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'Letter from New York' by Dennis Altman

June–July 2002, no. 242

'Letter from New York' by Dennis Altman

June–July 2002, no. 242

The New York City Opera could not have known when they programmed a revival of John Philip Souza’s The Glass Blower just how appropriate it would be post-September 11. The opera, a pastiche of Gilbert and Sullivan, George Bernard Shaw and Franz Lehár, was first produced in 1913 but harked back to the war with Spain in 1898, which gave the USA its empire in the Caribbean and Pacific. Among other joys, it contains an Act One finale reminiscent of the ‘Ascot Gavotte’ from My Fair Lady, a scene in a factory that invokes the language of Major Barbara, a newsreel of the storming of San Juan Hill by Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and an orgy of American patriotism, summed up in the phrase ‘Remember the Maine’ (the US ship whose sinking in Havana harbour triggered off the war).

At the end of Act Two, set in a glass factory, the union is about to call a strike when war with Spain is announced: ‘There is only one Union now,’ proclaims the hero. ‘And that is the US of A.’ An eagle, bearing the stars and stripes in its beak descends, and the workers rush to enlist to fight in Cuba. It is hard to imagine a better analogy for the period from which the USA is gradually emerging, as the triumph of the Taliban’s defeat gives way to increasing doubts about the country’s ability to control the latest fighting in the Middle East.

‘Post 9/11’ has become the alibi for everything: the subways run less efficiently, people are friendlier; crime has declined. New Yorkers still talk of where they were when it happened, and there is ongoing controversy over the plans and costs of rebuilding ‘Ground Zero’. Airport security is noticeably tighter, and photo identification is demanded almost everywhere, though, as it is hardly ever recorded, it is hard to see why showing a driver’s licence to a bored guard is regarded as increasing anyone’s security. A man, collecting for the homeless, hectors passers-by to contribute ‘for your country’. The box-office success of Spiderman is explained by the need for Americans to see the good guys win.

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