Monday, April 20, 2015

Patti Smith inducts Lou Reed into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame

Review: "Wolf Hall" Parts I and II‏

History was forever changed by the reign of King Henry VIII (1491-1547). The six-time married monarch broke from the Roman Catholic church, defying threats of ex-communication from the pope and the authority of the Vatican, to establish the Church of England with the monarch as its head.

The historical legacy of this schism has been profound. In the centuries since, Catholicism and Protestantism have divided the Christian faith, sometimes coexisting peacefully, sometimes leading to violence (like in Northern Ireland), but never easily. Without this split, the history of our own country would be very different. After all, our 18th century Founding Fathers were all fiercely Protestant and it wasn't until the waves of late 19th/early 20th century Irish and Italian immigration that Catholicism even became a presence in the USA. It took more than 170 years for the USA to elect a Catholic president (John F. Kennedy) and we haven't elected one since (although we do currently have a Catholic Vice-President, Joe Biden). In Britain, the schism is much more acute: until just a couple of years ago, it was illegal for the British monarch to marry a Catholic (he or she could marry a Muslim, a Jew, a Wiccan, a Mormon, a Scientolgist, whatever, but not an RC).  Most of Europe is still Catholic to this day but Britain is the country that got away. And all because of Henry VIII.

"Wolf Hall" consists of two plays, based on the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novels by Hilary Mantel. The plays and books tell the story of how Henry VIII, whose Spanish wife Catherine of Aragon had been unable to give him a male heir and was getting past child bearing age, decided to divorce his wife and marry the much younger Anne Boleyn. Problem: only the pope could grant the king's divorce (really, an annulment) but the pope did not want to anger the powerful Spanish monarch and therefore denied the king's request. Frustrated and embarrassed at the limits of his own power, King Henry did the unthinkable:  he defied the pope. He broke with Rome. He gave himself a divorce. He married Anne Boleyn and then, when she too fails to give him a son, cut off her head.

Naturally, it was a lot more complicated than this, which is why the two plays together take up about six hours. Plots within plots, the vagaries of politics and personalities, the competition and balance of national, religious, and family interests, were interwoven in the historic schism that defines Europe, Christianity, and the world today.

Most importantly, while Henry VIII is remembered as the horny, tyrannical, pre-nup requiring monarch who divided Christendom, it was his chief counselor, Thomas Cromwell, who actually masterminded and piloted the direction of these historical events. He was the power behind the throne, the ghost in the machine (think Karl Rove/Dick Cheney vs. George Bush or Tywin Lannister vs. Joffrey). Cromwell is the main character of "Wolf Hall" and is as fascinating a character as Henry VIII. The son of a blacksmith, a working class kid who, through sheer brilliance and diligence worked his way into becoming Henry VIII's right hand man, Cromwell is a very sympathetic character. He loved his wife, was an amazing father, and served his king and country with absolute loyalty. In fact, he did so to a fault: Cromwell had anyone who defied the authority of the king tortured and killed. He blackmailed people, forced them to give false confessions, and ruined their lives. He did so, he believed, for a good cause -- namely, his king. And, I'm sure in the eyes of many an Englishman then and since, he rightly stood up to the pope. He believed, you might say, in the power of a unity monarchy, that kings should be able to rule and make their decisions 100% without papal interference. But, naturally, the results of the schism led to unpredictable problems, problems which "Wolf Hall" also examine.

This two-part play is a marvel. Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Winter Garden Theater, it is a masterpiece of acting, staging, and storytelling. There is no real set: instead, it takes place mostly on a bare stage with just a few props, tables and chairs brought in at various intervals. There is also a very interesting use of fire that gives the play a wonderful atmosphere and many of the scenes are interspersed with beautiful dancing, and the costume are absolutely gorgeous.

But it is the British actor Ben Miles as the notorious Cromwell who is what makes these plays a joy. His performance is layered and complex, and the many emotions and thoughts of this complicated man are on full display but are only revealed through the actions of the plot. The writing is such that, just as soon as you you get to like Cromwell, he does something that horrifies you -- and yet you still like him. This is a play of surprises even though the history is well known. It is also, dare I say, a deeply feminist play (after all, it was written by a woman). Cromwell's wife is presented as the only woman who could command him, something the king very often could not do. Catherine of Aragon was a smart, strong woman who did not go quietly. And Anne Boleyn was no mere pawn but someone who ruthlessly destroyed anyone in her way.

History is created by the battle for power, the competition of interests, and the clash of personalities. "Wolf Hall" demonstrates this and more, and makes for thrilling entertainment.

P.S. If you can't make it to the Broadway production of "Wolf Hall" then you can watch it on PBS, starring the amazing Mark Rylance as Cromwell.   

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Da' Bronx

Interesting article from NY Mag online about the only NYC borough grafted to the American mainland: the Bronx. Titled "What is the Bronx Anyway?", it's a meditation about the borough, by a native, about what makes the Bronx both fascinating and yet, at the same time, so elusive to New Yorkers who live outside it.

The author raises some interesting points, and the article is worth a read, but I think there's more to what makes the Bronx such a difficult place to describe and understandd. Three main points I'd include:

1. Other than Staten Island, the Bronx is very isolated from the rest of NYC. In fact, it's even more isolated: you can ferry it from Staten Island to lower Manhattan very easily or drive across the Verrazano bridge into Brooklyn. The Bronx, on the other hand, is only attached to the city by a few bridges and subway lines to upper Manhattan. So, for the rest of the city, the Bronx might as well be Westchester. Out of easy reach, out of mind.

2. The Bronx is not, shockingly enough, geographically homogeneous. Yes, the South Bronx is popularly thought of as a Bonfire of the Vanities-like urban hell hole, and other parts of it are very citified too. But remember, the Bronx is also home to the super-suburban area of Riverdale. Also, huge swaths of it are covered by park land: Van Cortland Park, Pelham Bay Park, Ferry Point Park, not to mention all of the space that the Bronx Zoo takes up (it's huge!). So the Bronx is hard to define since it's a patchwork of urban landscapes, suburbs, parks, and islands (like City Island).

3. The Bronx has a very sad history. In the 1950s, wonderful middle class, largely Jewish, neighborhoods like Tremont were destroyed and blighted by the Cross Bronx Expressway. When Robert Moses rammed this enormous highway straight across the borough, the wonderful Marty-like ccommunities housed in the Bronx were wrecked and scattered. No one wanted to live next to a big noisy highway and neighborhoods were literallyy gashed apart. Abandoned buildings turned into drug dens. Filth and grime took root. People who could afford to live elsewhere did. Read the chapter "One Mile" from Robert Caro's The Power Broker to learn about how an entire borough of this great town was basically ruined by this evil highway. The Bronx has never fully recovered.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pizza and Times Square - How did we get here?

If there's one constant in New York life, one reliable anchor in the tumult of existence here, it's pizza. Ever since the influx of Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, this concoction of flat bread with tomato sauce and cheese has become one of the staple items for all New Yorkers, providing sustenance and comfort to the world's greatest city for over 100 years. How this did happen? How did it conquer NYC? How come NYC is pizza's city and we just eat in it? This segment from WNYC radio explores why.

And talking about the anchors of NYC, no place anchors our town more than Times Square. The crossroads of the world in the center of the world, Times Square has been remade in the last few years with the introduction of pedestrian plazas -- large swaths of the public square where New Yorkers and tourists can roam free and "chill" sans the threat of cars. This other segment from WNYC is about the transformation of -- and caused by -- the new Times Square.

This past weekend, the wife and I found ourselves in the Times Square area. We got some ice cream and plunked ourselves at the public tables smack dab in the center of the crossroads of the world to enjoy our treats. There we were ... eating ice cream ... sitting on chairs, at a table ... in the middle of friggin' Times Square!  Reeled the mind at how this isn't our parents Times Square. It's almost a cliche to say it now, but the hookers, pimps, drug dealers, vagabonds, ruffians, porn theaters, and dilapidated structures that used to populate the area are truly gone, gone, gone. Now Times Square is a buzzing hive of tourists and merchants, ablaze with LED screens advertising ... everything ... a family friendly gathering place. 

The transformation of Times Square prove the old maxims: the old becomes new, the sleazy becomes respectable, the rebel becomes the establishment. Like the old man said in Chinatown, if something lasts long enough, it doesn't matter how outrageous it's past: it becomes respectable.