Saturday, June 10, 2017

Rewriting History: Edith Wharton’s The Shadow of a Doubt

Author and playwright Edith Wharton 

The discovery of a neglected work by Edith Wharton has understandably made headlines in a number of high-profile publications, in particular The New Yorker. However, the story behind Wharton's play, The Shadow of a Doubt, and its reemergence into the public consciousness is more complicated than the oversimplified narrative of a “lost” play being plucked from oblivion by intrepid scholars, and it points to the messy way in which we build and organize our ostensibly tidy literary and theatrical canons. The Shadow of a Doubt has made the news thanks to the efforts of Dr. Mary Chinery and Dr. Laura Rattray, two scholars from Georgian Court University and the University of Glasgow, respectively, who began discussing the little-known work at a conference and subsequently examined a manuscript at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. They’ve reproduced the manuscript, typos and all, and it’s available to read in The Edith Wharton Review. It’s free at the time of this writing, but will eventually disappear behind a paywall; you can find it here, along with the accompanying article by Drs. Chinery and Rattray. (They also spoke with me on the Theatre History Podcast to explain the play’s significance.)

The Shadow of a Doubt primarily offers a starring vehicle for the actress playing its heroine, Kate Derwent. Kate, a former nurse, has married her late patient’s husband John, who grew close to her during his wife’s final days. Given the circumstances of their meeting, as well as Kate’s lowlier background, it’s not surprising that their union occasions some tension within John’s wider family and social circles. His father-in-law, Lord Osterleigh, is particularly skeptical, his granddaughter Sylvia’s evident affection notwithstanding. (She keeps calling Kate “Mamma,” even though her stepmother, fearful of being seen to supplant Sylvia’s late mother Agnes too completely, encourages the girl to call her by her first name.) The arrival of a disgraced doctor, Carruthers, throws this uneasy situation into turmoil; he’s threatening, in a plot device that’s clearly taken from the well-made-play tradition of Ibsen and his predecessors, to ruin Kate’s reputation by revealing information about how the first Mrs. Derwent met her end.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Wizard of Lies: The Con Man as Misanthrope

Nathan Darrow, Robert De Niro, and Alessandro Nivola in HBO's The Wizard of Lies.

The American con man first shows up in nineteenth-century American literature in the inventions of Herman Melville (The Confidence-Man, 1857) and Mark Twain (the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884). The two archetypal con men in American drama are Hickey, the salesman and son of a preacher man in Eugene O’Neill’s 1947 play The Iceman Cometh, and “Professor” Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical The Music Man – characters immortalized by two great American actors, Jason Robards in Sidney Lumet’s 1960 TV transcription of Iceman and Robert Preston in the 1962 movie of Willson’s musical (both recreating legendary performances they had originally given on the stage). Hickey has sold himself on his own con, though in the play, it turns out, what he’s peddling is death of the spirit: he tricks his barroom buddies into losing faith in their own illusions (“pipe dreams” is O’Neill’s phrase) but doing so hollows them out. Only the eleventh-hour realization that he’s been cherishing his own delusion restores them to their happy drunken selves, safe in their pipe dreams once again. Hill manages to convince the citizens of an insulated early-twentieth-century Iowa town that a boys’ marching band will solve problems they never had in the first place. Hill is operating on the principle Hickey sets out in O’Neill’s play for the success of any sale: figure out what the customer wants and then convince him that only you can supply it. River City doesn’t need a boys’ band, but, though Willson presents them comically, Hill plays on small-town Midwestern prejudices – small-mindedness, corseted sexuality, a suspicion of liberalism in any of its forms – and then presents his product, musical instruments, as a way to guard against the things the citizens fear will corrupt their youth. Like The Iceman Cometh, The Music Man has a twist: as it turns out, River City does need that band and Harold Hill (softened by the love of a good woman, Marian the librarian) winds up a hero. But what puts the sale over  long before that reversal is a commodity that Hill and Hickey both have plenty of: charm. It’s the con artist’s ace in the hole.

In the HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff explores a different sort of con man – one that is, I think, an archetypal American character for the twenty-first century.  Under Barry Levinson’s focused, probing direction, De Niro gives his finest performance in years. It’s the De Niro we recognize: charismatic, authoritative, but ill at ease in the world as the result of an essential misanthropy. The casting is perfect, because in the movie’s view – the screenplay by Samuel Baum, Sam Levinson and John Burnham Schwartz is based on Diana Henriques’s 2011 book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust – Madoff’s ability to manipulate the men and women he defrauded out of an estimated $64.8 billion in the most extensive Ponzi scheme ever perpetrated is based not on charm but on a combination of charisma and an aura of unassailable authority. Madoff, the one-time non-executive chairman of NASDAQ, presented himself to his clients – many of them long-time friends, some of them family members, and one, Elie Wiesel, the image of integrity and an icon in modern Jewish history – as the undisputed expert, the sole man who could navigate the treacherous waters of finance even in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. Madoff, as we see in the film, shifts in and out of the roles of trusted family friend and adviser, father figure, rabbi and noodge, alternately lecturing and consoling, bullying and reassuring. His aura of immovable certainty is his client’s bulwark. The fact that he isn’t charming is, for these (mostly) Jews who pride themselves on their tough-mindedness and skepticism, part and parcel of what makes him so trustworthy. How can such an irascible, street-smart, no-bullshit guy be, in fact, sitting on a fortune made of paper and feathers?  His refusal to kiss his clients’ asses, in tandem with his unchallengeable air of authority, is the ultimate con. When Bernie Madoff turns out to be a fraud, trust really is dead.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Unsquare Dance: Baby Driver

Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González and Jon Hamm in Edgar Wright's Baby Driver.

Baby Driver sings. Its protagonist doesn’t (he’s tight-lipped, only speaking when it’s absolutely necessary), but the film hums and taps and grooves with such reckless energy that it spills out of the screen and washes over you. If Edgar Wright’s latest film – possibly his most pure and bombastic expression yet – doesn’t get your toes tapping and your heart racing, then I suspect that hot red human blood doesn’t run through your veins. Even the inhumanly criminal are still painfully, hilariously human in Baby Driver. It’s an absolute blast.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Integral: The Ambient Paintings of Bruno Kurz

Northern Light, Red by Bruno Kurz. (Acrylic & oil on metal, 2017)

“We must not stare at our mortal world’s kaleidoscope in fascination or despair; we must watch it closely for the advent of new meanings.”  – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

For reasons so mysterious that I prefer not to fully examine their origins, once again Bruno Kurz has produced elegant and restrained visual works, often in pigment or resin on metal, which seem to me to convey the immaterial aura of living music. They vibrate on some subliminal wavelength which, once found, never subsides, and instead continues to build itself into a silent roar which is not deafening at all but rather is mind expanding. Can paintings ever be like a kind of homeopathic medicine? These appear to be. They take aspects or elements of nature, such as those of the landscape, of light, of horizons, of ice, of fields, of fog, of water, but rather than representing them they use their raw materials to construct spiritual experiences of transcendence. Ambient painting is not aggressive but that doesn’t mean it’s passive. On the contrary, an ambient painting is so quietly powerful that it waits patiently for us to be strong enough to share its company.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

When Suggestion Becomes Statement: John Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
(Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Ballets there are many. But few have the equivalent of a PG-13 rating. Tickets to the student matinee of the National Ballet of Canada's production of A Streetcar Named Desire, at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts through June 10, come with a warning that the "mature subject matter" – often a euphemism for pornography – is suitable for grades 10 and up only.

But relax. While the depictions of suicide, prostitution and rape are graphic, they are not corrupting. Neither are they sordid or morbid or at risk of getting anyone arrested. John Neumeier's ballet, based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, shines a light on life's underbelly, its dark perversions, while also making room for a fantastical dreamer like Blanche DuBois. It's a stunning achievement, despite a few bumps encountered along Streetcar's fabled route. To wit: the first act threatens to be boring while the second pokes you in the eye with a prolonged act of forcible violation as repellent as it is artistically risqué. Subtlety takes a backseat to psychology, the result of a need to know about underlying causes, blunting the overall impact.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Woyzeck, Salomé, Horror: A Panoply of Theatrical Styles

John Boyega and Sarah Greene in Woyzeck at London's Old Vic. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Modernism in the theatre is dated from 1879, the year Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, so Woyzeck, discovered, unfinished, after its author Georg Büchner’s death in 1837 (at twenty-three, from typhus), is a startling anomaly that theatre historians have never been able to account for. Inspired by newspaper accounts of a Leipzig wigmaker who was executed for murdering his lover, Woyzeck is the brutal, unadorned tragedy of the social oppression of an ordinary man. The soldier Woyzeck, desperate for money to support his girlfriend Marie and their child, performs menial jobs for his captain and signs up for medical experiments that eat away at his brain; when Marie cheats on him with a handsome drum major, he stabs her to death. Büchner’s point of view is that his protagonist, used by the Captain and the Doctor and treated like dirt, is the victim of society and particularly of the military life that enslaves and dehumanizes the common recruit. (The Catholic Church, too, which condemns them for having a child out of wedlock, ranks among Woyzeck’s oppressors; spiritually as well as economically he is on society’s bottom rung.) Büchner wrote during the age of romanticism. (The earliest of his three plays, Danton’s Death, set during the French Revolution, is certainly a romantic drama.) Romanticism in both drama and literature celebrated the misfit, the rebel, the outcast, like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but Woyzeck, spat upon and abandoned to an ignominious fate, is as much a modernist creation as the slum dwellers in Gorky’s turn-of-the-century The Lower Depths. Moreover, as world theatre was moving closer and closer to realism, Woyzeck anticipated expressionism, the first of the anti-realist movements. In the second half of the play Büchner employs distortion to suggest how his protagonist’s encroaching madness alters his perception.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Who's Next: BBC's Class

Sophie Hopkins, Jordan Renzo, Fady Elsayed, Vivian Oparah, and Greg Austin in Class.

This review contains some general spoilers for the first season of Class.  

For the past eight weeks, Doctor Who's tenth season has had a new companion on Saturday evenings over at BBC America: Class, a teen-centred spin-off of the BBC's flagship science-fiction series that was broadcast on BBC3 in the UK in late 2016. Last night, alongside the gut-wrenching conclusion of Doctor Who's midseason three-parter, the eighth and final episode of Class's first season also aired – and so it seems a perfect time to reflect on the latest entry into the still-expanding Doctor Who universe.