Friday, September 29, 2006

Brando, Collins and El Prat

Just about the most irritating film version of Julius Caesar (out of a pretty poor bunch) is the one (ill)staring Marlon Brando.

The deadly thing is his accent - his "British" accent. Sensibly, most of the Americans in the film keep their accents over the other side of the Atlantic leaving the genuine Brits to this side.

Not Brando - the method gets hold, the real Antony is to be found in a British Accent, so a British Accent he has to have!

It is a faultless British Accent too - not a sound out of place - as rigidly coiffured as Brando's greasy black hair.

And as false and dead.

It is too real - too correct - faultless and, so, faulty.

Real living Brits don't sound like that - the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the individual are missing. It tries so hard to be British it ends up an unintentional caricature. Not 'Allo Allo' caricature - that's funny because it is intentional - and is as much the English laughing at their own inability with languages as anything else. More a bad Elvis impersonator caricature – the costume white and sparkling, the gyrations all there, the exact copy of the voice – all lifeless.

I get the same feeling about 'Woman in White'. I'm up to the end of the lawyer's narrative.

It's very worthy, very realistic - checked for factual accuracy by a genuine lawyer - and as dead as the proverbial extinct bird.

Take Sir Percival Glyde, for example. We’re given lots of little details intended to bring a roundness and verisimilitude to the character – his balding head, his worn face, his tender, affectionate behaviour with Laura, his directness over the business of the letter – every sort of detail you would wish!

What’s the mantra of junior school teachers about character?

“You know a character by what he says, what others say about him, how he dresses, what he does and what he doesn’t do.”

It’s all there for Glyde. Nothing, so far, though really brings his character life. It’s just too correct.

And what is his character? The bad-man; the impostor: The beautiful, attractive gentleman everyone is in love with – he’s an Elf from ‘Lords and Ladies’!

In that book you don’t have to ask the question why people fall for the ‘Fair Ones’ – it is magic, they just do – and it takes a coven of exceptional “old prunes” to see through to the reality behind the mask. All the other characters fall for the attraction.

In Woman in White, the problem seems to be that in attempting to be realistic you have to give realistic reasons for people’s belief and faith in the ‘Attractive One’. No magic allowed (unlike in ‘Gothic’).

But Collins has spent a lot of his energies making sure none of his characters is actually attracted to Glyde. They all see through him – even the couldn’t-care-less uncle is aware of a problem.

And he doesn’t give the reader anything to say I understand why people fall for this man’s charms.

He’s wearing a black cowboy hat for goodness sake!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Little Grey Cells

I was watching an Agatha Christy DVD - one of the Poirot stories Granada filmed with the excellent David Suchet playing the pear-shaped, little detective - when one of the characters read out the description of the death of Socrates from Plato.

Suddenly the similarity of Mistress Quickly's description of the Death of Falstaff struck.

I'd never registered the similarities before (although I possibly had read about it).

Why now?

I suspect it had something to do with the performance - the fact that I had heard an actor deliver the description, and that Dame Judy Dench's delivery of the Shakespeare had lodged very firmly in 'd' little grey cells'.

Was it tone of voice, or manner of delivery?

I don't know - but if it struck me, sat in front of a t.v. in provincial Hungary, how much more quickly it would have struck the audience in Shakespeare's London - not just used to listening more carefully, but primed in the classics.

What was Shakespeare up to with the connection?

Two diametrically opposed possibilities pop into my mind.


Shakespeare is suggesting that Falstaff, like Socrates, has to be 'killed-off' for perverting the youth of the nation - that it is a judicial action on behalf of the authorities (not to mention the playwright) to rid itself of a rotten apple before the whole basket is useless;


Shakespeare is making it very clear that Falstaff has died a death undeserved and the authorities really should be elevating him to the pantheon of greats for the service he has done in educating the young of the nation in the realities of the world - just like Socrates.

And then that really irritating habit of thought Shakespeare had of 'negative capability' kicks in - you just know he meant both at the same time.

Both Socrates and Falstaff will be remembered long into the future - and the youth of nations not yet formed will admire the disgraceful lack of respect for constituted authority they both have in abundance.

And the rediculousness of comparing the 'great philosopher' with the 'tub of lard' will stick in the minds of the older and wiser.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Framed Again

" Theseus and Hippolyta are, as it were, a splendid frame for the picture; they take no part in the action, but surround it with a stately pomp."

That Shakespeare knew Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, especially the Knight's Tale, is certain; after all, The Two Noble Kinsmen is a reworking of that tale.

But there are echoes of the opening of the same tale in the opening of A Midsummer Nights Dream - Theseus wedding Hippolyta, "with muchel glory and greet solempnitee." (The 'stately pomp' of our Victorian commentator's 'splendid frame'.)

There is also talk of the battle they fought.

The names of certain characters, Theseus, Hippolyta, Philostrate come from the Knight's Tale and all appear and are named in the first few moments of the play.

If the Duke and his Amazon 'frame' the action of the play, they do so in a way which connects with a wider world - it is a frame which links to other frames and the pictures they contain. We have a gallery of images Shakespeare is willing to make reference to.

Shakespeare is invoking the Knight's Tale.

To do this, he must have been certain that at least some of his audience knew the work of Chaucer - and knew it well enough to recognise it quickly from the brief sketch he draws in the opening 24 lines.

But the connections seem to stop there: A Midsummer Nights Dream is a comedy with a happy ending; The Knight's Tale and The Two Noble Kinsmen are much darker, some would say tragic, stories with death and blighted love much to the forefront.

So, what is Shakespeare up to?

One thing I think he is doing is reminding his audience, from the outset, of this darker alternative to his happy ending - a sort of momento mori.

In The Knight's Tale, two friends end up loving the same woman and fight to the death for love of her: In A Midsummer Nights Dream, two friends almost end up doing the same thing. Without the alternative of The Knight's Tale ending, the Dream's ending is blunted.

If the border between Comedy and Tragedy is a knife edge, then this knife has been hoisted in the air and there is a dirty great chasm below it ready for someone to fall into.

When Theseus returns and finds the sleeping lovers, we are again reminded of Chaucer's Tale. Chaucer has Theseus and Ipolyta out hunting (and delighting in his hounds) when he comes across the two 'Noble Kinsmen' preparing to fight to the death; Shakespeare has the two lovers, who have spent the last part of the night before trying to fight each other, asleep. They will wake to a resolution worked by the 'magic' of the flower, but it is a resolution - the two kinsmen go on to fight until one is killed.

To know the Chaucer is to give an added depth to the Shakespeare who is framing his own Dream in the Knight's Tale.

But he doesn't stop there - he sticks another 'picture reference' into this frame - Ovid's Love Story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Remember, it is a gallery we are working in!

And here the twist is to bring 'Death' onto the stage and laugh at it. We cannot do this until we have finished with the 'action' contained within the picture, it can only be done in the frame.

There is a lot of milage in thinking about Theseus and Hipolyta as a frame to the action of the play, but it is a frame which does a lot more than provide a decorative container - it is the the conection with the outside world, it is the introduction to themes worked within the picture and it is the 'frame' on which the picture is stretched.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Another idea of merit from the Victorian article, at least at first glance, is the use of the metaphor of Theseus and Hippolyta as a 'splendid frame'.

Normally we seperate the play into the world of the wood and the city - and that has merit too - but Hippolyta and Theseus, like all the human characters, move out of the city into the wood. Theseus and his soon-to-be bride have gone into the wood to do 'observance' prior to their marriage. They then intended 'to get in a bit of hunting'. The speration of town and country is not quite so rigid as is frequently made out.

The idea of a frame, something which contains and limits (the idea here is of a rather ornate, Victorian picture frame), beautiful in itself, but which 'sets off' the contents, is interesting.

What is it that Theseus and Hippolyta have, are or represent that makes them suitable as a framework? One concept given to us is that of 'stately pomp': The frame is obviously covered in gold leaf.

Certainly the opening of the play would suggest such pomp - costumes in the Globe would be sumptuous for such figures as the hero and his 'Amazon', and the lovers and Egeus are aristocrates. Strict Elizabethan dress conventions would establish instantly for the audience exacly who and where these people were - courtiers in an urban, public place. Music would accompany the progress.

The After-the-wedding celebrations fit this pattern too - up to a point.

Conspicuous wealth on conspicuous show, something the Victorians understood.

However, this splendid frame gets a little disjointed - the mechanicals work their way into the wedding celebrations bringing with them a distincly tarnished patina and a danger of ugliness and ignorance. Almost a gargoyl on the cathedral wall (to crash quickly into another metaphor - the same way Shakespeare does by putting the mechanical's performance where he does).

And there are other twinges of doubt about the integrity of the frame - Hippolyta and Theseus don't quite seem to see eye-to-eye on a couple of issues: Her silence at the start of the play, after Egeus enters, 'speaks volumes' - so much so that Theseus has to ask, "What cheer my love?"

Their discussion of the role of imagination before the newly weds enter also smacks of disagreement, however civilized.

It is almost as if the frame also carries the themes of the contained picture, in a much more constrained way, but still complementary - not a neutral plain wood, but an active ornate, shallow carved but distinct piece of arabesque work?

So far I have concentrated on the constraining effect of the frame, but a frame also acts as a transition from the outside to the inside.

But more of that next post.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Once Upon A Time . . .

... this is how people thought about and responded to Shakespeare's plays.

Reading some of the 'out of copyright' criticism increasingly available on the web can be rewarding, in a perverse sort of way. I find the Historical Perspective fascinating as much as for what it reveals about the thoughts and ideas of the time of writing as for what it says about the plays themselves. That is not to say that the best of them is without insight - good criticism lasts through the ages as well as good play texts.

However, most of the reviews and opinions I have read from the past function more as a goad to stimulate my own response - and as a warning that contemporary views are as 'time-embedded' as those of previous generations.

This extract on A Midsummer Nights Dream from "The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol 13' of 1906, for example:

Reading the first two paragraphs reminds us that this now very popular and respected play was held in less regard in Times Past. The author felt the need to justify giving the same dignity to The Dream as was given to The Tempest.

He (I assume, given the date, a he) links the two plays as, 'both under the influence of a wonderful world of spirits' - which is in itself, quite telling.

Would I describe the likes of Oberon and Titania as spirits?

I think not.

To me it seems the compounding of the (Super) Natural world of The Dream with the artifice-book-magic world of The Tempest is to make a fundamental mistake.

Oberon and Titania are powerful embodiments of forces in Nature - their arguments lead to massive shifts in the balance of the seasons, causing untold (if hinted at) harm to the lives of ordinary people. Their 'stage' is the whole world - shifting from India to Ancient Athens, and then on around the Globe. They are under the control of no man - but condescend to bless the mortal marriage beds. Part of Titania's punishment is to be enthralled to that basest of creatures, the common working man.

In contrast, the spirits (and here I think the word is appropriate) in The Tempest , principally Ariel, are much weaker, superficial stuff. They create illusions through theatrical trickery requiring the use of book, props and costume - much more ciphers from an allegory than characters. They are bound to a human magician of dubious morality whose 'art' is barely strong enough to control a small Mediterranean island.

Shakespeare was not revisiting 'the wonderful world of spirits' when he wrote The Tempest, he was creating something very different from the elemental forces let loose in the earlier play.

The Dream is about imagination, a human talent: For the Elizabethans, God given.

The Tempest is about illusion - theatrical illusion principally, but also deceit and double dealing in the very real world, where it becomes a human failing.

In the third paragraph we really see what is, to my eyes, limiting our Victorian commentator.

Here, he uses some very interesting words to conjure up the 'fairy world'. His talk is of 'colours...of clear transparency'; 'variegated fabric...blown away with a breath'; elegant pieces of arabesque'; 'little genii'. The stuff of wallpaper and interior decoration.

This is the sweet cloying vision of 'Tinkerbelle' from Peter Pan, of photographs of lace winged fairies at the bottom of the garden, the Romantic Fairies of Celtic Revival, and modern garden furniture - Only one step away from moony pulling garden gnomes.

Sentimental, not fearsome. Amusing, but without any depth.

At worst, these are naughty children, with the innocent jealousies of those 'tender' in years.

After all, they 'sport childishly,' don't they?

Their passions are only, 'ideal dreams,' aren't they?

And this vision of spirits and naughty innocence is taken on wholeheartedly - to the extent that the very structure of the play becomes an 'ingenious and lucky accident'. and everything is, 'lightly and happily interwoven'.

Make no mistake, it is a potent vision: In countless junior school classrooms all over England, A Midsummer Nights Dream is still given this 'light' treatment, and is used to introduce Shakespeare to children far too inexperienced to see through it.

I am tempted to say it is the worst crime perpetrated against any piece of literature in the whole sorry history of the well intentioned ignorance we call, 'Getting an Education'.

Another part of the problem originates in the standards, expectations and limitations of theatrical productions of the time.

In the popular theatre, the Proscenium Arch dominated; design was driven by the two dimensional, framed, stage picture - and realism was 'God'. No wonder then that The Tempest found favour - thriving on illusion - whilst The Dream was relegated to a sub-sublime, if not standard, entertainment - the play requires an audience to use its imagination, and that is not the audience's prerogative any longer.

To give 'life' to Victorian fairies, you needed small people - children, preferably female, and able to do a few steps of ballet - in pretty dresses, with lace wings on wire frames. Whole forests needed to appear on stage, real rabbits needed to hop between the trees.

It is The Dream with Mendelssohn's music, and all imagination stripped away.

Fantasy as entertainment and distraction. Look at the illusion, forget the words.

How different from the bare stage, all male productions of the Globe Theatre: Words create here; the texts 'work on your imaginary forces' to bring the forest, the city, the magic itself into that home of dreams, your own mind.

And it is a text which, to the Elizabethan audience, in this most entertaining of plays, raises serious issues: What is the importance of harmony in marriage, in society, in life? What role does our imagination play in the search for truth? If we 'sleep on it', how do our dreams operate to make the morning, 'wiser than the night'?

But this is not our theatrical Fairy World either - bare stages have returned, via Brecht, and the 'serious' theatrical is once again more word orientated.

Our dreams though are constructed in a post-Freudian, post-Jungian mish-mash of sub-consciousness and symbolism. Sex is once more released, and Shakespeare has become our contemporary.

Fairies are no more real to us than to the Victorians - they are a theatrical device. And marriages are not expected to last, divorce is the norm, and extra-marital relations mere entertainments.

But our fairies have regained and are regaining more of their power - climate change and balance in Nature is an issue.