Monday, March 11, 2024

#11 2024: NOTES ON RECENT READING: Gail Merrifield Papp’s PUBLIC/PRIVATE: MY LIFE WITH JOE PAPP AT THE PUBLIC THEATER

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Gail Merrifield Papp’s PUBLIC/PRIVATE: MY LIFE WITH JOE PAPP AT THE PUBLIC THEATER



The New York Shakespeare Festival and its affiliate, the Public Theater, are awesomely significant theatrical institutions born from the farsighted vision and ferocious driving enthusiasm of a man born in Brooklyn in 1921 to poor Eastern European immigrants. His name was Joseph Papirofsky (changed later to Papp), he grew up speaking Yiddish, served in the South Pacific during World War II, and, in the postwar years, did battle with the most powerful figures in New York City government to realize his dream of a socially conscious theatre accessible to all classes, even, when possible, for free.

Joe Papp was an extremely articulate, flamboyantly feisty figure, an artistic David among the city’s political Goliaths. His battles to get his institutions recognized and funded, his toils to support plays that bedeviled the powers that be, and his social activism were closely followed in the press, making him and his theatres household names.

Consequently, his fiery life and memorable stage accomplishments had already been duly analyzed and documented in a series of books before last year when his fourth wife, Gail Merrifield Papp (b. 1934), not much shy of 90, produced her own take (Lanham, MD: Applause, 2023, 346 pp.) on her controversial husband, who died at 70, in 1991. Having read all the previous books about Papp and his theatres, I didn’t rush to buy a copy of Merrifield’s (as I’ll call her) contribution. Nevertheless, being a regular visitor to Papp’s emporia almost from their inception (my college scene design professor created Papp’s theatre in Central Park), the call of duty was too strong to resist. My effort was duly rewarded.

Writing in clear, unfussy, but often sensitive and elucidating prose, Merrifield provides as personal a look at her late husband as possible, a portrait that, while it corresponds in most areas to the public record, offers private impressions that only she can provide, among them incidents she witnessed that take us into man’s heart and soul as a devoted husband and father. She covers all the major brouhahas of Papp’s professional life (including some from before she met him), but her position as a fly on the wall gives her a unique perspective on events. That position became possible when she was hired by the Public Theatre in the mid-1960s, serving at first as a general factotum for Papp, but evolving, because of her innate abilities, into the role of Director of New Works Development (a title that underwent various changes), making her responsible for finding worthwhile new plays.

The San Francisco-born Merrifield recounts her early life and family background—which includes a theatrical lineage that presumably ties her to John Wilkes Booth—before covering her life in the 50s trying to find a career path in New York. She describes the serendipitous circumstances of her hiring (at first, as a summer temp) by the Public Theater in its early days, whose physical circumstances she records, and carefully notes how she and Papp, her boss, gradually fell in love over the years, although he was then married to his third wife, Peggy Bennion, mother of two of his children.

We read of Papp’s divorce and of Merrifield’s marriage to him (she, too, was divorced). Even after marrying him, Merrifield continued to work for Papp, becoming an increasingly integral contributor to the success of what was now their mutual enterprise, and being responsible for some of its most notable choices. One, for example, was when she convinced the initially skeptical Papp to produce Larry Kramer’s explosive The Normal Heart, one of the first plays to confront the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

Merrifield explains how, despite her lack of a theatrical education, she gained one—especially in Shakespeare—from working so closely at Papp’s side, even taking his whispered notes during rehearsals. While much of what she says has been covered elsewhere, the fact of her proximity to the events she covers, and the anecdotes she recounts, make her highly readable account necessary reading.

Merrifield writes about the creation of the musical Hair,  the virtues of the Mobile Theater, the acquisition and development of the Public Theater building at Astor Place, Papp’s artistic and social missions, free Shakespeare in the Park, the search for worthwhile American plays, the commercial success of shows like A Chorus Line and many others, Papp’s direction of what was known as the “Naked” Hamlet (with Martin Sheen), Papp’s battles with the critics, the nontraditional casting for which Papp became renowned, the Public’s commitment to plays by writers of non-white ethnicities, the explosion in the number of play submissions, the loss to AIDS of major theatre figures at the Public, the casting of Diane Venora as Hamlet, the Lincoln Center debacle, his sponsoring of shows like for colored girls . . . , and so many other important and fascinating happenings related to the both Shakespeare in the Park and the Public.

Not least are the considerations of Papp’s successor when he would no longer be able to carry on his enormous responsibilities. Brief descriptions of the contributions of JoAnne Akalaitis, George C. Wolfe, and Oskar Eustis, who managed to keep Papp’s institutions not only alive but still flourishing form the conclusion.

Just as interesting are the chapters about Papp’s private life, his five children, his Judaism, his country house, his travels, his singing talents, his activism, and, ultimately, his bout with prostate cancer and death. The latter carries with it even more heartbreaking poignancy because Papp was mortally ill at the same time as his beloved son, Tony, the two of them even being cared for in the Papps’ apartment before that became too onerous. Tony passed from AIDS-related causes in 1991, the same year that his father would close his eyes forever. Papp would have to suffer for months from fatal cancer while grieving the loss of his beloved son. What Merrifield, who comes off as a kind, loving, insightful, even-tempered woman, who was happily willing to put up with Papp’s forceful personality, had to go through during those difficult days and nights can only be imagined.

Merrifield’s memoir, which includes an index, also has a bibliograph and an appendix listing featured actors, choreographers, composers, directors, and playwrights, from 1956 to 1991, making the book useful for future historians. After reading Public/Private (a perfect title), it will be impossible to again visit the Public Theater without a tableau of what transpired in that building running through one’s brain.

 

 

 

 

Monday, March 4, 2024

#10 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Edwin McLellan’s WOMAN IN THE CRESTED KIMONO

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Edwin McLellan’s WOMAN IN THE CRESTED KIMONO: THE LIFE OF SHIBUE IO AND HER FAMILY DRAWN FROM MORI ŌGAI’S “SHIBUE CHŪSAI”


 

Having recently come across a couple of strongly positive comments about Edwin McLellan’s rendering of material from a much longer work by the great Meiji period (1868-1912) novelist, Mori Ōgai, in a work he called Woman in the Crested Kimono (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, 192 pp.), I decided to order it online and see for myself. Unfortunately, while the title seemed familiar, I didn’t realize until I started reading it this week that I not only already had a perfectly good copy, but that I’d reviewed it for Amazon.com in 2008! Here, then, is that review, slightly edited. 

As with another book recently discussed here that uses "Kimono" in its title, Rebecca Copeland's novel, The Kimono Tattoo, this book about Japan is not about theatre. On the other hand, it's based on a book by Mori Ōgai, a versatile writer who was one of the earliest modern Japanese playwrights, so there's that.

It also happens to be a delightful read, one I came across by chance when it was mentioned in Hanley's Everyday Things in Premodern Japan. It tells the story of a Japanese woman named Shibue Io, who lived during the mid-19th century and died in the 1880s, her life spanning the late Edo period and the early Meiji. She was the wife of a scholar-physician named Shibue Chūsai, the subject of a long and very detailed biography by the great Meiji writer Mori Ōgai. Edwin McLellan, rather than translating Ōgai’s book itself, extracted only those parts concerned with Chūsai’s remarkable wife, Io, and then interpolated his own musings and commentary on the woman and her times. He also provides excellent documentation in the form of endnotes, which give the book a necessary grounding in historical research. 

We follow the life and times of Io as she marries the well-respected Chūsai, bears a sizable brood (not all of whom lived long), raises and educates her children, is widowed, and endures the hardships that came to families associated with the samurai (or bushi) class during the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868). This exceptional woman was extremely well educated for her time, and several of her children were themselves involved in scholarly pursuits. Io was not only intellectually inclined, she also—having been given martial arts training—had considerable physical bravery, as described in several vivid anecdotes. 

The book pursues the story of her husband, and each of her children, and by the time the volume concludes, after only 150 pages of narrative, we feel we have come to know not only Shibue Io, but her entire family, and a few persons closely associated with the Shibue. Moreover, we get a marvelous picture of what life was like for an upper middle-class Japanese family living in Edo during the closing days of the shogunate, and how topsy-turvy things became when it had to adjust to the social, economic, and political upheavals surrounding and succeeding the Restoration. 

McLellan's commentary has just the right touch; knowledgeable and sensitive, and always helpful in engaging the reader's interest in and sympathy for the cast of characters whose story he (and Ōgai) is telling. He keeps the narrative clear, reminding the reader of who individuals are when they reappear in the story, and continually offering valuable insights into the cultural and historical circumstances of the times, including the place of women. This is a book that anyone interested in 19th-century Japanese life should read; since it was published in 1985, I regret not having known of it before. 

In 2008 I concluded by saying, “I'm delighted to have finally made its acquaintance,” but now, 16 years later, I can happily add that I’m equally delighted to have been reacquainted with it.

 

77. SUNSET BABY (seen March 2, 2024)

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For my review of Sunset Baby please click on THEATER LIFE.


Saturday, March 2, 2024

#9 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Stephen J. Bottoms’s PLAYING UNDERGROUND: A CRITICAL HISTORY OF THE 1960S OFF-OFF-BROADWAY MOVEMENT

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Stephen J. Bottoms’s Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement



It’s taken me 18 years to get around to Stephen Bottoms’s jampacked critical history of Off-Off Broadway (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006, 401 pp), but I’m glad I finally got the chance, especially as I was at least a molecule in the remarkable moment it chronicles in modern American theatre. I was an undergraduate theatre student at Brooklyn College when the movement quietly began, graduating in 1962, and then leaving New York for two years to get my MFA in Hawaii. So I wasn’t able to participate at the beginning, which, had it been otherwise, might have radically changed my life’s direction.

It soon did so, however, for several of my college classmates, who began to putter about in the zero-budget environs of early Off-Off endeavors, particularly at Caffe Cino, Judson Church, and La Mama, of which I only began, dimly, to become aware on returning to New York in 1964. By then, I was married with a kid and in need of a steady income, no longer footloose enough to mingle amid the unpaid, unwashed, if not untalented denizens of the West and East Villages.

I remember in the mid-1960s running into hippie-ized college theatre pals on Second Avenue, me dressed neatly as per my status as a budding academic, they in ragged jeans, shaggy beards and mustaches, and abundant hair of the type soon be memorialized in a Broadway hit. Smugly, I felt as if I’d made the right choice. Little did I know that one or two of these scruffy artists would, a few years down the line, be able to buy and sell me. Among them, Joel Zwick, then a burgeoning avant garde director (mentioned in passing by Bottoms), even became one of the most successful sitcom directors in TV history, also directing My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Others, although they may not have become zillionaires, made seriously valuable contributions to the kind of alternative theatre that was springing up in churches, basements, lofts, and storefronts all over the downtown area. While only a few make it into the pages of Bottoms’s excellent book, and then only in passing or in photo captions (like Larry Loonin or Shellie Feldman), I’m proud of what they contributed to those countless shows I participated in only as a spectator.

Except once. In 1966, Wilson Lehr, a former professor of mine, was directing a play at the fabulous Ellen Stewart’s La Mama (when it was at 182 Second Avenue, before it moved to E. Fourth Street) by a La Mama regular, Bruce Kessler, another former classmate. Off-Off was notorious for its campy spoofs, riddled with sexual innuendoes, of iconic cultural institutions, and Bruce’s The Contestants (not mentioned by Bottoms) was a takeoff on TV game shows in which I played the slick, Bob Barker-ish MC.

A Facebook friend I haven’t seen in person since then, Nancy Gabor, played the show’s sexy hostess, wearing a flashy, legs-revealing costume with black mesh stockings. Others in the cast included yet another college friend, Blanche Dee (somewhat older than me and what one might call pleasingly plump to avoid accusations of fat shaming), who would one day appear on Broadway in the nude, and Allen Garfield, who went on to considerable success on stage and screen as a supporting actor.

The play, awful as I’m sure it was, had some historical interest. Bottoms tells us of how La Mama was forced to close because of a conflict with Actors Equity over its nonpayment of union actors; when the dispute was settled, The Contestants was the first show La Mama produced. Another reason to remember it is the great photograph of the costumed cast standing and sitting in La Mama around Wilson and Stewart (with whom I would spend several days in Beijing 25 years later). It was published in the only other book providing a historical overview of Off-Off Broadway, David Crespy’s Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960's Ignited a New American Theater (2003). Playing Underground, by the way, is no slouch in the photo department.

There have, of course, been other books about Off-Off, but they’re mostly about specific individuals, companies, themes, or plays; a decent number of play anthologies can be found online. I plan to cover Crespy’s book this year (I couldn’t find my copy so I ordered a used one online), but, its insights and stories aside, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as Playing Underground. Bottoms provides quite thorough descriptions and appraisals of all the leading (and many of the secondary) actors, writers, directors, and producers of the movement, not to mention detailed histories of every significant theatre or company. He discusses, with keen critical insight, numerous plays, the titles of many likely be as unknown as Sanskrit to most readers, but representative of the kinds of comedies, musicals, and dramas on which Off-Off thrived.

Bottoms, a theatre professor at Manchester University in the UK, who now goes by the name Stephen Scott-Bottoms, offers a remarkably well researched study, based both on the archives and many interviews, although, born in 1968 and raised in Yorkshire, he was too young to have himself seen what he writes about. He provides quality assessments of the four leading institutions, Caffe Cino, La Mama, Theatre Genesis, and Judson Poet’s Theatre, with excellent portrayals of their charismatic leaders, Joe Cino, Ellen Stewart, Ralph Cook, and Al Carmines. Numerous other, equally important figures (and groups, like the Living Theatre and the Open Theatre) are discussed, the artists including the likes of Charles Ludlam, Robert Patrick, John Vaccaro, Michael Smith, Joe Chaikin, Sam Shepard, Penny Arcade, Larry Kornfeld, Jeff Weiss, Marshall Mason, and Lanford Wilson, among so many others, along with the shows they created, and the circumstances—sometimes sordid—of the worlds they inhabited.

Bottoms’s smoothly written, academically precise but always crystalline overview covers thematic issues, like the place of nudity, drag, homosexuality, and politics, and gets into the weeds on all the principal topics concerning the financial and artistic difficulties involved in sustaining a movement that sought a freewheeling, unconventional approach to making theatre with barely any funds to support it. The transition from presenting plays for either no admission fee or a dollar-a-week club membership to a profit-based or, at the least, grant-sustained, system is closely analyzed, as are all the other developments (like the profits that came to several OOB shows after moving to OB) that, inevitably forced such a quixotic artistic paradise to fade before the onslaught of real-world practicalities. 

There are very few items of significance overlooked by Bottoms. Anybody familiar with the period will note some artist, show, theatre, or group that might have been included, even if only briefly (like actor/director/playwright LarryLoonin, whom I like to call the Zelig of Off-Off Broadway). But that—like these comments—would have swelled the book to impractical lengths. I do feel compelled, though, to note two notorious shows of the 1960s I expected to encounter, even in allusions, as having been unquestionably influenced by the freedoms being mined by the underground theatre: Barbara Garson’s MacBird! (originally staged by my classmate Roy Levine, 1966), and Lennox Raphael’s Che! (1969). Both fall somewhere in the gap between OOB and OB.

The first, done at the Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, was a frank satire on the Kennedy assassination, in which Lyndon Johnson is imagined as the Macbeth-like leader responsible; it created a political firestorm over free speech that almost led to its closure. Although technically Off-Broadway, it’s doubtful it would have been produced without the outside the envelope-influence of Off-Off.

The same could be said of Che!, seen at the Free Store Theatre in Cooper Square (bordering both the West and East Villages). Another political satire, this one inspired by Che Guevara, it had conservative forces falling all over themselves because of obscenity charges (“profanity, filth, defecation, masochism, sadism, masturbation, nudity, copulation, sodomy and other deviate sexual intercourse,” according to the judgment that eventually killed it). It presumably was even more outrageous than what was routinely done on Off-Off stages. At that very moment, Oh! Calcutta! (in which I had other college friends!), was drawing crowds. Its mention in Bottoms’s book brought Che! to mind, as they were both part of the same historic free speech in the theatre debate.

Off-Off-Broadway, as Bottoms carefully notes, had an impact not only on American stages, but across the globe—witness the Fringe in London, for example. In Japan, which had a similar explosion of untraditional theatre, the name for such work is angura, a bastardization of “underground.” Kudos to Stephen J. Bottoms/Steve Scott-Bottoms for choosing so pertinent a word for his title.

 

 

 

Monday, February 19, 2024

#8 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Rebecca Copeland’s THE KIMONO TATTOO

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Rebecca Copeland’s THE KIMONO TATTOO

By Samuel L. Leiter



As those who’ve followed this series since it began on Facebook in 2023 (before it started a new life on Theatre’s Leiter Side in 2024) are aware, the books discussed here are typically non-fiction and theatre-related. Rebecca Copeland’s The Kimono Tattoo (n.p.: Brother Mockingbird, 2021, 357 pp.), however, is an award-winning novel in the literary thriller genre. It does have an interesting reference to the noh theatre, its heroine is a student of traditional Japanese dance, and its chief background subject, kimono, represents a great traditional art that plays a major role on the Japanese stage. Nevertheless, The Kimono Tattoo is not about Japanese theatre (an academic specialty of mine). It caught my eye mainly because I’m a FB friend of its author, a noted scholar of Japanese literature and translator of Japanese fiction.

Because of my “acquaintance” with its author, I’ll not review her book in detail, but will offer just a few notes for those who might be looking for an often intriguing novel set in contemporary Japan by someone whose long residence there stamps her writing with authenticity. 

Copeland’s heroine, Ruth Bennett, shares certain similarities with her creator; both are the fluent-in-Japanese daughters of missionaries from the American South, and both are professional translators. But Copeland is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, while Ruth, although she has translated an important recent novel, makes her living as a translator of commercial brochures and the like for a Kyoto translation service. Then again, the novel is set in this century's first decade, and Ruth does have a backstory involving her having once been on the faculty of an American university. Aside from their missionary parents and mutual academic backgrounds, I have no knowledge of any other autobiographical connections. 

Tasked by a mysterious woman (for a substantial fee) with translating an in-process novel by a famous writer—missing and presumed dead—she discovers that the book is too close to reality, leading her down one dangerous rabbit hole after the other as she finds herself enwrapped in a web of threatening episodes. As several murders, passed off by the police as suicides, occur, Ruth finds herself enmeshed in a mystery tied to the world of traditional kimono making and design, a mystery that also involves Japanese tattooing, the yakuza, Japanese dance, child trafficking, a long-lost brother, and Tosa fighting dogs, not to mention the subtleties of the Japanese language.  

The Kimono Tattoo, published only in paperback, should make good beach reading with its straightforward yet often evocative prose, its fast-paced action, its vivid characters, and its well-researched subject matter. On the other hand, its multiple plot threads tend to get a bit tangled before Copeland unties the knots, the weeds into which Copeland’s research wanders can hold things back, and some of the far-fetched plot twists require a firm suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, if you’ve got a yen for an intricately woven crime story embroidered with infusions of traditional Japanese culture, you might want to spend it here.

Monday, February 12, 2024

#7 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Patrick Stewart's MAKE IT SO: A MEMOIR

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Patrick Stewart’s MAKING IT SO: A MEMOIR (2023)

By Samuel L. Leiter



Sir Patrick Stewart, one of England’s most respected actors, has an impressive resume for his classical theatre work, especially in Shakespeare, but his career includes countless roles in other plays, modern and antique, as well as on screens large and small. Stewart’s worldwide fame, however, rests not on his distinguished stage work, but mainly on his role as Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Federation starship USS Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and its multiple film and TV spinoffs, most recently Star Trek: Picard.

I have long been a great admirer of Sir Patrick but—full disclosure—I have never watched a single episode of the enormously popular series, nor any of its cinema progeny. I admit, however, to having watched all the show’s original episodes, starring William Shatner, during its three-year run from 1966-1969.

No matter, I got a full dose of Captain Picard and his crew from Stewart’s thoroughly engrossing new book, Making It So: A Memoir (New York: Gallery Books, 2023, 469 pp.)—its title a Picard catchphrase—about as smoothly digestible a personal account of a premiere actor’s life as one could wish. I know the word “memoir” is nowadays considered preferable for such works, but if anything could also be considered an autobiography this book is it.

Born into relative poverty in 1940 (seven days before me) in the town of Mirfield, in North England’s Yorkshire County, Stewart grew up in a tiny, two-room house with its toilet out-of-doors, a space that often served as the only place he could read in private, holding a candle to see in the darkness. He describes his upbringing, including his schooling, his friendships, and his hardscrabble life in general, in vivid detail, with close attention to his family circumstances: moody father, a decorated former army parachutist down on his luck after being demobilized; loving mother, a textile millworker, sometimes at her husband’s mercy; and two brothers, with one of whom he shared a bed until he was 14. He admits that for years he felt inferior about his working-class roots, Yorkshire accent, and incomplete academic education.  

He lovingly describes what growing up in Yorkshire, which he remembers with deep fondness, was like. Local accents like his play a big role in English culture, so he eventually was taught to ditch his in favor of what was called “received pronunciation.” At one point, however, an acting teacher observed how much more interesting his speech was when a bit of Northern England broke through.

Although academically only average, he was a voracious reader. He gained the affection and respect of a few teachers—especially Cecil Dormand—who had a huge influence on him, especially when he began to find fulfillment by acting in school projects and local amateur dramatic societies (“am-drams”). Never, at first, considering a theatre career, his jobs on finishing school at 15 included working as a furniture and carpet salesman and then as a cub reporter.

But, with Dormand’s support, he began taking long bus rides to study privately with Meg Wynn Owen on Saturdays (another famous actor, Brian Blessed, was also a student), and eventually, at 17, was accepted into the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, with a grant from a local council covering all his expenses. Theatre students will appreciate his exposition of the BOVTS training regimen he underwent.

They will also enjoy his expert insights and often funny anecdotes about acting, including wonderful stories in which he himself is sometimes the goat. Stewart’s love for acting and his enthusiasm in expressing it is one of his book’s great charms. While the persona he projects from stage and screen may sometimes seem stern, he reveals a warm, human sense of humor, often self-deprecating, that will endear him to his readers. Even now, at 83, he would love to do a TV comedy series.

The famously eggheaded—physically, not cerebrally—star even candidly discloses how, after his hair began thinning at 17, he was—after failed hair-growing treatments—as bald at 19 as he is today. His baldness may have hampered his career as a leading man, but it boosted his character-role appropriateness. His love life didn’t suffer, though, as the thrice-married actor’s cherished memories of girlfriends and lovers shows. Stewart offers loving tributes to each of his wives, beginning with the choreographer Sheila Falconer, to whom he was wed from 1966-1990 before the typical problem of show biz logistics made divorce inevitable.

After his two years at Bristol, things looked bleak back home in Mirfield, but before long he was offered a job as assistant stage manager and bit part actor at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln. Low level as it was, it was the start of a professional career, and he was on his way to nearly nonstop employment that would take him from polishing his craft in regional rep to an out-of-the-blue shot, at 21, playing tiny roles on a globe-hopping Old Vic World Tour with gorgeous actress Vivien Leigh (he offers lovely stories about her), more regional rep, and, ultimately, a long-dreamed of position with the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was only 25, a job he held for 14 years.

In 1975, he made his first feature film, Hennessy, but even after a few films (including Dune), and TV appearances, he remained a respected supporting actor, little known to the world at large; even the RSC only rarely granted him one of the big Shakespeare roles, while fellow thespians like David Warner and Ian McKellen became internationally known artists. It wasn’t until he lucked out with Star Trek in the 1980s, when he was in his mid-40s—a story he tells with brio—that he broke out into superstardom. Trekkies will love his many Star Trek anecdotes, the show having run seven years, with a movie franchise following.

Star Trek: Next Generation over, he returned to the stage with a well-received, one-man version of A Christmas Carol followed by leading roles in multiple plays, from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice (which he’s done four times), and Macbeth (also filmed). But he also landed in hot water when, starring on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, he gave curtain speeches criticizing the Shuberts for closing the show early.

His film and TV career flourished, including the X-Men franchise, in which he played Professor X (and cemented his friendship with Ian McKellen, with whom he’d eventually do the greatest Waiting for Godot I’ve ever seen, and, in repertory, an equally outstanding No Man’s Land, by Harold Pinter. His popularity even earned him a hosting job on SNL (which, he admits, bombed). However, his first two marriages broke up (he confesses to philandering) before he married a third time—lastingly, one hopes—to Sunny Ozell, a singer 39 years his junior, with whom he appears to have found true love.

Filled with wonderful memories, personal and professional, many worthy of a laugh, some more poignant, Making It So is for anyone interested in the life of a leading modern British actor during the last half of the 20th and first quarter of the 21st centuries. For all his success and acclaim, Patrick Stewart, for all his fame (he was knighted in 2010), remains starstruck by the greats of his profession, thrilled to be in their company, or, for that matter, with any talented professionals. His encounters with his idols, like Ian Holm, are unforgettable, while his anecdotes about celebrities like Sting, about whom he admits to having known nothing when they first met on the set of Dune, and the young Paul McCartney, will appeal to readers across the spectrum.

If Sir Patrick Stewart is anything like the modest man that this book projects, thankful for the good things that came his way, grateful to those who enabled them, and proud of what they led to, he’s someone whose hand I’d like to shake one day. Having spent a week in his company, I think it’s about time we finally spent some time together aboard the USS Enterprise. Beam me up! Or, to be au courant, make it so!

 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

#6 2024 NOTES ON RECENT READING: Charles Busch's LEADING LADY: A MEMOIR OF A MOST UNUSUAL BOY

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

Charles Busch’s LEADING LADY: A MEMOIR OF A MOST UNUSUAL BOY (2023)

By Samuel L. Leiter



Julian Eltinge (1881-1941) and Charles Busch (1954- ) are the names of popular actors who bookended the 20th century as America’s leading drag actors on the legitimate stage, both of them admired for offering uncannily convincing performances in female roles, which they took seriously rather than as burlesques. Scholars still debate whether Eltinge—whose offstage persona is said to have been decidedly masculine—was gay or not, but there’s never been any doubt about Busch’s preferences. As would be expected, they’re on full display in his amiably amusing, beguilingly bawdy book, Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy (Dallas, TX: Smart Pop Books, 2023, 271 pp.).

Busch’s memoir, a page turner account of his upbringing and prolific stage (mainly) and screen career, is crammed with entertaining, and sometimes touching, anecdotes about his family, friends, and productions, much as you’d expect from so clever, diverting, and unpretentious a personality (assuming, of course, you’ve seen a sampling of his work). A girlish boy raised by a middle-class, nonobservant, Jewish family in Hartsdale, a suburban town near New York City, he lost his beloved mother when he was not yet eight, and had a strained relationship with his father (with whom, however, he shared a fondness for vintage Hollywood cinema).

He was fortunate to have the love and support of his Aunt Lil, a wealthy Park Avenue matron. Much of Leading Lady is practically a paean to this nurturing woman. In one of his surprising revelations Busch says that, despite all the financial, psychological and emotional care she provided as he struggled to find his way, she could never bring herself to visit any of his performances, even though she was a theatre lover who often had taken him to Broadway shows.

Busch details the various paths he explored as he tried to discover his personal key to opening the doors to a theatre career. He swiftly takes us from his childhood through his teenage years at theatre camps and Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, to his tenure as a theatre major at Northwestern University (where getting cast was impossible), to his off-campus stage and life experiences in Chicago, and then on to New York’s Lower East Side’s Off-Off Broadway scene and elsewhere. As he matured, he nourished his proclivity for campy comedy, often showing the influence of his lodestar, Charles Ludlam, doyen of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, to whom he pays reverent tribute. And, of course, he dutifully notes the many close friends, lovers, teachers, costars, techies, producers, directors, and assorted enablers who helped along the way.

Busch’s many non-theatre-related side hustles before he became a celebrity get plenty of page space, as well, most impressively his activity as a quick-sketch artist, which included stints at the Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo, New York. Crossing to the blue side, and definitely worthy of a true confessions memoir, is his frank and funny account of working in the gay sex trade. That last job was in the pre-AIDS days, but he thanks his lucky stars for surviving the AIDS crisis, which he writes about with compassion, having lost many friends; surprisingly, the one he most endearingly memorializes is not a gay man, but an offbeat actress named Meghan Robinson.

One of Charles Busch's Off-Off efforts, a 45-minute, one-act called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, created for a low-rent Alphabet City group called Theatre-in-Limbo, was so well liked by audiences and critics (especially D.J.R. Bruckner of the Times), it earned a full Off-Broadway production in what became a record-busting multi-year run; the first Busch play I ever saw, it was a crucial gamechanger in his budding career.

From then on, there was little—apart from cardiac issues encountered in his 40s—to stop Busch, who made a specialty of writing plays (and screenplays) inspired by noirish Hollywood B-movies, with glamorous femme fatales on whom he could base the fabulously costumed and bewigged screen queens for which he became famous. But he didn’t appear in all his plays, as, for example, his devilishly funny Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which starred Linda Lavin (later replaced by Valerie Harper), Michelle Lee, Tony Roberts, and a delightfully perfect, little-known octogenarian named Shirl Bernheim.

Busch captures the highs and lows of a rambunctious theatrical career that also includes several films based on his stage plays, like Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommy Die! He is very selective in choosing which of his works to discuss, so don’t expect an exhaustive exhumation of a prolific career that includes not only Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, Times Square Angel, The Lady in Question, and Red Scare on Sunset, but Olive and the Bitter Herbs, The Tribute Artist, and even the relatively recent The Confession of Lily Dare, which I raved about here.

Busch is self-deprecating enough to dig into his less successful work, like his book for the musical Taboo!, starring Boy George. While happy to explain how he conceived his shows and what he considers their strong points, he’s not shy about confronting his shortcomings, both as a writer and performer. He knows how to tell a story simply, without unnecessary flourishes, and with good humor. Even when he has reason to, he never nastily trashes those who disappointed him, his critiques always being more understanding than bitchy, although his frustrations don’t go undetected.

Theatre fans will relish his descriptions of how some of Busch’s most significant work was developed, with all the backstage angst (and first-night chaos) that often goes into doing theatre. Starry names he places in the spotlight for great backstage stories, some briefly, others at some length, include, among others already named, Claudette Colbert, Joan Rivers, Raúl Esparza, Milton Berle, Rosie O’Donnell, Patrick Swayze, Bea Arthur, Kim Novak, Angela Lansbury, and Carole Channing, with cameos by the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Greta Garbo. Admirers of comedienne Julie Halston, a hilarious mainstay of many Busch extravaganzas, will cherish the stories he tells of her before she became well known.

As his memoir declares, Charles Busch is, regardless of his birth-assigned gender, a true leading lady. While his book may not have the heft and detail found in such recent theatrical memoirs as Barbra Streisand’s or Patrick Stewart’s, both to be discussed in coming Notes, it’ll be much easier to read on the beach. It also contains a photo section on glossy paper, many of the pictures in color. Given its fondness for namedropping, however, it’s a crying shame that Leading Lady doesn’t have an index.

 

 

 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Monday, January 29, 2024

2024 #5 NOTES ON RECENT READING: James F. Wilson’s FAILURE, FASCISM, AND TEACHERS IN AMERICAN THEATRE: PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSORS (2023)

 

NOTES ON RECENT READING

James F. Wilson’s FAILURE, FASCISM, AND TEACHERS IN AMERICAN THEATRE: PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSORS (2023)

by Samuel L. Leiter



My friend and critical colleague, James F. Wilson, who serves as Executive Officer of the Theatre and Performance Program at the Graduate Center, has written a tidy, timely, and trenchant study titled Failure, Fascism, and Teachers in American Theatre (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023, 216 pp.), about how teachers have been treated in 20th-century American drama. His monograph, whose subtitle alludes to a major work by Brazilian theatre practitioner/theorist Augusto Boal, packs a great deal of valuable information and insight into its compact size.

Wilson’s aim is to consider how playwrights have examined the multiple personal, political, and practical issues facing modern educators. Despite being an academic work based on deep research, reflected in an abundance of footnotes, his book is written in a refreshingly clear and cogent style, rarely deploying the jargon you might expect to find in such a study. Wilson’s seven chapters include an introduction followed by a look at “Schoolmarms, Spinsters, and Superwomen Teachers.” Subsequent chapters present “Unfit Teachers” in plays from the 1920s-1940s, the problem of “Radical Liberalism and Academic Freedom” during the Red Scare years, fascistic teachers as represented by three principal dramatic characters (Jean Brodie, Miss Margarida, and Sister Ignatius) from the 1960s-1980s, and an account of issues related to masculinity among male teachers in a profession dominated by women.

Many of the plays discussed will be known to theatre buffs, among them The Corn Is Green, The Male Animal, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but once popular yet now forgotten works, like Decision and The Velvet Glove, will be less familiar. Wilson thoughtfully provides the kind of historical context that helps bring these plays alive by describing not only the chief facts associated with their productions (theatres, length of runs, stars), but whatever controversy they may have stirred when produced. Some of these inspire what are among the book’s most memorable passages.

Failure, Fascism, and Teachers in American Theatre analyzes the dilemmas faced by educators through the years while also discoursing on the state of the teaching profession, be it in public schools, private schools, or colleges and universities. Politics, sexual and psychological conflicts, professional success or failure, issues of gender, teacher romances, professional rivalries, and the like are explored, as are major educational theories exemplified by the plays, such as those associated with Dewey, Neill, and Piaget. Wilson always makes clear how pertinent the issues he examines continue to be. It’s impossible, for example, not to pick up a newspaper today and read about the limits being imposed on teachers regarding what they or, indeed, anyone can say (or teach!) in class or public forums without provoking not only animosity but danger.

Although Wilson concentrates on American drama—plays, not musicals—he occasionally strays into premodern theatre, as when he discusses how Aristophanes’ The Clouds treats Socrates, or when he covers Holofernes in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. But the vast bulk of the book is concerned with plays produced in New York by 20th- and 21st-century playwrights, mainly—but not entirely—American and British. Among the titles—in addition to those already mentioned—are Young Woodley, Girls in Uniform, Autumn Crocus, The Children’s Hour, Brother Rat, Schoolhouse on the Lot, Women without Men, Trio, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rats of Norway, The Traitor, Picnic, The Egghead, The Miracle Worker, Child’s Play, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Quartermain’s Terms, Butley, The Heidi Chronicles, Oleanna, Wit, The History Boys, Office Hours, Schoolgirls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Confederates, and Soft.

I may have skipped a play or two but even a complete list would reveal how selective Wilson’s is. That’s made even clearer by the extensive list of plays (and musicals) he provides in a chronologically organized appendix, a list that Wilson will, hopefully, one day post online so it can be expanded. Some selections in his text may seem more germane than others to his overall concerns, but, viewed within the context of the issues Wilson identifies, most of his choices deserve inclusion.

Failure, Fascism, and Teachers in American Theatre: Pedagogy of the Oppressors will probably find its most common resting place on the bookshelves of theatre professors for its useful survey of how drama has made extensive thematic use of the world of education. As Jim Wilson demonstrates, it’s a domain as significant for thoughtful dramatization as, for example, law, medicine, journalism, the military, business, the arts, science, or politics. His book should prove stimulating and informative even for teachers and administrators who never set foot inside a playhouse.