Category Archives: Guest posts

Anatomy of the Hunger Lobby Display

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

Now that I am working on my third production at Lifeline I thought it would be fun to go through the anatomy of the dramaturgical materials in the lobby that are among the production photos of the cast.

During the rehearsal process Rob created a large timeline in the rehearsal room and I supplemented this with information on historic events, quotes from journals kept by survivors of the siege of Leningrad, maps and images. What you get to see in the lobby is a modified version of those same materials and some additional items that were not in the rehearsal room.

I thought of the display as a messy sort of desk of scientist who had lived through the siege with a variety of images and stories building up.

I have taken photographs of the display and will note certain items that might be interesting for you to look for when you come to the theater.

In the photo at left you can see the prison photos of Vavilov, his sentencing documents and a very sad letter in Russian in which he asked to be put to work on one of the farms rather than stay in prison.

The Institute of Plant Industry not only collected seed samples but also kept cards of pressed plants for identification purposes. To recreate the feel of some of those plant identification cards I pressed some plants and created made the kind of cards that would have so been familiar to any scientist at working at the institute.

I also included a variety of botanical illustrations from books. The scientists in Leningrad would have needed to know other languages to communicate with scientific colleagues around the world, this fact was good for scientific communication but led to many of the scientists being suspected of spying because they could read other languages and had contacts around the world.

On the right side of the board is a timeline of the Siege of Leningrad, since this is an aspect of World War II that is often not as thoroughly covered in U.S. history classes. You will also see a facsimile of a ration card and photos of the wrapped bodies of the dead in the streets of Leningrad during the siege. Layered underneath is the cover of one of the Russian journals of genetics in which Nikolai Vavilov published.

There were two amazing books of journals and letters written by people who survived the siege. With the help of one of the intrepid Lifeline interns, Julie, we wrote out parts of the journals that offer impressions of life during the siege. References to eating cat, thinking compulsively about food, and seeing others who were not starving because of their theft are particularly haunting. You can also see a map of Leningrad, some of the defenses and survivors leaving the bombed shell of a building.

Also on the board are soviet propaganda posters from the war. Like many governments in time of war, Stalin’s government created patriotic posters which were pasted up around Leningrad and other cities. Several of these feature Mother Russia, the one that particularly struck me is close to the bottom of the board and shows her with a gun in one arm and grain in the other.

In this same part of the board you will see a photo of Vavilov on one of his exotic seed gathering trips and sleds traveling the ice road out of Leningrad.

If the play sparks your interest in the siege or the scientists you should certainly read Elise Blackwell’s novel Hunger, on which the play is based. It is haunting and lovely.

If you want to read more about Siege of Leningrad I highly recommend the following books.

The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad – Harrison Evan Salisbury
Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 – Anna Reid
Writing the Siege of Leningrad: Women’s Diaries, Memoirs and Documentary Prose – Cynthia Simon and Nina Perlina
Leningrad Under Siege: first-hand accounts of the ordeal – Daniil Alexandrovich
The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov – Peter Pringle
The Vavilov Affair – Mark Aleksandrovich Popovsky

Seed Hunters: Old World and Brave New World

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

The work that the scientists in Hunger are conducting is scientific work that continues today. Portions of the story are flashbacks to the seed gathering trips conducted by Nikolai Vavilov and his students. In many ways Vavilov was wildly ahead of his time in seeking to gather and to preserve seeds both for research purposes and to maintain crop diversity.


Nikolai Vavilov on a 1927 seed-collecting trip.

Gathering seeds in dangerous and exotic countries can make science seem a bit more like an Indiana Jones movie. Vavilov did survive plane crashes, visit exotic locations, and have to make camp near lions. However, these trips to collect seeds are not just an excuse for dramatic tourism. Understanding biodiversity and the spread of crop plants and plant domestication around the world helps scientists understand our current crop plants and could be key in helping develop new crops and preventing world hunger. As climates change, it is useful for scientists and plant breeders to have access to seed stock of plants that grown in dry climates or wet climates to create new hybrids which may be more successful in certain climates or more resistant to certain pests.


Seed drawers at the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad.

Seed gathering is still a scientific pursuit. There is a new documentary, Seed Hunter, which focuses on current efforts to collect seeds around the world.

In Leningrad, in what is now named the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Research there are still stores of seeds. However, in August 2010, the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, growing fields near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) were under threat as the Russian government considered selling the fields to real estate developers suggesting that the delicate plants could be moved. After global outcry Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said the issue would be reviewed but the fate of the fields has yet to be resolved. According to a recent article in Guardian, the station’s collection includes such biodiversity as 600 types of apples collected from 35 countries.

On February 26, 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened. Also known as the “doomsday” vault, it is contains more than 500,000 varieties of seeds and is the most diverse collection of crop seeds in the world. Located on the artic ocean in a Norway it is meant to protect and preserved crops seed from pests, disease, natural disasters and climate change.


The “Doomsday” seed vault in Svalbard

In addition to these places to try and save seeds. Modern science and agribusiness has complicate the issue of seeds further. As companies have worked to genetically modify crops some companies have included a controversial “terminator gene.” This gene means that seeds saved from the plant will not germinate. New seed stock must be purchased from the company who created the modified seed. Companies view this as a way to protect intellectual property but has been criticized who worry genes that impede the procreation of plants could make their way into other plant populations and could be detrimental to subsistence farmers, creating a whole new range of concerns about the future of crop seeds. (It is important to clarify here that hybridization by cross breeding compatible crops is not the same as genetic modification of plants done in a lab.)

For those interested in biodiversity and gardeners interested in preserving heirloom varieties the Seed Savers Exchange is a non-governmental seedbank in the United States which collects and exchanges seeds among farmers and gardeners.

Hunger and the Siege of Leningrad

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

Rehearsals for Hunger started after Thanksgiving and going into other holidays there was plenty of food in the rehearsal room. The abundance of food at our American holidays reminds me how far removed we are from real hunger. Most of us don’t even go a day without food; much less endure a prolonged famine during an unrelenting winter. (At left: residents of Leningrad with a still smoking bombed building behind them)

On July 8, 1941, Hitler wrote in his journal that he wanted to raze Leningrad. On September 4, 1942 the Germans began to bomb the city.

The Siege of Leningrad was the only time a major city in an industrialized, western, nation underwent this level of starvation and death from famine. Though estimates of the number of deaths vary, and Soviet reporting may be have been optimistically low, most believe between six hundred thousand and one million people died during the siege.

The city was blockaded by the German army for almost 900 days. The city was regularly bombed and the occasional evacuation routes, such as the ice road or “road of life” over the frozen Lake Lagoda was often bombed by the Germans as well. The winter of 1941-1942 was particularly harsh winters and the residents of Leningrad were without power only increased the suffering and death from the ongoing famine. On January 27, 1944 the liberation of Leningrad was complete. (Right: trucks on the ice road over Lake Lagoda)

The physical symptoms of starvation can take many forms, often related to the lack of nutrients and vitamins available in the meager food supply. The body will attempt to fend off starvation by consuming the body itself. An adult can lose up to half his or her weight. Symptoms of starvation include, shrinking of organs such as the lungs, heart and testes or ovaries, chronic diarrhea, anemia, loss of muscle mass and muscle weakness, sensitivity to cold, irritability and difficulty concentrating, decreased ability to digest food, swelling from fluid under the skin, and immunodeficiency.That was about one third of the population of Leningrad.

Symptoms at the final stages of starvation include: hallucinations, convulsions, severe muscle pain and changes in heart rhythm. Additionally, those who are starving are susceptible to other illnesses such as scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, and succumb more easily to colds and other diseases. (At left, Sophia Petrova before the war and after the siege)

When I am falling asleep I always see bread, butter, pies and potatoes in my dreams. . . These days my whole nature seems somehow to have changed abruptly. I have become sluggish, feeble, my hand trembles when I write and when I walk my knees are so week that it seems to me that if I took another step it would be the last and I would fall down.
Yura, a Leningrad schoolboy, November 9-10, 1941

It is hard to imagine what the minimal rations the people of Leningrad were living on during the siege. The table below shows the bread rations. It is important to know that the bread was heavily mixed with saw dust and had a gray color and little nutritional value.

Rations of Bread During the Siege (in grams)

Date

Workers &
Engineers

Workers in
workshops

Office Workers

Dependents

Children
under 12

July 18, 1941

800

1000

600

400

400

Sept. 2, 1941

600

800

400

300

300

Sept. 12, 1941

500

700

300

250

250

Oct. 1, 1941

400

600

200

200

200

Nov. 13, 1941

300

450

150

150

150

Nov. 20, 1941

250

375

125

125

125

Dec. 25, 1941

350

500

200

200

200

Jan. 24, 1942

400

575

300

250

250

Feb. 11, 1942

500

700

400

300

300

Mar. 22, 1942

600

700

500

400

400

800 grams is about 28 ounces 200 is about 7 ounces

Sources and for Further reading:

“Leningrad Under Siege,” and “The 900 Days”

Science and Politics

Note: This is a guest posting from Maren Robinson, production dramaturg for our winter MainStage production of Hunger.

As we are in rehearsal for the upcoming production of Chris Hainsworth’s adaptation of Elise Blackwell’s novel Hunger one of the fascinating aspects of the play are the real people who worked at the Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad (now the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry) particularly two scientists and soviet politics.

Nikolai Vavilov was a world-renowned biologist and geneticist; he was also the son of a millionaire. He formulated the Law of Homologous Series.  He was eager to prove his loyalty after the revolution through his hard work. He was interested in the origin and spread of grains and collected seeds to study plant diversity and plant breeding based in evolutionary genetics.

While foreign travel was still quite limited in the Soviet Union, Vavilov was trusted to lead expeditions to collect seeds and plants in more than fifty countries earning him fame in the Soviet Union and internationally.  Soviet newspapers ran headlined articles on his travels such as “Vavilov crosses the Andes” which appeared in Izvestia or “Vavilov visits with Japanese Scientists” in Pravda. He published The Geographic Origins of Plant Cultivation in 1926. The same year he was awarded the Lenin Prize, the highest Soviet distinction for science.  He set up the Academy of Agricultural Science and was in charge of the Institute of plant breeding. At age 36, he was elected to the Soviet Academy of Science. However, Vavilov’s devotion to science would prove his undoing.

“Unfortunately the qualities of goodness and almost childlike naiveté, which it was so wonderful to find in so great a man, sometimes prevented him from understanding clearly enough the true character of other people. I would not wish to give the impression that Nikolai Ivanovich could not distinguish between one person and another. He saw the shortcomings in certain colleagues, but reckoned that devotion to science would re-educate them.” Colleague professor Lidia Breslavets on Nikolai Vavilov

Vavilov was far more focused on being a good scientist than a good politician. In the 1920s-1930s the mood was changing in the Soviet Union and the “intellectual” was becoming mistrusted for not being involved in manual labor and from a fear intellectuals might have sympathy with the decadent West.  “The worker” was idealized in films, books, and music. Vavilov’s elite background and his lack of interest in politics were both against him in the changing political landscape.

In Spring1933, he was called before the Central Committee. They were displeased with his trips abroad and claimed they were expensive and produced nothing of use. Vavilov insisted that the committee would see the scientific reasons behind his trip.  He did not recount the meeting, but he was never able to leave the Soviet Union again.  The NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs – or secret police) had already started a file on him and was collection and coercing denunciations from fellow scientists.

If Vavilov and his work were in decline, Trofim Lysenko, a young man of peasant origins who had been trained on the experimental stations was rising politically.

Vavilov was initially supportive of the younger Lysenko. Lysenko was a believer in Vernalization, which as he applied the theory, relied on the idea that the manipulation of seeds (by keeping them moist, or changing the temperature) could produce higher yielding crops.  Vavilov was interested to see if his theories worked and wanted them to be tested scientifically process. He was unaware of Lysenko’s open contempt for his own genetic research.

Lysenko fit the new model of a soviet worker given the opportunity to rise through hard work. He could not read other languages and so did not keep up on the scientific discoveries in other countries.  He was especially contemptuous of geneticists. Friends joked of him, “Lysenko is sure that it is possible to produce a camel from a cotton seed and a baobab tree from a hen’s egg.” Lysenko would, in fact, claim that he had obtained wheat from wheat, barley and rye plants, which are different genera.

In August 7, 1927, an article in Pravda published a glowing article on the 29-year-old Lysenko and the success of his techniques in growing a successful pea crop after the winter. The article also suited the political trends of the moment. Lysenko had not attended a university he was described as a “barefoot scientist” who was a worker close to the land and had practical ideas rather than being a lab studying “the hairy legs of flies.”

Lysenko’s theories and biography dovetailed with a moment in 1931 when the Soviet government was placing emphasis on the practical application of science and forcing the collectivization of farms. Lysenko’s theories were accepted as proof of practical results without having been thoroughly tested or verified. When Lysenko’s experiments were not successful he blamed other scientist for sabotaging his work.

In Moscow, in February 1935, Lysenko addressed a group of government workers, including Stalin. Lysenko chose to portray the legitimate scientific debate surrounding vernalization as class warfare.  He said,

“It is not only on your collective farms that you can come across rich farmers who wreck our system . . . they are no less dangerous and no less active in the scientific world. I have had to put up with a good deal in all kinds of disputes with so-called scientists concerning vernalization, in my efforts to develop this method, and I have had to withstand quite a few hard blows in my practical work. Comrades, it cannot be said that class struggle has not been going on, and is not still going on, on the vernalization front.  . . the class enemy always remains an enemy, whether he’s a scientist or not.”

Stalin interrupted the speech with “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko, bravo!” and the room erupted in applause.  Three months later Lysenko was made an academician and in three years he would become the president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Science.

It was a watershed moment in the scientific and political direction of the country. Vavilov and his fellow geneticists were deprived of funding and resources to conduct their research. Ultimately, like earlier purges, scientists who openly criticized Lysenko and his method were arrested and imprisoned.

“I have never been a spy or a member of any anti-Soviet organizations. I have always worked for the good of the Soviet state. – Vavilov’s answer to an NKVD interrogator’s question

In a dramatic fashion in July 1940, while Vavilov and some of his scientists were on their way to a meeting a black car of men pulled up and said he was needed in Moscow. Vavilov believed he was being called into a meeting and went with them. Later a second black car filled with men was sent to collect all his papers and belongings. The NKVD had arrested him.  They planned his arrest this way so that few people would realize he had been arrested. When his arrest became known his old mentor Pyranishnikov started agitating for his release at great risk to himself. He nominated Vavilov and his efforts at seed collection for a Stalin prize and ultimately succeeded in getting his sentence commuted to 20 years in a labor camp. Vavilov died at the age of 55 in a prison hospital on January 26, 1943 from malnutrition.

It was not until the mid 1950s that Vavilov’s reputation and scientific work would be rehabilitated.

Sources and for Further reading:

Amasino, “Vernalization, Competence, and the Epigenetic Memory of Winter,” The Plant Cell, American Society of Plant Biologists, Oct., 2004, pp. 2553-2559

Joravsky, “Soviet Marxism and Biology before Lysenko,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 85-104

Lukashev, “Soviet War Science,” The Science News-Letter, Vol. 42, No. 16 (Oct. 17, 1942), pp. 250-252

Popovsky, The Vavilov Affair

Pringle, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov

Roll-Hansen, “Wishful Science: The Persistence of T.D. Lysenko’s Agrobiology in the Politics of Science,” Osiris, Vol. 23, Intelligentsia Science: The Russian Century, 1860–1960(2008), pp. 166-188

Opium Eating and The Moonstone

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Bringing The Moonstone To The Stage” blog, chronicling research and process for our winter MainStage production of The Moonstone. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

Opium Eating and The Moonstone

The use of opium is featured in several of novels by Wilkie Collins including The Moonstone. Collins was also a user of opium both in laudanum and injections. It is important however to understand that opium was widely used in England at this time as a medicinal remedy. Although Doctors and chemists widely disagreed about both its uses and it the physiological response to the drug it was accepted for use in the home and was not considered a source of shame or moral failing or addiction as an illness in the same way as modern drug use.

Opium is used in a variety of forms all of which are derived from the sticky white juice taken from the opium poppy. It can be prepared in a variety of forms. During the time period it was smoked in pipes, and injected as morphine but most often it was prepared in a brownish/red liquid tincture in alcohol known as laudanum.

Laudanum was widely available and inexpensive in chemist shops in even the smallest English villages. It was commonly given to sooth fussy children and infants. It was sold under a wide variety of names including: Batley’s Sedative Solution, Dalby’s Carminative, Godfrey’s Cordial, McMunn’s Elixir, and Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup for which an advertisement is pictured at left. It was given as a tonic or cure a wide range of illnesses including colds, cholera, hay fever, insomnia, tuberculosis, nervousness, headaches, gout and rheumatism.

In Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Alethea Hayter says that,”Laudanum was cheaper than beer or gin, cheap enough for even the lowest-paid worker.” Further in the same work, a chemist in a small Lancashire parish is cited as selling 200 pound of opium per year and a chemist in Thorpe is described as telling Coleride he sold two to three pounds of opium and a gallon of laudanum every market day.

Wilkie Collins saw his father taking “Bately’s Drops” to ease the pain of heart disease before his death. When Collins began to suffer symptoms of rheumatism and gout as well as eye pain he began taking laudanum to ease the pain. He would be a lifelong user of laudanum. As his tolerance for the opiate increased so did his dosages. Late in life Collins was taking doses that would have killed a normal person. At a dinner party, he apparently asked the surgeon Sir William Fergusson to verify his claim and Fergusson told the dinner party that the amount of laudanum Collins took nightly was sufficient to kill every man at the dinner table. Collins also received occasional injections of morphine for pain.

Collins seems to have both resented and romanticized his need for laudanum. He claimed he took laudanum “To stimulate the brain and steady the nerves,” but he advised his friend Hall Caine against taking it himself. He felt he needed it to bear the pain he suffered but he was also aware of the associations laudanum had with numerous writers. Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was published in 1821. The use of opium by authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Baudelaire was also well-known.

Walter Scott claimed to have written part of The Bride of Lammermoor (a novel particularly admired by Collins) while he was under the influence so that when he read it he did not recognize the story as his own. Collins may have remembered this story when he told a similar story about writing The Moonstone. Collins claimed that his pain was so great that he had to dictate the story and that he went through several secretaries before he found one who would ignore his cries of pain. It is clear from the manuscript that some of the pages are written in a different hand. Collins also claimed that he was “pleased and astonished” by the end of The Moonstone but did not recognize it as his own work.

“If I had only myself to think of, I should prefer the sharp pain to the frightful dreams.” – Ezra Jennings, The Moonstone

The character of Doctor Candy’s assistant, Ezra Jennings, in The Moonstone is also an opium user many critics have seen him as the voice of Collins speaking when he describes the effects of the opium that keeps him from pain but gives him terrible nightmares. Collins did not describe nightmares as part of the effects of his laudanum use but he did describe waking hallucinations including the feeling that someone was standing behind him, ghosts on the staircase who wanted to push him down and a green woman with tusks who said goodnight by biting his shoulder.

Collins personal experience with laudanum is also represented in his descriptions of the experience of being under its influence which is key in both The Moonstone and his other novels including No Name and Armadale.

Sources: Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Alethea Hayter and Wilkie Collins, An Illustrated Guide, Andrew Gasson

Wilkie Collins: Beyond the Veil of Domesticity

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Bringing The Moonstone To The Stage” blog, chronicling research and process for our winter MainStage production of The Moonstone. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

Wilkie Collins: Beyond the Veil of Domesticity

In thinking about the complex web of interpersonal relationships in The Moonstone it is inevitable that one should look at the complicated mysteries of Collins’ personal life.

William Wilkie Collins was the son of Harriet and William Collins. His father was a successful landscape painter and member of the Royal Academy. Initially, making a living as an artist was difficult and the Collinses financial circumstances were precarious for a time before successful commissions and patronage assured the Collins family of a respectable living. Collins was named after his godfather. His father was conservative and very religious, traits Collins would seem to rebel against in his own more Bohemian adulthood. (A young Collins in a portrait by Millais at right.)

Collins had a bulge on one side of his forehead and was nearsighted from childhood, wearing glasses most of his life.

His education was patchy with time at Maida Hill Academy and travels in France and Italy with his family when he was twelve and thirteen years old. He considered his time in Europe the best part of his education. He finished his education at a London boarding school where he began telling stories to please a school bully.

He worked at Antrobus & Co., a tea merchant. Collins hated the work and used much of his time to write stories. Much of his experiences here would reappear fictionalized in his novel, Hide and Seek. He read law at Lincoln’s Inn in May 1846.

Collins maintained two households with women to whom he was not married, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. In 1858, Collins was living with widow Caroline Graves and her seven year old daughter from her first marriage, Harriet (but called Carrie). Collins paid for Carrie’s education and when she was older she would often serve as his secretary. She made Collins life comfortable, though Dickens apparently referred to her as “the female skeleton” in the house. Some accounts describe his meeting with Caroline Graves as the inspiration for the opening of his novel, The Woman in White, but the stories are not confirmed. Collins and Graves would live together unmarried except for a brief two years when Graves married Joseph Clow. The marriage was likely in response to Collins new relationship with Martha Rudd or because he still did not want to marry Graves after his mother’s death removed the excuse of her potential objection to the marriage. After two years Caroline abandoned her marriage to Clow and she and Collins lived as before. (Caroline Graves at right)

Collins was forty when he likely met nineteen year old Martha Rudd who was working as a servant in an inn where Collins vacationed. He brought her to London where she lived as Mrs. William Dawson and bore Collins two daughters Marian and Harriet and a son, William. (Martha Rudd at left)

The Martha Rudd and her children lived as Mrs. Dawson and the children used the name Dawson. They always lived within walking distance of Collins and Graves and the women knew of each other and the Dawson children were welcome in both homes.

Collins provided for both his families in his will. However, Carrie had married Henry Powell Bartley who served as Collins solicitor for the estate. His extravagant lifestyle decimated the inheritance that Collins had intended to secure his two families. It is notable that Collins, whose novels focus on revealing the uncomfortable realities underneath the familial structures should refrain from any traditional family structure himself.

Sources: Wilkie Collins An Illustrated Guide, Andrew Gasson; Wilkie Collins: Women Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill; Introduction Oxford World’s Classics Edition of The Moonstone and Introduction Penguin Classics Edition of The Moonstone

The Moonstone and Genre

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Bringing The Moonstone To The Stage” blog, chronicling research and process for our winter MainStage production of The Moonstone. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

The Moonstone and Genre

I confess I have been delaying my first post for The Moonstone. Like a detective novel, there are so many irresistible avenues in which one can pursue when researching Wilkie Collins and the novel. I will try to set us down a number of those paths in the next few weeks without spoiling the mystery.

T.S. Eliot called The Moonstone, “the first and greatest of English detective novels,” but he did so in the context of an essay which praises Collins’ skill with atmosphere, but says that his novels will not have the permanence of Dickens.

G.K. Chesterton called it, “probably the best detective tale in the world.”

Dorothy L. Sayers in a 1944 introduction to The Moonstone said that Collins is “genuinely feminist in his treatment of women.”

It is useful to consider the question of genre.

While critics have categorized The Moonstone the first detective novel, and it certainly is a detective novel. (First detective novel is somewhat contested as The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix was serialized in 1862 but it did not have the success or longevity of The Moonstone) Collins subtitled The Moonstone “a romance” which has different connotations than our modern notions of romance novels. It is also part of a group of fiction popular in the 1860s known as sensation fiction. The unlike the Gothic novel, with which the sensation novel shares many features, in the Sensation novel the ordinary middle or upper middle class home becomes the scene of a terrible mystery or secret and the fear and pleasure derived in reading the story comes from revelation of some previously undisclosed familial secret. The underpinnings of the family home are made unstable by disclosure of secrets, possibly dark secrets, lying beneath the veneer of public respectability. Generally, the whole notion of genres was more fluid in the Victorian era than in the present.

For the purposes of the stage, this is particularly useful in that layers of knowledge that are revealed slowly overtime are enjoyable for an actor to play and for an audience to watch. It also fits well with Rob’s approach to the adaptation and Paul’s approach to the direction, which is to avoid the potential for vaudeville in favor of focusing real relationships.

It is also worth noting that Collins wrote a version of The Moonstone for the stage which was performed in 4 acts at the Royal Olympic Theatre in 1877. Collins simplified the plot, cut major characters and restricted the action to 24 hours. It was not well received and though it ran for three months the principal actors left the production before the run had finished.

In The Moonstone, Collins both pioneers and, in some cases, subverts the standard devices readers have come to know as the mainstays of detective fiction. An item is stolen from a locked house, there are a limited number of guests and servants who are the suspects, and an eccentric detective (who appears distracted) elicits key information from unsuspecting members of the household. The detective reveals a solution to the mystery based on analysis of the facts. The detective also at one point predicts the name of the guilty party by writing it on a piece of paper and sealing it in an envelope.

For the audience, I think it will be delightful to see these devices revealed on stage. At the same time it is important to realize that for all his popularity with reading public the categories applied to Collins have diminished his status compared to fellow author and friend Charles Dickens, who grappled with similar issues of class and the problems with the laws in England at that time particularly as they pertained to property, women and inheritance.

The novel was published starting January 4, 1868, in 32 weekly installments in All The Year Round, the weekly journal founded by Charles Dickens and simultaneously in the United States in Harper’s Weekly. Later in was published in book form in three relatively inexpensive volumes. The structure of the weeklies meant that revelations varied from week to week to keep the readers waiting to see what the next installment would bring which fit well with the emerging literary form that focused on a detective.

The structure of The Moonstone follows the narratives of multiple different characters each giving their information in turn in the hope that the layers of evidence will emerge that will reveal what happened to ill-fated moonstone. This presents unique difficulties and opportunities for the stage and I think Rob has kept the strength and individuality of Collins’ competing narrators.

In the days to come I will give more information on the context and the characters but will try to avoid spoilers.

Sources: Wilkie Collins An Illustrated Guide, Andrew Gasson; Wilkie Collins: Women Property and Propriety, Philip O’Neill; Introduction Oxford World’s Classics Edition of The Moonstone and Introduction Penguin Classics Edition of The Moonstone

Temple and Arch (2)

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Neverwhat?” blog, chronicling his research for directing our spring MainStage production of Neverwhere.

Temple and Arch

Hi am Maren, the dramaturg for Neverwhere and I am delighted to be part of the project and delighted that Paul asked me to post. That’s a lot of delight.

First of all, I enjoy Gaiman because he works in layers and there many resonances to his words and worlds. Neverwhere is like a street map and a tube map and bits of Celtic history, art  and modern London all blended in and knit together Gaiman’s own inventiveness and dark whimsy.

So in the spirit of layering, I wanted to add a thought about the use of temple in “temple and arch”. The beauty of the phrase is that is has so many meanings and evokes such strong images.

First, just to riff on Paul’s post, England had early pre-Christian temples and the Beast of London seems to harken back to pre-Christian stories like the Fisher King (wounded in the groin by a boar or a beast) and some Welsh mythology. Anyone interested in looking at this early mythology might look at the Welsh classic The Mabinogion, a world in which heroes step in and out of magical other worlds easily. But I digress, London below seems to get the layers of all times in history, they get the detritus of the London, both the pre-Christian, the Christian and the secular. They get their geography and customs from above and below, present and past.

However my thoughts about Temple and Arch were a bit more geographic. Since Gaiman plays with place names in London, I thought of geographic temples when I heard the oath “temple and arch.”

There is a Temple church in London that founded by the Knights Templar. The Templars being that odd hybrid of monastics and warriors made famous during the crusades both for their valor and their secretiveness and from the rumor that they had the shroud Christ was wrapped in after his death. (The Black Friars in Neverwhere seem to be cut from similar cloth.) Temple Church is near the Inns of Court of which there are four: Grays Inn, Lincoln Inn, The Inner Temple and the Middle Temple. I am sure I am inadequately representing the history of the British legal system but roughly, they used to be where law students learned the law and now I believe they sort of function like our bar associations now and you belong to one of them if you practice law. Historically, some of Shakespeare’s plays were played for these groups who were the new burgeoning class of lawyers who could afford to have the players come there.

Here are links to the church and inner and middle temple.  Judging from some of the photos on their very modern websites there are a fair number of arches there as well.

http://www.templechurch.com/

http://www.innertemple.org.uk/

http://www.middletemple.org.uk/

The London Temples are very old institutions and the hierarchies that govern them date back to the age of fiefdoms and guilds, a system still apparently used in London below.

Where the Middle and Inner Temples are now intricately associated with law in London (apart from the Old Bailey itself where cases are tried) Temple might also have a legal connotation.

Thinking about temples as a geographic feature of London made me think about arches in London geography of which there seem to be many. There are a few arches that might be of interest: The Marble Arch across from the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park in London, (there is a marble arch tube station), Wellington Arch also in Hyde Park and of course Admiralty Arch near Trafalgar Square. But then there are many arches in London.  Below is Admiralty Arch in picture taken by my husband when we were in London over a year ago.

The interesting thing about an Arch as a geographic memorial, you go through them like a door but not into a building, you see through them and around them, but they still function architecturally even if they are not part of a building. They change the thing you see through them and frame it.  But as you can see I am prone to digression and I have already digressed far enough I just wanted to peel a few more layers of the onion.