One-Minute Book Reviews

May 25, 2009

‘Death Takes a Holiday’ – A Play Asks, ‘What If for Three Days Nobody Died?

Filed under: Classics,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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Broadway came before Brad.

In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love

Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).

But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.

“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.

Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.

Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:

“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”

Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.

Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”

Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.

Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).

Furthermore: Death Takes a Holiday is available from the Samuel French online store. The Broadway play inspired a 1934 movie with the same title and the remake Meet Joe Black, which I haven’t seen.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 19, 2009

‘The Story of America in Pictures’ – The Inauguration of FDR

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:50 pm
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Alan C. Collins’s long out-of-print The Story of America in Pictures gives a panoramic history of the nation — from the early Indian buffalo hunts through the inauguration of John F. Kennedy — in captioned black-and-white drawings, paintings, engravings, photographs and political cartoons. And it suggests how much we’ll lose if books disappear: You might have to download hundreds of images (or bookmark as many sites) to compile a visual record as rich as using only the Internet

The caption for a photograph of the inauguration of FDR that appears in The Story of America in Pictures says in part:

“The New Deal arrived March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. As with Lincoln, his term began during a national crisis with the added burden that 12,000,000 were unemployed throughout the land. The country was in the midst of a banking panic which the Republicans have since claimed might have been averted had the incoming president not refused to cooperate in efforts to stem it. With every bank in the country closed, general panic was averted by Roosevelt’s use of the radio to carry into America homes his assurance that the banks would reopen shortly, and a new phase of national life would be entered that would lead out of the economic quagmire.”

Since reading this passage, I’ve been asking friends: Did you know that all the banks in the country were closed on the day FDR was inaugurated? I didn’t. And despite the many parallels that columnists have drawn between the present and the 1930s, I haven’t found anyone else who did, either. What does this say about our historical literacy? What else have we forgotten about the Depression?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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