Category Archives: Books

‘THE FREAKS CAME OUT TO WRITE’ REVIEW – HOW THE VILLAGE VOICE CHANGED AMERICAN JOURNALISM ·

(Peter Conrad’s article appeared in the Observer, 2/27.)

Tricia Romano’s entertaining oral history of the radical New York newspaper is an elegy to a rough and ready era of punch-ups and passion

Midway between the glitz of Times Square and the grind of Wall Street, Greenwich Village used to be New York’s ulterior zone, a refuge for artists and agitators, dropouts and sexual dissidents. With the New York Times established as the city’s greyly official almanac, in 1955 this bohemian enclave acquired its own parochial weekly, the Village Voice. The rowdy, raucous Voice deserved its name, and now, following its closure in 2018 (it has since been revived as a quarterly), it has an appropriately oral history. The collage of interviews in The Freaks Came Out to Write extends from the paper’s idealistic beginnings to its tawdry decline, when it scavenged for funds by running sleazy ads for massage parlours.

The Voice’s origins were proudly amateurish. One early contributor was a homeless man recruited from a local street; equipment consisted of two battered typewriters, an ink-splattering mimeograph machine and a waste paper basket for rejected submissions. Morale spiked when a staff member discovered that dried pods used in fancy flower arrangements contained opium, which was boiled up in the office when the time came for a coffee break. Editorial standards hardly matched the pedantic correctness of the New YorkerNorman Mailer, a columnist for a while, loudly berated a Voice copytaker who mistook “nuance” for “nuisance” and ordered the cowering menial to “take your thumb out of your asshole!”

The Village’s voices were journalists of a new kind, flashy and often crazily quirky

Behaviour like this was the rule at the ungenteel Voice. An investigative reporter joined forces with teenage gangs on looting expeditions, and during a riot at Tompkins Square in the East Village another journalist relished the wet but effective weaponry used by squatters, who bagged their own urine, added donations from stray cats, and dropped the plastic sacks from rooftops on to the police below. “Cops will run away from cat urine,” we’re assured. “It’s a lot better than a gun.”

At the New York Times, someone else reflects, people stabbed you in the back, whereas the more upfront writers at the Voice aimed for the chest. Notoriously competitive, contributors denounced one another in abusive slogans scrawled on the walls of the office toilet. Occasionally there were punch-ups in the newsroom. “You may kick my ass,” the music critic Stanley Crouch warned a colleague, “but I’m going to hurt you.” If pinioned to prevent him from using his fists, Crouch savaged his opponents with his teeth instead. A battle of the sexes was fought more peaceably in an exchange of epithets. Mailer snarled that the Voice’s feminist contributors wrote “like very tough faggots”; one of the women snapped back by denouncing Mailer and the jazz critic Nat Hentoff as “old-school male fuckheads” or “absolute oppositional pieces of shit”.

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EXILED CHINESE ARTIST AI WEIWEI: ‘CENSORSHIP IN WEST EXACTLY THE SAME AS MAO’S CHINA’ ·

(from Sky News)

The 66-year-old dissident told Sky News’ Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips that “society becomes so timid, to really avoid any kind of questioning or argument.

 “Today I see so many people by giving their basic opinions, they get fired, they get censored. This has become very common.”

Read more: https://news.sky.com/story/exiled-chi… #censorship #weiwei #skynews

UKRAINE WARTIME MEMOIR AND PLAY NAVIGATES LOSS AND PRESERVING MEMORY OF FALLEN SOLDIERS (VIDEO) ·

(Kate Tsurkan’s article appeared in the Lyiv Independent, 12/30; Photo:  LVIV, UKRAINE – NOVEMBER 1: Graves of Ukrainian soldiers during the memorial day at the Lychakiv military cemetery on November 1, 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. On November 1, Ukrainians mark the memorial day. The memory of fallen soldiers was honored at the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. People leave flowers and candles on the graves. (Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images; Below: Watch the play, produced at Molodyi Teatr London.)

A historian by profession who has studied war for over a decade, Olesya Khromeychuk found her research spilling over into real life when her older brother Volodymyr was killed in 2017 near Popasna in Luhansk Oblast, nearly two years into his military service.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region, which began in 2014, had mostly disappeared from international headlines by then, and “most Western Europeans did not even remember that there was a war raging in Eastern Europe.”

However, for the majority of Ukrainians, terms such as shelling, bombing, captivity, casualty, and war crimes have become more than just words in history books. These terms have increasingly encapsulated their reality over the past decade.

“The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister,” Khromeychuk’s memoir, which was written mostly before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, is a reflection not only on the loss of a family member.

The book’s core delves into a profoundly personal experience of loss during the war in Ukraine. However, thanks to Khromeychuk’s strength, openness, and vulnerability, it also serves as a compass for navigating grief within an ever more conflict-ridden world.

The exact number of Ukrainian soldiers that have been killed since Russia launched its all-out war is unknown, but nearly every cemetery in the country has a section dedicated to the soldiers who have given their lives to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression.

As the prospect of a long-term war drags on, and more people are called up to serve on the front line, Ukraine is faced with questions of how, as a society, to mourn and commemorate the fallen.

Grieving the loss of a loved one is typically a personal journey. The lives of those who outlive them become divided into periods of “before” and “after” their death and the impact of this loss is not necessarily something that one wishes to divulge to just anyone.

However, when a life is taken during a war, loss inevitably transcends the personal realm. It becomes a collective grief felt by the nation and requires navigating sometimes surreal experiences accompanying such a tragedy. As Khromeychuk describes it, “there is nothing natural, nothing normal about death in a war.”

A poignant example of this in the memoir is how the public obituaries written for her brother deviated from who he really was. “If reality didn’t make it into the obituaries, then what does?” she wonders.

Given his previous military experience, Volodymyr Pavliv didn’t wait to be summoned for service. He volunteered to fight in the Donbas because he saw the Russian invasion as “a European war that just happened to start in Eastern Ukraine,” as he told his sister before his death.

Pavliv had been residing in the Netherlands beforehand, working as a laborer. After his death, the Ukrainian media portrayed him as a man who had given up his privileged life in the West to return and defend his homeland, mythologizing his decision. And yet, as Khromeychuk points out, the life of Ukrainian migrant workers is often anything but privileged.

Khromeychuk also writes about how she dealt with the layers of bureaucracy leading up to her brother’s funeral by writing down each task in the kind of small notepad she’d normally take with her on a research trip. Instead of conducting trips to archives or interviews, her tasks included visiting the morgue and picking a restaurant for the wake after the funeral service.

On the day of the funeral in Lviv, the church was filled not only with Pavliv’s loved ones but also with soldiers and members of the public. Khromeychuk and her family could not yet mourn him privately, something that was underscored by the presence of the media.

“They seemed to be everywhere: filming, taking photos. Part of me felt sorry for them: how do you find a good angle and decent light, in order to get good footage of a funeral in a gloomy old church?” she writes.

“But mostly I felt annoyed. With their lights and cameras, they were turning one of the most intimate moments–a final farewell–into something that resembled a theater show. I knew it was their job, but the last thing my family and I needed was to be filmed as we were being torn to pieces by grief.”

At the cemetery, the defiant wartime slogan “Heroes never die!” echoed among the crowd. While Khromeychuk acknowledges the sincerity and meaningfulness of the sentiment behind this powerful phrase, she confesses having dreaded that moment, feeling an overwhelming urge to shout: “Stop! He is dead! They’re about to put him in a grave!”

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CARY GRANT: THE MAN WE THOUGHT WE KNEW ·

Cary Grant was considered one of the world’s best-known movie stars, but it turns out there was plenty that audiences did not know about the debonair actor. In fact, he was born in England as Archibald Leach, and grew up impoverished and neglected, before finding his way to the U.S. and transforming into the silver screen star we know as Cary Grant. The BritBox series “Archie” explores the actor’s complicated past. Correspondent Seth Doane talks with actor Jason Isaacs, who plays Grant, as well as Grant’s fourth wife, actress Dyan Cannon, who is a producer of the series. #carygrant #archie “CBS News Sunday Morning” features stories on the arts, music, nature, entertainment, sports, history, science and Americana, and highlights unique human accomplishments and achievements. Check local listings for CBS News Sunday Morning broadcast times.

Read Cary Grant’s Recollections, along with seeing the new series:

From Kirkus Reviews

“Forget the other books. This is it. Superb.”

Review

Forget the other books, this is it. Superb. –Kirkus Reviews

Here’s a book as charming and likable as its subject and that’s saying a lot. –Booklist

The biography Cary Grant deserves . . . This is the standout Grant biography that should remain as his testament in print. –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“For a book about Grant that’s almost as much fun as his films, this is the genuine article.” ––Variety

“I adored Cary Grant—and I couldn’t put this wonderful book down. I read it in one sitting!” —Carol Burnett

“The first book about the real Cary—lively, warm, always entertaining, totally honest—like the man himself. —Gregory Peck

“It’s a funny, lovely book about Cary.” —Katharine Hepburn

“A charmer of a book. You’ll love spending Evenings with Cary Grant.” —Sidney Sheldon

“This wonderful book gives behind-the-scenes examples of an actor who was dedicated to the art of motion pictures and to the profession of acting.” —James Stewart

“Nancy Nelson has definitely captured the essence of CG in her wonderful book.” —Robert Wagner

“This delightful book gives everyone a chance to spend some time with that delightful person—Cary Grant.” —Helen Hayes

“It embraces the Cary Grant I knew and loved.” —Burt Reynold s “A truly wonderful book about a truly wonderful man.” —Liza Minnelli

“As one of the world’s great raconteurs, Cary Grant knew how to spin a yarn, tell a naughty joke, or shape a thoughtful observation. Thank God readers everywhere can now enjoy the company of this remarkable man.” —Jack Haley, Jr.

“In this book you will discover the real Cary Grant, and you will love him even more.” —John Forsythe

“An absolute treasure . . . the only authentic history of his life and loves . . . Reading this book will leave you with the feeling that you have just embraced the warm and wonderful Cary Grant. He was much more than a movie star. He was a magnificent man.” —Abigail (Dear Abby) Van Buren

“A celebration of a life well lived. Thank goodness there is a Nancy Nelson to tell the world about this beautiful human being we knew and loved.” —Jill St. John

A kind and gentle . . . shows the private man who doted on his daughter, lamented his failed marriages and could be as contemplative as he was comic.” –Baltimore Sun

The biography Cary Grant deserves . . . This is the standout Grant biography that should remain as his testament in print. –The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

BARBRA STREISAND’S MOTHER OF ALL MEMOIRS ·

(Rachel Syme’s article appeaed in The New Yorker, 11/14/2023. Photo: Trust is a big theme in the book, and perhaps its reason for existing. Photograph by Irving Penn / © Condé Nast) 

 

In “My Name Is Barbra,” the icon takes a maximalist approach to her own life, studying every trial, triumph, and snack food of a six-decade career. 

Seventy years ago, before she was galactically famous, before she dropped an “a” from her first name, before she was a Broadway ingénue, before her nose bump was aspirational, before she changed the way people hear the word “butter,” before she was a macher or a mogul or a decorated matron of the arts, Barbra Streisand was, by her own admission, “very annoying to be around.” She was born impatient and convinced of her potential—the basic ingredients of celebrity, and of an exquisitely obnoxious child. When Streisand was growing up in Brooklyn, in the nineteen-forties, she used to crawl onto the fire escape of her shabby apartment building and conduct philosophical debates with her best friend, Rosyln Arenstein, who was a staunch atheist. One day, Streisand told Arenstein that she was going to prove the existence of God. She pointed at a man on the street and said that, if she prayed hard enough, he would step off the curb. Within seconds, he obliged. “I had two thoughts at that moment,” Streisand writes in her hulking new memoir, “My Name Is Barbra” (Viking). “One: Whew, that was lucky! And two: There is a God, and I just got Him to do what I wanted by praying. I guess that’s when I began to believe in the power of the will.”

Streisand was always willful. She was not always lucky. Her father, a gentle academic named Emanuel, died from seizure complications when she was a year old. Her mother, Diana, could be cruel and strangely absent, particularly after she married Louis Kind, a man who seemed to resent Streisand’s existence. “I was like a wild child, a kind of animal,” Streisand writes. “There was no routine and no rules.” She shoplifted and stole Kind’s cigarettes, which she smoked on the roof. She developed chronic tinnitus, possibly because of stress, and kept the ringing in her ears a secret for years. “I long for silence,” she writes. But, despite these challenges, Streisand also knew that she was in possession of something rare. She could sing, naturally and effortlessly, with a broad, sunny tone and cataract force. Streisand took exactly one singing lesson and never learned how to read music. She simply accepted herself as gifted, with the same conviction that made her believe she could speak to God.

Because Streisand’s instrument was innate, she also found it rather boring. She joined the Choral Club at Erasmus Hall High School, in Flatbush, but what she really wanted to be was an actress. She would often go to the Astor Theatre, next door to Erasmus, to watch films by Akira Kurosawa, and to the Kings Theatre to see melodramas starring Deborah Kerr and Marlon Brando. (The great motif of this book, besides fame, is snacks, and Streisand is particularly nostalgic about Good & Plenty candy, which she likens to “eating jewelry” in the theatre.) In English class, she produced book reports on Stanislavsky’s “My Life in Art” and “An Actor Prepares.” She also got a job at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where she watched a production of the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s “Purple Dust.” She learned a lead role and proclaimed herself an understudy—though nobody had asked her to do this—and would greet the stagehands with “Top o’ the mornin’ to you, boys!” in an Irish accent. (“Again,” she writes, “annoying to be around.”)

Streisand was obsessed with acting because she saw it as a form that allowed for spontaneity and change. She was dismayed to learn, in a class that she took at fourteen, about the concept of blocking, in which an actor is expected to repeat her motions every time she runs through a scene. “You mean you have to move in exactly the same way, to the same spots?” she asked her teacher. “Why?” (Soon after, she quit the class.) Throughout her career, she balked at the idea that self-expression should be stable or reproducible. One reason that Streisand leaned into her musical prowess—she graduated high school at sixteen, moved to Manhattan, and soon started performing in a gay bar and a night club—was that concert audiences loved her elasticity. To this day, she prefers to sing a song differently each time.

The great paradox of Streisand’s career, then, is that as a person she has been nearly impervious to change. “No matter who you are,” she writes, “you can only eat one pastrami sandwich at a time.” Her point is that fame is a “hollow trophy”; she still thinks of herself, at eighty-one, as the “skinny marink” from Brooklyn. This assertion is tough to take from a woman who could, if she wanted, have every pastrami sandwich in New York delivered to her Malibu estate on a private jet, but I’m inclined to believe her. Streisand has spent her career, which spans fifty-plus albums, more than a dozen movies in starring roles, three films as a director, and a bushel of awards (an honorary egot, along with three Peabodys, eleven Golden Globes, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom), trying to protect the person she always was: a girl who, somehow, knew how to trust herself.

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FATHER OF SELF-EXILED BELARUSIAN WRITER JAILED FOR REPOSTING ARTICLE ·

(From Radio Free Europe, 11/10; Photo of Sasha Filipenka, from Radio Free Europe.)

Self-exiled Belarusian writer Sasha Filipenka told RFE/RL on November 10 that a Minsk court sentenced his father to 13 days in jail for reposting an article by the Zerkalo (Mirror) website that the government has labeled as extremist. Filipenka wrote on Facebook earlier that police detained his father on November 9 and that it is “obvious that they are putting pressure on me and want me to stop talking to the European media.” The 39-year-old writer is the author of several books for which he has received literary prizes. He fled Belarus after he took part in anti-government protests in 2020. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, click here. 

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THE PLAY’S THE THING – BUT ITS SUCCESS DEPENDS ON THE THEATRE TOO ·

(Michael Billington’s article  appeared in the Guardian, 7/18.Photo: ‘The power to draw the audience together’ … the Swan Theatre at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Not all buildings are created equal. From sightlines to acoustics to the alchemy of actor-audience rapport, the physical facts of a dramatic space are fundamental

What makes a good theatre? Critics are not the most reliable guides. We sit in the best seats, don’t have to pay, and are there to assess the performance rather than the building. If ever I have wanted guidance on architectural issues, I have turned to Iain Mackintosh, who from 1973 worked for Theatre Projects Consultants, has designed many successful theatres and has now put his encyclopedic knowledge into a book called Theatre Spaces 1920-2020. But the revelation comes in the subtitle: Finding the Fun in Functionalism. At the heart of the book lies an assault on modernist concrete buildings and a celebration of any theatre where actor and audience enjoy an easy rapport.

Mackintosh covers a lot of ground and tells a number of good stories, two of which relate to the old Shakespeare Memorial theatre in Stratford, which opened in 1932. Derided at the time as a “jam factory”, yet capable of infinite adaptation, it has long been attributed to a 29-year-old modernist architect, Elisabeth Scott. But Mackintosh implicitly endorses the view that it was the work of her employer, Maurice Chesterton (cousin of the famous GK). He also quotes a story about Tyrone Guthrie, on being offered co-directorship of the theatre in 1950 by Anthony Quayle, saying he would only accept if they built a new theatre with the audience on three sides. Asked what should be done with the existing theatre, Guthrie replied, “Bulldoze it and push it into the river.”

In seeking an antidote to modernism, Mackintosh rejoices in two things. One is spaces built of brick and plaster, which, unlike concrete, are adaptable. The other is what came to be known as the “courtyard theatre”, modelled on rectangular, galleried 18th-century playhouses such as the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond in North Yorkshire. This was the inspiration both for the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) at the National Theatre, and the Tricycle (now the Kiln) in Kilburn, which owe everything to Mackintosh’s design. But Mackintosh also singles out the Swan in Stratford, where he was not involved, and where the architect, Michael Reardon, was inspired by galleried churches whose architecture “had the power to draw the audience together in a way that modern theatres do not”.

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HOW THOMAS LANIER WILLIAMS BECAME TENNESSEE ·

How Thomas Lanier Williams Became Tennessee | The New Yorker

(Casey Cep’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 7/10,17/23; Photograph by Vandamm Studio © Billy Rose Theatre Division / NYPL for Performing Arts.)

A collection of previously unpublished stories offers a portrait of the playwright as a young artist.

Williams’s early stories feature the outlines of the spinsters, sirens, hotheads, and ministers whom he later made famous.

If you ever have to lie about your age, try to do it with as much creativity and conviction as Tennessee Williams. When he was nearly twenty-eight, the playwright submitted a handful of one-act plays to a contest for writers under twenty-five. Worried that his deception would be discovered, he changed his name and mailed the submission not from St. Louis, where he lived, but from Memphis, using his grandparents’ home there as the return address. Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Mississippi, he first considered calling himself Valentine Sevier, after an ancestor on his father’s side whose brother was the first governor of Tennessee. But he decided to instead keep his last name and change only his first.

“Mr. ‘Tennessee’ Williams got a telegram last night,” he wrote to his mother a few months later, in March, 1939, letting her know that he’d won the contest, receiving a hundred-dollar prize from the Group Theatre, in New York City. “Do not spread this around till the checque has arrived, as some of my ‘friends’ . . . might feel morally obliged to inform the Group that I am over 25.”

If Williams had any scruples of his own, he shed them with an elegant explanation. After dropping out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he’d spent the fall of 1932 through the spring of 1935 as a clerk at the International Shoe Company, in St. Louis. His father, a sales manager there, got him the position, which Williams described as “hard labor,” though it mostly involved dusting sample shoes in the morning and typing factory orders for the rest of the day. He took a smoke break every half hour and got paid sixty-five dollars a month. “The job was designed for insanity,” he later remembered. “It was a living death.” He therefore felt entitled to excise that period from his personal history. That’s why Tennessee was three years younger than Tom, and eligible to enter the playwriting contest that brought him to the attention of East Coast agents and West Coast directors.

But all that is only a technical explanation of how Tom became Tennessee. The deeper questions about Williams’s transformation are the stuff of endless debates and dissertations, fuelled by interviews, letters, memoirs, biographies, and Williams’s own writing, including posthumous publications. Most of us don’t mind literary grave robbing, especially when it comes to authors we love, in which case we don’t mind cradle robbing, either: the boyhood diary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the miniature books of the young Brontë sisters, the childhood newspaper of Virginia Woolf. In this spirit, New Directions is publishing a volume of the early work of Tennessee Williams, who died forty years ago. Slightly less jejune than the abovementioned efforts, this set of short stories is more like the university-era poetry written by T. S. Eliot in the notebook he titled “Inventions of the March Hare,” or Vladimir Nabokov’s blank-verse play “The Tragedy of Mister Morn,” which he wrote as a twentysomething.

The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Early Stories” includes seven works of short fiction by Williams, culled from the seventy-six boxes of his archival materials at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. They are introduced by Tom Mitchell, an emeritus theatre professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who previously adapted several of Williams’s stories for the stage. Written during the Great Depression, the stories are mostly from the era of Tom’s life that Tennessee erased, when he was living in what he called the City of St. Pollution, writing in the evenings after work, hopped up on black coffee and cigarettes, struggling to find a form and an audience for his art.

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THE TRAUMA OF CARY GRANT: HOW HE THRIVED AFTER A TERRIBLE CHILDHOOD – AS TOLD BY HIS DAUGHTER ·

(Emma Bockes’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/5; Photo:  ‘All the neglect he suffered meant he made sure that that was not my life’ … Jennifer Grant. Photograph: Andrzej Lawnik/The Guardian.)

Born into extreme poverty, Grant was told as a child his mother had died. She had actually been placed in a psychiatric institution. It was the start of a life of repression and extraordinary reinvention

During the casting process for Archie – a forthcoming series for ITVX – about the life of Cary Grant, the late actor’s daughter, Jennifer, had several, unbreakable criteria. The actor playing her dad needed to be suave, of course, per Cary’s public persona. He had to be cerebral – her dad was an avid self-improver. And he had to wow her in a way that reflected the intensity of her relationship with a man who, at the age of 62, gave up a huge career to devote himself exclusively to raising her. Even by the standards of Hollywood, this last detail was eccentric.

It is more than 35 years since Cary died and to talk to his daughter, the sadness is still, sometimes, immediate. Jennifer Grant was a baby when her parents divorced – her mother is the actor, Dyan Cannon – and it was her father with whom she primarily lived until his death, when she was 20. “When will I stop missing him?” wrote Grant in her 2011 memoir and although, of course, the answer is never, working on the TV show has helped her close the circuit between the father she knew and the incongruity of his concealed origins – a hardscrabble upbringing in England. “I think it’s a story that deserves to be told,” says Jennifer, 57, from her house in Los Angeles, where she lives with her two children and works as an actor – most recently in the Brad Pitt film, Babylon. “It makes one appreciate Dad so much more. He had repressed so much – it was somewhat of a secret and it didn’t have to be. It was nothing shameful that he did, as a six-year-old boy.”

No aspect of his background showed up in his persona as the star of such classics as The Philadelphia Story and An Affair to Remember. It is hard to conceive now just how famous Cary was and what he represented: an idea of the sophisticated Englishman that made him Hollywood’s biggest male movie star of the prewar period, up there with Clark Gable and James Stewart. The question is how precisely he pulled this off and in the show, which has been written by Jeff Pope, who also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated movie, Philomena, the story flips between the childhood of Archibald Alexander Leach, as he was then known, and the mature Cary, who with his daughter’s approval, is played by Jason Isaacs. It was “clear from the outset,” she says, that he was the right actor for the role.

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View Evenings with Cary Grant on Amazon

 

‘IT WAS SHOCKING’: THE AUTHOR UNDER ATTACK FOR DOUBTING SHAKESPEARE ·

(David Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/27; Photo: The Guardian.)

Elizabeth Winkler’s controversial new book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, investigates highly fraught theories around the beloved playwright

 “It’s a funny thing,” admits Elizabeth Winkler. “I don’t really like controversy. I don’t seek it out. There are some people that thrive on it and I don’t. I find it upsetting and distressing to see my work and my ideas misrepresented and twisted. It’s not fun. But you study the history of the subject, you know that’s how it goes.”

The subject in question is perhaps the final blasphemy of British culture: the theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon might not have written Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other plays and poems that bear his name.

The doubters point to Shakespeare’s lack of higher education and aristocratic background and the scarcity of personal documents and literary evidence directly linking him to the works. Some suggest candidates such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as potential authors of Shakespeare’s plays.

It would of course have been the hoax of the millennium: no need to fake a moon landing. The theory remains decidedly fringe, outside the mainstream academic consensus and, as Winkler puts it, “not permitted”. In her book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, she writes that “it has become the most horrible, vexed, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature.

“In literary circles, even the phrase ‘Shakespeare authorship question’ elicits contempt – eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslinging. If you raise it casually in a social setting, someone might chastise you as though you’ve uttered a deeply offensive profanity. Someone else might get up and leave the room. Tears may be shed. A whip may be produced. You will be punished, which is to say, educated. Because it is obscene to suggest that the god of English literature might be a false god. It is heresy.”

This passage neatly captures Winkler’s lucid and light-footed approach to the subject. The 33-year-old American journalist and book critic, who holds English literature degrees from Princeton and Stanford universities, writes for the Wall Street Journal newspaper and the New Yorker magazine. While she categorises herself as a sceptic of the Stratford man (“There are so many gaps”), this is not a polemical book seeking to knock Shakespeare off his perch and push dubious evidence for an alternative.

Instead Winkler brings a journalist’s eye to the controversy, zipping between highbrow philosophical debates around the nature of knowledge – how can we be truly certain about anything? – to the more prosaic and petty squabbles of academics with skin in the game that might be plucked from a novel by Michael Frayn or David Lodge.

Her book makes three compelling arguments: tying the authorship question to the rise and fall of imperial Britain and its need for national mythmaking; exploring how Shakespeare was turned into a secular god, with theatre filling the vacuum left by the decline of the church; and challenging the basic human need to cling to belief when doubt might be the proper response.

Her central point is not the authorship question itself but the ecosystem of egos, vested interests, literary feuds and cultish bardolatry that has grown up around it. We meet Stratfordians who defend Shakespeare’s genius with religious intensity and zeal and anti-Stratfordians who respond with a contrarian ferocity worthy of atheist Richard Dawkins. This is one fight with little room for agnostics.

Winkler writes: “The authorship question is a massive game of Clue played out over the centuries. The weapon is a pen. The crime is the composition of the greatest works of literature in the English language. The suspects are numerous. The game is played in back rooms and basements, beyond the purview of the authorities.

“Now and then, reports of the game surface in the press, and the authorities (by which I mean the Shakespeare scholars) are incensed. They come in blowing their whistles and stomping their feet, waving their batons wildly.”

Winkler dived feet first into this melee four years ago with an essay in the Atlantic magazine under the headline “Was Shakespeare a Woman?”, floating the idea that Emilia Bassano Lanier, a 16th-century poet of Italian heritage, had a hand in the plays attributed to the man from Stratford. There was a fierce backlash that ran the gamut from lofty scholars to Twitter trolls.

Sitting outside the Washington national cathedral, a grand structure built in 14th-century English gothic style, Winkler tells the Guardian: “I was very quickly castigated as a conspiracy theorist and denialist – they’re invoking climate change denial or Holocaust denial, even though those things are not remotely equivalent. I was compared to anti-vaxxers and purveyors of disinformation. Very ugly comparisons. It was mortifying and shocking at first. I’d never been attacked like that as a writer.”

Why is a question about the authorship of 400-year-old plays getting people so riled up?

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