Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sunday Reading

Conscientious Objector — Charles M. Blow in the New York Times.

Donald Trump schlepped across town on Tuesday to meet with the publisher of The New York Times and some editors, columnists and reporters at the paper.

As The Times reported, Trump actually seemed to soften some of his positions:

He seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t seek to prosecute Hillary Clinton. But he should never have said that he was going to do that in the first place.

He seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t encourage the military to use torture. But he should never have said that he would do that in the first place.

He said that he would have an “open mind” on climate change. But that should always have been his position.

You don’t get a pat on the back for ratcheting down from rabid after exploiting that very radicalism to your advantage. Unrepentant opportunism belies a staggering lack of character and caring that can’t simply be vanquished from memory. You did real harm to this country and many of its citizens, and I will never — never — forget that.

As I read the transcript and then listened to the audio, the slime factor was overwhelming.

After a campaign of bashing The Times relentlessly, in the face of the actual journalists, he tempered his whining with flattery.

At one point he said:

“I just appreciate the meeting and I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special. Always has been very special.”

He ended the meeting by saying:

“I will say, The Times is, it’s a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along well.”

I will say proudly and happily that I was not present at this meeting. The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing. Let me tell you here where I stand on your “I hope we can all get along” plea: Never.

You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions.

I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people. I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.

I also believe that much of your campaign was an act of psychological projection, as we are now learning that many of the things you slammed Clinton for are things of which you may actually be guilty.

You slammed Clinton for destroying emails, then Newsweek reported last month that your companies “destroyed emails in defiance of court orders.” You slammed Clinton and the Clinton Foundation for paid speeches and conflicts of interest, then it turned out that, as BuzzFeed reported, the Trump Foundation received a $150,000 donation in exchange for your giving a 2015 speech made by video to a conference in Ukraine. You slammed Clinton about conflicts of interest while she was secretary of state, and now your possible conflicts of interest are popping up like mushrooms in a marsh.

You are a fraud and a charlatan. Yes, you will be president, but you will not get any breaks just because one branch of your forked tongue is silver.

I am not easily duped by dopes.

I have not only an ethical and professional duty to call out how obscene your very existence is at the top of American government; I have a moral obligation to do so.

I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, but rather to speak up for truth and honor and inclusion. This isn’t just about you, but also about the moral compass of those who see you for who and what you are, and know the darkness you herald is only held at bay by the lights of truth.

It’s not that I don’t believe that people can change and grow. They can. But real growth comes from the accepting of responsibility and repenting of culpability. Expedient reversal isn’t growth; it’s gross.

So let me say this on Thanksgiving: I’m thankful to have this platform because as long as there are ink and pixels, you will be the focus of my withering gaze.

I’m thankful that I have the endurance and can assume a posture that will never allow what you represent to ever be seen as everyday and ordinary.

No, Mr. Trump, we will not all just get along. For as long as a threat to the state is the head of state, all citizens of good faith and national fidelity — and certainly this columnist — have an absolute obligation to meet you and your agenda with resistance at every turn.

I know this in my bones, and for that I am thankful.

“Tu día llegó” — Jennine Capó Crucet on Miami’s reaction to the death of Fidel Castro.

The first time Fidel Castro died was around my birthday in 2006. I was in Miami when the announcement went out that Castro had had an operation and was temporarily ceding power to his brother. This being the first time Castro had voluntarily stepped away from his dictatorship, speculation ran wild. Miami Cubans took to the streets to celebrate the death of a tyrant, a symbol of death and loss for Cubans of all races and faiths.

This morning, my sister texted, “Fidel is dead… again,” one of 26 messages from friends and relatives sharing the news.

I’d already heard: around midnight, Cubans of every age again poured into the streets of Miami to celebrate the death of a dictator who’d had a profound effect on our lives — who was, in many ways, the reason we were all here in the first place. I was in Westchester, a south Miami neighborhood that’s arguably the heart of Miami’s Cuban community (and as a Hialeah native, I’d be the first one to argue).

On Bird Road, where the lane closest to the sidewalk had been blocked off to allow for overflowing crowds, police lights bathed people in swirls of blue and red light. A father had his arm around his adolescent daughter, who was draped in a Cuban flag, the two of them watching the celebration around them. A woman about my age, there with her girlfriend, wore a T-shirt she seemed to be saving for this day: it read, Tu dia llego (meaning, “your day has come,” though the accents were missing from both día and llegó). A crew of fraternity brothers, none of them Cuban, said they’d “come down from Broward to see this.” “Hialeah must be on fire right now,” one of them said.

I am always somehow back in Miami when something monumental happens in our community. Celia Cruz’s death. Obama’s 2015 visit to Cuba. Even the Elian Gonzalez chaos in 1999 and 2000 coincided with my college breaks. I turned that saga into a novel in order to write through the media’s inaccurate and incomplete portrayal of frenzied Cubans throwing themselves at the feet of a young boy-turned-symbol.

The news out of Miami today will show you loud Cubans parading through the streets. It will show us hitting pots and pans and making much noise and yelling and crying and honking horns. It will give you familiar, rehashed images of old men sipping café out of tiny cups outside Versailles, the famous Cuban restaurant in Miami. That’s all part of it, yes.

But what is more important, yet difficult to show, are other prevalent scenes: People just outside the camera frame, leaning against a restaurant wall, silent and stunned and worried about those still on the island; the tearful conversations happening this morning between generations, families sitting around café con leche and remembering those who Castro’s regime executed.

At a dinner with Miami-based Latino writers a couple nights after the Miami Book Fair last week, we joked that Castro would never die because he is protected by powerful santería — the joke being that the news would take such a statement from us as fact because of our heritage. We are already anticipating the inevitable question: Now that Castro is dead, will we visit Cuba? As if those visits would legitimize something about our identities as American-born Cubans, as if the choice to visit the island would be worth bragging about — as if our answer to that question is anyone’s business but our own.

Those conversations are more nuanced and don’t have the same dramatic effect as banging on pots and pans. They are complex and harder to fit into whatever you write within hours of learning that the dictator who has literally and symbolically represented oppression your entire life is finally gone: Tu día llegó – your day has come – and yes, the shirt fits, but each of us knows there is so much more behind those words that is impossible to distill.

Many of us out on the streets last night and this morning are here as witnesses, as bearers of memory, as symbols ourselves. Many of us are out because we have family that can’t be here — mothers, abuelos, cousins who died at the hands of the Castro regime. We are here to comfort each other and to honor the sacrifices these family members made. This morning in Miami, in the house in Westchester, we were calling each other around the city and the country and saying, “I am thinking of you.”

In one call, ten minutes into the play-by-play of where we all were when we heard the news, my partner’s grandfather, who was born in Cuba but now lives in Puerto Rico, asked us over speaker phone, “Now are you gonna get married?” I lifted a mug to my mouth and began chugging coffee with sudden intensity, and in the laughter around the moment, someone chimed in that we’d stick to the day’s plan of getting a Christmas tree. But his response is proof that there is hope and optimism and excitement at the base of many of these new conversations.

Today I awoke to stories we’d heard a thousand times, stories about the family left behind in Cuba, about survival and exile, about first weeks in the United States, stories honoring those who did not live to see this moment — all being told with more verve and energy than they’ve been told for a long time. I cannot speak for every Cuban and have never embraced the chance to do so. This was my immediate reaction to hearing about Fidel Castro’s death: That’s impossible, he will never die. Turns out even I’d fallen for the hype.

Broadway Recommendations for Mike Pence — Michael Schulman at The New Yorker has his picks.

Dear Vice-President-elect Pence,

Congratulations on scoring tickets for “Hamilton”! Not an easy task. Hopefully you enjoyed the title performance by Javier Muñoz, a gay, H.I.V.-positive Puerto Rican.

Here are some suggestions for other Broadway shows to check out—or avoid, for your own safety. As you know, the theatre is a “safe place,” except if you’re a virulent homophobe or texting in the presence of Patti LuPone.

So get on that TKTS line and remember: if you’re molested by a Times Square Elmo, you have Rudy Giuliani to thank.

“Aladdin”

A stage version of the Disney classic about an Arab street criminal who infiltrates the government under a false identity and employs black magic to bring down the wise Royal Vizir. Skip.

“The Book of Mormon”

An inspirational drama about two white Christians spreading God’s word to deepest, darkest Africa. The showstopper is about young men using religion to repress their homosexual thoughts. No wonder audiences are smiling!

“The Phantom of the Opera”

A psychopathic troll terrorizes the cosmopolitan élite. Donald Trump called it “great”!

“Wicked”

A well-intentioned and intelligent woman is smeared with false accusations until the public is convinced that she’s a malevolent witch. A+

“Falsettos”

A musical about gay Jewish New Yorkers who have lesbian neighbors and sing songs like “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” At the end, one of them gets AIDS and dies. AVOID.

“Chicago”

An eye-opening portrait of crime and corruption in Barack Obama’s home city. The hero is the brilliant defense attorney Billy Flynn, who bamboozles the public with sensationalist lies and sings, “How can they hear the truth above the roar?” Bonus: jailed women.

“Holiday Inn”

A throwback to when America was truly great, 1942. Men were men, women were women, and barns were red. Includes the greatest song ever written by a Jew, “White Christmas.”

“Fiddler on the Roof”

A musical about members of a despised minority who are forced to leave their homes after being targeted by violent hate groups under a repressive czar. A heart-warmer!

“The Color Purple”

A wistful portrait of being a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South, a.k.a. the good old days.

“The Front Page”

An exposé of the corrupt mainstream media as it distorts the truth and undermines law and order. Needless to say, Nathan Lane is a hoot!

“Waitress”

This portrait of working-class women in America’s heartland starts off O.K., when the title character chooses to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. But she winds up committing adultery and taking control of her own life choices. Recommendation: leave at intermission.

“Kinky Boots”

A black drag queen helps the white working class bring back manufacturing jobs by producing bedazzled red footwear. This musical must be stopped.

“Cats”

The Donald Trump of musicals: it’s tacky, it’s nonsensical, and it’s from the eighties. The cats live in the streets without a social safety net. And, since they’re competing for a chance at reincarnation, all the characters are potentially unborn. Go!

Doonesbury — It’s an honor.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Theatre Is Not A Safe Place

Quoth Donald Trump: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place,” he continued. “The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

To quote Mr. Trump again: “Wrong.”

Theatre, in its long history and purpose, has never been a “safe place.” It has always been, since the days of Socrates and Aeschylus and William Shakespeare and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Aphra Behn and Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg and Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey and Elmer L. Rice and Clifford Odets and Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Miller and William Inge and Maria Irene Fornes and Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Anderson and Lanford Wilson and Edward Albee and Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick and August Wilson and Terrance McNalley and Marsha Norman and Paula Vogel and every playwright in the Official Playwrights of Facebook page, its duty to challenge, frighten, discomfort, tweak, bullyrag, provoke, infuriate, piss off; to make uncomfortable, to squirm and cringe, and at the same time force everyone inside the theatre and outside of it to think. We may do it with laughter and music and lights and sets and costumes, but a play that does not change the audience, that does not make it see the world and themselves in a different way when the lights come up and the curtain comes down, has fallen short.

That is the solemn promise we in theatre make when we take up the profession and the art, and while we may do it in as many different ways as there are plays, stages, playwrights, and places to hear and see our work, we will never accede, concede, or give up our obligation to challenge the status quo and make a difference. What other power have we? We are not politicians, we just pillory them. We cannot make laws, we just decry the bad ones. We cannot erase bigotry with the wave of our hand but we can make us aware of it and torture it into submission.

Theatre is a powerful weapon against tyranny and bullshit. It has always been a threat to the intolerant, which is why it is always the first to be suppressed by the dictators. Many writers and playwrights have been imprisoned, banished and executed because they proved the pen is more a threat to a tyrant than armed rebels in the streets. Nothing wounds more than mockery and ridicule. This is a lesson that must not be forgotten.

So no, Mr. Trump, the theatre must never be a safe place. That is what makes it special.

(PS: It’s a tad ironic that someone from the “Party of Lincoln” would think that being booed is the worst thing that could happen to a politician in a theatre.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Theatre History

Yesterday the City of New York unveiled a plaque at the building on Sheridan Square that housed the Circle Repertory Company from 1974 to 1994.

circle-rep-plaque-11-16-16

Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason, and the Circle Rep were the subject of my doctoral dissertation in 1988. I had more fun researching and learning about their work together than any grad student and aspiring playwright had a right to. Lanford and Marshall could not have been kinder and generous, and I considered them friends as well. I also became friends with Robert Macnaughton and Tanya Berezin who contributed greatly to my research. The dissertation was published in 1993 and at the 2001 Inge Festival that honored Lanford, I was able to get him and Marshall sign both the published book and my original dissertation. I am honored to have been a witness to American theatre history.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Authors, Authors

If you want to start a discussion among theatre scholars, just speculate on who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  It’s been a running argument since he shuffled off this mortal coil, but now scholars at Oxford are saying they have deduced that at least some of them were co-authored by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe.

The New Oxford Shakespeare edition of the playwright’s works — which will be published by Oxford University Press online ahead of a worldwide print release — lists Christopher Marlowe as Shakespeare’s co-author on the three “Henry VI” plays, parts 1, 2 and 3.

It’s the first time that a major edition of Shakespeare’s works has listed Shakespeare’s colleague and rival as a co-author on these works, the volume’s general editor, Gary Taylor, said in a phone interview.

“No one has had the confidence to put the name actually on the title page,” Mr. Taylor said. “Which is perfectly reasonable because the only reason that we can do it now is because Shakespeare has entered the world of big data.”

The “Henry VI” plays have long been believed to be the work of more than one author. Names floated by scholars in addition to Marlowe’s include Robert Greene and George Peele.

As a theatre scholar — albeit more of modern American (post-World War II) drama — we used to discuss this all the time back in grad school, and the possibility of Marlowe as a collaborator was more or less a given. Were it not for copyright and the staunch support of the Dramatists Guild today that protects a playwright’s work, a lot of people could lay claim to authorship. Playwriting is inherently collaborative. Input from the director, the designers, even the actors, can change or refocus a script, but we playwrights are the ones who get stiffed on the royalties.

Four hundred years ago, it would be an event if a play went up strictly as written. For one thing, a lot of the actors couldn’t even read. There was no such thing as a director; that’s a 20th century concept evolving out of the actor/manager persona. So what we see in the folios probably wasn’t what the audience was hearing anyway.

In the larger scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter to me if there was more than one author of Shakespeare’s work or if he didn’t write them at all.  The works speak for themselves.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sunday Reading

The Republican Party Created This Monster — John Nichols in The Nation.

Republicans who for months put up with Donald Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry were finally giving up on their nominee Friday night, after the release of a tape that confirmed Trump’s reputation as a lewd and predatory sexist.

“I’m out,” declared Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee. “I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.”

Utah Senator Mike Lee, a hero to libertarian-leaning conservatives, went so far as to to tape a video addressed to the nominee, in which Lee said, “Mr. Trump, I respectfully ask you, with all due respect, to step aside. Step down. Allow someone else to carry the banner of these principles.”

Lee was not alone. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman, and Virginia Congresswoman Barbara Comstock—a trio of Republicans who were already facing reelection challenges—all called on Trump to stand down. They were joined by Rob Engstrom, the national political director of the US Chamber of Commerce, who tweeted late Friday: “Trump should step down immediately tonight, yielding to Governor Pence as the GOP nominee.”

But Trump is not going anywhere. On Saturday morning, the candidate told The Wall Street Journal there is “zero chance I’ll quit.” He told The Washington Post, “I’d never withdraw. I’ve never withdrawn in my life. No, I’m not quitting this race. I have tremendous support.”

The out-of-control nominee released a hastily produced video in which he threatened to make things worse for Republicans. “I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people,” Trump ranted in the midnight statement. “Bill Clinton has actually abused women.… We will discuss this more in the coming days.”Trump then urged viewers to tune in to Sunday’s second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.If Trump tries to slime his way out of the corner into which his own words and deeds have painted him, strategists from across the political spectrum say he is likely to doom not just his own candidacy but that of down-ballot Republicans in tough races. But, of course, Trump has never seen the Republican Party as anything more than a vehicle for his own ambitions. So he does not care. At issue now is the question of whether key Republican leaders—such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senator majority leader Mitch McConnell, and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus—care enough to finally reject Trump.

Ryan, McConnell and Priebus have been Trump’s chief enablers throughout a 2016 campaign in which the billionaire has turned the “Party of Lincoln” (or, at the least, the “Party of Reagan”) into the “Party of Trump.” Even as they have moaned about the chaotic candidate’s “textbook” racism and whined about “his seeming ambivalence about David Duke and the KKK,” the top leaders of the party have always signaled that they will back their nominee.

The refusal of Ryan, McConnell and Priebus to say they would not support Trump as the GOP’s fall contender helped to “legitimize” the billionaire during the primaries. And promises of support that Ryan, McConnell, and Priebus provided in the late spring and early summer assured that Trump would have smooth sailing at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Now, the political Frankensteins who created a party that was ripe for Trump (by condoning extremism, embracing obstruction, and practicing a win-at-any-cost politics), and then cleared the way for Trump’s nomination, are stuck with their monster. They cannot replace him as the GOP nominee unless Trump chooses to step down, and Trump is not so choosing.

So Ryan, McConnell and Priebus must decide whether they will continue to place rank partisanship ahead of anything akin to principle.

It is not enough to object once more to their nominee’s disgusting words and deeds. It is not enough to fantasize about shaking up the ticket and putting Mike Pence—Trump’s chief defender, and a political careerist who has proven himself to be every bit as cynical as his running mate—in the presidential slot.

It is time for Ryan, McConnell, and Priebus to recognize a crisis of their own creation. They need to say what should have been said months ago: that they cannot support as their nominee a man whose latest indiscretions are described by Ryan as “sickening.”

If they cannot echo Jason Chaffetz’s “I’m out!” announcement, if they cannot put principle ahead of partisanship, then they are every bit as destructive to their trashed party, to their conservative movement, and to their country, as is Donald Trump.

The Prize — Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker on the impact that the Nobel Peace Prize could have on Colombia’s peace talks with FARC.

In the hours after last Sunday’s plebiscite called by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to ratify the peace deal he had struck with his country’s FARC guerrillas—which was rejected by a margin of sixty-three thousand ballots, out of thirteen million cast—memes appeared showing a cartoonish Santos lying prone on the ground, apparently kicked to death by Álvaro Uribe, his arch-adversary and right-wing predecessor. Uribe had launched and led the successful “No” campaign against Santos’s peace deal, opposing it on the grounds that it was too lenient to the FARC, and also exposed government soldiers to possible war-crimes prosecution. In the cartoon, Uribe was depicted as being forcibly led away from the scene by several supporters, with a caption reading, “Enough, leave him, he’s dead.” Another meme riffed on the expectation that Santos’s chances of winning a Nobel Peace Prize—a possibility that had been floating in the atmosphere in recent months—were now doomed.

The surprise No victory threw Colombian society into a tense limbo, and the past week has seen a suddenly weakened Santos government forced to enter into dialogue with Uribe over possible “adjustments” to the peace plan, and an increasingly anxious FARC, which still has an estimated six thousand fighters armed in the field.

Uribe—who evidently did not expect his No campaign to win—has reëmerged as Colombia’s top power broker. In several public pronouncements, the former President has sought to effect a magnanimous mien, apparently aware that if his demands are too high, he could doom any possibility of peace and be responsible for a return to war. But Uribe has also made it clear that he seeks something like surrender terms for the FARC, including prison sentences for its leaders (rather than “restorative sentences,” as called for under the current peace plan) and a ban on their participation in politics. Such terms give the FARC’s battle-hardened guerrillas—who have fought for fifty-two years for a Marxist society—little incentive to come in from the cold. While expressing their commitment to “continue to pursue the path of peace,” the FARC’s leaders, in Havana, have made it clear that they do not regard the current deal—which was formally signed by Santos and their leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (known as Timochenko), in a public event on September 26th—as negotiable.

[Friday’s] announcement by the Nobel Committee seems to have reversed the situation once again, delivering Santos a helpful push from the international community, as well as a morale boost for closing the peace deal. The prize also puts pressure on Uribe to back off a bit. The former President congratulated Santos backhandedly on his award, saying in a tweet (Uribe is a prolific tweeter, with a following of four and a half million), “I congratulate President Santos on the Nobel but I want this to lead him to make the changes to the accord that are damaging to democracy.” Upon hearing the news, Timochenko, the FARC leader, tweeted, “The only award we aspire to is that of peace with social justice, and for a Colombia without paramilitaries, without retaliations or lies.”  It was a dig at Uribe, who is a mortal enemy of the FARC, and who was closely associated with the violent paramilitary campaign that decimated the ranks of the FARC’s civilian followers in the nineties and early two-thousands. (Uribe was recently investigated for his alleged paramilitary ties, but he was not charged.)

Uribe was Colombia’s President from 2002 to 2010, and during his time in office he established an amnesty program for the paramilitaries, but since leaving office and being succeeded by Santos, who served as his defense minister, Uribe has bitterly opposed giving the FARC any concessions in exchange for peace. Uribe’s father was killed in a botched kidnapping attempt by the FARC, and he has never forgiven its guerrillas. He regards Santos’s dialogue with the FARC as a betrayal.

Many Colombians I met over the past week expressed bitterness over what they regard as the country’s stability being subjugated to the Santos-Uribe duel—“a battle between the élites” that is deeply personal, even more than it is ideological, since both are politicians on the political right. A couple of days ago, in Bogotá, I watched as thousands of students gathered to conduct a silent, torchlit “march for peace” through the city’s streets to the iconic Plaza Bolívar, where they chanted slogans and sang songs, including the national anthem. One of the most popular catchphrases was “Los jovenes estamos mamados de la guerra”—“We, the youth, are fed up with war.” With the public demonstrations and today’s Peace Prize, the pendulum has swung back once more toward peace and away from war. Still, half the country’s electorate voted against the peace deal on Sunday. In an effort to help convince those doubters that it is serious about making peace, Pastor Alape, one of the FARC’s veteran leaders, said on a radio program tonight from Havana that, for him and his comrades, there was “no longer any alternative to peace.”

What A Character — Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare’s take on the 2016 election.

In the early 1590s, Shakespeare sat down to write a play that addressed a problem: How could a great country wind up being governed by a sociopath?

The problem was not England’s, where a woman of exceptional intelligence and stamina had been on the throne for more than 30 years, but it had long preoccupied thoughtful people. Why, the Bible brooded, was the kingdom of Judah governed by a succession of disastrous kings? How could the greatest empire in the world, ancient Roman historians asked themselves, have fallen into the hands of a Caligula?

For his theatrical test case, Shakespeare chose an example closer to home: the brief, unhappy reign in 15th-century England of King Richard III. Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.

From this psychopathology, the play suggests, emerged the character’s weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude.

“Richard III,” which proved to be one of Shakespeare’s first great hits, explores how this loathsome, perverse monster actually attained the English throne. As the play conceives it, Richard’s villainy was readily apparent to everyone. There was no secret about his fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.

First, there are those who trust that everything will continue in a normal way, that promises will be kept, alliances honored and core institutions respected. Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds. Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They do not realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening. They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile.

Second, there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.

Third, there are those who feel frightened or impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence. “I’ll make a corpse of him that disobeys,” Richard threatens, and the opposition to his outrageous commands somehow shrivels away. It helps that he is an immensely wealthy and privileged man, accustomed to having his way, even when his way is in violation of every moral norm.

Fourth, there are those who persuade themselves that they can take advantage of Richard’s rise to power. They see perfectly well how destructive he is, but they are confident that they will stay safely ahead of the tide of evil or manage to seize some profit from it. These allies and followers help him ascend from step to step, collaborating in his dirty work and watching the casualties mount with cool indifference. They are, as Shakespeare imagines it, among the first to go under, once Richard has used them to obtain his end.

Fifth, and perhaps strangest of all, there are those who take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humor of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable. “Your eyes drop millstones when fools’ eyes fall tears,” Richard says to the murderers whom he has hired to kill his brother. “I like you, lads.” It is not necessary to look around to find people who embody this category of collaborators. They are we, the audience, charmed again and again by the villain’s jaunty outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by the lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them, by the seductive power of sheer ugliness. Something in us enjoys every minute of his horrible ascent to power.

Shakespeare brilliantly shows all of these types of enablers working together in the climactic scene of this ascent. The scene — anomalously enough in a society that was a hereditary monarchy but oddly timely for ourselves — is an election. Unlike “Macbeth” (which introduced into the English language the word “assassination”), “Richard III” does not depict a violent seizure of power. Instead there is the soliciting of popular votes, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.

WHY an election? Shakespeare evidently wanted to emphasize the element of consent in Richard’s rise. He is not given a robust consent; only a municipal official and a few of the villain’s carefully planted henchmen shout their vote: “God save Richard, England’s royal king!”

But the others assembled in the crowd, whether from indifference or from fear or from the catastrophically mistaken belief that there is no real difference between Richard and the alternatives, are silent, “like dumb statues or breathing stones.” Not speaking out — simply not voting — is enough to bring the monster to power.

Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny ability to reach out beyond their original time and place and to speak directly to us. We have long looked to him, in times of perplexity and risk, for the most fundamental human truths. So it is now. Do not think it cannot happen, and do not stay silent or waste your vote.

 Doonesbury — A great disturbance in the waves.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sunday Reading

Sickly Sweet — David Singerman on the shady history of Big Sugar.

On Monday, an article in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to publish a study blaming fat and cholesterol for coronary heart disease while largely exculpating sugar. This study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, helped set the agenda for decades of public health policy designed to steer Americans into low-fat foods, which increased carbohydrate consumption and exacerbated our obesity epidemic.

This revelation rightly reminds us to view industry-funded nutrition science with skepticism and to continue to demand transparency in scientific research. But ending Big Sugar’s hold on the American diet will require a broader understanding of the various ways in which the industry, for 150 years, has shaped government policy in order to fuel our sugar addiction.

Today’s sugar industry is a product of the 19th century, when the key federal sugar policy was not a dietary guideline but a tariff on sugar imports. In the decades after the Civil War, Americans’ per capita consumption of sugar more than doubled, from 32 pounds in 1870 to 80 pounds in 1910. As a result, the government got hooked on sugar, too: By 1880, sugar accounted for a sixth of the federal budget.

To protect domestic refiners, then the largest manufacturing employer in Northern cities, the tariff distinguished between two kinds of sugar: “refined” and “raw.” Refined sugar that was meant for direct consumption paid a much higher rate than did raw sugar crystals intended for further refining and whitening. But by the late 1870s, new industrial sugar factories in the Caribbean began to jeopardize this protectionist structure. Technologically sophisticated, these factories could produce sugar that, while raw by the government’s standard, was consistently much closer to refined sugar than ever before (akin to sweeteners such as Sugar in the Raw today). The American industry now faced potential competition from abroad.

The country’s largest refiners mobilized on several fronts. They lobbied the United States Congress to adopt chemical instruments that could measure the percentage of sucrose in a sugar cargo, and to deem sugar refined when its sucrose content was sufficiently high. Previously, customs officers had judged the purpose of a sugar cargo by its color, smell, taste and texture, as people throughout the sugar trade had done for centuries. Now refiners argued that such sensory methods were ripe for abuse because they depended on a subjective appraisal. They demanded a scientific standard instead — one that would reveal some “raw” sugar to be nearly pure and thus subject to higher tariffs — and they prevailed.

Their plea for scientific objectivity may have sounded sensible, but it masked nefarious aims. Like the tobacco industry in the 1960s, these refiners knew that scientific questions were hard for outsiders to adjudicate, and thus easier to manipulate to an industry’s advantage. If refiners were to bribe a customs chemist to shade his results in their favor — as they were routinely accused of doing for decades, beginning in the 1870s — such corruption would be much harder for the government to detect than it had been when everyone could see and smell the same sugar.

In addition to their lobbying, refiners waged a public campaign to dissuade Americans from eating raw sugar. One of their common advertisements featured a disgusting insect that supposedly inhabited raw sugar and caused an ailment called “grocer’s itch” in those who handled it. Other pamphlets suggested that Cuban factories operated by slaves or Chinese indentured workers would “give the people sugar teeming with animals and Cuban dirt.”

The refiners’ real agenda, of course, was not Americans’ health; it was to maximize their profits from selling sugar. Thanks in part to their influence over both tariff policy and the new methods of customs collection, the big refiners were soon able to form the Sugar Trust, one of the most notorious and successful monopolies of the Gilded Age. By the early 20th century, belief in the health benefits of refined sugar was so widespread that increasing Americans’ consumption of it actually became a goal of federal policy.

Looking back at the industry’s transformation of sugar (an edible substance derived from a plant) into sucrose (a molecule), we also see the roots of “nutritionism” in United States policy. That’s the idea that what matters to human health is not food per se but rather a handful of isolable biochemical factors. As food critics like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle have argued, nutritionism is better at helping processed-food companies market their products as healthy (“with Omega-3 added!”) than it is at promoting our well-being.

Today, the sugar industry remains politically powerful, with consequences for both public health and the environment. The Miami Herald reported this summer, for example, that the industry contributed $57 million to Florida elections in the last 22 years; meanwhile, state officials have resisted efforts to make sugar companies pay for their damage to the Everglades.

If we want to check the power of Big Sugar, we’d be well served to acknowledge the long record — past as well as present — of the industry’s machinations.

The Astringent Power of Edward Albee — Hilton Als in The New Yorker.

Writing that gets under your skin, in your bones, will play in your head and memory like nothing else. While painting, photography, and movies can come at you with a very particular force—an in-your-face power that, when done correctly, unearths hitherto unexamined or marginalized feelings—dramatic literature lives in your ear, and, when it’s truly great, shapes how you shape words yourself.

As a very young writer or, at any rate, as a young person who longed to write, I was especially taken by Edward Albee’s plays, the astringent power of all those speeches and curt one-liners that disinfected or seemed to scour a stage world lousy with illusions. He was a different kind of realist. As the youngest of the three artists who reshaped the architecture of the postwar American theatre—Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller completed the trinity, and were more than a decade older than their younger colleague—Albee didn’t make work that believed only in the story. That is, the playwright wasn’t entirely convinced that telling a story led to anything as trite as catharsis. While Williams and Miller believed their protagonists—and often identified with them—Albee was just as often skeptical if not down right distrustful of what his characters said, and how they said it.

Despite the violence of their words, Albee’s characters do not speak freely; they are always hedging their bets because life is disappointing, and who wants to have less of what they already have? The best that Albee’s characters manage to do is steel themselves or bulwark themselves against the fake, often within hollow conventions like marriage that his domineering women and seemingly passive men cling to and talk about wryly, and with more longing than their shared bitchiness would ever let on. Like many of us, Albee learned to cope—to build the defenses he felt were necessary to survive—while sitting on his mother’s knee. But he was rarely, if ever, coddled as a child. In an interview with Lillian Ross that appeared in this magazine in 1961, after three of his first short plays were performed in New York and abroad—1959’s “The Zoo Story”; and “The Death of Bessie Smith” and “The American Dream,” both from 1961—Albee told the reporter a bit about his background:

Born in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1928, and came to New York when I was two weeks old . . . I have no idea who my natural parents were, although I’m sure my father wasn’t a President, or anything like that. I was adopted by my father, Reed A. Albee, who worked for his father, Edward Franklin Albee, who started a chain of theatres with B. F. Keith and then sold out to R.K.O. My father is retired now. My mother is a remarkable woman. An excellent horsewoman and saddle-horse judge. I was riding from the time I was able to walk. My parents had a stable of horses in Larchmont or Scarsdale or Rye, one of those places. I don’t ride anymore. Just sort of lost interest in it. My parents gave me a good home and a good education. . . . I went to Choate. . . . I was very happy there. I went on to Trinity College, in Hartford, for a year and a half. I didn’t have enough interest in it to stick it out for four years. . . . After a year and a half, the college suggested that I not come back, which was fine with me.

Memory has a way of trivializing the truth—and smoothing over the past—in a way that is misleading. Albee’s mother may have been an excellent horsewoman, but her skills did not extend to mothering. She treated her only child as something of an accessory, and lived for herself—for her idea of power. The best and most troublesome of Albee’s female characters are her. After Albee left home, he never saw his father again, and he had no real contact with his mother until seventeen years before her death. By then he had made a different kind of family—with like-minded gay men such as the poets Richard Howard and James Merrill, who had troubled relationships with their mothers, too, men who could go toe to toe with Albee in the Village bars they frequented, places where language was a performance in itself, and cruelty a badge of honor.

One gets the sense that, growing up and beyond, Albee was rather proud of his put-downs; he wanted to hurt the world he could never show had hurt him. For all the tension and confrontation in his plays, there’s a lot of avoidance. Mystery informs his best-known play, the 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” While Pamela McKinnon’s superlative 2012 production brought out so much in the famous text—including the fact that the warring married couple, George and Martha, were very turned on by one another—it only increased our interest in why, for instance, Martha drank, lied, cheated. Unlike Williams and Miller, Albee did not believe in backstories—that the child was, artistically speaking, father to the man—and when his characters “share,” none of it is cozy. It’s as if, when he left home, Albee wanted to be a different person—a person who would not describe his past as the past was attached to other people.

But, of course, we are always attached to other people: our relationships to them are, to some extent, who we are. Albee learned cruelty at home—one could call his domestic dramas the living room of cruelty—and he wrote most exquisitely about how cruelty can, for some, make a home. As a young artist, he borrowed too heavily from Ionesco—an early and permanent influence, along with Beckett—who thought characters existed for the sole purpose of making theatre. Albee was attracted to that idea, but he was also an American, which meant that storytelling of one sort or another was in his blood. He erred on the side of theatre as theatre when he came out with “Tiny Alice,” in 1964. I am very fond of this piece, which purports to be about the richest woman in the world—the Alice of the title—but what it’s really about is unfathomable. (Sir John Gielgud, who starred in the original production, told Albee that he didn’t know what the play was about. Albee said he didn’t really, either.) To my mind, the play is about meta theater, and role-playing; it borrows quite a bit from Jean Genet’s 1957 masterpiece, “The Balcony,” especially when it zeroes in on organized religion, another form of theatre. Here’s how it opens:

Lawyer: Oomm, yoom, yoom, yoom, Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Um? You do-do-do-do-um?. . . .

The Cardinal enters

Cardinal: Saint Francis?
Lawyer: Your eminence!
Cardinal: Our dear Saint Francis, who wandered in the fields and forests, talked to all the . . .
Lawyer: Your eminence, we appreciate your kindness in making the time to see us; we know how heavy a schedule you . . .
Cardinal: We are pleased. . . . We are pleased to be your servant . . . if we can be your servant. We addressed you as Saint Francis . . .
Lawyer: Oh, but surely . . .
Cardinal: . . . as Saint Francis . . . who did talk to the birds so, did he not. And here we find you, who talk not only to the birds but to—you must forgive us—to cardinals we well . . . . To cardinals? As well?
Lawyer: We . . . we understood.
Cardinal: Did we.
Lawyer: We find it droll—if altogether appropriate in this setting—that there should be two cardinals . . . uh, together . . . in conversation, as it were.
Cardinal: Ah, well, they are a comfort to each other . . . companionship. And they have so much to say. They . . . understand each other so much better than they would . . . uh, other birds.

Given Albee’s interest in the stage as an arena for ideas, it seems strange that critics and audiences rejected important works such as “Box” and “Quotations From Mao Tse-Tung.” Those short plays are all about voice—indeed, “Box” is a monologue starring a woman we never see—and also the logical extension of an experimentalist who, throughout his life, worked within fairly conventional structures. Albee continued to work hard even as, inevitably, he began to lose favor with the critics. He knew theatre was as much subject to trends as anything. In his 1962 essay “Some Notes on Nonconformity,” he put out this warning: “One must always mistrust fashion, because it is, as often as not, arbitrary; and the assumption that one can become informed of, and participate in, the intellectual temper of our time through reliance on any breathlessly composed list of fashionable far outs is funny and sad—and, what is much worse, terribly conformist.”

Albee did like plot and ideas, and often in his work the idea was the story. Listen carefully to Agnes at the beginning of “A Delicate Balance,” from 1966. The drama is about her body—and her mind. In no uncertain terms, she lets Tobias, her husband of many years, know how much he disgusted her at one point, but not before she talks about a thought she has had: What would happen if she lost her mind? Agnes is sister to Nancy in Albee’s underrated and fantastic, in all senses of the word, “Seascape” (1975). There Nancy sits on a beach with another husband of many years, and it doesn’t take her long to goad him into talking about a past that he doesn’t want to share while she belittles him for taking more risks—risks she probably would have been averse to when she was younger. What Nancy is really talking about, though, is her life. And the bitterness of compromise that is part of life:

Charlie: Well, we’ve earned a little . . .

Nancy: . . . rest. We’ve earned a little rest. Well, why don’t we act like the old folks, why don’t we sell off, and take one bag apiece and go to California, or in the desert where they have the farms—the retirement farms, the old folks’ cities? Why don’t we settle in to waiting, like . . . like the camels that we saw in Egypt—groan down on all fours, sigh, and eat the grass, or whatever it is. Why don’t we go and wait the judgment with our peers? Take our teeth out, throw away our corset, give to the palsy . . . the purgatory before purgatory.

Life as a way station between the worse and the worst. Marriage and security as a holding pattern between many kinds of deaths. I don’t think Albee ever wrote an “out” gay play, though “The Zoo Story” and his 1966 adaptation of James Purdy’s “Malcolm” contain more than their share of homoerotic feeling. But, for me, the gayness was always there—the high-dudgeon witchery of a very smart queen who “read” the world. (One wonders what Albee made of gay marriage.)

Part of Albee’s genius was figuring out ways to bring his brilliant gay talk to an audience that, at the time, may not have known what informed his ice-cold torrent of words against coupling, against convention. But his gay fans knew what was going on. We unearthed Albee’s aesthetic by putting his words in our queer mouths and laughing. Once, long ago, on a trip to Amsterdam with my closest friend, we read aloud from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” over and over again. Calling ourselves George and Martha during the readings was, of course, part of the camp. The names didn’t matter. What did was Albee’s revenge against a world that said George and Martha, in all their awfulness and vindictiveness, were normal, while we weren’t.

Thank You — Andy Borowitz

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling this “the greatest day of my life,” a visibly moved Barack Obama held a news conference on Friday to thank Donald Trump for granting him U.S. citizenship.

“The issue of whether or not I was a U.S. citizen has been a dark cloud over my existence for as long as I can remember,” a tearful Obama told the press corps. “Only one man had the courage, wisdom, and doggedness to make that cloud go away: Donald J. Trump.”

The President, who had to halt several times during his remarks to compose himself, praised the Republican Presidential nominee for “never giving up” in his quest to prove that Obama was born in the U.S.

“A weaker man would have said, ‘I don’t need this in my life,’ but Donald Trump was always there for me,” the President said. “Over the past five years, barely a day went by when he didn’t call me and say, ‘Barack, I don’t care what a bunch of crackpots say. You were born here, and I’m going to prove it once and for all.’ “

The President said he planned to spend the day celebrating his U.S. citizenship with his family. “It’s great to be an American, at last,” he said.

When asked if he had any message for Trump, the President paused for a moment. “Just this: I love you,” he said, a tear trickling down his cheek.

Doonesbury — Welcome aboard Trump Airlines.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Edward Albee — 1928-2016

Alas, we will be planting yet another tree in the playwright’s garden at the Inge Festival next spring. We have lost a great voice of truth and raw humanity.

Edward Albee, widely considered the foremost American playwright of his generation, whose psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and the roiling desperation beneath the facade of contemporary life, died Friday at his home in Montauk, N.Y. He was 88.

His personal assistant, Jakob Holder, confirmed the death. Mr. Holder said he had died after a short illness.

Mr. Albee’s career began after the death of Eugene O’Neill and after Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had produced most of their best-known plays.From them he inherited the torch of American drama, carrying it through the era of Tony Kushner and “Angels in America” and into the 21st century.

He introduced himself suddenly and with a bang, in 1959, when his first produced play, “The Zoo Story,”opened in Berlin on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” A two-handed one-act that unfolds in real time, “The Zoo Story” zeroed in on the existential terror at the heart of Eisenhower-era complacency, presenting the increasingly menacing intrusion of a probing, querying stranger on a man reading on a Central Park bench.

When the play came to the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village the next year, it helped propel the burgeoning theater movement that became known as Off Broadway.

In 1962, Mr. Albee’s Broadway debut, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, the famously scabrous portrait of a withered marriage, won a Tony Award for best play, ran for more than a year and half and enthralled and shocked theatergoers with its depiction of stifling academia and of a couple whose relationship has been corroded by dashed hopes, wounding recriminations and drink.

Edward Albee was the honoree at the William Inge Festival in 1991, my first year there.  I was sitting in the lobby of the Apple Tree Inn on the first morning of the festival and in he walked in a sweatsuit; he’d been out for a walk or a jog.  I nervously introduced myself and he smiled and sat down on the couch next to me.  I have no idea what we talked about; I was still in shock that I was sitting in a hotel lobby in the middle of Kansas chatting with one of the most important writers of the 20th century.  We chatted for a few minutes, then he patted me on the thigh and went back to his room.

Just about everyone knows “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because of the film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but the play in its immediacy and brutality works best on the stage when you can’t look away or change the channel.  His other works — “The Zoo Story,” “A Delicate Balance,” “Three Tall Women,” and his short pieces — are just as honest and tightly wound.  Albee never used a paragraph where a word would do, and he used them to define his characters and places with exacting detail.

I know a lot of playwrights of my generation see him as a mentor and an inspiration even if they do not see the world as he did.  I admired him when I was learning about writing plays, and to this day I still read his works with awe.  I followed a different path in my writing, but I think that’s one thing I learned from his works: we are on our own with our own thoughts, and find our own way to share them.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fifth of July

Fifth of July is not just a date, it’s a play by Lanford Wilson. It opened off-Broadway in 1978, then, after some revision, on Broadway in 1980. It’s also the play that was the starting point of my doctoral studies and the subject of my doctoral thesis in 1988.

In 1985 I directed a production of the play at the Nomad Theatre in Boulder with a great cast.

Fifth of July Nomads March 1985

The cast of Fifth of July at Nomads Theatre, Boulder, Colorado, March 1985

In the course of my studies I became friends with Mr. Wilson, and the director of the productions, Marshall W. Mason. So ever since then, I have marked the 5th of July as a special day for me and my love of theatre.

“Matt didn’t believe in death and I don’t either…. There’s no such thing. It goes on and then it stops. You can’t worry about the stopping, you have to worry about the going on.” – Sally Talley, Fifth of July.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Friday, June 24, 2016

Curtain Comes Down On New Theatre

Yet another vibrant but financially-strapped South Florida theatre goes dark.

New Theatre Logo Crop 06-24-16New Theatre, one of the most high-profile Florida theaters for 30 years and developer of the Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics, is closing, its board of directors announced Thursday.

The cause appears to be economics although the specifics have not been disclosed.

It came to a head several weeks ago when the board asked Artistic Director Ricky J. Martinez to work this summer without pay.  Martinez resigned May 23, a disclosure delayed until Thursday because Martinez wanted to give the board time to get “the financials in order,” he said in an interview Thursday.

[…]

Thursday’s news hit the theater community hard because so many people had worked at the company.  While numerous companies have opened and even thrived in recent years, the closing is the latest in a series of crippling hits: Florida Stage in Manalapan/West Palm Beach closed in 2011, Promethean Theatre in Davie in 2012, Mosaic Theatre in Plantation 2012 and Women’s Theatre Project in Fort Lauderdale/Boca Raton in 2015.

The theatre has also produced four of my ten-minute plays and had my new full-length in their schedule for the upcoming season.  I’m sorry for the people who have put so much of their time and effort into bringing new and vibrant theatre to Miami.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Short Takes

The death count in Orlando is fifty.  It is the worst mass shooting in American history.

Man arrested with weapons on his way to L.A. pride parade.

Bernie Sanders will meet with Hillary Clinton tomorrow.

English and Russian soccer fans riot in Paris.

Who won a Tony (besides “Hamilton”)?

The Tigers took two of three from the Yankees over the weekend.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Heading Home

We’ve had a good time at the Inge Festival.  I’ve made some new friends, communed with fellow playwrights, shared stories about getting plays read and produced, and found out that I’m not the only one who gets up at 3 a.m. to write blog posts.

This year we had some reminiscences of years past, including the gala dinner at the Independence Country Club, a place I haven’t been to since 2001.  I also had a moment in the library where I saw a book I had read back in grad school about American theatre and the prominence that the theatres were giving to the voices of the then-younger playwrights such as Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard.  The author seemed to think that they were replacing the great American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, as if they would supplant them and those of the old guard would no longer be important voices on the stage.

I’m glad to see that hasn’t come to pass.  The writers that followed them will have writers who will follow as well, as they are now, but there will always be room for good writing no matter when it was written, and people will come and see good theatre and listen to exciting and challenging words.

So now I head home with my mission: keep writing.

Books on Sale 04-23-16

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Leap Too Far

Last night we saw a production of William Inge’s “Where’s Daddy?” marking the 50th anniversary of the play and the return to the play by Barbara Dana who was in the original cast on Broadway.  This was a good production — fine acting with Ms. Dana playing Mrs. Bigelow, the mother of the character she played on Broadway, and well-directed by Karen Carpenter — but in the end the play itself is a mess.  Inge was trying to get back into the good graces of the critics who had labeled him as hokey, a playwright whose time had passed, and out of tune with the modern times of the 1960’s.  He tried to write something that spoke to modern problems and even tried to be hip by including a black couple as neighbors and having a character actually say out loud, “Do you think I’m a homosexual?”

There are two stories in “Where’s Daddy?”: the young couple struggling with their marriage and the impending birth of their child, and the young father’s conflicted feelings about his adoptive father figure and his questioning about his own sexuality.  In previous works Inge has been able to meld stories like these together, but in this play it does not work.  Rather than meld, they collide.

“Where’s Daddy?” takes Inge into territories where he has only hinted at before, but rather than the subtlety that we’d seen in previous works, he takes leaps.

It was a leap too far.  The play ran two weeks and he never really tried for Broadway again.  He moved to California to teach playwriting and continued with his life-long battle with depression.  Seven years later he was dead by his own hand.

His suicide was not a direct result of the failure of “Where’s Daddy?”, but it is apparent from the time that he felt he had to please the critics, which is a dangerous and futile goal.  One thing I have always believed as a writer is that you must first write for the characters and yourself.  Nothing else matters because nothing else will be truer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Nothing To Sneeze At

Here I am, 24 hours before the 35th William Inge Theatre Festival, and my allergies kick in.

Claritin, do your thing.

This is as good a time as any to tell you that from now through Sunday I’ll be in Inge mode: blogging about theatre and related fun but on a really limited basis because I just checked the schedule and I will be really busy.  There’s a New Play Lab where thirty-five short plays will be read and discussed, and I have one being done.  I’m also presenting a paper at the scholars conference, plus serving on a couple of panels.  Joining me for his third trip to Inge is The Old Professor who also is having one of his plays done in the Lab.

There will be the usual tributes and gala dinners and plays, including a production of the rarely-seen Inge play, “Where’s Daddy?” starring Barbara Dana.

According to my count, this is my 25th Inge Festival.  I think I’m getting the hang of it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday Reading

Who Poisoned Flint? — David A. Graham in The Atlantic reads the e-mails that tell the story.

Why did it take so long for state and federal government to do something about lead in the water in Flint, Michigan? Or, put another way, who is to blame, and who should have fixed it?There’s a telling moment within the 274 pages of emails released by Governor Rick Snyder’s office about Flint. Dennis Muchmore, then chief of staff to the governor, puzzles over who should be on the hook. He gripes about Representative Dan Kildee, and mentions former state Treasurer Andy Dillon.

[…]

Muchmore went on, “The real responsibility resists with the County, city and [Flint’s water authority], but since the issue here is the health of citizens and their children, we’re taking a pro-active approach.”

The question of who really is responsible has become suddenly widespread. On Thursday, news broke that the U.S. House will call Snyder to testify. The EPA official responsible for Michigan also resigned on Thursday. Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both called for Snyder to resign. The Wall Street Journal points a finger at every level of government. Disentangling the blame proves to be a difficult task.

Muchmore’s statement may seem a bit callous, but his mention of Dillon is somewhat tangential: After all, Dillon’s role was simply to sign off on the change to taking water from the Flint River, because of the size of the transaction. But Muchmore omitted the reason why Dillon was involved—a fact that also complicates his assignment of blame to the city. The switch to water from the Flint River occurred under the oversight of an emergency manager appointed by Snyder. Under a state law that Snyder signed, the governor can appoint a manager to take over cities in financial emergency.Prior to the switch, Flint had been preparing to move away from water provided by Detroit’s water service and toward a pipeline that would bring water directly from Lake Huron. (The city council did have a chance to weigh in on that change, and supported it 7-1.) But when Flint made the decision, the Detroit Water Services District announced it would terminate service to Flint a year later. That was legal under the contract, but it put Flint in a bad spot, since the new pipeline wasn’t going to be complete in a year. DWSD shrugged, saying Flint should have expected it. That’s how the emergency manager, Darnell Earley, ended up overseeing the switch to water from the Flint River. Flint residents and leaders blame Earley for the decision; Earley insists it was their idea. (Flint reconnected to Detroit water late last year, but there’s lasting damage to the pipes.)In any case, the final authority for the decision rested with Earley, the manager. That makes it jarring to see Muchmore write, in the same email quoted above, that the state departments of Environmental Quality and Community Health complained that the water issue had become “a political football”

[…]

For one thing, it had become clear by the time of writing, in September 2015, that Flint’s water had dangerous levels of lead. The residents weren’t just angry because they saw a partisan gain—they were angry about brown and apparently tainted water coming out of their faucets. Meanwhile, their political representation had been directly curtailed by the appointment of the emergency manager who oversaw the switch. Officials in Lansing withdrew Flint’s power to govern itself, but when Flint begged Lansing for help, it was told that the problem was Flint’s alone.

End It Already — Charlie Pierce is fed up with the kids playing occupiers.

Enough is enough. I mean, really. It’s time for federal law enforcement to, you know, enforce federal law.

On the other end was an FBI negotiator who identified himself to Bundy only as “Chris.” And so opened talks between the leader of the refuge occupation and the federal agency in charge of bringing an end to the armed takeover, now in its third week. For nearly an hour around noontime, the negotiator listened to Bundy’s well-practiced litany of complaints against the federal government while probing for what it would take to end his occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They ended the call with the promise to talk again Friday.

Isn’t that sweet?

The people of Harney County are fed up. The governor of Oregon is fed up. A group of armed jamokes—some of them with long criminal histories outside of the crimes they are committing at the moment—has seized federal property on federal land and the only people who seem sanguine about the whole business are the federal authorities. The thieves have been allowed to come and go fairly at will. They’ve been allowed to state their case at town meetings. And they’ve been allowed to return to the scene of their current crimes over and over again. Enough. If the FBI is still gun-shy about Ruby Ridge and about Waco, it has had enough chances to arrest these people without storming their winter clown encampment.

In sometimes highly personal remarks, speaker after speaker vented anger—at public officials, at the federal government and at the man in the brown cowboy hat sitting high in the bleachers to take it all in—Ammon Bundy. He and other armed militants on Jan. 2 seized the headquarters compound of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, situated 30 miles southeast of Burns. The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He sat on the second row from the top as County Judge Steve Grasty, microphone in hand, strode to the foot of that bleacher section.”It is time for you to go home,” Grasty said to Bundy, vowing to meet with Bundy anytime,  anyplace—outside of Harney County. A chant then grew in the gymnasium: “Go, go, go, go, go.” That was a message Bundy heard repeatedly through the evening, one he once vowed to heed. He sat expressionless, making no move to respond or to comment.

Can someone please explain to me why Ammon Bundy wasn’t arrested as he sat in the bleachers? Or on the way to the meeting? Or on the way back to the land he is attempting to steal from the rest of us? If the FBI had been this tender about people’s feelings throughout its history, John Dillinger would have died in his bed at the age of 103 and Fred Hampton might still be alive.

Nothing good can come of waiting these people out anymore. By their lights, they’ve already won, the way Ammon’s deadbeat father, Cliven, won when itinerant gunmen faced down lawful authority, an episode that led directly to the one in Oregon that already has gone on too long. (By the way, the elder Bundy is still a scofflaw who owes you and me $1 million.) And it’s important to remember that they are only the shiny object shock troops of a general conservative movement to destroy what’s left of the commons by taking over the public lands, especially in the West.

Outside of its 180-degree pivot on race, nothing demonstrates how far the Republican Party has strayed from its own history than its abandonment of its legacy as the party of conservation and the environment. The whole idea of preserving public lands for the people of the United States was a Republican idea, root and branch. Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation putting Yosemite under federal protection. The Antiquities Act was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. For a century, the preservation of the public lands was as close to a bipartisan project as we’ve had. It outlasted McCarthyism and the turmoil of the 1960s and the backlash of the 1970s and even, to an extent, the rise of Ronald Reagan, in which the seeds of the current threat to public lands first were sown.

“Noises Off” Is Still On — Michael Shulman in The New Yorker on the undying appeal of the farce.

Wednesday afternoon; a British country home. The phone rings, and a housekeeper named Mrs. Clackett galumphs in from the servants’ quarters, carrying a plate of sardines. In a weary Cockney accent, she informs the caller that her employer is in Spain. His wife’s in Spain, too. She blanches. “Am I in Spain? No, I’m not in Spain, dear.” She hangs up and begins to leave, as her accent suddenly jumps up several socioeconomic notches and she mumbles to herself, “And I take the sardines. No, I leave the sardines. No, I take the sardines.”

If Mrs. Clackett seems like a stock character in a British comedy—the grouchy, bumbling maid—that’s because she is one. We are watching the dress rehearsal for a play called “Nothing On,” whose doomed tour through English towns like Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockton-on-Tees is the subject of “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s ingenious 1982 farce within a farce. A sort of theatrical turducken, the play has a lot to tell us about the comedy of chaos. Paradoxically, it only works when it runs like clockwork: everything has to go right for everything to go so wrong. Fortunately, the Roundabout’s revival, which just opened at the American Airlines Theatre, under the shipshape direction of Jeremy Herrin, nails nearly every slamming door, pants-around-the-ankles pratfall, and flung plate of sardines.

About those sardines: keep your eye on them. And on the telephone. And on the newspaper Mrs. Clackett can’t remember whether to take offstage. By magnifying the minutiae—props, cues, stuck doorknobs—Frayn blows up perhaps the most banal aspect of theatre-making to absurd proportions. Or, as Lloyd (Campbell Scott), the beleaguered director of “Nothing On,” puts it, “That’s what it’s all about. Doors and sardines. Getting on, getting off. Getting the sardines on, getting the sardines off. That’s farce. That’s the theatre. That’s life.” It’s not until we see every exit and entrance go absurdly, madly, hilariously askew that we begin to see his point. Viewed from a certain angle, life is about little things that can slip, crack, and slam in our faces.

Perhaps that’s why “Noises Off” is such a crowd-pleaser, frequently revived and frequently beloved. Over three acts, we follow the accident-prone actors as their missed cues and accumulating rivalries lead to catastrophe for “Nothing On” but hilarity for “Noises Off.” Sardines fly, cactuses are sat upon. Frayn gives each character just enough distinction to make the tomfoolery comprehensible. Dotty (the wonderful Andrea Martin), who plays the housekeeper, is a slumming grand dame. Brooke (Megan Hilty), who plays a blond bimbo, keeps losing her contact lenses. Selsdon (Daniel Davis) is a drunk. (The rest of the ace ensemble includes Jeremy Shamos, David Furr, and Kate Jennings Grant, as actors, and Tracee Chimo and Rob McClure, as hapless stagehands.) Likewise, the characters they play in “Nothing On” have only one or two quirks apiece. The point isn’t to delve into individual psychology but to marvel at the extremity of gracelessness, choreographed with meticulous grace.

Doonesbury — At a minimum.

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