Volume 80, Number 4 | June 23 - 29, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

MODOTTI
Written and directed by Wendy Beckett
Through July 3rd
At the Acorn Theatre (410 W. 42nd St.)
For tickets ($25 - 50), call 212-279-4200 

Pause to praise a playwright named (Wendy) Beckett
Theatrical snapshot of photographer reveals ‘what makes a revolutionary’

BY JERRY TALLMER 

Wendy Beckett lays it on the line.  “I like writing about bad girls,” she says. Women artist-rebels, that is — daring pattern-breakers like poet Anais Nin and, now, photographer Tina Modotti. 

Photographer and much more. Early convert to Communism. Lover of many men, most of them organized or disorganized Communists themselves. Close friend and possible lover of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. A runaway in her teens — from her birthplace in Italy’s Undine region — Modotti at 28, in 1924, then ran away from Hollywood (where she’d had roles in “The Tiger’s Coat” and a couple of other silent films) to politically seething, exciting Mexico. 

By then she’d already been taught the rudiments of photography by another of her lovers, the no less-famed Edward Weston — whose photographic portrait of the naked Tina is still today a classic on a par with Weston’s sexually implicit black-and-whiter still-life studies of ordinary everyday green or red Mexican peppers. 

To Weston, art is art. To Tina, it goes beyond that. 

“Art is combative now, Edward,” she tells him (in words by Wendy Beckett). “Art makes a difference in people’s lives here, yes, but politics expresses their needs. Art and politics are not mutually exclusive. In photography we have the most direct means for fixing, for registering the present epoch. We have to do what we can, when we can.” 

Modotti’s own work with the camera started with babies and flowers, but soon went on to more revolutionary subjects — like a workers’ May Day parade viewed as a river of wide-brimmed Mexican hats. She also was sort of the official photographer of the murals of Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. 

In 1936, with several of her lovers dead, Modotti left Mexico for Spain — where she served as a nurse on the Loyalist side throughout the Spanish Civil War. 

In 1942, back in Mexico, she died of a heart attack, or maybe not a heart attack (the cause of death has never been resolved). 

It was, in any event, a colorful life — and tall, skinny, red-headed Australian-born Wendy Beckett has poured a goodly share of it into her “Modotti,” directed by the playwright in its world premiere. 

This is the second play by Wendy Beckett to be staged in New York. The first, four years ago, at the (Samuel) Beckett Theatre — “Isn’t that strange?” — on the same block, was “Anais Nin: One of Her Lives,” about a creative woman of more delicate if no less revolutionary stamp. 

“I’m writing a series of plays about interesting artistic women,” says Wendy Beckett, who classifies herself as “quite a feminist.” And, yes, she not only is distantly related to Samuel Beckett, she says, but met him and talked with him on the phone and in person one summer in the South of France. But except for a batch of plays with Beckettian one-word titles (“Charity,” “Yankaway,” “Gross,” “Regression”), she does not write like him. 

Then again, who does? 

This Beckett is interested in “artistic women — not just vacuous creatures but full-fledged intellectuals and artists. I want to discover what makes a revolutionary — and also what makes someone like Tina take on the issues of a country other than their own, and be prepared to die for it…because she was.” 

If Samuel Beckett was Irish through and through, Wendy Beckett — whose biological mother was a German Jew — grew up in Adelaide, Australia, as the adopted daughter of Roman Catholics from Ireland. 

Her first published short story was in the Reader’s Digest in 1976, and she’s been working the room, so to speak, ever since. Early accomplishments include writing seven radio plays for WABC and starting her own theater company, Colours Inc., in Adelaide at 22. 

A helping hand along the way came from “my mentor,” playwright and novelist Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), who knew Sam Beckett and Henry Miller and Anais Nin and practically everybody else. There was also a helping hand from “one of my boyfriends,” William Shawcross — the biographer of Rupert Murdoch, Queen Elizabeth, and practically everybody else. 

Wendy Beckett has an old shoebox in which the saves clippings and other “scraps of paper” about people she may want to write about, “so I already knew about Tina Modotti for ten years.” 

Ms. Beckett now divides her residency between Australia and New York. “I love New York!” She has a husband — but often not in the same city or country” — educational publisher Matthew Sandblom. And, from Thailand, adopted daughter Connie, now 7. 

Early in the play, Tina Modotti exclaims: “I would like a wife!” to do the cooking, cleaning, sewing, tending, etc. “Yes, I think I should advertise for a wife so that I can get on with my art without all these ‘life’ interruptions.” 

Neither Tina Modotti nor Wendy Beckett is the first woman, artist or not, who ever ached for just that. 

 

 

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