Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
The reviews are in for “The Black Box” and they agree: Michael Connelly is not resting on his laurels. His 25th novel is, according to the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, “a standout, thanks to thoughtful plotting, the kind that ultimately jigsaws all the pieces of a story into place.” In last week’s Echo, Seamus Scanlon called it a “superb novel.”
Connelly himself didn’t think much of his first two manuscripts when starting out in the 1980s. He never sent them to publishers and even his wife hasn’t read them. He understood that something was missing in those early detective stories.
“I knew there was a lot of internal world there, a lot of internal things going on,” he told the Echo a year ago about observing a homicide detective at work. “And in my first efforts at writing novels that’s what I was missing – the internal world, the internal cost. If your job takes you to the dark corners of humanity, murder scenes, how do you keep any of that darkness from getting inside of you.”
Connelly began his writing career in journalism after college in Florida. His parents had moved to the state with their six children during an economic downturn. Their second born, Michael, was 12 at the time. The novelist – whose eight great-grandparents were immigrants from Ireland – reported that theirs was only branch of the extended family to leave Philadelphia and he has 25 cousins in that city.
He went on to work at the Los Angeles Times and his fiction is set mainly on the West Coast. Though based back in Florida, he manages to keep it real by staying in contact with a small cadre of LAPD detectives from the cold-case squad with whom he’s become friends over the years. When he’s in California he meets them for a few beers or a meal. “We go to baseball games together,” Connelly said.
Date of birth: July 21, 1956
Place of birth: Philadelphia, Pa.
Children: One daughter, 15
Residence: Tampa, Fla.
Published works: 25 novels
What is your latest book about?
LAPD Detective Harry Bosch goes back to an unsolved murder of a photojournalist during the 1992 riots that erupted in Los Angeles after four police officers were found not guilty in the police brutality case involving the beating of Rodney King.
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
Writing on a laptop in a soft chair by lamp light. But I can write anywhere at anytime.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Keep your head down and just write.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
The Little Sister,” by Raymond Chandler; “The Goodbye Look,” by Ross MacDonald; “Red Dragon,” by Thomas Harris.
What book are you currently reading?
“The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers
Is there a book you wish you had written?
“Red Dragon,” by Thomas Harris
Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
“The Short Cut Man,” by P.G. Sturges.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
What book changed your life?
“ The Long Goodbye,” by Raymond Chandler.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
Having tea by the fire at the Shelbourne.
You’re Irish if . . .
You can tell a story at the bar that people will keep quiet and listen to.
Christmas is, at least in part, a state of mind. It is what you make of it yourself. Still, people who came to America in recent decades have often felt: “This is not a bit like Christmas.” Only last week, one of my Irish-born colleagues declared the American Christmas “horrible.”
We were spoiled, I guess. The Irish and British channels would put on a feast of television that coincided with the two-week break from school and then college. You got to see, for example, lots of old Hollywood films in a short few days, some even about Christmas. And nothing sold that like the movies; but occasionally there’d be hint of what it was really like in America. In “The Apartment,” for one, Jack Lemmon character’s turned up in bad shape at his office on Dec. 26. “What?” we’d say in amazement, “He’s going to work on St. Stephen’s Day?”
Irish people were raised to believe that sacred days went hand in hand with a certain slowing down of commercial activity, and sometimes it came to a near halt. Try finding somewhere open on Christmas Day if you forgot something important beforehand. St. Patrick’s Day (until quite recently, bars were closed in Ireland), Easter and Christmas had certain rituals attached to them.
So, one might have a certain respect for Bill O’Reilly’s notion of a “war on Christmas” if it were accompanied by an appeal to a return to a sense of the sacred, or for department stores to close down for 48 hours, or for things to slow down generally, or for people to get into a more meditative and reflective mood. One might respect it, too, if it were informed by the historical complexities, not a frozen moment in the 1950s. It could acknowledge, for example, that Irish Catholics were attacked, and some killed, by American Protestants for celebrating the birth of Christ in too ostentatious a manner (which is what happened 200 years ago in St. Peter’s parish, still located at the site we call Ground Zero).
There is no reason why Christmas can’t be both a secular and a religious holiday, which I believe is what O’Reilly argues for. It is a Christmas tree, not a “holiday” tree and that’s not imposing one faith on others. However, the idea that there is a great secularist plot to undermine the season is absurd. The politeness about “holidays,” even if it goes too far, is about respecting cultural and religious differences.
Not every non-Christian agrees entirely with that approach. I remember a conversation with a Jewish senior who told me he’d raised his half-Jewish children to love Christmas. “Now, everybody is gone so [expletive] ethnic,” he said. A Guyanese man in our office building said he’s looking forward to his first Christmas at home in 30 years. He’s a Hindu. It’s a holiday for every religion and none, according to him.
One would have thought with the emphasis on “holidays,” both Catholics and Protestants would have welcomed the opportunity to put Christ back into Christmas. O’Reilly, though, seems instead to be appealing to the miserable sort who moaned into their drinks back in my dad’s Roscommon long ago.
Frazier Moore of the Associated Press is one who is unimpressed with the Fox News man’s rallying of his troops. “It makes Christmas a political wedge issue,” Moore said in an essay last week. “It’s a celebration that, under the pretense of peace and goodwill, is ripe for fighting about on his show.
“Call it what you like,” the AP writer added, “Christmas waged like that is just an annual observance of Us vs. Them.”
By Peter McDermott
The Rev. James Martin was being interviewed by telephone last week when he heard a huge noise. “It sounded like thunder,” he recalled of the evening that Hurricane Sandy struck. It was the beginning of one of the side dramas of the larger story: parts of a crane beside Carnegie Hall had come loose.
From his top-floor room at the Society of Jesus’ West 56th Street building, the block behind, Martin kept followers on Twitter – he has more than 13,000 – informed of developments. “Not permitted by police to leave our building in Midtown due to downed crane, flying debris and insane wind,” read one of the tweets from the prolific, best-selling author, most recently of “Between Heaven and Mirth.”
“Lights flickering. Crazy wind, which sounds like surf as it rushes through buildings. Sirens. Water downtown. Venice on the Hudson,” he wrote in another.
“We’re luckier than many people in that we still have electricity,” he told the Echo last Friday from a 9-floor building that was still cordoned off because of a dangling crane boom.
Martin, the culture editor at the Jesuits’ weekly America, had continued with a steady stream of tweets and blogs from his Midtown base. When, on the day before Sandy hit, he posted a “Hurricane Prayer to the Lord of the wind and the waves,” author Katha Pollit asked via Twitter: “Do you really believe God causes the weather? And that praying will make him change it?”
Martin told the Echo: “From the outset, we should say we can’t give a satisfactory answer.” That generally had been his theme throughout the week. As to prayer, he said: “Humans can’t not pray to God when in need.”
The wonders of technology also meant that he could participate in a discussion on HuffPost Live while sitting at his computer. The other panelists were an atheist, a rabbi, a “Christian agnostic,” an evangelical Christian and a Muslim – the last two of them women. Whereas the evangelical and the rabbi, in particular, were intent on giving definitive explanations of God’s part, of lack thereof, in events such as hurricanes, the Jesuit’s position was: we simply don’t know, and the saints and great theologians have never been able to resolve these questions. Earlier in the week, he told Pollit that he didn’t think he could “solve the mystery of suffering on Twitter.”
Martin said on HuffPost Live that he didn’t believe that events like Hurricane Sandy were sent either to test or to punish human beings. “But for Christians, there is Jesus who suffered as we do,” he told the Echo, taking up another point he raised on the show. “And who, because He entered into human experience, understands suffering.”
With news of an electoral endorsement that cited climate change, the subject was very much in the news. Martin said Catholics hold a range of views on it. He said, however, that he agrees with the science: “It makes perfect sense that our actions are contributing to extreme weather events. It’s pretty clear if you take the long view that things are changing.”
He added: “Pope Benedict has been pretty strong on this stuff.”
And as someone who has lived 51 years and almost all of them in the Northeast, the Jesuit said, it’s obvious that the weather has been “out of whack for the past 10 years.” As to Hurricane Sandy, specifically, Fr. Martin said: “It’s a wake-up call.”
Published in the Irish Echo on Oct. 31, 2012
Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott
Mitt Romney got into trouble not once, but twice in 2012 with comments he made to donors behind closed doors. There was his writing off of 47 percent of Americans as moochers who weren’t going to vote for him. He was pandering, of course, to super rich individuals who believe that they got all their money through their smarts and individual effort; and with regard to the latter: if they get 500 or 1,000 times more money than you or me it’s because, well, they’ve worked much harder than we have.
Some of them undermine others who might, too, like to be super rich one day by weaving a narrative that downplays how tax dollars aid wealth creation through research and development, education, infrastructure and so on.
The GOP’s presidential candidate went there in a different way at an event in Israel, which was attended by Sheldon Adelson, an American hardliner on Middle East policy who gets much of his money thanks to the good offices of the Chinese government. The difference in income between Israelis and Palestinians, argued Romney, can be attributed to “culture.”
Some objected to this on fairly simple historical grounds. For instance, WNYC host Brian Lehrer, who is himself Jewish, pointed to a centuries-long tradition of Arab entrepreneurialism.
More generally, this talk of cultural difference goes to the heart of conservative/liberal debates on immigration, poverty and other issues. The conservative social theorist Thomas Sowell, who is African American, is well known for his view that some immigrant groups do better than others because they have the right values.
Opposing the Sowell line from the left-liberal corner came Steven Steinberg of Queens College with his book “The Ethnic Myth” (published originally in 1981). Actually, he challenged a series of myths, even if they derived from the same misconception. One myth was that of Jewish intellectualism and that was discussed with the myth of Catholic anti-intellectualism. Steinberg sought to show that an interest in education was greatly determined by where one was on the socio-economic ladder.
Southern Italians and East European Jews arrived in huge numbers in the decades before World War I. Both groups were equally impoverished. However, the latter had two distinct advantages in moving up the ladder in America – they were skilled and had higher rates of literacy in their own language (Yiddish in the great majority of cases), which more easily facilitated the learning of the language of the new country. Although some Jews came from the rural towns and villages known as shtetls, more had been living in urban areas. Despite their poverty, said Steinberg, “Jewish immigrants were concentrated in economically advanced sectors of their countries of origin, and therefore had industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.”
The first American-born generation of Italians, of course, did learn to read and write in English, but for decades there was to be no easy path to the middle class for most families – even though they were associated with the traditional values of the sort that Sowell and other conservatives might agree with.
Timing has a great deal to do with members of a group moving up. Puerto Ricans were encouraged to migrate to New York after World War II, but the city would soon begin its long industrial decline. Race is another consideration. African Americans came North seeking opportunity, but encountered discrimination and exclusion.
Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, despite having certain truthiness issues (as Mr. Colbert would put it), has no problem lecturing the poor in a Dickensian vein about “character.” This has long been the default position of conservative people of means. In the 19th century, poverty was thought to be a character flaw; as time went on people found new ways to express that idea more subtly – or not so subtly with the rise of the New Right. Now the Ayn Rand-admiring Ryan and his ilk are adding new dogmatic twists to those prejudices.
Rand wrote about the “virtue of selfishness” and so it really shouldn’t matter if you make use of a hand-up or a handout along the way; you just don’t want anybody else to. However, the inclination is usually to think that you did it all yourself. Author and journalist Joan Walsh, who is interviewed on Page 2, writes of an aunt who would declare: “We worked for everything we had; some people had things handed to them.” That often is the biggest ethnic myth of all.
By Peter McDermott
During his first spring in the White House, Richard Nixon read with interest an article written by journalist Pete Hamill. He then had Xeroxed copies of “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class” made for all Cabinet members.
The Irish-American newspaperman had been a friend and supporter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy and was therefore an unlikely information source for the president. But key aides had recommended his long piece in New York magazine in April 1969. Hamill fretted about the increasing “alienation and paranoia” among the people he’d grown up with, and it was there that the president’s men saw opportunity.
Said author Joan Walsh, a New York Irish Catholic and liberal Democrat of a later generation: “[Speechwriter] Pat Buchanan and [electoral strategist] Kevin Phillips and other people around Nixon had been telling him about white, working-class anger and telling him that there was an opening with my people, but they didn’t really have evidence. They could point to vague rumblings. I think that Pete’s article really crystallized it and he brought the voices of these people who were feeling very abandoned by government.
“It’s an incredibly vivid and painful piece,” said Walsh, who has worked at Salon.com for 14 years, five of them as editor-in-chief, “but it makes clear that they feel like government has abandoned them for minorities and that their lives are getting worse, which they were.”
Walsh’s just-published “What’s the Matter with White People?” focuses on the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, North and South; the question in the title is addressed in part to Democratic Party strategists, whom she believes haven’t done enough to win back the voters they’ve lost over the years, some of her relatives among them.
One section of the book is entitled: “Fact-Checking a Fractured Irish Fairy Tale.” Her father, the son of Irish immigrants and a former Christian Brother, only got more liberal with age; he despised Nixon, while his wife, a one-time Kennedy Democrat, liked him and probably cast her last presidential vote in his favor. (She died of cancer in early 1976, when Joan, the eldest of her three children, was 17.)
“What’s the Matter with White People?” is at once a heartfelt Irish-American memoir and a compelling account of U.S. electoral politics over the past five decades or so.
The Hard Hat Riot of May 1970 is a key event in the narrative, because it seemed to confirm for Republican leaders what Hamill had been describing. The episode began when New York City Mayor John Lindsay ordered flags to be flown at half-mast after the killing of four students and the wounding of nine more by Ohio Army National Guardsmen at Kent State University.
A thousand New York students gathered at Federal Hall to protest the deaths, and the invasion of Cambodia, at Federal Hall. Peter Brennan, head of the Building Trades Council, organized a counter demonstration of a few hundred workers. Many of the workers attacked the young war protesters, in many cases using their hard hats, while the police stood by. John Patrick Walsh, the father to whom the book is dedicated, was horrified as he watched it unfold; he also believed his steamfitter brother was a participant.
Brennan was appointed secretary for labor after Nixon won re-election, by which time the Republican Lindsay had switched to the Democratic Party. The two men personified the realignments that would take place in the Northeastern states over the next few decades. The moderate wing of the Republican Party disappeared. And in its absence, upwardly mobile whites voted Democratic; meanwhile, many blue-collar and lower-middle-class voters moved to the right. It happened, for instance, on the maternal side of the author’s family: two college-educated uncles stayed loyal Irish Catholic Democrats, while those who hadn’t gone to college eventually became Republican.
For Walsh, though, Lindsay was part of the problem – representing, as he did, the silk-stocking, blue-blooded Protestant elite. “Even his admirers feel he didn’t have an innate sympathy with the white working class,” she said.
In contrast, Kennedy had had some political capital with white workers. “Bobby was not a miracle worker. Bobby couldn’t make those angry people less angry,” Walsh said, “but he still had a pull with them, as well as great sympathy and support among African Americans.
“But even Bobby was saying: ‘we might have to give up on the unions because they’re too pro-war and anti-civil rights,’” she added.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote to him, Walsh said: “Bobby, don’t turn your back on your people.”
The breach did come to pass in 1972: big labor preferred neutrality to backing RFK’s anointed successor, Senator George McGovern.
Kennedy’s friend Hamill had no real answers writing the year after his death, other than listening.
Walsh believes, fundamentally, that that was and is the correct approach. The Democrats, she said, might have heard more clearly that there was a “misperception about who is getting help and how much help they’re getting.”
She added that the party “didn’t spend that much time helping them, and the government did spend a lot more time making rich people rich no matter who is in power.”
But Walsh, who is also a MSNBC commentator, allowed that some might be long past listening; and conservatives produce conservative children. “It’s hard to reach back and grab them,” she said.
Walsh built a career in San Francisco, married a Jewish husband and gave birth to a daughter, Nora, who is now a college student. In her early teens, Nora Walsh DeVries persuaded her divorced parents to let her go to a Christian Brothers-run high school, unaware that her late grandfather had been a member of the order from age 13 through his 20s. She loved, her mother reported, the “warm communal atmosphere of the big school, known for its sports teams and strong scholarship program that powered its comparative racial and economic diversity.”
Through the years, Walsh maintained ties to aunts, uncles and cousins back East, many of them Republicans. The two coasts, however, avoided political discussions for the most part.
In any case, a wall of distortion and invention has been erected: Fox News. The old networks had brought America the news about the struggles over civil rights and reported that the war was going badly, and simply by doing so appeared biased to some. Along with big media, the right lumped in, without evidence, the universities as leftist bastions. It then set about building think tanks and its own media outlets. The Democratic Party, she believes, has struggled badly to keep up.
The casualty of all of this for Walsh is the national ability to agree on a set of political facts. “There’s nothing worse than Fox News, I’m sorry,” she said. “They have a parallel set of facts.”
MSNBC is partisan, but Walsh labeled as “ignorant” putting it on the same level as Fox News.
Fox boss Roger Ailes, who rebranded Nixon in the late 1960s, is the difference, because “he runs the Republican Party.” She added: “Trust me: there’s nobody sitting around MSNBC like Roger Ailes thinking about how to help the Democratic Party and how to settle scores between different factions of the Democratic Party.”
Walsh, who’d been taught to debate by her father, took on Bill O’Reilly, a favorite of many of her relatives, after the killing of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas. “Tiller the Baby Killer” had been a target of O’Reilly’s for four years.
O’Reilly, though an “angry bully” who badgered her with lines like “Stop talking, Ms. Walsh,” didn’t shorten the segment, as she’d expected. However, he mercilessly mocked her for days after her appearance.
Her performance on “The O’Reilly Factor” made her a progressive hero, but she found the whole experience traumatic. She writes in her book that she got “thousands of emails and letters to Salon, many of them calling me a murderer and telling me they wished my mother had aborted me or that my daughter had been forcibly aborted, in vivid, disturbing detail.”
But Walsh is generally a hopeful liberal. She noted that some Fox campaigns — especially one that targeted President Obama over a speech he gave before his election — have fallen flat of late.
And she believes that Republican strategies “to racialize poverty, to racialize government, to racialize welfare are becoming less effective.”
“What’s the Matter with White People? Why We Long for A Golden Age That Never Was” is published in hardcover by Wiley.
Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott
In 1960, a future Republican president wrote to his party’s nominee, Vice-President Richard Nixon, offering support because he said the Democratic candidate was clearly under the sway of the philosophies of Karl Marx.
It may seem strange, then, that Congressman Paul Ryan in his recent debate chose to invoke that “Marxist” on his side of the argument, rather than the letter sender Ronald Reagan, in the context of tax cuts. That provoked the famous riposte from Vice President Joe Biden: “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?”
So, what was all that about? Well it’s true that after the most sustained period of peacetime growth since the Civil War, the economy hit a sluggish patch, and the Kennedy Administration decided that the economy needed a stimulus. It didn’t have the votes in Congress for increased government spending, so it proposed a tax cut, which President Johnson implemented in 1964.
In an excellent piece on the New Republic’s website addressing Ryan’s comment, Timothy Noah offers a “significant difference” between the 1963 and 2012 proposals. “Romney and Ryan want to lower taxes by the same amount for all brackets, high and low. Kennedy (really, Johnson) lowered taxes more at the middle and especially at the bottom than he did at the top.”
The latter was what’s called a “demand-side” cut boosting consumer spending rather than “supply-side” cut aimed at encouraging investment.
“Ronald Reagan’s tax cut in 1981 was pretty obviously a supply-side cut because it lowered the top tax rate more than it did rates at the middle or the bottom,” he says.
Noah, the author of a “The Great Divergence,” a much-praised book about the growing inequality in the U.S. since the 1970s, adds: “Today’s grotesquely lopsided income distribution explains why any uniform reduction in tax rates (say, Romney’s proposed 20 percent) is really a tax cut for the rich in disguise.”
For more context on the earlier tax reduction, one might consult an outtake on YouTube from the Sept. 9, 1963 episode of NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” for which the president was interviewed by the hosts in the Oval Office.
Kennedy asks for a do-over on two questions about Vietnam. The anchors are only too happy to oblige, as one of them flubbed a question.
It’s like a scene out of “Mad Men,” guys in dark suits talking about the world – a time before women had even made it into binders.
They chitchat off the record about perception and reality in politics, about the economy, about the tax cut and how “damned difficult” it is, in JFK’s words, to sell deficits even though they are necessary sometimes to boost the economy. One of the anchors reveals Harry S. Truman (the last previous Democratic president) made a comment to reporters that day about the proposed tax reduction.
The president is curious about what Truman said, “He said he is opposed to a tax cut until you get the budget down,” David Brinkley says.
Kennedy smiles, shaking his head.
A couple of minutes on, he goes back to it. “I’m surprised at Truman. God. They get him on those morning walks.” And he laughs.
JFK is enthusiastic about the policy and the miracles the British government worked with it. So he suggests he tags on more about it on camera.
“Maybe we should say what Truman said: because a lot of people will not have heard it,” says Chet Huntley.
You can see for an instant that Kennedy is sorry he even mentioned it. He grits his teeth and flashes a look to an aide off camera that says: “How did we let this happen?”
JFK was a pol to his fingertips. A commentator or ideologue might love a nationwide audience to sound off to, but the elected official is far less interested in winning an intellectual argument. He or she wants to be sure the policy goes over well in places like Ashtabula, Ohio.
Some on the left believe that all President Obama has to do is explain, and that that is what leadership is about. Never mind that he has to deal with a 24-hour news media, sections of which are unremittingly hostile and obstructionist. For his part in this instance, JFK was worried about an ex-president from his own party who, he allowed, was trying to be helpful.
As for the 1964 tax cut, opinion is divided about whether it or not worked. Indeed, Noah says that “according to a recent Congressional Research Service survey, there’s no clear evidence that tax cuts have ever stimulated economic growth, going all the way back to 1945.”
It’s worth recalling, too, that that long boom up to the 1960s was achieved with a top marginal tax rate of 91 percent. Somehow, though, the well off got by.
Published in the Oct. 3, 2012, edition of the Irish Echo.
Theatre / By Orla O’Sullivan
Not alone death, but death announcements specifically, featured heavily in this year’s 1st Irish Theater Festival, a month-long event that concluded Sunday.
Things we would rather not acknowledge; how we present to the world; secrets: this, the stuff of drama, was present at many points in the fifth annual festival.
Marie Jones’ “Fly Me to the Moon,” reviewed in the Sept. 19 issue, even managed to roll such themes together in a comedy where someone dies on the toilet.
However, life’s sordid underbelly got more dramatically satisfying consideration in fledgling shows that made brief appearances in the final week of the festival than in its headline events. Last week was devoted to new plays, described as “more than workshops” but inviting audience collaboration to refine the productions–this from a Q&A with writers and directors at the end of the week.
“Brendan,” one of this Next Generation series, lacked the polish of more prominent 1st Irish events, reviewed in the mainstream New York press.
However, “Brendan,” written by Ronan Noone, arguably got you more involved with the characters, mostly thanks to great performances by Dashiell Eaves as Brendan, a recent immigrant to the U.S., and Nancy Walsh, playing his mother, who follows him in spirit. Like an overgrown, malevolent parrot on his shoulder, she constantly reminds Brendan of his ineptitude with women and the failed suicide that drove him from Ireland. The mother is humanized just enough to confuse, dispensing wise counsel and occasional endorsements.
“Brendan” opens, appropriately enough, echoing Camus’s novel “l’Etranger,” the outsider or foreigner, with the news that his mother has died. The entertaining play works towards oddbod Brendan cutting the apron strings that bind him to his overbearing mother.
Brendan: Shut up! You’re dead, you’re bloody dead!
Mother: That’s no way to talk to your mother.
The characters in the other Next Generation play seen are waiting for a death. “House Strictly Private” is a direct reference to funeral arrangements, i.e. no mourners are invited back to the family home after the burial.
The man who took in his brother’s wife and children after his brother died is now on death’s door himself, and the secrets closed in his once iron fist are slipping from his grip. Sexual and physical abuse, infidelity and issues of inheritance, it’s all starting to come out.
Honesty doesn’t come easily to a family bound by shame and paranoia. Family members often quiz each other on what others have been saying, and characters rarely appear opposite each other on stage—a structurally inventive way to convey the lack of open communication.
Yet, these monologues tie so seamlessly together that at one stage I realized I was forgetting to take notes I was so drawn in to the story.
“House Strictly Private,” by Jimmy Kerr, was my favorite of the festival shows seen. It combined a dramatic tale and compelling characters with the performing talent witnessed in other 1st Irish hits: “Fly Me to the Moon” (reviewed in the Sept. 19 issue) “Hard Times,” the musical (Sept. 26), which will be revived in November; and “Silent” (Sept. 19), Pat Kinevane’s solo showing, going on to the Odyssey Theatre in LA, from Nov. 23 to Dec. 9.
Four of 10 1st Irish plays this year were in the Next Generation, recently conceived by the organizer Origin Theater Company. Of the other two, “For Love,” written by and starring Laoisa Sexton, sold out, while Bernard McMullan’s “Jimmy Titanic,” which made light of death—aboard the Titanic—was very well received.
“House Strictly Private” was at its best at its darkest. Deirdre (Jo Kinsella) is a girl coming to collect eggs on the family farm. In the gloom and stink of the henhouse, amid a ferocious storm, it seems she witnesses her brother being abused by her uncle. This is only intimated by writing and acting that ominously portray the taking of the hen’s eggs as a violation that parallels the sexual abuse.
“That henhouse,” Deirdre tells us, “was held together with s**** and bailing twine.” By the end of the play, she knows what she knows, and it’s even more than she thought. The henhouse has blown apart.
Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott
Screenwriter, novelist and journalist Budd Schulberg (1914-2009), it seems, was friends with everybody from Harpo Marx to Muhammad Ali. He was once led astray by F. Scott Fitzgerald for a lost long alcohol-fueled weekend when they were working on a screenplay together. Three decades later he became close to Bobby Kennedy, and was present when the senator was murdered in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. More than 35 years on again and he was both friend and mentor to two people who’ve been profiled in the Irish Echo: Waterfront Commission police detective Kevin McGowan and the author of “On the Irish Waterfront,” Prof. James T. Fisher.
Yet, nobody had quite the impact on his life as the crusading Jesuit priest, John “Pete” Corridan (1911-1984). It was a friendship forged between two men who grew up in rather different circumstances. Corridan’s father, a NYPD officer from County Kerry, died when he was 11, while Schulberg was the son of a Hollywood movie mogul. The highpoint of Schulberg’s career was “On the Waterfront,” for which he won an Oscar, one of eight for that classic 1954 movie. He penned the famous Marlon Brando lines: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”
But he said his favorite scene was the “Christ on the waterfront” speech given by Karl Malden, as the priest. Schulberg told the New York Times in 2006: “I didn’t really write it. Father Corridan really wrote it.”
More generally, Corridan’s Christian ethics offered Schulberg the basis of a social democratic and humanist vision that could replace the hard-line communism that he’d left behind.
Prof. Fisher has challenged the long-held view that “On the Waterfront” was an apologia for “naming names.” Both Schulberg and director Elia Kazan had been friendly witnesses before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and so their critics suggested that the not so subtle message of the film was: snitching is good. It didn’t help that director Elia Kazan was only too happy to defiantly embrace that reading of it himself.
But he didn’t write the movie. Schulberg did. And Fisher made an extraordinary discovery, the smoking gun of his story, in a university’s archives. The first draft of the screenplay, and it predated Schulberg being called before the committee.
In any case, Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy risking life and limb to break the stranglehold that mobsters and crooked businessmen had on workers was hardly the same as naming names before the HUAC. There was very little that was noble about pointing the finger at friends who had done nothing illegal. Indeed in 1949, Schulberg had put his name to a letter calling for the committee to be abolished. But in the following year, a Hollywood director, Richard Collins, named Schulberg at a HUAC hearing as a former Communist. Even though the screenwriter had broken acrimoniously with the party a full 10 years before, he presented himself before the committee in early 1951. He knew that if he didn’t become a friendly witness, his career in movies would likely be over.
Lee J. Cobb, one of the stars of “On the Waterfront,” had refused for two years to implicate others, but finally caved to pressure in 1953 for that same reason. Cobb told an interviewer 20 years later that his wife had suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized as a result. “When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying,” he said.Corridan, as it happens, was prepared to work with Republicans and Communists, as well as Democrats. He thought the whole security threat was overdone and believed that the iron grip that criminals had on New York’s docks was a bigger threat than the Communist-influenced unions on the West Coast, where workers got a fair deal. He once argued this to a group of lay Catholics at a meeting in New Jersey, adding that the government knew it, too.
Fisher shows in his book that “On the Waterfront” was about what it said it about and that it was told from the perspective of this remarkable priest.
The Friends of the Irish Waterfront, which is sponsored by UFT’s Irish Heritage Committee and the American Irish Teachers Association, will honor Corridan’s legacy and celebrate Fisher’s book on a dinner cruise around Manhattan island on Friday night, Oct. 19. Tickets are $50 per person. Boarding at East 23rd Street/FDR Drive from 7 p.m.; returns at 10:30. Send checks to AITA, Inc., 6 East 87 St., New York, N.Y. 10128. For more details, call Maureen Young 917-453-4514 or email Irish1022@verizon.net.
Theatre / By Orla O’Sullivan
“Silent” written by Pat Kinevane * Directed by Jim Culleton * Starring Pat Kinevane * The Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St., at 11th Avenue, NYC * Tickets: (866) 811-4111 * Run has been extended a week through Sunday, Sept. 30.
If Pat Kinevane is in danger of being typecast in the tiny niche of roles for homeless characters after his one-man show “Silent,” running at the Irish Arts Center through, it’s a risk worth taking.
Kinevane also played a homeless man in last year’s Oscar-nominated short film, “Shoe.” He is captivating in both, but “Silent” lets him show off his talents as a mime and writer.
The show opens to the stark scene of a rumpled blanket on a deserted stage and the light tinkle of piano music, perhaps Chopin. A foot emerges, toes pointed to the ceiling, and is joined by another in silhouette in a balletic dance. It is an ingeniously absurd introduction to the star of the show, ’Tino McGoldrig, named after silent-movie heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. (To go by Rudolph, “would have been a disaster in Cobh [Kinevane’s birthplace],” Tino later explains. “I would have been stoned to death with pellets of my own s****.)”
That small-town mentality drove his homosexual brother to suicide, and Tino towards madness. Channeling the wide-eyed intensity of silent film-acting, Kinevane mercurially conveys other destabilizing influences, including a mother so narcissistic she dolls herself up for the police each time she awaits word of the brother’s latest suicide attempt.
The story feels less compelling than the telling.
Direction is in the sure hands of Jim Culleton from Dublin’s Fishamble, back in New York with a bang for the annual 1st Irish Theater Festival. Like a stand-up comic, Kinevane dismantles “the fourth wall” and interacts with a couple of audience members. (At one point, Tino tells one participant he’s not as mad as the other.)
As an actor, with little more than a blanket to play against, Kinevane mimes through scenes that have it sweep between his legs convincingly as his ballroom-dancing partner. Later, the blanket nods a puppet-style “I do” in a wedding scene where Kinevane’s facial expressions of a groom feigning bravado are perfect. And as a writer, he has some inspired touches, including a scene where Tinto lays out his theory that Cork and France have lots in common, “Both aggressive, arrogant… But most of all—the accents—la toilette, de toilette…Voila – Malla! [Mallow] … All in the throat. Fuch offf youuu languuur!”
Equally unscientific, a poll the Echo conducted on the night of the performance indicated that “Silent” might, understandably, have spoken more to Irish-born attendees. Regardless, the play is bound for Los Angeles, having made its U.S. debut in New York. First produced in 2010, “Silent” has won several awards across the Pond, including first place at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year.
By Orla O’Sullivan
Musicals can be irritating, their manufactured emotion unbearably phony. Larry Kirwan’s “Hard Times,” however, is not just the best of the genre I’ve seen, but truly affecting.
The rest of the audience was also demonstrably moved at one of the extra performances laid on during the show’s largely sold-out run through Sunday as part of the 1st Irish Theater Festival.
As the musical ended, it transformed from your typical theater experience to a “seisiún.” Switching from spectators to participants, the audience clapped to the beat of the last song. So in synch with the performers were they that when individual actors performed solos within that final number the crowd automatically self-modulated to a slower clap less likely to drown out the singer.
Will it sustain such involvement if-or more likely when-“Hard Times” moves to Broadway and not the intimate West 23rd Street venue, the Cell?
This is the story of the hard birth of the modern U.S., told mostly through the songs of Stephen Foster, whose famous compositions include “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Kirwan provides others, such as “Five Points,” the rough area in lower Manhattan where the immigrant Irish and free blacks amongst others collided in July 1863. Ethnic tensions surged in the Draft Riots as poorer men, such as newly arrived Irish, were drawn to help the Union side win the Civil War–which many resented as an effort to free southern slaves.
Kirwan takes some poetic license as he writes the characters in a bar on the notorious Bowery where the action unfolds. Their relationships parallel American society breaking free of old strictures. Pivotal characters are the bar owner, free slave Nelly Bly (Almeria Campbell); Irishman Owen Duignan (John Charles McLaughlin) who works for her; and composer Stephen Foster (Jed Peterson), who lived locally.
All elements are well done, from the powerful singing, dancing and acting to the simple set with its tattered version of an emergent U.S. flag, and choreography that visually created five points in a new, Irish set-dance combination for the “Five Points” number.