Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Musical On Broadway: The “Revolting Children” of “Matilda” Throwing Away Library Books? No, It’s Revolting Adults! Really!

One of the four young actresses playing Matilda in the musical on Broadway.  Matlida loves her library books!
One of the hottest tickets on Broadway that you might be likely to take a cherished youngster to is about . . . child abuse!

Amazing?

It’s true, although it might be said as well that is also about the broader paradigm of those with power taking advantage of the powerless.

The show is Matilda, a musical based on the children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, made into a film in 1996.

While the subject may, indeed, be child abuse, it is tackled presenting the kind of world you find in fairy tales, with reviled villains broadly expressed, their conspicuously awful traits laid on thickly with can-you-top-this imaginativeness.  It allows you to relish pinnacles of awfulness while resting safely assured the tale must be in the realm of fiction.  Although it's highly entertaining fare for adults, it is children’s satire that employs a sort of reverse-logic humor to have its 'nasty' fun.  The wickedly base adults of the plot do the opposite of the mature conduct that one stereotypically expects from grownups charged with responsibly raising children.

An example of some of the extreme absurdity central to the plot: The bad adults hate library books!  There is one scene where the horrid father of the young heroine Matilda delights in throwing away library books, tossing them in high arcs through the air, one after another, into a rubbish bin and another where that father ferociously dives into a tearing attack on a poor defenseless book to destroy it.  The book actually stands up pretty well in the battle.  These `adults' of this strange world are outraged that others would want to read books!  
Mr. Woomwood, Matilda's father-  a riled attack on a book
It stands as fairly self-evident that the show’s secure dramatic connection with its (often juvenile) audience presupposes that everybody sitting in the theater’s seats will clearly understand that is bad, really bad.  And yet. . .

. . . . In the very same American city where Matilda is playing on Broadway with the theme of destruction and hatred of library books being key to characterizing the plot’s travesties, just blocks away in a building on 42nd Street there are people who in real life have an inordinate amount of power and control, who are, in truth, plotting to get rid of books and libraries that house them.  The funding of libraries is being stymied and at the same time diverted into real estate boondoggles that won’t benefit the public.  These real life people are actually  like Ms. Trunchbull, the cruel school headmistress of the Matilda story: They are in similarly charge with positions of trust and responsibility . . .  they will actually be able to make the books, libraries, and librarians disappear. .  if they are not stopped.  They are people like New York Public Library trustee Stephen A. Schwarzman, head of the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest real estate investment firm which has multiple other side enterprises like hedge funds.

Amazing?

You don’t believe me about Matilda’s plot?  That it’s about child abuse?  Or that the adults in the plot are caricatured as so dastardly that they would be fixated on throwing away library books?  The good news is that the musical has a happy, if tricky and unusual, surprise ending which makes it, in the end, about conquering oppression and the resources it takes to liberate oneself.
Ms. Trunchbull with her tongue out as a non-fan of books.  Ms. Honey, teacher and friend to Matilda, is aghast.
In an interview about the show’s construction in the UK’s Telegraph (the show is an import from England where it was first performed) director Matthew Warchus explained: “This might be a story about child abuse but the twist is the child doesn’t see herself as helpless.”

Here is some description of the show from New York Times review when the musical opened last spring.
Rush now, barricade stormers of culture, to the Shubert Theater, and join the insurrection against tyranny, television, illiteracy, unjust punishment and impoverished imaginations, led by a 5-year-old La Pasionaria with a poker face and an off-the-charts I.Q.

    * * *

Above all it’s an exhilarating tale of empowerment, as told from the perspective of the most powerless group of all. I mean little children.

    * * *

The printed word is regarded in the Wormwood household [Matilda’s home] as kiddie pornography might be looked upon in others.
(See: Theater Review- Children of the World, Unite! ‘Matilda the Musical’ at Shubert Theater, by Ben Brantley, April 11, 2013.)
Above, Leslie Margerita as Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda's mother, from one of the videos ,"looks not books," promoting the show.
Even Matilda’s garish mother, obsessed with ballroom dancing, is flatly antagonistic to books.  Her motto?: “Looks, not books!”. . .  

. . .  The motto might as well also be the motto of those generating the designs for what we will supposed to be getting in place of real libraries in the future.
"Looks Not Books" again?  On left the proposed design for the tiny shrunken Donnell "replacement library."  On the right the design of the bookless library that design was apparently taken from.
You don’t believe me that those at the pinnacles of New York power running libraries are similarly antagonistic to and getting rid of books, selling off and shrinking libraries to virtual shadows?

Not that long ago, before Mayor Bloomberg had taken over from Mayor Giuliani, the flagship, destination libraries of Manhattan had on the order of 13 million books in them to be readily available to city readers.  Now as Bloomberg has just left office those running the libraries are busy reducing that number way down to around only 4 million books, perhaps closer to 3.5 million
From 1987 to an envisioned 2015 (with an implemented Central Library Plan), how total number of books in Manhattan's principal libraries is declining drastically.  Over 12 million books in 1996 and 2003 to perhaps 4.2 million books (or even far fewer?) when CLP is implemented.  Starting figures in the graph for 1987 and 1992 are graphed lower than than they actually should be because they don't include unknown numbers for Mid-Manhattan and Donnell
When Giuliani left office, libraries and library space had been expanding and there were plans for more growth with, particularly significant, new construction to almost double of the size of Mid-Manhattan, the borough’s most used circulation library at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue.  Across the street, the world-esteemed 42nd Street Central Reference Library, expanded to nearly double its book-holding capacity in 1992 (with the Bryant Park being closed for more than four years at taxpayer expense for this purpose) completed still another expansion, its most recent, in 2002.  During the Bloomberg years, those running the library system pivoted. . .     

. . .  The beloved Donnell Library on 53rd Street across from MoMA was suddenly and secretively sold off for a pittance, not yet replaced, to shrink it down to less than a third of its previous size, in space that will be mostly subterranean and largely bookless.  Having so far gotten away with this affront to library lovers, the same perverse crew running libraries is pursuing something called the “Central Library Plan” that sells off Mid-Manhattan, the recently completed Science, Industry and Business library, and plunders the research stacks of the Central Reference Library, getting rid of and exiling the research books kept there, reducing all this space to about one quarter the amount of library space that existed before.
From an earlier NNY Article- 1987 to an envisioned 2015 (with an implemented Central Library Plan), total actual midtown Manhattan Library destination space actual and planned, first going up and then going lower than ever before
The Donnell debacle spun off a real estate deal benefitting developers and people in real estate.  The Central Library Plan would likewise spin off such deals as would comparable plans to sell off libraries in Brooklyn, similarly shrinking them and getting rid of books.

The bad adults in Matlida are characterized by mendacity and lying.  They use deceit to surreptitiously appropriate from others what does not belong to them.  Though the Central Library Plan would reduce more than 380,000 square feet of library space down to just 80,000 square feet, those selling off and reducing all this library space have the effrontery to be representing the reduction as an expansion.  See: Saturday, July 13, 2013, Deceptive Representations By New York Public Library On Its Central Library Plan: We’re NOT Shrinking Library Space, We Are Making MORE Library Space!   
A scene of a destroyed English library in Matilda?  No, a photo in a warning Tweet from Library Lovers League about pending destruction in the New York City library system.
This is akin to Matilda’s father, a used car salesman, turning back the odometers on cars he hopes to deceptively sell.  Did you know that one excuse given for why the libraries now supposedly need to be sold off in a scheme of self-cannibalizing shrinkage is that Bloomberg has not been funding them adequately, but on November 4th, at the end of his mayoral term, the eve of the election that would replace Mr. Bloomberg with Bill de Blasio (calling for a halt to Bloomberg's plans), the NYPL held a trustee gala specially honoring this mayor who presided over the sale, shrinkage, underfunding of libraries and banishment of their books?

Below are two videos from the rally held outside the gala to protest this absurdity.



Carolyn E. McIntyre, Citizens Defending Libraries Rally, 4 November 2013




Citizens Defending Libraries Rally, New York Public Library, 4 November 2013

The “Central Library Plan” has not found favor with the public so the NYPL has deceptively tried changing its name to the “42 Street Library Renovation,” (“It's the same plan,” says NYPL COO David Offensend), and most recently, even more abstrusely referring to a  “renovated central branch library,” in a bit of trickiness whereby the NYPL attempted to fool people into unknowingly supporting the unpopular plan. 
Matilda's library set- full of books
In contrast, empty shelves in the Brooklyn Heights Library.  More pictures of the empty library shelves around the city compared to the way we conceptually believe library shelves should be filled are here in this article.  
The shelves of Matilda's library refuge are full of books
The counter to the bleakness of the villains in Matilda is the library (and its resident librarian).  Throughout the evening there are recurring scenes in a library that is Matilda’s sustaining refuge in a world where she must fend entirely for herself.  Brantley, the Times reviewer, speaks of the library set as:
an airy wonderland of large letter-bearing tiles and bookcases. It suggests the endless supply from which Matilda (and vicariously we) can draw to make words, which make sentences, which make stories.
Because, as Brantley discerns, the story celebrates a wellspring of available empowerment:
"Matilda," you see, is about words and language, books and stories, and their incalculable worth as weapons of defense, attack and survival. It's about turning the alphabet into magic, and using it to rule the world.
One of the show's Facebook promotions referencing the "Telly" song
Matilda’s father offers a competing philistine vision to ‘thinking’ and what ought to be desirable.  The second act opens with the musical number “Telly.”  Some sample lyrics:
Somewhere on a show I heard, that a picture tells a thousand words, so telly, if you bother to take a look. is the equivalent of like, . . .  lots of books!

All I know, I learned from telly, this big beautiful box of facts.

. . . all you need to make you wise is twenty-three minutes plus advertisements.

. . . The bigger the telly, the smarter the man.. .  You can tell from my big telly just what a very clever fellow I am.

. . . all you need to fill your noggin without really having to think or nothing.
Library administration officials aren’t exactly promoting television screens to replace books, but as books take up real estate and thus entail keeping the libraries, they are promoting the idea that books be replaced with computer screens despite public preference for physical books and recent reviews of scientific literature suggesting that the human brain is hardwired to learn and remember better when reading physical books.
Mr. Tony Marx Wormwood?  Is Photoshop all it takes to imagine NYPL President Tony Marx as Mr. Wormwood?  Mr Marx was hired and is very well paid to promote the NYPL's plans to eliminate books and libraries as `populism' (like the Telly?) NOT discriminatory and antidemocratic.
But, as Mr. Wormwood articulates in his anthem to couch surfing: “Why would we waste our energy our energy turning pages, one, two, three, when we can sit comfortably, on our lovely bumferlies.”

Promotion for the musical's satire
Another anthem in the show extolling a contrary value system antagonistic to what one expects to  appreciate in libraries as sanctuaries of thought and contemplation is Mrs. Wormwood’s song Loud.”  Some sample lyrics:
People don't like smarty pants
What go round claiming
That they know stuff
We don't know.

Now, here's a tip.
What you know matters less
Than the volume with which
What you don't know's expressed!

Content, has never been less important.
So you have got to be ...

Loud!
(Loud, loud, loud)
Do I need to express that the song repeats the word “loud” many times and LOUDLY?

Did you know that new York City library administration officials are now touting the idea that libraries should be “loud” (with a `non-shush' policy) so that they can be smaller spaces where everything “flexibly” happens pell-mell on top of everything else.  So with the opening of Mariners Harbor, the NYPL’s most recently designed library, we learn that it is supposed to be NOISY!: “`We encourage noise,’ said Elizabete Pata, the library manager. `I’m not the typical librarian, shushing people.’”

Might that drive away an earnest, contemplative, book-reading child like Matilda?  Might that, in fact, be the point?

In the show’s second act Ms. Trunchbull in her supervillain musical number unveils her vision of the world (“scarier than any spook house,” according to Brantley), a world without children
Imagine a world with no children.
Close your eyes and just dream.
Imagine – come on, try it –
The peace and the quiet.
A burbling stream.
Absurd for a school mistress?  But in well-to-do New York City we have been substantially cutting back on the very small amounts required to fund libraries when usage is up 40% programatically and 59% in terms of circulation.  And then, as noted, the NYPL trustees specially honor Bloomberg for cutting that funding!  Shouldn’t we suspect that the intent is to drive away the patrons?  All the better to sell the real estate?  In the future, those who were library users can just sit at home downloading to smart phones, leaving the developers to access their real estate in “peace and quiet.”

The odious adults in Matilda are all self-obsessed, arrogant, and self-congratulatory.  Matilda's parents hardly notice her, except occasionally as a nuisance.

Agatha Truchbull’s expressed-in-Latin credo?: “Bambinatum est maggitum”- “Children are maggots.”

Above Stephen A. Schwrzman, NYPL Trustee and Blackstone Group Head, as Agantha Trunchbull.  Is Mr. Schwarzaman a real life version of Ms. Trunchbull?
One wonders what vision of the world NYPL trustee Stephen A. Schwarzman, has of the world: He is providing funds specifically for the consolidating shrinkage of the Central Library Plan and its elimination of books.  Consider his real estate empire, an important part of which has been collecting empty foreclosed homes, an activity he says he wishes were not coming to an end so fast.  There is also his promotion of fracking with its implications in terms of devastating worldwide climate change.  Will that wind up emptying the world of humans?
From the pen of Simon Verity- mournful, if fantastical contemplation of some real life fears for New Yorkers loving libraries 
Most of Matilda takes place at a school, Crunchem Hall, where the children’s spirits are oppressed by the monstrous Ms. Trunchbull.  One of the most horrifically harrowing scenes occurs when at their desks the children are forced to sit writing essays arguing for the abolition of free public libraries, replacing them by institutions that can only be used by those lucky enough to have the wherewithal to pay to get in.. . .   WAIT!. . . WAIT!. . That’s not really part of plot of Matilda, although it easily could be.   . . .  The spirit-crushing essay assignment actually comes from the real world, something that is now happening in New York City schools.
Kick Matilda out of her book-filled library?-  Tell her she can only come back if here parents give her money to pay to get in?
Yes, it’s true.  New York youngsters, striving to graduate, are being assigned the task of writing arguments in favor of abolishing public libraries!  Or they can write to argue that public libraries can be kept. . . but to create this either/or assignment is to imply that the debate is somehow down-the-middle.  Down-the-middle?  Really?  Should we assign susceptible children the an optional task of arguing that climate change isn’t occurring or that evolution is a suspect and unreal science?

Yes it is amazing, but. . .

. . . Amazing doesn’t make it any less true or unfortunate-  Also, as children in Ms. Trunchbull’s school find out when offered ghastly either/or choices: When the children succeed beyond expectation in surmounting one shocking challenge, it's best they be prepared to learn that Ms. Trunchbull still has in store for them the other more dreaded choice.

Here is the story about those essays.  Even as our schools are themselves being increasingly privatized in various ways and increasingly become corporately-sponsored, corporately-massaged environments with teaching-to-the-test regimes that starve intellectual curiosity and passion, focusing perhaps too much on churning out credentialed graduates certified that slot easily into that kind of business environment, suggestions are being made in ways you might never guess respecting how our values perhaps ought to shift.  Are we really supposed to be thinking in terms of selling off everything that is public and with privatization let the private sector take charge of everything that used to be publicly handled?

You remember the 71-year-old tradition of the GED, the high school equivalency diplomas with GED standing for “General Educational Development”?  The exam is being privatized with McGraw-Hill a for-profit education company taking over.

Would you as a young ungraduated person like to prepare for McGraw-Hill’s new replacement test, the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion), by taking on one of their practice questions?---  Maybe, if you have been forced to think about completing your high school education with this substitute you are particularly reliant on libraries and self-education— Well, that’s how you will wind up answering the McGraw-Hill essay question that suggests that the public libraries, like this school testing, should be taken over by the private sector.  Because, doesn’t the private sector know best how to deliver the message that public assets don’t have value?
McGraw-Hill essay prompt: "There is an ongoing debate . . .  whether free public libraries are still practical in today’s world."

Here is McGraw-Hill’s “essay prompt”:
There is an ongoing debate in the public domain as to whether free public libraries are still practical in today’s world. What are the implications for society of a “free”public library system? Has the time come for cities to consider requiring patrons to pay a fee to use library services?
There is an ongoing debate about keeping libraries?  It’s going on “in the public domain”?

Promotion for the musical
Really?  Tell that to Matilda!  Tell that to writers, producers and performers of the musical Matilda!  I think they thought when they put these anti-library arguments in the mouths of their villains it was cartoonish satire more than a good safe remove from reality.

It’s time to fight back, not just be `amazed.'

Meanwhile, until there is a new musical based directly on the conniving in New York with respect to libraries, you can get a good dose of satiric relief by going to see Matilda, which has parodic fun with some closely analogous situations where fiction vies to be as strange as the truth.

Promotion for the show.  You'd be surprised what little can do a lot.  Support the campaign.
Personal Note

I cannot bring this article to a conclusion without a very personal note in memoriam for a comrade in life.

Randy-  A helluva guy
I went to see Matilda partly as an observance to respect the death of a friend, my best friend from high school, Nicholas Randolf “Randy”Morrison, a stagehand who worked at the Shubert Theater on this show.  He died between Christmas and New Years and this was the very last show of the many, many Broadway shows he worked on over the years, beginning with “Beatlemania” in 1977.  I talked with Randy a lot during the time he was working on Matilda (it opened in April), especially in the recent months and weeks before he died, when he was cutting back substantially for health reasons. . .

. .  Odd thing: For all the time I talked with him, Randy never mentioned to me how much the plot of show Matilda was about libraries, although he knew about my campaign as a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries to save New York City’s libraries from being sold to real estate developers and he’d signed our petition to help the cause.  Randy never suggested to me about how observing these parallels might help the cause- or I didn't pick up on it.  I think he must have been preoccupied with his health.  Sometimes we need to think about other things and we had so much to talk about concerning all the other things that were good in life.
One of the pictures posted by a friend imagining a musical at the Schubert about Randy who worked there

2 comments:

Jennifer Frank said...

Thank you for sharing such a thought provoking topic. Matilda was always my favorite movie, and although her parents were dastardly semi-villains I still can't help but applaud his father's way of handling his business (if only it wasn't illegal business management).

Elizabeth Brown said...

Wonderful article. An inspiration to join together to save the NYPL: 42nd Street and every one of the branches. We must never forget Donnell.