Same As The Old Boss: Center Stage’s Grim, Industrial ANIMAL FARM

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Same As The Old Boss: Center Stage’s Grim, Industrial ANIMAL FARM

Melvin Abston and Tiffany Rochelle Stewart

Melvin Abston and Tiffany Rochelle Stewart

Posted on March 12, 2018

Few of us leave high school without first having been exposed to George Orwell‘s 1945 allegorical novel Animal Farm, and for good reason: the book is short and simple yet also deep, perfect for initial forays into critical reading. Like most allegories, Animal Farmsports a plain, uncluttered surface, but reveals great riches just below. Hence the tale of Farmer Jones, the initial proprietor of the eponymous farm, and of his various animals, displays a close resemblance to the history of the Russian revolution and its aftermath. The animals’ uprising starts with a noble and inspiring ideology, soon challenged by the emergence of a commissar class, the exploitation of the very proletariat the revolution is supposed to serve, show trials, revisionist history, breathtakingly dishonest propaganda, ill-conceived industrial projects, a cult of personality around the supreme leader, cynical exploitation of the personae of revolutionary heroes, etc. And then, beneath that amusing if discouraging set of correspondences, there lies a critique of authoritarian regimes generally, of both the left and the right.

It gives little away to say that, in Orwell’s grim assessment, revolutions of the left and right alike seldom deliver permanent democratization of politics or foster a true economic commonwealth. As The Who sussed it out 26 years after Orwell, the new boss will always end up looking pretty much the same as the old boss.

But because this perception is now probably more widespread than it was in either Orwell’s era or that of the Who, the challenge in re-presenting this material, as Center Stage is doing now, is to give us something neither obscure (many of us are not greatly conversant with Russian history of a century ago) nor obvious. Working with a 1996 script by Ian Wooldridge, but probably more importantly with direction by May Adrales(whose bold and flamboyant work I have seen in the biggest and most demanding shows in two recent seasons at the Contemporary American Theater Festival), Center Stage and its producing partner for this show, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, have manifestly tried to restore a shocking quality to the story.

One thing they have done is replace the farm setting with what looks like a run-down industrial abbatoir. Theatergoers will likely remember Andrew Boyce‘s white-tiled but crumbling set with smudges that could be dried blood even if they would be hard-put to explain what this setting does better than a barn or something more typically farm-like. Although in the book, the butchering of animals clearly happens away from the farm, here hewn-open carcasses are also design elements.

I think Izumi Inabi’s costuming (for the most part dun-colored jumpsuits and animal masks held in the performers’ hands) was part of the effort to make it vivid, though in that regard it seemed self-defeating to me. The masks are frequently stumbling blocks in the effort to determine what animal is being enacted (some species’ masks look more vulpine than whatever they’re supposed to be), and the drab coveralls rob us of supporting detail. The program notes say Inabi was trying to differentiate animals with various sorts of fabric choices, but if that worked, it did so only on a subliminal basis.

Erasure also threatens the characterizations, perhaps not deliberately, owing to heavy use of doubling and tripling of roles within the 8-member cast, assigned totally disregarding gender. This often leaves one frequently scrambling to follow which character is speaking. (I’m not alone in this perception; it was a complaint of at least one critic in Milwaukee, where the show ran first.)

Though annoying, this is not altogether terrible. In fact it has a definite upside; the overall effect, be it deliberate or inadvertent, is to emphasize the collective impact of the unfolding horror, which is a point of some value.

This adaptation de-Britishizes the tale as well, to coin a term. Orwell’s animals are clearly English, characterized with little touches that mark them as such, and mark their creator as a British satirist and polemicist. Apart from singing an anthem about “Beasts of England,” these animals seem more American than anything else. For instance Squealer (Tiffany Rochelle Stewart), a pig whose job it is to propagandize for the porcine junta that steals the revolution, is given annoying mannerisms delivered in a flat Great Lakes accent, that clearly mark him/her (?) as American middle management.

The universalizing of the tale, even beyond what Orwell intended, may be a legitimate project, at a moment when we seemingly see efforts to perfect similarities to the porcine takeover of Animal Farm in Russia (where the revolution that overthrew Communism has been nearly obliterated by Putin’s mafia), in China (where Deng’s counterrevolution against Maoism is being smothered by a regime singularly devoted to suppressing all free political speech), and even in the United States (where – well, I don’t even have to go there). But if we hand Animal Farm the megaphone, particularly an Animal Farm that has to some significant degree moved beyond the work it adapts, we ideally would hear something that provides new insight into our current perplexities. Word that the powers that be lie and lie and lie is not exactly startling in a world of Russian troll factories and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It’s hardly Orwell’s fault that he could not foresee our own independently-forged familiarity with the social, political, and human phenomena he was writing about. But it doesn’t make his particular fable one we urgently need to see enacted.

Because of all these choices by the creative team, then, the true selling point of this production is not so much a reimmersion in Orwell’s masterpiece as a reminder, if we needed reminding, of the collective nausea that overtakes us in one of those periodic moments when totalitarian assaults on truth, justice and human dignity are winning.

And it does not hurt at all that, as is typical of Center Stage, the performances are all great. I’ve already mentioned Ms. Stewart, who makes you want to do to her principal character, Squealer, what Squealer, doubling as executioner, does to the hapless defendants in the show trials. (Conveying extreme hateability requires talent.) Other standouts include Stephanie Weeks as (among others) Old Major, the boar whose prophecy resoundingly catalyzes the revolution, Deborah Staples as Clover, a horse who cannot contain her doubts about the revolution, and Melvin Abston (pictured with Ms. Stewart above) as Napoleon, a coldly amoral operator who emerges as the top pig in the revolutionary scrum. But the entire cast is competent and, perhaps owing to the previous run in Milwaukee, extraordinarily tight.

The cast is also typical of Center Stage in that not a single performer has ever played on this stage before. I have mentioned more than once this company’s reliance on a New York casting agency and its very spotty reliance on local talent. As Center Stage goes through a changing of the guard at the Artistic Director level, I hope we can see a change in that regard too. Surely a company that once nurtured the talents of Terry O’Quinn and Christine Baranski by giving them multiple roles, allowing them and local audiences to grow in tandem, is capable doing similar things again. We should.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo. Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow.

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There Are Tides

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There Are Tides

Published online by the Daily Record March 9, 2018; published in the Daily Record March 12, 2018

A columnist must write concisely. Concision forced me to omit much from my previous column, When the Other Folks Give Up Theirs (January 19), in which I discussed the mechanics of white privilege. I got to tell readers that privilege can be rolled along from one generation to another, as educational or financial capital, and that historically, at times when much educational capital has been formed, blacks were excluded from the process. I documented my point with tales from my own white family. But I didn’t get to talk about timing, and that’s an important part of the story.

Catching Waves

There are ebbs and flows. In my own family, for instance, it was not a straight-upward trajectory from my immigrant grandparents to myself and beyond, to my grandkids. Sometimes we’ve gone up, and sometimes we’ve had to wait.

In the previous column, I mentioned my dad’s father. He did indeed, as I wrote, prosper in business and send his son to Harvard. But it was a near thing. True, my grandfather came to the country in the last century’s first decade, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties was a company president living in a mansion in Far Rockaway. He grew wealthy –  at a moment when wealth was comparatively easy. Easy – and fragile. If you look at successive editions of the New York City directory for his street, you’ll see something remarkable at the moment the Great Depression hit. Not one family that had been there in 1928 was still in residence by 1933. The Depression cut through it like a scythe. My dad was a college junior when the market crashed. My grandfather’s company failed, and he was never wealthy again.

It was bad; my granddad could not afford to send my father to college for his senior year. But educational capital came through. My dad had already gotten far enough, maybe just far enough, so that scholarship and teaching money became available. So, even absent family financial support, my dad was able to stick around Harvard long enough to earn his undergraduate degree and a doctorate. He went on to some very lean years of college teaching, at times at multiple institutions.

And then the next wave began to swell. My father was brought out of academia to work in the Labor Department during World War II, and in the State Department after the war, aiding European economic recovery. And after that, the doors of academia reopened to him at a moment when academics were beginning to enjoy some real prosperity.

Awaiting Collective Inebriation

On my mom’s side, the story was similar. My grandmother left rural Prince Edward Island, apparently because her family’s general store collapsed and there was no work, and married an accountant who went to work for a bank. I did not mention last time that the accountant had been a college man (Bowdoin ‘07), so the commitment to education was already there. And, as I reported, their daughter, my mom, went on to acquire an elite education of her own. But again, it was a near thing. It was a depression; my grandmother saved everything, for instance a legendary drawerful of dimes; elderly relatives came to the house to die; hobos asked for and received handouts at the back door. My grandfather never got poor, but he never got rich.

And while my mother had the education, comfort usually eluded her until her fifties. After she married my stepdad, in 1954, times were tight for many years. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan the year they were married, for the annual salary of $4,400. Even adjusting for inflation, that was a paltry sum. He spent many years having a wretched time managing money, often savaged by finance companies. What saved him and my mom in the end was the prosperity that came to college campuses in the 60s and 70s, largely the result of federal spending. By the end of his life, he bragged frequently about how he could and did pay every bill on the day it came in. He had caught the wave historian David Kennedy described to author Thomas Friedman with these words: “It was the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history – the country was giddy with pride and opportunity.”1 Friedman noted that the average income for the bottom 90 percent of households [increased] by 2.8 percent a year” from 1948 to 1973.

So the American reality my family lived out was that money is transmutable into education, and education into money, and that in the normal course of events the locus of that privilege may move back and forth between the one and the other as the times require. Families with education could (and mine did) ride waves, like the Roaring Twenties or the above-mentioned moment of collective inebriation, and then wait between them. That was one normal course of events in white families.

But moving back and forth is tougher for families that can’t obtain good educations. And up to my generation, the family history discussed last time suggests the best educations, the ones available where I and my forbears studied, were, practically speaking, reserved for people with European ancestors. Blacks were thus largely denied whatever advantages such educations might have afforded them in catching either of the big waves that had benefitted my own family.

Ebb Tide

Formal segregation of education started to die in 1954, of course, but we all know how slow the demise really was – and how incomplete it remains. And in retrospect true integration of the educational system was an urgent task for blacks in 1954, because there was a great tide of prosperity flowing then, into which education might help them dip – and a contrary ebb tide, a great redistribution upwards rather than downwards, coming in 1980.

The recent redistribution was carefully chronicled by economist Thomas Piketty in his epic 2014 work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, who summed it up as an explosion of income inequality.2 During that explosion, Piketty noted, the upper decile of our society improved its share of all U.S. national income by 15 points. It was an ebb tide for most Americans, a high tide for a few.

Black income does grow; indeed it seems to be growing at a faster rate than white income. But the white head start remains. In the words of the Pew Research Center: “Households headed by a black person earn on average little more than half of what the average white households earns. And in terms of their median net worth, white households are about 13 times as wealthy as black households – a gap that has grown wider since the Great Recession.”

Leave it to Shakespeare to put it best: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”3 White privilege is, in part, a heightened ability to survive and prosper among variable tides. Education is where that ability mostly starts. Black America has historically lacked, and still lacks equal access to it.


  1. Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late (2016), at Page 394 (Kindle Edition).
  2. Piketty, op.cit. at 294 (“income inequality has exploded”).
  3. Julius Caesar, IV:iii 224-27.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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A Lackluster Script Spoils THE GRADUATE at Dundalk Community Theatre

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A Lackluster Script Spoils THE GRADUATE at Dundalk Community Theatre

Dyana Neal and Stephen Edwards

Posted on the Baltimore page of February 26, 2018

In 1963, a young Californian from a family of means, recently returned from four years at Williams College in Massachusetts, brought out a novel about a young Californian from a family of means, recently returned from four years at a college that could have been Williams. The book, of course, was Charles Webb‘s novel The Graduate, an adaptation of which by British playwright Terry Johnson is currently on view at the Dundalk Community Theatre. (On Broadway from 2002 to 2003, the play ran for a respectable 380 performances.)

To judge by the Wikipedia entry on Webb, the author was or became alienated from his family and from traditional paths to success; in later years he has reportedly pursued an idiosyncratic lifestyle some might find bizarre. Again, there seems to be a correspondence between author and character.

And that may help explain the strangeness at the heart of The Graduate. Like what is reported of his creator, protagonist Ben Braddock evinces no interest in advancing his career, no desire to engage in the social niceties expected of him by his parents, and no sense of accomplishment in his stellar undergraduate successes. And no matter how many times Ben is asked to explain his rudeness and anomie, no meaningful explanation comes back. One infers that Ben’s creator Webb was suffering from a similarly inexplicable – not to say irrational – alienation from his roots and history, and could not dramatize anything more cogent because he had no cogency to offer. The novel’s version of the character is thus stuck being a rebel without a well-articulated cause.

The Graduate was nonetheless made into a very successful movie in 1967, with a screenplay by comedian Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, and laser-sharp direction by Mike Nichols. The creative team did two things to conceal the incoherence at the story’s core. First, they gave Ben a speech in the middle to Elaine, his love interest, in which he comments that he feels he is “playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.” To anyone in that era, this language, though vague, sufficed to evoke what was then called the “generation gap.” Young people of that day, like this critic at the time, were apt to feel that their parents were “the wrong people” to make up the rules. In addition, Mike Nichols had the perspicacity to insist on the folk/pop duo Simon & Garfunkel to provide most of the music. The singers’ street cred as troubadours of the youth movement, together with that one little speech, made it possible for young to see Ben as an avatar of a generation that thought its parents as wrong about the War, about sex, and about civil rights, and stuck in a hopeless materialism. (Perhaps the most famous line in the show, not from the book, is the recommendation by an oldster to Ben that he pursue a career in “plastics,” the word being synonymous in that day and age with shoddy manufacture, and when you called a person “plastic,” it was a damning putdown. So much for parents and their values!)

But in terms of character construction, this facile explanation was only lipstick on a pig. There was plenty of rejection of parents in the book and in the movie, but neither Ben nor Elaine was taking any general or generational position, or meaningfully rejecting parental values. (Ben, for instance, simply leaches off his parents for awhile, or lives off the proceeds of earlier leaching; Elaine is still finishing her undergraduate degree at Berkeley. No one is talking about going off freedom riding, demonstrating against the War, or denouncing materialism.) So this was not about the values at issue in most people’s generation gaps. What made the story work, to the extent it did, had little to do with values, and indeed, little to do with the pose of surliness toward elders that is Ben’s default. Instead, the mainspring is the strictly personal drama of Ben, Elaine, and Elaine’s mom, Mrs. Robinson. If Ben had not been disillusioned or had been polite, this story would have worked much the same way, and would have worked as well.

In passing it should be noted that Elaine has no more convincing depth to her than Ben does. She is blown by every passing wind, and apparently constantly falling in and out of love with Ben, in conformity with plot requirements rather than in response to any well-imagined interior life.

Ben’s character may be a phony pastiche, and Elaine’s a confusing cypher, but in Elaine’s mother Mrs. Robinson, Webb and the moviemakers laboring after him struck gold. Bored, lecherous, alcoholic, deeply dishonest, vengeful, and possessed of a twisted motherly loyalty, she is real and vital and scary as hell. (It did not hurt either that she was brought to life by Anne Bancroft in the role of her career.) In limning Mrs. Robinson, Webb did nothing less than address a gap in the fictional canon. Most young men encounter someone like Mrs. Robinson in their growing years, but her type had and has seldom been written about (Phaedra being the big exception, having been dramatized by such notables as Euripides, Seneca, and Racine). Certainly no one has ever pictured the type so well. Her initial imperious and bullying pursuit of Ben while steadfastly denying that she is doing any such thing is a bravura performance, the damage she subsequently wreaks is credible and a little tragic, and the ultimate comeuppance she receives brings the story to a satisfying conclusion. Readers and moviegoers, including this one, are ready to forgive every other flaw in The Graduate because Mrs. Robinson is such a wonderful villain.

There is another problem with dramatizing the book that bears mentioning here: the deadpan transcription of the dialogue. When I read the book as a high schooler, I puzzled over whether it was supposed to be funny or not. Buck Henry and Calder Willingham certainly thought it was, and the movie plays as a highbrow satire of a materialistic society in the eyes of its critical and somewhat ungrateful children. But the book does not insist on being taken as a comedy.

Terry Johnson‘s dramatic recasting of the tale, which owes something to the book and more to the movie, goes one step further, and presents the material as a sex farce. This choice is a disaster. Though there are some farcical touches, mainly fueled by Benjamin’s efforts to keep the affair with Mrs. Robinson a secret, the material lacks and indeed cannot be reconciled with any classic farcical structure. Sex farce is driven by concealment, usually of adultery, to be sure, but when the adulterous affair is with a self-destructive, narcissistic gorgon, the stakes grow too high for farce. And the unmasking of the concealment, usually the denouement of a sex farce, usually solves underlying problems without severe collateral damage to anyone. Here the unmasking completes the destruction of a marriage, wreaks havoc with the business and social relationship between Ben’s family and Elaine’s, and has only one positive feature: the fact that Ben and Elaine end up together.

How do you fix the mismatch between material and treatment? If you’re Terry Johnson, apparently, you dumb things down. You take some of the meanness out of Mrs. Robinson, giving her a sisterly drunk scene with her daughter, and add a hint of reconciliation between her and the young lovers at the end. You give Elaine more agency, too much, and have her (on second thought, after first crying about it) getting chummy with the stripper who had humiliated her (a wasted Rachel Verhaaren). You throw in a scene that seems like a bunch of unfunny cheap shots at the Sixties (an expected psychiatrist who turns out to be a guru with dysfunctional furniture). And you add a scene to the end, after Ben and Elaine’s elopement, that adds nothing to the unsettledness of the endings of the book and of the movie. Further, largely to cut down on the number of scene changes (probably), you disturb the order in which the dramatic cards are played. One thing you cannot say against either the book or the screenplay was that the writers didn’t know how to build a dramatic structure. Some of the plot development suffers because of Johnson’s rejiggering. For instance, Mrs. Robinson’s initial seductive campaign ought to be played out in two spaces: Ben’s family’s house and the Robinsons’ home; these spaces should feel different, with the second one much more dangerous. And that doesn’t happen here. Likewise, the funniest line in the movie (“Are you here for an affair, sir?”) doesn’t happen, presumably because the setup for it would have required more staging.

I’ve necessarily avoided to this point talking about this particular production. I greatly admired Dundalk’s recent rendering of The Bridges of Madison County, which struck me as a community theater hitting well above its weight, in singing, staging, scenery, and overall performing talent. I cannot say the same of this outing, though with the Johnson script it would be hard to do outstanding work. That said, Dyana Neal’s Mrs. Robinson is pretty much perfect. She has the intimidating stare, the commanding manner, the resolute lack of curiosity about any aspect of the world aside from sex, tobacco, and alcohol, the maternal protectiveness, all down pat. If Anne Bancroft is looking down from heaven, she probably approves.

Benjamin posed a major casting challenge in the movie: everyone involved recognized that putting a relatively short and recognizably Jewish actor like Dustin Hoffman in the role was going to change the dynamics. In a sort of reverse from The Merchant of Venice the love plot felt a bit like a Jewish Lorenzo stealing a Gentile Jessica from her family. But the book reads as an all-WASP affair. As Buck Henry acknowledged, the original Ben was probably meant to be a tall and blond and athletic, which nebbishy Dustin Hoffman was not. Stephen Edwards fits neither the blond god nor the nebbish pattern physically, and he plays the character (who in the book is usually taciturn, and has a fairly tough affect in the movie) as a distressed adolescent, prone to all the hand-wringing that you get in the youthful protagonist of a sex farce. It just doesn’t work well.

Elisabeth Johnson is fine as Elaine – which is to say that, being faithful the incoherency imposed on her by the script, she barely ends up portraying a character. It isn’t fair to an actress to make such demands.

Even the set is a mistake, though one that seems to echo the Broadway original: a vast beige/pink room surrounded by enough louvered doors for two sex farces – even where the plot would call for solid doors. Benjamin frequently finds himself in tight places, and the set fails the minimal requirement of conveying this literally or metaphorically.

Finally, what of the nudity? Kathleen Turner as Mrs. Robinson put this show on the map by standing naked for twenty seconds in a hazy blue light that revealed very little, and the same effect is tried here, which, for my money, was and is a mistake. No one is promoting gratuitous nudity, but these days audiences can handle it where it is appropriate. And the moment when Mrs. Robinson stands naked before Ben, the first moment she verbally acknowledges that she is in fact trying to seduce him, should be shocking, not just titillating. Mike Nichols knew this back in 1967, although he was able to shoot it in such a way that Anne Bancroft‘s or a body double’s absolutely forbidden bits did not seem to be on view. Since you can’t do camerawork like that on the stage, you should simply but really show it. Nor is this all. The stripper’s bidirectional twirling tassels effect from the movie is an important plot and character device which I don’t think can be pulled off unless the bustier is – and here it isn’t. This was not an audience which would have blanched; I saw white-haired grannies chuckling at suggestions of oral sex.

So sadly, I’d have to recommend that, if you’re up for revisiting The Graduate, buy the DVD or reread the book, both of which are still available, and wait for Dundalk Community Theatre’s customary high standards to reassert themselves next time around.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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A Community’s Accomplishment and the Homosexual Gaze: ALL SHE MUST POSSESS at REP Stage

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A Community’s Accomplishment and the Homosexual Gaze: ALL SHE MUST POSSESS at REP Stage

Keri Eastridge and Grace Bauer

Posted on the Baltimore page of February 10, 2018

There are, in the end, only two kinds of accomplishment in life: obtaining gratifying experiences and leaving behind deeds and objects of value. All She Must Possess by Susan McCully, receiving a world premiere at The REP in Columbia, is about a quiet woman and a somewhat noisier community who collaborated in both kinds of accomplishment.

The woman, Etta Cone (1870-1949), together with her sister Claribel (1864-1929) was an important acquirer of works of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne, among others, building a collection of 3,000 pieces that the Baltimore Museum of Art describes as “the crown jewel” of its holdings. And her life was blessed and enlarged by her inclusion in poet Gertrude Stein‘s circle in Paris, a circle whose members included artists whose works she and Claribel collected. Her relationship with Stein most likely included a brief spell in 1905 as lovers, teasingly touched upon in the play, a connection disrupted by the 1907 arrival of Alice Toklas in Stein’s life. All She Must Possess is perhaps at its most touching depicting Etta’s getting on with life and continuing with her collecting after rejection and mistreatment at Stein’s hands, and after the death of Claribel.

The play does not suggest that the collection was Etta’s work alone, but rather depicts it as the emanation of the entire community, including not only Etta (Grace Bauer), but Claribel (Valerie Leonard), Gertrude (Valerie Leonard again), Gertrude’s brother Leo (Nigel Reed), Alice Toklas (Teresa Castracane), and the artists, for whom Matisse (Nigel Reed again) stands in as representative. It was out of that community’s joy in creation and discussions of it (Expressionism vs. Cubism, for instance) that the collection, a thing of transcendent value, is shown as having emerged, with Etta’s role as being the primary shaper of the final product. But the play is generous in giving all of these participants in the joint creation some “screen time” in which to demonstrate their contributions to the enterprise, whether it be Leo’s joie-de-vivre, Matisse’s artistic exuberance, Gertrude’s self-assuredness in exploring the limits of what speech can do, or even Alice’s bitchy possessiveness as Gertrude’s helpmeet.

There is more to the play, however. It is also a work of meta-theater in which a character called only The Writer (Keri Eastridge), a 21st-century lesbian, transparently something of a stand-in for playwright McCully, confronts and interrogates a spiritual predecessor (illustrated above). That predecessor cannot be said to be a totally satisfactory interviewee, as when Etta playfully refuses to be specific about what may have happened sexually between herself and Stein. This matters much less, the play seems to suggest, that what ended up adorning the walls of the sisters’ Baltimore apartment and later those of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Having started the meta-theatrical hare, McCully also loses control of it, in what I take to be a bit of Pirandello-esque fun surrounding who is in whose play, which is not badly done but does not seem to belong in this play.

What insight emerges comes less from what is said between The Writer and Etta and more from the characters’ interplays with the works of art sometimes projected within frames at the back of the set. We get a sense of the effect upon Etta (and one presumes upon Gertrude) of Matisse’s Blue Nude, originally acquired by the Steins, and later by the Cones, a work immediately criticized upon its appearance in part because of the androgynous nature of the body on display. Indeed, the nude comes alive on the wall (portrayed by Teresa Castracane again), and Etta’s longing for the Nude to look up and establish eye contact and presumably other contact is interestingly established in the Blue Nude’s seductive speech. The androgynous nature of Michaelangelo’s sculpture Night also figures in the play’s exploration of the intersection between art and the homosexual gaze, both Michaelangelo’s and Etta’s.

The centrality of the male and the female homosexual gaze to what The Writer seems to be gleaning from her encounter with Etta underlines what I think was a mistake in the casting of the play. This was the choice of Valerie Leonard to bring us Gertrude Stein, who was not only a gay icon but specifically a butch icon, a perception attested to by many queer critics and scholars. Leonard first appears and continually reappears in the play as Claribel Cone, a tall, queenly character of conventionally female appearance, apparently deliberately to contrast her with the far less regal or conventionally feminine Etta. From side-by-side photos, the contrast of the historical Claribel with the historical Etta does not seem so profound, but this is theater, and liberties may be taken. However, with minimal time to switch costuming, hairstyle, or makeup, Leonard cannot easily transition back and forth from her portrayal of Claribel to that of Gertrude. She tries to move with suggestions of corpulence when being Gertrude, but that alone is not going to evoke Stein’s stunning appropriation of conventionally male appearance, key to her iconic appeal and probably to both the historical Etta’s and the dramatized Etta’s sense of attraction to her. (To say Leonard cannot do the impossible is of course not to impugn her considerable skill as an actor. But even in an era of nontraditional casting, the immutable corporeality of a performer sometimes matters a lot.)

While the play therefore does not hit every mark for which it aims, it hits far more than enough of them, particularly in the way it traces the trajectory of Etta’s failed romance with Gertrude. And for Baltimore-area audiences, the play serves as a vital reminder of an indelible piece of our heritage: a locally-situated collection assembled by a small community including four emissaries from Baltimore (Cones and Steins) to the great world outside.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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No Escape from the Hall of Mirrors in THE DEATH OF WALT DISNEY at Single Carrot Theatre

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No Escape from the Hall of Mirrors in THE DEATH OF WALT DISNEY at Single Carrot Theatre

Posted on the Baltimore page of February 5, 2018

The ahistorical insinuations begin before we even reach the auditorium, as we are marched down a hallway with a lemming stenciled on the side, which will prove to be a reference to the staged suicides of lemmings in a 1958 Walt Disney nature documentary; the only problem is, as the Snopes fact-checking website tells us: “it is not known whether Walt Disney approved or was aware of the activities of … the principal photographer for the lemmings sequence.”

When the audience arrives in the auditorium, the set immediately previews a clear falsehood: stylized icicles and simulated vapor prefiguring the cryogenic postmortem freezing of Walt Disney‘s head – which is a part of the play, but never happened, though Disney did think about it. (Disney was cremated.) The play lurches along like this, from calumny to calumny.

Lucas Hnath‘s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, now being presented by Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre, is various things, but one of them is an extended act of character assassination of America’s mid-century showman bearing only a wobbly relationship to the man’s history or his achievements. So far as this reviewer can determine based on a perusal of a standard scholarly biography, Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006), most of the worst stuff about Disney in this show (and there’s a great deal) does not spring from what is actually known about the historical Disney, but from rumor, surmise, and Hnath’s imagination.

Yet Disney has living descendants, not to mention still-living audience-members (myself among them) who as children enjoyed and were stimulated by his works. While I am not suggesting that Hnath, a creative writer, should be held to a biographer’s standard of care, there does seem to be something callous and careless about trashing in this fashion a memory about which many still care.

If there is a justification for this extreme affront to the truth, the justification can only lie in what the artist does with it, what it makes it possible for a playwright to do.

The first thing that can be claimed for the basically misleading portrait of Disney, which depicts him as an overbearing bully, is that it certainly resonates with today’s preoccupation with public figures who are overbearing bullies. We do spend a lot of time nowadays talking about men who always place their own priorities first, grab all credit from other members of their team, show themselves allergic to accepting any blame for failures, lack personal loyalty, and have an insatiable need to be adulated – all traits of Hnath’s fictive Disney. (There is a limit; not even Hnath tries to depict family man Disney as a dissolute voluptuary, a trait common to so many of the public figures being outed nowadays.) But the play premiered in 2013, before today’s dialogue, and so that degree of topicality was lucky rather than planned.

We must instead justify Hnath on this score, if at all, simply in his depiction of a type, conjuring up an imaginary Disney who illustrates Hnath’s point (much as Shakespeare, like other Tudor propagandists, conjured up a largely fictitious Machiavellian bogeyman in Richard III the better to explore that type). Viewed that way, the play’s liberties with the truth may be justified.

The Disney depicted in the play (Paul Diem) is simply what we would now call a control freak, and to that end he is willing to spare nothing and no one, including himself. He wants to and does control the seating of the audience as it files in. He wants to control his brother Roy (Mohammad R. Suadi) and his daughter (not identified by name, possibly to avoid libel complications, as she was still alive at the time of the play’s first staging) (here portrayed by Meghan Stanton) and his son-in-law Ron Miller (Eric Poch). He wants to control his environment, and is traumatized by the experience of a strike by his employees. He wants to control urban life, the germ of his idea of Disney World and EPCOT, in which the residents are envisioned as being without political rights. He cannot abide the notion of a single tree being anywhere other than where he wants it.

He even wants to control his death.

That last stab at control is central to the play’s action, in fact it could be characterized as being the play’s action. The foreground of the set is a table around which the four cast members are reading the text of the play as at a public reading; the play they are reading is, however, apparently written by Disney himself, so he is simultaneously the author of the play and the subject of it – and he seems also to be the auteur/editor of what one might call the play-without-the-play, that is, of the performance of the four cast members reading the play; we know this because he is continuously making cuts to that performance, which are met by instant advancing of the scene, frequently in mid-line, even when he is talking himself.


cut to

There’s this Guy in Irvine

cut to

He freezes the bodies

He freezes, well, just the head and

No, it’s not gross, it’s beautiful,

it’s beautiful, it’s

cut to

Not that I’m dying anytime soon

cut to

Not that I’m dying anytime

cut to

Not that

cut to

No, just

cut to

the future

Anyone who finds this “cutting” annoying or tedious is likely to have a hard time with the play, particularly given that, as shown below, there are similar effects in the dialogue. While I found it excessive, it must be said that there is a crude kind of poetry to it. And I would add that it is poetry with a point: it reflects what the stream of thought in such a person might well be like – unwilling to stay put to watch any detail fully fleshed, impatiently jumping to the next detail in search of an ever elusive bigger picture.

It becomes apparent that Walt’s effort to write about his demise, to force it into the role of conversational subject rather than himself becoming that death’s object and thereby losing the ability to write about it, is part of his struggle, and part of the reason he keeps reaching for the clicker with all those “cuts tos” in a futile effort to rejigger things in a way that will avert the conclusion. His motto is “Unless you’re one of the most important people who ever lived, what’s the point?” But there remains no point if you have no consciousness left to enjoy your importance. Hence the sight near the end of doomed Walt struggling to slow down and stretch out indefinitely the experience of his own final moments.

The hall-of-mirrors effect of a play within a play within a play in which one character is struggling and failing to break out of the hallway is meta-theatrical with a vengeance, very much the kind of thing audiences look to Single Carrot to handle. And the troupe surely rises to the peculiar occasion. Paul Diem looks a bit and presents a bit like the avuncular Walt Disney children of my generation saw on Sunday nights. He and Suaidi as Roy manage amazingly well with the difficult split-second dialogue, which often looks like this:


visiting relatives


nice, it must


not really


kinda lonely






cut to

And they all say,

well he just does cartoons











This takes an ear and great discipline to pull off. Stanton and Poch also shine in smaller roles with similar challenges. And coaching such dialogue must have been equally taxing for co-directors Genevieve de Mahy and Matthew Shea, especially since, with a stripped-down script that calls for little in the way of blocking, scenery, costumes, or any of the normal paraphernalia of stage production, the words are mostly what you get.

Whether this is your evening of theater or not will therefore depend not upon the quality of the performance, which is impressive, but upon the play itself. If the presentation of a generic bully confronting the void while expressing himself in jerky and poetic fragments is your cup of tea, this will be the play for you. And I do not write this dismissively. Even with my reservations, it was for me.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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When Everything Falls Apart: SKELETON CREW at Center Stage

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When Everything Falls Apart: SKELETON CREW at Center Stage

Stephanie Berry and Sekou Laidlow

Posted on the Baltimore page of February 2, 2018

There are two archetypal American stories. In one, everything is new, malleable and alive with possibility. In it, a hero can always “light out for the territory” like Huck Finn, or at least find a frontier of sorts in a settled land, like today’s much-discussed “Dreamers.” Playwright Dominique Morisseau does not tell this story: she focuses on the other story, the one most of us face today, the one in which everything comes apart, and the only dream is that things will stay the same long enough to allow us to survive, whatever may happen next.

One of the places where the coming-apart story occurred was Detroit around 2008, as the auto industry reeled from the first shock waves of the Great Recession. An assembly plant of that era is the setting of Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, receiving a regional premiere at Baltimore’s Center Stage. The employees can’t know, as we do, that the American auto industry was entering a great bottleneck, a moment when two of the Big Three automakers nearly went out of business, only to be saved and nursed back to health by a government bailout. All they know is that management is thinning the ranks of assembly-line workers and that the plant itself may close. That immanent obliteration of jobs and thus of a way of life plunges each of the four characters in this play into logistical and moral quandaries.

For Faye (Stephanie Berry), the UAW shop steward with 29 years in, who seems at the outset to be an honored and secure elder, the factory’s growing insecurity compounds certain gradually-revealed vulnerabilities she has been hiding, while simultaneously calling on her to try sticking up for her colleagues on the line. For Shanita (Brittany Bellizeare), a proud and pregnant worker who comes from an auto worker family and literally thrills to the sound of a factory, the threat of plant closure is nothing less than a challenge to her values and her plan for her entire life. By contrast, Dez (Gabriel Lawrence) clearly sees the threat for what it is, but seems poised between two fundamentally different responses. Both involve entrepreneurship, but one envisions honest means and the other, criminal ones. Perhaps the worst dilemmas present themselves to Reggie (Sekou Laidlow), who has risen to the ranks of junior management, only to find himself torn between loyalties to former colleagues, especially Faye, and to the company, to whom the workers as individuals matter not at all. And for Reggie, there is clearly a racial subtext to the loyalties to former colleagues, all of whom, like him, are black.

As the show beautifully demonstrates, a factory means so much more than just what rolls off the assembly line. It is a roof over its workers’ heads, a community, a source of mortgage payments for one’s home and tuitions for one’s children, of health care and financial security in one’s old age. And when it is threatened, all of these things are threatened too.

Morisseau explores how choices forced by these fundamental threats go right to the fault lines in these workers’ souls. And Center Stage’s talented cast and the sure hand of director Nicole A. Watson make every tortured flaw believable and fascinating, and every dilemma worth pondering. One does not want the story to end, so as to spend more time with these people.

If there was any flaw in the script, it was that at times it was hard to make out what choices the characters were actually making – as if Morisseau had tried writing those choices both ways and then tried to preserve elements of both in the final version. For instance, there are materiel thefts from the lines as the play progresses, and as I heard it, there is textual support for one, two or none of the characters having been involved. Likewise, Reggie is involved in an altercation with middle management toward the end, and it is difficult to determine from his account how physical it really became, which in turn makes it hard to determine what it meant.

Still, this we know: at the end all of the characters have in their way struggled through the challenges posed by the plant’s fate, and in some fashion and in some measure prevailed. The human spirit, Morisseau seems to be suggesting, is hard to crush, regardless of the direction in which the great tides of industrial affairs may flow.

This reviewer briefly worked on a Detroit-area auto parts assembly line for Ford in 1969 (the hardest job he ever held), and can say that the highly-detailed set and the sound design (Mariana Sanchez and Darron L. West, respectively) feel right. This is a convincing presentation of what an auto plant feels like.

If one Googles the locations of American auto assembly shops today, one will see that more of them are to be found in states with weak union cultures than in states where unions would set the moral tone for worker communities. If any single thing can claim that honor, the passing of the old union-style solidarity is the subject of this play. As worker institutions are atomized, the individual workers’ resilience and integrity and ability to forge bonds on their own must necessarily come to the fore. Morisseau suggests that they may do that.

Heaven help us if she’s wrong.

Photo credit: Bill Geenen/Baltimore Center Stage

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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When The Other Folks Give Up Theirs

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When The Other Folks Give Up Theirs

Published in the Daily Record January 19, 2018

There is a temptation, when racists like Trump and tiki-torch bullyboys command so much attention, to let the rest of ourselves too lightly off the hook, because most of us who happen to be white don’t think like bigots. Still, we remain beneficiaries of social arrangements that make it hard for people of color to prosper. White privilege, I think, is a bigger problem than individual bigotry. We resist seeing it, but it’s there.

I could try driving home this point with statistics and studies, but I’d run out of column space. So let me tell it the best way I can: by testifying about what I saw when I reflected on the ways my own family benefited from racially-specific privilege, and how obvious it was.

Family Tales

It partly had to do with money, but mostly it was about education because education was the sap in my family tree.

I have Jewish and Catholic grandparents, both from groups not altogether favored in Protestant America. Yet they had white skins, and so they got their chance. My Jewish grandparents immigrated in 1908, though my grandfather had wangled a naturalization in an Atlanta courtroom a decade earlier. I suspect his sponsor had perjured himself testifying, as the record reflects, that my grandfather had lived the requisite five years in the U.S.; I have no reason to believe this was true. (Fleeing the pogroms, you may cut some corners.) It seems improbable, though, that an African immigrant would have had as easy a time in that same courtroom – and in any event an African would not have been admitted to this country after the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. My grandfather prospered in business, and sent his son, my father, to Harvard (the yearbook reveals a virtually all-white class). My dad went on to be a diplomat and a professor at Columbia.

My Catholic grandmother, who immigrated from Canada at around the same time, started as a paid lady’s companion, but married a New England accountant who weathered the Depression by working as a bank officer. Their daughter, my mom, went to the elite Boston Girls’ Latin School (I don’t have her yearbook, but everybody seems to be white in nearby classes), and then Radcliffe (not one non-white face in the graduation photo), Cornell, and Hopkins. Later on she taught college.

Exactly One

And as for me, the third generation? I went to the best high school in Ann Arbor, run by the Education Department of the University of Michigan, state-owned but with an admissions process like a private school’s. There were African Americans in my town, in fact I lived next door to them. But out of a graduating class of 60 at my school, exactly one was African American.

I proceeded on to an Ivy university, which I could afford because of a 50% tuition reduction based on my father’s being a Columbia professor. Looking at the freshman facebook of my class, you can go page after page without seeing a non-white face. My graduate school class at another elite institution had just one African American student. And so the first time I had any significant number of black classmates was 24 years after Brown v. Board of Education, when I matriculated at law school.

I was raised to despise racial prejudice, and have taught my children the same. But have I enjoyed a racially-exclusive education? It seems I have. Have I passed this racially-exclusive educational privilege along to my children? Why, yes. The kids are all products of elite private universities, with almost no public schooling among them in their earlier years. That means that, while they have all had some non-white colleagues throughout their educations (far more than I did, thank goodness), they have almost never had to share in the privations of our city’s majority-black public school students. And the prospects for my grandchildren, the fifth generation in this saga, look similar.

Education both requires money and breeds it. Over time, money from parents and grandparents has bought our family’s young educational options. Take my children: One son’s job was a direct result of unpaid internships he filled while in college; family support alone made those credentials economically feasible. All of my children began their education preparing for one kind of career – and ended up incurring costly curriculum changes or additional schooling costs in order to switch educational tracks that led to the careers they actually have. Privilege buys second chances.

Lead Boots

I don’t want to give the impression that my family were not strivers; every single one of us worked hard, and in that sense we’ve each earned our success. But after the first generation, all of us received boosts from our families’ existing money and education. Privilege could be, and was, rolled along like a ball from generation to generation. But to profit from such privilege, somebody had to receive the ball to start with. And as you can see from my account above, hardly anyone seemed to be handing that ball to African American families when and where I was schooled.

Last summer, I saw a wonderful play called The Niceties, by a young playwright named Eleanor Burgess, a two-act confrontation between a white professor who has made good and a black student who challenges that professor’s status. The student says it better than I can:

“[F]irst came 250 years of slavery, and then came a hundred years of segregation, and then came a deliberate and systematic attempt to exclude black people from good school districts and good jobs and to lock them up or hunt them down for doing things white people do every day. I need you to say that whatever else it stands for, America has systematically persecuted one part of its population, in a way that benefits the other part. In a way that has benefited you… You won fair and square cuz everyone else had lead boots on.”


Do Something

The student’s proposed solution, rejected by the professor, naturally, is that the professor abjure her status and resign. And that challenge extends, mutatis mutandis, to people like me. In my case, the abjuration might have taken the form of letting my kids attend the urban public schools. And that was never going to happen (except for a brief period where one child was part of a gifted and talented program).

As the late, great Gil Scott-Heron sang: “The philosophy seems to be, at least as near as I can see: When the other folks give up theirs I’ll give up mine.” In a world without governmental safety nets, few parents like me are going to give up privilege. But if we can’t bring ourselves to do that personally, we’d better get a government that does it for us by creating opportunities for those historically denied them.

Unfortunately, right now we have a president and a government that seem, if anything, to be fans of lead boots. We’ll need to rid ourselves of these cheerleaders for inequality, but it won’t be sufficient. Those of us who will not be “giving up theirs” need to do something more. I challenge my peers to own their privilege – and do something.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Not Joyful, Not Triumphant, But Determined

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Not Joyful, Not Triumphant, But Determined

To be published in the Maryland Daily Record December 14, 2017

For those who celebrate Christmas, whether of the religious or secular variety, it’s been unusually hard to get into the mood this year. We usually hope for a pleasing return to customs and traditions (trees, gifts, church services and special meals) that reaffirms our identities as members of families, and, for the believers among us, affirms our relationship with a benign and protective Deity, all bringing about a sense of well-being. And the same is true for any other culture’s or religion’s mid-winter festivities.

Sour Note

Well-being is a sense that’s hard to come by this mid-winter, though. With environmental disasters everywhere (the California fires are the latest at this writing), ever faster melting of icecaps, misrule rife in Washington, possible nuclear war on the horizon, the prospect of financial ruination for everyone in our country except the rich, attacks on national monuments, defunding of children’s health insurance, hate groups resurgent, genocide in Myanmar, and the unmasking of sexual harassment carried out by formerly admired men throughout art, media, and government, just to name some things at random, there’s a sour note in the air bound to infect almost any celebration.

I happened to be up in New York a good deal of the time this last week. On the surface, everything looks as inspiring as ever. There is an astounding tree in Rockefeller Center and a great light show at Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Rockettes are still kicking up their heels with military precision at Radio City Music Hall. Yet if you wander into the Hudson Theatre, where The Parisian Woman, an ultra-topical play about today’s Washington, written by Beau Willimon (creator of the American version of House of Cards) and starring Uma Thurman, unspools nightly, you can sense the real underlying mood. As the play recognizes, no one in the current circles of power really believes in what he or she is doing or saying. But no one stands up for what he or she does believe. Personal advancement and enrichment trumps conscience every time. And the audience seconds Willimon’s perceptions, with bitter laughs at the jokes about Trump and his sidekicks, who appear to have no admirers in that venue.

At the end of a different show, I ponied up $20 for this year’s Carols for A Cure, the wonderful annual collection of holiday songs contributed by the casts of various current musicals, the proceeds going to charities funding AIDS research and care and some aspects of women’s health care. I’ve bought a number of these CDs over the years, and they have frequently served to raise my own holiday spirits. But as I was driving back home this year, I found myself listening repeatedly to a rendering by the cast of A Bronx Tale of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and thinking different thoughts.

Henry’s Dark Night of the Soul

This song, adapted in 1956 by composer Johnny Marks from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, as Longfellow was dealing with his soldier son’s recovery from near-fatal wounds in battle, captures the despair of that era in words eerily reminiscent of what we are all feeling now.  Invited by the sound of Christmas bells to rejoice, Longfellow cannot feel it.

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But Longfellow refuses to take his own depression as the final word, attending instead to the power of the bells:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Longfellow’s encouragement proved justified. His son did recover, and the North did win the War.

No Hands But Ours

And perhaps Longfellow’s larger point is also true. We can and we must take heart this season. Maybe it’s only the familiar power of the bells or the trees or presents or church services or family gatherings to change the mood. Or maybe there is a God, neither dead nor asleep, still presiding over our sad world. But if so, it must be a God whose style of intervention justifies the perception attributed to Teresa of Ávila that God has no hands now but ours. And her perception (or whoever’s it really was) is key.

What we all at our core want most at Christmas is to be cared for and reassured like the children we were when we first came to love the feast. But for grownups that can never be the principal concern. Instead, we shoulder the task of being Santa Claus, the nurturer rather than the nurtured, a task passed on from generation to generation. And this dark year we need to be Santa in a much larger sense, being the providential protector that the bells promised Longfellow was neither dead nor asleep. It is ours to see that the Wrong fails and the Right prevails.

Those Are The Breaks

Because of that assignment, we probably cannot sing Adeste Fideles with quite the accustomed spirit. The task we face is daunting. We are all too justified in feeling neither joyful nor triumphant, whatever the verses claim. But those are the breaks. This Christmas, we need to muster whatever cheer we can, recharge our batteries, and then – come out swinging this next year. Whatever the wounds we have sustained, whatever setbacks lie ahead, we must fight with renewed energy to reclaim our world.

No generation ever lives to see the Wrong totally fail, or the Right totally prevail. But this is the moment we need to stop losing ground. And who knows? Maybe we shall regain enough of it so that some day in our lifetimes we can sing with conviction once more about being joyful and triumphant. Regardless, we have no choice but to try, and no holiday but the present one, by whatever name we call it, to ready ourselves.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Revive the Draft? Bite Your Tongue!

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Revive the Draft? Bite Your Tongue!

Published in somewhat different form in the Daily Record, November 10, 2017

Have you learned nothing, journalist Clyde Haberman? You’re my age, plus four years. You, like me, are of the Vietnam generation, the last generation to face the military draft. We of all people should know that forcible conscription is something this nation must never, never, never, never reinstitute. Yet there you go, in the pages of the New York Times on October 24, rising to John Kelly and Sara Huckabee Sanders’ bait. John Kelly pities anyone who didn’t share at firsthand the reality of military service and sacrifice, and Sanders says you shouldn’t get into a debate with a four-star general (one who has that experience). These bits of chest-thumping non-sequitur make you go weak in the knees and suggest that we should maybe all have that experience again, and so maybe we should bring back the conscription.

Oh, you do temper it a bit, and say other forms of national service should be acceptable alternatives too.

Let’s Talk

Really? We need to talk about all of this.

Have you truly forgotten, in this season when Ken Burns’ magisterial Vietnam War refresher documentary is unspooling on DVRs everywhere, what usually happens when our national leaders make war? Well, then, I’ll remind you. They tell us that the cause is just, that our military brass are wise and skilled, that victory is just around the corner. And by the time it comes out that most of it is lies, thousands of our countrymen will have died, more will have been wounded, and most will be scarred forever by the memory of what they faced and did. And as to accountability, forget it. The leaders never face accountability. Robert McNamara and William Westmoreland and President Johnson died in bed, unlike a schoolmate of mine, one of the 23 names from my smallish hometown on that wall. And many of those 23, I’m sure, had no choice whether to face the risk so deceitfully demanded. That is what the draft does.

The draft deprives a conscript of perhaps most important choices anyone as a human being and a citizen could ever make: whether to expose oneself to mortal danger, whether to kill, and whether to lend one’s body and skills to policies made by politicians.

I am not saying it is wrong to choose enlistment, even though swearing the oath will deprive one of the power to make these choices going forward; obviously armies and navies would not work if soldiers and sailors could preserve such autonomy while in uniform. And we do need armies and navies.

Let’s Not Be Orwellian

But the inalienability of an individual’s preliminary decision whether or not to participate is a matter of paramount national values articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The protection of a young person’s right freely to say no goes to our nation’s very reason for being: to assure that “all men” receive protection of their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in a land where the laws operate only by “the consent of the governed.” As a lawyer, I could certainly frame an argument that the draft preserved those values. But as a human being, I know that that would be an Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument. The draft you and I knew made a mockery of young men’s lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and by definition the draft was indifferent to the consent of those it governed at that moment.

Have you forgotten all this, Mr. Haberman? Why, apart from wanting us all to be able to thump our chests like John Kelly, do you turn your back on that lesson? It’s not as if we need the draft; our needs for military personnel have been met with volunteers even as we’ve plowed through two endless wars.[1]

So what, then, is your argument? It seems to be that bringing compulsory service back would assure that the middle and upper classes have some skin in the game. You suggest we might not have had those endless wars we’ve had in the all-volunteer era, had the likes of you and me had to send their sons and daughters off to play in that lottery we call war. Well, again, remember Vietnam, Mr. Haberman. There were better-off folks who did not serve, like Donald Trump and (full disclosure) me. But though some deny it, the statistics bear out that the service and the dying did, if somewhat unevenly, involve all classes,[2] and – do you remember this part? – the War still went on and on and on. Nobody could stop it, regardless of the class distribution amongst the warriors, and regardless of the fact that halfway through, the War lost popular support, especially among the better-off classes.[3]

And Let’s Not Violate the 13th Amendment

As to requiring alternative service, this would just establish a regime of involuntary servitude, rightfully unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment. And it is well to remember John Kenneth Galbraith’s comments about the economic effects of the draft:

The draft survives principally as a device by which we use compulsion to get young men to serve at less than the market rate of pay. We shift the cost of military service from the well-to-do taxpayer who benefits by lower taxes to the impecunious young draftee. This is a highly regressive arrangement that we would not tolerate in any other area. Presumably, freedom of choice here as elsewhere is worth paying for.[4]

The exact same principles would apply in the case of young people impressed into public service, which would be one of the “other areas” of which Galbraith wrote. If we had to pay youngsters what their civilian service would be worth, we would in effect be adding millions of decently-compensated employees to the public payroll every year. Morality and principle aside, I seriously doubt we could afford it. And shame on us if we forced young people to work during what should be some of the most productive years of their lives, and didn’t pay them right.

Many of those we honor this Veterans Day served because of the draft. Yet we honor them because, whatever compulsion may have led them to do it, they still served to preserve our Constitution and our values. And paradoxically, one of the ways we can best honor the values they served for is to make sure that no one else faces that compulsion.

The draft was an abomination we must never revive. Bite your tongue, Mr. Haberman.


[1]. It seems to have been true that at the outbreak of the Iraq war, recruitment by volunteers could not keep pace with demand, in either quality or quantity. See Fred Kaplan, The Dumbing-Down of the U.S. Army, Slate (October 4, 2005). However, the manpower needs of U.S. armed forces, from both a quality and quantity point of view, were being met again by 2009, as chronicled in a carefully-written paper by Louis G. Yuengert, America’s All Volunteer Force: A Success?, at 57, Parameters 45(4) (Winter 2015-16). This balance of supply and demand came about in large part because we do not need so many military personnel any more. “Compare 1971 (during the Vietnam War), when the armed forces totaled about one-sixth of the male population 15 to 24 years old, with 2003 (a time of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), when armed forces were only one-fifteenth of the male population that age and an even lesser share of the total population (because by then large numbers of women were serving in a wide range of military occupations). “ Casey B. Mulligan, Ideas, Costs, and the All-Volunteer Army, New York Times, January 14, 2015. During Vietnam, in turn, we had far fewer personnel on active duty (9 million) than we did World War Two (16.1 million). And of course now we have women filling the roughly 10% of military jobs involving combat from which they were excluded before.

[2]. Clearly, there was a substantial bias in the Selective Service system during Vietnam, a bias active in deferments as well as the practices of some draft boards, that made the conflict more of a “working man’s war” than one might have expected based upon all military-age men’s abstract equality before the law. But there were plenty of better-educated and more affluent draftees. 76% of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower or middle/working class backgrounds. This necessarily implies that 24% of the total 2.7 million troops sent there, or just under 750,000, were from higher-class backgrounds. Many of the different class outcomes were actually caused after men were drafted, not before. Then as now, statistics demonstrate that through the armed forces’ sorting of inductees into military occupational specialties, higher social status military personnel have tended to be heavily protected from the risks of combat. See Alair McLean, The stratification of military service and combat exposure, 1934–1994, Soc Sci Res. 2011 Jan; 40(1): 336–348. That said, on an anecdotal level, it is worth noting the comment of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who recalled his own experience as a company commander in a Vietnam infantry unit that brought together soldiers of different backgrounds and education levels, noting that the draft “does bring people from all quarters of our society together in the common purpose of serving.”

But even granting that more affluent and whiter men were somewhat spared from the full effects of the draft even when on paper they were drafted, it would be simplistic to say that for that reason, their parents’ generation was left less inspired than it would otherwise have been to exert political pressure to stop the war. As I can well recall, there was enormous angst amongst our parents. Even where well-to-do families were successful in keeping their boys from being drafted, a great deal of family effort was often required to qualify for a deferment. And bad things happened to young men without deferments who resisted. Reportedly in 1972 alone, there were 200,600 prosecutions for refusing induction. 210,000 Americans went to Canada, as I would have done had I been left with no alternative but induction. It would be far beyond naive to think that such things had no influence on the anti-war fervor among their parents.

There may not have been a target hung on the professional and upper classes, but they were fully conscious of how at-risk their sons were. And yet the War continued. The notion that the draft would keep unpopular wars from being waged is conclusively refuted by Vietnam.

[3]. By the third quarter of 1968, the War’s fourth year, according to the Gallup organization, a majority of the U.S. public opposed it. Without a doubt, the vanguard of disapproval and resistance was on the nation’s college campuses, where present and future members of the professional and wealthy classes congregated.

[4]. Quoted from Walter Y. Oi, “Historical Perspectives on the All-Volunteer Force: The Rochester Connection,” in Professionals on the Front Line: Two Decades of the All-Volunteer Force (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1996), 46, as cited in Yuengert, Note 1, above at 59. This passage is quoted as well in many other places.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Helter-Skelter, Seat-of-the-Pants Hilarity: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at Center Stage

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Shakespeare in Love

Helter-Skelter, Seat-of-the-Pants Hilarity: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE at Center Stage

Posted on October 31, 2017

I’m not sure whether “the anxiety of influence” of which critic Harold Bloom writes really inhibits poets. (This, per Mr. Bloom, is the anxiety poets feel about their ability to craft something new in the face of work by their predecessors.) But I’m quite certain it doesn’t apply to playwrights. Shakespeare in Love, now gracing the boards at Center Stage, is as good an illustration as any. William Shakespeare, as we know, has more influence to this day than any other playwright; his phrases and his vocabulary permeate conversation and writing throughout English-speaking lands, and his tales and characters are such archetypes we can generally refer to them without explanation. He is Mr. Influence. But does that surfeit of influence occasion the slightest anxiety on the part of Tom Stoppard? To that we may safely cry “Nonsense!”

This play, an adaptation by Lee Hall from a 1998 screenplay by Stoppard (also author of another Shakespeare takeoff, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) and by Marc Norman, is clearly the product of three dramatists who see Shakespeare’s example and his plenitude as nothing more terrifying than an occasion for going on a lark. Shakespeare’s language and dramaturgy are everywhere in the show, which ostensibly focuses on events of 1593, the year of Romeo and Juliet. The references may be sly (“Wardrobe mistress, quickly!”) or derisive (Will: “Give me to drink mandragora!” Barman: “Straight up?”) or drawn-out and direct (the process by which a misconceived comedy named Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate King’s Daughter morphs into a much beloved tragedy of young love). But they are constant. The creators of this entertainment are glad to have Shakespeare always in the room with them, and glad to point him out. There is no anxiety and no fear about it – just high spirits.

The central conceit is that as of this early date in his career, Shakespeare (Nicholas Carriere) is really not all that good or confident a poet or playwright, and requires promptings and suggestions with both sonnets and his Romeo play from Christopher Marlowe (Avery Glymph), who is the real deal. Marlowe even has to provide in-person real-time assistance to Shakespeare with the latter’s wooing of a theater-struck young woman, Viola de Lesseps (Emily Trask), in a balcony scene that just happens to contain much language that will powerfully remind the audience of a balcony scene in another play. And, like so many Shakespeare heroines, including one named Viola, this Viola will don male garb in pursuit of her objectives, both of the thespian and the romantic nature. In other words, the events of Shakespeare in Love are outrageously depicted as inspirations for things that turn up in Shakespeare’s plays, rather than (as the audience knows full well is actually the case) the other way around. (Just as, in Back to the Future, Marty McFly’s rendition of Johnny B. Goode supposedly inspires Chuck Berry to copy the song.)

The result is ridiculous fun. The sly references to the actual plays and sonnets waft by, the incidents of supposed inspiration pelt the playwright to his often apparently oblivious response, and slapstick, mingled with topical and romantic comedy, is laid on with a trowel. It may be slightly nerdy for the audience to know much about who was who in the world of the late Elizabethan stage, but who won’t chortle as impresario Philip Henslowe (Barzin Akhavan) is threatened with having his feet roasted for nonpayment of a debt to a thuggish but also theater-struck usurer named Fennyman (John Plumpis)? Who won’t enjoy the contemporary feminist overlay when Queen Elizabeth (Naomi Jackson) discusses non-traditional (from a 16th-century perspective) casting – of a woman in a woman’s role, no less – and extolling the benefits of sending a woman to do what’s usually regarded as a man’s job? And who can be insensitive to the charms of a romance that, like Romeo and Juliet’s, grows up between two people we know cannot end up together (in this case an already-married Shakespeare and a wealthy young woman pledged to a nobleman under royal command) – in other words a romance condemned to Roman Holiday brevity but also Roman Holiday charm and brilliance – the more so because Shakespeare is a far more interesting lover than Gregory Peck‘s stolid news reporter?

And most of all, perhaps, is the sense of the theater as a helter-skelter, seat-of-the-pants, totally precarious enterprise, in which people start out to cast or produce a show with no idea how it’s going to be completed, without necessarily even a script, and in which the way to make the final product viable, let alone successful, is, as the script keeps saying, “a mystery.” As Shakespeare and his ever-varying collaborators teeter on the edge of disaster, in large part owing to Shakespeare’s dissolute ways, the play manages to charm and alarm at the same time.

The show comes with an interesting pedigree. Disney Theatrical Productions owned the rights, and reportedly was considering making a musical of the movie, but decided to commission a play instead. There was a 2014 West End production, but never one on Broadway; instead the show’s North American premiere was at the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival in 2016. Evidently it was a big enough hit there that it has grown into the most-produced play in America’s regional theater this season. This particular production first appeared in September at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, which co-produced it with Center Stage, and it is directed by Blake Robison, Artistic Director of the Cincinnati company.

The popularity of such a charming confection is easy to understand, but the ubiquity of the play is a bit more surprising. For all its delights, Shakespeare in Love is a heavy lift. With a large cast (21, including a chihuahua, at Center Stage, with plenty of doubling), a heavy demand for costumes, some really extensive swordplay involving many cast members (here courtesy of two outstanding fight directors, the evocatively-named Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet), and a need for a big set (this one highly reminiscent of the Globe Theater, designed by Tim Mackabee), this is not a play a company can phone in or undertake without lining up financing. It’s understandable that Center Stage would wish to co-produce, and share the expense.

But of course, when you have a theatrical property that is basically a delight delivery vehicle, why not? So perhaps the ubiquity is not such a shock. In any event, this production, which handles all the heavy lifting gracefully (Carriere and Trask are charming star-crossed lovers, the comedic timing is perfect, the swordplay looks dangerous, and the dog is well-behaved).

Since, for all its national popularity, Shakespeare in Love will only appear locally at Center Stage for the time being, you’ll have to see it there – and why go anywhere else, anyway?

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph. Photo credit: Richard Anderson.

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