Monday, April 25, 2011

Revived Passions

Al men that walkis by waye or strete,
Take tentes yoe schalle no tauayle tyne.
Beholde myn heede, myn handis, and myne feete,
And fully feele nowe, or yoe fyne,
Yf any mournyng may be meete,
Or myscheue mesured vnto myne.
- Jesus, Crucifixion, York Cycle

It’s appropriate that Passion week has just finished and as I attempt to study for my collections, one of the things about Middle English Literature I’m currently most interested in are the mystery plays, those immense cycles put on by cities in Yorkshire and East Anglia, which culminate in the Passion. The cycle plays chronicle salvation history from Creation to Doomsday with individual pageants – chapters in the story of salvation narrative – written by guilds and performed on wagons traveling through the city streets.

Historically critics have treated the mystery plays as crude precursors to Shakespeare and modern drama, but there’s been a resurgence of interest in these plays (jagged, inventive, irreverent, boisterous) as national gems in their own right. The plays functioned as festival, as a display of civic pride, as a means of educating the laity, and an aid to devotion. Mystery plays were also a way for epic biblical history to condense and fuse with temporal history in a way which made the story of salvation local and particular.




There’s been a lot of coverage of Michael Sheen’s performance in National Theatre Wales’ 72-hour Port Talbot Passion, written by Welsh poet and novelist Owen Sheers. Apparently six thousand people participated as the news spread by word of mouth. It’s not strictly, theologically, a passion play (more in the spirit of the thing); but reviews are enthusiastic. The idea that interactive, local, communal street theatre is as vital and moving in the twenty-first century as it was in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries indicates that the anonymous playwrights of the Wakefield/Towneley and York plays were onto something.

Read what Sheers had to say here

Sunday, April 24, 2011

‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?’

- Eliot, The Waste Land



This April, the cruelest month has been fine and temperate. Today, the day after Shakespeare’s birthday and St. George’s Day, a day of hot cross buns and new leaves, the sacrifice is completed, the Waste Land renewed.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

(failed) Day in the Life of an English Student

Today I:

Checked the weather, facebook, emails, various purposeless google searches
Watched episodes of three television shows & the beginning of one 90s film
Listened to internet radio and napped
Posting here. Ashamed of myself.


Slightly atoned for by dipping into Guardian review, hilarious letters of Philip Larkin (see picture, he obviously disapproves of my lifestyle) & cookies, after which I realize that life was more easily literary pre-internet – not an original thought admittedly – and that I am crippling myself with this laptop and Ethernet cable. Ways to change this? (Besides obvious and unpleasant unplugging of Ethernet cable.)

Friday is collections. On the upside - so's the Royal Wedding. No one can stop talking about it; the papers are buzzing. Thursday evening the British monarchy caused at least three separate conversations.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lady Novelists


Apologies for anyone who’s talked to me about gender differences at all before, but this is perhaps hanging over from last night’s wine-heated kitchen conversation about gender and language (big surprise).

From The Voyage Out:

Persuasion,’ announced Richard, examining the volume:
‘That’s for Miss Vinrace,’ said Clarissa. ‘She can’t bear our beloved Jane.’
‘That – if I may say so – is because you have not read her,’ said Richard. ‘She is incomparably the greatest female writer we possess.’
‘She is the greatest,’ he continued, ‘and for this reason: she does not attempt to write like a man. Every other woman does; on that account, I don’t read ‘em.’

Of course, I’m not sure what I think about the ‘female sentence’, which writers like Dorothy Richardson, who I enjoy, sought to discover and perfect. I think I have less sympathy for it than I once did, because I’m not much a supporter of essentialism. I don’t think there is such a thing as an essentially female anything.

But this reminded me of this wonderful antique store in Woodstock, near Blenheim, which offers a great selection of early twentieth century writers. But – strangely the books are shelved by gender. The novels written by women oppose a shelf where all the novels by men are kept. I can’t imagine the reason for this. It makes the books seem prude.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I’ve loved Virginia Woolf for a long time, and this vacation has sparkled because of her prominence on my reading list. But I’ve never found her funny, have never laughed out loud while reading, though I know she was supposed to have been a wit, a great impersonator and gossip.

I'm reading The Voyage Out, Woolf's first novel, for the first time, & I've just reached the scene of the engagement ball in a South American hotel where the awkward and inexperienced protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, seizes the piano to prevent the dancing from breaking up. At first the dancers protest that they can’t dance to her music, when her aunt Helen cries ‘This is the dance for people who don’t know how to dance!’ and all the characters who have until now been priggish snobs begin to cavort:


‘St. John hopped with incredible swiftness first on his left leg, then on his right…Hewet, swaying his arms and holding out the tails of his coat, swan down the room in imitation of the voluptuous dreamy dance of an Indian maiden dancing before her Rajah…Mr. Pepper executed an ingenious pointed step derived from figure-skating…’

This kind of undignified noisy comedy seems like nothing else in Woolf and begging for Baz Luhrman to take a crack at it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Postcards from Kerry

Arrived back in Oxford from Kerry yesterday in time to catch the new flowers blooming, the sun out (and the city in an unexpected state of undress and joie de vivre), and the tail end of the Oxford Literary festival. In the space of the month in Ireland we missed the death of Liz Taylor and the publishing of David Foster Wallace’s Pale Kings (on my immediate to-read list) and had to catch stray headlines about Japan’s post-disaster recuperation and the Libyan situation on visits to the shop for milk and to the Lobster bar for the rare pool game, Guinness or glass o’ wine.



The house was in Kerry, in the tiny Charlie Chaplain-championed coastal town of Waterville. Waterville lies on the Inis Lough peninsula on the Ring of Kerry; the town is wrapped around the Banskellig bay (skelligs are, I believe, early Christian settlements on rocky outcroppings only reached by boat), surrounded by cow-and-sheep farming land, and touching Lough Currane.



Drives to Killarney and Kinsale involved deathly (and I mean deathly) Irish country roads, being trapped by slurry trucks or tractors, crossing mountains, bogland, peat, gorse, moor, and sheep country.

We became fans of Derelicte architecture.





Listened to Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, & the Eurythmics.




Days of food, tea, scrabble, cards, tea, next term’s reading list (Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Pinter, Yeats), watching the ponies on the hill, an amateur production of Importance of Being Earnest attended by cows, short walks, and tea.




The weather was unseasonably sunny on either side of the trip, but in the centre was several days of rough water, howling wind, rain, and the whole town sinking into silence.



The quiet was the best of it. Doing without much internet. Doing tasks slowly. Eating silently.

But it’s time to come back to the rattle of suitcases and clicking of smart heels on Holywell street, and the tourist-humming streets. Back to the books.