Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Regiments, divisions, brigades, oh my

Scotts-Fitzhugh Bridge, Paris Landing to Dover (1960's)
On a warm Sunday afternoon long ago, my family undertook a road trip in Dad's new used car, a black-and-white '56 Chevy. With the windows open to summer, we headed to an uncle's house in Erin, TN. Upon crossing the Tennessee River bridge at Dover, I cried because of the high bridge, and to distract me, Dad slowed at a small marker and veered off of Highway 79 onto a barely passable gravel road.

Bouncing down the winding road for several minutes, we arrived at a hill, where an old cannon stuck up over a low wall, pointing out into the river. My brother and I gleefully climbed and sat astride upon this iron plaything. This was Fort Henry, but neither my parents nor teachers ever provided me with an explanation of why a cannon was to be found there. I thought nothing of it; in parks throughout Tennessee, one can find these old civil war cannons--objects of mild curiosity. Imagine my surprise when, decades later, this particular childhood cannon belched forth black smoke and a missile intended to kill, as I was reading Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs. Where was this action-packed thriller, truth stranger than fiction, during my education? Totally missing, is where.

Are you looking for a good read? The Memoirs are free at Project Gutenberg. Grant assembled his book hastily during the last year before his death, and Mark Twain edited and published it. The book's subsequent popularity restored Grant's family to prosperity after his continual failures at money management during his lifetime. The tale includes Grant's childhood, his army service in the Mexican war, his being busted out of the army for alcoholism, his eventual reinstatement to the army during the civil war, and it glosses over his tough period of poverty between the wars. Then follows the nugget--Grant's civil war years, as gripping a story as any work of fiction ever written--except that it wasn't fiction.

One interesting thread throughout the story is Grant's emphasis on the role of luck in human affairs. Again and again he describes how plans went awry, new plans were made, and many times yet something else completely ended up occurring. These are life lessons for any of us. An example is how Grant almost didn't get reinstated into the army at all when the civil war was starting up. He had done a lot of volunteer work, people had noticed him, but his requests at rejoining the army as an officer (due to having graduated from West Point) had been ignored. He declined to join as an enlisted man, and was on the verge of giving up and going home, when (due to the private intervention of friends), a governor made him colonel of a brigade (a troubled one whose previous colonel was unable to control them--but Grant could!).

Recently, I also read Jean Edwards' excellent biography of Grant, appropriately called Grant, which draws heavily from Grant's own Memoirs but fleshes out the story with explanatory footnotes, battle maps, and more context. It might even be best to start with the Edwards book, and then read Grant's own book later. But do consider reading them. Don't be in a hurry. This will keep you off the streets for a good long while, and make you happy in the reading.

In order to plow through either book, you'll need to know: What is brigade? What is a colonel? Here the definitions are (thanks to a footnote on page 99 of Edwards' book):

  a company = 100 men
  led by a captain

  a regiment = 1000 men (10 companies)
  led by a colonel

  a brigade =  4000 men (4 regiments)
  led by a brigadier general

  a division = 12,000 to 16,000 men (3-4 brigades)
  led by a major general or a brigadier general

  a corps = 24,000 (officially) to 30,000 men (2+ divisions)
  led by a major general

  an army = several corps
  led by a major general

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Winter's Tale: Not McCarter Theater's Finest Hour

the statue

Last night, I attended a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at McCarter Theater. I had spent the day reviewing the play's plot and history, and it's a good thing that I did, because this production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, turned out to be disappointing. Prior to the performance, I had sought some online reviews, but there were none, other than the glowing but, I fear, exaggerated praise for Ms. Taichman's directorial skills.

I'll preface my complaints by admitting this play is widely recognized to be challenging to stage, and even as literature it has troublesome complexities. Despite the laundry list of grumps I am about to make about this particular production, I'll begin by praising a bright spot near the end. The climax of the play is undeniably the final scene in a garden, where a statue of the king's deceased wife is unveiled for the first time. Encased with a frosty crust and facing away from the audience, the statue is such a good likeness of a dead, dear one that the watchers work themselves into a frenzy of remembrance and grief. The eventual dreamlike awakening of the statue is powerful and effective in this production, and much can be forgiven by such a good ending. Imagine the impact of this awakening on the first audiences to see this play, or for anyone living under a rock who did not know that the wife was actually still alive. It makes the skin crawl, and that is a good thing.

I have no opinion--or at least, no complaint--about the use of American accents and modern cloths and sets for this play. That is a matter of taste. I found it mildly dissonant for people in modern clothing to be consulting the Oracle of Delphi, but small matter. These matters did not weaken the performance.

Now my complaints, beginning with excessive fast talking, shaking heads, wavering bodies, trembling hands, raised voices, and gruff voices. These may have been intended to impart the seriousness of the characters' emotions--but in my opinion, being utterly overused, they soon lost their effectiveness. Such devices should be employed very sparingly by an actor, perhaps only once or twice in an entire evening and certainly not almost constantly. Furthermore, the blazing speed of the dialog indicated that, perhaps, the cast felt impelled to squash the entire story into 2.5 hours. Personally, I'd rather listen for 3 hours, or even more, to hear these worthy lines delivered as if people were actually thinking of what was being said, rather than reciting prepared speeches. Over-emoting was particularly apparent in the portrayals of Leontes, Paulina and Hermione in the early parts of the play. However, I'd note that Mark Harelik, who was at best a weak Leontes, did shine in his additional role as the scoundrel Autolycus, where he sang his lines: in singing, he was distinctly easier to understand than in speaking.

Music was used intermittently throughout the production, sometimes requiring the actors to speak their lines over it, and unfortunately it was sometimes too loud in comparison with the dialog. The most glaring case of this was the synthesized buzzing hum used, along with lighting changes, to highlight asides intended to be addressed directly to the audience. The buzz was so loud that I actually had to stop up my ears at times. The tendency towards overacting by some performers, combined with this unfortunate pacing and the uneven musical volume, left me with a sense of certain actors being in a perpetual state of frustrated yelling which was far from attention-commanding.

Ms. Taichman is apparently of the directorial school of thought that no actor may be allowed to speak unless facing fully forward towards the audience. This led to some very odd stage actions, where people conversing with each other were seldom able actually to look at each other, and the attempt to keep one's body angled forwards was simply obvious. This continual awkwardness was not the only victim of this in-my-opinion misguided value--whenever the actors needed to make an aside to the audience--which is frequently, especially in the opening act--there was no "aside" action left for the actor to make other than relying on the overly obvious lighting and the imposed buzzing sound. The other actors also continued to move around during asides, further distracting from audience struggles to understand the asides.

My last grievance is the most serious: we were promised a bear, and none was delivered. The famous stage direction

Exit, pursued by a bear
was ignored. There was of course still the somewhat effective scene where a bystander shortly describes the man as having been eaten alive by the bear, but the advertisements for this production promised a bear, and no bear appeared. This is an outrage! Not only was there no bear, but there were butterflies--lots of them--which possibly were intended to portray the passage of long time. When the butterflies (huge ones carried on long sticks by anonymous people) began to fly around the stage, my companion whispered to me,
What the (bleep) are those butterflies for?
. This is not what you want to audience to be whispering to each other.