Monday, July 13, 2020

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction, Biographical: By Women Possessed (Eugene O'Neill) and The Letters of Cole Porter

I always try to keep my knowledge of the Performing Arts and the creators expanding to augment my vision and knowledge to teach my students with insights that only Knowledge can give me.
So, here are some of my recent excursions and a brief response.


by Arthur and Barbara Gelb.

The Gelb's, husband and wife, spent a great deal of their creative energies researching and writing investigations into the genius and life of American playwright, Eugene O'Neill.They have written several books on O'Neill and some of the other people of the era. BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016) is the last of their collaborations and is a dense and gruelling read using O'Neill's relationship with women in his life: His Mother and then his three wives: Cathleen Jenkins, Agnes Boulton and Carlotta Monterey to, perhaps, explain, his driving creative energies - his furious response to what he viewed as the carnivorous woman. Both he and the women seemingly POSSESSED.

The book is wonderfully prepared with a life time of discoveries by these two writers (they have written another biography - 1962). The psychology of cause and affect is woven with an enlightening sensibility by the Gelb's. The writing career, play by play, is examined and parallels with his personal struggle with the demons of his psyche - burying him in fierce states of depression augmented by an addiction to alcohol, from which his fierce plays emerged. The ancient Greeek myths, bible stories and historical context of his world are used to lubricate his visions.e.g. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. Later, his auto-biographical penchant is evident. AH, WILDERNESS, A TOUCH OF THE POET, THE ICEMAN COMETH, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, besides the one act sea plays. He was a winner of many Pulitzer Prizes and became a Nobel Laureate for literature.

An American son, his father an actor, a matinee idol (THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO), his mother a convent girl who becomes addicted to morphine, he of a dark Irish temperament determined not to have his writing distracted by women and children. His personal demands were outrageous and facilitated by the context of the times and the macho embrace of his genius. He mesmerised his women to subservience to allow him to write without distractions of the ordinary life.

The book is astoundingly illustrative into the origins of the plays and the explorations - experiments - of form that O'Neill produced. It is a tremendous resource that I recommend as a must if you are working in the O'Neill ouvre. It also reveals the theatre experience in New York and the Americas that helps one to enter and begin to understand the reason why this man wrote those plays and why the audience embraced his work with such interest both savage and felicitous.

Literally the book weighs a ton - difficult to read in bed - but is also a disturbing and turbulent exposure of an unpleasant man that has produced some of the most important plays/visions of life for the theatre.

I recommend but be warned: it is not for the feint hearted reader. It is grinding.  An indispensable background.


by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (2019)

I picked up this book as a result of an article in THE NEW YORKER. I know, really, only a cursory amount about the great musical composers of the early 20th century American era.

This book is a collection of letters (624 pages of them) and are dated from the first decade of the twentieth century to the early 1960's and features correspondence with many of the movers and shakers of the musical world - Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, Orson Welles as well as many of his friends and lovers. Coming from money, marrying money, he had other money most of his life raining down with the musical genius of tune and lyric. Married, suffering a shattering horse accident, his homosexuality is part of the information we read through. His interaction with the wheels of Broadway and the Hollywood film studios are amusingly, cynically, revealed. The suffering of an artist in the naked reveal of his work and struggling with success as well as failure is recorded first hand.

I found the book a boorish insight and sometimes just plain tiresome. I pushed through it. It is a dip-in, dip-out book and is probably of most interest to the musical theatre tragic. I'm not one of those.


by Martin Gottfried (1984)

This is a biography of one of the great and legendary Directors of the American Theatre. He was the son of Esther and Meyer Wolf Horowitz who arrived in Newark with their son, Jacob Hirsch Horowitz. He was one of several children but was the bookish one - finding the realm of literature a sanctuary in the harsh life of the Jewish American immigrant. He was a wilful determined person, fractious with his family and locals, who blighted his study at Yale, and gradually bullied his way into the theatre where he produced a series of triumphs one after the other. BROADWAY, THE ROYAL FAMILY, THE FRONT PAGE, OUR TOWN and THE HEIRESS are some of his landmark successes. He worked with playwrights such as Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Edward Chodorov.

He died in 1979. At his memorial few people turned up. Most people thought he had long been dead and were surprised he had survived so long. The absence of the collaborators, celebrants of his career life was really his greatest achievement, which the writer Martin Gottfried intimates was his principal objective: to make enemies and to destroy his own legend. He, apparently, succeeded.

Being of Jewish inheritance was a burden and the cruel relationships with the women in his life are presented as some of the combustible fuel of his pernicious artistic drive. Most people worked with him only once. His rages, his quarrels, his feuds, his cruel witticisms, were wanton and shocking - disturbingly vicious. He was a genius of the theatre, with a great sense of finding the play, 'fixing' the play, casting and directing the play, he had the ability to diagnose the problems of the playwrighting and the gifts of his actors. He always cast his plays and rarely changed his mind - his instincts were an exceptional talent but were the undoing of his self - he was a genius in pursuit of perfection and had liitle patience with the less talented or the less motivated. Was it worth enduring him to have success? Time told him: NO. He vanished from sight (It could be seen as a result of a deliberate strategy of his own!)

This book is sometimes a little shallow in its insights but is stuffed with anecdotal references that is enough of a bait to keep one engaged. The background to how the Broadway Theatre 'worked', its history through the century is a great knowledge to have to store in the resources of my own practice. I gained a lot from reading it. I recommend it very much.


by Desley Deacon (2019)

I read of this book in the Sydney Morning Herald. Of course I was curious. For Judith Anderson is a world famous actor, stage and screen who was born in Adelaide - in ADELAIDE (As was Robert Helpmann) and found an illustrious future, particularly on the stages of Broadway. How does she achieve such success is what one reads the book for. She died in 1992. Most famously she created Mrs Danvers in the Hitchcock film REBECCA. That performance is an iconic one for cinephiles. But it was her theatre work that is thrilling to discover: her MEDEA is legendary. That career spanned decades. (She toured 'down under').

I am grateful for this book by Desley Deacon but would not recommend it as a satisfactory read. It is rather a documented review of her career and personal life that is not to 'juicy' in its details. Important, undoubtedly, but not riveting. (It was interesting to read that she was one of many women that had a long, off-and-on relationship with the notorious Jedd Harris - as did Ruth Gordon - who, in fact, had an illegitimate child with him, a scandal he ried to hide - James Harris).

If you're an Australian artist then this book is a must. As she is a successful woman in the world theatre it should be part of your knowledge of history. HERSTORY no just history. She, apparently, was a formidable artist. Her film and television career is worth finding: Tony Awards and Emmy.

TONY CURTIS, the autobiography 

By Tony Curtis and edited, supplemented contextually, by Barry Paris. (1993).

Given to me by a friend it was an insightful read into the life and , especially, times of Mr Curtis' career - especially the 40's-60's America.

Things I learnt: Tony Curtis was the son of a Hungarian Jewish family: Bernard Schwartz (I always thought of him as being of Italian origin). His youthful adventures in the inner city of Manhattan, especially in the 30's during the parallel rise of the Nazi's in the Weimar Republic, there were in the 'ghettos' of the refugee immigrant, German conclaves in New York, gangs of Brown shirts full of the anti-semitic propaganda and violence of the home country. Surviving in that environment was a war in itself. Fascinating insight into history - now there is a Scorsese film to sit beside THE GANGS OF NEW YORK. Enduring that was one of the formative experiences of this young actor's life, as was his relationship with his brutal mother and vagrant father. Formative traits that influenced so much of his direction of career.

It was his incredible good looks that facilitated the career of Tony Curtis, who along with a precocious sex life developed his own approach to acting - personalisation - eschewing the Method as indulgent crap that was the great influence of the period. Brando was a 'genius' and really didn't need the Strasburg influence. Neither did Curtis.

I am not especially excited by autobiographies of artists and read them with a cynical eye. The Biographies are more reliable and the further the book is away from the death of the artist the more interesting and illustrative they are/can be. Read the late biographies of Olivier, for instance, for a most honest assessment of the actor. After all the subject is long dead and not likely to resurrect to sue the biographer.

What this book did was to remind me of some of the great performances and films of Tony Curtis besides the 'popcorn' commercial ones that entranced us momentarily in the cinema as kids: IVANHOE!


Curtis does not skirt his drug and alcohol period of the 70's and 80's and is prepared to talk of his many fractious relationships with women and his children. Reading this book contextualised the Hollywood experience of his era and gave some anecdotal insights to some of the great artists he worked with. Recommended.

You may want to find these books..

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