Sunday, April 27, 2014

Three photos from Facebook

I MAKE NO APOLOGIES for spending time on Facebook, where I "follow" a great many "friends" (and, of course, family) scattered across much of the world. Nearing eighty, spending much of my time either relatively secluded in the country or relatively adrift traveling, I frequently hunger for intelligent conversation. I have never much liked talking on the telephone, which entered my life rather late, when habits had been set. I would like to commune with my books like Montaigne. Facebook has enabled a new kind of intelligent conversation. It has its failings, principally difficulty with subtlety and irony; but it has its virtues: the conversation can be interrupted for hours or days at a time, allowing recourse to reference material or the slow ripening of ideas in the back of the mind while doing various little errands and repairs.

Yesterday, for example, three different "friends" posted three different images, each of which then drew comments from other Facebookers; and in responding to these — images and comments both — I found myself contemplating, once again, the uses of irony. But let's just look at the images in turn, and see what develops.

photo 1.jpgThe first is the cover of the current issue of The New Yorker, originally posted with a comment by PETA but reposted by an online acquaintance with whom I share interests in nature, health issues, and literature, among other things. PETA's original comment on the photo was
The cover of this week's The New Yorker magazine says it all: Anyone who has a heart knows: it's time to BanHorseCarriages for good.

My comment: Um, that's not what the cover says to me…

Friend: Fair enough, Charles. To you, what does it say?

Me: Things are in a muddle.
It turns out that the artist who provided the cover, Bruce McCall, objects to horse-drawn carriages in New York City not only on the basis of "animal rights" but also for traffic-related reasons. (Find PETA's summary of this here.)

I feel strongly that horse-drawn carriages do contribute to the urban, not to mention metropolitan, experience. Of course they should not be forced to negotiate busy motor-vehicular traffic: but they are useful for negotiating the strip of sanity between the rush of taxicabs and the benignity of pedestrianism. Jane Jacobs was right, in her indispensable book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, to divide humanity between "car people" and "foot people." I am unabashedly a foot person; I think of my car — which we've driven 145,000 miles in the last five years or so! — chiefly as a way to get between my chair and an urban walk.

But the presence of horse-drawn carriages does more than ease that jarring gap between speed and tranquility. Let me mention two points.

First, humans have suffered, I think, from having removed themselves from the society of other animals. I think the sudden appearance of all those terriers — Yorkshires, Jack Russells — in the arms and at the feet of all those young flâneurs in Healdsburg is a {perhaps subconscious) acknowledgement of this. The society of other species is another bridge between states, the state of Nature and that of human invention; it reassures us that we are, fundamentally, only another species of animal, adjusting to an ecology badly damaged by our own doing it is true but governed by laws of Nature which really should be considered as they are likely to prevail.

When boys and girls attend daily to the needs of animals — I'm thinking, for example, of my own experience feeding pigs, tending the milk cow, dealing with ducks and chickens and rabbits — they develop a sensitivity to the needs, the fragilities, and the occasional threats coming from sentient creatures with whom verbal communication is tenuous at best. The difference between saddling a horse and adjusting a carburetor, or milking a cow and driving to the supermarket for a quart of milk, is the difference between a natural life and a mechanistic one.

(Interesting that the Internet will easily supply me with 48 synonyms for "mechanistic," and only two antonyms, neither of which works here: "nonmechanical," "handmade." An indication of the extent to which we've adopted a mechanistic mind-set.)

Second, horse-drawn carriages are by their very nature nostalgic. Nostalgia gets a bum rap these days (it ain't what it used to be, I'm tempted to write), because it's thought of as a distraction from the pressing matters of the present. But a full engagement with the present moment demands, I think, simultaneous contemplation of the past that has led to it. It's too easy to think of the city — our man-made ecology — as merely its present statement, rather than a living organism with a past and inevitable future as well as its present moment. In appealing to a nostalgia the carriages, the horses, even the driver, remind us of a historical source for the enlightened acknowledgement of the need for a Central Park.

I could go further. Economy, for example: the dollar value of what a "developer" might put in the place of a Central Park, versus the human value — ugly term, but nothing better comes to mind — of having its tranquility and, yes, its historicity. Kindness: the lesson implicit in the care of the handler for his horses, and by extension the sympathy between the riders and the handler (and the horses). Aesthetics: the sight of these handsome animals, so unlike us; the scent of health and life; the sound of the hoofbeats and the gentle murmur of the tires, so unlike the noise of the taxicabs…

Francis Ponge, from Trois petits écrits:
Pour la ruée écrasante
De mille bêtes hazardes
Le soleil n'éclaire plus
Quún monument de raisons

ils, mal venus
De leur sale quartier
La mère, le soldat,
Et la petite en rose,

Pourront-ils, pourront-ils
Passer? Ivre, bondis,
Et tire, tire, tue,
Tire sur les autos!
Because they rush and smash,
These thousand wild beasts,
The sun won't shine again
But a monument of reasons.

Will they — unhappily come
Alas, from their poor slums —
A mother, and a soldier,
A child, dressed in pink —

Will they, will they be able
To cross? Drunk now, I leap,
And fire, fire, kill,
Shoot, fire on the cars!

THE SECOND ILLUSTRATION is another magazine cover — Facebookers are nothing if not attuned to the present moment. Since I began writing this interminable essay the page has disappeared from Facebook — one of the annoying persistent features of that universe is its unpredictable evanescence. So I have to work from memory 3.jpg

The photograph is of the singer and actress Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, who goes by only her first name. The image was posted by a Berkeley friend with a laconic comment noting that it shows the woman in her underwear, while the article inside the magazine refers to her as a feminist.

Thinking he was criticizing Time for cynical exploitation, I commented that there were multiple levels of irony here; whereupon another friend, an American expat in London these forty years, commented that there was "no inherent virtue in irony", which cheap politicians had been practicing for years.

Setting aside the question as to whether an essentially British mentality can ever appreciate the essentially Mediterranean device that is irony — after all, Brits, like Yankees, pride themselves on their plain-spokenness (which is itself ironic, n'est-ce pas? — I was taken aback by the concept that irony, or indeed any rhetorical device, might have inherent virtue. (Or, for that matter, vice.)

As I wrote here a little over a year ago, in a comment on Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, I suppose it's the irony of our time that so many no longer understand the meaning of "irony," and take it to mean merely a state of being hiply flippant. (I don't mean to imply that my London and Berkeley friends make this error: they know the meanings of words.)

Such societal positions as Animal Rights and Feminism (and I don't mean to imply they are of equal value or significance) are problematic when they intersect with political action, because law and regulation are societal tools most practical when directed to specific actions and events, while positions — and affinity-group organizations whose motive is to focus those positions on political action — are necessarily concerned with larger and more vaguely defined issues, issues which connect to other issues. Society is like a brain; one doesn't attempt corrective re-wiring with a broadaxe or even a butcher knife.

In short, what I've called societal positions — one's position on such questions as "race," "gender," the rights of animals, public health and welfare — are collections of attitudes that tell us how to think of things, how to form and express our own opinions. They begin to lose value, I think, when they are asked to harden into matters of doctrine — precisely when they most reach toward irony.

Again, Ponge had a word for this, as I wrote in that post about Barnes: momon, "Texte qui inclut sa propre critique," says Larousse; and Ponge expands on this:
…toute œuvre d'art comportant sa propre caricature, ou dans laquelle l'auteur ridiculiserait son moyen d'expression. La Valse de Ravel est un momon. Ce genre est particulier aux époques où la rhétorique est perdue, se cherche.

…any work of art which includes its own caricature, or in which the artist ridicules his own means of expression. Ravel's La Valse is a momon. The genre is peculiar to periods when rhetoric, having lost its way, looks for itself.
says Ponge (Le Savon (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1967), p. 42-3.)*

The momon, a concept significant enough to be incorporated into English, hence no longer to be italicized here, is the intellectual attitude of our time, which is reeling still from the discoveries of Modernism, which depended on acceleration and dispersal; and so lapsed into the kind of apparent chaos every generation perceives in its own context. Earlier generations found refuge in such chaos in religion, in Enlightenment, in mechanics, ultimately in Romanticism — Fernando Pessoa has things to say about this; my generation found it in the momon.

Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, a terrible disease progressively swept over civilization. Seventeen centuries of consistently frustrated Christian aspirations and five centuries of forever postponed pagan aspirations (Catholicism having failed as Christianity, the Renaissance having failed as paganism, and the Reformation having failed as a universal phenomenon), the shipwreck of all that had been dreamed, the paltriness of all that had been achieved, the sadness of living a life too miserable to be shared by others, and other people's lives too miserable for us to want to share — all of this fell over souls and poisoned them. Minds were filled with a horror of all action, which could be contemptible only in a contemptible society. The soul's higher activities languished; only its baser, more organic functions flourished. The former having stagnated, the latter began to govern the world.

Thus was born a literature and art made of the lower elements of thought — Romanticism. And with it, a social life made of the lower elements of action — modern democracy.

[The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith. New York: Penguin Classics, p. 212-13]

photo 2.jpgWHICH BRINGS ME, finally, to our third image, not a magazine cover this time but a snapshot taken in Amsterdam on Konigsdag, King's Day, when the entire city turns into a marvelous party and not a motor vehicle is to be seen (except, of course, the boats).

You should know, first, that Willem-Alexander, whose slender young frame you see here, sashed and bemedalled, was the first man to occupy the Dutch throne since the death of William III, in 1890. (William was succeeded by Queens Emma, Wilhelmina, Juliana, and Beatrix; he and his wife Queen Máxima have three daughters but no sons, so the Dutch tradition of gynarcy is likely to resume one day — but lang zal hij leve! )

The photo was posted by a friend who lives in Amsterdam. The comments soon appeared:
Do you need to bow and scrape?

Hip hip! Hoera!

Very convincing (minus the cheap sash!)

I thought that you made the sash just for him
But I think that one of the features that really makes the photo is the sash, and I can't understand why one would call it "cheap." Note that "The King" is in English, not Dutch. (I assume his left hand conceals the English word, not the Dutch "Konig.") The people around him must certainly be Dutch; they certainly look Dutch.

His sash is an exercise in humility, the opposite of irony; it recognizes the king's need of identification, even of explanation, in the contemporary Dutch context. The Dutch love their monarchy for the most part, much more good-naturedly (and generally!) than the British love theirs; but — it's a part of the Dutch temperament — they smile at their little indulgence, just as the king's sash is smiling at those medals.

Humility and a little bit of self-caricature, but without irony. And note: these are foot people, not car people. Like Facebook, they have a lot to tell us, if we only pay a little attention.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Alexander Calder in Los Angeles

Calder installation.jpg
Installation photograph, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, through July 27, 2014, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Calder Foundation, New York, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, photo © Fredrik Nilsen
Eastside Road, April 16, 2014—
HOW REFRESHING IT IS, to see an exhibition of an iconic artist, one whose work one knows well enough almost to take for granted, in an installation that restores all his energy, his significance, that reasserts his position within the most magical and optimistic areas of his century.

This is what happens in the current show of works by Alexander Calder, beautifully installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We devoted only an hour or so to the show: next time we're in town, we'll have to go back. Let the museum itself describe the exhibition:
One of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Alexander Calder revolutionized modern sculpture. Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, with significant cooperation from the Calder Foundation, explores the artist’s radical translation of French Surrealist vocabulary into American vernacular. His most iconic works, coined mobiles by Marcel Duchamp, are kinetic sculptures in which flat pieces of painted metal connected by wire move delicately in the air, propelled by motors or air currents. His later stabiles are monumental structures, whose arching forms and massive steel planes continue his engagement with dynamism and daring innovation. Although this will be his first museum exhibition in Los Angeles, Calder holds a significant place in LACMA’s history: the museum commissioned Three Quintains (Hello Girls) for its opening in 1965. The installation was designed by architect Frank O. Gehry.
Yes, Frank Gehry, the architect. Installing all these works — from table-lamp sized stabiles to enormous mobiles, from small maquettes to huge stabiles — required unusual consideration, and the LACMA website describes The Challenge of Installing Calder in a fascinating and well-illustrated blogpost.

object-with-red-ball-1931.jpgYou see three of the earliest pieces in the photo above, with the fascinating Object with Red Ball (1931) at the center. This photo, from a different online source, demonstrates the piece's variability: the red ball and the black "sphere"— in fact two intersecting flat discs — can be positioned at various points along the horizontal rod from which they hang. The piece is a study in spatial relationship, implying motion. I like to look at it, with one eye or both, while walking slowly and smoothly past it, also varying the height of my eyes. No doubt this looks funny to other onlookers: I don't really care.

Object with Red Ball is as significant historically as it is on its own sculptural terms. It was in late 1931 that Calder began homing in on the idea with which he's most generally associated, the gentle movement of various components of his hanging sculptures as they respond to drafts and breezes. His friend Marcel Duchamp gave them the name that's stuck: mobiles. I think we tend to concentrate so much on these kinetic mobiles that we tend to forget their source; the three pieces in the photo above clearly put the Calder of the late 1920s and the first year or two of the next decade in a Surrealist context, particularly associating him with the Catalan painter Joan Miró.

It's easy to think of wit, even whimsy, as the primary effect of these pieces; but it's interesting, I think, to contemplate just what wit (and even whimsy) consists of, just why it should be a significant, even serious component of "abstraction." The beginning, for me, lies in the humor inherent in the sheer physical presence of these objects, made of shapes and substances that are familiar enough, that are combined and integrated in configurations never before seen, that contrast the frailty of their means and substance with the evident permanence of their purpose. These pieces mean to stay. They are here for a reason, however intuitive Calder's method may seem to be. Calder states (via one of a number of intelligent wall-readouts):
The basis of everything for me is the universe. The simplest forms in the universe are the sphere and the circle. I represent them by discs and then I vary them. My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses and movement.
Le Demoiselle, 1939
©2013 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS)
Throughout the 1930s Calder developed a conversation, through an amazing amount of work, between stabiles and mobiles, relatively conventional free-standing sculpture and the continuously more graceful, floating kinetic pieces. The individual pieces making up these works increasingly drew inspiration, I think, from Nature: leaves, feathers, wings. Calder had joined the expatriate American movement in Paris in the 1920s, and, though he returned to Connecticut in 1933 and didn't open his French studio until thirty years later, he seems to have developed an intrinsically Gallic style. If his earlier work aligned him with Miró, it's hard not to see the work of the 1930s as somehow aligned to Matisse.

Calder's titles are almost always delightful, and delightfully apt. La Demoiselle (I don't know why LACMA's cut-line gives the word a masculine article) is redolent of the crisply feminine fashion-world of 1930s France; it is also both witty and graceful. A mobile hangs from the red stabile base, marrying the kinetic and the stationary — perhaps that's the reason for the hermaphroditic grammar of the title — but acknowledging, through its slender line and its improvised rear leg, the potential flight of even the stationary element.

The mobile had made Calder famous, rightly, and his primary colors, the wit and delicacy of his forms, the immediate pleasure of his work made it accessible. No one ever wondered what his work "meant." And if the man in the street could look at it and say "Why, my kid could do that," well, plenty of primary schools were quick to assign the production of construction-paper-and-coathanger knockoffs to children across the country — in the end only emphasizing Calder's apparently effortless mastery of what is, in fact, a rather tricky exercise in all kinds of balance.

After the war, commissions for large-scale public works began to rush in, and Calder worked away happily and productively into his sixties and seventies. This is the fiftieth anniversary of LACMA's commission of one of his most complex huge pieces, Three Quintains (Hello Girls), the grouping of three stabile-mobiles which for too long was relatively hidden at a corner of one of LACMA's signature ugly-Modernist buildings. I didn't see the piece last week, on our hurried visit to this exhibition; next time I'll be sure to say hello.

One of the most impressive of the big pieces is in fact "only" a maquette for an enormous work placed in Grand Rapids, Michigan: La Grande vitesse, over forty feet high, Calder red, massive, strong, yet lyrical. The maquette, also in plate steel, is only eight and a half feet high, eleven and a quarter feet long; but it crowds and dominates its room, inviting the onlooker to walk around and through it while allowing one to back off and take the whole thing in with one gaze. In the end, though it's forty years removed from Object with Red Ball, it similarly invites contemplation of changing configurations, and, through that, of its place — and the viewer's place — in the universe. Calder's universe, and ours.

Le Grande vitesse (intermediate maquette), 1969
©2013 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource, NY

Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California; 323 857-6000

Exhibition continues through July 27, 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three plays in Pasadena: Tartuffe; Macbeth; Come Back, Little Sheba

•Molière:Tartuffe, translated by Richard Wilbur.
In repertory through May 24

•Shakespeare: Macbeth.
In repertory through May 11
•William Inge: Come Back, Little Sheba

In repertory through May 17
A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd.,
Pasadena, California; 626.356.3100
Front: Deborah Strang (Lola); Back: Jill Hill (Mrs. Coffman)
in Come Back, Little Sheba at A Noise Within
Eastside Road, April 15, 2014—
THE THREE PLAYS currently in repertory at A Noise Within, the Pasadena theater company we've attended for the last ten years or so, make a strange trifecta on paper, I think: but taken together they are probably the most consistently successful half-season we've seen here, and that's saying quite a bit.

We like the company, partly for its casting, direction, and productions, partly for its enterprising choice of repertory. Shakespeare, of course, on every season, usually with two vehicles. A classic from the European theater, usually French. And a classic from the American stage, often a neglected one. New plays are rarely produced; there are plenty of other theater companies working at that.

Molière's Tartuffe isn't exactly neglected — without going out of our way, we've seen four productions in the last nine years, as I wrote on this blog back in 2010:
The country's second-favorite play
This year? Moliere's
Tartuffe, they say.
Second most frequently produced,
That is, and now its wit is loosed
On Ashland's public, and they see
That lust and greed, hypocrisy,
And false religion can be fun.
Depends on where and when they're done.
Heroic couplets, stylish sets,
Elegant costumes—no regrets
At seeing Moliere's play once more.
Trenchant satire's never a bore.
Otherwise, I've written enough about the play I don't want to repeat myself here. This production is a little zany, with over-the-top costumes (though often quite elegant) and some fine comic acting (Deborah Strang's Dorine especially) interestingly balanced by the sometimes soberly befuddled Orgon (Geoff Elliott) and the very sympathetic, sensible Cléante (Stephen Rockwell).
The title character was unusually sinister in Freddy Douglas's creepy impersonation of a Caravaggio sensualist, and the direction, by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, sped along with clarity and good humor.
THE SCOTTISH PLAY — twice now I've made the horrendous mistake of speaking its real title aloud in Noise Within's classy Pasadena theater — received a streamlined, effective, often gripping production, thoughtfully directed by Larry Carpenter, who explained, in a talkback after the show, that he wanted to present it as ritual, removed from its legendary setting, timeless and immediately relevant.

Apart from cuts, the only novelty was the setting of the three weird sisters on male actors, whose black featureless costumes combined with heightened gestures and vocal delivery and with effectively manipulated puppetlike props to bring a Kabukilike quality to the show. Elijah Alexander was an interesting, often powerful Macbeth, and Jules Willcox surprisingly both hypnotic and retiring as his Lady; the rest of the numerous cast were quite up to their assignments. Only Feodor Chin, as Malcolm, gave me a moment's pause; his catalog of self-deprecation interrupts the action toward the close of this play: but that's the fault of the text, which always gives editors and directors a lot to chew on.

It's a disgusting, ghastly, ghostly, powerful play. You pretty much have to believe in the existence of unmotivated Evil as a concrete presence to buy its thesis, and Shakespeare is pretty persuasive on that score. It's not a play I like to see often. But it should and must be performed, and this is one of the best productions I've ever seen.
COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA is another play that deserves a place in the repertory, though it's probably better known as the movie adapted from it lo these many years ago. It can be bleak and depressing in its treatment of a sad narrative — the lapse back into drunkenness of a reformed alcoholic, tipped past his margin when his idealized view of youth inevitably meets reality.

Geoff Elliott was really magnificent as the doomed Doc, tightly buttoning up his repressions through the first act, alarmingly releasing them in the second. The Lunt-like precision of his technique as an actor, especially his vocal technique, which can be distracting when he works with a verse play (though this was not the case in Tartuffe), was beautifully focussed on his character — both in itself, and in its relationship to his wife Lola and their roomer, the young Marie.

Whether speaking or silent, active or hesitant, Deborah Strang was a fabulous Lola. Face, voice, body, gesture — all seemed perfectly integrated in this characterization. Best of all, the role grew throughout the two hours of the play, finally overwhelming this member of the audience. It is her humanity, in its vulnerability, its insights, its hope and fear, that makes the production so telling.

I liked Maya Erskine's depiction of the flighty little Marie; Miles Gaston Villanueva did what he could as her boyfriend Turk, and Paul Culos similarly dealt with the role of her fiancé Bruce — but Inge is clearly out of his range trying to depict their affairs. Fortunately, that's not important. Perhaps it even underlines the major quality of the play, its portrait of the terribly repressed atmosphere of postwar America.

Ed Anderson, Doc's sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous, is the focus of this portrait; and Mitchell Edmonds played the part beautifully. The character is patient, sympathetic, somewhat patronizing, ultimately futile, just like the American desire to return to some kind of sheltered small-town homogenous quiet after the tumult of World War II, after learning of the dangers and desires of sex, drink, and foreign ideas.

I think Edward Albee wrote a gloss on Come Back, Little Sheba in his (currently) better-known play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. By then, though, the bittersweet innocence and the explosive loss of that innocence that Inge deals with has become utterly unthinkable. Come Back, Little Sheba, like Inge's other plays Bus Stop and Picnic — both of which Noise Within has produced recently — is pivotal in the history of 20th-century American theater, significant for its position between O'Neill, say, and Albee; but important beyond that for its accurate portrayal of what we were, where we've come from.

And, as directed by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and performed by this admirable cast, in an evocative setting by Stephen Gifford and costumes by Leah Piehl, Come Back, Little Sheba is gripping, exciting theater. If it weren't hundreds of miles away I'd go back to see it again. Bravo to all involved!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Coast of Utopia

Tom Stoppard: The Coast of Utopia.
I: Voyage: through May 1.
II: Shipwreck: through April 19.
III: Salvage: through May 4.
Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, California; 510.841.6500
Marathon production of all three plays: April 26, May 4, 12 noon, 4pm, 8pm. 
WE CAN ALL be clockmakers, or astronomers. But if we all wanted to be Pushkin .. if the question is, how do you make a роem Ьу Pushkin?— or, What eхаctly makes one poem or painting or piece of mцsic greater than another?—or, what is beauty? or liberty? or virtue? — if the question is, how should we live? .. . then reason gives no answer or different answers. So something is wrong. The divine spark in man is not reason after all, but something else, some kind of intuition or vision, perhaps like the moment of inspiration experienced by the artist ... "

That's Vissarion Belinsky talking, in a characteristically impassioned outburst in the first act of Voyage. He's a literary critic living in poverty in Moscow, way out of his depth, visiting the wealthy, complacent, cultured country estate of the Bakunin family. I have to confess to a great deal of sympathy for poor Bakunin Vissarion; I think I was similarly unsure in my youth. He doesn't know German or even French; he hasn't studied Hegel; he doesn't know how to approach the four beautiful Bakunin girls.

He could be a comic figure in a Chekhov play, but he isn't: this is the first of the three plays making up Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia, which follows Mikhail Bakunin, then Alexander Herzen, from the dacha to Moscow to Paris and London and finally Geneva, over a span of 35 years from 1833 to 1868, interleaving romance, marital drama, and political philosophy in an engrossing eoght hours of theater.

Among the characters in this fascinating cast: the revolutionaries Bakunin and Herzen; the poet Nicholas Ogarev, the political philosophers Karl Marx and Ernest Jones; the exiled nationalists Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, Stanislaw Worcell, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Lajos Kossuth; Turgenev: wives, sisters, and mistresses; serfs and servants. Somehow Stoppard manages to juggle this huge cast, long history, and intricate conflicting and competing world views without bogging down or losing focus.

The plays are published in a handsome slipcased and hardbound edition by Grove Press, and I heartily recommend them as reading material — and especially before seeing the productions currently running in Berkeley. Some have complained, online, about losing interest during the reading; I found the texts gripping. In the theater, the plays, directed by founding Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley, seem perfectly faithful to the letter; and of course fleshed out on stage, spoken through actors in fine costume and rising generally quite to the dramatic pitch Stoppard offers, the plays are more present, more vigorous: but a prior reading helps the viewer negotiate this intricate voyage.

Stoppard's trilogy has two interwoven lines: the domestic and the political lives of his characters, and particularly of Bakunin and Herzen. Bakunin of course was the model of the impetuous 19th-century anarchist; but Herzen — the illegitimate son of a Russian mother and a German father — was the more reasoned, ultimately by far the more pragmatic. The play proceeds through conversation laced with outbursts, like Belinsky's quoted above; and, throughout, through pointed parries between the men and the women, condemned by the assumptions of their time to be as observant, intelligent, and deserving as the men, but less informed and less influential in public life.

The position of the men, endlessly comparing their readings of the great 19th-century German philosophers, is summed up in a wonderful speech given to the radical poet George Herwegh:

…being a stoic  didn't mean a sort of uncomplaining putting uр with misfortune, that's only how it looks оп the outside—inside, it's alI about achieving apathy… which means: a calming of the spirit. Apathy isn't passive, it's the freedom that comes from recoginisirg new borders, a new country called Necessity… it comes from accepting that things are what they are, and not some other thing, and can't for the moment bе altered ... which реорlе find quite difficult. We've had a terrible shock. We discovered that history has no respect for intellectuals. History is more like the weather. You never know what it's going to do. … Political freedom is a rather banal ambition, after all … all that сan't-sit-still about voting and assembling and controlling the means of production. Stoical freedom is nothing but not wasting your time berating the weather when it's bucketing down on your picnic.
It isn't easy for an early 21st-century American to imagine the position of these leisured intellectual Russians in the 1840s, after the failure of the Decembrist demonstrations, all too aware of the backward, marginal position of their country in the European context. The Age of Reason had led to the French Revolution, the Divine Right of Monarchy had been questioned, republicanism had taken hold successfully in America but had failed in France; slavery had been abolished in most of Europe but not (yet) in America or Russia. The press was rigidly controlled in Russia; to have any idea of current thought in political or social philosophy one must be able to read English, French, or German and have access to banned publications in those languages. 

On top of all that, there was no literature in Russian — only Pushkin. Women o the upper classes were lucky if they'd managed to learn enough French to read George Sand, who famously taught the dangerous injunction to Follow Your Heart. But if you think all this describes a situation with no relevance to our own time, consider this speech, the Slavophile Akssakov's outburst from Shipwreck:

We have to reunite ourselves with the masses from whom we became separated when we put on silk breeches and powdered wigs. It's not too late. From our village communes we can still develop in a Russian way, without socialism or capitalism, without a bourgeoisie, yes, and with our own culture unpolluted by the Renaissance, and our own Church unpolluted by the Popes or by the Reformation. It can even be our destiny to unite the Slav nations and lead Europe back to the true path. It will be the age of Russia.
Think about those lines the next time you look at Vladimir Putin's unsmiling face on the television news.

Stoppard's trilogy reminds us of the unending confusion of the 19th century, with its successions of revolutions and restorations, its civil wars, the hope of equality foundering between the intellectual shackles of Marxism and the cynical exploitation of the robber barons and railroad magnates, and the eventual plague of anarchism finally reaching its gruesome climax at Sarajevo, which precipitated a war that made the Reign of Terror look like a rehearsal. You come away from these plays reflecting that the excesses of that war, and the second world war, and all the proxy wars that followed, have been diversions, perhaps even diversionary tactics, to distract us from returning to the main problem: achieving a just society based on equality of access and sustainability of economy.

Fortunately, you also come away from these plays refreshed and entertained. They are, among other things, often very funny. The Shotgun production is well cast, on superb actors in the many lead characters; the costuming is splendid; the set modest but ingenious, the lighting and sound cues resourceful and suitable. You can't expect an opportunity to see this trilogy in one day, on an integrated cast, in a comfortable theater, at affordable prices, to return in any near future: it would be a shame to miss it now.