Saturday, April 28, 2012

More Chesterton Magic

These are pictures from Providence Classical School's production of G.K. Chesterton's Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.  I can't recommend this play enough for troupes with an interest in putting on small-scale but lively and professional theater (Torrey Theater... hint, hint...).  The pictures run in descending order: the Duke solo, Patricia and Morris Caerleon, the Duke and the Conjuror, the Conjuror solo, Particia solo, the Rev. Cyril Smith solo, and Smith with the Demons.  Missing are Dr. Grimthorpe and Hastings the butler.  Inspirations for the look and feel of the performance include: The Illusionist, The Prestige, and Downton Abbey.

*all photos are used with permission courtesy of Louis Long and are copyright Louis Long 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Homer's Orality and Eliot's Underwhelming Recitations: The Platypus Reads Part CXLVI

Hearing recordings of Tennyson read his own poetry or Eliot read his is a bit of a disappointment.  The great artist and the great poems aren't matched with a great performance.  There are some reasons for this.  Tennyson and Eliot were both taught to read poetry for public performance in a style that grates on contemporary U.S. ears.  More than that, though, writing great poetry and performing it are two different skills.  We assume that they go together.  That is our mistake.

There are times and places, however, where the need for those two skills to go together is much stronger than it is here and now.  We commonly use a written form of poetry (free-style in Rap and scat in Jazz being notable exceptions) that emphasizes the carefully prepared and polished speech that is to be read, most often silently, by the reader at the time and place of the reader's choosing.  However, there is another way of composing poetry, what A.B. Lord calls "composition in performance," and this is the hallmark of oral poetry.

Following his mentor, Milman Parry, Albert Bates Lord became an advocate of the idea that Homer was a performer of oral poetry and that the Homeric texts as we now have them are the result of his collaboration with a scribe taking dictation.  Parry and Lord backed this idea by comparing the "diction" and "theme" (or "form" and "content") of the Homeric poems with that of current oral poets in the Balkans.  In both cases, there is a heavy reliance on formulaic phrases used to balance out lines and reduce the strain on the performer as he "lays the tracks before the train" composing each poem anew in the act of performance (as opposed to reciting a memorized text of the story word for word).  In the case of an oral performer, then, the task is to compose moving poetry while in the act of delivering a notable performance to a live audience.  The skills of creating poetry and performing it must go together or the poet fails.

Going back to that sense of disappointment that sometimes comes with hearing modern writers of poetry recite their verse, we have to ask where this idea that skill in composition and skill in performance should go hand in hand originated.  The switch from oral to written poetry in Europe and the United States is centuries old.  Still, Western poetry is deeply rooted in Homer and oral poetry in general.  Perhaps some of this has survived down the ages to manifest itself in that queer feeling that a great writer ought also to be a great speaker.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Living With the Dead: Strange Platypus(es)

I was reading Matt Anderson's excellent book a week back and I came to the chapter he devotes to Death.  Anderson draws the reader's attention to the fact that the dead have been systematically excluded from United States' communities (he cites St. Louis in particular) since the mid-1800s.  He also points out the secularization of cemeteries that began in the United States in that period as well.  Reading the chapter, I felt an odd moment of disconnect.  What Anderson seems to have meant as an appeal to common experience didn't appeal to me as common at all.  Let me explain.

I grew up in rural southern New England.  I grew up surrounded by the dead.  Everywhere I went, to church, to school, to the grocery store, to a friend's house, I passed by cemeteries.  Sometimes the church associated with the graveyard still survived, other times only the tombstones remained.  Either way, the dead were always with us: thick as leaves in Vallombrossa.  Learning graveyard lore was a part of life: how to tell a family plot, what the little tombstones meant, where the witch was buried, why the general had his tombstone backwards, what the charnel house was for, about the hill that marked the mass grave from King Philip's War, who had been exhumed and burnt as a vampire.  The dead, our dead, were always with us.  The names etched on worn stones or emblazoned in gold on pillared mausoleums read the same as the list of aldermen or church elders.

Going back to Anderson's book, there is one thing that rang true: a need to probalamitize how we in the modern U.S. treat our dead.  I have no prescriptions or solutions, but I do have a strong distaste at the thought that when I die they'll dump my body in hole wherever I happened to be living and mark it with a plain placard that can be easily mowed over by the ground crew.  Even if vaults and monuments can't last forever, I would at least be gathered to the tombs of my fathers, there to await the Judgement and rise on the last day side by side with my kith and kin.  The fact that this cannot be is yet another reminder of the renunciations we are called to make here in Middle Earth.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Finding an Over-Looked Chesterton Gem: The Platypus Reads Part CXLV

I recently discovered that among his many other accomplishments G.K. Chesterton also wrote plays.  As a man all too willing to take up his pen at the slightest provocation, this shouldn't be surprising.  Evidently, Chesterton's friend, George Bernard Shaw, got tired of G.K.C. skewering all his plays and forbade the critic to criticize until he had tried his own hand at writing for the stage.  The outcome of that challenge was Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.

Magic is a story where the characters stand for different sorts of people that could be found in the early 20th century.  We have an old and a new Atheist, a Progressive, a Liberal clergyman, a fan of the Celtic Twilight, and a Spiritualist.  The plot centers around the claim of a young Irish woman (a fan of the Celtic Twilight) that she has spoken with a fairy on her nightly walks in the garden.  Each character's worldview requires a different response to this claim and this conflict as well as the quest to find out just exactly what it is the young woman is seeing drive the action of the play.  I won't spoil it for you, so don't worry.  The play is in the public domain and you can read it yourself a.s.a.p.  In fact, I recommend that you do!

Saturday, April 07, 2012

On Tolkien's Unfinished Tales: The Platypus Reads Part CXLIV

Tolkien's Unfinished Tales are just that: unfinished.  They represent efforts down to the end of his life to harmonize and further explore the sub-created world of Middle Earth.  A perfectionist by habit (or by Hobbit), Tolkien was drawn to minor inconsistencies or details of place and person that could be filled in.  He describes this tendency in his semi-autobiographical, semi-allegorical Leaf by Niggle as being an artist who could paint leaves better than trees.  According to Shippey, Carpenter, and others, it was this penchant for niggling that kept Tolkien from finishing The Silmarillion and a great many other minor works in his lifetime; he kept trying to get all the details right.  With a world as vast and sweeping as Middle Earth, "getting all the details right" was an impossible task for one man.

If the task was impossible for one man, however, why not two?  Christopher Tolkien's great achievement has been to be that second man, and to place his father's work into a coherent, over-arching context.  Among his chief triumphs, from a literary rather than a critical perspective, have been presenting us with The Silmarillion, The Lays of Beleriand, and The Children of Hurin (not to mention such non-Middle Earth related gems as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun).  The question, then, when reading The Unfinished Tales is how they fit into the greater context created by Christopher Tolkien for his father's post-humus works.

Following Shippey in his Road to Middle Earth, I'd like to suggest that The Unfinished Tales ought not to be read as "authoritative" answers to various problems and overlooked details in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, but rather as Tolkien's tentative, unfinished attempts at harmonizing and expanding the vast body of literature he had created.  Christopher himself points us in this direction with his sections of critical commentary offering variant stories and explaining where his father seemed to be toying with abandoning one explanation or another (see the Nazgul's fear of water in The Hunt for the Ring).  This view of the book, however, makes it a bit unsatisfying if the reader is looking for "more Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion.  Readers of The Unfinished Tales need to adjust their expectations and instead view the work, as it seems to have been intended, as an insight into Tolkien's ongoing creative process; not a set of definitive answers.  

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Thus Spoke the Platypus: Fragment

And as the disciple of Utnapishtim stood before the seat of Utnapishtim he asked him to speak more of the sons of Arius and their great prophet and Utnapishtim answered him saying:

"Have you heard what is said of that man?  Has the tale come down to you?  While walking in the paradise of the kings of Anshan did he not meet the image of himself?  Did you hear that he turned and bowed to it?  There is in this a kind of truth, for did he not instruct all the sons of Arius, and do they not do the same?  Oh ask yourself my student: is it not the mark of these men that even in paradise all they can bow to is their selves?"

Thus Spoke Utnapishtim