Wednesday Feb. 4, 2015

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To Margo

In life’s rough-and-tumble
you’re the crumble on my apple crumble
and the fairy on my Christmas tree!
In life’s death-and-duty
you’ve the beauty of the Beast’s own Beauty—
I feel humble as a bumble-bee!

In life’s darkening duel
I’m the lighter, you’re the lighter fuel—
And the tide that sways my inland sea!
In life’s meet-and-muster
you’ve the lustre of a diamond cluster—
a blockbuster — just a duster, me!

"To Margo" by Gavin Ewart from The Complete Little Ones. © Hutchinson, 1988. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1789 that George Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States of America. Congress was expected to certify the decision in March during their first meeting, but they couldn’t manage to assemble a quorum — some states hadn’t determined which candidates had won, some states had not even held elections, and some legislators couldn’t make it to Washington because of dangerous weather and bad roads. In April, enough senators and representatives finally showed up to certify the electoral vote and declare Washington as president. They sent Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, to officially convey the news to Washington at his home at Mount Vernon. Washington was reluctant about his new role. He was thrilled to be home in Virginia, living a quiet life with his wife. A couple of weeks earlier, he had written to a friend: “My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties.”

At Mount Vernon, Thomson and Washington each read a prepared statement. Washington said: “While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it, I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice. All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.” Soon after that, he left home and made his way to New York, the temporary capital. The inauguration took place on April 30th. Washington wore a brown suit, and standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street, he put his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office in front of a huge crowd. Then he went inside to deliver the first inaugural address to Congress. One senator wrote in his journal: “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read.” After his speech, Washington and all of Congress walked through the crowds along Broadway to St. Paul’s for a church service. Festivities continued the rest of the day and night.

It was on this day in 1938 that Thornton Wilder’s (books by this author) play Our Town premiered in New York City at the Henry Miller Theatre. It almost didn’t make it there. After a one-night tryout performance in Princeton, Our Town moved to Boston for two weeks of performances, and critics hated it. They thought the staging was too experimental, with no set and few props, and that the content was bland. Some of the audience loved it, but other people walked out — sometimes before the play even started, because they didn’t see scenery on the stage and assumed there had been a strike. Others disliked the tragic ending — the wife of the governor of Massachusetts called the box office to report that it was too sad. By the middle of the first week, audiences were small. The producer and director canceled the second week. Wilder blamed it on the director and actors, writing in a letter: “Our reviews say that it is a nostalgic, unpretentious play with charm. But what I wrote was damned pretentious.”

The New York theater critic Brooks Atkinson loved the Boston performance and convinced the director to bring it to New York early. Opening night went well, and the next morning Wilder and his sister took the train back to New Haven and from there home to Hamden, Connecticut. On the train they read through reviews, separating them into two piles — positive and negative — to decide whether to take the bus for the last leg of the trip or spring for a cab. Based on the results, they took the bus. When they got home, Wilder found out that despite the mixed reviews, lines for the box office were huge, and police had to intervene to let the matinee audience into the theater. He wrote in a letter to his friend and attorney: “Isn’t it astonishing, and fun, and exhausting?” Our Town performed in a temporary slot at the Henry Miller Theatre for one week, then moved to the Morosco Theatre, where it enjoyed a long run, and won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. Wilder said: “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind — not in things, not in “scenery.” [...] The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

It’s the birthday of the poet Gavin Ewart (books by this author), born in London, England (1916). He’s the author of many books of poetry, including Pleasures of the Flesh (1966) and The Learned Hippopotamus (1987). He started his poetic career early, when he was just 17 years old, with a poem in the prestigious British literary journal New Verse. He published his first book of poems when he was 23, and his work was compared to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But when World War II broke out, he stopped writing poetry, and he became an advertising copywriter and didn’t publish another book until 1964, when his collection Londoners came out. His poetry is often described as light verse:

“For nursery days are gone, nightmare is
real and there are no good Fairies.
The fox’s teeth are in the bunny
and nothing can remove them, honey.”

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