Sunday 21 December 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: X is for Xmas

Merry Christmas for a second year from the Secret Victorianist! Last year, at Christmas, I treated you to a tricky literary quiz and suggested some nineteenth-century party games to try with friends and family. This year, I’m taking a look at a Christmas poem from the period – ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1864).

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Longfellow’s poem begins in self-conscientiously typical festive fashion, referencing the cyclical nature of Christmases – each one resembling the last -, in the ‘familiar carols’ and regular bells of Christmas morning. There is reference to the longevity of Christmas in the use of words from the very first Christmas ‘carol’, the words of the angels to the shepherds in the Nativity story, ‘peace on earth, good-will to men!’.

More than this, the poet imagines that this cry has ‘rolled along’ continuously, as an ‘unbroken song’, since the birth of Christ, spreading around the world. Longfellow conveys this idea of global harmony, through use of singulars for the collective celebration - ‘A voice, a chime,/A chant sublime’.

The Angel Appearing Before the Shepherds, Thomas Buchanan Read
Soon however, this harmony is broken, for the poet and the world, by a disruptive force – the American Civil War. The sound of war (the ‘cannon’, emanating in the South) ‘drowns’ out this announcement of peace, suggesting the poet, and his countrymen’s, hopelessness. The domestically destructive nature of a civil war is suggested through the use of language suggestive of home for the American continent (‘It was as if an earthquake rent,/The hearth-stones of a continent’) and reference to the, explicitly Christian, ‘households’ now suffering from war, while founded on a theology of peace.

In the final two stanzas, we are given two reactions to this. The poet despairs (‘hate is strong’), only, apparently, to be answered by a message of hope about the continuance of God (‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep’), despite the current violence. However, the evenness of these stanzas (it’s not as if Longfellow introduces a second of celebration) means the poem does not end on an entirely convinced and joyous note. The sounds of peace and happiness, which begin the poem, do not return – the only comfort is the promise that they will. And it is even hinted, that this will come, not simply through the end of war, but through the military success of the ‘right’ side (‘The Wrong shall fail,/The Right prevail’).

What we have then, although this poem has subsequently been set to music and made a carol itself, is a poem, which, while it plays on the traditions of Christmas, and well-known themes of Christianity, speaks to a particular moment in nineteenth-century American history.

What should be ‘Y’ in my American Alphabet? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Theatre Review: Creditors, August Strindberg, Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, New York City

August Strindberg’s Creditors is a stark, brutal and intensely modern play, first performed in 1889. It’s a play without embellishment and with total focus on its three characters, who play out the plot in a series of intense duologues, ultimately destroying each other. There is Tekla, a successful novelist, her husband Adolph, a young painter, and her former husband Gustav, who gatecrashes the new couple’s life to assert his own power.

It may sound like heavy watching, but it’s also in many ways comedic, from Gustav’s machinations, to the instances of stage eavesdropping. The question at its heart is ‘what does marriage mean?’ and more particularly, ‘has the meaning of marriage changed now divorce and remarriage is a real possibility?’ Strindberg’s script – presented here in a new version by David Greig – is obsessed with the playing out of gender in this new world of relationships. Tekla (played here by Elise Stone), unlike most nineteenth-century women, is more sexually experienced than her husband. She is also older and more successful in her career (and calls him affectionately ‘little brother’). And it is in exploring the effect this has on Adolph that the play is at its strongest.

It is Gustav who combats Tekla’s independence with a return to misogynistic language and tropes. For him a woman is ‘just a fat boy with overdeveloped breasts’. He scorns her, her writing, and her accomplishments. He uses his sexual history with her to diminish her power. And he persuades Adolph to give up painting for sculpture – particularly the sculpting of the female form, with its corresponding overtones of a Pygmalion power dynamic between husband and wife. Josh Tyson, as Adolph, does a good job in displaying his insecurities – the fear that what attracted him to Tekla will also be what makes him lose her. ‘I’ve seen her when you’re not there’, Gustav tells him, trying to convince him that his wife is dangerously unknowable.

Compared to Adolph, Gustav and Tekla’s characters are a little two dimensional in this production. Craig Smith is more convincing as Gustav when he acts as the Machiavellian schemer in the opening portions, than when he comes into contact with Tekla. And Tekla falls short of being a feminist icon, much as Strindberg felt his play had contributed much to Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 Hedda Gabler, giving Stone, at times, little to work with. In a play obsessed with sex, the chemistry is sadly lacking – when the two pairs squabble it’s believable, when they fall into each others’ arms, it’s not. 

Overall, director Kevin Confoy has done a decent job in putting on a really interesting play which has much to recommend it. It’s not one to watch on a first date, or if you’re thinking about popping the question. The moral of the story is: romantic relationships are fraught, relationships between artists mutually destructive, and humans may be capable of loving two people at once, but definitely aren’t good at accepting that from their partners. Some things never change.

You can learn more about the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and upcoming productions here.

Do you know of any productions of nineteenth-century plays in New York the Secret Victorianist should review? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday 7 December 2014

Review: Poor Miss Finch, Wilkie Collins (1871-2)

Illustration from Poor Miss Finch

Writing in the 1880s, John Ruskin was dismissive about the merits of Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, summarising its plot as evidence of its ridiculousness: ‘the heroine is blind, the hero epileptic, and the obnoxious brother is found dead with his hands dropped off, in the Arctic region.’ He didn’t even think to mention that the epileptic hero, thanks to an (un-)healthy dose of Silver of Nitrate is now distinguishable from his otherwise identical twin brother through being bright blue (!). It’s one of those novels (like Allen’s What's Bred in the Bone which I reviewed a few months ago) which you can take great joy in telling people about, but the reading experience is a lot more uneven. So today I take you through the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the much maligned (e.g. Ruskin) – and occasionally defended (see T.S. Eliot) - Poor Miss Finch. 

The Good: 
Most of Collins’s later novels call for social change (often around marriage and legitimacy laws) but this one is an exception. Its central subject is instead a study of blindness – the experience of living in the world having been unable to see since infancy and the relative desirability of recovering sight. Collins researched meticulously for the novel. The heroine and title character, Lucilla, is even given words taken almost directly from testimonies of blind patients in scientific literature so interested Collins is in examining the realities of this different kind of existence. Lucilla is a stronger character when blind – she does not seem disabled, but, with her acute sense of touch, differently abled. She is independent financially, practically and mentally, and willing to disregard stifling moral conventions to win the man she loves (“[Concealing love] is very hard on the women. If they feel it first, they ought to own it first.”). All of this changes when she can see the world (and see the eyes of the world on her). Easily duped, unhappy and uncertain, Lucilla is in no doubt which life she prefers (“My love lives in blindness!”).

The same attention to medical detail is even there with poor Oscar’s complexion-altering epilepsy medication. That’s right, people, you can turn blue – here’s a guy who did just that and then went on TV to prove it:

Poor Miss Finch, whatever else it might be, is well-researched – and it is also populated by an array of memorable characters. Apart from Lucilla, there is the opinionated republican narrator Madame Pratolungo (a widowed French woman, previously married to a South American revolutionary) and then the Dubourg brothers who, in the distinction from each other, provide an interesting insight into how men were affected by Victorian ideals of masculinity. Lucilla’s perpetually half-dressed and breastfeeding stepmother and her 14+ children also make for an amusing satirical side note, with the Finch family’s ridiculous fecundity mocking the idealised Victorian home. 

The bad: 
Warning: this novel definitely drags and is hardly one of Collins’s best plotted. At times it is yelling-at-the-pages-frustrating, at others just disappointingly unbelievable.

Its central premise is that Lucilla is irrationally scared of dark colours, having been blind. Due to this, her fiancé Oscar tells her it is actually his twin, Nugent, who is blue, which is all very well until she recovers her sight and the brother take advantage of this case of mistaken identity.

It’s just mad and, while the characters might be interesting, they seem totally incapable of any rational behaviour.

There is also a lot of extraneous back story about a previous murder trial which, while interesting in itself, doesn’t really come back into play – just demonstrating how different this is to Collins’s mystery blockbusters like The Woman in White. 

The ugly: 
Having a crazy dislike of those with a dark complexion is as racist as it sounds (e.g. Lucilla is physically repulsed when someone invites a ‘Hindu’ to dinner) and this is just one of the things which makes it very difficult for modern readers to sympathise with the protagonist. The German oculist who treats her eyes is also a tiring and offensive stereotype – think lots of ‘Zs' and unnecessary plurals, and an obsession with food, especially Madame Pratolungo’s mayonnaise. 

The verdict: 
There’s a lot to study here, but I think if this was your first taste of Wilkie Collins you might be put off for life. Approach at your peril (and stay away from the Silver of Nitrate!).


What lesser-known nineteenth-century novel should the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!