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Tobias (John Lithgow) with his sister-in-law and occasional lover, Claire (A Delicate Balance)

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Henry (Ewan McGregor) with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), at first his mistress and then his wife (The Real Thing)

I am so much accustomed to be alone — Madame Max, in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn

Dear friends and readers,

While in NYC I went to two great plays performed greatly. Well, maybe the actors playing The Real Thing needed to project depths of emotions much more, only the highly verbal intellectual continually witty script was in the way while in A Delicate Balance Glenn Close played Agnes with such balance, discretion, strength that one was almost as fooled as she pretended half to be so that I didn’t quite realize their topic was the same thing: deep betrayals and treacheries (only one aspect of which is adultery).

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Agnes (Glenn Close) with Tobias, apparently all serenity if you don’t listen to her words: she opens and closes the play with how she’s about to go mad

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A similar confidential moment between Henry and Annie (The Real Thing)

Happily the plot-summaries and character sketches for both plays are on-line so I need not retell the matter. Both are plays you should read before you go.

I had unexpected experiences in both theaters. I never expected to find Albee Jamesian (all I had seen before was the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Burton, Taylor and Sandy ) but Glenn Close or her director brought this out and a strong unexpected unusual form of feminism: an ambivalent portrayal of the woman who keeps it all in, who will not openly admit to the pain, adultery, betrayal, so she becomes “luminous.” James often emits such solemn and vague or not explicit terms for something some character does we are to admire — at the cost of everything real in her; that darkness is stronger in James than it felt in this production-play. Until now just about all the plays by Stoppard I’ve seen, have had as their central focus, play-acting itself and the theater, or there is a great poet or literary person whose life he is exploring; I’ve also seen farces and he does like to avail himself of a previous work which he rewrites from another angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is no aberration).

The Real Thing is directly about the emotional life of a marriage, of two marriages or three depending on how you reconfigure the characters (Henry and Charlotte, Max and Charlotte, Max and Annie, Henry and Annie), and it was done through intellectual battles of wits — it’s hard to see how it becomes popular, but the theater was full and I expect some of that was the name of the playwright and the stellar cast (all young stars, and I heard people recite where they had seen the actor/actress before). People were listening and laughed at the right spots; perhaps it was a more intelligent audience than usual who could see themselves in these characters. I read half-way through the text last night and it is singularly bare of any indication of how the actor should play the part or stage setting. At any rate the characters were continually half-discussing their adulteries, acting them out, judging them, singing about them through 50s pop songs (said to be Henry-as-Stoppard’s favorite music)

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Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), Henry’s wife at the opening of the play (Real Thing)

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Max (Josh Hamilton), sometimes a “real” betrayed husband and sometimes a character in a play by Henry who is a betrayed husband (Real Thing)

The Real Thing had fine actors: you had to be to convey the complexities of language of the material. Ewan McGregor had the lead role, a surrogate for Stoppard. At first I was thinking as I watched and left the theater, the problem with this The Real Thing about the intense pain one can know in marriage or through the dependencies of love is what is shown is not common, at least among those few people whose marriages I have known something for real about while A Delicate Balance is the more universal.

But then I realized A Delicate Balance also had at its center adulteries casual and long-term and emotional disloyalties about other thing as important (one’s writing and politics in Stoppard’s play, one’s life career and friendships hard to sustain in A Delicate Balance). And I thought about how many couples I know and my own experience of sexual and other unfaithfulness. The real difference is Stoppard treats adultery and bitterness so frankly while Albee keeps them contained (that balance Close maintains — like a Henry James character). I dare say the commoner thing is to pretend in the way of Albee’s characters, not to look or act upon hurt.

At first I had a hard time in Stoppard’s play figuring out what was happening: sometimes the characters were characters in a Stoppard play, sometimes a bad play (of course not by Stoppard); sometimes characters in the reality of the play. But in a tiny first break in the first act I whipped out my trusty cell phone (a handheld computer) and read wikipedia’s summary just as I had in the first full intermission of A Delicate Balance: then for both I could get immersed. Many are the uses of our World Wide Web with its shared worlds. Oh how the loss of net neutrality threatens us in “small” and large ways.

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What was remarkable about A Delicate Balance and made it a comment on The Real Thing is how Glenn Close played the lead heroine deeply sympathetically — as in a Henry James story, we were to admire her as “beautiful” and “tremendous” without being explicitly told that she was holding the whole household together by her magnficient hypocrisy, her act. Agnes as Maggie Verver (I hope my reader has read The Golden Bowl) whose father, Adam, marries Maggie’s prince-husband’s lover, Charlotte (the same name as Stoppard’s heroine) in order to remove Charlotte from Maggie’s prince husband though he likes neither Charlotte nor that prince.

If you read the criticism of the play (and wikipedia) you get a diatribe on Agnes as all repression, and (surely a sign something is seriously wrong) the moralistic rigid Edna who with her husband, Harry has fled her apparent in fear and shows up in Close’s apartment and proceeds to blame and carp and blurt out corrosive rebarbative descriptions of the others (especially Julia, Tobias and Agnes’s many-times divorced daughter, come home once again and wanting her room in which Edna and Harry have taken up temporary residence). Close’s clothes were of peaceful colors (as the guy, majoring in theater who sat next to me and talked to me said), signalling how she was holding the best emotions to the fore in all the scenes luminously (as James might have said), with intense bravery and pain.

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Agnes (Glenn Close) in a rare moment showing how betrayed and bitter and hurt she is, her sister, Claire, having fallen down (she drinks heavily, but maintains she is not an alcoholic, or no more than the others)

Were it not for her fake act, her sister, Claire would be out on the streets, Tobias incapacitated by fear and his own need to support others he calls his friends in order to believe in some good emotion somewhere.

I had chosen to see A Delicate Balance because I so admire Lindsay Duncan in all the roles I’ve seen her in, and I gather she played Claire utterly differently from Elaine Stritch (who did it caustically, a hard caricature of a drunk) and Maggie Smith who was wry, insouciant, amoral. This Claire was warm, witty, appealing, the only one in the room who could comfort Julia.

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Julia (Martha Plimpton), on her fourth break-up (A Delicate Balance)

The “thing” is that it doesn’t help to tell the truth, it doesn’t help to verbalize or articulate in The Real Thing. Similarly there is (seemingly mysteriously) Tobias and Agnes don’t demand that Edna and Harry tell them what has so terrified Edna and Harry that they must retreat to one of Tobias’ and Agnes’s bedrooms, namely Julia’s:

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Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins) (A Delicate Balance)

The characters in The Real Thing achieve their best relief when they put records on of familiar 50s songs — creating a kind of nostalgia in the audience for a comfort that never was. I did find the performance too brittle and the transitions into song awkward. The play is of course about Stoppard (his marriages, his “low” tastes in music, his playwriting) and Henry had the funniest undercutting lines. The characters in A Delicate Balance do once in a while lose it, and we get this great emotional outpouring, but it does not seem to provide much release. The funniest moments were Clare’s (playing an accordion) and Harry’s (Bob Balaban is a remarkable actor, he was inimitable in Gosford Park)

It has been for me a deep treat to go to the theater and really have a deep or thoughtful or exhilarating or grief-striken or funny experience — it was with Jim I first went and he who taught me to go, and where. London has great theater too (and we went when we were there to the National Theater, Old Vic, and RSC especially) — both London and NYC attract the best as best paid and respected; in other cities English speaking you can have greatness too — here in DC sometimes, in London often. (There is a lot of junk in NYC too). Jim would have enjoyed both plays; had he been alive, both are the sort of play we’d have seen together and talked about over drinks afterward.

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Group scenes

I’m aware that readers coming to this blog have wondered why I write the way I do, why I often go on at length, why so many. It’s always been out of loneliness, even with Jim, but when he was here, my blog was prompted by our talk, and after I’d write it, we’d talk about what I’d written. Now I write out to try not to feel so alone in the silence. I trust I am talking to someone who comes here and reads these even if mine are imagined sounds and more than 99% of the time I’ve no idea what the reader is thinking or how responding.

Ellen

Twomen
Omar and Klinghoffer (from the National English Opera production)

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Protests at the Metropolitan Opera house on opening night

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to treat this opera since as a result of intense pressure from Jewish, particularly those supporting the present and previous right-wing Israeli organizations put sufficient relentless financial and social pressure on the Met as to cause them to not air it on the HD network (thus depriving thousands of people around the globe to see the opera for themselves) and to bring an halt to productions at the Met itself. (It has played in many others, from England to Scotland to Prague, and doubtless will continue to do so all the more.) At any rate Yvette and I saw the last big production in the US for some time to come, this past Saturday afternoon, November 15th.

What I have to tell those who come to this blog is that far from being a provocative, anti-semite inciting viscerally dramatic opera, The Death of Klinghoffer bends over backwards not to be overtly empathetic towards any group of people or individuals aboard ship. It’s a choral piece, much in the tradition of Copeland’s The Tender Land and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, only there is even less dramatic action and creation of individual personalities. Only 4 characters are made individual: Klinghoffer, his wife, Marilyn (Micheala Martens), a woman now famous for having hidden out in her cabin the whole time (Theodora Hanslowe?); a British dancer (Kate Miller-Heidke) by happenstance one of Omar’s prisoners who is eager for “ciggies” from him.

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The Palestinians remain archetypes and are presented as teaching killing (while Jewish armies are forgotten). Death of Klinghoffer is a mild, indeed in some ways tame meditative and lyric opera: its center is the captain (Paul Szot) as neutral narrator (he has a podium he sings from) and the story and action, such as it is (beautiful filmed waters on three sides of the stage, graffiti filled walls, light and dawn and evening shows) is punctuated continually by the beautiful music and singing of the Palestinian chorus of exiled people, and the Jewish one of people come to Israel after horrific misery in Europe during WW2.

The actual history behind the incident is well-known, easy of access: 4 young Palestinian men in 1985 hijacked a ship and 400 passengers and threatened to kill everyone unless Israel exchanged these captives with his brother and other male relatives. In the event they killed but one man, but the elderly helplessly crippled one: all else emerged unharmed. The opera takes into account the English-sidekick to US role: the Palestinians threaten UK as well as US and Jewish people. Three of the Palestinian men were later arrested and tried and allowed to go to their homeland (relatively free). Adams presents so little about the Palestinian case (so we learn very little about what was at stake in the negotiating bargain) — for every Palestinian chorus there is a Jewish one.

I immediately asked myself, why this incident when there are so many others of thousands and thousands killed and murdered Palestinians and “other Arab people”: 250 at one blow (on Reagan’s “watch”) is more like it. Why nothing of Jewish conscription and the constrained lives of Jews in this “fortress” state? In lieu of a continuous storyline, the three walls of the stage had a light show taking us through announced years (sometimes just the year showed, as in 1967), graffiti on walls, the waters of the sea rising and falling, night and then dawn. There was a chorus of male dancers representing writhing Palestinian young men; the four hijackers were archetypal presences (Aubrey Allicock as Mahmoud sung of his bonding with migrating birds). The concentration though was on Klinghoffer and his wife, ever focused on by light and given the individuating startling and moving arias.

A scene from The Death Of Klinghoffer by English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera

Though the poignant figure etched in the visual memory is of the Jewish man who dies facing the sky in his chair (providing the advertisement poster) and in sound memory his wife’s two arias.

Yet I have not been so sincerely moved by an opera in years. It was a bold courageous move not to offer us a mythic metaphor of a story, but at least give us the outlines of a story that really happened. Thus the realities of rich middle class people, here a number of Jews and British who can afford to go on an expensive cruise (ship fuelled by oil, the natural resource the the elite powerful of the US and other NATO countries have been destroying all social and democratic movements to keep control of) is simply part of the givens. Each of the characters spoke as individuals; I was rendered riveted by Mrs Klinghofer’s final widow grieving aria, especially lines, “I live in him” and “I wanted to die,” and thought I heard the voice of Adams in her words about the medical establishment’s indifference to his suffering — all everyone cared for was their payment, their profit, with a sudden interjection about profit centered research (as such a woman would put it.)! I understood why the Palestinians picked on Klinghoffer: Klinghoffer’s scolding is that of the ignorant man: he inveighs against the hijackers as simply killers, thugs; he denies they have any justification, that their houses were worth anything. Adams had the courage to show the man to have been obnoxious against the Palestinians harassing and terrifying the hostages with threats of death, blindfolds, guns held to their heads and the like.

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The opening Palestinian chorus a stunner protesting the originating incidents in 1948 a stunner. No as powerful as the Jews fleeing Europe and the death camps with a few thing or none to the promise of the desert where they would irrigate and make a new world. The Palestinians were treated as equal human beings — there was a remarkably beautiful aria by two singers who represented Palestinian women, one whose house had been destroyed in 1948 and the other the mother of Omar, one of the highjackers (an angry one, urging him to kill if needed in order to get the demands taken seriously).

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From the opera: Omar Jesse Kovarsky), his mother (Maya Lahyani), and Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) seen in the picturesque distance

Omar has a sort of friendship with one of the British dancers who sings — there were 6 British dancers on board. The dancing of Omar was wrenching; the music beautiful and light and water and film effective, melancholy.

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A matching Jewish chorus: remembering the holocaust

We had come to NYC for Yvette to experience the real opera house, and since The Death of Klinghoffer was removed from HD operas broadcast (and the mediocrity of a Rossini concoction substituted) we chose this weekend. We were in dress circle seats an experience in itself: it was hard to get to them, and we were in an overhang on the third tier so we saw both stage and (if this were still done) the opera house itself beautifully. We were cut off from the left side of the stage (partial view). Yvette’s blog-review worth reading in this regard (her experience from her spot). There was a kind of strangeness and stiltedness as if Adams was continually pulling his punches lest he offend someone important somewhere. It was a kind of staged masque:

THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER

How to account for the tameness of this piece? fear of reprisal if too truthful and searing? I object to the lack of hard violence by both sides and the situating of the Jewish chorus too early so later realities and cruelties beyond shame (in Gaza and the West Bank) omitted. Such an opera if people would watch would be useful: yet I am told there are Americans who Foxnews and the like have taught to looks upon Palestinian people as “cockroaches.” Operas are supposed to reveal grief, teach compassion, sing out the vulnerability of its characters (and occasionally even composers), though they rarely set their action in the here and now and an actual incident.

It was stimulating to really be there; Yvette said the voices sounded better and she seemed to enjoy being there: I dislike the elitism one comes up against as part of each experience from eating (each cafe callibrated to a specific income group), to lingering on the balcony; you can’t just go into the central cafe but must reserve and have tickets for that day; the shop was a replica of the Kennedy Center in its commercialism. It did seem to have far more CDs and DVDs. More: the way this incident was hyped up in the program notes unreal. Phrases like “horrible barbaric” and others suggesting some catastrophe of immeasurable proportions when it was a case of 400 people all of whom but one survived unharmed. No talk whatsoever about atrocities for real. Instead the program notes had a story about Stalin’s repression of Verdi’s Don Carlos as if to deflect attention. None of this Adams’s doing. He came on stage that afternoon Yvette and I were there. I hope the opera was filmed and eventually can come out on DVD and thus be shown to a much wider segment of the US population.

Adams

It is a disgrace that the Met did not broadcast this opera as an HD presentation, and has shut down further performances — the direct result of the relentless political powers and economic realities (no one dares to buck anyone connected into the 1% of US media and money today). I foolishly became a member of the Met this year. I thought to be sure and get tickets to HD operas this way, but there is no need and I won’t do so again. I understand the Met’s economic difficulties but they demanded their tech people take cuts in salaries and benefits while the stars were politely asked if they would …

I can’t deny it was something to be there literally though the misery of young Palestinian man forced to shoot (reminding me of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad) and the cries of the cancerous woman (Mrs Klinghoffer is dying of cancer) whose crippled suffering husband could have been so easily taken out would have been more accessible (oddly) had we seen it in a plain movie-house, though then again we would have had to endure the hype in the form of interviews in the intermissions.

Confiteor

I heard something out by the gate
and went to look.
Dead of night; new snow, the larch woods
filling slowly, stars beneath the stars.

A single cry it was, or so it seemed,
though nothing I had recognised as native;
and when it came again, I knew for sure.
No badger there. No gathering of deer.

Forgive me, if! choose not to believe
the snow would fall like this, were I not here
to see it.
There might be snow, of course, but not like this,

no hush between the fence line and the trees,
no sense of something other close at hand,
my dwindling torch-beam flickering between
a passing indigo and lux aetema.

I stood a while to listen; nothing moved
- and then I turned and walked back to the house,
the porch light spilling gold for yards around,
snow at the open door and then, again,

that far cry in the dark
behind my back
and deep in the well of my throat
as I live and breathe.
– John Burnside

Read Alice Goodman Reflections on her libretto.

Ellen

Lear-tate

Dear friends and readers,

On Friday night, November 7th, most of the participants (or so it seemed from the crowded church pews) of EC/ASECS were privileged to see and hear a marvelously acted performance of Shakespeare Restor’d, a new play (mostly by Jane Wessel, directed by Sandy Ernst, co-directed Sayna O’Neill)) whose central characters, William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys, debated the relative merits of five of Shakespeare’s original plays against various 17th to 18th century improvements, revised texts, by conjuring up a group of actors to enact parallel scenes: we had

The death scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet against the death scene (very close even if they wake up) in Otway’s Caius Marius;

A first scene of Caliban encountering Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest against a parallel scene (with a second daughter, and a Hippolytus, an innocent good creature added to Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban) from Dryden’s Tempest;

Scene of the young Plantagenet princes having died and it mentioned and the dying murdered Princes in Shakespeare’s and Cibber’s Richard IIIs, respectively;

Sleepwalking and despairing soliloquies, the killing of Lady Macduff and her children, from Shakespeare’s and Davenant’s Macbeths;

The tragic and triumphant conclusions of Shakespeare’s and Nahum Tate’s Tempest respectively.

What was most striking was how well some of the “improved” scenes played when they were done as seriously as Shakespeare’s. I’ve seen some of these “improvements” in opera: an early 19th century Italian Romeo and Juliet where our lovers wake up, sing desperate arias to one another for quite a time, and then die; parts of the HD Met’s Enchanted Island, bits of Cibber stuck into a Shakespearean text.

After the performance the actors sat on the stage and discussed their experience with one another and the audience; Resident Ensemble players included Joshua L. Browns, Paul Hurley, Maggie Kettering, Erin Partin, Benjamin Reigel; producing artistic director, Sandford Robbins. There was a rehearsal and another performance on Saturday evening.

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Henry Fuseli’s reaction to whatever Romeo and Juliet (Garrick wrote one where they woke up) he saw

I’ll take this opportunity to recommend a 21st century Shakespeare I’ve been mesmerized by this past few weeks: I’ve described briefly Jonathan Bate’s remarkable series of on-line lectures Weeks 1-3 from Future Learn in the form of MOOC, Shakespeare and His World, for Warwick University and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Weeks 4-7 have been as well-informed, thoughtful, frank, original in perspective, and eloquent as the first three. The plays read and discussed for themselves and jumping off platforms were

(for week 4) Henry V, allowing Bate to discuss a world then at war too, with sections projecting the soldiers’ experience, the nature of the conflicts, how patriotism was used; (for week 5) The Merchant of Venice, used to depict Shakespeare as a businessman. I’ve heard so many times he was a cagey careful businessman and if you followed his career you’d see him rent and land empire building, not to omit getting his father a rank. This was the first time I saw it detailed. That’s what I’m liking about these videos: new insights now and again genuinely and then backed up by content. So ingeniously Bate says Shakespeare reflects himself in Antonio and Shylock. He did de-emphasize the homosexuality or homoeroticism of Bassanio and Antonio; he didn’t say it was not there but he gave a weasel way of avoiding it “as not important; then (for week 6) Macbeth and the attitudes towards witches and superstitious beliefs of all sorts, and towards medicine in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; and finally for now (for week 7), as embodied in Othello, the world of the Ottoman empire, the Mediterranean as a centre of war, commerce, different ethnic groups in conflict (including a remarkably explicit drawing of a white slave market). I say for now as there is more coming.

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Judi Dench and Ian McKellen as a middle-aged utterly co-dependent couple, an undervalued version (Bate recommends filmed versions of the plays each week)

Bate compared Othello to Shylock as an outsider on the one hand, and to Macbeth as a seduced murderer on the other. He brings back and intertwines weeks: so the outsider in Shylock is also seen in Othello. I’ve bought myself his The Biography of Shakespeare’s Mind; I read and was irritated by Bate’s book on John Clare (Bate has written on the romantic poets and Shakespeare too) as excusing the wife for putting the man in an asylum and as critical of Clare as not socially performative in the middle class way and instead resentful of exclusion, but perhaps I misread …

11/18 Update: Week 8:

The play this week was Antony and Cleopatra and the subject the Elizabethan view and uses of Rome and Greece, as well as what we can ascertain was Shakespeare’s. He said he didn’t choose Julius Caesar because it was so much better known, and chose A&C because it had a woman centrally in the play and a powerful fascinating pyschological portrait of this pair of people. A lot of the lectures consisted of Bate telling about North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (from a French intermediary copy), showing us the book, describing it, and then comparing the text of Antony and Cleopatra to the passages in Plutarch to tease out the differences. That is to say, this one was not as generally informative as the previous weeks have been: no discussion of what boys (and girls in the Renaissance too when of upper class homes) were put to read of the Romans and Greeks, no talk of how they were educated in these languaqes, of what specifically was thought true of the two cultures, and how reflected elsewhere than Plutarch. Previous weeks gave far more general talk, but this time Bate really went into the poetry and showed Shakespeare’s mind changing perspective, adding depth, eroticism into his text. Central to the pleasure of all these week is Bate’s mesmerizing voice itself, like some inspired sybil, and particular utterances he makes here and there …

Each week you are told during the week what have been the best filmed versions of the given play (according to Bate, ever modest saying this is his view of course).

Each week also (second video, 15 minutes) there is a round-up of the week before, with an “assistant” who has read through (so it seems) all the “learners’” comments and brings forward (made more coherent and useful) general questions and assertions and Bate goes over these, always saying what an interesting question or some such praise.

I don’t know what Jim would have thought of this or the other MOOCs I’ve watched, but he would have immensely enjoyed Shakespeare Restor’d. I have in this house in a couple of books some of the improved texts in facsimile reprints (from the Strand bookstore in NYC) and remember he read and talked of them once. I wish I could conjure up what he would have said of this performance.

Ellen

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The actual day dress and hat worn by Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey — rich heavy cloth

Described, who funds it, how the Duponts grew so (obscenely may I use the word) rich — gunpowder. The gardens, the exhibits, dwelling of course on Downton Abbey, the fetish dresses. How it functions as a social facility faute de mieux.

Dear friends and readers,

As my header and picture tell immediately, I have been to Winterthur Museum: this past Thursday afternoon and evening. I have decidedly mixed feelings about such places: I asked more questions of our guide than anyone else (note: she was grateful and wanted questions she could answer to fill out the time allotted to each of several rooms in the central house she showed us), especially who owned this house originally (the Duponts — they owned everything worth having at one time in Delaware), who’s funding it now: there’s an endowment by the Duponts substantially added to by philanthropists, selling memberships to local people for activities like lectures, evening receptions, tours. Winterthur Museum is one secular local social and cultural center; the university is the other. At each stop of this tour I noticed how the particular Dupont she was often talking of (a male born in the early 20th century who became a collector, connoisseur, sportsman, lover of art, builder of museum rooms and garden) spent enormously on each whim however art-oriented he might have: move whole ceilings, change contours to accommodate every detail of an 18th century wallpaper handed scenes around a room from China, have opera music piped in from miles away to where he was golfing. The guide picked up on my perspective (drift?) and became just a trifle defensive, regaling us with the two schools of art and conservation supported at the Winterthur (by fellowships? she didn’t say? or students loans?), to one of which she had been and gotten a degree in fine arts and is paid now for working there.

The gardens are beautiful and extensive; there are treasures of pottery, sculpture, home furnishings of all sorts, musical instruments, specific objects owned by this famous person and that; an indoor garden all bewindows; we were invited to look at the rooms the family once used and those originally built to be shown to the public. There is a research library — for American artefacts and architecture. I regret I didn’t buy at the gift shop a pair of exquisitely filligreed earrings in the Downton Abbey style, and a light weight woven jackets, lovely dark blue threads woven into this light lacey cloth, again a Downton Abbey style. Had Jim been alive, I probably would have, but don’t have the urge to treat myself the way I once did (indeed it feels somehow downright wrong), and told myself he’d have said I couldn’t wear it, as it was too delicate so I was getting a bogus relic. But when I noticed a colleague and friend had gotten herself an exquisitely embroidered scarf, Downton Abbey mode, I wished I had (they sell for $30 and up).

I had the same response which Jim and I shared when we were taken through a castle-like house, now a full-fledged week-long-trip place at Asheville, North Carolina, where a similarly super-gargantuan rich family filled a huge building and made a garden, Biltmore (a bus takes you) that ordinary people are invited to visit. The unexamined adulation of such places supports the present oligarchy and its past — and forgets that but for a brief time (1930s to 60s) there was in the US an attempt to make life more decent and share the goods, fulfilling occupations, enjoyment, and security with the average person. We did not have to be grateful for the crumbs off the table of the 1%.

What I enjoyed most of the museum itself was the most foolish thing probably: the rooms given over to the actual costumes worn by the actors and actresses of Downton Abbey. I felt my heart-strings tug as I heard the familiar strains of the music coming from the corridor as I climbed the marble stairwell. The museum knows the draw of this place and it is advertised everywhere in the museum. The information about what we were seeing was accurate: the Grantham family dresses and some of the suits are a mix of style then with style today. The staff had rebuilt the bell system — that is the sort of thing that grates. Are we to celebrate this? Here and there perpetual films were going of this or that episode where a costume we were viewing could be seen. Of course this was a tiny percentage of the stock the program costumer and her assistants have made but it was sufficiently wide that you could see each of the main characters’ sort of dress (two each for each of the daughters for example, a couple each for each of the older upper class family women). Unfortunately, I was taking photos with my cell phone and even with a real camera I am not exactly competent so while I tried to get some of the hats, I seem only to have captured two (the above and this one below):

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Summer dress and hat worn by Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley — light cotton (muslin?)

I had predicted and indeed found the “creations” for the married Lady of the house (Cora) stood out for the work, material, expense, lavishness over all the other females.

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One of Cora’s evening dresses: my photo doesn’t capture the heavy and delicate working of the embroidery up and down the front of Cora’s dress — the varied textile dress is expensive

I have favorite characters so I am glad I managed to photograph Mr Bates’s working clothes as worn by Brendan Coyle and his bench, even if smudged:

Bates

I like Joanne Froggart as Anne Smith but must agree with her (as she’s hinted) that her outfits are so dull (and there is but one of Sophia McShera as Daisy’s and one of Leslie Nicol’s as Mrs Patmore), and in this exhibit none from the time of her being a lady’s maid — to tell the truth I have better photos to share from the books I’ve bought. Who makes a fetish of a servant’s outfit?

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Remember Rose Leslie as Gwen, the housemaid, whom the Winterthur people are aware was a popular favorite once —

I note that the choice of fetish items show a class perspective and emphasis at work — minimal for the servants and several for the family each time. There is the one typical housemaid outfit we first see her in, one for Siobhan Finneran as Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid; here is but one the glitter and richness of Phyllis Logan’s layered dress as housekeeper: an expensive set of sewn varied textiles and chains:

PhyllisLoganHousekeeper

In the physical place, you can see the stiffness of Rob James-Collier’s outfit as a footman:

footman

The costumes did seem to be almost all from the first season. Winterthur did not go to this expense for more than one and the beginning of another (to get in Shirley MacLaine’s garments doubtless). All of them looked remarkably comfortable as styles (they simple hang on the body)

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Post World War One coat and hat – this kind of semi-sexy outfit was there, the fur expensive, rich velvet gold cloth

– as long as you didn’t remember the women wore corsets underneath to provide the form of body that the dress was to wrap round and cling to.

It was an exhibit of textiles the rich could use as imagined by the ITV costume workshop. it might have been interesting to see information about the dress designer, materials, who made the dresses (how much paid?). There were also objects the Grantleys used (beyond the re-built bell system):

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Gloves worn by the actresses — kid is the slang

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Crockery used — the same kind as Jim and I used to see at Landmark Trust houses

I did go into other parts of the museum — found an 18th century sack dress and noticed that a couple of the later 19th century ones did resemble aspects of the Downton Abbey costumes.

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Of course if this man and his family of Duponts had not wanted to spend their money this way, we the public could not have this functioning funded social facility and pretty space. But it testifies to the continued domination of private property and huge fortunes as the controlling factors in US society that we owe such places to private foundations: of course the discourses they will support will not be those that undermine their positions; we see everything from a limited perspective of the privileged. The guide mentioned in passing that the basis of the Dupont money was gunpowder. All that slaughter and destruction of the Civil War enriched the Duponts, modern uses of chemistry in industry (and one of its results the spread of cancer) are the bedrock of this dream place.

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Michelle Dockery’s silk layers Christmas ball dress from the first season; this is next to Dan Steevens’s tux (rather like a needed Ken doll) behind which is played over and over his proposal on bended knees to her in the snow

The museum several years ago allowed EC/ASECS to have its banquet in the museum (I’m not sure where); this year we were allowed to use a beautiful area for a reception for snacks, sweets and drinks and enjoyable talk, and then for another hour to wax exhilarated reading 18th century poetry and verse playlets aloud to one another. Peter Staffel, our master of ceremonies, chose to end these on Gray’s brilliant “Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” which for me nowadays especially evokes an ambivalent response too to conclude the festivities.

’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
  The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
  Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
  The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
  She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
  The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
  With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
  What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
  Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
  She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
  Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
  A Favourite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
  And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
  Nor all that glisters, gold.

Ellen

SmithKline
Kevin Kline as Matthias Gold and Maggie Smith, Matilde Girard (no she is not his mother after all) in My Old Lady 2014)

Have you ever listened
to the steps of your mother
walking around the whole house
during the night

    without putting the lights on,
    knowing her way in the dark by heart,
    quite quietly,
    step by step,
    as drop by drop
    from a leaking roof?

How she runs her fingers on the walls,
to make out the features
of her past life,
turned into a house.
Blaga Dimitrova, trans. Ludmilla Popova-Wightman, from poems to her mother, Scars

Dear friends and readers,

I went to see this film because after having been told by one of the three students left in my gothic class “don’t miss it, Ellen, I loved it,” and noticing it was play in only one theater in all my area, and that the theater which specializes in good unusual films because there is no parking around it, except maybe weekday mornings (Shirlington); after noticing all this, I say, I saw the author, director, and part producer is Israel Horovitz. Well Jim and I used to know him: Israel was enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center while I was there. I remember Jim talking to him, then telling me “we must see The Line” (we never did, nor Indian Joe wants the Bronx). I knew Israel was a gifted dramatist. As the film came to its close, I thought to myself, Jim would have said, “it’s okay, a win.” He’d have liked the movie as a whole.

It’s the story of Matthias, a sad man just over 57 who has nothing, no money, no friends, no career, but whose father has left him a large old beautiful house and garden in one of the more exquisitely preserved neighborhoods of Paris — part of the pleasure of the film is these streets, the bridges, the waters, the houses, furniture, all we see. Twice Jim rented an apartment for us and Izzy in just such a courtyard in Paris.

myoldladywalkingtalking

Matthias arrives from NYC to find his father’s aging mistress, Mathilde Girard, living there with the right to stay until she dies and to be paid 2400 Euros a month by the house’s owner (by French law). She has living with her, a daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, an English teacher, who we gradually come to see is as lost as to any joy in her life, or hope for something she finds sustaining to do, as he is. She is more than irritated by Matthias’s presence and the threat he represents (he wants to sell the place to a developer); she is angry

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It was originally a stage play, and the characters emerge through their talk, with the sets (albeit real places) used symbolically,

onthseine
A cultured boathouse (filled with books) on the Seine

The gradually compelling interest is the unfolding of these three characters’ pasts, especially that of aging old woman, Matilde, who puts on quite a performance as a woman of the world, all savoir faire, adjusted to all the hard truths of life, as she spends her last years in a civilized pattern of dining, drinking, reading, teaching too (young French adults to read English. specifically James Joyce), all equability. Maggie does not break down quite as far as both Kline and Thomas (I feel impelled to use their real names somehow) as they all slowly make out the features of their painful shared pasts to one another — Matthias’s mother killed herself after years of living marginalized while her husband was the faithful lover and companion of Matilde; Chloe could be the daughter of Matthias’s father and not her mother’s husband who lived not far from the house most discreetly (and mostly broke). Matilde insists her long life with Mattias’s father was a deeply happy and fulfilled one, that he was a kind, generous, tactful, loving man. Well not to me, declares Matthias. Matilde would prefer him to believe his miserable state at this point is all his fault (for being an egoistic depressive you see). Confronted with Chloe’s suddenly open feelings of how her legitimate father hated her (discreetly of course), and how Chloe has given up her life to her mother by living with her (I never asked you to, replies Matilde), Matilde has nothing to offer as compensation — except life itself. That she says is enough.

As I watched I felt that Horovitz was examining and releasing his own self-doubt, rage, hurt, and using the desperate attempts of Matthias to re-establish himself (he visits antique shops with furniture taken from the house to sell it) as part of a quiet reflection of the middle years of his life — Matthias it emerges is a failed American playright, has endured divorces too many. Chloe is reactive (during the course of the film she breaks off a long standing affair she had been having with a married man with two children and a grandchild to boot). Each of them finds old photos and brings them out to show the others. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, taking down his bundle to open and going over the things in it. There is something “old Woody-Allenish” about this film; Horovitz in this first film (he’s 75) is much influenced by Woody Allen.

Kline has the most lines, Thomas the strong sudden movements, but Smith has more presence than either. At one point she forces herself up the stairs (the first time in years it seems) to find and comfort her daughter, to take back something she has said, the walk itself bringing to mind her journey. She ends up dominating the film. We feel for her as she holds on to her cherished memories, with more effort we begin to see than she’s showing (a quiet moment shows her reading in bed, tiring, and as she falls asleep to the side, Thomas coming in and taking off her glasses, covering her). Yes, she says, she lies (a lot). Her dignity is a daily act that keeps her going.

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It does fall off at the close, a “pat denouement” Glenn Kenny calls it. Of course Mattias and Chloe turn to one another, become lovers and we are in a romance; when it seems possibly they are half-brother-sister, Matilde is still unperturbed: what’s the harm (both past breeding), if you find happiness …, the film punts, and we are shown Kline collecting some DNA results from Matilde’s doctor to show Chloe is after all not his half-sister: her legitimate was her biological father. Happily this part of the film is short. The point is everyone’s better instincts are brought forth, and Mattias decides not to sell, and to stay, Chloe to cooperate, and all may build a life here among the flower beds near the Seine — where people sing songs from Mozart’s Don Giovanni as they walk.

The good and genuinely moral message of the film is give of yourself, forgive others, keep with them if they will have you and are themselves good people (not destroyers) and stay alive. The real problem may be seen by contrasting it with Allen’s better films. My Old Lady needed to be funnier. There is not enough self-irony, not enough distance nor reaching out to the audience. Delpy did that in her imitation of Allen set in Paris: reached out. Horovitz is too guarded.

The reviews have not been generous. Not enough insight into themselves is brought out; this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Burton, Taylor, Sondra Dee tearing themselves and one another truly apart). It’s gentle, like the effective background music. (One person near me stayed through all the credits, not to see the surprise comic last scenes interpersed, but learn who sung which songs.)

As a light comic play taking a deep plunge below the surface of what has been now and again turned into a grave movie, My Old Lady will yield some analogies and parallels, like the one I find in the poetry of Dimitrova characterizing her mother. This room here had some splendid parties, that there we ate and read in, over there we played the piano … such are some of the lines Matilde murmurs and speaks aloud now and again

pdc_myoldladylseeping

Ellen

FrankensteinMillercumberbatch
Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice

Dear friends and readers,

Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.

Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,

Millerborn
Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born

how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,

blindscholar

so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center

cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done

I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.

What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island). ElizabethCreature

I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).

One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.

He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on

I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:

Michelangelgo

Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.

Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.

It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – - where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.

It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:

Ellen

BarchesterChroniclesParatexg
From the paratexts of Barchester Chronicles by Alan Pater (1982)

Dear friends and readers,

Despite some disillusion, I’ve sent in proposals to teach next spring (beginning sometime in late February) and summer (6 weeks June-July) to the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason. What I’m enjoying most of all I’m doing is the return to Trollope: I had forgotten (it seems) how sustaining, intelligent, stimulating, ironic, moving, his texts are.

So when I’ve done Beyond Barsetshire (at the OLLI at American University), I shall reverse myself — or go backwards — and concentrate on the phase of his career in which he produced the famous six.

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Mr Harding (Donald Pleasence) plays his cello, 1982 BBC Barchester Chronicles

Course Proposal for Spring Term, 2015, OLLI at Mason

In and out of Barsetshire: In this 8 session course the class will read the first three of the six Barsetshire novels by Anthony Trollope: The Warden, Barchester Towers and Dr Thorne. Trollope created more than one continuously sustained world for his characters to exist in, worlds which seem co-terminus with larger real terrains we experience, but are filled in with imagined places. Trollope’s readers have assumed he worked out his maps carefully and he wrote twice of Framley Parsonage that since it was the fourth novel he had set in Barsetshire, he “found it necessary … to provide a map … for the due explanation of all these localities.” In fact in the case of this his first sustained cycle of books Trollope only gradually became aware that he had embarked on such a series and it was probably during the writing of Dr Thorne. It is proposed to read and study the first three books not backwards from the final two books [The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset], but in the politically and literary contexts they were each written in individually, how the books and recurring characters in them relate to his other non-Barsetshire books written at the same time, and Trollope’s life and typical thematic concerns. The course will include viewing excepts of the 1982 BBC mini-series The Barchester Chronicles scripted by Alan Plater.

BarsetshireReDrawnfromSketchMadebyNovelistSadleirCommentary162

Sadleir’s redrawn version of Barsetshire from Trollope’s map after Framley Parsonage

Course Proposal for Summer 2015, OLLI at Mason

Barsetshire Emerges. Famously, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of Anthony Trollope’s fourth Barsetshire novel, Framley Parsonage, she wished Trollope would “go on writing it forever.” I propose to read for the 6 week summer course this famous novel by Trollope. Framley Parsonage has been looked at as the crucial novel which transformed Trollope’s career and gave the Cornhill just that level of popularity to make it become one of the central periodicals of the Victorian era for a long time afterward. We will look how Trollope mapped Framley Parsonage to pull all the elements of the previous three novels together, and anticipate later thematic concerns of his later Palliser cycle of novels whose characters as well as other partly imagined places emerged from or are attached to Barsetshire. We will also see Framley Parsonage belongs to the context of its immediate time and thus was able to galvanize the first readership of the Cornhill. We will see an excerpt from the first hour of the 1974 Pallisers to see how the underlying matter derives from the Barsetshire books.

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John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral (1831) — Trollope wrote that it was while walking in its grounds he conceived his idea for The Warden.

Ellen

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