Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Director, The Writer, and The Artist

The past two week it seems as if more famous people have died than usual. Among those was a Broadway director responsible for one of the most famous musicals of the past forty years, a writer who created what could be the most famous barrister short of Perry Mason, and an artist remembered for his landscapes.

Tom O'Horgan will most likely be remembered as the director who brought Hair to Broadway. He passed January 8 at the age of 84. He had suffered from Alzheimer's Disease for the past few years.

Tom O'Horgan was born in Chicago on May 3, 1924. He attended DePaul University in Chicago. It was there that he learned to play many different musical instruments, and he actually played harp for several orchestras following college. He also performed with Second City, the famous improvisational comedy group. Eventually O'Horgan moved to New York City, acting in small venues and performing improvisational comedy in night clubs.

O'Horgan became a director after joining La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. It was there that he directed Jean Genet's The Maids. The organisation's founder, Ellen Stewart, soon became his mentor. Eventually his work would attract the attention of the creative team behind the musical Hair. Tom O'Horgan had been their first choice to direct the play, but he had been in Europe when it first went into production off Broadway. He was then hired for the musical's Broadway run. O'Horgan not only encouraged spontaneity among the actors, but it was he who introduced one of the play's most controversial aspects--nudity. Hair not only became a hit on Broadway, but a bit of a cultural phenomenon. Many of the songs from the musical would become hits for various artists, such as The Cowsills' version of the title song and The Fifth Dimension's medley of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In."

Tom O'Horgan would go on to have a fairly good career on Broadway. In 1971 he won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director for Lenny. In 1971 Tom O'Horgan would become the director who brought Jesus Christ Superstar to Broadway. Like Hair it was a source of some controversy, causing offence among some religious groups. He would go onto direct Inner City, Dude, The Leaf People, I Won't Dance, a revival of the musicall The Three Musketeers, and Sentaor Joe. In 1977 he directed revivals of both Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.

As a director Tom O'Horgan may have had only a few hits, but he would leave a deeper mark than most Broadway directors. Hair broke new ground on Broadway, challenging many of the standards of the day. It is counted as the first concept musical on Broadway (a musical whose statement is more important than its plot). In this way Hair paved the way for Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Pippin, and The Rocky Horror Show.

Sir John Mortimer had started out as a barrister, but he will forever be remembered as the creator of crime solving lawyer Horace Rumpole. Mortimer died January 16 at the age of 85 after a long illness.

Sir John Mortimer was born in Hampstead, London on April 21, 1923. He attended The Dragon School in Oxford and Harrow School in Harrow on the Hill. Mortimer read law at
Brasenose College, University of Oxford (although since Brasenose's buildings had been requisitioned for World War II, he was physically at Christ Church). Classified as physically unfit to serve in the war, Mortimer wrote scripts for propaganda films for the Crown Film Unit. His first novel, Charade, was published in 1947.

In 1948 Sir John Mortimer was called to the Bar. Early in his legal career most of his work consisted of divorce cases. After being named a Queen's Counsel in 1966, Mortimer worked more in criminal law. In fact, he became an outspoken champion of free speech. Mortimer successfully defended publishers John Calder and Marion Boyars in appealing an obscenity conviction for having published Last Exit to Brooklyn. He was also part of the defence team for the magazine Oz in what would be the longest obscenity trial in British history. It was also John Mortimer who defended Virgin Records when it was charged that the title of The Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks was obscene.

Mortimer's second novel Like Men Betrayed was published in 1953. It would lead to his first radio play, as he adapted the novel for the BBC Light Programme in 1955. His first work in television would be a double bill of The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline in 1959, which aired under the umbrella title Back to Back. Much of Mortimer's work for the next many years would be either for the stage, television, or the movies. Mortimer made his debut as a playwright with The Dock Brief in 1958. He would go onto write such plays as I Spy, One to Another, What Shall We Tell Caroline, Two Stars For Comfort, Cat Among the Pigeons, Bells of Hell, Casebook, Edwin, and Naked Justice.

In film Mortimer's first screenplay was for Lunch Hour in 1961, adapting his own play. He would go onto work on Guns of Darkness, Carol Reed's The Running Man, and Bunny Lake Is Missing. In television Mortimer would write episodes of ITV Television Playhouse, Armchair Theatre, and Thirty Minute Theatre. He adapted both Shades of Green and Brideshead Revisited for television.

After an absence from bookshelves for many years, Sir John Mortimer returned to writing books in the late Seventies. In 1975 he created Rumpole of the Baileyfor an episode of BBC's Play for Today. Horace Rumpole was an ageing, curmudgeonly London barrister whose first loves are the courtroom, cheap cigars, and not particularly healthy food. The episode "Rumpole of the Bailey" proved popular enough to inspire not only a television series, but an entire series of books as well. It was in 1978 that the first novel featuring Horace Rumpole (entitled Rumpole of the Bailey) was published. In the end Rumpole would last through seven television series and over twenty books. Besides the Rumpole books, Mortimer would also write a series known as The Rapstone Chronicles (so named because of the small English village in which they are set), as well as several other books.

If Sir John Mortimer found success as a writer, it was because he was capable of creating whodunits with a sense of humour. In many respects, he was like a cross between Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse. Indeed, the character of Horace Rumphole is a perfect example of Mortimer's humour at work. Unkempt, curmudgeonly, forever living in fear of his wife, he would probably not be most people's first choice for a defence lawyer--at least until they saw him in the courtroom, that is. In cross examination or producing evidence, Rumpole was clever to the point of being dangerous. When it came to writing entertaining reading, Sir John Mortimer was a master.

Andrew Wyeth was one of the most famous painters to come out of the United States. He was probably best known for his paintings of rural life. He passed yesterday at the age of 91.

Andrew Wyeth was born on July 12, 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. He was the fifth and youngest of the five children of Newell Convers Wyeth and Carolyn Wyeth. His father was perhaps better known as N. C. Wyeth, the legendary illustrators, who had illustrated such classics as Treasure Island, Last of the Mohicans, Kidnapped, and others. Not in particularly good health as a child, Wyeth was schooled at home and taught art by his father. He later learned egg tempera from his brother-in-law, artist Peter Hurd.

In 1937, when he was only twenty, Andrew Wyeth held his first one man exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City. Every single painting sold. While he did do a few illustrations for books early in his career, he never made a career out of it as his father did. It was in 1948 that he painted what may be his most famous piece, Christina's World. The painting showed Christina, her lower body disabled, lying in a field and looking towards her home. It was that same year that he began a series featuring his neighbours, Anna and Karl Kuerner. For the next thirty years the Kuerners and their farm would feature in many of Wyeth's paintings.

A realist for the entirety of his career, Andrew Wyeth would create several well known paintings over the next fifty years. Among his best known were Trodden Weed in 1951 (which only showed the boots a man walking over parched weeds), Master Bedroom from 1965 (featuring a dog sleeping on a bed in a New England bedroom), and The German from 1975 (a portrait of Karl Kuerner when he had cancer).

Although he was one of the most popular artists with the general public, Andrew Wyeth was often attacked by the art world. The accusation was made that his paintings represented the very middle class values that the art world sought to reject. Others maintained that his paintings were formulaic and not even particular good realist illustration. It seems most likely that the art world's adverse reaction to Wyeth was more due to two things. Firt, he was a realist at a time when abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock were fashionable. Second, he was undeniably popular. It was a regular occurrence for his exhibitions to be heavily attended and to sell out. His name was recognisable among average Americans in a way that Al Held and James Gahagan never were. At least in the Twentieth Century, popularity was a bad sign to many in the art world.

What Wyeth's critics overlooked is that his paintings evoked an emotional response in the average American that the abstract expressionists could not. His paintings were people and places with which the average American living in a rural area or small town could identify. For myself the appeal of his paintings can be summed up by Master Bedroom, featuring a dog sleeping on a bed in sparse bedroom. For anyone who has owned a dog or known a dog, this is a situation with which one might meet on any given day. It is, quite simply, a slice of the life of an average person (or dog, as the case may be). It is for that reason that Andrew Wyeth will probably be remembered long after many abstract expressionists have been forgotten.

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