Category Archives: History

BOOK: ‘AMERICAN HUMBUG’–ROBERT WILSON’S BIO OF P.T. BARNUM ·

(Nathaniel Rich’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 4/23.)

American Humbug

Barnum: An American Life

by Robert Wilson

Simon and Schuster, 341 pp., $28.00

Since his heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, P.T. Barnum’s name has been shorthand for ebullient humbuggery, maximalist entertainment, inexhaustible self-promotion, rags-to-riches industriousness—for fun. After The Greatest Showman (2017), a highly fictionalized musical that defied studio expectations to gross a Barnumesque $435 million, fades to black, the screen fills with a sober epigram: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Barnum wrote this at the end of his life, during a period in which he referred to himself as “The Children’s Friend.” He groomed himself to look like Santa Claus.

Yet the images that animate his biographies—of which Robert Wilson’s Barnum is at least the fifteenth, not counting Barnum’s own serially revised and overlapping memoirs—are united by an eerier quality, suspended between the pitiful and the grotesque. The most indelible of these includes the Fejee Mermaid, a three-foot monstrosity composed of the lower half of a large fish stitched to the upper half of a small monkey scowling at the indignity of its afterlife. The What Is It? was a mentally disabled, microcephalic eighteen-year-old black man, four feet tall and fifty pounds, dressed in an ape costume, ordered by Barnum to speak in gibberish, and touted as the “connecting link between man and monkey.” The gargantuan elephant Jumbo, upon being purchased by Barnum and forced to leave the zoological gardens at London’s Regent’s Park, blurted a trumpet call, lay down in the road outside the park’s gates, and refused to budge for a full day. “Let him lay there for a week if he wants to,” said Barnum at the time. “It is the best advertisement in the world.”

There were also the catastrophic fires, five of them, that destroyed Barnum’s museums, circuses, and most opulent estate, yielding horrors equal in their majesty to any of his exhibitions: the pair of squealing white whales burned alive after their tank was shattered in a failed effort to douse the flames; the escaped tiger roaming the streets of lower Manhattan in a snowstorm; the white elephant that, having been led to safety, repeatedly charged back into the inferno in frantic determination to commit suicide.

Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar and the author of two previous biographies of nineteenth-century pioneers, the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and Clarence King, an explorer of the American West. When Wilson set out to write a new life of Barnum, he made a point of courting his predecessors. The most distinguished of these is the historian Neil Harris, whose Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (1973) uses Barnum’s story to examine the birth of modern American culture. Harris gave Wilson his blessing, telling him that “each generation seems to need its own” study of Barnum. Harris’s own thesis, however, suggests otherwise. Barnum built his legend, he writes at the beginning of Humbug, on “the myths and values of a self-proclaimed democracy.” This is what makes Barnum’s insights feel timeless: as long as Americans boast of the triumphs of our democracy (the wisdom of crowds, the beneficence of a free market, the promise of equality for all), his story will continue to mock such ideals as deranged humbug.

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MYSTERIOUS RUSSIAN ARTIST NICHOLAS ROERICH’S NEW YORK ‘HEADQUARTERS’ ·

(John Varoli’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 2/20; photo: John Varoli, Alexander Krasavin/Sputnik.) 

The Nicholas Roerich Museum in Manhattan is North America’s only institution dedicated to the heritage of the great Russian Symbolist painter. While the museum is a treasure trove of the artist’s works, few New Yorkers, or Russians, even know it exists.

Soon after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) fled St. Petersburg and sought refuge in Finland, then London, and finally made his way to New York in October 1920, staying and traveling around the U.S. until May 1923. A large exhibition of Roerich’s art, which was organized by the Chicago Art Institute, began in New York in December 1920 and which subsequently toured the country. 

During Roerich’s time in the U.S. he founded the Master Institute of United Arts (an art school in New York) and the Roerich Museum, which opened in November 1923 at a location overlooking the Hudson River (310 Riverside Drive, Manhattan’s Upper West Side). 

Like many other talented Russian emigres who fled the Revolution, Roerich quickly found admirers among New York City’s rich and powerful. Some patronized his art endeavors and were enthralled with his progressive ideas of world peace and spiritual harmony. 

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NEW APP LETS YOU HEAR CHAUCER’S THE CANTERBURY TALES IN ORIGINAL 14TH-CENTURY ENGLISH ·

(Ellen Gutoskey’s article appeared, 2/4, on mentalfloss.com; via Pam Green.)

One of the many reasons Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century magnum opus The Canterbury Tales is considered a groundbreaking collection of stories is because he chose to write it not in a highbrow language like Latin or French, but in the common tongue of the people: Middle English. Since colloquial English has changed quite a bit over the past seven centuries, The Canterbury Tales that you might have encountered in high school looks and sounds significantly different than it did when Chaucer first created it.

To give us a chance to hear The Canterbury Tales in its original, lyrical glory, an international team of researchers based at the University of Saskatchewan developed an app that reads it aloud in Middle English.

“We want the public, not just academics, to see the manuscript as Chaucer would have likely thought of it—as a performance that mixed drama and humor,” University of Saskatchewan English professor Peter Robinson, who led the project, said in a press release.

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LIZA MINNELLI OPENS UP ABOUT MOM JUDY GARLAND, WORKING WITH FOSSE AND GOING TO REHAB ·

(Marc Malkin’s article appeared in Variety, 2/4.)

Liza Minnelli is getting ready to be photographed for the cover of Variety. She’s wearing an off-the-shoulder black beaded shirtdress and perched on a director’s chair. As she adjusts herself, trying to find the right position to extend her bare legs, she screeches, “I’m getting f—ed by a chair!”

As if on cue, the room goes silent. But before anyone can blink, Minnelli’s distinctive throaty cackle bounces off the walls. It’s the permission everyone in the room needs to howl at what they can’t believe they just heard.

At 73, Minnelli is still the consummate entertainer, taking an awkward moment and turning it into a bawdy joke about getting intimate with a piece of furniture.

Minnelli isn’t a Hollywood icon — she’s a show business legend. Over the course of her career, she’s won four Tonys, two Grammys, an Emmy and an Oscar. But even before she danced her first step, sang a single note or memorized a line of script, she was famous.

“I was born and they took a picture,” Minnelli says.

That’s what happens when your mom is Judy Garland and your dad is Vincente Minnelli.

A few days before the shoot, Liza is settling in for a rare interview. She’s sitting on the couch in the living room of her modest Los Angeles-area apartment. The room is cozy, with a grand piano squeezed into the corner. Her Oscar for “Cabaret” sits on a low table alongside a copy of a 1972 Time magazine with Minnelli on the cover. On a table next to the couch are her Tonys, while a collection of additional awards crowd a sideboard near the entryway.

Hanging on one wall are reproductions of iconic Warhol paintings of Minnelli and her parents. The unending fascination with Garland continued last year with the release of “Judy.” Renée Zellweger is the favorite to win the Oscar for her transformation into Garland during the last months of her life. Minnelli has no interest in seeing the film. All she will say right now is “I hope [Zellweger] had a good time making it.”

Minnelli is wearing her signature black turtleneck and leggings, a look that originated out of comfort rather than fashion. “It’s what I’d wear to dance class because it was easy,” she explains.

She is a dancer at heart. She insists that’s all she ever wanted to be, but she was raised on movie sets and in concert halls. Singing and acting were inevitable. In fact, a one-sentence report in Variety on May 7, 1947, reads, “Liza Minnelli, 14-month-old daughter of Judy Garland, makes her acting bow in Metro’s ‘The Pirate,’ which her father is directing.” The headline: “In Ma’s Footsteps.”

When she was 19, Minnelli became the youngest person to win the leading actress in a musical Tony for her turn in the 1965 Kander and Ebb musical “Flora the Red Menace.” Four years later, she received her first Oscar nomination for her performance in the romantic comedy “The Sterile Cuckoo.”

Then came “Cabaret” in 1972. The Bob Fosse-directed big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name earned eight Oscars, including one for Minnelli’s work as American expat Sally Bowles in 1930s Berlin during the rise of Nazism.

Joel Grey, Minnelli’s “Cabaret” co-star, who took home an Oscar for his role as the Master of Ceremonies, first met her through Hal Prince when she made her nightclub debut at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. “She was this fresh, bursting, bright-eyed talent,” Grey remembers. “You could see that connection to her mother and father. You just knew that she was somebody that was going to happen. She was so tender and frail and fragile and strong at the same time.”

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WHY ALL NEW YORK HOTELS TURNED AWAY FAMOUS SOVIET WRITER MAXIM GORKY ·

(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 1/28.)

America in the early 20th century turned out to be an even more puritan country than Russia.

In the spring of 1906, Maxim Gorky, “the voice of the Russian revolution”, who would later become one of the Soviet Union’s greatest writers, arrived in America, accompanied by a lady whom the local newspapers initially referred to as Mrs. Gorky. However, the real Mrs. Gorky was back in Russia, looking after a terminally ill daughter, while the writer’s companion was Maria Andreyeva, an actress from the Moscow Art Theater, for whom the writer had left his wife and children. An extramarital affair of a public figure, albeit a visiting Russian one, was apparently not something that the U.S. public was prepared to tolerate.

Why did Gorky go to America?

A year before the writer’s trip, the tsar’s troops in St. Petersburg fired upon a peaceful demonstration of workers. That day, January 9, went down in history as “Bloody Sunday” and marked the beginning of the first Russian revolution. Maxim Gorky condemned the tsar’s actions and called for freedom of assembly, for which he was arrested and thrown into the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Under pressure from the public, including prominent foreign writers, Gorky was released. He joined the Social Democratic Labor Party, from which the Bolsheviks later emerged. However, in his homeland, Gorky’s political activity was not welcomed, so in order to avoid a new arrest, he decided to leave Russia.

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CURSING CORIOLANUS ·

(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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POWER PLAYS: THEATRE AND EAST GERMANY, 1989 (BBC RADIO 3) ·

POWER PLAYS

Listen

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

 

THE EXTRAORDINARY GENIUS OF DONAL MCCANN ON STAGE ·

(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

BLAST FROM THE PAST: SHELAGH DELANEY–PLAYWRIGHT ON PROBATION – ARCHIVE, 1960 ·

(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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SUSAN SONTAG’S AGAINST INTERPRETATION ·

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