Category Archives: History


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.”


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



(Claire Armitstead’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/29 Photo:  Power couple … Stoppard and Vaclav Havel attending Rock ’n’ Roll at the Royal Court in 2006. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images.)

As his Velvet Revolution drama returns, the great writer talks about his mounting Israel-Gaza uncertainties, the epiphanies he has in every hot shower – and our one-star ‘corker’ review of The Crown

Tom Stoppard is chatting in the theatre bar when I arrive to interview him about a revival of his play Rock ’n’ Roll. He was comparing ailments with an elderly director friend, he says cheerfully, as he heads up the stairs, having declined an offer of the lift. At 86 he has the nonchalant elegance of a spy in a cold war thriller, lean and mop-haired in a discreetly expensive-looking coat.

Though Stoppard is feted around the world for some of the cleverest plays of the last 60 years, as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, he is more gossipy than grand. “I said to him,” he reports of the conversation from which he has just been dragged away, “I’m being interviewed by the Guardian in half an hour and it’s supposed to be about Rock ’n’ Roll, but I’m going to have to have an opinion about Gaza, aren’t I?”

Would I have been a dissenter, or someone who kept his nose clean? I’ve a terrible feeling it would have been the latter

Being canvassed for opinions comes with the territory for a playwright whose identity straddles two of the biggest faultlines of 20th century history. His most recent play, Leopoldstadt, was a monumental reckoning with a Jewish heritage of which he only became aware in middle age. It ended with Leo, one of three survivors of a mighty dynasty, returning after the war to a Vienna of which he had no memory, having adopted his stepfather’s surname and lived in England since infancy.

Stoppard himself settled in England and adopted his stepfather’s name when he was eight, though his early childhood was spent not in Austria but Czechoslovakia. Rock ’n’ Roll, which premiered at the Royal Court in 2006, contains a different reckoning: what if, instead of getting remarried to an Englishman after the death of Stoppard’s doctor father in the war against Japan, his mother had returned to Soviet Czechoslovakia with him and his brother? “I thought I could write a play which was about myself as I imagined my life might have been from the age of eight,” he says. “And then I would find out whether I was brave enough to be a dissenter, or just somebody who would keep his head down and his nose clean. And I have a terrible feeling that it would have been the latter.”

Rock ’n’ Roll takes place between the viciously suppressed Prague Spring protests of 1968 and the period just after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which put an end to four decades of communist rule and saw the Rolling Stones bring 100,000 fans out for a historic concert in Prague in 1990. The play is framed as a decades-long argument between Jan, a Cambridge PhD student who goes back to Czechoslovakia in 1968, only to become badly disillusioned and nostalgic for the freedoms of the west, and his English professor, Max, who remains a Marxist idealist.

Along the way it takes in the poetry of Sappho, the music of the Stones, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Czech rock group the Plastic People of the Universe, whose arrest at a rock festival in 1976 was one of the inspirations behind the human rights protest Charter 77. The play is dedicated to Stoppard’s friend Václav Havel, who went on to become president of the country in 1989.

Ever since he made his stage debut with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966, new Stoppard plays have been an event. Havel, Mick Jagger and the Plastic People were among the audience for the Royal Court premiere of Rock ’n’ Roll, along with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, though sadly not Barrett, its wayward Pan figure, who died days after the play opened.

Why revive it now? Even then, it was a history play, he says. “Plays don’t become dated, they become a period, and that’s all to the good.” There’s the small matter that he hasn’t been moved to write anything new in the four years since Leopoldstadt. This is a rare visit to London from the Dorset cottage where he lives with his third wife, Sabrina Guinness. “I’m busy the whole time, but I’ve been completely unproductive,” he says. “And you know, I may have stopped without realising it.”

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(from RadioFree Europe, 11/29; photo: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) poses with Jamala in Kyiv on November 29, 2022. )

The Moscow prosecutor’s office said on November 29 that an arrest warrant had been issued for Ukrainian Eurovison Song Contest winner Jamala, who is of Crimean Tatar origin, on a charge of distributing “fake” information about Russia’s armed forces involved in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this month, the Russian Interior Ministry added the singer, whose real name is Susana Dzhamaladinova, to its wanted list. In 2016, Jamala won the Eurovision Song Contest for performing a ballad that described the brutal 1944 Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, click here.

(Go to RadioFree Europe)


(Dinara Khalilova’s article appeared in the Kyiv Independent, 10/25/23; Photo:  Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleksandr Shapoval (top left), artist and researcher of Ukrainian cuisine Olha Pavlenko (top right), film editor Viktor Onysko (bottom left), artist and fashion designer Liubov Panchenko (bottom center), conductor Yurii Kerpatenko (bottom right). All of them were killed by Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. This audio is created with AI assistance.)

“My worst fear is coming true: I’m inside a new Executed Renaissance. As in the 1930s, Ukrainian artists are killed, their manuscripts disappear, and their memory is erased,” Ukrainian writer Viktoriia Amelina penned in the foreword to the published diary of another author, Volodymyr Vakulenko, murdered during the Russian occupation of Izium.

Amelina, who dug up Vakulenko’s notes he had hidden from the Russians in his yard and initiated the diary’s publication, was also killed by Russia’s war. She died on July 1 after being critically injured in a Russian missile strike on Kramatorsk.

Vakulenko and Amelina are among dozens of Ukrainian cultural figures killed by Russian aggression. There is no official record of such losses, but two lists compiled by PEN Ukraine suggest that the full-scale invasion has claimed the lives of at least 65 Ukrainian cultural figures.

Some were killed as civilians in missile attacks or in occupation, others as service members after joining the Armed Forces to defend their country. But all of these deaths have contributed to what experts call Russia’s hundreds-year campaign against Ukrainian culture.

“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin has said that Ukraine has no right to exist as a state, so they (Russians) are trying to erase all evidence of this existence,” Olha Honchar, director of Lviv’s Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes, told the Kyiv Independent.

“If you have a pro-Ukrainian position, engage in culture, language, literature, history — then you are a target for destruction on the occupiers’ lists.”

The Kyiv Independent tells the stories of five cultural figures Ukraine has lost to Russia’s war since Feb. 24, 2022.

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(Sam Kinshin-Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/1; Photo: Gifted generation … Auden and Britten. Photograph: Britten Pears Arts.)

When they weren’t having screaming rows, the members of this overlooked 1930s collective changed the course of cultural history. Why isn’t it better known?

The year is 1937, and at a farmhouse in a village on the edge of the Chilterns named Fawley Bottom, two of the greatest artists of the 20th century have retired to the piano. It is August bank holiday weekend and as “rows – and more rows” detonate around them, Wystan Hugh Auden picks out the melody to Stormy Weather with a single finger, while Benjamin Britten improvises a masterful accompaniment.

Auden, Britten and others including the poet Stephen Spender had been summoned to the home of the artist John Piper for the Group Theatre congress. It is an occasion that, like so many air-clearing exercises for artistic collectives before and since, no doubt seemed very important to its participants at the time, but was actually a storm in a teacup. The only reason it’s remembered at all is because of what each of these men did next. (What Britten actually did next, he wrote in his diary, was “smoke two cigarettes … with disastrous consequences in the morning. Never again.”)

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if you’ve never heard of the Group Theatre. The Wikipedia entry for it, for instance, is just six lines long. Yet it wasn’t just Auden, Britten, Spender and Piper who had some involvement with the ensemble in the 1930s; Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice wrote for it too, while Duncan Grant, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland contributed designs for productions, which utilised the talents of actors like Alec Guinness and Trevor Howard, singers including Hedli Anderson (women did feature, occasionally) and directors such as Tyrone Guthrie. Bertolt Brecht, TS Eliot and WB Yeats are described by Michael Sidnell, the only person to write a book about the Group Theatre (long out of print), as “especially attentive spectators”.

Over eight years, between 1932 and 1939, the group produced a number of notable original plays, including Auden’s The Dance of Death (1933), co-directed by Guthrie with designs by Moore; Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938) the latter two with music by Britten; MacNeice’s The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (1936) and Out of the Picture (1937), both again with music by Britten; and Spender’s Trial of a Judge (1938), with sets designed and painted by Piper. These were interspersed with some Shakespeare here, a Cocteau translation there, an important adaptation of Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes in between, along with numerous revues, experimental happenings and cabarets, performed in obscure venues across London – and also occasionally Cambridge, thanks to the encouragement of John Maynard Keynes.

It was, in other words, one of the motliest and most distinctive gatherings of British and Irish genius of the first half of the 20th century, a dynamic collaboration between artists who transformed their fields and changed the course of modern literary, musical and artistic history.

So why has it not garnered more attention? Consider, once again, Fawley Bottom: these might have been great men, or men who would become great, but they were also quite silly. There was something residually schoolboyish or studenty about how the Group Theatre operated – artistically, politically, commercially, socially. Reading about them, your reference point is sometimes the Cambridge Footlights, or Beyond the Fringe. The underlying homosocial-verging-on-sexual dynamics, the pretentiousness (one 1935 performance was described as “a Harlequinade”), the shambolic finances (Keynes was shocked to discover the company was legally incapable of entering into a contract), the relaxedness about only ever reaching a small coterie of cultural insiders with their work, the epic rows: all will be familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a university show up to Edinburgh. Silliest of all was Rupert Doone, the group’s founder, a long-forgotten dancer and former lover of Cocteau’s, plucked from obscurity in Paris by Sergei Diaghilev. He was, by all accounts, modestly visionary, especially in his openness to European theory and techniques, and maximally impossible.

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(Natalia Chekotum’s and Liza Pyrozhkova’s video appeared in the Kyiv Independent, 8/8; Photo: Kyiv Independent.)

Launched in February last year, Russia’s war against Ukraine has taken a toll on Ukraine’s culture. Russia has razed to the ground many museums and churches, destroying priceless works of art. So far, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture has documented over 1,600 cultural facilities damaged or destroyed by Russian forces, but the actual number may be even higher.

As Russian forces blew up the Kakhovka dam, resulting in massive flooding in the south of Ukraine, the water severely damaged the house of Ukrainian self-taught artist Polina Raiko in the occupied town of Oleshky, Kherson Oblast. The Polina Raiko Charitable Foundation is raising money for the restoration of the house.

Visit the Kyiv Independent


(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/20; Photo: Jose Llana, left, and Arielle Jacobs as Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in “Here Lies Love” at the Broadway Theater in Manhattan.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

Jesse Green saw “Here Lies Love” in 2013 at the Public Theater (standing) and on Tuesday at the Broadway Theater (sitting)

Here Lies Love

It’s the applause — including my own — I find troubling.

Not that there isn’t plenty to praise in “Here Lies Love,” the immersive disco-bio-musical about Imelda Marcos that opened on Thursday at the Broadway Theater. The infernally catchy songs by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, performed by a tireless and inspired all-Filipino cast, will have you clapping whether you want to or not. Their chunky beats, abetted by insistent dance motivators, may even prompt you to bop at your seat — if you have one.

Because the real star of this show is the astonishing architectural transformation of the theater itself, by the set designer David Korins. Opened in 1924 as a movie palace, more lately the home of “King Kong” and “West Side Story,” the Broadway has now been substantially gutted, its nearly 1,800 seats reduced to about 800, with standing room for another 300 in the former orchestra section and a 42-inch disco ball dead center.


The folks upstairs, if not the mostly younger standees below, will surely recognize the visual reference to Studio 54, the celebrity nightclub where Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, danced away the last decade of her reign while impoverishing her people. That she would probably adore the over-emphatic atmosphere of “Here Lies Love” — with its lurid lighting by Justin Townsend, skittering projections by Peter Nigrini and earsplitting sound by M.L. Dogg and Cody Spencer — is, however, equivocal praise.

For here we are, at the place where irony and meta-messaging form a theatrical-historical knot that can’t be picked apart. Which is why, as you clap, you should probably wonder what for.

Is it for Imelda (Arielle Jacobs), the beauty queen who rose from “hand-me-downs and scraps” to become the fashion-plate wife of the Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos? Is it for the ruthless Ferdinand himself (Jose Llana)? (His landslide election in 1965 elicited some Pavlovian cheers the night I saw the show.) Or is it for Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), the opposition leader who was Imelda’s former beau? (Having spurned her in their youth, he was later assassinated by forces thought to be close to Ferdinand’s regime.) All get equivalent star treatment here.

The confusion of sympathies is just where Byrne and the director Alex Timbers want us. Avoiding the near-hagiography of “Evita” and yet unwilling to bank a commercial production on a totally hateful character, they aim for a middle ground that doesn’t exist, yet mostly hit it anyway. Their Imelda is a victim of poverty and mistreatment, dim despite her cunning and innocent by reason of inanity. When Filipinos fully turn against her during the People Power revolution of 1986, she is more mystified than crushed. “Why don’t you love me?” she sings.

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(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/4; Photo: Divine … Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Richard II. Photograph: David Hou.)

A disco king hits the dancefloor, Beatrice and Benedick’s romcom gets a feminist framing and Lear faces dystopia as the revered rep company returns in full force

Drive west of Toronto for over an hour, beyond a hamlet called Punkeydoodles Corners, and you reach the village of Shakespeare, with a pie shop and truck centre bearing the Bard’s name. Up the road lies Stratford, an affable town where Romeo Street leads you to the banks of the river Avon (pronounced, unlike its English cousin, with a short A).

Here, 70 years ago this month, the inaugural Stratford Shakespearean festival took place beneath a leaky canvas tent roof, with Alec Guinness holding court in Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well, both directed by Tyrone Guthrie over a six-week season. It almost didn’t happen: a black hole in the finances meant an emergency meeting was held the day before Guinness set sail to determine whether he should bother making the journey.

The festival’s success gave Stratford, which was settled in 1832, a theatrical reputation to match its British namesake – an improbable achievement for this former railroad town, which is surrounded by farmland. Canada’s largest theatre festival, it now runs for more than half the year, with 13 productions staged in four different buildings in 2023, including the striking new Tom Patterson theatre, named after the journalist who founded the festival. Visitors who remember the early tent years are still returning, prompted – as is tradition here – to take their seats by a fanfare played live outside the Festival theatre. The musicians – with four herald trumpets and a parade snare drum – assemble to announce each performance there, as popular a local custom as the annual release of swans into the Avon.

Maev Beaty as Beatrice and Graham Abbey as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford festival. Photograph: David Hou

You could, perhaps, be forgiven for expecting those shows to be something akin to ye olde heritage Shakespeare, preserved in aspic for tourists fitting a matinee around trips to the city’s smart eateries. But there are no mothballs in this season. Actor turned artistic director Antoni Cimolino, whose Stratford roles have included Romeo and Laertes, tells me they resist the idea of a “house” approach to productions. “If Shakespeare seems dusty and old, we haven’t done our jobs.”

Take the opening of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Chris Abraham and bookended by new scenes written by Erin Shields, known for previous feminist takes on King Lear and Paradise Lost. Staged on Julie Fox’s lush garden set, with succulents including outrageously phallic cacti, this comedy does not open with the usual back-slapping, macho banter about the “feats of a lion” in war. Instead, Maev Beaty’s Beatrice rises amid the audience, as Allison Edwards-Crewe’s Hero appears upstage before a mirror that resembles both a huge moon and a band of gold.

In a wry, softly saucy prologue, Beatrice invites us to consider the expectations faced by Hero specifically and by all women then and now. As well as providing ample satire – “it is exhausting to be innocent,” says Beatrice, with a witty rhyme about Hero needing to mute the strumming of her “private lute” – this is a canny way of ensuring we focus from the start on the inner life of a character whose reticence is all the more marked by the quicksilver exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice.

‘If Shakespeare seems dusty and old, we haven’t done our jobs’ … the Stratford Festival theatre. Photograph: Stratford Shakespeare festival/Richard Bain

Shields’s prologue is true to Beatrice’s wit and the spirit of Much Ado as, with the gentlest waft around her groin, she reminds us that “nothing” was once slang for vagina. The play unfolds with a lighting level that allows the audience to see each other, essential for some deft crowd work at the edges of the Festival theatre’s beloved thrust stage, with its pioneering design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. The venue fits an audience of 1,800 but no one here is further than 65ft from the stage.

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(Helen Shaw’s article appeared in the New Yorker, June 5, 2023; Photo: Grissom says that the playwright gave him a life-changing mission. Illustration by Valentin Tkach.)

James Grissom says that he met the playwright and his famous muses, and quoted them extensively in his work. Not everyone believes him.

Sometime in September, 1982, James Grissom, a twenty-year-old English student at Louisiana State University, receives a life-changing phone call from Tennessee Williams. It doesn’t come completely out of the blue: Grissom had sent a fan letter to the playwright, enclosing a picture and a few short stories, and asking for advice. But the response, Grissom would write decades later, surpasses his wildest hopes. When he picks up the receiver, a rough voice drawls down the line, “Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”

On the phone, the famously dissipated playwright tells Grissom that he is having a creative crisis. He has always begun his plays by imagining a woman walking across a stage, “announced by the arrival of a fog,” but he hasn’t seen this fog in years: the calcifying effects of time and “monumental accretions of toxins self-administered” have left him unable to write at his “previous level of power.”

Grissom drives from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and, at the Court of Two Sisters Restaurant, Williams dictates to him a list of writers, directors, and (mostly) actresses. Grissom jots the names down on a menu. Williams wants Grissom to convey his thoughts to these muses—specific praise, a memory—and then find out what Williams has meant to them. “I would like for you to ask these people if I ever mattered,” the playwright says.

So begins “Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog,” a book by James Grissom, which was published by Knopf in 2015. (Knopf is the publisher of several New Yorker collections and writers.) Grissom’s haunted, nonlinear, detail-rich book intertwines interviews with the playwright (who is by turns garrulous, melancholy, transported, resolute) and Grissom’s subsequent wide-ranging conversations with those who influenced him. In “Follies,” Grissom writes that, in the course of five days that September, the two men—one a seventy-one-year-old giant of American letters, the other a lanky college student scribbling notes in a blue exam booklet—pinballed around New Orleans while Williams talked about his favorite performers, his faith, his lovers, his great plays, and his determination to return to work. In the St. Louis Cathedral, the white wedding cake that towers above Jackson Square, Williams bought Grissom a rosary, naming each bead for an inspiration: Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Stella Adler . . . the catalogue went on.

Grissom recounts that weeks before Williams died, in February, 1983, the playwright called his house and left a message: “Be my witness.” It took Grissom six years, but once he moved to New York he began reaching out to the names on his list, bearing Williams’s words as his calling card. It’s astounding the interviews Grissom managed to get—the book includes a constellation of twentieth-century luminaries, among them Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando. There are also less widely known figures, like the elegant trouper Marian Seldes, who won a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2010, and two women who performed in revivals of “The Glass Menagerie”: Jo Van Fleet and Lois Smith, who won a Tony in 2021, at the age of ninety, for her role in “The Inheritance.” Grissom chronicles a remarkable intimacy with his subjects. He describes sitting with Stapleton as she drinks Blue Nun sweet wine; talking with Hepburn over bowls of ice cream; and lying in bed next to Kim Hunter, the original Stella from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” so they can listen through the wall to a play at the theatre next door.

Victoria Wilson, a legendary Knopf editor whose writers have included Anne Rice and the biographer Meryle Secrest, acquired the book and worked on it with Grissom for almost ten years. In the intervening decade, Grissom started releasing some of his material online, which brought him into various Williams orbits—he spoke at the 2009 Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, as part of its “I Remember Tennessee” panel. Over the years, Grissom launched Twitter and Instagram accounts, a “Follies of God” Facebook page (which now has more than a hundred and ninety-four thousand followers), a Substack newsletter (which currently lists more than seven hundred posts), and several blogs, including one dedicated to “Follies of God.” On these platforms, he began publishing quotations from Williams and his muses, as well as reflections shared with him in the nineties by Alec Guinness, Arthur Miller, Mike Nichols, Eartha Kitt, and others. (One blog, mainly pictures, is called “Faking the Fog.”)

In 2015, Grissom went on a book tour, and Wilson interviewed him at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. “From the moment I got this manuscript,” Wilson said, “I knew this book had greatness.” In a video of the event, Grissom—then fifty-three, his fine, graying hair combed back, the “Follies” rosary around his neck—is an easy and gracious raconteur, chatting about how he and Williams used to do impressions together of the comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly. Wilson herself is steeped in American performance history: she edited the letters of Williams and his longtime friend Maria St. Just, and wrote a biography of Barbara Stanwyck. Wilson told the crowd, “This is without question, as far as I’m concerned, the best book on Tennessee Williams ever written.”

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(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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