It is so easy to remember what aspect of a play was the most striking or the most moving. I can leave the theatre feeling glad that a play has finally dragged to a close or thinking about one moment in the play that will haunt me for weeks to come.
Steve Waters is an acclaimed playwright and in his The Secret Life of Plays, he gives logical analyses of the key elements that make a play: the acts and scenes, time, space, characters and the language.
He takes us back to antiquity showing how a story of thirty years can be folded into three ‘elegant and intense moments in time and space’. He shows us how Shakespeare was a master of act structure. He shows how time can be used to effect by the playwright, how a ‘joke’ may operate, and only the essential characters appear on stage.
Above all, Waters shows us how plays move audiences. This is a text which will guide writers and help drama students understand their field of study but, most of all, it is for people like me. It explains the art of the playwright that has led me to respond the way I did to that play.
Frank Kermode was my Professor of English at university and even in my very green days, I was enthralled when he gave us lectures on Shakespeare. I became addicted to Hamlet and my love of that text has endured. I thought I knew all the ins and outs of the text but that was presumptuous.
Reading Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language sheds a whole new light on the text. Of course, that is what is so wonderful about that Shakesperian masterpiece. Since its first performance at the start of the seventeenth century, each age has interpreted the play according to its own obsessions and preconceptions. However, Kermode’s focus gives the most convincing interpretation of all.
Kermode focuses on the language of the plays showing how Hamlet was the play that ‘may be said to offer the fullest exhibition of Shakespeare’s powers’. He demonstrates how a single rhetorical device, hendiadys, or ‘doubling’, characterises not only Hamlet’s speech and thinking but also that of almost all the other characters.
It is fascinating to follow the logic of his argument and, after reading Kermode’s text, I am even more sure that my admiration for Hamlet is justified.
We are approaching the hundredth anniversary of what must still be the most inspiring and heroic of all journeys, the astounding crossing of the Wedell sea by Shackleton and his four men in the James Caird, from Elephant Island to South Georgia, then the even more astonishing crossing of the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia to the Stromness Bay whaling station.
Shackleton is my hero. From all the Arctic and Antarctic explorers of the last century, he stands out. While he and his 28 men were struggling to survive after the loss of the Endurance, he proved himself to be a perfect leader and (apart from three men lost on the other side of the Antarctic continent in the Aurora expedition that had intended to support Shackleton’s continental crossing) all his men miraculously survived.
Frank Hurley was a gifted photographer and this collection of photographs from Australian and British archives could almost have been taken with modern equipment. Together with a detailed text, they bring to life those years ranging from distressing pictures of the doomed Endurance to an enchanting one of Mrs Chippy, the ship’s cat, sitting on the shoulder of the stowaway, Perce Blackborow.
Dr John Rae was an Orkney man who worked for the Hudson Bay Company and devoted his life to exploring, investigating and documenting the northern part of the American continent. During his lifetime, he was not fully recognised for all that he did to awaken the world to the culture, the wildlife and the history of the Arctic regions.
Rae was one of the many who searched for the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin and his ships, the Erebus and the Terror that disappeared during their search for the north-west passage. He knew the Inuit well enough to glean and trust information from them. Later expeditions bore out Rae’s information.
For his many expeditions, Rae adopted Inuit survival techniques and only one man was ever lost during his journeys into the Artic wastes. This beautifully illustrated volume, created for the National Museums of Scotland by Ian Bunyan, Jenni Calder, Dale Idiens and Bryce Wilson, does justice to an explorer who was not recognised during his lifetime.
Very little is known about Henry VIII’s third wife and we all know that she died of what was probably puerperal fever after the birth of Prince Edward, so I wondered how David Loades would fill a complete volume writing on Henry’s favourite wife, Jane Seymour, the one he is buried alongside.
Indeed, the first chapter which attempts to trace Jane’s ancestry ‘with the aid of some imaginative speculation’ confirmed my suspicions that this could not have been an easy volume to fill. Nor did Jane provide us with scandalous gossip during the years she served as a lady in waiting for both Queen Mary and Queen Anne Boleyn. David Loades stresses that she was no great beauty but a virgin of ‘good breeding stock’.
Nevertheless, for those of us who enjoy the texts on Tudor history that have appeared in great number over the last couple of decades, this is an attractive addition which touches on the queens who came before and after Jane, with pleasing illustrations, and goes at some length into the early years of Prince Edward, the short-lived Edward VI.
The book’s back cover gives us Holbein’s portrait of the young Edward, who, Loades tells us, was ‘very much his father’s boy’.
If you would like to refresh those perhaps dimly remembered facts from school or even university chemistry, or are just curious about the substances and materials that are all around us, this will interest you. There is information here about most of the elements (both natural, such as carbon, and ‘artificial’, such as lawrencium). Where were they discovered, how are they produced, what (if anything) are they used for? Aluminium, for example, was hard initially to extract and was extremely costly: Napoleon III’s favoured guests were offered aluminium cutlery, not silver. Now it’s everywhere. Will it be followed by today’s equivalent costly (but useful) titanium? Read all about it here. Napoleon III being mentioned, what of the allegations that the metal arsenic, whose poisonous compounds were commonly used in dyes and were at least partly responsible for the death of Napoleon I on St Helena? That is discussed too in this wide-ranging book.
The abundance of rare earth metals found in one small Swedish quarry at Ytterby (yttrium, gadolinium, samarium, ..) which are described here might prompt you to visit it (if only by courtesy of Google Earth).
Hopefully, your interest will go further. The author doesn’t tell you, for example, about the haste to re-open the MountainPass mines in the US to extract the rare metal neodymium, supply of which is almost monopolized by China. Thousands of tons are needed annually for wind-farm turbine magnets!
Andrew Marr’s A History of the World was written alongside the BBC One television series of the same name. It seems an astonishing undertaking to attempt to accumulate the knowledge to be able to write such a text. Indeed, I am only halfway through reading the 614 pages and I have already encountered civilisations I hadn’t even heard of.
My preconceptions are changing too. The Roman oriented thinking of my school years, when Latin was an obligatory subject and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar set texts, has left a vision of Ancient Rome that is completely demolished, for example, in the chapter The Sword and the Word, which tells us, as just one snippet, that Caesar responded to the deaths of seventy Romans in an attack by German tribesmen by killing some 430,000 men, women and children. Suddenly I have understood that Caesar was a bloody tyrant!
Marr explains in his introduction that, for obvious reasons, his history will tend to be a history of people and the 1 percent of convulsions which he will pore over, while passing over the 99 percent of peaceful lulls. His illustrated journey through the great empires and convulsions of history is a fascinating and instructive journey.
Simon Garfield’s On the Map traces maps from the very earliest right up to those provided by your TomTom (with amusing anecdotes thrown in about the Swiss van that was guided up a goat track and had to be rescued by helicopter, and people who have followed the machine’s instructions into lakes!).
Did you believe that ‘Here be Dragons’ appeared on the unknown parts of medieval maps. Apparently it is a fiction, as is the belief that women cannot read maps as well as men. Naturally maps made by men are made in the style that is easy for a man to read, but experiments proved that women were just as able to cope with maps as men – it depends on the content and style of the map.
On the Map has a wealth of illustrations (though how I wish I had a larger, coloured version) and goes into detail about great map thefts, the question of whether the Vinland map is a forgery, a hunt for Churchill’s globe and dozens of fascinating aspects of map history.
It is a great read, or just a book to dip into when you have minutes to spare. Even the inside cover will give a few moments of pleasure (It is a kind of mind map of the world, as seen by Brit-centric people, laid out in the form of a ‘London Underground’.
We are all aware of the work of Alan Turing and his development of the Bombe machine that was able to decipher the Enigma code used by the Germans during the Second World War. A visit to Bletchley Park (ours was on a grey and damp day) reveals it as a rather cold and bleak set of buildings in its Buckinghamshire environment, only enlivened by the enthusiasm of the people who are still happy to give detailed explanations of the many exhibits.
There were thousands of people involved in the work at Bletchley Park, including Wrens living in comfortless billets with outdoor toilets. Their work was shrouded by the Official Secrets Act so that even their own families were not aware of how they contributed to war work that saved the lives of so many.
Sinclair McKay takes us back, tracing the work of the code-breakers against a backcloth of the lives of real people. We learn about their cultural activities, their frictions, their furtive love affairs and their successes. He paints a picture of what live was really like, back in those war years.
If, like me, you are at a loss to understand some of the extremes of postmodern literary criticism, you will probably be highly amused by Frederick Crews’ Postmodern Pooh‘. Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Roo and company are old family favourites and the most perceptive critic must surely agree that the antics of the animals of Hundred Acre Wood are innocence itself.
Frederick Crews creates a hypothetical symposium on Pooh where we are shown by the distinguished participants that we are deluded. We learn about the sexual politics of Pooh, the fissured subtext. We are told how Piglet appears to be borderline anorexic and sorely lacking in self-esteem and that his squeaky little voice all but spells i-n-s-e-c-u-r-i-t-y, and many more fascinating insights into what we assumed to be playful accounts of the interplay of the set of ragged toys of Christopher Robin Milne.
This text is a superb lampoon that is immensely reassuring if you, like me, feel awed by colleagues who spout about metanarratives, transcendental contradictions and the like. What’s more, it is very funny.
Frederick Crews is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkely.