A recent discussion in one of my groups rekindled my interest in the several plays I studied in high school, all of which made enough of an impressionA recent discussion in one of my groups rekindled my interest in the several plays I studied in high school, all of which made enough of an impression on me that I haven't forgotten them to this day. This was one of those, written by the author of Peter Pan (which I've never read; but like virtually everyone else, I'm familiar enough with the pop culture figure!) --but this is a very different, and more adult, sort of play than the more famous one.
Here, our setting is the real world: the staid and stately "civilized" world of Edwardian upper-crust London, and the rough, challenging natural world of an uncharted Pacific island. We might describe it as Downton Abbey meets Gilligan's Island; but though this is a comedy (and much of it actually is downright hilarious), it's much more realistic and serious in its ultimate intent than the latter, and its humor is a lot more mordant and caustic than anything offered on either of those shows. The above description is basically spoilerish; but it's hard to discuss or review this play without some spoilers.
The England of 1902 was a profoundly class-conscious society, with a hereditary aristocracy and gentry who saw their traditional position of power and privilege as a natural order that rewarded their superior merit, supported and waited on by a lower class born into servitude and socialized to accept it. For over 100 years, this social order had been increasingly challenged, within and without, by a philosophy of egalitarianism, of social leveling and equality. Barrie sets the two mindsets in conscious opposition to each other --and finds both of them wanting. His message is, in part, that humans aren't equal in their abilities or moral qualities; that some people really ARE superior to their fellows, and naturally better fitted for leadership. BUT, this has nothing essentially to do with hereditary social position; natural aristocrats are such because of who they are as people, not because of what rank their parents happened to have. So, a butler may be an intelligent born leader with genuine character; a peer or a "gentleman" may be a worthless, self-serving lout. It's not necessarily insignificant that Barrie was Sir James Barrie, baronet (baronetcy being the only hereditary form of knighthood in England) --but the first baronet of his line, being the son of a humble weaver.
Barrie delivers this message through an original, well-crafted plot with wonderfully drawn, compelling characters, realized with a very fine discernment of all types of human personalities and a bitingly satirical sense of humor. And like all writers of really great literature, he calls on his title character to make a serious and costly moral decision.
Not long after reading this play, I was privileged to watch a well done performance of it on PBS. It's well worth seeing performed; and like most plays, it gains something from being experienced that way. But unlike most, it also loses something significant; where stage directions and setting notes are usually brief and strictly functional, there to guide the director and cast without being read by the audience, Barrie's are often long, extremely witty, and contain a good deal of worthwhile information that's not imparted in the actual performance. This can be said to be a play that's actually better appreciated by being read than being seen, if you have to choose!...more
After listing this on my "read" shelf for years, I discovered last month that the "translation" I read as a teen was actually a very free adaptation,After listing this on my "read" shelf for years, I discovered last month that the "translation" I read as a teen was actually a very free adaptation, which only loosely resembles what Aristophanes actually wrote. Naturally, I wanted to correct that mistake; and since I was looking for a short read right now, and had promised a Goodreads friend that I'd soon review the actual play, I worked it in over the past couple of days. Note: the above Dover edition is not actually the one I read; I read the translation by Charles T. Murphy, in the collection An Anthology of Greek Drama.
As the short description above suggests, this play was written and presented against the background of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (and their respective allies, which included pretty much the whole Greek world), which at the time had dragged on for 20 years. (It would drag on for seven more.) Though he was a patriotic Athenian, Aristophanes had no liking for the war or any of the suffering and evils that it brought in its train; he'd written other plays with the message "End it now!" This is the best known of his anti-war productions, in which he imagines the women of Greece "fighting" for peace with a very elemental, and quintessentially feminine, weapon: sexual blackmail.
In assessing the play itself, it should be noted immediately that it's not as salacious as the Goodreads descriptions of some editions imply. There's no explicit sex or outright obscenity; and though the women's vow includes non-marital as well as marital sex, the former is hardly mentioned; it's taken for granted that the usual setting for sex is in marriage. It's also taken for granted that, in that context, it's a natural and normal function that both genders like, a lot. (At the time this was written, while Pythagoras' physical world-disparaging, anti-sex philosophy was on the landscape, it hadn't made nearly the intellectual impact on the literate classes that it would from the time of Plato on; voluntary celibacy wasn't a common phenomenon, and virtually all adults married early by our standards.) That's not, in itself, an unwholesome fact to recognize. That said, the treatment here does include a certain amount of earthy humor, and some that descends from earthy to crude. (My impression was that some of this was pandering to the tastes of the coarser and less mature elements of the audience; the erection references, for instance, struck me as being on the intellectual level of the flatulence references that my grandsons imagine to be funny --but one's in kindergarten and one's in preschool. :-( Some of the dialog in this vein also came across as forced and unrealistic. (Of course, not all the double entendres are readily apparent to modern readers.) Aristophanes also exaggerates, to make his point, the effect that sexual deprivation would have on both genders; even for healthy adults who are used to regular marital relations (and these were actually greatly interrupted anyway by the mens' military service, a contradiction the author mentions but glosses over!), I don't think five days would suffice to reduce the males to the straits it does here. (Five months, or five weeks, maybe. :-) ) For me as a modern reader, another difficulty was that I couldn't follow all of the topical, cultural, and mythological references that the original audience would have understood immediately. (This edition doesn't have notes.) That's not a fair criticism of Aristophanes' work, but it did effect my own personal enjoyment, and hence my rating. (I also couldn't follow the thought of a couple of the choral speeches, which I found confusing.)
But though all the factors above cost the play a couple of stars, I liked it (my rating would actually have been 3 1/2 stars if I could give half stars, though I didn't round up). The anti-war message, and the reminders to both sides that they have reason to feel gratitude, not enmity, to the other, comes through loud and clear, and I give Aristophanes a lot of kudos for that. (He's a testament to the long and honorable heritage of anti-war conservatism!) Moreover, the treatment of women is outstanding, especially in the context of a very sexist culture that disparaged them! Lysistrata is depicted as a strong, wise born leader; male canards about women are punctured and lampooned, and the men get the worst of the physical confrontations (which, in performance, would have had a gloriously slapstick flavor). In Greek theater parlance, a "comedy" is any play that's not tragic; but this does have plenty of actual humor, both verbal and situational.
IMO, the modern adaptation I read as a teen improved the work in some respects. Alas, I can't recall the exact bibliographic information! ...more
Although I'd seen a student production of this play back in my college days, I'd never read it until now. This month, it was a common read in one of mAlthough I'd seen a student production of this play back in my college days, I'd never read it until now. This month, it was a common read in one of my Goodreads groups; so I decided to join in, and watched it again (this time on film) as well. (I didn't read it in the above edition, but in the 1918 Yale Shakespeare set edition.)
Quite a few of my Goodreads friends have rated this play, mostly at four or five stars. My three-star rating (which is rounded up from two 1/2!) marks me as a bit of a heretic, or at least nonconformist. I'll readily admit that it has its pluses. As several reviews point out, it's funny (in places), especially if you like screwball situational humor --but the verbal humor of the play-within-a-play is a hoot as well. The blank verse diction of the play is grandiloquent and impressive (and has a few often quoted lines) as poetry. And I'll admit I'm always a sucker for a happy ending (okay, that's not a spoiler; given that it's one of the author's comedies, would you expect it to be tragic?) But it has, IMO, it's artistic weaknesses as well; and some of its attitudes haven't worn well with time. I wouldn't rank it as highly as some Shakespeare plays I've read/watched.
Naturally, I sympathize with Hermia and Lysander, who seem to genuinely love each other, and I rooted for them to be together. To his credit, Shakespeare clearly doesn't side with Egeus' and Theseus' ultra-patriarchial defense of arranged marriage and absolute paternal authority. Egeus, who wants to hand his own daughter to a suitor of his choosing in complete disregard for her feelings, and is seriously willing to actually have her killed for defying him, comes across to me as out-and-out evil pond scum. For me, though, that's a dysfunctional family situation that's hard to see as the stuff of comedy. Demetrius doesn't show up as much better; he's physically and selfishly infatuated with Hermia, to the point where he wants to essentially rape her for his own gratification regardless of what she wants, an attitude as far from love as it's possible to get. And he's thrown over an engagement (which the Elizabethans regarded as just as binding as marriage) to Helena, whom he obviously doesn't love either, to pursue this infatuation; and he treats her like dirt. It's hard (no, make that impossible) to imagine what Helena can see in him, and why she'd actually want him. Her absolute groveling before him, with lines like, "I am your spaniel... The more you beat me, I will fawn on you," etc., etc., for any male viewer who admires and respects women, can't help but come across as wince-worthy (or vomit-worthy). The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titiana, have their own battle of the sexes going on, over a changeling human boy that Oberon selfishly wants to take for his own, despite Titiana's rather touching desire to raise him out of love and respect for his dead mother. Shakespeare's handling of some of these plot elements doesn't exactly suggest a real proto-feminist statement.
The motivation for some of the characters' key decisions at turning points of the plot are incomprehensible and implausible. (view spoiler)[Helena has nothing to gain by betraying her close friend's confidence to Demetrius, and much to lose (besides unaccountably throwing away a cherished friendship, she's acting to keep Hermia in the sights of a man she herself wants; is she wearing a sign saying "STUPID"?). And it's never explained why Titiana's infatuation with Bottom in his donkey-eared guise is supposed to make her suddenly willing to give in to Oberon's wish about the changeling, when nothing in her feelings about that situation have had any reason to alter, and falling for someone else would seemingly make her LESS considerate of Oberon, rather than the reverse. We might add that most husbands who want revenge on their wives probably wouldn't think of getting it by trying to make her fall in love with somebody/something else, at least if they valued her fidelity at all (though some aspects of fairy folklore suggest that fairies weren't thought of as being naturally monogamous, the way that humans are in their created nature). (hide spoiler)]
A central premise of the play, the idea that love can be magically alienated from its object and attached to someone else, sends a rather reductionist message about what love is, and the role of the mind and free will of humans in those kinds of feelings and choices. To be sure, we don't take this message seriously, because we don't believe fairies and magic exist; to us, they're just literary conceits. But to Shakespeare and his audience, these things actually DID exist (and love philtres were taken as seriously as a heart attack in the folk magic of that day --though most of them were actually just herbal aphrodisiacs), and we have techniques of brainwashing and mind control today that their believers credit with as much reductionist power. At a deeper level than the superficially amusing, one might find it problematical to see things like love and friendship made playthings for fairy amusement, and "esteem" it less of a "sport" than Puck does. That raises fair questions about the ending, too. (view spoiler)[How valid is Helena's HEA if Demetrius' newly-regained "love" for her is the product of ensorcellment, even if neither of them knows that? (And how "happy" is any lady going to be who's sentenced to life with Demetrius?) While we're on the subject of the ending, if Theseus couldn't override the laws of Athens on paternal authority at the beginning of the play, how come he can near its end? (hide spoiler)]
While Bottom and his fellow artisan actors (who obviously aren't well-educated, as few manual laborers were in the 16th century) are highly comical at times, one can detect a certain stereotyping and disparaging of those who aren't of the upper class in some lines. There seems to be an intent to portray them as being as moronic and naturally inferior to their social "betters" as possible; and that's another aspect of the play that comes across as irritating if you dig below the surface level.
Some readers/viewers might find the Elizabethan English here (and in other plays of the period) to be a deal-breaking stumblingblock. For me it wasn't. In viewing the play, I think most intelligent people could basically follow the action and get the gist of the dialogue without a problem. Making sense of the written text actually isn't too hard in most places (especially if you've previously seen the play performed). The Yale Shakespeare has very short explanatory footnotes, and longer endnotes, explaining the meanings of archaic words and phrases, with an index of words glossed; but I usually didn't have to refer to this. (When I did, it was generally helpful.) This edition also has short appendices on the sources of Shakespeare's ideas for the play, on the theatrical history of the play (to 1918), and on the text of it, and a few suggestions, now a bit dated, for collateral reading. I didn't read over any of these in much detail, but I'll probably refer to some of the material for discussion in the group during the rest of the month....more
In 1908, a British boy of about 14, George Archer Shee [a double last name, and pronounced "Shay"], from a respectable but not rich family, was expellIn 1908, a British boy of about 14, George Archer Shee [a double last name, and pronounced "Shay"], from a respectable but not rich family, was expelled from the Osborne Naval College after being falsely accused of stealing a five-shilling postal money order from a fellow cadet. (The administrators assumed his guilt and made no real attempt to investigate.) He and his family maintained his innocence, convinced one of England's leading lawyers to take the case, and brought suit against the Admiralty for redress (an uphill battle from the start, since agencies of the British government could not be sued in British courts without their own consent!). Four days into what became a high-profile trial, the Crown counsel conceded George's innocence. (Sadly, young George lived to be only 19, dying in World War I at the first battle of Ypres.)
Acclaimed 20th-century British playwright Terence Rattigan took this real-life incident as the basis for this play, changing the names of the people involved (George Archer Shee becomes Ronnie Winslow, for instance), and changing some details, some character's ages, etc., and fictionalizing some plot lines, but keeping the essential premise intact. The result is a very powerful and engrossing drama, set against the background of the Edwardian era with its strict social conventions and its almost-vanished codes of personal integrity and honor. It's a David vs. Goliath tale, with messages about the value of truth and defending one's good name, about justice and fairness in the way people are treated by those in power, about family loyalty, moral courage, and willingness to sacrifice in a good cause. Rattigan doesn't give us the courtroom scenes here, focusing instead on the family relationships and interpersonal dynamics of the characters. Two of the latter who stand out the most are Ronnie's older sister Catherine, a suffragette and social rule-breaker with a heart for justice, and staid conservative legal titan (and opponent of women's suffrage, from his seat in Parliament) Sir Robert Morton. (view spoiler)[Except for a mutual dedication to justice, they're opposites from the get-go (and you know the old saying about opposites.... :-) ). (hide spoiler)]
This was required reading in my English class in the spring semester of my sophomore year in high school, and it's stayed with me ever since (though I'd forgotten the author's name and title until recently). It's been filmed several times; I've never been fortunate enough to see any of those productions (nor any live one), but I'd really like to see the 1990 TV movie version with Emma Thompson as Catherine!
Since I haven't read or watched any of Rattigan's other plays, I can't say how typical this one is of his output. On the strength of this work alone, though, I'd say he deserves a place in the history of the English theater of the 20th century. This is a work that stands out, especially in its beacon-like moral clarity, in contrast to the bleak nihilism of so much English-language drama in the later 20th century. To my chagrin, I've discovered that Rattigan is largely (or maybe completely!) unrepresented in Bluefield College's library collection. That's a gap I'm definitely going to remedy!)...more