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Claire grieving over her stillborn child, POV Mother superior (Caitrionia Balfe, Frances de la Tour, Episode 7, Faith)


Jamie (Sam Heughan), one of the last shots of the season (he has told Claire she must leave and he return to Culloden)

Jamie: “I’ll have Ross and Fergus take you home to Lallybroch.”
Claire: “No.”
He: “Claire.”
She: “I can’t do that either. Listen to me. If I if I go back, then it will just be like lying in that ditch again, helpless and powerless to move, like a dragonfly in amber except this time it will be worse, because I’ll know that the people out there dying alone are people I know People I love.I can’t do that, Jamie. I won’t lie in that ditch again. I can’t be helpless and alone ever again. Do you hear me? ”
He: “I hear ye. I promise whatever happens, you’ll never be alone again.”
She: “I’m going to hold you to that, James Fraser.”
He: “You have my word Claire Fraser”
— a wholly characteristic dialogue of woman’s romances, variations on which repeat throughout seasons 1 and 2:

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been eight months since I last blogged on Outlander; thirteen months since I first blogged on the first episode: Sassenach: Radcliffe Redivida.

In the first season or first year I was at first enthralled, then deterred (bored when Claire began to be much less the focus of the story); and then, suddenly returning to become deeply engaged by the mini-series to the point I blogged twelve times; and in the last compared the book (which I listened to as read aloud beautifully by Davina Porter). For this second season or year I’m posting but once for all because I haven’t found the time to blog as often, but I found the same pattern in my reaction: at first riveted, then deterred (this time grated upon by the pruriency of the sequences in France); and then, returning I don’t know quite why, found the last section in Paris and the whole of the close in Scotland resonating deeply and irresistibly in my psyche.


Jamie and Murtagh confronting so many deaths of comrades after pyrrhic victory at Prestonpans (Sam Heughan, Duncan Lacroix, Episode 10, Prestonpans)

In the first season I account for the deep appeal of series by its the dream-archetypes and their relationship to other romances (I was reviewing Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley at the time), by its increasingly emotional use romance tropes (the series moves from Border Lord stuff to a spirit or encompassing tone like that of the best Arthurian romance); and then I compare the mini-series to the source book, Outlander, to show how a centrally woman’s book has been altered to make a male the central agon victim, and the book’s loving portrayal of Scottish home life replaced by thrilling and traumatized and gypsy adventure. This time again I’ll compare book, the second one, Dragonfly in Amber, to the mini-series, and then my concentration for this single blog will be how once either real history, or women’s real traumatic experiences are dramatized, the mini-series grips us once again.

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Claire waking 200 years later to find them “all gone” (Episode 1, Through a Glass Darkly)

The framing is much changed from the book. The framing of Dragonfly in Amber which begins in Scotland 20 years after Brianna was born, with the Reverend Wakefield’s adopted son, Roger Mackenzie, having returned to Inverness to clear out his father’s papers with an idea never to return is altered, softened and switched to become part of the first and second episodes of the third season (The Battle Joined and Surrender). Instead Claire is seen bewildered and grieving after she has passed through the stones without herself experiencing Culloden itself.

The great power of this episode and each one which juxtaposes the present in the 20th century, whether Scotland or Boston, to which Claire and Frank (Tobias Menzies) move, is that the past, Scotland in the 18th century becomes a metaphor for death. Everyone so vivid and shivering with flesh-y life is dust, dead, once Claire crosses over, and her longing to go back, is a longing to beat death. She longs to be with Jamie who is in real time dead 200 years. I identity and bond with her then.

The action in Scotland gradually turns into maddened gothic (the behavior of the French aristocratic king), neurotic fantasy (the behavior of Bonnie Prince Charlie so brilliantly caught by the performance of Andrew Gower), or deep loss (the death of the first child of Claire and Jamie, the whole hospital scene in the first half), and finally barbaric and tragic deaths of most of the principals. It’s this insight into death and a longing to beat death (the center of Shakespeare’s late tragic and Greek romances) made the core of the second mini-series by Roger Moore (producer, developer, often screenplay writer and director that has turned Diana Gabaldon’s romancing into a serious experience in and through modern film.


Frank contemplating the 18th century clothes Claire was wearing (Tobias Menzies)

Episode 1 (“Through a Glass Darkly”) Claire finds herself hurtled onto the ground in 1948, her cry is they are “all gone,” and she asks a passerby (astonished at her outfit): “‘Who won?’ ‘Who Won?” He cannot understand how she doesn’t know the Allies won WW2 early in autumn in Poland. With Frank, she is playing a part, however grudgingly. Her happiness is telling Mrs Graham of what was — or is in the recent past.


Mrs Graham (Tracey Wilkinson) listening to Claire in the garden

Whenever we are in this liminal time in the TV program, moving between the present and 18th century past, there is such an increase in unease and longing. Frank demands she promise to forget Jamie; he wants no third in his bed. She promises but later cannot. They have sudden quarrels: he uses the word “flog” for the way the newspapers are treating her disappearance and she demands he never use that word in her presence. Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) enacts the role of adopted father and Frank follows suit:

By the end Claire’s outstretched hand to reach Frank has reached Jamie, and the series switched to one of the port cities of France. with Murtagh in tow. Here we meet the evil Count de St Germain (Stanley Weber) who is hiding a small pox epidemic. At this point the mini-series begins closely to dramatize all the incidents in the novel, and mostly in the order these occurred.

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Charles (Bonnie Prince) Stuart (Andrew Gowan)

Episodes 2 – 7. It is true the French court mid-century was licentious openly and probably vulgarly bawdy but not the way they were doing it — they were trying for bawdy comedy and I’m not sure it came off. Virtuoso acting manages to overcome the feel of voyeurism. There is much that can be labelled bizarre in what literally happened, the stage business. Nonethless or because my attention was riveted for a span, from the king trying his courtiers for treason and having one of his ruthless supporters murdered in cold blood right in front of them. I found the apothecary and his shop, Master Raymond (Dominique Pinon) fascinating: the thread throughout the novels is medicine then and now. The boy they pick up as a son-pickpocket, Fergus (Romann Berrux) is humanely appealing. Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day), raped in the streets and later taking her revenge on her rapist is a satisfying character. I was especially moved by Claire’s miscarriage and her relationship with Mother Hildegarde, who encourages her to train as a physician insofar as she can. The plangent tone was to me irresistible, as well as the beauty of the burial.


Louise de Rohan, Charles’s pregnant mistress (Claire Sermonne)

I did have to force myself through the prurient sex — though it is true to say that the French court at this point practiced this. I also find all the plot-arrangements that come out of what-if stories — how Jamie and Claire are trying to avoid Culloden and yet not get in the way of other history ludicrous. But again this central erotic romance is the deep key to the series feeling; the two actors have this very well and I am now convinced as I was in the first season, the writers and directors and all film-makers produce hours superior to those in Poldark when it comes to embodying a range of emotional expressionism usually taboo.

Against that we had again what seemed to me this hatred of homosexuality in Episode 6 (“Best Laid Scheme”). Jamie challenges Randall because Randall buggers Fergus cruelly. I can understand some of the retrograde implications, all the while feeling this. Another anti-homosexual event is intertwined. I’ve now become aware that the hero of her second sequence of novels, Lord John (David Berry), is a homosexual and presented as the best of men: loyal, kind, decent, and that Gabaldon has said it’s a misunderstanding to focus on Randall’s infliction of pain on men: he’s “an equal opportunity sadist” she is said to have written. But there is such a stress on anal intercourse as a painful perversion. It’s a horrible scene between him and the boy, and surely encourages viewers to regard all gay men as vicious this way. This fita a deeply conservative bias in the depiction of religion too. Claire has a miscarriage because she follows them to the duelling spot and tries to stop the duel.

Episode 7 (“Faith”– the name of the stillborn child) was just astonishing; it’s what Daphne DuMaurier and l’ecriture-femme try for and rarely hit. It includes a very late miscarriage so a baby born dead and Claire’s intense grief — the half-crazed behavior captures something rarely seen. They again have some great supporting actors/actresses: this time Frances de la Tour as the mother superior. To get Jamie freed from prison after his duelling with (once again) black Jack Randall, Claire must have sex with Louis XV in Episode 8 (“The Fox’s Lair”) and this one reminded me of scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale the way Balfe presented herself and experienced the sex. It was even filmed similarly — but it must be coincidence. They caught in Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince) his insanities, his stupidities, delusions, egotism. Also how Louis XV murdered people on a whim.


Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour)

Elaboration: Faith is the name the Mother Superior gives Clare’s baby who is born dead. Clare had been overworking herself and bleeding and not resting enough. The stress of watching Jamie duel with Black Jack Randall after he has promised not to (lest the modern Frank not be born) was too much and she began to bleed a lot. Rushed to the nun hospital, she gives birth to a dead baby girl. She nearly dies because she is running a high fever and only an apothecary Clare has made a friend of realizes her placenta needs to come out. In a flashback memory scene we see she was allowed to hold the dead baby in her arms and wept intensely. She gives it up to Louise to take away. She at the present moment is being asked by Jamie to forgive him and she tells him she hated him at first – there is much dialogue about how we need to forgive people because God tells us to. Well in this episode there’s a lot to forgive: very evil events ordered by King Louis XV (Lionel Lingelser) whom everyone obeys.

The set of scenes over the childbirth, death, and then grieving I found very moving, and a concluding ritualized burial which reminded me of the ending of David Nokes’s film adaptation of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa where Clary is similarly buried. The music in the background was very like that in Clarissa in the brothel and other dark places; in movie association it’s gothic.

The hard delivery, pregnancy, childbirth and death told in the way they do mark this as a woman’s romance.

The season picks up terrifically when they return to Scotland (8 into 9). I returned to the series because I am now aware how central the defeat at Culloden was for the Scottish people; this crushing enabled a horrific slaughter by the colonializing power (the English), then ruthless ethnic cleansing, followed by utter betrayal of the chieftains turned into landlords emptying the land of people and then exploiting it in such a way as to render it further barren. Scotland in the 19th century is comparable to the middle east in the 21st with the US in the role of the landlords and English imperialism. And it seemed to me that once the actors returned to Scotland all the resonances of memory, history, deep feeling gave the hours an intensity it lacked in the French sequences (much more “made up”). The series is enormously popular in Scotland, the last three episodes of the second season the battles and defeats leading up to Culloden.


The Jacobite army on the march ….

At the end of episode 9 (“Je suis prest” — I am ready), there are two Scots songs sung from the period, one rousing military — the theme song of the paratexts of all the episodes is an old tune from the Isle of Skye, the “Skyeboat song” — I can’t find words for the intensity of the atmosphere as they line up to march to meet with Prince Charles before Prestonpans. They have automatic intense irony as we watch the men make preparations, and the women provide for them, all train because we know it ended in a tremendous defeat. So here is a good instance of where knowing not only how it ended but the aftermath was is central. Gabaldon and her script writers emphasize all the disadvantages (hindsight working), how the men are sparsely armed; how many of them had to be forced; their technological awkwardness, lack of heavy canon, the conflicts (so some Scots are for the Hanoverians); Jamie’s grandfather is careful to look as if he’s for both sides.

It’s this kind of thing historical novels can do well, films of course — and makes them implicitly political if realistic. Poldark loses out on both counts: there is no crucial historical incident and the script is inferior. Whatever may be the faults of Outlander the series (they have absurd conniptions about this or that), the scripts are remarkably literate and naturalistic and often subtle in language and idea.


Both Rupert Mackenzie and Angus (two close Scots friends, semi-comic roles until now) die

A good deal of the deep feeling in Episode 10 (“Prestonpans”) depended on the viewer remembering what happened at Prestonpans and how the Scots won that particular battle. We see how they managed to win when they did: absolute surprise in the dead of night, coming on smallish band of Hanoverian men utterly unprepared for a savage relentless attack from axes, swords. What makes this anti-war beyond the barbaric ferocity of what we watch is characters we have affection for do get killed — and we see some barbaric acts. A secondary subtheme is Claire’s memories of World War 2 (her post-traumatic stress disorder) which this experience ignites — we have flashbacks in her mind as she remembers back. The episode succeeds because of the emphasis on death, and the deaths of beloved characters.

Elaboration: it is so passionate it electrifies: this central real battle which the Scots won using the element of surprise attack in the dead of night just got everyone intensely over the top. It’s acceptable because the beat is (paradoxically) not on the win, but on death. Council scenes where everyone bitterly quarrels and especially Murray — who was against that ridiculous “assault” on the Hanoverians at Culloden. What we see at length is a couple of our “friends” die miserably and horribly and great grief. When Dougal Mackenzie kills savagely and this is presented,he is framed as barbaric, having lost it,and is condemned by Prince Charlie (who is an idiot but persists in wanting not to slaughter the English wantonly thinking they will then accept him — no they wouldn’t have and anyway they weren’t all English). I have a hunch Gabaldon does not present it this way. In the feature films she comes on as just thinking of characters and nothing more — an act. Fergus picked up as an effective pickpocket has killed someone and is upset by himself having killed the man. Later (season 3) he will have his hand chopped off by a Scot who he needles for betraying the Jacobites; his character is forming slowly

There is left room also to see the Hanoverian or southern English point of view; that is, that these tribal people are a dangerous nuisance. I know since 9/11 the term terrorist has spread ridiculously (it began be used extensively in the Reagan era when his govn’t sent murderous squads into Latin and South America) but if language were used truthfuly I think these nation states (groups of people who have legitimacy over others, because of an accepted monopoly on violence and imprisonment) regard terrorist as a dangerous nuisance. Neither nation-state has any interest in understanding what is driving the tribal and individual violence against them.

This connection to history, quite direct, gives the program a seriousness. I can see it’s using the usual “delaying” techniques since the Episode 13 (“Dragonfly in Amber”) is not Culloden but Claire returned to the 20th century with her daughter grown up and telling her who her biological father was. The season opened with her return before the battle got underway and returns to the same scenes in Inverness with Roger and her daughter, Brianna.


The Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow)

Episodes 11 & 12 (“Vengeance is Mine” and “The Hail Mary”). The turning back of the Jacobite army from where they had gotten in significant. Historians have debated why the Scots did this when they were getting so close and in the dialogue the reasons surface: Julian Wadham is playing General Murray (he’s aged — what a superb actor) talks of how much they are outnumbered; we hear the local places they have passed have seen no major uprising with them; there are 3 British armies in the field. The British have cavalry, much better artillery. Still Jamie (knowing about what Culloden will bring) says let us try to it or we lose whatever we have gained. Again the foolish prince says no, and refers himself to God. His talk continually shows him living in an unreal universe, not seeing the people in front of him.

Retribution occurs spectacularly. A horrible death by beheading inflicted on Sandringham (Simon Callow, a brilliant actor in this) by Murtagh. These episodes mount up the dead. Two parallel deaths — through juxtaposition. Column Mackenzie (Gary Lewis) comes to die, to hand his clan to Jamie, to warn against fighting for the Jacobite cause and there is a moving scene between him and his brother, Dougald (Graham MccTavish), a great actor who acts like a barbarian in the field. Contrastingly, we have Alex Randall (Laurence Dobiesz) discovered in a nearby town dying with Mary Hawkins caring for him (she escapes her uncle Sandringham’s clutches to sell her in marriage), and powerfully Tobias Mendez as Black Jack shows up – a man driven by “dark” forces, angry, violent, partly in a rage because his good brother is dying and he lives. Alex is dying a painful death from TB and it is shown what TB was, how felt, and the methods used to alleviate the inability to breathe somewhat. Black Jack is intensely reluctantly persuaded to marry Mary who is pregnant by Alex — to give her his pension, status. Clare having suggested to Jamie they kill the prince to stop Culloden is overheard by Dougal, and Jamie is driven to murder hjis uncle. Murtagh is spared for next season as Jamie has him march their band of men off home rather than see them slaughtered.

When this second season ended I had no idea what can be the substance or content of season 3 beyond Culloden (not yet dramatized) because so many characters have now been killed off. Sometimes audiences can really like a character in one season and what do you do if they are not equally taken by the replacement in the next? that is the problem the Poldark novels face.

What interested me — what I’ve been paying attention — is the script writer was for the first time Diana Gabaldon herself. Thus far she had written the scripts for none of them though she was endlessly listed as advisor – that is not the same as script editor for example. What was striking was a strong mixture of wild humor — sometimes just jok-y in the way of her books, but sometimes self-consciously over-the-top, almost but not quite campy — I feel the director stopped the trivialization that would have occurred. This partly confirms me in my idea that the books have this vein of frivolousness, or snarky laughter that I had not seen before. It didn’t hurt the program because the actors were their usual deeply dramatic selves; a tone has been established.


Mary Gowan, POV Claire (an earlier episode occurring in France)

But now we know Frank’s true heritage! Black Jack had been told (the first season) by Claire he will die April 16, 1745 — in a few days (we will witness this bitter fight to the death between him and Jamie at Culloden in the third season). Again there is much prejudice fomented against homosexuals through the way this man is presented: he balks at marrying because he says he could beat Mary; as a boy he beat Alex (it comes out). Of course the novelists “secret” comes out that th gentle generous Frank, Claire’s English seeming 20th century husband is descended from Alex, not the bad man John Wolveton Randall (as we had supposed). Jamie proposes a raid, the kind of surprise attack that won them Prestonpans, but Prince Charles gets lost and then turns back. So Culloden must happen. The last moment of the twelfth episode is Sam Heughan as Jamie standing in the coming dawn so still. He has emerged as a fine actor in this second year.


Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin) and Brianna Randall (Sophie Skelton)

Episode 13 (“Dragonfly in Amber”): I found this one very moving. deeply feelingful. Each time the mini-series returns to present time and we are in retrospective I find it so — here it’s the use of time-traveling over death. Claire longs to beat death again to join Jamie. In Episode 1 the present time Vicar Wakefield (James Fleet, with an allusion to Goldsmith I’ve pointed out before) has died but he left papers and this leads to Clare having to tell her skeptical daughter about this past, and Brianna at first deeply resentful comes to feel less anger, but does not believe her mother is telling a truth, or all this happened. During the 13th episode Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek) turns up (she does age) and returns to the past through the stones — after having immolated her husband by fire as a sacrifice.


Geillis is for devolution

But this last episode is flawed: it is too much coincidence to make the adopted son of Wakefield the descendant of the son Geillis had by Dougal (who we are told was born before she was burnt – only she cannot have been burnt) and then have him fall in love with Briana the direct child of Jamie and Clare. Incommensurate time scales here too, and the young couple are too bright, too without trauma. Again and again first Gabaldon and then Roger Moore show they have no feel for middle class life in the 1950s or they are confusing what was put on TV with the way people really lived in the 1950s in the US: closer to The Honeymooners than Ozzie and Harriet (which is alluded to). The utter self-sacrificing love of Claire for the embittered daughter strikes me as too sentimental in that we are in efect urged as women to enact Claire. I can believe the spoiled daughter. The episode ends on Claire with too overtly shining eyes dreaming of returning to Jamie because Roger has found evidence that Jamie did not die at Culloden. The writing and over-voice of Caitronia Balfe, melancholy, longing, real, as Claire, carries us over for now.

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Claire as last seen in Scotland

I asked myself, Are we to have a third novel registering the highland clearances? I have since learned (by watching the third season and reading The Outlandish Companion, Volume 1) that this does not happen; rather the novel switches to the US and the prologue to the American revolution in the 1760s. And the problem in the third season is the feeling of fakeness in the scenes from middle class life in the US in Boston.

Nonetheless, I’m deeply engaged by this mini-series now — maybe it is very like what I felt after reading the Poldark books and watched the 1970s mini-series. I did see the flaws in the Poldark mini-series: too softened, too sentimental. In my own exoneration (before myself) with Poldark it was the books first, but now it is this mini-series first, and I do believe that Ronald Moore is responsible, he is the executive producers, producer for each too, writes a numbers, directs a number, does all the features. He saw in this material potential. I’ve gone on long enough and will save the brilliance he shows in his features, discussions of these (on the DVDs) and deleted scenes for a separate blog.

Ellen

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Florence Lacey, Kaleidoscope (A review)

Friends and readers,

Probably a coincidence which I’m noticing because I’m aging, but aging was and is the topic of the two plays and films I’ve gone to or been watching this week: this past Thursday, Matt Connor and Stephen Gregory Smith’s moving musical (a world premiere at Creative Cauldron, an Arlington night-club, place for musical and other events), Kaleidoscope, about an aging successful (Broadway?) singer now degenerating because of Alzheimer’s. Florence Lacey, the central singer-actress, had a long distinguished enough career on Broadway and now works in the DC area: it began strong with her singing effectively in a musical, and takes us through the early stages of a journey into loss of her memory, mind, abilities. An especially moving number came from the character’s memory of her mother: Mother Stayed Home Alone. The audience had a lot of older people and I saw tears on faces. A friend was ushering; that’s how I heard about the production.


A rehearsal photo of Foucheux as Lear, Magee as Gloucester, Sara Barker Edgar

Tonight, Saturday, I’ve just come back from Gunston Center, a local American pair of theaters set in a local junior high, where I saw a bare and simple and all the more powerful acting out of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The acting company now call themselves Avant Barde, another Arlington group, who have a long history (30 years), going back to theaters around DC, then a theater in a garage on Clarke Street, then briefly in an arts building where an arts center is slowly filling the place, coming to life now and again. they once called themselves the Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC). I was sitting next to another older woman who became friendly and we shared memories, reminiscences of the WSC over the years.

I assume I need say nothing about the story and characters. This is another quiet (non-spectacular) winner: sheer acting, appropriate costumes and a minimal set (using lighting and music effectively). The great local older actor, Rick Foucheux was Lear, Christopher Henley was there as the fool and one of the kings suing for Cordelia’s hand. I was struck by what a gentle soul he is. Dylan Morrison Myers (Edmund) and Sara Barker (Edgar) could have memorable careers ahead of them. Some of the most effective black actors from this winter’s The Gospel at Colonnus, provided ensemble interchanges of characters. Myers grinned at me, we exchanged eye contact when I stood up to clap. They all worked very hard. I was very touched by the older actress, Cam Magee (she’s been in 19 Avant Bard productions now) played Gloucester (now Duchess); the change of gender fit very well in this production. Alas, the auditorium was less than half full. You had to want to listen to Shakespeare’s words and this time (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Lear) I felt comforted towards the end by Gloucester’s occasional stoic lines:

This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out

And over the past week and one half, I’ve watched the five episodes of the first season of the deeply effective, rich, nuanced, beautifully acted, costumed, written, BBC mini-series, Cranford Chronicles (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed by Simon Curtis, adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvelous book of short stories of the same novel, little known but superb novella, My Lady Ludlow, and thrown in to have a love romance interest swirling about a young man, Gaskell’s long short story, Mr Harrison’s Confession), illustrated by my favorite Posy Simmons (yes I have The Cranford Companion). Although there are several story lines, and two are about young men beginning life, with some hope of success, pride, self-esteem (Alex Etel as Harry Gregson has to break through Lady Ludlow’s prejudice against an agricultural poacher’s son learning to read; Simon Woods as Dr Harrison establishing himself in the community, gaining his love, succeeding in medicine), much of the production is about aging single women. Not that I do not bond with Philip Glenister as Lady Ludlow’s wise well-meaning, powerless steward and Emma Fielding as Lady Ludlow’s milliner, Miss Galindo (the couch-ridden narrator of Lady Ludlow, another disabled person). Thomas is aware of how central disability is to Gaskell as she had Lady Ludlow declare she is supporting a mute person by keeping her household very large (justifying expenditure to her steward). Cranford Chronicles is not only woman-centered but aging-centered. Matty (Judi Dench) and the poetic soul, Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) begin to become a couple too late: he dies before they can marry.


A favorite moment: Gambon as Holbrook, Dench as Matty, Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith (our narrator in the text)

All three gain their focal strength from their depiction of aging in society. I fancy though that the choice of all three to concentrate on crises de-emphasizes but cannot omit what is hardest about being old, looking at time past, with limited choices forward. Judy Dench is particularly effective capturing that in her still contemplative face she sits in her parlor after her sister, Deborah (Eileen Atkins)’s death. In all the works several characters die. A story about aging is a story about the irretrievable. Thomas has softened this by bringing all the characters who left back to the knit community at journey’s (mini-series) end.

I’ve written about this mini-series elsewhere and more than once (Return to Cranford). I began re-watching it because I’ve had another proposal for a paper accepted, giving me a summer project: this one for a volume on Animals in Victorian Literature: my contribution will be “On the interdependence of people and animals in Elizabeth Gaskell”

Several still unusual and dominant concerns across Gaskell’s fiction come together when we study her fiction from the point of view of her depiction of the interdependence of people and animals. Scholars have written about disability in a few of Gaskell’s fictions, but not its pervasive presence (part of her awareness of our continual risk of death), from blindness to illness, from birth conditions and a baby’s needs and aging, to specific variations of need or limitation, to a condition of mind or body brought about by economic and social causes. Similarly, readers have noticed her exquisite humor when it comes to how people treat beloved animals or (conversely), her appalled horror at Emily Bronte’s wildly brutal reaction to her dog having dirtied a clean counterpane on a bed, but not her characteristic awareness of the presence of animals, of startling abuse and (conversely), and their valued place in human (often single women’s) economy. Nor has it been brought out how the two are present together because Gaskell views our culture from her woman’s experience. Martha Stoddard Holmes has suggested an intransigent discomfort with investigating human dependency is one reason for the silence; another might be trepidation at re-stigmatizing Gaskell’s fiction as “feminine.” I propose to write an analysis of Cranford, Cousin Phillis, and Gaskell’s lesser known fiction and characters to show that this triangular interest is central to Gaskell’s achievement and important in understanding why 19th century texts seem to speak so crucially to us today.

There are some exquisitely funny incidents involving animals in Cranford: the cow whose life is saved by covering her in flannel, the cat who swallows a piece of lace and has gently to be made to barf it up. I had tried to find something beyond fox-hunting in Trollope (as “horses” was taken by someone else) but could not find he ever took an interest in animals for their own sakes; on the contrary, shows an indifference bordering on utter dismissal (he makes jokes of breeding foxes), except an occasional deeply felt metaphoric use (then he is creating pity for or criticizing a character). He is also not interested in disability.


Claudie Blakeley as the strong servant girl, Martha, and her loving “follower,” Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan)

So I will continue my love affair with Gaskell and read yet more of her fiction and in a new way; I’ve listened to all of Graham’s Black Moon read aloud in my car and am near the end of The Four Swans. I delight in Claude Berry’s extraordinarily sensitive effective Portrait of Cornwall and can hardly wait for the BBC to begin the third season of Poldark.

Today was a hard day for me to live through: more or less solitary, not yet up to, unable able to travel alone (go on a Road Scholar tour which is what I shall have to steel myself to learn to do if I want to see any more of the world), bereft of the very basis of my security, and my “enabler” (Jim), I ought to have avoided the happy pictures on face-book, but could not, so much do I need to be in contact with friends. Gentle reader, I remember the woman at the window across the way from Mrs Dalloway’s party, glimpsed by her at the end of her novel.

Ellen

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Mark Quartley as Ariel to Simone Russell Beale’s Prospero

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.
From towards the end of the play, Prospero

Dear friends,

However inadequately, I can’t resist writing about the current production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I was lucky enough to be able to see on an HD screen at the Folger Shakespeare library last night. It’s astonishing. The producer is Gregory Doran, and Simone Russell Beale, Prospero. Paul Taylor is right to praise highly the play as experienced. Beale is brilliant, but it’s not the best performance of a character by him I’ve ever seen: he was utterly Falstaff in the Hollow Crown series, the best I’ve ever seen. What is remarkable is the production, direction, acting, the way the lines are spoken: what’s called “live motion capture” adds significantly to the experience or enhance some of the effects — at least it does not distract. The set places us inside a ship’s hold as if that’s the universe, with a floor of sand and water all about. The costumes, and body outfits for Ariel are what we expect but Caliban is something new: Joe Dixon is in a disturbing to look at body suit which makes us feel he’s living trussed up in chains around his chest, and the pain and awkwardness has swollen his stomach. His hindquarters (so to speak) are on display and one worries about possible torture. Trinculo is dressed as a Clarabelle clown, complete with horn on his side: Simon Tinder acts like a circus refugee from Waiting for Godot) Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, all the upper class characters are in the usual outfits but that works in context as effective. Michael Davies on the Stratford site writes of all this.

What’s astonishing about this production? I’m a lover of Shakespeare — I’ve read all the plays and poetry, and some of the plays I used to read over and over. When I was just a graduate student, I planned to write my dissertation on Cymbeline — so I especially love the late four romances. I have rarely in life found a production boring or unwatchable — only once in my memory of going to so many (there were years where I went to Shakespeare plays as often as I could in NYC) did I leave at the intermission. I say this to preface that The Tempest is still for me by this time often “sort of expected:” jokes I’ve heard before, a non-plot, so I sit and wait for the poetry and deep feeling moments.

Not this time. Everyone in this play were part of a tremendous sustained effort to make the play entertaining every single minute that passed, and it almost was. Not quite: I did think the masque somewhat overdone: the problem of the masque watched by Ferdinand and Miranda is often one not conquered in productions: I’ve seen puppets; I’ve seen attempts at comedy (undercutting), this production perhaps erred in the direction of too joyous (a wee bit forced). But otherwise the effect is from not just that every line and every pause seems to have been thought through to make it meaningful in a new or interesting way, but the ways in which the stage business was perpetually brilliant, inventive, humanizing. The way they moved their bodies, their use of accents (Tony Jayawardena as as West Indies Stephano, the butler), their gestures, and the tones of complicated complex emotion projected. Joe Dixon was a poignant Caliban. He was given time and space to speak slowly a number of Caliban’s famous speeches with an intense half-grieving gravitas, as when he tells Trinculo and Stephano about the noises they continually hear:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

I was riveted by a sense of intense alert attention paid. The effect is lightened by having Trinculo dressed as a silly clown and Stephano a dim-witted ship’s butler. Jim used to tell me of the creakings we’d hear from our attic, of the sounds when we first moved in (we probably had a rat in the house, at first there were insects, a woodpecker too), that I should not be afraid ,”the isle is full of strange noises …” and we are here together to talk. At the close of the play Caliban retires to Prospero’s cell to be in solitude.


The attempted rape of Miranda is the current subject here …

Taylor thinks it “a dream of David Hockney landscapes.” I thought of the strong originality of Mary Shelley’s hallucinatory Frankenstein. It’s as if Doran and all the designers were determined to match the gorgeously suggestive language Shakespeare uses of his own gifts. They were groups of fantastical dream creatures, each more unearthly and yet part of this spiritual island world than the one before. Some marvelous dancing — from overtly weird faery

to folk and pattern dances in which Miranda (Jennifer Rainsford reminds me of Julie Christie when young) and Ferdinand (Daniel Easton, perfect for the gentlemanly role) participate.

There was therefore much beyond and contextualizing Beale’s deeply effective voice and tone tragic and grave when he broke his staff, said his dreams were now ended, and every thought would end in the grave that evoked in my such a deep-seated sense of healing. Yes healing, if just for the moment of this presence communicating to me — a member of this audience — deep melancholy forgiveness — we do not forget what these men who cast him and his daughter ashore still are — with a desire to give over and die.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

I just loved when he said after Miranda was married to Ferdinand, he would at long last tell what his life had been and then “And thence retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.” Someone has said to me that there is no pattern for someone who has lived the life I did with Jim to heal my grief. What I can find are presences in the world of thought, feeling, books, acting on films, stages, through music where I find peace because someone has understood. There is no norm for grieving, there is only tiredness, and it was a moment of joy I felt for Prospero because he forgave even if he saw the people were still not to be trusted. Only in the oblivion of the art of forgetting (that’s Samuel Johnson’s phrase) can any peace be found.

No need to miss it if you’ve an HDs screening theater which takes material from Stratford-upon-Avon (often ones which also broadcast HD screenings from the National Theater in London). The interval feature included next coming summer into fall when four Roman plays have been chosen as HD productions, each dealing with some relevant aspect of our political world today: in this order: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus.

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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The LA and Kennedy Center cast

Dear friends and readers,

I’m told that Ivo Van Hove’s New York City production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which rightly received rave reviews as a production, though not as a play, when it played in New York is not attracting the full house it should at the Kennedy Center. Granted, I was row H on the side (next to a friendly couple who had also bought at the last moment); but all around us were empty seats. So I write to urge everyone who has a chance to see this production (no matter if other actors, at any rate in this case all superb), if it comes near to you. It speaks to our dire situation in the US gov’t today.

It’s not that the play concerns immigrants but its core depiction of Eddie, as a rawly emotional deeply resentful sexually sick white male (Mark Strong in NYC, here Frederick Weller of Center Theater, LA repertoire group) at the center. The story is this: Eddie’s childless wife, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols, Center Theater) has invited two male relatives from a starving place in Sicily, Marco (Alex Escola, Center Theater) and Rodolpho (Dave Register, Russell Tovey did this part in NYC) to sneak illegally into the USA to do hard labor on the waterfront. Eddie is all generosity, offering bedding (a place on the floor of an extra small room), meals, but is more concerned with his niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs) who wants to take a job outside the home. He claims to want her to stick to her studies, but since these are not college, but stenography and typing alone, whose intention is to enable her to take a job, he is on weak ground. She wants to work for money badly, to be independent.

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The London production

A fierce struggle ensues in which she wins but we see with many concessions to his male pride: he is in a continual vigilant posture towards her: why is that skirt so short, why wear high heels. She is continually trying to placate him. Marco is there to get money to send home to a wife and four children, which he duly does, but Rodolpho is unattached, and he and Catherine begin to go out and fall in love. Eddie is incensed, and becomes aggressively hostile at first just to his niece and wife, sowing doubt about the man’s motives and character. He loathes that Rodolpho can sing like rock star, that he can cook, he sews, and begins to say explicitly Rodolpho is there to marry Catherine so he can become a citizen and then desert her “for the big time.” That’s why Rodolpho wants to take Catherine to Broadway, not because the movies there are fun, or plays, or lively street life. He insinuates that Rodolpho is gay, “not right” (he does not use the word pervert but we feel it in the air). He becomes ugly before Rodolpho. Beatrice moves from mild expostulation over his trying to keep Catherine a baby and without a job, to withering insinuations that Eddie is “in love with” his niece. Eddie does not appear to register this until near the end of the play when he gasps out in intense insult that Beatrice thinks he has incestuous (he does not use that word either — having a limited sexual vocabulary) longings.

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New York City

What makes for the two hours of emotional turmoil and anguish is how everyone in the play is so chary of Eddie’s feelings, so respectful of him who by the second is bitterly complaining he is not respected in his home, and making life a misery for them all. A horrible scene occurs where Eddie coming upon Rodolpho and Catherine alone in the house after they have obviously been half-naked physically assaults them both – by first hugging Catherine painfully and kissing her, and then doing the same to Rodolpho. The latter is taken as an ultimate insult; but Eddie jeers that since Rodolpho didn’t throw Eddie off successfully that proves “he is not right.” He will not hear of an engagement; he becomes livid when Catherine wants to leave; when the marriage is set, he will not come and forbids his wife to go out of the house or he will never let her in again (this harks back to before the later 19th century when husbands had a legal right to throw a wife out). We have an intense scene where she begs to be let to go to the wedding and when he will not give permission, tells Catherine after Catherine urges her to come, she will not. Not that she dare not. But she will not disrespect or hurt this man, something Catherine is continually telling him she does not want to do. Also how grateful she is to him as his niece for all the years of fatherly tender affection and care (which he did not owe her). She also half-believes his suspicions about Rodolpho.

The play is framed as a play. It’s done inside a kind of arena on both sides of which are audience members. There is an intermittent narrator-storyteller confiding male who speaks to the audience, the lawyer, Alfieri, whom Eddie comes to consult at intervals. The second form of suspense emerges when half-way through Eddie begins to think he will inform the immigration authorities in order to get the two young men sent back to Sicily. But he goes to Alfieri to consult about more than that: the point of their dialogues is Eddie continually wants Alfieri to do by law what the law refuses to condemn, or even pay any attention to. The law will not act to prevent Rodolpho from marrying Catherine. It will not act to prevent Catherine from leaving his home or make her obey him. The law will not punish Rodolpho for being “not right.” Nor Marco either — for anything but being illegal immigrants. The point these dialogues bring out is how this white male wants things as his right he has no legal right to. I leave it to my reader who will remember the election of a deeply corrupt white male for president whose major constituency was just such people as Eddie (and probably Beatrice too). The lawyer as a role functions very much like (anticipates) Robert Bolt’s The Common Man in his A Man for All Seasons (another play to read and watch this winter of our distress; Michael Gould reminded me of Corin Redgrave.)

Things are brought to an explosion when Eddie does inform the authorities and an official comes to the house to take Marco and Rodolpho to jail. Eddie has needled Marco that if he does not go home soon, he will find his wife has more children than she had when he left. A ridiculous contest over who can lift a chair with one arm from one leg has gone on where Eddie cannot do it, but Marco can. Marco then emerges viscerally as he calls Eddie a “rat” and tells him he is responsible for the starvation of his children. He leaps to murder Eddie. He is prevented and taken to jail. Alfieri plays the reasonable voice: he comes to jail to pay bail and enables Rodolpho to go out and (if he wants) marry Catherine before his hearing comes up; but he will only help Marco is Marco promises not to murder Eddie. Again he must tell Marco that the law will not help him either.

The play starts slowly and the actors say their lines so slowly I thought they were actors playing actors playing New York City 1950s parts, getting the accent right, the gestures, the time. But if this is so, it moves more rapidly and becomes smoulderingly emotional with the actors becoming the people and the pace becoming frantically emotional by the end.

The play is peculiarly significant for this terrifying political moment where we now see how easy it is for the US republic to slide into a dictatorship because at the grief-stricken final moment, the lawyer – however reluctantly, however ruefully — justifies Eddie. Alfieri says he mourns for Eddie, he feels for him, everyone was so right to care. A tableau of Beatrice holding onto Eddie like a Madonna with Christ in her lap with all the characters in intensely held characteristic postures all around her is the play’s final moment. In the language of conventional normalizing cant criticism, even including the dripping condescension of critics towards Death of a Salesman in the earliest productions, Ben Brantley intones that finally “Bridge is an imperfect work, awkward in its aspirations to timeless grandeur. After all, it is framed by the self-conscious recollections of a Brooklyn lawyer, who speaks as ponderously of inexorable fate as any Greek chorus ever did.” But not a word about what is wrong in words meaningful to viewers or readers today.

Lyn Gardner of The Guardian comes closer: “This is not just somebody else’s family tragedy. It speaks directly to us and suggests that there is an Eddie Carbone lurking in all of us, just as there is a vengeful Electra and a blind Oedipus.” Really? in women too? How is Catherine a vengeful Electra? Jordan Riefe of the LATimes gets yet closer: “While as his brother Marco, Esola is a brute at rest for most of the play until finally stirred to action. In the end he becomes Eddie’s match — the roaring embodiment of injured ego masquerading as paternal (or in Marco’s case, fraternal) protection.” There is an acknowledgement that it has not been Marco all play long causing the problem, but none that the ego is white male.

We should not be surprised at the lifting of a veil in another direction. After all, what do some people say the very central concern of Death of a Salesman is? Avoiding the insistent explicit economic message that Willie Loman is being thrown away after a lifetime of hard work, with barely enough to survive on (that social security that Paul Ryan is now exulting he will at long last privatize, hand over to Wall Street and thus destroy), people quote Linda’s pathos: “He was so wonderful with his hands,” the ne’er do well rake son, “He was a happy man with a batch of cement; Biff at least tries: “He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.” But again and again I’ve heard the play summed up as “Attention must be paid,” we are not paying enough respect and attention to this man.

Well we are paying attention now. He is getting back at last. what is remarkable and important about this production is the lawyer’s remarks feel so perverse.

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Mark Strong as Eddie (who also played the torturer in George Clooney’s Syriana, a political recreation of wildly savage Jacobean drama as film) at Lincoln Center fierce with dark rage, lecturing everyone else

See it. Feel it. Then think about it (see my Post-mortem). I read that what happened in a New York City theater when our present gay-hating vice-president elect provocatively came to see Hamilton found himself unsurprisingly lectured and told he is supposed to represent all the diverse peoples of the US. This is a clever distraction on the part of Trump (who does not meet with reporters now, only issues lying distorting demanding tweets) so that the top story is not how he had paid $25 million to squash the suit of the defrauded students who went to his university. He is now making money hand-over-foot in his hotels, and will probably rake in enough in the next weeks to cover that easily.

No, go see and then read this play instead. it made me and some around me tremble.

Ellen

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Shylock (Matthew Boston) about to extract his pound of flesh from Antoine (Craig Wallace)

Dear friends and readers,

Although Izzy and I got to Aaron Posner’s District Merchants, a daring adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice directed by Michael John Garces, at the end of its run, I write a brief review to recommend going to any revivals, or other productions of this new play you might hear of. It’s a triumph made out of indictment, empathy and humor.

Posner has taken up the challenge of a play whose plot-design is anti-semitic, by making the anti-semitism of all the characters but Shylock’s daughter an explicit issue: Shylock self-consciously argues his rage comes out of an alienation forced on him, reinforced by his hurt at how his daughter has been taken from him.

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Shylock’s refusal to allow Jessica to go out among non-Jews estranges her

He is thus given more specific reason for resentment as he believes there was a conspiracy among these characters to remove his daughter from him — as well as take the money he relies on to live. Posner sets the play in the District of Columbia during re-construction (Ulysses S. Grant is president) and re-imagines all characters’ interactions and personalities along analogous lines so as to dramatize equally unjustifiable racism, class snobbery and disdain, and by extension hatred of the other in whatever form cruel emotional violence may take. Antony is now Antoine, a free black and prosperous businessman.

I found myself wishing Posner could have made one of the character a stray Islamic person. I was also puzzled as to why he did not include homosexuality as in fact Shakespeare’s play not so hidden text is the displacement of a semi-betray of Antony’s love by Bassanio so as to get enough money to court and marry the richly endowed Portia. The RSC production of The Merchant last year brought this out. The new play is clearly not bothered anachronistic thought, so why erase the original play’s depiction of thwarted repressed homosexuality?

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A choral moment with Lancelot (Akeen Davis) to the fore

Still, given the recent massacre at Orlando (which included hatred of gays, of latinos, a man who abused his wife and was himself Muslim), it’s a remarkably timely re-write, and part of the strong response the audience gave to the play came out of the whipping up of hatred and fear we’ve seen in present political campaigns in the US and UK. There was even an unintended frisson in the theater when Lancelot become an ex-slave servant of Shylock, after having been asked by Jessica to help her run away from her father and steal his money and jewels (very dangerous for him) asks himself the question, “To leave or not to leave.” Posner could not have foreseen how that would resonate just after Brexit. Ryan Taylor wrote of how heartening such a production feels.

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There is a star-gazing scene where two different levels of time are brought together: Bassanio (Seth Rue) and Portia Maren Bush) at the back, Jessica (Dani Stoller) and Lorenzo (William Vaughan) at the front

I don’t want to give the impression the play was simplistic rhetoric or even crude; except towards the end when Posner seemed not to know how to end his play, and had too many soliloquys of hurt, distress, anger, the experience is not preach-y. Like a number of the appropriations of Jane Austen novels into films set elsewhere and in modern times I’ve seen, he follows closely the outline of Shakespeare’s play where he can, omitting excrescences like the choice of caskets ritual, and developing much further the meeting, courting, and wooing scenes between Jessica and Lorenzo become a southern country boy on the make.

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Jessica and Lorenzo

We see Portia growing up under a kind of tutelage by Nessa (Celeste Jones)

Portia and Nessa

Scenes of funny (and painful) wit when Bassanio overcome by honesty in his love for Portia, tells her he has been passing for white and is half-black. She herself has been training as a lawyer at Harvard (in Boston) by dressing as a man.

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Bassanio proposes to Portia, blurts out the truth about himself, Nessa looking on …

The different characters are given depth by having them as the play unfolds tell us their pasts. Chris Klimek found the whole mix “marvelous” and sobering. Jeannette Quick does justice to the complexity of what’s satirized (for example, lip-service to progressivism) and the way the different levels of memory, story, and interaction veer between “ridiculous hilarity and despondency.”

It makes us rightly criticize Shakespeare’s play. Posner probably means it as a sort of correction. We see Shakespeare’s Shylock from this renewed humane angle, from the world seen from below (except for Portia all identify as potentially and really outcast, powerless, reviled). At the same time I have to admit that after all when Posner does include Shakespeare’s lines, they stand out as having more purchase on why we must renounce insensibility to the sufferings of others, for our own sake show how dangerous is sowing mistrust, wrong and dangerous violence for violence. We must be merciful to expect mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is hurled at the audience. Lines from Shakespeare here and there raise and complicate the play’s perspectives. I especially liked how Antoine refused to accept rescue through a quibble — because he reminded me of Trollope’s Mr Harding who wanted to be morally right and justified. So Shylock could have killed Antoine, but at the last moment, the stage goes dark, and we learn at its close Shylock suddenly turned and walked away.

Quick and Barbara Mackay describe the suggestive symbolic setting (Tony Cisek) : an attempt was made to make us feel a civilization and place under make-shift construction, with columns (one still wrapped), ropes with hooks (suggesting ships). There was a real attempt to give a feel of what DC was like in the later 19th century: mud, much of it empty; that it had been a place where free black people lived before the war. I found the costumes a fun combination of musical-hall stage 1890s, accurate women’s dress and today’s fashions. Lots of music: a banjo, percussion, spirituals. Life has charm, it is good.

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Another proposal scene

Posner has done this kind of adaptation twice before: the “excellent Stupid F—ing Bird (an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull) debuted Woolly Mammoth in 2013); Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous Situation (an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in 2015).

I had not thought until writing this review how appropriate this play was as a choice near Independence Day, July 4th, and will now link in Frederick Douglas’s famous speech: “What to the Slave is the fourth of July,” as read by James Earl Jones.

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Antoine remembers his past too

Ellen

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Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd guarding her side as she allows herself to be taken to hospital

Friends and readers,

There is a great distance between the reviews of this film, the stills you see on the Internet, and the film itself. The film is a wrenching story on several levels set in a weak film; the reviews mostly overpraise saying very little but giving an impression of arch light comedy which we are told is nonetheless weighty but not why.

The story or source are scattered entries in Bennett’s life-writing diary covering 15 years in which Alan Bennett gradually allowed himself to become Margaret or Mary Shepherd’s care-giver, first seeking to get her as street nuisance into his empty driveway and into safety, not protesting when she used his house for whatever she needed (including for a chair to rest), then helping her daily, for example shopping

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to the point where finally the social workers come to him and one complains that she “senses hostility” in him (I laughed wildly at this utterance both times she spoke in this ever-so-patient manner) by way of complaining about his “attitude” or Miss Shepherd’s non-cooperation which include delusions about the Virgin Mary that must be accommodated. This is one-half of the overt central plot-design of an hour and 45 minute film.

The other half, or set of events interwoven are about Bennett’s own mother who we are first shown as in good health, but old and feeling justifiably neglected as he hardly ever comes to visit; she then gradually declines to the point he puts her in a retirement community, then assisted living, and finally into a bed where she seems comatose. He is represented as two Alex Jennings, him as a man living his daily life, and him as a writer observing and writing about himself.

To understand these juxtapositions and doublings you must know about Alan Bennett the real man. Sometime during his boyfriend his mother was put in an asylum because he and his father could not cope with her breakdowns and eventual insanity; his father was deeply depressed over this, and (as I recall) is presented as wanting to kill himself; they were lower middle class and had not much money to improve his mother’s care. Father and son felt destroyed by their decision and yet they could not keep her. In the film Miss Shepherd lives in fear someone will put her in an asylum. What Bennett has done is displace his real mother into softened fictionalized version of her as older mother next to Miss Shepherd to suggest to the viewer (and the writer says this) that he took care of Miss Shepherd to compensate for his lack of care when he was much younger for his real mother.

The backstory of who Miss Shepherd was when young and how she got this way, which is important in the film too, is kept to the margins because the story is about Bennett and this fifteen year experience even though he says near the close forming a first sort of climax that he put together her life over the 15 years and learned that her private life was in some ways more dramatic, theatrical, unusual than his.

The film opens with a concert done as an old film where we see a young woman playing a piano as part of an elegant orchestra. Little incidents, visits, information about a sister and brother-in-law combine to unfold a life of aspiration, gifts for music recognized, early achievement, which was mysteriously brought to an end when she entered a convent as a poor religious Catholic girl. The nuns disciplined her cruelly, would slam the piano cover on her hand when they caught her playing, dressed her poorly. We are never sure how she escaped them but it was too late for a career or marriage.

A woman alone with no career or husband or money does not do well. So we are left to imagine a Cathy Come Home story where there was no home, but a crook of some sort she now has to pay to stay away. I became uncontrollably distressed when a single flashback showed us that the opening of the film was her driving from a crime scene where she had run into a young man on a bike and killed him. Thus her hiding out and fear of police. We see her from time to time praying intensely in improbable places. At the shock of the crash and the spattering of blood, broken glass, I cried out and twisted in my seat such that the friend I was with worried for a moment.

It was not until then that I realized I found Smith’s performance as a homeless friendless ancient tenacious woman who makes a home for herself and the accumulated relics, remnants, junk and trash of her existence in a van pitch perfect enough to distress me deeply somewhere in myself. I went home needing a glass of wine immediately. She was by turns frightened (of a police car when we first see her) so driving at a frantic rate; ridiculous and dignified; stalwartly actually taking herself on a vacation to the beach at Broadstairs and drinking lights drinks as she looks out at the water and sky; and pitifully stinking, weak, in need of a toilet, utterly vulnerable (to an ex-crony played by Jim Broadbent who harasses her periodically, shaking her van, demanding money); and most memorably, indomitable because she held on tight to her pride:

Maggie Smith finds every laugh and every tear in The Lady in the Van. </e

As I tell this it becomes stronger than it feels in the film. The most melodramatic moment occurs when a nun slams down the piano and another scolds her, and we see her fleeing through empty rooms in a convent. The rest is snippets of talk, a fleeting image her, a comment there. Admirably there is nothing over-melodramatic, no juiced-up climaxes, but inevitably (as in life) in the main story repetition as the two participants never budge from their initial positions, she not owing him anything and he not taking responsibility for her. Real and something many of us may experience from some angle in some form, material presented in this displaced way does not make for a riveting naturalistic film experience.

A friend suggested to me Bennett was too close to his material this time. We are not allowed to see or experience what is going on inside Bennett — the way we do his protagonists in Talking Heads. I know his most successful works are ironic comedy with surrogates for himself that are not recognizable. There is an allusion to these six monologue plays because in the film he is during one year of the fifteen seen playing the one closest to himself in a nearby theater. We glimpse male friends and associates now and again (Dominic Cooper plays one), and passing remarks that he hides his life from others, but we must know he is homosexual to understand this too. The present time story is punctuated by incidents where we see his neighbors reacting to Miss Shepherd, or him, or both of them. The neighbors are played by highly respected actors and actresses who seem to be friends and associated with Bennett from other plays or films, for example, Frances de la Tour as Vaugh Williams’s widow

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On the Internet where I found these oddly discordant reviews, Smith is most often pictured in stills with Alex Jennings as Bennett, looking comic, arch, as if she’s having a just this great fun time pushed by Bennett in a wheelchair

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but more true to the continuous quiet temperature of the film are the few of her encounters with neighbors, made up of ever so kind and tolerant but essentially indifferent people who provide no help:

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Deborah Findley and Roger Allam as a married couple off to the opera.

The best reviews here and there remark on undercurrents of the film: it is a strange poignant duet of prickly unhappiness and wry humor. Most seem to overpraise except if you read carefully. The Telegraph seems to feel it stands for the best Englishness (and is just hilarious) Ebert’s column says it’s for anyone who adores Maggie Smith. A number of the more popular type (on Rotten Tomatoes) attempt critiques, it’s a Disney-like homelessness, or dull, one person talks earnestly, meaning well, taking psychological language seriously (“a misunderstood woman suffering from PTSD”), others like NPR typically take it lightly.

But it isn’t light. Look at her! Notice the fierce look in her eyes. She’s holding on to life with great difficulty. Look at how she has to dress to keep herself minimally comfortable and self-respecting. I’ve seen lots of “crazy ladies” in NYC like her. Some men too.

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At the end before Miss Shepherd is taken away to hospital because she has become so very sick, the social workers feel they must take her in to do “blood work.” She looks much better when washed, dressed in a clean starched dress, her hair brushed and put into a ponytail. She eats quietly at a table. She does not die there but returns to the van. Bennett permits himself several untrue sentimental moments (one of the Alexes tells us this) and the night before she dies, she holds out her hand to him, he takes it and they squeeze. The next morning she is found dead. There is a funeral, a burial, a historical plaque like those of famous authors to show the Lady in the Van lived here 1974-1989.

But that doesn’t end it. We get one of these extraordinary post-life scenes where Miss Shepherd suddenly appears and tells Bennett she has met the young man she killed and we see them walking off together. And then we see her in an absurd translation taken into heaven with a God in sky — like the Virgin Mary she has mentioned many times in the film. It didn’t work for me as satire. But much of Bennett’s work is about religious belief and how religion is perverted, misused (I hope my reader has seen Bed Among Lentils) — and in Miss Shepherd’s life it was that.

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In the film Miss Shepherd gets a new van more than once and paints it yellow-orange; Bennett as writer using a voice-over tells us Miss Shepherd was happiest when absorbed painting her latest van

Ellen

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