Molotov cocktail hour. Writing a three-act play while imprisoned under orders from the Czar probably wasn’t as romantic as it sounds. But when the play is as good as Gorky’s Children of the Sun (premiered in 1905), the feat is impressive, all the more because it took him only a month. Gorky means “bitter” in Russian, and he had taken it as his pen name when producing reams of revolutionary journalism on behalf of the rising Bolsheviks. Yet this particular play isn’t bitter, revolutionary, or tilted toward gritty realism the way The Lower Depths is. That earlier play made Gorky world famous, luckily for him, since it took a protest by eminent foreign writers to coax the Czarist police to release him from the Peter and Paul Fortress, his new play drying on the page.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent
Crossing the color line. In the twentieth century Russian music became a standoff between revolution and counter-revolution, the irony being that the White Russian composers who fled the Bolsheviks were the true revolutionaries while the Reds who stayed to endure Soviet rule were forced to toe the line of backward-looking conservatism. But the music isn’t easily color-coded. Vladimir Jurowski led a concert of neoclassical Stravinsky and romantic Prokofiev that betrayed almost no revolutionary instincts, ending with the painful wail of the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony, whose Soviet credentials were never pure enough to satisfy the apparatchiks of the Composers Union.
By the skin of his teeth. As a bizarre offshoot of the workers’ paradise, Soviet ideology boasted of creating a New Man, with possible help from the apes — before DNA was discovered, crackpot experiments that involved interbreeding humans with lower primates were conceived. The only success was fictitious, a creature named Orango who began life as a French journalist before being injected with chimpanzee serum. He is the sullen, furry anti-hero of a satirical opera begun by Shostakovich in 1932, and although the weirdness of the libretto may have been a stumbling block, another was probably political: Orango spoofed the decadent West (the creature uses his intelligence to become a stock market manipulator but retains a King Kong-like appetite for blondes). Did Orango’s brutish manners shave a bit too close to Stalin? Or did he dangerously mock the promise of a New Man?
Perennial spring. The Vienna Philharmonic never wants for love and respect, being showered with both almost beyond measure. Their PR department must consist of an answering machine that says, “Thanks for adoring us. Maybe we’ll call you back.” Since their principal season is spent in the opera house, the Philharmonic gives few orchestral concerts compared with the world’s other premiere ensembles. After earning raves and an audience hanging from the rafters at the Proms this summer, these august visitors were described by one London critic as “lifetime members of the high table.” It’s become de rigeur to carp about the absence of women in the orchestra (I counted three), but otherwise, a critic might as well push a macro key on his computer set to endless praise.
Gnawing the flesh. It was the best of Timon; it was the worst of Timon. Reducing a stage production to one sentence rarely does it justice, but the National Theatre’s new, wildly popular Timon of Athens, mounted as a showcase for London’s favorite actor, Simon Russell Beale, wins the best and worst prize on several counts. It takes the messiest of Shakespeare’s late plays, a nasty, grinding parable about misanthropy, and delivers a glittering first half that is unexpected magic before the genii departs and we endure the dismal gray of the second half.
Capitol crime. Julius Caesar isn’t a juicy play. The poetry occupies a narrow range between nobility and a bad conscience. Very little is inward. The famous speeches are public oratory, not soliloquies on the order of Hamlet. It’s the only play of his that could be read from a teleprompter. Only Mark Antony turns to the audience to share a confidence, after he has fawned before the conspirators who killed Caesar yet secretly abhors them. The central role is that of vacillating Brutus, who seems like a dry run for the truly tragic Coriolanus. For these reasons, a great production must make ancient Romans more than stuffed shirts in togas enacting potted history.
A penny for the old guy. The original London Eye wasn’t a Ferris wheel on the Thames but J.M.W. Turner, whose visual genius and all-encompassing vision engulfed everything in its path. Until the electroshock treatment applied by Francis Bacon, generations of British painters were subsumed by him. Paying obeisance to the great man is both a duty and a delight when visiting Tate Britain, and now the Turner galleries have been completely rehung for the first time since the mid-Nineties.
No British artist in living memory has achieved the glaring notoriety of Damien Hirst. As a teen-ager his idea of a fun photo was posing next to the swollen head of a corpse in a morgue. In the photo he grins with crazy intensity, and ever since then his aim has been to dazzle with disgust. One imagines that he wanders the streets in an acid-green spotlight waving off paparazzi the way Orestes waved off flies. In fact, flies figure into several of Hirst’s pieces. One is an installation in which maggots are eating a skinned cow’s head. Another is a black disc mounted on the wall made of resin and squashed houseflies. The repellent is Hirst’s muse.