It would be unwise, at the end of a century, not to look back, and with the luxury of hindsight reflect upon our biases, our myths and our icons. Two icons of revolutionary politics, revered by some, despised by others, are the subjects of two major works discussed in this issue. Roger Guenveur Smith’s portrayal of Huey P. Newton on stage at the Public Theater was a complex and personal portrait of the man, and so gave an overview of the ’60s that was at once humane and political; a sophisticated improvisation based as much on jazz techniques as theater. Jon Lee Anderson moved his family to Cuba, travelled throughout South America and to Russia to conduct the research necessary to write his superb biography of Che Guevara. The goal, to unearth the transformation of a young medical student, a middle class Argentinean who became one of the heros of the Cuban revolution, and along the way a symbol of mythical proportions. It would be too easy to dismiss the word revolution as an anachronism. Many countries, peoples and governments are still struggling for self-determination, and their right to protect the dispossessed in what has become a global economy. It is a struggle that affects all of us, and one that we as Americans with one of the most beautiful documents ever written, the Declaration of Independence, must respect.
This issue’s not all serious, Judy Davis stars in an epic satire, Children of the Revolution, about a young woman who, after a tryst with Joseph Stalin, mothered his son, a “monster offspring,” who becomes the head of the biggest law enforcement agency in Australia. And it isn’t all world politics as usual; but the revolutions in literature, music and art that keep any culture vital. Writer Lydia Davis was influenced as a teenager by Samuel Beckett and has spun this influence into some of the most innovative prose in American writing. David Del Tredici turned the avant garde on its head when in setting Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, he felt the need to shift from atonal music. “Final Alice upset the idea of the avant garde,” he says, “I went backwards and took a ‘worn out’ tonality and said, This is okay to do. There is still life here. That was shocking and threatening. Going backward became going forward.” Peter Greenaway took inspiration for his new film, The Pillow Book, from the tenth century vernacular diary of Sei Shonagon and created an “architecture for dreaming” that truly takes us into the 21st century. Proving once again that the past holds many keys.