Thursday, December 22, 2016

Some Thoughts on Into the Woods

If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you're aware of my...intense feelings for the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Into the Woods (original production here). While it's an exaggeration to say, as I often do, that it's my favorite anything ever, it's not that much of an exaggeration. You can imagine my delight, then, when it was announced that The Fiasco Theater production of IttW would take up residence at the Kennedy Center for a month. I was familiar with Fiasco's past work and I was curious to see what they would do with this masterpiece. I am not so precious about my love for the original staging and recording as to be unable to love any alternative version; between the film version, cast recordings of other major productions, and other stage versions, I felt confident going into the Fiasco production that, whatever changes they made--for there are always changes--I would be able to accept, and maybe even enjoy then. I gobbled up tickets and made plans to see it 4 (!) times during its month long run.

Well, two of those performances have come and gone, and I have a great deal of respect for this production, though, unsurprisingly, I don't love it unreservedly. The staging is fairly simple. Imagine the wooden floors that might be backstage at on old theater; various props and pieces of theatrical detritus scattered about; walls on either side of the stage designed from the inside of grand pianos, a motif picked up in the proscenium decoration of keyboards; upstage, the design ends in theatrical ropes that visually recall a forest; and in center stage, a single upright piano on wheels. Clearly, both in the setting and in the choices made several times throughout the play, the company is reinforcing the theatrical nature of the show. This is totally appropriate with IttW, a show with a narrator who get thrown to the giant in Act II. The overarching motif of the production is almost, "We're going to put put on a show!" like an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movie.

Adding to this impression is the stripped-down orchestrations. That piano center-stage is used as a prop at times (especially in a few instances involving the Witch and with the Baker's Wife's death), but it also the source for most of the musical accompaniment. Various members of the ensemble play the cello, trumpets, percussion instruments, and even the bassoon at key moments in the score to reinforce the strength of the piano, but the impression musically is almost that of a rehearsal pianist putting the cast through its paces before the show opens.

The cast, chosen specifically for this national tour, generally acquit themselves well, with a few standouts and a few questionable choices. The cast of 10 actors--nicely balanced at 5 men and 5 women, plus Evan Rees as the pianist who gets a few lines here and there and sings with the ensemble--plays all of the roles in the show, which had an original Broadway cast of over 15. Through some canny doubling, and some major editing, the 10 actors fill out the play nicely. Most of the time, most of the cast is on the stage, watching the action, again making it feel as if we are watching a rehearsal. This is accentuated further still by the cast wearing very basic, plain clothes--undergarments essentially--and then adding or removing other very specific clothing items to become their characters: Little Red with her cape, etc.

 As seems to be the trend with more recent productions, the role of the Narrator was eliminated entirely. The narration is instead distributed among the cast to actors who aren't a part of the scene. As a great believer in the Narrator, especially the way he reinforces the themes of Act II, I always hope that a new production will keep the role, but it's clearly too easy to cut to help streamline the play. This means that the pivotal scene in Act II where the characters become aware of, well, being characters, is lost. Again, I think this is probably just too easy a cute to make to clarify and shorten the show.

Fiasco keeps all the other speaking parts, though not in the ways expected. For example, while it is traditional that The Wolf (Anthony Chatmon II) doubles as Cinderella's Prince, as he does here, he and Rapunzel's Prince (Darick Pead) also double as the wicked step-sisters, Lucinda and Florinda, an effect created by the two men holding a curtain rod with flowery drapes over themselves as they stand side by side. The visual message "dress" is immediate and quite witty, and even, deliberately or not, calls back to Carol Burnett's famous line "I saw it it in the window, and I just couldn't resist it." Chatmon for his part is the least exciting member of the cast. I don't know if he simply isn't comfortable enough with the material, or if he doesn't like it, but he just rather pales, especially as the Prince. There's not enough smug arrogance masking itself as charm. In both versions of "Agony," it's Pead who steals the spotlight. Incidentally, at both performances I have attended so far, "Agony" got the longest sustained applause of any of the individual numbers.

Pead also plays Milky White--Jack's cow that is a prop on wheels in the original production but has been imagined in so many ways there is a Tumblr devoted to it. Pead's costume as the cow consists of a cowbell around his neck (that is replaced with a gold one when Jack becomes rich) and an occasional cord around his waist. He also remains upright for the entire part. Playing a cow (linger on that), Pead very nearly steals the show, interacting with the other characters almost as a Disney animal might, mooing in frustration or happiness and mooing out his rage at the Baker and his Wife in Milky's hilariously OTT death in Act I. He also shuffles side to side while the Baker and his Wife sing 'It Takes Two'--it was a very funny touch, but it did border on upstaging. Milky also gets one proper word of dialogue, but I won't spoil it. Pead for me, generally, is a great presence, warm and comedic in a production that otherwise pushes the darkness of the show.

If you know the show, you're probably asking right now how the top roles are. Famously, The Witch is thought of as the star role, even though it's not *really* her show. Still, Vanessa Reseland owns every scene she's in, as every good Witch should. Her costume transformation is minimal and her make-up is essentially non-existent, but Reseland portrays the Witch in Act I as the same woman we come to learn more about in Act II, creating a definite sense of continuity. However, and this is a big however, the arrangement of her big farewell "Last Midnight' is just off. The production goes with the original Broadway version of the song, as opposed to the later lullabye lyrics. So far, so good. The piano is augmented by other instruments, including a bass drum that adds extra urgency and import, but the song stops and starts too often between verses to really build into the crescendo it should. The song works because it builds in speed and intensity as it goes on, with lyrics coming so fast they can be hard to hear. It's possible this production opted to slow things down for intelligibility's sake, which would make sense. But then slow the entire song down, don't go for urgency, but constantly pull back from really pushing as far as the song requires. Reseland's belting is top-notch--her "Stay With Me" and "Lament" are heart-rending--but maybe she felt less comfortable in the faster tempo. The Witch's disappearance is also the one time the extremely minimal stagecraft of the production fails--she just sort of falls into the woods upstage. Hardly the exit worthy of one of the most dynamic female roles in Sondheim. Both times I have seen it, the applause for this number, leading on from a well-done "Your Fault," has been warm, but not intense. It should be a showstopper, but it doesn't stop anything.

The Baker is arguably the actual main character, and Evan Harrington does an excellent job with what is often a somewhat thankless role, delivering a very moving "No More." As for the Baker's Wife, originally portrayed by Joanna Gleason in what still must be considered the definitive performance, Eleasha Gamble handles the dramatic side of the character with aplomb and her vocal performance is excellent. She misses, however, the Wife's better comedic lines. The Baker and his Wife are the main original creations of Sondheim and Lapine for the show, and they are decidedly not fairy tale types. As written, they seem more like an urban couple dealing with very mundane things (wanting more money, having a baby, a bigger house), and their reactions to the fantastical surroundings they live in is a great deal of the fun of the show. Gamble, however, doesn't seem able to get the joke across unless it is so big as to be unmistakable. For example, during her first encounter with Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer), the Wife tells Cinderella that her husband is off undoing a spell, and Cinderella responds with an impressed "Oh!" Ideally, Gamble would layer onto that line some false humility about her husband's deeds; instead, she delivers it straight. Such is the case for many of the smaller laugh lines the Wife has (about the scarf, where she got the hair, etc.). This is one case where my familiarity with Gleason's Tony-winning performance arguably hurt my ability to enjoy the show. With the Baker's Wife, there is only so far that an actress can stray from my impression before I start to think of it not just as a different interpretation, but as a lesser one--and that's on me.

Cinderella is not usually my favorite character in the show, but Veldheer really captures the indecisive state the character inhabits. Never has the lyric, "What is wrong with me mother? Something must be wrong," landed with such oomph. She also makes "One the Steps of the Palace" sound easy (it's very not), and she acts the role as well as she sings it. Side note on "On the Steps of the Palace": taking after the "trio" in Follies, some stagings of the show (including the excellent Regents Park London production, which seems to have inspired the one here) bring back Little Red and Jack to reinforce and unite the three "I know" songs in the first act. To be blunt, I don't like it. Little Red and Jack have already had their songs and their big moments (Jack especially). Let Cinderella have her solo moment, I say. Also, I never really noticed until this staging, but Cinderella provides both clever stratagems that help them defeat the giant. Little Red does nothing, and the Baker and Jack's brilliant plan is to hit the Giant with sticks. Brilliant. Cinderella will clearly be the brains of the operation going forward.

As for Jack (Philippe Arroyo), his connection with Milky White, as mentioned above, really elevates their scenes in the first act. His "Giants in the Sky" (probably the favorite song of every male teenage theater nerd) pushes the sexual metaphor lightly, but not so much as to make the subtext text. Coming on the heels of "First Midnight," Jack essentially has a captive audience on stage for his big number, and the cast sits down like schoolchildren to listen to Jack tell his tale. It's a lovely moment that again, feeds into the overarching theme of storytelling and theatricality. Jack also has a very well-timed hug with his mother that got to me both times I saw it. In another unexpected doubling, Jack also plays the Prince's Steward. This adds extra weight to the scene where the Steward kills Jack's mother, as it's her own son (or the same actor) who delivers the killing blow. Intended or not, it is positively Freudian.

Because her main story gets wrapped up so comparatively early, Little Red can often get lost in the shuffle of the later scenes. That said, Lisa Helmi Johanson holds her own as both Little Red and Rapunzel. Her confrontation with Jack about the hen lacks the angry flirtatiousness that the scene sometimes has, and truly feels more like two children having a fight, which is my preferred interpretation of the scene. (N.B.: The above-mentioned Regents Park production is brilliant, and you should go see it. That said, it does tend to oversexualize the story for my taste. Play the text stronger than the subtext please.) Fred Rose as The Mysterious Man (and cello accompanist) and Bonne Kramer playing both Jack's mother and Cinderella's stepmother round out the cast. The Giant is voiced by various female members of the cast, and Cinderella's mother is voiced by the female half of the cast minus Cinderella, in beautiful tight harmony. Cinderella's father is played very amusingly by a painting. Indeed, the very fact that Cinderella's father is a role with lines has clearly become a standing joke among people producing the show.

With all the doubling, there are invariably times where two characters played by the same actor will be on stage at the same time. The production deals with this in different ways: in the case of Cinderella's Prince, when he arrives at the end of Act I looking for the owner of the slipper, he makes quite a joke and display of the fact that he plays Lucinda, as well. Darick Pead, on the other hand, slides quickly from one side of the stage to the other changing from Florinda to Milky White. Most dramatically, since Little Red and Cinderella's stepmother are part of the group that witnesses Rapunzel and Jack's mother die, the actors acknowledge this fact. After an appropriate period of time spent on the deaths, the actresses get up, almost as ghosts, leaving behind the totemic garment for their characters: the yellow blond wig for Rapunzel, a tattered shawl for Jack's mother. They then proceed upstage where they make a show of putting on Little Red's wolf cloak and the wicked stepmother's floral hat. In the end, downstage, the characters are mourning over pieces of fabric, not bodies, and it is surprisingly moving.

Aside from the things I've mentioned above (most of which are minor), I have some more substantial criticisms of this production. First, they cut all of the aphorisms, etc. from "First Midnight," etc. No, "The slotted spoon can catch the potato." No reprise of the format at the end. They're all gone. I can understand a production wanting to save time, but this production reinstates "Our Little World," the duet between Rapunzel and the Witch in Act I. It's definitely one of the weaker songs in the show, and it wasn't even used in the original Broadway production. It's a perfectly adequate Sondheim song, which means it is in the top 1/1000 of all songs ever written, but, to quote the man himself, the song "often just lies there," and it tends to slow the show down before it's even really gotten going. I would much rather have the aphorisms (especially the ones uttered by the main characters) and lose "Our Little World."

They also cut (wait for it) a few verses of the final "Into the Woods," including those featuring the immortal "But now there's you, me, her, and him" and "The light is getting dimmer. / I think I see a glimmer." I honestly can't understand this choice. Again, I assume time was the factor, but the verses would probably take a minute, and they contain so much narrative richness. Indeed, the multiple iterations of the "Into the Woods" theme gain strength over time, partly because each one is lyrically unique and speaks to the exact moment in the play in which it appears. This is no simple reprise, but an evolution. But, I'm not a theater director--I am a theater fan, so my judgement is likely skewed. That said, not since an otherwise amazing production of A Midsummer Night's Dream ended without Puck's farewell to the audience have I come to the end of a show I loved and knew well and been taken so aback.

So...obviously I have thoughts about this show and this production. Lest the above sound too negative, I will say that I get to see it again in 2 days time, and I am thoroughly pumped to go and swoon and cry my ass off. I may, someday, write more thoroughly about the play qua play (theme, narrative structure, lyric composition, etc.), but that can wait for another day.

Relatedly, I came across this video yesterday and I wanted to post it because it so wonderfully captures the multifold magic of Stephen Sondheim. Clearly, children will listen...

















Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Holiday Giving 2016

Happy Impending Holidays!

I know the blog's been silent for a while, and we'll return to something like regular service soon, but this isn't that.

Let's talk about holiday giving! Ah, yes, holiday giving, where we all try to decide which of the hundreds of worthwhile causes and organizations deserve a few of our dollars. This year, in particular, has seen several high profile causes like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU receive an influx of donations as an almost primal outpouring of grief due to the election results. And I am not saying don't donate to them--please do! I did--in fact, I am now, literally, the thing conservatives hate most: a card-carrying member of the ACLU. So, if that's where you want to throw your holiday dollars, have at it.

However, there are all sorts of organizations that stand to lose funding or face a more difficult task in their work because of the incoming Trump administration: decreased foreign aid and a lesser profile for the US on the world stage could worsen already severe refugee and humanitarian crises; cuts to arts and humanities budgets could close theaters, libraries, and museums across the country; a neutered EPA could put the safety of our air, water, and soil at stake. And so on. So, things are bad all around, is what I'm saying.

With those facts in mind, here are the smaller, more local, or just lower profile groups I'll be supporting this year. In case you're curious about joining me, I'm doing little blurbs for each non-profit. And if you're a friend or family member who's wondering what to get me this Christmas, consider this my Christmas list.

Synetic Theater: Founded by Georgian immigrants Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili in 2001, Synetic Theater (SYN from synthesis and TIC from kinetic) is the most distinctive and inventive theatrical troupe in the DC region. Their signature style is a blend of movement, dance, and mime, and many of their productions are entirely wordless, with the story being told through the movement, direction, and music. Famously, their series of "Silent Shakespeare" productions includes a dozen productions of Shakespeare's plays without any dialogue. The first Synetic production I saw was their King Lear, and it remains the most intense and exhilarating night I have ever spent in a theater. They've done a few international tours and the New York Times called them "art with a capital A," so these folks are legit.

Pencils of Promise: As you may know, I few years ago I took a trip with some coworkers and other folks to Guatemala. This wasn't a pleasure trip, though. Our company had partnered with Pencils of Promise (PoP) for its annual fundraising drive. The trip was part reward and part attempt to convince us to be PoP donors for life. Well, it certainly worked on me. PoP builds schools and trains teachers in four countries: Guatemala, Nicaragua, Laos, and Ghana. Through public private partnerships with local and national educational authorities, PoP makes sure the funds go where they are needed. And through the power of data, the know what they're doing right, and what they're doing wrong.

On the Media: If you don't listen, OTM is a public radio show out of New York that airs weekly and also has a popular podcast. (I listen to the podcast.) OTM is, and I am about to make a bold claim, the single best media program around right now. The work they do covering the press and civil liberties is incredibly vital, and it will become even more so in the coming weeks and months. This year, their special series Busted: American's Poverty Myths was a heartbreaking look at all the familiar stories we tell ourselves about why we don't do more to help the poor. You know what? They're all lies. Every single one of them. OTM is the kind of show that will expose the lie that everyone repeats and tell the Emperor he has no clothes. We need them to continue to be able to do their work.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Over 100 Americans commit suicide every day. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Almost 3x as many people die by their own hand each year in the US as do by homicide--and the figures have been rising year over year. AFSP is one of the highest rated and most respected organizations in the mental health field. Addressing the problem from all aspects, AFSP funds research into better methods of suicide prevention, they lobby governmental groups to help make sure the laws that are in place will help save lives, and they train front-line responders on best practices for how to deal with someone experiencing a crisis. They also provide education about mental health, and they give assistance to both those struggling with suicidal thoughts and those who have lost someone to suicide.

Community Action, Inc.: That poverty I mentioned above in the OTM blurb? It is alive and well in the areas of Western PA served by Community Action. I know because Punxsutawney, my hometown, is one of their communities. Furthermore, as I was growing up, I had an opportunity to see the importance of their work over and over, and I saw how important even small donations were to community-based groups. You see, my mom worked there. And I am sure there were terrible things about the job and bureaucracy that was maddening and God knows what else. But to me, the work Community Action did was how I learned about charity. And kindness. And how important it is to be there for people when nobody else will. So yeah, this one's personal.

Whether you go with my suggestions or not, please, give generously. And have a wonderful holiday season. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Doctor Who Spring (In)sanity!

Special Post from Doctor Who: The Writers' Room podcast:

As you may have heard in our most recent episode (Episode 27), we (Kyle Anderson of Nerdist.com and your humble blogger) will be recording and releasing a special debate-based bracket special with Doctor Who podcasting luminaries Steven Schapansky (of Radio Free Skaro and The Memory Cheats), Erika Ensign (of Verity!), and Josh Zimon (of The Memory Cheats and The Mostly Harmless Cutaway). 

Below is the bracket we'll be working from, based on the top 64 episodes/stories from the Doctor Who Magazine poll this last summer. We'll explain how each seed was chosen in more detail in the special, but it boils down to the top 4 stories are #1 seeds, stories 5-8 are #2 seeds, and on and on like that through the #16 seeds.

Please feel free to fill out a bracket of your own and email it to us (erikandkyle@gmail.com) by midnight (Eastern) on March 31st. If anyone gets the bracket 100% matching with the show, we'll give you some kind of prize that hasn't been determined yet--probably something Doctor Who related. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year, New Podcasts!

A rare non-Austen post!

Now that 2015 is upon us, you may casting around for some new podcasts to keep you company at the gym, as you prepare healthier meals, or whatever it is you're resolving to do that might call for interesting audio accompaniment. Broadly speaking, podcasts fall into two categories: those done by people who are professional media types and are often affiliated with existing media enterprises, and those done by people who are not those things and do it out of their living rooms or similar. Because I feel a special kinship with the latter category, this lists consists entirely of people who podcast for the love of it.

The Flophouse

My number one podcast find of 2014, The Flophouse is a podcast in which, as framed every two weeks by host Dan McCoy (writer for The Daily Show), some friends watch a (presumably) bad movie and then talk about it. This is not necessarily a unique format, but McCoy, along with co-hosts Eliott Kalan (also of The Daily Show) and Stuart Wellington (the non-pro of the group, though he more than holds his own), have probably the best chemistry of any podcast hosts anywhere and make eavesdropping on their conversations a pure delight. Filled with sharp criticisms of terrible movies, insane tangents that emerge with the tiniest pretexts, and a healthy dose of what the MST3K guys always called "good-natured ribbing," their best episodes blend interesting critiques of what makes bad movies bad and straight-up hysterical absurdity. The show was featured in a number of year-end "Best of" lists, and it earned every accolade.

Where to start? With the caveat of making sure you start with an episode that features all three regular hosts--occasionally either Elliott or Stuart can't make recording and a variety of NYC-based funny types sub in, with fellow Daily Show Hallie Haglund being the stand-out of the fill-ins--you can dive in almost anywhere. There are plenty of running gags and references that get funnier with repetition through time, but I started with Episode #146--B*A*P*S and was immediately hooked. 

The History of Rome

Another 2014 find, The History of Rome consists of 180+ episodes in which Mike Duncan chronicles the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Beginning with its mythic beginnings, progressing through the days of the Republic, the early days of the Empire, the Golden Age of the "Five Good Emperors," through its slow but inexorable decline. He ends his story in 476, with the exile of the final Roman Emperor, and while its true that the Eastern Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire and carried on for a thousand more years, it seems the fitting a correct stopping point for the story Mike was telling. I learned a great deal about the murkier periods of Rome from this show, and Mike told the story in such a way that, even though little of the general arc came as a surprise (Spoiler: Rome falls), I still was engaged all the way, both intellectually and emotionally. A great listen for history fans, or just anyone who loves a gripping story, well and cleanly told. Mike finished the podcast a few years back, and has since started a new one about political revolutions called, well, Revolutions.

Where to start? The beginning, of course. The style of the show evolved over the five years it took Mike to tell his story, but to get the full effect of what he did, you have to start at the beginning. If you merely want a sample of Mike's voice and style, maybe check out his episode about Roman weddings, #69. (Warning--this is a direct download link, so if you click it, the episode will start playing. Just in case you're reading this on a work computer in an open office setting...)

History of Philosophy without Any Gaps

This show straddles the amateur/professional line, but host Peter Adamson has such a direct, unfussy style, and the show is so much stamped with his quirky, pun-loving personality, that I feel it deserves a place on this list. Like The History of Rome, this show is exactly what it sounds like--it is a thorough history of Western Philosophy (including the Islamic world as the West), beginning with its origins and touching not only on the major figures, but also one lesser known and frequently forgotten figures whose work is still worth exploring. In fact, Peter is being so thorough that, after 4 years and 200+ episodes, he's just reached St. Anselm of Canterbury, a major figure in early Medieval thought. The show is often complex, but Peter is brilliant at making the ideas as clear as possible (obscurity, alas, often being the handmaid of philosophy) and fleshing them out with frequently humorous or absurd examples involving giraffes, Buster Keaton, and his imaginary sister.

Where to start? I would say that you should definitely start at the beginning, but it's also possible to drop in somewhere you feel comfortable to sample the vibe of the show, and then go back to the beginning if you like it. Alternately, start somewhere you feel very *un*comfortable, an area or a thinker that you know nothing about, and see how much Peter can teach you in just a few minutes.

Filmspotting: SVU

The original Filmspotting is a great listen, but it falls a bit on the pro side of our divide. However, its spin-off has a decidedly more homespun vibe, and is generally more to my taste, to boot. Filmspotting: SVU is hosted by two film critics, Matt Singer and Alison Wilmore, who hosted the long-defunct but still awesome IFC News Podcast and then started their own show that borrows the Filmspotting name, but otherwise is a creation all its own. With keen intelligence and a great feeling of humor and warmth, Matt and Alison explore films and series available via the various streaming and on-line rental services, which means that essentially all of the things they review are available immediately for the interested listener. Extra points go to this show for the hosts' shared love of horror and genre films and their idiosyncratic tastes, which allows them to stand somewhat apart from the large critical mass.

Where to start? Anywhere. Scroll through their list of available episodes and find one that catches your filmic interest. A recent episode on Scanners and the work of David Cronenberg (#70) would make great listening for people who heard the Classic Horror Cast review of Videodrome and want more Cronenberg weirdness.

The British History Podcast

Citing the model of The History of Rome, a significant number of other podcasts have adopted Mike Duncan's format and are telling one story, slowly, with intelligence and humor. Of those that I have sampled, my favorite is definitely Jamie Jeffers' The British History Podcast. Jamie's task is to tell the entire story of Britain, which is a massive undertaking. He's currently deep in the pre-Viking early Medieval period, and I am learning so much about a period of British history that usually gets skipped over as being of little consequence. Jamie rightly argues that post-Roman, pre-Norman Britain is actually a pivotal time that sheds a great deal of light on later British history. Plus, the names are awesome and Jamie is a charming host.  

Where to start? Again, I'd say start with the beginning, but if you want to dive in and sample an episode to see how Jamie's voice and style works for you, check out his kind of tangential, but very interesting, episode from last year (2013) about the dating of Christmas, episode #108.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Austen 2014: Mansfield Park, Volume 2

In the novels we've already read this year, Austen frequently explores the very close relationships between sisters, perhaps unsurprisingly given her own very close connection with her sister Cassandra. Austen, however, also had a number of brothers, but, while she has featured brother/sister pairs previously, notably in Northanger Abbey, her closest look at the bonds that can form between them occurs in Mansfield Park. There are two prime examples here, both of which come to the fore in this section: William and Fanny Price and Henry and Mary Crawford. Notably, Austen estranges the Bertram brothers and sisters from each other, so that, while they interact with each other as a group--especially during Sir Thomas' long absence in Antigua--only Maria and Julia have a close one-on-one relationship, though that is strained much at times. Still, Tom seems to feel no special consideration for his two sisters, nor they him, and Edmund appears to be viewed by all as the dull, respectable member of the family. So, I will look instead at the pairings that Austen does highlight.

In this volume, we finally meet the much-loved sailor William Price, and we see Fanny, perhaps for the first (and only?) time in the novel, experience pure unadulterated joy in being able to visit with her long-absent brother. William himself, I feel, is drawn rather roughly, not actually saying much, and generally being described as open, lively, and engaging. His is certainly coarser than the other men who inhabit the novel, but that is to be expected. A midshipmen sailor, as William is, can hardly be thought of as a "gentleman" in the parlance of the time. But he is a very young man, and his promotion to lieutenant (which the British insist on pronouncing with an invisible "f") should considerably help his fortunes and sets him on the road to an improved social status. What is most interesting about William Price, however, is the affection for him held by his sister. Even though their separation has been roughly five years*, Fanny and William are still as close as any other brother/sister pairing in Austen. William understands and appreciates Fanny's nature in a way that many of those around her do not, and, perhaps in exchange for this, Fanny treasures William's happiness above even her own--though, perhaps given Fanny's nature, it is more to the point to say that she treasures William's happiness as highly as she does Edmund's.

It is their connection which inspires Austen to make this authorial aside:

Excepting the moments of peculiar delight, which any marked or unlooked-for instance of Edmund's consideration of her in the last few months had excited, Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life, as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans, and solicitudes respecting that long thought of, dearly earned, and justly valued blessing of promotion; who could give her direct and minute information of the father and mother, brothers and sisters, of whom she very seldom heard; who was interested in all the comforts and all the little hardships of her home at Mansfield; ready to think of every member of that home as she directed, or differing only by a less scrupulous opinion, and more noisy abuse of their aunt Norris, and with whom (perhaps the dearest indulgence of the whole) all the evil and good of their earliest years could be gone over again, and every former united pain and pleasure retraced with the fondest recollection. An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connexion can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too often, alas! it is so. Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing. But with William and Fanny Price it was still a sentiment in all its prime and freshness, wounded by no opposition of interest, cooled by no separate attachment, and feeling the influence of time and absence only in its increase.

I place this hear, because I find it to be interesting to consider in the light of the other brother/sister pairing highlighted in the text: the Crawfords. Mrs. Grant, though a half-sister to both, and though she genuinely loves them, is not unusually close with either. Mary and Henry, on the other hand, are very close. Extremely close. Almost creepily close at times, to some readers. While I don't feel that way myself, their relationship is an interesting one, and an intense one. Henry is, indeed a devoted brother, though he is unwilling to sacrifice his freedom and settle at Everingham in order to give her a permanent home. In almost every other way, however, he is a model brother. Just the same, Mary assists her brother in his attempts to win Fanny Price, going so far as to, I believe, lie to Fanny about the necklace she is given for the ball. Mary archly observes that perhaps Fanny is hesitant to accept because she suspects the Crawfords of being in a conspiracy. Fanny, being Fanny, shrugs this off, not wanting to be accused of what for her is the worst sin: ingratitude. However, doesn't arranging this little necklace giving seems *exactly* like what the Crawfords would cook up in order to strengthen Henry's claim on Fanny' heart? This is what is so fascinating about Henry and Mary Crawford.

In a way, they reinforce each others personalities, so that they're both funnier and livelier when they're together, but they're also, bluntly, worse people, because each excuses the faults of the other. The are bother tremendously selfish creatures, and neither seems wiling or interested, in helping cure the other of this fault. As Mary puts it to Fanny during the horse incident, "Selfishness must always be forgiven, for there is no hope of a cure." This may as well be the Crawford family motto, and their behavior is often guided by this principle. Volume Two of the novel, however, begins to create changes in both Mary and Henry's characters. They each fall in love with a resident at Mansfield, and, as a result, begin to, for lack of a better term, reform themselves to better please their beloveds. We see very little mutual encouragement of these changes, and the scene where Henry confesses to Mary that he is going to marry Fanny, while touching in some ways, shows that, for Henry, his love for Fanny is still fundamentally about *him*, and Mary, who otherwise shows an understanding of the good marrying someone like Fanny will do for Henry, makes no mention of that fact at all. In the end, it's still always about Henry and Mary Crawford.

Of course, there is one more "brother and sister" pairing in the novel which is vital and pervades every page. Not biologically brother and sister, Edmund and Fanny are still, essentially, siblings. He is several years older, but since she first arrived at Mansfield, he has taught her, guided her, protected her, encouraged her, and in short, behaved as a big brother ought to the youngest child in the family. He even refers to Fanny as being like a sister--much closer and dearer to him, certainly, than his actual sisters. And yet, Fanny's deepest wish is to marry him. This is...well, weird. And not just to our modern sensibilities. Even at the time, it was a concern, as we see Sir Thomas muse on the notion of cousins marrying several times and showing clear disapproval of the concept. Austen seems to have been drawn to this arrangement, however, perhaps by the same ideas which prompted her rhapsody of fraternal love quoted above. Not only in Mansfield Park, but also in Emma, the hero and heroine have known each other nearly all their lives, and reference is made to them being like brother and sister. If the fraternal and conjugal are different, yet both supply great happiness, what would happen by combining them? We'll definitely deal with this more in Emma, whose ending is more decidedly happy than that of Mansfield Park, which kind of defaults to the marriage of Edmund and Fanny as opposed to presenting it as an outgrowth of romantic love, as in her earlier novels. Still, sort of makes you want to go back and re-examine that idea about Mary and Henry Crawford, doesn't it?

My final post on Mansfield Park, focusing on the characters of Mary and Henry Crawford (no, not about that), will be coming soon. And then, by Thanksgiving weekend, we'll be on to Emma... 


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Austen 2014: Mansfield Park, Volume 1

Yes, I've been delayed, but I must admit, some of the delay was of my own making. As I've mentioned before, I adore Mansfield Park, and I want to do it justice, so instead of powering through, I've been dawdling over it, as one might expect, and allowing my thoughts to wander all over the text. Perhaps some day I will do a year of Mansfield Park--the text is rich and varied enough to support it--but I must move on, as I have the week of Thanksgiving slated for Emma, and both the chill in the air and the gray skies indicate that we are not far from the feast. So, while I may want to linger longer, it is time to start discussing Mansfield Park.

Maria Bertram is a very good actress--too good, in fact. This observation is made by Fanny during the rehearsals of the Mansfield production of Lovers' Vows. What does it mean that Fanny observes Maria to be too good of an actress? I think we're meant to realize that Maria Bertram is always acting a role. Agatha is no more a challenge for her than the roles of dutiful daughter or future Mrs. Rushworth, roles she has grown accustomed to playing, voluntarily or otherwise. The real Maria, I think, is only visible in glimpses, and, most notably, in the passage at Sotherton when she and Henry Crawford find themselves unable to leave the woods because of a locked gate. It's worth quoting in full, as it does provide us with valuable insight into her character:

...Miss Bertram began again. "You seemed to enjoy your drive here very much this morning. I was glad to see you so well entertained. You and Julia were laughing the whole way."
"Were we? Yes, I believe we were; but I have not the least recollection at what. Oh! I believe I was relating to her some ridiculous stories of an old Irish groom of my uncle's. Your sister loves to laugh."
"You think her more light-hearted than I am?"
"More easily amused," he replied; "consequently, you know," smiling, "better company. I could not have hoped to entertain you with Irish anecdotes during a ten miles' drive."
"Naturally, I believe, I am as lively as Julia, but I have more to think of now."
"You have, undoubtedly; and there are situations in which very high spirits would denote insensibility. Your prospects, however, are too fair to justify want of spirits. You have a very smiling scene before you."
"Do you mean literally or figuratively? Literally, I conclude. Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. 'I cannot get out,' as the starling said." As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her. "Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!"
"And for the world you would not get out without the key and without Mr. Rushworth's authority and protection, or I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited."
"Prohibited! nonsense! I certainly can get out that way, and I will. Mr. Rushworth will be here in a moment, you know; we shall not be out of sight."
"Or if we are, Miss Price will be so good as to tell him that he will find us near that knoll: the grove of oak on the knoll."
Fanny, feeling all this to be wrong, could not help making an effort to prevent it. "You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram," she cried; "you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha. You had better not go."
Her cousin was safe on the other side while these words were spoken, and, smiling with all the good-humour of success, she said, "Thank you, my dear Fanny, but I and my gown are alive and well, and so good-bye."

The question of whether Austen is a feminist is a complicated one, but we definitely see here that, while Maria Bertram has, in some ways, chosen her own unhappy fate, society had so confined her options that true happiness was perhaps impossible. Mr. Crawford's calculated use of the the words "authority," "protection," and "prohibited," coming as they do after Maria's passionate outburst about feeling trapped, both by the gate, and by the prospect of marrying Mr. Rushworth, trigger the desired result: Maria edges around the gate, and abandons propriety and goes off with Mr. Crawford. What they do with the rest of their afternoon is left to the reader's imagination, as neither we nor any of the other characters see them again until the party reforms several hours later.

We are not meant, I don't think, to forgive Maria--after all she has, as of yet, shown no contrition for her actions--but I do believe we are meant to sympathize with her. Sir Thomas Bertram is not a warm, encouraging figure; Lady Bertram is practically a non-entity; and even her beloved Tom and Maria find their Aunt Norris to be a horrid woman. To put it mildly, positive role modeling was decidedly lacking. Maria was raised to be beautiful and to marry well; whatever her own wishes might be in the matter seem irrelevant. The specter of her Aunt Price--who married poorly and sank into poverty--was almost certainly with her always as she matured, but at the same time, she saw the example her brother Tom was setting. Tom Bertram, as an unprincipled eldest son of a wealthy aristocrat, lives for pleasure and has no sense of duty or responsibility. Maria seems to think that securing herself a wealthy position in society, by marrying Mr. Rushworth, will give her the freedom of enjoying her life the way Tom enjoys his. Even without Mr. Crawford's interference, her gamble seems unlikely to go her way--however, what other choice does she have?

However, Mr. Crawford's entrance complicates the situation tremendously. Mr. Crawford is the best actor in the theatricals, acknowledged to be so by everyone save Mr. Rushworth. Indeed, like Maria, Henry Crawford is always acting. In combining Tom's desire for nothing but amusement with Maria's talent for deception, Henry Crawford represents a real danger to the status quo at Mansfield. In flirting with both sisters, he raised their hopes, and only his sister Mary seemed to know that, to Henry, this was merely sport. While it might be considered spoiling to say it, the only woman Henry Crawford ever considers marrying is Fanny. Julia has realized he does not love her, but both she and Maria still think that he must love one or the other of them. The idea of a man behaving so familiarly for so long without having the goal of marrying either is not something they're prepared to consider. Both Mrs. Grant and Fanny seem at pains to make the danger of his relationship with Maria clear to third parties who they hope will intervene, Mary and Edmund, respectively. Again, however, almost all involved assume that it is all (relatively) innocent misunderstanding. The notion that Henry Crawford is making Maria Bertram fall in love with him as a game is so horrible they don't even allow it to be a possibility. The very protection that Sir Thomas thought he was providing his daughters by raising them in a certain manner has proven to make them vulnerable to dangers few of them could imagine.

And I will just leave on this note, since the reader's opinion of Mary Crawford's character colors the rest of the novel: Mary knows exactly what his brother is, she knows fully that he in no way intends to marry Maria, and yet she does or says nothing to stop him. Instead, she watches the game play out, occasionally making wry observations and intimations, until the theatricals, and the first volume, are brought to a halt by the sudden arrival home of Sir Thomas, in what certainly the only cliffhanger in Jane Austen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Austen 2014: Introduction to Mansfield Park

One can't write about Mansfield Park without first acknowledging the fact that it is just not that funny. Oh, there are definitely funny moments, and Austen's ability to create searing comic types does't abandon her, but it doesn't seem to me that Austen wants us to laugh at this book or at its characters. The comic villains create real pain, and the figures of fun we laugh at have real feelings. In a way, this is because the novel reflects the mindset and outlook of its heroine. Fanny Price lacks the wit and vivacity of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse; she lacks the ironic detachment of Elinor Dashwood; she even lacks the inherent ridiculousness of naivety shared by Catherine Morland and Marianne Dashwood. Rather, Fanny is quiet, serious-minded, and meek. Indeed, as famously observed by Calvin Trilling, and as quoted in every piece about MP since, "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park." The fact that this statement of universal boredom or antipathy comes in an essay defending the novel highlights the tensions that surround trying to write anything positive about Austen's most difficult novel.

Well, screw that.

Austen is, in my estimation, the greatest novelist who ever wrote in English, and, to quote something I often find myself thinking when people toss aside supposedly "lesser" works by great artists, "This book is smarter than you are." Mansfield Park is, because it came from the mind of a truly great creative intellect, by default, smarter than the vast majority of its readers. I'm not saying everyone has to love it--taste is, after all, subjective--but saying things like "nobody likes Fanny Price," is just wrong-headed, so I'll not have any of it here. I like Fanny Price. Austen herself clearly liked Fanny Price--she is not an anti-heroine, after all. So, if you don't like Fanny Price, take that as an entry point about how to understand what the novel is saying--do not dismiss her, and the novel about her, as just being not very good.

So, why don't people like Fanny Price? And are you supposed to? To take the second question first, yes, you are supposed to like Fanny. Indeed, the reader should like Fanny more than any of the characters do--even her cousin Edmund--since we are privy to her thoughts, feelings, and motivations in the ways that none of the other characters are. Fanny is an interior person. When she does speak at length, it is often about matters that many of the other characters find dull or tedious. However, I would submit that that is the entire point.

While it can be argued of all of Austen, it is most true of Mansfield Park to say that it is fundamentally about the conflict between inner qualities, such as goodness and moral sense, and outer qualities, such as charm and wit. In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is both charming and moral, but she is, even for Austen, an extraordinary character. In all her novels, Austen shifts around the alignment among her characters concerning which are interesting and charming, but immoral and/or vacuous. She also, less frequently, creates characters who are highly virtuous and moral, but lacking in surface charms. More often, she chooses to satirize the falsely pious and moral, like Mr. Collins, but she also is aware that, sometimes, goodness does not announce itself via wit and cleverness. Jane Bennet, indeed, almost loses Mr. Bingley's hand, because she is so reserved. In MP, Austen splits the qualities Elizabeth harmoniously combines into two different women: Fanny and the witty, talented, charming, self-assured Mary Crawford. To paraphrase Lizzie on Darcy and Wickham, "One has all the goodness, the other all the appearance of it." That vastly oversimplifies the issue in MP, however. One of the main thrusts of the novel is the exploration of Mary's character and whether or not what lies beneath matches the beauty and charm on the surface. Austen expands on this conflict by introducing not just a rival for Fanny in Edmund's eyes (yes, the love interest is her first cousin--deal with it), but a rival for Fanny's affections in Mary's brother, Henry, allowing for further distinction and delineation.

This overarching theme also manifests itself in the concept of role-playing. Much of the early part of the novel is taken up by some amateur theatricals that the young people organize while the patriarch of the family is away. These, of course, allow the characters to play at being other people, and this idea gets amplified and further explored as the novel progresses, creating what I think is Austen's most subtle depiction of the way society forces people--especially women--to behave in ways that might be contrary to their own natures and their own perception of right and wrong, good and bad.

There are many other themes and motifs in the novel--the sublime and the culture of "improving" estates, nature versus nurture, the role of religion and the established Church--and I'm sure some of these will come up over the course of my posts on the novel. I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I have over the years, and grappling with the many questions it presents. Mansfield Park may well be a problematic novel, full of difficult choices and unhappy endings, but I think that makes it all the greater. Despite having a Cinderella story at its core, it is no fairy tale, but rather a realistic depiction of flawed, occasionally unhappy people, trying to find happiness, even if they don't know what would make them happy.