Isaiah Sheffer Papers, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
I recently retired from 25 years as Curator of Exhibitions at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. My last exhibition is up for another 2 weeks. Following NYPL practice, the signature block on my e-mails always has a plug for the current or upcoming exhibition and a quotation. My current plug (for “Laughter, Agita and Rage:” Political Cabaret in Isaiah Sheffer’s New York (through January 31st) quotes Yip Harburg, who said that “Songs were the anodyne for humanity.” Responding to that, my friend Mana sent me a quotation from David McCullough: “The study of history is an antidote to the hubris of the present.”
I have had the pleasure of working with Harburg’s Papers, which are deposited at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and know that every word was carefully considered. The results may be quirky choices, but after all of the cross-outs, erasures and word lists, they are always exactly what he meant to say. If you don’t know his name, you do know his work — Harburg was a songwriter, who gave us “Brother, Can you spare a Dime,” The Wizard of Oz and scores of love songs. “Anodyne” is a very specific term, which does not mean cure. It means without pain, or relieved of pain. Antidotes, on the other hand, do counteract or cancel a poison or disease. Interesting that both the lyricist and the historian saw their areas of creativity as good medicine, but, still reeling from the news, it seems to me that it is more important that each saw that humanity needs to be cured.
Isaiah Sheffer, whose political revues are the focus of the exhibition, was also very deliberate and creative with word selection. His many accomplishments include founding Selected Shorts, which popularized the genre of live readings of short stories, and “Bloomsday,” the annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. His Papers are also housed at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as are the archives of Symphony Space, which he co-founded. The illustration above is a page of his writing/re-writing for the Watergate Classics, the 2nd of his 3 featured series of political satires. The show, presented at the Yale School of Drama in 1973, recognized the elevated level of hubris shown by Nixon and his staff — even in the middle of the Watergate crisis (Nixon finally resigned in 1975). It presented Nixon’s White House through parodies of Greek drama, Shakespeare and The Wizard of Oz (with Harburg’s consent and enthusiasm). The heavily edited typescript is his re-writing of the Prologue’s speech from Henry V.
The exhibition’s title quotation was taken from a press release that he and co-producer Martin Sage wrote for the first Thalia Follies, which was scheduled during the Republican Convention in NYC in 2004. Planned as part of the Imagine Festival that week, the Follies were so popular that they presented multiple editions each season through 2012. “Agita,” is generally defined as Italian-American slang for indigestion – another example of political reality requiring medical intervention. It fits in nicely between laughter and rage, which are the appropriate range for political cabaret, and has the added advantage of sounding like “angst” and “agony.”
My signature quote comes from the Early Essays of James Baldwin. More about it in a later blog. James Baldwin — You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. [Early Essays]