Saturday 31 October 2015

The Birth of the Frankenstein Myth: Happy Halloween from the Secret Victorianist

Few works have been so continuously adapted as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818), and few have led to so much confusion about the tale and the actors in it, down to the very names of student Victor Frankenstein and his un-christened monster.

To celebrate this Halloween, I thought I’d write a blog post, looking back at the ‘birth’ of the Frankenstein myth and the moment the scientist gives life to his monster.

Boris Karloff who played the monster in three films between 1931 and 1939
Shelley writes:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The night-time setting of this moment of animation has been preserved in many versions of the story, but, if you’ve not read the novel before, you may be surprised to find certain details ‘missing’. Frankenstein’s power to grant life to a body crafted from cadavers is left deliberately vague. The scientist will not share this secret with Captain Walton to whom he tells his strange tale, and, in Shelley’s version, there are no lightening bolts or sparks of electricity.

Charles Ogle as the monster in 1910
With the tunnel vision that a first person voice can provide in fiction, Shelley directs us to telling details. We know the monster is alive because he ‘breathed’ but Shelley also hints that his life is not purely physical. The first thing Frankenstein notices is the opening of the creature’s eye, suggesting to us that this monster has an inner life, and its own perspective, from the moment of its birth.

Frankenstein’s monster is also better looking than we might have thought him. ‘Lustrous black’ hair and ‘pearly white’ teeth are not exactly the attributes we have come to associate with this Halloween favourite. While some of the reasons for Frankenstein’s disgust are rooted in the appearance of the monster (not many people, it’s true, can pull off black lips or look good with watery eyes!), much of the horror he feels could indeed be a manifestation of his own guilt at taking on the role of a creator.

His observation, in particular, that the monster’s ‘yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath’ could just be the skewed perspective of the maker who has worked to connect these arteries and muscles. One reason this paragraph is frightening for the reader is because it reminds us that our own bones and sinews don’t lie that far below our skin.

Iconic literary moments can often come to surpass the words they were first written in, but there’s always something to be gained from going back to the beginning and analysing the language that made them so powerful.

Are you doing anything inspired by the nineteenth century this Halloween? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday 25 October 2015

Theatre Review: Thérèse Raquin, Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, New York City

Émile Zola’s 1867 novel of exclusion, passion, adultery and murder has come to life this season in a dark and gripping production on New York’s Broadway.

Gabriel Ebert, Matt Ryan, and Keira Knightley [Photo: Joan Marcus]
Hollywood star Keira Knightley is entirely believable as Thérèse throughout.

She starts the play as the awkward outcast, bullied by her aunt (Judith Light) and eventually married off to her self-centred and hypochondriac cousin, Camille (Gabriel Ebert). She has few lines and is rarely centre stage, sat or stood in corners with her head downcast. But she draws our eye from the beginning, partly due to Keith Parham’s lighting, but also because of how interesting it is to watch her reactions. Her slight movements carry to the very back of the balcony, exciting audience sympathy and making it tricky to concentrate on what the other actors are saying at all.

Keira Knightley and Judith Light [Photo: Joan Marcus]
In the middle portion of the play, Knightley plays a role that is more recognisable from her – the impassioned lover. Fatally attracted to her husband’s friend Laurent (Matt Ryan), Thérèse embarks upon a doomed affair and is transformed in the process.

Knightley lets her words spill out over each other, moves at a faster pace about the small claustrophobic apartment that is the set for much of the play, and centres all her reactions on Laurent, making it clear where her attention is focussed from his very first entrance. She and Ryan work well together, although the affair seems more a product of Thérèse’s long-standing loneliness, than any particular attractions on Laurent’s part, beyond his sexual experience. Their on-stage sexual encounters are always brief, and clothed, although expect some bodice-ripping staples – tumbling hair and loosened necklines.

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan [Photo: Sara Krulwich]
In the final portion of the play, the lovers face the most difficult challenge – depicting the disintegration of their relationship, and their minds, after the murder of Camille. Knightley undulates beautifully between restraint and collapse, and sanity and madness here, while the unusual set of circumstances the couple finds themselves in is also played here like many abusive and unhappy domestic relationships. Ryan puts in a stronger performance I think in his hate than in love, and Light comes close to stealing the show in these final scenes with her harrowing performance as Camille’s broken mother, destroyed by grief, a stroke, and, finally, the understanding of what Laurent and Thérèse have done.

Director Evan Cabnet’s production of Helen Edmundson’s adaption is also notable for its set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) – including an onstage river. We are first introduced to Thérèse against a bleak and open stage, dominated by the water – one of the play’s most striking images – and the murder, later, is able to appear more realistic, and less ridiculous than it might have done on-stage, as the three (Camille, Laurent, Thérèse) are in fact in a small and rocking row boat.

Keira Knightley as Thérèse Raquin [Photo: Mikael Jansson, Vogue]
Some may object to Knightley’s casting as a character who is meant to be half-Algerian, but there’s no denying she does a stellar job at capturing Thérèse in all her complexity. It’s an incredible Broadway debut, and one well worth buying a ticket for.

Thérèse Raquin is currently in preview. The play opens October 29 and runs until January 2016. Tickets are available here.

Do you know of any other NYC productions of nineteenth-century plays the Secret Victorianist should watch? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 17 October 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Grolier Club: Alice in a World of Wonderlands, The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece

Last weekend I went to an exhibition that is a testament to the far-reaching power of the human imagination and to the importance of collaborative scholarship.

The exhibition
Alice in a World of Wonderlands marks 150 years since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by investigating the translations into 176 different languages that have emerged since the work’s publication and are the subject of a new book that shares the exhibition’s name.

Finnish translation (1952)
Finding and cataloguing these translations, and their editions, was a labour of love and involved a lot of detective work, with over 250 unpaid volunteers tracking down texts all over the world.

Christina Rossetti's signed copy of the first (German) translation of Alice (1869)
German was the first language other than English in which Alice first came to life (in 1869).  French, Swedish, Italian, Danish and Dutch soon followed in the nineteenth century, some with Carroll’s knowledge and consent, others without.

Catalan translation (1927)
But it is in the twentieth century that we see a proliferation of Alices (not that the central character always has this name). From Breton to Urdu, Esperanto to Pitjantjatjara, Hebrew to Malay, many readers have been taken down the rabbit hole. The question is – what do they find there?

Vladamir Nabokov's (Russian) translation (1923)
Alice in a World of Wonderlands, edited by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, for instance, contains 251 back translations into English to see how different translators approached the task of rendering one of Carroll’s poems:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!

Romanian translation (1991)
Native English speakers recognise this as a parody of the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, but translated literally into another tongue this context will be lost. This speaks directly to the translation debate of domestication vs. foreignisation. In other words, is it the role of the translator to educate the reader about the culture in which it was produced (here Victorian Britain) or to make the writer’s intention more immediately apparent by using shorthands with which he or she is familiar from their own culture.

Marathi translation (1982)
The translator of a version in Marathi for example (one of 12 Indian languages included in the catalogue) was one of those who decided to play with a rhyme familiar to his readers. He writes:

‘When I transformed Alice into Jaai I taught her not only customs and traditions of this land, but also the popular songs of this soil known to all.’

Poster for a Japanese stage play (1998)
Seeing the exhibition in person, one of the most obvious things to be struck by is the incredible range of visual responses to the text and John Tenniel’s illustrations. Cover illustrations range from the saccharine to the surreal, with the influence of Disney’s 1951 animated feature film clear. Alice seems to hold particular visual appeal in Japan, as posters for Alice-inspired stage plays are also on display here – maybe not surprising given the natural co-option of Alice into Lolita fashion.

Alphagram translation (2012)
This interactive map allows you to explore the myriad wonderlands inspired by one story told in Oxford on a sunny day, but if you’re in New York City, I’d definitely recommend checking out the exhibition in person. I already reviewed the Morgan Library & Museum’s retrospective into the novel’s origins, but it is at the Grolier Club that the legend of Alice seems to be very much alive.

Hebrew translation (1923)
The exhibition Alice in a World of Wonderlands, The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece is running until November 21 at the Grolier Club. Entrance is free.

Bosnian translation (2008)
Do you know of any other nineteenth-century exhibitions in NYC you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Opera Review: La Traviata, Musica a Palazzo, Venice

Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which tells the tragic story of a fallen woman based on La dame aux Camélias (1848) by Alexandre Dumas, fils, had its very first performance in Venice in March 1853. So it seemed fitting that on my visit to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, the Secret Victorianist should take in a sumptuous and unusual production of this opera classic.

Inside the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto
Away from the bright lights of Venice’s opera house – La Fenice – which seats a thousand and was home, in an earlier incarnation, to the La Traviata premiere, the Musico a Palazzo has made a name for itself by staging famous operas in the intimate setting of the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, a fifteenth-century palace on the Grand Canal.

Each act of Verdi’s opera was performed in a different room of the piano nobile of palace, with the building’s beautiful furniture and decorations, including frescoes by Gianbattista Tiepolo, providing an incredible backdrop for the tragedy.

The audience takes its seats for Act Two
The opera’s cast was cut down so that there were only three singing roles, adding to the sense of closeness between the audience and the performers. It was fascinating to see the singers up close rather than from a distant balcony, or when sat far back in an auditorium, and it was equally revealing to have a clear view of the musicians (a string trio and pianist), who are usually hidden in an orchestra pit.

What was particularly interesting for me, as a Victorianist, was how closely the experience seemed to replicate that of a nineteenth-century musical salon. I felt more of a guest in the palazzo than in any other historic house I have visited, in Venice or elsewhere. There is no ‘please don’t sit’ or ‘do not touch’. You’re part of the performance along with a small group of people – local and from all over the world – gathered here on this one night.

The cast for the performance the Secret Victorianist attended
Drinks, served at the first intermission and included in the entrance price, add to this feeling. There’s no mad rush to the bar and people seemed quite happy to mingle and talk about the performance.

What’s lost, of course, is much of the story of the opera being performed, and some of the music. This isn’t the kind of production that is going to provide you with English surtitles, and the cuts to the cast make the plot loose to say the least. It’s better to think of it as a dramatic concert in a stunning building – a chance for opera fanatics to immerse themselves in Violetta and Alfredo’s world, and for those new to the art form to appreciate an Italian passion in these glorious Venetian surroundings.

'Violetta's bedroom' in Act Three
If you’re looking for a romantic evening in Venice, or just to enjoy some beautiful music in a unique way, I’d really recommend it.

Membership to the Musica a Palazzo (necessary to attend a performance) is €75 and you can see the calendar of performances here.

Do you know of any New York City productions with a nineteenth-century twist you think the Secret Victorianist should see? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday 3 October 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the London Metropolitan Archives: Victorian London in Photographs

Last weekend, I visited an exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives that brings to life the city as it looked to the Victorians, through a selection of photographs from the period.

London is explored here from many angles – there are shots of the city skyline (dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral), but also photographs of children in the city’s slums and portraits of famous actors and madhouse inmates.

The exhibition at the LMA (London Metropolitan Archives)
It’s a strange mash up of the unknown and the familiar. London has changed a lot and yet there are still photographs that feel instantly recognisable, albeit that all the images, of course, feel more distant due to the black and white colouring.

The patients of Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum are among the most ‘modern’ human subjects in terms of their appearance. With hair clipped short and in less restrictive clothing than most of their contemporaries, they don’t feel very different at all – making their incarceration for their mental – and, it appears at times, physical – disabilities all the more shocking.

Whitehall from Trafalgar Square (1839)
What’s most revealing about the exhibition is what these early photographers thought to take photographs of – what, for them, was worth memorialisation. There are images of buildings doomed for demolition, demonstrating an early interest in conservation (and not just the conservation of buildings considered grand or opulent). And one of my favourite selections of images was an album of children attending a fancy dress party at the turn of the century, all decked out in costume.

Perhaps the images of most historical interest are those documenting the construction of Tower Bridge (1886-1894) and those of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace (1851). These latter photographs were particularly notable for me, as, although I’ve read personal and fictional accounts of the Exhibition many times, I’ve never been able to see its impressive scale for myself.

Workers at the Crystal Palace
Those with an interest in early photographic methods will also enjoy seeing the small selection of cameras on show, although I wish there had been some more explanation of how these worked. And the vast array of photographers’ business cards in the exhibition aptly demonstrates the growth of this newly formed and booming industry.

Those visiting the Archives seemed mainly to be academics or those investigating their own personal family histories, but, since the exhibition is free, if you find yourself in Clerkenwell, why not drop in for a visit? Taking these photos took more than the press of a button and the quick application of an Instagram filter, and they are a valuable time portal allowing us to experience Victorian London today.

Children in fancy dress
You can visit Victorian London in Photographs at the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell until 29 October 2015.

Do you know of any New York City exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.