Category Archives: History

WILLIAM BOYD ON THE TRUTH BEHIND CHEKHOV’S MARRIAGE ·

(Boyd’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/20.)

In 1902, as he pondered The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov had another question on his mind: who was the father of his wife’s unborn child?

On 25 May 1901, Anton Chekhov, aged 41, married the actor Olga Knipper, eight years his junior. The marriage provoked great surprise and consternation among his friends and family. In Russia at the time, Chekhov was as famous a writer as Tolstoy and, in addition, a passionate and amorous man who had enjoyed more than 30 love affairs. He was also a regular visitor to brothels. And, even more significantly, he was the ultimate commitment-phobe. Many women had fallen in love with him and wanted to marry him but he always quickly backed away. Then suddenly, clandestinely, he married.

Knipper was a second-generation Russian, of German Lutheran stock. She came from a bourgeois family that had hit hard times, and she had audaciously and tenaciously decided to become an actor, driving herself to rise out of genteel penury. At the time she met Chekhov she was an original member of the famous, radical Moscow Arts Theatre. She caught his eye in 1898 when she was playing Irina Arkadina in The Seagull. Many of his lovers were far more beautiful and beguiling than Olga. She was petite and vivacious, and the fact that she’d had to struggle so hard to make her way in the world gave her an energy and near-ruthless determination that Chekhov responded to.

Their affair began in 1899 but it was shadowed by Chekhov’s terminal illness, tuberculosis. He was a doctor and knew exactly the inevitable, fatal potency of his malady. As it grew more severe, he sensed the end of his life nearing: perhaps this was what spurred him finally towards matrimony.

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Photo: Getty Images

UK PLAYWRIGHTS CONDEMN BOMBING OF GAZA THEATRE ·

(Oliver Holmes’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/16.)

Caryl Churchill and National Theatre director bemoan ‘devastating loss’ after Israeli strike

Leading playwrights and directors in Britain have severely criticised the bombing of a major cultural centre in the Gaza Strip by Israel’s air force, calling it a “devastating loss for the already isolated community”.

In a letter to the Guardian, 14 figures from UK theatre, including the director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, and dramatist Caryl Churchill, condemned the “total destruction” of the Said al-Mishal Culture Centre.

We condemn the destruction of Gaza cultural centre in Israeli airstrike

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PARIS CABARETS: CAN WE ASK FOR MORE THAN THE CANCAN? ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/9; via Pam Green.)

PARIS — There are a number of attractions that Parisians are happy to leave to tourists. These include the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées, as well as some of the city’s most popular shows: specifically, the cabarets.

Indeed, while out-of-towners flock to the Moulin Rouge, the Lido or the Crazy Horse, many of the capital’s theater buffs have never even been. The genre that was once the toast of Paris lost touch with the times in the last decades of the 20th century. Its theatrical revues remain as extravagant as ever, yet the stories they tell often feel stuck in the past.

These venues still marshal impressive resources. Patrons at the spacious Lido and the Moulin Rouge can drink and dine, with high-end service, before and during two performances every night. The Moulin Rouge’s current revue, “Féerie,” is seen by around 600,000 people every year, half of them foreigners. It comes with 100 performers, 1,000 heavily sequined costumes, five pythons — and a cost of 8 million euros, or around $9.25 million.

What, however, does this buy? Today’s cabarets require viewers to suspend not just modern theatrical expectations but irony, too. Dramaturgy is, at best, threadbare; old-fashioned exoticism and sexism are par for the course. The goal — the only goal — is to dazzle, be it with feathers, jewels, acrobats or naked women.

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Photo: Get Your Guide

***** OBISESAN/ISANGO ENSEMBLE: ‘SS MENDI: DANCING THE DEATH DRILL’ (SV PICK, UK)  ·

(Bridget Minamore’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/6.)

Zamile Gantana takes a crate, sits in the middle of the stage, and gives a straightforward but lyrical explanation of what happened to the SS Mendi. In 1917, a total of 823 South African men boarded the ship to aid the British war effort; a month later, more than 600 of them drowned after a collision. “This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace,” Gantana says. From this opening scene, the South African theatre company Isango Ensemble transfigure the idea of lament, turning grief into something poignantly beautiful, darkly funny and, at times, sharply angry.

The script follows a dozen or so men on the ship including an outspoken priest, a teenager told his presence brings bad luck, a mixed-race recruit and a white officer. Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan alongside the 14-strong ensemble, the play shows the racist indignities the men faced on board before their tragic deaths.

Mark Dornford-May’s direction, combined with Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography and Mandisi Dyantyis’ musical direction, is extraordinary. Using few instruments and scant props, the world around the Mendi, from train journeys to bird sounds, is realised using movement, music and voice work.

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Photo: The Times of London

THE LOST STORY OF JAMES JOYCE’S DAUGHTER AS A PARISIAN DANCER ·

(Deirdre Mulrooney’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 6/21.)

James Joyce’s daughter Lucia was a remarkable dancer – something that has been buried in her troubled historye

Lucia Joyce, born to James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in Trieste in 1907, has captured the imagination of many writers and artists as tragic muse. Film-makers, dramatists and novelists have projected everything from Mills & Boon-style narratives where the real protagonists are famous male writers – Samuel Beckett, one of Joyce’s many boyfriends; and her father – for whom she is just a bridge, to unfounded stories of incest and child abuse, to comic-strip extravaganzas.

How did Lucia get to be such a supine, empty space? Apart from Carol Loeb Shloss’s groundbreaking and controversial 2003, biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, you don’t hear much about the facts of Joyce the dancer, who once declared in exasperation, “C’est moi qui est l’artiste,” or “It’s me who’s the artist.” I’m most intrigued by Lucia Joyce the artist in her own right, of whom the Paris Times remarked, in 1928: “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.”

With her impressive avant-garde dance training, Joyce would have had a lot to contribute to the Abbey Theatre Ballets

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TUNES WITH NO SHOW: THE SONGS CUT OUT OF MUSICALS, FROM FOLLIES TO HAMILTON ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/19.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamildrops project gives his leftover lyrics a new life. What happens to other songs dropped from musicals – and how do their creators feel about them?

 ‘Good songs find a way’ … Trevor Dion Nicholas as the Genie in Aladdin; Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton; and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, starring John McCrea. Composite: Deen van Meer/Getty Images/Johan Persson

When Hamilton opened in London last year, many in the audience already knew its songs inside out. The 2015 Broadway recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit – about the US founding father who will not throw away his shot – had long since gone triple platinum. With 46 tracks, it boasts more songs than most musicals; the off-Broadway track list was even longer. But Miranda still had leftover lyrics – and the feverish love for his show means new Hamilton material is still being released three years after its New York debut.

Remixes, covers and demos appeared on the Hamilton Mixtape in 2016 and this year Miranda has been putting out fresh Hamilton-related tracks every month as part of his Hamildrops series, which he kicked off with a song – and character – he cut from the show. He had written “Decemberists-esque lyrics” to be sung by Ben Franklin but that founding father was deemed superfluous to the story. Miranda later sent the lyrics to Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy and they collaborated on Ben Franklin’s Song (opening line: “Electricity … Yeah, you can all thank me”). Hamilton fans were duly electrified.

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ANTIOCH SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL: JOHN LITHGOW, ROBIN LITHGOW, AND TONY DALLAS ·

(from the Folger Shakespeare Library; via Pam Green; Antioch Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Donald Hustler.)

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 99

Over the course of three summers  in the 1950s, Arthur Lithgow and a troupe of actors he’d gathered performed every single one of Shakespeare plays, in rep, at the Antioch Shakespeare Festival, also known as Shakespeare Under the Stars, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

These performances included the first professional Shakespeare productions of Troilus and CressidaPericlesTimon of Athens, and Titus Andronicus in the United States.

The festival, which Lithgow co-created with another young Antioch professor, Meredith Dallas, worked with Antioch students, local amateurs, and young professionals who came in on the train from New York, including Nancy Marchand, Earle Hyman, Laurence Luckinbill, Ellis Rabb, and Kelton Garwood.

This podcast episode brings together the children of the festival’s founders to talk about their fathers’ work and its legacy: 

  • Meredith Dallas’s son, Tony Dallas, an Ohio theater director
  • Arthur Lithgow’s daughter, Robin Lithgow, recently retired as the Coordinator for K-12 Arts Programs in the Los Angeles public schools
  • Arthur Lithgow’s son, John Lithgow, the Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award-winning actor, who recently finished a Broadway run of a one-man show called Stories by Heart, largely about his father

John, Robin, and Tony are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

 

 

HENRIK IBSEN: HIS LIFE AND ART (BBC RADIO 4) ·

Listen 

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great Norwegian playwright and poet, best known for his middle class tragedies such as The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People. These are set in a world where the middle class is dominant and explore the qualities of that life, its weaknesses and boundaries and the ways in which it takes away freedoms. It is the women who fare the worst in this society, something Ibsen explored in A Doll’s House among others, a play that created a sensation with audiences shocked to watch a woman break free of her bourgeois family life to find her destiny. He explored dark secrets such as incest and, in Ghosts, hereditary syphilis, which attracted the censors. He gave actresses parts they had rarely had before, and audiences plays that, after Shakespeare, became the most performed in the world.

With

Tore Rem
Professor of English Literature at the University of Oslo

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
Professor of English and Theatre Studies and Tutorial Fellow, St Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford

And

Dinah Birch
Professor of English Literature and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Cultural Engagement at the University of Liverpool

Producer: Simon Tillotson.

FINTAN O’TOOLE ON SAMUEL BECKETT’S POLITICAL IMAGINATION: WHERE LOST BODIES ROAM ·

(Fintan O’Toole’s article appeared in the 6/7 New York Review of Books.)

Beckett’s Political Imagination

by Emilie Morin

Cambridge University Press, 266 pp., $39.99

 

In April 1962, Samuel Beckett sent a clipping from the French press to his lover Barbara Bray: a report of the arrest in Paris of a member of the Organisation armée secrète. The OAS was a far-right terror gang whose members were drawn largely from within the French military. It had carried out bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies with the aim of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle and stopping the concession of independence to Algeria. Among its targets had been Beckett’s publisher and friend Jérôme Lindon, whose apartment and office were both bombed by the OAS.

Samuel Beckett; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The press clipping detailed the capture of an army lieutenant who would be charged with leading an OAS attack on an arms depot outside Paris and a raid on a bank in the city. His name was Lieutenant Daniel Godot. Sending it to Bray was a typical expression of Beckett’s black humor. But it also serves as a reminder that his work is not an exhalation of timeless existential despair. It is, as Emilie Morin’s groundbreaking study, Beckett’s Political Imagination, shows, enmeshed in contemporary politics.

That such a reminder should be necessary is one of the more remarkable facts of twentieth-century cultural history. Beckett, after all, risked his life to work for the French Resistance, even though he was a citizen of a neutral country, Ireland. The astonishing works with which he revolutionized both the theater and the novel—Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable—were written immediately after World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir’s question in Godot, “Where are all these corpses from?,” and its answer, “A charnel-house! A charnel-house!,” hang over much of his writing. Torture, enslavement, hunger, displacement, incarceration, and subjection to arbitrary power are the common fates of Beckett’s characters.

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Photo: Irish Times

OVERLOOKED NO MORE: MARGARITA XIRGU, THEATER RADICAL WHO STAGED LORCA’S PLAYS ·

(Kathleen Massara’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/16; via Pam Green.)

The Spanish film star and theater director was known for taking chances in her politics, in her private life and on the stage.

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people that never found their way into the newspaper.

When Margarita Xirgu met Federico García Lorca in the summer of 1926 at a bar in Madrid, he was a fledgling playwright and a questionable investment for most producers.

But Xirgu, a Catalan actress and director who was also a lesbian and a political radical, was known for her willingness to take risks. She accepted the challenge, and staged Lorca’s “Mariana Pineda” in Barcelona the next year, with costumes by the artist Salvador Dalí.

The play was a hit, and it cemented a friendship between Lorca and Xirgu, who became instrumental in staging and exporting his work in the early years of the 20th century. Lorca went on to become one of Spain’s most admired writers.

“She took a big chance on him,” said Christopher Maurer, a Lorca scholar at Boston University. “He wasn’t a playwright; he was a poet.” Because of her left-leaning views, he said, “people called her ‘Margarita La Roja’ ” — Margarita the Red, a Communist threat to Gen. Francisco Franco’s right-wing dictatorship.

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