Books I’ve been reading

THE SHAKESPEARE RIOTS: Revenge, Drama and Death in Nineteenth-Century America by Nigel Cliff chronicles how the rival New York Shakespearian performances of American-born stage star Edwin Forrest and British William Charles Macready triggered a series of aggressive stunts by Forrest’s supporters (who regarded the dominance of English actors on stage as a form of cultural imperialism), that then turned violent in response to a police crackdown. Cliff shows that the violence had less to do with the performances themselves than generally sour Anglo-American relations and class warfare (deriding popular actors was one of the ways the lower classes were allowed to blow off steam and they didn’t take lightly to having it cut off); he also goes into the basics of 19th century Shakespearian acting (Macready was a groundbreaker in trying to develop his character from his own inner resources rather than stock gestures), the actors’ life, and Shakespeare’s popularity in America during this period, which Cliff sees as the last gasp before the 19th century fossilized him as a fusty classic.
THIRD CRY TO LEGBA: Selected Stories of Manley Wade Wellman Vol. 1 gathers together all of the Lee Corbett stories (most of them I already read in VALLEY SO LOW) and Wellman’s 1940s stories of New York-based occult investigator John Thunstone and his battles with Crowley-clone Rowley Thorne, the nonhuman Shonokin (who also showed up in one of Silver John’s novels) and the sinister School of Darkness. The Thunstone stories are good, but suffer by comparison with Silver John’s first-person narration and Appalachian setting; a bigger problem is that the powers of darkness come off ineffective: A stab of Thunstone’s silver sword or a puff of tobacco laced with shaman’s herbs will usually dispel them.
STARDUST LOST: The Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America by Stefan Kanfer looks back at the Yiddish-language theater that began a little over a century ago, largely due to the efforts of matinee idol Boris Thomachefsky (whose name has now been preserved as the mentor of Max Bialystock in the PRODUCERS musical) and eventually expired late in the 20th century (by which point English was the default language even for Jewish playwrights). Kanfer portrays a familiar mix of outsize egos, backstage feuds and politics (Zionism and Bolshevism mostly) plus the challenge of catering to an immigrant audience with little familiarity with theater, so that low-brow “shund” went over far better than anything good (years before Fiddler on the Roof, Sholom Alecheim’s tales of Tevya were rejected as too serious and thoughtful to work); Yiddish theater, did, however, manage several impressive productions, including Jewish versions of King Lear, Hamlet (with a woman duplicating Sarah Bernhardt’s turn in the role) and Merchant of Venice (the first recorded instance of a Jew taking the lead). Kanfer argues that while Yiddish theater has Gone To Dust, it’s influence is still alive and kicking, ranging from influential graduates (Stella Adler and Paul Muni) to Jewish shticks that carried over into the mainstream.
THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters has the feel of an M.R. James story expanded to novel length as a doctor in post-WW II Britain notices an increasing level of weirdness surrounding a local Stately Home and the shabbily genteel family struggling to keep it afloat (very much in tune with the real-world situation chronicled in Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy). Stretching M.R. James to 400 pages doesn’t work so well, and the personal drama which is meant to be the heart of the story didn’t work for me at all.
BPRD: The War on Frogs is a TPB collection of retcons set during the BPRD’s battles with the monstrous spawn of the Jaghru Ogad, and giving us new looks at Roger the homonculus and Capt. Daimo; the best is the medium Joachim trying to help the devil-frogs’ ghosts go into the light.

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One response to “Books I’ve been reading

  1. Pingback: A Movie and Some Books, but not much of either | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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