Saturday, September 01, 2007

Summer reading

I read a fair bit this summer, more than in years past. I think the kids are getting a little more responsible with the passing years, so I'm not perpetually racing around, either being interrupted myself or having to interrupt their chaotic activities. James has developed a nice trait - when he's finished playing with the hose and sprinkler outside, he actually turns the water off now! I no longer have to go stomping outside every half hour, muttering, "Since nobody's playing with this, I'm just TURNING IT OFF!"

Anyway, I read "Kidnapped" by Robert Louis Stevenson, and enjoyed it very much. I can't imagine how I overlooked Stevenson when I was young, as I was SO into Victoriana, but I never read anything of his, not even "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", which I'll have to get to soon. I think I must have thought that Stevenson really only wrote boys' adventure stories. It's interesting how much Stevenson one just "knows" without actually having read him, because his stories have been made into movies so often. The Wrong Box might be my favorite comedy of all time, and that's based on a Stevenson novel. Dean read it and said that it wasn't as funny as the film, so I never bothered looking it up, but now I think I'll give it a try.

After that I read "The Fall of the Dynasties" by Edmond Taylor. I think this must have been one of the source texts for the TV series, "Fall of Eagles"; the chapter structure of the book paralleled the episodes of the series in a lot of cases. I don't think the series ever very clearly showed what happened to the Austo-Hungarian monarchy - it just sort of petered out at the end. The book also contained a single chapter on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

I had to hurry to finish this book in time for the arrival of the Harry Potter book, but that one I read in about 24 hours, and then I went on to "The War Against Boys" by Christina Hoff Sommers. Very interesting, and I doubt things have improved much in the 8 years or so since it was first published.

The book I just finished was "The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel" by Arnold Wesker. It reminded me a bit of the description of 'Lost in La Mancha', the documentary film about Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to make a Don Quixote movie where everything goes totally, horribly wrong. In 1977, Wesker writes what he feels to be his magnum opus, an alternate view of the world of Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice', where Shylock is the misunderstood hero. The production is taken up by fellow Englishman John Dexter, who is determined to stage it on Broadway with Zero Mostel in the title role.

One thing after another goes wrong. Actors sabotage lines and interpretations that they don't like, Dexter abuses everyone involved, Zero can't play a believable 16th-century Venetian Jew, he's just a flamboyant American Jew from the Bronx who hams it up and garbles his lines. But everyone is convinced they're making history. They make it through one out-of-town preview performance in Philadelphia and then...Zero Mostel dies. The show must go on, so they recast his role, but after this everything starts going to hell in a handbasket, and they finally struggle through endless cuts and rewrites to premiere on Broadway. A bad review in the NY Times, and it's all over.

It's an amazing story, and opened my eyes to how much seat-of-the-pants jerryrigging goes on behind the scenes in professional theatre. Are all shows this chaotic? I suspect they are. Everyone comes out of it looking a bit like a jerk. It's not just the actors who are self-indulgent prima donnas; the writer is forever complaining that nobody understands him, and the director is a downright asshole. Ugh. Horrible, horrible people.

The book was good, but I have to say, the best and funniest "behind the scenes of a flop" story ever was written in the 1950s by S.J. Perelman in a short story called "Is There A Doctor In The Cast?". He follows the travails of an unemployed actor who snags a bit part in a Broadway show, only to watch the whole thing collapse under the weight of bad writing, acting and directing, not to mention cast conflicts and physical accidents: "I guess the director's attention was elsewhere, but at any rate our ballerina, Gemze de Lapidari, did a sudden tour jeté downstage, accidentally grazed against the ladder, and over went Fletcher into the orchestra pit. There was a simply appalling crash as he struck the music stands; it sounded exactly like my Uncle Ned backing through the wrong end of our garage the time he got drunk on zinfandel."

8 Comments:

Blogger The Bovina Bloviator said...

Another book you might enjoy about a flop, this one cinematic, is Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists by Steven Bach. Mr. Bach was the unfortunate producer of that ghastly picture. His depiction of the making of a train wreck-to-be is good grim fun.

10:32 pm  
Anonymous Priscilla Warren said...

First, let me tell you how much I enjoy reading your bIog and your comments on Chris's MCJ Blog. It is a pleasure to read some things so well written.

I am a private school teacher. I have taught Carden since 1971. When Mae Carden was alive, she always taught classes for teachers each summer. In February we were given a list of books to read for the Literary class. They always included one of the children's classics, a Shakespeare, an adult classic (such as Dickens or some other classic), and a couple of short stories to contrast.
One summer she chose our 7th grade classic, "Treasure Island". I had only read "A Children's Garden of Verses" so I didn't know his other works. I read the assigned book and was so intrigued that over the next several months, I read the whole antique set that I had purchased at a Library sale. (I was on the board, then, and had first choice)
I tend to do that - find an author, or a subject and read everything I can get my hands on. Usually in the summer, when I have lots of time. I'm glad you have discovered RLS. Be sure to read one of the good bios and read this wife's, too. Strange, but interesting.
Keep writing - I'll keep reading!

10:55 pm  
Blogger Daniel Muller said...

I am finding Taylor's book to be somewhat priggish and puritanically opinionated -- very American in tone -- but still interesting. Thank you for the link.

Also, thanks for the tip on "Fall of Eagles." Although a couple weeks late to celebrate Franz Joseph's birthday, the DVD set will be just in time to celebrate an imperial history buff's birthday.

1:31 am  
Blogger Dr. Alice said...

Ms. Warren,

WHOA - I am a former Carden attendee from Southern CA. In fact I read "Treasure Island" in seventh grade and loved it, and I love it still. I have read a few of Stevenson's short stories since but probably not as much of his oeuvre as I should have. (But I will never forgive the Carden system for assigning us "The Last of the Mohicans." Years later I came across Mark Twain's essay "The Literary Crimes of Cooper" and practically committed it to memory, so gleeful was I at finding someone else who felt exactly the same way that I did about Cooper's writing style.)

Dr Mabuse, I am a big fan of S.J. Perelman and loved his essay collection "The Road to Miltown" - Miltown being the brand name of a tranquilizer. Very funny stuff.

1:59 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Well, there's a joke I never even realized was there! Thanks for explaining the 'Miltown' reference - I thought it was a real place!

My dad was a great S.J. Perelman fan, and I inherited his books as well as his affection for the great feuilletonist. There's a part of "Acres & Pains" I cannot read out loud without giggling - when he goes to a country doctor for a little rash, and ends up being manhandled by the quack. "Yes sirree, you've got tularemia if ever I saw it." That and "Your pancreas is full of tacks" always breaks me up for some reason.

6:17 am  
Blogger The Bovina Bloviator said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:49 am  
Blogger The Bovina Bloviator said...

Perelman sent a complimentary copy of his newly published novel to his friend Groucho Marx. Groucho wrote back, "From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it."

10:51 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

And Perelman took some jabs at Groucho, too! Remember "I'll Always Call You Schnorrer, My African Explorer"? And there was another one where he described Groucho at lunch, quietly biding his time until he can jump up, get the attention of the whole table on him, then deliver some rather lame quip and sit down. I remember the description: "He dropped like a falcon back into his chowmein."

11:42 am  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home