Sunday, March 18, 2007

Wintry mix

A lot of good things in the Guardian Review this week.

Daniel Hahn on Jan Bondeson's book about clever pigs and cat orchestras (made me wish I could see the Moscow Cats Theatre again, that was one of my favorite things ever), for one.

On a more serious note, James Fenton considers the logbook of the slaver Juverna (up for auction later this week) and the world of logbook collecting:

It must, I think, be a potentially interesting world, since the keeping of logbooks goes back centuries. I have a reprint of two such journals, which I bought under a slight misapprehension, thinking they contained an account of a performance of Hamlet on board ship in 1607, off the coast of Sierra Leone. William Keeling, the captain, tells us that, becalmed, he "invited Captain Hawkins [from another ship] to a fish dinner, and had Hamlet acted aboard me; which I permit to keep my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep".

One point about this extraordinary record is that it is extremely early. The crew would have been using either the First Quarto of 1603 (the "Bad" quarto of which only two copies have survived) or the Second Quarto of 1605. It would be convenient to act an Elizabethan play upon a ship of the period since, as one scholar tells us, "A wooden stage is indistinguishable from a wooden deck, a trap door resembles a ship's hatch, a tiring house fa├žade is remarkably similar to a forecastle, a theatre's 'cellerage' is structurally parallel to below-decks."

So Captain Keeling, sailing for India on behalf of the East India Company, had the forethought to pack at least one copy of Hamlet and another of Richard II, which his men also performed. And meanwhile the captain taught himself a little Arabic.

Unfortunately, my reprint of Keeling's journal turned out on arrival to record a later voyage in 1615-17, but it is full of human interest nevertheless. The East India Company had ordered, at some early date, that every captain, master, master's mate and purser should keep a journal, to be presented to the company at the end of the voyage. These journals vary according to who is writing them: included in my volume is a logbook of the same voyage by a master's mate, which consists mainly of navigational information. Keeling, by contrast, tells us what punishments he administered and why, what diseases people suffered from, who died and how.

The theater-history angle is especially appealing, it's a kind of work that lots of people have been excited about recently (there's Thomas Keneally's The Playmaker, on the 1789 performance of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer by convicts in Australia, and Timberlake Wertenbaker's theatrical adaptation Our Country's Good--I reread this in the fall and found it rather dated, though it's an appealing idea--and then a whole host of interesting academic work on related topics, maybe most notably Kathleen Wilson's book-in-progress on the colonial stage in the eighteenth century, that's going to be a really good one).

For some reason I've been thinking about drama a lot recently, in another universe just proximate to this one I would be more obsessed with theater than with novels & would be acting and writing plays and writing about performance history, and this is why I loved Samuel West's fascinating piece about working with Harold Pinter on a radio production of The Homecoming. It's full of interesting things, go and take a look for yourself, but here's an especially good part:

The transferring of well-known stage plays to radio entails some compromise. I remember going to Maida Vale Studios to record Tom Stoppard's Arcadia during the original National Theatre run. The advantage was that the cast knew the play and could perform without scripts. The disadvantage was that some pieces of Stoppard's brilliant stage business couldn't easily be transferred to radio. ("What's that in your hand, Gus? Is it an apple?") We have a similar concern in The Homecoming. Pinter's pauses make eloquent audio; the problem comes when someone makes a silent exit. To clarify the action, the maestro has agreed to one of Lenny's silent departures being accompanied by a new line: "Ta-ta." I'm immensely proud to be performing the world premiere of a Pinter line, albeit one only two syllables long.

When he was 25, my father wrote a radio play satirising over-explanatory wireless dialogue. It was called This Gun That I Have in My Right Hand Is Loaded. It's almost certainly the silliest thing he's ever done - adapted for radio by H and Cynthia Old-Hardwicke-Box, it contains some classic radio-speak ("A whisky? That's a strange drink for an attractive auburn-haired girl of 29") and cliches that have since become old friends of the family ("It's not a pretty sight - it's been in the water for some time", "Come now doctor; blackmail's an ugly word" and the classic "Is he ... ?" "I'm afraid so").

This Gun is still used in good drama schools to illustrate the pitfalls of the genre, but listening to the odd Afternoon Play, it's possible to conclude that writers have taken it as a blueprint rather than a cautionary tale. Good radio writing is a real art. I think a good radio play is better than any other sort of play, but by the same token, a bad one is so much worse. Radio is the most unforgiving medium, more revealing of untruth than any other. Nothing distracts you from whether you believe the reality of what you are hearing.

I've been in a real state recently about work-related deadlines--it's not sensible, I know I need to just calm down and get things done one at a time and that is exactly what I will do, but the anxiety levels are high enough that (this is well beyond my usual reluctance/inability to make social plans, of course I would always rather be at home reading and writing or--these days--obsessively exercising than actually having life in the world, my inner recluse has been rather domineering recently!) I have been finding myself practically hyperventilating out of anxiety at not being at home working as I wait on the subway platform to go and do something with other people.

It's very unfortunate, I must try and make it stop, but I had a helpful development on Friday which was that I had a day of art and it was good for my soul! Really, you can almost feel your chest cavity expanding in a yoga-esque way when you look at pictures & more particularly and especially listen to delightful music, it was very good and I am still feeling the benefits

The first thing was that I saw the Stubbs show at the Frick, it is small but excellent. I always find the ones with the lions inadvertently comical, there is something so hilariously wicked and never-seen-in-nature about the expressions on those lions' faces (stage villains, very Shylocky!) and the poor terrified horses look so silly in these over-the-top landscapes, but the best of the pictures are really quite extraordinary: four or five of the horse-centered ones make you feel like you really could touch the horse's warm flanks and feel the veins and muscles beneath the skin, there are a couple dog ones that gave me a huge pang of dog-wanting (reminded me, too, of a funny bit in Peter Dickinson's underrated novel The Green Gene about trying to breed dogs just on the basis of an image of a dog in a seventeenth-century Dutch painting, that's a book I must reread) and also an absolutely heartbreaking painting of a monkey that's the first thing you see when you walk through. (Here was Simon Schama's very good Stubbs piece in the New Yorker.)

The Frick in general is quite transporting, it wasn't quite deserted but the combination of snow and Friday afternoon and general non-corporateness meant you could very pleasantly amble through nearly empty rooms (that building would make a good transplanted setting for a fantastical young-adult novel, it's very Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in a way that the Met itself no longer can be, the last time I went to the Met the crowds--it was the spirit photography exhibit--were so horrendously misanthropy-inducing that I think I will never again go there on a weekend, it was too horrible). I forgot how many of those lovely Reynolds and particularly Gainsborough portraits they have there, it was really good (and they've got Thomas More also, how did I forget?!?).

And then the most amazing thing was Nico Muhly's Carnegie Hall concert. The place was packed, despite the weather, and you just had that elusive and rare feeling of something exciting and important happening; the program was a lovely mix of sixteenth-century English choral music (oh, and that Weelkes "When David Heard" piece is quite extraordinary, what an amazing thing) and Nico's own stuff, which just exactly fits my aesthetic sensibility. It's not often you can say about something (novel, play, music) that it is both stringent/demanding and also miraculously fun, but that's the quality that Nico's music has, I would defy even the most non-classical-music-listening person to hear this stuff and not just fall a little bit (maybe a lot) in love with it.

Most of these pieces are written for particular people/performers, and that's part of the magical quality: everyone was great, but the piece called "The Only Tune" that Nico wrote for Sam Amidon (I am so going to get So This Chicken Proved False-Hearted, in fact even without having heard it but just on the basis of the title I must particularly get it for a chicken-loving friend of mine, chicken the bird rather than the food of course) is a total work of genius that depends on the unique collaboration between a particular composer and a particular performer, hard to imagine anyone else doing it. It's a really imaginative--brilliant, I'd say--adaptation of a folk song, sort of Brittenesque in spirit (I grew up singing those Britten settings, I love them) but backwards-deconstructing in its initial impulses and then returning to the fullest possible immersion in the song-ness of it in the later part; basically I am too lazy to find a more evocative way of describing it, you'd have to hear it to believe it could even exist in its surprising and somewhat wayward artistic perfection, but that Sam Amidon is totally a genius also.

And the final piece on the program was "Keep in Touch," written for and performed by the remarkable Nadia Sirota, and though it's slightly less the case with this one that you can only only ever imagine this one person performing it (the technical and personality demands on the lead performer of "The Only Tune" are unusually stringent) you still have a very strong sense of the particular connection between performer and piece and the things that Nadia brings to it that nobody else could possibly have. Quite magically good, really transporting again; the whole concert was an absolute delight, I can't remember when I last spent such an enjoyable evening all told (including, subsequently, a rashly late night out downtown made even more festive-demented by the snowiness of it all).

It struck me as I was listening that my alternate-universe self might want to write a book--sort of at the intersection of performance history and acting theory, I am obsessed with these questions about acting and the somatic production in real actual physiological bodies of things that are only notional in scripts of all kinds--about the dynamic of this sort of collaborative work. I think maybe I'm just ignorant, it is quite possible (does anyone better-informed have an opinion?) that a great deal of music when it is written has this quality of collaboration built into it, but Nico's music strikes me in particular as having more in common structurally with dance than with a lot of new classical music that you hear, in that the particular artistic constitution of the central performer or performers is itself deeply written in to the music. In the same way you feel that Tom Stoppard actually wrote a lot of those female parts for Felicity Kendal, or directors working with particular actors, etc. etc., and the relationship's summed up/finds its essence especially in the notion of, say, Balanchine working with those particular dancers to create roles. And then there are interesting particular challenges as those works move into the next stage of their life, once the original performers were dead and gone: it's a tradition of teaching and of younger artists learning from older ones, very interesting.

(I am making a resolution, or confirming a resolution already made, that I really am going to find a way of doing this Bacchae adaptation that's been on my mind for several years now. Every few months I see something that gives me another glimpse of what it could be, and my sense right now--oh dear, this will sound totally demented, and I will have to make a lot of people help me with the different parts, like my brothers for the puppets and sets and Helen Hill's experimental filmmaker friends for the film technique and Nico for the music of course--is that it should be a magical three-minutes-and-fifty-seconds-long experimental animated short with puppets, and the whole dynamic of that entire insane Euripides play and its rationality-madness West-East tragedy-of-intemperacy/obduracy somehow summed up in a teeny-tiny but expansive little sequence that's over almost before it begins but would undoubtedly take me a year and a half of hard work to make. At this time in the school year I am starved of art-making time, it is not good! But having other people's art is an excellent next-best-thing, it really is a magical remedy for that cramped feeling of constriction and deadlineness that I have been suffering.)

All right, that was much longer than I thought, must get back to Austen and point of view....

1 comment:

  1. Do you know that the reason they are called logbooks is because around 1600 someone invented a way to measure a ship's speed by observing the movement of a log towed behind the ship on a rope? So the logbook recorded the observations of the log--and then, of course, everything else. If you can, you must carve out a few hours for socializing the week of April 16--perhaps we can socialize via yoga, which would imbue the distraction from work with additional value, or perhaps the deadlines will be vanquished by then?