More on Eva

I am puzzled by a book on Eva that disputes many of the claims made about her early life, her liaisons with persons other than Peron, and her effects on Argentina’s culture and politics.  Who’s right?

This account seems balanced– as far as it might be possible to be about a woman who was determined to mold her own image.

What is indisputable– and acknowledged even by her defenders– is that Evita was extravagant and self-indulgent, and consistently tried to control and manipulate her public image.  She is legendary for kissing the poor, but she is also legendary because she ensured that her “charitable” activities received maximum exposure.  And the media understood exactly why they were to give her prominent exposure.  She had a forged birth certificate created with an altered birth date in honor of her wedding to Juan Peron, in order to conceal her humble origins and real age.  She traveled the world at state expense and demanded to be treated like royalty.  She famously refused the position of vice-president– after moving mountains to secure it– as an act of “self-denunciation”, as if she would not have declared that a willingness to serve in that post would not also have been an act of supreme self-denunciation.

She received the poor in front of portraits of Christ… and of the Perons.

Like Diana, she embraced and kissed individuals with visible manifestations of infectious, disfiguring diseases.  Passion?  Or a case of the actress beginning to actually believe she is the part she plays?

Yet some biographers continue to insist that the negative press she received was undeserved.

The final word?  How about this, from the Boston Review above: to understand the people, she said from her sickbed, one must “become one body with them, so that every pain, every sorrow and worry, all the joys of the people is as if it were ours. This is what I did . . . in my life.” 

This is what I did.  An act of monumental narcissism.

What, pray tell, is remarkable about Eva Duarte Peron, other than her steely-eyed devotion to promoting herself?  The truth is, had she not met Colonel Juan Peron at a charity fund-raiser, nobody, today, would remember or care about “Evita”.  In short, she was remarkable for nothing except for the remarkable ability to become well-known by attaching herself to a man of wealth, in spite of a completely unremarkable accomplishments in every field except the most obvious one.

And that, I suppose, is an accomplishment.

Evita the Movie: Rewriting History, Because I’m Worth It!

Most people going to see the movie version of EVITA or renting the video for a snuggly Friday night probably never listened to the original recording by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and are even less likely to have seen one of the early stage productions. What percentage only saw the movie? It’s hard to say– the movie was not a great success. But let’s make a conservative guess: 70%?

That’s the percentage of people who will get a slightly different picture of EVITA than the ones who heard the original recording or saw an early stage production (the newer stage productions are likely to be modeled on the movie version). The original was based fairly closely on the known historical facts about the life of Eva Duarte Peron, who rocketed to fame and power in Argentina in the 1930’s and 40’s and then died very young, of cancer, at the height of her influence, on July 26, 1952. The picture of Evita, as drawn in the original, is somewhat ambivalent. If she is admirable in any sense, she is admirable only for her remarkable ability to rise from almost nothing to one of the most powerful women in the world. But the original EVITA also makes it clear that the way she accomplished this feat was by whoring herself up the rungs of a ladder of influential men. And once she was married to the top dog in the military, Colonel Juan Peron, she became co-responsible for one of the most brutal and repressive regimes ever to rule Argentina. Snubbed by the aristocracy, she extrapolated bundles of money from everyone–including the labour unions– for her celebrated “Foundation Eva Peron”, and distributed unknown amounts (no books were kept) to the poor. Without a doubt, most of the money went into her own pockets, and to pay for jewels and dresses and her extravagant lifestyle as unofficial queen. It was a little like the Ontario lotteries, except that the lotteries steal from the poor instead of the rich. Eva stocked government officialdom with her relatives and cronies and severely punished any newspapers (including La Prensa) that dared to print critical commentary about her or her husband.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, or maybe I do, but not many of the people sitting in the movie theatres watching the Madonna version of EVITA know every single word of every song in the original. I do. And I immediately noticed many significant changes to the lyrics. Furthermore, I noticed a distinct trend. All of the changes functioned to improve the image of Evita herself. One of many examples: when an aristocrat observes that “statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants”, in the original, Evita snarls, “We shall see, little man!” In other words, yes, statesmanship is merely a matter of entertaining peasants. In the movie version, this line is given to a minor character. The result leaves open the possibility that Eva was more far-sighted than that.

The most disgusting change–because it is so patently self-serving–is the assignment of the beautiful aria, Another Suitcase in Another Hall, to Evita herself, when it was originally performed by Peron’s young mistress after Evita gave her the boot. This aria (remember, this is not a musical, but an opera, in spite of what the movie promoters tell you), had an important function in the original. It followed Evita’s initial seduction of Peron, during which she portrayed herself as a humble, innocent girl, who was so overwhelmed with Peron’s goodness and charm that she couldn’t help but throw herself at his feet. Then she nastily tosses Peron’s 14-year-old mistress out into the streets. The mistress sings a very plaintiff, introspective song about her dismal prospects. Interestingly– and in sharp contrast to Evita– she claims to be hard on the outside but confesses that, in her heart, she is devastated.

Time and time again, I’ve said that I don’t care/
that I’m immune to gloom/
That I’m hard, through and through/
But every time it matters, all my words desert me/
so anyone can hurt me/
and they do

In the original, you feel a twinge of your heartstrings for this poor, vulnerable girl. And your perception of Eva’s heartlessness and ruthlessness is enlarged. The contrast with the scheming Eva makes it plain that her seduction of Juan Peron is nothing more than a ploy to whore herself up another rung of the ladder.

In the movie version, Evita herself sings this song! This is a little like rewriting THE SOUND OF MUSIC and taking “Do Re Me” away from Julie Andrews and giving it to one of the Nazis. What a fun-loving, charming guy!

The reason for the change is obvious, and no, it’s not quite as sinister as you might think. Though the Peronista’s are still a force to be reckoned with in Argentina, I don’t think their reach extends all the way to Hollywood. No, it’s more banal than that. It’s Madonna’s Evita-like ego.

Madonna didn’t just get asked to do this picture: her representatives played an active role in getting her part, and, indeed, in getting the movie made (the property has been around for years but no-one was able to put the package together until recently). Strings were pulled. Everybody knows that the most captivating song in the show is the little aria sung by Peron’s mistress. Well, Madonna wanted that song for herself, and if she had to revise history a little in order to get it: so be it. In fact, all the other little changes also seem calculated to present Eva as less of a conniving slut and more like a poor girl who was merely ambitious and clever. As a result, many people will leave the theatre thinking that Eva Peron may have been a little rough around the edges, but maybe she was genuinely in love with Juan Peron, and maybe she really cared about the poor and dispossessed, and maybe her death was a real tragedy because Argentina was deprived of her gossamer presence as a result of it.

And you know, when you think about it, there are a lot of parallels with Madonna’s life. After all, hasn’t she been accused of the same things that Eva was accused of? Didn’t Madonna exploit her sex for money and power? And wasn’t Madonna reviled by some critics who didn’t really appreciate how sweet and vulnerable she really was, inside? And thus that obnoxious song they added, to ensure airplay for a “new” release: “You Must Love Me”. That’s all the poor girl wanted: to be loved.

The truth is that Peron was a Hitlerite and a fascist (Argentina was Germany’s very last ally), and Eva was a little dominatrix who abused her husband’s office for pure personal gain. The tragic results of her ascendancy to power–violence and social and economic instability–were still felt up until the 1970’s. The idea that she really wasn’t so bad is not a harmless delusion. When Bill Clinton talks about teaching Saddam Hussein a lesson, and when Jesse Helms spouts off about Castro, and when Le Pen in France denounces foreigners, and when Bouchard talks about “humiliation”, we are hearing echoes of the same demagogic impulses. EVITA could have done us all a favour by showing us, unflinchingly, just how attractive an evil political philosophy can make itself.

By the way, as a movie, EVITA isn’t great either, though it’s not as bad as some reviewers have decreed. And Madonna’s performance is relatively faultless: the girl does have a set of pipes. But there are too many moments where the singers don’t really know what to do with themselves. See Jesus Christ Superstar for an example of what they could be doing.

One last note: when is someone going to do an opera based on the story of Eva’s corpse? It was embalmed remarkably well and apparently remained quite life-like for years afterwards. It was stolen by the government when it feared Juan Peron would use it to regain political power, after he was turfed in 1955. After years of chaos, Peron was invited to return and he did so, but only after her corpse, which had been hidden in a crypt in Italy, was returned to him. He kept it on a living room table and his third wife, Isabel, (Eva was wife #2) dusted it every day for him, when she wasn’t occupied with her duties as vice-president! Isabel, eventually achieved what even Eva had not been able to achieve: the Vice-Presidency. In July 1974, upon the death of her husband, she became President of Argentina.

Her administration was an unmitigated disaster, as Eva’s likely would have been.

So how about it, composers?

Update 2009

Updated January 16, 2009

The real “Evita” in action, leading a rally (left).

Not the first revision… when introduced in Europe, the musical was controversial — did it glorify a woman associated with Fascism? When brought to America by producer Hal Prince, the authors (Rice and Webber) apparently agreed to develop a character based on Che Guevara to “balance” the role of Eva. He tells the audience what to think… a bad development artistically, if not morally. You can hear it in his songs– let me frame it for you, so you understand just how bad she is. Or good. Or both.

Still, the best lines in the show are Che’s reaction to the monumental funeral of Evita: “Oh what a circus, oh what a show….”

On the other hand… keep in mind that in the process of extorting millions of dollars from workers, the rich, and corporations to give to the poor (in a manner that suggested to them that they were personal gifts from Eva’s own pockets), Eva was merely practicing a form of socialism that benefited families and individuals who managed to come into her orbit. The actual numbers helped probably pale in comparison to the numbers helped by, say, an increase in the minimum wage, which applies to everyone, regardless of whether they have the opportunity to personally thank Evita. It’s a bit like a socialist lottery. In this context, it’s hard to have any sympathy for the upper classes who thought that politics was more than “entertaining peasants”.

The Just War Theory

The Christian Reformed Church officially believes that there is such a thing as a “just” war. It’s there in our official church policy, right next to sensual abstinence and charitable materialism.

I liked the 1960’s. Sure there were a lot of crazy ideas in the air, and a lot of foolish ones. And sure, the hippies were naïve and idealistic. But you have to see it from the point of view of someone “coming of age”. You have to appreciate what it was like before t he 1960’s.

The 1950’s was Frank Sinatra, Leave it to Beaver, Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was Billy Graham and Richard Nixon and John Wayne. It was military bands and double-knit pants, pant-suits and Tupperware parties.  It was Bette Davis and Doris Day and Rock Hudson and, god help us, Barbara Stanwyck, who all, to me, had the sexual appeal of dried potatoes.

The 1960’s was the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jesus Christ Superstar, and blue jeans. It was Woodstock, Janis Joplin, J.D. Salinger.  It was Natalie Wood and Ali McGraw and Faye Dunaway.  It was t-shirts and sandals and free love–whatever that was– and John Kennedy.

It was no contest.

One of the things a lot of people in my generation believed in–don’t puke now–was the PEACE movement. I remember arguing with my teachers and parents and minister about it. They all believed that war was a regrettable necessity, but a necessity nevertheless. They argued that the world was full of violent, evil people, who were just itching to conquer and destroy us, just like the Nazis, and the Communists, and, of course, Cuba. In order to preserve our God-ordained lives as suburban consumers, it was necessary to threaten to destroy all life on the entire planet. There could never be peace as long as there was sin in the world, and there would always be sin in the world.

The more sophisticated among us argued back: they are warlike because we are warlike. They hit back, because we hit first. They threaten to destroy us because we threaten to destroy them.

Hopelessly naïve, so we were told.

The Christian Reformed Church produced a thoughtful document that supported the pro-war faction. But a careful reading of it reveals that the peaceniks were gaining the high ground. This document laid out very stringent conditions under which a war could be considered “just”. The one that was most interesting: the benefits of a particular war should outweigh the cost.

Well, I suppose you wouldn’t have a hard time finding militarists who really believed that the benefits of almost any war outweighed the costs. Benefit: lots of medals. Cost: hundreds of thousands of lives. After reading this document, I came to conclusion that some members of the committee which wrote it were playing a joke on us.

It is of more than passing interest that the current generation of leadership in the West, especially Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the U.S., are baby-boomers, members of the “Give Peace a Chance” generation. And guess what: they are proving us right.

The biggest difference between Clinton and Blair and their predecessors, Thatcher and Reagan, is that Clinton and Blair really do believe that peace is a good thing. (One of Ronald Reagan’s first acts as president, way back in 1980, was to restore the funding for military brass bands which President Carter had cut. Thatcher, of course, charged off to Argentina to save the Falklands for England, tally ho.)

And so we finally have peace in South Africa. Peace has a tenuous grasp in the Middle East. And so you have Blair in Ireland and Israel, and Bill Clinton lending the full support of the U.S. But it is not those two men alone. Baby boomers now hold the reigns of power in industry, commerce, education, and government, and whatever other compromises they have made in their lives, they seem to agree that peace is better than war.

Of course, there are still conflicts and civil wars and other disturbances, in places like Nigeria and Kosovo, and the Middle East could still explode if negotiations don’t make some progress soon. But over-all, has the world ever been in better shape? No, it hasn’t. Last year, there were two significant conflicts in the entire world. In any given year during the 1960’s, there were at least 20.


Perhaps the difference in generations is most aptly summed up in a controversy that broke out several years ago between the Canadian Legion and some “peaceniks” in Chatham, Ontario. The Legion was outraged– outraged, I say– that a group of nuns and activists had decided to hold a peace rally in front of the local cenotaph. How dare they! In their protests, the Legion made transparent all their pretty rhetoric about heroism and sacrifice: the truth was, they didn’t go over “there” to die for their country. They went over there to kill for their country. And the monument was not a tribute to the peace they won; it was a tribute to the camaraderie of men who enjoyed dressing up and shooting guns off at each other, and then spending the next forty years boozing it up away from their wives and retelling the same boring stories about “Jack” and “Bill” and how splendidly they gave it to the wicked kraut.

They realized that peace activists devalued their most cherished accomplishments.

I had been brought up to respect these men for the grim work they did of defending liberty and freedom. After hanging around a Legion hall a few times, and after all we’ve heard in the last few years– about the Queen and admitting Sikhs to the Legion halls, and the flag and so on– I was left with the impression that most of these men had some skewed imperialistic notion of “liberty” that didn’t have much latitude in it for diversity or democracy. I don’t think many of these men cared much about the horrible injustices of the Nazi regime, except insofar as particular incidents could be used to paint the enemies as monsters.

More recently, the veterans complained bitterly when the National War Museum revealed plans to include a section on the Holocaust. How dare they? What’s that go to do with World War II? In the U.S., veterans complained so loudly and bitterly that the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. was forced to withdraw an exhibit that merely documented– did not damn or praise, merely documented– the bombing of Hiroshima. In one sense, their actions are a glorious admission of shame. They want to pretend that Hiroshima never happened.

I mean that, absolutely, their actions were a monumental admission of shame.  If they really believed there was nothing morally wrong with Hiroshima they would not have been bothered one whit about featuring it in an exhibit on the war.

I have gone from believing that these men fought out of a sincere belief in democracy and freedom and justice to believing that most of these men still hold the same attitudes and political views that gave rise to many of the 20th century’s military conflicts in the first place, namely, that honor and national pride are worth killing for, and that material wealth must be guarded against interlopers, and that killing in the name of a nation or a flag is honorable and right.

Stuffed Prig for Dessert

I recently went to see the Water Street Theatre’s production of “Shadowlands”, the play by William Nicholson, about the love affair between an aging C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, and an American poet, Joy Grescham.

I like the Water Street Theatre. We’ve been subscribers for about three years now. It is a dedicated little professional theatre company that operates in a small space (about 200 seats) and maintains a high level of polish in their productions. If they have one weakness, however, it is that almost all of their productions lack the fire, the spark, the intangible element that brings good theatre to life. First-rate theatre companies find this spark about half the time. Community theatre groups are lucky if it strikes once in two years. One of the luckiest plays is Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”– it seems to weave it’s own magic. The Water Street Theatre, however, has never found it. I don’t know why it eludes them. There is something about the composition of the company, the combination of actors and directors and scripts that just doesn’t work.

For one thing, Theatre and Company takes bigger risks than most community theatre groups, but never a really big risk. For another thing, they occasionally do something really dumb. And one of the dumbest things they do, about once a year, is a British play, in accent.

I think most fourteen-year-olds with a minor interest in theatre know that you should never do an accent unless you can do it well. Alan Sapp, who played C.S. Lewis in “Shadowlands” can’t do it. Not even close. In fact, embarrassingly distant. I don’t think he uttered a single compound sentence all night without wavering back and forth, between British and Canadian. The result was like watching Tonya Harding skate: sure, she’s got the training and the outward skills, but she can’t hide the trailer park make-up or the bingo-hall manners.

The accent wasn’t the only problem. Sapp was surrounded by actors, good ones, who knew timing and intonation and rhythm, and proved over and over again that he didn’t. And in scenes with Linda Bush as the dying Joy Gresham, he displayed all the warmth and sensitivity of a buccaneer. He emoted towards the audience mostly.

One of the reviews tacked up in the theatre lobby claimed that the only good thing about the second act was Sapp’s brilliant performance. I think this reviewer confused style with substance here. Sapp raised his arms often and gestured towards the audience and hammered away at his lines like a good thespian should. But none of it belonged in the play. There was a dying woman on the bed, but Mr. Sapp might as well have been standing on a soapbox, or a pulpit.

I never liked C.S. Lewis, and I never understood why he was so popular with Christians. He was really a stuffed shirt, a prig, and he held archaic views on almost everything. The charm of his Narnia stories has always eluded me, and as an apologist for Christianity, none of his ideas were new or particularly convincing.

Sports and Taxes

Let’s see if I understand the logic of Gary Bettman.

He spoke to the Canadian Club in the luxurious York Hotel in downtown Toronto. He said this:

Cities are bidding to try and get franchises away and they’re willing to build buildings and they’re willing to not tax because they understand that there is an economic and an intangible value to having professional sports teams.

According to Bettman, the Ottawa Senators, who pay the least in Canada, a mere $3 million a year, in taxes, pay more than 20 U.S. teams.

So Bettman wants you and me, brother, to contribute our tax dollars to the Ottawa Senators, the Montreal Canadians, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the other Canadian teams, so they, in turn, can pay Wendell Clark two or three million dollars a year to sit in the press box, play golf, and once in a while show up in uniform to play hockey.

Are we nuts? Is he nuts?

Well, no, the truth is Bettman is pretty smart. As he points out, 20 U.S. teams pay less than $3 million a year in taxes, and get all kinds of other taxpayer sponsored concessions, like stadiums, parking, highways, and traffic police. From the point of view of professional athletes and the owners of professional sports teams, he is very smart indeed.

If someone came up to you and said, “Hey, would you please give me some money, so I can hire some athletes to play baseball?” you would probably say, “Well, how much do you need?” And Mr. Bettman would reply, on behalf of all sports owners, “Oh, about $60-70 million.” You might come to your sense about this point and say, “Why would any sane person pay someone that much money to play baseball?”

Why indeed.

This is madness, insanity, and incomprehensible idiocy. But it goes on and on and on.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation also reported that the Canadian Government has extended more than $11 billion in “aid” to corporations over the past 15 years (1982-97). Of the $11 billion, about $2 billion is not likely to ever be repaid. Remember that the next time you hear a politician or business leader talk about those “lazy” welfare cheats and their scandalous $365 a month.