Friday, October 31, 2008

Catonsville Nine Reading in DC: 11/3/2008

Back in late 1992, when I was a staff writer at Baltimore City Paper, I convinced my editor that tracking down the Catonsville Nine on the 25th anniversary of their revolutionary protest against the Vietnam War and other US military incursions of the era (including Guatemala) in 1968 would make a good article.

Part of the reason that I wanted to write it was the outsized influence that the incident had in my own childhood and teenage years in suburban Philadelphia. I was precocious enough to follow the heated discussions in the Catholic community -- both in my family and in larger circles -- about the Berrigan brothers and their forthright campaign of civil disobedience against US military and foreign policy -- a line that went from the Baltimore and Catonsville actions in 1968 through their decision to go underground as fugitives after their convictions to later actions against nuclear war in the 1970s and 1980s.

Little did I know that it would be one of the best articles in my journalistic career --and one of the most cited pieces in subsequent literature about 1960s protest and the mobilization of American Catholics against Vietnam.

I managed to track down seven of the nine men and women who stormed into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, MD in 1968, seized draft records, dragged the out into an adjacent lot and burned them with napalm. (One protester, David Darst, died in a car crash shortly after the group's trial and conviction; the second, Mary Moylan, had spent years underground before turning herself in to authorities in 1978. I was not able to convince her to be interviewed.) I also managed to track down the officer who arrested them, the prosecutor of the case and numerous others involved in the saga.

The best part of the reporting and writing of the story was getting to know the ringleader of the action: Phillip Berrigan. History is going to judge him as an important figure in the history of civil disobedience and forceful, confrontational nonviolence. He was a towering personality, fierce in his convictions, and yet possessed of a personal gentleness and generosity. He made some mistakes but even those foibles and errors bring to mind Nietzsche's notions that the errors of great men are more venerable than the truths of little men. There was a lot to learn even in Phillip Berrigan's missteps.

I reminisce about this long-ago story of mine because the play that Phillip Berrigan's brother, poet and activist Daniel Berrigan, wrote about the action and the subsequent trial -- The Trial of the Catonsville Nine -- will be given a staged reading on Monday night, November 3, as part of a reading series on War and Ethics organized by Journeyman Theater and Theatre J.

The staged reading is directed by Rahaleh Nassri (who readers of this blog may recall was the widely-praised Romeo in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's all-female Romeo and Juliet) and the performance will be followed by a panel discussion that features the host of this here blog.

If you've got the pre-election night jitters, what better way to shake them off and prepare for the act of voting then hearing the tale of one of the great acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in American history? The reading starts at 7:30 pm.

More info on the reading here. More information on the Catonsville Nine here. Video of the protest is here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Václav Havel's Temptation in DC

Saw Constellation Theatre Company's production of Václav Havel's Temptation in Washington, D.C. last night. It's a wonderful production, but since a number of the local reviews have taken aim less at the staging than Havel's play itself, I thought it might be useful to talk about the play as well as what I liked about this production.

I really like what Allison Arkell Stockman, the director of the play and the founding artistic director of Constellation, did with Temptation. A.J. Guban's set design was wonderfully inventive, and the use of choreography to link scenes and set changes really propelled the play forward.

The production boasts a number of strong performances. Frank Britton's Fistula is every bit as fussy and compelling as Havel wrote him. (And his bony Nosferatu fingers are a wonderful touch.) Heather Haney's Vilma has just the right dose of surface insouciance and interior pathos. And Jesse Terrill's Director was pitch perfect -- and got the loudest laughs of the night.

As a play, Temptation presents a couple hurdles for a production. The first is the sheer range of styles that it presents. In a way, Temptation weaves multiple themes favored by Havel -- the office politics of The Memorandum, the quest to "live in truth" in a state of totalitarianism and paranoia that he made stageworthy in his trio of Vaněk plays, and the satiric possibilities in a fusion of philosophy and seduction in The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

Temptation distills and concentrates all of those modes -- and blends in Havel's own reworking of the Faust legend rigged up to advance his own views that humanity is brutalized not only by its own innate foibles and moral failings but also by its worship of science and technocracy. (In a neat twist, Havel has Fistula -- the tempter -- reduce the conscience of the play's Faust figure -- Dr. Foustka -- to a neat psychological category: the "Smichovsky Compensation Syndrome.")

Constellation navigated this trickiness with great skill -- and its choices of emphasis in the production have helped translate this knotty play quite successfully. As an example, let me point to the end of the play, which -- as written by Havel -- is a bit of a mess that ends with the audience being driven from the theatre by smoke and a fireman with an extinguisher. But Stockman skillfully uses the ring dance and smoke that Havel calls for to relink the play back to the Ur-Faust of Marlowe and (sort of) Goethe. It's a wonderful stroke that is emblematic of the overall quality of this production.

In sum, if you're interested in Havel as playwright but have never seen his work performed, Constellation's Temptation is a great place to start. And for those who do know the work, you'll be delighted by the company's grappling with this very difficult play.

Tickets here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Case of Kundera

So my article on Czech historians' discovery that Milan Kundera denounced a Western spy in 1950 is up at The American Prospect. The short version is that (a) I think this incident did happen; (b) it was completely understandable in the context of those times in Czechoslovakia; (c) it's ludicrous to paint Kundera as some kind of collaborator with the regime based on this incident, and (d) his true betrayal to his own work is in trying to deny it happened now that it's out of the bag.

I feel very confident in making the (a) argument. State archivists have confirmed the document's authenticity. Indeed, the fact that it is only being discovered now is testimony to the fact that Kundera has very minimal contacts with the Czech secret police (StB). If his contacts had been more extensive, we would have know about them by now -- whether those revelations came from the communists in the late 1960s, 1970s or 1980s as an effort to tar his reputation as a dissident, or in the orgy of delving into the secret police files after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Others, however, are trying to deny or elide this incident -- which will certainly force readers to reexamine Kundera's corpus and reevaluate his writings on totalitarianism, memory and betrayal. (I make a quick stab at it in my article.) You can check out some counterarguments here and here. I find them quite unconvincing -- desperate lunges for some plausible denials.
And Kundera's denial -- which I tackle in the article -- is a knotty and lawyerly construction.

At bottom, this incident (and the public revelation of it) is not the "assassination of the author" that Kundera has made it out to be. There's a compelling context for it, and our knowing about it may even make the work richer. But the author of Testaments Betrayed -- which compared such investigation and analysis as a trial -- is certainly going to see it as a conviction of himself in a kangaroo court of history.

R.I.P. Edie Adams

Wife of the legendary Ernie Kovacs. Comic genius in her own right. Founding member of The Nairobi Trio. (This performance still makes me crack up after hundreds of viewings.)

New York Times obit here. Her performance of "That's All" on the last ever I Love Lucy here. And this ad might have made me take up cigars 42 years ago.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Palin and Philadelphia Phans

So you have likely heard by now that GOP vice-presidential candidate (and most notorious hockey mom in America) Sarah Palin was booed lustily by Philadelphia Flyers fans as she dropped a ceremonial puck at center ice last night.

Clownish conservative Flyers owner Ed Snider probably thought this was a good idea, but pretty much every newspaper and wire service except the Philadelphia Inquirer (which stated this morning that she was greeted by "cheers and boos" before changing it up this afternoon to emphasize the booing) has played up the cacophonous catcalls. (And check out the video above. The moment that Palin is announced, but before a deafening wall of music kicks in -- 12 seconds into the video -- the booing can be heard in all of its passionate intensity.)

The Passion of the Palin in Philly has also provided an occasion for the (many) detractors of the notorious "Phanus Philadelphianus" to squawk once again about just the nasty dispositions of those who follow sports in the City of Brotherly Love.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. We've heard it all before. The booing of Santa Claus. The snowballs rained on Jimmy Johnson. (Among those throwing snowballs? Now-governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell.) The jeering of injured Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin. The booing of Beyonce and Destiny's Child at the NBA playoffs because on of the singers wore a Lakers jersey.

It's not that Philly fans aren't bad. But I think the notoriety of Philly fans depends on what sport you're speaking about. There are no better college basketball fans than Philadelphia fans -- and no better college hoops city than Philadelphia. Everyone is passionate about their Big 5 team (St. Joseph's, Villanova, Temple, Penn and La Salle --and throw in those Drexel Dragons), but there's a healthy respect for the opponent (John Cheney's infamous tirade about "sending in the goons" to foul St. Joe's players in 2005 being the rule-proving exception) and even the hard-boiled college fans in Philadelphia understand the concept of "student athlete." (And there's no better place to watch college basketball than the Palestra.)

Some of that feel-good attitude spills over to 76er fans. The mildest of the breed. But as a lifelong Eagle fan who's grown quite weary of the team and the plutocratic and often-inhuman qualities of the NFL in general, I can say that Eagles fans bow to no one in their knowledge of the game and are exceeded by no other pro football fans in their relentless, vicious negativity. Veteran's Stadium when I was growing up was a cauldron of hate (or "Nest of Death") when an NFC East team came in.

My favorite story about watching an Eagles game in the 700 level of the Vet -- which was razed to the ground a few years ago -- was trying to warn a security guard about a battle brewing at halftime of a bitterly cold Eagles/New York Giants game. The maelstrom began when a 10-year old Eagle fan gave the finger to two Giants fans walking back to their seats. The Giants fans unwisely decided to clamber up a few rows to confront the child, which led to a human wave of green-clad fans mobilized to confront the blue-clad enemy.

I pointed out the bubbling conflict to security guard, who stood watchful but impassive. "I can't do anything until someone throws a punch," he said.

The Flyers fans that booed Palin are also pretty boorish, though it's not the first time they've weighed in on politics. Their cascading boos came in handy as a weapon in the Cold War in the 1976 "Super Series" against the Soviet national team, when the Flyers (literally) clobbered the Russians off the ice. Flyers coach Fred Shero's quote at 1:06 into that video is echt Philadelphia sports attitude: "If we win, I'm going to be sky high. If we lose, I think it it will be worse than dying."

And the surging Phillies, now two games away from the World Series? Well, I agree with shortstop Jimmy Rollins that Phillies fans are front runners. When the team is losing, there is no worse place to be than at a Phillies game. You'd need Scrubbing Bubbles to cleanse the place of its deep and curdled stain of misery. But when the team is winning, Phillies fans are positively uplifting to the team. That '93 Phillies team that made the World Series run was carried by the fans. The scrappiness of the '08 Phillies has likewise been rewarded of late --though it took the fans a while to buy in.
And on that note: Go Phillies! Until you choke, you losers!

Note: This is also probably a good place to point out that that my brother -- Delaware sportscaster extraordinaire Tom Byrne -- is blogging again at Unobstructed View.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pox, Punks & Poetry: Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare

Writing a biography of Shakespeare is a difficult task. In fact, that degree of difficulty is what's kept the dim bulbs of the "Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare" movement burning. There are many gaps in the record. Years in which we have absolutely no idea what Shakespeare was doing -- particularly in his early adulthood. The holes in the narrative have tempted some to rely upon conjecture and informed guesses to fill in many of the gaps -- or exploit holes in the narrative to deny Shakespeare his due.

The last major effort to write Shakepeare's life -- Stephen Greenblatt's 2004 book Will in the World -- filled those gaps with forays into historical context and the fashionable hypothesis that Shakespeare's early years may have been spent in the home of a recusant family. James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 took a similar tack in a more telescoped fashion. (I interviewed Greenblatt and other scholars for this article when his book was published.)

Over the last few weeks, I have read another Shakespeare biography of sorts that is among the best things I have ever read about the dramatist/poet. Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare takes as its starting point the playwright's curious role in a bitter lawsuit waged between a French emigre (from whom he rented a room) and his son-in-law over a promised and largely-undelivered dowry.

Nicholl notes that Shakespeare's deposition in the case bears "one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them," but he adds that it is the dramatist's statements within the document that also carry special weight :

We know the thousands of lines he wrote in plays and poems, but this is the only occasion when his actual spoken words are recorded.

Yet The Lodger Shakespeare is much more than a close reading of legal documents. Nicholl uses that starting point to examine the world of high fashion, extramarital affairs and seedy taverns and whoring that most certainly surrounded Shakespeare in his rented quarters. He also points out the precarious situation of foreigners in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England, and teases out the ways in which Shakespeare's proximity to the "foreign" may have impressed itself in his works.

Nicholl has a keen nose for finding bits of Shakespeare's London and the milieu in which he must have slept and written after long days and nights at The Globe in the plays. In one passage, Nicholl tackles the perplexing issue of why none of Shakespeare's comedies or tragedies are set in England itself -- and what Shakespeare was trying to accomplish by such displacement of setting for plays that were so distinctively English in every other way:

In Shakespeare, and particularly in Shakespearean comedy, real English life as it was experienced by the audience was shown to them through a prism of foreignness, by which process it was subtly distorted and magnified. In this sense the foreign -- the 'strange' is an imaginative key for Shakespeare: it opens up fresher and freer ways of seeing the people and things which daily reality dulled with familiarity.

The author of The Lodger Shakespeare also tackles an even more perplexing issue: what was Shakespeare doing hanging out (let alone collaborating on Pericles, Prince of Tyre) with George Wilkins -- a violent brothel keeper whose Elizabethan rap sheet included brutal attacks on women (many of them prostitutes) and, in one case, "woundinge one John Ball in the head with a Welshe hooke."

Nicholl argues quite convincingly that Wilkins provided a hot commodity for Shakespeare and his company, the King's Men -- plays with a hot off the presses vitality and cutting edge. He is particularly compelling in his analysis of one of Wilkins' plays -- The Miseries of Enforced Marriage -- which was performed by Shakespeare's company.

The Miseries of Enforced Marriage
was based on the same brutal and bizarre crime -- a father's murder of his two children and attempted murder of his wife, hyped in garish pamphlets of the period -- that inspired Thomas Middleton's A Yorkshire Tragedy. But in Wilkins' hands it becomes as much a farce (happy ending?) and a ripped-from-the headlines potboiler as it is a tragedy. "The Miseries does not have the intensity of the Yorkshire Tragedy but its lack of artistry makes it valuable in another sense -- we hear Wilkins and his world throughout it." (Having finally obtained a copy of the play --which has been unpublished since 1964 -- I can attest to its crude vigor, which leaps off the page.)

The Lodger Shakespeare is one of those rare books that not only confirms the genius of Shakespeare -- but places it carefully within its context of the squalor and chaos of his London. It is a brilliant piece of scholarship.