Monthly Archives: May 2021


(Williamson’s article appeared in the Spectator, 5/17; Photo:  Wise blood: Flannery O’Connor in 1952.)

Was Flannery O’Connor a racist, or was she not?

Since the racial riots last summer, Flannery O’Connor has been scrutinized by literary critics and activists for reasons wholly unrelated to her literary artistry and her formidable oeuvre, whose size, though not large, is remarkable for a writer who died at the age of 39 after having been diagnosed in her mid-20s with lupus. The abruptly renewed interest in Miss O’Connor could be said almost to amount to an O’Connor revival were it not focused on a single question: ‘Was Flannery O’Connor a racist, or was she not?’

Attempts to answer it have involved an evaluation of her character based on her novels, stories and voluminous correspondence, and led in one instance to the critical conclusion that she was ‘not a saint’. It remains a fact, unknown perhaps to most people outside the Catholic Church, that Catholic doctrine teaches that every soul that is neither in Hell nor in Purgatory is in Heaven, and that anyone who has attained Heaven and the Beatific Vision is necessarily a saint. As not even Miss O’Connor’s most fervent critics have gone so far as to insist that she is in a state of eternal suffering it is logical to conclude that Flannery O’Connor is, indeed, St Flannery, or on her way to becoming that. The business at any rate is of little or no interest to most modern critics, who can never get beyond their objection that she took no part in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. ‘I say,’ she wrote, ‘a plague on both their houses.’

Black characters being virtually absent from her work, evidence of O’Connor’s supposed racism is drawn mostly from her letters, The Habit of Being, in which she displays an attitude toward her black neighbors and the black employees at Andalusia — her mother’s dairy farm some miles outside of Milledgeville, Georgia, where she lived for most of her short life following her medical diagnosis — that is wholly conventional for that place and time: benign, generous, slightly condescending and gently amused. O’Connor’s refusal to meet with James Baldwin in Georgia for the reason she gives in a letter to Maryat Lee (a young Southern liberal, civil rights activist and one of Flannery’s closest friends) cannot have been overlooked by her 21st-century critics: ‘It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on — it’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia. I have read one of his stories and it was a good one.’ In a conversation with an interviewer she gave her considered view of the race question in the South.

 ‘[The Southerner’s] social situation demands more of him than that [sic] elsewhere in the country. It requires considerable grace for two races to live together, particularly when the population is divided fifty-fifty between them and when they have a particular history. It can’t be done without mutual charity… [The] old manners are obsolete, but the new manners will have to be based on what was best in the old ones — in their real basis of charity and necessity… For the rest of the country, the race problem is solved when the Negro has his rights, but for the Southerner, whether he’s white or colored, that’s only the beginning.’

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(Charles Bramesco’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/19; PhotoA still of Orson Welles from New Deal for Artists. Photograph: Corinth Films.)

For its 40th anniversary, the Orson Welles-narrated documentary about Franklin D Roosevelt’s post-depression artist program is getting a vital re-release

n America, the culture war over state funding of arts programs never really ends, but rather assumes slightly altered forms over time. The latest battle lines have formed around Broadway, in desperate need of an infusion of cash from the government to survive the pandemic, much to the chagrin of budget-slashing conservatives. Not so long ago, the debate centered on Andres Serrano’s urine-soaked crucifix Piss Christ, intended as an improbable expression of faith yet overwritten as an act of sacrilege by an outraged Christian right. Though it takes up an absurdly minuscule amount of tax revenue, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) attracts more heat than most federal ventures, to the point that attacking it has become something of a national tradition for Republicans – one that predates the NEA itself.

In 1935, as part of the Second New Deal designed to get the American people back on their feet in the wake of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. Dedicated to employing the millions left without a job by the financial downturn, the agency facilitated the construction of innumerable public buildings and roads, but also reserved a chunk of its capital for a special branch deemed Federal Project Number One. This program disbursed grants to nearly 40,000 artists, writers, musicians, actors and other creative types before the WPA’s dissolution in 1942, ushering in a cultural renaissance that would lay the track for the following century’s achievements. This did not stop FDR’s critics from painting it as the vanity lark of a liberal lily-liver, however.

A 1981 documentary titled New Deal for Artists relates the obscure, seemingly dry, yet altogether edifying history of this unheralded golden era for American art. Produced for and aired on German television, it’s developed a reputation as something of a lost treasure due both to its forward-thinking stance on the vitality of an industry beyond manufacturing goods or generating money, as well as the narration from the velvety-voiced Orson Welles. Though unavailable to view for decades, this fascinating artifact has now been unearthed and restored for its widest release yet, exposing a fundamental chapter in the narrative of America’s identity.

As Welles explains in ear-caressing voiceover, pretty much every big name born between 1900 and 1915 got their start through the benevolence of the WPA. The ranks of its esteemed alumni include such titans of the written word as Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison and Studs Terkel; painters from Jackson Pollock to Mark Rothko to Willem de Kooning; and dramaturges like Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey and Welles himself. Without the security and room to experiment afforded to them by the auspices of the Project, a gargantuan crater would be left in the face of America’s heritage.

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As a storytelling tool, a ritual or a release, dance has been with us since our earliest days as humans. As live performances start up again here in France, we discuss some of the challenges faced by the sector. Sociologist and journalist Laura Cappelle joins us along with Allister Madin, principal dancer and choreographer.

From online dance festivals to home videos of rehearsals, we highlight some of the more innovative solutions staged while dance venues were shuttered.

Allister tells us about a professional year like no other, which took him from New Zealand to France via Spain, resulting in a creative collaboration with Ruben Molina inspired by the Flamenco traditions of Cordoba.

We also delve into dance’s deep roots and the vocabulary of movement that Laura examined while editing her recent book, “Nouvelle Histoire de la Danse en Occident”.


(Neil Genzlinger’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/18; Photo: The actor Charles Grodin with the title dog in the hit 1992 family movie “Beethoven.” “I don’t complain,” he said, “when the editor chooses my worst take because it’s the dog’s best take.”Credit…via Photofest.)

A familiar face who was especially adept at deadpan comedy, he also appeared on Broadway in “Same Time, Next Year,” wrote books and had his own talk show.

Charles Grodin, the versatile actor familiar from “Same Time, Next Year” on Broadway, popular movies like “The Heartbreak Kid,” “Midnight Run” and “Beethoven” and numerous television appearances, died on Tuesday at his home in Wilton, Conn. He was 86.

His son, Nicholas, said the cause was bone marrow cancer.

With a great sense of deadpan comedy and the kind of Everyman good looks that lend themselves to playing businessmen or curmudgeonly fathers, Mr. Grodin found plenty of work as a supporting player and the occasional lead. He also had his own talk show for a time in the 1990s and was a frequent guest on the talk shows of others, making 36 appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and 17 on “Late Night With David Letterman.”

Mr. Grodin was a writer as well, with a number of plays and books to his credit. Though he never won a prestige acting award, he did win a writing Emmy for a 1977 Paul Simon television special, sharing it with Mr. Simon and six others.

Mr. Grodin, who dropped out of the University of Miami to pursue acting, had managed to land a smattering of stage and television roles when, in 1962, he received his first big break, landing a part in a Broadway comedy called “Tchin-Tchin” that starred Anthony Quinn and Margaret Leighton.

“Walter Kerr called me impeccable,” Mr. Grodin wrote years later, recalling a review of the show that appeared in The New York Times. “It took a trip to the dictionary to understand he meant more than clean.”

Another Broadway appearance came in 1964 in “Absence of a Cello.” Mr. Grodin’s next two Broadway credits were as a director, of “Lovers and Other Strangers” in 1968 and “Thieves” in 1974. Then, in 1975, came a breakthrough Broadway role opposite Ellen Burstyn in Bernard Slade’s “Same Time, Next Year,” a durable two-hander about a man and woman, each married to someone else, who meet once a year in the same inn room.

“The play needs actors of grace, depth and accomplishment, and has found them in Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin,” Clive Barnes wrote in a rave in The Times. “Miss Burstyn is so real, so lovely and so womanly that a man wants to hug her, and you hardly notice the exquisite finesse of her acting. It is underplaying of sheer virtuosity. Mr. Grodin is every bit her equal — a monument to male insecurity, gorgeously inept, and the kind of masculine dunderhead that every decent man aspires to be.”

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(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/12; via Pam Green; Photo: Denée Benton, left, and Louisa Jacobson during filming of the coming HBO historical drama “The Gilded Age.” Benton is one of many celebrated stage actors in the cast.Credit…Alison Rosa/HBO.)

New and returning TV series like “The Gilded Age” and “The Good Fight” have been a lifeline for celebrated theater actors during the pandemic. Will TV, or theater, ever look the same?

Back in March, the actress Kelli O’Hara arrived on Rhode Island’s Gold Coast. A company of theater heroes, with enough combined Tonys to crowd a mansion’s mantels, met her there. “It was almost like Broadway said, ‘We’re shutting down,’” O’Hara recalled during a recent telephone interview. “So 20 of us got together and said, ‘Let’s go do a play in a seaside town.’”

But O’Hara — and colleagues like Christine Baranski, Nathan Lane, Debra Monk and Cynthia Nixon — hadn’t come to Newport to for a summer stock job. Or even for the clam cakes. They were on location for “The Gilded Age,” a robber baron costume drama from Julian Fellowes that will premiere on HBO in 2022.

With Broadway theaters closed since last April, “The Gilded Age” joins current series like “The Good Fight,” “Younger” and “Billions” and upcoming ones like “The Bite” and a “Gossip Girl” reboot in providing a glitzy refuge for theater stars during the shutdown. Broadway performers have always appeared here and there on scripted series. (No 2000s Playbill bio was complete without a “Law & Order” credit.) But this past year, television work — which is typically better paid than theater and more luxurious in its perks — was pretty much the only show in town.

“People are just really excited to be working and to have human contact and to be on set and telling a story again,” Allison Estrin, the casting director of “Billions,” said. “Every actor I’ve talked to has just expressed nothing but gratitude and excitement for being able to work right now.”

And because every stage actor was suddenly available, television has never seemed so theatrical. (You could cast a credible Sondheim revival with actors on “The Good Fight” alone.) Will television ever look the same? Will Broadway?

A year or so ago, casting directors would have had to compete with — or maneuver around — Broadway commitments. “It was always a scheduling nightmare to work around people’s curtain times,” Robert King, a creator of “The Good Wife” and “The Bite” said.

“Sorry to say it, but it worked for us,” he added about the shutdown, “because we could schedule more freely.”

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(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/11; Photo: Cracks in a marriage … Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman. Photograph: Allstar/Memento Films Production. )

Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film about two married actors has intriguing parallels with the play they are performing

At the start of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller devotes a full page of notes to describe the house where the long-married Willy and Linda Loman live in New York. It is, he writes, a “small, fragile-seeming home”. In his 2016 film The Salesman, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi cranks up that symbolism. When we first meet the central couple, amateur-theatre actors Emad and Rana Etesami (played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti), their flat in Tehran is crumbling around them. Building work has made the structure unsafe, and they are suddenly forced to evacuate. This large-scale get-out is the first of several pertinent exits and entrances in Farhadi’s film about theatre. Emad and Rana initially weather the disruption with kindness and good humour, but before long the cracks in their marriage begin to show too.

Emad and Rana’s domestic disaster occurs as they are rehearsing Miller’s Pulitzer winner, in which they portray Willy and Linda respectively. The opening shot in the film is of the Lomans’ bed and Farhadi’s expertly paced account of the actors’ personal dramas lives up to Miller’s subtitle: “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem.” Farhadi intersperses scenes from Miller’s play – both in rehearsals and the production – and cleverly captures the fragility of theatre performance. He does this by conveying not just the nervous tension crackling between actors relying upon each other on a stage – which he achieves by up-close camerawork – but also a sense of fragility in the very sets that surround them.

The Salesman is a film best seen without knowing too much about the plot. To be brief: the Etesamis move into a new apartment thanks to a favour from fellow actor Babak, the previous occupant was a sex worker, and a double case of mistaken identity leaves Rana traumatised and Emad obsessed with revenge. It would be a mistake to draw too many comparisons between their story and Miller’s play. There is no equivalent merging of real and dream worlds in Farhadi’s film, and the Etesamis are younger than the Lomans and as yet childless, but Farhadi teases out similar themes to Miller such as a particularly masculine sense of pride, ambition and shame.

Emad is a literature teacher (the film invites us to see teaching as a performance style too) and none of his class has heard of Death of a Salesman. Viewers who do know Miller’s play will spot details in the film that parallel the world of the Lomans. When Rana and Emad arrive to look around their new top-floor flat, the city of Tehran is framed as if by a replacement proscenium arch. The shot is specifically designed to show a similarity with the Lomans’ house, described in Miller’s notes as surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular shapes” and an “angry glow of orange”. The very personal struggles of both Miller and Farhadi’s couples are played out against the constant proximity of their neighbours and, by extension, the judgment of wider society. Rana and Emad have a constant audience even offstage. This is a recurrent feature in Farhadi’s other films, summed up by the title of his 2018 Spanish kidnapping drama Everybody Knows.

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(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared on Russia Beyond, 5/15;  Photo: Press photo; Public domain.)

One of the most mysterious and funniest Russian writers, he had a turbulent, complicated life and troubles with censorship and the Soviet system. Which all reflected in his brilliant works, some of them were published only after his death.

1. The White Guard

Bulgakov’s first ever novel depicts the city of Kiev that used to be a part of the Russian Empire and now was caught in the maelstrom of the Civil War that happened in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1918, the city wasn’t yet seized by the Bolsheviks and many of the tsarist military men and noblemen arrived there. This is a story of the Turbin family captured by the turbulent political events. Their house is the last shelter of the past life, ruined by the war. They still have guests and drink tea, but the world has changed with people reacting to the new circumstances in different ways: some become traitors, others flee, while a select few prefer to die fighting. 

This is a semi biographical novel and Bulgakov’s family members became prototypes for his characters, while the house where the Turbins live is clearly similar to the real Bulgakov house in Kiev. 

The White Guard was published in 1925 and, in the same year Bulgakov, wrote a play based on the novel. The Days of the Turbins became one of the most frequently staged plays in Russian theaters and beyond. Even though the plot features anti-Bolshevik officers, Stalin himself liked the play and watched it several times in the theater. 

2. A Young Doctor’s Notebook

A young doctor arrives at a countryside village to commence his work. He’s still very inexperienced, but has to undertake incredibly complicated tasks: amputations, a tracheotomy and a labor that required turning a baby in the womb. This book became even more popular after it was adapted into a series starring Daniel Radcliff in 2013. 

This is actually a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, as Bulgakov worked as a doctor for many years. After graduating from the medical faculty of the Kiev University, he was a military doctor during World War I and after was sent to a small village in Smolensk Region. 

A Young Doctor’s Notebook cycle doesn’t include his popular ‘Morphine’ short story, however, it is frequently comprehended as a related work. A young doctor finds diaries of his mate, who became a morphinist. Another semi-biographical motif from the life of Bulgakov, who also suffered from morphine for a while. 

3. Heart of a Dog

At the dawn of the new Soviet state, a genius Moscow surgeon named Professor Preobrazhensky (the prototype was allegedly Bulgakov’s uncle) does a scientific experiment. He catches a stray dog and transplants a part of a human brain and testicles into it. As a result, the dog takes a human form… but becomes a drunkard and a rowdy, though it perfectly fits into the new Soviet society. Bulgakov was mocking the fact that not very well educated people from former “lower classes” suddenly became the ruling class.

The story was written in 1925, but the manuscript was confiscated by state security services. However, the book was circulated among the Soviet intelligentsia via self-publishing copies of samizdat in the 1960s and made a true splash. Heart of a Dog only appeared in official printing after perestroika in 1987.

This story is incredibly popular among Russians and especially thanks to its brilliant big screen adaptation, it became “viral”, as multiple quotes from it became aphorisms. (Such as “Ruin, therefore, is not caused by lavatories, but it’s something that starts in people’s heads”).

4. Theatrical Novel (a.k.a. A Dead Man’s Memoir) 

A Moscow writer and playwright takes a reader to take a glimpse under the curtains of Moscow theatrical and literary life of the 1930s. He goes into multiple institutions suggesting his works to be published or staged, however, the censorship doesn’t approve any of them. 

This is another semi-autobiographical work by Bulgakov. In the 1920s, he moved to Moscow and, after a while, started working as a playwright and theatrical director. Several of his plays were huge successes in Moscow theaters, but, at the same time, many of plays were banned by Soviet censorship. Bulgakov suffered from the official critics blaming him for being anti-Soviet. And frequently without being able to work, he had troubles with money. 

In Theatrical Novel he pokes fun at eccentric writers and directors and mocks multiple officials that are involved in the theatrical process. Bulgakov hyperbolizes the things he had to overcome; however, to play it safe, he wrote that all the events were made up and fictitious.

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(Nick Miller’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5/14; Photo: Pope Alice will appear at the 2021 Dark Mofo festival.)

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Hobart’s Dark Mofo will put First Nations artists at the heart of its festival next month, as it tries to make amends for commissioning an artwork that offended some Indigenous people and triggered a significant backlash and threats of a boycott.

But the festival still plans to push the boundaries, with a spectacular public ritual where the ashes of deceased Tasmanians will be launched in fireworks to explode over the Derwent.

Pope Alice will appear at the 2021 Dark Mofo festival.

In April creative director Leigh Carmichael had promised to listen and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, after the festival was accused of stepping over the line with Union Flag, a proposed work by Spanish artists Santiago Sierra that would have soaked a British flag in the donated blood of First Nations people.

In Friday’s delayed program announcement for the festival, which begins June 16, the opening night includes a Home State Reclamation Walk featuring local Indigenous artists and leaders.

Participants will “follow fire and smoke [on] a street through our town retaken by vegetation” and the program says the “list of artists grows as individuals come forward to own the project”.

Dark Mofo cancels blood-soaked flag artwork

As part of an apology for the Union Flag debacle, Carmichael had vowed a “more culturally significant program” for future festivals.

Dark Mofo’s after-hours “art path” through central Hobart will feature Home State nipaluna, an installation described as “the first traditional hut of this kind built since the colonial invasion”, which will represent “the story of Country: a place of mourning and community… filled with stories and voices, objects and visitors” from a growing list of artists.

Carmichael said the cancellation of the festival in 2020 had left his team and artists “disoriented, confused and with a sense of loss”.

The “dark night of the soul” journey that many went on, he said, had given a context for this year’s festival, and “we pray it brings a glimmer of light in these uncertain times”. 

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The Bacchae


In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Euripides’ great tragedy, which was first performed in Athens in 405 BC when the Athenians were on the point of defeat and humiliation in a long war with Sparta. The action seen or described on stage was brutal: Pentheus, king of Thebes, is torn into pieces by his mother in a Bacchic frenzy and his grandparents condemned to crawl away as snakes. All this happened because Pentheus had denied the divinity of his cousin Dionysus, known to the audience as god of wine, theatre, fertility and religious ecstasy.

The image above is a detail of a Red-Figure Cup showing the death of Pentheus (exterior) and a Maenad (interior), painted c. 480 BC by the Douris painter. This object can be found at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.


Edith Hall
Professor of Classics at King’s College London

Emily Wilson
Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania


Rosie Wyles
Lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent

Producer: Simon Tillotson