The written word is the artform which is probably closest to most of our lives.
It's been quite a few months since I've written about books, because the spring, summer and early fall have been so full of immediate topics of concern relating to other types of art. As a result, the books for review have stacked up at home.
Today, let's dive into the stack and discuss a sampling of two books I've read recently.
MICHAEL PALIN DIARIES
The name Michael Palin is probably most recognized as part of the zany sextet of Englishmen who perform television, feature films and live theatrical performances under the name Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Fans of the troupe's television series may remember Palin best as the pet store employee to whom John Cleese attempts to return a parrot which he has purchased, but which now seems, in fact, to be dead.
Fans of ''Monty Python and the Holy Grail'' will remember him as Sir Galahad, while fans of ''The Life of Brian'' will picture him as a zany Roman proconsul with a grave speech impediment, which causes him to substitute the letter ''w,'' for the letter ''r'' - ''I shall welease Wodger.''
Since the death of one member of the company, each of them who remains has gone in his own way artistically. Palin has written and directed a number of films, acted in a number of others, created television series of his own and written novels and a long series of travel books. We reviewed his novel ''Hemingway's Chair'' several years ago.
Like many authors, Palin disciplines himself to write and sharpens his skills by keeping a diary. In 2006, he published his diaries for the 10 years beginning in 1969. Those were the years in which he was actively writing and performing comedy with the Monty Python troupe.
I have no idea and no way of finding out how much editing and revamping have taken place. Those expecting accounts of who had love affairs with whom and the like are likely to be disappointed. He does, however, include his views of a great many people, both positive and negative.
One needs only look at the divorce rate to appreciate how difficult it is for two people to live their lives in tandem. For six men to do so, especially for six men who are so talented and in demand and who are such determined individuals, is almost a freak of history.
The other members of the Python company, in addition to Palin, are Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones. Chapman is the deceased member.
Readers who need suspense and rising and falling action would be ill-advised to seek out diaries. The narrative, which is clear, colorfully expressed and often quite incisive, is a history of the performer's life. There are periods in which he either didn't write or which he has chosen to excise.
We get a great deal of information about which of the Pythons wrote which sketch. Palin did much of his writing together with Terry Jones. He says the Chapman and Cleese often wrote as a team. He is quite forthcoming about the feeling of competition among them all and how they all saw the other members' individual projects as a threat to the troupe's survival, including some quite sincere-sounding regrets of things he himself has said or done.
There is an extensive description of how one goes about rehearsing and performing as guest host of ''Saturday Night Live,'' back in the days of Gilda Radnor and Bill Murray.
At the opening of the diary, Palin was 26 years old and newly married. He and his wife have three children as the diary proceeds and Palin's father dies about half way through. Some of the stresses involved in leaving that funeral and arriving alone at a distant city, where he was required to hit people in the face with custard pies and sing funny songs, is quite moving.
At times, the terminology is challenging, especially for a non-Englishman. It isn't hard to figure out that ''the Beeb'' means the BBC, and the editors have very thoroughly placed footnotes all through it, explaining who individuals are if their names aren't likely to be recognized.
If you love the bones and gristle of the entertainment business, and especially if you're interested in Monty Python and how the company came to be what is was, I think you'd greatly enjoy this book. I did.
''Michael Palin Diaries, 1969-79: The Python Years'' was originally published by Thomas Dunn Books, in 2008. It has 673 pages in paper bound edition and was intended to sell for $19.95, although a popular on-line book seller is currently offering it new for $13.95.
Find it with ISBN number 10:0-312-38488-2. At the time of this writing, the book is not available through the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, although a number of the Monty Python films and television series are available for borrowing.
ZEFFIRELLI: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
While we're on the subject of books which reveal the real lives of people in the arts and the unseen efforts necessary to produce the performing arts, I recently read a fascinating autobiography of one of our most powerful and interesting directors of films and live performances, both theater and opera: Franco Zeffirelli.
If you recognize his name, it's probably because of his culture-changing film of William Shakespeare's great love story, ''Romeo and Juliet.''
Before Zeffirelli, it was common that the title couple was performed by actors who were full adults. Both Margot Fonteyn and Catherine Cornell performed as the 14-year-old Juliet when they were in their 50s, for example. Zeffirelli created a visually gorgeous film in which the actors playing the leads were 15 and 17.
A play in which the heroine decides to pretend to be dead so her husband can dig her up from her tomb, makes vastly more sense when they're virtually children.
Zeffirelli is still alive in his late 80s, although he wrote the autobiography in 1986. The pages of the book are filled with people such as Maria Callas, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Olivier, and many more such names of people who have performed under the author's direction, from the sublime to the ridiculous. But the most interesting figure of all is the author himself.
Zeffirelli was born in Florence, Italy. His father was a wealthy dealer in cloth and his mother was a poor seamstress. Because he was illegitimate, he was forbidden by the archaic laws of the time to use the last name of either parent. As in Dickens' novel ''Oliver Twist,'' the practice at the time was to give the first illegitimate baby at a hospital a last name beginning with the letter ''A,'' the second a ''B,'' and so on. Franco was born at the end of the alphabet.
He described living in the Italy of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, in which an unmarried woman couldn't earn enough to live in even a small apartment so he had to live with his great aunt, while his mother slaved away to earn her meager living.
He describes how his father's wife would stand outside his school, when he was nine years old, and curse him at the top of her lungs and call him ''bastardo.''
When the English and Americans invaded Italy near the end of the war, he deserted from Mussolini's forces and went to work as a translator for a Scottish unit, only to be recaptured by the Fascists and condemned to be shot.
It is interesting that Zeffirelli has led his entire life as an openly gay man, but as recently as 1986, he wasn't able to come out and say that, in his autobiography. One of the most interesting episodes of the early part of the book comes when he saves himself from execution by seducing one of his guards, but because he cannot say that, it is difficult to understand exactly what is happening.
Ironically, the inability to be completely truthful causes the reader to wonder, from time to time, about his true relationship with people he writes about from actors and singers to government officials and businessmen. Probably there is nothing to suspect in most cases, but we'll never know.
I assume that the author has written the book in English as there is no co-author nor translator listed on the title page. At times his language choices are a bit awkward, and one can imagine the words being said with an Italian accent. It's never difficult to understand.
From the Burton-Taylor film ''Taming of the Shrew'' to productions at the Metropolitan Opera and the stages of London and New York, Zeffirelli's name is synonymous with lush, expensive productions with vast palettes of colors and wonderful, realistic details.
Love him or hate him, you can learn a great deal about some of our culture's most influential works of art by reading his book.
''Franco Zeffirelli: An Autobiography'' was published by Weidenfield & Nicholson of New York City. It has 348 pages in hard cover edition, and was originally priced at $19.95. I found it for sale on the internet, from $56 for a new copy, to a low of $6.50 for a used copy of the book. There are two copies available in the library system: one in Jamestown and one in Fredonia. There are more than a dozen of his different films available to borrow without charge.
Find the autobiography with ISBN number 1-55584-022-1.
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I, who live about half of my evenings in theaters, am always astonished to learn how many people have never been to a performance of live theater. It's like meeting someone who has never eaten.
Throughout the month of October the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo will join more than 600 theaters, throughout the United States which offer the opportunity to attend a live performance at a variety of sites, completely free of charge.
Buffalo companies which are offering free tickets include Alt Theatre, Jewish Repertory Theatre, Kavinoky Theatre, New Phoenix Theatre, O'Connell & Company, Playhouse of American Classics, Road Less Traveled Productions, MusicalFare and Torn Space Theater.
To find out if you're eligible for free tickets - and you probably are - go to www.theatreallianceofbuffalo.com or phone Constance Caldwell at 353-0104. If you see the right thing, it could change your life, very much for the better.
Speaking of theaters in Buffalo, the Ujima Company will perform ''Ruined'' by Lynn Nottage, through Oct. 10.
The play is based upon a long series of interviews conducted by the playwright in the Congo, and deals with the practice of deliberately raping and dishonoring women of opposing factions, making them ''ruined'' and ineligible for marriage and motherhood.
The company performs at TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave., in downtown Buffalo. Tickets are $25 for the general public, $20 for senior citizens and $15 for students. Phone 883-0380 or go to www.ujimatheatre.org. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m.
Sticking with Buffalo theaters, Road Less Travelled Productions will perform one of Shakespeare's least often produced plays: ''Antony and Cleopatra.''
It has not been performed once in Buffalo in the past 50 years. The production begins Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 14.
The production has been adapted by Jon Elston from its original 32-actor size, to a production which can be presented by 10 actors. The company vows that although it is streamlined, the production remains extremely loyal to Shakespeare's language and dramatic intent.
The company performs in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, directly across Main St. from Shea's Performing Arts Center in downtown Buffalo. They perform in one auditorium of a movie complex. Purchase tickets by phoning (800) 745-3000, by computer at www.ticketmaster.com, or in person at the Shea's box office or at any Ticketmaster outlet.