Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ford's Theatre Renovation: A Short Review

Yesterday I got a chance to visit the recently refurbished Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Ford's Theatre, of course, is the site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. (He was attending a performance of Our American Cousin.) And I'd been eagerly awaiting the reopening after a significant closure for renovation.

The good news is that the building looks great, and it retains its function as a working theater, which I think is a great thing.

The "tour," however, was not so great. It's free. That's the best thing that you can say for it. The museum of Lincoln artifacts in the basement of the building is not open yet. (Won't open until June at earliest, our presenter said. The coat Lincoln wore that fatal night is on temporary display in the lobby, though no one told us what or where it was during the presentation. You needed to figure that out for yourself.)

Tours run on the hour by a timed ticket system, but visitor should be forewarned that there is no opportunity to poke around the theater. You are herded into the main auditorium and forced to sit for 20 or so minutes. Then a National Park Service historian gives you a lecture that's pitched at folks who know that Lincoln was assassinated at this place -- and precious little else.

Don't get me wrong. Lectures should be pitched at roughly that level. But that presentation was the sum of the present Ford's Theatre experience. The balcony was closed, so no chance to look into the Presidential Box where Lincoln was shot. (I don't know if this will change in future or not.) So essentially you got to go in, sit down, hear a talk, and then file out. Really disappointing. Indeed, the closest thing to a tour you can get at the moment is this "virtual tour" on the Ford's Theatre web site.

Ford's reestablishment in the late 1960s as a working theater was a terrific impulse. The sites of Civil War Washington are disappearing fast, and the rebuilding of the theater (which had been stripped and turned into a government office building for much of the 100 years after the assassination) is a boon to communicate to visitors just what that era was like in Washington's history.

But denying folks the chance to poke around and explore --especially the balconies and the box -- runs counter to that living history/working theater concept. I hope it changes once the museum opens -- and that visitors will get a keener sense of the momentous event that occurred there in 1865.

And, yes, for the curious, who are wondering about the source of my sudden Lincoln obsession -- I am starting research on a Lincoln play set in Washington in 1865. Stay tuned.

Photo of Ford's Theatre after Lincoln's assassination in 1865 from the Library of Congress.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Isn't That Specials? A Two-Tone Reunion

Last music post for a while I swear (unless they catch Ratko Mladić hiding behind a tuba in a Serbian brass band of the sort that plays at the annual Guča festival):

Terrific article in Friday's Guardian
about the upcoming reunion of one of the greatest British bands of all time: The Specials.

I am not a fan of rock band reunions -- especially 30 plus years after the heyday. (One exception, oddly enough, was The Fixx -- who were really awesome when I saw them in the late 1990s. Go figure.) And I can't quite say that I fully approve of a non-Jerry Dammers lineup.

But I'm crossing my fingers that The Specials will play a few shows over here. Because for me, they were the band that crystallized all the crazy cultural mashups I was going through in early-mid high school into something coherent.

I'd been exposed to a lot of classic rock and soul growing up in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Even older stuff via a neighbor's Jerry Blavat records. So I got the whole Quadrophenia thing in a big way. Michael Tearson's late night program on WMMR -- "Import/Export" -- (which later became "Gorilla Theater" after he pulled off a classic "fake takeover of the radio station" staright out of the movie FM) -- was pumping in some of the best stuff coming out of Britain at the time. (The big blind spot in Philly was the early New York scene. Only Talking Heads made the cut. No Television. No Voidoids. Definitely no Ramones. Too New Yawk. Blondie only later. I did get a lot of No Wave stuff like James Chance from Creem.)

All my Impulse stuff was coming from Temple University's radio station, which was playing "African American Classical Music." And Princeton's college station came through to Bucks County at night.

So you have a 15 year-old who's wandering around South Street when he can get the train into town from the suburbs -- and at the mall the rest of the time when he's not delivering newspapers -- wanting to be a mod so he can push the boundaries of his Catholic school dress code without breaking them. Not into the Jam yet. (They really had no real US presence before "Town Called Malice" and The Gift.)

Then I saw the Specials doing "Gangsters" and -- embedded at the bottom of this post -- "Too Much Too Young." It was the moment that it all fell together for me. The Specials were the coolest thing I'd ever seen on Saturday Night Live. (Yes, cooler even than Elvis Costello.) They were kids 5 years older than me who were making music with all the frenzy and cool and panache that was buzzing around inchoate in my head. It literally turned my head around. And the clothes and the antic boyish frenzy of the performance sealed the deal. So yeah, I hope they cash in over here in the sweltering summer after their British tour in spring....

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Strange Town: Paul Weller Invades Prague

I'm coming at this story about six weeks late (it was mentioned in the Guardian's blog of the annual Brit Awards), but hey... Let's just say I have some sympathy for icon of my late teen years Paul Weller -- former leader of The Jam and the Style Council. Sympathy in the sense of "I have been there." Drunk. In Prague. In winter. The warm wine purchased from the streets to fend off the chill is enough to wreck some people. (Not mention the colossal next day hangover it causes.) But follow that up by finding a cozy corner in a warm pub in Old Town and alternating shots and lagers, and you may be in for a very surreal night tram ride back to the hostel.

But for all my many hijinks (and there have been many), I can honestly say that I've never ended up where we see Britain's angriest man from 1978-1982 -- passed out in the street. Or crashing a birthday party and joining in a chorus or three with a stupid pub singer who doesn't know he's singing with a drunk Paul Weller. Yikes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hypesville: Writing About Pinter in The Nation

I have a short -- maybe too short -- piece on Harold Pinter and his legacy up now on the website of The Nation. I wish I'd had a bit more space to unpack both prongs of the piece: 1) How Pinter's outsized influence has had a double-edged effect on English-language theater -- sharpening its rhythms and language while also shaving down its scope and tolerance of the big play; and 2) How Pinter abandoned his own carefully-nurtured persona and style in the mid-1980s to become a much more political (and less powerful, to my mind) writer. But I think I hit the high spots and I'm waiting for the angry gibes that will likely come my way. You be the judge, however, if you're interested.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Our American Cousin: A Sort of Defense

As far as cultural criticism goes, Slate has -- in its 13 years of existence -- been dedicated to the proposition that lazy and superficial snark is the optimal mode of discourse. (I wrote about this a bit in my article about the web magazine in the Boston Phoenix back in 2003.)

Not much has changed. For instance, let's examine one of Slate's contributions to the 200th anniversary of Abraham' Lincoln's birth this week: 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.

It's an oh-so-Slate experience. The play, it turns out, is "terrible." Noah 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. (Ford's Theatre, by the way, has now reopened after a few years of rehab. Full review next weekend.)

Before he launches into a snarky plot summation of the play, Noah writes:

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.

Insert heavy sigh here. There are so many things going wrong here that I'm frankly astonished. (And we'll get to all of them in a moment.) But larger questions loom: What precisely is the point of this exercise? How is it educating the reader at all?

I ask because -- when you scratch a bit below the surface -- there are any number of very interesting things lurking in any exploration of Our American Cousin. About theater. About women's history in American theatre. About Lincoln.

First, let's take the merits of the play -- a discussion that Noah flubs comprehensively. No, I am not going to say 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").

When Silsbee died without the play being done, Taylor 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 sort of collaboration -- or collision -- between playwright 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 and 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 epistlatory fiction 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 (a sampling 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.

And when you look more deeply into it, there are some fascinating stories as well.

(Playbill image from the Library of Congress.)