Posts Tagged 'george bernard shaw'

Eleonora Duse: “I had the feeling that I understood every word.”

Early in Robert Heinlein’s 1958 sci-fi adventure novel Have Space Suit – Will Travel we meet a lemur-like alien called the Mother Thing, whose language resembles the “endlessly varied songs of a mockingbird”.

When she is introduced to Kip, our youthful hero, he is surprised to realize that he understands her twitterings:

I would have been an idiot not to know that the Mother Thing was speaking to me because I did understand and understood her every time. If she directed a remark at Peewee alone, it was usually just birdsongs to me – but if it was meant for me, I got it.

Call it telepathy if you like … I never read her mind and I don’t think she read mine. We just talked.

As Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing are in the middle of escaping from some nasty space pirates, he is obliged to postpone examination of the mystery. Later, on the Mother Thing’s homeworld in the Vega system, Kip finds that he is able to communicate, though somewhat less consistently, with others of her species. He theorizes:

The Vegans have a supreme talent to understand, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I don’t think it was telepathy, or I wouldn’t have gotten so many wrong numbers. Call it empathy.

… I once read about an actress who could use Italian so effectively to a person who did not understand Italian that she always made herself understood. Her name was “Duce”. No, a “duce” is a dictator. Something like that. She must have had what the Mother Thing had.

I had never heard of this legendarily expressive Italian actress, but Heinlein’s story bumped along so irresistibly that within a couple pages I’d forgotten my vague intention of looking her up. It was only by chance that a few days later, in an essay by the novelist and critic Max Beerbohm – whom I’ll return to later – I came across the name Eleonora Duse.

While her elder rival Sarah Bernhardt to this day occupies a small but lively alcove in the popular imagination, Duse has been pretty much forgotten by everyone except historians of the theatre. But to American writers of Heinlein’s generation her name would still have been familiar. From the 1890s until the rise of silent pictures, the Italian Duse contended with the French Bernhardt for the position of world’s most famous actress. At the height of her fame she toured the United States and, at a time when actors were still seen as a tad declassé, was hosted by Grover and Mrs. Cleveland in the White House. Later she had the mixed luck – bad for her, but good for her American reputation – to die in Pittsburgh.

In an 1895 essay George Bernard Shaw commemorated an unusual head-to-head acting battle between Bernhardt and Duse when, in the same week, in competing West End theatres, they performed the same role in the same play. In Shaw’s judgement, the contest wasn’t even close:

[Bernhardt]’s stock of attitudes and facial effects could be catalogued as easily as her stock of dramatic ideas: the counting would hardly go beyond the fingers of both hands. Duse produces the illusion of being infinite in variety of beautiful pose and motion. Every idea, every shade of thought and mood, expresses itself delicately but vividly to the eye; and yet, in an apparent million of changes and inflexions, it is impossible to catch any line of an awkward angle, or any strain interfering with the perfect abandonment of all the limbs to what appears to be their natural gravitation towards the finest grace.

What’s noteworthy about the above review is that Shaw doesn’t see it as necessary to mention that the parallel productions were in, respectively, French and Italian – for Bernhardt and Duse performed only in their native tongues.

Most educated Londoners of Shaw’s era would have been (like Shaw) literate in French – though not in Italian. But an inability to follow the dialogue wasn’t seen as an obstacle, in those days, to relishing a performance by a foreign touring company. The modern reader will no doubt share my dubiety at this anecdote from one of Bernhardt’s tours of the American West:

On February 22, 1913, she performed for the two thousand-odd inmates of California’s San Quentin state prison a one-act drama, Une Nuit de Noël sous la Terreur (“A Christmas Night under the Terror”). “For an hour,” read a letter from the prisoners, “through your wondrous personality and entrancing art we have been, in soul and in mind, at perfect liberty – captive only of that remarkable force and fire which have made men call you divine…”

Yes, the inmates wrote those words, so transported were they by this sixty-nine year old Frenchwoman’s performance, in French, of an hour-long play about the French Revolution.

As for the legend of Eleonora Duse, that she could make herself understood even to non-speakers of Italian, it gets some support from Anton Chekhov, who wrote after seeing her in St. Petersburg:

I don’t understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling I understood every word. A remarkable actress. I’ve never seen anything like it.

On the other hand, Max Beerbohm, who saw Duse in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1903, argued that the rapture that had greeted her performance was insincere:

[It would] be an impossible feat not to be bored by the Italian version of Hedda Gabler. Why not confess your boredom? … [T]here seems to me no form of humbug sillier or more annoying than the habit of attending plays that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head nor tail.

Beerbohm attempts to project himself into the minds of those who pursue such masochistic pleasures:

Perhaps they really do feel that they are taking a means of edification. “We needs must praise the highest when we see it”; Duse is (we are assured) the highest; therefore we needs must see her, for our own edification, and go into rhapsodies. Such, perhaps, is the unsound syllogism which these good folk mutter. I suggest, of what spiritual use is it to see the highest if you cannot understand it?

…And goes on to imagine the mesmerized playgoer flapping away self-doubts:

“Oh, Duse’s personality is so wonderful. Her temperament is so marvellous. And then her art! It doesn’t matter whether we know Italian or not. We only have to watch the movements of her hands” (rhapsodies omitted) “and the changes of her face” (r. o.) “and the inflections of her voice” (r. o.) “to understand everything, positively everything.” Are you sure? I take it that you understand more from the performance of an Italian play which you have read in an English translation than from the performance of an Italian play which never has been translated. There are, so to say, degrees in your omniscience. You understand more if you have read the translation lately than if a long period has elapsed since your reading of it. Are you sure that you would not understand still more if the play were acted in English?

Setting the language question aside, Beerbohm proceeds to doubt Duse’s heretofore unchallenged acting chops. While Shaw had asserted that “behind every stroke of [Duse’s acting] is a distinctively human idea”, the trouble as Beerbohm saw it was that those human ideas had little connection to the characters they were meant to vivify:

I have seen her in many parts, but I have never (you must take my evidence for what it is worth) detected any difference in her. To have seen her once is to have seen her always. She is artistically right or wrong according as whether the part enacted by her can or cannot be merged and fused into her own personality.

And he closes by complaining that throughout the performance of Hedda Gabler he could hear Duse’s prompter hissing her lines to her, “like the continuous tearing of very thick silk”.

Duse’s genius, if such it were, is lost to us. A proposed collaboration with the American director D.W. Griffith never got off the ground. A recording of her voice made by Thomas Edison in 1896 was somehow misplaced. The only extant record of her acting is a silent film called Cenere, from 1916, when she was fifty-eight years old and in semi-retirement. Surviving prints are extremely degraded. The intertitles are in Italian. I couldn’t sit through it.

For whatever reason, Duse’s stage persona was electrifying to turn-of-the-century audiences. But the notion that she could dissolve the language barrier by force of charisma, or emotional expressiveness, or body language, or what-have-you, I think we can consign to the realm of science-fiction.

M.

In previous essays I’ve discussed G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (and the toleration of heresy) and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (and the demographic death-spiral).

We may prate of toleration: Saint Joan and the Inquisition.

I’m pretty wishy-washy. I’ve changed my mind often enough that I no longer delude myself about the permanency of my opinions. Much of what I now believe I might well have second thoughts about tomorrow, or next year, or on my deathbed.

The one opinion I would regard as impregnable – the one that, for all my wishy-washiness, I doubt I’ll ever renounce – is that society and the law ought to permit the widest possible scope for freedom of thought. That the Overton Window ought to be thrown open to its maximal extent, and that those visionaries and lunatics who insist on considering possibilities beyond its frame ought to be left free to preach their aberrant ideas. That however troubling or even dangerous those ideas may be, the petty tyrants who stir up mobs to persecute deviant thinkers are much more to be despised.

I have at least the normal human complement of cowardice and muddleheadedness, but I do try and apply these principles consistently. To take a couple recent examples from the archives of Spectator columnist Dominic Green, I agree with him that the British far-right ex-thug Tommy Robinson ought to be free to speak to any audience willing to listen, but disagree that a Boston College “queer theorist” ought to be smeared as a pedophile based on his turgid ruminations on Henry James and “the erotic child”. [1]

I don’t dispute that Robinson’s and the professor’s ideas are potentially harmful. In my view the benefit of being free to consider those ideas – all ideas – outweighs the real risk of harm. I would believe this even if I hadn’t noticed that the people we appoint to police our dangerous ideas eventually and unfailingly end up policing our songs, jokes, and poems.

However: in the spirit of wishy-washiness, which is also the spirit of engaging with uncomfortable ideas, let me consider the possibility that my one impregnable opinion is dangerous, and ought to be suppressed.

***

One of the problems I’ve been grappling with over the last few years, during the rise of what I’ll non-judgementally call Social Justice ideology, is at what point a person of conservative temperament is obliged to defer to the incoming set of taboos.

(When I speak of a “conservative temperament” I’m referring not to a set of political opinions, but to an outlook we might call Burkean, or Chestertonian: an attitude of modest deference to long-established traditions, on the grounds that, however silly they might appear, they must have some social utility in order to have been adopted in the first place, and passed down through the generations.)

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

This is quite apart from the question of whether it’s physically safe for me to violate those taboos: I would obviously prefer, in accordance with my belief in maximal toleration, that believers of whatever faith deal gently with taboo-breakers, non-violently ejecting them from the holy precincts but otherwise ignoring their provocations. But I’m not concerned here about the responsibilities of believers: I’m about as likely to embrace Social Justice as I am to convert to Hinduism. The question I’m asking is, how much deference do I, as a resident non-believer, owe to the majority religious community? – particularly when it’s not clear whether that community is in the majority, or whether it’s a religion at all?

***

It was with the above questions in mind that I found myself reading George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play Saint Joan, which depicts the brief military career, trial for heresy, and posthumous rehabilitation of Joan of Arc.

As Shaw explains in the Preface, the play was written to correct the audience-flattering mythologies that had gained currency in the intervening centuries – namely, that Joan had been done in by a conspiracy of villainous and superstitious buffoons of the type that we, in our sophistication, would see through today. In Shaw’s view, the Inquisition was no more inhumane in stamping out Medieval blasphemies than an English court would be in stamping out their 20th Century equivalents. Shaw shows the prosecutors extending every opportunity for Joan to save herself by denying that the voices which had guided her were divinely inspired; which she finally does, to their relief. But when she discovers that this petty lie won’t gain her her freedom, merely save her from the bonfire, she recants her recantation, and chooses martyrdom.

As Shaw tells it, Joan was tried fairly, and found guilty “strictly according to law”. Her prosecutors, however we might scoff at their certainty that the Catholic church was alone capable of interpreting God’s will on earth, were correct enough in their estimation of where heresies such as Joan’s might lead: first to Protestantism – the dissolution of Western Christendom into a jumble of warring sects – and then to Nationalism – the collapse of the feudal political order – and the diminution of religion to a minor handmaiden of the state.

Before Joan’s trial begins, the Inquisitor gives a lengthy speech – two and a half pages of solid text, in my Penguin edition – imploring the members of the court to “cast out” both anger and pity, while bearing in mind the unseen consequences of their verdict:

God forbid that I should tell you to harden your hearts; for her punishment if we condemn her will be so cruel that we should forfeit our own hope of divine mercy were there one grain of malice against her in our hearts. But if you hate cruelty – and if any man here does not hate it I command him on his soul’s salvation to quit this holy court – I say, if you hate cruelty, remember that nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy.

Nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy: a sentiment that any modern Inquisitor, of whatever ideological stripe, could get behind. If a demagogue like Tommy Robinson is permitted to say mean things about Islam, it will lead to discrimination and violence against Muslims. If a professor is left free to muse about the ethics of sex with minors, it will lead to the sexual abuse of real-life children.

Of course, dire real-world outcomes can be imagined for any controversial opinion. A famous playwright helps sway a generation of idealistic intellectuals into sympathy with Stalinism and millions of unlucky Third Worlders wind up living under Communist regimes. A group of disaffected ex-leftists cobble a new political philosophy out of their reading of an esoteric classics professor and tens of thousands wind up dying in futile Middle Eastern wars. A minor YouTube celebrity, to annoy his girlfriend, uploads a video of her pet pug dog giving the Hitler salute and – well, who knows what genocidal consequences might follow?

Shaw writes in the Preface to Saint Joan:

We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime, in spite of the risk of mistaking sages for lunatics and saviors for blasphemers. We must persecute, even to the death; and all we can do to mitigate the danger of persecution is, first, to be very careful what we persecute, and second, to bear in mind that unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence.

This is the pragmatic argument for toleration: it’s not that we should leave people free to speak their own minds because it’s the right thing to do, but because if we clamp down too tight, the reaction may lead to anarchy and societal collapse.

But it’s no easy thing, calibrating the level of toleration; and reckless thinkers like me, smuggling our arguments for unfettered speech under the cover of “temperamental conservatism”, should be properly wary that we might, by sanctioning the miscalibration of the social machinery, accidentally bring about the end of civilization.

M.

1. The essay characterized as pedophilic by Dominic Green was subsequently extended by its author to book length: I attempted to read the section on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw but found it impenetrable.

Surprisingly, it seems I haven’t mentioned G.B. Shaw on this blog before. An anecdote I shared in 2010 about the farcical fact-finding mission of a “great Humanist” author to a Soviet work camp in the Arctic could have involved Shaw, who was similarly duped on his visit to the USSR; but that anecdote actually concerned Maxim Gorky. In my discussion last year of John Updike’s The Coup I lamented that “the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities” was increasingly neglected, and a couple months back I took issue with William Hazlitt’s attack on wishy-washy writers.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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