The Urban Legends of Mr Rogers

Fred RogersOn this day in 1928, the very good neighbor Fred Rogers was born. But did you know that he got started in children’s television as a result of a child molestation conviction? You see, as part of his punishment, he was forced to do community service. This involved doing manual labor in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. But Rogers managed to organize the puppets and staged a coup d’etat. Most of this history is unknown because Rogers suppressed it. But if you check out the City Hall Records of Make-Believe, you will find that I’m right.

Not buying it? Would you believe…

The reason Mr Rogers always wore long-sleeved shirts was to hide his track marks. After taking over the show, the Heroin Dealer of Make-Believe got him hooked with free dope. From then on, the dealer was in control of the show. But this explains how Mr Rogers managed to stay so calm during the Genocide of Make-Believe and the later Race Riots of Make-Believe. It is widely reported that Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer, but it was really an overdose.

No? Would you believe…

Fred Rogers was a sniper in the Korean War with 18 confirmed kills. One time, he was attacked in his hideout and he ended up killing the attacker with his bare hands. After the war, he became radicalized, eventually going to the Soviet Union and finally killing John F Kennedy from his spot on the Grassy Knoll of Make-Believe. After Lee Harvey Oswald was nailed for the crime that he had committed, Rogers got therapy. His doctor recommend that he work with children and Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood was born.

No?

Well, all of these are common urban legends about the beloved children’s television star. I took a little poetic license. Normally people say that Rogers wore long-sleeved shirts to hide his military tattoos. And I generally “improved” the stories, which try to sound serious. The truth is that Rogers had planned to be a minister (he did eventually become ordained in the Presbyterian Church), but dropped out after first seeing television. He had a bachelor’s degree in music, so NBC hired him to work on some of its music shows. In 1954, he was hired by WQED in Pittsburgh to work as a puppeteer on the children’s show The Children’s Corner. And the rest is history. Or urban legend.

And here is a bit from his show that is the basis for another urban legend. Can you guess what it is?

Happy birthday Fred Rogers!

Shakespeare Uncovered

Shakespeare UncoveredI was looking for something to watch on Netflix last night and after looking for a long time, I came upon Shakespeare Uncovered. It’s a six-part PBS series that dives into (more or less) one play per episode with a famous actor. The first was about Macbeth, which is probably my favorite Shakespearean play. It is certainly the play that works the best. But it was hosted by Ethan Hawke. I don’t know what it is about him, but he annoys me. And after five minutes, I was done with it.

So I switched to the third episode with Derek Jacobi doing Richard II. I figured that would be good. To begin with, the play is one of the better histories. What’s more, Jacobi is not only a great actor but quite a thoughtful analyzer and director of Shakespeare. Plus, I’ll admit, I just like him. And he did not disappoint. In addition to providing a good overview of the dynamics in the play, there was a lot of “inside the actor’s studio” stuff. Usually, I hate this kind of stuff, but it was great here. I don’t doubt this is largely due to the fact that the British take acting much more seriously as a craft than Americans.

There was one really strange part of the episode. Jacobi talks about how he doesn’t think that Shakespeare wrote Richard II or any of the other plays. He thinks that it was really Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who wrote the plays and Shakespeare was a director and “front” for de Vere. It just goes to show that you can be brilliant at some things and be totally clueless about others. Still, I find the belief rather charming. But what’s especially interesting is why Jacobi thinks this. He seems to have got it in his head that it couldn’t have been Shakespeare who wrote the plays. So he went shopping and the de Vere theory seemed the most reasonable.

The reason that he doesn’t think that Shakespeare wrote the plays is because there is so little documentation of his life. There are many ways to counter this. To begin with, we know just as little about Christopher Marlowe, who was as popular in his life and Shakespeare was during his life. We know more about Ben Jonson, but that’s due to one big thing: Jonson wrote a lot about himself. I’m afraid that Jacobi is falling into the trap of thinking that because we highly value Shakespeare today they must have valued him a lot back them. But it’s very clear that for Shakespeare it was all just a way to get money and status. Once he attained that he retired. All he was by the end of his life was another member of the nouveau riche. That’s great, but hardly something that the world is going to worry about documenting.

Anyway, the whole thing got me to find the BBC production of Richard II starring Jacobi. I found it on YouTube and it is quite good. Much better than most of those BBC productions:

I also watched the episode on Hamlet with David Tennant. It was interesting because it focused on many of the glaring holes in the play. But as always, instead of admitting that it just isn’t a well written play, these problems are taken as an indication of Shakespeare’s brilliance. Still, it was nice to see the play treated seriously enough for these problems to even be acknowledged.

If there is one thing that most harms Shakespeare it is the tendency to approach it as fundamentalists do the Bible. If all of Shakespeare is wonderful, then none of it is. To me, the highs and lows of Shakespeare are often sitting one right next to the other. In Much Ado About Nothing, we get a wonderful scene with Benedick and Beatrice following by the most insipid drivel from Claudio and Hero. We also gets loads of sexism and racism and Shakespeare’s signature suck up to the aristocracy. And mostly we get incredibly two-dimensional characters, or in the case of Hamlet, zero-dimensional characters. But still, much of it is transcendent. And Shakespeare Uncovered provides an easy and enjoyable entry into Shakespeare at his best. Or the 17th Earl of Oxford. Take your pick.

Update (20 March 2014 8:48 pm)

I have a cold so I laid down and watched another episode. This one with Jeremy Irons on the Henry IV plays and Henry V. It was pretty annoying. At one point, he interviews a young film director who just made Henry V. She said (roughly), “When I told people I was making the film, they all ask, pro-war or anti-war? I don’t see it that way. People do go to war.” And I thought, “Oh! Pro-war!” Indeed, Henry V is quite pro-war regardless of the epilogue. Consider how the Battle of Agincourt is done. It goes from the St Crispin’s Day Speech right before the battle. And then the battle is over and the French messenger comes by and says, “You won!” Get that? Rousing patriotic speech followed by victory. No despot could ask for better propaganda.

It does bug me that Shakespeare is fairly straightforward, yet people want to imbue him with so much complexity. He was not a man who questioned authority. This is largely why he became such a big export of the British Empire. Any given production can change the plays to fit its wishes. One can indeed create a production that is anti-war or pro-war with the same play. But that play, on the page, is pro-British, pro-empire, and pro-war.

Puppets and Reproductive Rights

Lizz the PuppetThe following video is brilliant and important. And it has puppets! Sadly, it sums up the current “religious freedom” debate. It is also accurate that increasingly, religious zealots think that hormonal birth control is a form of abortion. You know, I’ve been saying this for at least a decade (I’m not alone). Once the anti-choice crowd made abortion illegal, they would switch to birth control. Of course, they didn’t even wait that long. But the reason I knew they would transition to birth control is that I knew the reason they were against abortion. It has nothing to do with the fetus. It is about controlling women. Hormonal birth control has done more to give women freedom than anything since the 19th Amendment.

I don’t want to get into the issues of employers controlling their workers. I’ve written before, Political Harassment in the Workplace. But mostly, it all comes down to the widely held believe that somehow employees have a choice to not work. While that may have been true back when the government was giving away farm land, it just isn’t true today. I discuss this in a little more detail here, Property Rights.

Before getting to the video, I just have to say something about the production. It is very funny and the puppets are cute as anything. But the puppeteers are terrible. When they talk, it looks like a bad dubbed movie. You could do as well with an on-off switch: turn it on when the puppet is talking, turn it off when not. Still, even it adds to the charm of the video about this most uncharming subject.

For more go to We Are Ultraviolet.

H/T: Digby

Staged Don Giovanni Is Best

Don Giovanni (1955)The other night I watched the Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a 1955 filmed version of what is essentially a stage production starring Cesare Siepi in the title role. He’s somehow perfect for the role, even though it is a baritone part and Siepi is a bass. The rest of the cast is equally good. But I was especially impressed with Otto Edelmann, who plays the part of Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello. It wasn’t that his singing was especially great. He just has a great stage presence and is perfect for the likable but easily led character.

What most struck me in the film, however, is not the production per se. It was simply that it was a theater performance. I’ve seen a couple of actual film productions of it. But I’ve always been a little disappointed because the cinematic qualities tend to distract from the experience. In particular, there is a good too much moving about in the play. For example, the play effectively ends in Don Giovanni’s house and that is the first time we’ve been there! Unity of time, it has. Unity of place, not so much.

In a proper film, there is a strong tendency to explicitly move from one scene to the next. But it isn’t just that. It isn’t enough for actors to just stand and sing. That would largely be boring, so directors have them moving to and fro. But on the stage, the characters are allowed to stop moving around and sing. And I thought it worked remarkably well.

There is another aspect of it. It’s all kind of silly. Don Giovanni is not in any way a realistic character. And the climax of the play is when the statue (of a man Don Giovanni killed earlier) comes to dinner, asks Don Giovanni to repent his evil ways, and than drags him down to hell. Moralistic talking statues work a whole lot better on the stage than they do on the screen. (The same thing can be said about the ghost of Hamlet’s father.)

So here is the whole thing via YouTube. I will have to check out other stage versions. It is, after all, a hell of a fun opera.

Of Course Boehner Kills UI Benefits

John BoehnerOver at New Republic yesterday, Danny Vinik wrote, John Boehner’s Ridiculous Excuse for Blocking the Deal on Unemployment Benefits. You probably know at least part of the story. And you can probably guess the rest. Extended unemployment benefits ended in December. This is a huge problem because we have a huge long-term unemployment problem. Well, after months of wrangling, the Senate has managed to put together a compromise bill that is expected to pass next week. Hooray!

But not so fast. Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner announced that it was a no go. As Vinik notes, in the past, there have been two things that the Republicans have complained about. First, there is the idea that extended unemployment benefits make people lazy, refusing to take all those jobs that aren’t available. This is rubbish, but that hardly matters. What is more important is that while Republicans generally think this, only people like Rand Paul are going to make a big public deal out of it. The second thing Republicans always claim is that the benefits must be paid for. Well, this bill is paid for. (Note: as soon as Republicans are back in charge in Washington, this business of paying for everything will be gone gone gone.)

Now Boehner has two all new complaints. One has to do with a National Association of State Work Force Agencies report that claims the law would be unworkable. But it proposes a fix. The other is that it does nothing to strengthen the economic recovery. That one is a howler! Over the last three and a half years, the Republican controlled House has not been interested in anything that helps the recovery. Quite the opposite. Remember Sequestration that is still dragging down the recovery? And for that matter, letting extended unemployment benefits lapse is a drag on the economy. No: we haven’t gotten any legislation from the House to improve the economy, unless you think that 50 votes to repeal Obamacare would stimulate the economy. (It wouldn’t, although in RepublicanLand, it would do that and so much more.)

What these new demands from Boehner are really all about is the desire to cause as much pain and suffering on the American people as possible. As long as a Democrat is in the White House, the Republicans know that their best course of action is to harm the economy. The Democrats will get the blame, even though John Boehner has an effective veto on everything. What’s more, this gets into the whole “of course—if only” approach to legislative obstruction. Of course John Boehner is for extending unemployment benefits, if only these two problems were fixed. Note that one of the problems is open ended: create more jobs. He will say that anything that actually would create jobs won’t. And his idea of job creation will just be a bunch of Republican wish list items: tax cuts for the rich, spending cuts for the poor, more oil drilling. But even if somehow his demands were met, there would be another. There is always another.

You may be wondering why it is that Republicans will allow nothing to get done when a Democrat is president, but Democrats do get things done with Republican presidents. It is quite simply that the Republicans are now a revolutionary party. What conservatives say about Obama is exactly what conservative extremists said about Clinton. The Republican Party is now almost nothing but those old conservatives bomb throwers. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is now what the vast majority of congressional Republicans believe. You don’t negotiate with evil, you destroy it and that is why the Republicans now have this all-or-nothing approach to legislation.

Of course, Boehner isn’t exactly one of these revolutionaries—at least anymore. He’s calmed down a lot from the 1990s. I think of him more as the banality of evil. Like a lot of older politicians, he is only interested in hanging onto power for as long as he can. Of course, power that you wield only to hang onto it is not real power. I wrote about this before, Boehner’s Paradox of Power. So in the name of his futile efforts, the nation suffers. And as far as his caucus is concerned, that’s just great.