21 February 2009

Yeomen of the Guard: A Review and Reflection

Two of my very best Oxford friends went with me tonight to see the Oxford University Gilbert and Sullivan Society's Presentation of The Yeomen of the Guard. G&S musicals are on my list of "things I ought to know more about to consider myself cultured," so I'm always delighted to see one of them performed. The musicals are tightly wound social satires of Victorian personalities and mores, but, at the same time, brilliant commentaries on human nature. Usually they straddle that line I spoke of earlier, of the dark comedy which the British do so well. But Yeomen is an exception: it isn't really funny.

The Yeomen of the Guard takes place in the Tower of London in the sixteenth century. A brave, young solider has been condemned to die for practicing alchemy. A man whose life he once saved and his smitten daughter conspire to save him by changing his place with their own son/brother. In the meantime, he decides to take a wife in order to keep his fortune from passing into the hands of his envious cousin. A typical G&S comedy of errors ensues, but the players and consequences are more than common.

Perhaps most unlike Gilbert and Sullivan's other musicals, there are no happy weddings at the end of Yeomen. The young woman who loves the solider is forced into an engagement to the hunch-backed jailer to protect the soldier's escape from being found out--the audience is encouraged to feel sympathy toward the bumbling figure, but the young woman never learns to love him. Simliarly, her father agrees to marry a unattractive, violent old maid to keep his assistance for the soldier safe. The only happily married couple are the solider and the woman whom he married to protect his fortune. Even they were first married in secret, identities protected, before discovering they've fallen in love with each other. And they leave behind a doful jester, the bride's jilted betrothed, who is the key tragic figure of the play. In him the audience sees the human cost of a "the-show-must-go-on" attitude, and of one character's self-centered choices.

Of course, the musical does have its comic moments. As a linguist, I was particularly delighted by the intentionally over-done Shakespearean English of the dialog ("An hundred crowns?" "An hundred crowns!). The song sung between jailer and jester is a particularly nice touch: the jester tries to nuance the clueless jailer's lies by added literary flourish that the poor man simply can't understand.

The OUG&S production also had particular assets of its own, most especially in the cast. The female leads were all well sung, particularly the solider's bride's lilting and subdued soprano. Robert Hazel, who played the bumbling assistant jailer, did an absolutely spectular job of making the character come to life in a way that was both physically repellant and intensely sympathetic. The musical, however, was essentially made by the truly enthralling performance of David Jones as the jester. He conveys all of the jesters desparate need to be funny, but also his bitter resentment against a life which has put little that's good or delightful before him. He beautifully pulled off an imaginably difficult role--the tragic jester--in a mesmirizing way.

Still, all in all, The Yeomen of the Guard is as much food for thought than entertainment--as much "sentence" than "solas," to use the Chaucerian distinction. The young solider is again and again praised, admired, and loved because of his bravery. But it is really those who risk their lives to save him who are brave. And it is they who suffer in this deeply thought-provoking musical.

English Humor

I had planned to avoid posting random links on my blog this time, but I have to suggest that you view the following:

I babysat last night for a wonderful young family. They introduced me to Flanders and Swann, with whom, I must say, I am inordinately pleased. This song, probably their most famous, is truly original, absolutely ridiculous, and positively delightful.

Although I won't claim this as a supreme example, I must say that I am struck by English humor--not just it's quality, but its substance. The English do serious humor, humor that means something, in a way Americans just don't seem to be able to manage. Americans can muster great satire, but the ability to laugh in the face of something dark and tragic is a bit outside of our league.

What other country, besides England, could manage a film that stands on its own as both a zombie film and a comedy?

19 February 2009

My Sisters Are Coming to Visit

Nothing new to report about the English. But, in other news, my sisters are coming to visit me!

Enjoy this photograph of our previous trans-Atlantic exploits.

17 February 2009

Doctor Who Again

Just to follow up on my Doctor Who rampage...

My friend Ruth and I watched a two-parter tonight, starting with "The Empty Child." It's a very poignant episode, set in the darkest days of the blitzkrieg during World War II. Yet, in the end, every single person lives. The poor Doctor can't remember the last time he saved the world and no one had to sacrifice him or herself, no one had to die in some brutal manner before he could solve the problem. But, in this episode, everyone is saved. And the Doctor is ecstatic.

I repeat my claim that the show is an amazing celebration of human life.

15 February 2009

Doctor Who

English television is one of the great delights of being in the U.K. Where else can you see a news show broadcast a late-breaking story about the leader of the opposition party in Parliament running yellow lights on his bicycle on the way to work? Generally, though, I have found that English television is often much more substantive than it's American equivalent.

As someone who doesn't watch T.V. often, I suppose I don't really have a breadth of experience to make such a sweeping claim. My primary basis of comparison are the science fiction shows that air in primetime, which nerds like me really enjoy. I'm as big a fan of Star Trek as the next American nerd, but the British cultural equivalent is in a league of its own--Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is a legend. The show has been airing since 1963. Its main character, the unnamed "Doctor" has been through ten incarnations. The principle villain, the Daleks, are a permanent feature of the off-the-radar English imagination. Given its popularity, I find the values it promotes absolutely extraordinary.

Doctor Who means something. More than any other television show I've ever watched. The show continually takes up the most pressing issues of the day and presents them in a new light, set to an electronic soundtrack. In an episode from the first season of the new series, the Doctor and his traveling companion encounter a giant satellite given over the storage and spread of every piece of information known the the human race. Humans themselves act as processors for the massive computer, but without ever letting the information enter their brains. In the end, the Doctor must destroy an evil creature who has been able to secretly control all of humanity simply by controlling their information.

Like any good literary venture, the show also covers themes of timeless concern. I cried for days over the finale of the fourth season of the new series. All of her life, his traveling companion thought she was insignificant, unremarkable. In the episode's climax, she discovers how special she truly is, and saves the universe. But as a consequence, her memory is erased. She has to go back to an ordinary life, never remembering her life with the doctor or her universal importance. What a reflection on our own hopes and fears about our vocations!

But perhaps most astounding is the Doctor's overarching respect for humanoid life. He really cares about each and every life he touches. He is continually emphasizing to his traveling companions how important they are--"you're an ordinary person" he might say, "the most important thing in the world." Even against the Daleks, the greatest enemy known to man, Doctor Who refuses to comit when given the chance. And the Doctor's respect for life always spreads to others. So many episodes end with a humanoid man or woman grasping the significance of all other lives in the universe, sacrificing him or herself in an ultimate gesture of love for human life.

In shows like Doctor Who--if there are actually any shows like it--I am reminded of what television can be. Not a mindless medium, but yet another literary expression of the hopes, fears, and possibilities for our culture and our species. Doctor Who is extraordinary for reminding us of our humanity, and giving us a subtle reminder to act as though we remember it if the opportunity for great heroism ever arises.

If you want to find out more about Doctor Who, I would strongly suggest checking out the episode Midnight from the fourth season of the new series. This is probably the most suspenseful, and also lowest budget, episode of sci-fi television ever made. Incidentally, it is--as of this posting--the episode more likely not to have been deleted from YouTube.