Posts Tagged ‘comic poetry’

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.

Second Shepherd's Play
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.

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.

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)


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.

Jacob Van Ruisdael (1629-82), Winter Landscape


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Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof)

Dear friends and readers,

This is heartily to recommend seeing Josh Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. It makes sense of Shakespeare’s play. All the disparate groups of characters are filmed using the same mood of intense eroticism and sinister insinuation, so that the evil guys (Don John and his entourage of violent crooks, seducers and sluts); good but dumb clown-policemen who act as spies (Dogberry and Verges) for a larger power (a silent but effective policewoman); witty antagonistic lovers (Beatrice and Benedict) and sensual yet earnestly chaste ones (Hero and Claudio); not to omit servants, friends, hangers-on, all belong to one world. ‘

Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and Verges (Tom Lenk)

Just about every other MAAN I’ve ever seen did not know what to do about the villains; here they are central because if their insinuation, spying, seethingness, menace pervades all the couples. For the villains it’s on behalf of hurting others (of ruthless sex, solopistic drug-taking) as opposed to everyone else who are there on behalf of love, pleasure, friendship, just wandering about the large multi-level beautiful landscaped grounds of Mr Whedon, eating, dancing, drinking, protecting as police-watchers. But this distrustful feel, combativeness, sense of inexplicable alienation is everywhere. It’s aided by the black-and-white or grey colors.

An air of mystery is worked up — and fits. It is inexplicable why all the characters approach each other in these indirect spying ways. Why do Beatrice and Benedict have to be deceived into recognizing they love one another and admitting it? It’s inexplicable really why Hero’s father forgives Claudio for publicly humiliating his daughter at the wedding ceremony.

Trustful father Leonato (Clark Gregg), Claudio (Fran Krantz), and Hero (Jillian Morgese)

It makes no sense that Claudio should be forgiven, or that he should have believed Hero sexually promiscuous on such slight evidence he didn’t bother to investigate. Dogberry and Verger make no sense at all — they stumble into revealing the villains. Shakespeare’s play has many problems. The way to get past them is to present them to us in our faces: everyone is wandering about in rooms that sometimes just feel wrong (like a bedroom with stuffed dolls in it). Everybody is drinking away (champagne, tall goblet glasses of wines).

Most productions of MAAN, don’t blend together all the seemingly disparate groups of characters and their moods, into one. The same holds true of Twelfth Night. Whedon’s production of MAAN reminded me of a production of Twelfth Night, I saw as A Play of the Week when I was 13 or 14 on the older NYC Channel 13 (predecessor to PBS): it too blended all the character types and moods of the play into one – how so? by refusing to make simple merriment anywhere, by making the comedy feel saturnine, bleak, more than melancholy, it was downright bitter. And it was not false for all the words came from Twelfth Night and were not belied. The perspective was that of Jacques, and everything fell into place. So here for MAAN, the perspective is eventually that of Benedict (wary), Beatrice (anti-marriage) and after them, the disillusioned Don Pedro, Claudio’s friend (Reed Diamond) whose line when Pedro learns how Hero has been shamed and killed remains in the memory once you’ve read it or heard it say resonatingly aloud:

Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?

Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, as not a very good adviser, advising someone else

In the production of MAAN with Sam Waterson in the later 1970s in Central Park, the previous good version of MAAN I’ve seen, the above line seemed not to fit: there the play was set in the 1920s (rah, rah, rah, a college atmosphere), all innocents, a sort of escapees from Booth Tarkington’s Penrod. The famous 1990s movie MAAN (in color be it said) with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson I’ve thought one of their rare poor efforts: they make the mistake of trying to be swashbuckling, downplaying the Hero story and end up with something shallow.

It is better for the viewer to have read the play as the lines are pronounced in quick-style naturalism, just like talk and yet there are throw-away profound at moments — oddly bitter, and then again whacky, desperate, prideful. If not read the play, at least read about it. If you do, you are in for an aesthetic treat. It’s allusive, self-reflexive of Whedon’s other films, and makes fun of iconic scenes.

Whedon’s version of the “wet T-shirt” scene (begins with Colin Firth, 1995 P&P)

All the actors are very good, they seem up to the lines — understand what the lines mean and the situation. They are dressed in a old-fashioned way: the men are all in suits, long-sleeved shirts for the most part, ties. Shiny shoes. It’s something out of the 1950s. Or maybe we were to think of Clark Gable and his era or Cary Grant and his.

Hero and Claudio during one of the garden dances with glittering masks

Or it’s they have holsters with guns as in 1930s “gangster” films:

Dogberry and Verges trying (dimly) to figure out what to do next

The women are in dresses that when I was young most women wore to work in the US, and plain high heels, pumps not too high: a slightly dressed up style, the kind you could once buy in Lerner Shops, or if you were disposed to spend more money in a good department store (Macy’s, Orbach’s). This evokes another time and place, a sense of pastness without specifying which past. The feel though is one of elegance. Departures include a very sexy outfit for the actress playing Conrade (Riki Lindhomme) who is in modern style tights, very brief skin-tight skirt, boots, low cut top, hair in extreme page-boy (very blonde): she goes to bed with anyone and everyone of the Don John group; she is side-kick to Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) who differs from the others by having (it seems) taken his suit jacket off and left it somewhere.

There are servants everywhere, the women, e.g., Margaret (Ashley Johnson) in maid’s outfits (think The Philadelphia Story), and the men in waiters’ duds — rather like the servants of the 1930s US movie. I can’t find any stills of them, but here is a typical scene where we can see the costumes in the kitchen.

Here is Beatrice listening to Hero and Margaret telling lies about how Benedick loves Beatrice

The play has good slapstick scenes, hiding scenes, emotional violence and (in this version) strongly erotic moments too. Nathan Fillion did stand out as a very funny Dogberry and yet the snobbery of the original was done away with. There is a problem with the demand for virginity from Hero (and use of a veiled bride as punishment for Claudio) but that’s a central given in the play and not to be done away with.

And in case you were wondering, Whedon’s has a very large and beautiful house, with lots of staircases, and grounds. Exquisite furniture. Gorgeous trees and bushes, all picturesquely arranged. And curiously shot sometimes in a highly stylized manner:

Presented as the very edge of the property

Whedon is a very rich man, with many servants and (natch) many friends …

One might think about how a movie said to be “no budget” just reeks of money and why.


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Beth Hardiman, from Tamara Drewe

Alexandra, from The Night Bookmobile

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of years ago now I became aware of how graphic novels have grown up; they are no longer fancied up comic books; the art and words can be as complex and moving as many a sheer verbal longer novel. What happened was I went to see Tamara Drewe, a film adaptation of one of Posy Simmonds’s marvelous graphic novels, and I so liked the movie, I wrote a blog about it, then bought myself a copy of the book so I could really take it in, and discovering it to be a satire on literary life:

Posy Simmonds, from Tamara Drewe

as well as a moving account of several characters’ lives over one year (loosely based on a Thomas Hardy story), went on to get myself a copy of Gemma Bovary, which I liked just as much, again a moving account of a modern Emma Bovary who lives in London and moves to France, truly empathized with:

Gemma learning to shop sensibly in Normandy

Then I went on to buy myself a copy of a group of graphic novels called Gothic Classics, which included witty and pleasing re-dos of Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho (!), Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (female vampire story):

Emily St Aubert writhing from nightmare

Catherine Morland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney take their country walk

an Edgar Allen Poe story; and, for Izzy, Nancy Butler and Sonny Liewe’s Sense and Sensibility (strongly influenced by Andrew Davies’ 2008 film adaptation),
See interview with one of the authors

and a friend bought me Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran, originally in French, whose strong content goes into real world and nationalistic politics:



Monksted, the ideal conference place (Posy Simmonds)

Now a few weeks ago someone on my WWTTA (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) list pointed to an article which suggested that while the typical graphic novel, even by women, had been over-sexed, done from a masculinist point of view, they were all beginning to change to be more like those I had so liked:

Ker-pow! Women kick back against comic-book sexism

The Guardian article also provided a list of graphics to find on the Net, published in periodicals, to buy, to find in libraries. A friend recommended Audrey Niffeneggar’s The Night Bookmobile (I had tried her Time Traveller’s Wife and Izzy and I seen the film adaptation). First I read the strips as they appeared in an online newspaper, and so liked them, got myself the book.

Tonight I had intended to plunge into writing just about The Night Bookmobile, thinking I had written before here on this or my other blogs on Posy Simmonds as well as my other three treasures. And these would provide context. No such thing. I know I have brief and longer postings I sent to WWTTA over Gemma, Tamara, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (who I am chuffed to be able to say the authors’ treated in the more empathic spirit I did in my paper), Emily St Aubert, not to omit Marjane. But I can’t pile it all in here — something I used to do by mistake, make overlong blogs — I’ve already strained my readers’ attention with what I’ve referred to. So I’ll just begin with Niffenegger’s Night Bookmobile

It startled me:

Back cover left side

It was even more melancholy than Simmonds (it was deeply so) and reminded me of Guy Andrews’s free adaptation of Austen’s P&P as Lost in Austen and had allusions to Jorge Borges’s, depictions on the shelves of the covers and titles of the heroine’s favorite books from childhood, adolescent, young adulthood, and didn’t leave out books I read to my daughters in early childhood, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon one of them. and just hit home too.

The titles are not my favorite ones, more fantasy and far fewer of the heroine’s text and Anglophilic books I loved

It doesn’t matter. What I really loved was how it made no compromises with what the world says we are supposed to be made happy by and accept.

It takes one through the stages of a heroine’s life, each of which are marked by her simply being older and finding the book mobile again.

Each time she is drawn as much older.

Each time the shelves are stuffed fuller. Each time the librarian (a male) is more welcoming and she is led into other parts of the book mobile.

Towards the close there’s a version of a book reading room that reminds me of the one at in the Jefferson building in the Library of Congress, what I’ve seen of the old British Museum, a Jorge Borges circular place of rows of seats around a card catalogue with everyone reading.

No irony, no pretense of her being a misfit. The opening reminded me of Lost in Austen. Our heroine has such a boy, dressed so down, so flat, so lank, so unimaginative, watching TV. She wanders far grimmer streets.

She seeks out Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone

Amanda Price in Lost in Austen lives in London; this woman lives in some more provincial city or suburb of the US: nothing but malls, cheap stores, empty streets. She leaves said boyfriend. Who wouldn’t? But there is no Mr Darcy and fantasy land to escape too, only this book mobile with this librarian. Each time the books added are those she’s read though sometimes we hear of children’s books she’s read. Pat the Bunny (which I didn’t read as a child but I read to my children). Gradually she begins to ask if she can stay; and then can she be a librarian too. Alas, he cannot give her this position and he can only stay the night. We see the book mobile drive off in dawn.

By this time the model is Goodnight Moon in feel and several of the frames evoke it.

It seems the only way to become a librarian in this novel is to die; but upon taking a bottle of pills, the book mobile appears once more. The page has small frames of bottles and slippers and her looking at us surrounded by books she can’t reach, her in middle age.

Almost there (the title of the second volume of Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir)

And then there it is. The last line of the book evokes it, only the reality is she has died and yet at the same time become a librarian at last:

Note the words resonate with our present heartless economic system which leaves huge numbers of people unemployed or underemployed or menially employed or make tiny sums of montye. The words of congratulations in our world are: “You’re hired.”

At heart it’s partly a disguised suicide story.

The cover shows her cradling her book

I was so surprised as the open sadness of it. Also at how comforting it was at the same time.

She is reading for two

The Night Bookmobile made me remember my love of girls’ books and how much they had meant to me — even though my choices were so much different from Alexandra’s: Judy Bolton was the one I loved.

One problem is Niffenegger is not as good a visual artist as Posy Simmons. Not as lovely and pleasing. She also lacks Simmonds’s undercutting ironies that are so saturnine and capture our world just as surely. Still … this is so much better than most one comes across in steely feel and has its strong truth with no pandering or compromises.

It makes me want to try Niffenegger’s The time Traveller’s Wife once again. I have faced up to my not being able to read seriously at night and if I want to do this — and read other books I long to — I must go slower and do less projects, interweaving them with projects, papers, books, and teaching during the day.


A Heraldic map of Cranford by Posy Simmonds!

Thus do these things all come together. A tentative sort of conclusion: womens’ graphic novels keep the patina of humor, wit, jokes and/or fantasy on the surface and when they are advertised, that’s what emphasized. But the predominant mood in these all is semi- or outright protest, a quiet sadness to devastating melancholy. This fits in with a certain kind of woman’s novel that remains my favorite — and often wins the Orange Prize.

So, for example, Simmonds has done her typical artwork to illustrate the town of Cranford in the companion to the film series.

Did you know gentle reader and viewer she made the map and envisoned one of the stories woven into the Cranford (out of Elizabeth Gaskell) mini-series.

Posy Simmonds’s illustration for Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow

Now the film adaptation called Cranford Chronicles brings together a group of stories by a woman so tyipical of girls’ and women’s books: a self-reflective ironic re-do of My Lady Ludlow (also sympathy for the disabled narrator), Mr Harrington’s Chronicles, (the doctor whose first concern is the patient’s health) and the second season brings in Mary Smith, who left a governess autobiography.

As time and the spirit permits, I shall go on to write more of Simmonds and lesser known graphic illustrators and novelists.


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Renee Fleming as the Countess bowing before the audience after the opera was over: we see a wide portion of the whole set from on high

Dear friends and readers,

Before too much time goes by, I want to praise and recommend going to see the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. The Admiral, Izzy & I saw it in HD movie form this past Saturday, and I had this feeling of being transported quietly, of feeling touched in a tranformative distanced way that made me feel life could be so valuable if people would only live it according to its true pleasures — poetry, song, kind and/or courteous manners, good food, self-respecting dress.

The opera (as people who mention it usually quickly remark) was written during World War Two and is written as a kind of antidote to the horrors and terrors and cruelties of that conflagration, not so much to shut it out or pretend it’s not happening, but to carve a place, an interlude of refuge to remember and return to in our minds or memories. I never realized it’s set in 1770s. An overt allusion shapes it: Talleyrand said of the time before the French revolution, “Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be.” He meant of course rich people which then and now means the privileged and lucky. In this opera we are asked to forget that such wealth and leisure and lack of insecurity was dependent on keeping a huge proportion of the population in servitude cheaply (and this cruel kind of arrangement is one the Republican reactionary party of the US is trying to return the US to), and I surmise one reason the opera is often not done in 1770s costume but in a generalized early 20th century one (say 1920s) is to make the viewer forget this immediate context and somehow abstract the experience into an ideal realm where no one is hurt from what we see.

I’d say its key is that it was made so intensely pleasurable I just didn’t want it to stop — and I felt the audience about me felt the same. When at the close, the production design and director teased the audience by step-by-step ending it, each time putting out more lights in the room, and then not yet ending it, one could feel the audience hold its breath, and hear laughter as each time we did not yet end. The opera began to “click” as this mood of rich quiet gratifications around the time the ballet pair came in, and we had the comedy of the thwarted absurdities of the classic ballerina. Then we had vexed quarreling between the poet (Olivier sung by Russell Braun) and composer (Flamand sung by Joseph Kaiser) over whose art was more important (and which man therefore more worthy the countess), which brought in the impresario (La Roche sung by Peter Rose) to sing the second best and longest aria of the opera, a justification of theater itself.

We see the principals circled round La Roche

The quarrel was a kind of pastoral version of Net debates I’ve experienced. You could call the opera an 18th century conversation piece (a favorite kind of genre painting of the era).

Fleming’s last aria was the crown of the piece — what was so unusual was the mood was cheerful, an upbeat genial hopeful melancholy (!). The role at the close is a reprise of her countess on Der Rosencavalier made political — the gossamer quality of her dress may be called symbolic.

Fleming in the shimmering silver dress that seemed to float on air: her rich typology made the opera even woman-centered — we have no less than 4 (countess, count’s sister, ballerina, diva)

This cheer was central to the opera too — it was filled with visual jokes. When the hired ballerina and her male danced came into the room to dance for the assembled group, the ballerina was thwarted in comical ways and we watched her from the perspective of the people in the room: Clairon (Sarah Connolly), the sister of the count (Morton Frank Larson) looked especially taken aback at the wild configurations of the ballerina’s legs as they neared Clairon’s body space. After the two Italian singers burlesqued their behavior while singing exquisitely, they sat down to eat cake and drink wine provided by the countess. The diva’s eating mounds of cake was made funny — such a human and natural failing, so sensual and sticky. When these privileged people left (for Paris — apparently they are in a country house), the male servants came in and comically discuss what we’ve just heard debated, with self-reflexive ironies like, What next, they’ll put servants in operas? Then the prompter came on in visibly frazzled dress and state, claiming to be the invisible spirit of it all, the genius loci hidden away under the floor, enabling everyone else to carry on. It made me smile.

On facebook where I put a brief message about the opera, a friend commented

Wasn’t it great! I went by myself (husband is grading papers) and the woman next to me, who was very chatty before the start, fell asleep and was snoring a tiny bit. This didn’t really bother me. I thought the whole thing was the most delightful confection. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the whole thing.

I agreed:

The story went sort of slow and not much happened. I think a man on the other side of Isobel slept for a bit. It’s not just because I’m so into Austen that I thought of Austen’s Emma. Emma may be said to be Austen’s attempt to write a story about people were nothing much happens, a more rigorous form of realism. Well, the comparisons of usual opera as outlined by La Roche with their impossible unreal gods and goddesses, continual miraculous doings, heroic and tragic deeds, all well beyond the norms of verisimilitude with what we were watching make the same point as Austen’s: here are the real emotions these extravaganzas Write Large and lose sight of partly. The Emma project thus becomes an antidote to the war at the time, a spot of “civilization” (narrowly defined in upper class European terms) before any of the world’s most famous recent revolutions (French, Russian) occurred.

This evocation of a Canaletto in ruins found on one Met site suggests the Met was indeed referring to the revolution with the theme I suggest:

She (my friend) compared it to a Moliere comedy, The Misanthrope, and also the film The Red Shoes about a ballerina torn between love and ballet:

I thought of a Moliere comedy, because Madeleine with her suitors reminded me of Celimene in Misanthrope. And the brother-sister pair, too. But in Moliere the suitors would have been poor artists–here they were good (though vain and not very good husband material), and she really has an opportunity. I also kept thinking about the movie The Red Shoes, in which a woman is caught between two men, one of whom believes ballet is the highest art and the other that music (especially his own music) is the most important art. Apparently the director of Red Shoes wanted to direct a movie of Strauss’s life a few years after Strauss died, so maybe they were influenced by the opera, though in their work something does happen.

I objected but also agreed and generalized out to the theme as often presented in the 18th century:

I probably wouldn’t think of Moliere because I see him as so anti-feminist, savage satire against bluestockings (bad-mouthing word but appropriate here to Moliere’s plays). Strauss’s opera celebrates the countess and is fond of the other three women: Clairon, the ballerina, and the Italian opera singer. But I see your point. In the 18th century the emblem of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (comedy and tragedy in a Reynolds painting of Garrick):

Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy (Virtue) and Comedy (Vice)

was a frequent underlying archetype; it probably goes back to the Renaissance. I think there is something like this in Sidney’s Arcadia, certainly Spenser’s Faerie Queene — Una v Duessa. I wished I could remember Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia play (also about the arts) more.

She conceded the anti-feminism of Moliere’s perspective:

Of course, you are right; poor Celimene never had a chance.

I don’t know why people who write of this opera persist in calling it a curiosity or feeling uncomfortable about it, since most operas are implicitly deeply conservative in their presentation of numinous and upper class figures, traditional myths, and irrational feelings as what must rule the world. It’s just honester, done with startling clarity and self-awareness and the intelligence that shines through is another part of its comfort. It can make a viewer hopeful that the world could be better since such moments and experiences can and (for a couple of hours on stage) have been.

Maestro now taking final bows with prompter, dancers, male servants seen too

Small pleasures for the 18th century lover were all the references to 18th century theater and art: the best and radical operas are Gluck’s (this is pre-Mozart with his revolutionary Marrriage of Figaro and Masonic Magic Flute), the reference to the group putting on a Voltaire play (Tancred).


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Henry Robert Morland, A (Later) 18th century female servant

Dear friends and readers,

As the anthology of Scottish woman poets I want to use for blogs on their poetry has not yet arrived, I’ve decided to blog about another poet about whom little is known, but whose poetry is felicitious. (It’s not hard to find candidates who fit this description). Elizabeth Hands, an 18th century Englishwoman had a genius for quietly biting comic satire. She was for a long time a domestic servant in a great house (Mr Huddesford of Allesly and his daughter); in 1785 married a blacksmith at Bourton.

In this two brilliant anapestic tetrameter poems we see the poet having to listen to her poetry derided because she is of low status. The company are imagined as unaware that the author is listening to them, recording their words — and I would say she grants them far more wit than they ever had.

A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid

The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d’ye’s were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceas’d to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence open’d her fan;
And thus the discourse in an instant began:
(All affected reserve, and formality scorning,)
I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning,
A Volume of Poems advertis’d—’tis said
1They’re produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid.
A servant write verses! says Madam Du Bloom;
Pray what is the subject?—a Mop, or a Broom?
He, he, he,-says Miss Flounce; I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?
Says Miss Coquettilla, why ladies so tart?
Perhaps Tom the Footman has fired her heart;
And she’ll tell us how charming he looks in new clothes,
And how nimble his hand moves in brushing the shoes;
Or how the last time that he went to May-Fair,
He bought her some sweethearts of ginger-bread ware.
For my part I think, says old lady Marr-joy,
A servant might find herself other employ:
Was she mine I’d employ her as long as ’twas light,
And send her to bed without candle at night.
Why so? says Miss Rhymer, displeas’d; I protest
‘Tis pity a genius should be so deprest!
What ideas can such low-bred creatures conceive,
Says Mrs. Noworthy, and laught in her sleeve.
Says old Miss Prudella, if servants can tell
How to write to their mothers, to say they are well,
And read of a Sunday the Duty of Man;
Which is more I believe than one half of them can;
I think ’tis much properer they should rest there,
Than be reaching at things so much out of their sphere.
Says old Mrs. Candour, I’ve now got a maid.
That’s the plague of my life—a young gossipping jade;
There’s no end of the people that after her come,
And whenever I’m out, she is never at home;
I’d rather ten times she would sit down and write,
Than gossip all over the town ev’ry night.
Some whimsical trollop most like, says Miss Prim,
Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And conscious it neither is witty or pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty.
I once had a servant myself, says Miss Pines,
That wrote on a Wedding, some very good lines;
Says Mrs. Domestic, and when they were done,
I can’t see for my part, what use they were on;
Had she wrote a receipt, to’ve instructed you how
To warm a cold breast of veal, like a ragou,
Or to make cowslip wine, that would pass for Champaign;
It might have been useful, again and again
On the sofa was old lady Pedigree plac’d,
She own’d that for poetry she had no taste,
That the study of heraldry was more in fashion,
And boasted she knew all the crests in the nation.
Says Mrs. Routella,—Tom, take out the urn,
And stir up the fire, you see it don’t burn.

The tea things remov’d, and the tea-table gone,
The card-tables brought, and the cards laid thereon,
The ladies ambitious for each others crown,
Like courtiers contending for honours sat down.


A Poem, on the Supposition of the Book Having Been Published and Read (1789)

The dinner was over, the table-cloth gone,
The bottles of wine and the glasses brought on,
The gentlemen fill’d up the sparkling glasses,
To drink to their King, to their country and lasses;
The ladies a glass or two only requir’d,
To th’ drawing-room then in due order retir’d;
The gentlemen likewise that chose to drink tea;
And, after discussing the news of the day,
What wife was suspected, what daughter elop’d,
What thief was detected, that ’twas to be hop’d,
The rascals would all be convicted, and rop’d;
What chambermaid kiss’d when her lady was out;
Who won, and who lost, the last night at the rout;
What lord gone to France, and what tradesman unpaid,
And who and who danc’d at the last masquerade;
What banker stopt payment with evil intention,
And twenty more things much too tedious to mention.

Miss Rhymer says, Mrs. Routella, ma’am, pray
Have you seen the new book (that we talk’d of that day,
At your house you remember) of Poems, ’twas said
Produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid?
The company silent, the answer expected;
Says Mrs. Routella, when she’d recollected;
Why, ma’am, I have bought it for Charlotte; the child
Is so fond of a book, I’m afraid it is spoil’d:
I thought to have read it myself, but forgat it;
In short, I have never had time to look at it.
Perhaps I may look it o’er some other day;
Is there any thing in it worth reading, I pray?
For your nice attention, there’s nothing can ‘scape.
She answer’d,—There’s one piece, whose subject’s a Rape.
A Rape! interrupted the Captain Bonair,
A delicate theme for a female I swear;

Then smerk’d at the ladies, they simper’d all round,
Touch’d their lips with their fans,—Mrs. Consequence frown’d.
The simper subsided, for she with her nods,
Awes these lower assemblies, as Jove awes the gods.
She smil’d on Miss Rhymer, and bad her proceed—
Says she, there are various subjects indeed:
With some little pleasure I read all the rest,
But the Murder of Amnon’s the longest and best.
Of Amnon, of Amnon, Miss Rhymer, who’s he?
His name, says Miss Gaiety’s quite new to me:—
‘Tis a Scripture tale, ma’am,—he’s the son of King David,
Says a Reverend old Rector: quoth madam, I have it;
A Scripture tale?—ay—I remember it—true;
Pray is it i’th’ old Testament or the new?
If I thought I could readily find it, I’d borrow
My house-keeper’s Bible, and read it to-morrow.
‘Tis in Samuel, ma’am, says the Rector:—Miss Gaiety
Bow’d, and the Reverend blush’d for the laity.

You’ve read it, I find, says Miss Harriot Anderson;
Pray, sir, is it any thing like Sir Charles Grandison?
How you talk, says Miss Belle, how should such a girl write
A novel, or any thing else that’s polite?
You’ll know better in time, Miss:—She was but fifteen:
Her mamma was confus’d—with a little chagrin,
Says,—Where’s your attention, child? did not you hear
Miss Rhymer say, that it was poems, my dear?

Says Sir Timothy Turtle, my daughters ne’er look
In any thing else but a cookery book:
The properest study for women design’d;
Says Mrs. Domestic, I’m quite of your mind.
Your haricoes, ma’am, are the best I e’er eat,
Says the Knight, may I venture to beg a receipt.
‘Tis much at your service, says madam, and bow’d,
Then flutter’d her fan, of the compliment proud.
Says Lady Jane Rational, the bill of fare
Is th’ utmost extent of my cookery care:
Most servants can cook for the palate I find,
But very few of them can cook for the mind.
Who, says Lady Pedigree, can this girl be;
Perhaps she’s descended of some family;—
Of family, doubtless, says Captain Bonair,
She’s descended from Adam, I’d venture to swear.
Her Ladyship drew herself up in her chair,
And twitching her fan-sticks, affected a sneer.

I know something of her, says Mrs. Devoir,
She liv’d with my friend, Jacky Faddle, Esq.
‘Tis sometime ago though; her mistress said then,
The girl was excessively fond of a pen;
I saw her, but never convers’d with her—though
One can’t make acquaintance with servants, you know.
‘Tis pity the girl was not bred in high life,
Says Mr. Fribbello:—yes,—then, says his wife,
She doubtless might have wrote something worth notice:
Tis pity, says one,—says another, and so ’tis.
O law! says young Seagram, I’ve seen the book, now
I remember, there’s something about a mad cow.
A mad cow!—ha, ha, ha, ha, return’d half the room;
What can y’ expect better, says Madam Du Bloom?

They look at cach other,—a general pause—
And Miss Coquettella adjusted her gauze.
The Rector reclin’d himself back in his chair,
And open’d his snuff-box with indolent air;
This book, says he, (snift, snift) has in the beginning,
(The ladies give audience to hear his opinion)
Some pieces, I think, that are pretty correct;
A stile elevated you cannot expect:
To some of her equals they may be a treasure,
And country lasses may read ’em with pleasure.
That Amnon, you can’t call it poetry neither,
There’s no flights of fancy, or imagery either;
You may stile it prosaic, blank-verse at the best;
Some pointed reflections, indeed, are exprest;
The narrative lines are exceedingly poor:
Her Jonadab is a—the drawing-room door
Was open’d, the gentlemen came from below,
And gave the discourse a definitive blow.

I also like this against ambition:

On Contemplative Ease

Rejoice ye jovial sons of mirth,
By sparkling wine inspir’d;
A joy of more intrinsic worth
I feel, while thus retir’d.

Excluded from the ranting crew,
Amongst these fragrant trees
I walk, the twinkling stars to view,
In solitary ease.

Half wrap’d in clouds, the half-form’d moon
Beams forth a cheering ray,
Surpassing all the pride of noon,
Or charms of early day.

The birds are hush’d, and not a breeze
Disturbs the pendant leaves;
My passion’s hush’d as calm as these,
No sigh my bosom heaves.

While great ones make a splendid show,
In equipage or dress,
I’m happy here, nor wish below
For greater happiness.

Her poems include one on her lying in, a beautiful epistle to friendship and particular woman friend, more comic verse (“Written Extempore, on seenig a Mad Heifer run through a Village where the Author lives”), one on courtship (“Lob’s Courtship”), an erotic pastoral between two women (“Love and Friendship”). My favorite is her wry candid sonnet:

On an Unsociable Family

O what a strange parcel of creatures are we,
Scarce ever to quarrel, or even agree;
We all are alone, though at home altogether,
Except to the fire constrained by the weather;
Then one says, ”Tis cold’, which we all of us know,
And with unanimity answer, ”Tis so’;
With shrugs and with shivers all look at the fire,
And shuffle ourselves and our chairs a bit nigher;
Then quickly, preceded by silence profound,
A yawn epidemical catches around:
Like social companions we never fall out,
Nor ever care what one another’s about;
To comfort each other is never our plan,
For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can.

Wm Hogarth (1697-1764), Shrimp Girl (c 1745)

Originally founded as an almshouse for men (1509), Fords Hospital, Coventry, is now a home for older women

Elizabeth Hands described herself as “born in obscurity, and never emerging beyond the lower stations of life.” We know she was a domestic servant in a household near Coventry, that she married a blacksmith near Rugby by 1785 (Hands is her husband’s and her married name; we don’t know her birth name); and that she had at least one daughter. The people described in the above poem would be the types of people she would have been surrounded by and had to work for.

Jopson’s Coventry Mercury published Hands’s poem under the pseudonym Daphne. The headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Jones [not one of those in the poem] was impressed, and by 1788 the masters at his school were seeking subscribers to publish a book which appeared in 1789 and was titled The Death of Ammon. A Poem. With an Appendix: Containing Pastorals, and other Poetical Pieces. It appeared in Coventry, printed for the author, had a 28 page introduction, 127 pages of poems, and its thousand subscribers included Anna Seward, Thomas Warton, and Edmund Burke.

Hands was a courageous poet: her Death of Ammon centers on an incestuous rape (as in the Bible); she mocks “English literary tradition, and calls into question social stratification.” Her language is “colloquial, some irreverently comic,” and portrays her working class characters with “dignity.” “Her working poor are independent and capable of finding conjugal happiness without the blessing of institutionalized religion. They also harbor resentments against class oppression.” There is “nostalgia” for supposedly simple earlier village life,” and she is aware of the absurdities of people and life (all from Paula Feldman, cited below). In her pastorals, we have women speaking their minds rather than men (Donna Landry, ditto).

Her poetry at its best is colloquial, contains a prosaic stance, and on the surface light satire. The two famous ones on the publication of her book are about how what we write will be by many or most people judged by our status, and also how people will talk publicly about the act of reading in private (where we may respond very differently as not under social pressure).

As predicted by the author, critical reception of her book was mixed — at least as we can see it in published reviews. The Monthly Review manifests just such snobbery as we find in the after-dinner conversation imagined by Hands, e.g., “we cannot but form the most favourable conclusions with respect to that of the writer, — forming, as we do, most of our judgment from the uncommonly numerous list of subscribers: among whom are many names of persons of rank, and consideration. There could be no motive for extraordinary patronage, but a benevolent regard to merit — of some kind.” There were harsh and nasty sneers for Hands (a housemaid), as in the Analytical Review: “we will let her sing-song die in peace.”

What became of Hands after the publication of her volume no one appears to know. She was buried in Bourton on-Dunsmore.

Hands is said to portray working class people with real respect, giving them dignity: they find conjugal happiness without the blessings of institutionalized religion (i.e., marriage — it was not uncommon not to marry among the working classes in the era). She expresses nostalgia for a village life she thinks is disappearing. Of course she is resentful of class oppression. Donna Landry (who has written a book on laboring women poets of the 18th century) says Elizabeth Hand’s’s poems show an awareness of why a woman needs a reputation for chastity (respectability — or she’ll be at risk for constant harassment and humiliation, or simply not be employed in money-making occupations), and has some strong women at the center.

I took the poetry and information from Roger Lonsdale’s invaluable anthology Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, Paula R. Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology; also Paula Backscheider’s British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century; Donna Landry, Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796. I can’t praise Feldman’s and Landry’s books enough.


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