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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) Muhy 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 Maltman 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 Muhy goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhy 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 suspence 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 Muhy 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 Muhy 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), Muhy 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 Muhy 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 patriarchical 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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Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth in the present Folger production

Friends and readers,

I much enjoyed, indeed was drawn to attend minutely to the Folger Shakespeare William Davenant’s 1673 version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth this afternoon. I was in the lucky (or for the sake of simply accepting Davenant unlucky) position of having just watched a 1979 film (scroll down) of the mesmerizing Trevor Nunn Macbeth featuring Ian McKellan and Judi Dench. Izzy told me when at Sweet Briar’s some years ago now she was on a tech team producing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, had watched it 8 times, to say nothing of remembering our having seen a naked Macbeth (actors stark naked with no props) done here at the Washington Shakespeare theater (at the time in Arlington). We both also remembered an HD screening of a Eurotrash Verdi Macbeth done at the HD Atlas in DC. So unlike just about all the people around us, we were very familiar with Shakespeare’s play.

In brief, and to be candid, Izzy said she found Davenant “tedious”, except in those scenes where he came closest to Shakespeare, where Shakespeare’s original memorable speeches were done so eloquently by our players, and she didn’t think “the comedy funny at all.” The jokes were “irritating,” and “brought Shakespeare down.” That’s what she said.


Rachel Montgomery, Emily Noel and Ethan Watermeyer as semi-comic haunted witches

I admit that after looking forward to dancing and singing witches, I found the extravagant numbers extraneous, tiresome and one supposed lustful love song by one of the witches (Emily Noel) inexplicable. My incessant remembering and comparing led me only to realize that Davenant worried his audience wouldn’t understand Shakespeare so constantly added in little explanations (“here is is a letter informing me …. ” says Lady Macbeth), and big explanations: for the first time I understand why Malcolm tells Macduff he is evil — to test him on the supposition Macduff would prefer a deeply corrupt man in charge to a good one (maybe I was alert to this since the advent of Trump’s regime). Davenant changed the words clunkily (brief becomes small candle), ruined some speeches by understanding them literally, and was determined to make things more moral and pro-Royal (so we had speeches on behalf of royalty, and no porter). When I relaxed though, far from finding the revision “contemptible” (as a literary critic from the 1920s, Hazelton Spencer does in a blow-by-blow comparison), I was fascinated to see how easily Macbeth and his Lady were turned into a bickering couple, how near farce Shakespeare’s Macbeth is. Our lead couple were funny in more than a nervous way. (Just now on the London stage, Othello is being done as wild farce with Mark Rylance stealing the show as mischievously amused Iago.)

Further, as in many movie adaptations, I found good things in some of the changes. I like how Davenant increases the role and presence of Macduff (Chris Genebach) and his Lady (Karen Peakes) so they appear in scenes from the beginning and throughout the play:


Karen and Owen Peakes as Lady Macduff and her son (he also plays Fleance)

I thought her speeches eloquent: she is given one anti-war soliloquy (which reminded me the English civil war was just over), and I felt more emotionally engaged by them as a couple, though making his reasons for his desertion of her so explicit (so as to make them both safer? so as to form a party against Macbeth &c) had the effect of making me blame him more. Maybe Davenant was giving all his actress-singers more lines. I also thought some of Davenant’s lines expressing horror, and poetic haunting effective. (I downloaded the ECCO text of Davenant tonight and skimmed through.) I got a great kick out of Norris exculpating herself absurdly. The play was set in a Marat/Sade mad Bedlam prison but the point seemed to be to avoid having too accurate Restoration outfits (which might be off-putting), though other elements (the candle chandeliers, the make-up, wigs), and a kind of artificial stylization in the acting was I thought meant to remind us we were watching an 18th century play. For Shakespeare lovers (if you know Shakespeare’s play and keep an open mind), this is worth going to see.


Chris Genebach as Macduff and Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth

The Folger consort was there too — high on the balcony playing Restoration music by John Eccles, among others. I recognized Purcell. So from a theatrical standpoint, Davenant’s play becomes highly effective again and again.

And it’s not just a period piece, a close reading lesson. I wondered how Davenant would add poetic justice to Shakespeare’s play. The famous 18th century adaptations make sure we have a happy ending or poetic justice (Nahum Tate’s Lear Edgar and Cornelia marry and Lear lives) or are concerned lest we catch too much despair and apprehension of meaninglessness or nihilism from Shakespeare, or feel the cruelty of life (so Juliet wakes up for a while). Trevor Nunn worked to get rid of this upbeat optimism. Rafael Sebastian (superb performance) as Malcolm played the character as probably base, strangely inward, actuated by the witches.


Rafael Sebastian as Malcolm and John Floyd as Donalbain

They wanted to make it eerie, and as in so many productions nowadays, bring out contemporary analogies to our present bloody POTUS, so indifferent to who is killed, he lies about how many (a few dead is fine). Here is the child Fleance helpless against the evil instruments (the hired murderers) of tyrant:

The concluding scene had the three commanding the stage. There was an attempt at the gruesome and zombies: after Louis Butelli as Duncan (got up to resemble Charles II) is killed, his body is seemingly tortured and he lurches about the stage as a living corpse — Lady Macbeth is haunted by Duncan in Davenant’s play (there is much parallelism).


Witches gloating over the king’s body about to get up again

Perhaps best of all, while I regretted the loss of favorite lines (especially on how one cannot minister to a mind diseased, all the speeches about murdering sleep; they cannot sleep are gone), a great deal of Shakespeare survives just about intact. Thus Ian Merill Peakes delivers the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech with full resonance at the same moment as the character does in Shakespeare after being told of Lady Macbeth’s death. Norris had full scope as a murderous and then mad Lady — true she does not come up to what Judi Dench enacted, but has anyone?

I’ve been reading Voltaire’s comments on Shakespeare in his Letters on England (Lettres Philosophiques) where he praises Shakespeare (“strong and fertile genius, full of naturalness and sublimity”) and finds the problem with his success is other English playwrights copy him and fail to pull off his “inimitable” combination of “monstrous farce” and deep craziness with daringly humanly real scenes — human stupidity, buffoonery, undecorous behavior wildly on display. Shakespeare’s “outrageousness” has just infected the English stage. Spot on. This adaptation is like Voltaire’s translations of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, meaningful in a French context, filled with Voltaire’s thoughts, but continually weaker than the original. The production’s director, Richard Richmond, in his notes is still right to congratulate himself on bringing together “academic scholarship, performance expertise, and creative design” (Tony Cisek, Mariah Anzaldo Hale). Pepys’s admiration for the productions of the play that he saw is quoted in the program notes:

a most excellent play in all respects, but especially in divertisement, though it be a deep tragedy, which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here, and suitable” (1667).

Well, yes.

Ellen Moody

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Hamlet (Papa Essiedu), Gravedigger (Ewart James Walters) and assistant (Temi Wilkey)


Leones (Michael Tisdale) accosts Camillo (Eric Hissom)

Friends,

I have been putting off writing about the plays, concerts, lectures, and dance I’ve been to since coming back from Milan (well I did just once because Friel’s Translations was not to be missed) that they have begun to pile up. So late as it is, I’m here to urge all who read this to see the RSC’s Hamlet with a nearly all black cast. It is touring.


Hamlet with Lorna Brown as Gertrude

Allowing for exaggeration, the reviews have (rightly) said that Essiedu makes the experience what it is (Telegraph (several of the actors were superb, especially Clarence Smith as Claudius, James Cooney as Horatio, Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia): a new star is born; Washington Post: a rogue outsider artist).


Marvelously comic: Richard Henry the old shepherd and Joshua Thomas the young one


Grace Gonglewski a strong but frightened Paulina (of this tyrant)

But I’d like to qualify that and say its strength is the same as the deeply felt Folger Winter’s Tale, which I saw two weeks ago now: The Folger WT also had some great acting: Michael Tisdale as Leontes, Melissa Graves (an understudy) a poignant dignified Hermione, Eric Hissom, any number of linked characters (Camillo, Antigonus, Storyteller Time). More important: the directors of both productions allowed the actors to do Shakespeare straight on. Both are despite some exhilarating African music and modernized songs and dancing in Bohemia traditional productions.

I can never have too much Shakespeare. By the time we got to the final scene of Hamlet, I felt the awe, the wild exhilaraton, and savage ironies Shakespeare intended me to feel. In the last scene of The Winter’s Tale, I felt a grief akin to what I nowadays feel when I see King Lear. In Lear death is the final blow of a harrowing of cruelty and madness; in The Winter’s Tale, we are awakened to a joy we cannot quite believe as “oh she’s warm” is pronounced. I wish this Winter’s Tale had gone on tour. When they are this good, I often hope to myself that they have filmed it onto a digital device.

The most intellectual and stunningly moving experience was Ivo von Hove’s After the Rehearsal and Persona at the Kennedy Center. Gijs Scholten van Aschan in the Bergman role and in the first play Marieke Heebink as his wife, contemporary partner, an aging actress (alcoholic, depressed) who needs him more than he does her (and he needs her) and Gaite Jansen as the young substitute (possibly pregnant and not sure she wants this life), taking over. In the second Heebink is a mentally shattered woman, with Anne her young nurse: after much manipulation and emotional attacks, the two see themselves in one another.


Somehow the hospital turns into a summer cottage where it seems to be raining continually — rain helps wash away tension

The plays (originally done on TV are about the destructive and therapeutic function of art in a dedicated artist’s life. Hove is superb at Bergman material (like the corrosive effect of growing old) getting his actors to release the vulnerable and angry self. The same actors played the parts in the Barbican; it was in Dutch with surtitles. The stories were not intended to comment on how men use women in the arts, but they do, prophetically.

The sets and stage business was so poignant too: the second ended in both women standing in a large pool of water, together, in simple white shifts, holding hands.

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As to concerts, dance, our local small Metro-stage in Alexandria provided a warm delightful presence in Deb Filler, a New Zealander Canadian Jewish storyteller doing all sorts of traditional sons “her way;” in Yiddish as well as English. You haven’t fully enjoyed Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah until you’ve heard Filler sing the song in Yiddish too. Writer, actress, singer, comic, musician, hers is a one woman entertainment, stretched out with some film. She was the third of three women solos this spring at Metrostage (Catherine Flyte (scroll down), Roz White (ditto)).

And to tell the truth, more than the Folger Ovid’s Vineyard. They had a soprano singing from two operas, Phedre et Hippolyte, and Orphee, a man brilliant on the flute, a rich harpsichord and a woman who worked very hard on her violin, but still it was tame except for the unexpected beauty of the melodies of Jean Philippe Rameau’s concert songs for harpsichord. The Folger Concert has not been as inventive this year as previous. Perhaps I should start to go to the pre-performance discussions.


They used the set from the Winter’s Tale

I did go to one dud: the Scottish ensemble and Anderson Dance performing the Goldberg Variations at the Kennedy Center was an in-your-face insult to anyone with sensibility. After the Milanese Goldberg Variations at La Scala as stunning beautiful — graceful, lyrical, interestingly psychological, wonderful group patterns — this group fobbed us off with comic grotesquerie and awkward individual non-dances. If I had been on the aisle, and hadn’t gone to trouble to see it, and hadn’t kept hoping at some point there’d be dancing, I’d have left after the first ten minutes.

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A Smithsonian lecture on art


Cezanne’s Boy in a Red Vest

Although I’ve not gotten to the exhibit at the National Gallery, I did go to a long full lecture (many good slides) at the Smithsonian on the Cezanne portraits. I bought the ticket and went to the Hirschorn in the hope I would be taught why I should like Cezanne’s art. I don’t: it seems so inert. Roger Fry loved it, and I’ve friends who say they do too. To me Cezanne’s paintings seem made up of empty abstract forms, even if “monumental,” and he leaves me cold; the portraits often lack faces. While curator told of interesting relationships between Cezanne and his sitters, and said there were several versions of a given portrait at this exhibit so you could study the differenes, she never answered the objections of several reviews of the show, e.g., one in the Washington Post by Sebastian Smee, and three very respectful questioners in the (crowded) audience. Madame Cezanne as painted by Cezanne has been vilified for not smiling (women are supposed to be joyfully compliant at all times). Smee omits that Cezanne was the son of a very rich man who supported Cezanne all his life, so his choice to paint peasants — and to live with one and mistreat her for many years (she was left isolated) before finally marrying her has a certain hypocrisy.


Madame Cezanne in a Red Arm Chair

The curator offered the idea these are iconoclastic portraits, modern, refusing to satisfy us or glorify the sitter. Well in the Cezanne cases (unlike the same thing seen in Vanessa Bell’s portraits) these are not rich customers buying a pre-photographic portrait to glorify themselves. I become irritated when people complain about Cassandra Austen’s second portrait of Jane Austen where Jane is not facing us. She has the right to look away; it’s a trope of reverie in the period — you can find the same pose in front of novels. But when Jane was facing Cassandra, Cassandra drew her face. A friend on my WomenWriters@groups.io list wrote she had read that the faceless portraits reflected how humans/individuals are unknowable. We can think of Woolf’s de-centered novel Jacob’s Room, where similarly, we never get a clear picture of Jacob; it was said Woolf was inspired by Vanessa’s painting at the time, in particular her faceless portraits.


A detail of one of Vanessa’s paintings of her sister, Virginia

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Must not leave out new TV & Internet films

I’ve left for last and now just briefly the fascinating four part adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End by Kenneth Lonergan. Sometimes nowadays TV offers us far richer experiences in film, music and art than what is found in physical theaters. I don’t think this production was that superb but when compared to the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala (see Samanthan Ellis’s ironic take) and it is quite different from the original book; still, it was thought-provoking with its own new genuine feeling, intelligent, meaningful.  Who would not feel for Leonard Bast after this one?.


Phillipa Coulthard as the cultured assured Helen and Joseph Quinn as the aspiring Leonard Bast

I then re-watched the 1993 film (on a DVD with two hours of features about Merchant-Ivory) and it was subtler, more nuanced, more sheer content somehow, with Margaret inexplicably actually falling in love with Mr Wilcox while the 2018 film makes this central relationship seem far more performative and self-interested,

but the more recent film is more deeply empathetic towards the failing Leonard Bast, and makes explicit how these privileged wealthy people live off the undercompensated labor of others. I hope to write separately and with more detail than I have here when this summer on TrollopeAndHisContemporaries@groups.io we read the book together. I bring the new version up here to mourn that it did not appear on PBS (which sticks to inferior mysteries and thinner contemporary books and stories) but Starz (a high tier channel and too expensive for many people). I am watching the second season of Handmaid’s Tale but will hold off any comment until I’ve reached the end.

A paradox: Izzy came with me to the Hamlet and Winter’s Tale, to the Metrostage; a friend, Panorea to the Folger but I’ve felt least alone watching Howard’s End and now Handmaid’s Tale because of my friends on my three lists at groups.io. There we had ongoing good conversation and look forward to reading Forster as our summer project. They revived the foremother poets postings on Fridays on Wom-po (a women poets list)! Reader, I am working on a woman artists blog on Vanessa Bell too: Frances Spalding’s biography and Richard Shone’s art criticism (on Duncan Grant and Roger Fry also)

I hope no one takes any of my blogs as here to give the impression I am living a good life, surrounded by friends or whatever is the going ideal norm for existence for a woman like me. It is far too late for me to come near a fulfilling existence for myself now, if it ever were in the cards. I was exhausted last night, falling asleep in front of a movie, couldn’t read Virginia Woolf’s A Sketch of the Past (her memoir printed in Moments of Being), so I reached out to others with material I thought might find acceptance and be of interest to those who come to this blog. Add something that might cheer or help others and that might prompt them to write back in a similar spirit.

Ellen

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Brian Friel’s Translations at the Studio Theater (14th Street)

Friends and readers,

Since returning from Milan, and my health improving, I’ve been to the theater twice, and the concert hall at Kennedy Center, and the experiences have shown me whatever the rotten, seepingly poisonous and willfully destructive behavior of those in the rooms and corridors of a few staggeringly powerful individuals here in DC, the local culture has not lost its moral compass.

Brian Friel’s Translations on Saturday afternoon, the house full. This is not the first play by Friel I’ve seen: Jim took us twice while in London — I remember Dancing at Lughnasa. I saw in NYC on my own The Faith Healer (about hypocrisy in the Catholic religion). I’ve a volume of plays by him and have read in it.


Language played upon, classical figures become Irish, a contrast of Irish and gaelic too

The first half was a deeply lyrical and quietly hopeful scene in a hedge school in 19th century Ireland: a son long gone returns, now a surveyor and translator for the British, who are opening National Schools in Ireland. These are English Protestant schools where Irish language and culture will not be taught. This act was slow moving and thoughtful, meditative. All about differences of language, culture — as someone interested in language and how it influences thought and culture I found this absorbing, but also we see the impoverishment of these Irish and how desperate their circumstances. It starts slowly and requires thoughtful watching. Each of the Irish characters is carefully delineated, sometimes comically, sometimes with considerable plangency. British officers barge (they don’t ask permission) in, interrupting the studies at the hedge school. Their behavior is, though, gentlemanly, decent. They seem to be trying to accommodate Irish ways. One who wants to assimilate, to learn the Irish language and Irish history, falls in love with one of the Irish girls (not similarly high-minded).

Second half is, by deliberate contrast, devastating, stunning with shock. The officer who had fallen in love and been truly open to Irish culture eloped with the girl, but has since disappeared, probably murdered in the tryst itself. The British response — of the officers we have just seen — is counter-productively, senselessly harsh — if it were a case of seeking justice or equity. One of the officers who had pretended such friendliness, such interest in Irish schools the day before (in the play), says if the man is not found alive after one day searching, the British destroy all the Irish crops of the people in the area. If he is if not found on the next day, the British army will kill all the animals (more than livestock) owned by Irish; on the the third, they will burn down their houses and evict them. So the pretense is over. We watch the characters crack under this regime.

It doesn’t take much to see the British as the US today, devastating countries or helping others to devastate countries, helping the present Israel gov’t to destroy the Palestinian people. In the 1980s Arthur Miller wrote that the retreat from realistic politics in plays was a cowardly retreat and inveighed against the fantasy-farce type play prevalent in the 1990s. American theater has come back from that, but the one place where exposure is found is on TV satire where the genre and time precludes the depth of a play like Friel’s.

The audience was clearly deeply affected by the wanton cruelty inflicted on our characters.


Adrian Edmonson as Malvolio (Christopher Luscombe’s production)

The Folger continues its periodic HD screenings, and this Monday night they screened a recent RSC production of Twelfth Night. As one review has it, the play as done here lacks the nuanced intertwining of melancholy and not only raucous laughter and gaiety, but downright bitterness (in one version I saw which took Sir Toby Belch’s words and position seriously), which argues a lack of thorough-going thought about the words and social-pragmatic relationships in the story. Shakespeare never neglects that.

But it brought to bear a post-colonial point of view, that together with bringing out the latent homoeroticism between Sebastian and Antonio, his sea-captain beloved friend, between Olivia and Viola (Olivia seems very reluctant to give Viola up even after she has been married to Sebastian), provided a relevant reading for the play. Viola, Sebastian, and Feste are all Indian characters: dressed in Indian garb and played by Indian actors. Malvolio is made self-consciously the ambitious white Victorian caste-climber. Much has been made of the later 19th century costumes, and certainly we are intended to remember Wilde as we watch Malvolio sneer at Maria, appear so cold, but I think the allusion is clearly to the Raj empire. Edmonson’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter song, fun in itself, is part of this skein. The caste system, the practical and cruel jokes dissolve these hierarchies, with a good deal of help from wine, song, and sex. Perhaps the Merchant-Ivory point of view is also mocked.

The imprisoning of Malvolio into a tiny dark dungeon, his humiliation and bad treatment, his lack of recourse were intended to allude to obduracy of the US prison system with its solitary confinement. I would not want to lean too heavily here (torture is probably not alluded to), but the whole way this part of the denouement is built up suggests the contemporary perspective. It’s not the old wild comedy of born great, achieve greatness, greatness thrust upon ’em that is at the center of this. I was much moved by Edmonson when he is finally brought out of the darkness to tell Olivia what he has suffered. Equally important is the high elegance and projection of true rapture in the “willow song” conveyed by Dinita Gohill. As in a recent production of The Merchant of Venice, the non-Christian has full humanity and depth. It was also strongly feminist in the way both Maria and Fabian (turned into a young woman) are master-minds of the revenge-trick by the servants.

It cost me $15 as a senior Folger Shakespeare member.

I chose for my one night ($25 for a good seat) out of at least a week’s worth of concerts brought together under the umbrella term, Festival of American Orchestras, a program which eschewed the usual (and sometimes to me too often repeated fare of) suspects: Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart, Bach. The Albany symphony appeared to be doing beautifully melodic and varied “picture” music by composers I’d not heard of but where what’s pictured or is the story attracted me. As an old New Yorker, I love a bridge, and the last full piece was by Michael Torke where three phases were music evoking Manhattan bridges I’ve drove on so many times.

When I arrived, the audience looked odd or different: far more of the young parent and children group in he audience than usual, many hispanic and black people. It was also not sold out. The mystery was explained when I realize the first half of the second part of the concert centered on a chorus from three DC schools, where children read aloud edifying verse about the building of “The Mighty Erie Canal.” The audience was made up of many people personally attached to some one child in this chorus. The singing was not great, but Dorothy Chang wrote the songs (“The Worker’s Song) suggesting hardship overcome, just, to have this communication, transportation system. Compare how llmost nothing for the common social good is sought by the US gov’t today. Then there were two soloists, both women in the first and last half. Joyce Chang is a great pianist; and she made the piano into a flowing river. Despite (to my eyes) the incongruous mermaid-like silvery dress Carol Jantsch fitted herself into, she is a fine musician on the tuba; she too was mirroring a river’s presence.

It was pleasant on the terrace to see the different groups of people. Very pretty in the sunset over the Potomac too. I was reading Antonia Hayes’s little book, A Universe of One’s Own, (a small present from a friend here on the Internet) as a kind of prelude to Katie Brigg’s This Little Art (on the practice of literary translation). Hayes says from her experience if you learn a language very young even if you forget it, the underlying grid stays with you, the language’s rhythms, forms, intonation. She talks about two areas of the brain where “mother tongues” where are found the first language we learn fully and later learned efforts in school or elsewhere. Hayes argues for a criss-cross, a blending, and talks of how what language we chose to make our primary tongue is so often chosen to gain a new identity, a new culture (You won’t find any of this in any of the review blurbs. Her mother did not want to be a Philippines person and deliberately forget her Tagalong and resisted teaching it to her daughter. Hayes appears to have a learning disabled boy and argues that teaching him two languages at once, French and English as he grew up in France, has unlocked his language barriers. The teacher in France wanted her to stop teaching the boy English, to stop talking it, and Hayes resisted. On the Kennedy Terrace the people were speaking English; in the concert hall, only some were using Spanish.

Hayes goes well beyond the usual way of discussing how we acquire language — as Jhumpa Lahiri tries to in her In Other Words — written by her in Italian with a facing English translation by Ann Goldstein (which I’ve also been reading). The theme of a character, in this case female Indian living in the UK turning herself into a French woman through study, art, and language is central to Lahiri’s prize-winning novel, Namesake (also filmed brilliantly and movingly). Lahiri (in In other words) is convinced you can’t have the same thoughts in different languages and she wants to have the thoughts and feelings she experiences in Italian. Language as identity, as finding oneself.

I know I feel this irrational sense that in Italian and/or French there is something I can experience that is sustaining for me not available at all in English. Thus my joy in translating recently say Elsa Morante’s poetry to her cats printed in her original Italian with facing French translations.


Gwen John drawing

Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers reprint review blurbs since they consist of in effect noises of praise …. or denigration …). I looked up reviews of both Hayes and Lahiri’s books and you would not know what’ve I’ve suggested is their content at all.

But I am rambling on.

So, to bed.
Ellen

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Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)


Ensemble scene from Exterminating Angel (Thomas Ades, Tom Cairns, 2016, from Bunuel’s 1962 film)

Friends and readers,

Along with blogging less, I’ve been going to the opera less this year. Thus far I’ve gone twice for wildly different experiences. In the first case, Bellini’s Norma in October, I loved some of the music, but thought the drama potentially so meaningful, thrown away, and just so dull in the second half. In the second case, Ades’s Exterminating Angel this past Saturday, I couldn’t stand the music, to me it was so much noise, sounds that made no sense (though I could hear the singers had themselves resonant voices capable of making beautiful melodies), felt the first half excruciatingly boring, contentless; while in the second half I found myself watching an rare opera commenting directly and cogently, bitterly on the political powerlessness of much of the world today.

I want to write about these to mourn for Norma how the Met simply out of cowardice (I suppose) worry the audience will be offended, refuses to modernize operas when the themes break taboos for real — this one having women’s subjectivity and love for one another as the driving force of a story. And for Exterminating Angel, express astonished exasperation that no one on the stage in the intervals where they are supposed to have explanatory talk (but of course they rarely do, just have silly hype or ridiculous questions about how the singer enacts the characters as if operas were novels), no one offered the least explanation. From the introducer, to Thomas Ades, to Gelb, they all professed themselves unable to comprehend the mystery.

I’ll begin by offering an explanation, one easily derived from reading Bunuel’s and various critics’ comments about his film.

The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed (Roger Ebert).

My task is made easy because Anthony Tommassini (The New York Times) also understood it

The opera has discomforting timeliness at a time when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking. The willpower of the ruling classes, or lack thereof, has become an especially pressing topic in Washington, as elected officials debate how forcefully to stand up to President Trump on policy and governing.

In a way, this production dares to confront audience members in the moment. Are we somehow complicit when we encounter art in a safe, gilded house? Or, in fact, can grappling with the arts, including this powerful opera, be a way to take action and exert will?

The principles are of course us. They and we are the sheep. We are being and have been for the last 50 years, with some breaks, Obama the most obvious but kept weak by virtue partly of his race, being slowly devoured, destroyed and we do nothing. It need not be Trump particularly, but the intuitive con-artist, ruthless moral moron, managed it and is kept in power. Ades is British and they have had Thatcher, then Cameron and now Teresa May. Brexit (well-meant by those who wanted to overthrow the pro-bank neo-liberal austerity stance of the EU) is counterproductive because the upper class and those in charge of Parliament will not break with neo-liberal oligarchic reactionary policies Bunuel and Ades blame us.

That’s unfair in part because the average person is trying to make a living while the powerful hire lawyers, teams of people to elect patsies, invent legislation for them to enact, do all they can to defund all social programs and stop any new ones from being enacted or effected. No wholly as the democratic party refuses to go left, liberal humane, return to the New Deal of FDR and Keynesian economics. And now we have invisible walls, doors, and if you say demonstrate, protest, with unions destroyed and the leaders of those left also centrists, long prison sentences.

I have wondered before this what Bunuel’s Petit Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Now I know: it’s the superficial surface the rearranging of the chair on the Titanic; The Exterminating Angel is the Titanic itself sinking.


You can see the sister (the singer with the blonde hair) with her brother just behind her

Only one of the individual stories were moving. The brother, Francesco, who has ulcers, his dependency on and love for his sister, Silvia, his mother-and-lover figure, her love for her child. I could make out a decent doctor with a deep base voice, the well-meaning host and his wife but could figure out nothing about them. I was even unsure who was the host. For the most part, the characters were not particularized, so the piece remained impersonal. This lack of characterization is responsible for the harshly critical reviews of the opera as “dead on arrival.” There is nowhere for us to know anything about these people and it’s only the peculiarity of the brother and sister (he with ulcers), she caring for him like a lover that made them stand out. All of the characters we get to see a bit of but the butler were the “upstairs” set, the 1%, the staff having fled. I had no Anna (as in Downton Abbey) to feel for.

The opera can be seen as a black comedy trying to be gothic. Wilbur Hampton took it as about trauma. My caveat on those reviews which understood the piece is they objected to its pessimism; they wanted uplift. There is none. The directors seem to want to make it scary, a gothic, a ghost story, but I suggest only film can project the uncanny hallucinatory feel necessary. On the screen and dressed up in a costume, one man enacted a huge fierce bear looming over all. Perhaps they were thinking of Goya.


A huge backdrop scene was used to project film images; there real sheep on stage at first

You might say of course the audience understood. As I walking out of the theater I heard three different groups of people puzzling about it, genuinely puzzled. When I offered my explanation, one couple, possibly Trumpites looked offended but then saw one could generalize out, and then “get it.” A review by Walls and Kenny astonishingly regards the whole thing as so much fun. The fell back on talking of technique and marveling over the transfer from film to stage.

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Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, a temple virgin, loving friend of Norma

As to Norma, at the core of the opera is deep good true human feeling and in a contemporary opera would be permitted to come out directly.

Again if you listened to the talk during the interviews, you see the opera was framed as if it’s pro-macho male, with the two women betraying one another for this hunk of a male:

They went on as if this was a romance opera. Seriously. Jokes about how thrilling — Joseph Calleja as Pollione is heavy, unattractive. They talked of Norma’s threat to kill her children by Pollione — there is a Medea subplot which doesn’t come off. Mild misogyny here. A production might have emphasized how perverse this is; tried to understand Medea. As Alex Ross says, they could have changed the era and costumes, and made the anti-colonialist faultline clear. They didn’t. I was waiting for talk of druids but they didn’t go that far. I can imagine someone today making costumes emphasizing the women as a pair in a country taken over by a militaristic tyrannical state — the opera could have been in dialogue with The Exterminating Angel. None of this.

In our time it’s so important for women’s depths and needs and outlooks to come out and this opera was doing that; it is equally good to see an attempt to make motherhood, children and decent emotions surrounding children — not made saintly not twisted by repressive institutions or macho maleness. The Oedipus-Jocasta story is often seen solely from the male point of view when it is a woman driven to madness, a woman who in earlier cultures had to give up culture to kill them for sects. I grant the scenery and atmosphere of beautiful peace fit that first famous aria, Casta Diva, but what the opera also projects is a deep wish for oblivion (a death wish Freud called it). This essay on the opera’s complexity is worth reading. It’s “between two women.” The Met also provided program notes about Bellini and the opera.

With no understanding, again one finds complaints of boredom and flatness. The Observer critic thought the lead two women just had no support. The production was “lazy and senseless.” That’s not fair; they just stayed with the Druids originally chosen to obscure any political meaning. And the set was a lovely dark fairy tale natural withered landscape:

On the other hand, with a new production of Puccini’s Tosca to come, the Met might have seemed almost too much on point. All three choices are linked, and brought together seem to be a response to today’s dark violent world. Police are outside the open door in the Exterminating Angel, and a violent presence in Tosca too.

Ellen

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Friends,

Shortly after my husband, Jim, died, I began a process of finishing the books he was in the middle of reading when his brain gave out and he could no longer concentrate. One was Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. At the time I couldn’t face the one he had by his bedside, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie A Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Four years have now gone by, political situations facilitating torture have increased, so I thought I would finally tackle this one. Reading this material is upsetting but I have gathered far more than one blog ought to hold as it cries out to be shared. The underlying premise is humanities studies explain torture to us. It is thus a book in defense of the humanities, showing the importance and usefulness of the perspective too.

Part One consists of the Introductory essay by Carlson and Weber, “For the Humanities,” Lisa Hajjar’s “An Assault on Truth: A Chronology of Torture, Deception and Denial,” and Alfred W. McCoy, “In the Minotaur’s Labyrinth: Pyschological Torture, Public forgetting and contested history.” Read together, the argument across these essays is one Orwell made concisely: the purpose of torture is not to gain information; it’s to destroy someone’s personality, them as a self, and by extension as others learn of this to cow whole populations. What happens to people is they lose their belief in themselves as human beings: stripped, shaven, forced to defecate and urinate in public with nothing to clean them, tortured beyond endurance (the introduction says the Bush techniques were as bad as the Nazis), they live beyond death. They are like people who have died. A key element: from the time we are young we look to others for help. We expect help. This is from our relationship with our mother. The tortured person sees no one will help him or her. That abandonment is central to the new view of others and life that cannot be gotten over. This is why such a person will commit suicide, sometimes decades later. The term for this is “hauntology.”

This is seen in Elizabethan times — especially in the area of religion and atheism. In Elizabeth I’s prisons she tortured atheists — Christopher Marlowe was tortured and confessed to his atheism; Thomas Kyd’s death was attributed to torture. We forget that it was dangerous to be a playwright and if Shakespeare’s plays often punt too or are subtextual that’s why. I read on and have discovered something that is demoralizing in a new way: these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities. The origin of modern torture is sophisticated modern psychology/psychiatry applied. This enabled practice with impunity. Of course thousands (one citation in either South or Latin America was 80,000 dead from torture) were simply brutalized; the difference is in say 16th through 18th century racks and torture instruments of steel and iron were used; now electric currents are run through someone’s nerve system based on these “principles.” There are manuals of how to. Neither the Clinton or Obama administration had the courage or stomach to prosecute — and just as bad, not to expose this origin.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) in Outlander

One recent troubling development is this kind of experience is increasingly dramatized in films. In the final sequence of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the mini-series justice it was also deeply anti-torture.

Hajjar demonstrates from what happens in different situations and centuries too in these torture outbreaks that the purpose (as the thing achieved is) to de-humanize people, rob them of all security and stability; that is what the torturers are doing. The torturers go well beyond trying to get information. So the excuse of getting information is false, and that’s when you and prove it’s false (no good information, all lies), it does not stop. You say we cannot use this in court and cannot prosecute this person. Well, that wasn’t the point. You want to define them as outside all law and human community (unlawful combatants for example). You want to put them were they are abandoned and no hope from any other human being around them. Then you do want people to know in the countries and among the groups you are seeking to destroy, exploit, subdue. Assad’s slaughterhouses do more than murder; the hanging is a perfunctory last step. To me Hajjar tells an extraordinary story: after 9/11 the Bush administration snatched huge numbers of people and tortured them; not long after they began, they realizes these people knew nothing, were innocent of 9/11, but they carried on torturing them. It will be said but surely they believed them guilty and knowledgeable: the evidence they had nothing to do with 9/11 was so clear. I read a story recently about our court system in which judges say they have to kill someone convicted even if it’s proved he was innocent after he was convicted to “vindicate the system” (it was either in the LRB or NYRB). Were these people vindicating their system by doing these truly dreadful things to people — the people who did them had to be dreadful; the sole control was the people doing them feared they’d be punished

The second essay by McCoy puts paid to the notion in a way that Trump is beyond all we’ve seen: in a number of ways we see Bush did what Trump now threatens to do, and Obama refused to prosecute and condemn and left in place laws and apparatus in the US system that now could be used again. I discovered these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities in the 1950s at the beginning of the cold war and that is when they first spread. Among the shameful shameless behavior in public which has led to the majority of Americans who are asked (small but shocking) approving of torture as necessary for information: 481 prominent professors from universities which include the top 110 declared in a Harvard document that we should seriously consider torture as an effective coercive policy …. Everyone knows the history of Yoo, the spread of torture, the public disclosure — and suddenly for a while the public is horrified, the saying it’s just a few bad apples&c Those who fought included a group of soldier lawyers, JAGS they were called; they persisted. I have seen General James C Walker arguing cases on TV YouTubes. Colin Powell one of the few to break rank. Careless language again and again show this is not at all about information. Terrify and punish. Cheney has said we should decorate those who did this. Meanwhile their names are kept from us. Some international organizations continue to push back hard.

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Goya, Disasters of War

Part Two places torture in the contexts of specific societies. Reinhold Gorling’s important “Torture and Society,” begins the part with an attempt to get at the psychology of how torture destroys a personality. we are never self-contained, no matter what we may think we are continually closely involved with others from drinking water, to breathing, our thoughts and emotions reach out to other human beings and we feel others’ presences. He does not deny there is a self apart, but that the self acts within relationships — even if for some at a distance. Torture attacks the vulnerability of people in this area directly, it makes us aware of how dependent we are by depriving people of protection and provision. This explains why solitary confinement (which I’ve read is also subject to sadistic punishments by depriving food and light) is torture. It not only de-cultures people.

This is an evil that occurs periodically and when encouraged hard to check. There is this impulse to control, for power. What you do is block the person and bring their exchanges to a standstill. (A book called Psychopathologie des violences collectives is about states that use torture systematically — as the US does in prisons). The more a person is conscious of his or her vulnerability, dependence, more sensitive, the easier to torture and dominate. An important weapon is recognition, the withholding of it. When others recognize us and we them, the openness this depends keeps the torturer at bay (tweets function in a vacuum where the slanderer or tormentor does not have to recognize responses). It is a kind of theatrical or performative act and thus deprivation and recognition can be manipulated in schools to make children very miserable. These structures emerge when virulent conflicts in the society are ratcheted up. A repetition and spread of behaviors are then aimed at people deemed “unacceptable.” These then frighten others who are similarly “unacceptable” because they are vulnerable.

(Remember the Victorian novels about children whose pain goes unacknowledged (Jane Eyre, David Copperfield). Very mild seeming but Ausen’s appalled Mr Knightley tells Emma she has done wrong because she now encourages others to openly despise and mock Miss Bates. This also fits in with Winnicott’s theory of how children grow up in families with object relationships needing love and empathy. When parents refuse empathy, it’s beyond neglect and functions as abuse which the child won’t forget.)

Gorling then argues how those not literally there, those fed rumors of the torture are witnesses and so drawn into the relationship. These witnesses are subdivided into those who shrug, are complicit, seem to turn away and ignore it. Turn a blind eye. The point here is they are pretending; they know it’s going on; the perception has taken place before the person manages to exclude it. The witness from afar can also fight against what’s happening in a variety of (often) feeble ways. There is another set of people involved: those in a relationship with the victim; they are indirectly but powerfully hurt too; their sense of security shaken. Nowadays with the Internet we have many more silent witnesses.

Isolation and disconnection seems to be part of the point of letting people know from afar that this is happening. Phiip Gorevitch who researched genocide in Rawanda said “genocide … is an exercise in community building.” Horrible I know but when in Trollope he acquiesces (openly in his travel book) in “elimination” of the native peoples you do see how he is doing this as community building, enlisting the settler colonialists. (Think of “the removal”of Palestinians from the west bank in Israel.) That violence and trauma leave their mark. By radically splitting it off (say into black sites) it is easily kept out of overt culture but it is there, and at the end he describes those pictures from Abu Ghrabi which most of us have seen and do remember. But the point seems to be is at the same time it can be denied (a few bad apples, not happening any more &c&c). You don’t account for what happened. You can deny the urge to do it. The process is Lacanian projection — where people really (it’s said and they do in part) try to conform themselves to what they think others see of them and how others see them. (My feeling about Lacan is usually that those who really allow this mirroring to be a prison forget how unimportant we are to most people, how they couldn’t care less about us as individuals and whatever they say or do is mostly transient gossip.)


Primo Levi, If this be Man and The Truce

The volume’s fourth essay suggests why we are today hearing explicit analogies with Hitler and Nazi and fascist regimes: Susan Derwin’s “What Nazi Crimes Against Humanity Can Tell Us about Torture Today.” She begins with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a direct consequence of Nazi crimes against humanity, from a commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. She then moves into Primo Levi’s If This Be Man (correctly Englished). I agree with her the title published as Survival in Auschwitz is worse than misleading: the book is not about survival in Auschwitz, we know now that of the 650 people taken with Levi to Auschwitz, 15 men and 9 women survived. The book is about Levi’s experience of living in the universe where most of the people were deprived of every right, and driven down to the level of animals (including no bathroom facilities, stripping, shaving, no utensils to eat with with). She says he wanted to make us see what happens to a social order predicated upon “the principle of enmity.” She then reports that the interrogation techniques of the Nazis included precisely those used by the Bush people. (They didn’t need the psychology/psychiatry profs of the 1950s to tell them what to do or why.) The idea was violate the integrity of the physical body, make you body your enemy since it is so full of pain, to make person be as dead.

I’ve read If this be man in Italian and I thought the title was referring to what the Nazis were doing to others, and how how the people were treating one another in this hell: they became utterly estranged, but Derwin feels Levi is describing the deterioration of each person within and without. How they lost the ability to observe, to remember, to express themselves, what it is to be “de-humanized”,’ the deep wound to human dignity, how depriving people of the smallest objects around which their memories clustered was to deprive them of memory and their worlds. (This reminds me of how a prisoner is forced to dress differently and everything taken from him or her when they enter a prison; only later is some returned as if it were a favor for good behavior.) Memory is integral to self-hood.

Derwin tells us Levi’s history, how he came to be captured, how he survived because he was put into a I.G. Farben laboratory (so was Lustig whom I mentioned put in a factory/lab and so escaped immediate death, and then managed to escape). He was left to die of scarlet fever when the Germans fled, but survived and resumed life in Milan as a manager of a chemical factory until 1977 when he retired to write full time. She goes over his works, and he fell from a stairwell in 1987. She will not say he killed himself — we cannot be sure says she.

Derwin then moves on to the work of Jean Amery who renamed himself from Franz Stangl, a former commandan of Treblinka – he killed himself afterwards too. He gave an interview and wrote that beyond the violence the pushing people into becoming quite naked and alone was torture. It is again what Carlson and Weber say at the beginning: this abandonment, sense of being alone with no help is central to the horror psychologically. Now Derwin suggests Amery tells us (in effect) the reason people kill themselves later is they can never forget that abandonment, they can never forget no one anywhere would help them. This intense loneliness (italicized) and lack of security and safety ever after triggers primordial anxieties, not to be overcome. You cannot face your dependency and broken attachments. The anguish of survival is the world is afterward forever foreign a place you are tormented in.

Then she brings back Levi where he describes sleeping with strangers who will sleep on top of you. I do remember this passage. It was so desolating how the people behaved to one another. They are out of contact with one another as people, all alone in effect. “Polluted sleep” is the translation, an atavistic anguish. Without possibility of communication there can be no relief.

This resonates with me – just a small example I think as I read if I try to tell people some of what I feel and they just can’t understand and if trying one terrifies or upset them — there can be no liberation from this once you have known it. I get it. A psychiatrist named Knell talks of how silence protects people, if you tell and get nowhere you feel rage or unprotected and it makes it all worse. People like Knell therefore are astonished at Levi and his lucidity. The policy of containment keeps you from that area of darkness. Cynthia Oznick writing of Levi’s writing said how he is writing out of retaliatory passion. Not at all, but I have read writers who I find are retaliating at the reader by terrifying them: to me Flanner O’Connor and Wm Faulkner are such writers, and some of the writes of spy thrillers (Susan Hill for example). So the gothic can be faulted centrally as a tool to hurt people? I have thought so …

The issue of who survives concludes Derwin’s essay. Ethical people who cannot compromise. Another group is caught up in the Italian erased by the English translation of another book by Levi: The Drowned and the Saved: I sommersi and il salvati: the submerged, the sunk, the overwhelmed. Those who fell into utter silence were those among whom it was far less possible that a sliver would survive. A shocking 80,000 died in southeast asia and the middle from torture – done by Americans too. What Levi says is the people who are so shocked they can’t talk are those who die quickest. Those who won’t communicate their suffering are the most vulnerable. Being able to talk, to reach out, to tell shows strength and also a sense of a self violated, the self is still there and it’s complaining and loud and long. It takes strength to be angry, it’s exhausting. Indignation means you have to think well of yourself on some level.

Derwin’s essay ends on the horrifying criminal behavior – whole scale – this man was a monster – of Hitler upon being asked if an infant be granted a mercy death – a severely disabled baby. Of course yes, but then he sent a doctor to look and before you know it a secret decree was issued between 1939 and 45 to slaughter and approximately 5000 babies died. “this would not have been possible without the cooperation of physicians, nurses, bureaucrats and parents. It was mandatory to notify the hospital if your child was born with a defect. Those with disabilities were labeled ‘eligible’ in the Orwellian language used.”

The fifth essay, Elisabeth Weber’s “‘Torture was the essence of National Socialism:’ reading Jean Amery today,” begins with the new acceptability of torture in US media: it’s not a good thing that 24 (a TV show) shows horrifying torture. It does not evoke horror but inures and the stories are about how X got this great information. The people at Guantanamo and elsewhere are defined out of existence. They are given a category which makes them not part of any category: unlawful combatants. They have no legal existence. Unnameable, unclassifiable. She repeats Levi’s point that the submerged are those who rarely survive. He called them Muselmanner, “walking dead,” “non-men, “Ghost like beings.” Ghost detainee was almost an official term. Ghosting. She then turns to the effect of immediate brutalization and her examples are not from torture but arrests. It’s common practice to brutalize people upon arresting them. This delivers a shock like torture: they have no recourse, they are not accused of anything, they never forget the experience.

On Jean Amery’s writing: Weber discusses the problem of the softened and misleading translations of Amery who wrote in German. Even the most famous phrases from this man have been toned down. One really reads: The ignominy (infamy) of annihilation cannot be erased (not Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased.) She goes into the German language and how viscerally Amery uses it: torture is the fleshification of someone; they become their body. When the police killed Eric Garner they would not his body breathe and we see on that video his hysteria and astonishment they were killing him.

Amery in his work shows us first how astonished people feel when they find themselves treated as nothing, as subhuman, as without a life that matters. Most tortured people even the submerged never cease to feel astonished at some level of their being. There is no path back from having experience this other side of death, of annihilation. (Derwin out of Levi said sadists want to nullify other people.) He or she occupies an inbetween place from then on where torture and the memories never end. They are more tormented at the time at ways of dying; they want death but not this humiliating animal one they are getting filled with intense pain — intense pain said Scarry is world-destroying. Then they take on the view of them of their torturers: they betrayed a secret; they are cowards.

I’m impressed by Amery and Weber’s use of Heidegger. What is violated is the pre-ontological understanding of being-in-the-world acquired by most children (not abused ones). Irreparable assault on “the House of being.” The third Reich was the apotheosis of torture. Their methods centered on this experience or threat of it. A system based on sadism. It makes me remember the powerful novel by Michel Faber, Under my skin: when someone suddenly pleads “mercy” it seems to harrowing as to break down the soul of a reader. (All should read Faber’s masterpiece). Amery disagreed with Foucault, Lacan and other French philosophical systems. There is a deep innate self in touch with itself that people can live on.

Weber ends with the idea where ever torture is used it’s impossible to control its ever widening reach. The horror is people who torture others enjoy it – how far can they go; what can they do to this person? Floodgates of transgression are opened, break down psychic boundaries systematically, as principle.


The Night Bagdad Fell (a farcical tragic political movie)

The sixth essay in the book, “What did the corpse want” by Sinan Antoon is about poetry. He says – and this is true, unlike most poets in the West, Arab poets are politically engaged and write political poetry, poetry which directly addresses political situations. The breaking into the news of the Abu Ghraib pictures and then the spread of knowledge that the US tortures systematically caused an eruption of hundreds of poems. The incident was seen as “ a ritual of collective domination and assault: — its effects were felt as “extended to the audience of the visual event and were traumatic for those who identified with the naked and assaulted bodies of the victims. Toonan then reprints a long powerful poem and analyses it. Tortured and wretched are synonyms; those speaking are the voices of the dead. The emphasis of the poem is to show how stripped the people have been, how stripped the corpse of all identity. They have only their own blood to be buried in. The use of dogs (and dogs were used in North Dakota as filmed by Amy Goodman – -she is the only one to have exposed the dogs with their jaws covered in blood) – the dogs there in the pictures used against the victims compounds the abandonment by other human beings. Given the Arab religion it also makes the corpses impure, unclean, caries the torture and wretchedness to the grave.

Antoon’s second chosen poem is by Youssef who is said to be one of Iraq’s most famous poets, he is a communist intellectual. A recent collection of poems by him is Englished as The Last Communist Enters Heaven. The voice of the person is someone who rejects compromise with the invader (the US) with its capitalism. The point of this poem is there are no saviors; no individual can save the country or any group from anything. It is also to show that one of the purposes of torture is to prevent the victim from being an agent of anything. Then he tries to show the released who live trying to re-appropriate agency by becoming part of a group.

Sargon Bulus’s poem, “The Corpse,” seems to be about the torturing of a corpse, but then it turns out the corpse is alive and mutters, wants something. It reaches the harrowing effects of torture. Scarry says physical pain actively destroys our ability to speak, we revert to a state anterior to language, to sheer sounds and cries. This happens in in Michael Faber’s Under the Skin. Most of Bulus’s poems are about the carnage in Iraq. Antoon congratulates him upon being in a unique space “vis-à-vis the various ideological narratives competing for Iraq’s history and future” (!). Bulus avoids falsifying as good or triumphant what Iraq was before British colonialism, with no false promises for the future. An elegiac tone and no closure. Simple and eloquent in language an attempt not to have a specific personality. Worn, tired, exhausted people. These poems are conveying what is so hard to convey. I find Antoon absurd when he worries lest we think Bulus’s poems are defeatist. Why not be defeatist?

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Hans Hacke, US Isolation Box, Grenada, 1983

The third part of the book moves to artful representation of torture. “John Nava: Painting against Torture” begins with something more cheering: people seem to come together and feel for one another right after 9/11 (at least inside the US and NYC), but when Bush and Cheney started their hellish war, all this feeling was thrown away. Then real protests began and were savagely attacked. After an exhibition of paintings and tapestries at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, Cal, 2006, the art gallery had to endure weeks of editorial attack, police involvement from its pictures based on Abu Ghraib. Sure art should and can also console, provide escape, spiritual renewal, but it should tell hard truths too. One problem though was such pictures also had the effect of inuring people and getting them used to torture, even to accept it as “old hat.” Bush said “damn right” that they tortured (years later I remember Obama’s statement: “folks were tortured.”) Nava says in the end the torture and reaction in public eroded justice, devastated our national standing, licensed illegitimate war and corrupted a free society.

The eighth essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Torture and Representation” is about how these images of torture have been assimilated into our culture. She says the truth is earlier depictions were done in a way that justified the torture. A rare instance of pity can be seen in the famous Laokoon which can be seen as a God’s revenge through torture. From the 16th through 17th century pictures of torture were not supposed to make us reflect on the pain or create pathos or tragedy. It just confirmed this is the order of the world you must obey. A change came in the 18th century, the Enlightenment, the first real attempts to create compassion, identification, blame the establishment, the state as unjust merciless. The disquieting thing is how easily people become voyeurs and art even explicitly said, directed to critique the “bad guys” is being enjoyed by the watchers. After saying that the first true anti-torture, anti-war anti-establishment pictures we have are Goya’s, and that his Disasters of War were published only in 1863, 40 years after Goya produced them, Solomon-Godeau goes over 4 artists, 4 exhibitions which are troubling. She says first pain is mostly what can’t be communicated, the world shattering experience exceeds representation.

So what are the possibilities and limitations. Fernando Botero’s paintings after Abu Ghraib are so stylized, and he justifies a distanced formal approach by saying he wants to give the prisoners dignity. Solomon-Godeau questions this desire to “restore dignity.” Isn’t the point they had none. Botero fears the Sadistic Trump type follower will just despise the tortured – the way Trump openly despises McCann. Solomon-Godeau most successful object in one exhibition is an imitation of an actual box prisoners were put in by Hans Haacke: “US Isolation Box,” 1983. Four dimensional and the same size. Information about what the prisoners experience is immediately “visceral, palpable, immediate” Little ventilation, only slits for windows too high for eyes to look out, no bed, no toilet, old wood – like the person was an object of junk. Brutal pesent: “this is how the US military treats detainees and prisoners” all the boxes said. It was moved from a conspicuous to an inconspicuous space under political pressure. (Donald Trump falls squarely into the type of person that enjoys watching torture and despises the tortured person for being tortured.)

Clinton Fein’s Rank and File could be called Defiled. It seems to be a print of a sculpture of abject bodies all kneeling and bowed on the floor, you see only the backside of the man, or his feet coming out from under, and other bodies clinging over these. Solomon-Godeau sees a voyeuristic element in the silvery color and spectacle. Jenny Holzer’s Protect Protect is another which eschews imitations of people. On a wall the prints of actual hands, military memos, policy statements, autopsy reports: it’s these that permit and guide the torture and the deeply inhumane boiler plate language makes a point.

Last these black silhouettes I’ve seen and one hit me hard: it’s of a man in a kind of witches garb (or Klu Klux Klan outfit), over his head a bag; he’s being made to stand on a stand with his arms outstretched. Somehow it communicate a terrible psychological suffering to be so humiliated. So driven to do this. The silhouettes are done by a group of artists called Forkscrew; they are put on posters which are easily distributed. Perhaps that’s why I’ve seen these. They are called iRaq after the jargon names of our gadgets: ipad, iphone. She says the hooding makes for a shock of recognition. There are writhing women and men holding on to what looks like cell phones or old walky talkys in their hands, a wire to their head or ear – -they are being tortured with electricity. Again there is no possibility of enjoyment, even if each image is a spectacle, it’s a weak one. This group has produced other art mocking Apple ipod ads.

Douglas Crimp is quoted: there is no reason collective art in public is any less powerful and great than the work of art in a private gallery attributed to some artist, famous or not.


Waterboarding, Antwerp 1556 — it looks like the force-feeding of the suffragettes — which was a form of torture

Stephen F. Eisenman is on “Waterboarding: Political and Sacred Torture,” the 9th essay takes up the topic of waterboarding. The question he asks and finally answers is why of all techniques is waterboarding the most acceptable; the answer is it corresponds to primal religious rituals. First, statistics: after the photos from Abu Ghrabi wre published 2003. 54% of the US public were “bothered a great deal:’ a year later only 40%; December 2005 61% said torture was justified. Bush invoking “ticking bomb” succeed in getting congress to agree “CI should be allowed to use ‘alternative interrogation procedures’ and be given immunity from prosecution. A few senators fought that immunity (Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Joe Biden) but immunity granted. In investigations under his attorney general (Mukasay, that’s 2008) the criminality of the procedure of waterboarding wasn’t the subject of the session, only the destruction of evidence for it. Support for torture in the US today is not hidden or kept in professional websites; it’s open, available for all to see; Giuliani had police practice torture and was unabashed. Pictures of torture just don’t undermine the procedure no matter how brutal; these have been “normative practices” in the US as in the history of politics.

Eisenman then describes waterboarding: painful, terrifying, you come near death and many die. Many die. Many die. That this is kept up on someone shows it’s not information that is sought, what’s wanted is a confession you are in error, an apostate, deeply in error, it’s all your fault what is happening. He cites and describes instances from Roman through medieval to our own times. Many paragraphs.

Some artists have contested these: Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, Sartre, Benamin, Pontecovo — challenged the regime of these images and this talk. He goes over a picture by Sue Coe, “We do not torture” which successfully challenges (without voyeurism). Leon Golumb’s series from the later 1970s, Mercenary, Interrogation and White Squad, whos source is many photographs, journalistic reporting, raw accounts of people from South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador — including things like Walling a person: the person is kept seated, bounded, hooded, raw and extremist theater. All are described neutrally but we get it (it’s like some game).

This is where the essay becomes very worrying: there is a “longstanding pathos formula whereby torture victims are shown accepting and participating in torture, where it’s eroticized, the subjugation made part of a contract the victim agrees to.” (Oh yes that’s Outlander I realize in the depiction of Jamy and Black Jack.) Studies have shown that people write about this as how the interrogator becomes the parent, authority figure and the tortured acquiesces. Eisenman is concerned to refute these beliefs utterly. Not so. He says a hostage situation when not torture is not the same at all. Bodily pain utterly transforms this. He suggests it’s this idea the victim acquiesces, and become “child” is part of what makes people feel the victim deserves his fate because he is a victim. (Let me bring in that young man who deserted and was tortured and Trump wants to see murdered by the state as a coward.) The sexuality belongs to the image traditions of orientalism. Says Eisenman at the end: torture bears no resemblance truth, pleasure, cooperation; it is oppression, violence, frequently death and nothing more.

The tenth and last essay is by Hamid Dabashi, “Damnatio Memoriae.” Dabashi begins with a startling highly unusual letter that Medi Karrubi wrote to Akbar Hashamei Rafsanjani (I remember him from long ago, some American in Reagan’s cabinet, a woman, Fitzgerald?, said he was a moderate, and she was mocked, as a joke, there are no Iranian moderates – ho, ho, ho, what a ridiculous woman; she was an Ayn Rand fan as I recall). Karrubi spoke openly, with horror and remorse about how the Islamic republic “kidnaps, incarcerates, savagely beats up, rapes, tortures, murders, and then secretly buries in mass graves its young citizens, men and men; it’s like the prisons in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom (1975, the source of an Italian film). It was self-flagellating and yet he could not bring himself to give any concrete details. A cleric openly writing about the atrocities of the regime. Dabashi says the letter is Kafkaesque, Karrubi sees what is happening as a catastrophe for the Islamic country.
Dabashi says there is a little known Iranian film called K, which dramatizes 3 Kafka stories,”the married couple,” “In the penal colony,” “a Fratricide. “In the penal colony,” shows how people begin to have such a fascination with torture machines they no longer sympathize with, even think of the victims. In Karrubi’s letter he pleads with Rafsanjani to do something about this. He began to publish hard evidence; soon 3 official investigators came to take him in, ostensibly to find out about the torture, but soon he was the one interrogated, who is he charging? they seem to have forgotten what the charge was. They intimidate and accuse him of being bribed; he is taken to a presiding doctor, The Surgeon General and accused of lying. Need I say he disappeared.

It should be recalled that in 1954 an election produced a secular social democracy. The US CIA and its allies took that down, and replaced it with the capitalist- pro-US Shah. He did nothing for the poor but produced an early neoliberal state, and was overthrown. It seems there lingered public groups in the Iranian gov’t who were anxious about torture, angry to hear or admit to them, but the result was sidelining. New and images were now kept to a minimum; that Karrubi videotaped his testimony horrified them.

In comparison what the AbuGhrabi Americans reveled in is a kind of orgy without shame, and the Iranians regarded the pictures and all that came out of Abu Ghraib and thereafter as shameful to watch; US soldiers took pleasure in having themselves photographed the way lynching southern vigilants did over black people. People were tortured for the camera’s sake; for US people exhibitionism crucial. There was an exhibit of these photos in NYC curated by Brian Wallis, text written by Seymour Hirsh. Some people did see the sanctimoniousness hid the reality of exhibitionism and complacency. Dante argued that this exhibit was a form of entertainment which did not bring viewer close to agonies of victims (think of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.)

One might say an excess of evidence was turned by academics into tropes for analysis (and papers for conferences and tenure). The US people would take prisoners out, force them to be animal like take pictures and then rape and beat
Gluttonies of violence are seen in Quentin Tarantino films. We are luxuriating in animperial visual regime; spectacle sustains this museumification. Over-estheticizing produces tomes of unreadable prose about unrealities – the images themselves. Victims become invisible – an empire of camps, all under surveillance. Palestinians cannot talk about what was done to them – indirection is how torture speaks. A cycle of naked life has been set up where we come back to Nazi concentration camps. Dabashi is suggesting that trguments that civil rights movementd in Iran are rich people’s resentment against poor people’s president reveals a depth of moral depravity –- this is to ignore millions risking lives, tortured, taped, murdered by “popular” president’s forces. He feels science fiction tech films erase reality — this is important as so many US people go to see these and then go on allegorizing about them. What then can make these regimes fall? Real screams and hidden horrors are all that came make them fall, if the accumulation begins to be too many people over too long a time ….

The interested reader may want to go on to read essays on “hegemonic masculinity” in film as connected to torture (Viola Shafik) and music (two on this, Christian Gruny, Peter Szendy).

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From a recent production of Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (her grotto-prison)

The last section of the book is about people who have written treatises and handed down legal decisions justifying torture and poetry, plays and novels in the 19th and 20th century about torture. I’ll be briefer here. Speaking about Torture is reviewed in an academic arts journal (ironic) the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 28:1 (2013:102-4 where Aaron C. Thomas singles out these last essays in the book: on Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (the essay another by Julie A. Carlson) he writes in a way that exemplifies Dabashi’s argument; Carlson’s context includes William Godwin and the Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, the man who “has long been credited with galvanizing public opinion against torture and leading to its abolition” in Europe during the Enlightenment” (only it didn’t). Thomas covers Darieck Scott on a pornographic novel by Samuel Delancy, Hogg, which detailed the torture and murder of many women and children (apparently censored).

Speaking of Torture is an important book. Many essays all considering torture from a wide variety of angles. It is troubling that I do not remember any reviews in the mainstream review journals (LRB, NYRB, the New Yorker, or the TLS).

Ellen

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Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) holding hands with Joseph de Rocher (Michael Maynes), Dead Man Walking

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve seen a new great opera. It’s not often I’ve felt this. For a number of years Jim and I, sometimes with Izzy, went to recent and mid-20th century operas performed at the Castleton Festival in summer here in Virginia. Jim took me to Silver Springs AFI theater where we occasionally saw an extraordinary HD transmission of a European production of a recent opera: I remember Britten’s Peter Grimes from Covent Garden. Over 45 years of marriage and living together we occasionally saw a new opera in London or Rome or Paris (maybe 5 times). I can recall a very good short opera about a puppeteer theater, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and feminist (would you believe) Lucretia, Eurotrash renditions of classics, Menotti’s appealing (to me) Amal and the Night Visitors.

Tonight at least none of them that I remember except maybe Peter Grimes astonished me the way this did. We are not spared at all, from the enactment of raw emotion: its unsparing dramatization of ferocious anger on the part of the murdered youngster’s parents, and attempt to show the brutal crime, its equally insistent dramatization of Mrs de Rocher (in this production Susan Graham) as grieving she is a failed mother and yet refusing to allow her son, Joseph (Michael Maynes) to confess he did the crime and say he hopes his death provides some relief. To the insistent pressure and nagging that he must tell the truth in order for Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) to reach him and offer love. We are not spared the the execution scene where we can see how every effort is made to detach all individuals from doing the act: the police strap the man down, the nurse administers the compound into a feed, but the actual killing is done by a timed switch.

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This shot from the 1995 movie is re-created in this opera production

In Kate Wingfield’s brief if otherwise rave review of the Washington Opera production of Dead Man Walking (music Jake Heggie, libretto/play Terence McNally), Wingfield tells us to wipe out of our minds the 1995 movie made from [Sister] Helen’s memoir with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The implication is this opera won’t compete or is so utterly different from 1990s film and books (to say nothing of podcasts, radio broadcasts, it’s bound to disappoint unless we hold off on expectations. is it? Arnold Salzman found it magnificent.

Whatever might be the high quality of these earlier iterations, this one on its own, as opera should, reaches the tragedies of our failed social compact today. For it has failed, and most people seem to have no understanding why. A culture gone utterly awry in what it tells itself in the news, publicly. Why else this desperate election of a corrupt malevolent lying clown? The setting is perfect (Allen Moyer): the prison is a realistic recall of Marat/Sade as I’ve ever seen, all black and white, bars, the prisoners on death row mad with anger, the behaviors crazed enactments of frustrations from believing in our macho male norms: American prisons are as bad as any ever were, back to medieval times. The costumes capture the working class characters in jeans, T-shirts, frizzy dyed hair for women (De Rochers), the lower middle (carefully put-together pant suits on the heavy awkwardly made-up women, cheap suits on the men). The nuns, Helen and Rose (Jacqueline Echols) are innocuous in soft blouses and thin skirts.

The story and now this opera is intended and I think it is a deeply anti-capital punishment fable. The auditorium was full and the applause strong. I admit as I left I overheard some conversation which was not encouraging — people saying they “could not sympathize” — the dress of the Kennedy Center patron is upper middle. It is also religious as it’s suggested the nun’s intense generosity of spirit, her willingness to open up comes from her religion, not ethics or rational conclusion upon the full circumstances. It’s not by chance that the hero is not black but a white man. In reality state killings are acted out upon black men far more than their percentage in the population could make believably unprejudiced. With private prisons, draconian imposed sentences, in states where the local culture is obtuse and merciless, executions carry on. So how much good this story has done thus far and can do is hard to say. It explicitly advocates compassion when it should speak more in the vein of this could be you or I who got involved with this, whose child killed or was killed, who is the “failed mother” (thus Mrs De Rocher berates herself), destroyed parent. What were these 20 year olds doing out there in that swamp that night, in that drug-filled club?

It is an opera which shows a people fixated upon death. Death is all around them. In that park that night. The two rapists had guns, clubs, weapon-filled. On the highway the nun speeds down a cop is waiting to threaten until he realizes she is a nun. In the prison. Seemingly everywhere. Police are belligerence personified. This opera slowly becomes transcendent with grief. David Friscic finds it a “dark night of the soul” and one of the people sitting by me was moved t to say in the intermission, “this is no comedy, nothing light here.”

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Susan Graham as Mrs De Rocher begging the appeals board not to kill her son

It’s what Joseph Kerman argued for in his great book Operas as Drama: it’s a sung play, whose dialogue is satisfying. Terence McNally is a great playwright. Nuance is what is respected: well this has nuance throughout: small moments of characters moving in this or that direction. In the second act Owen Hart, the father of the teenage boy who was murdered comes forward to speak to Helen and say that he is not sure the execution is going to give him satisfaction; his wife and he are now separated, and a sense that far from helping, this execution is meaningless to him. The role was to be sung by Wayne Tigges, but he was ill and a bass-baritone was flown in from some other opera house in another state!w whoever he was, he was superb in quiet realism. Graham as Mrs de Rocher remembering Joseph playing porpoise in the water as a child, his giving presents to his half-brothers. The background of poverty, a broken marriage, a dyslexic boy ignored, disciplined, given up on and getting into company of similarly thrown-away young men is suggested by her memories. The larger emblematic scenes (this would be Francesca Zambello) are effective — such as the appeals board. It opens with Helen and Rose and their children singing about love being all around us (from God) and at the end Helen remembers and re-sings the melody. But inbetween are these black and barred scenes, the men on death row, shouting, and angry. Such is the US today.

I thought the singing beautiful — the nun is the center of lovely and ritual melody, Mrs de Rocher’s music echoing hers, and the music harsh and shrill where this was called for. I am not musically knowledgeable enough to particularize further but it did seem to me the closest musical experience I’ve had to the great Death of Klinghoffer which Izzy and I went to NYC to see and hear in November of 2015. I know the Met was badly burned by these deeply reactionary anti-Palestinian groups over that one. This is a similarly deeply humane deeply liberal clairvoyant experience. It’s not choral in the way of John Adams. The US working and lower middle class, Louisiana are not places where social groups come together in any kind of felt love, but its base is the same quiet realism. Here is my review of Adams’s opera truly at the center of American operatic culture, sincerely and genuinely (uncorrupted by trash realizations that sell). Here’s Izzy’s concise take in the context of Adams’s other opera, Nixon in China, and being literally at the Met opera itself.

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Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn as Helen and Joseph (this scene is recreated in the production

I should not leave out that this work’s source is a woman’s memoir. On one side of me was sitting a young woman who told me she has met Sister Helen twice. Helen Prejean is now devoting all her time to ending capital punishment. She needs to turn her attention to the larger issue of a harshly punitive culture, and a continuum of de-humanizing and using pain to the point of torture (solitary confinement is merely the most egregious) as the larger context to fight against. It’s women who write such books: Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and a book I hope to produce a useful review of here soon, Elisabeth Weber and Julie Carson’s important book of essays, Speaking about Torture. As De Rocher is led to his execution, the police and guards cry out: Dead Man Walking.

There are only two performances left in the Kennedy Center, but this is not the first production (in that Susan Graham was Sister Helene). The 1995 film (scripted by Tim Robbins from Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir) was nominated for and won several well-deserved awards. I wish the Metropolitan opera would pick it up and make it an HD opera — my only worry would be they might over-produce. I couldn’t locate any shots of the stage and a limited number of photos of the actors so have filled in with two stills from the 1995 film. So many pre-20th century operas are museum pieces and worse: they are misogynistic, imperialist, just absurd or silly. Every effort is made to somehow make them acceptable or congenial to modern opera-going audiences. Here the opera itself speaks home to us.

Ellen

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Mak (Ryan Sellers) and Gill (Tonya Beckman)

Mak (to his wife and the 3 visiting shepherds looking for their lost sheep: Ye have run in the mire, and are wet yet;
I shall make you a fire, if ye will sit.
A nurse would I hire [to groaning wife]. Think ye on yet?
Well quit is my hire — my dream, this is it —
A season.
I have bairns, if ye knew,
Well more than enew;
But we must drink as we brew,
And that is but reason …

Gentle readers,

You still have three days or evenings to get there. Are you down in the dumps and obeying the social conventions to appear all gaiety and cheer? If you can’t catch the theater (live too far away?), not to despair, from photos I gather this production has been done elsewhere so it can move again. Of course I can’t guarantee this inventive staging and lovely music of The Second Shepherd’s Play, as directed by Mary Hall Surface and Robert Eisenstein (music director) now playing at the Folger in DC will do it. Indeed, the reviewer for the DC Theater scene seemed strangely half-apologetic (“though this will not appeal to all tastes” — what, pray tell, does?), so clearly the “magic” he so praised is rare, and the high spirited “originality” another reviewer attributed to the experience (also worrying about the depiction of women as well as something overdone in sentiment), may come across as tepid to our 21st century aggressively explosive film and art experienced taste, but I felt what was so good about it was its quiet human feeling.

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Shepherds, sheep and musicians

What the anonymous cycle play has been known for since it has been revived from the Townley manuscript of 15th century plays (in which it is found) is how it mixes the ordinary vexed feelings of put-upon serfs (giving full play to their complaints about their lives), farcical comedy and (at the close) with sublime religious feeling. David Siegel provides the story-outline turn for turn. In the program notes I counted 23 songs and dances.

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From an illuminated (with pictures) manuscript

To be all scholarly the author is known or recognized as “the Wakefield master” — who lived in Wakefield (to which I used to go taking at least 4 buses from Leeds in the later 1960s). He wrote the First Shepherd’s Play, and four other “pageants” (this one is sometimes called a pageant because of the ending in a creche scene): The Murder of Abel, Noah and His Sons (probably a comedy), Herod the Great and The Buffeting, as adapted by the great poet-translator, Tony Harrison as one of the Yorkshire Mystery plays, a powerful play where we watch a group of Roman soldiers prosaically nail said Jesus Christ to a huge cross and hoist it up. You can read The Second Shepherd’s Play as well as other plays by this Wakefield Master in an old Everyman paperback edited by A.C. Crawley (Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, Dutton, 1959).

I’ve seen it twice. I remembered a film of the Monty Python group doing this story of a hungry shepherd and his wife stealing a sheep and hilariously trying to pass it off as a newborn baby in the wife’s cradle: Dudley Moore was in it and he somehow made the idea he was “biding” in the fields peacefully deliciously absurd. Upon reading the program notes, Izzy told me she and I had seen it before: 2007, and with Jim, but when they’d done, she said it was very different from that earlier version, and this one “much better.” For a start it was longer, something over two hours with intermission.

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Over the mountain to home Mak goes

What was different was the intermingling of song and dance and puppetry. The one large puppet was the sheep, and he (or she) was done with sticks and reminded me of the way a cat will respond to its beloved staff-friends. Its head was all nudge. At different junctures, for example, after Mak ferrets away the sheep while the three trusting shepherds lie asleep, there is a quick set up of a temporary arch and two puppets representing Mak and the sheep are seen traversing hills and valleys to get back to Gill at home spinning. When the shepherds discover that the baby in the cradle is a sheep and elect to toss Mak in a blanket, a large blanket is suddenly there with a puppet tossed up and down. The three shepherds, Coll, the most articulate (Louis E Davis), Daw (Megan Graves, she was a young Juliet in a Romeo and Juliet play I saw at the Folger a few years ago), and Gib (Matthew R. Wilson) are turned into puppets traversing the snow. This is the kind of thing done in the recent Sense and Sensibility: really taking advantage of the live performance aspect of play-making. There is a rolling machine turned and turned to make high winds of a tempest, and the actors twirl ribbons across the stage to make a storm. You could not do this in a film.

I like Renaissance music very much, and as at previous concerts for the last few years, there were guest artists: particularly felicitious is Brian Kay on the lute, performing love music in a melancholy moving way. Daniel Meyers plays various instruments but I remember best what looked like a Renaissance flute; and of course Eisenstein. The ending in the coming of the angel to tell Mary she is carry the “god-head” — a dea ex machina from the balcony sung by an opera soprano (Emily Noel, who sang two other individual songs)

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and the music from the mass (“Gloria in excelsis deo”) was prepared for at the opening of Act II. The play was held off while we had a small concert of very touching music both appropriate to the season and on peculiarly Renaissance instruments (I can’t name them). For me that was the highest moment of the play. Songs familiar (Greensleeves, the Coventry Carol, rounds like Blowe thy horne, hunter) are threaded in along with less familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The titles of the whole lot are reprinted in the program notes.

The underlying feel — desperately needed for more than 2 hours is a group of people who are trying for a peaceful life where they “turn all to good.” (As I say, there’s a 1970s film somewhere of Monty Python finding this very funny — lucky them.)

Third shepherd to Mak & Gill: For this trespass
We will neither ban ne flite,
Fight nor chide ….

As luck would have it, this week I got my bi-annual copy of the Sidney Journal (34:2 2016) and will wonders never cease (?). Two new sonnets by Philip Sidney have been found (!). To me they sound like him. I like these lines in the first (yes plucked out of context, and re-contextualized):

In humble sorte contented yet am I,
Though in dispaire I dye without regard

I also got my yearly Christmas card from Arthur F. Kinney, a great Renaissance scholar who sends Christmas cards each year to each and every person who contributed an essay to English Literary Renaissance (he must have quite a mailing list by this time — I published but one paper, on a sonnet sequence by Anne Cecil in the early 1990s), and this year he chose to reprint and slightly modernize passages from Milton’s “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and I quote these

No War, or Battles sound
Was Heard the World around,
The idle Spear and Shield were high up hung,
The hooked Chariot stood,
Unstain’d with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng …

These lines could be slotted into this play.

The experience brought back memories of when I was an undergraduate just beginning to major in English and read The Second Shepherd’s Play in an Norton Anthology (as well as the great 15th century tragedy, Everyman) and thought how all this is abolished for English majors and certainly for everyone else in most American colleges. I remembered watching the National Theater production of the Yorkshire Mysteries one Christmas for a couple of marvelous hours with Izzy and Laura (then 7 and 14); we would replay it on a video cassette we had taped it onto, and even made two to have a back-up. How joyous and funny the whole thing was. Both cassettes now unplayable.

Somewhere in me too I have never gotten over Christmas at Dingley Dell (Dickens’s Pickwick Papers Christmas) – when I was young my father read aloud to me — so yearn for some re-enactment in that direction. It is, since Jim’s death, not quite out of the question as Izzy and I try for one another. The best way for me is low expectations and minimal joining in (as what is available to a person like me is — or perhaps you too gentle reader). I decorated as far as I could; I send out cards; Izzy and I are going to three events. I was thinking this morning appreciate the use of music reaching out (as in the Folger Consort group) and stay with that, don’t seek anything more.

Jim was something of a musician (read music, would play scores of opera for piano on our piano spinet) and used to say the Folger Consort group was too determinedly scholarly and authentic, and the pre-Renaissance stuff was done dully. Then it was just four aging white men. Two of these people are gone, and now the group hires all sorts of people and are truly creative in their approach, and regularly dare to move well into the 17th century.

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Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape

Ellen

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Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

On Saturday Izzy and I saw, listened to, a strangely still opera: Kaija Saariagho’s L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar), libretto by Amin Maalouf (see review in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini).

There is hardly any action in the 3 hour opera-story. Jaufre Rudel, Prince of Blaye (sung and acted by Eric Owens), a troubadour now grown old, once a poet-singer accompanying the 12th century crusades, now residing in Aquitaine, ailing, in a deeply depressed state, dreams of an ideal woman with whom he can experience fulfilled love. A pilgrim or (as called in the French word Englished traveler) seems to sail/happen by and tells Jaufre the woman he has conjured up exists. Jaufre sets off to meet her.

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Meanwhile Clemence, a countess of Tripoli, in this production dressed to align her with a mermaid (fish-y scale-y dress with a sort of parting at the bottom as if for fins, braided hair) is by magic or some other force aware of or longing for, this coming love. The same pilgrim sails/happens by to tell her Jaufre is writing of her in an ethralled way. This gives her a concrete person to dream of. She is conflicted: sometimes eager, young, and sometimes wary. When Jaufre arrives, he is dying. If this illness is physical we are not told, only that he has dreaded the meeting, experienced such anguish of anxiety, he is near death.

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They meet, and while they declare their passion, he also says that he is afraid of life and also of dying. From the intensity of this conflict he enacts a kind of self-suicide. Se weeps that some external force is to blame, then that she is. At the last she decides she will retire from the world to a convent.

The stage when the lights are not on consists of seried rows of benches. When a computerized light show is on against the dark, we see wavering lines suggesting the sea along which everyone moves. The light moves from emerald green, to glooming yellow and white, to blood red, to deep blues. Everyone includes two choruses, one of men who dialogue with Jaufre, and one of women who dialogue with Clemence, who function rather like Sophocles’ or Greek choruses. The lower bodies of these figures are never seen; they seem like controlled slaves who exist for the sake of the numinous central presences. Opera is a deeply conservative form and this allegory is that here — the mood lacks the irony of Samuel Beckett’s figures caught in cans.

What is the audience to make of this? I might as well say up-front I thought the computerized technology overdone and because you can do a thing (make the stage into something near art film) doesn’t mean you should. I have recently heard music very like that of Saariaho: atonal, dissonant, each line differing form the other, many idiosycratic sounds, yet somehow peaceful, idyllic, a troubled pastoral. All three principals sang beautifully, especially fine was the Pilgrim. Until the second act, though, the lines in this opera were archetypal in content, utterly generalized. Set to Charlotte Smith’s complex poetry, the lines had thoughtful meaning to express. Similarly, Detlev Ganert’s music seemed set to a text of complicated many issue-d despair.

In the second half, though, we did get meaning, e.g., from the words Juafre spoke, the sensitive troubadour has been traumatized by life itself (so violent, so contradictory to him) and (once again) prefers death. He also yearns for compensatory beauty in return for the horrors he’s seen and done while “in the orient,” citing place names from Middle Eastern countries which played a part in the crusades or are mentioned in the chronicles written by men about their experiences in the crusades or Constantinople.

You can, and I would be inclined also to see the opera as an exploration of levels of depression and despair. The afflicted person tries to throw off by maintaining a belief in an impossible goodness, kindness, love. Jaufre suspects he is deluding himself; his dream cannot be realized. It is only real from afar. That’s why he does not want to experience this love close up. When he does see her, overcome by her beauty after all, he nonetheless is already near death. It’s too late to make a change.

Some further art context would be the Arthurian corpus. Voigt did refer to the lovers as a Tristan and Isolde at one point in her intermission talk. The depiction of the lovers was strikingly like my memories of a specific text, an 1890s fin-de-siecle French rendition of Trisan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier. Mark doesn’t have much of a role in Bedier. Bedier may be read in a beautiful English translation by Hillaire Belloc. The deeply reactionary meaning caught up in this enthrallment by sex was explicated in once famous book by Denis de Rougement: Love in the Western World, except Bedier is not into Christian apologetics: rather all in life seeks erotic ecstacy. From Celtic twilights of melancholy to the sublime transcendance of Wagner, it’s a perverse worship of self-annihilation, melting away into sensual pleasure to an extreme of self-destruction and death. For my taste there was too much squirming eroticism, or (alternatively) naive idealism of the ripe virginal maiden in all this:

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While the opera also takes its resonance from texts by Tennyson, Sara Teasdale (a poem from Guinevere) and movies like Bresson’s Lancelot, Eric Rohmer’s Parzival, perhaps Boorman’s Excalibur (a Hollywoodized version); there is a counterforce, warrior-like memories at least caught up in place names and very occasional action. The cities chosen by the pair of creators include Antioch, the old world around the Mediterranean leading to Jerusalem. Though our troubadour seems to have never fought, he and the Pilgrim are sombre with the knowledge of something intransigent, wary of something “out there” which all seek to elude. Jaufre is also the wounded fisher-king, exiled or taken along as suffering figure at wars. The male figure who carries within him the evils and wretchedness of the world, and dies of this: I thought of Amyntas as dramatized in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.

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I was much moved by the second half; there was far more psychological content in the words; death seemed to me portrayed to some extent realistically: as a drawn out agonized process. Tides of grief wash over everyone. The intense rejection of anything close up by the troubadour. The huge iron contraption seemed to me perfect for some construction site, an over-the-top exhibit of angularity and abstraction and computer light show was now less in evidence. The three principles were at the bottom of the benches and and camera focused on them in various levels of close-up. It would have been too abrupt, too sudden, too somehow melodramatic to end abruptly with Jaufre’s death, so there was a lingering strongly controlled slow fade-away.

Can we place this in a more immediate and political context — in my experience operas written more recently (where I’ve seen a few at Castleton Festival in Virginia) are meant to resonate with today’s culture. An FB friend of mine, Tom Dillingham, caught

an interesting William Blake sighting’ or reference … During the intermission … Deborah Voigt interviewed the great Placido Domingo about his having taken on the role of Nabucco in Verdi’s opera of that name. Domingo commented on the complexity of the character and said that his name is also Nebuchadnezzar, and then mentioned that William Blake “the greatest of painters in England” (that’s close, anyway, to what he said) had portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a kind of man/beast, crouching on all fours. The admiration of one great artist for another is always worth noting. Perhaps I should refrain from noting a certain evocation of a contemporary menace.

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

I won’t refrain. The opera figures retreat in the face of fear, sexual engagement and reality. Ours is a hard world people with the wherewithal retreat to dreams like this from.

There is another great piece of music and lyrics that matches this one, as serious and allegorical as Saariaho and Maalouf’s and brings out the underbelly of this opera. Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

The lyrics say what needs to be listened to, not just said, and acted upon, and a much seasoned-performer like Smith’s nervousness in front of this over-, opulently dressed crowd just make so much stronger how much this song’s concrete causes needs be heeded … I’ve not been so deeply moved by a performance or song in a long time.

You choose which one you think comes closest in this dire moment, the well-behaved decorous allusive myth with its diversity of casting or the accosting of what the blue-eyed son has done.

I must not leave out that this is only the second opera mounted in the whole of the Metropolitan Opera’s history to be by a woman; it is also only the fourth to be conducted by a woman: Susanna Malkki. My great grief is the first woman who won the popular vote to be president of the US is not the president tonight who could have heard it. Instead we have a man/beast who has promised to continue the horrors pictured by Dylan. Dylan deserved the Nobel, though perhaps he should have been there to accept it, and gotten it for music (and someone else for literature), I don’t mind. Patti Smith’s singing more than made up for anything awry.

Ellen

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