Dec. 18, 2010

Here I Am, Lord

by Michael Chitwood

The ribbed black of the umbrella
is an argument for the existence of God,

that little shelter
we carry with us

and may forget
beside a chair

in a committee meeting
we did not especially want to attend.

What a beautiful word, "umbrella."
A shade to be opened.

Like a bat's wing, scalloped.
It shivers.

A drum head
beaten by the silver sticks

of rain,
and I do not have mine,

and so the rain showers me.

"Here I Am, Lord" by Michael Chitwood, from Poor-Mouth Jubilee. © Tupelo Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1892 that the Nutcracker ballet premiered at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia.

It was a collaboration among three men: Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolojsky, the director of Russia's Imperial Theater; choreographer Marius Petipa; and composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Petipa and Tchaikovsky had recently teamed up to produce a ballet adaptation of The Sleeping Beauty, and it had been so successful that Vsevolojsky wanted them to collaborate again.

The Nutcracker is inspired by a story called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," by E.T.A. Hoffmann. It was a dark and disturbing story about a German girl named Marie who has a miserable family life, but falls in love with a nutcracker doll that she is given by her godfather at a Christmas party. That night, after the party, the grandfather clock starts chiming and Marie thinks she sees her godfather sitting on top of it. Then an army of evil mice invades her room, led by a mouse king with seven heads who tries to kill her nutcracker. The Nutcracker comes to life and fights with the Mouse King, but he loses, and Marie throws one of her shoes at the Mouse King and then loses consciousness, and wakes up cut from the glass of the toy cabinet, in a pool of blood. Her family blames her for being disobedient. Her godfather comes to tell her a story-within-a-story of how the Nutcracker is actually his nephew, who was once a handsome young man; but after a feud between the Mouse Queen and a shallow princess, and a series of murders, magic spells, and betrayal, his nephew is now ugly, with a wide face and beard. All this time Marie is trying to recover from the cuts all over her body, and every night the Mouse King comes and whispers in her ear and makes her give him her sweets and toys. He tells her that if she doesn't, he will kill the Nutcracker. Finally the Nutcracker rallies and kills the Mouse King, and takes Marie to a magical kingdom, the Kingdom of the Dolls, full of sweets and candy. There, the Nutcracker is a handsome prince. They meet all sorts of strange people but eventually Marie comes back to her bedroom, where no time has passed. She tries to tell her family what has happened, but they are annoyed at her for making things up. Luckily, her godfather shows up with his nephew, who is indeed the Nutcracker — Marie's love for him has transformed him back to a handsome young man. A year later, Marie marries the Nutcracker, and returns to the Kingdom of the Dolls to be a queen.

This tale was a little too sinister and bloody to be a good children's story, so the French novelist Alexandre Dumas (books by this author) cleaned it up, toned it down, and made it into a nice little story called "The Nutcracker." And it was this version that Vsevolojsky chose for the ballet. Neither Tchaikovsky nor Petipa thought it was a very good story. But Petipa finally got behind it when he realized that he could make the Sugar Plum Fairy a starring role for a ballerina. Tchaikovsky reconsidered after he took a vacation to France and discovered a new instrument called the celesta, a piano-like instrument that sounded similar to a glockenspiel — it is the instrument he ended up featuring in "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." Even then, Tchaikovsky wasn't totally convinced until Vsevolojsky agreed to produce Tchaikovsky's one-act opera Iolanthe along with The Nutcracker.

Once they finally started work on The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky was frustrated with Petipa because he thought the choreographer was taking over too much of the music and infringing on his territory. Then Petipa got sick right when rehearsals were beginning, and had to turn over the choreography to his assistant, Lev Ivanov. When The Nutcracker finally opened to the public, on this night in 1892, the initial reviews were not very favorable. One critic wrote: "For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward."

But Tchaikovsky's score has become a beloved part of the holiday season, with songs like "Waltz of the Flowers," "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," and "Russian Dance." And The Nutcracker has gone on to become the most often-performed ballet of all time — hundreds of professional and amateur ballet companies in communities around the world are putting it on right now. The famous English ballet critic Richard Buckle opened his 1972 review of the ballet: "Well, we are one more Nutcracker nearer death."

It's the birthday of the hymn writer Charles Wesley, born in Epworth, England (1707). He was the youngest of 19 children. His father and his two older brothers were all Anglican clergy, and he followed in their footsteps. His brother John is credited as the founder of the Methodist movement. John Wesley famously described a religious experience in which, he said, "I felt my heart strangely warmed." But most people forget that just three days earlier, Charles Wesley had described the experience of overwhelming joy and a "strange palpitation of heart." Charles was the first person to be called a "Methodist," albeit as an insult, because he and John were so methodical in their schedule of sleeping, praying, working, and studying.

During his lifetime, Charles Wesley published lyrics to more than 6,000 hymns. He wrote the lyrics to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Christ the Lord Has Risen Today," "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," and thousands more.

He wrote to his wife, Sarah, whom he called Sally: "Suffer me to boast a little. Never did the people seem to love me better, or I them. They are brethren who dwell together in unity. I was feasted all Sunday long. B. Evans, my host, and his wife do their utmost to make my lodging agreeable. It is a most delightful place, in the air, clean as a Friend's house."

It's the birthday of the British short-story writer Saki, (books by this author) born Hector Hugh Munro in Akyab, Burma (1870). Burma — now Myanmar — was a British colony, and his father was a police officer there. When young Hector was two, his mother went home to England to give birth to a fourth child. She was charged by a cow on a quiet country road and she was so traumatized that she miscarried and died. So Hector and his brother and sister were sent back to England to be brought up by two extremely strict, unmarried aunts.

He went to good schools and then, like his father, he joined the police force in Burma. But he got a bad case of malaria, and he only lasted two years. Back at home, he decided to try his hand at journalism, and he wrote for several newspapers. He published The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900), inspired by Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and The Westminster Alice (1902), a parody of Lewis Carroll's work. Then he started writing short stories, and that is what we remember him for. They were usually short — less than 3,000 words — because he wrote them to be published in newspapers. They made fun of the stifled, upper-class Edwardian society he had been raised in. He had published many short stories and a couple of novels when he enlisted in the British army at age 43. He was killed by a German sniper in 1916, and apparently his last words were: "Put that bloody cigarette out."

Saki never told anyone why he chose his pen name, so scholars have looked to his short stories for clues. Most people think he chose "Saki" because it is the name of the cupbearer in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a poem that is mentioned in his story "Reginald on Christmas Presents" — the narrator says: "Even friends of one's own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject. I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald's notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think." But some scholars think that "Saki" is a reference to the name of a monkey — in his story "The Remoulding of Groby Lington," he wrote: "The new-comer was a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere, with a gentle, half-shy, half-trusting manner that instantly captured Groby's confidence; a student of simian character might have seen in the fitful red light in its eyes some indication of the underlying temper." There is a type of monkey called a saki that perfectly fits that description.

Saki said, "Children are given to us to discourage our better emotions."

And, "A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanations."

And, "The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as good cooks go, she went."

From the archives:

It is the birthday of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1946). His parents had a difficult marriage, and young Spielberg escaped the house during the day and made amateur movies with his father's Super 8 camera. He made two films about World War II, and a movie about a UFO invasion, starring his sisters as victims. Steven Spielberg became famous with Jaws (1975), which was the very first summer blockbuster, and topped his success seven years later with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), about a young boy recovering from the breakup of his parents' marriage when he befriends an alien left behind by his spaceship. The movie, E.T., became fourth-highest-grossing film of all time.

It is the birthday of playwright Christopher Fry, born in Bristol, England (1907). He is best known for the play The Lady's Not for Burning (1948), about an ex-soldier in the Middle Ages who wants to die and about a young woman accused of being a witch. His plays were written in verse, about people who admired ideas and felt honest love for each other, and they fell out of favor in the '60s.

He said, "In tragedy every moment is eternity; in comedy, eternity is a moment."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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