Diana Rigg, 1938-2020

Diana Rigg died this week. A fine actress, the clip above shows her in a few of her famous roles.

But my favorite thing that Diana Rigg ever did as an artist was to write a book called No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews. Stung by unkind reviews that she had received over the years, to cheer herself up, Rigg compiled a book of horrendous reviews that other celebrated actors had received over the years. If you can get a hold of a copy, it’s a fun read.

Thank you, Mrs. Peel.

Thanks to YouTuber Guardian News

High Anxiety: King John, the Audio Version

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Here’s the audio version of my commentary on Shakespeare’s King John, which I recorded for Arts Express on WBAI NY radio and Pacifica affiliates across the country..

It’s one of the least known of Shakespeare’s plays, but no less a writer than George Orwell said about it, “When I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and double crossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.”

To listen,  click on the triangle or mp3 link above.

“If I Loved You”: Who Sung It Best?

“If I Loved You,” from Carousel, one of the greatest ballads of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, has been covered easily over 150 times. It’s a great song, but not easy to sing. YouTuber Beatrice Powell has put together this terrific compilation of thirteen different versions. To me, they range from poor to great. I watched the video once, and had one set of opinions, and then closed my eyes and had a different set. Who’s version is your favorite?

“You Better Start Swimming Or You’ll Sink Like A Stone”: Shakespeare’s King John

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(Robert Mantell as King John, 1915)

Recently, NPR broadcast their audio production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I‘d like to discuss a less often performed play of Shakespeare’s about another failed English king, Shakespeare’s King John. It resonates as an absolutely modern play in the sense that Machiavelli is modern: with penetrating insights into the hypocrisies and double-dealings of the ruling elites.

The Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro likes to say that in Shakespeare’s plays, the kings are brought down because they don’t understand that the pressures of the time are going to be far more intense than anything they had previously imagined. They don’t grow into their roles to meet the time; instead they are crushed by their inadequacies. They don’t recognize that the old order has lost all legitimacy and the new world is struggling to be born. It’s always a time of great anxiety for both the elites and the underlings. Feel free to draw comparisons to our own time—as you should.

As King John opens, John, the English King, is readying for war with France, with the French declaring their legitimate right over several disputed territories. But King John will have none of it and vociferously defends England’s claim: “Here have we war for war and blood for blood/ Controlment for controlment: so answer France.”

And John is not just defending the legitimacy of England’s ownership of territory—John is also defending the legitimacy of his personal claim to the throne. It’s not a given that John is the legitimate heir. John’s dead older brother, Geoffrey, still has a living heir, a young boy named Arthur, and though John has declared himself King of England (he of the Magna Carta) with the backing of the newly risen landowner class of nobles, there are those pushing the line of the young Arthur, and they ally themselves with the French to stake their own claim to legitimacy.

And Shakespeare really likes to play with this notion of legitimacy and illegitimacy. One character, a military adventurer named Philip, is literally illegitimate, having been secretly fathered by Richard The Lion-Hearted during an adulterous rendezvous. Phillip would rather be known as an illegitimate son, and give up his ancestral rights to his family property, than to disavow his real father. Rather than run from illegitimacy, he embraces it with the title “The Bastard.”

So it’s off to war. The poor citizens of a disputed walled town have to decide which of the bellowing forces, the French or the English, they would rather surrender to. One citizen of the town agreeably says that they would gladly be ruled by the King of England—if they only knew who that legitimately was. So when you decide, let us know. And in an attempt to forestall what they know will be a coming war, the town’s citizens propose a compromise—why not have the son of the French King and the daughter of the English King marry and form a happy alliance between the two forces and establish legitimacy that way?

But not so fast…

Constance, the mother of young Arthur, the Mother of All Tiger Moms, who has aligned with the French forces, bitterly refuses such a compromise—she wants to see her son Arthur on the throne: “War! War! No peace. Peace to me is a war!” So Constance along with the French get their war.

And how ineptly the English King John handles it! John bumbles from one misstep to another. The English, under the military direction of The Bastard, do manage to capture the young Arthur, and take him prisoner. But King John fumbles the ball. Because even King John’s advisors recognize that young Arthur must be treated well in captivity or the public will turn against the King. In a duplicitous world where no one can be trusted, Arthur’s purity and naivete stand out. He is the one totally sympathetic character in the play. But the narcissistic King John, against the advice of his counselors, secretly orders his henchman, Hubert, to murder the beloved boy. And in an excruciatingly horrific and tender scene, the boy pleads with Hubert to spare his life:

Arthur: Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Hubert: Young boy, I must.
Arthur: And will you?
Hubert: And I will.
Arthur: Have you the heart? When your head but did ache,
I knit my handkercher about your brows—-
The best I had, a princess wrought it me—
And I never did ask it you again
And with my hand at midnight held your head,[….]
Saying, “What lack you?” and “Where lies your grief?”
Or “What good love may I perform for you?” […]
If heaven please that you must use me ill,
Why then you must.

This is all too much for Hubert to bear. He relents and lets Arthur escape. Meanwhile, King John realizes he’s made a terrible public relations mistake. He fears the public will turn against him for killing the boy. Hubert comes back to John, ready to lie about Arthur’s execution, but before Hubert can get a word out, the King turns on Hubert, outrageously blaming him for Arthur’s death. When Hubert protests that John had ordered him to kill Arthur, John with audacious bluster, disavows all personal blame and accuses Hubert instead. John says to him:

I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death
And thou, to be endeared to a king
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince.

Hubert can’t stand the accusations anymore, so he admits to John that Arthur is actually still alive. John is elated, and with scarcely an apology to Hubert, he’s ready to make war once more. With the beloved Arthur alive but safely imprisoned, John feels he can win the public relations battle and the war.

But in an amazing piece of plotting by Shakespeare, as Arthur escapes from the prison, the boy falls from a high wall and actually dies for real this time. It’s an extraordinary moment. After having been spared—Shakespeare kills him off!

It brings to mind the infamous scene in Hitchcock’s movie, Sabotage. There, a young schoolboy unknowingly boards a bus with a parcel that contains a time bomb. Of course, the audience knows the bomb won’t go off with the boy holding it, because legitimate suspense movies don’t have bombs go off in the arms of little schoolboys. But it does go off, and it’s absolutely shocking. Hitchcock later said that he regretted that scene—it wasn’t a legitimate use of the suspense genre. Well, Shakespeare’s scene is every bit as shocking, but he gets away with it because the whole play is about the fraying of old expectations. Shakespeare is saying that the world is that messed up.

Was Shakespeare grieving about his own little boy Hamnet, who had died sometime around the estimated time of composition of the play? Were the laments of the play’s Constance, Arthur’s mother, the bitter words that Will faced when he came back from London to his wife Anne in Stratford on hearing the earth-shattering news?

The news of Arthur’s death is so awful, even to the English, that two of John’s noble advisors defect to the French side. John is clearly overwhelmed by events: The French seem to be winning battle after battle.

By rights, here we are in Act V, there should be no hope for the English. But we know the history doesn’t end that way; and in one more piece of somersault plotting, the two English advisors who had previously defected to the French side find out the true French policy towards defectors: make nice with them now, but kill them later. So the defectors make a run for it and head back home to join King John. But John meanwhile has been poisoned, which is perhaps a blessing for the English. For now, the new order can take over. The young Prince Henry, son of John, is installed as King, a kind of mirror image of the young dead Arthur; The English under the Bastard’s military direction start winning more battles, and by some miracle, a peace treaty between the French and English has been arranged by the Church. Prince Henry forgives the defector Lords and he prepares to attend his father’s funeral as the play ends.

It’s a decidedly precarious ending. Onstage there is an unspoken pall of anxiety about the future. The new king’s legitimacy is as questionable as his father’s was. The Bastard bravely tries to reassure them that the new time calls for a unity of all English factions including the forgiven wealthy Lords–that’s the only way they can proceed forward safely. But as the play ends, the audience understands that it is not clear whether this new arrangement is really going to work.

Shakespeare himself lived on the cusp of the old and the new, in the transition from a dying feudal order to the rise of the bourgeois capitalist class. The power of kings was being chipped away as rich merchants and landowners bought themselves royal titles with the profits they made from world trade and financial speculation. King John stands at the beginning of that period, and while The Bastard recognizes the inevitability of the capitalist transition, he despises it as well. It’s a system where every person is a commodity, and thus capable of having their honor being bought and corrupted. But even The Bastard doesn’t know whether he can resist the new world’s monetary temptations with its commodities. In an earlier part of the play The Bastard says:

And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

Your old road is rapidly aging. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone. Shakespeare’s King John captures the time when the old legitimate has become illegitimate and no one knows what happens next.

“Being Adventurous Means Going To Places You Don’t Know Exist! “

CAC-3 Photo credit Alma Har'el

(photo by Alma Har’el)

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What do Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Laura Linney, and Patti LuPone have in common? They all were students of Moni Yakim, the legendary acting teacher at the Julliard Drama Division, who is the subject of a recently released film documentary, Creating A Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy.

You can hear my review of the film as broadcast today on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org and Pacifica affiliates around the country, by clicking on the triangle or mp3 link above.

If you are at all interested in acting or teaching, I highly recommend this film.

Pulling Into The Station…

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It’s here! The July issue of the  Arts Express Newsletter. Eighteen full color pages!

Highlights include:

* An interview with actor John Savage, talking about PTSD and domestic violence in his films

*A Photographic Report on Occupy City Hall NYC from WBAI News

*Two Poems from Poet Peter Davis

*Dennis Broe on Black Lives Matter Statue Protests in Europe

*Prairie Miller on the New Film, The Tobacconist

*Plus The Guest List, News and Gossip, and more!

To get your free pdf copy every month to your email address, just send an email to ArtsExpressList@gmail.com and put Subscribe in the subject line. We’ll do the rest!

 

Arts Institutions In The Time Of COVID

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When an arts center depends on its community, how do you deal with lockdown conditions? Ellen Kodadek, artistic and executive director of Flushing Town Hall, talks with us on Arts Express about some of the strategies they have implemented at her institution, including virtual hangouts and virtual jazz jams.

Click on the triangle or mp3 link above to hear the interview as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI NY radio and Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Till There Was You: MonaLisa Twins

Monday morning, the MonaLisa Twins get their auditory capacity improved, all because of you.

I first heard this song on the Meet The Beatles album back in 1964. I had no idea at the time that it was from the Broadway musical The Music Man, by Meredith Willson.

More at MonaLisa Twins

Now On Your Virtual Doorstep…

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Eagle-eyed readers of this blog may have noticed that recently I put up a new website link at the top of the blogroll over there on the lower left hand side of the page.

That’s a link to the shiny new Arts Express Newsletters archive. As you may be aware, every month we’ve been putting out a full color newsletter filled with interviews, scripts, essays, photos, and more. It’s a kind of companion to the Arts Express radio program. We offer a continuing subscription to the newsletter for free as an email attachment to those who drop us a line at artsexpresslist@gmail.com and put the word “subscribe” in the subject line (Try it and see!)

Recently, we were requested to create an archive of past newsletters which we’re glad to do. By clicking on this link or the picture above, you’ll be taken to the archive of past newsletters, where you can access any of the individual issues.

So now there are two ways to get your monthly Arts Express Newsletter fix: either rushed to you by email on the first of each month, or by accessing past issues at the archive.

350 Years Of Punch And Judy

A post on the Genii Forum by expert children’s magician and puppeteer Quentin Reynolds led me to start viewing dozens of Punch and Judy videos.

While the scripts differ in their particulars and added topical jokes, there are some basic puppets and plotlines: Punch, always with his distinctive voice and his slapstick; Judy, his wife, and their baby; a crocodile; a policeman; often a monkey or clown. Today’s offerings are much tamer than those you can see in black and white videos of the 1950s, but they all depend on gross physical humor to get the children viewing it shouting, clapping , and cheering.

If after viewing the above, you’d like an inside view, I highly recommend that you watch the amazing Quentin Reynolds perform Punch and Judy with no puppets, and no stage, just his bare hands, here.

Thanks to YouTuber Tommy B entertainments

The Fire This Time

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The delightful Mary Murphy as interviewer Merri Boast grills The Devil, played by me, in our original  “Sympathy For The Devil” radio satire, broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program over WBAI 99.5FM, WBAI.org ,and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.

Click on the triangle or the mp3 file link above to listen.

Begin The Beguine: Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell

Three minutes of heaven as Eleanor Powell, in heels, gives Fred Astaire a run for his money.

The clip above is from the film Broadway Melody of 1940. Powell was probably Astaire’s most accomplished tap partner. Astaire reportedly claimed he would never work with Powell again because Astaire (himself a notorious perfectionist)  never wanted to work as hard again.

Thanks to YouTuber CatCORViN

 

Shakespeare In A Divided America

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It may seem as if Americans have never been more polarized than they are today. But America has always been full of splits, and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro has written a new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, which explores those conflicts in a unique way. He examines how Americans responded to Shakespearean productions at key times in American history, and his investigations are full of insights and surprises.

Click on the triangle above to hear my interview with James Shapiro as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org, and on Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly: One Time Only

The one time Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced together on the big screen (except for the That’s Entertainment series) was in the 1946 film The Ziegfield Follies. Just sublime. Take a look at this utterly delightful clip.

Thanks to YouTuber Claq & Co – Tap Dance Specialist

The Greatest Dance Sequence Ever?

Mikhail Baryshnikov called the Nicholas Brothers the greatest dancers he had ever seen in his life. Fred Astaire called the dance number in the clip above the greatest musical dance sequence ever captured on film. Who am I to argue?

Cab Calloway starts off the madness singing “Jumpin Jive” from the film Stormy Weather.

Thanks to YouTuber laughland

“… ‘Free! Body And Soul Free!’ She Kept Whispering…”

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The remarkable Mary Murphy performs Kate Chopin’s proto-feminist classic short story, “The Story of An Hour.”

Click on the triangle above to hear Mary’s performance of the story on the segment I produced, as broadcast on WBAI NYC radio today and Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre

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I’ve always been fascinated by rehearsals, both as a spectator and performer. Sometimes, as an actor, I enjoy rehearsals more than performances. The most amazing things can happen in rehearsal that somehow are never re-captured in performance.

A few weeks ago I attended a rehearsal of the Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre. Here’s my report as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Click on the triangle to listen.

March Newsletter Announcement

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As promised, our second free issue of the March Arts Express Newsletter is here and people have been saying nice things about us.

“That Arts Express newsletter is so remarkably beautiful and brilliant and fascinating and clever and well done!”

“Looks great. You have all been very busy. I was very pleased to read the review of Parasite. I wholeheartedly agree!”

If you didn’t catch our inaugural issue, think of it as a print extension of the conversation started on our global radio arts magazine, Arts Express, heard on WBAI 99.5 FM in NYC, WBAI.org, and Pacifica affiliates across the country, in Paris, Beijing, and Berlin.

Every month, it’s full color pages of Arts Express goodness, filled with fascinating interviews, reviews, scripts of our radio drama, photo features, gossip, film, theatre, book recommendations and more.

Here’s a preview of what’s in our March issue:

* An interview with Canadian-Iranian actor Cas Anvar, who talks about his anti-Mossad film, The Operative.

*An extraordinary portfolio of photographs of the work of artist Alexandra Dillon, a surrealistic painter who creates art on found objects.

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Alexandra Dillon

* Women Film Critics Circle reviewer and Arts Express Executive Producer, Host Prairie Miller, reveals her pick for the Women’s Movie of the Decade.

* An Arts Express Extra: The script to our original radio drama, Three Secrets.

*Plus: The Guest List–our recent guests; The Back Room–news and gossip about WBAI and the Arts Express crew; and information about exclusive giveaways and how to win an opportunity to broadcast your own work on the air.

It’s all in the new free Arts Express Newsletter.

If you’re not yet subscribed, you can get your free pdf copy every month to your email address, by sending an email to ArtsExpressList@gmail.com and put Subscribe in the subject line. We’ll do the rest!

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Cas Anvar

And don’t miss our next radio show, Tuesday 3/3 at 4am NYC time, which you can hear on WBAI.org or WBAI 99.5FM NYC. The show features:

** Hanging With Sam Jackson In Romania: A Conversation With Actress Maggie Q, the international action star talks about beating up burly men in her movies—while knocking down those submissive China doll stereotypes at the same time.

**The Amanda Selwyn Dance Theater performance in rehearsal, at the Alvin Ailey Theater in NYC: A look at a collage of their works exploring fundamental human questions–in dance and conversation.

** Poetry Corner: Spotlighting Black youth in spoken word performance.

** Screening Room: Who is Gargamel, and what do the Smurfs have to do with war criminal and Trump official for meddling in Venezuela, Elliot Abrams? And connections to pirates, snakes, Smurf fairies, Karl Marx, the Cold War, untamed eyebrows, and the Smurf village as a giggly caricature of a Marxist commune.

All on Arts Express!

 

“I Am Spartacus”: Kirk Douglas

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Kirk Douglas died this month. Here’s a piece I did, broadcast today on Arts Express, WBAI 99.5FM NYC, about Kirk Douglas’s finest hour.

You can listen by clicking on the triangle above.

What’s Important?

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Mary Murphy performs my piece, What’s Important? broadcast yesterday on WBAI’s Arts Express radio program.

You can listen by clicking on the triangle above.