Friday, December 19, 2014

My Vistations of "A Christmas Carol"

 A Christmas Carol was first published today, December 19, 1843.  I wrote this post in 2009 when I saw the Disney 3-D version written by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey with  Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, and Cary Elwes. It still bothers me that Scrooge is not shorthand for a redeemed soul. Read on.

* * * * *

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little post, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
M.A., December 2009

Stave One: The First of the Three Versions

Seeing the new 3D Disney version over Thanksgiving sent me off to finally read the novella  to see if they were making stuff up. Their Ghost of Christmas Past looked like a cousin of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, and at one point Scrooge seemed to be paying homage to The Rescuers, so I was concerned, although overall the adaptation was very true and enjoyable.

Turns out the GOCP depiction was accurate. Dickens’s description of the first spirit is elaborate, protracted, and very odd. The figure is old and young: “being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body.”

It holds a piece of holly in one hand, and there’s more:

But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.”

So the depiction wasn’t a Disneyfication: it is very much like a candle, and it carries its own candle snuffer, which it will use to take leave of Scrooge (Dickens never uses “he” or “she” for this spirit.) Turning Scrooge into a 3” high person as he’s fleeing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, however, was very silly, and not of Dickens. The depiction of Christmas Present is true, and he ages to the point of death at the stroke of midnight just like Dickens says he does.

All in all, the Disney version gives life to the story, although if you want a serious film experience, you must, must go the 1951 Alastair Sim version. That’s a brilliant, artful adaptation with Sim’s masterful portrayal of every cell, fiber, and nuance of Ebeneezer. I believe that the magic is because both the actor and the director were of Celtic blood. More about that here.


Stave Two: The Second of the Three Versions

The Paley Center recently screened Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. It was the first animated special created specifically for TV, predating Rudolph by 2 years. The Magoo character first appeared in a theatrical cartoon short in 1949 (The Ragtime Bear.) Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were hired to write the score, and then went on to write the score for Funny Girl shortly after.

The songs are good. “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” “Ringle, Ringle” and “We’re Despicable” are appealing but not as sticky or classic as “Silver and Gold” and Holly, Jolly Christmas.” And they decided to reorder the Spirits, so that the Ghost of Christmas Present comes first, then Christmas Past. Ye shall not tamper with Dickens!

I like to think that this sacrilege is why Mr. Magoo didn’t entirely enter the Christmas canon, but it’s more likely that the whole ruse of his being dangerously myoptic seemed progressively less funny as society became more sensitized to people with disabilities.

Stave Three: The Last of the Spirits

The manuscript itself. With all these media versions swirling about, I made the pilgrimage down to see it sitting quietly encased in J. P. Morgan’s study, this year turned to page 38. The script handwriting is dense, tightly spaced.

The New York Times partnered with the Morgan Library to photograph the entire manuscript and allow us to see where and how Charles changed his mind.

One change is that he had a tangent about Hamlet being a chump, which he decided not to use. A scholar suggested Shakeapeare was too popular to attack like that, and it does have the scent of an Oedipal issue.

Dickens did keep his hilarious issues with the expression “dead as a door-nail.”

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Hilarious! I love it!!

Stave 4: The End of It

This tale has not been out of print since it was written in 1843. It helped to create the Victorian Christmas celebrations that took root. Mr. Fezziwig alone could have done that. The fact that he wrote it in 6 weeks is the stuff of genius.

As a character of world literature, Scrooge was given a raw deal. His name is associated with abject misanthropy. Yet the point of the story is his (secular) redemption: at the end we are told he is filled with charity and love and generosity. He is the embodiment of the secular spirit Christmas; his name could have come down to us as its synonym. Why doesn't anyone remember that?

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. . . . and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

Maybe in this century the tide will turn for him. He is the avatar of hope: life can harden our hearts, but Scrooge reminds us every year that it can be different. The past does not have to have power over our future. Thank you, Mr. Dickens. What a beautiful gift you have given us.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent: The Spiritual & Commercial Countdowns to Christmas

I grew up with cardboard Advent calendars of various types. There were 25 little cutout doors that when you opened, showed a picture underneath of some sort of present, and on December 25th the picture was of the baby Jesus, he being the ultimate gift. It took some real restraint as a child, not to open them all at once the first week.

There is a wonderful online version of the classic idea from Jacquie Lawson. You enter through a snow globe that you download, and by clicking an ornament on the background you get an animated scene with music or an interactive tableau, like decorating a wreath or gingerbread men.  You cannot click ahead, because the the flash activations are connected to a clock. Petty sneaky.

I try to use this time—marked by both the commercial world's great expectations for the season and the spiritual rites of Advent, both leading to the end-of-year odometer turnover that is our New Years—to see where I am spiritually.  Sometimes I find grace in the most unlikely places. Other times, like now,  I feel parched, yearning for the cool, enlivening sense of life and love and purpose that started with the waters of baptism.

T.S. Eliot captured this sense of dryness in The Waste Land

From 'What the Thunder Said'

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

Of course It's not all parched out there. There are clever people who have made wine rack advent calendars. Now, that's the spirit.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"I Have a Rendezvous with Death"

It almost defies imagination--like many elements that were the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—that the man whose life force was extreme would declare his favorite poem to be Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." (Wouldn't a life-affirming Yeats or Keats poem have served him better?) And that he would "often ask his wife to recite it."  You might expect this kind of reveal to be on a list in People Magazine, but it's on the Kennedy Library site, so one would expect it's true. Seeger died in World War 1, on the Somme.

Things I Have Always Known about JFK
It's not that my family had formal discussions about our first Irish-Catholic president, but growing up I seemed to amass many tidbits about JFK from my parents and grandparents.

•Papa Joe Kennedy wanted his first son, Joseph, to be the first Irish Catholic president, and started grooming him very young. When Joe died in WWII, Joe turned his eyes to Jack, and that was it. Jack had no say in the matter. Joe was smarter than Jack, and might have been a better man for the presidency.

•Papa Joe "bought" Jack the election through a combination of old school dealmaking and straight out bribes and corruption.

•His Addison's disease.

"Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's in the 1940s. In 1955 he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an insufficient output of thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include many of those associated with Addison's, as well as paleness, intolerance to cold, depression and a low heart rate."

•Sister Rosemary was "slow" and her father wanted to "fix" her. He brought her to have a frontal lobotomy when she was 23, while her protective mother was away in France. It incapacitated her permanently, and she lived on the grounds of a convent in Wisconsin until she died in 2005 at 86.

•Jackie wanted to divorce Jack before the election because of his rampant infidelities, and Papa Joe paid her a huge amount to stay.

•There was a second son, Patrick, who was born in the White House but died after only three days. (See below.)

•I wrote about Ted Kennedy's death here.

Things I Learned Later
•Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born on August 7, 1963, and died August 9. It was an emergency C-section for Jackie, and his lungs weren't fully formed.

•Lee Radzwill, Jackie's sister, had been in Greece on on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis. He says 'you should go to your sister to console her.'  Lee ends up bringing Jackie back to the yacht in Greece for her to recover from her son's death. That is where she meets the shipping magnate she will marry in 1968. Hmm.

•The gorgeous couple in the above photo are grieving parents of just three months.  And then they get in that car.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

(President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, arrive at Love Field in Dallas on a campaign tour with Vice President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. (Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

“Three Irishmen Walk into a Ferry Waiting Room . . . Again“

 If they had walked into a bar, Kevin, Dermot, and Joe would have been no more than an obscure trio in the long tradition of Irish jokes.

But instead, they are part of the memorable fictional world of Conor McPherson’s 2002 play Port Authority, which I saw in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater Company, and again today in the closing performance at the Irish Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly. It is one of the joys of theatergoing, to see different stagings of the same play.

Our characters are in a ferry dock waiting room in Dublin harbor, erroneously referred to as bus station by many critics back in 2008, I guess because New York's Port Authority is a bus terminal. But that was the jetty of Dublin harbor on the Playbill cover. The set at the Irish Rep was more successful in conveying the time/place, with the blue sky over a horizon of water.

Each of our trio is a million miles away in his own thoughts, which he gives voice to as we all raptly listen in.  It is a tour de force of monologue writing and acting across three stages of man: the senior (Jim Norton/Peter Maloney), the middle aged (Brian D’Arcy/Billy Carter), and the twentysomething (John Gallagher/James Russell). They speak of life from the perspective of their age, and of love, which knows no such boundary.

With the barest of sets and the absence of any action, it is the sheer power of language and tale-spinning that pulls you in. Each is able to give you a sense of the entire life of that man, just from these revealed thoughts. That's what makes this such a special, powerful play. That primacy of the spoken word reminded me of HBO’s In Treatment, where another Irishman, Gabriel Byrne, absolutely commanded our attention, all the while sitting in a chair.

A line in Terry Teachout’s rave review of the play back in 2008 surprised me. He described it as a “series of interwoven monologues by three unhappy Irishmen.”

Unhappy Irishman. It never occurred to me that these men were unhappy. From my own experience, there is something about the Celtic soul that doesn’t think in happy/unhappy terms. Life is. There are highs and lows, joys and disappointments. So be it.

I saw Martin Sheen back in 2008 on The Graham Norton Show. Graham asked him what the secret was to having such a long and happy marriage. Sheen answered, it’s not really about happiness. What makes a loving marriage work is if your partner helps you to experience joy. It’s a subtle, important distinction which McPherson understands.

Each of our waiting-room Irishmen speaks of specific moments of joy within his tale. There is also deep disappointment all around, and they all wish many things were different.

But they are Irish. Their wit and wisdom and whisky will sustain them, until the final Ferryman comes to take them across that other river.

(photo, Doug Hamilton)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Remembrance Sunday: Life and Death 100 Years After the Great War Started

Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetary, Ypres Salient. 11,954, of which 8,367 are unnamed. Cross is built on site of a German pillbox.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Trench photo in the Flanders Field Museum, Ghent, Belgium

* * * * * *

I recently returned from Belgium, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres as part of a singing holiday run by some very talented Brits.  The company arranges for a music director to meet up with singers in a European city, with a preselected repertoire that will be performed in a concert or service after a series of rehearsals, and then everyone goes their own way.

On 7th October 1914, some 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army proudly marched into Ypres, Belgium. They represented the vanguard of a nation hell-bent on claiming its share of empire, and although the Great War was still in its infancy, the notorious Schlieffen Plan appeared to be working as intended. The following day, they promptly left the city’s walled enclave to continue on their great march westwards. It was to be the last time that the German army would set foot in Ypres during the war, something that would ultimately lead to the deaths of almost 600,000 people and the annihilation of the city [as they tried for 4 bloody years to re-take the city]. [Text from an open educational resource website on the Great War.]

This outing was built around participating in the beginning of Europe's "ritual act of remembrance" for the World War One centenary: singing at a Mass in Ghent; the Faure Requiem in a church in Bruges; and at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony in Ypres, along with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient (my photo above). It is the largest cemetery in the area, but as you drive along the Zonnebeke road, you see signs for dozens upon dozens of others. 160 cemeteries in total, in the Ypres Salient alone.

I learned about Ypres from Paul Fussell, studying his highly acclaimed The Great War in Modern Memory with him back in the day, and so it was very special to be on the very ground I studied so many years ago.

It was also very moving to be with the grandchildren of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) that entered on the side of France & Belgium to stop the German aggression.

But there is still the fact of Ypres. From a wall card in the Ypres Flanders Field Museum:

From October 1914 onwards, the German artillery began to shell Ypres and the Cathedral went up in flames. In May 1915 the last inhabitants had to leave their town and Ypres was completely delivered up to military violence. By the end of 1917 not a single house or tree was left standing.

The Menin Gate
The Menin Road was the main road to the front for the Commonwealth troops. It bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from the UK and Commonwealth (except New Zealand & Newfoundland) who died on the Salient and whose remains were never found for a proper burial.

From 11th November, 1929, the Last Post [the British version of Taps] has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. [Text from a UK Great War website.]

The town that you see today is a complete reconstruction, following the war. They chose to rebuild the great medieval Cloth Hall--built in the 15th Century--exactly as it had looked. Our charming local guide kept saying, "everything you see is a copycat of the original."  It is an astonishing story.

I witnessed and participated in the "ritual act of remembrance" at the Menin Gate on September 22, 2014. Traffic is stopped, the Belgian buglers arrive to sound the Last Post. Sometimes there are extra elements, like our choir, and that day also a Scottish bagpipe contingent. Sometimes there are ceremonial wreath layings.

On this day there were English children from a public school, and a highly decorated, active duty English soldier.  We sang the very haunting Douglas Guest setting of For the Fallen. It is remarkable that this ceremony has continued daily for almost 100 years.  It's hard to sustain anything, but this small, ritual remembrance connects the living through the decades to all those lives slaughtered.

[top and third Menin Gate photo by Nick Couchman]

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Thomas Hardy's Guy Fawkes Bonfire & the Lessons of Eustacia Vye

While the men and lads were building the pile, a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration. Perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district.

It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

Thomas Hardy set his beguling The Return of the Native in his beloved Wessex, around Guy Fawkes Day. It gives us an excellent, up-close look at this most Albion of holidays.

First, A Quick Guy Fawkes primer, from the History Channel site * * * 

•Catholicism in England was heavily repressed under Queen Elizabeth I
•During her reign, dozens of priests were put to death, and Catholics could not legally celebrate Mass or be married according to their own rites.
•Many Catholics had high hopes when King James I took the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603. James’ wife, Anne, is believed to have previously converted to Catholicism, and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was Elizabeth’s Catholic archrival prior to being executed.

•It soon became clear, however, that James did not support religious tolerance for Catholics.
•In 1604 he publicly condemned Catholicism as a superstition, ordered all Catholic priests to leave England and expressed concern that the number of Catholics was increasing.
•He also largely continued with the repressive policies of his predecessor, such as fines for those refusing to attend Protestant services. * * *

This is the context whereby 13 Catholics got the stupid, murderous idea that blowing up James 1, while he was speaking in the House of Parliament,  would put his daughter on the throne and she might be more lenient.

The conspirators brought 36 barrels of gunpowder into the tunnels under parliament and were going to ignite it during the session on Nov. 5. Lots of twists and turns ensued, which a UK education site discusses in detail, but Guy Fawkes, the poor sap left to guard the gunpowder, is discovered when the authorities decide to search the tunnels. The plot is completely foiled.

It's one of those quirks of history that Guy Fawkes is the face of the conspiracy, when Robert Catesby was the mastermind.  They were all executed one way or another. Fawkes was tortured on the rack to get the names of his co-conspirators, and so that he would sign a confession. There is a comparison of his handwriting before and after his torture which is very chilling..

Back to the History Channel * * *
 •Londoners immediately began lighting bonfires in celebration that the plot had failed and their king was not assassinated
•A few months later Parliament declared November 5 a public day of thanksgiving.
•Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night, has been around in one form or another ever since.  * * *

In many counties it was the pope that was burned in effigy, along with Guy.  Then over time local bonfires burned all sorts of politicians in effigy.

Hardy's Bonfire on Edgon Heath and Eustacia Vye
Hardy wrote Return of the Native in 1878.  I love that he focuses on the primal urges of the bonfire—the Lux Fiat against the darkness—as the heart of the tradition, and not the echoes of the Gunpowder Plot with its religious baggage.

I read The Return of the Native in high school, a novel well matched to that time and place. Wildeve, the heath, the bonfires, the odd, red Diggory Venn character, cross-dressing mummers, burning a foe in effigy, Hardy’s relentless themes of loneliness and isolation—does anything more clearly speak to the surging angst of high school?

And to top it off, I connected with the tortured, sad, exotic figure of Eustacia Vye, deemed by a chapter heading to be Queen of the Night. It’s hard not to read Hardy as mocking his heroine, but this was a serialized novel during Victorian times, and modern irony was still waiting just over the horizon in the No Man's Land of World War I:

"Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman."

Hardy’s Tess has gotten the serious attention through the years, and we won’t even talk about the effect Jude the Obscure's Sue Bridehead and Father Time have had on subsequent literature.

But for me, Eustacia is the character that made me feel less lonely in high school, because she was so solitary.

She enters the story silhouetted against the Guy Fawkes bonfire:

"When the whole Egdon concourse had left the site of the bonfire to its accustomed loneliness, a closely wrapped female figure approached the barrow from that quarter of the heath in which the little fire lay.

Her reason for standing so dead still as the pivot of this circle of heath-country was just as obscure. Her extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear."

A tract of country unaltered from that sinister condition which made Caesar anxious every year to get clear of its glooms before the autumnal equinox . . . was not, on the face of it, friendly to women."

Hardy's language is a joy: "extraordinary fixity." It is astounding that he would write of a woman in terms of such strength—"utter absence of fear"—while understanding that such fearless independence can also be isolating. That was comforting to hear in high school.

Eustacia suffers from yearnings of grandeur: she is trapped by class and circumstance to live on the heath, which she detests, while she’s tormented by delusions of living in Paris. She yearns for love in an equally distraught way. Much of the book is overwrought passages about her comings and goings on the heath, as she walks between bonfires.

Yet, amid all the hype, I found a metaphor that seared into my teenage memory.

". . . a clue to her abstraction was afforded by a trivial incident. A bramble caught hold of her skirt, and checked her progress. Instead of putting it off and hastening along, she yielded herself up to the pull, and stood passively still. When she began to extricate herself it was by turning round and round, and so unwinding the prickly switch. She was in a desponding reverie."

Important lesson for women: beware the brambles of life because they will snag the hem of your dress if you are not careful. If you are not vigilant, they will keep you motionless, throw you into a desponding reverie,  or worse. Clear them away, or at the least, walk around them.

Here's the rub: It’s not always easy to see these low-growing thorns, especially when your gaze is focused elsewhere than on your feet, like when looking up at a glorious sky or into the eyes of a beloved or at the bobbing head of a toddler. And that's when you can get ensnared . . .

But since high school, I have been on the outlook for those brambles. And it has helped. Thanks, Hardy.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pops with Our Better Ghosts and Goblins: Happy Halloween

This Louis Armstrong number from the 1936 Bing Crosby movie Pennies from Heaven is a great, great Halloween treat. Louis and the skeletons swing it hot.

The Skeleton in the Closet, (Johnny Burke/Arthur Johnston)

There's an old deserted mansion
On an old forgotten road
Where the better ghosts and goblins
Always hang out.

One night they threw a party
In a manner a la mode
And they cordially invited
All the gang out
At a dark bewitchin' hour
When the fun was loud and hearty
A notorious wall flower
Became the life of the party

Mmm! The spooks were havin' their midnight fling
The merry makin' was in full swing
They shrieked themselves into a cheerful trance
When the skeleton in the closet started to dance
Now a goblin giggled with fiendish glee
A shout rang out from a big banshee
Amazement was in every ghostly glance
When the skeleton in the closet started to dance
All the witches were in stitches
While his steps made rhythmic thumps
And they nearly dropped their broomsticks
When he tried to do the bumps
You never heard such unearthly laughter
Such hilarious groans
When the skeleton in the closet rattled his bones