Advent Calendar Day 20: Mantegna!

Adoration of the Magi (1462) by Andrea Mantegna.

It’s rather early for Magi, but we* here at Clamorous Voice Towers refuse to be bound by convention. When this painting was sold at Christie’s on 18 April 1985, it cost £8,100,000, making it (at the time) the most expensive painting in the world. The artist, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1430-1506) was born near Padua, married into the Venetian Bellini family, and received his first important commissions to paint frescoes for Padua’s Eremitani Chapel. However, he spent much of his working life in Mantua, including several years as court artist there. The Gonzaga (Mantua’s rulers) knighted him in 1484.

The painting dates from about 1600, and is distemper on linen; a closer view of where the linen has become visible through the paint is visible here. You can see Adoration of the Magi at the Getty Center, Los Angeles – or, indeed, online, which is why digitization matters.

*Obviously, Clamorous Voice Towers is nothing more than my mind palace.

Advent Calendar Day 8: Guadalupe!

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2c/Virgen_de_guadalupe1.jpg/275px-Virgen_de_guadalupe1.jpg This image shows Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most famous icons of the Virgin Mary, and Mexico’s most celebrated religious image.

I’ve included it because it displays Mary as Christians think of her during Advent: pregnant with the baby Jesus. I am not an authority on art, but the reason we know she’s pregnant is not because of any changes to her body, but because of the black ribbon wrapped round her dress in an empire-line; this was the traditional Mexican indicator of pregnancy at the time the icon was produced (the sixteenth century).

The icon is housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, north of Mexico City. The Basilica is close to the location where Catholics believe Mary appeared to the indigenous Native American, Juan Diego (1474-1548).

Exterior view of the modern Basilica of Our La...
Exterior view of the modern Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hat tip to Br. Stephen Morrison of the Norbertines of St. Philip’s Priory, whose “Devotional Images for Advent” got me interested in images of the pregnant Mary (again – when I was little I used to love drawing a v. pregnant Mary on the back of a much smaller donkey. And poor old Joseph).

Petition to allow Anglican clergy to bless civil partnerships in church

David and Jonathan
Cheery and not even slightly suggestive image of Jonathan with David, the latter sporting gorgeous must-have-this-season dead!Goliath accessory. Found in St. Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh, photo by Lawrence OP.

Provided in the comments to my previous post, “Born This Way” and the Sanctity of (all) Marriage was a link to the following petition:

Petition to allow Anglican clergy to bless civil partnerships in church.

In December 2011, it became legally possible for civil partnerships to be blessed in houses of worship. Currently, Anglican clergy are not allowed to do this, but a growing number seek to do so openly and without threat to their careers. A letter to this effect was printed in The Times, and signed by over 120 clergy from across the Diocese of London.

For me, this is only an interim step – I want to see gay marriage within the Church of England, during my lifetime. That is, gay couples being married to each other using a recognisably Christian marriage service, inside Anglican churches, by current Anglican priests, then signing marriage certificates and having the option to use marital titles (e.g. husband/wife) if they so choose, with the same religious, social and legal standing as heterosexual couples, without

a) it making the blindest bit of difference whether either or both parties are ordained ministers, priests, or Rowan Williams himself,

b) anyone feeling entitled or obliged to question whether the couple are in a sexual relationship, because it is neither a problem nor anyone else‘s business, or

c) the celebrant, assistant, or clergy in the congregation having to worry about the ramifications for their present and future careers.

This is a long way from what the Diocese of London is asking today. However, I truly believe that the success of this petition would be the first step to achieving everything I’ve described. So, if you sympathise, please sign here.

A religious rant: General Synod & offering the Eucharist to all

With most of the media overtaken by the horror that is the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, the General Synod is – understandably – quite low on the news radar.

For the Anglican Church, this is a good week to bury bad news – or, indeed, bad theology. Following the Guardian‘s liveblog yesterday, I was surprised to see the issue of “open table” communion up for date. This is the policy by which (as many churches word it) anyone “in good standing with their own Church”, “baptised Christians” or, simply, “anyone who wishes to” may come forward and receive Communion (the bread and wine) during a normal Eucharist, regardless of whether they’ve been confirmed.

To my horror, I found out that generous, sane practice is actually illegal according to Church law.

The liturgy of the Eucharist emphasises individual preparation and emotional openness before God: the last words we speak before going up to the rail are Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed. Our own willingness to take communion, to unite ourselves with the “one body” that shares one bread and one cup, is what puts meaning into those words, but we are still “unworthy” to receive God; we’re all imperfect, struggling human beings and only God can change that. Whether or not we’ve gone through Confirmation doesn’t change or essential humanity, or “earn” us the right to receive the fruits of Grace and a sacrifice, made through the Crucifixion, which we can never hope to deserve. How can it be that someone can stand in church, say the Eucharistic prayer, mean all the promises it contains, but still be barred from its culmination, Communion? What on earth is a non-confirmed person meant to do, stand there in silence?

Nobody should have to take Communion, of course, and I think it’s great that people can just come up for a blessing (although I think that can seem quite daunting in its own right). But if, in the course of a Sunday service, someone is moved to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or its memorial equivalents, depending on their belief), and to put themselves into that intimacy with God, whether it’s for the first time in their lives or after an extended period away from religion, absolutely nothing should stand in their way.

I can’t imagine anyone taking Eucharist for the “wrong” reasons – I’m not sure what those would be, and I don’t think it could meaningfully devalue or “damage” the ritual in any way.

I have never understood why children old enough to consume the bread and wine in safety, who attend church regularly and are part of church life, are less entitled to Communion than adults who never come to church, but who went through a Confirmation ceremony thirty or forty years ago. Rightly, adults with dementia are allowed Communion, as are those whose learning difficulties would make the prescribed course of  Confirmation preparation (even though such preparation is wildly non-standardised) imposible; accordingly, the issue of intellectual-understanding-as-entitlement is already recognised as irrelevant in some cases.

I was confirmed at thirteen, following all the usual preparation and by a bona fide bishop; I am now twenty-four, and, I hope, have a better and deeper understanding of Christianity both through education and lived experience (n.b. this is totally without any claims to being a better person). I don’t think that makes me more entitled to Communion now than I was previously.

The whole issue of entitlement stinks. Nobody who wants to make the commitment, receive the comfort, or join in the community of the Eucharist should be denied the opportunity. Anglicans are supposed to believe in a God of enormity and power – one who created Heaven and Earth, and then sent his Son to die a miserable, agonising, death. Before bringing him back from the dead. I have never understood how someone so awesome, transcendent, so obviously supernatural in force, could be supposed to even care about the petty, legalistic and so obviously man-made trifles that make up so much of what’s spiteful and divisive in Church debate.

I don’t believe in Biblical infallibility or in the supremacy of reason and compassion over Scriptures that have been edited, manipulated, translated and transposed for two millennia; but since many people who’ll disagree with this post do, I’ll (nearly) end with one of the (relatively few) Bible verses that speaks to me (oh help, I’m quoting the Bible on my blog, this feels like one step away from subscribing to LadiesAgainstFeminism.com NoThat’sNotAHoax). In brief:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[Romans 8:38-39, King James Version]

Additional translation: if you feel you want to take Communion, do it. God won’t care, he’ll be glad, stop worrying, & furthermore the Anglican Synod (with the exception of the cool/sane/honourable Malcolm Halliday &c) are bureaucratic idiots who depress me hugely in their refusal to ratify the open altar and practice what Jesus told them to preach.

Sarah Daniels: Plays 1

Ages ago, the nice people at methuen drama very kindly offered to send me a free book (I forget why, but thank you very much and please, more of the same).

In an excess of irresponsibility, I decided NOT to choose anything vaguely useful to my course, and to instead pick, at random, the work of a female playwright with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarah Daniels’s Plays: 1 duly arrived at Brasenose the other day, and since the Orlando Project tells me she’s “the only radical lesbian feminist to have made it into the mainstream”, I think I chose rather well.

Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she

“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. Bibliographic Citation link At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Bibliographic Citation link Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre. Bibliographic Citation link

She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties. Bibliographic Citation link

Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.

Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.

So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.

Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.

Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).

As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.

If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.

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{not the} Thursday Retrospect

Previous Thursday retrospects can be found below! Some were even published on Thursdays.

  • Travel plans are afoot; Berlin in June/July, Kent in August and (I so hope) Positano (with Ravello and Sorrento, oh my god) in November. Recommendations for Berlin & Positano extremely welcome!
  • It was my birthday! I am now 24, which is older than practically every fictional character I’ve ever loved, except for Harriet Vane and several of the Forsytes. I am also the proud owner of MANY SHOES, a dress, MOLESKINES, lovely jewellery, my very own tiny turning-into-John-Simm watch-on-a-necklace, Henry Holland tights with the Eiffel Tower on (from Chloe) and Much Ado tickets (<3!!). Yes.
  • Continuing the #acquisitionspam, I am now reading Keith Osborn’s Something Written in the State of Denmark and will shortly begin The Invention of Murder.
  • How to get The Selby in your place.
  • I have taken my own advice from a year ago, and registered for Britgrad 2011.
  • On that note, if you need to write on .pdf forms electronically, PDFExpress is your friend. One of the most useful things on the internet.
  • I am tempted to get a Tumblr.
  • The final articles have been chosen for Issue 4 of Victorian Network, which will have the title Theatricality and Performance. As Submissions Editor, my part in the cycle is largely over… as Editorial Board member, I’m sure there will still be plenty to do.
  • Also, this cartoon.
  • My favourite Easter poem is after the jump. Continue reading “{not the} Thursday Retrospect”

In Memoriam: Postman’s Park and George Frederic Watts

(c) Ingrid Newton, 2011.

Fellow dead Victorian things enthusiasts may well enjoy photographer Ingrid Newton’s latest, absolutely beautiful post on London memorials. I am a big fan of Ingrid’s work, but particularly enjoyed this photograph. Ingrid describes the Postman’s Park memorial to those who have died via acts of self-sacrifice. The designer, as the above image shows, was George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), the first husband of Ellen Terry (who, of course, is a major subject of my thesis – though Madge Kendal may usurp the no. 1 spot). Watts had proposed a national monument to unsung heroes to coincide with Queen Victoria’s 1887 jubilee; when he received no response, he decided to go ahead with the idea himself. I suppose the online memorial sites, newspapers, and things like the Pride of Britain awards fulfil a similar function today, but there’s something infinitely more poignant about the little ceramic tributes. They remind me of the tablets offering thanks for answered prayers you find around shrines in French churches.

Notre Dame, 2009. In a shock twist of fate this was taken by my amateur self, notice how the most interesting tablet's in the bottom-right corner and I have OMITTED it.

The emotional impetus in Postman’s Park seems far sadder – but, then again, Watts’s memorial is still about thanksgiving. Several of the tiles commemorate children.

As Ingrid’s post reminds us, the length of time for which someone is remembered is a fraught issue. Who is remembered, how, and by whom? It’s an issue I’ve been grappling with thanks to an unexpected and exciting development in my research. When I started investigating the writings by these actresses, I automatically discounted the possibility of contact with anyone who knew them. Even “discounted” is too strong a word: it didn’t enter my head. And yet, I am now in correspondence with one of my subjects’ granddaughter and great-granddaughter, and hope soon to read some of their family manuscripts. The granddaughter is now 91; the link is there (there are other issues, about biographical vs academic remembrance, and whether some people should be remembered at all, but that’s a different post).

My next London research trip will probably constitute a return to the Garrick Club Library, but one of the many tangential/side project/should-never-see-daylight .docs attached to my DPhil describes an alternate tour. Without particularly knowing why, I started listing places where Victorian actors are buried. My supervisor’s built a fantastic SAA paper out of recording examples of the Early Modern &c, but somehow I doubt my tramp round Brompton Cemetery will have the same result…

These thoughts are rather disconnected, but then I am mid-chapter-edit. Alex is between drafts, in that glorious limbo of “free”/anxiety “time”. I am not. So type type type.

REVIEW: Theatre Set-Up: The Merchant of Venice

The garden at Hall’s Croft first came to my attention when I learned you could get married, or have a civil partnership in the grounds – it’s a shame you can’t do the same at the Birthplace, but we’re a lot closer to traffic and you’d run the risk of your wedding being papped by 60 ecstatic Japanese tourists. One of the great things about the garden at Hall’s is the potential for outdoor theatre – a couple of weeks ago, some friends and I went to see Theatre Set-Up’s latest production of The Merchant of Venice.

Half an hour before it opened, I was sitting on the steps opposite, staring in fascination as the elderly rich of Stratford (so elderly! So rich!) carted the contents of (what they probably call) their sun lounges, conservatories, drawing rooms and breakfast bars into the green and pleasant land of theatre. There were cloches. There was cutlery. Chairs were de rigeur, and in one party of six septuagenarians, I distinctly saw a snowy tablecloth receive, on platters, two cheeseboards and a quiche.

The sheer stamina on view impressed me. People whom the uncharitable might regard as nearly dead were acting as their own pack mules, deckchair in each hand as they trekked through an Old Town heatwave, determined to live the dream of eating an excellent dinner, while watching mediocre Shakespeare.

Antonio opens the play saying that, in sooth, he knows not why he is so sad, and by the end of the play, I was still none the wiser. Generally, the characterization was unfocused and the relationships undefined. I didn’t know why Portia loved Bassanio, or why he reciprocated – Salanio’s claim that Antonio ‘only loves the world for’ Bassanio describes an intensity of emotion that nobody onstage seemed to feel. The most interesting thing about the production was their use of the text. Not so much individual line-readings; in fact, the performance was characterized by inaccuracies; but with the ingenuous system of doubling and cuts. With a cast of only eight actors, it’s a tribute to editorial skill that the only felt losses were Gratiano’s mocking repetitions of ‘a Daniel’ in the court scene, and a few choppings from Nerissa and Jessica.

The production’s heavy cutting of the ‘salads’ (Salanio and Salarino) should be a model for directors – they weren’t missed. My friends and I were divided on the success of the Lorenzo/Shylock doubling. I, personally, was a fan of both performances, but felt the company wasted an opportunity of shedding any light on the (as ever) under-directed Jessica. As Shylock’s daughter, the actress began with startling vitriol against her father, spitting as she resolved to become ‘a Christian, and [a] loving wife’ to the Gentile Lorenzo, only to transform into a sulky madam the second she actually got him. Perhaps the doubling was meant to show Jessica exchanging one identical set of problems for another, but there was no suggestion that the amorous lover was as difficult as the father.

Only one moment in the production really disturbed me, and it was the audience who caused me unease. It’s always nice when a play by Shakespeare can show you the mass of anti-Semitism eating Eton Mess in an audience. At the end of the trial scene, Antonio (still alive, still fully-fleshed) gets his penultimate kick by demanding that his Jewish adversary ‘presently become a Christian’. Most of the audience laughed.

There’s no humour in that line; no context or delivery could make it funny. There had been nothing in the production to suggest that a presentation of Shylock as cartoonish or laughable was what Theatre Set-Up intended. It makes me wonder, though, how often that line gets laughs, and where. Anyone else who’s seen a production of Merchant, did this happen to you? What’s the most shocking or upsetting audience reaction you’ve seen?

My sudden enforced awareness of the Merchant audience reminded me of Kate Woods’s Britgrad paper on Sophonisba (1605). The play was performed at Blackfriars where, for the first time, the lighting conditions of indoor theatre directed an audience’s attention right away from each other, towards the stage. Before that, daylit productions in the playhouses meant that audiences were completely aware of each other. It was a point I’d never really considered before – funnily enough, my research into theatre spaces really starts with Aphra Behn and discovery spaces. Today, open-air productions are our closest link to that kind of atmosphere, and it made me wonder what other audience are hidden by the comforting darkness of the stalls.

Les Halles, Saint-Eustache and kitten biscuits

We are in Paris, having survived the tender mercies of Eurostar’s ‘special assistance’ (v kind, v helpful, v unpleasant experience of being a kind of disability Prince Phillip), a terrifying cab driver (who, I am sure, called us ‘whores’ all the way to 1st), our equally terrifying German landlord, and the deathspiral that is our building’s staircase.

You reach Eglise Saint-Eustache via Les Halles, which on Sundays is a kind of big abandoned Disneyland, all shiny concrete steps and cheerfully hairy hedges. There’s a huge central avenue which, on entrance, I managed to miss entirely; it’s full of listless teenagers and very elderly French couples, whom I adore because I can actually understand their accents. The church rises behind Les Halles – above and behind, in fact, sunkissed and complacent, beautiful and self-assured in its cloud of pale stone. The rather hit-and-miss English of the .50 euros guide-sheet describes the church as an ‘harmonious edifice’, which I think gets it about right. The southern side of the church (like all of Paris, like the building in which I currently live) is undergoing the inevitable dusty renovations, and so worshippers enter across planks (accessible planks, though, so A+), greeted by an elderly woman (really quite arrestingly toothless) hoping to attract extra communicants for the morning or evening services.

I love big Catholic churches; they manage to be simultaneously cavernous and warren-like. The stations of the Cross and the individual chapels make exploring much more of a journey than the simple, see-what-there-is layout of your average Anglican church. Predictably beautiful, Saint-Eustache foregrounds its vie culturelle and its vie solidaire as much as the usual routine of messes, and the practical opportunities the place offers suggest that the church’s commitment is genuine. As well as confession, you could see the sacristan or a priest for lay counselling, join any number of groups for various secular or spiritual purposes, and, well, there was the free organ recital, in which the organist managed to predict exactly the sounds of the Day of Judgment approximately once every ten minutes. An odd thing, to see people all sitting in a church listening not looking. I started wondering what would happen if it actually were the Day of Judgment, and if the CoE has a contingency plan for such an eventuality, but then I realised I was feeling dehydrated and decided to head home.

France is supposedly a secular state but a Sunday in Paris – the juxtaposition of ubiquitous metal shutters with their ubiquitous aerosol coating of ethnicity-based slurs – indicates that, well, it’s still a country of, er, religious racists. The one supermarket we managed to find (we ended up using a tramp as a landmark, oh dear) was, apart from us, patronised entirely by North African women and incredibly skinny gay men. It had the weirdest vegetable selection I’ve ever seen, but also JAMBISCUITS. I don’t know what these are called, because we’ve thrown away the box, because we’ve already eaten them all. After discovering that they were made with pectin, my vegan-to-the-point-of-obstreporousness companion developped an instant addiction. They come with pictures of kittens on. We’re going to buy more tomorrow. In a shock twist of fate, the French have yet to embrace the ‘free-from’ section of supermarkets. In deference to said militant veganism, no products containing DEATH have been purchased, although I did eat the world’s largest tuna-and-cheese crepe last night, in a move to establish my RIGHTS and personality. Vegan ran from room. Steak-eating friend arrives on Friday; I look forward to sharing some tasty, tasty murder.

On Addiction: Michael Berg and Kabbalah

A quotation from Michael Berg, co-director of the Kabbalah Centre:

Being addicted doesn’t make us bad, weak or hopeless. Just the opposite. It means we have a unique soul that wants more.

Wow. No wonder bastardised Kabbalah has become so popular with crazy celebrities – you’re an alcoholic because you’re special! You do too much coke and ket because you’re great! You’re an unique soul! And no, being addicted doesn’t make you bad, weak or hopeless, but being addicted to drugs or booze quite clearly is bad, takes enormous amounts of strength & support to overcome, and can lead people into situations which are incredibly hopeless. Berg also says that

When looking through the lens of Kabbalah, addiction is seen as a positive door to greater personal transformation […]

Um, that’s not ‘addiction’, that’s ‘recovery’. The only ‘door’ that addiction leads to is illness, misery & death.

And yes, I did take these quotations from Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP newsletter. That’s because I get indescribable glee whenever she advises us to create capsule wardrobes around a $400 shift dress, or to make bruschetta for our tiny, toddling children.