Review: Oscar: “Bugger! Queer! Sodomite!” sang the chorus.

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

The East-Coast Premier of Oscar

On an extremely cold Sunday afternoon in February, I attended the Philadelphia Opera Company’s production of the opera Oscar.  There has been a lot of enthusiasm about this production beyond  the expected buzz that a premier would cause. Recently, the Free Library of Philadelphia discovered three unknown manuscripts of Wilde in its basement as it was in the long-going process of digitizing its collection. Because of this find–academics and scholars are quite astounded–and the accompanying exhibit at the Rosenbach Museum, which houses a good deal of Wilde paraphernalia, the arrival of an opera based on the Irish playwright, poet and bon-vivant seemed particularly timely.

I don’t attempt to be any sort of expert on opera.  I know the stories of several of the most famous and can recognize the melody of several of the more familiar arias, but other than that seeing an opera is basically always a jump into the unknown for me.

And perhaps because of my inexperience, I found the music to be the least memorable part of a very memorable performance.

First the story itself is a mesmerizing tragedy–a tragedy in the literal sense of a great man falling and a tragedy in the “man-on-the-street”  sense of a heartbreaking story.  Wilde, one of the most famous personalities of his time, is brought into court for crimes of “gross indecency”–which in 19th century England meant homosexuality.  And while his friends arrange for him to escape to France before the trial commences, Wilde believes its the honorable thing to stay and fight the case in court.  And of course, Wilde loses.  He is found guilty and his years of hard labor at Reading Gaol, make up the second half of the performance.

And secondly, the staging and the sets were extraordinary.

The opera begins when the orchestra finishes the overture and the house applauds. During this applause, Oscar Wilde makes a curtain call, coming through the curtains,

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

Oscar Wilde taking a curtain call at the opening scene of Oscar

accepting the applause–which has now been combined with recorded applause–to thank the house for its generous reception to Lady Windemere’s Fan. We then move quickly to Wilde talking with his friends about his options in the celebrated court case. (There is a bit of slapstick with two Keystone-Kop type henchmen that are busy poisoning Wilde’s name among innkeepers so he cannot get a room anywhere. He ends up hiding at his friend Ada Leverson’s house.)

The court case–a circus in itself–was mounted as a Fellini-esque carnival with the jury represented as so many toys from a child’s toy box. There were tumblers and rocking horses, clowns and rag-dolls.  The judge, when he appeared, popped out as a jack-in-the-box, all loose-limbed and spineless with a simpleminded smile on his face. The scene closes the first act.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

The judge at the Oscar Wilde trial.

As bizarre and surreal as the court-room scene, the next scene is stark and daunting. Wilde is given his prison clothes and his hard labor. And throughout he is haunted by the presence of his beloved Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas whose father initiated the criminal action. (Actually, Bosie’s father’s initial action was leaving a calling card for Wilde that called him a “posing sodomite.”  addressing him.  Against the advice of his friends, Wilde charged him with libel.  It was during this libel case that evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality came to light and allowed the crown to prosecute him for “gross indecency.”)

In the opera, Bosie has no lines or any singing.  He is simply an ethereal character who throughout both acts flits into Wilde’s memories. He is played by Reed Luplau, a dancer whose sinuous moves are both graceful and haunting. In prison, he climbs upon Wilde’s prison bars like some avenging angel.

Bosie--Lord Alfred Douglas--haunting Wilde before the trial.

Bosie–Lord Alfred Douglas–haunting Wilde before the trial.

When Wilde is released, he is a broken man. He left England for the continent and spent three years in poverty before dying in a shabby Paris Hotel. Oscar Wilde was 46 years old.

The opera has been reported as being written by Theodore Morrison (with John Cox as co-librettist) with the countertenor David Daniels expressly in mind. And the visual is a very good one, for Daniels at times looks very much like Wilde.  As a countertenor, however, the voice to me seemed much, much too high–almost a falsetto at times–and off-putting. Contemporaries had noted that Wilde had a “lilting” voice, but I don’t know if that accounts for  high pitch.  Wilde was a relatively big man and that voice does not seem to fit the body.  An acetate (of dubious authenticity) of Wilde recording Reading Gaol at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 replicates a higher-pitch voice, but that–it can be argued–could be a result of recording speed and early technology.  Nevertheless, to me it seemed unreal, at odds with those around him–including his friends.

The music itself was atonal and the lyrics seemed pedestrian. One would expect more wit coming from the mouth of Wilde.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

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Dwayne Croft as Walt Whitman in Oscar

In front of the desk where I write there are two bookcases. The one holds volumes of poetry. The other biographies.  I happened to look up–for assurance–to see if my Oscar Wilde biography was there and was pleased to see that it sat next to Justin Kaplan’s life of Walt Whitman. For I forgot that Whitman’s ghost is also a character in Oscar. As a narrator–he mentions that the events of the trial and imprisonment took place five years after Whitman had died and fifteen years after he had met Wilde in America– he seems to serve as the maitre ‘d to the pantheon of literary greats that line the wall in the first and final scenes. His brilliant white suit and steely-grey beard at a touch of gravitas, that seems to rise above the nonsense of British legality and the circus of Wilde’s trial.

In the end, Wilde dies and enters the halls of literary greatness, escorted by Whitman himself.

Book Review: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Samuel Beckett
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Coincidences are no more than that, though I am very well aware of the research on them. (Freud once stated that  there were no such things as accidents, but I believe coincidences to be a lesser, less conscious form of accident. In the latter, the subconscious is directing you towards what might seem to be a accident but is actually rooted in one’s memory, suppressed or on the surface. Coincidence, on the other hand, is simply the awareness of a multiplication of events, of which one wasn’t completely cognizant or prepared for beforehand.)

So anyway, I attended an intense two-week workshop on education-on assessments and feedback and good old Bloom’s taxonomy. However, much of it was rooted in the teachings of Augustine–and much of the feedback I received  referenced Dante.

Before the workshop, however, I had bought a book, Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett. I knew it was something I would need to concentrate on–a 52 page short-story, accompanied by 58 pages of annotations, and complete with an introduction,  copies of the original typescript, letters from Beckett’s publishers, and a bibliography. This was not simply reading a short story, but sort an academic adventure. The type of diversion I hadn’t had in a while.

Cover of Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones

Cover of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

And so I waited until my Augustinian-laced workshop was over.

And then I began reading.  After I got  through the introduction and  into the story I began to smile. It was Augustine all over again with a large dollop of Dante.  In the first three pages alone there are five allusions to Augustine and four allusions to the Divine Comedy. And the main character, Belacqua, is given the nickname, Adeodatus–the name of Augustine’s illegitimate son.

So why all this hubbub about a short story that was written more than eighty years ago?  Well, Beckett had written a collection of interrelated short stories entitled More Pricks than Kicks.  Right before publication, however,  his publisher asked if Beckett would add a final story to the collection, to fatten it up, so to speak.

Beckett agreed, except there was one problem.  All the characters in the collection were now dead.  And so Beckett wrote “Echo’s Bones,”  which told the story of the dead Belacqua’s return to life in his short interim between death and eternity.  The publisher rejected the story, stating that it was too dark, too odd, and that it would make readers shudder.  And so More Pricks than Kicks was published as it was originally intended, and “Echo’s Bones” was assigned to the crypt of oblivion.  Until now.

The title refers to the mythological figure Echo, who tragically fell in love with Narcissus. (He was never a good catch for any woman. Too much competition with himself alone!)  Anyway, when she died, all that was left were her bones and her voice. Thus, we have “Echo’s Bones.”  If the editors had only known how perfectly the story’s title would foretell the nature of Beckett’s future work: a work of spotlighted voices–often disembodied (Krapp’s Last Tape), often body-less (HappyDays), and often flowing in a rushing stream (Ponzo’s soliloquy in Godot).

The plot is secondary to the wordplay, the erudition, the humor, and Beckett’s world view. Quickly: the dead Belacqua suddenly finds himself on a fence in a empty Beckettian landscape. A woman arrives and brings him to Lord Gall, a giant of a man with a paradisaical estate which he will lose because he is sterile and lacks a male heir. He convinces Belacqua  to bed his wife, in hope of an heir, but–in a twist of telescoped time–the woman gives birth to a daughter.  The story concludes with Belacqua conversing with his own grave digger (from an earlier story) and searching his own coffin for his body. The story ends with a familiar phrase in Beckett’s work and letters: “So it goes in the world.”  These are the last words of “Echo’s Bones,” but they are also the last words of “Draff,” the final story in the version of More Pricks than Kicks that was ultimately published.  A phrase that Beckett had picked up from the Brothers Grimm story “How the Cat and the Mouse Set up House,” it is a phrase that encapsulates Beckett’s life view and one that he used often even in his personal correspondence.

While I respect and love Beckett’s drama, I particularly enjoy his early fiction. Still under the influence of Joyce, Beckett, at this time, was  full of his verbal powers, delighting in the wordplay, and confident in his free association. It is always, for me, a treat to read.

 

 

At Swim-Two-Birds, Guinness, and Finn McCool’s Arse

Giant's Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway
–Carved out by Finn McCool

In the mid-nineties, the Guinness company ran a contest that entailed writing an advertisement within a certain number of words.  First prize for the winning ad was a pub in Ireland, and you could see the pubs themselves on-line. (Winning this prize is the impetus of the plot of the novel The Night Swimmer)

Anyway, I remember my entry and remember loving its major image…150 orphans playing handball against the wide girth of Finn McCool’s arse.

Obviously I didn’t win. (I arrogantly told myself that I didn’t win the contest because it was run by American advertisers who didn’t pick up on the allusion!)

ATSWIMTWOBIRDS And I remembered that ad because the image came from Flann O’Brien’s novel,  At Swim-Two-Birds. And last week I began a post with a poem “The Workman’s Friend” that came from the same novel. That post got me nostalgic for O’Brien’s work. A man of many pseudonyms, O’Brien is best known for the comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds, although my funnest memories are of The Third Policeman and The Poor Mouth, the latter which O’Nolan wrote in Irish as  An Beal Bocht under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen. (And both of which I first read in Connemarra and Sandymount respectively.)

At Swim Two-Birds is a rich novel of basically three stories, a meta-fiction in which a character created by the protagonist writes a novel from which his characters gang together with other characters in the novel to avenge their creator.  It starts with a university student, who spends more time in his bed and in the pubs than in the classroom. Besides drinking, the student is also writing a novel about a man named Dermot Trellis, a middling writer of Westerns. It is his characters who intermingle with each other, who plot against him, and who attempt to live their lives apart from their author’s intentions, after they drug him.

All of this is mixed with a great deal of Irish mythology and ancient poetry (wryly translated by O’Brien himself). From McCool to Mad King Sweeney, from pookas to fairies, an entire ancient world enters this most modern of novels and interacts with O’Brien’s and Trellis’s fictional creations.

To say there is a circularity to the plot is perhaps inaccurate, and certainly understated.  It is more like a mobius strip in another dimension.  One thing turns on another to make way for other things that reflect on something else. This jibes very much with the Greek epigraph which translated means “For all things change, making way for each other.”  For yes, indeed, one character after another makes way for one other character after yet another.

But most memorably, it is laugh-out-loud funny.

So I began re-reading At Swim-Two-Birds again this week and  I started thinking of comic novels in general.

I feel they are best enjoyed by the young.

Think The Gingerman and Catch-22. Think Tom Jones and Confederacy of Dunces. Think Lucky Jim and Reuben, Reuben.  Each presents a hero who is outrageously set up against the straight-laced establishment, whether it be the military bureaucracy, the world of academia, or society in general.  And each hero takes part in the most outrageous antics–antics that only a young soul could aspire to and believe in.  It was once said that an uncle of mine in the army tried to received a medal buck naked, much like–and before–Yossarian in Catch-22. (Unlike Yossarian, he was thrown in the brig.) For my 21st birthday, a good friend of mine wanted to rent a kangaroo suit for me to go bar hopping in, as Sebastian Dangerfield did in The Gingerman.  I still chuckle at the peccadilloes that the Scottish poet Gowan McGland gets himself into in the uptight Connecticut suburbs in Reuben, Reuben. (Apparently, the plot was based on Dylan Thomas’s drunken stay in the town in the 1950s.)

But these antics and nose-thumbings are the actions (and dreams) of younger men.  And, also, the world has changed.  I remember once reading The Gingerman on a bus and being accosted by a woman who yelled that Sebastian Dangerfield was the most misogynistic character in all of literature.  I had to admit she was right. In fact, I’d go one further: he is one of the most despicable anti-heroes of all time.  Yet, he is still extraordinarily funny.

But, young or old,  the truth of  all comedy is a certain sadness mixed with the high-jinx. Perhaps the perception of each changes with age–but they both are undoubtedly there. They both need each other.

And so, once more I am churning through At Swim-Two-Birds, and I am still laughing out loud.  I just hope that there is no one on my bus protecting the interests of characters who are thought up by characters who are thought up by characters.  Cheers.

Truth, Fiction, and Bigger Truth

A few days ago I received a message from my friend Gerry Bracken who started off with the words “I rarely read fiction, but I picked up a copy…” And he recommended a detective novel based in L.A. to where I was then flying.

Maria Popova's Brain Pickings

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

Yesterday, I was browsing through Maria Popova’s blog, “brain pickings,” and I clicked on her bookshelf. (http://bookpickings.brainpickings.org/) Her site routinely discusses books, authors, and readers. And the titles she list are predominantly non-fiction: titles that I jot down and often pick up at the library.

And then last night, I read the ExPlore twitter posting (also managed by Maria Popova). It listed Bill Gates’ reading list for the Summer of 2013. The list is daunting, fascinating and wide-ranging, but except for a single novel, it was all non-fiction. (Click here to see list.)

What is with this reluctance to read fiction? Are we wasting our time? Or more importantly, am I wasting my time.

There once was a time, when the reading of fiction–particular of novels–was considered by many as a harmless past-time for idle girls and not the pursuit of serious, intelligent people. But that was 200 years ago. In the interim, fiction has taken on a bit more gravitas, a bit more legitimacy.

At times, however, I feel haunted by that ancient attitude. And at other times, I feel deliciously guilty for sinking into a novel. Shouldn’t I be learning something? Shouldn’t I be boning up on something? Refining what I know? Discovering new ideas?

Well, I don’t know.

A while back, I ghostwrote a book on the history of Ireland. I researched assiduously, read primary and secondary sources, talked and listened to people and their stories, pored over all the news reports, particularly those on the current events that were unfolding before my eyes.

books.transatlantic_1

Colum McCann’s true fiction TransAtlantic

But I know I never got near the truth that I got in reading Colum MCCann’s novel Trans Atlantic. The section(s) on George Mitchell and the Irish peace negotiations, for instance, was better history than I could have ever gleaned in a biography or history book. There was life in those pages, in the account of Mitchell’s days in Belfast, on his dealings with the myriad politicians and organizations, in his observations of the ordinary people and the details around him. Did everything happen the way McCann described it? Probably not. Was it true? I believe very much so. A bigger truth than the historians can share.

I have learned much from fiction–I have learned about people: people in drastic circumstances, in simple ordinariness, in great passion, and in wrenching heartbreak. I have learned about pride and hubris, of great loyalty and great betrayal, of sacrifice and of love. I have met more people in the pages that I have read than I ever could have in the life that I led.

And, in a way, after all, that is what we’re here for–to learn about the wide variety of fellow human beings who share our moment in time and space.

I need to turn my back on this guilt about reading fiction.

Book Review: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann–the world continues spinning.

National Book Award Winner, Colum McCann

National Book Award Winner, Colum McCann

Around this time last year, a friend of mine lent me a paperback copy of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It was nothing short of masterful, an eloquent novel filled with beauty, wit, humor, and wisdom–and a helluva story as well. A variety of personal histories are threaded around the dazzling 1974 tight-rope walk of Philippe Petite between the World Trade Towers and set against the more resonant chapter in the Towers’ history, with the tragedy of 9/11 looming in the background. The writing was dizzily beautiful, every page an extraordinary read.let the great world spin

When I returned to work at the beginning of the school year, I learned that many of my colleagues were also reading McCann’s novel. And each of them held the same high opinion.
Now, this summer I was excited for the release of McCann’s latest novel, Trans Atlantic. And my anticipation was well worth it.
Like the previous work, McCann’ new novel is steeped in history, although this work stretches from 1847 to 1998 and concerns three separate stories of historic figures who have traveled across the Atlantic.
The novel begins in 1919 with two pilots, Alcock and Brown, both veteran RAF flyers, about to embark on the first transatlantic flight. The two leave from Newfoundland for Ireland, with a thermos of tea, a few wax-papered sandwiches, a load of mail, and a lot of gumption. At one point, close to their end point then get caught in an enormous cloud. They lose their perspective, not knowing what’s up or down, what’s left or right, The only way to survive is to go into a spin–a dangerous thing in itself. But the ultimate fly out and land in a bog field in Galway. The soft earth swallows the nose of their plane.
books.transatlantic_1
In fact, “spinning” is a theme that plays greatly in this book–seemingly carrying on a theme outlined in the last novel.
The second story comes seventy years earlier, and Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave, has traveled to Ireland to promote his book. (Although he had tried to book first class passage, he had been threatened and made to sleep in steerage.) In Ireland, however, he is feted and adored by the Anglo-Irish; he gives speeches to large audiences, garners great donations to send home to the abolitionist movement and his book sells well. But he too feels he is spinning. At one point, he even refers to himself as a tightrope walker (he says “funambulist”–I had to look it up.) Again we are echoing the tropes of the last novel.
Douglas is “spinning” because while he is being celebrated for his passion for equality and the end of slavery in America, he witnesses the utter horror of the starving Irish, starving while rivers of food, livestock and goods are exported to the rest of the British Empire. (Ireland led the British Empire in beef exports during the years of the potato famine!) It is the beginning of the potato blight, and Douglas is greatly affected by what he sees–the men whose faces are brown from eating bark, the woman whose arms are like ropes asking them to take care of her dead infant–affected by the disparity between the Anglo overlords and the downtrodden Irish.
On stage, he meets and joins the great liberator, Daniel O’Connell, but when he later expounds O’Connell’s beliefs at table, his host pulls him aside and tells him not to “bite the hand that feeds him.” Douglas’ tightrope-walk is to embrace justice and freedom for his people, while keeping silent about the horrors of Ireland in the 1840s. The one will bring funds and awareness to the abolitionist movement back home; the other would dry those funds up. It is a dizzying conundrum.
The third story takes place in 1998 and follows George Mitchell as he jets back and forth across the Atlantic negotiating what would become the Good Friday Peace Accord. Mitchell has been picked by President Clinton to lead this historic conference, and, aside from the constant jetting back and forth, he feels his head spinning from the various participants in the process: the separate governments, the various paramilitary organizations, the political parties, the loyalists, the nationalists, the Gaels, the Unionists, etc.
Here is the world that Mitchell is trying to straighten out, trying to stop from spinning further out of control:
The Battle of the Boyne. Eniskillen. Bloody Sunday. There was a clue in every detail. Gary was a Prod. Seamus was a Taig. Liz lived on the Shankill Road. Bobby on the Falls. Sean went to St. Columba’s. Jeremy to Campbell. Bushmill’s was a Protestant whiskey. Jamesons for Catholics. Nobody drove a green car. Your tie was never orange. You went for holidays in Bundoran or you went to Portrush. Fly you flag. Pick your poison. Choose your hangman.
Added to this, the ex-senator, is an old father. At sixty-four, his son is only five months old. Talk about your head spinning. In the five months of his son’s life, Mitchell has been home less than twenty days–his transatlantic treks becoming more and more urgent. (Mitchell did this for two years and received zero salary, just expenses.)
All three stories–like the stories in Let the Great World Spin–are threaded together in a marvelous tapestry of history and generation, of perspective and connection. Four generations of women–from the scullery maid who met Douglass in 1846 and emigrated on a coffin ship to America to her great, granddaughter shaken but unbowed by the Troubles that George Mitchell is striving to repair–weave their story through the historic narrative.
And the language is exquisite. The streets of New York, the light on the town of Cove, the sky above the Atlantic, the horrors of a Civil War field hospital, the ice fields of Minnesota, all are described with details that are both lyrical and true. The inner and outer lives of both the historic personages and the fictional characters are drawn with verisimilitude and generosity. And the story itself is affirmative and moving, profoundly moving.
In an NPR interview after Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award, McCann implied that he now thinks of himself as a New York writer. That may be so. But the transatlantic tug is a strong one, and his Irish way with words is very much still serving him well.
Find the book and read it. It is that good.