The Mirror and the Light

In 2009, British author Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first book in her trilogy about Henry VIII’s powerful counselor, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). I wasn’t surprised that year when it won the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award. Three years later, part two of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker again—making Mantel the first British writer to win more than once. Eagerly, I’ve waited and waited for part three.

The Mirror and the Light was published earlier this year and, though it made the Booker longlist, it’s not on the shortlist. That seems more in the spirit of giving another author a chance than a critique of this new volume. It follows Cromwell in his final years, and, because I knew how it would end, I read its 750-plus pages in spread-out batches, extended my association with the protagonist and delaying the inevitable. I like to think Mantel felt the same reluctance for the story to end, accounting for the long wait.

Thomas Cromwell was the son of a violent, ill-educated blacksmith from the London suburb (then) of Putney, who rose to have extraordinary power in King Henry’s court. He had no army of his own, no particular following. Other than a few close allies, mostly among his family, the nobility, in fact, hated him and his influence. What he had in abundance was political acumen.

He made Henry a rich man and extended the king’s power and authority. He engineered the annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to his second, Anne Boleyn. When Anne declined in royal favor, Cromwell again aided the king in ridding himself of an unwanted wife and placed Jane Seymour (probably the one of Henry’s six wives he loved best) in Henry’s path. After Jane’s untimely death, he negotiated with the German princes for a marriage to Anne of Cleves.

But there was so much more to Cromwell than bedroom politics. He oversaw the dismantling of Church properties, as he and Henry established the king as the head of the Church of England, not the Pope in Rome. He maneuvered against the Spanish, the French, and the Holy Roman Empire to protect his king and further his interests. In a nutshell, he saw the future and England’s role in it, laying the groundwork for a modern nation led by skill and intellect, not birthright.

Mantel’s trilogy benefits from the tumultuous times in which Cromwell lived. But beyond the inherent drama of the story, her books are an astonishing feat of imagination. In no aspect of his life is Cromwell dealt with superficially. He is a wholly imagined person, with a chess-player’s ability to think many moves ahead.

Over the centuries, other chroniclers have portrayed him as ruthless and ambitious—a characterization his enemies among the nobility would have spread about—Mantel’s books employ the skills of a mind-reader, making him a person of much greater depth. His enemies claimed he wanted to be king, but in her telling, he wanted only to serve his king.

Bottom line? Any author who can help you know so intimately and care so deeply about a person who died almost 500 years ago has accomplished something indeed.

Seeing a Play Twice: The In-Between

This fall I’m taking a five-week ZOOM course on “How to Watch a Play,” led by Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Theater J. Prior to the first class, everyone watched online a 2018 production of the Tony-award-winning play Red by John Logan. I’d seen it a few years ago and didn’t remember it all that well.

This London version had Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko (born in 1903; committed suicide in 1970) and Alfred Enoch as his assistant, Ken. In the script, Ken arrives to help Rothko with the task of creating nearly 40 enormous canvases to hang in Manhattan’s then-new Seagram Building. He stretches canvas, he mixes paint. Red paint. The paintings are undeniably red, in varying shades, and it’s a tribute to both artist and playwright that audience members can go from “my kid could do that” to “I get it” in about 90 minutes.

A filmed play has plusses and minuses. Closeups are an advantage. Actors and directors manage stage elements so that you’re looking in the right place at the right time; with the camera, the decision where to look is made for you. What’s lost is the sense of community a live audience provides. (Adam cited a 2017 study that found audience members’ hearts begin to beat in sync.)

Adam distinguishes between a play and a production. The play is the script. Everything that brings it to life (actors, sets, costumes, lighting, music) is the production. And, when it comes to production, he says, “Everything’s a choice.”

When you see different productions of the same play, those choices become apparent. One version may be immensely enjoyable, another a big disappointment. A few years ago, Princeton’s McCarter Theatre produced an intimate version of My Fair Lady with no orchestra, just two pianos. A delightful choice. We’ve seen six or seven productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—from Broadway to community theater—and enjoyed each one. Great choices.

Then, the disasters: Romeo and Juliet in a tiny theater where the set design included a traditional second-floor balcony and, when Juliet was up there, the audience could see her only from the knees down; a particularly awful Hamlet (referred to at our house as “the nude Hamlet”); and A Christmas Carol with Tiny Tim played by an adult. Cue eyeroll. Yet, whatever their choices, a production team doesn’t totally control your reactions. External factors intrude. Say you eat a bad dinner before the show, or an actor reminds you of someone you loathe (or love!), or the set calls to mind your terrifying Aunt Gertrude’s living room. Between my first and second viewing of Red, as it happens, I visited Houston and saw the Rothko Chapel, hung all around with his large, dark, ominous paintings. Because of that experience, when Rothko says, “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. . . One day the black will swallow the red,” I took so much more from that line. To me, that’s exactly what happened with Rothko, both literally and metaphorically.

For Spooky, Edgar Allan Poe Has Staying Power

The Raven, MWA, Poe

One hundred seventy-one Octobers ago, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore. Judging by the frequency with which cultural references to him and his works pop up—Poe and Raven masks, the Edgar Awards, t-shirts, mugs, you-name-it—it seems he haunts us still. Now, in 2020, perhaps his shade’s message is, “What didn’t you get about ‘The Masque of the Red Death’?”

The late mystery writer Julian Symons’s Poe biography, The Tell-Tale Heart, is a painful journey. Time and again, Poe’s precarious financial situation would start to brighten, and time and again, he would get in his own way, sabotaging his prospects.

Poe’s parents were itinerant actors. His heavy-drinking father deserted the family in Poe’s first year, and his mother died of consumption when he was two. Certainly retrospective psychoanalysts of his personality make much of these early traumas. For his part, Symons believes a combination of predilection and early experience marked Poe, ‘and his life can best be understood as a play in which he half-consciously cast himself as a tragic hero.’

He dropped out of the University of Virginia, resentful of the aristocratic young men he met there, and moved to Maryland. In Baltimore, he connected with his aunt and later married her not-quite fourteen-year-old daughter. Having a family gave him a sense of purpose, but the problem then and ever after was earning money.

Today we know Poe best for his short stories, and that one poem. Yet Poe’s greatest desire was to be a poet and literary critic, to have his own magazine. Unfortunately, the caustic reviews he wrote for literary journals cost him many friendships and connections with people who might have helped him. Eventually, Symons says, ‘his drinking and critical quarrelsomeness were too well known for anybody to employ him.’ A modern reader can’t help but think Poe suffered from some psychiatric disorder that today might have been treated.

His last, disastrous decision was to name Rufus Wilmot Griswold his literary executor. For reasons of his own, Griswold made false and scurrilous accusations about Poe’s work and character that tarnished the author’s reputation for nearly a century. To a degree, they persist today.

In the last couple of years, I’ve written two short stories inspired by Poe’s “Berenice,” in which a young man becomes obsessed with his wife’s teeth. After she dies, he yanks them out before her body is relegated to the family crypt. Alas, (and you know this is coming), she isn’t dead.

They appeared in an entertaining anthology of contemporary stories with roots in classic Poe called Quoth the Raven, edited by Lyn Worthen; and in an anthology with the premise that Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate the strange doings Poe set up. It’s Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Brian and Derrick Belanger. No doubt Poe would never have imagined that the stories he dismissed so casually just to put money in his pocket would continue to fire other writers’ imaginations these many years later.

Photo: c2.staticflickr.com

Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

*****The Spy and the Traitor

By Ben Macintyre – A pal of John Le Carré, Ben Macintyre brings the novelist’s gift for writing compelling characters and page-turning narrative to the nonfiction realm. The Spy and the Traitor, subtitled “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” is based on the defection to Britain of KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky, and it provides at least as many thrills as the best espionage novel.

Gordievsky, raised in a family where working for the KGB is the family business, becomes disenchanted with Soviet hypocrisy. Posted to Denmark, he has a tantalizing taste of what life is like when lived outside a surveillance society. A British MI6 agent, working in Copenhagen under classic diplomatic cover, notices him and several modest bits of outreach are made by the two of them, but nothing comes of it. Gordievsky, however, sees his future and when he returns to Moscow, works at becoming accepted into the KGB’s English-language training program. Finally, he succeeds. After a few years, he’s posted to London.

Then the connection is made, and over at least a dozen years, he secretly works for MI6.

The intelligence he provides and particularly his insights into the Soviet mindset are pivotal in the late Cold War era, and he provides significant background for Margaret Thatcher’s meetings with Soviet leaders. His advice helps her craft proposals they can accept. It’s vital and thrilling diplomacy, all accomplished well out of public view.

I especially enjoyed the intriguing nuggets of tradecraft Macintyre drops as he follows Gordievsky’s twisting path. That level of detail is just one feature inspiring confidence in the narration and investment in the protagonist’s fate.

Throughout his years spying for Britain, Gordievsky is, of course, acutely aware that Soviet paranoia is ever on the lookout for leaks and traitors. MI6 is so protective of him, they do not even reveal his identity to the Americans. Good thing, too, because the head of counterintelligence in the CIA at the time—Aldrich Ames—is himself a double agent. Ames ultimately betrays more than two dozen Western spies inside Soviet intelligence, effectively signing their death warrants. His motive? Money.

Every so often, Gordievsky and his family are required to return to the Soviet Union for a term of months or years. This is the normal rotation to prevent personnel from becoming too attached to their place of posting. In case he comes under suspicion while inside the Iron Curtain, MI6 prepares an elaborate escape plan. No one is truly confident this plan can work, least of all Gordievsky. A breakdown at any point will be disastrous. But once Ames fingers him, they must give it a try, and that whole episode is a real nail-biter.

Macintyre’s book won the 2019 Gold Dagger for nonfiction, an award sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. John Le Carré calls The Spy and the Traitor, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

Photo: tiburi for Pixabay.

Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

Watch for These Films!

Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.

The Lehman Brothers Trilogy

A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.

Van Gogh & Japan

A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost 140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese art (trailer). He learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme. Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than necessary. Find a showing here.

Shadow

Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy rain and fog throughout (trailer). The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero (Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, you’ll love this one!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 82% (Americans don’t like subtitles).

Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.