Monday, October 2, 2017

Not In Kansas Anymore

I am still getting back to normal after the long weekend in Olathe, Kansas, at the Midwest Dramatists Conference.  As noted below, the reading of my play went very well and I made a lot of new friends and learned a lot, which was the whole point.

For one thing, playwrights, I’ve discovered over my 40 years in the trade, are unlike some other areas in the arts where there’s an air of tension or competition to be better than someone else in order to get a part or a job.  Playwrights — at least the ones I’ve worked with at Inge, here in Miami, and now at the MDC — support and encourage each other and share opportunities.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we know our work is unique so instead of trying to outdo someone else in talent or craftsmanship, we are all offering our own voice and vision.  Whatever the reason, I have always found a sense of camaraderie and connection with people from all walks of life, of all ages and experience, but who have found a way to express themselves through characters, actions, words, and expression that reaches an audience.  And that’s the whole point.

And now I’m back in the real world of home, work, life, and writing here.  I’m still recovering from the cold that I took along with me, and I have a busy couple of weeks ahead both at the office and in my other obsession, antique cars.  So allow me a little time to catch up to the harsh realities I left behind when I took off for the weekend in the middle of America.

By the way, I get my share of Wizard of Oz jokes — say hi to Toto, etc. — when I go to Kansas for Inge and now this weekend.  Despite the stark sepia tone of the film in the beginning and end, Kansas is beautiful and its people have always been friendly, gracious, and outwardly tolerant of the invasion of playwrights and theatre folk from both coasts.  Thank you.

Friday, September 29, 2017

“Exquisite”

After the reading of my play “A Moment of Clarity” at the Midwest Dramatists Conference this morning, one of the audience members told me that the play was “exquisite.”

I’m not going to argue with that.

We have had a lot of great plays shared today and I’m looking forward to more tomorrow.  And the rumors of the death of theatre in America are greatly exaggerated.

Welcome To Olathe

So far all I’ve seen of this part of Kansas is the drive from the airport to the hotel in the dark of the night, but today should be different.  The Midwest Dramatists Conference has gathered 44 playwrights from around the country along with local actors and directors who will do the readings today and tomorrow.

I don’t know how much time I’ll have to write this weekend, but keep checking.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Friday, September 22, 2017

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Reading

Slow Learner — Robin Wright in The New Yorker on Trump’s dangerous cluelessness.

Max Boot, a lifelong conservative who advised three Republican Presidential candidates on foreign policy, keeps a folder labelled “Trump Stupidity File” on his computer. It’s next to his “Trump Lies” file. “Not sure which is larger at this point,” he told me this week. “It’s neck-and-neck.”

Six months into the Trump era, foreign-policy officials from eight past Administrations told me they are aghast that the President is still so witless about the world. “He seems as clueless today as he was on January 20th,” Boot, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. Trump’s painful public gaffes, they warn, indicate that he’s not reading, retaining, or listening to his Presidential briefings. And the newbie excuse no longer flies.

“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.”

Criticism of Donald Trump among Democrats who served in senior national-security positions is predictable and rife. But Republicans—who are historically ambitious on foreign policy—are particularly pained by the President’s missteps and misstatements. So are former senior intelligence officials who have avoided publicly criticizing Presidents until now.

“The President has little understanding of the context”—of what’s happening in the world—“and even less interest in hearing the people who want to deliver it,” Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, told me. “He’s impatient, decision-oriented, and prone to action. It’s all about the present tense. When he asks, ‘What the hell’s going on in Iraq?’ people around him have learned not to say, ‘Well, in 632 . . . ’ ” (That was the year when the Prophet Muhammad died, prompting the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split.*)

“He just doesn’t have an interest in the world,” Hayden said.

I asked top Republican and intelligence officials from eight Administrations what they thought was the one thing the President needs to grasp to succeed on the world stage. Their various replies: embrace the fact that the Russians are not America’s friends. Don’t further alienate the Europeans, who are our friends. Encourage human rights—a founding principle of American identity—and don’t make priority visits to governments that curtail them, such as Poland and Saudi Arabia. Understand that North Korea’s nuclear program can’t be outsourced to China, which can’t or won’t singlehandedly fix the problem anyway, and realize that military options are limited. Pulling out of innovative trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will boost China’s economy and secure its global influence—to America’s disadvantage. Stop bullying his counterparts. And put the Russia case behind him by coöperating with the investigation rather than trying to discredit it.

Trump’s latest blunder was made during an appearance in the Rose Garden with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on July 25th. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah,” Trump pronounced. He got the basics really wrong. Hezbollah is actually part of the Lebanese government—and has been for a quarter century—with seats in parliament and Cabinet posts. Lebanon’s Christian President, Michel Aoun, has been allied with Hezbollah for a decade. As Trump spoke, Hezbollah’s militia and the Lebanese Army were fighting ISIS and an Al Qaeda affiliate occupying a chunk of eastern Lebanon along its border with Syria. They won.

The list of other Trump blunders is long. In March, he charged that Germany owed “vast sums” to the United States for NATO. It doesn’t. No NATO member pays the United States—and never has—so none is in arrears. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in April, Trump claimed that Korea “actually used to be part of China.” Not true. After he arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia, in May, Trump said that he had just come from the Middle East. (Did he even look at a map?) During his trip to France, in July, the President confused Napoleon Bonaparte, the diminutive emperor who invaded Russia and Egypt, with Napoleon III, who was France’s first popularly elected President, oversaw the design of modern Paris, and is still the longest-serving head of state since the French Revolution (albeit partly as an emperor, too). And that’s before delving into his demeaning tweets about other world leaders and flashpoints.

“The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me—and I had low expectations to begin with,” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration, told me.

Trump’s White House has also flubbed basics. It misspelled the name of Britain’s Prime Minister three times in its official schedule of her January visit. After it dropped the “H” in Theresa May, several British papers noted that Teresa May is a soft-porn actress best known for her films “Leather Lust” and “Whitehouse: The Sex Video.” In a statement last month, the White House called Xi Jinping the President of the “Republic of China”—which is the island of Taiwan—rather than the leader of the People’s Republic, the Communist mainland. The two nations have been epic rivals in Asia for more than half a century. The White House also misidentified Shinzo Abe as the President of Japan—he’s the Prime Minister—and called the Prime Minister of Canada “Joe” instead of Justin Trudeau.

Trump’s policy mistakes, large and small, are taking a toll. “American leadership in the world—how do I phrase this, it’s so obvious, but apparently not to him—is critical to our success, and it depends eighty per cent on the credibility of the President’s word,” John McLaughlin, who worked at the C.I.A. under seven Presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, and ended up as the intelligence agency’s acting director, told me. “Trump thinks having a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago bought him a relationship with Xi Jinping. He came in as the least prepared President we’ve had on foreign policy,” McLaughlin added. “Our leadership in the world is slipping away. It’s slipping through our hands.”

And a world in dramatic flux compounds the stakes. Hayden cited the meltdown in the world order that has prevailed since the Second World War; the changing nature of the state and its power; China’s growing military and economic power; and rogue nations seeking nuclear weapons, among others. “Yet the most disruptive force in the world today is the United States of America,” the former C.I.A. director said.

The closest similarity to the Trump era was the brief Warren G. Harding Administration, in the nineteen-twenties, Philip Zelikow, who worked for the Reagan and two Bush Administrations, and who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told me. Harding, who died, of a heart attack, after twenty-eight months in office, was praised because he stood aside and let his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, lead the way. Hughes had already been governor of New York, a Supreme Court Justice, and the Republican Presidential nominee in 1916, losing narrowly to Woodrow Wilson, who preceded Harding.

Under Trump, the White House has seized control of key foreign-policy issues. The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real-estate developer, has been charged with brokering Middle East peace, navigating U.S.-China relations, and the Mexico portfolio. In April, Kushner travelled to Iraq to help chart policy against ISIS. Washington scuttlebutt is consumed with tales of how Trump has stymied his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil.

“The national-security system of the United States has been tested over a period of seventy years,” John Negroponte, the first director of national security and a former U.N. Ambassador, told me. “President Trump disregards the system at his peril.”

Trump’s contempt for the U.S. intelligence community has also sparked alarm. “I wish the President would rely more on, and trust more, the intelligence agencies and the work that is produced, sometimes at great risk to individuals around the world, to inform the Commander-in-Chief,” Mitchell Reiss, who was chief of the State Department’s policy-planning team under Secretary of State Colin Powell, told me.

Republican critics are divided on whether Trump can grow into the job. “Trump is completely irredeemable,” Eliot A. Cohen, who was counselor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, told me. “He has a feral instinct for self-survival, but he’s unteachable. The ban on Muslims coming into the country and building a wall, and having the Mexicans pay for it, that was all you needed to know about this guy on foreign affairs. This is a man who is idiotic and bigoted and ignorant of the law.” Cohen was a ringleader of an open letter warning, during the campaign, that Trump’s foreign policy was “wildly inconsistent and unmoored.”

But other Republicans from earlier Administrations still hold out hope. “Whenever Trump begins to learn about an issue—the Middle East conflict or North Korea—he expresses such surprise that it could be so complicated, after saying it wasn’t that difficult,” Gordon, from the Bush Administration, said. “The good news, when he says that, is it means he has a little bit of knowledge.” So far, however, the learning curve has been pitifully—and dangerously—slow.

*This post has been updated to clarify the contextual significance of the year 632.

Pope Francis vs. The Religious Right — Charles P. Pierce on the smackdown from the Vatican.

I was intrigued by the story in The New York Times the other day concerning the warning shot fired by Papa Francesco and his allies in the press across the bow of politicized conservative Catholics who have spent the last decades or so making common ground with politicized Protestant Bible-bangers who no longer referred to any pope as The Whore of Babylon.

Once, long ago, on the night before Ronald Reagan became president, I sat in a Capitol Hill bar with a representative of the Irish embassy who was drinking heavily because some backwater Southern congressman had invited the Reverend Ian Paisley as one of his official inauguration guests. (At the time, Paisley was still the world’s most virulent anti-Catholic and had not yet signed aboard the peace process with Martin McGuinness.) Paisleys were heavily involved in, among other Religious Right institutions, Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. My friend spent a lot of time that night with his head in his hands.

However, as the years went by, a certain strain of American Catholicism looked over at the success the Religious Right was having in American politics and asked the profound theological question, “Me Some Too, Yes?” They’d been restive for decades about the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and now conservatism was on the march and they didn’t want to get left behind. They were encouraged in this by the theological reactionaries in the Vatican, including Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, who later would become pope himself. At a previous gig, I wrote about this political counter-reformation at the moment it was being wrong-footed by the massive international conspiracy to obstruct justice undertaken by the institutional Church over the crimes of the hierarchical clergy. This was a bad time for the K Street Catholics in Washington.

Now, it seems as though Papa Francesco is taking a long pastoral look at what these people, and their allies in the hierarchy, have been up to. From the Times:

The authors, writing in a Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Stephen K.Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, as a “supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics” that has stymied action against climate change and exploited fears of migrants and Muslims with calls for “walls and purifying deportations.” The article warns that conservative American Catholics have strayed dangerously into the deepening political polarization in the United States. The writers even declare that the worldview of American evangelical and hard-line Catholics, which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, is “not too far apart” from jihadists.

A mark, that will surely leave.

American Catholicism, he argued, echoing the article’s thesis, “has become different than mainstream European Catholicism and mainstream Latin American Catholicism,” and has fallen “into the hands of the religious right.” The authors of the article argue that American evangelical and ultraconservative Catholics risk corrupting the Roman Catholic faith with an ideology intended to inject “religious influence in the political sphere.” They suggest that so-called values voters are using the banners of religious liberty and opposition to abortion to try to supplant secularism with a “theocratic type of state.”

All of this puts Callista Gingrich, our new ambassador to the Vatican, and the third wife of N. Leroy Gingrich, Definer of civilization’s rules and Leader (perhaps) of the civilizing forces, in something of a nutcracker. N. Leroy converted to Catholicism after marrying Callista. You can puzzle out the timeline of Gingrich’s personal history at your leisure. As someone told NPR:

But his conversion doesn’t erase his past. After all, Gingrich has a history of marital infidelity. He cheated on his first wife, and his relationship with Callista, his third wife, began six years before the end of his second marriage. She was a staffer 23 years his junior; he was a Republican congressman who had yet to become speaker of the House. “Without a doubt,” says Rozell, “many people will find it rather strange, ironic, whatever, that his religious journey that led him to convert to Catholicism began with an affair he had with a young woman while he was still married to his second wife.”

The Gingrichs are K Street Catholics all the way, devotees of the late Pope John Paul II and of his successor, the former Cardinal Ratzinger. From The New York Times:

Mr. Gingrich is a culture wars Catholic for whom the church seems a logical home for conservative Republicans. Generations removed from the Kennedy years when Catholics predictably voted Democratic, this is a new era in which conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants have joined forces in what they see as a defining struggle against abortion, same-sex marriage and secularism.

This would appear to be the era out of which Papa Francesco is trying to muscle the Church. (This week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops slammed the Trump Administration for its proposed new policy on legal immigrants.) This will make Papa Francesco and our new ambassador and her husband a fascinating interface. God works in mysterious ways, but N. Leroy Gingrich is a doozy. Of course, the Vatican has needed new gargoyles for a while now.

Way Off Broadway — John Leland on Sam Shepard in New York.

Sam Shepard, who died last week at 73, used to say that he was lucky to have landed in New York at just the right time. Rents were cheap, rock ’n’ roll was blooming, sex and drugs were easy, and adventurous no-budget theaters were opening in makeshift spaces downtown. For a 19-year-old arriving from California in 1963, handsome and unpolished, the city was a charmed playground.

His first great theatrical creation was himself, an image that still resonates with the people who knew him then.

“He knew how to invent himself as a character,” said Jean-Claude van Itallie, who was playwright in residence at the Open Theater, which formed in a warehouse earlier that year. “That whole persona of Sam as a cowboy — he was as middle-class as all of us. We were all tremendously ambitious, but we didn’t easily admit it.”

Mr. Shepard reached New York after a cross-country tour with a Christian theater group. Acting had been an escape from his father, a World War II bomber pilot who had brought the scars of war home.

In New York he looked up a high school friend, Charles Mingus Jr., son of the jazz great, who got him a job at the Village Gate nightclub, “cleaning up dishes and bringing Nina Simone ice,” as Mr. Shepard once described it. The two friends shared a cold-water apartment on Avenue C and Ninth Street, paying $60 a month in rent.

Mr. Mingus knew him first as Sam Rogers or Steve Rogers, the family surname. Even then, Mr. Mingus said in an interview this week, “He could walk into a room with a typewriter and not leave until he finished a play. No revisions, just typing.”

When Ralph Cook, a waiter at the Village Gate, started the Theater Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in 1964, he gave Mr. Shepard his first break — a pair of experimental one-acts that used disjointed dialogue to “change the audience’s cognition,” Mr. Mingus said.

The Village Voice loved it, and Mr. Shepard was off. In the next six years, he had 18 plays produced — including six that won Obie awards. And then he left the city, only sporadically to return.

“He was blessed with good fortune, always in the right place at the right time,” said Peter Stampfel, who met Mr. Shepard in a pawnshop in the East Village where Mr. Stampfel was retrieving a violin he had pawned to buy amphetamines.

Off Off Broadway in the mid-1960s was wide open. An actor in one theater might be designing costumes in a second, then rushing to see a new play in a third. Audiences typically did not pay, and sometimes did not show up.

“It was an incredibly exciting time,” said Tony Barsha, a playwright and director who worked with Mr. Shepard at Theater Genesis. “Creativity was just flowing all over the place.’’

“We thumbed our noses at Broadway and Off Broadway because they were so slick and commercial, and what we were doing was just off the wall stuff,’’ he added. “Nobody was thinking of art for the ages. Sam was just dashing this stuff off. His early work was just what came out of his head. It had nothing to do with dramatic construction or form or history. I think he was using a lot of drugs at the time, speed mainly. I did the same thing.”

The budget to stage a play at the Judson Poets Theater on Washington Square was $37.50, said Albert Poland, who produced some of Mr. Shepard’s early plays. The budget at Theater Genesis, where Mr. Shepard became a regular, was possibly lower.

“That was the dangerous place,” Mr. Poland said, longingly.

Theater Genesis, said the playwright Murray Mednick, was the most macho of the Off Off Broadway spots, “very interested in street language. There was a lot of turmoil, and out of that came this hard-bitten kind of writing, and Sam was a part of that. But he had a sense of America, of being an American, that translated on the stage.”

When Mr. Shepard took one of his plays to Ellen Stewart, a former clothing designer who started La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in 1962, she didn’t even look at the script: “‘We’re gonna do it, baby,’’’ he recalled her saying.

Mr. Stampfel invited him to play drums in his band, the Holy Modal Rounders, a psychedelic folk group that went on to open for the Velvet Underground, Ike and Tina Turner, Pink Floyd and others. The two shared a taste for drugs and a preference for energy over musical finesse, Mr. Stampfel said this week.

“When we started, he never mentioned writing plays or that he got a grant,’’ Mr. Stampfel said. “We’d mention his name to other people and they’d say, you mean the guy who writes plays?”

With the war raging in Vietnam, and F.B.I. agents storming the apartment on Avenue C looking for subversives, Mr. Shepard avoided the draft by feigning a heroin habit.

When Mr. Shepard married O-Lan Johnson, an actress who appeared in some of his plays, in 1969, Mr. Stampfel and the other Rounders performed and handed purple hits of LSD to guests as they entered.

A year later, shortly after the couple had their first child, Mr. Shepard was playing drums with the band on Bleecker Street, when a journalist came backstage to interview them. The journalist was Patti Smith. “She went straight to Sam, and they went straight to the Chelsea,” Mr. Stampfel said.

“Some people are one-woman men,” Mr. Mingus said. “And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.”

Their public affair, loosely echoed in a play they wrote together, “Cowboy Mouth,” lasted until Mr. Shepard and his wife reconciled and before long left New York for London and Nova Scotia.

By then, the East Village was changing, and Off Off Broadway with it. Mr. van Itallie, Mr. Shepard, Lanford Wilson, John Guare and other downtown writers who started at La MaMa or Caffe Cino found bigger audiences further uptown.

But downtown still had a last bit of theater for Mr. Shepard. In the spring of 1970, he had plays opening at Lincoln Center and in the Village, at the Astor Place Theater. It was a major accomplishment, and most of the downtown crowd celebrated Mr. Shepard’s rise, Mr. van Itallie said.

Joey Skaggs, a street artist and prankster, thought Mr. Shepard needed to be saved. “He was making it,” Mr. Skaggs said.

So for an opening-night prank, he planned to “kidnap” Mr. Shepard and put him on a bus out of town. It was a conceptual joke between friends, Mr. Skaggs said. But when six characters in gangster suits rushed toward Mr. Shepard, he started punching. The joke fell apart. The reviews for both shows were bad.

Mr. Shepard, of course, went on to movie stardom and success as a major American dramatist. His plays became more formal and polished. Caffe Cino, the Open Theater and Theater Genesis folded; La MaMa lives on as a cultural institution. None of the four theaters’ founders survives.

Last October, Mr. Stampfel said, Mr. Shepard called him out of the blue to wish him a happy birthday. The two had largely fallen out of contact.

“I knew he was saying goodbye,” Mr. Stampfel said.

Doonesbury — Insurance junkies.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

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.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sunday Reading

Why We Must Mock Trump — Howard Jacobson in the New York Times.

Let’s look on the bright side: The spectacle of ireful Donald Trump supporters disrupting Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “Julius Caesar” and the subsequent tweetstorm of abuse directed at any company with Shakespeare in its name prove that plays retain the power to shock and enrage. Who said the theater is all anodyne, feel-good musicals?

I didn’t see the production that turned Julius Caesar into a Donald Trump look-alike, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the impersonation or the violence against the president that some people believe it meant to incite. But there are a few things about the nature of Shakespearean drama in general — its subtle shifts in sympathy, the shocks it administers to our prejudices, its suspension of the drives to definitive political action — that obviously weren’t apparent to protesters.

The first of these is that a play, however incendiary its plot, is a very different thing from a political speech. A speech asks us to go out and do, or at least to go away and believe; a play by Shakespeare moves through time, measures action against motive and shows us consequence. We might enter the theater in rash spirits, but we leave it consumed by thought.

Mr. Trump never, in so many words, promoted the assassination of Hillary Clinton when addressing an election rally about the likely effect of her tinkering with the gun laws, but he avoided incitement only by making a sort of comic drama of his words — imagining what others might think or do, playing with future and conditional tenses, painting himself as innocent of any such intention himself. This wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a departure from the usual blunt declamations of the “Lock her up!” variety. Deep down in Mr. Trump’s ungrammatical subconscious, some ancient understanding of the nature of dramaturgical, as opposed to oratorical, discourse briefly stirred. No, he had not called for Mrs. Clinton to be shot.

Plays don’t tell you what to think, let alone how to act. A good play won’t even tell you what the playwright thinks. What did Shakespeare believe? We don’t know. Meaning emerges, in a drama, suspensefully, out of the interplay of forces, from the collision of voices. There is no such thing, in art, as non-contingent truth.

That Trumpists don’t recognize this process is not surprising. Mr. Trump’s appeal is to those who think truth comes in a capsule. But their rage at the depiction of the president as the soon-to-be-assassinated Caesar is encouraging to the satirist. Satire is less subtle than Shakespearean drama. It lowers its head and charges. The questions always asked of it — will it do any good, will it change minds, will it even be noticed by the people satirized? — are hereby answered. Yes, no and yes.

Vexation is its own reward. It is consoling to see how thin-skinned the partisans of Mr. Trump are. But in truth, we’ve always known this about people of an absolutist bent. Just before the war, Adolf Hitler tried diplomatic means to get the British cartoonist David Low barred from drawing cartoons of the Führer. It has even been suggested that Mr. Low’s name was on a list of people to be killed when the Nazis occupied Britain.

Communism’s failure of humor is the subject of Milan Kundera’s first novel, “The Joke.” For writing the words “Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” on the back of a postcard to a girlfriend, Ludvik Jahn is expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and sent to work in the mines.

The more monocratic the regime, the less it can bear criticism. And of all criticism, satire — with its single ambition of ridiculing vanity and delusion — is the most potent.

This can be only because the boastful are thin-skinned and the intolerant are forever looking over their shoulders. Mr. Trump himself is visibly easy to wound. Should this be a reason to hold back? “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” the great satirist Alexander Pope asked. The question was rhetorical. Wounding the vainglorious is a pleasing pastime in itself and contributes to their demoralization. Fire enough salvos of comedy and their solemn edifices start to crumble. It might be a slow process, but it is at least the beginning.

Derision is a societal necessity. In an age of conformity and populist hysteria, it creates a climate of skepticism and distrust of authority. If mercy droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, derision spurts up as though from a pantomime geyser, drenching the braggart and the fool in the foulest ordures.

[Photo by Sarah Krulwich, New York Times]

Past Is Prologue — Richard Ben-Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, has a warning for Trump.

Watching the national controversy over the White House and Russia unfold, I’m reminded of Karl Marx’s oft-quoted observation: “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.” I was a close witness to the national tragedy that was Richard Nixon’s self-inflicted downfall as president, and I’ve recently contemplated whether a repeat of his “Saturday Night Massacre” may already be in the offing. Given how that incident doomed one president, Trump would do well to resist repeating his predecessor’s mistakes—and avoid his presidency’s descent into a quasi-Watergate parody.

The massacre began when Nixon gave the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, a desperate effort to prevent him from hearing tape-recorded evidence that proved the White House’s involvement in a conspiracy to obstruct the investigation of a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Nixon’s misuse of executive power backfired, immediately costing him two highly respected members of his administration: Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s directive. Third in command at the Justice Department was Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to do the dirty deed and fired Cox.

At the time, I had been working on Cox’s team for only four months and had just been promoted to chief of the task force investigating obstruction-of-justice allegations against Nixon. It was one of five such task forces that Cox organized to carry out his broad mandate. Although Nixon ordered the special prosecutor’s office abolished and commanded the FBI to seize our office and files, we remained employed by the Justice Department. Homeless, leaderless, and dazed by our proximity to the explosion the president had detonated in our midst, we brushed ourselves off and vowed to continue our work in whatever capacity we could.

It was only a matter of days, though, until the firestorm of public and congressional outrage over Cox’s firing forced Nixon to reverse course and promise to obey court orders that compelled his release of eight tape recordings. We returned to our office and were reunited with our files, and a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was soon appointed to lead the Watergate inquiry. Amid all the furor—which didn’t end there—the public correctly asked the question “What was Nixon hiding?” The answer was not long in coming: a lot. The tapes proved Nixon was not only a liar, but also an early leader of a plot to obstruct the investigation of those who organized and financed the DNC break-in. Nixon’s choice was either to face the music—likely impeachment, conviction, and removal from office—or resign.

In Watergate’s aftermath, I thought the unique circumstances that led to Nixon’s resignation in disgrace could never be replicated. But after just six months in office, the comparisons between Presidents Trump and Nixon are mounting:

Watergate involved political espionage and electronic wiretapping by the Republican candidate’s campaign committee against the DNC. “Russiagate” involves political espionage by the Russians against the Democrats, with possible collusion by members of the GOP candidate’s campaign or advisers.

Watergate saw the president’s firing of a special prosecutor. In Russiagate, FBI Director James Comey was fired after, in the president’s own words, the bureau’s investigation had put “great pressure” on him.

Nixon called the Senate Watergate hearings a “witch hunt,” and Trump repeatedly uses the same term to criticize the ongoing special-counsel investigation.

Nixon ordered CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters to tell Acting FBI Director Pat Gray to back off the investigation tracing cash found on the arrested burglars at the scene of the crime. According to Comey’s sworn testimony before the Senate, Trump told him to go easy on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is being investigated in part for lying about his contacts with Russian officials.

Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a secret White House taping system in Senate testimony. Trump once suggested that he may have covertly taped his conversations with Comey, though on Thursday he denied doing so.

Nixon claimed the special prosecutor’s office was made up of political partisans out to get him, and Trump calls Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his staff “very bad and conflicted people.” Both presidents have also sharply criticized the press, calling it the “enemy.”

As if all these parallels are not enough, Trump’s surrogates have raised the possibility that he will fire Mueller, too. Presidential confidant and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told reporters earlier this month he believed Trump was considering the dismissal. Incredibly, longtime Trump supporter Roger Stone, who himself worked on Nixon’s reelection campaign, has loudly encouraged Trump to reprise the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Mueller. This despite the fact that Mueller—tapped to lead the FBI by George W. Bush in 2001 and selected by Trump’s own deputy attorney general to lead the Russia inquiry, has been on the job for only a month and is still hiring staff.

If Trump’s actions seem like a ham-fisted imitation of Nixon’s, they are no laughing matter. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she is “increasingly concerned” that Trump will fire Mueller, and send a message that he “believes the law doesn’t apply to him, and that anyone who believes otherwise will be fired”—a perhaps unintentional allusion to Nixon himself, who once said that when a president does something, “that means that it is not illegal.” The usual limits on presidential power must apply to Trump, Feinstein argued: “The Senate should not let that happen. We’re a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone, a lesson the president would be wise to learn.”

The question is not whether Trump can fire Mueller—it is whether it would be a misuse of executive power for him to do so. Should Trump let Mueller go, it would spark a constitutional crisis the likes of which the country has not seen in four decades. The business of Congress would grind to a halt and the stock market would suffer a shock. With Comey’s dismissal as the backdrop, there could be an immediate resolution introduced in the House for Trump’s impeachment for attempting to obstruct a lawful, ongoing criminal investigation.

Rod Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general, followed the law in appointing Mueller to be special counsel to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” and related matters. It should be remembered that Nixon was named by the Watergate grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and that the House Judiciary Committee cited his interference with Cox’s investigation among the grounds for voting in favor of impeachment. And only former President Gerald Ford’s pardon precluded an indictment of citizen Nixon for obstruction.

In Watergate, there were several Republicans in both houses who are remembered for putting country above party loyalty. The die-hards who stood with Nixon until the end—not so much. If Trump were to fire Mueller to cut off a full investigation, it would fall to congressional Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, to determine whether the United States continues to be a nation of laws. Americans would see whether a new Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, Tom Railsback, Bill Cohen, Caldwell Butler, or Hamilton Fish would step forward and join with Democrats, who would no doubt sponsor an impeachment resolution. Or would GOP lawmakers simply go along with a foolhardy reenactment of the Watergate scandal’s Saturday Night Massacre?

O Canada? — Stephen Marche on his home and native land’s inability to celebrate itself.

July 1 is Canada’s 150th anniversary, but nobody seems particularly eager to join the party. The muted attempts at celebration have so far produced either awkwardness or embarrassment. A giant rubber duck, six stories tall, is supposed to arrive in Toronto Harbor on Canada Day, but its imminent appearance has been greeted by outrage over costs and suspicions of plagiarism. In March, the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, began televising a documentary series called “The Story of Us” to the almost instantaneous howling of Quebec and Nova Scotia politicians at what they regarded as significant omissions in our supposedly collective narrative. Resistance 150, an indigenous political movement, is planning to disrupt the anniversary itself.

The principal excitement of our sesquicentennial so far has been the fury of national self-critique it has inspired.

The irony is that Canada, at the moment, has a lot to celebrate. Our prime minister is glamorous and internationally recognized as a celebrity of progressive politics. We are among the last societies in the West not totally consumed by loathing of others. Canada leads the Group of 7 countries in economic growth. Our cultural power is real: Drake recently had 24 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time — for one shining moment he was nearly a quarter of popular music. Frankly, it’s not going to get much better than this for little old Canada.

So why is Canada so bad at celebrating itself? The nationalism that defined the country during the last major anniversary, the centenary in 1967, has evaporated. The election of Justin Trudeau has brought a new generation to power, a generation raised on a vision of history more critical than laudatory. We dream of reconciliation with the victims of our ancestors’ crimes rather than memorialization of their triumphs.

Mr. Trudeau has described the country he leads as “the first postnational state,” with “no core identity, no mainstream.” He may be right. But if we are a postnational state, then why are we even mentioning the formation of a national state in the first place? It seems so arbitrary.

The historical moment we will commemorate next Saturday is Confederation — a bunch of old white guys signing a document that bound a loose collection of provinces controlled by the British Empire into a vague and discontented unity without the slightest consideration of or participation by the First Peoples. It doesn’t seem ideal, or even accurate, as an origin. Needless to say, native people were here for thousands of years before that. And Canada managed to reach proper independence, with the right to amend our Constitution without approval from Britain, only in 1982.

Nonetheless, I will be celebrating. The British North America Act, which I was forced to study in school and which, at the time, I considered the single most boring object ever produced by human consciousness, has grown on me. Maybe I’ve aged. But so has the world. Confederation was an attempt at compromise between peoples within a unified political framework. In this way at least, a moldy 19th-century document has, oddly, prepared Canada for the 21st century surprisingly well.

Nationally, Canada has been spared the populism that has swallowed the rest of the Western world because there is not, and has never been, such a thing as a “real Canadian.” Kevin O’Leary — Canada’s supposed answer to Donald Trump — ended his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, even though he was leading in the polls, because he couldn’t speak French well enough to win an election. To lead this country, you must be able to navigate multiple languages and multiple cultures. Our longstanding identity crisis has suddenly turned to a huge advantage — we come, in a sense, pre-broken.

Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, articulated Canada’s difference from other countries perfectly: “There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian,” he said when he was prime minister in 1971. “What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all Canadian’ boy or girl? A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.” Despite this country’s manifold failures to uphold its ideals, its core vision has turned out to be much more sophisticated than America’s “E pluribus unum.”

Not that the pre-broken post-national condition is without its agonies. Colonized self-loathing seems to be a national trait we will never fully shake off. Canadian self-flagellation results always in the same warm, comfortingly smug sense of virtue. Self-righteousness is to Canada what violence is to America. It transcends the political spectrum. Whether it is Conservative insistence on frugality and small-town values or the furious outrage of identity politics on the left, everyone has the same point to make: We’re not as good as we think we are, and the government should do something about it.

The virtues of this country are mostly negative anyway, which may also make overt celebration difficult. Canada’s real glories are its hospitals and its public schools, but those, unlike the Marine Corps, cannot be paraded. Canada is, according to several international surveys, the most tolerant country in the world. But it’s absurd to celebrate not being quite as insane as the rest of the world. You don’t get a cookie because you hate people on the basis of their skin color a little less than everybody else.

None of what I have written should be taken to imply that Canadians don’t love their country, or that I don’t love my country. I do. Most Canadians do, too. They just love it quietly. They don’t want to make a big fuss. Britain made a big fuss with Brexit and look what’s happening to it. America at the moment seems full of dedicated, flag-waving patriots who love their country passionately, vociferously; they just can’t stand their fellow citizens or their government.

Canada’s reluctance to celebrate itself is actually something worth celebrating. It has become abundantly clear in 2017 that patriotism is for losers. Patriotism is for people and for countries that need to justify their existence through symbols rather than achievements. Canada is doing well enough that it doesn’t require spackled vanity. It doesn’t need six-story-high rubber ducks.

This is the most Canadian thing I will ever write, I know, but I’m proud of my country for its lack of pride.

 Doonesbury — He’s back.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

More Sinned Against Than Sinning

There are some really stupid — and dangerous — people out there.  Via Raw Story:

According to the Boston Globe, theater companies across the country that perform Shakespeare are getting death threats over a New York Public Theater play in Central Park that depicts the death of Ceasar — but who looks like President Donald Trump.

The senders of these death threats are “outraged over the Public Theater’s controversial staging” of Shakespeare’s “Caesar” that features the infamous stabbing scene with a character inspired by Trump — but they appear to have gotten the locations a little off.

One such theater is Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, who have been “inundated with a flood of venomous e-mails, phone messages, and social media posts condemning them for the Central Park production.”

One sender told the management of the Lenox theater that they wish “the worst possible life you could have and hope you all get sick and die.” Another told them their “play depicting the murder of our President is nothing but pure hatred.”

The Lenox Shakespeare company is far from the only Shakespeare-performing theater who’ve gotten these kinds of threats. Raphael Parry, the director of Shakespeare Dallas in Texas, told the Globe that his theater “has received about 80 messages, including threats of rape, death, and wishes that the theater’s staff is ‘sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.’” Theaters in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in New York said they’ve received threats as well.

“We just got slammed,” Parry said. “It’s pretty amazing the vitriol, the wishing we would die and our family would die. A whole lot of them say that we should burn in hell.”

The directors of these two companies have differing theories about why their theaters have been targets. Dallas’s Parry blames “web analytics” that cause people searching for “Shakespeare in the Park” in Texas to see his company first, while Allyn Burrows of the Lenox, Massachusetts company has another explanation.

“What might be gurgling up for them is their ire around having to do Shakespeare in high school,” Burrows told the Globe. “They’re like, ‘you know what? I never realized I hated my English teacher as much as I did.’”

I don’t think these people are dangerous in terms that they’re a physical threat to the theatres or the directors.  They’re just dangerous to the point that they believe that even if they called the wrong number or attacked a theatre company that had absolutely nothing to do with the production in New York, they’re still justified in doing what they’re doing because they had to read “Othello” in high school.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sunday Reading

Innocent Bystanders — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.

You knew it was coming.

You felt it with a sickening certainty the instant news of a mass shooting flashed out from Alexandria, Virginia. So it was disheartening, but hardly surprising, to hear certain conservatives reflexively blame Democrats and their so-called “hate speech” for the carnage.

It happened Wednesday morning. The quiet camaraderie of Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game against their Democratic colleagues was shattered by rifle shots from one James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois. Police officers providing security returned fire.

When the shooting was done, five people were wounded, including two officers and Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, whose injuries were critical. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old left winger and former supporter of Bernie Sanders who was apparently motivated by hatred for Donald Trump and the GOP, was mortally wounded.

There was still blood on the ground when conservatives began laying the shooting at liberals’ feet. Republican Rep. Chris Collins blamed “outrageous” Democratic rhetoric. (He later expressed regret for that comment.) The InfoWars website cited a “hysterical anti-Trump narrative.” Radio host Michael Savage spoke of a “constant drumbeat of hatred.”

It was predictable because it’s what we always do. Jerry Falwell blamed the ACLU for 9/11. Jane Fonda blamed Sarah Palin for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

At some point, you’d think we’d learn that rhetoric — excluding that which explicitly or implicitly calls for violence — does not “cause” people to shoot, stab, or bomb. By that logic, you’d have to blame Fox “News” and other organs of the right for the Planned Parenthood shooting and the Atlanta Olympics bombing.

It makes about as much sense. You know who’s to blame for this shooting? James Hodgkinson is.

Frankly, this sudden concern for the tenor of political discourse feels precious, even sanctimonious, given conservatives’ history of invective and lies. Where was all this fretting last year when Donald Trump said “Second Amendment people” might stop Hillary Clinton? Where was it week before last, when Eric Trump said Democrats are “not even people” to him?

The bottom line is that a president of unprecedented incompetence is being enabled by a Congress of criminal complicity in an agenda of frightful destructiveness. To see that and not say it loudly and emphatically would be an act of journalistic, political or civic malpractice. It would be un-American.

Not that liberals have any reason to feel smug about this. Taken in conjunction with a recent string of attacks on police officers, Wednesday’s shooting suggests something as startling as it is troubling. Namely, that left-wing terrorism might be making a comeback.

It has been 40 years since the likes of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weathermen disappeared from view, and in those years domestic terrorism has been exclusively a phenomenon of the political right. That may be changing now. It’s a deeply disturbing idea, suggesting as it does a nation ever faster pulling itself apart, a people riven by irreconcilable differences, a country that isn’t even sure it wants to be a country anymore.

These tired games of political one-upsmanship are too small for such a moment. This moment is for soul-searching, for considering who and what and even if we are, as Americans. It is for wondering what it means when baseball is not safe and being a Republican gets you shot. Nothing less than our national identity and ideals are at stake here.

A maniac shot up a ball field Wednesday morning. Five people were hit.

Three hundred and twenty-five million were wounded.

Propaganda Pros — Terry Heaton in Huffington Post on how the Religious Right pioneered right-wing propaganda.

So-called “fake news” took center stage on several occasions during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. More than once, Comey pointed to specific articles by the New York Times as not true or completely false. However, he did validate others, including one in which he himself had been the Times’ source. The fake news meme has become one of the most troubling arguments in the history of contemporary journalism, ever since Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN at his first press conference as president.

Americans find themselves drowning in this unseemly and childish battle for the soul of news and information purveyance, and the undiscussed problem is that the entire mess is built on the false narrative of “the liberal (elite) press.” I know, because I was among the people who advanced the concept and shaped the discussion in the early ‘80s, as senior and executive producer of Pat Robertson’s flagship television program The 700 Club.

Before Fox News, there was The 700 Club with CBN News and “TV Journalism With A Different Spirit.” We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal,” and truth-telling demands its deconstruction today. The all-or-nothing split between conflicting political narratives has reached its pinnacle with the election of Donald Trump, and it needs to be hacked into a million pieces.

William F. Buckley was among the first to give the word “liberal” a pejorative interpretation, but it was the wordsmith William Safire writing for Spiro Agnew who in 1969 elevated it to a political talking point in his famous speech that opened the war against the press during Richard Nixon’s secret battles in Vietnam. The word became the central weapon in a strategy that involved attacking the messenger instead of changing the message.

That political strategy has been so effective to date that it has given birth to the idea that mainstream news is actually “fake news” and not to be believed in the administration of President Donald Trump. The number of people who now believe this falsehood is staggering, and it poses a real threat to our democracy.

At The 700 Club, we exploited attacking the press in order to insert ourselves to the right of everybody else in presenting a Biblical, a.k.a. Republican perspective on current events. We offered a daily news program that expressed Republican party talking points that we marketed as a Christian worldview. Thus began the shifting of evangelicals to the GOP and the shifting of the GOP to the right. We served as the intellectual wing of the Moral Majority, although there was no theological love lost between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

So let’s look at these events closely, because it has a direct bearing on the conflict today. Let me be very clear: the right-wing “news” that we created was a political response to the progressive nature of news and information. It’s important to understand this, because “right-wing news” is oxymoronic. There is no such thing, because the right represents olds, not news. By definition, news is new, and new is progressive. That conservatives view this as a bias is fine, but elevating that to some evil command-and-control mechanism for political liberals is a false narrative. Rush Limbaugh has made a living off of this phony hegemony, as well as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and whole host of mostly broadcasting personalities. Why? Because it sells and has been selling for almost 50 years.

But it’s entirely false, for the press is not the purveyor of fake news. That title belongs with those who create stories for political gain and clickthroughs. It may be politically expedient to label the mainstream as fake, but in order to do so, one’s source must be propaganda and nothing else. To us in the early ‘80s, it was easy to stake our claim in the world of journalism without complaint, because the press thought us outside Hallin’s Sphere of Legitimate Controversy and therefore unnecessary to cover. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, Daniel C. Hallin identified three spheres of coverage by the Washington press corps.

Ron Powers once said of us on CBS Sunday Morning that we were “so slanted as to be vertical,” but for the most part, we operated without notice, which gave us the time to write our playbook, the one borrowed in order to create Fox News.

The editorial commentators of media companies determine their political leanings, not the content of the news itself. To behave otherwise is a violation of journalistic ethics and tenets, and no self-respecting news outlet would deliberately compromise its relationship with viewers or readers for political gain. It’s just not their cultural role. Only political propagandists are permitted such luxury, and where that is disguised as news, it cannot be trusted. And yet many people do, because their ears have been trained by people such as myself to identify clever social engineering as information they need in order to get back what they feel has been taken from them or get what feel they deserve from life.

We need to grow out of childish ranting that “Billy started it” or “everybody is doing it too” and let our inner adults take over. Democracy doesn’t stand a chance without an independent Fourth Estate.

Class Act — Ben Brantley in the New York Times with an appreciation of playwright A.R. Gurney.

There have been many tributes to A. R. Gurney, a prolific playwright whose worldly elegance of style was matched by his ingenuous enthusiasm for his craft. But Mr. Gurney, who died on Tuesday at 86, wrote what was surely the most exultant of these eulogies himself, in a play performed in New York more than 10 years ago.

The play is appropriately named “Post Mortem.” Staged at the tiny Flea Theater in 2006, it is set in a very near future in which Mr. Gurney is now dead (assassinated — rumor has it — at the behest of Dick Cheney), and an ideologically oppressive, technology-dominated United States is hostile to the antiquated art form known as theater. (The American government, bankrupted by the war in Iraq, has turned all Broadway houses into casinos.)

But a graduate student and his professor at a “faith based” American university unearth a manuscript of an incendiary play that they are determined to bring to light. And though the all-seeing eyes of the surveillance state discover the work’s existence and have it destroyed, our determined academic heroes recreate it from memory.

And what a profoundly influential play it turns out to be, as its performances spark rebellion against reactionary governments throughout the world. Its title? Also “Post Mortem.” Its author? One A.R. Gurney, described dismissively as a “minor late-20th-, early-21st-century” writer of the “middle-class comedy of manners,” who it now emerges had not only secretly written an earthshaking drama but also had affairs with Cameron Diaz and both Audrey and Katharine Hepburn.

 A playwright can dream, can’t he? Like most of his work — which includes classic anatomies of a vanishing patrician species of pale skin and inhibiting politeness (“The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour,” “The Perfect Party”), “Post Mortem” is steeped in a sardonic wistfulness. It was written as a futurist comedy that exaggerated its author’s hopes and fears for a world to come that in many ways already existed.

Mr. Gurney’s writing never brought him the fame and wealth of contemporaries like Edward Albee and Neil Simon. His only plays seen on Broadway in recent years were short-lived revivals of his charming “Sylvia” (1995), about a divisive family dog, and the lyrical two-hander “Love Letters” (1989), an epistolary work that charts the course of a relationship over many decades.

Yet Mr. Gurney adored the theater with a passion that spilled over the edges of even his most decorous comedies, and he feared for its survival. He was his generation’s greatest practitioner of that gentle paradox, the elegiac comedy, which considered the passing of the civilization he grew up in.

This sensibility is most pointed in the works that made his reputation, starting in the early 1980s with “The Dining Room.” The leading characters in these plays were members of an upper middle class of Anglo-Saxon descent and dwindling affluence and influence. Mr. Gurney regarded such folk, his spiritual and genetic kin, with a critical fondness that was too cleareyed to be nostalgic.

Some reviewers still felt that Mr. Gurney was terminally limited by the gentility that shaped his characters. But as he grew older, he increasingly chafed against such perceptions. He began to experiment with new subject matter — retelling the story of Shakespeare’s Shylock in “Overtime” (1996), probing the Middle East conflict in “O Jerusalem” (2003) and crossing the ocean to set his diffident alter ego to roam (and get lost) in Japan in his poignant, autobiographical “Far East” (1999).

Unlike many of his social stratum, Mr. Gurney’s political sympathies skewed left, and he was enraged by what he saw as the failings of the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the experimental Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan, overseen by his friend Jim Simpson, Mr. Gurney found an unlikely forum for expressing his grievances.

Writing in his 70s and 80s, he produced for the Flea a series of vigorous and fanciful satires about the state of his nation, which were written and produced quickly enough to feel as topical as the headlines on the days of their performances. They included “Screen Play” (2005), a prescient variation on the film “Casablanca,” in which American freedom fighters are smuggled into Canada.

My enduring favorite, though, is the wonderful “Mrs. Farnsworth” (2004), in which Sigourney Weaver played a socialite with a secret (it involved the sitting president) and John Lithgow her William F. Buckley-esque husband. Ms. Weaver’s character was ultimately too, well, well mannered to detonate the metaphorical bomb that might have brought down the Bush administration.

Mr. Gurney, though, had by that time shed many of his own inhibitions as a playwright. And he waged his own small but determined battle for the theater as a tool of resistance and enlightenment.

I can think of few artists who were reincarnated as angry young men in their old age as unexpectedly and vitally as Mr. Gurney was. And young is the right adjective. The last new work I saw by him, at the Flea last fall, was a double bill of short works that pondered the boundaries of classic theater (in the first) and gender (in the second) with an infectious excitement you associate with writers in their 20s.

Its title was “Two Class Acts,” referring to subversive intellectual exploration, theatrical performance and honorable behavior under siege. Those who would pigeonhole its creator should remember that all the meanings of “class act” apply to Mr. Gurney.

 Doonesbury — Who’s minding the kids?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Et Tu, Delta?

Delta Airlines yanked their sponsorship of Shakespeare in the Park because they were doing theatre.

Two major US corporations have ended their sponsorship of a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which the Roman leader mimics Donald Trump.

In the New York-based production, Julius Caesar is depicted as a blond-haired businessman in a blue suit.

The production company, Public Theater, said the character was a contemporary Caesar “bent on absolute power”.

One of the sponsors, Delta Air Lines, said the producers had “crossed the line on the standards of good taste”.

In the Shakespearean tragedy, which is staged in New York’s Central Park, Caesar is assassinated in a lengthy scene in which he fights off his attackers before succumbing to multiple stab wounds.

The lead character’s wife in the play, Calpurnia, is depicted wearing designer outfits and speaking with an apparent Slavic accent.

In announcing the production earlier this year, Public Theater described its portrayal of the Roman leader as “magnetic, populist and irreverent”.

On its website, the company states that the play is about “how fragile democracy is,” adding that it highlights how the “institutions that we have grown up with can be swept away in no time at all”.

Delta said on Monday that the “graphic staging of Julius Caesar” at the Free Shakespeare in the Park event “does not reflect” the airline’s values.

I haven’t seen the production so I can’t render a critic’s point of view, and as a rule I’m not wild about staging Shakespeare with a contemporary theme unless it truly adds to the telling of the story as opposed to making a political statement.  Getting the vapors over a staging of “Julius Caesar” and calling the assassination scene “graphic” is a little too cautious; the scene is supposed to be graphic.  But apparently Delta and BofA were worried about backlash from a White House that thinks “Gilligan’s Island” was a documentary.

Theatre is supposed to startle the sensibilities, or at the very least make you think.  So perhaps that’s why the sponsors got upset; the Trump people are trying to ban thinking.

PS: In 2012, the New York Acting Company did a production of the same play with Caesar modeled on Barack Obama.  Remember the outcry about that?  Yeah, me neither.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Reading

Scientific America — Charles P. Pierce on the march for science.

WASHINGTON—They named this town—Forgive me, This Town—after a man of science, a surveyor and an experimental farmer from down the cowpaths in Virginia. In 1783, while waiting to hear that the fighting part of the American Revolution was over, he took time to team up with another science aficionado, a not-altogether successful engineer named Thomas Paine, to investigate the phenomena caused by swamp gas in Virginia. Four years later, in a closed laboratory of politics in Philadelphia, he presided over the deliberations that produced a Constitution that, in the eighth section of its very first article, promised that the new government would,

“…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…”

Talking through a thick mist thickening swiftly into a hard rain, and talking from a stage beneath the obelisk dedicated to that one famous polymath out of an age famous for producing them, Bill Nye took it upon himself to remind the people who had gathered on Saturday to March For Science, that they were descended in every important way from men of science.

The Framers of our Constitution, which has become a model for constitutions of governments everywhere, included Article I, Section 8… Its intent was to motivate innovators and drive the economy by means of just laws. They knew our economy would falter without them, without scientifically literate citizens, the U.S. cannot compete on the world stage.

(Speaking immediately before Nye, Manu Prakash, a Stanford neuroscientist, argued that scientific literacy was a basic human right because, in so many places, it literally is a matter of life and death.)

Yet, today, we have lawmakers, here and around the world, deliberately ignoring or actively suppressing science. Their inclination is misguided and it is in nobody’s best interest.

This, of course, was the central paradox of Saturday’s event, which coincided with the 47th celebration of Earth Day. It was the brainchild of a senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, who had been on fire for what was then called “ecology” or “conservation” ever since he ran through the woods in and around Clear Lake, the small village in northern Wisconsin where he grew up.

As he came up through politics, Nelson was steeped in the Progressive heritage of his home state. In 1963, in his first year in the Senate after two terms as Wisconsin’s governor, an ascension to which Nelson’s environmental policies were critical, Nelson convinced President John F. Kennedy to embark on a series of speeches across the country concerning the environment, one of the most public demonstrations of White House commitment in that regard since the death of Teddy Roosevelt even though Kennedy was swamped on the tour with questions about a nuclear test-ban treaty that he’d recently concluded with the Soviet Union.

By 1970, Nelson was in his second term in the Senate and the news had become full of environmental catastrophe. In January of 1969, there was a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara in California and, almost exactly six months later, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland famously caught on fire. On April 22, 1970, Nelson helped organize Earth Day, which was a massive outbreak of activism around the country. That kicked off what became known as the Environmental Decade, wherein was passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental regulations, all of them based on a sturdy bipartisan scientific consensus.

That was then. This is now. In 2017, the country needs a series of marches across the landscape to remind itself that scientific progress and American democracy are inextricably bound for their mutual survival. The current president* has leaked a budget that decimates the federal government’s role in all manner of scientific research, from the fight against epidemic disease to the war on climate change. Which was why, walking through the drizzly day on the White House end of the National Mall, you saw epidemiologists sharing umbrellas with geologists, or a group of microbiologists huddling low under a spreading cherry tree alongside a knot of anesthesiologists. People walked around dressed as bees and as lobsters and as Beaker, the lab assistant from the Muppet Show. People walked around in overalls and in lab coats. They wore the now-classic pussy hats repurposed to resemble the configurations of the human brain and they wore stethoscopes around their necks.

“What do we want?” the signs said.

“Science!”

“When do we want it?”

“After peer review!”

(The musical interludes from the main stage were enlivened by the appearance of Thomas Dolby, who performed his hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” backed by John Batiste and Stay Human, which gave Dolby’s vintage techno-pop tune a bit of New Orleans second-line juice.)

There was a great deal of infighting—”Some very ugly meetings,” said one person familiar with them—about how specifically political the march should be. The older and more conventional scientists—most of them white males, for all that means in every public issue these days—tried to make the march and the events surrounding it as generic as possible.

The younger scientists, a more diverse groups in every way that a group can be, pushed back hard. The available evidence on Saturday was that their side had carried the day. Given the fact that, for example, Scott Pruitt, who took dictation from oil companies when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, is now running the EPA, they could hardly have lost. More than a few signs reminded the current president* that, without science, he would be as bald as a billiard ball.

Generally, though, there was more than a little sadness on all sides that it ever had come to this, that a country born out of experimentation had lost its faith in its own true creation story, that a country founded by curious, courageous people would become so timid about trusting the risks and rewards of science.

Beka Economopoulos runs something called the Natural History Museum, a project that takes her around the country not only educating students on the natural world, but also taking expeditions to places in which environmental damage is severe. “We collaborate with scientists, local community organizations, and museums across the country to address pressing community concerns and global challenges,” she said. “Science has never been apolitical. It’s always been situated within a context. All science is dedicated to pursue truth, but there are decisions made on what kind of science gets funded and what doesn’t, what kinds of questions get asked.

“The goal of science is not the popularization of knowledge. It’s the pursuit of truth. Scientists look to obliterate existing knowledge by finding something beyond it. Copernicus, Galileo, Rachel Carson, these are scientists that disrupted the status quo but, we look back at them now, and we see that they advanced humanity and the world we live in.”

When the speeches were done, all those people who’d hung in there through the rain walked up the wide boulevards past all the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in the 1840’s at the bequest of an Englishman named James Smithson. “I then bequeath the whole of my property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men,” Smithson’s will read. As they walked past the buildings founded out of Smithson’s generosity, you wondered in the mist and rain why it all seemed so much like archaeology now.

On-The-Job Training — Jeff Shesol in The New Yorker on learning how to be president.

“There’s just something about this job as President . . .” George W. Bush observed last week, in an interview with NPR. “You think one thing going in and then the pressures of the job or the realities of the world, you know, are different than you thought.” Bush wasn’t reminiscing about his own Presidency; he was “opining,” he said, about the current one. The reality that Bush had in mind—the one that he hopes President Trump will embrace—is that it is in America’s national interest “to be allies with Mexico and not alienate Mexico.”

Trump, of course, has invested a great deal of energy in denying that particular reality—along with many others, from the existence of climate change to the role of Russian meddling in last year’s Presidential election. Yet, in recent weeks, Trump has conceded that he might, in fact, have been wrong about a thing or two, and now stands corrected. “It turns out” and “nobody knew” are two of the signal phrases by which Trump indicates that an epiphany has arrived: that health-care policy is “so complicated,” or that North Korea is not a Chinese client state. “After listening [to President Xi Jinping, of China] for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Never mind the obviousness of these statements, or Trump’s weird guilelessness in presenting them as insights; they are being received, by some, as signs that Trump is growing in office. “I think President Trump is learning the job,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said last week.

Learning the job, in fairness, is a big task for any new President. “Regardless of his prior training, nothing he has done will have prepared him for all the facets of that job,” Richard Neustadt, the great scholar of the American Presidency, wrote in “Presidential Power,” his influential study, in 1960. All Presidents, he argued, enter office ignorant, innocent, and arrogant—liabilities it can take two, three, or even six years for them to overcome. Some never do. Neustadt saw “a certain rhythm” in the Presidential learning process, and, indeed, in most cases, it follows a well-worn path: the chaotic cram session of the transition; the headiness and disappointments of the first year; the midterm elections in the second (a “shellacking” of the President’s party, as Barack Obama described it in 2010, tends to dispel any lingering arrogance); and, of course, the crises—domestic and foreign—that come without warning. The education of a President is episodic, driven by events. The results, as we know, are uneven. They depend not only on fate but on the answers to three basic questions: what are the “particulars of [a President’s] ignorance,” in Neustadt’s phrase; does he have the humility to acknowledge them; and does he have the capacity—political, moral, intellectual—to address them?

John F. Kennedy faced all these questions. He entered the White House well prepared despite his youth: he had served fourteen years on Capitol Hill, had commanded, with distinction, a Navy torpedo boat during the Second World War, and had spent the better part of his life studying and exercising power. Yet, during his first few months as President, his particular ignorance emerged: an excess of trust in the C.I.A. and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who convinced him, despite his doubts, to approve an invasion of Communist Cuba by a brigade of exiles. Kennedy hesitated; he asked tough questions of his briefers, but, in the end, he acceded, taken in by their optimism. The instant and utter failure of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, in April, 1961, filled Kennedy with self-doubt and self-blame. “It is a hell of a way to learn things,” he said over lunch with James Reston, of the Times, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But he did learn things, and soon changed things, as well: he not only replaced the leaders of the C.I.A. but also, from that point forward, regarded intelligence estimates and military plans with far greater skepticism. The historian Robert Dallek, in his biography of J.F.K., writes that Kennedy saw his missteps as “object lessons in how to be more effective. His resolve stood him in good stead: he managed coming crises”—most significantly, the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year—“with greater skill.”

Bill Clinton, too, stumbled out of the gate. “Clinton terrified me,” one of his policy advisers, Bill Galston, later confessed, “because he almost always knew a good deal more about the subject, or at least some aspect of the subject, than you did.” Yet the disorder of the White House during Clinton’s first year—the famously long meetings that circled an issue but never really resolved it—raised the question of whether his intellect was always an asset. Clinton had a lot to learn in a hurry: about managing (and allowing himself to be managed by) the White House staff; about the hostility of the press corps and the snobbery of the Washington establishment; about the ideological stalemate in Congress; and, not least, about U.S. leadership in a shifting, often perplexing, post-Cold War world. Anthony Lake, his national-security adviser, and Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, urged Clinton to get more engaged in the foreign-policy process and to conduct himself as Commander-in-Chief. “It took a while for Clinton to do the commander bit, which is to say issuing orders crisply,” Lake recalled in an oral-history interview. “It’s in the little things.” It was also in the big things: in August, 1995, after two years of discussion and delay, the Clinton Administration decided to act against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, and led a successful NATO bombing campaign. By 1996, Clinton was more sure of his footing on the global stage. The Times—which had been quite critical of Clinton’s conduct of foreign policy—endorsed his bid for reëlection, noting that he was now “regarded internationally as a leader with a sophisticated grasp of a superpower’s obligation to help the world manage its conflicts and economic contests.”

What is Trump’s particular ignorance? It is not a stretch to say that Trump knows less about policy, history, the workings of government, and world affairs than any of the men who preceded him as President. Trump’s ignorance sends historians and commentators scrambling for sufficient adverbs: to Daniel Bell of Princeton, Trump is “abysmally” ignorant; to Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, he is “militant[ly]” so. “Proudly” is another popular one. Last summer, Trump told the Washington Post that he doesn’t need to read much because he makes great decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense.” The problem is not just what Trump doesn’t know; there is an expanding, alternative universe of things he imagines or insists to be true, from his claim that “millions” of illegal immigrants gave Hillary Clinton her victory in the popular vote to his charge that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. “He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote earlier this month. Trump is somehow both credulous and cynical; if he were “mugged by reality,” in the old, conservative cliché, he would pin it on Obama, or perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not to say that Trump is incapable of learning in office. His recent changes of tone, opinion, and direction—on the importance of NATO, for example, or U.S.-China relations—might be signs that his thinking is evolving. They could also be tactical moves, or head-fakes, or further evidence that—unmoored from any core convictions—he is easily swayed by certain advisers. Whatever the case, it is one thing for Trump to acquaint himself with reality; it is another thing to know what to do about it. The singular burden of the Presidency is not merely to acknowledge obvious facts; it is, as Neustadt wrote, to determine a course of action “when conventional wisdom fails, the experts disagree and confusion dominates.” It turns out this job is not so easy.

So Nice To Have You Back Where You Belong — Ben Brantley reviews the revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.

The pinnacle of fine dining in New York these days can’t be found in a Michelin-starred restaurant, though it will probably cost you just as much. No, you’ll have to get yourself and your wide-open wallet to the Shubert Theater, where the savory spectacle of Bette Midler eating turns out to be the culinary event of the year.

Ms. Midler — who opened in the title role of “Hello, Bette!,” I mean “Hello, Dolly!,” on Thursday night — not only knows how to make a meal out of a juicy part; she knows how to make a meal out of a meal. In the second act of this exceedingly bright and brassy revival, Ms. Midler can be found sitting alone at a table, slowly and deliberately polishing off the remnants of an expensive dinner, from a turkey bone dipped in gravy to a multitude of dumplings, while the rest of the cast freezes in open-mouthed amazement.

Ms. Midler brings such comic brio — both barn-side broad and needlepoint precise — to the task of playing with her food that I promise you it stops the show. Then again, pretty much everything Ms. Midler does stops the show. As for that much anticipated moment when she puts on fire-engine red plumes and sequins to lead a cakewalk of singing waiters, well, let’s just hope that this show’s producers have earthquake insurance.

Back on a Broadway stage in a book musical for the first time (can it be?) since “Fiddler on the Roof” half a century ago, Ms. Midler is generating a succession of seismic responses that make Trump election rallies look like Quaker prayer meetings. Her audiences, of course, are primed for Ms. Midler to give them their money’s worth in Jerry Zaks’s revival of this 1964 portrait of a human steamroller out to land a rich husband in 19th-century New York. The show was a scalper’s delight from the moment tickets went on sale.

But Ms. Midler isn’t coasting on the good will of theatergoers who remember her as the queen of 1980s movie comedies or as the bawdy earth goddess of self-satirizing revues from the ’70s onward. As the center and raison d’être of this show, which also features David Hyde Pierce in a springtime-fresh cartoon of the archetypal grumpy old man, Ms. Midler works hard for her ovations, while making you feel that the pleasure is all hers. In the process she deftly shoves the clamorous memories of Carol Channing (who created the role on Broadway) and Barbra Streisand (in the 1969 film) at least temporarily into the wings.

The show as a whole — which has been designed by Santo Loquasto to resemble a bank of Knickerbocker-themed, department store Christmas windows — could benefit from studying how its star earns her laughs and our love. Playing the pushiest of roles, the endlessly enterprising matchmaker Dolly Levi, Ms. Midler never pushes for effect. Her every bit of shtick has been precisely chosen and honed, and rather than forcing it down our throats, she makes us come to her to admire it.

Much of the rest of Mr. Zaks’s production charges at us like a prancing elephant, festooned in shades of pink. This is true of the hot pastels of Mr. Loquasto’s sets and costumes, and of Warren Carlyle’s athletic golden-age-of-musicals choreography, which is both expert and exhausting.

When an onstage laugh is called for, it comes out as a deafening cackle or a guffaw, which is then stretched and repeated. Double takes, grins and grimaces are magnified into crushing largeness, while the chase sequences bring to mind slap-happy Blake Edwards comedies. Even reliably charming performers like Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin, who play the plot’s supporting lovers (with Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein as their second bananas), seem under the impression they’re in a Mack Sennett farce.

My audience couldn’t have been more tickled by these hard-sell tactics, which hew closely to Gower Champion’s original staging. A tone of sunny desperation isn’t out of keeping with what seems to be this production’s escapist mission, which is to deliver nostalgia with an exclamation point.

Featuring a book by Michael Stewart and a tenaciously wriggling earworm of a score by Jerry Herman (given gleaming orchestral life here), “Hello, Dolly!” is a natural vehicle for rose-colored remembrance. It was adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” which grew out of his “The Merchant of Yonkers,” itself adapted from an 1842 Austrian reworking of an 1835 American one-acter.

With its folksy wisdom and air of life-affirming wonder, Wilder’s script translated fluently into the hyperbole of a big song-and-dance show, which spoke (loudly) not only of a more innocent age of American history but also of a time when musicals were upbeat spectacles, with outsize stars to match. (Ms. Channing was succeeded by a cavalcade of divas, from Ethel Merman to Pearl Bailey.) Don’t forget that “Hello, Dolly!” opened just two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the United States felt anything but united.

The genius of casting Ms. Midler as Dolly, a widow who decides to rejoin life by marrying the rich and curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Mr. Pierce), is that she built her career on making nostalgia hip. Even when she was sassing and strutting for the gay boys at the Continental Baths in her youth (when the original “Hello, Dolly!” was still on the boards), she was channeling entertainers from the days of burlesque.

With Ms. Midler, such hommages were never merely camp. She exuded bone-deep affection and respect for vaudeville stylings, in which impeccably controlled artifice became a conduit for sentimentality as well as rowdy humor. That affinity pervades every aspect of her Dolly, which is less a fluid performance than a series of calculated gestures that somehow coalesce into a seamless personality.

Consider, for starters, her hydraulic walk, made up of short, chugging steps. (A real train materializes for the big “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” number, but Ms. Midler is the real locomotive wonder.) Or her take-charge New Yawk accent, spiced with the insinuating inflections of Sophie Tucker. Or her stylized collapse into exhaustion in the middle of the title song.

Without stripping gears, she makes fast switches from explosive comedy to a sober emotionalism that never cloys. (Her pop hits, you may remember, include the weepy “Wind Beneath My Wings.”) And her final scenes with Mr. Pierce, who delivers a beautifully drawn caricature (and is rewarded with a solo that was cut from the original), may leave you with tears in your eyes without your quite understanding why.

Ms. Midler’s talents have never included a conventionally pretty voice. Yet when she rasps out the anthem “Before the Parade Passes By,” you hear her voice as that of a nightingale. And when she hikes up her period skirts to shuffle her feet, she gives the impression she’s dancing up a storm.

She’s not, of course. (Her kicks in her big numbers are only from the knees.) But a great star performance is at least 50 percent illusion, conjured by irresistible will power and cunning. Ms. Midler arranges her component parts with the seductive insistence with which Dolly Levi arranges other people’s lives.

After two acts of fending off Dolly’s charms, Horace finds himself proclaiming, in happy defeat, “Wonderful woman!” Nobody is about to argue with him. [Photo by Sarah Krulwich/New York Times]

Doonesbury — Action Figure.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Welcome to Independence

Welcome to Independence, Kansas, and the Apple Tree Inn, the Algonquin Hotel of the prairie. In the last twenty-five years I’ve met and chatted and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning singing songs in the lobby with some legendary theatre people, ranging from Edward Albee to Shirley Knight to Jane Alexander to Pat Hingle to August Wilson to Robert Anderson to Christopher Durang and many others. This is my theatre family reunion.

The New Play Lab is already underway, but I need to get a few things done — like get something to eat — and then tonight we have a welcoming barbecue at the college and meeting my fellow playwrights and making some new friends.  Tomorrow is my play’s reading and a lot of other things, so … I’ll post when I can and share what I have.

On The Road

I’m heading off to Independence, Kansas, for the 36th William Inge Theatre Festival.  I’ll be having a short play read in the New Play Lab, then presenting a paper at the scholars conference, and doing a workshop on dramatic criticism.  It will be a full week, and as I have in the past, I’ll post some stories and pictures.

Independence Historical Museum

So this is it until I get settled in to my hotel room.