2016 was the year the music stopped. Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie, George Michael – so many songs embedded in our culture, so many that’ll now never be written. It was also a year in which we lost three stellar playwrights: Edward Albee, Arnold Wesker, and Peter Shaffer, whose Equus is my favorite modern play not written by Samuel Beckett.
I’ve already documented the deaths of Elie Wiesel, Tom Hayden and Umberto Eco on this blog, so here are some tributes to others whose passing perhaps made fewer headlines:
Imre Kertész became Hungary’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002 “for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” After surviving a German concentration camp at first by pretending he was a 16-year-old worker when he was 14, Kertész wrote about freedom and its opposite. His key work was Fatelessness, a novel based loosely on his wartime experiences.
Gloria Naylor‘s best-known book, The Women of Brewster Place, is a series of interlinked stories examining the lives and loves of African American women trapped in a housing project. The book – her debut – won several big awards and was adapted for television by Oprah. That was the work that made her name, but Naylor kept writing and was much garlanded for her essays and screenplays as well as novels. Her themes were some of the great issues of our times: racism, poverty, and women’s liberation.
Dario Fo was Italy’s court jester who ended up as king. He spent his entire adulthood sticking two fingers up at the authorities via his theatrical work, and then wrecked it all by winning the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature. Fo was a protean and prolific figure: a playwright, actor, comedian, singer, director, songwriter, and painter – an atheist in Catholic Italy and a national treasure who transcended his nation.
Harper Lee wrote one good novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, and one bad one: Go Set A Watchman, published 50 years after being discovered. But her place in literary history is assured because “Mockingbird” was a masterpiece, a fable about childhood, justice, and race that has somehow touched every generation since it was written. Her literary silence over the decades baffled some readers, but having just one great novel in you is no disgrace; it’s one more than most of us.
James Alan McPherson was the first Black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Son of an electrician and a maid, McPherson put himself through Harvard Law School partly by working as a janitor. (Although he never practised law, he wrote a famous 1972 essay that exposed racist business practices against African American homeowners.) After coming under the influence of the great Ralph Ellison, McPherson turned to fiction. He is best known for his short stories and for his teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his alma mater.
Daniel Berrigan was an American priest who, bizarrely, found himself on the FBI’s “most wanted” list. He was one of nine priests who took part in the burning of draft files in the famous Catonsville Nine case. His anti-war efforts continued beyond the 1960s, and included the founding of the Plowshares movement that protested nuclear weapons. Berrigan wrote around 50 books, including poetry and essays. He was the Great Conscience of America. If Mandela had had a distant white cousin, it would have been Berrigan.