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Hellman photographed next to her probably beloved typewriter


Jane Fonda in similar posture, as Julia (in the movie of the same name) typing her plays — calling to Hammett — an enjoyable moving film

Friends and readers,

It was in December 2013 that I wrote a blog here on Hellman’s four part memoir: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento (with Julia), Scoundrel Time and Maybe. My husband Jim had died two months earlier, and somehow I found this brave, stalwart, candid self-portrait of a genuinely strong woman, and its plain style strength of mind, integrity of behavior, with portraits of non-conformists (misfits, so-called), her own identification with these, was an appealing consolation. I was so foolish as to find in her portrait of Dashiell Hammett, my Jim, and in their life-long relationship a mirror of mine with Jim.

At the time I vowed to read the plays. Easier said than done. My inexpensive edition (1979 last reprint) has no notes, no annotations, and I found the psychological complexity of the characters and quite what they were doing on stage did not come across: I needed a narrator. I bought the biography by Alice Kessler-Harris, but tired of it as I have again as it is shaped by knee-jerk anti-communism when it comes to dealing with Lillian’s politics and political activity: K-H is perpetually apologizing for Hellman, and not conveying her beliefs. This time though I am teaching Hellman as a woman political writer of the 20th century, and the spur of standing (or sitting) in front of others (zoom on my computer) has pushed me into doing more work than that astute blog I wrote.


From Watch on the Rhine, where unusual for all plays, the dialogue is specifically anti-fascist, with fascism exposed — the noble Paul Lukas is risking his life to fight Hitler, with Bette Davis as the achingly loyal wife to a husband not appreciated


The Little Foxes Davis is the woman in the family who is far more a capitalist exploiter than her bumbling brothers or (to her) weak ill (from living with her) husband

So I read through three of her plays, The Children’s Hour (1934), The Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Autumn Garden (1951), and watched four via DVD or YouTube videor, The Little Foxes (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943, this script mostly by Dashiell Hammett), Another Part of the Forest (1948) The Children’s Hour (1961) — and the superb film adaptation of the inset story of her memoir, Pentimento, Julia (1977). Each of these films is either adapted (which means real changes), or revised to some extent, but they all thoroughly reflect her spirit, are what she wanted on the stage or screen. I read some startling criticism of these, much of it hostile, but some perceptive about her concerns. I also read in a book called Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. The plays held my interest intensely despite creakiness of sets, obsolete attitudes: they are driven by intense passions working themselves out unexpectedly but compulsively.

Then I went back to a intelligent unbiased true analysis of the McCarthy era, setting it in the long history of the US against any kind of socialism in thought or political action by many powerful groups of people: David Caute’s The Great Fear and skim-read that. It is apparent that today Hellman is being erased and forgotten partly as a woman but more because she once was a communist, remained strongly committed to socialism — and offended the Partisan Review and other centrist democratic types who were for the capitalist establishment where they were themselves thriving. They wanted mild reforms no more; they colluded and could not bear that she should show up their lukewarm wishy-washyness; their chummy careerisms. I know from the Conversations she is not the kind of writer who analyses herself so it would not be easy for her to defend herself. Politics she can talk penetratingly; but is careful to say nothing about individuals in conversation and most of the time in her writing. So she is a partly unconscious writer, letting herself go, reticent about autobiographical elements too raw for to confront. I can believe she appreciated Hammett’s help as an empathetic editor.

You can watch the whole of Another part of the Forest unabridged on YouTube for free: I hope it stays linked in here:

So — if you’ve watched the film, or now go back to it, see if you agree with some of my general usual critic-like conclusions. Hellman was a powerful insightful writer who has much to tell us about American culture, human beings, gender relationships, with her characters driven by intense desires for power, love, respect and money (the two go together in her universe), sexual desire, beautiful things; they are often fiercely aggressive, or self-protective against the expected aggressions of others; they do yearn for love; they can have strong ideals and stick to them and work hard to defeat what they see as evil beliefs and ways. They may be dressed anachronistically to us, be surrounded by absurd settings, over-emote in the sentimental way expected in the the 1940s and still in popular movies and theater. Hellman is not a writer for small subtle coteries. She gets them quickly into emotional imbroglios which we (or I) watch or read with fascination — sometimes appalled. Another Part of the Forest woke me up to the continual racism of 1940s movies — it was such another as Gone With the Wind with its recreation of this Southern world still mourning the defeat of the confederacy. Black people are only there as servants, sometimes good strong people (especially older woman) but also presented as childlike, doing only menial tasks. Maybe all the more they are not at all obsolete because they teach us about attitudes held towards Black people as late as the 1940s, though for some of the films you’d have to cut scenes, and for others you could color-blind cast and get an even stronger play.

I’d like to devote the rest of this blog just to The Children’s Hour, as it reveals some of Hellman’s more hidden values & feelings not usually discussed.

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Shirley MacLaine as Mabel Dobie and Audrey Hepburn as Karan Wright (1961 Children’s Hour, directed by Wm Wyler)

Half-way through reading the play:

I’m often struck by what people don’t talk about in literary (or other art) works. I’ve read half-way through Hellman’s now semi-famous The Children’s Hour, and while I would acknowledge the (in the play) the centrality of “ugly,” unacceptable, “unnatural” (a word used hedged with horror) desires of one female teacher for another (Martha for Karen and probably vice-versa), what’s really striking is until near the end of the second act is everything else — the motivations and behavior of a group of girls in a school ruled over by unmarried women. The school lying bully, Mary Tilford is the a girl who finds it conduces to increase her power over other girls (threats, intimidation, physical hurting, demands they become her obedient instruments) by saying and do anything, the more outrageous the better as long as she backs it up, doubles down on it, and her presence in the school brings out the worst in all around her. One man, single, Dr Joseph Cardin is the only male in the play half way through — it’s all women, very unusual — only unlike Cukor’s The Women, there is no soft affection for these characters at all. Then the lesbianism is never named; it seems to me at this point Lillian Hellman shows deep hostility to all girls’ schools, and sees females as likely to torment one another emotionally; the school itself is disciplining the girls to be obedient and gives them no reason why they should memorize what they are memorizing.

I thought of Martha Vicinus’s book on how independence was gained for the first time by numbers of women in later Victorian period, and how important it was for a girl to be allowed to go away to a school. And yes how appalled I was at her detailing and approval (it seemed) to how some girls took power over other girls through sexual relationships (not always consummated in any way) as this would form networks and mentors later on. Vicinus said such relationships were feared by parents perhaps more than a relationship with a boy, even if not sexual. Nowhere in Vicinus is the reality of mean emotions that such groups form on — this is what Hellman is after and the intimidation structures at the heart of schooling.

Curious that this is Hellman’s first original full length play — she denies writing as a woman in a way but she always is doing this. She does say she never makes a man the center of her works, it is always the female who is her important character. The real powerhouse of this play is Mary Tilford’s rich grandmother (a lot of prestige) who told that the two teachers are “unnatural” in their desires immediately phones the others parents who immediately withdraw their daughters. The girl Mary Tilford is getting back at Karen who tried to divide the nasty clique that had grown up by re-assigning bedrooms. Last thing I recognize aspects of Hellman in this worst character: like Mary, Hellman ran away, had this tight relationship with a powerful maternal grandmother, was a determined strong character ….

Upon finishing the play:

It is outdated because of the persistent even horror invested in the idea that Martha and Karen are sexually entangled and perhaps even had some physical intimacy. The implicit inference to the play is how horrible that two lives — actually 4 if you include beyond Martha and Karen, the suitor Joe, and the cousin to Martha, Mrs Mortar (what a name). In the third act there has been a trial for libel, and we come into the room where once there was a school seeing three desolated people. I was reminded of the close of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The school has been destroyed; Karen and Martha appear to have lost a libel case against Mrs Tilford, who did the phoning to all the parents to tell them they must whisk their daughters away. Tellingly all these women but the super-wealthy Mrs Tilford fear homelessness — so did I until sometime after Jim died and I still did when Trump used to talk of terminating social security and more gov’t jobs (that’s what Izzy has). Until this generation of women who are brought up to work outside the home for remuneration and demand a living wage, have a career, this was a common fear.

However, they are not giving up. Plans are afoot for Joe and Karen to marry and go with Martha to Vienna, but as the act evolves, these fall to pieces as each of the three suspects the other of lying (or telling the truth about lesbian feelings and even acts as the case may be). After protesting undying loyalty to Karen, Joe seems readily persuaded to leave Karen for ever. Mrs Mortar comes in: the nerve, she never showed up at the trial and would have been a help. She is shameless and has nowhere else to go and Karen and Martha are apparently not prepared to throw her on the streets. This happens before Martha confesses to Karen she really loves her horrifies Karen who nonetheless lets slip that she, Karen, may also have sexual desire for Karen. Martha leaves the stage, overwrought. Soon after we hear a shot — Martha has killed herself off stage. I thought of Jocasta hanging herself. Mrs Tilford arrives to apologize, to explain how she has learned that Mary was lying and had bullied another girl, Rosalie into backing her up. There is a hint Mrs Tilford still suspects that Karen and Martha are susceptible to such a dreadful love — nonetheless, they had not behaved that way, and she offers money to Karen who relents to say maybe she’ll take it — she now has nowhere to go. What’s striking though is how lesbianism is never once defended. It is telling somehow that this is Hellman’s first play, the first matter she chose to imagine and bring it before the public. A bad dream out of Vicinus’s book. I mentioned Mary, the thug lying child who spread the rumor, has aspects of Lillian Hellman as a child running away, her aggression too.

I’ll mention a role for a Black woman, Agatha, Mrs Tilford’s cook/maid/housekeeper. Very circumspect, acting on behalf of her employer while trying not to hurt anyone — very moral as all the Black characters are in all Hellman’s plays and prose. The play’s list of characters does not call for a black woman but it seems to me the character as envisaged is how Black people are seen Hellman’s texts.


The male is there central to the exposure of the girl’s lies

The 1961 movie

So now I’ve watched the 1961 movie adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner — directed by William Wyler, if I’m not mistaken with Hellman working on the script too. Unlike the 1934 movie, which ludicrously eliminated the central element of lesbianism, this one presents it as fully as Hellman apparently dared to in the year she wrote it 1934.

What I wanted to record is my amazement that as late as the 1960s the topic of lesbianism is treated with a sense of appalled horror — in the written play and now this movie, the word is never used. The characters speak of sexual love between women as just something deeply perverse and horrific. Reading about the play, it’s one of her first produced and that is fascinating because at the same time she claimed she wrote “as an exercise.” That is, she was not engaged with the topic; she further absolved herself (so to speak) by saying the story was suggested the Dashiell Hammett who came across it as something that happened in real life and told it to her.

In Kessler-Harris’s book she talks of how the original girl in the story was part of a minority group treated very badly by the majority, and thus had good reason to do what she did to disrupt the school.  The girl herself had been treated with disdainful discrimination. Hellman eliminated all that (what a shame) but wanted to claim her real interest was this girl. It is true reading the play she is exposing the pettiness and cruelty of girls to one another, but I did not realize that Hellman’s changes in the girl’s ethnicity and motives and insisting on this clash between “good and evil” works to ignore in discourse what most of the powerful ending of the play is — the two women admitting to sexual feeling. In fact only one does and she kills herself — in both the play and movie. The girl’s bullying and lies are made much of when they are exposed, and Martha kills herself off stage never to be seen again. I recalled how E.M. Forster said that he could have published Maurice far earlier had he been willing to have punitive ending for his pair of young men. What was not acceptable was the happy ending — and now I know in classrooms the “problem” here for Maurice is readers can dismiss it as unrealistic. But here Karen is erased altogether

In the written play as far as I can tell it is all crushing misery for poor Karen, though she seems likely to take the money the grandmother of the mean girl offers her as compensation. In the movie there is an attempt to present Karen (Hepburn) as rising above all that happened, as somehow escaping this conformist society whose children she was schooling to be conformist. We see her walking proudly away from Karen’s funeral as if she is washing her hands and body of all this foulness. It might be too that with James Garner watching her from the sidelines the movie watcher would say, ha, see they’ll marry. I remember someone interpreting Winston Graham’s Cordelia so as to have the transgressive heroine marrying one of the male family members at the end. No sense that if this is so, it negates the whole novel.

The 1961 movie is still powerful. Since Hellman would not discuss the lesbianism as important and said it was an exercise, and that Dash gave her the story there is no easily getting beyond the barrier she builds to stop questions — unless you are a Hellman scholar and know where to look. It’s not a pleasant movie and to the modern viewer — me — off putting because of the awed sense of taboo everywhere. As late as 1961 you could present middle class people are over-dressed and living in super-elegant houses as if it were 1931.

There have been more recent play productions; as radio plays: in 1971, the play was produced for the radio by the BBC in its Saturday Night Theatre series starring Jill Bennett and Prunella Scales; in 1994, the play was again produced for the radio by the BBC in its Monday Play series, starring Clare Holman, Buffy Davis, Miriam Margolyes and Margaret Robertson.

The critics:


A beautiful still of Julia and Lillian talking — I am aware that the story of their relationship is highly fictionalized, and take it to be autofiction

I worried I was being a bit hard on Hellman for suggesting she was wiping away lesbianism, showing far more hostility than ambivalence towards women’s sexuality — well last night I read three articles on this play — not a bit of it. One critic, Mary Titus (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature) argued Hellman was murdering lesbianism, that she was exorcising out what she feared she’d be accused of for separating herself from her first husband and living independently. She linked The Children Hour to the story of Julia where it’s apparent a deep loving relationship emerged from Hellman’s and Julia’s childhood — one could call its continuance homoerotic love. Hellman would not have wanted the relationship to be seen that way.

Julia is the story of two women in love with one another, especially Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Julia is destroyed — like Marttha. There is a scene in the movie where one of Lillian’s old friends, a male (possibly representing Dorothy Parker’s husband who annoyed Hellman), accuses her and Julia of having lesbian feelings from childhood; she gets up and smashes him across the face and walks out.

Benjamin Kahan (Criticism) takes a different tack and suggested Hellman’s open stance as semi-promiscuous, acting like an aggressive man when it came to initiating relationships, was also a guarded performance against being accused of being a prig, a dike, a man-hater. In the 1930s audiences would regard all girls’ schools as possibly luring a girl into relationships which would get in the way of the important marriage. I do not think this play an insincere disguise — Judith Butler’s idea that behavior is one long performance has a lot to answer for. Hellman punishes the one open lesbian hard.

In a third essay, this one reviewing the history of films meant for a wider public daring to deal with issues of homosexuality and lesbianism, Chon Noriega (Cinema Journal) found that lesbianism was less accepted than male homosexuality, at the same time it was seen (in the play and film from the point of view of aimed-at watcher-response) as showing the dangers of putting girls together in all women environments. I felt there was hostility in Hellman’s original play to the whole idea of an all girl school taught all by women. I would here agree with Vicinus how unfortunate this reaction is — for it was in such schools and environments women were given the first chance they had to train and hope for professional lives outside marriage.

I do know that nowadays with all the talk of Hellman as a great playwright it is very hard to get copies of her plays. Hardly any of her screenplays are in print — only the one she is said to have written with Hammett. And there is such emphasis on how he wrote with her, corrected her stuff. Her prose memoirs are what’s wanted. My edition of her plays is old and has no notes. The one summer Jim and I and Izzy rented a house in Vermont and each evening took a drive to see a great play we saw a production of Autumn Garden. Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer. Unfortunately neither of us remembers much as we were sitting way in the back and it was a long drive.


1977: Lily (Jane Fonda) and Dash (Jason Robards)

Ellen

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Alan Plater (1935-2010), screenplay writer extraordinaire, playwright, musician-composer

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight in my efforts to watch a Region 2 version of the 1987 Fortunes of War, a brilliant 7 episode serial adaptation of Olivia Manning’s brilliant trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, I was driven to use my multiregional player attached to my flat TV. My vlc viewer just was not strong enough to get through the occasional damage on the disks (in this set there are 3), and I clicked by mistake on something called “Timeshift.” I just could not get out of this program, and was irritated until within a minute or so I realized it was BBC documentary, lovingly and intelligently done, appreciative, of the life’s work of Alan Plater: Hearing the Music (unfortunately not available from the site it’s now announced on).

In the 1960s (many one and two hour plays) and early 1970s he wrote over 50 screenplays for the BBC; he wrote fewer in the later 1970s and into the 1990s running up to 2000 (his last) but these include the memorable whole of the Barchester Chronicles, this Fortunes of War, and one of the best of the episodes of the important Danger UXB; his work includes Misterioso, The Good Companions (J. B. Priestley novel turned into a musical), A Very British Coupso many it’s hard to look them all up. With many stunning performances, from Judy Dench to my favorite, Barbara Flynn, playing Jill Swinburne, whom Plater said was a version of himself.

Although this Guardian obituary does justice to Plater by beginning by naming him as one of the screenplay writers for British TV who made an important difference in the quality of its drama, and changed what you could represent and how ever after, in the tone of respect and felt appreciation for his work, the writer does not emphasize sufficiently Plater’s love of music, jazz and modern rock, his use of it in his work — and his political point of view (socialist). According to Timeshift (and other pieces I’ve read), Plater was a highly original writer for TV in the 1960s strongly because of his Hull and musical background (he studied to be an architect and that probably helped his sense of structure). At the time most shows displayed upper class accents and working class people were given cockney accents, with the dialogue often stiff or naive, or utterly conventionalized so as not to be realistic. With his roots in Northern England, especially Hull, he was one of those who changed all that, writing dialogue for the real spoken voices, kinds of accents different idiolects across Britain. He slowed down the action, and often wrote scenes between two or three characters conceived of as the core of the drama. Most of all he integrated music into his plays, conveying meaning through music. Music told the identity, the culture, the past, the feel of his characters; in talking of how he wrote his plays he called his process like that of Jazz; he has 12 bars, and within that he provides variations.

Here is one 10 minute segment on him, together with a three part series made for Yorkshire TV, the much respected and popular Beiderbecke Trilogy:

You hear and see Barbara Flynn talking too.

He conveyed how people really talk by writing less dialogue too and leaving spaces for pause, for really felt enacting by the actors together. He loved to develop what the author of a novel might have left out — what was the sermon the Reverend Slope spoke from Barchester Chronicles — it’s not in Trollope but improvised as the script developed by Plater.

Plater is not alone unsung. I cannot express how often I have had the experience of identifying a wonderful TV drama show by its writer, and been greeted by a blank look. If I’ve tried to tell the person who was the writer, what his or her career, what other programs he or she wrote, they politely wait for me to finish. They don’t seem to realize their love of Dickens is a love of Alexander Baron (prolific screenplay writer of the 1980s with some of them peculiarly fine, and a good novelist too) or Andrew Davies or Arthur Hopcraft or Simon Raven (of the Pallisers). Nowadays many women write these screenplays, Sandy Welch (Our Mutual Friend 1999) is an older practitioner, so too Fay Weldon (1979 Pride and Prejudice) more recently, Fiona Seres (2018 Woman in White). In the BBC until recently the screenwriter was the linchpin or (as the position is now called) one of the showrunners of the series. In cinema they are now named early in credits and paid much better; so too in some more prestigious (or pushed) serial adaptations (Poldark, Deborah Horsfield; Downton Abbey, Jerome Fellowes), but not as much (how many people know the names of the remarkable team writing Outlander under the general direction of Ronald Moore). Misterioso is perhaps one of his finest later dramas (1991, based on his own novel.

Hours, days, months, years of fine entertainment are due to such people — of course the cinematographer, the directors, producers, costumers, but in the case of the writer you can find biographies and you can trace a personality and point of view that is interesting across the work. I wish more people would pay attention to these unsung heroes and heroines. I hear in my head for hours afterwards the music that plays across The Fortunes of War

As a coda treat, it is said of Plater he combined Coronation Street with the feel and outlook of Chekhov story or play, so here is one of those Play of the Month productions, which demonstrates this: Francesca Annis and Ian Holm, 1974 in The Wood Demon (I believe it’s the whole thing)

Ellen

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Father (in his sepulchal voice) There was this English butler out in India — one day he goes into the dining room and what’s he see under the table: a tiger. Not turning a hair, he goes to the drawing room– ‘Excuse me, m’lord’ — (gives imitation of slight cough)– and whispering so as not to upset the ladies: ‘I’m very sorry, m’lord, there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps his lordship will permit use of the twelve-bores?’ They go on drinking their tea and then there’s three gunshots. They don’t think nothing of it — this being India where they’re used to anything — and when the butler is back to refresh the teapots, he says, cool as a cucumber: ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time, m’lord, and I am pleased to say there will be no discernable traces left of the recent occurrence by that time’ (shooting script, third draft, scene 22).

Friends and readers,

This not very long novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), with its quiet main story, the happenings along a road Darlington Hall’s long-time butler, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), encounters as he drives in his master’s Daimler cross-country from southeast to southwest England — is as rich a masterpiece as any overlong super-respected 19th century novel, as richly interesting as the novel Ishiguro said he had in mind as its precursor, E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). The film adaptation by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (whose script is a not-very-much altered version of one by Harold Pinter, is repeatedly said to be one of their masterpieces. I just finished teaching the book to a lively intelligent group of retired adults, and wish I could better convey the tone and comments on our conversations online (via Zoom), which show how metaphorically connected to our lives is the outlines of the story, now the characters, especially Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) are versions of ourselves from whom we can learn. We talked warmly about things that are important to us, coming out of and returning to the book and its film.

There has been so much said about both books and sets of films (Howards End comes in two forms, the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala 1993 version, with again, and not just a coincidence, Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the key roles; and the 2015 HBO version scripted by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Hettie MacDonald, this time with, as alterego for Margaret Shlegel-Emma, Hayley Atwell, but a somewhat different type from Wilcox-Hopkins, Matthew MacFayden.) What can I add? Here goes.

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The Remains of the Day, the book, continually exists on at least two levels: Mr Stevens is both a realistic character and a symbolic one. On a psychological level, he is a super-sensitive man, afraid of life’s emotions and hard realities (like possibly even getting fired), status insecure, and hides under the habit of the archetypal butler. We gradually learn to feel for him, grieve for his unlived life (as he finally does at the end of novel and film); on a symbolic level, he stands for the person who opts out of responsibility, will facilitate the doing of the most horrible aims (Nazism, fascism, flourishing and extended out of Lord Darlington’s conferences), an instrument for evil to work with. In his interview online, Ishiguro says he chose an archetypal figure for his allegory, made a man who fears the arena of emotions, emotional engagement, who at the same time is us because we too are removed from real power, do a little job as best we can, without being able to control how our contribution will be used. In a democratic culture we don’t get to choose among the out of our control decisions that affect vast numbers of people. He is Us.


Here he is always under strain


Miss Kenton intruding on Mr Stevens’s refuge in sentimental romance (a self-reflexive scene, since what is this novel but a sentimental romance?)

Ishiguro wants Mr Stevens’s idea of dignity to be completely challenged by the end of the book. I saw saw Mr Stevens’s definition of preserving self-guarded control, an attempt at a veneer which would save him from mockery, ridicule, scorn (in the book when Lord Darlington’s rich powerful guests question Mr Stevens we see how easy it is to humiliate him nonetheless). The true servant is the man who gives good advice, trustworthily, tells the master what he or she (the mistress) needs to hear to do well — as Kent does in the first act of King Lear, for which the king, I admit, banishes him.

Miss Kenton is Everywoman in the guise of a type seen in traditional English novels: she is pro-active, strong, competent in housekeeping (no small task to run such a house), with perception, integrity, and prudent self-control. She will act according to her conscience, as when she is horrified that Mr Stevens goes along with Lord Darlington’s orders they fire two Jewish maids (thus threatening their lives, as without jobs, they might be returned to Germany), she wants to quit; but she stays because she needs this job to live, because she enjoys her status in this awesome house, is deeply pleased by its order, beauty, and diurnal routine peace. She is a sister to Elinor Dashwood, to Margaret Schegel; that’s why the same actress, Emma Thompson, is perfect for all three characters.


as Elinor Dashwood writing to her mother (1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, scripted by Thompson too)


as careful Margaret Shlegel (M-I, 1993)


Miss Kenton interviewed (presumably in book and film, spring 1922)

She defends herself against Mr Stevens’s frequent nervous hypercriticism (his father “incorrectly situated [the china] Chinamen”). She says of another maid when she choses to marry over staying on in such a celibate position, “she will be disappointed,” but it not long afterward he begins to date Mr Been (Timothy Piggot-Smith). She wants both: the career, the marriage and her sad ending choosing to stay with Mr Been, so she can be near a coming grandchild and live through it, is not atypical. The letter (over-voice) with which the film opens, is brought back at the end, to show us that she had longed to return to Darlington Hall and this butler for whom she had venerating respect. Her grief at loss of a dream of happiness (it does not seem that they could have been happy together) is unbearably moving as she waves goodbye as her bus pulls off. Their hands had touched, and she leaves him and us weeping too. How many of my woman readers recognize themselves in her life and this ending? He could not reach out to her, and ridiculed him in a petty revenge among her last scenes in the house together.

Looking to the large issues: the unsettling of the old order, with a new one struggling to be born (Gramsci) pathological symptoms emerge. This is an unobtrusive condition of England novel — there are auctions in the movies made from both novels. Young Mr Cardinal (Hugh Grant) belongs here: he knows what is happening, his father persuaded to work for Nazi fascists, and in his newspaper he will try to expose his uncle — to stop him. The scene where he (like Miss Kenton) prods Mr Stevens to let go, open up to the reality of what he is working so hard for and is rebuffed is one of the books’ several climaxes.


Grant pushing Mr Stevens to own (up) to what has been going on at Darlington Hall this 1936/37

And in a throwaway line, when Mr Stevens and Mrs Been discuss Lord Darlington’s estrangement from England after he was shamed by his own libel case (he did entertain Nazis), she says how perhaps his nephew prevented too profound a loneliness, only to be told oh he died in the war. The good man in potentia and actually thrown away.

I love that the book is a beautiful patterning of art in itself. The story (the woof) contains three time skeins, with indeterminate time in-between. We begin (this is the third letter of the book). 1922 when Miss Kenton is hired, 1923 their earliest struggles – over who will have more power demonstrably, over his father too old for the job, his father’s death (where his face is suffused with tears which he wants no one to notice), seems around that time to want to visit the town the school the new schoolmaster (me) he is. Then 1936/37 – the conferences and also when Miss Kenton begins to date, tries to approach Mr Stevens is rebuffed, –- when Darlington tells Mr Stevens to fill his nephew in on Facts of life (sexual facts or more sinister, real politick). 1956 – when the trip happens – 20 years later, the time it became apparent during the Suez Canal incident (why should Egypt allow Britain to use its natural resources) that England no longer the world power she thought she still was. Three theads)

The trip itself has wonderful incidents, and juxtapositions intermingled, juxtaposed to long skeins of Mr Stevens’s remembering the past (the warp of the tapestry), to wit:

There’s a prologue and six days. The prologue and first day contain Mr Stevens’ memories of being in groups of servants like himself in “the old days” (so pre-1922/23, a time when grat houses were flourishing and had extensive staff) discussing what makes a great butler, with Mr Stevens telling anecdotes of his father or Mr Graham, whom he so admired, enacting dignity – in the face of absurdities (a tiger under a table) and active derision in a car trip (something to do with a music hall routine I could not discover). In the present Mr Stevens’ invited to take this trip (“take my car, the gas on me”), and dressing himself in the suits of his Lordship, with a comical allusion to the old (delightful, filled with real photographs of the places and an imagined trip through them) county books (Vol III of Mrs Symons’s Wonders of England). This is the first trip Mr Stevens has ever let himself take, and from Mr Farraday’s banter in the book, drawn out by his longing to renew a relationship he has brooded on for twenty years with cherished memories of Miss Kenton.

By Day Two, “Morning Salisbury” (evoking the cathedral with its embodiments of time across centuries), as Mr Stevens truly gets going on his trip (woof), Mrs Been’s (poor Miss Kenton that was) letter yearning to return, for her youth, for finding some purpose in life; with over-voice of Emma Thompson (the first spoken material of the movie) set against the house, saved from being sold as cement. His memories (the warp) more or less start at the beginning of their relationship (1922, the interview) and climax at the end of Day Three, Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon, when Miss Kenton roused by seeing her protegee leave to marry, herself begins to date, and, with Mr Stevens refusing to show any anxiety and even when she tries to say their evening talks are getting in her way, swiftly (spitefully as she can be) bringing an end to them, over her protests. Then her acceptance of a marriage proposal from Mr Been, juxtaposed to Mr Cardinal trying to persuade Mr Stevens to admit what’s going on. Neither can crack his facade.

In Devon too, the evening, we get a climactic dialogue of Mr Stevens with a Mr Smith in the Taylor’s house, which seem to serve as a tavern, with the neighbors all around, and Mr Smith who reflects morally on the another meaning of dignity for all of us (equality), with the corollary what they fought for in WW2 was liberty, not to be slaves of others, the right to exercise one’s will and make a view felt. Alas this time Mr Stevens hurries off because he has presented himself falsely as a Lord who knew powerful people (we cannot too much criticize him as Mr Smith’s desire to speak to him comes from this misapprehension) and hurries away because a physician he fears might expose him has entered “the fray.” It is against this scene that the upper class people at Darlington Hall humiliating use of Mr Stevens’s lack of an educated man’s knowledge in special areas is juxtaposed: it supposedly shows how he is not capable of making serious decisions about his or anyone else’s life. The “lower” people were so respectful and kind and asking him to identify with them. We get Lord Darlington’s half-apologies to Mr Stevens, and discover (to our dismay) the next morning not only did Dr Carlisle guess Mr Stevens to be a servant, but despises, dismisses the conversation of Mr Smith.

In the movie the final scene between Mrs (now) Been and Mr Stevens in the hotel restaurant is in present time; in the book, there is again evasion and we are privy to the scene only through Mr Stevens remembering it afterwards. All thrown into the immediate past, including their last scene standing in the rain waiting for her bus. And then, at last present time), his sitting on the bench breaking into talk with another older retired man –- tears streaming down his face. The man feeling for him urges him to look forwards, the evening or our lives are the best, and as ever polite and self-erasing Mr Stevens agrees, and vows to himself to do better once again, perhaps try to learn what this bantering is all about.

There are many juxtapositions that are “merely” suggestive: in Day two, Morning Salisbury, Mr Stevens swerves not to flatten a hen who just happens to be in the middle of the road and a farm girl comes out to thank him. It shows Mr Stevens’ good nature (perhaps in Ishiguro’s mind the cat that Charles Wilcox so carelessly “flattens”), and she tells him of a beautiful view nearby I worried she was thief, thinking Mr Stevens (like Lord Darlington) a naif, an amateur at life (as Mr Lewis says in the memories that come on the next day).

There are a number of reviews which do justice to the book, Laurence Graver of the New York Times; Peter Beech of The Guardian will have to do. Neither of them, though, dwell at the length they should on the characters of Miss Kenton and the young Mr Cardinal or Lord Darlington.

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

Miss Kenton, unable to break through Mr Stevens’s carapace, tries to see what he reads privately — a sentimental romance (surely a self-reflexive joke)

The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie, whose script is close to Harold Pinter’s screenplay is rightly regarded as one of the team’s supreme achievements. For my part I attribute this to the brilliance of the book caught up through its most intensely aware (on the part of the implied author) scenes realized by a brilliant group of actors and director. In the book Miss Kenton is seen through the memories of Mr Stevens and so not viscerally there in the way she is in every scene of the movie. To my mind, very few of the reviews come near the rave one I would write were I a professional reviewer. Vincent Canby of the New York Times comes closest; Rita Kempley of The Washington Post; and some of the thematic kinds of publications: in Spirituality and Practice, ignore what Frederick and Mary Brussat say the film is about. I know I burst into tears the first time I saw the concluding scene of our thwarted lovers holding our their hands and not quite touching as her bus takes Mrs Been away from Mr Stevens forever. I took it as about the agony of self-reproach we feel as we look back at our unlived lives, our failures at not wasting our existence.

It is fair and accurate to remark that one of the people in the class remarked that Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton would have been very unhappy with one another had they married, and that often the scenes skirt a demented kind of comedy


Timothy Piggot-Smith as Mr Been kissing Miss Kenton after a couple of dates


They wait for Mrs Been’s bus together

In her review of Ishiguro’s first three books, Hermione Lee speaks of “the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate [I’d call it intensely tremblingly controlled) surface of the book. They’ve caught this in the movie as well as the stretches of absurd comedy, open anguish and daily ordinary life. James Ivory writes more than adequately and in detail about the scenes that matter so effectively in James Ivory in Conversation with Robert Emmet Long (pp 226-238).Ivory says he kept in mind a Satyajit Ray movie where an unfaithful husband and wife hesitantly reach out to one another and fail to make contact, also that it’s insufficiently appreciated how all the scenes upstairs are seen from the point of view of a servant passingly there and hardly take any of the screen time. I’d say as in the M-I movies set in southeastern England, do not underestimate the effect of the soul-gratifying orderly green landscapes (see the intelligent picture book, John Pym’s Merchant Ivory’s English Landscape: Rooms, Views and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes).

I’ll leave my reader to watch the film again and listen to Ishiguro talking of what he meant to do in his book and how he felt the movie related to it and should be approached.

Ellen

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The Emperor Overall and Death

Last year this opera company staged Mozart’s Idomeneo to mirror how inhumanely refugees who come to the US for asylum were being treated. It’s been less than a year that we’ve known about the separation of children from parents (a violation of a basic human right), and less than a few months that it has emerged they are in concentration camps run by the private prison companies of the US — and being treated so deeply abusively that they are dying. This includes for children as drink kool-aide three times a day, and once when a group lost their one lice-comb being forced to sleep on concrete floors with nothing else to comfort them.

So this year the company staged an opera written and first rehearsed by a group of people living in a Nazi ghetto. When the authorities got hold of what this group of people were rehearsing, they shipped them out to Auschwitz and killed them all forthwith. The story of this opera is that death is refusing to kill anyone any more because the life they are leading is death and death would be a release ….

This blog is inadequate, but I felt I had to say something — however hot and tired I feel from this super-hot day and night …

Friends and readers,

This afternoon, Izzy and I went to a stunning masque-like opera written by Viktor Ullmann while he and Peter Kien, poet and painter, were prisoners in a Nazi ghetto, Terezin. It’s an allegory of death (that’s what life is) in Nazi-like regimes. The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. Death refuses to kill anyone any more. It was paired with an unfortunately non-witty allegorical opera by Gluck, Merlin’s Island, which reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s Enchanted Island (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest), only much more inconsistent, inane. Go by all means and endure the first hour to get to the second.

It seems to me the opera by Ullmann is insufficently well known, so I here record and (if there is still time or you get another opportunity) urge all who read this to attend the composer Viktor Ullmann‘s one-act masque-like nightmare opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death’s Refusal. The speeches and lyrics are by Peter Kien, who happened to be there, and the whole practiced by an amateur community. Written between 1943 and 1944, in a Nazi prison ghetto, Terezin, it is an astonishingly courageous allegory of Nazi thinking, norms, roles people are given in regimes. The characters are all allegorical figures: the Emperor Overall, Death, the Loudspeaker, a Soldier, a Girl with Bobbed Hair, Harlequin, a Drummer. They live in a world where the living no longer laugh, and the dying cannot die; where life is a slow death, no one follows the usual roles of social life. The action (such as it is) is a declaration of war to end all wars, and we watch the characters respond individually and as pairs to this and one another.


The soldier and the girl evoke memories of a cabaret

The girl and soldier soften towards one another, and end up in bed; there is a battlefield, after which Harlekin sweeps up the blood. Other characters are pained by memories, and panic because they cannot die. There is a young woman dressed as a Nazi boyscout who keeps coming down a slide. At the close death regrets the suffering he has caused, and returns to offer relief to the characters. There are numerous vignettes, which as I watched, resonated for me with parallels from the contemporary US political worlds; the impersonal powerful characters tyrannize, others mock; some are outraged, others destroy their weapons. The costumes are a mix of cabaret, medieval allegory, German imagery taken over from operas, technology, cheap vaudeville shows. The music seemed to my ears mid-20th century.

The notes to the program told us that when the Nazi authorities got hold of the script, all the artists and people involved in the camp were sent to Auschwitz to die. As I watched I felt a cry from the soul of people reaching out. Death had not succeeded in keeping to its refusal and the real people had been done away with cruelly, senselessly.

The audience was stunned and then applauded strongly. One man broke out with a “bravi!” I have read the papers and documents left to us from the Lodz Ghetto and I felt like I was entering the mind-set of people forced to live in such regimes. This is what we are threatened by again today.

Last year the company did Mozart’s Idomeneo Kim Pensinger (now retired) readily turned this opera with its beautiful music into a play about a tyrant doing all he could to destroy refugees, whose cruel state he was partly responsible for. The staging was minimal, she allowed the figures of the fleeing, the victims, the war scenes their full plain predominance.

There is a problem: Death’s Refusal runs but 55 minutes. So, the Wolf Trap opera company felt they had to fill out the time and you will have to sit through a rather inane allegorical comedy by Christoph Willibald Gluck (he of Orfeo e Eurydice and Iphigenia fame), Merlin’s Island.


Pierrot and Scapin, Argentine and Diamantine

L’Ile de Merlin reminded me of Davenant and Dryden’s re-write of Shakespeare’s Tempest as The Enchanted Island. Two young men are shipwrecked on an island, fall in love with Merlin’s nieces (who live there); it’s a place where some patriarchal values and norms are reversed, and the two young men have to learn how to cherish the nieces, and overcome the violence of their rivals. They are taught wry inconsistent lessons. At its best moments, its musical feel and sense of gendered allegories reminded me of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, but the allegory didn’t make sense, and the characters too without personality. It was based on a vaudeville kind of comedy, composed by Jean Gilliers, (premiered at a Paris fair in 1718). The French libretto is by Louis Anseaume, as corrected by Favart. One does not expect Arthurian characters from an 18th century opera, but out of a vaudeville show suggests just how the Arthurian matter had been degraded by this time. (It was just then about to undergo remarkable renewal.) A man played the accordion from the side of the stage as the action began. I can say the costumes were fun:


Conor McDonald as Merlin – all glittery, he looks like a gas station attendant

Everyone sung beautifully, acted as best they could with the material, and the idea was to present another opera debating ideas; but here they were non-serious (wealth is presented as non-desirable) seemed in inappropriate match for the dark story of Atlantis. After all Gluck wrote so many operas; the lecturer said he lived on another 50 years; 40 years later he composed Orfeo, another ten, Iphigenia. There is nothing in the history or context of the operas or composer’s aims beyond allegoresis to unite the two operas.

The umbrella title for the pair, The world Upside Down, did not join the two; they seemed a dislocated juxtaposition to me, though Annette Midgett does what she can to show the parallels.

Merlin is historically revealing; I didn’t know an opera like this one (a kind of left-over from wild god-goddesses baroque) could be written and staged 3/4s of the way through the century — I thought it was all opera buffa or opera serieux. There is nothing offensive, and 75 minutes is not too much time. But you are going to have to sit through it in order to have the privilege, important in this year 2019 when the Enlightenment’s achievements in thought, feeling, governance, family life, romance are being so undermined, of seeing Death’s Refusal.

Last year July 4th, at Wolf Trap we experienced a staging about the way the US gov’t was treating refugees, now we have an opera to show how we are threatened.

Need I remind my readers who is staging a mass celebration of himself on the mall of the capitol this year?

Ellen

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The whole cast, gathered Agatha-Christie, locked into the green room while eerie versions of themselves get on with the play ….

Dear friends and readers,

Upfront and plain. let’s all who live in DC and come to the Folger library say aloud together, “It’s been a remarkable year at the Folger!” They began with a marvelous rendition of Davenant’s Macbeth, went onto a dramatic and thoughtfully presented political parable (and understandable) King John;  moved to a buoyant, intelligent Nell Gwyn, then about a month ago an entertaining Love’s Labor’s Lost (so essentially two very difficult to produce Shakespeare plays), not to omit brilliant HD screenings, last summer about this time, another film appropriation, a fantasy modernization of Midsummer’s Night Dream by Casey Wilder Mott (scroll down), available at Amazon Prime:

https://www.amazon.com/Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Rachael-Leigh/dp/B07GXSDZJ2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=midsummer+night%27s+dream&qid=1561351268&s=instant-video&sr=1-3

Last July too a movie by Ian McKellen (“acting, writing, living from the heart”) about his career, worth-it-to-get-to concerts, especially the one at Cherry Blossom time .

And now this: Ghost Light, dark comic appropriation of Macbeth as an unnerving but oddly kindly-natured ghost story. The two directors and scriptwriters thanked the Folger representative on stage for having them.

A dual story: a group of actors come to the Berkshires to perform Macbeth, and their disregard of “the curse” (several use the name Macbeth outside the play) brings down on them the wrath of the ghosts in the play — real witches and real ghosts begin to emerge, the first as woman come to be hired help, a girl hitchhikers, the second as unnerving visions coming out of the real lives of the actors, who are presented as sort of 2nd or 3rd rate, or at the end of not so great a career, the beginning of another.

It’s in the cross currents of magic and anguish that the power of the film lies, plus (like so many of these parodies of Shakespeare) a subset of actors play the play in the last half hour and it is done very well too, directed by John Stimpson who also wrote the script with Geoffrey Taylor. Thomas Riley Macbeth, Shannon Sossamon, Macbeth and his lady, but also a actor desperate about his career, and an alcoholic older actress married to a once matinee idol (no longer).


Macbeth and his Lady

There’s an ambivalent gay couple, an incessantly kissing couple — there are many nervous jokes about sex — a despairing director and cavalier producer

Of interest: like Roma and other movies much admired, even getting awards, e.g., A Very English Scandal, and last year’s HD Screening by Casey Wilder Motte, the fantasy adaptation of MDN (see above), Ghost Light is opening as a streaming experience from Amazon Prime and other venues on-line. I asked them about this and the two directors were frank about how much it costs to have a movie run, and how rare the movie makes such a hit as to reap profits. A more delicate intelligent taste usually doesn’t help wide distribution; Ladybird was a rare case where the gradual opening did that. And here it is:

https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Light-Cary-Elwes/dp/B07RMCB5H5/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3PP9FO5FU3V72&keywords=ghost+light&qid=1561310115&s=instant-video&sprefix=ghost+light%2Caps%2C118&sr=1-1

via a tiny URL:

https://tinyurl.com/y5z5qz98

It has gone round the country in venues like the Folger, and has been apparently much liked. The audience I was in at the Folger was delighted, and asked intelligent questions, pointed out parallels in other ghost-like occurrences in Shakespeare. These two reviews, perhaps bit snobbish as the reviews were for Nell Gwynn, are less enthusiastic: Movie Nation; the City Paper is brief


One of the real life actress witches; she is replaced by another being something far more “awesomeness” in her looks, lit up uncannily.

Very contemporary exhibits in the great hall too — and I know research and the equivalent of post-graduate courses for scholars if you want to do the work and can produce the exacting credentials.

Ellen

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August Wilson writing

Teach us to number our days again

The narrative Wilson’s plays tell us say that the public story of progress for African-Americans from 1960 is false: the changes in law intended to change norms and improve lives of black people have not worked. What the story over 10 decades shows is while there was some feel of progress and hope justified in the 1940s and 50s, by the 70s it had been swept away by new customs destroying the communities, individuals of black people in the US. Start with King Hedley II, then read Joe Turner Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and then Two Trains Running. Gem of the Ocean ostensibly about 1904 but actually mirroring 2004 tells the intermittently but consistently appalling story of grief and loss in a parable.

In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.

Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams

he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.

And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.

August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
— Rita Dove

August Wilson numbered the decades ….

Friends and readers,

Over the course of the last nine to ten weeks for a class I took at the OLLI at AU I’ve thus far read 9 out of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote in an endeavor to realize through poetic and realistic enough drama on the stage the African-American experience of life in the US from the first to the last decade of the twentieth century. I have been stunned by their brilliance, how he makes poetic drama out of the language and experience of African-Americans seen truly out of the lens of their own culture (the only exception here is Fences). His work is as important, beautiful and insightful as James Baldwin’s (who is the other black male writer where I have read a number of the texts).

Wilson did not write these plays in chronological order partly because it took time for such an aim to emerge but we read them in the order of the life and attitudes African-Americans ended up experiencing over the decades each one is intended to present, explore and realize powerful comedy and tragedy from. They are sometimes called the Pittsburgh cycle as most are set in Pittsburgh, from which city Wilson came and where he educated himself in the public library. Through his involvement and place in the African-American community there he was gradually recognized as the great playwright he was and given opportunities to stage his plays.  He was eventually given a position at Yale where the support of a few central or key dedicated artists in the drama department and theater his plays led to the staging professionally of his plays. Then some of them were performed to New York City theaters . In case you don’t know the titles and year of each, here they are:

Gem of the Ocean (2003): set in Pittsburgh in a symbolic retreat house (threatened with demolition) in 1904. The matriarch, Aunt Esther claims to be 285 years old.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984): set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. Joe Turner, was the brother of a Tennessee Governor, who would kidnap young African-American prisoners and force them to work in hard labor for a pittance for years on end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982): set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh). This dramatizes the individual black musicians’s characters, conflicts, and their forced subservience to white producers.
The Piano Lesson (1986): set in 1936 in Pittsburgh. It revolves around a piano, whose early owners bought the enslaved grandparents of the present African-American owners: a brother, who wants to sell it to buy the land the original white owners are now offering for sale; and a sister to whom it stands for bitter and precious memories of her murdered husband, and a way for her daughter to become a pianist.
Seven Guitars (1995): set in Pittsburgh in 1948. Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. I was not able to read this one as it is so drenched in supernatural ghosts I could not tell who was really alive and who not. One of its overt themes is the perpetual killing of black men with impunity by whites, which we see in most of the plays.
Fences (1984): set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his two sons; he betrays his wife Rose. It almost seems modeled on Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and is the most white and bourgeois of all the plays. No surprise that it is the one which has been commercially filmed.
Two Trains Running (1990): set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline; the city wants to seize and demolish it (just as it wanted to seize and demolish Aunt Esther’s house).
Jitney (1979): set in 1977 in an black people’s taxi station (one which has emerged because no cabs run by white people will pick black people up) threatened with demolition. It was Wilson’s first play.
King Hedley II (1991): set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. This is the darkest and bleakest of the plays: major characters murder or beat up or threaten people viscerally; the protagonist says:  “It used to be you got killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing.”
Radio Golf (2005): set in 1990 Pittsburgh, the last play he completed before his death. We are back in Aunt Esters home, still threatened with demolition to make way for real estate development in the depressed area (for whites). Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. I will probably not read this one as I have had to buy them all and will not be in the US for the last class (I will be in Cornwall) and I feel I have understood the cycle. But I regret not reading it.


Joe Turner Come and Gone — Roger Robinson and Marsha Blake (see NYTimes review below)

The plays have recurring characters, often move into symbolic realms and modes. While many are set in Pittsburgh, through the memories and backstories of the characters, places in the south, up north (Chicago) and elsewhere on the East Coast mostly are realized vividly so the plays do present a cross-section of African-American experience, including enslavement (with memories of the original kidnapping in Africa and hideous passage in torture ships), in most of the plays horrific violence inflicted on them by whites determined to keep them in subjection, the various forms of harsh injustice and discrimination typical of each era, and also the characters’ own strong effective will to survive and achieve some measure of self-fulfillment and joy and friendship, family life, their gifts (musical, from playing instruments and singing, and as central to their community lives), the important function religion plays for many.

The one flaw or lack that is seen in many is that these are written from a strongly masculine perspective; some plays have just one female character; females are in the minority, seen as wives, girlfriends, sisters, and presented as “good” and valuable when they spend their lives serving the males food, having their children, accepting their sexual promiscuity or mistresses, and just support the men absolutely. Some are comfort pillows (there for sex); others downright Victorian heroines transposed. The teacher called them angels. I found many self-negate, are all self-sacrifice but in a way that refuses to go aggressively after individualistic desires that presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal or conformist (and thus demanding of these males that they make good money) and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find yourself in. In Two Trains Running, there is a heroine who practices self-harm to keep others at bay. They can win out this way or be pro-active by holding onto lieux de memoires: in The Piano Lesson, Beatrice holds onto her precious piano and the memories that sustain her.  She was my favorite character across all the plays.  Wilson did not side with her (I found).

On the other hand, it must be said that even in these limited roles and small space allowed in the plays, Wilson empathizes strongly with many of women enough to transcend the limits they are circumscribed in and one can see were they allowed far more living space, realization of multiplicities of traits (as the male characters are) they could appear in Lorraine’s Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf — the only two plays by black women that I have seen and remember. There is an underlying current through much Afro- literature so I will also say the female types found in Wilson include those found in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and black British males in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and the writing of Zadie Smith. The question of who you are, what is your identity is central to Levy and Wilson.

Here is an excerpt from King Hedrick II where Viola Davis as Tonya explains in anguish to Brian Stokes Mitchell as her husband, Hedrick why she must get an abortion or has gotten one: she cannot bear to watch another daughter grow up and lead a life of violence:

I feel inadequate before these plays because as a white person I have not myself experienced except by analogy (having been poor, excluded by virtue of my class, parentage, and disabilities) and imaginative understanding (not the same thing as experience) what these plays put before us. I do know I was often deeply moved and could remember analogous experiences of my own, and found (much to my discomfort) that when in a classroom with others (all middle class white older people in the class, with the teacher a black man who is a librarian at Howard University) that I would risk my own emotional safety trying to explain to the others the roots of devastation these plays register in these characters’ reveries of deep emotional trauma, desperate, circumstances, often profound resentment and loss of self-esteem, anger at one another.

I cannot say I enjoyed the class because I found it a stressful class to be in. The contexts presented were not literary but became personal: intertextuality beyond the inevitable Bible was not recognized or just didn’t interest these people. You might say the identity crises in Wilson’s plays transferred to these readers. I wish I could have gotten myself to say less.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore. …
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, from his poem Harlem (1951) — but what if you never had that dream …

FWIW, I found Joe Turner Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson to be the finest masterpieces of the ten.  Piano Lesson shows the characters getting what they want; it has buoyant comedy at moments.  Gem of the Ocean is a summing-up parable (like Shakespeare’s Tempest). Great anger in Ma Rainey, poignancy in Two Trains Running. I saw the movie made from Fences and while it was superbly well done (Denzel Washington was perfect as Troy, Stephen Henderson as Bono, his loyal friend), and I felt for the son, Corey (like Biff in Death of a Salesman), so liked the son, Lyons, rooted strongly for the wife, Rose (Viola Davis did win an Oscar), I felt the justification of Troy perverse (based on shoring up his punitive masculinity). It has a recurring type: the male so traumatized that he lives in a child-like state (Gabriel, his symbolic name in this play). King Hedley II is as tragic and desperate as Lear; I felt the black people there (representative of the 1980s) had been Americanized much (gun culture on display and deadly, fatal) to their own detriment; they are insecure, unsafe, paid no attention to by those whites whose access to technology, contracts and justice the black people need. Jitney is revealing as a first play and there is a valuable staged reading to watch in YouTube form:

There are numerous good essays on Wilson if you know where to look. Unfortunately on the Internet, much is behind paywalls except for immediate reviews of particular plays (which are highly uneven), but there is Ben Brantley’s powerful Wilson’s Wanderers, Searching for Home (New York Times, April 16, 2009) on Joe Turner Come and Gone. I also recommend reading John Lahr’s Been Here and Gone (New Yorker, April 8, 2001), or the introductory essays to separate volumes, especially those published by “Theater Communications Group; also an afterword essay by Paul Carter Harrison called “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics” in a volume called August Wilson’s Three Plays; this has an introduction by Wilson plus his own notes to the three chosen plays.

But the best thing is to read and to see Wilson’s work, and there is a superb dramatization of the whole of The Piano Lesson on YouTube, so gentle reader now take the time to feel deeply, be uplifted, and come alive with the actors.

Ellen

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Alison Luff as Nell falling on the floor as she dies as St Catherine in Tyrannic Love just before getting up to speak the Epilogue … (Nell Gwyn, by Jessica Swale, directed by Robert Richmond)

They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps … Moth, Act 5, Love’s Labor’s Lost

Friends,

A remarkable season is unfolding itself at the Folger this year, and I would advise you not to miss any of it. It began with a magnificent lavish production of Wm Davenant’s “improved Macbeth.

It carried on with the daringly bare and self-explanatory King John; it was deliberately slow-moving as if to give each audience member a chance to mull then and later think about the nature of politics as seen here or there, by turns seriously earnest, a quietly sardonic, or showing characters who crave calm, peace, order and thus safety. I couldn’t get over that I felt I was listening to Shakespeare think aloud about the ways monarchical hierarchical power in his era worked; what the military are about. For the first time I understood Constance’s speeches attempt to save herself and her son.


Holly Twyford as Constance (King John, directed by Aaron Posner)

Falcounbridge anticipates the ruthless politician types of the later plays, with the difference he (in this case she) explains herself.


Kate Norris as Philip Faulconbridge in Wm Shakespeare’s King John, as directed by Aaron Posner

Peter Marks wrote an essay about it calling it a Shakespearean “Games of Thrones:”

… you will have gratifyingly broadened your knowledge of Shakespeare and your appreciation of Folger’s ongoing campaign to expose audiences to the astonishing range of Shakespeare’s mind and interests.

In “King John,” his curiosity leads him to a contemplation of legitimacy — the political, psychological and spiritual foundation of leadership — as the reign of John is challenged. A son of Henry II, John acquires the crown after the deaths of his brothers Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey. But a conniving French king (Howard W. Overshown), a meddling papal envoy (Sasha Olinick) and some ambitious relatives at court have other ideas. Constance, given impassioned heft by Twyford, wants Arthur (Megan Graves), her son by Geoffrey, installed. Meanwhile, Norris’s Philip, an out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lionheart, becomes yet another rival, after King John himself intervenes and declares him, by a legal loophole, a legitimate heir.

“John is now king: Should he be?” is the question Posner poses in the preamble of his own devising. It’s the question that drives the evening and, just as crucially, the paranoia of the king in a court decked out becomingly by costume designer Sarah Cubbage in Victorian bowler hats and petticoats. Andrew Cohen’s set, where the only omnipresent fixture is a wooden throne, reflects the unsettled air of the English realm; above the chair is suspended a primitive crown, awaiting, it seems, the rightful head to fill it.

Dykstra’s John seems the right kind of John for the representation of a realm in disarray. He posits John as unpolished, impatient and prone to rashness; his authorization of his henchman Hubert to dispatch nephew Arthur may not be singular in the bloody history of English royal family affairs, but it does signal his homicidal inadequacy. And by the way, Elan Zafir plays Hubert, torn by affection for Arthur, with such exceptional emotionality that he makes a powerful case for this secondary character to be the humane touchstone for the play. (Twyford’s embodiment of a mother’s grief contributes to another memorable interlude.)

A third play was brought in through the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare company from Statford HD screening events: this time Troilus and Cressida: a concise review from The Guardian.

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And now this:

Jessica Swale has before this rewriitten and produced 18th century plays, original and post-text, Shakespeare plays (ditto), often with obvious feminist or feminine subtexts,e.g., Bluestockings. She wants to defend and create sympathy for women and the vulnerable.


Manuel Harlan; Olivia Ross (Celia), Tala Gouveia (Carolyn), Molly Logan (Maeve …) — bluestockings nervously seeking jobs

In Nell Gwyn we trace the outline of this brothel child-turned orange girl- turned actress — turned king’s mistress, her career as it’s publicly documented and known by hearsay. Each station or stage of her existence is followed if not in exact chronological order: from hanger-on, to attracting & being trained by Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen, the hero type), a cavalier, friend to, employee of theater entrepreneurs & aristocrats.

We meet and are thoroughly entertained by the actors of Killigrew’s (Nigel Gore) company, from the boy page (Alex Michell), to Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo, just virtuoso in rants and hysteria), the servant woman, house- and costume-keeper, Nancy (Catherine Flye — pitch perfect accent and timing, she was very funny). The same actor played Etheredge and then Dryden (Michael Glenn). We watch Nell’s first struggles to learn her trade, to act, to sing, to dominate the stage amid the ensemble — as the play carried on, sometimes they reminded me of Shakespeare’s clowns because their playfulness was so gay, full of life, buoyant.


Hart acting between Nancy and Rose, Nell’s sister

As all this unfolds she attracts the king and wins his favor to the point her makes her his mistress, with pension, house, and his attention.


Nell Gwyn and R.J. Foster as King Charles II

He has to wrench her from the ensemble


Ensemble

We witness their troubles (so to speak) once married: her conflicts with her mother (Flye) and sister (Caitlin Cisco) who feel neglected, his with his ministers in the person of Arlington (Jeff Keogh), who feels more than neglected. The most powerful because for a moment believable scenes are two in which Arlington threatens Nell with disappearing and other ominous ends if she doesn’t remove herself. She wins out, to fall in love with the king and he her (she is pregnant by this time), time telescopes to Charles’s attempt to reign by himself, his death and the famous line: “Not let poor Nelly starve.”


King thoughtful

It has had a number of very favorable reviews: DC Theater Scene; Andrew White of Broadway World; Nora Dick in Maryland Theater World. Only the Washington Post was “disappointed.”

I’m not sure why the last nitpicked; maybe there was an expectation of an heroic life; this play stays determinedly in the terrain of what we may suppose would be ordinary diurnal experiences of a group of players, an unconnected woman with no money, a high ranked courtier. I admit I began to despair that they would not enact any parts of the plays of the time — only comically allude in parodic ways to Shakespeare’s (The Tempest, Lear — a marvelous comedy we are told), Dryden and Etheredge’s, and the story of the Titanic as conceived in many movies. Did they think these so bad. But at the close of the play after Charles has died, and Nell returns to her old stage friends, they do a quick pantomime of Tyrannic Love in order to end on Dryden’s famous epilogue spoken openly by Nellie, and conveyed with energy by Luff:

Hold, are you mad? you damn’d confounded Dog,
I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue.
To the Audience. I come, kind Gentlemen, strange news to tell ye
I am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly.
Sweet Ladies, be not frighted, I’le be civil,
I’m what I was, a little harmless Devil.
For after death, we Sprights, have just such Natures,
We had for all the World, when humane Creatures;
And therefore I that was an Actress here,
Play all my Tricks in Hell, a Goblin there.
Gallants, look to’t, you say there are no Sprights;
But I’le come dance about your Beds at nights.
And faith you’l be in a sweet kind of taking,
When I surprise you between sleep and waking.
To tell you true, I walk because I dye
Out of my Calling in a Tragedy.
O Poet, damn’d dull Poet, who could prove
So sensless! to make Nelly dye for Love,
Nay, what’s yet worse, to kill me in the prime
Of Easter-Term, in Tart and Cheese-cake time!
I’le fit the Fopp; for I’le not one word say
T’excuse his godly out of fashion Play.
A Play which if you dare but twice sit out,
You’l all be slander’d, and be thought devout.
But, farwel Gentlemen, make haste to me,
I’m sure e’re long to have your company.
As for my Epitaph when I am gone,
I’le trust no Poet, but will write my own.

Here Nelly lies, who, though she liv’d a Slater’n,
Yet dy’d a Princess acting in S. Cathar’n.

The subtext of the play is a young woman’s awakened determination to have, direct and enjoy her life. This was the era in which “everything changed” (as the players say) because women came onto the boards.

As with Davenant’s Macbeth, there was an attempt to evoke the 17th century stage world: a glorious rich curtain to suggest a framed stage, candle holders to the front bottom stage, the costumes (Mariah Anzaldo Hale), luxurious sex. with  a woman once again at the center.


The King with Lady Castlemaine (Regina Acquino)

The company’s fourth choice this year is another that asks for creativity in costume with its complicated play within a play, and is hard to do because of all the poetry quoting: Loves Labour’s Lost. I look forward to it. In the meantime in a couple of weeks Izzy and I will go to our first Folger consort performance this year, a spring festival of Spanish and Italian music, with a Renaissance band to provide dancing and a variety of older instruments, all around the Mediterranean.

“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo” — the last words of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I took heed of and so presented Shakespeare’s King John before Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn.

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

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

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

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

Ellen

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

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

Friends,

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

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


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

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


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

A place of disgrace, of humiliation. – Jonathan Sejake

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

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

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

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


The actors are posed in parallel ways in the two acts

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


Athol Fugard

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

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

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


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

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

Ellen

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Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth in the present Folger production

Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


Chris Genebach as Macduff and Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth

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

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


Rafael Sebastian as Malcolm and John Floyd as Donalbain

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

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


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

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

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

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

Well, yes.

Ellen Moody

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