Posts Tagged ‘drama’

“The Master Builder” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

 

The Master Builder continues to puzzle and bewilder audiences and readers. When watching a performance in the theatre, or reading the text at home, one can hardly miss its intense, life-and-death seriousness. But what is it all about? All kinds of possible interpretations have been put forward – that it is a political allegory, a representation of Man turning against God, a dramatisation of inter-generational conflict, an exploration of Nietzschean concepts of morality, and so on. Ibsen himself, when asked about its interpretation, replied that he simply wrote about people, and that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Of course, he was being disingenuous, but perhaps that is not a bad way of approaching this inscrutably obscure drama. It’s not that the play is not about a great many different themes and ideas, but, perhaps, none of that makes too much sense unless we engage first with the people – the characters on stage who carry the drama.

The setting seems realistic enough. In the first scene, we are in an office in the house of master builder Halvard Solness, and we see his employees at their work. This could easily be the setting of a realistic social drama, such as The Pillars of Society. And indeed, in the course of the drama, nothing happens that is unrealistic – in the sense that nothing happens that is physically impossible. But yet, it becomes impossible to take this drama on purely realistic terms. At the heart of the drama are a number of scenes between Master Builder Solness, and his young visitor, Hilde Wangel (whom we had seen in the earlier play The Lady From the Sea), and the duologues between them seem to make little sense if considered from a strictly realistic perspective. From such a perspective, we could say that they are both, in essence, mad – that they are both locked into their own personal fantasies, and that these fantasies somehow feed off each other. We could say that, on occasion, the reality of the lives around them enter into their fantasies; but equally – and, by the end, fatally – their fantasies also obtrude into the real world.

But to leave it there is to relegate this drama into the realms of nonsense: what interest could there possibly be in the fantasies of two crazy people? The reviews of the first London performance did, indeed, see the play in such terms (there’s a wonderful collection of quotes from these reviews in Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen): “… a play written rehearsed, and acted by lunatics”; “… platitudes and inanities…”; “… the most dreary and purposeless drivel … pointless, incoherent, and absolutely silly…”; “three acts of gibberish…”; “dull, mysterious, unchaste”.

It is easy to look back on such uncomprehending early criticism, and congratulate ourselves on our greater understanding, but it remains true, I think, that if we fail to enter imaginatively into the fantasy worlds created by Solness and by Hilde, and if we fail to see these fantasies as important counterpoints to the very real and solid world with which they overlap, then the criticisms quoted above may be seen as entirely reasonable, and “dull, mysterious, unchaste” may appear an entirely reasonable summary. Ibsen did, indeed, as he insisted, portray people, but to understand the nature of the people he portrayed, we must prepare ourselves to enter into their fantasies, and take them as seriously as the reality which, throughout all the dramatic complexities, never quite go away.

The opening scenes are very realistic indeed: Ibsen needed a strong, solid base on which to build. Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, as the Norwegian title proclaims) is described in the stage directions as being in his “late middle age”: I think we can take that to mean he is in his 50s – hardly in the first flush of youth, but far from descended into the vale of years: we see him as vigorous, energetic, masterful, exerting his personal power over people around him; and, if the drama that unfolds is to make sense, he is charismatic, and still sexually attractive. Certainly Kaja, his bookkeeper, is completely in thrall to him: he is, naturally, fully aware of the power he exerts over Kaja, and is happy to take advantage of it.

Kaja’s intended, Ragnar Brovik, and Ragnar’s father Knut, also work in the office, as architects and designers. Old Knut Brovik once had his own construction business, but that had failed, and we see him merely an underling of Solness. Now, obviously old and ill, he would like to see his son succeed in the business, and he asks Solness to recommend Ragnar’s design for a commission, but Solness, terrified of the thought of being supplanted by a younger generation (as he, as a young man, had supplanted Knut Brovik), angrily refuses.

BROVIK: Am I to depart this life so poor?

SOLNESS [appears to be  struggling with himself; at length he says quietly, but firmly]: You will have to depart this life as best you can.

BROVIK: Well, so be it. [He walks away.]

SOLNESS [going after him, almost despairingly]: But I can’t do otherwise, you see! I am the way I am, after all!

Like God Almighty, he is what he is.

This opening exchange lays bare the essential character of Solness. He can be cruel, he can hurt people; but cruelty is not something that comes to him naturally. He has to struggle with himself before he utters those immensely cruel words “You will have to depart this life as best you can”. And afterwards, he has to try to explain himself. As the scene continues, we see him pour out a glass of water for his employee, and seeing that he is ill, advises Ragnar to take his father home. He is not amoral: he has a sense of what is right and what is wrong, of what is kind and what is cruel, but he cannot do otherwise: he is what he is.

So far, so realistic: this could still be a play from Ibsen’s earlier years. But in the scene that follows between Solness and the doctor, Solness comes out with the most extraordinary paranoia: has not Aline, Solness’ wife, asked the doctor to keep an eye on him? Has not Aline confided to the doctor that she thinks he is … mad? The doctor denies this, but Solness doesn’t quite believe him.

Because to some extent, you see, she – she might have reason to think such a thing.

Solness changes the subject quickly after this, but if we had thought this a realistic play, we are, perhaps, a bit less sure of our ground now. The ground shifts even further as Solness tell the doctor that he feels that he has certain supernatural powers: his deepest desires, he feels, though unspoken, somehow communicate themselves to others, and these others, unbidden, serve him: he can, he is convinced, bend the will of others to his own merely by desiring.

And then there comes a most extraordinary exchange that seems to confirm Solness’ suspicions concerning his own sanity. Contrary to the doctor’s suspicions, he is not, he insists, having an affair with his bookkeeper Kaja, but he allows his wife to suspect that he is:

Because I feel there is a kind of – kind of salutary self-torture for me in simply allowing Aline to think unjustly of me … it’s like paying off some portion of some vast and bottomless debt …

The doctor at this point throws up his hands and says he doesn’t understand a word of this, and we in the audience may start feeling the same. But Solness goes further: he is frightened. Yes, he has been successful in his career, “but at some point, the turn will come”. The younger generation will rise up, he says, and will overthrow him. Youth will come knocking at the door. And, as if to underline how far we have strayed by this point from the strict realism with which the play had begun, there is indeed a knock on the door at this precise point, and it is indeed youth who is knocking. But not the youth that Solness had been expecting: it is a young lady, a stranger, Hilde Wangel, who seems to have known Solness, but whom he cannot recognise. Having laid the basis of the drama in these few short but densely packed scenes that start with strict realism, but which, in Solness’ conversation with the doctor, drift towards what seems like madness, Ibsen now introduces Hilde, the final character of the drama. The prologue, as it were, is now over.

Hilde had appeared in a play Ibsen had written some four years earlier – The Lady from the Sea. There, we had seen her a teenager, living with her elder sister and her father, both gentle and loving souls, and with her stepmother, from whom she feels alienated. The play does end with a promise of renewal, but Hilde herself had emerged a not entirely sympathetic character: she is fascinated by the fact that a neighbouring young man is, unknown to himself, terminally ill, and, while others are kind to him despite his foolish and conceited nature, she teases him mercilessly. There was, in that play, something predatory about her, a certain failure of human empathy. Ibsen presumably felt that given the supporting role she had played in that drama, there wasn’t room to develop her character as he might ideally have wanted; whether he did or not, he brings her back here, and allots her a more prominent role. There is still an element of the predatory about her: though it is not explicitly stated – virtually nothing is explicitly stated in this play – she has certainly come to take Solness away from his wife. But there is more. She is, we find out, also locked into her own personal fantasies, although how much of her fantasy is also real is, from the beginning, uncertain, and open to question.

Solness does not recognise her at first. She has to remind him: some ten years ago, when she had been about twelve or thirteen, Solness had gone up north to Lysanger, Hilde’s hometown, to build a church. And, on that occasion, to consecrate the new church, Solness had climbed up the high tower and had placed upon it a wreath. Hilde describes the scene in almost ecstatic terms:

… it was so splendid and so terribly exciting. I couldn’t believe there was a master builder in all the world who could build such an enormously high tower. And then the fact that you were standing up there yourself, at the very top! In person! And that you weren’t the slightest bit dizzy. That was the most – kind of – dizzying thought of all.

But there is more. Hilde goes on to claim that afterwards, he, Solness, had found her alone, and had told her she looked beautiful, like a princess. Solness has no recollection of this, but Hilde continues. He had promised that in ten years’ time he would return like a troll; that he would carry her off; and that he would buy her a kingdom, and a castle. Solness feels uneasy: he doesn’t remember this, but doesn’t contradict her. But then, Hilde says, he had bent her back and had kissed her, passionately, many, many times.

In our own times, with our greater awareness of child abuse, we are likely to find this narration deeply shocking. I think it is intended to be shocking. There can be no excuse for any man behaving in such a manner with a twelve-year-old girl. And indeed, at this point, Solness himself is very deeply shocked by the accusation, and he vehemently denies it. But, very disconcertingly, she is not accusing him: she has come, she says, to claim what she had been promised – her kingdom and her castle. The ten years, she says, are up, and since he hadn’t come to her, she has had to come to him. And in a tone that seems both joking and serious at the same time, she claims from the Master Builder the promised kingdom.

Solness first claims that all this is something she may have dreamed, but then seems to halt in his tracks: “Wait, though,” he says, “there’s something here that goes deeper…” Could it be that the memory of actually having done all this now resurfaces? Or could it be that he thinks that he had communicated to her his unspoken desire, and, as he is convinced he has the ability to do, he had, through some supernatural power, bent her will to his? We never do find out whether the story Hilde tells is indeed true – whether Solness really had done all this. But true or not, Solness, though remaining puzzled as to her true motive in seeking him out after all these years, is happy that she had come: he seems to find in her someone who is, if not necessarily a kindred spirit, someone he could talk with openly, in the hope of being understood. He invites her to stay in his house, in one of the three empty rooms, the nurseries that have never been used.

In the course of the play, a series of quite extraordinary duologues develop between Solness and Hilde, as each invites the other into their own fantasy, and they find these fantasies, in effect, complementing each other. If we are to look at it purely from a realistic perspective – and while this is not the only perspective, it is one always worth bearing it in mind – regardless of whether or not Solness had made advances towards the then twelve-year-old Hilde, she had been drawn to him; and now, a grown-up woman, she has come to take him away from his wife. And he – again regardless of whether or not the reported incident had actually happened – had secretly desired her then; for how could he have communicated his desire to her if he had not desired in the first place? And he continues to desire her now. But that is only a very partial view of the drama. To get to the mysterious and elusive heart of the play, we must enter into their fantasies, which develop on a related but somewhat plane from reality. We seem, in some ways, to be back in the world of Peer Gynt, where reality and fantasy seem to exist and develop side by side, interpenetrating and reflecting each other, but never quite touching.

There is, of course, a third point in the triangle: Aline, Solness’ wife, to whom Solness feels he owes a “vast and bottomless debt”. In the first two acts, she seems a pallid, almost a ghostly, presence, solicitous of her husband, but very unlike her husband: she is retiring and self-effacing, and almost entirely passive. When she says she will help Hilde settle in, she adds it’s her “duty”. The emptiness of duty devoid of love had been a theme in many of Ibsen’s earlier work – in particular, Ghosts – and this sense of emptiness strikes Hilde forcibly. Why had she not said she would help Hilde because she wanted to? This emphasis on duty has such a coldness about it.

But before this, there had been a brief but remarkable scene between Solness and Aline, which, like so much else in this play, seems almost impossible to summarise. Solness, we know, feels guilty towards his wife, although we do not yet know why. In this scene, she surprises him by expressing her own sense of guilt. “I should have hardened myself. Not let the shock get hold of me.” We cannot be sure at this stage what she is referring to. Solness tries to assure her that things would be better for them once they move into their new house, but she can see no such hope. Eventually, Solness gives up trying to persuade her, and vents his frustration:

SOLNESS [clenching his hands and crossing the floor]: Oh, but this is all so hopeless! Never a ray of sunshine! Not so much as a glimmer of light falling into this house!

MRS SOLNESS: This is no home, Halvard.

SOLNESS: No, well may you say that. [Heavily] And God knows you could be right – maybe things won’t get any better for us in the new house either.

MRS SOLNESS: They never will. Just as empty. Just as desolate. There as here.

The worst is that these two, caught in their joyless life together, are actually solicitous for each other, and have for each other a kind of love, even in their mutual misery. Later in the play, Solness describes his marriage in startlingly vivid terms:

And now she’s dead – for my sake. And I am chained, living, to the dead. [Frantically] I – I – who cannot live a joyless life!

The soul within Aline seems dead. At the start of the third and final act, Hilde has a scene with Aline, after which she says “I have just climbed out of a tomb … I am chilled to the bone…” In Ghosts, Ibsen had depicted a world stripped of human joy by insistence on duty – unquestioning duty that is to be carried out for its own sake, without love. Here, similarly, Solness, who cannot live without joy, feels he is chained to a corpse. But if Aline is indeed a corpse, Solness knows it is he who has killed her. This is the “vast and bottomless debt” he feels for her, and he is caught hopelessly between this immense sense of obligation he feels for her, and an overwhelming desire to break free.

The past that has led to this present is related in Act Two – but then again, only through Solness’ narration, which is not necessarily the most reliable. He has, in his career, been successful, but that success had only come at a great cost. His wife’s family home had burnt down, to the ground. This had given him the opportunity to divide the estate into small plots, and build houses on them. And that fire he had willed. He had noticed a fatal crack in the flue of the old house which, if not seen to, could cause a catastrophic fire; and every day, he would look at that crack, willing the disaster to happen. And yet, when the fire did happen, it wasn’t because of that crack: it was proven that the fire had started elsewhere. However, he had willed it: that, for Solness, was enough:

SOLNESS [confidentially]: Hilde, don’t you too believe that there are certain special, chosen people who have been granted the blessing and the power and the ability to wish for something, desire something, want something so deeply and so – so inexorably – that they’re bound to get it in the end? Don’t you believe that?

In Solness’ mind, there are, as he calls them, “helpers and servants” – supernatural beings who are summoned merely by the fact of his desire. And so, because he had willed it, the house had burnt down, and the entire family had had to evacuate into the freezing cold night. And the price paid was even greater than the house: their newborn infant sons, twins, had died shortly afterwards. But for this, Solness refuses to accept responsibility: he claims that Aline had caught a chill that night, and that her breast-milk had become infected; but that she had insisted that it was her duty to carry on breast-feeding them.

Now, this part of Solness’ narrative I, personally, would take with great scepticism. First of all, there is no evidence, either in medicine or in popular folk belief, that this can happen. And secondly, even if this really did happen, one may justly ask how Solness, in those days before full post-mortems, could be so sure of it. I would guess that this is another of Solness’ fantasies, part of the mythology he has created around himself. He is prepared to invent the mythology of his “helpers and servants” to justify the immense sense of guilt he feels for his wife, but to accept responsibility for the death of his children was too much, even for him; and here, I think, he had to transfer the guilt to his wife, and, significantly, to that particular aspect of his wife’s character that he finds so intolerable – that sense of loveless duty.

Later, at the start of the third act, Hilde speaks with Aline, and, like her husband, Aline finds herself telling things to Hilde that she is unlikely to have told anyone else – certainly not to her spouse. To Hilde’s surprise, Aline feels no remorse for the death of the children: that was God’s will, and it is her duty to accept. But it’s the smaller things that hurt more – things that to most other people may appear insignificant: in that fire, her childhood dolls had been burnt, and that she cannot come to terms with. Her connection with the past, her childhood, had been destroyed.

We are not told this, but we may infer that, after the fire, after the death of their children (of which the symbolically empty nurseries stand as a permanent reminder), she had suffered some sort of mental breakdown. Which, of course, would have been untreated in those days. In an earlier scene with her husband, she blames herself not for the death of the children (that story about the infected breast milk is, I think it is safe to assume, entirely Solness’ fantasy), but for not being strong enough after the tragedy had struck. And so she remains, a living corpse to whom the still vigorous Solness finds himself chained. This is what he has willed – this is the desire his “helpers and servants” have brought to fruition.

This is what folk call having Fortune on your side. But let me tell you how that Fortune feels! It feels like a large, raw patch here on my chest. And the helpers and servants, they go around tearing chunks of skin off other people in order to close my wound. But sill the wound won’t heal.

Hilde diagnoses him: he has an “ailing conscience”. This is not the Master Builder she had pictured. She had pictured a man with a robust conscience, a man unafraid to strive for what he desired. That was the man whom she had seen those ten years ago, on the tower, unafraid, not dizzy. And she had heard “harps in the air”. Soon afterwards, Hilde hears from Aline that Solness is actually afraid of heights, and dare not climb up towers any more. Hilde is outraged. Is it true that “my master builder dare not – cannot – climb as high as he actually builds?” Does he, after all, have a “dizzy conscience”?

It would be easy to see Hilde as merely a harpy, compelling Solness to leave behind his moral obligations. And while there is certainly some truth in this, this is not the entire truth either. After all, it is she who persuades Solness to do the right thing with Ragnar Brovik, and to approve his design. And, after speaking with Aline, she seems to lose her own will: her conscience, too, is not as “robust” as she had thought.

I cannot hurt someone I know! Cannot take away something that belongs to her.

Solness, too, acknowledges his moral  obligations:

HILDE: That a person doesn’t dare to reach out and seize his own happiness. His own life! Simply because someone they know is standing in his way!

SOLNESS: Someone they’ve no right to pass by.

HILDE: Who’s to say one doesn’t, in fact, have the right to do that? But, then again – Oh, if only one could sleep through the whole thing!

Hilde’s hopes seem dashed. Claims of moral obligation, which she had once thought dispensable, now assert themselves. As Rebecca West had found in Rosmersholm, the Rosmer way of life ennobles, but … but it kills happiness. It makes impossible the joy that Solness cannot live without.

And now, Solness, in the final duologue between them, tells her of what he had actually done when she had seen him on that one occasion, defying his fear of heights and actually climbing that tower. It had been ten years ago, shortly after the death of his children.

Solness had, he tells Hilde, come from a “religious home from a small village”. And he had believed that building churches was the finest thing he could do.

SOLNESS: I feel he ought to have been pleased with me.

HILDE: He? Who’s he?

SOLNESS: Him – the one the churches were for, of course! The one they were meant to glorify and praise!  

Solness cannot even bring himself to speak God’s name. But that day, on top of that tower that he would usually be afraid to climb, he had rebelled against God, whose name even now he is unable to articulate. He had said to God that he shall no longer build churches. He shall build houses – houses for people to live in. But it was no good: for at the centre of Solness’ own house remain those empty, desolate rooms. John Rosmer, having rejected the God he had once believed in, but unable to shake off the God-given guilt, had to pass judgement on himself; Solness, similarly having rejected Him whom he cannot even name, and similarly weighed down by guilt, now faces the horrifying fact of nothingness:

So you see, that’s what it all amounts to, no matter how far I look back. Nothing built, basically. And nothing sacrificed to be able to build anything either. Nothing, nothing – all of it.

This contemplation of nothingness is the bleakest point of the drama – its moral and spiritual nadir. But there is a coda. Solness and Hilde, from this point onward, both appear to retreat completely into the fantasy worlds they have created for themselves. Solness will give his princess the castle he had promised her, and it will be the finest castle that may be built – a castle in the air. He will, once again, defy his dizziness: he will climb the tower, and prove himself free. To Aline Solness, living in the real world and terrified for her husband’s safety, he is foolishly endangering his life for no reason; but on a different dramatic plane, this is his victory, and this is Hilde’s victory: she sees him great again. Of course, he crashes to the ground, and dies: from the perspective of the real world, it was madness. But Hilde, by this stage, is completely locked in her fantasy.

HILDE [in a sort of quiet, bewildered triumph]: But he got to the very top. And I heard harps playing in the air. [She waves her shawl above her head, and cries with wild rapture] My – my master builder!

The master builder that others see – their master builder – fell to his death in a foolhardy escapade. But her master builder finally dared to climb as high as he builds: he got to the top.

***

What are we to make of this strange play? I have tried in this post to give as lucid an account as I can of how I see the play, but reading over what I have written, I can’t help but feel that my interpretation simplifies matters, smooths out too many complexities. Perhaps that is the fate of all interpretations. Great works of art are all, despite possible interpretations, ultimately inscrutable, and do not give up their secrets. In this dizzyingly enigmatic and elusive play, Ibsen takes us into realms of the human mind which even he had not entered before. It is a play that continues to fascinate my imagination, even as I struggle to articulate why.

The Tragedy of Ophelia

Given that Hamlet is quite clearly of exceptional intelligence, and has an unsurpassed mastery of language, why is it that the love letters he sends Ophelia are so crap? This is a question that has long bothered me. When Polonius presents to Claudius and Gertude the private love letters Hamlet had written to Ophelia – concept such as privacy or intimacy mean little to so unfeeling a wretch – we get stuff like this:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans: but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

Is it at all credible that the character whom Shakespeare had endowed with something of his own intelligence and mastery of language would come out with guff as embarrassing as this? Shakespeare could have given Hamlet the kind of soaring love poetry that we see in Romeo and Juliet; or the more measured but equally potent expressions of love we see in so many other plays. But no – he seems almost to go out of his way to make Hamlet’s love letters as trite as they are clumsy.

That these lines are Hamlet’s there cannot be any question: Polonius may be foolish with other things, but he didn’t get to be the King’s most trusted right hand man without being a shrewd politician and intriguer, and he would certainly have been able to distinguish Hamlet’s handwriting from forgeries. No, Hamlet wrote these all right, and, unless we are to believe that Shakespeare had slipped up on so obvious a point, it is up to us to figure out why.

One point to notice, I think, is that, in the rest of the play, Hamlet is much given to mockery; and that when he mocks, he easily adopts the patterns of speech of those whom he is mocking. Here, for instance, he is mocking Osric:

HAMLET
… Put your bonnet to his right use; ’tis for the head.
OSRIC
I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
HAMLET
No, believe me, ’tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
OSRIC
It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
HAMLET
But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.

Here he is mocking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

But let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for, or no?

Here he is mocking Laertes’ overdone rhetoric (and pointing out his own mockery in the last line):

Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.


I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?


‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

Of course, we don’t have the instructions Shakespeare gave to his actors: we have only his texts, and even these require learned critical scrutiny. But since a number of Hamlet’s lines are quite clearly spoken in the spirit of mockery, and with ironic imitation of certain types of speech, we may, I think, justly wonder which other of Hamlet’s lines are similarly intended. My own feeling is that there is much more mockery in Hamlet’s part than is usually reckoned. Take, for instance, this rhapsody of words Hamlet directs at his mother in the big court scene in the first act:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

All too often this passage is delivered straight, but it seems to me that he is here mocking insincere expressions of grief. When delivered straight, it becomes very difficult to make much sense of that trite rhyming couplet at the end; but if this passage is indeed mockery, that couplet fits perfectly.

There are, I think, a few other passages, even some revered ones, that would benefit from being delivered in a mocking tone. For Hamlet is a master of parody and of pastiche, and he employs them liberally.

Given this is the case, is it at all possible that his letters to Ophelia were similarly written in a spirit of mockery? Not that he was mocking Ophelia: not only is there no reason for him to mock her when he was wooing her, such mockery would indicate a cruel and heartless brute; and whatever else Hamlet may have been, he wasn’t that. No – he may have adopted this mocking tone in his letters because Ophelia was in on the joke. Once again, I do realise this is conjecture on my part, but let’s hold with that conjecture for now and see if it leads us anywhere sensible. For imagining that Hamlet wrote those awful lines in all seriousness really takes us nowhere sensible at all.

Polonius, of course, does not sense any irony in these letters, but the subtleties of Hamlet’s mind are entirely lost upon him anyway: we wouldn’t expect Polonius to take these letters at anything other than face value. Gertrude, who, despite not being perhaps the most intelligent of characters, knows her son well enough to be suspicious: “Came this from Hamlet to her?” she asks – not because she does not think Hamlet cannot love Ophelia, but because she knows this is not Hamlet’s style at all. But if, indeed, Ophelia was in on the joke, if Ophelia could laugh at the worn-out conceit of lovers’ “groans” – of lovers pining away helplessly with pangs of dispriz’d love – then the picture we usually have of Ophelia as the docile and obedient and somewhat pallid young lady disappears, and is replaced by someone who is quick-witted, and intelligent; indeed, she becomes the kind of person whom one can imagine Hamlet being attracted to.

For Ophelia (like Hamlet himself, for that matter) is in the wrong play. In a comedy, she could have been a Rosaline, or a Rosalind, or a Beatrice, or a Viola: Shakespeare’s comedies are full of bright-witted and intelligent and immensely attractive young ladies. Even the very young Juliet has wit and wisdom beyond her tender years. And the men fall for them: Berowne falls for Rosaline, Orlando for Rosalind, Romeo for Juliet. Even Benedick, despite his apparent enmity with Beatrice in the earlier acts, is clearly besotted with her: his discovery of his love for her is not the realisation of something that is new, but an uncovering of what already is, but had been hidden.

Observe, for instance, Ophelia’s reply to her brother, who tries to put on a “big brother” act and give her moral instruction:

But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

This is a young woman who understands full well her brother’s sanctimony, his hypocrisy; she knows full well what he gets up to when he is seemingly “studying” at university. Her instinctive understanding, and her turning the tables on him in so shrewd and so articulate a manner, are worthy of Rosalind.

And Hamlet had, I think, been attracted to Ophelia for these very qualities. In a comedy, this would have worked out fine, but they are here in a very different play: here, Ophelia’s natural wit and intelligence are crushed by the overbearing nature of the power her father exerts upon her. She is utterly isolated, and has not even a Nurse to turn to. When she is distressed – as she is by Hamlet’s inexplicable behaviour – she has no-one to turn to except her father; and neither does she have any option but to obey her father’s instructions, even if it means handing over to him the personal love letters she has received. For all her natural intelligence, she is nonetheless a woman in a very patriarchal environment; and she is very young, and utterly dependent. Her spirit, though brilliant, is also fragile, and it is easily crushed.

It is in the third scene of the play, immediately after the big court scene (in which we had first seen Hamlet), that we see Ophelia for the first time. In too many productions of this play, the tension drops here, and it is largely a matter of “wake me up when the ghost appears”. But it shouldn’t be like that. We see Ophelia as intelligent and quick-witted, as she responds aptly, though not unkindly, to her brother, who has, rather patronisingly, been giving her moral instruction. But then her father enters, and he, in turn, gives moral instruction to his son. And the son takes it all. One suspects it is merely a matter of form on both sides, and that it is neither intended seriously on one side, nor taken seriously on the other. (The next time we see Polonius, he is setting spies on his own son: he certainly does not expect his moral instructions to be observed, and appears to have very few moral scruples himself.) And then he turns to his daughter, and she is in no position to reply to her father as she had to her brother. Both Polonius and Laertes judge Hamlet by their own somewhat debased standards: he merely wants his bit of fun with her, they think, and nothing more. Ophelia is sure she knows Hamlet better, but she is powerless: her last helpless words in this scene are “I shall obey, my lord”. And here, Ophelia’s tragedy, no less in magnitude than Hamlet’s, is set in motion – the crushing an intelligent, quick-spirited woman.

The two meet in III,i – the so-called “nunnery” scene. It has long seemed to me a key scene in the drama, although I don’t think I understood why. I am still not sure I entirely understand this scene – there is far too much happening here – but it still seems to me a key scene in the drama, and deserves close inspection.

Here, Ophelia has been instructed by her father to return to Hamlet all his gifts. And furthermore, she is to be the “bait”: she is given the morally dubious task of provoking Hamlet, so that her father and the King may, from their hiding place, observe how he reacts. Indeed, she finds herself in a situation similar to that of Hamlet himself: both have been enjoined by their respective fathers to do what does not come to them naturally – to do what they cannot.

She has been instructed to “read on this book”. If this is intended to camouflage her, as it were – to make her presence seem innocuous – it must be because Ophelia reading on a book is not a conspicuous sight: one can but conclude that she is often seen with a book. Hamlet enters, and delivers his famous soliloquy without at first noticing her. But it would be surprising indeed were she not to hear him; and what she hears is hardly cheerful stuff. Hamlet ponders why we choose to live when living is merely a series of the most intolerable vicissitudes, and concludes that we carry on living merely because we are to cowardly to face the alternative. And only when he has delivered himself of this that he notices her, reading on her book, and immediately adopts the familiar tone of mocking parody:

Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

If my conjecture is right, Ophelia is accustomed to this sort of banter, and, uneasy as she is in the task allotted her, takes up gratefully a similarly bantering tone:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

“My lord”, “Your honour” … is this the way a wooed woman addresses her wooer? Even if he is a prince? Their wooing was not, after all, merely in its early stages: she had already, by her own admission, “suck’d the honey of his music vows”.

“Good my lord”, “my lord”, “my honoured lord”, “your lordship” … by my count, there are eight instances of “my lord” (or variations thereof) in the very few lines that Ophelia has at this point, and it seems to me plausible that she is continuing the tone of banter that they were both accustomed to, and which, in this scene, Hamlet himself has introduced. Take, for instance, Ophelia’s next lines:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver

“Longed long” seems to me a rather contrived piece of poetic artifice, like someone who is not naturally a poet trying to speak poetically. Unless, of course, we take this also as a piece of parodic mockery. She even throws in a trite little rhyming couplet:

Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

We may remember that when Hamlet had mocked Gertrude, he too had thrown in a trite little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

But Hamlet’s reaction is not very appreciative. (One would hardly expect it to be given that she is returning his gifts.) He laughs – it could be a sardonic laugh – and then proposes a paradox. Once again, this was an aspect of courtly wit – we have seen Hamlet exchange paradoxes earlier with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but this particular paradox has a rather nasty edge to it. The paradox is that beauty is more powerful than honesty; and this is because beauty has the power to transform honest people into being dishonest, but honesty does not have the comparable power to transform beautiful people into being ugly. A pretty enough paradox, but a bit too close to the bone given what Ophelia is doing (i.e. using her own beauty to entrap Hamlet); and the way Hamlet explains this paradox, bringing into it the imagery of prostitution, is particularly nasty:

… the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness

Ophelia understands the insult. She is using her beauty to trap him, and she is no better than a prostitute. She now drops the bantering tone – it is no longer appropriate – and the rest of her lines are merely brief replies, as short and as to the point as possible, to Hamlet’s questions. Her entire world is now on the point of collapsing.

And then, on top of it all, she is forced into a lie. “Where’s your father?” Hamlet asks, all of a sudden. “At home, my lord,” she replies, and this time, there is no bantering quality to “my lord”. It is a bare-faced lie, she knows it; and Hamlet knows she knows it. And this lie seems to confirm to Hamlet everything he had suspected. Previously, Hamlet had ranted at himself (“I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”), but now, he turns his fury upon her. Nothing Ophelia says from here onwards is addressed to Hamlet: he is now not someone who may be spoken with. This is not the person she has known, and all she wants is for the Hamlet she had previously known to be restored to her:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

O heavenly powers, restore him!

But Hamlet is past restoring now. Polonius had thought Hamlet mad because – well, because he had been acting a bit funny. But with Ophelia, it is different: she knows that the  Hamlet she sees now is not the Hamlet as he used to be.

When Hamlet leaves, Ophelia is given some of the most heartbreaking lines in all dramatic literature. However, since, in most productions I have seen, the focus of the preceding scene had been primarily on Hamlet, with Ophelia playing effectively the “straight man”, these lines often fall a bit flat. Really, they shouldn’t:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

And this time, there is no hint of parody here in that final rhyming couplet.

Hamlet and Ophelia meet again, for one last time, in the next scene, and this time they are in full gaze of all the court. And I find this scene excruciating: it is among the most distasteful and cruel scenes in all literature. Previously, Hamlet had accused Ophelia of behaving like a prostitute; here, he publicly – and quite deliberately, with pre-meditation – treats her as one. Polonius sees his daughter’s public humiliation, and does nothing. In this, at least, he is not being a hypocrite: he is merely following the advice he had given his son. He acts like an unfeeling bastard, and that’s because he is an unfeeling bastard: to his own self he is indeed true.

But what can one say of Hamlet’s behaviour? How could he have sunk so low from what he once had been? That is his tragedy.

The next time we see Ophelia, her mind has collapsed. It shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps no-one had ever really loved Ophelia. Laertes protests in very exaggerated terms that he had, but one suspects that he was neither sufficiently intelligent nor sufficiently sensitive to appreciate her worth. Hamlet had truly loved her once – and indeed, he had made her believe so – but even when he finds she is dead, he seems more concerned with mocking Laertes than grieving for her. The only person who had, perhaps, really loved her, was Gertrude, herself another tragic character. She may not herself be the most intelligent or perceptive of characters, but it is she who delivers that rightly famous and very beautiful passage describing Ophelia being dragged down to her death in the waters while singing. And her brief and simple lines at Ophelia’s funeral I find almost unbearably moving:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

In another play, a comedy perhaps, she could indeed have been Hamlet’s wife, and it could have been a marriage of true minds. But here, the sweet spirit of hers, as intelligent and as bright as Rosalind’s or Viola’s, is crushed: it has no chance. This does not often register in productions: because she appears in only a few scenes, she often emerges no more than merely peripheral; and, although we see her fall, we do not really feel the full impact of her tragedy because we see little of the height that she falls from. But Shakespeare has, I think, given her enough. Hamlet Prince of Denmark does not present Hamlet’s tragedy alone.

Meanwhile, when Hamlet was not writing letters to Ophelia with their deliberately pisspoor verses, what else was he doing? My guess is he was writing: Hamlet needed to write things down (“meet it is I set it down”). And, given his passion for theatre, I’d guess further that he was writing a play. I’d guess he was writing Troilus and Cressida, that brutally cynical and dyspeptic play in which one of the two titular characters, Troilus, finds himself shocked that other humans do not possess the sense of honour that he does, and comes to hate them all. But Hamlet, in whose guise I like to think Shakespeare was writing this play, gives us Cressida as well, and she is presented as someone who realises – to her own shock – that Troilus loves not so much herself as a person, but Love and Honour as abstract ideals.

Troilus and Cressida was probably written soon after Hamlet, and there is no record of this brilliant but curious play ever being performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. I suppose we can make of that what we will.

 

“The love that can be reckoned”

“There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,” says Antony confidently in the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra. It is, indeed, his opening line. This theme of the immeasurability of love echoes throughout Shakespeare’s work: love, true love, is not something that can be reckoned. Rosalind in As You Like It agrees:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom…

It cannot be reckoned, it cannot be sounded, for it is bottomless. At least, its bottom is unknown: as far as our human understanding goes, it is infinitely deep.

Juliet, naturally, is of the same mind:


My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Infinity is not a number like any other number. Take a number away from infinity, and it still remains infinite. A whole new set of mathematical rules must be developed if we are to encompass the concept of infinity.

Even Orsino, in Twelfth Night, who has little reason to praise love given how much he suffers for it, compares love to the incalculable infinity of the sea:

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute!

That which may be reckoned or sounded, no matter how large, becomes as nothing when it enters the sea, which can neither be reckoned nor sounded. The infinity of love is beyond reckoning, beyond understanding.

A very conspicuous example in Shakespeare of someone who does not understand the nature of love, who feels it can be reckoned, is Lear. In the very opening scene, he declares he will divide his kingdom to his daughters on the basis of how much they love him. Not only does he think love is something that can be measured, he plans to settle the future of the kingdom itself on the basis of this measurement:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Love, for Lear, is something that can be reckoned, can be sounded: it is a measurable parameter, weighting factors in a mathematical equation.

Later, he measures love in proportion to the number of personal attendants he is allowed:

I’ll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.

Here is obviously a man who is spiritually blind, one of those who, as Gloucester later puts it, “will not see because he doth not feel”. But this is where this seeming dichotomy – between, on the one hand, whose who think love can be measured, and those to understand it to be unfathomable – becomes complicated. For Cordelia, the very epitome of selfless and self-sacrificing love, speaks the same language as her father:

I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

Love here is most certainly reckoned, and by the terms of a legally binding bond: and once it is measured, she is prepared to give it precisely, neither more, nor less. A few lines later, she speaks of love as something that can mathematically be divided:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

What a far cry this is from Juliet’s contention that the more love she gives, the more she has, “for both are infinite”.

I must confess that I have a problem understanding Cordelia. It is no doubt true that she is irritated, insulted even, by her father’s antics, and is determined not to play his game. There is in her a sense of stubborn pride that actually marks her out to be indeed her father’s daughter. But need she express her disapproval so bluntly? And in open court? She has grown up in this court, after all, and knows the ropes: she knows that a king cannot be humiliated in his own court without severe repercussions. She knows that if she is disowned – as is the most likely outcome of crossing her father so publicly – her beloved father (for he is beloved) will be in the hands of her sisters, whom she knows well. So why does she speak in this manner? And why does she adopt Lear’s language?

Cordelia appears three more times in the rest of the play – that is, apart from her final appearance as a corpse. The first of these appearances is a brief scene in the French camp, and is mainly expository in nature. The next scene she appears in is the famous recognition scene, where Lear recognises his daughter, and, more importantly, recognises her inestimable worth, the inestimable worth of love itself. In this scene, Cordelia seems at first too diffident even to speak to her father (“He wakes; speak to him,” she says to the doctor); and when her father does awake, she speaks very few words (although these very few words include the almost unbearably moving “No cause, no cause”). She does weep, though (“Be your tears wet?” asks Lear.)

Similarly when Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned. Once again, it is Lear who does almost all the talking, while Cordelia is silent. And once again, she weeps (“Wipe thine eyes,” Lear tells her). Cordelia had probably wept in the very first scene also: “With wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you,” she tells her sisters, although I suppose it can be argued that Cordelia means “with a clear sight” rather than “with tearful eyes”: I think she means both.

So a picture seems to emerge of Cordelia as someone who cannot, as she herself says, “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” – who lacks the words when most she needs to speak, and who weeps instead. But yet, in that first scene, she isn’t inarticulate: she articulates very clearly indeed. And, strangely, what this paragon of selfless love articulates is articulated in Lear’s own language: she speaks of love as something that can be reckoned, measured, parcelled out, as if it were but a finite number. It’s all very puzzling.

Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

“All Our Children” by Stephen Unwin

All Our Children, at Jermyn Street Theatre, written and directed by Stephen Unwin.

This is not intended as a review. It’s a bit pointless anyway to review a play just a few days before its final performance. This is really no more than a record of my personal impressions, for what they’re worth. It is an attempt to make some sort of sense of the various thoughts and ideas that this play brought to the forefront of my mind. And, since the play did make a big impact on me, these personal thoughts and impressions seemed to me worth recording.

The play addresses the organised mass-murder of disabled children in Nazi Germany. It’s a problematic theme. Mass-murder of the innocent and the vulnerable is so morally nauseating that our moral indignation, though entirely justified, is likely to drown out those subtleties and nuances that generally give drama its depth. And once one has asserted how monstrous an atrocity these murders were, what more remains to be said?

In the event, this play delivered some ninety or so minutes, uninterrupted by an interval, of gripping, passionate, and sometimes explosive, drama. At the centre of the drama is Victor, a paediatrician, himself, quite obviously, severely ill. From Victor’s clinic children deemed “incurable” are transported away to special camps, in buses with windows painted out. He does not care very much to know what precisely happens in those camps, but he is assured that the extermination is painless. He himself marks out those children who are “incurable”, and, hence, to be exterminated. And, somehow, he has convinced himself that it is all for the best – best for everyone. The arguments for this are, after all, entirely rational: these children are so severely damaged that life can have no meaning for them; they are unable to contribute to society in any way, and are a constant source of pain and distress both to their families, and to themselves; they require vast expenditure just to be kept alive, and, when money is short, they are taking away resources from more deserving areas; and so on. Leaving aside sentimentality, disposing of them quietly and painlessly is really the best all round.

There is no real rational argument against any of this. The only argument is presented in the final act by Bishop von Galen (a historical figure), and his argument, far from being rational, is, as is to be expected from a bishop, overtly religious: human life, he asserts, all human life, is sacred. “Sentimental squeals of the ignorant,” as Eric, the enthusiastic young SS officer assigned as Victor’s deputy, puts it.

Victor himself is atheist, and a rationalist. And yet, he cannot quite share Eric’s enthusiasm for this brave new world. He cannot quite believe the arguments he is himself making in his own defence. He has compelled himself to accept all the rational arguments for what he is doing: leaving sentimentality aside, this is, indeed, the best for everyone – best even for those unfortunate, incurable children – the lebensunwertes Leben, lives unworthy of life, as they were known. And yet, he is not at peace with himself. And over the course of the play, a series of confrontations – with his deputy Eric, with his housekeeper Martha, with Elizabetta, the mother of one of the incurable children, and, finally, with Bishop von Galen – compels his inner self, which he had kept suppressed, to assert itself. Not that it makes much difference in the end: he has already been a major cog in the monstrous machine, and the horror will continue, with or without him. And in any case, he does not expect to live long. He is severely ill, and, if the illness doesn’t get him first, the Nazis will. “They’ll probably send me to a concentration camp,” he says at the end. “Or worse.” But it is not Victor’s conversion that is the real crux of the play: at the centre of the drama is a conflict between different value systems – one that sees human life without “sentimentality” is strictly rational terms, and the other which, in defiance of all rationality, insists on seeing human life as “sacred”.

It is all too easy for us to look at this conflict, and declare that the bishop’s view – that human life is sacred – is obviously the correct view, but there is more to this play than so obvious a conclusion. The question, it seems to me, is not so much “which side is right?”, but, rather, “why is it right?” Bishop von Galen can assert the sacred because he firmly believes in God, but can the concept of the sacred still be asserted in when, like Victor himself, we don’t believe in a God? And if we cannot assert the sacred, what answer do we give to Eric? This issue has not, I fear, disappeared with the fall of the Third Reich.

At this point, I trust the reader will forgive me if this piece takes on a more personal hue. For this is a question that I have struggled with now for some time, without being able to reach an answer that satisfies me. If we believe in God, and define the “sacred” as that which relates to God, there is no problem: we are, internally at least, consistent. But if we no longer believe in God, how do we define “sacred”? And if we cannot even define the sacred, how can we assert it? How can we declare it to be anything more than the “sentimental squeals of the ignorant” that the Nazi officer Eric takes it to be? If we cannot wholeheartedly assert our belief in God, how can we insist on the sacred?

This question plagued me insistently throughout the play. The murder of children is without doubt obscene, but how do I argue against it without appealing, as Bishop von Galen does, to religion?

The play is so passionate, so emotionally powerful, that at times it is almost unbearable. The scene where the mother of a murdered child confronts the doctor had me squirming in my seat with almost physical pain. The bishop’s assertions of morality in the last act came almost as a sort of relief – relief that such thoughts are finally expressed. But it is Martha, the housekeeper, whose words near the very end have the greatest effect:

Oh Doctor, I worry so much. About the children. Not just mine, but all of them. I know we’re meant to look down on the ones here and say they’re useless. But I don’t. I love them. I love every single one of them. I love my own children, of course, and I’m glad that they’re not – But I love the ones here too. Even the stupid ones. Even the ones who can’t do anything. Even the ones who just sit in their chairs dribbling. [Pause] I used to be so scared of them. They seemed so different to me. As if they’d infect me with their illnesses. As if I’d become like one of them. And they are different. But they don’t scare me any more. They’re just children, aren’t they? They’re just children. All our children.

No mention of religion here, or of the sacred. It is, indeed, an utterly irrational speech. Sentimental squeals of the ignorant. But sometimes, it is worth leaving our rationality behind, and worth risking sentimentality.

***

Jermyn Street Theatre is a small, subterranean venue, seating, I’m told, only 70, and with everyone very close to the actors. The acting space itself is very small. Being so very close to the action gave the whole thing more than a sense of intimacy: it was, quite often, as it was no doubt meant to be, oppressive and claustrophobic.

At the very opening and again at the end, we heard strains from the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise, possibly the bleakest work of art ever conceived. The evening lived up to its promise of bleak intensity, unrelieved by anything even remotely resembling “comic relief”. The performances were stunning: Colin Tierney, on stage throughout, was very believable as the tortured doctor, who shows heroism only when it is too late; the intensity of Lucy Speed’s performance, as the mother of a murdered epileptic child, was almost too intense to be bearable; Rebecca Johnson gave a touching performance as the housekeeper Martha, who had unthinkingly swallowed all the propaganda about the Fatherland, but whose underlying compassion is, ultimately, the only possible answer to the evil around her; Edward Franklin’s portrayal of the committed young Nazi is genuinely disturbing; and David Yelland, as Bishop von Galen, conveyed all the authority, moral indignation, and also, it must be said, an aristocratic disdain bordering on pomposity (Bishop von Galen was of an aristocratic background) that the part called for.

The entire production was, in short, a triumph. Quite apart from anything else, when cinema, and, in its wake, television, are moving increasingly towards visual rather than verbal means of expression, it is good to be reminded just how powerful and moving drama can be when generated primarily by the spoken word.

Stephen Unwin is best known as a theatre director, and, especially, for his productions of the plays of Ibsen and of Shakespeare. This is his first play as writer. I, for one, hope it won’t be his last.

The Don Juan Myth

I am not so much intrigued by the Don Juan myth as I am by its having intrigued so many others. On the face of it, I can see nothing particularly remarkable about the myth: Don Juan, an insatiable satyromaniac whom no woman can resist, strikes me as little more than a frankly rather crude male sexual fantasy. And yet, this seemingly uninteresting myth has exercised minds as distinguished as those of Molière, Mozart (and his librettist da Ponte), Pushkin, Byron, Richard Strauss, and, in a modern twist in which the mythical Don Juan Tenorio becomes the contemporary John Tanner, Bernard Shaw.  I am intrigued by what they all saw in this myth.

The only work based on this myth that I think I can claim to know to a greater depth than that merely of a nodding acquaintance is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, as I indicated in a recent post, this opera, despite some forty or so years of listening, I find puzzling in many respects. For Don Giovanni himself, the central character around whom everyone else and everything else seems to revolve, seems, to me at any rate, a complete blank. Music which would strike us as deeply felt if sung by any other character becomes, when sung by the Don, insincere: we know that his ardent avowals to Donna Elvira of his repentance are false; in the serenade that follows, we know that the heart-achingly beautiful avowal of love he expresses is not deeply felt, nor even shallowly felt: it is not felt at all. This creates a peculiar tension: how can music so richly expressive not express anything? Through centuries of interpretations, all sorts of things have been written by commentators who refuse to accept that this can be possible: music of such emotional depth must, they assume, indicate emotional depth in the character who is singing it, and they have tried to see in the character of Don Giovanni all sorts of things that simply cannot be justified by the text. Many Romantics thought the Don Giovanni is searching for his ideal love: he isn’t. As Leporello’s “catalogue aria” makes clear, it is mere prosaic quantity rather than any poetic quality that counts for the Don. More recently, director Kaspar Holten, who directed the piece for Royal Opera, thought Don Giovanni was trying to escape his own mortality, but, once again, there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate this. Not an inkling.

So let us accept what Mozart and da Ponte gives us. Much of Don Giovanni’s music suggests that it should be deeply felt, but it isn’t, and the sense of unease this imparts to the listener is, I think, precisely the point. Mozart’s music endows Don Giovanni with a tremendous vitality, and an irresistible charisma, but there’s nothing behind all this vitality and charisma – no search for Ideal Womanhood, nor Fear of Death, nor any of the other things that the preoccupations of the interpreter’s own time may choose to saddle him with. This lack of substance where substance is to be expected makes this, I think, a very disturbing work – perhaps even more so than Mozart’s next opera, the deeply disquieting Cosi Fan Tutte.

But I remain uncertain. Mozart’s operas – especially the three he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – are endlessly complex works, and one should always be prepared to modify one’s views on them. But I am now intrigued by how others have interpreted this myth.

So I am planning a course of reading on the matter. Over the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I am planning to read Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (which, I believe, is where the myth began), Molière’s Don Juan, Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, and Bernard Shaw’s variation of the myth, Man and Superman. (I suppose I should really add Byron’s poem to that list, but let us restrict ourselves to drama for the moment.) And I am planning to record here, for what they’re worth, my thoughts on these works. And maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have some inkling of why this myth has exerted to firm a grasp on the imaginations of so many.

And even if I don’t, a project such as this sounds fun.

I now therefore declare the Don Juan season officially open.

The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, expertly conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.