The other day I found myself musing how much fun Shakespeare would have with the assorted knaves, brigands, fools, strumpets, cutpurses and buffoons in our sight today.
Then I noticed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is on Broadway, and I flicked on the Web and saw a familiar facial expression – a sullen youth who can never get enough, of anything.
These are all stock characters for the ages, from the open-air theaters of London in the 16th and 17th Century to the films and plays today.
Roald Dahl captured it in his book that inspired the movie with Gene Wilder, leading to the Broadway musical of today. Dahl created a character described on the school-prep web site, gradesaver.com
Gloop is incredibly greedy and the first child to find a Golden Ticket. He is also the first child to fail Wonka’s tests. Gloop eats an extraordinary amount of chocolate, so much that his mother says it would have been impossible for him not to have eventually found a Golden Ticket. While his origin is unknown in the book, he tends to be thought of as German, since he is from Germany in both movies. His mother seems to delight in her son’s gluttonous habits and encourages them. Augustus leaves the factory when he drinks from the chocolate river, and falls in, getting sucked up a pipe and sent to the Fudge Room.
These days we have a public figure, indulged by his family but, when he was discovered hiding knives, was banished to a military school, hence the unsated appetite for attention, for love, for respect.
The irony is that in the original movie, the Gloop family hails from Bavaria. Today the leader of Germany is a dignified woman who has put up with two boy-men presidents from America.
And by the way, the comparison of Dahl’s Gloop and our current Gloop is not about excess weight – it’s the neediness, the meanness, the emptiness.
Our Gloop is capable of generosity, but only to himself and his associates for the moment, as witnessed by his proposed plan that would cut taxes for the gunnysack guys he has assembled -- people like him.
Going on 100 days, I am waiting for a Willy Wonka figure to emerge from Congress and inspect the new Augustus Gloop with a gimlet eye.
Savvy Europeans have figured out Ivanka the Brand; one of these days maybe some law agency will take a look at Jared Kushner and his dodgy investors.
As for our contemporary Gloop, where, when we really need it, is the pipe to the Fudge Room?
(check out the antlers over the newscaster's head)
I often forget that Shakespeare was apparently born (1564) and died (1616) on the same date – St. George’s feast day, in fact.
If I were in London today, I would pop into the National Portrait Gallery for a quick salute to the so-called Chandos portrait, named for the dukes who owned it.
It is far more vital than any reproduction; the luminous eyes pick you up when you enter the room and keep a curious watch until you exit stage left (or right).
He is watching you, as he observed the mortals in his world, as he made artistic deductions about the people of his time and the myths of the past.
There is always something to learn about Shakespeare – considering that some people think he is an amalgam, a composite, an alias. Fact is, he was a living, breathing presence – an actor and playwright who walked the streets of London.
Then there is Marie Mountjoy.
I recently picked up a terrific book, “The Year of Lear,” by James Shapiro, published in late 2015, about the tumultuous year of 1606, a year of near revolution, a year of intrigue, a year of creativity.
One thing is documented: the playwright who had real status with the court and playgoers alike, when day was done, trekked back to Silver St. on the north bank of the Thames, and resided in the home of the Mountjoys, Christopher and Marie.
Never heard of them before, even though my life is forever enriched by my exposure to the great Shakespearean tradition at Hofstra University.
According to Shapiro’s book, Marie Mountjoy and her husband – from a Huguenot family escaped from France -- apparently did not get along; but she could converse with the star boarder who wrote in his room.
There was a dispute over a dowry to a Mountjoy daughter; Shakespeare, not a lawyer but an entitled property-owner from Stratford, counselled his landlady.
That is all Shapiro, a renowned scholar, wrote on the subject. But with a name like that and an active imagination, one could imagine that the friendship went beyond that – particularly with the landlady’s name straight out of Wycherly’s 1675 play, “The Country Wife” (Mistress Fidget, Harry Horner, Mistress Squeamish and, in one recent version, Margery Pinchwife, played by, be calm, my beating heart, Helen Mirren.)
Speaking of dirty minds, the tabloid, the Daily Mail, speculated about Shakespeare and Marie Mountjoy in 2007:
On Shakespeare’s birthday and death day, my wife turned up the all-day program on WQXR-FM – music with mostly Shakespearean themes: Delius, Beach, Gounod, Mendelssohn.
In this barbaric epoch, could Shakespeare have fun with a Trump, a Bannon, an Ivanka, a Pence, a Palin, a Flynn, a Kellyanne, a Spicer? You betcha.
Happy birthday, dude.
Aaron Copland died on Dec. 2, 1990.
We were driving north from Florida to New York on one of those all-nighters we used to pull.
As we drove through coastal Georgia and South Carolina, we listened to works by the great American composer, plus critiques of his career.
Past Brunswick, past Savannah, past Charleston, the radio played ballet scores like "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring" as well as concert pieces like "El Salón Mexico" and "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Lincoln Portrait."
When one station crackled out, just a slight adjustment produced another station, somewhere from 88 to 91 on the FM dial. All that evening, we scarcely missed a note of Copland’s musical references to cowboys and immigrants and martyred heroes.
We were connected to the culture of our entire country, not just Big Town but all the places where classical music touches the heart, the brain, the soul.
I count 17 NPR stations in Georgia and eight in South Carolina.
We know this country well enough to realize that it’s not all political bombast and preachers and country music and rock. As we drove north, in the regional cities and small towns and way out in the counties, people were driving or reading or even falling asleep to the work of the master from Boys High in Brooklyn, who never attended college but instead composed music.
This synchronized symphony along Interstate 95 was no accident. It came through a chain of National Public Radio stations, bringing classical music and news and features to all the people and subsidized in part by tax money, via public officials who have recognized, over the years, that pipers (and composers) must be paid.
Now National Public Radio is under siege, its subsidies threatened. The new regime seems to regard enlightened talk and classical music to be frivolous, even seditious.
In New York, we read that subsidies by wealthy and middle class patrons may keep our two radio stations going.
This means we can count on Brian Lehrer switching intellectual gears every weekday morning on WNYC-FM; we can expect Terrance McKnight to keep on playing his eclectic swath of classical music on WQXR-FM.
We’ll be all right. But in so many other places, the high end of talk and music is threatened.
There are worse things, more dangerous things, worth hectoring your local member of Congress. But In the midst of all the other causes, people need to stand up for National Public Radio, all over this land.
On Saturday, every major-leaguer will wear No. 42, to commemorate Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the majors in the 20th Century.
This will be the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s debut in Ebbets Field, Brooklyn – the beginning of a grueling season, a grinding decade.
Jackie Robinson would die at 53. Many people think the ordeal heightened his diabetes, hastened his death. In a real way, he gave his life for a cause.
This sense of Robinson as vulnerable point man for equality is never more relevant than in a time when Americans seem to be questioning their direction – when the Roberts Supreme Court can negate previous civil-rights legislation, letting us know that things are just fine now, we don’t need all those rules bolstering people’s rights to vote.
By some cosmic happening, the Robinson anniversary and the return of baseball take place in the spring, in the time of Passover and Easter, celebrations of survival.
Robinson’s own beliefs – the power that kept him going – is currently explored by Ed Henry in his new book, “42 Faith,” published by Thomas Nelson. Henry is the Fox News Channel chief national correspondent (and a friend of mine.)
Henry is too young to have seen Robinson play or meet him but in his busy life he has admirably sought out people and places where Robinson’s history can be felt.
Henry explores the magnetic pull of the ball park that used to be in Flatbush; the vanished hotel in Indiana where Branch Rickey gave shelter to the black catcher on his college team, the still-standing Chicago Hilton where a wise Dodger scout named Clyde Sukeforth interviewed a Negro League player named Robinson. Holy places, in a way.
The story has been well told by Arnold Rampersad and Steve Jacobson and Roger Kahn, if not with this overt angle on faith: Robinson was a mainline Protestant who relied on his pastor, who taught Sunday school, who saw life through a framework of Christianity.
He was sought out for the Brooklyn Dodgers by Branch Rickey, a man of religious dedication – who did not go to the ballpark on the Sabbath -- who had no qualms about wheedling his best players out of a thousand here, a thousand there.
Aging Brooklyn heroes like Carl Erskine and Vin Scully recall the strength and complexity of Robinson, and aging fans recall the example of Robinson holding his natural fire, to establish himself, and his people.
This was a big deal, the coming of Jackie Robinson. I remember being home in the spring of 1947 when my father called from the newspaper office to say that our team, the Dodgers, the good guys, had just brought up Robinson from the Montreal farm team, that he would open the season in Brooklyn. We (white, liberal) celebrated.
Every year the major leagues celebrate with No. 42 on every uniform. Thanks to an inquiring journalist, the story goes on.
It was my first visit to Las Vegas. I was covering a Mets trip to the Coast in 1966 or so, and there was a day off between LA and San Francisco.
My pal Vic Ziegel of the good old New York Post said, “Let’s go to Las Vegas.”
Vic had been there before.
Flights were cheap. Food was cheap. The only thing that wasn’t cheap was the gambling, but I don’t gamble. Long story. I watched Vic play blackjack and I watched life in Las Vegas.
The hotel lounge was also inexpensive. By doing the math in Rickles’ obituary in the Times Friday, I deduce that he was around 40, but in a way he was ageless. Bald. Profane. Cranky. What’s it to you?
He had a theme: Anybody who came to see him in that lounge was truly desperate.
He pointed out a young couple and wondered if they were married, or cheating on spouses.
He pointed out a young man: “He’s thinking, I’m in Las Vegas, I can get rid of my pimples.”
Then he recognized Vic as a member of the tribe. A landsman.
“Look at that nose,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Somehow, Rickles deduced that Vic was the sportswriter from the Post.
“Vic Ziegel!” screamed Don Rickles from Jackson Heights, Queens. (Queens boys are a yappy lot.)
“I love you guys!” – meaning the good old Post. (I did not count.)
Rickles thought about it for a while.
“What’s a Ziegel?” he asked the crowd.
Comedic pause. Then he touched his own beak.
“It’s an eagle. A Jewish eagle. A Ziegel.”
That’s all I remember, except laughing a lot. I’m sure Vic could re-create the entire dialogue but unfortunately Vic left the stage in the summer of 2010. He had introduced me to a lot of good stuff on the road – “Beat the Devil” in Cambridge, Mass., him chatting up jazz musician Roland Kirk in some all-night coffee shop on the square in Cincinnati. And Rickles.
In 2015, I saw an aging Don Rickles on the Letterman show; I noticed the immense respect Letterman had for him, getting him through the gig.
Now Rickles has bowed out. But every time I went back to Las Vegas – to write about boxing or an entertainer – I remembered Don Rickles in that lounge.
Here is yet another poll I don’t want to hear. According to the highly-respected Quinnipiac Poll, residents of New York City prefer the Mets to the Yankees by 45-43 percent.
I’m a Met fan, totally out of the closet since retirement as a thoroughly impartial, you-never-could-tell sports columnist.
I come by my National League/Long Island bias honestly as a boyhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who suffered terribly at the hands of the Yankees (to say nothing of, periodically, the New York Giants.)
Quinnipiac is undoubtedly more correct when it says residents of New York State favor the Yankees by 48-34 percent.
Those are the kind of odds I would have expected, what with all those World Series plus icons from Ruth and Gehrig to Jeter and Rivera.
I have come to assume a lot of perfectly nice people have been swayed by the echoes in the “Big Ball Park in the Bronx” (Red Barber’s alliteration, not Mel Allen’s) and all those championships.
Mets fans see their team as an occasional delightful surprise -- that World Series every decade or so, plus gallant efforts foiled by the 1987 Pendleton home run and the 1988 Scioscia home run and the 2006 Molina home run and the 2016 Inciarte catch – plus, the 2000 World Series when rich Yankee fans bought up huge swaths of Shea Stadium tickets. The gloomy words of George Orwell, personified.
Now some New Yorkers may be swayed by all those fine young arms and the power of Céspedes and the dash of the prodigal son Reyes and the professionalism of Cabrera. Mets fans have expectations? Dangerous.
I still want the Mets to be a minority taste which makes the Swoboda catch and the Mookie grounder all the more special.
Then there is this: I don’t want my life guided by polls. Not anymore.
Last autumn I was reassured by within-the-margin-of-error polls: the rational would squeak past the raging id.
No more polls.
* * *
Play ball. Which the Yankees did, indoors, at Tampa Bay, on Sunday. By the second inning, I was immediately delighted with the fine details of baseball:
-- Rays' LF Mallex Smith took a circular route but caught a fly in foul territory.
-- Then, Smith (new to that team) took a piece of paper out of his pocket to scan the defensive scouting on the Yankees. Don't know that I've ever seen that.
-- Between innings, the immortal voice of Bob Sheppard urged us -- stylishly, of course -- to follow the Yankees on the YES network. Nice touch.
-- As starter Masahiro Tanaka faltered, he was watched intensely by three people in the Yankee dugout -- manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and trainer Steve Donohue. Their faces told me: the real season has begun.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.