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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

BOOKS  The terrain of the female body and brain gets a good going-over by New York Times science writer Natalie Angier. Her sprightly and well-researched new book, Woman: An Intimate Geography, offers provocative theories on sex, reproduction and life after menopause.

STAGE  British actress Judi Dench has done everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim, lighting up the British stage for decades. Finally, she is starring on Broadway, and in a play that is tailor-made.

A play about a middle-age woman's battle with illness won a Pultizer Prize this April. An unflinching look at living in the midst of dying, Wit has a powerful and brave performance at its center.

AND CONSIDER THIS  Mrs. Brown, Judi Dench's star turn is on video; Wake Up and Smell the Money is a practical guide to grabbing control of your financial reins at any age; 1939: Benny Goodman and His Orchestra on CD is a compilation of songs that swing, swing, swing.


My Body, Myself

Woman: An Intimate Geography By Natalie Angier (Houghton Mifflin; $25)

If we had a choice, would we choose to be men? Natalie Angier recalls sitting over dinner with her mother, grandmother, and teen-age cousin and pondering that question. All of them said that yes, they would if they could. "Men," the grandmother said, "have more freedom." The conversation took place more than twelve years ago, and when Angier, a Pulitzer- prizewinning science writer for the New York Times, recently reminded her mother of what they had said, both women agreed that they felt differently now. Their change of heart came about not because of the acceptance that comes with maturity or the undeniable progress that women have been making. It came, Angier writes in her latest book, "from thinking about what it means to be a woman, here, now, in this culture, and in our imagined future."

For a long time now, Angier has been investigating the subject of what it is to be a woman today, talking from a professional viewpoint with doctors and scientists and, of course, to women about their experiences. What she has learned from them is stylishly and imaginatively gathered into Woman: An Intimate Geography, a book that sings the feminine body electric. Angier is an enthusiastic explorer of women's private landscape, charting the terrain of brain and body and rejoicing over the design of fallopian tubes, ovaries and uterus. One entire chapter is given over to the clitoris. It's a neat little bundle of 8,000 nerve fibers, twice the number found in the penis, and having as its only purpose a woman's private and purest pleasure. Tucked decorously in the vulval cleft, it is, in Angier's words, "a private joke, a divine secret, a Pandora's box packed not with sorrow but with laughter."

Using the latest findings on genetics, hormones and sociobiology, Angier examines theories on the origins of the breast--those flamboyant and over-large sweat glands that men worship--on the purpose of women's orgasm, on the fierce competitions and connections women have with other women, and on the sweet mysteries of love. Her quirks as well as her agenda are out in the open for all to read: she discusses the pros and cons of hormone replacement therapy, though she's not in favor of it.

One of the book's more intriguing chapters suggests a solution to the puzzle of why women live and thrive long after their ovaries die. We're the only primates who do. Anthropologists studying a small hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania noted that survival depended not on the meat the men bring in from a kill and boast about. And when a woman has a newborn, or several small children, and can't forage enough for herself and her young, guess who picks up the slack? The older women, naturally. They are the hardest-working people in the tribe, helping out young relatives and keeping families afloat. One tantalizing conclusion Angier reaches is that the older woman is the bedrock of our past and menopause is a brilliant evolutionary adaptation. As long as Grandma was on hand, she points out, the family was at liberty to pick and move on without danger of the children going undernourished. With more older adults--women, that is--taking care of the wee ones, infancy was dragged out over years, and the longer prepubescence meant there were smarter and smarter kids.

In late 1995 Angier was checking her biological wristwatch and, at 37, fearing the worst. Then, miracle of miracles, she and her husband conceived a child--a daughter. Like every child, she is too young to have a sense of the limitations the world may impose on her some day. But it's a sure thing that with a book like this as guide, she will never say she'd choose to be a man. 


A Great Dame

Amy's View by David Hare

Let's just get it over with and call this the Year of Dame Judi Dench. She has already made off with a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her exquisite portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Talk about minimalism! On the screen for all of eight minutes, she dominated her scenes with icy imperialism. The great Dame has been showing up on the small screen lately as well, on PBS in her comedy series As Time Goes By. Her last appearance on an American stage was almost 40 years ago, and now that the 64-year-old actress is on a Broadway stage in David Hare's play Amy's View, it's clear that the loss has all been on this side of the pond.

Dench plays a London stage actress named Esme Allen whose career is in decline. "There are no parts for women," Esme laments. Perhaps, but this is a role to revel in. As Esme, Dench is a quick-change artist, rousing laughter one minute with her self-deprecating humor and in the next, pushing us to the limits of exasperation by the airy refusal to understand her appalling finances. Finally, Dench brings us to tears when Esme, 15 years older, has come to accept loss and death and discovers the depths of her art.

The first act takes place in 1979, and the widowed Esme's daughter Amy has brought her lover Dominic home to meet her mother. From the first, Esme dislikes the young man's naked ambition and shallow interests--he sneers at the theater, for one thing--but Amy is set on him and furthermore, she's pregnant. While the younger woman--as amiable as her name implies--tries to smooth the situation and make everyone happy, Esme and Dominc feint and parry, challenging each other not with swords but with words.

The drama, like many of the plays Hare has written, is about institutions and ideas. This time it is the death of the theater and the rise of the media and, as a lesser theme, the absorption of the real English countryside into some kind of fantasy thatched-cottage Ye Olde Britain theme park. The play's human struggle is the one between mother and daughter. Amy sees Dominic's weaknesses, and for years makes a valiant try to make a go of their marriage. His fame as a critic and film director drives a wedge between them, and he eventually takes up with a blond, tanned Swedish actress--a "brainless Heidi" Amy calls her. "I always sensed one day this man will trade up," she tells Esme. "He'll cash me in and he'll get a new model. But Amy won't leave him, she says to her mother, "because I can't face admitting you're right."

The confrontation between the two is a big theater moment, but only because Dench has made Esme human. She inhabits the character, bringing her to life with seemingly insignificant gestures. In the living-room of her house in the country, Esme kicks off her shoes and sinks into a favorite chair, tucking her feet under her and relaxing with a drink and cigarette. The way her body fits the chair, resting her head against its cushion and the casualness with which she reaches out a hand to change the positions of her glass and ashtray--as if she had done this a hundred time-- that makes Esme real and human. 

At the play's end, Esme is in her dressing room of theater, preparing to go on stage in a hit play. A young fellow actor asks about the secret of her acting, the way she draws in the audience "It comes with the passage of time," she says. "You go deeper. You go on down to the core." After a lifetime on the stage, Dench does precisely that. 


Death Be Not Proud

Wit by Margaret Edson

All her life, Professor Vivian Bearing has relied on intelligence--and yes, wit- -priding herself on a toughness of mind. Now, death waits outside her hospital room, and the qualities she always prized no longer serve her. A 50-year-old scholar of 17th century poetry, especially the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Vivian is used to dealing with complexities and the abstract. But in the course of this emotionally wrenching 90-minute play, the professor becomes a student of pain in the classroom of cancer.

Written by Margaret Edson, an elementary schoolteacher in Atlanta who has worked in the cancer wing of a research hospital, the drama won the Pulitzer Prize this April. Originally produced in 1997 at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theater, it opened in a tiny New York theater last fall and, after winning praise from critics, moved to a larger off-Broadway space. All three productions have starred a remarkable actress named Kathleen Chalfant. Completely bald, wearing two of those disgracefully thin cotton hospital-issue gowns that rob patients of dignity and accompanied by her IV pole, Vivian could easily be an object of pity. But that is furthest thing from the playwright's intent. Sentiment is neither wanted nor allowed. Fixing the audience with a penetrating gaze, Vivian explains: "I have stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer." In case anyone missed the point, she adds, "There is no stage five."

Throughout the following scenes, Vivian continues to speak directly to the audience, forthrightly and with biting irony, informing everyone of her changing physical condition. She mocks the fake cheer of hospital talk, and the standard greeting, "How are you feeling today?" When you are as ill as she is, what is the answer? Agreeing to undergo eight courses of experimental chemotherapy treatment, the doctor of philosophy becomes the willing subject for the advancement of medical research. The challenge appeals. She has been a force in English literature, writing brilliant books of criticism, analyzing and interpreting poetic texts, and at her college, is known--and feared-- for teaching the most difficult course on campus. In my field, she announces with assurance, "No one is quite as good as I." And she approaches illness with the same rigor and erudition she brought to her study of poetry, determined to be as distinguished in matters of illness as she has been in matters of the intellect.

But to the hospital staff , the eminent scholar is just a patient to be shuttled between examination and treatments. To doctors, she is less a person than a mass of carcinogenic cells. Vivian completes all eight treatments, and as weakness and pain consume her, erudition is of less comfort than a kind word or the touch of a hand. Words, which had her precision tools, fail to give meaning to this ultimate betrayal by the body. Life is pared down to its simplest needs; compassion, not knowledge, is longed for.

For the length of the play, actress Chalfant wears a red baseball cap. It covers the naked skull, yes, but it does more. The blood red color symbolizes the brilliance of a mind on fire with a love of learning. When death finally comes, she tosses away her IV, the cap comes off and so do the skimpy pathetic gowns. The professor stands free and straight in the light, finally triumphant. The moment is both shattering and exhilarating.

And Consider This

Books: Wake Up and Smell the Money by Ginger Applegarth (Viking; $24.95)

Even if you've kept putting it off, it's never too late to take charge of your money and secure the future. Applegarth, a leading financial planner, gives guidance on ways to start at any age or season of life.

Video: Mrs. Brown Directed by John Madden

Some say Judi Dench should have won her Oscar for her stunning portrait of Queen Victoria in this 1997 movie by the director of Shakespeare in Love. She was nominated, but lost out. On video, Mrs. Brown is a winner, and Dench gives a subtly nuanced performances as the diminutive monarch who ruled Britain for 63 years through sheer force of will.

Music: 1939 - Benny Goodman & His Orchestra (Jazz Chronological Classics)

A clarinet player from Chicago put together his first big band 65 years ago, and swing was on its way. Goodman's distinctive sound is fresh as ever on this new CD, a compilation of songs from 1939 that includes Rose of Washington Square and There'll Be Some Changes Made.


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