Category Archives: History

SECRETS OF RUSSIAN BALLERINAS: HOW TO STAY YOUNG WELL INTO YOUR GOLDEN YEARS ·

(Eleonora Goldman’s article appeared on Russia Beyond, 5/6.)
Maya Plisetskaya danced until 70!

Maya Plisetskaya danced until 70!

Vasily Malyshev, Vladimir Vyatkin/Sputnik

Maya Plisetskaya, Galina Ulanova, Ekaterina Maximova—even after retiring, these three outstanding ballet dancers continued to amaze everyone with their regal posture, chiseled figures and enviable vitality. What were their secrets to staying young?

Maya Plisetskaya: “No need for dieting”

Maya Plisetskaya during rehearsal in Colon Theater, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1976.

Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015) is the author of a popular catchphrase: “One should eat less.” Legend has it that this was her standard reply to never-ending questions about how she managed to keep in such an excellent shape. In fact, what she meant was that ballet dancers burn so much energy on stage and during rehearsals that they do not have to worry about dieting. “Ballet dancers do not have to stick to a diet because they work out a lot, everything is used up, and there is simply no time to get fat,” she used to say. “When you feel that you need to [lose some weight] before some performance, that you have gained some extra weight, you just need to eat a bit less.”

Famously, Plisetskaya was fond of beer and herring and, as far as she was concerned, the best dish in the world was a slice of ordinary bread with butter.

At the same time, she always emphasized that being a successful ballerina required a lot of hard work. “All my life I regularly go to class, whether I want to or not doesn’t matter.” 

As for the secret behind her trademark “swan-like” arm movements and posture, Plisetskaya said she learned these from observing birds in the zoo. 

She performed on stage till she was 70.

Galina Ulanova: “Nature gives me strength”

Choreography teacher Galina Ulanova (left) and dancer Maya Plisetskaya (right) rehearsing, 1969.

Galina Ulanova (1910-1998) was not only a famous ballerina, but also a legendary instructor who taught choreography to generations of young dancers, including Plisetskaya.

She was a very private person, and in rare interviews she said that she drew strength from outdoor activities. One of her favorite pursuits was kayaking. “I can row for hours. Many were surprised that I did not get tired and knew how to control the boat. I would take my kayak far, far away, steer it into tall reeds, lie down in the boat and look at the sky for a long time…Nature is what gives me strength.” 

(Read more)

REDISCOVERING FRANCE’S EARLY FEMALE PLAYWRIGHTS ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/28; via Pam Green.  Photo: From left, Marie Langlet, Julie Ménard and Marine Ségalen in a production of Madame de Villedieu’s “Le Favori” [“The Male Favorite”] directed by Aurore Evain. The play was written in 1665 and was first performed at Versailles.Credit…Pierre Majek.)

A growing movement within French theater is reclaiming the work of forgotten female artists, and reviving a lost concept: le matrimoine.

PARIS — How many women had professional careers as playwrights in prerevolutionary France, between the 16th and 18th centuries? Go on, hazard a guess.

The answer, according to recent scholarship, is around 150. Yet if you guessed the number was close to zero, you’re not alone. For decades, the default assumption has been that deep-seated inequality prevented women from writing professionally until the 20th century.

Now a growing movement within French theater is reclaiming the work of forgotten female artists, and reviving a lost concept along the way: le matrimoineMatrimoine is the feminine equivalent of patrimoine — translated as patrimony, or what is inherited from male ancestors. In French, however, patrimoine is also the catchall term to describe cultural heritage. By way of matrimoine, artists and academics are pushing for the belated recognition of women’s contribution to art history, and the return of their plays to the stage.

Matrimoine is no neologism. “The word was used in the Middle Ages but has been erased,” said the scholar and stage director Aurore Evain. “Patrimoine and matrimoine once coexisted, yet at the end of the day all we were left with was matrimonial agencies.”

When Dr. Evain started researching prerevolutionary female authors, around 2000, she quickly realized that French academics were behind their American peers. In the early 1990s, Perry Gethner, a professor of French at Oklahoma State University, had already translated plays by Françoise Pascal, Catherine Bernard and other 17th- and 18th-century women into English, and published them.

(Read more)

RARE PHOTOS OF LEGENDARY BALLETS RUSSES ON TOURS ABROAD ·

(Anna Sorokina’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 8/24; Photos above, credit: E. O. Hoppé; A.Botkin; The New York Public Library.)

The world glory of the Russian ballet started with these performances by Serge Diaghilev’s dancers.

At the beginning of the 20th century, impresario Serge Diaghilev organized regular tours of Russian artists abroad. The first performances were held in 1907-1908 in Paris under the title of ‘Saisons Russe’ (Russian Seasons) and included the operas ‘Boris Godunov’, ‘Prince Igor’, ‘The Maid of Pskov’ and ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’. In 1909, Diaghilev also included a ballet program in Saisons Russe, in which the dancers of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theaters starred. 

Poster for the Saison Russe at the Théâtre du Châtelet, 1909.

The following year, he decided to show only ballet performances and, in 1911, the impresario turned the seasonal tours into the itinerant ‘Ballets Russes’ company, based in Monte Carlo.

Ballets Russes in Seville, Spain, 1916.

The most important of Diaghilev’s achievements was the discovery of new musical names. Among his troupe were the most famous dancers of Imperial Russia: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, Yekaterina Geltzer. Michael Fokine accompanied the troupe as a choreographer. The costumes were created by Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois and the composer for early programs was Igor Stravinsky.

Ballets Russes during the rehearsal: at the piano on the right is composer Igor Stravinsky, and standing is Michael Fokine. In the center is ballerina Tamara Karsavina.

The season of 1909 opened in the Parisian Théâtre du Châtelet with the five performances by Fokine: ‘Le Pavillon d’Armide’ (The Pavilion of Armide) with Pavlova and Nijinsky, ‘Polovtsian Dances’ (a scene from ‘Prince Igor’), dance suite ‘Le Festin’ (The Feast), romantic ballet ‘La Sylphide’ (The Sylph), and ‘Cléopâtre’ (Cleopatra) ballet. All the premieres were welcomed by the audience with great enthusiasm and Russian ballet became a world known brand. 

Serge Diaghilev and friends. // Ballets Russes in London.

The 1910 and 1911 seasons were also held in Berlin and Brussels. It started with Fokine’s new ballets: ‘Carnaval’, which the maestro considered his best work, ‘L’Oiseau de feu’ (The Firebird) with Tamara Karsavina, Scheherazade, Giselle, and ‘Les Orientales’ (dances from various ballets).

(Read more)

THE BRIEF, BRILLIANT AND RADICAL LIFE OF LORRAINE HANSBERRY ·

(Parul Sehgal’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/14; via Pam Green. Photo: The playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. Credit…David Attie/Getty Images.)

The curtain rises on a dim, drab room. An alarm sounds, and a woman wakes. She tries to rouse her sleeping child and husband, calling out: “Get up!”

It is the opening scene — and the injunction — of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” the story of a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago. “Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” her friend James Baldwin would later recall. It was the first play by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. When “Raisin” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play, Hansberry — at 29 — became the youngest American and the first Black recipient.

How often the word “first” appears in the life of Hansberry; how often it will appear in this review. See also “spokeswoman” or “only.” Strange words of praise; meretricious even, in how they can mask the isolation they impose. Hansberry seemed to anticipate it all. At the triumphant premiere of “Raisin,” at the standing ovation and the calls for playwright to take the stage, she initially refused to leave her seat. “The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all,” she later wrote, “is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”

Hansberry died in 1965, at 34, of cancer. The fact still feels intolerable, almost unassimilable — her death not merely tragedy but a kind of theft. “Look at the work that awaits you!” she said in a speech to young writers, calling them “young, gifted and Black” — inspiring the Nina Simone song of the same name. Look at the work that awaited her. She goaded herself on, even in the hospital: “Comfort has come to be its own corruption.”

(Read more)

KURT WEILL’S PATH FROM EUROPE TO BROADWAY WAS A STRAIGHT LINE ·

(Joshua Barone’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/15; via Pam Green; Photo: When the composer Kurt Weill was a teenager in Germany, as seen here in 1919, he was already showing signs of what would shape his Broadway sound.Credit…Hoenisch, via Weill-Lenya Research Center, Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.)

Weill’s early, Weimar-era works reveal the qualities that found a natural home in his golden age American musicals.

Kurt Weill is often described as if he were two composers. One spun quintessential sounds of Weimar-era Berlin in works like “The Threepenny Opera,” and the other wrote innovative earworms for Broadway’s golden age. His career was bifurcated, so the story goes — split not only by a shift in style, but also by the Atlantic Ocean, when he fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in the United States.

Yet it’s possible to trace an unbroken line from Weill’s earliest works, as a teenager, to his final projects for the American stage, before his death in 1950. This path is evident in a recent wave of streamed performances — from his hometown, Dessau, as well as from Berlin, Milan and elsewhere — that together form a rough survey of his European output and reveal a spongy mind, a desire for novelty and a steady progression toward simplicity that found a natural home in his pathbreaking Broadway musicals.

The oldest piece on offer came, appropriately, from Dessau, where Weill was born in 1900. Today it’s a dreary town in the former East Germany, but it has a rich cultural heritage: The Kurt Weill Center is inside one of the Masters’ Houses of the Bauhaus school, which is a local landmark and a venue for the annual Kurt Weill Festival. That celebration went online this year, with events including a spirited recital by the young pianist Frank Dupree.

Between duets with the trumpeter Simon Höfele, Dupree played “Intermezzo,” a short piano solo from 1917, before Weill had studied with the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni or worked under the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch. You can already hear, in this tender work, a gift for melody, as well as the textural sophistication of Brahms.

(Read more)

SHAKESPEARE IN THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE ·

Collage of images of figures and events of the Harlem Renaissance. Louis Armstrong plays trumpet in a photo of Swingin the Dream, comedian Moms Mabley, an actor in costume for the voodoo Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, actor and director Rose McClendon

(L to R) Swingin’ the Dream, 1939; Moms Mabley; From Macbeth, 1936 (Courtesy New York Public Library); Rose McClendon, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection); Outside the Lafayette Theater on the opening night of Macbeth, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection).

(Dr. Freda Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev for Shakespeare Unlimited and Folger Shakespeare Library.)

Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes.

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 161

When you think about the Harlem Renaissance, theater might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But, says Dr. Freda Scott Giles, theater played a significant role in the blossoming of Black American arts and culture of the 1920s and ’30s. Of course, because there’s little in the English-language theater untouched by Shakespeare, he was present in the Harlem Renaissance too. Banner Shakespeare productions included Orson Welles’s hit “Voodoo” Macbeth, produced by the Federal Theater Project, and the Midsummer-inspired Swingin’ the Dream, which was a Broadway flop despite the talents of musician Louis Armstrong and comedian Moms Mabley.

We talk to Dr. Giles, Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia, about how the artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance regarded the Bard. Plus, we visit the African Company of the 1820s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to learn about more than a century of Black responses to Shakespeare. Dr. Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifySoundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Freda Scott Giles is Associate Professor Emerita of Theater at the University of Georgia. She was a contributor to three books: Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration, published in 2020; Constructions of Race in Southern Theatre: From Federalism to the Federal Theatre Project, published in 2003; and American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, which was published in 1995.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 16, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Here Engage My Words,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare’s work was written during a time that a lot of people call “The Renaissance.” There was another Renaissance—one that was closer to our time. And Shakespeare was a part of that one, too.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The time I’m referring to is “The Harlem Renaissance.” Ten or so years of artistic and intellectual abundance fueled by the Great Migration, by Caribbean immigration, and by dreams to reconstruct the world of Reconstruction by Black soldiers coming home from World War I. 

Dr. Freda Scott Giles is an Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia and for decades, she’s studied the theater world of the Harlem Renaissance. Because there’s almost nothing in the English-language theater that isn’t touched by Shakespeare, you won’t be surprised to find him here too, and not just in the places you’d expect. We found Dr. Giles’ perspective on this intersection so fresh, that we had to bring it to you.

She joined us for this podcast, which we call, “I Here Engage My Words.” Dr. Freda Scott Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
——————

BARBARA BOGAEV: Freda, just to start us off, I have a really basic question. How big a role did theater play in the Harlem Renaissance? Because when I think back to my history books, they seem to play a—you know, writers of all kinds and poets and painters, but what about theater and playwrights?

FREDA SCOTT GILES: Yes, that’s the problem that when the theater component of this era is remembered, the theater is reduced in significance. But the people who were living in that time thought that theater was very significant.

W.E.B. Du Bois thought that theater would be a major element in changing people’s minds about who African Americans are, what the problems are. He himself started a theater company, and he wanted to build up a national black theater that would have a circuit of theaters through the United States where plays by, for, and about African Americans would be performed. They even had a running segment in The Crisis called, “The Negro in Art: How Will He Be Portrayed.” And all of the intellectual voices of the period, white and Black, chimed in on what theater should be and what the theater should do.

BOGAEV: Wow, so it was seminal. Did Du Bois write plays himself?

GILES: Yes, he did. Du Bois wrote plays. He never published them, but I read them in his papers.

BOGAEV: Huh. Well, what were his plays like?

GILES: Well, he really appreciated expressionism. Several of the plays are very expressionistic and would be hard to produce, because you would have… one play he had civilization crashing down, and I said, “Hmm, I wonder what that looks like.”

(Read more)

 

HOW SOVIET POETS PERFORMED IN FOOTBALL STADIUMS IN FRONT OF THOUSANDS ·

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 3/5; Photo: Mikhail Ozersky/Sputnik)

“A poet in Russia is more than a poet,” Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a leading author of his time, famously stated. He knew what he was talking about. During Nikita Khrushchev’s cultural years of Thaw, Soviet poets were public figures like rock stars. They performed to sell-out crowds, predicted the future and helped get over the past.

Soviet poets were rewarded with public recognition for what they did best – inspire hope and change in the USSR. They rocked in their own, intellectual way.   

Poets of the Thaw

In the late 1950s-1960s, poetry was extremely popular among the Soviet youth. Khrushchev’s Thaw brought a breath of fresh air after Stalin’s totalitarian rule. Poetry readings were a rare ray of light in a close Soviet environment, behind the stuffy Iron Curtain. It was an unprecedented time marked by big promises and high hopes that replaced the horrors of WWII and early communism. The generation that came of age in the early 1960s was looking for new challenges, new opportunities – and new raisons d’etre. 

Things began to change in the late 1950s, after Nikita Khrushchev delivered his secret speech to the 20th congress of the Communist Party (in which he slammed Stalin’s crimes and the cult of personality). 

Poetry, like any form of art, became a powerful form of expression for both artists and listeners. Their collections of poems sold several million copies. “The new kids on the block” were so popular they drew large crowds of admirers that gathered inside packed football stadiums.

Poetry of protest

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) achieved an almost godlike status among the poets and became the leading figure of the so-called ‘Sixties Generation’ in the Soviet Union.

(Read more)

THE BIRTH OF ‘RENT,’ ITS CREATOR’S DEATH AND THE 25 YEARS SINCE ·

(Eric Grode’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/25; via Pam Green; Photo: Jonathan Larson, left, who wrote the music, lyrics and book of “Rent,” with the play’s director, Michael Greif, in 1996.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

With a virtual performance marking the Broadway musical’s anniversary, original cast and creative team members talk about losing Jonathan Larson and carrying on his legacy.

What’s 525,600 times 25?

It has been 25 years — or, to use a memorable “Seasons of Love” calculation, 13.14 million minutes — since “Rent” upended Broadway’s sense of what musical theater could be. Jonathan Larson’s rock-infused reboot of “La Bohème” had already generated positive chatter during its Off Broadway rehearsals at New York Theater Workshop. But then came full-throated shouts of disbelief and anguish on Jan. 25, 1996, when, hours after the final dress rehearsal, Larson was found dead in his apartment from an aortic aneurysm. He was 35 years old.

His shocking death came right before the start of previews, when a creative team typically makes changes based on audience reactions. After briefly considering whether to bring in a script doctor, the team decided instead to streamline Larson’s music and lyrics as needed.

The move paid off. Within weeks, “Rent” had achieved a level of hype that would not be rivaled on Broadway until “Hamilton” almost 20 years later: earning rave reviews (The New York Times’s Ben Brantley said it “shimmers with hope for the future of the American musical”); a Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and a frantic transfer to Broadway, where it ran for 12 years and won four Tony Awards.

(Read more)

 

 

HOW RUSSIAN THEATER GURU KONSTANTIN STANISLAVSKY CHANGED THE ACTING UNIVERSE ·

 

B.Brilliantov/Sputnik; Getty Images

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 1/29/2021.)

Konstantin Stanislavsky’s ideas changed the face of theater as much as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the understanding of physics. Stanislavsky wrote his name in the history books as the most influential theater practitioner of the modern era and a central mover and shaker in the world of acting and dramatic training.  
Theater was a source of palpable joy and jubilation to the tall, handsome and charismatic Konstantin Stanislavsky. A foremost actor, director and theater practitioner, he devoted his entire life to the Moscow Art Theater, turning an intuitive idea of what art should be like into reality. Brimming with energy and ideas, Stanislavsky was a brilliant actor, who preferred to portray two-dimensional characters undergoing major transformations. Basically, to help himself, Stanislavsky developed his own dramatic training method, widely known as the ‘Stanislavsky’ system. Super-hyped across the world, it became the foundation for the so-called ‘Method’ acting style. 

Konstantin Stanislavsky as Benedick in 'Much Ado About Nothing' in 1897.

The system, developed over four decades, is an attempt to understand how an actor, no matter what he does on stage, how tired, scared or frustrated he or she is, can experience creative joy “right here, right now”. The system, which arose as an absolute necessity for a given person (and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky), proved to be extremely useful for a wide variety of people in a variety of practical ways in different environments worldwide. Its quintessential ingredient was faith. First of all, according to Stanislavsky, an actor has to fully believe in the “given circumstances” in which they find themselves in the play. The biggest challenge therefore is to learn to believe. Faith, fantasy and vivid imagination are the three pillars of the system (which Stanislavsky modestly described as “my so-called system”.)

Konstantin Stanislavsky as Gaev in 'The Cherry Orchard'.

One way or another, one thing is certain: Stanislavsky was an outstanding teacher, whose famous students included future theater legends Yevgeny Vakhtangov and Vsevolod Meyerhold. His acting techniques and ideas had a far-reaching influence in the United States through the contribution of Lee Strasberg (the “father of method acting in America”).  Strasberg used Stanislavsky’s fundamental guidelines and observations in New York’s famous Actors Studio. He coached Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, just to name a few. Stanislavsky’s observations about his artistic and directorial experience provided vital clues to acting techniques worldwide. 

“Stanislavsky did not invent anything. Using the example of the great artists of his time, he tried to understand, study and, if possible, master the nature of stage play,” one of Russia’s greatest theater directors, Lev Dodin, believes“Stanislavsky wanted to comprehend the nature of human life on the stage, the nature of the birth of a new human substance on the stage, the artistic perfection of this new human being created by the imagination, nerves, intellect and body of the artist. [Stanislavsky] was looking for ways to create this phenomenon. Therefore, when an artist plays well, i.e. convincingly, contagiously, authentically, deeply, with empathy, compassion and joy, the artist plays according to the Stanislavsky system, regardless of whether he knows it or not.”

Family roots

It all runs in the family, they say, and it’s true that Stanislavsky, who had nine brothers and sisters, inherited his undying love for the arts from his loving parents.

The Alekseyev family in 1879.

Stanislavsky was born into a large and prosperous merchant family in Moscow. His real last name was Alekseyev. Konstantin’s father was a third-generation manufacturer and his mother was the daughter of a French actress. 

“I was born in Moscow in 1863 – at the turn of two eras. I still remember the remnants of serfdom… I witnessed the emergence of railways with courier trains, steamships, electric searchlights, cars, airplanes, dreadnoughts, submarines, telephones – copper-wire and wireless – radio telegraphy and twelve-inch guns. Therefore, from serfdom to Bolshevism and Communism. A truly interesting life in an age of changing values and fundamental ideas,” Stanislavsky wrote in one of his best-known works, ‘My Life in Art’. 

(Read more)

 

 

WHO WAS MIKE NICHOLS WHEN HE WASN’T PLAYING MIKE NICHOLS? ·

(Louis Menand’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 2/1; PHOTO: Nichols on the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), which swept the Academy Award nominations.Photograph by © Bob Willoughby / MPTV Images.)

An intuitive storyteller, the director perfected narratives—including his own.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard in October, 1957. Apart from their manager, Jack Rollins, whom they’d met for the first time just a week or two before, no one in New York had ever heard of them.

Nichols and May had worked out their comedy act in Chicago, playing mostly hole-in-the-wall venues as members of a local theatre group called the Compass. They performed sketches—a man on the phone with his mother, a movie star getting interviewed, a man trying to pick up his secretary in a bar. They had a script, but left room for ad-libs, and they ended the show by asking the audience to suggest an opening line, a closing line, and a style (Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Jack Kerouac), and then improvising a skit. They were an overnight hit. By the second week, they were upstaging Sahl, a man not renowned for the length of his fuse, and he began cancelling their set.

They moved uptown to a tonier joint, the Blue Angel, on East Fifty-fifth Street, where they did a midnight show. It quickly started selling out, and soon they were the talk of the town (night-life division). In those days, television variety shows scouted talent in supper clubs like the Blue Angel, and in December Nichols and May went on “The Steve Allen Show.” In January, they performed two sketches on an NBC special, where they were seen by tens of millions of viewers.

They were now nationally known and in demand. Rollins asked for big fees, and by the spring May had an apartment on Riverside Drive, and Nichols was living in a duplex on East Fifty-eighth Street and driving a Mercedes convertible. He was twenty-six. It was the first time that he had had any money. He found that he enjoyed the life style.

Nichols and May released an album, “Improvisations to Music,” in 1958. It made it onto the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. In 1960, they took their act to Broadway, where “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” ran for three hundred and eleven performances. The album of the show went to No. 10 in the Billboard rankings and won a Grammy.

Some people who saw them perform—including the critic Edmund Wilson, who went to the Broadway show four times—thought that May was the star. May is a kind of comic genius. Her father, Jack Berlin, worked in the Yiddish theatre, and she had been appearing onstage since she was a child. She was fearless—also glamorous, sexy, and terrifying to men. (She and Nichols were not lovers.) There is a story that when they were performing in Chicago she would go onstage without underwear and flash the audience.

She married when she was sixteen, had a daughter (Jeannie Berlin, who became a movie actress), split from her husband, and hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Chicago, where she hung out at the university, attending classes but never registering. That was where she met Nichols, a University of Chicago dropout who had found a home of sorts as an actor on the local drama scene.

Nichols was widely regarded as (his term) a prick. He was supercilious and had a quick tongue—“a scary person,” as one colleague put it. May was introduced to him by the Compass’s director, Paul Sills, as “the only other person at the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you.” (The Compass became Second City, the legendary feeder troupe for “Saturday Night Live”; Sills was its original director.) They quickly recognized that they were soul mates. They were sophisticated, faster with a comeback than anyone they knew, and unencumbered by conventional, or even unconventional, pieties. They saw through everything and everybody, including themselves.

More to the point, as May put it, “we found each other hilarious.” Onstage, they were complementary. “He was always directing the scene while he was doing it,” one of the Compass players remembered. “Elaine would never do that. Her bursts were spontaneous. I always felt that in their act, she was really the driving force.” Nichols did not disagree. “She was more interested in taking chances than in being a hit,” he said. “I was more interested in making the audience happy.”

What made the show so hot? Nichols and May were witty people, but they used standard comic setups (the quarrelsome couple, the all-thumbs first date), and they lampooned some pretty soft targets—the British movie “Brief Encounter,” for instance, which they set in a dentist’s office. (“There, I’ve said it. I do love you. Rinse out, please.”) Despite the reputation the act acquired, the dialogue was not remotely risqué. They were not in Lenny Bruce territory. They were barely in Mort Sahl territory.

(Read more)