THEATRE IN CLASS: THE FIRST DESSERTION (AND THE LAST ONE I HOPE!)

[This one is for my ‘English Theatre’ students]

I feel quite frustrated today because one of my students in the elective subject ‘English Theatre’ has walked out on me –even before classes begin. Actually, two have done so, one for job-related reasons and the one that worries me because (her claim) she’s very shy.

As the Syllabus explains, students get 30% of their final mark for class participation and this is a very high percentage because you’re expected to take part in dramatised readings of the plays selected. The shy student misunderstood this Syllabus, thinking she had a choice not to act and has left me rather than, um, embarrass herself. I’m therefore writing this, thinking that perhaps other students are in a similar panic about the subject, which makes no sense at all to me… This is all about enjoying ourselves together as we learn.

To begin with, most of our students choose eventually to become teachers, a profession for which being stage-shy is quite counterproductive. I am myself very shy in many social and personal situations but when I ‘perform’ in front of a class I just assume a different, bolder personality and that does the trick (I think –at least for me). I’m sure it’s like this for many, many teachers around the world.

Also, I believe that part of the training we give you in the degree consists of reinforcing your oral skills, including the ability to do public presentations. Playing a part in a scene is perhaps simpler, for you’re asked to assume a fake personality –what you say aren’t even your words!! So you can always relax and let the author bear the burden of what you’re saying (and perhaps doing).

What I’m asking students to do is not in any case to perform as if they were actors, in costume and with no text as a prop. I ask students to prepare, simply, readings. It’s absolutely their choice to decide whether to use costumes or to transform the classroom into an actual theatre. My experience of the other two editions of this very same subject is that students choose to have fun and offer a total show but it’s not compulsory to do so (well, having fun is…).

In the previous edition, two years ago, what I most enjoyed was that I never knew what the classroom would look like for each performance nor what students would be wearing. I’ll give you three memorable examples. In a scene from Brian Friel’s Translations (in the first edition of the subject) the student playing the English officer in charge of occupying a small Irish village chose to wear a black leather coat and a Nazi decoration –my God, did we understand the horror of occupation! People were awed… In Hysteria, a farce by Terry Johnson, the female protagonist is all the time naked on scene –logically, one cannot have naked students in class, and the girl who played the part decided to wear a sign around her neck announcing ‘I’m naked!’ Everyone loved that. Most memorable was the sight of the young man playing the alleged madman in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange dressed entirely in orange and reading from the text against a background image of a blue orange (which I had found on the internet two minutes before class started!).

Some of the texts we’ll read together are hard and demanding in their presentation of violence and sex on stage –but, then, you can simply read them and comment on them. I had a very concerned German Erasmus student who came to me absolutely adamant, annoyed and worried, that she would NOT do what Sarah Kane had written in Blasted. Of course not!! Then she amazed us all by playing a victimised woman in one scene and a brutal soldier in the next one with the only interval of stepping onto the corridor for a quick costume change. Actually, the play that has me worried sick is Simon McBurney and Complicité’s very beautiful A Disappearing Number, as I see no way we can reproduce in class, not even remotely, its mad visual richness. (I’m thinking of leaving that to shy students…)

Since I thought last time that it was unfair to subject students to the ‘ordeal’ of having them act in class, I myself acted a part. I chose the monologue of the terrorist in Simon Stephens’s Pornography, which I accompanied with a PowerPoint presentation about the London outrages of 2007. This is someone (man or woman, who knows) travelling on the underground to plant a bomb and Stephens’s whole point is that s/he happens to be as ordinary as you and me. Those are twenty minutes of my life that I recall with all their intensity, dry mouth included, and I’m looking forward to taking that tube ride again this time. What a lesson about evil!

As a teacher, I must say it is impossible for me to imagine any other way of teaching theatre than doing theatre –whether it’s simply reading aloud or turning the classroom space upside down and yourselves. When re-reading the plays, I’ve been wondering all the time how we’re going to present this and that, and here’s the challenge –some solutions to this problem I’m already familiar with as I have learned from the students who read the scenes. Others I can’t wait to see!!

So, please, trust me –I know what I’m doing and I only hope to give you a very enjoyable time to play (I love it that in English texts for the stage are called ‘plays’ and that actors ‘play’ parts). And if you’re shy, remember that a) you choose how to present yourself on ‘stage’, b) some of the best actors are very shy for, as I say, they find in playing fake personalities an outlet for this shyness.

See you soon in class!!

BETWEEN THE NOVEL AND THE ESSAY: THE FALL OF BARCELONA, 1714

I was showing my city, Barcelona, to a friend from Madrid almost 20 years ago and when I explained that the Ciutadella (the Citadel) had been built to humiliate the city inhabitants after the Castilian takeover of 1714, he asked in surprise, “What do you mean ‘Castilian takeover’?”. Gosh, did I get that wrong at school? Don’t they teach the same history in Madrid? Surely, I thought, that was 300 years ago and there’s no need to conceal the way things were, not even in Madrid. I must laugh today at how naive we, Catalans, are. And I in particular.

I realised of course that I had been given a very sketchy view of what did happen back in 1714 so eventually, perhaps 5 years ago, I read Josep Maria Torras i Ribé’s La guerra de Successió i els setges de Barcelona (1697-1714) (1999), an academic essay that fell into my hands absolutely by chance (destiny!!). I found the book excellent despite its density (or because of it), and I did wonder why, for all our militant nationalism we had no Catalan War and Peace to tell the same sad events to the world. No such luck, whatever this says about us (or about the fact that only the Russians have managed to produce grand Literature of that kind).

On the very same day when the Minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert, proclaimed the need to ‘españolizar’ Catalan children (10 October 2012), Catalan writer Albert Sánchez Piñol published his first novel written in Spanish, Victus, precisely the story of that terrible siege of 1714. Or so I thought. Lured by the memory of Torras i Ribe’s captivating essay I read Victus‘s five-hundred odd pages in a few feverish evenings –an easy task as the book is a picaresque novel seemingly mostly interested in making adventure out of misadventure.

Until today I didn’t know that one of the two current Esquerra Republicana MPs at the Spanish Parliament, Alfred Bosch, had published in 2008 a trilogy based on the same events, known simply as 1714. For whatever reason, Sánchez Piñol and Bosch have decided on a similar narrative tone and subgenre instead of going for Tolstoi’s throat. Yet, I’ve read blog posts and newspaper reviews calling Victus a great novel. Myself, I lost interest in Victus and respect for Piñol when I read the protagonist Martí Zuviria exclaim ‘guau’ (really), which I doubt was part of a young person’s vocabulary around 1700. I loved his atmospheric La pell freda, which is why I got increasingly annoyed to see my hopes dashed by Piñol’s pseudo-Eduardo Mendoza product (and I love Mendoza!).

Obviously, there’s no rule stating that you can only write great historical novels about your own nation –there’s much dispute to begin with about whether Walter Scott accomplished that. What worries me is that this is a novel in Spanish, the first one about these events, and, as such, it does have an immense didactic value to teach readers like my friend from Madrid what did happen here in Barcelona. The light tone does not conceal the horrors of the siege but the sadness and indignation that Sánchez Piñol elicits are skin-deep in comparison to what Torras i Ribé’s essay got from me. Reading a historical novel in the city where the events happened is an intensely emotional exercise, as it’s easy to imagine yourself in the place of those other fellow citizens. This is why I can’t accept Sánchez Piñol’s decision to turn this tragedy into mere picaresque adventure.

This semester some of my students have been working on a comparison between Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844. Their conclusion has been, inevitably, that although Engels produces a much more detailed portrait of the horrors faced by the English poor only those interested in History will read his essay. For the majority of readers (and even non-readers) poverty will be for ever best represented by little Oliver. What a joke this is (and remember how I love Dickens). Well, I thank Piñol for teaching me about General Villarroel –the Castilian hero who tried to defend Barcelona– but I’d rather not have Martí stand for all those who saw Barcelona fall.

Nothing I can do about it, of course, except write my own novel. Being talentless for that, this blog post will have to do. Do read Torras i Ribé. And guys at TV3: what are you waiting for, for God’s sake? Or are you afraid of antagonizing those who will swear there was never a Castilian takeover?

MARY BRUNTON, ANNE BRONTË (AND GREEN-SKINNED JANE)

My colleague Andrew Monnickendam gave a plenary lecture at the last AEDEAN conference on Scottish writer Mary Brunton (1778-1818), one of the authors he deals with in his new book The Novels of Walter Scott and his Literary Relations (Mary Brunton, Susan Ferrier and Christian Johnstone). His presentation of Brunton’s Self-Control (1811) did call my attention, as the heroine Laura paints when in dire poverty to support her father, and her would-be-seducer bears the name of Hargrave. This seemed quite close to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as the heroine Helen Graham, a runaway wife, paints to keep herself and her little son, and is the object of the sexual passion of a man called Hargreave. I did ask Andrew whether there was evidence that Brontë had read Brunton, and it seems she might have. We do know that Austen read Self-Control and called it an “excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.”

I have just finished reading Brunton’s novel and I’m now convinced that Anne Brontë had read. It might even be the case that she decided to experiment with the romantic triangle and fancy the heroine already married to the libertine, meeting only too late the right gentleman. I’ll call this ‘echotextuality’ rather than ‘intertextuality’ as I really have no way to prove my thesis and, anyway, it does not really matter except for my pleasure in finding literary echoes. I agree and disagree with Austen’s sneer, as I have found Brunton more brisk than elegant and her plot, although at points the stuff of silly melodrama, also too close for comfort to the patterns of real misogynistic abuse (Anne’s Tenant is, of course, an early masterpiece in this, with her portrait of domestic horrors).

Brunton’s Scottish directness can be seen in the opening chapters, in which she has young Laura fence off a very direct attempt at seduction by Hargrave. The poor thing spends the following four years defending herself from the same man, no easy task as he is aided by Laura’s own aunt, Lady Pelham, who tortures her mercilessly to see her married to this dashing, handsome heir (what a difference with Helen’s own aunt!). Funnily enough, I was reading one evening in front of the TV and during a pause I chanced upon a Mexican soap opera with practically the same characters, situation and dialogue!

In 19th century novels the line separating seduction from downright rape is quite thin, and Laura is subjected to a second desperate attempt from which only a miracle saves her. My complain, I think, is that she is saved only because she’s the heroine while another poor girl is less lucky –I don’t know if this is what Austen found improbable. One of my male students asked me quite perplexed whether the minute analysis of his feelings that Anne’s hero Gilbert Markham engages in is realistic. I answered yes as I believe this is a post-Romantic novel about individuals who do care, above all, about feeling. Brunton’s novel, however, also touches the improbable when it comes to the many turns and twists given to the feelings that Laura has for Hargrave (for she wants him but is morally repelled by his unruly sexuality), Hargrave for her (a classic case of craving for what he can’t have) and the third member of the triangle, the manly but gentle De Courcy. Brunton’s insistence on reporting rather than using dialogue and the histrionic quality of that dialogue when it materialises have filled me with impatience and hilarity in turns –but I confess I haven’t been able to let go of the book until seeing Laura make the safer choice and the villains get their come-uppance.

I’m writing about Brunton and Brontë at the end of a very busy day that I have spent mainly organising an article on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War SF saga. This is, believe me, quite a good love story about John and Jane, a couple who first meet when he, aged 75, is recycled into a 25-year-old post-human supersoldier. She, a soldier of an even less human, superior breed, has been born fully adult from his dead wife’s DNA. Both are green-skinned as their chlorophyll-rich skin uses sunshine as an alternative source of energy. Inevitably they fall in love and, once they are given new human-looking bodies they start an alternative pacifist life, somewhat complicated by the discovery that Jane still remains super-human.

It’s really crazy to see how women in fiction have changed and, well, I’m sorry to say that despite my sympathies for the suffering Laura and Helen, my heart is with green-skinned Jane. As a working woman with her own independent income I am developing an increasing resistance to 19th century lady heroines rewarded with money and sweet men (and who abandon painting as quickly as they can). Jane, in contrast, is awesome and I mean it in the sense that her tremendous efficiency at work generates awe –both as a ruthless killer and later as a ruthless hero.

It’s funny to think that Jane comes from the same time and place as Laura as, after all, what is Jane if not another version of Frankenstein’s she-monster? In the end, then, I choose Mary Shelley. Sorry Mary, sorry Anne (and sorry Jane… Austen).

MARKING PAPERS AGAIN: NUMBERS

Before writing this post I have checked my other two posts, written in the same week of January, in 2011 and 2012. Yes, this is the time when I must mark the papers (1,200 words on average each, including abstract and bibliography) for Victorian Literature (second year, compulsory). This year there are 53, I’ve gone through 44 in 3 days, 9 more left for tomorrow. And, then, in two weeks time, possibly 15 will bounce back in, I hope, much improved second versions.

What is worrying me this time is how long marking is taking me (I’m no doubt getting old). I initially thought I could do 18 every day in three days, but I have ended up doing only 10 the first day, 19 yesterday, 14 today, with 9 left for tomorrow (with emails as short breaks, lots of coffee, too much chocolate). My working day, which started at 8:30, is not quite over yet (it’s only 15:15); still, the headache that has forced me to give up at one final point these last two days is already here. (It leaves 30 minutes after I quit)

I was reading yesterday that working with your brain is really tiring to an extent that is hard to imagine for people working with their body. It really is. I think we misunderstand very badly the effort it takes. Particularly, marking – it’s so exhausting that I’m taking a break to write, as writing feels like rest. What, then, I’m wondering, is so tiring? And, obviously, can I make this task lighter?

As I wrote last year, the problem is that I can’t simply read, I must correct everything down to the last comma (I proof-read, yes). I’m beginning to hesitate about whether this is professionalism or a pathology, a mild a compulsive-obsessive disorder (or OCD). Perhaps it’s the same thing, as academic work seems at times pathological in its compulsory attention to detail. Every time I correct a comma or change a word for a better synonym, I wonder what effect this has on my students –why is she so picky? I’m sure they wonder. My comfort is that ex-students often thank me for being so punctilious, which doesn’t help, by the way, to alleviate the burden, just in case I miss something relevant. Anything.

This year, I must say, the papers are quite good –some a real pleasure to read. This is very rewarding, and an enticement to go on, believe me. In quite a few cases, I wish I had time to continue the conversation on Charles Dickens or Anne Brontë over coffee but there’s no time, everything is rushed so… The worse thing, of course, is writing the comments on the less accomplished papers. I realise that I must be precise about what exactly is wrong with a paper to help the student improve but, my God, it’s really difficult to find the right tone and strike the perfect balance between advice and dismissal. I do my best…

In the end, I realise, it’s not so much a matter of what marking entails but of the amount of energy it takes with so many students. To be honest, I don’t know that 53 are a high number but when I think I’ll have 80 in my first year course next semester I do panic. Numbers in my elective, 30, seem about right but, then, in our state of crisis, this feels like luxury. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts…

A PERPLEXING HEROINE: MAYA IN KATHRYN BIGELOW’S ZERO DARK THIRTY

I’m a big Kathryn Bigelow fan, which means that my personal impression about the very high quality of her newest film, Zero Dark Thirty, is totally unreliable. I don’t wish to review it formally here but I’ll say that it’s 160 minutes are thrilling, even though every one knows how they end. Bigelow’s film is also a superb exercise in style, despite the ugliness of the events she narrates, including the by now quite controversial opening 15 minutes, with their grim torture scenes.

Bigelow, remember, is the only woman (together with Danish Susanne Bier, for In a Better World) to have won an Oscar for best director –that was only last year, for The Hurt Locker. She hates being judged as a woman director and this is why radical feminists don’t like her, to which you need to add that she makes action films about men in a style many would not hesitate to call ‘masculine’. Bigelow has quite a few tough female characters in her films, my favourite being Angela Bassett’s Mace in Strange Days. Maya, heroine of Zero Dark Thirty, is not even her first female protagonist but I’m sure she’s the kind of character that will generate much controversy, academic or otherwise.

Maya is based on the same CIA female agent that, seemingly, also inspired Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in TV series Homeland. This agent is codenamed ‘Jen’ in No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, by Navy Seal team leader Mark Bissonnette. She is described as a persistent, efficient CIA ‘targeteer’ (or analyst), who spent 5 years hunting for archvillain Bin Laden and who, despite being “100%” sure of his location, had a hard time convincing the boys’ club to act. This, no doubt, makes Maya a hero (though, personally, I’d rather Bin Laden had been captured and judged). In real life, to stress my point, women have been carrying out for years important tasks rarely seen on the screen.

Yet, here’s the problem: when seen on the screen, these tasks are, to say the least, distressing. Mark Boal, Bigelow’s screen writer, has written Maya as a kind of female companion to his own Sgt William James in The Hurt Locker: an obsessive, intense loner with no social graces. Maya has even less of a private life than James, as at least he is a father, while she makes it clear that even sex is irrelevant to her. She simply has no background, no family, no friends though, exceptionally for Hollywood films, she’s closest to a female colleague, based on another real-life CIA agent. I did enjoy much, nonetheless, Maya’s fierce determination to find Bin Laden, and I was happy to see that by the end she doesn’t gloat but cry.

What was far more complicated to accept was her participation in torture. A while ago I wrote about a very interesting female character in the TV series Battlestar Galactica, Admiral Helena Cain (see: http://kusan.uc3m.es/CIAN/index.php/CK) who also uses men to inflict torture (in this case on other women). I could say that both are degendered in that Helena and Maya occupy positions in a hierarchical patriarchal organisation that decides for them (much more so in Maya’s case). There’s a chilling scene in Bigelow’s film in which Maya and her colleagues coolly ignore President Obama’s claim (on TV) that the USA don’t torture. Frankly, my impression is that Bigelow presents torture as something ugly, barbaric and idiotic, as it mostly results in lies (which we know from the times of the Spanish Inquisition). Seeing a woman organise the ‘enhanced interrogation’ of male prisoners adds to this impression –and highlights the typical contradiction in feminism. Women may have made much progress within the CIA but Maya’s dehumanisation underlines how high the cost is.

I have no idea how this celebration of the woman who tracked down Bin Laden and sent the boys to “kill him for me” will be received by the radical, fundamentalist Muslims that support terrorism. From their point of view, this, surely, adds insult to injury. Leaving aside what did happen, what the real ‘Jen’ is like, and my very serious misgivings about Bin Laden’s execution, my point is that Bigelow and Boal have made a perplexing contribution to the imaginary of female heroism. Maya is far more human than any of those cartoonish action-film heroines that now abound but she cannot be one of those role models we need, unless we want women to be dehumanised.

The horror is that the situation Maya (…’Jen’) is involved in calls for this kind of dehumanisation. I want to believe that this is the message that Bigelow and Boal wished to send, not just about women but about any person on either side of 21st century terrorism.