Wednesday 27 November 2019

Review: 'London's Theatre of the East' and Irene - a staged reading at Dr Johnson's House

Regular readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of Samuel Johnson and a frequent visitor of the Dr Johnson’s House Museum. One of the things that keeps bringing me back (apart from the complementary wine) is the many exhibitions and events put on there.

The newest exhibition, running until February, is called ‘London’s Theatre of the East’ and was put on with the Arab British Centre which is also in Gough Square. The idea is to look at the relationship between the Middle East and North Africa with London. This also led to a dramatic reading of Samuel Johnson’s only play, Irene, which is set during the fall of Constantinople.

First the exhibition. 

I was delighted to see not one, but two copies of Irene, as well as his Ethiopian set novel Rasselas, the sequel Dinarbas written by someone else and a very rare copy of his translation of Lobo’s book on Ethiopia - the first full book that Johnson had a hand in. I’m a sucker for a book in a case, so these excited me.

More exciting to those around me were the specially commissioned artworks. Saeida Rouass created a piece called Irene Retold, where the play has been cut up, moved about and mixed up with other pieces of Johnsonian text to create a whole different work. The piece uses a technique pioneered by William Burroughs, who got the idea whilst in Tangier. It’s an interesting idea which I only really have knowledge of through pop lyrics.

Most accessible to me (dunce as I am) is the piece The Alcoran of Mohomet’ by Hannah Khalil. It’s a monologue from the wife of a printer who published an English translation of the Qur’an in 1649. The book was actually translated from a French translation and it was fascinating to learn how early any kind of English version was available. 

Sultana Isabel by Nour Hage is a large poofy ruff in a range of colours. I later learned that the mannequin is raised to the same height as Queen Elizabeth, or Sultana Isabel, who opened trade routes with the East as a way of avoiding those pesky Catholic countries. The exhibition booklet made some very true and funny statements about how it felt like we studied Tudors ‘on a loop’ at school without learning anything new - especially things like England opening up to ‘Moors and Turks’, as they would have seen them. The booklet also paints a wonderful picture of how confused the Sultan must have been to receive a letter from this insignificant island on the edge of Europe. The bright colours of the ruff are all from ingredients brought in by this trade and examples of those dyes are shown around the sides.

The last artwork is called Ipso(facto) by Lena Naassana. It consisted of photographs of modern British people of various Arabic descents standing with old maps of Arabia projected over them. Some people found it a very moving look at the confused or variegated identities of this people but I have to admit my visual-art-blindness kicked in at this point and I didn’t see much more than some pretty decent photos of people with maps projected on them - a fault that is all my own.

Now the play.

Irene was Samuel Johnson’s money spinner when he came to London. He was going to polish it up, get it performed and make the big bucks as the grand tragedian. Eventually it was performed, more as a favour from Garrick than anything else. Garrick tried to beef it up and make it a bit more dramatic, which Johnson saw only as excuses for actors to ham it up.

When the time came Johnson went to every performance, dressed in the finest clothes he’s ever described it, a gold and scarlet waistcoat and a gold trimmed hat. Garrick’s changes caused a near riot the first night (having the heroine die on stage) so it was changed back to have her die offstage for the rest of the run. The play ran for nine nights, giving Johnson three benefit nights and, with the publication rights as well, was one of Johnson’s better earners. It’s almost never been performed since though and widely regarded as a failure. Johnson was not one to go back to his old work, when he did he was often pleased but when he heard Irene read he left the room because he had ‘thought it better’. 

I was keen on seeing what had been cooked up.

A dramatic reading is not a full performance and this allowed the students of Queen Mary University London a chance for some playfulness and wriggle room. This meant that the cast kept interrupting the play and themselves to clarify, discuss and comment on the play as it progressed. It was a little like watching a play with the footnotes on. It was interesting to see some of the parts that were causing the students difficulty (they had problem with the word ‘mien’) and which parts pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised them in the representations of the characters. One of the most surprising things I would have not noticed if it wasn’t for this device, is that the play Irene would pass the Bechdel test, a very simple criteria that many modern works of fiction do not.

As for the play itself, there were many interesting elements. Mahomet was not the usual enraged Sultan (I’m reading ‘Ben Hur’ at the moment and it simply ascribes his outbursts of rage to him being an Arab). Indeed, Mahomet is a rather weak character in the play, talking of love but not doing much. Irene herself was a weaker character than I expected, not putting up so much of a fight before trading religions and becoming Sultana. I think the big problem with the play is that it’s a tragedy in which the title character, the one who inevitably dies, is not one we spend all that much time with.

The most interesting character in the play is Aspasia (played originally by Susannah Cibber). She’s strong willed, sticks to her faith and motivates a lot of the action. She gets away scot-free with her lover Demetrius, carrying the burden of Byzantine culture - if she had died, we’d have had a tragedy. Irene dying is a minor mishap and, as almost no-one else dies, the tragedy simply has no destruction or catharsis.

The lines are heavily metrical, in a strict iambic pentameter which can wear on the eats a little. He does vary this sometimes though. Like Shakespeare, the last two lines of an act rhyme, he also makes far more use of alliteration than he normally does, bringing little pricks to the ear. There were sprinkled through the texts some lines that caught my attention, I only managed to note a few.

Someone fears to wear a ‘rapprochement of chains’.
A daydreamer ‘wanders the fancies of my mind’.
And a war creates a ‘labyrinth of sound’, which I think would make a great album title.

Ultimately the play is not a resounding success but I enjoyed engaging with it alongside the enthusiastic performers and very glad I went. 

Go to the exhibition, it’s open till February.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Review: Fanny Hill in Bombay by Hal Gladfelder

‘Fanny Hill in Bombay’ claims that it’s not a literary biography, it’s just a book that tells the life of an author, paying particular attention to his writing - which sounds a lot like a literary biography to me but maybe I’m just being dense.

Facetiousness aside, the book does start off with an interesting discussion over what the point of a literary biography should be in an age which has declared ‘the death of the author’. I’m not much up on my French intellectuals, I once tore a Derrida essays to pieces with my teeth, but the general argument is that text should stand alone as knowledge of the author and the contexts surrounding them serves to fix and make rigid something which should be personal and responsive. This book argues back that knowing more about John Cleland actually destabilises his texts and provides more avenues of discussion. Although this was a striking way to start the book, I ultimately wanted it to cut with the wank and get into the proper stuff.

For example, I did not know that Cleland was a younger son of a fading Scottish noble family, nor did I know that he didn’t start off as author but as a colonialist in the East India Trading Company. His early professional life had him as a foot soldier for the company where he was quickly moved into a civilian role and quickly rose up the civilian ranks, becoming an attorney in company courts. There were discussions of a number of cases, one where he tried to prosecute a company board member for defaulting on the debt of a Hindu tradesman and another where he defended a woman who had become a freed-slave (though she may have obtained that position so she could testify in a rape trial and her freedom wasn’t freedom as such because she wasn’t free.) These cases showed Cleland to be fierce in speech and dedicated to those who may be trampled over by authority - interesting traits in a man best known for a pornographic novel.

What’s more, that novel, ‘Fanny Hill’ was started in Bombay. Cleland and a man called Carmichael had the idea that there could be an erotic novel that didn’t use plain or course language but aroused in a way no less direct but more poetic. It may have been that the two of them wrote together or that Cleland wrote and Carmichael made suggestions. Most importantly, this book wasn’t intended to be published, more a game the two men played. 

Cleland returned to London to sort out family business, his father was ill. While there he also entered in conversation with the Portuguese government, even sending proposals to King João V. These negotiations were secret and concerned the setting up of a Portuguese East Indian Company, with Cleland as technical advisor. The discussions went some way before being lost in the shuffle of Portuguese politics. 

The next we hear of Cleland is five years later, when he is arrested for the staggering debt of eight-hundred pounds. The man holding the debt is called Cannon, and Cleland later accused him and his mother of trying to poison him on four separate occasions. Stuck in the Fleet for a year, Cleland rewrote ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ and sold it to Ralph Griffiths under the dummy-imprint of his brother Fenton. The book took off and the Griffiths managed to arrange a deal with Cannon in return for Cleland’s writing services.

Although the book was a big success, the moral crusade against it didn’t really start until the second volume, which upped the range and frequency of the sex-scenes and included a part where Fanny spies a gay couple. About this time Cannon also got into trouble for a short pamphlet, only fragments of it remain in legal documents, but it is a compilation of historical and fictional gay sexual escapades. Cannon fled to the continent and Cleland kept his briefly arrested but released.

Here the book gets really interesting. The various readings of ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ really opened my eyes to the text. I’d thought of it as mainly being a slightly goofy, campy sex-romp which mainly appeals now for it’s peculiarly quaint shock value but this book opens it up to something a little more. For example, Fanny is essentially a drag persona - but so is the reader, frequently addressed as ‘Madam’, it’s unclear if the reader is supposed to be playing a role of a former madam themselves. 

Adding to this, the route Fanny takes into her pleasure loving ways, first she is seduced by female talk of sex, then female sexual activity and then by being a voyeur of sex. Hers is a same-sexed attraction transferred to mixed-sex. The gay sex scene in the book is also the result of voyeurism, her appalled fascination with men-on-men action fixating on her disbelief that the parts will fit into each other, a disbelief she had previously held for male-female relations. 

The phrase the book frequently uses is ‘unsexed’. The characters in the book are frequently detached from their sexed bodies and become androgynous people of pleasure. Cleland was often referred to as a ‘sodomite’ in his lifetime though never actually accused, whether he was gay himself (and a gay identity is only gradually being formed at this time) there is certainly something a little queer in ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’.

From here the book looks at the next forty years of writing, never being quite unable to shake off the work that defined him. There’s a problem here for the reader, that the first book defined him and as interesting as some of the other books were, we frequently find ourselves back with Fanny Hill.

Queerness permeates much of this future work, in every way the word can be intended. His male followup, ‘Memoirs of a Coxcomb’ features the far bleaker story of a man who can’t escape his own romantic fantasies to truly love someone. ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Honour’ was stiff, awkward and no one liked it. Eventually he became an angry old ranter in newspapers and a peculiar etymologist. He claimed that he’d deciphered the Celtic language fully and with it Celtic political culture and wrote three books as part of an intended masterwork designed to show Britain it’s true history, language and greatness as a land run by law and ‘the people’, including the landless and women. Gladfelder brings it all back together by making innuendo between Cleland’s belief that the original spiritual symbol was the maypole and the manservant William’s massive manservant. 

I very much enjoyed this book and could have talked about it a lot more. Cleland was a far more interesting person with a far more interesting pen than I expected. 

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Review: Samuel Johnson in Context edited by Jack Lynch

I’ve started volunteering at the Dr Johnson’s House Museum in London and this was one of the books there I’ve yet to read. It’s a collection of essays exploring Johnson through different lenses and contexts. Each essay is short and most are easy to read, enlightening which makes the book a pleasure and probably one of the best books about Johnson that I’ve read.

There were 47 different essays and each one illuminated a small facet of Johnson and his work and while it might be fun (for me) to go through all 47, I simply want to share some of the things I learnt which caught my attention the most.

For example, one of the essays was about Johnson’s correspondence, in which he declared to Hester Thrale that the letter would contain, ‘the history of one of my toes’. The point the essay made, which will probably influence how I read all eighteenth century letters, is that all letters were paid for by the recipient. This means the writer had to perform a little, and create letters that were worth paying for. It also makes me think how much Clarissa Harlowe’s friends must have hated her.

Another essay on editions of Johnson’s work highlighted how sloppily they were edited and how they simply accrued mistakes, leading to a version of Rasselas which had an additional fifty commas in the first chapter alone. An essay on translations of Johnson’s work brought my attention to the difficulty in finding how Johnson disseminated through other languages, how some of his stories appeared anonymous in Russian language papers for centuries and how Spain (oddly) had the most carefully curated translations of his Rambler essays.

Did you know that after his death Johnson had his long removed and drawn? I didn’t. Nor did I know that the image occasionally pops up in medical textbooks about emphysema to this day. Nor did I know that on seeing a portrait of himself, Johnson called himself an ‘ugly dog’. He also had nicknames for other portraits, including ‘Surly Sam’, ‘Blinking Sam’ and ‘Sam’s Grim Ghost’. Nor did I know there was a print of Boswell licking Johnson’s anus.

Talking of ghosts, ever heard of a ghost-word? It’s what happens when a printing error occurs in a dictionary that people later take as a real one. Misreadings of the long-s in Johnson’s dictionary gave us the word ‘foup’. It has no meaning. The same essay that gave me that little nugget also helped me understand further what was so groundbreaking about Johnson’s dictionary over previous efforts.

An essay on Johnson’s conversation reminded me of his strong Staffordshire accent, but also told me that as Johnson lost his teeth, he became even harder to understand. The essay on essays reminded that the Rambler essays only came out with the author known as Mr Rambler. Johnson was never happy with the title but couldn’t think of a better one. Not only does it imply that the essays ramble (as this review does) but the word also had rather sexual connotations, a rambler would generally ramble after one thing.

The only two essays out of 47 that I didn’t enjoy were the ones on law and literary theory. The later one was too dense for me written in literary theory jargon and less open to a generally interested reader. The law one kept reminding me that as an American, I may have difficulty imagining the English legal system, it reminded me of when Hamilton in London introduced George Washington as the leader of ‘our founding fathers’. He also described the very open-minded Samuel Johnson as ‘cloistered’ and slags off Lichfield.

Now, my description of this book has been very bitty, I’ve mainly been typing up the favourite notes I made about the book but the experience of it was anything but. Because each essay had only a little time to make its point, most were very focused and the result was a multifaceted look at a person and their times in a way that was greater than it’s parts. Once someone has read a good chunk of Johnson, some Boswell and the Walter Jackon Bate biography - I’d recommend this, and that’s high praise indeed.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Video: Everything Wrong with: Blackadder's Ink and Incapability

The other day a family stumbled out of the rain into Dr Johnson’s House Museum. They hung their coats up, became comfortable and glanced out the scowling portrait at ‘Surly Sam’ that sits above the desk.
   “Oh,” exclaimed the mum, “I thought this was Samuel Pepys house. We’ve just been up the monument.”
   “It’s okay,” I reassured her, “my dad mixes up the Samuels all the time, I’m a fan of both.”
   “Who’s this one?” The mum asked.
   “Oh, he was an eighteenth century writer. He wrote lots of things but is probably most famous for the dictionary he wrote here.”
I picked up the huge two volume facsimile of the dictionary off the desk and showed it to the children who tried in vain to carry it together.
   “Oh yeah,” the dad piped up. “I’ve heard of him. He’s the one from that Blackadder episode, Hagrid played him.”
I agreed that he was the one from the Blackadder episode whilst trying to smother the surliness that matched the portrait of Sam above my head. I sorted out the money, introduced them in the house and encouraged them to look up ‘sausage’ in the dictionary when they got to it. 

That got me thinking. Most people only know of the illustrious Samuel from that episode and it’s a very poor introduction, so I thought I would point out a few of the issues. Here is a video of me doing that, which is almost as long as the episode itself.