Second time’s a charm

298ca073292837f9527c4d1273aedf86_posterI narrated Project Shaw’s staged reading of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple last year, and had such a good time that I’ve happily agreed to make a repeat appearance on September 29. I’ll be sharing the stage of Symphony Space with Jefferson Mays and J. Smith-Cameron, two superlatively talented actors whom I admire without reservation, for a performance of Village Wooing, a comic two-hander (Shaw called it a “comedietta for two voices”) written in 1933. My colleagues, needless to say, will be doing all the acting, while I content myself with reading the stage directions out loud.

Symphony Space is at 95th Street and Broadway. The show starts at seven p.m. To order tickets or for more information, go here.

To read Village Wooing, go here.

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Lookback: an imaginary dinner with Satchmo, George Balanchine, and H.L. Mencken

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

Over dessert, the talk would likely turn without prompting to women. Balanchine and Armstrong were both married four times, and though Mencken only tied the knot once, he had his fair share of girlfriends, going so far as to write a book called In Defense of Women. Between the three of them, I dare say quite a bit of light would be shed on the ever-intriguing subject of romance and its discontents….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Karl Popper on tolerance

INK BOTTLE“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

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“Bursts of complete felicity”

9781598533088_p0_v2_s260x420The Library of America is about to bring out an omnibus edition of Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, in which H.L. Mencken collected the reminiscential essays that he published in The New Yorker in the Thirties and Forties.

National Review recently asked me to write about this volume. It happened that I hadn’t looked at any of the Days books since The Skeptic, my Mencken biography, was published in 2002. Nor had I looked at The Skeptic since I last wrote about Mencken. That was four years ago, in a New Criterion essay about the Library of America’s two-volume collection of his Prejudices essays in which I suggested that

Mencken might possibly be a young person’s writer, one who excites the unfinished mind but has less to offer those who have seen more of life. Certainly those who look to literature for a portrait of the human animal that is rich in chiaroscuro will not find it in the Prejudices….If a great essayist is one who succeeds in getting his personality onto the page, then H.L. Mencken qualifies in spades. The problem is that his personality grows more predictable with closer acquaintance, just as the tricks of his prose style grow more familiar. Like most journalists, he is best consumed not in the bulk of a twelve-hundred-page boxed set but in small and carefully chosen doses.

Hence it was a very pleasant surprise to return to the Days books after a long absence and find my original judgment on them to be confirmed anew. I described Happy Days as “one of [Mencken]’s most completely realized achievements…a masterpiece of pure style” in The Skeptic, and went on to say that Newspaper Days was “at least as good….It, too, is a not-so-minor masterpiece of affectionate reminiscence, one that in a better-regulated world would be recognized as a modern classic.”

mencken-271x300The operative word here is “style.” As I said in the epilogue of The Skeptic, Mencken’s enduring strength as a writer “is less a function of his particular convictions than of the firmly balanced prose rhythms and vigorous diction in which they are couched. It is, in short, a triumph of style.” It was in the Days books that his style reached a peak of perfection, and as I reread Happy Days I was struck all over again by how its pages are festooned with utterly characteristic phrases through which his personality shines forth.

Here are some of my favorites:

• “There is a photograph of me at eighteen months which looks like the pictures the milk companies print in the rotogravure sections of the Sunday papers, whooping up the zeal of their cows. If cannibalism had not been abolished in Maryland some years before my birth I’d have butchered beautifully.”

• “To this day I can’t tie a bow tie, though I have taken lessons over and over again from eminent masters…This inapacity for minor dexterities has pursued me all my life, often to my considerable embarrassment.”

• “She had a fist like a pig’s foot and was not above clouting any boy who annoyed her.”

• On a teacher whose spankings were ineffective: “He rattaned conscientiously, but without any noticeable style.”

• On the hot dogs sold in turn-of-the-century Baltimore: “They contained precisely the same rubbery, indigestible pseudo-sausages that millions of Americans now eat, and they leaked the same flabby, puerile mustard.”

MenckenPapersmileHeraldoffice_squarecrop_200px_adjcolors• “The Baltimoreans of those days were complacent beyond the ordinary, and agreed with their envious visitors that life in their town was swell.”

• “The impact of such lovely country upon a city boy barely eight years old was really stupendous. Nothing in this life has ever given me a more thrilling series of surprises and felicities.”

• “To this day I can taste it at the moments when an aging man’s memory searches through his lost youth for bursts of complete felicity.”

I wish I’d quoted that one in The Skeptic, since it is a perfect summary of what Happy Days is all about. And though I’ve never wanted to be able to write like Mencken—to be influenced by him is by definition to imitate him, which is a dead end—I hope that every once in a while my own writing recalls, however vaguely, his matchless verbal vividness.

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Almanac: “Ed Wood” on tolerance

INK BOTTLEKATHY O’HARA: Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t pass judgment on people.

EDWARD D. WOOD, JR.: That’s right. If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, screenplay for Ed Wood

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A Seagull takes wing

Today’s Wall Street Journal contains the first of two reports from Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre. This week I review The Seagull and The Doctor’s Dilemma. Here’s an excerpt.

* * *

American Players Theatre, the finest classical repertory company in the U.S., is mounting Carol Rocamora’s engagingly colloquial translation of “The Seagull” in its 1,147-seat rural open-air amphitheater. On paper that doesn’t sound like an ideal site for so intensely personal a play, but John Langs and Nayna Ramey, the director and set designer, have taken sensitive advantage of APT’s Up-the-Hill Theatre, whose long aisles allow the actors to make well-timed entrances and exits that cause the theater to seem much smaller than it is and whose woodsy surroundings are redolent of the Russian country estate where “The Seagull” takes place….

Even more important, Mr. Langs and his cast have found the right tone for “The Seagull.” That’s evident as early as the second line of the play, in which the lovesick Masha (Anne E. Thompson) proclaims just a bit too dolefully that she wears black because “I am in mourning for my life.” And what happens at APT? The audience laughs! As well they should, since we don’t yet know what’s going to happen to Masha and the other characters. Yes, they’re all in love with the wrong people, and that’s funny—but sometimes unrequited love causes those whom it afflicts to do desperate things…

53e7ad0fe55b6.preview-300All of Mr. Langs’ actors are as deft as Ms. Thompson. Tracy Michelle Arnold is sharp and haughty as Irina, the great actress who has no time for Konstantin (Christopher Sheard), her painfully earnest son, who longs in vain to become a playwright. Jim DeVita is glamorous and preoccupied as Trigorin, Irina’s middle-aged lover, a not-quite-great writer who makes the devastating mistake of falling for Nina (Laura Rook), a hopeful young girl who, like Konstantin, burns with the dangerous urge to make art. As for Ms. Rook, a wide-eyed Chicago beauty who was extraordinarily fine in Writers’ Theatre’s 2013 production of David Ives’ “The Liar,” she’s even finer here…

“The Doctor’s Dilemma,” George Bernard Shaw’s 1906 play about a group of high-society London physicians, doesn’t get done much these days, perhaps because the “dilemma” of the title seems at first glance to be a trifle schematic. If he has to choose between them, whom should the title character save: a poor but kind-hearted colleague who takes care of inner-city patients, or an indisputably great painter who’s also an unscrupulous bum? But Shaw added a neat twist to the plot by causing his big-shot doctor to fall hopelessly in love with the painter’s adoring wife, and the result is a comedy of ideas that takes the viewer on a moral roller-coaster ride…

Aaron Posner has prepared his own adaptation of the original five-act script for his American Players Theatre production, an abridged version in which the characters successively introduce themselves to the audience by reciting monologues carved out of Shaw’s stage directions. I’m skeptical about the theatrical efficacy of the latter innovation. Shaw wrote his elaborate stage directions in order to make the published versions of his scripts easier to read. To perform them onstage is supererogatory if the performances are sufficiently well characterized…

Fortunately, Mr. Posner has staged “The Doctor’s Dilemma” with a light and witty touch, and his well-calculated cuts help make the play more accessible to modern audiences….

* * *

To read my review of The Seagull, go here.

To read my review of The Doctor’s Dilemma, go here.

An excerpt from Sidney Lumet’s 1968 film of The Seagull, with James Mason as Trigorin, Kathleen Widdoes as Masha, and Vanessa Redgrave as Nina:

The trailer for Anthony Asquith’s 1958 film of The Doctor’s Dilemma, starring Dirk Bogarde and Leslie Caron:

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Almanac: Michael Oakeshott on being conservative

INK BOTTLE“The general characteristics of this disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone. What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity: not, Verweile doch, du bist so schön, but Stay with me because I am attached to you.”

Michael Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative”

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