Category Archives: History


(Lyndsey Winship’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/28; via Pam Green; Photo:  Don’t stop till you’re married! … dancers in traditional clothing perform the Schuhplattler. Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy.)

What do you get if you cross a 1,000-year-old Bavarian shoe-slapping dance with an all-male Italian folk routine that was on the brink of extinction? A sweaty, joyous double-bill!

When Alessandro Sciarroni discovered an Italian folk dance called polka chinata, it was at that point a near-forgotten art practised by only five men in the world. By contrast, when he first watched the 1,000-year-old, thigh-slapping Bavarian/Tyrolean Schuhplattler, it was still being taught and performed, known for its lederhosen, beer steins and a dark period in its history as a favourite of the Nazis. Both of these dances, though, are ones the artist and choreographer has turned into something new, which he’ll be bringing to the inaugural Dance Reflections festival, accelerating the return of international dance to London, post-Covid.

Folk dance is not Sciarroni’s only influence – his background is in experimental theatre – but it’s fertile ground for contemporary artists (another upcoming show, by Jamal Gerald at Leeds’s Transform festival, reinvents the Jumbie dance from Montserrat as a dance of black queer joy). Sciarroni has an anthropological eye. As a young boy growing up on Italy’s east coast, he was fascinated by animal behaviour, the flocking of birds, the way insects worked in unison.

“I was hypnotised and very curious,” he says. “When you are a child you see these things and ask these huge philosophical questions.” Watching these centuries-old folk dances, those big “whys” returned: “Why do they do it? How do they know what to do? It’s something that reconnects me with the mysteries of the universe.”

When you step back and look at it, much of human behaviour seems bizarre, especially on the dancefloor. “You see a group of people using a lot of energy to do something that looks pointless,” says Sciarroni. “But the more you look, the more you recognise something about yourself in them.”

That tension between tradition and modernity is always at play. “Sometimes tradition is a nest where you can feel protected,” he says, “but it can also be a cage.” Sciarroni extracts the dances from their original music but has no desire to wipe out tradition – he teaches polka chinata workshops alongside performances of his piece Save the Last Dance for Me. Polka chinata is performed by two men in close embrace (a bit like a tango) who spin in tight circles, bending their knees until they’re almost sitting on the ground. It began around Bologna in the early 1900s, a way for men to show off to women, and after the second world war became almost a competitive activity.

Then it disappeared, until one dance scholar, Giancarlo Stagni, discovered some old recordings. Sciarroni went to Stagni’s village every week for six months to learn the steps. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “And it’s very beautiful, because when you hug your partner and crouch down, it’s really a dance about trust and sharing the weight of the body. At the beginning you approach it technically, but then it becomes about feelings.” He means for the dancers, but hopefully the same is true for the audience.

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(Helena Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/31; A member of Prof Lambrinoudakis’ team showing a picture of farmer Christos Zafiris, the site’s former owner, on the spot where the Little Theatre of Epidavros was discovered. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian; (below) Excavations at the Little Epidavros Theatre. Photograph: Vassilis Lambrinoudakis.)

New passion for reviving country’s monuments is returning Little Theatre of Epidavros to heart of community.)

For nearly two millennia, the Little Theatre of Epidavros lay underground. Its engraved seats, concentric and tiered, belonged to a world of roots; in this case the roots of an olive grove owned by Christos Zafiris, a local farmer. “They say that had it not been for pigs digging at the soil, we might never have known of its existence,” says Prof Vassilis Lambrinoudakis. “Until the appearance of the stones in 1970, the theatre was a secret hidden under the earth for 18 centuries.”

The classical archaeologist, renowned for his work at Athens University, has spent more than four decades ensuring the chance find would not go to waste. Excavations have not disappointed. Inscriptions discovered at the site, on the slopes of a peninsula overlooking the sea, have shed light on the history of those who may have commissioned the theatre. Evidence of multiple phases of construction, starting in the mid-fourth century BC, have further illuminated the ancient city of Epidavros that once surrounded the architectural gem.

For those who flock to the resurrected theatre’s festival every July, the venue, roughly 95 miles south-west of Athens, rivals its slightly younger but much more famous sister, the 12,000-seat ancient playhouse barely 10 miles away long regarded as Greece’s best theatre acoustically and aesthetically.

 “It’s among our top 10 20th century finds,” says Lambrinoudakis, a sprightly octogenarian pointing to the Little Theatre’s upper tiers. “More than any other remnant of the past, ancient theatres speak to us. They contain a message of life that modern society has a thirst to share. It is our duty to bring them alive.”

In a country as culturally rich as Greece, ancient arenas, like other antiquities, are no stranger to abandonment and decay. Overstretched budgets, an unwieldy bureaucracy and public oversight have all been blamed for ruins falling victim to the ravages of neglect and time. But officials are now on a mission to revive the monuments. And, with the aid of private sponsorship and EU funds, headway is being made.

South of little Epidavros, restoration work on the 17,000-seat ancient theatre of Sparta was launched last year. In Larissa, reconstruction of central Greece’s biggest open-air ancient theatre is on course to be completed. As excavations have progressed, authorities have reported thousands of inscriptions and hundreds of sculptures being unearthed.

Farther north, in Epirus, one of Europe’s poorest regions, plans are afoot to make five ancient Greek theatres the centrepiece of a 214-mile cultural route taking in 2,500 years of history. The EU will provide 80% of the €24m the project is slated to cost.

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(Billy Shortall’s and Ciarin O’Neill’s article appeared in The Iris Times, 1/26/2022; Photo: Delegates to the World Congress of the Irish Race led by Katherine Hughes, Mary MacSwiney, Éamon de Valera, Countess Markievicz, Thomas Hughes Kelly and Sean T O’Kelly. Photograph: Image Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)


A showcase of Irish art and design brought a fleeting moment of unity before the Civil War


In late January 1922 the cream of Irish politics, literature, music, theatre, art and design converged in Paris. James Joyce published his modernist masterpiece Ulysses. Renowned designer Eileen Gray opened her shop Jean Désert, and an event known as the World Congress of the Irish Race took place in the city. The week-long congress brought Irish delegates and an international audience together to discuss Irish affairs and establish a central diaspora organisation to co-ordinate worldwide support for the emerging State.


Associated with the congress the Irish government presented the grand narrative of Irish cultural history, with lectures on aspects of Irish life and culture, performances of plays by playwrights John M Synge and Lady Gregory, and concerts of Irish music. The centrepiece of this cultural display was a seminal exhibition of Irish art.


The Irish exhibition aimed to show the world the best of modern Irish art in a global context. It was an early deployment of soft power and cultural diplomacy

The French authorities estimated 250 people attended the congress. Approximately 100 delegates with voting rights travelled from all over the world to the political think-in and tactical display of Irish culture. Éamon de Valera described it as a chance to display Ireland’s “magnificent culture, the grand things the nation could give to the world”.


The centrepiece of this show was an art exhibition, mounted in a fashionable Parisian art gallery, Galerie Barbazanges, located just around the corner from Jean Désert. Barbazanges specialised in modern art, showing Picasso and Modigliani. By choosing this space the Irish exhibition aimed to show the world the best of modern Irish art in a global context. It was an early deployment of soft power and cultural diplomacy. Art was to be used as a key element of branding a postcolonial Ireland.


This Friday, January 28th, Trinity College Dublin will launch a 3D virtual recreation of this seminal exhibition developed by historians from the Department of History and Department of History of Art and Architecture in partnership with Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Seeing Ireland is an ambitious digital humanities project which forms part of the Decade of Centenaries programme for 2022 and has been supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.



Visitors to the website will be able to enjoy an immersive experience of attending the exhibition and see Ireland as it wished to be seen by the world in 1922 in a fleeting moment of unity, between the Treaty split and subsequent Civil War that dominated the narrative of that year in Irish history. Irish art and culture was something both sides could embrace.


At the time of the congress no other country had officially recognised the State. The authorities sought to present a self-defined identity and to elicit international support as it sought to take its place in the world. The Irish minister for fine arts George Noble Plunkett, in correspondence with both congress organiser Katherine Hughes and de Valera, noted the “propaganda value” of the exhibition. George Gavan Duffy, then minister for foreign affairs, wrote that the congress was “mainly of a cultural and artistic character” and he thought that it was wise to send a delegation representing Ireland that would endeavour to “avoid party politics”. He invited de Valera and Eoin MacNeill to each lead an official delegation of five representing the country.


Other delegates included Countess Markievicz, Mary McSwiney, Harry Boland, Sean T O’Kelly and Douglas Hyde, who delivered a lecture to attendees on the Irish language. William Butler Yeats lectured on Irish literature and his brother Jack, in his one and only public lecture, spoke on modern Irish art. Speakers included MacNeill on Irish history, Arthur Darley on music and Evelyn Gleeson on Irish design. Other presentations were on economics, religion, sport and agriculture. These topics were chosen to represent the pre-Civil War pillars on which the new administration planned to build the State.


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(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/10;  Gift for improvisation … painting of Molière reading from Tartuffe at the home of Ninon de L’Enclos. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy.)

The Comédie-Française is celebrating the 17th-century dramatist by recreating Tartuffe, the play that outraged the Catholic church and almost ended his career

French theatre is gearing up to pay tribute to one of its founding fathers: Molière, the 17th-century playwright whose biting comedies still form many French schoolchildren’s introduction to drama. On 15 January, 400 years after his baptism (the exact date of his birth is unknown), the venerable Comédie-Française company will open this anniversary year with the play that came perilously close to sinking Molière’s career: Tartuffe.

While the first version of the play got the approval of Louis XIV himself in 1664, its satire of Catholic zealots drew the ire of the Catholic church. At the time, accusations of impiety could send a playwright to the stake, and Tartuffe was swiftly forbidden. Yet Molière persisted, switching gears and rewriting the play to suggest that his target wasn’t religion or true believers – but rather the hypocrisy of those who feign virtue. (The word “tartuffe” came to describe such characters in life, too.)

It worked. By 1669, a new, longer version of the play – in five rather than three acts – was allowed and met with acclaim, and researchers now see Molière’s political and social acumen as a key factor in his rise to classic status, even before his death. “Molière was brilliant at this: he had this sense of opportunity, a gift for improvisation,” says Georges Forestier, a Molière specialist and professor emeritus at Sorbonne Université in Paris.

And this month, thanks to Forestier and his colleague Isabelle Grellet, the Comédie-Française’s audience will be able to experience the original Tartuffe again – or at least a text as close to it as possible. While the 1664 play didn’t survive, the duo used a method that Forestier calls “theatrical genetics” to recreate it. It relies on sources the era’s playwrights drew heavily on, such as commedia dell’arte scenarios and existing short stories, to piece together a play’s original plot.

The result is a tighter, more streamlined Tartuffe, focused on the eponymous antihero – a religious beggar who is welcomed into a well-to-do family – and his hosts, Orgon and his wife Elmire. Some characters, such as the young beau Valère, have disappeared entirely along with the second and fifth acts, identified as later additions.

The prominent Belgian director Ivo van Hove will direct what is set to be a curious event – a “new” Molière play at the House of Molière, as the Comédie-Française has long been known. The opening night will be relayed live in cinemas in seven countries, and marks the start of a yearlong celebration for the French company, which was born of the fusion of Molière’s troupe and another, in 1680: its entire 2022 lineup will be dedicated to Molière.

Van Hove originally considered tackling Tartuffe years ago, after staging Molière’s The Misanthrope and The Miser in other countries, but he was discouraged by the standard five-act version. “It’s so artificially made up, due to the pressure from the church,” he says between rehearsals. “I never liked it, and I didn’t know how to solve it.”

Forestier and Grellet’s three-act version convinced him. “It’s what he intended it to be,” Van Hove says of this old-new Tartuffe, presented under its original title (Tartuffe or the Hypocrite, changed in 1669 to The Impostor). The director has added a prologue and epilogue to set the scene, and sees the play as a “social drama”.

Ever the pragmatist, Molière knew when to back down – and when to take risks, too

“This Tartuffe is invited into their home, and then the whole family, every individual, starts to change,” he says. Forestier stresses, however, that while Van Hove sees Tartuffe’s relationship with Elmire, the lady of the house, as a love story, the text doesn’t necessarily support this idea.

Ever the pragmatist, Molière knew when to back down – and when to take risks, too. As Tartuffe and the ensuing controversy demonstrate, he was the first comic playwright in France to leave stock comedy characters behind and tap into zeitgeisty themes, including the education of women, freedom within marriage, fanaticism and fashion. And while conservatives disapproved, he found an eager audience in Louis XIV and his court. “When his career takes off, the king is in his 20s,” says Marine Souchier, a postdoctoral researcher who studied the playwright’s career trajectory. “Molière speaks to a pretty young crowd at court and among the bourgeoisie, and is rather progressive for this era.”

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Released On: 30 Dec 2021

Available for over a year

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Austrian-born film director Fritz Lang (1890-1976), who was one of the most celebrated film-makers of the 20th century. He worked first in Weimar Germany, creating a range of films including the startling and subversive Mabuse the Gambler and the iconic but ruinously expensive Metropolis before arguably his masterpiece, M, with both the police and the underworld hunting for a child killer in Berlin, his first film with sound. The rise of the Nazis prompted Lang’s move to Hollywood where he developed some of his Weimar themes in memorable and disturbing films such as Fury and The Big Heat.

With Stella Bruzzi Professor of Film and Dean of Arts and Humanities at University College London

Joe McElhaney Professor of Film Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York

And Iris Luppa Senior Lecturer in Film Studies in the Division of Film and Media at London South Bank University Producer: Simon Tillotson 



Rory Nolan and Marty Rea in Druid’s Three Short Comedies by Seán O’Casey. Photo by Ste Murray.

(Ciara L. Murphy’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 12/20.)

Under Garry Hynes’ direction, Druid bring a wide and eccentric range of characters to life


National Opera House, Wexford

Druid theatre company has brought three of Seán O’Casey’s short comedies to life in a multifaceted and high-energy production. A Pound on Demand (1939), Bedtime Story (1951) and The End of the Beginning (1937) deliver light relief amid the pandemic gloom of this Christmas season.

Seldom seen on the Irish stage, these one-act comedies are a departure from the early-20th-century politics for which O’Casey’s plays are better known. Instead these succinct performances focus on the everyday comings and goings of a wide array of characters (in the most Irish sense of the word).

These performances offer observations on authoritarianism, religious conservatism and the folly of “keeping up appearances” while delivering scathing (and wildly entertaining) commentaries on the various failures and vagaries of the (relatively new) independent Irish State. Fans of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy will recognise his signature dark humour and sharp social criticism amid the farcical elements of this production.

Francis O’Connor’s effective and inventive set design offers a recognisable image of 20th-century realism

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In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the British phase of a movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Influenced by Charles Baudelaire and by Walter Pater, these Decadents rejected the mainstream Victorian view that art needed a moral purpose, and valued instead the intense sensations art provoked, celebrating art for art’s sake. Oscar Wilde was at its heart, Aubrey Beardsley adorned it with his illustrations and they, with others, provoked moral panic with their supposed degeneracy. After burning brightly, the movement soon lost its energy in Britain yet it has proved influential.

The illustration above, by Beardsley, is from the cover of the first edition of The Yellow Book in April 1894.


Neil Sammells
Professor of English and Irish Literature and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Bath Spa University

Kate Hext
Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter


Alex Murray
Senior Lecturer in English at Queen’s University, Belfast

Producer: Simon Tillotson


People hang Cuban flags over the windows of Yunior Garcia Aguilera’s home in an attempt to stop him from communicating with the outside, in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Ramon Epinosa)

(Mary Beth Sheridan’s article appeared in the Washington Post, 11/15; via the Drudge Report.)

Security forces surrounded the homes of Cuban activists on Sunday, the day before a planned march that will test the strength of the protest movement that erupted last summer when Cubans poured into the streets to demand more political freedoms on the communist-ruled island.

The best-known organizer of Monday’s protest, 39-year-old playwright Yunior García Aguilera, had announced he would march alone through Havana at 3 p.m. on Sunday, carrying a white rose in solidarity with Cubans who had been prevented from participating the following day. But hours before he set out, plainclothes police swarmed his block and besieged his building. He tried to signal to journalists from his apartment, displaying a white sheet in support of the protests, and a rose. People dropped giant Cuban flags over the side of the building to cover the windows.

“We all know we can be detained within a few hours,” García Aguilera said in a Facebook Live post on Sunday morning, appearing nervous but calm. “I will face this with dignity. I believe this country will change.”

He called on people around the nation to clap at 3 p.m. to show their “thirst for freedom,” but there did not appear to be a widespread response. “I won’t renounce my ideas,” he told The Washington Post later Sunday. He said, however, he was penned in by hundreds of security forces outside his home. “The lives of my family members are in danger,” he said.

Cuban authorities had hoped to celebrate the island’s grand reopening to tourists on Monday, following a coronavirus shutdown of nearly 20 months that has crippled an already weak economy. Instead, the day has become symbolic of the confrontation between the government and pro-democracy activists.

Thousands of Cubans, fed up with food shortages, a battered health system and electricity blackouts, spontaneously joined demonstrations last July. They were the biggest protests in six decades.

Activists planned a nationwide “Civic March for Change” on Monday. But with the advance warning, the government has moved aggressively to derail another massive protest. It denied the organizers a permit, claiming they were tied to “subversive organizations” financed by the U.S. government.

n recent days, García Aguilera said, his phone lines and Internet connection were cut. Authorities summoned independent Cuban journalists and activists for questioning and warned they could face charges of public disorder.

On Sunday, the crackdown intensified. Several government critics, including Washington Post opinion contributor Abraham Jiménez Enoa, said that security forces were preventing them from leaving their homes. The Facebook forum Archipiélago, run by García Aguilera and other activists, reported that its moderator, Daniela Rojo, had vanished. Security forces detained another leader of the site, Carlos Ernesto Diaz Gonzalez, in the city of Cienfuegos, according to Archipiélago. The government suspended the credentials of several Havana-based reporters working for EFE, the Spanish news agency.

Journalists who drove to García Aguilera’s apartment building on Sunday morning were driven away by pro-government demonstrators, the playwright said. Several hours later, he appeared at his window, brandishing a white rose, according to reporters at the scene. At one point, he flashed a sign reading: “My house is blocked.” That’s when people on the roof unfurled giant Cuban flags that cascaded down the side of the three-story building, cutting him off from view.

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(Casey Cep’s article appeared in the New Yorker,11/1; Illustration by Lilli Carré’.)

In “H of H Playbook,” the poet considers war, guilt, and the mythological strongman.

“H of H Playbook” imagines a demigod who wears overalls and steals a Corvette.

No woman could get away with it. Murdering her children is all she would ever be known for—ask Medea. Yet Herakles, often called by his Roman name, Hercules, is known for everything else: slaying the man-eating birds of the Stymphalian marsh, the multiheaded Lernaean Hydra, and the Nemean lion, with its Kevlar-strength fur; capturing the wild Erymanthian boar, the golden-antlered deer of Artemis, and the Minotaur’s father; stealing the girdle of Hippolyta, the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, the flesh-eating mares of Diomedes, and the red cattle of the giant Geryon; mucking the Augean stables in a single day; and kidnapping the three-headed dog Cerberus from Hades.

Those dozen labors have inspired countless playwrights, poets, and philosophers throughout the centuries, not to mention Walt Disney Pictures. In the cartoon version of the tale, from 1997, Hercules’ hardscrabble climb from the lowly farms outside Thebes where he was raised to his rightful place atop Mt. Olympus beside Zeus—who, in the myth, fathered Herakles with a mortal, Alcmene, the wife of a Theban general, Amphitryon—seems like a mashup of “Survivor” and “American Idol.” “Person of the week in every Greek opinion poll,” Disney’s Motown-style muses sing, capturing the contemporary image of the mythical figure. Neither the children’s film nor any of the other pop-culture depictions of Herakles mentions what he was famous for among the ancient Greeks: murdering his wife, Megara, a Theban princess, and their sons.

Almost everyone believed that the gods made Herakles kill his family, but exactly when he did so was the subject of some disagreement. Many people thought that his labors were punishment for his crimes, feats of strength by which the fallen hero could propitiate the gods; others claimed the labors preceded the massacre, suggesting that violence always begets violence. That’s how Euripides told the story in “Herakles,” which was first performed some twenty-four hundred years ago and which has recently been reimagined by the poet Anne Carson, in “H of H Playbook.”

Like Herakles, Carson gets away with everything in this strange and surprisingly timely book. A cross between a dramaturge’s dream journal and a madman’s diary, it features Carson’s transformed version of the Euripides play, rendered in handwritten lines and blocky paragraphs of pasted word-processor text, alongside original illustrations: marked-up maps, smears of blood-red paint, haunting sketches of human figures and tortured faces, pencil and eraser stains that resemble heaps of ash, plus the occasional glacier and lion. A facsimile of Carson’s own personal playbook, “H of H” is a performance of thought, one that speaks not only to the heroic past but to the tragic present.

Only a few dozen of the Greek tragedies remain, among them works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These plays were the rock concerts of their era, staged not by candlelight inside small rooms but in grand theatres in the bright light of day before some ten thousand people. For a play like “Herakles,” a large chorus would sing and dance in a circular orchestra space near the audience, at the edge of the stage. Meanwhile, on the stage itself, a troupe of three actors performed all the roles: the hero, his wife, his father, his friend, and the usurper of his throne.

Without playbills, the audience relied on dialogue to know who was who, and discerned the plot partly through conventions of staging and posture. Take the opening lines of “Herakles,” which Carson first translated fifteen years ago, publishing it along with three other plays by Euripides in a volume called “Grief Lessons.” The lines are spoken by a man sitting beside an altar, surrounded by a younger woman and her children: “Who does not know the man who shared his marriage bed / with Zeus?” Even if an audience member was too far away to catch every word of that question, the actor’s low-to-the-stage position would convey his humble situation, and the next bit makes clear that it is the cuckold Amphitryon speaking: “son of Alkaios, / grandson of Perseus, / father of Herakles, / me!”

Amphitryon’s sixty lines of woe are followed by another twenty-five or so from his daughter-in-law, Megara. Herakles has left them alone, vulnerable to the whims of the new king of Thebes, Lykos, who has sentenced the hero’s family to death. They have taken refuge at the altar of Zeus, not because he is Herakles’ father but because any mortal at the altar is to be spared harm, though Lykos announces that he is willing to burn the altar down if that’s what it takes to kill them. Herakles is off laboring; as best as anyone knows, he’s still down in the underworld playing dogcatcher with Cerberus. And so these lines establish the play’s first cliffhanger: Will he return in time to rescue his family?

But Euripides is interested not so much in heroic acts as in the origins and limits of heroism. Herakles soon arrives, reassuring his family that he will save them, and when Lykos comes to kill them Herakles kills Lykos instead. As always in Greek tragedy, the violence takes place offstage; the audience learns of the murder from the distant cries of the King, and from the celebratory song of the chorus: “The once great tyrant / turns his life toward death!” Then Iris, a messenger of the gods, and Lyssa, the goddess of madness, appear, supposedly at the behest of Hera, Zeus’ wife, who is still sore at her husband over the affair that produced Herakles. Together, Iris and Lyssa drive Herakles mad, prompting him to kill the family he has just protected. Those murders take place offstage, too, in a confusion of violence that the chorus can hardly describe. (Carson calls it a “berserker furor.”) When Amphitryon orders his son to look at the bodies, Herakles says, “I’ve become the murderer of my own beloveds.” Then, setting up the play’s second cliffhanger, he adds, “Shall I not be their avenger too?”

A family rescued only to be ruined, a hero resurrected only to threaten suicide: “Herakles” hinges on such reversals of fate. The rest of the play considers whether a man who sentences himself to death can be saved, and, if so, by whom. Ultimately, it is his friend Theseus, whom Herakles has recently rescued from Hades, who comes to his aid. Seeing “the ground covered in corpses” and learning, from Amphitryon, that Herakles is responsible, he concludes, “This agony comes from Hera.” Like Herakles, Theseus has both divine and mortal parentage, and he argues that just as the gods transgress against one another, so, too, do they transgress against humanity—but just as the gods are allowed to live despite those transgressions, so should demigods and humans be allowed to live even if they sin.

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(Guy Lodge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/18; Photo:  West Side Story: never had bodies in motion been used to shape and dictate a film’s own rhythm quite like this. Photograph: United Artists/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock.)

With Steven Spielberg’s remake almost out, the 1961 original still feels thrillingly contemporary, a tough act to follow

It’s the opening credits that do it right away. Following three eerie whistles over a black screen, West Side Story explodes into a full screen of poster-paint colour – shifting from orange to red to magenta to royal blue – as Leonard Bernstein’s four-minute overture brassily clatters into action. Over the colour, a stark design flourish: seemingly random brigades of parallel vertical black lines, only coalescing at the overture’s end into the tip of Manhattan, viewed from the air, cuing a vertiginous bird’s-eye montage of New York City in motion. That chipper yet chillingly disembodied whistle returns; by the time we finally see a human face, six coolly riveting minutes has passed.


This whole title sequence – from the graphics to the aerial photography – was visualised by Saul Bass, the distinctive graphic designer then favoured by such aggressive stylists as Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. It still seems, perhaps even more than anything that follows in West Side Story, sleekly and breath-catchingly modern: a coup of expensive minimalism at the outset of a splashy Hollywood production. That was no accident: in 1961, United Artists set out for the film to be something bracing and new in the movie musical, an industry staple that was looking increasingly out of step with a youth culture turning toward rock’n’roll.

The previous two years had been rough ones for the genre. In 1958, South Pacific may have topped the annual box office while Gigi swept the Oscars, but since then, the only Hollywood song-and-dance films to prove even mild hits had been minor comedies, Disney cartoons or Elvis Presley vehicles. Hopes were high for West Side Story to put the gloss back on to the prestige musical – the 1957 Broadway musical had been a hit with critics and audiences alike – but the studio knew the usual style of overstuffed Technicolor spectacle wouldn’t cut it. The film had to be as propulsively dance-oriented as the stage show, yet expansive and kinetic as cinema. It had to honour the classically romantic roots of its source – this was a riff on Romeo and Juliet, after all – while Saying Something Significant about modern youth and urban society. It had to be family-friendly yet appealing to tearaway teens; it had to court Oscar voters and high-culture critics alike.

It was, in effect, strategised and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life, down to the unusual compromise made on the directorial front. Genius choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose work had been so integral to the stage show’s success, was hired to direct the musical sequences, despite having zero film experience. Industry journeyman Robert Wise was enlisted for the straight dramatic scenes, not despite his lack of musical experience but because of that: best known for stolid black-and-white dramas on stern subjects (he had recently been Oscar-nominated for the grim death-row biopic I Want to Live!), he was intended to bring some grownup gravitas to the exercise. Not that the producers were above naked populism when casting the leads: whether or not there’s any truth to the enduring rumour that Elvis Presley was approached to be the film’s Tony, teen-idol potential took precedence over musical ability: 23-year-olds Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer didn’t sing a note in the film, but couldn’t have lip-synched more prettily.

All of which makes West Side Story sound like a desperately over-calculated, even cynical exercise. Yet as it plays out, from that Saul Bass aesthetic masterstroke onwards, the film remains a blinder: somehow checking off each of those aforementioned, contradictory boxes, it’s formally electric, musically alive and emotionally pummelling, even as its dubbed leads trade in borrowed feeling. West Side Story isn’t unflawed, in ways the show wasn’t either: its overwriting of Shakespeare to lend proceedings at least half a happy ending, with Maria alive and distraught, can’t quite touch the frenzied melodrama of Romeo and Juliet’s dual-death fiasco, and there’s no getting round the fact that its sweet, doe-eyed leads are given a lesson in musical magnetism every time their older counterparts Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are allowed to burn up the frame. (That West Side Story won 10 Oscars, including two for Moreno and Chakiris, while Wood and Beymer weren’t nominated was a harsh way to stress the point.)

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