An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski (January 17, 1863 – August 7, 1938)

stanislavski lower depthsStanislavski didn’t just talk the talk – or write it in the series of books (beginning with An Actor Prepares) that serve as the foundation for acting training – he trod the boards himself as an accomplished and gifted stage actor. So much for those who can’t, teach. Stanislavski could and did.

At age 14, he began appearing in plays put on by his rich artsy family. He got his first training at home and his family was one of the wealthiest in Russia. So much, too, for having to “struggle” for your art. A little money can provide an artist with a good start and comes in handy later on … when the rent is past due, for instance, and you’re still in rehearsal.

And young Constantin does not appear to have suffered much, although he did need to conceal his true ambitions from his aristocratic relatives. They enjoyed their amateur theatricals, but would have been appalled by the idea of Stanislavski becoming a professional actor. He hid this fact from them until 1896, the year before when – at age 34 – he cofounded the Moscow Art Theatre with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.

MAT_original_company_1899_width_630pxLife became more difficult after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when most of Stanislavski’s money and assets were seized by the new Soviet Union and he was exhorted to put on “socialist realist” dramas. Stanislavski declined, continuing to produce and direct plays only to his liking until very near the end of his life  (when he finally succumbed to Stalinist pressure). And he wrote the books. Which are still read.

But acting was Stanislavski’s first love. And it is acting – his – that I celebrate today.

P.S. You might have seen this post before … on January 5th to be exact … which is Stanislavski’s birthday on the old Julian calendar, the dating system that Russia used when Constantin was born. I pulled it to repost it on his birth date according to the Gregorian calendar, which we use and which Russia switched to eventually after it became the Soviet Union. Do you think Stanislavski was pissed when he lost those 12 days? I mean, how do you “prepare” for that?

“You look like Donna Reed …”

Donna Reed (January 27, 1921 – January 14, 1986)

From_Here_to_Eternity_Donna_Reed_1

I was at a wedding reception in the early 1980s – I think it was at a country club in Westlake Village – and I was sweaty and winded from an hour of dancing (to some disco dreck) and drunk, although no more than usual for a night out – not bad wedding drunk – and my one good suit was in decent repair. I needed to sit down for a minute and caught sight of the bride, Pat, still in her wedding gown, seated at a table on the fringes of the reception with an older woman in an expensive-looking black and brown dress. I’d barely spoken to Pat since the ceremony (I considered her a friend by now, but I had met her through Joe, the groom, who was one of my oldest and best friends at the time, although not for much longer) so I sat across the table from her.

I exchanged a few wedding-day pleasantries with Pat, told her how beautiful she looked, how great the ceremony had been, I might have even predicted a long and happy life with Joe although I didn’t believe it … I gave their marriage a year, two at the most, and so did most everyone else who knew Joe. But, all the time I was talking to Pat, I was stealing glances at the woman beside her, who had to be twice my age (I was about 30 at the time) and who, well – I can’t think of a better word – dazzled me. I had already noticed her dress, which was lovely and rich, she was petite and self-composed, she had perfect brown hair, a beautiful barely-lined cameo of a face.

“You look like Donna Reed,” I finally said to her. “I am,” Donna Reed replied. I had forgotten – if I ever knew – that she was like a godmother to Pat, a part of her life since childhood, although I have no memory now of how or why. Pat smoothed over my faux pas with a proper introduction and I shook Donna Reed’s gloved hand.

I think I had enough sense – and tenuous sobriety – not to gush, make hee-haw jokes, wonder what it was like to work with Stewart and Sinatra and Monty Clift, ask her if she kept in touch with Shelley Fabares. (And, of course, she had kept in touch, Donna Reed was an Iowa farm girl who never lost her small-town warmth and decency and was a second mother to a lot of people, apparently, famous or not.) I’m fairly certain, however, that we just talked about Pat and how they knew each other and about the wedding and, then, in virtually my only instance of good sense that night, I realized I’d interrupted a private moment and went back to the dance floor.

I remember thinking, as I walked away, that this is why I came to Los Angeles – one of the reasons – because you can go to a wedding and end up talking to Donna Reed.

Donna Reed – as Mary Hatch – was the only reason for George Bailey to stay in Bedford Falls at the Savings & Loan (instead of packing off to Paris) and I think I knew that even when I was eight or however old I was when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). And it was Mary Bailey who people thought they were watching when they tuned in “The Donna Reed Show” (1958 – 1966). Fifties America liked Donna Reed in good-girl roles, despite the fact she had won an Oscar playing a nightclub “hostess” (Hays Code for prostitute) in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. She was never allowed to repeat that adventure.

Pat’s and Joe’s marriage lasted a little more than a year. Pat’s father had decided to give them a fresh start by paying off all of Joe’s credit-card debt in exchange for his promises to cut up his cards and stop gambling. Joe didn’t cut up the cards, which he borrowed against to pay his new gambling debts. We were regulars together at race tracks and card clubs. Joe usually lost and I won enough to keep going for awhile. Keep wasting more time.

When Pat found the bills Joe hid, the balances were up above what her father had paid and their marriage over. I quit being friends with Joe when I quit gambling. And Donna Reed died of cancer on this date in 1986 – sadly, suddenly – at age 64. Not that long after I had met her – the one time – and been dazzled by her. She’s not someone you forget.

P.S. I changed the names of Pat and Joe to protect their privacy and to preserve my ability to turn what I experienced into fiction. (I’m only half-joking.) The woman who looked like Donna Reed was Donna Reed.

All the Jack Londons

jack-london-two-shelves

Jack London (January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916)

Take everything London wrote – he produced more than 40 books in his time on earth, slightly more than one for every year he was alive – tear out several pages from each book, paper a wall with them, close your eyes and toss a dart. Open your eyes and read the page where the dart lands, you’ll find support for at least one of the following statements:

  • Jack London was a socialist
  • Jack London was a fascist
  • Jack London was a racist
  • Jack London was one righteous, enlightened white dude on race
  • Jack London was the working man’s friend
  • Jack London was an elitist
  • Jack London was a reckless drunk
  • Jack London was America’s first “recovering alcoholic”
  • Jack London was an anarchist
  • Jack London was a totalitarian
  • Jack London was an imperialist
  • Jack London thought America should mind its own business
  • Jack London abused animals
  • Jack London was PETA before there was a PETA
  • Jack London was a worthless hack
  • Jack London was a great American writer – one of our greatest.

Support for all the above statements is possible because Jack London has been all those things – and more – and sometimes several at once. A recent (excellent) biography by Jack Haley is called Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (2010) and the title could not be more apt. London lived enough lives, consecutively or concurrently, for a dozen men and he lived each of them with fierce commitment and at white-hot intensity. The word “driven” – in its contemporary locution – could have been coined for him. And he, of course, found time to write those 40-plus books, which is about the same number of books that present-day writing machine, Joyce Carol Oates, has written and she’s twice as old now as London was when he died. Unless Oates is keeping her sea excursions and prospecting adventures secret from the public, she has also lived only one, fairly quiet, academic life.

What all London’s living and writing left little time for, in my opinion, was much thought. And  practically none of the deep, patient, reflective kind of thinking that can lead a writer to provide us with broad-based insights and well-formed conclusions. Ideas flowed through Jack London in the same way experiences did – directly from life to the page.

A lot of London’s literary output is commercial tripe and a lot of his ideas for shit. And, depending on the work and the day of the week when he wrote it, London was guilty as charged of being a socialist, a fascist, an anarchist, a totalitarian, a racist, an imperialist, an enthusiastic celebrator of mood-altering substances, a depictor of animal cruelty, and a bad poet (except in the best of his prose).

So what do we do with Jack London? Kick him and all of his books to the curb?

The local librarian in my suburban Indianapolis neighborhood growing up was a pinch-faced, purse-mouthed, McCarthyite old bat who saw her mission in life not as the dissemination of culture  but its winnowing into a single approved channel. Sexless, painless, joyless, and “politically correct” … which for Pinch Face meant “not Communist.” I was in fifth grade, I think, when I wanted to check out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “That book’s too old for you,” Pinch Face said, taking it from me and putting it out of reach behind the counter. Maybe she was thinking of the Lenny scenes, but she also refused to let me read The Pearl or The Red Pony or anything else by “Mr. Steinbeck,” as she referred to him, on the grounds that “his ideas were wrong.”

I had slightly better luck with Mr. London. “You can read the dog books,” Pinch Face told me. I gobbled them up and asked for more, including London’s many other books that weren’t about dogs, but Pinch Face refused.  When pressed on her reasons, she pursed up her mouth and said, “Mr. London is a Communist. The most popular writer in Russia.”

I believe the theory back then – among the Pinch Faces of the world – was that encountering “wrong” ideas and attitudes at a tender age might permanently damage one’s thinking cap and make it impossible to have the “right” ideas later on. So how should we handle Jack London’s books now, full as they are not only with old wrong ideas but new wrong ideas and attitudes that many of us (including me) find offensive?

Book-Ban

I say we read them. I’ve read dozens of them, including several in childhood, and they don’t seem to have damaged my thinking cap. Or inculcated me with bad ideas and attitudes. Books aren’t crimes. They aren’t viruses. And, even if they were, the antibodies can be found in other books … and, in London’s case, in other London books.

I would recommend starting on London – at a young age – with a selection of his superb  short stories and the wonderful “dog books,” The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) that even Pinch Face liked. For bigger boys and girls – like you and me – I’d try his most personal novel, Martin Eden (1909)although it has its longeurs: London ran into trouble when he tried to stretch out. John Barleycorn (1913) is the first – and still one of the best – meditations on alcoholism. The Iron Heel (1907) is a fascinating science-fiction dystopia that precedes, by a lot of years, Orwell’s 1984. But my current favorites among London’s books are The Road (1907) and The People of the Abyss (1905), his two plunges into immersive journalism. In the former, Jack takes to the rails, riding trains with the hobos and fighting the “bulls.” In the latter foray, he impoverishes himself among the city of London’s desperately poor in order to write as truthfully as he can about their plight.

His best book is the one he didn’t live long enough to write … the group autobiography of all the Jack Londons. The recent Haley biography will have to suffice.

David Bowie Is

His body short-circuited. His body of work lives on. David Bowie is. I love his music, his changing personae, most of all his lyrics. You become a lyricist by reading, immersing yourself in words. Below is a recent list Bowie compiled of his favorite books and some photos of him reading.

David Bowie’s Favorite 100 Books

  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
  • The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
  • Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
  • Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
  • The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
  • Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
  • Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992
  • Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
  • David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988
  • Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
  • Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985
  • Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
  • Money, Martin Amis, 1984
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
  • Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
  • Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
  • Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
  • Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
  • Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
  • Viz (magazine) 1979 –
  • The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
  • Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
  • In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
  • Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
  • Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
  • In Bluebeard’s Castle : Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
  • Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
  • The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
  • The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
  • Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. , 1966
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
  • City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
  • Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
  • Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
  • The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
  • Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
  • On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
  • Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
  • Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
  • The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
  • All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd,1960
  • Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
  • On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  • Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
  • A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956
  • The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1948
  • The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, 1944
  • The Outsider, Albert Camus, 1942
  • The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939
  • The Beano, (comic) 1938 –
  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, 1937
  • Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood, 1935
  • English Journey, J.B. Priestley, 1934
  • Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman, 1932
  • The Bridge, Hart Crane, 1930
  • Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh, 1930
  • As I lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
  • The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos, 1930
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
  • Passing, Nella Larsen, 1929
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1928
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
  • The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, 1922
  • BLAST, ed. Wyndham Lewis, 1914-15
  • McTeague, Frank Norris, 1899
  • Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual, Eliphas Lévi, 1896
  • Les Chants de Maldoror, Lautréamont, 1869
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
  • Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842
  • Inferno, from the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, about 1308-1321
  • The Iliad, Homer, about 800 BC

On the 1st Anniversary of a Great Writer’s Death

I saw Robert Stone walking past the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one sunny afternoon, on the same day – and a few minutes after – I had spotted Michael Caine reading a book in the hotel’s bookstore. I love Michael Caine, but seeing Robert Stone was both more surprising and the bigger thrill.robert stoneThis was in the 1980s, not sure when, but Stone was already sporting the longish receding hair and full beard that characterized his dust jacket photos of the last decades. He wore a faded blue denim shirt with one shirttail out and gave the impression of being large and lumbering, although this last may have been my imagination. Or time’s rewrite. I know Stone was smiling, recalling something pleasurable, perhaps, or just enjoying the day. Or maybe he was smiling because he’d received an option check on one of his novels for a movie that never got made (more often than not, the best possible scenario for a writer whose complexities don’t translate well to the screen).

I don’t believe it entered Robert Stone’s mind that he’d be recognized – his face bore none of the caution of movie stars in public places; the tall Mr. Caine, for instance, was hunched over his reading at the end of a row – and, because I didn’t want to interrupt Stone’s enjoyment in that moment or risk his displeasure, I didn’t try to stop him and thank him. To tell him how much his books had meant to me.

There were only three (possibly four) books by that time. A Hall of Mirrors (1966), which depicted an early Sixties New Orleans of racial and religious extremes that never quite cohered as a novel but introduced that voice – precise yet poetic with slightly druggy inflections, depressed but fighting against it, continually aspiring to hope. The next book Dog Soldiers (1974) is still his finest novel and, despite having only maybe 40 pages set in Vietnam, the best book by an American on the impact of that war. Stone’s novel about a thinly disguised Nicaragua in revolution, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), is a second straight masterpiece. And it’s possible by then that Stone had published Children of Light (1986), which also doesn’t entirely come together but which contains some of the best writing anyone has done about both schizophrenia (which Stone’s mother suffered from) and the schizophrenic nature of Hollywood at the end of the 1970s.

Stone went on to write seven more books, including the much-acclaimed Israel-based novel Damascus Gate (1998) and his terrific 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties … Stone was a friend of Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters and put in his time “on the bus.” Among the serious writers of his generation, Stone may have written the most and had the widest range. His novels depict not only what it felt like to be an American during his lifetime but also the effect that we Americans have had on the world at large. A handful of his contemporaries have written as well, but none with his ambition. We lost a great one a year ago today, but the books survive. Here’s the first paragraph of Dog Soldiers:

THERE WAS ONLY ONE BENCH IN THE SHADE AND CONVERSE went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.

Sez Me: Street Scene is a Great American Opera

On this date – January 9 – in 1947, the opera Street Scene opened at the Adelphi Theater on Broadway and ran for 148 performances.

street scene 1947

The show was composed by German-born Kurt Weill, who considered Street Scene his finest score and it is certainly his most operatic. The beautiful lyrics are by poet and playwright Langston Hughes. The book is by Elmer Rice from his play of the same name, which chronicles the lives and loves of the mostly immigrant residents of a brownstone in early 20th-century New York over the course of two blazing-hot summer days.

The original production of Street Scene was a popular and critical success, but high running costs resulted in its early closure. Street Scene has never been revived on Broadway, but it has made its way into the repertoires of opera companies around the world.

Bad Girl from Where the Boys Are

Yvette Mimieux  (born January 8, 1942) – American Actress

yvette  in boysWhen I was a young boy, my regular babysitter – her name was Linda – had a great singing voice but a bad case of stage fright and she couldn’t manage a single note if anyone was watching her. So we’d sit in the kitchen, which was next to the basement stairs, while Linda went to the basement, put a record on the record player, turned the volume down low, and sang along.  Linda’s favorite singer was Connie Francis and her favorite Connie Francis songs were “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “Where the Boys Are,” the theme from the 1960 movie of the same name. My babysitter could sing the hell out of them.

Linda would sometimes be wiping tears when she came back upstairs. Which made sense to my Midwestern parents and their friends in the kitchen: the songs Linda sang were sad. If she’d just finished “Where the Boys Are,” Linda would catch my eye and wink. The wink was because we had a secret and it was my reminder not to tell.  But I also thought  – in my child mind – that she winked at me because I knew the real reason Linda was crying. It had to do with Yvette Mimieux, an actress in the film Where the Boys Are (1960). Yvette Mimieux is 74 today.

Linda sat for me a lot and did things my parents would not have liked. She stole liquor from their liquor bottles, had a boyfriend over for a makeout session on the living room couch (while I watched with inchoate jealousy from the hall), and – on more than one occasion – took me to movies I was “too young” to see. All of which means, I guess, she was a bad babysitter – irresponsible, a terrible influence – but I thought she hung the moon. And I’d never have told on her even if she hadn’t bribed me with quarters, made me promise, winked. Linda’s secrets were safe with me.

where the boys are carOne of the movies Linda shouldn’t have taken me to – and our “secret” – was Where the Boys Are, which tells the story of four Midwestern college girls who go to Fort Lauderdale for spring break in pursuit of romance, fun, and sun. It was a popular coming-of-age film for the babysitters of Laura’s generation and it was the movie – for good or ill, mostly ill – that cemented Florida as a spring-break destination for generations of college students to come. In addition to Mimieux, it starred Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and – in the lead role – Dolores Hart, a wonderful actress who quit movies soon after to become a Benedictine nun.  I watched Where the Boys Are again not too long ago and it is a surprisingly good movie. Corny in spots, craven by the end, but well-acted, engaging, and daring for the time in its depiction of youthful sexual mores. My childhood memories of the movie were of young people who seemed only a little older than Linda doing a lot of drinking and kissing. I also remember Linda crying through some of the scenes with Melanie, the character played by Yvette Mimieux.

A quick plot summary. In the movie, back in college, there had been some brave talk – led by future nun Hart – about how young women (like the guys) should experiment with sex prior to marriage. The other three friends seem to agree, but the characters played by Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and even Hart return from Florida virgo intacto and it’s only Melanie who takes the bait. She sleeps with her slick Ivy League spring-break fling, truly believes they are madly in love, but finds out different when she goes to a party and is raped by one of his friends. Melanie/Mimieux ends up in the hospital after wandering into the road and being struck by a car. And her three friends come to rue the error of their thoughts. But all that sex talk – and some of the later scenes – pushed the 1960 envelope, which was still more Fifties than Sixties.

yvette in LightA brief bio. Yvette Mimieux was perfect in Where the Boys Are and quite good with Olivia de Havilland and opposite George Hamilton in Guy Green’s Light in the Piazza, but most film buffs will remember her as Rod Taylor’s Eloi love interest, Weena, in George Pal’s version of The Time Machine (1960). She starred or costarred in another ten or so studio films – mostly in the 1960s – followed by TV work and  retirement at the age of 50 to concentrate on her successful business interests. Mimieux grew up in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High. Her first husband was the film director, Stanley Donen.

Linda stopped being my babysitter when I stopped needing one, but our families stayed friends and I would talk to her occasionally.  The last time I remember seeing Linda was at her wedding, a few years later. She was five months pregnant and her father got drunk and refused to dance with her, an act for which I will never forgive him. That was also the last time I saw Linda wiping away tears.

The GOP’s Most Shameful Act?

On this date – January 7th – in 1999, the Clinton Impeachment begins

Whatever elected Republican representatives did or refused to do last week (on gun control, for instance) might be their new most shameful act. And it probably replaced – in the historical Hall of Shame – whatever GOP Senators and Congresspeople did or didn’t do the week before that. It’s hard to stay current with the outrages of a political party that has lost its love of country, its concern for the well-being of that country’s men and women and especially children, its feelings of responsibility and of duty, its common decency, and (to complete the circle) all sense of shame.

It’s difficult to say – exactly – when the Republican strategy of distraction, obstruction, and destruction will end. Presumably when the GOP achieves its goals of eliminating the American middle class, dismantling federal and state governments in general and their social programs in particular – including public schools and social security – and restoring the United States to its oligarchic Gilded Age glory.the-bosses-of-senate

In that new/old United States, we will all work for the One Percent, the Walton family and the Koch brothers and the others. The Republicans already do. And GOP Senators and Congresspeople get paid far better by them than the One Percent will ever pay us. The best that the rest of us can probably hope for is two or three part-time jobs at minimum wage.

As hard as it is to know – exactly – when the GOP’s good work will be done, it’s fairly easy to pinpoint the beginning: the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton. Congress had practiced obstruction in the past, most notably when Southern Democrats used the filibuster to block or delay civil rights legislation. But the Clinton Impeachment was something new. It was a tactic. A tantrum. The first time to my knowledge that one of the two major political parties in the modern era decided, basically, to prevent governance from proceeding – shut it down – by manufacturing a false crisis. To take its ball and throw it over the fence. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had held the budget hostage for a trial-run tantrum in 1995, but that one had backfired, it was over with quick. The Clinton Impeachment process was the real deal, however. It dragged on and on.

I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, on business in the 1980s and, this one night, I was talking to some locals on Center Street – across from the governor’s mansion – when a limo pulled up. A tall man in a suit got out of the limo accompanied by a woman with big hair in a red dress and spiked heels. I asked the locals who it was. “That’s our governor, Bill Clinton, and his, er, date for the night.” Another man chuckled – in that way men do in the presence of other men on the subject of sex – and said, “He’d be President some day if he could keep it in his pants.”

1992 sex scandal

Bill Clinton couldn’t keep it in his pants and became President of the United States anyway. We voted on that and, for a moment, we decided as a nation that the qualifications for President listed in the Constitution should not include “has not and does not have extramarital relations.” That was a good decision by the Founding Fathers, several of whom had issues in the extramarital department and whose services this country would have been denied had they included a sexual “morals clause.”

You will note – in their infinite wisdom – that Republicans have never suggested some sort of fidelity test for Congressional or Senatorial service. A good thing, too, since – with the exception of Anthony Weiner and his stupid sexting – I can’t think of a national political sex scandal in recent years that hasn’t involved someone from the Grand Old Party.

And there was plenty of hypocrisy to feast upon during the Clinton impeachment period as well. Republican Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Henry Hyde, for instance, was revealed to have been a regular little homewrecker in his reckless youth … actually he was 41 when he began a three-year affair with a married woman. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich had a bad habit of sleeping with his next wife before he was divorced from his last wife … and cheating on them both. It wasn’t sexual improprieties that cost Newt the Speakership, however. The stated reason was ethics violations on a book deal ; the real reason was the GOP’s poor showing in the midterm elections.  Republicans can forgive their colleagues almost anything except losing House and Senate seats.

A little more than a month later – on February 12, 1999 – the Senate failed to convict Clinton on either charge.  But the Impeachment was not a failure. Not for the Republicans. President Clinton’s effectiveness as a leader was over from the moment that a trial became a possibility and was not restored by acquittal.  And the Republicans learned a valuable lesson. That even when they lose, they win. They win by preventing governance and stopping anything good from getting done. They win by further impoverishing the American middle class and deflecting its attention away from the real reasons behind its hardships. They win by hurting the nation they profess to love. A few individual Republicans also got hurt in the process. But, hey, sometimes, you gotta take one for the team. And the GOP playbook then – of distraction, obstruction, and destruction – is their playbook now. It works just fine for them – and for their One Percent constituents – so don’t look for the plays to change anytime soon.

Senator Cruz speaks to reporters in U.S. Capitol in Washington

Saint Joan – Great Source Material

Joan of Arc (January 6, 1412 – 30 May 1431)

An illiterate French peasant girl devoted to Catholicism, Joan of Arc was 16 years old when she got out of an arranged marriage to a dude she didn’t like, split for a nearby town (where she convinced the locals she was “the virgin who would save France” of folk myth), and got an audience with King Charles where she persuaded him that she spoke to archangels and they answered her back. She went to war against England in men’s clothes and bobbed hair, led French troops to victories in the endless crock of shit known as the Hundred Years War, fell into enemy hands and was tried on trumped-up charges including everything from heresy to cross-dressing to stealing a horse. Joan was 19 when the Brits burned her at the stake.

Sain Joan_Preminger_Seberg

Joan of Arc – nicknamed the Maid of Orleans – is France’s national creation story. She is promoted by many as a feminist symbol … or at least a better role model than Paris Hilton. In 1920, she was awarded saint status by the Catholic Church. Joan has also – with the exception of Jesus – inspired more works of art than anyone in Western history, providing the basis for a raft of novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows, operas, oratorios, pop songs, tapestries, paintings and sculptures. Not to mention screensavers, t-shirts and coffee mugs.

A brief list of Joan’s Greatest Hits would include Henry VI, Part I (1590, where good Englishman, William Shakespeare, makes her the villain); the painting Joan of Arc at Prayer by Peter Paul Rubens (1620); Voltaire’s savage epic poem The Maid of Oranges (1756) and its sympathetic answer from Friedrich Schiller in The Maid of Orleans (1801); the two operas based on the Schiller play by Verdi in 1845 and Tchaikovsky in 1878;  Mark Twain’s neglected, uncharacteristically earnest novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896); Joan as Chicago labor leader in Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1930); the Leonard Cohen single “Joan of Arc” from Songs of Love and Hate (1970); and the two-part Joan the Maiden (1994) by French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette.

Distorted-Sets-in-THE-PASSION-OF-JOAN-OF-ARCI am one of the five people who like Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), primarily because of the lovely natural portrayal of Joan by Jean Seberg (in her 1st movie) who was panned at the time but whose performance in retrospect seems almost the film’s only good one. The 1923 George Bernard Shaw play – upon which the Preminger movie was based – is the best stage presentation of Joan’s trial (drawing on actual transcripts) and one of Shaw’s finest works.  Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc is an artistic experience with few equals. Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance is so compelling that not only do you believe Joan heard voices, you start hearing them yourself … and it’s a silent film.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention former Go Go Jane Weidlin as Joan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and the boys’ friendly greeting, “Welcome aboard, Miss Arc.” And the theme song from the Seventies TV series Maude, which has a line that sums it all up: “Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her/she was a sister who really cooked.”

A Wedding to Remember

On this date in 1950, A Member of the Wedding opened on Broadway

Ethel_Waters_Julie_Harris_Brandon_DeWilde_Member_of_the_Wedding_Broadway

Carson McCullers adapted the play The Member of the Wedding from her novel of the same name about Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old tomboy who becomes obsessed with her older brother’s upcoming wedding. The Broadway production was directed by Harold Clurman and starred Julie Harris as Frankie, second-grader Brandon DeWilde (“Shane! Come back, Shane!”) as her cousin John Henry, and the magnificent Ethel Waters as the family housekeeper Bereneice.

The show premiered 65 years ago today and ran at the Empire Theater for 501 performances

Movie director Fred Zinnemann wisely used the Broadway cast for his 1952 film of play. Julie Harris was 25 when she starred as Frankie onstage and 27 in the movie, but she somehow pulls it off.

The top picture is a cast photo from the 1950 stage production; the one below, a backstage shot of Harris smoking a cigarette and Waters with Carson McCullers on opening night.

backstage memeber