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From the summer 2012 American Century Theater production

Dear friends and readers,

Insofar as we can by this time, we returned to our usual lives, and last night saw a remarkable play which was a kind of re-enactment. A large group of actors from the American Century Theater participated in enacting one of these (hideous eventually) dancing marathons adrumbrated in the 1920s, in supposedly “innocent” college stunts weher young people jumped out windows. (I wonder about that — was it a form of sorority or fraternity hazing?) When the depression really began to destroy lives, create widespread abysmal povetry in the early 1930s, these jumping parties were turned (I don’t quite get the connection) into organized dance marathons lasting literally days on end. Couples were first tempted and then pressured and finally humiliated into enduring long hours of “dancing” to win a prize of money.

I’d liken this to a cruel form of performing circus; the audiences are characterized as vulgar and awful, enjoying the spectacle of suffering and desperation for money, and (unlike TV or movies), they were literally there, but the pleasures of this experience reminds me of what is said to be gained from watching today’s TV reality shows. For those actively dancing, if any couple won a prize, the cost of good, laundry, medical care, lodging was deducted. A widely-known secret was that acting professional did this and that’s what we see in this enactment too.

It was an unusually long play — the experience took about 3 hours (with one 15 minute intermission during which some of the actors sung before a mike). The company were trying to make the time passed as realistic as they could with a slow opening (including fights, insults and bickering among the actors, managers, food people, physicians, band players). Everyone dressed in 1930s outfits in the cast, and the audience sat the way they would have been. Actors also played audience members. A concession stand we could buy from was set up too (alas, 2012 prices). A band.

It took time for the dancing to degenerate into suffering, and intermixed with the dark drabness, they would put on strobe lights that sparkled and threw a gay light over the proceedings. The 1930s songs during intermission, and pretended 10 minute rest periods emerged as creepy, or gothic, or perversely hypocritical. Little cruelties got to me: a man called the coach who blew on a whistle and had a hard wooden switch would hit the contestant’s feet and legs to stay dancing (like a football coach, no?). The sarky talk from the introducer and announcers, the way they sneered and shamed people was unpleasant and my first response was “let’s go home.” But Jim said, no, stay, it’s not real remember, but an enactment. The Washington Post reviwer loved it, called it a “slow burner.”

They managed a story line by having three couples emerge more individually; one actress played June Havoc herself and she made explicit her anger at how she was exploited and yet had to endure this to find a company to be in continually and eat. She and her partner (played by Bruce Alan Rauscher, an excellent actor I’ve seen in other companies) enacted a wedding in front of the audience — quite like a reality “match game” show. A kind of phony Marlene Dietrich stops by — and actors famous becuase they are famous were there too (again anticipating TV). Each couple were at first dressed to the nines, but gradually re-dressed and grew filthy, exhausted, with their clothes sweaty-ruined, torn. They began to quarrel bitterly as they collapsed, blaming one another for losing, jealous between couples.


The nagging MC boss

June Havoc who wrote the piece was Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister and she did participate in these. She wrote two autobiographies also, Early Havoc and More Havoc.

The group doing this called themselves the American Century Theater and they make a specialty out of American plays – do nothing else so you can sometimes see remarkable and rarely done stuff. So, it’s a fair question to ask: given our present depression, the present use of reality and football shows, what in American culture breeds this? Is it connected to the popularity (apparently) of figures like Romney, Ryan and their ilk — is this somehow connected to the paranoid element of the TeaPartyBaggers (or whatever they are called). The sobering thought that there were no marathons in places outside the US occurred in the company’s notes (fake wrestling does not occur outside the US either). Having gone to an exhibit of the war of 1812 early this summer reminded me how early on the American way became aggressive, violent. After all enough people enable the distribution of guns across the US, go to super-violent movies at midnight where the crazed person is dressed like the people in the movie), sexualized horrible talk continues in campaigns and over the media which finds acceptable violence against women’s sexuality and pretends to idolize figures like brides and Dietrichs.

Apparently the movei, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an account of a dance marathon. An early Jane Fonda film it shows her at her acting best in the central June role:

I shall try to rent it from Netflix. I recommend this play to all; what happens in it, its norms and what’s allowed as acceptable behavior may make you think about the cool competition (which can turn into psychological warfare), tricky rules which can become sabotage and big cash prizes, together with scorn for “losers” that make up the worst aspects of US culture and yet dominate our elections and much of pop public media, to omit the money marketplace competitive job worlds, increasingly what’s taught implicitly in schools, and for some courtship and sex and marriage too.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

This is to urge everyone who reads this blog to rent, buy, or go to see in theaters or watch on TV Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee. A friend on WWTTA told me about it last week:

I just saw it and recommend it to everyone. It’s a remarkable look at corporate power and the attempt (more successful than you likely realize) to deprive American citizens access to our civic justice system.

The director, Susan Saladoff, does a superb job of presenting the reality behind the infamous McDonald’s coffee lawsuit–it was really shocking to learn the truth not only about that case but about the right-wing/corporate effort to limit constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Netflix has it for rental. My local library has it–check yours, too.

I rented it from Netflix within the next couple of days, and when we returned from Vermont, watched it and was just thunderstruck. It’s a startling eye-opener. Saladoff explains how wealthy corporations, powerful institutions and organizations in our society are successfully cutting off from the average person the US civil criminal justice system in the US intended to help individuals get redress or help when they have been hurt or harmed by these bodies of people.

Saladoff shows us first of all that the judiciary across the US is nowadays filled with mostly reactionary judges put there through well-funded campaigns for Republicans and conservative Democrats. When they lose a campaign against a fair judge as in Oliver Diaz’s case, they then pursue the judge as they hounded Diaz) by indicting him for accepting bribes, corruption, whatever will stick. From a detailed review of Hot Coffee by Kenneth R. Morefield:

The third story is that Oliver Diaz and it frames the issue of judicial elections. The film illustrates how judicial elections on the state level are particularly susceptible to vast spending discrepancies, and political action committees (PACs) funded by the Chamber of Commerce spend huge amounts of money to blanket electorates with negative attack ads. (In Diaz’s case the ads were even repudiated by his opponent yet continued to run by the Chamber of Commerce.)

I did not begin to know the extent of the reach of these corporations, their lobbyists and the political people they have bought.

The film shows that many cases of individuals seeking redress are consequently today just obliterated by a judge reversing a jury’s findings (so that no settlement or a very limited one of money can come to aid the person), how relentless and successful the corporations have been in convincing the US public most lawsuits brought by individuals are frivolous and cost the taxpayer money. Ironically, it’s the failure of these individual to find redress and help from those with deep pockets who caused the harm that leads them to come to the public for what help they can.

When the number of winning cases goes down, and when the amount of money award goes down, the insurance companies do not lower their rates. And you cannot get people to change their behavior unless you force them through fear of monetary damages.

Three stories are told Stella Leibeck who was the lady who spilt searingly hot coffee on her lap spent literally years trying to cope with severe burns. The price was outrageously high (our medical non-system is another story). Here is a photo of her legs some time after she had had some treatment:

Macdonalds keeps the temperature of their coffee so high because it saves them money. They waste less coffee that way.

We are told the story of a Colin Courley’s parents where the wife was unaware that one of a pair of twins was being radically damaged in her uterus. Her boy is severely crippled. The couple do not begin to have the money to offer him adequate treatment and schooling. They are worried sick what will happen to him after they die. They were originally awarded a large enough amount to enable them to cope. The judge put on the case lowered it to an amount that is wholly inadequate. Consequently they have to come to the taxpayer and public agencies (underfunded) for help:

The case of Colin Gourley, a Nebraska boy who requires a lifetime of care and physical therapy after suffering brain damage due to medical malpractice but was unfortunate enough to be conceived in a state (Nebraska) with a hard cap on damages, illustrates the dangers of liability caps. Two especially strong points made in this segment are that states that enact liability caps do not experience reductions in the cost of malpractice insurance nor medical costs and that costs incurred by victims of malpractice and not covered by damage awards are most often absorbed by Medicaid, meaning any “savings” created by lower judgments are essentially in the form of liability subsidies paid by tax payers. The second point is particularly ironic because a linchpin of tort reform arguments is the claim that frivolous lawsuits (supposedly eliminated by hard caps) are what are driving costs up and making things more expensive for everyone.

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Colin, his family — his twin brother stands next to Saladoff

Far from people going to court lightly, it takes money and courage to go to court, time, energy and the willingness to undergo personal attacks. Jamie Leigh Jones was promised a good job by Halliburton with reasonable living quarters. She found herself in a set of rooms filled with males where she was the only female. That first night she was brutally raped, beaten, sodomized; when she tried to complain, she found herself imprisoned in a crate. Only by reaching her father and his instant action in going to his senator was she released and sent home. She has spent years trying to expose this company. Her problem is she signed a mandatory arbitration contract which removes her right to go to court; she is by law required to appeal to an abritrator hired by Halliburton. How much redress do you think she would get?

The story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a woman who was brutally raped after KBR/Halliburton ignored her pleas that she was being sexually harassed on the job (and forced to live in coed trailers rather than, as she was promised, with other women) frames the film’s final issue, that of mandatory binding arbitration clauses in contracts. In these contracts employees and, increasingly, consumers are required to waive their right to pursue civil relief for any problems that might result in the future and accept instead binding arbitration from an arbiter selected by the company.


Jamie Leigh Jones

Everything has been done that can be to smear her: the story is one that exposes our pro-rape culture. She lost her case ultimately because at each round the conservative judge voted against her.

What was chilling here was how many lawyers and academics line up in support of these mandatory arbitration contracts. They shamelessly justify these in court as for the public interest. People will say anything.

Tort reform is not a boring subject. We have Orwellian language here: what’s happening is not reform, but destruction of rights that ought to be inalienable from our constitution and bill of rights.

It’s so well done too, the explanations so clear. It made me remember all the contracts and fine print I’ve signed and of the cases of individual judges and others destroyed by the ruthlessness, relentless and bottomless pocketbook corporations and their lawyers (Karl Rove). I am aware from my personal experience of how high and powerfully placed and ordinary academics too support these people. The idea the university is a bastion of leftism is a bleak joke.

We need to know that mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts are ways of depriving us and most people of their right to sue when hurt or cheated. How many contracts I’ve signed where I can barely read the small print.

We need to know that the US chamber of commerce is a front for corporations.

The pro-choice forces in the US have found themselves crippled, outdistanced and now repressed and increasingly without anywhere for a woman to get an abortion. Why? They have let the Catholics and those who would make women submit to repression, exploitation, take over the dialogue. Pro-choice people are put on the defensive because of the ceaseless presentation of women as turned neurotic if they don’t have a child or have an abortion. Nonsense. Some are upset; some are relieved, some are empowered.

I did puzzle over why the rhetoric of family scenes of happiness trumps even these scenes. I did wonder why the liberal democrats have so much trouble winning cases and elections.

My friend offered this explanation: The wish to not have to face responsibility for causing the suffering of others is at the root of the “tort reform” movement, on which the film focuses.

Tort reform not a dull bore. “Reform” here means depriving you and me of access to the courts for redress and help when we’ve been hurt, taken advantage of, need monetary help and want to prevent the same cruel acts from being perpetrated on someone else. See Hot Coffee by Saladoff and then tell others to see it.

Ellen

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John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Patrick Earl as Giovanni, the lover-brother, and Denice Mahler as his sister-lover, Annabella), from the ASC’s production 2012

Dear friends and readers,

This is a “must-see” production. So wrote the “Mid-Atlantic Travel Blogger” who while anonymous had enough clout to see a “private” performance of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by the group who used to call themselves “The Shenandoah Shakespeare”. He or she couldn’t or doesn’t explain why; indeed seemed puzzled how such a “twisted” play could please, and put it down to “shock.”

Within a few seconds of the start of the second act, I realized this was the production Ford’s daring play calls for: its note throughout is a gleeful exposure of the angry cynicism, amorality or sheer stupidity (imbecility) of all the authority figures of the play: some are amoral such as the cardinal (Rick Blunt), who is disinclined to prosecute the murder of one citizen because the murderer has some connections, and who gathers up all the gold left by dead strewn across the stage at the play’s close; some are justifiably cynical like Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), rejected wife of a nobleman; or Vasques (Eugene Douglas) a kind of Iago who pronounces moral lessons. There are simpletons who enforce unexamined norms: Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens), Annabella’s father who forces her to marry the vicious treacherous Soranzo (Jake Mahler). There are the complicit for their own appetites and interest’s sake, Putana, Annabella’s “nurse” (Bridget Rue as brothel madam); Grimaldi, willing to murder at the drop of a sword (typical type of this era, played by Michael Amendola). Dark farce is the way much of these interactions are performed, with over-the-top garishly sexual costuming for the women. The story is complicated but it’s told simply at wikipedia).

Really though there’s nothing new here for us in 2012. Old hat since Marat/Sade. What is startling and commendable is from the second part of the play on, the players did Giovanni and Annabella’s love for one another as totally passionate, a beautiful thing, two souls made for one another with the most idealistic soaring of the spirit. Here’s Annabella telling Soranza what Giovanni is:

This noble creature was in every part
So angel-like, so glorious, that a woman
Who had not been but human, as was I,
Would have kneeled to him, and have begged for love.
You! why you are not worthy once to name
His name without true worship, or indeed,
Unless you kneeled, to hear another name him. (Act 3, sc 3)

The look of aspiration in Earl’s eyes is pitch perfect:

The twisting of this young man from within until he goes mad by the end of the act and himself cruelly murders Annabella (Othello-like, and Ford alludes to Othello, he cannot bear to have his woman taken by Soranzo nightly) and stalks about covered with the blood of Soranzo crazed and vehemently assailing the world from the top of his lungs on the top of a high table — these final moments are where the plot-design of the whole play had been heading.

As ever, our players “did it with the lights on,” and so they had no technology to rivet or distract us with. Earl as Giovanni was up to absorbing an audience into awed silence watching him. At the play’s close he has not the problem of what to do next since Vasques comes up to stab him from behind and then has his hired assassins (several in black who turn up whenever needed) to finish the job off:


The woman imitates a police offer, the men without the religious symbols FBI and spy-detective types, and then there’s a priest

The second half of this production was thus much braver than the Capital Fringe Festival group two summers ago who drew out of an abridged version of the play a socially acceptable feminist moral: at one point Annabella tells us (in this production from a high window) we are seeing “A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy (Act 5, sc 1). But the dignity with which she is endowed, and the way the previous production managed to suggest this play was about men oppressing women was not followed here. This Annabella grovels on the floor:

The lines emphasized are those which present the two people as gripped by love, unable to do without one another surrounded by these “vile” types. The production used “mash-up” techniques for the intermission and during the play we were treated to 1950s rock-n-roll ballads that were very familiar to me, strains of them which I could not quite place: about love a blind passion, about loneliness. Soranzo’s bullying becomes a raping of Annabella nightly instead of justifiable rage at finding himself stuck with a pregnant woman who will not tell her lover’s name; he orders her to bed (the lines are there) where he will again do what he wants. Coerced marriage is rape.

The play put me in mind of Simon Raven’s unfortunately little known masterpiece novel, Fielding Gray: the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail and abuse. Heterosexuals can be as nasty and horrible as they please in their sex life, it remains okay as it’s heterosexual; homosexual sex is not prima facie no good in itself; it’s what the society does to it that makes it base and wild (see my blog on Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty). So too incest here. Ford’s play differs from the many Jacobean plays enacting incest or incestuous desires and vicarious sex (Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Middleton’s Women Beware Women): Ford empathizes with the lovers. As Eric Minton puts it, Giovanni and Annabella are just these “true-hearted individuals who just happen to have fallen in love with someone sprung from the same womb. Theirs may be the squirmiest sin, but many other characters prove more loathsome in their violent natures, their greed, their infatuation with revenge, and their self-serving self-righteous.” Minton then goes over the downright silly in the play but omits one young woman, Philotis (Bridget Rue), who is sent to a nunnery in a sort of daze: she had on a shiny satiny skirt with a petticoat which reminded me of outfits made for little girls who are given tap-dancing lessons by middle class US parents for the once-a-year stage performance.

Alas though, reading the Mid-Atlantic Traveler, and finding hardly any reviews of this play, and remembering how the previous production I have seen (so to speak) normalizes the action in terms of 20th century values, perhaps the players and their director were rightly cautious in the introduction and first half. They had an added on introduction which both trivialized the coming play and warned us against it, going so far as to tell us Giovanni was a bad villain. It was all a joke we were going to see, but if we couldn’t take some (whisper the word) “incest,” perhaps we shouldn’t stay. Then the first act had the actors at first turning to the audience as if to ask for boos. What they discovered was there were several fools in the first row who took this seriously and began to call out heckling comments which was then half-clapped by further idiots further back. The play-acting in this first act was oddly artificial and over-the-top strident, rather like a clown show. The way of playing the love of Giovanni and Annabella and the betrayals of the other characters seemed to suggest it was a mystery what could possibly have fuelled Ford to write such a ridiculous piece. Maybe the heckling did some good, for I could see the actors begin to stop appealing to the audience, back off, speed up, though not until the second act did the front row people begin to realize they were not supposed to boo Giovanni or call him out as a “bad guy.” Perhaps the gouging out of Putana’s eyes after Vasques manipulates and deludes her into revealing that Annabella’s lover is Giovanni did the trick to silence them. I admit they interfered with my enjoyment in the first act and was relieved when they fell silent.

During the intermission for the first time in all the many times I have seen ASC productions (a lot of them by now), I began to think well, at long last they have goofed. Or maybe it was that in such a conservative era, and in this mid-Virginia Shenandoah valley (not so far off is Evangelical Jerry Falwell country) they were scared off of doing justice to the very material they had chosen. I might have suggested to Jim we go home, only it had been a 3 hour drive to get there. But I remembered the choice of ’50s music during the intermission and hoped it was deliberate and stayed.

In the event, the actors switched gears totally and the last hour and a half was magnificent in energy, bravura, acting, poignancy.


From a Brooklyn Academy of Music production

It may be that the day we went there just happened to be a number of naive audience members in the first row. I have seen actors on stage make the mistake of inviting an audience slightly to cut up, and have to actually not just back up but even half-scold said audience to get them to be courteous in their interactions again. One must not forget that the actors on a stage are in a state of abjection to the audience: they may seem to be individually triumphing, releasing themselves, showing off, but they are performing for us, nailed down to their scripts, often showing themselves, costumed in dangerously vulnerable ways. Actors have sometimes had overtly to separate themselves from evil characters to protect themselves from the audience’s identification of them with their roles. I have read insightful accounts of theater which make this point about the reality of the actor’s rightly unacknowleged position of supplication (See Kristina Straub’s Sexual Suspects: 18th Century Players and Ideology on the long-hard slog actors of the 18th century performed to gain respect stop heckling and abuse, and protect the actresses.) I had not actually experienced what this means before this.

Jim had a different take — while just as surely recommending going to see it if you are at all within driving distance. Over dinner Jim argued that Ford is playing with ideas, at a distance from them (in the way I think of the Fletcher plays, Middleton and Massinger in his comedies). The play, Jim says, is misogynistic. Ford judges Annabella to be a whore, using the term in a general vilifying way to mean any woman who has sex outside marriage even if with just one man. (Izzy protested that Annabella cannot be a whole because she is paid nothing, has no money; she used the 20th century definition of whore means prostitute which is the way I use the term.) Jim maintains the text of the play blames Annabella. Her looseness starts the evil spreading. PUtano had it coming to her. Vasques is the Vindice (revenger on behalf of God and providence) character and that’s why he is left standing. Jim suggested that since a modern audience would dislike this very much, and want to empathize with a tragic character and feel for the victims, the people who do Ford must alter the play into black farce. Then we don’t worry who is to blame. Or they can, like the Capital Fringe people, impose a modern anti-misogynistic message by abridging.


Tragic heroine from The Broken Heart

I’m not sure. I find it hard not to read Ford’s The Broken Heart as feminist. If we are to blame Annabella, why not Giovanni who is cursed by several authority figures in the play. Surely Soranzo. Vasques recalls Shakespeare’s Iago.

So don’t miss the play. This is a play where the behavior spectacle of the audience may become part of the play and the play itself of real interest.

Ellen

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Toibin’s Ireland

Dear friends and readers,

It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.

Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.

I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.

The South

I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.

The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.

The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.

Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.

The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).

I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.

The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).

But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.

I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.

I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.

On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)

Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.

The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.

I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.

Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.

It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.

It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.

Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.

Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.


The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation

Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.

There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.

It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.

When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.

The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:

Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.

Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him

It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.

Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-“extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety

The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.

Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.

Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.

Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.

The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.

There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.


Our cat (Ian) facing forward

The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding

Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.

The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.

I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.

I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.

She is then a cynosure for James himself.

On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….


From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature’; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …

Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her

More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …


Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life

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

Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.

He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.


From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship

I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.

Ellen

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Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) finding one of the girls fleeing in a wood

I watched this film for the first time last night. It’s an important film which I hope more people saw than I fear did (I suspect it was not a mass entertainment even if it played in mainstream cinemas). It’s a kind of Helen Mirren Prime Suspect film made more realistic and done with ensemble type acting. I’m only a year late (it’s a 2011 film) for a review, and trafficking is as pervasive as ever, plus collusion and downright activity by those who are supposed to stop it themselves doing it.


In her usual gear

Rachel Weisz plays the part of a American (mid-western) police woman who simply will not not do her job; she has real integrity and will not go through the motions pretending in order to collect a salary and remain prestigously within the group. She goes to Bosnia fora career advancement (yes) and also to do good work in an environment where she might be really needed. One night she encounters a group of beaten prostitutes who look terrible and understands that these are trafficked women; one is very sick. She attempts to send the
one to the hospital and the others to safety. She is just one person; while she is taking the group herself to a safe hospice, she cannot be in the hospital; she goes there to discover that the girl cannot be sent home because she lacks papers. Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac is never for a moment put off by such patent lies. She replies, so what? we’ll get her papers. No we can’t do this, the rules say … She finds herself up against a wall. She returns to the hospice to
discover the girls have been returned to the bar.

Unlike Jane Tennison who then would have to go through a long plot to discover that there are paid kick-backs everywhere (which come to think of it shows her were we thinking realistically to be very dim), Kathryn immediately sees that they were returned by the UN peacekeeping authorities because at least one person, probably more was taking a kick-back. What she has to learn (and without much trouble) is that many are taking bribes, and many of the men who are peacekeepers are the very men buying these women and abusing them under the guns and whips and other hard mean weapons of the women’s keepers.


Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave)

The plot-design of the story is then three-fold, and is a realistic mirror (reminding me of Five Days where the mirror was a domestic life situation of lower middle class people in the UK). It was not to discover that (in the words of Madeleine Rees, or Vanessa Redgrave, who again has chosen to be in this kind of exposing movie — Coriolanus‘s this), that “those hired “to protect the vulnerable are raping them themselves”, buying and selling them themselves. This is put before us again and again in the evidence, as vignettes, incidents we see as simply obvious.

It’s rather to show us as watchers how formidable is the opposition to putting a stop to the traffic. We see this in each of the groups Kathryn tries to contact.

It is also to show us the realities of Kathryn’s life and how this is part of why she does what she does and how this private life of hers can get in the way or the police life change her private life. And to show us the girls being ruthlessly beaten, humiliated, tortured, and to put before us photos of these girls.


Raya when first seen (Roxana Condurache)

The movie opens with how one specific girl, Raya, was brought into these groups: one night she was out late with a friend, got involved sexually with someone, her friend pressured her to come out after the time she was due home. She went home and got into a quarrel with her mother, and then ran out into the night. That was the end of her life; the next time we see her she’s in a bar and is one of the girls that Kathryn encounters. To make the story effective the movie focuses on one girl’s story.

We see her mother is contacted by Kathryn or representations, how she begs money from her other daughter to go to the hospital. How the other daughter is beaten by her husband and is afraid to give her mother money (it’s not hers). But she does it. How the mother is too late. Then in a later scene we see the mother home again reviling the daughter as a cruel sister for this second daughter’s husband was the man who enabled the boyfriend that night to kidnap Raya.

As in Story 6 of Prime Suspect (“the Last Suspect”), like Helen Mirren, Kathryn has promised to keep the vulnerable girl, here Raya, safe. After Raya is snatched back, we see her dragged before the girls, thrown on a table, & knifed in the back (not killed but just scarred for life) before the other girls to show them what will happen if they try to talk to police or are willing to testify. So like Tennison, who loses first one sister to a brutal killing (and then the other alas), Kathyn is driven to make good on her promise somehow. In a scene near the end of the movie, at last Kathryn reaches one man who will raid the bar &promises not to return the girls. Once there though another group of men rush in, override this man and his crew, and Kathryn seeing Raya begs her in front of everyone to come away with her. Raya is too frightened and refuses. Later that night the same man who led the group in knifing her, takes her before the other girls and simply shoots her through the head.

She has become the lover of one man early in the film and he remains a confidant. We are told in a series of intertitles at the end of the film how all we have seen is real (just souped up for drama), how the real Kathryn now lives with Jan in the Netherlands. Apparently it was not safe to return to the US or Jan, this man’s name, was Dutch and wanted to stay in the Netherlands. A small part of the ammunition against Kathryn (this suggests this kind of loss of reputation does not count as much as women might fear) is her private life. She lives freely and has lovers. Goes to bars herself. But as an upper class (it’s understood in context) white American woman. In one interview a superior tries to needle her about a second story the movie opens with: her ex-husband has custody of her daughter. She was deemed less fit than he; he made more money; he could provide a conventional home with a stay-at-home wife/mother.

Kathryn lives in another state from him and one motive for going to Bosnia was the larger salary which could enable her to move back near her daughter. We see her job get in the way of keeping promises to her daughter to go to this or that occasion. So her story includes separation from her daughter and loss and one motive for her wanting to help Raya is she identifies with Raya’s mother (she says “I keep seeing Raya’s mother”). She also is enacting the mother she did not in US circumstances. This is parallel with Mirren who has had abortions and tries to be a mother where her job and wider usefulness and the life she wanted to lead would not permit her to have a baby, especially without a husband, a kind of relationship Jane did not really want.

The opposition. Those trafficking. Those using the women sexually, brutally. This provides the real action of the film, the hinge-points, the stages of excitement and danger. We see how gradually Kathryn is cut down. She is demoted, She goes to this or that chief officer and realizes very quickly they are protecting their men (and themselves too perhaps). Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) and Peter, another of these very few males who help women stop the trafficking, in effect Rees’s side-kick helper, are frustrated by what happens to Kathryn.


Peter (David Strathairn)

After Kathryn realizes one cannot working within the system (well, duh), and writes an email outside to a high official in a UK embassy, her ID and keys are taken away from her. She is now not just fired, but cannot go into the building to get her files. She must sneak in. She tries to get a woman friend to help her but the woman friend says I’m not you, I won’t risk my job. All do keep telling her it’s not safe, but like Mirren as Tennison, Weisz as Bolkovac seems to lead a charmed life. We might say fairy tale, but in fact Kathryn Bolkavac survived. (Part of the power of this film is it’s a real story transposed into action drama.) Well we see Peter help her.

A crucial turning point occurs as she is walking out of the building with her papers. We see Fred Murray (David Hewlett), aone of the lead man who fired her with Peter and Peter appears to have double-crossed her. She must turn over the bag. But they talk and Murray sneers at her. A few seconds later (scenes are short), Peter comes from behind to give her the bag. He was enabling her to get a tape of this man’s voice as part of her evidence when she returns to the UK.

There we see the interviews on TV with Bill Hynes head UN man (Liam Cunningham) who denies all complicity (as he said he would in another scene). He justifies this in a separate scene as enabling the UN to carry on. But what is it carrying on for? We also are told by him how much money is at stake, how the companies behind much that goes on in Bosnia of a money-making nature are Bosnian, and we know it’s his job.

We then see Kathryn on TV accusing Hynes of lying. The judge does side with Bolkovac (as happened in real life) and we are told (intertitles) all the specific individuals found guilty where deported back to their original countries. But no one was imprisoned, no one punished. And then we are given the huge numbers of people involved in trafficking and enslaved that continues on.

The acting does not bring Rachel Weisz so very centrally to the camera; we do not dwell on her nor on her life interwoven in the same way as Prime Suspect. There are a number of scenes (of Raya’s life, of Raya’s mother’s actions, of the girls’ lives either beaten, or in the bars, or Weisz’s eyes going over the photographs (reminding me of a film by Bergman where Liv Ullmann’s eyes go over photos and a narrative emerges) where Kathryn is not the central point of view.
Most of the time in Prime Suspect, Mirren is. That’s how they keep the plot-design a mystery. But the effect is very good as we feel a real sense of a large world on the screen. Weisz is herself a fierce presence, she has subtlety when needed, is tender, is of a wiry build (so has the requisite thinnness wanted of younger actresses). I feared for
her again and again. So that held me. I cared about her.


A portrait shot of her concerned and talking to another woman

I do like Weisz because of the films she’s in. My students learn a lot from The Constant Gardener; I learned a lot from Agora, neither of whom survived. Agora did exist for real and she survived a bit longer than Tessa, but then she was upper class, attached to upper class men.

I also cared intensely about Raya who is last seen dead, with wounds all over her body, in rags in the wood. Prime Suspect often opened on a scene like this. The wounded murdered corpse of a woman badly dressed.

And about the other girls whose voices, faces, bits of presence emerged now and again.

It’s no coincidence this is a film directed by a woman (Larysa Kondracki), written by a woman (Eilis Kirwan), centrally produced by three women (Amy Kaufman, Christina Piovesan, Celina Ratray). The men in the film every once in a while dismiss the trafficked women as whores. That word is enough. They are now without status.

Thinking about it brought home to me why I found a book like
Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (which I reviewed, and which review I will put online after it’s published) in such bad taste; & what’s wrong with books like Pullen’s Actresses and Whores (which unlike, Nussbaum’s seeks to upgrade the status of whores I will concede (Nussbaum just wants to separate her star actresses from prostitutes). Also those many online sites where feminists who want to stop prostitution are scorned and told they are imposing their prurient values on a profession that makes money and these girls chose and even do well at. Nussbaum, Pullen, and many others who insist on distinguishing courtesans from prostitutes. This so that they can write with admiration and pride about their favorite courtesans (be they actresses, or Renaissance poets, e.g., Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, or today’s high-paid and high-class call girls) are imposing on a huge population, most of whom either are right away or become desperate victims (unless they escape very quickly) the luck of a few in just the way we are told to admire unqualified capitalism because a few succeed spectacularly and the rest clearly didn’t “have” their gifts, energies, strength of character, are inferior in some way, when the reality is the difference between the very few and the rest is where you are born, your class (circumstances, connections). The girls in Bosnia and the third world are like the proletariat in the third world, not fringe hangers-on on the tables of the powerful (the edges) but treated with open raw exploitation, and in the case of prostitution the job is to answer with your body whatever the average man wants of you.

So it’s the difference class makes this film teaches us, how terrible is the violence accepted across the world aimed at women, that it is simply felt by many men women are dispensable and to be used where possible (where class and location allows) like animals and then discarded when inconvenient.

And of course like many of Mirren’s films, the politics of the fable shows us those who are pretending to help the vulnerable (of whatever type) are either in collusion with the murderers & rapists & imperalists or themselves actively central.

The DVD includes a feature where we see Kathryn Bolkovac today, we see a woman involved in trying to stop trafficking, the director, screenplay writer, Weisz and Redgrave talking. Trafficking of women continues to be featured and discussed in many womens’ venues: see Women’s enews. This film has helped allegations against the UN to stop, but has it ended trafficking.

See also cross-cultural collaboration.

I cannot recommend seeing this one too highly and telling everyone you know to see it. Like Mirren’s films, it is entertaining because of the melodrama, excitement and the use of a powerful strong female hero or heroine at its center. I never thought I’d begin to love police-procedural type stories, but I have. I did not like many of the older mystery type novels with heroines at the center when they seemed frivolous and shallow and about retreat and upholding establishment values (Agatha Christie). A new breed of women’s film is among us and it is a re-write of male type films which we may hope males go to see, enjoy, and learn from too.

Ellen

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Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) in the midst of a nightmare

Dear friends and readers,

From the Baroque period we have had opera seria and opera buffa. Now we have opera mash-up. The Met is attempting to dignify their daring creation with a pedigree by using the word “pasticcio.” Not only in opera, but on the legitimate and not-so-legitimate stage long 18th century stage (1660-1815), adaptations, free-wheeling and close, re-combinations of old plays abridged with non-dramatic genres like pastorals, clever mocking farces, and parodies were part of the on-going repertoire. And The Enchanted Island consists of a number of da capo exit arias: as my husband, Jim (knowledgeable in the area of opera) told me:

Opera seria is this rigid opera genre which consists mostly of da capo exit arias; that is, the aria ends as it began and then the character leaves the stage. There is some variation, not much. So in Rodelinda, we had that marvelous duet (Renee Fleming and Andreas Scholler as Rodelinda and Bertarido), but there is just the one. All else da capa. Enchanted Island had a number of da capo exit arias, but they mixed in a whole bunch of stuff that was not from opera and from musical compositions there was music from oratorios, contatae, even a coronation anthem (Neptune’s song was Zadoc a coronation anthem by Handel, written for George II and used ever since). So we do not get this sense of rigidity …

And the Met has a website which tells you where the original music from many of the parts come from so you can (if you wish) discover the original context and see how it’s been transposed.


Ariel is also Puck directing traffic among the confused lovers in the wood

However, as Jim suggests this is just one aspect of this entertainment. The Met has people in it who want to do the Baroque repertoire and they were permitted to do it if all was done that could be done to defy the basics of its strict music forms.

So, the story or plot-design was lifted from two different plays by Shakespeare, not so much as originally conceived by him, but as seen through Restoration and 18th century adaptations: this was a Tempest as seen through the salacious and titillating perspective of Dryden and Davenant and his Midsummer Night’s Dream), into which was imported the four lovers and their forest scenes from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jeremy Sams, librettist, and Julian Crouch, director and set designer, were not content to stay with 18th century re-writes: Sycorax (sung by Joyce DiDonato) who does appear in the 18th century renditions, has become the true heroine of the story: Prospero (sung by countertenor, David Daniels) is not Shakespeare’s more or less exemplary alter ego, victim of his own goodness at the hands of an amoral cynical brother, but someone who took over Sycorax’s island and has oppressed and controlled her (somehow — don’t press this too far) ever since. She herself is a loving mother.


Sycorax listening to Caliban’s angry grief

Prospero and Sycorax are made into faintly into an Oberon v Titania pair with the right being on Sycorax’s side as the less powerful figure.


Prospero (David Daniels) and Sycorax (Joyce Didonato)

Joyce Diddonato had the last bow at the end, even though the concluding da capo aria of Act I was Prospero’s (who tells us how he has done wrong) and the epilogue was spoken by Prospero: Shakespeare’s famous good bye speech: “Now our revels are ended.”

Thus this early 21st century creation brought home how adult and frank and playful sexually was Baroque & early to mid-18thc theatre. Cross-dressing, transvestites, continual breaching gender stereotypes: Dryden and all the 18th century writers who followed him re-did Shakespeare they did “sex” him up, make things titillating and salacious that in Shakespeare’s version remain restrained (or austere, grave, serious). There was a kind of mockery of enthrallment in heterosexual stories, especially in the thankless part of Miranda (automatically falls in love with whatever young man is put in front of her, inanely idealistic), which made me wonder had I been missing this in Shakespeare’s plays (after all from his sonnets we know he was bisexual). People interested in the early modern to 18th century from any aspect would learn by seeing this.


Helena’s outfit and its part origin

There were archetypes from novels well after the later 17th century: Luca Pisaroni played Caliban was as a wrenchingly moving re-creation of Quasimodo (he has a crooked back, is disabled mentally, mocked as ugly to his considerable emotional pain), not so much from Hugo but the famous poignant Charles Laughton’s embodiment from the 1930s film. I literally cried at Sycorax’s aria over Caliban’s grief when Helena rejects him. Tears coming down my face. The Met site tells us the music sung was a plaintive song by the Virgin Mary over Christ. The lyrics and situation transpose to a modern situation where the mother would do whatever she could do spare her child, but can do nothing. The whole sequence of Caliban’s nightmare (expressed through nightmare figures dancing) was to me the high point of Enchanted Island (and people who’ve written to me said this was true for them too). I was aware he was not singing; his acting out of anguish was enough.

Costume design came from the later 17th through 18th century: Danielle de Niese at the close had a costumed modeled on Louis XIV as Apollo, somewhat modified by memories of the high plums of headdresses by aristocratic women of the later 18th century (as seen in the recent movie based on Georgiana Spenser’s life, The Duchess, and the 1999 BBC mini-series, Lennox sisters in Aristocrats).


Danielle de Niese as Ariel taking her bow (how a person can be seen as achieving her liberty in that outfit is beyond me — to me such a costume is ironic; she is encased in hierarchies)

Allusions to the US as seen in the 18th century (a Tiepolo ceiling) abounded, but also as seen today: De Niese said she thought of Tinkerbell, the Mermaids hanging from the sky each time Neptune (Placido Domingo) made an entrance, were straight from Disney.

Dialogue — the funny remarks referred to in the interviews Deborah Voigt conducted between acts — came right out of today’s pop US & UK culture. Where one of the imported young men from MND, Demetrius (Paul Appleny), didn’t want to take “no” for “no” from Miranda, Lysander (Eliot Madore), the other, said something like “he said that last time” or ‘he always says that.” Going down to the bottom of the sea, Ariel wore a scuba-diving outfit that looked like something out of Flash Gordon (or Star Wars).

Along with Sams and Julian Crouch, a central creator was Phelim McDermott, all 3 all gay Brits; they had more than little help from a man expert in Baroque, William Christie, who chose rarely done music by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Purcella and lesser known composers, Campra, Rebel. The sensibility was gay, toned down. The extravagance was camp. This was “in your face” opera. The three men said they decided not to do anything moderate. They would concede no apologies. Opera is meant to be over-the-top and that’s what they were.

The Met as a group or team also simply want to sell their work and help operas reach a wider and younger audience. The hype of the interviews, the filming of staging backstage is all part of this. They must also outside the standard repertoire: you cannot keep doing the same 40 operas over and over in movie screens around the world, and new operas are not written very often. They were after a younger audience too. The singer chosen for the six young lovers were young handsome and/or beautiful and intended to please those who would not identify with aging divas and tenors close up. Helena was especially physically lovely; Hermia singer very moving (every time Shakespeare words used the production became much better and she was given mostly Shakespeare’s words), Lysander drop-dead beautiful in the Rufus Sewell mode. I could see Izzy was very taken by hijinks of the five in the forest.

I did find the girlish Ferdinand (very high counter-tenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo) downright embarrassing: his voice was very high and he was dressed like Ronald Colman as Rupert Hentzau when we first see him in Prisoner of Zenda (Ruritania, Knighthood was in Flower stuff). He was the only one of the six lovers altogether to wear an 18th century white wig; all the others had their own “natural” well, cascading and rich hair. Why he was so stigmatized, set apart I could not tell. (In film adaptations of older works, the older men and characters meant to be disliked regularly have wigs or heavy make-up; all the males meant to be entrancing wear their own hair. Ditto for the actresses.) The young woman doing Miranda was daffy. Maybe that had something to do with it, but as I say it’s foolish to try to find reasons for much that one saw literally. Often the makers were simply adding on whatever they could think of to amuse or dazzle.


One of several storms from the first act

I confess that by the end of Act 1 I was ambivalent: I felt I had not been moved; I recognized the Baroque proscenium stage, that the front of the stage was lined with shells (18th century stage used such forms to keep the candles in), but all the artifice, including the cardboard like ship going down in a computerized tempest just reminded me of how unreal what I was watching was. Ariel’s “duhs” and funny mock magic were amusing, but I didn’t like what I took to be making fun of Caliban in act 1; I am often turned off by over-luxurious, over-produced operas and prefer people sitting on chairs singing their hearts out so I can see how the music pieces relate to one another and really engage with the music and characters as somehow real enough.

But I was won over. I was turned round even to being deeply moved, admiration, enjoyment, respect by the end of Act 2. I’ve found this true of other later 20th-21stc staged productions: they start slow; Act 1 develops the situation to the point where in Act 2 we may engage deeply with what happens to this set-up situation, place, characters. That partly happened here. Mostly my engagement came from the Sycorax and Caliban matter. And the second half had far more lines from Shakespeare.


The four lovers waking from their dream spell

I cannot say I liked the long-drawn out triumphant happiness of all the characters at the ending: it’s tedious, repetitive, negates for me what went before. I’m told that is what you find in Baroque operas. But a couple of months ago, Jim and I went to the West End Cinema in DC to see Don Giovanni (Peter Mattrei the singer) from the Teatro alla Scala. Marvelously cynical and it ended almost immediately after Giovanni is pulled undergrown by the man who would have been his father-in-law had he married Donna Anna (Ann Netrebko). All we see is Leporello (Bryn Terfel) seeking a new place. Since this is patently a 21st century work, there is no need for this Busby-Berkeley let’s get everyone on stage beaming at the audience close. But then I did say this was kind of gay game.

I realize I’ve not talked much about the actual singing or music. The movie-theater I was in had the sound too high at times, but FWIW, I thought the singing of Daniels as Prospero effective, Didonato as Sycorax moving. It was ensemble and mostly no one but else but De Niese (marvelous) as Ariel emerged. It was more I was aware of the humor or sadness as I listened. The four lovers when first seen are singing a song about the pleasures they anticipate (over and over) and the innocent words become salacious; often the words seem ironically juxtaposed to the music provided or scene itself. We are not really scared ever or awed.


Claire (Helena) is someone often seen in secondary roles at the Met

I do hope there were not so many castrati as these Baroque productions suggest. Izzy says yes though especially in the Catholic Church. How cruel economic desperation and the search for prestige makes people.

See the Classical Review, the New York Times review and Clever Concoction from Yahoo.

Don’t miss it.


Ariel failing to blow on her shell

Ellen

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Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) and Dr Patrick Schofield (Stuart Wilson), Scene of Darkness

Dear friends and readers,

A third blog on the unusually good police series, Prime Suspect: I’ve now watched The Lost Child, Scent of Darkness , which I want briefly to compare with Christopher Reid and Niall MacCormack’s Song of Lunch, a more typical heroine’s text (a 2 hour film from PBS Masterpiece theater this year), and the older fine mystery thrillers film adaptations of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. So you see how I’ve been riveting myself into wakefulness in the late nights these weeks. These two new Prime Suspects continue the exploration of sexuality, women’s issues (here motherhood) and male violence against women begun in the previous three stories. They also develop Jane Tennison’s story more centrally.

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The last concluding shot of Lost Child

Lost Child

This is the fourth of the Prime Suspect Stories; they have changed format. Story 1 and 2 and 3 were mini-series, each with 4 episodes. Lost Child & Scent of Darkness are both two hours long, the Americanized format of mini-series that winston Graham complained destroyed the attempt to bring back Poldark in 1996. The briefer time frame does not seem to hurt these two Prime Suspect stories as they can do without the leisurely kind of realism the Poldark and other naturalistic books require, but we do get less development of the characters and events are sprung on us where the film-makers rely on the actor’s ability to persuade us this new inner self we didn’t see before was there all along.

Lost Child brings together pederasty and also motherhood — quite a combination. What happened is this: a child, little girl, seems to have been kidnapped from Susan Covington (Beaty Ednie) a mother who has continued to cherish the child just as much as she did before its father John Warwick (played by Adian Lukis wonderfully well – the Wickham archetype fits here) deserted them to have liaisons with more than one woman and moved North. A scene with Tennison shows him at first defiant and nonchalant, not denying he did it even if he lied and was nearby while the murder occurred: he spent the afternoon in bed with a woman who is engaged to marry someone else. Susan, the mother, is hysterical; she goes on TV begging for her child to be returned safely to her.

About half-way through for the first time I had begun to feel that in a way these series could pander to the bigoted paranoia of people, especially surrounding sexual experience vis-a-vis children. The suspect is someone she has also filmed in the park; her film and identification points to Chris Hughes (John Glenister) who served 14 years for molesting minors. I was troubled by the harshness of the response to Chris; I hasten to say I have no agenda for child molesters, only that Hughes was treated so brutally: one of the police officers, Jack Ellis (Tony Muddyman) beats Chris savagely upon trying to arrest him when Chris (understandably) tries to flee the ferocity of this bunch. Jane Tennison is as ferocious and will not listen to any alibis of Chris, especially since she finds he still indulges in saving photos of girls in albums. She is throughout dressed severely; in 3 she was homeliness and clutzyness itself; here she is repeatedly in tight cut black suits, her hair severe, knife-like puritanical elegance:

We are led to suspect Chris just as much by Chris’s relationship to his wife/partner Anne Sutherland (Lesley Sharpe). They seem not be be getting along. Ann seems to be hiding something; she falsified an alibi; Chris over-reacts to situations we see; he is sensitive man who has suffered a long time, was abused in prison because he was a pederast. He insists too strongly he’s fine now. Well, he’s not altogether; they have troubled sex. He saves pornographic magazines in a drawer.

The story seems to culminate in the police trying to wrest Chris/Glenister from his house where he is holed up and taking Anne and their two children, girls both, hostage. The police promise not to have snipers, but they lie and start to shoot; hysterical, he grabs a child and returns to the house.

Now here is where I saw I was wrong and the film was slowly leading us to see that even pederasts should not be pre-judged; they can change, reform; they deserve understanding, sympathy. Suddenly and without preparation to explain why we are led to think that after all Christ didn’t do it beyond that a psychiatrist, Dr Patrick Schofield (played by Stuart Wilson) says adamently in his view Chris/Glenister could not have done it. Somehow when Chris is chased down by the police Susan loses it. She goes hysterical in a new way when she sees Chris and his wife’s children. A long soliloquy brings out slowly how tired she had become of her daughter,, how relentless her life with her (from job to child care, to job again), how the girl irritated her by screaming, screaming, screaming, endless demands, never ceasing, never giving her a moment to herself.

The murderer was Susan. The mother suffocated the daughter. She was (we are to see) given no help and had herself to come up with the baby-sitting money. The roar of anger and distress that comes from her is stunning.

The show is about how insanely we react to child molester (who to be sure, those who are, can do awful things; that they are or can be suffering people too. But it’s also about how motherhood is experienced in our society and its phoninesss and pretenses (which Susan inveighs against in the long closing near soliloquy Tennison and her aide, Sgt [police officers) Chris Cromwell (played by Sophie Stanton) rejoins the show (she was in Episode 1 as Jane’s sidekick) and its hardships. What it asks of a woman.

The frame is important. It’s a “termination” — as it opens Jane has an abortion, a left-over from her love affair with an older lover, now married, was part of Prime Suspect 3. Jane is roaring mad at the death of this child because she has lost her own. The title refers to her abortion as well as the loss of Susan’s child.

I know audience members could be strengthened in their opposition to abortion and say, see how over-reacting made Jane blame Chris, and also liken Jane to Susan as two murderers. But that would be entirely false to the feeling of the series. Jane had a hard time getting time off enough for the “termination” — it’s called, and the child would get badly in the way of her career. This does not mean she does not feel bad too, at some level identify with Susan, not as a murderer but as someone in the grip of unfair choices There is too much sacrifice required of women as mothers.

It did need to be longer. We did not learn enough about Jack Warwick’s and Susan’s relationship nor Chris/Anne Sunderland’s. Susan’s confession was sprung too quickly. Still that Chris/Glenister’s innocence is sprung on us works very well. He is never idealized and on the surface could have been prosecuted, even found guilty. No sentimental ideals are pushed before us and a lot of cruel mindless over-reaction. The ambiguities made me think of James’s Turn of the Screw often read (wrongly) misogynistically.

Another effect of cutting the time for the story in the fourth season was indeed to focus on Mirren. She became a continual presence. The film-makers decided to marginalize the other police officers because they didn’t have time to cover them all. IN the next story she was made the focus deliberately.

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Jane (Mirren) and Patrick (Wilson) talking, she intently, he companionably (Scent of Darkness)

The Scent of Darkness

I did have trouble understanding it; that is to say, I couldn’t upon my first watching figure out how the murderer or quite why the murderer did what he did because so much was elliptical and just piled in. It was like watching a story meant to be 3 hours or 4 done in a couple of hours and 20 minutes.

Scent of Darkness had a different script writer, director, and producer: suddenly it all men; Lydna La Plante gone, Sally Head gone. But it was as strongly feminist as ever. By happenstance over on WMST-l the women were talking of how feminists are endlessly accused of being prigs and not have a sense of humor when the case is what’s said to be funny is really not funny to its victims (women in general) and helping to find books which showed this. Scent of Darkness opens with Tennison angry because a woman she wants promoted is not being promoted. The panel in front of her says that’s because this woman is not a team-player, doesn’t get along. Tennison asks for proof? “She has no sense of humor.”

Right.

But I also liked it and was eager to re-watch. I especially (I admit) liked the focus on Jane and giving her an on-going private life and relationship with the psychiatrist she had begun to like and trust in Lost Child: Stuart Wilson as Jane’s boyfriend and the relationship that was suggested. It appealed, and he as an older man (he was Ferdinand Lopez in Pallisers, and in Jewel in the Crown, the shit who impregnates Sarah and she knows better than to want to marry so by her mother and aunt is driven to have an abortion) who is amoral/immoral made empathetic by giving him kindness and acceptance and tolerance if not a will to commit.

Well, my second watching made the program not only make sense but showed the implicitly feminist scene that opened the program was the clue or twig developed for the rest. In addition, for the first time Jane Tennison was slightly more central than the murder story; hitherto her story has been parallel, going alongside sometimes, almost equal in the first program but not the center as it was here.

Basically it’s a reprise of Story or Season 1. Instead of Sergeant Otley trying to get rid of Jane, we have the chief detective in charge who makes the comment, “she had no sense of humor” to Tennison: David Thorndike (played by Stephen Boxer): Thorndike is intensely motivated to destroy Tennison’s career and not quite consciously decides that the two new murders of the first mini-series were not done by the man who Jane put in prison.
In other words, she was responsible for a tremendous miscarriage of justice then. He uses a book that has been published by someone whom George Marlowe fools.

So we have to return to the story matter and central theme of malicious brutal violence against women. What emerges is his time the real murderer is the jailor of Marlowe: there is a problem of probability here — perhaps why I didn’t get what was happening. The idea that jailor seems subject to Marlowe and is acting out Marlowe’s violence doesn’t quite wash, but this allows for Jane having to resolve an old case and return to its issues.

A problem this film had too was this time not all the actors returned. Richard Hawley has been in all the series and he was used centrally as someone loyal to her and that helped bind the films.


DI Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley)

Together they break a code, though since the case is hers, she is repeatedly hauled over the coals in public, reprimanded, taken off the case finally (when she insists she was right in the first place) and at last just about fired. So the humiliations of women a member of WWTTA said are so typical of women’s films are here in spades — but with a twist. We see the way she is made to kowtow, plead for herself, admit error are not only unfair, but shown to be wrong and partly the result of the misogynistic Thorndike. She she wins in the end because silently the intelligent and decent people (John Benfield as her superior, DCS Michael Kernan) are on her side. The very top man is just and lucid.

What I loved best was the slow development of her relationship with Stuart Wilson as Patrick Schofield — from missing a movie they neither of them wanted to see, to taking a bath together while they drink and smoke, to watching TV, to sleeping together, getting up in the morning. It really felt real this, though again we had to strain at the improbability that Patrick, a man who seems so ontologically on her side, would allow himself to interview and half countenance the author of the book who wrote the book saying Jane was wrong. This leads to Jane suspecting Patrick is betraying her and gives rise to powerful scenes of conflicting emotions (in this viewer too) as we watch them seem to break apart. They don’t.

This is one of the stories that has a happy-ish ending, not group exultation this time but Jane asking Thorndike to dance and then sneering at him before she returns to Patrick’s table. Very human.

Not that the violence against women is at all marginalized or the way Jane is almost fired and humiliated for good. I can’t say in real life she would have been fired, for in real life none of this would have happened in this way at all. It’s fairy tale this one, more so than the previous.


A kiss

Maybe it’s the men doing it made a love story and powerful or empowered woman (they would believe that) so central. Mirren was here more central than the previous 5 stories, only I do think without Stuart Wilson the depths of feeling at moments would not have been there. This too is part of a woman’s life and in this story Mirren could carry off having happiness in private as well as success in public.

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She (Emma Thompson) in Song of Lunch

I want to compare Mirren to Emma Thompson as archetypes. I watched the powerful Song of Lunch two nights ago and it has rightly been given favorable reviews: this one retells the story and slowly developing ironic poetic perspective. The film is an adaptation of a poem by Christopher Reid.

At first I loved it, then by the end I found myself angered by one of the two opposing themes or messages that were conveyed: the one where we are to despise the misery of “he” (Alan Rickman) as brought on by himself.


He (Alan Rickman)

I know you can take it the opposing way, but only by watching a good deal of the movie against the grain. In the movie Thompson plays an archetype she often does — not acknowledged. The headmistress, her teeth a kind of vagina dentata. she was that in spades in An Education. A part of this comes out in her as Elinor Dashwood, dry lone unmarried possible old maid. Here it grated strongly because she was not a victim (as in Wit) and was so sleek and well-adjusted, such a winner with her successful novelist husband, beautiful flat, life, daughters. Maybe Rickman was self-absorbed, narcissistic, felt sorry for himself, spoiled the lunch by his morbid behavior, but he was genuine and his faults preferable to her self-complacency, conventional success, coolness.

I suppose Reid maybe did hate “she” but the film makers made “she” our norm that is good not ambiguous, not cold, not the result of luck. In Mirren’s series we see the common fates of women.

So for me I much prefer the drunken, half-incompetent, often wretched (behind the scenes they fight and spoil things for one another) Wilson-Mirren archetype to this of Thompson, with what she demands of Rickman and he can’t come up to. I’m saying that at heart I find after all I’m preferring Mirren’s archetypal iconography fully than Thompson’s as developed by films with their pro-social, pro-conventional moral turns. Helen Mirren’s films have taught me something that I had not realized was part of Emma Thompson’s.

Lastly: the film adaptation of LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982)


Smiley (Alec Guiness) and Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston)

I have been struck with how LeCarre through Hopcraft (Tinker Tailor) or Hopkins (Smiley’s People) is an inverse presentation of Lynda Plante’s perspective, or perhaps I should say she has reversed LeCarre’s. LeCarre is a rare male writer not to be a misogynist finally or anti-feminist. He is often deeply sympathetic to his heroines, makes them strong, independent, complicated. Not marginalized. Yet not central. As adapted into films, they are victims in the sense of LaPlante: the world stacked against them, men murderous. In Tinker Tailor by episode 3 one young woman who gets involved with the circus (spies) has been abducted, probably raped, tortured, killed. We never see her but the experience Ricki Tarr (Hywell Bennett drop dead beautiful in the Anthony Andrews mould) has galvanizes himself into action to expose the “mole.” We see Smiley (Alec Guiness) visit an old girlfriend, now retired from the circus because she found out too much and her hands are twisted from torture; she is clearly as old as she is utterly available. She is left with an old dog for company, “safe” in Oxford – lovely street off a fine park. The eldely actress reminded me of Dorothy Tutin. In Smiley’s People we have an older woman (Eileen Atkins) who has lived a desolate life separated from her daughter as the underlying motivating story. The same holds true of Meirelles Constant Gardener

Both Smiley and Wilson are presented as protective tender man (reminding me of Robin Ellis as Poldark in some of his behaviors to towards his two beloved women). Plante took their women and made them center repeatedly, made us see the torture, the rape, their desperate lives. The mode, the action, the implications, and the larger political issues are then feminized.

Ellen

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Valentin (Russell Braun) is murdered in a duel he insisted on having with Faust; he curses his sister, Marguerite (Marina Poplavskaya) as he lays dying

Dear friends and readers.

Score yet another triumph for the Met this season: an enhanced humane Gounod’s Faust. I had read that the reviews of this new production were unfavorable, and while we were in the theater, we heard a few members of the Met audience fiercely boo the director, Des McAnuff, and came on the Internet tonight to write a blog fully prepared to begin by urging readers not to believe the nonsense that this production is a mess. Instead I found several strongly positive reviews, e.g., Berkshire on stage and an English review (from last year’s first production, a blog, The Eyes Have It.

So my task is easier: I need only agree and expatiate a little differently. Des McAnuff and his team have given an intelligent turn to, replaced and reversed the original punitive and mostly misogynistic Calvinist later 19th century Catholic framework of Gounod and Barbier and Carre’s Faust out of Carre’s play (based loosely on Goethe). The frame is Faust is a scientist who is in his laboratory despairing over the first use and what’s to come of his atomic bomb; he takes poison and the devil appears to stop him; the action that ensues is his nightmare, from which we return to the lab at the close to see him die. The warning lesson story of the innocent young seamstress seduced, impregnated and abandoned, left to depend on God who proceeds to make her murder her new-born infant, be cursed by her brother, and die in the arms of Christ, becomes an exposure of the cruelty of a culture which gives her little joy, and when she snatches happiness, perversely turns on her through its evil forces (not just Mephistopheles, but the village which rejects her, the brother who would have murdered her perhaps had he not exploded into a duel with Faust).I was so moved by Marguerite’s story and the performance of Marina Poplavskaya I came near tears, especially when she lays down in her jail cell and turns to its walls, and rises deluded and half-crazed now to think she has her baby back (for whom we saw her sewing baby things), and then to imagine she is still being romanced by Faust.

There are some strains with this conception. One review I read complained that McAnuff had not been daring enough and wished the atomic bomb frame had been stronger. He did eschew Catholic imagery except when the script demanded a huge cross: instead we had an Escher like setting with a enigmatic sky for background.


Far Shot.

I felt there was enough reinforcement without departing from the original text.The chorus of men were throughout men home from WW2, and in the third act pantomime stressed how many had been killed through the grieving women and families, the crippling of the men, and the senselessness of the killing. McAnuff chose not to change the script, only re-picture its context.

There was a problem with the psychology of the characters. Faust is presented as really loving Marguerite, as no rake; the duet in Act 2 was exquisitely lovingly acted and sung.


Jonas Kaufmann as Faust and Marina Poplavaskaya as Marguerite

It therefore doesn’t make sense that he should abandon her. He’s at first all love, all tenderness; then he is all longing to help her (rather like the character of Billy wanting to help the pregnant Julie Jordan in the 1956 musical Carousel). Faust looks so grief-striken for Marguerite, so remorseful we wonder why he needs Mephistopheles to give him permission to return to her, permission that’s not granted.


Rene Pape in the background as Mephistopheles, all sardonic grinning

I found Pape as Mephistopheles well sung, but the character’s comic interjections (meant as sarky relief that did get a few laughs in our movie-house) became either irrelevant or part of what didn’t matter; they were thankless. Perhaps Kauffman’s voice was too harsh; he is not a sweet tenor, but then he sang well and he is so handsome:

So the pious melodrama with a snarky devil was turned into a genuine personal tragedy that was inconsistently unmotivated, with voices chosen that further altered the feel or mood. Marguerite’s innocent early lover, Siebert (sung by a mezzo soprano, Michele Loser) becomes a friend to her, a contrast to the men of the opera:


Seibert (Michele Losier)

Marguerite emerges as the center of the piece, and Marina Poplavaskaya was brilliant as actress and singer. Tt’s not wild to see this story of a woman driven to infanticide as intervening on the abortion debate today and attitudes taken towards pregnant women across cultures, including societies which practice honor killing of women.

A facebook friend, Judy Shoaf agreed the updating worked and the production was excellent and Marguerite the touching center:

Totally agree about Poplavskaya. It was her story and she was really really touching. I loved the final bit, though, which kind of made sense of Faust’s experience. I also found strange parallels with the Powell and Pressburger film Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which follows two friends (an Englishman and a German) from about 1900 to 1945. It’s a film about soldiers who in their youth believe in honor, fight a duel, fight a war as a kind of sport, and then confront Hitler and WWII and have to change their model of the world. Deborah Kerr plays 3 women in the story, so that she appears as a governess both men love, a WWI nurse whom General Candy marries, and finally as his young driver in London as WWII gets under way (as Poplavskaya appears in the “modern” lab as well as in the WWI village). I felt there was an affinity between the old Faust in the first scene and the German character in 1945 — physically and spiritually, the tired old man. BESIDES all these thoughts, I really enjoyed the opera — wonderful music and acting, if a bit weak on spectacle.

Oops, in previous comment it should be 1941 or so where I wrote 1945 twice. Blimp begins just after the Boer War and ends early in the British involvement in WWII.

I don’t know the Blimp material. It’s often described and alluded to. I do know Deborah Kerr’s typology and Marina Poplavskaya fits that: the intensely well-meaning passionate young woman who wants to live. I felt other parallels in recent art, real life (as far as I can ascertain what that might be) & what I’ve read. Little touches like the man with the sunglasses, gloves and black outfit ushering Marguerite up the stairs to death (aka Christ). I reviewed a book about how women have been accused as a matter of course of murdering their babies (remember Scott’s Heart of Midlothian where Effie is nearly hung yet in the story line marginalized). I am so ignorant of German culture; also later 19th century French catholicism which the director McAnuff was fighting every step of the way. Marina Poplavaskaya is a religious woman (from the interview) but we see how she reached out as one can to the humanity of pity and empathy.

Izzy said the music was good: she kept mentioning Mephistopheles’ aria in the first act as superb (see her insightful review) and both she and Jim liked Pape’s performance as the amoral entrepreneur in his fancy pinstripe suit:

Jim thought Kauffman miscast: too strong as a presence too; we needed someone who could seem weaker. I thought Kauffman’s comment during his interview to the audience to see this opera as scenes from a very long play (ultimately Goethe’s enormous ten-act play) was helpful. Left out are the linking scenes; for example, what was the relationship between Faust & Mephistopheles was not really developed. Yet the acting was so strong and persuasive, it made up for these gaps.

I confess it was a new story to me. I’ve never gotten through Goethe’s Faust I (in translation), much less opened his Faust II. So I had all the suspense of an unknown story too. I now know why it’s popular. I did notice that the audience at the Met and our theater preferred to applaud Pape and Kauffman loudly and hardly “brava’d” for Marina P. I felt they were embarrassed and wondered if the popularity were ambiguous like that of Leo Janacek’s 1903 Jenufa which I saw a few years ago and was startled to discover was interpreted very hostilely to Jenufa and her stepmother (see travel blog and partial reprint in comments)

Ellen

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