Not that we haven’t been doing just that for the last few months, but there’s so much to say. America fascinates and repulses me. I couldn’t live there – not just because I would eat all the food – but it is a fascinating place to observe, and we are fortunate to generally be able to enjoy its cultural output, both high and lowbrow. So naturally I was intrigued when I spied Claudia Roth Pierpont’s American Rhapsody in a bookshop in Auckland. I immediately went to the nearest library, hopped on the wifi and requested a copy (btw – aren’t libraries great?).
It’s a funny book, endeavouring to “present the the kaleidoscopic story of the creation of a culture.” Lofty intentions indeed! However, it is more of a collection of biographical and critical essays about a range of major players in American culture. The first two-thirds of the essays – which include Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hepburn and Gershwin are perfectly okay, but it’s the final third where, for me, the book truly comes alive. Orson Welles‘ and Laurence Olivier‘s (not from the US but that’s not the point) approaches to acting and Shakespeare are compared and contrasted. What is naturalism, how – and should – America tackle Shakespeare? These themes of naturalism and an American theatrical tradition are continued in an essay on Marlon Brando.
We are reminded that Brando was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and the last two essays cover novelist James Baldwin and singer Nina Simone who – to my shame – I didn’t know much about at all. Reading about these two African-Americans and learning more about the the nuances and iterations of the wider Civil Rights movement is inspiring me – to read their words and listen to their music and make an effort to further understand America’s painful history.
So, I’ve come away from this book thinking about acting and how we express our country through our cultural creations, and also with some new inspirational figures to look to. We need them.