Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hamlet

Depravity Defined

At the Huffington Post, Glenn Altschuler offers the following tips — without irony — to Barack Obama:

Obama, for example, might have personalized the health care debate, by appearing with terminally-ill patients denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, instead of standing on the sidelines while right-wingers denounced “death panels,” and playing Hamlet about an abstraction, “the public option.” He might have visited the home of a single mom, thrown out of work through no fault of her own, to dramatize the impact of Republican resistance to extending unemployment benefits. To quash rumors that he’s a closet Muslim, the president might speak out about how prayer and faith sustain him — and see to it that cameras capture him emerging from church services, with his family in tow.

Sure. What’s stopping him now? He could spend the holidays with the First Family in a Gitmo cell to highlight the cramped conditions. He could inject himself with a deadly virus to focus on the need for universal health care. He could play one-on-one with a victim of radiation poisoning to point out the importance of a nuclear-free world . . .

Instead of turning the presidency into a depressing sketch-comedy show, Mr. Altschuler might want to think about the kinds of unappealing policies that require such exploitative theatrics.

At the Huffington Post, Glenn Altschuler offers the following tips — without irony — to Barack Obama:

Obama, for example, might have personalized the health care debate, by appearing with terminally-ill patients denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, instead of standing on the sidelines while right-wingers denounced “death panels,” and playing Hamlet about an abstraction, “the public option.” He might have visited the home of a single mom, thrown out of work through no fault of her own, to dramatize the impact of Republican resistance to extending unemployment benefits. To quash rumors that he’s a closet Muslim, the president might speak out about how prayer and faith sustain him — and see to it that cameras capture him emerging from church services, with his family in tow.

Sure. What’s stopping him now? He could spend the holidays with the First Family in a Gitmo cell to highlight the cramped conditions. He could inject himself with a deadly virus to focus on the need for universal health care. He could play one-on-one with a victim of radiation poisoning to point out the importance of a nuclear-free world . . .

Instead of turning the presidency into a depressing sketch-comedy show, Mr. Altschuler might want to think about the kinds of unappealing policies that require such exploitative theatrics.

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Who’s the Least Self-Reflective of Them All?

It is a delightful coincidence for fans of George W. Bush that his memoirs and accompanying media onslaught should come just as Obama is in full funk mode following his midterm shellacking. What is even more amusing than the return of  the Decider to the public limelight is the reaction of the media, which have greeted the book precisely as one would expect. The press continually “misunderestimated” him, and they do so again.

A case in point is the Los Angeles Times book review, which finds Bush’s tome to be an ”unexpectedly engrossing memoir.” Unexpected by those who considered him a simpleton. Like so many on the left, the Times‘s reviewer, Tim Rutten, is bothered that Bush wasn’t more bothered about waterboarding terrorists to save American lives. For liberals, the decision was reprehensible, or at the very least agonizing. For Bush, it was straightforward: waterboard KSM or risk American lives. That the press can’t understand the moral imperative for the president to act as he did tells us as much about mainstream journalists as it does about Bush.

Likewise, because their caricature of Bush so colored their perceptions, the media elites are amazed to find out how respectful Bush was of opponents:

Given the contentious political use Karl Rove and other Bush aides made of abortion, readers also may be interested in the former president’s unfailingly respectful discussion of the abortion-rights advocates with whom he disagrees. …

Actually, one of the impressions that arises repeatedly in “Decision Points” is how much civility and bi-partisan cooperation matter to Bush. “The death spiral of decency during my time in office, exacerbated by the advent of 24-hour cable news and hyper-partisan political blogs, was deeply disappointing,” he writes.

Shocking to the left, I suppose. But let’s be blunt: the Bush=Hitler derangement syndrome never embittered Bush, nor did he ever imagine it was the role of the president to be the partisan in chief.

Yes, the contrast with Obama is great. Bush wasn’t “eloquent,” we were told, yet he managed to communicate with great clarity where he stood and what he stood for. Bush was “divisive,” we were instructed, yet he was respectful and exceptionally kind to aides, foes, and average Americans. Bush was “isolated” and “stubborn,” but he turned around a losing war strategy, kept his composure after the 2006 midterms, and never blamed the voters for his political misfortunes. You would think the media would now consider whether their evaluation of Bush was wrong. But no, they prefer to be “surprised” or even confounded by a book that reveals their take on Bush to be badly out of sync with the real man.

And even worse for the liberal intelligentsia, they have to concede that Obama looks remarkably bad in comparison. Howard Kurtz writes that “it felt like we were watching The Decider vs. The Agonizer.” There is the halfhearted attempt to make agonizing a virtue, but really, is Hamlet the model we want for commander in chief?

The irony is delicious. The press objects that Bush was simple-minded and not reflective. Umm, I think it’s called “projection” when one’s critique of others amounts to a spot-on self-diagnosis. The media would do well to reflect a bit more on whether their own coverage of Bush was accurate or remotely fair. But that’s not their style. They are, as Rutten would put it, “singularly unapologetic.”

It is a delightful coincidence for fans of George W. Bush that his memoirs and accompanying media onslaught should come just as Obama is in full funk mode following his midterm shellacking. What is even more amusing than the return of  the Decider to the public limelight is the reaction of the media, which have greeted the book precisely as one would expect. The press continually “misunderestimated” him, and they do so again.

A case in point is the Los Angeles Times book review, which finds Bush’s tome to be an ”unexpectedly engrossing memoir.” Unexpected by those who considered him a simpleton. Like so many on the left, the Times‘s reviewer, Tim Rutten, is bothered that Bush wasn’t more bothered about waterboarding terrorists to save American lives. For liberals, the decision was reprehensible, or at the very least agonizing. For Bush, it was straightforward: waterboard KSM or risk American lives. That the press can’t understand the moral imperative for the president to act as he did tells us as much about mainstream journalists as it does about Bush.

Likewise, because their caricature of Bush so colored their perceptions, the media elites are amazed to find out how respectful Bush was of opponents:

Given the contentious political use Karl Rove and other Bush aides made of abortion, readers also may be interested in the former president’s unfailingly respectful discussion of the abortion-rights advocates with whom he disagrees. …

Actually, one of the impressions that arises repeatedly in “Decision Points” is how much civility and bi-partisan cooperation matter to Bush. “The death spiral of decency during my time in office, exacerbated by the advent of 24-hour cable news and hyper-partisan political blogs, was deeply disappointing,” he writes.

Shocking to the left, I suppose. But let’s be blunt: the Bush=Hitler derangement syndrome never embittered Bush, nor did he ever imagine it was the role of the president to be the partisan in chief.

Yes, the contrast with Obama is great. Bush wasn’t “eloquent,” we were told, yet he managed to communicate with great clarity where he stood and what he stood for. Bush was “divisive,” we were instructed, yet he was respectful and exceptionally kind to aides, foes, and average Americans. Bush was “isolated” and “stubborn,” but he turned around a losing war strategy, kept his composure after the 2006 midterms, and never blamed the voters for his political misfortunes. You would think the media would now consider whether their evaluation of Bush was wrong. But no, they prefer to be “surprised” or even confounded by a book that reveals their take on Bush to be badly out of sync with the real man.

And even worse for the liberal intelligentsia, they have to concede that Obama looks remarkably bad in comparison. Howard Kurtz writes that “it felt like we were watching The Decider vs. The Agonizer.” There is the halfhearted attempt to make agonizing a virtue, but really, is Hamlet the model we want for commander in chief?

The irony is delicious. The press objects that Bush was simple-minded and not reflective. Umm, I think it’s called “projection” when one’s critique of others amounts to a spot-on self-diagnosis. The media would do well to reflect a bit more on whether their own coverage of Bush was accurate or remotely fair. But that’s not their style. They are, as Rutten would put it, “singularly unapologetic.”

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Obama Can’t Decide — Again

Obama declares himself agnostic on a key campaign promise and the most important economic call he will make this year:

President Barack Obama said he is “agnostic” about raising taxes on households making less than $250,000 as part of a broad effort to rein in the budget deficit.

Obama, in a Feb. 9 Oval Office interview, said that a presidential commission on the budget needs to consider all options for reducing the deficit, including tax increases and cuts in spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

“The whole point of it is to make sure that all ideas are on the table,” the president said in the interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday. “So what I want to do is to be completely agnostic, in terms of solutions.”

It is rather typical of him. We have come to expect a lack of policy definition, an unwillingness to make hard choices (you really do have to be for or against letting tax rates rise — it’s not a “false” choice), a cluelessness regarding the economic impact of his policies or the uncertainty they are generating, and a conceited self-portrait as a president unbound by ideology. He wants to know what works? He should look at the revenue generated by the Reagan and Bush tax cuts. He wants to know what would work to cut the deficit? Cancel the spending increases and roll back expenditures to 2007 levels.

It is not that hard — unless you find choosing, governing, and leading hard. And then the Hamlet-routine and the seeming indifference to fundamental policy decisions makes him appear craven and irresolute. You can sympathize with the Democrats. He is the captain of their ship, the party’s leader, and his best answer is “I don’t know”? The Clintons must be kicking themselves and shouting into pillows. This is the guy they lost to? Yup.

Obama declares himself agnostic on a key campaign promise and the most important economic call he will make this year:

President Barack Obama said he is “agnostic” about raising taxes on households making less than $250,000 as part of a broad effort to rein in the budget deficit.

Obama, in a Feb. 9 Oval Office interview, said that a presidential commission on the budget needs to consider all options for reducing the deficit, including tax increases and cuts in spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

“The whole point of it is to make sure that all ideas are on the table,” the president said in the interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday. “So what I want to do is to be completely agnostic, in terms of solutions.”

It is rather typical of him. We have come to expect a lack of policy definition, an unwillingness to make hard choices (you really do have to be for or against letting tax rates rise — it’s not a “false” choice), a cluelessness regarding the economic impact of his policies or the uncertainty they are generating, and a conceited self-portrait as a president unbound by ideology. He wants to know what works? He should look at the revenue generated by the Reagan and Bush tax cuts. He wants to know what would work to cut the deficit? Cancel the spending increases and roll back expenditures to 2007 levels.

It is not that hard — unless you find choosing, governing, and leading hard. And then the Hamlet-routine and the seeming indifference to fundamental policy decisions makes him appear craven and irresolute. You can sympathize with the Democrats. He is the captain of their ship, the party’s leader, and his best answer is “I don’t know”? The Clintons must be kicking themselves and shouting into pillows. This is the guy they lost to? Yup.

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We Must Stamp Out Oblomovism!

In Slate, Jessica Winter claims to offer a list of great literary works about procrastination. Oddly, she doesn’t mention the only two indisputable masterpieces on the subject. One, of course, is Hamlet, who spends four acts not killing Claudius, the uncle who killed his father and married his mother. The other is Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s peerless comic novel of 1859, which opens with its title character in bed — a bed from which he does not actually emerge for nearly 100 riveting and hilarious pages. “Oblomov…must be washed, cleaned, pulled about, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge,” stated Lenin as he began the monstrous and failed work he undertook to revise the Russian character.

In Slate, Jessica Winter claims to offer a list of great literary works about procrastination. Oddly, she doesn’t mention the only two indisputable masterpieces on the subject. One, of course, is Hamlet, who spends four acts not killing Claudius, the uncle who killed his father and married his mother. The other is Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s peerless comic novel of 1859, which opens with its title character in bed — a bed from which he does not actually emerge for nearly 100 riveting and hilarious pages. “Oblomov…must be washed, cleaned, pulled about, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge,” stated Lenin as he began the monstrous and failed work he undertook to revise the Russian character.

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Bring Back Sarah

The legacy of France’s Nazi occupation is manifold and enduring. In culture, nowhere is it more central and blatant than in the very name of a major public performance space in the heart of Paris, the Théâtre de la Ville, facing the famed Châtelet theatre. Operating on an annual budget of 13 million euros, of which around 11 million come from the municipal government, the Théâtre de la Ville attracts 220,000 audience members to evenings of music, dance, and theatre. Originally called “Théâtre Lyrique” and later “Théâtre des Nations,” the theatre was then renamed “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt,” after the fiery, majestic actress who starred there, beginning in 1899. Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was partly Jewish, was admired for her artistic daring, despite being castigated in French anti-Semitic books like Les Femmes d’Israël (1898) for being “neither more nor less than a Jewess and nothing but a Jewess.” When the Germans arrived in 1940, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt” was renamed the “Théâtre des Nations” and later, “Théâtre de la Ville.”

From 1945 to this day, no French politician has dared to advocate returning the theater’s name to its former dedicatee, “la divine Sarah.” The reasons for this are complex and peculiarly French, as may be gathered from the well-documented study from Yale University Press, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, which accompanied a multifaceted 2006 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum. These are only two instances of the ever-burgeoning interest in Sarah’s captivating mystique and legend—everywhere except in her native Paris.

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The legacy of France’s Nazi occupation is manifold and enduring. In culture, nowhere is it more central and blatant than in the very name of a major public performance space in the heart of Paris, the Théâtre de la Ville, facing the famed Châtelet theatre. Operating on an annual budget of 13 million euros, of which around 11 million come from the municipal government, the Théâtre de la Ville attracts 220,000 audience members to evenings of music, dance, and theatre. Originally called “Théâtre Lyrique” and later “Théâtre des Nations,” the theatre was then renamed “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt,” after the fiery, majestic actress who starred there, beginning in 1899. Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was partly Jewish, was admired for her artistic daring, despite being castigated in French anti-Semitic books like Les Femmes d’Israël (1898) for being “neither more nor less than a Jewess and nothing but a Jewess.” When the Germans arrived in 1940, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt” was renamed the “Théâtre des Nations” and later, “Théâtre de la Ville.”

From 1945 to this day, no French politician has dared to advocate returning the theater’s name to its former dedicatee, “la divine Sarah.” The reasons for this are complex and peculiarly French, as may be gathered from the well-documented study from Yale University Press, Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver, which accompanied a multifaceted 2006 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum. These are only two instances of the ever-burgeoning interest in Sarah’s captivating mystique and legend—everywhere except in her native Paris.

Born Marie Henriette Bernardt to a Jewish courtesan, Sarah was an international phenomenon during her lifetime, touring America nine times in roles from Racine’s Phèdre to Hamlet (in French). Her dauntless tours, which extended to Cairo, Tahiti, and Istanbul, were not halted after doctors amputated her leg at age 70. Sarah fearlessly performed patriotic plays at the front for World War I soldiers. Her funeral in 1923 featured a vast outpouring of public emotion, especially when her coffin passed before the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.” A few short years later, she was a non-person in France, much the way Mendelssohn was treated in Germany by the Nazis, with the exception that after World War II, the Germans re-embraced Mendelssohn, whereas Sarah is still left out in the cold.

Postwar Paris, eager to forget its recent history, was looking forward artistically, not to the surviving legacy of Bernhardt, which amounted to some stagy silent films and a few trembly-voiced recordings from her old age. It is to be hoped that this ignorant attitude will soon change. Two months ago, a future new director was named for the Théâtre de la Ville. Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, a young Parisian director, will take over the reins in June 2008. A lively character and amateur race-car driver who is Portuguese on his mother’s side, Demarcy-Mota should shake things up at the Théâtre de la Ville. His first act should be to return the theater to its former name, the “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.”

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Bookshelf

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95), the latest entry in James Atlas’s “Eminent Lives” series, represents an attempt by the author to find out “how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record,” then cram the results into a 200-page book. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know much about Shakespeare, which is why most full-length biographies consist mainly of speculation and criticism. By taking the Joe Friday approach and including nothing but facts, Bryson manages to say quite a lot in not much space.

Time and again Shakespeare: The World as Stage told me things I didn’t know, or presented them in a new way that hadn’t occurred to me. Did you know, for instance, that no more than “a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family” have survived? That Shakespeare’s London was “only two miles from north to south and three from east to west, and could be crossed on foot in not much more than an hour”? That he is the first writer known to have used 2,035 words, of which 800, including critical, dwindle, eventful, excellent, horrid, lonely, and vast, are still in use today? That the word also appears only 36 times in his plays, and the word “bible” not at all? Bill Bryson knows all these things, and why they matter. No less important, he also knows what we don’t know about Shakespeare:

It cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing—not a scrap, not a mote—that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings or beliefs as a private person. We can know only what came out of his work, never what went into it…. More than for any other writer, Shakespeare’s words stand separate from his life. This was a man so good at disguising his feelings that we can’t ever be sure that he had any. We know that Shakespeare used words to powerful effect, and we may reasonably presume that he had feelings. What we don’t know, and can barely even guess at, is where the two intersected.

In other words, it’s what Shakespeare wrote that matters, not who he was—though one of the best chapters of Shakespeare: The World as Stage, as it happens, is the last one, in which Bryson sums up the claims of the some-other-guy-wrote-Hamlet crowd with devastating brevity: “One really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratfordian enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, 400 years after it was perpetrated.”

This is the best short book about Shakespeare ever to come to my attention. Even if you think you know the Bard cold, don’t pass it by.

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95), the latest entry in James Atlas’s “Eminent Lives” series, represents an attempt by the author to find out “how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record,” then cram the results into a 200-page book. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know much about Shakespeare, which is why most full-length biographies consist mainly of speculation and criticism. By taking the Joe Friday approach and including nothing but facts, Bryson manages to say quite a lot in not much space.

Time and again Shakespeare: The World as Stage told me things I didn’t know, or presented them in a new way that hadn’t occurred to me. Did you know, for instance, that no more than “a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family” have survived? That Shakespeare’s London was “only two miles from north to south and three from east to west, and could be crossed on foot in not much more than an hour”? That he is the first writer known to have used 2,035 words, of which 800, including critical, dwindle, eventful, excellent, horrid, lonely, and vast, are still in use today? That the word also appears only 36 times in his plays, and the word “bible” not at all? Bill Bryson knows all these things, and why they matter. No less important, he also knows what we don’t know about Shakespeare:

It cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing—not a scrap, not a mote—that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings or beliefs as a private person. We can know only what came out of his work, never what went into it…. More than for any other writer, Shakespeare’s words stand separate from his life. This was a man so good at disguising his feelings that we can’t ever be sure that he had any. We know that Shakespeare used words to powerful effect, and we may reasonably presume that he had feelings. What we don’t know, and can barely even guess at, is where the two intersected.

In other words, it’s what Shakespeare wrote that matters, not who he was—though one of the best chapters of Shakespeare: The World as Stage, as it happens, is the last one, in which Bryson sums up the claims of the some-other-guy-wrote-Hamlet crowd with devastating brevity: “One really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratfordian enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, 400 years after it was perpetrated.”

This is the best short book about Shakespeare ever to come to my attention. Even if you think you know the Bard cold, don’t pass it by.

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Bookshelf

• It would be an understatement to say that Mary McCarthy’s novels haven’t aged well—I don’t know anyone without tenure who now reads them—and I can’t say that I get much out of her essays, either. But Memories of a Catholic Girlhood still has its admirers, myself (with reservations) among them, while the drama criticism that was collected in 1963 in a volume called Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962 hasn’t dated in the least. This trim little volume is still available in paperback, if only after a fashion—it was reissued a few years ago by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, a print-on-demand publisher—but it deserves much wider circulation.

Theatre Chronicles is prefaced by a very funny essay in which McCarthy tells how a young Vassar graduate with no apparent qualifications other than the fact that she was sleeping with Philip Rahv came to be the drama critic of Partisan Review:

I was a source of uneasiness and potential embarrassment to the magazine, which had accpted me, unwillingly, as an editor because I had a minute “name” and was the girl friend of one of the “boys,” who had issued a ukase on my behalf. I was not a Marxist; I should have liked, rather, to be one, but I did not know the language, which seemed really like a foreign tongue….

The field assigned me was the theatre, because, just before this, I had been married to an actor. It was often debated whether we should have a theatre column at all. Some of the editors felt that the theatre was not worth bothering with, because it was neither a high art, like Art, nor a mass art, like the movies. But this was also an argument for letting me do it. If I made mistakes, who cared?

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• It would be an understatement to say that Mary McCarthy’s novels haven’t aged well—I don’t know anyone without tenure who now reads them—and I can’t say that I get much out of her essays, either. But Memories of a Catholic Girlhood still has its admirers, myself (with reservations) among them, while the drama criticism that was collected in 1963 in a volume called Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962 hasn’t dated in the least. This trim little volume is still available in paperback, if only after a fashion—it was reissued a few years ago by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, a print-on-demand publisher—but it deserves much wider circulation.

Theatre Chronicles is prefaced by a very funny essay in which McCarthy tells how a young Vassar graduate with no apparent qualifications other than the fact that she was sleeping with Philip Rahv came to be the drama critic of Partisan Review:

I was a source of uneasiness and potential embarrassment to the magazine, which had accpted me, unwillingly, as an editor because I had a minute “name” and was the girl friend of one of the “boys,” who had issued a ukase on my behalf. I was not a Marxist; I should have liked, rather, to be one, but I did not know the language, which seemed really like a foreign tongue….

The field assigned me was the theatre, because, just before this, I had been married to an actor. It was often debated whether we should have a theatre column at all. Some of the editors felt that the theatre was not worth bothering with, because it was neither a high art, like Art, nor a mass art, like the movies. But this was also an argument for letting me do it. If I made mistakes, who cared?

McCarthy was not always the most reliable of autobiographers—that, too, is an understatement—but her rueful confession has the smack of plain truth. So do her theater reviews, which are remarkable for the cold-eyed, clear-headed way in which she saw through the pretenses of a great many people who continue to be handled with kid gloves by far too many critics. It was McCarthy, for instance, who said that Eugene O’Neill was “a playwright who—to be frank—cannot write,” that Orson Welles “has always seemed to secrete a kind of viscous holy oil with which he sprays the rough surfaces of his roles,” and that Stanley Kowalski, the Napoleonic Code-spouting anti-hero of A Streetcar Named Desire, was something less than a believable portrayal of a recognizable human being: “Dr. Kinsey would be interested in a semi-skilled male who spoke of the four-letter act as ‘getting those colored lights going.’”

Like most critics, McCarthy had her limits, the chief of which was an inadequate appreciation of theater as spectacle. Her orientation was almost entirely verbal, to the point that one occasionally suspected her of having reviewed scripts rather than live performances. Thus she was incapable of grasping the fundamentally spectacular virtues of the young Welles’s Elizabethan revivals or the young Marlon Brando’s acting. At the same time, though, it was salutary to hear on a regular basis from a drama critic who insisted that a play must ultimately be held to the same literary standards as a novel:

“Yes,” some people will agree of a play by Tennessee Williams, “it is badly written, but it’s good theatre.” I have never been able to make out what this expression means, exactly. “Strong” situations? Masochistic grovelling? Sexual torture? Is Sophocles “good theatre”? Is Shakespeare? Apparently not, for the term is always used defensively, to justify a kind of shoddiness, which is held to be excusable for the stage.

And while one comes away from Theatre Chronicles suspecting that McCarthy had no great love of theater for its own sake, it is untrue that she was only capable of writing well about that which she disliked. The mark of a good drama critic is the ability to know a good thing when he sees it—and the courage to say so regardless of fashion or political pressure. Not only was McCarthy fearless, but she was even capable of appreciating art to whose style she was temperamentally unsympathetic. Who would have guessed, for instance, that she would have written one of the most intelligent contemporary appreciations of Our Town? Or that she would have responded so favorably to Laurence Olivier’s intensely theatrical, textually high-handed film of Hamlet?

I was still in college when I first ran across McCarthy’s theater criticism, and had seen next to none of the plays she reviewed. As a result, I responded more to her wickedly precise phrase-making than to her capacity for thoughtful judgment. After having spent the past four years writing about two plays a week for the Wall Street Journal, I now know exactly how good Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles is: I rank it with Stark Young’s Immortal Shadows and John Simon’s Uneasy Stages as one of the handful of first-rate collections of theater criticism to have been written by an American.

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Weekend Reading

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

“Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it.” So wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal seven years ago. This statement seems truer this weekend than ever before, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, hits store shelves at midnight, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tops the movie box-office charts.

But is the book any good? New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praises the new book and the series as a whole: “Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.” These words would not surprise Bloom, who predicted that “The New York Times—the official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture—will go on celebrating [Potter,] another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”

A review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is unlikely in these pages, but that is not to say COMMENTARY does not acknowledge the critical importance of children’s literature. We only suggest that instead of allowing Harry Potter to be your child’s, or your own, weekend reading, choose a story for children of all ages: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Three Stories for Children,” with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which appeared in the July 1966 issue of COMMENTARY.

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Franken’s Shtick

The comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, recently announced that he is running for Senate from Minnesota, where he grew up. An alumnus of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Franken made his name satirizing conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and National Review’s Rich Lowry, whom he challenged to a fist fight in his garage.

His candidacy has been greeted with predictable enthusiasm. As Time gushed, “Enter the clown, who’s ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.” But is Franken really ready? Obviously, Americans have taken a political chance on ex-entertainers before, most notably with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Franken’s case poses special difficulties because his work has always been so harshly political and partisan.

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The comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, recently announced that he is running for Senate from Minnesota, where he grew up. An alumnus of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Franken made his name satirizing conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and National Review’s Rich Lowry, whom he challenged to a fist fight in his garage.

His candidacy has been greeted with predictable enthusiasm. As Time gushed, “Enter the clown, who’s ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.” But is Franken really ready? Obviously, Americans have taken a political chance on ex-entertainers before, most notably with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Franken’s case poses special difficulties because his work has always been so harshly political and partisan.

In the final episode of his program on Air America, the now-bankrupt liberal radio station, Franken announced his candidacy with old-fashioned American optimism. “I know I have an awful lot to learn from the people of Minnesota,” he declared. I want “to help our country become everything I hope it can be and everything I know it can be.”

But reconciling aw-shucks populist rhetoric with the well-established cynicism of Franken’s public persona won’t be easy. After all, this is a “comedian” who once ironically raised the possibility that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be executed for treason, quickly adding that “we should never ever, ever, ever execute a sitting President.” He has also made snide comments about McCain’s POW experience: “I don’t understand why all this war hero stuff. I mean, anybody can get captured. Isn’t the idea to capture the other guy? As far as I’m concerned, he sat out the war.”

There are many who find humor in Franken’s shtick, and his candidacy can’t be judged solely on the basis of his stand-up routine and the books he has written. But episodes like the one at a Dean fundraiser in 2003, when Franken went on an expletive-laced, demagogic rant about Brit Hume and Fox News, are among many troubling instances when he has seemed authentically malicious–and out of control.

At Franken’s official campaign website, you can listen to him talk about middle-class values and his hardscrabble family history; you can even hear this Harvard grad use the expression “guv’ment.” But his attempts at folksy spontaneity seem flat and scripted. After ten minutes of self-mythologizing, he finally gets to a subject he can warm to: his agenda, which sounds like leftovers from a 2003 John Kerry press release.

Franken is clearly an intelligent man. He knows that rural-style charm and meat-and-potatoes liberalism play well in Minnesota. But unless he is a preternaturally gifted politician, his humble-pie charade will not survive the extreme rhetoric and partisan titillation in which he has always trafficked. In the run-up to the election in 2008, Minnesotans will have to be on the look-out for the real Al Franken.

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