Letter from America: Death and Legacy
By David Fedo
Before there were the Beatles and rock 'n' roll, there was folk music in America, beginning with Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter, and later starring Bob Dylan, the inimitable Joan Baez and Judy Collins, the triumphant trio of Peter, Paul and Mary, and now almost alone in the field, the smooth-singing James Taylor. But the greatest of them all was Pete Seeger, whose music and life embodied greatness over a period of many decades. He died this January 27 in New York at the ripe old age of 94, having been ill for only six days.
As The Boston Globe reported, Seeger, a Harvard College dropout, became the "indefatigable champion of progressive causes, from civil rights and environmentalism to nuclear disarmament and peace." President Obama mourned the loss of Seeger with his usual eloquence: "For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger."
Seeger, thin and wiry with a grizzled beard, and cradling his banjo, sang everywhere in concert halls large and small, union gatherings and schools and seemed never to be weary. You had to be alive in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to appreciate that voice, which became a bit reedy later on but was always authentic. And he wrote songs that will likely be sung forever: 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?', 'If I Had a Hammer', and finally 'We Shall Overcome', an adaptation of an old hymn which became the signature rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 60s and still is today. There was a kind of grace and poetry in his lyrics, but there was a clamour for justice, too.
Aside from partaking in numerous activities and causes in a long and crowded life, Seeger was one of the founders of the famous Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. He also launched the ship Clearwater to help clean up the Hudson River in New York. Seeger simply hoped and sought to make life better for humanity.
But his legacy, as George Wein, a Folk Festival colleague, said, "was the power of song. It meant everything to Pete. It was the way he brought people together." Check out many of these songs on YouTube, in memory of Seeger.
I returned to my home in a suburb of Boston in 2012, after five years of living and working in Singapore, and was immediately surprised and delighted to discover the extraordinary new richness and diversity of the local professional theatre scene, both in the city itself and in the surrounding communities. The choices have been both daunting and absolutely invigorating.
At the time of this writing (in late February), dozens of plays of all kinds were in production on small and large stages, including the usual blockbusters (Mama Mia!, Company, and Man of La Mancha), as well as more adventurous works, like a searing musical called Witness Uganda, a dazzling combination musical/dance performance titled Man in a Case and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, and new interpretations of both Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth. At the same time, the actress Kate Burton (Richard Burton's daughter) was also in town rehearsing the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Chekhov's The Seagull.
One of the best recent productions my wife Susan and I saw was, of all things, the durable musical Hairspray, which was performed with exuberance and panache by the Wheelock College Family Theatre. This production was totally engaging.
But the play I wish to speak about here was the Lyric Stage Company's magnificent production of Arthur Miller's 1949 classic, Death of a Salesman, which is still ranked by many as the best American play of all time (perhaps only Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night is a rival). The Lyric has a small stage, with the 200 or so members of the audience sitting arena-style on three sides, and the cramped space perfectly represented Willy Loman's tragic desperation at being hemmed in by his Brooklyn house, squeezed in by an increasingly crowded neighbourhood, and by his own dreams gone bad.
Loman, the salesman whose mantra to his sons was not to be just liked, but to be "well liked", lost his way pursuing what is often called the American dream. The danger of that dream to be rewarded with financial success after dutiful work is that a money-driven culture cannot reward everyone; the bodies of the unlucky or misguided, like Loman, litter the landscape. Even today, nearly 65 years after Miller wrote his harrowing play, the drama delivers a powerful punch.
Miller, who died in 2005, was dedicated to his art and did not wish to become a celebrity, but having married Marilyn Monroe (a brief marriage), his life was the object of more scrutiny and curiosity than those of many other writers. But this revival of Death of a Salesman, impeccably directed by Spiro Veloudos, reminds us that the play's the thing. Poetic and poignant, it's Miller's most lasting and meaningful legacy.
D.F., March 2014QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014