Click the triangle or MP3 link above to hear my commentary on both the film In & Of Itself and AMORALMAN, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI-FM NY and Pacifica affiliates across the country.
Monday Morning, Mr. Wonderful, as Sammy Davis’s character in his first Broadway play was called.
If Sammy Davis were only a dancer he would be known as one of the greatest tap dancers of the 20th century.
If he were only a singer he would be known as one of the greatest male vocalists of the 20th century.
He was both.
Here he is with a song from his second musical, Golden Boy, from 1964, about an African-American boxer who falls in love with a white woman.
Paula Wayne who played Sammy’s lover, Lorna, in the show, said that when the time came during rehearsals for Sammy to kiss her, Sammy was very reluctant to do so. It was the first time an interracial kiss had happened on the Broadway stage; but Paula insisted that there would be no problem. She was soon to find out otherwise—the day after the show opened there were pickets in front of the theatre from white supremacists groups denouncing the show.
But the show ran for 500+ performances and had a great, under-appreciated score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams—probably the best score they ever created.
For Halloween, something special, an homage to the old-time 1940s suspense radio series Lights Out. I wrote and produced a modern update of the Lights Out episode called “Revolt of The Worms” for the Arts Express radio program, broadcast today over WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
“We caution you. This story is definitely not for the timid soul. So we tell you, calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now. And now if you haven’t already done so, turn off your… lights now… and listen to… Revolt of the Worms.”
Starring Mary Murphy, Josh Miccio and Reggie Johnson.
To listen, click on the triangle or image to play.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Carl Reiner, that classic comedy writer, creator of the Dick Van Dyke television show—and movie director, playwright, performer, impeccable straight man—died last week at age 98.
Here’s one of our favorite scenes from the Dick Van Dyke Show that featured Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore. The set up is that Laura, played by MTM, has blabbed on a television talk show to millions of viewers that Reiner’s vain character—who happens to be her husband’s boss—is bald, so MTM goes to apologize to him, with hilarious results.
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 email@example.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Woo-hoo! It’s the new monthly Arts Express Newsletter, edited by yours truly, and it’s free, free, free!
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 eight pages of Arts Express goodness, filled with fascinating interviews, top ten film lists, reviews, gossip, film, theatre, book recommendations and more.
Here’s a preview of what’s in our inaugural February issue:
* An extraordinary interview with Bill Wyman, the legendary guitarist for The Rolling Stones.
* Broadcast Film Critics and Women Film Critics Circle reviewer and host Prairie Miller’s Top Ten Films of 2019–and the year’s worst!
* An Arts Express Extra: Jack London’s Preface to The War of the Classes–a supplement to our recent radio performance of London’s powerful essay, “How I Became A Socialist.”
*Plus: The Guest List–our favorite 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.
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!
Yesterday, I put a wrap on the fifth year of this blog (put your favorite emoji here), and in keeping with my annual tradition, here are 25 of my favorite posts of the past year created by the Shalblog Industries® team. In no particular order:
Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.
It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.
It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?
Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.
Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL. He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows. And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty, that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.
Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them. It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.
And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.
This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.
In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement. No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.
The entertaining magician and mentalist Gary Ferrar (whose grandfather was a lion tamer) talks with us about his new show of mental illusions called “Nothing Here Is Real.” As a bonus, he performs a mindreading effect directed at yours truly on the air.
You can listen to Gary’s interview and mentalism effect, as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
If you ever done any theater improv, you know that the art and craft of making things up on the spot is a tricky one to master. The imperative is always to deal with what is happening in your environment at that very moment—to accept what’s in front of you and then embellish and extend. It’s always tempting to speed ahead in your mind, rather than trust that if you just follow your way from moment to moment to moment, you’ll get to where you need to go.
It was with delight that I read the following about musical improvisation in Anita O’Day‘s autobiography High Times, Hard Times (a wonderful portrait of a giant of jazz song). The parallels to theater improv were immediately recognizable. I had never heard anyone talk about musical improvisation the way she does. In the following paragraph she writes about how she learned to improvise on a melody by being committed to staying in the moment, and using any cues in her environment she could at that fleeting instant to spur her imagination:
“I saved ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ as an encore. At the point where the bridge comes to the second chorus, i needed an idea from somewhere. I saw a polka dot blouse. So I developed that chorus as a bagful of polka dots. To keep the version going, I searched for ideas. Where was I going to get my inspiration? I looked around the room and that gave me the idea of singing the structure of the room—long wall, short wall, long wall, short wall. That gave me the frame for the chorus. I turned to the band. Five men. So I put it into five rhythm. Anything that I could get an idea from, I put to work to fill out my time on the stand. I did it that way because technically I was not knowledgeable about music. I needed to get the thought behind the sound going, and I took it from wherever I could get it. In all, I did twelve choruses of “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” and when I finished the place exploded. People shouted, stampeded, applauded, whistled, stood on their chair and cheered. It was the response you dream about…”
Thought and action at the speed of sound. Just thrilling.