Film Screenings, Lectures and Symposium on Theatre and Politics
THURSDAY 9 FEBRUARY 2012, 3 – 6pm Vanessa Redgrave Lecture: Speak What We Feel Not What We Ought To Say (Part 1) – King Lear
followed by screening of The Killing Fields (2011, dir. Carlo Nero), a documentary highlighting the importance that economics and taxation plays in wildlife conservation.
@ The Examination Schools, High Street, Oxford
THURSDAY 9 FEBRUARY 2012, 9 – 11pm
Screening of The Fever(2004, dir. Carlo Nero), introduced by Vanessa Redgrave and the film’s director Carlo Nero, with Q&A to follow.
The Fever is a psychological drama based on the play by Wallace Shawn.
@ The Examination Schools, High Street, Oxford
FRIDAY 10 FEBRUARY 2012, 3 – 6pm Vanessa Redgrave Lecture: Speak What We Feel Not What We Ought To Say (Part 2) – Antony and Cleopatra
@ The Gulbenkian Lecture Theatre, St Cross Building, Manor Road, Oxford
FRIDAY 10 FEBRUARY 2012, 8 – 10pm Symposium: Theatre and Politics with Vanessa Redgrave, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington, and playwright Simon Stephens.
@ The Examination Schools, High Street, Oxford
FILM SCREENINGS (no booking required, for further information see website)
Sun 5 Feb Julia (1977, dir. Fred Zinnemann) – 7.30pm, Ship Street Centre
Mon 6 Feb Playing for Time (1980, dir. Daniel Mann) – 8pm, Ship Street Centre
Tues 7 Feb Antony and Cleopatra (1974, dir. Jon Scoffield) – 8pm, Ship Street Centre
Weds 8 Feb King Lear (2008, dir. Trevor Nunn) – 8pm, Magdalen Auditorium
All events are free and open to all however booking is required for the lectures, The Fever and the symposium. For more information and free registration, please visit: www.humanities.ox.ac.uk/events/HUMANITAS
Vanessa Redgrave Biography:
Vanessa Redgrave can currently be seen starring in Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus. During her film career she has starred in films such as A Man For All Seasons, Howards End, A Month By The Lake, Mrs. Dalloway and Atonement. She received an Academy Award in 1978 for her supporting role in Julia. Her scores of major roles on the stage most recently include recreating The Year of Magical Thinking at the National Theatre; Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket; The Tempest for the RSC at Shakespeare’s Globe; and The Cherry Orchard at the Royal National Theatre. She starred on Broadway in the landmark 2003 production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night and more recently in Driving Miss Daisy.
About the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Drama
The Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Drama has been made possible by the generous support of Eric Abraham.
HUMANITAS is a series of Visiting Professorships at Oxford and Cambridge intended to bring leading practitioners and scholars to both universities to address major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities. Created by Lord Weidenfeld, the Programme is managed and funded by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue with the support of a series of generous benefactors, in collaboration with the Humanities Division of the University of Oxford.
This is my fifth term as a doctoral student, and a New Year to boot. Thinking about academic goals for the year, I’ve decided I want to spend more time thinking about, and practising public engagement.
Already, there’s a problem. I don’t like the phrase. It’s too jargony, redolent of patronising bussed-in audiences with why your research is a) brilliant and b) beneficial; particularly when the benefit is relevant only as a justification for ongoing funding.
I’m also anxious about the consequences of enforced public engagement for very arcane, specialised, or technical research whose benefits are not instantly explicable or financially clear. It’s important, and (in the Humanities) often difficult to strike a balance between celebrating research with clear “real-world” application, and reducing everything to pound signs or buzzwords. Kat Gupta‘s blogged about the latter issue and Alex Pryce has written several good posts about the kinds of public engagement she does as a poet. I want to keep both models in mind.
However, when it comes to public engagement, I think I’m quite lucky. I do the kinds of research which – for better or worse, mostly just for luck – are easy to discuss outside the academy.
My theme – Shakespeare performance history – is self-explanatory, and benefits from centering on the most famous playwright in the world. My actresses are often still well-known, especially Ellen Terry, Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt. Basically, I have the kind of topic that makes people look pleasantly surprised when I answer their enquiries about what, exactly, I am (still) studying at Oxford. Ironically, while Victorian performance remains quite a niche interest within the academy, in the wider world, I believe that female performance history is something with which most people can engage. In my totally unbiased opinion, of course.
Cultural events such as the National Portrait Gallery’s First Actresses exhibition, and Michael Holroyd’s prize-winning A Strange Eventful History keep the profession’s past in the public imagination. More broadly, Britain remains a nation obsessed with history. The last three big British films focused on, in succession, the outbreak of World War II, 1970s spy culture, and our first female Prime Minister(this last makes me feel quite ill). Meanwhile, as X Factor passes its expiry date, ITV’s current flagship drama (whether you love it or see it as the fourth opiate of the apocalypse, after Cameron, big jumpers and the Honourable Kirsty)* turned 1920 in the Christmas episode. Although essentially a frothy confection of frocks, plague-as-plot-twist, and some Very Special Trenches, Downton still tries to take its historical responsibilities seriously. This mostly takes the form of Goodness Me It’s 1912, I Bet That Boat Won’t Sink, but still.
Given this enthusiasm for (in roughly descending order) history, scandal and frocks, people can be as interested in nineteenth-century actresses as in their modern successors. I’ve been reading Sexualities In Victorian Britain, edited by Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams, a book which points out on the first page that Victorian views of sex (however we reconstruct them) are essential to our own understanding of modern sexuality. Oscar Wilde is practically a one-man creation myth for British male queerness.
Beyond sexuality, I’d argue that Victorianism is formative in almost every area of social life – the nineteenth century and the ideas with which it is associated. Everybody has their own concept of Victorianism, whether conservative (repression, doom, stiff collars, the Tories) or updated (Sherlock, jet jewellery, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing The Victorians). Dickens is never off our screens, a “new” Wilde play was “discovered” a few months ago, and this winter I watched four Jack The Ripper ghost-walks jostle for space in the square where a victim died.
Enter the actresses. Confections of beauty, multiplicity, celebrity and scandal, they fulfil our contemporary interest (however prurient) in the desirable, the taboo, and the popular all at once.
Today’s culture creates escapism from lavish displays of historical bling: it’s no coincidence that as the recession and cuts really bit, TV tastes switched from soberly-bonneted, sweetly curly Cranford to jet-beads-and-sex-bomb Lady Mary, an Edwardian Scarlett O’Hara in a frankly massive castle. Our fashionable passion has been labelled “retro porn“: with their Worth gowns, their fascinating lovelives, and their sometimes frenziedly emotional performances, Victorian actresses like Langtry, Terry and Bernhardt still satisfy those desires.
At the same time, theperformers I’ve mentioned were skilled businesswomen and consummate professionals. Victorian actresses constitute an essential part of women’s history. After all, in the nineteenth century , acting the only profession in which women could achieve public acclaim, independence and (eventual) respectability without being accused of stealing men’s work. They often earned more than their male counterparts, and were frequently more popular.
Actresses became politically active. In 1899, the International Women’s Congress (held in London) ran a committee on Women in Professions: the chair was the actress Madge Kendal. In 1911, the Actresses’ Franchise League was the most prominent contingent in the Women’s Coronation Procession: forty thousand women, marching through London to demand the vote. Their leader was a woman on horseback dressed as Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s Victorian heroine who killed herself to escape pregnancy, marital and sexual subjugation.
The best-loved British actress of her day, Ellen Terry, lectured on Shakespeare’s characters to feminist groups including the Leeds suffrage society, modelling female public speaking to emerging feminist activists. Moreover, by focusing attention on Shakespeare’s heroines in her lectures and autobiography – as other actresses did in letters, memoranda and memoirs – Terry began to redress the balance that emphasised male characters, and male performance, in criticism. Above all, as female professionals, Victorian actresses’ negotiations of workplace harassment, misogynist smears, and the conflict between job and family make them relevant models for working women today.
Finally, a thesis is never just one thing. God knows I have even more problems with the phrase “transferrable skills” than I do with “public engagement” (see also “competencies”, “directional work”, “impact” and, recently, “bleeding the radiator” for Words I Don’t Like), but I’m realising that there are numerous aspects of my research with which I can engage people. Because I am a research student, I do genealogy; I work with databases; I source permissions for artwork; I balance freelance research commitments with my own thesis; I teach (with all the mentoring/interpersonal/professional development issues implied); I’m a member of an union; I’m self-employed and I know a lot of really odd facts about such fascinating topics as Dracula, circumcision, whether smoking gives women facial hair, Judy Garland’s coffin handles, fur, infanticide, tuberculosis, where to see a lot of pickled foetuses, and murder. Some of these are skills or experiences I could share [NB: I am not a murderer or a mohel]; the arcane topics are at least new points of contact between my weird interests and those of the outside world. I’ve got lots of starting points for public engagement – but it’s time to make more concrete plans. Hopefully, as I formulate and act on my ideas, I’ll be able to share them here.
I think I’m lucky to get to write & read & think about all of the above. At bottom, I also think that receiving public money gives me the obligation to try and share the benefits with the public. There you go – a moral imperative. How very Victorian.
*I would like to make it clear that I am a big fan of the Hon. Kirsty (also the delectable Phil), am currently enjoying a box set of the 1980 Nancy Mitford mini-series, own a splendid tetris-like jumper and am, to quote Bloomfield (2011), “the sort of gel who likes the Pre-Raphaelites”.
John Mullan’s article on ten of the best fictional poets made me smile. I’ve often speculated on why so many writers write about writers. Sometimes, it’s part of a wishful (or wistful) self-insertion into the text. The first example I ever noticed was Darrell Rivers in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series. Darrell is pretty obviously both Our Heroine and Our Author, enjoying an intermittently tumultuous but ultimately charmed school life, replete with tousled black curls and star sporting ability. After authoring the Fifth Year panto, Darrell Rivers, along with Slightly Boring Sally (sidekick, steadfast, appendicitis) headed off to university, and an ultimate career in writing.
At the opposite extreme, Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert describes himself as “a novelist manque'” in Lolita, and memorably tries to persuade Charlotte Haze that his paedophile’s diary are “fragments of a novel”. Boy Dougdale’s biographies of dispossessed princesses set the tone for Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate as a novel of delicious, delightful, high-society snobs.
I could have made a list of favourite fictional diarists extremely easily, with top prize for Honoria, Dowager Duchess of Denver, who chronicles her son’s wedding and the viciousness of her cat at the start of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. Were I to try and list my favourite fictional journalists, Sayers’s Solcombe Hardy would be amongst them.
A list of playwrights would have had to include Clare Quilty, for me the most terrifying figure in Lolita. In isolation, my knowledge of fictional poets would not fill a blog post (not that blog posts arrive in prescribed sizes, like envelopes), but I have a soft spot for the terrible Mr. Mybug (Meyerbug) of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Here he is in deplorable action:
It can not be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug. To begin with he was not really interested in anything but sex. This was understandable, if deplorable. After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness. The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which were not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out, and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all, Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested. She was therefore obliged merely to be polite, and Mr Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and though it was due to inhibitions. He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited. Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.
I am pleased still to find that Mr. Mybug would consider me young.
Here, thanks to John Mullan, are my five of the best: fictional writers.
Juliet is just delightful. This charming book is made up of many letters, in many voices, and although all the inhabitants of post-war Guernsey have been lovingly created after meticulous research, none touches your heart like Juliet. She’s an author in search of her next bestseller (and, somewhat boringly, love), and she’s amazing. If you fell for Helene in 84 Charing Cross Road (which is another way of saying: if you have a soul, but might sell it for books some day), you’ll adore Juliet. She’s sharp, scatty and disgraceful. I wish I could be her.
Whenever I lack self-discipline and productivity, I think of Jo March and feel guilty. [radio 4 announcer: That was Episode 46 of “How Nineteenth-Century Literature Created Sophie’s Psyche and gave her Unrealistic Expectations about the Worlds of Work and Love”. Next week: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”] She named her apple tree via an injoke about Charles Kean’s wife, wrote happy potboilers until Professor Daddy Issues made her stop it, and then became a bestselling novelist and playwright while raising 4,000 orphans and pretending she didn’t want her brother in law. GOOD.
Take the mewling fervour of a Twilight fan and the mad-eyed self-righteousness of an Oxonian booknut. This is the love I feel for Harriet, my favourite literary heroine of all time. Harriet writes brilliant detective novels and her amazing boyfriend shows his love by obsessively collecting her press cuttings. In secret. In the dark. She not only writes crime, but solves crime, in Oxford and at the seaside, and she knows what to do when she finds a dead body. Her moral zero is not saying someone’s beastly book is good when it isn’t, and she dances with Lord Peter in a wine-coloured frock. I would halloo her name to the something hills, and not even on the condition she were real. Start with Strong Poisonand take things from there. You will love or be dead inside.
ETA: while googling “Harriet Vane” on impulse, I have discovered that some Sayers fans (see the comments) don’t like her … how can this be? My poor heart. Although this vituperative comment may amuse Sayers fans who recognise the username.
This excellent book deserves a much greater following than its overblown film adaptation, Shakespeare In Love. The plot is essentially the same, despite the fact that screenplay writer Tom Stoppard didn’t acknowledge reading Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon’s comedy until Private Eye pointed out the similarities.
This Shakespeare is opportunistic, obsessive, fierce and endearing, furiously scribbling at his plays despite interruptions from (among others) Francis Bacon, Richard Burbage, Salathiel Pavey (“Master Will,” he said. “I wish to drown myself. But first, I wish to go mad. And sing mad songs”), Cecil, Henslowe, bears, Born Leaders, Elizabeth of England, Raleigh, Essex, and our heroine Viola Compton. Imagine Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance without Gwyneth Paltrow. Isn’t that better?
Brahms and Simon wrote in a wonderful staccato style, rich in detail and all the more rewarding for a re-read. The historical underpinning is amazing, but the best bit is Shakespeare himself, endlessly rewriting Love’s Labours Wonne and dodging letters from Anne Hathaway. And kissing pretty girls. And possibly the Earl of Southampton.
2,000 words written today, right on schedule! Also, visitors to the blog seem to have exploded – what you get for mentioning Mr. Tennant, I suppose (or so Google tells me). Can’t decide what I think about the THEdavidtennant spoof on Twitter, but am leaning towards …not very funny. At all. The disclaimer’s much too small, the incentive to donate to Comic Relief is slight, and it’s an unpleasant portrayal of the man. I am excited about Comic Relief, though – I have a t-shirt! My mum bought it for me, hurrah. Post library marathon, I rewarded myself with a visit to Majliss (which has opened up right by where I live), and all I can say is – RUN, DO NOT WALK, deliciousness! The lamb korma was actually the best korma I’ve ever eaten, the rice was delicious, and the freebies didn’t, er, hurt. I wonder if it’d be a good place to go for next term’s Women’s Dinner? Two girls from my MCR have already been there for dinner, and they absolutely loved it (and both are very discerning).
Was in the Bodleian today with Lizzie – we rocked out on our headphones. I am not a frequent user of headphones and don’t really get them – I have a tendency to bop, shout when people talk to me, and (on occasion) belt out lines of Dolly Parton, should that be what last.fm deigns to offer me. Particularly enjoyed the internet’s oscillations between Duke Ellington, Disney and, um, Bach. Both of us have impending deadlines (Lizzie’s thesis is due on Friday), and we were comfortably manic, side by side. Today was the Sarah Kane essay (source of many nightmares, metaphorical and real – well, as real as nightmares can be); a tricky section on critical appropriation (‘the mistakes critics make when dealing with Kane are x and y ….oh wait, me too’) and a really enjoyable one (oh god, that makes me sound morbid, but hopefully my fellow postgrads will understand) on female suicides and their place in patriarchy. I used the word ‘topoi’, and just as Lizbet is eradicating her thesis’s nine million uses of the word ‘seems’, I suspect I’m going to have to go back and cut ‘patriarchy’ in all its three thousand iterations.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (which also seems to employ most of the RSC’s FOH team!) has announced a Shakespeare Hall of Fame for the Birthday celebrations in April. Twelve names are in, with the thirteenth to be chosen from the poll here. Current inductees are (in chronological order): Ben Jonson, David Garrick, Charles Dickens, Ellen Terry, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Akira Kurosawa, Sam Wanamaker and Paul Robeson. The candidates for the thirteenth place (a competition which the Guardian poll suggests a certain DTennant will win) are: Peter Brook, John Gielgud, Boris Pasternak, Sarah Siddons, Peggy Ashcroft, George Bernard Shaw, Goethe, Sarah Bernhardt, Virginia Woolf and David Tennant himself.
Predictably, this has enraged me.
Firstly, I think it was bloody stupid putting Tennant on the list for thirteenth place, since he will obviously win – far better to have excluded him completely, or just given him a place among the original twelve. I don’t think it’s exactly justifiable when GIELGUD (let me say that again, GIELGUD) and Peggy Ashcroft (PEGGY ASHCROFT) didn’t make the cut, but if bloody Leonardo di Caprio is up there (for a bad performance in a bad film), presumably on grounds of bringing-new-audience-to-Shakespeare, then David Tennant (who, you know, is a much better actor and encouraged lots of people who’d only come to see HIM in Hamlet to book again, to read another play) should definitely be included. More importantly, if Patrick Stewart is in there, Harriet Walter should be too (this is perhaps a not entirely unexpected conclusion for me to draw. Harriet! Look at her beautifulface).
Secondly, my list would also only stick to theatre practitioners (there could be a separate list for writers & academics), partly because I am biased (Shakespeare wrote plays, not books) and partly because there are just too many good actors and directors. So out with Dickens (why is he even there?) and Woolf, and in with Brook, and either Ashcroft or Gielgud (and why Jonson? Why Jonson?). Given the location of the exhibition (Stratford-on-Avon), the Trust’s failure to include either Michael Boyd or Greg Doran seems, to me, a little misguided. The achievement of both is comparable to that of Wanamaker, arguably – but then, living in Stratford and not Southwark, I would say that. I don’t begrudge Wanamaker his place (unlike bloody di Caprio) but Boyd and Doran deserve as much recognition as he does.
On a far less infuriating note, have another Shakespeare link; hilarious version of the 25 facts meme that’s been going round Facebook et al: Five And Twenty Random Things Abovt Me. It sounds awful, it’s not. It’s the cure for what ails you, seriously. Also lovely – a post Jenny showed me summarising a medievalist’s reading on ‘how to write love letters in the fourteenth century: The Rules’ – I am like the flower of tamarisk that must remain inviolable. Yet again this afternoon I had a brief burst of why am I not studying Shakespeare more than I already am.
Have also added two blogs to the blogroll (Eat Your Sherbert and The Jenny Times). The former is (awesome, rational) feminism (Katy and I divided feminisms into four sorts on Saturday – radical, woolly, nice and useless) and music reviews, the second is (one of the four) best friend(s) a girl could possibly ask for. My love for her manages to transcend her beauty, intelligence & talent (which is pretty much a pattern with them), which in anybody else would sicken me.