Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Pat Robertson Zone: Depravity on Display

This post is dedicated to the memory of Lauri Carleton, who was murdered for her faith recently. Her blood and that of many others is on Pat Robertson’s hands. 




Have you ever heard of the “Tyson Zone”? 


If you were a sports fan back in the early aughts, you remember Bill Simmons, back before his ego got bigger than most major cities and he feuded with ESPN (who happened to be writing his paychecks) and he ended up mostly fading from view. (Probably with enough money from his sale of his website, The Ringer, to retire.)


Simmons isn’t really the subject of this post, but his early “Boston Sports Guy” column for ESPN, besides being a lot of fun, gave rise to the term “Tyson Zone.” It wasn’t his idea, actually, but a reader, “Brendan from Philadelphia,” who opined that there are people who are so out there and unpredictable that if you saw a ludicrous headline about something they allegedly did, you would have no difficulty in believing it. 


I mean, everything from “Mike Tyson announces unicorn breeding program” to “Mike Tyson steals police car” and everything in between. The guy bit off a guy’s ear, used his infant’s pee to pass drug tests, and got weird tattoos on his face, so….plausible, right? His endorsement of Donald Trump and his punching of a flight attendant last year didn’t even make news - hey, he’s Mike Tyson, so of course he did! 


So, when someone is in the Tyson Zone, it means that they, like Mike Tyson, are essentially capable of anything. There is literally no floor to their behavior, no level below which they will refuse to sink. 


I think a good word for this is depravity. 


A person who has no moral floor below which they refuse to sink has no limits to the depth of their depravity. 


When a person has repeatedly demonstrated that they have no moral floor, no limit to the depth of their cruelty and hate, they have become so depraved that others will cease to be surprised at whatever evil thing that person says or does. 


A person like that can be said to have entered….The Pat Robertson Zone. 


(And yes, my wife and I started using that pretty soon after The Tyson Zone was coined.) 




Once upon a time, Pat Robertson was just an ordinary religious and political grifter. You know the sort: a televangelist making bank off the donations of gullible people who think he speaks for God. The sort who hobnobs with right wing politicians who decide he is worth coddling in exchange for votes. The sort who rides the coattails of moral panics, while offering laughable (and often racist) pablum as a cultural alternative. 


But he had bigger plans. A university, a legal firm devoted to dominionist goals, a weight-loss shake, and eventually a run for president. And then, when that failed, like anyone who was anybody in the Religious Right back in the 1990s, a political advocacy group. Grift however you can. 


It was about this time, that Robertson found his signature move. Which he cribbed from Jerry Falwell Sr.


Whenever anything bad happens, blame LGBTQ people for it. 


Falwell kicked it off in an interview right after 9/11, when he went on Robertson’s show and the two of them decided that the real blame for the terrorist attacks on America lay with certain people. 


Now, any rational person would conclude that the immediate causes of the attacks were pretty obvious. Some rich Saudi fucks imbibed a bit too much Wahhabism and political resentment against the West, and concocted an elaborate plan to hijack jets and fly them into buildings. Which they then did. 


A more critical thinker might look beyond the immediate causes and, like David Fromkin, examine the long history of Western meddling in the Middle East, and also the US role in sponsoring coups to install governments favorable to Western corporate interests. 


A later examination also placed blame on the Federal agencies that failed to communicate vital information about the plot and stop it before it happened. 


All of those are….logical and helpful in understanding what went wrong. And, indeed, the changes that were made have been a factor in preventing another large terrorist attack. 


But for Robertson and Falwell? None of this was important. 


For them, the REAL cause was…..


….wait for it….




And also, college professors, the ACLU, feminists, non-Christians, and people who get abortions.


Yeah, that’s it. God caused a bunch of violent terrorists to bomb the United States because we allowed LGBTQ people, atheists, and political liberals to exist. That makes total sense, right? 


And THAT became Pat Robertson’s schtick from then on. 


A big hurricane floods New Orleans? Totally the fault of LGBTQ people. 


Earthquake? Fire? Drought? Mass shooting? Pandemic? 


It doesn’t matter. Literally everything bad is the result of letting LGBTQ people exist. 


Now, to be clear, Robertson did change things up a bit once in a while. For example, he said that every Muslim is part of a terrorist organization, and that the US should treat them the way we would any terrorist group. (So, presumably arrest and imprison them for believing in their faith. Gee, how nice.) 


And he came out with the bizarre theory that the massive earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment on them for the slave rebellion. 


Yes, you read that right. 


When Haitians overthrew their enslavers, that made God unhappy. 


Okay, that makes no sense, right? At least unless you are a total fucking white supremacist. (Which I strongly suspect Robertson was - all the Religious Right guys were.) 


Here is how he couched it: In order to overthrow their white masters, Haitian blacks needed a lot of help. (I presume because he thinks stupid black people couldn’t win against the far superior white people? He dog whistled this, but never explained.) So, the only way they could win was to make a pact with the devil. And since their leader was also a vodou priest, well, that proves it, right? I guess because white enslavers were “Christians,” they were on the side of God. I see. 


And then there are his documented connections to brutal African dictators - who openly stated that Robertson was their advocate to American government leaders. 


Want a few more? Oh yeah: men are naturally prone to adultery and it is their wife’s responsibility to be charming enough to prevent that. 


Feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” 


When tornadoes struck the Midwest, he claimed that if enough people had prayed hard enough, God would have stilled the storms. Um, really? So it was the fault of the victims? 


And of course the usual “everyone who isn’t my particular sect of Christian is evil” - unfortunately endemic to Evangelicalism itself. 


But while other targets seemed to rotate, the LGBTQ community was always a target. Every time.




At some point, this vilification of an unpopular minority starts to sound sadly familiar. 


This was literally Hitler’s schtick too: blame every national problem on sabotage by a vulnerable and already distrusted minority. Whip up hate and fear and eventually violence. 


In Robertson’s case, his depravity is, if anything, even worse. After all, of GOD HIMSELF hates people so very, very much that he will murder thousands or millions of innocent people as a result, then there is ultimately no option other than mass genocide. 


Pat Robertson set the stage for all of the later political and religious leaders who continue to vilify LGBTQ people and blame them for everything that goes wrong in America. 


Not just Fred Phelps


Let’s tie this together a bit now. One of the successors to Pat Robertson (in more ways than one) is the disgusting bigot Matt Walsh. Who has gone on a series of tirades against LGBTQ people generally, but particularly against transgender folks. As in, the very existence of trans people fills him with a “boiling rage.” As in “all rainbow flags should be burned.” As in “I’d rather be dead than have a trans kid.” (Which more likely means that he is more than willing to murder any kid of his who comes out.) 


And guess who loved and reposed all of this bilge? That’s right: the douchebag who murdered Lauri Carleton. 


When you spew rhetoric like this, you cause this violence.


When you claim that God hates LGBTQ people, you invite others to hate them too. 


When you claim that God punishes innocent people because of how much he hates LGBTQ people, you invite some of those people who believe you to undertake a Solution to the problem. A Final Solution. 


As the result of Robertson’s decades of feeding fear and hate, we now have a significant population of armed bigots, convinced that their problems aren’t caused by their own mistakes, or by unjust systems in our world, but by the existence of people they don’t like. A disturbingly high percentage of Republicans and Evangelicals are seething with rage like Matt Walsh at the idea that people different from them are allowed to exist without being murdered. 


They are convinced that all LGBTQ people are pedophiles, that they have a sinister agenda to corrupt the kiddos, and that God is more upset that LGBTQ people are permitted to exist than he ever was about, say, the mass enslavement of African Americans for hundreds of years. (For Robertson, apparently, God was a-okay with that…) 


Needless to say, this, combined with America’s worship of guns and violence, creates the sort of environment in which murder is a legitimate fear for LGBTQ people - or even those of us who support them. 


After all, Lauri Carleton wasn’t gay - she was just an ally. She made sure that she flew the flag that proclaimed that her place was a safe place for LGBTQ people. And she was murdered for it. 


Now, I do not know what Carleton’s specific religious beliefs were. But what I - and everyone else can see - is that she believed deeply in loving her neighbors. And, ultimately, it was that belief that led to her murder. She died for that faith. 


Her blood is on the hands of Pat Robertson. And Matt Walsh. And the hands of every person who has followed those false prophets down the path of fear and hate and violence towards others. 


If you proclaim that God hates LGBTQ people, or that he will punish the innocent because of that hate, then you are expressing that they might as well be dead. And that maybe they should be, if only someone would do it…


The Pat Robertson Zone is when you become like Pat Robertson. So full of fear and hate and rage toward people different from you that you would scapegoat them for anything. When you become the sort of person who, rather than helping the victims of disaster, you put your evil face on television and hurl slander at innocent people. And, of course, along the way, line your pockets with wealth. 


Which is why, when a satire site claimed that Robertson had blamed Covid on women having oral sex….I had to remind myself to fact check, because it was totally believable given his utter lack of character or connection to reality. 


By the end of his life, he had that Mike Tyson vibe: his depravity had no floor. There was nothing too evil for him to say or do. 


So here’s to Pat Robertson. May he find a better mercy than he ever showed to others. 


And he had better be praying hard that the hell he believed in doesn’t exist, because he sure as fuck is burning in there right now if it does. 





This post is part of my ongoing series:


Ding Dong the Witch is Dead: The False Prophet Death-Watch List


If you see that a false prophet has died (check my criteria for identifying them), send me an e-mail, and I will consider writing about him or her. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Folks That Live On The Hill by Kingsley Amis

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Having read Martin Amis recently, I decided to read one by his father, Kingsley Amis as well. I picked up The Folks That Live On The Hill because it looked interesting. 

Kingsley Amis in his later years.

One of Kingsley’s last books, it was written in 1990. While it retains the feel of classic British humor, it also feels very modern in the way society is portrayed - Kingsley has adapted in his own crusty way to changing times. 


It is strange how a book can be simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny, gently satirical, and yet achingly sad. 


The story centers around Harry Caldecote, and is told mostly from his point of view, although the various other characters get a chapter or two told through their eyes. Harry is a retired (well, mostly retired) librarian looking forward to a quiet life of simple (and affordable pleasures.) But, he finds himself more or less responsible for a cadre of relatives with various issues, and he ends up constantly dragged away from his lunch at the club or his drinks after a long day, or even out of bed with their needs. 


First of all, there is his son Piers, who makes his living (such as it is) through activities that are probably not entirely on the up-and-up. A little grift here, a bit of smuggling there - nothing major, but Piers isn’t exactly forthcoming about it. 


Then, there is his brother Freddie, a pretty lousy poet, henpecked by his wife Desiree, who probably regrets the marriage (and tends to look back fondly on her brief fling with Harry years before Freddie.) 


Harry may have divorced his two ex-wives, but he still is on the hook for a few ex-relatives. Bunty, the daughter of one ex-wife, is a lesbian in a dysfunctional relationship with Popsy - and they both live with Piers, at least for the time being. Oh, and Bunty’s estranged husband, Desmond, is torn between his desire for Bunty (and his belief he can “fix” her sexual orientation), and his relationship with his mistress, who is also the cook at his restaurant. 


And then there is Fiona, the niece of his other ex-wife, who is hopelessly alcoholic, and is in and out of rehab as well as hospitals after drinking herself into near-death. 


The only relative who is fully functional is his sister Clare, who has moved in with him after the death of her husband. Unfortunately, she has also brought with her said husband’s horrible dog, who she hates but cannot admit it to Harry. 


Harry wants to be with his mistress, Maureen, but she seems to be headed toward a reconciliation with her absurdly rich husband. There’s no peace for poor Harry anywhere. 


The story takes place in the neighborhood of “Primrose Hill” - a London suburb that isn’t as posh as it once was, but still retains a kind of charm. It closely resembles Kingsley Amis’ own neighborhood, and he might very well be a bit like Harry himself. 


As with many places in England (and Europe and the rest of the former colonies), demographics are changing. The Irish have moved in, of course, but also Pakistanis and Jamaicans and a panoply of others. (Delightful in this book are the Pakistani brothers Howard and Charles, who run the combination post office and store, and who pride themselves in being far more “English” than any of the white residents. And they are right about that, actually. The two of them serve as observers of all the craziness around them.) Amis avoids the usual xenophobia that seems to plague so many old white guys - some of his characters are xenophobic, of course, but that is part of the satire. 


The book is filled with hilarious lines, and ludicrous situations (although they are all too realistic), and awkward relationships. So why is it also sad? Well, in part, because none of the characters have much hope of a better life. What they have is….what they have. And the dysfunction seems unsolvable. 


The most achingly sad passages involve Fiona. The problem is, Amis writes her with far too much knowledge and self-awareness. He too was an alcoholic - Christopher Hitchens described him as often too drunk to stand up. He separated his life to an extent: he wrote before lunch, then started drinking. 


So, when Fiona, during a period of sobriety (the latest in a string of them) admits that eventually, she will be back drinking again, it really feels like Amis is expressing his own despair. The fact that these passages are so well written only makes the pain worse. 


And man, the writing is really delightful. I think I will avoid giving away any more plot details - and the “plot” is mostly just episodes in the life of Harry and his relations - and just dive into my favorite lines. Here is his description of Freddie, when we first meet him. 


He sat placidly next to his wife as if he had not been mentioned at all in any context, blinking and showing his teeth in the way he always did with the look of somebody who had recently had a bright light shone in his face. He also looked vaguely aristocratic, understanding the term to include, indeed stress, things like effeteness and ineffectuality. This went along with a kind of outlandish touch as in some bygone portrait, suggesting the past existence of pioneering vegetarians and other dietetic enthusiasts, minor noblemen who had founded forest communities where women were rumored to be held in common, or simply fellows who had played billiards all day every day for fifty years. 


Or this one about Desiree:


Harry took a moment off to consider the odd fact that those totally insensitive to an art so often think it more wonderful, etc., than those who are not. 


I also loved this exchange between Harry and Desiree when he gets the call to come retrieve the passed out Fiona from a pub. 


“It isn’t as if she’s your daughter,” she said at a fairly early stage.

“Oh yes it is,” he said at once. “In every disagreeable and pestiferous way it’s exactly as if she’s my daughter.” 


And, of course, the description of the execrable Towser and Clare’s complicated relationship with him. 


Clare Morrison wished Towser no harm in the world, but she ardently and continually longed for his death. He had been Arnold’s dog, which in the way of married men’s dogs mean that the man concerned had chosen, paid for, and named him, always spoken of him as “his” dog, often addressed him in a hearty tone of voice, seldom taken him out and never done a blessed hand’s turn about his bed, coat, messes, food, water. Conscience and pity had been enough to make her bring him here (where else?) after his master’s death and see to it since then that he had as good a life as was reasonably possible in a crowded suburb for a creature who ought to have been running about on a chilly mountainside. That much took quite enough out of her, but could largely be done on automatic; what really got her down was the strain of pretending to Harry that she liked the bloody animal.


Some of the descriptions are just so unexpected. 


Further down towards the underground station, only a couple of hundred yards away, there stood a very serious-looking municipal block made of a material resembling petrified porridge. 


Then there is the hilarious riff on Harry’s reading - his attempt to “delibrarianize” himself a bit. And gain some material for small talk at his club.


Harry sat reading a well-documented, cogently argued attack on the training methods that had produced the new generation of British hairdressers, whom the writer pronounced to be a disgrace to a civilized country and a substantial cause of our diminished cultural standing among the nations of the world. Mrs. Thatcher, he went on, had defeated the miners’ and the printers’ leaders, but unaccountably left on their perch the little Hitlers of the hairdressing union, an omission which if not repaired in time would cost her his vote at the next General Election. 


One of the brilliant set-pieces is the visit by the siblings - Clare, Freddie, and Harry - to their aged mother. For Freddie, it is a brief chance to be away from Desiree. For the others, a bit of a slog. Clare and Harry are a hilarious couple, honestly, throughout the book. 


“It still doesn’t seem much return for Mum having her house occupied for several hours.”

“That’s all you’d get out of it yourself, agreed, the sheer power thing. But try and look at it from her point of view.”

“Oh Christ, must I? You know how I hate doing that. Even trying. From anybody’s not just hers, though hearse more than most, admitted.”

“Very short-sighted. The usual result of looking at something from someone else’s point of view is to see how much worse off they are than you. Can be quite cheering actually.”

“And bloody quit philosophizing. I can’t take it at this hour of the morning and it makes you sound like a wife. I’ve told you before.” 

“In the sense you mean there never was a man who needed a wife more than you. But don’t let’s squabble, dear.” 


And then there is the funny only because it is pathetic and sad tale of Desmond and his drunken attempt to get Bunty back. She locks herself in the bathroom, and Harry - of course - is called, and has to fix things. Again.


“And I said, I’ve come to take my rights.”

“How did you actually put it? I mean, did you actually say to her in so many words, ‘Bunty, I’ve come to take my rights’?”

“Of course not.” For the first time a shade of real anger touched Desmond’s face as the wing of the ridiculous brushed at the edge of his mind. “There are other ways of putting these things to people.”

“Like trying to rape them, you mean? I’m sure you’ve tried much gentler ways of taking your rights off Bunty without getting anywhere either. And she’s no flyweight, our Bunty. You wouldn’t even get her bloody legs apart unless you laid her out half cold, which you’d find quite enough of a proposition on its own, as you know well without being told. I’ll bet you didn’t have that little red mark under your jaw when you came in, correct? All this is ridiculous and you know it and the sooner you admit it the sooner we can get Bunty out of the bathroom and all have a nice chat and go home.” 


“The wing of the ridiculous brushed at the edge of his mind” is such an outstanding and astonishingly great line. 


After this comes Harry’s more or less successful attempt to get Desmond to understand sexual orientation. Desmond is, ironically, the old school sort who believes that there is, somewhere deep inside every lesbian, a desire to fuck a man. If only he could figure out how to release that. 


It is the older Harry (and remember, Kingsley Amis was born in 1922 - my grandparents’ age!) who gets it, and uses the analogy of Desmond’s friend and idol from his school days. That Bunty liked Desmond enough to marry him isn’t enough to form the basis of a true romantic and sexual partnership. 


Note here: the fact that someone born more than 100 years ago could understand this is pretty proof positive that it isn’t that anti-LGBTQ bigots are old. It is that they choose to be bigots. Amis is clearly satirizing people who refuse to understand diversity throughout the book, not at all in a preachy way, but just by showing how ridiculous bigotry really looks from the outside. 


In yet another irony here, Amis was in many ways a conservative at this point in his life. Yet he can poke fun at Thatcherites and xenophobes and homophobes just fine. Or even just the ways people respond to changing social mores. Here is another example. Harry gets a potential job offer in the wilds of America near the Canadian border - an offer he considers accepting. 


“What are these things in Amerindic you’ll be expected to take an interest in?” asked Clare.

“Oh, don’t. Presumably things to do with Amerinds, taking the adjective as a classy variant on Amerindian. Which is what a few ordinary Americans call Red Indians to make them feel less genocidal about them. Assuagement of guilt and all that. It’s a fairly long story.” 


There is a back story here, of course. The term “Amerindian” is a portmanteau coined around 1902, and used pretty exclusively within academic circles. It was controversial from the start, and is pretty much limited in present use to parts of Canada and the Caribbean. Which means it is a prime target for satire - after all, Harry would be working in the very sort of academic setting where the term would be used, and I can see why Amis couldn’t resist poking fun at it and doing some wordplay with the conjugations. 


In the same conversation, Harry worries that the legendary friendliness of Americans (um…) will impinge on his introversion. 


“You’ll soon get over all that. You won’t find any difficulty in making yourself - not disagreeable, that’s not your way - unagreeable enough to the neighbors to clunk their sociability for good and all.” 


The next line is a bit of a spoiler - although it should be obvious that Harry isn’t really going to pack up and move to America. Clare doesn’t want him to leave, even though she feels irritated at him a lot of the time. 


“What can I say? My life is here with you and you’re awful, you’re everything I said about you but you’re family and I’m used to you, and you know I don’t think anybody in the world understands as well as I do how important it is to be used to someone. Of course you know yourself it’s not a question of replacing Arnold in any way at all but nobody could replace a child or your best friend or anybody else either and that’s not a good reason for not having anybody anywhere ever again.” 


Clare, of course, as a woman of a certain age surrounded by men of the same certain age, is a bit tired of being the one to clean things up after them. But she knows she is still going to do it. Eventually, Fiona manages to get hit by a truck - a bit different from her usual way of ending up in the hospital. Harry and Clare are the first ones called - of course. She ends up arguing with a dumb-ass man about what to do with Fiona. 


“Can’t they at least sit her up?” someone asked.

“No point in sitting up a person in a fit,” she said.

“That’s what it is, eh?” asked the man.

“Well, it’s not an attack of the twitches, is it?” she asked him, with just a touch of that primeval contempt, of the basic human type for the variant, perhaps in some way that told of the superiority and seniority of the sex that has always had to do the rough work, the real work, the clearing up of the sick and the shit and the afterbirth and the dead bodies while the men think and create art. “She’s warm enough and that’s all we can do for her for the moment. What she needs is an ambulance.” 


That’s perceptive stuff right there. And here’s the kicker: by this time, Amis’ kids had made arrangements for him to live with his ex-wife and her new husband, so someone would take care of him in his increasingly drunken old age. So much self-awareness combined with a complete inability to escape his demons. 


As it turns out, the ambulance is a long way away, and they realize it is quicker to just transport her to the hospital themselves. For those of us who are automobile enthusiasts, there is a lovely reference to a “Shooting Brake” at this point. Feel free to go down that rabbit hole if you like. 


This incident, of course, takes place in front of the imperturbable Charles and Howard. Amis takes a dig at racist yahoos in this scene as well. 


“Your lot’ll be taking over running the whole bloody country soon,” said one of the bare-armed yobbos from the antiquarian bookshop, sounding fairly neutral about this project.

“Well, with the kind of competition that’s on offer from some of the locals,” said Howard as lightly as anybody could have asked for, “that shouldn’t be such an impossibly difficult job.” 


Charles manages to rescue the situation just before the locals figure out the insult. 


Near the end, Piers, who managed to get a bit of a loan from Clare, pays her back with a bit of extra. Earlier, he gave a whole song and dance to Harry to try to get a bit off of him. Piers’ analysis of the situation is amusing, even if it isn’t entirely accurate. 


“Well, you see, he’d sooner have a petty criminal or a gambler for a son, or think he had one, than a gay. You’re a bit the same - I hinted at all sorts of unspeakable depravities to get some money to put on a horse. Which incidentally finished fifth. I doubt if you would have given it to me if I’d told you what it was for. But Dad’s much worse. Colossal puritan about money among other things. In fact he puritanicised himself out of a small fortune just the other day.” 


Knowing Harry, he probably doesn’t care if Piers is gay (he likely isn’t, but Piers uses that as a tool), and it is never clear exactly what Piers did to make the money - and he isn’t going to tell either. 


The book ends with Clare and her memories of her late husband, and it is a lovely melancholy picture. 


At such moments she could not so much see him clearly as remember his look, or rather the expression of his she had been fondest of. She had almost never seen it direct because it would change as soon as he caught her looking back at him - in his way he had been a self-conscious man. That look, with slightly lowered eyelids and slightly parted lips, had been a little cool and a little amused and had said in a way that no one could doubt that of course others were fond of her and might even love her in their way but only he loved and understood her all through and knew everything about her. Most people, she supposed, had never had anything like that in their lives at all, and she knew she should count herself luckier than them whatever happened or might happen to anybody at any stage, but all she could do was miss it and rest in the knowledge that in a few moments the memory would fade until the next time.


That’s incredible writing, and such bittersweetness. 


I will say, this book wasn’t entirely what I expected, but it had more depth to it than mere humor, and a lot to say about the messiness of real human relationships. 


Monday, August 28, 2023

Bernhardt/Hamlet by Theresa Rebeck (Stars Playhouse 2023)


A constant tension for any theater is the balance of the need to make money to keep the lights on and the desire to branch out beyond the reliably popular warhorses. Not that there is anything wrong with the familiar, but as a musician, I understand the desire to play something new and different. 


Stars Playhouse has had the luxury of being the more experimental counterpart to the mainstream musical dinner theater Stars, which has meant the chance to see some truly unusual and rare plays over the last several years. Most recently, this was John Ford’s (not that John Ford) lurid 17th Century play, Tis Pity She’s a Whore


Far more modern - 2019 - and by a female playwright - Theresa Rebeck - is this one, Berhardt/Hamlet


The play is based on a real-life story, and features a handful of historical figures. The name of Sarah Bernhardt should be familiar to anyone who enjoys Victorian literature. She is name-checked pretty regularly, and was quite the sensation in her time. 


Bernhardt was born illegitimate, to a higher-class courtesan mother, who had the resources to send her to a good school. She learned her craft, and became arguably the most famous actor of the second half of the 19th Century. Her style these days is perhaps not adapted to current taste, but she could hold an audience. 


The play centers on one particular incident in her life. In 1899, realizing that she was no longer able to play her usual ingenuine parts well into her 50s (damn those bright lights!), she decided to take on a rather shocking role: Hamlet. 


The problem was, however, that she really didn’t like that Hamlet spent all of his time in self doubt and talked at great length in poetry about it. So, she commissioned a version of her own from a pair of playwrights, with less poetry, less talk, and more decisiveness, and did the deed. The critics in Paris loved it, but the critics in London hated it. Whatever the critics thought, the sensation drew audiences. 


Soon after, she filmed the final fight scene for a short movie - footage of that was shown at the close of the play. It is very stylized, and her gestures quite feminine - which is interesting given the character. 


There is so much more one could say about Bernhardt - she was truly a larger-than-life character who might have been too implausible for fiction. 


The title reveals a good bit about what the play will be. It is essentially a fight headline, like Tyson/Foreman (to date myself a bit). Sarah Bernhardt versus Hamlet. And the fight is a doozy. 


Ironically, Bernhardt, for all her dislike of Hamlet’s self doubt and vacillation and wordiness, succumbs to the same faults. She slams back and forth between diva arrogance and crippling doubts. She can’t stop talking about Hamlet’s language even as she expresses her frustration with it. She is on the verge of scrapping the whole project several times. Her son, Maurice - who would take over her theater after her death - tries to talk her out of it, but this only strengthens her resolve. 


In the mix with Bernhardt in this play is also the real-life Playwright Edmond Rostand, who wrote the delightful farce Cyrano de Bergerac. Bernhardt was both a friend of the young rising artist, and a champion of his plays. He would write for her, and she would perform the heck out of his roles. When he hit it big with Cyrano, she played Roxanne, despite being less than thrilled with the role. 


While there is no evidence that they were lovers, the play treats them as such, and introduces Rostand’s wife as a supporting character. Likewise, in the play, Rostand gets the first stab at doing Bernhardt’s adaptation of Hamlet, but the facts do not support that - she hired Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob to do the deed from the beginning. 


Another historical figure in the play is Constant Coquelin, the veteran stage actor who serves as another foil for Bernhardt along with Rostand. Coquelin was the most popular leading man in France, and he played opposite Bernhardt in her 1900 tour of the United States - playing Cyrano to her Roxanne among other roles. 


The final historical figure is Alphonse Mucha, whose wonderful posters for Bernhardt’s productions look every bit as fabulous today as they did back then. 


One could perhaps add in the critic, Louis Lamercier, who I think was based on a composite of critics at the time, rather than a single person, as a historical figure. 


Rounding out the cast are Raoul, Francois, and Lysette, other actors in the company. 


The show was directed by Perrin Swanson (no relation, but we’ll take him), who also designed the sets, and played Rostand. Perrin is and has been everywhere in theater around Bakersfield, whether on stage or behind the scenes. Assisting him in the first two is Bethany Rowlee, another stage veteran, who was not on stage in this one, but who has been fabulous in past roles. 


Before getting to the acting, I did want to say some nice things about the costumes and set. Period correct (although I probably should ask my wife about the details - on a low budget, not everything is entirely period perfect usually), with the specifics well suited to the characters. 


As far as the set, since Stars Playhouse is located in an industrial building, with a strange long and thin space to fit both stage and audience in, it had to be creative. Depending on the production, it has been either the normal layout or with the stage in the middle between the audience. For this one, they did an even more peculiar layout, with the audience along the long wall at center, with a center stage and two wing stages, allowing three different settings. It worked. 


Perrin noted that he deliberately did not see the Broadway production, preferring to avoid copying. Also, neither the space nor the budget for a turntable. 


So, about the acting. Great casting, and great acting in this one. 

 Sarah Bernhardt (Karin Harmon)

The center of the play has to be Sarah Bernhardt, of course, and that requires a truly larger-than-life actor to play her. Enter Karin Harmon. I had previously seen her as Anne-Marie in A Doll’s House Part Two (part of Stars’ production of Ibsen’s original and Lucas Hnath’s continuation of the story back to back.) 


Harmon’s Bernhardt was compelling and riveting. The arrogance and entitlement combined with the self-doubt and near-crippling insecurity. The stage presence and ability to bully everyone else into doing things her way. The snapping back and forth between herself and Hamlet in character. Watching Harmon carry this play was an experience, well worth the price of admission in itself. 


And she wasn’t the only excellent performance. 


Perrin Swanson had to be more or less the straight man throughout this play - everyone he interacts with is a big personality in one way or another, and his job is to let them play off of him while staying in an understated character. And that is exactly what he did: keep things subtle and understated and let the divas do their thing. Honestly, one imagines the real-life Rostand being the introvert surrounded by all those loud extroverted artists very much in the same way Perrin portrayed him. 


Constant Coquelin was played by Scott Deaton, recently seen in Tis Pity She’s a Whore, as the exasperated friar. This was a more major part, and it made me think that seeing Deaton in Shakespeare would be fun. And also as Cyrano (which he does for a short scene - big nose and everything.) Deaton has delightfully clear diction and a gravitas that would play well across a variety of Shakespearean roles. 


It wasn’t the biggest part, but my legal colleague Patrick Carrick shined as the stuffy critic Louis. Carrick used to be a theater regular, before an extended absence. It is good to see him back on stage again. 

 Edmond Rostand (Perrin Swanson) and Louis Lamercier (Patrick Carrick)

And then there was Adrian Francies as Alphonse Mucha. He made the role into the comic relief of the play. He was so over the top in his “Frenchness” - ironic since Mucha was actually Czech - and campy as hell. I’m not sure I have seen him in anything before, but he has a rubber face and a knack for humorous gestures and postures. He was laugh-out-loud hilarious whenever he was on stage. 

 Edmond Rostand (Perrin Swanson) and Alphonse Mucha (Adrian Francies)

Rounding out the cast in supporting roles were Ty Halton (Maurice Bernhardt), Jaspreet Singh (Raoul), Alex Singh (Francois), Alyssa Bonanno (Lysette), and Elizabeth Wurster (Rosamond Rostand.) All of them are local stage regulars, and did well in smaller parts here. 

 Jaspreet Singh (Raoul), Alex Singh (Francois), Scott Deaton (Constant Coquelin), and Alyssa Bonanno (Lysette)

Unfortunately, the run of this show is over - we caught the end of the run - so I can’t tell you to go see it. I can, however, encourage you to go see other productions at Stars Playhouse as well as the rest of our great local theaters. 


Let’s end with the money quote from the play:


“What is theater itself but a constant acto of translation? We take a script; we imbue it with life. We translate everything in the theater. We invent what we will and translate the rest.”