27 May 2011

'By The Way, Meet Vera Stark'

Last Thursday, 19 May, my theater companion, Diana, and I went uptown to the Second Stage Theatre’s home on West 43rd Street to see the highly-praised production of Lynn Nottage’s comedy-drama By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, a world première (Nottage’s last New York production, and her last play, was Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize winner for 2009, at the Manhattan Theatre Club.) For the first time in a long time, I can’t argue with the acclaim the play and the production have garnered in the press. (And, for the first time in a long time, Diana and I agreed!) If I taught playwriting—for which I have no qualifications, so it’s unlikely—Vera Stark would be one of the models I’d promote in class. It’s a perfect example of top-flight dramaturgy (helped immensely by an all-around excellent production, which I’ll get to shortly). Here’s what I mean:

As readers of ROT will know by now, I have a short set of criteria for what I consider good theater. A good play has to do something more than just tell a story and it must do it theatrically. The first part’s probably self-explanatory, but all I mean there is that the play has to have a point of some kind, say something, profound or trivial. Storytelling’s a noble art of its own, but in itself, it’s not theater. As for theatricality, what I mean is the play must use the attributes of the live stage to accomplish its task. I don’t want a play to try to replicate a movie, a TV show, or a concert, though it can use the techniques of those arts; I want a play to be a play, live and, when necessary, overcoming that limitation by imaginative means. Nottage’s play and Jo Bonney’s staging do both of those things in spades.

In the first instance, Nottage, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” grant), is showing us the Hollywood of the 1930s, especially the place of black actors in that world. (A subtitle for this report might be “Slaves With Lines”; that’s the exclamation the would-be African-American actors at the center of Vera Stark utter when they learn that a Southern epic, The Belle of New Orleans, is being cast.) We may know about the tribulations of now-famous actors like Butterfly McQueen, Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Louise Beavers, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who, like the black characters in Vera Stark, have, and often demonstrate, more dignity and depth than the roles to which they were assigned (on screen, but also in life) allowed them to reveal. But Nottage also shows us what it was like off the sound stages. Later, we see the playwright’s take on how we mythologize those groundbreakers after they’ve become icons. Nottage says that, fascinated with old Hollywood, she wanted to look at where she thought the movie business was heading in terms of race relations before the Hays Code was enforced in 1934, the year after the fictional Belle of New Orleans was made. The Motion Picture Production Code, as it was officially known, changed the way African Americans were (permitted to be) portrayed on screen, condemning black actors to careers as “enthusiastic and obsequious servants.” The playwright said that her intent was “to use the fast-paced humor of the period to irreverently explore the legacy of racism in Hollywood”—and, by extension I’d say, the rest of our society (especially the non-Jim Crow North with its less-blatant discrimination). By displaying the past, Nottage hopes that we’ll examine our present in comparison. She doesn’t think all that much has changed, for all the successful black filmmakers like Spike Jones and Tyler Perry, especially in the way African-American women are portrayed on film and TV.

But what makes this treatment of our history (and the subsequent rose-colored nostalgia) stageworthy is that Nottage doesn’t just tell us or even simply illustrate her ideas, she demonstrates them for us, and she does it with great (and I do mean great) humor. The first act, set in 1933, is a true laugh-riot—chockablock with jokes, gags, and comic turns, often in the low-comedy mold, but all for a serious and honest point, which Nottage never lets get away or treats trivially even as the audience howls with glee. (A couple of women behind Diana and me seemed even to anticipate the jokes before they arrived, almost as if they’d seen the play before and knew what was coming. Their joy was contagious, but it made it hard for me to catch some of the funny lines because the women were already laughing loudly. That’s the breaks, though.) Nottage said that she wanted to “pay homage to the screwball comedies of the 30’s” which she “adored.” Vera Stark’s second act moves up to 2003 as we attend “Rediscovering Vera Stark,” a conference on the actress and the movie that made her famous and beloved. We also visit, via live reenactment, 1973, when Vera made an appearance on The Brad Donovan Show, a kind of Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin celebrity talk show. The self-important panelists at the conference—a lesbian slam poet in combat boots and camouflage field jacket; a somewhat pedantic academic; and the host, a fey, prissy film geek—parse Vera’s every comment and gesture, each to support her or his private theories. For two simultaneous scenes in which the characters are all mostly sitting around and talking, it was remarkably dynamic and engaging.

That last attribute was, of course, in large part thanks to the acting and directing. Let me get to that. First, the production couldn’t have been cast better. No one hit a single false note or faltered—and most of the actors played two roles (except the two playing Vera and Gloria Mitchell, the Hollywood star who had the title role in The Belle of New Orleans and employed Vera as her real-life maid—who served as Gloria’s best friend and confidante), and each of them created two delightful figures, portraits of recognizable types who nevertheless never descended into stereotypes or clichés. (They were, however, caricatures, but the good kind—the kind that makes you recognize people and laugh at them.) I’ll get back to the acting shortly, but let me cover some of the other aspects of the production that helped raise it above the norm, despite the opportunity to turn it all into a travesty of one of those “where are they now?” or “whatever happened to . . .?” TV bios that cram the cable dial. (When Gloria shows up at the Brad Donovan interview, it was reminiscent of that oldie, This Is Your Life.)

Before I return to the acting, I have to cover the physical production (which is actually quite complex technically). Neil Patel, one of our most accomplished stage designers, especially for realistic or semi-realistic sets, realized a wonderfully evocative fantasy-‘30s environment for act one. To start the performance off on the right note and prepare the audience for the world we’d be entering, Patel designed a false proscenium arch for the stage, embellishing the frame with an art deco border and installing a purple velvet drape that rose in scalloped swooshes when the play opened. For the moment, the normally high-tech, metal-clad Second Stage theater became a depression-era playhouse. The centerpiece—of the whole play, really, but especially of the first act—was the salon/sitting room of the Hollywood home of Gloria Mitchell, “America’s Little Sweetie Pie.” (The Shirley Temple allusion is almost certainly intentional, considering the little moppet’s screen relationship with Bill Robinson.) It was all cream and white, with a plushly upholstered chaise in the center—not a real living space, but one that might have appeared in one of the movies of the era, like The Thin Man or My Man Godfrey. The contrast this set up from the first scene in the salon to the second in the shabby apartment Vera shares with Lottie and Anne Mae, two other aspiring actresses, was striking, the little flat being all greens and browns and sparsely furnished. Even the studio lot was really a kind of fantasy, with the prop palm tree, wooden stand in plain view, and the studio floor lamp on casters standing idle (as if a piece of electric equipment might be left out in the elements). All that was missing was a Godzilla or a gladiator walking through. The effect of it all was subtle and sly, a commentary that didn’t call attention to itself but communicated nonetheless.

The design of the second act, which combined the conference stage on the left, just three nondescript chairs as if the session were taking place in a Y or a community center, and the TV set on the right, slightly above the conference panel, far more colorful in the ‘70s style of pop psychedelia. The technical complexity came from the backing of the two sets—a large screen that doubled as a movie screen where we see the final moment, the death scene, from The Belle of New Orleans, a black-and-white melodrama (created by Tony Gerber) in the vein of, say Raintree County or Jezebel, and a TV monitor on which we were supposed to be watching the tape of The Brad Donovan Show. (The TV show is performed live for us, but when the tape is “stopped” so the conference panelists can discuss some small point, the screen displayed a frozen moment of the show as the live actors struck and held the same pose. It was a clever little gimmick, as designed by Shawn Sagady, and I imagine not too easy to accomplish smoothly.) So, we have the live medium of the stage along with evocations of both film and television; there were also some still photos projected on the screen as the panelists touch on some of Vera’s private life off the screen. Some of this may sound gimmicky, but it all worked—and in such an innately static act, it added the illusion of movement—while still being theatrical. (See what I mean? If someone had done such a scene in a film, it would have just been real, not intriguing or interesting, just plain real—a movie within a movie and a TV show in a movie. This was not real, but it was genuine nonetheless.

The costumes, by ESosa (for Emilio Sosa), were just as appropriate as the sets, and like the sets, the most impressive (and delightful) were the ‘30s designs of the first act. Starlet Gloria’s gowns were stunning, and bore the same slightly fantasy gloss as did Patel’s first-act sets. Vera and her friends also wear clothes that, though they may be less glamorous, are still part movie dream and part reality. (Anne Mae’s dress in her first scene, when she’s getting ready for a date, is especially evocative. She’s getting by by passing herself off as a Brazilian exotic, and the frilly, layered skirt has just a touch of Carmen Miranda—without gaudy colors or the bananas on her head.) In act two, the costumes become more grounded, though their evocation of character is just as strong—the aggressive poet’s combat motif, for example. The one stand-out exception is Vera’s costume—and Vera, the character, is wearing a costume—for the Brad Donovan interview. A little drunk and 40 years older than she was in act one, Vera totters onto the talk show set in a pink-and-green-and-yellow-and-God-knows-what-all caftan-cum-muumuu (with matching headband) which flutters pretty much on its own, though Vera gives it a lot of help. If the woman weren’t the center of attention on her own, that get-up would have done the trick! Like the set design, Sosa commented on the characters and the circumstances without being blunt about it.

Now, to the acting. I don’t remember seeing a play in quite some time in which the entire ensemble was all working on the same level as consistently as this one. We hadn’t gotten farther than the second and third scenes when Diana and I were whispering to each other how good the actors were. (It started with the appearance of Lottie, played by a remarkable Kimberly Hébert Gregory—who returned as Carmen Levy-Green, the academic in the act two conference.) Though Sanaa Lathan as Vera gives a stunning and flawless performance, as strong and determined as she is emotionally vulnerable—and her turn on the talk show as a kind of Eartha Kitt on speed is priceless—her castmates each give her a solid and engaging base to work from. (I can only assume that Nottage chose the title character’s name on purpose: Vera means ‘true’ in Latin and Italian and Stark means ‘strong’ in German. Vera’s a woman who’s true and strong.) I should refine a remark I made earlier while discussing the writing: the characters may be intentional caricatures of types we’ve all seen often, but the performances are not clichéd or stock. Gloria, the sweetie pie starlet, may be written so that she could be played as a stereotype, but Stephanie J. Block’s rendition is genuine and sympathetic. The affection she shows for Vera as her friend—who happens to be her maid—and support is real and her angst over the role of the New Orleans belle is almost frightening. Between the actors, the director, and the playwright, all the characters are rendered with just the right recipe of parody, sincerity, and sympathy. In this cast of standouts, some that had very special moments were Daniel Breaker as Leroy Barksdale, the film director’s “man Friday” in act one, and Kevin Isola as a British rocker with a Dr. Pangloss coiffure, in the second act talk show. Breaker, who also plays the conference host (a blend of Gene Shalit and Cornel West, The Hollywood Reporter described him), makes the smarmy self-promoter with genuine ambitions an engaging and charming man (who becomes Vera’s first husband between the acts). He looks brash and aggressive—his marcelled hair is just right—but his tone is almost suppliant, as if he were saying that he truly liked Vera and really hoped she’d like him. Isola, in an altogether different vein, was a demanding and insistent Russian-émigré movie director, but his turn at Rhys-Davies (shades of the Profumo sex-for-info scandal in ‘60s Britain!) was part strutting Mick Jagger and part lizard-tongued Gene Simmons. Lathan’s talk-show turn as Vera is a showstopper, but she and Gregory have an inspired moment in act one when they transform themselves before our very eyes from self-possessed servers at a Hollywood party into hunched, downtrodden “Negroes of the earth” and then launch into a blues number to convice director Maximilian Von Oster they should play slaves in The Belle of New Orleans. (Sincerity? Yeah, I can fake that!) This isn’t fair, I know, because all the others had terrific moments, too—David Garrison as producer Frederick Slasvick and TV host Donovan and Karen Olivo as Anne Mae and the lesbian poet—but Breaker and Isola just had a couple of marvelous scenes, thanks to Nottage and Bonney. One impressive aspect of this work, as I suggested before, is that all the actors who played two roles not only differentiated between them, as any competent actor could do, but created two perfectly apt and well-defined characters—an accomplishment for which I give great credit to Bonney along with the actors. (It’s also important to note that Nottage did a wonderful job of separating the period sensitivities and outlooks, down to the vocabulary, among the three decades—like role-players in historical reconstructions.)

Most reviews of the New York world première production of Vera Stark were extremely positive, especially about the first act, though Ben Brantley of the New York Times had reservations, calling it a “fitful comedy” and asserting that the broad humor and the “grittier emotional detail” never quite mesh. In The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney describes Vera Stark as “clever yet frustrating” and writes that it takes “an unsatisfying turn” when the second act moves into the 21st century and the play “deflates.” Rooney also had trouble reconciling the cartoonish humor of the screwball send-up and the analysis. Variety had similar criticisms. I disagree with these cavils. Nottage got the tone right for both her spoof of ‘30s film comedy and for the serious point she made through the humor and ridicule. (Isn’t that a time-honored literary tradition—to poke fun while making serious observations? Some guy named Swift did it—and Twain, just to mention two. Not a few dramatists, too, like Molière and Shaw—or, more currently, Yasmina Reza.)

The apparent disconnect, as Michael Feingold has it in The Village Voice, between act one and act two, when the style changes some, didn’t pull me up—all three scenes (the 1933 Hollywood, the 1973 talk show, the 2003 academic conference) were all satires, filtered through the sensibility of each era. What reviewers like Rooney seem to have missed is that Nottage isn’t just sending up the Hollywood of the ‘30s or examining the lives on the African-American actors trying to navigate the gated world. In the second part of the play, she’s looking critically at the way we turn flawed people into legends and use them as vessels for our own aspirations and agendas. That’s what Brad Donovan and Peter Rhys-Davies do in 1973 and the three conference panelists do in 2003—and Nottage is showing us how we all do it. Vera may be little more than a washed up drunk pretending she’s still 25, but we project onto her a whole wealth of fun-house nostalgia because we need her to have been a hero so we can stand on her shoulders. The first act of Vera Stark isn’t just a funny send-up of screwball depression Hollywood. It’s the material on which act two comments, like the commentary in the Talmud or the critical analysis that follows and draws on a piece of literature. The two parts of Vera Stark aren’t discontinuous; they fit together like two halves of a torn photograph. Besides, what saved even the frisson of discontinuity from splitting the play, is the way Nottage got her critical intent across by means of the jokes and parody not around or in spite of them. “Clever” is something of a put-down; By The Way, Meet Vera Stark is far more than merely clever. It has something to say, and it does so very successfully as far as I’m concerned—anything to the contrary is just bitchin’ and moanin’.

22 May 2011

"The Arts Are Under Attack (Again!)"

By Paul Molloy

[I’ve written before on ROT about arts support and funding. It’s clearly a topic about which I have strong feelings and opinions. Currently in Congress, the arts are being assailed once more, the excuse for abandoning them once again is budgetary concerns. Drastic cuts have been proposed for the NEA and CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the body that oversees public financing for PBS and NPR. Government arts funding is a minuscule part of the federal budget, as it is among the states as well. The U.S. spends far less on the arts, in fact, than any other developed nation—and less even than some developing ones—so I believe that the attacks are only disguised as a financial issue; in reality, they are an assault on the First Amendment, about which I’ve also written on ROT, and a concerted effort to suppress even the mildest forms of criticism and dissent among artists and intellectuals. As most of us know, federal and state money is the seed corn for arts support among private and corporate contributors: when the governments stop supporting the arts, so do many other former supporters. As the withdrawal of support increases in effect where art is produced—the studios and theaters around the country—it also has repercussions in the places where we see art and where our children learn about it. Among those who are concerned about this new battle in the Culture Wars is Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. (Those are the musicians who, among other work, play in the pit at musicals.) Below is an article that appeared in the March 2011 edition of Allegro, the newsletter of Local 802; I’m republishing it because I think the author, Paul Molloy, has stated the case eloquently.]

Here we go again. With familiar clichés about "making tough choices in these tough economic times," the arts are under attack.

Perhaps I should say the arts remain under attack. The slashing and burning of arts budgets nationwide hasn’t really stopped. Nor has the rhetoric of freedom-loving politicians determined to stifle freedom of expression abated much either.

Nationally, the culture wars of the 90’s are darkening our doorways again. In New York, the state arts council budget saw its grantmaking funds slashed twice in 2008. Then it sustained a $3.5 million cut in 2009 and a $6 million cut in 2010. Now it faces a $10 million cut this year.

Despite the jobs that the arts create and sustain, the income they generate, and the tax revenue they send to local and state coffers, too many elected officials cling to the myth that funding the arts is unnecessary. These politicians seem to believe that little or no funding for the nonprofit creative sector will have no negative economic impact.

Institutional ignorance of the arts isn’t limited to the nonprofit sector. Many politicians are unaware of or simply dismiss the link between receiving a strong, comprehensive arts education and the benefits it yields.

For example, a Wallace Foundation study revealed that school children who participate in arts demonstrated the following:

Improved academic performance
Improved attitudes and skills that promote the learning process
Improved general life skills, such as critical thinking and self-discipline
Improved understanding that one’s behavior has consequences
Improved pro-social attitudes and behaviors among at-risk youth

If far-sighted leaders who understand this can’t reverse this dangerous, scorched-Earth policy toward arts funding and arts education, our nation faces a dismal and uncertain future. It’s like a NASCAR driver stuck with a pit crew hostile to transmission fluid, even though it makes the car go forward. Without it, the driver is doomed to go nowhere. And that is precisely where many of our leaders are taking the country when it comes to arts funding and arts education.

Conversations on arts education by our elected leaders at all levels of government appear nonexistent. However, discussions about education in the U.S. revolve around a single concept: competition. In fact, this word, along with its variations, appeared 11 times in Obama’s state of the union address, seven times in Cuomo’s state of the state address and six times in Bloomberg’s state of the city address.

Incidentally, those speeches had another thing in common – the number of references to the advantages of a well-rounded arts education: zero. Ironically, in 2008, candidate Obama released the following statement on his arts policy:

"As president, Barack Obama will use the bully pulpit and the example he will set in the White House to promote the importance of arts and arts education in America. Not only is arts education indispensable for success in a rapidly changing, high skill, information economy, but studies show that arts education raises test scores in other subject areas as well."

Those leaders overlook long established truths on the advantages of a fully implemented arts curriculum in our public schools. Consequently, their respective statements on education ring hollow, sounding like a string of recycled bromides that over-emphasize school competitiveness as a means to acquire 21st century technical jobs. What about the creative sector? In addition to the extraordinary cultural, developmental and educational benefits of the arts in all people’s lives, one topic absent from national discourse is that the arts also mean jobs – real careers that enable us to own our homes, send our children to college, sustain local economies and plan our futures.

The current assault on the arts and arts education is broad and deep. The president wants to cut the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts by $21 million. The Republican Study Committee, comprised of 165 members of Congress, wants to eliminate it completely. It also wants to gut key arts education programs at the U.S. Department of Education and all funding for NPR and PBS.

Governor Cuomo, while pitting public sector unions against private sector unions, seeks to cut $10 million from the NYSCA budget. Mayor Bloomberg is threatening to eliminate 6,000 teaching jobs and reduce library hours. His current school chancellor has no background in education. College tuitions are on the rise nationwide, up as much as 30 percent in California.

Adding insult to injury, many governors (New York’s included) and other politicians continue their collaborative offensive on experience, institutional memory and problem solving by threatening the livelihoods of our nation’s longest serving educators. Given this scenario, one might think that the emergent model of education in the U.S. is to provide just enough training to supply employers with a continuous source of cheap, unskilled and low-skilled labor.

This far, no further

We cannot sit on the sidelines and watch work in the nonprofit arts sector dry up. Nor can we expect other people to advocate for us. We must not sit idly by while those beholden to the for-profit standardized testing industry cheapen the quality of public education and turn our kids into arts-challenged, rote memorizers and test takers.

We know that schools with strong arts programs produce smart, well-rounded students. The Center for Arts Education released a study last year that revealed that New York City "schools in the top third in graduation rates offered their students the most access to arts education and the most resources that support arts education." Moreover, school districts with collective bargaining agreements yield strong schools with smart students. To wit: there are five states that outlaw collective bargaining for educators. Here are their state rankings on ACT/SAT scores:

South Carolina – 50th
North Carolina – 49th
Georgia – 48th
Texas – 47th
Virginia – 44th

As it happens, Wisconsin, whose teachers are protected by collective bargaining agreements, is ranked second in the country. (Thank you, Randy Landau.)

A great writer once said: "There is a connection to progress in society and progress in the arts. The Age of Pericles was also the Age of Phidias. The Age of Lorenzo De’ Medici was also the Age of Leonardo DaVinci. The Age of Elizabeth was also the Age of Shakespeare."

Artists and arts educators should take inspiration from the nonviolent protesters overseas and also at home – in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. It’s up to us: if we do nothing, we’ll get nothing.

Antagonism toward the arts means job losses. Illiteracy on arts education means long term decreases in our ranks and steady reductions in our audiences. Perhaps more forebodingly however, is what this says about the role the arts will play in American life.

In 1931, Aldus Huxley wrote of a future when people didn’t want to read books, were distracted by cheap, mass produced goods and were more interested in gossip than the truth. We need a massive, collective effort to push back against this philistine crusade for ignorance. Most importantly, we must ask ourselves if the Brave New World we seek includes equal access to the arts and a robust, well-rounded education – or if it succumbs to the one Huxley warned us about.

[Paul Molloy is the Political and Publications Director of Local 802; his e-mail address is Pmolloy@Local802afm.org. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, NYSCA, to which Molloy refers, is the New York State Council on the Arts, the agency responsible for state grants to non-profit arts efforts and organizations. Cuomo is, of course, our newly-elected governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Bloomberg, I suspect most of you know by now, is Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor. Randy Landau is a Local 802 member, a bass guitarist; I don’t know why Molloy thanked him in the article.

[ROT readers who’ve been following the news pertinent to this issue will know that NPR has had some unpleasant trouble related to the federal budget cuts. James O’Keefe, a well-know conservative activist, produced a video recording of NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller making several distasteful statements about Tea Party members and the conservative movement in general. Schiller resigned, as did NPR president Vivian Schiller (who’s not related to Ron Schiller). Despite the timing of the sting and the use of the confrontation by opponents to government support for public broadcasting, the incident is irrelevant to the points Paul Molloy makes in his article and my own unshakable support of government funding of the arts.]


17 May 2011

Teachers & Reform (Addendum)

The movement to reform school systems, now coupled with the drive to bust unions, especially of public employees, in some states, has brought a return of “blame the teacher.” The focus has mostly been on seniority, especially when it comes to laying off teachers as budgets are slashed across the board in both cities and states around the country. According to the existing laws and policies of many states and school systems, if layoffs become necessary, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg insists they are in New York City, the most recently hired teachers will be the first to be let go regardless of their accomplishments and evaluations on the job or their potential as teachers for the future. Bloomberg and his education commissioner, among others, are promoting a change in the law, known as “Last In, First Out,” or LIFO, to allow school boards to choose the teachers to be laid off based on merit rather than seniority.

First off, let’s get away from one topic that’s part of this debate right now: whether state budget cuts inevitably mean teacher layoffs as well. Bloomberg insists the state shortfall requires him to cut the city budget, including the education department, and that that necessitates laying off teachers. Governor Andrew Cuomo suggests that such cuts aren’t necessary, despite his proposed state drawdown and some opponents to the mayor’s budgetary choices also assert that firing teachers isn’t needed, either. (Cuomo’s proposed cuts in administrative expenditures such as bureaucracy, office overhead, and consultants.) To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what the truth is here. I’m far too ignorant about financial matters and the economy to see one way or the other. Furthermore, it’s irrelevant to the issue I want to get into here: whether it’s fairer and better for the schools and students to make decisions about reductions in force based on seniority or merit, irrespective of whether the current situation requires a RIF or not. Whenever the time comes, now or in the future, that teachers have to be fired to meet budgetary demands, that question remains. Additionally, while this discussion is going on in the press and on the airwaves, some activists and spokespeople have taken to maligning the teachers again as a way to weaken the position of the teachers’ unions, which Chris Christie, the new governor of New Jersey, has dubbed “political thugs” in a televised interview. “The teachers union is an institution built to protect the interests of itself,” but not the schoolchildren, stated Tony Bennett, Indiana state Superintendent of Public Instruction. In both Wisconsin and Indiana, Governors Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels have impelled legislatures to pass bills stripping public employees, including teachers, of their collective bargaining rights, a move opposed by Americans across the country by nearly two to one; other states are contemplating similar laws. (You have to wonder, by the way, why all the governors trying to hogtie these unions are Republicans while the unions almost invariably support Democratic candidates.) In February 2010, school officials in Central Falls, Rhode Island, announced plans to fire all the unionized teachers at the high school. The tumult was settled, but politicians around the country cheered the move and morale fell, with 20% of the faculty leaving and daily absenteeism among the rest increasing dramatically. As I said in “Teaching & Reform” (ROT, 29 July 2010), I find these tactics reprehensible.

I will assert, however, that reductions in school budgets aren’t necessarily best addressed by firing teachers on any basis. (Poor-mouthing has long been a good excuse to divide voters and disenfranchise some “undesirable” portion of an electorate.) In fact, we can’t fix our schools, whether for financial reasons or pedagogical failings, by getting rid of classroom teachers. Whenever someone complains about the problems and failures in public education, the first reaction is to blame the teachers. Never mind that schools are notoriously unevenly financed so that schools with problems get fewer resources. Never mind that reversing undeserved tax cuts for corporations and millionaires could restore school funds without burdening budgets. Never mind that social problems in the community like drugs, gangs, or poverty have a greater effect on learning than any teacher does. Never mind that studies show that classroom teaching is responsible for only 20% of a child’s education—that evenings, weekends, and vacations account for nearly as much of the experience. Never mind that school administrations, from the state departments of education to local school boards to principals and administrators in the school buildings are more responsible for what goes on inside a school than the hamstrung faculties. Never mind any of that—if there’s something wrong, it’s the teachers who get the blame first, and the solution is always to fire teachers and take away the few hard-won rights they’ve obtained over the years. Now, as we see in states across the country, the teachers’ meager salaries and benefits are the being spotlighted as the cause of the budgetary shortfalls. The teachers’ contracts aren’t the reason for the budget crunch in the first place (that was Wall Street enabled by oblivious regulators), and firing a bunch of them won’t fix the problem much in the second. In the third place, the teachers who are left, with larger classes and reduced classroom resources—not to mention fewer extracurricular and enhancement programs—are demoralized and marginalized even more.

On the surface, basing the decision to fire or retain teachers based on effectiveness seems like a no-brainer, especially in light of what I wrote back in “Teaching & Reform.” I said then that I was in favor of anything that benefited the students and that merit pay and other inducements to recruit and keep good teachers was sensible in spite of any opposition from teachers’ unions, who back the status quo. I still support any change that works for school kids, no matter on what side of the political spectrum it falls, but there are implications to the seniority-vs.-merit debate that may not be apparent at first look and which muddy the waters considerably. The major question is whether jettisoning the seniority rules applies only to layoffs or whether it will affect other aspects of the system as well.

If we want to make the schools better and keep good, dedicated teachers, then I think pay and layoff decisions have to be based on the effectiveness of the teachers under consideration. Based solely on who’s been around longest, these actions discourage good teachers and encourage the tactic of hanging on without sticking your neck out, keeping your profile low, and not making any waves—or worse, sucking up to the administration. Seniority provides a certain job security, which is good, but it doesn’t promote innovation or originality. Good teachers don’t come into the system and others don’t stay. Seniority may disadvantage new teachers, but how many college grads are likely to sign up for a job that they know going in will be short-lived because they will soon be considered old-timers and subject to dismissal in favor the novices coming up behind them? This doesn’t mean that longevity and loyalty shouldn’t be rewarded, either. Clearly, a teacher who’s been on a faculty a long time is a valuable asset, both for the school and the newer teachers; the students, too, benefit from the continuity and the experience the longer-serving teachers bring to the classroom. In any given school, the administration tends to be more footloose, moving from school to school or even district to district, while faculties remain in place longer, providing a stability that would be lost if senior teachers were regularly dismissed. Schools with the lowest teacher turnover are usually the most successful.

Though there are certainly exceptions, for the most part, teachers who’ve been on the job for 10, 15, 20, or more years must have something on the ball; they get evaluated yearly at least, after all. Neither age nor long service means that a teacher is not good or should be put out on an ice floe. When I was studying Russian 40 years ago, our best teacher was an older woman who’d been a Russian teacher in the Soviet Army: she was the most knowledgeable about how to teach language, the most engaged and responsive, and the most interested of our whole cadre of instructors. (She was also the sweetest person: she took her whole section, of which I was a member at the time, to the student kitchen on the day designated for our class picnic and taught us to make real Russian borscht—not the red Polish beet soup most Americans know—which we then relished along with the rest of our class that afternoon. Now, that was a learning experience!) We can’t afford to lose the experienced teachers any more than we can afford not to get the new, enthusiastic ones.

But what if the loss of seniority protection bears on other aspects of the system? Tenure, for instance, is a subject that’s been argued in this general debate, too. It’s often unpopular among the public (though I believe that’s based more on the way its portrayed in adversaries’ public statements than it is on the actuality). Opponents to tenure, whereby teachers reach a stage where they can no longer be fired arbitrarily and have considerable freedom in their classrooms, assert that it’s a process that protects mediocre and ineffectual teachers who long ago became little more than placeholders. Governor Christie, who’s also told teachers they are greedy, has bluntly declared, for instance, that tenure protects incompetent teachers and Governor Walker’s bills (which still face legal challenges) would deny teachers tenure protection. The unions, such opponents say, protect instructors who are past their prime and should be replaced by younger teachers. Defenders of tenure point out that it protects teachers who’ve earned some autonomy from being dismissed or reassigned capriciously by principals and superintendents with political, social, or personal agendas. Before teachers won the right to unionize and bargain collectively for the conditions of their employment, that’s exactly what happened. And since even without seniority as a criterion, longer-serving teachers earn higher salaries than newly hired ones, firing older teachers and replacing them with new hires cuts costs—as workers in many other fields have seen in recent years. (It also cuts down on pension obligations since the longer teachers serve, the more they’re vested in the pension plans. Reduce the length of service before retirement and you reduce the pension the state owes the retiree.) Furthermore, tenure is awarded, not automatic; there’s an evaluation process before a teacher is granted tenure, no matter how long he or she’s served.

A friend of mine who’s a retired professor from a nearby community college and was very active in her faculty union—she even served as a union officer—got quite heated when discussing the trend toward reducing the influence of seniority and other union protections in teacher employment. Though my friend’s experience wasn’t in secondary or primary school, many of the issues are the same, especially the matter of tenure. Without the protection of tenure, she warned, schools will begin paring away at the independence of the teachers in the classroom and administrations with agendas will be able to insert their programs into the schools’ curricula—and no one will have the authority to fight them. Without the power of union contracts, collective action, and due process protection, administrations can fire teachers they don’t like or who won’t toe their lines, leaving schools with homogeneous faculties who all think alike and follow the same program without variation or dissent. (This is, in fact, what it was like before teachers were free to unionize.) There would be no interplay of varied ideas or open discussion of differences. A school whose faculty is entirely young, unprotected, and inexperienced is much easier to control and bend to the will of a designing principal or superintendent. My friend was very exercised over the trend she sees and the potential consequences if the union-busters prevail.

Now, I confess, I find my friend’s alarm a little hyperbolic, but I can still see her point, especially when it comes to the matter of seniority-based tenure. As readers of ROT should know by now, the freedom of expression, whether in a classroom, a theater, or an art gallery, is almost sacrosanct to me. I was once asked to leave a school because, the director told me, I asked too many questions. I didn’t take enough on faith, he said. Really? A school’s for asking questions. There’s no such thing as asking too many questions in a school. (In my own defense, first, you should know that this wasn’t a secondary school, either, and I was just a few years shy of 30. Second, I didn’t ask all my questions—which I don’t think were excessive in any case—in class; I took them to the instructor afterwards and asked to meet with him.) A circumstance in which questioning a teacher, a principal, or an administrator is discouraged, whether the questions come from a student, a parent, or another teacher, is anathema to me. It leads to an atmosphere not of education, but of indoctrination. Tenure, along with other protections, is designed to promote and safeguard the free exchange of ideas in the classroom; there are also precautions available to prevent abuse and assure decorum, especially in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms where the students are still children. The wholesale removal of the shield against orthodoxy and enforced conformity is a practice common to authoritarian states not, presumably, to a democracy.

Seniority, for all its faults, is at least an objective criterion. It’s easy to tell who’s served longer than whom, even if the system counts years of other government service, either in other jurisdiction’s schools or even in the military. Anyone can add up the numbers and compare the totals, and there’s little debate about the results. But who makes the evaluations for merit as a deciding factor in dismissals (or pay, which runs into the same question)? On what are the evaluations based? Test scores are an inadequate means of assessing a teacher’s work in a classroom, though they’ve been used frequently despite evidence that they are inaccurate, imperfect, and often biased. (Not all subjects are tested, and reliance on tests as a standard also inevitably leads to teaching to the test.) So, individual evaluations, then. Whose opinions count more in the final selections—the principal, the superintendent, a board of some kind? Do peer evaluations play a part? Student appraisals? No matter which of these or other judgments are used, they are all imprecise and subjective, and liable to all kinds of influences that may not be relevant to teaching ability or classroom skill. No school district has come up with an equitable set of assessment standards. This is one of the chief fears of unions who foresee their members being judged on the basis of whims and nonce criteria—or, perhaps worse, someone’s political or social beliefs. New York City’s current procedure puts most of the responsibility on principals to identify ineffective teachers, but there are reports of school principals who themselves have bad records for management and yet have been left in place for years, long enough to be making decisions on teachers’ careers. At the same time, the merit evaluation formula devised for New York State schools is so complex as to be incomprehensible and has often contradicted the personal appraisals of a teacher’s colleagues, supervisors, students, and former students. Seniority and tenure protect good teachers from maltreatment at the hands of a principal or a school board for reasons having nothing to do with their classroom effectiveness.

It also matters where the evaluators work. If they’re from the same schools as the teachers being judged, they get greater access and they know the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the different schools, but private feelings can get into the mix if the evaluators know the subjects of their assessments too well. If the evaluators are from the board level, they’ll be more objective and clinical, but they’re remote from the teachers’ daily work and won’t have full-time contact with the subjects. Which is better, fairer? You could devise an evaluation system that includes some of both kinds of evaluators, but it would probably be cumbersome and complex. What’s the answer? If you’re going to judge teacher proficiency as the basis for layoffs and pay raises, someone’ll have to come up with a solution.

Let’s look at New York City’s situation as an example. Clearly, the final cuts would be decided by the schools chancellor, the head of the city’s Department of Education. But in New York City, the chancellor is a political appointee of the mayor and as such is beholden to him for his job. We can’t know what influence the mayor and his political agenda will have on the decisions to let teachers go; even if Mayor Bloomberg is an honest broker and stays out of the process, the next mayor and chancellor may have a different relationship. (Rudolph Giuliani, Bloomberg’s predecessor, had also tried—but failed—to gain the mayoral control of the school system Bloomberg has. Giuliani was a man who tried to get the Brooklyn Museum of Art evicted from its city-owned building because he didn’t like the art on exhibit. He also fired a successful police commissioner because he acted too independently for the mayor’s taste. What kind of school manager do you suppose Mayor Giuliani’d have made?) On what is current Chancellor Dennis Walcott, formerly the Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development and president of New York City’s school board, going to base his determinations? The last chancellor, Cathleen Black, was a publishing executive, not an educator—she had a lot of difficulty getting approved for the job because she had no background in education either as a teacher or an administrator. Black resigned on 7 April after only three months on the job after Mayor Bloomberg—also a businessman, as most readers will surely know by now—had urged her to step down. Both Black and Walcott were the mayor’s hand-picked choices to run the city’s schools, as was Joel Klein, Black’s long-serving predecessor who was also selected from the ranks of business executives. What does that suggest about independence of action and thought?

(Black’s experience when Bloomberg named her his nominee for the post is a demonstration that demonization and negative characterization can be a tactic on both sides of this issue. Unions declared her incompetent and unqualified for the job as soon as her name was floated and unions and other activists lobbied bitterly to deny her the waiver needed for the appointment. As it turned out, unfortunately, Black was temperamentally ill-suited for the chancellorship, but she was never given a chance to demonstrate that before she was torn apart in the press simply for having been Bloomberg’s choice. She wasn’t a product of the system—and was therefore unbeholden to the people who run it—and that’s all her opponents cared about, as far as I could tell. Joel Klein, considered an effective reformer and manager, had had no more educational experience than Black had had. Klein, the first chancellor of the New York City education department under mayoral control, served for an unprecedented 8½ years.)

There’s also the problem, one of perception both in the education bureaucracy and among the general public, that somehow old equals bad and new or young equals good. Putting this proposition down in writing makes it clear how patently wrong the attitude is, but it’s operating in the debate, especially in the political and advertising dispute that went on over the airwaves and in the press. In addition, even if practicable evaluation standards could be devised, new, younger teachers would be subject to misjudgment as well. No teacher is born good, much less great. (The Gates Foundation has been subsidizing studies, the $45 million Measures of Effective Teaching project, to see if they can determine what makes a good or great teacher and if it’s something that can be taught. But that research has only just concluded.) It takes time and experience, guidance and mentoring (from more experienced teachers), and if a new teacher is evaluated in her first or even second year in a classroom, she might very well look like a hopeless case rather than one who needs a bit of seasoning and direction (and perhaps plain old confidence) before she blossoms into a very good teacher. I can attest from experience that there are many aspects of teaching that you can only learn from experience and I often relied on my veteran colleagues to help me through a sticky situation, from a lesson plan that wasn’t working to a tough disciplinary situation that I’d never have known how to handle on my own. The students would surely suffer if all their teachers were busy discovering fire for the first time. An experienced teacher can obviously also be caught in this bind: even a good teacher can get stale or fall into a rut and then seem to an evaluator as ineffective. But to someone who knows him, he just may need a sabbatical or a refresher course to rehabilitate the skill that had made him a good teacher—but dismissal removes his abilities from the classroom and the schoolhouse permanently. Where’s the long-term benefit in that?

The seniority-merit debate is complex in other ways, too. According to polls, the public, including parents of schoolchildren, overwhelmingly backs decisions based on effectiveness and wants to see an end to LIFO. The unions, as we’ve seen, supports seniority—but union members don’t: by large margins, they prefer to see reductions in force determined by merit, not seniority. (Voters also have said they want to see teacher pay determined in the basis of classroom performance rather than longevity, too.) But, like the way tenure has lost support, I feel that the popularity of performance as the sole criterion for RIFs is evidence not of its effectiveness but of the tenor of the public pronouncements by its supporters. (It doesn’t help that, although Mayor Bloomberg’s popularity has been diminished since his election to a third term, the regard for his main adversary on this issue, the United Federation of Teachers, has dropped precipitously as well.) I believe the almost knee-jerk support for using effectiveness as a standard and entirely rejecting seniority comes in large part from the way teachers, especially experienced, long-serving ones, are depicted in ads and speeches. At present, the debate is over budget cuts and the potential dismissal of teachers as a cost-saving move, but overall, the portrayal of teachers as the root cause of all the problems in our education system has been part of the discussions of school reform, the power and influence of teachers’ unions, and the rights of public workers to form unions and bargain collectively. Aside from the fact that this tactic doesn’t solve anything and dispirits good teachers and motivates them to leave the system, it’s monstrously unfair. First, teachers aren’t the sole influences on a student’s ability to learn. There are equally powerful forces at home and in the community; the teacher and the school only have the most salient impact. Second, the effectiveness of any given school depends more on the administration of the local and state school boards and the school itself than on any individual teacher, who often has to make the best of whatever atmosphere and conditions the school has provided. Teachers are the least in control of their own occupation, largely dominated by women not incidentally, of any similar professional in society: doctors, lawyers, accountants (who are all still mostly men) all have more to say about how they do their work and how they relate to their clients than teachers. Not only do they have school boards and departments of education looking over their shoulders and dictating their curricula and teaching methods, but they have politicians, activists, and interest groups, most of whom have no educational experience whatsoever.

This practice of using non-educators to oversee school systems is really part of the phenomenon in this country where voters see experience and qualifications as marks of elitism and arrogance. The U.S. has always had a streak of anti-intellectualism running through its society and politicians and activists with an agenda have often made use of it to divide people by portraying those with expertise and knowledge as out of touch with the mainstream, the Joe Six-Packs and Soccer Moms who are presented as the heart of the Real America. The idea spread abroad is that anyone can teach: it takes no skills, experience, or training. Early last March, Mayor Bloomberg himself proclaimed, “The length of time that you have worked is irrelevant to whether or not you can do what our children need.” (Ironically, during his campaign for a third term, Bloomberg made the reverse argument to justify his bid to be reelected a second time despite a term-limits law he had swept aside for his benefit. Disconnect, anyone?) As long as this situation prevails, our schools will continue to deteriorate and become training grounds for low- and unskilled workers rather than routes to greater achievement and accomplishment. Demean the teacher and the ones who suffer are the children. When they are old enough to run things, what will become of our society then? We see already a concentration of wealth and power in a ever-smaller segment of the population; debasing public education by continuously cutting funds, programs, and committed teachers will assure that this trend continues and becomes irreversible. Good public schools with good teachers has always been the principal process that has made the United States a nation of upwardly-mobile strivers and achievers no matter what part of society the student started from.

Teachers aren’t on the job to aggrandize themselves. The pay is pitiful and the social standing is closer to that of a manual laborer than of the highly educated professional a teacher is. The very fact that teachers take on the responsibility they do and return to work every day, every year shows the level of commitment they have to the task—a calling, really. To portray them as lazy, shiftless, selfish, overpaid, coddled, underworked, ineffective, and reactionary clock-punchers is simply untrue. It’s worse for the older teachers, who are further maligned for their long service and years of experience doing the most important job our society offers: teaching our children. The notion abroad in this country that the lack of experience is an asset (or, conversely, that previous service is a shortcoming)—it’s the basis for a lot of the political campaigns in recent elections—has little validity in reality, and it has even less in a classroom. Both sides of the merit-vs.-seniority argument are demagoguing, and they’re doing on the backs of the teachers (and, in the case of supporters of teacher effectiveness as a criterion, the teachers’ unions) not because it’s logical or reasonable, but because it inflames the public. Demonization is a wedge tactic: it polarizes the public so that we have to go to one extreme or the other. No one can stake out a position in the center (just as in national politics) because if you support even an iota of the other side of the argument, you will be subsumed in the demonization yourself. If you see benefit and value in both merit-based standards and seniority, then you’re dismissed and vilified by both sides.

Well, vilify away. Now, I’m no education expert, so I don’t know how to implement any of this, and I have no clout with the parties, so I can’t even imagine enough agreement among them to accomplish a compromise. The strong rhetoric that prevails, especially among the anti-union activists, generates nothing but tensions and makes teachers suspicious and resistant to compromise. My solution, however, includes elements of both seniority and performance evaluation. We cannot dismiss the value of a teacher’s years of experience or professional training, accumulated over a whole career. I don’t know how you’d measure that on a scale of standard criteria, so it would have to be calculated in some form similar to the way it is now—total up the years on the job and add in a supplement for additional degrees beyond a bachelors and professional courses taken outside of work. (I also think that some additional consideration should be taken for non-classroom experience a teacher has accumulated such as chaperoning school trips abroad or to distant cities; conducting after-school workshops or activities related, even tangentially, to the teacher’s field; organizing events that enhance the students’ appreciation, understanding, or knowledge of the arts, politics, civics, sports, the economy, and so on; teaching non-credit classes in subjects not offered in the curriculum. You can’t measure these contributions, but they pay off so much.)

Classroom performance, too, must be counted, and greatly. I can’t conceive of a measuring system that works across the board, so one would have to be devised and tested, but it would have to appraise a teacher’s effectiveness in the class currently, but also consider where the teacher is likely to go in the years to come—as she or he gains experience and hones the appropriate skills. It must somehow also assess a teacher’s past contributions and how those can be continued and reinforced. The National Council of Teaching Quality has devised a system of determining a teacher’s position using a combination of measurements. Finally, any new process of hiring and firing teachers must make it easier to dismiss the small number of truly bad teachers that get into the system; the unions, for all the protections and support they offer teachers, must be more responsive when it comes to culling the inadequate and unsalvageable. Tenure should be highly valued, awarded only to the teachers who truly earn it, and should not become a shield for mediocrity or, worse, inappropriate behavior. Perhaps it should be revisited incrementally, say every five or seven years to be sure that a veteran teacher hasn’t settled into a comfortable rut.

In general, we have to stop relying on procedures and methods that have become sacred traditions, defended only because things have always been done that way. The world has changed since the ‘50s and ‘60s when most of those practices were initiated and we’ve learned more about schools, students, and teaching and learning than we used to know. Joel Klein was accounted a successful reformer, even before school reform became a politically popular idea, and he upended the procedures and practices long entrenched in the New York City school system, the largest and most complex in the nation. (Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of the Washington, D.C., schools, was also a radical reformer and, despite her unpopularity with local teachers and their unions, she, too, made significant improvements in the success of the city’s educational system. Klein’s successors, both the short-term Cathie Black and her replacement Dennis Walcott, promised to continue Klein’s reforms in New York City.) One sweeping change Klein initiated was to turn virtually all the decisions about a school, from hiring and curriculum to spending and building use, over to the principal, as if, Klein put it, they were CEO’s of their own companies and rather than cogs in a bureaucracy. This gives principals unprecedented authority—making teacher contracts an even-more-significant protection—but Klein also established a principal-training academy to prepare his new administrators for the powerful mandate he handed them.

Despite the denigration of experts and scholars, we need to listen to what’s been discovered about pedagogy, intellectual development, teacher training, educational management, and even school funding and budgets and start making changes where necessary. Remember, the definition of insanity is continuing to take the same actions while expecting a different outcome. Things that aren’t working haven’t been working for years now. At the same time, we can’t implement reforms that are based on fads, wishful thinking, or popular notions that aren’t supported by research or empirical evidence. Let’s find new ways—there are people out there with ideas and experiences that work. And stop beating each other over the head with politics. We know that doesn’t accomplish anything.

In the end, though, what this society has to do is elevate the level of respect teachers get so that prospective good teachers don’t run away from the profession and good, experienced ones stay on and keep improving because they are appreciated in the classroom, the department of education, city hall and the statehouse, the home, the media, and the street. Politicians have long declared that they want to improve our schools (insisting that they “honor teaching”), but it’s hard to understand how denigrating teachers and restricting their rights does anything but make matters worse. We’ve been complaining for a very long time that U.S. schools are performing badly in comparison with several systems in the rest of the world, among them South Korea, Singapore, and Finland. Would it surprise anyone to learn that in those countries, and many others with better-performing schools, the teacher is a figure of respect and honor? (They are also paid better than they are here—often as much as first-year physicians or other highly-regarded professionals.) You think there might be a connection? Speak of a no-brainer.

[A contingent of National Board Certified teachers plans to march in Washington, D.C. and around the country to protest the attacks on teachers and teaching. The Save Our Schools March will take place in Washington on Saturday, 30 July 2011, starting at noon with a rally on the Ellipse (preceded by performances and other events). At 2:00 p.m., the demonstrators will march to the Department of Education where they will read a list of demands and issue a call to action. Following the demonstration at DoE, the marchers will return to the Ellipse for a closing ceremony. There will be parallel activities in cities around the country for participants who can’t travel to Washington; information will be available at twitter.com/#!/SOSMarch or www.causes.com/causes/556335-save-our-schools-march-and-national-call-to-action.]

12 May 2011

“Nothing But My Genius”: Oscar Wilde Discovers America

By Brian
& Richard E. Kramer


[Back in the spring of 1986, I took a class at NYU called Production Dramaturgy. The course project was to make an adaptation of non-dramatic material for a stage performance so my partner, Brian Drutman, and I decided to draw on the aphorisms and other sayings of Oscar Wilde (supplemented, I admit, with quotations from several of his plays) to compile an “illustrated lecture” of Wilde’s visit to the United States. (Wilde had left England on 24 December 1881 to tour the U.S. and lecture on Aestheticism, not only a popular subject of the day, but one with which Wilde had been associated, even in caricature. He stayed in America until 27 December 1882.) Our concept was that while Wilde was lecturing, the “slides” would be brought to life by a small cast speaking the writer’s words in brief scenes, the dialogue for which was taken from his occasional comments about America. The performance was to be fashioned in the style of a Victorian music hall (akin to our vaudeville) entertainment.

[Aphorisms such as “Women—sphinxes without secrets” and whole sections of dialogue appear in many of Wilde’s writings and in his conversations as well. He was not one to abandon a good line, whether he had used it before himself, or someone else had originated it. A case in point is an occasion when Wilde admired a remark of James McNeill Whistler, the American painter who lived in London. “I wish I had said that,” he applauded. “You will, Oscar,” rejoined Whistler, “you will.” (Like the section below of one-liners accompanying projections of caricatures of Wilde, we thought there might also be a section that would include actual photographs of the luminaries with whom Wilde associated, and about whom he often spoke. Whistler would be included, of course, as well as the actress Lillian Russell, who appeared in the American production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta Patience, for which he served as an inspiration (as a figure of ridicule), and for the American opening of which (22 September at the Standard Theatre, New York) he traveled to America.

[Though Brian and I worked out the whole text in outline, the class requirement was only to produce a sample scene, so we assembled the dialogue only for two sections, reproduced below. (There are far more sources of material than those on which we drew, including Wilde’s own Impressions of America (1906) as well as newspaper accounts of his arrival and tour, and a full realization of the project would have included mining these for more quips and maxims, but our class project didn’t allow for extensive research; an actual adaptation for a theater’s season would have required it, however.) The program is made up not of scenes, but of thematic blocks, each dealing with a different aspect of American society as Wilde sees it. The blocks cover Travel, Art, Men & Women, Marriage & Divorce, Parents & Children, and Manners & Behavior. We also panned two sets of Interludes with songs and other late-19th-century diversions.

[The title of the piece, Nothing But My Genius, comes from a response Wilde uttered upon first setting foot on American soil in 1882. When the writer disembarked from the SS Arizona in New York on 2 January, he was asked by a customs inspector what he had to declare. “Nothing,” Wilde quipped, “Nothing but my genius.” The sample scenes were completed on 12 May 1986.]

* * * *

The Players:

OSCAR WILDE: A man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, made up to represent Wilde in 1883, when he was 29.

MATURE MAN: A man over the age of 40; the Sir Robert Chiltern or Lord Caversham type in Wilde’s plays.

MATURE WOMAN: A woman over the age of 40; the Lady Bracknell or Duchess of Berwick type.

YOUNG MAN: A man in his late 20’s or early 30’s; the Dorian Gray, Algernon Moncrieff, or Jack Worthing type.

YOUNG WOMAN: A woman in her 20’s; the Lady Windermere, Cecily Cardew, or Gwendolen Fairfax type.

THE PIANIST: A young woman, probably in her early 20’s; very attractive in a wholesome sort of way. She should be a soprano with a pleasing, but non-operatic voice.

(Despite their resemblance to the Britons in Wilde’s writings, all of the characters except WILDE and THE PIANIST, and others where specifically indicated, are Americans.)

It is 1883 and Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills WILDE (1854-1900), the renowned Anglo-Irish poet, critic, novelist, and lecturer on “aesthetics,” has recently returned from a well-publicized trip to the United States (2 January-27 December 1882). He is lecturing in England to an English audience about his impressions of America and about his views on American society. It is a portrait of the United States painted with Wilde’s sensibility. He’s appearing in a traditional proscenium style auditorium. That is to say, it has a raised stage with wings and an area for paying customers in front. The room resembles a late-19th-century Lyceum or lecture hall. Box seats, while not necessary to the presentation itself, would certainly add to the ambiance and authenticity of such a setting. If an actual period theater, such as Ford’s Theatre in Washington, cannot be used, then the designer should, through drawings, photographs, or any other means, strive to make the space as authentic as possible. In front of the theater should hang showbills which advertise the entertainment, and also list the subjects on the program in their order of appearance. These should be in the style and language of the period. The object is to simulate the trappings and conditions of an actual travelogue and illustrated lecture in the late 19th century.

Wilde’s talk is divided into thematic blocks, each with its own title, and directors are free to choose whether they will display the title with a magic-lantern slide, in accord with the concept for much of the visual material, or with a placard or sandwich-board so popular in the music halls and vaudeville. The blocks are Travel (including all of Wilde’s adventures journeying by rail and boat, and some discussion of American history and the building of the American nation); Art (WILDE’s pontifications on American painting, including his experiences with James McNeill Whistler, sculpture and music, and the criticism of these fields; also discussion of Patience); Men & Women; Marriage & Divorce (in both blocks: men, women, and a partial discussion of marriage and relations between the genders in America); Parents & Children (WILDE harps on the touchy issue of American child rearing, children’s education, and the eternal differences between youth and maturity); Manners & Behavior (a discourse on American society and WILDE’s views on such matters as smoking, recreation, and work). The various techniques and rhythms that are used in the two scenes below will reappear elsewhere in the production. The slide-to-live-action and live-action-to-slide sequences, as well as slides with voice-over and slides without commentary will all be several blocks. Some techniques that do not appear at all in the two scenes below, but were considered for other sequences, include repeated lines and phrases that WILDE often used on more than one occasion.

There are Interludes between the “Art” and “Men & Women” blocks, and between “Parents & Children” and “Manners & Behavior.” One of these must certainly include the handsome young lady at the pianoforte who will sing appropriate selections. Other members of the ensemble may join in. (During the interludes, one bit should include the song “Am I Alone” from Patience accompanied by the engraving “The Aesthetic Monkey.”)

Stage right, at the proscenium arch, stands a lectern or podium which will be used by the actor playing Oscar WILDE. The curtain is down as the program begins. A young woman is playing the piano as the audience enters the auditorium. The piece should be the overture of an operetta or any other lively period work. The program begins with WILDE’s entrance from stage left. He should be dressed in his famous (or notorious) “aesthetic” attire. That is to say, a red velvet suit with knee britches and floppy necktie. His hair should be shoulder length, and in one hand he should hold a sunflower, his trademark. (The sunflower motif might also be used to decorate the playbills and handbills that announce this engagement.) WILDE crosses to center stage and acknowledges the applause with an appreciative bow. He then continues to the podium and begins the lecture.

WILDE introduces himself in tongue-in-cheek manner. He “warms-up” the audience with his witticisms. He then explains the nature of the evening lecture. As WILDE gives his introduction, the curtain should rise to reveal a double scrim against which slides will be projected. The slides should be of the style and quality of the photographs of the period. The actors playing the characters in the production will have been posed and photographed in period clothing inside or in front of the featured buildings and locales. The idea is to simulate actual hand-painted glass magic-lantern slides. Posing the actors in front of a painted setting or backdrop to be photographed is also a possibility. This technique was widely practiced at the time. (At times, the slides do not behave as they are supposed to, occasionally being upside down, reversed, broken or just in the wrong order.) One scrim is at an angle stage left and the other at an angle stage right. Each should be three-quarters of the way downstage.

BLOCK 4: MEN & WOMEN

WILDE

During the introduction, and at several other times when WILDE speaks, slides coinciding with what he is saying will be projected onto the scrims onstage. The specific places where slides change are marked with an asterisk (*).

The contrast between American men and women interests me. When traveling abroad, the women make our beauties jealous by their clever wit and the men wander about in a melancholy manner treating the old world as if it were a Broadway store [*American couple in front of the Louvre buying a copy of the Mona Lisa from a street artist] and each city a counter for the sampling of shoddy goods.


[*MATURE MAN hosting WILDE] At home the American man is the best of companions, as he is the most hospitable of hosts. [*The women at leisure] Nevertheless, it is only the women who have any leisure at all; and, as a necessary result of this curious state of things, there is no doubt but that, within a century from now, the whole culture of the New World will be in petticoats [*an advertisement for foundations garments].

On the scrim stage left a magic-lantern slide is projected. After enough time has elapsed for the audience fully to comprehend the projected picture, the scrim shall rise, taking the projected image with it.

The actors are revealed onstage, posed in the same positions they held in the photographs: a tableau vivant of the photographed scene. The costumes should be identical to those in the picture. The actors “come to life” and begin the scene. The idea is to create the feeling that the slide has dissolved into living actors. Any props, such as tables or chairs will be revealed with the actors. There will be no background scenery once the slide has disappeared; the actors must evoke the place. The process should be the same for most of the slides featured in the program.

This scene features two men, one mature and the other younger, posed in front of a woman’s lingerie or corset shop, perhaps the kind found on Broadway or Fifth Avenue. They are waiting for their wives, and are dressed in high period New York style with top hat and walking stick. The slide dissolves.

YOUNG MAN

I think she is a genius.

MATURE MAN

My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.

YOUNG MAN
But I don’t understand?

MATURE MAN

That is the point. You should never try to understand them. Woman are pictures. men are problems. If you want to know what a woman really means—which, by the way, is ways a dangerous thing to do—look at her, don’t listen to her.
YOUNG MAN

But women are awfully clever, aren’t they?

MATURE MAN

One should always tell them so.

YOUNG MAN

How can a woman have so much power as you say she has?

MATURE MAN

The history of women is the history of the worst form of tyranny the world has ever known. The Tyranny of the weak over the strong. It is the only tyranny that lasts.

YOUNG MAN

Still, there are many different kinds of women, aren’t there?

MATURE MAN

I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women in America: The plain and the scarlet. The plain are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her daughter, she is satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five woman in this city worth talking to and two of them can’t be admitted into decent society.

YOUNG MAN

Really! There are good women in America, aren’t there?


MATURE MAN

Far too many.

The MATURE MAN exits stage right, and a period slide portrait of Lily Langtry is projected on the stage-left scrim. The YOUNG MAN takes center stage as WILDE crosses to him and hands him the sunflower and returns to the podium. Alone, YOUNG MAN recites to the portrait:

YOUNG MAN

A lily girl, not made for this world’s pain,
With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears,
And longing eyes half veiled by slumb’rous tears
Like bluest water seen through mists of rain;
Pale cheeks whereon no love hath left its stain,
Red underlip drawn in for fear of love,
And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove,
Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein.
Yet, though my lips shall praise her without cease,
Even to kiss her feet I am not bold,
Being o’ershadowed by the wings of awe.
Like Dante, when he stood with Beatrice
Beneath the flaming Lion’s breast and saw
The seventh Crystal, and the Stair of Gold.

Lights out on YOUNG MAN and up on WILDE.

WILDE

Charming, utterly charming. Indeed, American girls are little oases of pretty unreasonableness in a vast dessert of practical common sense.

The YOUNG WOMAN rises from a planted seat in the audience. She addresses WILDE in the English tones of one of the actual paying customers.

YOUNG WOMAN

Excuse me, Mr. Wilde, but I feel that they are far to pretty. These American girls carry off all the good matches. Why can’t they stay in their own country? They are always telling us that it is a paradise of women.

WILDE

It is, my dear. That is why, like Eve, they are so extremely anxious to get out of it.

YOUNG WOMAN

What is more, one never knows who their parents are.

WILDE

American women are wonderfully clever in concealing their parents.

YOUNG WOMAN exits near the stage and takes her place for the next slide.

WILDE

As for American men, they are entirely given to business. They have, as they say, their brains in front of their heads. At an age when we are still boys at Eton, or lads at Oxford, [*a boy clerking or apprenticing] they are practicing some important profession, making money in some intricate business. [*Men at work] Real experience seems to come to them such sooner than it does to us. I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is like hitting below the intellect.

[*Affable young men] The young men are, nevertheless, especially pleasant, with their bright eyes and their unwavering energy. If the English girl ever met one, she would marry him; and if she married him, she would be happy. [*More affable young men] For, though he may be rough in manner and deficient in the picturesque insincerity of romance, he is invariably kind and thoughtful. America must be the only country in the world where Don Juan is not appreciated.

On the scrim stage right, a slide shows MATURE WOMAN and YOUNG WOMAN strolling in a well-groomed park. They are dressed with beautiful bonnets and parasols. The slide dissolves.

MATURE WOMAN

Men always want to be a woman’s first love. That is their clumsy vanity. We women have a more subtle instinct about things. What we like is to be a man’s last romance.

YOUNG WOMAN

You don’t mean to tell me that you won’t forgive a man because he never loved anyone else? I think it greatly to their credit. It is much to be regretted that a wife should be so persistently frivolous under the impression apparently that it is the proper thing to be. It is to that I attribute the unhappiness of marriages.

MATURE WOMAN

My dear, I don’t think the frivolity of the wife has ever anything to do with it. More marriages are ruined nowadays by the common sense of the husband than by anything else. How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly rational being?

YOUNG WOMAN

Then, tell me your conception of the Ideal Husband.

MATURE WOMAN

The Ideal Husband? This couldn’t be such a thing. The institution is wrong.

The stage goes black. Alternately on the two scrims, various slides of period caricatures, drawings and cartoons of WILDE are projected with voice-over one-liners by various of the company.

MATURE MAN

I sometimes think that God in creating man, somewhat overestimated His ability.

YOUNG WOMAN

How many men there are in modern life who would like to see their past burning to white ashes before them!

MATURE WOMAN

. . . I don’t like compliments, and I don’t see shy a man should think he’s pleasing a woman enormously when he says to her a whole heap of things that he doesn’t mean.

YOUNG MAN

Women are sphinxes without secrets.

Lights back up on WILDE.

BLOCK 5: MARRIAGE & DIVORCE

WILDE

[*A wedding] Marriage is not a thing one can do new and again, except, of course in America. On the whole, howeer, there is a great success in the states and it is due partly to the fact that no American man is ever idle and [*dinner party] partly due to the fact that no American wife is considered responsible for the quality of her husband’s dinners. In America, the horrors of domesticity are almost entirely unknown. Of course married life is merely a habit, a bad habit. (WILDE looks up to see that no slide has been projected onto the scrim. He pauses momentarily, then continues, hoping the slide projectionist will catch up with him.) But one regrets the loss of even one’s worst habits. (WILDE looks up again. When still no slide appears, he takes several pages of his lecture notes and tosses them over his shoulder. He clears his throat before going on.) [*A hotel of boarding house] The Yankee habit of living in hotels and boarding-houses does away with any necessity for those hideous têtes-à-têtes that are the dream of engaged couples and the despair of married ones.

On the scrim stage left, the slide shows the interior of a typically American men’s club. A possible choice is the tennis club and casino at Newport, RI, designed by Stanford White. The men are relaxing over a game or papers, and they smoke cigars. The slide dissolves.

MATURE MAN

The amount of women in this city who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.

YOUNG MAN

With all due respect to you, Sir, I believe that girls do not flirt with the men that they marry. They do not think it right.

MATURE MAN

That is nonsense.

YOUNG MAN

It isn’t. It is a great truth. It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place.

MATURE MAN

Well, once they are married, then, they flirt with their husbands. Even across the dinner table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent . . . and this sort of thing is enormously on the increase. Furthermore, it’s most dangerous for a husband to pay much attention to his wife in public. It always makes people think that he beats her when they’re alone.

Several slides of the women in various locations and activities are shown without commentary. Among them, one is upside down and one is jammed in the projector. Finally, a slide appears of the two women sitting at a table and chairs with afternoon refreshments. The slide dissolves into the scene.

MATURE WOMAN

You see, it is a very dangerous thing to listen. If one listens, one may be convinced and a man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a thoroughly unreasonable person.

YOUNG WOMAN

Ah! That accounts for so much in men that I have never understood, and so much in women that our husbands never appreciate in us.

MATURE WOMAN

(With a sigh) Our husbands never appreciate anything is us. We have to go to others for that!

YOUNG WOMAN

(Emphatically) Yes, always to others, have we not?

MATURE WOMAN

My husband is quite hopelessly faultless. He is really unendurably so, at times. There is not the smallest element of excitement in knowing him.

YOUNG WOMAN

Mine is quite as bad; he is as domestic as if he was a bachelor.

MATURE WOMAN

My poor dear. We have married perfect husbands, and we are well punished for it.

YOUNG WOMAN

(Laughing) My husband would say it was they who were punished.

MATURE WOMAN

Oh, dear, no! They are as happy as possible. And as for trusting us, it is tragic how much they trust us.

YOUNG WOMAN

Perfectly tragic.

The women form a tableau which is replaced by a slide of the identical scene as the scrim closes around the actors. Several slides of domestic scenes follow without commentary, then a slide of a theater marquee is projected, followed by a slide of a famous American comic actor of the period. The lights come up on WILDE.

WILDE

I once saw a well-known American actor perform a scene in pajamas. There has since been the greatest sympathy for his wife. It throws a lurid light on the difficulties of their married life.

* * * *
[At the time Brian and I assembled Nothing But My Genius, only two Wilde bio-movies had been released (Oscar Wilde, 1960, with Robert Morley as the writer; The Trails of Oscar Wilde, also 1960, starring Peter Finch); since 1986, of course, Stephen Fry made Wilde in 1997. On stage, Wilde had been portrayed in an obscure French play, Le Procès d’Oscar Wilde (The trial of Oscar Wilde) by Maurice Rostand (1934), and somewhat less obscure English one, Leslie and Sewall Stokes’s Oscar Wilde (1938, the basis for the 1960 film of the same title), then in Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1997.

[I’ve edited the front matter of the script a little, but the scenes themeselves are presented just as Brian and I composed them 25 years ago. I didn’t get Brian Drutman’s permission to post this project, though he owns half of it. I’m afraid I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing now. I’m sure he won’t object to sharing our effort with readers on ROT.]