Meryle Secrest, acquired the book and worked on it with Grissom for almost ten years. In the intervening decade, Grissom started releasing some of his material online, which brought him into various Williams orbits—he spoke at the 2009 Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, as part of its “I Remember Tennessee” panel. Over the years, Grissom launched Twitter and Instagram accounts, a “Follies of God” Facebook page (which now has more than a hundred and ninety-four thousand followers), a Substack newsletter (which currently lists more than seven hundred posts), and several blogs, including one dedicated to “Follies of God.” On these platforms, he began publishing quotations from Williams and his muses, as well as reflections shared with him in the nineties by Alec Guinness, Arthur Miller, Mike Nichols, Eartha Kitt, and others. (One blog, mainly pictures, is called “Faking the Fog.”)

In 2015, Grissom went on a book tour, and Wilson interviewed him at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. “From the moment I got this manuscript,” Wilson said, “I knew this book had greatness.” In a video of the event, Grissom—then fifty-three, his fine, graying hair combed back, the “Follies” rosary around his neck—is an easy and gracious raconteur, chatting about how he and Williams used to do impressions together of the comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly. Wilson herself is steeped in American performance history: she edited the letters of Williams and his longtime friend Maria St. Just, and wrote a biography of Barbara Stanwyck. Wilson told the crowd, “This is without question, as far as I’m concerned, the best book on Tennessee Williams ever written.”

(Read more)


(David Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/27; Photo: The Guardian.)

Elizabeth Winkler’s controversial new book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, investigates highly fraught theories around the beloved playwright

 “It’s a funny thing,” admits Elizabeth Winkler. “I don’t really like controversy. I don’t seek it out. There are some people that thrive on it and I don’t. I find it upsetting and distressing to see my work and my ideas misrepresented and twisted. It’s not fun. But you study the history of the subject, you know that’s how it goes.”

The subject in question is perhaps the final blasphemy of British culture: the theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon might not have written Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other plays and poems that bear his name.

The doubters point to Shakespeare’s lack of higher education and aristocratic background and the scarcity of personal documents and literary evidence directly linking him to the works. Some suggest candidates such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as potential authors of Shakespeare’s plays.

It would of course have been the hoax of the millennium: no need to fake a moon landing. The theory remains decidedly fringe, outside the mainstream academic consensus and, as Winkler puts it, “not permitted”. In her book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, she writes that “it has become the most horrible, vexed, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature.

“In literary circles, even the phrase ‘Shakespeare authorship question’ elicits contempt – eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslinging. If you raise it casually in a social setting, someone might chastise you as though you’ve uttered a deeply offensive profanity. Someone else might get up and leave the room. Tears may be shed. A whip may be produced. You will be punished, which is to say, educated. Because it is obscene to suggest that the god of English literature might be a false god. It is heresy.”

This passage neatly captures Winkler’s lucid and light-footed approach to the subject. The 33-year-old American journalist and book critic, who holds English literature degrees from Princeton and Stanford universities, writes for the Wall Street Journal newspaper and the New Yorker magazine. While she categorises herself as a sceptic of the Stratford man (“There are so many gaps”), this is not a polemical book seeking to knock Shakespeare off his perch and push dubious evidence for an alternative.

Instead Winkler brings a journalist’s eye to the controversy, zipping between highbrow philosophical debates around the nature of knowledge – how can we be truly certain about anything? – to the more prosaic and petty squabbles of academics with skin in the game that might be plucked from a novel by Michael Frayn or David Lodge.

Her book makes three compelling arguments: tying the authorship question to the rise and fall of imperial Britain and its need for national mythmaking; exploring how Shakespeare was turned into a secular god, with theatre filling the vacuum left by the decline of the church; and challenging the basic human need to cling to belief when doubt might be the proper response.

Her central point is not the authorship question itself but the ecosystem of egos, vested interests, literary feuds and cultish bardolatry that has grown up around it. We meet Stratfordians who defend Shakespeare’s genius with religious intensity and zeal and anti-Stratfordians who respond with a contrarian ferocity worthy of atheist Richard Dawkins. This is one fight with little room for agnostics.

Winkler writes: “The authorship question is a massive game of Clue played out over the centuries. The weapon is a pen. The crime is the composition of the greatest works of literature in the English language. The suspects are numerous. The game is played in back rooms and basements, beyond the purview of the authorities.

“Now and then, reports of the game surface in the press, and the authorities (by which I mean the Shakespeare scholars) are incensed. They come in blowing their whistles and stomping their feet, waving their batons wildly.”

Winkler dived feet first into this melee four years ago with an essay in the Atlantic magazine under the headline “Was Shakespeare a Woman?”, floating the idea that Emilia Bassano Lanier, a 16th-century poet of Italian heritage, had a hand in the plays attributed to the man from Stratford. There was a fierce backlash that ran the gamut from lofty scholars to Twitter trolls.

Sitting outside the Washington national cathedral, a grand structure built in 14th-century English gothic style, Winkler tells the Guardian: “I was very quickly castigated as a conspiracy theorist and denialist – they’re invoking climate change denial or Holocaust denial, even though those things are not remotely equivalent. I was compared to anti-vaxxers and purveyors of disinformation. Very ugly comparisons. It was mortifying and shocking at first. I’d never been attacked like that as a writer.”

Why is a question about the authorship of 400-year-old plays getting people so riled up?

(Read more)



(Keith Weir’s article appeared on Reuters, 6/19; Editing by Andrew Heavens; Photos: Reuters; via: msn; Drudge Report.)

The archaeological area of Largo Argentina reopens to the public after restoration

The archaeological area of Largo Argentina reopens to the public after restoration© Thomson Reuters

ROME (Reuters) – History buffs will be able to stroll close to the spot where legend says Julius Caesar met his bloody end, when Rome authorities open a new walkway on the ancient site on Tuesday.

The archaeological area of Largo Argentina reopens to the public after restoration

The archaeological area of Largo Argentina reopens to the public after restoration© Thomson Reuters

Accounts, embellished by William Shakespeare, tell how the Roman dictator was stabbed to death by a group of aggrieved senators on the Ides of March – March 15 – in 44 BC.

According to tradition, he died in the capital’s central Largo Argentina square – home to the remains of four temples.

They are all currently below street level and up until recently could only be viewed from behind barriers close to a busy road junction.

The archaeological area of Largo Argentina reopens to the public after restoration

The archaeological area of Largo Argentina reopens to the public after restoration© Thomson Reuters

From Tuesday, visitors will be able to move through the site at ground level on the walkway and see the structures up close.

Italian fashion house Bulgari funded the work at a site that was first discovered and excavated during building work in Rome in the 1920s.

(Read more)


(Chris Wiegand’s interview appeared in the Guardian, 6/6/2023; Photo:  Adrienne Kennedy with her son Adam in 1969. Photograph: Jack Robinson/Getty Images.)

The great American playwright, who made her Broadway debut last year aged 91, recounts what happened when she adapted a John Lennon book for Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre

In the mid-1960s, Beatlemania swept through the New York home of playwright Adrienne Kennedy. One of her sons, Adam, would sing I Want to Hold Your Hand; his older brother, Joedy, talked of the Fab Four as if they were the centre of his world. It was a tough time: Kennedy had just separated from the boys’ father and they were about to leave their apartment. But for the eldest child, “the Beatles were all that were on his mind,” she remembers. He treasured his copy of John Lennon’s book In His Own Write, a collection of poems and tales, which she read herself.

“Somewhere in those months of turmoil and Joedy’s passion” Kennedy decided to adapt the book as a play. It was a project that would take her to the heart of London’s theatreland and bring Kennedy both joy and pain. And, in a neat case of symmetry, she revisited this period of her life four decades later in her 2008 play Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? which is presented as a conversation with Adam. “He asked me again and again those questions,” she says. “Finally we decided he would tape my answers.”

This month the one-act play has its UK premiere in Chichester, starring Rakie Ayola and Jack Benjamin. Kennedy, who rarely gives interviews, agrees to answering questions over email. Expansive replies come back speedily, often richly lyrical and idiosyncratically punctuated. Her sense of wonder is still palpable at a chain of events that led her to cross the Atlantic in the 60s and watch a first run-through of the play sat next to one of her heroes, Laurence Olivier: “He. Held. My. Hand.”

Once she had hit upon the idea of adapting Lennon’s book, Kennedy’s New York theatre connections helped her to make contact with Victor Spinetti, who had been in A Hard Day’s Night. He arranged for Kennedy and Adam to meet Lennon who she remembers running into the room for their meeting, sporting an orange jacket. He was “happy to see us”, she remembers. “His face. His eyes so very intense.” The Beatle looked, she says, like a scholar of classical music or a lost language. He was quiet, very serious, and treated her with “a certain deference” that made a big impression on her.

(Read more)


(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/6; via Pam Green; Photo: Adjoa Andoh as Shakepeare’s Richard III. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

An inspiring analysis of Shakespeare and race restores his reputation as a playwright for all

There is a vivid moment in Farah Karim-Cooper’s new book where she reflects on the image of the nation’s pre-eminent playwright – how unfathomable he has seemed to artists and how his face has been conjured from a historical blur. She compares portraits and discerns a marked shift in the 18th century when he seems to become “more beautiful, symmetrical, and whiter in complexion”.

If visual art has hitherto seemed like a peripheral detail in the appraisal of his work, Karim-Cooper, a professor of Shakespeare studies, connects this paled image to a metaphorical whitewashing: the man we celebrate today is not the one who lived and worked in Elizabethan England but a reconstructed fantasy, built to serve as an emblem of white excellence and imperial Englishness.

Efforts to decolonise Shakespeare have been fiercely contested in the past and as co-director of education at the Globe theatre, Karim-Cooper navigated her own storm when she organised a series of webinars on anti-racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Far from being cowed by the experience, she has produced a book-length study of the bard through the lens of race theory.

It is a thorough analysis but also a kind of love letter. Karim-Cooper felt an instant connection to Shakespeare at the age of 15, during an English lesson on Romeo and Juliet. But in order to love him, she argues, we have to know him fully, and not only his genius but the darker aspects of his legacy.

Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh

It is a clever deployment of Shakespearean wisdom on how to love without a distorting “fancy bred in the eye”. The great white bard of the title is just that type of idealised cultural construct, she suggests. “I am a foreign, brown woman – and I feel seen and heard in Shakespeare’s plays,” Karim-Cooper asserts and this chimes with her book’s broader aim: to restore the swan of Avon as a playwright for all.

Close readings of the texts produce concrete examples of racial prejudice, antisemitism and colonial subjugation in works such as Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. Some of this is familiar, but Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh. She also bypasses charges of unfairly applying 21st-century definitions of racism and white supremacy by calibrating her analysis to the values of the Tudor era, or subsequent centuries.

We are taken from original stagings in black- and brown-face to the trauma carried in roles such as Othello for contemporary Black actors. Karim-Cooper makes some rather creative connections between Shakespeare’s world and ours: a discussion on inter-racial couples such as Othello and Desdemona and Titus Andronicus’s Aaron and Tamora segues into an analysis of the present day ambivalence towards Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; she draws on the cultural theorist bell hooks’s idea of political resistance through self-love, hailing Aaron’s eloquent defence of his blackness (“Coal-black is better than another hue / in that it scorns to bear another hue”) as “the first ever black power speech”.

Historians including Miranda Kaufmann and David Olusoga have supplied ample examples of diversity in Tudor Britain, and Karim-Cooper sees Shakespeare as holding a mirror to this society, with his plays interrogating live issues around race, identity and the colonial enterprise. Her critique is at its most absorbing and original when she shows how complicated his approach was. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously – it was how his mind worked,” she writes, and demonstrates how figures such as Shylock and Aaron were both defined by stereotypes as well as undermining them. Her arguments, cumulatively, come to feel essential and should be absorbed by every theatre director, writer, critic, interested in finding new ways into the work.

(Read more)


(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/23.)

An almost unknown sonnet in the playbook or script of a 1603 play by Ben Jonson could be a “lost” work by William Shakespeare, according to two leading scholars.

Beyond “compelling” stylistic evidence, the sonnet, titled To the Deserving Author, is signed with the mysterious pseudonym Cygnus, after the mythical figure who was turned into a swan – evoking Jonson’s very own tribute to Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon as the “Sweet Swan of Avon”.

Dr Chris Laoutaris, an associate professor of Shakespeare and early modern drama at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, told the Guardian: “This is how Jonson referred to him in his long poem in honour of the playwright in the first folio mourning Shakespeare’s ‘flight’ as the swan, whose living presence shall never again grace England’s stages.”

The sonnet is within the playbook of Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall, a tragic play set in ancient Rome, in which Shakespeare had acted.

It shares a page with a ditty by Hugh Holland, who also dedicated a commemorative verse to Shakespeare in the first folio.

Laoutaris said that while both sonnets paid tribute to Jonson, they were “very different”. For example, Holland addresses Jonson with the more formal “you” throughout, whereas Cygnus uses the informal “thou”, the form favoured by Shakespeare in his sonnets.

He said: “It’s tantalising. There are so many parallels with Shakespeare’s style that it must surely make even the most hardened sceptic pause and think.”

(Read more)