An unwelcome plug for socialized medicine with a Shaw Festival play

Shaw Festival programs usually include a few lines about the play from its director. In fact — and this is entirely off the subject — we commend the Shaw for continuing to give us classy-looking programs with well-written, thoughtful essays about the plays (in contrast to Stratford Festival programs, whose meager content is delivered on cheap paper).

But the paragraphs from Morris Panych, the director of Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Shaw Festival this season, weren’t in the usual vein. Mr. Panych (whose show we enthusiastically recommend, see this post) seems to think that Shaw’s play helps make a case for government-run medical services.  His remarks hardly mention the play, discussing mostly the supposed glories of the Canadian public health system.  We don’t see it.

In the Shaw Festival

First, the play itself hardly supports a case for socialized medicine. The problem in the play is how to allocate scarce medical resources: whether Sir Colenso should give a slot in his tuberculosis clinic to (a) a brilliant young artist or (b) a selfless, lovable old medical school friend. Frankly, though, Shaw’s premise — that Sir Colenso had to make a choice and that one of these two men had to die — doesn’t seem very plausible, however useful it might have been to Shaw as a plot device. If Sir Colenso could take on one additional t.b. patient (at first he claimed he couldn’t even do that), why not two? The point applies more broadly: health care isn’t a zero-sum game; the supply of medical services isn’t fixed and limited.

How often do choices like this really happen other than at the difficult extremities of medical practice (one thinks of kidney transplants and the battlefield triage decisions in Gone with the Wind)? The play’s “dilemma” is a straw man. Surely bona fide zero-sum treatment choices like Sir Colenso’s are rare. There’s no reason why they should drive policy-making.

Shaw Festival director (and playwright) Morris Panych. Being a talented dramatist and a director doesn't give one the right to push one's views about socialized medicine on theater patrons.

At any rate, how could any nationalized health care system have resolved Sir Colenso’s “dilemma” any better than he did? Mr. Panych says that “doctors should face no dilemmas” — that “society” should make such decisions. But “society” is an elusive personage. What Mr. Panych really means is that who-shall-live-and-who-shall-die decisions like Sir Colenso’s should be taken away from doctors (and their patients) and given to bureaucrats at government health agencies. Personally, we think doctors represent “society” better than bureaucrats, and we can’t imagine why anyone would think that the latter would be better at resolving difficult moral dilemmas than the former. People don’t acquire Solomonic wisdom by becoming tenured civil servants — generally it’s the opposite.

If Shaw meant The Doctor’s Dilemma as an indictment of private medicine, he failed. It’s just a hilarious send-up of flawed men who happen to be doctors. What comedy doesn’t rely on the follies, vanities, pretensions, and eccentricities of our fellow men? Doctors are as likely to be hyper-idealistic, glory-seeking, greedy, and foolish as the rest of us. But the fact that we have to get medical care from imperfect people hardly suggests that it should be managed by other imperfect people who happen to be government bureaucrats.

Why, to those on the political left, do flaws in human nature always serve as a pretext for taking decisions away from ordinary people and turning them over to unaccountable bureaucracies? We like to think well of people, and we’d like to think that folks on the left really believe people will be better off with socialized medicine. But we can’t. We suspect instead that they’re driven by elitist irritation at the idea that ordinary people should be “allowed” to make such important decisions for themselves — and that they’re addicted to telling other people what they can and can’t do.

Dr. Donald Berwick

Unfortunately, our own President seems to fall into that camp, as he’s just appointed a fellow to run Medicaid and Medicare who believes fervently in the rationing of medical services. Americans in general aren’t ready to let health-care bureaucrats decide when a person is too old and feeble to justify spending money on, but Dr. Donald Berwick is more than ready to do that, and lots besides. He worships the British system with romantic fervor and wants to replicate it here as quickly as possible.

Our fellow Americans should know that there’s no point in writing to our senators to suggest that they disapprove of the nomination of Dr. Donald Berwick for this job, because our President has evaded Senate consideration of Dr. Berwick by making a recess appointment (here’s one of the many news stories); he distrusts not only the wisdom and judgment of his fellow Americans, but also that of the men and women they have elected to the United States Senate. The President simply can’t resist telling people what they have to accept.

Fortunately, the tide of history is against Mr. Panych (and our President), whether they realize it or not. By coincidence, a few days after we saw this superb play at the Shaw, the British government announced that it intended to reorganize the National Health Service and to shift control of England’s annual health budget from the centralized bureaucracy to local general practitioners. According to the New York Times, the new plan would give the bulk of the budgeted moneys to the doctors and let them decide how to spend the money for services their patients need from hospitals and other providers. We wish the Brits luck and hope our President pays attention.

Sunday will never be the same

Tompkins H Matteson's 1860 picture, Rip Van Winkle's Return

Tompkins H Matteson's 1860 picture, Rip Van Winkle's Return

(October 2009)  Now we know how Rip Van Winkle felt. Emsworth has just retired from a long stint as a church musician in a small, mainline congregation where things changed very little during his 16 years of service. Emerging this fall as if from a long sleep, he has found an evangelical church scene that he hardly recognizes.

Yes, we’ve been church-shopping. Freed from Sunday morning duties, and keeping out of the way of our successor at our old church, we’ve been visiting potential new church homes.

Our goal is simple: a congregation somewhere around Rochester where we can warm a back pew in well-deserved obscurity — a haven of rest where someday Emsworth might be able to hear “let us pray” without experiencing an involuntary reflex to get up and slide onto the organ bench.

Childe Hassam -- Church at Old Lyme (another)

The American impressionist Childe Hassam's painting, Church at Old Lyme. Classic churches on the town square are historical relics now.

Going to church without any responsibilities! That’s what we want. Being able to sing parts during the hymns!  The luxury of actually being able to pay attention to the Scripture reading, instead of using the time to check our tie and our fly and to sneak one last look at the beginning of the choir anthem to think about the tempo!

We know now what a fantasy that all was. A back pew?  Hah!  Most of the new churches don’t even have pews anymore. They don’t even have “sanctuaries,” just stadium-style auditoriums with gently reclining, consumer-friendly padded seats.

It's unlike that Emsworth will ever again sing "The church in the wildwood" in church

Emsworth may never sing "The church in the wildwood" in church again

Or hymnals either.  They don’t even sing hymns anymore, unless they slip a verse of one in as part of a medley with a contemporary Christian song that half the congregation doesn’t know. 

Scripture reading?  Hah!  Several of the churches we visited didn’t even have a part of the service devoted to reading Scripture (notwithstanding our Lord’s example (Luke 4:16-20)).

It would have been satisfying to see someone else fretting over his choir.  But where have the choirs gone?  We hardly heard any since we gave our choir a final cut-off last June — mostly worship bands and soloists with pre-recorded accompaniments.   The churches we visited were surely big enough to have choirs every Sunday — all at least five times larger than our former haunt.  But they don’t. 

St. Paul's Cathedral in London

St. Paul's Cathedral in London

At least we won’t have to worry about ties anymore.  The last two Sundays, at two different churches, no more than half a dozen men besides Emsworth sported coats and ties.  And the other men had lapped us by at least 15 years. We won’t miss wearing ties.

No reason not to name names. Here are some of the Rochester-area churches we’ve visited over the last several months, some more than once: Hope Lutheran Church, Browncroft Community Church, North Baptist Church, Open Door Baptist Church, First Bible Baptist Church, and Pearce Memorial Free Methodist Church. Each one soundly evangelical, each prospering nicely in its own way (with two or three different Sunday morning services), each focused on getting bigger, each with a full line of spiritual growth products in the form of women’s Bible studies, home fellowship groups, and so on, and each obsessed with being fully contemporary and consumer-friendly.

Most even have coffee shops.  Even though we’re not very strict sabbatarians ourselves, nothing has been more jarring about the “new churches” than seeing coffee and pastries sold inside the house of the Lord.  Emsworth’s parents, who took the fourth commandment very seriously indeed, would have been appalled.

Open Door Baptist

The architecture of the Open Door Baptist Church will not be confused with St. Paul's Cathedral.

We started counting the references to contemporary pop culture in the pastors’ sermons. One pastor alluded to two different movies and a vintage TV show during his sermon. Another message, in which Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and the chain of Ikea stores were all mentioned, actually began with the music leader’s pounding out the opening riffs of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the piano. 

Some of these churches try to tap different components of the market by having both “contemporary” and “traditional” services on Sunday morning.  (We were especially amused by Hope Lutheran’s Coca-Cola-like name for its traditional service: “Classic Hope.”)  The main difference, as we take it, is that contemporary services use worship bands to lead congregational singing. That’s assuming, of course, that leading people in singing is really their goal. Truth is that one can almost never actually hear any congregational singing over the bands. 

Mostly, the people don’t even try to sing.  They don’t know the songs, whose syncopated rhythms are a lot more complicated than, say, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And the people don’t have any music to look at to see how the melody goes — just lyrics up on projection screens.

Despite these disappointments, there weren’t any of these churches we couldn’t settle down in. We heard thoughtful, well-delivered messages from pastors (in several cases assistant pastors) at each church on the core subject of becoming better Christians. (Tom Hauser, at Open Door Baptist, gets our vote as the most gifted natural speaker we’ve heard in a while.) All these churches are sadly committed to “contemporary Christian music” (the style is 1980s soft rock, with bland, theologically fuzzy lyrics — think Bryan Adams and Toto); nevertheless, the quality of the musicianship was high wherever we went. (The worship band at North Baptist, which we have heard both in mostly-acoustic and more-electrified configurations of instruments, gets our nod as having both the best overall sound and the tightest arrangements.)

Still, we can’t help regretting intensely what’s been lost in the new evangelical and updated churches, especially with church music. The hymnody of the last 250 years, some of it very good, has all been tossed in the trash.  The gospel songs of the first part of the twentieth century that we grew up with — some of them weren’t that good, perhaps, but at any rate they aren’t even on the radar anymore. So many Christians Sunday will never be the samewill never sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or “In Shady Green Pastures”! Small congregations are already becoming “collateral damage” of the new-style churches. Congregations that fail to achieve a certain critical mass won’t have the resources to field respectably contemporary worship bands, or to build worship spaces big enough to contain the sound.

As Spanky MacFarland used to sing, back in the day:

Sunday will never be the same
I’ve lost my Sunday song — it’ll not be back again

“Nothing personal”: the trail from The Devil’s Disciple to Ted Kennedy

George Bernard Shaw

Bernard Shaw

Ever wonder where “nothing personal, just business” came from? You probably figured it started with Mario Puzo and The Godfather. But as we were seeing Bernard Shaw’s 1897 play The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival a week ago (see Emsworth’s review of this fine show at this post), we realized that it goes farther back.

In the final act, Dick Dudgeon has been arrested by British soldiers, who mean to hang him as a rebel sympathizer. The hour of his execution has been set; all that remains is for him to be tried. Dick, full of bravado, meets General Burgoyne, who comes on the scene for the trial:

BURGOYNE (with extreme suavity). I believe I am Gentlemanly Johnny, sir, at your service. My more intimate friends call me General Burgoyne. (Richard bows with perfect politeness.) You will understand, sir, I hope, since you seem to be a gentleman and a man of some spirit in spite of your calling, that if we should have the misfortune to hang you, we shall do so as a mere matter of political necessity and military duty, without any personal ill-feeling.

RICHARD. Oh, quite so. That makes all the difference in the world, of course.

(Shaw’s stage directions): They all smile in spite of themselves: and some of the younger officers burst out laughing.

The only woman present is Judith Anderson, half in love with Dick. She is not amused.

JUDITH (her dread and horror deepening at every one of these jests and compliments). How CAN you?

Abe Vigoda as Tessio

Abe Vigoda as Tessio in The Godfather

Fast-forward to 1972! The Godfather hits the big screen. Michael Corleone deduces that long-time Corleone family henchman Tessio has sold the family out to its rivals. As Tessio is escorted to what he knows will be his own execution, he asks Tom Hagen, the family’s lawyer, to tell Michael that he always liked him and that his betrayal was “nothing personal — just business.”

That was an attitude Tessio learned from the Corleones themselves. When Michael finds it necessary to order the execution of his own sister’s husband, Carlo, he tells him, “Nothing personal, Carlo. This is just business.” When Michael urges that the Corleones should murder a policeman, he knows how to reassure his doubtful brother: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

Through it all, the Corleone women — Michael’s sister Connie and his wife Kay — are not amused.

Robert Bork

Judge Robert Bork

Life imitates art! In July 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominates Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court. Bork is a one of the nation’s foremost legal scholars, a former Solicitor General, a federal appeals court judge, a man of impeccable personal character, and one of the best-qualified Supreme Court nominees in United States history.

But the first thing most Americans hear about Bork was from Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who slanders Bork in a front-page-headline speech:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government . . . . No justice would be better than this injustice.

Ted Kennedy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy

It was egregiously untrue. But its impact on Robert Bork’s nomination was fatal. When Judge Bork gamely paid Senator Kennedy a courtesy call early in the confirmation process, the senator assured the nominee that the things he’d said about him were “nothing personal.”

And in the course of the confirmation hearings, Senator Kennedy bumped into the judge’s wife in a hallway on Capitol Hill. According to Ethan Bronn’s book Battle for Justice, the senator said to her, “Mrs. Bork, you must be so tired.  It’s a very difficult time, I know.  I hope you understand it’s nothing personal.”   

Mary Ellen Bork was not amused.

Left-wing ideology (again) in Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday

We’re tired of being assured by essayists in theater programs that the vintage plays we’re about to see are still “relevant”.  Why wouldn’t they be? Why would any great play lose its “relevance”?  Human nature doesn’t change from one century to the next, and what else is a great play about?

But sometimes a play’s “relevance” jumps up and barks in your face.  When we heard the following lines a couple of weeks ago at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-in-the-Lake, Ontario) in the opening scene of Born Yesterday (first produced in 1946), we thought for a moment that a few new lines might have been specially added to the script.   Here’s a Washington journalist (Paul Verrall) talking to a Washington hotel maid (Helen):

Helen: Changed much, do you think?
Paul: What?
Helen: Washington?
Paul: Not enough. I could stand a little more change. The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.

This made us think immediately about the President who swept into office as the candidate of “change”.   How many Americans who voted to elect Barack Obama are wondering why it is that, six months later, our troops are still in Iraq, the cabinet still includes George W. Bush’s Obama changeSecretary of Defense, Hillary Clinton’s in charge of foreign policy, there’s been a “surge” in the war in Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo is still full, and the federal deficit has tripled in only six months?!?

A “little more change,” indeed!

But what a curious line playwright Garson Kanin (writing at the end of 1945) put in the mouth of Paul Verrall: “The idea of the war wasn’t to leave everything the same, you know.”  Did Verrall really think the idea of the war was to bring about change?  What other agenda for the second World War was there but to defeat fascist aggression?

In fact, in 1945 the far left was thinking opportunistically, much like Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, that “you don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste.”  The ruin left by the war gave the left an opening to push through a long list of socialist programs, and in Britain and other European countries that’s mostly what they got. Paul Verrall’s complaint (presumably his creator Garson Kanin’s as well) was that the government was wasting its chance to do something radical in Washington.

Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin

Now Emsworth hasn’t succeeded in learning anything in particular about Garson Kanin’s politics.  They never seem to have made much of a splash, unlike the views of Lillian Hellman, J. B. Priestley, Leonard Bernstein, and of course Bernard Shaw, all people of the left, all admirers of the Soviet Union in their day, and all artists whose work has been at the Shaw Festival the last couple of seasons.

But we can gather something of Kanin’s ideology from Born Yesterday.  It’s a brilliant comedy. But embedded in it is as much leftist propaganda as in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (as we catalogued in this post after seeing the play at the Shaw Festival last year) and J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (which we dissected in this post after seeing that play at the Shaw last summer). 

Helen: Listen, you know what they charge for this layout?
Paul: Two hundred and thirty-five a day. [This was 1946; Harry Brock had rented a hotel suite that would probably cost $5,000 a day in 2009.]
Helen: Listen, anybody’s got two hundred and thirty-five dollars a day to spend on a hotel room there ought to be a law.
Paul: Too many laws already.
Helen: While I’m getting eighteen a week I don’t see why anybody should spend two hundred and thirty-five a day.
Paul: For a hotel room.
Helen: That’s what I say.
Paul (smiling). I know some people who’d call you a communist.
Helen (darkly). Tell them I’m thinking about it. Seriously.

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman

We hate to sound like a broken record, but Born Yesterday leans on the same leftist themes of “class struggle” and capitalist venality as the Hellman and Priestley plays. Harry Brock in Born Yesterday is a corrupt business tycoon who’s made a fortune, not by building a better mousetrap, but by ruthlessly stomping out competition.  Like Ben Hubbard in The Little Foxes, he’s an enemy of the working man — his mistress Billie Dawn casually lets it slip that Harry actually arranged the murder of a labor agitator who was trying to organize a union.  And like Ben Hubbard, Harry gets ahead by bribing public officials to eliminate competition. 

Daily_WorkerYet in his play, Garson Kanin has Harry Brock claim that he’s a champion of “free enterprise.”  Harry was actually just the opposite; monopolization and thuggery are enemies of free-market capitalism. But the radical left had a stereotype to promote — the capitalist as corrupt and brutish — and that’s what Kanin made Harry Brock. Harry might as well have been one of the cartoon capitalists in The Daily Worker.

We’re not aware of any direct evidence that these left-leaning playwrights were consciously parrotting a prescribed party line in their plays. Yet how curiously similar are some of the speeches in The Little Foxes, An Inspector Calls, and Born Yesterday! Here’s Addie in Hellman’s The Little Foxes:

Addie: “Well, there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.

Here’s the Inspector in An Inspector Calls:

Birling: “If you don’t come down sharply on some of these people, they’d soon be asking for the earth.”

The Inspector: “They might. But after all it’s better to ask for the earth than to take it.”

And here’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday:

Billie: Well, all this stuff I’ve been reading — all that Paul’s been telling me . . . All of a sudden I realized what it means. How some people are always giving it and Soviet mansome taking. And it’s not fair. So I’m not going to let you any more. Or anybody else.

Talk about sticking to your talking points! Was Garson Kanin, like Hellman and Priestley, hoping for the day when Marxist revolution would come to the United States and Britain as it had in Russia? We don’t know, but consider one of the last lines in Born Yesterday, after Harry Brock is roundly defeated:

Brock (to Devery): What’s goin’ on around here?
Devey: A revolution.

Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister makes us think

For our recovery from a particularly nasty dose of the flu this week, we credit the patient ministrations of the wife of our bosom, but we also acknowledge the healing powers of Anthony Trollope, whose The Prime Minister was never far from our bedside.  As usual, Trollope got us to thinking.


Anthony Trollope, champion of the introvert

1. A lot of journalists are beating their breasts and rendering their garments because newspapers are shutting down and reporters are being laid off right and left. Panic on the left! — how can America escape fascism without Woodward and Bernstein on the job? What’s to become of us if Americans read bloggers who aren’t “accountable” to anyone instead of “professional” reporting by people with journalistic standards?

We can only scratch our heads at the foolish and flagrantly unconstitutional proposals being floated. Government subsidies for “independent” journalism, so Americans won’t have to rely on the unregulated internet for news? Government regulation of the internet? Bah!

The left is reactionary by nature and has always been afraid of technology-driven change, and what it doesn’t like this time is that the cost of publishing one’s thoughts has once again gotten very cheap. (For instance, we don’t remember paying anything for this nifty forum here on WordPress!)

But a world of unregulated, irresponsible journalism is familiar territory to readers of Trollope. The cost of entry into the newspaper business was cheap when The Prime Minister was written in 1874 — practically as easy as setting up a political blog today. It was cheap enough that London was littered with all kinds of tabloid-style newspapers, each violently partisan, like the People’s Banner, the fictional mouthpiece of the detestable Mr. Quintus Slide.


Clifford Rose as Quintus Slide, wielding his poison quill in the BBC production of The Pallisers (we've never seen it)

Trollope’s character Quintus Slide was a unprincipled self-promoter just like a lot of the political bloggers, and like them he mostly just recycled material he’d read somewhere else, adding invective, innuendo, and malice. Midway through The Prime Minister, for example, the coalition government of which the Duke of Omnium is the head loses one of its chief supporters, Sir Orlando Drought, who has ambitions of its own.  Remember the hysteria on the internet left when Colin Powell left the Bush administration several years ago?  Not much different at all from the way Quintus Slide and his rag reacted to the withdrawal of Sir Orlando from the Duke’s Ministry:

Three or four of the morning papers were of opinion that though Sir Orlando had been a strong man, and a good public servant, the Ministry might exist without him. But the People’s Banner was able to expound to the people at large that the only grain of salt by which the Ministry had been kept from putrefaction had been now cast out, and that mortification, death, and corruption must ensue. It was one of Mr Quintus Slide’s greatest efforts.

If parliamentary government survived yellow journalism in Trollope’s time, American democracy has nothing to fear today.

2. After seeing the 1942 film The Talk of the Town on Turner Classic Movies a week or so ago (while we were still in the opening chapters of The Prime Minister) we were surprised to learn from the TCM host that director George Stevens filmed two different endings of the movie and chose the one that preview audiences seemed to like best. Thus, in the last minutes of the final cut of the movie, Jean Arthur chooses Cary Grant (dashing ne’er-do-well) over Ronald Colman (stodgy law professor).

Now we knew that Hollywood has been doing this sort of thing for a while (at least as long as Julia Roberts has been making movies); the only thing that surprised us was that it was going on as long ago as the 1940s. Emsworth is heartily thankful that Anthony Trollope had more artistic integrity than Hollywood.

The thing is, a Trollope novel does not come with a guarantee of a comfortable ending. Foolish misunderstandings don’t always get cleared up, fortunes don’t always get into the right hands, and the girl doesn’t always end up with the right guy.

So how was The Prime Minister going to end? As we approached the last few chapters of this 680-page novel, we realized nervously that we didn’t remember. Never mind that this was at least the third time that we’d read The Prime Minister. We surely remembered most of the scenes as we came to them, and the characters were old friends. But we weren’t sure what would become of Emily Wharton. In the book’s opening chapters she had chosen the wrong man (the swarthy, smooth-talking adventurer Ferdinand Lopez) over the right man (the fair-haired, noble-hearted, gentlemanly Arthur Fletcher). Would Trollope straighten it out in the end?


Lily Dale and Johnny Eames (pencil drawing by Victorian artist John Everett Millais)

We remembered uneasily that in The Small House at Arlington, Trollope’s heroine Lily Dale did not end up with the plucky, ever-true Johnny Eames. To the consternation of readers, Lily refused to marry Johnny even after all the obstacles and complications manufactured by Trollope had been cleared away. In The Prime Minister, was Arthur Fletcher destined for perpetual bachelorhood like Johnny?

We couldn’t remember. And we knew Trollope hadn’t taken a public opinion poll on how his novel should end.

3. That an introvert, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, should be the hero of The Prime Minister, one of Trollope’s very best novels, is something in which Emsworth and other introverts can all take deep pride.


Philip Lathan as Plantagenet Palliser (later the Duke of Omnium) in the BBC television series. Not quite the image we'd created of him in our own mind's eye.

Of course, Trollope wouldn’t have known the word “introvert,” and it is only in recent years that we introverts have come to be more fully understood. (We especially commend to readers a piece by Jonathan Rauch that we read in The Atlantic several years ago, and which we have often shared with our friends. It is entitled “Caring for Your Introvert: the habits and needs of a little understood group.”)

But no author has ever portrayed an introvert with more accuracy — and sympathy — than Anthony Trollope. The Duke’s wife invites dozens of friends and supporters to his castle for week-long house parties — but he stays in his room with his books and avoids his guests as much as possible. And even after he’s been Prime Minister of England for three years, his closest supporters complain that he never talks to them. What introvert can fail to identify with a man?

Almost every Trollope novel includes a love story, but The Prime Minister contains Trollope’s most intimate and psychologically telling portrayal of a love relationship, and it’s not a story of young love, but instead a tale of married love — the relationship between the introvert Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, and his extroverted wife, Lady Glencora. The novel tells of their desperate (and ultimately successful) attempts to try to understand and to please one another. Reading The Prime Minister, an extrovert might well think that a lovely, intelligent, socially skillful woman like Lady Glen was thrown away on an undemonstrative, socially inept man like the Duke. We introverts know better.

Forty years of “Hey Jude”

hey-jude1It was 40 years ago this week that the finest pop song of the late, lamented rock and roll era was finishing its run at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. We had just started high school when “Hey Jude” hit the Top 40 in September 1968, and we remember it well.

That was the summer we become addicted to hit radio and started our collection of 45 rpm records with “Mrs. Robinson,” “Turn Around, Look at Me,” “Classical Gas,” “Lady Willpower,” and “Macarthur Park.” “Hey Jude” was our first Beatles record.

Hey Jude — don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

So this was what the Beatles were like! (This teenager, a veritable rock-and-roll virgin in September 1968, hadn’t yet heard “Please Please Me,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” or “Ticket to Ride.”) If this was the music that older people seemed to dislike so much, we didn’t see what the fuss was about!

paul-mccartney-2“Hey Jude” wasn’t a noisy record (at least, for the first three and a half minutes) — it was just a guy at a piano who just starts singing, without an introduction.

Yes, the piano!  That was our instrument!  We sat down at the ivories and played the song ourselves, over and over, till our mother told us to stop and play something else.  Only later did we realize the oddity: the biggest hit of the world’s best-known guitar band was based on a piano accompaniment.

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

What did the lyrics mean? We weren’t quite sure: advice about girls, apparently. Jude had been unfortunate in love; that much was clear. Paul McCartney’s advice? Mellow out, get back in the game.

In school, the kids all talked about top 40 music, and they all listened to the local AM radio stations, not to their iPods. And we remember that they were of two minds about “Hey Jude.” Some of them claimed to hate the Beatles; others complained that the radio stations “overplayed” “Hey Jude.”

Well, it was true that you were guaranteed to hear “Hey Jude” every evening, week after week, between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. on our local station’s request-and-dedication show. But if the kids hadn’t kept requesting it, they wouldn’t have kept playing it. On the national charts, it was number one for nine weeks; it was in rotation on the radio for only about four months, far less than the full year (all of 2000) during which Faith Hill’s “Breathe” stayed on the radio.  (And how quickly can you bring that tune to mind?  We bet you don’t.)

And any time you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder

But the thing was, “Hey Jude” wasn’t just on the top 40 radio stations in the fall of 1968; it was on all the stations, even on KDKA radio, which followed what would today be called an “adult contemporary” format. (Nearly a hundred miles from Pittsburgh, we still pulled in KDKA pretty well.) On KDKA you’d expect to hear Andy Williams sing “Happy Heart,” Petula Clark singing “Downtown,” Harpers Bizarre singing “Feelin’ Groovy,” and the Fifth Dimension singing “Up, Up and Away.”  But not the Stones, the Doors, or, ordinarily, the Beatles.

But KDKA played “Hey Jude.”  In fact, with “Hey Jude,” the grown-ups, by and large, exhaled and gave up the struggle against rock and roll.  This was music they could live with, after all.

Hey Jude, don’t let me down
You have found her, now go and get her
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

It’s seven minutes and eleven seconds of pop music perfection.  Overplayed or not – and we’ve surely heard it hundreds of times over the last forty years – “Hey Jude” still sounds fresh and original.

Published in: on November 17, 2008 at 2:16 pm  Comments (3)  
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Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.

The thought police blink! — Mark Steyn vindicated

Mark Steyn

In an earlier post, Emsworth commented on a charge of “exposing Muslims to hatred or contempt” that had been lodged against journalist Mark Steyn by Muslim activists before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal. It was based on an article published in MacLean’s, a popular Canadian magazine, on the demographic implications of immigration from the Arab world.

Steyn’s trial ended in early June amidst widespread outcry and outrage that a Canadian journalist was in danger of being punished merely for saying things some people didn’t like. No doubt recognizing that the case (and their tribunal) had become a national embarrassment, it took the three judges four months to figure out what to do with it. On Friday, October 10, 2008, they issued a long, heavily self-serving decision.

Bottom line: the charge has been dismissed. Steyn has been — well, not exactly vindicated, because the tribunal still thought he had behaved badly, and said so. Nevertheless, Steyn is at least out of danger of being punished for nothing more than expressing inconvenient views on an difficult public issue. The decision, which is written largely in thought-paralyzing “diversity” jargon, can been read in full at this link.

Clearly some people are hopelessly confused as to why we value free speech. A 1989 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, quoted by the tribunal, says that the right of free speech flows from — guess what! — “diversity.” (In the peculiar theology of multiculturalism, there is no good thing on earth that does not flow from “diversity.”) According to the author of that decision, “we prize a diversity of ideas and opinions for their inherent value both to the community and to the individual.”

Of course, no one believes such rubbish. Obviously, a lot of opinions are dreck. We don’t “prize” worthless ideas or ugly opinions; we tolerate them. And the reason we tolerate them is that the alternative — censorship — is deadly to a free society. We know that giving judges or “tribunals” the right to judge the worth of a speech or a magazine article virtually guarantees that there will be abuses.

So Mark Steyn is off the hook (for now). But the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal wasn’t happy with him, and its long decision has nothing nice to say about him. “[T]he panel accepts that [sic] the Article contains numerous factual, historical, and religious inaccuracies about Islam and Muslims,” the judges said. Steyn’s article “used common stereotypes.” (I’ve read the article; it just isn’t so.) It was “clear” to the judges that the complainants “were deeply offended by the Article and its contents;” “we accept that many would share their views.” Steyn is said to have expressed “strong, polemical, and, at times, glib opinions about Muslims,” opinions that “many would, and did find objectionable and disagreeable.” (The judges were clearly among those who found Steyn’s views disagreeable.)

The three judges even faulted Steyn because his article “contains few scholarly trappings.” (What did they expect? Footnotes? MacLean’s is a popular magazine, not a scholarly journal.) The judges even criticized MacLean’s itself for publishing an editorial “critical of the complainants and the human rights process.” (We thought that, at the very least, free speech meant the freedom to comment on how government is working! In fact, we thought that was the most important aspect of free speech.)

Only reluctantly did the judges concede that Steyn’s piece was an expression of opinion on political issues that were “legitimate subjects for public discussion.” Their hearts clearly weren’t in it, but they also felt bound to quote a 1998 Supreme Court of Canada decision acknowledging that the Canadian system “is predicated on the faith that in the marketplace of ideas, the best solutions to public problems will rise to the top.”

The Tribunal complained that Steyn and Maclean’s failed to call any evidence at the hearing and thus failed to discuss the “truth” of the assertions in Steyn’s article or “his reasons for writing it, or the basis for the opinions he expressed in it.” What did the judges think? That they, the judges, had time to hear and weigh all the possible evidence bearing on the enormously complex issue of immigration from the Islamic world? That the three of them were wise enough to settle the issue once and for all? What arrogance!

For refusing to rise to the bait, of course, Steyn and Maclean’s are to be commended. The battle for free speech is lost before it is begun if a man is obliged to “explain” or defend his opinions to the government.