Archive for the ‘books’ Category

After a year of blogging (and some years of blather on discussion boards and other internet communities) I have reached a perhaps inevitable moment — the splinter moment.  I began this adventure on my original blog urban excavations (msteketee.wordpress.com) at a time of upheaval in my life: a recent move from Chicago, a city I adore, to the East Coast and what turned out to be stage one of my current adventure living in Manhattan.  Spring 2009 selling property in a major American city to move east in two stages.  Three major moves in two years.  It has indeed been a time to reflect.  L. Frank Baum has something to say about that.

The following is from Chapter 9 “The Scarecrow Plans an Escape” in The Marvelous Land of Oz (the first sequel to The Wizard of Oz).  First, some text from the 1904 title page to set the scene: “The Marvelous Land of Oz.   Being an Account of the further adventures of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman and also the strange experiences of the Highly Magnified Woggle-Bug, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Animated Saw Horse and the Gump; the story being A Sequel to The Wizard of Oz“.

Tip was looking out the window.

“The palace is surrounded by the enemy,” said he “It is too late to escape. They would soon tear you to pieces.”

The Scarecrow sighed.

“In an emergency,” he announced, “it is always a good thing to pause and reflect. Please excuse me while I pause and reflect.”

My adventures always include traveling and writing.  My “further adventures” blog wise have led me to focus increasingly on theatrical writing, including writing on productions as formal reviews and reflections on panels and other theatrical events.  My original blog has now become two.  My Gemini soul loves this.  urban excavations (msteketee.wordpress.com) is now focused exclusively on live performance reviews and reflections.  This new blog looking outside (mattiewade.wordpress.com) contains all other entries from the old blog, entries outside that specific focus, and new entries along these lines.

With a nod to Garland (because, let’s be honest, it’s instinctual) I’ll end this entry with a quotation.  And look forward to further musings with all y’all.

“In the night, every night, we’ve known somehow it would come to this.”

— Irene Hoffman Wallner (Judy Garland) in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 1, 2010)


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Mr. Morgan's Library (East Room). The Morgan Library & Museum.


The Morgan Library and Museum has been a New York City favorite place to visit for the past 10-15 years.  In a building completed in 1906 to house the private study and library of financier Pierpont Morgan, the average person, for a fee, is able to ogle one of the more opulent structures in America. An “Italianate marble villa, designed in the spirit of the High Renaissance … considered one of New York’s great architectural treasures”, according to the press release distributed at the “media preview” I attend with my pal Kerry on Thursday October 21, 2010.  The press preview focuses on the imminent public reopening of the original 1906 structure that has been closed the public for a few months of rehab and refurbishing and buffing and polishing.  The 2006 Renzo Piano designed expansion and renovation completes the airy modern multi-dimensional experience of this space, with the requisite groovy gift shop at cafe.

This joint houses so many stunning works on paper (manuscripts ranging from monk-illuminate religious texts to several Gutenberg Bibles to ancient cuneiform cylinders to a letter written by Elizabeth I to … ) it is impossible to list the riches.  Get to know this venue, visit often, appreciate the beauty, attend to the temporary exhibit schedules. When visceral reactions to this massive concentration of wealth abate  …  focus on the splendors and majesty and wonders of the items in the holdings and now more fully on stunning display for all to view.

Back to the press preview event this week.  For a moment, indulge me in imposing some theatre critical commentary upon an otherwise nicely designed press preview experienced yesterday morning.  Press opening as performance.  First the pleasantries.  There is a lovely classical small group string quartet in Piano addition lobby/courtyard with soaring glass panes, coffee and bites, as we wait for formal comments and tours to begin.  Opening words are offered by the excited and articulate Director of the Museum, William M. Griswold.  Kerry and I also luck out by having the Director as our “tour guide” for when several groups of the assembled press folks were led around the refurbished original building after the opening remarks concluded.

And now for the criticism.  Before we are released to our color-coded touring groups, another staff member delivered the text of the letter quoted below.  If you’re a meek researcher, don’t try to be an actor.  Hire an actor to do a dramatic reading or just read the words.  In this case some hapless and I’m sure otherwise well qualified academic curator or museum administrator (not the charming Director), reads from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his daughter Martha with a bad kind of English accent.  Thomas Jefferson with a second-rate generalized bad British accent.  O my god.  Really, Morgan, the embarrassment of acting riches in this City should really tell you something.  Don’t act like a clueless academic in such a setting again but if you must wander into accents and dramatic readings — talk to the Lark Play Development Center or talk to a student training program.  Hire a professional.  Do something but don’t do this again.


image: Martha Steketee


The words from this letter are now printed in a display case that holds the letter manuscript located in the rehabbed 1906 McKim Building Rotunda.  This is Jefferson writing to daughter Martha who was largely brought up in Europe, instructing her to buck up, stop complaining, take note of what differentiates the European from the American character, especially in the 1700s.  Perhaps whining contemporaries could read these words and get back to basics.  Mr. Jefferson:

“It is part of the America character to consider nothing as desperate; to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance.  In Europe there are shops for every want.  Its inhabitants therefore have no idea that their wants can be furnished otherwise.  Remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and to execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others.  Consider therefore the conquering of your Livy as an exercise in the habit of surmounting difficulties, a habit which will be necessary to you in the country where you are to live, and without which you will be thought a very helpless animal, and less esteemed.”

I will scheme to identify a project that will allow me to obtain research credentials and spend time with the materials in the vaults and resources of this amazing place.  From tourist to local haunt.  In one lifetime.

more about the Morgan and this restoration: http://themorgan.org/McKim/default.asp

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 22, 2010)

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I am a recovering liberal arts major. I adore my liberal arts education that fed (and continues to feed) my inquiring and often fragmented literary brain through film and history and literature and as little science and math as possible. And lots and lots of theatre. I once heard my Harvard classmate Peter Sellars, a number of years after we graduated, say in a public talk about living a life in the theatre and reminiscing about how the museums and libraries of his youth in Pittsburgh encouraged him to be “an interdisciplinary child”. I’ve always loved that phrase. I continue to follow that interdisciplinary, connection-finding (hey some call it ADD but hey it works for me), overlapping-meaning-seeking, discipline-wandering way through theatre projects, writing projects, research projects, and just getting to know a series of home base cities over the past few years. I also come from a long line of fabulous women, some thwarted in their dreams and some who crafted treasures I am just beginning to try to understand. And sometimes all these worlds collide as they did on October 19, 2010 in the South Court Auditorium of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the 42nd Street Branch of the New York Public Library.

Once I obtained my New York Public Library card (see here for my theatre-life postings on that subject http://wp.me/p1dUHf-Cn) I began receiving presents in my email inbox announcing screenings and lectures and new acquisitions. Just the kind of thing that gets my geeky heart all a-twitter. And some weeks ago I received advance notice of three days of free public lectures on the subject of Virginia Woolf that I noted in my calendar. 10/19: “Goddesses and Ghosts: Virginia Woolf and Jane Ellen Harrison in Conversation”;  10/20: “When is a Printed Book as Good as a Manuscript? The Proof Copy of A Room of One’s Own“; and 10/21: “On Traffic Lights and Full Stops: Editing Mrs. Dalloway”. As my appointments developed in ensuing weeks, the 10/19 lecture, the first of the three lectures, on Woolf and Harrison (a boundary spanning anthropologist and classicist herself) emerged as the one lecture I could attend.

Virginia Woolf projected. Jean Mills standing.

Ah, a delight. Jean Mills, Assistant Professor at John Jay College, CUNY has been writing on the work of these two women for some time, and graced the assembled crowd with charming context, imagery, substance, conversation.  Woolf wrote in the pacifist essay Three Guineas (1938):

“… listen not to the bark of the guns and to the bray of gramophones but to the voices of the poets, answering each other, assuring us of a unity that rubs out divisions as if they were chalkmarks only … the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity”.

Mills presents the well documented case that Woolf (1882-1941) and Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) certainly knew each other and had an intellectual relationship.  Mills argues that Harrison was for Woolf an “intellectual mentor” and that certainly the writing of the two women, their texts, talk to one another.   I love this kind of thinking that combines biography with thick and careful reading of texts and the ideas contained within them.

Harrison, as I learn in this talk that focused not on mythology but on political positions about pacifism, is a classical scholar who reinterprets Greek mythology through a feminist lens at the beginning of the 20th Century.  She eschews merely translating texts from the original Greek and Latin and instead illuminates archeological and anthropological facts and findings.   She interprets cultures and icons and goddesses.  She finds new meaning.

And as I listen to Mills discuss the legacy of this early 20th century thinker this lovely New York City afternoon, I recall, all too slowly, my own relative and her work in myth and anthropology and I wonder if there are any connections.  Cornelia Steketee Hulst, an archaeologist and the sister of my great grandfather Jacob Steketee, a woman who died a few years before I was born, published the book Perseus and the Gorgon in 1946.  I grew up hearing my mother speak with some pride of “Aunt Cornelia” who mother knew when she was a new bride, and who mom respected for living a life of the mind and having graduate degrees.  I think Mom wanted me to know all about her and the possibilities of this kind of life.  Mom had plans to name her final child Cornelia if it had been a girl (it was a boy she named Joe, who now has a delightful daughter of his own).  I will summarize Cornelia’s work in this book from Olympia Dukakis‘ 2003 memoir Ask Me Again Tomorrow.  In this book, Dukakis writes of the role this slim tome plays in her research for a role that becomes for her a continuing personal spiritual inquiry:

“From a box in the back of the store, I pulled out a small book called Perseus and the Gorgon, by Cornelia Steketee Hulst, an archaeologist who wrote about a 1911 dig on the island of Corfu.  The book was dedicated to Gorgo, a goddess figure from Greek mythology — she with the hair of writing snakes — so terrifying that anyone who gazed at her would turn to stone.  According to Hulst, the Gorgon of Corfu had once been the goddess Ashirat (which means happiness, energy, and joy).  When the island was overrun by Perseus (whose name means “to lay waste”), he cut off her head and sacked her temple.  He also decided that her name should be stricken from all written records and that henceforth she should only be known as Gorgon, the snake goddess.  In describing what Perseus had done, Hulst wrote that he had ‘buried in oblivion and covered with silence the teachings of the Great Mother.”

I flipped to the sources in Great Grand Aunt Cornelia’s book when I returned home from the Woolf-Harrison lecture and there in the alphabetized bibliography is the cryptic listing J. E. Harrison, Ancient Art and Religion; Themis.

My world’s collide and new moons and stars are formed, and perhaps goddesses spin off to find their own orbits.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 20, 2010)

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During the eight years I lived in Washington, DC, I grew to think of many of that city’s museums and galleries as second homes, including those that actually expect admission fees.  I would join some of the admission-charging private museums in alternate years — the Corcoran Gallery, for example, or the Phillips Collection — and blend them in with the no-fee-charging institutions.  I thrilled in the availability of world-class art and cultural artifacts on a whim for moments between meetings in government offices, or for a few hours of serious escape.  Ah, the many locales associated with the Smithsonian Institution and ah, the National Gallery of Art.  And while corners of favor and particular interests abound (a Katharine Hepburn portrait at the National Portrait Gallery or the Matisse room at the National Gallery’s East Wing for example), I grew to love in particular, with a free wheeling abandon, the eclectic and now remodeled National Museum of American History.  [http://americanhistory.si.edu/]  Frequent repeat visits to favorite objects over the eight years I lived in this fine American city.

The "Wizard of Oz" ruby slippers (one of several several existing pairs) on display in "America's Attic". image credit: smithsonian institution.

The museum that some have described as “America’s attic” captures a vast array of objects.  From the web site cited we find this text:

The Museum collects and preserves more than 3 million artifacts—all true national treasures. We take care of everything from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Dizzy Gillespie’s angled trumpet and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.” Our collections form a fascinating mosaic of American life and comprise the greatest single collection of American history.

When this particular museum was reopened in 2008 after a several year shut down for its most recent refurbishing, the New York Times’ coverage reminded us of the organization’s nickname — “America’s Attic”.   http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/21/arts/design/21hist.html

Archive portraits of the Shubert brothers. Left to right: Lee, Sam, and J.J. image credit: martha wade steketee

I spent time this week in the 2nd floor offices of the Shubert Archive in the Lyceum Theatre at 149 W 45th Street.  Archive Director Maryann Chach similarly describes her resources as “the attic or the garage for the organization”, a repository of both first and last resort, a place of repose for the essential detritus and effluvia of the business and artistic visions of her “country”, the culture she works for, the work and productions and buildings related to the theatre-producing Shubert brothers’ legacy.  [For even more about the Shubert legacy refer to the lusciously illustrated The Shuberts Present: 100 Years of American Theater published in 2001 by Harry N. Abrams.]

And unless anyone might conclude that I have wandered too far from my Judy Garland loving roots, note that one of the four full-time staff members did his dissertation on the performance history of Baum’s Oz (the original story).  And quite sweetly, the original American Judy Garland Club president, Albert Poland, is represented in the Archive’s resources with papers from his general theatrical management career.  From the Archive’s web site http://www.shubertarchive.org/ this general description:

“The Archive is the repository of significant collections of papers from contemporary general managers, including Albert Poland, Marvin Krauss, and Gatchell and Neufeld.”

That last bit was a surprise to me.  Garland touched many during her life time and legions more now years after her passing.  It never fails to stun me.  Presents when I least expect them.

Shubert Archive images on a table. image credit: martha wade steketee

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 24, 2010)

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Blending attributes of making and observing and respecting the art.  This exercise in amalgamation is part of the journey I have been on over the past few years.  Along the way I have found George Jean Nathan and Kenneth Tynan. Each provides to me invaluable lessons in reacting to the wonders of the stage.

From Nathan I absorb a deeply American respect for voice and clarity of analysis and taking your work seriously.  From his Art of the Night, published in 1928, some words of wisdom (from a longer laundry list shared in a blog post earlier this year), in the form of “Advice to a Young Critic”, in the first chapter of this volume.

“The greatest weakness of the average critic is his wish to be more than a critic.”

“If you have violent prejudices, do not be afraid of them.”

“Take your work seriously, but not yourself.”

“Since you are an American, write like an American.”

“The chief fault with many critics is that they strive to divert to themselves the attention, if any, that their criticism should attract to itself.”

“A sound piece of criticism has never yet been spoiled by an injection of humor ….”

From Kenneth Tynan, I learn about erudite opinion making while having one’s own quirky favorites.  In particular, I embraced Tynan when I came across his remarks printed in the The New Yorker (23 May 1959),  pages 79 and 80, about Judy Garland’s May 1959 appearance at the old Metropolitan Opera House.

“Backed by a well-drilled revue company, Judy Garland sang in New York last week.  The engagement, which is now over, was limited; the pleasure it gave was not.”

Succinct.  Carefully crafted.  Didactically but intriguingly constructed.  Draws you in.

“Where else, as they say, but in America would you find Miss Garland at the Metropolitan Opera House while the Bolshoi Ballet was appearing at Madison Square Garden?”

Humor.  The almost snide (but we love him anyway) reflection of a Brit at this time just visiting New York for a short engagement himself.  Reflecting and opining freely from a certain remove.  And he can be snarky and we don’t care …

“She had some pretty decor to enshrine her, and a couple of stout supporting performers to keep us amused whenever costume changes forced her offstage…. But the magnet was Judy, the buxom minstrel girl, singing — in a variety of costumes, some becoming, some dreadfully not — her repertory of songs about smiling, rejoicing, and suffering.  Birds, naturally, flew over the rainbow, the trolley went clang-clang-clang, and the boy next door was just adored.  We also heard Harold Arlen’s lament for ‘The Man That got Away;” “We’re a Couple of Swells,” in which Miss Garland’s hobo makeup lent her a beguiling resemblance to Dylan Thomas; and a cluster of those phony, unforgettable numbers — such as ‘Swanee” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” — that white composers used to write about the black South.”

Don’t you love it when people from countries other than America express opinions about the cultural history and race relations here?  But you read on.

“Miss Garland is a squat woman now … “

Well, in 1959, there were some extra pounds yet truth be told, Garland’s 4 foot 11 inch frame did not allow for much extra.. but really, Ken, “squat”?  Well, onward we go …

“… and it takes some effort of puckering and wrinkling for her face to achieve the hopeful, trusting smile that first transfixed us.  but she can still do it, because she incarnates a dream. She embodies the persistence of youth so completely that we forbid her to develop, and permit her no maturity. Even in young middle age … “

[Note that Garland is just shy of 37 at the time of this May 1959 engagement.]

“… she must continue to sing about adolescence and all the pain and nostalgia that go with it.  When the voice pours out as rich and pleading as ever, we know where, and how moved, we are — in the presence of a star, and embarrassed by tears.”

Well now.  This is a man in command of his vocabulary and attuned to his critical faculties yet completely willing to give full sway to his fanaticism, his emotions.  This is a writer willing to share his passions without censoring them,  and allows us, if we’re willing, to go along the journey with him.  To feel the live experience.

I learn from this, as a writer, as a researcher, as an observer, as a critic.  Feel it, tell it, share it, express it fully.  And bring your reader, your audience, with you into the room.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 19, 2010)

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So I’m listening to and watching the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder once again, yet again, this evening.  I often need to watch this marathon of a quiet, well-told tale of murder in Northern Michigan in several pieces.  One piece might include the scenes around James Stewart‘s Paul Biegler first meeting his new client (Ben Gazzara as Lieutenant Manion in his jail cell).  Another piece might focus on Paul’s first meeting alone (with Maida providing supervision and the occasional commentary) in his home/law offices with his client’s wife Laura, played by Lee Remick in all her tight slacks, little dog lapping beer, knowing innocence-ness.  Or I’ll focus on sequences in the courtroom, presided over by the great Joseph Welch as Judge Weaver.  Welch, a friend of John Voelker who wrote under his pen name Robert Traver the novel upon which this movie is based, was an attorney rather than an actor that the world grew to know in the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 (“Have you no decency sir?  At long last?”).  And always a highlight, a reward, for me is this  scene that comes close to the end of this three-hour marathon.  Maida (Eve Arden), Biegler’s s secretary, quietly reflects on why she’s counting on them to win the case — replacing a persnickety typewriter.  And Parnell (Arthur O’Connell) chimes in with his musings on the power of the jury system.

Maida bemused.

Anatomy of a Murder
Screenplay by Wendell Mayes
From the novel by Robert Traver
Final: February 25, 1959
p. 198

[Maida, Paul Biegler, and Parnell await the judgment of the jury and ponder philosophy and practicalities.]

Tell me we’re going to win. I’m counting on getting that promissory note from the Lieutenant. I hope we can borrow some money on it.  I need a new typewriter. Half the time the ‘p’ and the ‘f’ won’t strike on mine.  ‘Party of the first part’ sometimes comes out ‘arty o’ the irst art.’  It doesn’t make sense. It’s embarrassing.

Arty o’ the ‘irst art. I like that. It has a ring to it.

<A moment passes.>

(puts his hat over his eyes)
Twelve people go off into a room. Twelve different hearts, twelve different minds, from twelve  different walks of life — twelve sets of eyes and ears, shapes and sizes — And these twelve people have to judge another human being  as different from them as they are from each other — and in their  judgment they just become of one mind — unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of man’s disorganized soul that they can do it — and most of the time do it right well. God bless juries.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 27, 2010)

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The Algonquin Round Table is a name that alludes to a group from heraldic legend of course .. and takes its name literally from a fabulous midtown Manhattan Hotel, a huge luncheon table (that sadly no longer exists but the memory lingers on) — and really refers to a group of writers, performers, critics, and wits who lived and worked and loved in New York City during the time between the two World Wars (generally dated 1919 through 1930 or so).   Most were in their 20s at the early end of the Round Table’s life … some a bit older (e.g. Franklin Pierce Adams and George Kaufman).

There is an extensive bibliography of books written about this group of folks, as the ‘Round Table’ .. and of course there are biographies of the participants, as well as their theatrical, literary, and artistic products.  One of the best introductions is on the page crafted for an “American Masters” segment on the Round Table:  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/the-algonquin-round-table/about-the-algonquin/527/….From that source this statement that includes the requisite name listing:

With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of THE NEW YORKER) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.

I found this group of writers during my adolescence, as I attempted to make sense in a straight-laced suburb of a straight-laced town in a straight-laced era.  Western Michigan suburban girl yearns to break free –that was the subtext.  And part of my TEXT became: these characters.  From the age of 13 onward, in visits to Manhattan, and within a few years visits to the Algonquin itself, and later in high school creating an independent study so that i could get some course credit for the reading i was doing of Benchley and Parker and Kaufman and Woollcott and Ferber and .. and. … I lived a bit in these lives.

My LibraryThing collection of books by and about these characters can be found here:  http://www.librarything.com/catalog/msteketee/algonquinroundtable

Either these people amuse you or they don’t.  They reduce me to a puddle of hysterics at times.   I’ve been reading and writing about these folks for decades. They endlessly fascinate me. And this era of American cultural history — one of hope and cynicism and of “finding its voice”  — just intrigues me.

The restrained and relentless humor which informed generations to come is captured exquisitely in the following skit created by Robert Benchley for the Round Table members’ vaudeville entitled No, Sirree!, and repeated on and off for years.  Thankfully it was captured on film.  Ladies and gentle people, I give you … “The Treasurer’s Report”.  And invite you to try out the some of Benchley’s colleagues on paper, on stage, on film.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 1, 2010)

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