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Hamlet (Papa Essiedu), Gravedigger (Ewart James Walters) and assistant (Temi Wilkey)


Leones (Michael Tisdale) accosts Camillo (Eric Hissom)

Friends,

I have been putting off writing about the plays, concerts, lectures, and dance I’ve been to since coming back from Milan (well I did just once because Friel’s Translations was not to be missed) that they have begun to pile up. So late as it is, I’m here to urge all who read this to see the RSC’s Hamlet with a nearly all black cast. It is touring.


Hamlet with Lorna Brown as Gertrude

Allowing for exaggeration, the reviews have (rightly) said that Essiedu makes the experience what it is (Telegraph (several of the actors were superb, especially Clarence Smith as Claudius, James Cooney as Horatio, Mimi Ndiweni as Ophelia): a new star is born; Washington Post: a rogue outsider artist).


Marvelously comic: Richard Henry the old shepherd and Joshua Thomas the young one


Grace Gonglewski a strong but frightened Paulina (of this tyrant)

But I’d like to qualify that and say its strength is the same as the deeply felt Folger Winter’s Tale, which I saw two weeks ago now: The Folger WT also had some great acting: Michael Tisdale as Leontes, Melissa Graves (an understudy) a poignant dignified Hermione, Eric Hissom, any number of linked characters (Camillo, Antigonus, Storyteller Time). More important: the directors of both productions allowed the actors to do Shakespeare straight on. Both are despite some exhilarating African music and modernized songs and dancing in Bohemia traditional productions.

I can never have too much Shakespeare. By the time we got to the final scene of Hamlet, I felt the awe, the wild exhilaraton, and savage ironies Shakespeare intended me to feel. In the last scene of The Winter’s Tale, I felt a grief akin to what I nowadays feel when I see King Lear. In Lear death is the final blow of a harrowing of cruelty and madness; in The Winter’s Tale, we are awakened to a joy we cannot quite believe as “oh she’s warm” is pronounced. I wish this Winter’s Tale had gone on tour. When they are this good, I often hope to myself that they have filmed it onto a digital device.

The most intellectual and stunningly moving experience was Ivo von Hove’s After the Rehearsal and Persona at the Kennedy Center. Gijs Scholten van Aschan in the Bergman role and in the first play Marieke Heebink as his wife, contemporary partner, an aging actress (alcoholic, depressed) who needs him more than he does her (and he needs her) and Gaite Jansen as the young substitute (possibly pregnant and not sure she wants this life), taking over. In the second Heebink is a mentally shattered woman, with Anne her young nurse: after much manipulation and emotional attacks, the two see themselves in one another.


Somehow the hospital turns into a summer cottage where it seems to be raining continually — rain helps wash away tension

The plays (originally done on TV are about the destructive and therapeutic function of art in a dedicated artist’s life. Hove is superb at Bergman material (like the corrosive effect of growing old) getting his actors to release the vulnerable and angry self. The same actors played the parts in the Barbican; it was in Dutch with surtitles. The stories were not intended to comment on how men use women in the arts, but they do, prophetically.

The sets and stage business was so poignant too: the second ended in both women standing in a large pool of water, together, in simple white shifts, holding hands.

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As to concerts, dance, our local small Metro-stage in Alexandria provided a warm delightful presence in Deb Filler, a New Zealander Canadian Jewish storyteller doing all sorts of traditional sons “her way;” in Yiddish as well as English. You haven’t fully enjoyed Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah until you’ve heard Filler sing the song in Yiddish too. Writer, actress, singer, comic, musician, hers is a one woman entertainment, stretched out with some film. She was the third of three women solos this spring at Metrostage (Catherine Flyte (scroll down), Roz White (ditto)).

And to tell the truth, more than the Folger Ovid’s Vineyard. They had a soprano singing from two operas, Phedre et Hippolyte, and Orphee, a man brilliant on the flute, a rich harpsichord and a woman who worked very hard on her violin, but still it was tame except for the unexpected beauty of the melodies of Jean Philippe Rameau’s concert songs for harpsichord. The Folger Concert has not been as inventive this year as previous. Perhaps I should start to go to the pre-performance discussions.


They used the set from the Winter’s Tale

I did go to one dud: the Scottish ensemble and Anderson Dance performing the Goldberg Variations at the Kennedy Center was an in-your-face insult to anyone with sensibility. After the Milanese Goldberg Variations at La Scala as stunning beautiful — graceful, lyrical, interestingly psychological, wonderful group patterns — this group fobbed us off with comic grotesquerie and awkward individual non-dances. If I had been on the aisle, and hadn’t gone to trouble to see it, and hadn’t kept hoping at some point there’d be dancing, I’d have left after the first ten minutes.

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A Smithsonian lecture on art


Cezanne’s Boy in a Red Vest

Although I’ve not gotten to the exhibit at the National Gallery, I did go to a long full lecture (many good slides) at the Smithsonian on the Cezanne portraits. I bought the ticket and went to the Hirschorn in the hope I would be taught why I should like Cezanne’s art. I don’t: it seems so inert. Roger Fry loved it, and I’ve friends who say they do too. To me Cezanne’s paintings seem made up of empty abstract forms, even if “monumental,” and he leaves me cold; the portraits often lack faces. While curator told of interesting relationships between Cezanne and his sitters, and said there were several versions of a given portrait at this exhibit so you could study the differenes, she never answered the objections of several reviews of the show, e.g., one in the Washington Post by Sebastian Smee, and three very respectful questioners in the (crowded) audience. Madame Cezanne as painted by Cezanne has been vilified for not smiling (women are supposed to be joyfully compliant at all times). Smee omits that Cezanne was the son of a very rich man who supported Cezanne all his life, so his choice to paint peasants — and to live with one and mistreat her for many years (she was left isolated) before finally marrying her has a certain hypocrisy.


Madame Cezanne in a Red Arm Chair

The curator offered the idea these are iconoclastic portraits, modern, refusing to satisfy us or glorify the sitter. Well in the Cezanne cases (unlike the same thing seen in Vanessa Bell’s portraits) these are not rich customers buying a pre-photographic portrait to glorify themselves. I become irritated when people complain about Cassandra Austen’s second portrait of Jane Austen where Jane is not facing us. She has the right to look away; it’s a trope of reverie in the period — you can find the same pose in front of novels. But when Jane was facing Cassandra, Cassandra drew her face. A friend on my WomenWriters@groups.io list wrote she had read that the faceless portraits reflected how humans/individuals are unknowable. We can think of Woolf’s de-centered novel Jacob’s Room, where similarly, we never get a clear picture of Jacob; it was said Woolf was inspired by Vanessa’s painting at the time, in particular her faceless portraits.


A detail of one of Vanessa’s paintings of her sister, Virginia

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Must not leave out new TV & Internet films

I’ve left for last and now just briefly the fascinating four part adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End by Kenneth Lonergan. Sometimes nowadays TV offers us far richer experiences in film, music and art than what is found in physical theaters. I don’t think this production was that superb but when compared to the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala (see Samanthan Ellis’s ironic take) and it is quite different from the original book; still, it was thought-provoking with its own new genuine feeling, intelligent, meaningful.  Who would not feel for Leonard Bast after this one?.


Phillipa Coulthard as the cultured assured Helen and Joseph Quinn as the aspiring Leonard Bast

I then re-watched the 1993 film (on a DVD with two hours of features about Merchant-Ivory) and it was subtler, more nuanced, more sheer content somehow, with Margaret inexplicably actually falling in love with Mr Wilcox while the 2018 film makes this central relationship seem far more performative and self-interested,

but the more recent film is more deeply empathetic towards the failing Leonard Bast, and makes explicit how these privileged wealthy people live off the undercompensated labor of others. I hope to write separately and with more detail than I have here when this summer on TrollopeAndHisContemporaries@groups.io we read the book together. I bring the new version up here to mourn that it did not appear on PBS (which sticks to inferior mysteries and thinner contemporary books and stories) but Starz (a high tier channel and too expensive for many people). I am watching the second season of Handmaid’s Tale but will hold off any comment until I’ve reached the end.

A paradox: Izzy came with me to the Hamlet and Winter’s Tale, to the Metrostage; a friend, Panorea to the Folger but I’ve felt least alone watching Howard’s End and now Handmaid’s Tale because of my friends on my three lists at groups.io. There we had ongoing good conversation and look forward to reading Forster as our summer project. They revived the foremother poets postings on Fridays on Wom-po (a women poets list)! Reader, I am working on a woman artists blog on Vanessa Bell too: Frances Spalding’s biography and Richard Shone’s art criticism (on Duncan Grant and Roger Fry also)

I hope no one takes any of my blogs as here to give the impression I am living a good life, surrounded by friends or whatever is the going ideal norm for existence for a woman like me. It is far too late for me to come near a fulfilling existence for myself now, if it ever were in the cards. I was exhausted last night, falling asleep in front of a movie, couldn’t read Virginia Woolf’s A Sketch of the Past (her memoir printed in Moments of Being), so I reached out to others with material I thought might find acceptance and be of interest to those who come to this blog. Add something that might cheer or help others and that might prompt them to write back in a similar spirit.

Ellen

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  • . . . and quite enough friends to be going on with; bookshops; galleries; gardens — Fleur Adcock, “Instead of an Interview”
  • Dear Friends,

    The header for these many postings about books I’m reading for pleasure, insight, comfort are a play on Fleur Adcock’s lines in a sonnet.

    Since I last wrote of books I’m going on with, I’ve read many more than those I’m going to describe today, particularly by and about Jane Austen, and the Austen films. For these, you have to go to “Reveries under the Sign of Austen”. Here I’ll just link in the two filmographies of Austen films I’ve put on my website:

  • The Austen movies organized by type

    The Austen movies organized by source

  • The two I want to talk of to others outside WWTTA (where I have written about them) are Forster’s Howards’ End (and the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film adaptation) and Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist). Forster and Jhabvala’s work and Taylor’s novels belong to a tradition brought to an early brilliant incarnation by Austen, one not well-understood because not respected for real.

    howardsMargaretHelen
    Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham-Carter as the sisters of Howards’ End

    You may find a good general account of Forster’s book for a preface (I won’t go into a story summary or general thematic analysis) at Frisbee: a book journal (Kathy and I discuss it further in the comments) as well as on Jhabvala’s novels. I’ve dedicated part of my website to Jhabvala’s heavily-Austen centered work and a blog to Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films too.

    In this blog I want simply to bring out a significant aspect of Forster’s Howards’ End: he had Austen’s Sense and Sensibility closely in mind as he wrote it, at times following its trajectories, even parodying it. It seems to me an instance of the type of adaptation Kamilla Elliot calls “de(re)composing”. As somewhat mystically (you can’t prove this sort of description) by Thomas Leitch, this is a text or film which decomposes, merge, and form new composition at underground levels of reading. Film a composite of textual and filmic signs merging audience consciousness. Howards End is a transformation of Sense and Sensibility into Forster’s wonderfully nuanced widely-suggestive art. It’s an extended intertextual engagement with Austen’s novel.

    I list the more obvious examples: the chapter where Margaret, Helen, and Tibby are described: it’s is a redo of the description of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret in modern terms. The likeness is down to Tibby getting but one sentence, and he is marginalized in something of the way Margaret is: it is left to him to make the wry ironic pragmatic remarks shorn of cant (which usually accompanies faux pragmaticism). Aunt Juley is an ironic replay of Mrs Jennings. There are little allusive clues: for example, Charles Wilcox’s young wife is called “Miss Dolly Fussell that was …” We are to add the poor. A funny scene where the news is brought to the Wilcoxes that Mrs Wilcox left her house to Miss Schlegel (Margaret) has allusions and imitations in parody of the famous Chapter 2 of S&S: Dolly fears she and her family will be thrown out; any minute now Margaret will arrive to do it.

    HelenintheRain
    Helen has a predilection for rain, and meets our victim-hero, Leonard Bast by taking his umbrella; here she looks back through a window or gate

    More transformed yet: there’s Helen’s night (if that’s what it was, meaning a fuck) with Paul Wilcox who (like Willoughby) will of course marry money and rank — she is a modern variant on Marianne and Eliza Williams, where pregnancy does not emerge from one night stands (as it rarely does). Jackie is such another as the two Elizas (including Eliza Brandon who was passed from man to man we are told by Austen’s Mrs Jennings). Mr Wilcox and the Wilcoxes a realistic set of Fanny, John, and Robert Dashwood, and Mrs Ferrars.

    The inheriting of the cottage is central to the sister’s safety. It was the one act on her own Mrs Wilcox made, and she was almost thwarted because she didn’t do it legally: no lawyer, no witness that counted, in pencil, yet. Like so many legacies of women until the 20th century. Now they may live in it and leave it to their nephew, Leonard Bast’s son. But still Jackie (poor Eliza) is excluded.

    howardsendcottage

    The cottage used for the filmic Howard’s End could easily be the Dashwood Barton Cottage, and is more run-down at the moment of photographing early in the story than most of the cottages used for S&S except in the last 2008 film. M-I-J were ahead of the time in using decayed and older and poorer images. They are by no means all luxury; the story is in fact about the contrast of the deprived, outsiders, disconnected people and those with padded wealth and privilege which is what S&S is about.

    It really is there, I am not fantasizing — the process has been far more closely interlined than Ian McEwan’s Atonement out of Richardson’s Clarissa.; and unlike McEwan who substitutes a misogynistic cruel set of norms for Richardson’s proto-feminist one, Forster takes Austen’s point of view and makes it more compassionate, deeper, wider, more sophisticated intertwined with larger social, sexual, and economic arrangements.

    I am no hagiographer and have not lost sight of those areas of life where Austen is naive, inflexible or limited. She is naive about sex; the idea that Elinor and Edward would hold out to obey such a promise is silly romance found in earlier novels; the self-sacrifice & punishing of heroines (like Elinor is to be the one to tell Edward of Colonel Brandon’s offer) is a motif still in Howell’s novels. Austen does not see the poor, nor connect subtly to larger economic and cultural forces. Forster does.

    Howards’ End is not the only sister book genuinely taking Sense and Sensibility in further or sympathetic (but sometiems not as deep) directions that I have found, and his erases the the woman-centered basis. There’s the one she imitated: Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfieldwhere the older man is crippled (uncannily picked up by the 2000 Tamil free film adaptation I Have Found It which itself anticipates motifs and expansions in Davies’a dn Pivcevic’s 2008 BBC/WBGH S&S); Edith Wharton’s Summer where the unromantic marriage to the older man after the young man has seduced, impregnated and abandoned our heroine is dreaded because of the sex, and E. H. Young’s Jenny Wren.

    Now as Joe Wright seems to have been aware that Atonement is a rewrite of Clarissa, so Jhabvala and then Merchant-Ivory are aware Howards’ End rewrites the first book. Their film is a deeper comment on the relationship of the two sisters and what their natures stand for and how such natures (when lucky) can survive in a harsh had world.

    I’ve written about Nicola Beauman’s book on women’s novels of the early to mid-20th century in my old blog, A very great profession: the woman’s novel, 1914-39

    MazeSewing
    Still from filmed ghost story, The Maze, typical of the kind of fiction Beauman treats of, very Brief Encounter-ish

    and her literary biography of Taylor’s life and writing at “Reveries” (just scroll down to the last quarter of the posting).

    Here I want to record about Taylor the kind of insights into her behavior, attitudes and writing that place her in the tradition of novels to which Austen’s and Forster’s belong. I recorded at Reveries that for Taylor letters provided the finest truest friendships as they allowed people to learn about one another, share things, support one another in a kind of intimacy of the private self not readily possible face-to-face. She stayed home to write, to delve into her mind and imagination and live with other fine spirits through books and art.

    I forgot to say that most piquantly for me is that she found reading good mysteries anything but an escape: they distressed and unsettled her. So too me. Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Man left me genuinely disquieted. I felt anxious about going to dark lonely places, about being alone at night in a house.

    Peter Parker writes well on this book and Taylor’s work on The Telegraph He mentions how important an influence was Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. But less famous are closer influences: Ivy Compton-Burnett’s depictions of private and family life were very important to her (and she was friends with C-B) as were Elizabeth Bowen’s books (another friend and supporter), especially The Death of the Heart (which I’ve read and know is one of the great women’s novels of the 20th century.

    Nicola Beauman was founder and continual supporter of Persephone books and the subtheme of this book is that of Alison Light’s Forever England: great women’s books are not recognized as great books, called conservative as they love landscape and quiet, and don’t follow the artistic aims of men’s books; they are hardly given space to be in print unless they may be converted into romance by talk and movies. It’s true that Beauman doesn’t report the many painful reviews of Taylor’s books, e.g., Joyce Carol Oates is among those who ridicule Taylor. She also overpraises, but this is what happens in compensation.

    Taylor herself includes a defense of women’s novels and art in her A Wreath of Roses. I’ve read Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness, (bitingly bitter book), In a Summer Season, Palladian and Mrs Palfrey at the Clarement (moving book about an old woman going into a retirement house for the more wealthy, recently adapted into a film, about which I also wrote on my old blog). They use the same coded conventions of Howards’ End (which Taylor loved particularly) and Sense and Sensibility.

    Wretchedmoment, like the morning after the dance in S&S
    The disposition of the two sisters here is repeat of precisely the way they are presented in all the S&S films, looking out a window, after Willoughby’s snub, discussing some risk or worry. It is well before Margaret marries the older rich man and they inherit Mrs Wilcox’s cottage.

    79PP1WindowCharlotteElizabeth
    Opening scene from 1979 P&P: Charlotte (Irene Richards) and Elizabeth (Elizabeth Garvey) holding on to one another

    Ellen

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