Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Saturday, February 27, 2021

OLD TESTAMENT DREAMS

When I saw pictures of the gilded Trump statuette at CPAC my mind turned naturally to Exodus chapter 32 and I thought I would write a brief post about it, but unfortunately the Internet got there first and everybody has made the connection. It must be convenient to have so many Evangelicals in attendance you need them.


If we can beat back the frantic voter suppression laws being pushed by Republican state legislatures across the country, 2022 may turn out to be a good year for the Democrats.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

FURTHER THOUGHTS ABOUT THE INSURRECTION

Five days ago I put up a post in which, at one point, I described the insurrectionists as people “playing at being soldiers.” There were several interesting responses questioning such things as my snark about their wearing camouflage equipment. Without returning to that issue, let me say something in a more organized way about why I found the entire event so weird.

 

The purpose of many of those who broke into the Capitol, I think we can agree, was not merely to protest the declaration of Biden as the new president but to “stop the steal” by interrupting the procedure by which the vice president in his ceremonial role as President of the Senate opens the envelopes containing the reports of the electoral votes and declares the winner.

 

The entire event was so horrendous, the real-time cell phone videos so mesmerizing, and the threat to the lives of the senators, the members of the House of Representatives, and the vice president himself so dire that none of us really thought to ask an obvious question: suppose the efforts of the insurrectionists had been successful, what would they have done then? Suppose they had succeeded in breaking into the Senate chamber and House chamber while the Senators and Representatives were still there and the Vice President was still in the chair. Suppose – what is hard to imagine, given the presence of armed Secret Service agents not hesitant about using force – that the insurrectionists had actually coerced Pence into declaring Trump the victor in the election. Then what? What would the insurrectionists have done?

 

I think the answer is clear. They would have declared victory and gone home. Gone home! I think they actually believed that if they forced the Vice President to go through the charade of declaring Trump the winner in the election, then that would have been it and Trump would have continued to be president.

 

Think for a moment about how crazy that is. Did they actually think that Joe Biden would just say “aw shucks, I came so close, well nothing for it but to go home to Delaware and have dinner with Jill.” Did it never occur to them that after they left town Mitch McConnell might move to strike those proceedings from the record and then go on with the regular declaration of Biden as winner?  Did they think that the members of the House of Representatives would shrug their shoulders, snap their fingers, and just figure that there was nothing they could do? Did they imagine that a Supreme Court that had declined even to listen to any of the 60 and more lawsuits brought by Trump against state election commissions would certify the proceedings as constitutional?

 

I really do not think any of this crossed their minds.  I think they viewed the proceedings on January 6 more as part of a videogame than as a political ritual. They were not revolutionaries, they were action figures.

 

None of this makes what they did any less dangerous nor, I am happy to say, will it constitute a successful defense when they are called into court. But it would not surprise me if a videogame surfaces in the near future titled Stop The Steal. It will be a great success.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

MY POSSIBLE COLUMBIA COURSE

Several of you have asked whether I could record and post my lectures in my proposed Columbia course if in fact it actually comes to pass. I am flattered by the request but I am afraid I think it would be a bad mistake. Let me explain why. A classroom is or ought to be a protected space where students can explore ideas, ask questions, make comments, and in general open themselves up in ways that they might not wish to have recorded for all time and preserved in the cloud. If I were to record and post my classroom lectures, the students would cease to be students and would become an audience. Some years ago I watched a few lectures delivered at Harvard to an adoring mob of students by Michael Sandel and I think I commented on this blog that it seemed to me to be a very sophisticated form of stand-up comedy, not a classroom at all.

 

I feel badly about this because I have enjoyed enormously recording lectures on ideological critique, the thought of Karl Marx, the thought of Sigmund Freud, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  The Kant lectures especially have found an international audience and have brought me many interesting questions and comments from viewers around the world.

 

If I do get to teach the course, perhaps when it is over I can record some lectures on Marcuse to complement my Marx and Freud lectures.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

I"M BACK

My apologies for being absent from the blog. Susie and I have been consumed with excitement by our decision, approved of by our physicians, to eat at a restaurant this evening for the first time in 11 months. We are now three weeks past our second Pfizer shots and medical advice is that it is okay for us to have a meal out. We have chosen to go to our favorite local restaurant, a fish house called Squid’s, where I shall order a dozen and ½ raw oysters, a basket of Hush Puppies, and a glass of the house Cabernet. This may not sound like much to those of you who are gourmets but it is quite the biggest deal in our little lives in almost a year.

 

Meanwhile, I am pursuing the possibility of again teaching at Columbia in the fall. If I can find a departmental home for my proposed course – Marx, Freud, Marcuse: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis – and if The Society of Senior Scholars will underwrite a small honorarium and travel expenses, and if – a very big if – Columbia is actually holding classes in person next fall then I may be back to flying up to New York every Tuesday to teach. I had not realized how much I have missed it until the possibility arose of teaching once again and I found my spirits magically lifted.

 

Meanwhile, I see that Trump plans on Friday at CPAC to declare himself the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee, which I think may spell doom for the Republican Party. These are strange times.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

INTO THE WEEDS

I just finished reading this Huffington Post story that contains the complete 21 page superseding indictment handed down by a grand jury against a group of Oath Keepers.  It is worth taking the time to read.  The indictment details the planning in the weeks leading to January 6 by a group of individuals, some with military training, who went to the Capitol in response to the call by Trump, clearly intending to stop the certification of the electoral college vote.


I was struck by two things in the indictment that are, in a way, contradictory to one another. First was the care, precision, and forethought with which this group planned to stop the government proceedings – all very professional, military, and carefully arranged. The second was my very powerful sense that this was a bunch of people playing at being soldiers. I would be curious to know what the readers of this blog think should they take the trouble to read the entire indictment.


The other thing that occurred to me, of course, is that these people made no effort to hide what they were doing and, judging from what I have read since in the media, actually thought that since they were entitled to rebel against the government nobody would do anything to them. It is really quite extraordinary.


If you have nothing better to do, take a  look at it and tell me what you think.

Friday, February 19, 2021

AN OLD JOKE AND A NEW ONE

 Old joke: 


Question:  Why do people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz?

Answer:     Because it saves time.


New joke: 


Al Franken said on MSNBC "I like Ted Cruz better than most of his colleagues and I hate him."


Ted Cruz is the gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

AN HOMAGE TO WILE E. COYOTE

I spent an hour yesterday being interviewed by a reporter from The Spectator, the Columbia University student newspaper. The topic was a recent unsuccessful effort by some student protesters to get Columbia to reduce very slightly its sky high tuition, the highest I believe in the nation. If they ever do a story on the interview I will provide a link to it.

 

The experience got me thinking yet again about what higher education in America has become and although I could not walk today – freezing rain this morning – I did lie in bed for a while having an imaginary conversation with one of the many experts who claim that the way out of America’s severe income inequality is to provide expanded first rate tertiary education to America’s young people. I am going to take a few moments to indicate why I think this is an illusion. I have talked about this before on this blog and what I have to say strikes me as self-evident, but then the central claims of Karl Marx’s economics theory also strike me as self-evident and we know how popular they are.

 

I view these remarks as an homage to the old roadrunner cartoons with their memorable villain, Wile E Coyote. The entire argument that I shall offer, such as it is, is simply an application of that old familiar standby of elementary logic courses – The Fallacy of Composition.

 

There are something like 130 million men and women who are employed full-time or part-time or self-employed in the United States these days (rather fewer this year than last of course thanks to the pandemic.) This is so many people that it is hard to think about the economy as a whole and the impact on it of higher education, so to simplify things (and here is the tribute to the roadrunner) let us imagine that the entire American economy consists of one huge private corporation called the Acme Company. We can imagine that Acme has an agricultural division, a manufacturing division, a service division, a medical division, an education dividion, a legal division, a tech division, and so forth.

 

Let us suppose that in order to get a job in management or in one of the better paid positions in one division or another – positions that offer salaries rather than wages, paid vacations, health benefits, retirement packages, and other fringe benefits – an applicant has to have a college degree from one of the better schools (since there are 4000 and more colleges and universities in the United States offering a four year degree, by “better” I simply mean a degree from one of the top 2000 or so colleges or university campuses.) At the present time roughly 1/3 of adult Americans have bachelor’s degrees, so let us suppose that those with degrees from the “better” schools constitute perhaps 20% of the workforce. These are, by and large, the fortunate ones with good jobs.

 

Everything is going along smoothly at Acme in its wildly unequal fashion until, thanks to a program enacted by a progressive federal administration, the number of people coming out of “better” schools with bachelor’s degrees grows from 20% of the workforce to 30%. The Director of Personnel in Acme central headquarters makes an appointment to see the CEO and says to her, “Boss, so many people are applying for jobs with bachelor’s degrees from good colleges and university campuses that we are going to have to expand the ranks of our corporate management to accommodate them, and cut back on workers in the agricultural, manufacturing, office work, and distribution branches to compensate.”

 

“What on earth are you talking about?” she replies. “We have all the managers we need. And we certainly cannot afford huge cutbacks in agriculture, manufacturing, service and distribution, and so forth.  You will have to find some other way to handle the problem.”

 

“Well,” the Director of Personnel says, “we cannot in fairness choose arbitrarily which applicants will get these plum jobs. We must find some way to rank them that is at least perceived as objective, no matter how irrelevant it is to the satisfactory performance of their functions. I know, we will require as a precondition for management jobs an MBA. Nobody can complain about that!”

 

And so it is done. After a while, all up and down the line in Acme, the educational credentials required as prerequisites for jobs at various levels of compensation are raised, without in any way altering the steep pyramid of unequal wages and salaries and without noticeably changing the productivity of the workforce of Acme. Thoughtful critics of this inequality, concerned about the steepness of the job pyramid, begin to write scholarly articles explaining that post baccalaureate education, not merely baccalaureate education, is the key to flattening the pyramid.

 

When I went off to college 71 years ago, only 5% of adult Americans had a college degree. Almost ¾ of a century later, that percentage has been increased almost sevenfold without in any way altering the inequality, save to make it somewhat worse now than it was then.

 

As I said when I began this post, this is an example of the Fallacy of Composition. From the fact that any individual in the society can significantly improve his or her earning potential by acquiring a tertiary degree, it does not follow that all the individuals in the society can do so, any more than it follows from the fact that any one individual can be the first person to leave a concert that therefore everybody in the audience can be the first person to leave the concert.

 

There is of course one way in which a dramatic improvement in society-wide educational accomplishment could result in a significant shift in the pattern of compensation and that is if the availability of a large population of workers with advanced education made it possible for corporations to adopt alternative techniques of production or delivery of services that by their nature were compatible with or even compelled a less unequal structure of compensation. But the history of the last century or so shows us that is simply not the case. As Gabriel Kolko demonstrated half a century ago in his book Wealth and Power in America and as the work of countless economists since has confirmed, the patterns of inequality in the American economy have been remarkably stable for well over a century despite the radical transformations that have taken place.


I lay there in bed recalling that the father of my first wife ended his career as a vice president of Sears Roebuck Corporation even though he never graduated from high school.

 

Then I got up and had breakfast.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

SOMETHING TO SOOTHE THE SOUL

6 ½ years ago, on July 20, 2014, I posted an enthusiastic rave about a book I had just finished reading called the Ark before Noah by an extraordinary scholar named Irving Finkel. Several days ago I stumbled on this one hour YouTube video of Finkel talking about Babylonian cuneiform tablets. I spent a delightful hour watching it and if you are looking for some way to pass the time while in virtual quarantine, I recommend it to you. Truly great scholars are a bit like virtuoso classical musicians. Watching them, listening to them, letting their learning and their enthusiasm wash over you is one of the great experiences in this life. I was fortunate enough as an undergraduate to study with such a scholar – Harry Austryn Wolfson. Finkel is one of that rare breed. In these terrible times I find it comforting to remind myself every so often of what the human spirit is capable of. Listening to Yo-Yo Ma play the cello has the same effect on me.

 

Enjoy.

Monday, February 15, 2021

AFTERMATH

And so it is over. I watched every minute of it, bored, transfixed, outraged, delighted, and again bored. The result was better than I had expected. Seven Republicans rather than five, including North Carolina’s very own Richard Burr. The only thing that could have changed the outcome would have been a dramatic statement from Mike Pence. Good luck with that.

 

I have a handful of random observations about the experience.

 

First of all, I really loved the fact that in the end Trump had to go with a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in personal injury cases. My guess is that lawyer has more experience than high-class lawyers in dealing with clients who stiff him for his fees so maybe he will get paid something in the end. At one point, those of you who watched it all may recall, he said something so ridiculous that the senators laughed. Somewhat startled, he responded “I do not know why you are laughing.” It reminded me of that delicious moment when Trump addressed the United Nations, indulged in one of his usual bits of braggadocio, and was surprised to get a round of laughter from the delegates.

 

I spent a great deal of time quite literally shouting at the TV to the distress and astonishment of my wife. The cause was the complete inability of virtually everybody to remember the simple fact that Trump was not then being impeached, he was being tried. Raskin pointed this out once or twice but he did not hammer it home in a way that would stop the brainless commentators from repeatedly talking about whether a president could be “impeached after leaving office,” totally oblivious to the fact that he had in fact been impeached when in office. I toggled between MSNBC and CNN and I do not think I heard a single high paid commentator who could get this simple fact into his or her brain. Well, as you can see, I am still yelling at the TV.

 

The day after the trial ended the commentators seemed obsessed with the question whether the Democrats had “folded like a cheap suit” for failing to call witnesses. This, it was somberly opined, was just one more example of the inability of the Democrats to fight like Republicans. This all struck me as mindlessly stupid. There was a serious question whether Kevin McCarthy would confirm the reports of a shouting match with Trump. There were indications that if the Democrats called witnesses and the trial dragged on they would lose the vote of Sen. Richard Burr. There was no reason at all to suppose that calling witnesses would change anybody’s vote from not guilty to guilty. Since everybody agreed that the House managers had done a brilliant job, why could not the commentators trust their judgment in this matter?

 

Finally I come to Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary speech. McConnell made a big point of noting that Trump was still criminally liable for everything he had done the past four years, assuming, as he was careful to point out, that the statute of limitations had not run out. Since McConnell is not stupid one must assume that he was deliberately obfuscating the central point, which of course is that the purpose of impeachment and trial by the Senate is to remove from office someone who has not yet left that office and also, by a subsequent vote, to prohibit him or her from ever holding office again. Hauling Trump into a court of law, charging him with a felony, convicting him, and putting him in jail cannot bar him from running for the presidency again. Nothing can do that save impeachment, conviction, and disqualification. It is worth remembering that Trump could perfectly well run for president in 2024 even if, as I devoutly hope, he is then in jail. Let me remind those of you who are a little bit dim on socialist party history that Eugene V. Debs ran for the presidency on the Socialist ticket in 1920 while in jail.  He got 3.4% of the vote. Those were better days, sigh.

 

I leave you all with a question which has been lurking in the back of my mind: is Mike Pence in a witness protection program or will he someday resurface?

Thursday, February 11, 2021

A HEARTFELT THANK YOU

Let me express my deepest gratitude to all of you who on this blog or in personal emails reached out to me offer to support and hope for my wife's well-being. I am glad to be able to report that the neurologist she saw two days after the attack was very encouraging about the future. Susie has rebounded from the experience and I think will continue in her lifelong effort to put up with me and my quirks. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.


Needless to say, Susie and I have been glued to the television set watching the proceedings in the Senate chamber. One purely personal note about those proceedings: Susie and I each of us individually knew Representative Raskin's father, Marcus Raskin, so for us the entire affair is a little bit like watching an adoptive nephew do well in public. There is really nothing much to say about the affair. The House managers are doing a brilliant job and will have no effect on the Republicans, but we all knew that already.


More tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

THE REAL WORLD INTERRUPTS

My wife had a small stroke on Sunday and since that time I have been dealing with that rather than with capitalism's future and the impeachment of the president. She is doing well and should be fine. Sorry about that.  I hope to return to pontificating soon.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

PING PING

As insurrections go, the attack on the capital on January 6 was not a political success. However it may well have been the best documented such effort in recent memory. All of us, I am sure, have watched the cell phone videos taken and posted by participants. Talk about the assumption of white privilege! But I have also been fascinated by the precision and detail with which law enforcement can identify and pinpoint the location of individual participants from the GPS functionality of their phones. Since I daydream a good deal about adventures I have with or without superpowers, I was curious whether I could avoid detection simply by turning off my phone. Fairly quickly, Google informed me that although turning off one’s phone does deprive eyes in the sky of a good deal of information about one’s location, it is actually possible with really sophisticated equipment to locate phones, and hence their owners, when the phones are turned off. Apparently the only way to ensure that this does not happen is to remove the battery. This led me to a very helpful little video that showed me how I could replace the battery in my iPhone, an effort, let me assure you, but I have no intention ever of attempting.

 

That was about as much technical information as I could absorb, so I turned my thoughts to a more interesting subject: the anonymity which all of us these days take for granted as a condition of our existence. I was born and brought up in New York City so I know a little bit about anonymity. During the time I was teaching at Columbia, I lived in a Columbia owned building across the street from the campus. 415 W. 115th St., Apt. 51, as I think I have remarked in the past on this blog. There were, I believe, 20 apartments in the building. In the seven years I lived there I met, indeed I even talked, only to the people next door in apartment 52 – Bob Belknap, a tall drink of water who taught Russian literature, and his wife, with whom once or twice I played string quartets. Think about that for a moment. I walked in and out of that building, rode up and down in the elevator, for seven years and never met anyone else except the Belknaps! It goes without saying that as I walked to class or to my office or went shopping, I passed and was passed by thousands of people whom I did not know.

 

I took all of this for granted, being as I say a New Yorker, but in the long sweep of human history and prehistory this condition of anonymity is really extremely unusual. For most of the past 200,000 years human beings have lived in very small groups or in small villages where everybody knew everybody else and pretty much knew everybody else’s business. If you lived in such a setting, you knew everyone’s name, you knew when a baby was born, you knew when somebody died, and when somebody not from the village came into it that person stuck out and was immediately noticed. For most of human history that has been the normal human condition.

 

With the Super Bowl looming, this is not the moment to meditate on the larger significance of these facts but surely in very fundamental ways how we think about identity, personal knowledge, moral obligation, and politics must be affected by the contrast between what has been true of human beings almost all of our history and what is true of us now. One final comment: as an old guy, I am always inclined to root for the athlete still playing at the top of the game in his or her final years in the sport, so I would naturally root for Tom Brady. But I have never liked Brady, who seems to me a poisonous human being, so I am torn. Perhaps I will even watch the game.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

EVIDENCE OF A LIFE WELL SPENT

Three weeks ago, Susie's son and daughter-in-law gave her a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Paris in the evening as a birthday present. This morning we completed it and I reproduced below a picture of our work. It is far and away the hardest puzzle we have ever done, in part because since it purports to be Paris in the evening all the pieces are some version of dark with little glimmers of light here and there. I did not want all you earnest folks to think that I was wasting time just because I have not been blogging as much in the past few days.




Thursday, February 4, 2021

WHERE IT IS AT

Something strange is happening in American politics. I freely confess that I have no idea how it is going to play out but it seems to me almost certain that we are heading for some kind of major realignment in the two-party system. This is of course not the first time this is happened. I leave it to those who are versed in the details of American history to recall each of the several major shifts that have taken place since the late 18th century.

 

The most immediate and in some ways the most striking evidence that the Republican Party is undergoing a fundamental reconstruction is the fact that Senate Republicans are openly and quite vocally at war with House Republicans. Mitch McConnell is clearly beside himself at the prospect of losing any chance for retaking the Senate in 2022. Kevin McCarthy is yet the latest in a series of feckless House Republican leaders unable to organize and hold together his caucus. How on earth the Senate and House Republicans can reunite in order to fight an election campaign in 2022 I do not know.

 

I am also at a loss to figure out what platform or collection of positions on issues the Republicans can put together that will bring to the polls the 30% or 40% of their supporters completely in the bag for conspiracy theories and quasi religious fantasies and also the large number of more or less ordinary Republicans whom they need to have any chance of winning even House elections let alone those for the Senate.

 

I also do not know what to think of the violent rhetoric being spewed by those who are armed to the teeth with military grade weaponry. On the one hand, they scare the living daylights out of me. On the other hand, I am struck by the fact that only a handful of people were killed during the January 6 Capital insurrection, and if I am not mistaken, the only one killed by gunfire was one of the insurrectionists. I do not think we are facing anything remotely like a genuine coup in which large numbers of well armed and trained revolutionaries make war on the police and the armed forces of the state. There is clearly a great deal of ready for prime time macho posing on the part of the insurrectionists who show up with automatic rifles, flak jackets, helmets, and –  oddest of all – camouflage gear that makes sense only if you are in the woods, not on a city street. They are dangerous, to be sure, but probably actually less dangerous than the individuals who shoot up a church or mosque or synagogue or school or supermarket.

 

This is clearly the time for the Democrats to adopt a big tent approach and Biden seems to be ideally suited to that end. Lord knows, he faces some delicate problems. His control of the Senate rests on the compliance of Joe Manchin, who won his Senate seat in a state that voted for Trump by almost a 40 percent margin. The progressives in the party appear to understand this perfectly well and are pushing for progressive programs and actions rather skillfully.

 

Once Trump's Senate trial is over and he is not convicted, we shall have to wait to see whether he develops personal troubles that make it impossible for him to continue to exercise his sway over the Republican Party. But this is an unstable situation and I think we are likely to see some major shifts taking place long before the midterms.

 

At the age of 87 I have somewhat less interest in generational change than I had when I was in my 20s so I would welcome some short-term blowups. But that is a purely personal preference, not an expression of my deep analysis of structural changes in what I persist in calliong late-term capitalism.

Monday, February 1, 2021

QUIBBLE QUIBBLE QUIBBLE

I realize nobody cares, but can we just be clear that Trump was impeached during his term of office. He was not tried in the Senate during his term of office because McConnell chose to postpone the trial until after the inauguration of Biden. Arguments about whether a former president can be impeached after he or she has left office are simply irrelevant in the present circumstances.  

MY STAGE CAREER

Yesterday evening, Susie and I spent several pleasant hours watching the old movie production of My Fair Lady on Turner Classic Movies. In the movie Rex Harrison reprises his stage performance as Henry Higgins and Audrey Hepburn lip-synchs her way through the role of Eliza Doolittle. At one point I remarked to Susie that the stage play by George Bernard Shaw on which the musical was based has a more interesting and plausible ending.

 

This put me in mind of a number of stage productions I have seen that were truly memorable. I have not gone to the theater very often in my long life but when I was young I was lucky to see some great productions. As a boy, my parents took me to see a revival of Porgy and Bess. At the end of the performance when it came time for the actors to take their bows, the actor playing the villain Crown was greeted with boos and hisses when he stepped before the curtain. He responded with a big smile and took a bow. Also when I was in high school I saw José Ferrar give a luminous performance as Cyrano de Bergerac.

 

My most memorable trips to the theater, oddly enough, all involved plays by George Bernard Shaw. I saw Siobhan McKenna in Shaw’s St. Joan. I saw Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwick, and Agnes Morehead in a London recital performance of Don Juan in Hell. You cannot get any better than that!

 

Quite the most striking moment in any stage production I saw was at the very opening of a production of Major Barbara in which Laughton played Undershaft.  As the curtain went up on the first act, a group of young people were seen sitting on a circular sofa in the middle of the stage chatting. After a few moments Laughton appeared from a door at the left rear of the stage and without saying anything walked slowly to the apron. He did absolutely nothing that I could discern to call attention to himself but by the time he reached the edge of the stage every eye in the audience was on him. It was an extraordinary tour de force of acting.

 

But my favorite theater experience is the time when I appeared in a production with Shirley Jones, who had a lovely soprano voice and was a big hit in a stage production of Oklahoma but later became famous for her role in the TV series The Partridge Family. Since this must be the most implausible sentence I have written on this blog, a word of explanation is called for.

 

In the summer of 1956 I was a graduate student at Harvard, writing my doctoral dissertation. Shirley Jones had just married Jack Cassidy and the two of them were touring in summer stock in a production of The Beggar’s Opera, with Jones playing Polly and Cassidy playing McHeath. When they came to Cambridge for a week-long performance, a call went out for folks to sing in the pit chorus. In those days I had a nice baritone voice and had done a fair amount of choral singing so I tried out. It was a paying gig – seven evening performances and one matinee, two dollars a performance. This is back in the day when a Hershey’s chocolate bar was a nickel and a Mars bar was a dime so $16 was serious money. The competition was not very stiff and I got into the pit chorus.

 

The performances were in Sanders Theatre, which as some of you know doubles as a concert venue and a lecture hall. There is no curtain and the pit orchestra was set up in the space between the front row of seats and the stage. Those of us in the pit chorus were dressed as beggars who were prisoners in Mr. Lockit’s jail. We huddled next to the pit chorus and when it came time for us to sing we surged forward, did our turn, and then shrank back into the darkness. None of us ever actually made it up onto the stage, of course, not even for rehearsals and I certainly never met any members of the cast but to this day I can truthfully say that Shirley Jones and I appeared in a performance together.

 

Quite the most striking moment of the entire evening, to me at any rate, occurred before the very first line of dialogue was uttered. As the lights went up Mr. Peachum and Mr. Lockit were seen sitting at a table drinking beer.  The actor playing Peachum then let out a belch that could be heard in the last row of seats in the auditorium. I was in awe of his ability to do this and tried several times to imitate it but without success.