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A ‘Prophecy’ Worth Watching

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Posted on Jun 13, 2010
Ari Mintz

By Chris Hedges

Orson Welles and John Houseman were preparing to mount a production in June 1937 in New York City called “The Cradle Will Rock,” a musical written by Marc Blitzstein and set in “Steeltown USA.” The musical followed the efforts of a worker, Larry Foreman, as he attempted to unionize steelworkers. His nemesis was the heartless industrialist Mister Mister, who owned the steel mill and controlled the press, the church, local civic groups, politicians, the arts and the local university, where, as a trustee, Mister Mister made sure the pliant college president fired professors who did not laud the manly arts of war and capitalism. “The Cradle Will Rock” spared no one, from Mister Mister’s philanthropic wife and spoiled children to Reverend Salvation, who preached war in the name of Jesus, to feckless artists who devoted themselves to the cult of art. At one point the artists, along with Mister Mister’s wife, sing:

And we love Art for Art’s sake,

It’s smart, for Art’s sake,

To Part, for Art’s sake,

With your heart, for Art’s sake,

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Square, Site wide
And your mind, for Art’s sake,

Be Blind, for Art’s sake

And Deaf for Art’s sake,

And dumb, for Art’s sake,

They kill, for Art’s sake,

All the Art for Art’s sake.

The show was scheduled to open at the Maxine Elliott Theatre with an elaborate set and a 28-piece orchestra. But Washington, bowing to complaints, at the last minute announced that no new shows would be funded by the theater project until after the fiscal year. The theater was surrounded by armed guards since, the government argued, props and costumes inside were government property. Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein—who would later be blacklisted—rented the Venice Theater and a piano. They met the audience outside the shuttered Maxine Elliott Theatre and marched the theatergoers and the cast 20 blocks to the Venice. They invited onlookers to join them and filled the 1,742-seat house. Actor’s Equity had forbidden the cast to perform the piece “onstage” so the actors stood in the audience singing across the seats. The poet Archibald MacLeish, who attended, thought it was one of the most moving theatrical experiences of his life.

“This was censorship by another form,” the head of the Federal Theater Project, Hallie Flanagan, noted acidly at the time. By 1939 the Federal Theater Project was killed. It was the first of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects to be dismantled, “a reminder,” the playwright Karen Malpede said, “of the power of the theater.” 

The corporate and government censorship—practiced in the name of sponsorship—that was imposed on “The Cradle Will Rock” is the censorship that has decimated the arts, the universities, the press and the church and destroyed the theater. These liberal institutions have been bought off. Corporate money, grants and government support reward those who stay on script, who do not challenge the cruel structures of American imperialism, our permanent war economy and unfettered capitalism. And those productions that break the rules are tossed aside. It is this kind of insidious censorship that takes cutting-edge productions, such as Malpede’s fierce new anti-war play, “Prophecy,” running at the Fourth Street Theater in the East Village in New York City until June 20, and relegates them to obscurity.

“Prophecy,” which has a superb cast including veteran stage actors Kathleen Chalfant and George Bartenieff, as well as the versatile Najla Said, examines the hollowness of our own imperial virtues. It explores the psychic and physical pain of war. Malpede’s play is perhaps too ambitious in its sweep, encompassing Vietnam, the wars in Lebanon and the occupied territories in Israel and Iraq. The writer in me would edit it down to focus on the war-tossed relationship between Hala, a Muslim woman; her former lover, Alan; Alan’s wife, Sarah; and Alan and Hala’s daughter, Mariam. But “Prophecy” goes to places most modern theater productions will not. It has a conscience. And “Prophecy” keeps alive the tenuous link with productions, including “The Cradle Will Rock,” that prize truth. It speaks in the unfamiliar language of justice.

“What happened?” Malpede asked when we spoke. “The Vietnam War finally ended, but the peace movement persisted in large numbers through the dirty wars in South America and the growing anti-nuclear movement. Yet, it became more and more difficult to produce socially conscious, poetic theater. The old dogma of the 1950s reasserted itself: Art and politics don’t mix. When Ronald Reagan was elected [as president] in 1980, he immediately ordered National Endowment of the Arts grants to small—read leftist—theaters be abolished. Reaganism eroded the public perception that a great democracy deserves great art.”

“Without government support for funding innovation and the non-commercial, the theater began to institutionalize and to censor itself,” Malpede went on. “The growing network of regional theaters became ever more reliant upon planning subscription seasons which would not offend any of their local donors, and the institutional theaters began to function more and more as social clubs for the wealthy and philanthropic. Sometimes, there was a breakthrough. ‘Angels in America’ was one—the result, too, of an aggressive gay activist movement. But to a large degree, the theater no longer wanted to shake people up. The institutional theaters began to ‘develop’ plays—a process geared to securing grants from the few foundations which still, in our age of austerity, fund the arts. Development means that most new plays receive a series of readings and workshops during which all sorts of dramaturges, literary managers, directors and artistic directors give their ‘input,’ most often thoroughly confusing especially young playwrights and frequently damaging whatever was authentic to begin with. Fewer and fewer of these plays ever reach production. As the economy worsens, fewer and fewer risks are taken. Some subjects are out of bounds altogether, including strong critiques of capitalism or American foreign policy; in other words, anything that might cause individual donors to stop donating.”


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By ofersince72, June 14, 2010 at 4:34 pm Link to this comment

It just tickles me to death when I hear Isreal described
as the only democratic government in the Middle East.

Report this

By Bill, June 14, 2010 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr Hedges, is all bleak and woeful in your world view?  Do you ever write a positive
column?  What makes you enthusiastic for the future of your life and that of your
family?

Come on, you can write about something positive and escape gloom and doom for
one article here can’t you?

Report this
kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, June 14, 2010 at 4:01 pm Link to this comment

Thank you Jean Gerard

Those are good suggestions, some of which I have had some interesting outcomes (including fun!).  I was dismayed by my University’s attitude.  Apparently they believe that for adolescents to be critical of culture, and to ‘imagine the world differently’ is anarchism.

I thought it was just idealism. Even children should have a voice.  Adults have already screwed it up.

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By ofersince72, June 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment

Hedges really took on the major media with this one !!!!

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By ofersince72, June 14, 2010 at 3:36 pm Link to this comment

but ED,  it is the way Isreal defines democracy, kind of
like the way the US does, expel and detain dissidents,
build walls and throw some funny looking elections about.
Then support represive governments that supply your
resources. That is democracy as defined by US/ISREAL.
We are supposed to accept this definition because they
told us to.

Report this

By Tetro, June 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm Link to this comment

Here is a related interview with Noam Chomsky, after the play was shown: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiwAFIgGCkQ

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By jean gerard, June 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kerryrose:  Similar efforts are going on in schools and prisons (euphemistically,
“corrections institutions” and “detention facilities” where wardens and
managers have seen the end of violence and the are sponsoring the beginnings
of art.
Don’t be discouraged.

As to suggestions which someone mentioned:
1.  Start local theater groups dedicated to addressing local problems.  Use
original works if and when available.
2.  Start theater groups in local schools with aid of drama teachers and use
ticket sales to help with equipment needed by the schools.
3.  Start drama reading groups of local teens, mid-lifers, elders to read plays
aloud to each other.  Analyze plots, characterizations, actions, and discuss with
particular reference to local relevance.  Talk about alternatives:  What would
have happened if one character had chosen a different action?  One situation
had been developed differently?  etc.
4.  Get teen agers together to play “Skit Wit” by developing dramatic skits
among themselves, dealing with their own problems, language and attitudes,
based on the question “What would happen if ....?” 

Remember:  Everybody is an actor and drama starts in the human heart—amd
the best of it ends there.

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 14, 2010 at 2:20 pm Link to this comment

Re: By Anarcissie, June 14 at 5:55 pm:

Anarcissie I don’t share your objection to public funding per se, but I agree
that public funding is not the remedy here.

Note that Texas public schools have just adopted a very unenlightened, anti-
intellectual, anti-scientific, religion-addled “history curriculum”. These public
schools are, of course, publicly funded.

The problem is that if powerful interests control the bulk of both public and
private sources of funding, as they do in this country, theatrical productions
that are objectionable to these powerful interests will not find much funding.

I don’t see any remedy, actually.

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By Anarcissie, June 14, 2010 at 1:55 pm Link to this comment

Okay.

... “The theater needs to be funded with public money, as it was in Athens, where it began, and where all citizens were required to attend the dramatic festival, because the theater is, when it functions, a corrective against the excesses of empire,” Malpede says.’

So, because the theater isn’t popular, it is to be funded with coerced money and populated with a coerced audience?  Since it’s the government which would do the coercing, it’s hard to understand why it would fund its critics, its opposition, unless of course they were a carefully selected loyal pseudo-opposition, of the sort we already have in mainstream politics.

Anyway, the official theater, however critical, didn’t do the Athenians a lot of good.  Theater or not, they bankrupted themselves maintaining an empire, and then were defeated in the inevitable wars which followed empire-building, after which they fell under the domination of other states—Rome, eventually—and disappeared from history as a political entity.

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By kerryrose, June 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment

It is unfortunate that the thread of discussion gets lost while commenters quibble.  Maybe you should exchange emails and go it privately.  I, for one, would like to read a discussion relevant to Hedges article.

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By Tobysgirl, June 14, 2010 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment

Leefeller, my grandmother had an eighth-grade education, worked all her life as a waitress and nurse’s aide, and went to the theatre, including opera. My mother and aunt bought her a ticket to see Paul Robeson in Otello, then my grandmother insisted they both go see it (my mother had the opportunity to meet Robeson, but she was too shy). I grew up in a working-class suburb of Akron and went to see the Bolshoi Ballet twice as a child. High culture did not used to be the sole province of the wealthy. At a discussion of class I attended, several men mentioned how their world views were enlarged from being in the military in WWII and Korea and meeting people who read books, Italians who loved opera, etc.

MB, so right about public broadcasting. It has gotten worse and worse, and NPR is a joke. We had a fairly good world news TV program, World Focus, and it got cancelled because it couldn’t find funding. Now you get to watch a half-hour of German news every night with two zombie American news readers: Zzzzzzz.


Theater, Hollywood and the all the general manipulations seem part of alleged high society’s flim flam show, now I once knew a garbage man who could sing Opera quite well and what does that mean?

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By Ed Harges, June 14, 2010 at 1:09 pm Link to this comment

Kalapal then goes on with:

”...the mythical country of Palestine.”

The right of people not to be ejected from where they have lived for centuries is
not contingent in any way upon whether they constitute a “real” nation by Israel’s
or anyone else’s definition.

You are either arguing in bad faith or you are an ethical cretin.

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 14, 2010 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment

re:By kalpal, June 14 at 4:53 pm:

You are playing with the definition of Jewish and you know it. You have said that
you were born in Israel and have made it clear that your ethnic background is
Jewish and your ideology is typically seculr Jewish chauvinist.

For god’s sake, the ultra-Zionist Jewish chauvinist Avigdor Lieberman is a non-
religious Jew. Please stop playing with words, it’s so boring and shallow.

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By kalpal, June 14, 2010 at 12:53 pm Link to this comment

At what point did you decide that I am Jewish? I abandoned all religion as being bunk in 1958. Do not admit to or profess any religion. Perhaps I am Jewish because I was born in Israel and I think it is a far better country than any of its neighbors. With all ist faults Israel manages to achieve advances and support democracy.

Lets look at its neighbors. Well, I have a low tolerance for mysogyny and lying Muslims. I grew up with many muslims and we got along very well till the appearnce of the mythical country of Palestine. A country with no founder, no set borders, no diplomatic contact with any other nations, no currency, no literature, no judiciary and never any notice that another country has acknowledged its existence prior to late in the 20th century. 

Ed Harges is a plain vanilla anti-semite who hates Jews and Israelis. His hatred overwhelms his capacity to be rational.

I am still waiting to hear the basis for this hatred. WHo taught you all about those evil Jews who run the world with an iron hand but are incapable of shutting up lions like you or those pesky wonderful examples of humanity with knives, bats, iron pipes and crow bars waiting on a ship.

How is it that Israel controls all that happens in the USA but yet is incapable of accomplishing every silly lunacy you claim?

As I pointed out to some stupid christians, if I can kill a god, what stops me from doing the same to a twit like you?

Seems that nonsense is best believed in large doses. You are close to overdosing, Ed.

BTW how about some nice Venn diagrams. This thread could use the humor.

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By Ed Harges, June 14, 2010 at 12:17 pm Link to this comment

American Jews of Kalpal’s sort play such a tiresome game: while Jews like him
successfully lead campaigns to suppress and stigmatize all but the mildest
criticism of Israel, they simultaneously point to Jewish critics of Israel as proof
that Jews cannot be the main constituency that suppresses criticism of Israel in
the US.

Kalpal, how did you do in set theory? Why can you not comprehend that it can
be true at one and the same time that (1) many of Israel’s sharpest
detractors are Jewish and that (2) the political pressure that stifles criticism of
Israel, especially in social and political spheres that are otherwise liberal or
leftist, comes from Jews?

I mean, many of the bitterest critics of the Catholic Church are Catholic. But
political pressure favoring the Catholic Church surely comes primarily from
Catholics!

Do I need to draw you some Venn diagrams or something?

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By Free Speech TV, June 14, 2010 at 11:33 am Link to this comment

Thanks, Chris, for the great article and reminding us about the importance of true art and the place in our society that we desperately need to restore it to.—caleb/FSTV

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By Ed Harges, June 14, 2010 at 11:24 am Link to this comment

re:By kalpal, June 14 at 3:06 pm:

Kalpal, there are Jews involved in the making of this play, yes, but if you don’t
think that the powerful people who generally stifle plays such as this aren’t
primarily Jewish, you’re delusional. The fact that there is some Jewish support
for this kind of work in no way negates that it’s primarily Jewish opposition that
tend sto silence this work. Look what happened to the play about Rachel Corrie
that was hounded out of New York. Do you think it was Lutherans who led the
attack?

And besides, among Jews as in any other group, it is those with the most financial
power who tend to be the most conservative.

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By kalpal, June 14, 2010 at 11:06 am Link to this comment

Strange that a play written by a Jew and acted by Jews, funded by Jewish money is being is called unsupported because a rabid anti-semite says so.

Wake up Ed Harges and stop hating yourself and transposing it unto Jews. You are disgusting enough as it is.

You should work hard and raise enough money to support this play if you feel so strongly about anything at all other hatred for Jews.

Report this

By Nancy Van Ness, June 14, 2010 at 9:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I walked out of the theater (in a New York housing project on the west side!) where I had been moved by Come Hell and High Water, a powerful new play about surviving Katrina written by a Katrina survivor, thinking how sad and shameful it is that play will not run in a major theater, where instead drivel rakes in millions a week. 

How can we restore the arts in this society?  Public funding is obviously needed, but how can we begin to make that happen?  What practical steps can we take right now in the world as it is?

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Ed Harges's avatar

By Ed Harges, June 14, 2010 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

Oh, come on. There are plenty of powerful interests which one could offend in a
play and still get lots of funding. It’s only telling the truth about Israel that’s off-
limits.

Does anyone imagine that you couldn’t find funding for a play about the BP oil
spill, even if it were brutally critical of the oil industry? I’ll bet there’s one in the
works right now, and with plenty of financial backing.

Financial support and ticket sales for theatre come from affluent liberals, and in
that social class there is a heavy overrepresentation of American Jews who are
liberal on every issue except Israel, along with liberal gentiles who are afraid of
these pro-Israel fanatics, who do not hesitate to make an example of anybody who
steps out of line.

If you made a play lamabasting Big Oil, you’d offend mostly the kind of people
who don’t go to plays anyway.

Israel is the one, great, bipartisan untouchable. Bill Boyarsky’s article, “Big Oil is
Still King”, ignores the blatant fact that Israel is the real king in terms of political
power. Israel’s political domain in the US stretches from the Bible Belt to the Upper
West Side of Manhattan, from the Palin fan clubs of Alaska and Idaho to the sushi
bars of San Francisco and LA., uniting people who span virtually the entire US
political landscape and really have nothing in common but their refusal to hear the
truth about Israel.

Report this

By ARNOLD SLUIS, June 14, 2010 at 8:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

bIG MONEY EVENTUALLY BUYS EVERYBODY OFF..INCLUDING GOVERNMENTS

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, June 14, 2010 at 8:26 am Link to this comment

If the establishment is defined as the elite, who front plays, why would one expect them to front plays contentious in nature? This is like asking the Moslem’s to front Mohammad cartoons. It doest make sense to me.

As for theater, how many people attend theater, it sounds as if Hedges be expecting the light bulb of enlightenment to reach out from the doors of theater to main street America?

Theater, Hollywood and the all the general manipulations seem part of alleged high society’s flim flam show, now I once knew a garbage man who could sing Opera quite well and what does that mean?

Report this

By MB, June 14, 2010 at 8:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This observation can also be made about the current situation in public broadcasting:

“The growing network of regional theaters became ever more reliant upon planning subscription seasons which would not offend any of their local donors, and the institutional theaters began to function more and more as social clubs for the wealthy and philanthropic.”

If this was not the case, then PBS would have saturated their programming in 2009 with re-runs of Frontline’s Sick Around the World. But they did not. Much underwriting comes from the healthcare industry, or so it appears in the credits of their other programs.

Report this

By Alphysicist, June 14, 2010 at 6:29 am Link to this comment

...more Colhaze

“Among thousands of candidates, both academics or naturals, all waiting eagerly for a hint from the established Modern art mafia, now and then one is chosen. Since he is, just like his many contenders, about as gifted as a bedbug, nobody with a sane mind would assume that considerations of artistic merit ever played a part. What counts is a rigorous talent for self-representation, unfettered by the smallest grain of aesthetics or ethics, an inborn and unlimited vulgarity, and the stated objective to be the most ruthless Judas Iscariot to the Fine Arts that ever set foot on our sacred earth.
As to the operational level, it works more or less in the following way. One of the great Modern art dealers, a highly visible member of the aforementioned mafia, contacts a few of his highly invisible godfathers, strikes a deal, and the Baselitz (or anyone like him) is launched. Surprised by the sudden onslaught, goes the latter into high gear and produces twenty masterpieces a day, all of which fetch prices that increase breathtakingly fast. The press is informed, the usual dolls and pansies from the art section do their job, and tell the astonished aficionado in exalted crap-art parlance what it is all about, and a new star is born.”

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By Alphysicist, June 14, 2010 at 6:26 am Link to this comment

It is interesting to contrast this article with a critique of the modern art world from the libertarian side.

Modern Art
Smart Money
by Michael Colhaze on May 13, 2010

How must it feel to pimp for a slovenly whore, doped and ravaged and destroyed by her abductors, who was once the happiest, most innocent, most beautiful girl in town?

He is Baselitz, a name tuberose, not only acoustically, with dirty connotations. He is Germany’s foremost Modern artist. He is one of those who accepted the thirty pieces of silver and turned them into a heap of gold. He is a well-received guest at the London Royal Academy of Arts, which strikes you as odd since the Brits and the Krauts, never mind what they tell you in Brussels, regard each other warily. He is loved by the country’s foremost gazettes, like the FAZ, or the SZ, or the old pansy ZEIT. He can be found in Tate modern.

He owns a giant schnauzer with a degree in psychology who handles his castration complex, the foremost source of his creative inspiration. He produces his masterpieces watching Big Brother on TV while reclining on a sofa next to a canvas previously splattered with an undisclosed amount of colors on which he diverts an occasional glance and then arranges artistically by means of an Italian bread roll using his left hand only. Once dry, he signs it with his illustrious name, waits until that one is dry as well, and hangs it up upside-down. This, the upside-down, has made him famous.

...

http://www.takimag.com/sniperstower/article/smart_money/

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By Alan MacDonald, June 14, 2010 at 6:19 am Link to this comment

Chris, this may be off-topic for the ‘theater arts’, but applies to the art of fictional novels:

CorExit is real life “Ice-Nine”

Chris, here’s a great article about this truly ‘existential’ damage being done by CorExit, BP, and the entire ruling-elite Global corporate/financial/militarist EMPIRE—which is killing us, the US, our democracy, our fragile blue earth, and our species.

You may enjoy reading Kurt Vonnegut’s prescient ‘back-humor’ novel “Cat’s Cradle” in which he envisions a former atomic bomb scientist working at GE Research labs inventing an isotope of natural water with surface chemistry altered to make it solid at 114 degrees—- and which causes the ‘fictional’ end of the world, when it accidentally falls into the ocean during the death of a ‘fictional’ dictator’s funeral in San Palo. Quite a story. Quite an ending! (as Vonnegut might have said).

Anyway, Chris,  you may also enjoy Googling and checking out the real life ‘Surface Chemist’ Nobel laureate at GE (Irving Langmuir) who Vonnegut used as a model for his fictional Dr. Hoenikker in “Cat’s Cradle”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat’s_Cradle

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Langmuir


The book is a great read, the analogy between fictional “Ice-Nine” and real ‘CorExit’ shows that truth is stranger than fiction, and Vonnegut’s mastey and miracle of what Berkeley’s leading cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, describes as ‘analogy-thinking’ will blow your mind.

Best,
Alan MacDonald

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By elisalouisa, June 14, 2010 at 6:11 am Link to this comment

Having viewed the film ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ on LINK TV I can appreciate this column even more, putting me in total agreement with Mr. Hedges. For the first time in my life I regret that I do not live in New York city, for if I did I would rush to see ‘Prophecy.’
Being a country gal at heart does have its price. grin

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, June 14, 2010 at 3:23 am Link to this comment

In my dissertation for art education, I proposed an idea during my seminar which was met with out and out hostility.  I wanted to devise a conflict resolution theater for adolescents in which they they translate ‘how the world is’ to ‘how they believe it should be.’  I proposed the structure of the drama to model a specific type of Hopi drama which accomplishes the same sort of social resolution.

I had comments of ‘someone will stop you’ to ‘there are models you can use from our society.’ from my professors.

It was bizarre reaction to what seemed to be an innocent proposal.  I still don’t understand the vehemence.

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By ofersince72, June 14, 2010 at 2:46 am Link to this comment

He must be trying to get his job with the NYT back.

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By ofersince72, June 14, 2010 at 2:38 am Link to this comment

And they will leave the theater , feel good about
themselves, get in their car and go vote some more of
those peace loving Democrats into office.

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By Julie, June 14, 2010 at 2:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Bravo, Chris!  Encore!

And thanks for mentioning the diaries of Victor Klemperer and providing a link.  For me, his diaries (in three volumes) provided the most interesting read yet this century.

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