Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Elective Affinities" by Johann Wolfang von Goethe

Poor Goethe! When Italian students read "The Sorrows of Young Werther" they object that the plot is identical to Ugo Foscolo's "The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis", when it is in fact the opposite, the Italian writer having taken Goethe's Sturm und Drang masterpiece as a model for his epistolary novel. Moreover, when one decides to read Goethe's "Elective Affinities" (1809), in spite of having great expectations, for Goethe is one of the most celebrated writers of German literature,  the disappointment is overwhelming. The annoying perfection of the language, the falsified and timeless world where all the characters move as if inside a schematic, almost formulaic plot and the stultified, slightly unnerving story of adultery are the main letdowns of this overtly famous novella. Needless to say, the style is elegant and refined. Not a single word is out of place, which is also quite irritating.  

Only if you know Goethe enough, or if you have good intuition, you can come to the conclusion that all of this was made on purpose. The Arcadian, motionless environment where the characters live hints at their terrible boredom: Eduard and Charlotte, both at their second wedding, are an apparently happy couple. They spend their time tidying up the gardens, greenhouse, little cemetery and huts of their estate. When they decide to invite the Captain, a long-standing friend of Eduard, and Ottilie, Charlotte's adoptive daughter, things will never be the same. Relying on chemical reactions and theories, Goethe describes how certain people are supposedly meant to be mutually attracted according to chemical affinities. 

What one should have clear in mind even before starting to read "Elective Affinities" is that Goethe was trying to criticize, as harshly as he could, the Romantic movement (which he had contributed to shape, by the way). The saccharine nature of Eduard and Charlotte, always described as perfect creatures leading a perfect life in a perfect house without external intrusions, the controlled, artificial landscapes they create and the ubiquitous symbols and allegories hide sheer melancholy and the desire to push away death. When nature is not controlled it is destructive, so we tend to create artificial landscapes, that are pleasing for the eye, but that are really only clumsy attempts to make us forget that life has no meaning after all: we are all going to die and become a bundle of bones. In other words, for Goethe pretending to go back to classicism and to the Arcadia, trying to be closer to nature while experiencing melancholia was not a healthy way of experiencing life. Eduard and Charlotte try to fill up their lives with gardening and with extreme love passions, but strange deadly omens seem to haunt them. Goethe was and was not a romantic: he experienced dejection and depression, especially after the death of his friend and fellow writer Schiller. "Elective Affinities" can be read whether you like or do not like romanticism. It can be a painful reading, no doubts about that. Furthermore, it is a book that has many layers: on the surface it is about adultery, marriage and morality, but on another level, it reflects on life and death, metaphysical and existential questions, the relationship between science and human nature. 

If there is a conclusion to be drawn, "Elective Affinities" cannot be considered a fun and uplifting book to read. There are some gloomy (and potentially spooky) moments that will stay with you for a long time and raise many questions. Moreover it is rather difficult to catch all the allusions, allegories and symbols scattered in the book. You have the constant feeling that every object and every action has another meaning, but the whole design remains mysterious. In my own experience, it was very useful academically, but I cannot say that I enjoyed reading it. However, if you are ingenuous enough, you can end up appreciating the pastoral landscape and the cleverly trimmed plot, without having the sense of claustrophobia I experienced. If you are more sophisticated and better read than me, instead, you could actually delight in Goethe's allusions and criticism of the early-nineteenth-century zeitgeist.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

African American theatre digest (1)

I have been reading some African American plays recently:

"Funnyhouse of a Negro" by Adrienne Kennedy

A girl called Sarah is alone in her room with her split personalities: she alternates between Queen Victoria Regina and the Duchess of Hapsburg, both white and aristocratic. Sarah is black and ordinary, she has conflicting thoughts about herself, her race, her father and her kinky hair. It is a spooky journey in Sarah's subconsious, thus it is the furthest thing from an uplifting and funny read one can think of.
It is an experimental play, without a clear plot, where one does not really understand what is going on. It is very disturbing and gloomy, not to mention enigmatic. Nonetheless, it needs to be mentioned that it dates from the 1960s, when African American literature had darker tones. The play is packed with symbolism and oppositions between black and white. The lights on the stage - spots of darkness and spots of light - are unnatural, as Kennedy states in the stage directions. This makes you think of the fact that blackness and whiteness are a construct.

“Topdog/Underdog” by Suzan-Lori Parks

The protagonists of this play, first staged in 2001, are two brothers, Lincoln (topdog) and Booth (underdog). They are called like the famous American President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Booth is a 3-card monte hustler, thus he is making money by tricking people, whereas his brother  is a president Lincoln impersonator (Lori-Parks got the idea from another of her plays where a black person impersonates Lincoln by wearing a frock and a top hat in the streets and letting people play at shooting him). 
Jokes are made about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, for example  Booth always mentions shooting people if they don’t do as he pleases (‘Anybody not calling me 3-Card gets a bullet’, p.24). The significance of a black person impersonating Abraham Lincoln is made clear by Booth : ‘You aint going back but you going all the way back. Back to way back then when folks was slaves and shit’ (p.27). President Lincoln is in fact remembered for ending slavery via the Civil War and was assassinated by a Confederate supporter, thus you can understand the irony of a black person impersonating Lincoln and getting shot at. Booth  also shoplifts, while Lincoln has stopped any illegal activity and has accepted a job where he is aware that he is being paid less than a white person would. Booth is the underdog, while Lincoln is the topdog, who has quitted the underlife. They are brothers who, like Cain and Abel, are destined to kill one another (their names are the result of their father’s idea of a joke), unless...

"For colored girls who considered suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf" by Ntozake Shange

This is a "choreopoem", meaning poetry dressed for the stage where the actors also dance. It is a brilliant idea and I'd love to see the movie it has been made out of it. The characters are seven women who are defined by the colour of their dress (Lady in Green, Lady in Red and so on). They recite poems, but the boundaries between them are not clear-cut. The seven women on stage relate their experiences and musings regarding abortion, domestic violence,   AIDS, womanhood and, of course, race. This play, first performed in 1975, was very successful and it was adapted in many countries of the world. It is my favourite of the three plays I am telling you about: some of the poems make you shudder. They are powerful, they have rhythm and life.
Quoting a newspaer article I found on the web: "Shange’s poetry isn’t stylish. It isn’t elegant, and god forbid if it should be structured. That’s establishment, powder-room, sentimental stuff. The beauty of her poetry is in the slap-like, rapid-fire sound of a language liberated from convention in the same way that Shange’s women are liberating themselves from society’s strictures and assumptions in front of your eyes".