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Scarlett Johansson by Annie Leibovitz — although Johansson is not capable of nuanced subtlety she was right for Mary Boleyn (the comments has a biography of Mary Boleyn)


Johansson with Javier Bardem (I remember Before Night Falls), another Leibovitz concoction

Instead of the famous “Art of Losing:”

I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain
— witness the diameter of my hatband
and the depth of the crown of my hat.

I will be correct; I know what it is to be a man.
I will be correct or bust.
I will love but not impose my feelings.
I will serve and serve
with lute or I will not say anything.

If the machinery goes, I will repair it.
If it goes again I will repair it again.
My backbone

through these endless etceteras painful.

No, it is not the way to be, they say.
Go with the skid, turn always to leeward,
and see what happens, I ask you, now.

I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
and many colors dropped out.
The rigid spine will break, they say —
bend, bend.

I was made at right angles to the world
and I see it so. I can only see it so.
I do not find all this absurdity people talk about.

Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands
and everything works.
— I am not sentimental.
— Elizabeth Bishop,

Friends,

One blog which should have been two: I got carried away with a woman artist and foremother poet , but it is really not overlong (if you will only visit twice; come two times — why not?):

The second woman photographer the OLLI at Mason class on American Woman Photographers was to watch a movie about and discuss was Annie Leibovitz. In the event, there was a weather report telling everyone in Northern Virginia we were in for some mighty brutal cold and it would rain ice, snow, and just pelt us all. Since the gov’t agencies in charge of cleaning and making the roads safe are underfunded in Fairfax (where the OLLI at Mason resides), all schools were closed as of the early morning. I can’t say the day was warm, but we were nowhere near Antartica, and the precipitation began around 4 when it was still 39F, so it began to rain and eventually it did rain ice for a while and then later 3 inches of snow. The next day the same story: everything closed when it need not have been. So the American Poetry class on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry was also cancelled.


Recent photo

However, the kindly and well-meaning (and frustrated) volunteer teachers sent everyone the URL to the American Masters film of Leibovitz we would have seen, and I watched it by myself and now share it with you

What the film suggests is that Annie Leibovitz is not a woman who can articulate or talk about her art in any coherent reasoned way, at the same time as she takes brilliant shots, has an eye for the arresting costume, gesture, featured actor or actress or somehow semi-numinous person and can capture a portrait of them either in movement among others or facing the viewer which is intensely revealing or (less articulately) riveting to the memory so that we remember the image and want a copy ourselves.


Nelson Mandela

This is unexpected since her longest life partner (15 years) was one of the more articulate writers and speakers of the 20th century, Susan Sontag. Years ago I went to an exhibit of photography by Leibovitz featuring Sontag’s life. She said in the film she loved best photographing beloved family members and friends and those she had been intimate with, could feel utterly comfortable with and hoped her subject felt likewise: ““You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of intimate work except with the people you love, the people who will put up with you. They’re the people who open their hearts and souls and lives to you. You must take care of them.”

She had three daughters (two by surrogate mothers) who mean a great deal to her. Iconic with a dog:

Beyond the bare outline offered by wikipedia, you can read this life story. The magazine Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker have been important in her life. In the film she admits she had periods where taking drugs with her subjects and alone took over too much. Although presented to tempt a student into buying an essay and submitting it as his or her own (plagiarism), this critical analysis of Leibovitz’s art should give us pause: there is voyeurism, sensationalism and a strong bent towards the commercially riveting. You will not find on this blog the notorious photograph of John Lennon clinging to Yoko Ono as if he were cat seeking comfort from his mother, in fetus-like posture. Also not here her many nudes. She photographed to make humane political arguments (so to speak) but also powerful and vulnerable people whose reputation or integrity has since been questioned (see A Decade of Power). She’s published books of photographs, of celebrities; many glamor shots of stars looking ethereally or sexily beautiful. Men too. She captured Mick Jagger and his band leaping through the air.

I was startled by the film, for I found some images I had been drawn to and taken off the Net to save were by her. Especially this of Keira Knightley as Dorothy on the yellow brick road; her famous friends are actors who I recognize but cannot place

In sum, her art is arresting, voyeuristic insightful — she captures the gothic within us. Susan Sontag. Her Three Children too.

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

This photograph pf Elizabeth Bishop is not by Annie Leibovitz:


The line from one of her poems: “the island within” is its caption, and that she was “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

She is wondrous at traveling through books: her opening lines are often her best moments and her thesis:

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete
Concordance”

Thus should have been our travels:
serious, engravable.
The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
innumerable, though equally sad and still,
are foreign. Often the squatting Arab,
or group of Arabs, plotting, probably,
against our Christian Empire,
while one apart, with outstretched arm and hand
points to the tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher.
The branches of the date-palms look like files.
The cobbled courtyard, where the Well is dry,
is like a diagram, the brickwork conduits
are vast and obvious, the human figure
far gone in history or theology,
gone with its camel or its faithful horse.
Always the silence, the gesture, the specks of birds
suspended on invisible threads above the Site,
or the smoke ising solemnly, pulled by threads.
Granted a page alone or a page made up
of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles
or circles set on stippled gray,
granted a grim lunette,
caught in the toils of an initial letter,
when dwelt upon, they all resolve themselves.
The eye drops, weighted, through the lines
the burin made, th elines tha tmove apart
like ripples above sand,
dispersing storms, God’s spreading fingerprint,
and painfully, finally, that ignite
in watery prismatic white-and-blue.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
amog the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.
And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly.
Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,
crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.
In Mexico the dead man lay
in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes
glistened like Easter lilies.
The jukebox went on playing ‘Ay, Jalisco!’
And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies
splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eye.
In Dingle harbor a golden length of evening
the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.
The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all:
A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,
one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin
open to every wind from the pink desert.
An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid
with exhortation, yellowed
as scattered cattle-teeth;
half-filled with dust, not even the dust
of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there.
In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on amused.

Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity whlie we were at it?
— the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkles, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets
— and looked and looked our infant sight away.

In a way she’s competing with the pictures: I’ve read
it somewhere that the essence of poetry is in the line;
the unit the line. Each of her lines is a world in itself,
and filled with more serious true content than the
illustrations she looks at.

She begins with the idea that the illustrations tell us what we should have seen, but soon moves on to suggesting that they tell us to be false tourist and not to see what is there.

What is there? This poem comes from a 1955 book called _A Cold Spring_, and we see that the anxiety, fear and prejudice against those who are
different from us which is fuelling the nonsense of the “war on terror” so that we are to ignore every and all statements of the people who rebel against the US in the countries we occupy or use our military to enable other powerful groups to occupy. All these people are simply plotting with hatred against the Christian empire — we are told.

She is as sceptical as Jhabvala. This is the content of the non-western women writer of women’s books, but note here it’s not used to argue for accepting individual repression or escaping it. This world is too relentlessly simply what it is: each living unit intensely going about its egoistic appetitive unexamined life. Bishop records some compassion: the dead man in Mexico, dead nature, the little pockmarked prostitutes.

Yes it is all very frigthening. Maybe better to look at the 2000 illustrations and study the concordance to them and keep our mind on them.

Nothing explained. What have we been missing all this while. What as children we are to allow our time to pass entertained in this way. We should be looking at that dark ajar.

This seems to me as great a poem at Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Maybe Bishop is however distracting us by these illustrations

I find I never wrote a foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79); much as I’m deeply touched by some of her life-writing poetry, her plangent controlled desperation, I find her use of geography and mythic creatures makes up a wall of avoidance I can’t get past except by speculation, which is unsatisfactory. The biography sent us omitted her lesbianism, her years of ceaseless alcholism, that her positions as a teacher were gotten for her by the elite clique of American poets she belonged to (by origin, her family she came from the Boston Brahmin group, which included Robert Lowell who was physically abusive to her as he was to Elizabeth Hardwick). Her early life was very sad, but so too her later sometimes harrowing one abroad and in the US. Strange the flight to Brazil: what did she think of the reactionary gov’ts? No clue is offered. She could not have ignored them altogether — or could she with her books, maps, illustrations. Her work & life crucially significant. Her sad life, her wonderful poems. I print unusual ones: her art of losing through books, illustrations, maps, and alas alcohol and retreat


Don McCullin, from Landscapes: Somerset Levels Near Glastonbury 2010

This New Yorker essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont is superb: Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing. She left a fat book of letters, many on punctuation. She is said to be “the most popular woman poet” after Emily Dickinson (!). I can only understand that if it’s like the popularity of Robert Frost: from misreading or preference for distanced strangeness (and geography) Many of her poems will be well-known to readers of modern American poetry, but here is one you may not have come across:

Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow.

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, hat sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep

She was mistress of the sonnet form.

And this is so kindly to another women poet whose poetry is deliberately set up to keep her life and us at a distance, who apparently was unable to get from under her tyrannical narrow-minded mother’s domination, not even to find an apartment of her own far away from far off Brooklyn:

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemcals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rollng of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capefu of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bride, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

Apologies for not being able to replicate the stanzas.

Bishop to Moore, Elizabeth to Marianne is a beautiful beautiful love poem of longing, friendship as love. It reminds me of a poignant letter by Jane Austen to Mary Lloyd, looking forward so eagerly to when they will be together again. I’m glad to see Jane and Mary did have their night on the floor together, their reading, walking, talking. It appears that Marianne in Brooklyn did not make it to Elizabeth in Manhattan.

One last:

“Crusoe in England”

A new volcano has erupted
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being boonr:
at first a black fleck – basalt, probably —
rose in the mater’s binoculoars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island’s still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books got it right.

Well I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides —
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off …

My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters — their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much …

I often gave way to self-pity.
“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must,
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.”
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiar=ly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
….

There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects,
and so I made home-brew. I’d drink
the awful, fizzy stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries,
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.

Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough fo something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems — well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flesh upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss …” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I’d dream of tings
like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, evntually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came,
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman …
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
— Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides? …
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber …

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
— and Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

(Geography III, 1976)


A painting by Doreen Fletcher of vanishing England (“The architecture of the ordinary”), the area in London called Spitalfields, caught by her and her colleagues with scrupulous reverent meanness (to paraphrase a Joyce phrase for his Dubliner — another course I’m taking) — Bridge over Regents Canal Bow, 2018

Ellen

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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Friends,

The OLLI at Mason winter term has started, and I’ve had two remarkable classes in two days. For tonight I can offer to you, a two hour plus movie on the art and life of Dorothea Lange, made by PBS, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the American Masters series. All of these I ever saw were of uniform excellence at the same time as differing considerably from one another: each program took its shape from the artist it was about, and the creative film art-biography a shaping spirit in response made. Do take the time:

[A bit of a warning: the full-size screen movie can be seen only on PBS websites that carry; below is this movie, only for reasons I don’t understand the picture takes up only about a quarter of the left hand bottom side of the screen. The voice is intact, the photos shown, the narrative, but on the right side and just above the “movie” space you have to endure a black background with flickering stars]

I could for once leave this at that and for once have a genuinely brief blog (on my part) but I would like to tempt your appetite lest you have said to yourself I’ll come back later, and of course never do. After a prelude where she speaks of her core ideas on how to extract life from all around her into a camera shot, and we are shown her famous iconic picture, “Migrant Mother,”

One could say this picture is the Mona Lisa of American art: in the movie you learn who this woman was, her circumstances and how she felt about the photos taken of her later in life. Neither she nor Lange ever made the money from these they would have had they been controlled by a contemporary studio.


She posed many women and children, some with the children on the mother’s lap, some with their heads and bodies wrapped around the mother

You will move on to a narrative that combines her life story with the stages of her developing art, and at each point where she created some soaring set of hundreds of negatives and then photos, you are told the circumstances of how she came to make this set of pictures (who funded by, when, what the circumstances of the people). Many are shown you with intelligent insightful commentary on the narrator’s part.

Her life story begins with her childhood, how she wanted to become a photographer, how she was trained as a photographer at Columbia University by Clarence H White, how she moved to San Francisco, and there made her way to a job in a shop developing photos people brought to it. She managed while there and photographing San Francisco herself to met crucially innovative photographers running studios, exhibiting one another’s work, and sustained relationships. The film concentrates on her two husbands, both encouraged her: the first a noted western painter, Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children; and 10 years later, after her marriage became strained and she fell in love with Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at Berkeley, deeply socialist, who had himself been married, so was now divorced. At one point she was caring for two of her own children, and three step-children; at times, she put them in foster homes to give herself time to practice her art. There is much emphasis on the ambiguous and difficult but brave relationship of her and Dixon, and then the long loving companion with Taylor.


This might be a still from the movie Grapes of Wrath

She began photographing the elite in fashionable ways for money, but when the depression emerged, turned her camera to the real people of the US suffering from the devastation of this catastrophe. We see them in monumental individuality and invulnerable moments, standing there, their struggle t survive. What they value enough to take cross country. And their despair too.

She was enabled by FDR’s agencies: Farm Security, Resettlement. The Oakies were among her subjects, and her pictures are reflected in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A second set of photos are of a large community destroyed by a project to build a dam: this was seen as progress, and it did deliver water across a vast region and gradually improved the lives of those living around the dam, but it drowned, displaced worlds of people.


Pea Harvest, 1937

She also photographs immigrant workers in the fields of California, the hard work and small pay, the dismal housing, how they wrenched improvement for themselves and a better life for the children from such jobs; she does not neglect, average people and the land and natural world of the US. Another third set of photos are of the Japanese Internment Camps, where she had to fight censorship to show the individuals in these prisons.


A family awaiting a bus

These were impounded by the US gov’t and not shown for years. One of her themes is the effect of ripping whole families from their homes, their things, their very identity. You will see other smaller projects: she photographs how poorer people coped with the criminal justice system, courts. Her husband was a social activist and later in life she was taking photos by his side as he went about doing research, working with the UN to improve people’s lives around the earth where they could.


A group of women at a meeting

Her vision was partly the result of her experience as girl, wife, mother and her ability to identify with those who had no voice, including the environment, plants and animals. Her father had abandoned the family when she was very young; she and her siblings went to live with a grandmother; she also contracted polio at twelve: it left her with a weak leg and a limp. I found one of the most moving pictures one of a terrified horse, fleeing the opening thunderous waters of a dam.


Terrified Horse: Lake Berryessa

This is framed by a second story: the 1964 exhibition of her art at the Museum of Modern Art: after the opening prelude, you see her very old (and by this time sick with esophageal cancer) planning with the director and curator of the museum a magnificent exhibition. We keep coming back to this to hear her talk of her pictures, what this set or that mean to her, the beauty of a negative and so on. The movie ends with her death just before the exhibit was opened.

What’s left from the exhibit; the wikipedia article includes a list of good books, and the notes are filled with contemporary article and essays about Dorothea. There are more modern “theoretic” ones like The Politics of Seeing (a John Berger-type pictorial essay).


Dorothea around the time of the exhibit

It is particularly important as a film today where the impoverished, black people, and immigrants such people are being demonized, deprived of the agencies set up for the last 60 years to help them live good lives and protect them from exploitation; they are being put into prison, separated from their children. Budgets are being imposed on us all to make the super-rich in this country even richer and the rest of us (90%) lose much that enables us to live decent lives without debt and with opportunity to fulfill our talents and enjoy ourselves — the National Endowment for the Humanities has been smashed. Four women who left water for some protesting Native Americans were arrested the other day, put on trial. Federal workers expected to work without pay, as the judiciary is now controlled by reactionary judges (what about the 13th amendment). Heads of unions of federal workers try to demonstrate and they are arrested — a powerful group of ruthless reactionaries are intent on destroying the US gov’t as still constituted (though it had taken many hits for some 40 years) when Obama left office

I have over the years done a blog pictorial essays on the lives and art of women artists:  Dorothea Lange was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The film itself reminded me of the work of Frederick Wiseman for its social critiques and visual forms of analysis. The film is by her step-daughter, Dyanna Taylor and you see her children now grown speaking of her.


This of Florence Owens Thompson is iconic

The other three women photographers are Annie Lebovitz, Sally Mann, and Vivian Maier (three further films too).  My second remarkable class is on American poetry, and I hope to share some of what I learn and take away on Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop on this blog too.

Ellen

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Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

As is our wont for too many years than I like to count, Christmas week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io (we have now resided on five different platforms) we took time out to read a few Christmas or ghost stories and watch a few Christmas or New Year’s movies. I realize I’ve hardly blogged about this, but from our discussion I thought I’d ask the question I posed in my previous blog on two Christmas movies of the 21st century, Is there any general difference between the Christmas story that emerged with the first commercialization of Christmas — in the 19th century, around the time of Dickens’s most famous tale, A Christmas Carol (but not caused by this story), and the type that has dominated the second half of the 20th century and is just dying now.

The simple answer is, Yes. The Victorians were much more into ghosts. Not that we don’t have ghost stories: we do. But I’d say we want our ghosts to be redemptive, to bring hope, cheer, and uplift while the Victorians tended to want generally to mirror as aspects of their society all the year round as seen through the lens of a Christmas ritual. And often as not darkly gothic. We are changing and our new traditional stories are beginning to be less insistent on faery joy and benevolence (It’s a Wonderful Life, engineered by an angel) and more inclined to accept the temporary rescue (as in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns or Love, Actually). I am in the position of having too much material to demonstrate this (from all the years I’ve saved what people wrote over different weeks’ choices, but thought this year’s stories were as able as any to register this. Two by Anton Chekhov, “Frost,” and “A Christmas Time,” and one by Margaret Oliphant, “A Christmas Story,” which I’ll follow up as a kind of coda, Trollope’s depiction of six very different experiences of Christmas in the same year and juxtaposed chapters in Orley Farm.


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

Chekhov’s “Frost” shows us people attempting to have this joyous time on a vast frozen pond, and what happens is among the upper classes, one man complain how this is false and, far from a cheerful time for all, the winter imposes cold and misery for many, for the poor much deprivation and hard work in the bitter cold. Along comes a man whose appearance and story bears this idea out. The problem (I’d say) is that the complaining has destroyed what cheer there is, and other characters reiterate this idea. But somehow they cannot forget. There is that suffering man.


John Atkinson Grimshaw, Silence (late 19th century, English, probably Yorkshire in winter)

Cheknov’s “A Christmas Time” tells of two very old people who have not heard from their grown daughter for a long time, so long the wife goes to a person who can read and write. He asks her what she wants him to say, and Chekhov says she cannot get herself to say the (I’d call them) vulnerable open longing emotions she has or what has happened for real. She is too inhibited to speak the truth. So the notary produces the usual boilerplate rot of his upper class niche, which flatters him and would say nothing to this daughter. The letter arrives and we learn that there were letters written to the old couple but never delivered. The foolish poor people, the daughter especially trusted to others to deliver them. (Like the southerners who gave their ballots to people coming to the door; I wonder if in the modern case the people were intimidating and that’s not said in public) At any rate when the two grown children read the letters one cries with joy and remembrance. So the letters do serve as a minimum communication. But the pair do nothing about going to the aging couple so they cannot know if they have reached their daughter.

Bleak stories, indeed, but not unusual. And to show this I think I’ll follow up with a few blogs on previous year’s readings. For now have a look at a M.R. James Christmas tale.


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

Our last short story for this round, Oliphant’s “Christmas Story:” Oliphant has a man who wants go somewhere Christmas and misses his train. He takes an old-fashioned coach and finds himself by an old broken down landscape where all is desolate and thence to an inn which fits this area. Bare. a dearth of objects. The food offered is bad, and an old gentleman comes and offers to take our narrator to his manor – all the while talking against modern ways. They get there through an uncanny landscape, and the old man tells our narrator that the sullen son he meets is going to replace the old man. According to the family will, each generation must make the oldest son the heir. The family has trouble having sons. A story is told where when the family attempted to get round this harsh treatment, to give the house to a daughter, and they almost lost the house. Our narrator is horrified to think what this means is the son will kill the father somehow or the father kill himself. He tries to stop this, but is somehow ejected from the house, and must return to the inn, deeply disquieted. Next day he goes back indignant determined to overcome the indifference of all around him to what is done in this family each generation but it is too late. And then he wakes up … Was it all a nightmare?

How to take this? The details and experience may leave people reacting very different ways to this gothic — without ghosts so it’s not reprinted in the ghost stories but my hunch is it is a story of the “unseen.” My reading: it’s about Oliphant herself. As Trollope’s Fixed Period is about his fear of death, his aging and misery, his sense the young would like him to die, with the awful Mrs Neverbend a version of Trollope’s wife, Oliphant’s is even more painfully about her. Her sons want to replace her — a number of her novels are metaphors for her painful relationships with her disappointing sons and her neglect of her sweet niece (“Lady Mary’s Story”).

My good friend, Fran, had another take very close to Victorian broad themes:

I found it an intriguing one, despite the unfortunately clichéd, ‘it may have been only a dream’ ending.

As you say, it was probably informed by her own distressing and disappointing experiences with the ne’er-do-well males in her family, who took and took, but didn’t respect,but it seems to go further than that and be an oblique critique of patriarchy, patrilineal inheritance rights and inheritance laws in general. She does it by taking the privileging of male inheritance ad (macabre and possibly murderous) absurdum. It isn’t that the family has difficulty having sons: due to the losses of a wastrel forebear, the family has made a conscious decision to have only one child, a son, in each generation in order to maintain patrilineal succession and prevent their land being cut up even further by multiple heirs or falling to another family if a female should succeed and marry. That son automatically accedes to the title upon marriage whilst the father dies, whether by his own hand or that of his son, remains unclear as you’ve already pointed out – a kind of precursor to the Highlander’s ‘there can be only one’ maxim:) The narrator stumbles upon the present incumbent of the title on the day this will come about and is shocked by his equanimity at the prospect of his loutish son succeeding him in this way. The only thing that seems to bother the father is that his son has insisted on marrying outside the preferred narrow gene pool and into a particularly fecund family, thus presumably increasing the danger of multiple heirs.

Women are of absolutely no importance in this family beyond the obligatory production of a male heir. The lady of the manor is a completely silent, passive and presumably accepting cypher who quite literally blends in with the furniture and her husband is positively gleeful when he recounts that the one time a female child was born first and in danger of inheriting both she and her mother met with an early demise – manner again unspecified – whilst the second wife performed her duty and produced the required son to continue the male line.

This stands in ironic and suggestive contrast to the legendary figure of Godiva referenced at the beginning of the tale, who took action and stood up against her despotic husband and caused harmful laws to be rescinded for the good of the people. The male who disrespected her, the first Peeping Tom, was summarily punished by a higher power. Wishful thinking perhaps…..


Mr Furnival greeting Lady Mason, to the right side sitting Mrs Furnival, to the left Lady Mason’s son, Lucius

And finally Christmas in Trollope’s Orley Farm (mostly contained in 21-24) as simply truthful. The truth is few people can be happy upon command. Some who are already cheerful in life can easily enter into the spirit of a festival; for others it is a form a work which brings its rewards; for still others, the social requirement just makes life harder to bear. We see all these types in the 6 Christmases Trollope shows us. But of course Trollope doesn’t present Christmas in all his books or because Christmas come every year; he presents it here because it fits into his exploration of law, custom, and now ritual in this particular novel.

There are six Christmases. The four obvious ones are: Harley Street, Noningsby, Groby Park, and Great St. Helens.

Christmas at Harley Street. The scene of the aon and accused mother, Lady Mason, late at night matches the scene of Mr and Mrs Furnival. Less is dramatized in the first but we are to understand Lady Mason feels a bitter agony at her son. He is driving his absolute right to a property too far and a court case will be the result. He, she feels, rightly is cruel. Trollope wants us to understand that Lucius cannot bear that his opponents do not answer all insults: his pride is his undoing. But we are shown that pride is necessary to win in the world. All the characters have it, but only the wiser use it with discretion. I feel we are to see Mr Furnival is cruel and mean, cold. We’ve been told enough to know he has women. He never comes home to supper one night in the year and is even out on this Christmas celebration. To those not in groups Christmas is a cruel time because (as Trollope shows) people without friends or celebration who have hearts are made to suffer and feel bitterly ashamed. But Mrs Furnivals handles Mr Furnival badly. Had she been skillful, he still would gone out, never be home. She cannot humble herself and admit to herself or him she speaks out of deep loneliness.

Trollope does “paint” the scenes of Christmas at Noningsby remarkably finely — he has wonderful description and psychological powers. And while showing us the enjoyment he does justice to all the pettty, cross and unsatisfied emotions of the various lovers and children and adults too. Unlike Dickens Trollope shows a variety of how people get through this day, does justice to all. This sequence of chapters is famous as well as the illustration of blind man’s bluff. Ironically appropriate _– the way to get through life is to bluff the blind men.

Christmas at Great St Helens’ shows Mr Moulder bullying everyone into appearing to be cheerful, and somehow they get through sll the insisted upon rituals with heavy food, much drink, and obedience.

But to this we should add Christmas at the cottage of the Greens, the Mason’s tenants in Groby Park, and Christmas at the Cleeves. What unites the Greens’ and Cleeves’s Christmas is they are simply an adorned moment in which all attempt to show good fellowship. Mr and Mrs Green come home from the long ordeal of ugly pretense and parody of hospitality that has been the Groby Park Christmas (everyone an utter miser), and Trollope writes: “‘And now, my dear, we’ll have a bit of bread and cheese and a glass of beer'” (1985 Oxford Classics ed. DSkilton, p. 237).

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

“[Lady Mason] made an effort to be serene, and the effort was successful — as such efforts usually are. On the morning of Christmas-day they duly attended church, and Lady Mason was seen by all Hamworth sitting in the Cleeves’ pew. in no way could the baronet’s friendhship have been shown more plainly…”

In the evening Sir Peregrine proposes the toast. They drink to the health of the absent young men, he retires and Lady Mason is able to relieve her heart in conversation with Mrs Orme (p. 247). We may assume they drank something far more expensive than beer.

These 2 Christmases are overlooked because they only get a couple of paragraphs each and are very quiet. They also lack children. Children are what makes Christmas for some so happy, especially when they still believe in the pretty lie of Santa. Children are drunk on life of course. Finally these two seem to me the most modern of all the Christmases we see. Not everyone is near a divorce on Christmas day. But many people nowadays are cut off from large family groups — or single –and spend their day alone, quietly, or with one or two adult friends.

The 6 Christmases are presented in this novel this way too because they fit into what Halperin has identified as something Trollope dislikes wherever he sees it, and is a strong part of his animus towards political life: they avoid the ceremonies of falsifying rituals. I would say that this presentation of the ritual of Christmas as enacted in six places connects to the novel’s exploration of law and custom and what I’ll call the brutal politics of every day life: shall one bully? as Moulder does, or retreat into self-abnegation or controlled repeat or veneer ritual like Lady Mason?

In this connection what Trollope shows us is ritual at home doesn’t hide reality; rather it heightens it. In each of the Christmases we find everyone behaving in ways that epitomize the reality of their lives and natures at this point. The difference is the need to join in the ritual at the same time makes what is true about them more obvious; it turns life into a theater. Thus each of the six moments again reveals to us aspects of each character writ large, and carries the book’s stories and themes along strongly.

And there is a fun illustration by Millais for Christmas at Noningsby (which I used as the frontispiece to this blog) to which I add a picturesque one of companionship between Judge Staveley and his daughter later that spring.

Finishing this old year, let us hope, my friends, we may yet have a peaceful and stable one to come, be well and know and give kindness.

Ellen

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One of the many whole family scenes in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008)


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

Over these few Christmas days I watched two new (to me) Christmas movies, read three Christmas stories I’ve never read before, and renewed my acquaintance with a series of Christmas chapters in a strong masterpiece of Victorian fiction. I most enjoyed the extraordinary creation of a several day Christmas time together by Arnaud Desplechin in his much-awarded A Christmas tale and was fully absorbed by six different households and their experience of Christmas in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. I’m with those reviewers who found that Mary Poppins Rebooted half-a-century later fails to enchant, and think anibundel comes closest to explaining why. The three stories I read, two by Anton Chekhov, and a third by Margaret Oliphant, suggest what was expected from a mainstream Christmas story in the 19th differs considerably from the 20th.

In this blog we’ll stay with movies, and in my next turn to stories.

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Sylvia’s children, Paul, grandfather and Sylvia doing a play of the children’s own device during the week (A Christmas Tale)

I can’t speak too highly of Desplechin’s film. It must may be the best or most mature Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. Before this I would say John Huston’s The Dead (from Joyce’s story) and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (an appropriation of Mansfield Park) were the finest, with the 1951 Christmas Carol archetypally old-fashioned, still delivering a depth of inward anguish, anger and redemption hard to match anywhere, partly because of the performance of Alistair Sim and partly the use of some film noir and fantafy techniques — and Dickens’s famous bitter and joyous lines. But they feel so limited in scope and what’s presented in comparison. Love Actually is vulgar in comparison (and finds sexual predation a bit too humorous with Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody dating just a bit); It’s a Wonderful Life — so meaningfully anti-capitalist for us today, with its angel Clarence seeking promotion and no one doing hysteria the way Jimmy Stewart can (I weep each time) — has problems — the depiction of the wife had she not married as this dried up spinster librarian afraid of her shadow is grating. There are none of these kinds of mistakes in Desplechin’s film.

I’d say if you are alone (like I fundamentally am now) and want to experience Christmas with other intelligent well-meaning real enough people sit for the full 2 and 1/2 slow-moving hours and then watch the 2 hours of features too. It’s the story of a large bourgeois family who all get together for the first time in several years because the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a cancer which requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to have any chance of living even for two years. Two of the family members have compatible blood types, one Paul (Emile Berling) the 15 year old troubled son of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a gifted playwright, who loathes the other, her brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) to the point five years she demanded her father, Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) and her mother cut off all relationship with him in return for her paying the enormous debts Henri had racked up; if someone did not pay it, her parents would lose the family home.

A major character across the film is this large comfortable ramshackle home and its landscape, both of which frame and is a brooding and comforting presence throughout all the scenes which don’t take place specifically in Roubaix. Roubaix is the film’s subtitle, a small French city in which Desplechin grew up and which he photographs lovingly, realistically in small interludes of shots. The key characters are Abel (the father), Junon (the mother), Henri and Elizabeth (two of their grown children), with Amalric as Henri delivering a character of extraordinary complexity and interest, vulnerable, resentful, despairing, kind, insightful by turns.


Mathieu Amalric as Henri talking earnestly to his younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaid) as they decorate the family tree.

Back history (like a novel): Abel and Junon had four children, and the film opens with the death of the eldest, Joseph at age six as a flashback of memory in Abel’s mind — as he and his wife await the arrival of the family as it is today for Christmas.   Elizabeth and their youngest son, Ivan, have married. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) leaves at one point, so incensed does he get against the tactless Henri, when he is having to deal with his son Paul having had a breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. Claude is preparing his mind for a coming interview with authorities to try to get the boy out of the asylum while Elizabeth wants to put him back there. By film’s end the boy will not return to the asylum but stay with his grandparents, Claude has returned, and Elizabeth been helped by talk with her father.

Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroiana, Deneuve’s actual daughter) while reacting with real affection to her two small boys whenever they are around, is essentially bored by them and her life, and during the course of the film discovers that Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a cousin who lives with Abel and Junon, and works in their dye factory (the source of the family income) is deeply in love with her, and gave her up to Ivan after he lost a bet. She apparently had preferred Simon to Ivan; he is one of several family members who absents himself from the group now and again — he drinks too heavily, maybe is bisexual, is doing nothing with his life. So Sylvia finds him alone in a bar on Christmas eve, and they spent a night in bed together, something accepted by Ivan, who himself lives unconventionally as a musician commanding large audiences in rock concerts, one of which we attend.

Henri’s first wife, died in a car accident a month after they married:


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

Henri has had several partners since, and the present woman, Jewish, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) finds herself feeling alien, Henri’s response is he wants to leave too; at one point she goes shopping with Junon, and without telling her, Junon leaves the shop, driving herself back, so Faunia has to get back herself. She does leave early.


Simon, Sylvia, Ivan, Junon in a corridor (left to right)

A complicated family you might say – but no more than many families. I assure you, you will not be bored; it’s funny, wry, quiet and peaceful (as they watch appalling movies), suddenly all is fraught emotion and then they calm down again and exchange presents.

The stories close with Elizabeth intoning the epilogue from Midsummer’s Night Dream, as she overlooks Roubaix.  This last literary quotation (of several) signals the underlying mood that holds it together: acceptance (except during eruptions) of one another, their fates, with barbed raillery mixed with profound thoughts, sometimes read aloud —


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

What helps hold everyone together: the house where they dwell together. All they do in and for it. The town they know. Even the cemetery close by where their baby brother was buried.  The father is the final authority all the while going off to clean up the table, the yard after fireworks were set up all over it; the mother is respected by all even if she had the disconcerting habit of telling this or that child she never cared for them. So a combination of tradition and concrete truth.  Things.  Prickly, messy and companionable (Henri goes walking in the snow with Paul and helps him), filled with shots of beautiful winter, ghastly streets, and the house and rooms every which way, this movie finally helps us to endure on. Chapter headings, days of the week also named by mood, characters who turn around and address us, hospital and bar scenes, it’s all there, Christmas time. The hope in the film that they do get together, help one another, share their memories, which is to say their deepest identities, has some fruition.

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Look at the look in Blunt’s eye — cold as ice

The Mary Poppins movie is not the most tedious Christmas film I’ve ever seen — I give that prize to the Muppet Scrooge story. But it can come close. It’s a child’s movie because the main action, the rescuing is precipitated by the children. I bring it up because Disney has such a prominent presence in our culture, as a girl I loved the books by P.L Travers (wildly disparate from the 1964 movie), which have yet to be done justice to by any of the movies (including Saving Mr Banks), two of which have been used as Christmas icons. Emily Blunt herself played the wife who dies, a central role in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which was another Christmas day extravaganza, and this gives us our clue to what goes wrong.


Emily Blunt as the despairing hysterically lost baker’s wife (2014)

Sondheim’s song was simply about how in life sometimes we end up walking alone: “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.” Paradoxically the film also tried to bring something of the original thwarted feelings of the book: each time an adventure is over, Mary Poppins denies it took place; she is all vanity, egoism, discusses nothing, orders everyone about (Blunt tried for a soupcon of this). Anibundel suggests the problem is the film took on “deep emotional themes” the Disneyfiction can’t include. Manohla Dargis agrees that it follows the trajectory of the old songs; and finds it uncanny that it never captures the original “delicacy of feeling” or bliss.


Lin-Manuel Miranda imitating one of Van Dyke’s routines

I’m inclined to think the actors didn’t believe in it the way they did 50 years ago; Emily Mortimer was thrown away; Julie Walters was a stray from 19th century music hall; the occasional nervous plangency allowed Wishaw went nowhere, and Lin-Manuel seemed to be biking to no purpose, round and round. What seems to me important is capitalism won out; no subversion allowed. All the talk of the movie was money, certificates, and while Dick Van Dyke stepped in for a moment to dance a delicate shoe number and remind us trust in one another was the key to the first bank’s success, that was lost in the hard noise of triumph. The principals worked so hard because it was all counter-productive; the less true Christmas message they had, the more vigorous they became. When they went high up in balloons, they were not escaping from their world. The material as brought down not from Travers, not from her book:


Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers very irritated by what Disney did to her book (Saving Mr Banks, 2013)

But the previous naive travesty won’t work any more because we are cut off from social feeling.


Is the Mary Poppins in the center having any emotion with respect to anyone around her?

They wanted more than a Sondheim production, where rousing music and slow depth simple words convey significance. The movie lacked haunting music because it was not permitted the real melancholy of life’s existence (as caught in Abel’s words in the book he reads; another review by Jen Cheney this time of the DVD set). Streep’s song could have fitted the movie’s story: the Banks children and Michael Banks need to be righted. But one visit from MP will not do it. This was a ludicrously over-produced fantasy, a commercial for Disneyland, pictures of which opened and closed the movie itself.

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What should a Christmas story be? Trollope said “the savor of Christmas” was a story that instilled (in his language) “charity,” which translates literally into acts of giving. We’ll explore this next time. At the end of A Christmas Tale, Henri has given life’s blood, risked his life, on the chance he could save his mother’s. There has been no talk of money here; what tore the family apart was money.


The church scene repeats the arrangement of characters in the court scene only then it’s Abel next to Henri

I mentioned my DVD included two disks. As Cheney says, “Arnaud’s tale” is disappointing: we are told how central the house is to the film, and the city, and these connect back to Desplechin’s life and Almaric talks of how he understood and played Henri. But it’s the one hour documentary movie that illuminates why he chose to make a Christmas movie:

“L’Aimée,” on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin’s relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like “A Christmas Tale,” a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort,” “L’Aimée” introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family’s history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.

Into the Woods was not about charity but it was about heartbreak, memory and camaraderie as solace. A roll of the dice, chance moments, human obtuseness and self have caused much damage but by the end (as Philip Lopate says in the essay that accompanies the DVD — such a lot of stuff in this DVD case) even the depressed Elizabeth “gets her bearings.” And moments of grace no matter how odd (like when the nurse does not stop Henri from drinking and smoking the morning he is to do his part of the procedure) enable the people together to invent livable lives. No one altogether crushed, and everyone at some point smiles with some shared or individual enjoyment.


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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Outlander, Season 3, Episode 8: First Wife Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe as Jamie and Claire Fraser aboard a ship to seek out Ian, captured below ….

From Prologue to Voyager:

When I was small, I never wanted to step in puddles. Not because of any fear of drowned worms or wet stockings; I was by and large a grubby child, with a blissful disregard for filth of any kind.

It was because I couldn’t bring myself to believe that that perfect smooth expanse was no more than a thin film of water over solid earth. I believed it was an opening into some fathomless space. Sometimes, seeing the tiny ripples caused by my approach, I thought the puddle impossibly deep, a bottomless sea in which the lazy coil of tentacle and gleam of scale lay hidden, with the threat of huge bodies and sharp teeth adrift and silent in the far down depths.

And then, looking down into reflection, I would see my own round face and frizzled hair against a featureless blue sweep,and think instead that the puddle was the entrance to another sky. If I stepped in there, I would drop at once, and keep on falling on and on, into blue space.

The only time I would dare to walk though a puddle was at twilight, when the evening stars came out. If I looked in the water and saw one lighted pinprick there, I could splash through unafraid — for if I should fall into the puddle and on into space, I could grab hold of the star as I passed, and be safe.

Even now, when I see a puddle in my path, my mind half-halts — through my feet d not — then hurries on, with only the echo of the thought left behind ….

Friends and readers,

I decided to return to blogging about Outlander tonight, intent on writing about Season 4, and its source thus far, Drums of Autumn, and and discovered (much to my horror) that I never finished blogging about Season 3! I last posted 13 months ago (November 2017) and wrote comparing the second and third season to one another and their books and took the series up to Episode 8: First Wife. I feel I ought to finish the third season before going on to the fourth.

So, first, to catch up, I was so taken by Season 1 (the first book is called simply Outlander) that I blogged about it 2 episodes at a time and one on the book too (across 2016): A handy list; a few thoughts on the novel (February 2017).


Claire at the window: Opening soliloquy

Much as I loved Season 2 (all but the opening out of Dragonfly in Amber), I blogged but once on the whole season taken as a whole and the books it came from: “A differently framed Dragonfly in Amber” (October 2017)


Claire grieving over stillborn child (Episode 7, Faith, towards the close)

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A quick recap:


Season 3, Episode 9: The Doldrums (in front Cesar Dombuy as Fergus and Lauren Lyle as Marsali)

We left off as Ian (John Bell) has been kidnapped by pirates and Jamie and Claire see no other solution to freeing him than to follow the young man to (possibly) “the new world,” and they, their foster son, Jamie’s step-daughter, and Jamie’s new sidekick friend, Willoughby (Gary Young) take ship. Episode 9 is a series of wild and improbable adventures. It put me in mind of Greek romance in the 3rd century, long narratives of a couple endlessly parted in a vast seascape. Instead of a tempest, they are afflicted by a calm; instead of magic rituals, Willoughby’s religious art and typhus. There is a real movement to “strangeness” and uncanniness in the story of himself that Mr Willoughby tells – reminding me of an inset “history” in 18th century novels. Our Claire takes on Stephen Maturin’s role in O’Brien’s adventure romances: ship’s surgeon, hair graying, skirts tied back. Claire is tricked into getting on to another ship in order to save as many of a dying crew dying as her inadequate medicines but wise natural means can, and Jamie insists the ship he is on follow the ship she is on.


Episode 10: Heaven and Earth: Albie Marber as the appealing 14 year old Elias Pound in training to be an officer becomes Claire’s aide and then dies himself of typhus

We have two sets of adventures in two ships headed for Jamaica. On Jamie’s ship, The Porpoise, we have to worry ourselves whether Fergus and Marsali are having sexual intercourse, and Jamie is a nervous wreck and seasick, tended by the faithful Willoughby with acupuncture; on Captain Fraser’s ship we watch Claire deal with a serious epidemic where most of the sailors die. The best moments are those of Claire and Elias’s growing relationship, his sickening and dying. Claire’s ship lands and she attempts to escape but is thwarted. Claire provides suture by her voice-over. Brought back, with the help of the ship’s cook, she is induced to perform the madness of jumping ship with just a bundle and board to hold onto in order to try to reach Jamie before his ship lands in Jamaica where the plan is to have him arrested for a ransom. The ending of Heaven and Earth has her between heaven and earth in the sea itself, and this, with her back in just shift and smock (soaked) returns us to the old spirit of psychologically consistent daring of Season 1. She is her own woman, has a career; she wanted to have equal say in a marriage as to where they live, now she is like Shakespeare’s Miranda as a billow carries her to shore.


Episode 11: The Uncharted: Claire making her way, hungry, needing water, finding herself attacked by insects, heat, in danger of dying if she cannot find help

We might call this Claire meets Robinson Crusoe; her encounter with someone who seems at first to be a madman hermit-priest reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s hero in Decline and Fall where he ends up in a jungle and for the rest of his life must read Dickens (Waugh loathed Dickens) to a similar madman hermit. after a terrible walk, she is rescued by a half-made ex-priest and the mother of his now dead beloved wife. Meanwhile Jamie has driven the Porpoise to find Claire — most conveniently the captain and most others also died in an epidemic and the storm, and landed on the same island. Claire, altered by the priest’s anger at a “chinaman” who killed his goat for soap and food, Claire realizes Willoughby and therefore Jamie must be nearby. Escaping from said priest, she flees back to the beach just as Jamie is sailing away, but, ever the clever resourceful woman, she signals with a mirror and he sails back. I admit I had tears in my eyes as they ran across the beach to one another. One sailor said this man’s wife shows up in the most unlikely places.


The Wedding

A wedding ceremony for Fergus and Marsali (where the priest is astounded she will marry a man who has lost his hand — Gabaldon and then Ronald Moore’s nagging over Fergus’s disability is in bad taste, showing their discomfort) and finally the long scene of love-making between Jamie and Claire we had been waiting all 7 episodes for (that is, since she entered 18th century Scotland in Episode 5).

It makes psychological sense they should not have had this right away. The film-makers have problem with taste and taboo: Claire is older and my guess is the film-makers and it’s taboo to present an older woman who was just widowed as intensely sexual; the same goes for the “mature man.” So how do you present a “reunion” after twenty years; they have to get to know the new person, and as for the sexual matter, the film-makers opted to be “safe” (decorous). She is dressed boyishly and then womanly. They keep the uncomfortable at bay and her acceptable with the teasing about her being this “respectable married woman” and “honorable wife.” But now they can once again reach for sexual pleasure at length ….

Closure

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The last two episodes make one arc in the way the first three (Claire seeking Jamie from modern Scotland) do.

Episodes 12 & 13: The Bakra and The Eye of the Storm

Lotte Verbeck as Geillis Duncan (Gillian Edgars who burnt her husband to cross the stones) now the Bakra

Claire and Jamie land, have to integrate themselves into this new slave society, meet (ever so conveniently) Lord John (David Berry) whose authority prevents the ruthless captain Fraser from imprisoning and sending Jamie back for money. They successfully hunt Ian out to the lair Geillis Duncan, now a fearful sorceress-like presence) amid a jungle of tribal rituals, escaped and obedient enslaved black people. We have the first incidents involving slavery and Claire’s deep disgust; we witness a homoerotic relationship between the now near equals Lord John and Jamie — the metaphor that realizes this is dramatized in their enjoyment of chess together.


Claire leading Margaret through the tribe, Willoughby seen at the back of the shot

We meet again Margaret Campbell (Alison Pargeter), driven half-mad by her greedy brother after she had been gang-raped at Culloden; she is now rescued from his brutality by Willoughby and the two make a touching pair: he so gentle, she so tender and in need. Amid scenes of colonial luxury, as Claire discovered at the opening, Geillis has been trying to obtain magic talismans to assure the succession of a Scottish Stuart on the throne; she is the devouring sexual monster of misogynistic nightmares and Claire stops her killing Ian only by beheading her with a sword. They must flee once again and in a remarkable water sequence end up in a tempest, are thrown overboard and almost drown. Claire shows a death-wish we had not expected, and now Jamie pulls her out of the sea and her desperate mood onto the shore, where at first he thinks she has died, but she revives as the child of some English colonists come up to them.

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The Prologue to Outlander, book and film: “People disappear all the time./Young girls run away from home./Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station./Most are found eventually./Disappearances, after all, have explanations./
Usually.


The outline of the Scotsman seen by Frank looking up to Claire’s 20th century window

The Prologue to Dragonfly in Amber, just the book:

I woke three times in the dark predawn. First in sorrow, then in joy, and at the last in solitude. The tears of a bone-deep loss woke me slowly, bathing my face like the comforting touch of a damp cloth in soothing hands. I turned my face to the wet pillow and sailed a salty river into the caverns of grief remembered, into the subterranean depths of sleep.

I came awake then in fierce joy, body arched bow-like in the throes of physical joining, the touch of him fresh o my skin, drying along the paths of my nerves as the ripples of consummation spread from my center. I repelled consciousness, turning again, seeking the sharp, warm smell of a man’s satisfied desire, in the reassuring arms of my lover, sleep.

The third time I woke alone, beyond the touch of love or grief. The sight of the stones was fresh in my mind. A small circle, standing stones on the crest of a steep green hill. The name of the hill is Craigh na Dun; the fairies’ hill. Some say the hill is enchanted, others say it is cursed. Both are right. But no one knows the function or the purpose of the stones.

Except me.


Talking after love-making (from Season 1)

As my stills suggest, the true thread that unites this third divagating book is still romance: a series of couples, which include Jamie and the mother of his son, Willie, her sister, Isabel who Lord John obligingly marries so as to make a family for the little boy. In my blog on the first part of this third season I accounted for the changes from the two books to this serial drama and its lack of a clear thrust and resort to “dazzling” adventure to keep the audience entered. The book is about voyaging across the sea, and voyaging through different worlds. Seen against the backdrop of the whole cycle of books (by now at least 10), it’s a stage in a vast woman’s book landscape: updated Daphne DuMaurier, many-great granddaughter of Anne Radcliffe, a motif of ghosts as if this past is hauntingly alive in the mind of the author.


Lord John (John Berry) looking at Jamie’s suddenly resurrected wife, Claire — very quizzical — he compensates for the homophobia inherent in the portraits of Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) and the Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow)

Starting in the third season of the serials, there was a more determined attempt to make Jamie the center (deviating from the book), with one episode wholly about him, but as the outline of all 13 episodes suggests, the center remains Claire’s disappearance into another time. The opening still of the ghost standing by a monument in a darkened street, looking up at someone through a window is iconic; he is her dream. In many women’s romances, the novelist’s heroine expresses a self that is masculine in many of her impulses in her relation to other characters and the culture at hand. In Gabaldon it seems to me Jamie serves this purpose; Claire is very much a classically female heroine. She can be differently female from the other women, as they are all 18th century in conception; for example, Jenny with her many children. Claire is independent, scientifically educated, progressive in politics, pro-active in behavior.

But the theme, the image is watery, that of water become magical and that is adumbrated in her prologue (above, the opening epigraph to this blog)

Now here is the great opening of Drums of Autumn, the book starts almost astounding strongly; each of them thus far with a long internal monologue: this one is about living with ghosts, and so directly relevant to the whole project of historical fiction and time-traveling. And then we turn to Claire and Jamie witnessing a very strong scene of hanging and the violence of the US colony, its cruelty.

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. I live with them daily, after all. When I look in a mirror, my mother’s eyes look back at me; my mouth curls with the smile that lured my great-grandfather to the fate that was me. No, how should I fear the touch of those vanished hands, laid on me in love unknowing? How could I be afraid of those that molded my flesh, leaving their remnants to live long past the grave? Still less could I be afraid of those ghosts who touch my thoughts in passing. Any library is filled with them. I can take a book from dusty shelves, and be haunted by the thoughts of one long dead, still lively as ever in their winding sheet of words.

Of course it isn’t these homely and accustomed ghosts that trouble sleep and curdle wakefulness. Look back, hold a torch to light the recesses of the dark. Listen to the footsteps that echo behind, when you walk alone. All the time the ghosts flit past and through us, hiding in the future. We look in the mirror and see the shades of other faces looking back through the years; we see the shape of memory, standing solid in an empty doorway. By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves. Each ghost comes unbidden from the misty grounds of dream and silence. Our rational minds say, “No, it isn’t.” But another part, an older part, echoes always softly in the dark, “Yes, but it could be.”

We come and go from mystery and, in between, we try to forget. But a breeze passing in a still room stirs my hair now and then in soft affection. I think it is my mother.

In the book the narrative alters between Gabaldon as Claire and Gabaldon as Briana so this opening can equally be author, Claire once again or her daughter, who will cross the stones in the fourth season.

My next blog on Outlander will be on the first six episodes of season 4.

Ellen

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by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

“But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond out daily vision.”

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt I can convey what a good time we had for the last two or three months on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io reading and talking/writing together on Forster, his Howards End, and the two movies made from it (1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala with Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West &c&c; 2018 BBC Lonergan-Hettie Macdonald with Matthew Macfayden, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard &c&c), a couple of biographies, especially Nicola Beauman, and then (irresistibly it felt) A Room with a View (again two movies, 1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala (Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, again Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis) and a superlative 2007 ITV Andrew Davies (Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams&c&c), not to omit talk of Bloomsbury, fluid sexuality, Virginia Woolf as a topic in her own right, the new art and so on and so forth. We were turned into a Forster listserv. We have torn ourselves away at last to turn to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now for December through early February, but we plan a Forster summer in a few months. We’ve got four more novels, and who knows how many movies and great actors ….

He wrote fascinating novels, wonderful novels, smart, complicated funny and very sad. So what can I say about what we said about Howards End that can fit into a blog? a novel filled with ghosts and silences: “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Mrs Wilcox is said to have asked her husband


Vanessa Redgrave as the first Mrs Wilcox (M-I-J 1993 film)

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others—and thus was the death of Wickham Place—the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in the spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness — from Howards End


Samuel West in a dream sequence of longing as Leonard Bast (M-I-J 1993 film)

In general a number of people said they found themselves reading this book very differently from the way they had say 30 years ago, and they were noticing elements in Margaret’s marriage to Henry Wilcox and Helen’s full attitude towards Leonard Bast they never noticed before: how condescending both woman can be to Bast; how Margaret marries to have monetary security, on materialistic considerations she ignores her incompatibility with Henry Wilcox who cannot change to the extent she imagines.


Anthony Hopkins as the unreasoning instinctively closed Henry Wilcox (the successful businessman) when Margaret angers him (M-I-J 1993 film)

The Wilcoxes in their turn say they would do anything for their mother, but the one request she makes, that she leave her own house, Howards End to Margaret is looked at as preposterous. All the characters are trapped in unsatisfactory human relationships, if the causes of the dissatisfaction differs for each. This is a novel about the cruelties of class. How Margaret is shocked at Helen not sleeping in her own house, but with (we know) Leonard Bast. She tricks Helen into coming to Howards End. She is presented as having been a mother to her siblings in the 2018 film but not in the book


Hayley Atwell as Margaret (2018 film)

All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be — Margaret to Helen at the close of the book — though she is kind to her aunt

A couple of us defended the perhaps ex-milliner Jackie; she is treated in the novel as ontologically inferior, erased, forgotten.


Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky Bast (2018 film)

How often Forster comes out directly as narrator, how conversations among the characters are multi-dimensional. He projected his love of the English countryside vividly — as when Bast goes on that passionate roaming reverie though an old wood. He read Ruskin and Ruskin’s love of art and proto-socialism are forces in the novel. There is a magic faery tale element about the house. Miss Avery by unpacking the Schlegels things, especially the books, makes the house alive; it was suggested that Helen is a Pre-Raphaelite figure as she sits in its porch waiting to be let in by Margaret. She is deeply human, sensual and comfortable in her skin


Philippa Coulthard as Helen (2018 film)

Margaret is deeply gratified to have Helen with her again, but I note how she tricks Helen into coming into Howards End, and then moves from distrust and alienation and a new almost automatic rejection of Helen to the old bonded feelings and agreement. What enables this is not common grounds in attitudes but common ground in the furniture and books; set up in this house they are enough to bring back the past and begin a re-bonding. I wonder if this is not a wish fulfillment and this intense love of early places and the past (which I’m now reading about in Beauman’s biography) is not a strong delusion or illusion fantasy: “all the time their salvation was lying around them — the past sanctifying the present, the present, with wild heart-throb …. the inner life had paid”


Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (Lonergan 2018)

We talked of Forster’s homosexuality and why he stopped writing novels so early in life: he was frustrated by having to present heterosexual life and leave so much he valued outside his text, to respect in the text what he felt alienated from. Tyler Tichelaar had written a perceptive blog-essay on this aspect of Forster’s art and life as seen in Maurice. I wrote about Sean O’Connor’s book Straight Acting where he described his and other playwright’s dilemmas as gay men pressured into misrepresenting themselves and what they longed to dramatize in life; I watched the recent film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea by Terence Davies: wrecked and wrecking heterosexual relationships represent a gay man’s take on heterosexual marriage and compromise; he pitiable but at the same time vengeful older lover.


Peppard Cottage used for Howards End in M-I-J 1993 (here it is not photographed in prettying up light) – the house in the novel is Rooksnest which Forster and his mother lived in for many years

Death is an important reality in the novel and outside a reason to live, become your own identity as you make your choices. We talked of how moving home, from one place to another, is akin to the experience of death (though for some it’s liberty at last from stifling hierarchies and militant naturalisms. Judith Cheney quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:

The coach is at the door at last;
The eager children, mounting fast
And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

To house and garden, field and lawn,
The meadow-gates we swang upon,
To pump and stable, tree and swing,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

And fare you well for evermore,
O ladder at the hayloft door,
O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
The trees and houses smaller grow;
Last, round the woody turn we sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

We don’t know that if Henry Wilcox should predecease Margaret the Wilcoxes will not go to court to get Howards End back.


The room with the view in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhavala film (1985)

We read the earlier book, A Room with a View second. it is shorter and at first it seems simpler — there is no larger critique of colonialism, no debates over socialism, the removals of people from capitalism, but it isn’t simpler. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in intensity.

Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul


Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy setting out on her adventure among the art and churches of Florence (M-I-J 1985)

I loved the ancient classical myth in the book too, the use of Italian art, the pastoral, all mixed with the everyday in Pensione Bertolini. We are invited to revel: Lucy is called a Work of Art, and Forster is generalizing out from this incident to make large statements about art, sexuality, and all the ritual events of daily lives. It’s false to say our conflict is passion versus duty; it’s real feeling versus the pretended and hypocritical. Lucy almost misses out on marrying George where her joy is presented as potentially so fulfilling. By contrast to convention, Cecil repeats Tibby’s statement about the work ethic more forcefully: “I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about, but somehow I’ve not been able to begin.” Diane Reynolds quoted “Lucy’s vehement outburst of hatred towards Mr. Eager’s cold snobbery and ascetism. I found it quite satisfying—and true: We perhaps should hate people who destroy other people by spreading lies:”


The bathing scene (from the 1985 film)

“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“No!”
“Why ‘no’?”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”

Beauman, Charles Summer and all I read suggested that Forster matured, found such pleasure, liberty, love when he traveled — Italy, Greece, Alexandria, and India, all meant so much, and this book records these feelings. I show but one still of these English in the countryside:


That’s Maggie Smith, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish (makes phony art) and Lucy (1985 M-I-J film)

Mr Emerson and Mr Beebe, but especially Mr Emerson are the two benign knowing genius locii of the book. Mr Emerson (I found Timothy Spall pitch perfect) speaks eloquently of the “holiness of direct desire” and Mr Beebe quietly for whatever is your sexuality — he encourages Lucy to play, everyone to bathe, tries to help Cecil recognize himself. He does not blame Mrs Honeychurch for her dim appreciation of nothing beyond the obvious comforts of living. There is much lightness, pleasant humor. Tyler wrote: “I love how the bathing scene comes about – Freddie just inviting George to bath – the awkwardness of the invitation and the joviality of just spontaneously going to bath, and the joy of the Sacred Lake being large enough to bathe in, only to have it return to normal size soon after. I did not really think there was anything very gay in the bathing scene, even though the film sort of suggests it. They are just being boys and being playful, acting like teenage boys, although it does seem odd they are wrestling and playing ball naked outside the pond. It’s a very strange way to get to know your new neighbors.”


A scene of Charlotte successfully repressing Lucy and persuading her to go home to escape George (1985 M-I-J film)

There is death and it is swift and sudden in this book: the man knifed in the piazza. Davies’s film frames the story with George’s death in WW1 by having Lucy return 20 years later, most of the film a flashback, ending with her going on a picnic with Gino, who had been ostracized and stigmatized on the trip into the countryside by Mr Eager. We are told Mr Emerson died. In much of the book Charlotte Bartlett plays the part of “a corrosive, selfish, and dull personality ” who spoils life for others, represses others with shame, a loving kiss is an insult; but at its close she is presented as alone, poorer, having trouble with her plumbing (no bathing for her) and forgiven: Forster wants us to think she facilitated Lucy and George finally getting together. It’s not quite believable but the 1985 M-I-J movie ends with Maggie Smith as Charlotte reading a letter of the young couple in love and the movie’s last scene of love-making is a flashback from this letter. The book and movies are charitable: as acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vyse conveys how much small experiences in art do mean much to him; the character is deeply sensitive and he is hurt by Lucy’s lying but gentlemanly, chivalrous in response. The book is about an awakening.


Elaine Cassidy as Lucy after listening to Mr Emerson’s description of George (2007 Davies film)

I discovered many parallels with Austen (she was his mentor in novels) but also much other influence beyond art. Edward Carpenter, idealistic, socialist gay man (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham), Forster’s mother & aunts, his milieu, and that of different circles of artists; as the years went on when he taught, and later years of broadcasting in the BBC. He did not shut down because he stopped writing fiction, and beyond the novels there were numerous unpublished short stories, and published essays and travel writing and biography. Jim liked Forster’s correspondence with the Greek gay poet, Cavafy.

What Beauman does in Morgan is what write up Forster’s deep past and what’s to come from Morgan’s point of view when he grew much older and perhaps after he had written all his novels from the beginning to the end of her book. That’s the curious perspective taken on the incidents of his life and his art examined in more or less chronological order: each incident is retold from how Forster would see it when he became an artist or was a practicing writer.

So for example, in talking of Rooksnest into which Forster and mother moved when he was just 2, she says the way his mother set it up was “to make a statement about how life should be lived” and then connects this to Mrs Wilcox’s love of Howards End. Beauman is soon describing the real place using Forster’s words many years after, e.g. about the hall, “he tells us about “a kitchen when the house was a farm and sad to say had once had an open fireplace with a great chimney but before we came the landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, closed it up put a wretched little grate instead and made the chimney corner into a cupboard.” Says Beauman: “The reader does not visualize the cupboard; instead one gets an image of a difficult landlord.” Then she goes on to give an example of this kind of thinking and feeling in a character’s mind in Forster’s fiction. And so it is built up memory by memory.


Sophie Thompson as Charlotte, pitch perfect) probably modelled on one of Forster’s aunts or his mother (2007 Davies film)

We plan to do it again with two or three of the following four novels: each person can choose which ones he or she would like to read: The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Passage to India (which I was listening to read aloud in my car by Sam Daster and I am now persuaded is one of the finest shorter novels in the English language) and/or Maurice. And if I live, I’ll teach a course in both OLLIs on the novels of Forster two springs from the one coming (2020).

Ellen

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Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltland as Marnie and Mark Rutland on their honeymoon

Friends and readers,

I regret to have to tell you that this beautifully-sung, acted, and orchestrated Marnie is as repulsive a misogynistic story as I’ve come across in a while — and with Trump as president that’s going some. Ann Midgette of the Washington Post opined the work has a “hollow center” and offers no substantial understanding for why Marnie behaves the way she does (continually changing her very identity as she moves from outrageous theft to outrageous theft), why Mark Rutland responds to seeing she is a ruthless thief and liar by marrying her and then proceeding to win her over by almost raping her.

Not so: at the center of the opera, its “terrifying” back story is a slattern prostitute of a mother who (without an excuse offered) has rows of military men into her flat while her husband is nobly risking his life in battle, and when she becomes pregnant and has the baby, maneuvers her young daughter, into believing she killed the “bonny boy” when it was she. Each time we meet this woman she is snarling, spiteful, and a downright hater of her daughter. It’s known that a recurrent figure in many of Hitchcock’s films is the “terrible mother.” In Graham there is pity and economic explanation for Marnie’s mother’s behavior (abysmally poor, frightened at the same of ostracizing of her from others), and even Hitchcock condescends to have his Mark (Sean Connery) explain the apparently sweet Marnie (Tippi Hendrin) as someone seeking refuge. At least Marnie’s mother’s outward acts are in Graham’s text, Mark’s mother in Graham is not the scheming capitalist she is here. Mrs Rutland nags her son about his business failing all the while she is ruining it in order to buy it out from under him. In Graham, Mark’s mother is dead and it is his father and sister he must persuade to accept Marnie.


Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother (not otherwise identified in this production) — smoking away & sinister in her wheelchair

Perhaps the most dismaying element of all was how blatant this is. The relentlessly cheerful announcer brought up the “evil mothers” as if it were a joke, and then the two actresses opined that this didn’t matter. No one said it’s just entertainment for the great hype of these interviews is how serious and important the operas are. It is the equivalent of how in Hitchcock’s movie Marnie is repeatedly called a liar and all ads about the character in this movie call her a liar as if this lying were a moral sin of gargantuan magnitude. Worst of all really the lack of any explanation for the actions of the three central characters (Marnie, Make, and Marnie’s mother): we are left with a simplistic crude Freudianism “feel.” That the critics have latched onto this time — they all seem to feel Hitchcock somehow “explained” this — he is at least suggestive, nuanced and detailed in his presentation.

Probably the accusation of hollowness comes from how in this production, like Sean O’Connor and Hitchcock before him (a psychological play focusing on sex, class, money of play, Marnie, London, 1982; and a 1964 Hitchcock psychoanalytic film respectively) Muhly never gets inside Marnie’s mind (certainly not the harridan mother). There is no credible explanation for this crazed re-dressing of herself every few months, this dangerous stealing of the whole of a company’s capital. So Marnie in all three iterations emerges as a clothes-changing frigid manipulative domineering bitch. Since Mark has been directed to be far sweeter to Marnie than Sean Connery, indeed to be loving, kind, well-meaning, once we get past the unexplained impulse on his part to marry her (when all despise her as an employee so beneath him), we feel for Mark at least. Again Muhly goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhly does not allow Mark to rape Marnie. This is to rob the book of hard trauma. In several of his books Graham adheres to the idea that marital traumatic rape is good for the women — yes afterwards it seems they were longing for the man to overcome them. Graham has his men rape women for their own good (!) in some of the suspense novels (The Forgotten Story is one); a few of these men are forgiven for killing the woman when the woman commits adultery (presented as an understandable reaction). They are allowed to love two women (that’s Ross Poldark’s case in Warleggan). In Hitchcock’s case we have documentary evidence to show Hitchcock delighted in voyeurism and insisted the camera stay on Hedron’s face as Connery bears down on her. Hedron as Marnie flees (as in the book and film) but instead of leaping into a pool , in this opera she tries to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Red light suggests blood, and we move on.


Here they were reminiscent of the TV serial drama, Madmen.

I was further dismayed by the ignoring (as did Hitchcock before him) of Graham’s attack on capitalist soul-less offices — the production chose a very fat man to play Strut and he played the part as a gross narrow bully but beyond that nothing explicit. The 1950s was simply characterized as filled with men in suits sitting at desks or crowding in on women; the women were trussed up in offices sitting behind desks; at parties, they looked uncomfortable and absurd in their overdone gowns and big hair or French twists. In this production Terry Rutland (Lestyn Davies) does not develop a slow true understanding of like people with Marnie (which in the novel is at least interesting). In Hitchcock Terry Rutland works to ruin Marnie’s reputation, and she is innocent of his enterprises; here she works with him in deceit and corruption. Lastly, there is no landscape to speak of and Marnie’s one good relationship, with her horse Forio is not presented as the healthy experience it is, nor is she close or intimate with her horses’ feelings. In the book Graham may be remembering the incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where a horse’s life is sacrificed to a race and much sexual innuendo floats about. In the opera and in Hitchcock the horse-riding, racing and shooting of the horse is simply an acting out of a crude suggested (never detailed) Freudian-style analysis about sex: Marnie enjoys riding roughshod over Mark so she rides roughshod over her horse.

The book can go at length into an analysis; when Mark is hurt trying to stop the death of the horse, we can see a relationship develop between him and Marnie. We do feel for Marnie as an inexplicably sick person: she is a Humbert Humbert, except she is the victim, hoist with her own petard. Blackmailed into marriage, raped, then trapped, and finally found out by one of her previous bosses who comes to one of Mrs Rutland’s fancy garden parties and put into jail. In the book she seems almost relieved, and with a sort of reconciliation happening, it seems when she emerges, she may try for a sane relationship with Mark. In Hitchcock’s movie at the end she is pathetically grateful to Mark (as masterful Connery): the seething liar becomes a remorseful dependent. By contrast, in the opera she suddenly sings “I’m free” — of what? her mother who she has learnt in the previous scene died, so pat along comes the mid-wife-housekeeper, paid companion, Lucy, to tell Marnie her mother became a prostitute in the war and when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock smothered her “bonny boy.” Because Marnie has confessed he own crimes and understands her mother’s, she is not free of what happened or her past. She has just suggested to Mark she could like him when she gets out.


As in the book Marnie agrees to go to a psychiatrist (as part of a bargain with Mark): here as elsewhere she is surrounded by “other selves” — to the side we see her mother in a slip in red light

I did ask people near me what they thought of it. Most audience members are very reticent but as with (to be fair) other modern or non-traditional productions, I saw faces made. One woman said the piece was “repulsive.” Lynn Gardner of The Guardian thought that Graham’s novel seduced Sean O’Connor because he saw it as “gritty parable of repressiveness in which sex, class, money and manners are central motivators.” Many years after the initial movie Richard Brody is now cured of his Hitchcock mania. Midgette thinks Muhly too eager a collaborator elsewhere, to glad to have a commission; the music, says James Jordan of The Observer is forgettable. As if he needed to explain his opera more, during one of the interviews Muhly told the “host” how each of his characters corresponds to a particular motif by a particular instrument. The music was meant to be emotionally expressive.What I noticed is Terry Rutland is a counter-tenor, and (unless I’m mistaken), Muhly and Michael Mayer are gay men and wonder if as homosexual men they were drawn to this hideous parable of narrow wretched heterosexuality in a desperate environment. I did like some of the costumes, especially Marnie’s later wardrobe — and I find that 1950s costumes are associated with a gay sensibility.


This was perhaps her last outfit and it and the cream one just before are appealing; she is on the stage after a London performance with Tippi Hendren (who played Marnie in Hitchcock’s film and was sexually harassed by him)

I fear it did nothing to increase anyone’s understanding of the tragic way women experience sex and motherhood in our society. It did not endorse male violence and macho maleness the way Hitchcock did. In his study, The making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral quotes Winston Graham’s son to the effect that his father was not a feminist despite his father’s assertions he naturally was. In a letter to Hitchcock in that volume it does seem as if in general across his books Winston Graham meant to create sympathy for women who have a “raw” deal in our society, are forced to submit, endure much and enjoy little. He said he based this story of the mother on a maid he and his wife had had years before and a story he read in a newspaper about another working class women. Maybe he intended to break through the repressive sexual miseries of the eras (1950s); instead (what he never mentions) because he was improving his technical prowess in using the new amoral ironies found at the time in the suspense novel, he happened upon an imitation in reverse of Nabokov’s hypocritical Lolita, and his adapters have not known what to do with the result.

One caveat: is the opera based on Graham’s book as claimed or Hitchcock’s movie (with a little help from Sean O’Connor’s play)? Asked about how they came to choose the book, the script writer and director said they saw in the movie such astonishing fodder for an opera. Is the opera then based on the movie, asked the interviewer. The answer was if they had tried to get their permission to use the material from the film company or individuals involved, they would never have gotten past the squabbles that would ensue. So the answer is they cannot say they got their opera from the movie, only that their permission stems from the book. As they were talking and a few others interviewed talked, it seemed some of the people had read the book. I believe Muhly did. But the opera is equally influenced by Hitchcock and for all one can tell it’s Hitchcock’s misogynistic and voyeuristic outlook that was a deciding factor. Hard to say.

One last angle: still and whatever the relationship between original source and this opera, surely, all three adaptations should shed more light on Graham as the writer of the Poldark novels, or on other of his suspense books than they do. I find little connection between the early Cornwall successes (The Giant’s Chair, The Dangerous Pawn) and the World War Two tales (No Exit),  and Graham’s book, but there is continuity with The Forgotten Story, The Merciless Ladies, and with some of the hard bleak later film noir books (especially Angell, Pearl and Little God), and with some of Graham’s more memorable vicious ruthless and emotionally twisted characters across his oeuvre (Mark Adderly, Valentine Poldark). Some of my friends have declared Graham’s books misogynistic because of the books’ sympathy with male rapists and murderers; I find a qualified feminism because there is much sympathy with women victimized by the society as a whole and with particular vulnerable males. It is an anomaly to see that Winston Graham could not extend understanding to Marnie’s mother — or that this brutal material found at the core of many a society (what to do with unwanted babies and with women who won’t submit or retreat before the hegemonic patriarchal order) proved too much for Graham here.

Ellen

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Susan Engel as the aged and unappealing Cunegonde (a sort of old lady 2) at the close of a Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Candide (2013), favorably reviewed by Paul Taylor (“astringent, nihilistic, dry”)


Christa Ludwig as the old lady (Barbican, 1989, conducted by Bernstein) —

Friends and readers,

As you probably know (since I’ve announced this more than once), I’m teaching a course I called The Enlightenment: At Risk at the OLLI at AU. The first 18th century author and book we read has been Voltaire’s Candide; ou, l’optimisme. And I assigned selections of his treatises, we saw clips from La Nuit de Varennes (which they appeared to enjoy), and this coming Monday I shall show two clips from a 1989 concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide at the Barbican (Bernstein conducting), and one from a 2004 concert performance at Lincoln Center (Marin Alsop conducting, directed by Lonny Price). What is most striking to me is how many of the people, maybe most in the room came up with interpretations and reactions to Voltaire’s Candide that resemble Bernstein’s comic take on Candide, far more hopeful, morally didactic, essentially preferring a positive point of view on life to Voltaire’s mordancy and presentation of the chaos of experience, senselessness of pain.


1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

To begin with Voltaire’s Candide, a number of people in the class suggested the famous ending of the tale (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”) is its finally restorative moral. Some saw redemption, hope here and there, some religious apprehension. I took the view of J.J. Weightman (a critic in the Norton edition) that tale is absurd and mordant, and that Voltaire produced Candide when his awareness of evil was at its most violent and his vitality at its strongest. I also felt with Wolper that the famous gnomic statement at the end is ironic.

In “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, Wolper argues that Candide is a blind gull to the end. How could Candide forget he was once thrown out, and afterwards an army came and destroyed, beat and killed just about everyone in his home estate. In “Il fault cultiver son jardin,” Candide has only learned to shrink into himself. Yes, work can be a form of salvation: Voltaire himself only when near death tried to stop trying to help people. Diderot is continually trying to help people — individually, though in Diderot’s case they are not crazed events so he ends up with small people bothering him. Camille shuts out the rest of the world — as if one could. He can’t stand the sight of Cunegonde because she’s no longer young and pretty. Martin’s words at the end of the previous paragraph are as close as we get to Voltaire but Voltaire is far far more mordant. All his experiences should have taught Candide that he is not safe anywhere, and he is utterly selfish and narrow in the meaninglessness of what patterns we can discern: “Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin; c’est le seul moyen de rendre le vie supportable.”


Recent illustration — that’s the Cunegonde hanging up the laundry, the old lady with the sails

One man strongly objected to all Wolper said! There are other readings by critics in the Norton (Richard Holmes, Adam Gopnik) and I assigned one of them (Weightman), and did go over the text and tried to show its continual apprehension of stupidity and evil everywhere. I read aloud incidents, the history of herself the “old woman” told, and they so many were powerful individually considered: women living lives of sex slaves, raped continually, worked to exhaustion, thrown out in old age; the barbaric punishments, frantic slaughters, the making individuals into examples ludicrously killing “pour encourager les autres”.

But when I told the usual definition (a conte is a story shaped by a strong central point) and reiterated the tirelessly reiterated lesson it is not all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, a couple of people appeared to find this not very exciting, and the flatness of the characters was stale. When I went about to say why this obsession —

Leibnitz, deism, Pope in his Essay on Man (“whatever is, is right.”) — unless we look about us and accurately say what is, we cannot improve it. We must not rest easy in what is; we must not look to an afterlife; it’s here and now. Panglos, he glosses over everything —

they were (as living in a different age) indifferent to this cliché. People did say they had taken 18h century courses where Johnson’s Rasselas was read alongside Voltaire’s Candide as similar. Yes, yes, said I and so too Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. With Rasselas, it’s the hunger of the imagination after some fantastical happiness (“vanity of human wishes”), the importance of one’s “choice of life. But this led to intelligent explications of why a moderate hope is needed: to believe in useful activity and within limits doing good. That it is a mock on the picaresque romance came up: the opening recalls Tom Jones — so a couple of the people in the room suddenly said how hard it is to remember details, its seeming hundreds of stories (I got in “enough piled into every paragraph for a commonly written realistic long novel were the characters psychologically developed at all”).


This 18th century illustration makes the opening incident resemble Tom Jones or other contemporary sentimental erotic novels

On the whole though I felt people were a bit disappointed by Voltaire’s Candide — they asked me about my title of the course: The Enlightenment: at Risk? what was at risk in this world that was valuable? I had used Outram’s book to try to show the ideas of this movement went much much further than small coteries, spread everywhere in cities, country houses, and were themselves outgrowths of new economic and social circumstances and began in the early modern period. So I went back to that and then tried to explain how satire, hard satire was the mode of this progressive period and the kinds of fundamental attacks on humanity Candide can prompt were not possible before people questioned religious belief as such, monarchy and divine right as such; conversely on powerful men, before people began to feel they had a right themselves to liberty, a good life, secure ownership of their property.

But that hardly can make someone like a book. So I then admitted that this summer rereading or reading for the first time some of Voltaire’s work I was more impressed by Letters on England than Candide, and famous and popularly read or widely distributed as Candide is, think Letters on England more important, his Treatise on Toleration teach us more directly about the Enlightenment thought of the era. I had assigned excerpts from these and then they took notes:

Differing sects of religion keep people from becoming absolutist and makes for toleration. In his chapter on Locke he argue against the immortality of the soul. Locke saw we were born with our minds a tabula rasa; what Voltaire is impressed is Locke accepts that matter thinks. Animals are like us, not simple machines but perceiving and sensitive. In the chapter on Bacon he extols basing oneself on probable experience, and takes over from his chapter on the history of inoculation for small pox, a scientific method. In the chapter on Newton he substitutes the old cosmology of God, eternal heaven, sin and reward with a modern scientific Newtonian universe. No need for all sorts of silly inventions and concepts once you have come up with the concept of gravity and turn it into mathematics and see that these mathematics describe what’s happening accurately, and enable to predict. Things like vortices perihelia. He shows how we now measure. Why the universe sticks together – it’s the brute reality – we would call it a force. How weight works. Newton’s Optics fascinated 18th century people –- to through a prism that light divides into colors. I read some poetry by Pope and Thomson: if you look at Shakespeare and Jacobean poetry you find mostly simple color words – red, pink maybe orange, purple; in these 18th century verses the color words just explode into cascades of shades. Far from attacking Shakespeare he admires him and says it’s impossible to translate him (18) and 23 and 24 he admires and recommends how the English support their men of letters (humanities) and men of science by academies. And so on.

I don’t say they weren’t spot on. First, none of the English translations we had came near Voltaire’s concision, wit, and tones.  Then to be honest, I prefer a realistic psychological story and enjoy Voltaire’s letters to Madame Du Deffand, and much more Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love and Ian Davidson’s Voltaire In Exile where we see him fighting barbaric injustices, and occasionally winning (as against the oligarchy of Geneva he opened a manufacturing factory where people came to work and live more freely). I shall tell about these letters and books next week. . Maybe there is “more” to learn from Lettres Philosophiques (and also La Nuit de Varennes last week)

As a test case on whether the general class view of Candide makes it speak home to us, I found I was irritated by the Lincoln Center 2004 production, thought it mostly a travesty of Voltaire. It’s accurately reviewed by Peter G Davis, with whom I disagree only in that I found the usually appealing Patti Lupone as tasteless as everyone else. The witless sexual gags where the women were supposed to enjoy being raped were the worst. I am very troubled by how sexist this (and other) productions are. To me Voltaire’s females do not enjoy being sex slaves at all. I think Anthony Tommasini) has it right when he says this farrago doesn’t know what to do with Voltaire’s work — they were Hollywood bumpkins, clowns:


Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti Lupone as Candide, Cunegonde and the old lady ….

The best song was the penultimate sharp gaiety of the ensemble “What’s the use.” Still, Voltaire did not mean us to shrug and be gay over life’s meaninglessness. But people in the class said they had seen and they appeared to have been entertained by this production. I was lent my copy by one of the people in the class who wanted me to show it to the class and I will show one clip, “What’s the us?.”

The second DVD I have I bought myself, and I sat through far more patiently. It is the Barbican 1989 production.  Jerry Hadley as Candide sang the lyrical melancholy of Candide (in Bernstein’s “It must be so”) beautifully. Far more of Voltaire’s story survived in the enclosed whole script (!), and the absurdity of the enjoyment of torture and death at Lisbon (“auto-da-fe … What a day!”) seemed to approach a little Voltaire. Yet I remained uninvolved and felt the actors (Adolphe Green reading away so very hard)

and singers were flailing at perceptions that failed to touch them except as generic archetypes.


Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

It was nowhere wild enough, but the reviews of this “labored over” production were more charitable and patient for the sake of the music. I can see it’s respected because my DVD came with the full script and credits to Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Bernstein himself — all credited. I learnt that the original script was wholly by Hellman and that it was much closer in spirit to Voltaire, among other things, satirizing the House UnAmerican Activities committee. Indeed the script did reflect Voltaire in the narrative lines — read aloud as best the performers could, complete with explanations (“what is a picaresque tale? well …. “)

Each of the three productions I’ve mentioned here (the third at the opening of this blog, which I found on-line) have different dialogues so there has been a great deal of free improvisation allowed. It is true it is a mix-mash of different genre types as may be seen in the different earlier illustrations. But what went wrong in the 20th century and is still a problem is candor — reminding me in sound of the name, Candide. In the 18th century a “candid” interpretation was one which tried to present things in the “best” and most moral or sympathetic light. You wouldn’t think we’d want to look away if you turned on recent cable TV movies with their wild violence and amoral sex. Still the history of the adaptation says the first production (1957) was a flop (73 performances), and reveals since then the people daring to mount it have for the most part struggled, almost in vain to come near it. Apparently the 2013 began to come close, as has a recent 2016 operatic Candide at the New York City Opera.

I do find it telling that in our era of massacres, senseless laws and widespread injustice, where the president of the US can go around ridiculing a woman who comes forward to tell a story of assault, rape and humiliation as her civic duty (she knew she had lot to lose personally) rather than have a conscienceless raving elite thug on the supreme court for life, we have a hard time presenting the true core of Candide to an audience. The first edition (1759) was presented as a translation from the German by a physician named Ralph.

Ellen

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Again Mabuza and Bokkie in a soft version of the orange-red light of the play’s first act

I want to make rock flowers …
They have eyes, but they do not see us. – Nukain Mabuza

Friends,

This is to urge all those within reaching distance to hurry over to the Alexandria City theater, MetroStage to see the startlingly powerful Athol Fugard play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. It tells the core experience of life of a real artist, Nukain Mabuza, who painted rocks across farmland he was paid a pittance to take care of.

There are two contrasting parts: in the first act, set in 1981, the era of apartheid, we watch and listen to a very old “Kaffir,” Mabuza (played by Doug Brown) suddenly moved by the presence of his perpetual companion, a little boy, Bokkie (Jeremiah Hasty) whom Mabuza treats with real love and concern, to have the boy under his direction paint a symbolic depiction. It is intended to project how Mabuza has been excluded from all that could have enabled him to live a life with enough money to live independently, with decent clothes (he has none), education (he has had none), shelter (he lives in a hut with no amenities), true peers — he lives dependent on the meager charity of the land’s owner, the white Afrikaner, Elmarie Kleynhans (Marni Penning). When he has finished his soliloquy and the boy the piece, she comes on stage to give a bowl of food to the child. At first she pretends friendship and concern, but when she sees that this picture unlike the others is not simply of flowers in circles, rather a coded representation of humiliated oppression, she turns nasty, insisting Mabuza erase it and replace it with flowers. When the boy defends the picture, she becomes incensed with his “disrespect” and insists the old man whip him. The old man grieves intensely when she leaves the stage.


Mabuza putting the painted images on the large rock into words for Bokkie

The young boy actor is not quite up to the wrenching emotionalism of the role, but the older one left me (and the rest of the small audience there) numb with pity and admiration for the deprived nature of his existence and his eloquence and nobility of soul. The character reminded me of Sam in Fugard’s very great Master Harold and the Boys, the only play by Fugard I’ve been lucky enough to see live (twice), only in this case the great-souled character dies a few days later and the listener flees.


Jonathan Sejake putting into words what his experience has been to Elmarie in a stage lit with alternatively white and dark light

A place of disgrace, of humiliation. – Jonathan Sejake

The concluding contrasting act, 2003, post-Mandela, comes onto the stage a young black man dressed in a suit, determined to restore the now nearly faded rock back to what it was so vividly many years before. He is Jonathan Sejake (played by Jeremy Keith Hunter), speaking a long painful soliloquy with even greater (if possible) searing eloquence about what his life has been since he fled.  Sejake is Bokkie grown up.  He went to Zimbabwe and was treated with true decency, educated, given a chance to take on a fulfulling useful job. He speaks to us and to Elmarie who now carries a loaded revolver and responds in turn for most of the act with open hatred and anger of how the revolting blacks are murdering her people, taking “their” land. He talked piercingly about a life of humiliation inflicted on Mabuza (whom she still refers to by a childish nickname). As someone who was an  invisible adjunct for decades and lives in a house once referred to as “painfully modest” in a local newspaper article about ex-President Ford’s house nearby, I identified utterly.  She “owns” the rock and refuses to give permission, but at last near the act’s end is brought to acknowledge the hurt and destruction she wreaked on Mabuza (whom she calls a childish nickname) and tried to inflict Sejake when a boy. Far more explicitly than in Master Harold and the Boys, the speech persuades a hitherto powerful white (the ambiguously shamed teenage Harold in the first play) into a change of mind or heart.

I was just stunned with the energy and masterful domination of the whole stage Hunter displayed. He gave this role his all and held me (and the audience) mesmerized. He was of course enacting a protest, ethical, upright, with an appeal so obvious to any but the most obdurate closed mind, an enactment of what is happening in the US today; alas, the problem is these closed minds are often (I have met such people) inoculated against any information or moral truth. I went to an end-of-summer picnic two Sundays ago and when I was telling of the documentable facts Mueller has been able to prove Paul Manafort’s corruption with, I was greeted with faces filled with derision, and voices which told me everything in the New York Times or whatever newspaper I read this in is all lies. The white people around this table grinned at me with glittering eyes, and I knew there was no use even talking with them, so filled with resentment and scorn were they. None of them would sit through this play; indeed they’ve never go.

All the reviews I have found describe the performance with as strong favorable words as I have: E. A. Aymer, Anonymous, Debbie Minter Jackson. The writers speak of how this is probably Fugard’s last play; he is in his eighties; as with the one other play I’ve seen, the playwright imagines the beginning of reconciliation. In previous iterations, the praise for the play is as strong.

There is little overt action in this play. The setting is bare stage with rocks with small paintings on them all around and the one big rock off center right.


The actors are posed in parallel ways in the two acts

At the back of the stage a veiled screen shows images of South Africa, we see a city, we see boys and men walking, a woman at one point, and at a moment of high emotion (as Sejake tells Elmarie how well he was treated in Zimbabwe, which she has described as a violent corrupt society) a film of Mandela as he was when he first emerged from prison and became the leader of the country. I felt choked up with emotion when I saw his image. The audience is thus shown that miracles can occur, even if (as the young man concedes) that hope that was has turned into disappointment. Life then seemed incomparably better for black people from what it was, and they had hope it would improve more.


Athol Fugard

Metrostage apparently opened in 1987 with a production of Fugard’s Blood Knot, and has staged other Fugard plays over these long years of mostly deterioration in US arrangements — with occasional successful attempts by those governing during the Clinton and Obama administrations to put in place laws, customs, agencies to help the majority of people whose interests the government is supposed to represent. Still it would be a shame worth crying about if this play is not seen by more people than I saw in the theater this past Saturday afternoon I was there (13, 2 black, 11 white). Go and tell others you know about it when you come home.

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

I wish I could say that the play could have some positive effect today on the minority Trump electorate: wealthy powerful people, with their hangers-on who understand that Trump and his regime are further destroying the economic existence of the deluded white working class willing to trade the promise of a better practical existence centrist democrats held out and never delivered on for pride in their race and revenge on other vulnerable people they have been taught to blame for their plight. They represent 27% of the population gerrymandered into a fake majority by an oligarchical constitution. I don’t believe this can happen before an election which brings to power the progressive left wing of the democratic party in sufficient numbers who are honestly willing to pass effective legislation to improve the well-being and self-esteem of huge numbers of impoverished and declining groups of people all over the US. Only thus can you reform the modes of thought that have led to an intolerable situation with a lying tyrant male given almost limitless power by those willing to exploit fear, and gaps in the US government arrangements which allow undermining of all social good they can.

In the 1990s I used to assign Master Harold and the Boys to undergraduate classes and had a tape of a performance (in the form of a video casette) I would show on a TV.


A key scene in the 1982 film I used to screen: Danny Glover as Harold, Zakes Mokae as Sam (Master Harold and the Boys)

More than two decades later I am just now again adding my mite to bring some understanding to the history of the present clash of values by teaching a course to retired adults in the long 18th century I called The Enlightenment: At Risk.

Ellen

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Lindisfarne priory

Dear friends and readers,

I am slowly becoming startled at all the material I have to write about, all the pictures! The Road Scholar guides took us to see and experience a remarkable variety and number of places over the two weeks. I had intended at most 5 blogs and now it seems to me I have matter (could this be?) for 6! I also intended to rearrange my travelogue so as to group thematically similar places together (Roman Britain, the violent Reivers at the borders) but the experience I want to convey would be lost. It’s the intertwining of the disparate in the same landscape that makes for variety and therefore fun. I had come to see the Lake District and if I could have chosen would have gone home after the first week, but I admit that this second week was more riveting, the buildings more moving and the whole ambiance of the place redolent with deep past history


Cumbria lake

We have reached the remarkable 8th day, the Monday during the day when we traveled to Otterburn Castle, and went through a scenic Troutbeck around Ullswater lake, visited Carlisle, saw the castle, cathedral, spent a couple of hours in its Tullie Museum (just stuffed with treasures and art) and we will move through to the 10th day when we drove across the Northumberland coast and crossed into what’s left of Lindisfarne priory, its castle, lighthouse and church (not just a ruin but an active place).


This middle twentieth century statue of four monks carrying St Cuthbert in his tomb around Northumberland and Cumbria is also found in Durham Cathedral — one must be a replica or facsimile

We might make a central theme out of the stories told of St Cuthbert, first a reclusive monk, then a hermit, then a corpse fought over by warring factions of ethnic tribes (Romans versus celts, Romans versus saxons), whose relics were scattered as sacred sites around Cumbria. In many of the churches or museums we visited were monuments to him, his history re-told, a relic on display. Or Mary Queen of Scots, whose name came up now and again as this fleeing romantic figure (forgetting she meant to be a politician, was a writer, a poet of considerable ability, a failed intriguer and queen), someone who a particular site is “sacred” to (or built around to lure tourists). The Percys were mentioned again and again — a powerful family.

But I’d like to mention two writers: Walter Scott who was mentioned unobtrusively now and again as saying writing border ballads about the Reivers, visiting and writing poems or novels situated in this or that place or around this or that event. He unites lowlands with highlands, Hanover Protestant capitalism with nostalgic Scots customs. He collects folk verse as the “minstrelsy of the Scottish borders.” Marmion is “a tale of Flodden Fields.” And Basil Bunting, one of Jim’s favorite poets (I have a volume of his work and a slender literary study of him), from Northumberland. A poem he would recite:

A thrush in the syringa sings.

Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things
fear, hunger, lust.

O gay thrush!

Winding all about the coast (Toutbeck, Lowther Castle, the ruins of one of Anne Clifford’s fortresses), we began to find ourselves in the 20th century as the large city of Carlisle came into view. We stayed in the center where one of the castles used to protect the place during the seige still looms over the highway


Carlisle Castle — it reminded of the Sforza castle in Milan without the relics and museum art

Walk in a circle away from the castle and you come upon the vast large cathedral, still going strong as a center of that part of the city’s community: a huge place very proud of its stained glass windows which survived many a war, some directed at them too. It goes back to the 12th century and probably took several centuries to reach its present form:

Walked through streets, small shops, bookstores, empty places too (parts of Carlisle are suffering economically), and we saw very ordinary kinds of attached houses that I remember in Leeds — and lived in myself. With bow windows, green sills, all red brick. Then the fabulous museum. It has several floors and different corridors. The exhibits ranged from burial grounds and relics from neolithic times, to the vikings, to several rooms of Roman life (one rebuilt piece of wall with a tape of life on Hadrian’s wall); one moved through the 15th to 17th century, with pictures of battles, people captured, time capsules of villages, and paintings from the wars between England and Scotland (stolen church bells). Skip past the 18th century to the 19th, with insides of trains replicated where one could sit. Sculpture and pictures of 19th century industrial areas, fishermen areas.

The 20th century was treated as history too, with costume and furniture areas. High art like the Pre-Raphaelites, romantic painters, and pictures going up into the 21st century of the local landscape. Everything chosen with care, taste; there was too much to see before it was time to have the best lecture of the tour: by a young lecturer-curate of the museum on the Reiver culture of the area.


A Peel tower we visited where one of our group got stuck up on top —

Brief summary: from the 14th to the 17th century the area south and north of the borders was dominated by local violent family groups who stole and murdered from one another for a living — the farming land was very poor. It’s a history of successive gov’ts attempting to repress these people by arrest, execution, and finally negotiations and treaties and extradiction, forced emigration, clearances. He told of famous battles whose names I had heard of. I had not realized that the Percys in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays were part of these Reiver clans, and Hotspur one of them. Cattle raids are not romantic as a way of life. He claimed there was a code whereby the women were not raped but I don’t believe that for a moment. Imagine giving birth in such a culture? Women led a hard life. Few people could be long lived: kidnapping, ransom, with fierce uses of symbolic weaponry. I suddenly understood better those parts of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where Cromwell threatens nobility who are not doing their “job” of pacifying the local population. The specifics of these local wars are found in Alistair Moffat’s The Reivers, and John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville’s The Battle of Flodden (1513), which place we later visited.


A memorial on Piper’s Hill overlooking Flodden field, near Branxton church — the day we walked it was very windy and cold even if sunny

The lecturer used phrases like “semi-idiocy” of the way many of these encounters were conducted, in several cases just like Culloden, a huge slaughter which could easily have been avoided (1542 Battle of Solway Marsh hundreds faced one another and proceeded to kill). Flodden was an absurdity brought on by Henry VIII having gone to fight in France (at great expense to no real purpose), so the Scottish king thought he could just take over without planning, care, or sustaining his army. He named names and told of historical figures and legends. The ascension of Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James VI who became James I of England began the end of the era as he proceeded methodically and consistently to abolish flexible border “laws,” execute, arrest, transport people, also take down the Peel towers (thick narrow castles for protection and from which people attacked one another, and where there were dungeons photographed above). The landscape and ancient buildings we were about to see were the remnants of these peoples.

I remember eating in a lovely cafeteria (with that comical statue of someone riding a bike high up) after which we drove to Lannercost Priory, without doubt the loveliest of all the churches I saw during the trip: it is high Anglican done in quiet good taste, late Romanesque. The windows were paid for by a patron of the Tullie Museum and were done by various Pre-Raphaelite painters:


This might be Edward Burne-Jones

The church is still in use, and inside is recorded recent history, but behind it are ruins where we saw a touching burial monument for a young child

All around outside a garden with flowering trees leading to a graveyard and back to the church. It was a quiet place, hardly any tourists (but us), and one could hear Gregorian chanting in the central nave.

We then drove onto Otterburn, the renovated 10th century castle we spent the next five nights in. In the common areas was a fire in the reception area, a small library like bar, a large common room, and the dining room. All around back, meadows and a small lake or pond. In the first blog I included a photo of my magnificently sized room with the tapestry over my bed


Kieder Forest —

On Tuesday we drove through Kieder Forest (huge old forest, with moors, meadows of flowers, also burnt woods, and sheep), saw the Keider castle once used as a Percy hunting lodge, now a place to have lunch and walk by the water,

and then onto the 13th century Hermitage castle, an astonishing building in Liddesdale, a guardhouse whose form was actuated by the felt terror of those inside against those outside and those in their dungeons. The most famous story is of Mary Queen of Scots visiting a wounded Bothwell here; there is a painting of Walter Scott sitting on some stone stairs and contemplating the place.


The hermitage looking up from one of the dirt floors

I surmize the picture of Scott at the Hermitage is an image of him superimposed onto one of the building stairs, so it seems to me just as appropriate to put here one of the 19th century illustrations to his novel The Black Dwarf where the Hermitage plays a role:

The building dates from the 1200s and was in active use until the late 16th century. It could never have been very comfortable, though an official guide fills the Douglas tower with imagined rooms of people going about daily ordinary activities of eating, sleeping, reading, entertaining themselves.

We drove on into Scotland the abbey town of Jedburgh where we visited a Norman abbey (ruined), a Victorian house said to be in which Mary Queen of Scots had stayed for an afternoon (numinous person), a grim jail (no longer in use) set up so you can see some of the desperate nature of the condition people were kept in, with their pathetic crimes life histories, and egregious punishments put down in different cells. The town seemed in good economic shape


We walked all around the abbey

We had quite a way to drive back from Scotland into Cumbria and Otterburn and broke the journey by stopping at a church which the guides took us inside. This below is not that church but another we spontaneously explored another day, similar in age and surprisingly also still in use


A twelfth century church — inside it is unheated, very plain

Dinner, rest, read, and now it was Day 10. Lindisfarne had been built up as truly special place and it took some trouble to get into — you had to plan to go through when the causeway was not flooded and to return before the waters rose again. Nonetheless we meandered through the landscape, driving by Bamburgh castle and looking at people bathing on the shore of the north sea it might have been.


Lots of tourists all around

Lunch in a small town and then onto Lindisfarne, which one of our guides persisted in calling “the holy island,” in honor of St Cuthbert, a central nowadays mythical figure


Lindisfarne estuary or causeway — crossing over into the island

The central story of Lindisfarne is of St Cuthbert told in a museum:

Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of Cuthbert written at Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704.[30] Cuthbert was buried here, his remains later translated[c] to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert’s body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century. Cuthbert’s body was carried with the monks, eventually settling in Chester-le-Street before a final move to Durham Cathedral

It was very crowded, worse than an amusement park, with children everywhere. At first I was put off, but after a while wandering about the shore I could try to imagine what the place might have been like with only a very few quiet people living here under rules of silent and ordered activity. The island has been inhabited for centuries


You walk up to the castle and then wander inside


The church windows from within

Our day was not ended. Late afternoon still around the borders of Scotland, we visited Etal castle (placed in a once strategic position), another heavily built this time 14th century dungeon like structure — though it had more of a feel of a place one could imagine people living in because of the wider floors — Flodden field is however nearby. In all these places there was a museum and a corridor of objects, history, maps and art objects one could look at. We learned of a rich woman who was responsible for single-handedly (with her money) lifting the impoverished abysmal lives of the people in the area to modest prosperity in the middle of the 19th century


The afternoon had turned sunny

I end with Bunting:

Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise
mournful candles. Sad is spring
to perpetuate, sad to trace
immortalities never changing

Weary on the sea
for sight of land
gazing at the coming wave we
see the same wave;

drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting
resurrection.
— Basil Bunting


One of several bookstores we passed by, one I did walk into …. Very good, lots of well-chosen books, a room for reading them ….

Ellen

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