Shakespeare in Bloomsbury

From The Wall Street Journal:

I went to Shakespeare’s Globe to see “The Winter’s Tale” in London last March, on a freezing, rainy night. The mood was brightened by the production’s droll Autolycus, one of the Bard’s great con men and clowns. He teased and cajoled; he brought theatergoers up to dance with the actors; he threw in references to Brexit and Boris. Decorum resumed in the final act, in which the statue comes to life, with all the grave enchantment the text demanded.

When the revels ended, I shuffled with the crowd toward the Underground and happened to glance down a garbage-strewn alleyway, where I saw a skinny, shivering, tawny little fox. Unaware that this is a common sight in the city, I felt caught in the same time warp that the ancient play, with its modern interjections, had just evinced. It was as if the year was 1610 and the fox had hitched a ride on a rural wagon to the big city—yet somehow it was also here in 2023. The Britons who first saw “The Winter’s Tale” were mourning the death of their long-reigning Elizabeth; Londoners in our century had just lost their own. Both eras had recently seen the theaters close and reopen because of plague. Both audiences of the Globe had wanted to believe that a statue had come to life, and maybe it had.

As it turns out, these are just the kinds of ruminations that the Bloomsbury group, that famous coterie of early-20th-century British writers and artists, would have dismissed as lightweight and slightly vulgar. (The original group included the writers Virginia and Leonard Woolf, the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the economist John Maynard Keynes, and the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry.) Bloomsbury’s keen interest in Shakespeare did not lie in comparisons between their age and the Elizabethans’, in the historical roots of the plays, or in questions about provenance. They were not much concerned with Shakespeare’s character or with his beliefs. They deplored most of the professional productions they saw, complaining that they were (as one of them said) “smothered in scenery” and objecting to the fussy intonations of the players. “Acting it they spoil the poetry,” Virginia Woolf wrote to her nephew in 1935.

Instead, for the most part, the Bloomsbury group exercised its passion for Shakespeare simply by reading the plays and the sonnets, sometimes aloud together, but more often silently to themselves. Their relationship with him existed almost entirely through his language, with which they all felt an evangelical connection, intense and personal. In the beginning and the end, for them, was the word.

The subject of how different eras engage with Shakespeare is a juicy one, and an excellent choice for Marjorie Garber, a longtime professor of English at Harvard as well as the distinguished author of six previous books about Shakespeare among more than 20 volumes on subjects literary and otherwise. “Shakespeare in Bloomsbury” is a survey rather than an argument, proposing no more tendentious a thesis than that the members of the group adored Shakespeare and that she is going to show readers how in the most expansive and delightful way possible.

And this she does, propelling those readers through a lively inventory of the playwright’s imprints on Bloomsbury’s lives and works. She points out the ways in which Virginia Woolf’s frequent nods to Shakespeare serve as a “network of shared reference,” a handshake of recognition between a writer and her audience. Woolf’s 1927 novel “To the Lighthouse,” for instance, expects readers to identify its refrain of “Lights, lights, lights” as a line from “Hamlet.” Woolf uses the allusion to weave images of brightness through a narrative that plays with time passing, observing light as an ambiguous flicker in an impermanent world, one that “welcomes and protects,” as Ms. Garber notes, but one that “can also warn of danger if its signals are seen and understood.” “Orlando” (1928) blurs fiction and fact along with time, offering glimpses of an unnamed poet of the Elizabethan age who shows up at Knole, the ancestral estate of Thomas Sackville, who was a Tudor-era forebear of Woolf’s great friend Vita Sackville-West. Sackville was a cousin of Elizabeth I, a statesman and dramatist who co-authored the first English play written in blank verse. By connecting Knole with her shadow-image of Shakespeare, Woolf seduces readers into celebrating a dual aesthetic inheritance that for her represents the heart of Englishness.

Woolf and the other Bloomsbury members counted on Shakespeare’s plays to console and counsel as well as to inspire. In 1904, when young Leonard Woolf traveled to Ceylon to take an administrative post in the colonial civil service, he brought along a miniature edition of the works of Shakespeare and Milton, along with a 90-volume set of Voltaire, as bulwarks of familiarity against his fears of the unknown. Two years later, when Lytton Strachey wrote to Leonard about the shocking death of their mutual friend Thoby Stephen, Strachey relied on “Antony and Cleopatra” to express his grief: “There is nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon.”

Clive Bell, a founder of Bloomsbury who never felt entirely accepted by the group, saw the Bard as a token of belonging, telling a paramour who had recently enjoyed an Old Vic staging of “Measure for Measure” that “we, of course, only read Shakespeare.” Keynes parlayed his own veneration into civic munificence, using his government influence as an economic adviser to establish and support funding for the Cambridge Arts Theatre and to oversee the public institution that became, in 1945, the Arts Council of Great Britain.

The members of Bloomsbury defined themselves as modern rebels against the stodginess of Victorian culture. Yet their faith in the primacy of Shakespeare transcended the differences between generations, linking old and new centuries together. After a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1934, Virginia Woolf commented in her diary on the “sunny impersonality” of the playwright’s garden and house, noting that he’s “serenely absent-present; both at once; radiating around one . . . but never to be pinned down.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Jealous Laughter

From Granta:

A friend of mine used to joke that women writers discovered friendship in 2015, when the last volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet came out. I laughed, but I knew what he meant. It is easy to think of men who navigated the literary world together: Jonson and Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Johnson and Boswell, Shelley and Byron, Marx and Engels, Sartre and Camus, Bellow and Roth, Hughes and Heaney, Amis and Barnes. In Weimar for a day in summer 2014, bitter laughter rose in me when I emerged into Theaterplatz to find a monument to literary bro-dom: Goethe and Schiller in bronze, each with a hand on a shared crown of laurels. With stout folds in Goethe’s breeches and pupils missing from Schiller’s eyes, the unlovely statue had been cast in 1857, twenty-five years after Goethe died, and had stood for more than a century facing the stage where Goethe had directed many of Schiller’s plays. In the early twentieth century, copies of the monument were made for San Francisco, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Syracuse and erected in parks in those cities. I laughed some more when I found that out. Is there such a thing as jealous laughter?

I was lonely back then. Sure, I was married to another writer, but he loved me, so he couldn’t not love my writing. Spouses are so implicated in each other’s success that support is de rigueur and unremarkable. And in any case men hadn’t forgone friendship when they’d been married to writers. Women writers had sisters, as Charlotte Brontё did in Emily and Anne, and rivals, as Virginia Woolf did in Katherine Mansfield. Or they were solitary because they were first, like Mary Wollstonecraft, or because they were modest, like Jane Austen. Woolf said that to write a woman needs a room of her own with a lock on the door and a sustaining income, but she also said that women need to be more confident, aware of their own traditions, willing to write in new forms – all things that are hard to do on one’s own, and nearly impossible to address for long without friends to advise, remind and encourage.

Of course, the friends existed. Charlotte Brontё had Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote the novelist’s biography after she died at the age of 41, of hyperemesis gravidarum; Wollstonecraft was introduced to her future husband by her friend, the novelist Mary Hays and Austen’s best friend Martha Lloyd was one of the first to read an early draft of Pride and Prejudice.

I had always thought of Sylvia Plath as being uninterested in female friendship. She knew Anne Sexton from attending Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar at Boston University, but saw being paired with her as ‘an honor, I suppose’. (Sexton wrote a poem for Sylvia a week after Plath died by suicide, remembering afternoons of ‘three extra dry martinis’ and the way death talked through them ‘like brides with plots’.) But Plath seemed to grow into literary friendship. She became close to the poet Ruth Fainlight at a steadier time in her life, when she was older, married, mother to a girl, and had just brought out her first collection, The Colossus. Ruth’s first impression was of ‘a burningly ambitious and intelligent young woman trying to look like a conventional, devoted wife and not quite succeeding’. She also registered the ways Sylvia was ‘ahead’ of her: a baby born and a book published and well-received. (Perhaps one of the reasons that literary friendship is harder for women is that the playing fields multiply, like the fig tree branches in The Bell Jar.)

In 1961 the Hugheses were about to move to Devon, and so Sylvia and Ruth planned visits: Sylvia went to pick up a prize cheque in London and go to a play at the Royal Court; Ruth came to Devon pregnant to be fed on apples and fat cream. On one of those visits Ruth helped Sylvia cut daffodils in bud from the teeming bank for a local wholesaler and Sylvia read Ruth new poems as she nursed her son. ‘Could I dedicate my tree poem to Ruth Fainlight?’ Sylvia wrote when the visit was over. It was a rare dedication. In ‘Elm’, the tree is the best kind of friend, someone who has been through it and stands as evidence that you will too. ‘I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.’ One of the great comforts of literary friendship isn’t the introductions that can be made, the sharing of editors to approach or avoid, it is being accompanied. It is being with someone who has a parallel knowledge of wrestling unruly events into limpid prose. Two hands holding the same laurelled tiara.

Ruth had noticed tension between Sylvia and Ted on the daffodil visit, her last before she moved to Tangier. By autumn, the New Yorker had accepted ‘Elm’ but Ted had left. ‘The muse has come to live here,’ Sylvia wrote, and she was writing as she had not for years. In her next letters, Sylvia told Ruth of finding a flat in Primrose Hill where Yeats once lived, and asked her to plan on spending the April of 1963 with her in Devon. Ruth learned to drive and brought her nanny to England in preparation for the first divorcée summer: she imagined them on long drives talking about their poetry while Fatima took care of the children. Breaking up the journey to England with a stop in Gibraltar, Ruth’s husband, Alan Sillitoe, bought a week-old copy of the Observer and at first Ruth couldn’t understand why there was a picture of Sylvia on the books pages inside a bold black border.

‘I have wondered whether,’ Ruth wrote later, ‘if I had been there when Sylvia moved back to London, everything might have been different.’ That cannot be known, and as Heather Clark’s recent biography of Plath, Red Comet, movingly shows, Plath was surrounded by friends in the days before she died. But I know how vital friends are to a person in their darkest moments: I spent the night I took my first sertraline tablet in a best friend’s spare room, after eating pizza on the sofa in front of an old episode of Doctor Foster, a plot-twisty take on the Medea myth we were addicted to then. She could not make me see my best qualities, but she could sit with me. Another friend, a poet, reminded me that I needed to keep talking with the people I loved, and on the days that I couldn’t face that, I could have recourse to ‘a fresh piece of paper, nobody to show it to, no requirement except to be honest’. Others talked to me on the phone, swam with me, walked with me, cooked me dinner. Inside their care, I recovered. Ruth is not wrong to think about the effect her presence might have had.

Link to the rest at Granta

The Best Minds

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1973, 10-year-old Jonathan Rosen and his family moved to New Rochelle, N.Y., a culturally sophisticated, intellectually vigorous middle-class suburb of New York City. It had been founded in 1688 by Huguenot refugees who fled France when Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal. Jonathan’s father, Robert, was himself a European refugee. At the age of 6, he had been among the unaccompanied Jewish children rescued from Nazi-controlled Vienna and taken to the safety of New York. Robert never saw his parents again. They were murdered in the Holocaust.

Robert, a professor of German literature, and his wife, Norma, a novelist, chose New Rochelle to ensure that Jonathan and his 12-year-old sister would obtain a better education than possible in New York City’s troubled public school system. They also looked forward to joining the town’s vibrant, welcoming Jewish community.

One summer day shortly after arriving in New Rochelle, Jonathan was in his front yard when he noticed a tall, gangly 10-year-old strolling down the street. Michael Laudor introduced himself, and soon the two bonded over many shared interests, establishing a deep and lasting friendship. Jonathan and Michael were passionate about music, board games, politics, pickup basketball and especially reading. As Mr. Rosen writes in his book “The Best Minds,” he and Michael held “the belief that your brain is your rocket ship and that simply as a matter of course you are going to climb inside and blast off. Propelled by some mysterious process—never specified, almost mystical and yet entirely real—we would outsoar the shadow of ordinary existence and think our way into stratospheric success.”

Michael was preternaturally comfortable when conversing with grown-ups; he addressed them by their first names, as if he were their peer. And he was as kind and charming as he was brilliant. But he was also, as the author would only gradually learn, a schizophrenic.

In the opening pages of his memoir, Mr. Rosen evokes shared memories from their happy boyhoods—memories made all the more freighted because of what happened when they grew up. Immensely emotional and unforgettably haunting, “The Best Minds” is the story of a deep friendship shattered by the nightmare of psychosis.

“Madness was in the air when Michael and I were growing up,” the author recalls, citing works like “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey. “Though it was hard to know whether it was a colloquial or clinical condition, the confusion itself shaped our world, which avoided nuclear destruction with a strategy called MAD.”

The boys attended the same public schools. Michael sailed through his Advanced Placement classes; Jonathan struggled with science and math but excelled in literature. Both boys attended Yale University, where Jonathan majored in literature and Michael in economics. After graduating summa cum laude (in three years), Michael landed a lucrative position at Bain & Co., the management consulting firm in Boston. His aim was to earn a fortune over the next 10 years, retire from corporate America and embark upon a career writing fiction.

But the brutal, 100-hour workweek at Bain took a toll, and symptoms emerged of something far more troubling than mere exhaustion. Michael became fearful that scheming colleagues had tapped his phone. One day, while conversing with his secretary, he noticed the room darken, revealing her as “a monster with long claws and vampire teeth,” menacing him and dripping blood. After this terrifying experience, Michael resigned from Bain and returned to New Rochelle, but his paranoid delusions worsened. When he accused his mother and father of being sinister doppelgängers who had replaced his real parents, Michael’s firm but supportive father convinced him to sign himself into a psychiatric unit at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he remained for eight months.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that anyone in any place can develop a mental illness. One of the most common reactions of the individual involved and those close to that individual is denial.

Nobody wants to be diagnosed with mental illness. Everybody has a bad day from time to time, but, for many of those suffering from mental illness, the days link together or a bad day is disabling.

Many people have an outdated perception of the mentally ill and treatments that can help them and, in many cases, completely remove the symptoms. The key is as simple as going to a family doctor, who may be competent to prescribe an appropriate medication or refer the patient to someone with more training in the treatment of mental illness.

PG has read some articles that posit that talented creative individuals may be more susceptible to mental illness than others, but any person, regardless of talents or background, can develop a mental illness at just about any time during their lives.