Saturday, September 24, 2011

(No.172) Harold Pinter's Stratford Festival "Homecoming"

In 1975 English author and historian Lady Antonia Fraser, age 42, left her husband MP Hugh Fraser with whom she had six children for English playwright and former actor Harold Pinter, age 44, who was then married to actress Vivien Merchant with whom he had one son.

Lady Antonia and Pinter were together (they married in 1980) until Pinter died on Christmas Eve 2008. Fraser wrote a very affecting account of their time together in a 2010 book entitled "Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter".

In the autumn of 2007 a successful production of Pinter's play "The Homecoming" was mounted in New York on the 40th anniversary of its New York Broadway debut. Pinter's health did not permit him to attend. Earlier, in March 2007, Pinter actually took a leading role (as Max) in a BBC Radio 3 production of "The Homecoming".

In the summer of that same year Pinter, whose illness was both lingering and terminal (he died 18 months later), wrote a poem for Lady Antonia. She burst into tears when he read it to her because, she writes, "at the time, and ever after, I recognized it for what it was: a farewell".

"I shall miss you so much when I'm dead
The loveliest of smiles
The softness of your body in our bed,
My everlasting bride
Remember that when I am dead
You are forever alive in my heart and my head"

Anyone who has ever seen "The Homecoming", published in 1965 and widely regarded as one of Printer's best plays (he wrote 28 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005) will know that his farewell poem to his wife is a universe away from that play's often shocking dialogue.

The Stratford Shakespearean Festival is presenting "The Homecoming" this season until Oct.30 with Brian Dennehy in the role of Max.

The play's claustrophobic focus is on a rather nasty north London working class family of men, the wife and mother having died some years before. There is Max, the father, his two sons and his brother. They assault each other verbally and regularly.

They comprise quite a nasty stew of males who work to project and reinforce their sense of themselves as macho types. This dysfunctional quartet is surprised by the arrival of the third son who departed years before for the U.S. He returns to confront them with his status as a university professor and he has a sexy wife in tow.

In his review of the 1997 Broadway revival of the play the New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley described "The Homecoming" as a "masterpiece of family warfare." It is an apt description.

Brantley also put his finger on a key aspect of any of Pinter's English plays: he noted that "recent broadway revivals of Pinter plays I love ... have left me cold. That's partly because English class accents are important in landing the cadences (and establishing the balance of power) in Mr. Pinter's famously, pause-pocked dialogue. Playing Pinter requires repressing the urge to act actively."

The non-English actors in this season's Stratford production all try to affect English accents but with varying degrees of proficiency, consistency and authenticity. Dennehy's is somewhat better than alright, Aaron Krohn's as son Lenny is very good, the rest of the cast ok.

Overall the cast is strong. Dennehy as Max is a pleasure to watch as the decaying, foul-mouthed old man. Krohn as Lenny, a pimp with the quickest mind in the family, is excellent. Ian Lake as Joey the would-be boxer has less to do but does a convincing portrayal of a son who appears borderline simple-minded. Mike Shara's returning son Teddy seems too emotionally detached, almost an observer while Cara Ricketts as his wife Ruth doesn't seem for much of her time on stage 'hot' enough to give her ultimate involvement with the family believability. Stephen Ouimette as Max's brother Adam conveys an effective mix of stubbornness and deference.

Directed by Jennifer Tarver this production of 'The Homecoming" has the play's necessary atmosphere reinforced by designer Leslie Frankish's set. It looks right; grotty and rundown. It did seem to me that the famous Pinteresque pauses in delivering dialogue were sometimes overdone.

"The Homecoming" is often described as both dark and comedic. Just call it a black comedy with the emphasis on the dark side. This Stratford production of what is arguably Pinter's best play is a superior one and provides a rewarding time in the theatre.

by Alastair Rickard




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Monday, September 19, 2011

(No.171) a reply from Conrad Black

In a recent column "Lord Black: I win" (posted Sept.4, 2011 to I added to what I have said previously about Conrad Black and his legal challenges in the U.S.

The column was occasioned by Lord Black's scheduled return to a Florida prison on Sept 6 ( to Miami FCI, a different prison from Coleman, the federal facility in which he had previously been incarcerated) to complete seven more months before his release scheduled for May 5, 2012. He had been released on bail following the vacating by the U.S. Supreme Court of the 4 out of the 17 original counts on which he had been convicted.

The federal appeals court in Chicago which had rejected his earlier appeal of these charges (the same 4 which the Supreme Court vacated and sent back to them) managed, in Black's words, having "been excoriated [by] a unanimous Supreme Court, when assigned the task of assessing the gravity of its own errors [in upholding the Black convictions in the previous appeal] to resurrect these 2 counts after a gymnastic distortion, suppression and fabrication of evidence." The appeals court in Chicago reinstated 2 of the 4 convictions vacated by the Supreme Court, hence Black's resentencing and return to prison.

Prior to his return to prison and in order to publicize his newly published book A Matter of Principle (McClelland & Stewart, $37) about the events of the past 8 years he gave interviews to a variety of print and broadcast media in which he was, as he is in the book itself, sharply critical of both the U.S. justice system and the Bureau of Prisons.

In my recent column I wrote that "I wonder about the advisability of some of the comments he has made in recent interviews .... Indeed I wonder whether it would not have been wiser to postpone [the book's] publication until after he had completed his prison sentence."

In his reply to me, sent on the same day my column was posted and just before his return to prison, Lord Black emphasized that "the point of my publishing now is to make the point of how completely the enforcement apparatus has failed to intimidate me. It has no ability to extend the sentence, though, as I wrote, they could be more oppressive over the next seven months. But the point about not compromising on principles is you don't compromise."

I am now reading A Matter of Principle, a 581 page work including appendices and extensive index. One of the appendices reproduces Black's address to the Chicago court on June 24, 2011 prior to his resentencing. It is not only eloquent it is a model of effective argument and an impressive refusal to beg the court for mercy or even sympathy. The book itself is fascinating, informative, rewarding and an impressive job of writing. I will return to it in a future column.

The Globe and Mail (Toronto) included a review of the book in last Saturday's book section (Sept.16). The review was written by Douglas Bell, described at review's end as one who "covered the trial of Conrad Black gavel-to-gavel for Toronto Life magazine."

Bell, unlike many journalists in recent years, takes no cheap shots at Black. He describes the book as one that "defies, even mocks, precis, so steep and profound are its roller coasters of insight, enlightenment and depredation." He also cites characteristics of Conrad Black to which I have referred in the past and which I admire. For example, Bell writes that "If there's one thing Black knows how to do, it's throw a punch. ...[he] doesn't know how to take a backward step [in a fight] and as a consequence is incapable of doing anything but give his audience its money's worth." I agree.

Nor does there seem to be even an ounce of self-pity in Black. As I wrote back in July of 2010 (column No.104,"Rooting for Conrad Black") he "is the sort of Canadian I always have time for. This is so for the same sorts of reasons I like Canadians as diverse as Don Cherry, Rick Salutin and the late Tommy Douglas. They are/were self-confident, assertive and willing to take a position they believe in almost without regard to whether some or many people like it or not.

"They seem to me, and I include Lord Black among this type of Canadian, incapable of being intimidated. When I think of Canadians historically, whether in war or when playing hockey, this has been an admirable and highly Canadian trait."

For me Lord Black's Sept.4 reply serves as a reminder that his new book and recent comments show that the authorities have, in his words, "failed to intimidate me". Just so.

by Alastair Rickard




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Friday, September 16, 2011

(No.170) Revenants, Rosicrucians & Luddites

I wrote the following review for publication in two southern Ontario daily newspapers: The Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

It appeared in the Sept.10, 2011 editions of those newspapers.


David Liss is a talented novelist, one of a group of contempoaray writers whose new books I eagerly await. Historical fiction, or perhaps more accurately, fiction in historical settings is often written but too often not very well, especially in terms of verisimilitude.

David Liss belongs in the company of accomplished historical novelists like Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957) and today's Alan Furst and Philip Kerr, to name just three of my favourites.

As someone who once declined a doctoral fellowship I am particularly interested by the fact that Liss left off working on his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University more than a decade ago to write his first novel, the award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper (2000). It is set in 18h century London as are a couple of subsequent novels. He has said that in his first novel "I chose to write about 18th century British culture and economics because it was something I knew about."

The range of his writing and historical research since the first novel is impressive and reflected in novels set in 17th century Amsterdam (The Coffee Trader), 1790s America (The Whisky Rebels) and modern Florida (The Ethical Assassin).

The new Liss novel, The Twelfth Enchantment, is his seventh and is yet another departure. Its style, subject matter and setting (England during the years of the Napoleonic wars) are reminiscent of aspects of Jane Austen, some Charles Dickens plus a great deal of imaginative writing by David Liss.

The central character is Lucy Derrick, a young impoverished gentlewoman residing ca. 1812 in the provincial city of Nottingham. She does not know but gradually comes to understand that she possesses much sought after mystical powers. She becomes caught up in a struggle involving revenants (walking dead), Rosicrucians (a secret society) and Luddites (anti-industrial machine breakers) and their respective allies in contemporary England.

Others with an oar in this murky political pond include the Prime Minister who is also the secret head of the Rosicrucians as well as the famous aristocratic poet and degenerate Lord Byron. A key plot line running throughout the novel is a desperate, dangerous and highly competitive hunt for all twelve of the widely dispersed pages of the elusive and mystically powerful Mutus Liber.

The Twelfth Enchantment is a testament to David Liss' willingness to try different subjects and approaches and to his skill as a novelist. He creates a plot, one which seems on one level so removed from his previous historical-political fiction yet seems so real on other levels.

The story slows down a bit in those parts of the novel which see Lucy trying to enhance her mystical skills by learning steadily more about spells, curses and the like. However the novel works. It is an unusual mystery set in Regency England.

While The Twelfth Enchantment is not my favourite David Liss novel it is, like all his novels, well worth reading.

The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss
Random House (2011) $30

by Alastair Rickard




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Sunday, September 11, 2011

(No.169)'Think And Grow Rich' by 'Moving The Cheese'

As one who spent much of the business part of his working life employed at life insurance company head offices, and having earned three university degrees -- all non-business, I was in amused agreement with something Conrad Black said to the Globe and Mail in a recent interview (Sept.2, 2011).

Asked about business schools he said that "The whole profusion of business schools is in a large measure a reaction that businessmen feel they are looked down upon as not being a learned profession. Commerce really isn't an academic subject. Go work in a business and work your way up ...."

The late Howe Martyn, a Canadian who had been both a senior executive and later Professor of International Business at American University in Washington,D.C., wrote several dozen columns for the magazine I founded and edited as a spare time avocation for some years, The Canadian Journal of Life Insurance. Howe's columns appeared under the ongoing sobriquet of "Economie Sardonique". He used to say that Harvard University's business school had been responsible for ruining more businesses than Carter had pills.

During my years as a 'salaryman', to use the Japanese appellation, I can remember the passage through company corridors of management fad after fad. I remember a CEO who, for a time, seemed -- along with much of the big business community -- much taken with 'the Japanese model'. Articles and consultants discoursing on how and why we should ape Japanese business were as numerous as fleas on a stray dog. Sounds rather silly in retrospect as one contemplates today's still stagnant debt pool which is the Japanese state-driven economy after a decade -- and counting.

At least the Japanese model constituted for a time a rather grand point of reference unlike so many of the other faddish approaches to the running of business that burdened executives with, among other things, time-wasting sessions with various consultants and HR types. I avoided them whenever I could come up with a plausible excuse or conflict but with limited success.

I was reminded recently of this often useless sort of activity, still very much a part of today's 'trendy' big business environment, the kind of thing that helps account for the ongoing deficiencies in the management of large financial services companies among others. A current member of a life insurance company's head office management 'team' wrote to to comment on a column I had written reviewing several books: "The Great Stink (and other vacation reading)", column No. 160, posted on July 17, 2011.

"I could never get into these 'business books', " he wrote, "where the writers basically all say the same thing ... and make millions doing so because there is a multitude of people out there (names won't be used ...) who think these books tell the latest and the greatest new leadership style, i.e., Who Moved My Cheese?, Good To Great, etc., etc., etc. Books given to us by our illustrious leaders, books that have yet to be cracked open even once !!!"

My correspondent makes a good point: lots of business books are distributed within companies as part of efforts to be seen to be supporting and furthering the process of teaching and enhancing management skills. "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson and James C. Collins' "Good To Great: Why some companies make the leap ... and others don't" are simply part of the past decade's stream of business books which hold out the prospect if not the promise of helping those in business maximize their potential.

In the 1980s and 1990s business fads promoted the wisdom of management consultants (an oxymoron surely) joined to 'New Age' thinking: for example, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Corey.

But such supposed manuals for success are nothing new; there have been popular vade mecums in the U.S. and Canada for many decades. In the Great Depression of the 1930s in his book "Think and Grow Rich", Napoleon Hill supposedly encapsulated principles which had made Andrew Carnegie a wealthy American baron of business. In the 1950s Norman Vincent Peale produced "The Power of Positive Thinking" which can still be found in some bookstores.

In my experience and observation over the years -- both in and out of the companies by which I was employed -- the most effective "habit" of executives who rose to the top of the greasy pole was, more often than not, the ability to be a "highly effective" corporate politician. But that business reality will not staunch the flow of trendy books bought by management class salarymen looking for advantage or even escape. As examples consider the recent bestseller by Timothy Ferriss: "The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich"or the current "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek.

What senior business management needs, especially in the financial services sector (quod vide the Wall Street shambles of 2007-8), is a great deal more in the way of useful understanding of and skill at the actual business they are in. Bean counting has its limitations. Admittedly such a development would mean hiring fewer consultants to do the jobs executives are already being paid to do.

How likely is such a trend to develop simply because so many in companies' senior managements have demonstrated ongoing incompetence?

About as likely as Prime Minister Harper publicly acknowledging that attracting fewer than 40% of Canadians' votes in the last federal election does not actually constitute receiving 'a mandate from Canadians'.

by Alastair Rickard




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Sunday, September 4, 2011

(No.168) Conrad Black: "I win"

Conrad Black, the Canadian businessman and former newspaper owner, returns to a U.S. federal prison in Florida on Sept.6 to complete a reduced sentence imposed on him following a partially successful appeal of his conviction for 4 of an original 18 charges involving fraud and obstruction of justice. He had been released from prison pending completion of the judicial process arising from his successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some followers of will recall that I wrote about Lord Black in a column "Rooting for Conrad Black" (No.104, posted July 22, 2010). In it I quoted from an email I had sent to him in prison prior to his obtaining leave to appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was followed by his temporary release from prison. I subsequently published his response to my column: "A reply from Conrad Black" (column No. 120 posted Oct.19, 2010).

I have followed Lord Black's career and latterly his legal case with more than casual interest in part because we were contemporaries as undergraduate history majors at Carleton University in Ottawa although we were not friends or even acquaintances but knew a few of the same people.

One of the things I admire about his conduct before, during and after his Chicago trial and while serving a prison sentence beginning in March 2008 (from where he continued to write a weekly column for the National Post as well as a book about his legal challenges) was his refusal to surrender, the absence of any attempt to mitigate either his sentence or his largely negative image with the court or the media.

Indeed I think that his unbending attitude accounts in part for the snotty media coverage of Black and his legal tribulations, coverage which has often absolutely reeked of schadenfreude. An excellent recent example appeared in the Toronto Star on Sept.1, 2011 as a front page "Star Exclusive" by Jennifer Wells. The 'exclusive' billing seemed to have been based primarily on having seen at least parts of Lord Black's new book, A Matter of Principle (McLelland and Stewart, to be published ca Sept. 15).

Examples abound of accused and/or convicted CEOs suddenly discovering God, expressing heartfelt apologies, engaging in energetic bouts of public grovelling and the like. Conrad Black engaged in none of this and never ceased to maintain his innocence after he was convicted. Indeed his statement to the U.S. federal court judge at his recent re-sentencing in Chicago was both eloquent and unbending.

He has refused to seek leniency of sentence through the use of insincere expressions of contrition. In his Sept. 3 column for the National Post prior to returning to a Florida prison on Sept. 6 (a column which might even turn out to be his final one until his sentence has been served) Black refers to the "shirty" attitude of U.S. "officialdom" at "my failure to be adequately chastened by being sent, and sent back, to prison." Just so.

Lord Black is an accomplished historian with several excellent biographies published. A Matter of Principle covers the eight years of his struggle with the U.S. legal system. Its publication coincides with his return to federal prison from which he expects to emerge next spring although I wonder about the advisability of some of the comments he has made in recent interviews given to publicize the publication of his book. Indeed I wonder whether it would not have been wiser to postpone its publication until after he had completed his prison sentence.

In any case I look forward to reading A Matter of Principle from cover to cover. I will write about it in a future column. In the meanwhile I wish both Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel continued courage and resolve as he serves what is expected to be a further 7 1/2 months of imprisonment rather than 18 months.

His words closing his new book are worth quoting now:

"By surviving it all, physically, morally and financially, despite everything and against all odds and disappointments, I win."

by Alastair Rickard




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