Private Violence (2014): HBO Documentary

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A very well-made new HBO documentary about domestic violence and those who advocate for victims and survivors. It premiered tonight on HBO and has also opened nationwide in a limited release.

My review of Private Violence is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Rimbaud’s Son

An essay I wrote years ago, posted today in honor of the birthday of poet Arthur Rimbaud

A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I saw him again the other day.

He stood in front of the St. Mark’s Hotel in the East Village beside a straggly-haired woman showing the ravages of meth on her face, and he was talking at her fanatically, gesturing with his filthy hands, in a dreamspace of self-importance and grandiosity.

For a brief autumn I had dated him.

I met him the day J.F.K., Jr. disappeared. The body had not yet been found. I stood in line at the A&P deli counter, in Hoboken, wearing a backwards baseball cap, overalls, and hi-top sneakers. What I am trying to say is that the day J.F.K., Jr. disappeared, the day I met Thomas, I looked like a Peanuts character, not at all dressed for romance. Coincidentally (bizarre, considering what day it was), I happened to be reading Chris Matthews’ political biography of Kennedy and Nixon. I had my nose in the book as I stood in line, until I heard a tough-guy voice say, “It’s a shame, ain’t it?”

I looked up and there he was leaning on the other side of the deli counter, white apron on, looking right at me. I didn’t know what he was talking about or why he was talking to me.

“What’s a shame?” I asked.

“Shame about his son,” he said.

It did not escape my notice that the guy behind the counter was gorgeous in an overblown young-John-Travolta way. He had thick wavy black hair, he was about six feet tall, and his eyes were startling. A blazing green. His skin was pale, and he had strong Italian features. Total looker, not my type at all. My type runs towards pasty beefy Irish boys, not green-eyed matinee idols in white aprons.

“Whose son?” I asked.

He gestured at my book. “His son.”

I looked at my book, and then understood. “Oh! Yeah. It is a shame. Just awful.”

It struck me as notable that he would look up from slicing turkey, see Peppermint Patty waiting in line, glance at the title of her book, and then speak about it, as though in mid-conversation. Not “Is that a good book?” or “What are you reading?”

But “It’s a shame, ain’t it?”

Two days later when I saw him sitting on a bench outside the A&P, having a cigarette on a break, I took a second to get my courage up and then walked over to him.

He remembered me. We immediately started talking about J.F.K., Jr., who had by then been found.

He told me his name was Thomas.

Thomas was odd in a way I couldn’t quite place. It was like he was ten years old inside that handsome body, he had the same open-faced enthusiasm as a child, the same fearlessness with strangers. I am much more reserved.

In that first conversation, which lasted all of fifteen minutes, I learned that he loved Rimbaud and Henry Miller. He also loved Wallace Stevens and said to me, “With my white apron on in there, I feel like the goddamn Emperor of Ice Cream.” He did not come off as pretentious or as though he was trying to name-drop me to death. He was simple, open, free. He wanted to be a writer. I would later learn that he had written a novel (unpublished), and had stashed the manuscript with a friend who was a dishwasher at a pizza joint on 12th and Willow in Hoboken. “Yeah, I let him read it. He didn’t really understand it though. I need to get it back from him.”

That first day on the bench, he asked me for my phone number and I gave it to him. He called me the following day and we met up for drinks later that night. He showed up on the date with no money, and although I was willing to pay for a couple of beers, he told me “I’m kind of a hustler” and went off to get some drinks for us. It made me uncomfortable, especially when he returned from wherever he went, wielding two Heinekens. Had he begged? Pestered? So he actually was a hustler. We sipped our beers and I listened to him talk. There seemed to be no pretense with him. It was disarming. He talked and talked and talked, flowing from one topic to the other, yet always connected to me. He picked up on every gesture I made, the smallest of expressions. I learned that he lived at the YMCA in Bayonne, a pretty bleak place, and he was on the waiting list for the YMCA in Hoboken, a step up. He told me he had lived in Union City for a while, but had to move because he thought that the person in the apartment across the way was flashing lights at him from window to window, trying to pass on some sinister message. “Union City is a bad place, man,” Thomas told me. “Even the light is evil there.”

He said at one point, out of nowhere, “I hate deja vu. I feel like one day I’m gonna go into a deja vu and never come out.”

Although much of what he revealed (in his speech, the stories he told, his actions) was alarming to me, we started dating. There were those blazing green eyes to consider.

But what really happened was this: I loved how he talked about books. I could not get enough of it. I grew up surrounded by language, and I grew up with parents who loved to read. In my family, you come home for a visit and two seconds after you are asked, “How are you?” you are asked, “So what are you reading?”

Thomas discovered literature late. He had not grown up in a family who valued language or education. His father was violent and cold, his mother simpering and ineffective. His older brother was in prison. Thomas put himself through college. He majored in English. His family thought going to college was a stupid thing to do, a waste of time, and majoring in English was flat-out insane. But Thomas was drawn to books, to words. His taste ran to the difficult and the surreal. He could be a snob about anything that was too “easy”.

Rimbaud was the hook for Thomas, his way in to the world of words. He had never encountered anything so thrilling. Thomas could talk about Rimbaud for hours, and he did. To anyone who would listen. Bartenders, strippers, co-workers who spoke no English, the ex-cons who lived with him at the Bayonne Y, people on the train. He always carried a battered taped-together paperback of Rimbaud’s work in his back pocket so that he could pull it out at a moment’s notice and read out loud the passage he wanted. Rimbaud was not a distant literary figure to Thomas, he was a companion. We’d be sitting my room, and Rimbaud would come up (as he always did) and Thomas would reach into his back pocket for the book, laughing at himself as he did so. “I get so excited I’m like a little kid.” Rimbaud wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it was riveting to hear Thomas proclaim Rimbaud’s words out loud, in my room on a rainy morning, on the A train, on my fire escape, on the steps of the YMCA:

And since then I’ve been bathing in the Poem of star-infused and milky Sea,
Devouring the azure greens, where, flotsam pale,
A brooding corpse at times drifts by.

The phantasmagorical imagery of Rimbaud’s writing seemed to express to Thomas what it was actually like for him, inside his own head. Rimbaud would certainly understand the flashing evil light of Union City. Rimbaud would also fall into a deja vu and never come out.

Thomas talked about writers as though they had written their books specifically for him. He did not come to “the greats” with preconceived notions or the sense that he should be intimidated by them. He met them fresh. To hear him talk about Yeats or Eugene O’Neill or Shakespeare was, for me, like blood to a vampire. None of it was passive received knowledge. He took it personally. So personally that he tried to commit suicide in college after reading a book by Carlos Castanada. He had spent intermittent months in institutions since then, diagnosed as bipolar. His demons were strong, but he resisted medication even though it was supposed to help him not perceive flashing lights from an opposite window as ominous Morse code. He didn’t like the dulling effects of the meds, he didn’t like having no sex drive, he wanted to still see blazing lights, even if they were sometimes scary.

His attachment to me happened instantly. I became the normal sane thing in his crazy life. I would pick him up at the Y, and he could escape into the confines of my cozy apartment, where there was food in the cupboards, a TV to watch, a warm bed, and he could be fed and nurtured for a bit. But I don’t like clinging, and he clung. I was not allowed to have a day to myself because he would start to get frayed and confused when not in my presence. I would say to him, “I really am not the kind of person who needs to see someone every day. As a matter of fact, I am the opposite kind of person. I cannot see you tomorrow. I need some time to myself, goddammit.” But then at 8 a.m. the next morning, a knock would come on the door, and there he would be, pleading, “I won’t get in your way! You can have time to yourself. I’ll just sit in the other room and read or something! I won’t bother you!”

Right before I met him, Thomas’ father had been diagnosed with throat cancer, and instead of facing chemo and treatment he instead chose to kill himself, shooting himself in the head in front of his wife and son. Thomas told me that no matter what he did he couldn’t shake the image of his father’s head exploding all over the living room. He would wake up in my bed screaming.

I was not really serious about Thomas. I was not in love with him. I was in love with the manner in which he approached literature, and I was in love with how he talked about it. But I didn’t take him seriously for one second as a mate. At that point in my life, I felt I could not afford another heartbreak, and it was safe to hang out with Thomas, because he would never hurt me. This was unfair of me. Thomas was madly in love with me although I never could tell if his feelings were genuine or if he was just clutching at a safe zone, someone to take care of him in the midst of his madness and chaos. He was a hustler, remember. He knew how to get his needs met. But still. It cannot be denied that when I had had enough of the 8 a.m. knocks on my door, the badgering and pleading, the irrational outbreaks, and the nonexistent sex, I cut him loose. He never saw it coming. I hadn’t realized as it was happening how much he had deteriorated in the short time I knew him, but when I looked back at our first meeting, the difference was startling. Being under my wing made Thomas feel he didn’t need to take his medication anymore, so he slowly began to fall apart. I got out just in time. To make matters worse, he pleaded with me to change my mind, grabbing onto me in my car, stopping just short of getting too rough, tears in his eyes, begging me. It was awful. I had to pry his hands off of me and push him out of the car. Slowly, shoulders hunched, he trudged back into the YMCA, and it tore at my heart to see him.

I wondered what would happen to him. I now could see the evil ominous light that had driven Thomas from Union City. It followed him around.

A week or so later, he called me (collect). I was instantly angry. “Thomas, I told you. I am done.”

“I know, I know, sorry, but I just had to tell you that I have a whole new plan. I just can’t take Bayonne anymore. It’s getting me down, you know, and I’ve been reading Hemingway a lot, and you know, he really dug Key West, and I think I’m gonna go down and live there, where there’s no winter and people can just live. I can sleep on the beach, and I can write. I got my book back and I want to work more on it. Hemingway was real macho, but he was an artist, too. I think Key West is gonna be good.”

It sounded crazy, but it seemed right to me, too. “That sounds good, Thomas. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

He was manic. I could hear it in his voice. “Tennessee Williams loved Key West, too,” he babbled on. “And he was gay and everything, but that’s the thing about Key West – it can handle the two poles of masculinity” (his exact words) ” — the Hemingway and the Tennessee Williams – so it can handle me, too. I don’t want to be tough all the time like I have to be here.”

Of course Thomas had an angle in calling me. He always had an angle. All he needed from me, one last thing, was money for a one-way bus ticket to Florida. I hesitated. It wouldn’t be a lot of money, but I had already bailed him out financially a couple of times (especially since he was fired from the A&P for getting violent with a customer and also for stealing some of the deli meats for himself). But he pleaded. “This is the last time I ask you for money, I swear. And I’ll pay you back every penny.”

I gave him the money and Thomas hopped on a one-way ticket ride to the land where the Two Poles of Masculinity could remain in balance and he could hover between the two, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams holding hands across the blazing white sand.

He called me once more after that (collect, of course) to tell me how things were going. He was dismayed to learn that sleeping on the beach was not allowed in Key West and the cops were really strict about it. He was homeless for a while, stashing his duffel bag with the book manuscript in places where he knew it would be safe. He washed dishes at restaurants, crossed paths with some sketchy characters who offered him money to strip in gay clubs or have sex with older tourist women. He finally was invited by a drug dealer he had met to crash on the couch at the drug dealer’s psychedelic home, full of swirling colored tiles and mannequins hanging from the ceiling draped in Mardi Gras beads. It was something out of a Tennessee Williams play. Thomas had reached the Camino Real. It sounded, frankly, terrible to me, way worse than what had been going on for him in Bayonne, but Thomas talked about it all as though he got a kick out of the whole thing.

I asked, “So how’s that whole Two Poles of Masculinity thing going for you?”

“You know what is so weird about that, Sheila? Key West is full of roosters and stray cats. They’re everywhere. They walk like they own the streets. But I like to think of them as cocks and pussies. Everywhere you look here are cocks and pussies.” He started laughing at his own pun.

“You’re crazy. You should write all that down.”

“I go hustle drinks at Sloppy Joe’s and sit in the seat where Hemingway used to sit. It’s the island of misfit toys down here”

I hung up with Thomas, imagining him sitting in Hemingway’s chair, surrounded by cocks and pussies, and I figured that was that. He sounded cheerful, at any rate, and at least he was out of my hair.

One wintry day a year later, I was walking down the street in Hoboken, and I glanced at a grubby figure lying in a doorway, got one glimpse of the bright green eyes, and stopped, jolted to a standstill. My heart pounded. That couldn’t be him – could it? Why was he here? He was supposed to be in Key West. When did he come back? What happened? He was so filthy I couldn’t be sure it was him, so I circled the block to take another look. I wasn’t sure why I was so frightened. It was terrible to imagine him being so lost like that. I confirmed, in my second walk-by, what I had known from the moment I saw the green eyes. It was him. The homeless man lying in the doorway was Thomas. I was upset, but what shocked me the most, scared me the most, was that his thick black hair had gone completely white in just a year. He was an old man. Whatever grip he had had on reality when I knew him was obviously gone. He was talking to himself, muttering in a cranky self-righteous way. He had his hand out for change and his fingers looked like something out of a Walker Evans photo. The light in his eyes was no longer sane. It was now unearthly, floating about untethered, never landing in one spot. The “azure greens” were now unhinged, staring at “flotsam pale” corpses 24/7. Union City got him after all.

I did battle with myself. Should I speak to him? Remind him of the freckled girl in overalls he had once cavorted with through the midnight streets of the East Village? Remind him of that one night when we were parched and couldn’t find an open deli, and Thomas grumbled, in an annoyed voice,

Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink!

Would he remember me, or was his madness one that had obliterated the past, wiping out everything along with the image of his father’s head in pieces on the sofa? I moved on, without speaking, pricked with guilt, shaken up for the rest of the day.

I kept my eyes peeled after that, giving each homeless person a second look to see if it was Thomas. But I didn’t see him again, at least not in Hoboken.

Years passed.

And then, the other day, as I mentioned, I saw him again, this time in Manhattan, hanging around on the corner outside that den of despair, the St. Mark’s Hotel. He was arguing with his meth-whore, giving her the business, and I stood back to watch. Thomas, that beautiful sensitive man I had once loved to listen to, staggered away from her, enraged, the over-oxygenated look of a religious madman on his face. He was smoking a cigarette, his clothes were falling apart. He was skin and bones.

As he lurched past me, close enough to touch, I found myself peering at his butt, battered jeans hanging off his hipbones. I had to check. For that dog-eared copy of Rimbaud. I know it’s naive, but if he still had that book, I thought it might mean … something.

But what would it mean? What difference would it have made, ultimately? He still would be a homeless man, off his meds, staggering down the street.

Of course there was no book in his back pocket.

I almost hadn’t recognized that dirty white-haired man. It wasn’t just his appearance that had changed so much, although he had gone through a radical transformation. It was that the actual person looking out of those green eyes was different: He, the tough sweet guy behind the deli counter, was no longer in there, and the Rimbaud had probably been lost a long time ago.

On high roads in winter nights, without roof, without clothes, without bread, a voice gripped my
“Weakness –
those whom I met did not see me.”

But I saw. I saw.

It’s a shame, ain’t it.

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Posted in On This Day, Personal | Tagged | 16 Comments

Happy Birthday, Chuck Berry

(It was yesterday – also, incidentally, my blog’s 12th birthday.)

Here’s Chuck Berry burning it up on the famous 1964 TAMI Show. The show opened with him, closed with the Stones. And see if you can spot Teri Garr dancing in the background.

Posted in Music | 4 Comments

Tribute to Gena Rowlands

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Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence,” 1974, directed by John Cassavetes

The great Gena Rowlands is being honored with a Career Achievement Award from the L.A. Film Critics Association.

The 84-year-old actress is still working. Known primarily for the films she made with her husband, John Cassavetes, in the 60s, 70s, 80s, she’s never stopped. She has a unique position in the industry. One of the greatest actresses who has ever practiced the craft. She is outside the mainstream (although she has appeared in a couple of gigantic mainstream hits, mainly The Notebook, which brought Rowlands to a whole new generation.). But still, while she was nominated for many awards (including an Oscar nomination in 1974 for her performance in Woman Under the Influence), she has never been one of those actresses whose name is regularly in the pot come awards season. That is an indictment of the industry, not of her work.

This Career Achievement award is thrilling news for those of us who have always looked to Rowlands as one of the greatest, who will see whatever she does, who cherish not only her work … but what her work seems to mean.

The award ceremony will be held on January 15. Wish I could be there.

Gena Rowlands has been all over the place recently, her name in the news, what with the recent re-release of Cassavetes’ Love Streams (his final film,) by the Criterion Collection. You can buy a copy here, or elsewhere, Amazon, etc. Superb strange film. Extraordinary acting. And of course, there’s my video-essay included in the special features on Gena Rowlands’ career, and what it is that makes her HER.

It is the kind of career that gives me hope.

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Today In History: October 19, 1781

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The surrender at Yorktown, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

Day before:

General Lord Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington, October 18, 1781

I agree to open a treaty of capitulation upon the basis of the garrisons of York and Gloucester, including seamen, being prisoners of war, without annexing the condition of their being sent to Europe; but I expect to receive a compensation in the articles of capitulation for the surrender of Gloucester in its present state of defence.

I shall, in particular, desire, that the Bonetta sloop of war may be left entirely at my disposal, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid-de-camp to carry my dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton. Such soldiers as I may think proper to send as passengers in her, to be manned with fifty men of her own crew, and to be permitted to sail without examination, when my dispatches are ready: engaging, on my part, that the ship shall be brought back and delivered to you, if she escapes the dangers of the sea, that the crew and soldiers shall be accounted for in future exchanges, that she shall carry off no officer without your consent, nor public property of any kind; and I shall likewise desire, that the traders and inhabitants may preserve their property, and that no person may be punished or molested for having joined the British troops.

If you choose to proceed to negociation on these grounds, I shall appoint two field officers of my army to meet two officers from you, at any time and place that you think proper, to digest the articles of capitulation.

(Check out the full correspondence in the days leading up to the 19th)

Cornwallis realized that aid would not come in time, and after two days of bombardment he sent a drummer out into view, who apparently was beating the rhythm of: “STOP! LET’S TALK!!!” A British officer high in rank came forward, was blindfolded and taken to George Washington (who was on his last legs himself).

The surrender document had already been drawn up, with Washington dictating the terms. Here are the Articles of Capitulation.

Over 7,000 soldiers surrendered at Yorktown.

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The story goes that as the defeated army marched away, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”. I did a quick Google search and found a lot of defensive impassioned people out there who feel the need to shout out into the wilds of the Internet with such comments as: “There is NO evidence that ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ was played …” I love nerds who take sides in meaningless historical debates like this. I adore them. I’m a nerd like that. But still. Whether or not it happened, it’s a good story. There are a couple of versions of said song (which has, by itself, a long interesting history). Here is one of the versions:

If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

Dr. James Thacher, who served in the Continental Army, is one of our eyewitnesses of the capitulation, and he published his version of events a couple of years later, the relevant passage being:

“At about twelve o’clock, the combined army was arranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former, the great American commander [George Washington], mounted on his noble courser, took his station, attended by his aides. At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau and his suite. The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a martial and noble appearance; their bands of music, of which the timbrel formed a part, is a delightful novelty, and produced while marching to the ground a most enchanting effect.

The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers was probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed.

It was about two o’clock when the captive army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Lord Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest and solicitude; but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending indisposition, he made General O’Hara his substitute as the leader of his army. This officer was followed by the conquered troops in a slow and solemn step, with shouldered arms, colors cased and drums beating a British march. Having arrived at the head of the line, General O’Hara, elegantly mounted, advanced to his excellency the commander-in-chief, taking off his hat, and apologized for the non-appearance of Earl Cornwallis. With his usual dignity and politeness, his excellency pointed to Major-General Lincoln for directions, by whom the British army was conducted into a spacious field, where it was intended they should ground their arms.

The royal troops, while marching through the line formed by the allied army, exhibited a decent and neat appearance, as respects arms and clothing, for their commander opened his store and directed every soldier to be furnished with a new suit complete, prior to the capitulation. But in their line of march we remarked a disorderly and unsoldierly conduct, their step was irregular, and their ranks frequently broken.

But it was in the field, when they came to the last act of the drama, that the spirit and pride of the British soldier was put to the severest test: here their mortification could not be concealed. Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when giving the word “ground arms,” and I am a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner; and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless. This irregularity, however, was checked by the authority of General Lincoln. After having grounded their arms and divested themselves of their accoutrements, the captive troops were conducted back to Yorktown and guarded by our troops till they could be removed to the place of their destination.”

One of my favorite sites, Boston 1775, describes the blame-game that ensued, following the capitulation, between the British generals.

Here is a strategic military map from 1781.

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Map found here in this awesome collection (I could get lost in there forever.)

On the map you can see the positions of the British Army commanded by Cornwallis, and you can see the American and French forces commanded by Washingtonm and check out the French fleet (under Count de Grasse) comin’ down the pike!

And here is a story I love. Again, perhaps it’s apocryphal, or an out-and-out fabrication, but I love it nonetheless.

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time of the surrender at Yorktown. He was there as a diplomat, and a walking-talking advertisement of Teh Awesome Colonies. He played chess, he drank, he socialized, he wore fur-lined hats, he was a great storyteller, and France went wild for him. One of the first international celebrities.

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”

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Am I Too Loud For You?

A re-post for Marshall Mathers’ birthday, which is today. So psyched I finally got to see him perform.

WARNING: If, by some amazing circumstance, you have never heard “Kim” before, please know that it is completely unsafe for work, frankly psychotic, brutal from beginning to end, containing more triggers than a police force’s gun-range. Not for the faint-hearted.

Eminem gives one of the great (what do I call it? vocal performances? No. I see it as an acting performance, end-stop) acting performances of all time in his blistering screed named after his wife, “Kim”.

Eminem creates the fantasy and then throws himself into all aspects of the fantasy, which is what makes the song unique and terrifying. He does not just fantasize about anger and violence (which would make him look tough, it would be self-congratulatory), but other emotional elements that would also be present in such a situation, elements like grief and adrenaline and insecurity, the wild mood swings (“I hate you! I swear to God, I hate you!” (starting to sob) “Oh my God, I love you …”). “Kim” feels, actually, like this is how such events often go. That’s why it’s so tough to listen to.

Listen to how he screams, “You can’t run from me, Kim!” A million things are going on in that moment. But more than the emotion, what I hear is his objective. I see that moment unfurling before me, because of the strength of his belief in that objective. All good acting has an objective as its engine. That’s why that moment is so bone-chilling: not because of what he is feeling, but because of what his OBJECTIVE is. Eminem is creating that, all by himself, in a studio before a microphone. It’s phenomenal acting.

Other people writing/performing such a song would have chosen to highlight the rage, because then you seem like a tough guy, you’re getting imaginary revenge, you’re really “showing her”, aren’t you.

Eminem doesn’t go that route. Throughout the course of the song, he sobs, he pleads, he pulls himself together again, he shows a pathetic side (“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?”), he feverishly reminisces, trying to call back the good times, and then snaps again. The rage hides a panic-filled sorrow.

In the midst of the emotional maelstrom, he keeps it specific, it’s not just one-note constant screaming. There’s a lot of subtlety in what he is doing (believe it or not!). The way he yells at the other car on the highway, for example, is completely different from how he yells at his wife. What he does with his voice there is perfectly evocative of free-floating road rage. Again: this is how such things often go … in real life. He also plays his wife Kim in the song, screaming for her life, giving the entire performance a psychotic glee that is difficult to escape.

There’s never been anything else like this performance. (Thank God, some people would say.)

I think what many people mostly remember about “Kim” is the rage (and, perhaps, how “inappropriate” the song is in the first place. I know it’s rude but my response to that is, seriously, “Whatever.”) There is a hell of a lot more going on in the song than rage, or anger at women, or whatever else. People call it misogynistic. Don’t start with me. Or you can start, go ahead, but you better have something more substantial to say than “It’s a misogynistic song.”

The song is a fantasy. Fantasies aren’t just unicorns and rainbows. Fantasies are often ugly and pathetic, which is why we hesitate to share them. We will be judged for our inner lives, our private dreamspaces. A lot of great art involves the artist attempting to live out a personal fantasy. And if you’re GONNA live out a fantasy, you might as well REALLY live it, in all its complexity, like MM does here. Who wants to fantasize about sobbing “I love you, God, I love you …” at your wife as you careen your car along a highway? Why would you willingly put yourself into a position where you imagine yourself in such circumstances and then decide to share it? Well, that’s art. That’s Eminem. That’s what it’s about. This is not just a wish-fulfillment song. If it were only about wish-fulfillment it would involve a little bit more self-righteousness, a little bit more “Watch how I show this bitch who’s boss.” That is NOT what is happening in “Kim” at all.

Eminem is interested in how this would go if he were to actually do it. It’s a work of imagination, a perfect example of Stanislavsky’s “magic if”. What IF this were true, what IF something like this happened … It is the start of all imaginative work. And so Eminem’s imagination takes him into the personal, the traumatic, his pathos and sense of whiny victimization, his course-corrections of ugly rage, his begging/pleading … why why why would you do this to me? Whyyy would you do this to meeeee?

I can’t listen to “Kim” that much because the song insists that I go where he goes. The song leaves you in a tiny box with nowhere to escape. Cramped, trapped, forced to listen to this man lose his fucking mind.

Is “Kim” sick? Yes. Is it deranged? Yes. It is also a work of art.

Posted in Actors, Music | Tagged | 9 Comments

Housebound (2014)

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The poster kind of captures the mood of Housebound, a horror film by Gerard Johnstone (his debut as a director and a writer). It’s a horror film, it’s also hilarious. I liked it a lot. Not easy to pull of what he does here.

My review of Housebound is up at Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | 9 Comments

Watchers of the Sky (2014)

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A powerful documentary about genocide. It’s unbelievable how much ground they cover, and how well it’s put together. Packs an enormous punch. I gave it four stars. Hell of an accomplishment.

My review of Watchers of the Sky is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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New York Collage: I Get Around

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The Flatiron Building

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On the side of a bar, on 9th Avenue. It was around 8:30 in the morning when I took this picture. Altogether too early for this level of nonsense.

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On the side of a bus, careening across 59th Street, past the Plaza Hotel.

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At the Hell’s Kitchen firehouse on September 11, 2014. I dropped off flowers. I wasn’t the only one.

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Liza overlooks Park Avenue, where she belongs.

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A veritable fire-trap of a building, glimpsed somewhere along Broadway

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In the impressive “sky lobby” in the Sony building on Madison Avenue.

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At the New York Film Festival screening of Matías Piñeiro’s fascinating “Princess of France”, part of his ongoing Shakespeare-inspired films. This was the QA after the screening. Dennis Lim, whose essay on John Cassavetes was also in the Criterion booklet for the recently-released “Love Streams”, moderated the discussion. It was a lot of fun.

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The swankiest plushest screening room in New York. At least the plushest one I am aware of. I’ve seen a bunch of stuff here, including an early cut of my cousin Mike’s film “Certainty.” The chairs are VELVET. You have a little table, with little lamps on it, all to yourself. It’s really a to-die-for situation in which to see a movie.

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After a party last week out in Brooklyn, I went to take the subway home. It wasn’t that late, but when I entered the subway tunnel, this yawning emptiness was what I saw. My first thought: “Is it the Rapture and no one thought to tell me?” My second thought: “Clearly I am about to be murdered.”

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Laundry hanging across the buildings, kicking it old-school, up in Inwood. I love it up there. It’s a great neighborhood.

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A bar on 9th Avenue that’s been there for years. I love it that an Irish pub references, in its name, basically the birth-control issue for Irish people and their active sex lives and many pregnancies. I mean, you can’t really think of a comparison with another culture. My brother and I are Irish twins, so I resemble all of these remarks.

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In the little waiting room on the 2nd floor at the IFC movie theatre. “Boyhood” is still playing there, if I’m not mistaken. I was there to see a screening of the new Godard, which was a hoot.

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Good old George, watching over things in Washington Square Park.

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Under the big globe at Columbus Circle on a blazingly beautiful day.

Posted in Personal | Tagged | 6 Comments

“It Is Absurd To Divide People Into Good and Bad. People Are Either Charming or Tedious.”

So said Oscar Wilde, whose birthday it is today.

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His mother, Jane Speranza Francesca Wilde (aka Lady Wilde, aka “Speranza”) was an incredible woman in the canon of Irish literary history certainly, not to mention its politics and social upheaval. My father knew a lot about Speranza, of course. She was a poet, a radical, a political firebrand. In 1864, a new edition of her poems came out, and she dedicated it to her two sons:

Dedicated to my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde

‘I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That country’s a thing one should die for at need’

That gives you a taste of the feeling of the household Wilde grew up in.

His father was a fascinating man as well, a physician who specialized in the eye and ear; to this day there are procedures referred to as “Wilde’s incision”, for example, or “Wilde’s cone of light”, dating back to the mid-1860s, when William Wilde was practicing in Ireland. He was also a writer, and published books on all kinds of things: one of his main interests was the archeology in Ireland, and he published a catalog of antiquities from one particular archeological site, and the book now sits in the National Museum of Ireland. He also published books on folklore, legends, wives’ tales – all of the things that his patients told him, their own received history and “cures” for their ills.

Oscar Wilde’s parents were, frankly, powerhouses.

He went to Oxford, starting in the year he was 20 years old. Oxford was his beginning. The beginning, certainly, of his notoreity (he was quoted as saying “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” while at Oxford, and it caused a stir. People wrote horrified op-ed columns about the decadence of today’s youth, using Oscar Wilde’s comment as the ultimate example). Wilde consciously lost his Irish accent, and created a persona: he wore formal wear, he was obsessed with decorating his room, he had an “outfit” for everything. Wilde was testing the boundaries, interested in aesthetics and what that might have to do not only with art but also character, how a man lived.

Wilde distinguished himself at Oxford. He encountered many of the writers and philosophers that would make the deepest imprint on him, and leave him forever changed.

One of the things I love about Wilde is how suggestible he was. “Suggestible” meaning: openness, receptivity. He took everything on, tried it out for a bit, and then was willing to put it aside if it didn’t work for him. Or, if he realized, “That worked for me when I was 20, but now that I am older, it doesn’t have the same impact” he was able to let go. He really wrestled with his literary and philosophical influences. He argued with them in his papers at Oxford, he took them on, examined the implications, and tried to see what he could take from it for his own work (which was still in its infant stage at that point).

Pater, Swinburne were major influences. Many of his influences were very controversial at the time, the New Romantics, the aesthetes, not seen as particularly Christian, as a matter of fact, they were viewed as demonic, living only for pleasure and effete sensuality. Wilde, while obviously a funny man who liked hanging out with friends, was not really a decadent aesthete (as many of his ‘buddies” actually were). Wilde was more refined: He enjoyed art and beauty and the surface appearance of things, but he was too hard a worker, too intelligent and rigorous with his work ethic, to be a true decadent. That is why HE had to take the fall. Who cares if some nobody poet-wannabe gets convicted of sodomy? Nobody cares about that. But Oscar Wilde? That’ll send a real message.

When Wilde visited America for his whirlwind tour, he made it a point to make a pit-stop to visit (and bow down before) Walt Whitman. Richard Ellmann describes the meeting in his biography of Oscar Wilde:

Wilde initiated the conversation by saying, ‘I come as a poet to call upon a poet.’ Whitman replied, ‘Go ahead.’ Wilde went on, ‘I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.’ He explained that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was published; presumably this was in 1868 (Wilde put it two years earlier), when William Michael Rossetti edited a selection of Whitman’s poems. Lady Wilde read out the poems to her son, and later, when Wilde had gone up to Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves of Grass to read on their walks. Whitman, in pleased response, went to the cupboard and took out his sister-in-law’s bottle of homemade elderberry wine. Wilde drained without wincing the glass Whitman had filled, and they settled down to consume the rest of the bottle. ‘I will call you Oscar,’ said Whitman, and Wilde, laying his hand on the poet’s knee, replied, ‘I like that so much.’ To Whitman, Wilde was a ‘fine handsome youngster.’ Wilde was too big to take on his lap like other youngsters who visited the sage, but could be coddled if not cuddled.

The encounter goes on. It was not all smiles and adoration. There were disturbing undertones.

The den was filled with dusty newspapers preserved because they mentioned Whitman’s name, and Wilde would complain later to Sherard of the squalid scene in which the poet had to write. It was hard to find a place to sit down, but by removing a stack of newspapers from a chair, Wilde managed to. They had much to talk about. Whitman was eager to know about Swinburne, who had long ago been his English advocate and had written the tribute ‘To Walt Whitman Across the Sea’. Wilde knew Swinburne well enough to promise to relay Whitman’s message of friendship to him. …

Wilde pressed his advantage to ask what Whitman made of the new aesthetic school. Whitman replied with an indulgent smile befitting his sixty-three years, ‘I wish well to you, Oscar, and as to the aesthetes, I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, go ahead.’ With comparable politeness Wilde questioned Whitman about his theories of poetry and competition. Prosody was not a subject on which Whitman had ever been articulate, except in relentlessly extolling free verse. He responded with wonderful ingenuousness, ‘Well, you know, I was at one time of my life a compositor and when a compositor gets to the end of his stick he stops short and goes ahead on the next line.’ He went on unabashed, ‘I aim at making my verse look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone.’ To illustrate, h e outlined such a tombstone with his hands in the air. Wilde treasured the remark and the gesture, and re-enacted them to Douglas Ainslie some years later. But Whitman concluded with impressive simplicity, ‘There are problems I am always seeking to solve.’

After this encounter, Wilde had this to say about Whitman:

He is the grandest man I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.

A bit of code there (“Greek”), and everyone would have known to what he had referred. Wilde also said something like, “The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips”. Whitman, while troubled by some of the aesthetes’ poses, defended Wilde from criticism. I am not sure if the two men, both homosexuals, admitted such a thing openly to one another. I don’t know if those words would have even been necessary.

Wilde, granted, was extremely careless near the end, and he allowed into his life the Marquess of Queensberry who would be his ruin.

I read about this dreadful gentleman, and what happened to all of his sons, not to mention his own terrible personality, and I can’t help but think: Dude? You’re totally gay, okay? Just admit it. Nobody is THAT angry without having some tendencies in that direction, not even back then.

Wilde, in love with the Marquess’ son, could not perceive the danger, could not understand what exactly he was inviting into his life. When we’re in love, we obviously aren’t always careful. But you read the slow clang of events in Wilde’s life, and you can feel the increasing danger, you can feel how much Wilde and Lord Douglas wanted to ‘get’ the Marquess. Lord Douglas (the Marquess’ son) was no great shakes himself, and basically saw a way to “stick it to dear old Dad”, by using the famous Oscar.

There is a kindness in Wilde which cannot be denied. I think people often characterize him as a witty dandy who was “brought down” into the muck, but I don’t find that to be accurate. Yes, he was the promoter of the aesthetic movement, and counseled people on what books to read and how to dress and interior decorate, but it was always for a deeper purpose. Also, anyone that funny could not be shallow. It is the people who are serious all the time who are the real shallow ones.

Wilde handled the insults with good humor, skewering his opponents, until he finally came across someone who could not be stopped, who had a chip on his shoulder the size of the entire British Empire, and who was determined to “save” his fairy son from further corruption. (Meanwhile, one of the Marquess’ OTHER sons had also been caught in a compromising relationship with another male, and had killed himself, right around the time that Queensberry started harassing Oscar Wilde. So. Imagine. This short angry little man had two gay sons, both of whom were living in an openly gay manner, in 1895. It had to have pushed all this guy’s gay buttons. Not to mention the fact that also right around this time, his second wife had divorced him, claiming publicly that his penis was too small for effective intercourse, and also that he was impotent, that the marriage had remained unconsummated. Make of that what you will. A tinder box of problems. His unresolved issues ruined another man’s life, so I’ve got zero sympathy for the guy.)


Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”, done by Aubrey Beardsley

And so Wilde found himself a pawn in a family struggle between father (Marquess of Queensberry) and son (Lord Alfred Douglas). Lord Douglas was the main instigator, pushing Wilde further and further into it, forcing the confrontation. Wilde had two extraordinary people as parents, and did not approve of how the Douglas family treated one another. Lord Douglas would send telegrams to his father, saying stuff like, “You are a silly stupid man” and Wilde would just shake his head and remark, “You shouldn’t talk to a parent like that.”

Here he was talking about a man who was threatening to ruin him, who left notes under his front door calling him a “sodomite”, who staged protests outside productions of plays Wilde has written – who was doing everything possible to make Wilde miserable as well as criminal – and here was Wilde, chiding the son for talking to his father in a disrespectful manner. Wilde had class. Real class.

He, a man of exquisite manners and taste, who loved his parents and remained close to his mother all the days of his life (his father passed away much earlier) found himself embroiled in a brou-haha that would ruin him. Wilde had invited Lord Douglas into his life and, therefore, invited the Marquess into his life who would ruin everything, but Wilde (unlike Douglas) was not a vindictive person. Wilde knew Douglas could ruin him. Perhaps that was part of the thrill. The beautiful dangerous boy and all that. In reading about Wilde, in reading about all of the literary spats he got into, all of the verbal sparring with current authors of the day, I never feel that he is vindictive. Or cruel. He is clever, and intelligent, and often merciless, but never cruel.

The Marquess accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde, angry, Lord Douglas egging him on, sued him for libel. This was the defining moment. Wilde’s fate was sealed the second he sued. The entire thing might, might, have gone away if Wilde had not sued. His suing meant there would be a trial, a highly public trial which would reveal WHY he had sued, and WHAT the Marquess had accused him of.

In the 1895 trial, Charles Gill, the prosecutor, asked Wilde about the “love that dare not speak its name”, a quote which came from a poem by Lord Douglas. Wilde, a broken man already by this point, answered, in a passage that brings tears to my eyes:

The ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a young man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

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Caricature of Oscar Wilde, by Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm, writer/drama critic/caricaturist and an old friend of Wilde’s was there that day and wrote to a friend afterwards:

Oscar has been quite superb. His speech about the Love that dares not tell his name was simply wonderful and carried the whole court right away, quite a tremendous burst of applause. Here was this man, who had been for a month in prison, and loaded with insults and crushed and buffeted, perfectly self-possessed, dominating the Old Bailey with his fine presence and musical voice. He has never had so great a triumph, I am sure, as when the gallery burst into applause – I am sure it affected the jury.

It did not.

Wilde was given a sentence of two years hard labor.

Wilde wrote about his passage to prison:

On November 13th 1895 I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffed, for the world to look at … When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was of course before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.

On today, Oscar Wilde’s birthday, a man who has given me so much pleasure, has made me laugh until my stomach hurts, I didn’t mean to write about all his pain and suffering, but I found I couldn’t help it. His suffering had an air of the sacrificial lamb about it. It was excessive. While in prison, he wrote the blisteringly painful De Profundis, a long letter to Alfred Douglas, a wail of pain and betrayal.

Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ. At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day. Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same. Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naivete, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels. We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual. When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.

— Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”, written in prison, 1897

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is, of course, Wilde’s long poem about his experiences in prison (full text here).

Those only familiar with his plays will immediate recognize the radical alteration of his style. Those familiar with Oscar Wilde’s other poems will also immediately see (just by looking at the thing) that he is up to something different. His poems were usually lush, intricate, with long lines on the page. Here, this LOOKS like Kipling. It is a ballad.

In one of his published lectures, “Speranza in Reading: On ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’”, Irish poet and Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney makes a case that Wilde, by “coming back” to the ballad form (and its propagandistic purposes), was “coming back” to the example led by his mother, Speranza, who also had her trials and tribulations in the public court (although not as literal as Wilde’s.) She was in the center of a couple of major scandals, some involving her husband, and she behaved with fierce loyalty and grace. Heaney uses Speranza as the jumping-off point to talk about the various versions of “Ballad of Reading Gaol” that had been published – not to mention Yeats’s inclusion of it in the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, a version with some very interesting edits by Yeats himself. Yeats was trying to protect Wilde, even after his death, from his own rhetorical excesses.

Here is an excerpt from Heaney’s essay.

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ is Wilde’s poem of human solidarity, his attempt to produce, in Kafka’s great phrase, a book that would be an axe to break the frozen sea in each of us. Bu the literary fact of the matter is that the axe which is still capable of shattering the surfaces of convention is neither the realistic ballad which Yeats fashioned nor the original romantic plea from which he extracted it; it is rather the hard-edged, unpathetic prose that Wilde created in dialogues like ‘The Decay of Lying’ and dramas like The Importance of Being Earnest. His brilliant paradoxes, his over-the-topness at knocking the bottom out of things, the rightness of his wrong-footing, all that exhilarated high-wire word-play, all that freedom to affront and exult in his own uniqueness – that was Wilde’s true path towards solidarity. The lighter his touch, the more devastating his effect. When he walked on air, he was on solid ground. But when he stepped on earth to help the plight of lesser mortals, he became Oisin rather than Oscar. His strength dwindled and his distinction vanished. He became like other men. He became one of the chain-gang poets, a broken shadow of the brilliant litterateur who had once written that ‘Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.’ By the time he wrote the ballad, however, his aim had come to be the telling of the ugly true things:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.

All the same, if the propagandist ballad is not Oscar Wilde’s proper genre, it is still a kind of writing which was naturally available to him from the start. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, had begun her writing career in Dublin in the 1840s with a series of fiery patriotic poems published in the Dublin Magazine. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Speranza’ and under the impression that her family name, Elgee, meant that she was descended from the Alighieri family – as in Dante Alighieri – the future Lady Wilde composed poems that proclaimed a heartfelt sympathy for the plight of the famine victims in Ireland and a firebrand’s enthusiasm for the cause of rebellion against British rule. Speranza herself, of course, was from a well-to-do Dublin Unionist background, so her association with Charles Gavan Duffy and other activists and intellectuals in the circle was already an act of rebellion, an embrace of the forbidden other which foreshadowed her son’s more extreme rejection of the conventional pieties. And Oscar in his turn was very much in favour of the company she had kept.

Wilde did not last long once he was released from prison. He had lost everything, most of his friends (who turned out to be the fair-weather brand), his entire library, his social standing, his health.

In 2009, a new book came out by Thomas Wright called Oscar’s Books, an examination of how reading formed Oscar Wilde’s life. I read it, and it’s wonderful. (A personal story about this book here.) Brenda Maddox, who wrote Nora, a biography of James Joyce’s wife, in her review of the book, wrote:

Among the humiliations Wilde suffered after being sent to prison were not only compulsory silence – prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another – but deprivation of books. All he had in his cell at Pentonville, apart from his bed (a plank laid across two trestles), were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal. When at last his sympathetic MP won him permission to have more books, Wilde nominated Pater’s The Renaissance along with the works of Flaubert and some by Cardinal Newman. These were allowed, but only at the rate of one a week. Moved to Reading Gaol, he found himself under a more sympathetic prison governor. His book request lists after July 1896 show him developing an interest in more recently published titles, including novels by George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Wilde later said that he also read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason.

There was a giant auction at his house to pay off his debts, and his books were sold off. It was a circus, many people there just to get a ghoulish view of the sodomite’s lodgings. A couple of his remaining friends actually went out and tracked down many of those books sold that day, buying them back for Oscar when he got out of prison. Now those are real friends.

At first, he was denied any books while incarcerated. But eventually, the milder warden (mentioned by Maddox) asked if Mr. Wilde could write out a list of the books he would like, and he would see what he could do. The warden would look over the list, catch sight of one controversial title, and scold Mr. Wilde (“This book helped cause all of your troubles, Mr. Wilde …”), but in general, the warden did his best to provide Wilde with a makeshift library. Friends began to send books to the prison. The nice warden would bring them to Wilde’s cell, and Wilde would break down in tears at the sight.

In Wilde’s prison file, there is a letter from an anonymous “Irishwoman”, written in 1895. It brings tears to my eyes, and makes me feel that yes, there is good, there is mercy on this planet. Listen:

Please give Mr. Wilde the book. I have never ever seen him but it must indeed be a hard heart utterly unacquainted with God’s love that does not bleed for such a shipwrecked life … I feel this book which I send, may be helpful. Faithfully yours, an Irishwoman.

The greatest gift we can give to others is kindness and understanding. I wish I knew what book she had sent him. I imagine a prayer book. Across the century, I love this anonymous Irishwoman as someone who represents the best in all of us.

After his release, Oscar moved to a small village in France. On Nov. 16, 1897, he wrote to a friend:

It is curious how vanity helps keep the successful man and wrecks the failure. In old days half of my strength was my vanity.

Maddox writes in her review:

When he was discharged in May 1897, he was not allowed to take his accumulated books with him and faced what he called the horror of ‘going out into the world without a single book’. But friends rallied round. Entering the hotel room in Dieppe where he was to begin his exile, he found it full of books furnished by his friends and he broke down and wept.

During his exile, he reconnected with Lord Douglas, something many of his friends warned him against, but by that point, Wilde was on his way out. Life had broken him. He converted to Catholicism on his death-bed, something he had wanted to do for years. His father had not let him convert back when he was younger. Catholicism was way beyond the pale for people of their class and standing, but Wilde never got over yearning for it. A local Catholic priest was found in the middle of the night, and baptized Oscar Wilde on his death bed.

I came to him first the way I think it is best to come to him: as an actor, working on his plays in college.

There is a stark tragedy in the life of Oscar Wilde, and yet his work is the opposite of tragic. He is one of the only playwrights who makes me laugh out loud just reading his words on the page (Shakespeare is the other one). To me, his major life’s work was not his own life (although he did try to create an artistic life, an aesthetic life), or his prose works, his essays, his poetry (all formidable stuff) – and neither do I see his major life’s work as his sacrifice at the end, a martyr to future gay generations, an example of a dignified man who paid the ultimate price. A hero, essentially. Which I believe he is. All of these things are extremely important, and you cannot understand Oscar Wilde without understanding all of these elements.

But for me, it’s about the plays: A Woman of No Importance (my thoughts here), The Importance of Being Earnest (my thoughts here), An Ideal Husband (my thoughts here). That’s the legacy.

The epigrams leave a huge mark as well. It is quite unsettling what he does within them, and it is easy to understand why the powers-that-be found him disturbing. His epigrams are not just clever (that is the greatest misunderstanding about Wilde, that he was “clever.” The man was a radical.) is epigrams have as their goal to up-end the status quo. To turn society upside down. You think you’re going one way when he starts out, it feels good and right that you are going that way, and then the second half of the epigram scrambles everything up, leaving you in a state of chaos.

Hopefully you’re laughing, throughout, as well, that’s the beauty of Wilde, he was not a scold.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the scenes in The Importance of Being Earnest, a perfect scene, a classic example of two objectives doing battle.

CECILY. [Advancing to meet her.] Pray let me introduce myself to you. My name is Cecily Cardew.

GWENDOLEN. Cecily Cardew? [Moving to her and shaking hands.] What a very sweet name! Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impressions of people are never wrong.

CECILY. How nice of you to like me so much after we have known each other such a comparatively short time. Pray sit down.

GWENDOLEN. [Still standing up.] I may call you Cecily, may I not?

CECILY. With pleasure!

GWENDOLEN. And you will always call me Gwendolen, won’t you?

CECILY. If you wish.

GWENDOLEN. Then that is all quite settled, is it not?

CECILY. I hope so. [A pause. They both sit down together.]

GWENDOLEN. Perhaps this might be a favourable opportunity for my mentioning who I am. My father is Lord Bracknell. You have never heard of papa, I suppose?

CECILY. I don’t think so.

GWENDOLEN. Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don�t like that. It makes men so very attractive. Cecily, mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted; it is part of her system; so do you mind my looking at you through my glasses?

CECILY. Oh! not at all, Gwendolen. I am very fond of being looked at.

GWENDOLEN. [After examining Cecily carefully through a lorgnette.] You are here on a short visit, I suppose.

CECILY. Oh no! I live here.

GWENDOLEN. [Severely.] Really? Your mother, no doubt, or some female relative of advanced years, resides here also?

CECILY. Oh no! I have no mother, nor, in fact, any relations.

GWENDOLEN. Indeed?

CECILY. My dear guardian, with the assistance of Miss Prism, has the arduous task of looking after me.

GWENDOLEN. Your guardian?

CECILY. Yes, I am Mr. Worthing’s ward.

GWENDOLEN. Oh! It is strange he never mentioned to me that he had a ward. How secretive of him! He grows more interesting hourly. I am not sure, however, that the news inspires me with feelings of unmixed delight. [Rising and going to her.] I am very fond of you, Cecily; I have liked you ever since I met you! But I am bound to state that now that I know that you are Mr. Worthing’s ward, I cannot help expressing a wish you were – well, just a little older than you seem to be – and not quite so very alluring in appearance. In fact, if I may speak candidly -

CECILY. Pray do! I think that whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid.

GWENDOLEN. Well, to speak with perfect candour, Cecily, I wish that you were fully forty-two, and more than usually plain for your age. Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception. But even men of the noblest possible moral character are extremely susceptible to the influence of the physical charms of others. Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable.

CECILY. I beg your pardon, Gwendolen, did you say Ernest?

GWENDOLEN. Yes.

CECILY. Oh, but it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is my guardian. It is his brother – his elder brother.

GWENDOLEN. [Sitting down again.] Ernest never mentioned to me that he had a brother.

CECILY. I am sorry to say they have not been on good terms for a long time.

GWENDOLEN. Ah! that accounts for it. And now that I think of it I have never heard any man mention his brother. The subject seems distasteful to most men. Cecily, you have lifted a load from my mind. I was growing almost anxious. It would have been terrible if any cloud had come across a friendship like ours, would it not? Of course you are quite, quite sure that it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is your guardian?

CECILY. Quite sure. [A pause.] In fact, I am going to be his.

GWENDOLEN. [Inquiringly.] I beg your pardon?

CECILY. [Rather shy and confidingly.] Dearest Gwendolen, there is no reason why I should make a secret of it to you. Our little county newspaper is sure to chronicle the fact next week. Mr. Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married.

GWENDOLEN. [Quite politely, rising.] My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthing is engaged to me. The announcement will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest.

CECILY. [Very politely, rising.] I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. [Shows diary.]

GWENDOLEN. [Examines diary through her lorgnettte carefully.] It is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. [Produces diary of her own.] I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. I am so sorry, dear Cecily, if it is any disappointment to you, but I am afraid I have the prior claim.

CECILY. It would distress me more than I can tell you, dear Gwendolen, if it caused you any mental or physical anguish, but I feel bound to point out that since Ernest proposed to you he clearly has changed his mind.

GWENDOLEN. [meditatively.] If the poor fellow has been entrapped into any foolish promise I shall consider it my duty to rescue him at once, and with a firm hand.

CECILY. [Thoughtfully and sadly.] Whatever unfortunate entanglement my dear boy may have got into, I will never reproach him with it after we are married.

GWENDOLEN. Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one�s mind. It becomes a pleasure.

CECILY. Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.

GWENDOLEN. [Satirically.] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.

[Enter Merriman, followed by the footman. He carries a salver, table cloth, and plate stand. Cecily is about to retort. The presence of the servants exercises a restraining influence, under which both girls chafe.]

MERRIMAN. Shall I lay tea here as usual, Miss?

CECILY. [Sternly, in a calm voice.] Yes, as usual. [Merriman begins to clear table and lay cloth. A long pause. Cecily and Gwendolen glare at each other.]

GWENDOLEN. Are there many interesting walks in the vicinity, Miss Cardew?

CECILY. Oh! yes! a great many. From the top of one of the hills quite close one can see five counties.

GWENDOLEN. Five counties! I don’t think I should like that; I hate crowds.

CECILY. [Sweetly.] I suppose that is why you live in town? [Gwendolen bites her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol.]

GWENDOLEN. [Looking round.] Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.

CECILY. So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.

GWENDOLEN. I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.

CECILY. Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.

GWENDOLEN. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.

CECILY. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?

GWENDOLEN. [With elaborate politeness.] Thank you. [Aside.] Detestable girl! But I require tea!

CECILY. [Sweetly.] Sugar?

GWENDOLEN. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

CECILY. [Severely.] Cake or bread and butter?

GWENDOLEN. [In a bored manner.] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

CECILY. [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

[Merriman does so, and goes out with footman. Gwendolen drinks the tea and makes a grimace. Puts down cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake. Rises in indignation.]

GWENDOLEN. You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.

CECILY. [Rising.] To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go.

GWENDOLEN. From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.

CECILY. It seems to me, Miss Fairfax, that I am trespassing on your valuable time. No doubt you have many other calls of a similar character to make in the neighbourhood.

One of the most satisfying scenes ever written, which is why it is done so often in acting classes. A perfect lesson for young actors on how to play your objective, while trying desperately to look like you are NOT playing an objective, which is how most people live their lives in real life. Easier said than done, but that’s a great scene to practice with.

Some quotes from (and about) Wilde below.

Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on his own spirit: But after a time there is an enormous desire for higher freedom – for self-preservation.

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The mind of a thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.

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To win back my youth … there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.

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Miss Morris is the greatest actress I ever saw, if it be fair to form an opinion of her from her rendition of this one role. We have no such powerfully intense actress in England. She is a great artist, in my sense of the word, because all she does, all she says, in the manner of the doing and the saying, constantly evoke the imagination to supplement it. That is what I mean by art.

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To disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity.

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from a letter Wilde wrote to Walt Whitman:

Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world and of the great currents of interest and action. He is of priceless value and yet he lives apart from his time. He lives in a dream of the unreal. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.

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Wilde on Walt Whitman:

He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.

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To be either a Puritan, a prig or a preacher is a bad thing. To be all three at once reminds me of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

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The most graceful thing I ever beheld was a miner in a Colorado silver mine driving a new shaft with a hammer; at any moment he might have been transformed into marble or bronze and become noble in art forever.

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“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

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Praise makes me humble. But when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.

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1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:

All the great men of France were cuckolds. Haven’t you observed this? All! In every period. By their wives or their mistresses. Villon, Moliere, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Musset, Balzac, kings, generals, poets! Those I mention, a thousand more that I could name, were all cuckolds. Do you know what that means? I will tell you. Great men, in France, have loved women too much. Women don’t like that. They take advantage of this weakness. In England, great men love nothing, neither art, nor wealth, nor glory … nor women. It’s an advantage, you can be sure.

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1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:

Now, one of the facts of physiology is the desire of any very intensified emotion to be relieved by some emotion that is its opposite. Nature’s example of dramatic effect is the laughter of hysteria or the tears of joy. So I cannot cut my comedy lines. Besides, the essence of good dialogue is interruption.

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1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marillier

There is an unknown land full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes, a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream, a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.

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1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to James Whistler

Be warned in time, James; and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.

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To be at one with the elements seems to be Mr. Swinburne’s aim. He seeks to speak with the breath of wind and wave … He is the first lyric poet who has tried to make an absolute surrender of his personality, and he has succeeded. We have the song, but we never know the singer … Out of the thunder and splendour of words, he himself says nothing. We have often heard man’s interpretation of Nature; now we know Nature’s interpretation of man, and she has curiously little to say. Force and Freedom form her vague message. She deafens us with her clangours.

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As for George Meredith, who could hope to reproduce him? His style is chaos illumined by brilliant flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything, except language; as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story.

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How much truer Imagination is than Observation.

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The amount of pleasure one gets out of dialect is a matter entirely of temperament. To say “mither” instead of “mother” seems to many the acme of romance. There are others who are not quite so ready to believe in the pathos of provincialism.

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Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or comedy … But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications.

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It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

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We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.

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letter of Oscar Wilde to W.B. Maxwell

You mustn’t take a story that I told you of a man and a picture. No, absolutely, I want that for myself. I fully mean to write it, and I should be terribly upset if I were forestalled.

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Oscar Wilde, responding to a critic who balked at all of the literary references in “Dorian Gray”:

I cannot imagine how a casual reference to Suetonius and Petronius Arbiter can be construed into evidence of a desire to impress by an assumption of superior knowledge. I should fancy that the most ordinary of scholars is perfectly well acquainted with the Lives of the Caesars and with The Satyricon. The Lives of the Caesars, at any rate, forms part of the curriculum at Oxford for those who take the Honour School of Literae Humaniores; and as for The Satyricon, it is popular even among passmen, though I suppose they have to read it in translations.

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George Bernard Shaw to R.E. Golding Bright, Nov. 19, 1894

You must give up detesting everything appertaining to Oscar Wilde or to anyone else. The critic’s first duty is to admit, with absolute respect, the right of every man to his own style.

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Anyone can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature – it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist to sympathise with a friend’s success.

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Mallarme is a poet, a true poet. But I prefer him when he writes in French, because in that language he is incomprehensible, while in English, unfortunately, he is not. Incomprehensibility is a gift, not everyone has it.

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1891 letter from Stephen Mallarme to James Whistler

No O.W. —! just like him! He pushes ingratitude to the point of indecency, then? — And all the old chestnuts — he dares offer them in Paris like new ones! — the tales of the sunflower — his walks with the lily — his knee breeches — his rose-colored stiff shirts — and all that! — And then ‘Art’ here — ‘Art’ there — It’s really obscene — and will come to a bad end — As we shall see — and you will tell me how it happens –

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I detest nature where man has not intervened with his artifice.

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1891 letter of Oscar Wilde to Edmond de Goncourt

One can adore a language without speaking it well, as one can love a woman without understanding her. French by sympathy, I am Irish by race, and the English have condemned me to speak the language of Shakespeare.

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I have equally recognised that humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent.

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1891, letter of Andre Gide to Paul Valery

Forgive my being silent: after Wilde I only exist a little.

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“Know thyself!” was written over the portal of the ancient world … the message of Christ to man was simply, “Be thyself.”

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I can see they are servants by their perfect manners.

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For do you know, all my life I have been looking for twelve men who didn’t believe in me …. and so far I have only found eleven.

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Poem by Dorothy Parker:

Oscar Wilde

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Happy birthday, to Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. I wish I could reach across time and tell you that “it gets better“, although the message would not do you much good in your own era. You were the pioneer. You made the ultimate sacrifice. You did not sacrifice your integrity. For that, you are an example. Although I have focused much today on your tragedy, it is your humor and your plays that ring across centuries. They will live forever. I salute you.

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