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June 16, 2012

American Theater Is a Leftist Monoculture



(p. D11) . . . American theater is a monoculture, a thick-walled bubble in which you'll look long and hard to find anyone with an opinion about anything that is anywhere other than well to the left of center.


For the full review, see:

TERRY TEACHOUT. "THEATER; Minority Report." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., April 20, 2012): A8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: online version of the article is dated April 19, 2012.)






March 15, 2012

"The Astaires' Defiant New World Optimism"



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Source of book image:
http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/513pEMI-LeL._.jpg





(p. C6) The Astaire universe was made of crazy joy, that guiltless worldview unique to the art of the American 1920s. The Astaires' trademarked exit was the gleefully mischievous "runaround," in which they trotted about the stage in ever increasing circles as if joined at the hip, expanding their geometry till they reached the wings and vanished. It was goofy and expert at once, a way of defining musical comedy as the state of being young, cute and in love with life.


. . .


"For all their jazz-fueled modernity," Ms. Riley writes of the Astaires' London réclame, they were "anti-modernist." This pair was more than sunshine. The sheer zest with which they frisked through a show ran "counter to High Modernism's pervasive sense of the instability of the self and the universe." This was the time, Ms. Riley notes, of "The Waste Land," "Ulysses," "Vile Bodies." Art was in despair. But the Astaires' "defiant New World optimism" proved a remedy: meeting cute, assuming disguises and high-hatting the blues with fascinating rhythm. It's a very American notion: that a strong foundation in popular art creates a positive worldview in general. Call it the audacity of charm.


. . .


They don't make shows that way anymore, and Ms. Riley's book is thus a resuscitation of a naive but perhaps more authentically native showbiz, an art of natural forces. "The Astaires" is a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.



For the full review, see:

Kathleen Riley. "BOOKSHELF; Sibling Revelry." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 3, 2012): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The book under review is:

Riley, Kathleen. The Astaires: Fred & Adele. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.






March 19, 2010

"A Regime that Survived through Myth and Fear"



(p. 4) It's an old Soviet joke.

Three Russians are in the gulag. The first one says, "What are you in for?"

The second one replies, "I called Zbarsky a revolutionary."

"That's funny," the first one says. "I called Zbarsky a counterrevolutionary."

"That's funny," the third one says. "I'm Zbarsky."

Vern Thiessen's new play, "Lenin's Embalmers," which starts on Wednesday at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Clinton, opens with the ghost of Lenin telling this joke as a parable of the mordant doom pervading the Communist state he created.

In real life the joke wasn't specifically about Zbarsky. You could insert any of Stalin's thousands of lackeys turned victims. Certainly Zbarsky would do. Boris Zbarsky was a real person, one of the two biochemists who, after Lenin died in 1924, were ordered by the Kremlin to devise a way of preserving his body forever.

He and his colleague, Vladimir Vorobiev -- the play's main characters -- succeeded spectacularly, won fortune and power, then fell from grace into the terror, like many others who served a regime that survived through myth and fear.


. . .


The new work, written as a stylized dark comedy, takes only a few liberties with history. It has Zbarsky and Vorobiev arrested after they're tricked into betraying each other. In fact Mr. Vorobiev died in a hospital, under mysterious circumstances, in 1937. Mr. Zbarsky was arrested in 1952; he was freed two years later, after Stalin's death, and died of a seizure soon after. Still, betrayals and trumped-up confessions were common in the era.




For the full review, see:

FRED KAPLAN. "He's Had Work: Preserving the Face of a Revolution." The New York Times, Arts&Leisure Section (Sun., February 28, 2010): 4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 23 (sic), 2010.)





February 2, 2009

"The Whole Point of Camp is to Dethrone the Serious"


(p. W1) The 2000 film "Billy Elliot" was a surprise hit. It's an absorbing drama about personal transformation and the power of art to ennoble the human spirit. "Billy Elliot: The Musical" -- the noise is supplied by Sir Elton John -- is a depressing spectacle about partisan politics and the ephemeral power of schlock.

. . .

The musical, a campy, anticapitalist confection, is just one of the latest prepackaged exercises in "transgression." Maybe it's "Corpus Christi," Terrence McNally's play about a gay Jesus Christ. Maybe it's "The Goat," Edward Albee's play celebrating bestiality, or a production (p. W4) of "The Flying Dutchman" in which the heroine sports posters of Che Guevara and Martin Luther King on her bedroom wall. The point about these unpleasant offerings is not how outrageous but how common they are.

. . .

In the film, there was one extended reference to Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Wilkinson's middle-class drink-sodden husband (tellingly made "redundant" -- that is, laid off) praises the prime minister for showing down the miners. He is hardly a sympathetic figure, but he had a point: If it costs more money to get the coal out of the ground then you make from selling it, why keep the pit open?

If there were truth in advertising, the musical would have been called "Billy Elliot, The Musical, Featuring Margaret Thatcher as the Incarnation of Evil." She is roundly abused by several characters in the opening scenes, is the object of casual calumny throughout the show, and features in a Christmas children's song -- replete with gigantic scary Thatcher masks and puppets -- whose refrain is "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher. We all celebrate today because it's one day closer to your death." Nice stuff, eh?

In one sense, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" represents a growth enterprise. Everywhere you turn these days, you are met not only with celebrations of the vulgar but also entertainments that pretend to be brave, challenging "interrogations" of established taste which in fact are simply reflections of established taste. The little sermons about Thatcher and capitalism and bigotry are presented as if they were fresh thoughts designed to disturb the dogmatic slumbers of the audience. In fact, they simply reinforce the left-liberal clichés audiences everywhere internalized decades ago. It's an odd phenomenon. In theaters and museums across the Western world you find audiences applauding sentiments that, were they translated into the real world, would spell their demise.

Perhaps it's an instance of what Lenin was talking about when he said that the bourgeoisie was so rotten that it would sell the rope with which it was to be hanged. The matinee I attended was packed to the last emergency exit with a cheery crowd of nice, middle-class folks who cheered and clapped and whistled and bravoed.

. . .

The impressive thing about "Billy Elliot" the film is its dramatic enactment of serious questions. "Billy Elliot: The Musical" spoofs and sentimentalizes those questions, replacing them with a series of political sermons and distracting gymnastic exhibitions. In 1964, Susan Sontag famously said that the "ultimate Camp statement" was "It's good because it's awful." Sontag wrote as an enthusiast for Camp. I have no doubt that she would have emerged happy from "Billy Elliot: The Musical." "The whole point of Camp," she wrote, "is to dethrone the serious."



For the full commentary, see:

ROGER KIMBALL. "Culture; A Clumsy Mix of Art and Politics; Broadway turns subtle themes into simplistic fare in shows like 'Billy Elliot'." Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 13, 2008): W1 & W4.

(Note: ellipses added.)




July 5, 2008

Sir Laurence Olivier Got Mad at Those Who Ridiculed Charlton Heston's Acting


(p. 5go!) "In 1985, I took a train to London from Royal Air Force Mildenhall (Base) with a couple of med techs and decided to check out some of the plays," Brodston recalled in his e-mail.

His theater date was a native Briton who had joined the U.S. Air Force.

"We came upon a play that had Charlton Heston in it, 'The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,'" Brodston remembered. "We couldn't afford the tickets, so they put us on the 'king's cuff' (standby tickets for students and servicemen)."

Just as the house lights were dimming, an older woman led Brodston and his companion up the steps to a private box because no one had claimed the seats.

"Be quiet and don't tell anyone," she furtively whispered because she wasn't supposed to give away box seats that normally fetch up to $300 each.

Two minutes into the play, the door at the rear of the box opened, and two people sat behind them. Engrossed in the play, Brodston and friend paid little attention.

"At intermission, we looked up and saw Lord Laurence Olivier and his wife, Joan Plowright, sitting behind us!"

. . .

In 1999, Brodston crossed paths with Plowright in New York, and she remembered the night they shared a box at the London theater.

"Larry used to get mad when people made fun of Chuck's acting," Plowright told Brodston. "He loved Chuck in 'Ben Hur' and that silly ape movie ('Planet of the Apes'). He and the children would watch those movies again and again."



For the full commentary, see:

BOB FISCHBACH. "Bob's Take on Cinema: A night of fine theater with Chuck, Larry." Omaha World-Herald (Thursday, June 12, 2008): 5go!.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




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