Both Your Houses

I was determined to witness the moment when Joe Biden overtook the Orange Thug in Pennsylvania. I plopped down on the sofa in the living room under the illusion that this might happen at 2AM (which is about the time I usually go to sleep). I didn’t want to watch TV nonstop, so I thought I’d knock off another play in my ongoing tromp through American dramatic writing of the past.

As it happened, the next play on my plate was Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses. Never heard of it? It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1933. You’ve probably heard of Maxwell Anderson, though, right? The guy who wrote some of those attempts at verse plays about English royalty. Sounds like a lot of fun, right?

Well, Both Your Houses is a surprising work. Not a verse play. It is about an idealistic young Congressman named Alan McLean who comes to Washington DC and discovers, to his dismay, that much of the business of government is based in corruption and payoffs to people who only occasionally think of their responsibility to the people. He decides to fight the corruption around one particular bill, and, though he has his innings, he finds the system is designed to frustrate reform.

I’m guessing this sounds familiar. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, right? Both Your Houses, as I say, dates from 1933. Mr. Smith, the classic Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart, from 1939. My friend, the film historian Joseph McBride, who wrote the definitive biography of Frank Capra, tells me that this is not accidental. Mr. Smith is an unacknowledged adaptation of Both Your Houses. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to Anderson’s play but gave no credit to Anderson in the credits. The screenplay is credited to Sidney Buchman and the story to Lewis R. Foster. No mention of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that preceded it. Kinda stinks.

But, to be fair, Buchman and Capra added stuff that wasn’t in Both Your Houses, particularly the relationship between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur. Both Your Houses is sharp and rigorous, but as I read it I had no emotional investment in anybody’s relationship. Alan McLean was indeed the hero, but he was also a charmless pain-in-the-ass. I was on his side because he was right, not because I had any particular affection of him as a character. (His sidekick, a woman nicknamed Bus, was a lot more fun, but there’s no romance there.) Both Your Houses is admirable and surprisingly cynical, but …

But Mr. Smith grabs you emotionally and doesn’t let you go. The developing love story is deeply affecting, and the sight of Jimmy Stewart fighting to the point of exhaustion on the Senate floor is one of the great images in film history.

Contemporary audiences tend to think of Mr. Smith as a rah-rah patriotic film, but in fact it offended a lot of Washington when it premiered. Even Capra-sized, the view of casual corruption in the legislature was pretty strong stuff. It took for the film to reach a general public to be embraced and loved.

Anyway, I alternated between reading Both Your Houses and checking out the TV. And grabbing the odd nap. And then it was nearly 5AM and the Pennsylvania drama wasn’t finished. At this point, I decided to haul my weary tail to bed. I woke up at about 11AM to find that the moment I hoped to witness happened about two hours earlier.

The news that our contemporary Jimmy Stewart has prevailed against the most corrupt, vicious asshole in presidential politics (beating even Richard Nixon for the title of chief villain among presidents) … Yeah, I know Stewart was a conservative, but he was also a genuine hero and had integrity, and I think he’d be better casting for Biden than Carrey.

Oh God, I get to hope realistically for this country for the first time in years.

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Election Day Distraction

Don’t know if it’s true for anybody else, but I’m just trying to get this day out of the way. Latest avoidance tactic, an hour or so at the City Diner with my dog at my feet, reading some chapters in Jan Herman’s biography of William Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, about Wyler shooting Mrs. Miniver and trying to find his place in the war. The analogy is inexact, but I sometimes feel as though we’re living through our version of the Blitz – trying to adjust to a general threat to all and still hold onto decency.

Yesterday, I finished watching Fred Wiseman’s four-and-a-half-hour documentary, City Hall. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the Wiseman films I’ve seen (and am very aware there’s quite a bit I haven’t). City Hall joins In Jackson Heights (his film on that neighborhood in Queens) and his epic about the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, as my three favorites of his. Each in its way, without tub-thumping, is about democracy. In both Ex Libris and City Hall, we see endless meetings of people in office uniforms sitting in flatly-lit rooms around conference tables discussing points of policy, strategizing procedure, speaking in full paragraphs. Sometimes the ear goes a little dead, but the people on the screen stay engaged and most are informed by moral passion. And then Wiseman takes us out into the community where the decisions made around those tables have real-life impact on the citizens. There are also occasional flat-out gorgeous shots of the skyline and the parks and the residential areas in contrast to the banality of the office scenes, reminding us that the work in these cramped rooms is taking place within the larger context of the beauty and exuberance of the city. (Ex Libris takes us to a variety of neighborhoods around New York City, City Hall jumps around from neighborhoods of pristine row houses to places where the residents are kept awake by rats.)

OK, 4 ½ hours is a long time to go (or not to go) in one sitting, and I didn’t. And I’m guessing that, when it is finally run on PBS (one of the funders), most people will record it to DVR and watch in installments. But, no, it shouldn’t be chopped up into episodes. It is important to be aware constantly of its size because a city is a big fucking place, and all the stuff we watch is happening pretty much simultaneously. I watched it by renting it through Film Forum for 48 hours for $12.00. Well worth it. (And I’m happy to have sent some change into FF’s coffers.)  Link: Film Forum — City Hall

As for reading, mostly I’m bouncing between the Wyler biography, an oral history of the directors of the “Golden Age of Television” called The Days of Live: Television’s Golden Age as seen by 21 Directors Guild of America Members by Ira Skutch, and reading or watching older American plays.

I’m afraid it was inevitable that this brought me to the film version of Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Green Pastures. The genesis of the play was in the work of a white writer named Roark Bradford who, in his 1928 book, Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, said his work was based on the preaching of Black preachers in poor parishes teaching the gospel by drawing on imagery that would have been familiar to their parishioners. So a day in heaven is pictured as a fish fry, etc. Green Pastures was an enormous hit for its time, running for a long time on Broadway and maintaining its popularity through touring. It was twice presented to overwhelming response on The Hallmark Hall of Fame in the 1950s. With its huge cast and chorus, it also offered employment for years to countless Black performers, most notably Rex Ingram, who is a strong presence in three leading parts (including “de Lawd”) and made a career of performing in different productions. (He also played the genie in The Thief of Baghdad and Jim to Mickey Rooney’s Huckleberry Finn.)

But, yipes. With the exception of Ingram and Eddie Anderson as Noah, everybody is presented as child-like and simple. For all the good intentions, it is agonizingly condescending.

This reminded me of another theatrical retelling of the Bible I saw years ago in London, the National Theatre’s production of The Mysteries, written by Tony Harrison (adapted from traditional texts) and directed by Bill Bryden. This was an environmental production made up of three full-length pieces: The Nativity, The Passion and Doomsday. As some critic whose name I can’t recall observed about the production, it existed simultaneously in three time periods. The first, the Biblical times when the stories take place. The second, the period just before the arrival of Shakespeare when local craft guilds in English towns would embrace the responsibility of retelling the story in terms related to their work and lives. And the third, the present (a/k/a 1985), with folk-rock music and counter-cultural influences still holding on beyond the 1960s. The show was videoed and is available on YouTube with what appear to be German subtitles. Allow me to recommend one particular link in which the actors portray the butcher’s guild telling the story of Abraham and Isaac. After they finish the sequence, featuring muscular, stirring language and wrenching performances, they pull out their long, straight butcher’s knives and dance, and the climax of the dance is a transformation that is theatrical gold. This happens a little after four minutes into this link, and I urge you to watch it. More than 30 years after I first saw it, this makes me gasp.  The day I spent at this show easily is among the dozen most exciting things I’ve seen in my life.

There is a palpable distinction between the ersatz folk material of Green Pastures and Harrison/Bryden’s Mysteries. The transformation of the stories of the Bible aren’t reduced in The Mysteries but inspire awe, and the guild members the actors play, though not sophisticated, are viewed as possessing collective genius that inspires eloquence. Anyway, if it took enduring Green Pastures to remind me of The Mysteries (and to have the pleasure of sharing it with you), then I suppose it was worth it.

And I’ve managed to get through more than an hour of this day writing this.

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Two Contrasting Plays

I continue my casual tromp through plays of the past, alternating reading from an anthology of early Pulitzer Prize-winners and an anthology of postwar African-American plays.

The two most recent plays I’ve encountered, by coincidence, are about flawed Black authority figures. The Amen Corner (published in 1954, premiered in 1965) by James Baldwin is about a pastor named Margaret facing a mutiny in her Harlem church.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom by Paul Green (premiered in 1926 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, a company founded by playwright Susan Glaspell where Eugene O’Neill did early work) is about a Black fieldworker named Abe in the south whose drive to start a school triggers violence by local whites.

As I say, both leading characters are drawn as flawed. Margaret’s religious rigidity not only leads to her being overthrown but losing her family. Abe’s obsession, which includes his propensity to strike out physically at family and foe alike when frustrated, leads to destruction of his family and his own death. One can admire both characters’ commitment to their goals while being dismayed at the collateral damage they cause. I am reminded of the title character in Ibsen’s Brand, another uncompromising obsessive whose purity of purpose proves self-destructive.

A key difference between The Amen Corner and In Abraham’s Bosom is that Baldwin was a Black writer and Paul Green was white. Baldwin’s stepfather was a preacher with whom he was frequently in conflict, so it’s reasonable to suppose there are autobiographic elements in his play. The son in The Amen Corner wants to be a musician and his mother tries to block him, much as Baldwin’s stepfather tried to put obstacles in the way of Baldwin’s interest in exploring the theater. Paul Green was raised in North Carolina and found himself sympathetic to Black communities (not something calculated to make him popular with many of his neighbors) and this led to his trying to write honestly about the South, alternating between writing plays about white and Black communities. Before Black writers began to find a place on Broadway in the Fifties, Green was among those progressive whites attempting to write dimensional Black characters and raise awareness of American racism in the American commercial theater. (He co-wrote with Richard Wright the first stage dramatization of Wright’s Native Son, which has recently been supplanted by a warmly-received new version by Nambi E. Kelley.)

I was also struck by the resemblance between In Abraham’s Bosom and Deep are the Roots, a 1946 play by Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow (a pair of white writers). In Deep, a Black WWII veteran returns as a hero to his Southern hometown. When, as in Abraham, his plans for the future turn out to be different than those the white hierarchy of the town have in mind for him (they want him to run the local poorly-funded school for Black students), he becomes a target of their resentment and barely escapes with his life. (Deep was a substantial hit on Broadway. It was directed by Elia Kazan and ran more than 500 performances. Usually a success of that consequence would have triggered a pickup for a film version. But, surprise, Hollywood refused to touch the subject matter.)

I don’t claim that any of these are particularly strong plays. And reading In Abraham’s Bosom induces cringes, with all of the dialogue for Black characters rendered in labored dialect. But thematically, I found them fascinating.

I just looked at my Pulitzer anthology to see what the next play I’m to read is. Skipping over the plays I’ve already read or seen (including O’Neill’s long and torturous Strange Interlude, which I saw in revival on Broadway with Glenda Jackson), and the next one will be … Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures. Uh, OK.

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TROUBLE IN MIND — Alice Childress

I continue to read plays from the past I’ve never gotten to see. Mostly, as I’ve said before, I’m alternating between an anthology of plays that won the Pulitzer Prize early on and an anthology of post-war plays by Black writers.

Finally caught up with Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress. It’s been going through something of a revival in recent years. I see it was produced at the Arena Stage and Yale Rep and that, when we get to the other side of the pandemic, it’s scheduled for a New York production by the Roundabout.

Originally produced off-Broadway in 1955, the play concerns rehearsals for a play called Chaos in Belleville. A number of Black actors have been hired to appear in what is apparently a play about a racial incident in the South written by a white writer to be produced and directed by a white guy whose background is mostly credits in Hollywood. (There are rumblings that he is hoping to avoid catching the attention of investigators, probably a reference to the HUAC bullies’ habit of hounding showbiz liberals as a way of getting themselves into newspapers.) Not surprisingly, some of the actors find that the script doesn’t ring true to them. The dilemma: how to challenge what’s false without pissing off the Hollywood director and losing the job.

This reminded me of the way the Communist Party glommed onto the case of the Scottsboro Boys. Some became convinced that the Party would actually prefer the Boys to be found guilty so that they would have martyrs to help with Party recruitment. (There’s a fascinating but kind of lousy movie that parallels this story called Trial, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic attorney hired to defend a Mexican youth on a murder charge, Arthur Kennedy as the guy who uses the case to raise money for the Communist Party, and Juano Hernandez – playing the first Black judge in a Hollywood movie – trying to keep himself from being exploited for propaganda purposes during the proceedings.)

What I find particularly intriguing about Trouble in Mind is how a play more than 60 years old deals with the ever-pertinent question of dubious allies. There’s a quote from Jane Addams’s speech called “The Modern Lear” that stays with me: “In so far as philanthropists are cut off from … the code of ethics which rule the body of men, from the great moral life springing from our common experiences, so long as they are ‘good to people,’ rather than ‘with them,’ they are bound to accomplish a large amount of harm.” She was writing about George Pullman, the 19th century Chicago industrialist who began by trying to pose as a benefactor to his employees and ended up being stunned and hurt when they turned against him (for good cause) and called a strike (the Pullman Strike of 1894) which ended up crippling the country for months. (I wrote a play about this called American Enterprise.) This idea of “good to” vs. “good with” has stayed with me.  The Hollywood director thinks he is being “good to” his mostly Black cast …

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Another obscure Pulitzer Prize-winning play

Continuing my lackadaisical progress through Pulitzer Prize-winners of the past, hit Hell-bent Fer Heaven by Hatcher Hughes. As the “fer” in the title suggests, this is a play written in dialect about hill people in the South (reportedly based on a branch of Hughes’s family). And yes, it is troublesome to plow through the dialect. It reminds me that Shaw wrote the first few speeches of Eliza in Pygmalion in dialect and then tossed in a stage direction writing, “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.” After that, Eliza’s lines are written in plain English and he trusts to the actress to supply the accent. I wish Hughes had done so. For that matter, there are significant corners of our literary history that could do without this cutesy attempt to replicate accents and mispronunciations. It’s usually hard to decipher and almost always comes off as condescending.

Anyway, Hell-bent Fer Heaven is a kind of hillbilly Tartuffe. A religious hysteric named Rufe, believing that God justifies anything he wants or does, tries to steal his brother Sid’s fiancee and get the brother killed by an easily-manipulated lunkhead. It depends on everybody around him being incredibly gullible or stupid. Why this was chosen by Columbia University for the Pulitzer over The Show-Off by George Kelly, who knows. Unless the fact that Hatcher Hughes was teaching at Columbia at the time. Nah, that’s way too cynical.

If you’re willing to accept that everybody onstage is dumb and you can put up with the dialect, you might see how the play could hold the stage in an exuberantly crude way. It helps that there’s a rattling thunderstorm, a dam blown up by dynamite and flooding on a Noah scale happening in counterpoint. And I suppose a story of evil done in the name of religion always has relevance. Even now, you think?

Bit of trivia: George Abbott played Sid, the good brother, in this on Broadway, sometime before he established himself as a director-writer. Apparently it was made into a silent movie, though I haven’t found it yet. Given that the silent film of Miss Lulu Bett was pretty good, I’d be curious.

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Watched the British postwar classic, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, written by Alan Sillitoe and directed by Karel Reisz, starring Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts and Sally Anne Field. The central character is Alan Seaton, who works as a machinist in a bicycle factory in Nottingham just as the Sixties are beginning. As is common with “angry young men” stories (a trend launched by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger), the central figure is disaffected from society and acts out, mocking authority figures, drinking and fucking a lot. At the time, this was viewed as being in revolt against the oppressive Establishment that sustained a social system in which class lines were rigidly drawn and enforced. You could be smart and talented as hell, but if you didn’t have the right accent (as Henry Higgins noted many years before), your prospects were few. Reisz was quoted as saying he thought of Arthur, for all of his high spirits, as ultimately a sad figure. But audiences then saw Finney as a rakish, attractive, sexy character, determined to grab as much life in the present as possible.

As I watched the film (admiring it greatly), it occurred to me that today’s Arthur wouldn’t wear a mask.

In fact, a lot of the “rebel” figures in the films and plays of the Sixties probably are way more interested in personal freedom than in advancing the cause of a more just society. Does Benjamin in The Graduate ever give any indication of giving a damn about anyone else? (And I say this as a big fan of The Graduate.) On the other hand, it’s because Murray cares about his nephew and Sandy in A Thousand Clowns and wants to keep them in his life that he summons the courage to compromise and go back to a job he hates.

We seem to have a hit a point at which we are re-evaluating our hits and classics. Actually, this isn’t new. I remember Studs Terkel pointing out Jack Nicholson’s abusive behavior with the waitress in Five Easy Pieces, a scene that commonly elicited cheers from the audience. Terkel was right.

In The Wild One, someone asks Brando’s character what he is rebelling against, and Brando responds, “What do you got?” Another film of the era is titled Rebel Without a Cause. It occures to me that if you can’t articulate not only what you’re against but what you are for (and what you are willing to do about it), you’re likely to be a Trump voter, voting out of resentment rather than in the hope of something that will benefit someone more than yourself.

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Terrence McNally

I had the pleasure of knowing Terrence McNally from his off-off-Broadway period. Because I worked free in those days, I played keyboard for the 1973 production of his play WHISKEY at St. Clement’s on West 46th Street. Kevin O’Connor directed. It was about a group of alcoholic country-western stars and their horse (Whiskey). Quite a cast for off-off: Charlotte Rae, Beeson Carroll, Susan Browning, and Michael Sacks. As I recall, there is a fire in the hotel and they all perish, except the horse. And there’s some suspicion that the horse set the fire.

Mostly I knew Terrence from our encounters at the Dramatists Guild Council. Being a member of the Council has been one of the thrills of my life. The group is made up of many of the leading playwrights, composers and lyricists of our time, and to be in the same room once a month figuring out ways to be useful to our colleagues offers an opportunity to see these folks doing work they love and believe in deeply. (I sometimes found myself sitting next to Edward Albee, who would occasionally mutter ironic commentary. Edward would sometimes be the lone dissenting voice on a vote, just because he was suspicious of anything that passed unanimously.)

I have two particular non-Guild memories:

In October 2001, not long after 9/11, I was in Chicago. My play, then titled IMMORAL IMPERATIVES (I’ve since given it what I think is a better title, STAY TILL MORNING), was running in an off-Loop theater where I was a resident writer. I heard Terrence was coming to town to participate in a production of the musical version of Durrenmatt’s THE VISIT (with a score by Kander and Ebb). I may be wrong about this, but I was under the impression that this was the first time he was going to work with a Chicago company. Though I live in New York, I’ve long identified myself as a Chicago playwright (most of my plays have been developed and premiered there), and I thought, as a self-appointed representative of the community it would be appropriate to invite Terrence to dinner. We met at a restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. He was curious about the politics of the Chicago theater scene. I offered my opinion that Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, the Compass and Second City were the spark that started the movement. He talked a little about getting to know Elaine May when their double bill, ADAPTATION and NEXT, ran off-Broadway.

The meal over, I thought I’d show him some of the residential housing of the Ranch Triangle area of Old Town. It’s a neighborhood that never fails to charm me as I stroll past block after block of modest architectural delights. I couldn’t claim to be a close friend of Terrence’s, but he had lost someone close to him recently and he started to talk about coping with that and about the good the walk in this particular neighborhood was doing him. I felt the best thing I could do was shut up and listen.

We found ourselves near Second City. I suggested we go in so that he could see where a lot of our friends had started their careers. I showed him the photos of the various famous alumni when they were young. As we were standing in the lobby, a guy I knew a little as a pianist at Second City came over to say hi. He asked if we had plans for later that night. He had a little show that was being done in the small theater at Chicago Shakespeare and he would love it if we would be his guests. (I’m guessing he recognized Terrence.) Terrence quietly asked me if we wanted to see something by this guy, and I said, “I think he’s talented. Why not?” So we cabbed over to Chicago Shakes and watched a show called HAMLET, THE MUSICAL, featuring Jack McBreyer as Hamlet and Alexandra Billings as Gertrude. The conceit is that some second-rank forties songwriters made a musical out of HAMLET. Terrence and I laughed our asses off. After that, I dropped him at his hotel and I thought it had been a pretty damn perfect evening. (The composer of the show, by the way, was Jeff Richmond, who later wrote the musical version of MEAN GIRLS with his wife, Tina Fey.)

My other memory is a smaller one. For some reason, one evening (I can’t remember what year) I was walking west on West 23rd Street and looked through the window of a diner. Sitting at a table were Terrence and Wendy Wasserstein. They spotted me and waved me in, and the three of us spent an hour or so talking playwriting stuff. I remember thinking that it was cool to see celebrated colleagues hanging out. That was a lot of the romance of New York to me – the conversations over coffee with other people passionate about the same things. I didn’t know till way later, when I read Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy, that in fact Terrence and Wendy were dating at the time. Yes, we playwrights are real good observers of people.

Aside from the many fine plays he gave us, what I admired most about Terrence was his persistence. Through good fortune and bad, he kept writing, and he kept writing about what he wanted to write about. And he helped change the theater. When he started writing, he was writing about what the mainstream thought was fringe subject matter. By the end of his career, the mainstream had moved to him. He hadn’t compromised a millimeter.

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Watched a documentary, THE BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN (available through Amazon for $3.99). It’s about a real estate developer named Bruce Ratner who uses all of his influence and connections to get the powers-that-be in New York to use eminent domain to sweep aside a neighborhood in Brooklyn so he can build a vast development including a new sports arena. Never mind that eminent domain was never intended to be used for private individuals to create projects that will enrich them.

There are a lot of connections to what’s going on today. My opinion of Michael Bloomberg’s behavior as a leader of anti-Trumpism is a high and admiring one. But he is definitely one of the villains of this documentary. So is Charles Schumer. And the Brooklyn borough president at the time, Marty Markowitz (now a state senator), comes across as someone who gives lip service to fairness but betrays his own constituents without thought or hesitation.

There is a hero. Daniel Goldstein, who moved into a condo he had just bought in that neighborhood with his fiancee, decides he is going to fight back. The specifics aren’t explored, but he loses his fiancee. Then, during the course of his activism, he meets Shabnam Merchant. Their shared passion for the cause turns into love and they marry. (One of the ironies Goldstein notes is that fighting this long-term, losing battle with Ratner is what led to the family that brings him his deepest joy.)

There is another hero. Letitia James, at the time of the events, was a NYC Councilmember. She constantly frames the contest clearly and fairly and uses all of her energy fighting for those resisting Ratner. As co-directors Suki Hawley & Michael Galinsky filmed this project (an undertaking that took eight years), they could hardly have known that James would today be New York state’s attorney general. She is fighting another abusive real estate entrepreneur in state courts.

The result of the project is the Barclay Center, a few blocks away from BAM and a little west of Fort Greene. The Barclay hosts sports and events (Streisand sang there), but apparently it is a perpetual money-loser, and it has done severe damage to neighborhood traffic. Also, Ratner couldn’t make good on his agreement to pay $100 million to the MTA (ultimately shelling out only $20 million) and the film suggests that some of the increase in our transit fares can be attributed to this shortfall. Most dismaying, much of the rationale for supporting the project was that it was going to bring into the area new jobs and affordable housing. Neither has appeared to a serious degree.

The film rings a personal bell. Shabnam and Daniel’s marriage took place in a tent on an estate that looked familiar. Kristine and I rewound a bit to make sure. Yes, it was Full Moon, not far from Woodstock, NY. Kristine created an annual summer improv retreat that met there for several years. I used to teach classes in that tent!

Aside from that, the film fills in another piece of the story of New York for me. I love the convoluted history of this town, constantly being kicked around by the moneyed interests but still somehow not losing its central feisty integrity.

So, yes, I strong urge anybody attracted to David-and-Goliath stories to check out BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN. It kept me enthralled as few fictional films have lately.

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Maps of Different Orders

I’ve been listening to Jamie Bernstein read her book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein. Much of it is set in the Park Avenue apartment where she lived with her father, Leonard Bernstein. When she mentioned the address, I thought, “Hmm, that sounds familiar.” Then I realized it’s the address where my wife, Kristine, spends many of her days working. I’ve also been reading the novel The Goldfinch, much of which also takes places in another Park Avenue apartment.

And it occurred to me that, though they all are on Park Avenue, I have three different maps of Park Avenue in my mind, overlayed as if they were transparencies.

One is the Park Avenue of my personal experience. Having visited Kristine at her workplace, I have entered that building through its entrance on a side street, ascended in an elevator and been a guest in one of the more elegant apartments I have encountered.

Another is the Park Avenue of independent reality. This is the Park Avenue the existence of which is confirmed by history and journalism and documentaries like Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream [which you can see online at]. This is a place that would exist without my awareness or experience of it. And, reading Bernstein’s book, I am aware that many of the stories she expertly relates of her celebrated family occurred within a building I’ve visited.

And then there is the Park Avenue that is the setting for so much fiction. Being a location synonymous with wealth and privilege, it is understandable that many fiction writers and dramatists have placed many of their wealthy characters there. Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the latest book I’ve encountered that has peopled that real place with fictional characters.

Just a thought I’ve stumbled over …

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Joan Littlewood and “Sparrows Can’t Sing”

The British Film Institute is offering a streaming channel called BFI Players Classics through Roku for $5.99 a month. Mostly on offer are things like Ealing comedies, Hammer horror films, costume dramas, etc. There are a few oddball discoveries though. I was attracted to a film I’d never heard of called Sparrows Can’t Sing, largely because it was directed by Joan Littlewood.

I don’t know many American theater people who know who Littlewood was, but she was quite a phenomenon in postwar English theater. With the company she founded in 1945, Theater Workshop, she began creating devised theater before the term was in popular use. Working in east London, she was less interested in catering to the tastes of middle-class theatergoers than putting together works that reflected working class life. Today she is probably best known for discovering and directing 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney’s play, A Taste of Honey, and staging O! What a Lovely War! (not to be confused with the film version, which she hated). Sparrows Can’t Sing began as a 1960 theater project she directed based on a story by a merchant seaman named Stephen Lewis. Though Lewis is credited with the script of the stage version, the show was largely based on improvisations under Littlewood’s direction.

In 1963, a film version was released. The script is co-credited to Lewis and Littlewood and Littlewood directed. The story concerns a (surprise) merchant seaman named Charley who returns from a two-year voyage intending to re-connect with his wife, Maggie. He discovers that, in the meantime, Maggie has taken up with a married bus driver named Bert and has maybe had a daughter with him. Charley shrugs this off. He figures Maggie still belongs with him, and he begins a campaign to win her back. He’s a bit of a thug, but Maggie is no doormat and ultimately she’s going to do what she wants to do.

Plot is not very important, however. What makes the film so engaging is the vibrant gallery of characters and how, at any moment, any group of people on the street will chime in like a Greek chorus on the private lives that refuse to stay private. There are songs (one by Lionel Bart, who wrote Oliver!) and slapstick and fistfights and boisterous scenes in the local pub. James Booth is Charley and Barbara Windsor is Maggie. Windsor eventually spent much of her career in the Carry On series, in which she usually ended up squealing while she lost her clothing. To see her in Sparrow after seeing a few of the Carry On films is to discover how much more there was to her. (Indeed, a little internet research reveals that she won a British Oscar for her performance in this film.) For fans of Richard Lester, a particular treat is seeing early work by Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear (father of contemporary star Rory Kinnear).

I was most interested in the chance to see something of Littlewood’s work after years of reading about her. It’s the only feature film she directed, and it’s a shame she didn’t continue because she’s a natural film director. The compositions are fresh and the rhythms are infectiously jazzy. And the ensemble of actors, drawn from her troupe, create a vivid community of colorful characters.

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