Saturday Dec. 3, 2016

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I think it must be very nice
To stroll about upon the ice,
Night and day, day and night,
Wearing only black and white,
Always in your Sunday best—
Black tailcoat and pearl-white vest.
To stroll about so pleasantly
Beside the cold and silent sea
Would really suit me to a T!
I think it must be very nice
To stroll with Penguins on the ice.

“Penguin” by William Jay Smith from Laughing Time: Collected Nonsense. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Joseph Conrad (books by this author), born in Berdichev, Poland (now Ukraine) (1857). His parents had both died of tuberculosis by the time he was 12, so he went to live with his uncle in Switzerland and later joined the merchant navy, sailing all around the world and gathering experiences that he would later use in his novels and stories. The best known of these is Heart of Darkness (1899). It’s the story of an English riverboat captain in the Congo who is sent to retrieve an ivory trader, Kurtz, who has been living as a demigod among the African natives. The novella has been adapted several times, beginning with Orson Welles’ radio production in 1938. The most famous adaptation moved the novella’s action from Africa to southeast Asia and set the story during the Vietnam War: Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.

It was on this day in 1947 that the play A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. Tennessee Williams began writing the play three years earlier, during rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie (1945), whose success overwhelmed him so much that he fled to Mexico, where he kept scribbling a story about a dreamy, possibly mentally ill Southern belle named Blanche who comes to live with her sister, Stella, and Stella’s violent husband, Stanley. Early titles included The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche’s Chair in the Moon.

 The play’s frank depictions of sexuality and violence onstage shocked the audience, but at the end of the evening, the applause lasted 30 whole minutes. In the New York Times, theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “This must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwriting.”

The play starred a young, startlingly handsome 23-year-old named Marlon Brando from Omaha, Nebraska. About Brando, who came to see him at his home in Provincetown, Williams said, “There was no point in discovering him, it was so obvious. I never saw such raw talent in an individual. He was very natural and helpful. He repaired the plumbing that had gone on the whack, and he repaired the lights that had gone off. And then he just sat calmly down and began to read. After five minutes, Margo Jones, who was staying with us, said, ‘Oh, this is the greatest reading I’ve ever heard, even in Texas!’ And that’s how he was cast in Streetcar.”

 Marlon Brando went on to portray several iconic film characters, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979) and Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972). He says he learned how to play Stanley Kowalski by watching boxer Rocky Graziano during his gym practices. Brando gave Graziano two tickets to A Streetcar Named Desire. After watching the play, Graziano exclaimed, “The curtain went up and on the stage is that son of a bitch from the gym, and he’s playing me!”

 When Stanley Kowalski cries in agony for his wife in the rain, tearing his shirt in distress, Brando dragged out her name in one long plea: “Steeeeellllllaaaaaa!” It’s become such a famous interpretation that it’s been referenced in film and on television shows like Seinfeld and The Muppets. There is even an annual competition in New Orleans called “The Stanley & Stella Shouting Contest,” also known as the “Stell-Off.” It takes place in Jackson Square in the French Quarter and winners get bowling alley passes and beer.

On writing A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams said: “A play just seems to materialize; like an apparition, it gets clearer and clearer and clearer. It’s very vague at first, as in the case of Streetcar, which came after Menagerie. I simply had the vision of a woman in her late youth. She was sitting in a chair all alone by a window with the moonlight streaming in on her desolate face, and she’d been stood up by the man she planned to marry.”

Some 800 student demonstrators were arrested on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley on this date in 1964.

Many activist-minded Berkeley students had spent their summer running voter registration drives in the South. When they returned for the fall semester, they set up information tables on campus to collect donations and share information about the Civil Rights Movement, in the hope that more students would volunteer. The school’s administrators shut the tables down, enforcing the university’s strict ban on political speech and fundraising. When campus police arrested a grad student named Jack Weinberg on October 1 for refusing to show his identification, onlookers started an unplanned sit-in around the police car, and trapped it there for 32 hours. People took turns climbing on the hood of the police car to give speeches; Mario Savio, one of the leaders of what came to be the Free Speech Movement, thoughtfully removed his shoes first, to avoid damaging the car.

For the next several weeks, the protestors clashed with administration. On December 2, as many as 1,500 students occupied the main administration building, Sproul Hall, in a last-ditch effort to convince administrators to lift the ban on political speech and activism. They were peaceful. Joan Baez sang protest songs to keep their spirits up. Grad students even taught some spontaneous classes on a wide variety of subjects. Savio told his fellow students: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop.” Not long after two a.m., on the orders of the governor, police cordoned off the building and began arresting the protestors. Journalists on the scene reported seeing them drag some protestors down the stone steps by their feet, the students’ heads banging on every step.

But by the spring semester, university leadership had almost fully reversed its stance on political speech, and causes from the far right to the far left benefited from the loosened restrictions. Today, Sproul Plaza hosts informational tables that span the entire political spectrum, and anyone may rent the steps of Sproul Hall — now called the Mario Savio Steps — for a speech or a rally.

It’s the birthday of Anna Freud (1895) (books by this author), a pioneer in psychoanalytic child psychology. Freud’s father was famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. She was born in Vienna and was deeply unhappy as child, preferring the company of her nurse, Josephine, to her mother and sister, Sophie, whom many considered more beautiful than Anna.

Anna Freud suffered from depression and an eating disorder as a teen, spending much of her time at “health farms” in order to gain weight. Her schooling was intermittent and she later said she learned more from listening to her father and his houseguests than she ever did in school. She began reading her father’s work at the age of 15. He analyzed her for the first time when she was in her early 20s and continued for several years.

It was while working as an elementary school teacher that Anna Freud first began to be fascinated by the psychological makeup of children, particularly their fears, secret wishes, obsessions and nightmares. Though she never obtained a medical degree, she published a landmark study, The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence, in 1935. By 1938, the Nazis had begun to harass the Freud family, attempting to arrest Sigmund Freud, who was very ill. Anna offered herself instead, and before she was taken away, her father gave her poison to kill herself in case of torture. Anna Freud was released, and the family immigrated to London, where she nursed her father until his death.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®