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Posts Tagged ‘heroine’s text’

BessyNicholasMargaret
Margaret (Daniela Denby- Ashby) first making friends with Nicholas (Brendan Coyle) and Bessy Higgins (Anna Maxwell Martin) (Sandy Welch’s 2004 North and South, Part 2)

yet men set me down in their fool’s books as a wise man, an independent character, strong-minded and all that cant — Mr Bell, North and South

Dear friends and readers,

This past spring I taught a course I called “Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South in context.” Although I had spent over a year with a group of friends reading Gaskell’s short stories and a couple of novellas together on Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo, and had before read and responded intensely to Mary Barton, North and South and Wives and Daughters, I’d never really studied a Gaskell text the way I do when I teach it, and experience (as I do at the OLLIs at Mason and AU) true dialogue in a class room give-and-take. I listened to brilliant readings aloud on CD of Cranford, Mary Barton (Juliet Stevenson for Cover-to-cover), North and South itself (Clare Wille for Naxos) and Wives and Daughters. I wish there were a good one available for the Life of Charlotte Bronte. I could not find one. As with Fielding’s Tom Jones the fall before I also assigned some good essays which I’d never read before either, as we went along. I read Felicia Bonaparte’s half-mad biography too — the more I read Gaskell, the more I came to agree with her, to the point that I agreed Molly had in effect killed herself when she decided to follow Roger’s advice and accept and subdue herself to her new stepmother. The result of this immersion: I feel I got closer to Gaskell than I ever did before.

Paradoxically since North and South is a book that is doing so many different things and has a wide range of topics or subject matters, often but not always from the perspective of someone questioning authority, it’s the kind of book that you need a book to write about adequately. This blog is a series of notes towards such chapters.

To begin with, the book often takes unexpected turns. For example, it opens unexpectedly for a condition of England novel, partly based on the Preston cotton strike and the locks-out. Gaskell first creates lovingly the atmosphere of a sheltered home in an elegant London, where Margaret Hale, our heroine, her sleeping beauty rich cousin, Edith, and the shallow Aunt Shaw, and most of the women around them (it’s a household of women) seem ignorant of the hard realities of life — like the need to make or have access to money to support yourself. We are intent on beautiful shawls and clothes, a coming extravaganza of a wedding, and subtle controlling codes of manners.

When we move to Helstone which our heroine declared was idyllic, we find a pair of parents who hardly share an interest, the father a depressive, anxious, and seeking to throw off his job as a vicar and responsibilities because he has lost his belief in the Anglican system of thought and gov’t, a mother who is incompetent when it comes to anything practical and deeply dissatisfied with her life as affording her no companionship with people like herself; the neighbors around them are desperately poor. When Mr Hale allows his crisis of conscience to become public and insists on moving to the North to an uncertain precarious future as a tutor, what Gaskell emphasizes is how he need not explain himself. What he says goes, no matter how weak a man he is. They repine, but they obey.

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Bessy in the factory when first seen (North and South, Part 2)

In Milton (Manchester), we meet a strange (unexpected) secondary heroine, a dream-figure alter-ego for Margaret, Bessy Higgins, a desperately poor factory worker, dying of a lung disease, and learn the reason her father, Nicholas, Higgins put Betsy in the factory (where she contracted a fatal lung disease), did not leave her where she was in a household sewing was he worried she would be sexually harassed. The gender ideology and practices throughout limit all the women’s choices. The first thing our heroine did in the early phase of the book is refuse an offer of marriage from Henry Lennox, an intelligent sharp lawyer, sceptical, cold (who comes from that hard world and is clearly successful). She found the wedding otiose, but she finds her friendship with Bessy fulfilling. We see her and her mother’s life-long maid cope together over the course of the rest of the book. Dixon is not invisible; where she sleeps, what she thinks and feels shape the novel too. There’s a servant in Mrs Thornton’s household who affects the action, so too Thornton’s sister who marries a stock speculator whose offer of saving himself from bankruptcy Thornton will refuse. The private worlds of women are also the public worlds of men. but we are not simply given a gendered female world as well as the class, industrial/agricultural, economic and religious worlds and conflicts; at each turn the plot-design is set up to thwart the usual expectations.

In each phase of this early part of the book room is left to dramatize experiences of life that don’t usually come up as important in the conventional plot-design. Gaskell here, and again later concentrates on what it’s like to move from one home or place to another, how traumatic this can be. The family will have to live on a small income and find aplace to live they can be comfortable in and afford. Margaret has bad dreams the night before they go off to Milton: these are partly sexual in nature and show that she refused Henry Lennox out of an inability to face her sensuality and sexuality. Late in the book when so many deaths have occurred as to make Margaret’s place and life in Milton no longer viable, she has a similar hard time moving back to London.

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Thornton (Richard Armitage) arguing his side (North and South, Part 2)

Then the book is organized as a series of conversations or debates on ideas that control the character’s behavior and the options their society allows everyone. There is no climax but ideas are debated and we are left to think for ourselves, comparing the ideas the characters have to the dramatic scenes in which the debate occurs and placed nearby. One is about the responsibilities of owners to workmen: these are dialogues about power, about recognizing obligation, about how people regard one another when they are part of groups in conflict. When the book’s romance hero, Mr Thornton, stands up for rigid “political economy” (laissez-faire ideas) and denies he has anything to do with the time allowed his workers when they are not working for him, we see that he is not admitting to his power, but neither he or Margaret, or the workman, Nicholas Higgins, who presents the chartist and burgeoning socialistic point of view of the union, take into account Bessy who we meet in the next chapter. Beyond how ill she is, why she became ill, how she spends her life, there are her religious mystical visions from the Bible which give her what comfort she has. These so irritate Higgins as they are presented as making lived life unimportant, that he produces an atheistic vision of the world, one pessimistic, cynical, grim: how could any good God or rational consciousness have produced this world? The book may be read as a series of tableaux, debates, dialogues, dramatic scenes – or dream thoughts as in the presentation of Bessy, a kind of deep or hidden self for impulses and feelings in Gaskell herself in debate with the scepticism and disillusion of her father, Nicholas.

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Matty (Judi Dench) and Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) read Matty’s brother, Peter’s letters together (Heidi Thomas’s 2007 Cranford Chronicles)

It also drives towards primal scenes that repeat across Gaskell’s oeuvre. For example, the way the theme of injustice in the military, specifically naval world, is brought forward is through primal memeory dream scenes. First, letter-reading — just as in Gaskell’s Cranford where Gaskell’s Matty and her niece, Mary, are enacting Gaskell’s own loss of her brother when he went to sea as a young man. He was the only member of her nuclear family who remained loyal and alive and wrote her letters from far away, encouraging her, a deeply congenial spirit; when he died at sea, the loss was profound. In North and South, Margaret and her mother go over Frederick’s sea-stained letters to introduce why Frederick cannot come home to England ever again. There is another letter scene in he film where Margaret is remembering when they first got news of the mutiny: through her memory’s eye (flashback), we see Mrs Hale frantically tear up the newspaper.

Margaret’s father who himself felt he must buck church authority and lost his position now has to persuade Margaret that Frederick cannot go to court to explain why the men aboard ship mutinied and he deserted (a cruel captain who needled and risked his men’s lives, causing one of them to nearly become crippled, flogged mercilessly for minor infractions): the authorities will support their tyrannical control by never admitting to any wrong. There is no debate here, only another primal scene where Margaret is standing on a train station, attempting to help Frederick flee to London, and they are accosted by an angry embittered man who thinks to turn Frederick in for a ransom. Frederick sees him as insulting Margaret and as drunk, hits him back and the man falls down the steps, hurting himself sufficiently so that he dies soon after. Meanwhile Frederick vanishes into the dark night of the train. The scene at the train station is deep with longing – Gaskell’s dream thoughts well up. No film adaptation of North and South could leave out Frederick, the train scene.

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Margaret’s terror as she realizes she and Frederick are seen and are about to be accosted (North and South, Part 3)

For the rest of the novel Gaskell has Margaret brood over this scene ostensibly because she tells a lie to a police magistrate that she was not there and knows nothing about this man to protect Frederick (“strange, wild, miserable feelings”). She is suspected of a sexually clandestine relationship with a strange man by a possessive Thornton who has asked her to marry him — she refused him too. She is deeply attracted to Thornton and intensely regrets that she seems to have lost his respect. Hated by Mrs Thornton, the mother, for having rejected her son at the same time as Mrs Thornton is bitterly possessively jealousy, Mrs Thornton takes the opportunity of supposedly warning her to frame Margaret to her face as possibly unchaste. What an extraordinary way to present the idea give people power and they abuse it – it’s understood how desertion is bad, and discipline needs to be maintained but it should not be disproportionate, not torture (which flogging was). And how vulnerable Frederick is to someone who wants a bribe. We see how vulnerable women are to perpetual sexual suspicion.

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Osborne Hamley’s death, Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon) and Molly (Justine Waddell) (Andrew Davies’s 1999 Wives and Daughters, Part 4 of 75 minute episodes)

Everyone who reads Gaskell knows that many of her character die. She once joked the best title for her book (North and South was Dickens’s choice) would be Variations on Death. The characters learn about life through their encounters with death. All the deaths are linked to depression too. Margaret’s mother dies of cancer — brought on by stress; Bessy of her illness and wild dreams; Mr Hale of grief after his wife’s death and a sense that he has lost all occupation and meaning when he begins to lose his pupils; Mr Hale’s mentor, friend, and a third man attracted to Margaret (who Gaskell meant to make an older suitor), Mr Bell of an inexplicable but real depression. Early in the novel we are told Mr Thornton’s father killed himself when he became a bankrupt failure from gambling and alcohol. Shortly after the strike is over, one of the workers, Mr Boucher, kills himself, driven by his wife’s grief over her children’s “clemming” during the strike, and his own despair. Gaskell’s belief that death brings people together, makes their individual humanity plain to one another is shown over and over. I tried to get at some of this material by explicating a few of Gaskell’s epigraphs.

Gaskell quotes from the 4th chapter of Job. “Man that is born of women is of few days and full of trouble.” First half insists that all nature renews itself, but the individual person does not come back. “A tree may sprout again, a flower. Question is where does his “ghost” go? Job wishes to hide himself, everything washes away, ends on how man grieves and mourns. No answer given. She quotes Wordsworth. People tend to remember these things how they want to. Traditional one would be from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Book 5)

What though the sea with waves continuall
Does eate the earth, it is nor more at all:
Nor is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.

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Margaret in mourning (North and South, Part 4)

But Gaskell’s references are to sceptical works. At one point she alludes to Byron’s poem called The Island; or Christian and his comrades. It’s a satire on Pilgrim’s progress and Robinson Crusoe rolled into one. I read aloud the whole of the epigraph for the chapter (33) from the poem by Henry King is one of the most moving poems in the English language I know of where a spouse mourns the death of another. Exequy is a funeral rite or ceremony. There’s a stanza where he says he will soon overtake her and that’s what he lives for

Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay;
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree,
And every hour a step towards thee.
At night when I betake to rest,
Next morn I rise nearer my west …

I loved the ending of the book. Yes Gaskell was forced to cut and probably would have given us far more of a courtship for Thornton and Margaret. But look at what she didn’t cut, what she took out time to dramatize. There are the debates between Mr Thornton and Mr Bell, with Mr Thornton emerging sympathetically as the person openly taking life seriously. The second is the development of a relationship of respect and friendship (for what else is it) between Thornton and Higgins, however improbable. Gaskell shows how comforting Margaret finds it to be alone, not to have to answer to anyone, she finds herself growing firmer and she can tell herself if only Thornton weren’t so cold and they could be friends, she could live with his not knowing – what she can’t see is he feels he must be cold or he will allow his feelings for her to surface and he’s had enough too. She reads Francois de St Sale, the passage is French is from one of these religious meditative books people, especially women read before their were novels. Disguised as religious exhortations, they are often about coping with depression and seek to help someone all alone, no one to talk to, they had no language with with to discuss depression without blaming someone as having done wrong. She sits on the beach at Cromer looking out at the sea and thinks again. When she returns to London, she refuses to give up all her time to the rituals of shallow social life, and instead becomes a female visitor Gaskell writes: “she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it and she tried to settle that difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.” I daresay for the modern reader the first idea (utterly merged) will get a strong “none,” and the second seem to lack enough sense of pleasure. In one of her letters on the ending of the novel in swift romance, Gaskell suggests that the relationship could easily “go smash,” and has the last words of the novel Margaret’s remembering she will have to deal with Mr Thornton’s mother.

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A dream-like moment of Margaret in Helstone (North and South, Part 4)

Lest we read the book too hopefully there is more primal matter: Gaskell also brings us back to Helstone (to show how it’s again changed), also a re-enactment of her childhood brought up in county by her single aunt Lumb and disabled cousin. Gaskell takes out time to tell the story of how Margaret discovers that the neighbor of one woman she visits boiled a living cat until it died in an agon of pain while drowning. Why: the neighbor was afraid her husband would be angry as she gave his clothes to a fortune teller. The story is even worse in this sense: the woman telling it is not indignant and horrified for the cat, no she’s just bothered that it was her cat. Gaskell sees the horror that people are too – what they are capable of. She puts it down to ‘a want of imagination … and therefore of any sympathy with the suffering animal.” When one attributes the vast evils people do or tolerate to a failure of the imagination it seems so mild a thing to say, but this failure is central.

I hope this series of notes on the novel has conveyed something of its nature (the kinds of texts it offers), the sources of its power and content too. I strongly recommend watching Sandy Welch’s film too. North and South is, as are all Gaskell’s texts, deep l’ecriture-femme, whose forms, motivations, and greatness are not well understood. Feminist criticism talks generally about this faultline in books, but hesitates before specific examples. I’ve presented a specific 19th century example which passes muster in the male worlds of publishing and respectable books as a condition of England novel about a series of outwardly objective themes.

Ellen

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Elektra
Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

Perhaps I should just direct readers to where Virginia Woolf wrote, who could watch the story of Clytemnestra today and not side with her? she had probably read also Euripides’ version, though her “On Not Knowing Greek” centers on the anguished madness of Sophocles’ Electra. It’s in Euripides’ play the cowardly superstition of Agammenon choosing to burn Iphigenia comes out most strongly against the eloquence of Clytemnestra.

The problem is Strauss’s opera is said to be based on Hofmannstal, about whose version I know only what I read on wikipedia. In any case this too is a side-track as the last opera of the season was presented as Chereau’s parting gift to us — he’s another devoured at too early an age by the spread of cancer. (See my blog on his film adaptation from Conrad, Gabrielle.) All the reviews emphasize Chereau’s shaping presence. We are given specific details for each character and actor-singer by Anthony Tommassini but no sense of what Chereau’s actuating idea might be. To say it’s expressionist is to say nothing. Expressionist of what?

A cursory glance at the promotional stills tells it. A sad tale of the anguish of women in the context of our punitive public world. Dysfunctional family, super-bloody, says Bruce Scott. Except the murder occurs off-stage; only at about 2/3s the way through does Eric Owens as Orestes show up, and he’s catatonic, overwhelmed by the women, seeking comfort, effeminized like Hercules among the women:

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In any case he forgot his axe. That’s in the script. Unless the subtitles distorted the dialogue. Elektra is alert enough to notice.

Agamemnon, a tenor (here identified as a weak voice) only enters the drama near the close, and he’s done away with by a single knife thrust by Pylades. Orestes slinks off to the side. I saw no blood. The major presences are all women. The chorus is mostly women prisoners, women slaves, women who ready murdered bodies, a rare old man here or there. As far as I could tell the singing was superb; I liked best Owens’s voice; what melody I heard came from him. The women are too pained.

Chereau has returned the Hofmannstal rendition into a stark contrast, an adamantine stubborness between a mother and daughter who will not listen to one another, because, well, would it help? A conflict that in inward and cannot see to the source or will not admit it. What they have to say is in this Hofmannstal is as uncomplicated and unnuanced as Woolf’s essay on Sophocles’ play suggests. I was surprised that nowhere in the subtitles is Klytamnestra given words to justify herself. She treats her daughter like any cognitive therapist. No references to the past please. “What can I do to restore your sleep?” Elektra answers a sacrifice could free her from these intrusive nightmares. “Who shall we kill?” asks Klytamnestra.

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The confidante is Susan Neves

“Why you, mother,” and the daughter proceeds to imagine Orestes hacking her mother to death.

Klytamnestra exits, all silent dignity. Did I mention, Klytamnestra is dressed in a beautiful outfit with beads in good taste?

Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis has the usual thankless task, Ismene-like, to worry herself over conventional expectations not met: like not getting a chance to marry and have children. Gee. No wonder her face is frozen:

ElektraChrysothemis

Give in, she urges Elektra, give over. Then we can leave this prison, have clothes appropriate to our rank. Except in his case Elektra, a figure comparable to Antigone, a parallel experience Izzy and I saw at the Kennedy Center last spring, seems unconcerned with what she’s wearing. She cannot forget her grief, rage, terror. Stemme plays the role as a woman gone insane.

The contrast between the stories and the productions can help instruct us. The Kennedy Center design turned Sophocles’ Antigone into (or it is) a deeply anti-war, anti-totalitarian, humane statement where love did matter, could have flourished. Juliet Binoche played the role as a brave loving woman, speaking principle, speaking family passion, and yet all poignancy, oh the pity of this death and mine too. There are flashes of sanity about in the Antigone, even in Creon who becomes a quietly tragic figure. None of that in this opera. Stemme played it right as woman gone insane, a heart of darkness. “Hit once more, strike again.”

There is no sunlight on Chereau’s stage; it’s all grey steel and cement. The servants sweep and bring in water in buckets and sprinkle it about. This season and previous ones the Metropolitan Opera-goer has gotten used to stages that are prisons where torture chambers are suggested, people in impoverished garb, everyone cowed. It was another opera filmed by Gary Halverson, but here one felt that he was filming another man’s work.

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The poster for the opera — “Electra” “neglected, suffering, blunted, debased” yet “Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess” (from Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”)

We have too many references to cats on the Internet, but for once the vulnerable nervous proud, guarded weak predator, in this case in a poem offers a hint how to read or take this last experience of this season:

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought horne.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

— by Marie Louise Kaschnitz (1901-74), translated by S.L. Cocalis

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

Perhaps an antidote is in order: Strauss has three operas where picturesqueness and nostalgia (Der Rosencavalier, a pastiche), a self-conscious return to 19th century style Edwardian comic heroine’s text drama (Arabella, libretto Hofmannstal) and a subtle self-reflexive meditation on opera framing a love-in-death myth (Ariadne auf Naxos) are the mode. All highly artificial. Play-acting. I’ve seen them all — with Jim, sometimes Izzy with us.

And the point is, things need not be this way: treated with kindness, cats react quite differently

thewhitecatPangurandthemonk

Ellen

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Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

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Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

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Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:

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It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).

devereux_met

One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

Metset

Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

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Garanca

We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

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Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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A moment from the production — the distancing and then the

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close up: Kristine Opolais

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I saw a re-transmission of the Met HD movie broadcast of the now ten year old production by Anthony Minghella (he directed, influenced the design, costumes) of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly movingly acted and sung by its principals, Kristine Opolais (who I’ve now watched and heard as an equally extraordinarily acted utterly different Manon Lescaut and Mimi in La Boheme) as Cio-cio San, and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Cio-cio San’s one loving friend, servant, companion. They were mesmerizing in their earnestness, long-waiting irony, bitterness, and finally absolute pursuit of death:

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We are nowadays used to these pared-down minimalist productions where the inward life of the protagonists is the central action focused upon, so it could not seem as astonishing it is must’ve done 10 years ago. Since I remember one other Madame Butterfly I saw in the 1970s at the City Opera (the usual intricate production design, fussy sets, distracting stage business, objects), I can say this is not a split-second dated. Indeed Minghella’s production is moving to a London theater this summer and I expect will produce several DVDs before the production sees its last performance.

The pared down production and what is left on the stage makes the opera into his utterly inward exploration of a single woman who is deluded into thinking this man loves her:

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Women who were themselves geishas deliver her

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Between Act 1 and 2 three years have gone by. We discover he abandoned her and see what these three years have done to her and her friend-companion. During this act she is pressured to marry a rigid male from her culture. Quietly — and alas not emphasized in this production — we see at core she has rejected the roles her society gave her: to be an obedient geisha and then one woman in a harem of a polygamous man. Who would want that? For a short while she thought she found an alternative in Pinkerton. He turns out to be just such a shit towards women as the men in Japan. When he returns early in Act 3, he discovers what has happened and what is his reaction? to flee, leaving his wife to take her child or his son away from Cio-cio San. He refuses to see her or allow her to see him. There are a few slats on stage to suggest Asian walls and doors, a high stairway wide as the stage, and above a screen for light.

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Flowers are used — the place is littered with petals the way the air is filled with stars and a kind of fluff.

Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”  Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
After this rare meditative moment towards the end of Act 3, Pinkerton flees the stage

Although Gary Halverson is again listed as film director (how he works with Carolyn Chaos, Minghella’s widow who listed as director we are not told).

I was just overwhelmed by emotions which the acting and the music projected. These while rooted in this particular story could be exaltation, love, grief, anger, despair over many other experiences. This suggestiveness is deliberate. For example at the end of Act 2 when the Cio-Cio-San thinks Pinkerton’s ship is coming into harbor, she, her friend-servant, Suzuki and the puppet for her boy, the three sit in kneeling way ever so quiet, just sit there and the darkness falls. This after the stark grief, anger at the attempt to get her to marry someone else, and other emotions have made the stage seem so noisy.

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The bunraku puppetry was part of the mesmerizing effect. It’s a form of traditional Japanese puppetry, strange, expressive, plangent. Probably what was used connects to an American version. Butterfly turns into a small fragile puppet buffeted about:

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I would have said well that won’t compare with a real child. I would have been wrong.

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Another incarnation where a photo caught the depth of the art

The child puppet is just so expressive and so yearning and so needy and so loving and eager; the people using sticks and dressed in black make his body and fact aching with emotion. His bald head on this wobbling neck made him all the more poignant. There is something so touching about the puppet’s fragile dignity:

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The puppeteers also danced and manipulated lovely blue paper birds when Cio-cio San is hopeful at the opening of act 3.

Robert Alagno was Pinkerton and the actor showed himself embarrassed or dull when he denied Pinkerton is to be judged (!) and asserted how the character is innocent and needs to be forgiven. He did seem singularly bland in Act 1 but by the time you are into Act 3 and he turns up only to flee. Anything he does in context seems fatuous. He seems to be an ass, and especially an American ass. The music standing for him is American. When the puppet is last seen it has an American flag, waving at us, as on the other side of the stage Cio-Cio-San more than half crazed, stabs herself to death repeatedly. It is a symbolic indictment of the stupidity and cruelty of US colonialist policy far more effective in its starkness than Miss Saigon (thought the explicit connection of the recent production is important and I do not deny its power and detailed stronger relevance).

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The penultimate savage death scene

Since the production is older, there are few reviews of this 2016 staging, which differs significantly only in having Kristine Opolais for the first time, and to her credit, this decade long exposure is said to be revivified because of her presence. The New York Times also reviewed her performance more than anything else. I have the highest respect for Minghella since I read and studied with a class his screenplay out of Michael Ondjaate’s English Patient, which screenplay and film were among several fine works he wrote, directed, created his vision of life through (Truly, Madly, Deeply is another). This older review from 2006 is the best I’ve come across.

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Ellen

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Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years

Geoff: You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?
Kate: No. I think I was enough for you, I’m just not sure you do

Friends and readers,

See it twice. You cannot understand the first half until you’ve seen the scene at the middle when Kate (Charlotte Rampling) finally climbs the folding ladder up to the attic of her and Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) house to look at the album and slides he has apparently been looking at regularly for 45 years, and discovers with an intensely painful sound that Katja, the young woman her husband loved before he married Kate, had been pregnant. Katja died in an accident 50 years ago, so this occurred 5 years before Geoff met and married Kate. Geoff and Kate have had no children, only a series of beloved dogs.

Only then can you grasp, feel the build-up of emotional pain in both halves of the film, their repressed ideas as they spend Monday through Thursday together, leading to that climb, and then after the viewing Geoff’s return from a reunion forced on him (“Fucking endless” he calls it), at long last some talk between them about how this previous relationship has sown distrust and a comparative perspective between them, and the final anniversary party where at the height of the supposed joy Kate throws off Geoff’s arm and looks out at us with a look of such betrayal as to leave me breathless, wordless, all the while I know she may be wrong. It may be that Geoff found her enough even if she thinks she has been enough for him and that her idea he does not feel this is a form of self-flagellation. This is a story about the complex experience of long-term marriage.

One review, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, has come near to doing justice to the depth and complexity of emotions dramatized in this story; but most say almost nothing, Ebert’s column carried on by others, or like A. O. Scott in the New York Times, too melodramatic, seeking some kind of climax. For the source in a David Constandine story see Stephen Dalton’s “Berlin Review.”

A central theme and set of insights is into the perpetual effect of memories in a relationship, as powerful even if never openly admitted to. The first time I went I found the experience salutary: Rampling and Courtenay teach us how self-control prevent us from the utterly counterproductive act of suicide when facing all that old age brings, how empathy is an achieved state of mind, made with steely effort out of kindness to the other and to ourselves.

Another of its undercurrents which rise to the surface, there all the time, not memory, is a deep discomfort, un-home-yness that has been part of this married couple’s life from its start. She smells a perfume in the air she thinks is one Katja used and she has never spoken of this until now. For 45 years she held her peace. He shakes his head.

The second time was cathartic. The two had discussed memories in ways that suggested he at least had striven to leave a somewhat false impression about the importance of this previous relationship, and she had lived with this cover-up. It was only in the second time as the film opened I realized the framing sound of snaps and a black screen were registering Jeff’s visits to the attic to look at the old slides of his possible pre-honeymoon in Switzerland Alps with Katja 50 years ago; I now could understand the coming of a letter from the Switzerland authorities that Katja’s corpse had been found led to Kate’s easy “finding” of a guidebook for Geoff that Geoff had put in the garage because Katja’s death had never been far from her (or his) memories and consciousness. I felt breathless with recognition. You don’t have to have the same particulars of memories.

Filmszene "45 Years"

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The story line is simple. We begin on the arrival of a letter on a Monday morning of a week whose Saturday night is to culminate in an anniversary party for our hero and heroine. The POV is Kate’s (Rampling): Kate is in every scene and we see Geoff (Courtenay) through Kate’s eyes. However Haigh’s script (with its suggestions of other times and points of view) and Courtenay’s acting transcend Kate’s perspective so we experience his too.

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The movie moves slowly proportionately imitating how we feel over each day’s routines. As each day is over the screen goes black and an intertitle of a typed day of the week appears. Tuesday Kate goes into town to look at possible presents for Geoff. Kate cannot get herself to buy Geoff an expensive watch. While in town she meets one of her true long-time friends (life supplies few of these), Nina (Geraldine James) and it’s in Kate and Nina’s conversations it’s confirmed what we had suspected from Kate’s dialogue with a vendor that Geoff is reluctant to go to his and her anniversary party this coming Saturday night. Kate is not keen herself on parties.

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In the cafe

It’s through Nina we discover how Geoff is intensely put off by hypocrisies of social life, and Nina’s conversation enables us to grasp Geoff’s half-articulated disillusionment with what happened to the idealists he knew as a young man. Coming back from his reunion he reports “Red Len” now has a banker grandson, spends his days playing golf in an Arab emirate. He and Katja had been part of a generation who saw as courageous refusing to cooperate, who resisted being co-opted into middle class life and occupations after university. We learn that Kate looks upon such “bravery” as delusional and cowardly. That Nina still resents how in public Geoff had called her a fascist when she said “Thatcher had not made such a bad job of it.” Nina takes Kate to buy a dress; tells Kate that Kate must not give up the party, that Nina’s husband, George, had protested against their anniversary party and yet wanted it. It’s Nina who supplies a board of photos of Geoff and Kate over the years made up of snaps taken by friends on various occasions. Nina is the good woman friend lucky women hold onto over the years. She’s ordinary and good-natured: we see her encourage her husband in his latest fad of ukulele playing: if it add a note of jolliness, what’s the harm — it irritates Geoff how everyone goes on about this playing as if it were good.

Haigh imitates realities of older people’s lives. Nina and Kate spend time helping people twenty years older than themselves on a pleasure excursion boat. Nina is encouraging a daughter who lives with her to try a new profession as a photographer while the daughter (and apparently a grandchild) lives with Nina and George after the break-up of a marriage. I liked little touches: how the dog protests when Kate brings down the rickety ladder and climbs it up to the attic. My cats dislike when I bring down my ladder and climb up to my attic and can be heard walking about from the ceiling below.

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Geoff and Kate are shown to have much satisfaction in life: they live in a beautiful suburban countryside in southern England; they are retired, read together. He cannot drive any more but she can and ferries him to where he wants to go. On the Wednesday night they remember happy moments and dance and try to make love late at night. He does not quite succeed and feels bad: we have learned he had a “bypass,” open heart surgery five years ago and is frail and should not smoke. He begins again after the letter arrives. Over the course of the week Kate finally allows herself to realize, to face that Geoff goes up to the attic to look at photos of Katja and the album regularly. He would go to Switzerland to retrieve the body if he could: Kate discovers this by going into town after he goes alone by bus and comes home late. But he has faced that he can hardly walk in town, much less climb a Swiss mountain to where her body lies. Courtenay speaks five moving soliloquys, two in bed, one with Kate by his side — they reminded me of Laurence Oliver’s final eloquent meditation in Brideshead Revisited just before his character’s death.

Kate has been asked to list music to be played at the anniversary party, and some of these 60s hits are heard across the film. The music functioned the way it had for Last Orders: as ironic commentary, reinforcement. All these years when Kate has heard one of Jeff’s tapes, “I only want to be with you” sung by Dusty Springfield, she has felt he was remembering Katja. The Turtles “Happy together” has been an exercise in self-doubt. Geoff is on best behavior all Saturday to show he does love Kate and wants to go to the party: he brings her tea in the early morning, scrambles eggs for them for breakfast, walks with her and their dog for the first time all movie long, leaves a present of a necklace for her. So she sits down to play music for the first time it seems in years at her piano. It might have been Sibellius but I am not sure. She grieves as she plays. One the way there she apologizes to Geoff for not buying the watch. He says that he does not like to know the time anyway. Throughout the film when given an opportunity he makes kind remarks to her. He tries to tell the truth: when she asks him if he would have married Katja had she not died, he says yes and repeats it; but then when she asks if he’s lying and they had married, he says no, it was a pretense so they could travel together. He is honest. This hurts, but it is better that way.

At the high point of the party Geoff is expected to get up and give a speech. This reminded me of other films where the male gets up and speechifies but never the female (Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma had Mark Strong talking but not Kate Beckinsale as Emma) and I remember how when Jim retired at a party given for us two, he spoke and I didn’t. I didn’t want to but maybe I’ve been trained not to. When I got an award this November I had to read a short few lines I wrote for myself and then was intensely relieved to leave the limelight. He is relieved to sit down and as he has told her earlier he depends on her strength to get him through and kisses her hand:

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Geoff and Kate had danced at their wedding The Platters: Smoke gets in your eyes.

I experienced a deep wrenching when she discovered from the photos in the attic that Katja was pregnant and again at the close. As I watched them under strobe lights though my Jim is dead, and he and I had been married 44 years and he died 3 days after we were together 45, and he and I will now never know such moments however ambivalent (anyway we never had the friends to invite to such a party) — I could take it. Tt was when Kate pushed Geoff’s triumphant hand away and looked at the camera with such ghastly alienation and the music blares out the Moody BluesGo Now, I lost it, and had to leave the auditorium lest I cry out hysterically. It was indeed time for me to go now. I could escape. (The particulars of my story, the pain of these half-remembered memories, the half-lies has a different source.) Kate cannot escape her past and the “important choices” (as Geoff puts it in his speech) she made long ago, and she is holding on firm and enduring life as it has presented itself to her since, as is Geoff as her loving or at least peaceable companion. Their orderly existence is based on solvency, insight and shared acceptance. But it is also based on living with deep disillusionment, loneliness. Remember him sitting on that bench in the town smoking away when he knows to smoke is to kill himself.

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The mise-en-scene is so quietly pleasurable. The photographs of southern English countryside are understated so alluring. The pace makes one feel one is experiencing this world. She does her own dishes. He takes books out of the library on climate change and geography. There is one oddity: no one has a cell phone; no one sits and looks at a computer. I know that people in their sixties, 40+ years married are often as constant interacting with others on their devices as younger people. This lack may have its source in the story adapted.

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The foolish Oscar ceremony is coming up soon, and I’ve listed in another blog the four superb films in movie-houses I’ve seen in 2015: Mr Turner, I’ll Dream of You, Mr Holmes, and Kilo Two Bravo (on TV Wolf Hall). These are my candidates for awards. As I drove home, I tried to list the most recent profound films I’ve seen these actors in: Rampling in Night Porter and Sous la Sable; Courtenay in Little Dorrit, Last Orders, The Dresser, Geraldine James in Jewel in the Crown and She’s Been Away.

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This is one of those for 2016 I will remember for a long time to come and recommend going to see — who says a film can’t be as complex and ethical as a novel?

Ellen

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Opening scenario to Berg’s Lulu (designed by William Kendrick, directors Luc De Wit & Matthew Diamond

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing about this opera for a few days in order to hear what others who saw or heard it might say, to read reviews and find out about its sources because I had such a mixed reaction to it. First the story, which should be told (because it’s meant to be) crude/ly:

Lulu is a highly paid prostitute, actress, dancer, model kept by Dr Schon a physician who also supports a painter painting her continually. In comes Schigolch, her once abusive beggar father and she gives him money. She is aggressively “in love” with Dr Schon who says he wants to marry a rich socialite.

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Lulu (Marlis Petersen) and Dr Schon (Johan Reuter who also plays Jack the Ripper)

Alwa, the physician’s son enters, enthralled by Lulu, who in the next scene has married the painter who kills himself when told of her past.

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Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

In the next act, in a ballet Lulu has danced in off-stage, she has exposed her relationship to Dr Schon to his fiancée; and faute de mieux he marries her. A boy scout or schoolboy (who I feared for) comes in admiring them all. An older countess-patroness Geschwitz, a lesbian, also loves Lulu who exploits her. Quarrels ensue, Dr Schon wants Lulu to kill herself so he will be rid of her, and in a fight, she shoots him several times. Son, countess, beggar father, boy scout try to cover up, but she goes to prison. She emerges shattered, thin, in a catatonic state. Son loses all his money in a scene with a crooked banker and investors. She ends up a ragged street prostitute in her efforts to support them all:

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Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

She brings men in and out, haggling with them for money; one attacks and kills the son, Alwa, but another turns out to be Jack the Ripper who (after she argues with him for more money) offstage murders her. Ripper returns to knife to death the despairing countess who cries out for Lulu.

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The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)

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As it began, I disliked it because of the grotesqueries, and repellent imagery of a woman’s private parts garishly drawn on allegorical costumes and in flashing shows of light across the stage:

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Lulu as we first see her costumed

But as the whole experience sunk in, or by the third act, while I continued to be distressed by the images of women’s private parts and breasts, I was shaken by the what was happening to the characters especially after the murder of the doctor as a farcical tragedy about the restless misery of personality-less individuals caught up in some maddened nightmare. I could find little to like in the music, hardly any melody, continual noise like hip-hop spoken rock, only the voices were singing and deeply resonant, plangent.

In this desperate crass bleak environment now and again a few yearn for happiness, peace, seem even to have an inkling of what this is: the painter who kills himself; Schigolch, the beggar dependent on Lulu for money sung here by Franz Grundheber; Alwa, Schon’s son; a naive schoolboy; the lesbian Countess. Most spend their hours vaunting themselves, behaving arrogantly or guardedly, coolly, seeking to marry or have sex with the richest most powerful person in the room, mocking other people, lying, cheating: Lulu; Dr Schon also tellingly the serial killer, Jack the Ripper; also an Animal Tamer, an Acrobat, an African Prince, a crooked banker, nameless investors and party-goers, not to omit two allegorical characters, a creepy man and sullen woman dressed in elegant evening clothes:

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By the world’s chances (the play was begun just before and during the early Nazi period when the mark had lost most of its value) and their own venal stupidity in following a Banker who is a stock market crook, they become destitute, whereupon they grimly hang on to anyone who will prostitute herself, in this case, Lulu. The norm throughout is sadomasochistic sex.

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Lulu with a male who is after her — the norm is sadomasochistic sex

Sometimes one person was the bully and the other abject, and then they’d change places. No one ever looked content; cheerfulness is out of the question: dark, intent, intense.

It may be the designers did not have the courage to flash up male private parts (as more shocking and less acceptable than female?), but if this omission was cowardice, the effect was sexist and eerily women-body-hating. But by the time the opera was over I was persuaded the wild use of lights, computer pictures in black and white of anguished, naked, violent, raging figures, sexism, and screens all over the stage, over-the-top theatrical imagery was justified effective expressionist projection of passions kept hidden, coming out only subtly but what drive the world’s overriding social structures.

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The stage

My friend, Fran, supplies the sources, background, artistic milieu: “It is based on, Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind later conflated both works to the five act tragedy Lulu, which I have seen performed and which once seen is not easily forgotten. Apparently it was his original intention to write a single play all along, but his publisher initially got cold feet.

Wedekind was a German who grew up in what was the equivalent of Victorian England, and he would satirize and attack bourgeois capitalism, pseudo-morality, artistic philistinism, prudery and double standards etc. Stylistically he was influenced by Georg Büchner and was, like him, very much ahead of his time, being a precursor of the Expressionism you mention, but also the Theatre of the Absurd and Brecht’s epic theatre, for example. The latter cited both Büchner and Wedekind as direct inspirations and wrote the latter a laudatory obituary when he died in 1918. (Berg’s other famous opera happens to be Wozzeck, originally a Büchner play itself.)

Berg himself first became acquainted with Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box when he saw a private performance of it in Vienna in 1905. Wedekind himself played Jack the Ripper and his later wife Tilly Newes was Lulu. Only closed, private performances were allowed by the censors Wedekind’s work was always falling foul of. There is an available picture of Wedekind playing Dr Schön to Tilly’s Lulu in performances of the Earth Spirit. Berg has a singer doubling the roles in his opera, too.

Berg started writing his own piece in 1927. It was originally to have been performed under Erich Kleiber at the Berlin opera, but shortly after an orchestral piece culled from the existing parts of the opera had been performed there in 1934, the Nazis forced Kleiber to resign and Berg postponed finishing the opera in favour of a violin concerto. His death in 1935 meant the opera remained unfinished until Berg’s music publisher commissioned the Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha to use Berg’s surviving notes to complete the third act in the 1960s. This version wasn’t presented to the public until 1977 and thus 2 yearsafter Berg’s widow’s death, since she had always opposed the procedure. This three act version had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez.”

Izzy, my daughter who came with me, said there are few atonal operas; atonal music was written in the middle 20th century, admired by academics, but never gained a wide audience.

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Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

Fran sent along URLs to two excellent essays: “danger and desire” in the Huffington Post; “modernism in Lulu” from Yale.

I found a couple of favorable and sympathetic reviews of this production: “desperadoes” in the New Yorker; and “the question that stops the opera” in the New York Times.

The talk in the intermissions was not as stupid or hyped as usual which was interesting in itself; Grundheber was intelligent about the opera; others spoke of the difficulty singing it; others were uncomfortable about their characters (Susan Graham). But the question Deborah Voigt (following a script) posed and the New York Times repeats was misleading though it’s what the audience is thought to be left asking: is Lulu victim or victimized? Suggesting some of the actor-singers did not see any larger picture, but instinctively wanted to defend themselves against the idea the opera is unfair to women: Reuter (Dr Schon and then Jack the Ripper) pointed out in reply how Dr Schon was a bad man, guilty and was punished (!).

This makes us look at the female to find punishment or rewards, so erases one of the opera’s strengths: here is no Traviata, no Wagnerian self-sacrificing utterly devoted woman who dies for her men, or seethingly evil femme fatale or witch. Our heroine who began as mechanically aggressive and cold becomes mechanically withdrawn.

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Rather all the characters are remnants of a terrible world outside the claustrophobic spaces we see them in, thrown out of some whirlpool of imbecility just outside the door. They come in staggering. Were it not for the screens, the acted areas would be small dark bare places. The one scene where we see the crowd, at the close of Act 2 in this production, is when the investors follow the banker about; just like the investors of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, they are greedy, indifferent to what their money was put in, ignorant of the workings of money and deluded. The opera is important: produced on such a scale for prestigious place says something: the content that is here pointed to is the extraordinary frankness with which sexuality is dramatized, how this prefigures other relationships. If you have not had anything like these experiences as a viewer you might be put off. What was implied about sex was the most troubling aspect of this production.

Finally, it’s remarkable to realize how modern we think this opera is and yet it’s 80 years old. That suggests modernity hasn’t penetrated the mainstream arts very much. Among the women in the class at American University I teach, two women said they had gone to the opera: one (like Izzy) left after the first act, and (like Izzy) thought the production misogynistic: the woman pointed out that we saw Lulu jump on the doctor, Lulu wrap herself around him, Lulu as animal and not the doctor. The second woman in my class left after the second act, and complained (like me) of the drawings of woman’s private parts thrown up on the screens as “repellent,” and said she did ask herself, why there were no men’s private parts? When Izzy left, I got up to sit elsewhere as a couple behind me had been quarreling with someone else over their seats. Three women behind me asked if I was leaving like my daughter. I said no, just moving away from the quarreling people. They looked relieved and asked me what I thought of it. I said, well I want to stay to the end to see how Lulu is treated when a prostitute. One of these women then said she found it compelling; the second said it was relief not to have these self-sacrificing virtuous heroine; another (echoing my silent thought) that she was tired of Traviatas. On face-book when I briefly described the opera, one woman said it “sounds pretty dreadful.” Another that she was glad she would have no chance whatsoever to see it.

The one male I did talk to about it commented: “A shame nobody does Jeffers’ version of Medea anymore. He turns Medea into a hero.” He was referring to the great American poet, Robinson Jeffers. A woman poet friend just said she liked the opera.

So, did I enjoy it? no. Would I go again? no. But I’ll remember it. When I’ve read Euripides’ Medea, I’m with her until she insanely kills her children.

Ellen

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Angela Down at center as Sylvia Pankhurst (Episode 6 of 1974 BBC Shoulder to Shoulder)

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Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter as Violet Miller, Maud Watts, Edith Ellyn (2015 BFI Suffragette)

Dear friends and readers,

You have two tremendous treats to avail yourself of this November where we are enjoying a spate of significant politic films. It’s another one of these re-creations of an excellent, original and effective mini-series of the 1970s 40 plus years on (e.g., Upstairs and Downstairs, Poldark). It’s also another riveting new woman’s film, the kind scripted, directed on some woman’s issue (e.g., Bletchley Circle to The Crimson Field, scripted Sarah Phelps).

On-line at YouTube you can watch six 75 minute episodes of Shoulder to Shoulder, (without commercials), and hear the theme song Ethel Smyth’s grand March of the Women:

Episode 1: Emmeline Pankhurst (Sian Phillips); Episode 2: Annie Kenney (Georgia Brown); Episode 3: Lady Constance Lytton (Judy Parfitt); Episode 4: Christabel Pankhurst (Patricia Quinn); Episode 5: Outrage! (it ends on Emily Davison’s suicide by throwing herself under a group of race-horses, Sheila Ballantine as Davison and Bob Hoskins as Jack Dunn); Episode 6: Sylvia Pankhurst (Angela Down).

And in cinemas, there’s Suffragette, screenplay Abi Morgan (who wrote Truth), directed by Sarah Gavron with a cameo peformance as Mrs Pankhurst by Meryl Streep. It also has the theme song, but it only comes in towards the film’s close (as uplift).

I have no reviews of Shoulder to Shoulder to offer; I knew of it by word-of-mouth from other women, especially anyone who has written or read about the suffragettes. I suspect it’s not available as a DVD for the same reason as the Bletchley Circle was cancelled after a second successful year.

Suffragette has been reviewed, not altogether favorably (see Variety). Perhaps since it is a woman’s film, and also about the woman’s movement, the critics have been very hard on it (see the New Yorker especially). A. O. Scott of The New York Times Suffragette justice.

This one has an argument to make, or rather a series of arguments about the workings of patriarchal power, the complexities of political resistance and the economic implications of the right to vote. You might come for the feminism, stay for the class consciousness and arrive at the conclusion that they’re not so distinct after all.

Probably the re-booting (as in the case of the others this year) of Shoulder to Shoulder into Suffragette will please modern audiences more than Shoulder to Shoulder, with its 1970s staged dramaturgy, slower movement, longer scenes and speeches, less closely graphic violence (though Shoulder to Shoulder is as unbearable in its force-feedings and it has several not just one), and I hope people will be drawn to Suffragette. Both movies show how vulnerable and frail are individual revolutionaries and movements against the power of a gov’t with military and legal powers to control, punish, silence, and kill people. Still over-praising something (I believe) in the end is seen through by people and distrusted so upfront I’d like to say that good as Suffragette is, Shoulder to Shoulder is finally superior art.

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Police breaking up the women’s demonstration and starting to beat them up

Suffragette‘s central problem is it’s too short and it has been influenced by the use of gimmick and juiced-up plots in mystery-spy thrillers common in mainstream films. So the focus in Suffragette comes from a little climax-ridden plot-design where we are supposed to care intensely if a police officer, Steed (Brendan Gleeson) turns our heroine into a mole on behalf of a gov’t bent on surveillance headed by the heartless monster, a fictionalized side-kick of Asquith (Samuel West) and his henchmen. Scenario familiar? Here is Steed trying to secude, frighten, & bribe our heroine:

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We then enter into thriller-like story arcs where our heroines outwit the police in planting bombs, breaking windows, and finally managing to reach the newspapers when unexpectedly Emily Davison (Natalie Press, the daughter in Bletchley Circle) throws herself under the horses in a race course watched by the king.

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Emily Davison contemplating what to do to reach the king, or attract attention (Maud is unaware of the lengths Emily is prepared to go to)

This is not to say that Suffragette doesn’t do ample justice deeply even (partly due to superb performances) to the human feelings among the women and in delineating the break-up of the marriage of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) — though it chickened out in showing us the scenes of harsh domestic violence clearly visited on Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) off-stage. Since a punch-shock element was what the film partly relied on, this was a loss.

In fact though Suffragette also delivers a kind of history lesson. It may be said to be equally organized as moral paradigm. Maud is a factory worker doing hard labor ironing in a laundry for years, during much of it in her earliest molested by her employer continually as a condition of remaining employed.

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Given an extra job to deliver a package at the end if the day, Maud rushes for a bus

Maud is therefore naturally attracted to a hope of some better life she intuits the women’s movement offers; when she agrees to go along to listen to Mrs Miller’s speech, she finds herself persuaded by one of the MP’s wives (Romola Garai) to read a prepared speech. Instead she ends up answering questions put to her by the prime minister, Asquith (Adrian Schiller). He asks her what does she think the vote can do for her. She can come up with nothing; she does not know how it could improve her life. The film’s story then proceeds to teach Maud and us why the vote influences women’s lives. Why votes matter.

Maud is slowly radicalized for the same reasons the women in Shoulder to Shoulder are (see just below), and becomes a suffragette. She demonstrates and is beaten and punished. At this her husband, Sonny (Ben Whislaw) becomes humiliated, shamed, and his manhood so threatened, that he throws her out of their apartment. He has the undoubted right by custom. He clearly also despised her when he married her because he knew she had been molested for years and so he regarded himself as “saving her,” putting her on the “right path.” His attitudes are all screwed up by his society’s norms. They lead him to destroy her and the marriage. Worse, he has the legal right to refuse her any access to her child and the right to give the boy up for adoption, which he proceeds to do when he finds he cannot care for the child himself.

Had women had the vote, laws would not give him such a complete right over her and his child. Could she get the vote now, she could vote against such laws and customs. At the film’s close a series of intertitles tell us that five years after a portion of women were given the vote, the custody laws were changed and women had a right to keep their children. Sonny could no longer punish her, himself and their child like this.

Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) works as a doctor, and apothecary in her husband’s druggist shop: we learn she was not allowed to go on to professional school as women were not allowed; the story at the close implies that with the vote, such schools would have to open their doors to women.

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Mrs Miller has nowhere to turn from an abusive husband; she will if she can change parliament. There is no help against the employer-molester; there are not enough jobs and those available to women are mostly dreadful hard work. We see a motif in other women’s films, like Water where an older woman saves a young widow who is being coerced into prostitution: Maud rescues a girl from sex harassment and degradation: she knows Mrs Miller’s daughter is submitting to sexual aggression by the boss, so daring arrest, she shows up at the laundry, takes the girl to the house of the MP wife (Garai) and the wife hires her. She is now protected insofar as the system allows: based on a decent kind individual. The movie-viewer can think to her or himself the equivalent of what legislation can provide today: women’s shelters from domestic violence and abuse.

These stories of the fictionalized characters are said to be partly based on real women, but they are enunciated in such a way as to show the viewer why the vote matters.

The only historical women we see are (briefly) Emily Davison and Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst, posed to recall Sian Phillips in the same role:

Streep

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There are no explicit paradigms or lessons taught in Shoulder to Shoulder, the cast for Shoulder to Shoulder are not working class women (the “foot soldiers” of the movement, as the policeman tells Maud who her “masters” will dump when they don’t need them, after their lives have been ruined), but the elite types who ran the movement. Except — and it’s a big except — the lesson in the grinding nature of the experience of proselytizing, punishment, political in-fighting and finally prison which we are given a full brunt of, and our heroines (except Mrs Pankhurst the highest ranking) are force-feed repeatedly, humiliated by the clothing they must wear, put into solitary confinement.

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Christabel starting out (her first speech)

In comparison to Suffragette our heroines’ sufferings are intangible. Respectability, loss of society (but they don’t want that), companionships, acceptance of a much harder life where they do strain to support themselves by teaching, working in shops (or owning them). As in the other 1970s mini-series, our central characters are drawn from the elite, while in 2015 they are drawn from working people. So it takes a little imagination to enter into what is presented.

OTOH, just about all the characters in Shoulder to Shoulder represent real historical people, much of what is presented is accurate (if much must be left out).

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The real Annie Kenney

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Georgia Brown exuberant as Annie

There is therefore much less false melodrama, and because of its length, we get a long arc of the whole movement from the later 1890s to when Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel supported WW1, and the aftermath of that war.

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The most moving episode in Shoulder to Shoulder focuses on the real Constance Lytton (described in my previous blog this week, Victorian into Edwardian, scroll down) who takes on a working class persona and the treatment meted out to working women in prison is inflicted on Lytton.

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A photo of Lytton dressed as Jane Warton: remarkably Judy Parfitt comes close to looking just like this

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This is the only still I could find on the Net of Parfitt — she is to the left, feeling utterly wretched after having been beaten and force-fed and is now forced to wait for a judicial hearing

The focus in Shoulder to Shoulder is on the human relationships among the characters, and the drama comes out of ideological, political, psychological clashes, its power on how the characters are transformed, variously destroyed, shattered, turned into ruthless political machines who show no gratitude towards those who helped them, especially in the case of Christabel Pankhurst

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Christabel fiercely waving her flag

towards the Pethick-Lawrences, a couple who gave up their fortune, respectability, good and moderately useful lives to the movement only to be thrown away, and towards her sister, Sylvia who persisted in wanting equally to fight for social justice for all people, including working class men, immigrants, issues like civil liberty.

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Sylvia setting up a shop in a working class neighborhood

Both movies make the point strongly that the prison experience is the second reality the women’s movement contended with that radicalized them, and I now realize this is a central theme of Lytton’s book. Lytton’s book is as much about prisons as it is about the suffragette movement. She makes the point that one way you can gauge your success as a political movement is if the establishment puts its leaders in jail.

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The police have kept an eye on and take Maud away

Lytton’s book appears in both Shoulder to Shoulder and Suffragette as Dreams; the title today is Prisons and Prisoners (Broadview Press, edited by Jason Haslam). (I am now in the middle of Constance Lytton’s memoir of her life from the angle of her conversion to the womens’ movement and radicalization through her experience dressed as a working class woman, Jane Warton, in prisons.)

Lytton opens with showing the reader that the votes-for-women movement emerged as a possibly effective force when 1) the upper middle and middle class women enacting leading, and making connections for it realized after 3 decades they would never get the vote unless they severely disrupted the workings of everyday society; and 2)the women were radicalized into real empathy with working and lower class women by their experience of the harsh indifference, cruelty, even torture of the prison system with its principle mechanisms of violent punishment (including force-feeding which led to further pain in vomiting), humiliation, brutalization, and destruction of personalities through alienation. This is what Lytton shows the reader; as a person with a bad heart, she died not long after after her release from the treatment she had received.

Lytton may not appear as one of the characters in Suffragette but her words provide a voice-over as Maud Watts reads her book; and she is the central character of the crucially effective episode of the mini-series.

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The group early on in Suffragette

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The group towards the end of Shoulder to Shoulder

The sense of life as on-going, a cycle, so characteristic of women’s art ends both films, in this case politically appropriate. Lytton really emerges only in one episode (3), and Davison in another (5), and of the on-going characters my favorite was finally Sylvia, partly because I’ve loved other characters Angela Down played at the time (she was Jo March in a 1970 Little Women) A long talk with the inimitable Bob Hoskins (very young) precedes Sylvia’s final walk off onto the street with her latest ally, Flora Drummond (Sally Miles). When I get the book (I’ve bought it from a used bookstore site, I’ll blog again). We are made to feel we have gone through so much (6 times 75 minutes is a lot of experience time), and the photography of the two inside the crowd makes the point they are just two women inside a larger group.

In Suffragette after Emily has thrown herself under the horses, we see Maud, shaken, but walking off. She must live on; she has shown she will find her son and communicate with him; Edith’s husband locked her in the bathroom to prevent her from joining lest she be arrested again (she has a bad heart we are told); we see the police officer, Steed, his employers; Maud, Violet Miller and Edith get together again in the WSPC office.

The writers for the 1970s series are among the best of the era: Ken Taylor, Hugh Whittemore, Alan Plater, Douglas Livingstone (originally they wanted women scriptwriters but the era just didn’t have enough of these); its creators were Georgia Brown, Verity Lambert, Midge Mackenzie, directors Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong. If their characters are too harmonious and well-bred to begin with, by the end they are strongly pressured, conflicted, angry. Suffragette has a woman script writer, Abi Morgan, woman director, Sarah Phelps, three women producers Alison Owen, Faye Ward.

The title Margaret Mitchell wanted to give her famous historical novel, Gone with the Wind, was Tomorrow is another day. It’s a saying that captures the underlying structural idea of many a woman’s art work

Ellen

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