Monday Oct. 10, 2016

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October 10

Now constantly there is the sound,
quieter than rain,
of the leaves falling.

Under their loosening bright
gold, the sycamore limbs
bleach whiter.

Now the only flowers
are beeweed and aster, spray
of their white and lavender
over the brown leaves.

The calling of a crow sounds
Loud — landmark — now
that the life of summer falls
silent, and the nights grow.

“October 10” by Wendell Berry from New Collected Poems. © Counterpoint, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1938 that Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy ceded the region of Czechoslovakia known as Sudetenland. This was a result of the Munich Agreement – a pact signed on September 29.

Sudetenland was home to more than 3 million ethnic Germans, and Hitler had threatened to take the area by force if the region was not given over. The Czech government initially refused, believing they could gather reinforcement, but the Allies were hesitant to escalate the situation with Germany and reached an agreement without Czechoslovakia’s consent. The so-called Munich Agreement was signed by Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, and Édouard Daladier.

Though he promised that by signing the agreement he was pledging peace and that he would not invade Czechoslovakia further, Hitler told his aides, “Gentlemen, this has been my first international conference and I can assure you that it will be my last.”

Six months later, he violated the agreement and destroyed the Czech state. He said, “It is my unshakable will that Czechoslovakia be wiped off the map.”

Charles Darwin published The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms on this date in 1881 (books by this author). It was his last scientific book, and his most successful. In it, he explains that the very ground we walk upon has passed through the bodies of worms and emerged as castings. He also estimated that there are more than 53,000 worms at work in any given acre of land, and reported that they had turned a rocky field behind his uncle’s house into smooth soil over the course of many years. He was fascinated by the work of the earthworm, which he called an “unsung creature which, in its untold millions, transformed the land as the coral polyps did the tropical sea.” On the surface, the study of earthworms seems to have little to do with the work on evolution and natural selection that made him famous. But this book, too, was about the inexorable processes of nature that, over long spans of time, can bring about dramatic changes.

The book started as a paper, which Darwin presented before the Geological Society of London in 1837. In 1842, Darwin spread a layer of chalk fragments over a pasture near his house and observed the worms’ effect on it for almost 30 years. He placed a large, flat stone — which he dubbed the worm stone—in a field and measured the movement of soil as the worms digested the earth beneath the stone. He also kept worms inside the house, examining the effects of bright light and sound. He figured out through trial and error what the worms’ favorite food was: carrots. He was fond of the worms, which were unmoved by art or music — much as Darwin himself remained unmoved by the arts.

By 1881, Darwin’s health was failing, and he remarked to a friend that he wanted to complete his book on worms before he joined them in the local cemetery. He pushed his publisher to bring the book to press as soon as possible. When it was first published, the work of 44 years, Worms was a best-seller, and Darwin received a surprising amount of fan mail. He died six months after the book was published.

It’s the birthday of English playwright Harold Pinter (1930) (books by this author), born in London and best known for his provocative plays, including The Birthday Party (1958), about a piano player who receives a visit from two sinister strangers on what may or may not be his birthday. Pinter once said his work was about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.”

Pinter’s plays often take place in a single room and employ dramatic pauses, which became his trademark. He would note the pauses in the text of the play in three ways: he would note the longest break with “silence”; a normal break with the word “pause”; and the briefest silence was noted with just an ellipsis. The pauses came to be known as “Pinteresque” and are included in the Oxford English Dictionary. A sports announcer even used the term to describe the agonizing moments after a soccer loss. The term frustrated Pinter, who said, “Those silences have achieved such significance that they have overwhelmed the bloody plays — which is a bloody pain in the arse.”

Pinter was a boy during World War II and even though his parents sent him to Cornwall to protect him, he never forgot the intense fear and desperation of the city during the Blitz. At Hackney Downs School, he acted in plays, played cricket, broke the school record in sprinting, and devoured the novels of Virginia Woolf and Dostoevsky. He primed his future ear for dialogue watching American gangster films and British war movies. He was called up in 1948, but registered as a conscientious objector, an imprisonable offense. Instead, he was fined, but over the years, his plays would become increasingly political.

Pinter spent two years in drama school before dropping out and joining an Irish theater troupe (1951). He performed under the name David Baron and mostly played romantic leads and policemen. He was also working as a doorman, dishwasher, waiter, and writing poems under the name “Harold Pinta.”

When a friend from drama school asked him to write a play, Pinter initially declined, saying it would take six months. Instead, it only took him four days. The Room premiered in 1957, when he was 27, and Pinter was hooked. A producer happened to see it and asked if he had anything else. Pinter wrote The Birthday Party and it premiered in 1958, but it was a disaster. Audiences booed and even theater critic Kenneth Tynan said he “saw no promise.” The play closed after eight performances. Pinter kept writing, though, and his next play, The Caretaker (1960), was a resounding success. The Birthday Party is now considered a classic.

Harold Pinter wrote over 30 plays during his lifetime. He branched out into directing and screenwriting, but he preferred the spontaneity of live theater. He said, “Even old Sophocles didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

His plays include The Homecoming (1965), Old Times (1971) No Man’s Land (1975), and Betrayal (1978), an anxious and brutal play about an affair, which is loosely based on Pinter’s own extramarital affair with a British television presenter.

On writing, Pinter was noncommittal. He said: “I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.” Whenever he started a new play, he simply called his characters A, B, and C.

Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in drama (2005). He was ill and could not attend the ceremony. His acceptance speech was delivered via video, and in it he denounced American foreign policy. He died in 2008.

Pinter once said the character of Petey, the old man in the The Birthday Party, utters the most important line in the play. Petey says, “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.”

Pinter said, “I’ve been living that line all my damn life.”

It’s the birthday of the composer Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky, in Parafianovo, Belarus (1903). He was a talented classical musician, educated at an elite conservatory, but his family fled Russia after the revolution and he wound up playing piano in cafés in Constantinople (now Istanbul). From there, his family rode steerage class on a ship to America, went through Ellis Island, and ended up in New York in 1921. There the teenage Dukelsky met George Gershwin, who was only a few years older, and the two became good friends. Dukelsky played Gershwin what he described as “an extremely cerebral piano sonata,” and Gershwin, who was also trained in classical music, suggested this: “There’s no money in that kind of stuff, and no heart in it, either. Try to write some real popular tunes — and don’t be scared about going low-brow. They will open you up.” He also suggested that Dukelsky shorten his name, as he himself had done — Gershowitz to Gershwin. So Vladimir Dukelsky came up with the name Vernon Duke, but he didn’t use it for a while.

First, he went to Paris. There, he met and impressed the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev.  Dukelsky wrote later about their first meeting — that Diaghilev had drawled: “‘Ah, a good-looking boy. That in itself is most unusual. Composers are seldom good-looking; neither Stravinsky nor Prokofiev ever won any beauty prizes. How old are you?’ I told him I was 20. ‘That’s encouraging, too. I don’t like young men over 25.’” And so Diaghilev commissioned him to write a ballet, and he wrote Zephire et Flore, with sets by Georges Braque, choreography by Léonide Massine, and costumes by Coco Chanel. It got a great reception, and Dukelsky was taken in by the not-quite-as-good-looking Stravinsky and Prokofiev. For a few years he divided his time between Paris, where he continued to write classical music, and London, where he wrote show tunes and used the name Vernon Duke. Then in 1929, he decided to go back to America, and he wrote some of the biggest hits of the 1930s — “April in Paris” (1932), “Autumn in New York” (1934), “I Can’t Get Started” (1936), and “Taking a Chance on Love” (1940). And he wrote the music for the Broadway show and film Cabin in the Sky (1940). By that time, he had become an American citizen and officially changed his name to Vernon Duke.

He said, “Every dogma has its day, but good music lives forever.”

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