Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845


(scene from a staging of the theatrical version, per small caption)

The Cricket on the Hearth*

Here we are at the second-worst of Dickens’ Christmas books. It falls into that category of Dickens I’d read for elements I like rather than because I love the book as a whole. Chesterton writes that, properly considered, Dickens shouldn’t be thought of in terms of discrete novels, but rather in terms of slices of the overall personality of the writer. This point of view is a bit too author-driven for modern taste (though it is, after all, equally historically contingent and artificial to insist on the coherence of discrete works as analytic objects—and we do, no one is so Derridean as to actually overcome this tendency in practice for longer than the duration of a particularly pious article), but if this lens has its limitations it also has its appeal. Even bad Dickens has a lot to offer: I think of it like Classic Doctor Who, where I almost always find something to delight or interest me in a given episode (even one I quite dislike—bloody “and the Silurians”).

In The Cricket on the Hearth, a young woman nicknamed Dot (actually christened Mary) has wed an older carrier named John and produced a young child with him. Their household also includes a servant (a foundling girl) and Boxer (a dog). The family is friends with an older toy-maker, Caleb, and his blind daughter, Bertha. (Intergenerational friendship is so much more normal in this era than our own—it’s not just Dickens, it’s everywhere.) Caleb’s son was lost long ago whilst off making his fortune, but this son was once engaged to a girl named May Fielding, a friend and contemporary of Dot’s. May Fielding is now engaged once more, this time for purely practical reasons, to Tackleton the toymaker. May’s mother has egged on the match.

Tackleton is also Caleb’s tyrannical boss and landlord. To make her life easier, Caleb’s told Bertha that they live in a lovely house and that Tackleton is a wonderful man who’s forever smiling and winking while hateful crap topples out of his mouth. (Early troll-culture?) (No, not really.) Horribly, Bertha’s fallen a little in love with the person she thinks Tackleton is, and is saddened by his immanent marriage to May.

In the course of his rounds John picks up an old man who asks to stay with them for a few days due to some logistics snafu, and who’s willing to pay for the privilege. Some confusing business leads Tackleton to suspect that the old man is actually a young one in disguise, and to tip off John to Dot’s evident seduction by this mysterious stranger. After seeing some Othelloish ‘proof’ of their affair John contemplates terrible revenge, but after a hard night’s thinking (with supernatural (possibly? the book thinks it’s definitely magical, but more on why it doesn’t feel that supernatural in a moment) intervention in her favour) he decides to be kind to his young wife, and to bend over backwards to release her from their apparently ill-assorted union. Dot is pretty offended, but forgives him his mistake: it comes out that the old man was indeed a young one in disguise, but that he’s actually Caleb’s lost son, come back to confront May about her apparent desire to be with someone else and to marry her, if she’s still interested (and to her mother’s annoyance, she is). Dot is helping him in this endeavour. John and Dot make it up; Bertha is disabused of her illusions and forgives her father for having given rise to them, appreciating the huge efforts he’s gone to for her sake; and even Tackleton grudgingly forgives the bride he only wanted as a toy for choosing personal happiness instead of a life with him on such terms. Only May’s greedy mother is left piqued.

I know that’s a whirlwind summary, but one never knows how to deal with this! In academic criticism I’d assume you’d read this book already or were at any rate more here for critical/meta content than for a plot synopsis. In a book review I’d be positively discouraged from ‘spoiling’ the book (I do not personally believe in spoilage unless we’re discussing food, but I am aware other people are concerned about this (non-issue)). This is an awkward medium, so perhaps my awkward summary suits it.

Cricket is a simple story, designed to come out simultaneously with a theatrical production. Dickens was always getting plagiarised on the boards anyway, maybe he thought ‘why not gazump it?’ This type of simultaneous multi-media release is still rare even in our modern era of greater franchise-based organisation and marketing: it was something of a coup when Lloyd-Webber got out his Phantom sequel in every major market simultaneously, even if the musical itself was far from one. Dickens is deeply in conversation with Victorian pantomime and melodrama theatrical forms (he’s literally writing this for stage melodrama, with that dual-end in mind). As per last review, Simon Callow makes excellent points about the particular inherent interconnectedness of Dickens’ Christmas books and theatre. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that Dickens is, from a few antecedents, inventing the whole genre of ‘the Christmas story’ here. Cricket’s plot is perhaps best viewed as intentionally lean and silly, and thus potentially ideal for the several generic spaces it’s occupying. Dickens can certainly do dense: while I don’t love Cricket, some of the things I dislike about it are probably not errors, but choices.

(As a side note, “Vladimir Lenin left during a performance of the Cricket play in Russia, as he found it dull and the saccharine sentimentality got on his nerves. This incident might now be little remembered if George Orwell had not mentioned it in his essay on Dickens (from Wiki). One day, I will write an entire counter-essay on what a piece of malformed shit this Orwell essay on Dickens is. Orwell even manages, in this essay, not to get Lenin. ORWELL does. Stoppard whoops his ass in Travesties, it’s so embarrassing. I cannot think of Orwell’s Dickens essay without an eye twitch. Even now. And his review of Gaudy Night—I have to move on here before I black out and kill again.)

As with Our Mutual Friend and Battle of Life, here we have a familial relationship wherein one person conceals important information from another as an act of love, undertaking a great, burdensome feat of disguise and deceiving their loved one in order to help them. Lying to Bertha about the conditions in which they live exhausts and perpetually confuses Caleb, who lives in a clashing Orwellian (aha, yeah) double-think miasma. It also drains his already-limited finances; he buys her presents ‘from their kind benefactor’. Bertha’s blindness is a great opportunity for Caleb and a curse and a ‘blessing’ for Bertha, in that she can be thus insulated from the realities of her life.

Victorians, or at least Dickens, are far more comfortable with this kind of patronising treatment of truth and agency than we might be today. It seems unfair to entirely dismiss Caleb and John Harmon’s (OMF) acts as exercises of paternalistic control, when they demand real sacrifice from their perpetrators, and loss of agency and control. They also necessarily involve taking on labour and suffering, and are sometimes undertaken by the disempowered ‘child’ in the relationship. In Battle, the somewhat-infantilized younger sister deceives her elder sister/mother.  In addition to the great deception of OMF, i.e. John’s serving as the secretary for his own estate, Lizzie also deceives her father a little about her brother’s desertion, which she herself planned.

Caleb spends his days performing happiness for Bertha, telling her how wonderful things are in an attempt to enchant their domestic space, their enemies and their life. In doing so he even accidentally enchants his daughter into falling in love with the unworthy Tackleton. It’s a bit Life is Beautiful, really—perhaps we do still have some cultural space for this sort of lie, but only in the case of the very young, and in the direst possible circumstances. But consider Caleb as an actor/enchanter—and one within a play, as well. Charm is very associated with enchantment, manipulation, witchcraft, and a Freudian control over others’ psychologies. These elements also emerge strongly in Our Mutual Friend’s Bella/John fairy-tale romance arc.

Is there, perhaps, a core relationship between a willingness to hide unpleasant things from people as an act of love in Dickens’ work, charm, our current attitude towards charm and our current attitude towards agency? Is there something about our neo-liberal, almost Objectivist moment of strongly asserted independence, self-control and agency that is opposed to charm, opposed to the idea of our being swayed by external forces and actors? This frantic claim of self-determination occurs before the backdrop of the vast hierarchy of late capitalism, which makes a mockery of such assertions. Effectively resisting these hierarchies would require forms of solidarity we aren’t currently organised to employ. Does this insistence that we stand proud in our oysertish self-containment actually render us less able to understand and reckon with demagoguery, when it comes calling? Do (neo-liberal?) ‘independence’ formulations blind us to the play of hierarchies in our lives, and to the potential for collective resistance?

Questions of agency are especially fraught here because of Bertha’s blindness. There is something deeply uncomfortable and perhaps especially unethical about lying to Bertha, who depends on her father for information about the world she is unable to gather herself (to a perhaps unrealistic extent: you can smell and feel damp, etcetera, in a way the fairy-tale logic of Bertha’s deception cannot admit). Bertha is not a child, she is a young woman. This is not a temporary condition, but a permanent one. Her father’s lies have already caused her to feel heartbreak on Tackleton’s account: they have not shielded her from all harm, and have in some ways exposed her to additional pain.

Elsewhere Dickens has a tendency to ask people to contribute, in a hard situation, to the wellbeing of the family, and to measure their maturity by their willingness to try to do so. The siblings in Nicholas Nickleby chip in, and David Copperfield’s Dora is a bit of a failure for being unwilling and unable to do so. Bertha works hard at her father’s side, and yet doesn’t share the psychological and logistical burdens of their position. Her disability thus bars her from adulthood in a way that is disquieting. Her father is complicit in this process, and exacerbates it.

Yet one thing I hate is when people take a few examples from the canon and say Dickens ‘thinks’ (as though that’s quite the word we want, or something we care about—we all know his thinking is difficult to encapsulate, and that it isn’t entirely want matters to us as readers now) this or that about a topic important to contemporary discourse (a topic often constructed very differently, now, and in a wholly removed rhetorical context: imagine reading one person’s singled out memes and tweets in 100 years, without recourse to The Discourse). The fact is that Dickens has so many depictions of disability. He’s deeply interested in disabled people in the world (a topic that was perhaps more visible to Victorians than it is to us today), and gives them any range of personalities and experiences: vile Wegg; wonderful Jenny Wren; glorious Sloppy; ascendent, towering little Mowcher (who was apparently, quoth Cowell, going to be a villain until Dickens got a FURIOUS LETTER from a local dwarf chiropodist, along the lines of I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU WOULD INSULT ME THUS SIR!! Dickens was super embarrassed, though he’d no pre-existing idea of the woman’s existence, and re-wrote the whole ending so that Mowcher would be awesome and the real-life hairdresser proud to own the connection). These physically and mentally disabled characters are canny, productive, good-hearted, turned nasty by their situations and treatments, sulky, loyal, etc. They are, in short, people. **

I find it more productive to say that some Victorian story forms such as melodrama and some currents of popular thought exercise influence of various degrees in and through Dickens’ thinking and texts, as stories demand or as a project is more vulnerable to the pressure of them. Greater length and more of a sense of creative vision from Dickens himself can dispel these forces of cliche: they retreat or ‘come out of the cart’ in order to make more room for his developed characters and his own creative expressions. This is not to absolve Dickens from complicity in his poor representations and to reserve for his personality and agency only his contemporarily-laudable decisions and great works. It’s simply to say that without an understanding of Victorian contexts and how stock-tropes exert force on the creation of art, and without considering the breadth of his representations, it’s fairly useless to chat about ‘how Dickens thought about disability’.

Another thing that really bears some discussion is the erotic energy Caleb’s portrayal of a Tackleton generates. Bertha falls in love with her father’s words. Her affections are focused in part on:

1. something her father has created, so a sibling,

2. her father-as-artist,

3. on her father himself, the giver of gifts and ‘embodiment’ of her affection, and

4. on a refracted father-figure: Tackleton is, supposedly, their provider-benefactor, and of an age with Bertha’s sire.

When this deception collapses, Bertha credits her father with the benevolent spirit she romantically loved in Tackleton. She recommits her affections to her providing father. She has no mother to stand in the way of her serving as the lady of her father’s house, or to absorb or deflect her devotional, romantic energy. Her brother’s return does complicate this family circle, but his marriage draws him away from it, into a new family unit. I’m not saying anything as simplistic as ‘this is soft incest’. It decidedly isn’t. It is, however, a somewhat uneasy family romance that is a little difficult to reconcile neatly. 

I mean, were I a character in this story, especially Bertha or Caleb, I’d be fairly uncomfortable with this turn of events and what it might say about my affections and desires. Then again I am a psychoanalytic reader, and by definition a Dickens character cannot be. Freud himself was deeply influenced by Dickens, and his system of thinking about consciousness was influenced by the Victorian novel. I would not even hesitate to say that it was derived from it (and particularly from Dickens) in some measure, because Freud cops to exactly that on numerous occasions.

Caleb’s deception involves the use of performativity to express the authenticity of his love for Bertha. Performativity and authenticity are two important terms when we’re thinking about charm, but this also aligns with Dickens’ thinking about the theatre as enabling and accessing essential truth or hyper-reality by means of show in Nicholas Nickleby. (A theme Callow picks up on and deals well with: his biography really has much to offer. It is not perfect, but like the similarly-situated Chesterton work, it is insightful, loving and informed.) Charm arising from artifice and display is sometimes considered pernicious, a particularly feminised evil (painted whores, lying bitches). Dickens himself is somewhat down on artifice in the orchard dancing sequence of Battle of Life. But I think in general his attitude about artifice and charm is relatively nuanced, evincing positivity towards premeditation and the theatrical and also a vexed, complicated attitude towards coquetry. I’m thinking of Dora in DC, and perhaps Mrs. Nickleby, as well as the avatar for his own ex-fiancé in Little Dorrit.

Dickens is shockingly cruel to Mrs. Nickleby for still imagining herself desirable. But then he’s young when he writes cruelly of her, and latently furious with his mother, who Mrs. Nickleby is said to resemble. And like Austen, he doesn’t so much learn to play nice or blunt his edge as learn his kindness with time (this process becomes obvious when you consider Austen’s satiric juvenilia). It’s striking how kind Little Dorrit ultimately is to the character who serves to provide a parody of aged girlish affectations of unaffectedness. Dickens comes back to re-write Mrs. Nickleby and his former fiancé alike here, and to do better justice to them as a more mature man. He really gets the theatricality of performed gender, and doesn’t condemn it. I’m fairly confident in saying that Dickens is pretty mature about performance, especially feminised modes thereof, and sees no strong divide between it and The Real. (As a side-note, it’d be the worst hypocrisy for Dickens to come down against premeditation, theatricality and coquetry. Deprived of these, he would have neither career nor character-traits.)

This is of a piece with his general understanding of the performativity of marginal life: the charm-effort needed to survive for those who lack power, agency and resources. Uriah Heep probably expresses Dickens’ most brutal deconstruction of these social demands, and how we repudiate such shows with visceral dislike even while demanding their execution. Besides, not everyone ‘gets’ what Heep is doing and is made uncomfortable by his hypocritical fawning, as David is. This tactic serves Uriah well. We have the proof of this in his various ascensions. It’s almost impossible to divide Heep’s motives from his show cleanly, though these at times twist in opposite directions. Heep is one of Dickens’ most theatrical and pre-meditating characters (all his life is a play), and yet Dickens is fascinated by this manipulative creep: he always loves his grotesques more than his pantomime-pretty protagonists.

Concerns about performativity and authenticity also wind through John and Dot’s conflict. John wonders whether his wife’s affection and duty have just been shows to dupe him, or even efforts to convince herself that she’s happy when she isn’t. Performativity becomes reputation and chastity: Dot is seen doing something that is perhaps suspicious-looking, aiding in a disguise, and thus her own authenticity comes into question. Chastity and reputation are of course always domestic and public performances, even where underlying feelings of love and loyalty are their origin. I’m thinking a little of Paul Dombey Sr.’s ill-assorted second marriage. While his (decidedly unloving) wife Edith is still faithful to him (indeed she is never actually adulterous), it is insufficient for Dombey that she simply be so. She must come and dance at his party before his associates, like Esther’s predecessor, despite the fact that Edith prides herself on having never hitherto implied more feeling towards him than was actually in her.

Like David Copperfield, Cricket features May-December romantic relationships and apparent tension concerning them. We are supposed to believe Dot may be faithless or unhappy because her husband is older, even as we and the other characters are supposed to believe Annie Strong might be (though it seems to me as though Dot’s conduct is intended to be more suspect than Annie’s). Dot might have made a foolish marital choice, even as Betsey Trotwood implies Clara Copperfield might have done (though Betsey’s blame largely accrues to David Senior, there). Tackleton seems to have an easy time reducing his prospective marriage to May to a Dombeyish transactional affair because of her youth and beauty, while Bertha is able to cathect Tackleton a little like a father-lover. Indeed Tackleton finds the prospect of a young woman feeling real affection for him a proof of her insanity. Bertha’s tactfully-demonstrated affection is contemptible to him.

Possibly, across the Dickens canon (and maybe in Victorian thinking more generally?), May-December marriages are acceptable and even productive if they’re somewhat paternalistic (and it’s always father-daughter). But if they don’t fall into that model, they may be objectifying and exploitable. There’s not really a model for older wife-younger man. It’s not impossible that there would be—remember the Hot Widows of Regency theatre? There’s also not really a model for age-stratified relationships that are radically egalitarian (possibly the Dedlocks?). Bleak House threatens a paternalistic Jarndyce/Esther union, rendered especially familial because he’s her guardian and employer and has known her since childhood. It then curves around to favour a match between Esther and her age-mate, Allan Woodcourt. May-December marriages in general, though, seem to bear special risks of exploitation and infidelity.

Michael Slater made an excellent point in his lecture on Dickens and Christmas that all the Christmas books are, in some way or another, about memory. In Cricket, it’s Dot’s qualities and her past good behaviour, as well as the memories the couple share, that enable John to snap out of his Othello-ish rage and to be more than decent to May when he believes she’s cheated on him (or wants to), forgiving her fully the very next day and acting to promote her happiness at the expense of his own. John travels from a murderous rage, a dangerous excess of chauvinism, to a state of superlative goodness and self-transcendence. There is a feminising process in play: a magical quintessence of the forces of domestic preservation, in the form of the preserved cricket, gentles and elevates him. Even Tackleton is eventually impressed by John’s forbearance, and is himself gentled and elevated by it. The fantastic agent, the cricket, simply enables a supernatural expansion of natural processes of memory, thought and reflection, and serves as a fairy-repository of the common and ritual actions Dot has done and the couple have undertaken together in order to make their homelife successful.

This is a somewhat unusual treatment of a common theme: cheating wife, vengeful and jealous husband. Again, Dickens could be directly rethinking his adored Shakespeare. (Molly Katz points out that she’s not entirely sure this is a ‘counterblaste’ to Othello so much as, possibly, a development of the themes of Emilia’s speech. I think that could be right!) But Dickens’ emphasis on the Christmas book as a vehicle for explorations of forgiveness makes something strange and appealing out of the material. The husband is in a Deep Jealous Rage, but when he sits down, rather than concocting a revenge plot, he’s visited and affected by an externalised karmic essence of the goodness of the household and the love and work he and his wife have put in to it. He is forced to consider all these memories of her having been a good person and good to him, and by morning he’s transformed, through a night of thinking, from murderous to absolutely clement, understanding and releasing Dot.

This is the sort of incredibly bold transformation few writers besides Dickens really have the balls to just tell you can happen. We’re all afraid of it being unbelievable, but Dickens is just as head-down set in this in Christmas Carol. Cricket is not a good book, but there’s a power and feminism here. I could hedge on that term, but I choose not to. Cricket confronts the then-terrifying possibility of the angel in the house being a betrayer and insists that infidelity would not make her one. It says that whatever unfaithful women do, they do not deserve violence or even less physical forms of cruelty at the hands of the men who exercise power over their lives. John says a lot of quite keen stuff about having thought now about how Dot was young when she married. He suggests that she perhaps felt pressured, or simply found the union not to her liking after the fact. This method of forcing this character and the male reader to consider womens’ positions is really remarkable: how many ‘Why DID that woman do that thing you find reprehensible? Really enter her perspective, her gendered situation.’ takes do we have coming out now? I have trouble thinking of a contemporary popular, mass-culture narrative as invested in deconstructing toxic masculinity as Cricket is.

Thus it’s a little weird for Wikipedia to flatly say that in Cricket Dickens “abandoned social criticism, current events, and topical themes in favour of simple fantasy and a domestic setting for his hero’s redemption.” This formulation only works if your conception of the political issues does not include gendered violence: still a huge killer of women in England and elsewhere today. You’d have to shunt gender right out of your whole idea of the political, like Orwell does. (Ooooooh.)

Dickens is using the structure of melodrama to empathise in convincing ways with Dot’s position, and her having been ‘innocent’ all along does not unmake the central climax and the importance of the key work of forgiveness. Again we see emotional labour recognised as work, and as valuable. It’s interesting to see forgiveness staged, and the act of forgiving presented as itself redemptive. Dot’s resentment and hurt at having been thought unfaithful is also valuable, as is the maturity with which she herself forgives the suspicion and rises above it. (Dickens himself was never so sanguine, where he felt himself in the right: one of the stickiest points of his character was his defensiveness where he felt guilty, but also felt he hadn’t actually done wrong. Perhaps Dot’s comparative sang froid is due to her more total innocence.)

Dot’s true feeling eventually reveals itself via display, and this is what ultimately convinces John she is honest. But is such display also what made him feel her honesty could be in doubt? Perhaps it’s even possible to question Dot’s ‘womanhood’ (because to be a woman is, in some ways, to be a wife, a mother, a ‘good’ woman—I say this not in agreement with that position, but as an analysis of the cultural nexus that constitutes gender) and her marriage because, from the start, the occupation of such categories relies on performance. As Butler would tell us, womanhood is always performatively enacted.

Look at the mannered, intentional, ludic wifely displays Dot engages in:

Then, Dot—quite well again, she said, quite well again—arranged the great chair in the chimney-corner for her husband; filled his pipe and gave it him; and took her usual little stool beside him on the hearth.

She always would sit on that little stool.  I think she must have had a kind of notion that it was a coaxing, wheedling little stool.

She was, out and out, the very best filler of a pipe, I should say, in the four quarters of the globe.  To see her put that chubby little finger in the bowl, and then blow down the pipe to clear the tube, and, when she had done so, affect to think that there was really something in the tube, and blow a dozen times, and hold it to her eye like a telescope, with a most provoking twist in her capital little face, as she looked down it, was quite a brilliant thing.  As to the tobacco, she was perfect mistress of the subject; and her lighting of the pipe, with a wisp of paper, when the Carrier had it in his mouth—going so very near his nose, and yet not scorching it—was Art, high Art.

Art is specifically flagged up! We also have Dot’s ritualistic fussing over the baby (which must itself be dressed and displayed), Dot’s concern over her appearance (specifically her well-formed and well-attired legs), and this passage:

The packages and parcels for the errand cart, were numerous; and there were many stoppages to take them in and give them out, which were not by any means the worst parts of the journey.  Some people were so full of expectation about their parcels, and other people were so full of wonder about their parcels, and other people were so full of inexhaustible directions about their parcels, and John had such a lively interest in all the parcels, that it was as good as a play.  Likewise, there were articles to carry, which required to be considered and discussed, and in reference to the adjustment and disposition of which, councils had to be holden by the Carrier and the senders: at which Boxer usually assisted, in short fits of the closest attention, and long fits of tearing round and round the assembled sages and barking himself hoarse.  Of all these little incidents, Dot was the amused and open-eyed spectatress from her chair in the cart; and as she sat there, looking on—a charming little portrait framed to admiration by the tilt—there was no lack of nudgings and glancings and whisperings and envyings among the younger men.  And this delighted John the Carrier, beyond measure; for he was proud to have his little wife admired, knowing that she didn’t mind it—that, if anything, she rather liked it perhaps.

Like Agnes in DC, Dot is like a portrait of herself. Dot spectates, and herself invites spectation. She likes to be admired, and her husband, rather than being jealous, likes that she likes it, or even likes her being admired for his own part. In this figuration perhaps it is Dot’s beauty that charms, or her extensive preparations. But equally, it is her position overlooking others at work, the display she makes now and the thwarted desire of men.

Tackleton also speaks of the appearance of their happiness as a show, making John subconsciously doubt the validity of their feelings:

‘Tchah!  It’s of no use to be anything but free with you, I see,’ said Tackleton.  ‘Why, then, the truth is you have a—what tea-drinking people call a sort of a comfortable appearance together, you and your wife.  We know better, you know, but—’

‘No, we don’t know better,’ interposed John.  ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Well!  We don’t know better, then,’ said Tackleton.  ‘We’ll agree that we don’t.  As you like; what does it matter?  I was going to say, as you have that sort of appearance, your company will produce a favourable effect on Mrs. Tackleton that will be.  And, though I don’t think your good lady’s very friendly to me, in this matter, still she can’t help herself from falling into my views, for there’s a compactness and cosiness of appearance about her that always tells, even in an indifferent case.  You’ll say you’ll come?’

Other people—though not Tackleton himself, by his own account—are ‘taken in’ and think this couple, mis-matched in years, as happy as they seem. ‘Tea-drinking’ people. It’s not necessary that Dot actually agree with Tackleton about the advisability of Tackleton’s own May-December match: the fact that she looks attractive and well-kempt, and thus appears happy, will support his argument.

In the next passage Tackleton suggests that Dot and John should kill the noisy, irritating cricket on their hearth:

‘Bah! what’s home?’ cried Tackleton.  ‘Four walls and a ceiling! (why don’t you kill that Cricket?  I would!  I always do.  I hate their noise.)  There are four walls and a ceiling at my house.  Come to me!’

‘You kill your Crickets, eh?’ said John.

‘Scrunch ’em, sir,’ returned the other, setting his heel heavily on the floor.

Curiously and typically, Dickens delights both in the family that cherishes and preserves and never would smash a cricket, but just as much, if not more, in his grotesques. He relishes cricket-smashing Tackleton, describing his flawed character with great interest and vigour and giving us (in addition to Tackleton’s delightful name) a great deal of information on his backstory and person:

Tackleton the Toy-merchant, pretty generally known as Gruff and Tackleton—for that was the firm, though Gruff had been bought out long ago; only leaving his name, and as some said his nature, according to its Dictionary meaning, in the business—Tackleton the Toy-merchant, was a man whose vocation had been quite misunderstood by his Parents and Guardians.  If they had made him a Money Lender, or a sharp Attorney, or a Sheriff’s Officer, or a Broker, he might have sown his discontented oats in his youth, and, after having had the full run of himself in ill-natured transactions, might have turned out amiable, at last, for the sake of a little freshness and novelty.  But, cramped and chafing in the peaceable pursuit of toy-making, he was a domestic Ogre, who had been living on children all his life, and was their implacable enemy.  He despised all toys; wouldn’t have bought one for the world; delighted, in his malice, to insinuate grim expressions into the faces of brown-paper farmers who drove pigs to market, bellmen who advertised lost lawyers’ consciences, movable old ladies who darned stockings or carved pies; and other like samples of his stock in trade.  In appalling masks; hideous, hairy, red-eyed Jacks in Boxes; Vampire Kites; demoniacal Tumblers who wouldn’t lie down, and were perpetually flying forward, to stare infants out of countenance; his soul perfectly revelled.  They were his only relief, and safety-valve.  He was great in such inventions.  Anything suggestive of a Pony-nightmare was delicious to him.  He had even lost money (and he took to that toy very kindly) by getting up Goblin slides for magic-lanterns, whereon the Powers of Darkness were depicted as a sort of supernatural shell-fish, with human faces.  In intensifying the portraiture of Giants, he had sunk quite a little capital; and, though no painter himself, he could indicate, for the instruction of his artists, with a piece of chalk, a certain furtive leer for the countenances of those monsters, which was safe to destroy the peace of mind of any young gentleman between the ages of six and eleven, for the whole Christmas or Midsummer Vacation.

What he was in toys, he was (as most men are) in other things.  You may easily suppose, therefore, that within the great green cape, which reached down to the calves of his legs, there was buttoned up to the chin an uncommonly pleasant fellow; and that he was about as choice a spirit, and as agreeable a companion, as ever stood in a pair of bull-headed-looking boots with mahogany-coloured tops.

Still, Tackleton, the toy-merchant, was going to be married.  In spite of all this, he was going to be married.  And to a young wife too, a beautiful young wife.

He didn’t look much like a bridegroom, as he stood in the Carrier’s kitchen, with a twist in his dry face, and a screw in his body, and his hat jerked over the bridge of his nose, and his hands tucked down into the bottoms of his pockets, and his whole sarcastic ill-conditioned self peering out of one little corner of one little eye, like the concentrated essence of any number of ravens.  But, a Bridegroom he designed to be.

In fact Dickens so loves this crabbed old sinner that he cannot resist giving him a redemption arc, unearned but fun anyway:

There was a tap at the door; and a man came staggering in, without saying with your leave, or by your leave, with something heavy on his head.  Setting this down in the middle of the table, symmetrically in the centre of the nuts and apples, he said:

‘Mr. Tackleton’s compliments, and as he hasn’t got no use for the cake himself, p’raps you’ll eat it.’

And with those words, he walked off.

There was some surprise among the company, as you may imagine.  Mrs. Fielding, being a lady of infinite discernment, suggested that the cake was poisoned, and related a narrative of a cake, which, within her knowledge, had turned a seminary for young ladies, blue.  But she was overruled by acclamation; and the cake was cut by May, with much ceremony and rejoicing.

I don’t think any one had tasted it, when there came another tap at the door, and the same man appeared again, having under his arm a vast brown-paper parcel.

‘Mr. Tackleton’s compliments, and he’s sent a few toys for the Babby.  They ain’t ugly.’

After the delivery of which expressions, he retired again.

The whole party would have experienced great difficulty in finding words for their astonishment, even if they had had ample time to seek them.  But they had none at all; for the messenger had scarcely shut the door behind him, when there came another tap, and Tackleton himself walked in.

‘Mrs. Peerybingle!’ said the Toy-merchant, hat in hand.  ‘I’m sorry.  I’m more sorry than I was this morning.  I have had time to think of it.  John Peerybingle!  I’m sour by disposition; but I can’t help being sweetened, more or less, by coming face to face with such a man as you.  Caleb!  This unconscious little nurse gave me a broken hint last night, of which I have found the thread.  I blush to think how easily I might have bound you and your daughter to me, and what a miserable idiot I was, when I took her for one!  Friends, one and all, my house is very lonely to-night.  I have not so much as a Cricket on my Hearth.  I have scared them all away.  Be gracious to me; let me join this happy party!’

He was at home in five minutes.  You never saw such a fellow.  What had he been doing with himself all his life, never to have known, before, his great capacity of being jovial!  Or what had the Fairies been doing with him, to have effected such a change! […] Well! if you’ll believe me, they have not been dancing five minutes, when suddenly the Carrier flings his pipe away, takes Dot round the waist, dashes out into the room, and starts off with her, toe and heel, quite wonderfully.  Tackleton no sooner sees this, than he skims across to Mrs. Fielding, takes her round the waist, and follows suit.

Chesterton says that Christmas Carol’s Scrooge goes about villainy in such a jolly, full-tilt fashion that he was probably always sneaking toys to children when the narrative’s back was turned. Tackleton is something of a delightful demon even as Scrooge is, and his unnecessary, superlative redemption arc is reminiscent of Scrooge’s. Dickens just can’t stand to end the story with anyone he likes left out of the tableaux, out in the cold, barred from the final feast.

A few final notes:

Some of the description of Tackleton’s terrifying toys is very reminiscent of “Christmas Tree”’s. I have here the note “god, nursemaid, toys, journey”, but no more idea than that what the hell I might have meant when I wrote it. Something pertaining to this!

May’s grasping mother slides somewhere into the spectrum of ‘Dickens’ mothers’. Someone must have done a very good paper or even infographic about them all, yes? I love her surly resentment when the plan doesn’t come off, and how she has to be coaxed out of it.

The restoration of Bertha’s brother is some great melodrama shit, and his fairy-taleish return as an old man, disguised thus to test his love’s fidelity (Could he have so disguised himself? Eh, who cares—), does that peculiarly Dickens trick of building and establishing the charm of his own work out of the elements of, or within the skeleton of, pre-existing forms of charm.




Again, the key theme for all the Christmas’ books use of the supernatural is memory, and the key frames are theatrical/pantomime/melodrama and fairy tale (possibly with a side of himself-supernaturally-interested Shakespeare). Cricket is perhaps the most ‘for the stage’ of any of the Christmas books, with the closest relationship to pantomime structures, but its particular iteration of ‘supernatural memory’ is perhaps also the most mundane. John is literally just remembering things: the force causing him to do so and organising his perceptions is said to be a sort of Shintoish house spirit, but it could just as easily be his own conscience or reason. It’s an interesting depiction of forces outside one’s own person and resources directing and curbing one’s behaviour, or of an intervention in personal life by some greater power: perhaps Christian Victorian readers took that element somewhat more seriously than I do? Memory itself could be said to be magical, here: it transports you to other times, it alters your mood, it exercises a great and unstoppable power over you.


We’ve already talked about Cricket as fairy tale and theatrical performance, specifically as melodrama, pantomime and as Shakespeare reworking. We’ve also looked at artifice and authenticity and gendered charm (including something like amae behaviour) in terms of Dot, and about Caleb as a deceiving enchanter/performer. Both Dot and Caleb’s charming perhaps throw light on Dickens’ own charm labour. Charm is an audience effect, both performed and seen in story (characters charm and are charmed) and at a meta level: the reader is charmed, sometimes by the charming and charmed qualities or states of characters within the text.

If Dickens, a consummate and enthusiastic semi-professional director, can be seen as writing theatre in his prose, it’s possible that he wants characters to function as a the ultimate actors. Characters are actors Dickens can utterly control, and whose whole lives are ‘authentically’ available for the audience and useful as performance. They have no private, ‘off-stage’ existences to disrupt this. They look and emote exactly as he wants them to; they never tire of rehearsal or flub their lines. Dickens also wants living subjects to act for him on the stage and to take part in his real-life proto-psychoanalytic efforts, but here he’s making his own (which he becomes increasingly good at: Dickens gets better at character as he goes on). The actors he makes are by turns psychologically realistic and bigger than life, as he needs them to be.

Dickens is also making bank out of the Christmas stories, inventing and promoting a highly marketable nascent genre. He’s charming his contemporary reader for money, and for love: he needs that sustaining audience relationship, both for his bread and for his sense of self (more on this in re: Christmas Carol and touring). Your love is his posterity, too. It’s charm’s capacity to get the charmer what they need and want, at others’ expense (someone must Be Charmed) that really disquiets people: that, and the realisation that emotional labour is being monetised. That it is always-already labour, in ways that exist outside of and exceed capitalist definitions of the term. “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.” Silvia Federici can tell us so much about why acknowledging the connections between feeling and work is deeply uncomfortable and difficult to do. She would suggest it’s because capital is interested in mystifying these connections and obscuring the fact that  it’s predicated on the large-scale uncompensated appropriation of female labour (including feminised emotional labour). (Fanon would say something similar (though by no means contradictory—quite the reverse!) about capital’s reliance on the uncompensated appropriation of the labour of ‘raced’ peoples.)

There are only three specific uses of the word charm or any form thereof in the text. One is in the passage quoted at length above:

Of all these little incidents, Dot was the amused and open-eyed spectatress from her chair in the cart; and as she sat there, looking on—a charming little portrait framed to admiration by the tilt—there was no lack of nudgings and glancings and whisperings and envyings among the younger men.  And this delighted John the Carrier, beyond measure; for he was proud to have his little wife admired, knowing that she didn’t mind it—that, if anything, she rather liked it perhaps.

This element of a female audience herself being watched makes me think strongly of Molly Katz’s work on female audiences on stage and off in Shakespearean and Jacobite drama (specifically Malfi, which works with the same themes—female spectatorship, jealousy, mismatched marriage—to very different ends).

Another, here:

She sat plying her needle, before the fire, and singing to herself.  Such a blithe, thriving, steady little Dot!  The fairy figures turned upon him all at once, by one consent, with one prodigious concentrated stare, and seemed to say, ‘Is this the light wife you are mourning for!’

There were sounds of gaiety outside, musical instruments, and noisy tongues, and laughter.  A crowd of young merry-makers came pouring in, among whom were May Fielding and a score of pretty girls.  Dot was the fairest of them all; as young as any of them too.  They came to summon her to join their party.  It was a dance.  If ever little foot were made for dancing, hers was, surely.  But she laughed, and shook her head, and pointed to her cookery on the fire, and her table ready spread: with an exulting defiance that rendered her more charming than she was before.  And so she merrily dismissed them, nodding to her would-be partners, one by one, as they passed, but with a comical indifference, enough to make them go and drown themselves immediately if they were her admirers—and they must have been so, more or less; they couldn’t help it.  And yet indifference was not her character.  O no!  For presently, there came a certain Carrier to the door; and bless her what a welcome she bestowed upon him!

Again the staring figures turned upon him all at once, and seemed to say, ‘Is this the wife who has forsaken you!’

It’s Dot’s beauty, but also her domestic skill and her self-contained defiance that render her charming, here: her show of indifference, but also her keen feeling.

And the last:

‘Father,’ said Bertha, hesitating.  ‘Mary.’ [i.e. Dot]

‘Yes, my dear,’ returned Caleb.  ‘Here she is.’

‘There is no change in her.  You never told me anything of her that was not true?’

‘I should have done it, my dear, I am afraid,’ returned Caleb, ‘if I could have made her better than she was.  But I must have changed her for the worse, if I had changed her at all.  Nothing could improve her, Bertha.’

Confident as the Blind Girl had been when she asked the question, her delight and pride in the reply and her renewed embrace of Dot, were charming to behold.

Here Bertha’s delight and pride in her friend, and their embrace, are charming to behold. For who? Perhaps her father, who’s relieved to be forgiven—are we the audience supposed to experience this relief with him, or in sympathy for him, and to be charmed as a part of that process? Or are we supposed to be charmed simply by their affection? Or is Caleb supposed to be the one charmed to see their affection? Feeling between women, and spontaneous expressions thereof not aimed at producing success in courtship, are constructed as charming here, as they were in Battle.


* Some sections of this essay feel repetitive and clumsy to me, and for that I’m sorry. I suspect I need a beta to make the whole thing better, but this is just a blog post, and I’ve no intention of putting my girlfriend to the trouble of 8,000 odd words of editing when she just did the 12k “Kirk Drift” for me Saturday, over a book she’s not read, and again—for my blog. You want this article-polished, you can email me with a publication offer, can’t you.

** Funnily enough, Molly Katz points out I unconsciously stole the thrust of this from the ‘actually-quite-imitable-as-it-turns-out’:

to Mary Hurnall:

Dear Madam.

I have been in Scotland for some weeks past, and find so many letters to answer on my return, that I am obliged to send a more brief reply to yours than I desire. Accept my sincere thanks, both for your note, and the Invitation it contains. I fear it is not likely it will ever be in my power to accept it in deed, but in spirit I do, and so do Mrs. Dickens and my children—you are right; I have four. Be assured that I am not unmindful of my promise, and that if you should come back to London at any time, I shall, please god, make a point of seeing you. Your remark—a very natural and proper one—on the blind man in Barnaby, is only another proof to me, among many others which present themselves in various forms every day, of the great disadvantages which attend a detached and desultory form of publication. My intention in the management of this inferior and subordinate character, was to remind the World who have eyes, that they have no right to expect in sightless men a degree of virtue and goodness to which they, in full possession of all their senses, can lay no claim—that it is a very easy thing for those who misuse every gift of Heaven to consider resignation and cheerfulness the duty of those whom it has deprived of some great blessing—that whereas we look upon a blind man who does wrong, as a kind of monster, we ought in truth and justice to remember that a man who has eyes and is a vicious wretch, is by his very abuse of the glorious faculty of sight, and immeasurably greater offender than his afflicted fellow. In a word, I wished to show that the hand of God is at least as manifest in making eyes as in unmaking them, and that we do not sufficiently consider the sorrows of those who walk in darkness on this earth, when we set it up as a rule that they ought to be better than ourselves, and that they are required to be by their calamity. Calamity with us, is made an excuse for doing wrong. With them, it is erected into a reason for for their doing right. This is really the justice of rich to poor, and I protest against it because it is so. All this you would have seen if you could have had the whole book before your mental vision. As it is, I can only hope to bring my meaning before you by very slow and gradual degrees, and after you have formed a first impression on the subject. That it is a real pleasure and delight to me to know that I afford you any consolation or amusement, you may believe with your whole heart. And believe also that I am,

Dear Madam with an unaffected interest in your happiness

Faithfully Yours


Quoth Katz:

Also interesting that Uriah also brings up “cheerfulness” in a very similar phrasing: “from nine o’clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o’clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness”.  And I also wonder about “very slowly and by gradual degrees” when we have the “slow fire” that Uriah puts David on. He means “I will slowly bring the reader into this consciousness”, but there’s an element of Uriah’s signature slow roast to it, to me.

That sort of hint of vindictive ‘forcing to see’ might look ahead to a rather more modern, social justice call-out formulation. Also, the extent to which Dickens isn’t just represented by David in Copperfield is often overlooked.

Theatre I Saw in 2016

Additional reviews forthcoming for some of these.

– Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker
– NT Live Winter’s Tale at the Garrick (Kenneth Branagh season)
– Cinderella (pantomime) at Richmond
– Pericles at the Sam Wanamaker
– Cyrano at the Southwark Playhouse
– Red Velvet at the Garrick
all male HMS Pinafore at the Hackney Empire
– Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe
King John at Kingston’s Rose (not to be confused with THE Rose)
Funny Girl at the Savoy
– Macbeth at the Globe
– Groundhog Day at the Old Vic
Tosca at the Arcola
Mozart and Salieri at the Arcola
The Marriage of Figaro at the Arcola
The Dowager’s Oyster at the Arcola
Gianni Schicchi at the Arcola
Pagliacci at the Arcola
Richard II at the Arcola
– 946 at the Globe
– Imogen (a Cymbeline) at the Globe
– Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Wanamaker
– three Chekhov day (Platonov/Ivanov/The Seagull) at the National
Don Giovanni at the ENO
– Amadeus at the national
School of Rock at the New London
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to etc at the Hampstead
– Donmar female Shakespeare trilogy day (Julius Caesar/Henry IV/Tempest)
– King Lear at the Old Vic
– Jack (panto) at a town hall in Crystal Palace
– Aladdin (panto) at the temporary Croydon theatre
Great Expectations at the Wimbledon library
– Simon Callow’s reading of Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre
Book of Mormon
Confessional at Southwark Playhouse

Nonfiction End of Year Review, Award Eligibility


A while ago some nice people suggested Boucher, Backbone and Blake – the legacy of Blakes 7 might be Hugo-eligible under a few categories. There’s Best Related Work, there’s Best Fan Writer, etc. THIS IS VERY KIND. THANK YOU.


I really feel Best Related Work needs to go to the report, editorial and companion essays by Brian J. White, Tobias Buckell, Justina Ireland, Mikki Kendall, Nisi Shawl, Troy Wiggins, Cecily Kane and N.K. Jemisin that together comprise “#BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report”.

This collaborative project calls attention to a foundational issue in SFFnal publishing, representing the best traditions of critical, self-reflective and progressive work this award exists to recognise. Academically and practically, it is a necessary investigative report. The very model of its presentation is exciting and polyvocal, and it’d be great to see the award recognise this digital mixed-media format. Several great writers and thinkers made substantive contributions to the project. Others offered valuable reactions after the fact. The report and associated documents attracted international media attention, gave rise to editorial shifts on major SFF publications’ boards, and hopefully will spur further inclusive developments.

We should not let the memory of this work fade or its sharp, timely conclusions be overlooked. The report needs acted on, in a continuous praxis, and I believe it should also be recognised. This would show that we all feel the horrible inequalities it frankly delineates are a blight on the field, and that we are collectively serious about redressing them in the interests of both fairness and richer art. It would not definitively do so: only continuous work to dismantle systemic racism will accomplish this. But recognising the report as the most important piece of genre-related writing/the Best Related Work this year seems to me simply a just acknowledgement of a fait accompli.

As for me, I’d be happy to be considered for fan writer (though really I also think it’s past time for Abigail Nussbaum and/or Maureen K Speller to be acknowledged in that or some other capacity, but frogtea.gif).



2016 In Review Part One  (my part: 270)
Yonderland (2276)

Age of Adeline (in the publishing queue, 2236)



“Control the Computer, Control the Ship”, B7 and tech SFRA paper (promised to Foundation) (4kish atm)
“From ‘Shalom Aleichem’ to ‘Live Long and Prosper’: Engaging with Post-War American Jewish Identity via Star Trek: The Original Series“: forthcoming in “Set Phasers to Teach” (6666 with all notes)
Piece on P&P&Z (still homeless, 2980)
Piece on Love&Friendship (still homeless, 4315)





King John (2866)
Funny Girl (1426)

Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore (1143)




Rereading (4,600, out with an anthology, waiting to hear back)



281965 words, broken down in the end of year fic meme on my lj


Personal story planning, correspondence, essays and private-lj blogging:

TOTAL (minus the substantial last category): 370,830 words this year, ‘published’ in one form or another

Bit less fiction than last year, and I really suspect less nonfic, but then moving was hideous and drawn out, mental health’s been bad and this year was draining all-’round.

Notes on Great Expectations at Wimbledon Library (2016)


* YOU ONLY HAVE UNTIL DECEMBER 18TH TO SEE THIS, and I really recommend you do!

* This production has found Trevor Nunn’s epic Nicholas Nickleby like some people find Jesus, and it’s working pretty well. I love that production, and thus another in that tradition, which has not been built upon as it ought to have been, works great for me. I think both Nunn’s Nickleby and this Great Expectations demonstrate a way of adapting Dickens that’s too often passed over. What we mostly see, in the endless bad adaptations that waste Gillian Anderson et al’s talent and time, is a totalising, slavishly naturalistic ‘period piece’ gaze. This renders not only the texts in question internally homogenous (turning the lovely and varying textures of Dickens into a smooth, unappetising thin paste, like an English person’s inevitably tragic attempt to make soup), but every Dickens book (all of which have their own distinct tones and moods) essentially the same. Worse still, such a gaze renders every ‘period’ piece from Dickens to Downton equally samey. The Hollow Crown is shot like Bleak House is shot like Parade’s End, essentially.

Naturalism is of course far from the only way to represent life, so it’s nice to see this theatrical production making good use of the magic of its particular mode both to achieve a greater sympathy with the hyper-reality of the source text and to produce something much richer than I’m used to getting from filmed adaptations.

* The blending of dialogue and prose from the original allows the text room, refuses to relinquish Dickens’ power and multifaceted appeal.

* The library venue was fun.

* I haven’t actually read this one! I did see a puppet version once, performed with the original Victorian toy theatre from Pollock’s. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a tiny puppet Miss Havisham die in a horrible conflagration: you are not living now.

* The stripped down lighting and blend of (I believe?) recorded and live-voice sound effects was very effective. The physicality and work with small props really show what a company can do with a small space and a limited budget. If I saw this at the Fringe it would probably rank as one of the strongest offerings (and that’s a highly competitive context!). But this staging also relies on the company to be on beat in order to generate its effects, and I felt they could have been a bit stricter about that. Without the huge cast Nunn relied on to create his London (which this show strongly draws on, especially for Pip’s big initial entrance), for example, they people on stage need to be Rockette-disciplined in order for the simultaneous and/or handed-over vocal and physical effects not to look shoddy. Nothing is seriously harmed by the cast’s moments of imprecision, but there were times where they were all supposed to say a word in unison (‘Pip’, for example), and it was a little sloppy. Y’all ain’t singin’ a round here.

Not to denigrate a largely well-executed effect! I like that entry to London, that way of making the city a theatrical character. The waterside scene before the fateful boat trip was particularly well-done.

* I know it’s a pain to stage fight calls, but this show needs to be bolder on physical violence, especially where Pip’s sister is concerned. She always seemed as though she might be half-joking, in this production. If we don’t feel Pip’s distress and lowness, we can’t fully dramatically engage with the poisoned chalice of his elevation. It Pip’s sister isn’t truly awful, we can’t have the huge Dickensian catharsis and forgiveness. This is always a vital element of his work, but it seems especially so at Christmas, given that Dickens’ Christmas stories in Household Words and All The Year Round always stressed redemption and forgiveness. These were key elements of the civic religiosity Dickens painstaking constructed around Christmas from the publication of the Carol up into the very end of his life.

* There’s a lot of quick-change doubling in this production, singled by actors’ bearing, voice and small alterations of costume. This, interestingly, reminds me of the monopolylogues which Dickens absolutely lived for as a young legal clerk, which Simon Callow (in his theatrically-focused Dickens biography) convincingly argues influenced both Dickens’ character-writing and his later readings. The term ‘readings’ makes one think of a sort of thin experience, but Dickens threw himself into the embodiment of his characters in a way that was, by all contemporary accounts, riveting. Someone called him a man possessed, and he sold out American and British theatres on the strength of his performance as much as his literary celebrity.

We had a good Pip (who was never tasked with playing anyone else that I recall) and, via these changes, a great Herbert Pocket and a powerful Jaggers/Magwitch. I wanted Estella to come off fiercer, though, eviscerating in her pride and contempt, and for Havisham to be towering. These are titanic roles, and I feel actresses can be too afraid of taking up the requisite space sufficiently definitively. For all we talk about femininity as a performance and spectacle, I think actresses have to work harder than actors to demand attention—that they risk and do more in giving that to a role and an audience, and that the audience is not necessarily fair to them when they do. Still, this is a piece in part about power, gender and social appearances, and given that thematic content I think it’s especially incumbent on actresses in these roles to screw their courage to the sticking place and go huge. This isn’t Merchant Ivory territory.

* I didn’t notice until now that Pip in GE and David in DC both use almost the same language for Estella ( “Do you admire her?” Everybody must who sees her, Miss Havisham.”) and Agnes (“She has great admiration for Miss Agnes. And I’m sure you have too, Master Copperfield.” “Everybody must have,” I replied.” / “you said one day that everybody must admire her”). I suppose Dickens did re-read DC directly before writing GE, in order to make sure they weren’t too similar (Sidenote: he cried re-reading DC, which. What a wet sock, bless.), so he might have accidentally picked up his own phrasing. Still, such different women to say the same thing of! And to Miss Havisham and Uriah Heep, both of whom are the protagonists’ hidden enemies, and both of whom ask a leading question to provoke the response. Though nominally, Heep is trying to warn David off and Havisham to lead him on…

* The big conflict scenes (Magwitch’s first appearance, the fire, and the boat-non-escape) could all be crisper and clearer in their action.

* The interval comes when Pip arrives in London, and I felt the second half was superior to the first—the play picked up energy here.

* The arc of this adaptation is neatly curtailed.

* Joe was well-acted, and was the most effective emotional nexus in the piece. At times I thought the source text rather than this play generated and bore the emotion of the work, and I wanted the play to make itself felt more. I’m not sure how I wanted that to happen, but it was like the emotion was in the background, and I wanted it to move to this layer, to the foreground: for the play to own the narrative, at this moment, more than it was doing, to really nail its good intentions.

* The show had good costuming (in a historically vague way, but that wasn’t really the point) except for adult Estella—I liked her cape, but in general the silhouette didn’t work for me. Estella’s costuming is particularly difficult, though, as her outfit is tasked with embodying and helping convey the living display of power Havisham has made her into.

* I really feel they ought to have gone with the iconic ‘no shadow of a second parting’ closer. The current ending feels a little ‘…oh’, and that line is so classic, even if it wasn’t Dickens’ first choice—he was wrong, like Shaw was wrong about “Pygmalion”. It happens. It happens to Dickens kind of a lot.

Notes on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Notes on The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

by a moderately stupid bisexual

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I have a lot of disjointed thoughts about this play, which I think itself presents several disjointed thoughts and in some senses refuses an arc: it keeps circling a central question, will a patriarch commit suicide? This question is itself ultimately left unresolved.

Essentially, the plot of this play is its cast. A multi-generational communist family’s head (a former union organizer), his sister (a former nun and a former militant member of the violent Maoist sect Shining Path), his three children (a contractor, a high school teacher and a labor lawyer) and their lovers struggle with work, sex, ideology and familial obligations.

  • This is this play’s LONDON PREMIER, though it came out in 2009 and is by Tony ‘kind of a big deal’ Kushner. For some reason London doesn’t get Kushner? I almost never see him staged here. Is he too American for them? (I don’t think it’s a Gay Themes thing, although I also never see any bloody Lorca.) The delay is awkward given that this play, written about 2007, is such an attempt to capture a moment—in part, it’s an effort to convey the slough of the Bush years and the ambivalent hope of Obama’s coming term.
  • This staging is given both humor and a desperate intensity by the apocalyptic results of the American election last week. People cackled at now-darkly-funny lines.
  • FINALLY some bi women/lesbians up in a play I’m seeing. At fucking last! Gay men, I have seen aplenty. Women-desiring-women: almost none.
  • The high-school teacher son Pilll’s husband (Rhashan Stone—compelling in the role) speaks in a distinctly poetic, non-naturalistic register, more so than the rest of the cast.
  • A lot of the dialogue is difficult to make out: there are cacophonous scenes of overlapping family arguments. I really wanted a script, or to have pre-read the libretto. I don’t think ‘getting everything’ is the point of this theatrical experience (in fact, it might run counter to it), but I still wanted to, because I’m that type of person. Even now I feel anxious because I’m not sure I’ve completed the play experience (and yet I’m speaking on it, blah blah). I think I’d appreciate this play more as a script.
  • The title is so perfect I think it’s what a friend mockingly called the play and it stuck. (Quoth wiki, “[t]he title was inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.[1]” Mine was better.)
  • This might well be a hard play to follow unless you’re pretty up on America, history, political theory, classics and theology. I don’t know how you interact with it with varying levels of knowledge of these (I’m only ‘fair’ on most myself): the play emphatically does not come with the usual set of explicatory narrative training wheels. Every character is an expert in their subject areas, including family histories and emotional realities we cannot know. Mostly I feel this is an acceptable state of affairs, but the key plot point (a certain labor dispute) relies on a fundamental pre-existing understanding of the Marxist contention that wealth produced via a worker’s efforts belongs essentially to the worker, not to the company employing them: the people who work the land own the land. This is not obviously explained in this text, and for thinkers forged by late capitalism it’s a difficult proposition to grasp. How many people come in knowing that one? Who is this play for?
  • Speaking of unknowable family histories and emotional realities, I do not know how MT and her partner got in this fucking position with the baby. I can see pieces, but how the situation reached this crisis point eludes me.
  • How MT’s partner and Pill’s husband are treated bugs me: I want them airlifted to a less hostile environment.
  • I like everyone in this family, but they’re also all a bit terrible. Some especially so. I have the least patience for Pill.
  • Tony Kushner has a Chris Boucher problem in that he cannot write a dim or boring person. Here, that’s fine. Largely Kushner writes his way around this issue because it’s not interesting to him.
  • Kushner extends such an intellectual and emotional sympathy to different forms of conservatism in Angels. I wonder if, at this point in his life and in world politics, he’s still capable of or interested in that. (‘This point’ could be the moment of the play’s composition or today.)
  • Relatedly, it’ll be interesting to see what Kushner makes of 2016, if we’re still alive in 15 years or so. (Is this Kushner’s only contemporary full play? Angels, Bright Room Called Day, Dybbuk, Caroline or Change…)
  • The three-act structure is unusual, and from my current position I couldn’t tell you quite what it does here.
  • This theatre is an excellent three-pokestop hub with some great Sightings. Word to the wise.
  • The play wanted, I think, to be about anger or purity, but at least in this staging (and I suspect in the script itself?) that impulse doesn’t cohere. The children’s anger or destructiveness is (I think) supposed to be derived from their father (their aunt and their family generally also have a long involvement with violence, we discover). We’re told that the father Gus’s activism is stringently not socialist but communist, not ameliorating but revolutionary, and asked to consider whether these antisocial impulses (principles running counter to his collectivist, union impulses) are the result of his beliefs per se, or whether he just has a destructive character. We’re sort of asked to ponder the costs of his ideological purity. But I never appreciate Gus’s activism as actually ‘burn the world’ angry. He’s too wedded to the union. He’s too concerned about the people he’ll leave behind. Maybe Kusher can’t envision or write that form of searing, principled belief? His belief is always giving, ambivalent, flexible, always-already betrayed. I think he’s the rabbi in Dybbuk, still in love with religion but suffering from the knowledge that the compact is broken. Ironically, though, Kushner’s vision of faith remains what I would consider fundamentally Jewish in its very analytic hesitance.
  • Kusher is always interested in belief, and in religiosity specifically, but in this play the religious focii never comes to much. It’s hard for them to, when religious faith is chiefly the concern of two sidelined partner characters who don’t quite connect with the central family as a whole, whose relationships even with their own partners are troubled, possibly transitory. If the point is just that religious and political faith and doctrinal conflicts and schisms are similar, that’s a bit too Basic. We’re sort of half-inveigled with theological questions I think most people don’t have the background to understand and given few stakes there, few hints as to why these matter. This thread almost crystallizes with the former nun’s discussion of scientology and of escape—in the moment I felt I could sort of see it? But retrospectively that slipped away, and if I ever understood where we were there, I let it get away from me.
  • The former nun/sister/aunt is a really interesting figure, but again, I’m not sure she landed for me.
  • This is both a King Lear retelling and a modern Chekhov play. It’s seriously interested in classic Chekhov themes, characterizations/ensemble casts, political discussions and possibly even staging, in a sense—I’m thinking about the amount of action that happens in the house. We also have a Cherry Orchard plot with the ex-husband. I applaud these efforts, because I like Chekhov and could go in for Modern Chekhov.
  • Relatedly, Kusher is interested in the social situations of families and their political contexts, the family saga, and different forms of families. Look at the range of social-familial environments he explores in his ouvre.
  • I don’t think it’s accidental that we see no children: Kushner doesn’t have much time for them, in a way, Caroline notwithstanding. Something here about queer futurities, about the kinds of familial relationship which interest him.
  • Now, for me, this could have been more realistically set designed? I think budget more than anything constrained the production here, but this house has a lot of history and it’s important that’s rendered palpable so we feel the whole idea of its possible loss. This minimalist set was fine, but didn’t do the production many favors.
  • Again, a la Chekhov, a big cast of very distinct and very good characters, easily drawn. Both the characters and actors for MT (Tamsin Greig) and (her father, the family patriarch) Gus are particularly compelling. It’s hard to quite get a handle on female protagonist, but I’m not sure there’s a problem with that.
  • Someone next to me (English) bitched about the characters’ region, class and age-specific American accents, but I thought these were fine to be honest. I think English people don’t actually know shit about the variability of ‘the’ American accent, and so freak out when it’s not modern ‘broadcast’ quality.
  • Some of the people in this full house left after Act I. Judging by some of the audience chat (expressive of surprise and disquiet at gay male groping on stage), they hadn’t seemed to know what they were in for. The title apparently had not given it away, somehow. I think an American theatre public would have known from Kusher’s name? He has such a different profile here. It was also a very gay audience, though.
  • It was uniformly well acted, and for better or worse the person next to me was right to say that the production worked very hard.
  • Kushner is a lot like RTD in his treatment of love. The chase, lust, adultery. (Who has the fucking time? Seriously, the prevalence of this ‘everyone is cheating as a matter of course’ motif in relatively contemporary art is like, a mass hallucination in which ALL people spend vast quantities of sheer bloody time (in late capitalism?!) and emotional energy no one has on this process of fucking about for mediocre results or because they can’t help it, like we live in Les Liaisons dangereuse? I think everyone read a blousy Guardian article about the French and got over-excited en masse.) I don’t want to say these are topics favored by gay men of a certain age but it’s difficult not to arrive there, in a way? He rarely shows settled romantic relationships in a good place (part, I think, of why the mother is banished from this narrative by the Victorian device of childbed death). He does the rush of physical infatuation, relationships falling apart and spurned habitual love rather than the ecstasies of the fall or the complacencies and delights of substantive affection. The hustler in this or the fairy-tale couple in Dybbukmight give the lie to this, but generally I think I’m right (as per usual, right). There’s much to be said on Davies as an uncommitted writer of romantic love (with the exception of some parts of Bob&Rose), but that’s another essay—one to piss off any Ten/Rose fans around these parts, I guess.
  • Via Pill, Gus says some very unfair things about Fabian socialism and Shaw (so it’s a joke about the play’s title too, in a way). But I see why he would.
  • A core question of the second to last scene, which in may ways feels like the play’s ending, is ‘whither now communism?’ Passionate and intelligent lifelong adherent Gus cannot see a way forward for the struggle given the current position of class politics in the world, and thus cannot see any release or true betterment for mankind. This is something I’ve thought about, along with many, many other people I’m certain, so it’s good to see it addressed in fiction rather than in yet another fucking thinkpiece (I read too many—though I’m not certain, actually, that I’ve seen this topic brought up in these terms).
  • This is a play with a lot of stuff and no answers. Maybe Kusher is abdicating that responsibility or refusing to be perfect, to answer, as a point. This is a less polished work than Angels, but then Angels probably seemed more definitively ‘answering’ and like a unified theory of everything when I read it as a freshman. From the wiki, it seems like this might be a play Kushner himself isn’t final-form happy with: his Platanov/Wild Honey/Untitled, but done in his mid-late career rather than at the very start. I don’t know if I liked this play exactly, but I’ve thought so much about how it works, and I do think that’s valuable. The one disappointing thing is, I don’t know how much I’ve responded to it by thinking about the questions it raised and its responses to them.

Confessional, Tennessee Williams, Southwark Playhouse (2016)

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Tennessee Williams is a highly regional writer, as strongly associated with the American South and its social fabric as Faulkner. His work is also time-stamped. In general, it feels flexible only within the range of a couple of decades and these are still too fresh in living memory to acquire the vagueness with which a modern audience reads the historicity of Ibsen or Chekhov. This staging of Confessional, a play about a group of regulars interacting in a shabby bar on a night that seems both eventful and utterly typical, is fairly unique in its decision to shift the action to modern South End, in England. It gets a lot from that choice. The tensions, the homophobia, and the characters’ marginal lives all feel relevant in this altered context, and only a few lines (and the burden on the viewer to imagine the role of the play’s non-NHS doctor—perhaps treating migrants?) make the reading a bit difficult. It doesn’t feel like a Shakespeare play set in a 1970s garage, where the sliding juxtapositions have their own generative play. It works more literally than that, and draws the eye to how much of the world Williams wrote of survives today, especially in forgotten, down-at-heel spots.

The text itself has strong homophobic, homotragic elements. This is not the opinion of the play per se, but layers of these opinions play out therein, and Confessional could be distinctly uncomfortable for a queer viewer who doesn’t want to confront that in an immersive, realistic, contemporary setting. I do feel there should be some kind of trigger warning (perhaps some of the materials contained one: I didn’t see). There’s been a huge post-Brexit spike in hate crimes and hate speech, and for too many people the play’s events are a reiteration of the kind of hostility they regularly deal with.

For me, the homotragic elements struck more deeply than the homophobia expressed by perhaps the play’s most culpable idiot. Both the elder of the play’s two gay characters (It’s always gay men, isn’t it? I wonder I can see myself in the mirror, I’m so invisible.) and the battered heroine (who venerates the memory of a deceased gay brother) believe homosexual life, or at least a homosexual lifestyle (as defined by this play), to be relentlessly wearing and ultimately bleak. There’s a lot of more contemporary radical, optimistic thought about queer futurities, and in some ways it’s frustrating to be dragged back into this somewhat self-hating, dated narrative and position. But that is the position Williams was writing from, and it’d be both difficult and disingenuous to strip this element from a staging just because it now feels past its sell-by date and like a nuanced, self-imposed form of discrimination.

Williams often does deeply complex, flawed, compelling female characters who have a kind of awful, searing recognizability. For me the central figures here are ultimately a drifting, casual prostitute who lives above an arcade (for now—it is, she claims, a ‘temporary arrangement’) and has little memory of her own past or idea where she’s going and a similarly migratory beautician. But this beautician controls her trailer and her destiny. She’s mothering and hard, angry and clear-eyed, responsible and self-reliant. She’s brittle and unbreakable, enmeshed in her early sorrows and utterly unwilling to become permanently trapped in any new ones—willing and able to cut and run. Determined to do it. She’s the protagonist if anyone is, and she deserves the station. I think this actress might be the best member of a good cast, but it’s also hard to tell because it’s a very good role.

For all their intersectional concerns about class, queerness and femininity, Williams can have a blind spot about race. His plays often give us an imagined all white south, where if there are black people, they’re somewhere else—not at the center of our action, not even on its periphery. The creation of a white southern past (and this is an imaginary labor, the south such efforts envision is creatio ex nihilo) is an intellectual project that, after Williams’ time, became very important to ‘post-racial’ America. This mechanism allowed a historically inaccurate Nativism to be revived and refashioned in the US: you can see it in the imagined white trajectory of country music, stripped bare of the influences of zydeco et al. Some scholars of post-WWII Japan have done great work on the recent invention of certain Japanese ‘traditions’—the back-reading of rituals like sumo and constructed long histories of entirely peaceful urban living and paternalistic companies. This invention of the past was a vast cultural project, and when I first read about it as an undergrad I considered the unfashioning of memory involved unique and disturbing. Now, when I think about the imagined white Southern past and how thoroughly this time that never was and circumstances that never were have come to dominate American conservative and moderate political thought, I wonder how prevalent such mechanisms and formations actually are?

This staging generates its immediacy and establishes its change of setting by means of probably the most successful immersive layout I’ve ever seen. It’s set in a dingy working bar, and you literally walk in and sit somewhere. Any photo of this space would be falsely identified as an image of a real pub by someone who didn’t know better. My sister, who worked as an assistant stage manager on the production, doused the floor with old, stale beer so it’d reek and stick. Gross, but the right decision. Before the actual show began, audience members ordered drinks, used their phones and watched people they didn’t quite know were actors chat amongst themselves and with punters. This pre-show was largely successful, if somewhat jarring in contrast with what we later learned about these characters’ relationships: the beautician and the doctor paled around before the play started in a way that felt incompatible with the beautician’s low opinion of the doctor.

The issue here was that the pre-show action was improvised, and thus not necessarily considered and consistent with the relationships depicted in the text. In fact all of the play’s blocking was improvised. This added to the show’s rawness and immediacy, but the choice has some issues. It demands a LOT of the actors, consistently. The fact that the show worked very well was, I think, largely down to the strength of the cast rather than the structure afforded them by underlying staging decisions, because perhaps the key staging decision is to outsource a lot of the labor of the play. Of course this means the resulting piece of theatre varies even more than is usual with live theatre from night to night, and is uniquely dependent on the cast being well-chosen, cohesive and in fine form. (These variations also make the play more difficult to critically and academically interact with, but this is incidental.) The choice could also result in an always-loaded play feeling or getting out of hand, unsafe for actors or audience members—the material lends itself to physical violence, and the staging to audience involvement and unpredictable responses.

Perhaps my chief artistic issue with the live improv approach is that it led to circular, repetitious blocking that actively harmed character arcs at some points. The beautician starts making out with her crummy live in boyfriend after she’s dumped him (or at least she did in this matinee) when I don’t think it’s in keeping with her feelings at that point. People mill around in circles. In short, a certain stage business effect can overtake character and arc. At the same time the milling feels perhaps too reminiscent of spending time in a bar like this, of how inebriated people bumble through circular conversations in life. The script might be said to lend itself to that circularity. Yet a thing’s being realistic doesn’t necessarily make it stageworthy. I think ultimately the script falls on the right side of that line and this technical choice on the wrong side. That is, of course, a balance that might shift on a great night versus a bad night, and perhaps it’s inorganic and unfair to suggest that a show’s bad nights should still be fairly strong, the cast and the audience cushioned against failure. But I would opt for purposive, narrative staging that generates effect over a phenomena-based approach: that’s always my preference, and it’s where I’d go with this text.

None of this should suggest I wasn’t engaged with and moved by this play: it’s very good theatre, well-executed. I don’t quite know why I don’t love Williams when I ought to (we share so many interests—it’s like the unlikeliness of my disquiet with Michael Chabon). I would recommend catching any reprisal, and following the cast, especially that brilliant, hard-working assistant stage manager Meghan Schwartzkopf who is looking for gigs in the greater London area please contact for more information—

School of Rock (West End Production, soft-opener)


We accidentally saw some kind of benefit performance of School of Rock, having simply booked regular preview tickets. Michael Caine was there, and Fergie (actual Duchess, not funkstress), and so too were the men (well, maybe we’ll just go with ‘Tory peers’) responsible for the show: Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey) and the mystery cat himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was thus unexpectedly confronted with the very face of the beast.

When I was little and stupid, as little people often are (the worshipful ‘I have an insight into childhood!’ neo-Victorian tone of many very good writers aside—people are often bloody awful, why not small people?), I fucking loved Webber. The only thing I can say in my own defence is that I always, always hated Cats. But I loved JCSS; lush, camp Phantom—I read the book it was based on; I even thought Evita made complex political points, god help me. When you are the sort of person who cruel nature has predestined to Like Musicals and you’re exposed to very few of them, the pumpkin spice latte of the genre will more than content you.

No, let’s be fair: I still like Webber. This is either because I am the sort of philistine who also thinks the schmaltzier the Romantic composer, the better (and who thinks Queen may be the greatest band-qua-band of all time), or because I was weaned on him from a young age. I’m not sure the two things are easily separated. The fact remains that while I haven’t listened to Phantom for some years, and was never ‘in the fandom’ as it were, I am nonetheless almost certain I could sing the entirety of Phantom right now. Don’t worry, I won’t, this is a terrace house and our neighbours have done nothing to deserve that.

I even liked Webber’s seeming perpetual bafflement in the idiot reality show I watched a season of, which turned the already-torturous casting process into a farcical quest to find out which girl best embodied the true spirit of the nothing part of Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. For some reason or other, can’t think why, I’ve recently come to find reality shows featuring conservative political figures deeply depressing and repulsive, so it’s a no from me on any more of that, ever.

Looking at what my sister kept describing as Webber’s ‘horrible wizened lizard face’, because she’s a bitch (but a bitch with eyes), I knew not what to feel. With erstwhile collaborator Tim Rice, ALW forms a substantial part of my cultural landscape. They sunk deep roots into me at a time when I knew no other West End caliber theatre at all. I still like a lot of ALW’s earlier work, but I distrust my own liking. Now I consider him the bourgeois, conservative hack he’s become, and probably to an extent always was. I don’t think it’s just that I’ve gotten older: I think Webber has matured into the worst part of himself.

I have a strained, awkward relationship with this old friend, who, since about eighteen, has grown into her worst qualities. These were always there, but she used to be a pretty good person. There once was this real opportunity for her to grow into someone I can’t quite imagine now, from where I’m standing. Different from me, different from who she became—a full realization of a girl now lost. I can’t see most of the things she used to be in her anymore, though I’m sure if she’d kept a journal during those years or something, we’d have some remnant of her still. Essentially, Webber’s like that, with the work of his good period standing in for those hypothetical journals.

ALW came on stage, rambled about the benefit and assured us that the children all played instruments. People had been asking about that, he told us, but indeed, his merry band of ragamuffins did make all their own noises! Presumably he said this for my benefit, and that of everyone in the audience who intended to write about the show afterwards (this charity gig, to be matter of fact rather than cynical, must have doubled as PR—‘oh look, Fergie tweeted about that hot new musical’). With that, my disappointing old flame slunk off to a seat just behind the prime circle, which was currently filled with rich donors. He watched his own show, which he must have seen fifty times at least between its New York incarnation and this new one. How can he bear it? Practice, I suppose. It’s very possible that ALW is on a spectrum with Gaiman and Dickens and other artists who have been too fucking famous in their own lifetimes: there are several ways to react, but these positions as National Treasures, living members of a Pantheon (in a pop-culture version of the French sense of the term), exert(ed) a personality and art-warping weight on them all.

Webber was right to highlight the children: his Gypsy band was the consistent highlight of the show. We sat next to two proud mothers who’ve been more often even than they were given comp tickers for. My sister struck up a conversation with them about child acting regs in the UK. We learned that it’s hard for the kids to speak in American accents, except for the one native speaker and the girl who attends an American school in Richmond, but the moms say their kids love being in this show, would suspend time if they could in order to ward off puberty and stay in it forever. I believe these moms, to the extent you can know that kind of thing: they seem sensible, and on stage the kids seem delighted in one another’s company, energetic and flushed with praise for their hard work. William Morris contended that people like work, when their circumstances aren’t exploitative and awful—that it can easily be a pleasure unto itself. He was probably right.

The show is most appealing when these kids are on. Before they arrive on the scene, it drags, and when they’re off-stage much of the energy goes with them. My partner pointed out that it’s tough to adapt School of Rock, which is simple and lovely in its original form, without losing some of its charm, and I don’t think she’s wrong. It’s good to see diversity in this cast, though. However, just to note, it is bloody always gay male parents, isn’t it? At this rate the first lesbian parent I’m going to see is myself in a few years.

The venue, the New London Theatre, exists to make the National look less hideous. It’s comfortable, and I suppose it suits some productions (because god knows I’ve been thrown by ‘Book of Mormon in an art-deco palace’), but it has that soul-deep commitment to ugliness Britain used to be capable of back when it could still muster up commitment to anything in particular. I think this might have been its last gasp, actually. My partner dutifully protests that she likes the National. My stage manager sister amends that she too likes the National: its handsome lighting rig, its huge budget. As far as its face goes, well.

The one real complaint to make about the NLT as a production space rather than as an aesthetic experience is that the show’s sound mixing was way off. This is probably an issue with the architecture of the building, which was perhaps not meant to handle a musical like this (thank fuck they didn’t put Hamilton in here). The speakers were all positioned down from us, so the tech team was fighting a losing battle. The upshot is, best-in-the-business techies gave me something that, in the cheap seats, often sounded like shit. I couldn’t hear a lot of the lyrics. I’m sure it was gold for the circle, but if your whole audience isn’t baseline-served at a West End musical, that’s really not acceptable.

Part of that ‘sounding like shit’ wasn’t really down to the sound system. It certainly wasn’t down to the kids, who played songs the film had given the musical very, very well. But where new songs were required, either lyricist Julian Fellowes phoned it in or he just wasn’t up to scratch. I winced in anticipation of some of the crapper rhymes, and, inexorably, they came: exactly what you’d expected. A small schoolchild sings “I needed respect/I needed a chance/And only you would listen/I couldn’t connect”. ‘I couldn’t connect’, like we’re in a naff therapy session. Things generally should be funnier than they are, and almost every song is musically and lyrically limp (not to mention repetitious). You could swap “If Only You Would Listen” into about eight other musicals and no one would notice.

The weirdest thing about School of Rock is, it’s a musical about rock by the guy who brought vast audiences the rock musical and who remains strongly associated with that genre, and the songs by and large do not rock for shit. The protagonist’s boss, a lapsed rock chick, laments her lost sense of self and lapsed love affair with music in a meebly trad-musical number. We have only just been told this bitch would straight die for Stevie Nicks, and somehow, somehow, I am not listening to a wailing, face-melting, Fleetwoodish, raging, nostalgic, bitter belter? I got more musical wham out of that Stevie Nicks Fajita Roundup skit. This musical ought to have been a sampler of the different things rock can be and do, but every song new feels perfunctory. There is one chord unique to this musical rather than the film that lingers with me a week on—the notes that go with the kids’ “stick it to the man” chant. However it’s awkwardly reminiscent of a chord Pink used in her 2008 single “So what?” (“I’m gonna get in trouble, I’m gonna start a fight!”), which seriously predates ALW’s adaptation. My sister points out this too is a musical quotation, but the point remains: the one memorable bit of music in this whole shebang isn’t even Webber’s. The father of rock opera didn’t turn out one.

It’s pretty enjoyable, though that’s largely down to the kids’ work and not Webber’s. (I’m remembering Hamlet on child theatrical troupes as gimmick, though.) What can I say? After a string of flops (Phantom II, anyone?), Webber, who self-invests like he’s Trump, turned out something safe. Relentlessly safe. And I’m sure it’s a tidy money-maker, and again, it’s not bad. (I can’t help comparing this to the Groundhog Day musical, which was competently if not exquisitely adapted by the original script writer and elegantly staged. It didn’t add much to the film really, and I can’t say the songs have stayed with me, but it was like a slicker, more careful version of what this was trying to do. It too didn’t have good enough music, but I felt it had more of an excuse.)

School of Rock is, however, structurally awkward in a way I think will sit in the backs of the audience’s brains. The overall ideology of this play about rock as rebellion is controlled and conciliatory. We’re told the kids are over-scheduled, and at the end of the musical the protagonist’s rock lessens become one more fucking thing they have to do while still poised for hygienic lives of unfaltering achievement, adding to their burdens while lessening them. They have Free Expression Hour, yay!! It’s especially ironic that it’s Tory Peer ALW talking to you about freedom and rebellion. In a hyper-establishment West End musical. K.

And then there are the people the band cannot include. One wonders, as in the film, about the kids assigned security detail, or designing costumes no one ends up using (though that gay or playing-gay kid is a fucking star—he was a true delight). It’s odd that in the musical the discovery of the key singing talent was left until 36 hours before the final competition. It just feels like the protagonist literally has not spoken to this student all month after his initial attempt at outreach. Summer, the bossy Hermione Granger of the class, is ‘part of the band’: one of ours. We root for her. Yet the two adult women she’s like either:

  1. need to distance themselves from their ambition and/or find it incompatible with living a personally fulfilling life (the principal), or
  2. are (and this is the protagonist’s roommate’s girlfriend) uppity, fun-spoiling bitches who want like, paid rent, ever, or for their boyfriend’s weird and mean high school band mate not to live with them in their apartment she partly pays for anymore, now that they’re all in their mid-thirties, or for children not to taught by a dodgy rando with no license. You know, crazy shit like that. Maaaaaan what a drag.

So how can we celebrate Summer when her eventual fate, despite her reasonable concerns and her hard, helpful work, is to be rendered ridiculous, naggy instead of powerful. Summer says some shoehorned thing about equal pay, and you can feel the musical working to earn its credibility here. But in the wake of Trump’s election, the protagonist’s claim that Summer will be the first female president of the United States is hollow and painful. Also terrifying—what is that, 40 years to wait? Shit, at this point I hope there still is an America in 40 years.

Obviously the movie did some of these objectionable things too, but small script changes in the adaptation process have actually altered the undergirding of the musical and rendered its ideology creepier. Seemingly insignificant, surface-level changes can have that kind of deep-structure effect! One might say, ‘surely the original film’s promise of rebellion was reconciliatory bullshit, because how can a major motion picture, a mass media product made by the forces of capitalism working on a grand scale, ever say anything interesting about rebellion against convention?’ Well, indeed, but I’m more Benjamin than Adorno in this as in everything, and thus I have more time for the potentialities of mass culture. Adorno doesn’t significantly account for transformative reception and a polyvocal, multi-authorial text. Bakhtin done told you this, son! Plus, I see a lot of value in Olga Goriunova’s Autonomist Marxist-inspired ‘breaks’ formation, which stresses the possibility and importance of micro-fissures: small moments of rupture in capitalist hegemonies, cracks that let light in and allow minds trapped in late capitalism’s material and intellectual death-grip to imagine radically other futurities. I think mass culture products are capable of letting light in, sometimes.