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THE CRITIC AS CRITIC
A Monthly Page of Reviews
Laurence Talairach-Vielmas on Christine Ferguson’s brutal language
The Judas Kiss in
Lord Arthur Savile’s
Lady Windermere’s Fan in
The Importance of being Earnest in
The Importance of being Earnest in
The Zemlinksy Operas at Bard (Bruce Bashford)
Kolo Moser in
Gyles Brandreth: Oscar
Wilde and the Candlelight Murders.
Hardback ISBN: 0719569206, £12.99
A paperback version comes out in January 2008.
I came to this book prepared to hate it. Not a good frame of mind for a reviewer to adopt, I admit, but when one is working on various conference papers, journal articles and a book proposal on neo-Victorianism in contemporary culture and one comes across a book about Oscar Wilde taking on the role of detective the heart does sink somewhat. However, prejudice aside, this is actually a very entertaining and reasonably well-research fiction – and it certainly kept me reading from beginning to end over a very lazy Saturday morning.
Gyles Brandreth’s fame probably rests on his array of
(unfashionable) jumpers on 1980s and 1990s Breakfast TV, so it’s rather a
surprise to find that his humorous style is capable of creating a rather good
plot and of generally keeping up with Wilde’s own wit. It would be unfair to
spoil the nature of that detective plot here, although this reader and no doubt
many others will see the dénouement coming
from quite a distance. Put simply and not too revealingly: The story is set in
1889-1890. It begins with Oscar Wilde having an appointment to keep at a house
What’s more interesting about the novel, however, is the way in which Brandreth manages to avoid falling into mere parody as he parades before the audience a Wilde at the height of both his powers and his fame. Although Brandreth does deploy a great deal of Wilde’s own witticisms within the next, this is done so naturally that while some readers will enjoy spotting an original Wilde word and will see this as part of the game, they are not a distraction that takes the eye from the plot for too long. In fact, Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders represents an odd kind of cross-feeding between the fictional and factual realities of the friendship between the two men, Wilde and Conan Doyle, and how this might have led to both personal and published versions of their multiple selves. The story is rooted in the kind of ‘double life’ scenario that is both true to Wilde’s own biography and to a large amount of the fiction of the period. Kinky sex, a potential Jekyll and Hyde subplot and the outlines of a Dorian Gray are all brought into the mixture, but with a subtlety and skill that make this a very dexterous and reasonably stylish intervention into detective-element of the neo-Victorian genre.
At the end of the book Brandreth provides an appendix giving some biographical details on Wilde, Doyle and Sherard (and himself). There is also a reference in the ‘Acknowledgements’ to the story’s ‘sequels’. Amazon.com suggests that these are based on parodies of other detective fiction modes (Christie, the most parodied and parodiable of them all figures prominently). While I think a franchise of this kind might quickly drain away the good will of readers, I sincerely hope that at least one or two of these ‘sequels’ containing more of Detective Oscar of Scotland Yard (or Tite Street, at least) might reach the public in the coming years.
Language, Science and Popular Fiction in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle: The Brutal Tongue
Review by Laurence Talairach-Vielmas
What separates man from the ape?—Language. It is
with F. Max Müller’s attack on
In the first chapter,
In the second chapter, Ferguson examines how the fin-de-siècle popular romance writer
Marie Corelli deals with current constructions of popular fiction as
linguistically poor—primitive—and resulting from its modes of production and
circulation. With the rise of mass culture,
In Chapter 4,
In the last chapter,
Laurence Talairach-Vielmas teaches at the
Susanne Bach: Theatralität und Authentizität zwischen Viktorianismus und Moderne: Romane von Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde und Wilkie Collins. Tübingen: Narr, 2006. 400 pp. (ISBN 3-8233-6203-8)
In Theatralität und Authentizität zwischen Viktorianismus und Moderne, Susanne Bach combines an overview of various theoretical approaches to theatricality and authenticity with an investigation of the role of theatricality and authenticity in Victorian culture and society. The main focus of the book, however, lies on the readings of four novels from the transitional period between Victorianism and Modernism by which Bach wishes to demonstrate how theatricality and authenticity were re-conceived and revalued at the end of the 19th century.
In her introductory chapters Bach investigates how theatricality and authenticity were used in Victorian times as cultural parameters to categorise and evaluate human behaviour. She refers, for example, to the negotiation of gender roles, rules of conduct and, most convincingly, the ambivalent treatment of the body to demonstrate the significance of notions of theatricality and authenticity in Victorian times and their respective negative and positive connotations. Bach writes at length on nineteenth-century theatre as an example of the Victorian tendency of regulation of the body (e.g. acting styles, ballet, actresses as contrasting figures to the ideal Victorian woman), and she even goes so far as to present the ambivalent development of theatrical conventions after 1850, which increased the distance between audience and stage, as representative of Victorian ideology per se: theatricality was considered unreal and thus destabilising and therefore had to be contained. Bach is particularly interested in the role of the gaze as the means of perception and production of both theatricality and authenticity, and she attempts to present the psychological, sociological and cultural specificities of the Victorian gaze, especially in relation to gender roles.
In her analyses of James’ The Portrait of a Lady, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Collins’s The New Magdalen, Bach refers to a number of theoretical approaches to theatricality and authenticity from various academic fields, of which she provides a chronological overview. A presentation of Bakhtin’s concepts of carnivalisation and the theatrical as an alternative counter-world leads to a summary of Nikolai N. Evreinov’s lesser known concept of theatricality as a human instinct of perceiving and adapting experience to one’s imagination, and to a discussion of Greenblatt’s concept of self-fashioning as a fundamental mode of human existence. Bach goes on to present Lionel Trilling’s distinction of sincerity and authenticity and, complementing Trilling, the distinction of absorption and theatricality by art historian Michael Fried (which in turn is based on Diderot). Bach then introduces Erving Goffman’s sociologically oriented theory of role-playing as a basic mode of human social interaction. She finishes her theoretical introduction with the presentation of two approaches to theatricality from the fields of psychology and psycho-analysis, namely D.W. Winnicott’s differentiation of a true self and the self as actor, and Christopher Bollas’ concept of a unique personal ‘idiom’ that constitutes the core of the individual self.
Bach is particularly good in her discussions of Greenblatt and Trilling and at establishing links between the various approaches she presents. Through a very large number of references to other theorists she creates a theoretical network – albeit one often associative rather than systematic – covering a broad range of academic fields (psychology, philosophy, sociology, gender studies, feminism, structuralism, deconstruction, new historicism, history of art). It may be a price of this extensive scope that the treatment of some theorists remains somewhat superficial. For Evreinov, for example, Bach seems to rely entirely on earlier studies by Xander and Carnicke; at another point she presents Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage via a summing-up quotation from Eagleton’s Literary Theory.
However, Bach’s detailed readings of The Portrait of a Lady, Tess of the
d’Urbervilles, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The New Magdalen are always well-founded and thought-provoking.
Bach uses these texts, which engage with the is
Isabel Archer from The Portrait of a Lady is thus read as a character who originally believes herself to be in control of constructing her own coherent self but is ultimately forced to accept the fragmentary and unfinished nature of her identity. From Trilling’s stage of sincerity and a desire for authenticity Isabel, according to Bach, develops to a state of authenticity when she behaves in acceptance of her individual idiom (cf. Bollas’ theory). On the basis of this interpretation Bach argues very (too?) emphatically for a reading of the novel’s open ending that negates Isabel’s return to Osmond, since in her opinion such a return would go against Isabel’s authentic self.
Bach’s interpretation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles hinges on her equation of Tess’ purity –
a crucial is
Bach’s interpretation of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray centres on the well-known contradictions within the text. Bach points out how in Dorian Gray authenticity seems to be substituted by theatricality, nature by culture, life by art, the feminine by the masculine, and the notion of a stable core of identity by a kaleidoscope of roles. These inversions are discredited by the subtext of the novel, however, particularly by the guidance of sympathy towards Sybil Vane. Bach interprets Sybil as a yardstick for the other characters because she is the only one to unite many of the disparate elements in the story. Like the other characters who burn with life and love, she has to die, while Lord Henry Wotton, who fashions himself and others, survives because he sticks to the role of a cynical observer who is situated above the authentic, the symbolic order and the theatrical order (a category Bach introduces in allusion to Lacan to denote excess and decadent behaviour, 241). Yet Wotton seems only half alive. According to Bach, theatricality and aestheticism are thus questioned and subverted although The Picture of Dorian Gray at first glance appears to celebrate them.
In her reading of Wilkie Collins’ novel The New Magdalen Bach once again underlines the context of change in which the book was written, as well as the moral ambiguity of the text. Bach interprets the protagonist, Mercy Merrick as a representative figure of the changes in Victorian society and as an ideal object for analysing the relation of role and idiom, of theatricality and absorption, as well as mechanisms of self-fashioning. In Bach’s reading Mercy develops from a stage of sincerity at the beginning of the novel, to a stage of what Bach calls ‘pragmatic sincerity’, when Mercy assumes another woman’s identity, to an authentic life at the end. The New Magdalen is read as a text whose narrative structure deliberately offers the reader a plethora of possible interpretations and evaluations of Mercy to mirror the fact that the self is no longer understood as a monolithic entity but as a continuous accommodation and adaptation of roles and scripts by the individual.
Bach concludes with the claim that in the novels she investigates the (moral) dichotomy of authenticity and theatricality that marked Victorian society was no longer upheld. As the endings of the novels show, authentic as well as theatrical characters are killed off or removed from the story; instead those characters remain who have positioned themselves in the space between the poles of theatricality and authenticity. Most importantly, according to Bach, authenticity is no longer presented as a positive corrective and opposite pole of theatricality, but as a submode of theatricality, since authenticity now appears to be impossible without theatricality, and vice versa.
While Bach’s argumentation is convincing, the concluding chapter is unfortunately marred by her decision to amalgamate findings from her earlier chapters indiscriminately of whether they concerned theoretical or fictional writings. Bach defends this method by claiming somewhat simplistically that neither fictional nor scholarly approaches exist in a semantic vacuum and that they can therefore be treated in similar ways (353). Totally neglecting the different conventions of the production, distribution and reception of fictional and theoretical texts as well as their different relations to reality she thus presents, for example, findings from her readings of the novels as proof of the correctness of Bakhtin’s and Evreinov’s theories. A similar mixing-up of reality levels is also visible in Bach’s readings of the novels, since she tends to speak of both the fictional characters and the narrators as if they were personalities that, independent of the author, had the capability of actively shaping the narrative.
The biggest drawback of the book, however, lies in its presentation rather than its argumentation. The readability of the book is seriously impaired by Bach’s excessive use of (often unnecessary) academic jargon and overly complex syntax. Together with a rather surprising number of anglicisms, they leave the impression that at least parts of the book were re-translated from English without too much attention to the readability of the text in German. Not only does this result in language that seems utterly unnatural; the impression of scholarliness, which this style may be intended to achieve, is undercut by mistakes in the use of borrowed or foreign words (e.g. wrong gender with the terms rite of passage and Parameter), misquotations (e.g. of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” speech), as well as occasional mistakes in direct quotations and references.
The referencing, too, is excessive. The large number of footnotes causes frequent interruptions and therefore again impairs the readability of the text. Since Bach uses the footnotes for the discussion of a wide range of secondary texts, which impressively underline the extent of her engagement with her subject, this procedure is comprehensible. Given her often sweeping judgments on other texts as “misinterpretations” or “false reading”, however, one would have wished for either an inclusion and extension of this discussion in the text or its radical reduction. It is not helpful, moreover, that the footnotes refer to sources by name of author and year of publication, whereas titles of the same author in the bibliography are not usually listed chronologically but alphabetically by title. Locating the text to which a footnote refers therefore is sometimes unnecessarily time-consuming. Simply wrong, moreover, are some of the entries in the bibliography where Bach gives the year of composition of a text as the year of the first edition (e.g. 1897 for Wilde’s De Profundis, which was first published in excerpts in 1905).
These formal and linguistic is
Teatro Bretón de los Herreros, Logroño, La Rioja, 2n-3rd September 2007
Logroño hosted the
Spanish version of David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. This is the first
time that a Wilde ‘biopic’ (the word used by the theatre) has been
of The Judas Kiss is principally
focused on the analysis of the blatant rejection of homosexuality on the part
of Victorian society. Notwithstanding the relatively open acceptance of
homosexuality in Spain – same-sex marriage was legalised in 2005, Barcelona
hosted the first Global Summit of the
However, The Judas Kiss is far from presenting a mythologized portrait of Wilde as a modern gay icon and it lays emphasis on the image of Wilde as a man who defends his sexuality on the grounds of love and liberty. In fact, one of the main purposes of the play is to contribute to undermine many clichés about Wilde’s personality and to show many stereotypical attitudes of Wilde under a proper light: Wilde is portrayed as a precursor of glamour in his sartorial flamboyance and his ingeniously elegant speech without conveying the traditional impression of being frivolous or shallow; his epigrammatic talk is shown to be more than a mere array of verbal fireworks because it encapsulates the main assumptions about love and freedom which he put into practice in his life; finally, Wilde is not shown as a pathetic martyr to be pitied but as a victim of society (and of Bosie, too) who was brave enough to live according to his beliefs till the end.
Joaquín Kremel, who is an avowed admirer of Oscar Wilde, made a brilliant performance of Oscar which did not disappoint in the least. Physically, he only resembles Wilde in that he is also tall and broad-shouldered. Nevertheless, he captured the very essence of the paradoxical nature of Wilde (foolish/wise, dependent/independent, insensible/sensible, cowardly/heroic) and he managed to present a convincing image of a contradictory but nevertheless noble and worthy man. The Bosie of the attractive Enrique Alcides succeeded in evoking the obsessive self-centredness and the egoistic narcissism which were characteristic of the real Lord Alfred Douglas and his reiterated hysterical outbursts effectively commanded not only Wilde’s attention but also that of the whole audience. The rest of the actors of this five-man cast performed satisfactorily their respective roles. Juan Ribó played a reasonable and affectionate Robbie Ross, Galileo was played with fresh youthful gaiety by Luis Muñiz, and Emilio Gómez’s subtle performance of Mr. Moffat was highly appreciated by the audience.
Act I opens with a luxurious bed, a comfortable
sofa and a table in an ornate room at the elegant Cadogan
The Judas Kiss offers a subtle exploration of the most critical situations in Wilde’s late years which make the audience reflect over the problems derived from the hypocrisy and homophoby which are still present in society. Nonetheless, Hare’s work is full of little touches of humour that never fail to entertain the audience and thus the general tone of the play never lapses into total pessimism.
Director: Miguel Narros.
Spanish Version of The Play: Nacho Artime.
Sets And Costumes: Andrea D’odorico, Ana Rodrigo.
Lighting: Juan Gómez Cornejo.
Music: Luis Miguel Cobo.
Production Stage Manager: Celestino Aranda.
Starring: Joaquín Kremel (Oscar Wilde), Enrique Alcides (Lord Alfred Douglas), Juan Ribó (Robert Ross), Emilio Gómez (Sandy Moffatt), Luis Muñiz (Galileo Masconi).
Review by Sujit K. Dutta,
Set in the 1890s, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Oscar Wilde's long short story, is a social satire which holds up a mirror to the audience parodying the snobbery of the British aristocracy. The amusing but simplistic story exposes the dark side of human nature while it deals with the themes of fate, duty and love. Lord Arthur Savile, a deliriously happy but gullible man about to marry his fiancée is however convinced by the prophecy of a palm-reader that he will shortly commit a murder. This awakens the evil in the seemingly innocent Lord Arthur which leads him onto a path of crime to make several futile attempts to commit a homicide.
The Nottingham Arts Theatre by arrangement with
Samuel French Ltd presented Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
dramatized by Constance Cox who, in her adaptation, remains fairly faithful to
Wilde's story. This amateur production, directed by Maggie Andrew and her
assistant Charlotte Spooner played to full houses for six consecutive days from
5th February to
N. John Gunn, as Arthur Savile was quite able to play his role with a perfect mixture of stupidity and wickedness which helped the audience remain sympathetic to this rather incompetent guy not taking into account his villainous attempts at homicide. In her role as gullible Miss Sybil Merton, Charlotte Osbourne, at the initial stage appeared pretty stiff. However, as the play progressed, she managed to grow more comfortable and finally succeeded in justifying Lord Arthur's irresistible attraction for his innocently beautiful fiancée.
To play the roles of the three ladies representing the aristocracy, Lady Winderemere, Arthur Savile's aunt, Lady Julia Merton, his would-be mother-in-law and Lady Clementina Beauchamp, his great aunt, were in fact no easy tasks. Emma Carlton seemed to have the right restraint and patience required to play the role of Lady Winderemere competently while Carol Walton, with her ease and confidence, was the right choice for the role of a nagging, dominating, and at times, frightening mother-in-law. Both, eccentric in their own ways, the former often indulging in one-liners, and the latter with her usual garrulousness, served as constant sources of amusement to the audience.
Pearl Beddoes played the role of the hypochondriac
Lady Clementina Beauchamp who harbours a young heart
in her old body. With her skilful and confident performance on the stage,
Gordon Horobin had the gusto to make the Dean of Paddington a funny character whose actions and utterances occasionally filled the hall with roars of laughter from the audience. In the role of Mr. Podgers, the society fortune teller, Henry Hamilton-Russell, despite his deceptive look, somehow lacked the gusto to reflect the full intensity of the crookedness of the fraudulent chiromancer. Alex Reed, who took the role of Herr Winkelkopft, a German anarchist, with his ranting appeared more clownish than anarchic and seemed to remain unconcerned even when his plans, one after another, failed. Charlotte Spooner's role as Nellie, the maid, however small, was quite impressively performed.
In a play some actors perform more skilfully than others. In the present production David Shackleton who brilliantly played the butler, speaking so precisely, outshone all other stars in the galaxy not because of his prolonged stay on the stage but by the restraint, adroitness and consummate skills with which he performed. His movements, interactions and interventions were just appropriate to hold the events together in the play.
I have, however, two suggestions to make: with a richer interior decoration, Lord Arthur's drawing-room would have given us a better impression of the Victorian grandeur and the introduction of on-stage or background music, I think, would make the production more enjoyable.
To conclude, it was an enjoyable evening show with skilful direction and committed performance which generated much warmth for the audience to combat the biting cold outside on their way back home.
Written by Keith Connolly fat
Known internationally for
its productions of Samuel Beckett’s searing works,
The very essence of the play is its use of language. There is a soft, poetic aspect to Oscar Wilde's writing and with Salome, he creates a work of worded art. The play glides from scene to scene, focusing intently on the poetic movements as they arrive through each character's potent monologue of visual adoration and passionate need. The audience is drip-fed tantalising morsels before dramatic, sudden shifts back to reality and dialogue. These poetic displays are the core of the play's brilliance: with each, the audience is riveted, transfixed in the glow of Wilde’s astonishing verbal dexterity.
Player’s Theatre, Trinity College Dublin
Review by Maureen O’Connor
opening night performance of the Parnassus Arts Group’s production of Oscar
Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, which
ran from 12th-16th June, played to a full house in the fifty-seat Player’s
Theatre in Trinity College Dublin, the studio theatre of the college’s student
drama society. The Parnassus Arts Group
is an amateur company that has been performing for twenty-five years, perhaps
best known in these parts for their popular, original comic productions,
‘Eurovision, Me Arse!’ and ‘World Cup, Me Arse!’ Their proven track record in such
entertainment—the audio recording of and ‘World Cup, Me Arse!’ reached number
four on the Irish Album Charts—might lead the theatregoer to expect a confident,
or at least spirited, performance of Wilde’s social comedy; however, the men
were nearly all dowdies and not all of the women were dandies. Fatally, Keith Murtagh
made Lord Darlington into a rather earnest boy scout, lacking any hint of humour or roguery.
Anthony Leamy tried a bit harder to inject
some energy into his Cecil Graham, but the only truly successful male
performance was Declan O’Brien as Augustus, and he stole the show. The other stand out performance was Dolores
Grogan’s brilliant turn as the Duchess of Berwick. She was the first actor to make the audience
laugh; Declan O’Brien the second. Neasa Ní Dhomhnaill as the Duchess’s
virtually silent daughter Lady Agatha, did wonderful,
subtle work in a potentially thankless role.
Annette Flynn’s Mrs Erlynne often, though
inconsistently, convinced, particularly in the difficult moments toward the end
of the play, when the heartless, sparkling predator must show smothered,
unwelcome signs of humanity. The role of
her daughter, Lady Windermere, in the hands of Tara Kerins,
begins and ends in tortured anxiety, with no relief or variation in
between. The scenes between herself and
Review by Melissa Jackson
The Importance of Being Earnest.
Directed by Richard Sodders. Performed by Travis Hackett (Lane), Mark Zavaleta
Fowler (Algernon Moncrieff), Michael Amendola (Jack
Worthing, J.P.), Meghan Grantom (Lady Bracknell),
Jillian Krametbauer (Gwendolen
Fairfax), Stephanie Morris (Miss Prism), Lindsay Hicks (Cecily Cardew), Robert Bridget (Rev. Cannon Chasuble) and
I had the pleasure of watching Richard Sodders’s production of The
Importance of Being Earnest on
The play began, of course, in Algernon’s flat. Scene designer Karen Arredondo used the space to her advantage, going so far as to color-coordinate set pieces with the stage’s red curtain, specifically furniture pieces in rich shades burgundy set against soft cream tones. Before the play began, we could see some of these furniture pieces, set in front of the red curtain as though inviting us into Oscar Wilde’s world. Once the curtain opened, we took a step into that world. Paintings decorated the wall. Windows granted a view outside. A statue of Lady Justice sat on an end table. Acts II and III, set in the garden at the Manor House, similarly followed in this vein. White wicker chairs and tables sat on either side of the stage. Pink and yellow roses grew in the garden and decorated the tables. Lighting designer David Nancarrow lit the stage in warm amber tones, leaving no corner in shadow. The world created was inviting. Who wouldn’t want to sit on a burgundy and cream sofa or have tea in a wicker chair amid pink and yellow roses? The elaborate detail invited the audience to relax because, not only was it pleasing to the eye, the detail diminished the need for the audience to use their imaginations.
The costumes provided the actors with opportunities for a few clever moments. Donned in a lovely deep blue gown, Gwendolen (Krametbauer) used her sleeve as a comparison to Earnest’s eyes when she delivered her line ‘What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Earnest! They are quite, quite, blue.’ Miss Prism wore a hat with pretty flowers on the back and turned her hat around to set the flowers in the front when Dr. Chasuble came to visit, thus cluing in any unaware audience members to her affection for the reverend. Masquerading as Earnest, Algernon showed up in the second act wearing a hideously wonderful orange-brown and plaid suit with goggles and orange-brown socks to match. Algernon seemed positively outrageous in this outfit; Fowler’s Algernon in any other outfit would have looked mildly improper.
I would like to have seen the actors trust the text. At certain moments I felt as though they were pointing to jokes and telling us, ‘This is supposed to be funny.’ Miss Prism (Morris) was one of the worst offenders. Instead of trusting the audience to pick up on her feelings for Dr. Chasuble and trusting Wilde’s text to carry the jokes, she made a fairly frequent show of leaning in as if about to kiss him. In a more irritating attempt to get laughs, Lady Bracknell (Grantom) overplayed her dialogue, talking in a high, screeching tone to show her indignation and drawing herself up as though about to pounce. Her makeup was almost clownish, with pronounced lines by her mouth to indicate ‘wrinkles’ and lipstick drawn into a puckered mouth, perhaps to complement her tendency to exaggerate. Earnest (Amendola) was similarly given to over-the-top line readings, placing emphasis on ‘funny’ points instead of trusting the audience to catch the humor. In the third act he vehemently declared, ‘He subsequently stayed to tea, and devoured every single muffin,’ one finger in the air to punctuate his line and inform us that this was supposed to be funny. I also didn’t care for Jordan Smith’s characterization of the Merriman. He seemed to be attempting to draw attention to himself to make his role more important. He made an obvious show of being snooty and disapproving and even threw in a bit in which he was hunched over in pain from carrying Algernon’s luggage. I felt that his attempts to take the spotlight detracted from the play and shifted attention away from Wilde’s script. The actors spent most of the show going for easy laughs. Had they calmed down and let the words speak for themselves, the show could have been truly memorable.
Despite the actors’ failure to trust Wilde’s wit to speak for itself, the show as a whole was pleasant to watch. The actors banded together and went over the top with their performances as a unit. With the elaborate scenery and costumes, and set against the audience’s laughter and gasps, the performance worked. The cast and crew put on a show that was easy to watch and easy to forget. It was a charming caricature of Oscar Wilde.
Jackson is a graduate theatre student at
Review by Mark Tattenbaum
The Department of Theatre and Dance of the
The directorial vision placed this work in the time period suggested by Mr. Wilde’s script and provided an excellent vehicle for the students to experience the classical style, the times, and the language of Mr. Wilde.
The costumes were representative of the period and were designed by Ms. Lacey Jamison, a theatre student pursuing the design track to her B.A. degree. The stage setting was designed by Ms. Jennifer Lynn Tillapaugh, a very accomplished student, also pursuing the design track to her B.A. degree. Ms Tillapaugh’s exceedingly beautiful settings reflected the themes embodied in Wilde’s work including that of the confusion of identities that occur within the work.
The all student cast provided solid performances with the two ancillary characters of the butlers proving to be the surprise and wit of the production. Mr. Drew Derek portrayed the butler Merriman, and Mr. Gordon Tashjian portrayed the butler Lane. These two senior year students of acting employed their dramaturgical training to develop their individual back-stories and to define their relationships with the other cast members. This dramaturgical approach, coupled with their individual actor training, yielded truthful and humorous characterizations by both actors.
Joseph R. Mallison
Elizabeth Hayes Maher
Kevin R. Kennedy
Cast Left to Right
Kevin R. Kennedy, Nicole Benoit, Joseph R. Mallison, Stephen Stocking, Hanna Lipkind, Sarah Brown, Elizabeth Hayes Maher
Mark F. Tattenbaum holds an M.F.A. and is a Ph.D. candidate in
American Studies at the University at
von Zemlinsky’s one-act operas A Florentine
Tragedy (Eine Florentinische
Tragödie) and The Dwarf (Der Zwerg) were performed
as a double-bill five times this summer at
My wife and I attended the final performance on August 5th. The following remarks illustrate Wilde’s observation that “Each of the professions means a prejudice,” that is, they’re made mainly from the point of view of a professional student of Wilde. For a fairer view of the performances in their own terms, readers should consult (as I will) reviews certain to appear in publications like Opera News.
My perspective is particularly unfair to The Dwarf, since by choosing a new title, Zemlinksy indicates that he’s not trying to make Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta” directly into an opera. Still, I found it hard not to compare the two works, perhaps because I find the fairy tale so intriguing, and from this perspective, the opera seems thin. As Isobel Murray says of the fairy tale in her Introduction to Wilde’s Complete Shorter Fiction, “The opposition of Art and Nature, a central subject for Wilde, is underlined. The solemn, artificial ritual of the Spanish court, which has brought even immediate Nature into man-controlled artifice and stifled the young queen, is contrasted with the vivid, lively and attractive Nature of the Dwarf’s experience” (13). In the opera, the Dwarf hasn’t been living in nature, but has spent most of his life captive in a human environment, so this resonant opposition is completely lost. Nor is this Spanish court “solemn”: the Infanta, now celebrating her eighteenth rather than twelfth birthday, is a teenager spoiled rotten. As the opera opens, Don Estoban, overseeing preparations for the birthday celebration, tells us right away that the Dwarf must be kept from mirrors because he’s unaware of his ugliness--so we’re sure he’ll eventually end up looking in one. As my wife observed, this change means we lose the wonderful presentation of the Dwarf’s self-discovery in the fairy tale, in which we as readers don’t realize initially that he is looking in a mirror.
To venture a bit beyond my narrow perspective (while still leaving the important technical discussion of the music to the far better qualified) even taken in its own terms, the piece wasn’t particularly effective dramatically. Zemlinksy seems intent on pointing up a maxim: we lack self-awareness and can’t live with a true view of ourselves if one is forced on us. The maxim would already fit the Dwarf’s case in Wilde’s fairy tale, and Zemlinksy makes a plot change to widen its application: the Infanta, cowering in a corner of the stage as the Dwarf suffers from seeing his image in a mirror she has provided, realizes her cruelty--as she doesn’t in the fairy tale--but at the opera’s close, rejects that self-image by dismissing the dead Dwarf as a toy that broke the very day she got it. It’s Zemlinksy’s right to do this, since he hasn’t promised fidelity to Wilde’s piece, but he doesn’t seem to have reconceived his source thoroughly enough to fill up even a one-act opera. Long stretches consist of either the Dwarf, unaware of his appearance, courting the simpering Infanta or the Dwarf voicing his anguish at his discovery. One has the sense that material sufficient for a scene in an opera is being stretched further than it can go.
A Florentine Tragedy is more satisfying to someone with my parochial interest, in part because it appears to take Wilde’s play directly as its libretto. To go beyond that interest for a moment again, James Johnson was well cast as Simone. Johnson is a large man, which made his attempts to sell goods to the man obviously having an affair with his wife particularly servile, while also making his display of strength at the end, when he overpowers Guido, convincing. In my view, however, the conception of Guido was somewhat off: he was insolent, as he should be, but it was the crude insolence of a Mafia don’s son, rather than an aristocratic sense of entitlement.
Seeing the opera made me appreciate Wilde’s play more in two respects. One recalls my experience with Salome. When I first took up that play years ago, Wilde’s language struck me as stilted, overwrought. I was surprised shortly after when I heard the language, or a lot of it anyway, in Strauss’s opera and later yet recited by Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome in Ken Russell’s film Salome’s Last Dance: the language was lyrical, evocative. A Florentine Tragedy had always struck me as Wilde’s attempt to write in a register he wasn’t suited for, an ersatz imitation of a Renaissance style. But again the opera brings the language alive: the artifice disappears, replaced by the powerful expression of thought and emotion.
I had also never thought of A Florentine Tragedy as typically Wildean in content, but now hear echoes of several of his recurrent concerns. One of these concerns, though not easy to pin down, drives the play’s plot. Wilde’s general philosophical outlook, his individualism and subjectivism, makes encounters between two persons difficult since it seems as though the perspective of one or the other has to prevail. “One should never listen. To listen is a sign of indifference to one’s hearers”: while the maxim professes concern for the hearers’ benefit, there’s also the suggestion that entering into conversation with another risks forfeiting control over the situation. In Wilde’s critical dialogues, he avoids a contest between artist and critic for priority by developing a conception of “Beauty as the symbol of symbols”. Whatever that conception finally means, my limited point now is that an accommodation between two is produced through a third, mediating entity--in that case, an art work at once the expression of the artist and the starting point for further expression by the critic. Something similar takes place in A Florentine Tragedy: initially Simone and Bianca, though husband and wife, are incapable of attending to each other. He regards her as an unlovely servant, “the meanest trencher-plate/From which I feed mine appetite”--an unsavory description he uses that we’re meant to apply to her. She says disparagingly of him that “Cowardice/Has set her pale seal on his brow. His hands/Whiter than poplar leaves in windy springs/Shake with some palsy”. The third, mediating element is Guido’s brazen pursuit of Bianca. The insult of this pursuit pushes Simone to violence, which prompts Bianca’s recognition that he’s “so strong”. This recognition, plus what’s implied by Guido’s interest in Bianca, prompts in turn Simone’s recognition that she’s “beautiful”. The final embrace and kiss “on the mouth” these recognitions produce did feel conclusive in the theater, but the nature of the mediating entity--infidelity, violence and death--leaves an audience uncertain about the human quality of the union achieved.
Bruce Bashford teaches at
Pissarro: Impressions of City & Country. Exhibition at The Jewish Museum,
Even though 2007 is not
an anniversary year for the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903),
his work has been featured in several American exhibitions. Earlier this year,
The recent attention to Pissarro’s work may be explained in part by a revival of interest in nineteenth-century landscape painting, a genre that was somewhat neglected during the past decades but has made a sudden come-back. Exhibitions such as Courbet and the Modern Landscape organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2006 and Renoir Landscapes, currently on view in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, concentrate on the landscape production of artists who, during the past decades, were studied primarily for their figure paintings. But there are additional reasons as well for Pissarro’s recent popularity. Long considered a second-tier Impressionist, after the holy trinity of Monet, Degas, and Renoir, Pissarro stole the spotlight in 2003, the centennial anniversary of his death, when a series of exhibitions devoted to his work showed the full range, both in style and content, of the artist’s work. At that time, a new emphasis was placed on the artist’s Jewish-Caribbean background, which was linked to his left-wing, anarchist political convictions. This reassessment of Pissarro’s personal circumstances caused many to see his paintings, particularly his rural scenes, in a new light. Works that previously had been dismissed as sweet, even saccharine pastoral paintings now appeared as manifestos to the dignity of traditional rural labor, in opposition to the degrading nature of industrial work. Their utopian quality was highlighted and linked to the writings of such anarchist authors as Prince Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921) and Élisée Reclus (March 15, 1830 – July 4, 1905), whose works Pissarro is known to have read and admired.
Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City & Country, in some ways, is typical of the reevaluation the artist has undergone. The very fact that the exhibition is held in The Jewish Museum shows how more emphasis is now placed on the artist’s Jewish heritage, which, in the past was decidedly underplayed. In the brief summary on the inside flap of the catalog cover, the central paragraph highlights Pissarro’s background as a Sephardic Jew, his espousal of an ‘anti-bourgeois, anarchist’ ideology, and his passion for ‘the plight of the working class.’ This text notwithstanding, however, the exhibition does less to focus our attention on the ideological subtext of Pissarro’s work than to re-focus it on its formal qualities. Indeed, like other recent and current nineteenth-century landscape exhibitions, Courbet and the Modern Landscape and Renoir Landscapes, in particular, the exhibition’s true contribution appears to be that it demonstrates Pissarro’s qualities as a ceaseless formal experimenter—one who was, if we believe Richard’s Schiff’s convincing catalog essay, obsessed with execution. Indeed, more than any of the other Impressionists, with the possible exception of Cézanne, Pissarro appears to have been forever preoccupied with the tension between representation and the physicality of paint marks made on a flat canvas. This preoccupation led him to constantly change his facture, as we see when we survey his œuvre from his early smoothly ‘licked’ St. Thomas landscapes, via the broadly painted Daubignesque scenes of the 1860s, the Impressionist works of the late 1860s and early 1870s, and the pointillist landscapes of the 1880s, to, finally the late Impressionist works, which in some cases, as for example in The Wharves, Saint-Sever, Rouen of 1896 (cat. no. 45), seem to anticipate Fauvism.
The real thrill of a
visit to Camille Pissarro: Impressions of
City & Country comes from seeing some thirty works from private
collections that are rarely if ever shown in public. Moreover, the judicious
selection of a relatively small number of Pissarro’s works, some fifty in all,
impresses the viewer with the variety of the artist’s output, both with regard
to style, subject, and medium. Stylistically, the exhibition shows the full
range of Pissarro’s work, from the early Romantic scenes of
Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City & Country presents an artist of great originality, one who was interested in a variety of landscape motifs and who experimented tirelessly in oil paint as well as other media. To this author, the greatest pleasure came from a renewed acquaintance with several of the artist’s etchings—all tiny works but impressive for the way the artist has captured different landscape effects with minimal means. Effect of Rain (cat. no. 17) of 1879 may serve as an example. Measuring a little over 6 x 8 inches, it represents a vast meadow, bordered at the horizon by a row of skinny poplars; in the background a huge haystack, in the foreground two peasant women who are trying to finish their work as a heavy shower rains down on them. Pissarro has beautifully manipulated etching and aquatint to evoke the dreary grayness of a rainy day.
For those interested in visiting the exhibition, Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City & Country will be on view until February 3. Remember to check opening hours as they are different from most other museums (as this author experienced). The modest but excellent catalog, authored by Karen Levitov and Richard Schiff is available from Yale University Press.
ten-Doesschate Chu is Professor in the Department
of Art and Music,
The exhibition also threw a light on Kolo Moser’s work for theatre, practically implementing the ideas of the Vienna Secession in his costume designs for Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan, and his stage sets, such as for Julius Bittner’s Der Bergsee. Moreover, a large section of the exhibition, comprising more than 500 items, was devoted to Moser as a painter of landscapes, still lifes, portraits and allegorical subjects in his uniquely characteristic style and choice of colour.
With Kolo Moser being one of the most important artists in the Leopold Collection, the exhibition provided a beautifully arranged overview of the stunning range of the artist’s oeuvre and duly paid tribute to his remarkable versatility.
To see a complete list of all works reviewed, click