Category Archives: Books

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

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

American Humbug

Barnum: An American Life

by Robert Wilson

Simon and Schuster, 341 pp., $28.00

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

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

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

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

(Read more)

THE PAGE’S THE THING – TAKE IT FROM SHAKESPEARE’S EARLIEST READERS ·

(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/1.)

With theatres closed, now is the time to find pleasure in Shakespeare’s texts. His first fans used them for chat-up lines – and read the plays without the baggage of Bardolatry

That Shakespeare wrote for the theatre and that his plays should be enjoyed on the stage not the page has become the standard rallying cry of directors, teachers and academics. “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre,” Sir Ian McKellen advised in 2015. And if actors bring Shakespeare to life, according to Royal Shakespeare Company director Greg Doran, the benefits are mutual: advocating a “Shakespeare gym” earlier this year, Doran suggested that without proper opportunity to perform Shakespeare, the craft of acting itself could “diminish or get lost”.

But this is a modern perspective. Powerful advocates for Shakespeare in the past were less convinced by the medium of theatre. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century lexicographer and editor of the plays, felt that while comedy was often better experienced in the theatre, tragedy rarely was. Charles Lamb, who with his sister Mary wrote the popular children’s Tales from Shakespeare, suggested that “the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever”. When we watch King Lear, he suggested, we see merely the mundanely pitiful “old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick”, but when “we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear”. Deep engagement with the plays meant private study, not public spectacle.

(Read more)

BOOK: RIOTOUS PERFORMANCES–SHAKESPEARE IN A DIVIDED AMERICA BY JAMES SHAPIRO ·

(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Spectator, 3/6; photo: The Spectator.)

Shakespeare’s single explicit reference to America is found in The Comedy of Errors. The two Dromios are anatomizing the unseen ‘kitchen wench’ Nell, who is ‘spherical, like a globe’: ‘I could find out countries in her’, says one Syracusan brother. ‘Where America?’ asks his twin. The reply, ‘O, sir, upon her nose, all o’erembellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires’ embodies early colonial fantasies about the famed riches of El Dorado.

The first record of a Shakespeare text in America comes a century later, and the first known production — an amateur run of Romeo and Juliet in the Revenge Meeting House, New York — three decades after that. But by 1898 a book published in Chicago could claim not only that The Tempest, in particular, ‘has an entirely American basis and character’, but further, that ‘America made possible a Shakespeare’.

Institutions, from Hollywood to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, strengthened this reciprocal bond. Whenthe showman P.T Barnum sent an agent to Stratford-upon-Avon ‘armed with the cash and full powers to buy Shakespeare’s house, if possible, and to have it carefully taken down, packed in boxes and shipped to New York’, America’s possessive embrace of Shakespeare seemed complete.

James Shapiro’s expert and readable intervention in this long history is organized around defining moments and themes in American life. He shows how, for example, apparently literary arguments over Desdemona’s relationship with Othello mediated toxic disputes about interracial marriage in the early 19th century. He explores how Civil War attitudes to Caesar’s assassination influenced John Wilkes Booth to cast himself as an American Brutus murdering the tyrannical Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Kiss Me Kate offers Shapiro a lens to analyze the changing role of women in the workplace and in marriage after World War Two. Harvey Weinstein’s creepy off-screen influence on the plot of Shakespeare in Love places this blockbuster fictional biography of the playwright at the heart of the #MeToo movement.

(Read more)

 

BOOK: JOAN ACOCELLA ON ‘MARIUS PETIPA: THE EMPEROR’S BALLET MASTER’ ·

A scene in the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère, 1900; from Marius Petipa: La Dansomanie, a two-volume album in three languages published last year by the St. Petersburg Museum of Theater and Music to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Petipa’s birth

(Acocella’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 12/19.)

Souls in Single File

Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master

by Nadine Meisner

Oxford University Press, 497 pp., $34.95

A scene in the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère, 1900; from Marius Petipa: La Dansomanie, a two-volume album in three languages published last year by the St. Petersburg Museum of Theater and Music to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Petipa’s birth

It will surprise many people, but not many dance historians, that the most productive and influential ballet choreographer of the late nineteenth century, the Franco-Russian Marius Petipa (1818–1910), was accorded no biography for more than a century after his death. Dance was central to the religious and patriotic festivals of ancient Greece and Rome, but with the transfer of power to the Christian church, it was pretty much kicked out of the arts. It was too closely associated with bodily pleasure. Social dance probably never died out among common folk. As for the better-placed folk, the processions in which the servants of the French and Italian courts of the Renaissance brought dinner to their guests involved, if not exactly dancing, then a great deal of synchronized gown-swishing and foot-pointing. But dance did not officially reenter the lists of the high arts in the West until the seventeenth century, under Louis XIV. Louis imported music masters and dance masters, mostly from Italy, to create elaborate allegorical ballets, in which he himself appeared. In 1661, he founded Europe’s first proper dance school, the Académie Royale de la Danse.

In those days, dance people, like most other theater people, tended to come in families, including actors and musicians as well, because not all of them had a royal academy to teach them their arts. They learned from their mothers and fathers. Also, there was still a stigma attached to making one’s living on the stage (Molière, famously, was denied a Christian burial), so theatrical professionals often married within their own ranks and thereby created clans.

One was the Petipas of France and Belgium. Their name starts appearing in the annals of the Continental theater at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Marius Petipa was the son of a ballet master (that is, a teacher/choreographer) and an actress; most of his siblings too were theater people. In the beginning, he was not the star of the family. That was his older brother, Lucien, a handsomer man and a far better technician. Lucien was the premier classicist of the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest and most respected company in Europe. (It was the descendant of Louis XIV’s academy.) He was in demand all the way to Russia, but when Russia called, it is said, Lucien, already in possession of a good job, declined, and recommended his younger brother. Thus, in 1847, Marius Petipa, age twenty-nine, presented himself at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet and was given a one-year, let’s-see contract. As it turned out, he stayed for sixty-three years and was the company’s artistic director—or first ballet master, as they called it—for nearly thirty-five years. In Russia he created more than fifty original ballets, mounted versions of nineteen other ballets, and fashioned dances for thirty-seven operas. Today, the name of Lucien is known only to specialists, whereas Marius is acknowledged as the prime creator of late-nineteenth-century ballet and, one could say, the foremost source of twentieth-century ballet as well.

Still, this did not earn him a proper biography—in any language, not just English—until last spring, with the publication of Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master by Nadine Meisner, a longtime dance critic in London.1 The book is low on analysis, but at last someone has collected the facts—the successes, the flops, everybody’s patronymic—and put them down in graceful English prose.

(Read more)

PETER BROOK INTERVIEWED ·

(Stuart Jeffries’s article appeared in the Spectator, 11/2.)

‘THE ONLY PLACE I CAN’T GET MY PLAYS ON IS BRITAIN’: PETER BROOK INTERVIEWED

Stuart Jeffries talks to the loquacious 94-year-old director about the parlous state of British theatre, Brexit and how he wishes more politicians were like Putin

‘Everyone of us knows we deserve to be punished,’ says the frail old man before me in a hotel café. ‘You and I for instance. What have we done this morning that is good? What have we done to resist the ruination of our planet? Nothing. It is terrifying!’

Peter Brook fixes me with blue eyes which, while diminished by macular degeneration that means he can make me out only dimly, shine fiercely. But for the genteel surroundings and quilted gilet, he could be Gloucester or Lear on the heath, wildly ardent with insight.

‘Think of Prospero. He’s a bad character, hell-bent on revenge for his brother’s wrong, a colonialist who dominates Caliban and the rest of the island. Only when he sees love growing between Miranda and Ferdinand does he learn humility and tolerance. He knows he deserves to be punished. And if we are honest — you and I, everybody — then we can say with Prospero “Me too”. But we are not that honest.’

I’d asked the 94-year-old theatre director to explain to me, as we sit knee to knee in South Kensington, the puzzling final words of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. Prospero, his books drowned, his charms o’erthrown, addresses the audience:

And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Brook seemed worth asking, since The Tempest howls through his life. It is 62 years since he directed John Gielgud as Prospero clad not in magician’s robes but half-naked, a hermit in hemp on a bare stage — Brook startling Stratford with his lifelong love of less. In 1990, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, his Parisian base since the 1970s, the walls flayed raw by time and the stage scattered with a carpet of sand, he conjured up theatrical magic again, stripping theatre bare to get to the play’s essence. And in his book on Shakespeare The Quality of Mercy, he reflects on the soliloquy.

What is Prospero on about, I ask Brook? ‘Oh, don’t put me on the spot!’ he wails. ‘I can’t tell you the meaning, all I can do is invite you to share the sense of wonder beyond words that those words open up. That is what theatre does.’

(Read more)

 

PLAY FOR TODAY: REWRITING ‘PERICLES’ ·

(Adam Smyth’s article appeared in The London Times, 10/24.)

Ben Jonson’s comedy The New Inn (1629) was, by all accounts, a theatrical disaster: ‘negligently played’ at the Blackfriars Theatre, according to its title page, ‘and more squeamishly beheld’. The actors were hissed off stage, but Jonson, possessed of what the Renaissance scholar Joseph Loewenstein has called a ‘bibliographic ego’, was not a man to walk away. The printed text of 1631 includes sustained criticism of the audience (Jonson prefers ‘fastidious impertinents’) and a verse with the title ‘The just indignation the author took at the vulgar censure of his play by some malicious spectators begat this following Ode to Himself.’ Here he takes aim at a variety of theatrical taste favouring plays that resemble, in Jonson’s judgment, undesirable organic matter (mould, leftover food, discarded fish).

 

No doubt some mouldy tale,
Like Pericles, and stale
As the shrieve’s crusts, and nasty as his fish –
Scraps out of every dish
Thrown forth, and raked into the common tub,
May keep up the Play-club:
There, sweepings do as well
As the best-ordered meal.

 

By the time Jonson wrote these lines, Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre – or, as almost everyone now agrees, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, co-written by Shakespeare and the nastiest man in Jacobean theatre, George Wilkins (a pimp charged in 1611 with kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach) – had been a hit for more than twenty years. The play is a series of episodes as much as a unified drama, spread over 14 years, a tale of flight, family separation and reunion scattered across the waters and cities of what Richard Halpern called ‘the decaying Hellenistic world’. At its core is the romance arc of a prince, Pericles (whose motto, In hac spe vivo, means ‘In this hope I live’), losing and then finding his wife and daughter: a wife seemingly buried at sea, but washed ashore at Ephesus to a life as a priestess of Diana; a daughter (‘My gentle babe Marina, whom,/For she was born at sea, I have named so’) apparently murdered, but captured by pirates and sold into prostitution, who wins escape through her rhetoric and virtue. The play is dramatically uneven – the early scenes, usually attributed to Wilkins, dispense couplets of stale political wisdom (‘Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will;/And, if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?’) – but the Act 5 recognition scene between Pericles, broken by his losses, and Marina is a gripping performance of a kind of staggered anagnorisis, with Pericles terrified at the prospect of joy as he begins to perceive the possibility of reunion: ‘Give me a gash, put me to present pain,/Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me/O’erbear the shores of my mortality/And drown me with their sweetness.’

 

(Read more)

IN PRAISE OF TOVE DITLEVSEN — THE GREATEST DANISH WRITER YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF ·

(Boyd Tonkin’s article appeared in the Spectator, 9/26.)

The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen reviewed

Pick up a Penguin Classic from a cult Danish author who ‘struggled with alcohol and drug abuse’ and took her own life aged 58, and you may have one or two prior expectations. They will probably not include a flirtatious dinner with an enthralled Evelyn Waugh (‘so attentive and kind’) in a Copenhagen restaurant so quiet that ‘we could hear the thumping of ships’ motors far out on the water’. Tove Ditlevsen and the ‘vibrant, youthful’ Waugh have their evening spoiled when her third husband — a crazy, drug-pushing medic — turns up in his motorcycle leathers to drag Tove away for her bedtime injection, plus a bout of rougher than usual sex that leaves her spaced-out, ‘limp and blissful’.

The author of Vile Bodies himself might have composed this scene from the late 1940s, when Ditlevsen (born 1917) had already published several acclaimed volumes of poetry and fiction. Both fêted as a literary prodigy in Denmark and derided as a circus freak, the slum-girl superstar had become hopelessly addicted to pethidine and methadone. For all her celebrity, she felt for years that ‘no price was too high to be able to keep away intolerable real life.’

Wrenching sadness and pitch-dark comedy regularly partner her swift progress from a cramped Copenhagen tenement to literary fame. Ditlevsen published these three compact memoirs between 1967 and 1971. They capture the naivety, terror and rapture of her early life across a fast-changing palette of prose colors. The tones darken from her quizzical interrogation of adult follies in Childhood through the satirical larkiness of Youth to the junkie melo-drama of Dependency. Tiina Nunnally’s graceful, witty English versions of the first two volumes date from the mid 1980s; Michael Favala Goldman has now translated the more sombre and introspective third.

Little Tove feels herself ‘a foreigner in this world’, a gangly oddball accidentally dropped with her gruff socialist dad (a stoker, often unemployed), her inscrutable maidservant mother, ‘full of secret thoughts I would never know’, and cheerfully hapless brother Edvin. With her penniless family barely surviving the interwar decades on the fringe of the Copenhagen working class, Tove must hope for nothing better than marriage to a ‘stable skilled worker’ who doesn’t booze too much. Instead, she reads and writes, thinks and observes, gathering enamel-bright memories of childhood into a ‘library of the soul’ she will browse over a creative lifetime.

(Read more)

Photo: The Spectator

MICHAEL CHABON: ‘ULYSSES’ ON TRIAL ·

Morris Ernst (second from left) defending Gustave Flaubert’s November in court against charges of obscenity, New York City, 1935

(Chabon’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 9/26 issue)

 This essay will appear in somewhat different form in Fight of the Century, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, to be published by Simon and Schuster in 2020 to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union.

It was a setup: a stratagem worthy of wily Ulysses himself.

The conspirators were Bennett Cerf, publisher and cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, general counsel of the ACLU. The target was United States anti-obscenity law. The bait was a single copy of an English-language novel, printed in Dijon by Frenchmen who could not understand a word of it, bound in bright blue boards, and sold mail-order by the celebrated Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company. When Cerf and Ernst first began to conspire in 1931, the novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was the most notorious book in the world.

“It is,” the editor of the London Sunday Express had written nine years earlier, sounding like H.P. Lovecraft describing Necronomicon:

the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature….All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words. And its unclean lunacies are larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies directed against the Christian religion and against the name of Christ—blasphemies hitherto associated with the most degraded orgies of Satanism and the Black Mass.

Regarded as a masterpiece by contemporary writers such as T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, celebrated for being as difficult to read as to obtain, Ulysses had been shocking the sensibilities of critics, censors, and readers from the moment it began to see print between 1918 and 1920, when four chapters were abortively serialized in the pages of a New York quarterly called The Little Review. Even sophisticated readers often found themselves recoiling in Lovecraftian dread from contact with its pages. “I can’t get over the feeling,” wrote Katherine Mansfield, “of wet linoleum and unemptied pails and far worse horrors in the house of [Joyce’s] mind.” Encyclopedic in its use of detail and allusion, orchestral in its multiplicity of voices and rhetorical strategies, virtuosic in its technique, Ulysses was a thoroughly modernist production, exhibiting—sometimes within a single chapter or a single paragraph—the vandalistic glee of Futurism, the decentered subjectivity of Cubism, the absurdist blasphemies and pranks of Dadaism, and Surrealism’s penchant for finding the mythic in the ordinary and the primitive in the low dives and nighttowns of the City.

(Read more)

PHYLLIS WHEELER INTERVIEW ON “THE LONG SHADOW” ·

Author Phyllis Wheeler talks to Bob Shuman, at Marit Literary Agency and Stage Voices, about her YA novel The Long Shadow, a Huckleberry Finn story for the 21st century.

A white suburban, contemporary 14-year-old moves from racism to empathy as he travels through time. He is saved from hypothermia by a black man, and then, finding himself in 1923, works to prevent the lynching of the black man’s grandfather.

Praise for The Long Shadow

“A book that can make a difference . . . a good history lesson without being offensive to anyone.  I like the friendship that blossomed in the story. . . .”–LaShaunda Hoffman, author of Building Online Relationships and also publisher of SORMAG, Shades of Romance Magazine, the award-winning online magazine for readers and writers of multi-cultural literature (sormag.blogspot.com)

“Full of interesting characters . . . [The Long Shadow has] heart, humor, and a great overall theme. . . . Complex subject matter, woven into enjoyable fantasy. . .”–John HendrixNew York Times bestselling illustrator and author of many children’s books, including Shooting at the Stars and John Brown: His Fight for Freedom 

Wheeler runs her own editorial firm in St. Louis and has written for daily newspapers, been a deacon, and worked on airplanes as an engineer. 

Phyllis Wheeler, phylliswheeler.com
Bob Shuman, BobJShuman@gmail.com

 

MARCEL PROUST’S IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME WITH DEREK JACOBI (LISTEN NOW ON BBC RADIO 4—LINK BELOW) ·

Listen 

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation from the French of Marcel Proust’s allegorical reflection on time, memory, art and love.

It begins with the vivid memory of a young boy’s childhood summers spent in the French countryside of Combray and the long nights waiting for his mother to come and kiss him goodnight. The young Marcel takes beautiful walks with his parents and has his first sighting of the young Gilberte Swann, daughter of family friend and well-connected Parisian Dandy, Charles Swann and his wife, the courtesan and seductress Odette de Crecy.

Cast:
MARCEL (narrator) ………Derek Jacobi
FATHER ………Oliver Cotton 
FRANCOISE ………Susan Brown 
MOTHER ………Sylvestra le Touzel 
GRANDMOTHER ………Joanna David 
TANTE LEONIE .……Pamela Miles 
GILBERTE (girl) ………Mary Glen 
ODETTE …………..Bessie Carter 
SWANN ………… Paterson Joseph 
MADEMOISELLE VINTEUIL/PROSTITUTE …. Charlotte Blandford 
THE DUCHESS DE GUERMANTES (Oriane) …………… Fenella Woolgar 
MADAME DE VERDURIN ………Frances Barber 
PIANIST …………Daniel Whitlam 
DOCTOR COTTARD …………Lloyd Hutchinson 
MARCEL(boy) ………Isaac Watts 
MONSIEUR VERDURIN …………Jeff Rawle
FEMALE FRIEND……….Phoebe Marshall

Translated and adapted from the French by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Produced and directed by Celia de Wolff
Production Co-ordinator: Sarah Tombling
Recording and Sound Design: David Chilton and Lucinda Mason Brown
Executive Producer: Peter Hoare

A Pier production for BBC Radio 4