I began this wonderful book by dipping my toe into The Rite of Spring, as this is the chapter from which the book’s title comes. That great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev always ordered his collaborators in the Ballet Russes to ‘astonish’ him. He certainly got what he asked for when composer Igor Stravinsky created a score imbued with, as the author says, ‘melodies from the earth, convulsions of nature’, a score like no other. Combine that radical music with dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s earthy choreography, and Nicholas Roerich’s eccentric, paganistic costumes and design, and astonishment is decidedly the result. On the opening night of The Rite of Spring in Paris in May 1913, there was literally a riot, the audience shocked, outraged beyond measure by the utter unfamiliarity of it. Where, they wondered, were the lovely tutus and gentle classical melodies? What on earth was this cacophonous production? Yet, in the face of the booing, shouting and general furore, both dancers and musicians continued to perform. What a night! What a controversy!

The story of Thespis, the first person to step outside the traditional Greek chorus and speak solo, is fascinating. Dromgoole’s account of the birth of theatre in ancient Greece is not only informative, it’s witty and humorous. We often hear that performance art emerged from religious ritual, but as the author points out, this is far from true. Public art, he writes, is ‘based on good times’. I don’t want to give too much away, because this chapter was quite the eye-opener. When Thespis (hence the word ‘thespian’) decided to speak as a character – ‘I am Odysseus’ – rather than as a member of the story-telling chorus, the world of theatre as, we know it, was born. It must have been an extraordinary moment for the audience.
But Dromgoole doesn’t only write of opening nights. Each riveting chapter provides a brief and evocative history of the work under discussion, the people and often the politics involved, and a bit about the society in which the work came into being. As well, and importantly, he delves into the creative process, bringing his own insights into the mix. Dominic Dromgoole was the Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre in London for many years, and is very active as a writer, director and producer – so his insights are sharp. He knows first-hand that particular adrenaline rush that any creative or performing artist experiences the first time a work goes public.

The unveiling of Michelangelo’s David in Florence in 1504 was another work that astonished. Weighing in at 12,473 pounds (5,657 kg) of Carrera marble, and an incredible 17 feet (5.2 m) high, it was the ‘first free-standing colossal nude’ since ancient times, and had, as the author wryly comments, ‘a posterior of spectacular perfection’. Naturally people were gobsmacked at the sheer enormity – and beauty – of this monumental structure.

There are plenty of marvellous lines like the one above, dotted throughout the book. Take, for example in the chapter on Handel’s Messiah, where there’s a reference to ‘…the affable Duke of Devonshire, a man who sailed through life as if on a calm sea of claret …’. In the chapter on Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Dromgoole talks of the ‘bursting immediacy’ of the artist’s work: ‘The effect is rude and invigorating, like a burst of filthy language bawled out from the steps of a gin shop’.

The chapters have wonderful titles. For instance the chapter on Monteverdi’s ground-breaking work L’Orfeo is called ‘Killing Us Softly’, not merely a pop culture reference for us, but also a direct reference to poet and musician Orpheus, whose music stilled even the most savage breast. Dromgoole describes Mantua of the early seventeenth century, the artistic rivalry between it and other Italian cities, Monteverdi’s patrons and more. The background is fleshed out, so readers can really understand how this work came into being and why it ‘set opera free into the world’.

The thing is that Dromgoole writes with such ease, humour, and that inside knowledge I mentioned earlier. It doesn’t matter whether you’re familiar with every work he covers across the centuries, every chapter is appealing. I for one, had never heard of twentieth-century Nigerian musician and fearless activist Fela Kuti, or seventeenth-century Japanese entertainer Okuni, whose invention of kabuki challenged the patriarchy. I was happily enlightened. Among the 22 chapters are discussions of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem; Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, with its disastrous opening night; the ‘vortex of mayhem’ that marked the Sex Pistols’ debut in Manchester in 1976; and Beyoncé’s history-making performance at Coachella in 2018, which Dromgoole describes as ‘the storming of the Bastille’, the first Black woman to headline at ‘one of the whitest festivals in the US’.

ASTONISH ME! is jam-packed with information, but it’s never didactic or pompous. Reading this book feels almost as if you’re sitting having a chat with the author over a cup of tea. Everything is brought to life. Read it. I know you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Author bio:

Dominic Dromgoole is the author of Hamlet: Globe to Globe, Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life and Full Room (on contemporary playwriting). Artistic director of the Globe Theatre for more than a decade, he now divides his time between directing – in Britain, the US and Europe, and with the Classic Spring company – and producing movies with Open Palm Films.

Publisher:Profile Books
Imprint:Profile Trade
Page Extent:384
Format:Misc HB
Package type:HARD BACK
Subject:Social & cultural history