Alexander Pope recited in the style of William Shatner. A French general, born into slavery in Saint-Domingue, locked in a war of attrition with Napoleon Bonaparte. A live link to Hollywood during Oscars week. It could only be the House of SpeakEasy.
“This Is Not A Man” delivered another Seriously Entertaining mix of music, comedy, history and literature in the warm embrace of City Winery in SoHo.
First out of the gate was Dana Vachon, author of Wall Street satire Mergers & Acquisitions. He kicked off with a couple of thumbnail sketches — “One story that doesn’t work involves my father and a terrorist…” — before setting off on a globe-trotting assignment set by Vanity Fair. It was a tale of data-mining billionaires, early-morning water calisthenics in Singapore, and uber-alpha-male English expats all called Roger MacMillan, topped off with sage words of advice from Don DeLillo. “I asked him what young novelists should be writing about,” said Vachon, “and he said immediately, without hesitation, the destruction of the environment.”
The comedian Steve Coogan, who stands to win his first Oscar this weekend for his screenplay for Philomena, spoke to SpeakEasy founder Amanda Foreman via Facetime from Los Angeles. Coogan has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career in comedy, but Philomena is his first major foray as a writer into serious drama. Due to technical difficulties on the night, Coogan briefly became a star of silent film — but after some ingenious semaphoring and a pioneering reappropriation of the speakerphone function on a cell phone, we were treated to an insight into how the movie is affecting real lives.
“Our project is to attract attention to this pressure group in Ireland that wants to effect a change in the law,” said Coogan, referring to the work he has been doing alongside the real Philomena Lee to bring justice to other women, like Philomena, who were forced to give up their children for adoption in 1950s Ireland. “I like comedy as a tool, as a device, to use in drama,” he said. “It’s more interesting to use comedy as a device to bring levity to difficult subjects.”
And what about his recent audience with Pope Francis? “He didn’t tell me what he thought of me, but he was very nice about Philomena!”
“Some time ago I went to the coronation of a king in Africa…” So began Susan Minot, our third guest, whose latest novel, Thirty Girls, was published by Knopf this month. “He was crowned not just with the pelt of a leopard, but with the leopard’s head on top. All in his Armani suit…”
The coronation, though, was a mere backdrop to a more intimate story. Minot was accompanied on the trip by a “handsome wreck” of a journalist, “solemn and full of doom about the world… he was right up my alley.” At one stage, the pair meet a wise old woman straight out of a fairytale, who offers them beer — “basically pure alcohol” — and various gnomic pronouncements (“She said you were old but you look young because you are happy…”). The real significance of said meeting would not become clear until Minot was back in New York, irritated by a cold sore she initially attributed to travel-induced anxiety.
“The next day I look in the mirror and my heart drops to my toes. Because the cold sore has moved. There’s something inside my lip… There’s a worm in my lip…”
“If we were out in the desert, I’d just cut this bugger out,” says her doctor helpfully. Charitably he prescribes a course of antibiotics instead, and after six or seven weeks the worm mercifully passes on and disappears. Its metaphorical significance, though, lives on.
“I later discovered that the handsome wreck, the die-hard bachelor, had gotten married. I like to think I planted something in him that swam up from his heart and planted hope for love…”
Next up, we were delighted to welcome Uma Thurman back as the host of SpeakEasy’s literary quiz, The Tip of My Tongue. This month the mystery passages came from works by George Orwell, Salman Rushdie and Maya Angelou.
Tom Reiss won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. A fan of the legendary French writer Alexandre Dumas since he was a child, Reiss was delighted to discover that he’d written ten volumes of memoirs. But what really gripped him when reading them was not the story of Dumas-novelist but the two hundred pages at the start of Volume I that aren’t even about him.
“They’re about the son of a slave and a renegade French aristocrat,” Reiss said. “It was like reading The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask all rolled into one.”
The subject was General Alex Dumas, a gifted swordsman who grew up in Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti, and didn’t even travel to France until he was sixteen. A pretty dangerous place, of course, late-eighteenth-century France, and not long after his arrival the revolution was in full swing. Dumas proved to be a superb soldier and strategist and rose quickly to a rank equivalent to today’s four-star generals, in so doing becoming arguably the most successful non-white soldier in the west until Colin Powell.
Unfortunately, his rise coincided with that of another island-born man, an outsider like Dumas but with rather more imperial ambitions, a man by the name of Napoleon Buonaparte.
Reiss’s excavation of this remarkable tale also won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography last year.
Our musical guest this month was the songwriter Anton Sword, whose dance music translates a range of literary influences into the “darkly pretty” songs for which he’s become well known in the US and Europe.
“This is not a man,” mused Anton. “I say that to myself in the mirror every morning! To answer the question ‘What is a man?’ is to be a person… inbetween, insecure and confused.”
He went on to quote neoclassical giant Alexander Pope, “always best delivered in a Shatneresque style, I feel”:
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
— From “Essay On Man”, accessible on Project Gutenberg
Anton and his band, The We Ours, closed out the evening with three songs, “The Air”, “Maybe It’s Begun”, and “Here in the Hurricane” — proving that even in our inbetween, insecure and confused states, we can all still enjoy a good old sing-song.
Tickets are now on sale for our March 18 show, “Are You For Sale?”, featuring Stephen Fry, Jay McInerney, Susan Cheever, Michael Friedman and Jeff Kinney, on the City Winery website here!