Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review : The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (Penguin 1999)

Having decided to read up on the emergence of 19th Century detective fiction, I am naturally drawn to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. But first, Collins' other great blockbuster, the original and best Sensation Novel - The Woman in White. It was first published in weekly serial form in Dickens' All the Year Round, where it created a sensation itself akin to modern Harry Potter book launches, with crowds forming outside the offices of All the Year Round on the days of publication, and William Gladstone cancelling a theatre engagement in order to continue reading it. 

Even today, the reaction is understandable - it is very compelling. I was reading it on the train to work and was very reluctant to prise myself away mid-chapter when my station arrived, and Collins was the master of the cliffhanger which would end each weekly edition. Excitement, titillation (by Victorian standards), a labyrinthine plot, compelling characters - it all made for a heady brew. 

However, perhaps the first surprise is that however great a plot-constructor Collins may be, he is certainly not a great stylist. He may not quite be in the Dan Brown mould, as he can write fluently, but even atmospheric passages are lightly sketched, seldom more than one or two sentences long, with the emphasis always on driving forward the plot. But what a plot...!! Summarising it could not do it justice: suffice to say that it relates to a pretty young heiress who is married to a rogue who needs to perform some legal gyrations to get his hands on her money, and the efforts of her companions to protect her.

The other glory of the book is its characters. As ever, the goodies are weaker than the baddies. Marianne Halcombe is not an attractive lady, but she is intelligent, loyal and courageous. Her sister Laura Fairlie has all the personality of a wet lettuce leaf - but she is beautiful, very rich and betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde, although she is  falling despite herself for her painfully honourable art teacher Walter Hartright, who swiftly absents himself to Central America in order to escape the feelings he is harbouring for Laura. Sir Percival appears to be very solicitous, but he displays some nervous tics and has a lawyer who plays hardball in drawing up the marriage contract, so all is not what it seems.

But standing bestride the book like a colossus is Sir Percival's companion Count Fosco - one of the truly great creations. We first meet him and his wife when Laura returns from honeymoon to Sir Percival's deeply indebted estate, Blackwater Park. Immensely corpulent, yet compellingly handsome with steel-grey eyes and a face like Napoleon's, he is both menacing and gentle, letting his white mice climb over him and his birds climb up his fingers. His orotund speech and elaborate courtesy mask a steely will - but in extremis will his chivalry outweigh his icy determination? Fosco is a genuinely complex character, beautifully drawn, who overshadows all the other rather one-dimensional personalities in the story.

As literature, The Woman in White doesn't really hit the top notes of Collins' many great contemporaries. As a great thriller novel, however, it is of the first order. So much of today's densely plotted thrillers owe much to Collins' elaborate stories, and in doing so Collins contributed to the democratisation of quality mass-market fiction.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Theatre Review - A Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood - Lyttleton Theatre (dir Katie Mitchell 18/7/11)

The National Theatre seems to have been trawling the archives of rarely performed plays of late – first we have Ibsen’s rarely performed Master and Galilean, now we have Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, a tragedy from 1607. One must ask what a revival of a play such as this, which would struggle onto the second tier below Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, seeks to achieve – it certainly informs, as an example of what sort of drama was being produced in Jacobean London outside The Globe; in its exposition on the role of women in 17th Century society it educates; but crucially for modern audiences – does it entertain?

Essentially it is a straightforward morality tale of the good and the bad woman. John & Anne Frankford are recently married. Frankford welcomes his guest Wendoll to his house and tells him to take what he finds as his own – Wendoll takes him at his word and starts an affair with his wife. When Frankford (Paul Ready) discovers the couple in flagrante, he chooses not to kill his wife but turns her out of his house. Repenting of her ways, she starves herself to death. Meanwhile, the odious Sir Charles Mountford has run up three thousand pounds in gambling debts, and is imprisoned. Sir Charles Acton offers to pay off his debts if he can marry Sir Charles’ sister Susan, but as a chaste maiden, she is unwilling. However, unlike Anne, she knows her duty to her brother and agrees to marry in the end.

As the synopsis shows, protofeminist classic it ain’t, which makes Katie Mitchell’s decision to adapt it relocating the period to the 1920s more intriguing.

The set is both sumptuous and inspired. We are presented with sections of two elegant one-storey country houses side by side. Both houses have a bustle of activity upstairs and downstairs, with the audience being directed from one house to the other by a trademark Katie Mitchell buzzing light-switch, this ensuring the comparison between the two women is permanently foregrounded.

The first problem, however, is that the two parallel stories, are not dramatically equivalent. To be honest it is difficult to see why Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto) would fall for a pregnant Anne, as, despite the best efforts of Liz White, her part is written with so little personality shining through that it is difficult to see why he might choose to make the effort. Sandy McDade as Susan has more of a spark, but the subplot is so convoluted, and her brother (Leo Bill, overacting splendidly) such an odious weed, that one wishes she would protect her honour and  let her brother rot. It is in the Frankford’s household that the action is happening and the interest lies. The double-entendres of the card-game Between the Sheets are splendid, the discovery scene very powerful.

The second problem is that of the temporal relocation. This is a play whose whole raison d’être is to contrast the bad wife and the virtuous sister. Usually when directors change a play’s setting, it is either to make it more relevant, as brilliantly done in One Man Two Guvnors, or to emphasise the universality of the themes in the play – as Katie Mitchell herself did in Iphigenia at Aulis. Yet what is a morality play to a Jacobean audience is deeply misogynistic to one from the 21st century, and even in the 1920s Landowners did not threaten to kill errant wives. As is the case in productions of The Taming of the Shrew, this is a problem that the director must confront, and in my opinion Katie Mitchell’s solution fudged rather than resolved the issue.

However, Katie Mitchell always challenges – she may not always succeed, but one never leaves her productions without being provoked. This was a worthwhile production of an interesting if not a great play, which casts an interesting light on 17th Century Patriarchy. The choreography of the scene changes, the dappling piano accompaniment, the movement and energy of all the characters all ensured that, despite lacking the poetry or subtlety we associate with the likes of Shakespeare, Webster or Fletcher, it never ceased to entertain.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Theatre Review : Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler - Gate Theatre (Adapted and Directed by Anna Ledwich 20/6/11)

Combine oneirology with Vienna, and you have a powerful Freudian combination. Add a strong cast, Anna Ledwich’s excellent direction and the claustrophobia of the tiny Gate Theatre, and the resulting cocktail is very heady indeed.
Dream Story is based on the novella of the same name by Arthur Schnitzler, on which Stanley Kubrick also based his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Fridolin (Luke Neal) and his wife Albertina (Leah Miller) relate to each other experiences they had during their recent holiday in Denmark. This destabilises the buttoned-up Fridolin, and he sets out into the evening to make some calls but also to seek some adventure. In three scenarios, with a vulnerable young patient, with a sexually active young woman and a prostitute (Rebecca Scroggs) his sexual nature is challenged. He meets his former colleague Nachtigall (Jon Foster), is humiliated by his greater confidence and demands access to a secret party that Nachtigall has told him about.
But then we revisit the scenarios, faces reoccur and the boundaries between dreams and reality become more and more blurred. This is handled very skilfully by Anna Ledwich – these boundaries are never clear right from outset, as you could interpret the entire story as a dream, or just facets of a decline into mental instability. The doubling of the cast in various roles adds to this hallucinatory effect.
All the cast of four are equally strong – Luke Neal and Leah Miller as the couple disintegrating both individually and as a couple are excellent, as are Jon Foster, who exudes alternately bonhomie and menace in his multiple roles, and Rebecca Scroggs as patient, prostitute and nymphette. The imaginative set changes from bedroom to bordello keep the pace going and as a result the play – which sometimes slips towards the Freudian-didactic in places – never loses its speed or interest.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Book Review - Edgar Allan Poe : A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn (John Hopkins Paperbacks 1998)

Having just read Edgar Allan Poe's works, it is only natural that I should want to find out more about the man, especially when that man is so enwrapped in mystery. There are many books about Poe available, but Arthur Hobson Quinn's biography, first published in 1941, still bestrides the stage like a Colossus.

Poe's life requires a patient man who is able to sift the fact from the fiction from the downright lies. He was born in 1809 the son of an actor and actress in Boston. His mother Elizabeth was well-respected in the theatres of the Eastern seaboard, but his father David was not - possibly as a result of a drink problem - and he disappears completely two years after Poe's birth. Elizabeth dies shortly afterwards at the age of 24, and Poe is sent to live with John Allen and his wife, who take him to live in Stoke Newington in England where he obtains a classical education before retuning to the United States.

The mysteries of Poe's life are many, and one of the most perplexing is why his relationship with his Stepfather broke down so completely. Certainly, Allen deprived Poe of necessary funds whilst at College and then at West Point - although whether this was the cause or the result of Poe incurring debts is difficult to determine. In any case, by the time that Poe had engineered his dismissal from West Point their relationship had deteriorated beyond the point of redemption.

On embarking on a literary career, Poe moved in with his Aunt Maria Clemm and her daughter Virginia. He fell in love with his cousin and they were married, despite her only being thirteen years old. She remained the love of his life until her untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 24. Poe's reputation as a writer, poet, editor and critic grew, but at the same time his acerbic pen made him many enemies in literary circles. His increasing tendancy to turn to drink became an issue, especially following the death of Virginia, and references in correspondence to Poe being in a state of "excitement" become more common. A potential second marriage to fellow-poet Sarah Whitman falls through, and finally on 3rd October 1849 Poe is mysteriously found in the dockland area of Baltimore dead drunk and dies a few days later.

Poe made the great mistake of appointing as his literary executor the Reverend Rufus W. Griswold, a man who bore a grudge and who Poe had given every reason to resent. Griswold is responsible for many of the myths that have grown up around Poe's life. The great merit of Quinn's book is the exhaustive way in which he has trawled through numerous archives in order to pull together every last shred of evidence relating to Poe's life, and then clearly sifted the fact from the fiction. He painstakingly shows that Griswold forged a number of Poe's letters in order to show himself in a better light or Poe in a worse one. He was responsible for the claim that Poe's marriage with Whitman was broken off because Poe had turned up drunk at her house days before the wedding, for example, but Quinn patiently goes through the facts available to show that this is not the case.

In fact if there is any weakness in this book it is Quinn's tendancy to give Poe the benefit of the doubt too often. There can be no doubt that Poe was susceptible to weaknesses, albeit less so than Griswold suggests and less than in the Legend. But Quinn is always seeking an excuse for his actions. It would be interesting to read a book published more recently to see how Quinn's analysis of the evidence which he has obtained matches that based on more recent scholarship. Certainly, some facts will now have emerged when Quinn was only able to conjecture. But what can be sure is that any modern biography of Poe will use Quinn's book as the starting point, and for its scholarship, clarity and critical acuteness it remains one of the most exemplary books of its type.

Book Review : The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings by Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin 1986) / The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe (Marshall Cavendish 1986)

Reading “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher” has prompted me to explore the origins of the 19th Century detective novel, and thus I find myself reading not only “Murders in the Rue Morgue” but also the rest of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe with whose work until recently I had been unfamiliar.

Please note the following discussions include descriptions of the ending to the works in question.

Poe’s detective stories feature polymath and master of deductive reasoning C. Auguste Dupin, a recognisable (and acknowledged) prototype for Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, and are related by his companion. Following a gruesome but mystifying murder, Dupin offers his assistance to the Parisian police who are perplexed as to how the murderer of two women in the Rue Morgue could escape from a locked room. In this first story, Poe is feeling his way. Needless to say, Dupin solves the riddle, but the deductions made by him are scarcely credible, the fact that the murderer turns out to be an orang-utan who has cut the woman’s throat in imitation of his master shaving, which may be the first but almost certainly the most ridiculous solution to a murder mystery in the history of the detective fiction.

But the story was a success, and paved the way for M Dupin to bring his acumen to a real-life case. In 1841 New York, a young shop worker, Mary Rogers, was found drowned in the Hudson with foul play suspected. Newspaper reports contain speculation as to the murderer, which Poe considers inaccurate. He therefore transposes the murder to Paris, turns Mary Rogers into Marie Rôget and sets the facts before M. Dupin. The resulting “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” is a curious hybrid. It actually reads quite well, despite a fair degree of tedious points-scoring, as a piece of quasi-journalistic forensic work, but as a work of art it falls short. None of the characters are developed, nothing comes to life. 19th Century sensibilities are such that the fact that Mary Rogers may have died in a botched abortion is only hinted at obliquely. But from a historical perspective the attempt to solve the murder mystery is an interesting application of the latest techniques of detective science.

However “The Purloined Letter”, Poe’s final story to feature Dupin, is undoubtedly one of his finest. Dupin is requested by the Parisian Prefect of Police to help solve a problem. A compromising letter has been obtained by a corrupt minister, and is being used for his advantage. Searches of the minister’s apartment have not uncovered the letter and police are bewildered as to where it can be. Dupin works out that the safest place for the letter is not to hide it, but to store it in plain view of all, and manages to switch the letter with another in order to entrap the minister. Whilst the psychology employed by Dupin may be flawed, there can be no doubt that this is an elegant solution to the problem, and one that has been reused in a modern Sherlock Holmes TV episode.

Poe turns out to be a pioneer in many ways. His characters journey to the moon by balloon long before Jules Verne. They employ cryptography. He suggested a solution to Olbers’ paradox (if there is an infinite number of stars, why is the night sky not white?). His poetry pushed the boundaries of traditional verse forms. However, he is best remembered now for his gothic short stories, all exquisitely written and some still very creepy.

Looking at the stories as a whole, they are masterpieces of tone. Generally they will build slowly to a rapidly delivered surprising dénouement. Characters rarely develop, relationships are either one-dimensional or warped in some way, but it is as a master of atmosphere that his reputation is based. “The Fall of the House of Usher” commences on “a dull, dark, and soundless day” “when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” over “a singularly dreary tract of country” when “the melancholy House of Usher” came into view causing “a sense of insufferable gloom” to pervade the narrator’s spirit. Two sentences in, and you have a picture that has been replicated by directors of horror films ever since, and that is repeated, layer upon layer, until the reader is suffocated by the claustrophobia of history that the house itself provokes.

In “Ligeia”, the layers are of another kind – a description of the beauty of Ligeia, whose eyes “were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad.” Yet there is “no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion” and a coldness except when “a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion”, and bearing in mind that Ligeia boasts knowledge of “the most abstruse of the boasted erudition of the Academy”, and despite being forewarned of her death, the reader knows that this is not the end of this exquisite story.

Death pervades his writing, but rarely does the blood flow in Poe’s stories – he was one of the first writers to ply his craft at the psychological level. His ability to conjure atmosphere from a couple of words makes him ideally suited to such innovation. Overall his quality can be uneven – some stories are baffling, some ridiculous (see “The Spectacles”, for example), although the quality of his sentences rarely drops, which is remarkable considering that he was often writing to put food on his table. As poet, author, critic and innovator, Poe was one of the most remarkable men of letters of the 19th Century.