Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘theater’ Category


Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Dear readers and friends,

Back from this year’s EC/ASECS (its 50th anniversary) at Gettysburg, I’m re-filled with enthusiasm for all things long 18th century, and return with new topics to think about, new perspectives, and old interests made new. Among the highlights for me of the evening and two days, was a guided visit during the long lunch on the first day through a Maria Sibylla Merian exhibit at the Schmucker Art Gallery on the Gettysburg campus, made richer by a lecture given later that afternoon by its professorial curator, Kay Etheridge. I heard that first morning intriguing papers on theater which attempted to get beyond the relics, remnants, remains in the form of verbal texts, costumes and setting to convey to us today what the experience of the theatrical representation might have been like in concrete breathing, noisy, living details. What are our aids today and were used in the 18th century to capture the fleeting presence performing in our memories.

Of course I was deeply engaged by the panel I chaired where we were once again immersed in Samuel Johnson (with a little bit of help from Boswell), and in the panel dedicated to Jacobitism where I gave my paper where themes of colonialism, migrancy, and religious-political conflicts emerged. But in this first of two blogs on this conference I will just write about the conference’s first panel on theater, the group trip to the Art Gallery and talks on Maria Sibylla Merian. As with last and a couple of years previous the views I offer and accounts of papers are necessarily partial since I could attend but one panel at a time, and my summary reports are imprecise, and omit much because my stenography is not what it once was.

******************************


A frontispiece from Bell’s British Theater

I was fascinated by the first panel on theatrical history (Friday morning, session 1, 9-10:15), chaired by Matthew Kinservik. One of the central questions coming out of Jane Wessel’s “Samuel Foote’s Strategic Ephemerality” was the problem that the theatrical experience disappears as it is acted. How do you know, study, understand performances before there were moving pictures (photography, movies, films, DVDs, video, digital YouTubes). Jane said professional enacted mimicry; that they looked in the scripts to enable imitation. Diaries, journals, and news descriptions constitute snapshots; you puzzle over what is meant by the familiar “character performed with additions.” Her paper attempted to get beyond the notion that ephemerality means loss: performances can escape censorship, others could not control what was immediately represented; you were as much going to see the performer as the work; the performed was the work. She showed evidence of Foote attempting to lure people using print. She read a footnote telling the reader which actors or actresses were imitating which.

Aparna Gollapudi’s “Theater in the Reading Closet: Bell’s Frontispieces” attempted to uncover what literally happened, live performances and audience response similarly. She discussed the texts, pictures, paratexts (like frontispieces) that circulated after a performance. The pictures do what they can to bring into people’s “closets” (rooms, homes) actual experiences of the stage. But they also are fanciful and illustrate what the audience might like to dream could epitomize the action or character but is in reality not possible for stage action. She showed a favorite print of a scene from Cibber’s Careless Husband which in the script occurred before the play began (two principals having sex); a moral play like Steele’s Conscious Lovers is accompanied by a picture which is not moral, but comic, leering, hinting at sexual availability. The frames outside the print have playful vignettes. Sometimes an actor is pictured in roles never played; substitutions like this abound as celebrity culture does its work. Illustrators were a kind of play critic, a reader of inner dreams of what did not happen.

Matthew’s “Charles Macklin’s Career as Theatre Manager” was about how the written records do not begin to record Macklin’s varied remarkable work for decades on the stage.


John Conde’s 1792 engraving of a painting of Macklin (from John Opie’s painting)

Macklin was not just an actor and playwright; if you pay attention to who is on the stage, who is involved in the acting, staging, presentation, you discover that for 30 years (1740-72) he acted, taught (he had in effect an acting school at a coffee house), deputy managed the most popular famous plays and actors (Garrick, Foote) too. He was one of those who could make up for the incompetence and parsimony of Fleetwood. He lectured on acting. As the novelty of some of what he did wore off, he behaved in less dignified ways, he found himself ridiculed. It seems one problem Macklin had was he angered people, another he had no money of his own to invest.He was a bankrupt in the 1750s, but went to Dublin and became a partner in the Crowe St Theater competing against Smock Alley. He got into disputes with Barry. In London his expertise in great acting roles (Shylock, Macbeth) was recognized by Colman. But his paper trail is through the courts: his Love a la Mode was so popular he declined to print it and would sue people for performing it.

In the general discussion afterwards people talked of those who could do shorthand and would take down quaker speeches and found that publishers and other people went after them to stop. As a stenographer who could once upon a time take down every word people said at a meeting, this interested me. I have experienced many different reactions to and uses of my ability to do this: early on, a lawyer I worked for used my work to his advantage in negotiations; later on as a graduate student in committee meetings I curbed myself rather than become too involved. They also talked of the terms of legal suits.

A second topic I started was about (I suppose) celebrity. I said that on face-book I noticed YouTubes put on of incidents in serial dramas that never occurred. I eventually learned these sorts of re-doings of bits of videos in order to change the scene (usually to make it more sentimental, more erotic, sometimes to make fun of something) are common. Many focus on a famous or admired star. No one but me appeared bothered about this. I suggested this sort of falsifying (as I see it) is the modern version of fanciful illustrations of theatrical scenes and actors in the 18th century.

****************************


Pear Blossom?

I wish I could do justice to the talk by the graduate student-curator who took a group of us through the exhibition — together with an art history professor. I came away with a slender catalogue paperback, Artful Nature and the Legacy of Maria Sibylla Merian, where the major pictures in the gallery are reproduced together with essays by the students on Merian’s life, science, the social norms of her class as well as the work of three other naturalists of Merian’s era.


From Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surianemensium (she went to Surinam)

I was able to take down some of what Prof. Kay Etheridge (biologist) told the whole conference in her talk in the afternoon. Merian was the daughter of an middle class artist, Matthäus Merian the Elder, and was highly educated. Her father died in 1650, and in 1651 her mother remarried Jacob Marrel, the flower and still life painter. Marrel encouraged Merian to draw and paint. While he lived mostly in Holland, his pupil Abraham Mignon trained her. She married Marrel’s apprentice, and had two daughters, but eventually separated from him. She gave drawing lessons to the daughters of the wealthy and this gave her access to their gardens; she collected specimens, insects, studied botany, and devoting herself to her art and studies, she produced pattern books, and became a much respected scientific illustrator and then naturalist; she was among the first to study insects directly. Prof Etheridge went over (as far as she could) the steps Merian might have taken as she gained expertise. What was remarkable was she put the life cycles of insects together with plants. She wrote, engraved, published remarkable books, financing herself to go to Dutch Surinam. She talked to the indigenous people and to enslaved people and wrote about their desperation (how the women cared deeply for their children and would even kill them rather than see them grow up into an enslaved person); an indigenous woman accompanied her home. Her images tell ecological stories and Prof Fletcher showed how. We can see great cruelty in nature in some of what is observed in many of these illustrations.

Among the famous and wealthy who wrote or commemorated her: Alexander Humboldt named a flower after her; Hans Sloane collected her work; Tsar Peter; she was imitated by many major and minor scientific illustrators. Popularizers spread her work, e.g., Friedrich J. Bertuch in his picture books for children, attempting to teach a scientific way of seeing the world (published between 1780 and 1839); in English she cited Oliver Goldsmith. She talked about the 18th century naturalist, horticulturist, and illustrator Mark Catesby (1683-1749) best known for witty books based on his observations in the Carolinas, Florida and Bahama Islands. Catesby’s work is included in the exhibit.

The Gettysburg art gallery had another exhibit, the work of Andrew Ellis Johnson and Susanne Slavick dwelling on the present humanitarian crisis around the world; it consists of images, chosen poetry (a psalm by Wislawa Szymborska), essays (one by Suketu Mehta), commentaries on politics. historical incidents. I took home the catalogue for this too. It includes Warsan Shire’s

Home

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten …

For the rest and about Shire, click here.


New butterfly named after Merian (Smithsonian Museum page)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Those who come to this blog regularly know I’ve written about Chris Brindle’s musical play of Jane Austen’s Sanditon completed by way of Anna Lefroy’s extension before, and of an available DVD. Well here is a reminder that the performance is now 11 days away (!) in London, at the “other place,” Victoria, in London, Friday, July 26th, 8 pm.

Once again the poster:

Just below (as prelude) the song “Dishonoured’ in rehearsal. In this version of events Mr Tracy manages to bring down the Bank of Eastbourne, from which Tom Parker is borrowing money to pay for the land he is buying from Lady Denham, and where Lady Denham has all her money on deposit. Because of this Lady Denham is outraged that she cannot afford to buy a new coach. Thus

A narrated concert version of a proposed full stage production. They are using a small stage in a cabaret like environment. Lovely and rousing songs, a remarkable contemporary story, intriguing colorful characters, some originally invented by Austen. See also for more information, pictures, music https://twitter.com/brindle_chris

I wish I could go …

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Natasha McElhone and Jodhi May as Mary and Anne Boleyn (2003, BBC The Other Boleyn Girl, written and directed by Philippa Lowrthorpe)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just been watching the powerful 2003 BBC film adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, written & directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, with (most notably or memorably) Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn, Steven Mackintosh as George Boleyn, Natasha McElthone as Mary Boleyn and Philip Glenister as William Stafford. This is part of the term’s work I’m doing with a class in order to delve with them Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter. Anne Boleyn is presented far more sympathetically in this movie than in Philippa Gregory’s book; we are allowed to understand how Anne came to be so ambitious, angry, rigidly vindictive, envious — if indeed she was all or any of these things: we must remember this is the same woman who worked with Thomas Cranmer and her brother to spread an evangelical Catholicism among many people. The one non-fictional historical text to do real justice to Anne Boleyn is still The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives.

Anne Boleyn gets such a hostile interpretation so often, that I can’t resist putting onto this blog a proposal (which has been rejected) I wrote for a panel on feminist approaches to the work of Henry and/or Sarah Fielding, for the upcoming ASECS conference in Denver, Colorado. One third of it was to have been on Anne Boleyn as a figure in mythic, literary, film, feminist, and anti-feminist writing.

Anne Boleyn, Jenny Jones, and Lady Townley: the woman’s point of view in Henry Fielding

I propose to give a paper discussing Anne Boleyn’s self-explanatory soliloquy at the close of A Journey from this World to the Next, Jenny Jones’s altruistic and self-destructive constancy to Mrs Bridget Allworthy across Tom Jones, and in the twelfth book of said novel, the character of Lady Townley in Cibber and Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Husband as she fits into a skein of allusion about male and class violence and marital sexual infidelity in Punch & Judy and the Biblical story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-40). I will argue that the Boleyn soliloquy is probably by Henry Fielding and fits into Fielding’s thinking about women’s sexuality, and other female characters’ soliloquies in his texts; that Jenny’s adherence to a shared set of promises parallels the self-enabling and survival behavior of other women, which is seen as necessary and admirable in a commercial world where they have little legal power. I will explicate the incident in Tom Jones where Cibber and Vanbrugh’s play replaces the folk puppet-show to argue that these passages have been entirely misunderstood because the way they are discussed omits all the immediate (what’s happening in the novel) and allusive contexts from the theater and this Iphigenia story. I will include a brief background from Fielding’s experience and work outside art. I will be using the work of critics such as Earla A Willeputte, Laura Rosenthal, Robert Hume, Jill Campbell, and Lance Bertelsen. I taught Tom Jones to two groups of retired adults in a semi-college in the last couple of years and will bring in their intelligent responses to a reading of this complicated book in the 21st century. My goal is to suggest that Fielding dramatizes out of concern for them and a larger possibly more ethically behaved society the raw deal inflicted on women by law, indifference to a woman’s perspective, and custom.

These are the three areas I was going to show Fielding’s brand of feminism through. They are merely sketched here; I was going to do much more research for each:

In the case of Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, she speaks at length to justify her entry into peaceful oblivion or Elysium this fiction, to the judge Minos, who stands guard over the gate. She explains how she came to withhold sex from Henry VIII for so long, then as his wife treat him shrewishly and domineeringly, and finally (only perhaps) betray him with other males at court. She never loved him. It was a relationship coerced by her family. Fielding believed woman will willingly have sex with men when they care deeply for a man as a center to build a new family around (such a woman might not demand marriage first), but they won’t or are very reluctant to have sex when they do not love the man who wants or has married them. Who then did Anne Boleyn love? Henry Percy. They were betrothed, their love consummated directly after the wedding was over, and then they were dragged apart by Wolsey’s disapproval (he wanted to use Anne another way), and forced to deny what had happened. Fielding gives Anne a long poignant soliliquy. It echoes the opening section of Amelia by Miss Matthews. There is no reason to believe this is by Sarah Fielding; she has not the psychological acumen nor would have made this type of male-oriented love.

The happy out come of Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, is the result of Jenny Jones having kept a promise, a pact she signed to with Miss Bridget Allworthy who had a love affair with a young clergyman, Will Summers, who dies before they can marry. The outcome of the book depended on these two women’s promise and contract whereby Jenney offered to present herself as having become pregnant outside marriage to enable Bridget Allworthy to keep her illegitimate baby under her blind and rigid brother’s nose. Mr Allworthy continually scolds lower class people (Partridge) and women for having sex outside marriage: he predicts dire things; he says it dehumanizes them, they become animals. In fact in the novel, only through having sex secretly or for money can most of the women survive. Tom is suddenly lifted up from being a victim of capital punishment or transportation to the liberty of a gentleman because (it is discovered when such a legitimate heir-type is needed) because he is found on the spot to be a bastard nephew of Mr Allworthy.


Joyce Redman as Mrs Jenny Jones Walters (1966 UK United Artists, Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson, written by John Osborne)

Fielding’s Tom Jones plays a part in my third example of Fielding’s empathy with women. I separate it out as it is a bit more complicated even in a sketchy outline.

At first we assume we (and our favorite friends) are going to watch on the street or in a countess’s public rooms in her house, a puppet show of Punch and Judy (Book 12, Chapter 5). A puppeteer at said inn after Upton refuses to use his puppets to put on a Punch and Judy show because it is “idle trumpery” and “low.” Instead he has his puppets perform a “fine and serious Part of The Provok’d Husband.” Much of Book 11 is taken up by Mrs Fitzpatrick’s story of how her husband married her for money, took her to Ireland, had a mistress, abused her; she is likened to a “trembling hare” fleeing him and his servants. Men were allowed to lock up their wives; they could beat them; a woman was supposed to obey, and people did marry for money sheerly (it was the only way to become rich if you were not born to it). Harriet tells Sophie her “companions” were “my own racking Thoughts, which plagued and and in a manner haunted me Night and Day. In this situation I passed through a Scene, the Horrors of which cannot be imagined …” – a childbirth alone, and childbirth in this period was a hard ordeal often ending in death (Book 11, Ch 12, p 320).

Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s The Provok’d Husband is a play which runs on lines similar to Fielding’s own The Modern Husband and is a companion piece to Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife and one of Cibber’s plays about the same brutal male character called The Careless Husband. Repeatedly we find ourselves concerned over a couple who treat one another as commodities; they live in an adulterous world and to find any status, compete with one another over everything, including adultery. There’s a scene between Lord and Lady Townley where she says he is so abusive she will leave him and he replies, leave this house madam, and you’ll never come in again and I will give you no money whatsoever. She is subject to him. At its close there is a moving dialogue between husband and wife where she reasons with him – oh she’s had a lover but so has he had a mistress: “what indiscretions have I committed that are not daily practiced by hundred other women of quality” (II: 675).

No critic I’ve read mentions the Punch & Judy is misogynistic farce — and clearly the play substituted stands up for women’s rights (however ironically). Right afterward the scene we hear the landlady’s maid defend herself from being beaten by her mistress on the grounds that her betters are not better than she; “what was the fine Lady in the puppet-show just now? I suppose she did not lie all night out from her husband for nothing” (p 563). As the characters talk, the landlady remembers when good scripture stories were made from the Bible (as opposed to either Punch and Judy or The Provok’d Husband), and she refers to Jepththah’s rash vow? (p 564). Jephthah vowed to sacrifice his daughter on return from battle if God would only give him a win (it’s an Iphigenia story, note p 946). Before he sacrificed her she sat around bewailing her virginity. The idea is she wouldn’t have minded had she had sex, married, had a husband.

Partridge is one of the few companions on this road to prefer the play to the farce. Partridge told the cruel story of the London hanging judge, is himself an abused husband. Once they get off the road, we find ourselves in the story of Lady Bellaston, a female libertine who hires males for sex, but is herself deeply unwilling to marry for then she will be subject to a master. The chapter ends with the gypsy incident (where a husband uses his wife to decoy a gull) and Jones going off to mouth his muff — which stands in for Sophia’s vagina. There is a curious wild hilarity behind this final moment, something I’ll call uncanny. I was going to show Fielding is our puppeteer showing us how women get a raw deal from men, and is not as indifferent to violence or delighted with violence as is sometimes supposed.


Mrs Francis Abington as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love; she played Lady Townly in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s Provok’d Husband

As I said, my proposal was rejected, which I heartily regret because beyond my initial focus on Anne Boleyn, the first and last third parts of my argument are original, go against the grain of consensus about Henry Fielding, and it would have been fun to discuss the frank disillusioned drama of the 18th century stage.

Another though was accepted, on topics I’ve often written about here: historical fiction and Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. This time I will talk about the art of blending fact and fiction:

The Poldark Novels: a quietly passionate blend of precise accuracy with imaginative romancing

While since the 1970s, Winston Graham’s 12 Poldark novels set in Cornwall in the later 18th century have been written about by literary and film scholars as well as historians because of the commercial success of two different series of film adaptations (1974-1978; 2015-2019), very little has been written about these novels as historical fictions in their own right. They emerge from a larger oeuvre of altogether nearly 50 volumes. Most of the non-Poldark books would be categorized variously as contemporary suspense, thriller, mystery or spy novels, with one winning the coveted Golden Dagger award, and others either filmed in the 1950s, ‘60s and 1970s (e.g, The Walking Stick, MGM, 1971), or the subject of academic style essays. One, Marnie (1961) became the source material for a famous Hitchcock movie, a respected play by the Irish writer Sean O’Connor, and in the past year or so an opera by Nico Muhly, which premiered at the London Colosseum (English National Opera production) and is at the present time being staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Some are also set in Cornwall and have been the subject of essays on Cornish literature. But a number are also set in other historical periods (early modern and late 19th century Cornwall, Victorian Manchester) and Graham published a non-fiction history of the Spanish Armadas in Cornwall. His historical fiction is usually identified as verisimilar romance, and he has been given respect for the precision of his archival research and his historical and geographical knowledge (especially of Cornwall).

It is not well-known that Graham in a couple of key passages on his fiction wrote a strong defense of historical fiction and all its different kinds of characters as rooted in the creative imagination, life story, and particular personality (taken as a whole) of the individual writer. He also maintained that the past “has no existence other than that which our minds can give it” (Winston Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man, Chapter 8). I will present an examination of three of the Poldark novels, Demelza (set 1788-89, so the fall of the Bastile is woven in, written in 1946); The Angry Tide (set 1798-99, year of the Irish and counter-revolutions in France, strong repression in the UK, written 1977), and The Twisted Sword (set 1815, partly a Waterloo, written 1990), to show Graham deliberately weaving factual or documentable research with a distanced reflective representation of the era his book is written in. The result is creation of living spaces that we feel to be vitally alive and presences whose thoughts and feelings we recognize as analogous to our own. These enable Graham to represent his perception of the complicated nature of individual existences in societies inside a past that is structured by what really happened (events, speeches, mores that can be documented) and an imagined space and credible characters who reach us today.


Elinor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner as Demelza and Ross Poldark (from the first season, 2015 BBC Poldark, scripted Deborah Horsfield)

This is my third paper given at an ASECS conference.

The first was just on the books and it was EC/ASECS (“Liberty in the Poldark Novels: ‘I have the right to choose my own life!'”) and the second at a LA, ASECS, on the two TV series (“Poldark Rebooted: Forty Years On”).

I’ve been watching the fourth season of the 2015 Poldark series once again, and will be blogging about it here soon. I’ve never been to Denver, so now I’ll see a new city for me. Winston Graham and his fiction and characters no longer need vindication but I shall try to make the books more genuinely respected as well as both film adaptations (the one in the 1970s and the one playing on TV these last four years).

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Opening scene: Henry-Mirabell (Luigi Sottile) and Charles-Witwoud (Brandon Espinoza)

A remarkable adaptation of William Congreve’s The Way of the World at the Folger. As part of the on-going women’s festival of plays in DC, Theresa Rebeck updated Congreve brilliantly and then directed it with bravura and panache. Very effective. Interesting for anyone who has read or seen Congreve’s play and equally great fun for anyone who has not. Strongly recommended

Witwoud: “Truths! ha, ha, ha. No, no, since you will have it. I mean he never speaks truth at all — that’s all. He will lie like a chambermaid, or a woman of quality’s porter. Now that is a fault. (Congreve, Act I)

Friends and readers,

Although it’s too late to get to this surprisingly apt and often funny-cruel adaptation of Congreve’s The Way of the World by the successful woman playwright, Theresa Rebeck, at the Folger (tomorrow night is the last performance), I write to say hurry out to see it if is is revived anywhere near where you live. You need never have read or seen Congreve’s The Way of the World, so thorough going and consistent is the adaptation, though if you have, the parallels and comparisons reinforce the bitter things that happen and are said in Rebeck’s play. They also show the timelessness of Congreve’s types and situations which seems so easily retrofitted in 2018. The lavish costumes (over-the-top priced shoes, handbags and accessories) reflect actual realities in shopping today. Rebeck’s wit is penetrating as her doubles for Congreve’s players enact the aimless luxurious self-centered lives of the 1% to be experienced in the Hamptons on Long Island.

Three out of four reviews give it high marks

for fitting into other smash hits she’s engineered and written

Nelsson Presley: “What’s a hard-nosed Hollywood survivor like “NYPD Blue” and “Smash” writer Theresa Rebeck doing inside the cool, Shakespeare-ghosted marble of the Folger Theatre?

Letting blue language fly in her update of the Restoration comedy “The Way of the World,” for one thing. William Congreve’s takedown of money-grubbing nuptials is being updated to the Hamptons in a voice that sounds like pure Rebeck: energetic, contemporary, funny and brutally honest about gender and leverage.

for screwball cynical farce:

Jayne Blanchard: “The characters in The Way of the World are pros at sniping and subterfuge and show us peons how snark can be done with style … In other words, it’s a bitch to be rich.

No one feels that more acutely than Mae (Eliza Huberth, grounded and gleaming with goodness), an American heiress who wears her $600 million fortune like a giant price tag on her head. Well-meaning and altruistic, Mae feels—and rightly so, the way she is treated by family and friends—that no one really sees her, only a bunch of dollar signs and zeros.

and a paradoxical feminism, appropriate for this play, part of a festival of women’s plays going on in DC:

Caroline Jones: “As the male characters trip over themselves in search of sex and money, the women reveal that they, in fact, hold the power in most situations. It’s an appropriate theme for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which celebrates the work of tenacious female playwrights from around the world … Thematically, it’s clear that Rebeck wants her adaptation to focus on the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. That idea comes through, but what makes the play fascinating is the relationships between the characters and the ways they abuse the people they love. Their desires, both long-term and temporary, are wrapped up in other individuals, something you don’t typically see in a comedy that includes regular uproarious laughter.”


Rene-Lady Wishfort (Kristin Neilsen) and her super-rich niece Mae-Millamant (Eliza Huberth)

What I enjoyed most was the superb comic-acting, which in a couple of cases is suggestive enough to make one feel sorry for the character. The brilliant timing, wild-letting go, and seeming unself-conscious self-expose of Kristin Nielsen as the lascivious aunt who is grieving for her loss of beauty and lonely is the power-house at the center. Truly funny soliloquies by Ashley Austin Morris, the desperately over-worked, rich-people worshipping and thieving waitress who is snubbed and taken advantage of, sometimes in a very ugly ruthless way — Mirabell is turned into an utter stud: Henry fucks every woman in the play and one of the men threatens to take her to the police unless she uses her Foible-like talent for manipulation to help him corner Mae-Millamant.


Henry oddly venomous as after fucking Ashley Martin Morris as the waitress-Foible

The critics above all write of Mae as effective, but I thought the part made her silly: she wants to give all her money to Haiti but seems to have no idea how to go about handling or keeping her money herself, much less disbursing it to anyone. After the terrific anger she displays at Henry, and she utters the most lines taken straight from Congreve that I recognized and some of the best in Rebeck’s play, she becomes blandness itself, almost a silent woman, saved for comic effect by her tasteless golden-hard wedding gown, which she keeps complaining is “too tight.”

For witty lines Rebeck did much better with the modernized Mrs Marwood, Erica Dorfler as Katrina, the ex-mistress (old-fashioned word but “previous love” doesn’t seem right either) of Henry, one of a trio there to needle the other characters. She gets some hard lines.


Erica Dorfler as Katrina-Marwood, Daniel Morgan Shelley as Lyle (a fop?) and Charles

I found myself remembering that in Congreve’s play Mrs Marwood was the bitterest and the most hurt of the characters: she has carried on adultery with male named Fainall, who has used, abused, and reproached her for betraying her friend, his wife; he hates being married, but she cannot bear that she has been “vicious” on his behalf and only gotten punishment for it (Congreve, Act II, lines 145-220).

Both Charles and Lyle are given wry lines reflecting on our world today: both are gay and would much prefer to go to bed with Henry, but that he prefers women. Not all of Congreve’s characters are transposed. The Fainalls (Mr and Mrs) are missing, and there is no fop (unless Lyle is meant to be), but there is a clown-fool: Elan Zafir as Reg, the bumpkin from the country is a Trump male type, crude and concerned to protect his manliness. When he goes to bed with Rene, he manifests intense distress lest she tell anyone.


Reg-Witwood is the one with the crass jacket and beer in his hand

All four didn’t have enough to do with the story of Henry’s quest for Mae and her money — unless that was the point. Much of the skilfull manipulation is done by Henry in a final battle with Rene over who knows more than whom and can therefore cheat and exert power over the other. As in Congreve’s play this one ends with a final duel of words and threats and compromises between Henry and Rene (Mirabell and Lady Wishfort). Some of the themes were startlingly apt for the year 2017: everyone lies and it’s asserted repeatedly there is no such thing as a truth that counts if you can shove it out of sight and delude others. Money conquers all.

Congreve it’s not. Nowhere as deep or thorough, or angry or pessimistic or deeply felt — or witty. But I hope it doesn’t disappear because it is more than a flippant rancid-stew. There is feeling now and again. Katrina or Mrs Marwood is really hurt when Henry escapes quickly after their night together and never phones. She is told by Charles (Witwoud) that men do not feel about phones the way women do. Other characters want someone to phone them back — this is not a group into texting though they walk around with cell-phones.

Most of the emotion is felt by snubbed waitress and the ridiculed Rene, who gives a final speech which would seem to contradict the whole play: Rene asserts what makes life worth while is devotion, relationships, loyalty, even love. This is not let to stand for too long, but it is part of the plot-design that what the heroine, Mae, wants is for the hero-stud, to be concerned for her feelings, truly in love with her, not to lie, and to be sexually faithful.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

indiahodges
William Hodges (1744-97), An Indian Village with a Man seated in the Foreground

Dear friends and readers,

My report on the panels and papers given by the Burney society on 20 October 2016, the day before the “official” beginning of the JASNA (Jane Austen Society of America) meeting and on the panels and papers of the JASNA AGM has been much delayed, and I regret to say will be less specific and shorter than my previous conference reports. I got lost on the way to Trinity College where the Burney Society was holding its meeting, and missed much of the keynote address, and in any case (as I’ve said) my ability with stenography permit me only to record the gist of most of the papers; the JASNA group had but four (!) break-out sessions (astonishing) and two serious speeches on the Friday and Saturday (the 21st and 22nd) I was able to attend. There was one lecture mid-morning Sunday on an edition of Emma (1816, Philadelphia, by Juliette Wells) as part of a breakfast set-up and nothing else; since I wasn’t staying at the expensive hotel, and was teaching on Monday I could not take out the time for one book history talk. I’ve described the places and ambiance the two different societies met in when I came home lest I forget the experiences (scroll down; or read the material transferred to this blog in the comments section).

Here I cover two-thirds of papers on Burney. These papers placed Burney in contexts she claimed she didn’t wouldn’t talk about, but was in fact subject to all her life and is central to her books and life’s experience: the colonialist, patronage “system” and familial politics of her era.

I came in at the end of Tara Ghosal Wallace’s detailed talk on “Burney and the Politics of Empire,” which focused first on the hypocritical, corrupt, ferocious political in-fighting among factions in India, which through her male relatives, and attachment to George III’s court influenced Burney’s daily existence. Prof Wallace gave a history in detail of local English politics and office holders attached to and in India; she thought Warren Hastings caught between cross-fires (whom Burney obtusely absolved from any guilt or responsibility without ever giving any cogent details); she described the nuances of party politics (Indian and British individual and office alliances) amid the sexual courtship and humiliating scenes of Burney’s time at court; and the politics of empire in The Wanderer. Burney was under “intolerable psychological pressure from contradictory points of view, all of these personal to her.”

The first panel was called “The Stormy Sea of Politics,” and all three papers were on French and national politics. Geoffrey Sill discussed how Frances differed from her father’s arch-conservative reaction to the French revolution: Charles was for continuing absolute monarchy, saw the idea of the rights of men as absurd. Burney, as we know, lavished praise on her father, but we can see where she differed: she thought a king was as limited by law as any man; she was horrified by the misery she saw in France. She was not sceptical about the needs of people demonstrating. Anne-Claire Michoux discussed how the female body was represented in Burney’s diary-journals and The Wanderer. Burney’s work is deeply invested in social issues; she published a pamphlet on emigres, and admired Mme de Stael. In Evelina women are victims of physical violence, of psychological assault; in her fiction, her heroines are oppressed through their bodies, they have vulnerable incomes too. Brian McCrea seems to have received harsh reviews of his book on Burney where he presented her as a conservative: he argued that Burney was terrified of the French revolution. Burney writes wryly but also as apolitically as she can, and defends the patriarchal feudal world. Doody saw affinities with Wollstonecraft and Jacobin novels, and argued the character of Elinor in The Wanderer stands for the revolution as a noble flame. McCrea argued this is to misread; Burney’s Admiral Powell’s views are those validated.

charm
Hubert Robert (1733-1808), A servant brings papers to an aristocrat intent on renovating his garden with classical structures

After a coffee break, the second panel of the day was “Ruling Politics.” Lori Halvorsen Zerne discussed authoritarianism in The Wanderer. Juliette stands for “the other,” and is treated with hatred by some; many in the book are uncomfortable with the ambiguity of her identity. Good characters in the novel are cowardly while the bad are audacious. Hannah Messina’s paper title was “Politics at Home: Uncomfortable Domesticity in Cecilia.” Class, gender, charity and debt are among the novel’s topics; the conflict over last names confirms patriarchal tyranny. We learn that outside the home Cecilia is in danger; she needs a place to be secure. Her guardians interfere, her friends wreak personal catastrophe (the auction) on themselves. Cecilia had hoped for a quiet time with her friend, Mrs Harrell, but instead finds herself fleeced. One problem is it’s impossible for Cecilia to avoid or opt out of this society yet she herself can be thrown out and made a homeless beggar. After Delville’s uncertain and jealous treatment of her, she collapses. The novel shows the nature of a character’s domestic space is crucial to the development of an identity. Sara Tavela concentrated on Burney’s presentation of the medical and psychological sufferings of George III in her journals. Burney shows us there is no effective control over the king’s illness, and that the Queen is left without helpful information.

It was not quite lunch-time and so time for discussion of all we had heard up to then. Someone suggested that Burney created a template in her novels by which we can see how women are left without resources, are not listened to. Society dictates to them who they are. Women in authority are not granted full respect, find themselves in a liminal space.

There was a talk during lunch. Laura Rosenthal asked “what do we do with Sir Jaspar.” Laura saw the home as having theatrical spaces; commodities are props by which we construct our artificial selves. Burney resists desiring interiors and exteriors. Marilyn Francus suggested that in Cecilia we see how people talk to one another with the norms of social desires break down. Sociability crumbles in Cecilia; at the close the heroine crumbles too. Alex suggested that male characters also experience discomfort in their homes (e.g. Belfield).

the-sense-of-sight-philippe-mercier
Philippe Mercier (1689-1760), The Sense of Sight

After lunch, the third panel was on “Celebrity and Material Culture.” Laura Engel talked about the three best portraits of Burney: Edward Frances Burney (1782) where her hands are on her waist.

portrait_frances

Edward Francesco Burney’s portrait of her (1784) sporting an enormous hat

burneyhatted

and John Bogle’s miniature (1785) of her with a pinched face; it seems the truest to her features

fannyburneyjohnbogle
An enlargement so you can see her facial features

Portraits, Laura said, represent the remains of a life’s performance; we can see the exaggerations of her dress and hats; all three provide much insight. In the first and third she gazes at us, interacting with us. Croker, a hostile reviewer, described the way Burney looked late in life cruelly: she was an old coquette. Butterworth found another image said to be of Burney at 15, up-close, intimate somehow. Laura compared these images to verbal descriptions of the heroines in the novels; and then to other portraits by painters of famous actresses (Siddons, Robinson), duchesses (Georgiana Spenser). These gorgeous hats as props keep re-appearing. Laura felt Burney probably preferred the miniature.

Kirsten Hall’s paper title was “Burney and Ciceronian Celebrity.” She talked about how celebrated Ciceronian ideals and how classical figures were depicted affected Burney’s fiction and attitudes. Cicero’s Moral Offices (obligations, duties) showed a world of reciprocal relationships, favors, and services. It was thought reading this book was good for people. we can see how widely deivergent rules for social behavior can be from what an individual may want or feel to be right. Kirsten then showed how the characters of Mortimer and Cecilia fit in; what she owes him, how they behave to one another (in an imagined bookshop). She also went over real behavior in a real library, and what we see suggested is Burney lived (like most of us) by compromise.

Since the last two papers took a somewhat different direction, I’ll stop here as this blog is long enough.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

austenisobelbishop1902to88
Isobel Bishop (1902-88), how she imagined Austen at work, a drawing

Friends,

In Mary Poppins’s books, Mary’s birthday is referred to as “the Birthday.” I have wracked my brains to say something new about Austen for her birthday, or offer an appropriate poem, some tribute as yet not well known as I have done previous years, as how “How she loved to dance” (clips and music); her poem written on her birthday (it seems) to her friend, Mrs Lefroy who died on that day four years before; and what she said about Tudor Queens, especially Katherine Parr (her attitude and remarks not well known). And finally I’ve come up with two, last night I remembered an unassuming ironic commentary, and this morning discovered a new chamber music style opera of Mansfield Park.

When Dora Carrington (1893-1932) designed and decorated Lytton Strachey’s library in their second home together in southern England, Ham Spray, she painted an extra unused door — going nowhere as sometimes happens in endlessly renovated houses where there is not quite enough money literally to alter the structure of the room (vestigial elements). She disguised it as a bookcase, complete with projecting spines from imaginary books. She carefully titled these imaginary books: A Catastrophe, by Tiberius (her cat); Oeuvres by Le Conte Lytoff (Lytton Strachey); The Empty Room by Virginia Woolf; Deception by Jane Austen; and False Appearances by Dora Wood, her own alias.

dora-carrington-woodcut-for-bookplatecat
Here is a drawing by Carrington for an actual bookplate

Each of these titles serves as a ironic summing up comment on some aspect of these authors’ lives or works (as seen by Carrington). For Tiberius: cats knock things over? end up victims? And however, tongue-in-cheek Carrington places herself as a woman artist between two writers she evidently regarded as supreme (after all they got to be in Lytton’s library, close at hand). In a note she wrote to her great friend and sometime lover, Gerald Brenan, she coupled Austen with “Emily Bronte and her sisters [Charlotte, Anne] and Sappho.

tinselonglass
Again Carrington, imagining an 18th century woman playing music, tinsel on glass (Lytton was a lover of 18th century literature and Carrington may have read or had read to her Julie de Lespinasse and Madame Du Deffand’s letters)

We know Jane Austen loved to dance and so what better picture than this contemporary picturesque (gussied up) illustration of Manydowne, one of the wealthy people’s houses where she regularly danced, and she could have been mistress of had she accepted the marriage offer of its heir, Harris Bigg-Wither, but then we would not be remembering her birthday or have her powerful fiction.

manydown

**************************

Music and Manydowne, a large country house, doubtless not far from the size of Mansfield Park, can segue us into the other offering I can make for Austen’s birthday: Douglas Murray’s essay, just published in Persuasions On-Line, Fanny Goes to the Opera: Jonathan Dove and Alisdair Middleton’s Mansfield Park.

Douglas says the opera he saw was performed for the first time in the Indianapolis Opera in March 2016. The perspective is one commensurate with an ensemble structure, with Fanny (to quote Douglas) “a part of the complex community known as Mansfield Park, only one in a multiplicity of cacophonous voices: “the opera thus creates a musical/dramatic analogue to Austen’s characteristic narrative technique: her ability to display simultaneous narrative consciousnesses within a narrative context.” The opera uses a post-modern outlook: critical irony, distance; it also has a section which might be called “operatic epistolarity” (as in filmic epistolarity). I have argued that Mansfield Park is a much revised pushing together of two draft MPs: one about a play (written first in 1797 or so) and another a semi-epistolary story whose central focus is Fanny’s visit to Portsmouth where she writes to her frenemy Mary Crawford.

83youngfannyweb

83fannyportsmouthwebsite
From the 1983 BBC mini-series (scripted Ken Taylor), the young Fanny writing to her brother William (at sea?), and the older Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel) reading a letter (from Mary Crawford?) while in Portsmouth

I’ve a hunch my favorite moments would still be those coming out of Fanny, her abjection, her painful solitude, her uneasy re-integration: it is out of her point of view that the subversive perspective and questioning of her society and its people comes.

maryfanny-large
Here we have Mary Crawford sliding Henry’s necklace around the unsuspecting Fanny

Indeed the way many people read Austen (it seems to me) is to take seriously her surface Deception, endorsed by those of her characters who lived unexamined lives. This would be the way I read Carrington’s retitling of Austen.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

L'Opera Seria zie www.reisopera.nl Photo: Marco Borggreve
Netherlands’ Nationale Reisopera — L’opera seria

Dear friends and readers,

Although Kim Witman’s crew has been vigilant to prevent photos of the production this summer of Florian Leopold Gassman’s mid-18th century parody of the conventions of an opera subgenre since the 20th century dubbed “serious opera” from reaching on-line sites, I thought I’d recommend seeing almost any version of this opera anyway. (It’s hard to convey in a review the experience of a production or film without a few varied pictures.) If her superbly inventive, beautifully sung, and richly amusingly staged L’Opera Seria is re-mounted anywhere rush out. The opera has been revived over the past couple of years in Europe (she watched a pirated one from Berlin before deciding), and Witman hopes to see more revivals than hers, but also hers again.

There have not been many reviews, but these have praised the production lavishly (Pat Hilary Stroh, Opera Marseille). In the pre-show talk Witman talked of how hard it had been to get the orchestration of the opera, and that the opera demands virtuouso singers with a varied range unusual for opera companies. These are formidable obstacles in mounting it. She also said its title misleads us: in fact the term “opera seria” for pre-Mozartian serious opera was a 20th century critical invention. She worked to universalize at the same time as using the allegorical roles to refer to a living directors (and other specific individuals in the opera world). Even in this updated version (modern references are substituted for contemporary ones, modern costumes and modern mores in pantomimes), she has provided an enjoyable education in 18th century dramaturgies, opera assumptions and history (which comes into it), gentle but ceaseless satire on the commercialization of art (this then an old trope).

Act I shows everyone discussing, deciding to do, planning the production, enunciating ideals and norms, and ego assertion; Act II the rehearsals

opera-seria-jonas-hacker-alasdair-kent-clarissa-lyons-scott-suchman-for-wolf-trap-opera
Jonas Hacker, Alasdair Kent, Clarissa Lyons, Scott Suchman

and Act III a portion of the enacted sung opera. The central act is a marvelous funny rendition of 18th century theatrical, marital, sex, and writing/rehearsing/art norms. They were bold in their use of imagery: Alexandra Flood as Porporina had to sing absurd lines about dolphins and fish battling and fornicating, and the stage business included two actor-singers playing stage hands donning dolphin outfits at their stomach and back, lending a good deal of salaciousness to the moment. Act I was not quite as funny to a 21st century audience as it could have been (it was too staid), and Act III is in danger of boring the audience as it’s just this endless hieratic ending. The first was offset by concentrating on how each participant from ballet master to costume designer was in the throes of protecting their property. For the last some of the actor-singers were in the audience to shout boo, and cheer them on, make startling remarks, and the costumes were just so outrageous, and so many, that the audience was not permitted to lose itself elsewhere. Izzy thought the opera needed the intimate atmosphere of the house for us to get the nuanced but swiftly moving depictions of each of the principals.


A trailer on-site

This was our only time at the Barns for an Opera at Wolf Trap this summer, but it was well worth the drive and money. The other two productions were La Boheme (at the Filene Center). a popular warhorse, concerts by the Filene artists, and Britten’s Rape of Lucrezia. The reviews of the other two productions and the concerts have been highly favorable — and seem not to be just hype. I’m told the story of Lucretia is thought to “put people off,” be “too gloomy,” what they would rather forget, but I have seen it at Castleton Festival and know Britten’s take is deeply humane and feminist. The performance brochure included a perceptive, semi-angry essay by Germaine Greer on “the Necessity Narrative of Evil” (about the nature of rape testimony and the necessity to tell).

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »