Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The 1918 Flu and Shakespeare

If that sounds odd, it was in fact the subject of On the Media's Thanksgiving podcast, which I listen to today while on my exercise bike.  The name of the podcast was No Ado about Much, but  you can listen to the segments individually at the links below; the whole thing is about 50 minutes long.

The first half of the podcast,  Why the Press Downplayed the 1918 Flu, covered an interview with John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, and explained in detail that leaders on both sides in World War I refused to admit the existence of the flu after it hit the battlefields, for fear of admitting weakness.  (Does this sound familiar??)  Worse, in the U.S., wartime censorship and an attempt to "boost morale" essentially forbid any mention of the ongoing public health emergency in the press.  The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a criminal offense to publish (or say!) anything that offended the government, cast it in a bad light, or interfered with the sale of government bonds!  I was amused that the only U.S. newspaper mentioned as writing about the 1918 'flu was in San Francisco, which published a front page headline "Wear a mask - save a life"!  San Francisco was very far away; a Pennsylvania paper was coerced into not mentioning the flu!

The net result of this - unless you have (or had) a relative who lived through the 1918 pandemic, you may never have heard of it, until you grew up and began to read the history they didn't teach you in school!  That's how I learned about it.  My parents were born in 1907 and 1912, so they were children when it happened; but they never mentioned it.  The  U.S. lost an estimated 675,000 people to the 1918 flu, out of a population of about 103.2 million.

It wasn't just the U.S. that forbade discussion of the 1918 pandemic.  One of my favorite detective authors is the great Dorothy Sayers, whose first novel, Whose Body?, came out in 1923.  Lord Peter Wimsey, her detective hero, was an officer in World War I.  He came home with a case of "shell shock" - we call it PTSD today.  In Whose Body? and a couple of other early novels, Lord Peter had shell shock attacks that essentially incapacitated him for a short time.  But I never heard any mention of the 1918 flu in her novels.  She must have lived through it; she was born in 1893.  But the English didn't mention it, and so she didn't.

So what about Shakespeare?  The second half of the podcast was How Shakespeare Became an American Hero, was an extended interview with James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and FutureAs Mr. Shapiro points out, the plays touch some very sensitive subjects for Americans:  Othello, in particular - a white woman married to a black man!  Listen to hear the story of the world's worst dinner party, where John Quincy Adams sat next to Fanny Kemble, the great British actress, and mansplained to her why Othello was so disgusting!  Romeo and Juliet became an issue because there are places where Romeo expresses emotion.  The 19th century American insistence that a man should never show emotion actually meant that American actors had trouble playing Romeo - in at least one case, Romeo was played by a lesbian!  And The Merchant of Venice - how awful to see a Jew insisting on his pound of flesh from a Christian!  And let's not even get into the issue of who is allowed to play Hamlet!

Seriously, the discussion goes into why we Americans never did, and don't now, talk much about some subjects - I think we're slowly beginning to, but it doesn't hurt us now and then to be reminded of where we've been and why it wasn't a great idea.