One of the great New York traditions that I wouldn’t have seen except for our friends Michael and Jenny is Shakespeare in the Park, a series of free summer performances of Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
The New York Shakespeare Festival (later to become Shakespeare in the Park) was set up in 1954 thanks to the vision and pep of theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp, whose aim was to make Shakespeare’s works accessible to the public. In 1957, he was granted the use of Central Park for the shows and in 1961 (after a legal scuffle with the groundskeeper) a theater was built especially for these performances. Since then, the Delacorte Theater has been the setting for annual summer performances, mostly of Shakespeare though there have also been seasons of Greek theater, Gilbert & Sullivan and other crowd-pleasers.
The Delacorte is an outdoor amphitheater perched on a bosky hill with a castle-like structure in the background. The first actors step onto the stage at eight o’clock, just as the clouds are turning pink and the birds are twittering in their roosts. As the play begins, darkness falls but no one notices because they’re under a spell.
The fact that the performance is free and that seats are limited has led to the evolution of a particular box-office procedure. The tickets are all given out at noon on a first-come-first-served basis until the tickets are gone. But even if you are last in line you have a chance at a good seat because the seats are assigned randomly. Each person can only take two tickets per performance.
Michael, a Shakespeare-in-the-Park veteran, has perfected the art of ticket-getting and this year I had the privilege of participating in the time-honored ritual to get tickets for Coriolanus. He said the line starts to form quite early but you could usually be sure of a ticket if you got there before ten.
It was a hot day and I noticed that as soon as I entered the park, it got about five degrees cooler. Michael had set up two deckchairs under a big tree, so there was shade and even a little breeze. What’s more, he lent me a palm-leaf fan and gave me some ice-water that Jenny had prepared. Pretty soon we were completely comfortable and scoffing at the so-called ‘heat wave’ sweeping the East this week.
There were about forty other people in line, sitting on the grass chatting and watching a very athletic herding-dog chase a frisbee. The dog seemed to think we’d all come specifically to admire him and was putting on a real show. When its owner finally got tired and sat down, the dog picked up the frisbee and dropped it politely but firmly at a stranger’s feet. Then it ran to hide behind a tree, only to spring out as soon as the frisbee went whizzing past. Meanwhile, a saxophonist moved his way down the line, also looking for admiration (and money), honking out the sorts of tunes you play in high school jazz band. We all learned that he’d been studying architecture but had dropped out of classes to pursue his first love—music. He pointed out that the saxophone was really, really heavy, especially since he had to hold it for three hours.
The morning passed pleasantly in conversation, people-watching and guesses on whether or not the performance would be rained out (it would actually be thundered-and-flooded out!). Our cellphone weather apps seemed to suggest we might escape the predicted deluge. Suddenly, bright young volunteers organized us into groups and we were herded up to the box office to collect our tickets.
Everything having gone as planned, Michael headed home and I decided to stroll through the Park. Despite it being much hotter out of the shade of the big tree, it was a nice walk until I got to fifth avenue, at which point I realized that I was covered in sweat. Just then, I saw a large mansion with the words ‘Frick Collection.’ Supposing that it probably had air conditioning, I decided to go in before I got heat stroke.
Once in, I almost backed right out again because the place was extremely fancy. The museum staff were impeccably dressed and every square inch was polished. However, it definitely was air-conditioned so I decided to persevere. There was a bag search and then a bag check-in. I bought a ticket at a reduced price – well, it will be reduced if I go see two other museums this month.
The house used to be the residence of industrialist, financier and union-breaker Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). He made his fortune as founder of Frick Coke Company. Because coke was necessary for steel production, he partnered up with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and they formed the Carnegie Steel Company, later United States Steel.
It may be an exaggeration to call Frick a mass-murderer, but at least two incidents suggest that he lacked the milk of human kindness. One was the 1889 Johnstown flood, which recent studies have shown his rich-guys’ club was largely responsible for. The second was his heavy-handed union-breaking behavior in Homestead strike. Unfortunately, however, when Emma Goldman’s lover, anarchist Alexander Berkman, made an assassination attempt on Frick, public sympathy for the strikers evaporated.
Meanwhile, like other big American capitalists of the period, Frick was busy hoarding European art. And, to give the bastard credit, he was exceptionally good at it. As you can see on the museum’s website, there are hundreds of items and most of them are very beautiful.
The house itself is ridiculously grandiose, clearly built to display artwork and to make an impression. On first glance though, the nicest room in the house was the open-air courtyard and garden. The sunlight, water and greenery provide a sense of relaxation and, whereas the galleries with their grand huge paintings end up feeling oppressive.
I sat down in the video room and watched a clip of a nice man called Edmund de Waal nattering on about some porcelain and steel installations he’d made to compliment the gallery collections. You can see it here. Near the end of the video I heard a woman behind me whisper, ‘It’s ugly. I hate it. It’s wrong.’ I couldn’t decide if she was right or not. To me, de Waal’s porcelain cups looked like IKEA cups but I don’t know anything about art. The way he pinged the porcelain with his fingernail and rhapsodized about the beautiful sound made him seem like an appealing nerd anyway. On walking through the galleries later, though, I found I didn’t really notice these installations at all. Maybe I did subliminally.
The Frick Collection certainly does have some impressive paintings. There is a Hogarth where there doesn’t seem to be any obvious joke and he actually likes his subject Miss Mary Edwards ; Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl ; and The Forge by Francisco Goya.
The one that bothered me the most was Frans Snyders by Anthony van Dyck. There’s something about the guy’s voluminous black robe, thin face and long pale fingers that seems frightening, almost inhuman and mysteriously vicious. I now wonder if it has anything to do with Snyders’ tendency to paint ghastly arrangements of carcasses.
One piece that I found moving was a piece that is on special loan to the museum—Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John by Simone Martini, about the size of a paperback book. If you click the link above and magnify the image on the screen, you can make out patterns that have been stamped or etched into the gold leaf, the flush of color on Mary’s and John’s cheeks and distress on their faces.
I guess I just prefer medieval art because after that I went into some baroque-themed room and saw a vapid Rococo lady on a sleigh who was supposed to represent Winter. At that point I decided I was cool enough and should be heading home. There’s only so much art you can look at in one go!