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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category


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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thecrown
The ultimate symbol of power

You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain — Richmond, Henry Tudor, RIII

Dear friends and readers,

This week I’ve been watching the BBC versions of the second season (2016) of The Hollow Crown. Three plays (Henry VI, 1-3) at one time, or for a couple of hundred years thought such juvenilia that Shakespeare did not write much of them, seen as incoherent undoable (on the stage) obscure messes, were made to speak home to us in thrilling relevant ways. A fourth (Richard III) once seen as a vehicle for almost camp histrionics, becomes a serious study of how an evil character forms and how such a man gets behind him sufficient powerful people to put him in charge and in the process becomes a haunted crazed warrior-soul. I won’t be dealing with the obvious parallels between the present dire moment in public US politics (and less frightening but still urgent parallels in other countries), but just assume my reader will see them. If you will watch these brilliant abridgments, then read Shakespeare himself (the full texts), and then watch again. If you think I am exaggerating, remember (or I need to tell you) that the wildly-popular Games of Thrones began as a free semi-fantasy adaptation of these Shakespeare’s plays by George Martin (who read them as history of “the wars of the Roses in the Middle Ages”).

A little background in recent performances will help. One scholar-critic says it was in 1953 that the four plays of the Wars of the Roses were staged fully and in sequence for the first time (Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder”); another dates this back to 1906 (Swander, “The Rediscovery of Henry VI“). Then in 1978-79 Terry Hands staged the Henry VI trilogy (“warts and all”) and the production was a terrific success. Then the 1980s the BBC staged all four plays as closely as possible to what was written by Shakespeare as part of The Shakespeare Collection. I can vouch personally that in the 1970s Joseph Papp in the Delacorte Theater one summer did all three Henry VI plays complete followed by a complete Richard III in repertoire across the summer; on an all-night marathon all four played from 9 at night to whatever time in the morning they ended. Jim and I were there, and I know I slept through some of Henry VI Part 2 and again part of Henry VI Part 3, but saw most of the series, covered by a blanket. Why for so long were these plays not long after Shakespeare’s era thought impossible to have a success with: episodic structure, pageantry, stilted lines (let’s admit it), to say nothing of the foreignness of the story-matter?

fatherandsonamidcarnage
A father and son pair amid the carnage

But with the whirligig of time leading audiences to recognize in the deeply pessimistic content and political insight of these stories, the content attracted once again. The Tudor matter is not a barrier after it has been made so familiar by her recent resurgence of popular historical films and adaptations (especially of Henry VIII’s court). So abridgments began to emerge. A specific pattern can be seen in three compressions: a film-culture Shakespearean, Alan Dessin (Rescripting Shakespeare), was the most helpful in enabling me to understand what we see in this abridgment in his descriptions of three previous condensed abridgments: 1988 ESC by Michael Bogdanov, 1988-89 RSC by Adrian Noble, and 1991-3 OSC by Pat Patton (“Chapter 7: “Compressing Henry VI“). What’s common to them all is the three parts of Henry VI are compressed into two, with Richard III following the same trajectory as Shakespeare’s play, but made shorter, to leave room for location shots, some re-arrangements and additions taken over from the previous plays for connection (in the appearances of Margaret for example) and satisfying climax. It’s much less changed than the Henry VI plays, which may be said to be re-vamped for TV and location shooting too. That’s what we see in this new Hollow Crown, with a few important new emphases or differences. As with the first season (2012) of The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, a Henriad so-called), the roles of the women were not so much expanded as given full play, all the original nuances, emphases and pivotal moments played up for all they are worth. Strong women everywhere. Silent women clearly there in the scenes (Doll Tearsheet in the Henry IV plays) given plenty of pantomime. This may be history as Jane Austen suggested “the men all good for nothing,” but it’s not “hardly any women at all.”

lindsayduncan
From the powerful memorable performance of Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York pleading for her ne’er-do-well son’s life before the king: she does not sue to stand; she sues for pardon (from the 2012 Hollow Crown series, Richard II)

More to the point these are not “tiresome at all,” nor dull” (Austen as Catherine Morland on history, Northanger Abbey) and not exactly “made-up.” I am persuaded these marvelous Shakespeare series are the old-style BBC mini-series, brilliantly updated marvelously: they keep some of the sterling qualities of the old: lingering pace for inwardness, profound acting, extraordinary dramaturgical brilliance in staging scenes, but to this has been added the way the actors speak the lines. They talk the lines as if they were speaking today’s English and yet they make clear what they are saying by action, gesture, costume, emphasis, nuance. Ben Power, the script-writer has cut astutely, omitting, re-arranging, picking up what epitomizes, what is closest to street or ordinary talk. It’s just astonishing what they achieve by the outstanding performances, saying the speeches so naturally.

gardenscene
Far shot of garden scene: where the two sides of York and Lancaster pluck the red and white rose

To this has been added, the use of the locations – the locations become actors in effect themselves, each old castle, fortress, field; these are not staged plays as in the 1970s and 80s, but figures in large picture screens where sometimes we have a staged scene but never allowed to become wholly still. The director Dominic Cooke is so alive to how to emblematize, make bodies move, and intersect with one another and yet the added action does not distract. The camera work is as sophisticated as any expensive cinema production, with zoom, medium, far shots at the right moment, and so many close-ups done at interesting angles. I wanted to watch again and again because there was so much to see — and even more in the more mature first Henriad series (which I’ll blog about this quartet eventually too).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Principal male roles: beyond Gloucester, Talbot (Philip Glenister, Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar), Warwick (Stanley Townsend)

What else? This second series of Hollow Crown (though Shakespeare’s first) is done as a single story. All three plays (originally four) are one continuation. The abridged or compressed Henry VI Part 1 opens with death of Henry V, grief, and declaring a baby king, and then we see an intertitle to 17 years later and a scene where Mortimer, father (Michael Gambon) of the Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Adrian Dunbar), is dying; Mortimer tells his son, he is the rightful heir. What happened was years ago Bolingbroke wrongly took the throne from Richard II, and Mortimer and his sons were next in line. The camera cuts to Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) a well-meaning boy, with the Humphry, Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) nearby as his protector. We then move to the symbolic scene in rose garden where the Duke of York and his followers on one side, declare the House of York should have the throne, with the Duke of Somerset Ben Miles) and his followers on the other saying they or the House of Lancaster should have inherited after Richard II. Each plucks a rose: white for York, red for Lancaster.

**VIDEO GRABS FROM BBC PREVIEW SITE FOR MOS PICTURE DESK** THE HOLLOW CROWN, BBC SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION. Hugh Bonneville, playing the Duke of Gloucester, gets murdered while a couple make love during the same segment of the programme. The lovers are Sophie Okonedo playing Margaret and actor Ben Miles
Promotional shot of Hugh Bonneville, as Gloucester, fleeing those intent in putting him in the tower while the couple who brought this about, Sophie Okonedo as Margaret and Ben Miles as Somerset, make love

Looked at from this vantage what we trace is the destruction of the realm under a weak if honorable king, and story of the brutal wars of the roses, starting with York and Somerset’s competition for what Henry VI and Gloucester are not strong enough to hold onto. The compressed Henry VI Part 2 ends with Henry VI, disthroned, without followers, without clothes, distressed, in a kind of nervous breakdown, having lost all his followers and his wife (and relieved to have done so), wandering in the fields looking Christ-like in undergarments (and surely they mean to evoke Ben Whisloaw who played Richard II in Henriad series of the Hollow Crown) as he is dressed closely similarly; both are filmed to look Christ-like. Both are taken to prison, both murdered: Henry VI by the Duke of York’s deformed hunchback seething son, Richard, now Duke of Gloucester (Benedict Cumberbatch just as effective as everyone says) who is (“sudden when he takes something into his head”) rides to the tower intent on killing.

A little rewind: Shakespeare wrote the Henriad, the one the BBC did four years ago first, even though chronologically the Henriad comes second. Henry VI-Richard III were written 1590-93 and more or less in a row, while Richard II, Henry IV 1-2 and Henry V were written 1595, 1597, and 1599 respectively The Henriad is the more mature, and in numerous ways the more subtle, psychologically full and philosophically suggestive and varied but its story came first. Today we’d say Shakespeare wrote a four play prequel to his successful four play trilogy. But the second four plays were written as two or three stories: the story of Richard II is so separate in feel and time from the stories of Henry IV and V, a different man played Bolingbroke who became Henry IV (Roy Kinnear in Richard II; Jeremy Irons in Henry IV). The Henriad’s hero in Richard II never comes back in the other three plays. All the important characters in Henry VI Part 1 come back in Parts 2 and 3 and Richard III (even the murdered ones as ghosts).

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Henry VI (TOM STURRIDGE), Margaret (SOPHIE OKONEDO) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky
Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) and Margaret (Sophie Okonedo) meet

So in this trilogy there are two major characters across all the plays: Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (played by the terrifically effective Sophie Okonedo). Henry VI dies before the third play, Richard III begins, but his absence allows one of the Duke of York’s sons, the eldest, Edward (Geoffrey Streatfield) to take the crown. The conflict across the plays is between Henry VI and the Duke of York for the crown, with a sub-conflict between the Duke of York and Duke of Somerset. When Margaret murders after torturing and humiliating the Duke of York) towards the end of Henry VI Part 2, his place is taken by his three sons, the other two being Clarence (Sam Troughton) and Richard of Gloucester who becomes Richard III in the course of that third play. This is part of Shakespeare’s over-arching 4 plasy but the clarity with which we can see it is not.

Further clear patterns emerge from the abridgment: We see over-arching story has smaller stories within it. In Henry VI Part 1 we have the action-adventure or war tragedy of the destruction in battle of warrior-hero, Talbot (Philip Glenister) and his son played against the tragedy (and it is played that way in this rendition) of the deluded or visionary (take your choice) Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), who first wins for Philip of France, then captured, is imprisoned, tortured and burnt at the stake. That’s the first 3/4s of Henry VI Part One. The last quarter, deeply movingly we have the downfall of the noble, innocent Humphry of Gloucester brought partly about by the ambition and crazed delusions-madness of his wife, the Duchess Eleanor (Sally Hawkins) touchingly called by him Nell. Henry VI ends with Nell taken away in chains, and Gloucester’s hacked-to-death murder in the tower. In Shakespeare’s original the murder of Gloucester comes somewhere in Henry VI Part Two.

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Keeley Hawes as the Widow Grey take with Geoffrey Streatfield as Edward, Duke of York, soon to be king

The new or compressed Henry VI Part 2 gives us the anguished romantic love of Margaret for the treacherous Somerset and his destruction in battle in the opening sequence; the quick romance of the proud widow Grey (Keely Hawes) more or less bullied by Edward into marriage near the end of the second third; and in the last Margaret taking the role of the helpless Henry VI as the lead of Henry VI’s forces against the sons of York, and her heartbreak when her son, Edward, is dismembered and killed before her very eyes by the York brothers. Shakespeare’s Richard III had the clearest original line: it is the story of how a tyrant personality takes power: inside though a smaller arc is the erotic bullying of Anne (wife of Edward) by Richard of Gloucester into a sadistic marriage in Richard III, and this is given more play by silent scenes of Anne, montages. We see Warwick change sides because Edward married beneath him, an Englishwoman, and did not let this uncle engineer an alliance with the French king’s daughter; we see the brothers’ rivalry played out, the downfall of Buckingham (captured fighting against Richard and instantly butchered).

The clarity of the patterns in the Henry VI plays especially are the product of the abridgment. They are not clearly laid out in Shakespeare’s plays, which include other stories: Jack Cade’s rebellion comes to mind. Richard III is linked in firmly to Henry VI by the use of flashbacks.

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Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan of Arc calling for battle above ramparts

Some particulars I really admired and then I’ll have done. In this new Henry VI Part One I was especially moved by the performance of Bonneville as Humphrey; the build-up of his fatherly relationship with Henry VI, Sturridge’s ability to convey what seems a disabled personality, a weakness beyond the character being a good man who is non-violent, not manipulative, so pathetically out of his depths with these people, led by his adulterous corrupt wife, Margaret to listen to evil advisers. Power arranged the script so that Dame Eleanor’s playing around with magical effigies (putting pins in dolls looking like the king) became a salient accusation in the onslaught against him. Sally Hawkins does the distraught and disturbed personality as she did Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Miles as Somerset gave off a depth of memorable sensuality; Dunbar as the Plantangenet tenaciously re-directed again and again to want to take the throne. The death of the Talbot becomes another instance of how the ambitious destroy the good (he is not given enough funds for his army by either Somerset or York (we see Somerset being massaged refusing the money). Sophie Okenedo is extraordinarily mobile from one extreme emotion to another. Finally, the way Joan of Arc is played we pity her: she does not look to any gods but faces a mirror as she begs for her life — which is startling allowed by Shakespeare’s words.

I concede Henry VI Part Two is a little in danger of being mistaken for Full Metal Jacket at times. Maybe in Shakespeare’s original with the extra stories the space of the play would not be taken up by so much brutal violence. At the same time, what made the play work (each part can be seen as an individual playlet in the way BBC mini-series usually are) is how Shakespeare here is streamlined to give coherent shape and trajectory. Power and Cooke organized the 2 hours around battles. In the first hour or half of the unit we have a series of battles where first York and Somerset’s men are at one another until these two are beheaded, Somerset is casually crushed to death, then beheaded; York by contrast killed deliberately viciously. Then in the second hour a second series of brutal encounters where York’s sons, Edward and Richard, with Clarence at first having switched sides to Henry VI and Warwick, having returned to his brothers, fighting the forces nominally around Henry VI, actually Margaret (again Odenoko terrific), Warwick, and the few older men left loyal from Henry V, Exeter (Anton Lesser) for example. (This hanger-on from a previous reign reminded me of Bush senior’s most evil men, say Cheney, having a central place in Bush, the son’s administration and today still making phone calls on behalf of Trump to pressure congressional Republicans protesting against the the head of Exxon at the head of the state department).

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Kyle Soller as Clifford

Between these two series of battles, or threaded through them are the sudden alliances, treacheries, confrontations which emblematically bring out themes. Shakespeare’s original plays and this abridgment too works by repetition and emblem: the excruciating deaths of father and son, the son dying in spite of the father’s protest, the father in effect betraying the son by having taught him to murder and seek hateful revenge. This begins in Henry VI Part 1 with the deaths of Talbot and his son together, and now in Part Two we have at least four such scenes, two close together. The one which carries across the play is that of Clifford (Kyle Soller, outstanding presence here) seeking violent revenge for his father’s death. This is Shakespeare’s anti-war allegory. War as a value destroys men who love one another; they behave in utterly counterproductive ways. The depiction of Henry V and VI does not fit this trajectory but across the Henry IV plays (1 and 2) Northumberlands treachery against Henry IV extends to manipulating his son, Hotspur, and then managing to keep from his son that Henry IV offers a truce, so that Hotspur is led to his senseless death. Hotspur might have chosen the course of action anyway as war as a way of life is what he was taught, but actual cause is a father’s betrayal and lies. The theme is developed at length and maturely in this later double play. One might say the relationship of Bolingboke as Henry IV with his recreant son, Hal (Tom Hiddleston) is a father-son comeuppance for Bolingbroke, and Hal’s choice of Henry IV as his father rather than Falstaff (treacherous and cowardly as he is, selfish, without any sense of responsibility or care for others) feels to be a tragic loss of companionship, a lesson in necessary betrayal.

One can regard as threaded in between the two sets of battles also when the Widow Grey is brought before Edward to ask that her property be returned to her son, before you know it Edward is wooing and offering to marry her when she refuses to be his whore while a delegation unknown to him is making up a French marriage, which delegation, including Warwick regards this conduct as betrayal, shameful and they move back to Henry VI’s side of the board. And so the battles begin again. Gradually too York’s youngest son, Richard emerges, Cumberbatch just electrifying as Okonedo as Margaret, steals the show each time he is on the screen. Henry VI Part 2 ends with a shot of Margaret in a dungeon in the tower, a chain around her neck, jerking madly at it, screaming I a queen, I am a queen.

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Judi Dench as the aged Duchess of York: the tragedies of this world imprinted on her face

I can’t do justice in the paragraph or so left to a few particulars of Richard III. I’ve known before through reading all the plays (yes I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and some of them a number of times, taught four: Richard II, Hamlet, Othello and The Winter’s Tale), and seen so many so many times that the great jump in ability, capacity, genius, Shakespeare makes is suddenly to throw into a full consciousness of a single man and make us stay there. He had not come near this before. It’s worth noticing fully that the consciousness he first chose was not a good man or highly intelligent thoughtful type, say Humphry of Gloucester (who is still only seen within for a couple of albeit long speeches, or Hamlet. No. A forerunner of Macbeth. It is the peculiar take in this one that all the lines that can be played up as showing deep psychological distress and disturbance and insane resentment and revenge (how hateful is revenge says Mozart in his opera play of Idomeneo) are drawn out, emphasized by the body Cumberbatch has had built around him. We can’t sympathize with this disabled unloved creature because he is so sneering, disdainful, cruel, lying in all his ways, but the lines are there. He feels a twisted remorse – or Cumberbatch makes us feel that fuelling his nonetheless attack-mode thoughts and actions. When he meets Judi Dench as his mother, the Duchess of York now grown old (Lucy Robinson plays the role in Henry VI Part 1) he does convey he is hurt she never loved him as she conveys that upon looking at his deformed body she was disgusted.

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Close-up of Cumberbatch as Richard

The action takes us through the steps by which this Richard rises to power, wins people over to him one by one (out of greed, sometimes fear) and then alienates them, one by one. Most of them he manages to murder, but not all. (Therein lies our hope, those of us who are making analogies with Trump’s rise today that not all are murdered and slowly a group emerges who find their vital interests so threatened they raise an army around Henry Tudor.) The father-son theme is brought back. At the end Stanley terrified that the son he had been forced to leave behind in order to do the right thing, flee Richard of Gloucester and enlist Richmond, Henry Tudor, this son is seen walking over the hill. A great moment of hope and joy as they hug.

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Cumberbatch as the warrior Richard

At the end when the army which has gathered round Henry Tudor marching forth against the army Richard III can still amass, we have yet another of these ferocious brutal set-too between men hauling axes, clubs, broadswords, dirks (is that the term), and not far away others shooting dead arrows, the blood and guts and horror of the scene is obscured by rain and mud. It comes down to someone unseating Richard from his powerful horse (and we are made to feel how important being high up on a horse is) lands him in the mud. (In the Making of the Hollow Crown the filming of this part was discussed as very hard on the actors.) As they battle it out, and Henry Tudor wins, partly because Richard III is exhausted after his nights of harassment from ghosts and his own tormented mind, Henry Tudor downs him –- with help from Margaret who is suddenly there with a small mirror which shines a light blinding Richard’s eyes for the important few seconds. “My horse my horse a kingdom for a horse” is shouted coarsely and hoarsely, not as irony (Laurence Oliver’s take) but as a man in desperate need of a horse. Tudor comes from the back and hacks, and when the man lies prostrate, pushes a sword through his body, and blood squirts all over the mud and rain. The declaration is then: the tyrant is dead. Now we can all sleep in peace. (Well we here in the US and perhaps across the world can no longer sleep in peace. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose sleep has been ruined by hideously poisoned tweets.)

The film does not actually end on him, and there is a penultimate beautiful coronation ceremony where once again this iconic cleaned up hero is married to an iconic blonde, this time her grim mother (Keeley Hawes) standing to the side.
And then the final scene: the mad Margaret, impoverished, filthy, crazed, lookin down at the grave in which all the bodies are being thrown.

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Margaret among the hundreds of dead — final closing stills of Hollow Crown

I felt astonishing how dark Shakespeare is at the very outset of his career. This quartet made into a trilogy are his first known plays. People so rarely today (they used to in the later 19th century when biographical criticism of Shakespeare was common) talk of his relationship to his plays: but here he is at the beginning of his career emphasizing the tragedy of sensitive good people (he develops Hamlet out of that), and the attack on the ambitious, power-hungry as deeply untrustworthy (Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra say) stays throughout the career.

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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Anthony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester

The worst returns us to laughter — Edgar, a moment where the production’s clear speaking made a line shine through which is relevant to what is happening center stage in US newspapers on Trump’s “team” today

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I was privileged to watch an HD screening of a production of King Lear from Stratford-upon-Avon at the Folger Shakespeare library. It’s the fifth HD-screening of a Shakespeare play for me, and I take the occasion to praise the Folger for this program and hope aloud to others the library continues to to participate in these screenings. Each one of the five has provided me and those in the audience with a renewed contemporary dramatic realization of Shakespeare: particularly alive and deeply instructive have been the Love Labor’s Lost and Merchant of Venice. I did learn that Lily James is a great actress from Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet (“a few good experiences” — scroll down, just a bit). I still lament I had to miss Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale with Judy Dench as Paulina. The Folger itself on average is staging at most two plays by Shakespeare a year (the others are often modern adaptations of Shakespeare or some other supposedly related contemporary play). So by screening say three productions from the UK Shakespeare himself is kept before us.

It’s an occasion because Gregory Doran’s Lear (he was the director) is getting more attention than many RSC productions. These occur regularly and why this one is singled out I don’t know. One review from TLS will do, partly because Abell does not say much about the production except that it has to cope with the bombast of the play. There was magnificence in the way the play’s hieratic and crazed excruciating lunatic scenes were done, the scenes as a whole as living emblems before us, a dignity was maintained even in the most intimate moments

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Sher with Graham Turner as the fool

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Natalie Simpson as Cordelia and Anthony Byrne as Kent leading Lear away after she and he have made up

But the experience was not as deeply moving for me in the way it has been before. I usually weep, occasionally almost uncontrollably, and and didn’t at all this time. They were too controlled, too aware of themselves as enacting the super-respected Tragedy. The actors all seemed so delighted to have been given their part.

A case in point was the opening scene: it is hieratic, and let us tell truths (dismiss adulation even for Shakespeare), and admit the scene resembles the static and wooden hieratic scenes in other of Shakespeare’s dramas, e.g., Merchant of Venice (the casket), the one in Pericles (where the suitor is in danger of his life).

Two reviews of an Old Vic production with an 80 year old Glenda Jackson making another astonishingly effective performance (recalling her first appearances as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade so many years ago) as Lear suggest the route taken there was quite different: a Samuel Beckett stripped down modernity (Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB; Matt Wolf in the NYTimes; Susannah Clapp in The Guardian).

The problem (as I see it) might be a lack of courage (or originality of interpretation), a fear of the audience, a reverence for the place they were playing in, too much self- and audience regard.

Shakespeare means to show us the mean pathologies of family life taken to a frightening ferocity, with each “child” a step along that road. Simpson is even worse: she hardly breaks her serenity across the play. Simpson played Cordelia so blandly: if she is not given some anger or resentment in the opening scene (as she was not), there is no psychological sense to what has happened. I’ve seen this reluctance before. The conventional Cordelia never not loves the old man. Then why did she refuse him at the opening?

I felt Turner was going through the motions of the fool’s speeches, not meaning them, careful lest we not get all the words. The wicked sisters were wholly unoriginal. Most of all there was nothing abandoned about Oliver Johnstone as the broken, abandoned, utterly distrusted betrayed child in Edgar; he was too studied.

edgar

The director and costumer reinforced the play’s artificiality as a kind of compensation, a guarded wall of costume.

Some intriguing moments: It was interesting to see Edmund so underplayed, understated by Paapa Essieddu, almost semi-comic, but it didn’t fit in at all. Nia Gwynne as Goneril needed to be in another melodramatically emotional production: she was effective, but, except for a moment where Lear seems to hug her so tightly he is trying to destroy her uterus or chest, she had no match anywhere. It’s a testament to the vivid thereness of a long career that Sher managed to give Lear a feel of a real individual looking out of his eyes. The best moments were where he was permitted to react naturally in an intimate or direct way to another presence on stage (with Gloucester, with Goneril).

leargoneril

Very effective Shakespeare’s drive down to utter degradation, misery, writhing madness in the scenes on the heath and in the hovel — not so much the individual (which is all I have promotional photos of) but the scene as a whole, the larger stage conceptions. I felt also that the age of the two men, aging itself, its vulnerability, its needs were central to what was moving in the experience of this production. But then I am old myself and identified as an aging parent. I would have loved to be able to see Glenda Jackson as Lear (photo from NYRB):

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Shakespeare often carries himself in less alive or good productions, and that happened here too. Who can deny the horror of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. You just need to do it feelingly. The long passage spoken by Edgar recreating a frightening height when well-spoken is evocative poetry. About a quarter of the Folger audience missed these scenes because they occurred after the intermission. It is a curious phenomenon how audiences seek to or just automatically respond to something immediately contemporary. So the least reference to corrupt politicians or anything that smacked of moronic or mindless hypocrisy got a laugh. The play’s real themes about say the importance of one’s status and respect of others, as in the famous bellowing of Lear over the putting of Kent into the stocks seemed to fall on blankness.

kent

As a lover of Shakespeare I enjoyed the production almost as a dramatic reading. Only once in all the 45 years or so I have been going to Shakespeare plays (I began at age 17 when I went to the Papp productions for free in Central Park, NYC) have I left a production. So, I encourage all who read this to go and have written this to bring out into the discussably open the danger that these “screening around the world” productions do not succumb to self-censorship or the self-puffery of praise they will get automatically from some reviewers.

A feature for the intermission of the HD-screening was about the super-expensive gilded costume made for Goneril in the opening scene. Much money was doubtless spent. You can glimpse the dress in this enlarged photo:

antony-sher-as-king-lear-nia-gwynne-as-goneril-natalie-simpson-as-cordelia-and-kelly-williams-as-regan
Other wonderful photos of on the RSC site.

I am worried by the (in effect) advertisement for the coming HD-screened production of The Tempest with the great actor Simone Russell Beale as Prospero when we were shown the technological marvel of the blue mask that will be part of his costume. For this reason I have written this critical blog.

Ellen

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Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Memories of the Villa d’Avray, 1872

When in some River, overhung with Green,
The waving Moon and trembling leaves are seen — Anne Finch (1661-1720), A Nocturnal Reverie

In the clear azure Glean the Flocks are seen,
and floating Forest paint the Waves with Green — Alexander Pope (1689-1744), Windsor Forest

Dear friends and readers,

A sudden anthology. Read and look at what takes your fancy.

Tonight I read a difficult paper on Samuel Johnson’s poetry: the author’s central perspective was there are meanings within meanings, as no character remains the same once adapted and translated and filmed, so there are links everywhere, infinite regress into intertextualities. I was led to remember how deeply great learned poetry can make one feel if you follow it within, ever circling, remembering, each time unearthing yet another couple of lines suggestively remembered in the “top” or surface line. Translation provides this pleasure from a single passage. And each new variation adds another perspective, image, thought, feeling, oasis or terror. Good poetry from all eras works this way (good poetry is learned, knowing what came before, projecting what is to come); what differentiates the classical variety is the austerity of the surface and use of formal verse, be it through rhyme and regularly prosody, stanzas, or imitations of Milton, strong blank verse (what a funny name for it).

Halloween might be considered one of those seasonal ritual holidays where a change of seasons, this time from long days of light to long nights of darkness, is signaled. I went looking for allusive poems that might capture such a transition. I am reluctant to try my readers’ patience so quote only a selection from one longer but otherwise brief lyrics: Leopardi might have made the point much better but he (like Radcliffe) is at his best at length, but I do end on his and two other poet’s shorter poems to a thrush, a line from Jane Austen, a still from a film adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

This from Anne Radcliffe (1764-1823) Song of the Evening Hour:

Last of the Hours, that track the fading Day,
I move along the realms of twilight air,
And hear, remote, the choral song decay
Of sister-nymphs, who dance around my car.

Then, as I follow through the azure void,
His partial splendour from my straining eye
Sinks in the depths of space; my only guide
His faint ray dawning on the farthest sky …

When fades along the west the Sun’s last beam
As, weary, to the nether world he goes,
And mountain-summits catch the purple gleam,
And slumb’ring ocean faint and fainter glows …

Where’er I move, a tranquil pleasure reigns;
O’er all the scene the dusky tints I send,
That forests wild and mountains, stretching plains
And peopled towns, in soft confusion blend.

Wide o’er the world I waft the fresh’ning wind,
Low breathing through the woods and twilight vale,
In whispers soft, that woo the pensive mind
Of him who loves my lonely steps to hail …

The wood-nymphs hail my airs and temper’d shade,
With ditties soft and lightly sportive dance,
On river margin of some bow’ry glade,
And strew their fresh buds as my steps advance.—

But swift I pass, and distant regions trace,
For moon-beams silver all the eastern cloud,
And Day’s last crimson vestige fades apace;
Down the steep west I fly from Midnight’s shroud.”

— From her Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794

While at a small conference of fellow 18th century scholars, I heard a paper I mean to discuss elsewhere where (among others things) it was suggested that Radcliffe found peace in darkness, here we find her in that transition time, absorbed in twilight, a lover of autumn.

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George Bellows (1882-1925), Moonlight Skating (Central Park?)

This is the whole of Samuel Johnson (1709-84) “Translation of Roy’s Verses on Skaters”: for winter:

1
O’er Ice the rapid Skaiter flies,
    With Sport above and Death below;
Where Mischief lurks in gay Disguise,
    Thus lightly touch and quickly go.

2
O’er crackling ice, o’er gulphs profond,
    With nimble glide the skaiters play;
O’er treacherous pleasure’s flow’ry ground
    Thus lightly skim, and haste away.

— from The Complete Poems, e. J.d. Fleeman (this was copied out by Hester Thrale alongside the French original, 1782)

And two translations from a poet-translator, Allen Mandelbaum (1926-2011), I was privileged to have had a teacher in graduate school

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Tina Blau (1845-1916, an Austrian artist), A Canal in Holland

For spring from Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970), Selected Poems, translator Mandelbaum:

Quiete

L’uva è maturea, il campo arato,
Si stacca il monte dalla nuvole.
Sui polversosi specchi dell’estate
Caduta è l’ombra.

Tra ledita incerte
Il loro lume è chiaro.
E lontano.
Colle rondini fugge
L’ultimo strazio

From which I love: Quiet

The mountain leaves the clouds.

The shadow falls upon the dusty
Mirrors of summer.
Between uncertain fingers
Their glistening is bright
And distant.

With the swallows flees
The final agony.

The briefest from A Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-68)who won the Nobel Prize in 1959, though who remembers?), translator Mandelbaum

Untitled

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da unraggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

Each alone on the heart of the earth,
impaled upon a ray of sun:
and suddenly it’s evening.

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Paul Sandby (1731-1809), Windsor Terrace, Evening

I know I have not situated and re-situated. Another name for this is intertextuality, which the reader can perform, not the poet.

From Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), The Solitary Thrush, the translator, Eamon Grennan:

Perched on top of that old tower,
You sing as long as daylight lasts,
The sweet sound of you winding
Round and round the valley.
Spring shimmers
In the air, comes with a green rush
Through the open fields, is a sight
To soften any heart. You can hear
Sheep bleating, bellowing cattle,
While the other birds swoop and wheel
Cheerily round the wide blue sky,
Having the time of their lives together.
Like an outsider, lost in thought,
You are looking on at it all:
Neither companions nor wild flights
Fire your heart; games like these
Mean nothing to you. You sing,
And in singing spend the best
Part of your life and the passing year.

Ah, how these habits of mine
Are just like yours! Whatever the reason …
This day already dwindling into dusk
Is a feast in these parts. You can hear
The bells ring round a clear sky
And a far-off thunder of guns …
I walk out all by myself,
Putting off pleasure, postponing play:
And gazing about at the radiant air
I’m struck by how the sinking sun
After a day as perfect as this one
Melts among the distant hills,
And seems to say
That blessed youth itself is fading.

Solitary little singer, when you
Reach the evening of those days
Which the stars have numbered for you,
You’ll not grieve, surely,
For the life you’ve led, since even
The slightest twist of your will
Is nature’s way …

I should have known that when Helen Maria Williams (1759=1827, Wordsworth loved her poetry) writes of a thrush, she speaks of how the foolish bird fled from her to its death: for the past month while my kitchen was renovated, I worried sick lest my cats flee the house to their death. They could not begin to make it as feral cats: I put them in a pets’ boarding house and they spent the week in the cage, would not come out, finally were provided with an inner box, all padded, where they cling to one another’s arms: it gives a whole ‘nother turn to Henry Fielding (1707-54) story of how Blifil let Sophia’s bird free to spite her and Tom (out of malice) and Tom fell in the water trying to recapture it. Fielding diverts out attention from the bird who is not seen again: Elegy on a Young Thrush, which escaped from the writer’s hand, and falling down the area of a house, could not be found.

Mistaken Bird, ah whither hast thou stray’d?
    My friendly grasp why eager to elude?
This hand was on thy pinion lightly laid,
    And fear’d to hurt thee by a touch too rude.

Is there no foresight in a Thrush’s breast,
    That thou down yonder gulph from me wouldst go?
That gloomy area lurking cats infest,
    And there the dog may rove, alike thy foe.

I would with lavish crumbs my bird have fed,
    And brought a crystal cup to wet thy bill;
I would have made of down and moss thy bed,
     Soft, though not fashion’d with a Thrush’s skill.

Soon as thy strengthen’d wing could mount the sky,
    My willing hand had set my captive free;
Ah, not for her who loves the Muse, to buy
    A selfish pleasure, bought with pain to thee!

The vital air, and liberty, and light
    Had all been thine; and love, and rapt’rous song,
And sweet parental joys, in rapid flight,
    Had led the circle of thy life along.

Securely to my window hadst thou flown,
    And ever thy accustom’d morsel found;
Nor should thy trusting breast the wants have known
    Which other Thrushes knew when winter frown’d.

Fram’d with the wisdom nature lent to thee,
    Thy house of straw had brav’d the tempest’s rage,
And thou through many a Spring hadst liv’d to see
    The utmost limit of a Thrush’s age.

Ill-fated bird!—and does the Thrush’s race,
    Like Man’s, mistake the path that leads to bliss?
Or, when his eye that tranquil path can trace,
    The good he well discerns through folly miss?

— Helen Maria Williams, Poems on various subjects (1823)]

And finally one of Jim’s favorite poets and poems: Basil Bunting (1900-85);

A thrush in the syringa sings.

‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

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

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

O gay thrush.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) said she planted a syringa for the sake of a line of poetry by William Cowper (1731-1800)

Complete Poems, 1964

fromtomjones
In this scene from the 1997 Tom Jones (scripted Simon Burke, directed Metin Huseyin) we may take it that Tom has failed to rescue the bird and fallen from a tree into the water while Mrs Bridget Allworthy (Tessa Peake Jones, who was once Mary Bennett [1979 P&P scripted Fay Weldon], unknown to be his biological mother) and Mr Allworthy (unknown to be his uncle, Benjamin Whitlow, previously Mr Bennet [1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies]) look down worriedly

Ellen

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