Love triangles, from King Arthur to Beyoncé

From 1843 Magazine:

In love, three is a magic number. Depending on the circumstances, that adds up to lies and betrayal, or the possibility of a brave new romantic world. Noël Coward gave us perfect proof of both sums. The first, “Brief Encounter” (1945), revolved around Laura, an English housewife, alienated, unsatisfied and deep in a crisis she can’t quite articulate. The other parts of the equation were Alec, a serious young medic, unexpectedly in love with a married woman, and Laura’s husband, Fred, sitting at home with the crossword unaware that his wife was listening to her doctor friend make a speech about lung diseases as if he were telling her that he loved her passionately, devotedly, hopelessly – because he does, and he is.

The film is now the textbook three-hanky weepie, though the test audience was less enthusiastic. (“Why doesn’t he just **** her?” shouted one dissatisfied customer, according to one of the movie’s producers, Ronald Neame.)

The other sum is Coward sprawled on the sofa with actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, is laughing the way they laughed a decade before, when they were struggling together in 1920s New York, and Coward promised that one day he would write a play for the couple. It was a clever promise: Fontanne and Lunt were so dependent on each other’s talents that, after 1928, they never worked separately again.

“Design for Living” (1932) is a battle report on the merry warfare between the combatants in a Bohemian ménage à trois comprising a painter, Otto (Lunt), his writer mate Leo (Coward) and Gilda (Fontanne), an interior designer who keeps both men close, but only so close. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement,” we’re told. The play produced such a crackle that parodies soon sprang up: “Duets are made for the bourgeoisie – oh, but only God can make a trio,” sang the cast of a Broadway revue “Life Begins at 8.40”.

The curtain of “Design for Living” falls on a scene much like the image above. What happens next? The play is coy about that. Such trios rarely get played through to the end. And if they are, as the following examples suggest, the final notes are often melancholy.

Sir Lancelot saves Guinevere

The Round Table didn’t have corners, but it did produce a triangle. It took a while, though. In the ninth-century versions of his story, King Arthur charged around, apparently carelessly single. Guinevere turned up in 1136, as a heroine of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”, in which, disappointingly, her only job was to be a damsel, distressed by the villainous Mordred.

The Round Table was delivered in 1155, in Wace of Jersey’s “Roman de Brut”, with the customary, hr-approved explanation that meetings structured in this way encourage a feeling of equality. Then, a couple of decades later, Sir Lancelot galloped in – from a French source, Chrétien de Troy’s “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” (published around 1170) – to disrupt married life at Camelot. From this point, it all goes a bit “Jules et Jim”. By the time Thomas Malory produced his “Le Morte D’Arthur” (1485), the affair, with an emphasis on Guinevere’s unfaithfulness, had become so conventional that he spiced things up by adding another lover for Lancelot, called Elaine.

We needn’t worry about Elaine. Lancelot (virile, young, tempted), Guinevere (regal, untrustworthy), Arthur (ageing warrior, cuckolded) are the fixed vertices of this story. But Guinevere’s bad reputation should give us pause for thought. Much like Eve disrupting the bromance between God and Adam, the Queen of Albion is a very early example of a female figure who apparently makes alliances between men harder.

Not everyone used the Lancelot story to have a go at women. When Dryden and Purcell wrote “King Arthur” (1691), an allegorical work in praise of the joint sovereigns William III and Mary II, they dropped Guinevere and replaced her with a character of their own invention: Emmeline, a virtuous blind girl who gets lost in the forest. Casting aspersions on a mythical queen is one thing – implying to a real one that women aren’t up to the job of royal office has consequences.

. . . .

The Bloomsbury Group, said Dorothy Parker, lived in squares and loved in triangles. But some triangles have sharp edges, and some sexual radicals can be as hurtfully secretive as the generation they rebel against, as the life of mosaic-maker Angelica Garnett shows. In the summer of 1937, when she was 18, Angelica’s mother, painter Vanessa Bell, took to her one side and explained that her real father was not the critic Clive Bell, but her lover and Fitzroy Square neighbour, artist Duncan Grant. This information did not produce a great family realignment: Vanessa advised her daughter not to discuss it with Clive; Angelica never raised the matter with Grant.

Link to the rest at 1843 Magazine