Monday, March 19, 2007

Osama's Bonanza

So, according to Lawrence Wright in his book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006), apparently Osama bin Laden was, when a child, a great fan of the western television series, Bonanza (which originally ran from 1959 to 1973, with seemingly perpetual reruns). Let us imagine young Osama eagerly tuning in:

Now, this is a rather striking image in itself. But let me explain why I consider it not merely bizarre, but significant. I am convinced that no one, not the most heinous monster, is content to think ill of himself (and I'm going to stick with a "he" here for this particular argument). Even if “no man is a hero to his valet,” every man is a hero in the story he tells of his life within his own imagination, the notion of the gleeful villain being purely an invention of melodrama. That being the case, the sources of a man’s self-understanding --- the myths and stories chosen as favourites, the sources in which the very nature of "heroism" are defined --- are crucial to understanding his nature. So, how exactly did Osama bin Laden, as a boy, feel about Bonanza? How did he position himself in the stories?

Well, pondering the Ponderosa through Osama's eyes, thoughts of Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright suddenly jogged my memory of a brief account of Osama bin Laden’s father that I had read in a biography of the son on the Frontline website some time ago.

Lorne Greene, Queen's University alumnus and Ben "Pa" Cartwright on Bonanza.

To make the point clear for those who have never seen Bonanza, I’ll start with a description of Ben Cartwright from a website devoted to the show:

"Ben Cartwright, a man whose quiet strength and perseverance has always been a steadfast and stabilizing influence on his sons.
A man who values family and moral justice . . . A man who stands fast when faced with adversity . . . A man who never allowed the wealth that he had accumulated to overshadow his beliefs.
He is a man who is no stranger to tragedy, a man who became a widower three times. After each of these devastating losses, the love he felt for his sons helped him overcome his pain and continue building his life’s dream, the Ponderosa, the largest ranch in the Nevada Territory.
Ben Cartwright never forgot his simple beginnings. A generous man, he has sheltered and helped many people, rich or poor, from every walk of life. He reaches out to his neighbors, never failing to offer them support in times of trouble. A tolerant man, who never judges another, who looks at a person for what they are on the inside, not by what they appear to be on the outside.
A righteous man, he firmly instilled his strong faith and unwavering convictions in his four sons. But he was also a gentle, loving father who knows instinctively how to give each one the guidance they need, to console in just the right way, a man who understands each son, who loves and 
accepts them no matter what circumstances they face.
Ben Cartwright, a man respected and admired by all who know him. He is the bonding force of the Ponderosa, whose deep voice and wisdom touches everyone
." (Source)

And now a description of Osama bin Laden’s father, from a biography of Osama written by a friend of his, and reproduced on the Frontline website :

"His father Mohammed Awad bin Laden came to the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] from Hadramout (South Yemen) sometime around 1930. The father started his life as a very poor laborer (porter in Jeddah port), to end up as owner of the biggest construction company in the kingdom…
…[Awad] bin Laden was so supportive to King Faisal [of Saudi Arabia] that he literally paid the civil servants' wages of the whole kingdom for six months....
The father was fairly devoted Moslem, very humble and generous. He was so proud of the bag he used when he was a porter that he kept it as a trophy in the main reception room in his palace. The father used to insist on his sons to go and manage some projects themselves.
The father had very dominating personality. He insisted to keep all his children in one premises. He had a tough discipline and observed all the children with strict religious and social code. He maintained a special daily program and obliged his children to follow. At the same time the father was entertaining with trips to the sea and desert. He dealt with his children as big men and demanded them to show confidence at young age. He was very keen not to show any difference in the treatment of his children.

The place in which Mr. Greene is currently rolling as I write this.

So, what lessons did young Osama take in at his father's/Ben Cartwright's knee? And which of the three sons did he most identify with: Adam, Hoss or Little Joe? Well, my guess is that it was not Adam, if only because Adam was gone from the series by 1962. But what part of the mythology embodied by Bonanza left the series along with Adam's departure? Well, consider this episode that someone has helpfully edited down (sometimes it seems you can find absolutely ANYTHING on YouTube) in which the venerable Ben Cartwright is bent on "taking the law into his own hands," and Adam, the rational liberal, attempts to reason with him. Try substituting the Islamic Holy Land for the Ponderosa ranch in your mind, and see how it plays:

But, it seems to me that the pseudo-liberal resolution arrived at in this episode was not exactly characteristic of Bonanza, and that the more frequent moral would be something along the lines of what Kenny Rogers declared in "The Coward of the County": "sometimes you've got to fight to be a man." And, indeed, it seems that after a time there was not quite room enough in Bonanza for the point of view represented by Adam, for the character lasted only three seasons, Pernell Roberts leaving the series in 1962 because of his disagreements with the writers. (To get a sense of what these disagreements were, it is important to note that Roberts was something of a liberal activist in real life, politically known for publicly embarrassing NBC about their lazy habit of hiring caucasian actors to play natives.) But it almost seems as though they could not allow Roberts to go without teaching his character a hard lesson in one of his last episodes --- one of the more famous from the series, number 94, “The Crucible." I’ve combined two different website sources to create this synopsis:

After completing a grueling cattle drive, Adam Cartwright takes a trip into the wilderness for some peace and quiet, Instead, he is robbed and stripped of his weapons and clothing by a pair of vicious outlaws. Left to die in the middle of nowhere, Adam attempts to make the grueling journey to Signal Rock on foot. Along the way, he meets prospector Peter Kane (Lee Marvin), offering to work Pete's claim in exchange for the man's mule. Alas, the mentally unbalanced prospector turns out to have an altogether different agenda in mind. He holds Adam prisoner and tortures him to prove his theory that anyone could be driven to kill, even a man as rational as Adam.” (Source 1 & 2)

In subsequent seasons, then (those which appeared after Osama had turned five, in 1962), Ben Cartwright represented absolutely the most authoritative view on show: wise and unopposed in his no-nonsense idea of hard-nosed, stand-alone justice --- the Texan ideal (although, yes, the Ponderosa is supposed to be in Nevada). So, am I suggesting that Osama bin Laden became a terrorist because Pernell Roberts left Bonanza? Well, I don't think I'd like to go that far. But I will say that all of this brings me to consider that, in terms of personal mythology, there is perhaps very little separating the ideas of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush except the accident of geography: for each seems determined to consider the world his own personal Ponderosa.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Other Blanche

For years now, I have been deeply curious about what Jessica Tandy might have been like as Blanche when A Streetcar Named Desire first played on Broadway. Tandy was the only one of the major players from the Broadway production, directed by Elia Kazan, who did not recreate her role for the film, also directed by Kazan. Instead, the role went to Vivien Leigh, who had played the role in London under the direction of her husband, Laurence Olivier. Leigh was a much bigger star than Tandy, of course, having won an Oscar for her performance in Gone With The Wind; and in the end she won another Oscar for her performance as Blanche, which is certainly memorable, although to some viewers nowadays --- to some of my students, at any rate --- it seems just a little too mannered. Kazan confessed later on that he actually preferred Tandy in the role because she was subtler. So did Karl Malden, who played Mitch; although he also emphasized that when he discussed this question with Marlon Brando, Brando had said he preferred Leigh, because she had brought a sexual energy to the role that Tandy had lacked.

I had always assumed that there was no objective evidence left for us to make a comparison, but the other day (while in fact looking to see if there was any video of the country-rock band, Tandy --- evidently not yet), I came across this clip on YouTube of Jessica Tandy recreating a bit of her performance in a monologue that was filmed for a television special on Tennessee Williams. Of course, this was probably filmed almost three decades after the original production: Tandy is grey-haired and a very different woman, and there is no Marlon Brando or Kim Hunter for her to play off. But still, it's interesting, and gives some clue to how the production must have differed from the film. Whereas Vivien Leigh gave the impression of being a sort of panicked song bird battering against the window of a room, struggling to escape from Stanley and everything he represented, Jessica Tandy seems more like a dignified, beautiful creature speaking about the instrument of its imminent extinction. She also seems more formidable than Leigh --- her struggle with Stanley must have seemed more like an even match, which would probably strengthen the play quite a bit. But, one can also see Brando's point about the sexuality: while it's easy to see this Blanche as a schoolteacher, it's a little more difficult to imagine her seducing a school boy. She seems too much in control of herself for anything quite so impulsive.

On a side note, it's also interesting to hear Tennessee Williams' voice at the beginning of the clip. It's easy to forget sometimes, just seeing him frozen in photos (like that great Yosef Karsh portrait above), that he was almost as broad a character in his own way as was Truman Capote (e.g., "collEEsion cohwrse"). And on a side note to my side note, I am very eager to see what Daniel MacIvor does with Williams in his new play, His Greatness, which is about the last year in Williams's life, and a new draft of which Daniel finished just the other day, according to his blog (see the bottom of this page).

Anyway, here's the Jessica Tandy clip:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Harper's Newspeak and its Enforcers

I think, from here on in, I am going to allow my blogs to drift as far away from theatre as my mind happens to be at any given moment. And in this case, I have as my topic another passion, my hatred of bullies.

The bully in this case is one Dr. Irwin Itzkovitch, Assistant Deputy Minister, Earth Sciences Sector, Natural Resources Canada (who has very thoughtfully posted his photo and email on the government website). To be sure, he was carrying out the wishes of his odious master, Stephen Harper --- but rather more zealously than conscionably, as you shall see. A couple of months ago, Harper's Magazine (a favourite of mine) published some of Itzkovitch's email correspondence, and while it made me laugh, and then sneer, eventually it made me burn with indignation. If there is one thing that I hate even more than a simple bully, it is one who is putatively acting in my name, as a citizen of Canada. I began to think that, in spirit, though of course not degree, Itzkovitch's acts are of a piece with the sort of attitude popularly typified by Adolph Eichmann: unquestioning, boot-licking obedience to one's masters and ruthless intolerance towards underlings. And once I'd thought that, I didn't really feel comfortable just letting this go with a sneer anymore. So I wrote to him. Anyway, for your reading pleasure and moral indignation, I offer to you first the original correspondence as it appeared in Harper's, then my email to Itzkovitch.

From a September email exchange between representatives of Natural Resources Canada and Andrew Okulitch, a scientist working at the Geological Survey of Canada in an emeritus capacity. Irwin Itzkovitch is an assistant deputy minister under Minister of Natural Resources Gary Lunn. Vanessa Nelson is an executive adviser. Okulitch was fired but reappointed two weeks later. The Conservative Party won control of Canada's government in January, after twelve years of Liberal rule. Originally from Harper's Magazine, December 2006:

FROM: VANESSA NELSON As per the Minister's Office, effective immediately, the words "Canada's New Government" are to be used instead of "the Government of Canada" in all departmental correspondence. Please note that the initial letters of all three words are capitalized. Thank you for your cooperation.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH Why do newly elected officials think everything begins with them taking office? They are merely stewards for as long as the public allows. They are the Government of Canada. Nothing more. I shall use "Geological Survey of Canada" on my departmental correspondence to avoid any connection with "New Government." The GSC, steward to Canada's earth resources for 164 years, is an institution worthy of my loyalty, as opposed to idiotic buzzwords coined by political hacks.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH Given your strong though misdirected views of the role and authority of the Government as elected by the people, and your duty to reflect their decisions, I accept that you are immediately removing yourself from the Emeritus Program. I wish you every success in your future.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH Although your knee-jerk response seems typical of Ottawa "mentality" these days, to give you the benefit of the doubt, it may have been mandated by our nervous minister. Of course, it is not a particularly rational decision, and perhaps you might reflect upon it. We of the GSC are used to taking the long view. Ministers come and go, but my talents will always remain available to the people of Canada.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH This is not a knee-jerk reaction nor was it dictated by anyone. My decision stands and I await confirmation that it has been executed by the responsible GSC management.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH I have just received the clarification of the usage policy for the term New Government, stating that the new wording is required only in documents prepared for or on behalf of Minister Lunn. This limited usage is consistent and appropriate. We would appear to have been victims of an unfortunate misunderstanding. My intransigence about the term was in protest about its misapplication, not a call for civil disobedience. I do understand the need to obey ministerial directives once I am given them clearly. If I can help calm the waters by issuing my own clarification and apology, I would be glad to do so.

FROM: IRWIN ITZKOVITCH Your reaction was and continues to be unacceptable for anyone associated with Public Service. My decision stands. As of yesterday you are no longer an emeritus scientist.

FROM: ANDREW OKULITCH I concede that my memo was intemperate and deserving of a reprimand. It was, however, prompted by misinformation sent out by your staff. I don't expect that anything I might say now will change your mind, so I'll conclude with a few facts you will now have to live with. I'll come out of this a champion of common sense (except when it comes to sending memos), someone who tried to defuse a situation with humor and made an effort to restore calm. You'll come out as an intemperate, irrational manager who lacks the strength of character to reverse a hasty decision. Do you really want to be remembered as the only assistant deputy minister who sacked an emeritus scientist over such trivia? It is never too late to repair an unfortunate situation if everyone approaches it with an open mind and good intentions.

From: Craig Walker
Subject: Correspondence

Dr. Itzkovitch,

Because I have been busy with other things, I have only just read your correpsondence with Andrew Okulitch published a couple of months ago in Harper's Magazine.

I imagine your emails must look very different, reading them as reproduced in an international publication rather than reading them upon your computer screen from the seat of power. Now it is there for all to see that in one swoop you managed to act as both a bullying tyrant and a craven toady. Shame on you. If you do not have the bare common sense to be at least moderate in your implementation of a government policy that any objective judgement would have to admit was, at best, rather vulgarly self-serving, you have no business holding any leadership role. I suggest that you resign before you disgrace yourself any futher.

Craig Walker
Professor of Drama,
Queen's University

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Second Person, Singular

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this…

Or, at least, you would not ordinarily volunteer for anything that resembled the excruciating predicament of audience involvement. But here you are all the same. Excited. Nervous. Curious. That pretty dark-haired, dark-eyed girl speaks to you by name and asks if you have remembered to bring your pass. You hand over the little folder for her to check. It has a title, Everyman, and has the name of a theatre company, Single Thread, but apart from that, it looks less like a theatre ticket than a passport (to “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns”?). Then she takes your coat and hat and gloves and locks them away in a chest. (A coffin for your clothes?) She chats with you in a friendly way, but she knows that you’ve come here to die. So, she’d like to make you comfortable, but there’s only so much, really, that she can do.

She takes you downstairs into the basement of the church, where there is a single theatre seat that faces a closed door, and she leaves you there, alone. Then the sounds begin that will continue intermittently throughout the next (last) hour of your life: strange music, fragments of speech, mechanical noises --- odd, peripheral sounds, like rats scuttling in the walls of your mind, dragging fragments of the daylight world behind them like long vaguely nauseating tails.

Then a glow appears behind the door and muffled voices are heard, and still you wait, wondering whether you should open it or not. But at last you do. And it has begun.

There, in a white room, is the girl from the lobby. And you feel relieved to see her in this new world at first, like Alice does in seeing the White Rabbit she has followed. And the room is full of other people, some of whom you know from the real world, but they seem to be a little out of their senses, acting like profoundly autistic people, except for a gaunt and pale figure in a dark suit in one corner, and an attractive but intimidating woman in another who is reading. And, in another corner there is a little puppet theatre, where, after a moment, a rather silly finger puppet show begins, enacting the opening scene from the medieval morality play, Everyman, in the vaguely modernized text by John Gassner. It’s amusing but trivial, and could become tiresome. But, when the woman slams the book shut, the tone in the room becomes much more intense. Because it is around that time that they start speaking to you. Death is coming after you. And you are forced to move from room to room, from Fellowship’s basement apartment, to the middle class suburban dining room of your Cousin and Kindred, to the somewhat claustrophobic and almost disgusting room of Goods, stuffed full of appliances and toys, like the squalor of the student residence room of an overindulged grown child.

But still, through all this, you are thinking about what is being done. About how Liam Karry, the director, has made his choices. About how each of the actors has played impressively, with commitment. About how the experience is a little like death itself, in that we know in a general way what is in store for us, but really nothing about the specifics. And you are thinking, recurringly, about how self-conscious you are of the experiment, much as you were when you read Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City, which was written entirely in the second person singular (opening with the line "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this...")

But then, suddenly you are pushed through a door and you are left in complete and utter darkness. And there is no sound at all for a moment. Nothing. And for a moment too, you have no idea where to go. Because of the maze of rooms you’ve been through already, you really would have no idea how to make your way backwards through the darkness, even if the door had not closed behind you. So you grope about yourself and realize that you are in a hallway. Then, out of the darkness ahead of you, you hear someone crying out in pain, calling for your help, quietly at first and then more loudly and urgently.

And so, having no other choice, you make your may forward, gropingly, until you come to the room where Good Deeds lies, on the ground, and with a little horror you recognize that he is on a crucifix. And, although this again makes you think about (and admire) the director’s choices, you suddenly also realize that, in that dark hallway, when what you had to do and what Everyman had to do were one and the same thing, the nature of your involvement changed. You lost your formerly inescapable sense of detached irony for a moment, and you were in the midst, playing along in earnest. And this will be your guide for how to approach the rest of the journey. Good Deeds and Knowledge will be of great help in this, because the actors play their roles with a degree of earnestness that makes you ashamed of your petty irony. And when you encounter Confession, you have been emotionally moved enough that you find yourself solemnly wishing that you knew how to utter contrition in a manner commensurate with the moment --- that, in effect, your upbringing was not Protestant. So that, by the time you are taken down a long, dark, dank tunnel, and left in your grave to lie and listen to the faint, remote ticking and rattling of a world beyond your darkness, you have, indeed, thought upon your own mortality.

And when, at last, the light literally at the end of the tunnel begins to glow, and you follow it to the room in which you recover your clothes and then climb the stairs through the cellar door ("the most beautiful phrase in the language") up into the snowy night, and the cold fresh air strikes your face as you see your breath appear in the moonlight, you are overwhelmed by the exhilarating feeling of just how good it is to be alive.

I lifted a couple of production photos from Alex Dault's page on Facebook. So sue me. The one at the top is of Annie Briggs as Confession. If you are going to get down on your knees and make yourself abject before a woman, you really do want her to be someone like Annie Briggs. In the photo immediately above are Adam Wray and Fernanda Fukamati as Kindred and Cousin. They were wearing clothes when I went through, so I can only surmise that they have exaggerated ideas of the degree of formality my dignified presence requires.

I apologize for how long it has taken to make this posting. In fact, I would have made it a month ago, immediately after I saw the show, but I was sworn to divulge nothing about the show to anyone for as long as it was still running (36 performances for 36 individual audience members). But my imagination can be stubborn, and because it was this posting it wanted to make, it refused to offer up any alternatives. And then, when the run of the show was over, I had so many obligations to fulfill that this had to go on a back burner. But I intend to allow much less time to elapse before I post again.