Saturday, 13 February 2016

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Review: House of Wax: Anatomical, Pathological, And Ethnographic Waxworks from Castan’s Panopticum, Berlin, 1869-1922, Morbid Anatomy Museum, Brooklyn

This weekend the Secret Victorianist returned to one of the first museums I visited on moving to New York—the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.

Last time I visited, the exhibition space was given over to the trappings of Victorian mourning—hair work, death masks and post-mortem portraits. But the current exhibition features works that were once part of Castan’s Panopticum—a collection of waxworks and curiosities, which remained a crowd pleaser in Berlin for half a century and has some parallels with London’s Madame Tussauds.

The exhibition
This isn’t one fore the squeamish. Expect disease-ridden genitalia, syphilitic skin, models of dissected foetuses, and cross sections of complex births (complete with disembodied physicians’ hands).

There are also ‘ethnographic’ busts, delineating racial differences between groups such as African ‘bushmen’ and Chinese noblemen, which bring you face to face with nineteenth-century scientists’ now uncomfortable views on race.

Ethnographic busts
A full size model of serial killer Fritz Haarmann, the ‘Butcher of Hanover’ (1879-1925), looms over you if you choose to walk to the restrooms, only a metre away from the death masks of figures as varied as Napoleon, Henrik Ibsen and Kaiser Wilhem I.

The exhibits that were of particular interest to me included two models depicting the effects of tight corsetry on internal organs (a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago on this blog) and a couple of examples of intersex genitalia (something I haven’t previously seen many Victorian references to).

The effects of tight corsetry
It was also fascinating to read about the often moralistic way in which the exhibits were arranged—e.g. attractive female nudes sat side-by-side with examples of the ugly effects of sexually transmitted diseases.

Both men and women attended panoptica, but they were sometimes segregated by gender for the more explicit rooms. I spent much of my visit imagining what it must have been like for groups of women, with little biological knowledge and a strong sense of modesty, to be left alone for their allocated time, examining a cankerous penis or a uterus in the third trimester.

A C-section
Put in modern terms, panoptica (like Castan’s or Barnum’s in New York City) must have been a mash up of a biology text book, obstetrician’s office, natural history museum, sensational crime documentary and touristy house of horrors, with a large dose of racism spooned out throughout. And attending a retrospective exhibition on one now adds another layer of interpretative complexity.

If you’re in Brooklyn and have an interest in the kind of popular exhibitions that entertained generations, or just want to see the visceral side of the nineteenth-century view of the body, then check out House of Wax before it closes on April 3.

Death mask of Henrik Ibsen
Do you know of any other NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would enjoy? Let me know! Here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Importance of Not Being Earnest: The Opening of Oscar Wilde’s Most Famous Comedy

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most famous comedic plays in English and one that has enjoyed popularity since its first performance in 1895.

The play is admired for its quotable quips, farcical plot twists and exaggerated characters, but this week I’ll be looking at what Wilde does in his opening scene to engage and entertain his audience right from the start.

The cast of the 2002 film adaptation
Anyone who has ever acted in a comedy, done stand up or been part of an improv group will know that getting the first laugh is all-important. It settles the audience, establishes the mood and allows those watching and the performers to relax. But how to set up a joke so quickly when the characters and situation are new to your audience? Here’s how Wilde does it:


Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street.  The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished.  The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room.

[Lane is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and after the music has ceased, Algernon enters.]

Algernon.  Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

Lane.  I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.


Two lines of dialogue are all it takes for Wilde to make us laugh, but why do we?

First up, he opens with a comedic type—the sarcastic servant. Lane’s position is established immediately by what he is doing (‘arranging afternoon tea’) and how Algernon addresses him. His response to his master (‘I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir’) is sardonic but shrouded in politeness, bringing us instantly into the dynamic between these characters.

Second, Wilde ensures that we side with Lane from the outset, by placing us in an analogous position to him.  When the curtain rises, an audience hushes and is much more attentive than it will be in the middle of the play, when a lot may be going on. Those watching must assess what they can see and hear to be sure they are following. Because of this they will have been listening (like Lane) to Algernon’s piano playing quite intently and the idea of someone wilfully not listening will appear all the more ridiculous.

Once you’ve won your first laugh there is still work to be done to bring an audience on the journey with you. Introducing important character names early, without being overwhelming, is important in this. Over the next stretches of dialogue we are given the names Lane, Lady Bracknell, Ernest, Algy, Gwendolen and Cecily, gifting us with a run down of the cast and establishing the characters’ relationships to each other.

As well as setting up the cast, Wilde also hints at the laws of his universe. This is a world where masters are intrigued rather than angry about servants taking their champagne:


Algernon.  Oh! . . . by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.

Lane.  Yes, sir; eight bottles and a pint.

Algernon.  Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne?  I ask merely for information.

Lane.  I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir.  I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.


And where characters are unabashed at their hypocritical behaviour:


Algernon. Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches.  They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.  [Takes one and eats it.]

Jack.  Well, you have been eating them all the time.

Algernon.  That is quite a different matter.  She is my aunt. 


Another way in which Wilde pulls his audience in, using a technique that is the hallmark of his comedy, is by reversing the familiar, especially through altering common phrases and proverbial maxims. Here are a couple of examples from the first scene:


Algernon. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?  [Wilde applies to the ‘lower orders’ a role usually designated to the ‘higher orders’.]

Algernon. Divorces are made in Heaven [Wilde applies the language of marriage to divorce.]


Once you’ve set up your first laugh, introduced your most important characters, established rules for your world and pulled your audience in by building on, or reversing, information that is familiar to them, there’s one more thing that most comedies do—they set up a running joke, a comedic through line, which will keep the audience laughing even as further complications are added. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the cucumber sandwiches fulfil this role and it is these, rather than early gags about the piano or the institution of marriage, which the audience is most likely to remember.

What else do you think Wilde does in the early scenes of the play to pull his audience in? Why is it that Earnest remains so popular today? I’d love to hear your opinions so comment here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Theatre Review: Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen, Bottoms Dream, Theater 54, New York City

The first time I saw Henrik Ibsen’s 1890 Hedda Gabler on stage was at the Old Vic in London in 2012. And it’s hard to imagine a starker contrast than between that traditionally staged and sumptuously costumed period production and Bottoms Dream’s studio performance, which I attended at Theater 54 in New York the other week.

This Hedda Gabler (adapted by Caitlin White) is stripped down, with only four characters, and performed in an intimate space with the audience surrounding the performers. Sara Fay George, as Hedda, spends much of the play writhing around the floor between scenes, playing with a pistol and acting out the drama unfolding in her subconscious. The subtleties of Ibsen give way to overt commentary on the lack of options open to the two women, Hedda and Thea (White), which is difficult since the costuming (by Mary Rubi) suggests a later, mid-twentieth-century setting.


The actors also seem inconsistent in their approach, as if there are some who do think they’re performing in a naturalistic production. Doug Durlcacher as George plays the role of the clueless husband quite predictably but comes into his own in the final scene as he and Thea reconstruct Eilert’s lost manuscript. Nat Angstrom meanwhile does a good job in capturing the character’s charisma.

Director Kevin Hollenbeck has chosen to put this Hedda Gabler in conversation with another perennial nineteenth-century favourite—August Strindberg’s 1888 Creditors (you can read my review of another NYC production of Creditors here). In this case, the two plays are performed back to back.


I only joined for the Ibsen play, but it’s easy to see the parallels two. Strindberg actually accused Ibsen of plagiarism in 1891, saying ‘Hedda Gabler is a bastard of Laura in The Father and Tekla in Creditors’. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether it might have been better to let the plays speak for themselves, rather than exposing the parallels through the stylised sequences between scenes.

Do you know of any plays currently being performed in New York that you think the Secret Victorianist should see? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.