Who Does Oliver Cromwell Remind You Of?

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

McGinn/Cazale Theater

2162 Broadway (76th St.), 4th fl.,

279-4200, through Oct. 31.

Tinpot Cromwell
and a half centuries ago, following a catastrophic civil war, the government
of England was entrusted to a man with even more contempt for pluralistic democracy
than the current Mayor of New York. According to his biographers, Oliver Cromwell
wasn’t by nature a pinched puritanical bully like Rudy Giuliani but rather
a charismatic military commander who privately prized republican government
and felt that despotic repression was sadly necessary to preserve the Puritans’
political gains and unpopular moral principles.

It may seem strange to compare
a Protestant famous for persecuting Catholics with a Catholic supposedly pumped
up these days with religious indignation over what he thinks is a shitty painting
(among other supposedly "sick" artworks in the Brooklyn Museum’s
"Sensation" exhibition), but Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing,
set in Ireland during the years 1652-’55, suggests some chilling similarities.
The stiff-necked former prosecutor has obviously convinced himself that the
moral gains of his tenure–based on the dream of an antiseptic, Disneyfied,
economically ethnic-cleansed New York–justify the most egregious autocratic
excesses and abrogations of civil rights. And he hides his inquisitorial bad
faith (from himself above all) behind a mask of earnest civic duty, while accusations
of despotism and tyranny, as well as the simplest requests to own up to small
mistakes, bounce off him like so many clumps of dried elephant dung.

The Clearing takes
place during a period when Cromwell, unable to pay the army that helped him
consolidate his power, engaged in real ethnic cleansing, confiscating Irish
land belonging to Catholics and anyone else who supported the Royalists in the
civil war and awarding it to those of proven loyalty to the Commonwealth. The
hatreds created in this campaign, which also involved arrest, deportation and
servitude in the West Indies of Irish women and, later, Nuremberg-style laws
depriving Irish Catholics of political rights, persist to this day. In Edmundson’s
play–produced with almost the same cast in Hartford last spring and in
Poughkeepsie in 1997–an English gentleman named Robert Preston (Michael
Countryman), married to a courageous and loving Irish woman named Madeleine
(Alyssa Bresnahan), mistakenly imagines he can hold on to his land by repeatedly
placating the English authorities.

Preston refuses to take
a moral stand, even in the face of mounting outrages such as the arrest and
rape of Killaine Farrell (Patricia Dunnock), Madeleine’s closest friend
who also worked in their house. He is soon forced to make irrevocable choices,
though, which eventually cost him his marriage, the beloved child he hoped to
save, and what’s left of his moral fiber. His is a tragedy of appeasement
different only in degree from the one the directors of New York’s major
museums dallied with during their week of silence before finally protesting
the famously vindictive Mayor’s attempt at unilateral censorship.

This Blue Light Theater
production of The Clearing, directed by Tracy Brigden, is held together
primarily by Bresnahan’s superb performance as Madeleine. By turns luxuriously
passionate and ferociously determined, Bresnahan is so compelling in the role
that one often forgets how improbable such a mentally and physically independent
woman would have been in 17th-century Ireland. Countryman is quite strong as
Robert as well, but the work’s insurmountable weakness is political one-sidedness.
Edmundson obviously convinced herself that the psychosexual details of the Prestons’
disintegrating marriage provided all the complexity needed in an action set
against a political evil as infuriating as the one in Arthur Miller’s The
. Puritanism in this work is represented solely by a priggish, one-dimensional
villain named Sir Charles Sturman (Sam Catlin), the local governor, who says
things like: "The Irish are devils… In truth, there are many of Cromwell’s
men who swear they found tails on Irish corpses." At least Miller gave
his Salem witch-hunters a few interesting speeches of justification.

Which brings me back to
Giuliani and a point I think has not been sufficiently stressed in the widespread
coverage of his attacks on the BMA. The Mayor’s holier-than-thou ignorance,
like all know-nothing public argument that is dignified by indignant posturing,
has made the job of every teacher, critic and curator in our educationally beleaguered
country just a little bit harder. In perpetuating the lazy-minded idea that
anyone’s opinion about an artwork, no matter how uninformed, deserves wide
attention as long as he claims to be offended, Giuliani has edged this glibness-plagued
culture one inch closer to mental oblivion. Every smugly cynical interview he
gives on the subject with a fawning talk-show host makes the task of pointing
out, say, the broad-brush simplifications of a play like The Clearing
seem slightly more exhausting and futile. And Giuliani has distinguished fellow
travelers in reductionism.

William Safire, in his Sept.
30 New York Times editorial entitled "Manichaean Madness,"
all but admitted that the isolation of art from its context was an article of
right-wing faith. (How inconvenient it has been that Chris Ofili’s The
Holy Virgin Mary
, for instance, the work at the center of the storm, is
a reverential painting and would seem so, I feel sure, to any unprejudiced viewer.)
Safire began his essay with simplistic thumbnail descriptions of hypothetical
artworks he was sure would offend if shown in the National Gallery ("a
statue of Moses wearing a Nazi swastika… [A] painting of a violent Martin
Luther King Jr. forcing Elizabeth Cady Stanton into submission"). Then
he breezed on to other matters, assuming that the analogy of such sketchily
described works irrefutably proved the BMA’s "real-life abuse of public
responsibility, good taste and artistic license." It plainly never occurred
to him that even such seemingly taboo images might be conceived complexly in
some circumstances and be selected responsibly by curators who know more about
them than he does. Any Manichaeanism in the BMA flap stems from this sort of
refusal to discuss the art on anything but the crudest level.

Like most critics who have
reviewed the show (I recommend Jed Perl’s piece in The New Republic,
Peter Schjeldahl’s in The New Yorker and Christian Viveros-Fauné’s
in last week’s NYPress), I recognize that the BMA is far from innocent
in this affair–after all, the exhibition is called "Sensation."
I also concede that the perceived trampling of people’s cherished beliefs
is a legitimate gripe in a publicly financed institution–to be considered
during elections and budget battles with the City Council, perhaps, but not
punitively addressed through the withholding of already allocated funds and
the eviction of a venerable museum from its building after 106 years. Obviously,
some contemporary art is deliberately aggressive and provocative, as much important
art has been at least since the publicly funded ancient Greek playwrights questioned
Athenian policy in the Peloponnesian War. Although I liked most of the "Sensation"
show, I’d have some sympathy with the Mayor if I thought he was truly offended
in this case.

Giuliani’s bad faith
has been evident from the very beginning, however: in his continuing refusal
to see the disputed art; in his refusal to speak to BMA director Arnold Lehman
in the days before legal action made discussion impossible; in his memory lapse,
revealed by The New York Times, about the detailed briefing he and his
aides received on the show’s content months earlier; in the swiftness of
his "gotcha" response to Hillary Rodham Clinton after she associated
herself with Peter Vallone’s qualified defense of the BMA; in City Hall’s
leak of its secret negotiations with BMA board chairman Robert S. Rubin about
the possibility of segregating the offending works; in the Mayor’s fishing
expedition for complaints other than sacrilege after the museum began defending
itself (restriction of children under 17, violation of the building lease, conspiracy
with Christie’s); and in his selective persecution of the BMA after years
of ignoring far more straightforward artistic attacks on religion in other city-supported
institutions (such as the screening of classic surrealist and Soviet films).

The Mayor has obviously
decided to bet his Senate campaign on the loyalty and influence of "the
idiot vote"–that is, those with no desire to understand either art
or the First Amendment beyond his view of it as a protection for the majority
opinion as represented by him and his personal taste. The Holy Virgin herself
will not help us if his cynical gambit pays off.


Epic Proportions
by Larry Coen & David

Helen Hayes Theater,
240 W. 44th St.

(betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200.

Epic Proportions
is one of those sweeping Broadway disasters whose
sheer feebleness and insubstantiality make you marvel that the writers ever
got a producer to pay for it. A romantic comedy by the children’s playwright
and director Larry Coen and the tv writer David Crane, set in an American desert
during the filming of a gigantic Cecil B. DeMille-style epic, it’s a painfully
elongated variety-show sketch that forgets to provide any reason to care about
its situation or its early-film-based humor. Kristin Chenoweth plays the lead
with her expected pizzazz, and is fun to watch as a sexually active director’s
assistant after her little-girl Sally in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Neither she nor anyone else could possibly rescue such a lame comedy, though.
The scenario might fill four minutes on late-night tv with modest amusement,
but at 70 long, intermissionless minutes, puffed up with monumental sets and
costumes that amount to unfunny visual jokes, it’s positively deadly. Other
critics report that the show ran 85 minutes two weeks ago, and two hours with
an intermission during previews. The less said about it, or in it, apparently,
the better.