Commentary Magazine


Topic: George Balanchine

Bookshelf

• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


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Bookshelf

• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

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• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

In addition to writing about Lieberson, Miller, and John Hammond—the producer-talent scout who spent much of his celebrated career recording jazz and pop for Columbia—Marmorstein depicts a cast of lesser-known backstage characters equally worthy of recognition. George Avakian, who brought Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to Columbia and recorded some of their best-remembered albums, is given his due, as is Deborah Ishlon, the master publicist who first spread the word about Glenn Gould, and talked Stravinsky into writing his “conversation books.”

To write consistently well about a company that recorded everyone and everything from Liberace to Don Juan in Hell demands a degree of cultural competence not possessed by the average human being. While Marmorstein has done his homework—to the point of having read Lieberson’s forgotten novel 3 for Bedroom C and Ishlon’s equally obscure roman à clef Girl Singer: A Two Part Invention—he does not exhibit a complete knowledge of classical music. (Somebody at Thunder’s Mouth Press should have told him that the Brahms First Symphony isn’t a piano concerto.) But the small errors that disfigure The Label do not diminish its effectiveness as journalism, and Marmorstein’s breathless summary of Columbia’s significance is in no way overstated:

In the overlapping epochs of the 78-rpm platter, the 33-rpm vinyl disk, the cassette tape, and the compact disk, Columbia Records seemed to be everywhere. That ubiquitousness was true for no other record label. . . . Decade by decade, Columbia launched the careers of our most seminal recording artists and deposited their sound prints onto the permanent record.

All that came to an untimely end when Columbia was bought by Sony in 1987, a transaction that led in short order to the dumbing-down of the classical and jazz divisions that had been Columbia’s pride. Now that the entire recording industry has been devastated by the rise of Web-based new media, younger music lovers are largely unaware of the role that Columbia Records played in the shaping of postwar American culture. Kudos to Gary Marmorstein for telling them what they missed.

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Weekend Reading

Terry Teachout has contributed to COMMENTARY for over twenty years, the last ten years of them as our regular music critic. One of our most versatile and wide-ranging writers, he has addressed subjects ranging from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Bruno Walter to Walt Disney—and everything in between. (He’s also written excellent biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, and is now working on a life of Louis Armstrong.) This weekend, we offer a mere handful of some of his best work, while reminding you that Terry’s writings as deep as they are broad, and that you can browse all of them here.

Culture in the Age of Blogging
June 2005

I.B. Singer and Me
September 2004

Living with Art
February 2004

Taking Sinatra Seriously
September 1997

The Problem of Shostakovich
February 1995

Terry Teachout has contributed to COMMENTARY for over twenty years, the last ten years of them as our regular music critic. One of our most versatile and wide-ranging writers, he has addressed subjects ranging from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Bruno Walter to Walt Disney—and everything in between. (He’s also written excellent biographies of H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, and is now working on a life of Louis Armstrong.) This weekend, we offer a mere handful of some of his best work, while reminding you that Terry’s writings as deep as they are broad, and that you can browse all of them here.

Culture in the Age of Blogging
June 2005

I.B. Singer and Me
September 2004

Living with Art
February 2004

Taking Sinatra Seriously
September 1997

The Problem of Shostakovich
February 1995

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Bookshelf

• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.

Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Lee believes that Wharton was a great writer—she uses the word unapologetically—and it is a tribute to her persuasiveness that even if you disagree, you will likely put down Edith Wharton wondering whether you might be wrong. I regret to admit that I am more or less the kind of reader she has in mind when she writes dismissively of those who accept “the version of Wharton—which has proved extremely hard to shift—as a female Henry James, a more superficial and middlebrow imitator of the Master, using the same kind of plots, characters and society, but with less depth and subtlety.” I love The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but I’d hitherto considered them exceptional among Wharton’s large and uneven output. Now, though, I’m feeling the itch to go out and read all the Edith Wharton I can get my hands on. Is there anything better to be said about a literary biography than that?

• I never saw Carolyn Brown dance—she retired from the stage in 1972, long before I moved to Manhattan and saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the first time—but there is plenty of filmed evidence to show that she was one of the finest modern dancers of the 50’s and 60’s, and a great beauty to boot. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that she’s also a very good writer. Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (Knopf, 645 pp., $37.50) is nearly as overlong as Edith Wharton. But the first half, in which Brown describes what it felt like to be at the center of the postmodern movement in American art, is both readable and important. No one has written more acutely about Cunningham, John Cage, or Robert Rauschenberg, and even if—like me—you have mixed feelings about their legacy, you will find the story of how they got started to be wholly engrossing.

Brown has some odd gaps in her sensibility—she doesn’t get George Balanchine at all, for instance—but she writes about Cunningham and his choreography with perfect comprehension and a sense of proportion rarely to be found among acolytes. No less acute are her reflections on the act of public performance: “The essence of performance is its ‘now-ness’—no mind, no memory. Just that brief time when one has the chance to be whole, when seemingly disconnected threads of one’s being are woven and intertwined into the complete present. No other. No past. No future. No mind as an entity distinct from the body.” I’ve never heard it put better.

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Jesse Simons, R.I.P.

(Cross-posted at About Last Night)

Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of 88, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.

Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.

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(Cross-posted at About Last Night)

Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of 88, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.

Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.

Among countless other intriguing things, Jesse was one of the founding directors of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, the pioneering early-music group. Noah Greenberg, who started the Pro Musica, was another ex-Trotskyist a labor organizer who subsequently turned his back on radical politics to immerse himself in the world of art. Late in life, Jesse was interviewed by James Gollin, Greenberg’s excellent biographer, to whom he made the following remark:

I knew dozens of the people who were around in those days. Politicals, labor people, intellectuals. We were all going to make the world a better place. But the only one who really left the world a better place than he found it was Noah, with his music.

I made a point of including those telling words in a piece about Greenberg that I wrote for COMMENTARY in 2001, partly because I knew that Jesse was a faithful reader of the magazine and hoped the gesture might please him. It was the only time his name ever appeared in COMMENTARY, and one of the few times it appeared in print during his lifetime. More’s the pity, for he could easily have written a classic autobiography. Instead his friends—of whom there were many—must rely on their memories. I know that mine will always stay bright and true.

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Bookshelf

• The diary of an important writer is always worth reading—but not necessarily for pleasure. Tennessee Williams kept a journal more or less continuously between 1936 and 1958, and the thirty notebooks in which he set down his fugitive thoughts have now been published in their entirety. Alas, Notebooks (New Directions, 828 pp., $40) proves to be far too much of a not-very-good thing, for like a remarkable number of famous playwrights, Williams didn’t know how to do anything but write dialogue. To be sure, he was capable of tossing off good lines by the carload when speaking through the mouths of his characters, but as a diarist he was something of a dull dog, whiny and trite and repetitive in the extreme, and I freely admit that I found it impossible to read Notebooks from beginning to end. A parodist could have a field day with it had Williams not already done the job for himself: “Travelling alone is a bit frightening at times.” “Some day everything will stop for always.” “Perhaps if I could have escaped being peddled I might have become a major artist.” “Oh, how sweet it would be to exist altogether without this tired old fabrication of flesh.” “Mind seems utterly torpid except for the nightly anxiety over falling asleep.” “I am dull, but I go on writing.” Indeed.

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• The diary of an important writer is always worth reading—but not necessarily for pleasure. Tennessee Williams kept a journal more or less continuously between 1936 and 1958, and the thirty notebooks in which he set down his fugitive thoughts have now been published in their entirety. Alas, Notebooks (New Directions, 828 pp., $40) proves to be far too much of a not-very-good thing, for like a remarkable number of famous playwrights, Williams didn’t know how to do anything but write dialogue. To be sure, he was capable of tossing off good lines by the carload when speaking through the mouths of his characters, but as a diarist he was something of a dull dog, whiny and trite and repetitive in the extreme, and I freely admit that I found it impossible to read Notebooks from beginning to end. A parodist could have a field day with it had Williams not already done the job for himself: “Travelling alone is a bit frightening at times.” “Some day everything will stop for always.” “Perhaps if I could have escaped being peddled I might have become a major artist.” “Oh, how sweet it would be to exist altogether without this tired old fabrication of flesh.” “Mind seems utterly torpid except for the nightly anxiety over falling asleep.” “I am dull, but I go on writing.” Indeed.

Margaret Bradham Thornton, the editor of Notebooks, is something of an unintentional self-parodist herself, for her scholarly apparatus turns out to be almost as long as the notebooks themselves. Each page of text is preceded by a page of introductory notes, a good many of them written on the assumption that nobody knows anything: “Blond, buxom Lana Turner (1920-95) was an established glamorous actress whose first role, at age sixteen, earned her the nickname ‘the Sweater Girl’ for the tight blue sweater she wore in the film.” Such fawning treatment would be excessive even for a truly great writer, and Williams was nothing remotely close to that. The Glass Menagerie is a masterpiece, one of the half-dozen greatest plays of the 20th century, and A Streetcar Named Desire is a brilliantly effective applause machine, but most of the rest of his vast output strikes me as overblown and underbelievable, and I found nothing in this monstrously obese book to made me think otherwise.

• Edwin Denby’s Dance Writings (University Press of Florida, 608 pp., $29.95 paper) is back in print, and about time, too. Denby, who covered the New York dance scene regularly in the 1940’s and sporadically thereafter, was by a very wide margin the best and most influential dance critic who ever lived, and anyone who wants to know what it was like to see the premieres of such masterpieces as George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free, and Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire need only consult his lapidary reviews, most of them written on a tight deadline and published in the New York Herald Tribune the next day. He was both quotable and insightful, a rare combination, and he also made one of my all-time favorite remarks about ballet: “Ballet is the one form of theater where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening—nobody on the stage at least.” It’s in here, along with dozens of other permanently memorable remarks about the most evanescent of art forms.

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Bookshelf

• 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.

• 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.

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