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Professor Sam Bernstein's visit from Boston

About Reflections on Literature, Life and the Imagination

Previous Entry Professor Sam Bernstein's visit from Boston May. 9th, 2009 @ 09:09 pm Next Entry
Prof Bernstein came this week to stay with us and to give my students a fabulous, powerful lecture on Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape", a play that has been called a thought provoking "condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization" (http://www.enotes.com/hairy-ape). It is a play that managed to attract the attention of the FBI, for its radical socialism and its attempts to point out the deep social injustices that our consumerist society is so good at masking. O'Neill, like so many of our greatest authors dared to tackle some of these deepest issues in society, opening our thinking to ways of changing the rigid structures that imprison humanity in a cycle of social indifference. William Blake would have spoken of these as "the mind-forged manacles", the social pressures -internal and external- that restrict our human potential (http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/william_blakes_london_01594.html). Prof Sam Bernstein, part Literature Academic, part Creative Comic Writer, part Song Writer, wrote and directed a musical adaptation of "The Hairy Ape". The song lyrics help to transform this expressionistic play into a composite art work that punches its radical message home into our own times, still as stuck in its social hierarchies as the 1920s when this play was written. Here is the wonderful art work on the cover for the program of this adaptation called "Yank":

Here is the first of Prof Sam's songs for "Yank"


(Chorus of Stokers and Yank)

Locked down here in the bowels of a ship
What a Hell. What a Hell.
No one gives a damn if we die or if we live
What a Hell. What a Hell.

The air we breathe is filled with soot
Our skins are seared by flames
We’re covered with grime from head to foot
But at least we know our names

We are stokers, bloody stokers, in the hold of a ship
So we are and we belong
If you think we’d trade places with you
You’ll find you’re flat out wrong

Shoveling coal from the morn ‘til night
What a Hell. What a smell!
Shut out cold from the sun’s warm light
What a Hell. What a Hell.

We stoke and stoke ‘till our backs are broke
And then we stoke some more
The mates turn their backs if they hear us choke
And laugh ‘til their sides are sore

But… we’re stokers, bloody stokers, in the hold of a ship
So we are and we belong!
If you think we’d trade places with you
You’ll find you’re flat out wrong, wrong, wrong!

In addition to this arresting lecture, I had the privilege of spending time with Prof Sam during his four-day visit. I naturally had to take him into the Australian Bush to allow him to taste some of the wonders of this Antipodean World so far from the New England world of Boston USA. Here is Sam about to baptised into the Aussie Bush near where I live and some of the wonderful images we saw on route:

Prof Sam was very taken by these Banksia Men, especially when I told him that so many children's stories had been written about the dreaded deeds of these creatures who took on horrific, animalistic shapes once the flower stems had fallen and the black seed cases appeared underneath

These are the stuff that the bad Banksia Men of "Snuggle-Pot and Cuddle Pie" are made of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snugglepot_and_Cuddlepie
Here, on the last morning is Prof Sam, with my wife Rose, enjoying some of Australia's great Muesli at Breakfast overlooking a misty Kuring-gai Chase. We thoroughly enjoyed his humour, his incredible energy and enthusiasm. To the Australian Academic world he brought a refreshing sense that academics have more to give in their "mature" years and that retirement is not an inevitability in one's mid-sixties. Here in Australia there is a kind of culture of obsolescence: once you past sixty it is assumed that you have nearly reached the scrap heap! What nonsense. When I skited to him about having been a teacher at my university for 32 years, he responded 32 years! I have been at mine for 48!
Thanks for reminding us of the possibility of going from strength to strength!
Thanks again for your visit Sam.
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Date:May 11th, 2009 12:50 am (UTC)

three comments on the blog

The blog is fine and I thank you for doing it. (1)Whereas "The Hairy Ape" is certainly concerned with the humanizing effects of industrialization, I have tried in my play "Yank" to suggest that O'Neill's artistic focus was the plight of a humiliated, dislocated, anguished monster --- a reflection of much that lay deeply within the consciousness of O'Neill himself. (2) Whereas I did write the book (adaptation), music, and lyrics of "Yank," you have given me more credit than I deserve in saying that I directed the BCA production. "Yank" was directed by a highly talented Canadian by the name of David Gram, who was assisted by a very competent and imaginative staff. (3) In your lovely recounting of the period I spent at your home, I feel that one important detail has been omitted: the delicious salmon dinner that Rose prepared for me was certainly among the great pleasures I experienced while I stayed with you. Best wishes to your entire family. Sincerely, Sam
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Date:May 11th, 2009 01:19 am (UTC)
Thanks Sam for those comments and important corrections. I think what you say about "Yank" makes it even more interesting in the context of my own work with marginalized communities around Sydney. I will be working with a marginalized group in the second half of this year, studying literature with them. You have given me some thoughts about possibly running with part of this play with them as a performance piece. Each year, they -as part of my literature course-give a public performance of a short play, or play extract that we have been working on.... I will keep you posted on what I decide.
Best wishes Michael
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