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    Tennessee Williams at 100

    Tennessee Williams is aging beautifully, now that he’s gone. When he died in 1983, his career had all but ground to a halt. More than two decades had passed since his last Broadway success. Stars had ceased clamoring for his roles the way they had in the glory days of Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. The circumstances of his death were undignified—he choked to death on a bottle cap in a drug-fueled haze—and the subsequent New York Times obituary poured salt in the wound, recounting how the great playwright had “lost his look of boyish innocence and became somewhat portly and seedy.”
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    Party at the OK Corral

    Allan Metcalf’s new book claims that the word “OK” is America’s greatest invention. This offers a pair of provocations. How can “OK” be an invention? On a certain day, a certain guy just dreamed up the expression that has become the most frequently spoken word on the planet? And even if it is an invention, can one little word really be greater than jazz, baseball, and the telephone? Is it better than The Simpsons?
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    James Baldwin: Still Angry After All These Years

    When I play reverse time travel and imagine historical figures turning up today (what would Ben Franklin say about the iPad? Or Jane Austen about Jersey Shore?, etc.), James Baldwin’s name comes to mind. The essayist and novelist spent four decades picking at the scab of American race relations.
  • Kevin Kline: The Essential Man

    After Kline’s more than three decades on stage and screen, it’s no surprise when he turns in a fine performance. He glides from heavy drama (“The Ice Storm”) to really heavy drama (“Sophie’s Choice”) to silly comedy (“The Pirates of Penzance”) to really silly comedy (“A Fish Called Wanda”), to say nothing of all that he’s done onstage. Through all these roles, a distinctive Kline-esque style has emerged.
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    Movies: The Nuclear Option

    Lucy Walker has made a horror film about the slaughter and wreckage of a nuclear attack. “Countdown to Zero” has all the essential flourishes of the genre: explosions, screaming crowds, buildings falling to ash. That the film is a documentary—an awfully persuasive one, at that—makes it all the creepier.
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    Popcorn Movies With Brains

    Every summer, the question grows more pertinent: what’s so special about special effects? The more potent that Hollywood’s CGI tools get, the less exciting and surprising they seem. This is the reason—well, one of the reasons—why Avatar proved so boring. After years of Pixar and Spielberg and ill-conceived (but visually stupendous) Star Wars prequels, James Cameron’s 3-D didn’t add much punch. But since Americans have a constitutional right to be dazzled in new ways, every Memorial Day kicks off a fresh season of shock and awe just the same.
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    How Cable TV Pundits Stepped On Obama's Oil Speech

    “This is not theater,” declared President Obama on the Today show last week. He was defending his response to the BP oil spill, which he insisted was designed to get actual results, not to put on a show. But there he was on TV again last night to deliver an Oval Office address, which is—if any commander in chief’s action is—a piece of theater. Here is where our presidents seem most presidential, talking directly and sincerely to the American people: where Carter described the national malaise and Bush tried to calm a nation rattled by the 9/11 attacks. That’s the idea, anyway.
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    Why Obama's Tough Talk About BP Won't Help

    From the no-nonsense tone to the rolled-up sleeves, Obama looked and sounded the part of the engaged chief executive, so the pundits who all but ordered him to the gulf should be satisfied. But his implied threat of punitive action is beginning to have a familiar ring—too familiar.
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    New York in World War II

    Seventy years after it sweated and struggled to funnel troops to the front line, New York City has become the front line. Lower Manhattan still bears the scars of the 9/11 attacks, and if the Times Square bomber hadn't been so feckless, midtown would have its own crater and makeshift shrine.
  • Patriot of the Moment: Walt Whitman

    If I were to count up the things I love best about America, this tableau would be high on the list: Walt Whitman, on a street in Washington, exchanging a respectful bow with Abraham Lincoln as the president’s carriage rolled by. That the United States managed to produce either of these gentlemen, the self-taught frontier president and the great poet of democracy, reflects well on our way of life. That a lucky pedestrian could watch the two of them pass close enough to acknowledge one another—such original minds, such extraordinary beards—nearly makes the notion of a special dispensation for America ring true.
  • Shakespeare's Hamlet: A Play More Timely Than Ever

    Shakespeare had the good fortune to write Hamletbefore anyone could tell him how to fix it. Were he working today, the playwriting system—in this country, at least—would exhaust itself trying to improve the thing. In workshops, his fellow playwrights would nudge him to be more specific: "So is Hamlet mad or isn't he? And what did Gertrude know? Right now it feels a little general." Artistic directors would shift uncomfortably when faced with a script this long and sprawling: "You know we love ambitious writing here, Will. But in these tough times, let's cut Guildenstern. Also Act IV." The critics would acknowledge Shakespeare's gift for phrasemaking, but assail plot twists—e.g., the unlikely pirate attack that sends Hamlet back to Denmark—that keep the play from completely "working." If the author would "do some editing" and "decide what he's trying to say," his play might one day be almost as profound as Gypsy, though "the songs aren't as good."Deprived of this assistance,...
  • The Novels of Thornton Wilder

    When Thornton Wilder wore his glasses, which was much of the time, he had a mild, professorial air—like an owl, some said. Catch him without spectacles, though, and the change was extreme. His blue eyes had what one reporter called "a blade-like sharpness." They reminded you that behind his genial demeanor lay "one of the toughest and most complicated minds in contemporary America."There, in brief, is the Wilder conundrum. When he is remembered today, it is almost always in his owl persona, as the folksy author of a folksy play, Our Town. But this gets both play and author almost completely backward. Done right, Our Town isn't a nostalgic wallow in small-town life, it's a harrowing story about human limitation—all the beauty and value we fail to recognize in our day-to-day lives. Far from being a homespun yarn-spinner, Wilder is one of the most sophisticated and penetrating writers the country has produced.He's also, in his quiet way, one of the weirdest. A Wilder boomlet of recent...
  • Reagan Was Wrong

    To conservative Cassandra Henry Fairlie, Republicans sowed their present-day destruction from the start.
  • Wynton Marsalis Goes to Washington

    Even a day later, Wynton Marsalis couldn't explain why he was crying so hard during the speech he gave last Monday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. "Man, I don't know," he told me. "I'm not really a person that's effusive. I'm a quiet type of person. Dick Vermeil"—the notoriously teary ex-NFL coach—"that's not me."The impeccably cool artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center had come here to deliver the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. His speech, which he titled "The Ballad of the American Arts," was a bravura 50-minute survey of how our country has used "homegrown arts to make us into one people, to teach us who we are." He made surprising connections, praising Ben Franklin and Charlie Parker in turn for being "the living embodiment of down-home sophistication." And, because he'd brought a quintet and his trumpet along, he added musical illustrations, tracing the progress of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" through Sousa's marches to the Mickey...
  • Charles Darwin's Art Attack

    Darwin revolutionized our understanding of mankind's origins. Now scientists think they can apply his theories to the source of our creativity without it sounding like a lot of monkey business.