It is the birthday of English poet and dramatist John Gay (1685), whose satirical ballad opera The Beggar's Opera (1728) featured the characters Captain Macheath, a highwayman and his lover, Polly Peachum, and inspired a modern-day musical and an enduring popular song.
Gay's satirical work skewered the government of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first prime minister, and its tolerance for the illegal activities of infamous criminal Jonathan Wild and robber Jack Sheppard. It was quite popular in its time and made Gay a wealthy man. Gay was a contemporary of poet Alexander Pope and satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), who encouraged is work.
More than 200 years later, German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill were inspired to create The Threepeny Opera, based on Gay's work. They wrote the enduring song The Ballad of Mack the Knife, the best-known recording of which was made by Louis Armstrong in 1956, though a close contender could be Bobby Darin's version in 1959.
Here is Armstrong's 1959 performance of a song written in 1933 based on a work originally used to poke fun at English nobility in 1728. Enjoy!
Saturday, June 30, 2012
Friday, June 29, 2012
Toland may be best known for his Adolph Hitler: The Definitive Biography (1976), an exhaustive study of the German dictator that reprinted texts of many of his speeches, including the earliest ones before he came to power. The book provided many previously unknown details about the man. Toland tried to provide an objective view of Hitler, an effort that drew criticism and accusations of being a Nazi.
Toland also wrote Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath (1982), in which he argued that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and top government officials knew in advance that Japan planned to attack the United States but did nothing about it because they wanted war with Japan. It was a position that drew much criticism from historians and journalists.
Toland once said he considered his histories to be drama and he tried to remove himself from the storytelling and let the characters act on their own. He traveled extensively to gather personal accounts and see the places where the history took place.
Toland wanted to become a playwright. When he was 14 years old, a playwright had come to live in his family's home. He was greatly impressed and decided that would be his career. In his senior year in college, he managed a student book store and saved up more than $5,000 to go to Yale Drama School. While he was working he was offered a job by a man from Esso, the oil company (later Exxon), to become a junior executive with a good salary and go to the South Pacific. He refused the offer and the Esso man was incredulous. "What a waste of talent," he said.
Later Toland liked to tell people he made all that money so he could write, not because he liked to make money. "Otherwise, I might have eventually become head of Exxon. Wouldn't that be terrible?"
Toland's early career as a writer was dismal. He wrote 25 plays, six novels and 100 short stories. None of them was ever published. In 1954, he finally sold a short story to American Magazine for $165.
His first published book, Ships in the Sky (1957), was about dirigibles, including the ill-fated Hindenburg, the German passenger airship that caught fire and was destroyed at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Toland interviewed survivors and presented a harrowing account of the accident in his book.
Thursday, June 28, 2012
It is the 300th birthday of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712), whose book Confessions (1782) was among the first of modern autobiographies. He philosophical works influenced thought that led to the French Revolution. Rousseau wrote extensively on the nature of man, social issues, politics, child rearing, and religion. He wrote novels as well as philosophical pieces. Rousseau also found time to write music, completing seven operas. Here is music from his one-act opera Devin du Village. Enjoy!
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Keller became deaf and blind from disease she contracted as an infant. Beginning in 1886, she was trained from childhood by Anne Sullivan, who was first her teacher, then her governess and finally her companion. Sullivan helped Keller for 49 years until her death in 1936.
Keller's account of her life and her development under the direction of Sullivan was the basis of a series of productions called The Miracle Worker. It was first presented as a Playhouse 90 television production in 1957. It became a Broadway play in 1959, and a Hollywood film in 1962, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It was remade for TV in 1979 and 2000. The title came from friend Mark Twain, who referred to Sullivan as "the miracle worker." She was also friends with Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell.
Politically, Keller was a socialist, radical leftist, and anti-war activist. She was a member of the Wobblies, and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. She actively campaigned for workers' rights, women's suffrage, birth control, and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.
Keller wrote 12 books, including The World I Live In (1908), about her world; Out of the Dark (1913), about socialism; and Light in My Darkness (1934), about religion.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
|Pearl S. Buck|
Buck's parents were Presbyterian missionaries and took her to China when she was only three months old. She grew up in China and, except for four years of college in Virginia, lived there until 1934.
She married John Lossing Buck in 1917. He was an agricultural economist. They lived in Nanking for 13 years and both taught at the University of Nanking. They left in 1934 with the rise of political unrest and the Communist Party. The Good Earth (1931) is set in a rural Chinese village before World War II. It is part of an ambitious trilogy that also includes Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). The books introduced Americans to Chinese peasant culture.
The Good Earth was adapted as a Broadway play in 1932 and as a film in 1937. Buck wrote more than 40 books, including two biographies about her mother's life as a missionary, two autobiographies, and numerous short stories.
She was outraged at the plight of mixed race children born to Asian women, often left abandoned by American servicemen. In 1949, she established an international adoption agency for mixed race children, who were otherwise considered unadoptable. In 1964, she established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to support children in Asian countries who weren't eligible for adoption. Today Pearl S. Buck International continues to operate the agencies she started and preserve her legacy.
Monday, June 25, 2012
Animal Farm is a biting satire that criticizes Stalinist Russia and the Soviet regime that ran the country, and the corruption of original socialist ideas, which Orwell supported. One main principle of the Animal Farm society begins as "All animals are equal" but eventually becomes "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others."
Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a society ruled by a totalitarian group known as The Party and a enigmatic dictator known as Big Brother, a term that has entered the popular vocabulary along with thought police, Newspeak, Oldspeak, doublethink, crimethink, ungood, unperson and more. Orwell's work gave rise to the term Orwellian to describe an authoritarian society or concept. Orwell's name was actually Eric Blair.
He chose the pseudonym George Orwell because of his love of the Orwell River, a waterway in Suffolk County, England, where he lived much of his life. Orwell worked as a journalist for several newspapers and contributed to numerous magazines. His Homage to Catalonia (1938) tells of his experiences as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. His Burmese Days (1934) is based on his time as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Traveler Without Baggage is about an amnesiac World War I veteran who reinvents his sordid past to give himself peace in the future. Antigone was a rewriting of the ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles, and deals with the conflict of practical compromise and idealism. It was first presented in occupied France during World War II and was seen as a veiled criticism of the Vichy government that cooperated with the German occupiers.
The Lark was about the French heroine Joan of Arc, and focused on her rejection of authority. Becket was about English martyr Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury until he was murdered by supporters of King Henry II.
His career spanned half a century, and his work changed and evolved throughout his lifetime. He grouped his lighter comedies and fairy tales as his "pink plays" and his darker realistic dramas and tragedies as "black plays." He classified his historical plays as "costume plays."
His work in the 1940s and 1950s, he called his "brilliant plays," which had settings of wealth and grandeur and featured witty dialogue, and his "grating plays," which were more bitter black comedies. Near the end of his life, he wrote what came to be called his "secret dramas," and were far more focused on the theater itself, dealing with the creative process, writer's block, actors and directors.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Michael Slicker discusses children's books in the 19th century. Michael Slicker's Rare Book Moment is recorded at Lighthouse Books, ABAA in St. Petersburg, Florida. Music by Jack Payne: Back to Those Happy Days
Thursday, June 21, 2012
McCarthy, who was never as well known as her actor brother Kevin McCarthy, was a Communist sympathizer in the 1930s, a Trotskyite, and a vocal opponent of Stalinism. Later, she vigorously opposed the Vietnam war and wrote articles supporting the Vietcong. She contributed to The New York Review of Books, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, and The New Republic.
She served as an editor of The Partisan Review, a literary journal she helped revive in 1937 with its founder, Philip Rahv, with whom she had an affair.
She famously feuded with writer Lillian Hellman, who was also a left-wing writer. Some scholars attribute the feud to differences in degrees of liberalism or professional jealousy. Others say Hellman once tried to seduce McCarthy's lover, Philip Rahv.
In any case, on PBS in 1979, McCarthy told interviewer Dick Cavett that "… every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' " Hellman didn't think the comment was that funny. She sued McCarthy for $2.25 million. The lawsuit never came to trial, though. Hellman died and her executors dropped the case. McCarthy had prepared by fact-checking Hellman's work and finding many errors. She was disappointed not to have her day in court. "I didn't want her to die," said McCarthy. "I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that."
Writer Nora Ephron wrote a musical, Imaginary Friends (2002), in which she creates a fictional conversation between McCarthy and Hellman. It examines how similar they were and tries to imagine why they hated each other.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
She carried on a long-term love affair with detective writer Dashiell Hammett, who encouraged her to write her first play. The Children's Hour (1934) explored abuse of power, and it ran on Broadway for more than two years. It concerned two women who run a girls' boarding school and are accused falsely by an angry student of carrying on a lesbian affair.
She publicly supported the Spanish leftists against the Franco forces, she was briefly and nominally a member of the Communist Party, but mainly she was fiercely independent, saying it was clear to her she was not suited for any political party. In the 1950s, she was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities but refused to name names, instead testifying only about herself.
Her best-known play may be The Little Foxes (1939), about siblings struggling for the control of the family business. It is considered a scathing critique of capitalism. It starred Tallulah Bankhead in the premiere performance, and ran for more than four years on Broadway. It has been revived many times and was adapted for film by Hellman in 1941, The film starring Bette Davis was nominated for nine Oscars.
Her play Watch on the Rhine (1941) deals with a family's struggle against the rise of Fascism in Germany before World War II. It, too, was made into a film, also starring Bette Davis. Dashiell Hammett wrote the screenplay.
Hellman's The Lark (1955) is an English adaptation of a French play about Joan of Arc. Her Toys in the Attic (1960) is a family drama set in her native New Orleans. She had no involvement in the film of the same name, which flopped.
She won the National Book Award for her memoir, An Unfinished Woman (1969). Part of her second memoir, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), was the basis of the Oscar-winning film Julia (1977), starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Her third memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), dealt with her experience in testifying before Congress during the McCarthy era. Her short novel, Maybe: A Story (1980), was published as fiction but includes the author, Hammett and other real people. Some critics suggested that it was another installment of her memoirs.
Hellman died in 1984 at her home in Martha's Vineyard. She was 79 years old.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
|Laura Z. Hobson|
Monday, June 18, 2012
Saturday, June 16, 2012
|John Howard Griffin|
Friday, June 15, 2012
Thursday, June 14, 2012
|Harriet Beecher Stowe|
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
|William Butler Yeats|
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The children's story about an orphan girl who is taken to live with her gruff grandfather in a secluded cottage in the Swiss Alps. He initially resents her presence but she eventually cracks his crusty exterior and she thrives, only to be taken away to live with a wealthy family in Frankfurt. Heidi becomes homesick (and physically ill) and eventually returns to her grandfather.
The book was quite popular in Spyri's lifetime and has never been out of print. Scholars think Spyri might have borrowed from an 1830 German book Adelaid: The Girl from the Alps. The two have similar plot lines and settings. Spyri also vacationed in the book's locale for several summers.
Heidi spawned numerous live action films, animated films and television productions, as well as sequels written by Spyri's English translator long after her death.
Famously, one television version gave rise to the Heidi Game, a dark day in the annals of television broadcasting.
It happened on November 16, 1968, a Sunday evening. The Oakland Raiders were locked in a fierce battle on their home field with the New York Jets. NBC was broadcasting the game. The score was 32-29, New York winning. There were 65 seconds left on the clock. Oakland had the ball on its own 23-yard line. Football fans all over America eagerly awaited the outcome of the game. Meanwhile, Heidi fans all over American eagerly awaited the premiere of a new TV movie about the Swiss Alps girl that was to start at 7 p.m.
NBC cut to a commercial and never came back to the game. Instead, the scheduled Heidi movie began on the East Coast. Football fans were outraged. Heidi fans were gleeful.
Football fans learned later that in those 65 seconds Oakland scored twice to win the game 43-32. The furor went on for weeks. When it was all sorted out, it developed that NBC had originally planned to switch to Heidi no matter what but thousands of calls from football fans lit up the NBC switchboards and NBC officials decided to stay with the game and delay the beginning of Heidi.
Trouble was, they couldn't get a call through to the control room. Why? Because football fans and Heidi fans were tying up all the circuits trying to find out what NBC was planning to do.
In the aftermath, professional sports organizations began stipulating in their contracts that their games had to be shown in their entirety. Furthermore, NBC installed a red hotline in their control room, a direct line immune to phone circuit tie-ups so that such a situation would never occur again. The line was called the Heidi Phone.
Saturday, June 9, 2012
|John Howard Payne|
Payne wrote numerous plays and translated many from French, but most are ignored today. He was a child prodigy, who started working in theater at age 16 to help support the family after his mother died and his father went bankrupt and became ill. He was immensely successful, the toast of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities where his company toured.
He went to London as a young man and was well received there, too, though not as popular as in the United States. He was commissioned to go to France to watch live theater and write English translations that could be quickly produced in Britain, a practice that created a hubbub in England and public debate about plagiarism. While he was in Paris and growing homesick and a bit melancholy, he wrote the verses that became his signature song.
He also wrote plays—more than 60 all together— and in one instance, a package of three for Covent Garden Theatre that he sold for 230 pounds. One of them was already being presented by another theater so he reworked the plot, added some songs (including Home, Sweet Home) and turned it into an opera titled Clari; or the Maid of Milan. The production was wildly popular, especially Home, Sweet Home. The song made the Covent Garden and the music publisher very wealthy. The tune, based on an Italian folk song Payne had heard and suggested to the arranger, Sir Henry Bishop, was credited to Bishop when it was published. Payne wasn't mentioned. Some 100,000 copies were sold out immediately. After two years, the publisher’s profit was said to be 2,000 guineas.
Later, when Payne returned to the United States, he toured with artist John James Audubon, and stayed with the Cherokee tribe in Georgia, studying their culture. It was a time of great unrest, and the Cherokees were being encouraged by the federal government to move to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Payne liked to tell an anecdote about being arrested by Georgia state militia while meeting with Cherokee Chief John Ross. One of the soldiers guarding him often whistled Home, Sweet Home. When Payne told him he wrote the song, the soldier told him he was sure that wasn't true. He had seen it in a songbook.
At some point, Payne gained recognition for the song. When he was in Washington, D.C., Payne sat in a box seat at a concert by Jenny Lind. She sang her program of classical pieces then, acquiescing to the audience's wishes, performed Home, Sweet Home. She stood right in front of Payne’s box seat. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Even the hard boiled secretary of state, Daniel Webster, wept.
Payne served as the American consul in Tunis for 10 years, and he died and was buried there. Such was his fame in America 30 years later (because of the song), that a wealthy industrialist paid to have his remains disinterred and brought home. The arrival in New York was chronicled in all the papers and a huge crowd turned out as a band played Home, Sweet Home. Amid much pomp and circumstance, and the attendance of thousands, including the President and high government officials, he was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, near Washington, D.C. on his 91st anniversary of his birthday.
Friday, June 8, 2012
It is the birthday of German composer Robert Schumann (1810), who wanted to become a great pianist but hurt his and ended his career. He turned to composing instead. Fortunately. Schumann's work, beautiful in itself, also influenced Johannes Brahms and Edward Elgar. Here's one of the world's greatest pianists, Vladimir Horowitz, playing one of Schumann's best known pieces, Traumerei.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
|Federico Garcia Lorca|
Monday, June 4, 2012
Friday, June 1, 2012