Category Archives: Books

MADONNA, PAGLIA, AND ‘PLAYING TO THE GODS: SARAH BERNHARDT, ELEONORA DUSE, AND THE RIVALRY THAT CHANGED ACTING FOREVER’ BY PETER RADER  ·

By Bob Shuman

In August, Madonna will be sixty, a mean trick of time to any girl or boy who reeled at the thought of being “material” in 1984, barely out of the commune.  The Staff of Spin  notes she went on to define and shock as “Coke-can-curled,  lipsticker movie star; barrier-crossing creator of the original Sexy Book of Sexy Sex; a ‘90s raver; a dancehall queen; an all-American girl; a Yoga mat toting goth child; and more.” Fans and feminists praise, defend, and sometimes revile her, the best-selling female rock artist of the twentieth century.  Two years ago, however, Camille Paglia, her intellectual advocate, wrote that the star had become a “prisoner of her own wealth and fame.”  At the Billboard Woman of the Year Awards at the time, Madonna said she stood before her audience as a “doormat”–she stated that David Bowie “made me think there were no rules.  But I was wrong.  There are no rules—if you’re a boy.  There are if you’re a girl.” Paglia, betrayed, called the performance “maudlin self-pity.” Madonna, the cultural barometer, the mistress of reinvention, “the real feminist,” had pinpointed the difference between the ‘80s and 20016 (and maybe now).  Imagine then the change in concerns, not of forty years, but of one hundred—or even fifty years beyond that.  Would anyone much care about Madonna then?  Or would the debate be rekindled?

Peter Rader’s dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, Playing to the Gods (Simon & Schuster), is a popular tribute to icons of their own day, on the cusp of the twentieth century.  The theatrical period is largely unknown, in America, because serious productions of new plays are not normally said to have arrived until the twenties or even thirties.  Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Duse (1858-1924) are two of the handful of ghostly names we dimly recall from earlier, floating before us based on stage lore, sepia posed photographs, and sometimes ravishing Art Deco posters  They are considered to be the finest actresses of their time (French and Italian, respectively), influencing Stanislavski and Proust, Gielgud and Brando. However, the impermanency of theatre has left us with little in the way of primary source material regarding their artistry (which has let others snitch from stories told in the dark)—there are archaic, silent films of Bernhardt, and recordings were made of her; Duse leaves us one silent film.  Chekhov said of her, “I do not know Italian, but she acted so well that I felt I was understanding every word.  What a marvelous actress!  Never before have I seen anything like it.”  Method acting is her legacy passed through her to Stanislavki (who saw her and wrote books about her technique–more was learned as Americans ventured to Moscow),  and the knowledge was transmitted to Strasberg, AdlerMeisner and other teachers of the craft.  Duse, who looked up to Bernhardt, fourteen years her senior, wanted to be possessed by her roles, an idea about theatre which may remind of  philosopher Simon Critchley today—she also did not recognize the audience, constructing a fourth wall, which had not been used previously.  Her need for privacy may remind of Garbo, and her preference to stay still in a scene can recall Liv Ullmann, who would also, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal recorded, play “the gaiety that is not happiness, and with a light laugh . . .  play[s] all the arid darkness behind the laugh.”

Madonna seems closer to Bernhardt (because of her love of imitation, so does Meryl Streep), for both know that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Having acted in terrible movies (Who’s That Girl?, Body of Evidence, Swept Away) and given atrocious performances (nine Gold Raspberry Awards; sixteen nominations), Madonna’s is probably the most memorable character in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, however, because in it, she was the East Village of the 1980s. Bernhardt received her share of negative press, too, but she rarely listened to a critic, including George Bernard Shaw and his notable drubbing: “[the] childishly egotistical character of her acting . . . is not the art of making you think more highly or feel more deeply, but the art of making you admire her, pity her, champion her, weep with her, laugh at her jokes, follow her fortunes breathlessly, and applaud her.  The woman is always the same.  She does not enter into the leading character.  She substitutes herself for it.”  She didn’t have to listen to a man either: her great ambition was fueled by an ability to manipulate men and break rules (ethnically Jewish, she was the daughter of a courtesan and became one herself, as well as a novice in the Catholic church).  She formed her own companies, rented her own theatres, and toured the world (as did Duse). Bernhardt even played men, with much ado–watch her swordfight on YouTube as Hamlet

 She thought she could play a man better than a male: “There is one reason why I think a woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man.  These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty.  A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon . . . . An older man . . . does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thoughts of the man.”  At the time Bernhardt was in her mid-fifties.

Playing to the Gods, however, misses another of Bernhardt’s arguments, by piggybacking on the success of the television series Feud: Bette and Joan. The amount of impressive research in the volume should actually not be in service of a tawdry answer to a reconsideration of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Although there are gothic moments in the lives of Bernhardt (her sleeping in a coffin, studying the faces of the dead, and horrifying leg operation) and Duse (her call to mysticism and the transcendence of materialism)—and although they were real competitors, at least battlers in upstaging, hoping to be considered the superior artist, they were also warring over a dominant aesthetic style.  Their determinations are still being deliberated today in the world of entertainment, but they might be seen as closer to characters in Les Liaisons Dangereuses rather than to those in B-movie Hollywood, as implied in the following: “But Bernhardt had her talons in [his] flesh with no intention of releasing him.” Because Bernhardt and Duse spent enormous amounts of their own money on productions, they kept the quality of  material high. For example, Bernhardt would not portray the realism of Ibsen, because she “felt it made theatre pedestrian.” Duse felt differently, and is lauded by feminists for making Nora known internationally. These actors are exemplars of high art, not trash—and this contradiction may be part of the reason why their personalities have difficulty coming through in the text.  Yet, the women did change with trends, regarding the subjects of their plays and the sets and costumes of their productions.  Playing to the Gods needs more nuance, ordering, and tightening, a sharper, less melodramatic construction—and a less colloquial editing: there is repetition and there are missing points.  Whatever the pronouncement of critics, however, some might hope that this was more of an academic volume, but the answer is actually in the title: “playing to the gods” means playing to those in the high-up, inexpensive seats.  Readers will see Peter Rader’s studio background in the work, but he’s still swimming in the material.  Hollywood, of course, as well as Schiller, would ask the women to confront each other face to face, a sad omission of history.

 

As a personal reaction, it was not Bernhardt, Duse, or even Madonna who made thinking about Playing to the Gods most interesting.  Rather, it was the lover, whom Bernhardt and Duse shared: Gabriele d’Annunzio (the women also shared roles, most memorably Camille, venues—they even  once acted in the same play in the same city, during the same week–and hired the same theatre practitioners).  D’Annunzio was a writer admired by Joyce, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Ernest Hemingway, among others.  In a scandalous novel called The Flame, he discusses Duse and her art—an influence unforgotten, if not specifically understood. Bernhardt created herself as an icon, the first female megastar, through tireless work, expert publicity, the love of symbolism, and trouping—in Kansas City, for example, she played one performance to 6,500 people: a beacon for rock stars in huge arenas. Perhaps, Playing to the Gods should be seen as an accessible introduction to the period and its great artistic innovators–and maybe it will enable a further opening of this market and a continuing examination of the area. 

Dying in Paris, Bernhardt had a younger actress take over her leading role in L’Aiglon.  Like O’Neill, who cursed that he was born in a hotel and would die in one, Duse, born on the road, died on it, too, in Pittsburgh.  Madonna, swearing that she’ll never make another movie, may have let her fans down on feminism, an issue both Bernhardt and Duse championed. Paglia can not forgive her for it.  Will time? 

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

View ‘Playing to the Gods‘ on Amazon

 

BOOK RAVE: ‘FIELD OF BLOOD, A MODERN WESTERN’ BY WAYNE ALLENSWORTH, ENDEAVOUR MEDIA (REPRESENTATION: MARIT LITERARY AGENCY) ·

Chilton Williamson Jr., at Chronicles Magazine writes:

Field of Blood is one of the best new novels I have read in many a yeara superbly written book by a Russian scholar and analyst who is also a careful artist, a stylist, and a poet in prose and in form who has accomplished what few essayists and nonfiction authors ever succeed at: mastering, with apparent effortlessness, the craft of fiction. . . .

“The novel is a considerable literary achievement as well as an appalling prophetic vision of contemporary America, and of the modern world.  I can think of no more pessimistic view bound between covers, yet the pessimism compels the reader and pulls him in rather than putting him off. . . .

This is a true, and terribly beautiful, novel by an artist of considerable ability. . . worthy of comparison with some of the best American works of fiction in recent times.. . .”  

[Field of Blood: A Modern Western, by Wayne Allensworth (London: Endeavour Media) 213 pp., $7.99]

Allensworth has previously received the following quote:

“Wayne Allensworth provides a powerful and moving meditation on American modernity–part gritty action yarn, part compassionating polemic, part evisceration of spiritual emptiness. Across his grand, boldly-coloured landscapes, confused prisoners of circumstances kill or are killed, while republics and civilizations bleed in and out of each other, and everyone and everywhere is compromised”–Derek Turner, author of Sea Changes, Displacement, and A Modern Journey  

Visit Amazon: [Field of Blood: A Modern Western, by Wayne Allensworth (London: Endeavour Media) 213 pp., $7.99]

Visit Chronicles Magazine

Chronicles entire review

Credit: Wayne Allensworth photo (c) 2017 by Elizabeth Allensworth Merino.  All rights reserved.

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.

(Read more)

Photo: Irish Times

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH ON ‘BLACK PANTHER’: WAKANDA FOREVER! ·

(Smith’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 5/24.)   

Black Panther

A film directed by Ryan Coogler

April 1992: buildings burned, stores were looted, people were killed. An all-white jury in a suburb of LA had just acquitted four white police officers who had been captured on a camcorder brutally beating Rodney King, a black motorist, the year before. When the verdict was announced, no one could believe it. What ensued, depending on whom you talked to, was “a riot,” a “social explosion,” “a revolution.” Some politicians and academics, waiting to see how the dust settled, chose to call it “the events in LA.” People stood on rooftops watching the fire and smoke, terrified for their property or lives, estimating how long it would take for the violence to get to them. But the destruction stayed pretty much in South Central and areas immediately surrounding it—Koreatown and the lower Wilshire area. It never got to the shops in Beverly Hills. The cry and anthem in the street was “No Justice—No Peace!”

(Read more)

BROADWAY ‘MOCKINGBIRD’ IS BACK ON TRACK, AS COURT DISPUTE ENDS ·

(Michael Paulson’s and Alexandra Alter’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/10; via Pam Green.)  

Atticus Finch is coming to Broadway. But how closely he will resemble the iconic figure from Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a mystery.

The highly anticipated stage production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is proceeding after a blistering pair of federal lawsuits over a $7 million stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” were settled on Thursday, according to a statement from the parties.

That settlement means that the play, with a new script by the prominent Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, will be allowed to go forward. The production, with Jeff Daniels starring as the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch and Bartlett Sher as its director, is scheduled to begin rehearsals in September, with previews starting in November and the show opening in December at the Shubert Theater.

(Read more)

Photo: Famous Biographies

JOAN ACOCELLA ON BOB FOSSE: CROTCH SHOTS GALORE ·

(Acocella’s article appeared in the 5/24 issue of The New York Review of Books.)

Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical

by Kevin Winkler

Oxford University Press, 350 pp., $29.95

All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical “Chicago”

by Ethan Mordden

Oxford University Press, 260 pp., $29.95

 

When people think of the work of Bob Fosse, Broadway’s foremost choreographer-director in the 1960s and 1970s, what they are likely to see in their minds is a group of dancers, in bowler hats and white gloves, standing in a stiff configuration and bobbing up and down in a cool sort of way. The dancers may rotate their wrists or splay their fingers, but they don’t stick out too many parts of themselves at one time, and they generally don’t travel around the stage much. They are often dressed in some combination of panties and garters and sheer silks; and even in the live shows, not to speak of the films, they offer you crotch shots galore. Not that they’re planning to do much with their crotches. Most of them would as soon knife you as go out with you. The sex is not sexual but satirical. It’s there to show us that every word we speak is a lie, that every promise will be broken.

That is what Fosse came to think about life, but even he was a child once. He was born in Chicago in 1927, the son of a salesman and a housewife, and he wandered into dance in what, for boys of the period, was the usual way, or the way they later claimed: his sister went to dance lessons, and he accompanied her. She quit; he stayed and became a star.

(Read more)

INSIDE AN ARGENTINE TRANSLATION OF ‘HAMLET’ PAIRED WITH SURREALIST ILLUSTRATIONS ·

(Marianne Hewitt’s article appeared in Shakespeare and Beyound, 4/27; via Pam Green.)

The poet and critic Rafael Squirru (1925-2016) and the artist Juan Carlos Liberti (1930-) collaborated to create Argentine translations of Shakespeare’s plays, illustrated with captivating surrealist images.

The Folger’s vaults contain a copy of the duo’s Hamlet (1976)signed and donated by Squirru himself. This Argentine translation updates Luis Astrana-Marin’s Spanish translation of the play, published in Madrid in 1949. Squirru adapts the text specifically to suit ‘the Latin American ear’, as he writes in the introduction, since the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish of Argentina are distinct in accent, vocabulary, and rhythm.

Juan Carlos Liberti’s paintings include colorful scenes of tango dancers and musicians in Buenos Aires, as well as surrealist Shakespearean illustrations. The following illustration is included in the front matter of Hamlet:

(Read more)

Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library

CAESAR BLOODY CAESAR ·

Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970

(Josephine Quinn’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 3/22.)

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works: Gallic War, Civil War, Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War

edited and translated from the Latin by Kurt A. Raaflaub

Pantheon, 793 pp., $50.00

Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970

When Julius Caesar was thirty-one years old in 69 BCE, so the story goes, and serving as a junior Roman magistrate in Spain, he once stood lamenting before a statue of Alexander the Great because he had achieved so little at an age by which Alexander had already conquered the world.

He had good reason for concern. Although his recent election as a quaestor—one of the officials responsible for finances—had given him a lifetime seat in the Senate, Roman politics were more of a funnel than a ladder: twenty quaestors who had been elected at thirty years old could compete nine years later for eight praetorships, and then, three years after that, for just two annual consulships. To rise, you needed political friends, name recognition, and, in order to buy elections, a great deal of money.

Caesar was already admired as an orator, but he was best known for his debts, and he was good at making enemies, especially among the powerful conservatives in the Senate. Furthermore, while he had ably fulfilled the standard military duties of a young Roman nobleman, he had attracted attention only for his first assignment overseas at the age of about twenty: a trip to Bithynia in northern Anatolia, where he had become friendly—many said extremely friendly—with its king, Nicomedes. Whether or not the rumors were true, this was the first hint of a lifelong tendency to test the bounds of Rome’s unwritten moral and legal codes.

(Read more)

TOLSTOY, GORKY, AND “THE LOWER DEPTHS” ·

(Pavel Basinsky’s article appeared in Russia Beyound the Headlines, 3/2.)

While the younger Gorky considered Tolstoy almost a god, the great Leo had a strong interest in the new writer, even on the verge of obsessive jealousy. Musings on the very nature of God became a passionate bone of contention between the two extraordinary writers.

This year, Russia celebrates the 150th birthday of one of its most important 20th century writers, the stormy petrel of the revolution, Maxim Gorky. Russia Beyond publishes a translation of an extract from a new book by Pavel Basinsky “The Passion According to Maxim. Gorky: 9 Days After Death,” which is about the complicated relations between Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy. The book will be published this March in Russian by Yelena Shubina publications, AST publishing (link in Russian).

***

Tolstoy’s first diary entries about Gorky were favorable. “We had a good conversation,” “a true man of the people,” or “I am glad that I like both Gorky and Chekhov, particularly the first one.” But from about the middle of 1903 there is a drastic – and even whimsical – change in Tolstoy’s attitude to Gorky.

“Gorky – there is a misapprehension,” Tolstoy writes on Sept. 3, 1903, adding angrily: “The Germans know Gorky, but they don’t know Polenz.”

But Wilhelm von Polenz (1861-1903), a prominent German writer of the naturalist school, could not compete with Gorky, who by 1903 had become famous in Germany with his play, The Lower Depths, which premiered at Max Reinhardt’s Kleines Theater in Berlin on Jan.10, 1903 under the title, Nachtasyl (Night shelter). It was staged by the well-known director, Richard Vallentin, who himself played Satin, while Reinhardt played Luka. The success of the German version of The Lower Depths was so overwhelming that it had 300 (!) performances in a row, and in the spring of 1905 its 500th performance was celebrated in Berlin.

It is silly and ridiculous to suspect Leo Tolstoy of envy, but there was a certain element of writerlyjealousy in this entry, and it’s not accidental that, while calling Gorky a “misapprehension,” he refers to the Germans. The runaway success of The Lower Depths, not just in Russia but also in Germany, had already reached his ears. Tolstoy had heard The Lower Depths in Crimea read by Gorky himself in manuscript form, and already then thought the play strange and couldn’t understand why it had been written. If the play had not been such a success, Tolstoy would simply have concluded that the young author had made the wrong creative choice. Even before then, he had upbraided Gorky for the fact that his peasants talk “too cleverly,” and that much in his prose was exaggerated and unnatural.

(Read more)

Photos: Russia Beyond the Headlines

 

SAMUEL FRENCH WILL OPEN THE BOOKSHOP AT LONDON’S ROYAL COURT THEATRE ·


(Ruthie Fierberg’s article appeared in Playbill Online, 2/13.)

The theatrical publisher opens the U.K. version of New York City’s Drama Book Shop.

The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square is a landmark of the theatre scene across the pond. On February 13, the U.K. division of Samuel French announced there will be an addition to the theatre space: a theatre bookshop.

The Bookshop will be located in the theatre’s Balcony Bar and will open its doors March 5.

“We are thrilled to reopen a bookshop in London, especially at the iconic Royal Court Theatre. When we closed our shop in Fitzroy Street last year, we were overwhelmed by messages of support,” said managing director of Samuel French U.K. Douglas Schatz in a statement.

(Read more)