Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A. J. Langguth

A. J. Langguth is professor emeritus of journalism in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. His books include Union: 1812, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, and Our Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975.

His new book is Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At the urging of friends in England, I made a point of seeing La Bete last month when it reached New York. I was overwhelmed by Mark Rylance's long opening monologue, one of the most impressive bits of acting I'd seen in some sixty years of going to plays. It was the more astounding because in London the previous March I had marveled over Rylance's performance in a entirely different sort of part in Jerusalem.

I was not surprised then that the critics agreed he had brought genius to the role of Valere. What I couldn't understand, was a widely held disdain for the play in which he was so magnificent.

I sent off for a copy of La Bete, by David Hirson, and now my puzzlement is even greater. Of course, the critics knew that Rylance was not ad libbing, and yet they seemed unwilling to grant Hirson his role in the evening's triumph.

The play is written in heroic couplets from the age of Moliere and, unlike other recent poetic attempts on stage, they enhance the pleasure, not sour it. The audience doesn't know--or care--about the effortless rhymes unless the actors lean upon them once in a while to heighten the comedy.

I picked up the text just now, intending to quote a few lines. But I began read and found it hard to stop, especially with Rylance declaiming them once more in my ear.

The critics' observation that after the first thirty minutes the play cannot sustain the same giddy pace is probably true enough. Who cares?
Visit A.J. Langguth's website.

--Marshal Zeringue