Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Theater Is, Of Course, A Reflection Of Life"

In the two-and-a-half years since I met Andrew, he and I have attended a remarkable number of theater performances, on a wide range of themes, by a wide range of authors, in a wide range of venues.

I am almost startled at the number of theater performances Andrew and I have attended: 48 different theater events, if my tally is correct, in the thirty months since February 2006. This is more than I realized.

In order, we have attended performances of:

The Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical, “The Light In The Piazza”, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York

William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer”, at the Booth Theatre, New York

John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York

The Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman-Mark O’Donnell-Thomas Meehan musical, “Hairspray”, at the Neil Simon Theatre, New York

Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys”, at the Broadhurst Theatre, New York

Tennessee Williams’s “Die Katze Auf Dem Heissen Blechdach” [“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”], in German, at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg

Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off”, at The English Theatre Of Hamburg, Hamburg

Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns”, at Minneapolis Theatre Garage, Minneapolis

Jean Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman Of Chaillot”, at Theater In The Round, Minneapolis

The Jule Styne-Bob Merrill-Isobel Lennart musical, “Funny Girl”, at Bloomington Civic Theater, Bloomington

George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

The Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical, “1776”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Noel Coward’s “Private Lives”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Stephen Mallatratt’s “The Woman In Black”, at the Fortune Theatre, London

Clifford Odets’s “Awake And Sing!”, at the Almeida Theatre, London

Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession”, at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

David Storey’s “In Celebration”, at The Duke Of York’s Theatre, London

Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser”, at Theater In The Round, Minneapolis

David Mamet’s “Speed The Plow”, at Jungle Theater, Minneapolis

William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”, performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Alan Stanford’s stage adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte novel, “Jane Eyre”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

John Pielmeier’s “Agnes Of God”, at Park Square Theater, Saint Paul

Brian Friel’s “The Home Place”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

The Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, “Sweeney Todd”, The National Touring Company version of the 2005 Broadway production, at the State Theater, Minneapolis

Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County”, at the Imperial Theatre, New York

The Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical, “The Fantasticks”, at Bloomington Civic Theater, Bloomington

William Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, at Theater In The Round, Minneapolis

The Frederick Loewe-Alan Jay Lerner musical, “My Fair Lady”, The National Touring Company version of the 2001 National Theatre Of Britain production, at the Orpheum Theater, Minneapolis

Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

The Lisa Lambert-Greg Morrison-Bob Martin-Don McKellar musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone”, The National Touring Company version of the 2006 Broadway production, at The Ordway Center, Saint Paul

Samuel Taylor’s “Sabrina Fair”, at Theater In The Round, Minneapolis

David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole”, at Jungle Theater, Minneapolis

The Richard Adler-Jerry Ross-George Abbott musical, “The Pajama Game”, at Bloomington Civic Theater, Bloomington

Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, at Theater In The Round, Minneapolis

Mary Chase’s “Harvey”, at Theater In The Round, Minneapolis

William Gillette’s “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure”, at Park Square Theater, Saint Paul

Thomas Kilroy’s “The Secret Fall Of Constance Wilde”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector”, at The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

Michael Frayn’s “Afterlife”, at The National Theatre, London

Enid Bagnold’s “The Chalk Garden”, at Donmar Warehouse, London

Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle”, at Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester

Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides”, at Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester

Simon McBurney’s “A Disappearing Number”, at Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Alan Bennett’s “Enjoy”, performed by The Peter Hall Company, at Theatre Royal, Bath

William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice”, performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company, at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

This is a pretty diverse list. I wish it included a play or two by Henrik Ibsen and Tom Stoppard, two of my favorite playwrights, but Andrew and I have not had an opportunity to attend any Ibsen or Stoppard plays in the last thirty months.

The most impressive production, of all the 48 productions we have seen, was The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”, performed in Minneapolis as part of the RSC guest stint in the Twin Cities. The RSC production of “The Seagull” was so brilliant that it made me re-think the play.

Also memorable were Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” on Broadway, Brian Friel’s “The Home Place” at The Guthrie Theater, and Enid Bagnold’s “The Chalk Garden” at Donmar Warehouse in London. These three were memorable, not because of the plays themselves, which were not particularly strong, but because of the exceptional productions they received.

In the 48 productions we have attended, I have seen eleven stage actors who were indisputably “stars”, even if they were not well-matched to the roles they performed. I had never seen a “star” onstage in my life until I saw Ralph Fiennes in “Faith Healer”—but, from that night forward, I knew what a star was.

The other ten “stars” I have seen, in order, were Eileen Atkins, Harriet Harris, Stockard Channing, David Suchet, Michael Jayston, Ian McKellan, Simon Jones, Margaret Tyzack, Penelope Wilton and Susan Hampshire.

I have seen a few other “big names” on stage, but those other “big names” were not “stars”, at least not on the afternoons or evenings I caught their performances.

However, I believe I should at least mention Georgia Engel, who was enchanting in a small part in “The Drowsy Chaperone”.

Boston is not a theater town, so Andrew and I will not have the opportunity to continue our theater-going at the same pace over the next three years.

We won’t mind.

"You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chances"

We attended seven plays while we were in Britain.

The first was the new Michael Frayn play,“Afterlife”, receiving its world premiere at London’s National Theatre. “Afterlife” is a biographical play whose subject is Max Reinhardt, the theater impresario who was one of the founders of The Salzburg Festival.

This was my first performance at The National Theatre. We had taken a guided tour of the entire National Theatre complex last year, but we did not attend any National Theatre performances last year—instead, the four plays we attended in London last year were all in the West End.

I was genuinely looking forward to my first performance at The National Theatre, because Alex and Andrew have always talked so highly about the quality of the performances they have attended at The National, the greatest theater in the English-speaking world.

I was in for a rude awakening.

I hated “Afterlife”. Sitting through “Afterlife” was one of the most tedious afternoons of my life.

It was the play itself that stunk, not the production or the performance. The text was in verse, which surprised us greatly, and it simply did not work. The text was too long, too repetitive, and too clumsy. It also lacked poetry—fatally so. The play was little more than an academic experiment that did not succeed.

The audience was noticeably stultified. I would estimate that more than twenty per cent of the audience departed the theater at the intermission, a good indication of how bad this play truly was.

I know nothing about Max Reinhardt, but apparently being learned about the life and career and philosophy of Reinhardt does not add to one’s enjoyment of the play—Andrew and Andrew’s father, both knowledgeable about Reinhardt, hated the play as much as I did. Andrew’s mother, Andrew’ brother and my sister hated the play, too. At the final curtain, all of us agreed that we should have departed the performance at the interval, which we had very seriously contemplated.

“You pay your money and you take your chances”, as the saying goes—and “Afterlife” was a waste of our time, and a sour way to get our theater-going under way.

It was with great trepidation that we attended Enid Bagnold’s “The Chalk Garden” later the same day. “The Chalk Garden” does not enjoy a high reputation, and we were genuinely fearful that we would be required to sit through yet another gruesome few hours in the theater for the second time in one day.

The play itself is unremarkable—an odd mixture of drawing-room comedy, melodrama, mystery and satire that do not, ultimately, add up to very much—but at least Bagnold knew how to write dialogue for the stage, and the play flew by in a flash.

The production was flawless—a marvel, actually—and it was the production that was responsible for carrying the evening. There were two great actresses in the cast—Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton—and we could not take our eyes off either one of these two great artists for the entire evening.

Both were absolutely riveting. With the slightest turn of the head, or the subtlest coloration of a line, Tyzack and Wilton had the audience spellbound if not in rapture. I have never experienced anything quite like it in my life. I was transfixed, and so was my sister. It was the sort of thing one experiences only a few times in one’s life. I will never forget the performances of these two grand ladies.

“The Chalk Garden” went a long way in making up for our disappointment in “Afterlife”.

My sister and I were the only ones in our party who had never before seen the great Margaret Tyzack on stage.

However, only Alex and Andrew had previously seen Penelope Wilton on stage, and Alex and Andrew remarked that Wilton was practically unrecognizable to them in her “Chalk Garden” role. Alex and Andrew had seen Wilton play the lead in “The House Of Bernarda Alba” at The National Theatre in 2005, and Wilton’s 2005 appearance as the haughty if not vicious widowed Spanish matriarch in the Lorca play bore no relationship to her 2008 appearance as a prim British governess dealing with a troubled child on an isolated country estate. The actress was the same in both roles, but the character was a totally different person, and the look and mannerisms and carriage of Wilton made her virtually unrecognizable to Alex and Andrew from one play to the next. That is a great, great tribute to her art.

In addition to Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton, the other “star” we witnessed in action while we were in Britain was Susan Hampshire, who appeared in Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle” at Chichester Festival Theatre. Andrew’s parents had seen Hampshire once before, almost thirty years ago in a Tom Stoppard play, but for the rest of us this was our first exposure in person to this fixture of the British stage.

Hampshire was very charming—she could charm Putin out of Georgia, no doubt, if she were put to the task—but she was not quite as impressive as Tyzack or Wilton, probably because the production of “The Circle” was not as fine as the production of “The Chalk Garden”.

The level of ensemble in “The Chalk Garden” was much higher than the level of ensemble in “The Circle”, credit and blame for which must go to the respective directors. The production of “The Chalk Garden” was very tight. The production of “The Circle”, in contrast, was more or less aimless, and it was probably hard for Hampshire to develop a rhythm and to create her special magic amid such lackluster surroundings.

“The Circle” is a very old-fashioned play, slow-moving and very slow to take wing, and it struck me as watered-down George Bernard Shaw, lacking Shaw’s sparkle and tension and argument. “The Circle” is generally considered to be Maugham’s only enduring play, but it nevertheless remains arch and artificial, very much a remnant of its time (1921). We enjoyed the evening, but we were not especially impressed by the play or the production or the performance.

I would like to see Susan Hampshire again, in a better production in a better play. A very beautiful woman, she looked smashing.

We also attended a performance of Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides” at Chichester Festival Theatre. “Taking Sides” is Harwood’s play about Wilhelm Furtwangler. Andrew will write about “Taking Sides”, because he has much more to say about the play than I do.

At Theatre Royal, Plymouth, we attended a performance of “A Disappearing Number”.

“A Disappearing Number” is a “theater piece” more than it is a conventional play. It uses dialogue, music, film, choreographed movement (“dance” is too strong a word) and projections to tell two parallel stories about mathematics, the clash of cultures, and the onset of death. Simon McBurney was credited as author and director, but other persons had a hand in the work’s creation as well.

The themes were neither original nor profound—the fleeting nature of time, the inability ever to know fully another person, the difficult nature of exchanges between the Orient and the Occident—but the work was slightly intriguing. We had no trouble sitting through the performance.

“A Disappearing Number” is not a lengthy work—the performance lasted one hour and forty-five minutes, without intermission—but it is too long by twenty or twenty-five minutes and would benefit from some judicious pruning.

There was something undeniably second-rate about every aspect of the work and the performance. It had the look and feel of a drama department project at a tiny and undistinguished college in remotest upstate New York.

It was presented by an experimental theater troupe, Complicite, and my guess is that all of the company’s work uses more or less the same formula on display in “A Disappearing Number”: a little text, a little music, a little film, a little choreographed movement before the whole tired bag of tricks, predictably, winds itself up and starts all over again.

Nothing was genuinely avant-garde, nothing was particularly striking, nothing was particularly original. Indeed, nothing about the show was fresh in the least. It was all very, very 1970’s.

Andrew’s mother said that much of Complicite’s work in “A Disappearing Number” was reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s “The Rite Of Spring (The Rehearsal)”, a seldom-performed modern-dance work from 1980. She said it was clear that Simon McBurney had studied that particular Paul Taylor work in some detail and had borrowed from it freely (if not outrageously). There was no mention of, or even a tribute to, Paul Taylor in the Complicite program booklet.

At Theatre Royal, Bath, we attended a performance of Alan Bennett’s “Enjoy”, a production of The Peter Hall Company.

“Enjoy” was first produced in 1980, and it is a play very much of its time: the early Thatcher years, a time of great changes in Britain both in the public sector and in the private sector. The play is about the effect of these changes on a middle-aged couple from the North Midlands, a man and woman approaching retirement only to discover that their retirement plans are to be impacted by the Local Council. The play is a comedy, of course, but it is not especially funny and not particularly amusing.

I do not think that Bennett had learned to write a play at the time he created “Enjoy”. (Of course, many people insist that Bennett, twenty-eight years later, still has not learned to write a play.)

The fault may lie with the production, and not with the play—but I suspect not, since Peter Hall was the director. If Peter Hall cannot locate a viable play within such weak material, no one can.

There was a strong whiff of provinciality about every aspect of our theater evening in Bath: the play was provincial, the performance was provincial, and the Bath audience was provincial.

To our amazement if not bewilderment, the Bath audience members carried on all evening like they were in the presence of Laurence Oliver and Peggy Ashcroft, cooing and burbling over the actor and actress playing the middle-aged couple (both of whom have starred in popular sit-coms in Britain) as if great performances were being unveiled before their very eyes. Myself, I thought both players were entirely lame.

Andrew said that he was shocked that Peter Hall had allowed so much hamming from the cast members. Andrew wondered whether the play had toured the provinces too long a time or whether Peter Hall had been away from the production too long a time and needed to be called back in order to whip the play and cast back into shape.

Andrew’s parents said that the performance reminded them of a long-ago performance of a very weak play, whose title they cannot even remember, featuring the way-over-the-hill duo of Mary Martin and Anthony Quayle, who shamelessly mined a very bad text for any possible piece of shtick they could use to generate laughs to give the illusion that something amusing was going on.

All in all, “Enjoy” was rather awful.

The final performance we attended was in Stratford-Upon-Avon, permanent home of The Royal Shakespeare Company. We attended a performance of “The Merchant Of Venice” in the RSC’s home theater.

Andrew and I had seen The Royal Shakespeare Company perform ”King Lear” and “The Seagull” in Minneapolis last October, when The Royal Shakespeare Company enjoyed a two-week residence at The Guthrie Theater. This “Merchant Of Venice” was nowhere near the high standard we had witnessed from the company in “Lear” and “Seagull”.

Despite the fact that this production of “The Merchant Of Venice” had been running in repertory since April, the production was very much of preview quality. The play was clearly both miscast and misdirected—none of the performances worked and nothing about the production worked. The actor and actress playing Shylock and Portia were playing roles far out of their leagues. There was no evidence whatsoever that the director had a clue what he was doing.

It was an utter loss of an evening, an utterly deplorable production of a very great play.

I am, nevertheless, very happy that I had an opportunity to attend an RSC performance in the company’s home venue. This was something I had long wanted to experience, and I am pleased I have done so.

However, I now have no wish to return anytime soon.

Despite the fact that most of the productions we attended in Britain were disappointing in one way or another, my sister was delighted to have had the opportunity to attend seven plays in Britain. It was a completely new experience for her, and she found something to enjoy in every production—except for “Afterlife”, which was so bad that it practically frightened her.

It was all for the best, I believe, that we got “Afterlife” out of the way at the very beginning of our trip.

We all had agreed, long in advance, which plays to attend while we were in Britain. Nevertheless, there is a running joke between Andrew and his father about Andrew “dragging” his mother and father to bad plays.

Prior to each performance, Andrew’s father would always look at Andrew very affectionately, and then he would smile, and say, “Well, let’s see what you’ve got us signed up for THIS time!”

Then, at the conclusion of each performance, Andrew’s father would always look at Andrew again, and smile, and say, “I can’t believe your mother and I let you talk us into coming and seeing THIS!”

Andrew and his father played out this little vaudeville routine before and after each performance, even for the Max Reinhardt and Wilhelm Furtwangler plays, which Andrew’s father would not have missed for all the world, and even for The Royal Shakespeare Company performance in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which Andrew’s father had also very keenly anticipated.

There was one performance, however, after which Andrew’s father had a completely different reaction. At the conclusion of “The Chalk Garden”, Andrew’s father looked at Andrew, and smiled, and said: “I can’t believe it! You actually picked a GOOD one!”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Good Trip

Our trip was wonderful. I don’t think we could possibly have enjoyed our trip more than we did.

This year’s trip was different from last year’s trip. Last year’s trip, devoted exclusively to London, was overwhelming, and this was so simply because London itself is so overwhelming. Last year we restricted ourselves roughly to one particular quadrant of London, exploring that quadrant in as much detail as possible, and yet everywhere we turned there was something fascinating to examine. Last year’s trip was filled almost with too much stimulation.

This year’s trip was more relaxing and much slower-paced than last year’s trip. There was some driving most days, which allowed for relaxation, and our evenings were not as jam-packed with activity as last year, which allowed both for more relaxation and more reflection.

A few places we visited were disappointing to me. The moors of Dartmoor were, I thought, completely unremarkable. The village of Widecombe-In-The-Moor was not worth visiting. Land’s End was a tourist trap, pure and simple. The Cotswold villages of Stow On The Wold and Broadway, especially, were no more interesting than Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Stratford-Upon-Avon, for me, was the biggest disappointment. The historic Shakespeare attractions, truly, were not particularly interesting, and the town itself possessed a modicum of charm, but perhaps not enough to go out of one’s way to experience.

Salisbury Cathedral, however, was a miracle. Bristol, a marvelous city, was unexpectedly interesting. Oxford, a city of magnificent architecture and stately lawns, was an ideal place in which to spend the final day of the trip. Of all the places we visited, these three were my personal favorites.

The trip was beautifully-arranged, beautifully-paced and beautifully-organized. I cannot imagine a more artful examination of the attractions of Southern England. Alex and Andrew had done a superb job in planning the detailed itinerary.

My sister loved everything we visited. Everything was new to her, and the trip was the experience of a lifetime for her.

There was one place in which my sister was uncomfortable, and this surprised me, because I thought it might be the highlight of her trip.

My sister found London to be an unpleasant and forbidding place, filled with wonders but also filled with peculiar people. Perhaps it was just as well that we devoted only two days to London. For her, London was a contemporary city of grime and grunge and poverty, not an historic capital reflecting centuries of a glorious imperial past. She was dismayed at the attire and manners of Londoners, especially among the young. She was also dismayed at the poverty to be seen everywhere. I don’t think she was prepared for such widespread indicia of poverty and social breakdown.

The youth of London constitute a lost generation, uneducated, unwashed, uncouth and uncivilized. The youth in Bristol and Plymouth, the other two large cities we visited, were much the same. We actually witnessed young persons vomiting on the streets of Plymouth. It was not a pretty sight. The future of Britain is bleak.

Once we departed London, however, my sister was no longer uncomfortable. By the time we were halfway to Canterbury, she had already forgotten about London’s grime and seediness.

Andrew’s parents loved everything about the trip. They had a marvelous time.

They were especially captivated by their return to Rye, which they had last visited on their honeymoon. Andrew’s parents said that absolutely nothing had changed in Rye in the intervening three-and-a-half decades since their last visit—except for the prices.

Andrew’s parents enjoyed the opportunity to see art, architecture, museums, castles, stately homes, and churches, abbeys and cathedrals. They enjoyed the evenings in the theater. They enjoyed the drives through the countryside. They enjoyed the fact that Alex and Andrew had planned everything beautifully, which allowed them to sit back and relax and enjoy everything worry-free, with the additional benefit that they were able to enjoy the company of their sons.

Our vehicle for the sixteen days we toured the English countryside was a brand-new Peugeot station wagon. The vehicle featured 2-3-2 seating, and Andrew’s parents sat in the middle seat, where they had the most room and where they enjoyed the greatest degree of comfort. It worked out beautifully.

Andrew’s parents had a couple of surprises on the trip.

They were keenly disappointed in Saint Michael’s Mount, an inevitable disappointment, no doubt, for anyone who has visited Mont Saint Michel off the coast of Normandy.

Andrew’s parents were also disappointed in Lynmouth, as were my sister and I. Alex and Andrew had told us so much about Lynmouth that we all had assumed that it must be a very special place indeed. It was not. Alex and Andrew had visited Lynmouth in 2004, during horrific rainstorms, which must somehow have lent the place a dramatic aura. In good weather, Lynmouth did not have quite so much appeal.

On the other hand, Andrew’s parents were delighted to find Bristol so interesting, and they were amazed at the magnificent churches in Launceston, Holsworthy and Cirencester, churches virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic.

Alex and Andrew enjoyed everything, without discrimination. When something was not particularly interesting, they would create their own fun.

In Land’s End, one of the world’s dreariest capitals of kitsch, they enjoyed themselves enormously, making fun of the cheap souvenir trinkets for sale in the shops, ranging from the most mundane items to the most bizarre curiosities. Alex and Andrew had the rest of us in stitches as they seriously debated the relative merits of buying a Land’s End hand-operated can-opener as a memento of their visit or holding to their initial instincts and picking up a pair of Western leather chaps, just the thing, they said, for their next rodeo. Andrew’s mother told them that, if they bought either item, the rest of us would proceed on to Saint Ives without them, and that she wished them all the best as they embarked upon new lives in Land’s End, peddling trinkets in one of the most God-forsaken spots on the face of the earth.

Andrew still talks wistfully about the can-opener he wished he had bought at Land’s End—he says it would have been a precious and timeless reminder of his visit, something tangible to hold on to forever and ever. (It was exactly like any $1.19 can-opener that may be purchased at any K Mart in the U.S.)

We did buy a few gifts on our trip, but none of our gifts were purchased at Land’s End.

My sister and I purchased a gift for our mother in London. She and I purchased a gift for our father in Stratford-Upon-Avon. She and I purchased a gift for our brother in Rye. She and I purchased gifts for our aunts and uncles in Saint Ives and Bath.

My sister did not have any problem with the food in Britain. She even enjoyed the traditional English breakfast—she ate a full breakfast every morning, even though she is generally not a breakfast person.

Since this was her first trip to Britain, my sister was surprised to discover that British newspapers are so deplorable, written by and for idiots, and that British television is even worse than American television. Americans who have never visited Britain often assume that British newspapers and British television must somehow be better than ours. Americans are always disavailed of this notion on their very first day in Britain.

Except for The Financial Times, written for an international audience, British newspapers are tabloids, literally and figuratively, and little more than screed sheets. Even the worst of American newspapers, in comparison to British newspapers, appears to be edited by Jacques Barzun.

British television is simply indescribable. It is entirely unwatchable. There has been growing resentment among the British public about mandatory BBC license fees, and this resentment has two sources: the vast sums of money thrown at the BBC without a high-quality end result; and the lack of trustworthiness of the BBC News Service, a situation simply unthinkable thirty years ago. The BBC is held in such low regard at present that its budget was frozen this year, the first such freeze in the institution’s history.

Happily, we did not spend much time reading newspapers or watching television. We were out and about all day, exploring towns and cities and exploring the countryside, seeing interesting things and having interesting times.

Andrew’s father always has insightful and original observations to make, and it is always a pleasure to learn what he has to say about anything. About halfway through our trip, he pointed out that everything in Britain worth seeing, and everything that makes Britain unique, pre-dates World War I.

World War I was the great turning point in Britain’s fortunes. The country has never recovered from the disaster of The Great War, from which Britain emerged as a titular victor but from which Britain also emerged as a spent force. Nothing created in Britain after World War I—whether buildings or institutions—is of anything other than parochial quality or interest.

Other than summoning one last burst of energy to get through World War II, Britain is a nation that has been in long-term decline since The Great War. After 1918, the nation turned inward, and shifted its focus to bitter domestic infighting over apportioning pieces of a dwindling national wealth. That decline will soon be one century old, and there is no sign of abatement in its depressing progress. Its insignia are everywhere.

The most obvious evidence may be witnessed in its citizens. Britain’s people are provincial and narrow-minded, poor and poorly-educated, unable to accept and adapt to the fact that Britain is now a Third-World country, more or less irrelevant on the world stage.

The standard of living in Britain is remarkably low, and the gap in living standards between Britain and the most advanced societies such as the United States, Japan and Singapore is great and ever-widening. The quality of goods is poor, the quality of food is poor, the quality of health care is poor, and the quality of education is poor. This has very troubling implications for the future of the Atlantic Alliance, an alliance many Americans assume will die (and rightfully so) over the course of the next two, three or four decades.

Thirty years ago, Britain enjoyed a standard of living that was the envy of Spain. Today Spain enjoys a standard of living that is the envy of Britain. The standard of living is today higher in traditionally-impoverished Ireland than in Britain, a situation genuinely unthinkable as recently as one generation ago. Soon enough, Poland will enjoy a standard of living higher than Britain’s.

Personal productivity is today higher in France, of all places, than in Britain. Personal productivity is also higher in Brazil, still an under-developed country by any reasonable measure.

For the cause of its decline, Britain need only examine its tax policies, which inhibit the creation of capital.

None of this will change unless and until Britain abandons its present course, and this is very unlikely to happen. Only a shocking external event could reverse the course of decline Britain has embraced, and even a shocking external event may no longer do the trick.

Ironically, Britain’s decline was set in stone, not in the first half of the 1940’s, while war raged, but in the second half of that decade. Having secured a victory over Germany for the second time in as many generations, Britain voted Churchill out of office even before victory in the Pacific theater had been secured. The new government instituted policies that guaranteed that Germany, the loser of the war, would be the ultimate victor. To what ends had the great sacrifices of the war years been perverted?

Churchill did not return to power until 1951, at which point he was too old to take a firm hand in shaping his country’s future, lacking the strength and the willpower necessary to dismantle the social welfare programs and revoke the draconian tax laws enacted by Clement Atlee and Ernest Bevin. Churchill led what amounted to a caretaker government until 1955, at which point he was gently eased into retirement by the senior leadership of the Conservative Party and succeeded by Anthony Eden, who was to fall from power only one year later, a victim of the Suez misadventure.

At least Churchill, upon his death in 1965, ten years after retiring from office, was awarded the honor of a grand State Funeral. His was the last State Funeral to be accorded to one not a member of The Royal Family. (It was recently determined that Baroness Thatcher, upon her death, will also be honored with a State Funeral).

We visited Churchill’s grave at Bladon very early on Monday morning, our last full day in Britain. We were the only visitors present at such an early hour.

Churchill’s grave is a simple stone slab in a small rural churchyard, only a short distance from Blenheim Palace, where Churchill spent his unhappy childhood years. His grave is surrounded by trees as well as the graves of his loved ones: his British father and his American mother, his devoted Clementine, and three of their children, including Randolph, Churchill’s favorite. (The grave of another Churchill relative, Consuelo Vanderbilt, wife of the Ninth Duke Of Marlborough, is also nearby. The Churchill men clearly liked to marry American brides.)

Churchill’s gravestone is white. This shocked us greatly. Alex and Andrew had visited Churchill’s grave in 2004, and they had told us that the gravestone was dark gray in color, almost black.

As things turned out, we learned that Churchill’s gravestone had been cleaned in 2006 and restored to its original color. The current gravestone, however, is not the original. It is the second gravestone installed over Churchill’s grave. The first gravestone had been replaced in 1998, decayed by the tens of thousands of visitors who had worn away the gravestone by touching its surface in tribute to the great man. The current gravestone, too, shows great signs of wear, and will probably have to be replaced in another decade or so.

It is very telling that such a great man, who could have elected to be buried at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and who could have commanded a great monument to rival the magnificent stone edifices erected for Wellington and Nelson, chose for his final resting place a simple grave in an isolated country churchyard near his native soil.

We spent twenty minutes or so standing and quietly paying our respects. We all touched the gravestone, which was somehow important to us. Churchill, half-American, one of the greatest Anglo men who ever lived, was THE great figure of the Twentieth Century, just as Abraham Lincoln was THE great figure of the 19th Century and just as George Washington was THE great figure of the 18th Century. Churchill, however, somehow seems closer to us than Lincoln or Washington, perhaps because he was not such a distant figure. There are millions of people alive today who lived through the Churchill years, although their number grows smaller with each passing year.

Visiting Churchill’s grave was a deeply moving experience. It was also, oddly, a very sad experience. Our sadness was almost inexplicable in view of the fact that Churchill had enjoyed such a long and fulfilling life, a life of vast achievement and vast accomplishment in many fields, a life of long and deep friendships, a life that produced a devoted circle of family members and admirers. At age ninety-one, Churchill had earned well his final rest, and at his death no one lamented the fact that the old lion, who had performed his services to his nation so admirably, had been called home at last. (His beloved Clementine survived him by a dozen years, but Clementine retired permanently from public life at Winston’s death. She spent the final twelve years of her life in seclusion.)

It must have been the passing not of the man himself, but of what Churchill represented, that filled us with a great sense of sadness.

His like will not come again.

I wonder what Winston Churchill would make of the Britain of today.