5 EXTRAORDINARY SOVIET CLOWNS ·

 

Yuri Belinsky/Sputnik; Yevgeny Ivanov, Semyon Mishin-Morgenshtern/MAMM/MDF/russiainphoto.ru

Just like any other clowns, they wore funny clothes, had painted faces and behaved in a silly way. Funny enough, in the Soviet Union, circus clowns probably played more important roles than silver screen stars. They helped those behind the Iron Curtain cope with mundane matters, proving the age old adage that laughter is always the best medicine.

1. Mikhail Rumyantsev (1901-1983)

Mikhail Rumyanyntsev was much inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp.

Mikhail never cried over bad grades at school – he was born with a gift of laughter. At the beginning of his career in the late 1920s, Rumyantsev was profoundly moved and inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, the Tramp. Like Chaplin, Rumyantsev, whose stage name was Karandash (“The Pencil”), was also fairly clumsy, awkward and funny, and constantly found himself in embarrassing situations.

There was something innately comical and sad about him. He would turn up on stage dressed in an oversized suit and a hat. Despite being very short, just 142 cm tall (that’s less than five feet) he never worried about his looks (his wife was tall, beautiful and twenty years younger than him). The way he carried himself left no chance for an inferiority complex.

Rumyantsev’s partner in crime on stage was a Scottish Terrier nicknamed ‘The Blot’. During his long career, Karandash had performed with at least 13 Scotties.

Rumyantsev’s partner in crime on stage was a Scottish Terrier.

Rumyantsev actually became a clown quite by chance. In 1926, America’s sweetheart of silent cinema Mary Pickford and one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, Douglas Fairbanks, paid a visit to the Soviet Union. Rumyantsev saw the pair and decided to become an artist. He chose his stage name in 1935, to pay tribute to the 19th century French satirist Caran D’ache (whose pseudonym, in its turn, was a creative French transcription of karandash (карандаш), the Russian word for ‘pencil’).

The Soviet artist worked in the circus for over 55 years and his name on the billboard was invariably the guarantee of a sold-out show. However, Karandash didn’t like posters with his name. His peers said he was too modest to brag about success. On stage, he was just an ordinary bloke, good-natured, witty, cheerful, full of childlike spontaneity and charm.

His performances crossed genres, boasting stunts in acrobatics and gymnastics. Karandash became the first Soviet clown whose popularity transcended the geographical barriers of that time. In his best years, he had an army of fans in Finland, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Uruguay.

READ MORE: 10 funny Pepe the Frog doodles by Russian artists (PICS)

2. Slava Polunin (b.1950)

For Russia’s most famous clown, hope and laughter are like Siamese twins, bound together at some physical level. A sense of humor once helped Slava get through the turbulent times. Which is why Slava brings laughter wherever he goes.

Polunin's signature clown character ‘Assissai’ became the epitome of comic relief.

One of the founders of the Litsedei pantomime theater in St. Petersburg, Polunin is a master of tragi-comedy. His yellow clown character ‘Assissai’ became the epitome of comic relief.

Polunin made headlines shortly before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He organized the so-called ‘Peace Caravan’, in which mimes and clowns from across the globe got together to give street performances in Europe.

His major tour de force – ‘Slava’s Snowshow’ – has been staged in more than 80 countries worldwide, praised for warmth and wit, wisdom and sadness. Veering between laughter and tears, it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and won dozens of theatrical awards, including the coveted Laurence Olivier award in 1998. 

His major tour de force – ‘Slava’s Snowshow’ – has been staged in more than 80 countries worldwide.

Polunin’s signature theatrical performances are like this: you laugh to keep from crying. Slava blends freedom with anarchy as naturally as a knowledgeable bartender mixes tomato juice with vodka. Polunin did himself a big favor when he allowed himself to be not only the clown, but also the artist and the thinker. 

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ARE STREAMED PLAYS THEATER OR TV? UNIONS SETTLE A DISPUTE ·

(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/19; Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA’s agreement clears the way for more entertainment during the pandemic winter; via Pam Green.)

Two major entertainment industry unions have settled an internecine dispute over streaming theater, reaching an agreement that should make it easier for professional theaters around the country to film plays and musicals for broadcast during the coronavirus pandemic.

The dispute centered on a distinctly pandemic-era question: As theaters that have been shut down by the outbreak try to stream productions, should their contracts fall to the union that represents people who work in theater, or the one that represents film and television workers?

After a sometimes-bitter dispute, the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents 51,000 stage actors and state managers, and SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 people who work primarily in film and television, announced the agreement Thursday evening.

“This is a great day,” Kate Shindle, the Equity president, said in an interview Thursday. “This gives people who make theater the ability to innovate in ways that they need in order to survive.”

Shindle said she was hopeful that the agreement will make it possible for theaters to stream more work for the duration of the pandemic. “We want this work to happen,” she said.

Under the agreement, which is tentatively scheduled to last until Dec. 31, 2021, the two unions agreed that Equity will cover work recorded for digital distribution that replaces, or supplements, a live audience.

There are many restrictions — the Equity-covered work is supposed to be distributed to ticketholders or subscribers, and not broadcast to the general public. The audience, over the course of the streaming run, must not exceed twice the theater’s seating capacity over that time period, or three times the capacity for theaters with fewer than 350 seats.

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WB YEATS, THE SPANISH FLU AND AN EXPERIMENT IN QUARANTINE ·

(Joseph M. Hassett’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 11/20.)

The elixir of love is potent medicine for all locked in by pandemic or the virus of hatred

WB Yeats’s December 14th, 1918 letter to New York lawyer John Quinn alludes to the dramatic impact of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 on the Yeats family. He recounts that his wife George fainted upon receiving the telegraphed news that his father had been stricken with potentially fatal influenza and pneumonia. The poet’s initial impression that the fainting was caused by this news turned out to be wrong – in fact, George also had life-threatening flu and pneumonia.

The situation was especially dire because George was expecting their first child in February. The prospective parents were temporarily living in premises at 73 St Stephen’s Green that had been leased by Maud Gonne, the longtime elusive object of Yeats’s romantic pursuit and the subject of many of his poems.

The Yeatses had taken over Gonne’s lease for six months while she was imprisoned in England on suspicion of participating in a wartime conspiracy between Irish republicans and the Kaiser’s secret service. On November 24th, 1918, Gonne, who had been released on medical grounds, but barred from travelling to Ireland, suddenly appeared at the Yeatses’ door demanding entry. Given George’s condition, the potential for a police raid in search of Gonne, and the tight quarters occasioned by the presence of nurses attending George, Yeats refused entry to his erstwhile muse. A bitter quarrel ensued. Yeats eventually found new accommodationsdown the Green, his wife and father recovered, and Anne Butler Yeats was born on February 26th, 1919.

The month before Anne’s birth, her father was writing his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, which famously declares:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned….

The first World War, the Russian revolution and incipient anarchy in Irish politics were part of the cauldron of disturbance out of which the poem emerged. Still, one wonders, following the lead of Ambassador Daniel Mulhall in The Irish Times on May 25th, 2020, whether the turmoil visited on the Yeats family by the 1918 pandemic was part of the mix. The Second Coming vividly captures a sense of the world spinning out of control.

Lessons to be discerned from this traumatic experiment in living were not articulated until three years later when the sequelae of 1918 merged with similar turmoil, troubling Yeats while he was isolated in his Galway tower amid the violence and uncertainty of civil war. The poem that emerged this time was The Stare’s Nest by My Window. It describes the circumstances of its origin in terms that resonate with the fear and anxiety we suffer while locked in, physically and psychologically, by Covid-19:

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty.

Yeats later explained that he responded to these pressures with “an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature”.

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (100) ·

It is only through a strongly developed outer and inner technique that one can reach . . . the complete concentration of one’s inner life on the stage, the ability to fire one’s passions and show it in its nakedness without theatrical methods and with the help of imagination and creative effort. This is the greatest demand that can be made of a great and finished actor. (MLIA)

DOLLY PARTON HELPED FUND MODERNA’S VACCINE. IT BEGAN WITH A CAR CRASH AND AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP. ·

(Timothy Bella’s article appeared in The Washington Post, 11/18; Photo: Today.com; via the Drudge Report.)

As Dolly Parton tells it, her first-ever car accident in October 2013 was minor, but left her bruised and sore enough to seek medical advice at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

That’s where she met Naji Abumrad, a physician and professor of surgery. Abumrad knew next to nothing about the beloved megastar with big, blond hair, but he soon befriended her because he deeply enjoyed their talks about current events and science.

Their bond of nearly seven years received worldwide attention Tuesday after it was revealed that Parton’s $1 million donation to Vanderbilt for coronavirus research, made in honor of Abumrad, partially funded the biotechnology firm Moderna’s experimental vaccine, which a preliminary analysis released this week foundis nearly 95 percent effective at preventing the illness.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Abumrad recalled how Parton’s curiosity about Vanderbilt’s coronavirus research led to a gift that helped fund the vaccine that could be one of two available in the United States on a limited basis by the end of the year.

Among the agencies and universities listed as funding sources for the Moderna vaccine was “the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund,” which left some on social media joking about singing the refrain of her hit “Jolene” replaced with the word “vaccine.”The doctor said he was elated over his friend’s contribution to the early stages of a vaccine that eventually received nearly $1 billion in federal funding.

“Her work made it possible to expedite the science behind the testing,” Abumrad, 76, said on Tuesday night. “Without a doubt in my mind, her funding made the research toward the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it.”

Speaking to NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday, Parton, 74, expressed gratitude to those working tirelessly for a vaccine to help stop a pandemic that has killed at least 247,000 people in the United States.

“I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else, and when I donated the money to the covid fund, I just wanted it to do good,” she said. “Evidently, it is. Let’s just hope we find a cure real soon.”

Their friendship may seem unlikely, bonding a Lebanese-born physician and a cultural tour de force who ended up building an amusement park graced with her own name. But after the car crash, the pair found out they were both poor, mountain kids trying to get by, though they were raised more than 6,000 miles apart. Abumrad said Parton became someone he could confide in.

“Our homes were almost identical where we grew up,” Abumrad told The Post.

The physician’s son, Jad Abumrad, at first didn’t believe his father whenever he talked about his friend Dolly. Even when the physician’s phone rang and the name that came up was “Dolly Parton,” he remained skeptical of his stoic father’s claim of having the famous friend.

“It’s not that I thought he was lying, but it’s just such an odd thing,” said Jad, 47, in a text message. “He’s not the type of guy who hangs out with the Dolly Partons of the world.”

The true test came when Jad, host of the nationally syndicated “Radiolab,” wanted to interview Parton for the show and asked his father for an introduction. By the time the father and son walked into Parton’s headquarters in downtown Nashville, Jad’s doubts dissolved.

“That’s when I thought, ‘Well, okay, he actually DOES know Dolly,'” Jad recalled. That first meeting sparked the 2019 series, “Dolly Parton’s America,” a nine-part special exploring her impact on music and the world, and the singer’s ability to bridge society’s deepest divides.

When Parton asked Naji Abumrad toward the beginning of the year about coronavirus, she wanted to learn as much as she could about what was being done to study the virus, the physician said. Abumrad told her about “exciting developments” made on early vaccine research by a team at Vanderbilt led by Mark Denison, a physician and professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology.

Shortly thereafter, with the nation in the first weeks of lockdown, Parton wanted to do her part to help. She announced her seven-figure gift for coronavirus research on April 1, making the donation in honor of Abumrad – “My longtime friend.”

“Honestly, I never had to ask for her support for the research,” said Abumrad, calling his friend “the kindest and most philanthropic human being” he’s ever known. “She’s the one who suggested it.”

Though the promising news surrounding the Moderna vaccine was far from an individual achievement, Denison told the New York Times that Parton’s $1 million donation went a long way toward funding the “critical” early stages of research and testing.

“Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them,” Denison said.

The major reaction this week to Parton’s role in the vaccine has left the two friends overwhelmed, said Abumrad, but it has also reaffirmed his belief in science’s role to help as many people as possible.

Now a firm believer in his father’s friendship with Parton, Jad Abumrad said he’s probably not the only one thankful for the “weird luck” that brought them together years ago.

“He’s spent his entire life dedicated to helping people. And she’s famously the same,” he said. “Every day, their partnership makes a little more sense to me.”

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FOR GERMANY’S THEATERS, A RELUCTANT INTERMISSION ·

(A. J. Goldman’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/12; Photo: Credit…Sandra Then; via Pam Green.)

MUNICH — Before a second nationwide lockdown went into effect in early November, Germany’s theaters — and their audiences — had been adjusting to measures that allowed a semblance of normal cultural life in the midst of the pandemic. Mandatory masks, spread-out seating plans and pragmatic program changes all ensured that the country’s playhouses were operating safely.

But after two months of performing under these changed circumstances, theaters seemed taken aback when, on Oct. 28, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced they would have to close again. This time around, they have not gone gently.

Officially, the second lockdown will last only a month, but few companies expect to return to the stage in early December. Faced with the threat of indefinite closure, they have reacted with refreshing chutzpah, challenging politicians to consider live performance as an essential service rather than a leisure activity.

“There is no danger of infection if you maintain the minimum distance of six feet and properly ventilate the auditorium,” said an open letter to lawmakers signed by arts administrators in the state of Bavaria. “So far, not a single case of infection has been proved to come from a theater visit,” the letter added.

I’ve been impressed with the precautions that playhouses have taken, although I’d be lying if I said that my much-curtailed theatergoing has not been attended by anxiety every step of the way, from riding the subway and avoiding audience members in the lobby to carefully filing out of the theater after the show.

Sometimes, that sense of unease was magnified when a production hardly seemed to justify the risk, like Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson’s staging of “The Oresteia” at the Volksbühne in Berlin. The show, scheduled to return when the lockdown is lifted, makes for a loud and cluttered evening that has surprisingly little to do with Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy.

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ANCIENT STATUE OF HERMES DUG UP IN ATHENS ·

(via AFP. Photo:  © Provided by AFP This handout picture released by the Greek Culture Ministry on November 15, 2020, shows the head of an ancient statue of the Greek god Hermes, in Athens, which has been unearthed during excavations for sewage system improvements in central Athens, the ministry of culture said on November 15, 2020.)

The head of an ancient statue of the Greek god Hermes has been unearthed during excavations for sewage system improvements in central Athens, the ministry of culture said Sunday.

The “original artwork dating late 4th century BC or early 3rd century BC” is in good condition, a statement said.

The marble head, found just 1.3 metres (four feet) under the pavement on the busy Aiolou street on Friday, “depicts the god in a mature age and is obviously a part of a herm”, the statement added.

Herms or Hermas are sculptures, usually of the head of Hermes, and sometimes a torso, which were set on a squared column erected at road crossings as signs.  

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EMILY WILSON ON AESCHYLUS’ ORESTEIA ·

(Wilson’s article appeared in the London Review of Books, 10/8; via Norm Silverman.)

Aeschylus’​ Oresteia begins with the story of a grieving, righteously angry woman seeking justice for her daughter. The child was killed by her father, the woman’s husband, in order to enable a vast war. Each of the three plays is radically different in style, mood and action. But each centres on female anger and female grief at violent loss of life and the willingness of family members to kill one another. The trilogy is about language and the mysterious will of the gods, about tyranny, freedom and political change, and about a slow path to maturity for one young man (Orestes) and an entire culture. That ‘maturity’ turns out to involve the subordination of women and of the family, which is conceived as feminine, to enable the creation of a political community like real-life historical Athens, in which male citizens use the law courts and the institutions of democracy to legislate for structures of power that can contain, marginalise and silence other members of the community – women, immigrants, enslaved people. All the plays’ intertwined elements are knotted into a central set of questions about how to suppress, silence or pacify female rage, and how to reconcile the close kinship of the household with responsibilities to the larger community or city-state.

In Agamemnon, the long first play, the mood is dark and the language is dense, metaphorical and hard to parse. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, has set up a relay of torch fires to bring her news of her husband’s victory at Troy, and the image of the relay signal also connects to the play’s larger story: the way events from far away and long ago still haunt the house of Argos. At Aulis, on the way to Troy, Agamemnon was forced to choose between sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia or abandoning the war to recover his brother’s wife, Helen. ‘Which of these is free from evil?’ he asks, in Oliver Taplin’s translation. Jeffrey Bernstein has the wordier ‘Which of these two ways is without evil?’ David Mulroy, the punchier ‘Can either choice be right?’ Agamemnon is in a position where there is no right answer, no guiltless way to act.

The terrible moment is figured as in part a choice, in part an act of compulsion: Agamemnon ‘placed his neck beneath the harness/of what had to be’.* The ambiguity of his freedom, or lack of it, is compounded by further mysteries, such as when the cycle of violence began. Was it with the killing of Iphigenia? Or longer ago, when Menelaus married Helen, taking a ‘lion cub’ into his house? Or was it when Atreus, Agamemnon’s father, tricked his brother into eating his own children? Or further back still, in the dark plans of Apollo, god of light, and the will of Zeus, ‘whoever he may be’, the god who killed and usurped his own father? The play’s riddling language hints at the way one word, phrase, action or body can turn into another, often at a terrible price. The death of Iphigenia becomes the death of Agamemnon. More broadly, in one of the Chorus’s most powerful images, Ares, the war god, is presented as a money changer who ‘trades men into jars’ filled with ash. The living become the dead, who in turn haunt the living.

Despite the first play’s title, Agamemnon – a flustered, confused, fragile conqueror, who sees himself as a victim even before his wife axes him to death in the bath – plays a relatively small part in it. Two extraordinary female characters dominate its action. Clytemnestra, a wonderfully intelligent, articulate, determined strategist, is described as a woman whose heart ‘organises like a man’: she has spent the past ten years plotting her husband’s murder, which will allow her (along with her feeble lover, Aegisthus) to seize the throne. Greek tragedy almost never shows violent action; the killing is represented by screams from the wings. But Clytemnestra’s triumph over her husband is represented on stage verbally and dramaturgically, above all in the great central scene in which she persuades the reluctant victor to enter the house and trample on the rich red tapestries looted from Troy, providing a visual acknowledgment that his victory has involved an assumption of infinite privilege (‘and who could drain it dry?’) and the ‘crushing underfoot’ of precious things, starting with his own child – ‘the treasure of my labour pains’, as Clytemnestra puts it. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars in which Athens and other Greek cities fought off attempts at invasion by the Persian army; he is clear-sighted about the greed and egotism of this conquering hero. Clytemnestra hides her intentions in elaborate riddling before the murder, but once her husband is dead, she presents it as orgasmically thrilling: he ‘spouted out a jet of blood/that showered me with a drizzle of dark dew’, in Taplin’s lushly alliterative version; Mulroy has a rather less sexy interpretation of the verb (ἐκφυσιάω, which suggests ‘to snort out’ and is used elsewhere for snoring, and elephants squirting water from their trunks): ‘he vomited a shining clot of blood.’

The second great female character in the Agamemnon is Cassandra, who seems, on her first entrance, to have a non-speaking role. In 458 bc, tragedians had only recently begun to use three actors rather than two, and Aeschylus brilliantly exploits the audience’s expectations to create surprise and confusion when the third actor, playing the foreign woman enslaved by Agamemnon, speaks. Still more surprising, the outsider turns out to know far more than any native-born Greek about the house of Argos – where, as she well knows, she will die alongside her captor. Queen Clytemnestra’s aggression, deceit and violence are counterbalanced by the insight and courage of Cassandra, who is blessed and cursed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy; she sets aside grieving for herself and her ruined city to step towards a death that will, as she also knows, bring down her killers.

The Libation Bearers, the middle play of the trilogy, centres on the tomb of the dead Agamemnon and his surviving daughter, Electra. As in the first play, there are contrasting female characters: Electra, driven to murderous plots by long-standing grief and rage, and Clytemnestra, who becomes desperately aware that, like Cassandra before her, she is on the way to death. Electra’s brother, Orestes, returns from exile and, urged on by his sister, his friend Pylades and the oracles of Apollo, steels himself to kill his mother and Aegisthus.

These murders echo those of Agamemnon and Cassandra in the previous play, though they are represented very differently. Clytemnestra luxuriates in the bloody slaughter of her husband, but Orestes hesitates, especially when Clytemnestra bares her breast to remind him that the body he threatens to kill is the source of his life. At the play’s end, Orestes presents the murders as an act of political liberation, freeing Argos from a ‘pair of tyrants’; but he begins to see visions of the Furies, the doglike, snake-haired goddesses who pursue and torture those who shed the blood of their own family members.

In the final play, The Eumenides (‘Kindly Ones’, a traditional euphemism for the Furies), the goddesses are visible to the audience: they serve as the hissing, violent chorus, in contrast to the human choruses of the first two plays and most other Athenian tragedies. Whereas the earlier plays were set in the distant city of Argos, The Eumenides is set where the play was performed: in Athens, on the hill of the Areopagus, a stone’s throw from the Theatre of Dionysos. The dominant characters are not humans but gods. Orestes has come to Athens for sanctuary, to beg Athena for absolution from matricide. Athena, like Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, is the hyper-intelligent, scheming ruler of her city. But unlike Clytemnestra, she is not mortal, angry, grieving or murderous: she has no personal interest in the case, but turns out to have a particular fondness for the democratic institutions of Athens in the fifth century. She organises a trial by jury.

The Furies accuse Orestes of the ultimate horror in shedding his mother’s blood; no matter his justification, they insist that he is polluted and cannot return to Argos or belong to any religious or family community. Apollo speaks in his defence, arguing that matricide does not count as the murder of a family member, because, according to one of several competing medical theories circulating in Aeschylus’ time, women’s bodies provide only a container for the embryo, which is formed solely of material from the father’s body. The jury is split, and Athena breaks the tie in favour of Orestes. Whatever may be true of human biology, she at least is entirely her father’s daughter, born from his head: ‘And so in every way I’m for the male.’ Clytemnestra was accused of having a heart like a man. Electra, in desperate grief, obsessed over her dead father and absent brother, and resented her mother. Athena takes the pattern of female male-sympathisers even further: she has the militaristic, dominant heart of her father Zeus, and insists that the sunlit, male-dominated world of politics will, from now on, prevail over the underground, ancestral blood-rights of the female Furies. The Furies are, understandably, furious. But Athena restrains their anger by promising them a permanent, if subordinate place in the ritual life of the city – something analogous to the political status that resident aliens (‘metics’) had in real-life Athens.

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