William Shakespeare, famous actorPosted - Jun 24, 2017
Could it be? William Shakespeare—the world’s greatest playwright—was better known in his day as one of the great actors of the London stage? This is among the insights of independent scholar Marchette Chute in her book, “Shakespeare of London.” A great deal of scholarly speculation has shaped our view of Shakespeare because so little is known about his personal life. On the other hand, much is known about his career in the theater, and this is the focus of Ms. Chute’s marvelous portrayal. Chute’s account is of an ambitious man who made his reputation (and his fortune) as an actor—an actor who happened to write plays as a sideline and didn’t earn a farthing for the effort.
Unlike so many biographers, Ms. Chute doesn’t speculate on the state of Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway, or why they separated, or why he moved to London to take up acting. Her account of the Bard’s life really doesn’t begin until 1594, when Shakespeare joined the famed acting troupe known as the Chamberlain’s company. The Chamberlain’s company was—to draw an analogy from sports—the New York Yankees of their day. They recruited the very best actors, routinely drew the largest crowds, played before the queen each Christmas season, and were so successful they financed construction of their own theater—the Globe.
Before joining the Chamberlain’s company, Shakespeare began writing plays. His first three were histories (Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3) followed by a tragedy (Titus Andronicus) and a comedy (The Comedy of Errors). They were not great plays by Shakespeare’s later standard, but great enough to attract the envy of another writer, Robert Green, who wrote a pamphlet warning his fellow Oxford graduates in the literary scene that their rights were being encroached by a mere actor.
Shakespeare did not attend Oxford, as most Elizabethan playwrights did, but he did attend an exceptional grammar school in well-to-do Stratford. The emphasis was on Latin, Latin and more Latin, but also on devising speeches (written in Latin) appropriate to historical figures, and reading them aloud in a school where eloquence was highly prized. In other words, Shakespeare’s education, which stopped at about the 8th grade, prepared him well for a career in the theater.
Shakespeare was fortunate to arrive in London at a time when the theater was enjoying something of a golden age. The first theater in London, called the Curtain, hadn't been around all that long when Shakespeare began auditioning for parts around 1588. Prior to the Curtain, the companies produced their plays in the open courtyards of various inns around London. At the same time, thanks to the advent of the printing press, books were cheap and reading had become a middle-class obsession. Where else for sophisticated Londoners to find entertainment but in the Elizabethan theater where the use of words, and especially blank verse, were a constant delight? There were no English dictionaries at the time, so truly creative talents—and Shakespeare most of all—invented hundreds of new words that became a part of the English language.
At first, authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was unknown outside of the theater. But as Shakespeare wrote hit after hit, the public gradually caught on and demanded his plays be published. As a result, a number of plays written by other playwrights but performed by the Chamberlain’s company were passed off as Shakespeare’s. And his plays that were published were corrupted by cuts and inaccurate texts and hardly representative. It wasn’t until publication of the First Folio, eight years after Shakespeare’s death, that all such errors were corrected. Why didn’t Shakespeare publish his own plays, as did his friend Ben Jonson? Because there was no money it. The money was in acting.
Acting was not an easy profession. Nearly all plays involved some kind of fighting. In staging hand-to-hand combat the actor’s training had to be excellent. The average Londoner was an expert at fencing, and he did not pay money to see two professional actors make ineffectual dabs at each other with rapiers when the script claimed they were fighting to the death. They also expected to see real blood spilled. Sheep’s blood did the trick, carried in a hidden bladder; when stuck with a blade blood splattered onto the stage as for real. Actors also had to be very agile, able to leap from balconies, tumble, do pratfalls on queue, and dance with élan. Also required was the ability to play not one but several musical instruments, and to be fluent in Latin and French. Actors needed a great voice, so that everyone in a large theater could hear all their words distinctly. Finally, an Elizabethan actor needed an excellent memory, because the repertory system was used and rarely was a play given two days in succession. Every night, the actor played a different part.
A busy actor like William Shakespeare did not have much time to write. His mornings were taken up with rehearsals and there were performances in the afternoon and sometimes special shows in the evening, to say nothing of the strenuous period when the company made its annual tour of the provinces. As a result, few actors actually wrote plays. How did Shakespeare do it? He wrote fast, says the author. He thought out the play very carefully in advance, and then wrote every chance he got. He also happened to be a genius. The texts he handed over to the copyists rarely showed signs of corrections. Shakespeare averaged two plays a year, which is not a lot compared with other Elizabethan playwrights who produced five or more plays per annum. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays are based on older plays—tired, trite and uninspired stories that in the Bard’s hands were elevated into something timeless, exalted, and magical.
Shakespeare didn’t hit his stride until writing The Taming of the Shrew, and revealed his true genius with Romeo and Juliet. When it came to writing history plays, he did not bother much with the facts. Rather, he plumbed for potential conflict, emotion and character development. As a result, generations of English people have accepted as historically accurate Shakespeare’s account of King John, of Kings Richard II and Richard III, and of the Henries—Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. In fact, these plays are mostly works of fiction. Shakespeare did not bother much with geography, either. In one of his plays, he has landlocked Bohemia fronted by an ocean.
Omnipresent in Shakespeare’s London were the Puritans—who believed the theaters were sin-filled places and the devil’s work—and Elizabeth I, the beloved Queen, who could not enter a room without creating a stir. Members of her court were forever trying to shut down the theaters, but being an intrepid theatergoer Elizabeth would hear none of it. Attending the theater was one of the few joys in her stress-filled and often unhappy life. She set the tone in so many ways for the English people, particularly in making theatergoing respectable. London women followed suit and like opera goers today made an evening at the theater a special occasion.
When Elizabeth died, King James I continued the tradition as a theater-going head-of-state. When he died, the London theater died with him. Much to the Puritan’s delight, Charles I shut down the theaters for a good long time. Thus ended a glorious age that had produced several great actors whose fame is known to this day, and a number of inspired playwrights, of whom William Shakespeare is greatest of all. As was said of another time in English history: “Don’t let it be forgot / that once there was a spot / for one brief shining moment / that was known as Camelot” (in this case, Elizabethan London).
Shakespeare died in 1616 blissfully unaware of the immortality of the 36 plays he had written. More important to him, perhaps, was that he retired on his own terms, as a wealthy man. He invested wisely in Stratford real estate and spent his last years in and out of court protecting such property that he had. Much has been made of this by present-day biographers, but Ms. Chute points out that at the time this was a common enough practice among men of property. Indeed, the Elizabethans were a litigious bunch. Why should Shakespeare have been any different?
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It was the huddled masses all over again. Only this time it wasn't immigrants seeking work, it was American citizens seeking work. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s workforce was unemployed, some reduced to selling apples on street corners. In cities across America, including the nation’s capital, unemployed and unhoused workers gathered in shanty-town “Hoovervilles,” while countless more left their homes and communities to drift across the land by train and on foot, presumably in search of work, but, in reality, often without any defined or definable objective (one of them was folksinger Woody Guthrie, who would write “This Land Is Your Land” and inspire Bob Dylan to pursue a life in music).
In the White House, meanwhile, Herbert Hoover was cajoling business leaders to keep their factory doors open while initiating public work projects to create new jobs. Hoover was up to the task but fighting an image problem—he was perceived as cold, aloof, and out-of-touch. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, on the other, was the very image of confidence and warmth, the self-styled “Happy Warrior” who upon taking office had as his theme song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” When it came to substance, did FDR know something Hoover didn’t? Not really. To spur economic recovery, Roosevelt would try many of the same things Hoover had tried. The biggest difference was FDR’s willingness to ignore the budget and spend-spend-spend (Keynesian economics) as a means of jump-starting the nation’s stalled economy. The economy responded, only to slump again during FDR’s second term. By then, the winds of war were stirring and, with American industry fueling the war effort, the U.S. economy kicked into high gear. The following is a brief account of our 32nd president.
32. FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT (1933 - 1945)
The banks were closed and nobody was able to get cash, not even Eleanore Roosevelt, who wondered how she was going to pay the bill at the Mayflower Hotel, where she and the president-elect were staying prior to inauguration day. The Great Depression had gotten this dire, even for a family with the wealth of the Roosevelt’s. The following day, Saturday, March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States. The combination of Roosevelt’s reassuring grin, a national bank holiday, and emergency bank legislation, enabled confidence to flow back into the system. Given a certificate of health by the government, most banks were able to reopen and trade normally when the obligatory closure came to an end after the following weekend. The process was aided by the first of Roosevelt’s wide-ranging press conferences on March 8, and the first of his Fireside Chats on March 14. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” Roosevelt said.
It was not easy ending the Great Depression, or leading the nation through the perils of World War II, or having to deal with polio, which left FDR crippled for life. Who could know the demons Roosevelt faced—as a man, as president, as commander-in-chief of the allied forces? He disguised his feelings behind the facade of an infectious confidence that inspired the nation at a time when it was needed most.
Roosevelt had charisma—loads of it. Journalist Louis Howe—possessed of an exceptionally shrewd political sense—spotted it early on, in 1911. He encouraged FDR to run for office, and thereafter remained his confidant, advisor and cheer-leader through a number of elections, until his death in 1936. Roosevelt was not a liberal as is often thought, but an activist. “He was much more of an improvisor than an ideologue,” writes his biographer Roy Jenkins. “He nudged his way forward. If something did not work, he was always willing to try something else.” Polio, which struck FDR in 1921, was a devastating setback to his life, never mind to his political career. Somehow, he found strength within himself to face the illnesses head on (he never lost faith that he would walk again). He never felt sorry for himself, and to prevent others from feeling sorry for him, exuded vigor, stamina, and infectious good humor, and an unsinkable confidence that quite literarily moved mountains. Republican congressmen who opposed him bitterly, having been called to the White House for a meeting with the president, found themselves agreeing to support a bill that went against everything they believed in. How could anyone resist this exceedingly confident and thoroughly charming man? His smile could thaw the frostiest opponent.
“Clearly the illness strengthened his tendency to dissimulate, to charm people while revealing little about himself as a possible,” writes Jenkins. “It was not entirely a coincidence that he signaled his return to public life in 1924 by what became famous as his ‘Happy Warrior’ speech, and that eight years later his campaign song for his first presidential election was ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’” The nation bought into it, and believed this supremely confident man—he of the jaunty fedora, the upward turn of the jaw, and the cigarette holder clenched in his teeth—cared profoundly about each and every one of them.
There followed a flurry of programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed young men outdoors to build and refurbish camps, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of unemployed people to carry out public works projects, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which brought together representatives of government, business, and labor to promulgate codes of “fair practice” and set reasonable prices during the crises, and the Social Security Act, which established what is the primary means of support for retired Americans. Also, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), which governs the securities trading industry, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which guarantees the safety of Americans’ bank deposits.
The economy recovered, only to slump again during FDR’s second term. Roosevelt was troubled by the Supreme Court, which had declared New Deal legislation unconstitutional in seven of the nine cases that had come before the Court. This resulted in Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan,” which was meant to remove, or at least greatly to modify, the court’s blocking power. It was bold but, according to Jenkins, would lead to FDR’s greatest defeat and launch his second term, in spite of an overwhelming reelection victory, on a path of frustration. By the late 1930s, with the economy still slumping, war in Europe and Asia absorbed more and more of Roosevelt’s attention, and led him to run for an unprecedented third term as president.
Well before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was pushing for American aid to allies, which bore fruit with passage of the Lend-Lease Act that aligned the U.S. with Great Britain and with the man who would become his close friend and ally, Winston Churchill. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt rallied the nation with a stirring call to action. Three-and-half years later, having been reelected to a fourth term as president, and on the brink of victory, Roosevelt died, age 63. A nation wept.
“In war and in peace, faced with the threat of Hitler or the destructiveness of the Depression, FDR was the epitome of the man who rises to the occasion, rallying the nation with strength, intelligence, and the grit it takes to meet every challenge and persevere to victory” (from “American Presidents,” Athlon Sports Communications).
On the short list of presidential greatness, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is ranked third, behind George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Coming up: Unexpected greatness: the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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College radicals back in the day (I know these guys)
Posted - Jun 11, 2017
“The Big Chill” is a 1983 movie based loosely on John Sayles's “The Return of the Secaucus Seven.” It’s about several college radicals—who have since gone on to sundry professions and various degrees of materialism—reuniting fifteen years later over the death of a friend. The cast includes Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, and JoBeth Williams. The movie is funny, sad, poignant, and for me, relatable. I know these guys from my college days, or rather, know the types.
It wasn’t Michigan, but a small college in the California High Desert, around the time the characters in "The Big Chill" were attending Ann Arbor. Radicalism was all the rage. Being a student-radical was fashionable, as Glenn Close alludes to in the movie. Many of the radicals I knew had been surfers only a few years before, wearing Pendleton's and sandals and sporting bleached-blonde hair. Now, in college, they had undergone a change of wardrobe and dressed the part of itinerant farm workers who picked grapes in the San Joaquin Valley. Shakespeare’s observation applies: “All the world’s a stage, / All the men and women merely players.”
The idea was to avoid like the plague looking bourgeoise (a.k.a. middle class). “Bourgeoise” was a word kicked around a lot on campus back then, along with phrases like “the ruling elite,” “the working class,” “value judgements,” and “the military industrial complex.” If you wanted to fit in, you talked the talk and wore suitably worn work shirts, jeans (bell-bottoms were okay if thread-bare) and scruffy lace-up boots. That, and long hair, and you were in. I wore short hair, dressed conservatively (i.e. middle-class) and was tolerated, possibly, because I was on the college newspaper. Being a friend of the student body president didn’t hurt either. My friends the campus radicals dominated student government, challenged the college administration on an almost weekly basis, were against the Vietnam War (who wasn’t?) and consumed with the latest movement—saving the planet.
The superficial Sam Weber character (Tom Berenger in the movie), was our charismatic student body president. In high school, he’d been known as “Golden Toes,” the can’t miss field-goal kicker for the football team. Now, he was the golden-locked can’t-miss leader of the campus radicals, with a gift for oratory. He tried out for the leading role in the Spring play and—despite not being a member of the theater arts class and having no acting experience whatsoever—won the part. The lost, sensitive Nick Carlton character (William Hurt) wore his radicalism like a badge of honor. I think he needed to believe in something, and he grasped onto socialism as if it were a life support. After listening to a black panther speak in the college gym (as part of a symposium that included representatives from CORE, the Urban League and NAACP), he asked the panther what he could do to help their cause—“as a white revolutionary.” Moving to the ghetto and serving breakfast to hungry school kids wasn’t exactly the answer he was expecting.
The nice-guy Harold Cooper character (Kevin Kline) was also on the student council. He wanted to start a branch of the notorious SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). No dice, said the college administration. He settled instead on something of his own creating—the SDC (Student Democratic Council) which organized ecology walks. My first newspaper assignment was to cover their very first walk—picking up trash on 10th Street West. The manipulative and cynical Michael Cooper character (Jeff Goldblum) was a gifted writer who worked with me on the paper. He saw through the student-radical phoniness but played along anyway, and wrote a devastatingly-funny piece that questioned the sincerity of the campus radicals. It nearly got him beaten up by those who didn’t see the humor (so much for peace, love and brotherhood). The Sarah Cooper character (Glenn Close) played violin in the college orchestra and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She wrote for the paper, and why I never asked her out is a mystery. The down-to-earth Meg Jones character (Mary Kay Place) was everybody’s friend and wanted to become an attorney. The shallow Karen Bowens character (JoBeth Williams) was elected homecoming queen.
Every time I see “The Big Chill” it reminds me of my college days. I was not as close to the group as those portrayed in the movie, but I knew them well enough from serving on the student council and as editor-in-chief of the college paper. As in the movie, some of them lived together in a rented house that doubled as party central. They were essentially well meaning, like the characters in the movie, seeking a role to play as they moved from teenage angst to adulthood, and finding it by taking part in the student-radical movement. They weren’t radicals in the truest sense: they didn’t kidnap anyone, or burn down the administration building, or arm themselves, but they did march and hold protest rallies (and partied afterwards). They did this before having to face the inevitable—the cold world of work and worry, failed relationships and disillusionment, the world of the “The Big Chill.”
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Jaroslav Seifert—A Man of True Words
I first read a poem by Jaroslav Seifert in the Christian Science Monitor, around 1980. Entitled “The Royal Pavilion,” it was about his beloved city of Prague. I clipped and saved it. Recently, I was reminded of Seifert and what his poetry meant to the Czech people, while reading "The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall" by Newsweek correspondent Michael Meyer. Learning about him, I was moved by his love for his country and for his fellow man, and ordered a book of his poetry. I was not disappointed.
I'm not generally a reader of poetry, but there is something about Seifert's bluff way with words that touches me, despite being a translation. I never met him, but if I had, I’m sure I would have liked him immediately. This is a man in love with humanity, in love with nature, in love with cities, in love with beautiful women young and old, indeed, in love with all true things. He lived through two world wars, and two brutal occupations, suffered mightily at the hands of ignorant and cruel men, and yet managed to keep his humanity and his dignity, find joy amidst the cruelties of this world, and live life to the fullest.
I ran across this quote from Seifert, in the book’s introduction, about the connection between poetry, sensuality, and freedom: "What we seek in language is the freedom to be able to express our most intimate thoughts. This is the basis of all freedom. In social life, it ultimately assumes the form of political freedom. . . . When I write, I make an effort not to lie: that's all. If one cannot say the truth, one must not lie, but keep silent. . . . Poetry has the subtlety we need to be able to describe our experience of the world. The fact that we speak by means of our human voice causes poetry to touch us personally, directly, so that we feel our whole being is involved."
Seifert won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984–the first Czech to do so. He passed away in 1986, at the age of 85. Four years later his beloved Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) was freed at last from the Stalinist yoke. A man of that much love and sensitively, must somehow know.
For me, poetry takes some time to digest in order to be fully appreciated. Below are five of Seifert’s poems, having been digested, I find particularly poignant:
We wave a handkerchief / on parting, / every day something is ending, / something beautiful’s ending.
The carrier pigeon beats the air, / returning; / with hope or without hope / we’re always returning.
Go dry your tears / and smile with eyes still smarting, / every day something is starting, / something beautiful’s starting.
Remember the wise philosophers: / Life is but a moment. / And yet whenever we waited for our girlfriends / it was an eternity.
The city of factory owners, boxers, millionaires, / the city of inventors and engineers, / the city of generals, merchants, and patriotic poets / with its black sins has exceeded the bounds of God’s wrath: / and God was enraged. / A hundred times He’d threatened vengeance on the town, / a rain of sulphur, fire, thunderbolts raining down, / and a hundred times he’d taken pity. / For he always remembered what once he had promised: / that even for two just men he’d not destroy his city, / and a god’s promise should retain its power.
just then two lovers walked across the park, / breathing the scent of hawthorn shrubs in flower.
THE ROYAL PAVILION
When I gaze out on Prague / and I do so constantly and always with bated breath / because I love her / I turn my mind to God / wherever he may be, / beyond the starry mists / or just behind the moth-eaten setting / to thank him / for granting that magnificent setting / for me to live in.
To me and to my joys and carefree loves, / to me and to my tears without weeping / when the love’s departed, / and to my more-than-bitter grief / when even my verses could not weep. / I love her fire charred walls / to which we clung during the war / so as to hold out. / I would not change them for anything in the world. / Not even for others, / not even if the Eiffel Tower rose between them / and the Seine flowed sadly past, / not even for all the gardens of paradise full of flowers.
When I shall die — and this will be quite soon — / I shall still carry on my heart this city’s destiny.
A lad changed to a shrub in spring, / the shrub into a shepherd boy, / a fine hair to a lyre string, / snow into snow on hair piled high.
And words turn into question signs, / wisdom and fame to old-age lines, / and strings revert to finest hair, / the boy’s transformed into a poet, / the poet is transformed once more, / becomes the shrub by which he slept / when he loved beauty till he wept.
Whoever falls in love with beauty / will love it to his dying day, / stagger toward it aimlessly, / beauty has feet of charm and grace / in sandals delicate as lace.
And in this metamorphosis / a spell binds him to woman’s love, / a single second is enough / like steam in a retort to hiss, / obedient to the alchemist / and drops dead as a hunted dove.
Without a stick old age is lame, / the stick turns into anything / in this ceaseless, fantastic game, / perhaps into an angel’s wings / now spreading wide for soaring flight / bodiless, painless, feather light.
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"If Hemingway Had Written a Racing Novel" is a first-class collection of motor racing fiction. Each of these stories, excerpts of course, feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store with nose to glass.