Essay: Defying Gender in Mrs Dalloway

Happy Publication Birthday, Mrs Dalloway! First published on this day, May 14th, in 1925 by the Woolfs’ publishing house, Hogarth Press; this new Penguin Vintage Classics edition has the most beautifully abstract cover and you can click to buy it (as I’m about to) here!

gender in mrs dalloway

In her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf defies contemporary expectations of gender with an unfearing portrayal of homosexual relationships, especially between Clarissa and Sally and Septimus and Evans. The publication of sexologist Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion in 1897, whilst suggesting for the first time in Victorian medical study that homosexual behaviour was the ‘manifestation of an instinct which to [those] persons who possess it frequently appears natural and normal’[1], underscored the actuality that ‘in a country like England […] all our traditions and all our moral ideals, as well as the law, are energetically opposed to every manifestation of homosexual passion’[2]. Ellis notes the existence of a ‘compact social force which on every side constrains the individual into the paths of heterosexual love’[3], and this study will analyse how Woolf shapes, explores and strays from those pathways through Clarissa and Septimus’s same-sex interactions, their interruptions by the opposite sex, and the presence – or absence – of parenthood, as well as charting the effect changing feminist ideologies may have had on the 1925 novel, from the relative erasure of lesbianism and femininity in early studies of homosexuality to ‘post-First World War antifeminism’[4] with the ‘laud[ing] of motherhood’[5] in the 1920s. Continue reading “Essay: Defying Gender in Mrs Dalloway”

Essay: Escape, Colour and Entertainment in The Wizard of Oz & The Wiz

In his exploration of ‘musicals as entertainment’[1], Richard Dyer writes that ‘two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment as “escape” and as “wish-fulfilment” point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism’[2]. Utopic tales of escape and wish-fulfilment are no better epitomised than by two adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: MGM’s 1939 Technicolor classic The Wizard of Oz, and Sidney Lumet’s 1979 screen adaptation of The Super Soul Musical, The Wiz, are both utopian fantasies that reflect upon the colour of their cultural moment.

Released in 1939, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz was part of the ‘breakthrough year for the Technicolor Corporation’[3]. Dorothy’s wish to ‘fly beyond the rainbow’[4] is realised when she leaves monochrome Kansas behind for the bright lights – quite literally, as on-set lighting for the Yellow Brick Road needed to be practically dazzling on account of ‘yellow [being] most saturated at a very high level of lightness, […] quickly los[ing] purity when […] darkened’[5]of Oz, a space defined by colour with its Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, and Ruby Slippers. Furthermore, as Hollywood legend has it, the Ruby Slippers were changed from the silver shoes of Baum’s original novel to showcase and capitalise on the extensive, and expensive, Technicolor filmmaking processes, which, incidentally, it did, as The Wizard of Oz was one of the three Technicolor pictures that made up the ‘most lucrative releases [of] 1939’[6].

Whilst not the commercial nor critical success of The Wizard of Oz, 1978’s The Wiz did reflect on one cultural colour that MGM’s musical and its moment of production did not: black. From the era of Blaxploitation cinema in the ‘70s, The Wiz was part of a bigger picture that painted ‘black America’s […] need [for] an escape from the brutal reality of the past decade’[7]; a decade characterised by Civil Rights, segregation and assassination. The Wiz facilitated that escape by ‘creating a fantasy world on the big screen where black men and women were the heroes’[8], like Diana Ross’s Dorothy and Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow.

Dyer too discusses ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, and argues that it is a ‘given of the fundamental performance elements of the musical – dance and song’[9] – to illustrate the ‘relation both to physical space and to the cultural spaces of other peoples’[10], and thus this study will seek to explore how these two musical texts use dance and song to reflect on the cultural colours of their moments of production. Continue reading “Essay: Escape, Colour and Entertainment in The Wizard of Oz & The Wiz”

Essay: History & Hip-Hop at the 58th Grammy Awards

In time for this year’s Grammys on February 12th, here’s a throwback to last year’s, paying homage to history and politics and hip-hop in the most poignant way.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a black millennial rapper and a musical about America’s white founding fathers would have very few things in common. Kendrick Lamar, born in Compton, California in 1987, and Alexander Hamilton, subject of the musical Hamilton, born in the Caribbean circa 1757, may be centuries apart, but both became a core part of the 58th Grammy Awards, for their wins and winning performances. Lamar won five Grammys, including the coveted ‘Best Rap Album’ for 2015’s Platinum-selling To Pimp a Butterfly. Hamilton, based on Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a cast-of-colour playing America’s predominantly Caucasian political cabinet of the late 18th century, won Best Musical Theatre Album. Yet, there’s something else these figures have in common: both are singing songs of social and political importance.

First up, clear spots shed light and cast shadows on a shuffling chain gang, Lamar their leader, as they slouch and lumber towards a microphone. The shackles and handcuffs clatter and shake, underscoring the sound of smooth sax – the sort of incidental sophistication one might expect to hear while sipping champagne in a smoking lounge – as Lamar raises his manacled hands and takes a moment to arrange them either side of the microphone; a seemingly simple gesture that garners poignancy in the struggle to perform it. His breaths are caught by the microphone, amplified, an aide-mémoire to the life in these convicts no matter now hard the media may try to muzzle them, before the bam-bam of a drumbeat. Here’s the crowning, hear Kendrick’s cry: ‘I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015’.

The jazz interjects, and the lights reveal Lamar’s band behind bars. They too appear part of this chain gang, but these chains don’t need to be corporeal, and perhaps nor does the crime. The double drumbeats continue, and dictate Kendrick’s bars, the dancers, the light beams, and Lamar’s lurch with every line – half flinching in hesitation, half fighting to be heard – as he delivers the opening of ‘The Blacker the Berry’.

Lamar ‘proceed[s] to give [us] what [we] need’ as the prisoners emancipate themselves. The chains come off, then, with the lights down, there’s a beat breakdown and the gang get down, their convict uniforms glowing defiantly in the dark. The drumbeat goes on, but Lamar staggers, dazed, in the darkness, towards a blazing tribal bonfire. This is the spectacle.

Silence. For a second, his voice stands alone, and he speaks to us all: ‘wake up’. Lamar hunches low as he serves up the first verse of ‘Alright’, even stooping to our level to deliver ‘let me tell you ‘bout my life’, a powerful way to confront an audience of white-privilege. When the music comes back in it is soulful and full-bodied, with its African influence not limited to the sound, as drummers and dancers surround Lamar, mixing with the convicts to form a mighty ensemble, and in the midst of the revelry of a united race, you believe them when they say they ‘gon’ be alright!’

But before long, Lamar staggers back to where it’s blacked-out, and the sax feels as though it’s fading out, when he plays his final card – centre stage, spot-lit with eyes shut – an untitled verse that reveals what’s at stake. ‘On February 26th I lost my life too,’ he raps, a reference to the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 by a member of the community watch, later acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, and it’s here that there is a stark realisation of the racial politics at play.

The finale, a camera close-up as the rapping speeds up and the shot is cut up, is what Lamar has lead us to, a ‘conversation for the nation, [that] is bigger than us’, that he then silences with the outline of Africa with ‘COMPTON’ stamped across it, as Lamar, a black silhouette, stands alone.

So, from this performance that paints a picture of all that has gone wrong in those supposedly united States, what follows is a performance from Hamilton, a musical about the building of that very nation.

Hamilton, with the opening number broadcast live from the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, tells the history of the United States through rap, hip-hop and R&B. This too opens with a drumbeat, although this one is more military than it is tribal, and accompanied by the sweet screech of violin strings and sporadic clicks from the company, wearing cream deconstructions of colonial dress. The camera pulls out and pans across to capture the actors as they enter and recount Hamilton’s early life in a ‘forgotten spot in the Caribbean’.

The cast may be dressed in the frilly collars and frock coats of the story’s setting, but their characters are colourful, not only literally, as people-of-colour are cast as America’s Caucasian founders, but also as from the mouths of these historic heroes springs the music of today: raps spoken over dark hanging chords with all the swagger of Kendrick.

The man himself, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has his moment in the spotlight, centre stage, too, and the company list his hardships. His father ‘splits’, ‘his mother went quick’, the last word a lingering whisper, haunting the scene as a woman is lifted, lifeless, to represent her passing, and, without skipping a beat, a man on a chair mimes winding a rope around his neck – Hamilton’s cousin committing suicide.

A phoenix rising from the ashes, like Lamar’s rebirth around his bonfire, Hamilton writes ‘his first refrain [as] a testament to his pain’, a creative process that recalls the origins of rap, where artists seek to write their way out of their circumstances. Off to New York to be a new man, Hamilton ascends to the set’s balcony, a bare, wooden structure controlled by the company, as the central narrator, identity yet unknown, resumes a quick spit of rapped rhymes.

The company line downstage, another collective-of-colour like Kendrick’s convicts, and are illustrative of, as Miranda has had to explain exhaustively in media interviews, a story of America then told by America now. And America now is where we are, as Hamilton descends the lowered steps as if coming ashore as the company sings, ‘the world will never be the same’.

The composition shares more than just style with hip-hop. Lines like ‘another immigrant coming up from the bottom’ echo the braggadocio not only of ‘The Blacker the Berry’s’ ‘came from the bottom of mankind’, but also of other artists, like Jay Z’s justified boasts in ‘Otis’ that his and fellow rappers’ achievements as African Americans are ‘not bad, huh, for some immigrants’.

As with Lamar’s performance, the finale gathers speed and sound, as spots individually illuminate the cast of supporting characters, a company who ‘fought for him’, ‘died for him’, ‘trusted him’, ‘loved him’, and, in a tragic reflection of the black cause that Kendrick centres on, the nameless narrator is revealed to be Aaron Burr, ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Yet, once again, the sounds fall to silence, as the voices stand alone to sing the final line: ‘Alexander Hamilton’.

No longer seeming styles and centuries apart, the performances of Hamilton and Lamar point to matters of social and political importance through a popular shared medium: the power of music. But not just any music; this is the music of struggle, of skill, and of voices usually silenced. So let’s start listening.

Essay: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber & The Uncanny – An Applied Analysis

bloody-chamber-blogThe stories in Angela Carter’s short-story collection The Bloody Chamber belong to ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’[1]. These words, however, are not from a critic of Carter’s but from the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud in his essay ‘The Uncanny’; yet how strangely they seem to mirror the figures that cast the ominous shadows of Carter’s stories. Whilst Carter and her champions continue to assert that these are ‘new stories, not retellings’[2], all of the stories interlace and elucidate threads from fairy-tales and folklore, from Beauty and the Beast to Puss in Boots, and they inevitably, as Freud informs us of the Uncanny, lead us back to something once familiar: the fairy-tales of our infanthood. This study will centre on the three werewolf tales that close the collection and ‘work and rework the story of Red Riding Hood’[3], ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, and ‘Wolf-Alice’[4], and apply Freud’s Uncanny as a theory of analysis to illuminate the dark shadows and dangerous spaces of Carter’s stories. Continue reading “Essay: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber & The Uncanny – An Applied Analysis”