****The Accusation

North Korea, flags

photo: (stephan), creative commons license

By Bandi – Dubbed “the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang,” Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident North Korean author, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living under that repressive regime.

The seven stories in this collection were written between 1989 and 1995, a particularly bleak period at the start of a severe five-year famine, when Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father ruled the country. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, the stories share commonalities both in the psychological challenges their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. These common themes create an indelible impression of Bandi’s world.

Paranoia is prominent. A person who deviates from expectations in any way or complains about anything, significant or trivial, risks being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story “On Stage” titles Act One of his satirical—and dangerous—skit: “It Hurts, Hahaha,” and Act Two: “It Tickles, Boohoo!”—to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.

Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of extreme privation in the country, even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects for his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, “Record of a Defection,” in which a family risks everything to try to escape this collective fate.

Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers harangue the population. Their constantly blaring messages from the government are full of “alternative facts.”

The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and with character development mainly through action and dialog. This bracing style fits material with so much implicit drama and heartache. (For a more immersive approach, you might read the richly plotted Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Johnson novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which also puts North Korea’s absurdities and ironies on full display.)

Do Bandi’s stories give the impression that the North Korean people recognize the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And if the people are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict, will they break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.

The story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. It also can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that in 2017 it exists at all proves it is not impossible.

The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.

Ireland’s Easter Rising Reconsidered

Easter Rising

The dying Cú Chulainn, photo: wikimedia

2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, when Irish Republicans staged an armed insurrection aimed at achieving independence from Britain and establishing a separate Irish Republic. At the same time, many Irish citizens were fighting in World War I.

For that anniversary, two Boston College professors—novelist and philosopher Richard Kearney and artist Sheila Gallagher—created a performance in images, music, and words to expand the perception of those events. Called “Twinsome Minds: Recovering 1916 in Images and Stories,” they presented it last week at Princeton University, their 16th performance, I believe.

What did I think? I liked all the pieces—images, music, words—but was the whole more than the sum of the parts? Did the underlying conceit work? The idea for “Twinsome Minds” comes from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. “Irish imagination is at its best, said Joyce, when moving between two ‘twinsome’ minds—that is, when it has ‘two thinks at a time’ opening onto a third,” Kearney said. In that it was partially successful.

I most liked the stories, and found the images alternately beautiful and distracting. Clipping headlines wanted to be read. Abstract images wanted to be interpreted. Art made on-the-spot wanted to draw attention to technique. Many of Gallagher’s images featured a raven, which sits of the shoulder of the dying Cú Chulainn, in the memorial to the Easter Rising.

The double meaning of twinning was that, as in any civil war brothers, cousins, friends, schoolmates, neighbors for various reasons found themselves on opposite sides. While some thought rebellion was the only way to achieve an independent Ireland, others though enlisting in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and fighting for the British in France better supported that goal. While 500 lives were lost in the six days of the Rising (more than half of them civilians), 3,500 Irishmen were killed in the battle of the Somme in one day.

Gallagher showed photos of Ireland’s men and women on opposite sides in this conflict. Poet Francis Ledwidge from County Meath, who died in France, suggested the depth of the divide—and perhaps a sprinkle of contempt—between partisans on the two sides: “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.”

You can see the whole thing (75 minutes) on YouTube and see for yourself.

Cincinnati: Politics and Porker

flying-pig, Cincinnati

photo labeled for reuse: ArtWorks Cincinnati

From before the Civil War to the career of John Boehner, southwest Ohio has been steeped in politics. So maybe it should come as no surprise that later this week the president-elect is launching his “thank you” tour in Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the city’s renown as the pig processing capital of the country earned it the sobriquet “porkopolis,” as a Cincy native recently reminded me. In the early 1800s, herds of pigs trammeled the streets. No more, we were glad to learn when we visited the sites below, though an ArtWorks project means you encounter gaily painted flying pigs all around town.

Politics and pork, together forever. Or was that politics and poker?

Harriet Beecher Stowe House

Stowe’s dramatic 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sold more than 1.5 million copies its first year and has been translated into some 75 languages. Historians credit her depiction of the horrors of slavery and the desperation of runaway slaves as energizing the U.S. anti-slavery movement. She based the book on her own experiences. She’d seen slaves in nearby Kentucky and the repugnant activities of slave-hunters in Ohio (a free state) after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and she could convey the profound sense of loss her characters experienced, based on her own grief after the death of her son Charlie. She lived in this house as a young woman, and the Ohio History Connection has added displays about Cincinnati at the time, including one on the whole porkopolis thing.

William Henry Harrison Tomb and Monument

A few miles west of downtown, along a winding Ohio River drive to North Bend, you’ll find the tomb and monument to ninth U.S. President William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe”). He’d already had a lengthy military and political career before becoming president at age 68, only to die after a month in office. He was pro-slavery and negotiated numerous extortionate treaties with the Indians that resulted in the loss of their lands. Although he came from a wealthy Virginia family, he pioneered modern campaign techniques, representing himself as a humble “man of the people.” This timely quote from President Harrison’s Inaugural Address is carved on one of the memorial’s stones:

“As long as the love of power is a dominant passion of the human bosom, and as long as the understandings of men can be warped and their affections changed by operations upon their passions and prejudices, so long will the liberties of a people depend on their own constant attention to its preservation.”

William Howard Taft House

william-howard-taft

Anders Zorn, Portrait of William Howard Taft, 1911

Taft was the nation’s 27th President and 10th Chief Justice, his favorite job. He lived in this house as a child and young adult. A Republican, he served as Governor of the Philippines and Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Vice-President, and right-hand man. (When Roosevelt sent feisty daughter Alice to Asia with a delegation headed by Taft, one of the chief inducements for her was the opportunity to hobnob with another famous Cincinnati politician in the group, her future husband Nicholas Longworth.)

Roosevelt was disappointed in Taft’s presidency, though, and ran against his re-election in 1912, splitting the Republican vote and assuring a victory for Woodrow Wilson. Taft was much happier as Chief Justice and worked almost daily, modernizing Supreme Court procedures and practices. The nicely maintained house and National Park Service’s visitor center provide an interesting glimpse into the impressive contributions of the entire Taft family to life in Cincinnati and the nation.

What To Read Between Stops

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of course, the most popular book of the 19th Century! An American classic.
  • The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” Changed Presidential Elections Forever by Ronald G. Shafer

The Coup Against Public Opinion

constitutional_conventionBet you think this will be about politics. It is, but not how you think. The Framer’s Coup: The Making of the US Constitution is Michael J. Klarman’s book about the formation and adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Politicians who wave the Constitution about should perhaps read his book first. As he described in a recent lecture at the David Library of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers tore up what they were supposed to do in Philadelphia and rewrote our founding document quite differently than what the people expected.

Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor, believes the Constitution was a conservative response to the egalitarian impulses that produced the Revolutionary War. In the War, the founding fathers were frustrated at how slow the states were to provide support, deeming them “as obstructionist as the British.” And, they wanted government in the hands of “the right sort” of people—what today we would call “the elites.”

Contrary to what was expected, the framers of the Constitution produced a document that is more nationalizing, with certain explicit and implied powers reserved to the federal government, unlimited taxing and military authority, and the ability to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. It also has the ability to create laws “necessary and proper” to implement these provisions.

The federal government has a mechanism to enforce its supremacy, too, including the federal court system and rules that limit the powers of the states, forbidding them, for example, to print their own paper currency as they did in colonial times.

The Constitution’s anti-populist provisions include relatively long terms in office (for which we can be grateful; constant political campaigning sounds totally unbearable at the moment). Essentially, the men who framed the Constitution did not trust the people’s choice—“you might as well ask a blind man to pick a color,” they believed—and favored a system of indirect elections. Although members of the House of Representatives were to be elected directly, the number of these legislators was at first small, and they were elected from a state at large, not from specific districts, as now. This diluted an individual’s vote. Another of these anti-populist provisions was, of course, the Electoral College.

These friction points of more than 200 years ago are not irrelevant today. Texas governor Greg Abbott has agitated for a new Constitutional Convention aimed at restricting federal power. Article V of the Constitution allows for a new Constitutional Convention if two-thirds of state legislatures request it.

Klarman says, “there’s a reason there hasn’t been another one.” There are no rules in the Constitution about how such a body should proceed, making Article V “the black hole of constitutional law,” according to one legal scholar. Nor are their limits on what such a body can do, which means it could tear the whole thing up and start over, exactly as the Founding Fathers did.

****Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

washington-star

The old Washington Star building; photo: wikimedia

By John Norris – You think women in journalism have a long way to go when you consider how being young, glamorous, blonde of hair and white of tooth seem to be hiring criteria, and when you learn how sexual harassment of them is more common than seems possible in 2016 (for organizations that make their living exposing secrets, after all). But then you read Mary McGrory’s compelling life story, written by John Norris—a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress—and realize the distance traveled is pretty far after all.

McGrory was from Boston, the first person in her Irish Catholic family to finish college, and she began her newspaper career at the bottom of a very tall ladder. She worked for a time in Boston, as an assistant to the Herald Traveler’s literary editor, but the quality of her writing propelled her to a position as assistant book critic at the Washington Star. The nation’s capital in 1947 was a boomtown, full of change, openness, mobility.

Six years later, Mary’s badgering of Star editor Newby Noyes led him to assign her to write a series of political profiles, and Mary began spending time with the men she’d be writing about for the next half-century, including new Senate minority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The positive reception the profiles received garnered her a plum assignment: covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. From there she covered the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign of 1956, becoming one of the nation’s most respected reporters and colorful commentators on the political scene.

After the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Washington Post snatched her up. She wrote for that paper for twenty-two more years, though the Star was always her first love. She covered multiple Presidential campaigns, the Kennedy presidency was a miracle for Mary, pushing all her loyalty buttons—Boston, her faith, and her admiration of the family.

The fates of those brothers were intimately, personally felt. By contrast, she loathed Richard Nixon: “If he were a horse, I would not buy him.” Her name appeared on his infamous “enemies list.” Regarding the Gore-Bush campaign of 2000, she said the race was a “battle between the unlikeable and the unprepared.”

Although well known for her scorching prose, Mary’s life off the page is also fascinating. It seems she had one or more affairs with prominent politicians and journalists, and LBJ once propositioned her. She was a great party-goer and -giver. Her entire time in Washington, she regularly volunteered at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home—a refuge for young unmarried women—and arranged with Ethel Kennedy for the children to have swimming parties at Hickory Hill, the Robert Kennedy family home in Virginia. She persuaded Hillary Clinton to visit at Christmas in 1995, the year journalist Tim Russert played Santa Claus. These children were the stand-ins for the children Mary, never married, didn’t have.

Indefatigable Mary McGrory, pioneer woman in journalism, astute and opinionated, winner of a Four Freedoms Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, mentor to women journalists, had a stroke at her desk in 2003 and her health—and worse, her powers of speech—never recovered. Her simple tombstone in Antrim, Mass., reads exactly the way she wanted it to:  name, dates, and the inscription “Newspaper Woman and Volunteer.”

“Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.”–Mary McGrory

Disgraced

disgraced, Caroline Kaplan & Maboud Ebrahimzadeh

Caroline Kaplan & Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, photo: T. Charles Erickson

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., is presenting Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, through October 30. The production, directed by Marcela Lorca, tells the story of four Manhattan friends with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. They are a successful, congenial group until a dinner party devolves into a series of confrontations that painfully reveal the schisms beneath the surface. It is a blistering commentary on identity politics and the nation’s most-produced play in the 2015-2016 season.

The characters are lawyer Amir (played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who has masked his Pakistani and Muslim heritage, “passing” as Indian. Amir is pressured by his wife and nephew, Hussein (Adit Dileep)—who has changed his name to the more American Abe Jensen—to look in on legal proceedings against a controversial imam accused of terrorism. Amir initially resists, fearing his act may be misinterpreted by his firm’s Jewish senior partners.

His beautiful wife Emily (Caroline Kaplan), Caucasian and apparently Christian, is a painter and in her own work is entranced with the artistic language of Islam. In turn, she entrances their Jewish friend and Whitney curator Isaac (Kevin Isola), who wants to include her paintings in a high-profile exhibit. Isaac met Emily through Jory (Austene Van), his African-American wife and another associate in Amir’s law firm.

These convoluted relationships could go wrong in many ways, and do at the ill-fated dinner party. The social landscape under their feet crumbles. By the play’s end, all of them are disgraced, one way or another, publicly or not.

It is director Lorca’s aim that the audience empathize with each of the characters. She says, “A play like Disgraced has the power to hold mirrors to us, invite us to embrace complexities, ponder our contradictions, widen our view of others, and invite us to practice empathy, one character at a time.” Her success in achieving this is evidenced by the dead silence in the theater for many seconds after the play ended and the standing ovation the cast received.

The play raises important questions about identity and self-identity, passive observer and activist, and religious and secular choices in a fragmented American society, as well as the persistent and entangling prejudices (in the original, pre-judging sense, emphasis on “judging”) that lurk inside each of us. “Who is an American?” it asks, and “Who gets to decide?” It’s a 90-minute production that rapidly moves into the quicksand of what the playwright calls our “degraded social discourse.”

McCarter has prepared a show website rich with information, including an essay on Islamic art and a Velázquez painting that provide an important symbolic backdrop in the story. Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit http://www.mccarter.org.

****Ghosts of Havana

havana, Cuba

photo: Les Haines, creative commons license

By Todd Moss – The long tail of the 1961 U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion  disaster swings around to sting a married couple in this fast-paced political thriller—third in a series by former U.S. State Department diplomat Todd Moss.

With his insider’s background, Moss believably portrays the interdepartmental rivalries inside the Washington Beltway, where high-stakes diplomacy faces off against the less, shall we say, conventional means of asserting American interests deployed by the rival Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Moss’s protagonist, in these novels, is former Amherst College professor Judd Ryker. He developed a political theory suggesting that, in times of a country’s destabilization—whether because of natural calamity or military coup or political upheaval—quick U.S. intervention can help mold the new status quo to fit American interests. He’s been brought into the State Department to create a one-man Crisis Reaction Unit. In other words, to put his theory to the test. Not surprisingly, the State Department’s career diplomats are not interested in this outsider’s theories, and do all they can, by foot-dragging and outright sabotage, to assure he fails.

Judd’s wife Jessica has what he has been led to believe is a job in international relief efforts. As this book opens, she has just revealed that she works for the CIA. In fact, she heads a super-secret unit that operates with total independence and is available for various tricky problem-solving tasks around the world.

Now that Jessica’s responsibilities are out in the open, the couple has agreed on three fundamentals going forward: they will assist each other whenever possible; they will avoid working on the same problem whenever they can; and they will admit to each other when a situation arises that they cannot follow through with assist or avoid. Relevant to all three of these is a commitment to always tell each other the truth, even though at times they may need to keep their employers’ secrets. Like so many principles, stating them turns out to be easier than living them.

Within three days, Jessica counts up at least eight lies she’s told Judd already. Yet, at the same time, he’s reassuring her that he’s in his State Department office, when he’s actually headed to Gauntánamo Bay Naval Base to meet with the shadowy director of Cuban intelligence.

Cuba’s top leaders are elderly. Sick too. There’s every reason to believe that a moment of disruption—of the kind Judd believes is ripe for positive intervention—is imminent. His trip to Cuba is the first step, though the stated reason for the meeting is to extricate four Americans caught on a fishing boat in Cuban waters.

Moss gives a sharp, up-to-the-minute feel in terms of crazy politics, self-serving politicos, and mainstream diplomatic strategists trying to keep the lid on. Throughout, he does a great job in showing the discrepancy between the way events are played for the public and the reality of the situation as Judd and Jessica perceive it. It’s enough to make you look at the nightly news with an even more skeptical eye!

Coriolanus

Coriolanus

photo: Jerry Dalia for STNJ

Shakespeare’s most political play—Coriolanus—is on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) in Madison, N.J., through July 24, and a stunning production it is. You cannot help but draw the rough parallels between the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus and the current U.S. political climate, though these associations result more from Shakespeare’s uncanny insights about human strengths and frailties than a precise forecasting of electoral politics, 2016. (UPDATE: The timeliness of the issues in this play were further explored in an August essay in Guernica.)

Director Brian Crowe’s notes say the play has been various interpreted over the centuries, and that “Shakespeare does not take sides outright, and we will attempt to avoid doing so in this production as well.” There is room for people of all political views to see themselves and their foes in the play’s stirring words. STNJ calls it “a perfect Shakespeare play for an election year.”

Coriolanus (played by Greg Derelian) is a military hero, and when he returns triumphant from the battle of Corioli, the Senate wants to appoint him consul, Rome’s highest office. But because of his disdainful regard for ordinary Romans, the two tribunes who represent the commoners oppose him and inflame the mobs against him. The tribunes, played to perfection by John Ahlin and Corey Tazmania (in a brilliant bit of gender-blind casting), are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they set in motion forces they cannot control that could lead to Rome’s destruction.

As a result of their hectoring, Coriolanus is banished from the city and allies with his former foes to march on the capital and seek revenge. Only at the last moment does the pleading of his wife and, especially, his mother Volumnia (Jacqueline Antaramian) persuade him from his course. Volumnia, who has some of the play’s most powerful speeches, asserts that her son’s valor comes from her. But she is also politic, whereas Coriolanus is rigid and uncompromising. He believes the noble patricians should rule the city by birthright (classic 1% thinking!), while the people’s tribunes say, “What is the city, but the people?”

Throughout the play the metaphor of the “body politic” appears, first formulated by patrician Menenuis Agrippa (Bruce Cromer) and mockingly referenced by Coriolanus in addressing the plebeians: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourself scabs.”

It’s exciting to see a cast of some two-dozen players—all of whom appear on stage in several well choreographed scenes (director Crowe is STNJ’s Director of Education). The minimalist set is visually interesting and opens to reveal a shining Roman eagle, variously lit to dramatic effect. Kudos also to the excellent sound design. An exciting theater experience!

For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

(A version of this review previously appeared on the NYC-area theater website: TheFrontRowCenter.com.)

Elvis & Nixon

Elvis & NixonIf you remember the Nixon presidency at all—the odd, stiff gestures, the way the man hunkered down like a turtle trying to duck back into its shell, his paranoia and cluelessness, and his straight-arrow staff (all criminals in the making)—you will appreciate how much this odd movie (trailer) nailed the early 1970s!

My expectations weren’t high, and perhaps that’s the key, because it surprises you at every turn, even though the premise is tissue-thin. It’s based, after all, on the fact that the photo of Nixon meeting Elvis in the White House on December 21, 1970,  is the most-requested photo in the National Archives. When you think of the treasures the Archives possesses, this is absurd on its face. A more incongruous encounter is hard to imagine, as Mark Olsen said in the Los Angeles Times, “one stiff in a businessman’s suit and the other relaxed in a velvet cape.”

What makes the film so strong are the performances. Kevin Spacey is Nixon in both body language and with his bitter, eye-popping rants. Michael Shannon is a less handsome yet ultimately powerfully sympathetic Presley. He visits the President to offer his help. He’s set on obtaining a badge as an At-Large Federal Agent so he can help combat the drugs and youth unrest he sees as destroying the country. In this goal he finds an ally in the President, or, as NPR reviewer Dave Edelstein said, “two lost souls connect.”Presley’s supreme confidence—arriving unannounced at the White House gate—makes an interesting counterpoint to Nixon’s lack of it.

The supporting cast—Colin (son of Tom) Hanks and Evan Peters as Nixon aides Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin and Alex Pettyfer as Presley confidant Jerry Schilling—all play it so straight the two leads are free to let the absurdities of the situation have full rein:

Krogh (to Bob Haldeman): The King is here.
Haldeman: The President doesn’t have any appointments with royalty.
Krogh: No. THE King. Elvis.

No one knows what really went on in that session. Nixon hadn’t started taping his encounters yet, though staff were present for parts of it. The script by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes is a plausible and imaginative recreation.Their humor can be subtle as well as laugh-out-loud (as I did, lots) and some great sight gags, too, like when Presley and Schilling run into an Elvis impersonator in the Los Angeles Airport. But it never goes for caricature or the cheap shot.

“Nobody really wants to see a big takedown of Elvis Presley,” director Liza Johnson said in the LA Times article linked above. “And nobody needs to see a big takedown of Richard Nixon because that happened already.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 76%; audiences, 77%.