Plain English: January 2009 Archives
This week has pointed up, for me and many of my colleagues, a category of critical judgement that all critics hate, the "oh dear" performance. You know exactly what I mean. It's what you say when someone asks you about a play, opera, ballet or concert for which you had high hopes and, usually, some special incentive to get a ticket - a director, actor, conductor, singer or dancer you rate highly, or even one who is greatly celebrated. You sit through the entire evening, because it's your critical duty, But when someone later asks you about the performance, your first response is to moan, not too softly either, "oh dear." I saw two such plays this week, both London premières (one a world first performance). The better of them is worth going to despite its flaws, the other is a genuine turkey; but both failures are the fault of the playwright.
On Tuesday, January 27th, the UK Critic's Circle Drama Awards for last year will be announced. Here's a small, incomplete survey of what's happening on the London stage at the beginning of 2009.
Michael Holroyd is my friend and, since 1972 (senior) partner in literary crime, when we were appointed co-literary executors of the Strachey estate by Alix, the widow of James Strachey, who was the last surviving sibling of Lytton. I plead my special interest here because I have hugely relished his new book, A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families (Chatto £25; Farrar Strauss Giroux publish it in early March at $40). It's a remarkable achievement, because it's both a group biography, the stories of the lives of a complicated bunch, mostly related by blood, but all with ties to the theatre, and a deft, compressed history of the British theatre from almost the century 1830-1930.
Alice Ellen Terry was born into a theatrical family on 27 February 1847 and died in 1928, a Dame of the British Empire and England's best-known actress. Though she got through a fair number of men, she had her profession's cavalier attitude to marriage, and most definitely did not share the conventional feelings of her day when it came to love and marriage. She married (and eventually divorced) the much older painter, G.F. Watts, leaving him for a man of the theatre, Edward William Godwin, by whom she had two monstrously gifted illegitimate children, Ted and Edy, who metamorphosed into Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) and Edith Gordon Craig (1869-1947).
Then there is John Henry Broadribb, born on 6 February 1838, who was Sir Henry Irving when he died in 1905, and buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Only he wasn't - at least not his body. The elaborate coffin that had been carried through the streets of London, and its pall made from thousands of green leaves stitched together by two dozen florists, paid for by his last mistress, the Sephardic Jewish Mrs Aria, and the 14 pall-bearers that included his manager, Bram Stoker (author of "Dracula"), Beerbohm Tree, Forbes-Robertson, Pinero and Alma-Tadema, did not contain the body of England's greatest actor. His son Laurence had secretly taken the cadaver to Golders Green Crematorium the day before, as he'd been told that there was no longer room to inter a corpse in Westminster Abbey. It was all theatrical flim-flam, smoke and mirrors.
Irving and Terry were lovers as well as history's peerless theatrical partnership, but the closer relationship really lasted only long enough to ensure that her two children regarded him as their teacher and, in Ted's case, "Master." As Holroyd juggles his characters, the reader's feelings about them change - we are ourselves in the hands of the master of the narrative. Ellen Terry grows more and more fascinating, until she ends her days living in the midst of a coterie of preposterous lesbian ladies, which has formed around her daughter Edy. The description of this household is a succession of set pieces, each more subtly funny than the last. I don't think I'd quite grasped the lesbian subculture that flourished between the Wars - or its extent: Edy and her party, Christopher St. John (née Christabel Marshall), Tony Atwood (née Clare); Radclyffe Hall (née "Marguerite, but now known as John"), her companion Una Troubridge; the composer Dame Ethel Smyth; Evelyn Irons; Vita Sackville-West - and Virginia Woolf for good measure.
One thing lacking in this beautifully illustrated volume (colour plates, no less - making it a bargain) is family trees. I desperately needed one merely to keep track of Edward Gordon Craig's offspring, only two of whom were born in wedlock. I think I counted about a dozen. But then there was the daughter, born on the 22nd of the month to one of his "secretaries," Daphne (who was delivered of her when she went to the doctor complaining only of feeling a little unwell), and always called "Two-two."
Gordon Craig was a thorough villain, perfectly foul to his mother (Ellen Terry if you've already forgotten), to all his women, who included Isadora Duncan and to his myriad children. He was completely unreliable about money; had a soft spot for Mussolini, was so jealous of Max Reinhardt that when Hitler drove him out of the German theatre, he even expressed anti-Semitic sentiments; and lived in his later years by selling his same books and papers over and over to different buyers. He was the charmless charmer of all time.
Incidentally, I should probably say that I am thanked in the acknowledgements; though I have no idea what I could possibly have contributed to this volume. Unless?... the only mistake I have spotted in the entire book comes on p.462, where by "Paul Singer," Sir Michael intends a reference to Isadora Duncan's wealthy husband, Paris Singer. Singer is indeed the name of my maternal forbears, but despite an ancient family joke, I do not think we are genuinely related to the sewing machine heirs.
Earlier this week the national British papers, which is to say all of them, as there is only one London paper, The Evening Standard, and all the other big daily and Sunday papers are national (it is, after all, mostly one, fairly small island we're talking about), published the New Year's Honours List. This consists of the several hundred names of those whom the queen has decided to give a "gong" (the knowing slang for the insignium of whatever order the recipient is being admitted to). Besides the gong, each of them will be invited to an investiture, usually at Buckingham Palace, where "the fount of honours," Her Majesty, or a member of her family or her representative will hand it over.
And for most of the honourees, that's it, except that they can put some initials after their names. For the most part these suffixes are MBE, OBE or CBE, standing respectively for "Member," "Officer" or "Commander" of the Order of the British Empire. I'm not certain I've put them in the correct ascending order of rank; and, yes, Her Madge and her advisers are perfectly aware of the anachronism of giving an award in the name of something that hasn't existed for nearly half a century. But nobody has been able to think of anything better to call them.
Most of the MBEs are still not toffs - they go to local councillors and minor local government officials, beloved schoolteachers, charity volunteers and, occasionally, actors, such as Michael Sheen, who got a measly M, though he played Tony Blair in the wonderful film, "The Queen," as did Eleanor Simmonds, the 14-year-old Paralympics double gold medallist in swimming, the first under-18 to receive an honour and the youngest person ever to be given an award. OBEs go to slightly more important people, such as Olympics swimmer Rebecca Aldington and Philip Lane, the chief executive of Britain's Paralympic team. It's a kinda nebbish award, an O, whereas the CBEs are simply inexplicable, apparently whimsical. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine were both made CBEs this week, as were sailor Ben Ainslie and the track cyclist Bradley Wiggins.
These intrinsically worthless baubles are, one might argue (I would) devalued even more by being given out wholesale to people who participated in the Olympics, and to sportspeople in general. However, this does not stop them being hotly pursued.
Besides peerages (now rare, there were none this time), which carry genuine power of a sort, as they come with a senatorial-type vote in the House of Lords, there's another kind of honour awarded in the Honours Lists which is even more eagerly sought. Like a peerage, this is the one that allows you to change your name - knighthoods for the gents, damehoods for the ladies. These, of course, confer real status - though there has been some messing about with them lately - remember Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Mick Jagger? The Dames are altogether a more circumspect lot - those of our family acquaintance having been Dame Iris Murdoch and (currently) Dame Margaret Drabble. Now these are unequal in one respect. The wife of a knight becomes Lady (knight's surname); whereas the husband of a dame is still plain mister (except for Dame Maggie, who's married to Sir Michael Holroyd anyway). As for same-sex partners, they're lucky that modern manners mean they are now invited along for the investiture.
The currency has perhaps been a bit debased by the new, sports-crazy list, which included a knighthood for the triple gold medal-winning cyclist, Chris Hoy, who himself allowed that "To become a knight from riding your bike, it's mad." But nobody begrudges Sir Chris his gong.
Indeed, I want to defend the entire charade. Think how much it contributes to the smooth and fair running of a state when people who are in the way of corruption, petty government officials, civil servants, local bigwigs and even big businessmen and top politicians, seriously desire these trinkets. For the chance to be able to announce himself on the telephone or book a restaurant table as "Sir (First-name)," many a businessman or party hack will keep his fingers out of the readily accessible till, try to avoid even the appearance of wrong-doing, and shy away from scandal. British honours are the greatest aid to public morality ever invented.
I used to insist to honours-sceptics that Watergate would never had happened, had Nixon's henchmen and backers only wanted titles rather than money and genuine power. But the reign of Dubbya the Dim makes the point both more clearly and more forcefully. Of course it's too late now for America to adopt a system of meaningless but hotly competed-for awards. But don't you think a culture with these trivial ornaments is better than a culture where the achievement of wealth and power is the only goal of the best and brightest?
And, incidentally, there are two honours that are genuinely given only to distinguished people. The first is the CH, Companion of Honour, limited to 65, a reward for distinction in the arts, sciences, politics, religion and industry, whose current members include Stephen Hawking, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney, Judi Dench and Doris Lessing; and the second, the highest distinction in the land, the OM, the Order of Merit, limited to 24, chosen by the queen without political interference. Former members include G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin, and current ones Lucian Freud, Lords May and Rothschild, Tom Stoppard and the only honorary OM, Nelson Mandela.
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Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Joe Horowitz on music
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog