Sunday, July 3, 2022

Authentically Fake

Who is Sophie Loren?

Is she the Arabian mistress of an Arabian oil millionaire?

Or is she a Jewish spy?

In 1966, she appeared in two movies, “Arabesque,” in which she was the Arabian, and “Judith,” in which she was the Jewess. (1)

And in the following year, Signorina Loren ascended to the Russian nobility in “A Countess from Hong Kong.”

Back to 1966. In early January, the following advertisement appeared in The New Yorker:

The English theatrical knight Sir Laurence Olivier was to be the Black Moor leader of the Venetian military. Despite some achingly bad reviews (2), Sir Laurence was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards (he didn’t win).


Fast forward to the present.

According to the BBC,

The days of "cripping up" - a term disabled actors regularly use to describe those with no physical impairment playing disabled characters - appear numbered now. (3)

This in a report that a disabled actor will take on the role of Richard III in a production of Shakespeare’s play at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The actor selected to play the 15th Century villain, Arthur Hughes, said,

I think a lot of disabled actors will think playing Richard is their birthright.


Should homosexual actors think that playing gay characters is their birthright? 

Recently, in the New York Times, Tom Hanks addressed the question “could a straight man do what I did in ‘Philadelphia’ now?” His answer was “No, and rightly so.” He went on to explain:

I don’t think people would accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy. It’s not a crime, it’s not boohoo, that someone would say we are going to demand more of a movie in the modern realm of authenticity. (4)

But as The New Yorker recently pointed out, “Last year . . . introduced an octogenarian Hamlet: Sir Ian McKellen.” (5) 

Now, if in the name of “authenticity,” a gay actor—rather than Hanks—should play the part of Andrew Beckett, what “authenticity” are we looking at when it’s acceptable for English gay octogenarian McKellen to play a young heterosexual Dane? Or, as the same New Yorker article pointed out, 

The casting of a female Hamlet . . . is now conventional enough not to raise eyebrows. 


Somehow lost in all these “authenticity” debates about casting is the fact that the theater is not about “authenticity”; in its very essence, the the theater is about fakery—the show is all pretense. The actors are not the characters—and the characters are not real. 

The world of the theater is a corrective to the world of life; characters are shot, immolated, poisoned, etc.—and yet everybody lives to take a curtain call. 

In turn, real life is better than the world of art. We feel, we love, we change. We can be “authentic.”


Mulling over the problem of “authenticity” in the realm of the the performing arts, we here at drnormalvision have come to the conclusion that the only way to achieve “authenticity” is to have everyone play him/herself. That would place performance beyond the bounds of criticism. The only problem is a major one, however. What we would be left with is a landscape filled with reality shows.

Imagine a world of Kardashian-lites.  


(1)  And in “Judith,” Peter Finch plays the head of a kibbutz!

(2)  In The New Yorker, Brendan Gill’s “chief complaint” about the movie was “Sir Laurence’s utterly daft reading of the title role.” (Feb . 19, 1966) 

What Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, found “most distressing” was “Sir Laurence’s allowing himself to look like a white actor made up in blackface for a minstrel show.” (March 6, 1966)




Saturday, June 25, 2022

Restraining The Inner Man

[I]n Otero County, New Mexico, County Commissioner, Couy Griffin—recently sentenced to 14 days in jail for participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol—refused a state Supreme Court order to certify his state’s June 7 primary results. Reached by phone Griffin told reporters: “My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.”


Going back to the 1950s and 60s and the struggle for civil rights and against segregation, I recall a great deal of noise was produced about “hearts and minds.” There were those, for example, who suggested that black people should not push too hard for equal rights but should bide their time until the Earth spins around a few times and segregationists will have changed their hearts and minds; then all will be well. These people did not reckon with the likes of Alabama governor George Wallace, who proclaimed in 1963:

“I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Somehow the idea that the exercise of their fundamental rights by American citizens depended upon the innards of their fellow countrymen always struck me as more than faintly absurd.

“Yes, sir, you may vote, but only when my spleen, kidney, and bladder say you may.”


“If I get ‘em by the short and curlies, the hearts and minds will follow.”

Lyndon Johnson*

“The short and curlies” is the law. While legislation may or may not change hearts and minds, it changes people’s actions. They want to stay on the side of the law. I may in my heart and mind believe that it’s my God-given right to drive 100 miles an hour on the NJ Turnpike; however, I recognize that if I do so, I will have a super trooper on my tail very soon, and there will be consequences due to my breaking the speeding law. 


Linda C. McClain: 

New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr. stated: As Martin Luther King said: “Morality cannot be legislated; but behavior can be regulated. The law may not change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.” We have seen this in so many areas where we know we can’t change the heart of man, the mind of man, but we can regulate his behavior.**

Whether or not positive legislation changes people’s innards, the important thing is that it forces change in their external actions. Whitey in Mississippi may not have liked having a black man sitting at the next restaurant table, but if he wanted to eat, he had to swallow his prejudice.


*I always thought it was Richard Nixon who said it.



Friday, June 17, 2022

The Best Laid Plans . . .

Once in a while one comes up with a great idea. 

When I was chairman of the English department, I recognized a problem that I thought needed correction. It happened that every time a faculty member suffered an unfortunate event (e.g., a bereavement or a hospitalization) or experienced a joyous one (e.g., a marriage or a birth) someone immediately took up a collection. At times there might be three or four passings-around of hats going on simultaneously. What confusion.

How about, I thought, if we taxed the faculty at the start of the school year—say, twenty dollars—and built up a pot that could be dipped into as need arose. In satiric homage to Richard Nixon I called it a Slush Fund. Lo and behold, when I submitted my proposal to the department, they jumped at it—only disappointingly choosing wimpily to call the result the Sunshine Fund. 

Then I got what I believed was an even greater idea. 

How about if at the end of each semester, the department selected the most outstanding English major and awarded her a prize? Someone noted that the college’s publicity office could arrange for a photograph to be taken of the presentation and that local newspapers could be given a press release. It was, to my mind, a multiple win-win situation; the college would get some free publicity, the English department would receive some free print, the selected student and her family could swell with pride, and—maybe best of all—the student would have the opportunity to add “English Department Award—Outstanding Major” (or some such title) to her c.v. She could even read the book we would award her (after all, we were a literature department). And, since the department had the money already collected in the Slush Fund, there would be no need to scrounge around to pay for the present.


What could go wrong?


The English department could.

I presented the brainstorm at a department meeting and immediately got hit in the face with questions, objections, elaborations, etc. For example: 

A) How would we select the candidate? (Come on; how simple would it be to poll the faculty?) 

B) What if a rejected student decided to sue us? (Jeez, we’ll put a lawyer on retainer; would that satisfy you?) 

C) It’s a great idea, but why only the English department? All the departments should do it. Let’s bring it up at the College Senate. (At this point I threw up my hands, withdrew the proposal—and decided to do the whole thing myself—creating a Chairman’s Award. No Slush Fund; I’d dig into my own pocket to buy the gift book.)

So for the next two semesters I chose the best English major and handed her the prize. One semester it was a highly-acclaimed new translation of Dante’s Inferno; the next it was The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Unfortunately, there was no publicity—no photographs, no newspaper write-ups. What a waste!

One English department member—who was ordinarily a pinchpenny Yankee—offered to chip in to help me defray the cost of the books. I politely turned him down. Although thinking back after all these years, since he had stiffed me on some photographs I had taken of him, I should have taken the money. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2022


In the September 26, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, readers were introduced to Arthur Ashe, who was described as “the tall, pleasant Negro boy from U.C.L.A.” A year later, in the October 9, 1965 issue of the magazine, Ashe, described as “a twenty-two-year-old U.C.L.A. senior who came on very fast,” was acknowledged as the only American tennis player to have distinguished himself in “the big championships.”

Ashe, a native of Richmond, Virginia, learned to play tennis at a segregated park. It  took a while, but eventually he was able to compete against white boys, and his game grew good enough that he won a tennis scholarship to U.C.L.A. And good enough to become a factor on the men’s tournament circuit. 


Arthur Ashe’s name was evoked yesterday in a New York Times article by sports columnist Kurt Streeter entitled “Where Have You Gone, Arthur Ashe? LIV Tour Golfers Need You.”* 

The LIV golf tour is a multi-million-dollar project funded by Saudi Arabian interests that is attempting to lure prominent golfers to its tournaments. While some club-swingers have been seduced by the big bucks being thrown around, most of the top names in the sport have turned their backs on LIV. 

Why are Saudis in this game? The consensus is that it is one of several recent attempts at sportswashing; that is, a diversionary tactic to deflect the eyes of the world away from the brutal policies of the Saudi government. (They have also recently purchased Newcastle United Football Club and are throwing their gelt around the English northeast.) 

The golfers who are taking the Saudi bucks have been challenged to respond to the actions of their benefactors. “Don’t hold your breath,” Streeter declares. 

None of the golfers who signed on to the LIV tour in exchange for staggering sums will speak up. They are too spineless and too compromised, working as they do for a tour funded by a government that tramples human rights.

It is here that Streeter brings up Arthur Ashe, who despite criticism from some quarters chose to visit apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, but then, as Streeter puts it,

used his celebrity and gravitas to shame the racist regime while playing the South African Open.


In his tennis-playing career, Arthur Ashe won 76 singles titles. But I best remember him for a singles match that he lost: the 1973 World Championship Tennis final in Dallas, Texas. The event was the culmination of the men’s professional circuit and was viewed as prestigious as the four major tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open). 

Ashe, as I said above, did not win; he lost to fellow American Stan Smith in four sets. Interviewed after the match, Ashe was asked about a crucial point in the match when Smith went for a ball that had bounced either once (was “up”) or twice (was “not up”). Ashe replied (I’m paraphrasing here): Stan said it was up, and that’s good enough for me.


Thursday, June 9, 2022

"It's Behind You!"

In my previous post, “Reason and Rhyme,” ( I applauded Shakespeare’s use of rhyme in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to lock in the deluded profession of love by Lysander for Helena. 

Today, I wish to go back a little bit earlier in the play. In Act II, Scene 1, Oberon, the King of the Fairies, has spotted Helena pursuing a disdainful Demetrius. He instructs Puck to anoint Demetrius’ eyes with a magic substance that will make him fall in love with Helena:

A sweet Athenian lady is in love

With a disdainful youth: anoint his eyes;

But do it when the next thing he espies

May be the lady: thou shalt know the man

By the Athenian garments he hath on.

Effect it with some care, that he may prove

More fond on her than she upon her love.

Puck, trying to follow his master’s orders, is, however, at a loss:

Through the forest have I gone.

But Athenian found I none,

On whose eyes I might approve

This flower's force in stirring love.

Until he spots an Athenian male (recognized by his clothes) and a young woman (Hermia) sleeping nearby.

This is he, my master said,

Despised the Athenian maid;

And here the maiden, sleeping sound,

On the dank and dirty ground.

Pretty soul! she durst not lie

Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.

Churl, upon thy eyes I throw

All the power this charm doth owe.

When thou wakest, let love forbid

Sleep his seat on thy eyelid.

(Act II, Scene 2)

Puck is genuinely pleased with himself as he bounds off to report to Oberon of his success.

All well and good? Hardly. For the Athenian who was drugged by Puck was not Demetrius but Lysander. And now along comes Helena.


All has gone wrong—but Puck doesn’t know this; Lysander doesn’t know this; Helena doesn’t know this (and eventually, neither Hermia nor Demetrius will know this).

But we know! We, the audience, sitting in our seats (or, in Shakespeare’s time, standing in the pit) have witnessed the action. And what is our reaction as we watch poor Puck approach sleeping Lysander—and then Helena tiptoe over to Lysander and nudge him awake?


One of the classic scenes in British Christmas pantomimes is when a ghost appears behind the main characters and the audience (mainly children) scream out: “It’s behind you!” 

We (the adult audience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), like the pantomime audience, can be said to be in a state of greater ironic awareness than Puck, Lysander, Helena, etc. 

Irony depends upon two levels of knowledge. The ironist deliberately over- or under-values what he believes in order to entrap his audience (the victim), to make him appear foolish or despicable. One example (rather harmless) of overvaluing would be the following:

Someone enters a room, tripping over his own feet. The ironist says, “Ah, here comes Fred Astaire.”

The word for this is sarcasm.

Most famous for the ironic stance of undervaluing is Socrates, who maintained that he knew nothing, and interrogated those who claimed to know about piety, justice, etc., eventually destroying their arguments.


Back to our play:

With our greater knowledge of the wrong that Puck is about to do as he approaches Lysander—and the wrongness that will occur when Helena stirs Lysander—we, in our superiority, can first experience an expectation of mischief and then laugh at the results of that mischief. 

Here, the playwright allows us to be in cahoots with him, as we have the same knowledge as him. But it is not always the case that (a) the audience knows more than the characters or (b) the author has given us the information in real time (as it were) about the action that he intends to reveal later. The classic example is the whodunnit. Here the audience is completely in the dark until they can figure out by themselves or have the solution revealed to them at the conclusion by the detective or investigator. We may be on the same lower level of awareness of most of the characters (some of whom may be bumped off along the way); the murderer (and, of course, his creator) are on a superior level of ironic awareness; they know who dunnit.

The reverse of the whodunnit could properly be called the Columbo. In the “Columbo” crime series, we, the audience, know who the criminal is and how the crime was committed, as we are shown the act being performed. So we are on the same level of awareness as the miscreant, but on a superior level to that of the detective, Lieutenant Columbo. However, as Columbo works his way through the evidence, he moves closer to our level of awareness. The criminal, meanwhile, who has been on the same knowledge level as us, falls behind as he does not know that Columbo is inching closer to unveiling him. At the conclusion of the story, we and Columbo are now on the same superior level of ironic awareness. And the criminal is finished.


There are a number of elements that contribute to the success of a play or a novel. Among them are the artist’s invention and development of interesting characters, the fashioning of a gripping narrative, a delightful command of language, etc. Add to the list his ability to exploit different levels of ironic awareness, so that the audience is in on the joke, an object of the joke, complicit with a criminal, or at one with his pursuer. As the artist deems fit.


Perhaps the most famous quote emerging from the Nixon Watergate scandal was the line by Senator Howard Baker:

“What did the President know and when did he know it?”  

In many ways, slightly modified, those could be key questions when analyzing a literary work:

“What did the audience know, and when did it know it?”


Saturday, June 4, 2022

Reason and Rhyme


In my previous post (“Get Real”, I quoted the famous line from Ben Jonson’s tribute to Shakespeare—that Will had “small Latin and less Greek.” Almost immediately after I posted on the blog, an article by Tom Moran appeared online, which argued that 

Jonson’s statement concerning Shakespeare’s alleged ignorance of Greek and Latin might be the single most misunderstood and misinterpreted line of English poetry ever written: it means the opposite of what most people think it means. 


Moran makes a strong case for Shakespeare having a good knowledge of both those languages and that Jonson was really acknowledging that fact. (Moran is less persuasive when he goes on to attempt to show how the ancient playwrights influenced Shakespeare’s work. Moran really stretches his material to the breaking point.)

Anyway, I needed to make this update.



In the May 30, 2022 issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviewed a book on rhyme by Daniel Levin Becker ( The following discussion will make no reference to either Gopnik’s or Levin Becker’s work. Their works just gave me the occasion to write my own thoughts on rhyme.


Ask someone to write a poem and what will you get? 

Dum de dum de rhyme

Dum de dum de rhyme.

Or in the words of Ira Gershwin:

I've written you a song

A beautiful routine

(I hope you like it)

My technique can't be wrong

I learned it from the screen

(I hope you like it)

I studied all the rhymes that all the lovers sing

Then just for you I wrote this little thing

Blah blah blah blah moon

Blah blah blah above

Blah blah blah blah croon

Blah blah blah blah love

Tra la la la tra la la la la merry month of May

Tra la la la tra la la la la 'neath the clouds of gray

Blah blah blah your hair

Blah blah blah your eyes

Blah blah blah blah care

Blah blah blah blah skies

Tra la la la tra la la la la cottage for two

Blah blah blah blah blah darling with you!

The idea in most people’s heads about poetry is that it must rhyme. So when attempting to compose a poem, they will contort English syntax as much as necessary to end each line with a rhyming word. And that rhyming word is usually of the utmost banality: e.g., sing/thing, croon/moon, eyes/skies, two/you. That is assuming that the “poet” can actually form real rhymes. And how often do those real rhymes come at the expense of the English language itself. Here’s Bob Dylan: “Then time will tell who has fell . . .” (For this he won the Nobel Prize?) Or in one translation of “The Girl From Ipanema”: 

“But each day when she walks to the sea,

She looks straight ahead – not at he.”

Now consider what happens when they can’t achieve true rhyme: “I'm so excited I just can't hide it” by the Pointer Sisters or the running joke in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, “Lady, lady, be my baby.”


Enough of the bad.

Alexander Pope was the great master of English rhyme. He maneuvered his syntax (within the bounds of English usage) to get the most telling words at the end of the line—and to rhyme. From “The Rape of the Lock”:

(Describing Hampton Court)

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey.

Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes Tea (pronounced “tay”).

Hither the heroes and the nymphs resort,

To taste awhile the pleasures of a Court;

In various talk th' instructive hours they past,

Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last;

One speaks the glory of the British Queen,

And one describes a charming Indian screen;

A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes;

At ev'ry word a reputation dies.

Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,

With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.

What a triumph of the bathetic!


To me the greatest triumph of rhyme is achieved in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act II, Scene 2, Puck has wrongly drugged the eyes of sleeping Lysander (who is love with Hermia) to make him fall in love with the next person he sees—who happens to be Hermia’s friend Helena.


Lysander if you live, good sir, awake.


[Awaking] And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.

Shakespeare with his rhyme (awake/sake) locks the two characters together. And so the mismatched craziness of (eventually) four characters in and out of love (with even a pathetic attempt at a duel) ensues to the delight of the audience.

That is what great rhyming can do. 

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Get Real

“Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?”

Henry Higgins, My Fair Lady


Over four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare satirized the linguistic foibles of his fellow countrymen in The Merchant Of Venice


What say you, then, to Falconbridge, the young baron

of England?


You know I say nothing to him, for he understands

not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French,

nor Italian, and you will come into the court and

swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the English.

He is a proper man's picture, but, alas, who can

converse with a dumb-show?

(Act I, Scene 2)

Knowing the limitations of an Englishman’s knowledge of other languages, one can understand the despair of Thomas Mowbray, having been exiled from his homeland for life by King Richard II.


A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,

And all unlook'd for from your highness' mouth:

A dearer merit, not so deep a maim

As to be cast forth in the common air,

Have I deserved at your highness' hands.

The language I have learn'd these forty years,

My native English, now I must forego:

And now my tongue's use is to me no more

Than an unstringed viol or a harp,

Or like a cunning instrument cased up,

Or, being open, put into his hands

That knows no touch to tune the harmony:

Within my mouth you have engaol'd my tongue,

Doubly portcullis'd with my teeth and lips;

And dull unfeeling barren ignorance

Is made my gaoler to attend on me.

I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,

Too far in years to be a pupil now:

What is thy sentence then but speechless death,

Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

(Richard II, Act I, Scene 3)

Not that Shakespeare himself—he of “small Latin and less Greek,” according to Ben Jonson—was innocent of mangling other languages. Like his contemporaries he would, for example, have pronounced Milan as “Millen.”


The mangling four centuries later by 20th and now 21st century Englishmen continues on its merry way. That is especially true when they have to deal with foreign words with a long “o.” For much of the 20th century, Englishmen spoke of the West as being confronted by something called “The Sahviet Union.” And on a non-political plane, commentators (we call them “announcers”) of football matches (we call it “soccer”) call the South American nations tournament the “Coppa América” and call the great Argentine club team “Bocka Juniors.”

But I have to say that the height of this linguistic folly was reached this weekend when Liverpool Football Club met the Spanish side Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League. Somehow the team that faced the Merseysiders metamorphosed—thanks to the English commentator—into an entity called “Raul Madrid.”

(I'm imagining what would have happened had the final been between Raul Madrid and AC Millen.)


If only there were a Henry Higgins to teach the English not only how to speak their native tongue, but also to respect other languages.