Toad of Toad Hall – A A Milne

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What could be better than a play written by one of the English language’s best known children’s authors based on the book by one of the others. A A Milne whilst famous for his tales of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh and all his friends in The Hundred Acre Wood was also a prolific playwright and in 1929 he adapted Kenneth Grahame’s famous 1908 tale The Wind in the Willows for the stage. This year marks ninety years since the first production and the copy I have is the first American edition also from 1929 printed by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. The introduction is particularly interesting as Milne deals with the problems of adapting a book, particularly one as well known as The Wind in the Willows.

There are two well-known ways in which to make a play out of a book. You may insist on being faithful to the author, which means that the scene in the aeroplane on page 673 must be got in somehow, however impossible dramatically, or, with somebody else’s idea in your pocket, you may insist on being faithful to yourself, which means that by the middle of act III everybody will realise how right the original author was to have made a book of it. There may be a third way, in which case I have tried to follow it. If, as is more likely, there isn’t, then I have not made a play of The Wind in the Willows. But I have, I hope, made some sort of entertainment, with enough of Kenneth Grahame in it to appease his many admirers, and enough of me in it to justify my name on the title page.

Milne’s solution to condensing the book is to focus on the parts that feature Mr Toad. this means that a consistent central cast is established although Toad is actually only in roughly half of the original book. He also gets round the problem of just how big is everyone, after all Toad drives cars and owns a horse drawn caravan but is definitely smaller than Badger whom we know lives under a tree in the Wild Wood so must be ‘normal sized’ at least most of the time. by having the start of the first act and also the epilogue make it clear that all the action is actually the dream of a young girl called Marigold sitting with her nursemaid on the banks of the river on a warm spring morning, neither of which are in the original story.

In reading the book, it is necessary to think of Mole, for instance, sometimes as an actual mole, sometimes as such a mole in human clothes, sometimes as a mole grown to human size, sometimes as walking on two legs, sometimes on four. He is a mole, he isn’t a mole. What is he? I don’t know. And, not being a matter of fact person, I don’t mind. At least I do know, and still I don’t mind

This quote, also from the introduction, gets to the heart of the ‘problem’ with The Wind in the Willows. But the reason why I put the word problem in quotes is because it isn’t a problem and never has been to readers of the book who are just swept up in the story. But put it on a stage, with humans playing the characters, and the stage director definitely has a potential problem. This is solved by the dream concept and allows the tale to unfold seamlessly with everyone being human sized yet still being Mole, Ratty, Badger, Toad et al.

For all of Milne’s protestations above the play is actually remarkably faithful to the parts of the book being dramatised and the humour is wonderful. Especially for my mind those lines given to Alfred, the sarcastic, and feeling much put upon, horse pulling Toad’s caravan. Anyone who loves Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories will love Alfred, he was created by Milne as the horse isn’t named and is only a bit and indeed silent player in the book but here he really comes alive…

Enter a horse pulling a gaily painted wooden caravan

ALFRED Oh, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere
TOAD (excitedly) Now isn’t this lucky? Just at the psycho – psycho – what’s the word?
ALFRED (hopefully) Encyclopaedia, That is, if you ask me
TOAD I didn’t ask you. Ratty you know the word–
ALFRED Introduce me to your friends, won’t you? I do get so frightfully left out of it
TOAD My friends Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole this is Alfred
ALFRED Pleased to meet you. If you are coming my way, you must let me take you. Only I do like a little conversation (To Toad) Encyclopaedia, that was the word you wanted
RAT (Sadly) So this is the latest?
TOAD (Eagerly) Absolutely the very latest. There isn’t a more beautiful one, a more compact one, a more – what’s the word?
ALFRED Heavy
TOAD A more up to date one, a more –
RAT So this is the latest craze! I understand. Boating is played out. He’s tired of it, and done with it
ALFRED Don’t blame me. I wasn’t consulted about this at all; but if I had been, I should have said boats. Stick to boats.
TOAD My dear old Ratty, you don’t understand. Boating – well – a pleasant amusement for the young. I say nothing against it. But there’s real life for you (he waves a paw at the van) – in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs!
ALFRED And the ups. However nobody consults me. Nobody minds what I think.

The play starts with Marigold on the phone (actually a daffodil) pretending to call Mr. Rat who she eventually gets through to and sets the basis of the play as her fantasy as regards the main characters. Suddenly we hear elfin music, the stage goes dark, Marigold and her nurse vanish and the magic of the story unfolds with Mole appearing out of his hole and meeting Ratty for the first time. We are soon afterwards introduced to Badger and then Toad and the tale continues with the arrival of Alfred so they can go on a caravanning trip. Sensibly Badger declines to be involved. Caravanning doesn’t last long however, they are forced off the road by a furiously driven car and the only thing Toad can think of after that is having one of those; “Poop Poop” is all they can get out of him for quite a while. And so ends the first act.

Act two is set entirely within the Wild Wood home of the dangerous Stoats and Weasels. Initially with Mole getting lost whilst exploring in the snow and scared of the woods inhabitants before being rescued by Ratty. Then the two of them stumble over Badger’s house and decide to take refuge from the bad weather and the ever present danger from attack when wandering at night in the wood. Inside Badgers home all is comfortable and settled as you would expect from the residence of an older gentleman content in his own company. The three friends start talking about Toad and his motoring exploits, apparently he has already owned (and crashed) seven cars, they are just discussing what they should do to save him from himself when Toad himself arrives. He has crashed car number eight… Badger decides to keep Toad at his house until this current craze has passed but after a few weeks Toad manages to trick Ratty into leaving him alone and the act closes with Toad running off singing about how clever he is.

Act three starts in a courthouse with Toad on trial for stealing a car and then calling a policeman fat-face. Sentenced to twenty years for these heinous crimes, especially the being cheeky to a policeman we then find him in a cell. He makes his escape with the help of the jailers daughter and her washerwoman aunt who they bribe to let him wear her clothes and after a series of adventures, including stealing a bargee’s horse he heads for the river.

The final act starts with Toad at Ratty’s home where he is informed that during the four weeks he was incarcerated the Stoats and Weasels have taken over Toad Hall and a daring plan is formed by Badger to take it back. The final scene of the battle and aftermath is actually the only time Toad Hall appears in the play despite being in the title. Finally the short epilogue as mentioned earlier has Marigold asleep amongst the daffodils as her nurse wakes her to go home.

As can be seen from the above précis the play follows the book pretty well, and it is sometimes difficult to spot which author is responsible for what. Indeed I will leave the last word to the summary on the dust wrapper of the first US edition and a photo of the front of the dust wrapper which is a paler version of the book cover shown at the top of the blog

we in turn, might ask ourselves after reading this play: “Is it Kenneth Grahame? Is it A. A. Milne?” We don’t know, but it doesn’t at all matter, for it is perfect

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It’s been a year

I have kept this weekly blog now for just over a year and I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at the entries and see if it can give me some ideas as to which books to talk about next. To my surprise the top five liked entries as I write this are all related to Scotland

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William McGonagall wrote excruciatingly bad verse about Scotland and the people there and was a proud resident of Dundee, eventually Dundee has become proud of him as well. Iain Banks was another Scotsman through and through and the book I reviewed was his homage to the land of his birth. Shaun Bythell’s book was one of the first things I wrote about so his diary of keeping a Scottish bookshop going has had a whole year to accumulate its tally of likes whilst I only wrote about Elizabeth Cummings book about Scottish artist Sir Robin Philipson a couple of weeks ago and it has already made it to number five. You may have noticed I skipped Robert Service, he was also Scottish although found fame as a poet in Canada however I left him to last as he highlights another trend in popular posts here and that is poetry.

This is even more obvious when I look at the next five entries…

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The Frogs is a classical Greek play in verse, Persian Poets is clearly about poetry and Under Milk Wood is a poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, this makes half of the top ten liked entries are about poetry although there is nowhere near that percentage represented in the total number of essays I have produced so far.

The remaining two are interesting. The Royal Tour is a beautifully illustrated diary of a cruise around a lot of the then British Empire and Uncle Jim is a bit of a sleeper as it deals with the early output of fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett but without mentioning him in the title so you had to read the article to find out.

There are other statistics available that don’t display on the front page so aren’t visible to readers of the blog and from those I can see that Deep in the Forest – Estonian Folk Tales is looked at more often than any other entry and it is viewed from all over the world, as opposed to my other Estonian review of the Apothacary Melchior books which also gets quite a few readers but 90% of these are in Estonia or Finland. Only one entry has not been read by anybody according to the statistics available and that is The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Sorry Will although I have all your plays several times I don’t think you are going to be featured here again.

So what does all this tell me? Well poetry is definitely popular here and that’s good as I also like poetry and have quite a few more poets to write about, one of which will probably be in the next four weeks. Bearing in mind the Scottish bias as well I suppose I had better get the volume of Robert Burns I have from 1946 out and reread that soon.

The Frogs by Aristophanes was a surprise hit, to me at least, so we will see how next weeks entry, which is also classical Greek, goes down. I have a lot of ‘the Classics’ and am also planning a review of a book dealing with the subject of what makes a classic in the next month or so. Art and Design has also been popular and again this is something I have a lot about in my library so expect more of those subjects in the coming year.

But is there anything you would like me to write about? Not specific books, as according to the rules I set myself I have to own the title to write about it so you would have to be really lucky to hit one of the 6,500 titles on my shelves, but general subjects. I haven’t done much on Travel and Exploration but what has been done has been generally well received, should I do more? Any suggestions would be good either as a comment below or as a message through the site.

Hedda Gabler – Henrik Ibsen

The first thing you notice when you pick up Hedda Gabler is that there is no character of that name in the cast list. Gabler was her maiden name but at the start of the play she is just returning from honeymoon having married Jörgen Tesman so she is referred to in the cast as Hedda Tesman. As Ibsen himself wrote:

The title of the play is Hedda Gabler. My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda as a personality is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than her husband’s wife. It was not really my intention to deal in this play with so called problems. What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions and human destinies upon a groundwork of certain social conditions and principles of the present day.

(Excerpt from letter to Moritz Prozor, December 4, 1890)

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The edition I have read is the Penguin Classic translated by Una Ellis-Fermor printed in 1950, she also translated a further collection of Ibsen’s plays for Penguin in 1958 entitled The Master Builder and other plays. When Penguin came to reprint this 1950 book it was retitled Hedda Gabler and other plays to match the later edition. In both volumes Ellis-Fermor describes the translations as ‘readers versions’. By which she means that although the plays could be performed from her translation her intention was to produce works that a reader would find comfortable to read. One thing I have definitely discovered during this month of reading plays is that although when performed on the stage a play can be a wondrous thing and transport you to worlds of imagination; when you sit and read them they are somewhat less satisfying. They were never intended to be read as literature after all, however Ellis-Fermor has, whilst retaining the structure of a play, made it so it can easily be read as a novella (102 pages in this version).

The play is in four acts all of which take place in the Tesman’s new home which has been purchased and furnished whilst they were away on their six month honeymoon under the supervision of Jörgen’s aunt Juliane. She has even put some of her own money into the purchase when finances became tight. It is clear the Jörgen needs the professorship that is available in order to finance is new life as a married man especially as Hedda appears to have quite expensive tastes. For her part Hedda is already bored of the marriage, Jörgen appears to be more interested in his work and books than her and the ‘honeymoon’ was really an extended research trip. There is a funny passage of dialogue near the beginning of act one where Juliane has clearly planned the layout of the house with two empty rooms to be used as nurseries and children’s bedrooms and Jörgen really can’t understand and thinks they are for his library extension and no matter how she hints at Hedda being possibly pregnant Jörgen just doesn’t twig.

When Hedda does finally appear on stage she is deliberately rude to Juliane and makes it clear that she doesn’t like the way the place has been decorated, Juliane leaves and in her place Mrs Thea Elvsted arrives with news of Ejlert Lövborg, Jörgen’s presumed rival for the professorship especially as he has published a book whilst they have been away on honeymoon. It is at this point that the complex relationships between the characters start to be explained. Thea was in a brief relationship with Jörgen before he met Hedda and she had also been at school with Hedda where she had been bullied by her. Hedda, for reasons of her own makes out that they were school friends and gets Jörgen out of the way to talk about Ejlert who Thea had moved in with after leaving her husband. Thea tells Hedda that she is worried about Ejlert as he has gone back to his old ways (presumably drinking) and that he had been threatened by a previous partner with a gun and she thinks he may meet her again. Hedda reassures her that no woman would do such a thing but as Thea leaves she goes to a cabinet and pulls out her fathers pistols as the first act closes.

Act two begins with Hedda firing one of her guns towards Judge Brack as he comes to visit Jörgen who is out at the time, she is clearly not mentally stable but as the play continues her instability revolves around a desire to totally control somebody else and it seems she is set on it being Ejlert. Whilst waiting Brack makes it clear that he also desires a relationship with Hedda although she is not at all keen on the idea. Jörgen returns and is soon followed by Ejlert at his invitation, once they actually meet Ejlert explains that he doesn’t want the professorship as he has a new book he is working on. Whilst Jörgen and Brack are talking in another room Ejlert tries to renew his relationship with Hedda and she sees that he can be the one she can control. Thea arrives towards the end of the act and the two woman settle down for the evening after Hedda has persuaded Ejert to accompany Jörgen and Brack on their planned night out with him to return at 10pm to escort Thea home.

Act three is set the next morning, both ladies are in front of the now cooling fire, Ejlert obviously didn’t return to take Thea home but when Jörgen comes in he is carrying Ejlert’s manuscript of his new book and is very excited about how good it is. He had seen Ejlert drop it in the street and picked it up but hadn’t returned it as he was afraid he would lose it again. However Jörgen gets a message that his other aunt is dying so needs to leave urgently. Ejlert meanwhile is convinced he has destroyed the book and arrives to tell Thea who is horrified as she had worked tirelessly on the book with him and leaves almost immediately. Ejlert left with Hedda is even more under her spell than when they were a couple and she seeing this as her chance to prove that she can control somebody presses him to commit suicide and gives him one of her pistols before he leaves. Afterwards she burns the manuscript.

The final act is very short and takes place soon after the previous scene. It turns out that Ejlert had gone from the Tesman house to the home of another previous girlfriend and there had died from a gunshot wound to the chest, Hedda thinks he shot himself in the heart (a truly romantic gesture) but no Judge Brack explains to her that the gun appears to have gone off accidentally and that he recognised the pistol thus insuring his power over her. Thea also reveals that she has the original notes from their work together so Jörgen and her start work to reconstruct the lost masterpiece. Knowing that her plans have failed and instead she is the one controlled Hedda retires to the other room and shoots herself which is where the play ends.

Hedda through out the play is depicted as a materialistic, narcissistic character, thoroughly unlikeable but someone who has drawn the three men to her in their own way. Jörgen has a wife who will help him progress in Norwegian society. Brack sees someone he can control and therefore use as he wishes. Only Ejlert Lövborg really loves her but she doesn’t reciprocate this love and he is apparently blind to the love from Thea Elvsted which could have made them both so happy.

At the end of the play you hope that Thea and Jörgen can get together as a couple during their work in resurrecting the lost manuscript. Finding through their shared loss a rekindling of the love they had in the past. Surely something good can come out of the tragedies.

The Tempest – William Shakespeare

Continuing with my plan to read plays through November, I am now starting The Tempest. I have several copies of this play, partly due to the two complete sets of Shakespeare’s works I have, one of which I covered in an earlier essay, but I also have three copies of the play in individual volumes. One from the Oxford University Press, one by Penguin Books from 1937 and the copy that I have been reading which is the beautiful Folio Society letterpress edition from 2008.

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This edition is bound in green goatskin leather, blocked in gold with hand-marbled paper sides and limited to 3750 numbered copies although not all of these appear to have been produced. The book is large (14˝ x 10¾˝ – 35½cm x 27cm) and the pages clear and easy to read. As the Folio Society themselves said about these volumes…

The starting point was the text. Rather than keep text and commentary together, we decided to put them into separate volumes. Out went the elements that clutter the page : footnotes and textual variants. All that was left was Shakespeare’s words.

We decided to have the text printed by letterpress in 16-point Baskerville. The type is set in hot metal and impressed on thick, mouldmade paper. The margins are generous – over 6 centimetres – to allow the words room to breathe.

The result is a simple, understated design that is a delight to read and a pleasure to hold.

Needless to say the books were expensive (£295 per play) but they did set out to produce the finest editions available and the ones I have are amongst the treasures of my library. A comparison between the Folio Society edition and my complete Oxford Shakespeare can be seen below and it’s obvious which is the better to read.

Enough about the book, as Shakespeare himself wrote in Hamlet “The play’s the thing” and this was the last play written by Shakespeare so I’m looking forward to reading it.

The play opens with a short scene set on a ship that is caught up in the eponymous tempest and looks as though it will probably sink. On board is Alonso the King of Naples and several courtiers including Antonio the Duke of Milan, the noblemen are however getting in the way of the seamen trying to save the vessel and frankly are just a nuisance. The rest of act one takes place on the island home of Prospero and his daughter Miranda, during which we find out that Prospero is the true Duke of Milan who was usurped by his brother Antonio with the help of King Alonso.

Prospero has somehow gained magical powers during his exile on the island and with the aid of the sprite Ariel he caused the foundering of the ship but also ensured that all aboard survived. The other occupant of the island is Caliban, the son of the witch Sycorax who is enslaved to Prospero and is described as half man, half beast. Ariel is also in servitude to Prospero but this is because he rescued him from a spell by Sysorax and Prospero has promised that when he regains dukedom so Ariel will be free to go on his way. Towards the end of the first act Ferdinand (King Alonso’s son) finds Prospero and Miranda and immediately falls in love with her, which is clearly Prospero’s plan to try to regain his dukedom.

Act two moves away from Prospero to follow up the other characters in two separate scenes. In the first one the other noblemen including King Alonso assume that they are the only survivors of the wreck although Gonzalo in particular is perplexed by the condition of their clothing which suggests that this was no ordinary maritime disaster.

…Our garments being, as they were drenched in the sea, not withstanding their freshness and gloss, being rather new-dyed than stained with salt water…

…Methinks our garments are now as fresh as when we put them on in Afric, at the marriage of the King’s fair daughter…

Ariel joins the group although he is invisible to them and by means of music causes some to fall asleep leaving Sebastian (Alonso’s brother) and Antonio. Antonio suggests to Sebastian that with Ferdinand dead the only thing stopping him doing what he did to Prospero and taking the kingdom of Naples for himself is Alonso himself who is conveniently asleep at his feet. Sebastian has drawn his sword to kill Alonso when Ariel reverses the charm and the others awake. Sebastian explains the drawn sword by saying he had heard noises and was preparing to defend the king.

The second scene takes us to the last remaining significant characters in the play Trinculo the court jester and Stephano the drunk butler who has managed to salvage a barrel of wine and is happily working his way through it. These two also believe themselves the only survivors and stumble across Caliban who sees them as a means of escaping his slavery by getting them to kill Prospero. His clownish attempts to get them to help him and the drunken antics of the other two are quite funny.

Act three keeps the three groups apart and sees us catching up with them in turn in separate scenes. All three scenes are quite short and we bounce from Ferdinand and Miranda who are now getting on very well and are talking of marriage. Then to Trinculo and Stephano who are convinced by Caliban to attack Prospero but are also now quite drunk and have also introduced Caliban to wine so this plot is clearly going nowhere. Finally the king and his party meet up with Ariel and with Prospero watching and commenting although invisible to the party he can see that his plans are working.

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Both of the final acts are short single scene performances and act four sees things moving forward quickly. Prospero agrees to the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda as they continue to express their love for each other and when they have left the stage he works with Ariel to ensure that the plot hatched by Caliban to get the two drunks to kill him will fail although by now none of the them are in a fit state to do anything sensible.

Finally the fifth act brings everyone together at last, Prospero draws a magic circle on the stage and lures the noblemen into it where he reveals who he really is but decides to forgive rather than punish them. He also reveals that the ship didn’t sink, instead it has been anchored off another part of the island with the crew charmed asleep, these are woken by Ariel and prepare for sailing as soon as possible. It isn’t clear what happens to Caliban, he presumably remains alone on the island but everyone else returns to Naples with Prospero renouncing his magic as he regains his dukedom.

The Tempest is grouped with the Comedies within Shakespeare’s canon however there is nothing particularly comedic about it, it is probably there because it certainly isn’t a History or Tragedy which are the only two other options. The light relief is provided by Trinculo and Stephano during their interaction with Caliban but this, as explained above, is largely self contained within scene two of acts two and three. I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare’s later mystical plays but this made for a pleasant evenings read and I’m surprised that I haven’t got round to reading it before. As usual for a Shakespeare play there are several quotes that have enriched the English language and gone on to be used even by those who don’t know where they were first created:-

Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on

O brave new world

and the probable winner for the worst chat up line of all time is given to Ferdinand

Hast thou not dropped from heaven?

Note: The kingdom of Naples and the duchy of Milan sound odd to us now as Naples in particular appears far too small to be a kingdom, but in Shakespeare’s time both these houses existed. The kingdom lasted from 1282 to 1816 although from 1501 it was effectively a title only as control of Naples passed between France, Spain and Austria depending on which monarchy was in the ascendant at the time. As for the duchy of Milan that lasted from 1395 to 1814 although over the last century of this it was absorbed into the Austrian Hapsburg empire.

Uncle Vania – Anton Chehov

Or is it Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, that appears to be the more usual spelling at least currently but I have spelt it the way I have in the title to this essay as that is how the Penguin Classics edition of 1959 which I have been reading has it so I will stick with it throughout.

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The first thing that strikes you reading the play is that for the first two acts Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky, whom his niece Sonia calls Uncle Vania, is largely an ensemble character and it is only in acts three and four that he comes to the front. The first act sets the dynamic tensions between the protagonists. There had clearly been a quiet routine in the house for many years with Sonia and Vania running the estate which had been her mothers dowry when she married professor Serebriakov. Sonia’s mother died some years ago and the professor has now retired to the estate from his home in the city and brought with him his second wife Yeliena who is just 27 years old, between them they have seriously upset the normal running of the household. To make things more complicated Astrov, the doctor who looks after the professor’s gout is attracted to Yeliena as is Vania, whilst Sonia is in love with Astrov. You just know it’s going to get messy and Vania is gloomy about the future as only a Russian can be…

Yeliena – What a lovely day … not too hot either

Voinitsky/Vania  – It would even be pleasant to hang oneself on a day like this…

There are four other characters in the play, all of which play minor roles so beyond the list below I won’t cover their actions.

  • Maryia Voinitskaia is Sonia’s grandmother/ Vania’s mother
  • Ilyia Ilyich Telyeghin was a local landowner but has lost all his money and now lives on the estate.
  • Marina an old children’s nurse
  • A workman – just needed to fill in such as fetching horses etc. when the main characters wouldn’t do such things.

Act two sees the complicated relationships become more strained. The doctor has been summoned but the professor won’t let him see him this means that he is yet again at the house and wants to spend time with Yeliena to convince her to leave the professor. Vania muses to himself that he missed his chance with Yeliena ten years ago

Voinitsky – [Alone] She’s gone! ten years ago I used to meet her at my sister’s house. She was seventeen then and I was thirty-seven. Why didn’t I fall in love with her then and ask her to marry me? It could have been done so easily! She would have been my wife now.

The professor meanwhile is in pain with the gout and frustrated with his existence at the estate where he feels he is wasting his time and doesn’t get on with anyone there.

Serebriakov – After devoting all my life to learning, after growing used to my study, to my lecture room, to esteemed colleagues – to find myself suddenly, for no reason at all in this crypt, to have to meet stupid people every day, to have to listen to their trivial conversation. I want to live; I love success, I like being a well known figure, I like creating a stir of the world, but here I feel an exile. To spend every minute regretting the past, watching others succeed, fearing death. I can’t! It’s more than I can bear.

Meanwhile Yeliena decides to at least try to make up with Sonia and during their talk admits that although she loved the professor when they married she soon realised her mistake but will remain true to him come what may. At the same time Sonia confesses her love for the doctor and asks Sonia to see if she can find out if he loves her.

Things come to a head in act three, Yeliena talks to the doctor about Sonia and he says he doesn’t love her but interprets the conversation as Yeliena using that as an excuse to talk to  him about love. he makes a clumsy pass at her during which he kisses her as she is pushing him away and this is seen by Vania who is just coming into the room at that point. Straight after this before anyone can settle the professor calls everyone together to say that he has decided to sell the estate and buy a villa in Finland for himself and Yeliena. At this Vania explodes with fury, the estate doesn’t belong to the professor but to Sonia and he has given no thought as to where the people who have always lived there might go and it is his family that should decide what to do with the estate as they paid for it

Voinitsky – The estate was originally bought for ninety-five thousand roubles. My father only paid seventy thousand and twenty-five thousand remained on mortgage. Now please do listen! This estate would never have been bought if I hadn’t given up my share of the inheritance in favour of my sister, whom I loved deeply. What’s more, I worked like an ox for ten years, and paid off the whole mortgage.

Serebriakov – I regret that I started this conversation.

Voinitsky – The estate is free from debt and in good condition simply because of my own efforts, and now that I’ve grown old, I’m to be kicked out!

Serebriakov – I don’t understand what you are driving at!

Voinitsky – For twenty-five years I’ve been managing this estate, I’ve been working and sending you money like the most conscientious bailiff you could have, and all this time you’ve never once thanked me for it. All this time – when I was young and now just the same –  I’ve been getting a salary of five hundred roubles a year from you, a pittance! and never once have you thought of adding a single rouble to it!

Serebriakov – Ivan Petrovich, how was I to know? I am not a practical man and I don’t understand anything about these matters. You could have added as much as you liked.

Voinitsky – Yes indeed, why didn’t I steal? Why don’t you all laugh at me now because I didn’t steal. It would have been fair enough and I shouldn’t now have been a pauper now!

The professor leaves the room shortly after this, soon followed by Vania and a shot is heard off stage then both men run into the room and Vania fires again, both shots miss, Vania drops the pistol and collapses into a chair as the act ends.

To be honest act four which is set the next day feels like a bit of a let down after the excitement of act three. It has been decided that the professor and Yeliena will leave straight away. With them going the doctor has no reason to still be there and he also leaves. Vania and Sonia sit down to work on the books of the estate which have been neglected whilst the professor has been there and all returns to how it was before.

I’ve seen the play performed, although that was many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it but this was the first time I had read the script. The book contains eight plays in all so I will be reading those later.

The Frogs – Aristophanes

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For November I’ve decided to read a selection of plays and the first one is The Frogs by Aristophanes. Normally I’m not a great fan of Ancient Greek dramas as you need a lot of knowledge of the gods and other characters involved but this translation is so readable I found myself laughing along as I read it. It was written in 405 BC and can be dated so precisely because it was created for drama competition as part of a festival honouring the god Dionysus in Athens where it took first place. Dionysus is one of the Greek gods with lots of jobs, according to the Wikipedia entry he is the god of the grape-harvest, wine making and wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre and it is in the latter one of these roles that a drama competition in his name becomes obvious.

The play tells the story of Dionysus deciding to travel to the underworld to bring back the playwright Euripedes who had died the previous year in order to rescue the arts in Athens back from the doldrums that he perceives it to be in. The first act sees Dionysus and his slave Xanthias on their journey, initially they visit Dionysus’s half brother Heracles for advice which causes him to collapse with laughter as Dionysus has decided to dress like Heracles with the lion head cloak and club but he really doesn’t have the build to carry off the look. Eventually they persuade Heracles to explain the route he used when he went to get the three headed dog Cerebus and they duly set off. When they meet Charon, the ferryman of the dead he agrees to take Dionysus and this is when he encounters the frog chorus who sing during the crossing. Despite the play being called The Frogs this is the only time they appear in it. After various encounters with people who think Dionysus is Heracles and either hate him for taking Cerebus or love him for it they finally reach the home of Pluto ruler of the Hades.

Act two takes place entirely at the Pluto’s house where they find Euripedes and also another dramatist Aeschylus who had died about 50 years earlier. These two had been arguing for the last year about which was the better writer and should therefore sit with Pluto for meals. Dionysus takes it onto himself to judge a contest between them and they take it in turns to be rude about the others works with the chorus commenting as though it was a fight with each man landing viscous blows on the other. This gives Aristophenes a chance to parody each of the two dramatists styles and throw in his own critical comments on both of them. Eventually Pluto gets fed up and decides to determine the winner via a special set of scales which can measure the weight of an argument. Each man gets to speak one line into the baskets on the scale and they are marked against one another with the scale, to Euripedes’s annoyance Aeschylus wins both attempts by mentioning heavier objects. In the end Dionysus decides to simply ask the two dramatists for advice to save Athens, Euripedes has lots of fine words but Aeschylus has more practical suggestions so instead of having Euripedes brought back to life he decides on Aeschylus. A final parting shot from Aeschylus is to insist that Sophocles should have the seat as the finest dramatist rather than Euripedes.

Translations of ancient Greek and Latin have become far ‘less stuffy’ over the last few decades and this can largely be thanks to Penguin Books who started their series of Penguin Classics in 1946 with the express intent of making the classics more approachable. Compare this extract from the Harvard Classics edition of 1909 which is available on Project Gutenberg, which deals with the god Dionysus rowing across the Styx with Charon and encountering the Frog chorus.  The specific translator is not given for this edition on the site as this was a massive group exercise resulting in 51 volumes of a wide selection of classic works.

FROG CHORUS
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   We children of the fountain and the lake
   Let us wake
   Our full choir-shout, as the flutes are ringing out,
   Our symphony of clear-voiced song.
   The song we used to love in the Marshland up above,
   In praise of Dionysus to produce,
   Of Nysaean Dionysus, son of Zeus,
   When the revel-tipsy throng, all crapulous and gay,
   To our precinct reeled along on the holy
   Pitcher day.
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.

 DIONYSUS. O, dear! O dear! now I declare I've got a bump upon my rump.

The same passage from the 1964 translation by David Barrett printed by Penguin and reprinted in the edition I have been reading.

FROGS
   Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax,
   Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Oh we are the musical Frogs!
   We live in the marshes and bogs!
   Sweet, sweet is the hymn,
   That we sing as we swim,
   And our voices are known.
   For their beautiful tone,
   when on festival days
   We sing to the praise
   Of the genial god -
   And we don't think it odd
   When the worshipping throng,
   To the sound of our song,
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.
   Brekekex!
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.

 DIONYSUS. I don't want to row any more.

 FROGS. Brekekex!

 DIONYSUS. For my bottom is getting so sore.

As you can see the Penguin edition is considerable more ‘lively’ and the translator has almost turned to the poetic structure of the limerick in order to emphasise the comic nature of the play. This is a form that he will return to several times during the translation in some places using the limerick itself. The play is only 110 short pages so I read it in two sittings, the edition is from the Little Black Classics series by Penguin and is one of the most expensive of these books at £2. I’m looking forward to reading more from this series of titles in the coming months.

 

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

Last week I went to see the play based on Helene Hanff’s best known work 84 Charing Cross Road at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. There is a touring production currently travelling the UK with Stephanie Powers playing Helene and Clive Francis as Frank Doel. I first read the book in the early 80’s and have happy memories of that and seeing the film with Anne Bancroft and  Anthony Hopkins made in 1987 so it was a joy to see the play and how well it was done. I think that from now on that when reading the book I will always hear the letters as read by Stephanie Powers she gave a wonderful performance. Clive Francis was very good as Frank, but it’s very difficult to beat Anthony Hopkins, so I now have a weird mix of play and film in my head. You can see a clip from the film on youtube here.

20180605 Charing Cross Road

However this is a review of the book, it was first published by Grossman in the US in 1970 then by Andre Deutsch in the UK in 1971, the copy I currently have was printed by Time Warner Books in 2006. It has to be at least the third copy of this book I have owned as previous copies have disappeared over the years, as I either gave them away to people who I thought would love the book or just never got back a loaned volume. Like most editions nowadays in this copy the original book is paired with Hanff’s follow up work The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which describes her journey to London for the UK launch of the original book. The first book itself simply consists of the letters between Hanff, who is in New York and Marx & Co. antiquarian booksellers based at number 84 Charing Cross Road. Initially they are quite business like, Hanff has seen an advert in the Saturday Review of Literature so on 5th October 1949 she first makes contact with the firm and pens a short note with a list of books she wants to see if they can supply them. but by the time of the last letter from the firm to Helene it is almost 20 years later on 8th January 1969.

There is no exposition, it is just the letters so all you know about Frank, Helene and the others who write occasional missives is what they include in the correspondence; but from this you really get involved in this developing two decade long friendship. By the end you feel you know them and the final few letters mean as much to you as they must have meant to Helene when they prompted her to compile the book, as she writes in Q’s Legacy.

“I have to write it.”

Then I went cold inside, I could only write it if I still had Frank’s letters. I’d begun saving them 20 years later because a tax accountant wanted a record of what I spent on books… The thin blue airmail letters with a rubber band round them took up no space, lying nearly flat under manuscripts in a back corner of one of six small cabinet drawers under my bookshelves. But year after year when I cleaned out the cabinets, I’d come on them and wonder why I was saving them. Sitting there that evening, I vividly remembered that when I had reorganised the cabinets a few weeks earlier I’d stood by the waste basket hefting the letters, debating whether to keep them or throw them out. I couldn’t remember which I’d done. And I was afraid to find out.

Fortunately she hadn’t thrown them out although they were only found after an agonising search

I carried the letters to the table and opened them – and snapshots of young families spilled out of them. Some were from Nora Doel, some were from one of the girls who worked in the shop, all of them were 10 or 15 years in the past … I found snapshots of Frank standing proudly beside his new secondhand car. I was laughing by this time, I poured another cup of coffee and settled down to read the letters.

By the time I went to bed I was positively happy, I was going to relive the lovely episode Marks & Co. had been in my life by making a short story of the correspondence.

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The letters get less formal as the years go on, by February 1952 Frank is writing to ‘Dear Helene’ as opposed to ‘Dear Miss Hanff’ which is how he starts off and whilst initially Frank’s letters are solely about the books or in response to gifts of food Helene sends to ration struck England, Helene’s become quite chatty very early on and she jokingly tells him off several times (these are just extracts from letters not full examples)

November 2, 1951

Dear Speed ___

You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizbang like that. You probably don’t realise it, but it’s hardly more than two years since I ordered them. You keep going at this rate you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.

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Clearly remembering this letter many years later Frank was able to eventually get in a small riposte.

3rd May 1957

Dear Helene,

Prepare yourself for a shock. ALL THREE of the books you requested in your last letter are on their way to you and should arrive in a week or so. Don’t ask how we managed it – It’s just a part of the Marks service.

20180605 Charing Cross Road 2

Other members of staff at Marks & Co. also write to Helene, along with Dora (Frank’s wife) who initially just thanks her for the food she has sent but then also enters into a longer correspondence. What I really liked about the play was that the script really was just reading the letters to one another, the stage was split into Helene’s New York apartment on the left with the bookshop taking up roughly two thirds of the stage to the right. Almost all the letters in the book were read verbatim, in the film the letters are still the main part of the text but it is expanded to make it more cinematic and as you can see from the clip I included a link to above we even see other locations than the bookshop and the apartment.

It’s very difficult to review this book without spoiling it for new readers but it is truly a delight to read and if you haven’t read it then please do so, then see the film and if possible catch it in the theatre. The images from the play are lifted from the Cambridge Arts Theatre website whose production this was.

The second book included in the paperback is The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and this is more of a diary tracking Helene’s trip to the UK, all the people she meets and the various publicity events she goes to including a special opening up of the by now closed Marks & Co. shop on Charing Cross Road, so she did finally get to visit ‘her bookshop’ even if it was too late. The main signing event took place in Poole’s bookshop, next door in number 86. This diary runs from 17th June to 26th July 1971 and is considerably longer that the book it celebrates. Sadly the shop is now a McDonald’s burger place but there is a plaque outside commemorating the old bookshop and Hanff’s apartment on  305 E. 72nd Street has been named “Charing Cross House”.

For the really keen there is the third book in ‘the series’ which I quoted from above, Q’s legacy explains how, when it became clear she was not going to be able to afford any more than a year at college, she was in a library and she first came across Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. She felt his books of essays and lectures taught her more than the first year had done and she was hooked. Q, as he was invariably known, introduced her to Walton, Newman, Milton and numerous others and she wanted to read more than just the extracts he quoted so was looking for a good bookshop when she saw that advert in the Saturday Review. If anyone is responsible for all that followed after that it is the now largely forgotten Q. Forgotten that is except by those of us who own a copy of his massive 1100 page work The Oxford Book of English Verse which for decades was the definitive collection, first published in 1900 and revised in 1939 to expand the selection up to 1918.