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Archive for the ‘French culture’ Category

lindseyduchess
Lyndsey N Snyder as the Duchess (We Happy Few)

Britain Global Hamlet
Naeem Hayat as Hamlet (Globe players)

AntigoneEmilyRelva
Emily Relva as Anouilh’s Antigone (Wandering Theater)

Dear friends and readers,

This past week I was privileged to see three absorbingly well-acted productions of profound plays, Monday evening as organized by Capital Fringe Festival: inside a black box theater in an art gallery, a 90 minute version of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, done more or less in modern dress by “We Happy Few” in a small theater where all the seats were sold:

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Duchess of Malfi’s cast and commentary;

Friday evening at the Folger Theater (the whole place much loved by me, now a member of the theater side as well as a reader on the scholar side of the building), a 3 hour Hamlet performed by the London Globe players as part of their tour of welcoming places in 2014 (the 27th stop they said):

Britain Global Hamlet

and late this Saturday afternoon, as organized by Capital Fringe Festival, at the old and once again re-vamped Atlas theater, H Street, NE, a nearly 2 hour version of Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Antigone performed by the Wandering Theater Company who expect to take the production to off-Broadway this coming fall.

Chorus
Clemmie Evans and Jenna Krasowski as two woman chorus for Antigone

I probably enjoyed The Duchess of Malfi the most. It was acted naturalistically with intense forcefulness and the powerful soliloquies contrasting the natural joy of the Duchess marrying her steward, Antonio, against the fierce opposition of her corrupt, rank-obsessed and incestuous brothers’ ferocious what seems crazed perverse opposition struck strong chords. The focus of the production was the lower class male character, Bosola, endlessly murdering and torturing others in the hopeless hope of promotion and big cash, only to be sneered at when he’s done. (Bob Hoskins did this role decades ago.) So it was accessible. I last saw a production on TV when I was 13 when Channel 13 in NYC was first aired. This production de-emphasized Webster’s exploration of meaningless (“look you the stars shine still” says Bosola to the Duchess at one point) for a mirroring of today’s sexually sick religious hypocrisies, glamorized gangsterism, and antagonistic heterosexuality. I went alone and when I returned home (later at night) sat with a plate of tuna and glass of Shiraz wine watching the latest dire news.

A few years ago now Jim and I saw another Globe production of Hamlet at the Folger, and we did not care for it. The actors were acting Elizabeth players performing Hamlet, and the double turn was too distancing. I believe it was the same actress who performed Gertrude (Miranda Foster) and the difference will epitomize why this production succeeded at least with me. She really played Gertrude directly and with modern virtuoso hysteria and subtlety once we were within the play while at its edges, the singing and dancing and movements as we moved from scene to scene she reverted to an actress-player with her lute interacting with other actors and the audience. I just love the dancing of all the performers together at the end — as magically they all rise from imagined death to brilliant life again. This time the group had a lot more effective stage business during the play, some of which was self-reflexive — the trunks they carried about. At deeply felt tragic moments I felt I was near tears (Keith Barlett as Claudius suddenly confessing that indeed he killed the king and it is killing his soul) and cried at Hamlet’s death, but suddenly we swung round for genuinely comic moments: the world is filled with silly and ignorant and dense (in Shakespeare, Polonius, Laertes) unknowing profound (the gravedigger) presences while others understand the tragic ironies of existence. The mix of comedy and tragedy must indeed have seemed barbaric to the French. The audience did not appreciate the this more modified version of the Globe style, but I gathered more what Shakespeare’s text was meant to convey than I’d done since some of the productions of Papp in Central park years ago. Izzy was not sure how much she liked it. You again had to pay attention to the words which went swiftly. Very strong beyond Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude were Rawiri Paratene as Polonius and gravedigger, Tom Lawrence as Horatio, Laertes, Fortinras, Osric.

The players did get a standing ovation. Not only were all seats taken, but I saw chairs brought in for some known TV (WETA) critic types (Robert Aubrey Davis who seemed to be having a good time). Some of this type of clapping is the result of the place, the price paid, a sort of self-validation. For myself I felt the bitter ironies of the exhibit in the great hall on heraldry: Shakespeare had a hard time gaining the coat of arms for his father. Lord how petty and absurd these competitive mortals be. With my membership I did get a complimentary coffee without having to wait on line.

I mentioned the standing ovation because the Wandering Players were not similarly whooped up, and yet their efforts were as strong and perhaps for the audience more successful. The reviewers have been very hard on this production. It is true that their program notes where they say their play is an allegory of American power and abrogation of civil and other individual rights won’t wash. Creon’s self-justification is that of the Nazi collaborators (Vichy leaders in particular): if they didn’t compromise and collaborate it would have been so much more worse, there was nothing (was there?) to be preferred from the different “sides” and the whole controlled dramaturgy very French despite American costuming. Anouilh in fact like Sophocles keeps to non-specific references and that’s why the play applied at times to events happening in the perversely barbaric acts of this week. When Antigone from her place behind an immured wall talks to the callous jailer (who might himself have been murdered had events gone another way) the suggestiveness evoked the torture of solitary confinement in US prisons today. None of the performers were weak.

I write this blog because all three of these productions will recur elsewhere so my reader can perhaps keep an eye out for them. I feel a bit guilty for not having praised strongly one of earliest of the Capital Fringe Festival productions, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, done by the “Rude Mechanicals” at the Goethe Institute. Marcus Salley as Sam was the noble soul. I was deeply moved and stirred, at the same time as I so badly missed Jim I had an episode of what’s called STUG. How I would have enjoyed discussing the stage business and props with him:

Prop

I came home in time to go to Noodles and Company and for the first time in my life bring home a hot meal of pasta for myself — spicey tomato and chicken pieces with some kind of scattered cheese, which I washed down with paisano wine.

I did justice to the witty comedy of Miss Emma’s Match-Making Agency for Literary Characters on my Austen reveries blog.

But I never mentioned anywhere a remarkable concoction written by Chris Braak an directed by Cara Blouin: entitled The Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn, the writer and director took numerous passages from Behn’s plays as well as short fiction of Oroonoko and her letters to her lover, Scott, and her begging pleas to Thomas Killigrew as a debtor in prison to present scenes from Behn’s life interpersed with some of her most intelligent moving commentary on her experience of life. It was that complicated an amalgram it should be published so people (me and others) could read the text before showing up. The players were movement artists more than actors and much was covered through mime. Sarah Robinson was Behn. I’d single out Alexandra Blouin as the bully Lord Willoughby and Jennifer Huttenberg as the sword-wielding Mr Scott. They all had studied later 17th century gestures. The production ought to be redone at conferences where people who can appreciate how the underlying material has been brought to life. Alas I cannot find one photo of the production anywhere on line so fall back on a photo of a young Jeremy Irons as a tough Rover from decades ago:

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as a way of remembering how badly Behn was treated by Scott, Killigrew and most of the men she ever knew, died young, but left 37 plays, many playable, much vivid iconoclastic poetry, translations from subversive French prose and verse, personal letters, and marvelously eloquent epilogues. Germaine Greer’s essay on her life is probably closest to the truth that she survived through sheer nerve, being kept as well as incessant writing.

Thus I managed to join in on some of the Capital Fringe Festival this summer. Jim would buy across the 3 and 1/2 weeks for us probably at least twice as many tickets and we would have gone to rock and concert shows. We would have gone to the final dancing under the tent near Gallery Place where prizes are given out.

Jim would have bought at least a couple of tickets for concerts and operas at Castleton. It’s a 3 hour trip to mid-Virginia by car. Out of the question for me alone. I would have gone to the Castleton Festival through the Jewish Community Center which organized a bus tour package to go to see Madame Butterfly complete with a lunch and lecture, but it was full up by the time I registered. I wonder now what the atmosphere of the place with Loren Mazaal’s death in the middle of the month-long teach-in for students and budding great opera singers and musicians.

This coming Friday evening will be my one effort at Wolf Trap. My friend, Vivian, who comes to the movies with me, will go with Izzy and I to a Mary Chapin Carpenter concert at the big theater, the Filene next week. With both Vivian there, Izzy, google maps and going when it is still light, I hope to learn how to get there and back without an ordeal of suffered anxiety over getting lost.

I am not writing as much about what play and concert going I do because a central inspiration for my blog is gone. My readers probably do not realize how much this was Jim’s as well as my blog. While I did 99% of the writing, many of my blogs were the result of seeing or hearing something with Jim, talking with him before and afterwards and then writing up the ideas and feelings conjured up. He would then read the blog and we’d talk again.

His life was cut off early; like many cancer victims he was destroyed horrifyingly by a disease with cruel indifference by the choice of the society he lived in. I was helpless to do anything for him, and today find myself sometimes asked to pretend it’s okay, that I too am getting over his absence. I am not nor are others similarly devastated and those who agree to collude to pretend do a disservice to those gone and the countless being thrown away or about to be as I write these words. Izzy and I remembered his quiet fun today as we went into DC. She talked of how she sometimes imagines herself talking to him as she leaves her job at the Pentagon, and I how I wish I could get myself to.

I did enjoy, learn, somehow profit from what I experienced and write to advise others to go see these productions if they should turn up in some form near you. And now I retire to read in bed with my two cats nearby.

GirlReadingVanessaBell
Vanessa Bell’s Girl Reading

Ellen

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Actors Serge (Fabrice Luchini) and Gauthier (Lambert Wilson) trade lines and shout scenes from “The Misanthrope”

Dear friends and readers,

My freed-up license continues to enable me to pass the time less desperately. I missed the Cinemart theater film club’s first two films, but as the theater-owner has the custom of moving some of the films to the regular theater if enough people vote favorably for it, I was able to see one of them: its French title is more appropriate: “Alceste à bicyclette,” directed by Philippe Le Guay and written by him and Fabrice Lucini (one of the two central actors). Both our heroes are actors playing aging actors, and turn out to contain as much of Alceste in them as Philinth (the reconcilier, the temporiser, the compromiser). Both travel about the island on bicycles but not while reciting Moliere.

Oncycles

It’s another unusual film worth seeing: a re-do of Moliere’s play in modern terms. I will let other reviewers retell the story (see Stephen Holden, New York Times, this past April). It’s not great. At the end the film does (as Moliere) condemn the misanthrope and assert how one must make the most of whatever cheer this moment offers, whatever pleasure, be an optimist as an act of strength, so it’s not particularly original, even cantish. The story does not relate to this debate directly nor dramatize it adequately. It has some lapses too: slapstick over falling into the water in bicycles whose brakes don’t work; it includes two women clearly because the film-maker thought one must and one of them looks like some throw-back to Brigitte Bardot (all voluptuousness, blonde, wide blue eyes, all sweetness — she recites her lines in a rote way so the rhymes ring out), and the great joke here is she wants to be a porn star. Yes it’s utterly masculinist. The women (there are others, a publicist, a director) remain marginal, not people men confide in, but those who put pressure on the men they have to cope with.

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What is absorbing about it is how the two men rehearse the play and repeat its speeches over and over using different tones and at different points in the story or revelations of their characters, so (as Stephanie Merry of the Washington Post says), we see deeper into the meaning of the words and this meaning changes over the course of the film. Serge almost has a vasectomy in the movie, and pulls back because he (rightly) does not trust the doctors. They are both involved with upper middle class renovations of ancient houses and cottages; confronted with a perfectly good place to live, the first thing they are expected to do is spend oodles renovating it. Sums are mentioned by contractors which reminded me of what contractors tell me. Gaultier almost drowns trying to use a fountain jacuzzi. Francesca’s (Maya Sansa) husband left her for a woman to have children with after he had agreed they did not want children and it was somewhat too late for her. He felt no obligation to stay. The characters remark on how unfair the inequalities we see around us are. It is a film made with a middle class US as well as French audience in mind. Unlike Moliere’s play, this piece is frivolous.

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The themes include acting, what is real and what performance, where does a theater begin and end: Gauthier makes huge sums of money and has a fan-following because he is in this ludicrous medical fiction mini-series on TV, where he plays your usual heroical-moral doctor (reminding me of this parodic role in the superb exploration of these in brilliant comedy Nurse Betty featuring a young Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman); at one point the characters sit down to watch one of the episodes, and Gauthier is mortified as he knows the others are laughing at the show even as they seem to praise it. The film closes with Gaulthier playing Alceste on stage with another actor and we watch the play in traditional costume traditionally done, and this does not come off either. Houses are sets; meals are there to socialize with. The characters are allowed to reveal themselves slowly — it’s a long film (Yvette began to worry when more than 2 and 1/2 hours had gone by and I was not yet back) that they feel like real people and we get involved over the disappointments of their lives. Maybe best of all after the brilliant re-rehearsing is the photography and colors of Île de Ré the characters are in. Soft blues, ivory colors, the waters.

CyclingWithMoliere

island
One ad calls the place “the Martha’s Vineyard of France” (I’ve never been to or am likely to go to Martha’s Vineyard so maybe this is as close as I’ll get …)

So another one not to miss this summer. By this second week it was playing but once a day in the movie-house’s smallest auditorium and there was only one person there besides me and my friend, Vivian. I know 4th of July is not a big one for movies. Still it may not last as its action is verbal, intellectual, intangible emotions, thoughts that are not easily articulated.

As opposed to last year when it was fiercely hot, today was cool in the morning: we were at the edge of an umbrella of clouds from a nearby hurricane; when the sun came out in the afternoon the cool air persisted. So the trip and walk from car to theater and back again were pleasant too.

Ellen

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Fromarehearsal
From a rehearsal of the final scene

Dear friends and readers,

As Izzy wrote, what is most remarkable in retrospect about today’s HD-broadcast of Massenet’s Werther starring the heart-stoppingly handsome, brilliant actor and powerful tenor (he can do light to Wagner opera), Jonas Kaufmann, is it brought home we were watching and listening to it alongside a global community.

Until the middle of Act II (after the single long intermission), the production had felt tepid. Izzy fell asleep. People yawned. No one applauded at any of the turns. As is too frequent with the Met since it instituted its HD transmissions, this was a new but utterly conventional pedestrian interpretation, designed not to offend, to please the eye. The first act all pastoral frozen-smiling gaiety, with Werther providing the only alienated note and not very convincingly against the stilted others. It was Werther seen through the eyes of Austen’s Love and Freindship: how foolish and self-indulgent can you get. If you don’t watch out, your ridiculousness will leave you dead in an over-turned carriage in the wet mud if not in jail for stealing your well-intentioned parent’s money.

Then we were in the second act, and a number of 18th century motifs were visually dramatized. There was Charlotte (Sophie Koch) in her nightgown and robe, reading her letters obsessively. At her writing desk. Pistols in a case. A couple of months after marriage, and she seemed devastated by her loss of this man who wrote these letters. What Sophie feared most is precisely what she cannot live without, the kind of passions she is intensely drawn to and in her deepest emotional life acts out.

Suddenly the door opens and there he is, she falls and he captures her in his arms:

act2Wether

and the music and their singing and acting swept me into the wretched grief of irreparable loss. I had never heard “Pourquoi me reveiller” (why wake me up, ever?) in context. He sang it so beautifully, his expression so unashamedly plangent, I thought of all the nights I have laid there wishing I would never wake up again.

Paris, production the whole number:

New York City, a shorter version:

But let us not be metaphysical or abstract or talk of philosophical interpretations of reality. What if your beloved died? the person who made life worth living. Mine has. And night after night I wish my heart would stop. I sleep in his spot in the bed because I cannot bear that he should not be there. Event after event has occurred which makes my existence a hardship punctuated by harassment. No one to understand, no one to empathize, no one to live within my experience with me. I wish I could want to be dead. With death all that I endure would stop. My problem is I don’t want to die. Why did he let that criminal doctor do what he pleased and then let death happen to him so rapidly?

I began to sob uncontrollably, it was beyond me.

It did not matter in the least that half Goethe’s novel had been omitted by Massenet: in the novel Werther despairs also because he has this godawful job at court, required to be an utter sycophant, he cannot stand the phony socially dysfunctional life (in any real sense) in salons. Everyone out for what he or she can get. In the original Charlotte has married coolly for money and status. He makes a mistake to come to Charlotte for comfort. Nor did it matter that I know in the novel when he arrives, she is indifferent; she, as Thackeray put it, carried on cutting bread and butter. This was not a novel about sex and death as the two production people (Richard Eyre and Rob Howell) told Gelb during the filmed interview even if Massenet’s music corresponded to wild wallowings of lyrical grace. It’s a critique of how society is organized of social life. When it moves into the last sequence of suicide, it’s about loss, grief, misery unending, unbearable, lonelines; that’s the text of the novel. In this opera most is omitted and what is there is changed and the close where Charlotte understands and loves back is an enactment of how one escapes through death if the beloved person is there with you to understand.

So Werther races out of the room and she to her bedroom behind a door. Her husband, Albert (David Bizic) comes in and reading one of these letters, Alberts jealousy prompts him to knock on her door and tell her to send Werther the pistols. She does, but directly afterward regrets it, and then at the back of the stage (much movie technique) we see his room, Charlotte puts on her robe and rushes off to stop Werther from killing himself:

Werther_1

We are then in this room as it takes over the screen. (It reminded me of the way Edward Ferrars’s room in the 1971 S&S was presented — with Robin Ellis as the brooding hero — Marianne is a Werther figure.) The pistols arrive. Werther first tries to shoot himself through the brain. Cannot. Then he tries his chest and does it. He falls and blood all over the place. She now bursts in, they begin to sing and I lost it again. He sung how happy he was to die, and I felt this. For me it would not be that as my beloved is now dead so I cannot die in his arms and not have these last moments. That made me cry all the more. I thought of oblivion as their voices soared.

Then silence. No more sound. The subtitles were there with the words telling the same tale, but the thrill was off. In a way like a silent film. My tears were still down my face as I read the words, but the spell was broken. In the movie-theater I was in, it took a full 3-4 minutes before anyone seemed to get up to go out to the lobby to complain. I heard towards the end of this silence voices from the screen very faint: Izzy was looking at her cell phone, showing me tweets by people complaining they had lost sound. We could not tell if they were in our theater or where they were. One was from a theater in NYC. She now says someone in the audience had a cell phone and was able to reach the sound through a radio station but it was out of sync — for we did hear ever so faintly the voices singing, the music. I lost patience and irritated got up and walked out to find someone to be told that someone was upstairs fixing it, and as she said that, the sound returned. But the opera was over and we were at the applause.

At first I thought it local and felt so angry at myself and others for not rushing out and demanding the sound be put back earlier, but as we walked out two managers were there explaining that the satellite feed had stopped sending sound. Anyone who had a stub for their ticket was welcome to return to the repeat playing of the film on the coming Wednesday night. For me it wasn’t worth it. I did feel the opera production did not come alive until the two central protagonists broke out against all rational embarrassed refusals to recognize someone can feel this way and act upon it. I will be away on Wednesday night anyway.

At home, with the Internet available, Izzy quickly ascertained that the interruption had occurred across the US. For her it was an experience proving to us we are indeed part of a community of listeners and watchers across hundreds and thousands of miles. For me I though of how I Capuletti e i Montecchi came live at the close as the two lovers wake and die together, how in Rusalka what’s worth listening to, is the final scene of the prince’s death in Rusalka’s arms and how she then dives deep into the lake never to come out again. I bought myself a ticket to see the Met La Boheme on April 5th so I may find some release again.

End

Do you know what I am? how I live? What it is to lose and keep losing.

Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my languish, and restore the light;
With dark forgetting of my care return.
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising Sun approve you liars
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow:
Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain,
And never wake to feel the day’s disdain.
— Samuel Daniels

Ellen

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ReneeFlemingblog
Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ‘em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

CharlesMarvilleLandscapeblog

On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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The opening and a montage from Sous les bombes

Dear friends and readers,

If there is anyone who reads this blog who thinks that dropping bombs on the people of Syria is a good way to punish Assad for using out-of-bounds chemical warfare, pray watch this film. It opens with an intertitle about the bombing of Lebanon and then we are on the ground under the bombs with the people. Remember Assad is not going to be bombed — except insofar as a bomb might hit one of his probably super-safe houses; the people of his country are. We watch the bombs explode and it’s terrifying; we see house blown to bits, huge clouds, fireballs, and then the camera cuts to the streets a few days after the devastation has been cleared a bit. Bare outlines of structures, furniture flung and destroyed every which way, cement, rubble, dangerous wires, ruins. The film is shot entirely on location and blended into the fictional typifying story: funerals, aid centers, the streets where commerce goes on, schools, deserts, private houses. The ferocity of a war machine is before you. Dramas of raw stress, loss.

The story & context and mood: A woman, Zelan (Nada Abou Farhat) searches for her sister (dead in one bombing) and her son who was sent to stay with the sister in southern Lebanon — with the help of a cabdriver Tony (Georges Khabbaz) whose brother is exiled in Germany and who appears at first to be acting simply to make money. A bonding between the two emerges over the course of the movie. Context: it is the summer of 2006, and Israel has just unleashed a ferocious 33-day assault on the country. The search takes the pair through the chaos, differing groups of people, kinds of behavior found in a just post-war dangerous landscape, and a history of the south. The mood is not didactic or preach-y: the two stay in a hotel at one point and he has sex with the receptionist; she gradually reveals her upper class privileged background has fallen apart as her husband remains in a center of power, has mistresses. He reveals the political history of his family as Christians, talks of his two sons and wife. This family had thought Israel would help against Muslim fanaticism. They were quickly disabused of such ideas. There’s a curious feel as across the film the woman moves from a sexy western dress to a lightweight scarf on her head and more traditional wrap-around light robe; and as the man moves from irritated driver to complex human being, who can dance traditional dances with glee, who loves his 1975 car as his basis of living — he has to give it up in a desert as it’s a target for cluster bombs. They learn to sympathize with one another.

We see what life is like in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria — the west bank of Israel. As the tall white guys loaded with heavy armory flood the areas now and again, you understand how they are (rightly) seen as the actors of a remorseless set of events indifferent to the fate of the average person on the ground, under the bombs.

One article calls the film powerful protest art and suggest why such art fails partly in terms of the film itself to obtain its object. To stop these wars you have to stop the powerful people in whose individual interest (often not clear to outsiders) these wars are set on foot: arms manufacturers, people who own land and mine it for natural resources, merchants; such a person might not sit through this film (would a slave-owner have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin?); if he or she did, it’s easy to suggest it’s an exaggeration for dramatic effect. This film operates against this trivialization, and is one of a movement of such films about the Middle East. I realize to do real justice say to Obama and those pushing for war we need a Machivelli to do the subtle allegoresis which might explicate how they act and why.

This film’s more than an anti-war film; it’s about the hard maimed lives all around the war that continues after the ceasefires are sounded. For them the war is not over when it’s declared over. It’s a feminist or female-centered vision, women’s and we see how Hezbollah, the resistance movement within Lebanon, ignores the voice of and impact on women and children of their desperate behavior.

A must-see. I wish I could screen it in the next place Obama goes with his war-mongers as background to their hypocritical rhetoric. I say hypocritical for many reasons: the US has used chemical warfare many times, from Agent Orange in Vietnam, to supporting Saddam against the Kurds, to recently blowing Fallujah up with toxic uranium. See Alan Grayson, Florida House Member, on all the things the US gov’t should be spending its money on.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), Sunset from the Forest of Fontainbeau (the Dyke Collection).

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Walter Howell Deverell (1827-54), Twelfth Night (with Elizabeth Siddal) (Pre-Raphaelites first room)

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Susan Herbert, “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid after Edward Burne-Jones”

Dear friends and readers,

Though we hadn’t a good leg or knee between us, and it had rained as in a monsoon in the morning, yesterday afternoon Jim and I set forth to the National Gallery around a quarter to two because we had promised ourselves we would see the much advertised new “blockbuster” show of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It was sunny by then and warm, and by the time we left although I was limping super-slowly, letting myself down the stairs one at a time, and Jim not much better, the experience had been well worth it, though as sometimes happened as much for the “lesser” show, Color, Light and Line, that had not been heralded, trumpeted, advertised, several rooms of quietly brilliant beautiful, unusual 19th & early 20th century French drawings and watercolors (mostly) from the Dyke Collection:

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Gustave Dore (1832-83), A River Gorge in a mountain landscape,

tucked away on the first floor, just before the side entrance of the museum (well after and apart from the ever-expanding Museum shop), as for the Pre-Raphaelites, which despite the large size, unexpected Shakespeare and narrative delights, the delicacy of these, and stunning use of color of other of the paintings, where the colors still sparkled on the canvas

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John Everett Millais (1829-96), Marianna

and originality of still others,

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William Dyce (1806-64), Pegwell Bay

did not teach us anything new about the Pre-Raphaelites as a group.

We learned more about them or their art as a whole a couple of Christmases ago in one of these small unadvertised shows where it was contended the paintings came far more from an interaction of natural landscape, photography, science studies than literary and medieval longings. That it’s easy to make fun of this exhibit, precisely this kind of picture in a group by substituting cats for the people suggests the solemn absurdity of some of the pictures, and the lack of an adequate perspective.

There seemed nothing set before us to make sense of the pictures in the way of an exhibit a couple of years ago. The individual paintings were therefore what one could enjoy, with each of the rooms having a theme. One of the most interesting for me was the one with wallpaper, furniture, tapestries, screens, but nothing was said about Morris or the Pre-Raphaelites politics. Ford Madox Brown’s Work. I put the lack of discourse down to the way just about any decent political talk is simply erased in popular American media. But nothing on religion much either: the Middle Eastern landscapes of Hunt are not presented as landscape natural art but religious iconography (The Scapegoat). Rossetti’s Found (1854, unfinished) was presented as about modern life (!?): how so? were these 19th century Italian outfits? to me, most of all what was the attitude towards sex here.

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(The colors are all blended so that it’s unfinished is part of its charm)

While the paintings often seem to worship female sexuality and reject simple macho-male images, they can equally be seen to proscribe sex altogether. But there was no feminist discourse either. There were some Julia Cameron photos scattered here and there. But no sense of women’s development of an idiom of Pre-Raphaelitism of which there was one (see Deborah Cherry’s book). No Evelyn de Morgan. Nothing to comment on how these girlfriends were used, no comment on a room filled with huge pictures of so-called “beauties” — to me these are grotesque because of the masculine nature of the faces and huge size of the women’s bodies which seem to encompass one.

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This Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is less grotesque than the others, but the face is the same and the allusion to women as dangerous (the apple).

Could the room be about fear? In life certainly these men seemed to be in charge — they had the high status, the money, lived much much longer.

And what is the relationship of this Proserpine to this woman, Jane Morris said to be its model? The photo itself by Wm Morris is a perspective on her so she is endlessly constructed for us:

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The exhibit says nothing

This Elizabeth Siddal, A Lady AFixing a Pennant was there, but no explanation. Gentle reader it’s very small with a modest (very inexpensive) frame:

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So, how easy for Susan Herbert to poke fun:

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Susan Herbert’s “The Awakening after Wm Holman Hunt”

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Susan Herbert’s “Pysche after John William Waterhouse”

One consequence was Susan Herbert’s books — two of them in the shop — seemed appropriate without however as I said ruining any enjoyment of the pictures, and the exhibit downstairs feeling superior. Perhaps perversely, but also because I own reproductions of so many of the famous pictures included in the exhibit instead of buying the catalogue, I bought ($40 cheaper), Susan Herbert’s parody, Pre-Raphaelite Cats.

I recommend seeing the exhibit nevertheless. where and when else will you see these astonishing paintings brought together in one place again? Or ever see any of them? The Pre-Raphaelite paintings project, many of them, complex real psychological states, original, beautiful, make statements worth thinking about on sex, religion, social life, and in one room are made from unusual materials too (tapestries, painted chairs, stain glass windows). Although some painters were unaccountably missing (no John Waterhouse), see it also for the lesser known painters, pictures, sculptors, and the striking famous landscapes. e.g., Dyce’s Pegwell Bay. A favorite for me was Ford Madox Brown’s picture from his window: An English Autumn Afternoon — Hampstead — Scenery (1853).

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There was this exquisite small marble scultpure by Alexander Munro, Paolo and Francesca (remember “that day they read no longer” from Dante?):

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There are many photographs of the company and the women who served them and painted themselves (Siddal, Jane Morris, Jane Burden, Fanny Cornforth, about whom we were told nothing, suddenly she was just there and painted as as “Mouth to be Kissed”). The exhibit ends with some series paintings, one on Perseus: The Rock of Doom, The Doom Fulfilled, and the strangely compelling The Baleful Head, the latter (frozen dead images in a fountain looked down at by Perseus and the maiden) influenced George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.

What seemed to unite the whole show — one sought for something — was finally it literary content, Shakespeare, Scott, a medievalism which became a rationale or cover.

John Anderson’s review of the Pre-Raphaelites (much of it came from the Tate) is not enthusiastic, but Kayleigh Bryant does the movement justice and gives you a slideshow. The exhibition book catalogue expensive but it might come down in price soon.

The shop for the Pre-Raphaelites had the most exquisitely beautiful scarves, sewn exquisitely delicately with strips of velvet. It was all I could do to stop myself from buying one: $60 each so I didn’t. Perhaps they were intended to be there as examples of Pre-Raphaelite kind of craftsmanship or an artistic ideal? If so, no explanation. One was wrapped around a dummy knight.

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I write this blog, then, also to tell of the other exhibit. Color, light, and line.which does not lend itself to cat parodies.

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This George Lemmen was not there, but it represents the quality of the sort of thing by him that was —

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Lemmen was featured as a pointillist and someone who like Vuillard did paintings of the people he lived with doing ordinary domestic tasks — women sewing

Strange these museums and their curators. Not only was the show not advertised (showing a lack of faith in museum-goers), but the catalogue has been printed only as hard-cover and there were few of them in the museum and at high price (over $60). I did buy the catalogue when I came home, on the Net for less than half that price so can’t share many of the pictures and lack the names of the painters and illustrators, several of them relatively unknown.

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Paul Huet, A Meadow at Sunset, pastel

There was a wall of Paul Signacs, Vuillards, Dores, Monets, George Lemmen, Pissaro, Morisot; watercolor, gouache, pen and ink, charcoal, pastel and mixed medium. The periods of art represented include romanticism, realism, impressionism, postimpressionism, pointillism (neo-impressionism), symbolism, the Dykes looked for quality, not coverage, and were delighted to find great work among unknown artists (so were not looking necessarily to make money). Some of my favorites where I can remember the artists’ names were Eugene Isabey, Alexandre Calame, Maxime Lalanne: here’s a selection of small reproductions.

I’ve found a large version of one where you can gather the quality of the paint: Henri-Joseph Harpingies, Autumn Landscape, Washerwoman.

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blog size version

It’s the unexpected that delights us, the unassuming. Many of these were unashamedly romantic: cliffs at twilight, tiny people in forests, near streams. Old people who were nobody. I liked the highly romantic drawings of landscape where there were no people. So often landscapes will have one or two tiny people. Not here.

The Examiner goes over why these colors, light washes, lines should so absorb us, and the nature of the Dyke Collection. The exhibition book catalogue, looks chock-a-block with pictures and has contributions by six people.

There was an informative plaque in tribute to the Dykes who apparently intend to leave most of their collection to the musuem.

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

Both shows eshewed painting the rich, famous, the military and the powerful.

Three more pictures:

Arthur Hughes’s April (click for large size which does justice to the purple coloration) is there:

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(blog size version);

this Maxime Lalanne:

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As to the cats, I recommend at least looking at Herbert’s irreverent fond mockery. Apparently she’s done several such books of art with pussycats, often of Victorian pictures. Herbert’s pictures are here on line if you are so unlucky as not to have a live pussycat with you in your home. Looking at them did lead me to some good books on the history of the cat and the pictures we have of them over the centuries, Caroline Bugler’s The Cat: 3500 Years of Cats in Art.

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Susan Herbert, “Ecce Ancilla Domini after Dante Gabriel Rossetti” (making the expression and stance of the women’s scared eyes in the original — rightly terrified of pregnancy?)

Ellen

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Clear away the barricades/And we’re still there! (Thenadiers) …

But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder … (a lyric in one of the quieter songs) ….

There’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables. Now my friends are dead and gone …

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The 2012 film had last year’s Occupy movement in mind

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Ensemble, Signature Theater, DC/Virginia 2008

Dear friends and readers,

Christmas day we (Jim, myself, Laura & Rob, and Izzy) went to see the musical movie version of Hugo’s Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, an adaptation for commercial film of the original book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, Englished and made Dickensian by James Fenton and Wm Nicolson (lyrics Herbert Kretzmer), produced by at least 9 people, some original (Cameron Mackintosh), some film types (Eric Fellner), featuring most notably and successfully Hugh Jackman as Jean ValJean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine (Izzy said later that after a while all she had to do was she Hathaway and she began to cry):

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Raped, stripped, her very teeth taken from her

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche (this Artful Dodger provided the most unexpected totally alive moments of the production),

Gavroche

Eddie Remayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the young revolutionaries on the 1832 barricades (representing the 1870 uprising which was put down with more killed than in the whole of the 1792-3 so-called Terror), Samantha Barks as Eponine were as a group stronger and more effective than the first quarter or so of the film. I suspect Hooper felt more at home with them than the wildly romantic pursued Valjean. He changed Fantine to be sexual in lieu of a gamine — for me this did make Hugo’s tale relevant for women. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenadiers were faultless but over-directed into exaggerated grotesquerie, and Jim felt that their lines, some of the rawest most powerful in the whole piece, were placed so as to lose the central impact they were meant to have.

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Thenadiers with young Cosette

I found Tom Hooper’s production of intense interest as film, as an instance of what contemporary computer, non-naturalistic and symbolic theatrical, on location, close-up and aggressive film-making can tremendously effect. I’d like to see it again to study how the camera was daringly used to turn the vision of the novel into world-as-nightmare.

The music is as stunningly piercing as ever: I was again unbearably moved by the destruction of Fantine, the heart-break of Eponine, the nobility of Jean Valjean and the soaring revolutionary defiance of Marius and Enjolras. At first I thought Marius the actor who played Bingley in Joe Wright’s P&P (2005) and Enjolras, Elliot Cowan as Darcy in Dan Zeff’s Lost in Austen (2008), both deeply appealing types.

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The film’s Eponine (Samantha Barks) dying in Marius’s arms — both elegant, white, archetypal mainstream in looks

By contrast, Jim said no one could sing (!) and they all held their notes too long, Hugh Jackman was miscast (not so) and the whole production (which he said serious reviewers all agreed with) “a mess,” but apart from Russell Crowe who tried hard but just could not get up the seethingly pro-murderous law-and-order evil of Javier I thought them all stirringly effective and recognized that we had here a typical faithful BBC production. I’ve read about 3/4s of Norman Denny’s translation of Hugo’s novel, and unlike the musical, this film adaptation seemed to go through the book phase-by-phase. I don’t say the film had the original coherence, taste, brilliance of Hooper’s Daniel Deronda for the BBC (2002) or even the poignancy of The King’s Speech (2011), but it not intended to be subtle, but rather to sock its cri de coeur of the disenfranchised and powerless to wide varied audiences, and make huge returns in money.

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Jackson as Jean Valjean, the tender-hearted caring for Fantine, promising to bring up Cosette, her daughter

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I know I need say no more as so many have already, since there have been so many reviews not only on this musical film (among them Miss Izzy), and the many productions, French, the original London, the Broadway one, various intermediary as well as concerts versions, but the straight dramatic films and the musical version Jim thought and still thinks the outstanding best, Eric Schaeffer’s Signature version, with Greg Stone the closest to Hugo’s conception of Jean Valjean I’ve seen:

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and Felicia Curry as an inspired Eponine type:

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But I think we can contribute to the ongoing conversation about Les Miserables. We have now seen or perhaps I should say heard the musical four times. Jim did once read about and attempt to sort out the original pre-production show from its first staging and I’ve also read Notre Dame de Paris (in French this time), and Hugo’s powerful anti-capital punishment novella (The Last Day of a Condemned Man (an English translation). And I watched two recent “straight” films.

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Alphonse LeGros, Le Repas des Pauvres (cover illustration for Hugo’s novel)

The soul in darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who causes the darkness (Denny’s translation of Hugo)

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Before the musical was ever produced it was changed to include an overt providential patterning, religious emotionalism, and images of family types sticking together, with the Thenadiers as hypocritical aberrations we are expected to be amused by.

Jim:

Thirty years ago, Alan Boublil and Claud-Michel Schonberg decided to write a musical adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. By 1980, they had a demo tape, themselves the sole performers: voice and piano. They took it to London and got sufficient backing for John Cameron to orchestrate what they had written and to record it with actual performers. This record is commercially available: call it “the French text.” Both Cameron Macintosh and James Nederlander of New York were interested in producing it, with changes. Nederlander actually optioned it, but the option lapsed.

By some later point in time Macintosh had talked Trevor Nunn into directing it. He brought in the RSC and John Caird. Herbert Kretzmer was hired to write the English lyrics, after James Fenton’s attempt was abandoned. The Macintosh/Nunn/Caird/Kretzmer collaboration was produced, first by the RSC as part of their London season at the Barbican, then by Macintosh in the West End, in 1985. Call this “the English text.”

Three major changes mark strong differences between the French text and the English text: the English text is more religious; the English text is, if anything, conservative politically where the French was more à gauche (to the left); the English text is a much bigger show. Nunn seems to have been responsible for the religious emphasis. The French text had scarcely mentioned God: a couple of “God knows how” sort of phrases and two mentions in Jean Valjean’s final lines, closing the piece.

La lumière, au matin de justice,
puisse enfin décapiter nos vices
dans un monde où Dieu pourrait se plaire
s’il décidait un jour de redescendre sur la terre.

Cosette, aime-le
Marius, aimez-la
qui aime sa femme
sans le savoir, aime Dieu.

Nunn added the scene with the Bishop of Digne; the scene where Jean Valjean wrestles with his conscience: “Who am I”; “Stars”; “Dog eats dog”; “Bring him home” and the dreadful scene where the spirits of Fantine and Eponine flank Jean Valjean as he dies (memory claims they were even dressed in white, but memory is unreliable and sometimes exaggerates for effect).

I add that Hugo is anti-clerical; the priests who harbor Valjean are pariahs and despised by all the other church people we meet. There is no afterlife. “Les Miserables” means not just the wretchedly poor but miserable in a more general sense and includes the outcasts, underdogs, rejected of society, and radical critics and rebels (who often do very badly economically and socially). Take, Book 2: Book 2, “The outcast.” The opening sequence of the movie follows this — prison for no crime at all, cruelty in a long sentence, hounding afterward with no forgiveness or any opportunity to be a productive member of legal society.

In case anyone might think this kind of thing can’t happen, he or she need only read a newspaper or journal article about who goes to prison in the US, for what, for how long, the typical use of extreme solitude (which Atul Gawande in a persuasive article in the New Yorker argued is a form of super-expensive torture): very long prison sentences, no reprieve, for small crimes having to do with drugs. Inside may be a step up for some, but it’s very bad socially. Women’s prisons are even worse than men’s, for they are subject to sexual harassment, parted from their children ruthlessly. Meanwhile bankers steal billions, flout the law and are not even brought to trial.

But the musical takes Hugo in the direction of Thatcher’s 1980s:

Jim:

Some of the depoliticizing between the French and English versions may have been unconscious, the result of removing specifically French references. In the French text, the students are carefully organizing coordinated risings:

Au Pont au Change, toutes les sections sont prêtes
Grantaire attend à la Barrière du Maine
les sculpteurs, les marbriers
tardent à se joindre à nous
mais les maçons de Montreuil
seront tous au rendez-vous

In the English text, they seem to take it on themselves to rise, because who wants to confuse the audience with the masons of Montreil. But “Empty chairs and empty tables”, added for the English text, clearly condemns the students: “Don’t ask me/What your sacrifice was for.” More, Javert, in the French text, is not really to be taken seriously. In the English text, thanks to “Stars”, he’s the second leading man.

Nunn also made Les Misérables a grandiose show. DCist in its theater preview wondered how Signature would fit it into “much smaller quarters than usually house the famous turntable-style set.” Nunn had added choruses, he added scenes, some, like “Turning”, quite unnecessary. Nunn justified “Turning” on the grounds that the women didn’t have enough to do otherwise. Of course he then used the revolving set to manage the quick scene changes. All these changes made the show worse.

I don’t mean to say that in all aspects the English text is worse than the French text. Many of Kretzmer’s lyrics are much better than those of Boublil/Schonberg. The bridge of “I dreamed a dream”, for example: “But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder.” There is nothing remotely like that in the French text. The best line in the show, from Madame Thénardier, I’m sorry, Mme. La Baronne Thenard, in “Beggars at the feast”: “Clear away the barricades and we’re still here” (perhaps the profoundest line in contemporary theater), was added. “Beggars at the feast” is the reprise of “Master of the house” which bulks up and makes rollicking — and Dickensian. Nunn had directed Nicholas Nickleby — “Devise d’un cabaretier” where Thénardier complains he is one “qu’une destinée contraîre a planté dans ce canton” and thus has become, perforce, an innkeeper)

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The 2008 production had La Boheme not Dickens A Tale of Two Cities in mind

Jim had gone up to Eric Schaeffer, to say this Signature production was better than the London production we had seen years ago. “This sounded better than it was, since the London production had left me rather cold.”

Jim:

Schaeffer managed, in the Signature production, to minimize these changes. He could do nothing with the religion and politics that are baked into the English text. One cannot not sing “Stars” or “Bring him home.” And Javert did take the penultimate curtain call. But he could and did de-emphasize at least some. The business with the saintly Bishop of Digne went quick. In the final scene, Fantine and Eponine sang with Jean Valjean, but they stayed on catwalks leading to the stage (and neither dressed in white).

And he made the show intimate. The MAX theater is a black box. For this production it seated around 250. It was set up as a thrust stage, with two catwalks leading to the corners of the box, screened at the back. Sliding doors in the screen allowed mass movements onto the stage (for choral entrances or the barricade). The orchestra (two winds, five brass, three keyboards, guitar, bass, two percussion) was set on a balcony behind the screen, the conductor’s image on two screens visible from the stage. The audience, then, was on three sides. No more than six rows on any one side. Every member of the audience was closer to the cast than any member of the audience would have been in a conventional proscenium theater with the orchestra in a pit between the audience and stage.

In this setting, he brought out the quiet elements of the score. There are many. Of the 28 numbers, a majority are either soliloquys or conversations. We eavesdrop, up close, on them. The actors eavesdrop with us. In “A heart full of love”, Eponine is on the catwalk, members of the audience on either side of her, as she overhears Cosette and Marius (the same location, exactly, as she will occupy in the second act finale). She is suddenly lit as she reacts. We do not know how long she has been there. She is us. And we sympathise. Schaeffer doesn’t shrink from the noisier numbers. “Master of the house” is duly rollicking. He accepts the Dickensian parallels: Cosette in Paris reminds us of no-one more than Lucy Manette.

But the heart of this production are the quiet lyric pieces: “I dreamed a dream”, “Who am I”, Fantine and Jean Valjean’s duet around her deathbed, “Stars”, “In my life”, “A heart full of love”, “On my own”, “A little fall of rain”, “Drink to me”, “Bring him home”, Javert’s suicide, and, yes, the second act finale.

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To conclude,

There have been 19 (!) film adaptations, most recently a French mini-series with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovich as Javert, and in 1998 an English, with Liam Neeson as a noble Jean Valjean; Geoffrey Rush as Javert (hard and steely), Uma Thurman as Fantine (the raped Cecile in Les Liaisions Dangereuses), Hans Mathisen as Marius (deeply felt), Ann-Marie Duff (wry, realistic) the last two also in Davies’s adaptation of Dr Zhivago. Depardieu practically stands for France (remember Martin Guerre) and Malkovich (Valmont, Jekyll-Hyde) has had a long career playing evil types; the English cast shows the connection between Zhivago and Hugo. Five translations into English are available.

The story, characters, events are a parable for our time.

To turn it into a film musical with the whole repertoire of montage, location, psychological in-depth acting is to make it more available to everyone. On Christmas day almost every seat in the auditorium was taken. We were just in time and had to sit in the front row.

I remember that in London Patti LuPone sang Fantine, but she was far away — we were in the back of the orchestra. Anne Hathaway is right on top of us, close up, the story made utterly contemporary. When she sang the pain goes on and on I found myself remembering my own anguish. I was rooting for Enjolras all the way.

ENJOLRAS

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!

(I wish).

Izzy is right. You need not see this version probably. Jim is right too: perhaps another would be more thrillingly sung. This was over-produced and not controlled enough. But I would say not only don’t miss it, but also read the book, go on to Notre Dame de Paris and then The Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man. Les Miserables‘ vision is more than of the wretched of the earth; he shows how such wretchedness is made deliberately and what it feels like to be hunted down, scorned, fearful, alone. Don’t skip the supposed digressions (Waterloo for example): the history, analysis of how society is organized into exclusionary cliques, the skewed values of church and courts passionately laid out and as relevant today as ever.

Ellen

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