Category Archives: literature

Julius Caesar and me

JULIUS CAESAR AND ME

In my last blog post (“Marlon, Tony, and Cyd,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2022/10/26/marlon-tony-and-cyd/), I noted Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1954 film version of Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, a film that had a tremendous impact on a very young version of me.  As I recall, I saw it with classmates at my junior high school, which declared a special day at the movies for some reason.  I always wanted to see it performed live.

Years later, that finally happened.

In May 1972, my husband Marv and I took our long-delayed honeymoon. We’d married one year earlier in LA, but we weren’t able to take off more than a weekend (spent in beautiful Santa Barbara) until we arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1971.  We found life in AA somewhat restricting, and we began to ponder trips outside of Michigan and my hometown of Chicago. 

Our first foray took us to the tropical paradise of Nassau on a bargain charter trip from the U. of M. that we thoroughly relished.  But we hungered for more.  We soon aimed at the fabled cities of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, and decided to visit them in our upcoming three-week vacation/honeymoon.

We landed in our first city, London, in early May.  We reveled in the British history and literature that leaped out at us:  Touring Charles Dickens’s home; making the essential trip to the Tower of London; viewing the paintings at the National Gallery…. 

We were also theater buffs, and we made sure to get tickets for plays on the London stage.  I remember our first night in London.  Even though we sat in the first row of the theater where Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing appeared, Marv had such vicious jet lag that he fell asleep and missed The Whole Thing. We loved the musical version of Canterbury Tales (which never seemed to be offered in any US city we ever lived in) and we roared at Robert Morley’s antics in his hilarious comedy in the West End. 

But one thing was missing.  We weren’t able to get tickets at any theater offering the plays of William Shakespeare. Whatever may have been playing was sold out or otherwise unavailable.

We racked our brains trying to solve this problem.  Suddenly an idea popped into mine.  We’d briefly shopped in the famed Harrod’s department store, mostly to see the place, and I thought I’d seen an advert for its travel service.  So we made our way back to Harrod’s and, sure enough, we discovered that its travel service offered a bus tour that encompassed an overnight stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and included two tickets to the Shakespeare play being performed on the date we’d arrive.  Voila! 

We immediately signed up for the tour, which also would make brief stops in a few other places:  Oxford, Blenheim Palace, and a town called Leamington Spa.  The only hitch was that we had to cancel the rest of our stay in our Sloane Square hotel and scramble to find another spot when we returned to London.  But Shakespeare was worth it.

Early the next morning we took off on our bus tour.  We discovered that our tour included theater tickets for a performance of Julius CaesarDestiny?

Soon we arrived at our first stop:  Oxford and its world-recognized university.  After viewing the university from our bus, we briefly walked around the campus.  I recall strolling around Christ Church College and noting its elegant architecture. 

Whenever I watch “Inspector Morse” on PBS, the crime drama starring John Thaw as Oxford police detective Morse, I’m always reminded of our brief stop at Oxford. The prizewinning series was produced from 1987 to 2000 and occasionally still pops up on PBS-TV channels.  The setting for each episode is invariably Oxford and nearby locations. 

Christ Church College has even more recently loomed into public view. Decades after our visit, Christ Church College has become famous because a number of campus locations were used as settings in the Harry Potter films.

Next we headed for our most desired stop:  Stratford-upon-Avon.  We found ourselves booked at the city’s White Swan Inn.  This historic inn, first used as an inn as far back as 1560, struck us immediately as a classic example of Tudor architecture, with a half-timbered exterior typical of that era.  When we checked in, we discovered that its framework of wooden beams extended into our bedroom, creating a memorable place to lay our heads during our stay in Stratford.

At the hotel’s restaurant, we shared dinner with our fellow tour-mates.  One other American couple shared our last name, and we chatted happily with them and others.  But we hardly noticed the food because we were eagerly anticipating our evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an eight-minute walk away.

Excitedly, we arrived at the theater and took our seats, located not far behind the first row.  The other Alexanders were seated a couple of rows behind us.  The program listed the cast and included only one semi-familiar name.  Corin Redgrave, presumably the son of notable British actor Michael Redgrave (and notable British actress Rachel Kempson) and brother of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, would play the part of Octavius Caesar.

The play began!  Marv and I knew the plot well, having seen the 1954 film more than once.  We certainly had no problem watching the violent murder of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the others.  But during that scene, we could hear cries of anguish coming from the other Alexanders.  At intermission, they exited, loudly declaring how unhappy they were.

I was astonished by their reaction to a brilliant performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays.  What exactly did they expect?  Much of Shakespeare is loaded with acts of violence and death.  Were they expecting one of the comedies?  If so, I was torn between feeling sorry for them and laughing at their foolishness. They’d probably been excited about seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, and they’d shelled out some of their pricey tourist budget to be there.  But they were apparently not very knowledgeable about the Bard or they’d have had an inkling of what could be on the stage that night.

I lost further respect for our fellow theater-goers when I overheard a woman (with a pronounced British accent) mutter, “Corin Redgrave.  Isn’t she Vanessa’s sister?”  Marv and I were both aware of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, two women who’d already played prominent film roles.  So even though we weren’t entirely sure who Corin Redgrave was, we could easily tell from the program that he played a male role, and he would therefore be Vanessa’s brother, not another sister.  We Americans seemed to know a lot more about the British theater than the locals did.

Although we didn’t recognize the names of any of the other actors at the time, I’ve been able to find (on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website) the names of the members of the cast that night.  I discovered that we saw a number of outstanding British actors who later achieved great fame. They included Patrick Stewart (as Cassius), John Wood (as Brutus), Richard Johnson (as Mark Antony), Margaret Tyzack (as Portia), and Tim Pigott-Smith.  Further, the director that night was the much acclaimed Trevor Nunn.  No wonder we were thrilled to witness this extraordinary performance.

Marv and I stayed till the very end and reveled in the brilliant performances of these talented actors.  We’d happily achieved our goal of seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and we’d seen a spectacular new version of Julius Caesar to boot.  Back at the White Swan Inn, we celebrated our thanks-to-Harrod’s coup with a romp in our very feathery English bed, Marv first showing off his manly strength by hanging from one of the overhead wooden beams.

By the way, the White Swan Inn has been renovated and still exists as a hostelry in Stratford, now dubbed the White Swan Hotel.

En route back to London, we made two more stops.  First, we visited historic Bleinheim Palace, where we toured the glorious interior.  The palace has been in the Churchill family since the 1770s (its history is fascinating), and Winston Churchill, who was born and often lived there, is buried just outside the palace grounds.  His grave is accessible to anyone. (You don’t need to visit Blenheim Palace first.)  Five years earlier, I briefly witnessed some of Churchill’s state funeral (the last state funeral before Queen Elizabeth II’s in September 2022) on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of Wyeth Hall during my first year as a student at Harvard Law School.  I was doing my laundry in an adjacent room and, when I glanced at the TV, I was suitably impressed by the pageantry on display in London in January 1965.

The tour’s final stop was a charming tea shop in a town called Leamington Spa. As our group gathered for tea, we learned the history of Leamington Spa, a beautiful but largely unknown town not far from our earlier stops.  (On a trip to countryside England with a friend in 2012, my friend and I met someone working in the Somerset area who confided that she was moving to take a new job in…Leamington Spa!  So, forty years after my visit to its tea shop, I surprisingly heard mention of it again.)

Marv and I returned to Stratford-upon-Avon with our daughters in 1995, in the middle of a jam-packed trip to the U.K. and France [please see “Down and Hot in Paris and London,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2014/11/%5D.  We stayed in nearby Cheltenham, visited other towns in the Cotswolds, and toured some sites in Stratford.  But we weren’t able to see a Shakespeare play together (I think the theatre was closed just then). 

So the time Marv and I were able to spend in Stratford in 1972, and our chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company give a spectacular performance of Julius Caesar, gleam even more as a glittering memory, still burning brightly.

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

Random Thoughts

On truthfulness

Does it bother you when someone lies to you?  It bothers me.  And I just learned astonishing new information about people who repeatedly tell lies.

According to British neuroscientists, brain scans of the amygdala—the area in the brain that responds to unpleasant emotional experiences—show that the brain becomes desensitized with each successive lie.

In other words, the more someone lies, the less that person’s brain reacts to it.  And the easier it is for him or her to lie the next time.

These researchers concluded that “little white lies,” usually considered harmless, really aren’t harmless at all because they can lead to big fat falsehoods.  “What begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”

This study seems terribly relevant right now.  Our political leaders (one in particular, along with some of his cohorts) have often been caught telling lies.   When these leaders set out on a course of telling lies, watch out.  They’re likely to keep doing it.  And it doesn’t bother them a bit.

Let’s hope our free press remains truly free, ferrets out the lies that impact our lives, and points them out to the rest of us whenever they can.

[This study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience and noted in the January-February 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin.]

 

On language

When did “waiting for” become “waiting on”?

Am I the only English-speaking person who still says “waiting for”?

I’ve been speaking English my entire life, and the phrase “waiting on” has always meant what waiters or waitresses did.  Likewise, salesclerks in a store.  They “waited on” you.

“Waiting for” was an entirely different act.   In a restaurant, you—the patron—decide to order something from the menu.  Then you begin “waiting for” it to arrive.

Similarly:  Even though you’re ready to go somewhere, don’t you sometimes have to “wait for” someone before you can leave?

Here are three titles you may have come across.  First, did you ever hear of the 1935 Clifford Odets play “Waiting for Lefty”?  (Although it isn’t performed a lot these days, it recently appeared on stage in the Bay Area.)  In Odets’s play, a group of cabdrivers “wait for” someone named Lefty to arrive.  While they wait for him, they debate whether they should go on strike.

Even better known, Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” is still alive and well and being performed almost everywhere.  [You can read a little bit about this play—and the two pronunciations of “Godot”—in my blog post, “Crawling through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland,” published in April 2016.]  The lead characters in the play are forever waiting for “Godot,” usually acknowledged as a substitute for “God,” who never shows up.

A more recent example is the 1997 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”  The cast of a small-town theater group anxiously waits for a Broadway producer named Guffman to appear, hoping that he’ll like their show.  Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and starred in the film, were pretty clearly referring to “Waiting for Godot” when they wrote it.

Can anyone imagine replacing Waiting for” in these titles with “Waiting on”?

C’mon!

Yet everywhere I go, I constantly hear people say that they’re “waiting on” a friend to show up or “waiting on” something to happen.

This usage has even pervaded Harvard Magazine.  In a recent issue, an article penned by an undergraduate included this language:  “[T]hey aren’t waiting on the dean…to make the changes they want to see.”

Hey, undergrad, I’m not breathlessly waiting for your next piece of writing!  Why?  Because you should have said “waiting for”!

Like many of the changes in English usage I’ve witnessed in recent years, this one sounds very wrong to me.

 

Have you heard this one?

Thanks to scholars at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School, I’ve just learned that workers who tell jokes—even bad ones—can boost their chances of being viewed by their co-workers as more confident and more competent.

Joking is a form of humor, and humor is often seen as a sign of intelligence and a good way to get ideas across to others.  But delivering a joke well also demands sensitivity and some regard for the listeners’ emotions.

The researchers, who ran experiments involving 2,300 participants, were trying to gauge responses to joke-tellers. They specifically wanted to assess the impact of joking on an individual’s status at work.

In one example, participants had to rate individuals who explained a service that removed pet waste from customers’ yards.  This example seems ripe for joke-telling, and sure enough, someone made a joke about it.

Result?  The person who told the joke was rated as more competent and higher in status than those who didn’t.

In another example, job-seekers were asked to suggest a creative use for an old tire.  One of them joked, “Someone doing CrossFit could use it for 30 minutes, then tell you about it forever.”  This participant was rated higher in status than two others, who either made an inappropriate joke about a condom or made a serious suggestion (“Make a tire swing out of it.”).

So jokes work—but only if they’re appropriate.

Even jokes that fell flat led participants to rate a joke-teller as highly confident.  But inappropriate or insensitive jokes don’t do a joke-teller any favors because they can have a negative impact.

Common sense tells me that the results of this study also apply in a social setting.  Telling jokes to your friends is almost always a good way to enhance your relationship—as long as you avoid offensive and insensitive jokes.

The take-away:  If you can tell an appropriate joke to your colleagues and friends, they’re likely to see you as confident and competent.

So next time you need to explain something to others, in your workplace or in any another setting, try getting out one of those dusty old joke books and start searching for just the right joke.

[This study, reported in The Wall Street Journal on January 18, 2017, and revisited in the same publication a week later, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.]

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas!  That’s what the Brits say, right?  I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.

The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964.  The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever.  The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare.  A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words!  To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking.  (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency.  One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)

Back to the Cow Palace.  It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows.  The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016).  I’d never been there before.  But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.

Dickens was an early favorite of mine.  During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both.  (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley.  Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school.  But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired.  When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful.  Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)

Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite.  I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol.  The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.

In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.

So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.

What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time.  At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself.  Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.

A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs.  Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink.  My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.

We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy.  An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us).  Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London.  Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.

The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun.  And it had a bonus:  it reminded me of two special times in my past.  When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens.  (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)

Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams.  Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.

When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels.  (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.)  Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift.  (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)

Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago.  At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character.  Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol.  When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish:  May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.

 

 

Crawling Through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland

We gathered on a chilly October evening in the venerable Duke pub at 9 Duke Street in the heart of Dublin, not quite certain what to expect.  We’d come across praise for the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl in at least two of our guidebooks, Lonely Planet’s (which called it “excellent and highly recommended…great fun and…a fine introduction to Dublin pubs and Irish literary history”), as well as the Ireland guide by the always-dependable travel writer Rick Steves.

The night before, we’d relished the wonderful Dublin Musical Pub Crawl that began at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Pub on Temple Bar.

How could we pass up this one?   As fans of literary fiction, including that of the great Irish writers, we simply couldn’t.

To ensure that we wouldn’t be turned away, we walked from Grafton Street to Duke Street early enough to have a pleasant dinner at The Duke pub before positioning ourselves at the front of the ticket line.  We had no regrets about arriving early:  a large group assembled, eager to begin the crawl at 7:30 pm, and latecomers may indeed have been turned away.

To begin, two actors (both probably fifty-plus) stood in front of the group and launched into a scene from “Waiting for Godot.” They very clearly pronounced the name as “God-oh,” with emphasis on “God.”

Ever since my first encounter with the Samuel Beckett play when I was 22, I’d heard it pronounced “Gah-doh,” with emphasis on “doh.”  But here we were in Ireland, where Beckett began his writing career.  Which pronunciation was right?  According to one source, the name is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable in Britain and Ireland, while the norm in North America is to emphasize the second syllable.  But what about Beckett himself?  He settled in Paris in 1938 and wrote the play there in 1948-49.  And apparently both he and his French literary agent always pronounced it in “the French manner,” with equal emphasis on both syllables.

Pronunciations aside, the scene the actors chose from “Waiting for Godot” was brilliant and performed with the precise amount of irony and absurdist humor it demanded.

The actors then led us to three other notable pubs, where they spoke/performed either inside the pub or outside on a street near the pub.  I later learned the actors’ names:  Colm Quilligan (could it be more Irish?) and his colleague Derek (whose last name I failed to catch).

The first of the three pubs was O’Neill’s, on a corner at 2 Suffolk Street, with a remarkably pretty exterior featuring four tall windows that rise above its name.  Near the campus of Trinity College, it’s famous for a diverse set of patrons, including many writers.

At one of the pubs, maybe O’Neill’s, we entered a good-sized “snug,” a quiet area in the pub set apart from the usual pub revelry.  On the snug’s walls were framed photographs of the four Irish writers who’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  (Do you remember who those four prizewinners were?)  The photos were helpful reminders of Ireland’s literary history as we continued our crawl, listening to excerpts from a variety of Irish poets and playwrights.

At one stop, Colm and Derek read a hilarious passage from Oscar Wilde’s reminiscence of his lecture tour in America, in particular his encounter with the miners of Leadville, Colorado.  Here’s a bit of it:  “I read them passages from…that great Florentine genius…Cellini, and he proved so popular that they asked…’why the hell I hadn’t brought him with me’. I explained that [he] had been dead for some years, which elicited the immediate demand: ’who shot him?’”

We moved on to The Old Stand, located at the corner of Exchequer Street and St. Andrew Street.  Its most famous patron was Michael Collins, whose efforts led to the creation of the Irish Free State.  He reportedly visited this pub to gather information about members of the British Secret Service.

The crawl ended in front of Davy Byrne’s, a pub back on Duke Street, near where the crawl began.  The actors pointed out a significant literary reference–a scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses is set there–and read an excerpt from it.  The pub is just one site that honors Joyce’s book during the Bloomsday celebration held in Dublin every year.  We learned that both Dubliners and literary tourists don “boaters” and read from the novel at Davy Byrne’s each Bloomsday.

As we stood in front of Davy Byrne’s (where the name reminded me of the beleaguered first—and so far only—woman mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne), Colm and Derek asked our group a batch of questions based on things we’d heard and seen during the crawl.  One key question:  the names of the four Irish Nobel Prize winners.

When my daughter Leslie got all of them right, and also answered more of the other literary questions than anyone else in our group, she was awarded with a t-shirt!  The dark green shirt, emblazoned with “Dublin Literary Pub Crawl,” along with an image of stained glass at The Duke pub, will forever be a tangible reminder of our delightful evening crawling through Irish literature in Dublin’s pubs.

PS  The Nobel laureates (in case you don’t remember):  George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and poet Seamus Heaney.  Heaney, probably the least known of the four, is the most recent winner (in 1985).  For a long while he was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, and during her college years there, my daughter Meredith was fortunate to hear him recite his stunning poetry—from memory—several times.  She also helped entice him to give a memorable speech to students, like her, who wrote for its literary journal, The Advocate.

 

Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll in New Orleans!)

Let the good times roll! This joyous credo of New Orleans has inspired me to write about the city, now frequently called NOLA (for New Orleans, LA).

I’ll begin with the fabulous food.

Any visit to the Big Easy simply has to include eating at some of the city’s famed restaurants. During our recent trip, my companion and I reveled in the food offered at a handful of the best. Although some highly praised restaurants exist outside the French Quarter, most of the time we chose spots within the very colorful F.Q.

One of our first stops was Antoine’s, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in NOLA. It traces its founding to Antoine Alciatore, who arrived from Marseilles, France, in 1840. Using the bounty of locally available seafood, he developed a cuisine featuring sauces never used before, creating such dishes as crawfish etouffeé and shrimp rémoulade. Today Antoine’s occupies several high-ceilinged dining rooms in which its servers treat you to astounding food. Much of it still features locally caught seafood. I chose the three-course $20.15 Fall Lunch Special, which included an appetizer (oysters, salad, or sweet potato bisque), an entrée of seafood or meat, and dessert. My companion chose a bowl of delicious crawfish bisque from the a la carte menu (and shared my ice-cream-sundae dessert). We both took advantage of the black-cherry martinis for a mere 25 cents each.

Another venerable NOLA restaurant is Galatoire’s, which has featured classic Creole cuisine for over 100 years. In its charming dining room on Bourbon Street, diners noisily celebrate birthdays and other happy occasions, creating a din that only slightly detracts from the excellent food and outstanding service. I savored my crawfish salad and shrimp etouffeé, while my companion enjoyed grilled redfish and a specialty, crabmeat Yvonne.

Somewhat uncertain, we dined at a restaurant on Decatur Street with the odd name of Tujague’s. We discovered that the name is pronounced “two-jacks,” and the place (the second oldest in NOLA) has a fascinating history. Guillaume and Marie Tujague arrived from France and opened their restaurant across from the French Market in 1856. It’s now famous for its own version of shrimp rémoulade and—surprisingly—a succulent beef brisket boiled with veggies in a creole sauce. We ordered blackened fish and had no regrets.

After a disappointing Sunday “jazz brunch” at a spot in the F.Q., we headed the next day for the Garden District. We loved taking the St. Charles streetcar, strolling around the neighborhood, and admiring its historic houses. But the real highlight of our visit was lunch at Commander’s Palace. The food, service, and ambiance were all spectacular. CP is rightly famous for its turtle soup (which my companion ordered), while I indulged in the 3-soup offering, which included not only turtle but also seafood gumbo and shrimp bisque, each of which was superb. My companion and I both had blackened fish—yum!–plus 25-cent cocktails (cosmopolitans and martinis). We ran out of room for dessert and gingerly walked our very full selves back to the St. Charles streetcar.

If you’re hankering for oysters, and the line in front of the Acme Oyster House is forbidding, try Felix’s just across the street. We arrived there near its closing time of 10 p.m., but we were graciously served great food despite the late hour. The shrimp po’boy was very good and the crawfish etouffeé excellent. Although the ambiance is bare-bones, the place is clean and well run, patronized by a wide range of colorful locals. We thoroughly enjoyed our late-night experience there.

Café du Monde is justly famous around the world. Perched on Decatur Street across from beautiful Jackson Square, it welcomes long lines of visitors seeking its beignets and café au lait every morning. We avoided the long lines and headed for the café after dinner one night. It was the perfect nightcap. The warm beignets, fresh from the oven and coated in powdered sugar, were just as wonderful as you’ve always heard, and the café au lait (regular or decaf) is terrific. By the way, the world-famed café now has a location outside the French Quarter. The large Hilton Riverside hotel is linked to an outlet mall called Riverwalk, and Café du Monde has established a small outpost there. The ambiance isn’t quite the same, but the beignets and hot coffee are.

On our last day in NOLA, we lunched at the venerable Palace Café. Located on the fringes of the French Quarter, where busy Canal Street meets Chartres Street, the two-story café features contemporary Creole dishes. We couldn’t resist another opportunity to imbibe turtle soup (almost as good as the one at Commander’s Palace), followed by one more helping of delicious grilled fish. But the real lure for us was Bananas Foster. As our server, Matt, prepared it tableside, he related its history: the dessert originated in New Orleans in the early 1950s, when NOLA was the major port of entry for bananas shipped from Central and South America. Restauranteur Owen Brennan asked his chef to prepare a new dessert that included bananas. Bananas Flambé later became Bananas Foster as a tribute to Brennan’s friend and dessert enthusiast, Richard Foster. It features not only bananas but also rum, banana liqueur, and vanilla ice cream, and it’s great fun to watch it cooking, especially when the rum ignites. The Palace Café’s version was sublime.

Needless to say, NOLA offers much more than world-class food. Its not-quite-complete recovery from Hurricane Katrina has been remarkable. (You can trace the recovery in an exhibit at the Presbytère museum, where you’ll also find a colorful exhibit related to Mardi Gras.)

NOLA offers museums, an aquarium, a zoo, and other big-city delights. But don’t forget the music. Harry Connick Jr. calls NOLA the only city he knows that has “a constant backdrop of music,” a backdrop you can witness for yourself. Musicians seem to pop up everywhere, sometimes creating what appear to be impromptu musical performances. This musical backdrop includes jazz, of course. The city’s legacy of great jazz survives in polished nightspots like Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse as well as unique settings like Preservation Hall.

Finally, let’s not forget NOLA’s literary connections. If you’ve ever seen the stunning film, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or the play that inspired it, you can view the wrought-iron balcony where Tennessee Williams wrote the original play. (I envision him typing away on a cheap typewriter while he sat on that lovely balcony.) It’s on St. Peter Street, not far from Jackson Square. Other literary luminaries include William Faulkner, who lived on nearby Pirate’s Alley in 1925, working on his early novels while he wrote for the Times-Picayune newspaper. You’ll find a busy bookstore on the ground floor of the house he lived in. Another notable but troubled writer, John Kennedy Toole, wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces,” set in NOLA during the 1960s. Finally published in 1980, years after Toole’s suicide, his book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” I carried home a shiny coffee mug inscribed with this Cajun expression (no, it’s not classic French). Sitting on a shelf in plain view, it will unfailingly remind me of the great food and good times my companion and I relished during our astonishing visit to New Orleans.