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.
This is coming to you live from New York, where I’m hanging out for the month of March. I decided I wanted to live like a New Yorker and take in as much arts and culture as I could in a relaxed way. I’m staying in a tiny but comfy apartment in midtown, near the theater district. It’s a neighborhood I know and public transportation is really convenient here. I’ll report on some of my arts adventures rom time to time.
The Shadow of a Gunman at Irish Rep
My first theater review was posted today on Third Coast Review, where I regularly write about theater and art. At Irish Repertory Theatre, a theater company I have admired over the years, I reviewed the first in their O’Casey Cycle, celebrating the work of Sean O’Casey. He was a nationalist and a socialist and an Irish freedom fighter–and one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. My first review is of The Shadow of a Gunman, set in 1920 Dublin, where the war for independence rages outside a tenement building. There’s a bit of comedy throughout, but as the play proceeds, reality sets in. And the opposing forces, the vicious Black and Tans, invade the neighborhood–and then the house. A valise left in the room in act one becomes a Chekhovian gun in act two. The acting and direction are excellent, as is always the case with Irish Rep.
I’ll be seeing the second O’Casey play, the more familiar Juno and the Paycock, next week. Watch for my review.
I have plays scheduled throughout the month but I have plenty of room for other activities. When nothing else demands my attention, I’ll go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which offers a regular schedule of new films, both international and American, retrospectives, filmmaker talks and discussions. There are two FSLC buildings on opposite sides of 65th Street near Columbus Avenue. Their screening model is similar to that of the Gene Siskel Film Center, but on a larger scale.
Cold War, a love story over the decades
The first film I saw at the Film Society was Cold War, which screened recently in Chicago. It’s the latest film from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, whose film Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Cold War is a love story told across two decades in post-WW2 Poland and in several European cities. The film is told mostly from the viewpoint of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an instructor and band leader, whose lover is Zula (Joanna Kulig), an engaging and ambitious singer and performer. (I felt the film overplayed Wiktor’s viewpoint and underplayed Zula’s.) They are both members of a national musical touring company that presents Polish peasant-style works. While the company is in East Berlin for a concert, the two lovers plot to leave for the west. But only Wiktor actually escapes and thus the journey of longing begins. The film is notable for its gorgeous cinematography, shot in high contrast black and white with some glorious imagery, lighting and scenes. The story is elliptical, as Pawlikowski skims over the 20-year period in 88 minutes. Steve Prokopy reviewed Cold War recently.
In an interview screened before the film, Pawlikowski said, “The definition of art is what you leave out.” And he left out a lot, but nothing was missing. The ending is particularly beautiful—finished off with an interlude from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, “Aria.”
The Band’s Visit
I also saw this lovely play with music this week on Broadway. It’s been reviewed everywhere, so I won’t review it here. It’s called a musical but it doesn’t have egregious singing and dancing–that is, the dialogue is spoken, not sung, and dancing is done when it fits the plot. The music is performed by the musicians from the Egyptian band that visits the Israeli village and by a small pit orchestra. The play is directed by David Cromer, a Chicago theater luminary who has been highly successful in New York, both as director and actor. The Band’s Visit goes on tour this year and will be in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace in September. If you’d like to know more about the story, get a DVD of the excellent 2007 Israeli film of the same name.
And more ….
Today I’m seeing the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney (Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again). My next article will cover that comprehensive exhibit. “Mr. Paradox, who never left, is back,” as Holland Cotter said in his New York Times review.
Last week, I posted my opinion about Lincoln Yards on Third Coast Review. With all the discussion and controversy about parks, soccer stadiums and TIF money, I wanted to focus on the element that’s being taken for granted. The design of Lincoln Yards is centered with a mass of high rise buildings. The area is surrounded by traditional Chicago low-rise neighborhoods and this seems like thumbing your nose at Chicago’s history and traditions. Yes, we have a wall of highrises along the lakefront and in the loop, but they do not belong in our neighborhoods. There have already been too many intrusions of this type. Here’s what I wrote.
We don’t have to look far for a definition of a neighborhood. Jane Jacobs, the famous architecture writer who faced down Robert Moses’ efforts to demolish part of Greenwich Village to build a highway, wrote about it. She stressed the importance of mixed uses, short blocks that added corners, sidewalks and parks, population density, and both old and new buildings. Her 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, is considered one of the most influential works in the history of town planning.
The plans so far for Lincoln Yards, one of the most important planned developments in Chicago’s history, meet none of the Jacobs definition. We had a victory last week when Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) vetoed the part of the Sterling Bay plan that was to include a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and a massive Live Nation entertainment district. But the worst aspects of the 70-acre plan remain: The presence of 20 highrise towers ranging from 400 to 650 feet. That means roughly 40 to 60 stories. The buildings, planned for commercial and residential use, could house 24,000 workers and 5,000 residential units, and would loom incongruously over the surrounding low-rise neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Bucktown/Wicker Park.
Lincoln Yards is located along the north branch of the Chicago River in a former industrial district; it’s the former home of Finkl Steel. It’s bounded by the Kennedy Expressway to the west, Webster Avenue to the north, Clybourn Avenue to the east and North Avenue on the south. If you’re a music lover, you will recognize immediately that the site of our beloved Hideout is within those boundaries.
As the risk to the survival of the Hideout and the damage to other music venues became clear in November, Chicago’s independent music venues organized to fight the Lincoln Yards plan. They asked the city to take time to consider all aspects of the plan, including use of TIF money, rather than rushing it through so that Mayor Emanuel can consider it part of his “legacy.”
When Alderman Hopkins was seeking input, I completed his survey and included this as my response to the single open-ended question: “The high rise residential plan is totally unacceptable. This will not be a Chicago neighborhood. Residential buildings should be two-, three- and four-story max. Also the Live Nation entertainment venue is far too large. It would be much better to encourage local venues and local art/music groups to create small, storefront spaces typical of Chicago neighborhoods.”
Blair Kamin, the Tribune architecture critic, has done an excellent job of describing and criticizing the Sterling Bay plan and its support by almost-lame-duck Mayor Emanuel. Kamin begins one article this way:
“A great urban place is more than a motley collection of tall buildings and open spaces. It has lively streets, pulsing gathering spots and buildings that talk to one another rather than sing the architectural equivalent of a shrill solo.
“Daley Plaza, with its enigmatic Picasso sculpture and powerful county courts high-rise, is a great urban place. So is the North Side’s Armitage Avenue, lined with delightful Victorian storefronts.”
A neighborhood is a place where you can walk around at any time and see many other people walking, shopping, pushing strollers or riding bikes. There are places to stop for a coffee or a sandwich, to linger with your laptop, and benches where you can sit and people watch or read a book. There are bars where you can have a beer with a buddy or listen to music, which blares out to the street at night. And please let there be bookstores. As Jane Jacobs said, a neighborhood is for foot people, not car people.
That’s what Lincoln Yards should be. It should settle in a neighborly way amongst the surrounding neighborhoods and enable traffic back and forth across fungible neighborhood lines. It should not be, as it is set out now, a self-contained skyscraper community insulated from the rest of the city. Sterling Bay and architecture planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill should not be trying to foist this nightmare on Chicago. They should all be reading, or rereading, Jane Jacobs’ book.
For an excellent overview and critique of the Lincoln Yards plan, I recommend these articles by Kamin.
And of course, Jane Jacobs’ book.
A second book, which I highly recommend, is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s biography describes how the unelected official built an empire and lived as an emperor under six New York governors and 11 NYC mayors, until his reputation was finally destroyed. It’s a great read.
To the glitzy, glassy Apple store
For iPhone repair…
Nothing serious, just a battery upgrade.
But—an hour a half, says Matt,
My Apple red-shirt guy.
(Beat.) An hour a half?
Without my phone? I don’t have my iPad … my laptop is at home.
It’s a strange feeling …
No electronic tether.
No one knows where I am
Sitting in a café on Michigan Avenue.
No one can call me or text me.
I don’t know who has answered my emails
Or sent out a plaintive call for help.
The question: Does anyone need me?
Do my sons think I’m on a cart in the ER?
Or—most likely—no one has noticed.
NOTE: If your old iPhone needs a new battery, Apple says it’s replacing them for $29 through 12/31/18. But prepare for the anxiety. Bring a book. Or write a poem.
Kurt Vonnegut’s best-known play didn’t get a very good review from Clive Barnes when it opened off-off Broadway in 1970. But the legendary New York Times reviewer called it “inspired idiocy” and said “There was not much I found to admire in the play, but a surprising amount to love.” Happy Birthday, Wanda June isn’t performed very often. The last evidence I can find of its staging in Chicago was a 1991 production by a company called Bad Rep Theater Company. But I had the good fortune to find it playing last week at an off-Broadway venue near Times Square called the Duke on 42nd Street. Actually, I was there before, in 2004, when Chicago Shakes transferred its bloody Rose Rage (an all-male production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, V and VI condensed and staged in a Victorian slaughterhouse) to the Duke.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a wacky satire on American culture and our obsessions with guns and warfare. Vonnegut was inspired to write it after rereading Homer’s Odyssey during a Great Books series. His first 1960 version was titled Penelope and he rewrote it years later with the title Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The title character appears only in dream sequences; she’s in heaven playing shuffleboard, having been run over by an ice cream truck.
While I was writing my review, I remembered a play called Penelope that riffed on the same story (warrior comes home from the wars after many years; finds his wife’s suitors hanging around) staged by Steppenwolf Theatre in 2012. The play by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and directed by Amy Morton was memorably manic. The four suitors, hanging around an empty swimming pool, all clad in Speedos (which should never be worn by men over 18), were four notable Chicago actors: Scott Jaeck, Yasen Peyankov, Tracy Letts and Ian Barford.
Through the magic of their plots, characters and language, Mr. Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights and poets remain bristlingly relevant. And so does Vonnegut. I recently reread and reviewed his early novel, Player Piano, a story about a society in which humanity had become superfluous. And although Wanda June is hardly a perfect play, you will find it rousingly roisterous and more than a little relevant. Here’s part of my review of Wanda June, which you can read in its entirety over on Third Coast Review.
* * *
If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut reader, Happy Birthday, Wanda June will sound familiar. I was sure I had read it long ago when I was devouring everything he wrote. But no, I never read Wanda June. It’s not a novel; it’s one of Vonnegut’s short list of plays and the only one most people have heard of, because it also was a 1971 film.
But if you’re in New York, or can get there by November 29, you have the chance to see this wacky dark satire of American culture and America’s propensity for war and death, filtered through Vonnegut’s mad genius lens. Wheelhouse Theater Company is presenting Wanda June, smartly directed by Jeffrey Wise, at the Duke on 42nd Street, a cozy compact theater venue tucked in among the Times Square chaos.
Et cetera. And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say.
Please read the full review here.
As a followup to my review and comments on Haskell Wexler’s film, Medium Cool, here’s an important short film interview with Wexler, made in about 2014, the year before he died. Wexler talks about the film and his filmmaking. He describes the mood and atmosphere in Chicago at the time, his political attitudes, racism and the antiwar movement, and how Medium Cool came to be. Please enjoy.
Haskell Wexler invented a new hybrid form of filmmaking when he created Medium Cool, released in 1969. I saw the film back then, but was probably unconscious of anything but the story and its background—the antiwar protests and police action around the1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
This is the film’s 50th anniversary and I celebrated by watching the film—three times. Once by itself and twice with the excellent commentary tracks included on the DVD. (You see, Netflix, that’s why some 3 million crazy people still subscribe to your DVD service—because it’s the only way we can view foreign films and classics like this. You have 40 times that in streaming subscribers, so I hope you keep finding us profitable too.)
Wexler layers a fictional story of a loner TV news cameraman, a single mom and her young son over cinema-verité-style documentary footage of news events leading up to the convention (Robert Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, the arrival of the protestors in Chicago, the preparation of troops, police and Illinois National Guard) with the events inside the convention hall (the old International Amphitheatre) and in Lincoln Park, Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue.
Wexler started researching his film at least a year in advance and had tips that there would be a major protest action surrounding the convention. Because of his planning, he was able to have his characters carry out the plot against a backdrop of actual convention footage and street protests. The other innovation is Wexler’s use of quick cuts and sharp transitions. He takes you from A to C without stopping at B to explain, as Roger Ebert says in his 1969 review. That’s a technique we are used to now, but it was probably jarring 50 years ago.
Robert Forster plays John, the cameraman, and Verna Bloom plays Eileen. The most striking sequence is near the end of the film when Eileen is frantically looking for her independent-minded son, Harold (a 13-year-old untrained actor, whose performance is rough, natural and phenomenal). Harold has wandered away from their home in an Uptown slum (a poor white migrant neighborhood at the time) to go down to Grant Park with one of his buddies. Eileen follows him downtown, looking frantically through the crowds and marching along with the protestors on their way to the convention site. She’s in the middle of the actual police attack on the protesters. Wexler very cleverly had Verna wear a bright yellow dress, which meant she was easy to follow in the crowd.
Finally Eileen and John connect and get in his car to continue the search for Harold.
The film ends with a tragic accident, which happens for no reason, as accidents do. (My sister Linda died at the age of 27 in a similar car crash in January 1970, a life ended for no reason. She died at the same age and in the same year as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.)
There are plenty of other dramatic elements to the film. One interesting segment involves a fictional story about a cabdriver who found a package with $10,000 in cash in his taxi and returned it to the owner. John visits his home to interview the driver and meets all his friends. It’s 1968, remember, and the driver’s friends (the whole cast in this sequence is African-American) are artists and activists. They accuse John of being a police spy and the conversation gets racially heated. (Some of the film is scripted and much of it is improvised, including most of this scene.)
In the newsroom, there are discussions of what it means to be a journalist today. And in one scene, John finds out that the TV station has been giving his news footage to the Chicago police. He explodes and eventually loses his job over it. And there’s Harold’s fascination with his pigeons, which he cares for on the roof of the building where they live.
The cameraman and his sidekick, the sound guy, are carrying the bulky equipment of the period. It’s interesting to imagine what Wexler might do today using a smartphone. Excellent films like Tangerine (2015) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012) were shot on smartphones. The Oscar-nominated The Florida Project was shot on 35mm in 2017.
Medium Cool is brilliant because Wexler, the director/cinematographer, starts with an idea and carries it out with style and intensity. Medium Cool is a masterpiece, a landmark film that never got much attention. At the time, it was given an X rating because of some nudity in a delightful bedroom chase scene. Because of DVDs (1995), you can see it today—and I recommend that you do.
You can read Roger Ebert’s 1969 review here. Rather than reviewing the film, he focuses on Wexler’s approach and technique, for reasons he explains.