Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

lines from the betrothal

In classics long after, quotables on January 30, 2010 at 11:54 am

“Before you is the great veil of the Milky Way. Beyond it stretches the region in which your unborn children are waiting to show you the mother they have chosen.” (Light)

The last of Maeterlinck for right now (next? Phyllis Nagy) ’cause I’m dependent on what I can find at the library – which is why today’s entry relates to the sequel to his alleged masterpiece rather than the thing itself (this – The Blue Bird – I still haven’t read). The Betrothal (or, The Blue Bird Chooses) is described as a ‘Fairy Play’ (there’s something aboout the small magic suggested by that which could be applied to much contemporary drama).

The theme is very much coming-of-age, with our butterfly-winged deus ex machina, the Fairy Berylune returning to one of The Blue Bird‘s child heroes on the edge of manhood to arrange a lifelong lovematch.  And so, in troop a gaggle of village girls he’s lusted politely, distantly, unspokenly after (wonderfully-named: Milette, Belline, Roselle, Aimette, Jalline, Rosarelle), and they’re taken off on a journey to discover which will be his. The Fairy insists it’s predetermined, he should know but can’t seem to choose and, to complicate the hormonal cauldron, there’s one phantom-like girl tagging along who won’t have a face until he remembers her (yeah, I know, you just guessed the ending – but let’s see how they get there).

blue bird

“There are girls in the village, in the town, way back in the forest and in every house. You find them everywhere when your heart’s awake… Which is prettiest?” (The Fairy)

As a means of nixing a world of tiresome interactions, Berylune casts a spell which suppresses all concerned’s everyday selves: “We are now in a sphere in which men and women don’t quarrel or wish one another harm. All of that was merely make-believe and doesn’t exist deep down… If some of them are unhappy because you hesitate in your choice, they will none the less hope on until the end; and they know very well that where there is love there must also be sorrow…” It’s a neat way of forestalling quibbles – sign-posting supernatural additions to the storyworld’s rules of reality excises what would otherwise be obstacles to suspension of disbelief for some poor literalists.

blue bird chooses

“…we have always lived in each other; for you were already living in me when I was on the earth; and now I live in you while you are still on that same earth, which we seem to have quitted…” (The Great Ancestor)

The most intriguing aspect of the play for now is its genetic component – Tyltyl must be helped in his choice first by ancestors (Maeterlinck well-making the point that all family trees contain – relative – successes and failures, herroes and villains) and then by his own descendents: “…we know everything that happens inside you; we’re there ourselves. Besides, there’s very little that separates us from the ancestors: our interests are the same and our paths often meet.” (The Oldest Child)


lines from ardiane and barbe bleue

In classics long after, quotables on January 29, 2010 at 10:56 am

“I obeyed more swiftly than the rest / But other laws than his.” (Ardiane)

bluebeard & ardiane

Maeterlinck’s take on the Bluebeard story is the work from which I find it easiest to summarise how I feel about the whole damned corpus (that I’ve read thus far). So: it’s not difficult to imagine how Maeterlinck’s popularity came about – he attacked traditional stage convention (as the naturalists had already, and recently) but rather than closer to reality aimed deeper into his own uncharted unreality. His own peculiar strain of determined contrariness fed more from fairy and folk tales than the proven range of romantic stage templates.  For avant-gardists of whatever inclination, each play expanded possibilities further – in attempting to stage personal symbolism rather than the shared currency of conventional meanings, Maeterlinck was a seamouth for further experimentation. And, since he preferred symbols with no set value, the plays were ultimately unresolvable, not simply reducible as the allegories which had so long locked and indexed fantasy to reality. Cliches, after all, are only those expressions once so powerful that they – by echoing, or copying, or cloning through many artists’ work and audiences’ memories – claim a place in culture as a piece of shorthand.

(An aside: above, the first part of Pina Bausch’s version of Bartok’s ‘Barbe Bleue’ opera  – only vaguely related, but heart-arrestingly-not-literally powerful – seek out the others).

“He loves me: I am beautiful: So shall I learn his secret.” (Ardiane)

Ardiane has been cited as a feminist heroine for refusing the role of obedient wife – given six silver keys, plus one of gold she is forbidden to use, she reflexively ‘…throws away the keys of silver, which tinkle and ring on the marble flags.’ Her nurse uses the former to show her the treasures they unlock: ‘the two leaves of the door glide of their own motion into lateral recesses…countless gems…fall like a crumbling mass of violet flames…’ (and this is a good example of Maeterlinck’s startlingly innovative – precisely because ‘challenging’ – staging effects). Said nurse disgraces her position rather with gem-lust, but Ardiane can’t muster any enthusiasm: “I seek the forbidden door”.’

barbe bleue II wives

Behind this, she learns without much to do, are Bluebeard’s previous five wives and, caught, she joins them (when said monster, sad, says “It was a very little thing to ask,” it’s actually quite touching). But then: KER-SLAM. Our preternaturally calm protagonist wanders into darkness as if conducting a listless lap of a cottage garden – “fear not; he is wounded, he is overcome / But knows it not as yet.” Without spoiling the ending, the ragged, long-captive wives edge out of the dark…

lines from sister beatrice

In classics long after, quotables on January 29, 2010 at 1:31 am

“This heavy veil that so constrains your throat / And weighs upon your heart. ‘Twas made for death / Never for life!” (Bellidor)

‘A miracle play in three acts,’ the Sister Beatrice of the play’s title is set to fall for a passing prince – in her confusion confiding to a statue of the virgin “To look at, like your son”. After a long, fairly undignified tug-of-hearts between said statue and her lover (armed with hyperbolic declarations), she dumps her uniform and scampers tearily off. Left alone, the statue sings of forgiveness and,climbing off its pedestal, decides to take her place (if you saw that coming, you’re not clever, you’re psychotic).

beatrice poster

Proclaiming ‘the hour of pardon’, the Beatrice Formerly Known As A Statue (Seriously) drifts about the abbey casually (but not at all covertly) performing miracles – although most of the nuns are too busy bewailing the empty pedestal where their marble virgin used to be. Questioning (they think) Beatrice, they first believe her responsible for looting the thing (Sister Gisela: “Profanatrix!”) but then she explodes into more supernatural spectacle (flames, blossoming boughs, hosannas) so they saint her instead.

sister beatrice by meyerhold

“…all the house / Is void as though my sins had emptied it…” (Sister Beatrice)

The real Beatrice arrives back in rags (“O see to what estate have brought her love / And sin, and all that men call happiness!) after twenty years of ‘all that men call happiness’ while the statue creeps back to its plinth (“‘I wait,’ she said, ‘until my saint returns'”). Unable to convince her fellow sisters of her elopement – “I lost all shame / I lost all reason, and I lost all hope. / All men by turns this body have profaned…” being countered check-matily with: “She is worn out with miracle” – our heroine ends the play somewhat confused, perhaps unworthily exasperated, and ‘falls back exhausted among the sheets’.

lines from the blind

In classics long after, quotables on January 29, 2010 at 12:42 am

“I believe I can feel the moonlight on my hands.” (The Young Blind Girl)

one blind

The stage directions for Maeterlinck’s third play focus toward ‘…the deepest shadows…an ancient PRIEST, wrapped in an ample black robe. His head and torso, tilted back a little and deathly still, are leaning against the trunk of an enormous hollow oak. His face, with its violet lips parted, is of a changeless waxon pallor. His expressionless staring eyes no longer look at the visible world…’ He is flanked by his charges, six robed blind men and women. Thinking he’s gone ahead, they are waiting for him to return them home. It’s one of the great set-ups in drama – as they sit, chatter, waste time and worry, the audience sees the desperation of their situation from the curtain rise.

“We’ve never seen each other. We ask each other questons, and we answer them; we live together, we’re always together, but we don’t know what we are!” (The Oldest Blind Man)

Appreciated at a distance, feared at close quarters, the island hosting their hospice seems a bloundless wild kingdom to them – flowers and thorns, dead leaves, falling night and – as they face the end – falling snow. “The centre stage is held by a dead man, and the others characters’ fear of approaching death and their powerlessness to prevent it forms the central intrigue of the play.” (Maya Slater)

many blind

Toward the close of action, having realised the full seriousness of their situation, squabbling over what they can possibly do, some start to hear a woman’s skirt approaching – and the only sighted person in the group – a ‘Madwoman’s baby’ seems to cry in response. The audience see nothing, even as the blind become convinced the footsteps have stopped in their midst. What this might mean – whether a personification of death, a suggestion there are things the sighted audience can no more see than those lost on the island – must be passed over. The baby cries as the curtain falls.

“I can hear the waves, so close I could dip my hands in! We musn’t stay here! The waves could be all around us!” (Second Man Born Blind)

here to begin with maeterlinck

In bio, classics long after on January 27, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Time for an elegant sideshuffle – expect more Brecht in time, but I have three dusty old hardbacks I need to return to the library, so I’m going to write about the Nobel Laureate who wrote them before my fines hit double figures (again). We’re talking Maurice Materlinck, and you can find a wikibio behind that link (includes: roller skates, proto-surrealism, socialism, plagiarism, actors considered inferior to marionettes, ‘static drama’ and a script which induced Samuel Goldwyn to ‘burst out of his office, exclaiming: “My God! The hero is a bee!”‘)

maeterlinck portrait

Considered a Symbolist (click-through to Jean Moreas’ Symbolist Manifesto), his works were extravagant, cryptic (if often childlike) fantasies popular among the Parisians of the fin-de-siecle – myths minted against naturalism. A sympathetic attitude would see Debussy build an opera around Pelléas et Mélisande (this adaptation-by-composer rather than the standard commissioning of a libretto would ensure it was formally innovative). In the words of Maya Slater, via her introduction to Oxford’s ‘Three Pre-Surrealist Plays’ (lining Maeterlinck’s ‘The Blind’ up with Jarry and Apollinaire):

“He discards the historical dramas and drawing-room comedies alike. Equally, he rejects naturalism with its adoption of the crude details of ordinary life… Instead, he focuses on a different tradition: poetry… His predilection is for mysticism and metaphysics. He is drawn to myth and legend. He makes no attempt to situate his characters – to give them roots… If they seem mysterious and even incomprehensible, so much the better. Similarly, the problems that provide the intrigue of the plays are visibly human dilemmas, but stripped of their contemporary trappings.”

Most of the contemporary ‘re-imaginings’ watchable online made me cringe so hard my ribcage clenched like fists but there is a clip culled from a 1918 film of what’s considered his masterpiece ‘The Blue Bird’ which features veiled children and heavenly lovers literally separated at birth… (and here’s Shirley Temple reading it on radio..!)

Detached tangent: you need to see the cover of Aleksandr Blok’s book ‘Theatre’.

Blok's 'Theatre'

lines from mr puntila and his man matti

In classics long after, quotables on January 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm

“It’s a very human habit, discussing. It’s one great advantage we have over the animals. If cows could discuss, for example, there’d soon be no more slaughterhouses.” – Matti (5)

puntila book

If the good person of Setzuan is the self split in search of maintaining material success, Mr. Puntila is a parallel archetype – the functional capitalist who requires regular lapses into serious intoxication to enjoy the advantages their everyday persona wins them. As in Chaplin’s City Lights – the device’s obvious precursor – we spend much more time with the drunken version of Puntila than we do the other. This ups the carnivalesque entertainment value but also allows typically Brechtian defamiliarisation as he regards his periods of sobriety: “…you’d never believe the sort of things I get up to in that state… [with horror] …I become fully responsible for my actions.”

“Say no more about that Puntila who was drowned in a bowl of punch this evening, the wicked fellow. Look at me now, I’ve become human, all of you drink too, become human, never say die!” – Puntila (9)

His servant, Matti, is another of Brecht’s survivors, albeit uniformed in a rather hardbitten, taciturn manner, and it’s his ultimate unromantic realism which reveals what could be a harmless comedy of follies cloaks something harder and sadder. In refusing a love match with Puntila’s daughter, he flips the convention of class conversion (the corrosive comedy of laughing at lessers attempting to pass as ‘betters’) by demonstrating what a poor wife to a working man she’d be, adding how their children would patronise their humble father. Eva, the daughter, is herself a strong counterpoint, dismissing Matti’s materialism in a way only those whose needs are secure can and realising the threat to the ruling class in a meritocracy is not that the ruled may doubt their morals – that’s obvious – but their competency.

Puntila Berlin

Likewise, the play ends with him leaving Puntila’s employ – though there is some fondness between them, he realises there can be no genuine friendship between master and servant.

“I want to be sure there’s no gulf between us… Tell me there’s no gulf.”; “I take that as an order – there’s no gulf.”

lines from fear and misery of the third reich

In classics long after, quotables on January 24, 2010 at 11:15 am

“Not my stomach.”; “Flog his stomach.”

‘Fear and Misery…’ is an unusual play within Brecht’s body of work, consisting of a series of sketched situations lacking recurring characters or a strictly developing narrative other than growing ambient menace as the Nazis consolidate their stranglehold on the Fatherland. Brecht digs for small moments in everyday lives where the oppression solidifies – or, even more interestingly, sometimes briefly liquefies.

fear and misery book

So:  in the scene quoted above, an exhausted torturer makes his victim fake it while he takes a rest. Hearing an inspector approaching, they resume just as the ‘superior’ looks in, giving the order. Elsewhere, an increasingly terrified judge not knowing which branch of the government he must appease in a case wherein they clash, the doctor who trains juniors to diagnose through questioning the patient – except, it turns out, when they’ve been beaten half to death for politics. Most uncomfortably, a man on his death bed demands the priest list the ways in which Heaven will be different – despite his SA son at the bedside.

It’s a tactic which pays off – such was the brutality of the regime, any art attempting to capture its extemes in full frontal would look hopelessly, offensively bathetic held up to real events – and, worse, unrealistic, since the Nazi’s crimes were so black and white, so widescreen.

The last sketch features rebels listening to the radio: “It really does sound like a single people, wouldn’t you say?”; “It sounds like twenty thousand drunks being stood free beer.”

lines from schweyk in the second world war

In classics long after, quotables on January 23, 2010 at 11:33 pm

“A collaborationist doesn’t work for nothing, just the opposite, he even gets paid more these days because his own people despise him, I have to be compensated for that, why else do it?” – Schweyk (5)


Brecht adapted the work of others throughout his career – from looking-glass revisions of ‘The Threepenny Opera’, ‘Turandot’, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’,’ ‘Edward II’, and ‘Round Heads and Pointed Heads’ (based on ‘Measure for Measure’) to this later play, which marches Jaroslav Hašek’s novel onto the stage (updating from WWI to II in process). Its central character, either an innocent incompetent or a trickster playing the part as a one-man passive resistance, is a readymade Brechtian survivor, whose feints, tangents and allusions are too slippery for the literalism of the Nazi occupiers. He routinely over-praises these latter, inflating them into ridiculousness, a burlesque of obedience (thus, in a disapproving speech about his less vocal countryfolk: “When he hears he’s to die for something great, he doesn’t like the taste of it, he picks at it and pokes it around as if it was going to stick in his throat.”)

“In times like these, you’ve got to crawl. I licked his hand.”

Even this submissiveness becomes a weapon – volunteering to help a soldier remember which train carriage to send, he succeeds in utterly befuddling him, and elsewhere outflanks the party’s inbuilt racism with a speech on mongrels being the cleverest dogs.

Much of the play is set in ‘The Chalice’, a local bar which becomes a liminal space as natives and invaders intermingle and drink, thus risking losing control. The regulars exchange black market goods, unsettle soldiers by telling their future (“a hero’s death” predicted as something to be proud of) and – brilliantly – buy ‘postcards of German towns’. Initial scepticism over these – with a caption ‘Hitler is one of the great architects of history’ dissolves when they’re examined: “That looks dreadful. I’ll have that one. Nothing but craters.” In the final scene, Schweyk remembers the place fondly, its hospitality open to all who can pay, wandering through the snow – exchanging pleasantries with deserters, a murderous chaplain, and Hitler, now facing defeat – still looking for the front.

schweyk book

lines from the visions of simone machard

In classics long after, quotables on January 22, 2010 at 10:37 am

“The civil population seems to be a great liability in this war. It ought to have been shifted to another planet before they started.” – Pere Gustave (1)

Brecht’s updating of Joan of Arc has as its pinion a young girl, Simone, reading a book on the heroine as France is conquered by the Nazis. In a typical Brechtian refusal to simplify, she’s been given it by the buffoonish owner of the hostel where she works – consistency is seen in its most concentrated form in fiction – and the owner and his mother will shift from grudgingly giving food to their own army to absolute co-operation with the feared Germans: “Their first announcement on the radio was ‘Those who respect law and order have nothing to fear’.”; “They’re sniffing each other and each seems to find the other’s smell all right.”


“Are you trying to teach us to be patriotic? The Soupeaus have owned this hostelty for two hundred years.” – Madame Soupeau

Simone is one of Brecht’s most delicately drawn characters – lacking confidence, she repeats others’ opinions and judgements – her emotion is all her own, though, and it’s this she proves unable to control. Driven by apocalyptic, surrealistic dreams of her absent, enlisted brother (“Pour all your milk away, bury each crust of bread… Till he’s eating: ashes. Till he’s living in: debris…your town must be a memory, from the map let it fade…”) she begins a personal, instinctual scorched earth resistance.

simone book

The co-operative owners make an easy translation to the new regime. It ends badly for Simone. And in between, others fall between what appear binary extremes – most notably the wounded soldier George who, in failing to assist Simone when he can, relegates himself to the role of a minor character. Beautifully, though, both he and the owner do try to – gently, non-violently – help her when she is captured, and these useless sparks of goodness show how Brecht rejected impermeable heroes or villains – his characters always have a spectrum of choice – things/people could/can always be different.

Small PS: pretty certain this is where Au Revoir Simone got their name from – that phrase appears in the text, anyhow.

“Everybody’s exploiting the refugees down to their last sou…only a miracle can save France now. She’s rotten to the core.” – Mayor (1)

lines from the days of the commune

In classics long after, quotables on January 21, 2010 at 10:30 am

“We must smash their unwashed faces on the cobbles, in the name of culture.” – Thiers (2)

days of the commune

A later, perhaps lesser Brecht, ‘The Days…’ dramatises the Paris Commune more as a Babel of ideals than a heroic bubble. He’s most interested in dramatising how the newly liberated debating chamber, in indulging those voices so long suppressed so long, fails consensus, thus collective will, thus collective action, and so eventually destroyed by a well-drilled reactionary bloc (as their bourgeois owners employ opera glasses to watch the characters we’ve lived with for the length of the play butchered in their own streets).

“I’m not talking about me and you. I said ‘we’. ‘We’ are more than me and you.” – Genevieve (13)

commune stamp

There is an attitude – prevalent even among revolutionaries – that leaders should be trusted (“They must know what they’re doing, after all”). In this play, the rebels are not undone by corruption or brutality but through sticking too closely to their ideals – they retain their purity, but it becomes the blamelessness of a sacrifice rather than a new power. Even as enemy forces are recapturing the city, the central committee continue with polite, officious peacetime business: “Citizen Delegates, we shall continue with the business at hand. The next item is the organisation of a commission for the education of women…” As such, the feelings of frustration are pushed onto the audience, who are helpless – but if they carry the grievance out into the world with them…

“Smash the enemy within today or you will be no match for the enemy outside your forts tomorrow” – Ranvier (9a)