Sunday, September 25, 2016

Longer-term trips

We actually don't go on that many true vacations, though last year we did manage to see New York and Boston, and we do go to Chicago with some frequency.  For me, however, family vacations are really about packing up the car and driving.  We don't do that for a number of reasons, including we have to rent a car, since we don't own one.

The trip to Hamilton yesterday went fairly well, and I think in mid-October we'll try to drive out to the McMichael Collection, which we did two years ago. 

While this is all extremely tentative, I am thinking that this year over spring break, we may go to D.C. and North Carolina (or D.C. and Philadelphia, which I would prefer, mostly because the travel there and back would be considerably easier).  Maybe next summer it is worth investigating renting a cabin for a weekend or even a cottage for several days (a week might be too much...).

I am thinking perhaps the following summer it might be worth trying to get to Calgary and going to Drumheller (while the kids are still somewhat interested in dinosaurs), seeing a bit of Calgary and then driving into the Rockies to see Banff and ideally go up to the glacier park north of Banff.

Beyond that is very unclear.  My daughter really, really wants to see England and there are certainly a number of places in Europe I would love to visit again, but there is no point in trying to map out something quite that far in advance.

Hamilton Landscapes (& street party)

Yesterday was a busy but fun day.  It might not have turned out well, for any number of reasons, but it all came together.  As it happened, I had taken out my ZipCar card and used it in a prop for a talk, and then couldn't track it down.  So I did a bit of scrambling Friday evening, and it finally turned up.

We don't really drive often at all, but the drive down to Hamilton was fairly smooth.  We got there and ate at the Farmer's Market inside this mall across the street from the Art Gallery of Hamilton.  Then we went over to the gallery.  Since they had closed down one of the special exhibits, they weren't charging for the landscape exhibit (and the upstairs galleries are always free).  I think that was a little odd.  We did donate upon leaving, though I didn't have nearly enough cash on me.  I'll try to make up for that on my next trip.  (That may be a little while as the upcoming exhibits aren't all that interesting to me.)

The exhibit runs through today and will be closing.  It is drawn heavily on landscape paintings from the Vancouver Art Gallery. It's worth seeing if you happen to be in the area.  It was 5 rooms or so, though I mostly focused on the last two rooms, which were mostly Group of 7, Emily Carr and a handful of David Milne paintings.  I had definitely see the Carrs before and I believe all of the Harris paintings, since VAG had done a Harris show (fairly heavy on his late career abstractions).  Many of the others seemed new to me.

Here are a few that I particularly liked.

Tom Thomson, Opulent October, 1915-16

Lawren Harris, First Snow, North Shore of Lake Superior, 1923

A.J. Casson, Thunderstorm, 1933

The Casson sort of mixes Harris early paintings of houses (in the realist tradition) with his softer, wavy lines in the clouds and the bending trees (or are they telegraph poles).

We went through the rest of the gallery fairly quickly, in part because my daughter was getting a bit restless, and I was starting to worry about the drive back (and dropping off the car in time).  We did get snarled in fairly heavy traffic basically a few km west of the 427 junction all the way to the Spadina exit on the Gardiner, at which point the traffic basically melted away.  I was starting to stress and thought we would drop off the car 10-15 minutes late, and we actually tried to sign on and extend the time but were unable to do so.  In the end, we made it with 5 minutes to spare.

After this, we had a big street party.  I had felt bad about missing the first 90 minutes, but really these things don't get going for a while.  It was almost perfect weather, especially compared to last year's, which was cold and damp.

 

I was signed up to watch over the bouncy castle for a half hour and the slide for a half hour.  Things were generally mellow, though there are always a few pushy kids, and particularly the youngest who haven't quite learned what queuing means.  At a certain point things tend to break down and there are too many kids on the ladder going up.  Still, no one got hurt on my shift, and that's really the most you can expect...

The street party featured quite a few games with one of the more entertaining being the donut eating contest, where you have to eat the donut off the string with your hands behind your back.  I had expected to take more photos of this, but got suckered into holding up the string.


All good things come to an end though, and around 7 pm, the crew showed up to take away the inflatables and even the dunk tank.



The music and conversation continued for a bit longer, but I was fairly exhausted so retired a bit early for the evening.  So quite an eventful day.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Quantum leaps

I logged on this evening and saw that I had 350 views yesterday and the last 20 or so posts all jumped by 20 views.  That's pretty odd, but welcome...

I've been meaning to post about this cool talk at the library Tuesday evening, and I've finally gotten to it. It was Pedro Goldman speaking on quantum physics. The title of his talk was Music and Schrödinger's Cat: The Weirdness of Reality in Physics.  It was very entertaining, and the turnout was astounding.  They put down more chairs and there still ended up being some people standing in the back.  The professor kept things quite light and only occasionally introduced equations.  Mostly he wanted to talk about some of the really weird aspects of quantum mechanics, such as Schrödinger's Cat and quantum entanglement, but then interestingly he tied the ratios of the electron states to Pythagoras's golden ratio (something that I learned about in Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land many years ago) and how that tied together with music.  He encouraged questions, though it was probably just as well that not too many people asked them, though some were actually pretty good questions.

One person referenced this Bizarro cartoon, which I must admit is quite droll.


The talk went 10 minutes long, but no one seemed to mind.  The professor was really enthusiastic and conveyed some very difficult material well.

I didn't learn a lot that was truly new to me, since as a teenager I had read up on a lot of the issues.  But I had forgotten some of it.  A very small amount of this is in Hawking's A Brief History of Time, but really he is more interested in the Big Bang, cosmology, black holes (obviously) and string theory and spent relatively little time talking about quantum physics.

One thing that I had forgotten is that the fact that electrons cannot inhabit the space between their quantum states seems to be explained by the fact that they are bound by the properties of waves and waves can only have crests that can be counted as discrete units (i.e. integers).  I don't really remember how easy it is to move an electron between these various states (i.e just how much energy does it take), but it probably happens all the time.  I guess the main reason that an electron cannot lose energy and drop below its lowest orbit, is because of the positive charge of the protons in the nucleus.  Can an electron be infused with so much energy that it really can escape its atom as is keeps going out further from the nucleus?  I think probably not -- even when the atoms are split the electrons are supposed to match up to the protons, but that would definitely be something to delve into a bit more.

I actually think a lot about energy transfer and energy levels, since I have to put so much (stored) potential energy into biking home, and even more when biking up to the library.  But that's classical mechanics and doesn't involve quantum physics.  Still, it would be pretty neat to suddenly jump up a level the way an electron basically moves between levels, though I suspect my body wouldn't survive the transition.

The professor talked about quantum entanglement as being one of the spookiest aspects of quantum mechanics.  He mentioned that Einstein actually wrote a paper on the topic, though he mostly wanted to use it to discredit the theory, and in fact some of the wilder aspects were confirmed.  What the professor didn't mention, and what probably was at the heart of Einstein's objections, was that when the particle's position or spin is measured and the superposition collapses, then the entangled particle instantly changes no matter how far apart.  And this appears to mean that information can be transferred at faster than light speeds.  I do wish he had gone a bit more into this, especially if anyone truly believes that this means a universe forks off at each decision point when superposition collapses.*  I would find that essentially impossible to believe.

I think the real issue is whether any of this makes sense above the atomic scale, or even if it is limited to atomic-level reactions, can this be harnessed.  I would probably have been fairly skeptical, but some physicists have been hard at work trying to actual harness quantum entanglement (the phenomenon is still taking place at the atomic level but they are figuring out how to harness this for real-world applications.  Here is a recent piece that describes in somewhat sketchy detail how they are making progress (certainly more than I would have expected).  Amazing!  And now there is more evidence that quantum entanglement is more than just a theoretical construct.  I suppose that this should be a reminder to be a bit more humble about fields that I am sort of skating by on information that I gleaned several decades ago...

The professor sort of joked that you could emulate quantum superposition by knowing that he (the professor) was either inside the room or outside the room in the hallway, but that until you (the observed came down the stairs) it was just the same as if he was in both places at once.  Of course, no one thinks that superposition or even the Heisenberg uncertainty principle apply above the atomic scale, though I suppose I did practice them in my own way.  I ended up giving away cats twice in my life to different friends, and as they (the cats) aged, it was always a curious moment at the end of each call where I could choose to ask about their health.  Before asking, I could picture them alive and in fairly good health, but once I asked I would find out that they had lost more teeth for example or were having to keep going to the vet.  And of course, in all cases, there was a day when the cat had been alive in my imagination (even if I suspected they might be dead), but after asking, I knew that the cat had died.

Anyway, it was a very inspiring talk, though one I might not have appreciated fully had I not been reading up on physics at least a bit over the past few months.

On the way back, I was really trying to make up for lost time (those 10 minutes!) and maybe was stressed about thinking about work that I should have done.  Anyway, I was sort of breaking a bit too hard, and then I hit a kind of pothole on Parliament Street and my left hand reflexively clamped down on the brake, which is a big no-no in cycling .  The back tire started lifting off the ground and it looked like I was going to go over the handlebars.  Somehow I managed to release the brake and steer through a really awkward half-slide/stop.  I pulled over and sort of caught my breath.  Given that there was a car following behind me (fortunately not speeding) it could have been really bad had I suddenly tumbled off my bike right in front of the car.  I sort of imagined a fork in the universes where I had lost control (and been hit by the car) and the one (that did unfold) where I managed to wrestle control back, and after a shake of the head and a reflection on how fortunate I was, I biked the rest of the way home without incident.  I'm certainly glad that I am in this universe and am still able to "observe" it, so it didn't wink out (at least from my perspective) upon my demise.** 

* There is quite a bit of dissension on whether entanglement and other concepts can be adequately explained for a lay audience.  One reviewer suggests Louisa Gilder's "Age of Entanglement" and Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos," so I'll at least consider tackling them at some point.

** That's a bit of a weak joke about the strong formulation of the anthropic principle -- that the universe requires some intelligence to observe it or it couldn't exist in the first place, and thus the various settings of the speed of light and gravitational force were "designed" in a way to at some point support life.  I was actually surprised at how much Hawking discussed the anthropic principle in his book, since it feels far more like philosophy than physics to me. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 5th Review - Voices in Time

I might have to go into a bit more background as to why I chose this particular novel than I generally do.  I have already noted that I am trying to go fairly deep into Canadian lit. during this challenge and am focusing on some of the most respected authors, which would certainly include Hugh MacLennan.  I had basically thought I would just reread The Watch That Ends the Night and that would be it for the near term.  But then I got interested in finding out about his later novels.  In the late 1960s, he wrote The Return of the Sphinx in which he basically revisited Two Solitudes but with a much more pessimistic outlook where Quebec separatism destroys any chance of Canada becoming a great country.  It sounds a bit like he was channeling Mordecai Richler.  I just ordered a copy of this, but I probably won't read it for a couple of years.

His final novel, Voices in Time, published in 1980, is a bit of a departure, where apparently some kind of nuclear holocaust has knocked out civilization.  As it is being rebuilt, the government of the time decides to eradicate all references to Nazi Germany.  I haven't quite gotten to their reasons for this, or the way that the past refuses to stay buried.

While this basically refers to the fairly recent past being obscured, there is a tradition in speculative fiction discussing what future archeologists would make of 20th Century society if all records had been lost.  Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub sort of starts along these lines, though this is really only a bit of a gloss around the main tale of a Kafkaesque, paranoid bureaucracy (it's actually a lot closer to Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum).  I actually read the Lem first and decided to pair it with MacLennan, which is a bit more grounded in the speculative fiction genre.  I think the Lem book might have worked better if there was more integration between the framing device that all paper began disintegrating, leading to the downfall of society, and the actual story, which is a recruit to the spy service housed in the Building running around, trying to find out what his actual mission is.  However, the two seemed completely unrelated, and frankly I got bored with the main story.  There is just so much discussion about double-, triple- and quadruple-agents that I can take.  We get it that no one can be trusted and everything is in a kind of code and that nothing is actually what it seems (even dead bodies).  Aside from an interesting suggestion towards the end that there exists a Building and an anti-Building, and that each agency has completely replaced the other's staff with double agents (thus leading to no change in the status quo), this got stale.  I'm starting to find that I like Lem's ideas and writing more in the abstract than in the execution...

A better example of this can be found in David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries, which is basically about a future archeologist discovering a motel room and mistaking it for a sacred tomb, much like a pharaoh's tomb.  (I actually thought there would be more like this in Lem's novel, but the framing device disappears almost immediately.)  Motel of the Mysteries was condensed into a Reader's Digest version, which is how I encountered it, all the way back in middle school.  While I am glad that Westfahl has blogged about it, allowing me to recover this from the recesses of my memory, he does seem to miss the point that it was a fairly gentle satire of the King Tut tourist craze -- and it was aimed at children in grades 6-10 (which is why I ordered a copy of the unabridged version for my children).

Having finished the Voices in Time, I can report back that the back cover got it a bit wrong.  The government of the time isn't specifically trying to abolish the history of the Nazis but really all history before the Third Bureaucracy.  And they apparently were even more worried about erasing novels than history books, since novels really allow one to try to step back into the past and imagine another life.  Voices in Time opens with an old man, a former teacher who was basically forced to lie to his students about what happened before the nuclear holocaust and suppress the historic truth, who gets a phone call out of the blue.  An archeologist digging around some buildings in what turns out to be Montreal has uncovered several boxes with papers belonging to the older man's mother.  These turn out to be a journal of sorts kept by his older cousin, Timothy Wellfleet, as well as a journal and letters from his mother's husband (and his stepfather), Conrad Dehmel.  After some urging, the man agrees to go through the boxes and try to construct a coherent narrative of these two lives, as well as to write a sort of glossary to explain all the many historical events of which the new generation was unaware.  These turn out to be the voices in time of the title.

At this point, the book essentially becomes a double Columbo episode, where we have a pretty good idea what happened in the end, but not the detailed links in the chain.

I'll let you decide if you want to read on, but beware that I will be unraveling the episode to some degree, so the standard SPOILER warning applies.

SPOILERS in time

It isn't until the end of the novel that MacLennan really tries to build up the chain of events that lead to the Holocaust.  As far as I can tell, first there is a wave of Great Fear that destabilizes quite a few governments.  It is almost like a miasma that descends upon a society.  In this case, the narrator (and probably MacLennan) feels it is a reaction to the unlimited freedom and lack of serious purpose inherent in Western society at that time.  I don't know about the root causes, but the book would have been written in the late 1970s when things did seem to be spiraling out of control.  While there is much less inflation in our era, there is more than a little hopelessness going around these days...)  This unsettled some governments and led to the first Bureaucracy (it isn't clear if this is specific to Quebec or Canada or all of North America.)  Then a group of radicals, inspired largely by the FLQ terror campaign of 1970, but with vastly more scientific knowledge threaten to set off atomic bombs in central cities unless huge ransoms are paid.  (In reality, it would have been more likely to be a dirty bomb, but that's just nit-picking.)  Most governments pay up, but one does not, so 500,000+ people are killed, and the government that tried to hang tough is turfed, leading to the Second Bureaucracy, and things get even worse.  Then somehow the computer systems that govern the nuclear missiles go haywire and an attack is launched from one country and an automatic counter-strike is launched, and before you know it almost everyone that lived in an urban center is dead and the power grid rapidly fails.  The main survivors are rural and religious (the older man happened to be off vacationing in the country), and they impose the Third Bureaucracy and reject the previous civil society and basically suppress information about what came before them.

I found this causal chain pretty weak, even for speculative fiction, though I did think there was a pretty decent chance a nuclear holocaust would happen in my late teens, so there was something in the air at that time and MacLennan is picking up on that.  What's perhaps the bigger problem is that MacLennan seems to be elevating the relative minor disruptive force of the FLQ and its influence upon Montreal, and linking it up with much more malign and powerful forces, such as the rise of the Nazis.  He does seem to recognize that the FLQ never had the same widespread support that the Nazis ultimately did, which is why it is a small cabal of conspirators that accidentally bring down Western society.  On the other hand, one can say that the FLQ was the turning point at which Anglophone society in Montreal started declining and Toronto, which had been derided as a sleepy, boring burg, surpassed Montreal, not only in terms of being the financial center of Canada but ultimately its cultural capital (for Anglophones).  MacLennan and Mordecai Richler never really forgave the Quebecois for this self-imposed wound, and yet both stuck around and both died in Montreal, even though they were fairly unhappy with these post 1970 changes.  Richler even has various people ask Barney Panofsky why he doesn't just move to Toronto since he is so unhappy in Montreal, and he basically answers that he isn't about to let the Quebecois push him out, which just isn't an attitude I find particularly admirable.

Anyway, the core of the novel really focuses on the life stories of Timothy Wellfleet, a television personality, and Conrad Dehmel, a professor of German ancestry that eventually settled in Canada after WWII.  Wellfleet's television show is sort of a showcase for cranks and radicals, where he can expose the hypocrisy of society.  Dehmel agrees to come on the show to spread his warnings that French Canadian society (and perhaps Western civilization more generally) is starting to go down the same path that led to the rise of the Nazis.  This seems quite a stretch for me, though I have to say I would totally accept this argument if the main part of the book was set in 2016!  Wellfleet has something else in mind, however, and he launches an attack on Dehmel, saying that he has secret documents proving that Dehmel was a Nazi.  Dehmel, in a moment practically lifted from Joseph Welsh during the McCarthy hearings, walks out on the interview.  While Wellfleet might have survived this, the FLQ attacks have gotten worse. Wellfleet is considered to have encouraged them, so he loses his show.

I think MacLennan was just trying far too hard to make these parallels, and thus Timothy Wellfleet's story is really unduly prominent.  I just didn't think he was that interesting to read about, and I would have been quite happy for his section of the novel to be cut in half or even 2/3rds.  I also thought this was where MacLennan hewed too closely to Proust and his tendency to write extensively on events that the Narrator would have had no way of experiencing.  Wellfleet seems such an intense egoist that I find it completely implausible that he would have spent more than a page or two in his diary discussing the new make-up artist who he tries to chat up.  He certainly would not have recorded their dialog back and forth.  I also thought that structurally MacLennan just tried too hard in making both characters fall in love with Jewish women who loved them back, in varying degrees, but refused to marry them.

For several reasons, I think the novel would have worked better if the focus had been exclusively on Conrad Dehmel, which was quite a compelling story.  He was an intellectual who came from a military family, but one that didn't fall under the sway of the Nazis.  They wanted to serve Germany and make it great again, but pretty much loathed the Nazis, though not to the point of resigning their commissions.  Conrad was warned not to return to Germany, by Hanna, his love interest, but he does anyway and becomes trapped in a web of deceit.  He is absolutely astounded and appalled by the transformations made by the Nazis in only a few years (he had been completing his degree in England during their rise to power).  However, Conrad isn't the only stubborn one who makes bad decisions.  Hanna also returns to Germany, posing as a nurse from the Red Cross, to try to save her father.  Conrad makes a number of major sacrifices, including joining the S.S., to try to save the two of them.  So in that sense, Timothy is technically correct, Conrad did briefly become a Nazi, but not for any personal gain or because he shared in their ideology.  And to the end of his days, Conrad agonized over not only this decision but what he saw during his training sessions.

It's hard to rate this novel.  I think the sections where Conrad is the main voice are the best and certainly the most interesting.  It is sort of like reading a Gunther Grass novel where the main character is less a refusnik and more of an unwilling participant, but a participant nonetheless.  I wish there had been more of that and much less about Timothy Wellfleet.  I wasn't particularly convinced by the overall framing device, and I certainly thought that MacLennan was overreaching at several points in trying to connect the FLQ and Quebecois separatism in general to the rise of the Nazis.  However, if you like novels that explore the bitter ironies of life and/or people caught up in events beyond their control, then this might be to your taste.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Aunt Dan and (Sour) Lemon

While I sort of skimmed this review, I did not take it seriously enough.  I basically thought that, yes Wallace Shawn writes challenging plays, but I've seen The Designated Mourner and Fever and found them rewarding.  However, this is a deeply flawed play, and while the acting is generally solid (with the exception of one actor not up to snuff), I didn't enjoy it -- or rather find it worthy of my time.  There was one short bit that I did like where Aunt Dan explained realpolitik and the Vietnam War using several stuffed animals -- Mickey Mouse for the US, a small tiger for North Vietnam and of course a panda (China) and a red teddy bear (U.S.S.R.)  That certainly does not justify going, however, and I would not recommend going to see the play.  It's really too bad, since with some strategic cuts and reshaping of the Aunt Dan character, it actually would get across its points much better and would have been a play that I could recommend.

I'm not really sure this play can be SPOILED, but I will be talking about a few key plot points, so just in case...

SPOILERS.

Actually, I am going to detour and talk briefly about Alfred Hitchcock's Rope.  I know a lot of people rate this movie really highly, since it was all done in 10 long takes or something like that.  However, I detest the movie, since I think it is a completely dishonest intellectual exercise.  If you recall, Jimmy Stewart's character is this unconventional prep-school headmaster who promoted Nietzschean ideas.  He is asked several times by others if he really means what he said about how some people are superior to others and to them nothing is forbidden (I'm paraphrasing a bit).  Nonetheless, Stewart sticks to his guns and says he meant it, then finds out of course that he is horrified when his two former students actually took him seriously.  He may be "crushed" inside, but he still gets to be the "hero" of the film by bringing the police in.  I just find this appalling at every level.  Now if Stewart had promoted some kind of elite ideology (supporting racial segregation or even promoting a birth control-based eugenics program based on IQ or something) but always stayed just behind the line of promoting murder, then it would be ok for him to be appalled that his students took the next logical step, even if he did shoulder part of the responsibility.  However, he frequently talked up de Quincey's "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts" in a non-ironic way, so he really has no moral high ground whatsoever to stand upon.  Maybe some day I will give Rope another chance, but probably not.

The play Aunt Dan and Lemon has a different structural problem.  Shawn wants to sort of prod and unsettle the liberal intellectual audience, or at least that was what I thought he wanted to do.  It's quite possible that there were so many tough-minded realists running around New York who were railing against the soft liberals that the realists became his actual target, though frankly a too easy one.  Anyway, for the play to really work, Aunt Dan would have to promote a certain kind of neo-liberalism and be an admirer of Kissinger (fine) but to still respect certain limits.  Then when her protégée went all the way and started admiring the Nazis, she would be properly horrified at how her ideas had led in this direction.  Instead, Aunt Dan seems as amoral as a tomcat and probably would merely advise Lemon to keep her ideas a bit more private but wouldn't be particularly horrified by her.  (As an aside, my understanding is that Oxbridge tutors would have had almost no job security at that time, as opposed to lecturers, and Aunt Dan seems to have been a person whose cannot keep her opinions to herself, so it does seem odd that someone, particularly an American, firmly in favor of escalating the Vietnam War would have still kept her job in England.)  I don't see enough distance between the two, and in what may be the play's most glaring structural problem, Lemon never tells Aunt Dan that she has become fascinated by Nazi ideology, so there is no moment of recognition or self-reflection on Aunt Dan's part (not that I was particularly convinced by Jimmy Stewart's character's transformation).  Beyond all this, if Shawn's goal was really to tweak the noses of the NY intellectual establishment, I think he completely failed, since Aunt Dan is not-so-secretly a monster, which is what liberals already believe about those that stick up for realpolitik.  Thus, it became incredibly easy to dismiss Aunt Dan's hard truths about what governments do to protect their interests, which can't have been what Shawn really wanted.

Maybe Shawn did intend for Lemon to be an inferior version of Aunt Dan, far less intellectually adept and less persuasive.  She tries to draw us all into her perspective and get us to admit something (that we can't really know what compassion means) and then logically go from there to say that the Nazis weren't really all bad, just misguided.  This is the kind of rhetorical move that I resisted in Akhtar's Disgraced, but it was more effective in that play than here where it completely falls flat.  You only have to think for a minute or two that, sorry Lemon, I can think of many cases where compassion and caring for other humans actually matters.  Ok, if we were all stranded in Donner Pass, then maybe things would get a bit dicey, but just because moral philosophy breaks down in extreme cases doesn't mean that compassion between people is false.  Once that building block of her argument is easily dismantled, the entire edifice comes down and she is just another nutter who happens to admire killing and thinks everyone else secretly does too.  (I don't think that was Shawn's intention, but it is hard to say.)  I wasn't drawn in for a moment and thus really was bored rather than challenged by the ending of the play.

It wouldn't take all that much to improve the play.  You could still have Aunt Dan overshare with an 11 year old (just the bit about her affair with a great thinker), and she could still have an adolescent crush on Kissinger (very reminiscent of Amy Poehler's character on Parks and Rec and her admiration of Hillary Clinton, who is in her own way a bit closer to Kissinger than to Madeleine Albright, for example).  I think she was very good in being persuasive about how society expects government to do its dirty work for it, and that probably goes double for the citizens of Canada and the EU that are largely free riders on the defense spending of the United States.  I also liked how Lemon's mother still stood up to Aunt Dan's bluster and said (with a quaver in her voice) that surely Kissinger sometimes made the wrong choice.  (This is basically my view.  I do understand the world is a dangerous place, and that I wouldn't want to make the difficult decisions that Presidents and Secretaries of State face.  But in more cases than not, the neocon approach has actually made the world less safe.  In most cases, active intervention on the part of the West has only made things worse.)

However, everything about Aunt Dan being a voyeur and a sexual swinger should be cut.  The entire subplot about Mindy and her killing someone for hire should have been cut.  Aunt Dan just sort of laughed it all off as some kind of hi-jinks.  First of all, this would have shaved 20 minutes off a play that was far too long, and second, having her essentially approve of the murder completely undermined Aunt Dan's position as a teller of hard truths, as I already mentioned above. When it comes right down to it, the only person we actually see Aunt Dan convert with her brilliance is an 11 year old child, so it isn't like this play is even an effective warning about the seductiveness of evil.  I find it really hard to understand that Shawn wouldn't have seen this as a major structural problem.  In any case, this is a quite unpleasant play that left a very bad taste in my mouth and isn't worth sitting through.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

College productions -- 2016/17

This probably should be titled (and other odds and ends), since I'll use it to capture a few more things I didn't cover already.

It finally stopped raining, though it will probably be a grey day the rest of the day.  I wonder if that would make it even more appropriate to try to catch Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon (playing at Theatre Passe Muraille), or would it just make it even more depressing to the point I despair about life itself.  I don't have tickets, but I don't think this will sell out, since it is definitely not an uplifting play...  In any case, it runs this weekend and next week.

I looked over the rest of the Theatre Passe Muraille's season, and it does not interest me at all.  I would say the same thing about Canadian Stage.  In both cases, the companies that come in and use their space are far more aligned with my interests and tastes than the main companies.  But this season, I am quite satisfied with Tarragon.

I see from the Samuel French site, that Convergence Theatre has reapplied for the rights to Beckett's Play from Oct. 13-23.  I guess that means they are repeating their Fringe site-specific show.  I think that's pretty cool, though I don't feel compelled to see it a second time.  But if you didn't manage to catch it during Fringe this summer (and wanted to), you should definitely go.  Maybe Facebook is the best way to find out what they are actually up to.

Given all the uncertainty around Unit 102 and where they will land, it looks like I'll have to keep an eye out on their Facebook page as well.  They had a fairly ambitious season laid out...

I already mentioned that Posner's Stupid F***ing Bird should be playing here in March 2017, but I have no idea who is actually putting it on.  I'll fill in with more details if it becomes an actual production and not just a phantom one.  Actually I just read up on Storefront Theatre's season, and they are doing it, which is super cool (and it also dramatically increases the odds that they will put it on compared to some of the smaller indy theatres).  Unfortunately, I seem to be diverging from Storefront, and don't think I'll see anything else they are doing this season. Given that I am going to swing through Chicago soon and see Posner's Life Sucks, I'll be well up on his work.  Now if only that phantom production of Annie Baker's The Aliens lands here soon.

I had known about this -- Master Harold and the Boys is coming to Toronto this Oct. -- but it just got a bit of a write-up in the Now Fall preview.  I've seen a good college production, but I might go again, given that that was so long ago.  The tickets are reasonable, though it is up in North York, and I am not usually thrilled about heading up that way, but I guess it isn't so bad on the weekend.  This appears to be the transfer of the Shaw production, and that certainly got solid to very good reviews, so I ought to go, so as not be a hypocrite when I say that it is mostly the drive that is keeping me from going to the Shaw Festival.

Finally, someone is doing David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole all the way in Oct. 2017 (next year), but this is a play that would upset me too much, and I am not going.  Oh, and apparently Soulpepper will be doing Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden as one of the first productions of their 2017-18 season.  I hope at some point they restage The Normal Conquests trilogy, which I missed by about two months, but this is a reasonable substitute.

Ok, now to the actual college productions.  Hart House is technically not student theatre, though I believe quite a few students get cast in the shows.  I'm quite excited about Mouawad's Tideline this season, and I'll probably see Morris Panych's 7 Stories.  I think I'll pass on Much Ado About Nothing, as I've seen it twice in the past two seasons.

Here is a cool poster advertising all the different plays that the U of T colleges will be putting on.


UC Follies is putting on Mouawad's Scorched, and that is coming up very soon.  This is a blistering play, and it would be great to see it in conjunction with Tideline.  In my case, I saw a Silk Road's unbelievably good production in Chicago, and I just can't risk letting that blur, so I won't see this production, but I would recommend it to others.  Albee is represented by two plays this season -- The Goat or Who is Sylvia and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I'm not sure I will go see anything else on the list, though possibly Sondheim's Assassins.  If I'm in the right mood that week, I might go see The Maltese Bodkin, which is a mashup of Shakespeare and the hard-boiled detective genre.

I briefly forgot about the UT School of Music, which has quite a few interesting events throughout the year.  I think the must-see date for me is April 1 when they are partnering with TorQ Percussion Quartet to do Wijeratne's Invisible Cities, but I also thought the concerts on Oct. 1, Nov. 28 and Jan 28 look worthy of investigation.  The April 1 concert is listed here and you can then navigate through the rest of the calendar.

After two quite interesting seasons, I am definitely less inspired by George Brown's 2016-17 season.  While Atwood's The Penelopiad is quite an interesting play, I have already seen it in Vancouver.  A Flea in Her Ear might be amusing.  I think it really hinges on whether I decide to see Noel Coward's Cavalcade.  From the description, it sounds like another Ragtime, though set in London.  That just doesn't grip me.  I suppose if they have a four play subscription -- and I can double up on As You Like It (so as to bring my son) -- I might subscribe.  The Penelopiad is probably worth seeing a second time.

Edward Albee RIP

So many, many deaths of people I admired in 2016.  I've kind of stopped tracking them here, though I was quite sad to hear that the jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson died back in August, as well as Rudy Van Gelder, who was so central to the Blue Note label.  At least I had the opportunity to see Hutcherson twice -- at the Iridium in New York and in Chicago on the SF Jazz Collective tour.

Like these deaths, Albee's death was not totally unexpected, and he had a long life (88) and career.  Here is the standard AP obit, and here is an extended obit in the NY Times.  While I would probably have considered Tony Kushner the preeminent living U.S. playwright, Albee was certainly very close.

Albee and Harold Pinter (who passed away in 2008) wrote some of the most challenging works of the 20th Century.*  Sometimes it didn't work -- I hated The Goat or Who is Sylvia, and I thought The Play About the Baby was a weak retread of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (Actually, I must admit that I rejected The Play About the Baby without watching it.  The discussion about it made it so clear that it took one of the most intriguing aspects of Virginia Woolf (that is revealed only at the end of the long, terrible evening of "games") and put it front and center as a fairly shallow exercise.  I realize this isn't entirely fair, and if the "baby play" comes to Toronto and someone like Coal Mine or Storefront does it, I'll probably go.)

While Albee certainly was a true intellectual working in the field, and I think his desire for intellectually challenging plays was admirable, he may also have gone too far in privileging the playwright over the audience.  Here is Albee telling off critics and indirectly his audience:
“It is not enough for a critic to tell his audience how well a play succeeds in its intention,” he said; “he must also judge that intention by the absolute standards of the theater as an art form.” He added that when critics perform only the first function, they leave the impression that less ambitious plays are better ones because they come closer to achieving their ambitions.
“Well, perhaps they are better plays to their audience,” he said, “but they are not better plays for their audience. And since the critic fashions the audience taste, whether he intends to or not, he succeeds each season in merely lowering it.” (from the NY times obit)

It's hard to get more elitist than that, saying that the playwright writes plays that are good for the audience and that their enjoyment (or even understanding of what is going on) is irrelevant. This is an example of why I do not always defer to the playwright; I do think the audience matters and believing that playwright always knows best is foolish.

Also, Albee may not been the best judge of his own work.  All the critics that I respect feel that his reworking of The Zoo Story (into At Home at the Zoo where the back story of Peter is explored) weakens The Zoo Story.  Again the feeling is not unanimous, but it is among the critics I follow, so I don't plan on seeing the two act version.

I won't go into all the reasons why I didn't like The Goat of Who is Sylvia, but basically it wasn't the idea of bestiality or the other "immoral" behavior, but that I found the characters' actions implausible at every level.  For those of you who are interested, there will be a college production (Victoria College Drama Society) from Oct 26-28.

I think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably Albee's best play.  I saw a scorching version done at Storefront Theatre, which really was what cemented them into my mind as a company to watch.  For those that didn't see it then and do want to see the play, Trinity College Dramatic Society is doing the play in early January.

Those are the only upcoming local Toronto productions of Albee's plays, though perhaps in the next season or two, we'll see more.

In terms of which Albee plays I would still like to see.  I'd probably see Three Tall Women again, even though I saw this in Chicago in 2011.  I'm reasonably interested in seeing A Delicate Balance (curiously the rights are held by Samuel French, whereas almost everything else goes through DPS).  I'd see the one-act play Counting the Ways (particularly if it is paired with Listening).  Seascape sounds sort of intriguing, though a little unusual.  I'll try to get it out of the library.  I'd probably go see The Marriage Play, though I wouldn't travel anywhere to see it, and if it comes to Toronto (and isn't absurdly expensive) I'd probably see The Play About the Baby this time around (I've skipped it at least once).

* In general, audiences don't react all that well to uncertainty about what actually is happening during the course of the play, since they value closure quite a bit (whether they have actually been "taught" to value closure by critics seems a moot point to me).  I haven't seen anything by him (yet), but a glance over Christopher Shinn's work suggests he might be working in this challenging territory.  I'll see if any of his plays are at the library, and also add a few of his plays to my list of plays I'm trying to see in person.