Capturing the Zeitgeist

zeitgeist: the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

As most of you readers well know, I love me some historical theatre. Something about the medium allows you to explore the essence of the time without even noticing that you’re learning something new. But how does a playwright or composer take us back to that period without having the material feel antiquated?  For Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, this meant reinvisioning that 7th president’s life as that of an emo rock concert. And in another new project from that same composer, Paris Commune, it means infusing 200 year old music with a healthy dose of novelty.

The Paris Commune is revered as the first socialist revolution in Europe. Citizens rallied together, overthrew the government and had control for just over 70 days. This theatre piece delves into this explosive intersection between unrest and artistic expression by centering on the giant concert that the people threw when they took over the TuileriesPalace.

The piece is extraordinary political. Although it focuses’ on an undeniably French event, its tremors of activism resonate with the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and grassroots movements that we have seen pop up and define the atmosphere of the past year.

Composer Michael Friedman also brought a new edge to this centuries-old story by using the period music as his base material and translating and adapting the lyrics to “make songs that were dangerous in 1871 still feel dangerous today.”

As for whether or not the piece is activist theatre, Friedman charges that it is most likely a mirror rather than a call to arms. At its heart, the show offers the questions of : “At what point do you realize that you have to do something? At what point do you have to seize control of your own life?” – questions that are important, universal and clues to why the theatre is still kicking.

Image Sources: 1, 2, Quotes from Culture Bot

How A Rhinoceros Might Be a Reminder to Start Living

Les morts sont plus nombreux que les vivants. Leur nombre augmente.
Les vivants sont rares

“There are more dead people than living. And their numbers are increasing. The living are getting rarer.”

-IONESCO, Rhinoceros

It was a weekend chock full of theatre. From a brilliant musical parody of Silence of the Lambs (that anyone in L.A. should run out to see if they’re able) to an ambitious but somewhat underwhelming production of Rhinoceros,  it was quite a spread.

While this Ionesco absurdist turn is classically difficult to dramatize, the meat of the play is one of my favorites to unravel. It explores the negative consequences of groupthink and implications of a society ruled by fear, but marries these ideas with the impossible, the zany, and yes, the absurd.

The central character Bérenger, a mild-mannered self-deprecating everyman, struggles as he watches all the people in his small town turn into Rhinos. (Yes, really.) Upon his writing, the rhinos were meant to signal the communist and fascist movements that exploded in the years before World War II. But today the play reads as a clever exploration of a number of other movements including the far-right Tea Party, Scientology, and other niche groups.  The addicting domino-effect of adopting the traits and mindsets of those around you to fit in or to escape judgement serves as a stark reminder to maintain one’s personal truths. Even when the tide has swept away those around you, hold tight. One person can be enough stand against the masses.

Image Source

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on France

When thinking of Mozart, the notion of early rock-star may not come to mind. A child prodigy, yes. A whiz on the ivories, no doubt. But emo-rock sex symbol? The creative team behind Mozart l’Opera Rock certainly thought so; they re-envisioned his life for the stage and took France by storm.

The musical, a mashup of new pop-rock and traditional Mozart compositions, premiered in late 2009. Though not as critically well-received as some other tuners out of France in the recent years(including Notre Dame de Paris, Le Petit Prince, and Le Roi Soleil) the show’s glittering reimagining of the 18th century composer’s life devloped a large fan following and went on to tour through Europe and the rest of France.  

Take a glance at this cheeky single that became one of the show’s most popular anthems. The song follows Wolfgang as he attempts to distribute his music and find a job in Paris. The lyrics dabble with sexual wordplay (somewhat evident, though undoubtedly less subtle, in the English subtitles available on this version). Enjoy this stroll down anachronism lane with Mr. Mozart himself.

 

Eurydice’s Ascent

Orpheus:

If love was enough,
it might crack through our ever tightening chests locked up

one              two            three times
with separate keys.

Perhaps the light, faintly glowing beneath the skin,
would be enough to illuminate
the caverns that
await
us.

The
path out
of hell is dark
yes
but its shadows only make for temporary blindness.

Lead on, you of gentle song.
I will follow
though                             the
way
is                            winding.

Let faith alone
(Don’t look back dear one.)
guide weary feet
(Your gaze would ruin us.)
up the steep trail toward the dawn.

As American as Apple Pie

Cars have seemingly always been a staple in good ol’ U.S. of A. – lynchpins of the American psyche and the ultimate symbols of  power, freedom and self-expression. And long before the dawn of the Mad Men era, woman were used as a way to sell them. Almost as common as the hood ornament adorning most of the classic models, the image of the female lounging on her car of choice is one that’s deeply entrenched in our culture. A woman sitting on, next-to, or even near a car became synonymous with sexuality, even when the photos were tame. The woman exercises her choice when she selects a car, just as she does when she picks out a man. Advertisers will market a car as “fast”, “exhilarating”, and “the ride of a lifetime,” and our minds need only hop a short distance to see that this language could apply to either a mate or a horsepower vehicle of choice.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

15 Years of Pinups

The way we depict women in this country has plenty to do with how we portrayed them just a few decades ago. Gil Elvgren was one influential man who offered his own lens and captured the spirit of the “American girl.” His iconic paintings, ads, and illustrations made him one of the most important pin-up and glamour artists of the twentieth century.

I love how some of these are more blatant than others – some seems to scream “I would do anything to make you smile darling,” while others take a more subtle approach. But his illustrations are doubtlessly part of our consciousness even to this day. Each captures a particular notion of the mid-century American zeitgeist.

1955

1956

1957

 1958

1959

1960

1961

1962

1963

1964

1965

1966

1967

1968

1969

All images: Gil Elvgren

Bite-sized Wisdom: Jackson

In honor of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’s opening, this week’s tidbit comes from the inimitable man himself:

“Any man worth his salt will stick up for what he believes right, but it takes a slightly better man to acknowledge instantly and without reservation that he is in error.”
– Andrew Jackson

Image Source

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Blast from the Past: A Message from the Pre-YouTube Era (On YouTube)

If you were charged with leaving a short message for future generations on how to live life, what would you say?

Would you be able to capture the essence of all that could be said in under two minutes? When asked to do just this, Mr. Bertrand Russell offered just two calm and sage prescriptions for how to survive in an increasingly globalized world. Thank goodness this little moment was time-capsuled.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery – Too Little, Too Late?

Beautiful, aren’t you?
So glad that we could finally inspire you.

Image Sources: 1, 23, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Ohmy, Did You Hear?

Or, How Ladies’ Gossip Tore Apart the White House

Once upon a time (roughly 1816 or so),  a 17-year old Peggy married a man named John Bowie Timberlake, a 39-year-old former navy purser.  Timberlake tried to open a store, Peggy gave birth to a little boy – but within six months, both ventures were struggling. The store went under and the couple lost their young child.

Two years later, the Timberlakes met the widowed senator John Eaton, and all quickly became good friends. When Timberlake decided he had to return to the navy to work off his debt,  Peggy started helping her father with his tavern, a role she’d spent many of her girlish days filling when the bar needed an extra pair of hands.

And this is the time when Peggy gained her reputation for being “too bold,” which translates to “a woman that speaks her mind.” She openly discussed politics and expressed her opinion frankly, and Andrew Jackson, who often stayed at the tavern when Congress was in session, became quite taken with her.  Always a fan of strong women, he wrote to his wife Rachel about her constantly.

It’s a little known fact that Jackson totally had a thing for brunettes.

Timberlake was only able to return home for short, occasional visits. When he was forced to leave on a four-year sea voyage, he wrote his wife telling her that if anything happened to him, “there is one man to whose hands I should be willing to entrust you, and that is John H. Eaton, the noblest work of God, an honest man.” He died at sea suffering from anxiety and depression, but gossip spread that Timberlake had killed himself while in a drunken stupor, supposedly unable to bear his wife’s infidelity with his friend, John Eaton.

No one is sure whether the rumors were true. Peggy and Eaton had developed feelings for each other, but did not marry after the news of her husband’s death. At least not right away that is. In 1829, less than a year after Timberlake passed, Peggy and John Eaton tied the knot.

And America went berserk. This went against all societal customs, mainly that of women waiting one year before remarrying. But life was short back then – when 30 was “over the hill.”

So the ladies began to shun. It began with Vice President Calhoun’s wife, Floride, who (with nose firmly turned-up) refused to pay the couple a visit after their honeymoon. While men ran the country, the women reigned over societal norms. The Cabinet Wives’ of the 1800s would have put the Real Housewives on Bravo to shame with their cattiness, expert snubbing, and endless gossip.

When Peggy complained to her buddy Andrew Jackson about the incessant gossip, he replied “I had rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.”

Jackson had always believed that it was his duty to protect all women, and the years of defending his beloved Rachel had made him intolerant of slanders against any woman. So, fighting man that he was, he set out to make things right. He would literally force her into social circles and demand the other women to be kind to Peggy. Years later, the scandal still followed her. Because of her sullied reputation, her husband was not able to regain his Senate seat. And while they stayed in the political scene for a few more years, the couple ultimately retired in 1840.

When Jackson died five years later, he was buried beside his Rachel at their home the Hermitage. In 1856, John Henry Eaton followed Jackson, leaving Peggy a widow once again.

But even then, her scandals were not at their end. In 1859, a 59-year old Peggy married the 19-year-old dancing master of her grandchildren, Antonio Buchignani. This Italian lover got her ostracized once again, but reporters and writers still came to her for the juicy details about her life. A perfect example of not letting others get in the way of your happiness and perhaps more importantly, that you’re never too old for love.

Still got it.

Image Sources: 123

Wait, What Did You Call Me?

What insult did opponents of Andrew Jackson’s throw his way that backfired when he ended up liking it, and has been associated with his party ever since?

“Jackass.”

That’s right. Jackson was the first Democrat to be associated with the donkey symbol. During the election of 1828, his adversaries tried to label him a “jackass” for his slogan, “Let the people rule,” and his populist agenda. Jackson thought it was hilarious, and started using the “ass” on his campaign posters. By 1870, cartoonist Thomas Nash popularized the already popular unofficial party symbol, thus sealing the Democrats as the donkeys.

And while that word is an insult that we’re still familiar with nowadays, a few other expressions that were floating around in the 1800s have fallen out of use today. Shame – some of these sound like they’d roll off the tongue nicely.

Quockerwodger

A rare nineteenth-century word for a wooden toy which briefly became a political insult.

Buncombe

A word that originated in 1819 to mean a ludicrously false statement. Equivalent of bullshit or nonsense.

Turncoat

One who switches to an opposing side or party; specifically : traitor.

“A rigid, fanatic, ambitious, selfish partisan, and sectional turncoat with too much genius and too little common sense, who will either die a traitor or a madman”
Jackson on John Calhoun

Popinjay

A dated description for politicians; A vain and talkative person who chatters like a parrot.

Unctuous

Characterized by excessive piousness or moralistic fervor, especially in an affected manner; cloyingly smooth, suave or smug.

Image by the Project Twins.

Blow Out the Candles, America

Wishing you all an awesome America-filled independence day.

And if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about this day any way, revisit the star-studded 1776 for a little musical-filled history lesson. This passionate tirade from Adams is one of my favorites:

Image Source

Fame’s No Easy Substitute For Love

And you, who knows me better than all, a touch is all it takes. 

Our communion has been treasure enough, but oh, to have this promise.

“But how, with all this light?”
“Can’t you see the constellations?”

Their eyes like our eyes, darling. 

He’s not the only one who waits for you.

Another season gone by. The crown you said you didn’t crave keeps you from us here. 

Words are fleeting, love. What’s left are memories.

Image Sources: 1, 2,34&5,  6, 7, 8
Visual storytelling for Rachel and Andrew Jackson à la Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson