Tag Archives: playwright

Tom Stoppard calls it a ‘frightening time’ for free speech

Playwright Tom Stoppard said he will accept PEN’s highest award next month in New York to help put a spotlight on a “frightening time” for free expression.

Stoppard is to accept the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award, the highest honor bestowed by the American chapter of the global human-rights organization of writers and editors.

“People like me are chosen, in a sense, to represent what PEN and other organizations are doing 24/7. So I can say I’m proud to represent them,” the playwright said.

Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satirical magazine that was a target of a deadly shooting in January, also will be honored. Staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who barely escaped the attack that killed eight of his co-workers and four others, will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

Stoppard, who has campaigned for oppressed artists and political dissidents in Eastern and Central Europe, said threats to free speech are worse now than ever, from radical Islam to U.S. government surveillance.

“The problem is deeper and, really, much more complicated. I think it’s quite a frightening time,” said the playwright, who scripted the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love” and has written plays including “Arcadia” and “The Real Thing.”

“You kind of stand there in your Western idea of what morality is and what amorality is and suddenly you’re not quite sure. You thought you’d always known what was which and suddenly, you’re not sure. This is the fate of thoughtful people as the century unfolds.”

In addition to the Paris attack, PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel pointed to other moves against writers, including a gunman who opened fire on a Copenhagen cultural center in March and a South African novelist confined for comments she made in appreciation of Salman Rushdie.

“It is a climate of hair-trigger sensitivity to certain kinds of speech and a very dangerous moment for writers who are seated in the crosshairs,” said Nossel. “It is a tough moment on many fronts.”

Stoppard said he and fellow artists have lately found it difficult to tread the line between a desire for absolute right of free expression and the hope of being respectful to those with different beliefs and creeds.

“The Charlie Hebdo massacre was an appalling body shock to anybody who cares about life, let along literature. You are left thinking, ‘Well, if it comes to making a choice here, clearly one has to choose that one should be allowed and entitled to offend without being murdered for it,’” he said.

“That seems self-evident. That doesn’t mean that one is in harmony with the attitude or the particular instances of what is being said and written and drawn.”

Also at the gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle will be cited for “his leadership role in the global literary community.” And the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award is going to jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

On the Web…

Online: https://pen.org

‘Come Back’

Milwaukee playwright Neil Haven has a new show on the horizon: a road trip comedy of life-and-death proportions. When Sky’s best friend Erin dies, she leaves instructions for Sky to visit every cremation shop in the lower 48 states — but that trip gets thrown off course when Erin’s estranged mother shows up to request Sky lay her daughter’s ashes to rest in the family plot.

At In Tandem Theatre, 628 N. Tenth St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25, $23 for seniors/students. Call 414-271-1371 or visit intandemtheatre.org for tickets.

Feb. 27 to March 22

MCT’s ‘Train Driver’ hits racial prejudice head-on

Roelf Visagie, a white Afrikaner who drives a train in his native South Africa, is haunted by the death of a black African woman and her child. One night, out of nowhere, the woman steps in front of his engine as a way of committing suicide.

Less to assuage his guilt and more to act out his anger at a world that would inconvenience him, Visagie desperately seeks the identity of the victims — but along the way, he begins to understand the elements of his culture, and himself, that would lead this woman to commit such a desperate act.

His journey forms the dramatic arc of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver, the latest production by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Penned in 2010, the play was based on an actual incident that took place in 2000. It’s a work the South African playwright considers his most important because of what it says about his country’s history of apartheid and racial prejudice and how it is deeply ingrained in each Afrikaner, according to director C. Michael Wright.

“Fugard himself says, ‘All that happens to Roelf Visagie in the course of the play encapsulates the journey I have made myself in trying to deal with my legacy of racial prejudice,’” says Wright, quoting the author. “’It is, in essence, a final statement for me — about my relationship to the South Africa I have loved all my life; cursed at a couple of times, but loved, certainly loved.’”

In the MCT production, a Midwest premiere that runs through March 15, American Players Theatre veteran David Daniel plays Visagie and Michael A. Torrey plays Simon Hanabe, the old gravedigger Visagie meets in his search for the identity of his unintended victims. The interaction between the pair sheds a greater light on the play’s themes and how they manifest in Visagie’s character.

“I admire Visagie very much as a man,” says Daniel. “He is a racist, but a racist that was born and thrived in ignorance. He is confronted by truths that do not fit conveniently into those life-long, community-held beliefs, and it is his heart that reshapes him into something new.”

In the wake of anti-racism protests in New York City, Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, there’s a sense of contemporary relevance to the play’s subject matter and its protagonist. But Wright says the trajectory of The Train Driver is less a literal reflection and more a refraction of such incidents, and it forces Visagie to think outside of South Africa’s institutionalized racism. 

“Even though he writes specifically about his South African experience, Fugard’s themes are universal,” Wright says. “He consistently asks extremely important questions about what it means to be a person of integrity and compassion in today’s world, and he asks these questions in a profoundly eloquent way.”

Best known for his play ‘Master Harold’… and the Boys and its depiction of racism, hatred and bigotry, Fugard was a lifelong opponent of apartheid. The political messages of many of the now-82-year-old playwright’s works brought him into conflict with his country’s apartheid government. He formed multiracial theater troupes in Johannesburg in 1958, which led to police surveillance and government censure, and many of his first plays were published and produced outside of South Africa.

In The Train Driver, the themes that characterized much of his work are brought to crystal clarity. The character of Visagie is in many ways a stand-in for South Africa’s former Afrikaner government, but unlike that government, Visagie has found a way to understand and evolve, a hurdle that many in that country still have trouble addressing in a meaningful way, according to Wright.

“Like Fugard, I believe quite strongly in the power of hope,” Wright says. “Even in the most hopeless of circumstances, we have so much to gain by simply connecting with our neighbors. This sort of deep investment in our fellow man can eventually lead to understanding, trust and maybe even redemption.”

For Daniel, the assessment is an even simpler one.

“Visagie changes,” Daniel says. “I don’t think God could have asked for anything more.”


Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver runs Feb. 25 to March 15 at the Studio Theatre in the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and more information, call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Gay author, celebrity Gore Vidal dies at 86

Gore Vidal, the gay novelist, essayist and playwright, died Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills of complications from pneumonia. He was 86.

Vidal’s career spanned 60 years and will be remembered as much for his outspokenness and scorn for popular culture and politics as for writing.

Vidal was proud of his status as a literary and political troublemaker. His best sellers included “Myra Breckenridge,” about a transsexual, and “Burr,” a sardonic take on early American history.

A half-century ago, he outraged mainstream critics as one of the first major American writers to describe and embrace unambiguous homosexuality.

Vidal was born at West Point, N.Y., where his father, a former football star at the school, was the military academy’s first aviation instructor. He also was one of the founders of TWA and a lover of Amelia Earhart.

Vidal’s mother was an actress and socialite who, according to her son, had an “on-and-off affair with Clark Gable.”

Vidal also was a distant cousin of former vice president Al Gore, whom he avoided, as he put it, “on the ground that one day plausible deniability will be useful to each of us.”

His awards included the National Book Award in 1993 for “United States: Essays 1952-1992” and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982 for “The Second American Revolution and Other Essays.”

His second memoir, “Point to Point Navigation” (2006), is a Who’s Who list of the luminaries who surrounded his life, including JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Wells, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Rudolph Nureyev and Elia Kazan. The memoir also dealt with the illness and death in 2003 of his partner of five decades, Howard Austen. They lived in self-imposed exile in Ravello, Italy, for more than 30 years.

Of their relationship, Vidal wrote, “It’s easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does.”

His first sensation was his third book, “The City and the Pillar” (1948), which was the first American novel to deal frankly and positively with same-sex love. He was viciously attacked for it, but he attracted the notoriety he would rail against and savor for the rest of his life.

Vidal resisted being called gay, saying there was no such thing as a homosexual person, only homosexual acts.

In November 2009, when he received a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards, Vidal was introduced by Paul Newman’s widow, actress Joanne Woodward. She recalled what Vidal said when he became the godfather of Woodward’s and Paul Newman’s first child: “Always a godfather, never a god.”

Twice he ran unsuccessfully for political office: for Congress in Upstate New York in 1960 and for the Senate in California in 1982.

Vidal will be best remembered by many for events that had nothing to do with his books.

In a 1968 TV appearance, he goaded conservative William F. Buckley, who yelled at him, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the god—- face and you’ll stay plastered.”

In 2008, The New York Times asked Vidal how he felt when he heard that Buckley had died: “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred,” he responded.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Vidal was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” where he became famous as a witty, entertaining raconteur.

Vidal was also an accomplished screenwriter. He contributed to the scripts of “Ben-Hur,” “Suddenly Last Summer” and “The Catered Affair.”