Political Dignity

Through the churn of almost a century, I’ve observed generations before, during, and after my generation. Although it is interesting to give generations characteristic titles in a nutshell (Lost Generation, Roaring Twenties, Silent Generation), there are often too many different titles for the same generation. In addition, weak titles, like the ‘x, y, z and g’ generations, lose their distinctions very quickly. 

The Greatest Generation has not lost its distinction, even though that title was sort of coined by a famous journalist, Tom Brokaw, who wrote a book (1998) titled by that memorable phrase. There are other titles for that generation, but that title is instantly recognized as a tribute to WW2 veterans and will remain indelible in the American psyche.    

During WW2 our focus was principally on the military dynamics of the war. Political conversations deferred to reverence for the tragic gold stars that hung on neighborhood windows. There was an underlying apprehension about the war.

At that time, I worked as a messenger in New York City’s financial district. One of my daily stops included an office worker whose husband was in the massive Battle of the Bulge. I still remember her anxiety and the remarkable dignity she maintained at her work despite her tension. Though her demeanor was laudable, it was not unique. It was the standard for what is best known as the Greatest Generation

Generational titles are imprecise because they do not cohesively reflect timelines and events. For example, five years after WW2 ended, the Korean War was not just a lingering effect of WW2. That overlap of generational identity is inevitable with all generational flows, but it was particularly true for thousands of soldiers and their families, Baby Boomers notwithstanding. 

As important as the characteristics of each generation may be, the overall direction of a society over many decades is the most accurate measure of American society since England’s Victorian Era (1840s to 1900, Industrial Revolution). 

The descriptions and to some extent even the names of specific generations vary according to the people who list them and who describe them according to their overall mindset about the generations about whom they describe. 

Despite the seemingly desultory manner in which generations are named, the descriptions of them are similar. Certainly, The Great Depression and The Lost Generation, let alone The Greatest Generation speak for themselves. The Lost Generation title was coined by Gertrude Stein (“You are all a Lost Generation.”) The Roaring Twenties was coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald. They ‘lived’ their generations. 

At the moment, I’m still alive. My longevity has long since overridden the narrow strip of time designated as the essence of the first 25-year slice of life ─ less the diaper, teething, walking, and early childhood part of life. I’m not, nor will I ever be famous, but fame is not required to accurately observe the direction of the society in which we are born. What is required is the sensitivity to observe a seemingly small social phenomenon which has been unprecedented for years if not centuries. It is ‘second nature’ to highlight significant events and to a lesser extent associate generations with celebrities (which in time will fade). It is also easy to identify big events like a global financial depression which has come and gone but may again occur. But for me, the key factor that accurately defines a generation is its level of civility.  And language is a major component of civility. 

I think of a series of generations before mine, not just one at a time. Throughout my life and for a very long time before it, politics has been rife with harsh words, bitter words, and scathing insults. But never vulgar. When President Harry Truman fired General MacArthur, the General simply said, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

That was ‘then.’ This is ‘now.’ Like “The shot that was heard around the world,” a major change in American culture has been epitomized by a single word: Scumbags!”

That marks a stark difference between ‘then and now.’ The Congresswoman Maxine Waters has introduced street language into the highly visible political dialogue of American officials at the White House. How’s that for an assault on “the People’s House!” Dictionaries list dozens of meanings for the word except for its street meaning, of which we are all aware ─ unless the neighborhood in which I grew up is unique.

We’ve run out of x, y, and z titles for snap generational distinctions. In addition to that, the narrow distinctions among generations are rapidly blurring.  For example, Ms.Waters and I are of the same generation, but our differences do not reflect our mutual timeline…they never did, even when we were teenagers. Technology and communications have diminished the relevance of an individual’s lifetime, let alone the importance of the brief timeline to which we attach a title. 

Before this century the distribution, acquisition, and even the knowledge of the ‘latest’ artifacts are available to virtually everyone at the same time. Age differences are all but irrelevant. Paradoxically, interpersonal bonding is rapidly dwindling to an eerie kind of isolation.  I liken the quality of current human life to that of a hamster on a wheel, rapidly racing but going nowhere. 

There is an almost hypnotic dependence on machines to simulate human interaction from an exchange of electronic greeting cards to the anonymous ‘in depth’ political exchanges amongst strangers on the Internet, often sprinkled with ‘likes,’ ‘dislikes,’ and ‘subscribe.’ Intellectual life has been reduced to artificial ‘paint by numbers.’ 

What happened to one-on-one or small group discussions at a friend’s home or under the shade of a supported grapevine tunnel!  I had lots of brain-nourishing discussions under the shade of my grandfather’s supported grapevine. Under that shade, I discussed life with a good cousin and my grandfather. Under that shade, we shared firsthand knowledge and experience of the better part of almost two centuries. Under that shade, we had in depth discussions while we plucked and ate world class figs right off grandpa’s three huge fig trees. Figs and philosophy go well together.  

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Kilroy Was Here

“Nothing is forever in the theater. Whatever it is, it’s here, it flares up, burns hot and then it’s gone.”

                                                                                ─ Karen, “All About Eve”

I learned and practiced theater as an art, but was unable to break the strongest of all barriers against a successful career: I had ‘no name’ other than my own. Despite that, I’ve had a great time as actor, director, and acting teacher. Following, are snippets of my virtually phantom career.              

[Note: At one time or another I’ve posted articles on my website that have already referred to some of the following experiences in different contexts, not necessarily in chronological order.] 

THE AUDITION

The New York University auditorium was filled with theater art students tensely waiting to be auditioned by the Dean of the Drama Department who was to direct five Shakespeare plays for a ‘Shakespeare Festival’ consisting of five Shakespeare plays to be performed during a single week in commemoration of the Bard’s  birthday. Each of us had come prepared with a soliloquy of our choice. I selected a passage from Julius Caesar delivered byMarc Antonio, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”

After each of the auditions preceding mine were delivered, the director had not made a single comment. As I walked down the aisle and onto the stage for my audition, the silence was palpable. I performed exactly as I had prepared it. At the end of my audition, I was greeted by applause from my ‘rival’ actors, the director enthusiastically rushed down the aisle, shook my hand, and exclaimed, “You little devil!”

Being physically unsuited for the role of Antonio, I was not cast in that part. But something wonderful happened backstage during the performance of Julius Caesar. The man who played Marc Antonio and I were standing in the wings waiting for our first cues. Just before he made his first entrance, he whispered to me: “You should be playing this part.”

I was physically suited for the role of Puck, played it at the festival, and something else happened that was wonderful. Alone on stage at the last of the festival’s performances, I delivered the last lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream just before the final curtain of the festival. As the audience applauded, I heard a separate applause coming from the wings. The cast had gathered there to applaud me.  To this day, when I see one of my alumni on film or television I whisper, ‘Thank You.’

AFTER N.Y.U.

The mental anguish generated by the hopeless search for an acting job is like wandering without a purpose…worse…a sort of loitering, a  ritual popularly called, ‘The Rounds.’ Hot pavements, freezing temperatures, heavy rain…meaningless ‘cattle calls’ in trade papers enticing ‘us’ with purported casting calls…being an actor without the faintest hope of landing an acting engagement…not even a one-day film extra…let alone doing a TV commercial. All that and worse: being grateful for weekends because the rounds ritual was practiced only weekdays.

PINOCCHIO

Late one Friday I had done my ’rounds’ and was about to go home but changed my mind. 

I forced myself to go to one more theater agency with which I had registered but never had visited.  As I entered the office, an agentwas on the phone speaking tensely. I thought I should just leave, but having come this far, I thought I’d stay just to hand him my resume as soon as he would hang-up.

A dramatization in scripted form

[AGENT hangs-up]

I:           I dropped byto give you my resume, and I ─

                      [AGENT picks up script, and hands it to me.

                      Triumphant Music Under, preferably the

                     ‘Hallelujah Chorus’from Handle’s Messiah]

                                           [Silence as I leaf through the script]

AGENT: This is Friday afternoon. The show airs live Sunday morning.

Are you good at memorizing?

 I: (cool) Yes.

AGENT: (Stares directly into my eyes) Are you sure you can do it?

I: (Confidently) Yes.

AGENT: (Holding his stare) How sure are you?

I: (Firmly) Absolutely.

[Music Under swells]                    

MONDAY MORNING

I’m in the dressing room at an ABC TV facility (channel 7)…I love the smell of greasepaint and the rush of excitement when the Stage Manager enters the room and announces, “Two minutes, Mr. Martone!” He ushers me to the position on stage where I was to begin my performance. When the narration begins I’m inspired by the moment and stand on my head although that’s not scripted. But that is what children and puppets do.

After the show, the narrator ─ who was also the star of the show ─ enthusiastically congratulates me. She tells me this was the last show of the season. She also tells me that next season she would like me to co-star with her every Sunday of the next series. Going home on the subway, I intensely began to memorize the lines.  I thought that at last I would break the ‘no name’ barrier. 

Subsequently, I discovered that was not to be. The actor whom I replaced as Pinocchio didn’t show because he knew that there was not going to be a next season. Apparently, the agent had not yet mentioned that little detail to the star of the show, let alone to me. 

The day after the show, one of the agents with whom I had registered called me. Praising me highly, she said, “You’re amazing!…Where have you been!” I didn’t tell her, “Registered in your files.” She asked me to come to her office. I did. We had a really good talk, but nothing ever came of it. That was not her fault, but possibly was mine because I should have kept visiting her. I’ve never been good at business.

Bottom line: I maintained my ‘no name’ status.

“What’s in a Name?”  ─Shakespeare

In 1976 I was hired to coordinate a series of International Nights at Eisenhower Park and host two of them, British Night and Italian night.

British Night

Although I carefully avoid what may be inaccurately construed as name-dropping ─ although it is not that at all ─ I’m compelled to acknowledge firsthand, Cyril Richard’s inimitable sense of humor.  

When he arrived at the theater, I was still wearing old dungarees, a threadbare shirt, and sneakers. Having provided lighting cues for the lighting crew several hundred feet from the stage, I went to the dressing rooms backstage and changed into an all-white ensemble, including its shoes. 

During the show’s overture, I guided Mr. Richard to his opening entrance to the stage. Before his cue to enter, he expressed concern about being miscast in this show’s milieu. I respectfully reassured him that he would please an audience on any stage and that this audience would love him. He thanked me and then lightened-up, “You look different in that suit.”  I responded, “Well, now I’m playing a different role.” In mock deep concern, he said, “But is it you!” We laughed and it was his cue to enter. 

It was my privilege to be a comforter to that legendary actor.

Spanish Night

On Spanish Night a Flamenco group was to open the show. I’m a flamenco fan. Although I was officially the Program Coordinator, not its Director, I couldn’t resist directing this group. I knew that they were going to just walk on stage before beginning to dance. But I wanted to give them and the audience something better than that.

I gathered them on stage about an hour before the audience would begin to arrive and I asked them if they would allow me to direct them for a theatrical opening. They were very pleased by my suggestion and consented.

Remembering that there was a scrim panel behind the stage’s back wall,

I asked two of them to place the scrim upstage center. They quickly did that.

I then told them that when it was dark enough, all except their singing guitarist would unobtrusively assemble behind the scrim, one at a time, as the audience gathered. The musician would wait in the wings for a cue from me.

The opening number

The stage is dark. On my cue, the dancers assume frozen classic flamenco postures. On that same cue, the guitarist/singer enters in the dark, strumming his guitar as he delivers a classic chant. Flood lights gradually fade-in to reveal the frozen dancers. At the end of his chant, lights bump to full, which is the dancers’ cue to start dancing. (As discussed during our hasty ‘rehearsal,’ the choreographer had created a ‘dancing bridge’ designed to move the dancers out of the scrim and seamlessly glide into their well- rehearsed opening position. 

Their performance was thrilling. I enjoyed being a small part of it.

A GOOD REVIEW IN DISGUISE

“Mario  Martone is a first rate director in search of a show. His lively staging is vastly superior to the soggy material. The players work at a rapid pace under the direction of Mario Martone.” 

                                                                              ─ Emory Lewis, Drama Critic (Cue Magazine)

The ‘next-best’ kind of review is one that pans a show except for a single component of it. Of course I was relieved when I read the review but I was not shocked. I already knew the show would fail.

Rewind

A composer/lyricist team asked me to direct an all-musical revue, titled Antiques, which would consist entirely of songs the team had created. In effect, the musical was still in embryotic form.  

At our first work meeting we agreed that the songs selected from a pool of songs would be those that each of us agreed should be included in the show. More importantly, their sequence must be determined by me alone. That’s what directors of revues do. 

Karen’s flame “flared and burned hot” within and amongst the three of us. I didn’t need to remind them that the arrangement of songs must be the director’s prerogative.  As we worked, they appreciated every major decision I made unilaterally. 

THE ANATOMY OF A DEADLY DECISION

The authors found a producer: Dore Shary. Hehad a name. He was a very successful screenwriter, so much so that his name appeared on the opening screen credits for several major films during Hollywood’s Classic Era. 

One afternoon, the musical’s authors told me that Mr. Shary invited them to Hollywood to discuss the musical. The show was to be filmed before a live audience at the Mercer Arts Theater Complex in Greenwich Village, New York City, a ‘city’ within a city.  

At that time, Avant Guard Theater – aka Theater of the Absurd – was at its peak. The complex was predominantly a venue for shows of that genre. Antiques was basically upbeat.  Mercer Arts was not exactly the best venue for a cheerful musical.  In deference to the theater trend at that time, I placed a song at the beginning of the show that would be the perfect opening number for trendy critics. That’s also what directors do.

When the authors returned from California the order of songs had been altered in violation of my director’s prerogative. The authors had not understood that my control over the order of songs was not arbitrary. Shows that have a good opening have a better chance to succeed even if they sag somewhat at their end; shows that have a bad beginning are less likely to succeed even if they improve somewhat toward the end of the show.

I knew from the beginning that Antiques was not a sure winner. I tried to squeak it through to get at least a fair review, but Mr. Shary’s  juggling of songs assured a negative review. 

[Note: From the 30’s through the 60’s, Cue Magazine was the standard for city magazines throughout the world.]

ANOTHER GOOD REVIEW IN DISGUISE

“As a result the current reading at Shubert Alley is tedious despite the skillful performances by Mario Martone and Mary Simon.”                                                          

                                                                                                                    ─The Village Voice

Ironically, despite that bad review for the show, my experience at café theater was a beautiful one…Shubert Alley, a pleasant venue in the heart of Greenwich Village…the  respectful silencing of tea cups and mugs when the show was about to begin and, best of all, I knew I belonged.

A REMARKABLE REVELATION

Shortly after NYU, I was cast as Leader of the Chorus in a production of Oedipus Rex. As I lead the chorus down the aisle at the beginning of the show, I was inspired by my love for ancient Greek theater. I imagined I was an actor at the ancient Theater of Dionysus…the Acropolis…the masks… the birth of theater. When my path reached the stage platform, I swerved in a sharp right angle in order to mount the steps to the stage. After the show, the actor immediately behind me on the entrance line excitedly said to me, “When you turned, I thought I was in ancient Greece!”

It was wonderful to know that I can convey something as abstract as the birth of theater without speaking. That’s something that can’t be taught at a University or any school of theater. His excitement assured me for life that I can act. 

THE PHOENIX RISES

I never got a name, but however few and obscure my acting experiences have been, I’ve had a full and wonderful career as a director for about a hundred plays and musicals, each one of which still burns hotly in my memory and whispers to me, ‘Mario was here.’

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Buzz, Slogans, and Other Misconceptions

A long time ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of young friends from time to time who were interested in hearing what an old man had to say about everything. Politely and respectfully, one of the group once told me that he was struck by my self-assurance. I use the word ‘struck’ to avoid placing any judgment on the subtext of his comment. He understandably did not want to offend me by even the slightest implication that my self-assurance was a function of arrogance. I knew then (as I still do) that there is a fine line between self-assurance and arrogance as perceived by people who are not aware of the firm distinction between arrogance and self-assurance. Yet, I place humility aside when I feel it’s necessary to do so, as I’m about to do now. 

Although the implicit meaning of the slogan Black Lives Matter is effective, it is an offensive slogan. Policemen who have killed black men in the fog of violence (or fear thereof), do not deliberately kill black men because their lives don’t matter. Hyperbole is not an argument.

Threats, ominously chanted in the tone of deep male voices in the dark of night, evoke the spectra of a Medieval death squad. The slogan, “What do we want?…Dead Cops!” is spine-chilling and profoundly un-American.

‘Systemic Racism’ is at best an expression designed to incite hatred. 

‘Defund the Police’ is a criminal’s most fervent dream and a windfall for anarchists.  

‘Resistance,’ ‘Social Justice,’ and ‘Colonialism’ are terms straight out of threadbare collectivist indoctrination. Most history and social study university professors know exactly what I mean by that.

‘Xenophobia’ is a word used to promote prejudice against white people ─ especially old males. 

‘Imaginary Politics’: Unfortunately, the exponents of political imagination are not aware ─ or is it, “not woke”? ─ in terms of the reality of a society without police.    

‘White supremacists’ are the counterparts of Black Militants and a few other ‘people of color.’

‘Nazi’ is a one-word, all-purpose word employed to instantly quell an adversary’s political arguments.

‘A Fair Share of Taxes’: Exactly how is a ‘fair share of taxes’ determined?

‘White Privilege?’ I wouldn’t know about that. I’m white, but have been poor most of my life.

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Kamala Harris

Debate or Dumb Show?

In the world of theater, the worst criticism an actor dreads is called, “mugging.” Or, as it is more generally known: overacting.  Last night I watched the first Democratic Vice-Presidential debate.  Political events are necessarily ‘bigger- than- life,’ but this one was beyond ‘over the top’ on the part of Senator Kamela Harris.

Playing to the cameras, to the audience present at the debate and to the television audience, she projected a blaring subtext that overshadowed her script. Her political message was upstaged by the character she played, a sympathetic, loving, and doting mother speaking to her naïve son (Vice-President Pense) in the presence of her guests (us). From the beginning of the debate to its conclusion, there was not an instant that she was not on stage—not the stage provided for the debate, but the world stage. I struggled to take my eyes off her. I was mesmerized by her performance.  

When she spoke, her attention alternated between the stage and us. When he spoke, she looked toward him with adoring sympathy as a parent often does when her child is unwittingly ‘cute’ in the company of adults.  Several times she even pretended that she had difficulty holding her breath from laughter so that her child would not be embarrassed by his gaffes. She shared those precious moments along with knowing glances towards her guests. 

But her performance had a profound flaw. In theater, an audience knows and enjoys authentic  bigger- than- life comedy, whether it is sophisticated or in the style of tongue-in- cheek British Musical Hall. But, in real life, sarcasm, superiority, and condescension are all too real. Ridicule blended with false smiles is the most offensive insult, generated only by intense hatred. Kamala was not interpreting a character. Her performance was starkly transparent. Her Dumb Show revealed an ugly truth about her real character.

Americans deserve better than that.    

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Assault on the Lady in the Harbor

Sometimes, a rhetorical question (formerly known as ‘begging the question’) is sufficient to provide us with an answer to that question, with or without Omar’s razor-sharp advice.

[Before I ask a rhetorical question in the next paragraph, I must once again state a kind of waiver, i.e: This article is not about President Trump. It is an example of the shortage of reason that pervades much of current society.]

Question: In a world of seven billion people and counting, why would a man who is one of the wealthiest people on earth and President of the United States, serve as a Russian agent, thereby committing treason?

The current uncharacteristic animus amongst Americans compels me to tell you that I’m neither Liberal nor Conservative. And I’m not sexist or prejudiced. (I also don’t plead to have someone believe I’m objective. But I am.)

There is an irony about my objectivity: When I speak to a liberal and a conservative at the same time, the liberal thinks I’m a conservative, the conservative thinks I’m a liberal. So much for circular arguments! In any case, I don’t expect either of them to change an iota of their political views.

As the two go at each other, I’m marginalized. That doesn’t bother me at all. Instead of being upset or breaking into their circular arguments, I listen to their angry voices and look at their body language, especially their glazed eyes and tightened jaws while the other is speaking. Of course the same is true when I speak one-on-one to a partisan of either political party.

All that is aggrandized when strangers fight in the streets and suffer serious injuries; at times, resulting in death.

While a plethora of partisan claims and counterclaims continue, the fundamental political issue is whether or not this nation will take a major step towards socialism—a specter that Bernie Sanders now correctly and triumphantly proclaims, “has become mainstream.”

That which both obscure and prestigious university professors imparted to university students is threatening to flower in America. I’m certain that academia has powerfully contributed to the advancement of socialism. I’m certain of that because I was a student at N.Y.U. in the fifties, and I now hear echoes of those professors when I speak to university students. The same is true of prominent politicians.

Since radio, the Internet, and especially TV, are saturated with sounds and images of a nation that has not been as divided since the Civil War, I will try to restrict my comments to brief personal observations.

As tragic as the death of George Floyd and the initial spontaneous riot may be, the endless continuing riots are not spontaneous…at times, the demeanor of rioters appears to be festive—that particular assessment may be harsh, but I know that being beaten and kicked in the head is barbaric…looting is motivated by greed, not anger…for many rioters, playing the role of martyrs in a country that will (understandably) not severely punish them—let alone execute them—is an exotic form of slumming…Washington is not the Bastille…destroying cities emulates the senseless destruction of Atilla who was known as ‘The scourge of God.’…he, too, had no ’reason’ to destroy cities—he did so simply because they were cities…as I wrote in my previous article, the bullies in the mob are having a great time.

Observing a nation fall into the oppression of collectivism is a nightmare. I’m almost sure that America will remain a Representative Democracy. I hope I’m right!

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