HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHY: CONSENT AND COERCION, OR STELLA AND BLANCHE IN A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

I am going back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity on which I focused my last post, this time in connection to Tennessee Williams’s popular play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a Pulitzer-Award winner. The 2014 production by the Young Vic and Joshua Andrew, directed by Benedict Andrews, has been available online since last Thursday, as part of the National Theatre’s generous streaming of successful productions while the quarantine of British theatres lasts. With its attractive cast—Gillian Anderson (Blanche), Vanessa Kirby (Stella), Ben Foster (Stanley Kowalski)—and its gimmicky revolving stage (by Magda Willi), this version of the play was enormously successful. It has attracted these days a considerable number of new reviews, all also enthusiastic—but with a caveat.

Michael Billington’s 2014 review for The Guardian noted that “The updating to the present sits oddly with a play that talks of period bandleaders like Xavier Cugat and where the feel is of an America on the verge of postwar economic expansion”. Paul T. Davies concurs, six years later. The updating (which remains quite fuzzy, as Billington’s comment indicates), “underlines the problematic sexual politics of the piece. Once we move out of the 1950s, Stanley’s behaviour is even more brutish, and it’s a tricky balancing act as, although Stanley hits his wife and rapes Blanche, members of the audience, of any gender specification, must want to sit on their front porches fanning themselves and wishing for the rains to cool their desire for Stanley down” (BritishTheatre.com, 24 May 2020). I should think that what is problematic is that Stanley, the abuser and rapist, is still connected with desire in any way and that the partial updating of the play does not alter its original sex and gender discourse.

As Williams conceived it, A Streetcar Named Desire tells the story of two sisters, Blanche (the elder) and Stella (the younger), during the months of Blanche’s conflictive stay at her sister’s home in New Orleans. The sisters are the last scions of their ancestral home at Belle Rive (in Mississippi) which, as we learn, has been lost to the financial improvidence of the patriarchs in the DuBois family. Blanche has been making a living by teaching English in secondary schools, whereas Stella (no occupation mentioned) is married to WWII veteran and factory parts salesman, Stanley Kowalski.

Blanche has been unable to overcome the serious mental health issues caused by the suicide of her young closeted gay husband, which has led to a scandalous promiscuity and a liaison with one of her seventeen-year-old students, for which she has been dismissed from her teaching post. She is on the run from herself when she takes refuge in the Kowalskis’ home, though she never discloses her actual circumstances. These are dug out by the persistent Stanley, who very much resents Blanche’s presence and her interference in his marriage to Stella, based, as it is apparent, on sexual attraction and a toxic co-dependence. Stella is, nonetheless, happy enough and willing to tolerate occasional abuse from Stanley, despite Blanche’s attempts to open her sister’s eyes. When Stanley realises that Blanche is lying to his buddy Mitch—pretending to be the lady she is not in order to have him propose marriage as a way out of her troubles—he unmasks his sister-in-law. Stanley also rapes her, which breaks the lasts remnants of her sanity. The play ends with Blanche being taken away by a psychiatrist, as a devastated Stella remains with Stanley.

There are a few gender hot spots in the play, which require a negotiation with the audience: the homosexuality of Blanche’s husband and his ensuing suicide; her scene with an underage newspaper boy whom she talks into kissing her; Stanley’s brutal assault on a visibly pregnant Stella; and the rape scene. I do not know the details of the reaction that the play elicited in the original productions, beyond the fact that the rape scene caused outrage (I cannot say how it was performed). Williams himself wrote the screenplay for the 1951 film adaptation directed by Elia Kazan, with Marlon Brando (Stanley), Vivien Leigh (Blanche), and Kim Hunter (Stella). Brandon had been discovered in the Broadway production (in which Jessica Tandy played Blanche, and Hunter was Stella). Leigh, who was English, had been the quintessential Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and had played Blanche on the London stage, directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier.

The film adaptation went through a two-phase process of censorship: first, the Code Hays was applied to it and next the Legion of Decency demanded further cuts. This resulted in much confusion about the reasons for Blanche’s overwhelming sense of guilt and in a toning down of misogynistic violence. Whereas in the original play Blanche is in shock because her husband shoots himself after she calls him “disgusting” (having caught him in bed with his ‘friend’), in the film version there is a vague allusion to his enjoying writing poetry too much. The rape scene, which on the stage is directly seen, is hidden in the film by the metaphorical shot of a broken mirror. An interesting twist, though, is that whereas in the play Stella remains loyally by Stanley despite how he has acted towards Blanche, the producers of the film accepted punishing him for the rape by having Stella abandon him. The 1993 restored version brought back into the film the four minutes elided under pressure from the Legion of Decency, but not even then was the content of the plot questioned. Only now are some reviewers beginning to see its appalling gender discourse.

Of all the elements of the play, the most jarring one is no doubt the rape scene. The standard sexist reading has always been that Blanche is ‘asking for it’, both because of her promiscuity and because she is attempting to undermine Stanley’s patriarchal rule in his own home. She attributes his very short fuse to his being a natural brute, uneducated and rough, though Stanley can also be read as one of the many unhinged WWII veterans whose inexplicable mood swings made marital life so difficult after their homecoming. Of course, any interpretation of Stanley is very much complicated by the bodily magnetism of Marlon Brando in Kazan’s film, but when he is played by less attractive actors (such as muscled, tattooed Ben Foster in the 2014 production) the ugliness of his personality becomes apparent. At the root of the play there is, however, something even uglier than Stanley’s patriarchal masculinity. I believe that the author Tennessee Williams, a gay man, rapes Blanche by proxy, using Stanley, to punish her for her homophobia. When the rape scene happens, Stanley has established his dominion over Blanche and he simply needs to call the psychiatrist to get rid of her. The rape is an act that the character needn’t perform but that the author requires to further humiliate Blanche for her own humiliation of her gay husband.

This brings me back to the discussion of hegemonic masculinity in my previous post. A point that kept nagging me after writing it is the matter of consent. According to Connell, Messerschmidt explains, hegemonic masculinity operates on the basis of consent obtained “largely through cultural ascendancy” or “discursive persuasion” (2018: 28). Furthermore, the concept of hegemony would be “irrelevant” if it “only referred to, for example, violence, aggression, and self-centeredness” (2018: 40). The “discursive legitimation (or justification), encouraging all to consent to, unite around, and embody such unequal gender relations” (2018: 46), and not “direct control and commands”(sic) (2018: 120), is the basis of discrimination. The play by Williams survives and is still very much successful because as audiences we have granted our collective consent, agreeing to its “discursive persuasion” about the fact that both Blanche and Stella need to be disciplined into submission. Yet, here’s the contradiction: A Streetcar Named Desire shows that, actually, hegemonic masculinity does not only work by consent, but also by coercion, perhaps in a 50-50 ratio.

Stella appears to consent to her husband’s sexist dominion over her but his savage punch to her face reveals that this consent is granted by a mixture of willingness and fear (both physical and psychological). Blanche is disputing all the time both Stella’s consent and Stanley’s coercion, and this is the reason why she is ill-treated and ultimately declared insane, which is the ultimate coercion (together with her rape). Those who think that she deserves this fate are granting their consent to the hegemonic masculinity practices by which Stanley undoes her resistance to patriarchy, and are in fact complicit with him (and with Williams, who is as patriarchal as his charcater, despite being gay).

There is a scene in which Blanche tells her sister what is wrong with her dependence on Stanley, and for a second we can imagine an alternative play in which Stella is rescued and the two sisters start a new life helping each other to overcome their toxic relations with the men in their lives. It is, in fact, perfectly possibly to turn A Streetcar Named Desire on its head and, without altering the plot, stress its underlying sexism and misogyny—but for that Marlon Brando needs to be forgotten. If Stanley is, in any way, justified or glamorised, then the play serves the cause of hegemonic masculinity. This is why the 2014 production still falls short: Foster’s Stanley has no charm, but Blanche could and should be played as a strong, independent woman slowly going insane under patriarchal pressure, and not as a clueless girly woman constantly blabbing about gentlemanliness.

The way out of granting our consent is by education. The first time I saw Streetcar, the film, I was too young to understand the rape scene but I had been told by family, friends, and reviewers that this was an amazing film which I had to enjoy and respect. So I did enjoy and respect it. The second time, I was educated enough in gender issues to notice that there seemed to be a discrepancy between the cult around the film and Williams, and the severity of Blanche’s victimization—I was shocked to recognize the rape scene for what it was (Brando a rapist?) and by the truth about Blanche’s husband. This third time I should have known better but I was attracted by the presence of my admired Gillian Anderson (Scully in The X-Files) in the main role. That is another form of granting consent: lowering your defences and accepting to be made complicit with an atrocious story of patriarchal control out of admiration for an actor, whether this is Brando or Anderson.

So here I am, apologizing for my lapse, and trying to educate others into withdrawing their consent and to learn the subtle and less subtle ways into which this is elicited from us. Does this mean that you should not see/read A Streetcar Named Desire? Not at all: by all means educate yourself, just do not enjoy what cannot be enjoyed unless you align yourself with patriarchy.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TIME AND J.B. PRIESTLEY: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE

It seems that I have started this academic year in a metaphysical vein, concerned about time. Now it’s the turn of John Boynton Priestley’s suggestive play I Have Been Here Before (1937), which I have just seen in La Perla29’s effective production. Directed by Sergi Belbel, using Martí Gallén’s very good Catalan version, Priestley’s play necessarily loses some nuances in translation, such as the distinctive Yorkshire accents of the rural inn where the action takes place. This is inevitable (happily, there was no question of adapting the setting to Catalonia) but I am a tad less happy with the title Això ja ho he viscut (‘I have lived this before’) because, if I am not mistaken, Priestley alludes to a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti in his own original title. I mean ‘Sudden Light’, written possibly in 1854 but first published in 1863. Here it is:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turn’d so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

This is the exact topic of the play: the possibility that our lives are somehow lived again and again and what we call déjà vu may be a glimpse into another version of the same events.

J.B. Priestly (1894-1984), a native of Yorkshire, first became quite famous thanks to a quintessentially English novel, The Good Companions (1929), of which there are several stage, film, TV, and radio adaptations. He wrote many other novels though never as successfully, including some in collaboration. Beginning with Dangerous Corner (1932), Priestly also wrote about twenty plays, among which Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1945) are considered to be his best. These three plays, together with I Have Been Here Before and some others such as Johnson over Jordan, are known collectively as the ‘Time Plays’ because of the centrality of this question in them. Priestley, a marvellous graphomaniac, also wrote plenty of essays, among which I would highlight The English (1973). For a short spell during World War II (before the advent of television and when radio was paramount), Priestley was the most popular BBC broadcaster after Winston Churchill. Rumour claims that Churchill grew jealous and managed to have Priestley’s Sunday evening series Postscripts (which ran for a few months in 1940) cancelled, on the grounds that the content was too left-wing.

I saw Time and the Conways in 1992, in the Catalan-language production directed by Mario Gas, later filmed and broadcast by TV3 (in 1993). I subsequently taught the play within our first-year introduction to 20th century English Literature, though I would agree that its melancholy tone is not something that eighteen-year-olds can easily enjoy. I loved it, anyway. In 2011 I saw another Catalan-language version of Priestly, this time An Inspector Calls, as Truca un inspector, with the great Josep Maria Pou as Inspector Goole (‘ghoul’ indeed…). Pou also directed this production. I saw then as well a 1982 version of the original play made for TV, which is still available on YouTube, and which I recommend very much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuHvGPpq8TM. I was back then teaching Shaw’s Pygmalion and published here a post speculating about whether the missing Eva in Priestley’s play could have been known to Eliza Doolittle, or be Eliza herself without Prof. Higgins (see https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/03/21/eva-and-eliza-mirror-images/).

Everyone who writes about the Time Plays necessarily mentions the two singular men who inspired Priestley with his own view of time. One was Russian-Ukranian esotericist Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii (better known as Peter D. Ouspensky). His volume A New Model of the Universe, originally written in Russian and translated in 1931 by R.R. Merton (for Routledge!), was an instant success. It caught Priestley’s attention and that of many other British readers. The text is here, if you care to take a peek: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.234054. Ouspensky (1878-1947) belongs in the same esoteric circles as Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and his own master George Gurdjieff (1877?-1949), men inspired by the success of Madame Blavatsky’s (1831-91) Theosophical Society (founded 1875). The other main text that influenced Priestley was An Experiment with Time (1927) by J.B. Dunne (1875-1949), which seemingly describes Dunne’s own precognitive dreams and ‘serialism’, the theory of time that Priestley borrowed for I Have Been Here Before. Dunne, a pioneering aeronautical engineer and a philosopher, enjoyed a much higher credibility than occultist Ouspensky but his does not mean that his theories have been in any way validated by scientific research.

As I’m sure you’re beginning to notice, both Ouspensky and Dunne wrote their books following the development of Quantum Mechanics, from 1900 onward. Priestley may not have known about Niels Bohr, Max Planck, or Albert Einstein but he was shaping in his Time Plays a view of existence that is not so different from current views of the multiverse based on Quantum Theory. I must confess that I seem to be, like most of us, stuck in a backward Newtonian understanding of physics and have not managed to grasp Quantum Mechanics beyond what I read in science fiction. I think, however, that Priestley’s peculiar plays still work well in 2019 because, even though Ouspensky and Dunne mean nothing to contemporary audiences, we are increasingly familiar with the idea that ours is just one universe among many other versions of the multiverse.

In I Have Been Here Before Dr. Görtler, a German-Jewish refugee in Britain who has lost everything to persecution by his own university students (implicitly Nazi sympathisers), arrives in the inn I have mentioned expecting to meet three strangers whose lives are heading for disaster. Görtler has had a dream in which he has seen the dire consequences of the decisions these three persons are about to make, and he needs to divert them from that specific path so that they may take a better one. Görtler’s dream is not a prophecy but, following Dunne, a memory of the version of his life in which disaster strikes. Also following Dunne, Priestley considers the idea that if, like Görtler, you train yourself to pay heed to your dreams, perhaps life can be better understood, and its worst events avoided if not in this life at least next time around.

Both Dunne and Görtler suppose that life is serial, that is to say, that you (or your soul if you prefer) are playing out a script that is repeated again and again each time you are born, and, hopefully, improved on. Not so in the case of dark souls bent on destructive ways. This is not quite the same as the idea of the multiverse, which supposes that infinite versions of the existing universe, including our own personal life, are happening simultaneously though with variations. Both theories make me extremely nervous, even more than Christian Heaven and Hell, but what I like about the Time Plays is that they invite me to think about the possibility that there is indeed a (loose) script in our lives, which might explain recognition. Let me explain…

In the play itself, Dr Görtler refers to déjà vu as an effect caused by the temporary dissociation of the two hemispheres of the brain. Current science still goes in that direction, connecting besides this phenomenon with forgotten memories recalled from dreams. What I am arguing is that science has insufficient knowledge of both dreams and déjà vu. Typically, all kinds of esoteric nonsense step in whenever science makes insufficiently convincing claims, trying to mask its ignorance, but I am not backing here the paranormal. Priestley forces me to think about events that are strange but that do happen in our lives, mainly that clear impression that you already know some person you have just met. Or the chill you get when you know that the words which you’re about to say will introduce a turning point in your own life or that of your interlocutor. As for dreams, I do not believe that they have prophetic value in a magical sense, or even in the far more ordinary sense that Dunne defended (as if they were a preview of the next episode in your life). What I do know is that Freud was very wrong about how they work and that finding symbolic language in them is nonsense. Dreams process everyday life at another level. Or perhaps the other way around. Some mornings I wake up thinking that maybe dreams are the real deal and our waking lives just the secondary part of our existence.

At a scene at the end of act I in I Have Been Here Before Dr Görtler explains that he has been studying his own dreams in the hopes of answering two questions: ‘what we are supposed to be doing here?’ and ‘what the Devil this is all about?’ Religion offers, of course, a ready-made answer: God knows, even though we don’t. For us, atheists, the problem is that science is somehow an obstacle to investigate other answers beyond ‘we’re the result of a random series of events’. This lazy answer allows the cult of the paranormal to grow with no rational check so that some individuals end up acting more absurdly than if they were believers. I am not saying that we should grow as obsessed as Dr Görtler with our own dreams and with the alleged seriality of time, nor that we should be paralyzed by the fear that strikes if you stop to consider why we are alive at all. What I mean is that, now and then, we should acknowledge that life is a very strange affair and that we, Homo Sapiens, are very odd creatures, dominated by that bizarre need for sleep and dream.

That’s what I enjoy most about Priestley’s Time Plays: the bold proposition that if we really tried to explain what life is about, we might reach unexpected conclusions. It is a bit scary but, then, the idea of life is scary in its weirdness.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHEN DID THE FUTURE DIE? SCATTERED THOUGHTS ON PALEOFUTURISM AND UTOPIA

Sharing coffee with a friend who also loves science fiction, we end up wondering when the idea of the future died. The media have entered a phase which I can only call ‘punk’ (after the Sex Pistols’ 1977 hit song ‘No Future’), for its intense focus on the oncoming climate-change related apocalypse. Perhaps not oncoming but already happening, as the brutal hurricanes in the Caribbean and the devastating floods here in Spain suggest. For the younger generations, like our university students, the perception that the world is doomed and the future fast shrinking must be commonplace; it might explain their presentism and their reluctance to believe in making plans long-term. But for those of us old enough to have been children between the 1950s and the 1970s, the impression is that we have been robbed of a better version of the future which we had been promised, above all by science and its fantasy branch, science fiction.

Commenting on this conversation with my husband, he played for me the delicious official video for Pet Shop Boys’ “This Used to Be the Future” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As5vxxiPRUM). This great song, in which Neil Tennant sings with Phil Oakey (lead singer of The Human League), was released back in 2009, as part of the highly acclaimed double CD Yes. And, yes, it encapsulates to perfection what I feel but cannot articulate so succinctly.

The complete lyrics can be found here (https://petshopboys.co.uk/lyrics/this-used-to-be-the-future), just let me quote some stanzas: “I can recall utopian thinking/ bold mission statements and tightening of belts/ demolition of familiar landmarks/ promises made and deals that were dealt (…) / But that future was exciting / science fiction made fact / now all we have to look forward to/ is a sort of suicide pact”. The agents of destruction in the song are not rapacious capitalism and environmental catastrophe but religion and nuclear power. The Pet Shop Boys sing that “Science had promised to make us a new world / religion and prejudice disappear” and I suppose that many religious people feel offended hearing this; the fact, though, is that one of the promises of mid-20th century futurism was the disappearance of superstition in all its forms, swept away by science. As for prejudice, as my friend ironized, back in the 1970s the future used to be about constant progress in quality of life but all it has brought in the 21st century is Facebook and rampant online trolling.

Back to the song, these two lines sent a chill down my spine: “I can remember planning for leisure / living in peace and freedom from fear”, for I also remember that. The feeling was short-lived, starting in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and ending on 9/11 2001, with the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia which killed more than 3,000 people. I must spell this out because these tragic events happened already eighteen years ago, which means that the generation now reaching its majority (our first-year students) have no personal memories of them. This factor was the focus of the news around the commemoration this year, which also reported the steady trickle of deaths among first responders and reconstruction personnel caused by poisoning due to the toxic debris.

My friend argued that the future did not die on that day but earlier, with the capitalist alliance between Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989). In his view, their coordinated onslaught against public spending and their enthusiastic privatization of almost everything put an end to the big dreams that can only be financed without benefit in mind. I grant this, but I want to make the point that even so, in the long decade between 1989 and 2001, and specially during the mandate of Bill Clinton (1993-2001), there was a glimmer of hope. I do not forget the first Gulf War (1990-1), which happened during George Bush’s Presidency (1989-1993), but at least that horror belonged to a new climate in which mutually assured destruction (yes, known by the acronym MAD) using nuclear devices seemed over. Of course, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, now brought back to public awareness by HBO’s series, stressed that nuclear power for civilian uses can be as dangerous as nuclear weapons for military use. Yet, I should think that nobody is considering today starting a major nuclear war (I hope this is not the kind of statement that in hindsight will sound totally stupid).

For all these reasons, 9/11 was very difficult to understand at the time when it was happening. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, I spent the morning of 11 September 2001 at the cinema, making the most of the national Catalan holiday. My mind was still haunted by the ghosts of Alejandro Amenábar’s atmospheric Los Otros when I switched on the TV to watch the 15:00 news on the national Spanish channel, TVE. The attack was timed to make big news in the United States at 9:00 and I think now that possibly Spain must have been the first European country to broadcast it live, as it coincided with our Telediario.

I was standing up before the TV, trying to make sense of what presenter Ana Blanco was describing as an accident, after the first plane crashed. By the time we all saw the second plane crash live, it was evident that this was no accident. My legs gave way and I found myself fallen on my sofa, physically scared as I have never been in my life. It was all so eerie and disconcerting that I expected Blanco to announce at any point that an alien invasion had started–that Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) was happening in real life. Even when it was understood that two planes had been hijacked and used as weapons against the Towers (another one hit the Pentagon, and a fourth one crashed when the passage repelled the kidnapping), it was impossible to understand who and why had done it. Still to this day, every time I switch on the news, I brace myself for some world-shattering event like that one or worse.

In his 1998 version of Godzilla, Roland Emmerich–a German director obsessed with wrecking America on film–had already fantasized with the destruction of New York, offering images quite similar to those from 9/11. The first film he released after the attacks was, however, quite different and certainly worth watching again today. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004) the villains that end the future as we hoped it would exist are not aliens, monsters, or terrorists but unbridled capitalism, the origin of the unrestrained pollution that starts a new Ice Age. Funnily, this is not global but a phenomenon that only destroys the United States and most of the Northern hemisphere, leaving then some hope for the rest of the world. The first film in the family-oriented franchise Ice Age had been launched two years before, in 2002, and I am now wondering whether this was part of the zeitgeist or a frivolous reaction to the first warnings issued by concerned scientists. Emmerich’s film, already fifteen years old, was, arguably, another nail in the coffin of the future killed by 9/11 or the beginning of the dystopian cycle trapping us today.

Searching for information on the Pet Shop Boys’ official video for “This Used to Be the Future”, which is an amazing montage of futuristic images from the 1950s and 1960s, I have come across the concept of paleofuturism (see https://paleofuture.com/ and https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/). This refers to the exploration of the ways in which the future was imagined in the past in order to check what has actually been developed and what has fallen into the limbo of the things never invented. A wonderful play by Joan Yago, currently on stage at Escenari Joan Brossa of Barcelona, and simply called The Future, uses paleofuturism in its opening section to stress how our need to imagine the future clashes with actual events. Yago’s play asks the same question as the Pet Shop Boys’ song but answers it with a slightly more optimistic attitude. If we cannot imagine utopia again, Yago warns, we’re lost. Homo Sapiens needs to look forward to a better life both individually and collectively for without some idea of progress we regress. This connects, oddly, with the new book by educator Andreu Navarra, Devaluación Continua, in which he warns that current trends in pedagogy and the pressure of the social networks are creating a new Middle Age in the classroom, meaning a generation of cyber-serfs that do not see beyond the day-to-day. This possibly has something to do with the serious lack of future engineers in our universities (as noted by Spanish newspapers last week) and, what is worse, with the lack of a greater vision for the world that can oppose the messianic plans of Elon Musk and company.

Perhaps, playwright Joan Yago hints, if we checked what the future looked like in the past in a paleofuturistic spirit, we might manage to build a new utopia. The problem, I think, is not only that, as my friend suggested, no public institution has the capacity to engage us in a positive collective future but that our energies are too occupied by the possibility of total disaster to think clearly. Greta Thunberg and her generation should not be using their youth to stop catastrophe but to continue working for a utopia that could have been established for good in 1989, if not before Thatcher and Reagan. I agree with Yago that if we told ourselves ‘this planet is going to be marvellous in two decades’ instead of ‘this planet is going to be dead in two decades’ the promise of a better future could perhaps be rebuilt. Or this is just me being nostalgic of what the future used to be.

Let’s give utopia a chance…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

READING DRAMA (AND CONSIDERING DIALOGUE IN FICTION)

Today I begin from ignorance so profound that I have started by learning a concept I didn’t know: the ‘dialogue novel’. This should be familiar to me, as I read as a young girl in secondary school its main Spanish incarnation: Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina (1499), a tragic story entirely told through dialogue. I never heard my marvellous teacher at the time, droll Ana Oltra, call it a ‘dialogue novel’, just a very odd novel. I do recall, however, brainy critical discussions later in university about whether La Celestina was, despite its extension, some kind of closet play, that is, drama never intended to be performed–like John Milton’s unmanageable (for me) Samson Agonistes or Goethe’s Faustus (though this was later performed). The ‘dialogue novel’, by the way, is alive and kicking, judging from the article you may find here (https://therumpus.net/2014/08/the-dialogue-novel/), with examples such as Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live For Ever?. It takes all kinds!

‘Dialogue novel’ is a label I have come across for the first time while doing a basic MLA search about novels and dialogue, hoping to find academic work examining the dramatic foundation of novels. I have found 65 items with recent titles such as “The Evolution of Dialogues: A Quantitative Study of Russian Novels (1830–1900)” or “Metaphors and Marriage Plots: Jane Eyre, The Egoist, and Metaphoric Dialogue in the Victorian Novel”. I have had to go much further back in time, however, to find the kind of analysis I was looking for. This is the focus of a 1995 PhD dissertation, Speaking Volumes: The Scene of Dialogue in the Novel, and even much further back, a 1971 article called “Some Considerations on Authorial Intrusion and Dialogue in Fielding’s Plays and Novels”. Also, a totally ancient piece of academic work, the 1962 monograph, Jane Austen’s Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue.

What am I looking for? Evidence of the links between dialogue in plays and in fiction. I recall reading as an undergrad student that whereas Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela (1740) set the foundations for the psychological exploration of character in fiction, Henry Fielding’s novels are responsible for the later habitual use of dialogue as a narrative tool which is also fundamental in characterization. I assume that this is what “Some Considerations on Authorial Intrusion and Dialogue in Fielding’s Plays and Novels” deals with. Fielding, a judge by profession, was a playwright in his youth, before the 1737 censorship act made it too hard for his satirical stage work to continue. He took then to practicing law and writing novels, precisely because he was mightily annoyed by Richardson’s pious Pamela (he responded with something very naughty and witty called Shamela in 1741). Today, Fielding is mainly recalled for having published Tom Jones (1749) and for being a major influence on Jane Austen–she of the vivid dialogue.

I’m not doing any research on this topic but I’ve been mulling about the links between dramatic action in plays and novels since the very successful bilingual Catalan novelist Care Santos (now a Premi Nadal winner) told me over lunch that she had recently taken a course on play writing to improve her novels. This intrigues me. Also, I’m tutoring an MA dissertation on English playwright Martin Crimp and I’ve read this weekend a volume with half a dozen of his plays, including the one my student has chosen, the excellent In the Republic of Happiness. And, so, I’m going back to a question I asked myself as an undergrad and for which I seem to find no answers: how do we hear the voices when we read dialogue (both in drama and in fiction)?

The abstract of Susan Ferguson’s Speaking Volumes: The Scene of Dialogue in the Novel claims that her kind of research was not popular then, the mid-1990s, even though she makes a point of calling it necessary. Her third chapter “considers the issue of reception–most often hearing in the scene of dialogue–and looks at how representations of reception within the fictional world and within the narrative scene suggest different acts of reading”. Sadly, I have no time to read now about all this for I am pursuing very different lines of research. There are moments, however, when I miss all the empiricist research that was done before post-structuralist theory swept us off our feet as literary critics, perhaps off our better sense.

I hope to meet Care soon and will certainly take the chance to interrogate her about how a novelist approaches the writing of scenes, for we tend to forget that novels are very often structured around scenes and dramatic action. In the meantime I am still processing the impact of Crimp’s plays and trying to understand the force with which he makes dialogue clearly audible in my head. Although I love drama and try to teach contemporary British theatre now and then, I am by no means a specialist. Not even a frequent reader of plays, for which I’m really sorry as I always have a great time activating my mental theatre.

In the Republic of Happiness has three acts. The first one is, shall we say?, more conventional, since it presents a middle-class family on the brink of impending dissolution. Crimp’s dialogue in tense and terse, as befits an heir of the late Harold Pinter, the playwright who turned the claim that language is useless for communication into an amazingly productive stage and screen career (he was a Nobel Prize winner). Pinteresque is the adjective that defines his personal dramatic brand, just as Beckettian defines Samuel Beckett’s no less personal absurdist brand, another major influence on Crimp. He does not have yet his own adjective (Crimpian?) but he could very well soon generate it, seeing how he remains a major name of English stage since his successful Attempts on her Life (1997).

Anyway, the point I am trying to reach is the second act of Republic, which is articulated as post-dramatic theatre. In this act, eight voices, which are most emphatically not characters and that can be embodied by any of the actors in the play, present Crimp’s collection of very negative judgements on the harsh individualism of present-day life. As any one interested in contemporary theatre knows, post-dramatic theatre authors leave in the hands of directors many necessary decisions about how to stage their texts. This is a huge challenge, which grows even larger for readers as hearing disembodied voices is very, very difficult. My student tried to find on YouTube images to help him understand how Crimp’s play had been staged but found nothing. Theatre companies appear to be so jealous of their work that they live in practice in a pre-21st century neverland, set apart from social networks and, indeed, YouTube.

Crimp’s post-dramatic voices sounded loud and clear in my head but, to be completely honest, I have no idea why. I am also puzzled about what exactly my student has heard in his own reading, considering that he has a high command of English but is not an English Studies specialist. Believe me, I am really puzzled by the whole experience, even though in the two elective courses on British drama I have taught we already did go through the perplexing process of reading post-drama (Tim Crouch’s The Author was very hard to tackle, also great fun).

What is bothering me most this time with Crimp is that it is the first time I feel a gap between fictional and stage dialogue. Silly me, since the first crack in this gap was most likely opened with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot sixty-odd years ago. Still, there you have recognizable characters in the quirky Vladimir and Estragon, whereas in Crimp and the rest of post-dramatic authors you only have, I insist, disembodied voices. This is quite an oxymoron when you think that plays are texts written for performance by a necessarily embodied actor. Perhaps my complaint about the progressive disappearance of description from characterization in fiction is announcing also a post-dramatic turn in novels. Or perhaps I’m simply not familiar with the novels by Beckett which, most likely, are all like that… But, then, just as I tend to supply the missing descriptions in fiction with the bodies and faces of actors, I’m beginning to think that readers of post-dramatic theatre possibly supply the lack of bodies, and of directions about casting, with voices recalled from other plays, films, TV and even novels. We cannot simply read dialogue as a mute assembly of signs on paper, can we?

So, here’s the question: if I say that I enjoy Crimp’s plays, do I really mean that I love not his own voices but the voices I perform in my own head, prompted by his dialogue? Some question… In comparison, dialogue in novels seems quite functional and uncomplicated…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

BOXED IN: ACADEMIC LIFE, TERRITORIALISM AND STRAYING OFF THE PATH (WITH THE BOLSHOI BALLET)

I have just accepted tutoring an MA dissertation on how the new digital media conditions the task of the dancer and choreographer. What is an (English) Literature teacher doing supervising this? Let me retrace the steps.

Since I have always been interested in the process of film adaptation, having published many articles about it, and since I have taught English Theatre a few times, I was invited by my colleagues in the Catalan Department to teach part of the course ‘Theatre Arts and Other Arts’ within their MA in Theatre Studies. I chose to teach a 12-hour seminar on ‘Shakespeare on the Screen’, based on a previous BA elective (see the materials at https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/teaching-0).

I met in class my new tutoree, Toni, who had been, by the way, already my student in my UOC ‘Introduction to English Literature’. Yes, I am offering some kind of insidious critique against online teaching by saying I have ‘met’ someone I already knew as a student. But I digress. Toni is a retired contemporary dancer with a long career, currently a teacher at the Institut del Teatre. He wrote for my course, following my suggestion, a great paper on Scottish dancer Michael Clark’s performance as a totally silent Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s atmospheric film adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero’s Books. I gave a lecture within my course on how technology has impacted the evolution of theatre (I wrote about this here, see my post for May 11, of this year). Toni put two and two together and decided that I might be interested in seeing how digital media impact dance today. I certainly am but, believe me, I did agonize about whether I was doing Toni a favour by accepting his supervision. He seems to be far more certain than I am. But, then, as a colleague told me, he brings the knowledge, I contribute the know-how (to write a dissertation).

Discussing all this with my UAB colleague Teresa López Pellisa, she explained to me her work on theatre and cyberculture, which I ignored (this happens all the time–we don’t know what the neighbour next door is doing but we’re familiar with the last advances in, say, Toronto). I met Teresa when she organized in 2008 the ‘I Congreso Internacional de Literatura Fantástica y Ciencia Ficción’, so far with no second edition. We share also, apart from a love of CF, a course in another master’s degree, so I know about her interest in the post-human and Latin-American CF, but I didn’t know, as I say, about her work on new stage technologies. At one point, she mentioned working on a play with no text whatsoever and vented her doubts about how that fits the department she works for, the Spanish Department (within the area of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, to be precise). Can you do research on wordless ‘texts’ from a language and Literature department? Can I supervise an MA dissertation on dance?

Obviously, it is clear to Teresa and myself that there should be no watertight compartments dividing academic work. The academic field should look, precisely, like a vast field with academics tending gardens in many different pretty nooks into which other academics might stroll and be welcome. Instead, it often seems to be a suburb composed of fiercely guarded small plots, with walled-in houses into which no neighbour is invited. Even worse, many of the houses are old crumbling mansions and construction stopped many decades ago–new architectural styles are just anathema. Just imagine: in Spain there are no Cultural Studies, no Film Studies, no Theatre Studies, etc, etc, either as degrees or Departments. This is why we find ourselves going out of our way so often. It is either that or Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf for ever.

I believe all my colleagues would tell you that we have internalized the fierce inquisitorial image of a tribunal member checking on us all the time, telling us off for straying off the path. In my case it goes something like this: ‘isn’t it enough for you,’ this inquisitor tells me, ‘to waste your time doing research on popular trash, now you want to go into territory that belongs to other specialists? Why don’t you stick to Shakespeare?’ Well, if you recall this is all Shakespeare’s fault, in the first place, for giving Caliban a physicality so manifest that only a dancer as wonderful as Michael Clark can make sense of… Will this do? As for the ‘trash’, um, as I wrote, the delicious SF movie Forbidden Planet is also an adaptation of The Tempest, at least in plot and subject matter, if not in textuality.

This anxiety that you’re occupying someone else’s territory or living perilously outside the boundaries of your own territory is the true source of much waste of time. Nobody is asking me at this point whether I should be supervising the MA dissertation on dance and I’m sure that my colleagues will find it thrilling (oh, here goes Sara again…). Yet, my internal tribunal member, a distillation of the tribunals I have actually faced, is here to remind me that this will look odd in my CV. I wonder! It might even lend some respectability to a CV full of ‘trash’.

This waste of time I have mentioned, and of energy, results in, as you can see, a constant need to justify yourself, as I’m doing here. In civilized countries you announce who you want to be by means of your doctoral dissertation, then you proceed to teaching courses that fit your academic interests and start a consistent line of publications. Here, it doesn’t work like that. I did announce my intentions with my own dissertation on monstrosity but it all seems geared to make you struggle to find a niche–teaching is restricted by absurd legislation that gives the Government (the Government!!) custody over our syllabus, you cannot invent elective courses, research assessment is based on the conservative suburban layout I have described. I may be protesting too much, since, after all, here I am a tenured teacher with a 24-year-long career. Yet, the insecurity about being judged negatively never vanishes.

Let me clear the unwholesome air and go back to dance and digital technologies. A couple of weeks ago I found myself in a Barcelona cinema watching the live transmission of the Romantic ballet Giselle performed by Moscow’s Bolshoi company. This was the first time I attended an event of this kind, even though there have been already several seasons, including opera and, a novelty this year I think, the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a weird experience, as, first, I could not help feeling it was a film and not a live performance; second, I felt a little like a voyeur in relation to the audience cheering in Moscow. There were even people eating popcorn in my local theatre and nobody clapped, confused by their role as spectators. Anyway: what I didn’t expect was the intense aesthetic emotion generated by the loving detail with which dancers’ faces and bodies were shown. This is something I would have missed in a theatre.

So, you see?, there is no way you can put, as we say in Spanish, gates in the (academic) field. A ballet one Sunday afternoon in my free time turns out to be the reason why, in the end, I accepted tutoring Toni’s MA dissertation for, after seeing the Russian dancers I got home promising myself to learn more about dance. Toni’s petition for me to supervise his work came only two days later…

Yes, I am so privileged… and, yes, some days academic life is beautiful.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REMEMBERING DAVID BELASCO: BROADWAY BEFORE MODERN HOLLYWOOD

One month ago I published a post on Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide (2007). Iglesias devotes a good deal of his volume to Henry Irving (British) and David Belasco (American), both great stage-managers who shaped their local theatrical practice. Irving was, of course, also a star; for Belasco (1853-1931), in contrast, acting was just a minor aspect of his long career. Since Iglesias often refers to Belasco’s memoirs The Theatre through its Stage Door (1919) I eventually read them (see https://archive.org/details/theatrethroughits00bela). What a pleasure!!

Belasco’s engaging text is a snapshot of a transitional time when cinema was still silent and avant-garde theatre was being born. Irving and Belasco embody the kind of well-made, (pseudo-)naturalistic theatre that still pleases crowds but that is now regarded as less than artistic. To understand the limits of the magnetic Belasco’s task in Broadway, consider that he praises Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, as “the most vital and truest picture of human experience”; today this is seen as a mere period piece aimed at philistine bourgeois audiences. Belasco certainly shows himself at a loss about how to deal with the new avant-garde theatre, which prefers a few splotches of colour to generate mood rather than his very elaborate lighting effects. This is why reading his book leaves a bitter aftertaste for it is a chronicle of a lost battle for artistic acknowledgement. Although the plays he describes seem trite and even silly, I can very well imagine the immense aesthetic pleasure his productions must have been. This was, remember, the time before colour movies existed and nothing but Belasco’s productions could equal the pleasure cinema would later provide. The plays, however, are another matter…

I’ll refer here extensively to his fascinating chapter on ‘motion pictures,’ “The Drama’s Flickering Bogy.” Belasco inserts a footnote warning that his arguments are only valid for 1919 cinema: “The growth of the motion picture has been rapid and, consequently, the trend of its future development is difficult to foretell.” Unlike many of his theatrical colleagues, Belasco defends the movies, maintaining that amusement must always be welcome and that, anyway, his stage productions are not in direct competition with the then silent, black-and-white movies. He also praises the ability of the moving image to bring home the landscapes of the world, until then only accessible “on faith” from the printed page. He does realize, however, that unlike former competitors of ‘legitimate’ drama the movies “have undoubtedly come to stay.” Also, that “all inferior forms of theatrical amusement have been hard hit by the motion pictures,” particularly minstrelsy, and the cheap stock companies. Vaudeville, which tried to survive in the company of the new screens “has become their victim.” Belasco, nonetheless, has faith in the future of quality drama (and of spectacular musicals): “I have always found that the public will never ignore a good play.” Belasco highlights the educational and scientific applications of movies but remains quite sceptical about their ability to offer “spirit” rather than “surface.” He finds, above all, the lack of spoken dialogue, the dependence on inter-titles and the clumsy narrative strategies (close-ups, medium shots, sped-up action…) a serious hindrance for the movies ever to be truly artistic. You see in this appreciation the seeds of Belasco’s defeat as eventually the human voice, colour, a fluid grammar of edition, etc. conquered cinema, allowing it to fully express human emotion.

Belasco describes on the basis of first-hand experience how primitive cinema borrowed from the stage its plots, its actors, even the theatre itself to exhibit the new films: “from their very outset,” except for what we call now documentaries, “motion pictures have been a parasite feeding upon the arts of the theatre.” This is why he rightly claims that cinema can only “hope to challenge the regular drama seriously” by developing “some form of art distinctly their own, and educate their performers in an entirely new technique.” He is particularly critical of movie acting, stressing that actors only give their best when facing an audience (something that TV sit-coms still exploit); for him, the most successful movies rely on plot. In cinema “Whatever appeal the performers make to their spectators must depend upon physical attractiveness.” Um, yes, it is hard to think of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie triumphing on a stage.

What I had not quite realized is that early cinema undermined its contemporary theatre by sapping it of its best talent–the real competition, Belasco argues, was not for audiences but for actors. Hollywood could afford to pay high rates even for secondary roles, as the huge distribution networks of the movies guaranteed, as they do now, very high returns for a relatively low investment (which theatre producers like Belasco could never meet). Movies stole all kinds of talent from drama, not only, as Belasco shows, that of already famous actors, or stage-managers, but also budding talent still in need of development that chose the more profitable path of a movie career. Popular actors found “that by capitalizing the prestige they have won on the dramatic stage they can earn in the studios, in a few weeks, more money than they could command in the theatre in an entire season.” Less talented actors discovered that the far less demanding cinema allowed them to cut years of stage training. The queues of eager applicants Belasco was used to dwindled dramatically. Likewise, many playwrights were lured by Hollywood to become better paid, though much less respected, screen writers. Belasco grants that some actors are born movie actors: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford (whose career as a child actress he launched), and even vamp Theda Bara. In contrast, he cautions theatre stars not to risk their reputation for money. Belasco never contemplates combining the two media, for “No one who aspires to be an artist can hope to inhabit both.”

There is a peculiar moment when Belasco brings David W. Griffith, the great silent cinema director, into it. As he recalls, he met Griffith, “who has raised the picture spectacle to what I believe to be its highest point of interest,” as a young aspiring actor in the West “when the invention of the camera was practically new.” He applied for a position in Belasco’s company but none was available at the time. Griffith joined then Vitagraph, a movie company, soon becoming a director… Whether by accident or fate, the future of American cinema passed this way through Belasco’s hands. He shows throughout great admiration for Griffith, never regretting that he did not hire him as an actor, though Belasco feels that his movies would gain by being less full of crowds, more intimist. This is the kind of movie Belasco imagines himself directing, though he has “never felt an ambition to direct a motion-picture play.” His dream movie, with “a very human story adjusted to the simplest backgrounds,” and “very few characters” anticipates Ingmar Bergman or, in America, John Cassavettes. Funnily, Belasco thinks that emotion in movies can only work if scenes are shot in chronological order, which shows how impossible it would have been for him to triumph in Hollywood. In any case, the movie traits he wishes to avoid give a very clear impression of the weaknesses of early cinema.

“The theatre in which I live and work can never be endangered from the outside,” Belasco concludes. In the following chapter he shows how the main danger comes from the inside–from the European avant-garde. He is bitter that he himself, who pioneered many avant-garde techniques, such as the suppression of footlights, is not acknowledged as an advanced artist. Writing his memoirs aged 66, after already 50 years in the theatre and facing the last 12 years of his career, Belasco’s voice is already nostalgic–or it seems so to me in hindsight. The photos in the book reveal a mixture of incredibly advanced technology and old-fashioned acting styles which may have pleased Broadway audiences but surely set the teeth of modern 1920s spectators and avant-garde theatre artists on edge. Time, however, puts everyone in their place and Belasco occupies an undeniably important position.

I wonder what he would think of movies today and to what extent they are indebted to his constant search for technological innovation.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

STAGE TO SCREEN: A POORLY UNDERSTOOD TRANSITION

I will not refer in this post to the film adaptation of stage plays, though if you’re curious, you may start by checking the IMDB list I opened last February with my students in the MA ‘Theatre Studies’ (UAB). Here it is: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls076798996/. I mean, rather, the poorly understood transition from the 19th century technologies of spectacle to the beginnings of cinema, both in France and in the United States. This is a story I learned years ago in the course of studying for a tenured position I failed to secure. I ended up transforming the report I wrote then into an online document, Teatro y Teatro Inglés: Una Breve Introducción (2000), https://ddd.uab.cat/record/122989, if you care to take a look.

I had always distrusted the many introductions to English Literature which claim that there is nothing of interest in Romantic and Victorian theatre, except for the plays of Oscar Wilde. And I was right to do so, for there may have been few 19th century plays worth printing for posterity, but the history of theatre in those years is a very exciting tale about how the many technological advances and the new urban mass audiences, both created by the Industrial Revolution in England, resulted in an relentless, thrilling stage revolution.

I had told no students the complete story because, although I teach Victorian Literature, this is focused on the novel (yes, we used to teach Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest but it felt odd, out of place). This is why I was very happy to finally get a chance within my seminar on ‘Shakespeare and the Cinema’ for the MA subject ‘Stage Arts and Other Arts’ (the MA itself is called ‘Theatre Arts’, https://masters.filescat.uab.cat/muet/). Using Shakespeare as my excuse, I tried to make sense for the benefit of my students of how cinema was born as a parasitical theatrical art to become eventually a separate, fully autonomous art. Just recall that in the USA cinemas are still called ‘theatres’. At the time of preparing my seminar I did not know about the existence of Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide: Trasvases discursivos del teatro al cine primitivo y al cine clásico de Hollywood (2007, Fundamentos), based on his doctoral dissertation, a book that I have read with great enjoyment. It is an excellent account of this little known but crucial process.

I’ll begin here by recycling my own PowerPoint presentation to mention a number of facts that may be surprising for the Shakespeare aficionado:

*Up to the 1720s, there was no serious attempt to preserve Shakespeare’s ‘original’ plays (‘original’ because he never bothered to edit them and what has survived is by no means reliable)

*David Garrick, who wanted to turned his Drury Lane theatre into the literary competitor of the spectacle-oriented Covent Garden, organized the first Shakespeare Jubilee (1769). Despite this, he himself used Restoration re-writings of Shakespeare by John Dryden and Colley Cibber, as was then the common practice.

*Throughout the 19th century Shakespeare became the object of increasingly spectacular productions aimed at a general audience.

*At the beginning of the 20th century William Poel changed this trend by foregrounding the text and using a simple pseudo-Elizabethan production design (by Edward Gordon Craig, son of stage star Ellen Terry). This was the beginning of the end for the view of Shakespeare as a popular author.

*Today, yes, Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen (cinema or TV) more than 1,000 times (see his IMDB entry https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000636/), yet although he is fundamental to understand how stage and scene connect, the real roots of this connection are to be found in 19th century popular theatre.

Now for theatre itself:
* From the early 19th century onwards Drury Lane (remember Garrick?) and Covent Garden, the only two ‘legitimate’ theatres licensed by the authorities, started competing with each other, enlarging their buildings and offering increasingly more expensive productions that required bigger audiences (even above 3,000…). These were secured by turning melodrama, imported from France in 1802 with Thomas Holcroft’s version of a play by the originator Guilbert de Pixérécourt, into the main attraction.

*As the actors’ star system grows (there no director really until the early 20th century…), the upper and middle-classes abandon the theatre for the novel (excepting opera and ballet).

*This lasted until mid-century when the Haymarket Theatre, re-decorated as an exclusive middle-class playhouse, starts offering text-based plays in a naturalist style avoiding the excesses of melodrama but still derived from it (these are the plays which Wilde later parodies and that Ibsen crumbles down).

*Melodrama thrives for as long as gaslight dominates (1803-1881), yet stage illusion and special effects need to be reconsidered with the advent of the much harsher electric light: London’s Savoy Theatre is the first in the world to be illuminated by electricity in 1881 (Boston’s Bijou follows in 1882). By 1890s most theatres have abandoned gaslight (Savoy recently pioneered the introduction of integral LED lighting).

*Cinema, which appears in the 1890s, soon starts borrowing plots and actors from melodrama, also from vaudeville (and/or music hall). Most importantly, early cinema tries to reproduce the experience of being in a theatre, using the spectator’s point of view, showing actors in their natural size and using static filming.
*Mèlies in France and Edison in the USA, however, soon see that this is not the way to go, and they start generating new film effects in the first cinema studios in the world, Montreuil (1896) and Black Maria (1896), respectively.

*Cinema’s real independence from theatre comes with the work of David Griffith, who invents what we know today as edition, wisely mixing with the series of diverse shots he and others developed (famously the close-up).

I think that what best explains the transition from spectacular stage melodrama to the cinema of spectacle is Ben-Hur. This was originally a novel by General Lew Wallace (1880), very successfully adapted for the stage in 1899. This adaptation inspired in its turn the short film Ben-Hur (1907, black and white), the long feature film Ben-Hur (1925, black and white, the third highest-grossing silent film), and finally the Technicolor blockbuster we all know, Ben-Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston. My students would not believe me when I explained that the stage adaptation included the famous chariot race, until I showed them the original poster.

To sum up, then, Victorian theatre on both sides of the Atlantic ended up offering amazing pre-electricity spectacle of a kind we can hardly imagine today. Cinema appeared precisely when electricity started complicating the continuity of the old gaslight-style of stage spectacle; initially borrowing basic techniques from theatre, cinema ended up eventually developing its own spectacular technology. Sadly, we tend to believe that this is exclusive to cinema because our current theatre (with the exception of musicals) tends to be visually quite limited. David Griffith already foretold it would be so.

About vaudeville… I was immensely pleased when I found a photo of the very popular vaudeville stars The Gumm Sisters in their first film (the short The Big Review, 1929). The youngest, Judy Garland…, was just 7. Early cinema certainly knew where to find big talent…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE CLAPTRAP, I MEAN THE MOUSETRAP: IS THIS THE ULTIMATE POST-MODERN JOKE?

Last evening I saw ‘La ratonera’ at Teatre Apolo, here in Barcelona, the Spanish translation of Agatha Christie’s very famous The Mousetrap. I am really mystified that this absolutely mediocre play, to call it something polite, is still on 62 years after its opening night. That is the real mystery and not what the plot narrates…

The Mousetrap, presented as a “comedy-thriller,” was judged a “middling” play in which “coincidence is stretched unreasonably” when it first opened at the Ambassadors’ Theatre (I’m reading the original Guardian review of November 1952). In 1974 it transferred to St Martin’s Theatre, where it remains –a tourist trap, as denounced by the 11 brave souls who dare say so on TripAdvisor (of a total 321 opinions: 142 excellent, 117 very good…). The author herself, Wikipedia claims, declared in her autobiography that she only expected the play to last for eight months at the most. Christie, by the way, presented her grandson Matthew Prichard with the rights to the play for his 9th birthday. He must be quite rich by now as the play reached its 25,000 performance in 2012, the longest uninterrupted run of any play anywhere in history.

Wikipedia informs that the play, originally a short radio play, was inspired by the real-life case of poor Dennis O’Neill, an orphan who died while fostered by a couple of farmers. Technically, The Mousetrap is a revenge play as the murders hinge on the efforts of the murderer to make those responsible for a child’s death pay for their cruelty and sadism. This is, from my contemporary perspective, possibly the only plot point worth commenting on (there is also a gay man, much laughed at, and a lesbian, less laughed at). However, not much is made of the sad issue of child abuse –for the simple reason that everything is as shallow as it can be.

I’ve never been a fan of Mrs. Christie, whom I find to be a clever but fairly mechanical writer. Here her plotting is not just mechanical but truly amateurish. Forget about the improbable coincidences, the glaring gaps and the utter failure to explain what the characters are doing in the small rural hotel where events take place. Let’s just say that someone who could and should have prevented a crime does nothing to stop the murderer, and that someone who should have declared their identity at once to the said murderer (and thus prevent not one but two crimes) remains silent. Appalling, really. (All plot details available from the published edition of the play… or Wikipedia, I wonder why they ask audiences to keep the murderer’s identity secret).

My admired Tom Stoppard wrote in 1968 The Real Inspector Hound, a parody of The Mousetrap. I read it long ago and have forgotten the details but I recall that the action progresses as two critics discuss the events onstage and are themselves trapped into the plot. It might not be the first case of the spoof being much better that the spoofed but I do wonder how come The Mousetrap has ever reached the status it has. John Thaxter has called it “a beautifully preserved example of a country house murder mystery, a throwback to theatregoing in the thirties (minus the matinee tea-trays)” (2004, https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/2406/the-mousetrap). In the usually very witty blog A West End Whinger, we are told that criticising is like “going to Madame Tussauds and being surprised to find that it’s crap.” (https://westendwhingers.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/review-the-mousetrap-st-martins-theatre/). Fair enough, it’s the same category of trash. Crap. Whatever. The odd thing is how abundant the positive criticism is and scant the negative voices.

Three years ago I saw an excellent Spanish production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with Josep Maria Pou in the title role. I wrote on it here, comparing it to Shaw’s Pygmalion, odd as this may sound. As I endured Christie’s trash yesterday I could not help thinking (very fondly) of Priestley’s 1946 masterpiece, wondering why it hadn’t been so lucky. In the end, as I said as the beginning, the real mystery is the very endurance of the play. A jealous Noël Coward congratulated Christie on her success but I wonder what Samuel Beckett and company thought all along (Waiting for Godot was first seen in France in 1953, in England in 1954).

There’s a joke I’m missing here, but it’s so ultra post-modern we might need Derrida to decode it… None seems interested, though.

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AND ABOUT THE TERRORIST… IN ANSWER TO SIMON STEPHENS

A central scene in Simon Stephens’s Pornography is the monologue by a suicide bomber that I have mentioned in the previous post. As it is well known, the four terrorists who caused the 7/7 attacks were English men: non-white, like so many Britons, yet English all through. The point that Stephens wants to make with the monologue is that they were by no means the Other but ‘one of us.’ He stresses not only their full humanity (for him, they were not monsters) but also the idea that what caused the bombings is the state of decadence in England. That the bombs, in short, were the result of certain problems in national English life and not an odd import from foreign lands. Fair enough.

Accordingly, he refuses to characterise specifically the terrorist in his play, so that even though the character refers to ‘his wife’ it’s quite possible to play it as a woman (as I did). A white one. If I am correct, there was even a production in which the bomber was played by a white actor costumed as a businessman. The monologue itself is, actually, stream of consciousness spoken out loud and, as such, it contains plenty of trivial observations inspired by the journey to London that the bomber is taking (he craves for an almond croissant, comments on a passenger picking his nose…). There is no mention of religion, or race, and the ideological content (an attack against trashy food, trashy childhood and trashy media) could be put in the mouth of millions.

I myself find the monologue, as one of my students noted, bland. I applaud Stephens for being brave enough to let the terrorist speak, as this is not what we are used to in real life. I believe that we need to listen to these criminals in order to understand how the gap between discontent and delinquency is bridged; no, they are not monsters but they do commit monstrous acts and we need to learn why. Stephens, however, tries to be so politically correct that his terrorist ends up being anybody and, so, nobody. He trips himself up. Even though my students and I agreed that the monologue seems likely or realistic enough, we expected more: we get no insight into how this person is feeling about what he is about to do (and this is not just kill but also die).

In the ensuing debate with my students, we discussed how real life belies Stephens’s theory: few people actually become terrorists, so there must be indeed a distinct factor that makes particular individuals believe that killing and maiming strangers in horrific ways makes sense. The recent Boston bombings by the Tsarnaev brothers strongly suggest that terrorists actions are the product of individuals who feel rejected, or marginalised, and who feel, in the company of others like themselves or on their own, the need to strike back, take revenge. It’s a theory. Race and ethnicity, as a Norwegian Erasmus student reminded me, are secondary: their local horror, Anders Breivik, is white and so are/were ETA and IRA members. I’ll leave aside the fact that most terrorists are (disempowered) men…

There have been other attempts to deal with terrorism from another angle –of which, the weirdest one is no doubt the English comedy film Four Lions. There, the point raised is that the English terrorists who decide to attack the London marathon (yes…) are incompetent buffoons. Very ordinary guys, yes and quite stupid, yes, but still very dangerous… which the film cannot satisfactorily account for. The problem with Stephens’s monologue is different: his terrorist is neither an evil monster nor a moron, yet it’s hard to believe that someone carrying a backpack with that content would spare not a single thought for his own death and that of his victims. This has to be faced.

Stephens fails then (honourably) in his bold attempt to humanise the terrorist. He does succeed in making him ordinary; we may gain glimpses of his ordinary humanity, indeed, in the fact that wife and baby daughter wait for him at home. Yet, Stephens crashes against the inevitable moral barrier: either we admit that the need to kill people at random is as human as the need to eat an almond croissant (and think to what chaos this would lead), or we admit that there are monsters. Human but monsters, meaning by this not so much individuals that are evil all through their lives but who, given a certain set of circumstances, can perpetrate evil acts in cold blood.

Stephens gets this almost right but the sad mystery of what makes a human being decide to kill other human beings remains, unsolved beyond drama and beyond all our fictions.

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PERFORMING THEATRE IN CLASS: THE LITTLE MIRACLES

This week we have been working on Simon Stephens’s play Pornography (2007) in class, within my elective subject ‘English Theatre’ (well, it’s ‘British Theatre’ but you know what labels are like, and it’s not really ‘Theatre in English’).

The title can be quite misleading, as Pornography is actually a play dealing with the historic week in July 2005, which included Live 8, the G8 Gleneagles summit, the official announcement of the 2012 London Olympics and the 7/7 bombings causing almost 800 casualties (52 dead and 700 wounded…). Stephens’s title alludes to his view that we live in pornographic times as we treat each other as mere objects, from everyday occurrences to the extreme case of sociopathic terrorists.

The play, apparently inspired by Jacques’ speech in As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage…”), borrows from it the traditional idea of the seven ages of man. Stephens tells a series of overlapping stories each corresponding to one age. I chose for class performance two scenes, corresponding to the lovers and the soldier in Shakespeare: a dialogue between two incestuous siblings whose newly born sexual relationship is cut short by the shock of the terrorist outrages, and a monologue by one of the suicidal bombers, which I myself played.

The little miracle to which my title refers was this: the two students who had to play the siblings, a boy and a girl, were having serious problems to meet and rehearse, as both work. To add to their problems I realised only too late that the scene was too long and some cuts would be needed. Not to mention the fact that Stephens decided not to pre-determine who says what (the lines are not preceded by the name of the speaker) and this requires much hard work on the side of the actors. I exchanged a few frantic emails over the weekend with the girl –who referred mysteriously to a Facebook rehearsal… – and hoped for the best.

To my delight all the scenes performed by students in class (text in hand) had worked beautifully and it would have been a pity if this one had gone awry. Then the miracle happened: the moment Ernest and Melissa walked in and looked at each other, I believed them, and so did their classmates. Call that chemistry… By the time the brother gets home from work on the day of the attacks to announce that he can’t cope with the horror outside and the situation with his sister, my heart was breaking. Really.

The week before we had seen a video with Simon McBurney explaining that he called his marvellous theatre company Complicité in the double sense that spectators and actors are accomplices (partners in crime or sin) and work in complicity. We saw another video with Simon Stephens calling our attention to how strange the idea of the theatre actually is: you go to a room full of strangers to see other strangers play fictitious characters, often on the barest stage and looking practically the same as they do in their daily lives. Well, I saw that in my class, the complicity between the ‘actors’ and ours with them. And it was beautiful. I have no better word for it.

Even more so because the incestuous siblings came after a series of truly inspired performances by almost everyone in class. I have no idea whether I myself did well (a student told me I was very scary with my black backpack, so I guess it worked…), but, as happened two years ago, I was very, very nervous after seeing how brave my students were being in our improvised theatre. Whenever I go to the theatre I try to relish as long as I can that moment when the light changes, some people appear on the stage and suddenly they become characters you believe in. I see that every day I go to class, and I want to thank my students.

So: thanks!

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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!!

SPENDING MONEY ON DRAMA (WORKING OUT THE COST OF A SUBJECT)

I’ll be teaching again next year the elective ‘English Theatre’ and I’m reconsidering the texts I used 2 years ago. In that edition I asked my students to read two anthologies, Grahame Whybrow’s Modern Drama: Plays of the ’80s and ’90s and Alekz Seirz’s Twenty-First Century British Plays (both Methuen). 10 plays in total, 36 euros.

We worked on dramatised readings of scenes from all of them and seeing how they played out in class, I have decided to replace 50% of the plays with other texts. Now here’s the problem: the only way I have of checking whether the texts I have selected are worth teaching is by reading them, that is to say, by spending my own money (as I did, yes, 2 years ago). In the end I have spent 60 euros on 5 new books (3 single-volume plays, 2 collections by the same author). Single-volume plays are, at around 12 euros, not that cheap considering they’re on average 100 pages long. Yet, there’s no way around it. I have worked out that my students need to spend around 85 for the 10 plays. That’s roughly the price of a cinema ticket per play.

We teachers may purchase books through the library but they remain the library’s property and though we can borrow them for the whole academic year, we can’t make notes on them. The result? The books we buy for the library don’t include the ones we use in class, which we pay for out of our own pocket. A subject can, thus, easily cost each of us, teachers, 100 euros, if only a couple of secondary sources are added. This is why it’s VERY annoying when we see that students don’t buy the books (in time), or use low-quality editions, etc.

Now that I’m planning this subject I’m thus caught between a rock and a hard place: the need to spend my money to offer quality based on an informed choice and the students’ resistance to spending money on books. As usual, I’m possibly going to be unfair to many students but many seem to forget that books are part of the expenses of any university degree. The NECESSARY expenses. I saw the other day in my class a girl who had downloaded and printed an e-text copy of the (copyrighted) novel we’re reading, The Remains of the Day. That is something I will never understand… Back to drama (or to my drama!): If I opt for the cheaper solution (= teaching the same plays as 2 years ago) I do know that 50% of the subject will not be as good as it could; if I cut down the number of plays to, say 5 or 7, it’ll be a pity as that’s all the contemporary English drama (some!) students will read; if I keep the 10 plays, the subject will be rich enough but I’m sure it will all result in rampant piracy of the texts among my not-so-rich students.

I wonder if Medicine university teachers, a degree notorious for the cost of the textbooks, ever consider these matters. (I also wonder how they pay for the said textbooks…). Whatever my final choice is, in consideration of the students’ finances, the bare truth is that I have already spent those 60 euros…

ON THE DAY I READ COROLIANUS…FEES WENT UP BY 66%

Last Sunday I went to see Alex Rigola’s production of Corolianus at Lliure. It was the first time I saw a Shakespeare without first reading the play but even so I could guess that something was very wrong as the performance only lasted for 75 minutes. The guy who appeared to be Corolianus’s main rival, Aufidius, was never seen on stage. Um, fishy! That sent me rushing to the library and I managed to squeeze the play within my crazy schedule this week (fancy reading Shakespeare on a noisy train full of schoolchildren, I must have seemed a complete nerd to the rest of the passage).

As I finished reading this marvellous play –thank you, Rigola, for the inspiration… – I thought that on that particular day the most important thing that had happened to me as a Literature teacher was getting acquainted with Coriolanus. Not my morning lecture, the later meeting with colleagues, the paperwork for the 2012-13 schedule. No. Reading that play, my 21st Shakespeare, had given my day the richness that I thought, when I was 18, all my days teaching Literature would have (or should have). Then I switched on the TV to watch the news, and the day changed completely. It was quite spoiled.

I had already heard that university tuition fees would go up next year but the increase announced on that day is quite outrageous. Our Humanities students pay now for a BA academic year 910 euros, 15% of the real cost of their public education (=6,000); this may be increased up to 66%, meaning that they might end up paying 1500/1660 euros, a 25% of the cost (depending on whether how many subjects they’re repeating they might pay the full amount per credit, 100 euros). If I think of England, where universities were allowed two years ago to charge up to 9,000 pounds, this is nothing (and, after all, 120-150 euros a month is still VERY cheap for a university education). Yet, I wonder at the insensivity of the politicians making a decision like this one at a point of deep, depressing crisis. Clearly, the idea is to expel as many working-class students as possible from our classrooms and, then, with the excuse of our having fewer students, terminate us, teachers, little by little. Here, in Catalonia, Generalitat has promised to turn 25% of the increased fees into scholarships but this is not enough.

I saw a minister of the current Spanish Government claim on TV that, despite being the product of a school with 40 children per class and of that overcrowded 1980s Spanish university in which you needed to rise up early to find a chair in 300-student classes, he was fine indeed. Well, he may be a minister but he’s NOT fine indeed if he thinks that going back 30 years in time is desirable. That other Minister claimed this week that with classes up to 25, children are insufficiently socialised, this is why they need 15 extra classmates… As a primary school teacher quipped, with 40 kids squeezed into classrooms meant for 25 they’ll have to socialise… or else.

In the end, that day will not make it to my personal history as a Literature teacher because I read Coriolanus, as it should, but because a further step has been taken in the demolition job that is fast destroying what has been achieved in the university by my generation and our elders in the last 30 years. I’m bracing myself for the many protests that I’m sure UAB students will soon stage and though I hate strikes I hate even more what’s been done to us collectively –I don’t mean the university, I mean Spain.

Someone please write a play about this soon, quick. How badly we need a Shakespeare! And how well Coriolanus still applies to our time (do read it, please…)

HOW TO (NOT) USE A GUN: HEDDA GABLER AT TEATRE LLIURE

Henrik Ibsen’s ‘heroine’ Hedda Gabler has taken residence up at Teatre Lliure for a while and is today leaving town. Good riddance! Students of Victorian Literature will recall Shaw’s claim in The Quintessence of Ibsenism that whereas late 19th century British plays generated nothing much except entertainment, Ibsen’s generated discussion. Well, here it is: I’m generating discussion about why we put up with them. Entertained, I surely wasn’t.

The poster announcing David Selvas’s production (based on Marc Rosich’s version –how I hate that word in relation to the theatre) was promising enough, with actress Laia Marull (as Hedda) happily waving a gun. Yet, in the end the Chekhovian gun mentioned in Act I goes off predictably in the last act, killing the female protagonist. I’m sick and tired of so-called 19th century heroines who kill themselves rather than put up with the strictures of patriarchal society, and the fact that this one has been rewritten against a contemporary setting makes things much, much worse. Particularly so when I think of Laia Marull’s courageous Pilar in Iciar Bollaín’s hair-rising denounce of marital abuse, the film Te doy mis ojos (2003). Marull decided that Hedda is mad as a hatter, and she plays her like that with total glee; she’s right, for I believe that this is the only way to make sense of a useless woman like Hedda today.

Selvas’s production is, simply, anachronistic. A production set in 1891 when the original play was first performed, which needn’t be a conservative production, could have worked very well as a poignant document about the past and, implicitly, about women’s progress in the last 100 years. By freezing Hedda in time rather than updating her Selvas and Rosich also highlight this progress but only unwittingly. Today, Hedda and Thea would be fighting themselves for an academic position, rather than help husband or (male) lover, as they do, to get the one they ambition. I’m sure certain parasitical upper-class women still expect their husbands to provide for all their caprices but they’re not representative of today’s women as Hedda Gabler was of her time. And I’m not paying to see a play about them.

So, why did I pay to see this one? Frankly, because having seen last October that well-made production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at Teatre Gaudí I was curious to see how different this would be from an Ibsen at Teatre Lliure. I got an attack of Shavian blues, so to speak, and wanted to get serious after getting trivial. My opinion after the event is that Wilde wins by a few heads: his ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ is fresh as dew whereas this Hedda Gabler smells or, rather, stinks.

As happens, I support legally-sanctioned suicide (or euthanasia) for medical reasons and generally believe that suicide is an act of courage in most circumstances. What annoys me is how often authors chose suicide for their ‘heroines’ in the 19th century: from Maggie Tulliver to Emma Bovary, passing through Edna Pontellier, Lily Bart and, yes, Hedda Gabler. And how today, in the 21st century, those deaths are still celebrated, somehow. I was happy to see that idiot Gabler top herself, but I deeply regret that her suicide is the central act of a so-called literary masterpiece. I am going to suppose that, having allowed Nora to slam the door on her husband in A Doll’s House (1879), Ibsen killed off Hedda more than a decade later as a way to denounce the uselessness of women like her. Yet, the popularity of play and role is annoyingly suspicious, reeking of that glamour attached to the female literary suicide but not quite for the same reasons to her male counterpart. Whereas she kills herself because she’s trapped, he kills herself because he’s free to do it. Not the same thing…

In my own updated version, Hedda finds in shooting her father’s guns the talent she lacks at everything else, becomes an Olympic champion and stops pestering those around her… Otherwise, keep her in Ibsen’s original 1891 setting. Or put her out of her misery for good.

THE ART OF ENTERTAINING: EGOS TEATRE’S ELS CRIMS DE LORD ARTHUR SAVILLE

This semester we’re awarding our Victorian Literature students extra points for attending a performance of either Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece La importància de ser Frank (see related posting in October), or Egos Teatre’s production of Els crims de Lord Arthur Saville, a musical based on Wilde’s short story. Ironically, Wilde’s classy and classic comedy was offered at the quite modest Teatre Gaudí whereas the musical is on at none other than the Sala Gran of the Teatre National de Catalunya. Yes, even more ironically, whereas the musical is subsidised with public money, Wilde’s classic was on at a commercial theatre.

I enjoyed myself enormously watching Egos’ ‘à la Sondheim’ musical version of Wilde’s cruel tale. As far as I am concerned, if a little bit of my taxes has gone to subsidising their joint effort this is fine, for I got back much pleasure for the evening. I actually think Egos have a very nice product in their hands that can be easily exported elsewhere in Spanish translation. As happens, whenever I see something really enjoyable in Catalan in one of our local theatres, whether commercial or subsidised, I can’t help thinking that either we’re VERY lucky to get such excellent performance standards or, the alternative, there must be HUNDREDS of great companies all over the world that pass unnoticed except locally because the language they use is not English (French, German… Spanish??).

Having said that, Egos’ musical ends with a song that comments on how the company’s only aim was offering a nice show and entertaining the audience. This chimed in very nicely with our last session with my Victorian class, as we discussed whether Wilde’s theatre was meant to be artistic or ‘only’ for entertainment. Very obviously, Wilde wrote for money and for a commercial theatre patronised by the upper classes. He was no committed Ibsenite and I very much doubt that, despite Salomé, he would have followed the road of the Shavian theatre club and the cherished project for a national theatre. Shaw explained in his The Quintessence of Ibsenism that whereas a typical, conventional play consisted of beginning, development and denouement, an Ibsenian play ended with the discussion of a serious issue. If considered from that angle nothing Wilde wrote was particularly significant; I find it particularly hard to explain why The Importance of Being Earnest has survived so well until our days. It must be its irreverence and its avowed intention to be a ‘trivial’ comedy for ‘serious’ people.

Shaw himself claims that a good play is that from which audiences take something home once the performance is over, meaning something apprehended intellectually, something learned – an idea, in short, or some kind of mental fulfilment. I didn’t get any new ideas from Els crims de Lord Arthur Saville but I did get much pleasure and this was due to something quite easy to notice: each member of the company had done their best to fill in the play to the brim with comic touches. There was much hard work behind every song, every gesture and this is why they got their well deserved ‘bravos.’ It might not be the kind of art Ibsen et al had in mind for the theatre, but there’s much to be said for the often neglected art of entertaining the audience.