Richard Woodward

Recent Articles

Reality Play

“We are not concerned with the very poor,” wrote E.M. Forster in a famous passage from Howards End . “They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.” As a writer's creed, these lines have dated badly even if, when his novel was first published in 1910, Forster was merely being candid about the sorts of characters that his novel -- and most respectable novels of his day -- could dare to encompass. George Eliot, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Virginia Woolf would have admitted to the same discriminatory policy. Literary fiction grew up as entertainment and moral instruction for the middle class. Figures in these novels often aspire to a better life but are terrified of degradation into a lower social order; Leonard Bast, the hapless bank clerk who is one of Forster's catalysts in Howards End , “was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times...

Snapped Judgments

The views of the loser do not typically fill prominent chapters in the history books. We know what Julius Caesar thought of the barbarous tribes in Gaul and Britannia, but almost nothing about what they thought of him. His descriptions of savage resistance to his military campaigns suggest just how much the latter wanted to be civilized at the point of the imperial spear. But the word of a Caesar -- and our own guesses -- are no match for a conquered people's own written or visual accounts. The silence or amnesia of the vanquished isn't always the result of suppression. They can also be caused by trauma -- the inability to acknowledge, much less boast about, defeat. How many New York Yankees are writing confessional books about last season? There are many reasons to visit the Shomei Tomatsu exhibition of photographs called Skin of the Nation , recently departed from the Japan Society Gallery of New York and coming to Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art in May. But perhaps the most...

Sunday Night Fever

Sunday is the existential night of the television week. The rueful end to the traditional day of rest and the last gasp of free time before the long, hard slog of school or job ahead, it's one time when many people don't have to tape or TiVo; they're home, decompressing from the weekend or taking stock of their guilt-ridden lives. Television viewing has for decades peaked on Sunday night, and in many households never more so than over the last five years, as HBO has exploited this emotional demographic with primetime shows that often synch weirdly with unique features of the Christian Sabbath. The heavy talk about death and the afterlife on Six Feet Under , combined with the stained glass in the funeral chapel, is a gnawing reminder for many of us that we didn't attend church that morning. The nonstop, relentless cursing on The Wire and The Sopranos , Larry David's non-denominational sacrileges, and the blithe carnality of the Entourage guys and Sex in the City gals have always seemed...

The Terrorist Channel

The writer-director David Cronenberg is often decades ahead of his peers in dramatizing the psychic perils of contemporary life, and never more so than in Videodrome , his wicked 1983 satire of McLuhanesque techno-bliss. The plot concerns a sleazy cable-television executive named Max Renn (played all too convincingly by James Woods), who is constantly in search of exotic programming for his easily jaded audience. Late one night at the station, grousing that his soft-porn shows have lost their edge, Renn is turned on to a new channel by his technical assistant. With a signal that is rumored to originate “somewhere in the Third World,” the channel broadcasts images unlike any Renn has ever seen: shadowy scenarios of torture from inside a prison. He watches, enthralled, as a blindfolded woman is whipped into unconsciousness. Some sequences imply that murders were (are?) being committed and filmed. The trouble for Renn is -- and here Cronenberg's B-movie aspires to the literary paranoia...

Hauteur Theory

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had not yet visited the United States when they completed Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) . Luckily, they didn't let this deter them from pretending they had. Brecht's libretto, one of the most wild-eyed and unflattering portraits of this country ever put on stage, imagines a depraved boomtown in the American West ruled by gangsters, a sinkhole where justice is determined by the size of your wallet and the gravest sin is failing to pay your whiskey bill. (As an example of the show's crazy-quilt geography, "Alabama Song," famously covered by the Doors and David Bowie, seems to refer to a place somewhere in the Rockies.) Soon after its 1930 premiere in Leipzig, Germany, avant-gardists embraced the opera as a radical fusion of music and theatre. Far too radical for the Nazis, it was quickly banned in 1933, prompting Brecht to later claim that he had been inspired less by tales of the Chicago mob than by the...

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