A miscellany

For reasons too tedious to go into, I won’t be around much the next week or two, and I certainly won’t have the time to write posts for this blog. However, to prevent withdrawal symptoms on my part – going without blogging for extended periods leaves me feeling curiously restive – I thought it might be a good idea to put something up before I go, even if it’s no more than a set of random passing thoughts.

Do please feel free to skip this one if you have better things to do.

Those of you who think it’s been some time since I actually talked about books, you’re perfectly right. In my defence, I have never claimed this was solely a books blog, but books are, nonetheless, the main topic here. However, if I can do trailers like they do in the cinema, forthcoming attractions will include:

– Posts on Austen’s Persuasion and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, as I complete my Austen read-a-thon and continue my Turgenev project. Re-reading is generally so much more rewarding than first readings, don’t you think? With first readings, you only really skim the surface. To really get to know a book, you need to let it settle in your mind, to let it resonate there some time, and then return to it.

– A post on the first part of Don Quixote. Since it’s actually two novels rather than one, I thought I’d take a break between the two. However, I do want to write up some thoughts on the first part before moving on to the second.

– Something on the short stories of D. H. Lawrence. I have a vast 1400-page volume of the collected short fiction of Lawrence – both short stories and novellas – and, having been much impressed by my re-readings last year of The Rainbow and of Women in Love, am very keen to read through these stories. Reading all 1400 pages without a break for other books is a bit of a tall order, but it seemed reasonable to break the whole thing up into roughly four equal parts. I am now towards the end of the first 350-page chunk, which starts with Lawrence’s earliest attempts at fiction – and he really did find his feet quickly! – and includes towards the end such major works as “The Prussian Officer” and “Daughters of the Vicar”.

Now, admit it – that’s got you all excited, hasn’t it?


My previous post on cultural appropriation has got me thinking: my own personal culture, which I happen to value highly, encompasses the music of, amongst others, Mozart and Schubert. I can assure you that this music has as at least as much value for me as any aspect of ethnic culture does to any ethnic people. (And no, I’m not being flippant: I am, after all, something of an ethnic type myself.) This is serious music, and is, to me, sacred: it is to be listened to seriously, and spoken about only in tones of hushed and awed reverence, as anything other than that would be a desecration. And furthermore, as a lover of classical music, I feel very much marginalised and disempowered in society: as such, I am obviously well placed to resent my culture being appropriated.

So I think the next time anyone who does not share my culture plays the music of Mozart or of Schubert as background music at dinner parties, I should organize a protest to draw attention to my genuinely hurt feelings on the matter. And I should further write some gibberish on my blog here to indicate how deeply my feelings have been hurt.

I might even send the said gibberish to The Guardian and see if they print it. I don’t see why they shouldn’t – especially if I were to drop in a few references to current pop celebrities to make the piece more attractive to their editors.


I have long been a fan of the Marx Brothers, but one of the most dispiriting evenings I have spent in a cinema was a showing of a double bill of two of the Marx Brothers’ finest films – A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. I had been looking forward to it: I’d never seen any of their films on a big screen before, and, what’s more, I had never experienced these films as a shared experience. That, after all, is one of the major advantages the cinema has over the television, or, for that matter, the advantage theatre-going has over private reading: what we see in the cinema or in the theatre is not a private matter, but something shared with many other people; and when we hear others laughing, we feel more inclined to laugh ourselves.

However, the corollary of this is that when others are not laughing, it inhibits one’s own laughter. And on this occasion, the audience was not appreciative. The gags which usually have me splitting my sides all passed with barely a titter; many, under the curious impression that whispers are inaudible, were talking amongst themselves; some even walked out. There was no sign of anyone enjoying these films As a consequence, I came out of the showing feeling very irritated: the experience I shared was one merely of boredom and of annoyance.

It is for this reason that I am not keen to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet – even if I could get hold of a ticket (which I can’t). I have no doubt that Cumberbatch is a fine actor, and well capable of doing justice to this notoriously demanding part, but I frankly doubt that those who have booked a full year in advance, or who have flown half way round the world to queue up overnight for tickets that are made available on the day, are too interested in the play as such. After all, there are many productions of Hamlet on the stage – many of them actually very good, there being no shortage of talent – which all pass more or less unnoticed, even in arts pages of quality newspapers: that this particular production has been making front pages is purely a consequence of a culture that worships celebrity, rather than of one that values Shakespeare.

Which is fair enough, I suppose: people are entitled to like whatever they like and it’s really none of my business. Furthermore, it may legitimately be said that the presence of a star encouraging people to go to see Hamlet who would not otherwise have done so can only be Good Thing. But, bearing in mind my experience of that evening in the cinema where two films I love were ruined by an unappreciative audience, I do wonder whether I’d enjoy being at this production. There was a similar event a few years ago, when David Tenant, Dr Who himself, played Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. (In addition, Claudius was Patrick Stewart – Captain Picard, no less!) I didn’t get tickets for that, but a friend who did, while very appreciative of both the production and the performances, told me that there were many young ladies sitting near him who were talking amongst themselves throughout virtually the entire performance. How representative my friend’s experience was, I don’t know, but it does make me wary of going to see something I love where the audience is likely to be less than ideally appreciative. Call it snobbery if you will, but watching Marx Brothers films on DVD at home is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it in a cinema with people who don’t care for them.

And in any case, going to see Hamlet without appreciating or caring much for its cultural import is a form of cultural appropriation, isn’t it? A few demonstrations around Barbican Theatre seem called for here, I think. Oi, you lot! Stop appropriating my culture!


Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, I see it as made the front page again, this time of The Times (I cannot link to this, as The Times is behind a paywall). Apparently, this production had started with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but, having decided during the preview run that this wasn’t working, they have now put it back in the third act where it belongs. Such is the power of celebrity in our times (pun, however pisspoor, fully intended), even this makes the front page.

But what strikes me in the article is a reference in the first paragraph to “traditionalists” finding the transposition of the soliloquy “shocking”. Surely not! Traditionalists – of whom I guess I’d better count myself one – have long been accustomed to far greater outrages to the text than this. It may hurt the egos of certain directors to be told that they no longer shock audiences, but that is the truth – they don’t. Traditionalists – or purists, or whatever you may want to call these imagined mustachio-twirling pantomime villains – may think some of the directorial decisions of various productions silly, or tedious; and sometimes, contrary to popular mythology, they may go the other way, and find some of these decisions interesting, or even perhaps, on occasion, revelatory; but they are long past the stage where they are shocked.

There seems to be a vested interest amongst many in presenting the bulk of theatre-goers and opera-goers as unthinking and unreflective bourgeois philistines who need to be shocked out of their complacency; and, to this end, it is assumed that any departure from the text is bound to shock the audience, and leave them foaming at the mouth. Truth is, not even the most conservative of theatre-goers is likely to be “shocked” by the placing of the famous soliloquy at the start. Some, like myself, may take issue with the directorial decision, and think it ill-considered; but that’s really about as far as it goes. Sorry to disappoint.


That’s all for now, I think. See you all in September, when I will be back to writing proper posts on proper books.


16 responses to this post.

  1. I split Don Quixote, with a year between the two volumes (less than the original readers, given they were published ten years apart). There’s reviews of both volumes at mine, and I think if anything splitting it helped.

    On the Hamlet thing, I don’t remotely consider myself a traditionalist. Chopping the famous bits out of a play and front-loading them doesn’t shock me, but it does sound like it’s likely to significantly undermine the text. I’m sceptical, and from the sound of it rightly so.

    The texts aren’t sacred, but there has to be a reason for the change that makes dramatic sense. I guess here in part they were hoping to open with impact, but out of context what sense does the speech make? By contrast I saw a Macbeth (starring Patrick Stewart in fact) which was in period costume save the witches. When the witches appeared tv screens came up showing static, the witches were in modern medical garb and came in as if an intrusion from another reality.

    Not everyone liked that, many found it jarring which is fair enough, but I liked it as it reinforced a point the play was already making – that the witches were other, alien, unnatural. Whether you like that change or not, it had a point.

    On celebs, I saw Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot. The audience was full of Star Trek and X-Men fans, most of whom left at the half way mark. It was a good production and well acted, but it was clear many of the audience were there to see Professor Xavier and Magneto reunited off the big screen.

    Good luck with the break.


    • I missed Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth: I heard it was very good – and I haven’t yet seen a Macbeth on stahge that i’ve been entirely satisfied with. (The DVD of the 70s RSC production with Judi Dench and Ian Mackellen is just magnificent.)

      Agreed fully that texts aren’t sacred: they’re the basis of a performance. However, when a change is made that weaken the power of the drama – i.e. makes the drama weaker than it would have been had the change not been made – it is legitimate to question the change.

      What you describe about the treatment of the witches in Macbeth sounds intriguing. If it jars – well, the witches are supposed to jar. There is a danger that classic plays and operas can merely sedate and induce a sense of comfort because we’re all too familiar with them: imaginative directors have to find a way round that, but doing silly things merely for the sake of it does seem a bit pointless!

      Cheers for now, Himadri


      • Absolutely agree. I saw a version of Henry V set in the Falklands war, which was fine save that I couldn’t hear the Once more into the breach speech clearly due to the sounds of helicopters and M-16s. To be fair though, the speech still had some impact so it was a mixed staging decision. It broke down though near the end when Henry fights an opponent while talking to him – you can’t do that with assault rifles so while for the rest of the play everyone had been in early ’80s military garb suddenly Henry walked on in chain mail with a sword. That was jarring in a bad way, as the play switched period for one scene then back again after.

        Much worse was the version of King Lear which represented the storm by having polystyrene boulders hit the stage as the king raged – that was definitely a treatment that weakened the power of the drama. I was so distracted by the bouncing boulders I basically stopped following the play.

  2. The most “shocking” production of Hamlet I ever experienced was a Yale Rep presentation in which Hamlet was played by a very tall African American woman. The confrontation with his/her father’s ghost took place on a long dining table set for a hastily-abandoned feast (the funeral meats, no doubt). The two of them tromped back and forth on the table and I kept wanting to say don’t trip over the candelabra.

    This Hamlet was a moderately good actress but the concept was quite distracting.


    • There have been female Hamlets before, I think – Sarah Bernhardt, I believe, played Hamlet even after the amputation of one of her legs! That must have been a performance to remember! 🙂


  3. Posted by Janet Long on August 19, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Golly, Hamadri, you’ve given us a lot to look forward to. I recently bought the Smollett translation of Don Quixote and have been looking forward to reading it after my first time reading of the Grossman translation (part 1 only). DQ is one of my larger gaps, which I have been trying to remedy. I admit, I feel a little bit like your Marx Bros. audience–the humor just doesn’t resonate with me, but I believe in those magical readings when a work hits you just right and it all makes sense. And I believe in Smollett. I have high hopes.

    The Marx Brothers I love extravagantly. Anyone who doesn’t laugh at A Night at the Opera is suffering from extreme cultural deprivation. My girls grew up around kids who were utterly resistant to watching anything in b&w. I assured them that when they got to college, they would meet film-savvy people. And they did. It served as a point of contact. It’s funny how all that cheap programming I watched on TV growing up is now considered rarefied High Culture. Yes, The Coconuts is up there with Mozart.

    My fangirl daughter bought tickets for us to see the Cumberbatch broadcast at UCLA. I’m looking forward to it, but it is what it is. From the comments I’ve read on various sites, it does sound like the pews will be full of women who are there to be in the live presence of BC and aren’t planning to wear their ears. They are so in awe of him, however, they may sit in dreamy silence, texting away, while those who are interested in the performance get to enjoy it. I suspect the production tried moving the soliloquy to the front because they were hoping to catch the audience from the curtain opening–worried the fangirls wouldn’t stay focused long enough to buy in if they had to sit through all that shakespeare talk first. But you really have to give the play credit for being capable of capturing an audience on its own merits. There will be people newly won over. There are new Shakespeare lovers made at every production. BC seems to be trying very hard to work with his audience. Also, a lot of these folks will also be watching when Richard III comes out. Some may even go back and watch all the Hollow Crown productions. There could be a worldwide Shakespeare revival! Okay, maybe a little one. Personally, I’d rather see BC play Claudius (a better role for him, I think) and let Patrick Stewart take a swing at Hamlet. I thought the Tennant Hamlet was interesting–the eggshell soliloquy delivered as a video selfie was very effective–but Derek Jacobi will always be my Hamlet.


    • Absolutely! Cocoanuts is indeed up there with Mozart, and the “Why a Duck?” dialogue between Groucho and Chico is surelythe Marx Brothers’ Jupiter symphony!

      Benedict Cumberbatch is a bit young for Claudius right now, isn’t he?

      I’ve seen quite a few hamlets on stage now – Mark Rylance, Daniel Day Lewis, Stephen Dillane, Sam West, Ben Wishaw, and Ed Stoppard – at least count. It was Stephen Dillane and Ed Stoppard i liked best. (Samuel West was very good, but I didn’t much like teh production he was in.) Opposite Stephen Dillane, Michael Pennington, one of my favourite Shakespearean actors, played Claudius (and also doubled as the ghost), and he made Claudius seem like a tragic protagonist: he made you realise that this was his tragedy as well. Similarly, I saw judi Dench play Gertrude opposite Daniel Day Lewis, and she almost convinced you that it’s really Gertruide who is at teh centre of the play.

      On DVD, there is a very fine performance of Hamlet by Kevin Kline. I am also very attached to audio recordings, and there are some superb recordings of Hamlet available – one featuring Paul Scofield, another with Anton Lesser, and yet another with Simon Russell Beale. Magnificent, all three of them!


      • Posted by Janet Long on August 23, 2015 at 8:44 pm

        Ha! Patrick Stewart was 40 when he played Claudius; BC is 39. Claudius was, what? 50-60ish? It’s an actor’s job to portray the character–regardless of age or gender–and convince the audience. It’s an actor’s challenge and a measure of how good he or she is. As it is, BC has to play someone almost a decade younger than he is in life.

  4. Posted by Jonathan on August 19, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    It makes me wonder why the people turned up to see the Marx Bros. films in the first place. I would have thought the audience would have been mostly hard-core fans. When I used to go and see live bands regularly I was always amazed at how many people in the audience seemed to have no interest whatsoever in what was happening on stage – and yet they’d paid good money to attend.

    I’m amazed when people tell me that they either don’t find Laurel & Hardy funny or they don’t ‘get it’. I mean, what’s not to like about L&H?

    Please don’t stop the non-book posts as they’re always interesting to read.


    • Stan and Ollie, Marx Brothers and Chaplin are my personal gold standards of comedy. Stan and Ollie, especially, are like childhood friends – and I am frankly a bit shocked when someone tells me they don’t care for them.

      Thanks for the encouragement, by the way! I’m still trying my best to keep off politics, though, as that’s a dangerous place for a blog to wander into…


  5. Have I ever seen the Marx Brothers in the theater? Yes, “Duck Soup” once, with a well-attuned audience. I have also seen, at least three times, Buster Keaton reduce modern audiences to tears (of pain, form overusing their laughter muscles). Maybe I was lucky.

    That is a great Coming Attractions list.


  6. Indeed it is a great Coming Attractions list!

    I too am a music lover and I’m in two minds about great music being used as sonic wallpaper. The point you make is very valid and I agree with it; but then again I’d far rather have Mozart as background music than pop, which I regard as nuisance noise to be overcome. Also a bit of Mozart or Beethoven in a bar or restaurant gives me something to listen to when the conversation gets boring! There’s always the chance too, especially with the example of parties that you give, that one of the guests will say “What’s this music? I love it! Can I borrow the CD?” and before you know it, you have a convert. That’s probably the triumph of hope over experience though…

    I hope your break is for pleasant reasons – if so, enjoy it. It’s well deserved.


    • Hello Neil, good to see you here after so long!
      To be quite honest, I couldn’t really care less what people choose to play at dinner parties: they could play Mahler’s 9th symphony for all I care! I was merely employing a bit of heavy-handed irony to poke fun at the idea that it is somehow wrong to take some aspect of some other culture and use it for one’s own ends, and that doing so is a hurtful thing. As far as I am concerned, we are all free to take any aspect of any culture we want, and use it as we please!
      Cheers for now, Himadri


      • Looks like I missed the irony (wipes on face). I’d love to go to a dinner party where they played Mahler 9, but wouldn’t get invited again as I’d tell all the guests to shut up so I could listen!

      • Well, even the irony of a writer as consummate as Jane Austen is sometimes misunderstood by her readers … so what chance do I have? 😉

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