Friday, August 6, 2021

Review: A Reunion Reading of Soho Rep Production of 'Marie Antoinette' by David Adjmi


When David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette opened at Soho Rep in 2013, it was a minimized departure from the initial productions at the American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre. Whereas the show's first incarnations looked like they were plucked from the dreamy "I Want Candy" sequence in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette film, the Soho Rep production pared down the entire set to some chairs, a table or two of macarons, the occasional prop, and an ominous screen with supertitles giving us the wheres and whens of the story.

On the drastic slimming down of Marie Antoinette's stage design for the 2013 Soho Rep production, director Rebecca Taichman had this to say: "I'm fascinated by what less can do and can be, especially when you're doing a play about excess. Now we can get at the core of it--the marrow, not the icing."

This phrase was repeatedly brought to my mind while watching the reunion reading of the Soho Rep production of David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette, hosted on Zoom.

For what could be more representative of that marrow than a Zoom meeting? All character, emotion, stage, setting, costume, reduced to a frontal shot from the shoulders up. Minimized to what we can see on individual screens. A wood alcove with a door behind Fersen. A grey screen behind Louis, revealing nothing. The occasional speaker clash from raised voices,  a character name at the bottom of a cropped screen.

This streaming production was directed by Rebecca Taichman, who also directed the 2013 Soho Rep production; the direction works well, keeping characters off-screen until they appear, and allowing the stage directions to remain audio-only made the production seem, on the whole, professional and streamlined.

To be clear to those unfamiliar with the work, Adjmi's Marie Antoinette is not a historical play, despite its use of historical events and people. Attempting to view the play as a representation of the actual historical figures is a fruitless endeavor, and one which makes the play less enjoyable. 

The characters, events, and relationships are so separated from reality that there's often no reconciling them with the historical fact or figure. You will not gain insights about the real Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette, except perhaps one that is already known: that she was a public figure to the extreme degree, with all of the benefits and pitfalls that come with that role.

Instead, history here is an impression, used symbolically and interspersed with familiar events and names that a general audience will recognize, though they are not depicted accurately. The fall of the Bastille, Robespierre, the flight to Varennes, Marie Antoinette herself, are all twisted and used to suit the needs of the narrative. 

image: the only costumes that appear in the production; "farmer" disguises for the ill-fated flight to Varennes

The play was written during the prominence of the “1%/99%” social movement, as well as a significant rise in celeb culture that saw 'social celebs' like the Kardashians take center stage, and its script circles around these themes throughout both Acts: at the pitfalls and vapidness of celebrity culture; at our need to consume and discard people in the spotlight; at the dangerous ignorance that living in a bubble brings; and at the righteous, inevitable backlash from the people who are on the other side of that bubble.

These themes just as true today than they were when the play premiered in 2013. If anything, the swift rise of social media personalities and an increasing focus on the disconnection between the ultra-wealthy and the average person has brought Adjmi's Marie Antoinette--both the play and titular character--even closer to our understanding than before. There's no denying that a meta line about America being a failed experiment feels far more poignant in 2021 than it did in 2013.

While Adjmi's script is at times too repetitive, too flighty or (in Act II) too unbalanced with weighty philosophy that contrasts heavily with the poppier dialogue in Act I, the performances in this reading bring the script and characters to a high level worthy of introspection--and, with the on demand option, rewatching.

In particular, Steven Rattazzi as Louis XVI brings pathos to Adjmi's childlike stereotype of Louis XVI. His most compelling scene is one that is historically ludicrous: in Adjmi's play, Louis XVI visits Paris and is a personal witness to the fall of the Bastille, returning to Versailles with a Phrygian cap on his head. Accuracy aside, it's a fascinating character scene in which the revolution has been placed literally on top of the passive Louis XVI's head, and Rattazzi's unsure reluctance in confronting what exactly this means--and his desire to have someone, anyone, make a decision for him--is fascinating to watch. 

His awkward and subdued Louis XVI is a contrast to Ireland, who snarks and bites and laughs and bustles with the energy that Rattazzi's Louis lacks. His final scene, in which he quietly serenades an infinitely stressed Marie with a song, tears in his eyes, ends with a sad, desperate stare of realization before the entire imprisoned family bursts into painful, stark laughter.

As Joseph II, Karl Miller brings a business-like pomp, glossing over Marie's desire to reminiscence about her childhood and getting straight to the point: when are you going to make an heir? As his second act character Mr. Sauce, Miller portrays an increasingly ominous peasant whose realization that he's talking to the king and queen of France leads to their renewed imprisonment. With a smile that doesn't reach his eyes, it's easy to see why the rest of the characters look as if they wish to back away from the screen in foreboding. 

image: Ireland (Marie) Rattazzi (Louis XVI) and Stack (Fersen). "Actually the public debt has tripled."

Chris Stack plays Adjmi's version of Fersen, whose primary role is to provide a voice of reason and introspection. The dynamic between Ireland and Stack is intriguing, a sort of constructed easiness that allows Ireland's Marie to open up. When he returns at the end of Act II, in the form of a hallucination, there's a sad poignancy and realization in his eyes that gives the scene a unique bittersweet edge that doesn't come through in the script itself.

Will Pullen makes the most out of Adjmi's sometimes clumsy dialogue as "The Revolutionary," a character which represents not so much "the people" as he does a symbolic culmination of the events that caused the revolution itself. He's the anger, the desperation, the burden, the hunger, rolled into a human body that finds little to reconcile with Marie, even when the two finally engage in meaningful discussion.

As the duchesse de Polignac, Ziles embodies a sort of false vanity, putting on airs to match Marie's bubblegum-popping attitude; this wavers when she attempts to engage with Marie on intellectual subjects, before awkwardly realizing that her companion has no idea what she's talking about. The conversation then immediately delves back into a safer subject: fashion. Like Miller's Mr. Sauce, Ziles' Mrs. Sauce plays an increasingly deceptively sweet woman who, with her husband, ensures that the royal family is not able to escape.

By contrast to Polignac, Ikeda's Lamballe (she also returns as an exposition-character, a Royalist) wants to engage with Marie on a more real level, offering shrugging advice and reluctantly informing her about some of the nastier rumors going around. She has a warm presence, almost subdued in her attempts to convince Marie to think a bit harder, until bubbling tensions towards the end bring out her frustration.

Kat Elizabeth Williams joined the cast as the Dauphin, or Louis Charles. Williams does well showing the uneasy reaction of a child exposed to larger events outside of their control--the frustration of an annoyed mother who doesn't have time to deal with them, the wariness of frightening strangers, and child-like fear at hearing about a world turned upside down.

Then there is... The Sheep. A symbolic, strange character played here, as in the 2013 Soho Rep production, by David Greenspan. The sheep is not real. The sheep is creepy. The sheep warns Marie about the future and demands to be pet while invading her personal space. While the character itself feels unnecessary--particularly given that the territory Adjmi covers with the Sheep is already covered by the Revolutionary--Greenspan embodies the sheep with an underlying menace that pays off in the end. 

And of course, there is Marie herself.

Marie (Ireland), Lamballe (Ikeda) and Polignac (Ziles).

Marin Ireland's Marie Antoinette is a marvel to behold. Frenetic, anguished, flippant, despairing, callous, genuine, bursting at the seams of a video square.

Ireland’s performance brims with teetering layers that are peeled away as the show goes on, starting with a frosted pink top of pompous celeb silliness and ending with something pathetic, trapped underneath glass, aching to get out. What exactly that “something” is, neither the audience--nor Marie--truly knows. Nor does she ever really find out.

Some of the more revealing moments of Marie’s gilded-cage come from nostalgia for her childhood at Schönbrunn, a Von-Trapp like existence that she describes as "playing in the mountains, singing songs.” She longs to hear news of her childhood governess. She asks her elder brother if he remembers playing outdoors.

Yet when her childlike longing begins to reveal something more serious underneath, it’s immediately dismissed and not dwelled upon. How could it be, when more important things--like having an heir, like dealing with the revolution--are at stake?

Ireland's blithe like-so-ums in Act I are interspersed with bursts of thoughtfulness, revelations of despair and something like intelligence inside her, only to be plastered over again with the need for distraction, the need to ignore anything serious.

With Ireland, this lack of seriousness projects a shield-like protectiveness. Marie’s frantic revelation to Fersen that she was accosted at the Assembly by a man clad in black, who told her that what she’s now experiencing is nothing, and all this is but a “preamble to your suffering,” is reflected on in a moment of horror before Ireland slaps on a smile, offering Fersen chocolate. 

"I've been having nightmares." A late Act I revelation with Marie and Fersen.

As Act I goes on, however, it becomes impossible for her to continue in ignorance. And by Act II, Marie is forced to shift gears, trading macarons for poorly thought out escape plans and ciphers.

Adjmi’s script is often quick, quipping, biting or sarcastic or otherwise short. At times, it becomes too repetitive, circling around the same themes without offering anything additional to the audience.

Towards the end of Act II, however, the scenes get longer and more introspective, finally avoiding the glossy cover-ups from Act I to confront the revolution (and the philosophical arguments contained within) for better or worse. 

While Act II contains the bulk of the fantastic character scenes in which this cast truly shined, it also tends to drag under the weight of mishmash historical events and increasingly philosophical dialogue that sometimes feels too hamfisted to be successful. I think the script actually benefited from the reading-style production in this respect; dialogue that felt too heavy or when spoken on stage seems to flow better when all we have is an intimate shoulders-up view.

The final scenes of Marie Antoinette in prison with only another character (a Revolutionary, a Sheep, and a dream sequence Fersen, in that order) are the most cerebral and contain some of Adjmi's best dialogue. 

Solitude in prison makes Marie chatty, thoughtful, desperate. Ireland plays off well against Pullen's fervent Revolutionary, Greenspan's bizarre and eventually nightmarish sheep, and Stack's deceptively pitying dream!Fersen/Executioner. 

It's in these final scenes that the play's call to action hits home.

Does it matter that Marie longs nostalgically for the whimsical version of her childhood home? Does it matter that she was neglected by her mother and married off at 14? Does it matter that Marie feels trapped, pressured, caged in by the world that has made her?

In one of the play's last scenes, in which the Revolutionary is cutting her hair in preparation for her execution, he tells the now captive former queen, who is complaining about lice and scissor cuts on her scalp: 

"Poor thing. You act like everything's hurt you and everyone's used you and you're just some sweet sunburnt girl at the beach. You won't look at reality." 

The line is both a metaphor for Marie's obliviousness throughout the play (she complains about a gilded cage, while others tell her people are starving) and a meta take on the Marie Antoinette mythos itself, where the titular queen is often painted in pastel colors while the political realities underneath are ignored or glossed over.

"I wasn't raised," Marie desperately tells the Revolutionary towards the end of the play in a bid to make him understand her, as much as it is an last-ditch attempt to understand herself--and as much as it is directed towards the audience, letting us know that Marie is not a fully realized being. 

"I was built." 

Marie Antoinette is available on demand through August 9th.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Mistaken Portraits of Sophie Hélène Béatrix de France

A pastel portrait of the child of Louise Hyacinthe de Montesquiou and Anne-François V de Lastic by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, circa 1780-1783.  In the collection of the Chateau de Parentignat.

This charming pastel portrait has long been identified as Sophie Hélène Béatrix, the second daughter and last child born to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.  This identification was first made in a Vigee-Lebrun exhibition catalog published in the 1980s by Joseph Baillio, an expert whose specialty is the work of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Baillio also identified another Vigee-Lebrun work, a sketch, as depicting the infant Sophie in this same publication.  

“Sleeping Baby” by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, circa 1780s. According to Joseph Baillio, this may be a sketch of Eugène de Montesquiou-Fézensac, whom the artist also depicted in a pastel.     

However, after decades of being known as portraits of Sophie Hélène Béatrix, the real identity of the children in the above portraits has become clarified: neither child is Sophie de France.

According to the chateau de Parentignat website, the archives of the Montesquiou-Lastic family indicate that the pastel portrait depicts the first child born to Louise Hyacinthe de Montesquiou and Anne-François V de Lastic.

The couple had three children: Amédée, François and Octavie. Only Octavie (Gertrude Charlotte Marie Octavie) would live past childhood; she was a dame d'honneur to Empress Josephine and had several children of her own.

If it does indeed depict their first child, then the infant in the above portrait would be Amédée. There are conflicting reports regarding his birth and death date; indicates that he was born in 1782 and died in 1788; according to Baillo, he was born in 1780 and died in 1788. Various books reporting on the genealogy of the Lastic family give differing information: one indicates that Amédée  merely “died young,” and another says “died in infancy.”

The above pastel portrait is remarkably similar to another infant portrait by Vigee-Lebrun, done for the Montesquiou-Fézensac family. This portrait depicts Eugène de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1782-1810).

Image: Portrait of Eugène de Montesquiou-Fézensac by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, circa 1782.

Perhaps both portraits were painted around the same time; or perhaps they requested the artist to paint them in a complementary style. Regardless of whether the "not-Sophie" misidentified portrait is Amédée, François or Octavie, the children in both pastel portraits were cousins.

With two of the previous “Sophie” portraits now given the correct identifications, we are left with precious little tangible portraiture of Sophie.

The only absolutely confirmed contemporary depiction of Sophie comes from a series of engravings of the royal family, something @tiny-librarian​ discovered and shared. Unfortunately, the image itself is rather small--but it does at least indicate that there was some contemporary portraiture of her, and perhaps a larger version will one day make an appearance.


Image: a contemporary illustration of Sophie; from an engraving featuring portraits of the French royal family.

There is also an alleged portrait of all four of Marie Antoinette’s children, attributed to Jean Pierre Chasselat, but the identification is not confirmed and firmly remains in the “alleged” category. While I would love for this portrait to depict all of the children together, I don't feel very strongly about its alleged identification. Unfortunately the auction page for this miniature is long-gone, so the ability to look for a higher resolution or more information is not readily possible at this time.


Image: An alleged portrait of the royal children by Jean Pierre Chasselat,

Truly, the title of the chapter focusing on Sophie in Philippe Delorme’s Les Princes du Malheur is more apt than ever:

L'éphémère Madame Sophie. The ephemeral Madame Sophie.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Book Review: At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker


The cover for At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2012 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

David Koker was only 23 years old when he died on route to Dachau in early 1945. He was one of an estimated 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. A writer, a student, a son, a brother, a friend. The diary he kept while enduring one of the most unthinkable horrors in recent memory was published in English for the first time as At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944.

David Koker's diary is nothing less than a remarkable and essential read, a book that not only provides an unsettling and revealing grounds-eye view of the inner workings of a concentration camp but which provides readers with an unflinching reality: that of a silenced voice, diminished and subject to mental and physical brutality that impacted all who were imprisoned under it.

David Koker was interned, along with his mother, father and younger brother, in the Vught camp in February of 1943. He began his diary soon after, and maintained it until February of the next year, when he and his family were deported out of the camp and the diary was given to a civilian employee working at Vught. This civilian employee smuggled it out to a non-Jewish friend of Koker, who kept the pages safe during the war.

The diary is not only a well-detailed account of life in the Vught camp, but a testament to Koker's internal struggles as he (and those around him) attempted to come to terms with the horror of their situation. As people are sent on trains "to the East," as a camp which housed children deports them to unknown destinations, Koker and those around him are faced with new realities that they must contend with day by day.

In his introduction to At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, Robert Jan van Pelt explains why the diary's existence is unique: 

 "... the number of postwar memoirs written by Holocaust survivors is enormous, and the number of diaries and notebooks written during the Holocaust [by people who were] at home, or in a ghetto, or in hiding is substantial, the number of testimonies that were written in the inner circles of hell, in that German concentration camp, and that survived the war is small." 

The ability to write a diary under such circumstances would have been difficult enough, both emotionally and logistically, but David Koker did more than that. He did not simply write: he wrote a substantial and highly observational diary, full of factual observations about life and prisoners in the camp; along with an insightful, often disturbing, psychological probe into the “abyss” that surrounded Koker and the other prisoners at Vught.

Koker was able to obtain a relatively privileged position in the camp, which was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his diary and perhaps, one of the reasons why Koker was able to maintain a greater sense of ‘detachment’ from camp life.

In some ways, David Koker's diary is remarkably subdued, particularly given the subject matter. Many of his diary entries describe unreal circumstances with an almost nonchalant attitude. Perhaps the apparent “normalcy” in his diary could be attributed to Koker's feelings of detached assimilation into camp life, a sort of psychological defense mechanism to being thrust into a wholly extraordinary situation.

In March of 1943, less than a month after having been imprisoned at the camp, he wrote to his girlfriend in hiding:  

"I immediately accept everything as normal. That's why I don't experience things sufficiently. ... You must believe me: from the second day on everything was quite normal: the German detachments, being together with so many people, the strange food, taking care of the most essential daily matters, etc. I didn't notice the passage from one kind of life to the other ... even the strangest and most awful things become normal and agreeable." 

Koker's position of privilege in the camp came with a psychological transformation. Koker was aware of how imprisonment had changed him and in one self-aware, somber passage, he wrote:

"You become selfish, even towards your own family ... Sometimes I treat the children with bitterness, yet the friendliest treatment hides a bit of sadism and lust for power. ... A kind of feeling of being in charge."

In several passages throughout his diary, Koker mentions notable events in Poland; including the now-notorious name of Auschwitz—an ominous, blackened destination that is forever associated with pain, violence and mass genocide. 

Yet to Koker--at first--Auschwitz was merely a destination where many of those deported from Vught and other camps were headed. The real fate of those sent "to the East" was not wholly known and in the case of Vught, Koker and the other imprisoned people were led to believe that being deported was not something to be feared.

In September of 1943, Koker wrote: “… good reports are coming in from Poland. It’s only too bad that people really are working in the coal mines. But the work isn’t all that heavy, many write.” A footnote goes on to explain that a special project was created in which Jewish inmates were, prior to being murdered, forced to write postcards to relatives, which were then sent out at intervals to give the impression not only of life but of relatively good conditions in the camps. In November, Koker wrote again: “ … the administrator has spoken about Auschwitz, where the [Escotex branch] will go in its entirety. Stories … have a more or less sunny aspect. Jewish camp leadership. A lot of agriculture, the camp is largely self-supporting. … If you ask me, it sounds livable.

But the brutal reality of “the East” came crashing down only a few weeks later.

On  November 27th, David Koker’s birthday, Koker and his group learned the truth about what was going on outside the walls of their prison.

“The morning of my birthday: Spitz reads an excerpt from a letter from Poland. Three people … are living with Moves [note: expression meaning “they are dead.”]. And Moves’s business is working overtime. … Seldom have I seen anything set out so clearly in writing … Our optimistic messages from Poland are not incorrect. They have simply been incomplete. A probably relatively small group is working and doing reasonably well. And the rest: wiped out. The world has changed.”

Koker, who was transferred into a privileged group known as the "Philips-Jews," was deported to Asuchwitz in June of 1944; for a time, he and a select group were protected from routine death selections due to their status. However, in February 1945, Koker fell ill and died on a transport to Dachau. His father died of exhaustion in LangenBilau; his mother and brother, Max, both survived the war.

Readers may sometimes struggle with the flowing structure of Koker's diary, but it should be remembered that his diary is effectively raw. Unlike writers who penned diaries in total hiding or who survived the Holocaust and wrote their memoirs afterwards, Koker did not have the ability to edit his diary either for its intended readers (himself, along with his girlfriend) or for later public consumption. The editorial team does an excellent job with providing footnotes and source citations for the people, places and events mentioned in the diary, which does make it easier to understand the context of the information.

Yet the rawness of Koker's diary should not be taken as a flaw or even a criticism of his writing. It should be a reminder of what we are reading, what each word printed on the page represents. At its core, At the Edge of the Abyss is a compilation of the inner thoughts of a human being whose identity, whose freedom, whose life was cruelly destroyed and eliminated by Nazism. A human being who had hope of surviving the water,

I recommended At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker, edited by Robert Jan van Plet and translated from Dutch by Michiel Horn and John Irons, to any reader searching for contemporary Holocaust documents. It is one of the most important contemporary accounts of a concentration camp published in English within the last 2 decades.

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher upon my request.]

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Book Review: Review: Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob

The cover for Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2012 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

When considering notable women who played a role in the American Revolution, it is usually select women who come to mind. Women such as Abigail Adams, whose words "remember the ladies" resonate today despite more than two centuries of distance; Deborah Sampson, whose decision to enlist in the military despite the restrictions against women and then later fight for her right to a military pension were deeply symbolic of a desire for the foundation of a new country

But what about the women who did not support the decision to separate from England--or women who went so far as to work against the Revolution itself?

Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob is the first modern popular biography of an enigmatic and often ignored figure in American history--Peggy Shippen, the wife of the infamous Benedict Arnold. 

Peggy, born Margaret Shippen, was born into the elite world of Philadelphia's high society. Not much is known about her early childhood, although Case and Jacob suggest in this book that she received an above-average education for her sex and learned much about finances through her father and mother. 

She came of age during the American Revolution in British-occupied Philadelphia and developed a strong social reputation due to her beauty and wit. She was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the city and frequently attended balls and other social gatherings with others of her rank. Also in attendance at these elite social gatherings were British soldiers, including one John André, who would later play an important role in the "Benedict Arnold plot."

Peggy was considered to be beautiful, loving and sweet, but she was presumably not Benedict Arnold's first choice for a new wife. Case and Jacob point out that many of the lines Benedict used in his courting letter to Peggy were actually recycled from letters he had written to a previous potential wife. Regardless of whether or not Arnold was pursuing Peggy out of genuine love or merely from acceptance that his first choice had rejected him, the two were eventually married and what soon followed is the subject of much debate and controversy. 

How much of a role did Peggy Shippen play in Benedict Arnold's decision to become a spy for Britain? Did she know about the extent of his betrayal? And if she did, how much did she use her knowledge to advance Britain's desire to quash the American Revolution? Did Peggy herself play an active or passive role in the most notorious betrayal of the American Revolution?

Although the title of the book labels Peggy squarely as the woman "behind" the plot, I don't think that the authors, if it was their attention to paint her as the mastermind, successfully provided enough evidence to suggest that Peggy was the one who pushed Arnold into making his final and what would be his fateful decision regarding espionage.

Unfortunately, much of Peggy's correspondence was destroyed or burned in the wake of the plot, perhaps to save her reputation or prevent her from being implicated. So it is difficult to determine exactly what she did, how much she knew--and what role she played in the decision for Benedict Arnold to betray the cause he had once fought to promote.

After the news of Arnold's betrayal broke, Peggy claimed innocence; "the poor innocent wife of Benedict Arnold," as she was called after news of his betrayal and her subsequent hysterics at the "shocking news" broke out across the rebelling colonies.

And although they do not provide a tight case for Peggy being the woman behind the plot, Case and Jacob were able to provide ample information which not only indicates she knew about Benedict Arnold's betrayal--but that she assisted him and played at least some active role in the espionage.

The plot to betray America is, understandably, the real meat and bones of the book. Because there are gaps in the recorded history of Peggy's life, some of the narrative focuses much more on the actions of Arnold--whom Peggy often followed; along with John André, who left behind a more tangible historical trail than Peggy Shippen. However, Case and Jacob have made excellent use of the resources they had to create an interesting and rounded narrative of Peggy's life--from her birth in pre-revolutionary American to her matrimonial betrayal of the revolution and finally to her last years in England, where she spent most of her time dealing with poor state of her family's finances and securing a future for her children.

I recommend Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Stephen H. Case and Mark Jacob to readers who are interested in the American Revolution, 18th century, or women's studies in the 18th century.

[A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher upon my request.]


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A Czech Movie Herald for Marie Antoinette (1938)

image: the front cover of a Czech movie herald released for Marie Antoinette (1938); image is scanned from my collection.
Vintage movie heralds, programs and other advertisements are an interesting look into the marketing machines that powered many older Hollywood films. Like the modern film industry, old Hollywood took great pains to market and promote films, often curating an experience for moviegoers that could include programs, promises of "reasonable prices," and more.

This particular program for MGM's expensive historical drama Marie Antoinette (1938) was created for the theatrical release of the film in, at the time, Czechoslavakia. The film was released in February of 1939, during the brief Second Czechoslovak Republic, which lasted from September 30th, 1938 through March 15th, 1939.
image: the interior page of a Czech movie herald released for Marie Antoinette (1938); image is scanned from my collection.

The interior page, which features a wedding-clad Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette contrasted next to the guillotine, contains a brief plot introduction along with a list of the primary cast. Notably, both Norma Shearer and Gladys George have their names altered in order to added the feminine "-ova" at the end, a practice which was (and in many cases, still is) popular in the region.

image: the back cover of a Czech movie herald released for Marie Antoinette (1938); image is scanned from my collection.

The back cover of the herald features a colorized photo of Norma Shearer in the "garden party" gown, which she wears during the scene of a night gathering at the Petit Trianon. Surprisingly, the delicate bird cage on top of her head still exists, and was shown at an Irving Thalberg exhibition in recent years.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Book Review: An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley


Cover for 'An Imperial Concubine's Tale' by G. G. Rowley

[Note: I originally reviewed this book in 2013 on the original 'Inviting History Book Reviews.' This review is rewritten from the original version.]

Life in early 17th century Japan could be precarious and wild, even for those who were privileged enough to live and work in the imperial palace. The wilderness of the court, however, was vastly different than the wilderness outside the protected imperial walls. To live in the imperial court was to live in service of the emperor, to pledge one's entire self to live according to the stringent rules of society.

Men and women needed to ensure that they never overstepped the boundaries of their station and prescribed roles at court. Violating these boundaries risked punishment which could range banishment or confinement, even to execution; the cruelty and severity of the punishment often rested on the good will and mercy of the emperor.

An Imperial Concubine: Scandal, Shipwreck and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan
by G. G. Rowley is a painstakingly researched examination of the life of a remarkable woman who lived in 17th-century Japan, and whose involvement in a great imperial court scandal would change the course of her life forever.

Nakanoin Nakako was a noblewoman who entered into the service of the imperial court when she was around 11 years old. The Imperial Daily Records of January 19th, 1601 mark her entry into this vast and complicated world simply: “The young lady, daughter of the Nakanoin, entered [the palace]; she was received in the anteroom with congratulatory cups of sake and strips of kelp."

The life the young Nakako entered was one solely centered on the emperor. When she became of age, she might fulfill duties such as serving meals to the emperor, bathing and clothing him, presented his gifts and providing entertainment. Women of age might also attend to that duty inherent to the role of an imperial concubine, but these duties were not recorded in the otherwise meticulous Daily Records.

Nakako's rigid yet luxurious life as an imperial concubine was altered forever by what would eventually be known as the "Dragon Scandal." In the 6th month of 1609, a series of hurried, almost frantic entries in the diaries of courtiers record the growing rumors circulating about "lax behavior" on part of the imperial palace attendants.

By the end of that month, the imperial concubines were forbidden to leave their apartments due to the beginnings of an investigation. At the beginning of the 7th month, the entries in the Daily Records mark an ominous note: "1st day: … His Majesty took his morning cup of sake. No meal was served because no one could be found."

Three days later, the Dragon Scandal finally broke. Five women, including Nakako, were sent into the custody of their families to await further instructions from the emperor. The women were accused of "lax behavior." The nature of these accusations varied from source to source, but the broad accusations included: leaving the imperial palace to attend private parties in the homes of male courtiers; attending kabuki dances outside of the palace; and, most damaging of all, possibly having sexual relationships with men who were not the emperor.

Whether or not Nakako or any of the people accused were guilty is unknown and legitimately irrelevant: they were punished, regardless. The initial punishment set for this behavior was execution for all parties involved, men and women alike. However, the emperor was persuaded to only execute two men of a lower rank, while the rest of the accused--including Nakako--were sent into exile.

Nakako was banished to the island of Nijima, but she would never make it there. The boat transporting her to her new home shipwrecked in the harbor of Nagatsuro, at the tip of the Izu Peninusula. A village nearby would become her home for the next 14 years. Information about Nakako's life there is scarce but invaluable. Rowley was able to find contemporary accounts that describe a relatively peaceful life: Nakako directing the dancing for harvest festivals and on some occasions, dancing in the festivals herself. She was known in the village as Nakako-hime--or princess Nakako.

In 1623, Nakako and the other women punished in the Dragon Scandal were pardoned and allowed to return to the capital. Nakako was a young women of 18 or 19 when she was exiled; by the time she was pardoned, she was in her early 30s. Her life after her pardon is something of a mystery: she drops off official records, and nothing is known about where she lived or what she did. Rowley believes it is likely that she lived quietly with at her family home.

In 1641, Nakako again appears in the records: Eighteen years after she was pardoned for her apparent role in the Dragon Scandal, she joined an aristocratic convent. She would become an abbess of this same convent. She died in 1671, around the age of eighty, outliving the rest of her family.

Nakako is an elusive figure. She did not leave behind extensive written records. She did not play a drastic, country-altering history that often leads historians to treasure troves of information. Yet she did exist. And Rowley has managed to uncover her story through scraps of contemporary records: notes in the Daily Records about her entry into the imperial court and subsequent banishment; poetry; diaries mentioning the tumultuous events of the court; local records and in some cases, local legends passed down for generations about "princess Nakako" and her journey. The end result is a shining light, however incomplete, on a figure who otherwise may have been lost to history.

Rowley takes on the remarkable task of not only telling Nakako's story, but fleshing out her world by researching the lives of her contemporaries in order to provide a glimpse of what her life would have been like. Readers may be left wishing that there was something in Nakako's own hand to take in, something written by this woman whose life ebbed and flowed on the whim of the imperial court and the emperor's wishes. Yet the wispy traces of Nakako, a young woman in the prime of life banished from all she has ever known and torn from her family, make her more enigmatic than ever.

This poem, composed by Nakako's father after he received a letter from his daughter, explaining her banishment, records the despair at Nakako's parting from her family and former life:

Could even the
Expected eternal parting
Compare with this?
I wonder at such a moment
Coming in my own lifetime.

I highly recommend An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley for readers interested in 17th century history, Japanese history, or women's history.

[I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a review]