Queer Tastes: Works from the George Powell Bequest

George Powell
Poster design by Neil Holland

Queer Tastes is an exhibition I curated with students of my undergraduate module Staging an Exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. Each year, the module culminates in a student-curated show on a given theme. 


This year’s exhibition, which is open to the public from 18 May to 11 September, explores the identity of the Welsh-English dilettante George Ernest John Powell (1842 – 1882) through the collection that he bequeathed to Aberystwyth University. The objects were selected by students of the School of Art, which holds part of Powell’s bequest.  

The exhibition includes works by Simeon Solomon, Rebecca Solomon, Edward Burne-Jones, Richard Westall and Hubert von Herkomer as well as artefacts and curios ranging from a plaster cast of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s hand and a glass casket that allegedly once contained a splinter from Robert Schumann’s coffin.

The Powell family owned the Nant-Eos estate a few miles inland from Aberystwyth. Educated at Eton and Oxford, George Powell spent little time at Nant-Eos, which he would inherit in 1878. It was an unhappy place for him. His parents were estranged. His mother and younger sister died when Powell was a teenager.

Powell was a dreamer, much to his father’s disappointment. Instead of going hunting, the boy wrote poems about death, loss and betrayed love. Eager to get away, Powell travelled to Europe, Russia, North Africa and Iceland. In the company of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Powell spent summers on the Normandy coast. There, he entertained writers and artists in a cottage he named after a bisexually promiscuous character in de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.

Powell has been called ‘eccentric’, ‘sinister’ and ‘sad’. He has also been labelled ‘homosexual’, a term not used in his day. ‘Queer’ suggests something – or someone – strange or at odds with our views. It asks that we trace our responses to otherness in ourselves.

A man of the world, Powell wanted to be remembered back in Wales as a patron and benefactor. He offered parts of his collection to Aberystwyth Town Council, on provision that a public gallery be created for their display. When the deal fell through, Powell gave the objects you see here to the University of his ‘dear but benighted town’.


Making our possessions public is in a way a ‘coming out’. It invites others to wonder about our past. It also means saying ‘I matter’. Collections like Powell’s encourage us to question how a person’s worth is determined.

Curators: Danielle Harrison, Kayla McInnes, Alice Morshead, Jenny Skemp, Valerija Zudro, with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).

Powell’s life and collection are the subject of my essay “‘Please don’t whip me this time’: The Passions of George Powell of Nant-Eos” in the forthcoming anthology Queer Wales (University of Wales Press).

Nuns Ablazing: Sister Act at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

“Farrah Fawcett as thou art in heaven!” This is a good time to dust off your “F. M. boots” and shake your groove thing right on down to our local Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth. You know, F as in Funky and M as in, well, Mary, Mother of Grace.  Or, FM as in radio, tuned to the station that gives you Diana, Donna and … Deloris.  Deloris Van Cartier, honey, the diva that dreamed of a wearing white fur and ended up in a nun’s habit.  Yes, it’s Sister Act, the musical. The one about the convent where the mother’s superior and the sisters supreme.
In this production, Mother Superior is played by Lori Haley Fox, whom I previously saw perform here in Chess and Hairspray.  There is a bit of Velma Von Tussle in Mother Superior—but her Sister Act character has some depth, which comes across in Fox’s rendition of “Here Within These Walls.” You don’t just get to hiss and laugh at her, but get to understand her struggle to restore the order that wasn’t meant to be a reformed one. It’s a fight against the trivialization and exploitation of her beliefs.  To be sure, it’s a tall order to deliver such conviction in a play so invested in that very trivialization. But if there are false notes in this musical, they are not coming out of Fox’s mouth.  Nor out of Jenny Fitzpatrick’s, for that matter, who is great in the wear-your-Jackal-and-hide part of Deloris “Sister Mary Clarence” Van Cartier, a diamonds craving tramp with the proverbial heart of gold.  Or a golden larynx, anyway. And Fitzpatrick sure got that, and soul besides. Make that Philly soul.  After all, the scene is set in Philadelphia, the town to which the bastard of Disco can trace some of its heritage.

My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.

I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan.  I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks.  Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong.  Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that.  And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent.  Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.

Brother, it must be tough for any man to assert himself in a place where all those rapping and von Trapping sisters are doing it pretty much for themselves (and the Almighty); but Robert Grose as Curtis Jackson and Aaron Lee Lambert as Eddie Souther are giving it their best shot—and I’m using the metaphor advisedly.  Grose is at his smarmiest best singing “When I Find My Baby,” a creepy number worthy of Sweeney Todd and likely to give you the heebie-Bee Gees. Meanwhile, in “I Could Be That Guy,” Lambert makes a transition that rivals the costume change endured by Deloris – albeit from plain to fabulous, so that the twain can meet somewhere in between—and he doesn’t get a phone booth or even a Hong Kong Phooey filing cabinet to do it in. So, props to him! Then again, why call props when Velcro and virtuosity will do?
There are echoes of Kiss Me, Kate in the trio of thugs—The Three Degrees of separation from the baboon—who are making apes of themselves for our amusement in “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Never mind Earth and Fire; these guys are pretty much all Wind. That said, Andrew Gallo as Joey has more moves in his eyebrows than most wannabe Travoltas have in their polyester-clad hips. George Ray as TJ does four-eyed cute as well as Rick “Suddenly Seymour” Moranis ever did. And Ricardo Castro is just bueno as Pablo in a Brüno kind of way.  Meanwhile, for those who prefer their eye candy unwrapped, there are a couple of highly distracting boy dancers, competing though they were, temporarily, with an audience member in front of me who insisted on noisily unpacking her own treats. Sure, Toffifee is retro, but a flask is more discreet.
Dancing boys and their legs apart, this is still a play in which the sisters have the upper hand; and glorious Jodie Jacobs as Sister Mary Robert and fierce Andrea Miller as Sister Mary Lazarus prove that “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” So what if Sister Act’s pastiche.  Why reinvent the Disco Ball? I, for one, am glad to be having the sisters “Here Within These Walls” of Aberystwyth Arts Centre to “Spread the Love.”  I’ll be back for another audience with them—and that adorable Pope—just as soon as I get the platforms redone on the F. M. boots I wore out tapping along. “Fabulous[,] Baby”!

"Untitled by Unknown"

Every spring, the students of my “Staging an Exhibition” class are doing just what the title suggests: they curate a show at Aberystwyth University’s School of Art galleries. And every summer, I have to come up with another idea for another spring. This year’s exhibition, on show now until 12 September, poses a particular challenge. As stated on introductory panel, most of the works on displayed “have no official title. The identity of their creators remains unconfirmed.” This opens the debate as to their value and relevance: “Do their uncertain origins mean that these objects are unworthy of our time and attention?”
Untitled by Unknown: Curating ‘Hidden’ works from the School of Art Collection investigates the effects of doubt and mystery on our estimation of visual culture. The thirteen curators not only researched the objects but also needed to think of ways to interpret in the absence of verifiable facts.
Viewers are “encouraged to reflect on the ‘hidden’ lives” of the objects chosen by students: they include photographs, watercolours, prints and miniature paintings. Each work is identified only by the number by which it is filed and can be accessed in the School of Art collection’s online database.
The idea was to let visitors of our exhibition in on the curatorial task, to suggest that while a “lack of facts can be an obstacle,” it “can also be an opportunity for personal engagement.” Visitors may well question our interpretations and uncover alternative stories. Perhaps, they know more than we do about some of the mystery objects in our collection.
Untitled art works by unknown or anonymous artists often have no chance of being displayed—at least not until their mysteries are solved. Still, public museum and galleries have a responsibility of sharing the works in their collection.
Untitled by Unknown is not intended to show astounding works from exceptional artists. It is here to open a debate about what should be on display and how it may be shared.
My thanks to the students involved in making the show – and my class – possible: Jessie Davis, Karolina Hyży, Justyna Jurzyk, Kate Largan, Charlotte Raftery, Laura Roll, Elizabeth Salmon, Melissa Sarson, Belinda Smith, Julia Steiner, Stephanie Troye, Veera Vienola, and Eleri Wood.
Our thanks also to curator Neil Holland for all his help and expertise.

Future [S]ense? The Lost Found Objects of David Garner

Discarded copy
Look! There are objects, people, and situations that compel me to do just that.  It takes some effort, though, to make me look longer than a moment, that blink of an eye Germans call “Augenblick.”  It is an effort and commitment that I have to bring myself to make, and whatever or whoever it is that commands me to look must warrant my sustained attention, must conquer my resistance, must provoke, charm, or seduce me to engage me in an exchange.
“Look!” is a command that rarely fails; but, apart from performances that define the intended or desired duration of that look, few sites dictate, implore or recommend just how long I am to keep looking.  Do I circle once around this sculpture? Do I give that landscape the once-over, the twice-over or the over-and-over? How long do I need to look until I see something that rewards me for not looking away sooner? Not every instance of looking turns into a spell of lingering, loitering and longing for more; and nothing is more effective in making me avert my gaze than being told what to look out for and how to see things.  This is the reaction I had looking at David Garner’s exhibition Future Tense, currently on display at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
Garner uses found objects to make more or less—and mostly less—compelling statements about a grab bag of social and political issues: production and consumption, education, unemployment, and postcolonialism.  His work hinges on a pairing of visual and verbal puns (such as “Wooly Learning/Dysgu Gwlanog,” a school blackboard with felted wool surface and wool text) or clichés (like “Beware when the gloves are off,” a row of ten Porcelain glove moulds mounted on an oak panel and suggesting a fascist salute); most of these pairings are too obvious in their single-minded double-meaning to startle, let alone enliven a discourse.  Often, as in “Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing”—a taxidermied sheep wearing a coat knitted from its own fleece—the found object is stripped of its mysteries, its woolliness—its indeterminacies and ambiguities—spun instead into a readily solvable and as such instantly dissolvable puzzle.
Cattelan’s All left me wanting more
Unlike Duchamp’s perennially stimulating Fountain, Garner’s found objects are given a final resting place in a self-contained junkyard of a performance that rewards only those who are content to discover an artist’s meaning and who, unlike me, accept that meaning as final; such hermetic hermeneutics leave no room to respond other than “Got it.  Next!” There is none of the wonder, the awe—the sheer thrill of looking—that I experienced staring at Maurizio Cattelan’s Allat the Guggenheim Museum earlier this year.
The only truly gripping sight in Garner’s Future Tense is not a sight at all but a sound: the sound of a large clock loudly ticking away.  I resisted looking at the caption and let that sound transport, envelop, and alarm me; listening, I was, for once, unaware of the time I had wasted looking here but reminded instead of the potentialities of art to move us to the point that we cannot but invest it with our life experience, our anxieties and desires—a potential that is largely unfulfilled by Future Tense, a configuration of readymades whose presence is so much circumscribed by the artist’s foregone conclusions that they have little chance of a future in our imaginings . . .

Undone and Dusted: The Long Art of Christopher Williams

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” Gerard Manley Hopkins famously exclaimed—in a poem, no less, that was first published some three decades after his death. The delayed recognition he received makes us now think of Hopkins as a modern poet rather than a Victorian one. Brought to light in the darkest of days, his words spoke to an inglorious post-World War world so different from the perfectly imperfect one he knew that he could hardly have anticipated it. And yet, anticipate us he did—and “[a]ll things counter, original, spare, strange.” Secure in his belief in the One “whose beauty is past change,” Hopkins could revel in all that is “fickle, freckled (who knows how?),” in a life that is protean, fleeting and undone—the ever unfinished and often dirty business of living reconciled to our longing for perfection, permanence, and the eternal.

 

“Glory,” I wanted to shout, for dusty things, for art so long that no one in a single lifespan can ever be done with it—and for a chance to dust off works neglected and ignored to bring them to life anew. Not because they are perfect, not because they are classic or timeless—but because, in all their sketchiness, patchiness and almost-but-not-quiteness, they remind us—and glorify—the long and short of life: the clouds on the horizon, the waves hitting the rocks, the light of the ever setting sun on ancient mountains. I was too busy tackling the dust (and keeping my mouth shut not to take it in) to wax philosophical and shout then—but I do think and feel it now when I look at some of the smaller canvases of Christopher Williams (1873-1934), a once well known artist, and native of Wales, whose forgotten and, in many cases, never before exhibited works I had a small part in putting back on public display here at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

Far more than Williams’s monumental paintings of momentous historical, mythological, and biblical themes, which belong to an age fast fading in his day, what is glorious to me are his studies of sea, sky, and rock—of the mutable majesty, the perennial transience of nature that he sought to encapsulate while working against time: the dying light of day, the waves against unwavering cliffs, the clash of the evanescent with the apparently everlasting.

 

A few years ago, when I knew little of Wales and less of Williams, I visited one of the spots along the coast he had painted and compared what I saw to what he had depicted. The rocks were the same all right, but the sea and the sky looked nothing like the painting. Had he painted what he wanted to see, wanted us to see, or remembered seeing? Years later, when I returned to the same scene, the sea was turquoise, the sky cerulean—it was as Williams had pictured it. Only then did I appreciate the long hours he must have spent studying the light and the colors it creates. What was before him was fleeting—what is before us is unfinished—but what his quick brush transported one hundred years into his future is the product of a study far from cursory. Perhaps it takes a knowledge of the presence of something past change to see past the unchanging and glory in the changeable.

 
And there they are now, on view for a short while (until 22 September 2012), these past glimpses of change, these small studies alongside his finished—staid, staged and stately—compositions I helped to ready for the big show. Not that the project is done and dusted, as, together with my partner, Robert Meyrick, the curator of the present retrospective, I shall be co-authoring a book on the artist’s life and work . . .

Stiff Competition: A Hairspray to Defy the West End Elements

Funny thing about prejudice: if you let it take hold, it can deprive you and those around you of a real good time.  That, in a shiny Aqua Net shell, is the message of Hairspray, the musical.  And, boy, did I deprive myself . . . until now.  Sure, others around me still had that good time, but when Hairsprayhit Broadway back in 2002, I was as set as an untamed cowlick.  I would have none of it. My Aqua Net days were long behind me by then, and I was not going to splash out on a rehash of a late-1980s cult comedy about early 1960s culture-clashing teenagers, told in songs that a Porter and Gershwin kind of guy like me is not inclined to hum while wearing a shower cap. Well, Kiss my Kate! Last Friday, I finally woke up and smelled the coiffing.  “Good morning, Baltimore!” Andoh, never mind “beautiful”what a colorful morning it is.

Funny thing, too, that I only had to travel about half a mile to learn that musical lesson; no subway ride down to 42nd Street, no walk through London’s West End via Leicester Square (and TKTS).  Just up the hill, to Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is staged that, as a tourist attraction, is far more reliable than our windswept seaside.  Over the years, I have seen eight of those summer seasons come and go, from Oliver! to Chess.  Boasting a cast whose list of combined Broadway and West End credits is way longer than I am in the tooth, this year’s production tops them all.

Its readily translatable story of teenage rebellion aside, Hairspray may not be the easiest piece of Americana to transplant to Wales.  Never mind references to Allen Funt, Jackie Gleason, and the Gabors, names not likely to ring for today’s young, British audiences the bells I and Tracy Turnblad can hear.  The Director’s Note in the program about Rosa Parks, whose image flashes on a big screen during one of the numbers, fills in some of the blanks.  This, after all, is American history, no matter how much John Waters it down.

Then again, it may not be the easiest thing, either, to translate the Civil Rights Movement into a musical riot without becoming as crude or politically incorrect as John Waters used to be.  But, whatever your own sense of otherness and experience of xenophobia might be—and “I Know Where I’ve Been”—Hairspray gives you enough of a whiff of those ill winds to make you investigate whence they blow.  “Run and Tell That”: if any production can communicate a shakeup without making anger the primary colour of the emotional rainbow, Unholy Waters! this can can.

You might expect—and forgive, too—any glitches or leftover curlers on opening night; but there were none here: upon pulling the lid, this Hairspraywas as solid as a freshly lacquered beehive.  Andrew Agnew is marvelous as Edna Turnblad, a part I identified so much with the fabulous Divine that I couldn’t face watching John Travolta in a latex mask.  Agnew makes you forget both—and he plays Edna in such an understated way that her big number “(You’re) Timeless to Me” makes you understand what, to someone of my certain age, is the warm heart of this show.  It’s a heart whose Beat you’d can’t stop without making Hairspray lose its maximum hold.

Edna might have missed every boat except the one she pours the gravy from; but she is not too old to kiss—and kick—the past goodbye and say “Welcome to the 60’s.”  This transition requires more than a new do or a swift costume change; and Agnew achieves it by centering Edna in the 1950s, a woman who loves Lucy though she might not like Ike—and who not only loves Tracy from the remove of a generational gap but gets her, too.

Tracy, of course, is her daughter—the embodiment of that new age—and Jenny O’Leary inhabits the role with the confidence and youthful energy for which it calls.  Tracy may not quite grasp just how seismic the event is in which she plays her part, an event—this much she knows—far bigger than “Negro Night” on the Corny Collins Show; but she approaches integration with the I-don’t-get-it naivety that has many of today’s youngsters baffled at their parent’s definition of marriage as a strictly segregated affair.

Hairspray leaves no doubt as to who “The Nicest Kids in Town” are; “nice” simply ain’t.  It is self-serving conventionality, a meanness of spirit that lingers under the neat surface like something you fight with lice shampoo.  How else to approach “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” Velma Von Tussle, a nasty piece of work done justice by Lori Haley Fox—and done in by the sheer force of Motormouth Maybelle, a woman who, like Edna, has seen better days, but whose better days were lived in times much worse.  

Marion Campbell, who plays Maybelle, comes on stage late to belt out her showstopper of a number—and her presence hits you like, say, Mahalia Jackson’s in Imitation of Life: a voice to be reckoned with, especially in a fight for equality.

Though the actress playing Tracy Turnblad receives top billing, it would be wrong to call the rest of the cast “supporting.”  Hairspray demands a great many good voices as it gives most of its characters the chance and challenge to shine, and everyone in this cast is living up to that challenge: Arun Blair Mangat as Seaweed, Samantha Giffard a Penny Pingleton, Morgan Crowley as Wilbur Turnblad, Hugo Harold-Harrison as Corny Collins . . .

The list is longer than that—but I’d be bald by the time I were done honor roll calling.  Besides, if I’m counting anything it’s the days until my next trip to the salon for another hit of Hairspray. Yes, funny thing about prejudice: once confronted, it can yield such eye-opening, ear-popping surprises.

So, toodle-oo to stiff upper lip! Stiff up yer quiff instead.

Blind Man’s Stuff: Alec Templeton in Time and Space

Last night, I had the good fortune to hear the music of Alec Templeton. Live and by proxy—and right here in town. Templeton’s compositions, among them barrier-obliterating and class-unconscious numbers like “Bach Goes to Town” and “Debussy in Dubuque,” were performed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips was ably assisted by Templeton himself, whose voice and ways on the keyboard were heard in a variety of radio recordings from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Why here? Why now? Well, Templeton was a Welshman by birth, a fact that seems to have eluded most of the Welsh who pride themselves to be a nation of song. So, last night was as good and as high a time as any for his countrymen and women to acknowledge Templeton’s remarkable against-almost-all-odds career, even if the will to embark upon it took the composer-pianist as far West from the West of Britain as Hollywood. The countrywoman who did the acknowledging was Rhian Davies, teller of Templeton’s life in words and images. Davies, who generously acknowledged as well all the support and assistance her project received from broadcasting buffs and music lovers around the inter-networked world, has known about Templeton practically all her life. Eager to share her readily transmitted enthusiasm, she brought home to us, the assembled audience, that it is always Alec Templeton Time.

Templeton’s life is the stuff of legend. Born blind, he developed an ear so keen and a wit so sharp that he was destined to play tunes made for the cutting of rugs. That he was an expert at middlebrow musical culture has a lot to do with the fact that the eyes beneath his brows saw nothing and that his ears saw nothing but potential. Others, left in the dark yet accustomed to light, might have seen an insurmountable impediment.

The mind’s eye of Alec Templeton saw no such manifestations of doubt. He saw, say, Lower Basin Street . . . and took it. It may be that sightless people, who sense space by feeling their way around and listening intently, are not so much impressed by the walls facing them as their seeing contemporaries, not so much concerned with apparent boundaries, be they cultural or national.

“I understand,” a writer for Radio Guide remarked in 1936, “why his friends, when you start glooming about his sightless eyes, smile superciliously and say: ‘Save your sympathy for someone who needs it.’”

The stuff sighted folks concern themselves with is so much nonsense to a man like Templeton. Sensing a universe where others might imagine chaos, he crossed the waves and made a home for himself on the airwaves, authoring an etherized existence.

“Radio,” Templeton reportedly said, “is to me the greatest miracle of man’s ingenuity. My ears are my eyes, and I tune in at every opportunity, listening to everything from Vic and Sade to Toscanini.”

Hearing Templeton’s music performed live and seeing his career celebrated was a thrill. Yet as pleased as I was that all this happened in the little Welsh town where I now live, I wonder what claim Wales has to her native son. After all, the place of his birth, like his blindness, was not of his choosing. Indeed, he chose to unfurl his pinions, take to the air, and come to live for all willing to be all ears, in a medium whose art is not limited by space but that is instead the stuff—the no-matter—of time.  Make that Alec Templeton Time.

Face Value?

Time to mingle with the visitors, to watch them stand back, take in the artwork—and read those captions. During the past few months, I have been involved in putting together an art exhibition at the local university. It all started last October. I was given the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in writing informative and interpretive texts for museums: labels, text panels, promotional material. The class was designed as a workshop. So, rather than just theorizing about such matters as readability and legibility or analyzing prose styles and target audiences, my students and I were faced with the challenge of curating a show. That show, Face Value, is on display and open to the public until 30 March 2012 at the School of Art, Aberystwyth.  It features works on paper (watercolors, etchings, drawings) by artists as diverse as cover girl Gertrude Hermes, Edward Burne-Jones, Fernand Léger, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Simeon Solomon, William Strang, Stuart Pearson Wright, and Keith Vaughan.  Here is the introductory panel greeting guests at the private view tonight:

‘It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us,’ the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once remarked. Face Value encourages such chance encounters.  Many of these works on paper from the School of Art collection are presented here for the first time.  Most have never been shown side by side.

This themed exhibition explores various acts of reading: our interpretation of facial features, our attempts to work out the relationships between appearances and mental or emotional states, between character and physical characteristics, as well as between artist, sitter and ourselves.

In 1868, Charles Darwin conducted an experiment to demonstrate that humans have a universal set of facial expressions. An anatomist stimulated a subject’s facial muscles with electrodes to elicit expressions of anxiety, sadness, and joy. He then took a series of photographs with which Darwin presented guests at a dinner party, inviting them to guess the subject’s emotional state. Are our responses predictable? Are faces quite this easy to read?

Face Value is itself the product of an experiment. It was conceived in a classroom, in workshops designed to debate or refute the value of interpretive texts written for museums. Do we look at and judge a self-portrait of a named artist as we do an anonymous, faceless study of a head? Does knowledge about artist or sitter influence our appreciation? What is the curator’s role in aiding or informing our ‘encounter’ with works of art?

‘Who sees the human face correctly,’ Picasso asked, ‘the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?’ Our various guides to interpretation are meant to suggest that there is no ‘correct’ reading and that works of art cannot be taken at face value.

At face value, this is just another art exhibition; but many of the texts on the wall would not read or sound the way they do had I not learned from listening to and reading about radio how to keep sentences simple, short and clear.  It is a lesson I am still learning … and worth learning it is.  Especially for curators.

"I started Early—Took my Dog . . ."

“. . . and visited the Sea.” I have not read the poetic works of Emily Dickinson in many a post-collegiate moon; yet, as wayward as my memory may be, I never forgot those glorious opening lines. You might say that is has long been an ambition of mine to utter them, to experience for myself the magic they evoke; but, until recently, I have failed on three accounts to follow Emily in her excursion. That is, I had no dog to take along; nor did I never live close enough to the sea to approach it on foot, at least not with the certain ease that might induce me to undertake such a venture.

Now that there is Montague in my life and Cardigan Bay practically at our doorsteps, the only thing that prevents me from having such a Dickinsonian moment is a habitual antemeridian tardiness. If “All’s right with the world” when “Morning’s at seven,” as Robert Browning famously put it, then I might as well roll over and let it bask in its easterly lit serenity. It is for the early birds to confirm of refute such a Browning version of bliss.

Besides, as Victorian storyteller Cuthbert Bede once remarked, it is “well worth going to Aberystwith [. . .] if only to see the sun set.” So, I’m starting late instead and take my dog for evening visits to the sea. No “Mermaids” have yet come out of the “basement” to greet me; nor any of those bottlenose dolphins that are on just about every brochure or poster designed to boost the town’s tourist industry. They are out there, to be sure; but unlike Ms. Dickinson, I’m not taking the plunge to get up close and let my “Shoes [ . . .] overflow with Pearl” until the rising tide “ma[kes] as He would eat me up.”

Not with Montague in tow. Dogs are not allowed on the beach this time of year. It is a sound policy, too, given that Montague frequently manages to confound me by squatting down more than once, especially when I am only equipped with a single repository with which to dispose of the issue. Is it any wonder that I’d much rather start late, preferably under cover of night?

On this sunless Tuesday morning, though, I started just early enough to keep Montague’s appointment with the veterinarian. No walk along the promenade for the old chap, to whom the change of schedule was no cause for suspicion. Now, I don’t know what possessed me to agree to his being anesthetized to have his teeth cleaned, other than Montague’s stubborn refusal to permit us to brush them. I trust that, once he has forgiven me for this betrayal of his trust, that we have many more late starts to meet and mate with the sea . . .

“. . . from a civilized land called Wales”: A Puzzlement Involving The King and I

I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil [ . . .]. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.

With those words, capturing her first impression and anticipation of a “strange land” as, on 15 March 1862, it came into partial view—the “outlook” being “blinded”—aboard the steamer Chow Phya, Anna Harriette Leonowens commenced The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), the “Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok.” The account of her experience was to be followed up by a sensational sequel, Romance of the Harem (1872), both of which volumes became the source for a bestselling novel, Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (1944), several film and television adaptations, as well as the enduringly crowd-pleasing musical The King and I.

Conceived for musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence, the titular “I” is currently impersonated by Shona Lindsay, who, until the end of August 2009, stars in the handsomely designed Aberystwyth Arts Centre Summer Musical Production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic.

The title of the musical personalizes the story, at once suggesting authenticity and acknowledging bias. Just as it was meant to signal the true star of the original production—until Yul Brynner stole the show—it seems to fix the perspective, assuming that we, the audience, see Siam and read its ruler through Anna’s eyes. And yet, what makes The King and I something truly wonderful—and rather more complex than a one-sided missionary’s tale—is that we get to know and understand not only the Western governess, but the proud “Lord and Master” and his daring slave Tuptim.

Instead of accepting Anna as model or guide, we can all become the “I” in this story of identity, otherness and oppression. Tuptim’s experience, in particular, resonates with anyone who, like myself, has ever been compelled, metaphorically speaking, to “kiss in a shadow,” to love without enjoying equality or protection under the law. Tuptim’s readily translatable story, which has been rejected as fictive and insensitive, is emotionally rather than culturally true.

“Truth is often stranger than fiction,” Leonowens remarked in her preface to Romance of the Harem, insisting on the veracity of her account. Truth is, truth is no stranger to fiction. All history is narrative and, as such, fiction—that is, it is made up, however authentic the fabric, and woven into logical and intelligible patterns. Whoever determines or imposes such patterns—the historian, the novelist, the reporter—is responsible for selecting, evaluating, and shaping a story that, in turn, is capable of shaping us.

Tuptim’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which strikes us at first strange and laughable—then uncanny and eerily interchangeable—in its inauthentic, allegorical retelling of a fiction that not only made but changed history, is an explanation of and validation for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sentimental formula. Through the estrangement from the historically and culturally familiar, strange characters become familiar to us, just Leonowens may have been aided rather than mislead by an “outlook” that was “blinded” by the intimate knowledge of a child’s love.

Strange it was, then, to have historicity or nationality thrust upon me as Anna exclaims, in her undelivered speech to the King, that she hails “from a civilized land called Wales.” It was a claim made by Leonowens herself and propagated in accounts like Mrs. Leonowens by John MacNaughton (1915); yet, according to Susan Brown’s “Alternatives to the Missionary Position: Anna Leonowens as Victorian Travel Writer” (1995), “no evidence supports” the assertion that Leonowens was raised or educated in Wales.

Still, there was an audible if politely subdued cheer in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre auditorium as Anna revealed her fictive origins to us. Granted, I may be more suspicious of nationalism than I am of globalization; but to define Leonowens’s experience with and derive a sense of identity from a single—and rather ironic reference to home—seems strangely out of place, considering that the play encourages us to examine ourselves in the reflection or refraction of another culture, however counterfeit or vague. Beside, unlike last year’s miscast Eliza (in the Arts Centre’s production of My Fair Lady), Anna, as interpreted by Ms. Lindsay, has no trace of a Welsh accent.

As readers and theatergoers, we have been “getting to know you,” Anna Leonowens, for nearly one and a half centuries now; but the various (auto)biographical accounts are so inconclusive and diverging that it seems futile to insist on “getting to know all about you,” no matter now much the quest for verifiable truths might be our “cup of tea.” What is a “puzzlement” to the historians is also the key to the musical, mythical kingdom, an understood realm in which understanding lies beyond the finite boundaries of the factual.


Related writings
“By [David], she’s got it”; or, To Be Fair About the Lady
Delayed Exposure: A Man, a Monument, and a Musical

Related recordings
“Meet Gertrude Lawrence,” Biography in Sound (23 January 1955)
Hear It Now (25 May 1951), which includes recorded auditions for the role of Prince Chulalongkorn in The King and I