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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 14,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Scandals Then and Now: Jeanette Walls
If the chronically impecunious British playwright and
politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan were still around to collect
royalties, he’d be a rich man. "The School for Scandal," his
acknowledged masterpiece, has been a box-office hit ever since it
was first performed — in 1777.
Director Mark Lamos is bringing Sheridan’s rollicking English
comedy about the power of gossip, rumor, and innuendo — a story
that never seems to go out of style — to McCarter Theater. The
colorful production features an ensemble cast of 18, with music by
Polly Pen, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Jess Goldstein, and
lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Opening night is Friday, February
16, for the show that runs through Sunday, March 4.
Lamos calls "The School for Scandal," "a living, breathing
artifact of the English 18th century." And as everyone knows,
it meets its match in today’s world of 24-hour "news" cycles,
tabloid terrors, and Internet innuendo. Oscar Wilde, George Bernard
Shaw, Joe Orton, and Tom Stoppard, are a few of the gifted playwrights
for whom "The School for Scandal" has been an acknowledged
Sheridan’s story revolves around the contrasting characters of two
brothers, Joseph Surface, a hypocrite, and Charles Surface, a
but reckless spendthrift. Both brothers have their mettle put to the
test by their rich uncle, Sir Oliver Surface. While the siblings are
involved with the family of Sir Peter Teazle, one for love and one
for profit, the goings-on are exacerbated by the liberal intervention
of scandal-mongers Sir Benjamin Backbite, Lady Sneerwell, and Mrs.
Candor. Sheridan’s durable comedy mostly serves to prove that dirty
laundry — and dirty motives — of the 18th century are not
much different from those of the 21st century.
To remind us just how little changed we are, celebrity columnist and
media industry insider Jeannette Walls will be the guest speaker at
a free Scholars on Stage Symposium, following the matinee performance
on Sunday, February 18 (at approximately 4 p.m.). The symposium is
free for ticket holders and the public.
Walls is the author of "Dish: How Gossip Became
the News and the News Became Just Another Show" (now out in
from Harper Perennial, $14). "Dish" is comprehensive history
and defense of gossip and its social and political significance, from
the birth of People magazine to the presidential impeachment. Gossip,
says Walls, is here to stay, and technology — including the
Internet — is helping stoke the fires of its potent forces.
Walls appears on MSNBC three days a week and on MSNBC online four
days a week. She is former gossip correspondent for the "E"
channel and New York magazine’s "Intelligencer."
"Dish" is a deliciously readable history of gossip, its movers
and shakers, its high and low points, and the watershed events and
personalities that have shaped it in America. Mike Wallace, People
Magazine, Elvis, and Lady Di ("The Tabloid Princess") each
get their own chapter. Walls’ history of five decades of dish is
at its most elevated. The book is graced by a 20-page bibliography,
a 13-page index (everyone is here), and a list of sources for each
of the book’s 19 chapters. She cites "the unholy and unchanging
trinity of celebrity, publicist, and reporter" that have stoked
the flames of gossip from the days of the phenomenally popular movie
magazines to the instant gratification of today’s Internet.
Walls’ opening chapter offers a sweeping yet succinct life history
of Matt Drudge, creator, in 1995 of "The Drudge Report."
don’t call it journalism… I’m a partisan for news. I go where the
On Sunday, January 17, 1998, Drudge broke the news that Newsweek had
killed a story about a 23-year-old former White House Intern who had
carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States.
"There’s a new paradigm here," Drudge told a hostile National
Press Club in 1998, after he had singlehandedly launched a
impeachment, "that I can do this out of my stinky apartment and
you’ve got your fancy newsrooms with your fancy rules!"
Walls next steps back to the 1950s and an earlier, all-powerful
sheet, "Confidential." In 1957 California’s attorney general
and the movie industry teamed up to shut it down on charges of
to publish criminally libelous, obscene and otherwise objectionable
"People" magazine was the product of the 1970s. In 1974 Andrew
Heiskell, chairman of the board at Time Inc., came up with a proposal
for a magazine devoted exclusively to covering people. Its first
Dick Stolley, banned the word "gossip" from the pages of
"People will never stoop to the cheap thrill. We will not pander
to baser instincts," Stolley said when the magazine was launched.
"I think the dissemination of cruel, mean-spirited information
which is fundamentally disturbing to a human being, to his family,
to his friends, is a blow to civilized society."
Such was the minority opinion, of course, as the past 20 years have
so graphically demonstrated. As fans of Sheridan know full well, and
readers of Walls will discover, "civilized society" exists
primarily in the eyes of the beholder. A society that collectively
peeks out of its lace curtains to watch a white Bronco driving slowly
down the street is a society that just may not have any deeper,
held bonds left intact.
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-258-2787. Show runs to March 4. $38 to $52. Scholars on
Stage Symposium is Sunday, February 18, 4 p.m.
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