The Anglia Stratford Trip 
Saturday, December 22, 2007, 07:48 AM
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It's been a busy month. Alex had hardly come back from his week in Japan before I was off to St Andrews for two days (to examine a PhD). After a one night stopover back home in Cambridge it was off to Stratford for the annual Anglia Ruskin theatre trip.

I get anxious when I'm away from home. Will Alex give Susannah (7) liqueur chocolates for her school packed lunch again? Judging by the condoms he thoughtfully placed in my wallet (calculated to fall out at most embarrassing juncture) Alex gets anxious too.

The trip was a great success. David Slinger was a memorably grotesque Richard II in a production which brought out the play's wit and black humour more than its pathos. I particularly enjoyed seeing Henry IV (both parts) - Geoffrey Streatfeild's fetching Hal was a great hit with our (mostly female) party.

Watching the fake death of Falstaff made me wonder whether there were any links between these plays and Walt Disney's Jungle Book. The fat bear Baloo is a Falstaffian figure who encourages Mowgli into a life of irresponsibility, hedonism and excess. Like Falstaff he distracts Mowgli from his true heritage, encouraging him to enjoy a carefree jungle life rather than embrace his destiny in the man village. The most striking point of contact comes when Baloo (again like Falstaff) pretends to be dead following a pivotal battle near the end of the film.

Back to the play - I'm normally rather sceptical about Hal but Streatfeild convincingly projected a character motivated by moral integrity rather than Machiavellian cunning. For the first time I actually looked forward to his rejection of Falstaff - the justice of it pleased.

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Mr Solmes from Clarissa/ Soames Forsyte 
Sunday, December 9, 2007, 08:14 AM
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As most of the characters in The Forsyte Saga share the same surname everyone has to be identified by his or her Christian name. However Galsworthy’s most unappealing character doesn’t seem suited to this intimacy which is perhaps why his given name sounds more like a second surname, Soames.

I wonder whether Galsworthy had Richardson’s Clarissa in mind when he fixed on this particular name. Clarissa is driven to seek Lovelace’s protection when her family puts intolerable pressure on her to marry the repulsive Mr Solmes. Irene is actually married to her Soames but is intent on escape from a similar atmosphere of claustrophobic repression

Soames and Solmes are united by their ability to inspire repulsion in each novel’s refined heroine. Both are grasping men, obsessed by material wealth. Both are rejected in favour of more dashing, creative (and socially transgressive) men. However Soames’ marital rape of Irene of course associates him with the other man in Clarissa’s life, Lovelace.

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Reinventing the Renaissance: Jo-Ann Goodwin's Sweet Gum 
Saturday, November 24, 2007, 10:51 AM
We are by now quite used to a range of quirky modern – and postmodern – appropriations of canonical literature. Shakespeare, in particular, has been memorably updated in, for example, Baz Luhrmann’s iconic Romeo + Juliet and Michael Almereyda’s impressive millennial Hamlet.

Spenser’s Fairie Queene doesn’t seem like such an obvious candidate for reinvention, particularly not as a gritty urban thriller about a particularly unpleasant serial killer.

But this is the premise behind Jo-Ann Goodwin’s Sweet Gum – the title is itself a quotation from Spenser’s description of the Garden of Adonis and every chapter opens with a Spenserian epigraph.

The novel works brilliantly well even if you don’t know Spenser’s poem. It’s as gripping and (horribly) absorbing as anything by the best and nastiest mainstream thriller writers - Val McDermid is the parallel which springs to mind. Sweet Gum is also immensely stylish but in a totally unforced and unselfconscious way.

But the Faerie Queene allusions definitely add an extra layer of interest. Goodwin seems to respond to the implicit tensions in Spenser’s poems, the odd parallels between virtuous and wicked characters, the moral uncertainties surrounding what should be a clear cut battle between good and evil.

Although the hero, Eugene, is an avatar of Spenser’s Knight of Temperance, Guyon, he is also a rather successful drug dealer. And while it is perfectly appropriate that Sir Artegal, Knight of Justice, should be reincarnated as DCI Arthur Gale, it is more surprising – and disquieting – that Artegal’s trusty sidekick Talus appears in Sweet Gum as a gangster’s bodyguard. And beautiful Gloria Acrasiafi is simultaneously Gloriana, the Faerie Queene herself, and the evil enchantress Acrasia.

One of the novel’s nastiest characters (in a competitive field) is Eugene’s little nephew Nero, who is by turns associated with Ruddymane, one of Error’s monstrous brood, and the Blatant Beast who, as Spenser tells us at the end of the poem, is still at large in the world today …

But the best thing about Sweet Gum is the warm glow of smugness you feel when you spot the obscure allusions. I knew reading The Faerie Queene right through as an undergraduate would come in useful some day.

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Beowulf: the untold story 
Friday, November 16, 2007, 06:12 PM

I’ve recently been working on Neil Gaiman’s response to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most striking episodes in his Sandman graphic novels. So it was absolutely vital for my research that I go and see Beowulf, which Gaiman co-scripted. As my son Freddie (9) is doing Vikings and Norse mythology at school he clearly had to come along too.

I had read about most of the big changes in advance. Grendel is Hrothgar’s son, and his mother (played by Angelina Jolie) is nothing like the ugly hag in the original Anglo-Saxon poem.

Browsing on the internet I found a complaint by an English lecturer that the film had ‘mutilated’ the original. Although perhaps a few things didn’t quite come off I thought the really bold plot changes worked very well indeed, lending unity and mythic symmetry to a loosely episodic poem.

The way Beowulf loses his arm fighting the dragon, for example, takes us nicely back to the death of Grendel and suggests the way the hero has been contaminated. And the new emphasis on secret blood ties was reminiscent of the plots of Greek tragedy.

I also really liked the role played by Christianity within the film. The rise of the new religion subtly and satisfyingly accompanied the decline of the very Pagan warrior Beowulf.

But my favourite aspect of the film was its refusal to let go of the original story completely. From the point of view of the Danes and the Geats Beowulf had indeed slain an ugly hag, not formed an unholy alliance with a beautiful siren. The ‘real’ Beowulf has become a self flattering lie contrived by the hero himself and we see it acted out – in Anglo Saxon – by his admiring followers.

I was reminded by this palimpsest effect of Euripides’ parodic and self-conscious rewrite of the recognition scene from Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers in his own later Electra. And the repeated cries of ‘I am Beowulf’ and ‘you are Beowulf’ put me in mind of Seneca’s ‘nunc Medea sum’. It’s been said that Seneca’s Medea seems to have read Euripides’ version of the play. Gaiman’s Beowulf, rather similarly, appears to have written Beowulf.

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Tragedy in Transition: A new collection of essays from Blackwell (eds Sarah Annes Brown and Catherine Silverstone) 
Thursday, October 25, 2007, 10:13 AM
There seemed a time when Tragedy in Transition would remain permanently in transition. This was the first essay collection either of us had edited and I certainly hadn’t fully realised how many complicated stages would intervene between commissioning the essays and seeing the final result in print.

Although I do realise things could have been a lot worse. Only one contributor dropped out, all the essays were excellent, and, even though not everyone quite made the official deadline, everything was still collected in time to ensure the volume was out before the crucial RAE cut off point. And the whole project was really well managed by Blackwell.

One of the things I most enjoy about teaching Tragedy is the chance it offers both students and academics to transgress the period boundaries which confine so many papers/modules – to write about tragedians from 5th century Athens, Renaissance England and 21st century America within a single essay. Tragedy in Transition takes full advantage of this freedom, and I’ve certainly learnt a great deal from all the (very different) essays collected in the volume.

Introduction: Tragedy in Transition: Sarah Annes Brown
1. Trojan Suffering, Tragic Gods and Transhistorical Metaphysics: Edith Hall
2. Hardcore Tragedy: Ewan Fernie
3. Tragedy and Disgust: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
4. Tragedy and the Sign of the Eclipse: Anne C. Henry
5. Jonson's too Roman Plays: From Julius Caesar to Sejanus and Catiline: John Henderson
6. Neoclassicisms: Raphael Lyne
7. Tragedy and Exile: Jennifer Wallace
8. Narratives of Tragic Empathy: Prometheus Bound and Frankenstein: Vanda Zajko
9. Tragedy and Childhood: Peter Hollindale (formerly of the University of York)
10. Parricide versus Filicide: Oedipus and Medea on the Modern Stage: Fiona Macintosh
11. 'Suffering into Wisdom': The Tragedy of Wilde: Alison Hennegan
12. Tarzan of Athens: Wilson Knight and Wole Soyinka: Neil Rhodes
13. Postmodern Tragedy?: Returning to John Ford: Mark Houlahan
14. Tragedy and the Future: Rowland Wymer
Afterword: Ending Tragedy: Catherine Silverstone

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