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thecrown
The ultimate symbol of power

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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A father and son pair amid the carnage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kyle Soller as Clifford

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

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

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

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

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Close-up of Cumberbatch as Richard

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

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Cumberbatch as the warrior Richard

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Mak (Ryan Sellers) and Gill (Tonya Beckman)

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

Gentle readers,

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

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Shepherds, sheep and musicians

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

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From an illuminated (with pictures) manuscript

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

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

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Over the mountain to home Mak goes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These lines could be slotted into this play.

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

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

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

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Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape

Ellen

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Tamara Mumford, Pilgrim, also called the Traveler

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blake’s Nebduchadnezzar

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitronia Balfe) singing & dancing gaily and wryly

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Murtagh Fraser (Duncan LaCroix) dancing stiffly and awkwardly (from Episode 14, “The Search”)

Claire: May I make a suggestion? Perhaps you could sing a song to jazz up the dance a bit.
Murtagh: Jazz?
Claire: To spice up, enliven. A song?
Murtagh: Yes.
Claire: Something toe-tapping, like

He was a famous trumpet man From out Chicago way He had a boogie style that no one else could play He was the top man at his craft But then his number came up And he was gone with the draft He’s in the army now A-blowing reveille. He’s the boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B

Murtagh: What?
Claire: It’s a bonnie tune.
Murtagh: But you need a Scottish song …
Claire (sometime later):

Here’s to all you lads and lasses That go out this way Be sure to tip her coggie When you take her out to play Lads and lasses toy a kiss The lads never think what they do is amiss Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie For every lad?! wander just to have his lass And when they see her pintle rise They’ll raise a glass And rowe about their wanton een They’ll dance the reels as the troopers go over the lea Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie He giggled, google me He was a banger He sought the prize between my thighs Became a hanger And there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie If you see a strapping redheaded fellow, let me know. There’s a big redheaded lad come through these parts. But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie And no there’s none as muckle as the wanton tune of strathabogie

Dear friends and readers,

In these last three episodes the first season concluded with moving from transitioning to a downright reversal of gender roles. This is taken to a level meant to astonish viewers: where else is a man broken in spirit and raped? The rescuers are all women or women-led. First, the two heroines (Jenny, his sister, Laura Donnelly, one, her breasts filled with milk), and then one, his wife, Claire, alone with her subaltern hero’s brother-mate, now discovered to be rather a replacement father, Murtagh, go on quest for said hero, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They find him having escaped hanging, thrown into chains in a dungeon, having been humiliated to the point of robbing him of all pride, tortured (his right hand smashed with a hammer), raped, brought to want suicide by one half of the series doppelganger hero-villain, Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies).

He is rescued by the concerted repeated courageous efforts of said wife-heroine, and a band of his mates; then he is nursed, his hand re-structured by her (now we move back to usual gender roles), taken loving care of by all, including brothers, in a monastery. Finally, coaxed out of intense self-hatred, depression, nightmares, but not just recalled rather driven back to life by Claire (again he is the one worked upon) and simply taken into flight across the waters. The three episodes form a kind of climax and denouement trilogy to all that has gone before. Taken to another level.

What many viewers might not know or not realize (or forget) is, like the 12th and 13th episodes (“Lallybroch” and “The Watch”), these three seem to follow the outline of the book’s ending, but in fact depart radically.

In the book the quest, which takes all of Episode 14 (as “The Search”) and then some of 15 (Wentworth Prison), takes 5 paragraphs out of the first of a closing series of long chapters (Part Six, 8 to be precise). While the capture, beating, breaking of spirit and body and rape of Jamie, is there in the book, it takes only about 2/3s of one chapter (35, “Wentworth Prison”) and is not placed as climax. In the mini-series, the actual core scenes of Black Jack and Jamie where Jamie allows Black Jack to make love to him and responds are held off as a flashback (reminding me of Richardson’s Clarissa) until near the end of 16, the last episode (“To Ransom A Man’s Soul”) so they become the climax.

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Murtagh, Father Anselm (Ian Hanmore) and Claire discussing what seems the hopelessness of bringing Jamie out of his intense grief and loss

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Jamie responding, remembering, dreaming moving to the flashback (which I will not put stills from on my blog lest I attract the wrong kind of attention) (from Episode 16, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”)

As in the book’s versions of Episodes 12 & 13 a lingering depiction of a story about a tense return home ending unexpected disaster from treachery, so that the theme is rooted in characterization and as much about what is meant by home, and men’s relationships to women there, in the book’s versions of 14-16 we are given a luxuriating in woman’s romance:

a full emphasis on Claire’s attempts to save Jamie by negotiation, entering two different Scottish households, one the armed castle type run by Sir Fletcher, and the other, another old-fashioned country house farmstead of the McRannochs, where Claire meets the wife as well as husband. In the book, as heroines have done before her, she is successful because she enlists the aid of the non-violent home-y private knowledge of the MacRannochs, including their cattle. The cattle is just about all that is kept in the mini-series: a way to barge into the prison and during the fracas and violence, sluice Jamie out. In the book Claire, Jamie and Murtagh flee to France — across the waters — immediately, and are taken into a French monastery, recalling to his mind the one he fled to (and told Claire of) after his first nearly mortal encounter with Black Jack, which inflicted on him his criminal status and permanently scarred back.

In the mini-series the monastery is in the highlands (and not safe, but hidden enough for a while) and,by contrast, the final scene is on the shore, a goodbye to Scotland for now, and the three principals sail away — rather like many a male-centered sea story.

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Beyond intrigue, comedy and action-adventure, what survives from the book is the agon of Jamie and Claire forced apart by Black Jack on threat of destroying another part of Jamie’s body (Episode 15, “Wentworth Prison”)

In the book after Claire has performed her physical and psychological re-fashioning of Jamie, they find this French monastery unsafe. Reminding me uncannily of Sophie Lee’s Recess now, they flee into a cave where they stay, make intense love, and then crawl out through the earth to reach the sky and build another future than is in the cards for themselves and others.

But there another political level to this drama (as pointed out by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker last year): the torturing of Jamie mirrors our own politics. Gabaldon wrote Outlander in 1995 well before 9/11, before systematic torture was practiced by the Bush administration, allowing it to spread and become acceptable elsewhere. It’s important to emphasize this political source for what we see, not only as demonstrating even women’s historical romances are about history and politics (as certainly historical fiction is), but because a newly elected US president has condoned torture and people he’s appointed condon it too. I believe the scenes are made emphatic and developed intutively as timely: there are two between Black Jack and Jamie, in the first Jack smashes Jame’s hand because it seems Jamie will not bend, not yield, in the second the intensely painful submission scene. It should be remembered that no information is being extracted. There are too many studies for me to cite showing that torture is useless for extracting truthful information; perhaps Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is most pertinent here: she argues not force itself alone but the fear and infliction on someone of bodily pain lies behind powerful state gov’t’s successes. Here the English.

The mini-series might be said to be a (long-distance) descendant of Walter Scott, historical fiction, with a heap of fashionable post-colonialism; the book is a similar descendant of Ann Radcliffe (combining all three of her famous romances) by way of Daphne DuMaurier’s occasionally kinky eroticism, woman’s historical romance (often part fantasy).

Pace the book about these forms I’m reading just now, Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, the differences between these two genres is considerable. I’ve now gotten myself the British DVD set of the new 2016 Poldarks and the fat books of Complete Scripts, Series 2 by Deborah Horsfield, and will be leaving off writing about the Outlander mini-series for a while, but I’m also struck by how both mini-series (1970s and again now) albeit in very different ways, as they go on become more literally faithful to the books as well as actual 18th century history.

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Surface mining in the new Poldark (seen by the second episode of the 1st season)

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The opening scene at Inverness (1, “Sassenach”)

The World of Poldark by Emma Marriot, a companion volume to the 2016 TV series has many short essays on historical topics; The Making of Outlander by Tara Bennett, a companion volume to this one on-going TV series has almost none: history is only brought up as a detail to explain this facet of a costume or prop or why a particular ritual or song took a certain hybrid form. Winston’s Graham’s original book about Poldark’s Cornwall had much about Cornwall itself (for real), his relationship to it, and his characters to history, actual photos of real places, all set-up as life-writing.

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Cornish perpendicular gothic window, a photo from Graham’s edition of Poldark’s Cornwall

Gabaldon’s equivalent Outlandish Companion has much about Scottish history seen through a prism of fantasy, romance, with astrological tables, ancient Scottish symbols, words, drawings of ruins, playful illustrations, all set-up as a kind of substitute (almost) for reading four of the Outlander books. I began these blogs on Outlander by way of having some comparative and intertextual context for the new Poldark.

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Permutations of a bracelets from Outlandish Companion

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None of this is to stay this Outlander mini-series is not a marvel of good writing (especially the over-voice linking much), interesting human sequences, studies of gender, some post-colonial history, strong structure, effective music and effective scenery (beautiful when wanted), the cinematography breath-taking, the close-ups deeply moving, but to recognize what has happened to it in an adaptation meant to engage male as as well as female viewers. So I’ll conclude with just two elements I was struck by in these last three.

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Coming up to the monastery

The use of the past is not just a pretext. The unfamiliarity of the past is important as when Claire and Murtagh travel across northern Scotland to find Jamie in an era without maps, daily newspapers, telegraph, telephone, TV, internet, lots of published maps (no GPS, no cell-phone). We are comforted by their overcoming the lack of technology, and we delight in how eras can be brought together. So Claire entertains with jazzed up versions of Scottish songs, sounding like a radio program from the 1940s. She tells fortunes of women glad to hear their husbands will die young. She fights one imitator for (in effect) copyright — and he cheats and uses her materials. It’s fun to see Murtagh’s awkward dancing. The visualization and sounds of all this is in fact what the book cannot provide.

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Claire snacking inbetween performances (14, “The Search”)

Love and friendship are matters of affinity, companionship and then physical love are compensatory and crowning expressions of a valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. Black Jack is perverse because he wants to devour and punish, inflict pain to feel his power. The good features of any personality are the most solitary ones, the indwelling mind which keeps to its own integrity. So at the end of both book and this first series, we have the deeply gratifying coming together of loving affection between parting men and wedded men and women.

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Claire saying goodbye to Willie who has been the most loyal of all Jamie’s friends

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Fair is the wind for France

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I have not mentioned the music of this series thus far. Let me end on that which begins and haunts most episodes: the theme of the Craig Na Dun stones and women’s dance.

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A header on one of the fan sites for this mini-series

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone …

The song is a re-working of a traditional Scots folk tune: The Skye-Boat Song, with words paraphrased from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Sing me a song of a lady that is gone.” Brian McGreary who composed it describes himself as “a Jacobite fanatic,” he did his thesis on the Jacobites and the music of the era. He used a “live orchestra and live soloists … live bagpipes, the live fiddle, the bodhran, which is the drum that can change pitch, [which we hear] predominantly in the main title … ” It was an attempt to be authentic Scots, using one of the great Scottish writers. It’s sung by Raya Yarborough and is part of the paratext opening for each episode.

There is a music or a theme associated with Frank, Claire’s tenderly loving husband from the 1940s and it’s classical, 20th century, what we associate with Vaughn Williams, English composers drawing on English folk song. There is a theme for Frank and Claire together, and there is a theme for Claire and Jamie together, heard in different permutations, bodhran, Scottish percussion, small string ensemble, a deeper more baritone setting with low strings or a viola da gamba when the focus is on Jamie (from The Making of Outlander, pp 22-27). But no theme for Claire. Ah well. She gets to do the over-voice, the perspective …

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

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People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years (the epigraph to Outlander, the first words heard in the series, spoken by Balfe).

Ellen

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Anthony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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Sher with Graham Turner as the fool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Other wonderful photos of on the RSC site.

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

Ellen

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Iane (Steve Cree) and Jamie (Sam Heugan) talking of memories shared after dinner (“Lallybroch,” (Episode 12, scripted Anne Kenney)

Claire: You missed the whirlwind.
Jamie: The what?
Claire: The servants. They tore through here like dervishes. I’d barely turned my back, and they’d cleared away all of Jenny and Ian’s things.
Jamie: It’s almost exactly how I remember it. My father always had a book over there open at the page he was reading.
Claire: Hmm.
Jamie: And he used to put his boots here.
Claire: Hmm.
Jamie: And he used to keep his Keep his Ah His blade.
Claire: Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s Viking, I think.
Jamie: Aye.
Claire: Five-lobed pommel. Tenth century. I told you, I was raised by an archeologist. I recognize the patterns on the hilt. It’s a fine example.
Jamie: I’d hardly tiptoe in here as a boy, so sacred was the Laird’s room. But I’d slip in when he was out at the fields just to hold it for a few moments. Dream of the day it would be mine.
Claire: It is yours now, Jamie.
Jamie: Ours.
Claire: Ours.
Jamie: And my father, he built this place, ye ken. His blood and sweat are in this stone. This land. And now his bones are as well. They buried him out in the graveyard next to my mother and my brother, Willie (“Lallybroch,” 12)

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) helping Jenny (Laura Donnelly) to give birth to a breech baby (“The Watch,” Episode 13, scripted Tony Graphia)

Jenny: I’m bursting.
Claire: I’d no idea it flowed liked that.
Jenny: Aye, the bairn’s sucking starts the milk. Then all the child need do is swallow. Ah! Feels much better. I cannot leave wee Maggie too long. It’s a nuisance. Everything to do with bairns is a nuisance, almost …
— on the road seeking Jamie (“The Search,” Episode 14)

Dear friends and readers,

What’s most striking about this pair of episodes, is how strongly it differs from Gabaldon’s Outlander. In Gabaldon’s book we have an idyllic interlude of home-coming, which might seem to project what a happy life Jamie and Claire could lead if they were not subject Scottish peoples in post-colonial British police state; in the mini-series as written by Kenney and Grapia, the lesson is one can’t go home again. The first hour is continual tension, misunderstanding, misapprehension, followed by a brief reconciliation and living together, to be followed by another set of recriminatory scenes; not much time goes by before the local protection racket, the watch comes, and the fear is they will turn Jamie in for the ransom. When they do not, there is the problem of trying to free Jamie of the charge, and the choice of the English traitor-spy turns out to be the wrongest of turns. Jamie is re-taken into custody to be sent to Black Jack Randall. To say Jamie and Claire are forced to realize he cannot remain at home in safety is not to reach the horror of what’s in store for him.

The male actors in Tara Bennett’s The Making of Outlander, refer how they understand the series to male soap opera series set in contemporary places and times: when I shut the door on Claire, it’s like Michael shutting the door on Diane Keaton in The Godfather says Graham McTavish as Dougal MacKenzie; the writers and directors sometimes say the same sort of thing: Toni Graphia says she had in mind The Sopanos as they wrote, directed and acted The Watch. Gabaldon had none of this in mind in her book but rather a loving recreation of a past world through reference to historical artefacts and ways of life, which is then wrecked by the intrusion of marauding bands of men in conflict.

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Jamie (Sam Heughan, in front of the horse) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe, by its side), approaching Lallybroch (12)

After Claire has told Jamie the truth about who she is, where she comes from, and she has made what she feels is a permanent (irretrievable) choice not to try to escape through Craig Na Dun to the mid-20th century, Frank, and a relatively much individually safer life, but make a life for herself in the 18th, with Jamie and his home, Lally Broch, in the book there is a several chapter lingering integration into Lallybroch for the Laird and his wife. Yes an initial high conflict because Jamie still believes his sister, Jenny (Laura Donnelly) was raped, impregnated, gave birth to Black Jack Randall’s (Tobias Menzies) child, lived with an English officer after that, and has to be disabused of this nightmare. The child is her sweetheart, the disabled Ian’s (Steve Cree), and she is married to him, expecting another. But the clash and painful memories over, a beautiful comforting sequence of family life, farming, collecting rents, settling wrong-doing (which includes, as in the film, an abusive father whose son becomes part of the Fraser household) is as lingering as the euphoric halcyon moments of the few days after Claire and Jamie’s wedding (I refer to the fishing together sequence in the book), ensues.

Claire’s helping Jenny give birth is part of that even though it is sandwiched in between the life-threatening visit of the “protection” blackmailing Watch, which ends in both book and film disaster: Horrocks, the traitor to the English, while himself blackmailing Jamie for money not to deliver him to the English, sets up an ambush for the Watch: MacQuarrie who we have learned has sterling qualities is hanged, and Jamie taken into custody and returned to the sadistic Black Jack.

So in the book we have a 21st century take on family life, as first named in Thomas Wolfe’s novel (at the time a favorite among teenage boys, equivalent say to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), young man growing up; in the movie the crudity of macho male popular TV, pastiche NYC Italian style. A great deal of both episodes is taken up by male confrontations. Episode 12 ends and 13 begins with MacQuarrie’s gun shoved in Jamie’s face, Claire’s POV from above stairs:

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Taran MacQuarrie (Douglas Henshall), chief of the Watch, in characteristic pose (13)

Not only all the permutations of different gangs of males one-upping one another (Frasers versus the English in flashbacks, Frasers versus the Watch, Horrocks versus Jamie), but Jamie’s memories of Black Jack invading his house, near raping his sister, and Jamie himself almost captured by an English watch just passing by where the officer observes the mill is not working and comes over to help, the Watch going out and ambushed.

MacQuarrie (riding alongside Jamie): “Pale death visits with impartial footthe cottages of the poor and the castles of the rich”. These were made for Mary Stuart Real barrel of laughs, that one. You know, I don’t mind death as long as it comes under an open sky.
Jamie: Myself as well.”

The scripts have less of the above kind of poetry. Only in the scenes of Jamie and Claire upstairs in the room given up to him, in the scenes of eating, and most of all conversations between Jenny and Claire is the quality of the book’s chapters at this near end of the book brought out. In the book we are to experience the regret of loss when Jamie and Claire finally see they must flee to France for his safety as well as hers; the coming Culloden is then full tragedy. In the mini-series neither the original home or Jamie’s place in clan MacKenzie (at Castle Leoch) proven haven and refuge.

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

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Close-up of Jamie during one of the repeated flogging sequences and memories

Some thoughts: first looking back on the character of Jamie. Suzanne Jushasz in her Reading from the Heart, says essential, crucial to women’s romance is the mother figure disguised as a man, the protector who cares above all for and about you; from Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind) to Mr Knightley (Emma). Gabaldon has undermined yet hit that squarely with Jamie. There is a pattern across the first season which is much more emphatic in the book which we see brought to final crisis in the recapture of Jamie: the subaltern hero is intensely punished. In the first episode (“Sassenach”) when Claire is transported to the 18th century and takes care of Jamie’s shoulder, is put on his horse, and the two ride to Castle Leogh, what is omitted from the film is his intense tenderness towards her right away. In the book Gabaldon insists on how he quietly is enduring great pain; he is immensely physically strong but self-sacrificing and the book’s corresponding chapter ends with him wrapping her tenderly in a blanket in the room in Castle Leogh, telling her she need never feel scared with she is with him, and she dissolves in tears.

Gabaldon has at the same time pulled the sadistic aggressive violent man (half-crazed serial killers) into the 18th century in the person of Black Jack, John Wolverton (wolf) Randall out of the 20th century gentle frank. The novel and this mini-series can be seen as deeply anti-homosexual — there is a tradition starting in mid-20th century when the films finally presented gay men they were sadistic twisted power- and control hungry people. Tim Piggott-Smith as the British officer in India in The Jewel in the Crown. What Frank does to Jamie is what Tim Piggot-Smith played and did to the Indian hero of that mini-series and the whole book series. Jamie is given a position where he can be protective (as the Indian hero could not); — he is also a Lord, aristocratic in the subordinate culture; Claire understands quickly in episode 1 that he matters because the men will not leave him and want him better. No one cares about the Indian hero of Jewel in the Crown, that’s why the initial raped white heroine is thrown away.

But she goes beyond this. In the wedding sequence and first love-making the book emphasizes Jamie’s virginity in ways the film does not dare. Much is made of his younger age, her experience: it is he who blushes, who feels grateful she has been generous (she praises his performance), his history is told by him in such a way as to emphasize the danger of the non-heir against other men if he’s perceived as a popular rival. It’s obvious that the last two episodes which come out of this disastrous or idyllic return home sequence are horrifyingly abusive of Jamie Fraser: he is tortured into submitting to anal sex, his spirit to resist broken by breaking his hand, flogging. I had realized his back shows horrific treatment too, but now bringing the mini-series together with the book I realize this a pattern: the ritual humiliation of the heroine (occurs much more weakly and not as centrally) is nothing to this. I’m told in Games of Thrones, men are abused, humiliated and killed off; in Agents of Shield these central subaltern central heroes go through enormous emotional turmoil. Gender roles are transitioning.

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The first camera shot of Ian

I had noticed this pattern in Tudor dramas on film (Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Hollow Crown, Henry 8 and Elizabeth I films): the men took the place hitherto reserved for the heroine, and took it that the Henry 8 story appeal was the ability to show masculinity of a very different sort than the modern controlled invulnerable (unattacked mostly) hero, but maybe not. In Outlander this fits the (mild or undeveloped very much) post-colonial perspective, an unintended consequence inheritance from Walter Scott is carried into gender transformations. I could suggest the use of a disabled man, also insisted upon, photographed to stress his crippling, with Colum Mackenzie also suffering from a debiltating disease is part of this, but I suspect these two characters are part of the modern trend to include disabled people in stories.

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Jenny gives Claire some ancient bracelets

I’ve not done justice at all to the female friendships in this series: Claire and Mrs Fitzgibbons (Annette Badlands), Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeeck), and now Jenny Fraser (Laura Donnelly). Outlander passes the Bechtel test with ease: women have conversations and about many things beyond men. Perhaps not predominantly but enough. Claire saves Mrs Fitzgibbons’s god-child; she and Geillis share information about herbs and healing (and eventually that they are both time-travelers) and now Claire with Jenny learns about the household, discusses past history and helps her give birth.. In this scene she is using their friendship to focus on an authentic feeling archeaological object.

Let’s recall that Gabaldon has her heroine, Claire, brought up by an archeaologist, Uncle Lamb: it’s not improbable her parents might have been killed, but to be adopted by a wandering anthropologically minded bachelor around ancient sites is the sort of content-rich particular that calls attention to itself — when Claire is not reminding us. Jerome de Troot (Consuming Historical Fiction) writes of the modern ubiquity of historical fiction and film, and tells us respect for the genre has gone way up since writers became post-modern and post-colonial. The precious historical remains, be it a previous manuscript or book, or object or remains are remnants of an unknowable past that have survived. Reality is not as unknowable as we fear. The modern ethic take on it, removing all false idealism or sentimentality, can sustain us while we come into contact with something that feels authentic or is made to feel so.

outlandish
A drawing of the houses around and Lallybroch

Today people are likely to allude to previous extant older texts, to use real pictures from the past (remember Tracey Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring). Gabaldon’s choice of the highlands, her use of a few of the hundreds of castles found in Scotland, of neolithic stones, and all sorts of 18th century artefacts tie us back to the imagined and real history. The time-traveling fantasy enables you to give the dead a life again, a living presence and show the life of the past compared to and interwoven with the present. At least I think Gabaldon had this conscious idea. The way she insists on the wounds, the scars, the breakage and recovery of parts of Jamie’s body is indicative. In Wallace’s Digging the Dirt (studies in archeaology) she shows how when we find corpse and skeletons of earlier eras, they show harsh violence inflicted on the bodies of these people, lots of fragile parts hurt too . Not in The Making of Outlander but in her own Outlandish Companion are found countless drawings, illustrations and sometimes photos of archeaological remains, ritual objects, ruins and the flora and fauna of Scotland there for generations past. All her many uses of archeaology and cultural anthropology are romancing ways of crossing the unknowability of the past

outlandisheascape
Seascape with ancient rocks

Ellen

csmith1782
Charlotte Smith (1749-1807) by George Romney (1792)

Sonnet 69 from Elegiac Sonnets

Written at the same place [where refugees land], on seeing a seaman return who had been imprisoned at Rochfort

Clouds, gold and purple, o’er the westering ray
Threw a bright veil, and catching lights between,
Fell on the glancing sail, that we had seen
With soft, but adverse winds, throughout the day
Contending vainly: as the vessel nears,
Encreasing numbers hail it from the shore;
La! on the deck a pallid form appears,
Half wondering to behold himself once more
Approach his home. — And now he can discern
His cottage thatch amid surrounding trees;
Yet, trembling, dreads lest sorrow or disease
Await him there, embittering his return:
But all he loves are safe; with heart elate,
Tho’ poor and plunder’d, he absolves his fate!

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve been putting my blogs on historical fiction set in the 18th century, both in film and in novels on this blog (e.g., Poldark and Outlander), and have now and again put teaching 18th century texts (Fielding’s Tom Jones) and enjoyment in reading and viewing arts and music and books of the era, I’ve kept scholarship in the area in my Austen reveries blog. Hence I’ve not posted much at all about Charlotte Smith, a consuming interest (in her life) and love (for her poetry and some of her novels) in my life now for many years (see More First Encounters).

Charlotte Smith was a great and profound poet in the later 18th century, the mother of romanticism (with Wordsworth a father, and Radcliffe, mothering the Gothic), and an absorbing original novelist. I attended the second conference devoted just to her at Chawton House Library in Hampshire this past October, gave a paper on her as a post-colonial writer, and after a five-year effort published the first affordable paperback scholarly edition of her second novel, Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake.

9781943910540-Perfect.indd

The purpose of this blog is to encourage anyone interested to buy it at Valancourt Press, which will take you to Amazon, and its occasion is a wonderfully thorough and insightful blog by the novelist, literary critic and publisher, Tyler Tichelaar:

Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde: A Missing link between Romanticism and the Gothic, to which I append my comment and then some:

I didn’t sufficiently emphasize in my introduction the book as a romantic novel, though I did talk about the poetic landscape and how (from contemporary reviews and a contemporary almost immediate French translation), it seems what most struck people. We have to remember that Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest was first published in 1790, the same year as Ethelinde, and The Mysteries of Udolpho came four years later. So this novel was a revelation. In the sequence where Ethelinde goes to her father’s tomb, she anticipates and imitates the haunted gothic of Victorian fiction. I probably didn’t think of the romantic connections because it’s a rare novel by Smith where she does not include any of her poems. Maybe because she thought she’d created poetry in words enough with the landscapes. I agree with Robert the book does not feel very Burney-like, Smith is so corrosively angry in her satire on awful characters. But I feel certain all these women read one another. I also forget Smith’s novels became part of the Jacobin novelists of the 1790s too (Rogert Bage’s Hermsprong, Thomas Holcroft, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman) and Walter Scott wrote a long beautiful perceptive appreciation.

Valancourt has brought the book out as a hardback. I conclude it’s selling well — for a book of this sort. The publisher & editor has indicated to me he’s not really interested in going on to publish another by Smith: his business seems to have begun by concentrating on publishing rarer older gothic and Victorian novels (out of copyright) but in the last few year more contemporary and gay novels have been added to the list. If he should change his mind, I think I’ll ask for a payment this time 🙂

Several Smith novels are available as Broadview Press editions, e.g. Celestina; Kentucky Press, e.g. The Young Philosopher. A couple others are available in good facsimile reprints but no notes and no introduction, no bibliography (e.g., The Banished Man, about war-torn Europe and France from an emigre’s perspective). Montalbert is in one of these reprints of ECO texts where there are four tiny pages per page, but you can buy it cheaply. Even The Romance of Real Life is available in an OCR facsimile.

Marchmont is now the only novel by Smith not available in an affordable edition. It was Marchmont I and the publisher spoke as an alternative to Ethelinde when we first discussed the project, and I probably chose Ethelinde because it’s historically more important (see above — it was a revelation), and I’d read part of Ethelinde. And yet Marchmont is a powerful book — it has this extraordinarily frank depiction of a debtor’s prison (anticipates Dickens) and makes use of a terrible siege in France, Toulon, and so calls attention to the reality that the “terror” of and many of the early directorate’s actions were a reaction against invasion from other capitalist-royalist national leaderships with their armies and the complicated politics within France. Trollope’s La Vendee is about the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside.

Fragment Descriptive of the Miseries of War

To a wild mountain, whose bare summit hides
Its broken eminence in clouds; whose steeps
Are dark with woods; where the receding rocks
Are worn with torrents of dissolving snow;
A Wretched woman, pale and breathless, flies,
And, gazing round her, listens to the sound
Of hostile footsteps:–No! they die away–
Nor noise remains, but of the cataract,
Or surly breeze of night, that mutters low
Among the thickets, where she trembling seeks
A temporary shelter–clasping close
To her quick-throbbing heart her sleeping child . . . (1797)
from Smith’s The Emigrants

Smith deserves to given her rightful place in the literature of the era and be read for pleasure by more modern readers than the usual academic specialists at long last. I’m so glad Valancourt made an appealing compact edition.

Ellen