Saturday Oct. 10, 2015

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The Widows

Up and down the small streets, in which
no two houses are exactly
alike, widows of all ages
sit alone playing solitaire,
or knitting, or sometimes baking,
left in the big, empty houses.

Here are Mrs. Montgomery,
Mrs. Pilching, Mrs. Wolf, and
Mrs. Pelletier, all at once—
in a section of nine houses,
four widows. Sometimes they have bridge,
including either lunch or tea.

In the summer, separately,
widows spend a month in hotels
in New Hampshire, or sometimes Maine,
but never in Massachusetts.
In the winter, or some winters,
some of them go to Florida.

Book clubs, television, and ways
to supplement their small incomes
keep them busy. It is not a
bad life, they say, for there are so
many left like you, though no two
widows are exactly alike.

“The Widows” by Donald Hall from Old and New Poems. © Tickner & Fields, 1990. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, born in a village in Parma, Italy (1813). His parents owned a tavern and were not very well off. But his father recognized musical talent in Giuseppe and bought him a spinet (an upright harpsichord), which he kept for the rest of his life. By the age of 12, Verdi was the organist for his church. He started playing for other churches farther away from home, and then he went off to music school. He lived in the town of Busseto and boarded with a wealthy grocer who liked Verdi and wanted to support him, and whose daughter Verdi ended up marrying.

Verdi wrote marches, overtures and other pieces for the Busseto Philharmonic Society and the town marching band. But then he set his sights elsewhere and got an opera, Oberto, performed at La Scala, the most important theater in Italy, in 1839. It was a modest success. Then tragedy struck: his wife died of encephalitis. Verdi had already lost their two children in infancy. He vowed he would never write music again. But he couldn't resist when he read the powerful libretto for Nabucco. He turned it into a stunning opera, premiering on March 9, 1842. The audience applauded for 10 minutes after the first scene, and after the chorus, the audience demanded an encore, even though they were prohibited by the Austrian government at the time. Even the stagehands, who rarely paid attention to the performance, would stop what they were doing to watch and applaud the show. Verdi used the same librettist for his next opera, Lombardi. The librettist had a procrastination problem, and Verdi had to lock him in a room in order to get him to write enough on time. Once Verdi made the mistake of sticking him in the room with his wine collection. Hours later, the librettist emerged drunk. Verdi wrote a total of 26 operas, most notably Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), Aida (1871), and Falstaff (1893).

It's the birthday of playwright, screenwriter and director Harold Pinter (books by this author), born in East London (1930). Pinter tried out London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he didn't like it and left after two years. He debuted his first full-length play, The Birthday Party, in the West End in 1958. It didn't do well, but he continued to write plays and eventually created a body of work that people call the "comedies of menace." In these plays, situations that should be ordinary turn absurd or ominous because of inexplicable reasons. The plays usually take place in a single room, whose occupants are threatened by indefinable outside forces.

Pinter wrote The Homecoming (1965), about a man who brings his wife home to meet his all-male family. She stays with his family to be their caretaker and prostitute, and he goes back to his job teaching philosophy, realizing that nobody needs him. Pinter said that the opening of that play in New York City in 1967 was one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life. He said the audience was full of money — the women in mink, the men in tuxedoes. And as soon as the curtain opened, they hated the play. Pinter said, "The hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it." But, he said, "The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything [they had]. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in their tuxedos were just horrified. [...] There's no question that the play won on that occasion.”

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