On this, the centennial of the passing of famed author and adventurer, Jack London, join THE Jack London STAGE AND FILM FESTIVAL on Tuesday, November 22, 2016 at The Mary Rodgers Room, 1501 Broadway, NYC. [program listed below]
We spoke with playwright/filmmaker/producer Ben Goldstein about his own adventures:
We hear a lot about inspiration – or Muse – that drives an artist. What inspires you?
Inspiration sometimes comes in a flash. Imagination however, I believe is like a muscle. It strengthens with use. When I was a kid I tried to exercise my imagination by not going to sleep unless I had thought of something I hadn’t thought of before. Sometimes it was visualization or an insight into someone’s behavior; sometimes it was a new story. I always loved a good story and still do. A good story can inspire. A good story can change the world.
Why Jack London?
The period between 1890 and 1916 closely parallels our times. The issues of the day were financial panics, exploitation by the robber barons, unemployment, child labor, homelessness, racism, immigration, the labor union movement and Socialism versus Capitalism. In the early 1900’s Jack London was not only the most popular writer in the world he was the spearhead for much of the political and social dialogue on these matters.
My goal in creating this work is to celebrate the work of an artist, writer, photographer and political figure whose star has dimmed over the years. He is not a perfect figure and I present him warts and all. But his achievements so far outweigh his deficiencies that I feel his place in literature and history need to be reevaluated. Besides bridging the gulf between romantic and modern literature he helped foster significant social legislation. His passionate lifestyle and work made him the template for such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Robert E. Howard, Eugene O’Neill, Jack Kerouac and numerous others.
Today most people remember Jack London as the author of “Call of the Wild” (which is still being reprinted in almost every language in the world). But Jack London’s work is far greater than just one book. Several of his short stories including “The White Silence,” and to “To Light A Fire” are among the best ever written, and his novels, “Martin Eden,” and “The Sea Wolf” still hold their place as formidable literary achievements. His social writings, such as “War of the Classes” and “The Iron Heel,” present stirring ideas and concepts that are still relevant today. While he is considered a juvenile writer here in America he is considered a serious political and social critic throughout Europe and Russia. Part of the reason for his diminished status was due to his Socialism and the repression of his works during the 1950’s in America.
Until recently his photographs have been totally ignored. It is my intention to give these works a chance to be seen for the great social and artistic record they are. I use interviews with London scholars to elucidate Jack’s character, lifestyle, love life and personal philosophy, and show how they reflected and conflicted with the political, and social mores of his times.
Jack London is the template for the “modern hero,” who rebels against the hypocrisy of society and through his own hard work helps change it for the better. It is an inspiring tale of a child laborer and eighth grade dropout who, through his own efforts, becomes the highest paid, most popular and most controversial author of his day.
His refrain, “I’d rather be ashes than dust,” sums up his passion for life.
Tell us about your research and artistic process.
Initially, as a kid, I was fascinated by Jack London’s adventurous storytelling and language. Thirty years ago I began to reread Jack London’s works and found I couldn’t put them down. I have since read all of Jack’s short stories and novels, and almost all of his newspaper reports, essays and letters. I found Jack’s life story as compelling as his literary work.
In 1987, I tried to get a grant from the NEH to make a film about Jack London but was denied. I wrote a screenplay that was optioned but never made. I wrote a number of teleplays for a 13-part series but couldn’t get them produced. About six years ago I gained access to the London collection at the Huntington Library.
The Huntington’s Jack London collection is the largest in the world and I was able to go through some 12,000 of London’s own photographs as well as his correspondence, memorabilia, essays, newspaper reports and his wife Charmian’s diaries. At the library I met the Huntington’s literary manuscripts curator Sara S. “Sue” Hodson who is one of the main narrators of my film. She is so erudite and charming; I knew I now had all the elements to make a film. Sue also introduced me to renowned London scholar, Jeanne Reesman, with whom she was preparing a book of never-before published London photographs. Together they introduced me to other scholars and the film began taking its final form.
What do you hope to give your audience ultimately?
I hope the audience will get a sense that it is important to be involved in life, to appreciate its beauty and hardship and to take part in the struggle for social justice. That has always been worth the fight.
Sally Field and Paul Newman both said of their profession… “it’s all I can do.” Is this all you can do?
I have always felt that there are too many paths and I had too few feet. I have been a playwright, producer, director, children’s author, teacher, illustrator, filmmaker, music publisher, recording studio owner, lyricist, songwriter and vacuum cleaner salesman. It has been said that each of us is put on this earth for a unique mission. This mission is sometimes hidden from us and our lives are spent in discovering that purpose. We may never know what that purpose is and we may or may not be successful in its accomplishment. Part of what makes life meaningful is discovering that mission, discovering the best part of our selves and actualizing it. As Lincoln once said: I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite London quotes:
Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.
THE Jack London FESTIVAL
Program 1: 1:30 – 2:50 p.m. A live performance of portions of the new musical, Martin Eden by Gregory Nissen based on the 1908 novel by Jack London. Followed by a Q&A with Mr. Nissen
Program 2: 3:00 – 5:15 p.m. Jack London: American Original, A 90-minute documentary by Ben Goldstein based on the life and writings of Jack London. Followed by a Q&A with the director