Monday, December 09, 2019

Mark 6: 7-29

and he went round about the villages, teaching
and he called unto him the twelve

and began to send them forth by two and two
and gave them power over unclean spirits
and commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey save a staff only
no scrip, 
no bread, 
no money in their purse 
but be shod with sandals
and not put on two coats. 
and he said unto them, 
"in what place soever ye enter into an house
there abide till ye depart from that place
and whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, 
when ye depart thence, 
shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. 
verily I say unto you, 
It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement, 
than for that city" 
and they went out, 
and preached that men should repent
and they cast out many devils
and anointed with oil many that were sick
and healed them 

Again, lets be wary of assuming that the mission of the twelve follows chronologically from the rejection at Nazareth. It might be that Jesus has temporarily uprooted himself from Capernaum; that he has gone on a circular tour of the villages near his home-town, and then sent the Twelve out from Nazareth. But "he went round the villages teaching" could just as well be another general statement. "Jesus used to travel around from village to village, preaching a lot. One time he came to Nazareth, that was the only place which rejected him. Another time he sent his disciples out by themselves." 

I am trying to read the Gospel of Mark as a story. And I don't know what to do with passages like this. We have been told that Jesus picked out twelve students and called them his Sent-Out-Ones; so I suppose we need to see them being Sent-Out. And we need to be shown that Jesus's mission is spreading out. He's like that sower, scattering seeds at random.

Jesus appoints twelve envoys. Jesus sends the twelve envoys out to preach on his behalf. Jesus becomes even more famous. Even the King gets to hear about him... 

Mark gives the mission of the Twelve a big build up. Jesus calls them together, makes them pair off in twos, and tells them that they are allowed to take nothing with them. A "scrip" is a bag; a "coat" is a tunic: so Jesus is saying something like "don't bother with a suitcase or even a change of underwear". He says that they have to stay in the house of the first person who offers them hospitality; and that each town only gets one chance of hearing the message. I don't know if "day of Judgement" is as apocalyptic as it may sound. Is Jesus really saying "at the end of the world, the villages which aren't nice to my envoys over the next few weeks will be destroyed with fire from heaven"? Or is it more like "in the future, these places are going to have a really really bad reputation." The sin of Sodom was inhospitality, as opposed to, you know, Sodomy. 

I have many questions.

Like: how well did the hardhearted disciples cope with this mission? They don't yet know who Jesus is; they keep missing the point of his message; they have to have even the most basic parables explained to them. So what was their preaching like? Were they giving personal testimonies? "Let me tell you about this fella Jesus. We admit we don't understand everything he says: but I can tell you that since I met him I've totally quit the tax-collecting." Or are we to think more of Jesus franchising his teaching out? "We are here on behalf of Jesus. And he bids us say the following: 'A sower went forth to sow...'" Is the preaching of the disciples, like the preaching of Jesus, couched in riddles, to make absolutely sure that hardly anyone understands? And what about the miracles? The miracles that Jesus doesn't want anyone to talk about under any circumstances? And what about the demons? The demons who blurt out the big secret unless specifically told not to?

And who had to pair up with Judas Iscariot? 

Imagine you are Peter. Or actually, imagine you are Andrew. He probably did most of the talking. You repeat one of Jesus's parables. The person you are talking to doesn't understand it. You know the secret meaning, because Jesus has told you: but you aren't allowed to pass it on. 

"I can't tell you that. It's a secret. The Master says you have to work it out for yourself." 

Very well: but why should I trust this Master of yours with his obscure teaching? 

"Because he controls the weather. But I'm not allowed to tell you about that. Because he purifies lepers. But I'm not allowed to tell you about that either. Because he can literally raise the dead. But I'm definitely not allowed to tell you about that. You just have to, trust him, okay? And if you don't you are literally no better than a sodomite." 

Tough crowd. 

There are no answers to these questions in Mark's Gospel. And (so far as I know) there is nothing about it in the apocryphal literature or the traditional lives-of-the-saints. It's a blank. Jesus sends the disciples out, telling them to preach and heal and do exorcisms. But there is no pay-off to the story. Mark adds, in effect, "so they did". And then moves on to a different story. 

What this probably proves is that I am doing the wrong thing in trying to read Mark "as a story". Very possibly, it is a piece of Christian symbolism back-projected into Jesus's lifetime. Quite possibly, the-Jesus-of-History never sent twelve apostles out to proclaim that men should repent. And if he did it doesn't matter. What Mark wants us to see is a picture of what Jesus says to all his followers, every day. Go out: leave everything behind: tell people that they should repent: and don't worry if they ignore you, just go onto the next place, and keep on preaching. Remember the one about the silly farmer? 

But even on that view; what do you do with the passage? Are you to be completely literal, like St Francis, and say that the only true practice of Christianity is monasticism; renouncing all worldly possessions and dedicating yourself completely to the service of the poor? Or can the passage be moralized? "When it says 'take no bread' it doesn't literally mean that the Vicar can't take a sandwich with him when he goes on a preaching engagement out of town. It means 'don't worry too much about merely physical needs.' When it says 'don't take a spare under-shirt' it means 'don't be over-concerned about comfort'. When it says 'don't take a purse' it doesn't mean that the church can't have a treasurer; it means that you mustn't be too attached to money. Going out in pairs means 'trust your friends rather than your clothes or your cash'. Taking a staff means 'I know you feel you aren't adequate to this task; but it's okay, you will always have something to lean on.'" 

Which seems only to take a forceful passage ("go out and do an unpopular task and take absolutely nothing with you") with some platitudes ("Don't cling too hard to your possessions. Live more simply.") The aforementioned Eugene H Peterson is pretty clear that it applies to modern preachers. I rather like his paraphrase: "Don't think that you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple. And no luxury inns. Get a modest place and be content there until you leave." But it is only a paraphrase. "No special appeals for funds" is a lot softer than "you aren't even allowed to take your wallet." 

My weak answer is that the popular and widespread fame of Jesus is taken for granted in the next story; so Mark needs us to know that Jesus's disciples are taking the message further than one individual could carry it by himself. And that last verse is another example of a narrative space which we have to fill in for ourselves. "And they went out, and preached that men should repent." There are many stories which could be told of the disciples preaching exploits; but Mark is leaving it for us to imagine them. The story doesn't only happen in his text, but also in our imaginations.

and king Herod heard of him; 
for his name was spread abroad 
and he said, that John the Baptist was risen from the dead, 
and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. 
others said, that it is Elias 
and others said, that it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets. 
but when Herod heard thereof, he said, 
"It is John, whom I beheaded: 
he is risen from the dead." 

This is the first time Mark has taken the spotlight off Jesus and asked us to look at what other people are saying about him.

Like the disciples and like the people in Nazareth, Herod wants to know who Jesus is. He thinks Jesus is a dead guy come back to life. The people think he is Elijah, a prophet from a thousand years ago, come back to earth in a Chariot of Fire or perhaps some other prophet. The Authorized Version gets into a bit of a muddle here, telling us that some people thought that "it is a prophet or as one of the prophets", but the sense is fairly clear. "He is a prophet — like one of 'The Prophets'" 

I don't want to go all Trilemma at this point, but "Maybe he's just some really talented Rabbi" is not one of the options. 

There is a clear structural purpose to this digression. The disciples have gone off on their mission: there is a period of days or weeks where nothing happens. So the spotlight shifts away from Jesus to Herod; there is a long flashback; and we resume the main action after the disciples return.

for Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John,
and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake,
his brother Philip’s wife
for he had married her
for John had said unto Herod,
"it is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife"
therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him,
and would have killed him
but she could not
for Herod feared John
knowing that he was a just man and an holy,
and observed him
and when he heard him he did many things,
and heard him gladly
and when a convenient day was come
that Herod on his birthday made a supper
to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee
and when the daughter of the said Herodias came in
and danced
and pleased Herod
and them that sat with him,
the king said unto the damsel,
"ask of me whatsoever thou wilt
and I will give it thee."
and he sware unto her,
"whatsoever thou shalt ask of me,
I will give it thee,
unto the half of my kingdom."
and she went forth,
and said unto her mother
"What shall I ask?"
and she said
"The head of John the Baptist."
and she came in straightway with haste unto the king,
and asked, saying,
"I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist"
and the king was exceeding sorry
yet for his oath’s sake,
and for their sakes which sat with him,
he would not reject her
and immediately the king sent an executioner,
and commanded his head to be brought
and he went and beheaded him in the prison,
and brought his head in a charger,
and gave it to the damsel:
and the damsel gave it to her mother.
and when his disciples heard of it, they came
and took up his corpse,
and laid it in a tomb.

This is not the Herod who massacred the babies. That King Herod — Herod The Great — was the Roman-backed King of Israel for 40 years before the birth of Jesus. Babies apart, he is widely regarded as a reasonably Good King. When he died, his kingdom was split between his four children. Herod The Tetrach — Herod The One Quarter of a King — was in charge of Galilee. 

Mark is again being very non-linear, wrapping flashbacks around flashbacks. Way back in chapter one he told us that Jesus started preaching after John had been arrested. Now he tells us that John has been dead for some time. So he has to spend a few verses playing catch-up. 

There is a secular account of John's death outside of the Bible: but Josephus the historian thinks that Herod killed John simply because he was a mischief-maker. The story of the vengeful wife, the unwise oath, and the formula "even unto half my kingdom" feels very much more like a folk-legend than the rest of Mark's Gospel. 

The natural sequence of events is: 

1: Herod marries his brother Phillip's wife, Herodias. (Philip is another of the four quarter-kings who succeeded Big Herod.) 

2: John says that marrying your brother's wife is against the law. 

3: Herod gives the order to have John arrested 

4: Herod is afraid of John but likes to listen to him. 

5: Herodias wants John killed. 

6: Herodias's daughter asks for John's head as a party favour. 

7: John's disciples bury him. 

8: Herod thinks Jesus is John raised from the dead. 

But Mark wraps the text around itself: 

(8) When Herod heard it, he said, “He is John the Baptist! I had his head cut off, but he has come back to life!” (3) Herod himself had ordered John's arrest, and he had him tied up and put in prison. (1) Herod did this because of Herodias, whom he had married, even though she was the wife of his brother Philip. (2) John the Baptist kept telling Herod, “It isn't right for you to marry your brother's wife!” (5) So Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted to kill him, but she could not because of Herod. (4) Herod was afraid of John because he knew that John was a good and holy man, and so he kept him safe…..(6) Finally Herodias got her chance. 

This creates a sense of rambling breathlessness: as if someone were bringing you up to date on a piece of news: or at the very least recounting a story which everyone knows. 

One wonders exactly how stupid Herod must have been. He has had John the Baptist in the dungeons for at least several weeks; he has been listening to his preaching and even getting some comfort from it. And John is the forerunner of Jesus: over and over again, he must have told Herod "this isn't about me — I am only clearing the road for the person who is coming next." And then when John is dead, and word comes to Herod that there is a new preacher, performing exorcisms and healing lepers and raising the dead. And Herod's reaction is not "O.M.G! It must be the guy John was warning us about" but "Hot dang! John isn't dead after all." 

One also has to wonder a bit about John's disciples. Loyalty is a virtue. But if John's whole message was "get ready for the coming of Jesus" then it's a bit late in the day to be still thinking of yourself primarily as John's followers. 

This whole section is incredibly awkward. John is meant only to be the forerunner of Jesus; but here is Jesus being identified as the second coming of John. The resurrection of Jesus is a big mystery which the disciples can't get their heads round: but here is a King talking as if "awakening from the dead" is very much the kind of trick you might think any Top Prophet could pull off. 

I am trying to keep my eyes very firmly on Mark's story. And I think that Mark's story makes far more sense if we assume that John died without ever knowing the Messianic secret; that John carried on preaching "Someone greater than me is coming!" to the day he died, without ever knowing who that someone was. And some of John's disciples continued to faithfully keep John's message going, after he was dead, not realizing that the it was already being fulfilled around lake Galilee. That seems to me to be a fine dramatic irony; consistent with a Messiah who speaks in riddles and keeps his identity secret. (And consistent too with the way Mark's story is going to end.) 

People who search for the Historical Jesus sometimes pay special attention to what they regard as Embarrassing passages: passages which the ancient writers might have preferred to omit or suppress.
It is hard to see why Mark would have invented this story. And this may make us think that the idea that people thought that Jesus was John has a strong element of historical factitutde.


The word "testimony" ("for a testimony against them") is martyrion, from whence our word "martyr". 

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Sunday, December 08, 2019

Hmm. It really does appear that regietheater and regieopera have been consistently rendered in English as "director's opera" and "director's theater" and Miller was certainly being described as "director" of the Mikado in 1986. Verity Lambert and Gene Roddenbury were both credited as producers (hiring directors for individual episodes). Sorry for any confusion caused.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Mark 6 1-6

and he went out from thence
and came into his own country
and his disciples follow him 

and when the sabbath day was come
he began to teach in the synagogue
and many hearing him were astonished, saying,
"from whence hath this man these things?
and what wisdom is this which is given unto him,
that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?
is not this the carpenter,
the son of Mary,
the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?
and are not his sisters here with us?"
and they were offended at him

but Jesus said unto them,
"a prophet is not without honour,
but in his own country,
and among his own kin,
and in his own house" 

and he could there do no mighty work
save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk,
and healed them
and he marveled because of their unbelief 

and he went round about the villages, teaching

This chapter begins a new cycle of Jesus stories. The exorcism, the storm, the bleeding woman and the dead girl are connected together in Mark's narrative. But I don't think "he went out from thence" means that Jesus left the little girl's sick room and headed straight for Nazareth. I think we have to imagine Mark pausing, and then starting again.

"And then there was that time he left Capernaum and headed for the town where he was born..."


So, Jesus goes home. And the home-town crowd is unimpressed. 

And that's pretty much all that happens. In Capernaum, Jesus is wildly popular -- he has to dodge crowds and keeps running away to places where nobody knows him. But back home in Nazareth, he meets with a much cooler reception. We aren't told quite what happens: but the congregation in the synagogue find him offensive, and there aren't even any good miracles to report. 

It isn't clear what follows from this. 

We learn some things. Jesus's mother is called Mary -- the only time Mark names her. Jesus came from a big family: one of at least seven kids. Back home he is known by his old job; he was a carpenter. Mum, four brothers and a couple of sisters are in the synagogue, or at any rate, in town, but glaringly absent is any mention of Jesus's dad. 

Adelphos means "brothers". It could probably include step-brothers or half-brothers if you really wanted it to; but there is no particular reason to think that it does. 

From a narrative point of view, we can say that Jesus's mission is expanding geographically. Capernaum is still base-camp, but Jesus is travelling a little further afield: the Gardarenes last week; Nazareth this week; the coasts of Tyre next week. Nazareth is about ten miles from Capernaum.

Mark doesn't tell us what Jesus said in Nazareth. But the people there react in the same way the people in Capernaum did: they are thundestruck, jaw-dropped, boggled. And they ask the same question that the disciples on the boat did. Who is this guy? 

There are stories outside of Mark's Gospel about Jesus's infancy and his childhood and his adolescence. There was a whole medieval industry creating Kid-Jesus fan-fic. (Remember that time he drowned two Jewish kids for saying his Mum was no better than she ought to be? He got a good slapping for that.) And the Victorians wrote hymns about his wondrous childhood; and there are art galleries full of paintings of Boy Jesus in the carpenter's shop with Daddy Joseph. 

Mark is in a different story world. This Nazareth story is hard to reconcile even with Matthew and Luke's canonical prequels, let alone all the apocryphal ones. No-one says "Aha, I knew you'd grow up to be a Rabbi after that time we went up to Jerusalem when you were a kid" or "Looks like those Magi knew what they were talking about after all." Mark makes it clear that the people in Nazareth think that something has happened to young Jesus; that he has changed since he went off to get baptized by John. As ever, we are in on the secret: but they don't know about the sky opening and the holy bird coming down. "How is that he learned all this stuff? And how can he do miracles all of a sudden?" 

The word for miracles is dunamis again; the same word for the "power" that flowed from Jesus to the sick woman outside Jairus's house. King James says "mighty works"; but "works of power" does the job better.

I really, really wish that Mark didn't say that Jesus could do no miracles at home. It makes it sound too much as if the Nazarenes' lack of belief somehow impeded the flow of Miracle-Juice. And what were they supposed to believe? The mere fact that Jesus is doing works of power? But they do believe that. The truth that he is the Son of God? But that's the big secret that hasn't yet been revealed.

St Matthew was obviously troubled by this too: when he retells Mark's story, he changes "he couldn't do many miracles" to "he didn't do many miracles.

[Unless it was the other way round. Perhaps Matthew's story, in which Jesus didn't do any miracles is the original one. Perhaps Mark heard that story and said "But that gives the impression that Jesus petulantly refused to help the sick folk because the synagogue crowd had been horrid to him. But I don't think it was like that. I think that Jesus would have helped them if he could, but their lack of faith prevented him." The question of who copied who is fantastically complex.] 

The annoying truth seems to be that different Jesus-stories have got different ideas about the nature of Jesus's healing power and how it functioned. Sometimes he has got intrinsic power inside him; sometimes the power depends on the faith of the recipient; and once or twice he seems to be performing a spell or a ceremony like a shaman or medicine man.

Why were the people "offended"? The text says they were eskandalizonto which the Catholic Bible dutifully renders as "scandalized". The concordances tells us that skandalizo literally meant "stumbling block".

I think that the much maligned Eugene Paterson is on the money for rendering it as "and they tripped over what little they knew about him". For the people in Capernaum Jesus is a mysterious preacher, newly come from Jordan, who has shown up in their synagogue, shouting at demons and referring himself as the Son of Man. For the people in Nazareth he is young Josh who used to bathe in the pond and fix the back door and chase his little sisters round the garden. 

And perhaps that is a harder thing to get your head round. The fact that they had known the human Jesus was a stumbling-block. 


When Mark says that Jesus is a carpenter the word he uses is tekton. And the word tekton doesn't necessarily mean wood-worker. It could refer to any maker of dairy produce. 

We've all got a pretty fixed image in our heads of Jesus-the-Carpenter, even though we probably got it from Milias or Mel Gibson or the Ladybird Life of Jesus. It would probably be quite healthy to consider the possibility that he might have been a blacksmith or a stone-mason. But disappointingly the Old Testament tends to treat carpenters as distinct from other kinds of craftsmen. In the second book of Kings, for example, the temple is repaired by "masons and builders and carpenters". By the end of the first century, Christian writers were talking about Jesus as a maker of yokes and ploughs; by the third they were inventing Kid-Jesus fanfic about him helping Dad by magically making pieces of wood grow longer. 

A.N Wilson confidently tells us that at the time of Jesus, the word translated as "carpenter" meant "scholar" or "wise man". What the people in Nazareth really said, he assures us, was "Isn't this the scholar?" or "Isn't this the scholar's son?"

The evidence for "carpenter's son" ever having meant "scholar" seems decidedly flimsy. But even if the idiom did exist, A.N Wilson is offering us a conjectural text; a text which does not exist but which might have done, and asking us to read that instead of the text we have in front of us. 

In the book of Mark, "carpenter" cannot possibly mean "wise man". Imagine that the word tekton was obscure and untranslatable. 

Many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands? Isn’t this the [REDACTED] , the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?” And so they took offense at him. 

We might conceivably think that the missing word meant "street sweeper" or " fishmonger" or "candlestick maker"; but we would never suppose that it meant "wise-man" or "scholar". In context it can only mean "the kind of profession that you wouldn't associate with great wisdom". 

And yet A.N Wilson's idea has already gone three times round the world. "Son of a Carpenter means Wise Man" has become one of those factoids which everybody knows.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Sunday, December 01, 2019

New Thing

I am writing short reviews of plays, music, TV programs and very likely movies if I ever go the pictures again in a new sub-blog. Have a look at it...

Answers to Reader's Questions

Andrew Stevens writes: 

But it's still a mummy. That's true of anything that lasts long enough. He's just spray-painted the mummy in Day-Glo colors. This is great, I suppose, for people who have seen the mummy twenty times already and love the mummy. It gives them variety and interest. But there are still people who might love to see the actual mummy.

I strongly suspect the stagnation of the Moscow Theatre was caused, not because it was too true to Chekhov, but because it was too true to Stalin. After its degeneration in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent liberalization, they reinstated Stanislavski's original acting methods (the ones used for the original performances) and, I think, Chekhov became popular again.

But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics.

I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" I would respond A) for people not familiar with Shakespeare, he still is new, fresh, and interesting, perhaps even more than he was in his own time and B) by all means, let us have new, fresh, interesting art. You're not going to get that by doing Shakespeare though, no matter what you do.

....I am also not here commenting much on Jonathan Miller, about whom I know next to nothing, though I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work (probable exception: works set in the artist's own present day culture can often be updated since they were meant to be contemporary when they were written). But it does not elucidate Die Walkure to show Wotan and Brunnhilde as inmates in an insane asylum (real production!). As long as you're playing Wagner's music, it's probably going to do all right, but the production in such a case detracts and doesn't enhance. Adolphe Appia was a great and innovative director and designer without doing any of that nonsense. Wieland Wagner's minimalist stagings were acceptable; they were still true to the works.

I am going to respond to this in some detail, at risk of my blog comments spiraling out of control again:

Productions become mummified. Not texts; productions.

Some people think that you can "do" Hamlet in the way that Shakespeare "originally intended" or that you can and should retain the original Victorian production style of Pirates of Penzance on a 20th century stage.

The claim being made is that this is like working very hard to preserve a person in the condition they were in when they died. It is possible. But you don't end up with a still-living Chairman Mao. You end up with a more or less well-preserved corpse.

You can't go and see the first night of the Pirates of Penzance. The best you can have is a copy of a copy of a copy of that First Night at the Savoy Theater; becoming more out-dated and stylized with each copy. You can honestly try to re-imagine and recreate a Victorian show: which is to say, give the audience a 2019 producer's impression of what an 1878 production might have been like. Which might be very interesting, but it would still be an interpretation. 

Interesting fact: The Pirates of Penzance was first staged 5 years before the publication of Treasure Island. No-one in the original audience knew that pirates said "arrrr."

"But it's still a mummy. That's true of anything that lasts long enough. He's just spray-painted the mummy in Day-Glo colors."

You have misunderstood the metaphor. When you say that a new production is merely "spray painting the mummy" you imply that the play is the mummy -- irredeemably dead -- and the "new production" is something interposed on top of the corpse to make it seem fresh. But this is not the claim. The claim is that the text is alive, but that some kinds of production make it appear dead.

You can have an embalmed, dead, fossilized preservation of what someone imagines Shakespeare's Hamlet must have been like; or you can have a sequence of living reinterpretations of the play, some good, some bad, many indifferent.

What you can't have, ever, is Hamlet, pure and unmediated, with no pesky actors and producers coming between you and the Holy Idea. Dear dear Sir Larry's version of Hamlet, tights and ruffs and posh voices and all, is just as much an interpretation as the recent National Theater production set in a post-Orwell surveillance society. (And the National used Shakespeare's text which is more than dear, dear Sir Larry did.) 

There were people in the early 20th century who thought that you could avoid letting nasty production ideas into the Bard's plays by only permitting amateurs to stage Shakespeare, or by performing his works with a cast of very young children who could be coached in verse speaking without understanding the words. And there was a Victorian idea that no-one but qualified experts ought to be allowed to even read Shakespeare's plays, in case they found out that along with the Great Speeches there were also a lot of dick jokes.

This is great, I suppose, for people who have seen the mummy twenty times already and love the mummy. It gives them variety and interest. But there are still people who might love to see the actual mummy.

This is very interesting. You imply that there is a real thing -- "an actual mummy" -- to be got at. You imply that modern conceptual productions somehow obscure the "actual mummy". But that there is a kind of production available which allows us to see the "actual mummy" shorn of additions.

But this is not the case. Again, it is certain received ideas -- certain styles of production -- which are said to be like embalmed corpses. No-one is saying that the plays themselves have  been embalmed. And the idea that you can have a text without any production ideas is the same as saying that you can have 50 miles per hour without a car.  

That said; I think there are people who, in your words "love the mummy". That is, they like a particular kind of production, and think that any other kind of production is Not Really Shakespeare. There were D'Oyly Carte geeks who positively liked highly mannered and stylized productions. There were opera fans for whom part of the magic was not understanding the words and watching very fat singers who couldn't act being showered with flowers and taking endless curtain calls. And there is no particular reason not to keep those styles of production going as a sort of heritage event. The Mousetrap survives as a kind of historical reenactment of what theatre was like a hundred years ago. I myself enjoy the occasional panto. 

You are implying that it was the cognoscenti, the people who had seen many productions over many years and who craved variety and innovation and maybe something a little shocking who enjoy new productions of familiar works. The vast and overwhelming success of Miller's Rigoletto demonstrates that this is not the case. It wasn't only opera buffs who made it a sell-out. It was people who hadn't been to the opera before and didn't think they would like it.

The famous Broadway Pirates wasn't a hit because of all the G&S geeks flocking to it; it stood on its own two feet as a piece of contemporary musical theater. (It would now look very dated and dare I say it, mummified.) 

I strongly suspect the stagnation of the Moscow Theatre was caused, not because it was too true to Chekhov, but because it was too true to Stalin. After its degeneration in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent liberalization, they reinstated Stanislavski's original acting methods (the ones used for the original performances) and, I think, Chekhov became popular again.

This could, for all I know, be true. But supposing the Moscow State Theater to be a poor example and a special case does not refute the central claim: that striving to reproduce some pure and original first-night version, unmediated by production ideas, is impossible, and undesirable even if it were possible. I saw Rupert Everett doing Uncle Vanya earlier this year; in a pretty modern, naturalistic production. It wasn't a piece of historical re-enactment, nor was it a radical reinterpretation. It was a play.

But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics. I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" 

No. But we may be tempted to say "What you perceive as a neutral, unmediated production is in fact a very particular production style that you happen to prefer and want to privilege." 

I would respond A) for people not familiar with Shakespeare, he still is new, fresh, and interesting, perhaps even more than he was in his own time and B) by all means, let us have new, fresh, interesting art. You're not going to get that by doing Shakespeare though, no matter what you do.

Every production of Shakespeare is new, fresh and interesting. Some actors and a producer start with his words, and they work out how they are going to say the words and what they think the words mean. They come up with their own answers to a series of unanswerable questions. Why did Claudius kill his brother? why does Hamlet delay? is Hamlet really mad? does he love Ophelia or is he using her? where are the lines drawn between the personal and political? Every production has to find its own answer. Some answers may be bad or wrong: but there is no such thing as an answer-free-production; only a production which takes for granted the answers thought up by some other company fifty or a hundred years ago. 

I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work.

This is a metaphor. No-one is actually beating up the text. I do not know what violence in this context means. Does it mean "invariably produces a poor production"? But this is demonstrably not the case.

And anyway, what does poor mean? It isn't the case that audiences invariably have a bad time in shows which have changed the original setting of the piece; nor is it the case that critics invariably dislike them, nor is it true that they always lose the management money. What criteria are we using?

Or does it mean "the original text of Hamlet is violated if Elsinore becomes the White House or if the Prince played by a woman?" But what does violation mean? A production in which a punk Hamlet yells out "to be or fucking not to be" might be amusingly shocking or devastatingly boring or somewhere in between. I rather liked the nude Hamlet with Quentin Crisp. But at the end of the day, Hamlet is still there, un-violated in a nice neat Penguin edition, for some fellow in tights and a pudding basin haircut to read out genteelly, if that is really what you want.  

I start to wonder if what you are really saying is that Jonathan Miller was disrespectful to Sherlock Holmes.

(probable exception: works set in the artist's own present day culture can often be updated since they were meant to be contemporary when they were written). But it does not elucidate Die Walkure to show Wotan and Brunnhilde as inmates in an insane asylum (real production!). 

It might do; or it might not do. I would need to see the production.

If it was a production which did not work; then it was a production which did not work and not an argument against the whole idea of production.

I felt that Gotterdamerung was massively elucidated by drawing an analogy between Brunnhilde and a suicide bomber; I felt that Parsifal was hugely clarified by making the grail Knights modern/futuristic soldiers and the Pure Fool a native-American. I found Lohengrin re-imagined as an experiment with laboratory rats rather baffling; but in the end quite powerful. The Dutchman set in a disused telecommunications factory I could have done without. 

I would defy anyone who thinks that modern dress productions of Wagner cannot work to watch the footage of Act III of the Valkyrie being performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and to pay particular attention to the audience's reaction to it. 

As long as you're playing Wagner's music, it's probably going to do all right, but the production in such a case detracts and doesn't enhance. Adolphe Appia was a great and innovative director and designer without doing any of that nonsense. Wieland Wagner's minimalist stagings were acceptable; they were still true to the works. 

Distracts from what? Enhances what

This is the whole problem. You think that there is some magical pre-existent thing called "the work" and you can validly judge a production according to some standard of "truthfulness" about "the work". I would call that -- what was the word you used? -- nonsense.

There is no "work". There is only ever this group of actors in this theatre. with this audience; and what matters is what works, today, in this particular setting. A bad production is one that doesn't make sense or is contradictory or obscure or (the only unpardonable offence) boring. 

I saw a gender-swapped production of Henry V last year, which conflated Princess Catherine and the Dauphin into a single figure. It didn't work, for me, on its own terms, because it asked me to believe in a world where women lead armies and serve alongside male soldiers, but can also be bartered by their fathers in dynastic marriages. The same company did a gender-swapped Dream a few months later, in which Hermia and Lysander are both men; and Helena and Demetrius are women; so the story became about two gay couples being unwillingly forced into straight marriages. This made sense; it added something to the humour of the piece. And it made it easier to keep track of who was meant to be in love with who. 

And it's always nice to see a female Bottom.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Jonathan Miller

If you were at all interested in theatre or opera in the 1980s, then Jonathan Miller was a magical name.

"It's a Jonathan Miller production " implied something surprising and controversial, something which was going to be talked about for years to come.

The old fashioned theatre critics hated him. I imagine that the Quentin Letts of this world still do. It isn’t “Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet” they snarled, “It’s SHAKESPEARE’S Hamlet.” They even invented a snarl word, “producer’s opera”,  to describe what he was doing.

Miller had an answer for them. I heard him lecture several times at Sussex, when I was doing English and he was doing brain surgery. There is no such thing as a production without production ideas, he said; all there can be is a production which copies the ideas of the last production, and the production before that. For years, Chekov had a reputation for being stodgy and boring because the Moscow State Theatre held the copyright, and endlessly reproduced the same play, with the same sets and the same costumes and the same out-dated acting styles which had been prevalent at the end of the 19th century. The works had, as he put it, become mummified. “The D’Oyly Carte did much the same thing to Gilbert and Sullivan” he added “But in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan it doesn’t matter one way or the other.”

In 1987 he produced the Mikado for the English National Opera. Everyone knows what he did: reimagined the play on a 1920s film set, with largely black and white costumes, all the characters wearing smart suits and cocktail dresses and speaking with clipped English accents. “But the Mikado isn’t set in England!” cried people who hadn’t seen it. Maybe not: but I doubt that there were too many second trombones performing English sea shanties in feudal Japan. However you stage it, the play is about English people playing at being Japanese. Yum-Yum is an English school girl, so why not accentuate the gag by putting her in an English school uniform as opposed to a kimono. “But I do love you, in my simple Japanese way...”

And then of course there were the changes to the script. “And that’s what I mean when I say, or I sing...oh bugger the flowers that bloom in the spring...”. The production has been revived fourteen times. It arguably saved the company.

Moving classical works from one time frame to another is what we all associate with Miller. I think his Rigoletto (or, if you insist, Verdi’s) was the first live opera I ever saw. The setting has moved from Italy to “Little Italy”; the Duke is now “Da Duke” and Sparafucile is a “hit man” rather than a “murderer for hire”. “But I didn’t think they had court jesters in 1930s New York” complained by traditionalist Grandfather. No: but with a little judicious jiggling of the libretto (the E.N.O always work in translation) the story of the hunchbacked bar-tender and his tragic daughter made complete sense. Miller said that audiences who didn't think they would like opera responded to this. (“Oh, it’s just like a musical” he said in his Pythonesque normal chap accent.) Possibly this was why the old guard couldn’t accept him: audiences liked what he was doing.

My own acting career began and ended with a walk-on part as “third servant on the left” in a student production of Twelfth Night, and Dr Miller sat in on one of our rehearsals and made some suggestions to the producer. (This was a nice thing to do: an amdram show couldn’t have been very interesting to him; but it did mean we got to put his name in the programme.) He said that contrary to popular belief he didn't think there was any point in "updating" Shakespeare: making it "relevant" made about as much sense as going to Spain and refusing to eat anything except fish and chips. On the other hand, most modern actors look incredibly awkward in doublets and togas. The thing to do, he said, was to treat it as an uncostumed production, but to choose clothes which might suggest to the audience what character types we were portraying. Avoid at all costs allowing Andrew Aguecheek to become a falsetto ninny, he said. That was, of course, exactly how our guy had been playing him. Ever since, in every production of Shakespeare I have seen, I have waited for the arrival of the Falsetto Ninny and rarely been disappointed.

I think some people imagine that producers sit in rooms and have Production Ideas and then let the cast do all the actual work. In fact, it is all about the detail. Yum-Yum singing the Sun Whose Rays perched on a grand piano; the Duke putting a dime in the jukebox before embarking on La Donna e Mobile. Hamlet checking his make-up in a looking glass and noting that the point of theatre is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature.

Not all the ideas worked. There is some truth in the accusation that he took other people’s texts and filled them with his own ideas. (“I think that the blackness of Othello has been over-emphasized” he once wrote. “Presumably by Shakespeare” retorted Private Eye.) His BBC King Lear strayed into ludicrousness. Spotting that Edgar descends into a kind of hell at the beginning of the play and then rises again in the final act, he made the poor actor deliver all the mad scenes in a full crown-of-thorns and stigmata. Considering Ibsen’s Ghosts, he pointed out that that is just not how syphilis works. You can’t go from being fine and lucid to crazy and blind in one afternoon. So he invented a parallel play in which Osvald only thinks he has inherited the disease from his dissolute father; briefly suffers from hysterical blindness and is presumably euthanized by his mother while in perfectly good health. But no-one who has survived an unexpurgated Long Days Journey Into Night (which doesn’t clock in at less than five hours) can have had the slightest objection to Miller’s legendary production, featuring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, in which the big idea was that all the characters talk at once.

This is the main thing which seems to have interested him: in opera, theatre and science: how communication works; how people talk; their gestures; their body language; where they position themselves in the discourse. What if you took Eugene O'Neill's words and made the actors say them as if they were part of a normal conversation, overlaps and interruptions and all? What if Violetta behaved like a terminally ill patient with the symptoms of tuberculosis? What if Alice in Wonderland was not a whacky panto but a disturbing Kafkaesque dream-world populated, not by mad comical hatters, but frighteningly insane people who serve you empty cups of tea and threaten to cut your head off and won’t tell you why. What if? You can only know by trying it out; it doesn’t matter if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think that is the most important thing he taught us. Texts are unstable. There is no true version of Twelfth Night. Each production is a conjecture. In the theatre, anything goes.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Spider-Fan, Spider-Fan

Spider-Man fans. They are very cross about the last film and the film before that. Not sufficiently close to the source material. 

They are kind of right. Far From Home is kind of not a Spider-Man movie. It is more interested in its position in the Marvel Cinematic Canon than in faithfully reflecting the core of the Spider-Man myth. 

VOICE OVER—EITHER TOM WATTS OR THE GHOST OF STAN LEE: "Sod you, Core of the Spider-Man Mythos. We set out to make a movie."

This is where we are with Star Wars as well. We can all agree that Last Jedi was a very different take on Star Wars: almost a subversion and deconstruction of Star Wars. We can disagree about whether Star Wars is the kind of thing we want to see subverted and deconstructed. But not if it make us want to cut the heads off dolls.

I think that Far From Home is a decent film, not as good as Homecoming but better than Amazing Spider-Man II. The Toby Maguire series still feel like the serious important definitive attempt to make Spider-Man Ther Motion Picture. The Andrew Garfield duology and the five Marvel Universe appearances feel more like some new Spider-Man cartoon episodes.

Nothing wrong with Spider-Man cartoon episodes.

Christopher Reeve still feels like Superman: Henry Cavill feels like some actor playing the part of Superman. I don't think any of the three actors we have had so far have claimed the role of Spider-Man as their own. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale and Ben Affleck are definitely pretending to be Batman. The one and only true and real Batman is still Adam West, and I say that as one who doesn't particularly like the Adam West version of Batman.

Different kinds of apples have different kinds of cores and there is more than one way to skin an onion. It is certainly true that Spider-Man: Homecoming was much more of a Kid Iron Man story than it was a Spider-Man story. It wasn't about a radioactive spider; it was about a young kid who has blagged a very powerful suit of techno-armour that he really can't operate. It reminded me quite a lot of the Rocketeer, a movie I could never bring myself to hate. 

The Original Comic Book Spider-Man is definitely not Kid Iron Man; but then, Marvel Comics were never particularly interested in how their characters interacted with the Greater Marvel Comic Universe (TM). Not for the first 25 years, at any rate. If the point of Spider-Man is that he is very young, very well meaning, and really not terribly good at being a superhero then it makes a certain amount of sense for him to be Tony Stark's protege. The newbie kid learning the superhero trade from the veteran. Spider-Man the hero who can never live up to his heroic role-models, or fears he can't. If this isn't the Core of the Spider-Man Myth I don't know what is.
In any event it would have been a shame to have missed out on Tony Stark saying "if you are nothing without the suit you don't deserve to have it."

I am not automatically right just because I am older than you. I have a great deal of sympathy for who-ever-it-was who said that the only people capable of judging a pop song are teenage girls. That's who they are written for. The true version of Spider-Man is the version of Spider-Man which appeals to eleven year old boys, not the version which appeals to thirty-five year old collectors.

But still, my memory goes back a further than yours. I am one of the last living examples of Great Western Fan. I remember the days when there were no superhero movies at all: when a showing of The Adventures of Captain Marvel or King of the Rocket Men on BBC2 could garner considerable excitement. (Grown ups! In superhero costumes! In black and white! With questionable flying effects!) I remember the days when American comics were obscure, rare, non-sequential objects and literally no-one knew who Spider-Man even was. I remember Nicholas Hammond. I remember a live-action TV series which had no point of connection to the comic book apart from an actor looking deeply uncomfortable in a poorly designed Spider-suit, with mirror lenses on his mask and web-shooters outside his gloves and a ballet dancer's bulge in his tights. No Uncle Ben, no Gwen, a perfunctory Aunt May, no swinging, no super-villains of any kind. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of seeing a man in a Spider-Man suit, sorry, a REAL LIFE Spider-Man. Hell, I remember how excited I was by the first or second issue of FOOM magazine which contained a couple of black and white stills from an unofficial film-school Spider-Man movie which never got released: because they were PHOTOGRAPHS of SPIDER-MAN.

The early issues of the British comic offered a PHOTOGRAPH of Spider-Man as a promotional item. I have managed to find a reproduction of it. It would have disillusioned my eight-year-old self for life.

I can even remember when I first saw the cartoon: not Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends but the original Spider-Man-Spider-Man does whatever a Spider-Can version. The mere existence of Betty Brant and J.J.J on the small screen was thrilling and validating.

So moan moan moan because the big screen blockbuster that everyone is talking about is not quite faithful enough to the Original Comic Book Spider-Man. You have no idea how lucky my twelve year old self thinks you are.

And anyway. There is no Original Comic Book Spider-Man. There are a number of different versions. Ditko's Spider-Man is not Romita's Spider-Man; Romita's is not Todd MacFarlane's. MacFarlane's Spider-Man was quite different it is who is drawing him at the moment. Everyone knows which version I like best. Hardly anyone agrees with me. That's okay. That's how these characters work.

I had quite a lot of time for Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate Spider-Man was a reboot. Ultimate Spider-Man tried to strip away everything which had been added to Spider-Man between 1963 and 2001 and present the refreshed essence of the character. The New Spider-Man was so much like the Old Spider-Man that old-time-fans like me could have just wept. But then stuff happens and the character moves away from his origins. He doesn't become Tony Stark's protege, but he does get recruited by Nick Fury. 

Ultimate Spider-Man is already a very old comic book: hell, it's nearly a decade since that version of Peter Parker handed the webs over to Miles Morales. You polish off all the dust that has accumulated on Spider-Man; you wind him up and set him in motion; and a whole lot more dust accumulates; and you can no longer see the character you know and love. So you either clean him up again, or else you learn to love dust.

This is not a criticism. This is what happens to fictional characters. Roll with it and accept it. There is no one true Spider-Man. There is no pure Batman. There is no right way of doing Superman. In fact, there is no Superman: there are only 60 years worth of Supermen...

I am in the minority about Sherlock Holmes. I think that Sherlock Holmes means foggy London streets and bobbies in funny hats threatening to administer clips-round-the-ear to street urchins. I think that Sherlock Holmes means deerstalkers and curly-pipes and horse-drawn taxis and the Baker Street address. However clever Benedict Cumberbatch may be, and he may be very clever indeed, I don't think that having a companion called Watson makes you Sherlock Holmes. If it doesn't have Tower Bridge and a hanging judge and people who call rooms "diggings" then it isn't Sherlock. 

Not that things which aren't Sherlock can't be interesting.

I shouldn't blame the Spider-Man-Twitterati for taking it too seriously. I take it too seriously. I shouldn't blame them for over-thinking it. I over-think it. But they act as if it really, really matters. And I don't think it matters. They behave as if they think Far From Home was a personal insult. Their identity is somehow bound up with Spider-Man.

As a matter of textual fact, Uncle Ben was not a very important part of the Spider-Myth in the inaugural Ditko era: Spider-Man was more likely to be kept on the straight-and-narrow by Aunt May's Gumption or Johnny Storm's Pep Talks than by his deceased step-father. Ben became increasingly important as Stan Lee reconfigured Ditko's objectivist anti-hero into a more mainstream superhero character; but when Ben was mentioned, it was still less as a moral influence and more as a plot excuse. Why would a young man dress up as a spider and fight crime? Because Uncle Ben. Why wouldn't Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man if he is obviously no good at it? Because Uncle Ben. Why not become a scientist rather than a guy who catches jewelry thieves just like flies? Because Uncle Ben. 

Uncle Ben was omitted from the Tom Holland version of Spider-Man for clear and logical reasons. The Toby Maguire movies showed how Peter Parker was bitten by a magic spider and how he vowed to use his new found powers to fight crime. The Andrew Garfield movies showed how he was bitten by a magic spider and vowed to use his new found power to fight crime. Both the Toby and Andrew's versions showed the murder of Uncle Ben. The auteurs of the Marvel Cinematic thingummybob made a very sound judgement-call that we didn't need to see the same origin myth three times in fifteen years. Why not introduce us to Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man as a going concern? Why not take the power and responsibility thing for granted?

I'd like to have seen more of Peter Parker in a silly home-made costume doing his best to catch small time crooks on his home turf.

"But removing Uncle Ben changes the character." 

Well: no, demonstrably, it doesn't. Tom Holland does a far better job at playing the comic book Spider-person than any of the previous actors. The most important thing about Spider-Man is not "has a dead uncle". The most important thing about Spider-Man is "snarky banter." 

"But that character could not have come into being without first committing avuncularcide by omission". 

Again, pretty much, no: there are good people in the Marvel Universe, and indeed the Universe, who are not trying to atone for a past transgression. People can acquire a sense of responsibility from school, literature, from Church or Synagogue. I doubt if a single person watching the film said : "But this makes no sense. Why would Spider-Man try to do the right thing if he hasn't got a murdered parental figure somewhere in the background?"

Yes; Batman's Dad was murdered. Yes; Superman's whole planet blew up. Yes; Stan Lee wanted to make Peter Parker more like the Big Two. No; that isn't the only thing about Spider-Man.

But most bizarrely of all; they speak as if Spider-Man and Uncle Ben were real people. They speak as if Ben Parker the man has somehow been slighted by being omitted from the film; they talk about hairbrushing people out of history; they affect to be offended on his behalf.

I think that they are some of the same people who are Personally Offended by the new Star Wars movies, because they Denied Them their God-Given Right to see Old Man Mark and Old Man Harrison zipping around the universe having adventures together.

I think that the sheer intensity of the Spider-myth; the sheer potency of what Steve and Stan created is such that some people cannot be trusted to consume it. It maketh them mad.

The best version of Spider-Man, and indeed the best Super-hero movie is of course Into The Spider-Verse. It engages with and embraces the Core Myth of Spider-Man while at the same time being Fun. It turns Spider-Man into an anthropomorphic pig and still seems to take the character seriously.  The blonde cartoon Spider-Man who Miles encounters in the first act feels so much realer and solider than anything so far played by actors. 

It even has Uncle Ben in it, kind of.

They are making a film of New Gods. I hope fandom can keep its collective head attached. 

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

This is an entirely hypothetical philosophical question.

Imagine that there are three trains, all out of control and without drivers, careening out of control towards the edge of a cliff; you have to choose one of them.

For some reason.

The first train is a racist train; hitched to an even more racist train; and backed up by a big racist train in America.

The second train is, according to some people, a bit racist, or at any rate, a bit slow at dealing with racism in its own carriages.

The third train is not at all racist.

As signalman, do you vote for the slightly racist train, which has a very real chance of winning.

Or do you vote for the not at all racist train and thus maintain your ideological purity, even though, this makes it practically certain, due to the first past the post signalling system, that the very racist train will win the election?

Purely hypothetically.

Monday, November 18, 2019


It isn't possible to turn a book into a film. At best, a film-maker is a translator reading a page of words and turning them into a few minutes of pictures as faithfully as possible. But there is more than one kind of translation: literal, idiomatic, word-for-word, thought-for-thought. I have been studying a single book of the Bible very closely for the last twelve months; and I have learned how many different ways there are of turning the same Greek paragraph into English. 

Most book-to-movie adaptations are not even trying to be translations. They are more like artistic copies. It sometimes happens that one artist makes a copy of another artist's painting. The new painting isn't a forgery. It may not even be a very good copy. But it is sometimes a very pretty picture in its own right. 

The same book can be adapted more than once; in the same way that the same text can be translated more than once and the same picture can be copied more than once. Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein is a more literal adaptation of Mary Shelly than Boris Karloff's: it is not necessarily a better movie. 

If The Princess Bride were simply a thirty-year-old adaptation of a fifty-year-old novel, there would be nothing particularly silly about the idea of making the film all over again. You would simply end up with two different directors giving you two different ways of looking at William Goldman's original novel -- like two artists painting the same bowl of fruit in two different styles. Little Women is turned into a movie about once a decade. Les Miserables has been filmed at least seven times, sometimes with songs. No-one was especially shocked by the notion that someone might turn The Princess Bride into a musical: it might have been good; it might have been bad. In the end it never happened. 

If The Princess Bride were merely a very, very famous adaptation of a not-particularly well known novel, then there would be some justification in producing a new version. It might be very interesting to revisit Noel Coward's original stage version of Brief Encounter, a one-act two-hander set in a tea-room with an ambiguous ending. But Celia Johnson's vowels and Rachmaninov's incidental music would haunt any production. The BBC did a passably good Les Miserables last year: but when the students in the ABC cafe joined in Le Marseillaise everyone had "Do You Hear The People Sing?" playing in their head. The Importance of Being Ernest had been around for half a century before anyone thought to film it: but since 1935 every actress has had to work out a way of delivering two innocuous words about handbags without sounding like Dame Edith Evans. (Does history record how the line was uttered in Oscar's presence on the first night?) 

I am devoutly hoping that the BBC version of Pullman's Dark Material's is an abject failure: if it succeeds then a fifty six hour adaptation of Harry Potter is historically inevitable. It isn't clear whether Jaykay Rowling thinks that the movies are simply the Potterverse translated to the cinema; or whether she would allow a different director to visualize Hogwarts in a different way. Richard Harris said that his role as Dumbledore was completely unrelated to what he normally means by "acting". In an acting role you look at the words and use your skill and insight to build a character and work out how he would say them. In Harry Potter, you said the lines how Jaykay told you to. A new TV version could justify its existence by including all the scenes which the films had to omit.(Dark Materials justifies its existence by not being quite so dreadful as the movie.

The Princess Bride is not merely an adaptation, or a translation, or a very, very famous movie based on a very, very, very good book. The book and the film are irrevocably entwined. I can't think of another case where film and book are so clearly two aspects of a single work. Some of us regret the fact that our mental image of Tolkien's Gandalf has been over-written by our memories of Sir Ian's film version. If we ever re-read Frankenstein we would have to make a positive effort not to see the Hollywood version in our head. When we go back and read The Princess Bride, we see Cary Elwes and Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin in our heads. William Goldman tells us, in the text of the book, that this is the way he reads it. The movie characters embody the literary ones and can't ever be done better. And the making of the film is part of the text of the book: Goldman -- the fictionalized Goldman who narrates the story -- talks about visiting the real-life Cliffs of Destruction during the making of the movie, and claims that a "then little-known Austrian body-builder" was very nearly cast as Fezzik. 

But this is not to say that the film is simply a dry-run for the novel or that the novel is simply a plodding transcription of the film. It is sometimes said, a little cruelly, that Terrance Dicks' created Doctor Who novels by going through BBC screenplays and adding the words "said the Doctor" and "said Leela" in blue pencil. It is sometimes said that John Grisham's courtroom dramas are only ever movie-pitches. The Princess Bride is full of bookish detail which doesn't show up in the movie. Cinema audiences observe the clifftop duel from the outside: the book places the reader firmly inside Inigo's head. The film assumes that the audience will notice that the Man in Black is left handed; in the book, we notice when Inigo notices; and follow Inigo's thoughts as he realizes he will have to switch hands. But the book can't show us the cut and thrust of the fight in the way that the movie can. The actors practiced for weeks; using real fencing moves, but light fibreglass swords. It often happens that one says of a movie "oh, you must read the book first; the film will only spoil it." The Princess Bride is a rare exception: I tell people that reading the book will spoil the film; but that once they have seen the film, the book will enhance their enjoyment of it. The book is one of the most bookish books I have ever read; the film is consistently filmish. 

Both the book and the film have a framing sequence. The book's frame is very involved indeed. It tells the story of how, as a young child William Goldman got hooked on adventure novels; about how his father used to read him the Princess Bride; about how years later he tracked down a copy of the book and gave it to his son; and only then discovered that his father had been reading him edited highlights and skipping the boring bits. Over the years, Goldman has extended this backstory: there are now introductions and epilogues and a print-out you have to write to the publisher and request. We learn about how the book was turned into a movie; how Goldman traveled to Florin and saw many of the places where events in the book took place; and about his ongoing struggle with the literary executors of S Morgenstern who wrote the original book. 

It's all a conjuring trick, of course: Morgenstern doesn't exist and "Bill Goldman" who appears in the book has nothing to do with the "William Goldman" who wrote it. Geoffrey Chaucer pulled off a not entirely dissimilar stunt four hundred years earlier. 

The frame is absolutely essential to the story: The Princess Bride is only believable if it is presented as a story-within-a-story. Put another way, The Princess Bride is not a story about a farm boy rescuing his lady from a wicked prince: it is the story of a young American kid discovering that he really likes books. Goldman, a screen-writer to his boots, saw that the book-frame was far too complicated for a movie; and replaced it with a much simpler narrative in which a Grandfather reads the book to a Boy who doesn't really like books. Goldman initially thought of setting the frame in the 1930s, the golden age of swashbuckling movies; but sensibly decided that it needed to be anchored in the present day. Present day is a slippery term, and that 1980s baseball sim is now almost as far removed from us as the depression would have been in the 80s. 

And that, of course, is the answer. If you told me that I was to create a new work of art based on the Princess Bride -- "Rilstone after Goldman", as it were -- that is what I would do. Film the framing sequence: the full framing sequence with Goldman's father and his lawyer and Kermit Slog; his fictional wife and kids; his elementary school teacher. I would make the audience very aware that there was a real Goldman and a fictional Goldman; but I would make the frame look as much like a documentary as I could manage. I'd be aiming for something like American Splendor, which slid between a cartoon Harvey Pekar; an actor playing Harvey Pekar; the present-day-real-life Harvey Pekar; and contemporary footage of a younger Harvey Pekar. I'd show you Goldman visiting the cliffs of destruction and looking at Inigo's sword in a museum. I'd incorporate material about the struggle to make the original movie. I bet there are out-takes and backstage material on a cutting room floor somewhere, and if not, that kind of thing can be faked. I'd show the audience Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed audition. I might even flash back to Andre the Giant on the school run with the famous poet.

Most importantly, I would reinstate the brilliant triple ending: how the novel ends; how Goldman’s father told him it ends; and how Goldman thinks it ought to have ended…. 

And here is the stunningly clever bit. I wouldn't refilm the story-within-the-story: I would incorporate the existing film into my remake. When Bill Goldman's dad starts to read to him from the Princess Bride we would cut to Robin Wright bullying Cary Elwes on the farm. When Goldman starts editing the duel section we would cut to Elwes and Patinkin sword fighting on the cliff. Obviously I would remove Peter Falk's voice and replace it with the voice of "Goldman". I would probably retain the Mark Knopfler sound track, but that's negotiable. And I would doctor the original footage. I would put it in black and white and I would juggle with the speed and resolution so it looked as if it came from an old, silent movie. (But with the dialogue intact.) 

The question of manipulating images from old movies is a bit of a fiddly one. I think that George Lucas is free to do what he likes with Star Wars, but it is a shame that the original version is unavailable. It think that Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be improved if the happy ending ere deleted. One day I may watch the definitive definitive definitive Blade Runner. Ripping a classic to pieces to create an inferior work seems to me to be an entirely legitimate part of the artistic process; certainly as legitimate as Lichtenstein turning panels of comics into wall-sized canvasses. The film-school project of taking the silent, black-and-white Metropolis and adding colour and sound seems off-the-wall enough to be worth watching. It doesn't replace the original movie; but stands as an interesting commentary on it. Some day I may even watch it. 

So: there is my idea. And now I have had it, it is no longer a thought experiment, but a genuine suggestion. I hope that they do remake The Princess Bride and I hope that they remake it in that way. It would be kind and fair of them to give me a credit and a small financial consideration, but of course, life isn’t always fair.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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