Tuesday, March 30, 2010

VaBook10: A Conversation from Left and Right

Those who have been following my other blog (Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, not Where Are the Copy Editors?) know that I was guest blogging for the 2010 Virginia Festival of the Book.  Over the five days of the festival, I posted several "short takes" -- video interviews with various authors about their books.  As I did last November at the National Press Club's annual book fair and authors' night, and again in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I asked authors to (1) state their names, (2) say the titles of their books, and (3) explain why I -- or any viewer -- would want to read the book, all in 45 to 60 seconds.

Needless to say, the Virginia Festival of the Book offered an abundance of smart, witty, and -- on occasion -- loquacious authors who were generous with their time and eager to tell people about their books.

In consideration of the layout and format of my book review blog, I decided that I will post the long-form video (recordings of complete panel discussions) here rather than there, because it seems to fit better.

The first long video I have -- in 13 segments covering nearly 90 minutes of intelligent discussion -- comes from a panel at the book festival sponsored by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.  Titled "A Conversation from Left and Right: With Hendrik Hertzberg and Richard Brookhiser," the event was moderated by the Institute's executive director, Bob Gibson, and introduced by Coy Barefoot, who works at the Institute by day and hosts a drive-time radio talk show on WINA-AM in Charlottesville.

As indicated in the event title, the featured discussants were authors Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review whose most recent book is a memoir called Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, and Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor at The New Yorker, whose most recent book is ¡OBÁMANOS!: The Birth of a New Political Era.

In keeping with the philosophy of the Sorensen Institute, Brookhiser and Hertzberg engaged in a civil discussion about the Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, civility and incivility in politics from the 18th century to today, election law reform, health care, Tea Parties, and various current issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and -- prodded by a question from Coy Barefoot -- the Texas state school board's decision to remove references to Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum.

Hertzberg has written about his Charlottesville experience in an entry on his New Yorker politics blog called "Reconciliation Philadelphia Style."  For those who prefer audio to video, the Sorensen Institute has posted a podcast of the conversation, noting that there were over 200 people in the audience at the Culbreth Theatre on March 20.

In the first segment, Coy introduces the Sorensen Institute, noting that it was "founded in 1993 to identify, train, and inspire emerging leaders" from around Virginia, and then the panelists.  Then the moderator, Bob Gibson, thanks the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and various financial contributors who made the event possible.  His first question posed to Hertzberg and Brookhiser is "something foundational," because both panelists have written about the nation's founding.  He asks:  "What would our nation's Founders do if they had to do it all over again under today's conditions?  And, would, for example, today's partisan gridlock alarm them, and what would please them?"

Brookhiser takes the first shot at the question; Hertzberg responds in the second segment.
Part II:
The dialogue about Gibson's first question continues in Part III, followed by a new question, addressing whether we are in a downward spiral of political incivility today and whether there is a "prescription" for getting out of it. Hertzberg answers first in this case, saying that he "deplores" Fox News and Glenn Beck, and that political fundraising is "soul killing" for Senators and congressmen.
In Part IV, Gibson gives what he calls the "last initial question" before he begins taking questions from the audience. He asks: "Do you think each of your publications [meaning The New Yorker and National Review] have remained faithful to their origins?"
Part V begins with a question from the audience, pointing out with regard to electoral districts, gerrymandering requires candidates to run to the left or the right in order to win nominations in districts that are more or less ideologically homogeneous. Hertzberg takes the opportunity to talk about proportional representation and, later, preference voting, wondering "why no state has experimented" with this type of democracy.
In Part VI, Bob Gibson interjects another question: "In the globalization of the economies that we share today, America and China are joined at the bank. Is it troubling to you that our democracy is tied to their form of government through the financing system?" Brookhiser pauses before answering that "this question may look very different in five or ten years." Hertzberg notes that even though the Communist Party is still in charge in China, "Communism is dead."
Part VII begins with a question from former University of Connecticut professor David RePass, who suggests that the Founding Fathers would wonder, "What have you done" to the Constitution? He refers to the 2000 election and the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore and to the Senate's requirement for 60 votes in order to do business. He also suggests that the Bill of Rights does not apply to corporations, and plugs an op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times in March 2009 about the filibuster.

The first response to RePass's several points comes from Hendrik Hertzberg, who says he agrees "with all that." Brookhiser says the filibuster is a "complicated question," and that the House of Representatives is actually less democratic than the Senate is. He repeats an anecdote about Newt Gingrich found in Right Time, Right Place, in which Gingrich predicted in 1994 that his speakership would be based not on that of Joseph Cannon but rather on "Czar" Thomas Reed, who ran the house with an iron fist (or iron gavel?).
Part VIII is very short and is transitional, as Brookhiser finishes up his comments from the previous segment with a reflection on the election of 1872, when Republicans lost about 100 seats in Congress and which marked the beginning of Jim Crow.
The truncated question at the beginning of Part IX is about "fixing the language of the Second Amendment." Brookhiser answers first, with a discourse on the origins of the Bill of Rights.
In Part X, an audience member asks about "the nature of the American people." He points out people "not in this room" are susceptible to demagoguery. "Are we getting the democracy we deserve?," he asks.

Brookhiser answers that he is "sure people in this room are susceptible to demagoguery. I'm sure we all are." He also refers to the famous essay by Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Hertzberg then turns the question to ask why we don't have national health care, as they do in Europe, saying that our institutions don't transmit the will of the people. (This discussion took place one day before the House of Representatives voted on the massive health care bill.)
Part XI begins with Gibson asking Hertzberg what he thinks about President Obama's standing today. Hertberg predicts that, no matter what happens with the health care vote, Democrats will lose a great many seats in November.
In Part XII, a "lapsed journalist" asks about "government by ballot initiative," which he suggests has caused many problems in California. He wonders why ballot initiatives, "which appeal to extremes," have not caught on elsewhere. Hertzberg points out that initiative began in the Progressive era, when states were so corrupt that citizens needed a way to get around the legislature.
In the concluding segment (Part XIII), Rick Hertzberg answers a question about the Texas Board of Education, pointing out that the United States was founded by people who do not share the religious leanings of that board's members, mentioning that Washington, Jefferson, and others were deists.

The last questioner from the audience recalls that when he was growing up, parties were bigger tents. He names liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits and notes there were conservative Democrats, too. Hertzberg asserts that the Democratic party is now a "center-left coalition" while Republicans are like a "disciplined, European party of the Right."
In this segment, Brookhiser looks back in history and remembers earlier times when there was a "frenzy" about politics, "if not polarization." The conversation more or less ends with that thought, and applause from the audience.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The New York Daily News today has an article on its web site about Vice President Joe Biden using "colorful" language in introducing President Obama at a public ceremony.  (I do not know if this article appears, or will appear, in the paper's print edition.)

Reporter Michael Sheridan writes:

Health care reform isn't just a big deal, it's a "big f---ing deal."

At least, that's what Vice President Joe Biden thinks.

The 67-year-old former senator introduced President Obama prior to his signing of the historic health care reform bill into law on Tuesday, and let the colorful word slip while shaking the commander-in-chief's hand.

"You did it," Biden told his boss. "It's a big f---ing deal."
What caught my eye -- and what makes this article fodder for this blog -- is the penultimate paragraph, which says:
Fowl language may be a favorite for vice presidents. Ex-Veep Dick Cheney famously used the infamous phrase on several occasions during his two terms.
Something tells me that Sheridan did not want to suggest that Biden and Cheney talk like our avian friends. He meant to say "foul language," not "fowl language."

A good copy editor would have caught that.

Of course, it might be that the Daily News is trying to suggest that Biden (and, by extension, Cheney) are "chicken s--t."

Crossposted from Where Are the Copy Editors?

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Today Stephen Sondheim Is 80

Today is the 80th birthday of Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

To celebrate, I am reprinting (below) a review of three of his shows that I wrote in 2001. In addition, I would like to point readers to some of the posts I made to mark Sondheim's 75th birthday in 2005: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, and Part Seven.

This tripartite review appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Va.) on July 6, 2001.  So far as I know, it has not been previously available in an easily retrievable format on line:

Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Special to The Metro Herald

The theatre world is abuzz with the announcement that, next year, the Kennedy Center will be mounting a festival of six musicals by Stephen Sondheim, under the overall direction of Eric Schaeffer. Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, has already garnered a worldwide reputation as an interpreter of Sondheim’s work and recently made his West End directorial debut with the new musical version of The Witches of Eastwick [see The Metro Herald, March 2, 2001].

While we await the Kennedy Center’s celebration of America’s greatest living composer-lyricist, Signature is whetting our appetite with a revue of Sondheim’s work, Putting it Together.

Originally conceived by actress/director Julia MacKenzie in England, Putting it Together had its first New York production about six years ago, starring Julie Andrews. It was later revived in Los Angeles and New York under Schaeffer’s direction, with Carol Burnett in the “lead,” with Kathy Lee Gifford substituting for her at some performances. (“Lead” is, well, misleading, since PIT is an ensemble production, with the five characters even lacking names.)

Signature is always at its best when presenting musicals, and even better than that when presenting Sondheim [see our reviews of A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and A Stephen Sondheim Evening, for comparison]. So Signature patrons were suitably pleased to see PIT chosen to close the theatre’s current season.

Putting It Together is a collection of Sondheim songs, performed by five excellent singer/actors: Sheri L. Edelen, Jason Gilbert, Ty Hreben, Bob McDonald, and Jane Pesci-Townsend. There is no plot, as such, or story, but there is a dramatic arc. Songs that previously seemed wedded to their original contexts get refreshed here, gaining new layers of meaning and putting to bed the suggestion that Sondheim can’t write “hits.” While not all of the Master’s songs can stand on their own, many of them can, and those represented here prove it.

PIT includes not just songs from Broadway musicals (and off-Broadway, counting Assassins, and off- off-Broadway, counting The Frogs), but also from Sondheim’s Oscar®-winning score for the movie Dick Tracy. The wide variety gives each member of the cast a chance to shine—whether it’s Edelen’s “Sooner or Later” or Pesci-Townsend’s “Could I Leave You” or Gilbert’s amusing “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” or—well, I could go on and on.

Director Eric Schaeffer has also designed the set for this production, a simple thrust stage that allows for maximum flexibility. The lighting design by Michael Phillipi enhances the entire unified effect, which extends even to the design for the show’s poster and program.
. . .

A five-night, free engagement of a concert version of Company at the Lubber Run amphitheatre in central Arlington almost became a four-night run when a thunderstorm and cloudburst suddenly crashed the party just as the curtain was about to rise. But Sondheim and Signature fans being what they are, the audience withstood the rain, soaked to the skin, and most held out for a one-hour rain delay. Thanks to the diligence and dedication of the crew—including several high-school students who volunteer with Signature Theatre—the show went on, and it was well worth the wait. One instrument, an electronic keyboard, was lost to the weather, but the rest of the orchestra was able to play. (Luckily there were no strings in the orchestra; it would be hard to expect them to withstand the rain and humidity.) And play they did!

Because this is a concert version of Company, it might be referred to as “Company-lite.” The focus is, as one might expect, on the songs. A few instances of dialogue are retained, just to keep the show flowing, but this is a considerably truncated version of the path-setting musical play that hit the scene in 1970 with an impact that has not yet dissipated.

There were “concept musicals” before Company, but when Stephen Sondheim added music and lyrics to George Furth’s series of playlets about married couples in New York, adding—as the mortar in this mixture—a single man who is friend to them all, they created a revolution in musical theatre. Without Company, it is unlikely that we would ever have seen A Chorus Line, Falsettoland, or Cats. (Well, we could have lived quite nicely without Cats.) This is not to say that Company had no antecedents. Cabaret, Hair, and even Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro contributed to the line of development that Company continued. But few realized where that line was going until Company’s debut.

Company’s own development did not end there. The score used in Signature’s Lubber Run concert is the one revised by the composer and used in 1995 in productions at the Roundabout Theatre in New York and the Donmar Warehouse in London. It differs slightly from what you would hear on the original cast album (with Dean Jones in the lead) or the original London cast (with Larry Kert as Robert, and the rest of the New York cast; Kert took over from Jones six weeks into the Broadway run). Both the Roundabout and Donmar cast recordings are available on CD.

Stepping up to the plate again— what a busy man!—Enc Schaeffer cast a talented set of singers for this concert. It is difficult to pick out the best moments, but surely Eleasha Gamble (as Marta) presented one of the freshest, almost optimistic renderings of “Another Hundred People” ever heard—in stunning contrast to the character’s cynicism as seen in the book. (Marta’s unforgettable scene—”I want to get all dressed up in black.. . and go sit in some bar at the end of the counter, and drink and cry.”—is missing from this version.) And Judy Simmons’ delivery of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” perhaps the best- known song from Company, resulted in the most sustained applause of the evening. And special credit must go to Amy McWilliams, as Amy. Humans being what they are (flawed), it is simply not possible for one of them to sing Amy’s part of “Getting Married Today” without at least one miscue or breathing error. McWilliams came as close to perfection as anyone I have ever heard or seen do this song, with only one noticeable flaw.

If there is any weak link in this chain of performers, it is, unfortunately, Scott Leonard Fortune as Robert. Although he has a rich, resonant baritone voice, Fortune simply failed to convince. Perhaps it is because the role was originally written for a tenor, but even with the songs transposed to his range, Fortune seemed to be out of his element. Or perhaps the rain had an unfortunate effect on him that night.

The rest of the cast included actors familiar to Washington-area theatre-goers: Suzanne Briar, Will Gartshore, Mary Payne, R. Scott Thompson, Jean Cantrell, Tom Sellwood, Tim Tourbin, Steven Cupo, Deanna Harris, and Tracy Lynn Olivera. Paul Raiman conducted the orchestra, while Signature stalwart Karma Camp did the musical staging.

Signature deserves a huge round of applause for giving to its community—Arlington County, which incubated Signature during its early years—this series of free concerts. Word is that this will become an annual event. Let’s hope so.

Unlike its Charlottesville neighbor, Live Arts, which often engages in the experimental, the avant garde, and the challenging, Heritage Repertory Theatre, a summer stock company that performs on the grounds of the University of Virginia, focuses on the tried and true. Its series of plays each summer consists mostly of critical or popular successes, Tony® and Pulitzer award-winning plays, or plays drawn from familiar American literature. This is not a fault, of course; it is just a demonstration of the depth and breadth of theatrical productions in this country, even in a small city like Charlottesville.

To launch its 28th season, HRT’s producing artistic director Robert Chapel chose Gypsy, an American “musical fable” by three-fourths of the team that gave us West Side Story: Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer). Jule Styne wrote the music, and there is little doubt that this is the best score of Styne’s 50- plus years in show business.

This production, directed by Chapel and choreographed by Kiira Schmidt, has a huge cast. (I actually lost count.) It is presented in a straightforward, traditional fashion, in contrast to Signature Theatre’s production earlier this year, which was directed by Baayork Lee.

To point out just one divergence:  at Signature, Lee chose to use the overture (one of the best-known in the American musical theatre) as an opportunity to introduce the setting and the characters, in a Runyonland-like pantomime on the thrust stage, with a setting that remained basically the same throughout the show. At HRT, the orchestra performs the overture in front of a brightly-lit act curtain, decorated with the original “Gypsy” logo (as seen on the original cast recording, for instance). At the end of the overture, the curtain rises, and we are on stage at an audition for Uncle Jocko’s children’s amateur vaudeville show. And we go on from there.

Where Lee emphasized some of the darker aspects of Gypsy—and there are many—Chapel hones in on the comic and the musical. Renee Dobson plays a sprightly Madame Rose, whereas Donna Migliaccio at Signature was more driven, more obsessive, more inward-looking. After “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” Migliaccio’s castmates were cowed and frightened; Dobson’s were simply resigned to their fate. In “Rose’s Turn,” Dobson seems to be having fun, wishing and wondering; Migliaccio had a nervous breakdown.

Still, HRT’s Gypsy is an entertaining evening. Some of the young talents—from the University of Virginia, Elon College, and local elementary, middle, and high schools—are obviously going places. The young girls who play the Baby June and Baby Louise (Allyson Graves and Maggie Horan) have tremendous stage presence, considering their ages. Nathan Moore does a star turn as Tulsa in “All I Need Is the Girl,” and Laurie Saylor convincingly transforms herself from doormat Louise to burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee in just a few, intense minutes.

Gypsy is a true classic of the American musical theatre. It is hard to pass up any opportunity to see it. If you get a chance to see this production in Charlottesville, please do so.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Hanover County, Va.: "We're Number 8!"

The Daily Caller has compiled a list of the 100 most conservative counties in the United States.  Virginia has only three counties on the list, but Hanover County, near Richmond, earned the number eight spot:

8. Hanover County, Va.
Largest community: Mechanicsville

Some parts of Hanover County are two miles from Richmond. Other parts of the southern border are more than 15 miles from the city. Because of this, Hanover County is a hybrid suburban/exurban/rural county. Two miles from Richmond is suburban Mechanicsville. In the exurbs is Cold Harbor National Cemetery, which commemorates the Battle of Cold Harbor fought here in 1864. The rural section is where King’s Dominion amusement park is located. The county gave an astounding 76 percent of the vote to Bob McDonnell.
The Daily Caller could also have mentioned that Hanover County is the home base for Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.

The two other Virginia localities that made the list were Virginia Beach (55), which is actually a city, and Chesterfield County (29), also a suburb of Richmond.

Here's the entry on Virginia Beach:
55. Virginia Beach, Va.
Co-terminus with City of Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach is a county masquerading as a city. Lrge parts of the county to the south are undeveloped. The isolated beach town of Sandbridge is more like the Outer Banks of North Carolina than the boardwalk area of Virginia Beach. The Hampton Roads have been called the best natural harbor on earth, and accordingly this is the main Atlantic base of operations for the Navy. It is culturally conservative, as this is where Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network are from. While John McCain narrowly won the city-county, Virginia Beach native Bob McDonnell received about 64 percent of the vote last November.
Of course, Bob McDonnell is not a "native" of Virginia Beach; he was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Fairfax County.

And here's the Daily Caller's take on Chesterfield County:
29. Chesterfield County, Va.
Largest community: Midlothian

For those looking to locate the change of the Old South into the New, Chesterfield County is a textbook example. Chesterfield contains the southern suburbs of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. The area was tobacco country, giving name to the once prominent Chesterfield cigarettes. About 50 or 60 years ago, the rough-hewn nature of the county changed when Richmond, a city with much racial turmoil, began to move out to the suburbs. The county has moved in a white-collar direction, focused on the emerging edge city of Midlothian, a former mining community. Historically conservative, Chesterfield supported Bob McDonnell in last year’s governor’s race by a 2-to-1 margin.
For those who are curious, here are the Daily Caller's criteria for inclusion on the Top 100 list:
* How counties have voted in the past two presidential elections
* Median household income, factoring in cost of living
* Home ownership percentage
* Married family percentage
* Civilian veteran percentage
* State unionization laws, whether a right-to-work state or mandatory union state
* State tax burden–state income taxes, factoring in available deductions
* State concealed weapons laws, ease of carrying weapon legally
* State weekly religious attendance, as measured by Pew
* State abortion laws, as measured by Americans United for Life
* Intangibles, such things as a long conservative history, an ingrained military culture, prominent right-wing politicians

There are two qualifications:

A “county” must be a county-level unit, which includes parishes in Louisiana, independent cities in Virginia and boroughs/municipalities in Alaska

The population must be over 50,000 as of 2008.
That first qualification explains the presence of Virginia Beach on the list; the second qualification explains the absence of Charlottesville (in addition to all the other criteria that would have excluded it).

But here's a question: Why are only three Virginia counties on this list while Minnesota gets four (!) and Wisconsin gets three, too?  One would expect multiple entries from Texas and Alabama, but the Progressive strongholds of Wisconsin and Minnesota?

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Reporting from the Virginia Festival of the Book

Those who are interested in books, authors, scholars, literature, recent non-fiction, and words in general might like to see my short video reports from the 2010 Virginia Festival of the Book, over at my blog called "Book Reviews by Rick Sincere."

While I have some long-form video in the can, so to speak -- including presentations by biographers Melvin Urofsky (Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis) and Jennifer Burns (novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand) about their recent publications -- for the moment I have posted two sets of "short takes," in which I give authors an opportunity to give the "elevator speech" about their books.  That is, tell me (or tell the camera) in less than 60 seconds why someone will want to read the book and -- more important, perhaps, for the hard-working author -- buy it, too.

You can see my preview of the book festival here, followed by "Short Takes 1" and "Short Takes 2."

There will be more to come over the next few days.

For more information about the Virginia Festival of the Book, visit www.vabook.org.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'And Things That Go Bump in the Night'

Beginning this week, the Kennedy Center is presenting three plays by Terrence McNally with a common theme derived from the playwright's lifelong love of opera.

The first play, The Golden Age, is having its world premiere as part of what the Kennedy Center is calling "Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera," (which will not, I am confident, be confused with the Marx Brothers' classic movie).

The other two plays are The Lisbon Traviata (1985), which originally starred Tony Award-winning actor Nathan Lane (whose role at the Kennedy Center is taken by Tony-winner John Glover), and Master Class (1995), which originally starred Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas (whose Tony-winning role in Washington will be played by Tony-winner Tyne Daly).

As I am committed to cover the Virginia Festival of the Book this week, I will -- regrettably -- miss the premiere of The Golden Age.  Fortunately, I will be able to see both The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class.  I am looking forward to the experience, as McNally is one of my favorite playwrights. (My colleague, Tim Hulsey, has the assignment to review The Golden Age at the Kennedy Center.)

In an interview with Peter Marks that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post, McNally mentions his first Broadway play, which closed after six previews and 16 performances:

"I've never felt like a critics' darling," he says, quickly summoning a memory from 45 years ago of the drubbing of his first Broadway play, "And Things That Go Bump in the Night." It opened April 26, 1965 and closed 12 days later. "I thought the reviews would say, 'flawed, uneven, by a vital, talented playwright,' " he recalls. "But one said, 'It would have been better if Terrence McNally's parents smothered him in his cradle.' Actually, two reviews of my first play mentioned my death."

Still, McNally persevered: a producer, Theodore Mann, filled the theater for that first play's short run by charging $1 a ticket, thereby bolstering McNally's faith in his abilities. And he has since faced far, far tougher days: the death of a longtime lover, his own recurring struggle with lung cancer. These days, he says, he is out of the woods and feeling better.
By coincidence, hours before I read that article, I had just dug up my review of the American Century Theater's 1999 production of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Unlike the New York critics of 1965, who were tepid (at best) in their reactions to the play, I liked it.

This review appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on January 15, 1999:
American Century Theatre Goes "Bump in the Night"
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Beware, audiences: The cusp of the new millennium is sure to bring many entertainments that rely upon an apocalyptic premise. Such plays, movies, and TV dramas are not new. They are simply more likely to become both numerous and apparent as we lurch toward the year 2000. For it seems that whenever the calendar is about to flip over to the next ‘00, people go crazy with notions of impending doom. And when the odometer of life hits three zeroes, it's time to shield your fan from what else might hit.

So it is particularly timely for the American Century Theatre (TACT) in Arlington to present Terrence McNally's early doomsday play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, which builds a dysfunctional family upon the twin foundations of an apocalyptic premise and a phantom menace (another phrase you'll be hearing much in the coming year).

In their 1982 anthology called The Apocalyptic Premise, Ernest W. Lefever and E. Stephen Hunt explain that term in this way:

"One such influential idea is ‘the apocalyptic premise,' which has always flourished in times of trouble and uncertainty. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have vivid apocalyptic passages portraying how the world will end for both the righteous and the unrighteous. These prophetic visions, properly understood, lend perspective to faithful Jews and Christians, who believe there is a dimension beyond history that gives meaning to the here and now.

"But in current secular usage, an apocalyptic event is one that spells doom for a nation, a civilization, or the human race itself. Therefore the apocalyptic premise lacks the hope of the biblical vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth.' . . . .

"One's view of the threat is always closely related to fear, that powerful human emotion that can be harnessed for good or manipulated for ill. Reasoned fear based on real dangers is essential for survival. Unreasoning fear based on myths or highly unlikely dangers can lead to unwise and destructive behavior."

I cite this rather lengthy passage because, although it is improbable that Lefever and Hunt were familiar with McNally's 1964 play, and impossible for McNally to have read their book (written 18 years later), there is a mutual understanding among the three thinkers that is remarkable. For, if nothing else, the family McNally portrays in And Things That Go Bump in the Night (ATTGBN) -- matriarch Ruby (Maureen Kerrigan), offspring Sigfrid (Gabriel Zucker) and Lakme (Jennifer Demayo), the physically crippled Grandfa (Alan Edick), and the emotionally crippled Fa (Mike Goll) -- is a spot-on example of the "unreasoning fear" that leads to destruction.

Like Amy Freed's Freedomland (presented earlier this season at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre), ATTGBN presents us with a stranger brought into the home of an eccentric family. It becomes clear that strangers visit this family each night, and each night the family puts the stranger -- "the friend" -- through a ritual performance that ends in torture and death.

The context for this odd, deadly ritual is an unseen (but heard) menace -- "moving west," as Fa repeats catatonically. The family, like others in their community, has taken refuge in their basement -- "sanctuary" -- and has electrified the fence surrounding their home, to keep out unwanted animals and humans. They have, in effect, retreated from the human race, from civilization itself, overcome by fear that has paralyzed their normality and set off a weird psychosexual syndrome that is one-third voyeurism, one-third vampirism, and one-third exhibitionism, spiced up with sado-masochism.

McNally wrote this play, his first to be produced on Broadway, when he was in his early 20s and the world was enmeshed in the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just passed, John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated, and the Vietnam War was about to heat up. The measured optimism of the 1950s had given way to a cynical pessimism that permeates this play, which has much in common with the sci-fi horror films of the same period (not only classics like Night of the Living Dead, but also the so-bad-they're-good films of Ed Wood like Plan 9 from Outer Space).

In this light, it makes perfect sense that Ruby's key speech -- presented as a tape recording musing about the future, played back in both the first act and the second act -- is a mirror image, or perhaps better, a negative image of William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel laureate address. While Ruby proclaims "we will not prevail" and "we cannot endure," Faulkner, in the face of the same nuclear threat that motivates McNally and his characters, asserted "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

Ruby's family consists of "dead souls," in Gogol's gripping phrase. Her husband, her children's father, sits motionless in a chair, staring at a wall. Her father-in-law looks forward to leaving the family home to take up residence in an insane asylum. Her 14-year-old daughter fancies herself as Batgirl, while her 21-year-old son is a bisexual predator who, not to put too fine a point on it, presages Jeffrey Dahmer. Sanity arrives in the form of the outsider, Clarence (David Muse), who alone has a living soul "capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance," who expresses a simple but profound reason for living that this family rejects as too lacking in despair.

The writing in this play is not that of the mature McNally, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and Tony awards for Ragtime (reviewed in The Metro Herald last July) and Love! Valour! Compassion! (reviewed here in June 1997). It bears resemblance to some of the work of McNally's contemporary, Sam Shepard (in particular, Buried Child), but it is definitely a juvenile work, entertaining in a darkly comedic way, but still as shocking in its way as it was when it was booed off the stage in New York 35 years ago.

While all of the actors prove excellent in their roles, and the direction by Terry D. Kester deserves high praise, the real star of the show is the sound design. (Ads for ATTGBN say it is presented in "Sensurround.") Sound designer Ricki Kushner has done the heavy lifting to create the atmosphere for the show. Sound is key in many ways -- Ruby's opening speech occurs in darkness, over an intercom; the "phantom menace" is a rumble that verily shakes the theatre; recordings advance the action and let us in on the inner workings of the characters. If there is a Helen Hayes award for sound design, Kushner deserves it.

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Interview with Zal Owen

When I found out that Fiddler on the Roof would be playing at the National Theatre in April and May, I made a special request of the show's publicist: Could I interview the actor who plays Motel Kamzoil? My reason was that, just about 30 years ago, I played that role in a community theatre production of Fiddler and, as a result, I have a particular affection for it.

In a happy coincidence, a new actor has just joined the cast, taking over the role of Motel from Erik Liberman, who would be known to Washington-area audiences for playing Charley Kringas in Signature Theatre's production of Merrily We Roll Along a couple of seasons ago.

I interviewed Zal Owen just a few days after he joined the national touring company of Fiddler on the Roof, which stars Harvey Fierstein as Tevye.

Interview with Zal Owen
Young Actor Plays ‘Motel’ in Fiddler on the Roof
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Actor Zal Owen is caught up in a welcome whirlwind. More than a year after auditioning for the role of the tailor, Motel Kamzoil, in the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, the show’s casting director called Owen, saying they had to replace the actor playing the part and that Owen was among the people chosen to fill the role.

Speaking to The Metro Herald from Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning after his third performance as Motel, one could tell, even over the telephone, that Owen was beaming with delight at his good fortune.

As Owen tells the story, “I first auditioned for the show a year and a half ago. There were over 2,500 actors who auditioned for this production. I had several callbacks and was in the final four but didn’t get the part at that time. About three weeks ago, I got a call from the casting director who said there was a need for an immediate replacement. I had several callbacks and it paid off in the end.”

With little more than a week between his first rehearsal and his first performance, Owen had to dive into the development of his character (Motel) within the context of a production that was already ongoing. Luckily for him, he said, “When I first joined the company, they let me know that I didn’t have to work with what the previous actor had done, and that I could develop the character for myself even in the week and a half” that he had available for rehearsals.

“Even now in performances,” Owen continued, “I am playing more and rehearsing more, I am getting that lovely opportunity to rehearse and perform at the same time. This is a new opportunity for me, because I’ve never joined a show in the middle of the run.”

As one might expect under these circumstance, Owen explained that “it’s challenging in having to believe in yourself and your ability. At the same time, it’s fun because you can relax on stage saying to yourself, ‘I know what I need to do but let me try some new things.’ At some point, however, “you are able to say, ‘This is the performance I like and maybe this is what I’ll stick to on the rest of the run.’”

The role of Motel, he says, offers him the chance to play “the lovable underdog that everyone can relate to. It’s such a pleasure to find that for myself and bring it to the audience. Through [the song] ‘Miracle of Miracles’ he finds his courage and is able to stand up to Tevye.”

This national tour of Fiddler on the Roof is not Owen’s first brush with Motel Kamzoil. He understudied the role and played Mendel, the rabbi’s son, in a 2008 production starring Sally Struthers and Eddie Mekka at the Ogunquit Playhouse (“America’s Foremost Summer Theatre”) in Maine.

Owen began his professional acting career as a child. He saw his first Broadway show, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, at the age of five. He knew right away that performing was what he wanted to do, and he persuaded his parents to let him take acting classes.

It was while studying at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey – not far from his home town of Westfield – that 10-year-old Zal was cast as “Young Hindley” in a 1999 world-premiere adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, directed by Robert Johanson. That was followed by community theatre and middle- and high-school productions before Owen matriculated in the musical theatre program at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (or CCM).

After college, Owen continued his acting studies through two branches of the Stanislavski Method family: with William Esper, who follows Sanford Meisner, and at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Asked how the two methods differ in their approach, Owen says that “basically, both Stella Adler and Meisner agreed with the concept of using your imagination in terms of acting. Adler looks at context of the play. Meisner looks at living moment to moment with the other actors.” Both approaches, he says, “helped me be grounded with my partner in the scene, or the other actors if it’s an ensemble piece.” He appreciates both approaches, as well as scene study classes, where “I don’t have to worry about getting it right away but just be comfortable with the character.”

To put a better lens on Owen’s training, in a recent interview with The Big Think, acting teacher James Lipton (best known as host of the long-running TV series, Inside the Actors Studio) explained:

Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, these were the great exponents of the later work of Stanislavski’s life. The action, the objective, the super-objective, which is that overall action that takes you through the play, and the devotion to given circumstances. Both sides emphasize concentration. You have to concentrate in a way that normal people don’t…. I would add to that the fact that all of these great teachers, Strasberg, Stella, Meisner, Lewis, Clurman, all of them, they emphasize listening.

“…When you speak to me, I am listening to you. In life we listen to other people. Listen with varying degrees of concentration and attention, right? Actors must learn to listen in a different way. Alan Alda, who really understands these things very well, I think, on our stage ‘Inside the Actors Studio,’ said, ‘The way to understand listening, the act and art of listening is the following: if what you hear changes you in any way, you’ve heard it, you listened….’”

When asked how he adjusted to traveling on the road with Fiddler on the Roof, Owen admitted that he hadn’t found his own routine yet. “There are other actors on the tour who do have a routine worked out. Being on tour, many actors find they can maintain their lifestyle,” with regard to diet (he mentioned “vegans”) and exercise (he noted some go to the gym each day).

Owen pointed out that a touring company is “really a family you end up being with for the time of the tour, not just co-workers.” So far, however, since he’s so new to the production, his routine – such as it is – has been hard work: “Last week I had rehearsals during the day and at night I went to see the show. I was memorizing lines, rehearsing, memorizing lines. Tonight will be my fourth show,” he said.

When Fiddler on the Roof arrives in Washington on April 13, it will not be Owen’s first visit to the Nation’s Capital.

“I visited Washington last year,” he said. “My best friend was in The Civil War at Ford’s Theatre. So I went to see him and stay with him for a few days.” That visit just whetted his appetite, however, because, he says, he looks forward “to really doing some sightseeing. I have not been to the White House, and I want to visit the Holocaust Museum. We’ll be at the National Theatre for a month and I look forward to seeing the Capitol.”

What’s more, he added, “in D.C. there are so many theatres. I want to see Sweeney Todd at Signature,” which has a one-week overlap of the end of its run with the beginning of Fiddler’s engagement at the National. “I would love to see some of the theatre that D.C. has to offer, as well as some movies. There is so much live theatre. Part of being in this art is observing other performances as well as doing my own.”

On his famous co-star, Harvey Fierstein, who plays Tevye, Owen said, “His dressing room has an open-door policy. Whether he’s in there or not, you’re allowed to go in there and relax. He’s such a loving soul, and he was so welcoming when I came into the production, and finding new things from his performance. He’s an incredible talent and person as well.”

From Fort Worth, the national tour continues to Atlanta to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, where it opens March 16. Owen said that this is “a new theater that’s only a year old,” so his cast mates have not yet performed there and it will be a new experience for all of them. Then, he said, “we have a three-week layover for Passover,” because the tour takes a brief hiatus during the Jewish holidays, and “then we’re in D.C.”

After that, “it’s Appleton, Wisconsin; Denver, Colorado; Seattle; Cleveland, and a stop in Toronto was just added. We’re booked up through the end of June.” Some of these engagements are just a week long; others, like the one in Washington, last for as long as a month.

Owen said that “it’s really exciting to get to see the country as well as to perform in such a timeless musical. It’s a real blessing to explore the country and bring the show to different audiences.”

He added: “Fiddler is such an enduring, timeless, ageless musical that spans so many cultures. The songs in the show – everyone knows these songs. It’s one of the best American musicals. Everyone who comes to see it loves it. It’s an incredible piece of theatre.”

Fiddler on the Roof with Harvey Fierstein and Zal Owen plays at the National Theatre in Washington from April 13 through May 9, 2010.Tickets, starting at $51.50, are on sale now at the National Theatre Box Office and through Telecharge at www.telecharge.com or by calling (800) 447-7400. For groups of 15 or more, call (866) 276-2947. For more information, call (202) 628-6161 or visit www.NationalTheatre.org.

Photo credit: Harvey Fierstein as Tevye; photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of National Theatre.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

American Century Theater to Present 'Stalag 17'

The death this past weekend of actor Peter Graves at the age of 83 brings a certain, unexpected poignancy to the upcoming production of Stalag 17 at the American Century Theater in Arlington.  Graves was one of the stars of the film version of Stalag 17, directed by Billy Wilder.  The play opens at TACT on Friday, March 26.

Here, in slightly redacted form, is the press release that TACT distributed earlier this month:

Suspicion . . . as Deadly as Betrayal—
The American Century Theater’s Stalag 17 Opens March 26, 2010

The American Century Theater continues its 2009–2010 season with the classic prisoner-of-war drama, Stalag 17. Written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the play is based on their actual experiences in the World War II, Nazi-run, POW camp in Austria, where, in late 1944, more than 30,000 prisoners—4,000 of them Americans—were held. TACT’s production brings to life the grim reality, deprivation, and risks of wartime imprisonment, punctuated by often-comic efforts to stay sane. Plotting escape is the daily agenda, but plans are made with the knowledge that anyone among them could be a traitor.
Stalag 17 first opened on Broadway in 1951, with soon-to-become-Broadway-legend John Ericson as Sefton. The story was adapted by Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum to script the 1953 Academy Award–winning film, which also won William Holden the Best Actor award. The play’s tone and style influenced many iconic war films, including The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.

Director William Aitken notes that “TACT’s Stalag 17 is not your father’s Stalag 17: though it will contain humor, the production aims to bring to the stage the grittiness and depth that are the reality of war and of life in a POW camp.” Aitken last directed for TACT in 2007, bringing to the stage Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms. He has also trod the boards in multiple roles in The Titans, TACT’s 2008 production based on the Cuban missile crisis (and authored by Robert McElwaine, TACT’s resident playwright, who passed away this past January).

TACT Producing Director Sherri L. Perper has assembled the design team that will transform Gunston Theatre II into an Austrian Prison Camp. Designers include Anndi Daleske (set), Rip Claassen (costumes), Cheryl Ann Gnerlich (lighting), Ian Armstrong (sound), and Ceci Albert (props). Jameson Shroyer (technical director/master carpenter), Casey Kaleba (fight choreographer), and Robert Pierce (stage manager) complete the production staff.

Stalag 17’s “all star” is headed up by Tony Bullock (Sefton), Hans Dettmar (Schultz), and Jon Townson (Price). Bullock (who earned his MFA from the Asolo Conservatory at Florida State University) and Dettmar (a WATCH award nominee for his portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man) are making their TACT debuts. Townson worked with Aitken in The Titans, where he played John F. Kennedy.

James Finley (Dunbar), Donald Osborne (Shapiro), and Steve Lebens (Reed) return to perform with TACT after a brief hiatus following the recent production of the fifties comedy, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Karl Bittner (SS Captain) and Bill Gordon (Hoffy) played, respectively, in TACT’s Life With Father and Happy Birthday, Wanda June. (Gordon, a radio professional, also produces TACT’s “Before the Curtain Is Raised” podcast series.) David Olmsted (Horney), who has worked backstage with TACT, now assumes his first onstage role with the company.

Rounding out the cast are TACT newcomers Tom Eisman (Herb), Jay Hardee (Marko), Matthew Meixler (McCarthy, Second SS Guard), John Stange (Stosh), James Svatko (Geneva Man), and Gabriel Swee (Duke).

Performance Information
Show dates are Friday March 26–Saturday April 17.

Preview performances (pay what you can), Wednesday, March 24 and Thursday, March 25

Opening night performance and reception, Friday, March 26

Pay-what-you-can performance, Wednesday, March 31

Post show talk-back discussion with members of the cast and artistic staff, Thursday, April 1

School matinee, Wednesday April 14 at 10:00 am

Show times are Thursday–Saturday evenings 8 pm and Saturday/Sunday matinees 2:30 pm.

No matinee performances March 27 or April 4.

Theater II, Gunston Arts Center , 2700 South Lang Street , Arlington VA 22206

Prices range from $26–32.

Discounts are available for seniors (65+), students, active duty military, and groups.

Children under 18 are admitted free with a (full-price) adult (space permitting, limit 5).

Tickets can be ordered online at www.americancentury.org or by calling 703.998.4555.

More information and reservations
Call 703.998.4555, email office@americancentury.org, or visit www.AmericanCentury.org.

Visit http://americancentury.org/directions

Gunston Arts Center , Theater II, is about 10 minutes from downtown DC and 5 minutes from Shirlington Village . Free, ample, well-lighted parking is available.

About TACT
The American Century Theater is a 501(c)(3) professional nonprofit theater company dedicated to producing significant 20th century American plays and musicals at risk of being forgotten. TACT is funded in part by Arlington County through the Cultural Affairs Division of the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources and the Arlington Commission for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and many generous donors.

Photo credit: The actors are: (L-R): Tony Bullock (Sefton), Hans Dettmar (Schultz), and Jon Townson (Price). Photo by Dennis Deloria, courtesy of The American Century Theater.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pledge of Allegiance, Revisited

Today the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the use of the prepositional phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional.

According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor by Michael B. Farrell,

In two separate cases, Michael Newdow, who previously challenged the Pledge in a case that reached the US Supreme Court in 2004, attempted to further his long-running campaign to strip references to God from the public domain.

In Mr. Newdow’s latest case against “under God” in the Pledge, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled, in a 2-to-1 decision, that the schoolroom routine for millions of children is not a violation of the Constitution, but a historical reflection of the Founding Fathers’ beliefs that “serves to unite our vast nation.”

“Not every mention of God or religion by our government or at the government’s direction is a violation of the Establishment Clause,” wrote Judge Carlos Bea for the majority in the opinion that was issued Thursday.
By sheer coincidence, the ruling came on the 67th anniversary of the oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In that case, the Court eventually ruled that state authorities could not compel students (or anyone else) to salute the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

In his majority opinion in that case, Justice Robert Jackson noted
that the compulsory flag salute and pledge requires affirmation of a belief and an attitude of mind. It is not clear whether the regulation contemplates that pupils forego any contrary convictions of their own and become unwilling converts to the prescribed ceremony, or whether it will be acceptable if they simulate assent by words without belief, and by a gesture barren of meaning. It is now a commonplace that censorship or suppression of expression of opinion is tolerated by our Constitution only when the expression presents a clear and present danger of action of a kind the State is empowered to prevent and punish. It would seem that involuntary affirmation could be commanded only on even more immediate and urgent grounds than silence. But here, the power of compulsion [p634] is invoked without any allegation that remaining passive during a flag salute ritual creates a clear and present danger that would justify an effort even to muffle expression. To sustain the compulsory flag salute, we are required to say that a Bill of Rights which guards the individual's right to speak his own mind left it open to public authorities to compel him to utter what is not in his mind.

Whether the First Amendment to the Constitution will permit officials to order observance of ritual of this nature does not depend upon whether as a voluntary exercise we would think it to be good, bad or merely innocuous. Any credo of nationalism is likely to include what some disapprove or to omit what others think essential, and to give off different overtones as it takes on different accents or interpretations. [n14] If official power exists to coerce acceptance of any patriotic creed, what it shall contain cannot be decided by courts, but must be largely discretionary with the ordaining authority, whose power to prescribe would no doubt include power to amend. Hence, validity of the asserted power to force an American citizen publicly to profess any statement of belief, or to engage in any ceremony of assent to one, presents questions of power that must be considered independently of any idea we may have as to the utility of the ceremony in question.

Nor does the issue, as we see it, turn on one's possession of particular religious views or the sincerity with which they are held. While religion supplies appellees' motive for enduring the discomforts of making the issue in this case, many citizens who do not share these religious views [p635] hold such a compulsory rite to infringe constitutional liberty of the individual. [n15] It is not necessary to inquire whether nonconformist beliefs will exempt from the duty to salute unless we first find power to make the salute a legal duty.
In a now-famous passage, Justice Jackson wrote at the conclusion of his opinion:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
(Thanks to Professor John Q. Barrett of the St. John's University law school for the reminder that the oral arguments in the Barnette case took place on March 11, 1943. Barrett is the originator and editor of the Jackson List, an archive of material about Justice Robert H. Jackson.)

In addition to the coincidental anniversary, the 9th Circuit ruling comes on the heels of a minor controversy in Maryland, in which a schoolgirl was reprimanded by her teacher for refusing to stand during the Pledge, in clear violation of the child's constitutional rights.

The Washington Post reported on February 25 that the Montgomery County school system has apologized to the girl and her family, and that the teacher has been reprimanded, in turn:
In addition to an apology, the mother of the girl was told that the teacher, who has not been identified by either side, and school administrators plan to lead the girl's class in a discussion about the incident and their constitutional rights, [attorney Ajmel] Quereshi said.

"It's not an issue of just the pledge. It's a larger issue about their First Amendment rights," Quereshi said. "It's an important lesson that should stay with them."

The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that students cannot be forced to salute the flag. Maryland law explicitly allows any student or teacher to be excused from participating in the pledge, according to the ACLU.

The Montgomery school system's student handbook contains a section about "Patriotic Exercises" that reads: "You cannot be required to say a pledge, sing an anthem, or take part in patriotic exercises. No one will be permitted to intentionally embarrass you if you choose not to participate."
Eight years ago, when Michael Newdow's first lawsuit was decided by the Ninth Circuit (in his favor), I wrote an article about the Pledge of Allegiance that made other arguments about why Americans should be wary about reciting it so lackadaisically. It was twinned with an article by Richard J. Santos of the American Legion under the headline, "Court's Decision on Pledge Must Not Stand." The two articles appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on July 5, 2002.  Here is my article as it appeared that day:
Richard Sincere
Metro Herald Charlottesville Bureau Chief

(Charlottesville, VA, June 27, 2002)—The American Heritage Dictionary defines “allegiance” as “the obligations of a vassal to a lord.” Similarly, Black’s Law Dictionary defines it “obligation of fidelity and obedience to government in consideration for protection that government gives.”

In a widely-noted ruling on June 26, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in government schools is unconstitutional because the Pledge contains the words “under God.” The court said this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion …”)

Writing for a three-judge panel of the court, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin argued: “A profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”

Goodwin added: “Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current orm of the pledge.”

Needless to say, conservative groups and their spokesmen pounced on the appeals court ruling with speed and fervor.

Steve Schmidt, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), sent out a “talking points” memorandum that suggested to Republican activists that they should “call on every school board to ignore this decision.” David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), “called for the impeachment of the two judges who came up with such a ridiculous opinion regarding the separation of church and state,” according to an ACU news release issued within hours of the court’s decision.

These conservatives might not be so eager to complain if they knew the history of the Pledge of Allegiance and its intended purpose. While most of us today view it as benign or sentimentally patriotic, a look at its origins illustrates the sinister -- one could say “un-American” -- features underlying the Pledge.

Writing in the May 2001 issue of the journal Ideas on Liberty, published by the Foundation for Economic Education -- one of the oldest pro-freedom think tanks in the United States -- author and activist Jim Peron reports that the author of the Pledge of Allegiance was Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist agitator who was the cousin of Edward Bellamy, author of the socialist utopian novel, Looking Backward (1888).

Francis Bellamy composed the Pledge for a magazine called The Youth’s Companion, which first published it on September 8, 1892, and promoted it vigorously. As Peron relates the story, “Bellamy, like his cousin, wanted to use government schools to help promote a socialist agenda. He felt that one way of encouraging this agenda would be the teaching of state loyalty. To this end he wrote a pledge, which students across the country were asked to take. With a few minor changes this pledge is what is now called the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Peron goes on to note that “Bellamy attempted to accomplish several goals with his Pledge of Allegiance. He saw it as a means of inculcating support for a centralized national government over the federalist system of the Founding Fathers.” Moreover, Peron writes, Bellamy “originally toyed with the idea of making the Pledge more openly socialistic, but decided that if he did so it would never be accepted.”

Why not? Because the American republic was founded on constitutional principles that are antithetical to socialism and its parallel, feudalism, in which the citizen is a mere vassal to a superior lord. The Pledge of Allegiance stands on its head the American commitment to universal but individual rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence). In its place it puts fealty to the will of the state and the subjugation of the individual to an amorphous “society.”

Whether reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in government schools is unconstitutional or not will be left to another court -- perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court. But Republicans and other conservatives should not be too quick to condemn the ruling without first thinking about the implications of the history and the text of the Pledge itself. If they do, they might realize that they are supporting something that undermines all they hold dear about America.

As a matter of fact, it may do well for all of us to reflect on the true meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance this Independence Day weekend. The unsettling conclusions we draw should lead to deeper wisdom and a better appreciation of individual liberty as promised by the Constitution.

Richard Sincere is president of the Arlington Research Group and author of two books on foreign policy, The Politics of Sentiment and Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise.

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