September can provide a brief respite in the coverage of the arts, between the hectic summer and the beginning of the traditional autumn season of arts and education organizations.
Fortunately, the literary arts are always available, and our appetite for them is often greatest, when there are fewer distractions in galleries and on stages.
Let me tell you about a wonderful television series which I have recently discovered and several books which are worthy of your attention.
Julianna Margulies, left, performs the title role in the CBS television series ``The Good Wife.' She is seen here with Buffalo native Christine Baranski, who plays her employer in the series.
THE GOOD WIFE
Two years ago, the airwaves and the publications dealing with television programming were filled with descriptions of a new series on the CBS network, which was described as being about the wife of a politician who got caught up in the too-familiar sex scandal.
The promos turned me right off. It surely isn't news to anyone that people sometimes cheat on their spouses, nor that politicians tend to have a lot of money to spend, at least while they're running for office, and a lot of influence. The same people also have rabid enemies who are constantly digging for the slightest mistake which can be blown up into a national scandal. And surely, we're all aware that sometimes even if a politician doesn't do anything wrong, things as innocent as standing beside a stranger in an airport can be made into a scandal by the 24-hour news cycle, desperate for headlines which will draw our attention away from their competition.
Because politicians take very public stands on which behaviors should be punished and which tolerated, it makes for a great deal of public interest in whether they practice what they preach, or preach about what they're actually practicing.
The show was inspired by the great many scandals our country has endured, such as New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's resignation in face of several encounters with high-priced prostitutes, while his obviously angry and badly hurt wife stood dazedly by his side at the press conferences. It struck me as a good premise for one soap opera-like film or television special, perhaps, but I couldn't image how it could work as a series.
I don't get to watch a lot of television as it is, and soap opera doesn't attract my attention when I do. But, I was wrong. The show is brilliantly written and often brilliantly acted, and when I got to watch the 23 episodes of the show's second season, it was well worth my time and your interest.
The title of the series refers to a character named Alicia Florrick. Like Mrs. Spitzer, like Hillary Clinton, like many women and men in our country in recent years, Alicia is a talented and successful attorney who has kept her career on hold while following what is often called ''the Mommy Track.'' She looks after home and family, while her husband pursues a successful and lucrative political career.
In this case, Alicia is the wife of Peter Florrick, who is the state's attorney of Cook County, the home county of Chicago. When Peter is put on trial and eventually sent to prison, completely shutting off his personal income, his wife must move to smaller quarters, reassert herself in the demanding and very competitive legal profession, and give over the day-to-day care of her children to her mother-in-law, who never thought she was good enough for Peter in the first place.
Alicia is angry at her husband's betrayal, and fights a desire to hurt him in any way she can. She is a talented and aggressive attorney, but often finds herself morally challenged by what her clients and her bosses at work want her to do. She deals with judges who don't play fair in the courtroom, judges who cannot stay awake during trials, opposing attorneys who use shameless tricks to influence juries, and a host of similar challenges.
Her children have lost both their parents - Peter to prison and Alicia to the long, demanding hours of the legal profession - and their grandmother never passes up an opportunity to take a swipe at their mother.
The show's writers are drawn from many intersecting walks of life. Some are lawyers, some are politicians, some have had bureaucratic positions in government, some are journalists, and some are academics. Clearly they have considerable understanding of the worlds in which the principal characters must operate, and they come up with situations which are believable and realistic.
The show isn't a case of the good and noble versus the venal and evil. Every character in it has strengths and flaws.
The acting talents of the principal characters is important to the show's success. Julianna Margulies came to the public's attention as the nurse who had a bumpy relationship with George Clooney for several seasons, in the series ''ER.'' She plays the title role with the intelligence to suggest that she could out-reason the sharks with which her character deals on every front.
She is beautiful, leaving no question why these wealthy and powerful people are so attracted to her, but her beauty is grounded. She doesn't look like the sister of the actors who play her children. She has elegance and class.
Josh Charles and Buffalo-born Christine Baranski play the owners of the high-powered, high-priced law firm by which the title character is employed. Charles is the embodiment of the former Big Man on Campus, now wealthy and powerful, who is used to winning at whatever he does, and the fact that whenever her marriage is put under particular stress, he serves as temptation for Alicia.
Ms. Baranski beautifully portrays Charles' character's partner at the law firm, and she embodies both the barracuda-like, ruthless ''woman with a mission,'' and yet the former political activist, who remembers when she believed in civil rights, humane treatment, environmentalism and idealism. Her character is key to the success with which the series presents a moral ambiguity.
Scottish-born Alan Cumming had an important role as the campaign manager of Alicia's husband, a character clearly based on Rahm Emanuel, who played a major role in the campaign of Barack Obama.
The special features in the DVD set of the series show Cumming speaking in his natural Scottish brogue, which comes as a bit of a shock after his flawless midwestern twang in the series.
Another great strength of the series are the well-known and immensely talented actors who are brought in as guest stars for single episodes or two- or three-episode arcs. Clearly, the best example is Michael J. Fox, an actor famously afflicted by Parkinson's Disease, who portrays a ruthless rival attorney who uses his physical condition to distract juries during legal arguments, and to win sympathy for his side of legal arguments.
Chris Noth, who plays Alicia's philandering spouse, teaches the viewer both about why the man might be tempted to stray, even from such a wife, and yet why such a woman might stand with him, all the same. Sadly, in the special features, his last name is sometimes pronounced to rhyme with ''both,'' and sometimes to rhyme with ''moth.'' I had hoped it would be resolved.
Stratford regular Annika Noni Rose was perfect as Noth's political rival when he seeks public redemption to redeem his former job.
Chautauqua Theater Company artistic director Vivienne Benesch had a very short role as the mother of a young woman accused of murder, whom Alicia's firm was determined to betray, so that one of their high-paying clients wouldn't get the blame for the crime. The character's clear bewilderment at her daughter's situation, her ability to convey her own decency and her realization that none of the high-powered people around her would help her if they could help it, put so much more punch into the episode.
Other names you might recognize would include Dylan Baker, Elizabeth Reasor, Gary Cole, David Paymer, Kate Burton, Fred Weller, Mamie Gummer, America Ferrara, Martha Plimpton - they certainly don't skimp on the quality of talent.
I do have one caveat about the show. The second season of programs is clearly attempting to step back from the viper's nest which the first season made these characters to appear. Even so, watching this series, especially watching multiple episodes from the DVD collection, can make you believe that the world is a hopelessly dirty and corrupt place. I don't know where they're going to go with the third season, which is due to begin soon, with the series moving to Sundays at 9 p.m., with the opening episode set to run Sept. 25.
If you can enjoy the program and still keep your faith in humanity, I recommend it to you highly. It's very fine drama.
To the many readers who love Chautauqua Institution, there is a new publication available for sale around our area, which uses black-and-white postcard images of Chautauqua, coupled with two- and three-sentence captions, to demonstrate how the Institution came into being on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, and developed into what it is today.
The book was assembled by John David Schmitz, who is Chautauqua's archivist and historian, and co-author William Flanders, who has had a lifelong interest in local history.
The book doesn't probe or evaluate the institution, but rather gives those who already love the place images of how it once looked and gives a sense of how long many of its physical structures have been there, and how they've changed over the years.
The brief captions are easy to read, historically accurate, and make a reasonable effort to relate history to contemporary reality.
I enjoyed reading it very much.
''Chautauqua Institution'' is part of the Postcard Series, by Arcadia Publishing. It bears the publication date 2011, has 126 pages in paperbound edition, and is marked for sale at $21.99. Find it with ISBN number 10 007385-7512-7. The online catalog indicates that no copies are available yet in the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System.
FAITH AND TREASON
When I studied American history at a British University, some years back, I learned to what degree one person's patriotism is another person's idea of treason.
For much of history, the idea of betraying one's own country has been treated publicly as one of the most horrible crimes imaginable. Indeed, it has always carried the stiffest imaginable punishments, and yet, to my knowledge, there has never been a period in history nor any given civilization in which treason did not occur.
Lady Antonia Fraser has published a history of one of the most famous treasonous plots in western civilization: England's Gunpowder Plot. The title is ''Faith and Treason.''
Most Englishmen, even those who are very young, are familiar with at least one of the many slight variations of the following little poem:
Remember Remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I know no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
The poem refers to an incident in the year 1605, when a number of Roman Catholic activists in England placed barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under England's parliament, with the intention of blowing up both houses of the lawmaking body, as well as the King at the time, King James I, with his wife and children.
The plotters were arrested, and most were horribly tortured to death. Among them was an adventurer named Guy or Guido Fawkes, who wasn't the leader of the plot, but who had the bad fortune to have been put in charge of watching the powder until the intended time of discharge.
Each Nov. 5, England has a national holiday called Guy Fawkes Day, when they celebrate the discovery and prevention of the plot. Children, on that day, often make human figures, usually by stuffing straw or newspaper into old clothes. The figures are called ''Guys'' after Fawkes, and the children often walk up to people while carrying their figure, and demand ''a penny for the Guy.'' At sunset, the Guys are burned, sending Fawkes one more time to his deserved reward.
Lady Antonia gives us a well-researched and interestingly written history of why people decided it would be a good idea to destroy the entire parliament and the royal family, all at one blow.
Going back thousands of years before Christ, governments have sought to enlist the local religion to demonstrate why they should be obeyed, even when it isn't convenient or profitable for individuals.
In a similar vein, those who wished to inspire opposition to governments have sought to enlist religion to inspire people to risk the horrible penalties for treason, in order to rid themselves of governments with which they don't agree.