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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

stink is."

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

The School for Scandal, McCarter Theater, 91


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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