Sunday, 22 February 2015

Theatre Review: An Octoroon, Branden Jacob-Jenkins, Theatre for a New Audience (Brooklyn, New York)

Every other review I’ve read of Soho Rep’s An Octoroon, which premiered last spring and has now reopened at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, opens by mentioning how obscure playwright Dion Boucicault is, not to mention his 1859 melodrama The Octoroon. Maybe because of this, as I waited for the play to start on Wednesday evening, it struck me how very different my experience might be to that of most of the audience. I’ve not only heard of Boucicault, I’ve directed one of his plays (London Assurance, which I blogged about previously) and while, of course, aspects of 1850s dramas, especially when they deal with race in the American South, can be uncomfortable, the world of Victorian melodrama isn’t alien, but instead one in which I feel very much at home. My questions as the performance began were instead around what form the adaptation would take, and - the same question that Jacob-Jenkins, as played by Austin Smith, reports from his therapist in the play’s opening scene – ‘what appeal can a racist melodrama hold for black playwright in the 21stcentury?’

In search of an answer to this question, Jacob-Jenkins (Smith) dons whiteface to play both hero and villain in Boucicault’s drama and is joined by the original Irish playwright himself (Haynes Thigpen), playing a Native American in, er, redface, to act out the plot of the original play. Heir to the plantation George is in love with the illegitimate daughter of his late uncle, Zoe (Amber Gray), but Zoe, while she’s been raised as a lady, is an eighth black (and so an ‘octoroon’) and they soon find out her free papers aren’t in order. Add to that large debts attached to the plantation, an evil and lascivious neighbour (also played by Smith) who wants Zoe for himself, an aggressively forward local heiress (Mary Wiseman) with her sights set on George, and the slaves attached to the estate, and you have a play complete with court scenes, murder, slave auctions and intrigue. In Jacob-Jenkins’ adaptation the roles of the slaves are by far the most important, with the conversations between Minnie (Maechi Aharanwa) and Dido (Pascale Amand) providing commentary, in more contemporary language, on the play’s events. While others rush around the stage performing cross race (Ian Lassiter in particular donning blackface to play slave characters as they might have been presented on the Victorian stage), these characters (played by black actors), while they don’t have the same level of remove as the characters of Jacob-Jenkins and Boucicault from the action, almost seem to play out the role of a contemporary black reader approaching the play.

Amber Gray as Zoe
As the melodrama reaches its dramatic conclusion, the play takes a step back, drawing our attention to the artificiality of the heavily plotted action and instead delivering a killer punch of its own, exposing the brutal realities of the racism which has been a source of humour previously. Cleverly, the climax of An Octoroon comes with the display of a photograph and a period of intense silence in the theatre, just as, in the original melodrama The Octoroon, the murderer is foiled by (cutting edge) photographic evidence.

The play was fascinating, veering from the darkly entertaining to the frankly horrifying, and always delivered surprises – from the adaptations of the initially bare looking set, to the arrival of the actual Jacob-Jenkins wearing a rabbit head to aid transitions between scenes. Other reviewers, and a few audience members I spoke to on the night, have expressed some disappointment that the play doesn’t seem to reach any conclusions about what it means to receive this kind of text, to stage a story so removed from our contemporary ideas around what’s acceptable when dealing with race. For me though, this was its magic. As a Victorianist, I experience a similar range of emotions when reading and studying. How can I feel when reading about views I would find objectionable from my contemporaries? Is it wrong of me to enjoy these novels, these poems, these plays? By injecting new life into The Octoroon, using its effective dramatic qualities to expose the darkness of its moral assumptions, Jacob-Jenkins gives us one creative way in which these questions can be addressed. Writers like Boucicault don’t need to be left in the past, the preserve of academics, if writers today are brave enough to enter into a dialogue with them.

An Octoroon is on at the Theatre for a New Audience until 8th March 2015. Tickets cost $60-85 but under 30s and students can get tickets for $20 under the New Deal (what I did!).

If you know of any other productions and adaptations of 19th-century plays in the New York area you think the Secret Victorianist should see then let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A Nineteenth Centuryist in Washington D.C.

Rather appropriately for the President’s Day weekend, the Secret Victorianist spent the last few days in Washington D.C. It was my first visit to the US capital, and partially inspired by my recent review of Henry Adam’s Democracy, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the social and political milieu of the city in the 1800s. It was a culturally diverse weekend (from Renaissance art to 50 Shades of Grey, with lots in between), but I wanted to share some nineteenth-century highlights among the attractions I visited.

First up was the National Museum of American History, where three very different exhibitions which dealt with the period stood out. There was the original star-spangled banner – the huge flag which flew above Fort McHenry to mark its victory over the British in September 1814 and which inspired the poem by Francis Scott Key which would become the country’s national anthem.

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The flag
What I found interesting here, aside from the impressively huge flag itself, was the story this told about the afterlife of objects and texts. Just as the flag has gone through changes – been invested with a meaning beyond its initial use, cut up to provide keepsakes, displayed in private homes and in public spaces, so too has Key’s poem been adapted and repurposed. Listening to older recordings of the anthem being sung and comparing to the conventions of anthem-singing today, for example, posed questions about cultural continuity and evolution. The exhibition isn’t just an important piece of US history – it’s a testament to the ongoing and ever-developing nature of history and an argument in itself for the value of reception studies.

Alexander Graham Bell
Meanwhile Hear my Voice was a (much emptier!) special exhibition featuring recordings and equipment from Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in Washington D.C. in the 1880s. Indistinct and crackling as the recordings are, hearing voices from the nineteenth century, testing equipment and reciting ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, is a real thrill, and one which draws attention to the impressive nature of the kind of technologies we now take for granted.

'The Mutiny on the Amistad', Hale Woodruff
If learning about the star-spangled banner led to reflections on American patriotism today, a way of looking back at the nineteenth century through a different lens, was the Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College exhibition. This series of six murals by Woodruff, painted in the 1930s, was commissioned by the Alabama college and portrays significant events in African American history, including the foundation of Talladega College in 1867 and the slave uprising on the Amistad in 1839.

Seeing a nineteenth-century slave ship and courtroom rendered in Woodruff’s colourful, geometric murals is vivid and compelling, and with recent interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives with black heroes and heroines at their centre (think Twelve Years a Slave and Belle), it seems like a timely moment for these wonderful murals to be touring the country, post-restoration.

Tudor Place
Away from the history museum, I also visited the historic Tudor Place – a family mansion in Georgetown, which was home to Thomas Peter, and his wife Martha (granddaughter of Martha Washington), and four generations of their descendants (until 1983). The beautiful house, which dates from 1814, holds many objects from Mount Vernon, and visiting gives you an insight into the life of one family throughout the entire nineteenth, and most of the twentieth, centuries, against a backdrop of large scale political and social change and upheaval. The family watched the White House burn from their windows in 1814, hosted Union soldiers, despite their Southern sympathies during the Civil War, and, throughout all, lovingly preserved the character of the house.

On what was one of the coldest days of the year in D.C., I was lucky enough to have the first tour of the day entirely to myself, but would love to visit again in the summer to wander around the tranquil and extensive gardens. If you’re fed up with the throngs at the city’s headline tourist attractions, this is a gem.

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
A final mention goes to the current display of works from the Corcoran Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, as the latter incorporates 6,000 works from the former into its collection. There’s so much here, but I particularly enjoyed Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara (1857). Catch it with its fellow pieces from the Corcoran while you can.

Do you know of any other great nineteenth-century attractions in D.C.? Let me know for next time I visit – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

'Niagara', Frederic Edwin Church (1857)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Be my (Victorian) Valentine?

Last February, I shared some inspiration for literary lines to use whatever your romantic situation on Valentine’s Day. And this year, I’m bringing you even more potential card-fillers (thank me later!). Can you name the novel for each line?

The Engagement Kiss
1. For the long-term partner you love to hate, and wouldn’t even contemplate leaving:

“My love for you resembles the eternal rocks beneath; a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”

2. From a lover who aspires to a great and (in)famous passion:

“I want to make Romeo jealous. I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter, and grow sad.”

3. For the love who has already rejected you at least once:

“My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever”.

4. For the love you have an up and down relationship with:

“Remember this, that if you’ve been hated, you’ve also been loved.”

5. From the lover who is realistic about a relationship’s future:

“Happiness is but a mere episode in the general drama of pain.”

6. From a sugar daddy to his lover:

“I dare say I am a romantic old fool; but if you do not dislike me, and if you do not love any one else, I see no reason why we should not make a very happy couple”.

7. For the love who has reformed you, after years of sowing your wild oats:

“I have found for the first time what I can truly love – I have found you. You are my sympathy – my better self – my good angel.”

8. From a lover who is about to sacrifice himself for the greater good:

“I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.”

9. For the cruel object of your affection:

“What have you to do with hearts except for dissection?”

10. From the spurned and creepy lover:

“You look as if you thought it tainted you to be loved by me. You cannot avoid it.”

Do you have any other Victorian Valentine's Day suggestions? Let me know - here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

1. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte; 2. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde; 3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen; 4. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James; 5. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy; 6. Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon; 7. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; 8. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens; 9. Good Lady Ducayne, Mary Elizabeth Braddon; 10. North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: Y is for Why Yellow??

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is a staple nineteenth-century text for students of literature in the English-speaking world, and especially the US. The 6,000-word short story is an account written in the first person of a woman, Jane, who has been confined to an upper room in a secluded house by her husband John as a result of a nervous disorder. There, having been prescribed a ‘rest cure’ for her hysteria, separated from her baby, and barred from writing, she goes slowly mad, convinced there is something living behind the room’s yellow wallpaper.

Even this straightforward summary raises lots of questions (and contains plenty of content for future blog posts!), but one central question stood out to me the first time I read the text (and seems to have occurred to multiple other students turning to Yahoo Answers for clarity!) – why is the wallpaper yellow, rather than any other shade?

The choice isn’t an accidental one, and is closely linked with contemporary ideas about the colour. Here’s how Jane introduces it first:

The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

Two important and recurrent associations with yellow are noticeable – yellow is the colour of putrification and also of a milder kind of fading, caused by the passage of time.

Earlier in the century, Dickens had used yellow in the same way, frequently linking the colour to particular characters who are older and somehow linked to decay. This is how Pip first describes the home of Miss Havisham, perhaps the character in the English canon most associated with physical deterioration and the passage of time, in Great Expectations (1860-1):

I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. 

In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman is at pains to highlight that the paper is a yellow of these very associations of festering age, rather than say a sunny yellow:

It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.

Jane even links the rotting smell she finds pervading her room with the yellow paper itself:

The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOUR of the paper! A yellow smell.

In doing so, she is not merely exhibiting an increasing monomania with the paper. ‘Jane’, isolated though she is, is acting just like many other writers of the 1890s! For many (especially European) writers of the Fin de Siècle, yellow was the defining colour of the period, with its associations with degeneracy, the wasting away of the age, a sickliness brought on by inbreeding, boredom or excess.

There was a practical link too. In the nineteenth-century, scandalous French novels were bound in yellow paper to warn browsers of their racy contents. It is one of these books which helps to corrupt the impressionable Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, published the year before Gilman’s story.

Lord Henry gives Dorian a ‘book bound in yellow paper, the cover slightly torn and the edges soiled’. Note how its state of dilapidation is similar to Jane’s paper:

It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down.

Later, in Wilde’s novella, Dorian pins the blame for his moral decline squarely on this book:

"Yet you poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to any one. It does harm."

This suggestion – that a book, even a yellow book, can really poison a mind – is one which Wilde rejects firmly:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

But it is interesting to note that Dorian’s book is not generic. It has a particular model as Wilde’s description of it makes clear. It is À Rebours (1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans (which I reviewed on this blog in September 2013), a novel which is the quintessential story of the degenerate (French) life.

Here’s the effect the novel has on Dorian:

It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

Dorian’s feelings of discovery and revelation here before a later fall match perfectly with the early stages of Jane’s fixation with the yellow wallpaper. The novel and the paper feel incomplete, raiments, something torn, but they inspire what could be described as creativity – Jane’s writing, Dorian’s beautiful life – but could also be identified as self-destructive madness.

When it came to naming a quarterly literary journal in London in 1894, its founders were in no doubt what to name it – The Yellow Book was the perfect descriptor of the age although it (fittingly!) died out before the end of the century (1897). With contributors including Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, H.G. Wells and Henry James, The Yellow Book shows just how much yellowness meant to writers of this period.

It is within this context too then that The Yellow Wallpaper should be read. The question is not ‘why is the paper yellow?’. It might rather be ‘how do these ideas of degeneracy, and this link to the Aestheticism of the period, play into to Gilman’s other concerns, with gender, motherhood and madness?’

We’re nearly there! What should be 'Z' in my Victorian Alphabet?? It’s a tricky one so send me your suggestions – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

"We'll Always Have Paris": The Met's La Bohème and Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème

Some texts have an afterlife which is entirely reflective of the spirit in which they were written. One of these is Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (1851).

The other week I attended the New York Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful production of Puccini’s La Bohème, the world’s most popular opera, which premiered in 1896 in Turin. In preparation for the performance I decided to read Murger’s work (on which the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was based), even though every programme blurb is likely to tell you the adaptation is ‘loose’ at most.

A scene from the Met's production
Murger’s ‘novel’, which I read in translation, is more of a series of short stories set in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Characters recur, some with greater frequency than others, but timing is more nebulous and the plot hard to define. In the opera, Rodolph and Mimi’s relationship – its inception and conclusion – bookends the story. It is important in Murger too, but not central, and many of the features of Mimi’s story in the libretto (e.g. her profession and her death) are taken from an additional and minor character in the novel – Francine.

This is interesting. It suggests a dichotomisation of women in the opera – timid, initially chaste Mimi contrasted with worldly Musette – which is not the case in the text, where if anything the resourceful women trading on their beauty seem more sensible than their permanently broke and utterly deluded lovers. The stage world of great loves and tragedy is instead a constant comedy of bed-hopping and betrayal, where death is a constant feature, but life most always go on.

Rather than plot, what was lovely to see brought to life in the opera were details of the Bohemian life, which come up again and again while reading Murger’s vignettes. There is the cold, furniture sacrificed to open fires, near-continual drunkenness, tenants eluding the landlord, and strong emphasis on (male) friendship - which is more central than romantic love in the original.

This production did a great job of transporting the audience to Paris – whether the city’s bustling streets, or a quiet garret, set against a darkening skyline. When the curtain falls you’re suddenly back in New York, bereft of the idiosyncratic Bohemian life of the Latin Quarter. Finishing the novel is a similar experience. Characters and a way of life, with which a succession of stories has made you oddly familiar, fade away. If nineteenth-century Paris were a destination I could choose to visit, I’d have no hesitation in heading back for more.

Do you know of any other NYC events with a nineteenth-century link the Secret Victorianist could attend? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Met: Madame Cézanne and Death Becomes Her

Yesterday, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York to see two very different exhibitions of a nineteenth-century flavour.

Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory (1891)
Madame Cézanne, which runs until 15th March 2015, brings together 24 of the 29 known paintings by Paul Cézanne of his wife Hortense Fiquet, along with additional sketches and watercolours. The paintings cover more than 20 years (from the 1870s-1890s) and simultaneously give a wonderful glimpse into the artist’s techniques and his private life.

Cézanne’s ready access to his subject meant he had an opportunity for many variations on a theme – most obviously the four ‘red dress’ portraits, including one from the Met’s permanent collection, (which date from 1888-1890) which see Hortense in the same garment, but posed slightly differently against varying backgrounds, as the painter experiments with different combinations of colour and compositions. The sitter can at times appear as formal an element as a tree branch or pot plant, her expressions enigmatic, at times even indistinct.

Yet the sketches suggest a very different story – one of an intimate and happy family life. Here is Hortense bent over her needlework, her sleeping head upon a pillow, their baby Paul fils feeding from her breast.

Madame Cézanne Sewing (c.1880)
This is hard to reconcile with what we know of Cézanne’s marriage – the hostility of his friends towards Hortense, the secrecy of the relationship for 17 years, as the artist feared his family’s disapproval, their late marriage (in 1886). You need only read the Wikipedia entry dedicated to her to see how Hortense’s failures as a wife and negative impact on her husband’s art have passed into the commonly accepted history of the artist’s life.

Portrait of Madame Cézanne (c.1877)

What this exhibition offers, if not exactly a rehabilitation of Hortense’s public image, is an opportunity to re-examine this relationship (one marked by the social and financial inequality common to many marriages in the period), along with some of Cézanne’s most wonderful paintings. Visit if you can!

Death Becomes Her, on the other hand, which runs until 1st February 2015 in the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the museum, is an exhibition of nineteenth-century American and European mourning (largely women’s) fashion. Having visited, and blogged about, The Art of Mourning exhibition at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum a few months ago, which included examples of Victorian post-mortem photography and portraiture and hair-work, it was wonderful to see such fine examples of the clothes which would have been worn by the mourners in the period, who were participating in these other acts of memorialisation.

The Secret Victorianist at the Met
Spanning the entire century, and the very early 1900s, the dresses on display here ranged from the simple, to the extravagant – from afternoon and walking dresses, to those suitable for a ball or even a wedding. The exhibition does a good job of explaining the etiquette around mourning in the period, the influence of fashion plates (some of which are on display here and the criticism women could be subjected to for failing to display an ‘appropriate’ level of grief.

It also touches – briefly – on the highly interesting subject of the position of the widow in nineteenth-century culture. Available for marriage, but, unlike most girls, financially independent and sexually experienced, the widow, despite being subjected to the most demanding strictures around the displays of mourning, cuts a socially disruptive figure. A side room at the exhibition houses a series of satirical drawings, entitled ‘A Widow and Her Friends’, by Charles Dana Gibson which ran in LIFE magazine in 1900, which takes a humorous look at this very issue.

As ever, with displays of nineteenth-century fashion, the diminutive proportions of the clothes and, especially, the miniscule waistlines are particularly striking, with a dress worn by Queen Victoria herself being a notable exception! Steer clear if the sound of a darkened room with requiems blasting from the speakers isn’t your idea of fun, but otherwise this is a beautiful, fascinating, and well-curated exhibition.

The Met has a recommended (i.e. optional!) admission of fee of $25 – entrance to special exhibitions is at no additional cost. Find out more about visiting here.

Do you know of any other New York exhibitions with a nineteenth-century focus the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Nineteenth-Century House of Cards

“Who then is right? How can we all be right? Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right. There is only one thing in life that I must and will have before I die. I must know whether America is right or wrong.”

A novel concerned with the intricacies of the social milieu in 1870s Washington D.C. might not cross your mind as being the first place to look for an exploration of modern democracy and a cracking portrayal of political and personal intrigue. Yet there is so much in Henry Adams’ 1880 Democracy which resonates with modern concerns about the pursuit of power, the nature of governance and corruption of the political elite that it could easily be reimagined as a twenty-first century political drama.

Young New York widow Madeleine Lee heads to the heart of American democracy to discover ‘the gold of life’ she finds lacking in the philanthropy and philosophy with which she currently fills her days. Clever and attractive, with younger, less politically-minded sister in tow, what Madeleine finds there instead is Silas Ratcliffe, the Senator from Illinois, a man without moral scruples who has his eyes fixed firmly on the Presidency (and soon also Mrs Lee).

Silas Ratcliffe could give Frank Underwood a run for his money
Madeleine’s struggle throughout the book in determining the rights and wrongs of American democracy is brought to a crisis in the judgement she must make of Ratcliffe, as politician and as prospective husband: “If I throw him overboard, everything must go, for he is only a specimen.”

The novel is a wonderful satire on this incestuous and power-obsessed society, headed by the incompetent and ridiculed President and his much-hated First Lady, who Madeleine first sees as ‘two seemingly mechanical figures’, shaking the hands of their visitors as if they were only ‘automata, representatives of the society which streamed past them’. All seek only self-advancement – the men through office, the women through marriage.

Victoria Dare, who manages to snare herself an Irish lord, is one of the most conniving of political manipulators, while Madeleine herself is subject to rumours, gossip and harassment in the press, through her association with Ratcliffe. This society is one in which women too are powerful (although this power is dissipated upon marriage) – Madeleine, in a reversal of what you might expect from a novel of the period, regards ‘men as creatures made for women to dispose of’, thinking that they are ‘capable of being transferred like checks, or baggage-labels, from one woman to another, as desired’.

The men meanwhile are embroiled in manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, in-party fighting, and large-scale bribery to replenish personal and campaign funds. Madeleine’s desire that Ratcliffe and his peers should act in the ‘interests of the people’ is naïve, extraneous to the realities of life in D.C., and, while she frames the choice she must make at the novel’s close in terms of wider principle, her friends and sister are looking out for her best interests likewise.

The morality of democracy, Adams suggests, comes back to the morality of the men who participate in it – and not just the power-hungry who find themselves in Washington. “The bitterest part of all this horrid story is that nine out of ten of our countrymen would say I had made a mistake” Madeleine opines. In other words, democracy is wrong.

Are there any other nineteenth-century American novels you would like the Secret Victorianist to blog about? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.