Adam Mars-Jones complains about the vigilance of the Samuel Beckett estate, citing problems with previous productions of Footfalls and Waiting for Godot – ‘the estate’s straitened sense of what was allowed’ (LRB, 6 March). He suggests that, in relation to Not I, ‘even a play about suffocation needs to be allowed to breathe.’ However, he spends most of his piece expressing concern that both Beckett and the estate decided on the removal of the Auditor, a figure which featured in early performances, and which remains in the published text.
Beckett, as Mars-Jones notes, had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the part of the Auditor. Mars-Jones suggests that this was mainly on technical grounds, but also quotes Beckett’s remark that perhaps it was an error of the imagination. ‘Woman’s face alone in constant light. Nothing but fixed lit face and speech,’ he wrote in the unpublished theatre fragment, Kilcool, some years before Not I. He asked Ruby Cohn after a rehearsal of Happy Days: ‘Can you stage a mouth? Just a moving mouth with the rest of the stage in darkness?’ The subsequent difficulties of staging Not I with the inclusion of the Auditor seem to stem from the attempt to include two disparate images in a single holistic frame.
It was almost exactly two years after Billie Whitelaw’s 1973 performance at the Royal Court that the single image of the Mouth was filmed. When Beckett saw this version of Whitelaw’s performance in 1975 he apparently said that he found it ‘miraculous’. He dispensed with the Auditor in the Paris version of March 1975, and although he tried to reintroduce the figure in 1978, he questioned its viability. Perhaps, after seeing the film of Billie Whitelaw’s performance, he realised that the Auditor was to some extent an unnecessary embellishment, something of a distraction, as the audience, in complete darkness, replaces the Auditor as witness to Mouth’s distress.
Among other significant productions, Juliet Stevenson staged Not I in 1997 in Stratford, again without the Auditor. In the Channel 4 production directed by Neil Jordan, Julianne Moore, following the sound of birdsong, walks on set, sits down in a chair, and begins the piece, her mouth in close-up filmed from alternating angles. Edward Beckett was associate producer, so presumably the estate approved these alterations. (Channel 4 took liberties with many of the plays they filmed.) Moore’s performance comes in at about 13 minutes, much the same as Whitelaw’s. That Lisa Dwan comes in under ten minutes and manages to make the text intelligible is extraordinary. However, if Mars-Jones wanted to be even more pedantic about the relationship between performance and text, he might have added that Dwan, rather than ‘voice unintelligible’ and ‘with rise of curtain ad-libbing from text’, catches her throat as if choking on the words at both the beginning and end of the play. Dwan’s marvellous performance illustrates the margins for interpretation that exist in the work. The problems only seem to emerge when directors and actors think they have more creative imagination than Beckett himself.
A Word from Miss Triggs
Thank heavens for a woman’s voice that carries as Mary Beard’s does today (LRB, 20 March). It is salutary to hear ancient misogyny echoing in modern culture, and to be reminded that Miss Triggs still awaits her moment. But the voices of women before and after antiquity also deserve a hearing. There were pre-classical examples, and Jewish and Christian ones too, often poets singing. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Beard writes, was ‘probably the most influential work of literature in Western art after the Bible’. But it was precisely in the Bible that women’s voices rang out feistily. ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has risen up in triumph!’ Miriam declaimed after the crossing of the Red Sea, followed by women dancing to the sound of her tambourine (Exodus 15.21). Deborah, prophet and judge, sang of the triumph of Jael, who slew the enemy commander: ‘I will sing, I will sing to the Lord … Hark the song of the players striking up in the places where the women draw water … She [Jael] stretched out her hand for the tent-peg, her right hand to hammer the weary. With the hammer she struck Sisera, she crushed his head … So perish all thine enemies O Lord!’ (Judges 5.31). Judith, the widow men praised for her wisdom, killed Holofernes to save Israel, and then began a hymn of praise and thanksgiving ‘in which all the people joined lustily: “Strike up a song to my God with tambourines, sing to the Lord with cymbals: The Lord is a God who stamps out wars”’ (Judith 16, in the Apocrypha). The tradition continues in the New Testament, in the Virgin Mary’s Magnificat. These songs of women resounded in the voice of Joan of Arc, and in the many voices of women prophets in medieval and early modern Europe who believed themselves instruments of the Spirit. Elizabeth I’s speech at Tilbury may be apocryphal but her contemporaries recognised in her voice the voices of Deborah and Judith.
Paradoxically, religions, usually so crucial in silencing women, did give them the means of entering the public debate on political matters through the mask of female prophecy. Until the onset of the Enlightenment women prophets were occasionally given audience by male rulers, though it’s true that their interventions were almost always disregarded in the end.
Picasso among the Non-Entities
Malcolm Bull notes ‘a tendency to see political alignment as being to some degree extraneous to literary or artistic achievement’ (LRB, 20 February). But the alignments he adduces are flawed. He lists Braque as one of those who ‘positioned themselves on the radical and reactionary right’, and seems to think this is ‘well known’. In fact, there is no evidence for it – as John Richardson, who put it about, has conceded – and much circumstantial evidence on the other side. As Braque advanced through the ranks of the Legion of Honour his political ‘comportment’ would have been scrutinised very carefully: it was not found wanting. Braque was true to his country and to his friends, notably to those who lived and died their anti-fascism: Carl Einstein, for example, whose widow he supported all her days. His closest allies were those whose loyalties were above suspicion (the likes of René Char and Francis Ponge), not to mention Picasso himself, who tried to persuade him to make a joint announcement that they were joining the French Communist Party, in 1944. Braque declined: for him, 1944 was a time for painting, not pantomime.
University of St Andrews
Get off the bus
Rebecca Solnit refers to ‘San Franciscans’ to describe legitimate citizens of San Francisco, as compared to the tech workers, usurpers who ‘often displace San Franciscans from their homes’ (LRB, 20 February). What is Solnit’s definition of a ‘San Franciscan’? Someone born in San Francisco? Someone who has lived in San Francisco for five years? Two years? She seems to consider San Francisco a city state like Florence in Dante’s time, as if one needed credentials to live there.
Rebecca Solnit marks three real problems in the Bay Area and the US: terrible income inequality, unaffordable housing that is both a symptom of and contributor to that inequality, and the tech industry’s self-delusion, which allows the Bay Area’s political and economic elites to dream their way past real solutions to either. I cannot figure out why Solnit and so many other activists focus their energy on the distraction of ‘Google buses’. The buses are admittedly irritating: they make the morning traffic even worse and they use public infrastructure for effectively no consideration. But solving those annoyances will do nothing to make San Francisco a city hospitable to people other than the rich. The solution to a housing crisis, as James Meek argued recently, is to build housing, including subsidised housing (LRB, 9 January). Solnit dismisses this possibility with a breezy wave at the mere ‘cracks and interstices’ left for building in the Bay Area. In other words, San Francisco should remain precisely as Rebecca Solnit remembers it and wants it to be. Similarly, if the tech companies’ buses bring about a ‘two-tiered’ transit system, the solution is to build a better system throughout the region. But that would increase the value of property near the new lines, which Solnit takes to be an argument against it. Instead she notes hopefully that many tech workers would live elsewhere if not for the buses. The implication is that people who work in other cities shouldn’t live in San Francisco. I wouldn’t want to live in a city subject to such rules, and neither, I suspect, would Solnit. It seems that commuting to work is only really a problem when people she doesn’t like (I don’t like them either, but so what?) live in San Francisco. Going to City Hall and arguing for more housing, stronger protection from eviction and better public transit isn’t an obvious way to have fun; the tech buses are a better target for sharp observation and street theatre. But apparently they make radical thinkers talk like reactionaries.
James Meek notes the unexpected propaganda value – ‘propaganda now in a way they weren’t when they were made’ – that Soviet screen comedies of the 1960s and 1970s have acquired among neo-Soviet populists (LRB, 20 March). In fact the irony runs deeper than that, for perhaps the chief draw of those films for their original audiences was that they represented the cutting edge of permissible public critique of Soviet morality, ideology and practice. The Diamond Arm (1969, directed by Leonid Gaidai) features a mildly provocative striptease accompanied by a jazz number – this in the days when jazz itself, let alone striptease, was regularly lambasted in the Soviet media as bourgeois and degenerate. The eponymous hero of Mimino (1977, Georgiy Daneliya), a Georgian Aeroflot pilot, puts through a long-distance call to his home town of Telavi from a post office while on a layover in West Germany. But the operator mistakenly connects him to Tel Aviv. In the ensuing scene, Mimino ends up singing a Georgian folksong in two-part harmony with a bitterly homesick Georgian Jewish émigré – over the phone. Big deal, you might think. In 1977, when emigration from the Soviet Union was still officially regarded as a crime against the state, giving a voice – and a sympathetic one at that – to a Soviet Jewish émigré was a daring decision. In my favourite, An Office Romance (1977, Eldar Ryazanov), boy gets girl because he violently objects when a colleague tries to cool the ardour of a workplace admirer by handing over her love letters to the in-house minder. In other words, a shared aversion to prudish Soviet morality and its regulatory mechanisms is what brings them together. The wonder is the scale of the amnesia that makes possible the transformation of this subtle, between-the-lines brand of anti-Soviet critique into neo-Soviet propaganda.
Unfair to Anthropologists
As Thomas Meaney says, Margaret Mead and her mid-century cohort of colleagues – notably Ruth Benedict and Gregory Bateson – eagerly lent their ethnographic expertise to both insurgency and counterinsurgency operations during the Second World War (LRB, 6 March). He is wrong, however, to accuse today’s anthropologists of indifference to and withdrawal from public debates over American military and political power. The vast majority of practising anthropologists are deeply involved in the very arguments Meaney accuses us of avoiding. For instance, the recent volume Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, which I coedited, gathered together anthropologists of widely varying perspectives – including several who work in the American military – to debate the politics of working on or for the security state. This debate is especially urgent now, since there has been a sinister appropriation of anthropological expertise for martial ends in the US army’s Human Terrain System programme, which aims to unravel ‘cultural’ dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Volumes such as ours may not reach a broad readership outside the academy, but that isn’t because anthropologists are unable or unwilling to formulate their arguments with a wider public in mind. By placing the blame for anthropology’s ‘withdrawal’ solely on anthropologists, Meaney ignores the way the American public sphere has become allergic to academic argument. It may be that the very powers that scholars struggle to comprehend are complicit in muting the political arguments they try to voice.
University of Göttingen
Thomas Meaney describes Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, published in 1946, as an ‘unlikely bestseller’. In fact between 1946 and 1971 it sold only 28,000 hardback copies, and a paperback edition wasn’t issued until 1967. This amounts to a sale of about a thousand copies a year, most of them no doubt going to professional anthropologists or college students taking courses on Japan.
The postwar bestsellers that shaped American attitudes towards Japan were John Hersey’s sympathetic Hiroshima (1946); Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), which was on the bestseller list for 62 weeks; John Gunther’s The Riddle of MacArthur (1951); Elizabeth Gray Vining’s Windows for the Crown Prince (1952); and James Michener’s Sayonara (1954). That American perceptions of Japan changed so rapidly after the war is a warning to those who persist in trying to characterise entire societies or cultures.
In It for the Money
It is a pity that Charles Rzepka couldn’t have persevered to the end of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (Letters, 20 March). There he would have found the Holmes who had ‘a hard-nosed attention to the bottom line’ turning down a huge fee, at the possible cost of offending a prestigious client, in order to insist on payment in the form of a commercially worthless photograph.
Bishop Auckland, County Durham
Will Frears is right to say that the work of Charles Willeford is difficult to categorise, but while the Hoke Moseley novels may be in the Hammett/Chandler tradition, the earlier and greater part of his work sits firmly alongside that of Jim Thompson, the archetypal pulp writer, whose novels’ defining attribute is precisely what Frears recognises in Willeford’s: that they are ‘very funny in a savage and dark way’ (LRB, 20 March). Like Thompson’s, many of the earlier books were published as ‘paperback originals’ (Pick-Up, Woman Chaser etc) with garish artwork. They sold modestly, were rediscovered and adopted by proprietorial readers (I’m one of them) and optioned by TV and Hollywood. And still the books didn’t (and don’t) sell. Whether or not Willeford had ‘literary aspirations’, he is a woefully underrated writer.
Answer: Walter Scott
David Ganz asks where Tolstoy found the phrase ‘The zest is gone’ – one of Anna Karenina’s reflections on the end of her love affair with Vronsky shortly before she kills herself (Letters, 20 March). In the translation he quotes, Anna thinks: ‘The zest is gone, as the English say.’ In the standard Russian text ‘The zest is gone!’ appears in English. ‘As the English say’ has been inserted by the translator.
In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (IV.v) Cleopatra asks as Antony dies, and shortly before she kills herself, ‘Shall I abide/In this dull world, which in thy absence is/No better than a sty?’ and then continues: ‘The odds is gone,/And there is nothing left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon.’ Odds apparently means much the same as ‘remarkable’, or perhaps ‘inequality’, ‘advantage’, or ‘distinction’. It doesn’t mean ‘zest’.
An educated person, whether Tolstoy or Anna, reflecting on the end of a tragic love affair and perhaps contemplating suicide, might well quote, or misquote, Cleopatra. Sadly, there is a more straightforward answer to Ganz’s question. The exact phrase is found in Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak, Chapter 22: ‘“Sharp as mustard,” returned the bon vivant; “but be wise, most noble pedlar, and take another rummer of this same flask, which you see I have held in an oblique position for your service – not permitting it to retrograde to the perpendicular. Nay, take it off before the bubble bursts on the rim, and the zest is gone.”’ It turns up again several times in the mid-19th century in a metaphorical sense.
That doesn’t absolutely exclude the possibility that Tolstoy was also echoing Shakespeare. Notoriously he thought that Shakespeare was a writer entirely without merit. If Anna was really misquoting him, it would beg the interesting question: was that deliberate on Tolstoy’s part?
Don’t do it
A note to Adam Mars-Jones and anyone else who may be tempted ‘to introduce a pencil between the jaws of an epileptic in spasm’ (LRB, 20 March). Trying to force the pencil between the clenched teeth would damage the sufferer’s mouth and, in the unlikely event of success, break the pencil into pieces that could easily choke him or her.