Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Othello: More Thoughts About the Moor

This past week,  the Varsity Theater in the oh-so-arty town of Ashland, Oregon, played host to the Ashland Independent Film Festival. On Ashland’s main drag, intense-looking film lovers queued up for screenings, or gathered for pints and bites in local cafes. But Ashland is the rare American town where the focus is chiefly on live theatre, performed in repertory.

It all started back in 1935 when a local college professor of drama proposed staging two plays of Shakespeare as part of Ashland’s Independence Day festivities. The city fathers insisted that boxing matches be presented as well. As it turned out, the plays far out-earned the bouts, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was on its way to putting an old timber town on the cultural map. Soon Hollywood too was getting involved. Bing Crosby served as honorary festival director from 1949 to 1951, Charles Laughton volunteered to star in King Lear, and Stacy Keach made several appearances in the early 1960s.

By 1970, the festival had outgrown the outdoor Shakespearean stage that limited its performances to the summer months. A state-of-the-art indoor proscenium theatre was added in that year, followed by a flexible “black-box” for more experimental stagings. Today, OSF offers eleven plays in a season that stretches from February to November. There are always performances of plays by Shakespeare (including the most obscure of them), but new works are increasingly presented. On Saturday evening, I saw a world premiere of Manhatta, a striking new play that confronts the Native American experience both in the Manhatta of old and in today’s New York City. 

But of course the heart of the OSF lies in its Shakespearean performances. In recent years some have been gimmicky, with more gender-bending than audience members are willing to tolerate. I was lucky to see an Othello that was effectively staged and beautifully played on the indoor Angus Bowmer stage. Yes, there was some toying with contemporary elements. Othello and his men wore modern naval uniforms, communicated at times via cell phone, and played out one long stretch while lifting weights at a health-club. But the play’s tragic jealousy was still front and center, even while our awareness of racism then and now gave this Othello a modern edge. 

I’ve seen Othello on stage before, enacted by James Earl Jones, with Jill Clayburgh as his long-suffering Desdemona. But what really lingers in my mind is a filmed production that came out of England in 1965, starring (would you believe?) Laurence Olivier. In the early 20th century, it was not unusual for white actors to blacken their faces to play this fascinating role. Orson Welles had done it on screen back in 1951. But by the mid-Sixties, Americans were less comfortable with handing a black man’s role (and one of the best black roles ever written) over to a Caucasian. Olivier had played the part on stage, and the modestly-funded film (which also starred Maggie Smith as Othello’s beautiful young wife) was essentially a filmed play, attracting an audience of intellectual types. I remember the great Olivier as being even more astonishing than usual. He’d clearly put a lot of work into transforming himself, beyond the pigment of his skin. His Othello was barrel-chested, and  he spoke in a resonant voice far deeper than Olivier’s usual timbre. Naturally, many took offense, with some critics likening his performance to an Al Jolson “Mammy” routine.  I accept their point, but could never help cheering for the right of a great performer to try on a great role for size, even if it made him (understandably) uncomfortable in his skin.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Laura Ingalls Wilder: How Green Was My Prairie

As a schoolgirl, of course I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books from cover to cover.  Years later I introduced them to my children. And they’re now being enjoyed by a third generation. It’s not just me and my family—Wilder’s books about growing up on America’s Great Plains are still savored by girls (and boys) the world over. 

When you read Wilder’s books you feel that you, like she and her ma and pa, can do just about anything: grow corn, churn butter, trap a possum, make an acceptable doll out of odds and ends. Ma knew how to put hearty food on the table, no matter what. And when things got really tough, Pa’s fiddle knew how to soothe hurt feelings and make peace. Wilder’s books don’t skimp on the hard times: they talk about plagues of locusts, an illness that left an older sister blind, and a winter so long and brutal that the family feared starvation. But the books are a triumph of the can-do spirit, showing that with faith and a stoic acceptance of hardship it’s possible to surmount every challenge.

The Little House books, though, are hardly the whole story. They were written by a woman looking back on her pioneer upbringing with nostalgia for people and places that were now long gone. The books are a portrait of her own early years, but they should not be taken as fully accurate. Timelines are re-arranged, characters are combined, and some truly disturbing moments are wholly suppressed, so as not to dispel the books’ rosy glow. There’s also the fact that Laura and Almanzo’s daughter Rose, barely born in the last of the Little House books, served as her editor. The tension between an adoring mother and a headstrong, talented, but emotionally unstable daughter (one who spent money wildly and then turned to her frugal parents for loans) is something the Little House books don’t cover.

But that story comes out in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, a scholar with her own pioneer roots. Her book, well researched and full of family photos, attempts to set the historic record straight. Late in Fraser’s book, there’s the matter of how the famous Little House on the Prairie television series came to be. At that point, Laura was dead and buried, as was daughter Rose. Throughout her life, Rose (a divorcee) had the habit of unofficially adopting various young men and supporting them in lavish style. One of these was a young attorney named Roger MacBride, an aspiring Libertarian politician. Upon Rose’s death, he managed to claim her mother’s copyrights, and made a deal with CBS. In the era following Vietnam and Watergate, audiences were eager for homespun, heartwarming tales. The Waltons appeared in 1972, and the Little House show followed in 1974. 

Famously, episodes of the latter made Ronald Reagan weep. But Fraser is clearly dismayed by the liberties taken with Wilder’s work by Michael Landon and company. As director, head writer, and star, Landon imbued the role of Pa Ingalls with sexy glamour, favoring tight pants and unbearded cbin. He gave his prairie family a nice two-story mini-mansion instead of a sod dugout, and by the end of the series was borrowing old plot lines from Bonanza. “Walking to school,” says Fraser, “his Mary and Laura wore shoes rather than going barefoot, because Landon didn’t want his show children to be ‘the poorest kids in town.’” The producer who’d bought the series, Ed Friendly, liked to joke that it should be renamed “How Affluent is My Prairie?”