The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘theater’ Category

BURLESQUE OBAMA

Though most Americans think of it in a different way, specifically in the context of a “variety show,” the form of entertainment known as burlesque originated in the 1500’s and found its expression in literature and art, as well as stage.  To our American minds, burlesque describes the form of entertainment which was usually categorized by exaggeration and ridicule – usually of some specific group or individual.  This later evolved into another popular form of entertainment – the minstrel show.

In our politically correct environment, there is little discussion of this form of entertainment.  The majority of these performances were acted by whites who wore “black face.”  Normally in a minstrel show there were caricatures of those whom the performers mocked.  Typically, one of the characters was a fop and another was a fool.

What is totally absent from this “non-conversation” is the fact that the minstrel show was further developed by American blacks who accentuated their innate “blackness” by applying “black face” and whose shows similarly mocked other blacks.  This is as inconvenient a truth as the fact that it is well documented that before the Civil War more than 3500 black Americans owned black American slaves and white indentured servants.  Rather than deal with the facts of history, the liberal left has chosen either to ignore, expunge or alter it for their own purposes.

It would not be difficult to argue that the minstrel shows with white actors were primarily motivated by racism – both on the parts of the writers and were well received by a similarly inclined audience.  But if the sole purpose of the show was to castigate another race, one would similarly expect that the black minstrel show would turn to ridiculing whites.  Why then did they follow the same tradition of their fellow white artists?

The other day I had lunch at one of the neighborhood casinos.  I finished my meal and was returning to the parking garage.  Waiting for the elevator was a black male whom I would put in his early thirties, a black woman in her late twenties and her little girl about four years old.  As the elevator opened, I immediately drew a picture of the black man – who he was and what he was about.

He stood in front of the door and started to walk in without waiting for the elderly woman who was trying to get off to make her exit.  Without waiting for his female companion or child (or me) to get on, he turned to the control panel and pushed the button for his floor.

Once we all were aboard, he continued his conversation with the young woman.  I didn’t hear his previous comments, but in the short space of two floors on a slow elevator, he complained about someone to whom he apparently owed fifty dollars and who had asked for his money.  He categorized this person as a “faggot-assed white cracka.”  The young woman looked at me apologetically and with some embarrassment.

I couldn’t help but think if the little girl were raised in an environment where that kind of language is prevalent, she would naturally learn not only to express herself in those terms but would be molded into viewing the world in this racist manner.  It is the same mentality that allows the perpetuation of the word “Nigger” to be used within the ghetto community.  That word is abhorrent – perhaps even more so when one black applies it to another – because it is not only a statement of disparagement but it is more importantly an expression of self-loathing.  Words do indeed matter.

To return to the art of burlesque with its exaggerations and portrayal of individuals as buffoons, the image of President Obama quickly leapt into my thoughts.  In the world of hyperbolic phrases which were invented to convey a disparaging image of blacks, the phrase “shiftless and lazy” comes to thought.  I have never heard anyone other than a black person described using that phrase.  And if we were to find the archetype for it, one could argue there is no finer example than the current occupant of the White House.

It seems that not a day passes when the administration seems to be caught off guard by some new crisis – the latest being the challenge to and invasion of our southern border.  Cast as a “humanitarian crisis” it is one of this administration’s own conception and implementation.  This “most transparent of all administrations” is perhaps one of the most opaque – rivaling Soviet Russia under Lenin.  And while I have long debated whether it is merely incompetent or unprepared, I now am of the mind that it is, plain and simple, morally corrupt beyond redemption.

If this were an isolated instance, a fair and open-minded person might offer the administration the benefit of the doubt.  We have all made mistakes.  But this “crisis” is only the most recent of a string of missteps and outright failures.  There is no need to point to the other “phony scandals” because they are well-documented and the reader of this blog should certainly already be aware of them.  But to what might we turn for a glimmer of hope that there is some basic decency in the Obama administration that has resulted in some positive results?  After five and one half years and trying as honestly as I might, I am unable to find a single plan, program or policy that has worked as it was purportedly intended.

Perhaps it is unfair to categorize the Obama administration as being burlesque.  A more appropriate phrase might be “theater of the absurd.”  But while we might be brought to tears through laughter, we also may find ourselves sobbing because of a profound tragedy.  And there is nothing sadder than the travesty which is currently unfolding on the stage of the American theater.

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IS A PUZZLEMENT

In 1951 the play, “The King And I” premiered on Broadway, the third collaboration between Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  The play had a three year run and in 1956 was made into a movie starring Yul Brynner as the King of Siam.  The play has some wonderful songs and has been staged repeatedly in community theaters and in revivals almost non-stop since it’s first performance.

One of the songs that the king sings is entitled, “Is A Puzzlement”.  He has hired an English school teacher to help modernize his view of the world which is, at the play’s beginning, very Siam-centric and to bring him into the modern world of the 1860’s in which the play is set.  But the new ideas which Anna, the teacher brings to him are, in many cases, in conflict with what he has learned and believes.  Yet, he sees some of the truth in what she tells him and he expresses his confusion in “Is A Puzzlement.”

This week Facebook began what Wall Street commonly calls its “Road Show” as it begins to gauge investor sentiment before it becomes  a public company next week.  The purpose of this “Road Show” is to determine how many shares will be issued and what the offering price will be.  Current estimates are that the company will come to market with a value between $75 – $100 Billion, turning founder Mark Zuckerberg who  will retain a 51% controlling interest into another member of the elite 1%.

As I thought about this remarkable public offering, the largest in history, I wondered how the OWS movement might respond to this and to the events which led up to it.  For some reason, the king’s song from the “King and I” came to mind.

In speaking with a number of people who are part of that movement I realize that there is a lot of frustration about the fact that many are mad because they made the effort to earn a college degree, now have the expense of that education hanging over their heads and are unable to find a job using that education.  I can understand that frustration.  Three of the members of the elite 1%, Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp.; the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc.; and now Mr. Zuckerberg of Facebook were all college dropouts.   It doesn’t seem fair and truly, “Is A Puzzlement.”

But there is something that the members of OWS can do to express their sense of unfairness.  They can turn off their computers, whether Windows or Apple-based; refuse to buy or use any I-Phones or other Apple products and resign their membership in Facebook.  Since by their own admission they are the 99% and since these companies all depend on large numbers of users for their continued success that should have a profound effect on all these companies’ bottom lines.  Otherwise, OWS members are supporting some of the various entities that they so abhor.

Will this happen?  Will the members of OWS honestly live up to their rhetoric?

Is a puzzlement.

ON CRITICS

Scarcely a person alive hasn’t at some time been the subject of criticism.  Critics abound with the frequency that flies lite on cow pies in the dead heat of a blistering day in Yuma, Arizona.  They are our personal gadflies – sent as a scourge by a lesser deity.  But it is not to these I refer in this post.

No, the critics of whom I speak are those who have made a profession of it.  They are the ultimate arbiters (the Enlightened Ones) of what passes for good taste and have been placed on this earth to inform the rest of us (The Un-enlightened Ones) what we should read, hear, and enjoy – and conversely what we should not pick up, listen to and abhor.  It is a noble profession – and one for which there is really no professional training.  (This might be a possible career choice for those in the OWS movement as it carries with it no baggage such as student loans).

There was a memorable critic in Chicago by the name of Claudia Cassidy.  If it is true that “only the good die young”, Ms. Cassidy went on to live to be 96 years of age – but I have always disputed the validity of that aphorism.  She was indeed an influence in the development (and retardation) of art in Chicago.  Her moniker, “acidy Cassidy” would be understood by anyone who read or heard a typical reiew.

For years she worked as a critic for The Chicago Tribune, submitting freelance offerings.  But I came to know her through her regular half hour Sunday broadcast on Chicago’s classical music station, WFMT.  I can attest to her impact by saying that in order not to miss one of these broadcasts which spanned fifteen years, I attended an earlier service at church to be sure I would be home to hear this famed critic.

If I could think of a way to describe the persona that she projected, I would have to say that the words she spoke reminded me of a nasty and vitriolic Oscar Wilde, delivered through the gravelly voice of a whiskey-downing cigarette-smoking Edith Piaf.  Her delivery and her ability to turn a phrase (usually against the artist she was reviewing) were truly classic.  Listening to her was a bit like playing with a loose tooth – a combination of pleasure and pain.

Ms. Cassidy abruptly passed from the milieu of Chicago’s cultural scene.  One day she reviewed a concert which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had given under the leadership of guest conductor Thomas Schippers.  She took apart both the Maestro’s ability to lead an orchestra, the orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and went on to further impugn the Austrian people as a whole for having produced such a “monstrous composer” and inflicting him on the world.

Sadly, Maestro Schippers had decided that he didn’t like the rehearsals of the piece and, at the last moment, had substituted Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World” in its place.  And so ended a vainglorious career.

If there is a moral in this it can have been expressed no better than by Polonius in “Hamlet” when he said, “To thine own self be true.”  As in relationships and in art, you are your own best critic.

ON THEATER

I’ve been on both sides of the stage.  Honestly, it’s easier sitting in the audience.

An actress or actor spends weeks rehearsing a playwright’s work – hoping that they understand the author’s meaning and can convey it to those who have come to attend.   Sometimes we win and sometimes it seems not.

Anyone who sits down and attempts to express his emotions to an unknown group of people – whether in a novel, a poem or a play exposes himself to the possibility of misunderstanding or, at the worst, irrelevancy.  Passion and honesty are fast fading from our world and the artist must wonder whether there is anyone left to hear his message.

There are plays whose truthfulness is as great as when they were originally penned.  My three nominees are Shakespeare’s, “King Lear”; Ibsen’s, “Hedda Gabler” and Tennessee Williams’, “The Glass Menagerie”.  Perhaps the last of these is my most favorite.

I first read “The Glass Menagerie” in high school as an assignment for an English class.  It was many years later that I actually saw it performed.  But from the opening moments, I was struck with Williams’ portrayal of the sadly fragile character he had crafted in Laura.  I saw some of her in myself.

Here was a woman who lacked self-esteem because of her minor physical impediment.  That handicap shaped her view of how the world regarded her, whether she would ever find anyone to look beyond it and to be able to love her.   Laura decided not to expose herself to the risk of being rejected, binding herself instead to her non-judgmental collection of glass animals.

The fact that Williams centered Laura’s collection around a unicorn endeared him to me for his sensitivity and his prescience.  As we know, the unicorn is a creature of myth – but it is a delicate and inspiring one.

Despite our modern technology and social networks and our ability to connect with so many people, I often wonder if these venues are not mere disguises for our innate longing to find a common ground with our fellow humans on a much deeper and more meaningful level.   Or have we devolved to the point that occupying ourselves with “just doing stuff”  with people whom I would characterize as acquaintances is sufficient to meet our emotional needs?

Do we still have the capacity  to feel and to offer our love to another – or has this emotion passed from our vocabulary and our hearts?

If the Bard was right and, “All the world’s a stage,” then we are inextricably caught up in the production as cast members.  The question is, can we bring the sincerity of emotion to our performance to make our portrayal one that is meaningful to our fellow players?

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