The Corner

Wincing and Not Wincing

Today’s Impromptus is the usual mélange. It touches on, among other subjects and personalities, Barack Obama, Hilary Benn, Johnny Mercer (both of them — late American songwriter and new Conservative MP), Lindsey Graham, Charles Krauthammer, and a Mazda.

Between Obama and the Mazda, we have some Shakespeare — specifically, a quotation from W. E. B. Du Bois, which begins, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not.”

I was led to this quotation by Norman Podhoretz, who is just about the best Shakespearean I know — along with Daniel Hannan.

Dan reviewed some Shakespeare recently, here. He may be an even better theater critic than he is a member of the European Parliament. In his review, he said some things that reminded me of what I have long tried to say about opera productions.

Now and then, I quote Frank Lloyd Wright: who said that a building ought to be a grace to its environment, not a disgrace. So it is with an opera production.

Hannan writes that “over-produced Shakespeare is the curse of our age.” He continues, “When dealing with the finest lines in this or any other language, you should let Shakespeare do the talking. If you insist on interposing your ego, you ensure that all in the audience, wherever they sit, get an obstructed view.”

Isn’t that wonderful?

He also writes, “When you stage Shakespeare, you are fashioning a setting for the most precious of jewels. The work demands all your artifice. The goldsmith’s craft may be creative, original, dazzling — but it must be deployed in the service of enhancing the gem, not smothering it.”

Equally wonderful.

I thought of something I had just read in an obit — an obit of “Paul Bacon, 91, Whose Book Jackets Drew Readers and Admirers.” Please let me quote:

When describing his approach to design, Mr. Bacon said he had learned to subordinate his own aesthetic impulses to convey the main concept of a book. “I always tell myself: ‘You’re not the star of the show. The author took three and a half years to write the goddamn thing and the publisher is spending a fortune on it, so just back off,’” he said in an interview with Print magazine in 2002.

Oh, what a man, Paul Bacon! What a rarity! His words should be absorbed by every opera director (among others).

One more thing: In his review, Daniel Hannan mentions Jonathan Pryce, the actor. I was thinking about him a week or two ago — when I saw this headline: “Crowe apologizes for casting Emma Stone in part-Asian role.” (Article here.)

This old baloney is still going on? Twenty-five years ago, Jonathan Pryce was slated to play a Eurasian pimp in a show called Miss Saigon. The union on Broadway prevented it, on grounds that the role should go to an Asian actor, not a pasty-faced Brit like Pryce.

Obviously, some people have trouble with the very concept of acting. Also, the union, to my knowledge, was not insisting on a Eurasian actor — just an Asian one.

I’m reminded of the Groucho Marx line, about his daughter who could not go into the swimming pool, because she was Jewish: “She’s only half Jewish. Can she go in up to her knees?” (Alternative joke: “I’m only half Jewish. Can I play nine holes?”)

For some reason — and this proves that unions occasionally lose, even outside of Wisconsin — the union was forced to back down. Pryce played the role. But it was an episode that told us something sorry about the United States.

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