Archive for January, 2016

“Talkative Man” by R. K. Narayan

There’s something very comforting about Narayan’s novels.

This does not seem like a recommendation for the works of a serious novelist. For comforting is what lesser novelists do: serious novelists, who deal with serious themes, write books that are provocative, challenging, disturbing, and so on; they examine the human condition, the angst, the pain of being alive, the failed relationships – both with others and with ourselves; the failure to understand or even to come to terms with all this unintelligible world; and so on, and so forth. Strange thing is, Narayan also deals with many of these themes. And yet, without diminishing the importance of these themes, he is comforting. And I think this is because he is happy to accept human beings as they are. He will present people who are obviously inadequate to the demands of living; he will present us with rogues, with blowhards, with fools, with imbeciles; and yet, he never looks down on them – there is never the slightest hint of malice, or of rancour. He loves his characters, whoever they are.

Talkative Man is one of his later novels, published in 1982, and is also among his shortest: indeed, he adds a postscript apologising for its being so short, and explaining that he couldn’t possibly have made it any longer without expanding into areas he would prefer not to. Of course, his tongue is well in his cheek here: he knew that the novel – or extended short story, of you prefer – was just right as it was. It’s hard not to see, either here in the postscript or in the novel itself, the twinkle in the author’s eye.

The story itself is slight, and, as so often with Narayan, gently and endearingly eccentric. The narrator is a man who lives on inherited wealth, but likes to imagine himself a freelance journalist: he rushes here and there, writes stories, and sends them to local papers; and sometimes, these stories get published. He comes into contact with a the mysterious  stranger Dr Rann, who, after arriving in Malgudi by train, promptly installs himself in the station waiting room, and refuses to leave. The station master is too timid to tell Rann he can’t stay there, while Rann quite happily berates the station-master for not looking after him properly. Then, for no apparent reason, merely to get him off the station-master’s hands, the narrator – the “talkative man”, as he describes himself – takes this Dr Rann into his own house. If all this sounds very strange, it is: but it all seems to happen so naturally in Narayan’s fictional world.

Rann says he is working on some unspecified United Nations project. He has a bee in the bonnet about some weed that is indestructible, and that will, he insists, inevitably take over the earth and prevent crops from growing; and that unless this threat is addressed urgently, mankind itself is doomed. Now, this is serious stuff: Rann is given every respect as a learned man on whom the very future of the world depends.

Then, a lady turns up who claims to be Rann’s abandoned wife, and the narrator, for no reason credible anywhere outside the confines of Narayan’s fictional world, tries to protect his house-guest from her. This house-guest, meanwhile, is planning to seduce an innocent young local girl, and that, the narrator feels, has to be stopped. And so on. You get the idea – it is all utterly mad, and yet, there seems a weird logic underlying it all.

The story, dotty though it is, is essentially about people who have to invent fictions about themselves in order to live their lives. The narrator has to pretend to himself he is an important journalist; Dr Rann has to pretend to himself he is a scientist engaged on vital research; and his abandoned wife, Sarasa, has to pretend that Rann can be domesticated, and turned into an ideal husband. They are all deluded, of course. And yes, there are a lot of laughs in all this: Narayan’s comic timing is subtle and delicious, turning often on a single beautifully worded and perfectly placed phrase. (It helps, of course, that he couldn’t write an inelegant sentence even if he wanted to.) But never, at any point, does he look down on any of these utterly absurd people he has created. If they are ridiculous and deluded, well, aren’t we all? And isn’t a warm and affectionate laughter of acceptance a better reaction to all this than angst and despair?

It would have been easy for Narayan to have used his natural charm to skate over serious themes, and there was a time when I used to think that he did just that: but I was wrong. The themes he tackles he deals with seriously – but there is always that endearing dottiness and that twinkle in the authorial eye to ensure that no matter how serious the theme, the tone remains light. In The English Teacher, Narayan had depicted first simple happiness (the most difficult thing any writer of fiction can, I think, depict), followed by the pain of bereavement, desolation, and, at the end, transcendence; in Mister Sampath the Printer of Malgudi, he had depicted a failure to engage with life, and indifference posing as a lofty detachment; in The Guide, he had depicted sexual obsession, and, by the end, an unlooked-for martyrdom. (Having read most of Narayan’s work now, I take these three novels, written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to be his finest.) These are all serious themes; and yet, so beguiling is the writing, so apparently easy the style, that it is easy to miss the seriousness.

Talkative Man is a slighter work, perhaps, than some of his earlier novels, but, even in his old age (he was in his late 70s when this was published) he had lost none of his skill. The world he presents is utterly enchanting; Narayan himself is, as ever, charm personified. But the seriousness is there if one looks for it. And it is all presented with so good-natured a laugh, that we come away thinking that the world is not, perhaps, so bad a place after all.

A Narayan novel always makes me think: “If it really is this easy to write a novel, how come I can’t write one?” The answer is fairly obvious, I’m afraid. It takes  the greatest of skill to make novel-writing look so damn easy.

Nostalgia, the ache for home

It is hard to understand why some cheesy piece of pop music we used to jump up and down to as a teenager, and which we know in our adult years to be but a cheap and shoddy piece of tat, should, nonetheless, when heard in some café or in a busy mall, affect us so powerfully. The obvious answer is “nostalgia”, but that is merely to put a label on something that remains in essence mysterious.

It is not that nostalgia overrides all other considerations. I may feel nostalgic about the time I used to enjoy books by Enid Blyton, but I don’t think I could read them again with any pleasure. But I know that the pleasure I take in revisiting Treasure Island or The Hound of the Baskervilles is immeasurably enhanced by memories of childhood encounters.

Most strange is the resurgence of feelings for things one had thought one had left behind. I had thought I had left behind my Bengali heritage, dominated as it was, and still, I think, is, by Rabindraculture. I am sure Westerners often wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Rabindranath Tagore all the time, as if there were no other cultural figure of note. I used to wonder this myself. In my teenage years, I was frankly fed up with his ubiquity. He had been, in effect, an extra member of our family: his poetry, his stories, and, above all, his songs, were omnipresent in our house. And I had thought I had walked away from all that. I had discovered the plays of Shakespeare, the great Russian novels, the operas of Mozart and the lieder of Schubert, and I felt, with some justification, that I had absorbed, and was continuing to absorb, all the culture I would need to sustain myself through my life. But then, one evening some twenty and more years ago, I was in an Indian restaurant with some Western friends; the background music, rather unusually even for Indian restaurants, was instrumental arrangements of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet), and all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, a melody appeared that almost reduced me to tears. Not that I physically cried: I don’t cry too easily. But I felt something unexpectedly welling up inside me. It wasn’t merely a resurgence of childhood memories: it was a recognition of something from my past that was beautiful and valuable, and which I had not left behind at all. To borrow an image from a great work of Western art, Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, what I experienced then was like those water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly upon the surface.

The song that had such an effect on me that day was Gram chhara oi ranga matir path: it is a song about the compulsion to leave one’s village behind, and the lure of the world outside:

The red-earthed path leading out from the village
holds the heart enthralled.
Oh, who is it for whom the heart pines
even as it wilts into the dust?
Who is it who calls me out from home,
pleading with me at every step?
Who is it who leads me out
to heaven knows where?
At what bend in the path will I see riches?
Where will I find myself washed up?
Where this path will culminate
my thoughts cannot encompass.

The irony of such a song arousing in me nostalgia, an ache for home, was not lost on me, but that red-earthed path leading out from the village leads into the village also. And exploring that village, the one I thought I had left behind, is also enriching. That sudden revelation in that restaurant was for me a first step in a journey back. For revelation it was: moments of epiphany aren’t restricted merely to James Joyce’s short stories.

Was this merely nostalgia, and nothing more? I don’t think so. I can listen to Mud’s Tiger Feet playing in the background in some café, enjoy the memories it reawakens of early teenage years, but feel no desire whatever to revisit 1970s British glam-rock music. Nostalgia may be a potent force, but I don’t think it necessarily blinds us to questions of worth and of value: true, it allows us to enjoy what we know to be valueless; but when it reawakens in us feelings for that which is indeed of value, the effect is quite different. It is like those water-lilies of Ibsen, shooting up from unfathomed depths and blooming suddenly on the surface.

I haven’t completed that journey back yet. I’m not sure I ever will. And in any case, the metaphor of the journey breaks down here quite quickly, as this journey back does not entail abandonment of the journey out. But at least I no longer wonder why Bengalis keep banging on about Tagore all the time: I now know, and, indeed, do a fair bit of banging on myself. So, while I’m still in the banging mood, let me indulge myself a little further.

Last weekend, I watched, after many years, Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata. I had long known this film to be a masterpiece, but on this viewing, it resonated particularly strongly, more so than it had done before. The film is steeped in Tagorean culture, and not merely because Ray had based the bare bones of the story on a novella by Tagore, Nastanirh (“The Damaged Nest”). While the outline of the story is Tagore’s, the motivations of the characters are very different, and the drama presented is almost entirely Ray’s creation rather than Tagore’s; but Ray himself was steeped in Tagorean culture, and one can sense Tagore’s presence throughout the film.

Over the title sequence, we hear what is effectively a fantasia, composed by Ray himself, based on a Tagore song; but where the Tagore song is upbeat and joyful, Ray slows down the tempo and casts it in a minor key: the result is heart-achingly melancholy and wistful.

(There are two more Tagore songs featured in this film – rather anachronistically, as the action takes place, we’re told, in 1879, when Tagore would merely have been eighteen years old. But it doesn’t really matter: only a pedant would object to such things.)


Madhabi Mukherjee as Charu in “Charulata” dir. by Satyajit Ray

And I found myself utterly captivated, from opening frame to last. It is set in an aristocratic Bengali household. The husband, a wealthy liberal, spends all his time on his newspaper: he sees the dissemination of his liberal politics as the principal purpose of his life. However, his wife, Charu, is utterly isolated inside her mansion. The opening sequence is a virtuoso piece of film-making: we see Charu wandering from room to room aimlessly, seeing the world outside through her opera glasses. When the husband eventually notices that his wife is a bit lonely, he invites Charu’s brother and her sister-in-law to come over – the brother to help with the financial management of his newspaper, and the sister-in-law to keep Charu company: he doesn’t realise that the presence of the sister-in-law – a frivolous airhead – is no companionship at all for an intelligent woman such as Charu.

As with so many ladies from the 19th century literature, Charu has no outlet either for her intellect, or for her passions. Under similar conditions, Hedda Gabler turned psychotic and destructive. Emma Bovary is arguably in a similar situation, but, unlike Hedda or Charu, she is deeply unintelligent: her rebellion is as stupid as that she rebels against.

But the drama here is very different either from that of Emma Bovary, or of Hedda Gabler. Charu’s husband’s younger brother arrives, and there develops a relationship between them that, from his point of view, is but bantering, but, from her point of view, is something far deeper and far more intense: here she finds, as she thinks, a long sought-for outlet both for her passions and for her intellect. In both, she is mistaken.

The film has all the depth and complexity of a great 19th century novel. Much of it is very elegant, with an intricacy that one does not normally expect from a film; but there are powerful passions simmering underneath, and I had not remembered just how powerfully the passion bubbles up to the surface towards the end. But despite this, it remains a very subtle film. Among the major themes is betrayal: Charu’s brother betrays Charu’s husband; Charu’s brother-in-law, to Charu’s mind at least, betrays Charu; and Charu herself betrays her husband. But there’s no adultery, as such: the “action” is almost entirely what happens in the characters’ minds.

It is not a film that appears in any of those lists of “Greatest Ever Films” with all the Vertigos and Citizen Kanes. Most people, even self-proclaimed film-buffs, have not seen this film, or even for that matter heard of it. Why is this, I wonder? It is not because this film is quiet and slow and refined, whereas we prefer in our times the loud and the fast and the brash: Tokyo Story, as quiet as slow and as refined a film as can be imagined, regularly takes top spots in these lists.

I suspect that its relative neglect is due to its being steeped in a particularly Bengali culture – more specifically, a Tagorean culture – that makes it difficult for uninitiates to take in. But I may be mistaken: I am really not sure. All I know is that if I were asked to name my favourite film, right now, I’d name this, although, even were I to enumerate its many merits, I would find hard to account for the strength with which it resonates with me. I suppose it is all part of my “journey back”.

If I didn’t know better than to finish a post with a cliché, I’d write now “the apple never falls far from the tree”, but far be it from me to end on so weak a note! And I don’t really hold with what it expresses: far from being merely apples falling helplessly close to the tree, we have both the ability and the freedom to explore far and wide, and make what we like our own; and the currently fashionable principles of identity politics that question this ability and deny this freedom are, to my mind, mischievous and harmful. But I do feel that what we take in during our formative years – not necessarily consciously, but often, as it were, through the very pores of our skin – retains for us a particular significance: even when we think we have left them behind, they come back, and take us by surprise.

“Verdi’s Shakespeare” by Garry Wills

In this post, I shall be riding not just one of my hobbyhorses, but two.

Regular readers of this blog – and I flatter myself there are a few – will know that Shakespeare and Verdi are both great heroes of mine, and loom large within my cultural horizons. Indeed, these readers may well be wishing that I’d stop banging on about them for a while. But it can’t be helped. The very purpose of this blog, after all, is to bang on about things that are dear to me. So that means I will, I’m afraid, continue to bang on about both Shakespeare and Verdi, and, in particular, on the operas Verdi wrote based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas – the relatively early Macbeth, and Otello and Falstaff, the two masterpieces written in old age – aren’t adaptations, as such, of Shakespeare’s plays, or translations of those plays from one medium into another: they are, rather, entirely new works of art that take Shakespeare’s plays but as a starting point. Shakespeare himself, of course, did precisely the same thing: he took existing works and transformed them into something else. And the end-product is judged on its own terms: we do not, after all, judge Shakespeare’s Othello on how closely or otherwise it follows Giraldo Cinthio’s tale on which it was based; and, by the same token, neither should we judge Verdi’s Otello on how closely or otherwise it represents Shakespeare’s play: we must judge it on its own merits. However, for someone such as myself, a fan both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, it is fascinating to examine what Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito took from the original works, and how they transformed what they took to express their own artistic vision. So when, on a casual book-browsing session in the London bookshops, I came across a book on this very theme – Verdi’s Shakespeare by Garry Wills – I was frankly overjoyed. I couldn’t imagine why, given my interest in this subject, I had not known about this book before.


The book is subtitled Men of the Theatre. Nowadays, most dramatists write their plays first, and only later, at the casting stage, are actors found suitable for the roles. But Shakespeare and Verdi both knew the actors or singers they were writing for, and would write with their strengths and weaknesses in mind. Verdi, when his opera was staged elsewhere or with a different cast, would be quite happy to make changes to suit the new singers. Of course, he was less inclined to do this as his artistic vision developed, but even for his late operas he would carefully consider the vocal strengths and weaknesses of the singers who were to sing in the premier. So, with this in mind, Wills considers the singers we know Verdi wrote for, and the actors Shakespeare is likely to have written for: what we can discern of their strengths and weaknesses can, after all, tell us much about how Shakespeare and Verdi conceived their creations.

Wills considers also doubling, and, quite often, tripling and quadrupling: given the size of Shakespeare’s troupe, and the number of characters in his plays, there would inevitably have been many cases of actors playing multiple roles; and, quite frequently, from the internal evidence of the plays, we can, at least, make intelligent guesses on some of this doubling. Quite apart from anything else, Shakespeare, as a Man of the Theatre, would have given his actors plenty of time to change costume before coming on stage as a different character, and the spacings between exits and entrances can give us important clues.

And sometimes, when the audience sees the same actor in different roles, the two roles become associated with each other in the audience’s mind. (Jane Howell made some very imaginative use of this in the superb productions of the three Henry VI plays and of Richard III she directed for BBC back in the early 80s.) On reading or watching Macbeth, we may think that Lady Macbeth’s mental breakdown comes upon us too suddenly, but Shakespeare’s own audiences would have seen the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth also playing Lady Macduff only a few scenes earlier; and in that earlier scene, they would have seen Lady Macduff witnessing the slaughter of her own child, before she herself is murdered. All this, Wills argues, would have prepared the audience psychologically for the sleepwalking scene: having seen Lady Macduff in a veritable hell, the audience is now prepared to see Lady Macbeth, played by the same actor, in her own hell – albeit, this time, a hell of her own making.

Similarly with Cordelia and the Fool: the Fool is not present in the opening scene in which Lear divides his kingdom, and disappears well before Cordelia re-appears: it seems a reasonable conjecture that the same boy actor is playing both parts. This conjecture is strengthened given their dramatic roles: while Cordelia is absent, the Fool is present to remind Lear (and us) of the absent Cordelia; the Fool is, in effect, standing in as a sort of proxy for the missing Cordelia. And when, at the end of the play, Lear howls over Cordelia’s body “And my poor fool is hanged!” we do not need to ask whether he is grieving for the Fool or for Cordelia: he is grieving for them both, because, in the audience’s mind, the two characters have, to a great extent, been fused into one.

The boy actor playing Lady Macbeth, and Cordelia, and the Fool, was, most likely, the boy actor John Rice, and, given the extraordinarily demanding roles Shakespeare wrote for him – as well as the parts mentioned, he would have played Cleopatra, and possibly Volumnia in Coriolanus – he must have been a remarkable talent. But if Rice indeed played these roles, what part would Robert Armin have played? Armin had replaced Will Kemp as the Clown in Shakespeare’s troupe, and was renowned as a more “intellectual” comic than his predecessor; he was also himself a writer of some distinction. Furthermore, he was a major player in the acting company, and it seems unlikely that he would have been fobbed off merely with minor roles. It seems inconceivable that his part in Othello, say, would have been restricted to the almost inconsequential scene featuring an almost inconsequential clown. Wills argues that Armin was well capable of taking on dramatic roles: if he did not play the Fool in King Lear, he may quite easily have taken on Edgar in King Lear – which, despite being a dramatic role, calls for a lot of clowning; and, intriguingly, he would have been likely to take on Iago in Othello. There seems to be no other role suitable for an actor of his stature.

Of course, there is much conjecture in all this: we can never know for certain who took which role. James Shapiro, in 1616 the Year of Lear, seems certain that Armin would have played the Fool in King Lear. That, too, is conjecture, of course. From my own understanding of the play, the same actor doubling Cordelia and the Fool makes a great deal of dramatic sense, and, for that reason alone, it is towards Wills’ conjecture rather than to Shapiro’s that I find myself leaning. But, fascinating though all this may be (to me, at least!) it may justifiably be argued that all of this is too insubstantial to base critical judgement on. With Verdi, we are on safer ground: here, we are not short of documentation. We know, for instance, precisely how Verdi had imagined his Macbeth and his Lady Macbeth:

He told both principal singers, “I want the performer to serve the poet better than they serve the composer” … He went so far as to say that his singers should not sing.

This, of course, has to be put into context of the times, when fine singing tended to take precedence over the demands of drama, but from the copious documentation we have, what emerges is Verdi trying to break free from the tradition where fine singing was an end in itself, and the drama no more than a convenient vehicle for beautiful singing. On the contrary, he insisted, the singing must serve the drama, and if the drama is best served by singing that actually sounds ugly – at least by the standards of the time – then so be it. The singers he settled on for the two main roles – Felice Varesi and Marianna Barbieri-Nini – were not, by Verdi’s own estimation, the best singers available. But, as Wills explains:

The reason Verdi did not want “fine singers” is that he doubted that he could prod such almost feral sounds from them, as he could from Varesi and Barbieri.

Although there are wonderful things in this opera that still, after multiple hearings, send shivers up my spine, it would be foolish to claim it’s among Verdi’s greatest masterpieces. What can be claimed, I think, is that Verdi was trying here to create a new kind of opera. However, when we come to Verdi’s other Shakespearean operas, Otello and Falstaff, we are in a different world. By this stage, Verdi had already created the kind of opera he had wanted in a string of masterpieces, and he was officially retired; but, for various reasons – most salient of which, one may guess, being that he never found a suitable libretto – he had not, after Macbeth, written an opera that takes his beloved Shakespeare as its source material. But now, in his 70s, the music publisher Ricordi introduced him to the accomplished young poet and composer, Arrigo Boito. It was an unlikely pairing: Verdi was the Grand Old man of Italian Arts, and, by that stage, the epitome of all that was conservative, while Boito came from a Bohemian background, and was openly rebellious, as young artists tend to be, against all that reeked of the establishment. Indeed, Boito had written some extremely indelicate verses condemning the established artistic monuments of his time, and Verdi, the most obvious establishment figure, had taken great personal exception to them. However, Boito, recognising genius even from, as it were, the enemy camp, jumped at the opportunity to work with Verdi, and Verdi himself, though cautious, must have seen something in the young Boito. First of all, Verdi asked Boito to tidy up the messy libretto of his earlier opera Simon Boccanegra. Boito did so brilliantly, prompting Verdi not merely to rewrite some of the music for that work, but to put something of his best into that re-writing. At last, Verdi had found a librettist of sufficient talent, and he knew what he wanted: he wanted to tackle Shakespeare again. This was, after all, a man who could not only read Shakespeare in the original English (as Verdi could not) – he knew Shakespeare well enough, and possessed sufficient poetic gifts himself, to have translated Antony and Cleopatra into Italian. Verdi had, at long last, found his ideal librettist.

The story of how these two very different men, from different generations, outlooks, and artistic backgrounds, overcame the various barriers between them to form what ended up as a close and affectionate friendship I find genuinely touching. The two ended up loving each other. Boito visited Verdi often, both before the passing of Verdi’s wife and after, and, shortly before his own death in 1919, wrote:

The voluntary servitude I consecrated to that just, most noble, and truly great man is the act of my life that gives me most satisfaction.

The transformation of Shakespeare’s play into the opera Otello is remarkable (I had previously written something about it here). Possibly the most striking difference is in Iago’s motivation: in Shakespeare’s play, this remains a matter of some contention (I have written my own thoughts on it here): to summarise, Iago gives us two possible motives – first, that he was passed over for promotion, and second, that he suspects his own wife with Othello; but the two motives seem to negate each other: it’s almost as if Iago can’t decide why he hates Othello so much. It’s not so much that his hatred has sprung from his motives, but, rather, that his hatred itself has been his starting point, and that he has to keep supplying himself with motives to justify that hatred. But in the opera, Boito gives Iago a monologue that has absolutely no equivalent at all in Shakespeare’s play. The opening lines of this monologue is a blasphemous parody of the Credo from the Latin mass:

Credo in un Dio crudel
che m’ha creato simile a sè
e che nell’ira io nomo.

I believe in a cruel God
who created me like himself
in anger of whom that I name.

(Translation by Aaron Green. See here for full text and translation of this monologue.)

Iago – or Jago, in Boito’s libretto – is not really a nihilist, as has often been claimed: he believes in a God all right. But the God he believes in is an evil God, a cruel God, as nothing else could explain why he, Jago, had been created in such a way. Jago, in pursuing evil, is but serving the God he believes in – the only God he can believe in.

It is a frightening picture, and Verdi clothes this monologue in the most terrifying music. For Verdi took Jago very seriously. He insisted repeatedly that Jago must not be a traditional mustachio-twirling villain. Sadly, in just about every performance I have heard, that is precisely what Jago ends up being. In every performance and recording I am acquainted with (bar only one) Jago ends his monologue with a villainous laugh. This laugh is not written in the score, and, as Wills rightly reminded us, Verdi had previously insisted that the tubercular heroine of La Traviata should not cough, and that the jovial Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera should not laugh, even at the point where he says he is laughing: these things are all communicated by the music. So how likely is it that Verdi would have approved of Jago laughing – especially when, with that laugh, he emerges as the pantomime villain that Verdi most certainly had not intended?

Towards the end of this monologue, Verdi inserts a few pauses in the music: this is not, as often appears to be the case in performance, because Jago is teasing the audience, delaying giving them answers that he already knows: quite the contrary – the pauses indicate that Jago is thinking. The conclusion he arrives at – that life is meaningless and heaven an old wives’ tale – is a difficult one, even for him, and it costs him a great effort of will to get there. When Verdi first saw this passage of Boito’s libretto, he was ecstatic, and described it as “Shakespearean”. It is a bit of a mystery why he did so: Verdi must surely have known that there was nothing like this in Shakespeare’s play. I’d hazard a guess that Verdi described this as Shakespearean because, as so often in Shakespeare’s plays, we see here a character in the process of thinking. He is not just expressing things that he has already thought out, and neither is he simply giving vent to his emotions: we see him actually in the process of formulating his thoughts. To diminish this to merely pantomime villainy seems to me frankly inexcusable.

Verdi’s conception of Otello is also remarkable. Looking around the net, I often find individual performances praised for communicating an animalist ferocity in Otello, or, conversely, criticized for not communicating an animalist ferocity, but from Verdi’s own recorded correspondence, animalistic ferocity was precisely what he didn’t want: not consistently, at least. He had grave doubts about engaging Francesco Tamagno for the role, worried that Tamagno always sang “with a full voice”, whereas the role, in Verdi’s opinion, required far greater subtlety and shading. This is not to rule out ferocity at certain points, but it does mean there is far more to this role than blasting off the roof beams with sheer volume and power. Victor Maurel, who sang Jago in the premier (and later also sang Falstaff) had similar reservations about the can belto approach to the role of Otello; he later wrote:

The ideal of vocal power necessary for Otello was provided with astonishing intensity by the creator of the role, Francesco Tamagno. But we think it dangerous to instil in the minds of Italian interpreters of Otello the idea that this kind of extraordinary vocal power is a condition sine qua non of a great interpretation.

Verdi, as usual, personally coached the singers himself very thoroughly, but sadly, the premier was too early for recordings, and what recordings we have of Tamagno singing passages from the opera were made many years afterwards, and, though spellbinding, they don’t necessarily reflect Verdi’s instructions. Those we can only conjecture from the documentary evidence we have.

Verdi had intended Otello to be his swan song: he had already officially retired once, was now well into his 70s, and had composed what was self-evidently a masterpiece. But presumably, working with Boito on another Shakespearean project proved too great a temptation. And this time, the opera was to be a comedy – his first comic opera since his very first work Un Giorno di Regno, which had flopped disastrously some fifty years earlier and had never since been revived. The source this time was The Merry Wives of Windsor, by common consent among Shakespeare’s lesser works, but which, if somewhat lacking in depth and in artistic vision, remains nonetheless, it seems to me, a charming and delightful work, full of laughs and good humour. Boito took this somewhat unwieldy comedy, thinned out the plot and the number of characters, enriched the concoction by adding some passages taken from the magnificent Henry IV plays, and created a witty and enchanting libretto that a composer of operas could only dream about.

If we leave out his first opera, Verdi had no experience of writing a comic work. But you wouldn’t think so from listening to this. The music conjured up by the aged Verdi, now approaching his 80s, is full of youthful zest, warm-heartedness, and a love of that life he knew he must leave sooner rather than later. It’s almost as if he had too many melodic ideas to fit into just one work, so he crammed in as many as he could: the result is that we hear not so much fully developed melodies, but, rather, scraps of melodies: almost before we have had the opportunity to take in any of the melodies fully, Verdi’s inexhaustible imagination has rushed off somewhere else, and is presenting us with some new scrap of tune. The orchestration, as witty as the libretto, is also constantly changing from moment to moment; the harmonies, too, are never allowed to settle. The headlong rush is irresistible. The counterpoint is extraordinarily intricate, and it is exhilarating – never more so than in the finale, a fugue which never seems fusty or academic, but is, instead, full of vigour and of the sheer joy of being alive. In Verdi’s long life, he had been no stranger to personal tragedy, but he left us at the end with the most joyous of love letters to life: there is no other work I can think of that is so full of the sheer unadulterated joy of just being alive. It is indeed a miracle. And once again, I don’t think there is anything quite like this in Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s joy was, all too often, soaked in the deepest melancholy. But here, although the note of autumnal melancholy does occasionally creep in, that is by no means the principal tonality. Once again, Boito and Verdi had taken Shakespeare as a starting point, and had transformed it into something entirely new.

Throughout the book, Gary Wills is a knowledgeable and reliable guide to these astonishing acts of artistic transformation. He is steeped in the worlds both of Shakespeare and of Verdi, and writes knowledgeably and with great insight on their respective creative imaginations. And he communicates, without gushing, his enthusiasm for these works. After reading this book, I found myself reaching once again for Shakespeare’s plays and – given that I can’t read the scores – recordings of the operas. And both the plays and the operas are self-renewing works: with each revisit, they appear as something new.

I don’t know how many readers have stayed with me to the end of what has turned out to be a very long post on matters that are, I know, only of minority interest, but in case one or two have, I would recommend this book without reservation. And then I would then recommend immersion in Shakespeare’s plays, and in those extraordinary operas Verdi and Boito fashioned from them. Even if you end up being an obsessive like me, there are, I’d contend, worse things to be obsessed with.

Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Usually, when I read a Shakespeare play, I have a pretty good idea in my mind of how I would ideally like to see it staged, what the sets and costumes should look like, where the actors should be positioned, how the lines should be spoken, and so on. These may not necessarily be the best ideas: I’m sure experienced Shakespeare directors understand these matters far better than I do. Nonetheless, I find myself, as it were, directing these plays in my head. Cymbeline, however, is among the exceptions: I have no idea how this should be staged. Despite passages that only Shakespeare could have written, it’s a work that always leaves me puzzled. Maybe Shakespeare just flopped with this one. Alternatively, and more likely, that extraordinary mind of his was working on a plane to which my rather ordinary mind does not have access.

I had never seen the play on stage before last night. The only version I had seen was in the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 1980s – a very accomplished production with a quite magnificent cast, but which left me as puzzled as did my readings. Last night, I went to see the play in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse –  an extension of the Globe Theatre built to emulate the indoor venues in which so many of Shakespeare’s plays had originally been performed.

I am, I admit, very much in two minds when it comes to the issue of “authenticity”. I accept that it is worthwhile to see these plays in spaces similar to those for which they had originally been written – whether in the outdoor Globe Theatre, or, as here, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Similarly, it is worthwhile hearing the music of Handel or of Bach, of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, played by orchestras of the size the composers would have recognised, playing instruments of the composers’ own time, and adopting performance practices, as far as music scholars can determine, the composers would have been familiar with. But even if we get everything right in terms of authenticity – even if we were to go to the length getting boy actors to play the female roles – there remains one important component that is bound to remain inauthentic: audience expectations. Shakespeare’s audiences were unfamiliar with the drama of Ibsen or of Chekhov; they had not seen television plays, or films: we have. And we cannot unsee them.

In Cymbeline, a character is beheaded just off stage, and soon afterwards, the severed head and the headless corpse are produced. We may only conjecture how Shakespeare’s own audience, used as they were to seeing public beheadings, and accustomed to decapitated heads on public display, would have reacted. In our own age, for most of us, experience of decapitation comes not directly, but from the horrific reports, and, should we choose to look at them, from horrific images, of executions and judicial killings committed in Syria or in Saudi Arabia. When confronted with extreme violence such as this on stage, our minds are as likely to turn to Monty Python and the Holy Grail as to anything else: we see it as “over-the-top”, and find it funny for precisely that reason. I doubt Shakespeare’s own audiences would have reacted in such a manner. No striving for authenticity can re-create in our minds what Shakespeare’s own audiences would have felt.


Nonetheless, it is an interesting experience to see this play in this venue. The hall itself is exquisite, like a bejewelled box. The audience is packed quite close on back-less and handle-less seats, and no-one is very far from the stage: this creates a sense both of intimacy, and of taking part in a communal event. The hall is lit entirely by candles, so variations in lighting can be achieved only by varying the number of candles used for any given scene (thus ruling out sudden or frequent changes); or by adjusting the height of the chandeliers. Needless to say, there were no sets: the stage was entirely bare throughout, with the occasional large prop – in this play, a bed and a trunk – wheeled in and out as and when required. As with historically informed performances of classical music, this is not the only valid way of performing these works, but it’s certainly interesting, and, as with any other approach, when done well, immensely rewarding.

As for the interpretation, I really find myself not knowing what to say with this play: having little idea in my mind of how it should be interpreted, I can neither criticise this production for falling below what I think the text contains, nor praise it for exceeding my expectations, or for subverting my preconceptions. I think, though, that, perhaps, I am now beginning to understand this play. Whether this is due specifically to this production, or to my having repeatedly revisited it over the years in the conviction, given the passages of genius throughout, that Shakespeare couldn’t have expended so much of his greatness on something of so little worth, I really cannot say.

The play is a mish-mash. That is usually a criticism, but perhaps not here: we have to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt, and say that if it is a mish-mash, that is because he intended it to be such. Or, to put it another way, unity of tone was not high on his agenda here. The plotline, when summarised, is effectively a fairly-tale, and Shakespeare, I think, had been here before: in the midst of writing his great tragedies, he also wrote All’s Well That Ends Well, a play with, effectively, a fairy tale plot, and as far removed from the world of high tragedy as may be imagined. Shakespeare was already, it seems to me, anticipating his late works: the fairy-tale format of Cymbeline was no sudden whim.

And in order to appreciate a play such as Cymbeline for what it is, we must, I think, reject our preconceptions derived from the earlier works – and, especially, from the great tragedies. Characterisation is no longer the point. We may disagree on the characters of, say, Othello or of Iago, but the nature of their characters is central to the drama: to understand thedrama, we must investigate the characters. But here, it is not even to be asked why Iachimo poisons Posthumus’ mind, or why he later repents: it is enough that he does so. We no more look into the psychology of Iachimo – or of Posthumous, or of Imogen, or of Belarius – than we do of Rapunzel, or of Snow White. And the various different tones juxtaposed cheek-by-jowl, with no attempt to modulate from one to the other, have to be taken as they are: late Shakespeare is not interested in unity, or in modulating between different states of mind, any more than the late Beethoven was.

All that’s very well – but to what end? I still find that question difficult to answer, but, last night, I found myself more willing to submit to it than ever before. The vision seemed to be – I can only say “seemed to be” as I am still far from certain – of a bewildering diversity, of seeming randomness, all eventually finding a consummation of sorts in a final reconciliation and in forgiveness, and, ultimately, in a state of wonder. At the end, as at the end of The Winter’s Tale, those thought dead are restored: the vision is that of the Resurrection itself. Once again, this is not new in Shakespeare; those thought dead are restored also at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, and at the end of Twelfth Night (the restoration of Viola and Sebastian in that play is one of the most heart-meltingly beautiful passages that even Shakespeare ever wrote). But now, in his late plays, this theme of eventual reconciliation, and, above all, of forgiveness – of reconciliation with oneself as well as with others – seemed to weigh more heavily in Shakespeare’s imagination. And to convey this vision of reconciliation, Shakespeare turned not to the character-driven tragic world of Hamlet or of Othello, but to fairy tale, and to pantomime.

The production is as fine as I could have hoped for: it is thrillingly staged, achieving a far greater variety of effects than I could have thought possible given the venue; and the verse was spoken beautifully. Emily Barber, especially, makes a huge impression as Imogen (called Innogen here, as Shakespeare had done before the printer’s error immortalised her as Imogen) – making it entirely credible that all whom she encounters find themselves charmed by her, and in love. Only Eugene O’Hare’s Iachimo I found somewhat underplayed: as the pantomime villain, I think I’d have welcomed a bit more overt mustachio-twirling villainy. I think also I’d have preferred a greater intensity when, on first encountering Innogen, he is struck with wonder that beauty such as this could even exist. (Admittedly, Iachimo’s lines at this point are among the knottiest and most tortuous in all Shakespeare.)  But, given that I have never really known what to make of this work, I am not really in a position to make critical comments on interpretative decisions.

The production makes much of the comedy – and, I think, quite rightly. The scene where Jupiter appears to Posthumous in prison is rightly spectacular: Pauline MacLynn (better known to television viewers as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted), who plays the wicked queen in this production with a wonderful comic relish, doubles up in the prison scene as a transvestite Jupiter, and, perilously suspended high above the stage, plays the part as pure pantomime. Whether or not this is the right way to play this strange and awkward scene I don’t know, but it works. The tone of pantomime pervades the final scene also, when the beloved returns from the dead, and all is forgiven. I was initially worried that such a pantomime tone would overwhelm the seriousness, but there was no cause for fear: as with the late Beethoven, Shakespeare is happy simply to lay very different states of mind next to each other, without bothering with the shades in between; and somehow, all these different tones register. Don’t ask me why: I really don’t know. But when, even in the midst of all the knockabout comedy, even at the end of two hours and more of pantomime madness, Posthumous, Innogen once again in his arms, says

… Hang there like fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die!

I think my heart missed a beat.

Mozart achieved this sort of thing in The Magic Flute. I don’t think anyone else has.

A damp squib and a thing of wonder to start the New Year

I didn’t want to write about the new BBC dramatisation of War and Peace – really I didn’t: I wanted to start the New Year on a positive note.

That’s very prejudiced of me, isn’t it? But we all have our prejudices, and it’s perhaps better admitting to them than pretending that we come to everything with an entirely open mind. But I don’t know that my negativity on this score is completely a matter of prejudice: the dramatisations that have appeared on television in recent years of classic novels have not, after all, been such as to inspire much confidence. Not in me, at any rate.

One may justly say “So what?” I don’t need to watch if I don’t want to. And, as Bogart didn’t quite say, we’ll always have Penguin Classics. But it seems to me, nonetheless, a question worth posing: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for such poor television drama?

Of course, not everyone will agree that this is poor television drama: just browsing through Twitter, I see that reactions to it are, on the whole, quite favourable. So let’s rephrase the question slightly: why is it that these classic novels, so crammed with dramatic potential, make for what seems to me to be such poor television drama? Now, no-one can object to that, surely!

It’s not the acting: there really is no shortage of acting talent. Neither is it the cinematography or the set designs: just about everything on television these days looks superb, and far outstrips the BBC productions that I grew up with back in the 70s and 80s, with their cardboard sets, and their handful of actors doing their best to teem in the crowd scenes. I’m afraid it’s the script. The underlying assumption appears nowadays to be that any individual scene that lasts longer than a minute or so will bore the audience, weaned as they all are on pop videos and on computer games; and so, before any scene is given a chance to get going, we have to be whisked off elsewhere to stop us reaching fro our remote controls.

This approach to drama has many problems. For one, it becomes very difficult to characterise to anything beyond a superficial level; and when the characters are profound and complex, and the relations between them intricate (as they generally tend to be in novels of any quality), all the profundity and complexity and intricacy are ironed out, leaving only a skeleton outline of the plot. Now, I have myself written a part-by-part synopsis of War and Peace (I did this many years ago when I was leading a group read of the novel on a now defunct books board: I have put these synopses up here), but let’s not pretend that mere synopses of the plot can be in any way representative of the novel itself. All they can convey is a sequence of events: the various complexities of character and of situation that have given rise to these events; and the significance of these events; don’t even reach the surface. In short, the very features that make these novels such towering works of the human imagination go missing.

On top of this, it becomes impossible to control the pacing. In any well-paced drama, there are finely judged rises and falls in tension, giving the drama its shape. But when the pace of editing is more or less the same throughout, all that emerges is a mere shapeless sequence of events, each following the preceding with the same monotonous plod.

And, of course, there’s the assumption that the modern audience, being ever so much more sophisticated than the readership Tolstoy had written for, needs sex. And lots of it. Sex, rumpy-pumpy, screwing, shagging, bonking, how’s your father – whatever we modern sophisticates choose to call it. In the novel, Tolstoy hints, only in passing, of an incestuous affair between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène, but modern sophisticated minds such as ours can’t handle hints. So, while so much of vital importance in the novel was cut in this adaptation, room was made for a scene in which Anatole frolics in bed with his naked sister: for, of course, only when sex is presented explicitly can it get through our thick modern sophisticated skulls.

Well, let’s not labour the point: this latest adaptation is obviously not aimed for me, so what I may have to say about it is quite irrelevant. But it saddens me, nonetheless: it was, after all, the BBC dramatisation from 1972 that first aroused my enthusiasm for this novel. I was only twelve or so at the time, but I remember fondly saving up my pocket money in an old biscuit tin, and, once I had enough, triumphantly marching into a Glasgow bookshop and taking the Penguin Classics edition up to the sales desk. I read through the whole thing that summer: as with my first encounter with Shakespeare a few years earlier, when I had seen Timothy West play King Lear on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, my reading War and Peace in the summer of ’73 was one of the turning points that helped make me, for better or for worse, the person I now am.

The adaptation that had so inspired me was marvellous: true, the sets indeed look very cardboard these days, and the battle scenes, done on a 70s BBC budget, are less than spectacular; but Jack Pulman’s script really set standards for transferring a great novel to the screen. As for the acting – Morag Hood’s rather stylised performance as Natasha didn’t quite come off (possibly Natasha, as described by Tolstoy, is an impossible character to bring off convincingly in performance), but the rest of the cast, including a then relatively unknown Antony Hopkins as Pierre, was without exception superb.

Well, that’s enough nostalgia for one post. I always fear I’ll come across as some crabby old git who automatically damns anything modern in favour of what things used to be like back in my days … and, no doubt, such an image is not too far from the truth. But it’s not, I hope, the whole truth. After all, I have nothing but praise for an audio version of War and Peace that was broadcast on BBC radio only ten years ago (and yes, ten years ago counts as “modern” in my book!). And, lest it be thought that I am too curmudgeonly in starting a new year of blogging with a “why oh why?” piece, let me try to balance that a bit: for, only hours before the first part of the BBC War and Peace, I saw in the local cinema a broadcast of The Winter’s Tale that was simply a thing of wonder.

The production was by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and Branagh himself played Leontes. I had never actually seen Branagh play Shakespeare on stage before: his stage production of Twelfth Night was just wonderful, but he only directed that, and didn’t appear in it. There are the films he made, of course, but, whatever Branagh’s talents, film direction doesn’t appear to be amongst them. But no matter: the performance he gives here on stage is as remarkable as his direction (he co-directed with Rob Ashford). And the generally young cast is well supported by such experienced old hands as Judi Dench and Michael Pennington.

The play itself is a miracle. It is about love and jealousy, about irrational evil that breaks out for no apparent reason and destroys all in its path; it is about guilt and atonement, and forgiveness and renewal; it is about the cycles of life, about pain and grief, and about joy and hope; it is, indeed, about everything that is important in our human lives, all encompassed in its fairy tale form. And finally, it is about the Resurrection itself. A rational explanation is suggested towards the end to explain away the miracle, but we don’t believe it: as Chesterton’s Father Brown put it, it is easier to believe in the impossible rather than the improbable:

“I can believe in the impossible, but not the improbable … It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.”

  • From the Incredulity of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton


Shakespeare knew this, of course: he knew everything He knew that we wouldn’t attach any credibility to that absurd story of Hermione living apart for all those years: far easier to believe that she was brought back like Alcestis from the grave. That final scene, which never fails to strike me with a sense of wonder, is Shakespeare’s vision of the Resurrection itself. But there is no triumph here: the joy is subdued, and sorrowful. In Shakespeare’s vision, the sorrows and griefs we experience in our earthly lives cannot all be wiped away: they continue to cast their shadows even in eternity, and the best we can hope for is a forgiveness and a sorrowful understanding that is, at least, a sort of joy. It is an ending that leaves me in tears every time I experience it, whether in the study, or in the theatre, or, as here, in the cinema.

And this would not have been possible in those good old days of my childhood that I look back on so fondly. Thanks to modern technology, the glories of our theatres – where standards seem to me as high as they have ever been – and of our opera houses can now be beamed worldwide to far greater numbers than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

So there – having said that, I think I can safely say that I am not a curmudgeonly old sod after all. Not completely, at any rate.

A Happy New Year to you all!