• Brian Friel, who is widely and rightly thought to be the greatest living English-language playwright, has had two good Broadway seasons in a row. Last season’s brilliant revival of Faith Healer was followed a couple of weeks ago by a similarly impressive production of Translations. (If you haven’t seen it, do so as soon as possible.) Alas, fewer than a half-dozen of Friel’s two dozen-odd plays are staged with any frequency in this country, and the main purpose of The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel (Cambridge University Press, 177 pp., $29.99 paper), edited by Anthony Roche, is to introduce non-Irish readers to a wider range of his work than they are likely to have encountered on their own. Most of the essays are good, a few superlatively so, and I unhesitatingly recommend Patrick Burke’s “Friel and Performance History” and Richard Allen Cave’s “Friel’s Dramaturgy: The Visual Dimension” to anyone even slightly interested in the author of Philadelphia, Here I Come! and Dancing at Lughnasa.
Warning: Cambridge Companions usually contain a couple of ultra-academic duds, and this one is no exception. I read “Performativity, Unruly Bodies, and Gender in Brian Friel’s Drama” and “Brian Friel as Postcolonial Playwright” so you wouldn’t have to. Forewarned is forearmed!
• Barbara M. Fisher, professor emerita of English at the City University of New York, is the author of Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous and Noble Numbers, Subtle Words: The Art of Mathematics in the Science of Storytelling. She is also an alumna of New York City Ballet, for which she danced between 1947 and 1958, back in the days when she was known as Barbara Milberg. She splits the difference and bills herself as Barbara Milberg Fisher on the dust jacket of In Balanchine’s Company: A Dancer’s Memoir (Wesleyan University Press, 211 pp., $24.95), a splendid little memoir of her professional association with the greatest choreographer of the 20th century.
Surprisingly few dancers who worked with George Balanchine have left behind book-length memoirs, and Fisher is the first one to write in any detail about the late 1940’s and 50’s, during which she danced in the premieres of such major Balanchine ballets as Agon, Divertimento No. 15, Firebird, Ivesiana, The Nutcracker, Orpheus, and Western Symphony. Her recollections are exact, vivid, well written, and illustrated by a fine selection of photos. I very much wish they had been available when I wrote All in the Dances, my own brief life of Balanchine.
In addition to providing an indispensable account of Balanchine at work, Fisher tells a wonderful story about his politics. Having grown up in a hard-Left New York family, she made the mistake of wearing a Henry Wallace campaign button to a New York City Ballet rehearsal in the fall of 1948. Balanchine, having fled the Soviet Union a quarter-century earlier, took one look at her and exploded: “Barbara, take off bahton, please! Don’t wear that. You don’t understand. Communist country is lousy place! Can’t say what you want. People spy, talk behind back. Friend disappear. Nobody free. Everybody hungry, all the time hungry. Here is good. Best place. Do what you want. Say what you like, vote how you like. Wonderful country, not like Communist.” I couldn’t have put it better.
Incidentally, Fisher didn’t take off her Wallace “bahton”—and Balanchine didn’t fire her.