Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Special: Je suis marxiste, comme Groucho ...

The last guy nearly ruined this place, he didn't know what to do with it.
If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it.
-- Groucho Marx, Duck Soup

The last film featuring all four Marx Brothers, Duck Soup, was exactly what most Americans didn't want to see in 1933. Reveling in the inauguration of a dynamic new president who offered a new hope (and copious government assistance) to a depressed nation, the last thing audiences wanted to see was the larger-than-life sneer of Groucho Marx, offering a New Deal of his own to the virtuous, civic-minded and perpetually clueless Margaret Dumont:

Groucho: Never mind that stuff. Take a card.
Dumont: Card? What do I do with the card?
Groucho: You can keep it. I've got fifty-one left. Now what were you saying?

Meet the New Deal, same as the Old Deal. Only worse.

In Duck Soup, Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, the new prime minister of Freedonia. Alas, Freedonia is beset by some awfully familiar problems: The economy has hit rock bottom, the government is so deeply in debt that domestic manufacturers of black ink are practically out of business, citizens grumble over labor issues, and the nation teeters on the brink of war. Naturally, Freedonia responds by throwing a lavish inauguration party for its new leader, during which Groucho announces the rules of his new administration, in song.

Like any good politician, Rufus Firefly begins by addressing morality and social issues. He promises that generally harmless if obnoxious behavior -- such as smoking and off-color humor -- will be regulated by the new administration, with draconian punishments for those who fail to comply. Even trivial offenders will feel the wrath of the almighty state:

If chewing gum is chewed
The chewer is pursued
And in the hoosegow hidden

After delivering these lines, the prime minister saunters across the elaborate inaugural hall, pretending to chew an obnoxiously large wad of gum. As Firefly knows full well, the government tends to enforce such regulations selectively, and the wealthy and powerful need not worry about them. Groucho, still singing, cuts to the heart of nanny-state prohibitions with these lines:

If any form of pleasure is exhibited
Report to me and it will be prohibited
I'll put my foot down. So shall it be.
This is the land of the free.

Meanwhile, Firefly surveys a line of women, promptly embracing -- and dipping -- the most attractive of the lot in a fashion which, had it occurred sixty years later, could almost be described as Clintonesque. The object of his attention is obviously taken aback (in more ways than one), but manages to be a good sport about it; she even forces a smile as the prime minister's roaming fingers find their target. (The Marx Brothers were notorious for subjecting innocent bystanders to these unscripted assaults, ranging from lascivious gropes to a hard whack on the noggin -- both of which can be seen in Duck Soup. More than one critic has quipped that the extras should have demanded hazard pay for what they must have endured.)

Unlike Groucho's other characters -- a college president, a horse doctor, an explorer of darkest Africa (eek!), and other cons and chiselers -- Rufus T. Firefly has the coercive power of government behind him, and that gives his trademark humor a truly malevolent edge here. In the course of Duck Soup, Firefly will appoint foreign spies to cabinet positions, turn a petty personal grievance into a justification for all-out war, respond to workers' demands for shorter hours by "shortening their lunch hour to twenty minutes," and top even these proceedings by massacring his own troops (who obligingly die offscreen). But his casual disdain for the country he ostensibly leads is apparent from day one, when he explains the most important way that his administration will differ from the "last guy" -- the one who "nearly ruined this place" and "didn't know what to do with it." Firefly tells us that he knows exactly what to do. He's going to raise taxes:

The country's taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it.
If you think you're paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it.

The phrase "Wait till I get through with it" is practically Firefly's refrain here, when he discusses the future of Freedonia. For Depression-era audiences, this would have been easy enough to recognize: It's FDR's message of messianic hope, turned inside out and revealed as an utter sham. Groucho Marx's perverse iteration of the New Deal won't solve the nation's problems, or lead the people gradually toward a socialist utopia. From now on, Firefly warns his unsuspecting listeners, things are going to get much worse. Indeed, once the minister is finally "through" with Freedonia at film's end, the land has been devastated not only by its still-unresolved economic woes, but also by a war with its neighbor Sylvania (in an early draft of the script, Sylvania was known as Amnesia). Unlike the elaborate inaugural ceremony that marks the film's opening, Freedonia's victory comes with neither pomp nor pride. In the film's final shot, Dumont's attempt to warble Freedonia's national anthem merely inspires the Marx Brothers to throw fruit at her. What triumph there is feels enervated and perfunctory, and for all we know, Dumont and the Marx Brothers may be the only Freedonians still alive.

To Americans newly intoxicated on rhetoric of the New Deal, Duck Soup must have seemed about as welcome as a bucket of ice water. (At the time it was a notorious box-office flop.) Although in later years Groucho Marx denied the film had any political intentions, the political stance of Duck Soup -- if it is coherent enough to qualify as a stance -- is profoundly pessimistic. America, said Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had nothing to fear but fear itself; the Marx Brothers suggested, none too subtly, that we might want to start by fearing our leaders. Roosevelt promised a swift return to national prosperity; the Marx Brothers cautioned against another world war. Roosevelt urged Americans to put their faith in government; the Marx Brothers' apostasy was absolute. And in case anyone might have missed the point, the bitterly ironic Freedonian national anthem -- "Hail, hail Freedonia / Land of the brave and free" -- plays over the then-obligatory opening title card touting studio participation in FDR's National Recovery Act -- "We do our part."

Duck Soup presents government as a font of corruption and incompetence, in which leaders run amok blithely steer the populace into one calamity after another. There is no question about efficient or inefficient government in this world view; any government has the potential to degenerate into tyranny and oppression, and the difference between them might well be that an efficient government might simply accomplish the feat more quickly and thoroughly. Small wonder, then, that this bleakest of anti-government satires found a more receptive audience during the 1960s, primarily in Europe (where performance-driven American comedy enjoyed something of a renaissance). Certainly Duck Soup qualifies as one of the great anti-war, anti-government films. Not until Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove would the cinema produce anything remotely like it.

Today, of course, Duck Soup is seen as something of a relic, assuming it is seen at all. The film turned seventy-five last year, making it even older than John McCain. It could perhaps be dismissed as a harmless or irrelevant diversion. Yet that fellow standing on the podium, "due to take his station / Beginning his new administration" -- what exactly is he promising us over the next four years? What does he want from us in return? Should we "just wait till he gets through with it"? Do we have a choice? After all, most of us agree that the last guy nearly ruined this place -- he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now ....

Granted, it may be unwise, or at the very least impolitic, to consider these matters at such an auspicious, historical moment. If the inaugural festivities have taught us anything at all -- and they seem grimly resolved to teach us something -- surely they have taught us that we are the change we've been looking for, and more important, that We Are One. (I can't help wondering, one what, exactly?) It's all lovely, to be sure, and some of it might even be true. But amid the general celebration, one might be forgiven for hearing a small, sardonic voice: "Never mind that stuff. Take a card."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mohandas and Me

In honor of this year's Martin Luther King Day, I'm posting a new link to an old essay, "Mohandas and Me," in which I confront the folly and shame of my left-wing past.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Been gone so long

After effectively disappearing from cyberspace for more than a year, what should I say by way of re-introduction? Truth to tell, I haven't changed much. I'm still gay, still conservative and Republican, and still interested in the arts -- primarily film, theater and music. Between film and theater, I prefer theater. Although I have seldom written about music in the past, my preferences in that field are classical chamber music and small-combo jazz. I am not averse to modernism or serialism, though I find them difficult to describe. I tend to write about the intersection of politics and the arts, because I can be fairly certain (as certain as I can be about anything, at least) that some reader, somewhere, will be interested in one or the other. And because I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, with close family ties to the evangelical-fundamentalist Bible Belt, I tend to write about culture and politics from what some people would consider an odd perspective.

Why did I leave the blog? It wasn't because I had run out of things to say. I was afraid, rather, that I had run out of new or exciting ways to say them. (There was another reason, too, which I'll get to after a few more warm-up posts.) To be fair, along with most conservatives in 2008, I was feeling deeply demoralized as well, in part because the 2008 presidential campaign gave little reason for hope. During primary season I was in the "Republicans for Hillary" camp -- partly a reaction against the blatant misogyny directed at la femme Clinton, but mostly an attempt at "harm reduction." So much for that. Barack Obama's election clearly communicated, for those of us who didn't know it already, that America is now the least racist nation in the world. Although that's some cause for celebration, any serious (or not-so-serious) conservative must find the looming prospect of four years of "Obamanomics" about as reassuring as a firebell in the night.

But enough with the polemics for now: I'm back, and I don't intend to go away for some time, and this time, barring calamity or catastrophe, when I do finally hang up my pen I'll let my readers know. Until my next post, gentle reader, there's an enormous archive for you to peruse, and much to my shock and surprise the vast majority of the posts haven't aged that much. The posts from five years ago arguing for same-sex marriage are, alas, as relevant as ever.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


After an unannounced (and unplanned) hiatus of more than a year, I am pleased to announce that I'm resuming this blog. It's not so much that I miss the conversation (for most bloggers, the conversation is almost entirely one-sided), as that I miss having a personal forum to wrangle with concepts and ideas that may intrigue or inspire me. I realize, after such a long absence, that my reasoning may not be terribly articulate at first; I trust it will be more so as I get back into practice. In any case, patient reader, new and more substantive posts will arrive here soon, with the first most likely occurring in a day or two.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Give 'em the Dickens: A Christmas Carol at Synetic, Christmas Carol 1941 at Arena, Second Shepherds' Play at the Folger.

'Tis the season for holiday cheer, whether we like it or not -- and God bless us everyone, Washington-area theaters are no exception to the rule. With at least three theatrical versions of A Christmas Carol playing simultaneously, theatergoers can give themselves the Dickens almost until the New Year. The Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre has become a Washington tradition, though with renovations to the historic venue underway (less charitable adjectives for Ford's Theatre would include "antiquated" and "creaky"), the event has moved a few blocks east to the smaller Lansburgh Theater, home of Shakespeare Theatre Company, where the seats are more comfortable and the stage space more modern and flexible. Performances are nearly sold out through Christmas, but easily available afterwards, and this Christmas Carol should prove a pleasant if pricey break for families weary of looting and pillaging the after-Christmas sales.

Synetic Theater: Meanwhile, Synetic Theater's A Christmas Carol, running through December 23 at the Rosslyn Spectrum, offers a dark, weird and wonderful twist on the holiday chestnut. Far from an easy grasp at a Christmas buck, as so many productions of Christmas Carol are, this uneven but surprisingly ambitious production trades the usual "goodwill toward men" for something more unsettling. The show gets off to a slow start, with a dialogue-heavy opening, but when the three spirits of Christmas make their respective appearances, it's a wild, unpredictable ride that never flags.

Irakli Kavsadze plays the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge with a Russian accent as thick as week-old borscht, yet he manages to reveal hitherto unseen depths in a character we thought we knew. Among the other seven members of the ensemble, Regina Aquilo shines as the "Spirit of Christmas Past," while co-director Dan Istrate plays the accordion and dances a sprightly trepak as the genial Fezziwig. None of the actors ever give the impression that they've so much as set foot in London, which is more than a little distracting, and the bleak, industrial sets and lighting frequently suggest Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment rather than Dickens. Yet despite some obvious shortcomings, theatergoers willing to accept a different distinctive gloss on this classic tale will find much to savor here.

As is typically the case with Synetic, A Christmas Carol is heavy on dance and spectacle. The final third of the show, involving the visit of "Christmas Future," is almost completely wordless, which frees the ensemble to perform the sort of pantomime they do best. This particular Christmas Carol is too harrowing for children, but teenagers and grown-ups should find it as a worthy introduction to one of the area's oddest and most fascinating theatrical groups.

Arena Stage: Arena Stage's world premiere of Christmas Carol 1941, now playing through December 30, has been widely advertised as a light-hearted musical entertainment. Alas, I must report that the show is neither light-hearted, nor especially musical, nor remotely entertaining. Not only is it the worst show I have even seen at Arena Stage, it's one of the worst shows I have ever seen, period. Christmas Carol 1941 gives rancid new meaning to the phrase "War on Christmas." And if the show is, as its producers claim, "truly an American Carol," it might even be reason enough to flee the country.

Local playwright James Magruder is best known for his translations of classic French farceurs, and judging from his unbelievably inept work on Christmas Carol, I can only hope he returns to Moliere and Marivaux as soon as possible. As the title implies, Magruder has set Dickens's tale of Victorian London in Washington DC during the opening weeks of World War II. Ebenezer Scrooge -- here known as "Elijah Strube" -- has become a hoarder, black market tycoon and war profiteer, while his long-suffering associate Henry Schroen, named after Magruder's maternal grandfather, is a patriotic typist with a loving family to support. The three Christmas ghosts appear to Scrooge in the guise of well-known DC statues, none of which are even slightly suggestive of the holiday season (one is meant to resemble Saint-Gaudens' Adams memorial, but looks more like a refugee from community theater). And poor little Tiny Tim has been transformed into a robust if somewhat dim-witted high-school senior who is all too eager to join the Allied war effort.

By conflating Christmas with World War Two, Magruder has taken a simple but effective story about the redemption of an individual soul, and infused it with Depression-era self-loathing, anti-capitalist rhetoric, social-justice sanctimony, and quasi-religious militarism. In this Christmas Carol, warfare eclipses Christmas, governments replace charity, and FDR and Winston Churchill assume the role of Jesus Christ. The resulting incoherent muddle is guaranteed to perplex and offend everyone alike -- hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, Christians and secularists.

Still, Arena's production looks slick enough, and it's about as well acted as it can be. It's clear that director Molly Smith and an immensely talented cast and crew have done their damnedest to make this sow's ear stageworthy, but to no avail. As Scrooge -- or rather, "Strube" -- James Gale is too shrill and annoying to gain audience sympathy, though that's hardly his fault: Gale's repeated cries of "Bullcrap!" instead of the more traditional "Humbug!" open the show on the crassest of false notes, and his attempts early in the show to goad a young girl into delivering a full-throated Nazi salute come across as genuinely repugnant. But no show with Nancy Robinette can be entirely unwatchable, and Robinette is far more effective than she has any right to be as Mrs. Cratchit -- or rather, "Mrs. Schroen" -- a nervous matriarch who views the prospect of her son's enlistment with growing dread.

Composer Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) and lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Jelly's Last Jam) contribute three perfunctory musical numbers, one of which -- the generic swing-tune "Heroes on the Homefront" -- provides the only enjoyable moment in the show. But the shapeless scenes, clunky exposition, and hard-line socialist rhetoric make the rest of Christmas Carol 1941 feel like the work of Arthur Miller in his dotage. It is unsuitable for children of all ages, races, creeds, and political and religious persuasions.

Folger Library: For theatergoers seeking non-Dickensian cheer, or simply a rollicking good time, the Folger Consort is providing a hundred minutes of nonstop Yuletide bliss with its delightful rendition of the anonymous, 16th century Second Shepherds' Play. This comic encounter of three well-meaning shepherds with a sheep thief and his equally deceitful wife has lost none of its playful sparkle over the centuries, and the thief and his wife -- played to gut-busting perfection by Andy Brownstein and Holly Twyford -- qualify as two of the flat-out funniest characters in English literature. As the finale demonstrates, there is some theological method behind the madness, but you don't have to be well-versed in Christian doctrine to appreciate the show's earthy humor and infectious good nature.

Director/adaptor Mary Hall Surface hews closely to the original, unmodernized 16th-century text, and keeps the staging simple, uncluttered and colorful. Performances are broad without going over the top, and even though younger theatergoers will find the arcane language difficult, the cast always ensures that the meanings and situations are clearly understood. The only possible drawback lies with the show's extensive use of medieval carols, dances and popular songs, which make this Second Shepherds' Play more like a musical concert than a drama proper. No doubt some theatergoers will sense that these interludes are all so much padding, but when the music is flawlessly performed on period instruments, as here, there's no real cause for complaint.

Second Shepherds' Play is seldom staged nowadays, but as the Folger has triumphantly demonstrated, there's no reason it shouldn't be done far more often. Hopefully, it will become another DC-area holiday tradition, like the Ford's Theatre Christmas Carol.

Ford's Theatre: A Christmas Carol, adapted by Michael Wilson from the novella by Charles Dickens. Directed by Matt August. Original staging recreated by Mark Ramont. Through December 29 at the Lansburgh Theatre. For more information or to buy tickets, call (202)547-1122 or visit http://www.fordstheatre.org.

Synetic Theater: A Christmas Carol, adapted by Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and Dan Istrate. About seventy-five minutes, no intermission. Through December 23 at the Rosslyn Spectrum. For more information or to buy tickets, call (703) 824-8060 or visit http://www.synetictheater.org.

Arena Stage: Christmas Carol: 1941, adapted by James Magruder. Music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Molly Smith. Two hours ten minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Through December 30 at the Fichandler Theater. For more information or to buy tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or visit http://www.arena-stage.org.

Folger Library: Second Shepherds' Play. Anonymous, attributed to the Wakefield Master. Adapted and directed by Mary Hall Surface. One hour, forty minutes, including 15-minute intermission. Through December 30 at the Folger Shakespeare Library. For more information or to buy tickets, call (202) 544-7077 or visit http://www.folger.edu.

Merry Christmas, Mike Huckabee

Which is more distressing about Mike Huckabee's now-infamous Christmas ad -- that the bookshelf behind him looks suspiciously like a glowing white cross, or that it apparently contains not a single actual book?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Visit to the Flight 93 Memorial

Last month, on an impossibly sunny Saturday afternoon, I made a pilgrimage to the rural Pennsylvania field where forty passengers and crew of United Flight 93 met their heroic, horrific end.

The temporary Flight 93 memorial -- a chain-link fence, roughly forty feet long by eleven feet tall -- lies a few hundred yards from the actual crash site, now set aside as sacred ground and inaccessible to visitors. The fence is covered on both sides from top to bottom, stem to stern, with individual tokens of love and remembrance: American flags and Fourth of July bunting, the tiny license plates kids often place on their bicycles, baseball caps, a leather jacket, a craft shop's worth of religious bric-a-brac, garlands of flowers (both artificial and real), and a black plyboard panel covered with patches from policemen and firefighters.

Several half-buried granite slabs are nearby. Most hail from regional motorcycle clubs, but one, slightly awkward in its phrasing, is from a resident of Guatemala. Forty handmade wooden angels lie on the fringe of the site, along with several small wooden crosses and a concrete statue (I did not recognize the saint) bestrewn with rosaries. A shoulder-high marble marker lists the names of Flight 93 passengers and crew -- visitors have left indecipherable medals and trinkets on top -- and a life-sized wooden cross, draped in white cloth and covered with badges, pins and buttons from ground to eye level, dominates the site.

A prefabricated storage shed, painted light grey, serves as the official visitor center, though there's nothing inside. Several benches just beyond bear the names of the heroes of Flight 93; arranged in a rough semicircle, they form a small amphitheater where volunteers tell, briefly and respectfully, the story of that fateful flight. A guest book rests inconspicuously on a brown metal podium; two metal guard rails leading to the site are festooned with bumper stickers. I notice that one sticker, which originally read "MAKE LOVE NOT WAR," has had the word LOVE ripped away.

It's impossible to conceive of a memorial to Flight 93 more deeply heartfelt, or more truly American, than the one we have at present. The tacky detritus of consumer-culture tourism, which in ordinary circumstances might signify the decay of human emotion, here suggests the very opposite: At the Flight 93 memorial, every visitor leaves something behind, and though each memento mori may be insignificant in itself, the baroque profusion and variety of these objects overwhelm any latent critical faculties, and give the sense of collective national grief -- something not imposed from above, but deeply felt from within and among us.

A permanent memorial is in the planning stages, with a wide access road, a multimedia museum-and-theater complex, long low granite walls, and a parking lot worthy of a Wal-Mart. In some ways, no doubt, it would be an improvement over the current site, but the idea nonetheless leaves me cold. No matter how well-intentioned a permanent memorial might be in theory, it will be the product of one architectural firm, one landscape contractor, one monument committee overseeing the enterprise. Our trinkets and beads -- our individual contributions and commemorations -- will be welcome, no doubt, but they will no longer serve as the main point of attention. Instead, these gifts will be integrated into a grander design, and rendered subservient to someone else's point of view.

It seems too soon to cede Flight 93 to the official custodians of public memory. True, the scars on the landscape are healing rapidly enough: The Pentagon was rebuilt long ago, and the new Freedom Tower is finally under construction. This is as it should be. But our grief and our loss are not so easily cast aside, and only at the Flight 93 Memorial can we still confront them head on. The fence and the field, isolated and forlorn, evoke the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when both our sympathy and outrage were spontaneous, our nation's wounds were fresh and bleeding, and Americans who wanted to help their neighbors sought any outlet they could find. The makeshift memorial we have performs its work of remembrance as nothing else can, and it deserves to remain as it is, where it is, for a little while longer.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors: Witches of Eastwick at Signature Theatre

For the first-act finale of Witches of Eastwick, a new musical receiving its American premiere at Signature Theatre near Washington, DC, the three title characters strap themselves into harnesses and soar over the heads of the audience. It's nifty but completely superfluous -- much like the show itself, I'm afraid.

(Note: I never finished this review, and I doubt I ever will. Essentially, the show was a triumph of special effects over a kitschy-coo, sitcom-ish book and a musical score so bland it could have been lifted from an industrial training film. For anyone familiar with the John Updike novel, it was the equivalent of a satanic mass. Still, Witches broke box-office records at Signature, largely because the cast included legitimate Broadway star Marc Kudisch, but I don't think there's any danger of the show being revived anywhere. Signature's downward spiral would continue through the rest of the year.)

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