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Posts Tagged ‘Drama

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”*…

 

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Steve Young, who obsessively collects LPs of industrial musicals, at first found them “unintentionally hilarious,” but in addition to absurdity they often contain the sincere and authentic spark of creative imagination.

 

From the title alone, it’s obvious that “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” a new documentary by Dava Whisenant… will be a delight. Its subject is the industrial musical—plays produced by corporations for their employees to enjoy at nationwide or regional sales meetings and conventions. Steve Young, who was, for more than twenty years, a writer for David Letterman, became obsessed, in the mid-nineties, with these shows—in particular, with LPs of them, which were pressed solely to be distributed to employees as souvenirs. The ostensible subject of “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is the amusement value of these exotic, eccentric by-products of show business, whose kitschy pleasures include celebrations of automobiles, dog food, and disposable blood-absorbing liners for the operating room, in a number that rhymes “hysterectomy” and “appendectomy.” But the overarching and underlying question that the film poses is nothing less than: What is art? And, for that matter, is the conventional definition of good art too narrow to account for the merits of such works as these?…

Many classic works of art are, in effect, commercials, from Pindar’s epinician, or victory, odes to Bach’s church cantatas. For that matter, plays and movies aren’t immune from propagandistic values, whether imposed on the artists or shared by them. It’s a mark of mediocrity, on the part of an artist or, for that matter, of a critic, to judge works by their ostensible subjects rather than by their approach to them…

Richard Brody on the new documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway (it opens in some cities today), and on the aesthetic questions that it raises: “Can a musical sponsored by a toilet manufacturer be a work of art?

* Pablo Picasso

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As we know art when we see it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1566 that Ralph Roister Doister was first publicly performed at Eton (or so some scholars argue; the exact date is not universally agreed); it was published the following year.  Written in 1552 (again, scholars believe) by London schoolmaster Nicholas Udall, it was probably performed earlier by his own students.

In any case, scholars agree that Ralph Roister Doister was the first comedy (as opposed to “work with comedic elements”) to be written in the English language.

Ralph_Roister_Doister

Illustration in English Plays, by Henry Morley, Cassell’s Library of English Literature, 1891. Caption says from a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger in Desiderius Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (The Praise of Folly) (1515/16).

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Written by LW

November 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”*…

 

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It was in Athens in the 4th Century BC that a man named Zeno walked into a bookshop. He had been a successful merchant, but suffered a terrible shipwreck on a journey out of Phoenicia, losing a priceless cargo of the world’s finest dye. He was 30 years old and facing financial ruin, but this catastrophe stirred his soul to find something new, though he didn’t quite know what.

One day, immersed in browsing a bookstore collection, many volumes of which have been lost to history forever, Zeno heard the bookseller reading out loud a passage from a book by Xenophon about Socrates. It was like nothing he had ever heard before. With some trepidation, he approached the owner and asked, “Where can I find a man like that?” and in so doing, began a philosophical journey that would literally change the history of the world. That book recommendation led to the founding of Stoicism and then, to the brilliant works of SenecaEpictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — which, not lost to history, are beginning to find a new life on bookshelves today. From those heirs to Zeno’s bookshop conversion, there is a straight line to many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and even to the Founding Fathers of America.

All from a chance encounter in a bookshop.

It would be an understatement to say that great things begin in bookstores, and that countless lives have been changed inside them…

 

Why spend time amongst the shelves? “Good Things Happen in Book Stores.”

* Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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As we browse in bliss, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Jonson; he died on this date in 1637.  A poet, actor, literary critic, and playwright (he popularized the comedy of humours), he is best remembered for his satirical plays Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone, or The Fox (c. 1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614), and for his lyric and epigrammatic poetry.

Eclipsing Christopher Marlowe, Jonson is generally regarded as the second most important English playwright during the reigns of Elizabeth I of James VI and I (after Shakespeare, with whom Jonson had a professional rivalry, but on whose death Jonson wrote “He was not of an age, but for all time”).  Indeed, while Shakespeare’s impact continues apace to this day, Jonson’s impact was arguably even bigger in the relatively-more immediate timeframe: he had broad and deep influence on the playwrights and the poets of the Jacobean era (1603–1625) and of the Caroline era (1625–1642).

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Written by LW

August 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption”*…

 

John Adams didn’t literally call the Philadelphia Aurora (also known as the Aurora General Adviser) “fake news,” but he was not pleased by the way he was often depicted in it

In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s treatise Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, President John Adams scribbled a cutting note.

Writing in the section where the French philosopher predicted that a free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public, Adams scoffed. “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798,” he wrote at the time.

The charge feels shockingly modern. Were he to have written the sentiment in 2018, and not at the turn of the 19th century, it’s easy to imagine that at just 112 characters, he might have tweeted it, instead.

While Chinese monks were block printing the Diamond Sutra as early as 868 A.D. and German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of movable metal type in the mid-1400s, it took until the Enlightenment for the free press as we know it today to be born.

Condorcet’s 1795 text expanded upon the belief that a press free from censorship would circulate an open debate of ideas, with rationality and truth winning out. Adams’ marginal response reminds us that when something like truth is up for debate, the door is open for bad-faith actors (the partisan press in his view) to promulgate falsehoods—something that a reader today might call “fake news.”…

Harrowing history at: “The Age-Old Problem of ‘Fake News’.”

* “Totalitarian propaganda perfects the techniques of mass propaganda, but it neither invents them nor originates their themes. These were prepared for them by fifty years of imperialism and disintegration of the nation-state, when the mob entered the scene of European politics. Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

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As we ferret out the facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1593 that Christopher Marlowe, the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day (and a powerful influence on Shakespeare), was indicted by the Privy Council for heresy on the basis of testimony (probably elicited by torture) from Marlowe’s roommate, fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd.  Marlowe (who was in fact an atheist and seems likely to have supplemented his income as a spy) was subsequently arrested, but was able to use his connections to arrange bail.  While out he became involved in a fight– ostensibly over a tavern bill, but believed by many to have been a set-up– and was stabbed to death.

The 1585 portrait discovered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1953, believed to be of the 21-year-old Christopher Marlowe.  The inscribed motto is “QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT,” “that which nourishes me destroys me.”  Indeed.

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Written by LW

May 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The conquest of learning is achieved through the knowledge of languages”*…

 

“When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions,” says Bogre Udell. “Would Cervantes have written the same stories had he been forced to write in a language other than Spanish? Would the music of Beyoncé be the same in a language other than English?”

Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, 50 to 90 percent of them are predicted to disappear by the next century…

Every two weeks a language dies: Wikitongues wants to save them: “The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages.”

And for a more in depth– and fascinating– discussion of the subject, listen to Mary Kay Magistad‘s conversation with Laura Welcher, the director of the Rosetta Project at The Long Now Foundation: “Why half the world’s languages may disappear in this century.”

* Roger Bacon

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As we contemplate conserving the capacity to converse, we might spare a thought for Archibald MacLeish; he died on this date in 1982.  A poet, dramatist, writer, and lawyer, he is probably best remembered for his poem  “Ars Poetica” and his play JB.  But MacLeish also served, from 1939 to 1944 as Librarian of Congress, where he oversaw the modernization of the institution and helped promote The Library– and libraries, the arts, and culture more generally– in public opinion.  Over his career, he won three Pulitzer Prizes, a Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award, a Tony Award (for JB), was named a Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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“A little more than kin, and less than kind”*…

 

Sarah Boxer explains:

What, another Hamlet? There must be a zillion already: Slang HamletFirst Folio HamletCompressed HamletNo Fear Hamlet. Into this field, I toss Hamlet: Prince of Pigs, a Tragicomic. Why a comic? Because comics and plays are twin arts. Both use visual cues as much as words. Both have abrupt breaks between scenes. And their words are mostly dialogue.

Why a pig? In the name “Hamlet,” I hear little ham, little pig. And the pig pun fits! In Shakespeare’s day, if you wanted to mock the king, you’d put on a pig mask. The “swine-snouted king” was a stock figure of fun.

Once Hamlet’s species was set, I hewed to a one-family, one-species rule for the rest of the cast. Thus Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, the murderer, “the bloat king,” is a big fat pig. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is a pig with lipstick. Ophelia is a cat because cats don’t do well in water. So her father, Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, are cats, too. For minor characters, I followed a one-profession, one-species rule. Gravediggers are dogs because dogs are excellent diggers. The players are mice because their play is “The Mousetrap.” The sentries, including Horatio, are rats because, well, rats look handsome in helmets.

You’ll see that Hamlet: Prince of Pigs has been stripped of all fat. And tragedy minus many words is comedy. A pared-down Hamlet is a funny Hamlet

Sample her work at “Hamlet, My Prince of Pigs“; dive into the full comic here.

* Hamlet (on Claudius); Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

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As we wonder what’s behind the arras, we might recall that it was on this date in 1975 that The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened on Broadway.  An import from London (where it ran from 1973 to 1980), it bewildered critics and theater-goers in New York, where it ran through only its three previews and 45 performances (despite being nominated for a Tony and for three Drama Desk awards).  Broadway cast members Tim Curry, Meat Loaf, and Richard O’Brien (who also wrote the book and composed the score for the show) went on to star in the film version, released later that same year– which became, of course, one of the most successful cult classics of all-time.

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Written by LW

March 10, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I don’t know what this is, but I can’t stop listening”*…

 

Joe Frank passed away last Monday.  A purveyor of humorous, often surreal, radio monologues and dramas, he began his career in 1977 on WBAI in New York, then moved in 1978 to National Public Radio. producing 18 award-winning dramas for NPR Playhouse (while serving as co-anchor of Weekend Edition).  In 1986 he moved to KCRW in Santa Monica, where he produced a weekly hour-long radio program, Joe Frank: Work In Progress, until 2002 He also wrote stage plays and short stories, and saw several of his radio works used as the bases of films and television programs.

Beloved by a loyal audience, he was never widely known.  Still, his influence has touched mass audiences:  Ira Glass (one of whose first jobs was as a production assistant for Frank) credits Frank as his greatest inspiration for This American Life; TAL contributor David Sedaris modeled his work in material measure on Frank; Prairie Home Companion drew on Frank’s approach; and filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Mann, David Fincher, Ivan Reitman, and Martin Scorsese have worked from stories from Joe Frank’s radio shows.

Hear his extraordinary work on JoeFrank.com (free registration), Last.FM, and Soundcloud, among other repositoroes.

* Ira Glass, recounting his first experience of Joe Frank

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As we lend an ear, we might send tuneful birthday greetings to Huddie William Ledbetter; he was born on this date in 1888.  Better known by his stage name “Lead Belly,” he was  folk and blues musician known for his distinctive vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar (though he also played the piano, mandolin, harmonica, violin, and “windjammer” [diatonic accordion]), and the blues standards he wrote and introduced– covered over the years by acts including Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Johnny Rivers (“Midnight Special”), Delaney Davidson, Tom Russell, Lonnie Donegan, Bryan Ferry (“Goodnight, Irene”), the Beach Boys (“Cotton Fields”), Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Midnight Special”, “Cotton Fields”), Elvis Presley, ABBA, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, the Animals, Jay Farrar, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Dr. John, Ry Cooder, Davy Graham, Maria Muldaur, Rory Block, Grateful Dead, Gene Autry, Odetta, Mungo Jerry, Paul King, Van Morrison, Michelle Shocked, Tom Waits (“Goodnight, Irene”), Scott H. Biram, Rod Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Spiderbait (“Black Betty”), Blind Willies (“In the Pines”), the White Stripes (“Boll Weevil”), the Fall, Hole, Smog, Old Crow Medicine Show, Meat Loaf, Ministry, Raffi, Rasputina, Rory Gallagher (“Out on the Western Plains”), the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Deer Tick, Hugh Laurie, X, Bill Frisell, Koerner, Ray & Glover, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Meat Puppets, Mark Lanegan, WZRD (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”), Keith Richards, Phil Lee (“I Got Stripes”), and Aerosmith (“Line ‘Em”)…

Lead Belly. photo by Alan Lomax

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Written by LW

January 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A novelist may lose his readers for a few pages; a playwright never dares lose his audience for a minute”*…

 

Archaeologists working in southeastern China have identified the tomb of Tang Xianzu, a renowned late 16th-century playwright who is often dubbed the country’s Shakespeare.

Known for his defiance of nobles in the Ming dynasty, Tang specialized in exploring the triumph of humanity over hierarchy and authority through works like The Peony Pavilion, which depicted a poor scholar’s love for a noblewoman. In the 55-scene drama, Tang portrays the struggles of a relationship imbued with supernatural power—a young woman is brought back to life by the handsome scholar she had fallen in love with in a dream. The woman’s father, a nobleman, accuses the scholar of being a grave robber (link in Chinese) and has him imprisoned. Fortunately, in a theme that must still resonate today, the scholar is pardoned after securing excellent results in an imperial examination.

Tang died at the age of 66 in 1616, the same year that saw the death of English playwright William Shakespeare…

More at “Archaeologists have found the tomb of China’s Shakespeare.”

* Terence Rattigan

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As we note that Shakespeare might be known as the Tang of England, we might spare a thought for Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev; he died on this date in 1883.  A novelist, short story writer, and playwright, he helped define Russian Realism with his first book, A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852); his 1862 novel Fathers and Sons is regarded as one of the major works of 19th-century fiction.

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Written by LW

September 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

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