Today’s the day: Peter Brook’s theatrical economy, ‘A Magic Flute’

Most people can have hardly failed to notice the news today about Arts Council England’s (ACE) announcement of their new portfolio of projects and support for organisations and individuals. From 849 regularly funded organisations there are now 695. This article in the Guardian summarises today’s outcomes: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/culture-cuts-blog/2011/mar/30/arts-council-funding-decision-day-cuts?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

 

Of course, none of this comes as any surprise to most; especially those of us that remember the 1980s and the now legendary (but sadly still real) cuts under Margaret Thatcher. As a student in the late 1980s I went to see the heart-rending and life-changing RSC production of Othello, starring Ian McKellern as Iago, Willard White as Othello, Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona and Zoe Wannamaker as Emilia. I had never realised that theatre performance could bring tears to the eyes (I was about 18 years old, mind). The cathartic effect had never had its full impact on me until then. It was at the Young Vic theatre. The RSC performed a series of benefit (for want of a better word) performances in order to help boost the funds of the theatre. It was and is such an exciting intimate space that has made its reputation and based its establishment on supporting up-and-coming writers, actors and directors. After the performance, as we made our way out of the theatre, stage crew were in place rattling collecting buckets, appealing for our loose change. The memory of it still breaks my heart. How could an artistic establishment (of British theatre at large) that had supported and enabled directors, actors, singers, crew, designers, etc. to make such an powerful and important work come to life once more on stage be reduced to begging in the street? And we are back to that now. Today must be a day of reflection as to what the arts mean to our society. But that reflection must rapidly give way to determination and – not to put too fine a point on it defiance.

 

In the face of such disparaging treatment of the arts in the UK we can look to the continent and to well-established names for inspiration. I am not saying that home-grown ability does not suffice, by no means! But inspiration and innovation comes in many forms and from many sources. None better, perhaps, than Peter Brook and his recent production with Theatre des Bouffes du Nord from Paris of ‘A Magic Flute’ at the Barbican. This production audaciously pre-empted the decisions of the current coalition government, that in reality is dominated by and positively stinks of old-school Toryism, and presented a defiant and rebellious re-imagining of Mozart’s great comic opera, with all the respect for the original but with an eye to sparseness and economy that laughs in the face of cuts. It is almost as if the director were saying, ‘Do your worst! I shall still produce a sublime piece of art that can fit, cast included, into the back of a transit van!’ This is the old master; paring down the work, reinterpreting it as an original piece of theatre – instead of trying to compete with grand scale, high budget productions. An economical piece of theatre for our time.

He has had his detractors during this run. http://www.theartsdesk.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=3359:a-magic-flute-cict/th%C3%A9%C3%A2tre-des-bouffes-du-nord-barbican-theatre&Itemid=27

 

But there has been almost universal admiration from most of the prominent arts’ desks and blogs of the national newspapers.

 

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/michaelwhite/100052311/peter-brooks-new-magic-flute-not-bad-for-86/

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/8414337/The-Magic-Flute-Theatre-des-Bouffe-du-Nord-Orlando-Furioso-Barbican-review.html

 

http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2011/03/28/the-return-of-ulysses%E2%80%99-as-travestied-by-eno-and-honoured-by-pierre-audi-and-peter-brook%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98a-magic-flute%E2%80%99/

 

However, it is not so much what he has accomplished on stage that now has significance after today – it is what it represents culturally for the nation in the aftermath of the last twenty-four hours. Brook has shown that a work of art can be accomplished not just in spite of low production budgets but using them as a stimulus for creativity. He makes full use of the simple staging, so that his free adaptation of ‘A Magic Flute’ as he uniquely terms it, could be performed on the stage of an opera house, a major theatre similar to the Barbican, or in a school gymnasium or a community hall. And as reviewer Michael Church states:

‘Apart from the piano, this entire show – performers and props – would fit into a people-carrier, and could be staged anywhere. This lovely ensemble production should be brought back to tour Britain’s provinces in the culture-starved months ahead.’

We will undoubtedly have to reassess how we present performance and make budgets go further in the coming lean years for the arts. This production of ‘A Magic Flute’ (emphasis on the A as a suggestion) is a possible solution. I think, at the risk of falling for the intentional fallacy, that is what Brook had in mind. Here is an example of how you defy the punishing cuts. Mozart, stripped-down, but still respecting the source, performed by young actors and singers with a solo piano accompanist, flexible staging, symbolism, lyricism intact and all in ninety minutes. I think that Brook is offering us a solution; after having lived through it all and been there and done that! As the marvellously elegant retired Australian actress who was seated next to me in the stalls; a Brook veteran and a mine of information, said to me as we applauded until out hands hurt: ‘Now that’s what it’s all about!’

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KING LEAR LIVE An outline of the presentation and performance

NT Live: Donmar Warehouse, Convent Garden, London &

Bath Little Cinema, Bath, UK

3rd February 2011

 

  • Audience anticipating a 19.00 start but the time dragged on
  • Curtains opened and onscreen were scrolling images of the sponsor Aviva Insurance and some production/rehearsal stills
  • Certification notice finally appeared, telling us that the film was a 12A ‘As Live’ (which did contradict the information on the ticket which stated ‘no certificate’)
  • The live feed began around 19.15 with shots of the audience at the Donmar. This gave the cinema audience a perspective from within the auditorium, to enable us to feel part of things
  • The impatience built, however, as we had no indication of when the performance would start and there were none of the usual distractions of sitting in the cinema, such as trailers, etc.
  • Then a short film about the sponsor’s work with Indian street children appeared
  • After which Emma Freud (TV/Radio Arts presenter) introduced us to the live feed from onstage, informing that we are in for ‘a massive treat’ (!)
  • She conducted a very short interview with the director, Michael Grandage, who commented on the fact that the play would be performed for the audience in the theatre, that ‘people in cinemas will know that’ (he expects us to be a literate and patient group)
  • A short film about the Donmar followed, with interviews from actors (Jude Law, Gillian Anderson, Alfred Molina) who had experience of the space, commenting on the proximity with the audience, the intimate scale etc.
  • We were given a perspective on the theatre which allowed the cinema audience to set things in context
  • The set for the production consisted of weathered white painted boards, which clad the whole interior of the theatre, and suggested a ‘pagan’ ‘purity’ (Grandage) and the white cliffs of Dover
  • Once the feed went live the play had already started and we had missed the actual entrance of Gloucester and Kent!
  • Entrances/exits: single USR, and then through auditorium DSR & DSL. The cinema audience therefore lost out slightly on the promenade aspect of the action with proximity to actors for those moments
  • Cameras seem to be set-up SL and SR, with some hand-held mobile units for tracking and also a bird’s eye shot from the upper circle (will have to defer to Kelli on this and her more expert eye!). The bird’s eye shot gave the cinema audience an enhanced perspective on the floor work in the blocking – best vantage point to us there!
  • Best vocal performances for modulation and projection that did not hurt the sound (!): Jacobi, Michael Hadley as Kent and Paul Jesson as Gloucester (tones of the older, trained male voice seem to work best). Plus Jacobi performed the ‘Blow winds’ speech in a stage whisper, contrasted with loud sound effects, which worked excellently.
  • Memorable scenes for framing and tableau: Lear’s curse to Goneril (the tension visible in Jacobi clearly evident in a full-length shot and when McKee as Goneril turned – to reveal tears down her cheeks); Gloucester and Edgar (as Tom) at the ‘cliff-top’ (when Gloucester speaks of his son and we see Edgar framed in shot just beyond). These scenes spoke of both the force and intimacy possible in such a presentation of the play
  • Unfortunate loss of satellite feed during Lear’s first mad scene in the second half. 15 minutes or so to re-connect. Groans from the cinema audience as if to say ‘I told you so’ (it all felt too good to last!)
  • Actors re-played the Gloucester/Edgar cliff-top scene and the play continued without anymore interruptions.
  • Sensitive radio mics picked up rustling and breathing and the unforgiving aspect of the close-up showed the dead Cordelia and Lear clearly breathing (heavily) after the exertion of the performance – a reminder of how much it takes out of the actor!
  • Unexpected issues over the etiquette of performance for the cinemagoer included: to laugh or not to laugh, and when to clap and for how long if the performers cannot hear you!

Posted in film and television adaptation, Popular Culture, Shakespeare Studies | 6 Comments

KING LEAR LIVE! (unless you are watching the recorded version)

The joint submission from myself and Dr Kelli Marshall for the PCA/ACA Shakespeare on Film and TV panel 2011. Please follow the link for the full proposal and original call for papers. Watch this space for updates, notes and commentary prior to the final paper.

http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts/popculture/film/lear-live/comment-page-1/#comment-5408

Find me on Twitter @gabymalcolm.

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A mature captain, corrupted by a young harridan: Macbeth on the BBC and PBS, directed by Rupert Goold.

Rupert Goold’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy was filmed for broadcast in Britain and America in 2009/10, based upon the successful stage production first seen at the Chicester Festival, England, in 2007. Subsequently it moved to the Gielgud Theatre in London and was seen on Broadway.

Goold is a young director who displays great finesse with the material he takes on. He managed to transfer the stage performance into a thoroughly realised filmed version. Included in this Macbeth were performances, imagery and aspects of mise-en-scene that were nuanced and revealing and enhanced the impact of the text within a modern setting. This is the best way to go about up-dating Shakespeare. As with Baz Luhrmann’s hugely successful and apt for its time Romeo + Juliet (1995), the ability to reinterpret and absorb the extended metaphors of the text into the action, tension and conflict on screen, demonstrates the director’s ability to appreciate both theatrical and cinematic potential.

 

‘Macbeth’ on screen at the hands of Goold sees Patrick Stewart’s performance set in a series of underground bunkers, passages, dank utility rooms, locker/shower rooms and a stainless steel and tiled kitchen. Goold answers questions on elements of the realisation of the piece: http://www.theatrevoice.com/listen_now/player/?audioID=513

The location shoot took place at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, England. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welbeck_Abbey#Tunnels

 

This stately home, of the Dukes of Portland, has a series of underground tunnels and chambers that seems to have served the production extremely well. The atmosphere is one of operatic oppressiveness and sneering, secretive conspiracy. There is both a claustrophobic quality to the film, suited to the Jacobean origins, as well as a grandeur corrupted by decay and discord. This latter quality gives the impression of a dictatorship in decline. And this is emphasised even more by some of the setpiece soliloquy scenes that are reminiscent of the 2004 film ‘Der Untergang’ (‘Downfall’) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Stewart’s Macbeth is played first as a cocky, defiant, cunning usurper and murderer, feeling as though he is blessed by the cursed, bearded witches, until he is eventually shown as a paranoid tyrant in decline. He talks to himself, abuses his servants and cohorts, distances himself from his wife as she spirals towards suicide. This downward trajectory reflects what we know of the last years, months, and days of dictators from recent history. They gradually buckle under the pressure of their own cruelty and find it impossible to maintain control of such disparate threads as jealous co-conspirators, deranged and guilt-ridden family members, and tormented and oppressed minions.

This seems to have been embraced by Goold as a remarkably apt template for a modern version of the play, but he also draws on further elements of cinema and admits to the inclusion of echoes of contemporary popular culture. The aesthetic of the coldness and clinical quality of a kitchen contrasted with opulence and corruption came from, he admits, his admiration for Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989). This disturbing film has suitable parallels with Macbeth. The proximity with butchery and slaughter that is found in a professional kitchen, the ruthless quality that is perceived when considering the slicing and dicing of meat carcasses, adds to the piquancy of the death dealing. Characters are just so much fodder for disposal in the Macbeths’ pursuit of power. At one point Macbeth says:

 

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

(Act 3, Scene 4)

This is one of the most powerful and telling puns in the play. The final syllables should be spoken as ‘gore’ – running them together. This image of the ‘tedium of gore’ is particularly descriptive of Macbeth’s situation. He must kill and kill again. He is the closest depiction we have of the cinematic and dramatic psychopath before the term was created.

 

How he arrived at this point, according to Goold, was partly down to the allure, the enthrallment of the ‘young harridan’ – Lady Macbeth. The element of popular culture that is plundered here is the resonance in the gossip mags, that were contemporary with the production, of the difficult marriage (and subsequent bitter divorce) of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. The age gap between Patrick Stewart and his co-star Kate Fleetwood (coincidentally Mrs. Rupert Goold) was equivalent, Goold admitted, to the dynamic between the former Beatle and his second wife, the self-styled ‘TV presenter, model, activist’. He also indicated that their relationship could be just as toxic. So, exploiting the benefit of the casting, with Fleetwood’s mesmerising portrayal of the ‘fiend-like queen’, and her youth contrasting with Stewart’s maturity, Goold was able to conjure a sexually charged, dangerous, murderous collision of their qualities in performance. The energetic, aspirational military man, Macbeth, willingly embarks on his doomed pathway with the urgency and provocation of his lust-filled, unstable wife. There is no more exciting situation in tragic drama, and watching the ambition, torment and murder unfold was riveting.

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The Moomins: childhood perceptions made clear

the original cover for 'Finn Family Moomintroll'

 

 

 

 

THE MOOMINS

 

The Moomins by Tove Jannsson, were trolls right? Just checking… I am entirely besotted with them and have been since I was young. But I only recognised their qualities and really began to appreciate them in my teens. They are very resonant stories, throughout Scandinavia and Japan. I just took it for granted that they were classics, because they were there on the bookshelves at home, alongside C.S.Lewis, Lewis Carroll, etc. And then there was the television series, adapted from the European format and voiced so atmospherically by Richard Murdoch.

original cover for 'Moominsummer Madness' a book which confused me but the memory of it stayed with me

Of all the qualities of the Moomin books and comic strips it is the bleakness that appeals to me. There is a sense of a lack of permanence and dislocation about them. Sometimes they live in Moomin Valley and sometimes they are on a floating theatre. At other times they lived in a lighthouse. My childish brain tried to get to grips with it all, but the translation failed to embrace some of the cosiness that might, I think, exist in the original. Therefore, the sense of melancholy is much enhanced and the light and shade of the stories is more contrasted and emphatic. Once removed from the first language of composition and all sorts of new interpretations can be placed on a writer’s work.

 

The Moomins are imprinted on my imagination because they offer something of the temporary, the edgy, the difficult in understanding relationships and also epitomising fears. There are monsters that lurk in the background of the text, but they too are ambiguous. As a child one fears lack of permanence and threat to one’s stability. Looking back now the stories helped me to understand that and now in later years to embrace that feeling and not to worry about it. A success in terms of fiction and storytelling I reckon.

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Mr Darcy: Marketing the character, marking the heroic

Jane Austen Centre merchandising

I was privileged to be able to address a group of post-graduate students and staff at the ‘Ideograms’ seminar at the University of Leicester in November. Chaired by Dr E Anna Claydon, these sessions bring together researchers of various disciplines in the Arts and Humanities. My approach to presenting a cross-disciplinary paper was in line with my nineteenth century interests but with a blatant appeal to the romantic in all of us.

Mr Darcy: Jane Austen’s inspired creation. She probably did not realise how inspired when she wrote the novel in 1813. One of the things that spurred me on to consider the marketing and cultural interface surrounding her most favoured hero was the display of goods at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath when I moved to the city in 2009. I was very interested to see just how important the character of Darcy had become to one of the main centres in the UK for Austenalia and tourism. Who was buying this merchandising soon became clear in the first few weeks of the autumn term when new students of English literature could be seen sporting the attractive tote bags around the city. I wonder what their lecturers made of this; on entering the class to have such an obvious allegiance and statement of personal taste emblazoned about your person? Unlike Austen herself, I get the feeling that these souvenirs are devoid of irony.

I think that other than Darcy most people, even those widely read, would be hard pressed to name very many of her other heroes. He has completely eclipsed them across her novels. Many of her male creations can (dare I say it?) be a little bit nondescript. But Darcy stands out. He is at the heart of what Austen stands for in culture today. Known most frequently by his family name – a catchy, aristocratic, aloof sounding name at that – and with that certain cachet of the solo title, he is in the ranks of fictional characters such as Heathcliffe, Hamlet, and Scrooge. He has entered into popular culture as a heroic archetype. Other later heroes have been shown to be modelled on that pattern that Austen so convincingly developed in the novel. More than any other of her heroes there is an abiding quality about Darcy that has only been shown to increase in popularity over the years.

  • For example, the popularity poll on the PBS website:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/austen/menofausten.html

I want to address some of this here, most emphatically this marketing of the hero. That of all fictional creations this 1813 hero, a member of the Regency landed gentry class, is one of the most popular romantic figures of the early 21st century. So much so that writers, screenwriters, artists, actors, television producers and purveyors of tourist merchandising are wholeheartedly invested in him, as a business – reinventing and re-imagining his tastes, lifestyle, sex life, how he might spend Christmas, and even how modern time-travelling career women might win his heart and steal him away from Lizzie.

The television adaptations are probably the most popular versions of the novel; none more so than the 1995 BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies. The 1980 Fay Weldon adaptation with David Rintoul as Darcy was for many years seen as the definitive version. This had a nuanced feminist undercurrent but was importantly very faithful to the novel’s plot and structure and also to the period styling, unlike the classic Hollywood version of 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson as Darcy and Elizabeth. Pride and Prejudice has been adapted and reworked many times over and because of the dual nature to the novel’s structure it lends itself extremely well to the balance of narrative desired for television and is the archetypal romantic comedy template for 20th -21st century popular culture. This also probably owes much to the Cinderella style plot around Lizzie and the trajectory of her character throughout. More recently however the popularity of Darcy has eclipsed that interest and turned Austen’s mannered ironic social novel into something far more steamy and romantic on occasion.

For the episodic requirements of television adaptation there is no better model than the 19th century novel and its adherence to the serialised or chapter-based structure (which latter form was revolutionary and new in Austen’s time). This brings with it a delivery of the associated pleasure of delayed gratification and a refined construction leading to a climactic conclusion and resolution, this is the pleasure that reading gives us. AS Byatt examines this experience and seeks to re-construct it, at least partially, via the post-modern narrative of Possession (1990). This in turn Cora Kaplan states in Victoriana (2007), a critique of the Neo-Victorian in contemporary culture, establishes a discourse with Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text in which he distinguishes between the ‘bliss’ and the ‘pleasure’ of reading. For the assessment of the manifestation of Victorian influence in our culture, as undertaken by Kaplan, we often have to take into account the ‘long’ nineteenth century, bookending the period into which Austen fits and has an obvious prominent place as the founder of a lot of the forms, structures and archetypes of the romance novel. Kaplan goes on to say:

‘Only when we return to the prose narratives of the Victorian and modern romance plots, with their more traditionally told stories of desires foiled and fulfilled [and with the obvious prominence of the template in the works of Jane Austen] can we come upon anything remotely like the sensuous reading pleasure that Byatt describes. However, Barthes points out that erotic mimesis – sex on the page – is just what cannot induce the higher pleasure, the bliss, the jouissance, of reading, but represents instead a discourse of desire and of disappointment …’ (Kaplan, 108)

So, Austen’s works can prove to be satisfying precisely because of their restraint and the mannered, moral context of the romances. In their own right, at first reading they offer the sought for ‘pleasure’. Then on re-reading and adaptation they continue to provide the ‘higher pleasure’ as long as there is never an attempt at ‘erotic mimesis.’ In addition to this and key to Austen’s popularity is the rarefied situation of her fiction and her characters. She stands in quite an isolated position in the Regency period on the cusp between the 18th century conventions and those that loom large in the Victorian period. Her heroes are not the rakes and wastrels of the earlier period, engaging in the abductions and intrigues of their predecessors such as Lovelace or Tom Jones. She does, however, exploit this type as shown in the characters of George Wickham or Tom Bertram. They are not central figures and they must also learn their lesson – perhaps they are past their time and making way for a new breed of hero? Neither did she write the gentlemen of the later Victorian period with their struggles and journeys of self discovery, but she assisted in moving things towards that. A well-known feature of her work is that she rarely, if ever, accounts for male behaviour when not in female company. Nonetheless, certain things about these transitional men of the Regency period seem to resonate with fans of the literature in the early 21st century. The characters of the 18th century and the Victorian period have neither the humanity nor the sex appeal it seems. We do not, for example, imagine Dickens’s heroes striding the countryside in tight breeches and wet shirts.

The introduction of new technology and new formats has not diminished this pleasure experience, if anything it has been enhanced. The personal, tactile encounter of reading a novel in a single bound volume has been replicated by the possibility of owning the DVD box set of a television series. The packaging and presentation give the viewer the gift of added ‘bonus’ material and multiple discs offer the chance to replicate images of the different characters. To this can now be added the hand-held technologies of the Kindle, the iPad, iPhone, etc. which can offer the download experience. Shannon Hale’s heroine, Jane, in Austenland (2007) has exactly this relationship with her boxset of Andrew Davies’s adaptation. She hoards it, as one would a precious rare volume, keeping it in close proximity so she can have her ‘fix’ of Darcy. The potency of the experience keeps her and other fans coming back, returning again and again to the trajectory of the romance between Darcy and Lizzie, with only the sense of that romance. The irony and social satire just distracts them from what they are really interested in.

Only the figure of Darcy compels them to such obsessive passion. In thinking about the various adaptations a few things stand out for me by way of contrasting the changing tastes and fashions in how the story is received. In the early film version with Olivier and Garson the fashions were changed from Regency to early Victorian, of sorts, in an attempt to make it more of what was acceptable as a costume drama piece. For the time, and for an American audience, a pastiche and approximation, with the sweetheart actress Garson as the central figure was required. The romantic storylines were shoehorned into a final tableau in which all five sisters are married off. Again, irony is sacrificed for romantic satisfaction.

In the 1980 TV adaptation there was the depiction of the clash of class and social difference and a sense of domestic realism also. David Rintoul was so glacial and wooden as Darcy as to be almost like an barely animated sculpture in some scenes, so that his ‘softening’ into the romantic hero and his response to Elizabeth at ‘those’ moments (when she visits Longbourn with flushed cheeks and mud on her dress and when he finds her distraught at Lambton on receiving the news of Lydia’s elopement) was all the more powerful and convincing. Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy in the 2005 film version was rather sullen and I think that film had some shortcomings, largely because it was a film and did not benefit from the episodic structure. There seemed to be a reluctance to commit to what the novel offers. At one point Elizabeth, played by Keira Knightley, seeks out a solitary vantage point in the Peak District in a very un-Austenlike fashion. She is performing like a Brontë heroine. In similar fashion, the Bennett family have a small-holding on which they must labour. At one point Mrs. Bennett, played by national treasure Julie Walters, is given a speech outlining the social pressures on her and Mr. Bennett and the limitations of her world. Instead of her being a grotesque embarrassment this is an attempt to reclaim her as a figure with dignity willing to sacrifice for her daughters. Not entirely successful but you have to admire their efforts.

This is because, of course, this version and any others after 1995 have to negotiate the Andrew Davies version and its huge influence and legacy, which is considerable. It is safe to say that it saw the emergence of the Pride and Prejudice industry, particularly centred upon Colin Firth’s portrayal of Darcy. This unassuming, distinctly non-sex symbol actor was utterly transformed during the broadcast of the series and prompted an awakening in the lust potential to be found in the character. There has been an explosion of publications and variations on the theme of Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance in the last 15 years, in which Elizabeth plays a distinctly secondary role. Or, in the case of Hale’s Austenland and the time-travel culture-clash fantasy, ‘Lost in Austen’ for ITV in 2008 by Guy Andrews, and to an extent Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, she is ousted altogether to make way for a contemporary 21st century model of heroine.

Fielding’s take on the story and response to the television version was the first to appear in 1996. She set down her reaction to Firth as Darcy and maintained the referencing and the myth-making into the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (1999) for which she interviewed Firth in real life in the character of Bridget; whilst also developing the relationship between ‘Mark Darcy’ and Bridget, based upon Bridget’s pursuit for the man most like Colin Firth as Darcy! And this was the first and probably the simplest manifestation of what Carol McDaid called the ‘Darcy business’ in an interview with Colin Firth for the Independent in 2000. The mention of this caused the actor to visibly sink further into his armchair, she recalled.

I will summarise the other significant features in this landscape before focussing on one in particular. Amongst these there were the more literary attempts at Austen spin-offs with the ‘official’ sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Pemberley in 1994, by Emma Tennant. This version aims at expanding upon the relationships that are poised to commence at the end of the original, between the Darcys and the Bingleys, Elizabeth and Georgiana, and Elizabeth and Darcy. Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence (2005) was a biographical study of Austen’s relationship with Thomas LeFroy, using her correspondence with Cassandra. The film version, Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy created a successful sentimental drama from the novelist’s early life and contributed to the Austen industry with speculation as to the identity of the originals on which she based her famous characters.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (2004) – again, later adapted into a film version in 2007 – is one of the more intriguing exercises in Austen adaptation/inspiration. The parallel lives of the characters with their counterparts in the novels are all well-handled, but what is especially interesting is the age range of the protagonists, from their late twenties into their sixties. That offers greater dimension to a modern re-working of Austen. Then there are the racier and more Gothic versions of the narratives, with The Private Diary of Mr Darcy (2009) by Maya Slater, and the Zombie fantasy horror versions. These are about to penetrate the market even further with forthcoming film adaptations. The fiction and re-imagining around Pride and Prejudice and Austen’s wider works can be summarised in the output of writers Laurie Viera Rigler and Amanda Grange. Rigler presents the fan as central and transported into the world of Regency England in some way or other (see also ‘Lost in Austen’ and Austenland) finding herself having to cope with Georgian society and also shake things up a little. Contrasting with this is the fiction that expands upon and explores Austen’s output from alternative narrative positions: so Tennant’s Pemberley fits into this and also the Darcy narratives, as ‘vampire’ as zombie hunter, etc., as well as all the diary versions of, in Grange’s works, mostly the male protagonists so far. There is a further sub-category which singles out Firth as part of this matrix of adoration and derivation.

So, with Firth in the role of Darcy we see a serious-minded serious actor being transported into an alternative world of obsessive fan worship and fan fiction. Firstly he colluded in the charming ‘homage’ developed by Helen Fielding, playing a version of a character based upon Darcy and himself as Darcy. What is also interesting is the further expansion of this self-referencing in his career. Directors and writers seem to want to target him with gentle ridicule. He played first the ‘Guy Burgess’ role on stage in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, only to later take on the co-starring role of Judd in the film version – with Rupert Everett in the Burgess role. Later he played Vermeer in The Girl with the Pearl Earring. In the absolutely dire updating of St Trinian’s, Firth and Everett (in drag as the headmistress Miss Fritton) appear together and pun on the title of ‘Another Country’ reflecting their shared professional past. Also, the painting that the pupils must steal in order to save the fortunes of the school is Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. Be that as it may, there was from 1995/96 onwards a variety of legitimisation happening around the fascination that audiences had for Firth in the Darcy role with the publication and subsequent adaptation of the Bridget Jones novels and development of the franchise. It was alright to be a single or married woman, sometimes of independent means, but be ‘in love’ with Mr Darcy as played by Firth.

This legitimacy has seen the development of a sub-category of the genre of Austen fan fiction which specifically targets Firth in the character as the embodiment of the male heroic archetype. There are a couple of novelists, as well as Fielding, who have focussed on this craze. These are Shannon Hale with Austenland (2007) and Victoria Connelly with A Weekend with Mr Darcy (2010). Under the broad generic umbrella of chick lit these fit into the spin-offs and fan fiction genre devoted to Austen, but highlight the fascination fans have for Firth as Darcy. Both authors develop the typical framework of the frustrated woman in a world unsympathetic to her romantic inclinations. Connelly’s outline reads:

‘Dr Katherine Roberts is a lecturer at Oxford University and an expert on all things Austen. But she has a guilty secret; a love of racy Regency novels by Lorna Warwick. She’s even struck up a long-distance friendship with the novelist and the two of them have been sharing their closest confidences.

When Katherine gets her yearly invite to a Jane Austen Conference at the magnificent Purley Hall in Hampshire, she sincerely hopes that Lorna will be in attendance as well. She can hardly wait to meet her new friend, but it seems that Lorna may not have been completely honest with her…

Meanwhile, hopeless romantic Robyn Love is at her happiest when her head is stuck in one of Jane Austen’s novels – if only her boyfriend Jace Collins could be more like Colin Firth.

The weekend retreat is the perfect opportunity for Robyn to escape from reality for a few days – especially when she meets handsome stablehand Dan. But Jace isn’t going to be so easy to shrug off.

With misunderstandings, muddles and a few shocking revelations, the weekend proves to be even more than they bargained for. Like all true Jane Austen heroines, Katherine and Robyn will discover that finding their own Mr Darcy is far from easy…’

http://victoriaconnelly.com/a-weekend-with-mr-darcy/

Of course the point of these novels is not the passion that readers necessarily have for Austen’s novels. It is the passion they have for the Andrew Davies adaptation and the person of the actor Colin Firth in the role of Darcy. Hale is especially unrepentant about her heroine Jane Hayes’s obsession with the TV series. She does not even name check Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie; just referring to ‘that comely, busty English actress as Elizabeth Bennett.’ In particular, she puts the dramatisation under a microscope so that she can minutely recount the viewing pleasure:

‘Jane watched and rewatched the part where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy look at each other over the piano, and there’s that zing, and her face softens, and he smiles, his chest heaving as though he’d breathe in the sight of her, and his eyes are glistening so that you’d almost think he’d cry…Ah!’ (Hale, 2007: 1-2)

Jane confuses her historical periods, has no clue about the nuanced satire and the ironic content of the novels and just wallows in the dramatic romance of the adaptation, ‘That pesky movie version’. She is a literate if not literary woman, working in the graphic arts in New York and despairing of the lack of commitment, lack of fidelity, lack of heterosexuality in her string of boyfriends; anecdotes about whom preface many of the chapters. This novel has a smattering of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, but with none of the outright ‘erotic mimesis’, because not only is Hale an Austen obsessive, she is a Mormon. There is a subtext here about the searching and the longing in the souls of young women for that perfect embodiment of male heroism and romantic married love. This is certainly derived from the LDS church and its mission to encourage moral, married attachment that supports family life and values. You only have to look as far as the celibate, sober, clean-living teenage vampires and werewolves in the fiction of one of Hale’s close friends, Stephanie Meyer, to realise that the fiction of the past is being exploited to appeal to a sense of moral right in the present. Jane Hayes is the longing, searching woman who is guided by her aunt to enter another alternative world in which she experiences temptation, disappointment and eventually gets the chance for real life fulfilment with her idea of Mr Darcy.

‘Sure, Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read the other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course). But it wasn’t until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlemen in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader’s imagination and into her nonfiction hopes. Stripped of Austen’s funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane’s soul and made her shudder.’ (Hale, 2007: 2)

I think this stripping back of the original generic elements of the novel is significant and takes us into the strategies of Andrew Davies and his approach to adaptation. Hale as a reader/viewer of that televisual text transposes her ideas and responses into her creation Jane Hayes. Devoid of the irony and the voice of the narrator you are left with romance. Hale is not the only one who has identified this characteristic of stripping back the narrative in Davies’ methods. In the April 2010 edition of the Journal of Victorian Culture, Valerie Purden assesses Davies’ relative success and failure at his adaptations of Dickens’s novels for television. We must not forget just how prolific he has been as the go-to adapter for so much television and film, including Othello and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Purden reminds us of the evaluation made of his work by Simon Hoggart in the Guardian:

‘His technique has been memorably described … as chipping away at a masterpiece until he reveals the racier Andrew Davies story within it.’

(Victorians beyond the Academy, ‘Nobody’s Fault’: Little Dorrit, Andrew Davies and the Art of Adaptation, Valerie Purden, Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol. 15, No. 1. April 2010, 131).

This is not entirely fair in that he must inevitably break down the text in order to then reconstruct it in an effective and relevant way. What is significant here, with Austen, and he reminds us of this, is that the male characters have no fictional life other than with the women. Therefore, in order to flesh out any dramatic portrayal he has to first chip away, yes, but then reassemble – filling in the blanks as it were. He words it in this way when interviewed on the PBS site about his Austen adaptations:

‘I do tend to write those scenes that Jane Austen somehow forgot to write. Actually she didn’t forget to write them, but she made a rule for herself that she wouldn’t follow the men when the women weren’t there. She said, I’ve never been in a scene where two men had a conversation together without a woman present. I have no idea how they’d be. I’d never write a scene for one man on his own. But I think that robs us of seeing the male characters as a whole so the scenes that I add are generally scenes for the men doing manly things — going hunting, going shooting, going swimming, riding their horses — so you get a sense that they have a life apart from when they are being polite to the women in the drawing rooms.’

Andrew Davies: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/austen/davies.html

So, he acknowledges that he inserts the ‘manly’ activities and fills in, fleshes out, all those things for the actors to be able to achieve a performance. Where Darcy offers loyalty, wit, manners and pride in the novel, Davies gives his performative version more to do, away from the women. He shows Darcy able to navigate London’s ‘underworld’ and forcing his way in to Wickham’s lodgings in order to compel him to do right by Lydia. He is the riding, shooting, swimming action hero version in Davies’s serialisation. In Pride and Prejudice with Zombies this comes completely to fruition with both Darcy and Elizabeth saving the day with their fighting skills. But, in the more sedate world of the wish-fulfilment and fantasy ideals of Darcy as loyal, kind, sympathetic suitor, who champions Lizzie in the face of snobbery and derision, we can add Davies’s take on his character as Romantic (with a capital ‘R’) brooding and just really, really sexy and rich.

Davies also explains what the strengths and weaknesses of the novel were as adaptable material.

‘Pride and Prejudice did have some problems in it and I was relatively inexperienced in writing adaptations when I did that. The main problem was that the first half of the book is wonderful. It is almost like a play. She writes all these wonderful dialogue scenes and you can in effect just kind of copy it out and edit it a bit. In the second half of the book, everybody goes off in different directions and writes each other long letters and you get hardly any action at all between the characters. I really had to pull all the stops out and kind of dramatize the letters, have flashbacks, all that kind of thing. Then, by the end of the book the dialogue scenes come back and it is all easy.’

This shows that the novel is a transitional work. It possesses qualities that impacted on the future progression of the form throughout the nineteenth century: ‘almost like a play … with all these wonderful dialogue scenes.’ Then in the second half the disparate locations and the use of the epistolary form in large sections demonstrates a revisiting of the eighteenth century traditions. Davies’s technique of dramatising the letters is part and parcel of this fleshing out and adding to the performative possibilities of the novel; giving life and substance to the scenes that focus on Darcy and allow him to enact the heroic possibilities of his character. If you reflect upon the chances David Rintoul had of epitomising Darcy, they are very different from those available to Firth as Darcy. Davies does what Barthes refers to: developing the ‘erotic mimesis’ but does not take it too far; as Davies reflects: ‘I think we have lots of advantages with novels of this period and particularly Jane Austen because there is always delayed gratification’.

Davies also demonstrates his total dedication to empathy with his viewers, particularly the female ones when he refers to the favourite scene of Shannon Hales’ Jane as his own that embodies for him the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth:

‘My favorite scene — awfully hard to choose. I think I might have to say it is that scene in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth and Darcy are gazing at each other across the piano. It is the moment in which I think she realizes she is deeply in love with him and she just gives him this wonderful look and he thinks, Great, at last and we think, This is so wonderful. Yeah, I think that is my favorite.’

Darcy as hero, then? I think that Davies’s adaptation, and to a certain extent Fay Weldon’s version also, make him more Byronic than he was in the original novel. What the role has to offer the actor is the chance to brood and be aloof and then to melt and show the ultimate romantic enactment. In bringing him to the screen adaptors have made him more like the Victorian ideal of the romantic hero, in melodrama and the novel, by giving him an independence and life outside of the parlour and the drawing room waiting on the ladies. In some ways, that most masculine of men, Darcy, has been for many years emasculated by his role in the novel, and has recently been freed by other writers to embody the qualities that we always suspected he was endowed with. He has been Victorianised, merchandised and liberated to be the fantasy vampire lover, zombie fighter, and to be the ideal man of  Goths, English students with branded tote bags, Mormon housewives and career women the world over, not just Bridget in her big knickers.

Posted in Jane Austen, Nineteenth Century Culture, Popular Culture | 5 Comments

Neo-Victorian: What is it and why are Meyer and some of her contemporary Mormon novelists Neo-Victorians?

I am backtracking here. I began this blog to discuss Victorian/Edwardian literature and immediately diverted to a sub-category of Neo-Victorianism. So some examples by way of explanation will be apposite, as well as looking at how Stephanie Meyer and some of her contemporaries qualify as Neo-Victorian writers, in my opinion. As well as being a best-selling author and celebrity Mormon Mom, Stephanie Meyer is the embodiment of the Neo-Victorian popular culture writer.

Firstly, what is a Neo-Victorianist and Neo-Victorianism? And why focus on the nineteenth-century in particular as the locus for cultural inspiration and ‘scaffolding’ on which to hang contemporary popular novels? The narratives that fit the definition fall into various categories but broadly match the following; they are:

‘those works which are consciously set in the Victorian period […], or which desire to re-write the historical narrative of that period by representing marginalised voices, new histories of sexuality, post-colonial viewpoints and other generally ‘different’ versions of the Victorian.’

Mark Llewellyn, (University of Liverpool) ‘What is Neo-Victorian Studies?’ http://www.neovictorianstudies.com/past_issues/Autumn2008/NVS%201-1%20M-Llewellyn.pdf

This definition has recently been expanded because of the continuing interest in the Victorian period and the ‘long’ nineteenth century in academic circles. The Neo-Victorian could be said to have arisen with Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a post-colonial re-imagining of the parallel narrative to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It tells of Antoinette, later known as ‘Bertha’ Rochester, and her childhood in the Caribbean where she is raised to be subjected to the sometimes dangerous whims of her family. This eventually involves her courtship and marriage to Edward Rochester, whose first-person narrative in the novel offers us another side to the story. Rhys offers a pointed examination of the experiences of the mixed race Antoinette and her position in colonial society as a woman and as an ‘other’. She is neither black nor white. And is she ‘mad’ or sane?

Following this post-colonial/feminist narrative version of the classic Victorian novel, came John Fowles’s postmodern The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). The reader is taken through a range of narrative possibilities, with the author self-consciously playing with the form and with the reader’s expectations of the form. Both Fowles and Rhys’s works exist because their nineteenth century precedents exist. The template was formed by authors of the previous century and that established the creative vision for the later novelists. The life, parallel narratives, afterlife and pre-existence of different characters and the relationship that readers have with the material allows later artists the liberty to experiment.

The expanded definitions of Neo-Victorianism and development of the study and criticism of Neo-Victorianism have gone hand in hand in recent years. Cora Kaplan’s recent book Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism (2007, Columbia University Press) acknowledges the permanence of Jane Eyre at the centre of Neo-Victorianism and Victorian Studies as the novel that has gripped writers and critics for generations and offers such value for feminists, post-colonialists, gender and race studies, etc. She also recognises the phases of life writing in the past decade associated with nineteenth century figures; the ‘Biographilia’, similar to the types of fads and manias that overwhelmed Victorian publishing from time to time. She examines historical writing, looking at fictional and political histories and the industry of pleasure in writing and publishing for a mass readership. Her work takes in AS Byatt (Possession), Jane Campion’s  film ‘The Piano’, post-colonial and post-imperial writing, the work of Paula Rego illustrating Charlotte Brontë’s vision, David Lodge’s Nice Work and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

The fabric and detail of nineteenth century life and history and the Victorian period at its heart are shown to have informed and influenced so much culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Included in this matrix of invention and re-writing, relocation and resolution of different views and genres is the work of Stephanie Meyer as a contemporary popular novelist. She could be deemed to be Neo-Victorian because she is popular. She could be so because her work is sentimental. She could be so because her work is romantic and includes elements of the Gothic. All of the above would, I feel, qualify her as a Neo-Victorian writer. Simply because she shares much in common, as a publishing phenomenon in her own right and a celebrity author, with her nineteenth century counterparts, male and female: Charles Dickens, Mary Braddon, Marie Corelli, Sir Walter Scott.

She is popular, she is read by a wide spread of age groups, she is read by men and women (despite what some may admit to) but she also takes on specific nineteenth century and Victorian influences for her points of departure. Some she admits to and some she has absorbed from her reading. The Brontë sisters figure highly in there: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen, the ubiquitous Jane (who I shall come to in a later entry) is of course present, in the form of Edward Ferrars and Mr. Darcy (ALWAYS present in any brooding vampire). I think that Meyer has, in addition, taken inspiration from Jean Rhys and her alternative narratives in Wide Sargasso Sea. On Meyer’s website one can still access the narrative of Edward Cullen, Midnight Sun, in which we read his version of the story of the burgeoning love affair with Bella Swann found in Twilight. The thread of her influences interweave throughout the novels, coming to the foreground at one time or another depending upon the demands of the story. She shies away from admitting to too many Gothic influences, so surprisingly Bram Stoker is only mentioned in order for her to demonstrate how unlike Dracula and his minions her vampires are.

Meyer’s emphasis is upon the moral and spiritual message. Bella, the seeker human soul, finds Edward the divine embodiment of a Mormon messiah who ‘converts’ her and is united in eternal celestial marriage. In this she is also a Neo-Victorian. She provides a very clear allegory of apotheosis and renewal, guided by supernatural subject matter. She shares this approach with Dickens in A Christmas Carol and Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies. In particular the evangelism of the latter and his often controversial views for his day, whilst certainly not shared by her, positions Meyer quite closely to him. She has an outlook that might be at odds with the more conservative factions in her church, as Kingsley showed with his enthusiasm for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

So, Meyer, and some of her contemporary fellow Mormon novelists (Shannon Hale, Orson Scott Card) fall into the categories of moralistic, romantic and sentimental writing that revolve around redemptive experiences for the central characters. The directness of their position aligns them with Victorian novelists. When compared with the ambiguity, abstraction, viciousness, brittleness, distance, and coldness of many twentieth century heroes and heroines, theirs is a fiction of rebirth and reaffirmation of values and moral codes that are decidedly unfashionable and positively taboo in literary and critical circles. However, they approach their work and adapt Victorian fiction unashamedly and with complete conviction. Contrary to the marketing for the film adaptations of Meyer’s novels and the ‘Team Edward’ versus ‘Team Jacob’ publicity there is never any doubt for Bella in the novels as to whom she will choose as the love of her life. Her devotion to Edward is 100% from the moment she meets him. Her only issue with Jacob is how to let him down gently.

Before anyone gets up in arms about this appraisal, I am not comparing Meyer to other novelists in terms of the quality of her writing. But, I think that there is a ‘[re-writing] of the historical narrative’ in the way that Jane Eyre is adopted and adapted in Meyer’s novels, as it in by Rhys, and the twists and turns, choices and dilemmas that confront the characters find their parallels in that narrative and in the plot of Wuthering Heights. She delivers a narrative of marginalised voices; if you consider teenagers who look to redemptive morality as their form of youthful rebellion to be marginal figures, and I do. There is also a ‘post-colonial viewpoint’ when you consider the narrative of the LDS church as that of the Cullen vampires in the new world and their withdrawal from and opposition to the ancient cultish authority of the ‘Volturi’ vampire family of Italy, a symbol of the Roman church.

Meyer and some of her contemporary Mormon women novelists are also in the privileged position, and it is privileged, of not necessarily having to develop a career (able to be occupied and employed within their community) or needing to work for financial reasons. They are part of a tradition in which the husband works outside of the home as a provider to enable the wife to dedicate her time to motherhood. As recipients of a modern, perhaps liberal arts, education some of these Mormon wives have been able to seek artistic and commercial satisfaction via publications. One of the key factors for writers is the means of production; the opportunity to develop ideas and have time and space to grow in confidence and ability and make the right connection with agents and publishers. Unless they have a means of support from another source a writer has to go about this in a piecemeal fashion. Mrs. Meyer developed her outline, first chapters and final draft of her first novel in a matter of months. Yes, she was occupied with her young family, but once she was able to close the door and sit down at her computer there was no stopping her. She is a genteel lady of independent means with a supportive partner and precise framework in which grow into a mature, successful popular writer. With this social and personal context, at least, she could join the line-up of Jane Austen, Mary Braddon, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc…

Mormon lady novelists are strong contenders to be Neo-Victorians in the early twenty-first century. Far from being the ‘New Women’ that were seen coming to the fore in the early years of the twentieth century, they are, perhaps the ‘Old’ Women?

Posted in Neo-Victorian Studies | 2 Comments