Monday, April 13, 2015

Our American Cousin: A Sort of Defense (Revised)

One of the most popular posts on Balkans via Bohemia was a piece I wrote back in 2009 in response to a Slate piece by Timothy Noah that made the argument that Our American Cousin – the play performed at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination 150 years ago – was a terrible play.

I have edited and updated my (sort of) defense of Our American Cousin and re-upped it here to commemorate the anniversary of that tragic event. (A link to my original post in its entirety is included at the end.)

Among a package of stories in Slate that marked the 200th anniversary of Abraham' Lincoln's birth back in 2009 was Timothy Noah's "belated review" of Our American Cousin – the play that Lincoln was watching as he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.

Noah asserted that the play was "terrible," and adds that its author, Tom Taylor, was "widely excoriated as a hack" roughly 35 years after that tragic performance at Ford's Theatre for which it is remembered. 

In his piece, Noah wonders:

What was it like to watch? To grasp that, you really have to read it, something I did recently to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. To spare you from doing the same, I provide what is (as best I can tell) the only detailed synopsis available anywhere.

Noah’s piece irritated me at the time, and not simply because Our American Cousin is a soft target. In truth, the play tells us a number of very interesting things. About theatrical collaboration and process. About women's history in American theatre. About Abraham Lincoln.

First, let's take the merits of the play. No one would really argue that Our American Cousin is some sort of neglected classic. But we can't really know much about how good or bad Taylor's version of Our American Cousin was because we don't have a copy of his original script.

Here's why we don't have it. According to Welford Dunaway Taylor, who edited an edition of the play published in 1990 (Beacham Publishing), Our American Cousin was written by Tom Taylor in 1851 as a melodrama based on his experience of the cultural clashes imported by numerous American visitors to the famous exhibition of Britain's Victorian culture at Crystal Palace in 1851. He sold to a British producer for 80 pounds, but that producer never put the show on in Britain. The playwright gave the American rights to Joshua Silsbee – the American actor for whom Taylor wrote the main part of Asa Trenchard (the "American cousin").

(Update: A – sadly – anonymous commenter to Balkans via Bohemia asserted back in 2009 that:

“Silsbee never had rights to the play, but was merely an actor in Benjamin Webster's company. Webster apparently let Silsbee have a copy at some point, but the latter never had any right to produce it and, indeed, died before it was presented. However, Silsbee's manuscript lay at the heart of one of two copyright cases fought over the play.

"The first was Keene v. Wheatley: In that case, the defendants were ordered to cease production because their manuscript was obtained illegally. In the same case, Joseph Jefferson is identified as the primary author of the alterations to the script.

The second case,
Keene v. Kimball, ruled that the defendants had a right to produce the play since they'd obtained their "script" by repeated attendance at the plaintiff's production, which they memorized, a bad copyright decision that was overturned 20 years later in Tompkins v. Halleck.” )

Taylor eventually tried again – assigning a British journalist to find a buyer for the play. That journalist found Laura Keene, whose name is forever linked to Lincoln's assassination as the actress who was featured in the production at which the president was killed. (That's her name in big letters on the playbill above from that fatal night.)

Keene's story is one of the most interesting in 19th Century American theatre without any mention of Lincoln or Ford's Theater. Indeed, her life has all the stuff of the American dream: Keene emigrated from Britain as a single mother with two children  and she rose quickly on her talents as an actress to become the first female entrepreneur in the bumptious world of New York theatre. (There is an excellent account of her astonishing and fleetingly successful career as a theater mogul in Faye E. Dudden's Women in the American Theatre: Actresses and Audiences 1790-1870, published in 1994 by Yale University Press.)

But back to that lost script. Keene was always desperate for new material to fill her calendar, so she bought the play lock, stock and barrel for $1000. (Dudden writes that Keene's "most pressing problem was the never-ending struggle to find the next new play, the next new draw.")

In his introduction to the 1990 edition, Welford Dunaway Taylor observes that when Keene took possession of Our American Cousin, she altered it greatly  largely in an effort to get actors to play in it. Taylor's melodrama suddenly became a comedy. And some of the actors that agreed to take parts demanded permission to "gag" (i.e. "improvise") their parts to cull laughs from the audience.

The actor who took the part of the lisping and effeminate Lord Dundreary, for instance, managed to "gag" his part from a mere 47 lines to become the center of the comic business of the play -- actually displacing the "American cousin." Edward Askew Sothern became a star as he did so, and much of the play's continuing popularity from its New York opening in 1858 and past 1865 to Keene's death in 1873, came not from Taylor but from the new funny business that Sothern and the rest of the original cast wove into the British play about a funny talkin' American in Britain.

So the play that Noah synopsizes is likely less the play written by Taylor than it is a collision between playwright, producer, and ensemble.

Even on the night of Lincoln's assassination, the actors found ways to ham it up in topical ways. The end of the war a few days before the April 14th performance – and the end of the conscription of troops  occasioned this bit of ad-libbed nonsense between Dundreary and a female character:

GEORGINA: If you please, ask the dairy maid to let me have a seat in the dairy. I am afraid of the draft here.
DUNDREARY: Don't be alarmed. There is no more draft.

The Dundreary character in particular became a staple of American culture -- inspiring numerous spinoffs and ripoffs. Which brings us to Abraham Lincoln -- and why he might have liked Our American Cousin.

The cult of Lincoln loves to drone on about his love of Shakespeare -- and he certainly was fond of the historical tragedies. But you don't hear much about Lincoln quoting the Bard's comedies. His tastes in humor ran in a coarser and folksier vein – such as the comic fictive epistles of David Ross Locke, who wrote under the nom de plume "Rev. Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby." The Nasby letters were stinging satires of the Democratic party and its willingness to compromise with the rebels (read some of them here), and Lincoln loved to read them aloud to Cabinet members and other guests -- many of whom loathed the experience.

The comedy of Our American Cousin runs largely in that vein. Silly physical comedy. Wordplay that emphasizes the rich descriptive vulgarity of American speech – and central characters who prick at the puffery of "Old Europe" and celebrate the fair play and common sense of the American character. The perfect light-hearted nonsense for a war-weary president.

So far from worrying, as Noah does, about the "aesthetic experience" that Lincoln had in his last hours, it's easy to see that he was likely after some good old-fashioned and utterly familiar comic relief. Indeed, the play was so familiar to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in fact, that he was able to time his fatal shot with one of the play’s most reliable laugh lines.

Perhaps the lesson is that history is a tricky and more complicated thing – and light entertainments recalled out of context and burdened with the weight of tragedy deserve a bit more retrospective compassion and interest.

(Original post here. Playbill from April 14, 1865  from Ford's Theatre.)  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Doug Lucie's GAUCHO -- A reading in Washington DC

Doug Lucie is one of the greatest British playwrights of our time. So why aren't we talking about him more these days? And why has his work not found more of an audience in the United States?

As a playwright here in Washington, DC, I'm frankly perplexed by these questions. Lucie is the key figure in the transition between the rich and influential UK political theatre of the 1970s and the "In-yer-face" movement of the 1990s. His works are fiercely literate and polemical and political (see Hard Feelings, his classic play about gentrifying Brixton on the edge of the 1981 riots). Yet Lucie's plays also point forward into the open psychic and physical wounding found in Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane's work. The brutality of 1987's Fashion (which explores the squalid alliance of advertising firms and Tory politics), or his prescient savaging of men's movement in Progress (1984) are wonders of concentrated argument anchored strongly in vivid character.

My questions about why Lucie and his marvelous plays are not a central part of our discussion about contemporary playwriting has compelled some action on my part. I am organizing a reading of one of Lucie's greatest plays, Gaucho (1994) in Washington DC on Monday, February 8, 2015.

On its surface, Gaucho is about drugs and the war on drugs,  But the play's plot reunites a group of Oxford classmates and their significant others on a Mediterranean island, Gaucho touches deeply on questions of personal morality, public liberties and the persistence and distorting power of memory. It's one of Lucie's most acerbic and most accessible plays.

I recently asked Lucie to talk a bit about the writing of Gaucho, which takes its title, of course, from the shimmering and drug-soaked 1980 album by Steely Dan.

Lucie mentioned that he started writing the play in 1992 and 1993, right after the Labour Party lost the 1992 election in a swirl of the Conservative Party's kinder, gentler makeover in the person of John Major and a continuing internecine strife within Labour itself. The 1992 election annihilated what was perhaps the last chance to push back against the Thatcher Revolution in British politics. Instead, it ratified that Thatcher revolution in five more years of Conservative rule and the eventual rebranding of Labour under Tony Blair.

"This impacted on every part of society," Lucie writes. "All revolutions create their disenfranchised, and Thatcher's had disenfranchised those in society who had most benefited from the postwar social democratic settlement. Industrial workers, anybody in a low-wage job, the media, academia and the arts.

"In Gaucho, I wanted to express the disillusion and alienation that this restoration of the centuries-old establishment meant to those of us who thought poorly of the new establishment and even more critically of the system they sought to reimpose on us. But the traditional means of expression had been snatched away and now everything was managed by a corrupt media, business and political class that was going to have its way and call it democracy."

The protagonist of Gaucho is Declan Moss, a drug dealer who exists in that shadowy realm of rogue capital, spying and international terror. Lucie adds that Moss is "a bloke who knew this, and through his chosen method waged a sort of war on those who were committing this social and political crime. And on their benighted followers, his former friends. Which made a play that is revolted by the immorality of our society, but can only express that revulsion by depicting a man stepping over the line and becoming an outlaw, because every other course of action is a sell-out."

I am looking for help to put this reading of Gaucho together. If Lucie and his work intrigue you, I invite you to head to the Indiegogo campaign I have set up to help make this chance for Washington DC audiences to hear Lucie's work happen in February.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Final Five!

So we're finally at the final five shows in the WSC Avant Bard production of Nero/Pseudo and tickets are going fast. Let's just say the The Shop at Fort Fringe will have the feel of the amphitheatre for these last few shows of our run.

There's also been some terrific news about my musical collaborators Jon Langford and Jim Elkington as we head into the home stretch.

Langford capped off a successful nationwide tour for his new Skull Orchard record Here Be Monsters with an article in early May in the granddaddy of all rock publications: Rolling Stone (below).

Elkington is also in the news, picking up a coveted gig as the guitarist on Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy's June solo tour

I collaborated with two pretty amazing musicians.

And I was also very honored that my friend Hussein Ibish found time to do an interview with me about the show. We talked political rupture, Bowie and Roxy, and the contemporary resonances of the show's mash up of the classical world and the glitter of glam rock. (Warning: slight spoiler alert.)

Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are on sale here.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Nero/Pseudo: Gods and Emperors

As part of my blogging about Nero/Pseudo, I have also asked Alan Katz -- the dramaturg of the show -- to share some of his wisdom and wit about the ancient world. This is his third look inside the world of the play. Check out his his first two posts on the world of the Greek taberna and on Nero and graffiti as well.)

Every people have gods to suit their circumstances
-- Henry David Thoreau

When I am dramaturging plays that are from or are set in the ancient world, one of the most difficult concepts to communicate is the ancient view of religion and gods. The problem is that the modern mind has been poisoned against “paganism” by a fire hose of monotheistic religions that have burned, tortured, bought, and conquered their way into domination of the modern mind (Did I say poisoned? I meant “gently influenced.”). Ancient Greek and Roman deities had functions that were significantly different from the way we envision divine beings today.

This isn't to say that ancient Greeks and Romans had no concept of monotheism. For Greeks going all the way back to Plato, various philosophical writings implied or proposed the existence of a single god as we would think of it. This god often came in the form of The One (Τὸ Ἕν for the Grecophiles keeping score at home) who is seen as the creator of the universe: the first cause from which all other causes and effects derive. A god in the “set it and forget it” mold of creators, what today would be called “Deism.” But this view was not wholly satisfactory for many ancient peoples. Behind this dissatisfaction is the reason that humans worship gods at all: we need to think that someone is in control of the things that we cannot control. There’s a reason that some of the first gods that humans created were gods of big natural elements like the Sun and storms, having a god that is in charge of incomprehensible elements gives humans a sense of control over those elements. As society expanded, so did the pantheon, so Romans had many gods for even the human-created woes of the world. In Nero/Pseudo, Richard expresses this attitude beautifully when news from Rome foils the plans of Chrysis and Stratocles, and Stratocles blames Chrysis. She says “Blame Mercury, not me!” Mercury (dealing with man-made phenomena like travel, medicine, news and merchants) was not the lowest god of the pantheon, but he was also not the highest. Gods of phenomena that were bigger and more mysterious were considered more important, with some subservient to others through “family trees,” creating a sort of mini-society of gods. Romans also had a sense of the hierarchy of deities (usually placing Jupiter at the top) in a way which reflected the hierarchy of their society.

That the gods reflect society and that religion was an essential part of the state are the keys to understanding the ancient view of religion. The cult of each god had followers because the worship of that deity helped a wide swath of people feel like they had a place in society: Merchants worshiping Mercury, soldiers worshiping Mars, mothers and wives worshiping Juno. Gods (and the stories of them in lore) told their followers how they should behave, what virtues they should value and what vices to avoid. If you wonder why ancient Greek and Roman gods always act so damn human in myths and don’t have the same insistence on infallibility that certain monotheistic gods have, this modelling for human behavior is one great explanation. The vast pantheon of gods and myths associated with them had lessons for everyone in almost any situation, much like the saints and their stories in the Catholic Church.

Not only were there many gods that addressed the behavior of people and their place in society, but each major gods had aspects, expressed through different names (called epithets), that brought diverse occupations and locations into the “mainstream pantheon.” Individual cities have their own versions of the main gods, so a city or tribe might have their own Zeus with different aesthetic representations or purposes than other Zeuses. More importantly, because the main gods covered so many aspects of life and nature, each god had incarnations that reflected that gods function. For example, Apollo was not only god of the Sun, but also a god of music, and his incarnation Apollo Citharoedus (“plays the cithara”) is seen on many statues carrying his stringed instrument. Nero was often depicted as Apollo Citharoedus, since he also played the instrument and was a god. Wait, what?

Woe is me! I think I am becoming a god!
-- Roman Emperor Vespasian while dying

Wait, what? Nero was a god? Today, it is more likely that a political leader will be portrayed as Nero than as a god. But Nero was portrayed as a god all the time by both his propaganda and by common people who ascribed to the “imperial cult.” The imperial cult began with Julius Caesar, whose dictatorship made the Roman emperor the embodiment of the state. Either just before or just after Julius’ death (probably after, but it is hard to tell since sources are, well, 2000 goddamn years old), he was called Divus Julius, with giant statues erected to him, his birthday made into a public festival, and Augustus, his successor, even building a temple to him. The Roman Senate declared him an official god after his death at the strong (read: violent) urging of the populace.This official deification was very important. He was the first historical figure to be deified and put into the same pantheon as the other gods of the Romans. He became the patron of the imperial order that stabilized Rome after the civil wars that followed his death.  Augustus took advantage of the populace’s fervor and found the imperial cult useful in establishing control. He would portray himself as godlike without ever coming out and saying that he was a god. (People would be all “Hey, Augustus, are you, like, a god or something?” and he would be all, “No, no, I’m just another senator who sends people to be crucified, but I only do that to people who ask too many questions.”)

While officially turning into a god was reserved for an emperor post-mortem, the emperor was practically a god in life and was crucial to the state religion because now the state had its own representative in the pantheon. And now everyone was forced to treat the emperor basically like a god, making sacrifices to him, criminalizing open dissent, and reliance only on the emperor’s self-control to prevent a megalomaniacal dictatorship. Some of the emperors had that restraint. Tiberius and Claudius were efficient administrators, but not beloved of the populace or too big in the head.

Speaking of big in the head, perhaps now is the best time to talk about Caligula and Nero. Caligula was Nero’s uncle and,  famously, fucking nuts. He took the imperial cult more seriously than any of his predecessors, and often portrayed himself as the incarnation of several different gods. Most devastating to his reign, however, was his deep and abiding love of pissing off anyone who had a significant amount of power.

Nero was an emperor in Caligula school.  He not only portrayed himself as a god, but all evidence shows that he firmly believed that he was one. He didn't want to wait until after death to enjoy being a god, so Nero did all of the god-like things he wanted to do, like make senators commit suicide, set up elaborate spectacles that showed him bringing the sun to earth, and take the stage to play the greatest heroes of legend. There was no equivocation about Nero’s god-status; he mandated that people address him as Apollo because of his music playing ability, that coins displayed him as Jupiter, and that he was a charioteer equal to Sol (who drove the Sun around in his chariot). This is the equivalent of having a president who portrays himself as the world’s greatest rockstar, NASCAR driver, and king of all religions and governments.

It’s no surprise then, that the Roman world went as nuts as he was when he died, leaving the greatest power vacuum in the past hundred years or more. None of the elites (who had been seriously repressed by Nero) had the charisma or the claim to fill that vacuum, and the common people who had loved and worshipped Nero couldn't believe he was dead.

He couldn't be dead; not a god like Nero. After all, Nero had survived so many conspiracies and assassination attempts that this must just be another false alarm. Nero must have escaped this time. Maybe he would do what he did as emperor and disguise himself, playing his music in taverns to get by. And, as Nero/Pseudo opens, there is a mysterious stranger from far off who enters the Taverna Imperial, offering to play the songs of Nero, who else could it be?

(Image: The Apotheosis of Claudius, via Creative Commons.)

Nero/Pseudo is now open at The Shop at Fort Fringe. Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are now on sale.