Thirty years ago

The Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic.

In 2021 (we plan ahead), Marilyn and I plan to bundle our family into a transatlantic airliner for a journey to the Czech Republic. Our daughters are old enough now to appreciate the architecture and a little history, but for me, it will be a return to a part of the world for which I’ve always had a deep and abiding affection. In part, this is because my own family originated there; my roots lie in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania. But more, for people of my generation, Central and Eastern Europe has a particular historical meaning not entirely irrelevant to my daughters’ own historical period here in the United States.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, at the age of 27, I along with everyone else in the world watched as the Iron Curtain crumbled and the Cold War evaporated in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and many points east. And it happened quickly, within the space of a year. It was perhaps the most deeply meaningful geopolitical event of my youth. It’s hard to explain to generations younger than my own exactly how momentous an event this was. Since my birth in 1962, I and the rest of my generation had been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation; the Soviet Union and its satellites were a region of frightening mystery. The world seemed divided between a capitalist West of liberalism and cosmopolitanism and a communist East of totalitarianism and penury. The Berlin Wall had by 1989 become a symbol of this division. It seemed permanent, bombs and guns from each side pointing menacingly at the other. Then, in November — almost thirty years ago today — the Wall fell, dismantled by citizens from both West and East Berlin, as the Communist Party looked on in paralyzed disbelief. (Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern is an interesting first-person account of the period.)

I didn’t much believe it either, but forbidden things have their own charm, and I first visited the region in 1990: from Vienna to Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade. As cliche as it may seem, the excitement and optimism in the air of these cities was palpable; as an American I was greeted everywhere I went (well, maybe not Belgrade) with a sense of celebration. And Americans were everywhere too; in those pre-EU days, the dollar went far. The ideal of individual liberty was finding a new embodiment in these newly free individuals. The following year I returned to a small village in Moravia where I taught English in a local high school.

It couldn’t last. When I once again visited the region four or five years later, the bloom was off the rose as idealism clashed with the practical compromises necessary to maintain a functioning democratic government. Nonetheless, for that moment, it seemed that most of the ideals of Western liberalism were triumphant.

Triumphs, however, are usually temporary, as history teaches us all too well. The absorption of many of these countries into the European Union was accompanied by various difficulties, not the least of which were economic inequality and migration — difficulties that have led to a resurgence of nationalistic autocracy in many of them. So Václav Havel gave way to Václav Klaus. Upon returning to the United States, however, I maintained my enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European culture, literature, philosophy, and cuisine, and hope to share these with my daughters in two years.

Not all of Central Europe’s revolutions in the years following 1989 were quite so velvety or peaceful. I remembered my experience in Central Europe most recently with the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 — further east than the Central European capitals I visited earlier, Maidan was bloodier and its conclusion more ambivalent than those of 1989. And Ukraine’s long experience with Soviet totalitarianism, kleptocratic and oligarchic corruption, and a more violent past, as well as the ambivalent and protean nature of Ukrainian identity, has placed it in a particularly sensitive and dangerous position on the borderland of west and east. And — as the past year has proven — has left it open to extortion and corruption by the west and east themselves. Of western Ukrainian heritage myself, I feel this most deeply.

Among the public intellectuals most scandalized by the Trump presidency are many of my generation, primarily historians, who had similar responses to and experiences in Eastern and Central Europe in the post-1989 era, many of them travelling in that region for the first time around the years that I did. Anne Applebaum (born 1964), Ed Luce (1968), Timothy Snyder (1969), and Marci Shore (1972) have all written far more eloquently than I have about their experience of and deeply personal responses to Central and Eastern Europe’s recent past, responses which led them to study the history of the region and propose lessons we might learn from 1989 and its aftermath. Following in the footsteps of journalist/essayists like Timothy Garton Ash of the generation before their own, they see Western liberalism and the rule of law as ideals that are hard won — ideals for which blood was shed in the not so distant past, and ideals under attack by the Trump administration and other autocratic and neo-totalitarian leaders, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

The thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall takes place this Saturday, November 9. Ironically, Donald Trump is intent on building a new, similar wall of his own. New authoritarianisms and tyrannies will not much resemble those that fell in 1989; they are on the rise in different forms which seem more palatable to many voters in the United States and elsewhere. Here in the United States, the GOP and its supporters, in demonizing the Democratic Party, appear to be perfectly happy to consider a one-party system. In introducing my daughters to those Hapsburg-era capitals that made such an impression on me thirty years ago, I hope to imbue them with some of the dreams, some of the magic, some of the intelligence and compassion, and some of the strength that they’ll need to resist a future which is fast becoming darker.

My past comes back to haunt me

I must have started this blog about twenty years go. I began it in the quaint delusion that I might one day carve out some kind of career in the theatre, either as a playwright or as a critic, perhaps both; about ten years ago I dropped all this, however, for a number of reasons both good and bad. I was reminded of this early ambition when I recently received word that Megan Vaughan’s book Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture is scheduled to be published by Methuen next February. Some time ago Megan interviewed me for the book, a pleasurable experience; a more amusing experience was to find recently that in the promotional material for the book Methuen wrote:

The work of prominent and influential early adopters such as Encore Theatre Magazine and Chris Goode in London; George Hunka and Laura Axelrod in New York; Jill Dolan at Princeton University and Alison Croggon in Melbourne is featured and considered alongside those who followed them.

That I had followers of any kind produced a bemused smile. I suppose I was sort of prominent at the time — the blog led to a stint as a freelance theatre reviewer for The New York Times and theatre essayist for The Guardian — but influential? This produced more a laugh than a smile.

As I said earlier, I haven’t been going to the theatre for a while. But when I did, I was most impressed by the work of Richard Foreman, and my blog featured quite a bit of writing about the avant-garde playwright and director. Like myself, Foreman’s been away from the theatre for more than a decade now, though he continues to work in film. (Some of his recent activity, along with his films, can be found here.) I’ve collected most, but far from all, of my writing about Richard’s work here, for the sake of the archive. Richard was truly prominent and influential, and his work continues to be the most powerful I was privileged to see and write about during those theatre years of mine. I haven’t had the opportunity to polish, organize, update, or revise any of this writing — 12,000 words of it, apparently — but as a reminder of my checkered past I thought it appropriate at least to keep it all in a safe place.

(I should mention two recent Foreman-related publications here as well. Plays for the Public, a collection of Richard’s last plays, will be published by TCG next month. And Neal Swettenham’s 2017 Richard Foreman: An American (Partly) in Paris discusses Foreman as a quasi-European artist.)

A toast to … earworms

Cafe Katja.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written a few sentences about The Book of Weirdo, a new history of the magazine by Jon B. Cooke; flogged an upcoming concert from my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken and an upcoming appearance at the Jalopy Tavern by the East River String Band; and enjoyed the first few pages of Gilbert Seldes’ The Stammering Century. I should probably also note that on Monday night Cooke’s history will be honored at a Columbia University discussion and reception. I’ll be there — the event is sold out, but I understand it’s being recorded and will be made available at a later date.

I’ve been listening to a few old 78rpm records these days and came across the below recordings of “Give Yourself a Pat on the Back,” performed by Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra on an old Columbia disk in 1929 or 1930. When I was ten years old I came across a stash of old records at my grandmother’s house — this was one of them, and swear to God I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it. I imagine this is a fairly obscure recording, but oddly enough, I came across a second version as well — a cover version done up as a novelty comedy song. To be honest, I don’t know whether the non-comedy or the comedy version was the original. The first version below is the version I remember from my youth; you can hear the Spike-Jonesy version in the player below that one. I can’t vouch for the quality of either the song or the performance, but it sure has endured, at least in my memory. I’ll be toasting to the song this afternoon during my Friday sojourn to Cafe Katja. Give yourself a pat on the back, and have a good day today.

On the bedside table: “The Stammering Century”

I’m about a hundred pages into Gilbert Seldes’ 1928 study The Stammering Century and find it quite a hoot. Seldes’ quacks, mountebanks, and frauds are still swarming over the continent, as American as mom and apple pie. Highly recommended. Richard Hofstadter (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) called it “one of the most perceptive and entertaining studies of the American spirit in the nineteenth century.” Good enough for me.

More about the book below, courtesy of its publisher, New York Review Books.


Gilbert Seldes, the author of The Stammering Century, writes:

This book is not a record of the major events in Ameri­can history during the nineteenth century. It is concerned with minor movements, with the cults and manias of that period. Its personages are fanatics, and radicals, and mountebanks. Its intention is to connect these secondary movements and figures with the primary forces of the century, and to supply a background in American history for the Prohibitionists and the Pente­costalists; the diet-faddists and the dealers in mail-order Personality; the play censors and the Fundamen­talists; the free-lovers and eugenists; the cranks and possibly the saints. Sects, cults, manias, movements, fads, religious excitements, and the relation of each of these to the others and to the orderly progress of America are the subject.

The subject is of course as timely at the beginning of the twenty-first century as when the book first appeared in 1928. Seldes’s fascinated and often sympathetic accounts of dreamers, rogues, frauds, sectarians, madmen, and geniuses from Jonathan Edwards to the messianic murderer Matthias have established The Stammering Century not only as a lasting contribution to American history but as a classic in its own right.