Mockingbird’s simple song

In today’s Wall Street Journal I report from Florida on two very impressive Orlando Shakespeare Theatre productions, To Kill a Mockingbird and Henry V. Here’s an excerpt.

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Now that Harper Lee is back in the news, it’s likely that Christopher Sergel’s workmanlike 1990 stage version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was already a staple of regional theaters throughout America, will be mounted even more frequently than it was in the past quarter-century. Not being a fan of theatrical adaptations of popular novels, I’d hitherto steered clear of it, but the controversy over the discovery of “Go Set a Watchman,” the first draft of “Mockingbird,” made me curious. How would so familiar a book, especially one that was made into an equally well-known film, go over on stage? And when I heard that it was being performed by Florida’s Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, I was even more curious to know how “Mockingbird” would be received in a state where 331 lynchings took place between 1877 and 1950. So I went to see for myself—and was mightily impressed….

FPQCEHQ43S81E2NR-rsz320x228-cp0x17x320x177.jpg.pngThe secret ingredient in Orlando Shakespeare’s recipe is the staging of Thomas Ouellette, which is exceptional in every way. For openers, Mr. Ouellette has made sure that his cast does nothing to remind you of the now-iconic performances seen in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film version. Instead of “doing” Gregory Peck, Warren Kelley turns Atticus Finch into a geeky, almost comically earnest small-town lawyer who somehow finds within himself the power to rise to the occasion of defending a black man falsely accused of rape—and it works. Kennedy Joy Foristall’s strident, bratty Scout is similarly idiosyncratic, and the other characters are no less sharply drawn. The dramatic tension in each scene is unobtrusively screwed up to the highest possible pitch….

Orlando Shakespeare Theatre is a puzzlement, a first-class drama company whose stature is too often obscured by unadventurous programming. It’s only because I already knew how good Orlando Shakespeare is that I went out of my way to see its production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Jim Helsinger’s “Henry V” poses a like problem: why bother with yet another revival of a classic that gets done so very often? The answer is that this is an extraordinarily fine small-scale production of a supremely great history play, performed on an open stage in a 118-seat theater by six men and two women, all of them outstanding. Everyone in the cast plays double or triple roles, even John P. Keller, who is both grippingly incisive as young Henry and preposterously foppish as the Dauphin. Mr. Helsinger’s staging is propelled by a strong comic energy that is never allowed to undercut the high seriousness of the proceedings….

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To read my complete review of To Kill a Mockingbird, go here.

To read my complete review of Henry V, go here.

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The lure of “new” old art

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I take note of a group of “rediscovered” works of art from the past, and speculate on their larger cultural significance. Here’s an excerpt.

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1e276128-8f22-491c-bd37-e8904ea97c09-1530x2040The top story in the fine-art business is the “rediscovery” (if that’s the word—they were never lost) of a pair of privately owned bronze sculptures on display at England’s Fitzwilliam Museum. A team of art historians now thinks they were handmade by Michelangelo, the “Last Judgment” man. Should this new attribution stand up to scholarly scrutiny, they will be, so far as is known, the only surviving Michelangelo bronzes in the world.

Such tales are catnip to the press, which can be counted on to give them lavish play, as was the case when a previously unknown sonata movement composed in 1767 by the 11-year-old Mozart turned up three years ago in an Austrian attic. Much the same thing happened the other day when Random House, Dr. Seuss’ longtime publisher, announced that his widow had stumbled across a box containing the manuscript of an unpublished book by the popular children’s author called “What Pet Should I Get?” It’s being rushed into print, and will hit bookstores on July 28, two weeks after the publication of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” the hitherto unknown first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

What is it about stories like these that we find so unfailingly seductive? No doubt the “Antiques Roadshow” mentality is part of it. All of us love to suppose that the dusty canvas that Aunt Tillie left to us in her will is in fact an old master whose sale will make us rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And I’m sure that the fast-growing doubts surrounding “Go Set a Watchman” (which were well summarized in a Feb. 16 Washington Post story bearing the biting title of “To Shill a Mockingbird”) have pumped up its news value considerably.

But I smell something else in play. I suspect that for all its seeming popularity—as measured by such indexes as museum attendance—there is a continuing and pervasive unease with modern art among the public at large, a sinking feeling that no matter how much time they spend looking, reading or listening, they’ll never quite get the hang of it. As a result, they feel a powerful longing for “new” work by artists of the past.

To be sure, most ordinary folks like at least some modern art, but they gravitate more willingly to traditional fare. Just as “Our Town” (whose form, lest we forget, was ultramodern in 1938) is more popular than “Waiting for Godot,” so, too, are virtually all of our successful “modern” novels essentially traditional in style and subject matter. In some fields, domestic architecture in particular, midcentury modernism is still a source of widespread disquiet, while in others, like classical music and dance, the average audience member does little more than tolerate it. Shakespeare, Beethoven and “Swan Lake” remain to this day the cash cows of the American performing arts….

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Read the whole thing here.

Mozart’s Allegro Molto in C Major, a freestanding sonata movement discovered in 2012 and played by Florian Birsak on the composer’s own fortepiano:

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Almanac: Anthony Trollope on self-esteem

INK BOTTLE“And, above all things, never think that you’re not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you very much at your own reckoning.”

Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington

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Tweets in search of a context: The Grand Budapest Hotel

imagesMrs. T and I just watched The Grand Budapest Hotel for the second time. When I first saw it last year, I’d read nothing by Stefan Zweig. Now I’ve read the standard biography of Zweig and several of his books—including Beware of Pity and The World of Yesterday, on which Wes Anderson specifically drew in writing the film—and I’ve also seen Max Ophüls’ screen version of Letter from an Unknown Woman. Anderson’s film makes quite a different impression when you understand how knowingly it relects its source material (though you can certainly enjoy and appreciate it without being aware of the nature of Zweig’s contribution). Not only is it a supremely effective homage flecked with touches of parody, but it’s also a masterpiece of total design, all the way down to the period typefaces chosen for the titles and subtitles.

I think that Jean Renoir would have understood it—and loved it.

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A featurette about how The Grand Budapest Hotel was designed:

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, most performances sold out last week, closes Mar. 29, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, some performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)

Between Riverside and Crazy (drama, PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, closes Mar. 22, original production reviewed here)
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
tn-500_10491194_10153122847231241_8885523760386422646_n.jpg.pagespeed.ce.n2Spft_DrMM_aEg0WHuUHamilton (historical musical, PG-13, closes May 3, moves to Broadway Aug. 6, reviewed here)

Both Your Houses (political satire, G/PG-13, closes Apr. 12, reviewed here)
The Matchmaker (romantic farce, G, closes Apr. 11, reviewed here)

West Side Story (musical, PG-13, closes Mar. 15, reviewed here)

The Iceman Cometh (drama, PG-13, remounting of Chicago production, closes Mar. 15, original production reviewed here)

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Almanac: T.S. Eliot on self-importance

INK BOTTLE“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”

T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (courtesy of Patrick Kurp)

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Caruso-Singing-into-a-Horn-300x175Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, just did an excellent “By the Book” interview with my old friend David Brooks. I liked the results so much that I decided to answer the same questions myself:

What books are now on your night stand? Trollope’s The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children. I’ve been working my way through the Palliser novels, which I last read something like a decade ago. It’s nice to be back.

And what’s the last truly great book you read? It happens to be the one that I just finished reading, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which is one of the very few major novels that has been successfully filmed (my own negative opinion of novels-on-film is a matter of record). Still, the book’s the thing, and it is a bonafide masterpiece—James made simpler, I suppose, but completely successful on its own terms. Aside from everything else, I’d forgotten how funny Wharton is.

As I read The Age of Innocence, I found myself comparing Newland Archer to Felix Mendelssohn, a great artist who believed devoutly in the need to compose (and live) with decorum but who nonetheless boiled with secret and (I suspect) untidy musical passions. While we now know and love best the music that he wrote during his own age of innocence, there is much more to Mendelssohn than the Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, perfect though those youthful effusions are. Read all about it—and him—here.

10712749_10152783117682193_2197587920060438789_nWho is your favorite novelist ever? And your favorite who’s writing today? If we take “favorite” to be a purely personal judgment reflective of nothing but my individual taste, I’m increasingly inclined to say Anthony Powell. I can’t think of any contemporary novelist whose work means nearly as much to me (though I greatly admire V.S. Naipaul).

What are your reading habits–do you prefer electronic or print? Do you write in your books? Keep them or give away? I don’t read books electronically. I never write in printed books—I simply can’t bring myself to do it—and never give them away intentionally save as presents.

What’s your favorite genre to read? I don’t have a favorite genre, but I do have some favorite genre writers: P.G. Wodehouse, Rex Stout, Patrick O’Brian, Elmore Leonard, and the Sociopath Known as Richard Stark.

What’s your favorite book about the newspaper business? H.L. Mencken’s Newspaper Days, to which I paid tribute last year in National Review:

Nowhere has the experience of seeing your words in print for the first time been better described: “I was up with the milkman the next morning to search the paper, and when I found both of my pieces, exactly as written, there ran such thrills through my system as a barrel of brandy and 100,000 volts of electricity could not have matched.”

What do you consider to be the best book about American politics ever written? I’m with David: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, though to call it a book about American politics is like calling How to Cook a Wolf a book about food. It’s a book about human nature seen through the prism of politics (or vice versa!).

And what’s your favorite book by a political columnist? Mencken again: Notes on Democracy. To quote what I wrote about it in this space six years ago:

For all the inescapable limitations of Mencken’s damn-the-boobs point of view, Notes on Democracy, in addition to being among the most personal of his books, is also the most artfully written and least well known of his many essays on democracy and its discontents. If you’re feeling disillusioned with the wisdom of the masses–no matter what your reasons–you’ll find it grimly amusing and hugely diverting.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character? Incessant. I don’t remember having had a favorite book, but I do remember being wowed by the Scarlet Pimpernel once upon a time.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be? W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson. As much as anything, it made me a biographer.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? Not a book but a poem, Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes.

If you could meet any author, dead or living, who would be it be, and why? Max Beerbohm, the very sound of whose voice is infinitely enticing.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited? M.F.K. Fisher (whom I’d invite to choose the meal), Flannery O’Connor, and Dawn Powell.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? Again, I’m with David: I can’t read Dickens, and I know it’s my fault. I’m allergic to his overegged prose style. I can’t remember the last book I put down unfinished, but that’s because I do it so frequently. Absent sufficient monetary compensation, I’m way too old to waste time finishing bad books. Ars longa, vita brevis.

tumblr_lyd8ynE6051r1bfd7o1_1280What’s the one book you wish someone else would write? A really good biography of Helen Frankenthaler.

Who would you want to write your life story? Nobody. Eeuuww. If there’s anything worth telling, I’ll put it in a play.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet? Seeing as how I made the following confession eight years ago in The Wall Street Journal, I’d say that’s a humiliatingly easy call:

I regret to admit that there are a good many great novels that I have yet to read, some of which are long enough to make me quail at the thought of taking them on so late in the game. I’ve never read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which is 388,000 words long, and one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2007 was to do so. I picked it up in January—and put it down again in February, having gotten only a quarter of the way through. Alas, I was too busy to stick with it.

What do you plan to read next? Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which is in the same Library of America volume as The Age of Innocence. What could be handier?

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UPDATE: I finished The House of Mirth two days later. I liked most of it, especially the first part, but The Age of Innocence is much better.

André Eglevsky, Maria Tallchief and New York City Ballet dance the pas de deux from Scotch Symphony, a ballet by George Balanchine set to Felix Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony:

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Tweets in search of a context: the postmodern sitcom

imagesThe endless-loop Irony Lite of today’s sitcoms wears me out. It’s mostly nothing more than fast talking heavily sauced with needless-to-say-we-all-agree-about-everything attitude. And it’s not funny. Attitude is not humor. References are not humor. Sniggering is not humor. Above all, clubbishness is not humor. True humor doesn’t exclude—it includes. It reminds us, ever and always, that we, too, partake in the common dilemma. Even in farce, which hinges on the public humiliation of an unsympathetic person, we’re always thinking, “Oh, God, that might be me up there.” And cringing.

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John Cleese in a scene from an episode of Fawlty Towers:

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Snapshot: Marni Nixon appears on To Tell the Truth

TV CAMERAMarni Nixon, who dubbed the singing voices of Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, and Natalie Wood in the film versions of My Fair Lady, The King and I, and West Side Story, appears on To Tell the Truth in 1964:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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