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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Happy Birthday Mark Twain!


Public Domain

Today, November 30, is the birthday of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to us as Mark Twain. I have only read a few of his books so far, but they are well worth reading.

Tom Sawyer is his semi autobiographical novel - at least, it’s set in the small town where he lived, though the name was changed from  Hannibal to St Petersburg. 

Tom does make an appearance in Huckleberry Finn, a much more serious novel about Tom’s friend Huck. Huck runs away from it all, with Jim, a slave, and the rest of the novel is a road story, though the road is the river, the Mississippi. It was turned into a musical, Big River, which I saw some years ago. It was very enjoyable, though it seems to have vanished. The novel has been dramatised many times, but also banned due to its supposed racism, though I can’t see it. If anything, it was anti-racism. 

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court is a hilarious tale of an American with a good knowledge of technology who travels in time and manages to take over Arthur’s England and introduce high tech, along with newspapers and baseball. I have a first British edition which my sister bought me many years ago because she knew I loved Arthurian fiction. She didn’t know it was a first edition! It’s illustrated. I treasure it. Incidentally, there is a novel, Arthur, King, in which Arthur has to travel forward in time to World War II, to retrieve Excalibur and Merlin’s journal, both stolen by Mordred. While posing as a pilot(he learns to fly, just not to land) he befriends an American volunteer who has joined the British war effort as the U.S is not yet in the war. His friend is from Connecticut…

This story, too, has been filmed many times. 

The one I reread most often is The Prince And The Pauper, in which the young boy who will become Edward VI finds himself out on the streets when he swaps places just for fun with a poor boy, Tom Canty, who looks exactly like him. This one has been filmed at least as many times as A Connecticut Yankee, and more recently, in a TV mini series. Disney did it, with Guy Williams as Miles Hendon, the man who protects the Prince, even though he doesn’t believe him. Errol Flynn played the role in the 1937 version - I’m rather fond of that one, which is charming. Oliver Reed did it too, with a teenage Mark Lester(Oliver!) as both boys and Charlton Heston as Henry VIII. It also, I think, was the template for all those stories with identical characters who swapped places. 

Mark Twain was very much someone who would be considered a leftist today. He makes his point in Prince, Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee, and he was certainly an abolitionist and a supporter of women’s rights. I can’t help suspecting that if he was alive today he would be on social media with millions of followers and his satire would have driven President 45 crazy.

He was enthusiastic about science and technology, though he went bankrupt over an invention he invested in, a typesetting machine that had problems. 

Over here in Australia, we remember that when he paid a visit to our country, he said of the Melbourne Cup that it had to be the only place where the nation stopped for a horse race.

Mark Twain was born during the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1835 and always said he would go out with the comet. He was right - he died in 1910, during the next visit of the comet.

He has been a character in fiction; I saw him once in in a TV film of Phillip Jose Farmer’s first Riverworld novel(I also read the book) and once in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Time’s Arrow” in which the android Data finds himself in the 19th century, where he meets Guinan, later to become the ship’s bartender. Mark Twain helps the other crew find Data, and has a great time doing it. In Riverworld, he is in the afterlife and building a river boat. (The premise is that everyone who dies is awakened on another planet, beside a huge river, and, if killed, simply turns up elsewhere along the river, so you never know who you will run into.)

You should be able to find much of his work for free on  Project Gutenberg. Give it  a go if you have missed out.

Meanwhile, happy birthday Mark Twain!

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

In Which I View The Green Knight And Think About The Poem

 I have just watched The Green Knight on Prime. I wasn’t going to watch it till I had had a good go at selling my Gawain novella, A Matter Of Honour, which I wrote some time ago, but hardly anyone is buying this length right now and those who are don’t want mediaeval fantasy.

So, I thought, the film is there, it has had some great reviews, what the heck. I watched it.

Did I like it? Hmm… 

In case you aren’t familiar with the Middle English poem, here goes. 

It’s the Christmas season - New Year - in Camelot. Everyone is having a great time. King Arthur won’t eat until something amazing has happened. As this is Camelot, of course, something amazing does happen. A huge green man rides into the hall on a green horse. The man is festively dressed in green and gold, carrying an axe, and challenges Arthur and his knights to a game. 

The game? One of them can give him a blow, but must then go to the Green Chapel in a year to receive one in his turn. 

After everyone’s startled silence, Arthur - a young man in this poem - grabs the axe impulsively, but his nephew Gawain asks for the honour instead. Gawain swipes the knight’s head off in one blow, but the story isn’t over: the Green Knight picks it up and rides from the hall, his head reminding Gawain that he must come to the Green Chapel now. 

The year goes by and Gawain sets off on his quest, pretty sure he won’t be returning. After all, he doesn’t have magic to stay alive after such a blow. He has many adventures along the way, not described, and asks everyone where to find the Green Chapel. 

Finally, he arrives at a castle called Hautdesert, where he is welcomed by a cheerful lord called Sir Bertilak and his beautiful wife. The Bertilaks really know how to party, and invite him to stay for the Christmas celebrations. 

“The Green Chapel?” says his host. “Oh, that’s just down the road! You can even sleep in on the day. Plenty of time !” 

Gladly, Gawain accepts, and also agrees to a fun game. Bertilak will be going hunting for the next three days. Each night he will hand over whatever he gains to Gawain, while Gawain will give him whatever he gets. You’d think after last time he would know better, but Bertilak is such a nice man, so what the heck…

Each of the next three mornings, Bertilak goes hunting and his wife walks into Gawain’s room. She gives him a kiss the first day, two the next. Much to Bertilak’s amusement, Gawain kisses him. The third morning, Lady Bertilak offers him, apart from three kisses, a green belt which will protect him from harm. 

Gawain is only human: he passes on the kisses, but not the belt. 

On the day, Gawain is guided on his way by a servant who urges him not to do it, and promises to keep his secret, but Gawain’s honour won’t let him. He proceeds. 

The Green Knight is waiting for him. The young man stands still to take his blow. The Knight swoops down, then complains that Gawain flinched. Gawain promises not to flinch again.

He starts again. Again he doesn’t take his blow. “Get ON with it, damn you!” yells Gawain. 

The third time he does cut Gawain’s neck, but not much. Our hero leaps aside and says, “Right! You’ve had your blow! That’s enough!”

But the Knight has no intention of doing more. Now, he explains: “I didn’t hit you the first two times because you kept your promise the first two days. The third day, you didn’t, when you accepted my wife’s gift without passing it on.”

Gawain is horrified! This scary creature is his jolly host? And yes, he broke his word…

But Bertilak tells him to keep the green belt and invites him back to the castle to enjoy the rest of the festival. 

Understandably, Gawain says no thanks, got to go home. 

He makes the decision to wear the belt permanently, to remind himself of the time he was weak. Back in Camelot, everyone wears a green belt in support of him. Incidentally, this is mentioned in Phyllis Ann Karr’s novel Idylls Of The Queen. It’s years later, but Gawain is still wearing the now-worn-out belt.

Basically, it’s a sweet story, and a lot of fun, with a young hero who learns about himself. 

And then there is the film… not sweet or fun. 

Spoilers ahead! 

It is so very serious and slow-paced. I should add, there are only two named characters, Gawain and his lover back home, Essel(the actress, Alicia Vikander, also played the Lady). Arthur and Guinevere are the King and Queen. Sir Bertilak is just the Lord, his wife the Lady.

Gawain’s horse is also named, though only once, when Gawain cries out his name, Gringolet. (A beautiful animal, though not dapple grey like Gringolet in the poem)

It’s visually beautiful and I can see why the producer director says he was thinking of Excalibur. Dev Patel is a lovely Gawain and our very own Joel Edgerton is a terrific Bertilak. 

He isn’t the Green Knight, though. I’d sort of hoped that after the not-very-good Sword Of The Valiant, they might change that back. In that film, Bertilak was a minor character and the Green Knight was played by Sean Connery, who admittedly was perfect for the role. He was a nature spirit, a vegetation god, and … melted into the soil. 

In this film, the Knight was created by Gawain’s mother, the king’s sorceress sister, for reasons never explained. Admittedly, in the poem, Morgan Le Fay sets up the whole business to scare Guinevere, no idea why. But Morgan Le Fay is Gawain’s aunt, not his mother.

Towards the end, there was a sequence that made me think of the last few scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I won’t say more, though I still have no idea what was going on in those scenes, and I saw it as a teenager. 

So, again, did I like it? I’m not sure. Would I like it better if I hadn’t read the poem? Perhaps. I would probably just say, “Well, that’s a different Arthurian film!” But I have to say, I prefer my sweet and funny poem.

Anyway, if you want to see the film, it is available on Amazon Prime. If you want to read the poem, I recommend J.R.R Tolkien’s translation, which is very readable, and the volume also contains his translations of Sir Orfeo and Pearl, with an introduction by his son, Christopher Tolkien, who edited it. I have read it in the original Middle English as well, but as translations go you can’t do better than Tolkien, can you? 

I got my copy on Apple Books, but you can buy it in print as well, and in Kindle, and I see that Audible has it too, read by Monty Python member Terry Jones.that alone would be enough for me to buy it! 

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Some Favourite Shakespeare Films

 I have just read an article in the Age newspaper about the author’s favourite Shakespeare film adaptations and why he loved them. He says that during the lockdown he decided to see at least one adaptation of each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. He didn’t quite make it, but saw an impressive number of them. 

I thought I might mention here some of those I’ve particularly enjoyed, myself. 

When I was still at school the BBC released quite a few, though I’m not sure if they got through the lot as planned. You can buy them in DVD boxed sets, so anything you can’t find a production of elsewhere is probably available in the BBC series.

 I remember not caring for their Romeo And Juliet, but it did feature some impressive names, including Michael Hordern, who stole the show as Lord Capulet, and a 22 year old Alan Rickman, whose voice was unmistakable even then, as Tybalt; it was one of three versions our Year 10 students saw a few years ago, so I did see it again. The other two were Franco Zeffirelli’s beautiful Italian Renaissance film, the leads played for the first time on screen by teenagers, and the Baz Luhrmann version done in modern dress. There is no question in my mind that, beautiful as it was, the Zeffirelli version was a bit slower than most kids today like. When I went to see the Luhrmann film I thought, yes! The kids will love this! The ball scene, which showed the doomed lovers darting amid fish tanks, was not unlike that scene in the Zeffirelli version. The fights were ugly and believable. I like that Mercutio came to the costume party in drag and then got up to sing, because that was just the sort of thing Mercutio would do. 

But Romeo And Juliet is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I prefer plays like Shakespeare’s screwball comedy Much Ado About Nothing, which I have seen both on stage and on screen. 

The article I mentioned above talked about the Kenneth Branagh version, in which he starred as Benedick, with his then wife, Emma Thompson as Beatrice. It was wonderful, yes, done in 19th century costume, and performed brilliantly. I hear there is a film directed by Joss Whedon - my great niece Dezzy says it’s very good - but I haven’t seen it.

I’ve seen it on stage several times, with one version in Regency costume, making me wonder if they got the idea from Pride And Prejudice. A few years ago, I saw it again on stage, with Benedick and Beatrice played by Hugo Weaving(aka Elrond and Agent Smith) and Pamela Rabe. That was done in 1950s clothes, and I still remember that scene where Beatrice is out in the garden, trying to open a deck chair, and nearly getting shut in by it when she overhears that Benedick loves her…

But my favourite version was a filmed stage show in which the leads were played by Catherine Tate and David Tennant, aka Donna and the Doctor, in 1950s costume There was such chemistry between them! They have to be my favourite Beatrice and Benedick. I have a download of it. If you are interested I think it may still be up on YouTube. You might also be able to buy it from the theatre’s web site.

If you can’t find anything else, it’s on DVD as one of the BBC plays. There were some well known actors in that too.

Hamlet has been filmed over and over, of course. The 1948 Olivier movie, in which he stars with Jean Simmons as Ophelia, actually got a mention in Catcher In The Rye, in which we read Holden Caulfield’s opinion(he liked some bits, not others). It has some big names in it too, with Stanley Holloway(Mr Doolittle in My Fair Lady) as the Gravedigger, Patrick Troughton, a future Doctor, as the Player King, with Peter Cushing, star of all those horror movies and another future Doctor, as Osric, whose main job is to flourish a sword to start the duel between Hamlet and Laertes(played by Terence Morgan, whom you might only know if you have seen the children’s series Sir Francis Drake). You can watch it for free on YouTube. 

But it’s not my favourite version. That would be the Branagh film. It’s four hours long, though they also showed a cut back version. I’ve seen the full production at the Astor cinema near my place. We all took picnic suppers with us to see it. 

Claudius is played by Derek Jacobi. In my younger years I saw him on stage as Hamlet, when there was a tour by the Old Vic. But he was born to play Claudius! In that film, Charlton Heston was the Player King. He was not, bless him, much of a Shakespeare actor, as I saw in his film of Antony And Cleopatra, but was able to handle this smaller role.  

I’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream a number of times, with different interpretations, including, of course, the 1934 film, with Mickey Rooney as Puck, though that one seems to be hard to find. I’m currently watching a filmed stage production on National Theatre At Home. The role of Titania is played by Gwendoline Christie, whom you may have seen as Brienne of Tarth in Game Of Thrones, or, covered in stormtrooper armour, as Captain Phasma in Star Wars. But there is a difference: in this production, Oberon and Titania have swapped lines, and Puck is working for her, not him. So it’s Oberon who falls for Bottom, and Titania who is pulling all the strings. Definitely intriguing! 

But my favourite is the film version with Kevin Kline as Bottom. It’s set in early 20th century Sicily. Bottom is shown as a bit of a dandy, in a white suit ruined by paint splashed on it. For him, the night with Titania(Michelle Pfeiffer)and the fairies is utter magic, far from his ordinary life with a difficult wife. While with the fairies he is given a gold circlet, which he wears as a ring when he goes home, suggesting he shrank to tiny fairy size while in the forest. 

The film is visually beautiful, and delightfully performed, magical in more ways than one. 

I’ve recently watched the Hollow Crown version of Richard III. Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant in the role. But some years ago there was a very good film with Ian McKellen in the lead, performed in 1930s costume. It worked well. The film started with a celebration party at the palace, with a big band playing and a singer doing a song with lyrics by Christopher Marlowe. Clarence is the family photographer. Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s brother is shown as an American, rather vulgar as far as the royals are concerned. And I have to say that it was jaw dropping to see Richard driving a tank! That is a version I’d love to get hold of, but can’t seem to find.

Speaking of The Hollow Crown, which follows Shakespeare’s history plays, from Richard II to Richard III, there are highlights for me, such as Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, doing the “this England” speech in Richard II. I also have to say, Tom Hiddleston is a wonderful Prince Hal/Henry V. He has that look of mischief, a small smile that tells you he is going to do something cheeky, from the first time you see him walking through the street to the inn run by Mistress Quickly(Julie Walters). Jeremy Irons is Henry IV and Simon Russell Beale is Falstaff, both of them veteran actors. 

I have compared the Crispian’s Day speech from Henry V, on YouTube, done very differently in each. The Olivier version was made as wartime propaganda, so of course, it’s done as an inspirational speech to his army. The film is well worth a look, as a play within a play. It starts in Shakespeare’s London, on a stage, with groundlings and all, and opens up from there. When Henry and Katherine approach their thrones, they turn around, and we are back in the theatre and Katherine is being played by a boy actor. The battle of Agincourt is done breathtakingly. The film has a score by William Walton. 

Film poster. Fair use

You can see it on YouTube if interested. 

The Branagh version is also brilliant. It earned Kenneth Branagh the title of the next Olivier. It’s a lot grubbier than the Olivier film, more realistic. Emma Thompson is Princess Katherine. Again, the Crispian’s Day speech is done to the troops. 

In the Hollow Crown version, Henry(Tom Hiddleston) speaks it just to a small group of his officers. More realistic, if less inspiring, but in the context, it works. 

The series is on Amazon Prime right now, and, here in Australia, also on the ABC’s iView app.

iView is also, right now, showing Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes, in modern dress, and goodness, you can absolutely understand why the plebeians hate the hero! He is truly menacing in the opening scenes. I haven’t finished it yet.

The National Theatre production shows him as naive and a bit more sympathetic, a man whose behaviour started with his mother, played brilliantly by Deborah Findlay. 

It’s not performed a lot because the hero is not very likeable. I do think it deserves more attention than it gets.

A runner-up for me is the film of Twelfth Night, with Toby Stephens, son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. The highlight was Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio. You may have seen him in Yes, Minister, but he also did The Madness Of King George. He managed to make you feel sympathy for him when the jokers in Countess Olivia’s household lock him up and try to persuade him he is mad. 

So, these are some of my favourite Shakespeare films - have I missed any of yours?


So, these are some of my favourite Shakespeare films - have I missed any of yours?