Politics on the mystery shelves with a spoiler alert

My blog earlier this month drew questions, comments and links concerned not with dystopian literature, but with mysteries and popular fiction. They were focused on books by prolific authors whose careers lasted many decades of political contexts. The blog and Wiki worlds have debates on which arch villains were which pre-pro-anti- or neo- which movement.   We can consider this blog to be an excuse to re-read fiction (with an occasional screen adaptation) or a thank you note to the paperback publishers who are bring out reprints of Allingham, Buchan, Christie, Daly, etc. to the Mystery shelves.

Agatha Christie is particularly interesting since she had such a long career and because she allowed her characters and their social milieus to age along with her.  Her 2nd book, The The Secret Adversary (1922), introduced Tommy and Tuppence Beresford as protagonists and gave us an excellent preview of her ability to juggle their narrative voices, with individual perils and their frequent mistakes. The villains were mostly in it for the money, but the ones with political motives were attempting to find a letter lost on the Lusitania, that proposed an alternative solution to World War I.   Note — This trope shows up occasionally in more post-Armistice fiction and may have related to a specific rumor from the teens. The book also uses a common trope of the avuncular, helpful, successful man who is revealed at the very last minute as the actual villain. That plot twist was also favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, who used it in his The 39 Steps (based loosely on the novel by John Buchan (1935), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942).

The British Fascist movement has become a common theme in recent novels, such as Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989) and Robert Barnard’s A Charitable Body (2012).  Although very different books, each refers to past activity at 30s stately house parties, which are revealed to the readers to be pro-appeasement or downright pro-Fascist.   It may be that house parties were already an overly common setting for mysteries, so fewer contemporaries used them for specifically political references.   Or, possibly, if I re-read more novels more carefully, I will find those missed references.

After a period of developing her ability to create clever domestic mysteries involving recognizable, normal British people (always her strongest suit) who are motivated by love and money, Christie returned to the Beresfords in N or M (1941). It was overtly political, as a retired Tommy returned to his Special Branch service. His assignment at a British seacoast resort town was to locate a 5th column unit, that being the contemporary term for spies pretending to be recognizable, normal British people.  Her possible suspects included refugees and Irish activists, but, as she often did, the story lies in the characters who seem to be set dressing.

In the Cold War era, Christie seldom relied on political motivations. Her mysteries are brilliant depictions of the aging of her continuing characters — the Beresfords, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and their various friends and police connections. As they aged, they obsessed about the young and changes in British society.  Christie did pepper her characters’ social commentary with some political issues. She focused on Youth Cults in at least two novels, including They Came to Bagdad (1951) which features one of her intrepid young women heroes, with a love of adventure and bad taste in men. The fascinating one for me is Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), which overtly connects the youth cult to a European neo-Nazi leader and includes an amazing description of a private concert of Wagner.

She also wrote two later mysteries that focus on the question of whether Brain Drain (of scientists leaving England) was motivated by Communism. Destination Unknown is a complicated romance between two people in disguise and the scientist exodus turns out to have a financial basis. The Clocks (1964), the incredibly clever novel that started me thinking about these politicized mysteries in the first place, also deals with the Brain Drain and Communism within an complex menu of possible red herrings.   It is best known as the novel in which Poirot details his taste in mystery fiction, citing real, fictional and disguised authors, but it should also be read for its plot manipulations.

Did I miss any? Head to the Mid-Manhattan Library or your local bookstore and check for more political clues.

“Ones that Came Before”


flournoy-miller-formal-head-shotLast Broadway season was enlivened by Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It was brilliant but unlucky. It ran for 100 performances and I really hope that you were among the lucky ones who were able to see it. As the title said, the show was about the 1921 musical Shuffle Along and why it holds such an important place in theater history. The original Shuffle Along was written by the comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and the 2016 musical concerned the back story of how it was created and produced and how that success impacted them and their cast.

It was not the first African American musical comedy on Broadway. What was depends on your definition of “on Broadway” (most scholars would say In Dahomey, 1902), but all agree that it was early in the first decade of the century. What all of the shows had in common was that they were built around a male comic or comic team, and had multiple opportunities for character and romantic songs. So the pairing of the comedy team and songwriting team was standard practice.

George C. Wolfe’s script for the 2016 musical included 3 scenes in which the characters paid tribute to “the ones that came before,” the large community of creators and performers of the African American musicals that toured and played on Broadway before 1921. In one scene that drew gasps from the audience, an older actress/character described touring on the TOBA circuit to explain why she advised against the romantic leads kissing on stage. This scene reminded the characters and taught the audience that the Theatre Owner Booking Association (aka Tough on Black Actors) circuit followed Jim Crow laws and practices.

Another dialogue scene was a conversation between Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle concerning James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra, with which they both performed. While no short scene could possible sum up the vital importance of James Reese Europe for 2 decades of Harlem-based music, it did remind the audience of the long history of African American songwriting and composition while giving Sissle a motivation for his emotion state.

Within the plot, the show’s cast is waiting at the train station to start the preview tour. There is a hold-up with the tickets and to quell the cast’s worries, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Flournoy Miller starts to sing. Surprisingly, it is not a song from the show, a spiritual or hymn, which would have made theatrical sense, but one that seems to be known to the cast, who join him in perfect 4-part harmony.   It was not identified, but I recognized it as “Swing Along,” a song by Will Marion Cook. Cook was the songwriter for In Dahomey and many of the other early African American musicals, as well as songs performed in vaudeville and interpolated into “mainstream” musical comedies.  He frequently set lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar.   Although most of his music was published by Jos. W. Stern, then a important Tin Pan Alley firm, Swing Along was first published by G. Schimer as one of the “# Songs for Chorus of Men’s Voices.”  It was first recorded on Victor in 1915 by the Orpheus Quartet, so that 4-part harmony was appropriate.

Cook’s name comes up this season at the New York Philharmonic since he was one of the two African American composers (with H. T. Burleigh) who studied with Anton Dvorak in New York (at the National Conservatory of Music) who are believed to have inspired Dvorak to use African American traditional songs in his New World Symphony.  When he is mentioned in music history, it is frequently with the frequently with the phrase “he studied with Dvorak and taught Duke Ellington.” For more on Cook and his family, there is a recent biography by Marva Griffin Carter named will-marion-cook-1910.

In Wolfe’s clever script, the characters in the show remind each other and teach the contemporary audience about the ones that came before – them and us.

Portraits at Flournoy Miller and Will Marion Cook (directly above) from the New York Public Library’s Digital collection.   My WordPress readers may be interested in an older blog about another Clef Club stalwart J. Rosmond Johnson which I wrote for the opening of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/09/22/johnson-lift-every-voice.

Dystopia is Hot


“Writers help us better understand our world, both present and past, by shining a light on seen and unseen truths. The recent appearance on bestseller lists of dystopian literature such as 1984Brave New WorldIt Can’t Happen Here, and The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us that the novelists, poets, and critics who give imaginative shape to our experience are indispensable in our current political climate. A free society treasures its writers for this important role.”

The Authors Guild sent this message out in yesterday’s e-news. It is one of many statements of the rise in book sales and library requests for the classics of dystopian literature. The list is interesting since 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Shape of Things to Come are novels of life in an established dystopia.   Whatever caused the society to be autocratic and patriarchal has already happened and is already considered established history. The base line civilization for those writers was England which, at that time, had little experience with diversity.   1984 was cited and its re-popularization was noticed first since its society’s newspeak came to mind almost immediately when faced with Kellyanne Conway and her “alternative facts.”   The dystopias, whether predicted for a time between their writing and now or set in what is still the future, establish alternative realities that include recognizable elements from the present.  These adult novels of personal responsibility and sedition could have shared the spotlight with the dystopia series that have led readership and sales in the Young Adult market for decades.   A remarkable number of popular YA novels and film franchises have been training manuals for revolutionary action. We all learned from the Order of the Phoenix and I wondered if Bernie Sanders’ popularity was at least partially due to his resemblance to Dumbledore.

It Can’t Happen Here is different. Sinclair Lewis’ novel is present tense (set in the 1930s) and the autocracy gains power through a presidential election. It was popular in its time, was dramatized for stage and radio presentation by the Federal Theatre Project, and filmed. We used that title for an exhibition on Anti-Fascist Performance in America.   Today’s image is a Charles Hawkins design for Coriolanus — Autocracy vs. Democracy, a Federal Theater Project production that was featured in the exhibit. The soldier’s logo was also used by the Corpo, Lewis’ right-wing police force.   It Can’t Happen Here concerns the process of subverting electoral politics and its plot is less like 1984 and more like Animal Farm, as the original villains are replaced by a worse, but less didactically pure, group.

If 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale are inspirational examples of sci-fi as literature, we should still remember that another place to look for anti-Fascist texts is on the Mystery shelf. The film (and forgotten novel by I.A.R. Wylie) that is often mentioned  with It Can’t Happen Here is Keeper of the Flame (MGM 1943), remembered more as the first co-starring of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Until recently, they were forgotten along with the threat of American fascism.  But, now both deserve a reconsideration.  At the least, TCM could do a mini-festival.

The British fascist movements – currently a major topic in history – can also be found as the threat in 1930s popular mysteries.   The avuncular good guy who is unmasked as the evil genius behind it all shows up in many Agatha Christie novels and Alfred Hitchcock films.   My personal favorite “how to recognize a Fascist” mystery is Traitor’s Purse, an Albert Campion story by Margery Allingham.  It was recently re-released in paperback.

What’s on your booklist?

Notes on the Women’s March

“Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your convictions.”
– Dag Hammarskjold, from his book Markings

I blogged a few weeks ago about the tradition of banners and signs in Suffrage marches.   On January 21, millions of women around the world refused to deny their convictions. They made their statements with words that were displayed, chanted, shouted, or just by showing up. Scheduling a protest march the morning after Inauguration Day proclaimed that this very large group named “we” disagreed with the election results. Marchers’ signs, hats and t-shirts said “Not My President!” Others stated ”I’m with Her!,” referring to Hillary or, when worn by men, to the women around him. I was particularly happy to see diversity in all of its aspects and the rhythmic chant: “This is what democracy looks like.” The NY march featured many personalized variations on “I am marching for…” There were word games, spelling out T-R-U-M-P or adapting song titles with insults, such as “Super, Callous, Facist, Racist, Extra, Braggadocious.” I finally got to wear my “A Woman’s Place is in the [White] House” t-shirt, which honors Hillary Clinton and Bella Abzug.

Although the manipulation of truth, lies and alternative facts were enabled and probably promoted by social media in this long campaign, I finally saw a positive aspect of Facebook.   It facilitated the organizing of the marches and supporting them by selling buttons and t-shirts. It also gave people a way to let their friends know if, and where, they were marching. We could see and photographs of posers and particularly creative hats. Following friends of friends, I discovered that there were marches planned in Ketchum, Idaho, San Jose, PR, and Antarctica. On Sunday, I checked for their postings to see how the marches looked.

My own march experience was typical for me – I always end up slightly outside the main action doing organizational tasks. In the NY march, I was at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, in front of the Katharine Hepburn Community Garden for 5 hours being a crowd control monitor. I talked to families and strangers about why they were there and what they wanted to do next with their convictions. I learned that they all loved Katharine Hepburn and honored her for her activism and, sadly, did not know who Dag Hammarskjold was.

I had a magical experience the evening before the march. The 1000 volunteers were asked to call in for final instructions. Due to the mechanics and procedures of conference calls, it began with 8 minutes of women and men calling in and announcing their names. Hundreds and hundreds of just their names.   It reminded me of AIDS protests, although those announced names were statements of mourning, not commitment.   You can think of it as the opposite of the “I am Spartacus” scene.  In any case, the experience  will stay with me forever.

In Tribute to Martha Swope


George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky rehearsing Agon.  Martha Swope Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Since her death last week, there have been many moving tributes to photographer Martha Swope. She was one of the great photo-journalists of live performance, documenting on and off-stage. She began, in her words, as an “adult dance student with a Brownie,” hanging out between classes at the School of American Ballet with that camera, famously made for amateurs. She was invited to come and shoot rehearsals for two iconic, even totemic, mid-century works – Agon and West Side Story.  Her story progressed from those invitations to her long career as the New York Times photographer who preserved ballet, modern dance, and theater until she retired in the early 1990s. In her self-deprecating way, it became a story of luck, perseverance and recognizing that maybe it is better to change your path.  But. that version of her story skips her unique eye for movement.

I had the pleasure of going through many of the 1,000,000 photographs, slides and negatives that she deposited at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for the 2013 exhibition Martha Swope In Rehearsal. It began with Agon and West Side Story and included her photographs for auditions, fittings, and working, tech and dress rehearsals.   There are many stories hinted at within the photographs – rehearsal images tend to be very relaxed or very intent. For this shot of Agon (above), she showed choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky through the negative space made by Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams. They are looking at other dancers who are not in the rehearsal, but not in the picture.  It is a symmetrical pose so the dancers are equal. No race, no gender, no value of immigration — just moving bodies momentarily at rest. But the image held promise for the future.

I am also particularly fond of the shots of Jerome Robbins creating Dances at a Gathering in 1969, since Edward Villella and the other male dancers still have their vacation shaggy hairdos, which would not have been allowed on a ballet stage.

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Dances at a Gathering rehearsal. Martha Swope Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

I will always remember her last shots of Martha Graham, demonstrating with gnarled, arthritic, but still articulate hands. The image that we selected for the cover showed shoes only from Sophisticated Ladies dancers – 10 pairs of black tap shoes, with the taps visible as elegant metallic curve, interrupted by Gregory Hines’ scuffed-up, ultra-casual pair.

But all of the images reflect her understanding of moving bodies. She saw energy, patterns and focus through her cameras because she could feel it in her dancer-trained body and eyes.


Post-modern chandeliers

Lincoln Center takes its ceilings very seriously. There are sparkling diamond clusters on the New York State Theater ceiling and the fabulous jeweled chandeliers that are raised before each performance at the Metropolitan Opera.   Wooden acoustic panels hang like clouds over the audience in the recital halls and Alice Tully Hall.

The ceilings at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts are pragmatic – our visitors need light. The ceilings combine acoustic panels, track LSI systems (in the galleries) and fluorescents, but sometimes, we break free of utilitarianism. So, hanging in the center of the Vincent Astor Gallery ceiling like a precious chandelier, there is a folding chair. The current exhibition David Gordon Archiveography is set in a heavily montaged (or, you could say crowded) gallery with collages of images, program/press release texts, and scripts covering the walls, and installations representing major works around the space. It manages to be both intensely designed, as befitting a graphic designer/window designer –  turned choreographer, and pedestrian, in the post-modern dance sense of conventional movements.  The Museum’s designer, Caitlin Whittington, Play-back Manager Mike Diekmann, and Installer Rene Ronda, did a great job of collaborating with Gordon so that it accommodates his vision and circular chronology in a neutral space.

David Gordon is one of the major figures in dance over the last 6 decades. He participated in the Judson Dance Theater and was a member of Grand Union, which championed and used improvisation. The best book on Judson and the Grand Union is Sally Banes’ Terpsichore in Sneakers – check out the original 1979 or the 1987 re-issue.  The chair, however, alone on the ceiling, is post-Grand Union.   It refers or represents a major dance work, Chair (1974-). In his para-narrative works, Gordon has explained that he created it for his muse/wife, the amazing Valda Setterfield. The ballet-trained, long-time dancer with the Merce Cunningham Company, had been injured in a car accident and was rehabilitating, so he created a work for her that used neither ballet nor Cunningham movement vocabularies. The performer sits, stands or balances on the multitude of surfaces that he found in a normal folding chair and floor. When it was first presented, the accompanying text claimed that it was created with a grid and chance mechanisms. As a young dance critic, I believed him and wrote about the lineage of aleatoric composition and choreography. My editor pointed out very kindly that I had been scammed. Since then, he has used Chair as a starting point for other works and, I suspect, has pulled off a few more scams.

1974 was just before video-documentation of dance, but you can see taped revivals and later works based on the Chair movement vocabulary on his web site, Archiveography or at The Library for the Performing Arts. Check out the exhibition through March and the informative Gia Kourlas article in the New York Times Arts section on the exhibition (January 4, C2).  Follow the links to the wonderful Archiveolgraphy site, http://davidgordon.nyc/about-archiveography.

On Obits and costumes

This blog goes back to a previous profession. Before museums, before reference book writing and editing, I was in costume and fashion making and teaching.   Two of this week’s deaths stirred responses from that older part of me.

The first is my memory of the great costume designer Willa Kim, who had an amazing eye for fabric and color as well as spectacular sang-froid.   I had the pleasure of working with her on exhibition projects later. But the thing that came to mind when I heard that she had died at 99 was her work with Robert Joffrey. Remembrances, set to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, was one of his last choreographic works, for the City Center Joffrey Ballet’s 1973 season. Willa had championed the use of a new fabric, Milliskin, which revolutionized dance costumes (and activewear) with its circular stretch. It took dye and paint beautifully as f it was water color paper, but could only be sewn with a 5-needle overlocking Merrow sewing machine.  Unitards were skintight and had no seam allowance so the last thing you could want was any kind of change.  Willa’s costumes were beautifully dyed and over-painted in ombres on Milliskin unitards that referenced 19th century clothes. I was working in the Ray Diffin Costume Shop, primarily as a shopper and researcher, but was there when the word came from the dress rehearsal that everyone should stay late. Joffrey had decided that the men should take off their jackets. But the costumes did not have jackets, they had painted lapels. Now, they had to have jackets.  We spent the rest of that day unpicking Merrow seams so that the shop could build jackets with real lapels for that choreographic moment. I remember holding pieces of costumes and needing to report that: “I am Paul Sutherland’s left arm.”   Willa never screamed, never swore, she modeled the ideal behavior by an artist when a collaborating artist has a badly timed stroke of genius.

My other response to one of this week’s deaths has to do with the photograph of Carrie Fisher that the New York Times ran with its front page obituary (credited to LucasFilm Ltd., via Everett Collection). She was seated with her legs stretched out, wearing Princess Leia’s white dress (from the hologram and the first rescue). Like most people, I had responded to that dress as a cliché, for a damsel in distress and was thrilled when her costumes changed to become working clothes, suitable for flying, fighting and rescuing the galaxy.   The photograph reminded me of the pose used in a number of 1910s Isadora Duncan portraits, so I could also imagine that the flowing white gown and dark hair with the center parting could have been a tribute to the choreographer. See, for example, the NYPL Digital Collections’ https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-cf88-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Then, I thought about the costumes designed for Amidala in Episodes I – III (designed by Trisha Biggar). They were architectural, allowing for almost no movement. Maybe we were all wrong – compared to her mother’s outfits, maybe the white gown was that galaxy’s version of 19th century reform dress. Bloomers for Jedis are somehow appropriate for Carrie Fisher. You can see the costume in the exhibition Star Wars: The Power of Costume, which is now at the Denver Art Museum. http://denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/starwars Or see the movie(s) again.