This week I had a chance to revisit the most spectacular theater experience I’ve ever had. It took place on a weekend in February 2007. Over the course of two days, I saw all nine hours of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy on 19th century Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries. My New York friend Patricia and I hung around the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and visited neighborhood cafes in between going to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for many glorious hours of theater. This week Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated that monumental theatrical achievement.
I flew to New York after work on Friday and met Patricia for an early lunch on Saturday, saw Voyage, part one, then had an early dinner and saw Shipwreck, part 2. On Sunday, we saw a matinee of Salvage, part 3. We had a final dinner, at which we both were almost too exhausted to talk. I had bought copies of the scripts and read Voyage on the way home on Monday morning. I saved the playbill on my bookshelf along with the three volumes of scripts.
The trilogy was also done as a marathon on a few Saturdays when you could see all three plays in one day, from 11am to 11pm.
I’ve never forgotten that weekend and like most memorable theater experiences, the visuals are imprinted in my brain, to be brought out when some tangential memory nudges them. That’s what happened this week.
Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated the 14th anniversary of The Coast of Utopia’s U.S. premiere in November 2006 with a virtual discussion that was open to theater fans. Director Jack O’Brien, four cast members—and—in person from London—the playwright himself. I was on a Zoom call with Tom Stoppard! No, he didn’t know I was there—only the participants were on the Zoom screen. But it was an exhilarating moment.
The play has more than 70 characters, performed by 40 actors in the New York production. The cast size and complexity of the story explain why this magnificent historical work has been produced only three times: in London in 2002, in New York in 2006-07, Moscow in 2007 and Tokyo in 2009. (This article describes the daunting nature of the production.)
Scenic design for the trilogy was by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask with costumes by Catherine Zuber. The gorgeous musical score, very much like a film score, was by Michael Bennett.
The actors participating in the discussion were Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton, who played Liubov and Varenka Bakunin, two sisters, in Voyage; Ethan Hawke, as their brother Michael Bakunin, a writer and student of philosophy; and Billy Crudup, who played Vissarion Belinsky, a noted literary critic and radical.
The actors discussed the production experience, which involved a year’s commitment, starting with nine months of rehearsal. (The typical rehearsal time for a modern play is four to six weeks). Cast members prepared by studying Russian history and literature and four of the actors (including Plimpton) made a trip to Russia. “We did endless research…. We had books, piles of books, and notebooks where we noted reactions and questions,” one of the actors commented.
Before seeing The Coast of Utopia, I had been preparing too by reading Russian history and cultural history (Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Pushkin and Karl Marx are among the characters in Utopia). Many of the characters, including Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, are drawn from history. The play’s title comes from a chapter in Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s book, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1959), which is on my to-be-read list.
The cast compared the production—especially the occasional Saturday marathon performances—like going to camp. Meals were brought in and there were dressing rooms available for naps, Plimpton said. The intense rehearsal and performance schedule meant they spent almost all of their waking hours together at Lincoln Center Theaters for a year.
One experience they all vividly remembered was when actor Richard Easton, who played Alexander Bakunin, the father of the Bakunin siblings, “died on stage” for seven minutes. It wasn’t part of the script, but the audience didn’t realize that at first. During a preview performance, Easton spoke a final line (it was “That is my last word” after an argument with Michael) and started to exit, only to crumple in a heap at side stage. He had a heart attack. When Hawke realized that the fall was serious, he asked the audience the classic question, “Is there a doctor in the house?” But a stagehand performed CPR. Easton was revived in the ambulance and underwent a procedure to fix a heart arrhythmia. The opening date was briefly delayed because Easton’s character was a pivotal part of Voyage.
Hawke remembered that Easton asked him to come to his hospital room to run lines. After that, Hawke said, “we were all in service to something larger than ourselves.”
The play begins in a Chekhovian way; Voyage is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin country estate 150 miles northwest of Moscow. The sisters and brother Michael all long to escape to the city. At one point, in the middle of Voyage, Michael, who is in Berlin studying philosophy and translating a history, is asked to come back to the estate because Alexander wants him to study “agriculture,” for which he has no fondness.
The storyline concerns philosophical and literary debates in pre-revolutionary Russia (and in Berlin and Paris) between 1833 and 1866. The actual Russian revolution, of course, was another half century in the future, but that didn’t hinder discussions about liberty and censorship. Shipwreck takes place in Russia, then in Germany and France; and Salvage is set among the intellectual and revolutionary community in Paris.
The most important character in the radical/intellectual theme is Alexander Herzen, who Stoppard defines as a “would-be revolutionary,” but is an important historical figure. One of the most moving scenes in Shipwreck is about an actual shipwreck on which Herzen’s young son, Kolya, was lost. His wife is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her mother-in-law who has taken her grandson Kolya on a trip to Paris. The scene where Herzen has to tell Natalie, his wife, that Kolya is not returning, is devastating.
Stoppard was asked what inspired him to write on the subject of the Russian intellectuals and radicals. He said he was moved by the status of the critic Belinsky in Paris, “where you could write anything you wanted and no one cared” whereas in Russia, “one could only read work like this at midnight.”
Stoppard was also asked when he knew he was writing three plays. It happened when I was writing the first, he said. And commenting on his own experience working with the Lincoln Center Theaters team, that nine months “was the most binding and bonding theater I’ve ever done.”
An audience member asked Stoppard whether we can learn anything for today from his work on radicals and revolutionaries. He responded that the strongest ideas in The Coast of Utopia are about families. That is the case also in his latest play, Leopoldstadt, about a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna going through another type of wrenching political change in the first half of the 20th century. The family had escaped the pogroms in the East but the fates of the generations are impacted by communism and fascism over the years.
I recently read the script of Leopoldstadt (I had to draw a family tree chart to keep track of the family branches). So far it has been produced only in London in January 2020. Had it not been for the coronavirus, it most likely would be on stage in New York by now and scheduled for Chicago in a coming season. It is a profound and moving play with nearly 40 characters over distinct time periods from December 1899 to 1955. I look forward to seeing Leopoldstadt performed on stage, perhaps in 2022.
Near the end of the discussion, director O’Brien summed up our mutual yearning for an end to our life of physical distancing. “Here’s what the theater does. You have to be there…. You’re in a room of people who are giving their heart and soul to you. We have survived pandemics since Aeschylus and we’ll survive this.”
Update: You can now watch The Coast of Utopia discussion on YouTube but only through January 10.
This article was previously posted in Third Coast Review.
Chicago Girl is the title of my new book and indeed I am a Chicago girl. I’ve lived here most of my life, with occasional and sometimes lengthy forays to Missouri, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Kentucky. But I’ve been back to my home base for 35 years and I’m not going anywhere.
My new book of essays is part memoir but mostly a series of reviews and observations on theater, music,film, books, writing, politics, technology and a bunch of other subjects that I obsess about.
The cover is a view that may be familiar to you if you’re a Chicagoan. I took it from the Chess Pavilion at North Avenue Beach, looking south toward Navy Pier.
Many of the essays are adapted from reviews and articles I’ve written over the last eight years. But there are anomalies, like a timeline of my life in technology, starting with my acquisition of a certain special fountain pen at the age of 12. And there’s a long poem titled “City Lady Blues” about why I never wanted to move to the suburbs, despite the temptations offered by a certain gentleman. “Can’t you see I’m a city lady? Don’t wanna be a country girl.” I performed that poem one evening with my son Steve playing background blues on his tenor sax. And the oldest essay in the book is “The Story of Max: The World’s Greatest Cat,” written in 1987.
The ironic aspect of my book’s publication now is that the pandemic enabled me to finish it. In normal times, I would be seeing and reviewing three or four plays a week, but that activity was shut down along with most of the rest of our lives. So I decided to focus on finally finishing the book of essays I had fiddled with for a few years. I wrote about that in “Poem for a Pandemic: A Nightmare and a Blessing” in April..
If you’re interested in learning more about my book, both the personal stories and the arts commentary, check it out here and on the publisher’s website. Right now, you’ll find the print version but the e-book will be available soon.
The news is driving me nuts. I’ve tried to avoid watching it the last few days. I’m at heart a news junkie but the obsessive attention to this presidential race is making me crazy. And still is, the morning after. I usually have the TV on while I’m working or doing stuff around home. But this week I’ve been listening to music (especially the new Bruce Springsteen album, Letter to You) or one of my playlists on Spotify or Pandora or even music on the radio!
In the evening, I’ve been reading books (I’m in the middle of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: A Novel and just started Augustus by John Williams). And watching movies or a few great examples of virtual theater (Irish Repertory’s The Touch of a Poet was superb and I loved seeing What the Constitution Means to Me again).
Most rewarding has been seeing old movies, some for the first time. For years while I was a Netflix DVD subscriber, I had The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in my saved queue forever. Apparently it wasn’t on DVD until recently. I read about it being part of the UK Jewish Film Festival. I was going to sign up for that (just to see that film) when I discovered it was streaming on YouTube with very legible English subtitles.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is set in Ferrara in northern Italy in the late 1930s. The Finzi-Continis are wealthy, sophisticated Italian Jews. Wealthy enough to have a huge walled estate with miles of garden (or forest) and tennis courts in addition to their palatial mansion. Middle-class Jews in Ferrara think the Finzi-Continis are not real Jews, or that they don’t think they are Jews. But in the end, of course, they are all Jews.
The film is directed by Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine) and it’s truly beautifully filmed with gorgeous settings and glamorous people. It’s a non-love story about Micol (tall, blonde daughter of the F-Cs) and Giorgio, a handsome scholarly Jewish man who has been in love with Micol since their school days. He pines for her but she considers him a dear friend and nothing more. There’s much more to the story than that, and it’s played out against the background of Mussolini’s dominance in Italy and increasing restrictions against Jews in Ferrara.
Another old film I watched while avoiding the news is the 1987 docudrama, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, available on Amazon Prime Video. It features actors playing the roles of the leading figures in the trial with film clips inserted from interviews with the actual people. So we have Robert Loggia playing William Kunstler and Kunstler himself opining on the trial occasionally. The film was made for cable TV and it’s based on trial transcripts so there is a lot of real-life dialog and events (such as the horrific gagging and chaining of Bobby Seale).
It’s basically a 33-year-old version of the new Aaron Sorkin film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I also strongly recommend. The Sorkin film has snappier dialogue but the outrageous and outraged characters (Hoffman, Rubin, Davis, Dellinger) are just as wildly manic and adorable in the older version. The 1987 film is set entirely in the courtroom while the new film is also set in other locations and makes use of news footage from 1968. The Sorkin film is available on Netflix and currently screening live in some cinemas (Landmark Century Centre in Chicago).
While scrolling through my list on Amazon Prime Video, I discovered What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. This is a great documentary about the brilliant movie critic. It made me appreciate her as much more than an insightful critic and writer. She fought fiercely for years to be recognized as a female critic and get a paying job in what was traditionally a white man’s world. Same old, same old, right? But she persisted–and so we know her today as the plainspoken, spiky, often iconoclastic film critic for the New Yorker. The 2018 film runs about 100 minutes.
Another old film I watched recently is The Pianist, a WWII-era film (made in 2002) about the pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor, who lived through the war years hiding out in various places in the Warsaw ghetto. It’s a great film with a fine performance by Adrian Brody and direction by Roman Polanski. (it was on Netflix until recently but you can rent it for $3.99 now on YouTube). The film was adapted from Szpilman’s book titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, which he wrote soon after his survival. The book was published in Poland in 1946 and then suppressed. German and English translations were finally published in 1998 and 1999. Both the film and the book are worth your time for the author’s first-person accounts of seeing his family members being loaded on trains and sent off to Treblinka and his own survival, helped by friends and strangers and finally by a sympathetic and music-loving German officer.
My latest article for Third Coast Review is an essay about racial injustice and our racist history themes appearing in compelling ways in pop culture. I recommend some TV drama series, films and books for your consideration. And I take time to focus on one book—Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. In addition to describing how Baldwin’s writing and political attitudes changed through his experiences in the civil rights and Black Power eras, Glaude defines The Lie that encompasses our racist attitudes. So read on and I hope you’ll find something that sounds intriguing as well as some you’ve already loved or hated.
We’re living in a strange period of horror shows in politics, health and racial injustice. You never know what type of abomination you’ll find when you turn on your phone, computer or tv set or open a newspaper. Another black man killed by white cops? Another protester attacked or a Black Lives Matter protest broken up by white nationalists? Another 1000 souls dead from Covid-19? Another clueless tweet from the White House?
Historians a century from now may decide that this part of the 21st century was a political horror show. So it only makes sense that the real world of racial injustice and our racist history is bleeding over into pop culture. We can now partake of film, video, books and music where these historical themes are blended with horror and heroic stories.
We applaud the attention finally being paid to Black artists and authors, given the decades where their work and talent was ignored. For instance, of the 1,034 films currently in the Criterion Collection, only nine titles are directed by Black filmmakers. A reader who comments on my 3CR essay points out that there are more films in that collection that feature Black writers, performers and themes.
This essay explores works that can educate and entertain us about the Black experience in racist America and how white people can become allies and change agents. Yes, Nikki Haley, we are a racist country.
Have we missed any of your favorites in these genres? Let us know in the comments.
Television and Films
“Lovecraft Country,” TV drama series and book. Currently running on HBO is the 10-part series adapted from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, developed from the book by Misha Green. The story follows Atticus Freeman, a young military veteran, in 1950s Jim Crow America. Atticus, his friend Letitia, and his Uncle George make a road trip to find Atticus’ missing father and track down a family secret. (The trip also enables George to do research for the next issue of his Safe Negro Travel Guide.) The trio encounters racial terrorism in so-called sundown counties as well as monsters lifted from the pages of a Lovecraft story. Much of the series and novel take place in Chicago—no less racist than the northeast or Jim Crow South, but we love seeing films that portray Chicago.
Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey) are terrific as Atticus and Letitia and Michael K. Williams (“The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”) is a pleasant surprise as Atticus’ stubborn dad, Montrose.
There are lots of history, literary and horror references in Lovecraft Country, named for the noted horror fiction author H.P.. Lovecraft (known for his racist and homophobic attitudes as well as the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.) Atticus and George are great readers and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) is an expert on the horror genre. The 1921 Tulsa massacre plays a part in a later chapter of Ruff’s novel, so we assume it will appear in the film series. Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country” runs Sunday, September 6, on HBO and you can find earlier eps on demand.
“Watchmen,” a superhero HBO series that ran in late 2019, is available from some on-demand and streaming services. “Watchmen” was adapted by Damon Lindelof as a sort of sequel to the 1986 Watchmen DC comic book series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (A 2009 film was adapted from the same comic book series.)
The series focuses on contemporary racist violence in Tulsa and the first episode begins with the 1921 massacre of the “Black Wall Street” district on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. In 2016, a white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, wages a violent war against the police and minorities. Because of the murder of 40 police officer in their homes in 2016, the police force now hide their identities, including wearing face coverings or yellow balaclavas.
The cast includes Regina King as a police detective known as Sister Night, Don Johnson as police chief Judd Crawford (a man whose closet hides secrets), plus Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, and Louis Gossett Jr.
There’s also a Watchmen Role-Playing Game.
The Black Lives Matter Collection on Netflix has compiled an array of anti-racist and Black artists and topics. The collection of narrative films, documentaries and TV series includes many important films about Black lives. These are some of my favorites in this category.
I Am Not Your Negro, a stunning work of documentary storytelling by Raoul Peck, based on texts by James Baldwin and documentary footage of his life.
Just Mercy, the biodrama about Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), an idealistic young Harvard Law graduate who goes to Alabama to fight for poor people.
Director Ava DuVernay’s 13th, another powerful documentary, explores the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitude. DuVernay demonstrates how slavery has been continued despite the 13th through lynchings, Jim Crow laws and practices, disenfranchisement, police brutality and mass incarceration.
And Spike Lee’s 2020 film Da 5 Bloods about four aging Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a treasure they buried there. The cast features Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors as his son, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis. As our review says, Marvin Gaye’s music is the primary emotional thread of the film’s soundtrack, primarily songs from his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On.
Books on anti-racism and white privilege have been topping best-seller lists—especially titles that might help white people understand racism and the meaning of white privilege. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist says you either are racist or antiracist and thus trying to dismantle our racist history—there’s nothing in between, he says. His book has been on the New York Times combined print and e-book best-seller list for 15 weeks; it’s currently #5 in non-fiction there and #7 on Amazon.com.
Other books that top those lists are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Number 2 on that NYT list is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste about the social stratification based on inclusion and exclusion in our society. I’m eager to read Caste; Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a masterpiece history of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South’s Jim Crow society to the North, where they found other forms of discrimination.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s 2020 book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, is another important book on racial attitudes. He studies Baldwin’s writings, speeches and interviews from the early part of his career where he was a strong supporter of the 1960s civil rights movement until his attitudes changed. Baldwin was devastated and disillusioned about peaceful protest after the murders of his friends Martin, Medgar and Malcolm (Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X) and the rise of the Black Power movement, which he supported. Baldwin spent much of his writing career living in Paris and Istanbul but apparently felt at home nowhere—certainly not in his native racist United States.
The thread throughout Glaude’s book is The Lie (my caps) on which all of American society is based. The Lie has three parts:
- The debasement of black people: They are characterized as inferior, less human than white people, stereotyped as lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, and always seeking government handouts.
- Lies about American history: America is fundamentally good and innocent. Its bad deeds (slavery, genocide, internment camps, lynching, redlining, etc., etc.) were mistakes and have been corrected. (Add to that list food insecurity and our current “discovery” that Black and brown communities suffer and die more from COVID-19.)
- Changing events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened: America is a divinely sanctioned nation, a beacon of light and moral force in the world. Just one example is “the lost cause” story of the post-Confederacy.
The Lie is the mechanism that allows us to avoid facing the truth about unjust treatment of Black people. Baldwin said it started with the founders refusing to recognize a slave as a man. You can find many examples of The Lie in political speeches and writings today, especially from the right but also from the left.
There are many excellent novels in the enlighten-me-about-Black-life category. We have to include the source book for Lovecraft Country here and one additional novel.
Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy novel told episodically. As you read one exciting chapter after another, you realize that you are reading the raw material of a drama series. Each chapter focuses on one adventure or one character, even though they are intertwined. (There’s the chapter about Letitia’s new house in a neighborhood where she’s not welcome and another chapter where her sister Ruby turns into a woman named Hillary. At the end…but never mind. Read the book yourself.) This is Ruff’s sixth novel. The Readers Guide on Ruff’s website has background on some of the topics addressed in the book and drama series.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a 2016 book about Cora, a slave in Georgia who determines to leave the plantation and travels via the underground railroad (an actual railroad with stations underground) to various states and situations, each one more awful than the last. Her story is central to the book but is embellished by the stories of other slaves and some magical realism. The book won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Amazon Studios is adapting the book into a limited edition series directed by Barry Jenkin
Going Back in History
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, about Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who lives with his family in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s Black Belt. He’s hired to work for a rich white family and accidentally commits a terrible crime. His story is legendary and the book broke through into pop culture as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It was later a film and recently adapted as a brilliantly conceived play by Nambi E. Kelley, which premiered at Court Theatre in 2014.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, is a tragic and poetic book that’s hard to characterize; it’s almost Kafka-like in its opacity. The narrator, never named, moves to Harlem from the South but the story is about Black identity, Black nationalism, Marxism and the racial ideas of Booker T. Washington. Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 2012, Court Theatre also staged its world premiere adaptation by Oren Jacoby and Christopher McElroen.
And finally, listen to “Strange Fruit” (a disturbingly graphic protest song by Abel Meeropol) performed memorably by Nina Simone and in this video, by Billie Holiday.
Since there’s very little theater to review these days–occasionally a virtual reading or video replay–so I’ve been doing some book reviews. This book, a history of robots and automation, was particularly interesting as the author blends in aspects of how robots have appeared in popular culture over the centuries–dancing or playing chess and as characters in books, film and theater. The book traces how automatons led to automation, cybernetics and artificial intelligence in industry and weaves in examples of robots in culture.
Here’s my review of The American Robot: A Cultural History from University of Chicago Press. The author, Dustin A. Abnet, teaches American studies at Cal State Fullerton.
The book’s cover image shows a boy demonstrating Ideal Toy Company’s Robert the Robot, a popular remote-controlled toy in 1959.
I confess I’m afraid.
Afraid of the dreaded zombie virus
That stalks our streets and spaces.
I’m fighting it, staying home, washing hands,
Missing the theater,
Dinners with friends,
Long coffee dates.
Instead, long days at home,
Phone calls to keep up with friends,
Long Zoom meetings for business and pleasure.
Nighttimes of anxiety insomnia.
And no excuses for not working on The Project.
A poet friend said it’s like having
A long-term residency.
And every day, as I survey
The long hours ahead,
I know that some of them
Can be devoted to writing
As well as simply reading for pleasure.
Novels, history, poetry.
Some day, maybe soon, I’ll finish this beast
I’ve worked on off and on for years.
I’ve made progress in just a month.
Fine-tuned the contents.
Written new essays.
Gathered up my work
Published in other places
Around the cavernous internet. .
Together: Will they create
A coherent, meaningful package
That might inspire another writer,
Or interest another reader?
What’s the life of a writer, anyway?
It demands moments, no, hours, of solitude.
It’s not writing in restaurants or noisy cafes.
It’s just words, words, words, as If in a dream.
This time of enforced solitude is a writer’s dream
Within a nightmare.
This essay was previously published at Third Coast Review.
It’s the year of the big virus. We’ve had two weeks of #StayTheFHome or sheltering in place, depending on where you live. And in some states, you’re not doing that. You’re going about your regular daily business, going to parties, bars and beaches and getting infected or infecting others.
But enough with the happy talk. Let’s talk about death—or at least, about plagues. Three books about plagues are on my mind now. I just finished Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, an intense story about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s, blended with some of the same characters’ lives 30 years later. Right now, I’m in the middle of a 17th century plague story, Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, about one man’s experiences during the bubonic plague in London in 1665. And coincidentally (as if preparing for this) I recently reread Albert Camus’ The Plague, about a plague in 1940s Algeria. Little did I know how relevant that plague would be, both in disease form and as a political allegory.
The Great Believers is a totally engrossing novel with beautifully drawn characters—like Yale Tishman, a fundraiser for an art museum, and Fiona Marcus, sister of Yale’s best friend, Nico, the first in their circle to die from HIV/AIDS. Yale is a vividly drawn character and we follow his life as he breaks up with his partner Charlie, who was unfaithful and contracted HIV/AIDS. Yale is tested and finds out he’s ok, so he continues his work, which focuses on acquiring the art collection of an elderly woman (Fiona’s Aunt Nora) who was a model and muse in 1920s Paris. He also carefully continues his social life in the lively 1980s gay community in Chicago. So his career flourishes as the carnage of AIDS grows around him. Ultimately, he’s not careful enough.
The chapters about Yale in 1980s Chicago alternate with chapters focusing on Fiona in 2015. She’s in Paris, trying to reconnect with her daughter, who left home for a cult and then moved to Paris with her boyfriend. We first met Fiona as the teenager who tried to take care of “her boys”—Nico, Yale and their friends. She’s now a middle-aged woman. Her friend in Paris is Richard Campo, a photographer who recorded Chicago gay life in the 1980s whose work is now being celebrated with an exhibit at the Pompidou.
In one of my favorite passages, Fiona arrives in Paris, which reminds her not only of Aunt Nora but also of Yale. “Fiona builds that tie when she thinks in the present: ‘that a French café would have Wi-Fi seemed wrong. In her mind, Paris was always 1920. It was always Aunt Nora’s Paris, all tragic love and tubercular artists.’ She also thinks about Nico who died in the 1980s: ‘The other fantasy was the one where Nico walked beside her everywhere, wondering what the hell things were. He was Rip Van Winkle, and it was her job to explain the modern world, explaining things like ‘a firewall for your cloud,’ while she imagined him saying to her, ‘You’re living in the future.’”
The Great Believers will keep you involved in the lives of its characters—and if you’re a Chicagoan, you’ll love the references to people and places from three decades ago. It’s the sort of book that you will be sorry to finish, ev en if the ending is bitter sweet.
If I was writing a full review, I’d give it four stars. The book won many awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019. Rebecca Makkai lives in Chicago and Vermont. Her other works are the novels The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, and the short story collection Music for Wartime.
The Great Believers is available from your favorite bookseller.
Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London, has always been referred to as a novel, but it reads as a documentary-style recounting of events around the bubonic plague in 1665 London. DeFoe, who was five years old at the time of the Great Plague, published the book in 1722. The style is not journalistic, as the author writes as an observer and sometimes as a participant, but he writes what purports to be an eyewitness account. The book most likely was based on the journals of his uncle, who lived in London at the time.
The plague arrived in England from Holland between September and November 1664. The anonymous writer is an upper class person, with a wife, children and servants. His brother tries to persuade him to go to the country to escape the plague, as many wealthy people did. But he determined to stay in London.
The disease began in a distant neighborhood and as cases began to increase, it moved throughout London. It was incredibly contagious and many houses were filled with sick families, with crosses on the door to warn of illness. People died, screaming, in the streets. As the deaths mounted in 1665, the city, unable to deal with all the corpses, dug a great pit to burn or bury the bodies.
Throughout the book, the author comments on the behavior of his fellow citizens, their uses of fortune-tellers and astrologers to know their fate, their visits to all sorts of doctors and healers who assured protections from or cures for the plague. Once the fever reached a peak, he reports many crimes and thefts from homes of sick people by looters and by nurses and other caretakers. They would enter the home of the dying and dead, strip the bodies of clothes and steal household goods and valuables.
The observer points out that the infection generally comes in to the houses of citizens through their servants, who they send up and down the street to obtain food and other household needs. He says that at one point he began trying to list the deaths of all officials (but not “the inferiors”) in September but found it impossible for “a private man to come at a certainty in the particulars.” But “when the violent rage of the distemper of September came upon us, it drove us out of all measures.” By the end of the plague, 100,000 souls were swept away, the author says, “yet I alive!”
A Journal of the Plague Year has no compelling characters or contemporary drama; in fact, it’s somewhat dry. But it is interesting to read for the observer/author’s views on the behavior of citizens, both healthy and infirm, and the development and progress of the plague.
Daniel DeFoe wrote novels including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and several hundred other works. The book is available as a free e-book from various booksellers and on public domain sites like Project Gutenberg.
The drama in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague, starts with the rats. First a dead rat on the staircase at Dr. Rieux’s office, then a second one that evening outside his apartment. The rat “moved uncertainly … then moved forward again toward the doctor, halted, then spun round with a little squeal and fell on its side. Its mouth was slightly open and blood was spurting from it.” Then there were a few dead rats, then a dozen, then a column down the street, then a pile of dead bleeding rodents. For some reason, most people in the town thought little of this.
As people begin getting sick, Dr. Rieux treats the first victims, soothes their fevers and lances the pus from their “buboes” or abscesses. (The source for the term bubonic plague.) He works long days, making house calls on his patients. Dr. Rieux’s wife, who has been sick for a year, has gone to a sanitorium. The doctor is at first reluctant to call the fever a plague, but eventually decides that it is.
A meeting is called at the Prefect’s office, with a few doctors and bureaucrats attending. They discuss the situation and what to call it, Dr. Rieux points out that he has had a laboratory analyze the pus of the “buboes” in his patients and found it to be a slightly modified version of the plague bacillus. Most of those present want to avoid use of the word plague; the doctor says he doesn’t care what it’s called, as long as something is done to prevent its spread. They decide they must close the gates of the town and impose quarantine.
And thus exile begins for those within. Exile from loved ones who are away and can‘t come home. Exile from loved ones who die. Exile for travelers who are stuck in the town and can’t get home to their loved ones and familiar haunts.
Despite the quarantine, some citizens dress up to go to elegant restaurants to dine and drink the night away—being ready to flee when another diner shows signs of sickness. (That might remind you of our fellow citizens, who wouldn’t stay away from bars until they were closed, and then flocked to lakefront trails and parks, until they too were officially closed.)
The plague arrived in Oran abruptly in April of 194X, came to a peak quickly (at its height, 500 people a week died), then slowly dragged on for months until finally ending the following February, “slinking back to the obscure lair from which it had stealthily emerged.” Then “at last, at daybreak on a fine February morning, the ceremonial opening of the gates took place.”
Like the DeFoe book, Camus’ Plague is told by a “narrator,” who occasionally identifies himself as such. However, there are many sympathetically drawn characters with whom Dr. Rieux interacts as he goes about his days. Dr. Castel, who works to make a serum to cure the plague; Grand, a clerk for the city government; Cottard, who tries to commit suicide; Jean Tarrou, a newcomer to Oran; and Dr. Rieux’s mother, who comes to stay with him after his wife leaves for the sanitorium.
Given his political activism and the time in which Camus wrote The Plague, one can be sure that the contagion he wrote about has philosophical or ideological implications. The fictional plague arrived in the town of Oran, Algeria, in early spring and finally departed less than a year later. Of course, it took much longer for the 1940s breed of fascism to spread across Europe, from Germany to Spain and Italy, and finally to slink away. And it always lurks on the outskirts of societies, threatening to rise again.
Camus, a French Algerian, was a member of the French Resistance. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died three years later in a car accident.
The Plague is available from many booksellers as a print or ebook.
Three novels about plagues. Clearly, Rebecca Makkai’s book is the most engrossing and readable. It’s a great piece of storytelling and character development. Albert Camus writes a more somber novel but it is compelling as he draws us along through the course of the plague. I recommend DeFoe’s book as well, for its 17th century view of the crisis we live with today. Also it’s short (my Kindle version is 183 pages) but has no chapter or section breaks, which I find annoying.
Not enough books about plagues? See this New York Times article, “Your Quarantine Reader.”
The House Theatre of Chicago just opened a new play that I have to recommend to my music-loving friends. It’s Verböten, the story of a kid punk band from Evanston, and how they managed to play a gig at the Cubby Bear in Wrigleyville in 1983. They all had family problems of one kind or another and found another family with their bandmates. Jason Narducy started the band at the age of 11. He and his friends rehearsed in the basement of a friend’s house. A year later, they played at the Cubby Bear–and there’s a grainy old video to prove it.
Narducy wrote music and lyrics for the play with the book by Brett Neveu, a well-known Chicago playwright. Narducy has been a musician ever since, playing with Liz Phair and Telekinesis. Today he plays bass with the Bob Mould Band and SuperChunk and fronts Split Single, a b and that has made two albums with a rotating cast of musicians.
You can see Verböten by House Theatre at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., through March 8. Tickets are $30-$50 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Student and industry same-day discounted tickets are $20, for all dates, based on availability.
Here’s my full review of the play at Third Cōoast Review.
This week was Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday and fans all over the world observed it in various creative ways. At Third Coast Review, the place where most of my writing is posted, we curated a special playlist on Spotify. I had help from two friends–June Skinner Sawyers and Brad Paulsen. We chose a long list of tracks that we like. Not necessarily his best or even our favorites. It’s a list of lesser-known songs that we love to hear and thought that casual fans might not be familiar with.
Here’s what I wrote on Third Coast Review.
Bruce Springsteen’s legions of fans worldwide don’t need a reason to play his music. We listen to it every day. At home, while walking, driving, biking or breathing. But his 70th birthday on September 23 is a reason (or an excuse) to introduce non-fans or casual fans to some Springsteen tracks that you probably haven’t heard. We’ve created this mixtape from deep within Springsteen’s oeuvre of 327 songs. You won’t find “Born to Run” or “Dancing in the Dark” on this mixtape. But you will find “Prove It All Night,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Wreck on the Highway.” If you listen to these lyrics, you’ll perhaps appreciate the man from New Jersey as a storyteller. There’s the man walking thru the factory gates in the rain, the highway patrolman and his outlaw brother, who traded dances with Maria, and even the woman bagging groceries in the supermarket. (Most fans, by the way, hate the latter song, “Queen of the Supermarket.” But I like it, so it’s on this playlist. If you want to check all the lyrics, you can find them here.)
The tracks are in chronological order, starting with two songs from his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, recorded in 1972. Three of the tracks are covers of songs by other artists: “Jersey Girl,” written by Tom Waits, “Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan, and “Because the Night,” which Springsteen wrote with Patti Smith.
After you listen to our Spotify playlist, you can wander over to YouTube to see a video of Springsteen performing an acoustic version of his 1984 hit, “Born in the USA.” It’s his most misunderstood song, best known as an arena anthem, but the acoustic version is a better way to tell the story of a disillusioned Vietnam veteran.
Curating this playlist with me are two local Springsteen fans: June Skinner Sawyers, author of several books on Springsteen and other musicians and co-editor of a new Springsteen book; and Brad Paulsen, an architect and Springsteen fan since his teenage years, who gets credit for introducing me, an audio-only Springsteen fan, to live Springsteen concerts 20 years ago. And that’s how I went from being a casual fan to what Springsteen refers to as one of his “obsessives.” And thanks to Julian Ramirez, our music editor, for his contributions to our playlist.
My New York month is coming to an end—just one more week and I’ll be heading home. Mixed feelings, because I always love going home. And there is certainly lots of arts and culture to consume and review in Chicago. But there’s a certain something about New York. No other city can match it. So I hope to do this again in a year or two. Here’s what I’ve been doing since I last posted here.
Among the plays I’ve seen recently are three that I’ve reviewed for Third Coast Review.
Theater Highlights, Part 2
Sam Shepard’s True West, starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano as the battling brothers, was a pleasure to see again with another set of players. I’ve seen this play many times–first in 1982, when Steppenwolf staged it with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise playing the lead roles. This New York production at the American Airlines Theatre was excellent—and I took a different theme from it this time. The American dream, perhaps exemplified by one brother’s hard work at developing and writing a screenplay, is turned on its head. His drifter brother manages to bullshit his way into a film contract by making up a story as he talks with a film producer. And, of course, it all ends in a battle of…toasters and toast.
Juno and the Paycock at Irish Repertory Theatre is the second in its Sean O’Casey season. This is the best known of the three plays and Irish Rep stages a terrific production, led by the theater’s co-founder, Ciarán O’Reilly, as the ne’er do well Captain Jack Boyle. The play is beautifully cast, mostly with Irish Rep regulars, and succeeds in threading the tragedy of the Irish Civil War beneath the humor and occasional sadness of a Dublin family.
King Lear (Cort Theatre on Broadway) starring Glenda Jackson as Lear was a highlight of my New York month. I saw the play in preview, since it won’t open until April 4. Therefore I can’t review it now, but will write a review later. I can say now that it is a four-star production; not only is Jackson a solid and satisfying Lear, but the cast is diverse and the staging and direction (by Sam Gold) are brilliant.
Nantucket Sleigh Ride, John Guare’s newest play, is a world premiere being staged by Lincoln Center Theaters in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. My review was just posted today. The play is a farce, with lots of laugh lines, but it is a strange mix of reality and surrealism, laced with more pop culture references than I could keep track of. It’s an updated version of an earlier play, as I mention in my review, but I think it’s still not ready for prime time.
A unique theater resource in New York is the Theatre on Film and Tape archive (TOFT) at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (adjacent to the Lincoln Center theater building). TOFT records many of the plays and musicals produced on Broadway and off-Broadway. The archive is available to theater professionals, students or researchers with work- or study-related projects. You request viewing of a play by locating it on the TOFT website and calling to sign up for a viewing appointment. When you arrive, the films are cued up on a computer in the archive’s screening room. I’ve watched several plays there on two different occasions, including the 1988 and 2009 productions of Waiting for Godot. I’m hoping to get there once more this week.
Art at the Whitney and the Museum of Arts and Design
One of the important art exhibits on view in New York right now is Andy Warhol–from A to B and Back Again at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I saw a preview of the exhibit last fall, just before it opened, and I was happy to be here in time to see the exhibit before it closes March 31. It’s a huge exhibit, a retrospective of Warhol’s life in art, film and pop culture generally, beginning with his childhood in Pittsburgh. The exhibit will transfer to the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, with an October opening planned. Here’s my review of the Whitney exhibit.
The Museum of Arts and Design is a small museum located at 2 Columbus Circle, near 58th and Broadway. I particularly liked the exhibit titled The Future of Craft, Part One, on the third floor. The exhibit features many beautiful works in fabric art, both decorative and (sort of) wearable. On the second floor, there’s an exhibit of contemporary jewelry, titled Non-Stick Nostalgia. It’s all exquisitely displayed in unusual cases.
A special feature of the museum is the restaurant Robert on the ninth (and top) floor of the building. The restaurant has great views looking north toward Central Park and the upper west side. The food and service are excellent. We had a delightful brunch there on a Sunday.