Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.

 

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Twisted Sisters or How I Spent National Women’s History Month

So March is National Women’s History Month.  I don’t have any particular celebrations but did note that my recent cultural activities involved female protagonists.  Thus my latest random cultural events roundup will cohere around that theme.

WildClaw!’s Carmilla and Lookingglass’ Ethan Frome explore women’s power via manipulation.  Readers are probably more familiar with Ethan Frome, the Edith Wharton classic, foisted upon high school students in a misguided attempt to introduce them to great literature.  No, I am not an Edith Wharton fan.  Her “woe is me” heroines excel in their passivity.  Their falls aren’t tragic; they should have learned that sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.  When Wharton wrote, the West beckoned to men and women who lacked opportunity in the East.  A “poor relation” in the East could have moved West as a Harvey Girl – if she was ill-suited to being an adventuress.

Why did I go see Ethan Frome?  I subscribe to Lookingglass (because they are awesome).  Only Lookingglass could compel me to endure a Wharton.  Phillip Smith (Ethan) and Louise Lamson (Mattie) have been excellent in other productions, so I hoped they could give me a reason to get on board – the stage, not the sled.  While Smith and Lamson were top notch, the Whartoness was too much for me.  Having lived in New England, Wharton’s attempt to portray the lower class/poor did not ring true to me.   Zenobia, Ethan’s wife, Ethan, and Mattie are each too cowardly to act on their dreams or to admit their failures.  Zenobia manipulates Ethan and Mattie; Ethan clumsily attempts to manipulate Mattie, and Mattie winds up manipulating Ethan and Zenobia after the accident.  Yawn.

Carmilla was much more exciting on stage and in prose.  Written by JS LeFanu in 1872, Carmilla is the first vampire story and has a female as its vampire.  Born as a result of suicide on her wedding night, Carmilla lures women away from their husbands, gives them vampire power and strength, and then destroys her harems as she moves to new targets.  The men in Carmilla are the confused and mentally weaker sex.  Ultimately the strength of a man is required to actually kill the female vampires – after their betrayal by women.

Like Wharton’s female characters, Laura, the latest vampire victim is the only child of a once-wealthy family that is descending into poverty.  The family lives on an ancient estate in the woods.  The mother was already seduced and stolen by Carmilla.  Unlike the Wharton females, the Carmilla females manipulate from a position of power.  Laura may be the prototypical ingénue, but she becomes suspicious of Carmilla and instigates the vampire’s downfall.  Carmilla fights physically and mentally to retain her power.  WildClaw! created a vigorous production with lots of blood, fights, and sharp performances.  The final act of Carmilla is a dance macabre where the women lead.

The supernatural theme continued in Yuja Wang’s piano recital at the Chicago Symphony.  A Chinese prodigy, Wang is a mere 24 years old, playing with emotion and sophistication.  Her program began with Rachmaninov and Schubert, impressing the audience with her virtuosity; the second half explored the mysterious and dangerous with selections from Scriabin, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre Op. 40.  The Scriabin selections pulled the audience into a mystical and playful dream that became sinister as the devil danced on Bald Mountain.  Shakespeare’s impish fairies chase the devil off the mountain for a short while, but Old Scratch returns to remind us that “death at midnight plays a dance tune” (Dance Macabre – Jean Lahor).

Wang attacked each piece, delightfully frightening the audience with pounding bass lines and intricate treble dances.  Eschewing any kind of orchestral support, Wang challenged her audience as her fingers manipulated the percussive and string power of the piano.  She could easily have played Ethan and Mattie to their destiny with the tree.

Lectures by Jennifer Homans, the author of Apollo’s Angels, and Liesl Olson about Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry magazine remind that women have always exercised power either directly or through manipulation – if they had courage.  Ballerinas embody the strength and fragility assigned to women.  Monroe used her editorial powers and friendships with wealthy donors to establish modern poetry in the United States and arguably the world.  While some ascribe influence to Ezra Pound, it is worth remembering that Monroe edited Pound – creating the power of “In a Station of the Metro” through her spacing, from Poetry Magazine, April 1913.

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd   :

Petals      on a wet, black    bough   .

Creation

The horror of birth is oft lost in the profundity of creation.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein graphically explores the tension between the creator and creation or the parent and the child.  Equally famous is the birth of that novel:  a child-centric summer in Switzerland.  Byron fights to see his daughter while impregnating Shelley’s sister; Mary and Percy care for their second child, prepare for the birth of the third, and silently mourn the death of their firstborn; Percy defends a local nanny accused of murdering a child.  The melodrama of these Hideous Progeny was enacted by the Livewire Chicago Theatre company.

Mary creates her monster in an act of catharsis.  The play hints at that act but is content to focus on the raw emotions among the vibrant characters.  The actors do a fine job of balancing the outlandish behaviors with small scenes hinting at the pain hidden by those facades.  The flippant word games and sexual intrigues distract from the talent and intellect of the true life counterparts, but are easier to display.

Returning to the monstrous catharsis, the play provides a context for the novel’s readers and generates the core question:  who is the monster?  The dead firstborn child?  The petty traumas inflicted by the residents in that Swiss summer home?  The difficulties of artistic creation?  The risk of childbirth in that age?  The plight of intellectual woman in that era?  The burden of surviving as a child when your mother died in childbirth?

Mary Shelley was a surviving child and the mother of a dead child and of living children.  She eventually married an artist and was one herself.  She understood biological and intellectual creation.  Her articulate, human, and rage-filled monster symbolized complete creation and the struggle between parent and child or prey and predator.

The dance between prey and predator is displayed in shadow, puppet, and human animal form in Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, at the Cadillac Palace.  Her minimal use of dialogue and music provides a skeleton for the story.  The battles among animals are the bulk of the stage time.  Taymor’s shadows, puppets, and human animals continually stalk, restlessly prowling the stage.  There is no death; there is no creation; there is no angst; there is only the circle of life.  All beings participate.

Taymor’s interpretation of The Lion King deepens the moral lessons of the film and forces the audience to recognize its part in the circle.  The joy at the birth of Simba and sadness at the death of Mustafa are tempered.  The events are expected and are to be respected.  Each creature is subservient to this lifecycle.  Taymor evokes feelings of peace and belonging, where Shelley emphasizes the mystery and violence of birth and death.  Shelley and her creation are outcasts from their families and from society at large.  They are battle-hardened, showing the scars from their dances as both prey and predator.  The consequences of their wounds are on vivid display in the play and in the novel.

Artistically, The Lion King is a complete, thoughtful piece, based on slighter material.  Hideous Progeny struggles to humanize its strong personalities, though its source material is deeper.  Both plays and their complementary works challenge their audiences.  Is birth/death a comforting, cyclic inevitability?  Or are the complexities of birth/death too horrifying to ignore?

One Pill Makes You Taller

And one pill makes you small.  Cue the marching drums and serpentine guitar riff of White Rabbit, which perfectly capture the underlying tensions in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Lookingglass.  Too many movies or stage productions whitewash the tensions or indulge in the idiosyncrasies of the characters – losing sight of the core story.  How does one become an adult?  Does one even want to be an adult? What danger lurks in adulthood?

The Lookingglass production of “Lookingglass Alice” addresses those questions through physicality.  Alice falls through a circus hoop above the stage, swings on ropes, and literally fights her way through tea party chairs, shoes, and various creatures.  The audience sees Alice in danger, but intellectually knows that she can’t be in too much danger.  After all, the performers are trained.  Fear turns into thrills and back to fear.

For this production, most of the cast is familiar, reprising their original roles.  Molly Brennan of 500 Clown fame is a welcome addition to the cast as the Red Queen, a piece of the caterpillar, and one of the Tweedles.  Used to combining anarchic physicality with sharp wit, Brennan is at the top of her game.  While the Lookingglass cast is quite good, Brennan outshines them.  Her presence cuts like a razor and brings a new energy to the stage.  I dream of a 500 Clown Alice.

The standing ovation at the end of the show was well-deserved.  The daring acrobatics and witty dialogue are interspersed with moments of poignancy.  Lauren Hite’s Alice is confused, sure of herself, muddled, and confident – all while actually carrying the White Knight.  Lookingglass Alice is a Chicago theatre classic.  Download a copy of Surrealistic Pillow on your iPod and head over to the Waterworks.

Silvery Backflips

Need to impress a teenage boy?  Go see Lookingglass’ production of Hephaestus.  Even bigger and better than the last production.  The larger Goodman Theatre space enables the aerialists to swing three stories high and permits an expanded cast.  The Wallenda playing Iris smacked herself on the ceiling but continued on with the performance, which impressed said teenage boys.  The reality of people flying through the air and walking a tightrope without a net amazed most of the audience.  Only a few stuck to their Blackberries and iPhones. Silly rabbits.

The basic story of Hephaestus is that he is the bastard-child Greek god flung out of the heavens by Hera.  His legs are crippled by the fall; he becomes a silversmith of uncommon talent.  Hera, of course, covets his silver trinkets and forces him to build her a silver throne.  He builds the throne as a trap from which she cannot escape.  So she gives him Aphrodite in marriage.

The real action is the integration of acrobatics, percussion, high-wire walking, and dance to enact the story.  There is no dialogue – only a narrator.  The performers are from the Blueman Group, Cirque de Soleil, and the Flying Wallendas.  Text is a poor way to describe the breathtaking action.  The website has some videos.

If you are looking for full-bodied theatre, Hephaestus runs until June 6.  Then Lookingglass Alice, another acrobatic take on a classic story, begins.  Both Hephaestus and Alice are signature Lookingglass pieces.  Integration of physicality, thoughtful and sparing use of props, and using only essential dialogue are the hallmarks of all Lookingglass productions.  The directors tell the stories in 3D and bring the audience as physically close to the stage as possible.  The actors enter and exit through the aisles – making the entire theatre the stage.  The new regular season starts in October with Peter Pan – more high flying action.

Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

If the band/orchestra sucks, flee the theatrical performance immediately.  Even great actors cannot save horrible music.  However, a great band can save you from bad or mediocre actors.  The band for the hypocrites’ Cabaret was amazing.  Supplemented by violin and harmonium, the core piano, bass, percussion, and saxophone were frisky with an undertow of menace.  Kristina Lee, the bassist, was especially skilled at keeping the bass sounding crisp, not muddy (a common problem for bassists).  She and the percussionist, Kevin O’Donnell, playfully interacted and showcased the complexities of the score.  Some of the musical arrangements were a bit simplistic, but the vocal prowess of the actors may have been the reason why.

Cabaret is surprisingly bullletproof, like My Fair Lady or the Lennon-McCartney songbook.  The emotional resonance pulls you through, even when the actors aren’t quite up to the task.  According to the theatre geeks in line behind me, we were enjoying the 1998 re-staging of the show.  No Bob Fosse.  For most theatrical companies, the 1998 version is more manageable.  More bumping and grinding, rather than actual dancing.  The writhing on stage was particularly inspiring to a couple in front of me who made out during every intermission.  During the second intermission, the couple sitting next to Make Out Couple #1 decided that four could play that game and launched at one another.  Very entertaining.

The Emcee (Jessie Fisher) stole the show.  The woman playing the part really understood the need to hint at the fear and desperation that bursts forth from the decadence during the second and third acts.  Alas, the actors playing Sally and Cliff didn’t really delve into their characters, focusing on a surface shallowness and ignoring how both characters are weak and pathetic.  Michael York and Liza Minnelli really were excellent in the movie version and had more script to work with.  The book for this stage production let down the actors a bit.  Some scenes felt rushed or perhaps lines were cut.  The other supporting characters were able to flesh out their characters reasonably well.  Several people did succumb to shout-singing.  Too much American Idol.

the hypocrites at least try to challenge the audience and to interpret the material uniquely.  Some minor characters and plot-lines were more prominently explored.  Unfortunately, those minor characters upstaged the main storyline.  Cliff and Sally were tangential.  An art experience is successful if it provokes thought  and entertains.  While I found their Frankenstein to be a more satisfying theatrical experience, the hypocrites’ Cabaret was an entertaining production.  The band was excellent.