In 1939 there was a Broadway production of a jazz-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream called Swinging the Dream, featuring Butterfly McQueen, Louis Armstrong, Moms Mabley, Dorothy Dandridge, and many others (a cast of 110!), with music performed by Benny Goodman’s sextet joining the pit orchestra. It ran for less than 2 weeks before collapsing as a failure.
“I just want to know what happened, why that lineup crashes, and then why the show seems so entirely to disappear,” said Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“The critics are telling us that it did not hang together, that the mash-up did not work,” Kwei-Armah [artistic director of the Young Vic] said. “I’m interested in why it didn’t work. Also, just because they said that it didn’t work doesn’t mean that it didn’t work!”
Even if it was a failed concept on Broadway, it’s definitely an interesting inflection point for American theater, music, and race (it’s telling that the famous and celebrated Black performers were still relegated to the “secondary” roles in the play, the fairies and mechanicals, rather than acting in the lead love interest roles…)
Seen above is a green disc, wax on brass, with an early recording of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, that likely hasn’t been heard in over 125 years. Created by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in the late 19th Century and sent to the Smithsonian for archiving as they were created, the paranoid Bell failed to provide a playback mechanism for these discs, for fear that his competitors would appropriate his innovations.
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories are working on recovering these early audio recordings with a system called IRENE/3D that creates 3D optical scans of the old record-like discs:
Using methods derived from our work on instrumentation for particle physics we have investigated the problem of audio reconstruction from mechanical recordings. The idea was to acquire digital maps of the surface of the media, without contact, and then apply image analysis methods to recover the audio data and reduce noise.
The nifty thing about this form of hands-off scanning is that it can accommodate many types of otherwise mechanically incompatible media, from discs made of metal or glass to wax cylinders (quick, someone set this up to scan the Lazarus bowl!!). The 18-second snippet of Hamlet audio from the green disc above (maybe the voice of Bell himself?) has been posted on YouTube, or you can download more examples from the project in WAV and MP3 format.
Russian balloon maker Rusbal is working on an order from the country’s defense ministry to supply full-scale inflatable military models. The realistic-looking hardware is used in battlefield positions and to protect Russian strategic installations from surveillance satellites, distracting snoops and protecting real combat units from strikes. They can look like real vehicles in the radar, thermal, and near infra-red bands, so they’d even look right through night-vision goggles.
And now from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act V Scene IV — you know, the cool part where the incoming army disguises itself as the Birnam forest):
MALCOLM Let every soldier hew him down a bough And bear’t before him: thereby shall we shadow The numbers of our host and make discovery Err in report of us.
Nothing much new, then. Simple visual misdirection is the magician’s greatest asset.
Edison’s Warriors, a great article in Cabinet about the U.S. 3132nd Signal Service Company in WWII, a sonic deception team that created strategic disruption using wire and tape recordings with acoustical engineering help from Bell Labs