Trigger-happy readers

I try not to be too censorious on this blog. When I find myself disagreeing vehemently with any stated position, I do try – on the grounds that nothing in all this unintelligible world can ever be so clear cut as to preclude some trace at least of ambivalence – to see if there is anything, anything at all, that may be said for the other side. But it’s not always easy. When I read, for instance, that students of literature, people who have actually chosen to study the subject at university, and who, one might reasonably assume, had some idea of what they were letting themselves in for, request that works with potentially distressing themes be marked with a “trigger warning” to protect their delicate sensitivities, I find myself thinking hard whether there is anything at all that can be said for their viewpoint.

I tell myself that, after all, sensitivities are indeed fragile things, and I would not care to have them belittled. Those who have been on the receiving end of, say, racist abuse (or worse), may indeed find it mortifying to read the depiction of racism in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Those who have had suicidal tendencies may indeed find it traumatic to enter the suicidal mind of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway. Some may counter that what you may read of made-up characters isn’t really that big a deal, as it’s all “made up”, but we who value literature know better: we acknowledge, as these students do, that it is a big deal, that literature does have the power not only to affect us, but to affect us deeply, to our very core – in some cases, indeed, to traumatise us. So let us grant the students this: in our age, when anything of cultural worth appears systematically to be sidelined away from the mainstream under the pretence that it’s not really that important, it is good to have some acknowledgement at least of the often overwhelming power that books may exert upon the reader’s mind. Better surely to acknowledge the potentially traumatic impact of Mrs Dalloway than to pretend it is but a trifle, a bauble, to while away a few lazy hours when we have nothing more important to do.

So far, I think we’re agreed, and on the same side. It’s the next bit that I have problems with. For the students in question are requesting that books that have the potential to cause distress be marked with what is known as a “trigger warning” – something to let potential readers know that the book may cause distress, so these potential readers may then, should they choose, avoid the book. It is when we come to the word “avoid” that I have a problem. Of course, as a general principle, one is under no obligation to put oneself through something that one finds uncomfortable, let alone distressing or traumatic. But should this general principle extend also to those who have, of their own free will, chosen to study literature? Did they really not understand what they were letting themselves in for?

For literature is the least abstract of all the arts. It is unambiguously about life. Life isn’t, admittedly, all distressing and traumatic, but much of it is, and so, literature has no option but to depict those things that may distress or cause trauma. Literature may also present ways of looking at the world that are disturbing, ideas that may challenge, provoke, and, indeed, traumatise. Perhaps the requested trigger warning should apply to the entire range of literature rather than to just a few books; perhaps all literature faculties in all universities should have engraved over the gate: “Abandon all comfort ye who enter here.” Comfort is for the heritage-style costume-drama adaptations of the classics, not the classics themselves.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – which, I guess, has been around long enough now to be regarded as a “classic” – may, we are told, “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more”. I am a bit unsure from the phrasing what exactly the book may “trigger”: thoughts? feelings? emotions? new ways of perceiving things? new perspectives? If so, are not these triggerings to be welcomed rather than avoided? Some of these triggerings may indeed be distressing, but in literature, as in life, distress is all too often the price one has to pay to experience the wonders on offer.

I also can’t help wondering: is Things Fall Apart likely to “trigger” only those who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide? (And more?) Can the rest of us not be triggered also by this book? Were we to be triggered only by what we have personally experienced, any individual book is unlikely to trigger much at all in any individual, given how minuscule any individual’s personal experience must be in comparison to the sum total of human experiences that literature encompasses. And I don’t know that it’s a good idea – at least for those who have voluntarily chosen to study literature – to avoid those books that trigger our mind into absorbing into our own perspectives the perspectives of others, distressing or even traumatic though they may be. The alternative is to close discourse, to close debate, to close, indeed, our very minds. We have the freedom as private citizens to close our minds, if that is what we really want to do, but perhaps that option should not be made available in institutions of learning.

So, while I am, up to a point, sympathetic with these students, I cannot say I am wholeheartedly in agreement. It’s not that I am asking them to “toughen up”: far from it: to experience literature, you have to hold on to your unhardened sensitivities. And I most certainly am not saying that the distress that literature can cause is but an affectation: it is very real indeed, far more so than is, perhaps, commonly recognised. What I am saying, I think, is that unless you are prepared to have your sensitivities battered, unless you are prepared to accept the distress and the trauma as a price to be paid for seeing the world in new and wondrous ways, then it’s best simply to steer clear of literature altogether. It makes as little sense for those who seek mere comfort to study literature as it does for those who are squeamish about handling animals to study veterinary science.

Some bleak thoughts on “Bleak House”

The barbarians are at the gates. They may well be inside already.

Yes, I know, this has been thought and said by just about every generation. People were thinking such things at least as far back as the classical age; indeed, it is from the classical age that this expression originates. But just because previous generations have also entertained this thought does not make the thought wrong: quite the contrary. The antiquity of this thought renders it respectable, and the frequency with which it has occurred across so great a span of time enhances the probability that it is, perhaps, true.

This thought, gloomy though it is, struck me quite forcefully this last Friday evening, when, ironically, I was enjoying a quite wonderful night out. I had gone to the Arts Centre in Hounslow to see a dramatisation of Dickens’ Bleak House, performed by a touring theatrical group called The Pantaloons, of whom I had not previously heard. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. But what I saw was utterly joyous: I’d have been delighted to have seen a show as good as this even in London’s West End. A cast of only five actors brought to teeming life virtually the entire cast of Dickens’ vast novel: a few basic props to indicate character – a scarf for Mr Jarndyce, spectacles for Mr Tulkinghorn, and so on – a change of voice and diction, and of body language and facial expression – and, miraculously, in front of our very eyes, characters transform one into another at breathtaking pace. The innocent and naïve Ada Clare turns into the dignified and tragic Lady Dedlock; and then, the very next moment, into the glaring, small-minded and mean-spirited Judy Smallweed. The same actor convinces as the unworthy suitor Guppy one minute, and as the worthy suitor Allan Woodcourt the next. And so on. It would be invidious to single out any one of the five when all five were so spectacularly good.

It was, of course, a whistle-stop tour of this huge novel, and inevitably much of the material was thinned out (no Mr Skimpole, for example, or the Jellybys, or Chadband); but what surprised me was how much managed to survive. The whole evening fizzed with verve and wit and sparkle, and these mere five actors communicated the feel and the zest of a gloriously overcrowded Dickensian canvas, with not a single square inch of that canvas left untouched by the sheer fecundity of the man’s prodigious imagination. There was much audience interaction, as in pantomime, and a great many jokes reminding the audience that what they were seeing was indeed a modern production featuring modern actors, re-enacting a novel written some 160 years ago. The actor playing the odious blackmailer Smallweed particularly enjoyed himself with the audience, asking (in character) one member what he did for a living (I’m so glad I wasn’t asked that; “operational research analyst” wouldn’t have sounded right at all in the context!), and telling us all that we had all been “ripped off” for our theatre seats. I, too, I admit, played a small part in all this: before the show had started, the cast were personally greeting the audience as they were coming in, and speaking to them; and at one point, they asked if anyone had read the novel. As usual on these occasions, I tried to keep my head down, but as the actress playing Esther Summerson was looking straight at me at this point, and I had no option but to nod and say “yes”. Later in the show, they improvised some lines about not diverging too widely from the script, as “there is at least one person here who has read the book”. Well, I guess it was good to be part of the show, even in so small a way! (Just as well they hadn’t asked me if I have written a blog post about this book!)

The danger of this kind of thing is that the more serious aspects of the work could become drowned out by all the jokeyness, but that danger was well avoided here. It is one of the most marvellous thing about theatre that we, the audience, can be aware that what we are witnessing are but actors speaking their lines; that we may even be able to identify these actors as living in real life, outside the stage action; that we may admire the costume design, sets, and lighting; and yet, even while fully aware of the artifice of it all, we can find our heart-strings tugged at, and our minds entering the most rarefied realms of fancy and of imagination. So here, even as Dickens himself is wheeled on stage to be charged with engineering the absurd plot device of spontaneous combustion, we can find ourselves in awe of the spontaneous combustion itself, recognising it not merely as a theatrical plot device, but also as a metaphor hinting at realities too vaguely glimpsed to be explicitly stated. We recognise also the immense tragedy of Lady Dedlock, and the heart-rending, unmediated pathos of Little Jo, who, raging with fever, is “moved on” until he drops dead; we recognise the horror behind the grotesque – the terror underlying Miss Flite’s naming of the birds, the inadequacies of human laws indicating the inadequacy, should it exist, of a Higher Law. Through all the pantomime jokeyness and the sheer exuberant fun of it all, we are given a glimpse into the dark, elusive heart of this very great novel.

So why, despite a show that reminded me why I loved the novel so much, and which entertained me so royally all evening, was I visited with such gloomy thoughts of barbarians at the gates? The reason, I am sorry to say, is this: there were only twelve people in the audience. Yes, that’s right. Twelve. Including us. And it was hard not to imagine how dispiriting this must have been for the cast, giving so much to a virtually empty auditorium. Admittedly, if the small size of the audience bothered them, they didn’t show it: they gave a fully committed performance with a professionalism that, under the circumstances, bordered on the heroic. But it’s hard not to feel that something is not right. That something, indeed, is very, very wrong. After the show, as I waited for the bus back home from Hounslow town centre, I saw no shortage of people out that Friday night, in bars, in clubs – anywhere, indeed, but in the theatre; and the money they were spending was far, far more than what I had spent for my seat. The show itself, though by no means slight, made no great intellectual demand: it was joyous and exuberant throughout, and thoroughly entertaining. But the fact remained: twelve people – just twelve people. And it is hard to resist the conclusion that there is in our society an indifference bordering on hostility for anything perceived even remotely to be of cultural worth. We don’t need no educashun, and we certainly don’t need no kulcher either.

How all occasions do inform against our culture – against that which is of the greatest value. I have, for some years now, been chairman of a local music society, which has been going now for over sixty years. Each year, we organise nine concerts, mainly classical, bringing some wonderful musical talent right to our very doorsteps. Last month, we hosted pianist Jayson Gillham, who had been finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012, and was last year was outright winner of Montreal International Music Competition. He has already performed with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, and in some of the most prestigious halls, and, given this background, one might have thought the good people of our locality would be fighting for tickets. We certainly did our best to publicise the concert – with mentions on various social media platforms, announcements on local radio, fliers, banners, and the like. And yet, we couldn’t even fill our modest church hall: to see this rising star of the world of classical music, only fifty or so turned up in a hall that could hold about eighty. Of course, that was a much larger audience than the one that turned up to see Bleak House, but I, as chairman, felt frankly embarrassed. Not, admittedly, that the small audience size seemed to bother Jayson Gillham any more than it had bothered the cast of Bleak House: he gave a superb recital, finishing with a quite electric performance of Chopin’s B minor sonata. But once again, I couldn’t help feeling that something isn’t right. One can bring a horse to water, as they say, but we were doing far more than that: we were bringing water to the horse. And still the horse seems reluctant to drink.

It’s the same story everywhere. Many similar music societies in the neighbourhood have already folded. There is absolutely no shortage of musical talent: merely a shortage of people prepared to appreciate it.

And no, I don’t buy the contention that ’twas ever thus. Our music club has been going for some sixty-five years now, and that would not have been possible if ’twas ever thus. That membership numbers and attendances are declining year on year is hardly, after all, a figment of my imagination. Neither is it a figment of my imagination that not so long ago, mainstream television channels would broadcast regularly, at peak viewing times, the London Symphony Orchestra playing classical music (Andre Previn’s Music Night); and that Andre Previn himself, then Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, could appear as guest on the hugely popular Morecambe and Wise Show without requiring any special introduction. Can anyone imagine the Principal Conductor of a major symphony orchestra even being invited on to a popular television show these days? It seems that what is referred to – usually sneeringly these days – as “high culture” is increasingly sidelined away from the mainstream, so that only those who have made the special effort to look out for it will ever find it.

I could go on with my jeremiad, citing further examples, but jeremiads, no matter how deeply felt, tend to get a bit boring: so let’s skip all that. But I am not prepared merely to sit back and let it all happen. I may not be able to turn back the tide, but I can have a damn good try at the very least! So, wherever you are, may I please encourage you to support your local arts events: once we lose these things, they’re gone for ever. And if you’re in the UK, may I recommend a look through The Pantaloons’ forthcoming shows: I’ll certainly be looking out for them in future. And finally, if you live anywhere within travelling distance of Egham, please do have a look at our list of concerts for the 2015-16 season, and do come along to a few of them. Tell you what – mention this blog to me at the concert, and I’ll get you a coffee during the interval. Now, I can’t say fairer than that!

The Tragic Vision and its Discontents

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

– W. B. Yeats’ magnificent creative rendering (hardly a translation, if all the other translations I’ve encountered of this are anything to go by) of a chorus from Sophocles “Oedipus at Colonus”

In a recent post, I was rash enough to refer to something called a “tragic vision”, without bothering to define the term, or even, for that matter, to indicate what, if anything, I might have meant by it. And, quite rightly, I was challenged: what do I mean by it? My immediate reaction to the challenge was, I admit, to do what is normally done on the net on such occasions – claim that the meaning of the term is obvious in the context, and tell the questioner in no uncertain terms that he was simply being obtuse and awkward in pretending not to understand. But having learnt over the years to think a bit before hitting the “post” button – at least, in most cases – I did think for a bit, and the question after a while seemed entirely valid. If my principal criticism of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that it lacks this mysterious quality “tragic vision”, then it is surely up to me at least to give at least some indication of what I mean by the term. The question isn’t however an easy one to address, if only because before one can define “tragic vision”, one must first of all define “tragedy”; and even some rather profound thinkers have come a cropper on that one.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this – the prescriptive, and the descriptive: one may set out rules of what does or doesn’t constitute “tragic”, and, using those rules, determine which works are tragic and which aren’t; or one may examine all those works we – or, more precisely in this case, I – instinctively recognise as “tragic”, and then try to identify some common features of these works that lead to this recognition. The latter approach seems more reasonable to me, if only because the former seems remarkably pointless.

So, I started considering various tragic works, and identifying what features they possess that render them tragic, and I soon found that many of the popular conceptions of what constitutes “tragic” are simply wrong. For instance, the idea that tragedy ends with the death of the protagonist: there are any number of tragedies in which the protagonist is very much alive at the end – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, and so on, right down to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Sometimes, the tragedy may actually lie in the fact that the protagonist doesn’t die – that he has to go on living even when there is nothing left worth living for: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance. Sometimes – as in, say, The Bacchae of Euripides – there appears not even to be a tragic protagonist.

And even in cases where there is a protagonist, and the protagonist dies at the end, the death need not be a disaster, or even a defeat. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, at the point of death, is cleansed of pollution and accepted by the gods: his demise is not so much a defeat as a transfiguration. This brings us to another myth about tragedy – that a tragedy must end sadly: once again, that is not always the case. Oedipus at Colonus ends in a state of luminous wonder; Philoctetes, by the same dramatist, ends with harmony end reconciliation; the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus ends in triumph. Any definition of tragedy that excludes works such as these is obviously absurd.

We need, I think, to shift our gaze from how the work ends, and look at the work in totality. If I were to offer a definition of tragedy, I think I can do worse than to suggest that a tragedy is a work of art that focuses on and emphasises all those things that may lead us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that life is a Bad Thing, and not worth living; that, as the Ancient Writers say in yeats’ verse, “never to have lived is best”. This could be because life is cruel and short and nasty and brutish, and full of unmerited suffering; it could be because life is dreary and pointless; or because we are powerless in the face of evil; or because whatever we may gain from life is nullified by the inevitability of death, leaving us with nothing, and robbing us of all our joy; or even because, as with Rigoletto, we have to go on living when there is nothing worth living for. It could be any of these things, or any combination of these things: if comedy is a celebration of life, tragedy questions whether there really is anything worth celebrating.

Of course, defined in such broad (and no doubt crude) terms, comedy and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare frequently blended the two together, so that a tragic drama such as Romeo and Juliet may be seen as essentially a comedy (Tony Tanner classifies it as such in his book Prefaces to Shakespeare), while a play such as Measure for Measure, often classed as a comedy, can appear as dark and as disturbing as the most intense of tragedies. And Shakespeare was by no means the only one to straddle the two: taxonomy becomes very difficult indeed with works as diverse as, say, The Trial, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22. But taxonomy is not, perhaps, the point: simply to label works such as The Trial, Waiting for Godot, or Catch 22 doesn’t, after all, help us come to any enhanced appreciation. The point is more to understand what we mean by “tragic” or by “comic”, and allow that the two may at times occupy the same space – that it may be possible to celebrate life even while questioning whether there is anything worth celebrating: unlike a mathematical theory, a work of art can accommodate many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

But even if we do characterise tragedy in this manner, what do I mean by “tragic vision”? Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undoubtedly tragic, as it depicts life as short, violent, and brutish, and the world as a stage on which the horrors of existence outweigh any joy that may be found in it; and yet I complained of a lack of “tragic vision”. I know I’d meant something by that, but it’s worth my considering just what it was I’d meant, as it’s far from obvious – even, frankly, to me. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to examine all those various and often disparate works that I recognize as possessing a “tragic vision” – we needn’t go through the entire litany of titles – and try to identify what features they possess that strike me as visionary. In what respect, in short, is King Lear a greater work than Titus Andronicus?

It is difficult to speak of such matters in general terms, as all ordinary tragedies are alike, but each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way. All ordinary tragedies are alike because they show us life as nasty and violent and brutish; but generally, they don’t go much further. However, tragedies that I would term “visionary” peer deeper: they try to understand what, if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. Titus Andronicus shows us a picture of humans as irredeemably cruel and wicked and barbarous, and whenever characters are visited by cruelty and wickedness and barbarity, their response is but to return it all in kind: humans here are, essentially, machines programmed merely to inflict grievous hurt on one another. King Lear also shows us a world that is cruel and wicked and barbarous: even the gods, should they exist, are questioned; but the humans in this world emerge as so much more than machines: they are capable of tenderness, of empathy, of love, of self-sacrifice; they are capable of learning the world anew, and taking upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.

Of course, one may say that none of this lessens the pain, that despite everything, all remains dark and comfortless. Perhaps. We certainly tend to see the play in our post-Beckettian days as essentially nihilistic. But there have been intelligent commentators – Kenneth Muir, for instance – who have gone so far as to see King Lear as a Christian play of redemption, and I don’t know that this perspective, though not perhaps in keeping with modern sensibilities, should necessarily be dismissed. For even the most nihilist-minded of spectators will concede that there is much human goodness in this play, and that this human goodness is as extreme and as unaccountable as is the human evil. Of course, this goodness is utterly ineffective, and while this may lead us towards interpreting the work as essentially nihilist, it may also appear to certain temperaments that the good, by the very fact that it exists at all when there is no conceivable reason for it do so, is a redemptive force. Such matters are best left to the individual temperaments: there is no single way of interpreting works such as this. But however one interprets this, there is more here, far more, than the mere unrelieved brutality of Titus Andronicus. We do not leave a performance of King Lear asking ourselves “Is man no more than this?” We have been given a glimpse into the Mystery of Things that tells us there is far more than we could ever hope to fathom.

Such a view may lead us towards Orwell’s famous formulation in his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, in which he characterises tragedy as a drama in which Man is defeated, but we are left nonetheless with a sense that Man is nobler than the forces that defeat him. This seems an attractive formulation, but like all such formulations, it breaks down after a while. Where, for instance, is the nobility in Euripides’ Medea?

This is always the problem with trying to formulate definitions in literary criticism: just when you think you have the whole damn thing covered, out pops one that simply won’t be tied down by your piddly wee definition. We may spend some time and effort refining our definition to cover Medea as well, but you can be sure there will be something else popping out that doesn’t give a fig for whatever classification you may come up with. Literature is too vast to be tied down by definitions, and doesn’tcare for rules. And yet, if we do not even try to define or to classify, we cannot even begin to analyse, and the very concept of dialogue becomes meaningless. So, bearing that in mind, I will stick, at least for the moment, with my definitions: “tragedy” focuses on the darker aspects of life, and depicts the wreckage; and works possessing “tragic vision” are those tragedies that attempt to discover what, if anything, may be salvaged from the wreck. These latter works may conclude that there is indeed nothing that can be salvaged, but the very fact that the attempt is made indicates that the attempt is at least worth making. Give or take the odd Medea, this classification tends, I think, to hold good, though rarely have I felt so open to being persuaded otherwise.

An apology for the recent hiatus

It has been a long time, hasn’t it? I can’t remember when this blog had so long a hiatus between one post and the next. And even this post can’t really count as a proper post. You may find it hard to credit, but usually, I do try to shape and structure my posts, polish the sentences, try to ensure each sentence and each point flows naturally and smoothly from the previous sentence or the previous point, and so on. But I am not bothering with any of that here. This is simply an unmediated flow of whatever proceeds from my heat-oppressed brain. A stream of consciousness, if you will.

I won’t compile a list of reasons for the hiatus. Oh, very well then, I will: pressure of work, pressures outside work, illness in the family, a lesser indisposition of my own, and so on. Not to mention, not even by way of paralipsis, an inclination towards indolence that is both native and cultivated. Let us not dwell on these: these are all but the everyday slings and arrows that affect us all, and I am not claiming any special victim status. But it has meant that what little time I have had to myself, I have been too exhausted to shape and structure my posts, polish my sentences, and all the rest of it. Maybe, I thought to myself, I am feeling my age: I started this blog two days after my fiftieth birthday, and, given that my blog celebrated (if that’s the word I’m looking for) its fifth anniversary a few weeks ago, mathematicians amongst you should be able to figure out just how close I now am to physical and mental decrepitude. Do I have the energy for any of this, I wonder? Do I have the discipline to focus my mind, when all I really want to do is to settle back in my armchair with a dram of whisky?

And it’s not just my blog-writing that has suffered. My reading has, too. I am currently re-reading The Idiot (those great bearded 19th century Russians I have to keep returning to), but the rusty old brain has been so uncooperative that progress has been painfully slow. And as for browsing through other blogs – I am shamefully behind on that. The whole point of having a network of literary blogs is that one reads each other’s blogs, comments on them, gets into discussions, and so on. In general, I am usually better at reading other people’s blogs than commenting on them, but of late, even my reading of these blogs has suffered. And how could I possibly expect others to visit my blog if I do not, at least once in a while, put down my whisky and visit theirs? I’m afraid I can only put forward advancing old age and mental exhaustion as mitigating factors.

It has made me wonder whether I really should be bothering with a blog at all if I do not have the time or energy to do it properly. No – not “time”: scrub that bit. For to say that I am too busy to have much time to spare for my blog is to imply that other bloggers are not so busy as I am, not so hard-working, or whatever; and that implication, as well as being insulting, is utter nonsense. I really don’t want to be like those irritating people who, when they see you reading, tell you that they too should “get round” to reading “these books”, and that they will, some day, when they have the time. I feel like telling them that it’s not the lack of time that’s the issue – that one makes time for the things one is passionate about: the problem is the lack of will. I don’t say these things, of course, as I have been brought up to be polite; but since I have not been brought up to shun all hypocrisy, I find myself thinking these things while I smile and nod away in agreement.

Well, that’s my excuses over. Do please give me till the end of this week, and then, hopefully, I’ll be returning to my usual blogging self.

I should now be thinking of a few closing sentence that will round off this post in a satisfactory manner, but, as they say, sod that for a game of soldiers!

“Love’s Labour’s Lost” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a review of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Christopher Lushcombe, seen as a live cinema broadcast on February 11th, 2015.

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an relatively early play, and not among Shakespeare’s best-known, but I find myself loving it and revisiting it far more often than many of Shakespeare’s better-known comedies, such as, say, Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. This could perhaps be something to do with the fact that this was the first play I ever saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: the production I saw back then (nearly 37 years ago now) was directed by John Barton, and it seemed to me then and seems to me still – although I do realise that memory can play tricks on these matters – nothing short of perfection. However, I don’t want to turn into one of those boring old farts for whom nothing modern can ever match the glories of the past: at least, I don’t want to assume such a posture on all matters. For in the matter of theatrical productions of Shakespeare, the quality, to judge from the Henry IV plays I saw in Stratford-on-Avon last year, seems to be as high as it ever was.

But it’s a difficult play to bring off, partly because Shakespeare more or less abandoned here the idea of plot, and also because so much of its effect depends on dizzying wordplay of a sort likely to lose a modern audience. Indeed, one can’t help wondering how much of this wordplay would have been picked up even by Shakespeare’s own audience: a line such as Berowne’s “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile” can yield multiple meanings when pondered at one’s leisure in one’s study, but delivered at the speed of sound in the theatre, it’s difficult to get little more than merely the sound of the words.

Of course, it can be said that a line such as Berowne’s is more clever than poetic: it is an extremely intelligent person showing off, exhibiting but a facility with words, a verbal agility, an ability to exploit multiple levels of meaning; it is a self-conscious performance rather than anything very deeply felt. And I can’t help speculating whether the young Shakespeare may have felt this about himself. He must surely have known that he had a greater command of the English language than did any of his contemporaries, or even, for that matter, any of his predecessors; he knew that words obeyed his call. Did he perhaps worry, I wonder, whether this prodigious ability led not to an engagement with reality, but to an escape from it? That, instead of grappling with the seriousness of life, he was merely playing smartarse word games? I usually try not to speculate on authors’ biographies in this manner, but the reason I can’t help doing so on this occasion is that this is, it seems to me, one of the major themes of this play: Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to me very deeply concerned about the uses to which language is put. Through most of this play, we get dizzyingly clever wordplay, and exuberant verbal games; we also get some of the most exquisite and soaring love poetry; but, in the final section, something extraordinary happens. Just as the play seems to be hurtling to its merry and jovial conclusion, with the men all neatly paired off with the ladies, a messenger enters:

Enter MERCADE

MERCADE     God save you, madam!

PRINCESS     Welcome, Mercade;
But that thou interrupt’st our merriment.

MERCADE     I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The king your father–

PRINCESS     Dead, for my life!

MERCADE     Even so; my tale is told.

And that’s it. Within just a few seconds, the tonality changes beyond all recognition. The high spirits and the exuberance that we had all been enjoying till now gives way to more sombre hues; faced with the implacable fact of mortality, these characters now have to put away their childish things, and learn to grapple with sickness, with grief, and with the impermanence of life itself. I think it’s one of the most wonderful moments in all Shakespeare.

But it is not a tragic ending. Paradise isn’t lost: it’s merely deferred. And when that paradise eventually comes, when Jack finally has Jill, both Jack and Jill may perhaps see the world in a more mature light; although, as Berowne sadly says, “that’s too long for a play”.

The final scene is one of veiled melancholy, of a growing awareness that sadness, like joy, is also a part of life, and cannot be banished. In The Taming of the Shrew, it had been the wife who had been educated by the husband; here, it’s the men who are educated by the ladies. It is the ladies who urge the men to delay the marriages by a year. And Rosaline specifically asks Berowne to leave behind his frivolous games, and tend the sick:

ROSALINE     You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

BEROWNE     To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

I can never quite satisfy myself with mere analysis just what it is about these lines I find so moving. Is it perhaps a recognition of loss? – a loss of something that cannot be recovered? For, once one is aware of the complexities of life, of all its dark shadows and its miseries, what price mirth? What good is it, when it has no power to move a soul in agony? Where is gone all the unfettered joy and the exuberance? Are all these, too, childish things that must be put away?

These questions aren’t answered: all that’s too long for a play, after all. This play comes to an end not with the characters becoming more mature, but with their realisation that, far from shutting themselves away from life, as they had planned to do at the opening of the play, they have now to engage with it. And, after all the linguistic virtuosity, the play ends with two very simple lyrics – homely songs, with everyday words, and images drawn from everyday life – such as maidens bleaching their summer smocks, or icicles hanging by the wall. We seem as far from the start of the play as it is possible to be: words are now used not for playing clever games, but for grappling with what is real.

Grappling with all this in a performance, however, is a tall order, and I hope it isn’t seen as a backhanded compliment when I say this production nearly succeeds. It is the first of two related productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this season – the second being Love’s Labour’s Won, a title one could search for in vain in Shakespeare’s Collected Works. It is known that a play with this title did indeed exist, but it is probably lost; or, conceivably, it could be the play we now know as Much Ado About Nothing. The Royal Shakespeare Company goes with the latter conjecture, and presents the two plays in tandem with much the same cast, and with Rosaline and Berowne transformed in the later play into Beatrice and Benedick. There is a further conceit in these productions: the two plays are both located in an English country house – the first before World War One, and the second after. I am not sure how this will work in Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won): that has not been broadcast in the cinemas yet; but I wasn’t, I admit, entirely convinced in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There is, after all, no mention in the text of any impending war, and the four men appearing at the end in military uniform seemed to me incongruous with the text of the play. And further, given what we know about the carnage that was WW1, it added a note of the tragic, which rather drowned out any sense of delicate and wistful melancholy.

Of course, one could say that the delicate and wistful melancholy is but my own interpretation, and that other possible interpretations can also be valid. I don’t dispute that. But, having read through the play again after seeing this production, I could not at any point find anything to justify an interpretation that sees this ending as tragic. For why should it be? The men aren’t really going to war – there’s no mention of it; and neither are the marriages cancelled – they’re merely postponed. At the end, Berowne reflects that Jack hath not Jill, and, when reminded that Jack has not lost Jill for ever, comments “that’s too long for a play”. This comment is a bit sad, perhaps, and wistful, and half-humorous; but what it isn’t, I think, is tragic: Berowne’s disappointment – and it is no more than that – is not devoid of hope. However, in this production, it was delivered while holding back sobs, and I really can’t see any justification in the text for delivering it in this manner.

The final songs as well, distinguished from the rest of the play by their extreme simplicity of diction, were performed here as a big musical number. It is all very well done, as indeed are all the other musical numbers. (This production, incidentally, is full of music, and it is all delightfully scored and performed.) But the simplicity which is the very essence of these final songs is missing. The play, whenever I read it, seems to have at the end a dying fall: here, instead, we are presented with a spectacular pageant.

Perhaps I shouldn’t harp too much on the ending: I only do so because this particular ending seems to me among Shakespeare’s very finest, and the replacement of a gentle and wistful melancholy with full-throated spectacle did, frankly, leave me somewhat disappointed. Which is rather a pity, as the rest of the production could barely be improved upon. Although, even here, there are one or two things for a Beckmesser such as myself to carp about. Why, for instance, change Berowne’s “guerdon” to “emolument”? Sure, the modern audience is likely to be more familiar with the word “emolument”, but given that the joke is about Costard not understanding what the word means in the first place, perhaps “guerdon” should have been left untouched.

Also, I couldn’t help wondering whether Michelle Terry’s Rosaline had to be quite so combative. Rosaline and Berowne clearly foreshadow Beatrice and Benedick in many respects, but even Beatrice and Benedick need to convince us that they do love each other, or, at least, that they come to love each other. Here, while Berowne is clearly besotted with Rosaline, I can’t say I had any great confidence that his love is reciprocated. At least, were I a young man (and I was once – honestly!) I wouldn’t have given much for my chances with this Rosaline.

And finally, while I am still in my Beckmesser mode, there’s the pageant put on at the end by the curate, the schoolmaster, and others of the “lower orders”. In Shakespeare’s text, when Nathaniel the curate does his turn as Alexander, he speaks his few lines, Berowne has a few witticism at his expense, and then they all move on. Here, the scene was expanded: Nathaniel forgets his lines; Berowne makes a scathing comment; and, as Nathaniel is about to leave the stage in tears, one of the ladies (I think it was Rosaline) calls him back; and this time, Nathaniel remembers his lines, to much applause. Now, it is true that the ladies in this play educate the men, and that Berowne’s witticisms at the expense of the performers are uncalled for; but did the text really needed to be changed to underline this point so crudely? Far better, surely, is Shakespeare’s own way of making the point: in the text, at the height of the men’s barrage of “witticisms” (as in the similar scene at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the men, and not the ladies, who mock the admittedly absurd show on view), the schoolmaster Holofernes says: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” It is a marvellous line. Holofernes had been, till this point, a preposterous comic figure, but with this single line he acquires a dignity and a humanity that the four noblemen at this point rather conspicuously lack. Sadly, this wonderful line was cut in this production, and this excision makes to me no sense at all.

However, leaving aside the Beckmesserisms, there was much to admire. First of all, the sets: each scene was set in a different part of the country house – in the library, on the finely manicured lawn, the drawing room, the terrace, outside the front door, and at one point, quite unexpectedly, on the rooftop. The sets and the ingenious shifts of scene were wonderful: this must have been magical to have experienced in the theatre. And, while I may certainly quibble with certain aspects of the interpretation, the entire cast was marvellous, speaking the very difficult lines superbly, and, with impeccable comic timing, getting laughs where I wouldn’t have suspected any existed. The audience is unlikely to have followed all the arcane wordplay, but with performances of such fine comic zest, it didn’t seem to matter. In particular, John Hodgkinson as Don Armado played the “fantastical Spaniard” with an exuberant comic relish, delighting particularly in the smutty double entendres; while Edward Bennett as Berowne delivered his soaring paean to love in Act Four – surely among the very greatest of all love poems – with such clarity and ardour that time really did seem to stand still, and we, the audience, became, in Hamlet’s words, wonder-wounded hearers.

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.

Shakespeare may indeed, as I conjectured, have worried whether his mastery over language might be an escape from reality rather than an engagement with it; but when one comes across lines such as these, one feels that he really need not have worried. The sombre hues of the final scene may lift this play from a fine work to a great one; but even without these hues, what we have is exquisite. And it is so exquisitely presented that to carp on matters of interpretation, as I have been doing, is likely to appear merely churlish.

Please note: a cinema broadcast of a theatrical event often makes an impact somewhat different from that when seen in the theatre. Do please see here for Sheila’s characteristically detailed account of the play as seen in the theatre: it really is the next best thing to actually being there.

“‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” by John Ford

I don’t think I’m quite getting it, to be honest. I wasn’t expecting anything of the level of a Hamlet or a King Lear – that would have been foolish – but I was expecting something.  So far, I have read two revenge tragedies, one from either end of the era during which the genre of the Revenge Tragedy was popular: The Spanish Tragedy, written when Shakespeare was still a young man and before his literary career had taken off; and now, the splendidly titled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford, first performed in 1633 some seventeen years after Shakespeare’s death. But, different though these two plays are, what I am getting are no more than exciting stories, excitingly told, well crafted, and displaying a theatrical bravura: all well and good, one may say, but I am getting nothing so far of anything resembling a tragic vision. Are my expectations too high? Or is there really nothing more to these plays other than a finely tuned stagecraft? Should I just tune my expectations down to expecting no more than an exciting story? Perhaps. But I am not prepared to give up on this yet, by any means: I am particularly keen, amongst other things, to renew my acquaintance with John Webster. Maybe there is a tragic vision in there somewhere – but just not in the two plays I have read so far.

If we do lower our expectations somewhat from the ridiculously high levels set by Will, what we find is entertaining enough. The title of this play, sadly, doesn’t have too great a bearing on the action: it is, one suspects, little more than a ploy to hook the paying audience. However, although the leading lady of this piece, Annabella, is no whore – in that her sexual desires are not conspicuously displayed, nor her sexual favours prodigally given – the sensation-seeking audience has little reason to demur: right from the opening scene, in which the young Giovanni argues with a friar that his passionate sexual desire for his sister Annabella cannot be immoral or irreligious, we know we are in for juicy stuff. The friar, of course, is outraged, but that’s friars for you: no sense of adventure. Undeterred by fears of hellfire, Giovanni announces his passion to his sister, and she doesn’t require much persuasion to jump into bed with him. This doesn’t, admittedly, make her a “whore”, as the title declares, but it doesn’t, shall we say, make for the kind of sweet and wholesome role for which Julie Andrews might have been suitable. (Although, having said that, such casting against type might have been interesting.)

In The Spanish Tragedy, much time was taken up between the crime and the revenge by Hieronimo going mad, and indulging in some quite splendid lunatic rants. Possibly that sort of thing was a bit out-of-date by Ford’s day: he fills in the time between set-up and pay-off by introducing various subsidiary characters and sub-plots, all quite ingeniously woven into the main fabric of the play. The characters are adroitly presented – from the villainous Donado to the imbecilic Bergetto, from the loyal but brutal servant Vasques to the passionate and vengeful Hippolita – and the various strands of the plot are presented with great clarity, so that they all complement each other rather than get in each other’s way. It would be unfair of me to give away the plot details: there was one especially that even I, who like to think of myself as cynical and jaded, had not expected. I must admit it gave me quite a jolt. And, even while reading this as I did on my commuter train, it’s hard not to feel a thrill of horror when Giovanni enters in the final scene with a still warm human heart skewered on his dagger. So what if it’s a rubber stage prop? By this stage you’re so involved in the story it doesn’t matter.

So all in all, it’s tremendous fun. But where is the tragic vision I had been promised? I haven’t seen any so far, but I am but two plays into my project: let’s read on a bit more. Even if I do not end feeling exalted, I shall certainly be most royally entertained.

On opening lines

In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines.

That wasn’t really very good, was it? Not only does that opening line not impart much beyond what the title has already said, it establishes a tone of voice that is unlikely to engage the casual reader. Or even, for that matter, an interested one. It presents a picture of an author who is scrupulous and correct, but also bland and boring; and who – as Wilde said most unfairly about Henry James – sees writing as a “painful duty”. Perhaps it might work better if expressed as a rhetorical question:

What makes for a good opening line?

A bit better, perhaps: it opens the prospect of a discussion that could lead to some sort of answer. But it’s not much better than the first attempt, to be honest. Many of my earlier posts in this blog started in this manner, but once I made the effort to read through some of my older posts in a critical frame of mind – a salutary though frequently dispiriting thing to do – I realised quite soon how irritating a mannerism this is. I take care never to start any post like this nowadays.

For openings are difficult, and also important, especially in our attention-straitened times. If you haven’t captured the reader’s attention within the first few lines – sometimes within the very first line – then the prospective reader has gone: that extra “view” on your blog statistics does not translate to someone who has bothered to read what you’ve written.

This obviously puts at a disadvantage writers such as myself whose natural style tends towards the prolix rather than the snappy. But snappy opening lines are not without their problems either. All too often, they seem designed to capture the reader’s attention: it’s sometimes a sort of metaphorical throat-clearing – a call to attention which, once delivered, clears the way for the piece really to begin with the second sentence. This is not necessarily a shortcoming: one can sometimes find this sort of thing even in very fine works. Take, for instance, the opening of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch 22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Instantly, the reader (well this reader at any rate) is hooked. But the paragraph that follows has nothing to do with the chaplain: it tells us that Yossarian was in hospital, and explains why. The writing is still brilliant, the reader is still hooked, but that first sentence does not lead to what immediately follows: there is a disjoin.

Of course, that isn’t a problem here – especially as this novel delights in comic artifice, and constantly, and quite deliberately, draws attention to itself. But if that opening line were to be omitted, there would be no hole in the narrative. Writers lesser than Joseph Heller (which is just about all of us, I guess) would, I think, be well-advised to be careful about using this sort of throat-clearing opening gambit. I try not to use it myself: I know my limits, and, badly done, it could become as irritating a mannerism as starting posts with rhetorical questions.

Of course, opening lines don’t have to be snappy to capture the reader’s attention: take for instance the famous openings sentence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Sixty-three words, by my count, which could easily be cut down dramatically while still retaining its sense; but, as written, it captures the reader’s attention because it establishes a very distinctive tone of voice: the “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a particularly felicitous touch. The model for this sort of thing is, I suppose, the opening of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Once again, it captures a very distinctive tone of voice. The “don’t” rather than the grammatically correct “won’t” helps capture the tone, but the real touch of brilliance here is, I think, the word “without”. Most of us would have written something along the lines of “You won’t know about me unless you have…”; or “You won’t know about me if you haven’t…”; but anything along those lines would have disrupted the distinctive rhythm of Huck’s manner of speaking. I don’t know how much time and thought Twain had given to that opening sentence, but I suspect it was the product of hard work rather than a spontaneous effusion. And how he must have rejoiced when he finally came up with “without”, and realised that the opening sentence was now absolutely perfect.

But one can also create arresting openings without being snappy, and without establishing an engaging and distinctive narrative voice: but such openings arrest the attention only of a certain kind of reader. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass above the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

Of course, this is unlikely to attract readers who are not prepared to take their time and to engage closely, but James is not writing for such readers anyway. Here, all in one sentence, we are given a sense of the passage of time (Kate Croy is waiting “unconscionably”); the detail of the glass above the mantel gives us a sense of place; the irritation that brings Kate Croy to the point of leaving without seeing her father conveys a sense of her character, and also a sense of tension for reasons as yet unspecified; the face “postively pale” implies a sense of crisis either impending or apparent; and even the four opening words (“She waited, Kate Croy, …” rather than “Kate Croy waited …”) places the emphasis on the act of waiting rather than on the more mundane matter of the naming of the character; while the two commas punctuating these first four words make for a halting, stuttering rhythm that conveys admirably a sense of strain and of unease. All this in a single, harmoniously constructed sentence. Admittedly, this is unlikely to make the Flavorwire or Buzzfeed (or whatever) list of great opening lines, but if ever there were a finer opening to a novel than this, I don’t know it.

And only yesterday, on starting for the first time the essays of Francis Bacon, I came upon this opening line:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

The essay is entitled “On Truth”. In the gospels, Pilate does indeed ask the captured Jesus this most profound of questions, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); we do not know if Jesus had answered, for no answer is recorded. In Bacon’s version of this story, Pilate did not stay for an answer – either because he did not think there was an answer, or because he did not wish to hear what he thought (or feared) the answer may be. And Pilate, according to Bacon, was “jesting”. Not that he asked the question “in jest”, but that his entire person may be described as “jesting”; that he either refused, or pretended to refuse, to take life too seriously. The two possibilities put forward in this brief sentence are intriguing: either Pilate did not take life seriously, and had asked “What is truth?” fully convinced that no answer was possible; or that he pretended, for reasons we may only guess at, not to take life too seriously, and did not wish even to hear any possible answer to his question.

What wondrous vistas of thought, rich in possibilities, are brought to view by this seemingly simple opening line! It draws me into this meditation on the nature of truth as surely as if it were a thrilling adventure story. Now, that’s how to start an essay, and, to judge by the generally mundane opening lines of my posts here on my blog – the critical reading of which remains, as I said, a frequently dispiriting thing to do – I clearly have some considerable distance yet to go…

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