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Arms and the Man

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The recent sturm und drang over the heavy-handed political machinations of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's thuggish administration has not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his career. Dan Aubrey's long, detailed narrative, Defending the Arts Amid a Culture of Fear, details the kind of petty power games pursued by Christie's Lieutenant Governor, Kim Guadagno (whose modus operandi was recently brought to light by Hoboken's Mayor Dawn Zimmer). There's an old saying that "Power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely." To get a stronger grip on the ugly realities of political patronage, let me recommend two recent articles:

Artists of every persuasion are struggling to find new sources of financial support to help them feed their passion and realize their dreams. Unlike Mozart's time (when a gifted composer might be lucky enough to attract a sponsor from the royal court), a wealth of statistics is now available to demonstrate how the arts work as an economic engine.

In his 2014 State of the State Address, Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (which recently became the first state to rescind a sales tax on art) expressed hope of boosting Rhode Island's financial health by building an arts economy. "When you look at what the arts can offer the economy, the community, and our quality of life, it makes a lot of sense," he stressed.

Unfortunately, the search for a benefactor often forces idealists to confront the issue of accepting "dirty money." Several years ago, some of the more outspoken politically correct members of San Francisco's gay community were incensed that the city's new LGBT Community Center would be named after Chuck Holmes (the gay porn entrepreneur who founded Falcon Studios in 1971).


The Charles M. Holmes Campus of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center

Despite their indignation, there could be no denying the fact that the one million dollar donation from Holmes's estate helped build the community center. Whereas venture capitalists are already convinced of the value of their investment, I often like to quote Dolly Levi's soliloquy to those in the arts who are in search of funding:

"Money, money, money, money, money!! It's like the sun we walk under. It can kill or cure. Horace Vandergelder never tires of saying that 99% of the people in this world are fools, and I suppose he's right. We're all fools: Himself, Irene, Cornelius, myself. We're all fools and we're all in grave danger of destroying the world in our folly. And yet the surest way to keep us safe from harm is to give us those few things in life that will make us happy. And that takes a little bit of money.

Now, the difference between a little bit of money and no money at all is enormous, and it can shatter the world. And the difference between a little bit of money and an enormous amount of money is very slight. Yet that, too, can shatter the world. It's all a question of how it's used.

As my late husband, Ephraim Levi, always used to say: 'Money -- you should pardon the expression -- is a little bit like manure. It doesn't do anyone a bit of good unless it's spread all around, encouraging young things to grow.'"


Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi

Whose money gets spread around (and just what kind of good it accomplishes) are the core issues of two family dramas in which the inheritance of a great fortune is a matter of grave concern.

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The centerpiece attraction at the 18th Annual Berlin and Beyond Film Festival was Peter Sehr's historic drama, Ludwig II, which followed the life (and purported descent into madness) of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig's father, Crown Prince Maximillian II of Bavaria, tried to instill a sense of military necessity in his son, who showed absolutely no interest in war games.


Sabin Tambrea as King Ludwig II of Bavaria

Instead, young Ludwig was obsessed with the music of Richard Wagner. Having fallen in love with Wagner's score for Lohengrin, he quickly evolved into a powerful arts patron who was fascinated by the beauty of nature. Ludwig's sexual orientation was never really in doubt (it was obvious that he preferred the arts over the attraction of women).


King Ludwig II (Sabin Tambrea) confers with
composer Richard Wagner (Edgar Selge)

While Ludwig's ministers kept pushing their King to prepare for war against Prussia's Otto von Bismarck, Ludwig dreamed of redirecting military funds to train Bavaria's children in music and dance. He yearned for them to have the confidence to develop their talents and become cultural ambassadors instead of sacrificing their lives as soldiers in battle.


Ludwig II (Sabin Tambrea) attends a performance of
Richard Wagner's opera, Tristan und Isolde

As political realities kept thwarting his dreams of becoming an arts patron, Ludwig became increasingly irrational, often insisting that "I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others." He sponsored the world premieres of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. The king's generous support of the Bayreuth Festival (which produced the world premieres of Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal) helped Wagner to become one of Germany's greatest composers.

The great irony of Ludwig's life is that the design and construction of his famed Neuschwanstein Castle, Linderhof Palace, and Herrenchiemsee Castle (a replica of the French Palace of Versailles) provided employment for thousands of Bavarian laborers. More than 125 years after Ludwig's death, the tourism revenues generated by these attractions greatly help to strengthen the economy of his beloved Bavaria.


Sebastian Schipper as the middle-aged King Ludwig II

Sabin Tambrea gives a magnificent performance as the passionate and inquisitive young Ludwig, with Sebastian Schipper taking over the title role later in the king's life. Sehr's film is a visual feast as it details the life of a rich, young and temperamental gay arts patron who, without any doubt, was way ahead of his time. Wagner fans will undoubtedly have a good time watching Ludwig II. Here's the trailer:

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See if you can spot a trend buried in the following historical events:

  • In 1905, a new play by George Bernard Shaw premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Major Barbara made a strange but strong case for war profiteering that could be used to fund good deeds at home.
  • On July 28, 1914, World War I (which would eventually claim more than nine million lives) broke out in Europe.
  • On December 9, 1915, Major Barbara received its American premiere in New York.
  • World War II, which ran from approximately 1939 to 1945, claimed between 50 to 85 million lives.
  • The Korean War (which lasted from 1950-1953) claimed more than 1.2 million lives.
  • The Vietnam War (which lasted from 1956 to 1975) is estimated to have taken 3.8 million lives.
  • On January 17, 1961, during his Farewell Address to the Nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (a former five-star general in the United States Army) warned of the growing danger of a military-industrial complex.

  • The Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 were key conflicts in the history of Israel.
  • In 1970, Edwin Starr's Vietnam protest song, War, sold more than three million copies and spent three weeks at the top of Billboard's charts.
  • The Gulf War (1990-1991) was sparked by Iraq's attempt to annex Kuwait.
  • In 2003, the United States invasion of Iraq began a 10-year war which, though it may have taken its toll in military and civilian lives, helped to enrich the earnings of Halliburton and KBR.
  • The budget sequestration of 2013 put intense pressure on Congressional representatives whose districts were home to military bases and military contractors.
  • Late in 2013, with lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) breathing down their necks, a group of Senators encouraged increased sanctions against Iran with full knowledge that their efforts could lead America into a third war in the Middle East (M.J. Rosenberg's article entitled "Obama Starts To Turn Tide Against Lobby's Sanctions Bill" should be required reading for anyone concerned about political strife in the Middle East).
  • On January 15, 2014, the American Conservatory Theater unveiled a new production of Major Barbara that proved to be as timely as ever.

There are several crises to be resolved in Shaw's play:

  • Convinced that her son Stephen (Stafford Perry) and daughter Sarah (Elyse Price) will never be capable of supporting themselves, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Kandis Chappell) must convince her estranged husband Andrew (Dean Paul Gibson) to subsidize their futures.
  • In order to continue a family tradition, Andrew must find a foundling to whom he can bequeath the family business and its attendant wealth.
  • Andrew's daughter, Barbara (Gretchen Hall), has become intoxicated with the idea of saving souls through her work with The Salvation Army. However, with so little money available from donations, she is at her wit's end while searching for ways to convert the poor.
  • Adolphus Cusins (Nicholas Pelczar) is head over heels in love with Barbara, but only really joined the Salvation Army so that he could be near her.


Gretchen Hall as Major Barbara Undershaft
(Photo by: Pak Han)

With sets designed by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Alex Jaeger, this international co-production bears a curious distinction. As director Dennis Garnhum explains:

"More of George Bernard Shaw's work is in public domain in Canada than in the United States. Shaw published an updated version of his play in 1930. Theatre Calgary can do that version for free, but A.C.T. can't. So we're doing the version that was originally published in 1906 so that you don't have to pay royalties."


Andrew Undershaft (Dean Paul Gibson) and his daughter
Barbara (Gretchen Hall) in Major Barbara (Photo by: Pak Han)

Shaw's wit and insights into British society ring most true in Act I (at Lady Britomart Undershaft's home) and Act III (at Andrew Undershaft's munitions factory). Alas, I found it extremely difficult to concentrate during Act II (at the Salvation Army outpost where Barbara is trying to save the world). I was also a bit surprised that the most interesting character seemed to be Lady Britomart, thanks in large part to a beautiful performance by Kandis Chappell. Dan Hiatt, Tyrell Crews, and Dan Clegg were effective in supporting roles.

Joe Nocera's recent column in The New York Times (Does Brazil Have The Answer?) offers fresh food for thought about stipends for the poor. At a time when income inequality has become a crippling problem for America, Shaw's approach to philanthropy remains as provocative as it was more than a century ago. In the playwright's Preface to Major Barbara: First Aid to Critics, he wrote:

"The crying need of the nation is not for better morals, cheaper bread, temperance, liberty, culture, redemption of fallen sisters and erring brothers, nor the grace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity, but simply for enough money. The evil to be attacked is not sin, suffering, greed, priestcraft, kingcraft, demagogy, monopoly, ignorance, drink, war, pestilence, nor any other kind of the scapegoats which reformers sacrifice, but simply poverty. Undershaft is simply a man who, having grasped the fact that poverty is a crime, knows that when society offered him the alternative of poverty or a lucrative trade in death and destruction, it offered him not a choice between opulent villainy and humble virtue, but between energetic enterprise and cowardly infamy.

Thanks to our political imbecility and personal cowardice (fruits of poverty both), the best imitation of a good life now procurable is life on an independent income. All sensible people aim at securing such an income, and are, of course, careful to legalize and moralize both it and all the actions and sentiments which lead to it and support it as an institution. What else can they do? They know, of course, that they are rich because others are poor. But they cannot help that. It is for the poor to repudiate poverty when they have had enough of it!"


George Bernard Shaw (Photo by: Magazin Gracija)

As the old saying goes: "The more things change, the more they stay the same!"

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