Category Archives: History

CAN GREEK TRAGEDY GET US THROUGH THE PANDEMIC? ·

(Elif Batuman’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 9/1; photo: In Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” staged via Zoom by Theater of War Productions, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic.Photograph Courtesy Theater of War Productions.)

A theatre company has spent years bringing catharsis to the traumatized. In the coronavirus era, that’s all of us.

In Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” staged via Zoom by Theater of War Productions, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic.

“Children of Thebes, why are you here?” Oscar Isaac asked. His face filled the monitor on my dining table. (It was my partner’s turn to use the desk.) We were a couple of months into lockdown, just past seven in the evening, and a few straggling cheers for essential workers came in through the window. Isaac was looking smoldery with a quarantine beard, a gold chain, an Airpod, and a black T-shirt. His display name was set to “Oedipus.”

Isaac was one of several famous actors performing Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” from their homes, in the first virtual performance by Theater of War Productions: a group that got its start in 2008, staging Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for U.S. military audiences and, beginning in 2009, on military installations around the world, including in Kuwait, Qatar, and Guantánamo Bay, with a focus on combat trauma. After each dramatic reading, a panel made up of people in active service, veterans, military spouses, and/or psychiatrists would describe how the play resonated with their experiences of war, before opening up the discussion to the audience. Since its founding, Theater of War Productions has addressed different kinds of trauma. It has produced Euripides’ “The Bacchae” in rural communities affected by the opioid crisis, “The Madness of Heracles” in neighborhoods afflicted by gun violence and gang wars, and Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” in prisons. “Antigone in Ferguson,” which focusses on crises between communities and law enforcement, was motivated by an analogy between Oedipus’ son’s unburied body and that of Michael Brown, left on the street for roughly four hours after Brown was killed by police; it was originally performed at Michael Brown’s high school.

Now, with trauma roving the globe more contagiously than ever, Theater of War Productions had traded its site-specific approach for Zoom. The app was configured in a way I hadn’t seen before. There were no buttons to change between gallery and speaker view, which alternated seemingly by themselves. You were in a “meeting,” but one you were powerless to control, proceeding by itself, with the inexorability of fate. There was no way to view the other audience members, and not even the group’s founder and director, Bryan Doerries, knew how numerous they were. Later, Zoom told him that it had been fifteen thousand. This is roughly the seating capacity of the theatre of Dionysus, where “Oedipus the King” is believed to have premièred, around 429 B.C. Those viewers, like us, were in the middle of a pandemic: in their case, the Plague of Athens.

The original audience would have known Oedipus’ story from Greek mythology: how an oracle had predicted that Laius, the king of Thebes, would be killed by his own son, who would then sleep with his mother; how the queen, Jocasta, gave birth to a boy, and Laius pierced and bound the child’s ankles, and ordered a shepherd to leave him on a mountainside. The shepherd took pity on the maimed baby, Oedipus (“swollen foot”), and gave him to a Corinthian servant, who handed him off to the king and queen of Corinth, who raised him as their son. Years later, Oedipus killed Laius at a crossroads, without knowing who he was. Then he saved Thebes from a Sphinx, became the king of Thebes, had four children with Jocasta, and lived happily for many years.

That’s where Sophocles picks up the story. Everyone would have known where things were headed—the truth would come out, and Oedipus would blind himself—but not how they would get there. How Sophocles got there was by drawing on contemporary events, on something that was in everyone’s mind, though it doesn’t appear in the original myth: a plague.

In the opening scene, Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic. Oedipus’ subjects come to the palace, imploring him to save the city, describing the scene of pestilence and panic, the screaming and the corpses in the street. Something about the way Isaac voiced Oedipus’ response—“Children. I am sorry. I know”—made me feel a kind of longing. It was a degree of compassion conspicuous by its absence in the current Administration. I never think of myself as someone who wants or needs “leadership,” yet I found myself thinking, We would be better off with Oedipus. “I would be a weak leader if I did not follow the gods’ orders,” Isaac continued, subverting the masculine norm of never asking for advice. He had already sent for the best information out there, from the Delphic Oracle.

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BELARUS FREE THEATRE: VIDEO SHOWS ARMED BELARUS PRESIDENT AS PROTESTS ROIL CAPITAL ·

(Yuras Karmanau’s article appeared in the Mercury News, 8/23; photo: Thousands of people gather for a protest at the Independence square in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged–AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky.)

 

 

Video shows armed Belarus president as protests roil capital

Thousands of people gather for a protest at the Independence square in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. Demonstrators are taking to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities, keeping up their push for the resignation of the nation’s authoritarian leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has extended his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

MINSK, Belarus — More than 100,000 protesters demanding the resignation of Belarus’ authoritarian president rallied Sunday in a vast square in the capital and later marched through the city, keeping up the massive outburst of dissent that has shaken the country since a disputed presidential election two weeks ago.

Sunday’s demonstration overflowed Minsk’s sprawling 7-hectare (17-acre) Independence Square. There were no official figures on crowd size, but it appeared to be 150,000 people or more. The demonstrators then marched to another square about 2.5 kilometers (1 1/2 miles) away.

Protesters say the official Aug. 9 presidential election results that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in a landslide are fraudulent. The size and duration of the protests have been unprecedented for Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people that Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

Video from Belarus on Sunday showed the beleaguered president carrying a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest as he got off a helicopter that brought him to his working residence amid the 15th straight day of protests.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 12 – ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’ (1907) BY ELIZABETH ROBINS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/16; Photo:  Pointed arguments and rounded characters … Polly Lister in Votes for Women at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, in 2018. Photograph: Mark Douet.)

Our series ends with a passionate play about gender politics and women’s rights that still rings true

When Elizabeth Robins’s play was first produced in 1907, it was billed as “A Dramatic Tract”. But that sells it short. The play offers a passionate argument for female suffrage but is much more than propaganda. It is a richly invigorating piece about the interaction of sex and politics – a theme pursued the same year by Harley Granville-Barker in Waste. But where his play was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, Votes for Women was successfully presented at the Court theatre in Sloane Square, London.

Robins herself is a fascinating figure. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1862, she moved to London in 1888 and became a pioneer on several fronts. She was a fierce champion of Ibsen, was the UK’s first Hedda Gabler and went on to appear in The Master Builder, Little Eyolf and John Gabriel Borkman, in which she played Ella Rentheim. Her friendships included George Bernard Shaw and Henry James – there’s a wonderful letter to her from the latter, written the night before he saw Borkman, saying “Go it, Ella!” As well as being an actor, playwright and novelist, Robins was a political activist and prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by the Pankhursts.

Robins’s belief in direct action is evident in Votes for Women. The first act is country-house comedy charting male condescension towards what was dubbed “the woman question”. But the vitality of a fiery feminist, Vida Levering, attracts the aristocratic Jean Dunbarton, who is engaged to a Unionist MP, Geoffrey Stonor. The real surprise comes in the middle act, which puts a Trafalgar Square suffragist rally on stage. Not only that: Jean, attending with Geoffrey, realises that her fiance was the man who once impregnated Vida and seemingly abandoned her. In the Ibsenite final act, Vida confronts him. If the play were an Edwardian melodrama, she would exact sexual revenge. Here she seeks something infinitely more practical.

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PINKERTON: THAT TIME WHEN DEMOCRATS’ VETTING OF A FEMALE VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE WENT AWRY (REVIEW OF ‘REAGAN’S COWBOYS’, BY JOHN B. ROBERTS II) ·

(James P. Pinkerton’s article appeared on Breitbart, 8/12; Photo: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress.)

Male Democrat presidential nominees don’t always do a good job of vetting their female vice presidential choices. Admittedly, there’s only been one such instance in the past, back in 1984, when Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate—and she didn’t work out so well.

So to put that history in baseball terms, the Democrats’ historic record is no hits, one error—or .000.  

Today, of course, in 2020, Joe Biden has just picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, and so we’ll see how the Democrats do in their second outing with a lady at bat.

Yet in the meantime, we might gain some insight into the proper vetting of a running mate, or lack thereof, from a new book by John B. Roberts, Reagan’s Cowboys: Inside the 1984 Re-election Campaign’s Secret Operation Against Geraldine Ferraro. 

Roberts knows—because he was there. Beginning in the late 70s, Roberts had worked for Ronald Reagan; his immediate boss, however, was Lyn Nofziger, the hardboiled D-Day-veteran-turned-reporter who had served as press secretary in the Gipper’s very first campaign, his successful 1966 bid for the governorship of California.  

Roberts gets right to the point: “During the 1984 presidential campaign, I and a colleague were put in charge of a secret investigation of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate.” That colleague was Art Teele, Republican lawyer who had earlier served in Reagan’s sub-cabinet.   

Roberts continues, “This book is my political memoir of how the White House and Reagan-Bush ’84, the president’s reelection committee, handled the unprecedented challenge posed by a female vice-presidential contender.” And he adds, “The details of how our opposition research operation was run and why it was so effective have been kept secret for decades.” 

As Roberts relates, he was first persuaded not to reveal any of his activities at the request of Stuart K. Spencer, who had been Reagan’s top political adviser for nearly a quarter-century. And yet, Roberts adds, the recent flap over Christopher Steele, the peddler of the now-discredited “Russia dossier” on Donald Trump, got him thinking that people should have a better understanding of how opposition research should function in a campaign.  

Thirty-six years later, Roberts obviously believes that the details of his work—in contrast to the Steele dossier—can withstand scrutiny. The Steele document, which was so widely spread by an over-eager MSM in 2016-7, then provoked Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which haunted the Trump administration for more than two years. And yet, Roberts writes, the Steele dossier “is more appropriately thought of as a product of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.”  

How the dodgy Steele dossier metastasized into a run-amok inquiry will be the subject, of course, of many books. And yet in the meantime, we have Reagan’s Cowboys to show us how legitimate opposition research can be collected, assembled and utilized. So the Trump campaign might take note.  

For his part, Roberts was well-qualified for the role. He has, shall we say, hovered around the federal intelligence community for the entirety of his career, and so the ideas of discretion and compartmentalization came naturally to him; of all the people working on the Ferraro case, only he and Teele knew all the details. 

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 11 – ‘THE HIGH BID’ (1908) BY HENRY JAMES ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/10; Billy Russell in The High Bid at the Mermaid theatre in 1967. Photograph: Tony Gibson/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock.)  

James’s rich dialogue and clashing-cultures theme make his country-house play worthy of a renewed offer

Henry James had a love-hate relationship with the theatre. He had boyhood dreams of becoming an actor, wrote first-rate dramatic criticism and aspired to be as successful a playwright as novelist. But his hopes were shattered at the first night in 1895 of his play Guy Domville, which was roundly booed by the gallery. I would still argue that he was a natural dramatist and that, among his later works, The High Bid eminently deserves revival.

The play had a tortuous history. It began as a one-act piece, Summersoft, created for Ellen Terry but never staged. In 1898, James turned it into a short story, Covering End. That came to the attention of the actor-manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who commissioned James to rewrite it as a three-act play. Driven by what he called “the lust of a little possible gold”, James complied, but the loot was not forthcoming. After its premiere at the Edinburgh Lyceum in 1908 and five matinee performances in London, the play quietly expired until it was successfully revived by Bernard Miles at the Mermaid in 1967 and, less happily, in the West End in 1970 with Eartha Kitt in the key role of an American widow, Mrs Gracedew, in love with the English past.

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WHAT MAKES THE SILVER AGE OF RUSSIAN POETRY SO IMPORTANT? ·

(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 7/31; Photo: Russia Beyond the Headlines.)

You won’t find another period in Russian literature with such a concentration of talented poets and their brilliant use of the Russian language. Who were these literary geniuses of the early 20th century, and what did they write about?

What is the Silver Age of Russian poetry?

In an attempt to research or at least explain this topic, Russian scholars write heavy tomes and dedicate their whole lives. But we took upon ourselves this brave task in order to give a brief summary to those of you who are interested in Russia. 

The Silver Age of Russian poetry is an artistic period that dates from the very late 19th century and ends in the 1920s. It implies a wide range of poets, genres and literary styles. There is even a broader notion of the Silver Age of Russian culture that includes avant-garde art, theater, cinema, photography and sculpture – which very frequently were created in artistic groups that consisted of people from different spheres. 

The concentration of genius poets found during the Silver Age never existed at any other time in Russian literature.

Was there a Golden Age?

Yes, there was a Golden Age of Russian poetry! And it dates to the first third of the 19th century. In simple terms we call them “poets of the Pushkin era”, because Alexander Pushkin was for sure one of the greatest Russian poets of all time and the most remarkable of that era – and he is still very relevant today. Besides such big names as Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, the Golden Age includes Eugene Baratynsky, Peter Vyazemsky, Vasily Zhukovsky and other poets who are less known nowadays. Later, scholars started to classify all the 19th century ‘classic’ prose authors to the Golden Age, including Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyesky, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Nekrasov. The 19th century was marked by the development of literary movements: from sentimentalism to romanticism and then to realism and naturalism.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 10 – ‘MARY ROSE’ (1920) BY JM BARRIE ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/2; Photo: Unnerving questions … Leon Quartermaine and Fay Compton in Mary Rose at the Haymarket theatre, 1926. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images.)

The Peter Pan author caught Hitchcock’s eye with a Hebridean ghost story about the intensity of mother-son relationships

I have neglected Scotland so far in this series, though I was tempted to include one of the great working-class dramas such as Joe Corrie’s In Time O’ Strife (1927) or Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep (1947). I have plumped for this strange, sinister ghost story, partly as a reminder that there was more to Barrie than Peter Pan and partly because the play has much to say about the anguish of mother-son relationships and the universal grief for loss.

Barrie knows how to make one’s flesh creep. His play starts with a young soldier looking over a shuttered Sussex mansion and forbidden access to an empty room. As he falls asleep by the fire, the past history of the house and its inhabitants comes to life. We see how Mary Rose, daughter of the Morland family, twice disappeared during a visit to a remote Hebridean island: once briefly when she was a girl and then for 25 years when she was a married woman with a young son. Each time, she reappears mysteriously unchanged but, at the play’s climax, she is a ghostly revenant still pining for the son she has lost and searching for her place in the universe.

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THE ‘WILDCAT’ EPISODE, OR, DID BROADWAY LOVE LUCY? ·

(Darin Strauss’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/31; Photo: The New York Times;  via Pam Green.)

With her sitcom over and marriage finished, Lucille Ball fulfilled an old dream: a stint on Broadway. It did not go well.

Lucille Ball in the Broadway show “Wildcat.”Credit…Everett Collection

This is the story of how the most famous and talented sitcom star of her era — and maybe of all time — failed on Broadway.

The star was Lucille Ball. The year was 1960. And she was in a tough spot — in a “depressed state of mind,” as she later recalled.

“I Love Lucy” had just ended. Her marriage had too. The last kiss with Desi fell on the last moment of their last episode. His face in her hair; her blubbering through tears: “You’re supposed to say ‘Cut.’” The final clinch. The next day she filed for divorce.

When your marriage has been, in a way, America’s marriage, what do you do after the love crash dives? Lucille Ball didn’t know, at first. Biographers say she slept and cried on a friend’s couch. “What I do is so meaningless, so unimportant,” she sighed after slinking out to see a play starring Vivien Leigh. “Look what she can do.”

This envy pushed her off the sofa: a footlights career, as Ball put it in her autobiography, was the “ambition of my life.” This was an ambition Lucille-watchers could track. At 17 she’d left her upstate New York high school for Broadway, only to be told: “You just don’t have it. Why don’t you go home?” Later attempts had failed too; “I never made it,” she told a reporter in 1960, “and I want to prove myself.”

Lucille Ball was not only a superstar by 1960. (One measure of her popularity: The nation’s reservoirs dipped whenever “I Love Lucy” broke for a commercial. A whole country, flushing as one.) She was also a trailblazer, a female mogul. Desilu Productions, the business empire she split with Desi Arnaz, her ex, owned the most TV-studio space and was “the single biggest filler of television time” in the industry, as Life Magazine put it.

Now she just had to find a play to star in.

I LEARNED ABOUT BALL’S largely forgotten theater bid when putting together my book, “The Queen of Tuesday.” It’s a novel-memoir hybrid about Ball — and also about my grandfather, and the thorny romance between them. The affair is all speculation but most of the rest is verifiable. (It was family legend that my grandfather and she met at a kind of doom-swept party at which Donald Trump’s father had celebrities throw bricks at a beautiful Coney Island landmark, which is the book’s opening scene.)

Writing the book led me really to admire this powerful, brilliant woman. But in telling this next bit, even the most besotted Lucyian treads warily.

Ball wanted to shoulder a Broadway musical, starring in nearly every scene, dancing and belting a slew of difficult numbers. There were only two issues with that: she was not a good dancer and she was not a good singer. “Not even in the bathtub,” she recalled in that autobiography, “Love, Lucy.” And yet the show she chose, “Wildcat,” required that she both croon and “just about climb walls.”

Or it would require that. Eventually. A play can suffer all kinds of mutations when the most popular star in America joins (not to say hijacks) the production. The writer of “Wildcat,” N. Richard Nash, had conceived of it as a drama — the story of “a woman in dungarees” who swings into a Southwestern oil town with dreams of striking it rich. Unlike the heroines of other plays Ball had read and rejected, Wildcat “Wildy” Jackson, “the cat with more bounce to the ounce,” as she put it in her autobiography, was the kind of “rough-talking, and unbelievably energetic” character she wanted to play.

A phone call from Arnaz — I love this thing! — and, $400,000 later: “It was all packaged and literally taken out of my hands,” Nash told a writer. “The final product had nothing to do with my original intentions.”

In 1960 attendance on Broadway was starting to wobble. And Lucille Ball was the star of all stars. Celestial bodies of such magnitude pull things into their orbit, so why not the theater world? The posters went for the obvious: “Broadway Loves Lucy!” You can hear, even now, the whir of the old calculator, the swish of receipts.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 9 – ‘THE WORDS UPON THE WINDOW-PANE’ AND ‘PURGATORY’ BY WB YEATS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian,  7/27; Above, Yeats’s masterpiece … Peter Cormican as the Old Man in a 2009 production of Purgatory at the Irish Repertory Theatre, New York. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

A drama in which the spirit of Jonathan Swift haunts a seance and an astonishingly brief update of the Oresteia confirm the poet’s remarkable skills as a playwright

Few plays are more forgotten than those of WB Yeats. Revered as a poet, he’s ignored as a dramatist yet he deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. He cofounded the Abbey theatre in 1904, he put Irish legend and history on stage, and he sought to create a drama “close to pure music”. His output was huge – his Collected Plays runs to more than 700 pages – and I’ve plucked out two of his works that, while vastly different in style, show his fixation with death, expiation and eternal recurrence.

The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1930) is in many ways exceptional: it is Yeats’s only play with a realistic modern setting. Its subject is a seance held by the Dublin Spiritualist Association in rooms once occupied by Jonathan Swift’s Stella. Yeats has much fun at the expense of the visitors – one of whom wants advice about setting up a teashop in Folkestone – but the main concern is to expel an evil spirit who has been haunting past sessions. It turns out to be that of Swift whom we hear – through the medium, Mrs Henderson – bitterly rejecting offers of love from the two women who most adored him.

What is astonishing is the way Yeats pulls off a double trick. Far from being an attack on Swift, the play is a defence of his refusal to beget children because of his dread of the future. But, rather like David Mamet’s The Shawl about a phoney clairvoyant with psychic gifts, the play suggests that the money-grubbing Mrs Henderson may actually have conjured up the crabbed spirit of Dublin’s celibate dean.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 8 – ‘SAINT’S DAY’ (1951) BY JOHN WHITING ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/20;  photo: Pioneer … John Whiting, right, with CE Webber and Enid Bagnold at the Arts theatre in 1951. Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images.)

The critics howled derisively but this challenging story of the violence lurking beneath

 Where does it all begin? Is there a moment that marks a radical shift in style and tone in postwar drama? The textbooks tell us that the London premieres of Waiting for Godot (1955) and Look Back in Anger (1956) are pivotal landmarks. I would argue, however, that John Whiting’s Saint’s Day (1951) erected a decisive signpost to the future. Critically trashed in its day and rarely seen since, it contains themes and ideas that were to become staples of modern drama.

The play’s history is extraordinary. It won a new play competition, organised by Alec Clunes at London’s prestigious Arts theatre, to celebrate the Festival of Britain. Staged at the Arts in September 1951, it was greeted with the howls of execration that theatre critics traditionally reserve for anything truly innovative. “Of a badness that must be called indescribable,” thundered the Times. That same paper published a letter from leading theatrical lights – including Peter Brook, Tyrone Guthrie, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud – that passionately defended the play. But the damage was done and although Whiting went on to write other plays, including Marching Song and The Devils, he never acquired a secure foothold in British theatre.

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