Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category


Miss Temple looking at Jane Eyre (many many films have this icon)

Friends,

My first book for the new year:


A virago re-publication — keeping the book in print

Vicinus’s study remains as important and relevant today as when it was written 50 years ago, about crucial failures 50 years before that. Her title tells us the matter of her book, the details of her story line; she only slowly reveals that this is a study which explains why now nearly 100 years ago when women began to vote as a group, they have not achieved needed power for themselves as a group and as individuals when they comprise one-half of the human race.

Where real power resides that effectively can change the structures and conditions of our lives is in society’s central agencies and institutions and she studies those institutions women were allowed to join and try to rise to top shaping positions in, or were allowed to make institutions of their own. She shows that repeatedly women were thwarted from taking shaping power (church, military, high gov’t, medicine), within the lower echelons how class and the psychologies of their own natures interfered with creating successfully run places, because it was demanded of them that they behave like capitalist men, and their needs as women (to run families, to have friends) were disciplined out of existence; how the institution was allowed only to be an interlude (women’s colleges); or what they won was nullified (the vote).

Thus women failed to influence the organizations of industry, military, schools, gov’t to bend to respond to women’s issues, needs, and help women (crucially needed) to counter male sexual and familial tyrannies. Where women have had gains is where they have mitigated the impact of a male-dominated society upon the friendless and vulnerable, where it met an immediate need of the woman herself (intermittent child care, freedom from beating) and her children (school meals — still contested in the US, humane treatment of elderly). The age of indecent assault was moved from 13 to 16, a pension scheme for widows ….


This is the whole of the cover photograph: Westfield College — for women, June 1889

The book begins (Chapter one) with her talking of how women at first tried for general power outside rich and well-connected family groups. She has to omit the working class woman because she could not try; she also omits widows. The first work for powerful people and only achieved power after 1930 when they formed their first women’s union (garment workers); they were excluded from men’s unions until very recently. Widows are a special case and just don’t fit (!) into her story unless they drop this identity. The problem Woolf saw in 1928 (A Room of Your Own) was to explain how the vote seemed to have made little difference. Yes, you could have custody of your children, couldn’t be legally beaten, could get a separation, could not be legally forced to return to a husband, but how minimal these protections and rights, how unaccompanied by anything else.

She then discusses the importance of the norm which denied any rightness or value to the life of an unmarried women. Your life was not useful or respected unless you married and had children, and that immediately put women into the power of compulsory heterosexuality of marriage. So Vicinus begins with the campaign against “redundant” women in the 19th century. Her argument is that unmarried or single women were not an anomaly, not a rarity or uncommon at all. Given death, sterile women whom men abandoned or simply disliked and discarded, unmarried woman forced to care for aged parents, seen as not attractive, quiet lesbians were noticed only to be stigmatized and punished by denying them any ability to make a living which would give them independent or a dignified life. As soon as the punishments became less — because of the increase of industrialization, capitalism, the substitution of money as the basis for society rather than male violence, and so the life of a single woman became more viable and thus more visible, they were to be fiercely denied and erased and worried about, deported (to colonies to find husbands).

So this made-up category of redundant women didn’t go away, instead gradually a world of institutions from which women could exercise the needed power to change norms, make real money, and create spaces in which single women could live independently and freely in safety for the first time began to emerge — all the while society remained hostile to unmarried women and women given power. She turns women attempting to run prestigious institutions while keeping socially acceptable behavior. Gregg who wrote the famous essay introducing this concept wrote that women unattached to men or not in households run by men must be forced back into male control. His scheme was to deport the redundant women, which did not include servants or anyone not middle class and above.

One of the most telling parts of the book is about the ferocious and physical assaults wreaked on women demanding the vote. This reaction apparently astonished the suffragettes at first, then dismayed and horrified them. They were seeing for the first time the men and society they had thought still fundamentally on their side, were not, would dispense with them all as individuals until those “making trouble” were dead or crippled.


Christchurch hospital nurses

So how under this assault can we discover where women can find power, were managing to find it for the first time in the UK and ended up still controlled by men.

How did upper class women become important members of come to almost look for truly high positions of authority in religious organizations and prestigious hospitals comprise Chapters two and three. Religious belief and a place in churches were important parts of women’s lives outside the family and in public space, and then taking care of, nursing people were accepted areas of women’s activities in the public world. Gaining change had to be done first by strong-willed well connected very upper class women in socially acceptable ways and the first positions filled by upper class women — and it’s not a matter of education so much as status, and respect they got and expected. Only such women would be obeyed by others and gained primary respect. Thus some women reached medium and relatively high positions who were not truly qualified in medicine. You had to be a type who obeyed, who conformed because very quickly men and other women who could asserted control.

She describes in detail areas of life and work where women could for the first time in groups enter public life and find or create power and she shows how in effect they failed. For religion, they were never respected enough, nor did they respect themselves enough. They turned to men as the figures who must have these positions, and churches decreed and supported this. When it came to the nursing profession, the women building the profession wanted upper class women to be in positions of authority and chose women based on status and rank not abilities. Then in the context what happened is they demanded of the women they hired absolute obedience and didn’t pay them well and gave them hard tasks. Some women stayed and took the punishment — as escape from home, or something worse — or just did. The women who couldn’t stand this went to work in less prestigious hospitals; as a group they also failed to enforce education standards so anyone could be a nurse.

At the same time they themselves never gained power — as in religious institutions — men remained in charge. They ddidn’t think well enough of themselves no matter how high their position, finally they buy into their inferiority. Else why take on the drudgery and the way they cannot conceive having an institution where women are in charge, women the administrators and doctors. I am bothered by how Vicinus accepts the class and rank status as necessary to being in charge, to managing and just concedes it must be there to be successful. Maybe only such women have the self-esteem and training or attitude of mind from their family backgrounds. She tells the stories of individual women who bucked the system and how they came to grief. They tried to go too high or they succeeded for a while, and then were attacked and marginalized by male hegemonic values of various sorts and attacks on them as women.

There was an almost insane emphasis on discipline (far more than cleanliness) in hospital work, which made it so awful to do, so much like a prison camp, and made nursing a profession like being a governesses had been – who’d want to submit to that. This was partly an attempt to throw off the disrespect and unwillingness to believe women can have another sort of discipline to rise high, to have clean bodies (not sexy – I remember when to rise in academia it was de rigueur to dress dowdy). How can women become powerful on their own behalf in such an atmosphere. These impossibly long days, are in service to male doctors. I’ve known women who worked hard to be nurse and when it came to enduring the profession left; some of nurses’ tyranny over women patients (like breast-feeding) is these are areas where they have handles to be the important person.


Somerville College Boat Club — where the caption says how proud the college is of a tradition of ambition and competition

Chapter Four, Women’s Colleges. Vicinus moves to women wanting an independent intellectual life. This means going to university, ultimately getting the right to have a degree, so you can go out for professional work. But she is also — let’s hear a rousing hand — interested in women who come for this education and intellectual life where the prime motive is not a job but the intellectual life.

She argues that status or rank does not always play the abysmally awful part it did in nursing and religious communities. It’s not that it’s not there (think of Sayers’s Gaudy Night) but it’s not a fault-line for who stays on after the first year or so. These are usually unmarried women. This third institution offered as none other did an “unparalleled” opportunity for a women to have “private space” to herself, to find “shared interests” with others no where else to be found, the use of “public amenities” no where else. There was no time for such things in nursing, no raison d’etre for them but religious belief in church type institutions. And one of the barriers parents resisted most was not so much the degree or job eventuality, but they didn’t want the girl to live there: they lost control of her space and her body and who she could mingle with. They feared not being able to choose her partner through control of who she met and who supported her emotionally.

She discusses more individuals here, and the complications of university life which both allowed it to be place where women could know freedom, seek what their talents were good at, lead an independent life to some extent while they were there. Outside the college remained a strong disdain and dismissal of this intellectual life for women, distrust of it as dangerous or silly. In the details of relationships norms for women coming out different from norms for men which prevent women from gaining power in institutions. Women’s friendships and mentorships work differently, are more emotional she says. They had to develop different appropriate rituals — imitate family roles, like sisterhood. What emerged in many women’s colleges was the life there was an pleasant interlude instead of seeing what you did there as something to bring back into society.


A sketch from nature (Punch, 1884)

The fifth chapter is boarding schools and I wondered why that was a separate area until I realized she was determined to uncover the nature of emotional women’s friendships and mentorships as central glue to women combining in groups outside structures. This too is a basic source of power — the old girls’ network.

She first uncovers an emotional bath of coy adoration and cloying interdependence in the language (relationships called “raves”), and the kind of thing that later critics use to find lesbianism. But she neither seems to care if this kind of thing can become lesbianism or is superficial or just deep emotion — she rejects Carol Smith-Rosenberg’s famous article about female ritual staying ritual; Lilian Faderman’s equally famous insistence lesbian friendships did not include open sex and more recently Lisa Moore’s idea they all fucked as best they could.

No what’s important is this bonding and that it was a secret way of subverting the established order; she has lots of evidence on how the headmistresses’ disciplinary techniques were there to deal precisely with this — to stop secrets between girls, to stop secret friendship because there things like masturbation, and all sort of rebellions took place. At the same time the headmistresses and women in charge themselves saw this was a way of rewarding some girls, punishing others, picking favorites — and gaining power and authority over the girls who obey. Vicinus concedes this sort of thing was very unfair and victims (ostracized girls were also often lower class), but she sees it as important bonding. She talks of the rituals of these places including the headmistress kissing each girl before she goes to bed at night. Example after example from these schools.

Her idea is power came from this kind of exploitation of a level of women’s emotion, which was frustrated and stifled so they could not express it heterosexually going after boys. When they went home, there were chaperons. As such women grew older, they learned to have a severe demeanor or manners with outsiders and kept up their respectability. All this is a basis for power, and when it was student and teacher who went in for this kind of relationship — and it often was and allowed as mentoring — then the result could be a career of public service. Mutual religious belief was brought in to make all moral. I am seeing Miss Temple and Jane in a whole new light.

Bad side-effects was some girls ended up deranged, would have breakdowns in these places because they enforced long hours of work. For some girls this was a remembered paradise, for many more a kind of hell they got through. Vicinus does remark that too much was expected of a single relationship by naive or powerless girls and when they were dropped or it didn’t work out, there would be great hurt or anger. “Pent-up ambition, frustrated ambitions, and constrained sexuality” was behind all this. She is right that something subversive could happening beyond an individual pair of girls rebelling say politically can be seen by how — as she records — so much hostility to this pairing emerged too. Parents took home daughters. They wanted them to marry. I saw some of this in Sweet Briar: the girls were assigned older sisters among girls already there or younger ones and an attempt was made to encourage this kind of bonding to start. Any ostracizing or bullying or victimizing of a particular girl was noticed and put a stop to.

Vicinus seems to me too complacent about what she is showing. I suppose the price of bonding between boys in public schools is similarly ambiguous. What can happen is heterosexual boys are taken over by homosexual ones — and vice versa, for sex does enter into it there in the ugly ugly fagging system. There was no fagging system in the girls’ schools.

Vicinus then analyzes what are clearly lesbian relationships even if she never uses the word. The women lay in one another’s arms, call one another husband or wife, the strong insists on kissing others. These girls and women called their relationships marriages. With Freudianism and new psychoanalyses marginalized these relationships once again.

Eventually and today single sex institutions began to disappear; the claim is they are not needed or wanted. She says it began to be seen as strange by many who began to take notice that a poorly paid apparently celibate woman should have any power. A woman’s career should not be seen as something separate it’s claimed. Vocations don’t support the woman, and we are almost back to where we started.


Women outside a Settlement House (Blackfriars) — turn of the century — settlement houses were run by and often for women

Settlement houses: Chapter 6: community ideal for the poor

Another group of institutions that emerged that women tried to gain power from were settlement houses built among the poor and meant to help them find shelter, medical care, education, employment, what they needed: women’s names are remembered here: Mary Carpenter, Louisa Twinning, Octavia Hill (given money by John Ruskin to start houses he had ideas for), Jane Adams, Dorothy Day. Amid the horrors of industrialization, factories &c philanthropic organizations grew too – women were allowed to cross class lines for such purposes 211 armies of volunteers as middle class people’s income soared in the gilded age ….In the US such settlement houses partly political were run by women; in the UK often by men and were stepping stones to a career.

But problems arose. I am startled to have to say Vicinus is for means tests! She is for the Charity Organization Society which was against giving any help until people investigated and then if any other relative can help well then help is denied. Then it’s fine to interfere. There were women who joined who were socialists or pacifists but more Christian millennialism – working with children for the future. Now instead of military metaphors found in nursing we find language of colonialism: cleanliness, middle class deportment, cooking sewing – do-it-yourself self-respecting well doing &c&c. Some working class people found this appalling, but submitted to obtain help.

One ironic result the middle class suddenly can walk where she pleases alone but the working class is now spatially confined – put them in clubs, in service, &&c. Women did this work and lived in such places to be public leaders and have professional work, saw how fellowship and association gave them place and power. Women’s colleges got involved – they did help some people, disabled children for example. All made a point of linking with some other recognized institution (school, college church, political ones). Had long-time women running them as wardens, and they enabled women to keep up relationships with one another and make new relationships. You had privacy as a resident; indirect access to shaping of laws. They moved into places like school boards.

There was a problem of finding reliable volunteers – what brought people: curiosity, religious commitment, idealism, boredom, desire for adventure, self-education. You paid to be a resident and the working girls couldn’t understand what you were doing or why. Leaders of women’s settlements wanted to turn these into a paid profession. Then part-time volunteers outnumbers residents two to one – money needed for drains for upkeep of houses …. Small sums out of these women’s reach; only after WW! And take over by gov’t were social workers regularly paid.

So then we have women choosing settlement not based on which school connection but what the settlement’s speciality in caring was; class condescension can be replaced by “professional expertise” – communities divide all sorts of ways into committed and un committed. Some very devoted and high minded hard working women but mocked too.

What was benefit for working people: very small staffs, volunteers, huge numbers of people to service. Clubs for working girls were popular – emphasis on pleasure so most had dancing. One successful one moved into instruction too – skills and trade unionism. Baby care, housewifery and other skills to older women who were presumed to be mothers. A great disconnect between them and who they were serving. Resident teachers were most successful with young children in new formations of schools. Men against them – paradoxically most were unmarried women advising all these married women – week after week the real problems of women and children at home incapable of being addressed. What do you do about low self-image?

And then when their function was taken over by the state, the women were given subordinate jobs. They were not enfranchised …. A failure to cement connections between different kinds of settlement houses … Eleanor Rathbone a rare individual with larger social vision did move into parliament.

Chapter 7: Male space and women’s bodies: the suffragette movement.

I was again surprised – much – when she treated the suffragette movement not as economically based but as a spiritual one. She kept using that word “spirituality” whose meaning I have yet to make precise or understand fully because as far as I can see I have no “spirituality.” I gather she does not mean religious belief attached to a church but some undefined set of emotional needs somehow connected to religions.  Her argument, which I think she does demonstrate, is that the suffragettes got as far as they did because they were actuated by motives akin to religious belief that can overturn an old religious order and replace it with a new. She also thinks religious motivations are at the heart of women’s way of bonding – as well as unformulated erotic ones – let’s call them loosely indirect.

She makes a good case for her insights again and again and in this chapter as she goes through the familiar trajectory of being lied to, disappointed, ignored and then seeing that they must break the law and be utterly disruptive if they are to get anywhere, that they must be regarded seriously as a political force with the _right_ to work effectively in public political space, she again and again has recourse to “spirituality” as an actuating motive clinching the women’s behavior. Certainly at the beginning most women could not see what votes would get them. A failure of imagination is at the heart of this. Women did see some movement – no beating, custody of children, but not enough in their daily lives. Men did see the deep subversion of what these women were asking and the one thing they held out against was recognizing they were political prisoners for example. Churchill treated them like naughty children who needed to be treated more softly.

She agrees with others the movement was engendered by upper class women, and typical are sentences like this: “the fierce loyalty and strength of the movement sprang from a spiritual self-confidence that unleashed enormous energies not only for the vote, but also for a total reconsideration of the role of women.” Consider that the wretchedness of poor life was not a motive for these women, it was genuinely a desire to have liberty of choice in life for themselves and thus power. It is no coincidence that Bell (tomorrow we’ll have a loose schedule) and Cobbe came from very wealthy people; Florence Nightingale and filled with self-esteem.

She quotes Mary Gordon (a Catholic writer) that “such spiritual upheavals are always irrational and irrational human types are swept into them as high priests.” So the women’s movement for the vote is like the Protestant reformation.

The WSPU was extreme in its behavior out of desperation, and this is important: it frightened some women away but it got attention. Gradually more women saw also getting the vote was not asking a lot new and doing it was easy. That’s important. I’ll never canvass anyone but I can vote – and through votes you can perhaps get many different kinds of things. For others militancy was putting off “the slave spirit” – so it was like abolition. Women were beat and told they were to obey. The call was “Rise up Women!”

Then they were horrified at the men’s reaction, stunned at the cruelty derision, hatred. That taught something important. And when they didn’t fill the roles they were supposed to and then considered fair predatory game they learned something else.

And then the beast comes out from behind the screen publicly: hitherto men beat women in private with impunity now they were willing to do it publicly, with the aid of subordinate women (nurses ironically).

Vicinus reveals how viciously the suffragettes were treated, not just indifferently badly but compare the treatment to the way white racists have treated black people — out right ugly humiliating attacks and bodily injury she would not recover from, both in the streets and prisons, but especially the prison. Force feeding was intended to maim the woman and it did and hundreds were subjected to this. Those in power were intensely enraged because they did see the demand for a vote as an attack direct on their masculinity and whole way of life. They detested the demand to use public space as an authority. What surprised me was the horror of the women — they did not expect this and Vicinus’s own attitude towards the hunger strikes. And many were physically and/or emotionally maimed for life. She says hunger strikes — or suicide as in Emily Davies just gets rid of pro-active effective women — and ultimately is liked by the powerful. They’re glad of it or indifferent. Given that she sees the suffragette movement as driven by an emotional “spirituality” these sacrifices bound women but also were so self-defeating. I know these hunger strikes reverse the age-old way of punishment of subversion: put the person in a hunger tower to starve but most writers are chary to say how useless – because it attracts attention. Vicinus doesn’t think attention per se is enough.

At the end of the chapter she says that when the movement was over some suffragettes felt they had won something – the right to be recognized or recognition, the idea they wanted liberty which desire even had been denied them. But Vicinus shows how the newspapers went against them, how other women betrayed them, and says what they are saying they achieved doesn’t click because the basic structures of society in 1920 remain the same. The vote has ameliorated conditions. Today many of ties that bound women today are as strongly in place and the vote does not come near these.

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

I’ve already told the conclusion. This last coda is interesting for the examples she brings forth to once again make her argument, and how various norms thought to protect women were used against them; at the same time, some liberties women sought and thought they had gained from at first were seen only to favor men more when put into practice.

All women’s communities declined during and after WW1. One of most persuasive chapters is the short appendix where she shows men’s clubs continue to be supportive of them and fill needs all their lives; women’s clubs are an interlude just like women’s colleges. Women’s clubs interfere with her family obligations and she drops them. Women communities were successfully attacked for new reasons but one glimpses old ideas: they are restrictive psychologically and emotionally, silly places with old-fashioned dangerous behavior (ties to other women mocked. Paradoxically these communities often class bound become unsympathetic unfriendly places for many women.

Jobs were taken right back after WW1 and WW2. Men refused to work for women and refused to allow the workplace to reflect women’s ways.

As the idea women are not morally superior and pure were dropped because that was used to restrict them, they lost out again — not respected. She sees uses for those older ideas as they can empower men if transformed into valuing chastity, non marriage, friendships. But women ill prepared for Freud — who, Vicinus doesn’t say, is so misogynist so they rejected Freudian psychology and were left with what? A new kind of psychology emerged slowly in the 1970s first. What did the new sexual freedom of the 1970s finally achieve? ultimately gave men greater access to women and vulnerable men on their own terms. Women still do not do well when they report and go to court to punish men for raping them.

Then women fought within their own groups. There were those who wanted protective legislation (often turns out for families, for the breadwinner’s packet of money or state support should go to her and children not him as if he were the family) — these were contested bitterly but there were wins in welfare, but these seen as socialist, humanitarian. Those who wanted liberty to fulfill the demands of their own nature got nowhere; independent women accused of sex hatred, preferring women. She shows instances where the word “women” is removed; no this is a fund for citizens. It reminds me of the women’s review of books wanted to use the word “gender” and how “gender studies” replaces women. Far from identifying as a group they run from the group name is implied. Women didn’t or couldn’t invent a different language and set of terms to see themselves by –I think that was attempted in the 1970s to 1990s myself. – and they still haven’t.

The professions she goes over where power bases could have developed remain single-sex ghettos or when men come in, they take over. There had been an attempt at a richly nurturing subculture and the university is one place (all women’s college this can sometimes be seen), but once you leave you are outside the aggressively married heterosexual world.

She ends on a paragraph by Winifred Holtby where Holtby says we know where the aggressively male outlook leads women — to slave markets of all sorts, including marriage. Holtby is arguing that individual ability rather than social conditions should determine a woman’s fate – but Vicinus has shown that without institutions which provide a basis for power (certificates say, incomes) by refusing to change the class bias or sexual terms on which recognition is given out renders such demands moot.

Of course Vicinus is talking about women in general, the large majority not what particular individual women may luck into or be able to access by denying themselves some of the rewards of obeying successfully aggressive heterosexual male hegemonies (i.e., marrying). Many of the women writers I study are women who had talent enough to secure a living somewhere or other in the society and at least for a while and maybe much of their lives managed to escape this thwarting.

Vicinus book is written more softly and in academic style prose than I have and so the impact of what she is saying only slowly dawns on the reader, but once she does, her book has enormous explanatory power. My frontispiece for this blog suggests Vicinus’s whole new ironic and sad take on the stories of Miss Temple and Jane Eyre, how they ended up ….

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

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


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

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

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


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Suzanne Simonin after harsh punishment thrown into a dungeon (2013 La Religieuse, Pauline Etienne)

Friends,

The second text I assigned as required reading for my The Enlightenment: At Risk? course has been Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which most people read in Leonard Tancock’s translation for Penguin. It is a superior translation to Russell Goulbourne’s for Oxford World’s Classics, but for the sake of the introduction (much fuller and more informative as well as having an insightful close reading), and the inclusion of the hoaxing “practical joke” letters which Diderot first sent a benevolent philanthropist-friend (left out by Tancock), next time I’ll assign the Oxford. From the class discussions, and responses to even a short clip of the 2013 film adaptation by Guillaume Nicloux, featuring Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Martha Gedeck, and François Négret (the truly powerful Jacques Rivette 1966 version has never been made into a DVD), I can state unequivocally that Diderot’s novella was far more effective in communicating what Diderot meant to than Voltaire in his Candide.

The reason is not far to seek. The Nun, however early in the development of the novel (like Defoe and Prevost, there are no separate chapters, there is much fuzziness when it comes to the relationships of time and place to the incidents, there are inconsistencies in the use of first-person narrator &c&c), has at its center a deeply felt psychologically compelling portrait. Her situation is complexly and realistically (in terms of the situation as set out) explored; each section where she is cruelly punished, scourged, emotionally and physically tortured for attempting to protest, to get out of the convent she is being imprisoned in, for attempting then to go to law to escape, is relentlessly, persuasively and exquisitely realized. I can’t say the people in the room enjoyed the novel, but most were riveted enough to think about social coercion, silent violence, the twisted perversion of human nature or what we think are natural impulses), trauma and its effects. Though some critics talk about the text as libertine, and as inviting vicarious sexual voyeurism in the last section where the mother superior is a an aggressive semi-self-hating lesbian, no one in this class showed any evidence of such titillation — unlike what I’ve seen in response to Lovelace’s hounding, harassing, and teasing of Clarissa in Richardson’s epistolary masterpiece Clarissa. (Early on I described Clarissa, we read an excerpt of Diderot’s Éloge de Richardson, and I suggested that The Nun couldn’t exist but for what Diderot learned from reading Richardson’s novel and imitated from it.) In a way I gathered those who did respond to Voltaire’s Candide took some pleasure from the hard jokes, there was little pleasure in such an exposé — it was like reading stories from the anthology I reviewed, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. There were at the same time genuinely original insights — one woman pointed out the mother who so berated Suzanne Simonin (our heroine’s fictional name) for poisoning her existence was not sinful; it was the mother who committed the sin; her daughter was innocent. I hadn’t thought of that.

A summary:

Diderot and his friends had heard of this case and played a practical joke on the sentimental heart of M. de Croismare, a philanthropist. A series of letters fooled him so they had to pretend Suzanne had grown sick and died. Finally they confessed; it’s said that Croismare was not upset but I wonder. Like Madame Roland’s Memoir, La Religieuse was first published in 1796, in his case many years after his death.

Diderot has a problem: he felt in order to gain sympathy for the nun, he had to make her religious; the reality as far as we can tell (and makes sense) is most girls who didn’t want it weren’t religious; they wanted to marry. Suzanne does not; she is presented as wholly innocent: that’s another element hard to believe because she also enjoys the lesbian sex.

First person narrative has real problems: the narrator has to report her own compliments. I’ve been trying to emphasize analogies with other forms of imprisonment, hostage situations, violations of one’s body and identity (like rape) but it is also seriously a critique of the whole idea of monasteries and nunneries as deeply wrong for human nature.. He means it – Diderot is not attacking the church as the central of the worst evils of the ancien regime as Voltaire does (intolerance, barbaric punishments, thinking life a sin) but he is attacking this way of life imposed on people from many angles

Story falls into three parts. Opening section about how and why she is pressured into going into the first nunnery, Sainte Marie, and we can say that the time there where she is wheedled into taking her vows and just goes to pieces and hates it; she is sent home. There was such a place, established 1763 and it was a place that Marguerite Delamarre spent a long time at. The mother superior at the first place wants to win new recruits.

Second and longest section, she is sent to Longchamp: there is repetition because she was scapegoated. I’d call it humiliated in public, scourged in Sainte-Marie, but here it goes to high lengths. First she has a kind mother superior, Madame Moni whose regime is reasonable; no sourging, allowed all sorts of liberties, but she is urging Suzanne to take vows and that is not what Suzanne wants; she dies and then Sister Christine takes over –- she is mean and cruel, sadistic. It is there Suzanne writes her plea to the lawyer and her friend smuggles it out, and the lawyer makes the case. There we see the visitation of these powerful men. All the lawyer can get for Suzanne is a change of convent. He pays her dowry.

St Eutrope, Arpagon. We are never given this third mother superior’s name… We get stars or dot dot dot – or hyphen. This was a device used in novels to make readers think some real and powerful person was involved Suzanne is a bit of a prig, and she seems to disapprove of the mother superior’s lax ways but it’s really that there is no rule, it’s all her whim and caprice; this week she is cheerful and in love with the natural world, next week she is guilty. Mother superior’s guilt is played upon by the father viciously (natural feelings are perverted) and she becomes crazed with guilt and repression. Suzanne is blamed and she finally escapes; it’s not clear if the man who helps her escape is the same one who assaults here Dom Morel.

This is only to find herself a victim of attempted rape, dragged to brothel and finally working as a laudress and from the original hoax that is when she writes M. de Croismarre.

I find the ending very poignant, and if we don’t have the letters Diderot faked and sent to Croismarre (as one does in the Oxford) it is more plangent in its way. Clarissa dies at the end of her ordeal – as does Ursula, and perhaps Theresa


Suzanne’s one compassionate friend (2013) — the recent film emphasizes the woman’s community perverted and the friendships as well as the lesbian story (Isabelle Hibbert plays that role)

I did at first try to downplay the attack direct on the Catholic church’s practices, doctrines and especially elevation of celebacy in our discussion, even if in one long passage it’s obvious that Diderot (like Voltaire before him) is intent on showing the harmful social arrangements and practices the powerful state Catholic religion was responsible for, and encouraged (getting rid of daughters where you could not afford a prestigious dowry to place her in a high position flattering the family). But as we talked I began to see that was counterproductive. One must begin there and Diderot’s investment in the story was pointed out by one of the people in the class after I described the fraught relationship Diderot had with his bigoted Abbé brother: nothing Diderot ever did could appease this man or soften his demands that Diderot believe as fervently and act as austerely, punitively as he. Diderot used a vow he made to the brother to excuse himself from trying to publish his radical works, which paradoxically freed Diderot to write for 20 years great works without worrying what the public would think. Luckily most of this has survived — the critics and scholars seem to think. I also repeated the story that Diderot’s daughter, Angelique, reported in her memoir that his third sister died of insanity after she was put into a convent: it is thought from over-work but who knows. He has in The Nun at least two unforgettable portraits of young women driven mad by the conditions and ideas they are forced to live with.


Jacques Rivette has Anna Karina play the part more gently, and more openly vulnerable (1966)

Nonetheless, I moved on to generalize as there we were involved. (It did turn out that one man as a young man many years ago had voluntarily entered a monastery; he said after class, he had had no trouble getting out.). Just at this time I’ve been following a good Future Learn course from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland on Understanding Violence Against Women and had been reading Victor Vitanza’s Chaste Rape. I’ll start with the latter:


Kate Millett’s The Basement

I had seen The Nun as a Clarissa story: in the center Suzanne forced to become a nun by the cruelties of her family, coerced, harassed. I also saw the hideous treatment she is meted out by the other members of the nunnery (they humiliate her, strip her naked, force her to whip herself, starve her, leave her to be filthy, scream at her, make her walk on pieces of broken glass) as a parable of what can happen in a prison and when you are outcast in a community whom you have openly rejected. Now I saw this is a story just like all the stories of rape except without the open sexual attack –- which is not necessary. It is very like the real events retold by Millett in The Basement where a woman is coerced into agreeing with her captors’ evaluation of her, loses her pride, self-esteem, identity, her very personality until the point when she is asked further to hurt and to berate herself she gladly agrees. Vitanza says the purpose of rape is not the sexual attack centrally; the point is to violate your ego and self-respect to the point you never forget the experience and are traumatized. This helps explain why women are so upset by rape and assault attacks and that fucking does not at all have to occur. Public humiliation is enough. Like a hostage, when such a victim is kept for weeks, he or she can easily be driven to kiss the tormenter for the smallest relenting, the smallest glass of water or kindness.

After one of the sessions of horrifying treatment, Suzanne is told her lawyer has obtained a change of convent for her. He lost the case to have her freed but he can do this. What does she do? she gives her most precious objects to the cruel superior mother; she begs those who thew her into the dungeon physically to take other favors form her and kisses them and thanks them. When the overseer comes who has the news she can move and he forbids her to see her lawyer, she says that she has no desire to see him and when there is an opportunity she refuses. This cannot encourage the lawyer to go on helping her. He might think her forbidden but he might think she doesn’t care.

Diderot’s tale also anticipates what happens to Offred-June in Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale where she takes on the values of the Waterfords, Lydia and everyone else – like Suzanne. In the second season of the TV film adaptation, the film-makers move away from the original humiliation and enforced fearful docility and cooperation of the victim and make her a heroine to American watchers by having her hold on to violence herself and manifest an active desire for revenge and hatred; the American TV Offred-June does not utterly prostrate herself as Suzanne and the woman in The Basement do.

Suzanne is obviously such another as Levi in the concentration camp; people in solitary confinement and beat the hell out of and mistreated in US and other tyrannical nations’ prisons … I would not have been able to put Suzanne at long last next to Clarissa without Vitanza’s hook. Paradoxically he takes us past the way rape is discussed by de-centering the sex.

As for the Future Learn course, one of their advisors is Judith Lewish Herman whose Trauma and Recovery I know well and have long admired. So from watching and reading along with this Future Learn course I summarized:


Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery

Although Diderot started by a hoax — the typical case of based on a single real woman: Marguerite Delamarre. In 1752 at age 35 after several years she tried to have her vows annulled; she was turned down but the testimony showed an awful life; she tried again 1758, again turned down, she was still alive in 1788 when the convent was finally dissolved. What happened to her we don’t know. I say typical because young women were regularly forced into nunneries. The case of Galileo’s Daughter as retold by Dava Sobel from the 100 letters this girl left is heart-breaking and unforgettable. Gifted, socially engaging, she was cowed, starved, left in ignorance to die young – and he knew it.

The core of the Diderot’s story is violence against women, sometimes silent, sometimes overt – through law and custom. The perpetrators deny her right to have bodily security. To tell and/or seek help is to be punished. We see the impossibility of recovering from trauma in this situation. She lacks control over her environment, people helping her don’t consult her – she has experienced prolonged and repeated trauma so she is numbed – how to put back peace in her life; she has to be provided with safety, with a community to live in, work to do that’s meaningful, that she feel she is in charge of herself – problem won’t go away until society changes – until power relationships change. She is never given any opportunity to use her gifts for music and when last seen has been threatened by rape, a brothel and now lives hidden as a laundress. I assigned one recent essay which argued that the males in the tale have all the power: Suzanne’s mother is subject to her angry husband; her daughters have to pay their husband steep sums; the men in charge of the nunneries are harsh. The lesbian nun is driven into neurotic self-hatred by the priest who forbids Suzanne to have anything to do with her. At the same time, the one person who genuinely helps her with nothing to gain is the lawyer Manouri who even pays her dowry to enable her to move to the third nunnery, and pursues her case on her behalf as far as he is able.


The lawyer in the 1966 film has a stronger role, more prominence

According to the studies of the Strathclyde group: men believe they have the right to control women and whatever they have to do to achieve this is fine. The society is set up so that all authority figures have the right to transgress women’s bodies to force compliance in whatever way the society declares is fitting and to its interests. The way the female gender is trained, submissive, secretive, obedient, supposed to appeal to men, make their relationship with men central to survival fits into this paradigm. Violence against women begins early, in the girl’s earliest years. (I knew this.) It takes the form of setting up coercion in such a way that you prevent the girl from learning a skill, or idea that is enabling, or gives power to act freely on her own behalf. Later on when she is married (forced or seeming to choose), more than half the battle is done for the husband whose pride is made to inhere in controlling her to do his bidding and act out of and for his interest first. A silent violence against the child is secondary; it’s first aim is against her mother who is kept in an invisible straitjacket this way. The aim is twofold, mother and child, and we see this in The Nun, only the mother is absolutely faithful to her role as vicious instrument (as are the women who perform FGM on other women. They resent women who are not cowed and maintain self-pride. This secondary violence of women on girl children and sisters on sisters is seen with searing clarity in The Nun. Herman (like Adrienne Rich) brought out how compulsory heterosexuality is central here too: and in The Nun, the one act that is seen as bestial and beyond all forgiveness is lesbian love, yet whatever comfort and help Suzanne gets is from other girls who identify and say they love her: Ursule, Agatha. I remember Miss Temple in Jane Eyre’s story — until she marries. It is also important that no where helps the girl or women genuinely to find another role beyond wife, mother, as equally fulfilling.

To conclude, life-writing and trials bring into public awareness these kinds of psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people, but it is rarely retained for long. The woman remains so ashamed, and she carries on being punished for telling (especially when she does not win her case and she often does not) of these secrets men and society want to keep unspeakable and deflect attention from. The strong and lucky and men will deny the existence or even validity of such feelings so as not to have to deal with them.

While perhaps Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew like Voltaire’s Letters on England, would have brought before the class the sceptical and original ideas of the Enlightenment (Diderot had to make Suzanne religious in order to gain sympathy he felt), I could see from the fifteen pages I assigned it would not hve had the impact the other did.

On the two movies: Jacques Rivette’s The Nun versus Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

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

Friends,

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

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


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

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


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

A place of disgrace, of humiliation. – Jonathan Sejake

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

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

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

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


The actors are posed in parallel ways in the two acts

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


Athol Fugard

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Aurundia Brown as Joan (she plays the part in the Folger)

Friends,

On Sunday afternoon at the Folger, a full audience watched the four actors who this time comprised the whole of the Bedlam company players perform some 20+ (at least) characters of Shaw’s St Joan. The scenery was minimal; props just what necessity demanded; the costumes worn were of the barest type, ordinary clothes for the most part, mixed with a few garments (robes) or objects recognizable as Elizabethan. The way an actor would turn into a different characters took a minimal of indication: the actor turned round, made a different face, wore garment never worn before &c. When I came home, I took down from my two shelves of Shaw books (my husband read much of Shaw) my volume of his plays to double-check the performed text, and confirmed yes Shaw’s was this long play of many dialogues of plain ordinary language clashing, obsessively repeating the same demands, replies, memories, going over the same set of events. The major presences are three powerful men, those the maid persuades to follow her to find the French king, and fight the battles the way she said, then the men who harass and interrogate and try to control her at the scenes, and then then men who prosecuted, shamed, tortured and executed her. Plus Joan herself.


Photo found on the Net in this article

Probably the recent choice of an African-American actress for the role in several productions is a deliberate reference to the similar vulnerability of African-American ordinary people at the hands of white men in and outside of powerful institutions. The play includes speeches about the church, the state, intermediate bodies (like aristocrats); while the charges thrown at Joan once they are identified are repeatedly about her being a female dressed as a man, taking on male roles. That is what is truly unendurable. They accused her of being a whore and a witch.

In his long preface Shaw let this reader know that he had some complicated reasons for writing the play: to show that both sides of the aisle had much to say for themselves, on the nature of hallucination, on the kind of religious declarations and behavior we’ve seen as fanatic and yet normal and everyday. See wikipedia for an excellent full analysis. It would be interesting to know how much of his dialogue was taken from court records or second history books. Shaw is also concerned to have outlined Marxist thought, and reconcile it from ancient to present time. W\what they were saying about tyranny, elections, delusion, following a powerful guru (why), torture, justice, and Joan’s “voices” were utterances relevant to us today. I found myself astounded that the actors wanted the audience to be open-minded towards the desperate and then triumphant blind officials (most did not recognize their own hypocrises). So therefore the corrupt machiavels were a relief: for example, the Earl of Warwick after the defeat of the English determined to burn the maid at the stake. All this is worked into the speeches and day business. Here is a quick summary of the story line.

And yet the play was absorbing, entertaining, left the watcher with a clear idea of who was speaking, what were the arguments made against facilitating giving women more power (Joan was burned as much for putting on trousers and defying the establishment’s subordination of women) then, what were the specifics of what the Maid claimed, and what was held against her when the Stuart king was brought back. How did they accomplish all that? They were tremendously energetic. They were often comic in approach. Lots of stage business. The actors were careful to let us know who was on stage and throw hints out at where we are in a given book and speak their lines, some of it in French or medieval-sounding Latin. A group of audience members were on the stage with them (and had to submit to have their chairs moved around from act to act, scene to scene once), and they played on the stage and in the audience.


Eric Tucker and Edmund Lewis

They are a touring group (e.g., in New York City), and also do a Hamlet (4 actors doing all parts) so when the play is over at the Folger, it may travel near you. Very like the Sense and Sensibility (also directed by Eric Tucker) that was performed at the Folger last year, the Bedlam St Joan offers the sort of experience you can’t have in a movie-house (or huge theater). The Folger blurb said St Joan is the closest play to Shakespeare in the 20th century: I’m not sure of that but it is a chronicle play like his.

For myself I found it a surprise. Hitherto all the Shaw plays I’ve seen have been realistic witty, what one might call novels of manners turned into polemical plays, e.g., Mrs Warren’s Profession, The Misalliance. Pygmalion, Heartbreak House. As I say, Jim enjoyed reading Shaw’s criticism (and read some aloud to me) and we would go to a Shaw play if ever we were in a place where one was played. I had years ago when a girl seen Androcles and the Lion on TV as a film (so there’s a fable set in a historical period), and had read how or that Major Barbara and Man and Superman have these long speeches, are debates, but never seen (or looked at) these latter two. Now I’d be curious too partly because reading them (as I look at them tonight for the first time) would feel like reading a treatise when they are intended to and can be theater entertainment for an interactive audience. There’s a Blackstone audio.

As Shaw says, it is a wonder why this particular girl and incident has held the imagination of enough people for centuries: The Hollow Crown rendition of Shakespeare Saint Joan in Henry VI begins with showing her courage and illusions sympathetically and then turns to show her a crazed murderous French fanatic, witch-like, but (in the recent film) a figure of pathos too.


Early poster

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Adrian Edmonson as Malvolio (Christopher Luscombe’s production)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gwen John drawing

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

But I am rambling on.

So, to bed.
Ellen

Read Full Post »


Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)


Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)

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


Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).

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


A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.


As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Anthony Trollope in old age, photograph by Julia Cameron

Friends,

An interlude. I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming about books, movies, cultural events. I promise not to go on for too long …

I’ve written about Trollope as a semi-epistolary novelist (many times) and how the way he maps his imagined communities structures the working bones of his fiction (and his characters’ lived lives) into social, political, and psychological relationships.


Trollope’s map of Barsetshire

I may have talked about how both connect back to his 37 years as a post office official, but tonight, as a result of recent political developments in the US (and elsewhere) I thought I’d commemorate and mourn what is happening to his non-literary work, what he accomplished in his day job for the post office and liberty of communication among ordinary people.

I thought of Trollope two days ago as I made my confident way to my local postbox (pillar in British English) around the corner from me, fully confident that the bunch of bills (which I do still write checks for and mail) would get where they are supposed to go with no interference, no surveillance, no need for a bribe. I had spent a number of hours at this work, plus began the stressful arduous task of thinking about my tax forms. This year I plan to go to AARP which offers tax services for someone like me (over 65, under a certain income) for free. And my daughter too. On the Trollope face-book page — undaunted by the Pizer court, fascistic Patriot’s Act, recently whose extensive surveillance powers over people’s private correspondence the US congress re-affirmed by a large majority here tonight — I raise a metaphorical glass of wine to him on this account. Joyce in Finnegans Wake (so I’m told, having not been able to read that one) does tribute to St Anthony for his work in the post office.

We had had brief thread on my small (272 members) Trollope yahoo list, Trollope19thCstudies@yahoogroups.com (about to to move to groups.io as TrollopeandHisContemporary@groups.io or [Trolloper&Peers]) as we are reading The American Senator now – where the ethnography, mapping of social and economic, psychological and political is pretty thick too (see postings from reading and discussion in 1999). On how Trollope’s task to map the areas he was making sure were also honest partly led to his visual mapping (in exquisite diagram in the case of Barsetshire) of many of his novels’ politically, economically socially arranged space. A member wrote that Trollope had gotten used to thinking about this from his postal work.

Trollope says in his Autobiography that he feared (predicted) the “angelic nature of his mission” to leave around southwest England and various areas in Ireland working freely-operating secure postal routes “was insufficiently appreciated.” People today talk of his contribution to the postal box (pillar), as if he were solely responsible: not at all. He was important in facilitating its practical implementation — which seems to me so in character. As important was how he made sure the mails were delivered without corruption (sans privatization to commit a Franglais phrase). Trollope’s travels to Egypt and the US and elsewhere also included post office work. He negotiated for treatises; he looked into the working of the local post offices where he traveled to (Washington, DC was one such place recorded in his North America). I remember how appalled he was appalled at wastage, inefficiency and indifference to ordinary people’s needs, their supposed mission, the patronage system in the US caused: every four years a huge number of people were fired; before the present civil service (previous I should say because the post office is no longer quite a federal agency) system. What kind of experience could be built upon for constructive work and employees this way? Trollope asked.

He thought the business of government agencies was to serve its people.

Someone made mild fun of me on the Trollope face-book page — based on my spelling of the word check (an Americanism); the subtext was to hit out at my whole attitude against gov’t surveillance and make fun.

I’m stubborn and admit to not caring for teasing, so said check is an American spelling and that “in the US banks issue checks. I spent much of yesterday writing checks. I still pay by check for some things. I order books of checks from my banks.”

And I went on to be more explicit, and in case the comment is lost or vanishes (for whatever reason, sinister or otherwise) I put it here as it is important perspective on Trollope’s ironically politics in his novels. He is guarded; he wants a larger readership. He never admits publicly when he attacks individuals or systems, which he does.

I should probably have given the larger context than contemporary (21st century corruption and surveillance) in my mind: I have also published in early modern to 18th century literature, and the women’s letters I’ve read (a specialty in publishing I once had, and still my truly favorite reading are women’s memoirs, letters, and poetry), women’s letters, I say, are intensely guarded and worried. Letters were routinely opened and read by gov’t agents; you could write one and it never get where you wanted it to because it was simply taken by someone who could use it against your family. That would include Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara in the 16th century in Italy whose letters I’ve read. The wealthy hired their own couriers. Anne Finch, the wife of a non-juror aristocrat (later 17th to 18th century) left very few letters.

The first era to show some compunction and sense that people had a right to privacy was the later 17th century in parts of Europe; the first reforms in the UK occur in the 18th; these are associated with Ralph Allen, a wealthy philanthropist and man of integrity. You begin gradually to see larger routine delivery of correspondence, postal rates settled (the person who received the letter paid); even so in the 1790s with Pitt’s crackdown on ordinary people and established extensive spy system, letters were used as evidence against people in trials (see Kenneth Johnston’s Pitt’s Reign of Alarm). Coleridge’s letters show he knew his were read, and feared pressure, hounding, loss of an ability to rent a place in the Lake District. John Thelwall, a friend, was refused accommodation by Coleridge and Wordsworth when he came north looking for a place to stay. Against Thelwall the state acted directly by arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, trial, conviction, punishment and later also unusual suspect; he found how difficult it was to get out of political catchment, how the distinction between personal and political is non-existent. William Godwin had to turn to anonymity, become a non-person to survive in his later years. Thelwall was arrested as one of the 12 and Godwin’s Cursory Strictures laid out argument defense counsel used. While Godwin supported Thelwall in the treason trial, later he wrote arguments which gave some ammunition to gov’t bills of gagging and no assembly.


The Interior of the New York Post Office (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, II, June 11, 1856)

The coming of the train figures in a modernization and spread of communication to lower rank people. some of the liberalization was the result of capitalism: capitalists and industrialists needed to use mail to communicate, to facilitate transactions, to move goods. The use of a stamp on an envelope and envelopes too were important innovations. So when in Trollope’s era he and others in the UK (there is an equivalent history in France) are working so hard to set up and ensure a system that gives everyone privacy, everyone paying the same rate, routes that can be depended upon, and even pillar boxes you can trust, this is a tremendous stride forward. What an astonishing thing it would have been to someone in the later 17th century say in the UK: walk out and put a letter or check into am iron box in public and assume it will get there; it’s said to be safe!

Thus in our own time we are seeing a disastrous turning in the opposite direction again (I hope I need not detail this but if someone asks, what do you mean? I’ll link in essay) and thus I imagine Trollope who worked so hard for this liberty, for efficiency, and people’s ability to communicate with one another with impunity turning in his grave.

The privatization going must ache his very bones.

Seeing him in this light also provides an enlightening perspective on his politics in his novels and non-fiction, which I’m about to have a paper published on in Antipodes (“‘On Inventing a New Country:’ Trollope’s Depiction of Settler Colonialism”) and have written much about online. To place him with analogous novels and novelists of his period: obviously Thackeray, but also Disraeli, also inventing the political novel. Mr Monk bring Phineas Finn a copy of Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career to read while Phineas is in prison: if you read Phineas Redux alongside Beauchamp’s Career you see close parallels. Gissing is a direct heir, so too Margaret Oliphant. In quiet plain style and realism he resembles Gaskell. His concerns ad topics are parallel to Dickens’s in politics and class and law and justice. A woman’s novel of the 1890s that bears comparison is Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert. Fast forward modern analogues are Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

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


Am early 20th woman who delivered mail (women working in the post office)

Originally I was going to end here. But my good friend, Diane Reynolds, on our Yahoo lists, which include WomenwritersAcrossTheAges@yahoogroups.com (also moving to become WomenWriters@groups.io [WomenWriters]) rightly qualified my happy progressive narrative. She linked in an essay from the London Review of Books where Bee Wilson brings up an exception, which is worrying as it show how easy it is for local communities and certainly more powerful people at the center of gov’t to intervene and read people’s mails. Wilson reviews The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice and a Mystery about Words in 1920s Englandby Christopher Hilliard (Oxford, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 879965), LRB, 40:3 (February 2008): “Merely a Warning that a Noun is Coming:”

Bee Wilson writes of how in a local post office and community at the opening of the 20th century people could simply snatch a woman’s letters, open and read them to see if she uses curse words, then leap from that to accuse her of anonymous poisonous letters and put her on trial to go to jail. Wilson means the essays as an example of the profanity males practice in a daily way, which we now know are (in the service of hateful bigotry) characteristic of the Trump White House. My reaction was this kind of language is found in many all male environments: my husband, Jim, a Division Chief in the federal gov’t and long-term IT engineer and then professor, told me this kind of language prevails in the 95% IT world — most of the profanity likens things in the software environment to parts of women’s bodies, which are themselves referred to in distressingly crude terms. If a woman is there and protests, she soon finds herself ostracized and/or severely punished.

Wilson’s essay is also about how women are not safe in their correspondence, but in the context of a narrative showing how your correspondence is protected, it’s a further demonstration of how from time immemorial men automatically have rights that women do not. From time immemorial communities think they have the right to invade women. Women have not got the same right to privacy as a man. A pregnant woman’s body, especially if she is unmarried, is fair game. For centuries before such women were accused of baby-killing. This is in the context of communities who put women who got pregnant outside marriage into ritual humiliation in church and then either took the child from her, or refused to support her or the child, thus driving her into street prostitution.

I’ve written reviews after studying this history. In the 21st century laws in the US have made so that doctors have the right to invade your body if you ask for an abortion; a case exists where a pregnant woman was taken off a plane to check if she was trying to abort the child (baby kill). Women used to be murdered for centuries on the charge of baby-killing; now they are imprisoned and chained if they want an abortion. They were guilty if the child was born dead, and had to prove it was dead upon birth to be exonerated.

So if you were a working class woman who wrote letters in the 1920s in Britain, your letters could be snatched and used against you based on what curse words you use. So relentless has been the gendered repression.

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


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine Churchill (2002)

Up next “The Winston Churchill films”: I will discuss The Gathering Storm, featuring Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Linus Roache and Celia Imrie; and Churchill’s Secret (2016), with Michael Gambon, Lindsay Duncan and Romola Garai. After that we’ll return to Anna Karenina films (1985 and 1997).

Ellen

Read Full Post »


A photograph from a New York City production

Friends,

This is my second blog honoring or remembering what Martin Luther King told us. I went to see The Humans last week at the Kennedy Center, and I saw The Gabriels last early January at the Kennedy Center. Both brought over from NYC, with somewhat changed casts. These two plays expose what has happened to the middle class in the US since the values and norms King stood for, the kinds of laws and social and racial and economic programs he would have passed have not been passed or have been rescinded, and what there was of social progress is now being further corroded –the realistic stories of Stephen Karam’s The Humans and Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels (see my review) are true to US life and measure the deterioration and impoverishment inflicted on the US population at large by its wealthy masters (corporations, individual very wealthy people and their obedient politicians).

The Humans and The Gabriels hold up mirrors to the destruction of the lower and middle middle class white family that has been let to happen in the past quarter of a century; The Humans shows the process at our later stage, the results of the Trump regime’s past year re-enforcement and acceleration. The Humans is a sort of speeded-up imitation of The Gabriels, shorter, one play with no intermission rather than three plays over three nights. The Humans are on the edge of bankruptcy and a need for welfare that no longer exists, for supplemental benefits and unemployment insurance; they have not fallen off as yet, but only two have jobs. The Gabriels are in better shape, all but the aging mother have jobs, no matter how menial, or an income, widow’s pension; they can afford to keep an tangential extra relative, a single woman (a stray type familiar to most older women in our society); the first wife of the widow’s husband (she the daughter of the one older couple) rents the widow’s attic. This single woman is very nervous waiting for a male date to show up; he never does. The Gabriels have lost the larger family home but still own the cottage we find them in. The Humans will soon all be in small apartments; the Gabriels (it’s the family name) come from such summer people made permanent and people once the servants of the super-rich. The Gabriels are probably better off because of this previous history of stability.


The set of The Humans

Taking Karam’s family, the Blakes, to be a sort of continuation of Nelson’s Gabriels, we might say the situation has become much more desperate, though both sets of people are grim as they face a bleak, opportunity-less future. In The Humans, there is a young heterosexual couple living together (not married) in an apartment which has been put together from the first floor of a broken down pair of rooms, one turned into a kitchen (not meant to be) and a make-shift iron stairwell down to a basement room. The couple invite the young woman’s family there for Thanksgiving dinner. The young woman is one of two daughters; the other comes too, and it emerges she’s a lesbian whose partner has left her and whom she phones at least once (perhaps more than that as she keep running out of sight, upstairs, into the bathroom). She has been abandoned and hurt emotionally and since she was economically partly dependent on her partner, she has had to move back with her parents very temporarily.

Kasam’s Blake parents are near retirement age (the central couple was just this age group in The Gabriels) and the Blakes bring an older woman who is the mother of the husband and demented, but they can’t afford to put her in a assisted living where she’d be treated terribly anyway. Probably die. She has a violent fit at one point and he has to subdue her. Nelson’s Gabriels also includes an Aged female P, but there is money to put her in better assisted living though not truly decent and at a very high cost which is stretching her son and his wife’ resources. In the case of The Gabriels, the family house has been lost, because the older woman fell for a deceptive scheme which seemed to promise her endless money and that she would never lose the house; she become a life-tenant in it, but the fine print allowed the new owner to throw her out. And he has. It was a bank-engineered scam she grabbed at because she couldn’t make her house payments. In neither case does the society help at all. In the US society allows such egregious theft to happen with impunity.


Yet another production where you can see how a situation comedy can be emerging

I felt that The Humans is not as good a play, though it got some very high praise in some reviews. At moments it edged towards situation comedy, obvious eliciting of laughter at mainstream predicaments. The use of cell phones signaled this. The laughter might have been the audience: I found myself not in the Theater Lab (where Izzy and I saw Twisted Dickens two weeks ago was as well as me The Gabriels last January), but the big Eisenhower theater, and while not every seat was taken, many were, and I was in the 2nd balcony. (I sometimes can’t tell where I’ve bought a seat — I don’t focus my mind on practicalities.)

So you had an audience who wanted to laugh comfortably; somehow the average person sniffs out mediocrity and then reinforces it by inane reactions. The Gabriels did take more effort to understand (there is much more there); you really should go all three times, though like Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests decades ago, you don’t have to see them in the correct order.

The subtitle of The Gabriels is Election Year during the Life of One Family. Interwoven were comments about the election where Clinton was running against Trump. That meant naturally they debated some of the issues; and that included health care for older people, and (surprisingly) foreign policy because so much of their high tax bill went to pay for wars. Why are there no young men in the Gabriel set? because one man has left his wife for a younger woman and to avoid the pressures of a bigger family to answer to; others connected to the family have died or been destroyed by drugs. In The Humans outside politics is never brought up nor is there an attempt at explanation as to why most of the characters they talk of and all of them are women but two.

Hungry
Public Theatre
LuEster
HUNGRY
Written and Directed by Richard Nelson
Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren
Sets & Costumes Susan Hilferty
Lighting Jennifer Tipton


The humor of the Gabriels results from the character’s deep talk to one another, not superficial guffaws

The art of The Humans needs improvement too. The desperation of the individuals in The Humans and each of their stories is not brought out slowly over many hours (as in Nelson’s 3 plays worth of time) but suddenly in the second half of the second act the calamities were admitted to and piled on towards the end — a series of sudden revelations, that felt like distress upon distress. The Blake father has lost his long-time job just before he was eligible for his pension; the excuse was a one-time affair with a fellow teacher. I should say this is nothing new: my father’s mother in the 1980s was 2 years away from retirement from many years as a cleaning and forced out so deprived of her pension; my uncle (my mother’s sister’s husband) had to endure 10 years of deliberate very hard work than he’d had before to hold on to actually get that pension; he just managed it. So these retired parents are selling their house in Pennsylvania, which they bought because it was inexpensive but now they can get less for it than they paid. The Blake daughter making the Thanksgiving has no job. They are living in a slum like street, in an apartment somehow to the back of a store. The mother works (glad to get out of the house).


The Gabriels’ table, dishes

You might say we can measure the distance the middle class has declined since last year in furniture, dishes, and appliances. The characters in The Humans sit on plastic and metal folding tables; their meal is half-ass stuff, much of it fast food, not cooked much as their stove is minimal. Their dishes are plastic cups and they use rubber as central places to put the food out on. The Gabriels had a leftover lovely round wooden table and ate decent food decently cooked in a good stove on set of real dishes. The Humans are dependent on cab services to go all the way to Pennsylvania from NYC. The Gabriels have two cars — their immediate area is one without much public transportation — as is true of much of the US.

The Humans can be cheated some more at the close because instead of a small car, which they ordered, a van comes. The Gabriels live in an ex-summer middle class community; now the people who used to come are fewer, and the super-rich taking all back. Outside the young Blake couple’s apartment they see a cement area, called an “interior courtyard.” The Blakes have bars on the windows.

It should be said that what The Humans had was much more open anguish. The Gabriels are still committed to decorum, and The Gabriels had sub-theme: the suffering of widows, of women left single alone. If The Humans meant to defend an older man accused of sexual transgression, it never did; the father-older husband told his story, apologized profusedly to all in the room (his wife is not there) and that’s all there was to that. What was hurting or mattered was he now had no pension. His wife does keep nagging her daughter to marry her partner but nowhere it is said she should do this to be marginally economically safer. It was apparently just this parroted-prejudice.

My older daughter tweeted the other day all her friends are worse off this year than last; some have lost their jobs. She did not say she is worse off because I gather she is making as much money literally as she did one year ago (but not two years before that where she made twice a much), but she has no pension, no health care except through ACA and is paid by the hour week-by-week in the supposed secure job she works at.

It is now commonplace in the US for people working full time to have no pension, no health, and no paid vacation leave. Fewer people going to college. Who can have a dream of joyful fulfillment now? Least of all those about to be deported to nowhere at all after building a world for themselves and families for decades.

No film I’ve seen in theaters comes near the truthfulness of The Humans or the subtlety of The Gabriels. Real family life in the US today. I ordered the stage plays of The Gabriels the night I came home from The Humans. Nelson’s play seems to be the kind of fertile pool of art that other plays can build upon — the way Tennesse Williams and Arthur Miller’s plays at mid-century were.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »