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I made a mad dash out to Connecticut Sunday evening, not for nanny duty with the  little ones, but to see darling Mac. The girls were tucked in their beds asleep by the time I got there. “We’re all just too busy,” he said. As he had baked a red velvet cake for Marin’s birthday on Friday, spent all day Saturday and Sunday on the YMCA’s annual father daughter camping trip and had to be in Midtown for an important early Monday morning business meeting, this was a man who was speaking from experience. But for the next couple of hours he and I engaged in the kind of quiet, reflective, loving conversation that makes the world slow down for a bit. The conversation flowed effortlessly, traversed many subjects. I went to bed feeling better about the world and so happy that he has been in mine for so many years. I got up for a minute at 3 and noticed his bed hadn’t been slept in yet. I fell back into a sound sleep until a small hand, poking at my head the way our cat does when he wants breakfast, awakened me with: 

“Can I see your phone? I want to take some selfies.” 

“Has your dad left?” 

“He’s downstairs shaving.” 

Mac made the 7:25 to Grand Central, and the girls and I went to the diner for a breakfast of smiley face pancakes and lemonade. We roamed the streets of New Canaan for a bit. Nothing was open, but never-say-die Paloma talked Judy, who runs the high end toy and do-dad store, into letting us in an hour early. Then they were off for a hike with their mom and I returned to the house to gather my things and head for the train myself. I have already sung Mac’s praises, but here is something else I admire: he’s a wonderfully eclectic reader. His library ranges from two biographies of Jack Kerouac to Pikettey’s Capital. A new addition was a history of the late Ottoman Empire. I stumbled upon Thinking Fast and Slow, a book on behavioral psychology and decision-making. I haven’t read this book, and I didn‘t pick  it up for a browse this time, but I found myself intrigued by its title and how that enters into artistic thinking. And why two such different, seemingly unrelated projects as the rise and fall of CBS and the Brecht parable play the Good Person of Setzuan the have been taking up the bulk of my own artistic bandwidth these past few months. 

For me the artistic process begins with an impulse, the emergence of an idea whole cloth: fast thinking. The idea for the Brecht in Exile project began this way, as did the need to return to the Murrow/Shirer/CBS piece that we made a first stab at 8 years ago. But it‘s taken a healthy dose of the analysis of slow thinking for me to arrive at the intersectionality that makes the connection between the two, inevitable.

The Good Person of Setzuan at first glance is a play about income inequality, and can certainly be interpreted that way. One of its most famous lines can be translated as “it is so difficult to be good when one has no money.” But let’s take a closer look. Setzuan was written in 1940 at a time when Paris had just fallen, it was considered a given that Britain would follow, perhaps in a matter of weeks, the Brechts were on the run, moving frantically from Denmark to Finland and finally across Russia to the Pacific and California. One of the few possessions that made the journey was the portable radio on which Brecht incessantly listened for the news of the war no matter how depressing. This is the primary theme of Setzuan more than loss of money, loss of hope and the accompanying, all-consuming feeling of helplessness that reduces the pleas of our heroine to just one word. “Help” followed by an epilogue delivered to  the audience begging for the solution that has eluded the playwright. 

In May 1940, Tess Shirer had written to her husband, “It’s strange to remember happy, care free days now … how sure and proud we all were … my generation, at least how confident we felt in the world we had constructed for ourselves after the mess of the World War, how superior we felt to the generation that made the war, that fought the war. This was to have been a better world, a world in which war had no place. We were above that.”  Sadly, she had learned otherwise.

Left without hope that he could continue as an objective reporter and would be reduced to  reading only German government propaganda in his nightly broadcasts from Berlin. Shirer petitioned his bosses in New York to bring him home. Worn out and despondent, he asked for a leave from broadcasting. . .  to write a book.

Knopf sold 600,000 copies of Berlin Diary in the first year after publication. A writer for The New York Times commented on the shift in public tastes that had made this possible: “The public began to desert the movies and theaters in favor of the radio’s latest news flashes, and today the names of … Shirer … et al., are as well-known as those of the reigning movie stars.” 

The Times writer went on to report that a year before the Munich crisis the four “major New York stations” broadcast only eight daily newscasts in the hours between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m between them. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, those same stations carried twenty-nine newscasts, plus talk shows and news commentaries.

I watched analysis on PBS. Last night.  It’s all lazy chitchat. No content analysis. It’s all “How will this play” to people who are not paying attention and have to be coerced or dragged into being engaged in this most serious of national debates. 

We live in another time of helplessness. That is what brings these projects together,  how they speak to us today, and how they offer a hint of better times to come. These plays. . . plus people like wonderful Mac, two precious granddaughters. and Barbara, my loving partner, whom I am going off to see in a few minutes to show her this piece for her editorial consideration and whose health continues to improve on a daily basis.

And that’s what’s on my mind Today. 


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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