Monday, September 19, 2016

How to spoil a good story (Matilda)

      Matilda [D: Matthew Warchus. Book by Dennis Kelly, Music by Tim Minchin, based on the novel by Roald Dahl. With Hannah Levinson, Dan Chameroy, Paula Brancati, et al.] A good play spoiled by flashing lights and sudden noise, and extremely average music played very loudly. The acting ranged from competent to very good, the dance sets were cliched but well done, the set designs and lighting were created to maximise the wow-factor. Overall the production was less concerned with telling a good story than with astonishing the audience. I have no idea whether it succeeded with the other patrons, it did not succeed with me.
     In short, impressive, but not in a good way. Pity, since Matilda is one of Dahl’s better stories. It shows how the imagination and a couple of engaged adults can foster the resilience of a neglected child. Dahl knows that a happy ending is unlikely, but he gives us one anyhow. *½

Early Allingham

Margery Allingham. Mystery Mile (1930) A very early Campion story, quite melodramatic, with disappearances, a Moriarty-type criminal master-mind, multiple deceptions, fisticuffs, night-time excursions, and limited characterisation. The evil guy suffers poetically just drowning while stuck in the mud. There’s a fire, too, but it’s mostly stink-bomb and smoke-screen. Love and justice triumph. What more could you want? Well, a fully realised Campion, for a start. The later Allinghams are much better than this one. The title refers to a village on a mist-shrouded peninsula, barely connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, and surrounded by tidal flats and mud.*½

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why does the US seem so small?

Just heard the phrase “the vastness of our land” applied to Canada. Which made me wonder, Why does the USA seem so small?

Short answer: The USA is a patchwork of different cultures. Driving though the USA feels like driving through different countries. Michigan just doesn’t feel the same as Arkansas. Texas is its own place, and then some (they are the politest drivers anywhere, by the way). But driving across Canada, at least from Ontario west, I feel that every place is Canada. One reason, I think, is that the language varies very little from east to west, while in the USA the language varies in all directions. So we don’t hear the differences that a traveller across the USA hears.

Why are the regions of the USA so different, while those of Canada are not? Short answer: settlement patterns, and political and economic history. But to expand on that would take more space (and more detailed knowledge) than I have.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Home is for Homicide (book review)

    Joan Hess, ed. Malice Domestic 9 (2000) A pleasant series of short stories illustrating the dictum that the bosom of the family is a nest of vipers. This one pays homage to Agatha Christie, with always affectionate and sometimes quite funny pastiches or allusions. There are a few touches of Ruth Rendell, too, as in The Murder at the Vicarage, whose narrator falls for the new vicar, who hasn’t married because he hasn’t met the right woman yet. This raises the hopes of several other swoony, broody females. The narrator expects that their discovery that they were all handmaidens who would never achieve their dreams would cause them to abandon the man, but instead they kill him.
     All the plots are fair, the characters just off-kilter enough that we accept them as plausible victims and murderers, and the writing competently adapted to the writer’s intentions. A good book for a plane ride. **½

Monday, September 05, 2016

How to Play Hamlet

     Hamlet: Two introductions. Back in ye Olden Days of Gold, school and college text producers took literature seriously. They asked academics for introductions, intended to prepare scholars for the treats that awaited them, to prime them to have the conventional responses and ideas about the books. I recently read two intros to Hamlet, and both display the writer’s certainty that his interpretations are the right ones. Both include orotund exclamations about Shakespeare’s genius and Hamlet’s philosophical world-weariness and such. Sentences that I can see an industrious student quoting, and attributing in carefully constructed footnotes.
      I don’t have the name of the person who wrote the introduction to the Canadian edition of the Swan Shakespeare. (Published in the 1950s) It begins with a Life, goes on to consider the Elizabethan Stage, and Shakespeare and the Renaissance Spirit, which the writer claims is best seen in Hamlet. There is a brief discussion of Elizabethan language, a great help to the naive reader I think. The writer takes it for granted that Shakespeare is the greatest writer and Hamlet his greatest work. I suspect that the Renaissance was his field of study, for he says about Hamlet, his love of philosophy, his student’s mind, his melancholy, his trust in “capability and god-like reason” his frequent references to classical myth, his love of music... remind one irresistibly of Leonardo [da Vinci] at the court of Ludovico of Milan... show he was a Renaissance Man. Well, maybe so, but don’t expect a high school senior or a college freshman to get anything out of this encomium, apart from labels of Renaissance traits.
     G. S. Gordon of Magdalene College edits the Clarendon (Oxford) Shakespeare (1912). His introduction focuses on the text, which exists in a bad first quarto, a reasonably good second quarto (reprinted several times), and the Folio, which omits some quarto material, and adds new lines. It is Shakespeare’s longest play, which in itself raises puzzles about how to think about the extended text. Was it ever acted at this length in Shakespeare’s day? To what extent does it represent Shakespeare’s and his acting company’s intentions? Impossible to say.
     Gordon’s take on the text is that it developed as the Company played it over many years. He approaches it as a script. It was very popular in its day, which suggests that the Folio text represents the final version(s). He points out, for example, that the variations in the Queen’s speeches in her interview with Hamlet affect how we answer questions about her possible complicity in the murder of her husband. A good point, and Gordon refers to Shakespeare’s “remodelling” of several scenes of the play.
     It’s not always clear whether he’s thinking about how Shakespeare reworked the older version of the play, or how he reworked his own version. But his focus on the craft of script-writing is welcome: most school- and college-text criticism discusses the plays as a text to be read, not as scripts to be acted. Still, he doesn’t go all the way, and still betrays a prejudice in favour of reading over acting.
     I think the focus on reading the text has for several generations been a weakness in Shakespeare criticism. The question is not, “How do we interpret the characters?” but “How should we play them?” Instead of asking whether the Queen suspected her husband was murdered,  I would ask, “How would you act the Queen if you think of her as suspecting (or not suspecting)  that Claudius killed his brother?” The answer is not obvious. If we assume that the Queen suspected Claudius killed the old King, then the interpretation of the text and hence the acting will be different than if we assume she was utterly innocent of any such suspicion.
     Was she, though? We have to consider all her appearances in the play to decide which version is more plausible, but whichever one we settle on will affect how we decide to play her. But this conception itself depends on a larger sense of what the play is about, of the world in which Hamlet must accept that he cannot reject the options that face him, but must choose. “Ripeness is all”, he says as he finally accepts his fate.
     That, too, is a major thesis of Gordon’s introduction. Thematically, Gordon’s essay is richer than the Swan introduction. Its implicit acceptance of the text as a script could have been made explicit. As it is, Gordon comes close to saying that we should read the text as if we wanted to produce the play. The puzzles of plot and character then become problems of direction and acting.
     Swan: ** Gordon: ***