Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Really Good Churchill bio

Tackling Andrew Roberts's massive new biography of Winston Churchill--Churchill: Walking With Destiny--is a major undertaking: it runs a good 1000 pages plus notes. Although I've not read many of the existing huge pile of previous biographical enterprises devoted to Churchill, I found this one very rewarding. 

Usually, I find that when I tend to agree with the theme of the biography, it strikes me as a good job. Roberts's book is definitely well-written, which always excuses many shortcomings, of which there are only a few in this volume. My view, as it happens, of Churchill is that he was absolutely the right person for the job in 1940, and that he accomplished what he was there to do: in essence, preserve the free world from the Axis at a time when every other significant political figure in Britain had been an appeaser and when no one else anywhere was willing to take on what surely looked to be a fight against the odds.

Churchill realized that he would only prove successful eventually if the United States joined Britain in the war. His principal task was to maintain Britain while it was under attack without American help for more than two years. Toward the end of that time, he managed to work with Franklin Roosevelt to secure Lend-Lease, without which Britain would have been both broke and defenseless while under steady German attack.

Churchill did have an incredibly long career--running from his presence at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan when Kitchener led the British forces in their last cavalry charge to avenge the death of "Chinese" Gordon and being imprisoned by the Boers in South Africa during the turn-of-the-century Boer War to being the British equivalent of Secretary of the Navy in World War I and previously Home Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the '20s. 

He did acquire the skills from managing munitions in World War I and he did learn from his mistakes: he was the principal proponent of the disastrous attack on the Turks at Gallipoli and had been prominent in the savage treatment of labor at Tonypandy, among other major errors. But he learned a great deal from his experiences, both good and bad: in World War II, he relied on the excellent strategic abilities of the Army Chief of Staff, Alan Brooke, later Viscount Alanbrooke, and wisely delegated all labor issues during the war to Ernest Bevin, formerly head of Britain's largest union, the TGWU, and later Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government.

So the five years during which Churchill was in charge were critical and he managed to come out of it with deserved praise for persevering when few others might have or could have. The years before the war, when he was in "the Wilderness" since all those in the government were appeasers, also give him credit. 

It also is illuminating to see how his political outlook was generally unchanging over those many years: he was a Tory Democrat, which meant he really did stand in the middle in that he favored measures to improve the lot of the workers and the poor. He never really accepted the reactionary attitude of the Tories, even though he had switched to them when he could no longer abide the declining Liberals.

He also included the major  Labour figures--Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, and Dalton, who were all prominent in Attlee's government that had won the 1945 election right after the war ended--in his wartime Coalition government, and was likely better served by them than by many of his Tory ministers and even his eventual and long-delayed successor, Anthony Eden, who managed to self-destruct in the mid-50s after a mere year as Prime Minister.

So Churchill remains a worthy historic figure, despite his imperialism, which he never would have denied, and racism, which he would have but which was totally characteristic of his times. He also was almost alone among British political figures in the 30s and 40s in his support of the establishment of Israel, in addition to Balfour whose 1917 declaration was generally disregarded by everyone else but Churchill who followed Balfour into office.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Finian's Rainbow Redux

A few years ago we saw a semistaged revival of the 1947 musical Finian's Raiunbow at Encores at City Center in New York. It was a delightful rendition of a wonderful musical. So when my daughter alerted me that it would be done on a one-night only at Olney Theatre, we made the rush-hour trip out to Olney Friday evening and the show was worth the journey.

This was pretty much a concert version with the orchestra -- a large one -- at the back of the stage and the cast occupying the front two rows of seats set up in front of the musicians. They would come up front when they were performing and there was a good deal of dancing along with the singing and the recitatives, to use the operatic term. Of course, one of the principals fills what is a totally dancing role--until the very end.

The performers were perfectly fine, with not much available in the minimal program as to background but the lead soprano had a nice full voice for what is the major singing role, the leading man was strong, and my favorite, the leprechaun, who was somewhat larger than one expects, had a nice voice.

In my view, he has the two cleverest E.Y. Harburg lyrics: "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I'm Near)" and "Something Sort of Grandish" and performed them well. The original in that role was the great Broadway vet David Wayne and seeing a picture of him in the role, I for the first time realized he brought an additional advantage to the role: being slight of build.

The Harburg-Burton Lane songs, of course, are fantastic: "How Are Things in Glocca Mora", "Old Devil Moon", "The Great Come-and-Get-It Day", "If This Isn't Love", "Look to the Rainbow" (reminds you of Harburg's "Over the Rainbow"), and "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" as well as "The Begat" which was better sung by the "Gospelers" than I ever remember.

One theater historian said that Finian's Rainbow was "a socialist analysis in the form of an American musical." Part of the fun the show engenders is the shrewdness with which Harburg created the lyrics. They have a political and even philosophical spark but avoid hitting you over the head with ideology.

The soprano's Irish accent came and went, which was also not a problem. It's delightful to listen to the recording of the original show and hear the lead, Ella Logan, employ a charming Irish accent, made even more enjoyable once you realize that she wasn't Irish. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A gruesome Richard III

You do not need to accept the veracity of Shakespeare's depiction of the English monarch Richard III to savor the play. It is one of Shakespeare's early works, when he was focusing on history and when he was most cognizant of his need not to offend the last Tudor, Elizabeth I. After all, Richmond, who wins the day at the Battle of Bosworth Field and ends the play by dispatching Richard, became the first Tudor king, Henry VII.

Indeed, the great work that seeks to clear Richard's name, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, points to none other than Henry VII as the real villain who was responsible for the murder of the two princes in the Tower of London, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. Another major figure who helped establish Richard's vile reputation was Laurence Olivier, whose portrayal of Richard as a hunchbacked, snarling monster in the 1950s-era movie he produced contributed to confirming the evil image of the leading role.

Nevertheless, Olivier and many other wonderful actors have performed wonders in conveying the essence of a Shakespearean villain who gives Iago and Macbeth a run for their wickedness. Jose Ferrer led a marvelous cast on Broadway way back when and a few years ago, Stacy Keach shone in the part at the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington.

The current production there, however, which we saw last Saturday night, goes off in the wrong direction. Matthew Rauch plays Richard and his performance is fine. But the director, David Muse, engaged by departing managing director Michael Kahn in his last season, has chosen to focus mostly on presenting gory death scenes to emphasize the lengthy chain of murders Richard directs. The  scenes seem to draw on both hospital-like execution settings and the atmosphere of a totalitarian state.

There's more blood that you see in even Jacobean tragedies such as Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling. That's not necessarily terrible but here it does not contribute to the impact of the play, and in fact, likely overshadows some of the more engaging sections that Shakespeare wrote which have been edited out to extend these death scenes. The play's length does support selective cuts, but I would take issue with the ones made here.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Left Coasting

 Returned to a favorite place to spend a few nice days, San Diego, and courtesy of the better half, who was presenting at a program on negotiation for lawyers, the time is being spent at the Hotel del Coronado, a charming place that needs no instruction in how to charge but which overcomes all shortcomings when you gaze out at the breakers on the ocean in one direction and the sailboats in the sun on the bay in the other.

I've been coming out here since I was a teenager and I even remember when you could only get to Coronado on the ferry. Biggest surprise was driving over what is now the free bridge that rises way up on the bay. I've been at this hostelry a few times previously, always for conferences or the like. It's one of those places where you're not surprised when you run into someone you haven't seen for years who's attending a different conference.

The weather now limits beach enjoyment to walking on the beach, which, with the La Jolla Shores, might be one of the choicest spots to engage in beach jaunts. As usually occurs, timing was off for cultural opportunities: Rigoletto just finished at the San Diego Opera and a new musical based on the life of Princess Diana (titled creatively, Diana) opens the day after we depart. However, last week I caught a rehearsal at the National Symphony in Kennedy Center which began with the glorious Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and that makes up for quite a few missed shows.

There's also good dining to be had in San Diego, and even in Coronado outside the Del. That means there are nice spots that offer a somewhat better price than the Del's stratospheric scale. Clayton's Coffee Shop is a satisfying place to start the day with one of the most comprehensive breakfast menus around. And the night before we left, there was a delightful group dinner at Buck's Fishing and Camping following a reading at Politics & Prose by Eileen's old friend from Boston days, Elinor Lipman, who had read from her new novel, Good Riddance.

There's also the Road Runner Sports headquarters and clearance stores up near Miramar which offer not only the most cutting-edge running shoes but salespeople who know how to make sure the shoe fits. It even makes me feel when I'm there that in some way, shape, or form I'm actually still running races instead of walking. Since I need all the encouragement I can get in this direction, it's also great to find that there still are a good number of laid-back folks out here on the Left Coast.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Symphony Hall, Boston

Have been enjoying a Boston weekend, occasioned by attending a Cornell alumni meeting but enabling some old and new pleasures as well. The Hub was cool and windy at times, but for the second weekend in February, no complaints are lodged. Started out with a lunch at the nearest Legal Seafood, this one at Copley Place, where you can order fish chowder, unavailable at any of their outposts outside the Boston area. It's always worth it. And they now call "schrod" cod, because, as the waitress helpfully advised, that's what it is and when it used to say schrod on the menu, it could have been a lot of different fish.

One of the highlights was, surprisingly, to me at least, was my first time inside Symphony Hall, to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra play a modern piece by Olly Wilson, a violin concerto by Karol Szymanowski with soloist Lisa Batiashvili, and Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3. Ms. Batiashvili played beautifully and her part seemed to overwhelm the rest, both because of how it was written and her playing. She returned after the concert to sign CDs of which we had her autograph one for Vanessa. The Copland was pleasant and the fourth movement made it glorious, since he incorporated in it his famous Fanfare for the Common Man, which returns to end the symphony on a triumphant note, apppropriate for the first posrwar year when it premiered: 1946.

Symphony Hall itself, designed by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White fame for its 1900 opening, is a grand old place, with its perfect acoustics clearly in evidence for both piano and forte. The programs are the most comprehensive I've ever encountered, which is what one would expect from the Athens of America, the sobriquet it was still grasping when the hall was built. And the whole scene has a particular charm, emphasized by the musicians in tails and Ms. Batiashvili, a German violinist born in Georgia, even playing an encore before intermission.

Down the way from Symphony Hall is the Museum of Fine Arts, which featured an enthralling Ansel Adams show, including examples of his predecessors like Carleton Watkins and photographers who drew from Adams's legacy. The only missing part I noticed was the lack of any prints by Edward S. Curtis, who assembled a major first collection of Native American portraits. There's a book of them in the shop but none in the exhibit. The Adams prints are as amazing as ever, with some good commentary including how he jumped from his car to shoot Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, and gauged his light by knowing how bright the moon was and how quickly he needed to set up and shoot because the moon would soon disappear behind some clouds.

Then upstairs at MFA are the wonderful range of Monets and other Impressionists, which were delightful, and many other highlights we didn't get to savor. We also spent a great evening with my cousins Vikki and Gerry in Cambridge, and rode the T. Recently was sent a journal article dug up upon the death of the 92-year-old lyricist who wrote the MTA song, popularized by the Kingston Trio. It was fascinating to recall how the song had been written for the mayoral campaign (unsuccessful) in 1949 of Walter A. O'Brien, whom the Trio changed to George at the end of their version of the song. And seeing the lyrics reminded me that I was right in remembering that Charlie got on at the Kendall Square Station headed for Jamaica Plain but his wife slipped him the sandwich at what was the Scollay Square Station. Now the Man Who Never Returned is memorialized in the ticket and card you use to enter the system: the Charlie Ticket and Card.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

"On the Matter of Sex" and "Mary Poppins Returns"

Those do sound like two incongruous motion pictures. But each is a worthy effort, each in its own way. "On the Matter of Sex" is the second pic this year about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so for me, the bar was high. But this one comes through--it avoids repeating the first one, which was truly a documentary--and benefits from good writing and acting.

Best choice made in putting it together was to focus on one case, possibly her first, on applying the tax law unequally but in this case, a man was deprived of benefits afforded women. It provided a chance to show how her husband, tax lawyer Marty Ginsburg, supported her across the board, both in strategizing the legal path and managing the home life with two children to care for.

The Harvard Law aspect was of interest to those of us who also are graduates. Sam Waterston, though aged, looks far better than long-time Dean Erwin Griswold ever did. The Griz had toned down his infamous welcoming speech for first-year students by the time I heard it, as it turned out for the last time since he left after 20 years near the end of my first year when he was named Solicitor General. His sexism of 1959 vintage was par for the course in those days. 

Ernie Brown, whom I had as a prof for tax, was terrible as a teacher by then and he too left at the end of the next year to become the grand old man of the Justice Department's Tax Division, from which he retired at 93 a few years ago. Paul Freund was doubtless looking more in 1960 like the youthful player who filled his role in the picture as compared to when I studied constitutional law with him almost a decade later--you got an idea of his urbanity but he didn't seem different enough here from the standard preening law school prof.

The picture's strength was in sticking close to the facts. For example, the three Tenth Circuit judges were the real names and one is credited and given thanks in the crawl for presumably recalling Justice Ginsburg's early argument there. One critic has taken the picture to task for showing her hesitating for a length of time that only could have existed in a film as she rose to argue--apparently this is the only thing that Justice RBG didn't agree with in the film, and she was right. It was a case of the director adding in what the critic called a cliche found in such biopics.

The film also made me rethink my reaction years ago when at a D.C. Circuit Judicial Conference chaired by then-Judge Ginsburg. At the main dinner, she profusely thanked her husband (she called him her "life partner") and I discounted this praise as one of  the ritual thank-yous, usually directed at and for wives. But the picture, and Armie Hammer's magnificent portrayal of Martin Ginsburg, made me appreciate finally that RBG had it right back then. Felicity Jones also did a fine job as RBG.

So too did Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, returning the character to the screen after oh so many years. I read the four P.L. Travers books featuring Mary P., and Blunt played her the way Travers wrote her: a very tart, sure of herself character with no "Spoonful of Sugar" stuff which did take away from Julie Andrews's great performance in the original picture, especially her singing.

Lin-Manuel Miranda was an excellent Jack, nephew of Dick Van Dyke's Bert the chalk artist in the first picture. The Hamilton creator even had one song which was essentially rap, which he had used to such advantage in Hamilton. The songs, alas, are not quite up to the memorable, if somewhat saccharine, ones in the first picture. But the performances, including a villainous Colin Firth, are. It's the kind of picture where you enjoy their bringing in Angela Lansbury and Van Dyke for cameo "special appearances" near the end, and Meryl Streep providing an amazing turn both singing and dancing as well as acting in creating a novel character. Fun all around.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Great Play

There's a terrific, powerful play and it's actually playing on Broadway. What, you ask? Have we returned to the days when Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and others, graced the New York Theater District? 

The Ferryman is a full three-acter that premiered last year in London and is the product of playwright Jez Butterworth, who's English but with strong roots in Ulster, where the play is set.  It tackles what was happening in Northern Ireland to a farm family in Armagh in the time of the Troubles. A man disappeared in 1971, his body turned up ten years later, and his large family with what it means, as well as some IRA men.

The plot thickens and develops with superb performances by a large cast, many of whom were in the original production and draw on Irish backgrounds. Butterworth, joined by renowned director Sam Mendes, who ran London's Donmar Warehouse, manages the many actors on the stage together well and as one critic concluded, in a rave notice, brings it all to an explosive finale. 

He compared it to Jacobean tragedy, such as those by Thomas Middleton. If you've ever seen Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling, you'll realize that things never get as gruesome as in that drama, but the ending is truly powerful, but the steady buildup to what happens then is well conceived.

A few years ago, I happened to see Butterworth's play, Jerusalem, when passing through London. It was a well-drawn picture of British counterculture which worked largely due to the casting of Mark Rylance in the leading role. Rylance is likely the finest actor working today and he's always worth seeing. I didn't think the play would make it in the States, even in New York, because it was very British, but it did come to Broadway and got good notices. However, it did not attract strong audiences and played only a limited run.

Later in the day, we stuck around and enjoyed a musical comedy, The Prom, which also received some good reviews. It's light but the writing is often clever, the songs are pleasant, and the players enjoyable, especially Beth Leaval as a leading lady of the theatre trying to save her reputation after getting disastrous notices by "doing good deeds" as the Wizard of Oz put it.

It's Broadway musical comedy wrestling with social issues--here it's gay high school students coming out in the Midwest--and the blend works better than does the injection of social concerns in the somewhat dated British postwar mystery, An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley, which we saw in D.C. recently. This musical is good spirited and enjoyable, even getting me to ignore the current Broadway reliance on excessive amplification for once.