Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The recent brouhaha over this summer's New York City Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar begs the question: can people really be that stupid?

OK I know things have been touchy, especially since Republican congressman Steve Scalise was shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter last week. The Trumpers are taking full advantage of the unfortunate incident to promote their world view that Democrats, liberals, progressives, Trump detractors, in other words, all the people who are destroying this country, are entirely responsible for the acrimony that is currently dividing the land. Then comes this Fox News report: New York is staging a play where an actor dressed as Donald Trump is assassinated at the end of the play. Given that limited information, even I would be appalled. Much as I can't stand Trump and all he stands for, I cringe at any suggestion that the president of the United States could or should be assassinated.

But let's get real, this is William Shakespeare. His Julius Caesar is a 400 year old play that everyone in this country with a high school education should at least be tacitly familiar with. For starters, there has been a long standing tradition of producers taking liberties with the staging and timelines of Shakespeare's plays. Then there's the work itself; the title character, no matter who he is dressed up to look like, doesn't get assassinated at the end of the play, but smack dab in the middle. The rest of  Julius Caesar deals with the consequences of the assassination. Things don't work out so well for the the conspirators, for Rome, or whatever government the producers wish to evoke, or in fact, for democracy. The play is after all, a tragedy, at least if you're paying attention.

The moral of the story, expressed in Cliffs Notes fashion that one would think, everyone should be able to understand is this: "be careful what you wish for."

Given that, the genius of producing the play with Caesar dressed as Trump, sends a not too subtle message to Trump detractors, myself included, that perhaps our single-minded obsession with the premature termination of this presidency by any means, needs to be re-examined.

That point was lost on many Fox viewers, (aka Trump supporters), who saw the on-stage murder of a character who looked like Trump, as a credible call to assassinate the president. At least two major corporate sponsors pulled the plug on their support of The Public Theater, the producers of the play. Even Shakespeare himself is taking a hit. Taking a cue from the president, who is himself chronologically challenged, repertory theaters around the country have been receiving threats from right wing nut jobs, because they too produce plays by that no good leftist snowflake known as "the Bard".

The nonsense started to calm down a bit after conservative media star Laura Ingraham tweeted: "How many would storm the stage if Obama was stabbed?" As many were quick to point out, in 2012, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis staged a production of Julius Caesar where the title character was indeed dressed up to look like Barack Obama. Hardly anyone complained. It turns out that Delta Airlines, one of the sponsors who pulled the plug on their contributions to The Public Theater, continues to support the Guthrie, despite its alleged affront to the former president.

After it became clear that the hysterics were unjustified, with egg on their face, many of the play's detractors wisely dropped the subject.

But there are still folks out there who just don't, or won't get it. Here is a New Yorker article about a pair of right wing activists who disrupted the New York play during the murder scene. Not surprising, right wing commentators including Ingraham, and Donald Trump's personal lap dog, Fox's Sean Hannity, support the hecklers, proclaiming their removal from the theater, and subsequent arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct, is a violation of the pair's "freedom of speech."

It just so happens that the other day was the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. I watched a TV documentary made by Robert Redford commemorating the event. It got me thinking about Richard Nixon and his fall from grace. Those of us who remember him tend to think of Nixon in broad generalities, his arms raised above his head while both hands give the "V" for victory salute, his head shake, his scowl, and his unfortunate, most famous quote, "I am not a crook." But Nixon was a very complicated man who accomplished a great deal of good, along with the bad, during his presidency. His fall was indeed as they say, "Shakespearian". I'm no expert on the Bard but I'm certain that you can find comparisons in many of his characters, King Richard II perhaps, or one of the King Henrys, to Richard Nixon.

Trump is not complicated in the least and is anything but Shakespearian. He's more like a cartoon villain. The one that comes immediately to mind is Snidley Wiplash, the mustachioed archenemy of the aptly named Royal Canadian Mountie, Dudley Do-Right from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. OK I'm dating myself, another one that comes to mind is Mr. Burns, the ancient robber-barron owner of the local nuclear power plant on The Simpsons. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Trump views the greedy, narcissistic Mr. Burns as a role model.

On the other hand, Shakespeare has Caesar say this shortly before he is murdered:
I could be well moved, if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire and every one doth shine.
But there's but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: 'tis furnished well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive.
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion; and that I am he
Let me a little show it, even in this:
That I was constant Cimber should be banished,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
Come to think of it, didn't the Donald say something very similar, in not so many words, at the Republican convention in Cleveland last summer?
I alone can fix it.
Maybe there is something to this Trump/Caesar comparison after all.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Catastrophe and Catharsis

During WWII, my father was a forced laborer from Czechoslovakia, working and living in Berlin. Late in his life I talked to him in depth about what certainly had to be a harrowing experience, enduring not only the loss of his freedom, forced exile in the country that brutally occupied his own, and life under a tyrannical dictatorship, but also living in a city under constant bombardment courtesy of the Americans by day, and the British by night. "Oh it wasn't so bad..." he told me with a wry smile, "...I was a young man living in a city where all its male citizens were off at war." He didn't have to fill in the details.

Talk about making the best of a bad situation.

I thought of this the other day as I was doing some reading about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Through all the tremendous devastation and loss of life*, the city not only recovered, but it prospered. Only the hiccup of a nation-wide panic and brief depression in 1873 and 1874, prevented the city from being rebuilt in half a decade. By 1880 there was barely a trace of the fire at all.

"Chicago in Flames" The Great Fire of 1871
Hand colored Lithograph based upon a sketch by John R. Chapin
published by  Currier & Ives
That's not to say there was not great suffering for the survivors, many of whom with little or no resources found their lives would be never return to normal. Many Chicago Fire survivors left the city never to return. But far more came than left. Like my father who saw an opportunity and seized upon it in Berlin, people saw the tremendous opportunity of being part of rebuilding the devastated Chicago. Between the years 1870 and 1880, the population of the city nearly doubled to half a million residents. Ten years later, over one million people called Chicago home.

I've often thought about what Chicago would be like today had it not been for the fire. Mark Twain had the same thought 134 years ago:
New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck-- to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the 'burnt district' by the radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago. 
In 1891, a writer for the journal Industrial Chicago put it more succinctly:
Those fires were fortunate events for the Garden City as a whole, and none profited directly from them, so much as art and architects,  for the flames swept away forever the greater number of monstrous libels on artistic house-building, while only destroying the few noble buildings of which Old Chicago could boast.
Would Chicago really be a much different place today without the Fire? After all, the die was cast for the contemporary city well before October of 1871. By then, all rail lines in the Midwest led to Chicago. At the same time, the Illinois/Michigan Canal was still operating, the only water transportation conduit between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The grain elevators and the commodities exchanges, both invented here, that would forever change the way farmers got their product to market, were well established by the 1870s and would be back up and running in a nick of time. Chicago as the transportation hub of the midwest, was already a major center of manufacturing, and much of that was untouched by the Fire.

By 1871, much of the physical layout of Chicago had already been established. The massive undertaking of raising the street grade was well underway. Chicago's property lots and rigorous street grid had been conceived, if not already established throughout town, and the boulevard greenway system and parks that would ring what were at the time Chicago's city limits had begun to take shape. Thanks to Potter Palmer and his speculative investments, State Street became the main commercial street of Chicago, taking the place of Lake Street, and with that, the major axis of the city turned ninety degrees from east/west to north/south, following the lakefront.

The major obstacle to the practical construction of tall buildings was overcome in 1864 as the first steam driven elevator was installed in Chicago in the Charles B. Farwell Store in Wabash Avenue. That alone did not solve the second obstacle, making elevators safe enough for people to want to ride in them. Great steps were made in that direction in 1870 when the first hydraulic elevator was initialed in the Burley and Company Warehouse on West Lake Street. We know that those contraptions became accepted, albeit hesitantly by the general public from the accounts of people being rescued from stalled lifts in Chicago's posh hotels during the Fire.

Chicago is known around the world for its innovative architecture, especially in regards to the construction of tall, commercial buildings. As the Mark Twain and Industrial Chicago quotes sited above suggest, we have the Great Fire to thank for that. But is that true?

Once the elevator became commonplace, the urge to cram as much rentable space into a single lot became inevitable, especially in the highly valuable property of the central business district. The race to build taller buildings was well underway before that famous blaze began near Mrs. O'Leary's barn after that long hot, dry summer of 1871.

On top of that, most of the architects who would create the new architecture that became known as the Commercial Style or the Chicago School of Architecture, including Dankmar AdlerWilliam HolabirdMartin Roche, and Daniel Burnham already lived in Chicago as young men at the time of the Great Fire. With the exception of Adler, all of these future shapers of Chicago's built environment came through in one capacity or other, the office of William LeBaron Jenney, who before the Fire was responsible for among other things, the original design of the three great West Side parks, Humboldt, Central (later named Garfield) and Douglas, and the boulevards that connected them.

The earlier generation of architects responsible for many of the buildings of the pre-fire city, most notably John van Osdel and William Boyington were still active and quite busy after the Fire. The tallest buildings in Chicago until 1895, were the works of those two architects. In fact Chicago, the Second City which sprung up almost as soon as the ruins from the fire to began cool down, didn't look all that different from the First City. You can see for yourself as a number of 1870s post-fire buildings still exist, many of them concentrated just north of the River on Clark and Wells Streets. There you can still find in tact, buildings graced by Italianate facades that were the fashion of the day, before and after the fire.

So as we've seen, the groundwork for the Chicago we know today was clearly laid well before the Chicago Fire. Would it then be reasonable to say that the Fire was a mere setback, delaying what would have been the inevitable development of the current city?

Author Ross Miller in his book The Great Chicago Fire, argues no, the conflagration was in fact Chicago's seminal moment, a catharsis that allowed the city to wash away all its past mistakes, and start from scratch, enabling Chicago to become much greater city.

Barely four decades old at the  time of the fire, Chicago was already developing bad habits. The insatiable lust for instant profit meant little attention was given toward the future.

The children of the the pioneers who settled this city, the folks whose names you see streets named after, as so often is the case, became used to a comfortable life with little sense of obligation:
Seen from a  distance, pioneers like Butler and Ogden became models of respectability, combining Eastern education with the demands of Western settlement, They became the Chicago establishment. Set up in fine houses and rich enough for philanthropy, Chicago's first generation had time for pieties and church-going. Fortunes already in hand, they looked for ways to spend their money and perpetuate their newly minted good reputations. Their sons and daughters, with the pressure of making money removed, lacked any direction. ... Playboys and dilettantes, especially before the fire, appeared to be Chicago's legacy. 
The fire was a truly democratic catastrophe, it wiped out the homes of the rich and the poor alike. Of course with greater resources at their disposal, the rich had a far easier time to get back on their feet, but the fire created a bond between people living in Chicago in October 1871, those who lived anyway. They had all been tested by fire, and survived. Consequently, the term "Chicagoan" gained currency throughout the world. Quoting from the introduction to Robert Cromie's book of the same title, Miller throws in this tidbit:
You could tell a Chicagoan in any city of the world, for he would not talk a minute, scarcely until he would let you know he was from Chicago.
Before the Fire, outrageous land speculation led to tremendous fortunes won but mostly lost. Shoddy construction, haphazard building techniques, and simple lack of attention to detail, led to a city that was an eight square mile tinderbox, a disaster waiting to happen.
On a strictly economic and political basis, Chicago in the months and years after the fire could be shown to have made a startling correction for four decades of nearly random, unplanned development, ...Real estate speculators who had suffered severe losses might in the future be less reckless; their buildings would be made of better materials. The fire because it "checked the too rapid rebuilding of the city in all directions", would lead to a rebuilding of the city's central business district. In addition, by getting rid of failing or marginal businesses, the fire could be seen as a purifying act.
A fitting metaphor could be the fires that periodically sweep through the Midwestern prairies, ridding the land of dead plants and providing nutrients to the soil to insure strong and healthy new growth. Chicago of course, is built upon those very prairies.

Just as the fire's tremendous devastation was made possible by a great storm of concurrent unfortunate events, the recovery of the city was made possible because it came precisely at the crossroads of 19th century technological innovation and creativity.
Out of necessity, the city was compelled to welcome experimentation. Chicago was burned out of an earlier and relatively primitive form of industrialization into the most modern. In this environment, techniques that might have remained dormant under normal conditions of urban growth were perfected and them rigorously tested. 
Finally, it there is any doubt that the fire inexorably altered the direction of the course of this city, take a good look at the list of Chicago architects who lived in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. They represent an honor roll of builders who shaped the look of the city in the last half of the 19th Century and beyond. But there are two prominent names missing from that list, both of whom came to Chicago because of the Fire.

They are Louis Sullivan and John Wellborn Root.

I'll deal with them in my next post in my series on the tall buildings of Chicago.

* Until fairly recent times, city-destroying conflagrations were not uncommon. What is something of a mystery is the very unpredictable death rate caused by such calamities. I've always assumed that the 300 or so who died in the Great Chicago Fire was a remarkably low number, given the ferociousness of the fire and the enormity of damage it left in its wake. That is until I discovered that during the Great London Fire of 1666, all of six people perished. On the other hand, during the earthquake and resulting fires in San Francisco in 1906, nearly 3,000 people died.