The Goodman’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People wasn’t the “timely classic” the ads promise. While the cast was good, except for one who stumbled on his lines a couple times, and the sets and costumes were creative and fitting, the play was dated and the hero was egotistical and clueless.
They say group therapy works because while you can brush aside one person’s opinion or insight, when a bunch tell you you’re wrong, you realize you must confront your short comings. Too bad the hero of An Enemy of the People, never considered that. Factually, he was right, but otherwise he was so wrong in how he treated and disrespected his community.
The play opens at a doctor’s house as he and his wife are entertaining two young revolutionary journalists. In the middle of the party, the doctor receives and important report on the toxicity of the spa water for which the town is known. The doctor’s thrilled that his hypothesis is true. It was odd how happy he was because he was right. He had no ability to sympathize with people who would be hurt by the news. Throughout the play the doctor fights to get the bad news out. He never grows or cooperates with his brother the mayor, the printer who’s afraid of losing his livelihood, the journalists who get corrupted and side with the mayor. The hero never become a leader and never shows wisdom. He’s vain and right and will be damned if he has to take another approach.
The culminating scene is when the doctor calls a town meeting to reveal the toxicity. However, he changes his mind and instead gives a tirade about how stupid everyone else in society is. He’s the only one with any brains, which of course, the scene calls into question. His wife and daughter look on passively as their breadwinner and head of the family destroy their prospects. He goes on and on haranguing about how everyone else is brainwashed because of their bad schooling, never mind that he’s a product of the same school system, never mind that the rich probably were tutored, never mind that there are always some who’re born with a healthy skepticism and they have always questioned their teachers.
The play added a lot of needless swearing to make the production “modern.” That doesn’t say much for our times, does it?
Daily Trials by a Sensitive Man
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oh, there are times
When all this fret and tumult that we hear
Do seem more stale than to the sexton’s ear
His own dull chimes.
Ding dong! ding dong!
The world is in a simmer like a sea
Over a pent volcano,—woe is me
All the day long!
From crib to shroud!
Nurse o’er our cradles screameth lullaby,
And friends in boots tramp round us as we die,
At morning’s call
The small-voiced pug-dog welcomes in the sun,
And flea-bit mongrels, wakening one by one,
Give answer all.
When evening dim
Draws round us, then the lonely caterwaul,
Tart solo, sour duet, and general squall,—
These are our hymn.
Women, with tongues
Like polar needles, ever on the jar;
Men, plugless word-spouts, whose deep fountains are
Within their lungs.
Children, with drums
Strapped round them by the fond paternal ass;
Peripatetics with a blade of grass
Between their thumbs.
Vagrants, whose arts
Have caged some devil in their mad machine,
Which grinding, squeaks, with husky groans between,
Come out by starts.
Cockneys that kill
Thin horses of a Sunday,—men, with clams,
Hoarse as young bisons roaring for their dams
From hill to hill.
Soldiers, with guns,
Making a nuisance of the blessed air,
Child-crying bellman, children in despair,
Screeching for buns.
Storms, thunders, waves!
Howl, crash, and bellow till ye get your fill;
Ye sometimes rest; men never can be still
But in their graves.
As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!
Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.
The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.
When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)
While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.
This week’s prompt inspired me to look for images of strange inventions. I happen to be rewind a book called TheWonderful Future that Never Was, which is full of cool, quirky devices. (I’ll review that book, when I finish it.)
These wacky inventions do have purpose and whimsy, but when they were first made, I assume the inventor was serious.
I guess roller blades won out.
Dear March – Come in –
How glad I am –
I hoped for you before –
Put down your Hat –
You must have walked –
How out of Breath you are –
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –
Did you leave Nature well –
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell –
I got your Letter, and the Birds –
The Maples never knew that you were coming –
I declare – how Red their Faces grew –
But March, forgive me –
And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –
There was no Purple suitable –
You took it all with you –
Who knocks? That April –
Lock the Door –
I will not be pursued –
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied –
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come
That blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame –
by Emily Dickinson
It’s fitting that I publish my review of Louise de Koven Bowen’s Growing up with a City on International Women’s Day. Bowen was a natural leader and shaped civic life in the late 19th and early 20th century in Chicago. In fact she after women got the vote in the 20’s Republicans wanted Bowen to run for mayor, but she declined. (Remember that our parties’ philosophies have shifted through the decades.) I was blown away that back then having a woman run for a major office was even considered.
Bowen’s memoir begins with her family history. Her grandparents were some of Chicago’s first white settlers. Her courageous, wise grandmother frequently acted as a negotiator or peacekeeper with the native Americans near Fort Dearborn.
As a girl Bowen frequently had delusions of grandeur or desires for high social status. She competed with a visiting cousin from New York, whose lifestyle seemed more aristocratic.and fashionable. To make her family, which was plenty stylish and “couth” look better off, she used her own money to buy a smart uniform for her coachman and insisted on calling him Bernard rather than Barney, which he went by. Barney complied with most of the girl’s requests for finery but drew the line when 12 year old Louise suggested he call her Louise rather than her nick name Lulu.
Bowen was educated at a seminary in town, but upon completion felt her education incomplete. Thus the girl made a decision to read the encyclopedia to round out her knowledge base. She was wise enough to know that while that gave her a broad understanding, it didn’t offer much depth.
As an adult, Bowen was tapped to preside over hospital boards and civic organizations. Her book describes her successes and challenges in hospital management and affecting policy in the juvenile justice system and other causes. Bowen worked at Hull House with Jane Addams and offers insight into Addams’ leadership and beliefs.
Bowen saw the need for poor children to have an experience in the country and opened a summer camp for them. She pioneered social work and public policy. She spoke to massive crowds and compelled powerful men to do the right thing. She’s one of many civic leaders who’s gone unsung.
Reading Growing Up with a City, I learned a lot about philanthropy and life in the Gilded Age. I was impressed by how much more connected a philanthropist would be back then compared to now. Bowen would regularly walk through the impoverished neighborhoods to get a real feel for the hardships. When a woman , who’s husband had deserted her, came to a relief organization for help, immediate aid was given for the most pressing needs and then a search for the husband would take place. If at all possible the man was brought back to the family to make him take responsibility. I realize that’s not a cure-all, but we don’t even try such action. (We do try to find “deadbeat dads” and make them pay up, but that’s it.)
As is usually the case, reading a memoir written during an era rid me of silly notions our society projects on to the past. For example, I thought that surely after decades of fighting for the vote at least 50% if not a big majority of women would vote. That wasn’t the case at all.
Growing Up with a City was a fascinating read that deepened my understanding not just of Chicago history but of the Gilded Age as a whole. I was amazed at all one woman could accomplish.