The Importance of Being Earnest: the opera

barryI have never heard anything like this before. The Irish composer Gerald Barry wrote a comic opera based on The Importance of Being Earnest, performed for the first time in 2012, in France (and later on in London at the Barbican). I had no idea of its existence, but when I was given the CD this year for Christmas, I thought, ‘of course! Why not?’ I’ve taught this play for years, and I’ve ‘produced’ it (in the very loosest, amateurish sense) for a student production, so I thought I knew the lines well. I could rabbit on for ever about its meaning, its subversiveness, its sheer brilliance of plotting, its marvellous lovableness, or its savage refusal to abide by the rules of polite society. Listening to it in the car on the long drive home was a bolt-upright experience: not a chance of nodding off after lunch.

prismThe key facts to tune you in to what this opera is about are that Barry studied under Stockhausen, and this production was part-funded by the Britten-Pears Foundation: this is ultra-modern contemporary composition, the kind of thing the Antwerp opera might find a touch challenging. The music is a deliberate barrage of discordance and crashing surprise mixed up with very familiar tunes, but as I know nothing about that kind of music I shan’t dig that hole any deeper. What I loved about this opera was the new way it made me think about the lines, and the plot. Lady Bracknell is sung by a bass (and apparently dressed in hideous red tartan with a short skirt and sensible shoes). Since this HANDbag character is almost always played as a grande dame of terrifying rectitude it’s easy to miss her hypocrisy and greed. As a pantomime dame this side of her personality is shoved to the fore, in a most thought-provoking way. Cecily and Gwendolen exchange their polite lines before tea through megaphones, in time to the crashes of china. This sounds gimmicky, but this ‘music’ makes it quite clear what the girls are up to, crashing through the established rules of behaviour suitable for an angry young lady receiving a guest who thinks she is a rival in love.

platesThere are some ridiculous sound effects. The opera begins with a gobsmackingly audacious Auld Lang Syne as performed by Algernon off-stage; Stravinsky keeps taking over the orchestra; the Ode to Joy infects Miss Prism with outbreaks of Schiller and German poetry. This makes it sounds totally pretentious, but it is funny: this really is a comic opera in the grand style. Not operetta; it’s nothing like a modernised Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s a bonkers and audacious presentation of the best-loved play in the Eng lit curriculum, simply drowning in musicality. Its only flaw is that you do need to have an idea of what is going on in the story, and of some of the lines, to get the full flavour. But then, does anyone really know what’s happening in Wagner, and is any of that any less daft?

For a taste of the performance listen to it here. A good but short video of the rehearsals can be seen here, including the plate-smasher practising her art. There is also a rather pompous and luvviesh ‘discussion’ between Barry, Thomas Adés (the conductor), Stephen Fry (because he is the man on the street’s voice on Wilde, it would seem), and Fiona Shaw as referee.


Not so much the books I bought, but WHY

I read a lot of book blog posts gloating about bookish treasure finds, but I’m more interested in finding out why they spend the money, not what it was on. This is my most recent tally, which cost me £24.50, very good value. The proprietor held me in conversation on the merits of Ian Dury, with which I heartily agreed, but he talked so long I barely made it to the bike shop to rescue my bike from its first service.

Why is that man buying a Thomas Pynchon? Is it because his irritating friend, the one knitting on the bookshop sofa, is determined to instruct everyone in the bookshop, god help them? She’s chattering about her shiny new Eng lit knowledge like a carpet-bomber. Her babble has made thinking so impossible, he’s just picked up the first book he saw and paid for it to get her out of the shop.

Why, on the other hand, did that pink-faced young vicar buy what looks like the Complete Dennis Wheatley? Has he missed a few? A present for a friend? His mum?  A passion for tales of ritual murder? I long to ask. Exit polls in bookshops should be compulsory. Here’s my tally for today.

George Eliot, Scenes From Clerical Life (Penguin Classics, slightly used). I really like John Galt’s mischievous and dark stories of early-19thC small-town parish politics, and I’ve been trying to like George Eliot for years. I’ve given up three times on Middlemarch, was bored by Silas Marner, and am flinching from attempting the known tragic ending of The Mill on the Floss. If I can get through this, I’ll try Adam Bede.

H P Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (Panther Horror, originally ‘5/- (25p)’. I don’t think this one is in my Complete Lovecraft Short Stories. I’m hoping for tentacle madness. Any book I could have afforded with my pocket money as a ten-year old is good.

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (Collins hardback first edition, sans dustjacket). This one will be my fourth copy *long-suffering voice*. The first one abandoned me sometime in my twenties when I moved house eleven times in ten years. The second one was lent to my neighbour, and ‘lost’ by their daughter. They found me a replacement copy, but it wasn’t the same. This one will place that replacement in someone else’s book-buying options. I feel virtuous.

Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck (1960s Pan, the one with Judith in a yellow dress restraining Worth from ripping someone’s throat out). Both covers of my earlier copy had fallen off and it was held together with an elastic band. Very happy that I found the same edition.

E F Benson, Mrs Ames (Bloomsbury reprint, lurid acid green cover) Naturally I love Benson to bits, but this one intrigues me, as its 1912 and seems to have the same plot as Lucia, so I’m risking a new book purchase. A novel that begins with a critical description of the breakfast tongue is worth pursuing.

Aldous Huxley, After Many A Summer (Chatto & Windus 1939 first edition) Appears to be darkly satirical, which is what I’m looking for, avoiding the unfunny satire of Brave New World. Crome Yellow wasn’t available. The two other Huxleys in the shop were too wide to carry in my backpack.

Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table (Penguin paperback). I gave this biography of Elizabeth David to my mum for Christmas years ago, and it hasn’t come back to me on loan so I’m going to have to buy my own. I love the myth of ED, and the legend that she singlehandedly made the British cook with olive oil, rather than dab it on itchy skin complaints. Hoping for stories of Mediterranean gluttony and lots of affairs in the sun.



Coroner’s Pidgin

coronerBeginning my reposting of my scripts from Why I Really Like This Book, this is a lucky dip from the vaults: Coroner’s Pidgin by Margery Allingham. It was the last classic detective fiction novel of the Five Great Reads miniseries.

I’ve been reading some great detective novels from the 1930s and 1940s, because this is my favourite kind of comfort fiction. Novels from this period are called ‘classic’ because they established the form, they invented the modern idea of detection in fiction, and because they brought into being brilliant, all-knowing detectives who could solve all crimes, restore all wrongs and generally sort out the world. This Golden Age of detective fiction began in the interwar period in Britain, when we’d only just emerged from the First World War, and carried on through to the next one. Uneasy times need reassuring reading.

I wanted to talk about a detective novel, and about Margery Allingham, so the choice had to be carefully made. During the Second World War, Allingham’s detective novels turn into thrillers. They still have Albert Campion, mostly, as her detective leading the investigation, but they have a compelling urgency about them, that drives the reader on so that we are forced to go against the thrust of the narrative and slow down, trying not to miss anything important. There is a lot that’s important: she’s fiendishly clever at hiding clues and relevant facts. Or we are driven like a leaf over a waterfall, grabbing at facts and events as we whoosh through the story. Once we reach the end we have to read it all over again, just to get the shock ending straight in our heads. She’s an exceptionally persuasive writer too: we believe what she says simply because of how her characters react.

Coroner’s Pidgin is paced at normal walking speed, not sprinting to a finish. Its set during the war, but without any time pressure to force us to run when we would rather walk slowly. Instead, our progress is impeded. Campion is home on leave for the first time in three years, after doing something secret and unspecified for the war abroad, probably in a hot climate as his hair has been bleached white. So he’s having a bath in his flat in London, having just got off the train at Victoria, and he’s happily counting how many minutes he has to finish wallowing, to get dressed, to sort out his bag, and to catch his train. Catching the train is very important, because he wants to go home, he wants to see his wife, who he hasn’t seen for three years. And then he becomes aware that there are people in his flat, and they’re carrying something heavy. He assumes that one of them must be Lugg, his old servant, so he finishes the bath and slips into his bedroom to find a dressing-gown. There he meets a visitor whom he doesn’t expect, and who wasn’t there ten minutes earlier: a dead body lying on his bed. He goes to find Lugg and asks him politely whether the lady in his bedroom will be staying long, fully intending to get out quick and catch his train. But it’s too late, he’s been sucked into the plot, and he doesn’t get to catch his train until the coroner has finished pronouncing on the second death in the book, the one that ends the story and reveals the hideously complex plot.

Campion is like Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn: he’s from the upper classes, and can speak to any of them as a familiar, and frequently as an old acquaintance. His uncle is the Bishop of Devizes (an invented see, by which we are expected to appreciate Campion’s Establishment connections), and his parents are something very high up in the British nobility, possibly even semi-royal. But Campion is a younger son and doesn’t use a title, instead using his affable and harmless pseudonym of Albert, which is royal enough in the right context. The importance of Campion’s social class here is that this novel is about the British assumption that certain people don’t need to follow the rules, or obey the law, simply because of who they are. Lady Carados is an ageing beauty, formerly an actress, but has been spoiled by her late husband the Marquis of Carados, and is now an uncontrollable force of privilege and willpower. Her son, Johnny Carados, also cannot control her, but he can persuade her to follow some of the laws of the land that otherwise she so blithely ignores.

Lady Carados had found the first dead body in her son’s bed, just before he was due back on leave, and a few days before his marriage, and so she decides that clearly the woman must have committed suicide, and changes the incriminating bottle by the bed, that has Johnny’s name on it, for something more suitable, because clearly that’s what ought to have happened. Then she decides to move the body, and gets Lugg, whom she knows from his Air Raid Warden and Heavy Rescue work in Carados Square, to use his ambulance to get the body out of her son’s house, which is why Campion finds the body on his bed. When the police start questioning her, she complains how stodgy and stuffy they are, and how they simply can’t understand why she had to move the body. The police ask her not to leave her house until the morning, but she ignores this, because, as she laughingly tells her son, they can’t possibly expect her to take them literally, can they? She seems utterly oblivious to the fact that the lady in the bed has been murdered, and that her fingerprints are all over the evidence, and that murder means a hanging.

Similarly, the twists and turns of the plot show that many of Johnny Carados’ entourage are solely concerned with protecting his name, because he must be above reproach. He’s a good man, a war hero, a great philanthropist, and an imaginative patron of the arts, but somehow, very oddly, all the lines of enquiry in the murder, and in the art thefts, and in the attacks at night, lead back to him. Campion is astounded at the blinkered attitudes of the gay young people in his household, who are now not so young, and not so gay as they were in the 1930s, but quite complacent in their assumption that of course Johnny can do things because he is Johnny, and the law simply doesn’t apply to people like them. He nearly kills an old friend by giving him a stomach remedy, because someone unknown has switched the bottles. Instead of being appalled, his entourage are only concerned with keeping the victim quiet, and the doctor silenced, because Johnny’s name must be kept clean.

Allingham’s great skill in increasing the tension rests on her invented social landscape. The hidden treasures of the nation are at stake, and we believe in them all, especially those, like the Gyrth Chalice, that have appeared in the Allingham world already, because she simply persuades us so effortlessly in these invented works of art. We’ve never heard of the Carados title, because its an Allingham invention, but half a page after its first mention, we believe in the Marquis of Carados as we would believe in the Duke of Westminster. She also has a fondness for the theatre; there is usually a theatrical character in her novels. InCoroner’s Pidgin, Eve Snow the comedienne is Johnny’s mistress, and one of the few characters who don’t have any illusions about life as it must be lived in wartime, and can see things for what they really are. She and Johnny know perfectly well that society has changed, and are trying to persuade their friends to keep up with the new conditions of life, but these friends have other concerns. The gap between the two realities causes the tension.

The plot is twisted and mischievous, and unravels in unexpected ways. Campion drifts through the narrative, arriving at the right time in unexpected situations to collect information. He’s on hand to hear Lady Carados’ astounding remarks about privilege, and to be told by Ricky Silva that Dolly Chivers has a secret husband. The waiter at the Minoan Restaurant stirs up the plot now and again, just giving it a little prod to keep things interesting, by casually dropping information into Campion’s hands in an absent-minded way. A clear-as-day US army lieutenant, who is blindingly in love with Johnny’s fiancée (not Eve Snow, another one: do keep up), also has a lot of crucial information, but he doesn’t know it, and neither does Campion, until we are introduced to the subplot of the bottle of wine that should not exist.

Behind all this, we have the war. The Blitz doesn’t happen during the 48 hours of the story, but London is pretty much smashed to pieces, and after three years Campion has trouble getting about his formerly familiar routes, without streetlights or landmarks. Rationing is ignored, but food is scarce and fairly horrible, which makes the magnificence of the wine that should not exist so remarkable. The most charming character in the novel is Lugg’s pet pig, a monstrous sow that he keeps in a secluded dugout in a bombed-out London square. Like all Allingham’s novels, this one celebrates eccentricity, but also points out how dangerous eccentric little ways can be in a world that has no room for them.

first podcasted on 9 March 2012

14 December 2014