Month: January 2017

Lecture Review – “New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness” by Michael DiCamilo

The preeminent of all American ideological conflicts found a fertile battle ground in the Garden State. The debate over a Hamiltonian approach to big government versus the Jeffersonian preference for more localized administration ended in favor of the latter. It resulted in New Jersey spawning 566 municipalities: even more than California. Just what caused this northern state to adopt the political philosophy of the gentleman planter from Virginia?

Historian Michael DiCamilo set out to elucidate this phenomenon as part of the History Speaks series on January 18, 2017. The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund, the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library sponsored the event which the latter hosted. Professor DiCamilo teaches American History at LaSalle. He’s also on the Historical Society of Moorestown’s board of trustees where currently serves as Vice President.

Mr. DiCamilo utilized the work of former Garden State politician Alan Karcher’s 1989 work New Jersey’s Municipal Madness illustrate this phenomena. The former Assembly Speaker explored the reasons why myriad towns and boroughs incorporated in the state. He discovered five key reasons: street fights, railroad towns, school district boroughs, dry versus wet towns, and exclusive enclaves. Mr. DiCamilo took the audience through each one.

The portion on “street fights” intrigued me the most. With the advent of the automobile road maintenance became a major political issue. Residents of a community elected “road superintendents” to represent their interests at the municipal level. They argued to secure the most funding for their streets. When these officials couldn’t acquire the municipal money they wanted, they’d return to their constituents with an interesting proposition. They’d encourage the “street” to form its own town. Of course, these road superintendents would play prominent roles in the new polis; even serving as their mayors.

I found this outcome rather interesting. A road superintendent would fail in his duties to his constituency. The populace would proceed to elect them to govern the new town; a much more complex challenge than fundraising. In essence, these officials would receive a promotion from the same people they disappointed. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “Politics has a logic of its own.”

I also enjoyed Mr. DiCamilo’s discussion of the conflicts leading to dry and wet towns. He described how the “camp meeting movement” inspired people to exit the cities in favor of country life. These new communities would serve as places of worship where residents could avoid the excesses of modern life. A number of these municipalities such as Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach and Avon-by-the-Sea developed along the coast. More locally, the towns of Bellmawr and Delanco began as part of this phenomenon.

The disparity between pro and anti-prohibition forces masked more nefarious motives, as well. One of the rationales for the “camp meeting movement” germinated from a desire to control rowdy youths and immigrants. Latent and, at times, overt racism even led to the development of some municipalities.

While the pursuit of a moral life free of vice caused many communities to form, the rejection of these principles inspired others. Centre Township prohibited playing golf on Sundays. It also rigorously enforced prohibition. Some individuals rejected these mores to such a degree they decided to form their own town. Thus, Tavistock incorporated in 1921.

In a fitting move, Mr. DiCamilo made his discussion of local history hyperlocal. Founded in 1688, Chester Township experienced numerous splits before the name disappeared from South Jersey in 1945. Cinnaminson left in 1860. Delran broke off from the latter in 1885. Riverside separated from Delran in the same year. Riverton left Cinnaminson in 1893 then Palmyra did the same a year later. In 1922 Moorestown parted from Chester Township. The remaining community changed its name to Maple Shade in 1945. Interestingly, with the exceptions of Moorestown and Riverside (which incorporated over street fights) all the others were “railroad towns.”

Mr. DiCamilo focused his talk on the political aspects of the subject; which he delivered exceptionally well. Throughout the lecture he presented balanced analyses of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions. With respect to the latter he explained as one positive: the smaller the community, the easier for citizens to become part of government. While correct, not everyone has an interest in being an active member of the political process. In addition many individuals who live in the same area share the same political views. I’d encourage another historian to follow-up on this lecture with a discussion of the social implications of so many municipalities.

Mr. Camilo presented a solid case that the Jeffersonian vision of government entrenched itself in the Garden State. While no new municipalities have incorporated in New Jersey since 1957, to his knowledge, only Princeton Township and Princeton Boro chose to consolidate over the last two decades.

The monument on Mr. Jefferson’s grave describes him as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. Had the third President lived long enough, he just may have added: “instrumental inspiration for the municipal system of government in New Jersey” to his legacy.

Advertisements

Theatre Review – The Fox on the Fairway at Burlington County Footlighters

Ken Ludwig crafted the most atypical adaption of a classical work of literature ever performed on the stage. In her giddy and bubbly way, Louise (played by Bailey Shaw) introduced The Fox on the Fairway as essentially a modern rendition of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The setting took place not along the Aegean Sea, but at the Quail Valley Country Club. In lieu of javelins and arrows, the combatants took the field with irons, drivers and putters. While eschewing traditional combat tactics such as blockades and sieges, the Pericles and Alcibades of the links utilized chicanery and gambling to vanquish their opponent. The result: a farcical spin on golf. I attended Burlington County Footlighters opening night performance of this comic piece on January 20, 2017.

The story contained a lot of conflict for a light comedy. A synopsis of it shares the complexity of Thucydides’ masterpiece. You might want to bring a score card to keep track of this one.

Henry Bingham (played by Dan Brothers) faced a dilemma. Every year his organization, the Quail Valley Country Club, would lose the big tournament to Silly Squirrel; a rival club run by his arch nemesis Dickie Bell (Alan Krier). Knowing he had a star golfer (of dubious membership) who would guarantee victory, Bingham wagered a substantial sum on this annual contest. Since he knew he couldn’t lose he agreed to add his wife’s antique shop to the bet without her knowledge. After making the deal Dickie revealed that the star golfer had quit Quail Valley and just joined his club. Then Quail Valley’s Vice President, Mrs. Peabody (played by Elizabeth Deal), informed Bingham that the board decided to fire him if the club lost the big tournament again.

Fortunately, Bingham discovered that Justin (played by Kevin Pavon), one of his new employees, shot rounds in the mid-sixties. He and Mrs. Peabody connived to make Justin a member of the club and enter him in the tournament. Problems solved, right?

No, there’s more. Justin had recently become engaged to Louise (played by Bailey Shaw). His fast track admission to a prestigious country club combined with the love of a beautiful woman should’ve put Justin at the top of his game, so to speak. But another complication ensued. Louise happened to be the most emotionally high-strung person ever to grace this earth. Justin also had a bit of a quirk himself: he’d become a horrible golfer when anything upset him.

Louise then lost her engagement ring (originally Justin’s grandmother’s) while her beau played in the tournament. The two quarreled over the matter causing both their relationship and his golf game to suffer. At the same time, Bingham’s wife Muriel (played by Eileen Rackus) learned of his reckless gamble.

Director Valerie Brothers selected the perfect cast of players for such an amusing story. Their superb complimenting of one another allowed me to follow what would have been a very confusing series of connections. Mrs. Brothers assembled a group of people who displayed the best chemistry I’ve witnessed on a live stage together. It showed when they tossed a “nineteenth century English Ming vase” around the room.  The object travelled back-and-forth through the air to different players standing several feet apart. Each member of the ensemble impressed me by catching it cleanly.

The best moment of the evening occurred at the conclusion. Following the curtain call, the ensemble shouted, “One more time!” The cast then proceeded to re-enact the entire show in about two minutes. The first time around they delivered an impressive performance. They did the whirlwind version just as brilliantly.

Even when paired in twos, the players complimented one another extremely well. Dan Brothers and Alan Krier performed like a classic comedy team together. Mr. Brothers and Mr. Krier worked off each other exceptionally well when they made the bet. The former took a cocky, uptight approach to the scene while Mr. Krier delivered his lines like a cocky, carefree persona. Their attire reflected these personalities. Mr. Brothers’ conservative gray suit contrasted brilliantly with Mr. Krier’s increasingly outlandish sweaters. Kudos to Dana Marie Marquart: the silly squirrel sweater seamstress.

Mr. Brothers and Ms. Deal enhanced one another’s performances in their shared scenes; he portraying the unhappy husband, she as the lovelorn woman with three failed marriages. They developed the characters’ relationship steadily throughout the show. The most memorable part occurred when they attempted to set-up a romantic dinner for Justin and Louise. Its unforeseen consequences led to the two sharing a few drinks. As they drowned their inhibitions, comedic hijinks ensued. Ms. Deal lay on the ground and presented Mr. Brothers the opportunity to hit a golf ball out of her mouth. His character unwittingly professed his longing for her into an open microphone; thus revealing his deepest most intimate desires to the entire tournament crowd.

Bailey Shaw showcased an exceptional rendition of a rather hyper and emotionally volatile woman. When Kevin Pavon’s character proposed to her she became giddy and ecstatic. Upon losing her engagement ring she converted into a tearful and despondent person; doing so in a way that still got laughs. That’s not an easy achievement. When Mr. Pavon forgave her he made an offhand comment related to the incident. That’s not a good thing to do to a rather hyper and emotionally volatile woman. She abruptly became livid and stomped around stage before exiting.

Kevin Pavon’s character ran through a range of emotions as well. He needed to in order to cope with Louise’s caprices and to deal with Bingham’s machinations. This performer played them all convincingly. I could empathize with him when he tried to console Louise and unwittingly made the situation worse. A pretty comical pre-golf shot dance became part of his repertoire, as well.

For lack of a better expression, Eileen Rackus’ character served as the comic relief. That’s quite a challenge among this group of quirky performers. She played best opposite Mr. Krier. I liked the dynamic of a gruff unhappily married woman interacting with a carefree lothario. I credit her selection of a great voice for her character. She spoke in a tone both angry and loud; at times she sounded as though growling. While speaking in this manner, she still kept it funny.

The cast of Footlighters’ productions often makes the audience feel like part of the show. For this performance they brought me personally into the action much more than usual. When seeking a replacement golfer for the tournament, Ms. Deal suggested a series of names to Mr. Brothers. His character rejected all of them as being poor golfers. One name that came up during the discussion was Kevin Stephany.

I would inform Mr. Brothers I’m a very consistent golfer. I always shoot between the high 50s and low 60s…at least until the third hole…when playing miniature golf.

From a story standpoint, I can’t dispute the choice of Ms. Shaw’s character over me to participate in the contest. While I’m often very critical of myself, I strongly suspect she wore the red dress better than I would have. Nor will I make any effort to prove that wrong.

They say all is fair in love and war. Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of Ken Ludwig’s The Fox on the Fairway proved that golf pushes the envelope when it comes to that premise. After watching the six characters interact all evening, it made the Peloponnesian War seem like a game of touch football and a golf outing seem like a rugby match. While the show didn’t inspire me to join a country club, it did provide an audience with a very funny and entertaining evening. Now to paraphrase one of Mr. Krier’s more colorful sweaters: if you “like big putts” check it out.

Theatre Review – The Producers at Collingswood Community Theatre

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented an evening of politically incorrect statements, myriad references to unscrupulous business practices along with a host of crass comments objectifying women. This took place on January 14th of this year, so, no, they did not host a 2016 Presidential Debate. Instead, they staged a spectacle intentionally meant to be comical. Under Mary Baldwin’s direction, they staged Mel Brooks’ irreverent take on the theatre business The Producers.

The musical told the story of Max Bialystock (played by CJ Kish). Once a producer of legendary Broadway shows, his recent work “flopped.” More complications ensued when accountant Leo Bloom (played by Chris Fitting) audited his books. Upon discovering Max stole two thousand dollars from the production, he observed that, “under the right conditions, a producer can make more money with a flop than with a hit.” Max’s extraordinary cajoling convinced this self-described “nobody” to become his partner and aid in producing a theatrical disaster; thus providing Leo with the vehicle to pursue his ambition to become a Broadway producer. Then the real hijinks commenced.

In their quest to find the “worst script” the pair optioned Springtime for Hitler: an encomium written by Franz (Tyler Cunnion), an erstwhile Nazi turned pigeon keeper. Then they sought out the “worst director” in New York. Initially reluctant, Roger De Bris (played by Ryan Adams), after some encouragement from his “common law assistant” Carmer Ghia (Jeff Mc Grail), agreed to direct the show; so long as he could “Keep it Gay.” Max proceeded to pursue his main means of raising money: seducing old lady “investors.”

To add to the scheme’s complications, a lovely young Swedish woman with the long first name of Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden (played by April Lindley) entered Max’s and Leo’s lives. Longing to audition for the show she stayed on as the duo’s housekeeper until presented the opportunity. Her presence and romantic interest in Leo led to complications in the producers’ partnership.

CJ Kish turned in a transcendent performance as Max; a very challenging role. It required singing, dancing and delivering comedic chops. Mr. Kish delivered a stellar performance in all three areas. His rendition made an unscrupulous and despicable character funny and likable. Through his moving recitation of “Till Him” he even inspired empathy for Max.

Mr. Kish brought unparalleled enthusiasm to his performance. I attended the second show CCT presented on Saturday. The energy he displayed on stage reflected that of someone just back from vacation. During the “Betrayed” number, he summarized the entire musical to that point, even acting out highlights from various scenes. That took a lot of skill, especially at the end of the night. He seemed as fired-up then as he did at the evening’s beginning.

As Leo, Chris Fitting played the role of a “nobody” evolving into a “somebody” very well. He convincingly brought to life a dull accountant with an unorthodox nervous tick. When anxious this bean counter would remove a blue baby blanket and rub his face with it. (And some people think actors have strange habits.) His performance worked as a great contrast with both Mr. Kish and Leo’s love interest, the alluring Ulla. (April Lindley) He also performed an outstanding song and dance number with the ensemble on “I Wanna Be a Producer.”

Ms. Lindley and Mr. Adams deserve great credit for both singing and dancing in heels. On a personal note, I struggle to walk right for a few days after buying new loafers. I can’t imagine the challenge of navigating a stage during a routine while wearing elevated shoes.

In terms of Mr. Brooks’ show itself, I didn’t like that it broke the “fourth wall” several times. When Max and Leo asked Ulla when she’d cleaned the office she replied, “Intermission.” Shortly after, she asked Leo why he walked so far “stage right.” During the “Betrayal” number, Max mentioned that “it’s a long show.”

I can, however, appreciate that Mr. Brooks likes poking fun at many subjects. I do have to commend including his own work among them.

I also discovered a few typos in the playbill. Both Mr. Kish’s and Mr. McGrail’s bios got cut off in my version. Performers memorize pages of text and spend countless hours rehearsing musical dance numbers. They exhibit their craft in a medium that allows them one chance to “get it right.” And many do this several times a year in multiple productions. These people aren’t like the rest of us. I’m always interested in learning about the kind of people with the courage and inspiration to do this. I would’ve liked to read their full comments.

In addition to the great performances Collingswood Community Theatre treated the audience to a fantastic multi-media spectacle. Brian Cain did an outstanding job as musical director. Kate Scharff crafted complex choreography with a large ensemble. Chuck Jackson’s set construction provided theatregoers with a true sense of being in the actual locations where the action occurred.

The Producers opened with a fictitious audience leaving the theatre grumbling about the poor quality of Max Bialystock’s show. No one did that for this Collingswood Community Theatre production. This cast and crew sure took Ulla’s musical advice “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” in terms of their skills during this performance.

For the finale the entire ensemble gathered on stage and sang a number called “Goodbye.” In it they instructed the audience to leave. It’s good they did. With their superb rendition of this Mel Brooks musical I’m sure people would’ve hung around waiting for an encore…even if Max produced it.

 

My Inauguration Story

The quadrennial ritual in which we install another Chief Executive is upon us. It got me thinking about the lavish pageantry of the Inaugural Balls that we see on television. I always thought about how fascinating it must be to attend a Presidential Inauguration in person. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of my relatives had the opportunity to do so.

I’d always heard these stories that my maternal grandparents attended John Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball in 1961. I found that interesting, but as an historian, I was skeptical. In my younger days I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. Always loquacious, he’d tell me all about his life story. He’d discuss his career working for the railroad. He’d talk about his experiences serving the nation in the Second World War. And he’d share his thoughts on politics. He lived in Riverton, but his heart belonged to the City of Brotherly Love. He avidly followed current events in Philadelphia.

As much as my grandfather discussed the topics of government and politics, I don’t recall him ever mentioning he attended a Presidential Inauguration. When I knew him his political views were solidly conservative. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that he would’ve attended a party commemorating the election of a Democratic President.

My parents were the ones who told me that my grandparents attended John Kennedy’s inauguration. My mom said my grandfather knew Chet Huntley of the Huntley/Brinkley team.  Somehow, my grandfather got the tickets for the ball through him.  I had no reason to disbelieve this, but I wanted to see some solid proof. I remember my grandfather had a bust of John Kennedy in his house, but that wasn’t exactly evidence. I needed something substantial. I wanted some incontrovertible historical evidence that he partied with a president.

Sometime after my mother passed away, I decided to investigate my family history. I figured that she must have had some old photographs from when she grew up. I looked all over the house but couldn’t find any. After a few weeks of searching, one day I was sitting in the living room looking at my grandparents’ wedding photo hanging on the wall across from me. I looked down to see the coffee table. For the first time in twenty years of looking at this particular piece of furniture I noticed there was a door on it. I opened it to reveal some old family albums that I’d never seen before. In one of them I found a series of pictures of my grandparents in formal dress. My grandfather was clad in a tuxedo while my grandmother was wearing a polka dot evening gown complimented by a black shawl. A pair of long white gloves covered her hands and forearms. I’d seen pictures of them out to dinner and dressed-up, but I never saw them wearing anything this elegant. I got to thinking about that rumor they attended President Kennedy’s Inauguration. They were certainly dressed for an event of that magnitude, but I needed to know more.

One day I started cleaning out the attic and found it. Buried under a number of old boxes, I located a stash of papers that belonged to my grandfather. Among them was a small envelope with his address. In the top left hand corner in bas-relief the words The Inaugural Ball stood out. The date January 5, 1961 grabbed my attention. I opened the envelope as carefully as my shaking hands would let me. Inside were four documents. One was a postcard. It read as follows:

NBC News 30 Rockefeller Plaza New York City 20

Dear Mr. McKeon:

I have taken the liberty of sending your request for tickets to the Inaugural Committee in Washington, since they (and only they) have charge of them.

I sent it to the special attention of an acquaintance there, so let us hope it is honored. I am sure the request will be respected if it is humanly possible.

Sincerely,

(Signed)

Chet Huntley

In addition to the postcard, the envelope contained a letter and two tickets to the Inaugural Ball held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Friday January 20, 1961 at 9:00 PM. Blue check marks graced both tickets.

I finally had my proof. My grandparents did, in fact, attend President Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. I then wondered why? As I mentioned my grandfather was pretty conservative. The more I researched the family history I think I found my answer. Both my grandmother’s parents were Irish Catholic immigrants. My grandfather’s grandparents were as well. I can only imagine what it must have meant to them to see someone from a similar background manage to get elected to the highest political office that our country has to offer.  They must have felt truly inspired. And so should we.

Restaurant Review – Dooney’s Irish Pub in Delran, NJ

Readers of my restaurant reviews have asked me where I like to go for a good meal. After years of dining at various establishments throughout the Northeast, South and Midwest, I can write that I found an exceptional location where I’ve never been disappointed with a dish. That distinction goes to Dooney’s Irish Pub in Delran, New Jersey.

Dooney’s offers the best sandwiches and wraps I’ve had the pleasure of sampling. I’d challenge anyone to find a better Reuben on the market today; ($11) and it’s always my top choice for lunch. It takes a very special menu—at a pub, especially–to get me to order something other than a Reuben during the afternoon hours.

Somehow, Dooney’s inspired me to expand my culinary horizons. That’s an achievement in itself. After perusing the menu one day, I opted to try something a little more upscale that corned beef. I’m glad I did. The Prime Rib Sandwich tasted just like genuine prime rib. ($13.25) That well exceeded my expectations for a “sandwich.”

They recently added another called the Cuban ($12) to their repertoire. This one contains smoked ham, house roasted pork, swiss cheese, pickles and Dijon mustard on a grilled long roll. I first tried it when they offered it as a “special” one day. Many patrons must’ve agreed with me that it’s an outstanding dish. It’s now a part of the regular menu.

As an Irish-American, I really appreciate that Dooney’s understands Irish means more than beer. They started serving a sandwich called the Irish Grilled Ham Cheddar and Chutney. Smoked ham, Irish cheddar and mango cherry served on a toasted pretzel roll make up this one. It’s well worth the $10 price.

In keeping with the Irish theme they also feature the Blarney Burger. The menu describes it as a “house burger topped with corned beef, bacon, horseradish cheddar, cole slaw and spicy mustard on a pretzel roll.” It’s both delicious and filling which justifies the $13 cost.

For those who don’t care for meat, Dooney’s offers several vegetarian sandwiches. The Three Grain Veggie Burger has always been a favorite of mine. ($10) I really enjoy the new Grilled Veggie Sandwich. It delivers exactly what it promises and is well worth the $10 price tag. The dish includes yellow squash, zucchini, tomato red onion and basil with a roasted red pepper hummus spread on whole grain ciabatta. The spread gives this dish just the right tangy taste.

Dooney’s also features great salads, flatbread pizzas, and host of grilled chicken sandwiches. Regarding the latter, I’m partial to the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich ($11) and the Tuscan Chicken ($10.5)

Within the last few weeks, the establishment expanded the variety of entrees it serves. They offer phenomenal Fish and Chips. ($14) While I’ve always liked their Fish Tacos, when I’m in the mood for seafood, I have to splurge on this one.

No place earns the right to call itself “Irish” without properly preparing potatoes. Dooney’s makes its own potato chips. They’re the best I’ve ever tried and I know something about spuds. My stepmother’s a genius when it comes to making anything with potatoes. Even she loves Dooney’s potato chips. It’s quite an achievement when a potato aficionado likes what someone else does with potatoes.

In addition to the food, Dooney’s provides a great atmosphere. Whether sitting at the bar or in the main dining area, patrons are guaranteed a clear view of one of the large screen televisions throughout the building. For those who don’t care to suffer through Philadelphia sports woes while dining, Dooney’s offers an escape through patio seating during the warmer months.

Every weekend I get my Irish on. Diners in the South Jersey area should do the same. While St. Patrick’s Day only comes once a year, it’s always a celebration of good food at Dooney’s. Slainte!

 

Drama Review – The Great White Hope by Harold Sackler

After suffering through the incoherent gibberish that passed for dialog in the Rocky movies, I never would’ve thought boxing as a good subject for drama. The late Howard Sackler proved otherwise. Perhaps, that’s because The Great White Hope isn’t really about boxing. In this masterpiece of the stage the playwright explored one man’s battles against society, racism and fundamentally, himself. A transcendent work resulted.

Based on a true story, the play told the tale of Jack Jefferson, an African-American prizefighter during the early twentieth century. The character flaunted the era’s cultural taboos with abandon. He defeated a white boxer, nicknamed “The White Hope”, for the title. He abandoned his common-law wife. He had a white girlfriend. His unorthodox behavior led authorities to frame him for a dubious crime. Mr. Jefferson’s exploits made for a most engaging read.

I liked the drama’s pace. Most award winning plays focus on the characters’ relationships. The Great White Hope contained much of that, but Mr. Sackler managed to work in a lot of action. Even during a press conference the playwright fit in multiple occurrences. After Mr. Jefferson’s controversial expressions to the media, his estranged wife, Clara, burst in and interrupted. During a party members of the temperance movement interfered. It seemed fitting that all this activity and conflict would appear in a show about boxing.

Mr. Sackler crafted genuine dialog. He did a nice job of adding some sports “trash talk” to the narrative.

Press One: You starting to get jumpy?

Jack: Yeah. I scared Brady gonna change his mind…

Smitty: So you think you can take him, Jack?

Jack: Well, I ain’t sayin’ I can take him straight off—an anyway, dat be kina mean, you know, all them people, big holiday fight—how they gonna feel I send ‘em home early? (Page 21)

Then Jack used a decidedly “modern” insult against his opponent.

Press Two: What about that yellow streak Brady talks about?

Jack: (Turns u. and flips up his robe.) Yeah, you wanna see it? (Page 21)             Jack spoke in a dialect. It corresponded with a man in his profession. It may assist some to read the dialog out loud. Sounding the words will make them more understandable than just reading the text.

A certain racial epithet appeared numerous times in the play. Because of the time period and the characters speaking, it fit the story. I would caution sensitive readers that it may offend them.

While I appreciated the author’s language usage in these cases, I found other places it could’ve improved. Part of the story occurred in Europe. Because of that in several scenes characters spoke in foreign languages. I understood the effect the playwright wanted, but would’ve preferred to follow the conversations instead.

The one aspect I thought Mr. Sackler could’ve improved concerned the fight scenes themselves. In the one at the end of the story, several people looking in from outside narrated the action. To be fair to the writer, it’s difficult to stage a multi-round fight during the course of a show. The method he chose did successfully move the story forward without dragging it.

Mr. Sackler also included some deft symbolism. The main fight occurred on the Fourth of July. While the playwright based the protagonist on the real-life boxer Jack Johnson, Jack Jefferson shared the surname of a beloved Founding Father. These traits showed that the boxing match held much more significance than a normal sporting contest.

I’m glad I went the distance and finished reading this play. After all, it was a knockout with the critics when it first appeared in 1969. It won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its message still hits home today. For that, readers and audiences are the real champions.

Drama Review – Amadeus by Peter Shaffer

The term masterpiece often gets overused into banality in our society. Applying it to Amadeus would be underutilizing it. Fans of great drama and historical fiction can appreciate this offering on multiple levels. It included quirky characters, phenomenal conflict and an unparalleled story line.

Through Amadeus, Mr. Shaffer presented the story of Antonio Salieri: a bitter, selfish narcissist who would defy his God in order to achieve greatness. He manifested this quest through the destruction of an unwitting rival. Initially, this character lived a pious existence devoted to the Lord. I found Mr. Shaffer’s story a bit of a twist on the Faust legend. Instead of selling his soul to the devil, the composer consecrated his life to the Almighty. In return he expected his deity to make him the greatest musician of his day. I found this very interesting coming from a character who acknowledged and indulged in his own gluttony.

This sanctimonious bargain sustained Salieri until a prodigy named Mozart entered the scene. The latter character possessed crass and immature mannerisms; undignified traits for a composer. He also had an unparalleled gift for music. As Salieri himself noted upon listening to his work,

It seemed to me I had heard a voice of God—and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard—and it was the voice of an obscene child! (Page 28)

The Marquis de Sade created a character named Lord Gramwell. This individual sought to violate every social taboo society held. That’s pretty evil. Shaffer’s Salieri gave the ignoble noble a true run for his money. He pursued every conceivable act he could to eliminate his rival. His reason for doing so made him horrifying.

The title made this play an exceptional work of art. Not only did it share Mozart’s middle name it also referenced the traditional meaning of the word. Amadeus translates to “love of God.” Through original writing, the playwright wove this into the story’s main theme.

There are three types of conflict an author may pursue: person against person, person against nature or person against God. Mr. Shaffer chose the latter for this piece. Salieri expressed the following thoughts to conclude Act I.

When I return I’ll tell you about the war I fought with God through his preferred creature—Mozart named Amadeus. In the waging of which, of course, this Creature had to be destroyed. (Page 60)

Nice guy. It’s interesting that on the surface the play seemed to be a semi-autobiographical story about Mozart. Salieri’s conflict with God became the real focus of the drama.

The show’s resolution confused me a bit. In the end, Salieri regretted his eradication of Mozart. In spite of this, he still elevated himself above other people. Earlier in the play he explained the difference between his and his rival’s approaches to music. “We were both ordinary men he and I. Yet he from the ordinary created legends—and I from legends created only the ordinary.” (Page 83) At the end of the play he referred to himself as, “Antonio Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities.” (Page 117) For his last line he commented, “Mediocrities everywhere—now and to come—I absolve you all. Amen!” (Page 118) Even when associating himself with “average” people, the composer needed to feel superior to them. His conferring upon himself the ability to forgive placed himself on the same level as a deity.

Salieri may not have achieved the greatness he craved, but Amadeus did. For Mr. Shaffer’s outstanding work, the play received the Tony Award Winner for Best Play in 1981. I read the playwright’s sixth version of Amadeus. No need for Salieri to absolve him. Even after the show’s very successful initial run the playwright continued revising it. He deserves tremendous credit for his continued commitment to making his work the best it could be. Mr. Shaffer didn’t destroy other plays or playwrights in the process, either.