Sunday, May 31, 2020

Luke the Labourer

As the world continues to fall apart around us, I've been sheltering in place, reading--of all things--melodrama.

John Baldwin Buckstone's 1826 play Luke the Labourer is surprisingly relevant to our nation's current situation, where the authorities seem unwilling and unable to protect us, especially when the criminals and abusers are people in authority.

Though the play's main villain is the titular labourer, his villainy is equalled by that of Squire Chase, the lord of the local manor. Clara appeals to him for justice after Luke strikes her aged father, but the squire instead sexually assaults her, and she only escapes from him through the miracle of melodrama.

When Clara's sweetheart Charles finds out about the injustices being perpetrated, he comments of the authorities: "if justice cannot be procured here, there are means to obtain it elsewhere." That was written in 1826. With no justice in sight for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is it any wonder that people today who hunger and thirst for righteousness are also looking elsewhere?

In Buckstone's melodrama, poor Bobby Trot is falsely imprisoned on the word of the squire, but his girlfriend Jenny isn't afraid to tell the truth about the situation:

Yes, madam; for it be a hard thing, so it be, for a poor young man to lose his character, because 'Squire do choose to say a thing that be false; but he does just as he likes--I wish I were a queen, or an emperor, for his sake: I'd see whether a 'Squire should not go in the cage as well as a poor man, when he deserved it.

So many of our political leaders today still say things that be false, and no doubt deserve to be caged more than the poor souls we incarcerate today in such large numbers. The characters in Luke the Labourer are not queens or emperors, but simple people, yet they stand up for what's right. Will we?

It's hard to know what the best course of action is in our present moment of supreme injustice, but if the authorities continue to fail to act, no doubt many people will be seeking to obtain justice elsewhere.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

A Call to Action

The arts are one of the most important drivers of the nations's economy. According to the U.S. government, they contribute more than $760 billion a year. That's more than warehousing, more than transportation, more than agriculture.

At least that was true prior to the national shutdown due to COVID-19. America's farmers have enjoyed massive subsidies for years, and an outright bailout by the Trump Administration after our trade war made it impossible for them to make money. As for transportation, both the airlines and the automobile industry receive subsidies and bailouts. But (with the exception of a few NEA dollars Republicans are still trying to take away) not the arts.

Today, all arts organizations are in trouble, and through no fault of their own. Even organizations that built up sizable cushions couldn't be expected to go months having their doors shut by government mandates... especially when the government is refusing to pick up the tab for the mess it created itself through a ridiculously inept response to a pandemic... a pandemic so foreseeable that health experts have been issuing warnings for years.

Yet while the federal government is borrowing huge sums of money to bail out for-profit businesses so they can maintain profits and continue to pay their executives, there has been very little done to aid arts organizations. Perhaps the arts, like libraries and churches, are non-essential. (But not nail salons and tattoo parlors. Those are essential, apparently.) Either that, or it's because businesses can provide bribes--I mean campaign contributions--to politicians, while theaters, libraries, and churches tend to be restricted in their ability to do so.

Some theaters will weather the storm. The Metropolitan Opera, which has laid off employees but continues to provide streaming services to its patrons to keep engaging audiences, will probably get through this mess intact. So will the Public Theater, in spite of their cancelling the free Shakespeare in the Park that has been offered for decades. (That was a loss-leader for them, anyway.) Other theaters, however, have already shut their doors. The Secret Theatre, which operated on a shoe-string budget in Long Island City, couldn't afford to keep paying rent on a space they were forbidden to use. I guess that means there's more space to build luxury condos in LIC.

The question is, will anyone want those luxury condos after we systematically murder off everything that was good about Long Island City, and indeed, New York? Epidemics never stopped people from flocking here in the past. Washington Square Park is built on a mass grave of about 20,000 corpses, the majority of them victims of Yellow Fever. (We thought that the 21st century would be the first century in the history of civilization not to have to dig mass graves. Guess what? We were wrong, as Hart Island can bear witness.) In the past, the museums and theaters in New York always stayed open, even during the Great Influenza that began in 1918.

Though previous (and far more deadly) epidemics ate into the profits of Broadway shows and reduced the number of visitors to museums and galleries, they never shuttered them. Now, the government has ordered these places closed, and it seems to have no real plan to help them get through this mess and reopen again. If political leaders don't take action, we will be a much poorer city (and nation) for having squandered the most important assets our society possesses, while letting bankers and business executives once again walk away with ridiculous amounts of taxpayer funds. But it isn't bankers and hedge fund managers that make New York great. Disease never kept people from the city before, but what drew them here, even at the risk of their lives, is being destroyed.

If we really wanted to, there are many things we could do to save arts organizations, rather than throwing them under the COVID bus while rescuing Wall Street yet again. For one, we could provide loan forgiveness for all nonprofits through the Main Street Lending Program and the Economic Stabilization Fund. All for-profit businesses are eligible for loan forgiveness (essentially free money) if they have up to 10,000 employees or $2.5 billion in revenue. As we've seen, a lot of major corporations have taken advantage of the program to avoid "laying off" top executives, even as they have slashed payrolls of the people who actually do the work. Nonprofits, however, are ineligible unless they have at least 500 employees.

Wait a minute, didn't I say that big organizations like the Met and the Public were the ones most likely to make it through this thing anyway? Yup, but they're the ONLY ones eligible for money right now. Very few theaters have 500 people on their payroll. (And I'm pretty sure NONE have more than 10,000, so the upper limit is irrelevant to performing arts.) Why the 500-employee minimum? Well, like I said, the small fry can't bribe--I mean, make campaign contributions to--politicians. Writing out virtually every theater in America while making sure that small "businesses" including hedge funds are eligible for free taxpayer subsidies is absurd, but exactly what one would expect from the present Administration. That's why Congress has got to act not just to expand the existing programs, but to create special safeguards for the arts.

At a time in which we are providing massive amounts of money to for-profit corporations, it is unconscionable that we are continuing to ignore the needs of the non-profits that provide the lifeblood of our city and our nation. Remember, this is an industry that's 4.2 percent of the GDP, which means it's FOUR TIMES bigger than agriculture! If farmers deserve bailouts for the self-inflicted wounds caused by the trade war, why do we expect a much larger industry to go it alone during the self-inflicted chaos caused by the government's ineptitude in handling a virus?

Perhaps it's because farmers are good, honest people, while artists are a bunch of godless heathens who don't deserve to live. Given the coldness with which this country has treated the more than 100,000 Americans who have died of the virus, many of them in the New York City area, that appears to be precisely the attitude our government has adopted.

Well, I've got news for you, Washington. The artists aren't the ones who are godless.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Sputnik in Suburbia

Illinois-based Kane Repertory Theatre is kicking off an online reading series tomorrow with Adam Kraar's play Sputnik in Suburbia.

Kraar, who is known for such plays as Empire of the Trees, has set his latest piece in 1957 Cold-War America. The cast includes Kate Abbruzzese, Avery Bowne, Jonathan Silver, and Daniil Krimer.

I worked with Daniil previously on THE STATE OF COLORADO v. TENNESSEE WILLIAMS. He's now shaking up the Midwest theatre scene as artistic director of Kane Rep. Expect more announcements about the company's New Play Lab reading series soon!

To tune in to Sputnik in Suburbia, go to Kane Rep's YouTube channel on Wednesday at 7:30 pm Central Time, which is 8:30 pm Eastern. I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Dickens and Melodrama

Next month marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens. I had plans of visiting the author's grave for the a wreath-laying ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Well, COVID-19 changed all that.

However, Dickens scholars Emily Bell and Lydia Craig have put together a virtual conference for June 9th so that the anniversary will not go completely unmarked. Malcolm Andrews, editor of The Dickensian, will be participating, as will Gina Dalfonzo, who runs the Dickensblog.

I'll also be giving a three-minute lightning talk titled "Reimagining Melodrama in The Old Curiosity Shop." I'll be (quickly) examining how Dickens used and transformed the conventions of stage melodrama in his 1840-41 serialized novel about the wanderings of Little Nell.

Specifically, I will be looking at Dickens's transformations of some of the devices used by his friend Douglas Jerrold, who penned such successful melodramas as Black-Eyed Susan and The Rent-Day. My panel is scheduled for 6:15pm London time, which will be 1:15pm in New York.

If you're interested in Zooming in, check out the conference website. There is a registration fee, but all proceeds go to the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

A Shaw Summer After All

Earlier this year, I was very excited to announce that my paper on Sarah Bernhardt and Bernard Shaw had been accepted to a conference in Cáceres, Spain.

Well, that conference was supposed to be later this month, and it should surprise no one that it has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I had planned to discuss how Bernhardt's performance in Victorian Sardou's La Tosca influenced Shaw to write a very different role in Captain Brassbound's Conversion, crafting the part of Lady Cicely to be acted by a sort of anti-Bernhardt.

Though that Shaw conference was nixed, the International Shaw Society's annual symposium in Niagara-on-the-Lake was still accepting proposals. I had wanted my Bernhardt talk in Spain to be part of a larger project to include all of Shaw's Three Plays for Puritans, and it so happened that the Shaw Festival in Niagara was planning on performing the first of those plays, The Devil's Disciple, during the symposium.

It wasn't hard for me to pitch a talk on Judith in The Devil's Disciple and another Bernhardt role Shaw wrote about, Magda in Hermann Sudermann's Heimat. I had been planning on writing about that anyway, just not so soon. Well, I pitched the idea, and it was accepted. I even received a generous scholarship and travel grant from the ISS enabling me to attend. Though the Shaw Festival has cancelled all performances before July, they are still planning on going ahead with their production of The Devil's Disciple. Could there be a Shaw summer after all?

The simple answer is yes. The more complicated one is that it might not be in Canada. No one can be sure if the border between the U.S. and Canada will even be open in late July when the conference is scheduled. If getting together physically isn't possible, though, the symposium's organizers have committed to running a virtual conference. One way or another, I plan on giving that paper!

I greatly enjoyed attending the Shaw Festival in 2017, and if it's still on this year, I could get a chance to see not just The Devil's Disciple, but also Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill, Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress, and Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman.

Even if the summer season is cancelled, Gingold Theatrical Group is planning a production of The Devil's Disciple in New York City this fall. One way or another, I'll be getting my Shaw in this year!

Friday, May 1, 2020

Broadway, Off, and Off-Off

In the United States, Broadway has long been the center of the nation's theatre, but beginning in the 1950s, that began to change.

Fire codes and labor regulations prevented certain forms of artistic experimentation, such as performing shows in the round, so small companies like Circle in the Square began operating under cabaret licenses in order to skirt the rules. These plays were usually performed outside of the "Broadway Box" between 40th Street and 54th Street, so they came to be known as Off-Broadway.

Eventually the term Off-Broadway was defined as theatres with 100 to 499 seats. These theatres' smaller seating capacity allows them to have different performance contracts than Broadway houses. The emergence of Off-Broadway theatres allowed for an increased variety on New York stages, including the performance of classic plays and works of European modernism that would otherwise not have reached American audiences.

However, most American playwrights were still unable to get their plays produced either on Broadway or in Off-Broadway houses, so many began turning to even smaller stages, with fewer than 100 seats and operating with non-union performers or under union waivers. In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of enterprising individuals ran small spaces where theatre artists could produce their own work. These included Joe Chino who opened up his Café Chino to nearly anyone who asked, Ellen Stewart who founded LaMama Experimental Theatre Club as an allegedly private club in order to get around fire codes, and Ralph Cook whose Theatre Genesis operated out of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery.

The venues they created became known as Off-Off-Broadway, and they offered a home to playwrights unable to get produced elsewhere. Some began their careers Off-Off-Broadway with experimental plays and went on to Off-Broadway and even Broadway stages. Sam Shepard, for instance, began writing obscure pieces for Off-Off-Broadway, but was later canonized when his 1978 play Buried Child won the Pulitzer prize for drama.

One of the landmark Off-Off-Broadway productions of the 1960s was Promenade, a surreal musical comedy written by Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés with music by Al Carmines. After having a short run Off-Off-Broadway at Judson Memorial Church, it went on to have a commercial Off-Broadway run in 1969.

Fornés achieved great acclaim as an experimental playwright with Fefu and Her Friends, a play that after an opening scene, divides the audience into four groups and has them watch the same four scenes, but in different orders. At the end of the play, the audience convenes again in the same spot to watch the play's conclusion together, though they have experienced the story in four distinctly different ways.

Fefu and Her Friends recently had an Off-Broadway production at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Sadly, I missed it. (And now I'm missing theatre a lot...)

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Bible in Shakespeare

I'm pleased to announce that my review of Hannibal Hamlin's book The Bible in Shakespeare has come out in the online journal Performance, Religion, and Spirituality.

Hamlin's study of Shakespeare's allusions to the Bible is a valuable resource for anyone teaching or studying the plays of the Bard. In addition giving an overview of Shakespeare's Biblical allusions, it also includes case studies of the Roman plays, the character of Sir John Falstaff, and the tragedies Macbeth and King Lear.

You can read my review of the book here. I enjoyed it very much, though I'm sad we now have to content ourselves with reading about Shakespeare rather than seeing his plays performed live.