Here at the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus Blog, our writers have been knocking it out of the park. They have been working hard since the start of the academic term to bring you sophisticated and thought-provoking articles, and I want to sum up some of what our exceptional writers have achieved in just six weeks, and the new directions in which we’re excited to take this publication. Continue reading Mid-Autumn Editorial Report
Upon delving into the second edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1800) for the first time, I was struck by the disparity between the Lucy poems and the rest of the collection. The Lucy poems are elegiac, written about a mysterious female figure whose nature seems to change from poem to poem, and they seem to constitute their own corpus that does not quite mesh with the other poems in the collection. In hopes of clarification, I turned to Coleridge’s explanation of his and Wordsworth’s artistic goals in composing Lyrical Ballads. Continue reading On First Looking into…The Lucy Poems
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Art.Science.Gallery – a fresh and inventive place that is nestled in Austin’s Canopy Studios of artists, musicians, galleries and other creative spaces. Hayley Gillespie, Ph.D., the founder of the gallery, is an ecologist and artist with a specialization in endangered salamanders. Though the mission for the gallery is to exhibit art merged with science, Gillespie and her team incorporate events and lectures that help to promote science literacy and increase communication between other scientists, artists, and the public. It’s hard not to be smitten with a gallery that also has a Laboratory for classes – but not a typical art class listing. This summer at Art.Science.Gallery, you can register for Climate Science 101. Continue reading Laura Moriarty and Geologic Motions
As I begin my dissertation chapter on Matthew Lewis, I try to think of not only what research I can contribute to the field but also what related teaching opportunities and activities could be useful in future classes. One possibility for teaching well-known literature is often to include a lesson on adaptation: how can a text change by portraying it through a different medium and all the different lenses that that involves? It helps me to reemphasize to my students the idea that the way a story is formed is a choice made by the author, director, artist, etc. This helps students to see literature as a crafted piece of art that invites multiple interpretations, not just a story that portrays objective, black-and-white facts. Particularly in the case of complex classic literature (or most literature, for that matter), the creator of an adaptation must make drastic sacrifices to reduce a 400-page text to an audience-friendly film under two hours. This is why we have so many different film versions of texts like Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, etc. (not to mention children’s books). Each one is different.
I know of three adaptations of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel, The Monk: two versions in English in 1972 and 1990, and the most recent and highly-anticipated French version, Le Moine, released in 2011. Those who have read The Monk would probably not be surprised to learn that all three versions are difficult to find: the novel is complex, with many simultaneous plots that would make a film version seem practically impossible without sacrificing some great material. In terms of the viewing experience of this film, it is a little on the slow side, though the scenery and atmosphere are beautiful and create a believable (if bleak) setting. It is certainly not an action film and involves a lot of contemplative silences and slow discussions. The English subtitles, while understandable, are probably not extremely accurate (or grammatical), placing more weight on the visuals to carry the film. However, while I would not say that Le Moine is a particularly fantastic film—especially with little or no knowledge of the novel—it does do some interesting things that could lead to a pedagogical discussion among higher-level students of what the Gothic does in the late eighteenth century and the way subtle changes in an adaptation help to accentuate those features.
The central storyline of Lewis’s text follows the monk Ambrosio, who, seduced by the demonic Matilda (in disguise), proceeds to seduce the virginal Antonia (his sister), kill her (his) mother and eventually rape and kill her before standing trial at the Inquisition. He is then rescued by the devil, sells his soul, and is dropped off a cliff by Satan. Already, this sounds like it could be a Lord-of-the-Rings-sized trilogy! However, large parts of the novel deviate from this storyline to follow Antonia’s fiancé Don Lorenzo, his sister Agnes, and her lover Don Raymond. Agnes, a nun, has become pregnant by Don Raymond (after a long adventure of his own, involving banditti and the Bleeding Nun) and is imprisoned in the nunnery, where she gives birth and coddles her dead child in one of the most horrific scenes in Gothic literature.
Though it includes a few brief scenes of Agnes’s discovery and punishment and the growing love between Antonia and Don Lorenzo, the film, of course, focuses primarily on the relationship between Ambrosio and Matilda. Matilda, donning a stunningly-unsettling porcelain mask, enters the monastery as a deformed plague victim, who has an uncanny ability to quiet the “voices” in Ambrosio’s head. The devil is already among the citizens of Madrid according to this version, as an exorcism and the warning “It’s here!” foretell Matilda’s identity and Ambrosio’s fated association with her. The multiple layers of deformity, masking, and victimhood suggest an interesting link between illness/ misfortune and theatricality/artifice and (of course) the devil’s involvement in all of it. The exorcisms and the known presence of the devil suggest a more established and ongoing battle with evil that does not appear as strongly as in the novel, though corruption within the church is still present, notably in the Prioress’s dealings with Agnes.
One of the things that I found most interesting in this adaptation, however, is the emphasis on punishment. When Ambrosio turns Agnes over to the Prioress, he tells her that she should want and welcome punishment for her crimes. Yet, Agnes is the only one punished in the film (and she quickly dies of starvation, cursing Ambrosio’s name until the end). Romantic Gothic literature is nothing if not surprisingly conservative: crazy, evil, and scandalous things happen, but the ending is almost always about punishing those involved in some of the cruelest ways possible. In this way, it acts very much like Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque: controlled chaos turns peasants into princes and vice versa, but at the end of the day, order is restored and all goes back to normal.
In the novel, Agnes survives, but the Prioress who imprisoned her is graphically trampled to death by an angry mob. Ambrosio himself spends weeks in the dungeons of the Inquisition before he finally gives his soul to Matilda in exchange for his freedom. She delivers, but then she (as the devil) also brutally kills him. In the film, however, Ambrosio does end up crawling through the desert after his trial and is confronted by the devil. However, he markedly redeems himself (to some extent): when the devil offers to take him to paradise in exchange for his soul, he asks for the now-insane Antonia’s happiness, instead. He makes a choice to suffer, but that suffering is not imposed upon him, making him into a tragic hero of sorts. A martyr. Lewis’s monstrous and desperate villain of Catholicism has become a creature much more akin to later fiction starting with Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the monster is not all monster at all… or at least provokes a great deal of pity and admiration.
Despite this, the film is disappointingly conservative in other ways for modeling itself after one of the most shocking novels of all time. Empire magazine says it best in its review of the film when its author says, “An austere, cerebral reading of a book which is unfettered, blood-bolstered and wildly sensationalist — Lewis is the father of torture porn, not a master of subtle chills. It’s interesting and unsettling, with a charismatic lead performance, but nowhere near as shocking as it should be.” The most shocking second half of the novel is condensed into about twenty minutes, taking attention away from Ambrosio’s depravity and giving instead a slow, quiet view of monastic life and one man’s psychological struggle within it.
The Seattle Repertory Theater recently began running John Logan’s Red, 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play. The story follows the fictional two-year relationship between abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko (Denis Arndt) and his assistant, Ken (Connor Toms). Situated around Phillip Johnson’s 1958 commission for Rothko’s first set of murals to be displayed in the Seagram Building’s Four Seasons Restaurant, Ken is the outside invading the master’s space just as the master is about to invade the space of the affluent. The apprentice’s mission: to keep Rothko from selling out in the face of a precipitously close obsolescence, that is, in the face of a burgeoning movement. Namely, Andy Warhol. At the sound of his name, Arndt howls and squirms in a chair beside his Mozart-warbling record player. It is a play about the old and new, their clashes as well as their “symbiosis.”
For anyone studying romanticism, Logan’s story is familiar. A genius, locked away in his temple of a studio, struggling with his work, on his own, of course. When Ken arrives, it’s hokey, over the top, and a bit of a relief. If you accept Red for what it is, at times it charms. It’s a silly play about a young upstart learning from the old master, a throwback to the wise shepherd instructing the young swain.
But there is also violence. Aside from romantic shout-outs to Turner, Wordsworth, and Byron, the predominant figure operating in the background is the early Nietzsche. The two artists debate over The Birth of Tragedy, while Rothko pours bright red paint like wine into a bucket The depth of the conversation is thin, but the importance is the historical situation. In the late fifties, Nietzsche remains a dangerous name. Only a decade earlier Hitchcock reminds his audience of the philosopher’s influence on Leopold and Loeb in Rope, and in his effort to spare future victims, Walter Kaufmann warns his readers not to read Nietzsche in “snippets” in the 1967 edition of The Genealogy of Morals (3).[i] While Rothko corrects Ken to say Nietzschean conflict is symbiotic not violent, Rothko curses his assistant enough to clarify the point: symbiosis is not exactly tranquility either.
While the philosophical discourse is entertaining, as Ken complains, all Rothko does is talk. Screaming at the height of an aria, Ken wishes his mentor would start painting. The audience agrees. There is a brilliant scene where the two characters prime a canvas together with an energetic, romantic symphony driving their movement. They paint, weaving around each others’ bodies within the canvass’s close framework. It’s messy, it’s dynamic, a moment of entanglement. The scene represents Logan’s best effort to demonstrate the Apollonian/Dionysian dance, paint splashing outside the contours of the canvass. Perhaps it is best that they paint only the one time, because watching them work makes the story feel insignificant. Rothko wants to eschew memory, history, geometry, “swamps of generalization,” he tells The Tiger’s Eye in 1949 (quoted in Fineberg, 111).[ii] Only when the characters stop talking does Logan completely free us of the swamp.
The director, E.T. White, wisely capitalizes on Logan’s discussion of the paintings themselves. When the lights come up, Rothko stares, brush in hand. Arndt leans into the canvas, searching. It’s unclear if he analyzes a vibrant block of paint or a face. Or faces. For the moment, the audience plays the role of painting and it’s suspenseful to think that at any point, with a lick of his brush, we’ll be different. Later he describes his vision of the murals hanging in the Four Seasons, oppressing the rich and speaking to each other after hours. The lights must remain dim in the studio to “protect” them. Even though he describes himself as a “banker,” not an artist, as an “employer,” not Ken’s teacher, he treats the paintings as something sacred still. They “matter.” Rothko scowls at the commodification of the art object and the banality of those who buy it. Everything to them is “fine.” But he treats the paintings with a particular reverence: the paintings are not anthropomorphized; they’re apotheosized.
Logan’s play does not really challenge art or art criticism, but it’s not supposed to. In the end, Red caters to the audience it pokes fun of, and they still laugh at the jokes. It never taxes the patience, it never overwhelms, and most of the tension is displaced by a quirky joke or a zippy comeback. Ironically, Rothko bemoans the fame he attains, and it is precisely Red’s popularity that will make it difficult to experience the play properly. It belongs in a small space. If companies want the audience to have some kind of phenomenological experience (as the dialogue gestures toward), then patrons cannot sit twenty-something rows back. When the paint moves it can be seen. It should also be heard. And smelled. It would be best if the audience was instructed, like Ken on his first day on the job, to dress for the part. Art is not a “pretty picture,” it’s not “fine,” it’s work.
Red runs until March 18th at the Seattle Repertory Theater and at Portland’s Center Stage until March 18th along with a Rothko exhibit at the Portland Art Museum until May 27th. Red is currently being staged in various cities across the country. Check local listings for details.