“Uneasy Threshold”: The Uninvited (1944), the Sensed and the Understood

“Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, / The land of spices, something understood.”  As I shared with members assembled for “Redefining the Sacred,” an English Literature class I took many years ago as a graduate student at CUNY, these lines from George Herbert’s “Prayer” never fail to get to me.  The last two words alone have more awe and wonder packed into them than I could hope to experience stepping into a gallery surrounding me with Sublime landscapes.  “[T]hey express both my longing and my not-belonging,” I wrote then.  

Trying to make sense and use of the “Sacred” for my queer atheist self, I reflected on my Protestant upbringing and that yearning for communion, for a community forged by a certain “something understood,” as experienced, or so I assumed, by the Catholic peers from whom I, along with half of my high school class, was segregated during religious instruction.  Compared to the austerity of Protestantism – which in my family had congealed into a work ethic that made sweat and pain criteria for an entitlement to praise and recognition – the Catholics were joined in majesty and magic.  Wondering about it from without, I felt both suspicion and envy.

A still image of an animated presentation slide exploring Uneasy Freehold in the context of Uneasy Threshold

That is a roundabout, even misguided, approach to the make-believe of The Uninvited (1944), a Paramount picture based on the novel Uneasy Freehold (1941) by the Irish writer and Republican activist Dorothy Macardle (1889–1958).  But The Uninvited is a queer film in more than one sense.  It is a movie about absent mothers, false and true, and about siblings who, by taking possession of a possessed house, become caught up in a mystery whose solution may prove more destructive than a secret kept.

The Uninvited is a ghost story that at once meshes and transcends the tried Hollywood formulas of 1940s murder mystery, psychological thriller and so-called “gothic romance” to arrive at a hybrid in which solution does not mean death to belief by detection or psychoanalysis.  True, there is an end to a particular case of haunting – but the spirit can linger since it is not a spook that is a means to an end.

“The supernatural is dealt with seriously in this dynamic, suspenseful melodrama, chock full of fine acting that will hold audiences glued to their seats for its entire 93 minutes,” a reviewer of the Paramount picture The Uninvited predicted in the 5 January 1944 issue of Variety.  

Yet while the critic welcomed a movie that necromances what Blithe Spirit or Topper make light of without feeling heavy-handed or weighted down in the attempt, there was room for doubt as to its prospects.  “Once in, they’ll like it,” the reviewer declared, but getting audiences into the seats to stay “glued” there was less than a dead cert due to the film’s “unusual and controversial subject.”

What the trade paper hints at but refrains from stating, is the treatment of motherhood in The Uninvited, a treatment that is in keeping with the spirit of Dorothy Macardle, a politically engaged writer whose fictional freehold, haunted by two restless mothers, both past their final rest, is a metaphor for an Ireland in which the role of women in society was being codified and curtailed in the 1937 constitution.  As Abigail L. Palko points out in “From The Uninvited to The Visitor: The Post-Independence Dilemma Faced by Irish Women Writers,” Macardle, proudly Irish though she was, saw her work as an activist and writer come under attack by a government whose constitution “recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” 

The Uninvited gothicises this threat in its haunting of a young, motherless woman by a memory of what she believes to have been a good mother.  What sets her free is the exorcism of that spirit, disabusing her of a vision that kept her from maturing.

While none of that political context is retained in the film adaptation, The Uninvited nonetheless resonated with women who identified differently, so much so that concern was raised by the League of Decency at the time about its attracting “large audiences of a questionable type,” as Rhona J. Berenstein explored in “Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in Rebecca (1940) and The Uninvited” (1944)” (1998). The Uninvited manages to negotiate the Production Code in such ways that the familiar specter of the Hays Office is does not have the ghost of a chance to spoil the party like an officious inspector who comes unbidden but must be accommodated.

Now, I did not know anything about the histories of Ireland, Hollywood or the Gothic/gothic when I first watched The Uninvited.  As is almost invariably the case, though, the film spoke to me about my own sense of otherness.  And even though I never watched it surrounded by an audience of “questionable types,” or friends of Cornelia Otis Skinner, it invited me to question what membership might mean. 

The moment I realised that the Fitzgeralds, the pair who happen upon and fall in love with a haunted house, are not husband and wife but brother (Ray Milland) and sister (Ruth Hussey), I sensed that the narrative of a young person (Gail Patrick) in search of answers about her mother would take me where fairy tales had taken me years earlier: a territory the navigation of which could make my everyday journey seem less treacherous as I came to terms with the inability to belong, the feeling of being a changeling in my parent’s house.  

Dreamlike without being unmoored, The Uninvited seemed to welcome me with a spirit of understanding, of “something understood.”

”Uneasy Threshold”: Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and the Demise of the Gothic

Just what is ‘gothic’? And how useful is the term when loosely applied to products of visual culture, be it paintings, graphic novels, movies or the posters advertising them? Aside from denoting a literary genre and a style of architecture, in which usages I recommend setting it aside by making the ‘g’ upper case, the term ‘gothic,’ understood as a mode, can be demonstrated to take many shapes, transcend styles, media, cultures and periods.  It can also be demonstrated not make sense at all as a grab bag for too many contradictory and spurious notions many academics, to this day, would not want to be caught undead espousing.  Those are the views I take on and the potentialities I test out with students of my module Gothic Imagination at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.

As the gothic cannot thrive being crammed into a series of seminars, let alone been exsanguinated or talked to death in academic lectures, I created an extracurricular festival of film screenings to explore the boundaries of the visual gothic beyond genre and style.  The fourth film in the chronologically arranged series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), demonstrates that the gothic struggles to thrive as well when its sublime powers are expended in a game of wartime chess.

The fourth entry in a series of Universal B-movies that began in 1939, prior to the end of US isolationism, as feature films, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a formulaic whodunit in which the gothic is an accessory to crime fiction, and in which suspects, some more usual than others, are lined up like cardboard grotesques for deployment in a mock-Gothic extravaganza executed on a budget.

Now, as a lover of whodunits and epigrams, I do not object to formula or economics.  I can appreciate budget-regard even when I long for that rara avis.  For the gothic, however, a cocktail consisting in measures equal or otherwise of solvable mystery and final-solution mastery is a cup of hemlock. Granted, the attempt to serve it and make it palatable to the public creates a tension of intentions that may well give motion picture executives and censors nightmares.

I discuss such messaging mixers in the context of radio plays in a chapter of Immaterial Culture I titled “‘Until I know the thing I want to know’: Puzzles and Propaganda,” in which Holmes and Watson also feature.

After all, at the same time the pair set the world aright in twentieth-century wartime scenarios, Holmes and Watson continued to solve crime in the gaslit alleyways of late-Victorian and Edwardian London, or suitably caliginous settings elsewhere in the British Isles, in pastiches in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were heard on the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio program that aired in the US at the same time:

As Sherlock Holmes director Glenhall Taylor recalled, the series was one of several sponsored programs whose “services were requested by the War Department.”  The charms of an imagined past were to yield to visible demonstrations of the responsibilities broadcasters and audiences shared in the shaping of the future.  To promote the sale of defense bonds during the War Loan Drives, Bruce and co-star Basil Rathbone appeared in “special theatrical performances,” live broadcasts to which “admission was gained solely through the purchase of bonds.”  (Heuser, Immaterial Culture 189)

To be sure, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is less overtly propagandist than the previous three entries in Universal’s film series, all of which are anti-fascist spy thrillers.  Adapted, albeit freely, from a story by their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the case they took on subsequently recalled the titular detective and his faithful sidekick from Washington, DC, and released them back into their fog-shrouded habitat in and for which they had been conceived.

And yet, whatever the setting, in motion pictures Holmes and Watson continued to face adversaries that were recognisably anti-democratic – stand-ins for the leaders of the Axis.  The villain of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, diagnosed as egomaniacal by Holmes, is no exception. 

Much of the action of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death takes place in an ancestral pile that has been temporarily converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers.  Those inmates may have their idiosyncrasies, as all flat characters do, but, to serve their purpose in a piece of propaganda, they cannot truly be plotting murder, unless there are exposed as phoneys, in which case the reassurances of wartime service honored and government assistance rendered would be called into question.  

The unequivocal messages the Sherlock Holmes films were expected to spread in wartime did not allow for such murky developments.  A post-war noir thriller might sink its teeth into corruption; but the Sherlock Holmes series did not exhibit such fangs.

Variety thought this entry ‘obvious stuff.’ Less obvious to me, reading Variety, was
how much Ella Fitzgerald contributed to the success of the film at the box office.

Nor could the recovering soldiers be shown to be so mentally unstable as to kill without motive; according to the convention of whodunits, even serial killers like Christie’s Mr. ABC follow a certain logic that can be ascertained.  The heiress of Musgrave Manor may be momentarily distraught, the butler may be exposed as an unstable drunkard – but the soldiers, whatever horrors and shocks they endured on the battlefield, can only be moderately muddled.

Most of the recovering servicemen – in their fear of unwrapped parcels or their fancy for knitting – are called upon to provide comic relief, bathos being a key strategy of the domesticated gothic. In the Sherlock Holmes series, that is a part generally allotted to Dr. Watson, a role he performs even in this particular installment, in which his expertise as a man of medicine is put to use for the war effort. Inspector Lestrade serves a similar purpose, which is probably what made the ridiculing of military personnel seem less objectionable to sponsors, as it made them look fairly inconsequential to the crime caper unfolding. Aligning those men with Watson and Lestrade assists in eliminating them from the start as potential suspects.

While missing legal documents and cryptic messages are certifiably Gothic tropes, the gothic atmosphere in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is fairly grafted on the proceedings with the aid of visuals. There are genre Gothic trimmings aplenty in – secret passages, a bolt of lightning striking a hollow suit of armor, and pet raven assuming the role of harbinger of death – but there is no real sense of menace as, guided by the infallibly capable hands of Sherlock Holmes, we negotiate with relative ease the potentially treacherous territory of a mansion as makeshift asylum and contested castle.

The climax, which tries to cast doubt as to Holmes’s perspicacity, plays out in a dimly lit cellar. It is here that the gothic could potentially take hold if the plot had not preemptively diffused the dangerous situation hinted at in the film’s title. The trap for the killer below has already been laid above-ground on the newly polished surface of a giant chessboard, in a display of strategy choreographed by Holmes himself. By the time the game moves underground, it is no longer afoot; rather, it is fairly limping along.

Gothic and propaganda can mix; genre Gothic fiction often served political purposes. Gothic and whodunit are less readily reconciled. Although John Dickson Carr tried hard to make that happen, often in an antiquarian sort of way, the Victorian Sensation novelists and the had-I-but-known school of crime writers come closer to achieving that.  But the handling of all three of those form or raisons d’être for writing – Gothic, whodunit and propaganda – by the jugglers employed here, at least, is not a formula designed to make the most of mystery and suspense. As I concluded in my discussion of the “identity crisis” of the wartime radio thriller, “propagandist work was complicated by the challenge of puzzling and prompting the audience, of distracting and instructing at once.”

Sherlock Holmes faces death, all right, but the demise he encounters is that of the gothic spirit.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Old Dark House (1932), “wildest Wales” and the Benighted Kingdom

Much has been said about the titular edifice of Universal Studio’s 1932 melodrama The Old Dark House, the third in the series of films I am screening as part of my Gothic Imagination module at Aberystwyth University.  Directed by the queer English Great War veteran James Whale, and adapted from J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel BenightedThe Old Dark House is often argued to be a commentary on Imperial Britain during the so-called interwar years (that is, the period between the two World Wars, Britain having been involved in plenty of other international conflicts besides): an ancient but crumbling family home – run by aging and morally corrupt imbeciles and cut off from the world by water.  It has been called, more than once, a “metaphor for … England.”

And yet, the story is not set England but in Wales, and the novel and film alike exploit and perpetuate the stereotypes of what, presumably, constitutes Wales and sets it apart from neighboring England: the wild, the uncivilised, the superstitious and unenlightened.  Wales, according to Priestley and Whale, is gothic territory.  It is the stuff of romance – or the English definition of romance – meaning that when the English want to go primitive, they think Wales.

Here is what the dreamer Penderel, himself a war veteran, says about Wales as he is being driven around in his friend’s motorcar one dark and dismal night:

I don’t want to go to Shrewsbury.  I don’t particularly want to go anywhere.  Something might happen here, and nothing ever happens in Shrewsbury, and nothing much on the other side of Shrewsbury.  But here there’s always a chance.

The Hollywood ending aside, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel, retaining much of Priestley’s dialogue.  While I am not sure just how many US American viewers back then would have understood the reference to the border that Shrewsbury represents, both Priestley and Whale would have known that, when the name “Shrewsbury” is dropped, the meaning “borderline” is implied.  Arriving at Shrewsbury – and this is the party’s intention – means traversing the Welsh Bridge over the Severn and arriving back in England.

The party in question – Penderel and his friends, the married and bickering couple Margaret and Philip – has lost its way in what Priestley lets Philip describe as “wildest Wales.”  The colonial attitudes toward Wales as both enchanted and benighted – as a place where there is ‘always a chance’ – the chance of an improvement in infrastructure excepting – are at the heart of this modally gothic narrative.

When the drunkard Welsh butler Morgan opens the door upon their unannounced arrival, he “produce[s] from somewhere at the back of his throat, a queer gurgling sound” that Penderel cannot translate.  Priestley tells us that “Penderel knew no Welsh.”  And yet, he says with confidence, in the book and film version alike, that “Even Welsh out not to sound like that; it was as if a lump of earth had tried to make a remark.”

Wales, to be sure, was just that to England, or many in England, a mute lump of Earth to be exploited for its resources.  It is not Wales that is gothic – or Gothic – but the perspective of the English that, fascinating as they may be with the wildness of Wales – impose their views on the nation they invade like “travellers in a foreign country,” as Priestley has Penderel see it.

Morgan, as we soon learn, cannot communicate in any spoken language.  He is a personification of Wales infantilised, gesturing like “some prehistoric monster.”  Wales, the source of mined ore – of coal and slate and lead, silver and gold – as well as Water, was often seen as little more than potential to be unearthed and funnelled for the benefit of England. The tradition was deemed to be expendable.

In The Old Dark House, as in Benighted, the nightmare vision makes way for daylight.  What we experienced was a Phantasmagoria staged by the visiting English.  The travelers depart, whether enlightened by what they experienced or just glad to have survived it.  The perspective of the hosts is not considered.

Hollywood would return to a fairy-tale Wales in The Wolf Man a decade later, in which Welsh landscape and culture, rendered unrecognisable, become the other when England was seen as the real, the upholder of values, in its fight against fascism.  To this day, visitors prefer to be enchanted by Wales, an old dark house whose perceived darkness is to a large extent a product of an English or Anglo-American imagination.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Cat and the Canary (1927), Mammy Pleasant and the Outsider Inside

Nothing is innately trifling.  As I put it once, when I had the nerve to make a public display – in a museum gallery, no less – of the mass-produced ephemera I collect, ‘Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter.’  Now, some products of culture are more resistant than others to our realization of them as worth more than a fleeting glance, if that.  Exerting the effort to make them matter may feel downright perverse when there are claimed to be so many more deserving candidates for appreciation around.

When looking out for something to look into, I invariably draw on my own sense of otherness, of queerness.  It is not altogether by choice that I am drawn to the presumed irrelevant.  My perceived marginality is both the effect and the cause of my attraction to the margins.  What matters – and according to whom – is always worth questioning.  That is why I created Gothic Imagination, an alternative art history course I teach at Aberystwyth University.

To augment the weekly lectures and seminars, I created a series of film screenings for my students further to explore the territories of the visual ‘gothic’ beyond literary genre Gothic and the Gothic as an architectural style.  The second film in the chronologically arranged series, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is, for all its technical and cinematographic achievements, a rather undemanding old chestnut.  In part, such a view of it is owing to our belatedness of catching up with it, now that much of it strikes us as a grab bag of narrative clichés.

Well, those clichés were up for grabs even back in 1927, as the film draws on its audience’s familiarity with murder mysteries and stage melodramas.  Like Seven Keys to Baldpate before it, The Cat and the Canary is parodic and self-reflexive.  It play with conventions and our awareness, even our weariness, of them.  The Cat got our tongue firmly in cheek; and as much as we may feel sticking it out at the derivative claptrap to which we are subjected, we are encouraged to appreciate that the film anticipates our response, that it is one step ahead, dangling our tongue cheekily in front of us like a carrot intended to keep us playing along.

Is it only a single step ahead? Ahead of what? Is it ahead, retro or perhaps even reactionary? The Cat and the Canary is postmodern before there was a word for it.  Like any adaptation of a text I have not caught up with, it also makes me wonder just how what we get to see has evolved and how the film, in addition to interpreting its source material cinematically, questions, edits and revises that material as well.

One revision draws attention to itself in the credits – and it made me aware of the consequences the seemingly inconsequential can have.  I am referring to the character Mammy Pleasant, a housekeeper played in the film by the scene-stealing Martha Mattox.  Given that The Cat and the Canary was released in the same year that The Jazz Singer stridently hammered a sonic nail in the coffin of silent film – at times simply by dragging said nail screechingly across the surface of an eloquent body of work shaped over a quarter of a century – the reference to the ‘Mammy’ legend stood out like a discordant note.

A slide from my introduction to the screening

What is ‘Mammy’ about Mammy Pleasant, particularly when the role is performed by a white female actor? The 1922 stage melodrama by John Willard, who also acted in the play on which the film is based, describes the character as an ‘old negress.’  Not that Blanche Friderici, who originated the part on the stage, was black.  She performed it in blackface.  

As The Jazz Singer and other early sound films such as the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ vehicle Check and Double Check (1930), blackface and minstrel shows were very much part of Western popular culture at the time, and they were not effectively challenged – that is, were not permitted effectively to challenge – until decades later.

And yet, the film does not partake of that tradition, retaining the character’s name only.  In the play, Mammy Pleasant is a servant who has gained enough independence to choose whether or not to serve the future heir to the fortune of her deceased employer, as is clear from this exchange with the family lawyer, Roger Crosby, prior to the reading of the will:

Crosby.  Six! All the surviving relatives.  By the way—Mammy—your job as guardian of this house is up to-night.  What are you going to do?

Mammy.  It all depends.  If I like the new heirs—I stay here.  If I don’t—I goes back to the West Indies.

There is no such exchange in the film, and the ethnicity of Mammy Pleasant is not made central to the characterisation, which in the play is rooted in stereotypes surrounding superstitions to be rooted out in the act of ratiocination.  The Cat and the Canary is, after all, not a Gothic romance but a whodunit in which weird goings-on are shown to have a logical, albeit preposterous, explanation.  

The name Mammy Pleasant, in Willard’s play at least, carries with it a reference to an actual person – the businesswoman and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, who, by passing as white, managed to become the first African American millionaire.

In the stage play, produced nearly two decades after Pleasant’s death in 1904, the reference is facetious and derogatory.  Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lost the fortune she had made and shared as an activist, and whose character was destroyed when her passing as a white cook and landlady was exposed, is misremembered in the film as a not altogether trustworthy and slightly threatening outsider operating on the inside of a dead white millionaire’s mansion.

Why did the reference remain? How many viewers back in 1927 would have recognised it as a reference to Mary Ellen Pleasant? And how many would have found comic relief in what might have been some sort of white revenge fantasy that renders Pleasant odious while keeping her in her supposed place?

It is a gothic reading, as opposed to a reading of the gothic, that refuses to privilege the center and, imagining alternatives, lets the canary chase the cat for a change.  An unlikely scenario, to be sure; but to expose what is cultural it is useful to conjure what is unnatural.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Lodger (1927), Trespassing and the Unhomely

I am not an academic.  I am a human being.  That’s not just me misquoting The Elephant Man.  It is a cri de cœur expressive of what is at the core of my identity as a creative person who happens to have transmogrified into an art history lecturer. To interrogate what that even means, I teach “Gothic Imagination” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. 

As part of that class, I present an extracurricular series of film screenings exploring the boundaries of the ‘gothic’ beyond the furnishings of the genre ‘Gothic.’  That ‘gothic’ is a term so broadly applied and ill-defined as to render it practically useless is a by now thoroughly predictable way of opening a debate about its practical uses.  Then again, the gothic has little to do to with practicalities.  

I have no intention to make the term, “salonfähig,” that is, reverting here to my native German, to make it acceptable or viable in an academic setting.  Rather, I use the word, which I am applying to visual culture instead of literature, to contest progress or avant-garde narratives traditionally espoused by academies in order to suggest alternative histories and alternatives to the teaching of art history.  Attention to the popular, presumably lesser arts is essential to this strategy.

The first series of screenings, coinciding with my previous iteration of “Gothic Imagination,” was titled “Treacherous Territories.” The phrase was meant to capture that challenge of defining and the dangers of inserting a mutable term such as ‘gothic’ into the lecture theaters and seminar rooms that cannot quite accommodate, let alone confine it. 

The current series, “Uneasy Threshold,” continues that playful investigation.  What, for instance, carries a mystery or a romance over the threshold of ‘gothic’? What is that threshold? And what is the ‘gothic’ interior – the environment in which ‘gothic’ may be contained both as a subject for discussion and as an experience to be had by the viewer of, say, a crime drama, a thriller, a film noir or a horror movie?

As a literary genre, the Gothic began in and with a house – in Strawberry Hill and with the Castle of Otranto, both conceived by Horace Walpole long before Frankenstein, Jekyll/Hyde and Dracula came onto the scene.  Those names are on the letter box of the Gothic mansion of our imagination, and I do not mean to evict their bearers; but might there be room as well – be it a closet, a cellar or a boudoir – for a few hundred other, less usual suspects, such as the title character of The Lodger (1927)?

The Lodger insists on moving in on the party assembled at the Gothic castle, just as the Lodger – who may or may not be a serial killer called The Avenger – emerges out of the fog. edges himself into the home of the Buntings, and comes to preoccupy their thoughts and nightmares.  Invited, perhaps, but deemed suspect or queer all the same.

When the Lodger first made his appearance, in 1911, in a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the figure was already lodged in the collective consciousness of urban dwellers who, like the author, were old enough to recall the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 or else were raised with the legend of Jack the Ripper, an alternative to a nursery rhyme all the more terrifying for having neither rhyme nor reason.

The Lodger transforms the story, which Belloc Lowndes turned into a novel, by pouring more sex into the mix.  That the layered cake did not quite rise to Hitchcock’s satisfaction was, legend has it, due to the casting of Ivor Novello in the title role: a queer Welsh matinee idol who, Hitchcock argued, was not allowed to get away with murder but was to be pronounced blameless by virtue of his status as a star. 

Whether or not that is the true reason for the direction the movie adaptation takes, it does not make the story any less intriguing – or gothic.

The Lodger is the story of a home that becomes “unhomely” – German for “uncanny.”  The lodger is no architect or bricklayer; rather, he transforms the dynamics of the group of people dwelling in the house he enters.  Blameless he may be, but he is an Avenger all the same, as Sanford Schwartz points out in “To-Night ‘Golden Curls’: Murder and Mimesis in Hitchcock’s The Lodger” – not the killer, but the victim of the killer avenging her death, a victim-turned-vigilante who, misunderstood, dreaded and feared, becomes the subject of her other lover’s revenge. 

 It is the other, ostensibly sane and safe lover, a police officer, who trespasses – who abuses his power – to trap the innocent man who threatens his supremacy as a prospective husband. The handcuffs he suits to his own pursuits prove harmful to his lover’s trust and nearly cause the death of his rival even after that rival is proven innocent of crime.

The Lodger is gothic as James’s Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is Gothic.  It is a story of injustice and sanctioned tyranny.   Like Frankenstein’s creature, the Lodger is hunted and tormented. Law, reason and morals are being questioned; and the pillars of civilisation are proven to be unsafe as houses.

The next time I am (re)viewing The Lodger, the film will be accompanied by Neil Brand at Gregynog Hall, 6 Nov. 2021, when I shall be in conversation with the playwright-composer about silent film music and the language of pre-talkie cinema.

“Quote” of No Confidence: “Inconvenient Objects” at Aberystwyth University

After
Before

Like most professionals – secret agents excepting – I talk about my work at the slightest provocation.  Besides, academics are expected to drop their names freely in the hope that it may take root in a crowded field scattered with formidable grey matter and fragile egos.  There is a reason I have not yet mentioned one of my latest projects – the exhibition “Inconvenient Objects.”  For a while, it was my blood pressure monitor that had to do most of the talking, delivering clinical statements geared toward a strictly limited audience listening out for official pronouncements that can be made to serve as quantifiable substitutes for my, to my mind, tell-tale cries of anger and frustration. 

The power of words is at once affirmed and eroded in the act of our being rendered speechless, be it by way of silencing or sheer incredulity.  There is no irony in the fact that, in this case of speech free and curtailed, seemingly innocuous curls of quotation marks are at the heart of the matter. 

And just what was – or is – that matter you may well ask after reading this abstract and oblique preamble?

Since 2012, I have been involved in staging exhibitions in the galleries of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, where I also teach art history and exhibition curating, as well as serving as Director of Research.  Most of those exhibitions – Queer TastesUgly, and Alternative Facts among them – are projects that I, with the assistance of the School’s senior curator, create for and realize with groups of undergraduate students each year.  All of those shows draw entirely from the School’s collections of some 25,000 objects of visual and material culture.

The School of Art at Aberystwyth has the distinction of being one of only two art schools in the United Kingdom that also operate as accredited museums.  I try to make use of that nearly unique status in all my teaching, and curating – in which many prospective students express an interest in their applications – provides me with an opportunity to link art history, theory and praxis in practical, public-oriented and creative ways.

I have long regarded the School of Art’s museum collections and public galleries as a mother lode for staff and students alike, as it enables them to generate and showcase their research.  The project for the current show, with which the galleries reopen to the public after over a year during which our collections lingered in the Pandora’s box that is the pandemic of which the previous project, Seeing Red, had been a casualty, was for students to investigate and interpret objects that might pose challenges to cultural institutions due to their subject matter or the politics and ideologies they bespeak.

The selected works range from Third Reich photography to a bust of a Congolese pygmy chief, but also feature groups of female nudes executed by male artists, graphic images of starvation in 1970s Ethiopia, unauthorised sketches of patients in a mental institution and scenes of bullfighting.  However rewarding the digging, the mother lode, in this instance, turned out to be a minefield.

The mining metaphor is borrowed from and alludes to one of the best-known examples of institutional critique, a practice of interrogating collections and museum spaces that artist-curators have employed since the 1970s.  Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum was one such landmark project in which the legacies of colonialism were made transparent through the juxtapositional display of objects as outwardly disparate but intimately related as silverware and slave shackles to remind us how and on whose backs the wealth of the United States was built.

“Inconvenient Objects” was conceived to create awareness about the responsibility of contemporary museums such as ours and the role that exhibition curators play in making artifacts and their at times problematic histories accessible to the public.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, an early twentieth-century bust ostensibly created in the service of science and not intended as a portrait of the subject, Chief Bokani, was previously shown as an ethnographic “specimen” in the University’s geography department.  In the context of the exhibition, the plaster bust – created by one of Wales’ foremost sculptors – encourages debates about ethics and ethnicity in art and science. 

Wilson, unearthing a similar bust at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in 2005, had asked: ‘[Can we] extricate ourselves from the violence involved in acquiring these objects?’ The question remains whether “we” – as cultural institutions – can fulfil our civic mission by removing ourselves from the public discourse of reckoning? “We” have a lot to answer for if we don’t ask.

“Inconvenient Objects” so fully lived up to its title that it was ordered shut and hidden from view.  The word “inconvenient” was apparently central to the university management’s claim that the show posed a reputational risk.  I say “apparently” because what issues the university had with the show was never clearly – let alone directly – communicated to the curatorial team.*

Being that I also serve as the School’s “Equality Champion,” I had envisioned “Inconvenient Objects” as an opportunity to demonstrate that our University is committed to participating in the debate surrounding Black Lives Matter and the legacies of colonialism and empire in which sculptural objects such as our bust of Bokani are enmeshed.  Some three thousand words of gallery texts were in place to clarify those objectives.

After nearly two months behind closed doors – a hiding away that is now part of its story – the show was once again opened to the public, and it is scheduled to remain so until 1 October 2021.  With the addition of a single label, and a sign advising “viewer discretion” at the entrance, nothing has been altered.  And yet, everything has changed.

Our senior curator, who designed the poster, was obliged to place the title of the exhibition in quotation marks, indicating that we do not really mean what we say or else that that “we” does not refer to representatives of our institution.  In effect, the museum has been disabled from reflecting upon itself because such a critique – widely practiced elsewhere – might reflect poorly on the academic institution under which it is subsumed.

Minor adjustments though they may seem – a concession that allowed us to hold on to the title of the show – those quotation marks signal a disavowal, a lack of commitment and self-confidence.  They undermine the common endeavor to mine our public museums, instead of simply minding the store, an engagement with history and civics that should be all of our business.

*Curatorial team: Audrey Corbelli, Ciara Donnellan, Eve King, Orla Mai-Riley, Farrah Nicholson, Lucia Paone-Michael, Katie Rodge and Katarzyna Rynkowska, with contributions from Cara Cullen and Sarai David, and support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Tickets for this free exhibition can be booked via Eventbrite.

Eyre Apparent: Adoption, Adaptation and the ‘orphan child of accepted literature’

The most recent item to enter my collection of ephemera is a somewhat tattered, unpublished radio script (pictured above).  It is held together by rusty staples that attest to the authenticity to which, as a cultural product, it cannot justly lay claim. I still do not know the first thing about it. When was it written? To whom was it sold? Was it ever produced?

Initial research online revealed at least that Hugh Lester, the writer claiming responsibility – or demanding credit – for the script, was by the late 1930s a known entity in the business of radio writing, with one of his adaptations (a fifteen-minute dramatisation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”) appearing in a volume titled Short Plays for Stage and Radio (1939).   Rather than wait to ascertain its parentage, I decided to adopt Lester’s brainchild after spotting it lingering in the virtual orphanage known as eBay, where the unwanted are put on display for those of us who might be enticed to give them a new home.

Getting it home – my present residence – proved a challenge.  After being dispatched from The Bronx, the script spent a few months in foster care – or a gap behind a sofa in my erstwhile abode in Manhattan – before my ex could finally be coaxed into shipping it to Wales.  I occasionally have eBay purchases from the US mailed to my former New York address to avoid added international postage; but the current pandemic is making it impractical to collect those items in person, given that I am obliged to forgo my visits to the old neighborhood this year.  I was itching to get my hands on those stapled sheets of paper, especially since I am once again teaching my undergraduate class (or module, in British parlance) in Adaptation, in which the particular story reworked by Lester features as a case study.

As its title declares, the item in question is a “Radio Serial in Three Half Hour Episodes” of Charlotte Brontë’s 1848 novel Jane Eyre.  It is easy for us to call Jane Eyre that now – a novel.  When it was first published, of course, it came before the public as an autobiography, the identity of its creator disguised (‘Edited by Currer Bell,’ the original title page read), leading to wild speculations as to its parentage.  An adaptation, on the other hand, proudly discloses its origins, and it builds a case for its right to exist by drawing attention to its illustrious ancestry, as Lester’s undated serialisation does:

Announcer: We take pride in presenting for your entertainment at the first chapter of a distinguished dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë’s world famous novel, Jane Eyre.

An interesting choice of phrasing, that: while the source is pronounced to be ‘world-famous,’ meaning popular, this further popularisation by radio is argued to be ‘distinguished,’ meaning, presumably, first-rate – unless ‘distinguished’ is meant to suggest that the child (the adaptation) can readily be told apart from the parent (source).  Is not Jane Eyre ‘distinguished,’ whereas the aim of radio serials, plays for a mass medium, is to be popular, if only temporarily? Clearly, Lester aimed in that announcement to elevate to an art the run-of-the-mill business of adaptation that was his line; and run-of-the-mill it certainly was, most or the time.

One expert on radio scripts, commenting in 1939, went so far as to protest that radio had ‘developed almost no writers,’ that it had ‘appropriated almost all of them, at least all of those who could tell a good story.’  The same commentator, Max Wylie – himself a former radio director of scripts and continuity at CBS – also called ‘radio writing’ the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’ To him, most radio writing was no ‘radio’ writing at all, at least not ‘in the artistic and creative sense,’ but ‘an effort in translation’ – ‘a work of appropriation whose legitimacy depends upon the skill of its treatment but whose real existence depends upon the work of some able craftsman who quite likely never anticipated the electrical accident of the microphone.’

Instead of approaching adaptation in terms of fidelity – how close it is to its source – what should concern those of us who write about radio as a form is how far an adaptation (or translation, or dramatisation) needs to distance itself from its source so it can be adopted by the medium to which it is introduced.  However rare they may be, radio broadcasts such as “The War of the Worlds” have demonstrated that an adaptation can well be ‘radio writing’ – as long as it is suited to the medium in such a way that it becomes dependent on it for its effective delivery.  It needs to enter a new home where it can be felt to belong instead of being made to pay a visit, let alone be exploited for being of service.

Jane Eyre was adapted for US radio numerous times during the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.  The history of its publication echoing the story of its heroine and their fate in the twentieth century – Jane Eyre was apparently parentless.  Brontë concealed her identity so that Jane could have a life in print, or at least a better chance of having a happy and healthy one.  In the story, Jane must learn to be independent before the man who loves her can regain her trust – a man who, in turn, has to depend on her strength.  Similarly, Jane Eyre had to be separated from her mother, Charlotte Brontë, because she could not trust the male critics to accept her true parentage.

On the air, that parent, Charlotte Brontë, needs to be acknowledged so that an adaptation of Jane Eyre does not become an impostor; at the same time, the birth mother must be disowned so that Jane can become a child of the medium of which the parent had no notion – but which is nonetheless anticipated in the telepathic connection that, in the end, leads an adult and independent Jane back to Mr. Rochester, the lover who betrayed her and must earn her trust anew.

Lester’s three-part adaptation retains that psychic episode in Brontë’s story:

Rochester: (In agony.  Whispering through a long tube) Jane! Jane! I need you.  Come to me – come to me!

In radio broadcasting, ‘[w]hispering through a long tube’ can be made to suggest telephony and telepathy – and indeed the medium has the magic of equating both; the prosaic soundstage instruction revealing the trick makes clear, however, that the romance of radio is in the production, that, unlike a novel, a radio play cannot be equated with a script meant for performance.

Being three times as long as most radio adaptations, Lester’s script can give Jane some air to find herself and a home for herself.  And yet, like many other radio versions of the period, it depends so heavily on dramatisation as to deny Jane the chance of shaping her own story.  One scholar, Sylvère Monod has identified thirty passages in which the narrator of Jane Eyre Jane Eyre directly addresses the audience.  And yet, the most famous line of Brontë’s novel is missing from Lester’s script, just as it is absent in most adaptations: ‘Reader, I married him.’ How easily this could be translated into ‘listener’ – to resonate profoundly that most intimate of all mass media: the radio.

Lester, according to whose script plain Jane is ‘pretty,’ is not among the ‘distinguished’ plays of – or for – radio.  Exploiting its source, by then a copyright orphan, it fosters an attitude that persists to this day, despite my persistent efforts to suggest that it can be otherwise: that radio writing is the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’

Sea Change at Aberystwyth University

Poster by Neil Holland, based on a design by Lauren Evans

Once a year, I stage an exhibition with undergraduate students of my module “Curating an Exhibition” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.  The student curators choose objects from the School’s collection, which, over a period of about three months, they research, interpret and narratively arrange in relation to a given theme. The theme for the 2018 exhibition (on show from 21 May until 28 September) is “Sea Change.”  The idea for it came to me watching CNN, where the phrase is frequently heard in promotional spots for Fareed Zakaria’s program.  What, I thought, would happen if we considered the literal meanings of each part of the phrase to examine how life along the coast is transformed and transforming as a result of environmental and socio-political developments.

Installation view showing John Roberts’s large painting Fond Farewell (1973)

As always, the narrative evolved gradually, shaped by the objects selected by the exhibition curators.  This is the text panel introducing the exhibition:

‘Sea change’ is one of the many expressions introduced to the English language by Shakespeare. It appears in The Tempest as a reference to death – and transformation – by drowning.

This exhibition of works from the School of Art collection explores both the metaphorical and the literal meanings of the phrase.

Today, ‘sea change’ is widely used to suggest moments of upheaval and reorientation. It may denote the end of a personal relationship or a geopolitical shift affecting the lives of millions. Whatever its measurable repercussions, ‘sea change’ is always felt to be profound.

Change may be dreaded or desired. It can mean at once breakdown and a chance for renewal. The storm that wrecks a ship and lays waste to dreams brings firewood to the beachcomber. The engines that turned villages into mill towns also transported workers to holidays by the sea.

Plate, from the series Cumbrian Blue(s) (1998) by Paul Scott

Many aspects of modern society were shaped in the Victorian era. Seaside towns like Aberystwyth owed their transformation to the Industrial Revolution. Since then, our coastal communities have continued to adapt. New challenges, from Global Warming to Brexit, lie ahead as Wales is celebrating the ‘Year of the Sea.’

The prints, paintings, photographs and ceramics on display encourage us to consider what we gain or lose through stability and change.

Works by Keith Vaughan feature prominently in the exhibition

Artists whose works are featured in this exhibition include Jean-Antoine Théodore Gudin (1802–1880), Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), Wilhelm Kümpel (1822–1880), Hans Saebens (1895 – 1969), Carlo Bevilacqua (1900 – 1988), Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983), Keith Vaughan (1912 – 1977), Robert Tavener (1920–2004), Gwyn Martin (1921 – 2001), John Vivian Roberts (1923–2003), Bernard Cheese (1925–2013), Terry Bell-Hughes (b. 1939), Chris Penn (1943–2014), Alistair Crawford (b. 1945), Paul Scott (b. 1953), and Kate Malone (b. 1959).

Curators: Lauren Evans, Gerry McGandy, Mike Kirton, Clodagh Metcalfe, Sophie Mockett, Ivy Napp, John Roberts, and Michelle Seifert; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).  Additional assistance by Karen Westendorf

Alternative (F)acts: Curating as Creative Response

Our Japanese ‘Merman’ made for a suitable poster boy.
Poster design by Neil Holland, based on an idea by Sarah Selzer
Once a year, with the help of the head curator of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, I stage an exhibition with a group of students who are enrolled in my undergraduate module “Curating an Exhibition.” The shows draw on the University’s vast collection of art and artefacts. The student curators are given a theme and set out to create a narrative by selecting objects in response to it. That is quite a challenge, considering that the exhibition is put together in just over three months from initial planning to display.
 
Past exhibitions include Untitled by UnknownQueer Tastes, and Matter of Life and Death.  This year, I was all set to use the colour red and its connotations as a theme . . . until the inauguration of Donald Trump and the ensuing dispute about the size of the audience made me see red in a different way.  This gave me the idea for a more urgent, topical show.
 
That show is Alternative Facts: Interpreting Works from the School of Art Collection. It opens on 22 May and will be on display until 29 September in one of the School of Art’s galleries in Aberystwyth, Wales.
 
The introductory panel explains the theme as follows:
 
The phrase ‘alternative facts’ is a recent addition to our vocabulary.  It has come to prominence in a political climate in which views and actions are shaped more by emotions than by reliable intelligence.  Reflecting this shift, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ to be Word of the Year 2016.  And yet, alternative facts are as old as language itself.
 
The works in this exhibition range from a sixteenth-century woodcut to twenty-first century ceramics.   They make statements about religion and war, consumer culture and the media, humanitarian crises and the economy.  They contain references to historical figures such as Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela as well as fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse and Moby-Dick.
 

Using a current catchphrase as its premise, Alternative Facts explores the varied and conflicting functions of material culture: as representations of reality, as social commentary and as propaganda.  Political caricatures by James Gillray and Honoré Daumier are exhibited alongside documentarian images by photojournalist Erich Lessing.  Autobiographical and self-reflexive sculptures by Claire Curneen and Verity Newman are confronted with the hoax of a sea monster made in Japan.  Collectively, these objects raise questions about faith and falsehood, truth-telling and myth-making, authenticity, authority, and freedom of expression.

 
Alternative Facts also invites a closer look at the role of curators as trusted interpreters and reliable storytellers.  Our readings are not intended to be the last word. The gallery is a forum for discussion.
 
Curators: Tom Banks, Natalie Downes, Amber Harrison-Smith, Néna Marie Hyland, Brit Jackson, Frida Limi, Dean Mather, Brad Rees, Sarah Selzer, Magda Sledzikowska; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Recycling Questions: Just What Is or Ain’t an Adaptation?

As a product of postmodern culture, I lay no claim to originality.  Indeed, I have always been thoroughly unoriginal, and, occasional anxieties of influence notwithstanding, often gleefully so.  As a child, I ripped off comics, tore apart magazines and took whatever images were available to create collages and parodies.  Using an audio tape recorder, I appropriated television programs by inserting my voice into mass-marketed narratives, transforming a saccharine anime like Heidi (1974) into a subversive adolescent fantasy.

My postmodern past (note my de Chirico take on a mass-produced vase)

No evidence of my early experiments is extant today; but adaptation became an enduring fascination and a field of study.  As a student, I wrote essays on adaptations of Frankenstein and on Brecht’s revisitations of Galileo Galilei – Leben des Galilei (1938/39 and 1955), as well as Galileo (1947).  I produced an MA thesis on translation (“Meister Remastered”) and a PhD dissertation on the relationship between stage, screen, print and radio (“Etherized Victorians”).  The latter I recycled as Immaterial Culture, published in 2013.

Now a lecturer in art history, I have repurposed some of the above and pieced together a Frankenstein’s creature of an undergraduate module I call Adaptation: Versions, Revisions and Cultural Renewal.  In a series of lectures and seminars, the course (at Aberystwyth University) investigates the processes involved in translative practices that range from the reworking of a literary classic into a graphic novel to drawing a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa.  It explores relationships between form and content, genre and mode, integrity and hybridity, durability and transience, culture and commerce, as well as art and the environment.

As I state in the syllabus, many products of culture endure by shifting shape: stories are turned into sculptures, plays are reimagined as dramatic canvases and mass-produced ephemera are recycled for art. What survives such transformations? What is lost or gained in translation? What are the connections between – and interdependencies of – so-called originals and the works that keep coming after them?

Given the monstrous scope of the course, another question emerges: Just what is not an adaptation? It is a question that becomes more complex if tackled by anyone who, like me, regards originality as a myth.

Much of what is published on the subject is limited to matters of narrative, of what happens when telling becomes showing, or vice versa.  Linda Hutcheon’s study A Theory of Adaptation opens promisingly – if somewhat patronizingly – with the following statement: “If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and films alone, you’re wrong.  The Victorians had a habit of adapting just about everything…. We postmoderns have clearly inherited this same habit….”

Hutcheon does not quite deliver on her promise of inclusivity.  Unable or unwilling to break the “habit” of adaptation scholars who came before her, Hutcheon’s study also concentrates on “novels and films,” the word “film” appearing on 229 pages, compared to, say, “painting” on 17 pages, including index and bibliography.   There is no mention at all of collage or assemblage.  Left out are the projects of Dada, Neo-Dada and Pop, as well as the debates about Kitsch, Camp and Pastiche that were central to Postmodernism.

Hutcheon’s definition of “adaptation” is at once too broad and too narrow.  Her brief statements on “What Is Not an Adaptation?” are welcome yet imprecise and contradictory.  What is worse, her definition is at times arbitrary.   She states, for instance, that “fan fiction” is not a form of adaptation, offering no explanation for its exclusion.

I agree with Hutcheon that adaptations need to be readable as a version, an acknowledged take on or taking of something we perceive as same yet different.  Adaptations are not copies, and, as spurious as they may sometimes strike us, they are not fakes, either.

Hutcheon distinguishes between parody and adaptation, claiming that the former does not need to be acknowledged.  If unacknowledged, parodies – or any other form of adaptation – cannot operate qua adaptation.  They are like irony in that respect.  You just can’t be ironic all by yourself.  Any dance of the index fingers needs an audience.

As I see it, adaptations, be they parodies or pastiche, anarchic or reverent, have to exist as concrete products – rather than ideas or themes – that are distinct from yet related to other products with which they engage or from which they openly borrow in more or less creative acts of transformation.

Am I an adaptation?

Hutcheon, who does not insist on a change in medium as a criterion for adaptation, cites a source that identifies as a “new entertainment norm” the “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”  The resulting products are not meant to exist independently but serve as a deliberate fragmentation for the sake of maximizing market potential and profits by increasing the potential audience.  Is this still adaptation? Perhaps, if the audience rejects to buy the lot.

Buying the lot is something I rarely do.  I pick and choose, take apart and transform according to my own desires and limitations.  And pick apart I must when I read Hutcheon’s comments on radio drama as a form of “showing” like “all performance media,” at which point her study recommends itself for recycling as pulp.  Anyone who appreciates the hybridity of radio plays would balk at such simplifications.

Trying to make a case for elevating their cultural status, Hutcheon asks: “If adaptations are … such inferior and secondary creations why then are they so omnipresent in our culture and, indeed increasing steadily in number?” Well, junk food is “omnipresent” – and so are feebly argued studies – which does not make either any less “inferior.”  Besides, the question is not whether adaptations are good, bad or indifferent.  The question is: what are and what ain’t they?