Posts Tagged ‘European Renaissance’

The evocative set

Richard and Stanley right behind him

Dear friends and readers,

This is to add to a chorus of praise for the production of Richard III playing this month through early March of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Folger. Izzy and I saw it tonight and by the time we were into the second half, enjoyed it enormously, were thoroughly absorbed.

As might be seen by my comparative qualification, I don’t quite agree with the estatic insights some reviewers have been attributing to the play. I’ve seen it so many times, and Izzy almost as many, and we agreed we’ve seen many a superior one: to name just a few, Ian McKellen as Richard III as a Hitler type in the film (and Jim and I also saw it on stage); Laurence Oliver’s film (where Ralph Richardson as Buckingham managed to steal the show); the Washington Shakespeare’s great version (a parable about politicians) a few years ago now at the Arlington theater; one I saw years ago with Stacey Keach as Richard III. The play is popular — it is just deliciously over-the-top for an ensemble cast and rich for a great actor) and frequently done in part or as a whole. This production was disappointing during the first half. The declaiming style used throughout could not accommodate the black and nervy humor of the first half: many jokes just thrown away and lost. Richard’s “We are not safe” to Clarence as Clarence is taken off to be murdered at Richard’s instigation fell flat.

There is something effeminate (a fine thing to be by the way) in Richard III (as there is Richard II) and this was erased utterly — can’t have that in this macho male world of long leather coats, and heavy armor and weapons. In fact the costumes recalled the way we see police dressed in the US when they attack crowds (say Occupy groups) or shut down and swarm all over a city (say Boston). Cortese was superb

Drew Cortese as Richard III,

but he also seemed unwilling to unbend and the worst scene of the play (though it was effective as Shakespeare’s scene is striking) was the one where Richard wooes Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) in front of her husband’s bleeding corpse.


Cortese kept his distance and his dignity; what he should have done is sidled up to her, and engaged physically with her, alluring and luring. They didn’t even obey the stage directions which include a comment about how she had thrown the sword he gave her to push through his heart on the ground: they kept the line, but she didn’t throw the sword until well after he uttered the line.

The nervousness of the usual scenes in the first half often leads to cutting the second half where the mood become direct and hard-hitting and this is where this production came into its own. What it had to add to the all the productions I’ve seen before was it was utterly traditional — as we might imagine it. In fact they risked slight parody (a la Beyond the Fringe) as they marched on and off the stage, declaiming at one another at the top of their voices with their bodies just writhing and just standing in place. No lines were left out, no scenes cut.


The reviews I’ve read have strangely left out two important themes of the production: the way characters were killed was in imitation of Sweeney Todd, that modern neurotic nightmare of slaughter. There were squares and triangles in the floor which would open up and the assassin would come along and slit the person’s throat, or pull them down and we’d hear some sort of thump, clang; the repetition of this was effective. These holes in the ground allowed for continual allusions to the finding of the much decayed corpse of Richard III in 2012 in a parking lot in Leicester, England. The program notes were all about this, and this corpse & parking lot were continually evoked on stage. The lights underground were parking lot lights. The corpse of Anne’s husband was wrapped like a mummy one finds in a excavation of a site where savage rituals were performed.

UK - King Richard III Discovery

A contemporary gothic all right.

This evocation may have been meant (the program notes suggest this) to remind the audience that although this version of Richard III as malign and deformed may be a Tudor myth, based on More’s biography intended to please Henry VIII; nonetheless, a terrible reality gave rise to this fascinating dramatization of the criminal and desperate behavior of the aristocrats of the UK in the 15th century. The women were the desperate mourners (Nanna Ingvarsson came through as a great actress once again as the Duchess of York in her set-tos with her vile son, Richard) or worked upon to give in in order to salvage something or appear too. Richard’s seducing of Queen Elizabeth (Jula Motyka) paralleled his seducing of Anne:


He is offering her a replacement of a possible future and safety if she will allow him to marry her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk). I liked especially that the production conveyed by costumes and gestures that when Henry VII took over and the Princess is brought by her mother to stand by his side, that we not having any improvement. This man is such another perhaps as Richard was — whose death has a certain desperate pathos – throat slit just as he goes down the hole and cries “a horse, my horse … my kingdom for a horse … “. A parable for our time, and depiction of how the real corpse that was found got there.

I could see the audience was not gone on the production until the second half either. The actors brought the audience in as if they were London citizens and the audience at one point obliged by clapping. People like to be amused and there was laughter at the some obvious stage business like jokes during Richard’s hypocritical refusal of the crown. Some of the best secondary male performances came out here. Richard Sheridan Willis as Stanley in dark-colored glasses with his sheaf of papers and fear for his son but determined betrayal of Richard III evoked a modern day powerful minister backing up whoever is in power by whatever means necessary.


So don’t miss it; it’s another winner for this new Shakespeare all the time group at the Folger. As to our personal experience, see Under the Sign of Sylvia.


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And she to me: ‘There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery …
One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot — how love had overcome him …
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth …’ Dante, Inferno 5, translated Allen Mandelbaum

Francesca da Riminiactoneblog
Act One: the stage scene as a whole

Act One: Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) and Paolo (Marcello Giordani) meet: he pretends to be her bethrothed

Dear friends and readers,

The 1984 Pre-Raphaelite picturesque production of Riccardo Zandoni’s Francesca da Rimini (libretto Tito Ricordi) is wonderfully absorbing in its HD Met Opera format (conductor Marco Armiliato; production Pero Faggioni; set designer Ezio Frigerio; costume designer Frana Squarciapino, lighting Gil Wechsler). I had not expected to enjoy it so much. Breaking through the fussily-decorated elaborate Pre-Raphaelite picturesque and early 20th century art deco decor, its core and action are fuelled by primary passion: the coerced marriage of Francesca (Eva-Maria Westbrook) secured by trickery: Paolo (Marcello Giordnai), the youngest handsome brother of the groom allows himself to be presented as the groom); these desperate adulterous lovers driven passionate in the way of Cavalliero Rusticano or Il Pagliaccio; the violent brutish lame murderous anguished husband, Giancioot (Mark Delavan); the even more brutal vengeful one-eyed malacious younger brother, Malatsetino (Robert Brubaker).

It’s the stuff of a verismo tale except occurring among aristocrats of the 13th century, and first turned into literature by Dante who presents the lovers after death in fifth circle of hell,

… a place where every light is muted …
The hellish hurricane , which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence;
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them … (Inferno 5)

“damned because they sinned within the flesh … now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them./There is no hope that ever comforts them — no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.”

The story has a basis in actual events, and before this 1914 opera after a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio whose language came through the modern English subtitles (“The stars are drowned in the sea” Paolo says), the story had been told in many versions, staged, sung, painted mostly (it seems in Pre-Raphaelite style). Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855) tells the spiritual after-death Dante version:


but Alexandre Cabanel (1870) prefers the theatrical murder (reminding me of Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, which is just now hanging at the National Gallery in DC, part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit):


What distinguishes this opera is its highly dramatic play with effective vigorous scenes, sung to music said to be a mix of Strauss, Puccini and Debussy: the love duet at the close of the second act which in the required way the lovers are reading of Lancelot, let the book fall and then “read no more” is just sweepingly swayingly lush,


It ended as swiftly as Cav and Pag; the words were simple and music felt sudden and elemental at the close: the lovers are stabbed to death and the bodies drop on the stairs, with the actors making sure they ended up flung over one another.

It was said the production was revived because Westbrook asked for this, and she sang and acted her part to perfection. She did carry the opera; she was hardly ever not there, and was endlessly singing. She got to wear the loveliest of embroidered costumes. In her interview she insisted the story was not just credible; coerced marriage happens still today. This is a big disingenuous since the motives given the lovers are hopelessly lachrymose and ethical, but the situation is given bite by ferocity of the behavior of the husband and his demented brother. Delvan was powerful, Brubaker memorable, especially when threatening Francesca and then going down below to behead a man in the midst of being tortured and screaming. Jim said Giordani sung weakly; I wished the lines about him had said she loved him for his goodness and kindness, for he’s not handsome, nothing like a Rufus Sewell.

The opera is fleshed out by Water Scott like happening: a comic minstrel opens the piece, offering to serenade Francesca’s ladies with the story of Tristan and Isolde (anticipating the story to come) — we are led to fear for his life because at the hands of these criminal males. Her ladies were characterized enough, her sister (a kind of Dido relationship):


A supposed battle takes place in Act 2 which is not convincing as the production did not take advantage of modern screen computer techniques at all. It was grotesque, with a gold-layered siege ram set on fire (like something taken from an Aida set). In act three a bloody head is flung about in a pillow case.

Francesca da Rimini
Delavan as Gianciotto in a Walter Scott-like knight-warrior outfit (aware he is a bad guy in the interview he asked our “hostess” what she had in her wallet)

And what a pleasure it was to see a new great grand opera. While I knew the story of course (the opera audience does not practice the inhibiting nonsense of no-spoilers), I had no idea how it would work out as an experience. The surprise element added to my experience.

Any flaws? well, yes. It just took too long between scenes which intervals sometimes seemed much longer than the acts. At one point the camera cut away far too quickly from a genuinely moving scene to Sondar Radvanovksy as “hostess” which her commercial blurb and hype. While we really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes setting up of the scenery and curtains, and painted flats, there was just too much of it, and it made the production feel as staid as some Victorian drawing-room. I’d love to see a new post-modern kind of production, with maybe a mimed scene of the woman raped by the husband, a far more effectively suggestive violence for the battles, and a mimed-coda added on where we see the lovers in hell. In Claus Guth fashion, it could critique even Dante for punishing those whom life had punished enough.

Rodin’s The Kiss (1888), said to be originally titled Francesca da Rimini

As to the play itself, there was something funny to see the principles act out the love scene over a book, and wait for the book to drop. Everyone accepted this because it was in Dante. More seriously, while here was the inevitable falsifying of sexual life so that what was the real horror of this situation, marital rape, was obscured from view; as Izzy said, the “lesson” of the play was not that adultery was evil. The lovers are not evil. It was deceit and brutality that were the evils in this opera. So it had no trouble speaking to our time. As Maria Stuarda seems to have not been revived for decades and now is utterly a propos, so Francesca da Rimini, if revived for a diva, seemed to please the audience strongly for its fable and presentation, which (to refer to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit’s comments on my blog), revealed a pseudo-medieval, literary highly sexually liberated (for the men) art fit the pre WW1 world.

Few women in the arts or as patrons have interested themselves in her story. Josephine Bonaparte bought a 19th century painting of the story; Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play was written for Eleanore Duse:

Eleanore Duse as Francesca da Rimini (1901)

and Olga Gorelli, a 20th century Italian composer wrote some music.
Renata Scotto played the part with Placido Domingo as Paolo, and Cornell MacNeil as Gianciotti in 1984, the production now available as a DVD.


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Michael Benz was a superlative Hamlet — within the limits of the kind of acting used

Dear friends and readers,

Jim and went out last night to see the London Globe company act Hamlet at our Folger Shakespeare Library. Like last time (8 summers ago now, in the Globe Theater itself in London where we were groundlings), the company’s way of doing the plays left me cold. They again enacted actors acting the parts. For me the result is too stylized.

The dress this time reminded me of the way people costume the rude mechanicals in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and before the play started two actors, one playing Polonius (Christopher Saul) and one Claudius (Dickon Tyrell, a superbly effective presence even in stylized patterns), mingled with the audience. They were people like us you see, their costumes not so different from ours. The era imitated was 1940s mostly, with Miranda Foster having her hair in a snood, buns on top of her head, seamed stockings, 1940s pump shows. One problem was, why 1940s? This choice of era was not addressed. Like the Shenandoah play, the company do it in the light. Minimal props. I loved all this in a way. And I can’t really complain that they depend wholly on the lines spoken beautifully in a talk way. That means you’ve got to listen — and you appreciate the words both how they still speak to us and how they are Elizabethan in feel, outlook, nuance. But during the intermission I heard people talking about how hard it was for them to keep up, to follow. Those who had read the play rejoiced. I’ve read it many times so I could follow. I loved the folk dancing before and aft. They do get across the comic moments of Shakespeare’s even most pessimistic of plays.

A couple of the younger actors were weak. There were but 8 of them, lots of thoughtful doubling. Tom Lawrence most notably as Horatio stood out as somehow embodying a quintessential English Renaissance player look. The actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came in with sheepish comic looks, carrying suitcases, tennis rackets, vacation stuff. The whole feel alluded to Stoppard’s play — so the aesthetic control could be broken to allude to another art world.

But finally I prefer modern psychological enactment because I was not moved until near the end. The acting keeps me at a distance: the pace is too quick, and the gestures somehow slightly frozen, graceful in frenetism would be the way I’d characterize the Hamlet-Gertrude hard encounter. The American Shakespeare Company players (formerly Shenandoah express) do their plays using modern psychological mimesis with direct connections to our lives and norms today. I also much preferred the more abridged Hamlet we saw this summer: this Globe version was shortened too, lines sweated, here and there a speech omitted).

Go see it as an attempt to bridge the past into the present.

For a list of the company, director and notes, see Globe on Tour with Hamlet (they come to the Folger).


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John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Patrick Earl as Giovanni, the lover-brother, and Denice Mahler as his sister-lover, Annabella), from the ASC’s production 2012

Dear friends and readers,

This is a “must-see” production. So wrote the “Mid-Atlantic Travel Blogger” who while anonymous had enough clout to see a “private” performance of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by the group who used to call themselves “The Shenandoah Shakespeare”. He or she couldn’t or doesn’t explain why; indeed seemed puzzled how such a “twisted” play could please, and put it down to “shock.”

Within a few seconds of the start of the second act, I realized this was the production Ford’s daring play calls for: its note throughout is a gleeful exposure of the angry cynicism, amorality or sheer stupidity (imbecility) of all the authority figures of the play: some are amoral such as the cardinal (Rick Blunt), who is disinclined to prosecute the murder of one citizen because the murderer has some connections, and who gathers up all the gold left by dead strewn across the stage at the play’s close; some are justifiably cynical like Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), rejected wife of a nobleman; or Vasques (Eugene Douglas) a kind of Iago who pronounces moral lessons. There are simpletons who enforce unexamined norms: Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens), Annabella’s father who forces her to marry the vicious treacherous Soranzo (Jake Mahler). There are the complicit for their own appetites and interest’s sake, Putana, Annabella’s “nurse” (Bridget Rue as brothel madam); Grimaldi, willing to murder at the drop of a sword (typical type of this era, played by Michael Amendola). Dark farce is the way much of these interactions are performed, with over-the-top garishly sexual costuming for the women. The story is complicated but it’s told simply at wikipedia).

Really though there’s nothing new here for us in 2012. Old hat since Marat/Sade. What is startling and commendable is from the second part of the play on, the players did Giovanni and Annabella’s love for one another as totally passionate, a beautiful thing, two souls made for one another with the most idealistic soaring of the spirit. Here’s Annabella telling Soranza what Giovanni is:

This noble creature was in every part
So angel-like, so glorious, that a woman
Who had not been but human, as was I,
Would have kneeled to him, and have begged for love.
You! why you are not worthy once to name
His name without true worship, or indeed,
Unless you kneeled, to hear another name him. (Act 3, sc 3)

The look of aspiration in Earl’s eyes is pitch perfect:

The twisting of this young man from within until he goes mad by the end of the act and himself cruelly murders Annabella (Othello-like, and Ford alludes to Othello, he cannot bear to have his woman taken by Soranzo nightly) and stalks about covered with the blood of Soranzo crazed and vehemently assailing the world from the top of his lungs on the top of a high table — these final moments are where the plot-design of the whole play had been heading.

As ever, our players “did it with the lights on,” and so they had no technology to rivet or distract us with. Earl as Giovanni was up to absorbing an audience into awed silence watching him. At the play’s close he has not the problem of what to do next since Vasques comes up to stab him from behind and then has his hired assassins (several in black who turn up whenever needed) to finish the job off:

The woman imitates a police offer, the men without the religious symbols FBI and spy-detective types, and then there’s a priest

The second half of this production was thus much braver than the Capital Fringe Festival group two summers ago who drew out of an abridged version of the play a socially acceptable feminist moral: at one point Annabella tells us (in this production from a high window) we are seeing “A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy (Act 5, sc 1). But the dignity with which she is endowed, and the way the previous production managed to suggest this play was about men oppressing women was not followed here. This Annabella grovels on the floor:

The lines emphasized are those which present the two people as gripped by love, unable to do without one another surrounded by these “vile” types. The production used “mash-up” techniques for the intermission and during the play we were treated to 1950s rock-n-roll ballads that were very familiar to me, strains of them which I could not quite place: about love a blind passion, about loneliness. Soranzo’s bullying becomes a raping of Annabella nightly instead of justifiable rage at finding himself stuck with a pregnant woman who will not tell her lover’s name; he orders her to bed (the lines are there) where he will again do what he wants. Coerced marriage is rape.

The play put me in mind of Simon Raven’s unfortunately little known masterpiece novel, Fielding Gray: the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail and abuse. Heterosexuals can be as nasty and horrible as they please in their sex life, it remains okay as it’s heterosexual; homosexual sex is not prima facie no good in itself; it’s what the society does to it that makes it base and wild (see my blog on Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty). So too incest here. Ford’s play differs from the many Jacobean plays enacting incest or incestuous desires and vicarious sex (Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Middleton’s Women Beware Women): Ford empathizes with the lovers. As Eric Minton puts it, Giovanni and Annabella are just these “true-hearted individuals who just happen to have fallen in love with someone sprung from the same womb. Theirs may be the squirmiest sin, but many other characters prove more loathsome in their violent natures, their greed, their infatuation with revenge, and their self-serving self-righteous.” Minton then goes over the downright silly in the play but omits one young woman, Philotis (Bridget Rue), who is sent to a nunnery in a sort of daze: she had on a shiny satiny skirt with a petticoat which reminded me of outfits made for little girls who are given tap-dancing lessons by middle class US parents for the once-a-year stage performance.

Alas though, reading the Mid-Atlantic Traveler, and finding hardly any reviews of this play, and remembering how the previous production I have seen (so to speak) normalizes the action in terms of 20th century values, perhaps the players and their director were rightly cautious in the introduction and first half. They had an added on introduction which both trivialized the coming play and warned us against it, going so far as to tell us Giovanni was a bad villain. It was all a joke we were going to see, but if we couldn’t take some (whisper the word) “incest,” perhaps we shouldn’t stay. Then the first act had the actors at first turning to the audience as if to ask for boos. What they discovered was there were several fools in the first row who took this seriously and began to call out heckling comments which was then half-clapped by further idiots further back. The play-acting in this first act was oddly artificial and over-the-top strident, rather like a clown show. The way of playing the love of Giovanni and Annabella and the betrayals of the other characters seemed to suggest it was a mystery what could possibly have fuelled Ford to write such a ridiculous piece. Maybe the heckling did some good, for I could see the actors begin to stop appealing to the audience, back off, speed up, though not until the second act did the front row people begin to realize they were not supposed to boo Giovanni or call him out as a “bad guy.” Perhaps the gouging out of Putana’s eyes after Vasques manipulates and deludes her into revealing that Annabella’s lover is Giovanni did the trick to silence them. I admit they interfered with my enjoyment in the first act and was relieved when they fell silent.

During the intermission for the first time in all the many times I have seen ASC productions (a lot of them by now), I began to think well, at long last they have goofed. Or maybe it was that in such a conservative era, and in this mid-Virginia Shenandoah valley (not so far off is Evangelical Jerry Falwell country) they were scared off of doing justice to the very material they had chosen. I might have suggested to Jim we go home, only it had been a 3 hour drive to get there. But I remembered the choice of ’50s music during the intermission and hoped it was deliberate and stayed.

In the event, the actors switched gears totally and the last hour and a half was magnificent in energy, bravura, acting, poignancy.

From a Brooklyn Academy of Music production

It may be that the day we went there just happened to be a number of naive audience members in the first row. I have seen actors on stage make the mistake of inviting an audience slightly to cut up, and have to actually not just back up but even half-scold said audience to get them to be courteous in their interactions again. One must not forget that the actors on a stage are in a state of abjection to the audience: they may seem to be individually triumphing, releasing themselves, showing off, but they are performing for us, nailed down to their scripts, often showing themselves, costumed in dangerously vulnerable ways. Actors have sometimes had overtly to separate themselves from evil characters to protect themselves from the audience’s identification of them with their roles. I have read insightful accounts of theater which make this point about the reality of the actor’s rightly unacknowleged position of supplication (See Kristina Straub’s Sexual Suspects: 18th Century Players and Ideology on the long-hard slog actors of the 18th century performed to gain respect stop heckling and abuse, and protect the actresses.) I had not actually experienced what this means before this.

Jim had a different take — while just as surely recommending going to see it if you are at all within driving distance. Over dinner Jim argued that Ford is playing with ideas, at a distance from them (in the way I think of the Fletcher plays, Middleton and Massinger in his comedies). The play, Jim says, is misogynistic. Ford judges Annabella to be a whore, using the term in a general vilifying way to mean any woman who has sex outside marriage even if with just one man. (Izzy protested that Annabella cannot be a whole because she is paid nothing, has no money; she used the 20th century definition of whore means prostitute which is the way I use the term.) Jim maintains the text of the play blames Annabella. Her looseness starts the evil spreading. PUtano had it coming to her. Vasques is the Vindice (revenger on behalf of God and providence) character and that’s why he is left standing. Jim suggested that since a modern audience would dislike this very much, and want to empathize with a tragic character and feel for the victims, the people who do Ford must alter the play into black farce. Then we don’t worry who is to blame. Or they can, like the Capital Fringe people, impose a modern anti-misogynistic message by abridging.

Tragic heroine from The Broken Heart

I’m not sure. I find it hard not to read Ford’s The Broken Heart as feminist. If we are to blame Annabella, why not Giovanni who is cursed by several authority figures in the play. Surely Soranzo. Vasques recalls Shakespeare’s Iago.

So don’t miss the play. This is a play where the behavior spectacle of the audience may become part of the play and the play itself of real interest.


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Robert Fripp’s website

Dear readers and friends,

I am honored and delighted to have a guest blogger today. Robert Fripp, the author of Dark Sovereign, a thoroughly researched play that does justice to Richard III. Robert came across my blog-review of the WSC’s production of Richard III: WSC Richard III: a parable about politicians. He liked what I wrote and was prompted to write himself about this king and his play here:

Richard III: Receiving emergency care after mauling by Shakespeare

Discussing Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III, Ellen recently wrote, “They [the WSC] mean to take [Richard III] into the 21st century; as the director says, it’s not a history play anyway (as nowadays we know Shakespeare was repeating heavily shaped Tudor propaganda).”

“It’s not a history play anyway.” Too true. Shakespeare’s Richard III comes close to emulating British pantomime, where a rough-looking male with five o’clock shadow plays a wicked step-mother, and the leading lad is a nubile young woman in tight-fitting Robin Hood garb. Shakespeare’s Richard III goes far beyond character assassination. It crosses the line into farce.

Someday we may recognize 1983 as a watershed year in the history of research and reportage on the subject of Richard III; not because 1983 marked the 500th anniversary of Richard’s accession to the throne. Rather, because a current affairs television producer in Toronto (me) got so fed up with the quasi-history and fabulous (in the literal sense) character assassination of Richard III that I started writing a “better” play than Shakespeare to produce a plausible King Richard. I’ve written my play, Dark Sovereign, in the English it was available to for Shakespeare—which I learned to write “fluently.”

Strange projects may spawn stranger outcomes. Whether Dark Sovereign lives or dies as a play, overnight it is now the longest drama written in Renaissance English. Dark Sovereign bumps Hamlet and Richard III from being the first and second longest down to being second and third. I never intended Dark Sovereign to be performed at full length. My Introduction invites directors “to grab a machete and roll up their sleeves.”

Now to our new Richard III. As a boy, he took military training at Middleham Castle, in the North Riding of a northern county, Yorkshire. Much later, he married Lady Anne Neville, who grew up at Middleham. In Dark Sovereign, before Richard proposes to Anne, Robert has Richard remind her:

” ‘Twas in your father’s house I learn’d to war.
Remember wi’ yourself, how I bethought was
to play David in Golias’ armour;
whilst did you, a little golden girl, sit out and pick pied daisies.”

Five hundred years after the king’s death in battle, two Richard IIIs stalk England. Shakespeare’s ambitious psychotic still enjoys a warm welcome in the South. But many Northerners won’t hear a bad word against Richard. In many respects he was a benign governor in the North. When you enter a pub in Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester or York, be careful what you say.

For nearly a decade Richard served as military commander in the North, defending the border against Scottish raiders on behalf of his brother, King Edward IV. In Dark Sovereign, a letter informs Richard that King Edward’s ambitious queen, Elizabeth Woodville, appears to be reaching for regal command herself, and Richard’s allies demand that he hurry to London. Richard angrily responds:

Richard: “I am to Edward shield and general captain
in the office of a wall against the Scot.
But these would have me hole the wall,
lay down my arms, quit vigilance, invite invasion.
Is England so phantastically king’d, that I
—while Scotsmen ravish English wives—
must haste to London,
there to save my brother from his queen?
Psha! Though it be comfort-killing, yet the Border is my stage.
I’ll order myself in the play I have in hand.”

When King Edward dies, Queen Elizabeth Woodville is able to use Edward’s underage heir, their son, as a rubber stamp to enact mischievous policy. Richard in turn is forced to react. Given the opportunity to seize the boy, he joins forces with Harry, Duke of Buckingham, who reminds Richard how many members of his immediate family had already been killed during England’s war for dynastic power:

BUCKINGHAM: “Our hurt’s not small;
no more is the common griefs of England.
Spare for no cost, no more than if it were the cause of all.
          A time and times the Rose that bare you
wept death-wearied tears for York, which,
claiming England’s dear-bought majesty,
did quit it debt with dearest blood. [110]
‘Twere the devil’s undeserving profit, did your father
—his three sons withal—untimely fall in grave.
For nothing!
          To sway the diadem doth mitigate abominations.
To lose the rule were death. And treason.
Standing: I’ll take me out a pissing while.
I’d purge the wine of fellowship on daisies.”

“Alone. At last alonely and alone.
The nighted hours pass, a quiet wilderness without,
contráry to the noise keeps coil within … [120]
          … How should I think? nor why, with voice of word,
lend mettle and substantial form to thought?
Springs up this maund’ring from a sudden fury of the night?
or wells it from a lock’d up inly fount? …
          … ‘Tis said the soul is fed with charity,
but charity contendeth ever to prevail upon base fearful parts.
The mind of man is wax, wherein old use sets to his seal. [130]
I’faith, it is his learn’d experience breeds each his habitus.
This man, this habitus, is phoenix-like his gather’d self,
but wanting Charity’s pure phoenix-fire
came to his years unpurified.
Seldom suck’d I Charity wi’ nurses’ milk.
How the devil can I express her?”

At this point, Richard broaches a topic much debated in late medieval and early modern times. Dante Alighieri had introduced this question in his Divine Comedy: Does the Will or Reason provoke action?

“Whence welleth thought? and whither flows?
Being mine alone, I speak to me alone. But which self speaks?
and whether, as Another I, doth arbitrate his thought,
I may not know. Some humour feeds the tongue, [140]
which, being feeding, moves noise, so.
Other chooseth out th’opinion ears give audience
and which reject, as they were darts turn’d by a buckler.”
          Lights: Dawn breaks.

Enter BUCKINGHAM silently. He listens.

“Speaks Reason to my Will?
or doth proud Will to Reason speak?
The Comedy did anciently set forth how wayward Will
strove with his government, the passive voice of Reason.
O, would I wist which captain order’d thought,
Prescrib’d it me, dictated every deed.
Whether doth the Will or Reason urge me fasten on occasion [150]
of this night to sway the rule on England?
If either door gaped wide, mankind would wholly righteous be
—or damn’d! How stony is the way ‘twixt Reason and the Will,
to judgment.”

I published Dark Sovereign in Arden style, meaning that the text shares the pages with footnotes, giving actors and students instant reference to precise meanings. Precision extends to the language in which his play is written as well as the history. My aim: “The language of Dark Sovereign is precise. It is written in the vocabulary, idioms and syntax of the period from about 1579 (Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia) to precisely 1626, a cutoff date dictated by technical reasons involving Francis Bacon. This interval of forty-seven years marked the renaissance of English letters. Every word in Dark Sovereign, each syllable, word-sense, expression, verb ending, tense and function, as well as word order, metaphor and construction patterns, is present because the author found precedents in English written before the year 1626.”

Robert Fripp’s URL: RobertFripp.ca/ & LinkedIn (Toronto)
Dark Sovereign: Available in Paperback from Internet vendors
Tags: Robert Fripp, Shakespeare, Richard III, Dark Sovereign


William Hogarth (1697-1764), David Garrick as Richard III (1745, a detail)

Gentle reader,

Allow me to add that it was in the 18th century the first revisionings of the Tudor myth began: with Horace Walpole (see his Historic Doubts). The source for Shakespeare’s propaganda play was Thomas More (a strong defender of Henry VIII — even after Henry VIII decided that More was more than dispensable). The subject is covered in Peter Sabor’s splendid Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage. Paul Murray Kendall’s study reprints parts of More history and Walpole’s Historic Doubts.

Perhaps the 18th century stage, with turning away from beliefs in numinous kings, its scepticism, and new histories (David Hume, Catherine Macaulay), and its great empathetic actors first stirred pepple to doubt the accuracy of Shakespeare’s powerful play. The love of medievalism which fed into the gothic also created sympathy for the Catholic and Stuart point of view (for example, Sophia Lee’s The Recess, a gothic novel about the supposed twin-daughters of Mary Stuart by Bothwell, and Scott’s novels, Kenilworth and The Abbot) helped create a climate for revision.


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… blood streams through the firmament … Marlowe (Doctor Faustus)

Caius Marcius, called Coriolanus (Fiennes) waiting for suppliants

Dear friends and readers,

Do what you have to do to see this film. Maybe it’s not worth a plane ride, but if it’s a longish trip by car (4 hours is not too much to drive) or bus, don’t hesitate. Don’t miss it. We left our house (in Alexandria, Va) at around 3:15 (short car ride, short walk, 25 minutes by train, 10+ minute walk) for a 4:50 show. Good thing we arrived by 4:15 or so. By 4:30 the show was sold out. As we walked out at around 7, the next show was sold out.

I suppose my reader knows the play’s story; if not, here’s a synopsis. This, so I can cut immediately to what makes the film so riveting and important: the acting and how Shakespeare’s core story was made a parable for our times combined with the directing in the context of its mise-en-scene. It seemed to me to break with conventions of such films.

I’ve just read Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the NYRB (59:4, March 8, 2012, 4, 6) It’s unfair to Fiennes. How irresistible it is to ridicule, especially when a character role demands no humor from the actor — though Fiennes managed a moment here and there, as when in exile we see him like today’s homeless people, sitting in front of his tent, looking cold, hungry, slightly puzzled, staring at his stuff.

Fiennes’s directing (the blocking) and acting were (as they say) pitch perfect, uncannily so. I’ve seen him as good before and unlike many other actors he can take on many types (from the bullying dense duke of The Duchess, to the sensitive diplomat of Constant Gardener [the film is dedicated to Simon Channing-Williams who directed CG], to Heathcliff, to the neurotic, yes seeming tall, thin and tortured in an early Prime Suspect). Here he actually managed to project sensitivity now and again amid the crazed militarism of Caius Marcius. The towering fits of rage where he spits out intense hatred and scorn for ordinary people and most of his peers are brought on by something in him that is a nervous wreck, neurotic,but not intimations of Hamlet because there is something dark in his eyes, obtuse, and he is edginess itself. Fiennes may have meant to evoke Marlon Brando in Apocalypse; he was Kurtz looking out at the world and his reasons for refusing to condescend to ask for votes, to taken on the role of suppliant had also to do with an appalled horror at the world he lived in, his own values somehow, not just patrician disgust. (In Tinker Tailor Colin Firth also channeled as they say Brando, but as in The Godfather.) So Shakespeare’s basically conservative message was altered to fit our era, especially perhaps this year, say since 9/14/08, the real year the world changed: when Lehman Bros came near default and the economic and political systems we endure began to be laid bare before us. If there was some music from Apocalyse Now I didn’t hear it. The film had sequences of no-music in the background a lot.

I haven’t seen Vanessa Redgrave in so great a part, one worthy, giving room for abilities in years. (The Merchant-Ivories didn’t.) It’s hard for older women to find great parts. If possible, she was even better than Fiennes. Utterly plausible. Not some scold, not a domineering termagant, but sure of herself with her son. The best scene in the movie was a longish one of her rubbing his really woundered body all over with her hands, binding his wounds with gauze, all around his body, his arms lovingly, as he places himself intimately within the folds of her body. This is followed by a silent one of him lying looking in pain but resting in bed, with Virginia (Jessica Chastain) coming up to him, and gingerly lying down alongside him. This actress does seem to have been chosen because she looks like young actresses all do recently: super-skinny yet large breasted, curvy thickish lips, a jutting kind of face: the way Julia Roberts looked when young, and Cate Blanchet is attempting to keep up nowadays. Chastain can weep, look as if she’d like to escape all this, and has a scene gathering her boys’ toys — naturally a plastic sub-machine gun and other implements of death by his bed. Redgrave (bless her), like Emma Thompson, has not gone super-thin; she still has her regal body, smooth if aging face. Her smiles gave me the creeps, but I think she is not blamed for what happens. One danger of this play is it may be read simply as see what mothers do. No. Fiennes was his own man, the product that belongs to the world around him.

The scene all will remember is the one from which this promotional (and therefore decorous) still I found on line (above) is taken:

Scene mostly from Act 5, Sc 2, lines 23-190: Fiennes as Coriolanus, Redgrave as Volumnia, Gerard Butler soft focus, arms folded, as Aufidius

but this framed picture moment is not characteristic of it. Characteristic are medium shots of her pacing back and forth a bit, standing with her daughter-in-law, Virginia (Jessica Chastain), their woman, Valeria, and the son, now kneeling,

now rising, with a couple of individual moments for the boy (given lines not in Shakespeare), and the wife (she comes up to him, tries caresses, tears (the lines are his in the play, abridged):

As we all know the family wins, Volumnia the pyrrhic victor, and thus causes his destruction, though in the film we do not know that until he returns to Aufidius after signing the treaty, and Aufidius works up a rage in Coriolanus (“boy! boy” Aufidius jeers, rightly at Coriolanus), and then orders the men ringed round him to beat and knife Caius Marcius to death, himself, Aufidius, coming in for the last deep thrust as he, Aufidius, appears at the same time to be making love to the by then dying maimed, again bleeding man. The last moment of the film is Fiennes dead, thrown and kicked onto a steel kind of shield, ready for the garbage.

Menenius (Brian Cox, chain-smoking) is pulled from this scene. (He is there in Shakespeare) to give him a separate suppliant moment. Like Alec Guiness and Gary Oldman (as George Smiley), Cox worked wonders of myriad responses by taking off and cleaning his glasses and putting them back on his face.

Menenius is persuaded by the parliamentary men to try to persuade Coriolanus from further destruction of Rome. This gives the film-makers another chance to allow us to watch someone walk across a land- or city-scape at length, bridges, checkpoints, wasteland, to where he is confronted (a repeating scene in the film) by a group of men standing in phalanx form, holding weapons at the ready, grim. A truck or fleet of fancy cars stands ready and the person is driven to the scene where he must beg, negotiate, whatever. (No wonder Coriolanus hates it — and this we are to feel too.) He is broken by Coriolanus adament refusal to recognize he is even there. (This is not filmed — as it would not work to see it; it would show the man to be the “boy” is he accused of being at the film’s end.

Alas, some of his speeches were cut, others re-arranged. You could not really have that long allegory of society as a human body with the people as its stomach; it would not have fitted the created world, rhythms of the speeches at all, but others were lost that have saturnine subtle political meaning. (I’ve wondered at times how was that Coriolanus done in the 1940s in Paris that caused it’s said a riot.) He, like Volumnia, is the one who urges Coriolanus to the marketplace, the reasoner (it seems), moderate even. (I seem to recall one testimony from the Irangate hearings where someone said “there are no moderates” [in Reagan's or was it Iran's gov't?].) Probably what’s brought in here is the heartbreak of Cassius when Brutus rejects him. Menenius’s world is smashed as Rome is now smashed. Whatever happens now he is personally a loser too. He kills himself by slitting his wrist veins sitting over a filthy dump near a bridge over waters that look polluted.

Most of the other roles were small, not demanding much. Characters as reporters, as heads of gov’t, as important people in the mob — though there I felt there was something of the spirit of the presentation of mobs in say the 1939 Tale of Two Cities. The people are hungry for bread, have no jobs, but they are so easily swayed (as in Shakespeare’s play). They are often played by non-white people, Middle Eastern, Southasian, Spanish looking: Lubna Azabal as Tamora, and Ashraf Baroum as Cassius given names. It takes little to move them to feel for Caius Marcius, and then so little for the two tribunes (Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt) “of the people” to rouse their envy, fear, spite, resentment. I noted the brief presence of a favorite actress (of mine) from recent BBC film adaptations as an anchor woman (Tanya Moodie).

As important was the text (sometimes cleverly moved around by the screenplay writer, John Logan) and settings and costumes. Much of Shakespeare’s central speeches survived, the central plot-design; it’s Shakespeare’s play all right. A transposition (faithful) film. Brilliantly updated. The scenes are are contemporary world of harsh ruthless military dictatorships and parliaments filled with corrupt — utterly out for themselves — insinuating skilful manipulating suited men. The war-torn streets with steel and cement huge buildings in cement cities, and gorgeous mansions set in green landscapes, along side cardboard towns, brick tenements, wretched deteriorating streets, ancient dilapidated stores, tent markets, everywhere at a sudden flowing with people, many wretched, dressed in modern style rags — I thought perhaps we were seeing the streets of the middle east (say Syria, Egypt today, Yemen) or more closely South and Latin America as we used to see them on TV after some decent gov’t was overthrown by a civil war (fomented in part by the US), but Jim thought they were generic. At any rate many were shown to us as if we were watching them on TV film, a news show, with a voice broadcasting at us, and a band of letters underneath.

As with the destruction of the OWS movement, each time there is a confrontation — most of these occur in the first phase of the film, the police come out in full steel paramilitary riot gear and beat the hell out of the people; we see these cage barbed-wire walls set up that have to be broken through; the debris in the streets from last time is what people stumble over.

Street battles: civilians the “collateral damage”

Much of the action that is reported in Shakespeare’s play (by messenger type speeches) is acted out in front of us. Coriolanus, Aufidius, most of the fighting men are seen in camouflage most of the time. For ceremonies Jim says the costume designed resorted to British ceremonial mititary gear for the soldiers, of course suits for politicians.

All this is significant; it breaks with conventions; to some the opening terrifically violent sequence, and the controlled violence which punctuates the latter 3/4s of the film might detract. It’s hard to watch. Really up close shooting people through the head. But I think it matters and it was right to put before this world seen on TV or Youtubes and read about on the Net by its mostly white middle class audience I saw the film with — people living in or not far from an expensive area of DC, calm peaceful areas (so it seems) of Virginia and Maryland who had come by bus and train and walking.

I hope the film reaches far more people, for the film targets people of many types and countries. I don’t make a habit of seeing Shakespeare film adaptations so don’t know how it fits in to this sub-genre recently, but I do go, watch them on TV, through Netflix, certainly go to the theaters in my area and used to go in NYC most of the time a Shakespeare play was staged, and I have read Coriolanus a couple of times. Jim & I saw the RSC perform it as Kennedy Center a few years ago where Timothy West delivered a extraordinary — memorable — performance as Menenius. Izzy reminds me we 3 saw an abridged version at the DC fringe festival two years ago – but I have only vague memories. Still, this is the best Shakespearean film adaptation I’ve seen in a long time because like Shakespeare it speaks home to us today.

As Marlowe said (Shakespeare grieved at the death of this gifted man),
blood streams through the firmament not since 9/11/01 (that was retaliation) but maybe more patently and obviously, inflicted on its immediate early US audience’s own streets since 9/14/08.


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Caterina von Hemessen (1527/8 – ?1566), Portrait of a Lady, 1551

Dear friends and readers,

Six years ago now I finished making this large bibliography page for women’s literature (it’s not limited to women poets), and rejoice to say that Anna Galovich has translated it into Estonian and placed it on her website.

I am planning to take all my foremother poet postings, website additions and (revised) partially poet blogs over the years and place them in a single region on my website this summer; one place where people can come to. This will help encourage me to do it.

The origin of all this was my translations of Renaissance women poets, whence my choice of Caterina for the page and this blog.


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Castello di Valsinni where Isabella di Morra lived out most of her brief life

Dear friends and readers,

A fourth in my new series of foremother poet blogs. Unfortunately Isabella di Morra’s fame (such as it is) derives from her having been beat to death (it’s said in more than one source) by 3 of her brothers “to cleanse the family honor.” They had discovered her correspondence with a Spanish nobleman, Don Diego Sandoval de Castor (married to Donna Antonia Caracciolo of Naples). They murdered the tutor who had facilitated the correspondence. They then ambused and killed Diego. They did have to flee Italy for a time after that.

Understandably, one of the dominating themes of her tiny extant corpus is isolation:

Four sonnets:


I write about the fierce assaults of Fortune,
The cruel one, and mourn my hapless youth.
Living in such a base and ugly country,
I waste my life without all recognition.
I seek a worthy sepulcher, though lowly
My cradle was, by following the Muses,
And hope to find somewhere some sympathy
In spite of Fate, so cruel, harsh and blind.
And with the favor of those goddesses,
Even without my body, with freed soul,
I hope on happier shores to be acclaimed.
Perhaps there lives a high king in this world
Who may preserve in everlasting marble
This mortal shroud in which I am confined.


From a high mountain top, where one can see
The waves, I, your sad daughter Isabella,
Gaze out for sight of any polished ship
Coming to bring me news of you, my father.
But my adverse and cruel destiny
Permits no solace for my aching heart,
But, enemy to any thought of pity,
Turns all my firmest hopes into laments.
For I see neither oar cutting the sea,
Nor any sail that billows in the wind,
So solitary is this dismal shore.
So I can only curse my evil Fortune
And hold in hatred this unhappy place
The only source of my tormented life.


Here once again, infernal rocky valley,
O Alpine rivers, ruinous high peaks,
O broken spirits stripped of every virtue,
You will now hear my plaints, my endless sorrow.
And every mountain, every cave shall hear me
Wherever I may stop, wherever go,
For Fortune, never stable, does not tarry,
But everlastingly adds to my pain.
While I lament, forever, night and day,
O beasts, o rocks, o melancholy ruins,
Uncultivated woods, o lonely caves,
Howl still with me, unriddling my grief,
And weep with me; in high continuous voices
Bewail my misery, worse than all others.


0 turbid Siri, careless of my grief,
Now that I feel so close to my life’s end,
Make known my sorrow to my loving father
If ever bitter Fate lets him return.
Tell him how, by my death, I will escape
My harsh misfortune and my niggard fate,
And, as a rare and piteous example,
I will entrust my sad name to your waves.
As soon as he regains your rocky shoreline —
Why do you make me think of this, fierce star?
How I am robbed and shorn of every good! —
Stir up your restless currents with great storms
And say, “I grew so great while she was living,
Through — not the eyes — rivers of Isabella.”

She was born to one of these powerful Italian families during an era of fierce brutal conflict over who would control Italy: French powerful people, Charles V and his gangs, or Spain, or local baron types. Her family’s territories were located in Favale, between Calabria and Basilicata, and after her father emigrated to the French court of Francois I (having sided with the French at one point), she was left to the un-tender mercies of brothers who distrusted culture and kept this sister isolated from social contact. When she speaks of an infernal landscape, she is literally accurate as the castle of Favale was located high up in a very arid region, near a small river, the Siri (now called Sinni).

She managed to educate herself through reading, and her books included Petrarch and Dante. The third sonnet (above, No. 7) shows her familiarity with Dante’s Inferno. Thirteen poems survived, and her poetry appeared in early anthologies (the second half of the 16th century) as wellas her life story. The early history of the publications of her poetry (which allowed it to come down to us today) is told in Women Poets of the Renaissance: Courtly Ladies and Courtisans from which I took the poems in translation by Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lille. They provide a good bibliography of recent scholarly articles and books. Attention was again called to her in the early 20th century by Benedetto Croce, who edited her Rime with a selection of poems by Diego Sandoval de Castro and provided a critical essay.

In 1975 a convention on poetry was held in the Bailicata region where she was the figure said to be honored.

Her style is described by herself “amaro, aspro e dolente” (bitter, harsh, and grieving). So too is Vittoria Colonna’s style often “amaro.” She writes strongly, directly, simply. Stortoni and Lille also include Morra’s second canzone which contains lines like “I shall speak out, though rough and weak my style,/And tell a little of my inner pain … among the uncouth ways/Of people lacking reason, short of wit,/Where robbed of any help,/I am constrained to live a narrow life,/Placed her alone, in blind oblivion.”

I first read about her and her poetry in a long essay by Benedetto Croce (Scritti di Storia letterarai et politica: Vite di adventure di fede e di passione, 1936), and then went on to Domenico Bronzini, Isabella di Morra, con l’edizitioni del canzoniere (Matera: Montenmorro Edition, 1975). Another booklength study is Giovanni Caserta, Isabella Morra e la societa: Meridionale del Cinquecento (Matera: Edizioni Meta, 1976). I also recommend Juliana Schiesari’s The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature.

There seems hardly anything said of her mother. She had no say in this murder killing or if she did (was complicit) it was not mentioned. She is described as someone who did reach a “fragile age.” Isabella’s poems talk of her longing for her father as the one person she can imagine who might help her. So I wonder who Isabella’s mother was. what was her atitude? At any rate Isabella couldn’t reach anyone who would help her and no one did any thing for her for

There are several online sites the interested reader can peruse for information and insight: a brief [dry] biography by Margaret E. Kern which cites editions of her work and has a bibliography up to the 1990s; a longer (more evaluative biography and assessment by Diana Robin from The Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: France, Italy, England; an Italian account by Vincenzo Napolillo, “Isabella Morra e Diego Sandoval Castellano di Cosenza” where the reader will view another of these fortresses which played a significant role in the era:

Cosenza Castello;

and the Italian wikipedia article: “Isabella di Morra”, which will take you to the IMDB site for the film which tells you exactly nothing. I hope to ask Jim to download the film and report back sometime after this coming weekend.

The deeper interest of the life of this unfortunate woman (no survivor, unlucky — the contrast would be the English example of Anne Vavasour) is in the issues of violence inflicted on women and honor-killing. I chose Isabella for this week because I just sent off a review of Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse in 18th century France, to be published next September in the Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer.

The origin of wife abuse is just that of rape, honor-killing: women are regarded as not valuable is at the core of all the violence allowed (as Frances Power Cobbe demonstrated). So a must-read, my gentle reader. Jacqueline Rose’s review of the following 3 books for the LRB, Nov 5th, 31:21, their 30th anniversary issue: Murder in the Name of Honour by Rana Husseini; In Honour of Fadime: Murder and Shame by Unni Wikan, translated by Anna Paterson; Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed by Ayse Onal Saqi. Rose looks beneath the rationale of a subsidence economy.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), a detail from a series of the Life of the John the Baptist.

The life of Artemisia and modern novels based on it (by Anna Banti for example), will be part of our terrain,

Ellen on a women’s poet’s life she was never allowed to live, poetry never allowed to develop, all ended brutally.

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Old Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire: Scott’s Woodstock; or, The Cavalier is set there

Dear friends and readers,

While last weekend for two afternoons and one morning, I saw myself at the AWP (American Women Poets) conference, an umbrella get-together for all sorts of (basically) non-commercial creative writings, I went ot the Wompo breakfast where I met with 20 people on Wom-po. Several were very friendly or gracious and it seemed many encouraged me to resume foremother poet postings on Fridays. I did these for two years regularly and since then now and again as the spirit took me: 3 examples: a recent one, Caroline Norton; not so long ago, Georgiana Spencer; and someone I’m fond of who I should write a scholarly publishable paper on, Henrietta St John Knightley. I know that on Wom-po Joelle Beiele (an editor of Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence) has been soldiering on, more or less alone, on both Wednesdays and Fridays putting fine poems on the listserv. So I thought I’d give regularity another try.

This time I’ll go further. Each week I do one, I’ll make a brief casual blog of it.

So for yesterday morning, I sent a poem to the listserv community by Anne Vavasour (c 1560-after 1620), a gentlewoman of Elizabeth’s court whose life shows the vicissitudes a woman endured under the oppressive customs and laws of the era. The value of her poem is (to me) its stark truthfulness about the necessity of hiding herself, depriving herself to survive:

‘Thoughe I seeme straunge sweete freende be thou not so’

Thoughe I seeme straunge sweete freende be thou not so
          Do not annoy thy selfe with sullen will
Myne harte hathe voude allthoughe my tongue saye noe
          To be thyne owne in freendly liking styll
Thou seeste me live amongest the Lynxes eyes
          That pryes innto each privy thoughte of mynde
Thou knowest ryghte well what sorrows may aryse
          Ife once they chaunce my setled lookes to fynde
Contente thy selfe that once I made an othe
          To sheylde my selfe in shrowde of honest shame
And when thou lyste make tryall of my trouthe
          So that thou save the honoure of my name
And let me seme althoughe I be not coye
          To cloak my sadd conceyts with smylinge cheere
Let not my jestures showe wherein to joye
          Nor by my lookes let not my loue appeere.
We seely dames that falles suspecte, do feare
          And live within the moughte of envyes lake
Muste in oure heartes a secrete meaning beare
          Far from the reste whiche outwardlye we make
Go where I lyke, I lyste not vaunte my love
          where I desyre there moste I fayne debate
One hathe my hande an other hathe my glove,
          But he my harte whome I seeme most to hate
Then farewell freende I will continue straunge
          Thou shalt not heere by worde or writinge oughte
Let it suffice my vowe shall never chaunge
          As for the rest I leave yt to thy thoughte.

She was a survivor, gentle reader, no mean feat for a woman in Tudor times.


Hans Holbein, Anne Cresacre: the clothing, like the lady is of the early not middle Tudor age, but her wary guarded expression is a propos for Anne Vavasour

The context here is Anne Vavasour was probably pregnant by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (an heartless cad, unscrupulous, mean in every way — I can’t admire her taste as you can see) or had given birth to the baby. She and de Vere were imprisoned, and the son taken by the De Vere family. This boy later became a soldier.

She survived by becoming the mistress of Sir Henry Lee, Elizabeth I’s “champion” (think of it as a job which brings a house with it) at Woodstock. She lived there until her death — a pretty place but it needs upkeep. So she married to John Field (not Finch as the wikipedia article has it) at some time during her life at Woodstock and had a son by him; this marriage brought an annuity (times being what they were, there were no job listings, employment agencies, much less helpful agencies to secure some kind of income, especially not for women). Much later after Lee and Field’s death, she married again, one John Richardson of Durham and co-signed a lease with him. This brought down on her (very quickly too) Lee’s heir who accused her of bigamy; she was accessed a big fine, but Queen Anne (James’s queen) came to her aid and she was exempted. There are various telling tales told of her

Her champion in the poem might be Lee who knew her early on, but it’s clear it’s Oxford whose reassurance (poor woman) she seeks.

The poem come from Early Modern Women Poets: An Anthology, edd. Janet Stevenson and Peter Davidson. My information derives from there, and my own knowledge of the era, as well as a paper I wrote on Anne Cecil, de Vere’s emotionally abused wife, Burleigh’s unlucky daughter.


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Kenneth Braganth as James [Colin] Moon and Colin Firth as Tom Birkin eating the food Mrs Ellerbeck sent (1987 Month in the Country; film)

Natasha Richardson as Mrs Alice Keach kneeling beside the striken Tom Birken after Colonel Hebron has wantonly (if not conscious of this) thundered a rifle shot to kill a bird

Dear friends and readers,

It’s that time of year where I resort to making blogs for my classes. If I’ve not yet made one for J. L. Carr’s gem masterpiece, A Month in the Country and its film adaptation by Patrick O’Connor, Simon Gray, and (produced by) Kenith Trodd, it’s been because I had no stills for a discussion of the film, and a sense of how daunting it is to write adequately from even some minor position of either Carr or O’Connor. Well this year at long last this neglected film has come out as a “print-on-demand” DVD, complete with intelligent features and commentary. I’ve assigned film and book at least 4 terms (sometimes to 2 sections), and now I’m here again, making a new blog out of my college lectures.

I begin with the book, move on to the author, and then the film aesthetically; I end on the themes shared by book and film. O’Connor’s book is a transposition, or strongly faithful adaptation.

The Story in brief: A man has badly shattered by the horrors of World War One. He has a wife who has been dislocated too. She leaves him regularly. Both displaced persons. Lost. Homeless. He is hired to restore a magnificent but terrifyingly pessimistic wall mural on an ancient church deep in Yorkshire. He does want to go back to his wife.

The characters in book:

Patrick Malahide as an uptight alienated Vicar

Major themes and Characters: they are not real people like your neighbors; they are made to act in ways that embody themes or values. One problem is aesthetic appreciation, not always by any strength of puritan preoccupations.

What is Birkin in the book like? Do we like him altogether? Moon is sympathetic throughout. Both wounded, both maimed. We watch them slowly heal. It’s a story about resurrection and healing but the healing can only go so far.

Kenneth Branagh as Charles [James] Moon: the film begins in great darkness (Birkin at that terrible battlefield, or in his dream) and wakens into dazzling sunlight and hope, only to reveal behind the facade despair (Moon’s closing soliloquy as a gay man alone)

1. The first most obvious way of characterizing Birkin is the parallelism and doubling between Tom and Moon. Both are damaged by their war experiences, both have retreated to their various secluded bolt holes to lick their wounds and try to recover, the one, however significantly up in the gods, the other deep in the depths. This gives each of them an instinctive, though often unspoken, understanding of and sympathy with the psychological and social effects of those horrific experiences that separate them emotionally from the non-participants surrounding them, and so each for the other forms an amical bond that helps them on their way back into social society.

2. The main difference psychologically, I think, is that Moon is more aware and actually brings Tom’s attention to the slow process of healing he has much more unconsciously been undergoing. I feel the author here is leading the reader through him. Moon doesn’t say much you just get the feeling he understands more.

3. Is Birkin in God’s position bringing the art out. He says emphatically no. He’s a servant of the artist. A journeyman labour. But he brings it out. He needs sensitivity and care. Who but him could have saved this painting? So question, too, whether Tom as a restorer of other people’s creations is just a journeyman craftsman or an artist himself also forcibly presents itself. Also art restoration has parallels with literary translation and that, just as Tom was a signaller in the army, here he was acting as a receiver and transmitter of signals from the past to the present.

4. Why is our second hero called Moon? On a symbolic level, both Moon’s name and search links him to that Crusader ancestor whose grave bears the Crescent moon symbol of Islam that ultimately proves him to have been the inspiration for the striking man with the crescent mark hurtling into the hellish depths in Tom’s fresco. The heights and depths of the external real world thus parallel the heaven and hell opposition in the fresco Tom bears his own correspondingly visible mark and stigma: the twitch shell-shock has left him, which negative representatives of established society like vicar Keach find it equally difficult to look at and accept, but which still doesn’t set him as far apart as Moon’s sexual difference

5. Birkin lower middle class; his father made and sold soap. A joke. Moon is a man of evidently good birth and former standing, a highly decorated soldier, who has literally been cast into depths – first those of the trenches and then those of his dig – by an intolerant and self-seeking society very reminiscent of those smug-seeming bourgeois Tom’s fresco shows marching up to heaven. Moon is rejected and punished for the stigma attached to what was then regarded as his deviant sexual orientation, the Crusader because of a ‘deviant’ religious affiliation. But not wholly: he fits in academic world; he is on its margins the way Birkin did .He can hope to publish and get some job.

6. Moon is finding Piers remember. I was struck here by the fact that even Tom’s feelings to Moon are negatively affected by the knowledge of his sexuality in the book. It seemed to me the film made the man in the inn far worse and crueler and sneering and nasty. . In fact, it seemed to me as if sexuality in general, as opposed to platonic love and friendship, was often seen as a disturbing and destructive force in the book. It’s certainly that in Moon’s case and in Tom and the Keach’s marriages. Distrust of sexuality in this book. It’s there in the film insofar as it reflects the book.

At end of summer, early fall, (elements in that part of the earth)

Piers Hebron. He’s a character in the story too. Brooding over everyone. The medieval prodigal son; he left for the crusades and came back profoundly wounded and a Muslim. It’s the finding of Piers’s body that brings an end to the story. Recovering his painting. Dark vision of the world which matches the horror of WW1 and perhaps amorality of our own.

1. The original painter was ejected from the church. It may be because he was Muslim, but another reason for burying someone outside consecrated ground is they committed suicide. He may have painted himself falling and then jumped. Loss of faith. But then the painting is there. Was he isolated? We see that despite Birkin’s early bitterness, he is taken in. Was his name Piers Hebron? Was he a relative of Miss Hebron? Rosamond McGerr speculates we don’t know much about him and the story is made up by Birkin and Moon. Perhaps he converted to Islam. Some of my students have suggested that Piers was a practicing homsexual and ex-communicated because of this. I’d have to read very carefully behind the novels too.

2. On religious theme and contrast of medieval to early 20th century: an idea I often heard expressed is that before the Renaissance God was regarded as the only original creator. Since everything was ultimately divinely inspired and created, man was only the vessel and physical executor and so couldn’t claim authorship. To do so would be vanity and hubris.

3. Also there was no literary marketplace to sell your work; no copyright; you had a patron. No reason for individuality to be brought out. You are taught these older masterpieces were often cooperative efforts of a whole atelier. Carr asks if this is so? If you start to study older works, you discover selfhood is everywhere.

4. The finding this painter and uncovering his painting fit thematically. The book and movie link both a conscious and an unconscious process of restoration together. Just as Tom gradually and carefully uncovers and restores the pieces of the church wall fresco, so, too, is his fragmented emotional and psychological health gradually restored, almost without his being aware of it. This happens as much through his physical interactions with the villagers, Moon, his fellow war victim, and of course his growing love for Mrs Keach as through his increasing sense of mental and creative connection with the original fresco artist himself. Book organized around the stages of Birkin’s restoration. At successive moments, more and more is uncovered.

5. Though the intention of the work is universal, it’s also fascinating to see how uncovering the fresco also helps to reveal the surviving individual aspect: the hidden form and personality of this unnamed artist and the topical aspects he introduced into the painting that prove to have a relevance and forge yet another link to Tom’s own time – human archaeology that parallels Moon’s dig. It’s a book about human communities rooted in and across time.

Alice and Mr Keach — how do we feel about them? Keach a genuine sensitive religious man, a misfit in this world. In fact it wouldn’t be happy if Mrs Keach left Mr Keach. He’s human too. Then she’d be behaving like Vinny, and Birkin would be the men who take Vinny from him. She has clung to Mr Keach as a substitute for a father. In the movie she’s linked to Eve and goddess of light — through eating the apple and offering him apples.

Natasha Richardson as Mrs Keach first seen by Birkin as he awakens from a dream

He regrets intensely not taking her up on it.

The Keaches connect to Ellerbeees and Sykes. In real life Carr was himself angry at the church and agnostic. His sympathetic presentation of these people is meant to question them as well as see them anthropologically. Their community finds hope and strength through the religion. Ellerbee is a present day chapel preacher; Mr Keach a vicar. There’s a contrast set up. Ellerbee seems far more embedded and content in his community than Keach.

Jim Carter as Ellerbeck, offering to share his umbrella

1. Alice contrasted to Kathy Ellerbee. Kathy is a dominating presence, is she not? Both want to take him in. Kathy jealous of Lucy. What stops him from responding? Vinny.

2. When does community find out about Vinny. It’s hard to say. When he first visits Mr and Mrs Sykes, no one beyond Moon could know, p 88. Moon is told on p 77. However on p 100 when Birkin asks if Lucy Sykes is coming, he gets a sharp “no” from Kathy; it’s not clear whether Kathy now knows he’s married or whether she’s jealous. He does mean to tell Mrs Keach, but when he begins it seems she already knows, p 113-114. It’s a small community. How many letters could come from the post office? Vinny writes to him we are told. Would she put a “Mrs Tom Birkin” on the corner of the envelope?

3. We see other women: Mrs Ellerbee, Mrs Clough, Emily Clough, Lucy’s mother, Mrs Sykes. The son’s name was Perce. A common name in middle ages.

4. It could be over-sentimental, but the often wryly humorous narrative voice, the realist details and the refusal of a facile, romantic happy end.

Kathy’s brother, Edgar listening, watching

Point of view is Birkin’s and we are not necessarily to accept what he says and sees as what Carr wants us to conclude is true or accurate.

Colin Firth as Birkin standing in the rain checking on drainage pipes; if they are gone, the painting is gone (water is a big destroyer, says the gravedigger in Hamlet)

The themes:

A. Book about history and human beings set against the forces of history, culture and nature. Death a force in book but just insisted on in film. Graves everywhere, history everywhere. Emphasized by mise-en-scenes of film. Time too, again. How do you create a meaningful life when you are going to die and you have little control over your destiny?

1. Art is one way

2. Community and family life is another. Group identity seems to give people meaning.

3. Self-satisfactions which are often ephemeral

In this one a nostalgia for the past and escapism are placed against painful self-awareness of vulnerable people in need of affection. Just reveling in beauty of nature and countryside, peaceful retired older world.

Perhaps the present is used as a metaphor for many pasts in the novella:

1. As a boy Carr brought up in a religious world he found narrow, bigoted, harsh; as poor boy unable to go to university. Looking back on it he finds metaphors, analogies, beauty rooted in past which depends on community, brings people together in quiet and fructifies the imagination with harrowing/blissful archetypal thought and imagination. Carr very much valued community and roots in a place and time

2. Carr’s manipulation of time: the way he makes the summer seem so long and leisurely and yet in effect it’s one very short golden moment, reflecting his thematic opposition of permanence and transience.

3. What we have is surfacely idyllic, healing nature and the war and hell imagery in the book. I’d say it’s strongly anti-war. Irony is that Moon is going to a dig in Baghdad. He’d not bother today. Much was destroyed. A huge museum and library were sacked, burned, looted. The US sent troops to protect the oil fields and contracts given out to wealthy people close to Bush administration, but no money or troops to protect art. It really is gone and destroyed forever.

4. By setting book at end of World War One he makes analogy with the imperial wars of the last third of the 20th century. Very great anti-war poetry written at the time, for example, Wilfred Owen’s:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Family life: we are shown couples who have troubled relationships. Is it at all easy to overcome these troubles?

1. When did troubles for the Keaches, Birkin and Vinny, Moon start? With the nature of the community and sexuality itself.

2. Strong theme of forgiveness in both. Least forgiven in A Month in the Country is Vinny. It’s really quite unfair. We know nothing of her. Birkin returns to her. She seems to be treated like a slut but note we are to long for Alice to leave Keach. Mrs Keach visits Birkin with lovely apples: Adam and Eve. Birkin seems to feel hell is what occurs in our minds — and that is reinforced by religion.

What is heroism in this world? Carrying on? How about reclaiming the past? Can you do this? Mr Keach runs away, hides with his violin.

Gemma Artherton as Tess (2008 mini-series)

Natasha Richardson as Mrs Keach (we never see or meet Vinnie in the book or film)

A Month in the Country repays research — like in the article on the middle ages; it’s more learned than you think; it’s the more literary book. References to older art (Islamic knowledge of colors).

Numbers of references to Thomas Hardy and he said he was thinking of Under the Greenwood Tree, a pessimistic pastoral. The characters discuss Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Angel Clare is blamed. In the story Tess falls in love with this super upright young man, very conservative and traditional; when she is seduced and half-coerced, half-raped by someone named Alex, he hates her and deserts her. She commits suicide. Were Birkin to leave Vinny he’d be an Angel Clare. Self-righteous. Admittedly we’d feel better if Birkin weren’t suffering humiliation and if he’d have an affair too. Still, there the fallen women is unfairly treated, the one allusion which suggests we are getting only one side of the story.

Emily and the children’s favorite books, p 53. What they want as prizes for going to church steadily.

Forgotten Garden by Caroline Repchuck, Illustrator Ian Andrew

1. A poignant tale of an elderly man’s return to his childhood home where his father had created unusual topiary figures many years before. Overgrowth and neglect threaten the once-thriving formal garden. As the man busies himself with the task of reinstating the grounds to their former beauty, he is transported back in time. Through happy memories of his father’s garden, he capably transforms the unkempt bushes into copies of the original statuaries and clears the fountains. Real critters roam freely across the estate; some make it their home. So like Birkin

2. Andrew’s brown and gray pencil illustrations in the opening pages echo the text’s somber mood as the man evaluates the garden’s condition. Warmer, but muted, greens and blues pick up the pace while the protagonist busily clips and snips. The final spread is still muted but details colorful birds, butterflies, flowers, and animals as readers see the child that was. On the surface, this story is a fairly gentle remembrance, but scattered throughout the pages are disturbing faces, hands, and a haunting image wrapped in a tangle of vines.

3. An old man returns to the home of his youth, an ancient manor house where his father was the gardener. Its once-beautiful garden, now overgrown, turns magically mysterious as he transforms it and his life.

Coral Island by R. Ballantyne and The Children of the Forest by Frederick Marryat. Adventure stories which show the world to be a dangerous place filled with violence.

The Art (Plotd-design) of the book

A composite still

Plot-design of book.

It opens differently from the movie. What’s left out? The opening sequence in the movie is of the war and bad dreams.

First moment of film

We find out about that inwardly though the text later on. The movie has to make it visual. Deep loss in book which is not overcome — except by painting. Typical passage, p. 20. Then p. 135. That implies hope is thwarted. It is the older man looking back and mourning as well as celebrating what he once knew for a summer. What could have been (the romance with Alice Keach) and what did not. We can add Charles/James Moon’s aspirations.

How are the events in the movie arranged: forward, chronological with memories brought in of the past through conversation. The story has flashbacks in little tiny parts in our narrator’s mind.

1. In the book the story told by Tom Birkin many years later, remembering back. What’s the effect of this in the book?

2. Movement of book which the film does follow, leaving out incidents (as when at the end Birkin chases after Mrs Keach at the last moment and finds she and her husband have gone) and adding imagery and scenes too (like the one of Mrs Keach and Birkin walking together in the wood): in first case it softens the blow but we lose a sense that Alice Keach wanted to escape Birkin, feared him; in the second it makes the relationship tighter and more romantic.

Outline of book

First clear shot of Birkin as he enters church to talk to Keach

Pp. 1-16: Birkin arrives, meets Ellerbee in passing, gets to church, first encounter with anguished Keach — not a happy man as the people in the community according to him don’t appreciate religion. Well they aren’t theological and they don’t like condemning themselves — for real. They are willing to pretend to.

pp. 16-30: deep encounter with painting slides into deep encounter with Moon. Birkin learns as much of the story of Hebron as Moon knows; learns about patroness, Miss Adelaide Hebron (Piers an ancestor probably)

pp. 31-34: how days passed typically: he and Moon and painting.

pp. 35-44: Kathy Ellerbee (described as having a moon-shaped face) followed by first encounter with Alice Keach. Alice like a goddess of spring; Kathy a prosaic mother type, strong, soon her mother is sending food. She and brother play music.

pp. 44: Back to work and we begin weaving of Birkin on scaffold and Birkin uncovering painting.

pp. 47-54: home life of Ellerbees. Good. Here’s where we go to church and visit home of bravely dying child, Emily.

pp. 55-60: visit to Keaches; home life hollow. But there is Keach playing the violin. He seeks solace too. Another enigmatic encounter with Mrs Keach

p. 61: there was so much time that marvellous summer: by simply asserting it and interweaving occasional redolent detail he persuades us it’s taking a long time.

pp. 61-81: long extended sequence on the scaffold; now Alice Keach visits him and they talk; compared to Kathy Ellerbee talk. He brings things out from prosaic truth; so too Ellerbee. She slowly reveals her background, who she is. Then Moon and he, pp. 76-82.

pp. Different details are parsed, for example, pp. 74-75. The living people on the wall, brought out.

pp. 82-94: now he is taken deeper in country and meets Lucy Sykes. All the while he works at his job. What is a job for: “our private fantasies, our disguises, the cloak we can creep inside to hide,” p. 64. Art is treated as something much better than the job sheerly for money, without creativity, without soul. Against selling the self. Plot starts to come together, and we discover we are in something of a detective story when Birkin realizes the painter fell,
died falling off the scaffold, p 94

pp. 94-112: he and Alice getting closer and there’s a sense they could become lovers; she shies away too. At this point Emily Clough dies. He goes with Ellerbees to purchase a used organ and while in town learns from a passerby that Moon is gay and what happened to Moon during the war.

pp. 112-16. The work coming to an end.

pp. 116-20. Now Mr Keach comes with money. I suggest we are to surmize Alice not so unhappy with Keach; she told him she longed for this young man. It worries him. The choice to flee may have been the desire to flee Birkin on her part, the community he’s failing in on his.

pp. 121-27: Climax, he and Moon dig up bones. Moon says he could stay there …

pp. 127-31: last meeting with Alice; she comes up to his belfry; she is willing this time; he can’t get himself to act.

pp. 131-2: the Keaches have fled. Maybe she fled him

pp. 132-35: a letter from Vinnie; time to return to her again.

Firth as Birkin leaving Oxgodby

Book and movie combine suspense of mystery with dramatic irony of discovering things the characters know but we don’t: psychological depth and realism as well as form of mystery. Not a book which makes a lot of use of irony except plot irony I’d say it’s a mystery story. How so? What don’t we find out at the end? What happened to the Keaches? Why is Alice Keach married to this older man? We never learn for sure: only she lost her father shortly before she married him

The author

I usually begin by talking about the life of the author and relating the book to the life. There are 3 ways to look at works of art: as a mirror, reflecting the age (late 20th century), as a lamp, reflecting the person’s life (autobiography often opens up a work), and as art: look at structure, themes, characters, setting, point of view, style.

From The Last Englishman by Byron Rogers. I’m going to what is relevant to our book, not all.

1. J.L Carr grew up in a community very like Oxgodby. His parents were lower middle class. His father was a night station master like Mr Ellerbee; his mother had been trained as a dressmaker. His grandfather had been a farmer, and his father had rebelled to become a sort of civil servant. They were methodist and one of the large pieces of furniture in the house was an American organ. His mother’s father, that is the maternal grandfather had been an alcoholic and died falling down a steep flight of stairs one night. Just like Mrs Ellerbee’s father. In the rural villages of the 1920s churches were central places for social activity and community. They were definitely working class and Joseph Lloyd was a gifted boy.

2. In such a home the way to get ahead is through school. In England at the time there was a test children took at age 11 which determined what schools they got into ever after. It could make the difference of going to college or ending up in a factory or manual labor. He was a very clever boy but kept failing this exam. Perhaps a psychological block; perhaps he rebelled against this; too much pressure to succeed just on this placed on him. Thus he was excluded. At great sacrifice his parents sent him to an equivalent good school out of their own funds where he learned to paint. But he remained an outsider, outside the network of the upper class.

3. One of his books is a very funny and bitter satire on schools, Harpole Report. He himself became
a headmaster later in life and was one for 30 years in Northamptonshire. He had himself had to endure the “chickenshit” of bureaucracies and tried to get rid of this sort of way of people’s interacting. He found when he did anything unconventional it had to be presented in ways that fell into ideas about what school was for.

4. Such communities had strong bigotries and class consciousness which you see here. Early on Carr himself became what we’d call agnostic. He wrote in a newspaper he edited about his belief after asking others to tell theirs (most didn’t):

I can’t believe in the superbeing of the familiar prayer. But I do believe a holy spirit is within us (in greater or lesser degree) as I’ve seen many times in children’s faces and in the way men and women live. As far as school is concerned, I think the holy spirit is a lot more likely to be present at a well and pleasantly taught maths lesson than in a morning service pontificated over by some blatherer or tyrant. He makes a joke of hell and fire sermons, but he deplores them: he is fond of the people but thinks it’s much better to tell about what you are doing that’s useful.

5. He traveled about a good deal. He spent a year in South Dakota, and he traveled to the far east (Japan), Burma; also around the British Isles. During World War Two he was in Basra Baghdad. This is recounted in the McGerr article I linked in for you. He particularly loved Scotland.

6. He began to love art and was much interested in the history of the people of his country. The book emerges from an incident that happened in 1964. Carr was walking in the countryside and came across a very dilapidated church near Kettering, Northamptonshire where he then lived. It has been vandalized: Church of St Faith at Newton in the Willows. He got in touch with the people in positions of power in the Church of England to tell them. The church was salvageable and he offered to spend his own money and time to get up a committee and people to bring it back into use. The church leaders seemed very happy. But as time transpired he began to see that they were utter hypocrites and themselves conspiring to let the church fall into ruin so they could get rid of it and sell the land. In this book is reprinted the letters alongside the actual events of what happened showing the hypocrisy and relentless determination of the church leaders to hide what they were doing while letting the church crumble to bits. They didn’t think there were enough parishioners to support it. He did think it was destoyed so the novel is wish-fulfillment. What didn’t happen. A dream.

7. In these letters we hear the real voice of Carr: he talks of “the disdain for Authority which we all must cherish.” Some years later he took the children in his school for a long walk around this place to show them empty space and expatiated on what happened. This is the sort of thing that is meant when it’s said he riled parents up. He thought this was an important lesson.

8. Now recently on his son’s site I’ve found something which contradicts the account in Last Englishman. The building was in the end saved and is now a small scientific centre (2008). My hunch is perhaps it was rebuilt after the book’s renown and the movie and the Rogers’ Last Englishmen revealed this incident.

Look at opening poems in novel. Epigraphs. All about love. Shortly before Carr wrote this book his wife died after a 13 year battle with cancer. They had had a long successful marriage. The book is written out of a vision he has — Mrs Keach is her come back. Particularly the Trench is effective.

A Month in the Country is a reverse of reality. In reality nothing was restored. In reality a fairly sound structure was allowed to be vandalized and rot and then pulled down. Carr imagines someone coming in and finding a painting which projects a vision of the nature of nature (supernatural too), of human nature both as it really is and as it imagines its gods. Strong melancholy undertone and yet there is such beauty in the countryside and it seems such potential in people.

For his other novels see The Quince Tree Press.

Natasha Richardson as Mrs Keach with Firth as Birkin alongside her, both in the sun

For the movie, see comments


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