Rachel Shteir

  • O Pioneer!

    Eugene O’Neill has been heralded as the father of American theater since at least 1962. That year, Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s O’Neill championed the Irish American playwright as a hero and crowned Long Day’s Journey into Night the greatest American play—and also the most autobiographical.

    There’s truth here. Long Day’s Journey alchemizes O’Neill’s tormented childhood—his hack-actor father, his junkie mother, his ne’er-do-well brother—dragging the audience through one August day and night in 1912 until the terrible yet satisfying end. But O’Neill is not just a hero, and his best play not just

  • Magic Realist

    Seven years ago, trying to decide between two book topics, I was spending half my time interviewing magicians and going to magic shows and the other half interviewing shoplifters and going to shoplifting-addiction groups. But then came a moment when I began to wonder whether magic was a good subject for me: I was sitting with a magician—white and middle-aged, like so many are—in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side. When I asked how he had done a card trick in a show I had seen the previous night, he glared at me for a long moment. I thought he was going to leap across the table and cut my

  • Turning to Nostalgia

    In her magisterial history of classical dance, Jennifer Homans tells the story of ballet’s life over four centuries: dance conventions and dance-obsessed people, ideas and political movements, sacred and profane gestures. Apollo’s Angels is a cultural history of the highest order—like Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes or Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory. The book, with its quiet, encyclopedic knowledge, relates more than a decade spent in archives around the world, reading generations of scholars. The result is neither a digital-age mash-up nor an overlong compilation of “the greatest

  • Call Her Madam

    It is surprising to learn that until this season, when no less than two biographies of Ethel Merman are being published on her centennial, she has attracted little serious interest. Besides her two memoirs, Who Could Ask for Anything More? (1955) and Merman (1978), the single prior biography is by one Geoffrey Mark, a self-professed “walking encyclopedia of show biz history.” But Mr. Walking Encyclopedia writes with all the sympathy and insight of a twelve-year-old. Here he is, describing Merman’s tumultuous and painful divorce from Robert Six, then chairman of Continental Airlines: “Ethel once