Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lovers' Vows

Warning: it's not as interesting as the title might suggest. And that's true on several levels.

In the only Jane Austen novel that I actually dislike (and I'm not the only one who feels this way about it), Mansfield Park, one of the plot drivers is a performance to be staged by some of the characters. The characters go through contorted farcical relationships that mirror or ironically contrast with the contorted farcical relationships in the play they choose to stage. That play?
Lovers' Vows by one Elizabeth Inchbald, published 1798.

I've thought, for some time that I ought to read it. The characters make such a fuss about the play and so much is made about how risque it is to stage it for the neighbors that I thought it surely must be juicy.


It wants to be Gilbert and Sullivan and Pope John Paul, but has all of the Gilbert and Sullivan implausibility with none of the Gilbert and Sullivan wit and all of the good morals of John Paul but none of his charisma. You get the idea: preachy, implausible and failing to be funny with great effort.

The story revolves around Frederick, the illegitimate son of Agatha Friburg, who was seduced in her youth by Baron Wildenhaim, who abandoned her and went off and married an unnamed Baroness, and produced a lovely daughter, who fell in love with her poor but virtuous tutor. Through an implausible series of events, Frederick meets the Baron, attempts to kill him, reveals himself to the Baron, is instantly accepted as his son, and refuses to be accepted as said son unless the Baron also agrees to marry Agatha. Which the Baron does, on the advice of the virtuous tutor. And as a bonus, throws in permission for said tutor to marry his daughter. Because she loves him.

Lots of internal conflict, yes?

Other literature that I've read because it was referenced by Jane Austen I've enjoyed a lot: Cecilia, The Mysteries of Udolpho. You safely can skip this one. At this point I'm no longer sure what she was trying to convey when she chose it to base her plot on, except possibly forcing the device. She had some characters express moral concern over the content of the play, but it was so preachy I can't see what there was to object to, unless it was considered too titillating to mention illegitimacy at all.

As I warned you, neither the play nor this post is as exciting as its title.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Watching New York

Here's some real news: New York City is planning to waste a whole bunch of money. Building a large surveillance network in midtown Manhattan. To stop terrorism.

Let's get one thing clear. Surveillance cannot prevent terrorism. At best it can (maybe) help track down whodunit. Which is rarely a question in true terrorism. The whole point of terrorism is publicity. The only thing that mass surveillance achieves is a chilling effect on the populace. Surveillance is best left to very well-defined, limited applications (say, the Mona Lisa).

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Enemy of the People

Last week I read An Enemy of the People (Ibsen, 1882). I must say, I'm taking a liking to Ibsen. (I read A Doll's House last year, and loved it, though it went right by me in high school.)

This one concerns a politically naive, but conscientious doctor who discovers that the Baths he was instrumental in having brought to his small town are actually so polluted as to endanger human life. The town, it seems, has invested significant resources into building the baths, but is poised, at the moment of his discovery, to reap significant economic benefits from them. I think you can guess the rest. I'll just say that it involves an orchestrated villification of the good doctor.

The players are Dr. Stockmann, innocent but honest; his brother the mayor, the quintessential politician; Hovstad, the editor of a supposedly progressive periodical, in reality more interested in the economic stability of his paper, whether it be from muckraking or preserving the status quo; Aslaksen, the printer, representing small business interests; and Morton Kiil, the wealthy father-in-law of Stockmann, whose property is responsible for the pollution. Room for conflict? I think so. Sound like the kind of interests at play today? You bet. Though it was written in 1882, it felt like you could replace "poisoned water" with any one of half a dozen modern issues (health care crisis, financial crisis, for starters), and it would be perfectly relevant today.

I was completely with Dr. Stockmann until the middle of the 4th act. At that point, he veered off into what seemed like an elitist blast against the common man. Basically, he is very pissed off with the masses who had elected such a bonehead as his brother and allowed themselves to be swayed by such rabble rousers as Hovstad. He concludes

"The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent men must wage war. Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord!--you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones I (Uproar and cries.) Oh, yes--you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has might on its side--unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right--I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right."

This seems to me the wrong conclusion, and blaming the victim. But I suppose I can't totally blame him, either. Look at our tea parties. And I was slightly relieved, by the end, where he decides to set up a school for poor children. He says,
"I am going to experiment with curs, just for once; there may be some exceptional heads among them."
I've read that Ibsen was very bitter at the time he wrote this one, at the reception of an earlier work which may have contributed to the cynical feel.

The play is very powerful in its conciseness. The personalities and interests of the characters are made clear within just a few lines. It is extremely painful to watch Stockmann's wonderful ideals stripped from him by the cynical self-interests who have no qualms at twisting or ignoring truth.