Monday, October 29, 2018

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Source of book: We own all the Harry Potter books...but this one was the Stephen Fry audiobook version borrowed from a friend.


Yep, I finally have had my Harry Potter initiation, and can now take my place in Hufflepuff.

How did I manage to miss reading Harry Potter back in the day? Well, the first book came out when I was age 20, and at the time wasn’t really reading kids books. More like classics and law related stuff. As the tail end of Gen X, HP wasn’t really my generation’s thing. That was the most important factor.

The other was that in the Fundie subculture I was in, Harry Potter was looked on (at first) as amusing but suspect for the magical content or even (as the series went on) as the gateway into the occult. Yeah, it was an interesting time and place. To be clear, my parents were never as Fundie as many, even if we did spend time in Bill Gothard’s cult. But we did have some embarrassing moments, such as burning a few Tolkien books. (Yeah, I wince about that a lot. At least they were trade paperbacks which were falling apart anyway. And my parents changed their mind and went to the LoTR movies with us when they came out.) So, at least in the circles I ran in, HP wasn’t cool. So I just never read them.

In hindsight, of course, I missed out on what is probably the most important cultural touchstone of Gen Y - and indeed of just about everyone younger than me. My wife has gone so far as to say that understanding HP is going to be crucial for understanding Millennials. And I agree.

Just to give one example: I adopted the moniker “The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named” to refer to a certain white nationalist narcissistic sociopath who somehow ended up rising to power. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one. A couple months ago, a few of the kids and I went to see the Punch Brothers down in LA - and Chris Thile, who has been outspoken against TTWSNBN - used “He Who Shall Not Be Named” as well. So I am in good company. (Seriously, if you haven’t discovered Chris Thile, he is a freaking musical genius, and may have actual wizard skills on the mandolin. Not All Who Wander Are Lost is one of my favorite all-time albums, and his latest solo effort, Thanks For Listening, has been a godsend for explaining the experience of people like me trying to navigate family and friendship in the era of emboldened racism, hate, and fascism - which a distressing number of friends and family support. And the Punch Brothers are simply astonishingly good in concert. Worth every penny.)

Anyway, I finally did it, and started with Harry Potter.

Astute HP fans will notice that I used the original British title. That is intentional. We listened to the UK version of the book, with that title, and a lot of Britishisms which were changed for the US version of the book. It is difficult to get UK versions here in the US, while the US versions are ubiquitous. My kids have read (and re-read) the US versions, so they were fascinated by the differences in the UK. Such things as the gratuitous use of “queue” and “lorry” and such - and also “trainers” for what we call “sneakers” here. This wasn’t really a problem for me or the kids, though, as we all read British literature avidly. Such luminaries as P. G. Wodehouse come to mind as excellent sources of Britishisms.

The most important difference, though, in my view, is suggested by the title. Apparently, the publishing powers that be didn’t think that American children were smart enough to know what the Philosopher’s Stone was. I suspect that a generation of much-maligned Millennials would be happy to disagree with that assessment. My children, certainly, were irate that they were disrespected so.

In any case, the UK version is great. Stephen Fry should be enlisted to narrate as many audiobooks as possible, because he is fantastic. And Harry Potter was fun.

Just a few comments. First, as my brother (who read the books long before I did) pointed out, the writing is a bit uneven - particularly in the earlier books. There were a few moments where I felt things could have been done better. Overall, the writing itself was decent, but not transcendent. The characters felt a bit underdeveloped, although that is the risk in any shorter kids book. It is my understanding that it gets better as the series goes on. The story, though, is indeed highly imaginative, suspenseful, and engrossing. Harry is believable, Hagrid is delightful, and by the standards of the time, Rowling went against stereotypes. In particular, Hermione took the role as the nerdy sidekick often reserved for males. And Ron wasn’t the dumb jock - he combines a certain street sense with knowledge of chess and other “nerd” signifiers. It’s not that Rowling was the first to do this or anything, but she deserves credit for bringing a more feminist and less gender essentialist viewpoint to mainstream - nay, superstar - pop culture.

I also want to mention that having read the first book, I do have to agree with another ex-fundie writer (I can’t remember who at the moment) pointed out that the real reason Fundies freaked out about the books wasn’t so much the magic, but the fact that the books support the idea of going against authority when that authority is wrong, or even evil. Having lived through Gothard, and his fundamental idea that obedience to authority was “god’s way” and that failing to obey in every respect - including adopting one’s “authority”’s cultural preferences - I can see why books like this would be problematic. Which leads me to the final point.

I think that it was a line near the end of the book which really was the most important. It comes from Professor Quirrell, who has been possessed by Voldemort. After Harry tracks him to the hiding place of the Stone, Quirrell explains to Harry what he has learned from Voldemort:

“There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.”

On the one hand, this is nothing new to literature. I mean, villains since time immemorial have combined a lack of morality with a lust for power - it is pretty much part of the villain union contract. Whether historical figures (say, Julius Caesar, or Hitler, to pick two examples) or the movies (Star Wars - to use MY generation’s cultural touchstone), or theory (pick your myth…), this is part of human nature. Specifically, there have always been people like Voldemort - and people like Quirrell, more than willing to kiss the dirty ass of the powerful and cruel to gain their own advantage.

In fact, that is the real story both in the book - and in reality the last few years. (And believe me, many of the younger folk see the parallel really well.) The story isn’t that people like Voldemort and Trump (and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell for that matter) exist. Of course they do. The real story is who the Quirrells are.

Just as Harry and friends are rather startled to discover that it isn’t the unpleasant Snape that is the traitor, many of us have been disappointed to realize that it is the white Evangelicals in our life that are willing to overlook every kind of evil in exchange for the chance at power. (Well, that and the change to further their no-longer-hidden racism…) If any line exemplifies what I see happening, it is the one above. After a lifetime of being told that good and evil matter. And that racism is evil, adultery and rape are wrong, and slandering others is turns out that for white Evangelicals… “there is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” As soon as there was the smell of power, all morality went out the window.

Baby Boomers, you might want to take note. Despite the endless onslaught of articles bitching about how horrible the Millennials are, they actually read more than you do. And Harry Potter is a huge reason why. When they see you selling your souls for political power - and for the opportunity to harm people outside your tribe (don’t get me started on the racist shit I keep hearing from Trump supporters I know) - they are seeing it through this lens. The lust for power trumps (pun intentional) everything else, from the morality we were taught, to basic human decency.

I look forward to experiencing the rest of the Harry Potter books. It appears that Stephen Fry narrated all of them, so I hope to continue that trend. 


My second daughter (age 14 - and snarky as heck) still thinks I am a muggle. She's the one who just called "good night old man" down the hall. But don't get me wrong, she is a great young lady who is one of the hardest working and most helpful people ever, and we have a mutual sarcasm thing going here. She is very much a Ravenclaw - and she wears her Ravenclaw gear to school regularly. She will probably read this post and tell me all the things I got wrong. 


When I was in Jr. High, I had a huge crush on Anne of Green Gables. If I had been born later, I can tell that I would have crushed so hard on Emma Watson. And really, as a grown woman, she is damn hot, and apparently smart as heck. So there you have it, one of my celebrity crushes. My wife can dream of David Tennant. ;) I'll go with Emma Watson and Megan Follows...

Monday, October 22, 2018

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Every October, we pick a spooky book, and dress up for the occasion. (My wife made me a scrabble board shirt…)

This is one of those classic horror books that I hadn’t read. Actually, I haven’t read any Ira Levin - his other major work was The Stepford Wives, which has certainly become part of our cultural background. 

The basic plot is fairly simple. Young couple moves to new apartment in an old building with a history of tragic events. They become friends with an eccentric older couple on the same floor. The wife becomes pregnant under odd circumstances, has a painful and difficult pregnancy, and ends up giving birth to the Devil’s spawn.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the way that, until the very end, there are multiple explanations for the events that do not involve the supernatural, and these explanations are actually more plausible.

It is apparent, for example, that Rosemary’s husband, Guy, is a self-centered jerk. As the book goes on, his behavior definitely veers into abuse and control. I am not sure how this would have played in 1967, but it seems pretty creepy now.

Added to that is the fact that Rosemary seems to be going somewhat crazy throughout the pregnancy. In fact, if it weren’t for Guy’s suspicious actions, it would be hard to come to any other conclusion. Well, that and the fact that nobody takes her pain seriously. My wife the nurse, however, pointed out that even now, women’s pain is all too often dismissed with a pat on the head as what they used to call “hysteria” - insanity from the uterus. (A friend suggested we need to use “testerical” for guys acting nutty. I like it.)

The book itself had some odd quirks. For example, an inordinate amount of time was spent on things like the layout of the rooms, the process of selecting furniture, and a certain closet. I assumed that these would, in some way, play a part in the story. Except they didn’t. There was never really any explanation in the second half of the book.

Another weird thing was the character of Terry, who briefly appears, then is killed off. One assumes that she was the original choice for the Devil Baby, but either kills herself or is killed. Again, practically no explanation later in the book, which seemed odd. Maybe I am just used to authors who don’t mention details that aren’t important to the story. Kind of like Chekhov and his guns - you know if one appears, it will be fired.

One final detail led me to a bit of a rabbit trail, which I figure I will inflict on you as well. “Tannis Root” plays a big role in the plot. It is the stinky core of a charm which is initially worn by Terry, then by Rosemary. As I suspected, it doesn’t actually exist in reality, but does have a symbolic meaning. The association of the city of Tanis, Egypt, which does exist, has long been associated with the Devil and demons in general. This association dates back a long time, to the 2nd Century CE and the works of Justin Martyr. In developing a fairly detailed system of demonology, Martyr cites both the iconic story of the Fall of Lucifer in Isaiah (which is a fairly obvious appropriation and reuse of the root story that also became the Greco-Roman myth of Phaethon) and other passages in Isaiah which purport to tell of evil rulers in Tanis. Thus, Martyr builds the idea that the fallen angels congregate in Tanis. This whole edifice depends on a mistranslation of the Hebrew text in the Septuagint. You can read a rather long explanation here if you like. But essentially, you have a story of earthly rulers taking on divine titles (hubris, yes?) and suffer a catastrophic fall (nemesis), which is then made into proof of the idea of rebellious angels, then a mistranslation placing them in Tanis, and then the use of Tanis as a shorthand for demonic activity. From there, you can look at a long history of the Tanis/Satan connection in literature and theological writing. The final connection here is the “tanna” plant, another fictional plant used in early mummy movies. It isn’t clear if this was expressly a reference to Tanis or not, but the similarity certainly could (and did) lead to a conflation of the Tanis/Devil connection and the Tanna/Devils Weed idea. So there you have it.

This was a fairly light read, which is kind of the idea for Spooky Lush - something even the less serious book nuts in our club can enjoy, and one which gives a good theme for food and costumes. Given that the book - and even more so the movie - are part of our culture, it is a good thing that I read it. I should probably do the same for The Stepford Wives one of these days.


For those who care to follow along, here are the books that I have read for our club. Camping and music schedules have made me miss a number of months, although my wife has attended more - she started first as well, before talking me into going. It’s been a blast.

One of the best things about the club is reading books that probably would never have come to my attention otherwise.


By popular demand: the Scrabble Board costume.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was my selection for Banned Books Week. At 415 pages, it took longer than a week, but I did start it during Banned Books Week.

Just as a reminder, I use the week to read books which have been banned, which means that a government has outlawed sale, publication, or possession of the book. I do not count challenged books - those which citizens or parents have sought to keep out of school curricula or libraries. This isn’t because I think challenges are interesting, but because I wanted to focus my once a year project on those where the power of the state was employed in censorship. I believe that is a different level from a challenge. After all, any library has limited space and budget, and decisions must be made. (Personally, I would have preferred an extra - and local - copy of The Rest is Noise rather than one of the 20ish copies of Eat, Pray, Love.) Likewise, students can only study so many books, and the choice of which to study is a judgment call.

Here are my past selections, plus the introduction to Banned Books Week.


This is another book which was - believe it or not - banned by a Western democracy during my lifetime. Several states banned it during the 1970s, as did Dallas, TX (1977) and Snoqualmie, WA (1979.) Ostensibly, the book was banned for referring to women as “whores.” This seems a bit specious, since the women in question were, strictly speaking, prostitutes. While there is sexual content, it isn’t particularly graphic, and it certainly isn’t gratuitous. For the 1970s (seriously, watch a movie from that era…), it is pretty tame. I suspect that two facets of the novel were what really drove the bans: it is somewhat anti-war - and it raises uncomfortable theological questions. With the 1970s as kind of ground zero for the fundamentalist Religious Right, I suspect that a novelist who raised the still-unsolved and debated Problem of Evil was unwelcome.

What Catch-22 is, without question, is one of the most important and influential novels of the 20th Century. I am kind of surprised that I didn’t end up reading any of it in high school, honestly, because at least one chapter seems like a perfect selection. I guess they can’t have you read everything. I can see the influence of the book on our perception of military life. Written in 1961, it is ostensibly set in World War II, but was intended by the author as a commentary not on that war, but on the Cold War - and even more so on the McCarthy hearings. To that end, there are multiple references to loyalty oaths and specific incidents from the hearings.

Catch-22’s vision of military life permeates so much of what was written or filmed thereafter. As a kid, I loved the Beetle Bailey comic strips - which draw a lot from the book, although the comic is more lighthearted. My dad’s favorite TV show, M*A*S*H, reuses a number of tropes - and the idea of using a satire of one war to critique another. As others have pointed out, The Office is to a certain degree Catch-22 without the blood. I suspect that having read this book, I will see even more references in popular culture.

The book isn’t a linear narrative. Rather, the first part of the book essentially tells a portion of the story (which is really the middle of the plot) from the point of view of various characters, filling in the missing pieces. As the story then progresses, more and more is told, but again, not in chronological order. It is rather like building a jigsaw puzzle from the center out, except you can’t figure out what stuff is until near the end.

The setting is the liberation (or invasion...take your pick) of Italy during the height of World War II. At that point, D-Day was in the future, and the outcome of the war was still in doubt, even though the tide had turned. The characters are part of an airborne bomber group flying B-25s. Unline the better known B-17 (one of the best looking bombers of the era, in my view) and the B-24 (much larger, and with a longer range, this was used in the Western Europe and Pacific theaters), the B-25 was a smaller two-engined bomber. The B-25 had a good reputation as one of the most durable aircraft of the war, reliable, and versatile. Because of its roles, however, it ended up being used for lower level bombing runs, which made it vulnerable to anti-aircraft flak, even if (as was the case in the book), there was no opposition from enemy fighters.

 B-25 operated by the Commemorative Air Force, at the Miramar USMC Station, 2018

One of the great things about this book was the realism in the airborne scenes. This is because Heller, like his anti-hero Yossarian, was a bombardier/navigator on a B-25 in Italy. In that sense, the book draws heavily from Heller’s own experiences. I’m a bit of an aviation buff - my dad was was an amateur pilot in his younger days, and was an air traffic controller before his retirement - and I grew up around aircraft. I still love flying (although airport security not so much), and my wife snickers at the way my head swivels whenever I hear or see an airplane.

However, Heller was quick to point out that while his experience in war helped him write the technical aspects of this book, he most certainly did not base his characters on his experiences. Heller said that his fellow soldiers and commanding officers were, by and large, exemplary men, and, while he suffered trauma as the result of war, he had nothing but positive feelings for those he served with. The book was therefore, not primarily a working out of his own baggage from the war, but a veiled commentary on the 1950s - specifically the McCarthy era, as noted above.

Catch-22 doesn’t have a hero in the traditional sense. There are a few more or less admirable minor characters, but for the most part, everyone is badly flawed or outright malevolent. And the central character, Yossarian, is a classic anti-hero. He is a coward, a lazy bastard, an insubordinate son-of-a-bitch, and more. (His commanding officers are certainly right to call him these things.) But, there is some mitigation. At the outset of the story, all personnel are supposed to be furloughed after a certain number of missions. That is the official policy. But Colonel Cathcart, who commands the unit, is determined to get his name into a magazine back home with a glowing story. And so he keeps raising the number of missions. So Yossarian and the others never get to go home. Here is the classic scene which explains the...well… “catch-22.”

“Daneeka was telling the truth,” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen admitted.” Forty missions is all you have to fly as far as Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters is concerned.”
Yossarian was jubilant. “Then I can go home, right? I’ve got forty-eight.”
“No, you can’t go home,” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen corrected him. “Are you crazy or something??”
“Why not.”
“Catch-22?” Yossarian was stunned. “What the hell has Catch-22 got to do with it?”
“Catch-22,” Doc Daneeka answered patiently, when Hungry Joe had flown Yossarian back to Pianosa, “says you’ve always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to.”
"But Twenty-seventh Air Force says I can go home with forty missions."
"But they don't say you have to go home. And regulations do say you have to obey every order. That's the catch. Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, you'd still have to fly them, or you'd be guilty of disobeying an order of his. And then Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters would really jump on you."
Yossarian slumped with disappointment. “Then I really do have to fly the fifty missions, don’t I?” he grieved.
“The fifty-five,” Doc Daneeka corrected him.

“Catch-22” is never actually stated, but its effects are explained. Here is another mention of it:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.

Every absurdity in the book comes back to “catch-22.” Yossarian eventually decides that it doesn’t actually exist - it is just the justification for the impossible situations that abound. The source of the term is fascinating. When Heller first started writing the book, he released a draft of the first chapter as “Catch-18.” His agent, however, requested that it be changed so the book wouldn’t be confused with Leon Uris’ new book, Mila 18. “Catch 11” was suggested - the repetition fit the repeated, circular conversations which abound in the book. Except that Ocean’s Eleven had just been released. (The original, Rat Pack version, not the Brad Pitt and George Clooney remake.) “Catch-17” was too close to Stalag 17, a mostly forgotten WWII movie. Finally, someone realized the obvious: “Catch-22” was the perfect number. Repetitive like 11, but even more fun to say.

And now, nobody can imagine it being anything else.

For those of us who came of age at the end of the 20th Century, it is impossible to imagine life without this idiom. But without Heller’s book, it wouldn’t even exist.

I hesitate to actually try to summarize the book beyond saying that Yossarian is determined to stop flying missions, particularly after one of his crewmates is disemboweled and dies in his arms. He finds excuses, from a vague medical issue to strategic insanity. But even though he is utterly without scruple, there is one thing he won’t do to get discharged. (I won’t spoil it.)

Pretty much all of the characters are major. (And that includes Major Major - see below.) Everyone is important in some way, and each story is developed. The characters are memorable, and you care about them - even as they are systematically killed off. At least the ones you like. The loathsome commanding officers survive, of course - they don’t have to fly missions.

The book is pretty dang dark - particularly in the last fifth. But, at the same time, it is one of the funniest books I have read. There are many lines that are indeed laugh out loud hilarious...and then you feel guilty for laughing. It is that sort of a book. On the one level, it is a mockery of politics and power. The greed of capitalistic sorts - exemplified by Milo Minderbinder’s smuggling racket (another hilarious chapter) - and the lust for power and prestige of the various commanding officers is on full and amusing display. We all know people like this.

But there is something deeper than this. Yossarian eloquently takes on the fates - God himself - for the absurdity of human suffering. This exchange occurs between Yossarian and the wife of Lt. Scheisskopf (one of several not-particularly-subtle names in this book.)

“I bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for.”
“Be thankful you’re healthy.”
“Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.”
“Be glad you’re even alive.”
“Be furious you’re going to die.”
“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objections. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about—a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did he ever create pain? … Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He? … What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. …”

This was a particularly sobering passage. I’ll admit this has been on my mind a lot lately. In particular, why God remains silent when a majority of those who claim his name continue to express hate and cruelty toward other human beings. But, really, this has been a major theme of our scripture: why the wicked prosper and are allowed to harm others, and why justice is delayed. And why God delays purging the filth from what claims to be his church.

On a somewhat related note, I was stunned to see a particularly cogent analysis of Right Wing views - and Calvinism - in this book. I mean, this is 67 years later, but it is exactly what I see going on right now.

Major Major is an, um, major character in the book. In a really hilarious way. He manages to avoid actually seeing anyone or doing anything. But his back story is also funny. His father names him, literally, “Major Major Major” when the mother is recovering from a difficult childbirth. And then, he is promoted to the rank of Major, so….Major Major Major Major. Yeah, it’s terrible. But an amusing terrible. But it isn’t this farce which is the most interesting part. Major Major’s father was a recognizable sort. Here are some excerpts of the description:

He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing freedom-loving, law abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down.

As it turns out, he is part of the racket whereby he is paid by the federal government to not grow alfalfa. I won’t quote the whole section, but it is both accurate and freaking hilarious. And also a great description of how the Right LOVES socialism...for certain white people. Oh, and it gets better:

Major Major’s father had a Calvinist’s faith in predestination and could perceive distinctly how everyone’s misfortunes but his own were expressions of God’s will.

Can I use “amen” here? Because this is so amazingly true in our own time. The resurgence of Calvinism parallels the embrace of Social Darwinism by the Religious Right. And the two are absolutely connected - as Heller notes here. (This could be an entire blog post.) Basically, the misfortunes of, say, the working poor, or brown skinned people, or those born outside of the United States - all these are God’s will - and judgment on “those” people for being wicked. But the misfortunes of Calvinist whites, well, those are due to the depredations of those dirty poor people, or the dirty brown-skinned people. Heller was right on. Socialism for certain middle or upper class white people is fine. It’s just when you extend that to the less privileged that it becomes “socialism.”

I’m going to end with a lighter note. Yossarian is hardly an admirable character. But he is such a force of chaos and divergent thinking that you can’t really hate him - unless you lack a sense of humor. There is this delightful exchange between him and Major Sanderson:

“Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?”
“Yes, sir, it has.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“To assuage my fears of sexual impotence.”

I literally am laughing out loud just typing that one again. This is classic Yossarian: refusing to play the game, turning the rhetoric back on its user, and cutting to the heart of the issue. This is why he is a wonderful anti-hero. You really should hate him...but you can’t, because he is all too right. He sees through the rules of social behavior, the lies of honor and duty, and says what we think, but can’t bring ourselves to articulate. Yossarian (and Heller) tear away the mask, and show that protocol has replaced principle, “alternative facts” have replaced truth, and reason is now just a rigamarole to justify presupposition. It is largely how I feel about the sophistry that has been unmasked within my own religious tradition. Truth and human decency and the needs of real human beings are subordinated to power, culture wars, and self aggrandizement.

I probably wouldn’t have appreciated this book as a teen, and definitely appreciate it more in my 40s, with the sort of experience to make one a cynic, despite my generally sanguine tendencies. I can say for certain that this book is more humorous than I expected, even if dark and philosophical. It was definitely worth reading, and I think it earns its place as one of the best novels of the last century.

Friday, October 19, 2018

How to Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

It seems like every so often, I end up reading a group of books that all connect somehow. I’m not sure how much is coincidence, serendipity, or some subconscious part of me that picks stuff. In this case, this book has a direct connection to another book - Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope - and a musical - My Fair Lady - which I have reviewed recently. I experienced all three simultaneously to a degree, so the connections were obvious.

All of these center around the idea of creating the perfect woman. In other words, the Pygmalion and Galatea myth.


The Enlightenment was a pretty heady time. New discoveries, new ideas, grand theories, and scientific detail. A combination of a technical revolution and skepticism of authoritarian dogma turned the world on its head. As with every era, there was good and bad. Particularly pernicious was the use of science to fuel racism and eugenics. And the application of Enlightenment reasoning to religion gave us theonomic presuppositional fundamentalism. But much of what we take for granted in our own time - representative government, religious freedom, freedom of speech, science and technology, human rights, and separation of church and state - ALL derive from the Enlightenment.

In retrospect, one of the most influential figures turned out to be Jean-Jacque Rousseau. While many of his ideas seem a bit far out even today, even those who (like the fundies in the homeschool movement) claim to loathe Rousseau have actually adopted many of his assumptions. Our modern idea of education as the nurture of children rather than the beating of wickedness out of them comes from Rousseau. Self-directed learning. Hands on learning rather than rote memorization. Experience of nature as education. All Rousseau. One might even claim that the idea that children are a blank slate is an idea he popularized. Few truly attempt a fully “unschooled” learning plan as laid out in Emile, but the ideas permeate our educational institutions in more modest doses.

But what if one actually tried to follow Rousseau exactly? Well, a few did indeed try back in the 1700s.


And what of Pygmalion and Galatea? The story has been around since ancient Greece, and was retold countless times over the intervening thousands of years. Pygmalion creates a statue of the world’s most beautiful woman. He falls in love with the statue...and then it comes to life. The living woman, Galatea, though, turns out to be problematic. She has a mind of her own, and isn’t interested in dedicating her life to making Pygmalion’s dreams come true.


 Sir Thomas Day lived during this era. Born into a reasonably big fortune, he nevertheless grew up uncultured and unusual. He dressed like a slob, didn’t powder his hair, and proclaimed radical and astounding ideas at exhausting length. He ran with an interesting group of intellectuals which included Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Robert Lowell Edgeworth, and Anna Seward. They talked of philosophy and science and invention and discovery. And also about education.

Edgeworth actually tried to raise his oldest son according to the Rousseau method - it didn’t turn out well. But Day took it one step further. He decided that Rousseau’s method might work for a girl as well. (That wasn’t the way Rousseau saw it - he believed in educating women to be docile and servile - and Mary Wollstonecraft took him to task for it.) Day’s motives weren’t exactly purely scientific either. After a series of rejections, he decided he would try to raise and educate a perfect wife for himself.

This was no easy task. Day had a rather specific set of requirements. His ideal woman would have to be pure and virginal, of course. She would need to be highly intelligent and educated. But she would also need to be willing to live in a spartan cottage in the middle of nowhere with him. And to be subservient to him in every way. Day concluded that such a woman didn’t exist in Georgian society, so he would have to create her.

To that end, he adopted two adolescent girls from a local orphanage, with the intention of choosing one to train and create to be his future wife.

Day quickly discarded one of the girls, Lucretia, as too ornery - and apprenticed her to learn a trade. (This actually worked out for her - she married reasonably well, and when she last appears in any traceable record, appeared to have made a good life.) The other, he would go on to train using some bizarre and often abusive (as we would understand it) methods. He got her to withstand pain by dripping hot wax on her arms, and shot guns off near her to teach her to resist becoming startled, to name just two. Eventually, he gave up on the project and sent her to a series of finishing academies and apprenticeships - exactly the opposite of his original plan. But even so, she never really developed into his ideal mate. She married, was quickly widowed with two infants, but was looked after by Charles Burney, one of Day’s friends. Like the other, Sabrina (as she was renamed by Day) ended up living a long and good life, accumulating a modest fortune despite her humble station.

The story is the heart of this book, which follows Day and Sabrina and a few of the other characters over the course of nearly a century. The tale is both fascinating and horrifying. To a degree, that is a good way to describe Day, who was a complex man who defies easy categorization.

On the one hand, he was a noble guy: he opposed slavery (writing “The Dying Negro,” a poem about an escaped and recaptured slave), was generous to the poor - he died having given away much of his fortune, and sought positive reform in many areas of society. On the other hand, he was deeply sexist, and didn’t seem to be willing to extend human rights and dignity to women. In this, he was of his time, to be sure. But he was also pretty cruel and callous to Sabrina and Lucretia. He could be a great friend - and a total boor. Perhaps we can say that he, like most of us, was a mix of good and bad - and that the bad hasn’t aged well as the world has changed.

There is some evidence that he may have been on the autism spectrum, based on his difficulties in picking up on social cues and the feelings of others. One example of this is his beliefs about love. He didn’t believe romantic love was real. There are a number of quotes to that effect in his letters and diaries, but this one will suffice:

“Love I am firmly convinc’d is the Effect of Prejudice & Imagination; a rational Mind is incapable of it, at least in any great Degree.”

His tendency to say things like this while courting may have been a factor in his rejection by a number of women. But it might also have been his expectations. When courting Honoria Sneyd, he drew up a long and detailed summary of his expectations and requirements in a wife, along with his play to live off the grid.

Honoria rejected Day, with a polite but badass explanation. She said she “would not admit the unqualified control of a husband over all her actions” and she did not feel that “seclusion from society was indispensably necessary to preserve female virtue, or to secure domestic happiness.” Finally, she refused to believe that marital happiness could ever exist without “terms of reasonable equality.” I thoroughly agree with all of the above.

It is interesting that Day finally did find a woman who would marry him. Esther Milnes saw something in him, and did her best to be the subservient wife he expected. During the decade of their marriage (which produced no children), they had a tempestuous relationship - nobody could possibly live up to Day’s standards - but after he died, she was heartbroken, and died soon thereafter.

Another interesting fact about the marriage was this: Esther came with a fortune of her own. At the time, when a woman married, her property went straight to her husband. She essentially ceased to exist as a separate person. Day, whatever his personal beliefs about women may have been, did not agree with this idea. He proposed a prenup that allowed Esther to retain control and possession of her property. This was both unusual, and generous on his part, given the law at the time.

As I noted, this book is about a lot more than just the story of Day and Sabrina. Wendy Moore extensively researched the various people in Day’s orbit - she even tracked down Lucretia and Sabrina’s history at the orphanage - including their original names. The back stories on many of the characters make it into the story as well. Moore presents an entire world, not just a narrow view of one particular incident.

One of the interesting things about reading this book was hearing mention of the only famous people in my ancestry. I have German Mennonites on both sides of my family, while my last name comes from Sweden. Those branches are all poor but respectable farmers who immigrated to the US in the 1880s. But, on the other branch, I am related to Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter who appears in this story. My mom actually got a few hundred bucks as an inheritance when some later scion of the Wedgwood family died without issue. Wedgwood was also related to the Darwins, and there was later intermarriage. Thus, I can claim to be a relation (although not a direct descendent) of both Erasmus and Charles Darwin.

Another thing that stood out was Rousseau’s response when he found out that people were taking Emile literally as an instruction book. He never intended it to be a practical manual for child rearing. “I cannot believe that you took the book which bears this name for a real treatise on education. You are quite right to say it is impossible to create an Emile.” I can’t help but think that far too many works - particularly the bible - have been misunderstood and misused in the same way - with similarly harmful results.

I have to mention one incident from Day’s college days. Apparently, Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosphique was one book that Day read - and defended. “I cannot say I think it calculated to do so much Harm, as to deserve a public Execution.” He overheard a fellow student applauding the rumor that it would be banned. Day challenged him, and discovered that the student hadn’t even read the book. Which is pretty much how would-be censors tend to be, isn’t it?

Perhaps the most troubling part of the book, though, deals with the orphanage. The Foundling Hospital was founded by Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain who was appalled at the poverty he found in 18th Century London. The worst was the sight of dozens of abandoned babies, dead and alive, on rubbish heaps beside the road. Coram didn’t have much of his own money, but tirelessly raised both public funds and private charity. The idea was that orphans and unwanted babies could be dropped off, no questions asked.

The first night it was open, thirty babies were accepted, with more turned away. In a four year period, nearly fifteen thousand were processed. The cost, as you might expect, was pretty substantial, even though the children were apprenticed out at ages ten through twelve.

Moore briefly explores the factors at work. The Georgian era - the whole century actually - was dubbed “the century of illegitimacy,” but this isn’t quite accurate. It wasn’t that morals somehow went missing. Rather, economic and political conditions caused an upsurge. In common practice - even among the Puritans - couples would become intimate, marrying formally if and when a child was conceived. Many of these intended marriages, however, stopped taking place. Contributing factors were military conscription (dad gets drafted, so no marriage), rising cost of living, a change in the law making weddings more expensive, and rising adult mortality. It wasn’t just illegitimacy, though. Plenty of families simply couldn’t support another child. A new baby literally meant someone starved.

The Religious Right likes to pretend that somehow, before Roe v. Wade that everything was nice and rosy, and it was just the evil liberals that created a holocaust. Historically, that wasn’t even close to true. Leaving aside the fact that abortion has existed as long as recorded history, unwanted or unaffordable children have always perished - and infanticide was shockingly common throughout the Georgian and Victorian eras. On a related note, the Religious Right is delusional if it thinks that abortion will magically go away once criminalized. Doubly so since they are hostile toward contraception and efforts to alleviate poverty. What is more likely is that we will get some combination of increased mass incarceration - this time of low income and minority women - and widespread abandonment of babies. (And also, like other countries which have criminalized abortion, high abortion rates - higher than those countries in which it is legal…)

Also disturbing about this story was the ease with which Day (and Edgeworth, who as a married man was the official guardian of the girls) was able to essentially purchase a couple of children. He concealed his intent - lied - to get them, and then changed their names to cover his tracks. As the author puts it:

“At a time when women were commodities, to be exchanged in marriage for vast fortunes and land or bought in a dark alley for sixpence, Day had purchased two girls as easily as he might buy two shoe buckles.”

This was all fairly well known to many in Day’s acquaintance. And yet, because he was male, wealthy, and eccentric, people just looked the other way.

The idea of the expendability of women is also seen in the number of women in this story who give birth to a child a year (or more!) for a decade, then expire of exhaustion in their early 30s. It’s not an era I would prefer to return to, and I am a man. I cannot imagine many women would be so eager to go back to those days - even as an aristocrat - if they really understood what it was like.

After Day’s death, his story was told. Chief among those responsible was Maria Edgeworth, Richard’s eldest daughter. A novelist famous in her time, she grew up around Sabrina, and incorporated the story into one of her bestselling novels. While she didn’t specifically reveal identities, and changed a few things, people knew who she was talking about. For Sabrina, the revelation of her history was a bit embarrassing. After all, she was a respectable woman by then, and her likely illegitimacy did lower her social standing. But worse was Sabrina’s elder son John, who had no idea of his mother’s history, and was furious at Maria for exposing it.

The story was also told in various forms in other books, and entered into the popular consciousness. A century after Sabrina’s adoption, Anthony Trollope used it in Orley Farm, which I recently read. A young man more or less adopts a young ward with the understanding that he would marry her eventually. Unique to this story is that there is a father - a drunken, belligerent father.

Not too long after that, Trollope’s version was mined by George Bernard Shaw, who retained the problematic father for his play Pygmalion, which eventually became the musical My Fair Lady. And thus, the three are connected. Two of them imaginative stories - and the other a shockingly true event.

In all of them, as in the original myth, it turns out that you really can’t create your perfect wife. Humans have a way of being uncooperative in matters of the heart. Even Day, the quintessential utopian thinker, failed at his task, only to find that his soulmate was someone he wasn’t expecting. As Trollope puts it, “On the whole I think that the ordinary plan is the better, and even the safer.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe (Empty Space 2018)

A solid two decades ago, I had the pleasure of playing in the pit orchestra for California State University Bakersfield’s production of My Fair Lady. For the most part, it was a great experience. The music is wonderful, the dialogue witty, and the accents delightful. The only downside was that I never did get to actually see the musical. Oh well, such is the life of a musician.

While The Empty Space had no room or budget for a live orchestra, their production of My Fair Lady was a blast - and it really was nice to see it live.

The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, which is in turn a reference to the Greek myth, wherein the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with one of his statues, which comes to life. (By the way, the sculpture woman is named Galatea - that’s not a well known fact, for whatever reason.) The story of Pygmalion has been recounted and remade and reimagined for a few thousand years - Shaw was hardly the first. Rather, Shaw’s version was likely inspired in part by a real life Pygmalion: Sir Thomas Day, who in the mid 1700s adopted an orphan girl with the intent of sculpting her to become the perfect submissive wife. It didn’t work. A series of novels based on the tale became popular after Day’s death, and the idea remained in the popular English consciousness. In what is an interesting coincidence, I am currently reading about Sir Thomas Day - stay tuned for that review - and just finished Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm, which contains a subplot based in the story.

Shaw’s play was performed in various formats over the years, but it was Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical version which became wildly popular. For most of us, we are most familiar with the movie version, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.

From the very beginning, though, there was a great conflict between Shaw and those who produced the play. Nobody liked Shaw’s ending. In the original, Eliza walks out - and Henry is left alone.

Now, let me be fair here: Shaw was following the original source material. Galatea doesn’t take too well to Pygmalion. And, for similar reasons, Eliza (in the original play) isn’t interested in being controlled by Henry Higgins. And that is the major meaning of the story: you can’t create a perfect human female so you can control her. Not that the story has stopped anyone from trying, apparently. Ditto for parents and their children - how many billions have been spent on formulae promising to make your kids turn out the way you want them to?

I wholeheartedly agree with Shaw on this, by the way. Higgins is an amusing character, but he is basically an abusive narcissist. There is nothing cute about a potential marriage between an unreformed Henry Higgins and a newly competent Eliza Doolittle. All the Broadway magic can’t save that relationship.

Well guess what? The Empty Space, and specifically director Ron Warren, went with the more liberating - if less romantic - ending. I am impressed - well done.

Actually, there was a lot to love about the production. Warren has a degree in linguistics, and had the cast well prepared. The actors also wisely avoided the trap of trying to imitate the iconic performances from the movie - and instead made the characters their own. One of the results of this was that some of the sexist attitudes which were accepted without much comment in the movie were treated with a more modern response. I’ll mention a few as I go along.

The lead characters are extremely important in any production of My Fair Lady, because their chemistry - or lack thereof - will make or break the play. In this case, a couple of Empty Space regulars took on the roles.

Tessa Ogles has appeared in a number of local productions, most notably in Romeo and Juliet last year, where she played an innocent and naive Juliet. This role was quite a bit different. Eliza may be pure and all, but she is anything but naive. Plus, she is loud, assertive, plucky, and proud. Ogles really did a fine job in bringing out her character. In addition to the acting, Ogles has a fine voice - I would say the best in this cast - and just owned the musical numbers she was in. I hadn’t heard her sing, so this was a pleasant discovery. 

 Tessa Ogles as Eliza Doolittle
TES publicity photo

Henry Higgins was portrayed by an equally talented young actor, Tevin Joslen. I have previously mentioned his fine work in Ragtime and Angels in America. Joslen has a seemingly rubber face, with scowls and smirks and sneers enough for a whole range of characters. They were on full display in this performance. He nailed the arrogance and misogyny of Higgins - and made you believe the character really didn’t realize what he looked like. Rex Harrison was, as is well known, very much like Henry Higgins in real life - and a pain in the ass to work with. I rather doubt Joslen is in that category, but he can sure make the character believable. From previous productions, I know that Joslen sings well. In this case, he mostly followed Harrison’s singspiel method, with more talking than singing in the songs. However, there were some moments were he correctly followed the real musical line where Harrison was all over the place. (Hey, I played those songs - I know…) Despite this similarity, Joslen was no imitation of Harrison. The character was his own version of Henry - a younger and less stuffy version, perhaps, with less of a gentelle edge. I should also mention that my kids thoroughly appreciated his ninja-level tea spitting. That was impressive. 

 Tevin Joslen as Henry Higgins

Ron Warren played Colonel Pickering. I have to say that the movie did have a decided sour note with this part. No retired military office of Shaw’s time would have gone clean-shaven. Really, the character looks more like a dandy than a soldier. Warren went with epic mutton chops and a suitably gruff and rough personality. Which is how it should be. 

 Ron Warren as Colonel Pickering

Theater veteran Julie Gaines was excellent as Mrs. Pearce. It’s always a pleasure to see her in any role - she was hilarious in Arsenic and Old Lace. For this production, she was rather more feminist than in the original, with less of a silent servant persona. You can tell that she had no illusions about who Higgins was. 

 Alex Mitts as Freddy and Marti Hoyt as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill

I’ll just mention a few more. Alex Mitts gave an earnest and likeable turn as Freddy. Perrin Swanson (no relation, but I’ll take him) showed off his dance skills and more as the inebriated Alfie Doolittle. Marti Hoyt (another regular in a variety of roles) was positively poisonous as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill. As Mrs. Higgins, Cathy Henry had the gravitas to put her son well in his place. The rest of the cast filled in numerous other parts with aplomb - particular kudos for solid pitch, even when Alfie Doolittle went a little drunkenly off key. 

 Perrin Swanson as Alfred P. Doolittle

 Tevin Joslen as Henry Higgins, Cathy Henry as Mrs. Higgins, and Ron Warren as Colonel Pickering

My Fair Lady is in some ways a guilty pleasure. The songs are so funny. And so horrible. “Let a Woman in Your Life” is one of the most quotable songs of all time - but so very misogynist. Ditto for “A Hymn to Him” (better known as “Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man”). But we do quote them all the time at our house. In fact, the phrase “Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man” is a bit of an in joke for our marriage. Amanda tests consistently on the “masculine” side of personality traits - much more so than I do. (On a related note, she has been known to dance around the house singing “It Takes A Woman” from Hello Dolly after fixing the washer…)

So yes, some sexist humor, for sure. But ultimately, Shaw’s masterwork and its descendents are a brilliant satire of sexism. The Broadway glurge notwithstanding, the story is about Eliza - her hard work and triumph despite her impoverished upbringing, and the sexist nonsense of Higgins.

One more thing, though, that Ron Warren mentioned in his notes on the musical: Higgins is only half right. He places all of the responsibility for the class divide on the speaker. Eliza is held back by her speech, after all. But Warren notes that the fault lies at least as much with the listener. Those with privilege tend to dismiss those who fail to sound, look, and act like us. As he puts it, “Why do we allow the accent a thought is expressed in excuse us from taking the thought seriously?” It is a good question to ask ourselves on a variety of cultural issues. (One that comes readily to mind is the insistence that one “sound white” to advance. Food for thought.)


I should also mention that there is a fun personal connection here: my wife has been involved in our local knitting guild (yes, that’s a thing) and is the president this year. Ron Warren is the proprietor the local yarn shop, which also employs Perrin Swanson. My wife has taught classes there. So, there were various hand knitted items as props throughout the musical.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Measure for Measure (Bakersfield College 2018)

I first read Measure for Measure six years ago (see my post here) - and since that time, it has been my favorite of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” It addresses the themes of mercy and justice without the taint of anti-Semitism and cruelty present in The Merchant of Venice. It has a memorable and complex female heroine. It has a villain who gets a fitting comeuppance - but also receives undeserved mercy. And, like all of the “problem plays,” it is one heartbeat away from being an unspeakable tragedy. Believe me, Measure for Measure is arguably the most bitter of all Shakespeare plays - even more than Othello or Lear.

My previous review contains the plot, and a number of other observations about the play, which I will not repeat here. I recommend reading my previous post first, if you have not already done so. This was my first time to see this live, although my wife saw it at the Utah Shakespeare Festival a few years ago.

Six years seems like an eternity ago for me, honestly. A great many things have changed in my life, in my beliefs, and in our world at large. Just to name a few things: The leader of the cult that I spent part of my teens and 20s in was unmasked as a sexual predator. The religious tradition I was brought up in threw in its lot wholeheartedly with White Nationalism. On a related note, our family has left that tradition, and no longer participates in organized religion. I have lost a number of friends as a result of standing against the racism, misogyny, and social darwinism which are the core beliefs of the Right in this country right now.

But perhaps most obviously connected to this play, women have started to come forward and out the powerful men who have raped, sexually assaulted, and sexually harassed them. The #metoo movement changed the discourse substantially. On the one hand, some men have felt some heat. On the other, there has been a significant backlash - and as one could easily predict, it has come mostly from white men. And the women who benefit from white supremacy in our nation. One would like to hope that the tide is turning. But it will only turn of those of us who are determined to smash the patriarchal and racist systems that plague our country keep the pressure on, vote, and push back against those who are committed to returning to the injustices of the past. This isn’t a new issue, and, although things have changed for the better over the past few decades, we have a long way to go.

As it is with some many issues, though, Shakespeare was there first.

When I read this the first time, I hadn’t really appreciated the dynamics of sexual predation in the play. I mean, I noticed it, of course. And I already had deep suspicions about Bill Gothard from talking to women who, like me, had left the cult. But the #metoo movement really clarified it. Director Cody Ganger from Bakersfield College chose to do this play, this year, because of this theme - and it felt incredibly timely. What Shakespeare gets about human nature is this: rape isn’t primarily about sex, it is about power - and therefore, sexual assault (and false claims of sexual assault) are primarily wielded as power plays. In fact, if Measure for Measure can be said to be about anything, it is about the relationship of sex and power - both economic and political.

Just a quick summary: Duke Vincentio leaves his domain in the charge of Lord Angelo, his subordinate, so he can spy on how his kingdom is being governed. Angelo is a humorless prude, with as much self-righteousness as any fictional character, and a determination to enforce the most draconian laws without mercy. One of these laws punishes men for fornication with the death penalty. (Yes, Shakespeare turns this societal double standard absolutely on its head.) Caught up in this is Claudio, who is all but married to Juliet - they just need her dowry to make it legal. He gets her pregnant, with his head. Claudio’s sister Isabella - preparing to become a nun - is reluctantly dragged into the case. Her halfhearted plea for the life of her brother (who she really thinks is a flake) is ineffective. But she does inspire Angelo’s lust. He assaults her, then tries to get her to trade her virginity for Claudio’s life. Angelo, of course, has no intent to keep his promise. He intends to violate Isabella, then kill her brother so he can’t revenge her innocence.

And he knows he can get away with it, because he has power and a reputation for prudery.

Here is the pertinent part of the conversation. (The whole scene is powerful, though.)

I have no tongue but one: gentle my lord,
Let me entreat you speak the former language.

Plainly conceive, I love you

My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for it.

He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.

I know your virtue hath a licence in’t,
Which seems a little fouler than it is,
To pluck on others.

Believe me, on mine honour,
My words express my purpose.

Ha! little honour to be much believed,
And most pernicious purpose! Seeming, seeming!
I will proclaim thee, Angelo; look for’t:
Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
Or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud
What man thou art.

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’ the state,
Will so your accusation overweigh,
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

To see this essentially played out before our very eyes in my lifetime is pretty disturbing. Again, the reason that Shakespeare has remained popular and relevant for the past 400 years is that he understands human nature and human society so very well. On a related note, the reason that the bible has remained relevant is exactly the same. There is a strikingly similar story in Genesis, which has been much abused by Christians lately, alas. (See below for more.)

What Shakespeare gets so right here is that the dynamics of power determine who is believed in cases like this. After all, it isn’t really reputation. Angelo does indeed have a good reputation. But so does Isabella. She is a prude herself, actually, is a nun in training, and is above reproach. She pleads for her brother reluctantly, and pays the price for being a vulnerable woman.

Again, we have seen this play out in real life. And it isn’t just a single Isabella - but multiple women - and some male witnesses as well. But power still ultimately seems to win.

Shakespeare doesn’t just leave it at that either. The disguised Duke orchestrates a “bed trick,” then watches Angelo attempt to kill Claudio anyway (a convenient death provides an alternative), then returns as his true self. But he does what you might expect: he “believes” Angelo and throws serious shade at Isabella and Marianna (Angelo’s jilted fiancee.) In essence, this goes exactly how certain hearings went recently. The woman is not believed, pays the price, and the man skates without consequences. In this case, the Duke saves his ire for the final scene, and all is made right in the end. But both the Duke and Shakespeare play along to make the point that, while this story may have a happy ending, in most cases, this doesn’t happen. The Angelos of the world tend to win. They can rape and assault and destroy the reputation of women with impunity - because they have a penis and power. The Isabellas of the world pay the price. And the Claudios too - the lower status men are the ones punished for sex in our society.

Let me give some major props to Bakersfield College for their interpretation of this play. While junior college productions have their limitations - lower budgets, amateur actors, the need to include students relatively new to the stage - they really do work hard to bring the drama to life. This isn’t an easy play to put on, and they did a thoroughly credible job. No, don’t expect every part to be professional quality. Give the kids a little slack when they don’t project enough to fill the outdoor space, or miss the rhythm of a line here or there. There were some great moments, and they deserve credit.

Let me start with the best of them all. The scene I quoted above was fantastic. As it unfolded, Angelo went from wrestling with his lust and loss of self control to actively grabbing and fondling Isabella. It was creepy beyond belief, and well acted by the leads.

I don’t think I have seen John Spitzer in anything before. He is tall, lanky, and fairly handsome. While I am not sure he looks the prude in the way that, say, Alan Rickman could - he’s young and innocent looking - he wasn’t bad at the self-righteousness thing. But when he turned, boy did he turn. He went from pretty boy to gross lech in a few minutes. Paired with this was the excellent work by Mariah (Jordan) Bathe. I saw her at The Empty Space earlier this year as the middle sister in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, and she switched from the passionate lust for the married officer she loves to utter disgust. Her face showed horror, fear, contempt, panic, and more, as she was groped and caressed against her will. If you want to call this “anti-chemistry,” I think that would capture it. The two of them portrayed the loathing in a highly believable way.

A few of the other actors merit some mention. Carlos Vera has become a real fixture of local theater, and has been in nearly every Shakespeare play (among others) that I have seen in the last few years. He has taken on progressively larger parts as he has gained experience. In the role of Vincentio, he brought his usual simmering aggression to the part. Justin Thompson, hilarious as Mercutio last year, was likewise amusing as the libertine Pompey in this play. One of the few ringers, the always delightful Paul Sosa was hilariously chipper as the dimwitted constable Elbow. Lucy Brown played the executioner Abhorson in full goth makeup and a menacing silence. Cody’s husband Kevin Ganger made a good scene as Barnardine, the crazy murderer. As part of the play’s classic punk aesthetic, he had a mohawk, a union jack shirt, and as good of a punk swagger as I have seen. Honestly, I hardly recognized him, despite the fact that he has been in productions (including a great turn opposite his wife in The Taming of the Shrew) around town for years.  

Shakespeare needn’t be set in period costume, of course, and BC has a longstanding tradition of using creative settings for dramatic effect. Sometimes these are more effective than others, but I do think it serves to make students think of Shakespeare as timeless, rather than time bound. (My wife took a few Shakespeare classes while she was in nursing school at BC - and got to propose a few settings of her own.)

In this case, the classic punk era was used for the lower-class characters. The aristocratic characters wore suits - except for the clergy, who wore black and clerical collars, and the police, who wore uniforms. The music too fit the vibe, with a heavy dose of the B-52s.

Overall, a thoughtful production of a play that really should be seen more often. It may be 400 years old, but it still challenges our ideas of power, morality, mercy, and justice.


Speaking of the B-52s, this one was essentially the theme song:


Ah, the old Joseph and Potiphar's Wife story. It has now been dragged out to ostensibly show the dangers of false rape accusations and create fear that any man could have his life ruined by one of those scary, awful women. The misuse of this story is nothing new - it’s endemic to the patriarchal Evangelical tradition, which feels a need to portray female sexuality as terrifyingly dangerous.

Even more offensively, the tragedy and injustice of the Emmett Till lynching has been repurposed for the same use.  

What both of these either miss - or ignore - is that both stories are, like Measure for Measure, about the abuse of power.

Potiphar’s wife is like Lord Angelo. She has power, and decides to ruin a lowly slave when he refuses to give his body to her on demand. In both cases, it is the entitlement of power that treats those below as chattel to be abused at will.

Likewise, Carolyn Bryant, who later admitted that she lied about what Emmett Till - a 14 year old boy - did to her, has never paid a price for her role in the murder of an innocent. And she is just one instance of cases where white women and their precious “purity” has been used as an excuse to murder, abuse, enslave, and segregate black men.

This is the pattern, actually. You can see it with Bill Gothard, with Donald Trump, with Harvey Weinstein, with so many rich, privileged, powerful (usually white) men. To quote Trump, “Grab ‘em by the pussy. When you are a star, you can get away with anything.” It’s all about power. Shakespeare got that all too right.


Let me once again whine about BC’s criminal lack of publicity photos. Come on, guys! Promote your art! Make it a bit easier for those of us who enjoy your productions and would like to give you some online love. We. Need. Pictures.