All posts for the month April, 2010

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Published 28/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

An Irish novel about memory, truth, bigotry and religion told through the words of the elderly lady who has lived through these prejudices and experiences. Roseanne, an elderly inmate of a mental institution, recalls her childhood and her days as a young woman living around Sligo.  As she secretly consigns her memories and thoughts to paper, in the same way that female novelists may have done during the nineteenth century, her story weaves and is woven around that of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene.  She is approaching her hundredth birthday and is permitted to have hazy recollections of the past: Dr Grene, the scientist, methodically tries to piece together what he can about her previous life.

It is a fascinating, beautifully related account of growing up in rural Ireland in the years before, during and after the civil war and independence.  Roseanne’s narration borders on poetry in places and is juxtaposed by her doctor’s more rational account of matters as he uncovers facts.  Hers is a life of conflict: a Presbyterian Irish father and an English mother, who was raised as a member of the Plymouth Brethren.  The family sits on the edges of the struggle for Irish independence, but is unfairly dragged in from the margins.  Was her father a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, was he murdered by Irish patriots, or did he take his own life?  Does she inherit her mother’s insanity, is she a nymphomaniac, and does she murder her own child?  The novel takes on aspects of a detective story as Dr Grene becomes more and more involved with his patient and strives to learn the truth.

We sympathise with both narrators as they struggle to make sense of their own lives.  Dr Grene’s unhappy marriage echoes Roseanne’s earlier misfortunes, and his bereavement anticipates the tragedies that he will later discover have befallen her, although it is never clear whether or not she has read the letter informing her of these unhappy events.  All the pieces finally fall into their correct places after Dr Grene visits England and is able to complete the jigsaw puzzle.  Life is what we make of it, but sometimes we are controlled by external events, and the truth can be stranger than fiction.

Another series of Mad Men finished

Published 16/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

The final episode of the third series of Mad Men came to our screens on Wednesday night, and then finished, leaving me hungry for more.

I’ve watched since the first episode.  Initally I was happy to ride the wave of nostalgia and relived my secretarial days (a good few years after the period setting of Mad Men).  In the 1970s I worked in open plan offices, where the secretary’s desk was positioned outside the door to her boss’s office.  I used an IBM Golfball typewriter and used to enjoy the sound of the ‘golfball’ as it spun its way across a page of type: the reverberation was very different from that of a conventional electric typewriter.  I’m not so sure that I remember the miasma of smoke hanging around the workplace, as it does over the offices of Sterling Cooper, nor was I aware of a heavy drinking culture.  But I do remember the extended business lunches, all enjoyed and paid for by lavish expense accounts – probably because I booked the restaurants and handled the receipts afterwards.

I’ve wallowed in the detail paid to the fashions and make up of the Mad Men years.  I’ve since learned that the actresses all wear genuine 1960s underwear so that the clothes on top hang correctly and achieve the proper shapes.  They are also not allowed to work out, as that would have been unheard of during that period.  Watching BBC Victorian costume dramas is part escapism, part recreation of classic novels, but, for me, watching Mad Men is like Proust’s memories.  I’m reminded of my early years and recall them with a mixture of nostalgia and longing.

The three series so far are not just an aesthetic reminder of an era that has now passed, but they are also a small snippet of the Western World’s social history from the end of the 1950s until, at this point, the end of 1963.  We can view the wider picture and gain a gradual awareness of the germinating seeds of the women’s liberation movement, but the stories are personal, as well as political.  We watch Peggy develop from secretary to advertising copy writer, from pregnant single mother (who gives up her child) to a woman who wants to join the advertising world on a man’s terms.  On the other hand Betty, the stay-at-home ice blond wife and mother to Don Draper and his children, tires of his philandering and his constant affairs and seeks a divorce.  These two woman, from different sides of the social spectrum, and living different lives, both exist as metaphors for the advancing women’s lib movement.  Likewise does Joan, the sexy office redhead, who is re-employed and recognised for her business assets, not just for her feminine curves.

Balanced against these females is the enigmatic, maverick Don.  Throughout the three series we have had the dramatic irony over Betty, and have known that he is living a false life.  The flashbacks we’ve been afforded have shown us his poverty stricken boyhood during the Great Depression, the theft of a dead comrade’s identity during the Korean war and his reincarnation as Don Draper.  He is a fragmented, schizophrenic (not in the mentally unstable sense) man, who cannot keep a hold on his excesses.  His flashbacks have all but ceased, but during the last episode they have begun to return as his marriage and his working life have started to break down.

During the final episode Sterling Cooper is threatened with a take over, but the senior players in the company pre-empt the company that will buy them out, resign and set up their own new advertising agency, taking with them the cream of their co-employees.  Don agrees to grant Betty a peaceful divorce so that she can marry the new man in her life and Peggy negotiates a working contract, on her own terms.  She makes it clear that she may be a woman, but she is no longer Don’s puppy.  We leave the new advertising agency working out of a single hotel room and now eagerly await the developments of series 4.

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers

Published 13/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers

It’s many years since I read Miss Garnet’s Angel and I decided it was time to catch up with another of Salley Vickers’s novels.  Dancing Backwards is an older woman’s physical journey across the Atlantic to meet up with an old friend, whilst her mind travels back to the past and recreates a period when they were close friends.  As she travels forward in time, her memories take her back to her younger days, and she discovers the answers to questions she has always known, but never acknowledged.

Drawing on contemporary and cultural references we travel with Violet, the protagonist,  back to England in the 1960s as she relives her teens and early twenties. Vi first meets Edwin, the friend she is visiting, when she is an undergraduate student, and he is a postgraduate tutor at Cambridge University.  He is writing a thesis on Ovid and she, shrinking, shy violet that she is, amazes him with her knowledge of John Donne.  Other literary allusions are made to Christopher Marlowe, who attended Corpus Christi college, Tristram Shandy, The Duchess of Malfi (a text taught by Edwin when he abandons his thesis and teaches at a school in Oxford) and Mustardseed, one of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is used as the title of a poetry anthology that is set up by Edwin and Violet, and leads into several mentions of Peter Brook’s production of that play, although Vi never manages to see it.

The novel introduces references to contemporary culture and reminds us that we are part of the modern consumer society.  The younger Vi shopped at Biba and used Nivea cream on her face, she drank Valpolicella (Valpol), the mature woman imbibes Chablis, Dr Kildare is watched on television, Rice Krispies are eaten for breakfast, Spider-Man becomes a miniature on a keyring, mobile phones are mislaid, the ship’s gift shop sells expensive malt Scotch and Gucci handbags, Mitsouko perfume is dabbed behind the ears and La Dolce Vita is shown in the cinema.  As a counterbalance to the sprinkling of writers and their works (that also include Mark Twain, Hermann Melville and A E Houseman) we are also made aware of a child’s favourite story, Skarloey and His Friends.  Vi befriends the young Patrick, who enjoys the later stories about the Railway Engines as the novel anticipates the birth of her forthcoming granddaughter, Blossom, who will be named after Blossom Dearie, the jazz singer.
Shakespeare seems to run through the novel like a leitmotif. Vi borrows a copy of his complete works from the ship’s library and is plagued by a quotation from the bard, but one that she is unable to locate until helped in New York by a literary critic she has met on board.  He completes her snippet of ‘They say miracles are past…’ with ‘and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.  Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear’ and reminds her that it is from All’s Well That Ends Well.  Violet is finally faces her unknown fears and realises that the future will not be such a bad place after all.  T S Eliot famously stated that his past was in his present: we all carry the baggage of our former selves and it is sometimes necessary to face the past in order to face up to the future.

Cheek by Jowl’s Macbeth

Published 09/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Random thoughts on Cheek by Jowl’s current production of Macbeth

Before the play started I sat in my front row seat looking at a bleak space (not a stage because I was sharing the same level space on which the actors would appear).  There were no curtains and the only props were slatted wooden boxes of various heights that were placed at the sides of the playing space.  Waiting for the players to take the places, I watched swirls of dark mist eddying down into the bleak lighting (‘the dunnest smoke of hell’?).  Once the play commenced, the playing area wasn’t heavily illuminated and, as if to answer Macbeth’s incantatory  appeal to ‘Night’s black agents’,  the players were all dressed in black.
Darkness is associated with evil, but this production tends to be the evil of the mind.  Without props Macbeth’s imaginary daggers (and all the other weaponry in the play) remain just that.  The witches never appear, but their words are voiced by the two females of the company, Act 1 Scene 3 is cut from this production and Act 4 Scene 1 (the cauldron scene) is abridged and begins where Macbeth approaches the ‘secret, black, and midnight hags!’ for intelligence of the future.  There is no cauldron from which to conjure the apparitions, but it has already been hinted at when the cast form a ring to dance a celebratory highland reel at the Macbeth’s castle, and when the stools are placed in a circle for the banquet at which Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo

The imagery extends into mimetic and balletic demonstrations of the onstage murders.  Although Duncan is murdered off stage (as is customary) Banquo mimes his own death, as do Lady Macduff (who appears to be raped first) and her son.  The culmination is when Macduff  ‘murders’ Macbeth.  These actions are all carried out realistically, especially when the men appear to draw swords from behind their backs and their victims fall to the floor as they grasp at life.  There is no human contact during these simulated killings.

In a production that, strangely, sees a blind Duncan wearing dark glasses, we are reminded that ‘There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face’ – but then again this is one of the excised lines of the play.

To my mind it was a highly stylised production, far removed from the recent Rupert Goold production, starring Patrick Stewart as the murderous, ambitious thane.  The earlier visualisation was probably more horrific in its presentations of murder, but this is a more psychological interpretation, one in which the dead return to the stage, and in which the Macbeths still remain close and tactile, even after he has taken the initiative that she has encouraged.


Published 09/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Why not set up my own blog? Here goes:

I’m not really a damsel with a dulcimer, but anybody reading this who has a love of English Literature, and particularly the Romantic poets, will understand the allusion. I could possibly have called myself Ode to Autumn as I’ve chosen such an autumnal theme.

I hope to set down my personal thoughts and feelings about literature (my great love), the theatre, art and the arts. But I’ll also be adding titbits, such as any recipes I feel might be worth sharing.