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Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltland as Marnie and Mark Rutland on their honeymoon

Friends and readers,

I regret to have to tell you that this beautifully-sung, acted, and orchestrated Marnie is as repulsive a misogynistic story as I’ve come across in a while — and with Trump as president that’s going some. Ann Midgette of the Washington Post opined the work has a “hollow center” and offers no substantial understanding for why Marnie behaves the way she does (continually changing her very identity as she moves from outrageous theft to outrageous theft), why Mark Rutland responds to seeing she is a ruthless thief and liar by marrying her and then proceeding to win her over by almost raping her.

Not so: at the center of the opera, its “terrifying” back story is a slattern prostitute of a mother who (without an excuse offered) has rows of military men into her flat while her husband is nobly risking his life in battle, and when she becomes pregnant and has the baby, maneuvers her young daughter, into believing she killed the “bonny boy” when it was she. Each time we meet this woman she is snarling, spiteful, and a downright hater of her daughter. It’s known that a recurrent figure in many of Hitchcock’s films is the “terrible mother.” In Graham there is pity and economic explanation for Marnie’s mother’s behavior (abysmally poor, frightened at the same of ostracizing of her from others), and even Hitchcock condescends to have his Mark (Sean Connery) explain the apparently sweet Marnie (Tippi Hendrin) as someone seeking refuge. At least Marnie’s mother’s outward acts are in Graham’s text, Mark’s mother in Graham is not the scheming capitalist she is here. Mrs Rutland nags her son about his business failing all the while she is ruining it in order to buy it out from under him. In Graham, Mark’s mother is dead and it is his father and sister he must persuade to accept Marnie.


Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother (not otherwise identified in this production) — smoking away & sinister in her wheelchair

Perhaps the most dismaying element of all was how blatant this is. The relentlessly cheerful announcer brought up the “evil mothers” as if it were a joke, and then the two actresses opined that this didn’t matter. No one said it’s just entertainment for the great hype of these interviews is how serious and important the operas are. It is the equivalent of how in Hitchcock’s movie Marnie is repeatedly called a liar and all ads about the character in this movie call her a liar as if this lying were a moral sin of gargantuan magnitude. Worst of all really the lack of any explanation for the actions of the three central characters (Marnie, Make, and Marnie’s mother): we are left with a simplistic crude Freudianism “feel.” That the critics have latched onto this time — they all seem to feel Hitchcock somehow “explained” this — he is at least suggestive, nuanced and detailed in his presentation.

Probably the accusation of hollowness comes from how in this production, like Sean O’Connor and Hitchcock before him (a psychological play focusing on sex, class, money of play, Marnie, London, 1982; and a 1964 Hitchcock psychoanalytic film respectively) Muhy never gets inside Marnie’s mind (certainly not the harridan mother). There is no credible explanation for this crazed re-dressing of herself every few months, this dangerous stealing of the whole of a company’s capital. So Marnie in all three iterations emerges as a clothes-changing frigid manipulative domineering bitch. Since Maltman has been directed to be far sweeter to Marnie than Sean Connery, indeed to be loving, kind, well-meaning, once we get past the unexplained impulse on his part to marry her (when all despise her as an employee so beneath him), we feel for Mark at least. Again Muhy goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhy does not allow Mark to rape Marnie. This is to rob the book of hard trauma. In several of his books Graham adheres to the idea that marital traumatic rape is good for the women — yes afterwards it seems they were longing for the man to overcome them. Graham has his men rape women for their own good (!) in some of the suspence novels (The Forgotten Story is one); a few of these men are forgiven for killing the woman when the woman commits adultery (presented as an understandable reaction). They are allowed to love two women (that’s Ross Poldark’s case in Warleggan). In Hitchcock’s case we have documentary evidence to show Hitchcock delighted in voyeurism and insisted the camera stay on Hedron’s face as Connery bears down on her. Hedron as Marnie flees (as in the book and film) but instead of leaping into a pool , in this opera she tries to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Red light suggests blood, and we move on.


Here they were reminiscent of the TV serial drama, Madmen.

I was further dismayed by the ignoring (as did Hitchcock before him) of Graham’s attack on capitalist soul-less offices — the production chose a very fat man to play Strut and he played the part as a gross narrow bully but beyond that nothing explicit. The 1950s was simply characterized as filled with men in suits sitting at desks or crowding in on women; the women were trussed up in offices sitting behind desks; at parties, they looked uncomfortable and absurd in their overdone gowns and big hair or French twists. In this production Terry Rutland (Lestyn Davies) does not develop a slow true understanding of like people with Marnie (which in the novel is at least interesting). In Hitchcock Terry Rutland works to ruin Marnie’s reputation, and she is innocent of his enterprises; here she works with him in deceit and corruption. Lastly, there is no landscape to speak of and Marnie’s one good relationship, with her horse Forio is not presented as the healthy experience it is, nor is she close or intimate with her horses’ feelings. In the book Graham may be remembering the incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where a horse’s life is sacrificed to a race and much sexual innuendo floats about. In the opera and in Hitchcock the horse-riding, racing and shooting of the horse is simply an acting out of a crude suggested (never detailed) Freudian-style analysis about sex: Marnie enjoys riding roughshod over Mark so she rides roughshod over her horse.

The book can go at length into an analysis; when Mark is hurt trying to stop the death of the horse, we can see a relationship develop between him and Marnie. We do feel for Marnie as an inexplicably sick person: she is a Humbert Humbert, except she is the victim, hoist with her own petard. Blackmailed into marriage, raped, then trapped, and finally found out by one of her previous bosses who comes to one of Mrs Rutland’s fancy garden parties and put into jail. In the book she seems almost relieved, and with a sort of reconciliation happening, it seems when she emerges, she may try for a sane relationship with Mark. In Hitchcock’s movie at the end she is pathetically grateful to Mark (as masterful Connery): the seething liar becomes a remorseful dependent. By contrast, in the opera she suddenly sings “I’m free” — of what? her mother who she has learnt in the previous scene died, so pat along comes the mid-wife-housekeeper, paid companion, Lucy, to tell Marnie her mother became a prostitute in the war and when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock smothered her “bonny boy.” Because Marnie has confessed he own crimes and understands her mother’s, she is not free of what happened or her past. She has just suggested to Mark she could like him when she gets out.


As in the book Marnie agrees to go to a psychiatrist (as part of a bargain with Mark): here as elsewhere she is surrounded by “other selves” — to the side we see her mother in a slip in red light

I did ask people near me what they thought of it. Most audience members are very reticent but as with (to be fair) other modern or non-traditional productions, I saw faces made. One woman said the piece was “repulsive.” Lynn Gardner of The Guardian thought that Graham’s novel seduced Sean O’Connor because he saw it as “gritty parable of repressiveness in which sex, class, money and manners are central motivators.” Many years after the initial movie Richard Brody is now cured of his Hitchcock mania. Midgette thinks Muhy too eager a collaborator elsewhere, to glad to have a commission; the music, says James Jordan of The Observer is forgettable. As if he needed to explain his opera more, during one of the interviews Muhy told the “host” how each of his characters corresponds to a particular motif by a particular instrument. The music was meant to be emotionally expressive.What I noticed is Terry Rutland is a counter-tenor, and (unless I’m mistaken), Muhy and Michael Mayer are gay men and wonder if as homosexual men they were drawn to this hideous parable of narrow wretched heterosexuality in a desperate environment. I did like some of the costumes, especially Marnie’s later wardrobe — and I find that 1950s costumes are associated with a gay sensibility.


This was perhaps her last outfit and it and the cream one just before are appealing; she is on the stage after a London performance with Tippi Hendren (who played Marnie in Hitchcock’s film and was sexually harassed by him)

I fear it did nothing to increase anyone’s understanding of the tragic way women experience sex and motherhood in our society. It did not endorse male violence and macho maleness the way Hitchcock did. In his study, The making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral quotes Winston Graham’s son to the effect that his father was not a feminist despite his father’s assertions he naturally was. In a letter to Hitchcock in that volume it does seem as if in general across his books Winston Graham meant to create sympathy for women who have a “raw” deal in our society, are forced to submit, endure much and enjoy little. He said he based this story of the mother on a maid he and his wife had had years before and a story he read in a newspaper about another working class women. Maybe he intended to break through the repressive sexual miseries of the eras (1950s); instead (what he never mentions) because he was improving his technical prowess in using the new amoral ironies found at the time in the suspense novel, he happened upon an imitation in reverse of Nabokov’s hypocritical Lolita, and his adapters have not known what to do with the result.

One caveat: is the opera based on Graham’s book as claimed or Hitchcock’s movie (with a little help from Sean O’Connor’s play)? Asked about how they came to choose the book, the script writer and director said they saw in the movie such astonishing fodder for an opera. Is the opera then based on the movie, asked the interviewer. The answer was if they had tried to get their permission to use the material from the film company or individuals involved, they would never have gotten past the squabbles that would ensue. So the answer is they cannot say they got their opera from the movie, only that their permission stems from the book. As they were talking and a few others interviewed talked, it seemed some of the people had read the book. I believe Muhy did. But the opera is equally influenced by Hitchcock and for all one can tell it’s Hitchcock’s misogynistic and voyeuristic outlook that was a deciding factor. Hard to say.

One last angle: still and whatever the relationship between original source and this opera, surely, all three adaptations should shed more light on Graham as the writer of the Poldark novels, or on other of his suspense books than they do. I find little connection between the early Cornwall successes (The Giant’s Chair, The Dangerous Pawn) and the World War Two tales (No Exit),  and Graham’s book, but there is continuity with The Forgotten Story, The Merciless Ladies, and with some of the hard bleak later film noir books (especially Angell, Pearl and Little God), and with some of Graham’s more memorable vicious ruthless and emotionally twisted characters across his oeuvre (Mark Adderly, Valentine Poldark). Some of my friends have declared Graham’s books misogynistic because of the books’ sympathy with male rapists and murderers; I find a qualified feminism because there is much sympathy with women victimized by the society as a whole and with particular vulnerable males. It is an anomaly to see that Winston Graham could not extend understanding to Marnie’s mother — or that this brutal material found at the core of many a society (what to do with unwanted babies and with women who won’t submit or retreat before the hegemonic patriarchical order) proved too much for Graham here.

Ellen

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