Monday, April 28, 2008

Candles to the Sun

This play in ten scenes by Tennessee Williams is his first full length play. Lost for decades after a 1937 amateur production it surfaced in the nineties and this is the Chicago premiere. The story is based on coal miners in the Red Hills of Alabama and it has Williams' first of many dysfunctional families in the Pilchers. Williams commented that his writing touches on "the great tenderness between individuals and the terrible circumstances that surround them," which is shown in this play. There is the desire of mothers for their sons to escape from the slavery of the mines (reminiscent of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers) and the struggle between social classes.
The production by The Eclipse Theatre Company, directed by Steven Fedoruk, was excellent. The actors worked on the edge between realism and melodrama and managed to rein in the excesses present in this youthful work. The whole cast was superb with standout performances by Rebecca Prescott and Nina O'Keefe as Star and Fern Pilcher, respectively. CeCe Klinger also excelled in the role of the matriarch Hester whose tired countenance symbolizes much of what will occur as the story unfolds. There are suggestions of future excellence in this early example of Williams' dramatic talent. It was an exciting evening of theater with one of America's greatest playwrights.

Candles to the Sun by Tennessee Williams. Eclipse Theatre Company, April 27, 2008.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Musician Ahead of his Time

Symphonie Fantastique

In 1830, when the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz premiered, Beethoven had been laid in his grave only three years before, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin were young pianists in Paris with their greatest compositions ahead of them (Liszt's Faust Symphony would not premiere for another 27 years), and his symphonic and orchestral ideas that were to revolutionize musical Romanticism were incomprehensible to all but a very few. Eight years earlier Schubert hinted at the notion of thematic unity through a musical motif with his "Wanderer Fantasy" (later transcribed for orchestra by Liszt who was fascinated with the work). But it is Berlioz, with his "idee fixe" in the Symphonie Fantastique presented as the thematic representation of a young musician's ideal love, who at the young age of 27 changes the course of romantic orchestral music. The symphony contains many other innovations, particularly in the orchestration and instrumentation (Berlioz would later write, Principles of Orchestration, still one of the great works in this field). While he would go on to many more triumphs (at least in historical perspective), including Romeo & Juliet, Harold in Italy, Les Troyens and his Requiem, the Symphonie Fantastique is still probably his best known work.

Last night the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kent Nagano performed an electrifying and edifying version of this 178 year old masterpiece. Particularly notable was the sensitive handling of the introduction and main theme in the first movement and the exaltation of the brass in the finale. While the second movement waltz and the march to the scaffold in the fourth were lucid, the final coda topped the evening and literally took my breath away. While I have not heard all of the four previous recorded versions of this work by the CSO (two led by Sir George Solti and one each by Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim) it seems unlikely that they could be much better that the performance last night.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Shadow of the Sun

Last fall I read Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist. It was his final book (he died in January, 2007) and I enjoyed it very much, having recently read Herodotus' Histories upon which he draws extensively. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to reading earlier works by Ryszard Kapuscinski. As an introduction to the mosaic of life that is known as "Africa" The Shadow of the Sun did not disappoint. The book consists of loosely connected essays on the travels and specific experiences of the author interspersed with brief historical commentaries. The looseness of the content is linked together through recurring themes such as the Sun of the title, the importance of minerals and elements, such as water in the Sahara, and the pervasive violence of both nature and man. The latter is evidenced by the presence of "Warlords" in several countries and the recurrence of tribal attacks of blacks on blacks leading at one extreme to examples of genocide as happened in Rwanda. The ubiquity of oppression of one group upon other(s), again both black, was striking and the existence of black on black apartheid (before it ever occurred in the Republic of South Africa) was both illuminating and disillusioning.
In a book as much about the plastic water container as the warlord and preferring the African shanty town to the Manhattan skyscraper as a monument to human achievement, what Kapuściński, the author of Shah of Shahs describes is not just Africa, which he claims does not exist except geographically, but more a distillation of life itself, through its religiosity, its trees, the frightening abundance of youth, sun that "curdles the blood" and terrorising, ruling armies that fall in a day. A couple of minor criticisms: the chronology in the book was uncertain at times, infuriatingly so; and, the book would have benefitted from a map for reference as the episodic quality of the content led the reader to and fro across the continent. Kapuscinski is an excellent writer and a literary journalist. He is also a brave man who went into places and faced situations that appeared quite dangerous. His readers benefit from his adventurous personality. This excursion into his world makes me even more interested in reading other examples from his oeuvre.

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Klara Glowczewska, trans. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2001.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Reading Plato

How do we know what is good? How do we know what is true or beautiful? How do we know? While the answers to these questions may not result from reading Plato's dialogues and thinking about them, we will be closer to the way to find the answers or move toward them. In that pursuit I am currently reading a dialogue of Plato entitled Protagoras. Already in the first few pages of the dialogue we have encountered seduction, pursuit of truth and beauty, and an example of a classic interchange between Socrates and a young companion - all in the introduction to what appears to be an exciting journey into the world of the sophists.

The dialogue demonstrates the concepts being discussed as Plato's description of the situation is slowly developed. For example, the setting of Protagoras' teaching "wisdom", in the home of
Callias indicates the nature of his true purpose is one of promoting clever speech to his wealthy young clients. That other sophists, Prodicus and Hippias, are present suggests the esteem with which that profession holds Protagoras. Of course few of his words have come down to us today, most notably the saying: "Of all things Man is the measure, both of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not." Whatever else Protagoras may say, when we meet him he has the crowd in thrall with his "voice like Orpheus" reaching lyrical heights that has the group moving in a a dance like pattern around the orator.

Protagoras by Plato. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell, trans. Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis. 1992.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Great Expectations II

"Who am I," cried Miss Havisham, striking her stick upon the floor and flashing into wrath so suddenlythat Estella glanced up at her in surprise, "who am I, for God's sake, that I should be kind!"
(Miss Havisham to Pip, chapter 44)

Last night I attended the penultimate discussion at Newberry Library of Charles Dickens' penultimate (complete) novel. Our discussion itself demonstrated the popularity of this novel with all of the attendees participating with more passion than typically shown. Perhaps this is because everyone, myself included , seems to like this story, and in spite of his faults, the protagonist Pip. It helps that Dickens demonstrates a mastery of his novel-writing craft and, as he demonstrated in Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, he has restrained the prolixity of his prose and yet not failed to deliver vivid descriptions and dramatic scenes. There are moments as moving as any of Dickens, for example when Joe Gargery says goodbye to Pip in London as he returns to his home and the forge. Joe, who is portrayed as the "natural man", is naturally good as the village blacksmith and somehow his Edenic life is believable.

Pip's precious search for his benefactor and his "great expectations" is thwarted by his innocence, by his foolishness, and ultimately by fate which has decreed that his dreams of love and life with Estella are not to be fulfilled. The underlying theme of a search for a father takes a strange turn, while Pip is able to summon the courage to help the convict Magwitch a second time proving his innate goodness. This reader found impressive the development of characters and their changes, ultimately even in someone as cold-hearted as Miss Havisham (demonstrated by the quotation above). Miss Havisham is particularly interesting as a prime source of motivation, putting into motion the life and fate of both Estella and Pip, and as a cruel spinster who ultimately seeks forgiveness. The story builds to a suspenseful climax and on second and third readings continues to charm and challenge my reading life.

Friday, April 11, 2008

What is a bibliography? The dictionary definition (Webster's Collegiate - my favorite) describes it as a list of sources of works on a particular subject or works by a particular author. It might also be a book containing such information or the study of certain data about books and other writings (although I might call that bibliographology). On a more personal level, for this reader, a bibliography is a signpost for further study; a guide for more enjoyment and further reading. The best bibliographies are annotated with commentary that distinguishes the nature of the items listed, pointing to the best for a particular topic or just the most well-written. The annotator may comment on those items that he found especially useful or enjoyable - always a good sign. Needless to say, I always look for books with bibliographies and appreciate the writers and editors that provide them for their readers.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Out of Africa

Out of Africa is Karen Blixen's memoir about her years in Africa, writing as Isak Dinesen. She recounts the world of Africa, specifically Kenya. It is, like the England of her friend Denys Finch-Hatton, "a world that no longer existed" even then and certainly as she left it. The memoir is a slow read, yet a book with prose in which you can luxuriate, or languish perhaps as it seems to mirror the mammoth African landscape. Reading like a pastoral novel, the narrator interested me with her myriad experiences. It presents people, cultures, landscape, and wildlife through her eyes, sometimes noble, sometimes paternal. The culture of the various tribes and religions with whom she had contact on her coffee farm became almost real, so that as I read certain moments became funny or sad or wistful. The reader comes to view animals differently, the fecundity of life struck me particularly. The different forces at work are both natural and foreign; the paradoxical nature of the presence of two churches (Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland); they are sometimes presented as working for good yet other times in conflict with each other. The memoir is truly literate and the importance of books and writing is evident throughout. Early in the memoir she tries to explain her writing a book to a native, while near the end of her stay as she is selling off the furniture and other estate provisions there is a poignant moment when, as she sits on her remaining books, she comments:
Books in a colony play a different part in your existence from what they do in Europe; there is a whole side of your life which they alone take charge of ... you feel more grateful to them, or more indignant with them, than you will ever do in civilized countries.
Blixen's memoir of this "uncivilised" land is both memorable and effective in sweeping the reader away into a very different world. Definitely a worthwhile read.

The image above was Dinesen's farm house in the Ngong Hills. Of it she wrote:
"To the great wanderers amongst my friends, the farm owed its charm, I believe, to the fact that it was stationary and remained the same whenever they came to it."

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The Modern Library, New York. 1992 (1937)

Monday, April 07, 2008


Over the years, starting in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I have read and reread the works of Plato. Most recently, in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at The University of Chicago, I had the opportunity to read and discuss many of the dialogues. As part of this program's offering of "Alumni" courses I am currently rereading Plato's dialogue, Protagoras. This dialogue focuses primarily on the question of virtue and whether it may be taught. In particular, Plato presents the sophist Protagoras as interlocutor for Socrates, along with an impressive supporting cast including Alcibiades and others. Over the next ten weeks I plan to read, discuss and think about the issues presented in this dialogue. I expect to find my love for philosophy reinforced and, perhaps I may learn a bit about the nature of virtue. If it truly can be taught.

Protagoras by Plato. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell, trans. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis. 1992.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Marvelous Novel

Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens

His name is Pip and this is his story. Starting with the convict in the marsh we are swept away into the world of Pip with all of his friends, acquaintances and antagonists. The story is one of "the universal struggle", we are told, and this will be a motif for Pip's story. The first people Pip introduces are all dead, except his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery. He is in a churchyard and his family, father, mother Georgiana, and "five little brothers" are all buried there. The mood is set early with the sudden appearance of a convict who interrogates and terrorizes Pip. As the first chapter ends Pip is running home, running under a sky that "was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed", with the shadow of a gibbet in the distance.

What a beginning! This is the penultimate (complete) novel from Dicken's pen and it demonstrates all the skills that he had developed over his career. We gradually meet Mrs. Joe and Joe Gargery, Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle; but it is a visit to an old mansion to provide companionship to a young girl that is the one of the first turning points in this story. Miss Havisham, the bride who is frozen in time as she slowly ages with yellowing and gray, and the young girl Estella with whom Pip almost immediately is smitten. Poor Pip, so innocent one day and the next, the sad inheritor of the knowledge that he is a poor boy with "rough" hands who does not know the proper way to play and socialize. This realization begins to stir in Pip the yearning to leave this small village and his friend Joe and take up a better life, or what he believes would be a better life. It is not long after that he is provided the opportunity as the lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, presents him with "great expectations" from a mysterious unnamed person. The result of this will become clear as I continue my reading of this marvelous novel.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens. Penguin Books, New York. 1996 (1861).