The following review came about when I learned that a former student, Chloe Spinnanger, had a fabulous summer internship at a publisher reading Young Adult novels. Because Chloe had taken my The Canterbury Tales course in the spring, I thought her expertise made her perfect for reviewing a recent Canterbury appropriation, Kim Zarins’ Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon Pulse, 2016), which had just been released in paperback. A senior English major at Central Connecticut State University, Chloe didn’t hesitate a second, and her review is below.
The center of Kim Zarins’ first novel is a high-school pilgrimage to Washington D.C.
The story opens with “Just a General Prologue,” which serves as an introduction to the students of Southwark High. The trip takes place “Well into April.” Led by their teacher, Mr. Bailey, the teenagers must each tell a tale to pass the time on the bus. The prize for the best tale? A free A in Civics. Some of the tales are nonsensical, others are pipe dreams. But before long, they get increasingly personal. The title, Sometimes We Tell The Truth, encapsulates the core of the story. Some of the tales are purely fictional. Some use fictional tales to tell the truth about someone. Some use the truth as a preface to a fictional tale. While others simply tell the truth.
It isn’t difficult to connect these high-schoolers to their medieval counterparts. The cover and jacket give no hints to this novel being an appropriation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Instead, this connection is left for readers to figure out on their own. But anyone who has read The Canterbury Tales will find these millennial teenagers familiar. The story is narrated by Jeff, known in his school as a future famous writer. So when Mr. Bailey calls his name, Jeff feels the pressure to tell a good tale. But instead of fiction he ends up exposing something about himself to the whole bus. Jeff’s constant over-analyzing of every social situation makes him the perfect narrator for the tales. It also gives him the believable voice of an an insecure, cynical high-school senior with an AP vocabulary. The other characters are easily identified as well. In this appropriation, however, some of Chaucer’s most loathsome pilgrims, like the Miller (Rooster) or the Pardoner (Pard), are transformed into misunderstood, even likable teenagers. Pard is described as a “Pale, thin haired, high-voiced, tiny guy with extreme fashion sense.” His relationship to Jeff: “It’s complicated.” In Pard’s tale, three of his classmates murder each other for wealth. Is this story ringing any bells yet?
Zarins draws on the complexity of Chaucer’s pilgrims to build relationships between the characters in her story, yet these relationships are where her story differs from Chaucer’s original. One major difference between Zarins’ novel and Chaucer’s tales is the communication between characters. In Sometimes We Tell The Truth, interruptions are a constant: “But what do women want?” Reeve interjects during Alison’s tale. “‘Not you,’ Reiko quips, and everyone laughs.” Some tales are even given second endings by dissatisfied classmates. Another notable change Zarins’ makes is in the gender ratio. While Sometimes We Tell The Truth may have more female characters than Chaucer’s writing did, Zarins makes a point to draw more attention the the still-uneven gender ratio: “This name-drawing thing is a joke—We’ve had four men in a row. And now you want five? Lets have some women speaking here. Enough with mansplaining. It’s our turn.” While this book is aimed towards a YA audience, any fan of Chaucer would find it compelling. It is no surprise that Zarins is a professor of Medieval Literature at Sacramento State University in California.
On the surface, Sometimes We Tell the Truth is a coming of age novel, firmly grounded in the 21st century by a plethora of pop-culture references. But Zarins preserves all of the rivalry, sexuality and even the violence of Chaucer’s original tales. “Bard had the perfect view as Fist came up behind face and shoved a knife under Face’s rib cage. He had the perfect view of Face’s expression, turning from concerned to agonized and betrayed.” In some ways the modernization of Zarin’s teenagers makes Chaucer’s characters more relatable. The passage of time and change in language can alienate modern readers. Today, many readers might not flinch at the Wife of Bath’s young first marriage. However, it is shocking to read about Alison, as she announces to the class “No one loves sex more than I do, but even I’ve had some bumps along the road.” Before she tells her Arthurian romance, she prefaces it with the true story of losing her virginity to a college guy at the age of twelve. As young Jeff confronts the taboos of rape, gender identity, and death, Zarins affirms that these themes are just as prevalent today as they were in Chaucer’s time.
Chloe Spinnanger is a senior English major at Central Connecticut State University. She has interned at Elephant Rock Books, where she was the initial reader of Young Adult novels for the Helen Sheehan Book Prize. Currently, she is an intern at Mandel Vilar Press, where she works as assistant to the editor for the Press’s translations of Spanish-language and environmental authors from Latin America.
In November 2016, Sue Niebrzydowski introduced us to Peniarth MS 106 and its anonymous Troelus a Chresyd. In February, the National Library of Wales followed up with news of the manuscript on its blog. From NLW, we owe our gratitude to Iwan ap Dafydd,Maredudd ap Huw, and Rhodri Shore for their gracious and generous help. And a special thanks to Jacqueline Burek for making us aware of this understudied appropriation of Troilus and Criseyde. By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales.
As an additional treat for Global Chaucers’s readers, Maredudd ap Huw recorded a clip from the prologue to Troelus a Chresyd. Listen and imagine yourself back in a sixteenth-century Welsh-speaking household where a performance of Chaucer’s Trojan love story is about to begin.
by Sue Niebrzydowski, Darllendydd/Reader, Ysgol Llendyddiaeth Saesneg/School of English Literature, Prifysgol Bangor University
Troelus a Chresyd is an example of putting old wine into new bottles. Why was Chaucer’s romance of Troilus and Criseyde translated into a Welsh language play at the close of the sixteenth century? In 1598 George Chapman translated the Seven Books of the Iliades, and there followed a series of Trojan plays: an unidentified play of Troy (1596), Dekker and Chettle’s Troyeles and Creasse daye (1599), both now lost, Thomas Heywood’s two-part play, The Iron Age (?1595–?1596), and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602 or 1603, published 1609). Whoever wrote Troelus a Chresyd did so amid a flurry of interest in all things Trojan.
Troelus a Chresyd differs from English plays about Troy in its emphasis on the doomed relationship of two lovers caught up in the conflict. In basing his play on Chaucer and Henryson, and translating their poetry into another language, our playwright was following in the footsteps of Nicholas Grimald who, in 1559, so John Bale tells us, wrote a Latin, comic play, Troilus ex Chaucero (‘Troilus from Chaucer’) based on Chaucer’s romance. Sadly, this play is now lost.
How might Troelus a Chresyd have been performed? Jones’ copy lacks annotation, and some pages remain uncut, suggesting that the manuscript was used neither as a prompt book nor an acting text of any kind. The ’Iawn urddassol ddarlleydd’ / ‘Right Honorable Reader’ (pp. 38 and 106 of the manuscript) is addressed twice and Chaucer’s narrator, transformed into a ‘chorus’ figure, speaks to an implied audience of ‘Chwchwi rasysol gwmpeini’ / ‘you gracious company’ (opening of Book 1). Troelus a Chresyd may have been designed to be read aloud. Its stage directions, however, suggest performance:
Kalchas yn dywedyd wrtho ei hun / ‘Calchas talking to himself’ (stanza 6)
Kressyd yn dyfod gida Synon, ag yn syrthio ar in glinieu/ ‘Chresyd comes in with Sinon and falls to her knees’ (stanza 25)
Troelws yn dywedydyn issel ynghlysd i vrawd Hector / ‘Troilus whispers into his brother Hector’s ear’ (stanza 32)
Ac ar hynn yma yn llesmeirio. Troylus [sic] a’i gleddyf noeth yn ei law yn ymkanu ei ladd ei hunan / ‘At this point she faints. Troelus draws his sword with the intention of killing himself’ (stanza 146)
Kressyd yn rhoddi ei llaw i Ddiomedes / ‘Chresyd gives her hand to Diomedes’ (stanza 171)
Here we see instructions for entrances and exits, bodily gesture, facial expression, soliloquy and dialogue. Props are required – Troelus’ sword, the brooch that he gives to Chresyd, the mirror in which she sees her altered state, the purse of gold and jewels given to her by Troelus – as is sound (a bell is rung before the judgement of the gods on Chresyd), and costume; Diomedes’ cloak. David Klausner has suggested that during the judgement of the gods against Chresyd, some of the gods may have entered and then paraded wearing headdresses and carrying symbols of their power, akin to masque performance. If so, then music would be appropriate at this point. The whole play can be performed in around an hour-and-a-half, with as few as ten players, and in a single playing space. In August 1954, Gwyn Williams directed Troelus a Chresyd at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Ystradgynlass in the Gwwini Theatre y Deau, demonstrating that it is a performable play.
Where might Troelus a Chresyd have been performed? One possibility is before a Welsh speaking audience of cultured guests, settled comfortably in the hall of a wealthy house in the March of Wales. A private, domestic context might have allowed for the play’s performance by friends or local actors, and for female parts to be played by women. The Welsh-speaking household may have been London-based, those living away from their native Wales, gathering and socialising in their language of choice, to watch or participate in a play on a topic much in vogue. A further possibility is that Troelus a Chresyd was performed at one of the Inns of Court in London. Between 1590 and 1639, 526 members were admitted from Wales, with a strong representation at Lincoln’s Inn and Inner Temple.
That someone chose to translate Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde into Welsh should not surprise as his countrymen had a long established tradition of translation of Latin, French and English works into their native tongue, and vice versa. ‘Troy Story’ was a trend at the turn of the sixteenth century, and the play catered for those interested in Chaucer and this narrative. For those away from their homeland, Chresyd’s lament for her lost city of Troy may have served as a poignant reminder of the North Walian walled cities – of Biwmaris, Conwy and Caernarfon – and of the pain that separation from beloved people and places can cause:
Arnad, Troea, mewn hiraeth a thrymder yr wy’n edrych –
dy dyre uchel a’th reiol gaeref kwmpaswych;
llawer diwrnod llawen a fewn dy gaeref a gefais,
a llawer o hiraeth amdanad ti a ddygais.
O Troea, gwae fi o’r myned!
O Troelus, gwae fi dy weled!
O Troelus, fy anwylyd
On you, Troy, I look with longing and sorrow –
On your high towers and grand encircling walls;
I have had many a glad day within your walls,
and I bear great longing for you.
O Troy, alas for my leaving
O Troilus, alas for my seeing you
O Troilus, my beloved
Troelus a Chresyd, stanza 180
With so many people today exiled from their country and language of origin, this play still has much to say.
 David Klausner ‘English Economies and Welsh Realities: Drama in Medieval and Early Modern Wales’ in Authority and Subjugation in Writing of Medieval Wales edited Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) 213-229 (219).
 Wilfred R. Prest The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts 1590-1640 (London: Longman Group, London, 1972) 33, 36, 37.
A century ago, the United States declared war against Germany and its allies. The same week, Chaucer was making his first (and perhaps) only appearance on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s English-language opera, The Canterbury Pilgrims. To mark this double centennial, we’re reproducing Candace’s account in her American Chaucers (2007) of the fifth performance when the evening was interrupted by news that the United States would be entering the Great War in Europe.
During the spring of 1917, New York’s Metropolitan Opera lavishly mounted the premiere performances of Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s The Canterbury Pilgrims. One of the first full-length American grand operas to appear on the Metropolitan’s stage, the opera received primarily lukewarm reviews: it seemed neither very grand nor very American. Sung in English by a largely German cast, the opera was frequently critiqued for being no more intelligible to the audience than an opera in German or Italian. The only English words universally recognized by the audience were in Act Two, when the German-accented “Vife of Bat” cried “Shud upp-phh!” On the evening of the fifth performance, however, the audience was probably less concerned than before about discerning the fine points of the pilgrims’ journey to Canterbury, preoccupied instead with the news due from the White House at any minute.
For months, the captains of American commerce and industry, many of whom were at the Metropolitan on that evening of April 2, were eager for President Wilson to declare the nation at war against Germany and its allies. At the end of the third act, word arrived that President Wilson had advised Congress to accept “the status of belligerent” that the behavior of the Imperial German Government had thrust upon the American people. As the New York Herald reported, the news spread as “the blackface typed extras” were passed from the lobby “to the orchestra seats and then to the boxes.” Within five minutes, patrons had abandoned all decorum and newspapers were spread out over the box railings. The American audience was jubilant at the news. Whereas the librettist had once hoped the Chaucerian opera would “[restore] old merry England to the imaginations of men” and turn their minds to the woos of England under assault, this night the war in Europe captured American imaginations and turned their minds away from The Canterbury Pilgrims. When it came time to begin the fourth and final act, Maestro Bodanzky soberly entered the orchestra pit and conducted the musicians in the national anthem, while the audience stood up and sang. James W. Gerard, the United States ambassador recalled from Germany, marshaled three cheers for President Wilson, and the house of 3,500 roared with approval for the President’s war message. After the cheering died down, Bodanzky led the orchestra in “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a second time before finally starting Act Four.
The final act began in front of Canterbury Cathedral’s impressive west entrance, with the Canterbury Girls chorus hawking their wares. Then entered the Wife of Bath (German alto Margrete Ober), dressed “gorgeously as a bride,” ready to claim husband number six, and gloating about her newly-won “pot of honey.” In the middle of a phrase, unable any longer to control her anxiety about the United State’s impending entry into hostilities against her native land, Mme. Ober fell back in a dead faint. “In that condition, she was lifted and dragged off with some difficulty, not to reappear, while the other stars made the best they could of the closing act without her.” Offstage, Robert Leonhardt, the German baritone singing the role of the Knight, also fainted but was revived in time to join the final chorus.
Despite the episode of the fainting Wife of Bath, ticket receipts for the Metropolitan’s seven productions of The Canterbury Pilgrims merited extending the opera company’s contract with deKoven for another season. But before the next season began, not only the fainting Germans but all German nationals were sent home, forcing the cancellation of The Canterbury Pilgrims’ second season and allowing its chances to join the Metropolitan’s repertory to slip away. The opera, however, had faced a Sisyphean task: it sought to bring a vernacular libretto and music to an audience that distinguished itself from the rabble precisely by dismissing the American vernacular in favor of European standards of verse and music. As much as the opera was undermined by the repatriated Germans, ultimately the opera was undermined by the production conditions, in particular the decision to use German soloists to sing the principle parts in English, a decision neither the composer nor the librettist could control.
. The opera had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on March 8, 1917.
. Irving Kolodin, The Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1966: A Candid History (New York: Knopf, 1966), 309–13.
. Scrapbook Clipping, New York Evening Journal, March 9, 1917, MacKaye Family Archives, “Percy MacKaye Papers,” Collection housed at Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, New Hampshire, ML 5.
. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 352–54. Though the war was a boon to commercial interests, the majority of Americans did not support entering the war (T. J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 [June 1985]: 586, fn 46).
. Scrapbook clipping, New York Herald, April 8, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers.”
. Correspondence, PM to RdK, July 19, 1915, “Percy MacKaye Papers”.
. Quaintance Eaton, The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1967 (New York: Meredith Press, 1968), 194–95.
. Percy MacKaye, lyricist, and Reginald deKoven, composer, The Canterbury Pilgrims, An Opera in Four Acts (Cincinnati and New York: John Church Company, 1916), 54.
. Percy MacKaye, The Canterbury Pilgrims: An Opera (Libretto) (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 54; and, Scrapbook clipping, unknown source, April 3, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”. Compare this with Metropolitan manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s version: “There was an immense stir in the house. Backstage, in the wings, Mme. Margarete Ober, who was a patriotic German, was so affected by the news that she fainted away, and we had to go through the last act without her” (Memories of the Opera [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941], 179–80). According to all sources, Mme. Ober did sing the season’s remaining two performances.
Already, the opera was associated with entering the war: the second performance had been attended by Ambassador James Gerard (had he nothing better to do?), and the New York City Times duly noted that he “listened with evident interest to a language which he and his official staff had been hissed for using when attending theatres in Berlin” (Scrapbook clipping, March 17, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”).
“Whan that Aprille Day” (the annual celebration of old, dead, and undead tongues) is rapidly approaching! Enjoy this posting by Prof. Courtney Rydel (Washington College) on ways to celebrate this occasion. – Global Chaucers co-directors
Coming at the beginning of April, National Poetry Month in the United States, “Whan That Aprille Day” is a holiday begun by the @LeVostreGC persona behind “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” and “Chaucer Doth Tweet” in 2014. @LeVostreGC proposed medievalists unite in our efforts to celebrate “the beauty and great loveliness of studying the words of the past. Our mission is to bring to mind the importance of supporting the scholarship and labor that brings these words to us…and the teaching of these…languages. For without all of this, the past would have no words for us” [read the full 2017 iteration of this open call at the medieval studies blog In The Middle].
In spring 2016, I curated an event on Multilingual Chaucer, gathering students and faculty from across Washington College, the small liberal arts college in Maryland where I teach. Since then, I’ve participated in another large-scale Chaucer project that was directed towards the larger community, #MedievalBirds with ornithologist Jennie Carr, work on which is still ongoing. Currently I am planning a major Chaucerian event for spring 2018, with guest speaker Kim Zarins, that will involve collaboration with the Education department and local high school teachers.
Based on these experiences, I would like to offer some suggestions for other medievalists looking to create exciting events to celebrate “Whan That Aprille Day” on their campus. Although the event originated with celebrating Chaucer, that context should not be limiting. “Whan That Aprille Day” has the goal of celebrating the “beauty and great loveliness” in all languages. Any language, literature, or poetry is welcome!In this contemporary moment when the NEA and NEH are threatened, we need to come together as humanists and poetry lovers. The more that medievalists connect with scholars of modern languages and across disciplines, and with our larger community, the stronger we will be.
Celebrate the gifts and skills of your students and faculty, and show them how they connect to Chaucer. At Washington College we hosted a reading of “Multilingual Chaucer,” which included students and faculty reading poetry in languages including Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, German, Hindi, Old English, and Middle English. Some readers read their favorite poems in other languages, and some read Chaucer or Chaucer translations. The mixture of languages and diverse poems brought alive how “The Father of English Poetry” inhabited a multilingual space, and allowed us to hear the many languages of our polyglot, increasingly international campus.
If you’re going global, check out the fantastic Global Chaucers online archive, created by Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington. This resource for post-1945 global non-Anglophone translations of Chaucer offers sample texts, blog posts and scholarship on Chaucer in modern contexts, and reflections on his impact in the contemporary landscape.
Look to interdisciplinary and collaborative research. My biologist colleague Jennie Carr and I undertook a project on #MedievalBirds in fall 2016, in which we combined her expertise on ornithology with my research to create an interactive downtown gallery exhibit on Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. We involved students in creating a physical tree that branched onto the ceiling, showing how Chaucer’s categories of birds overlapped with evolutionary development, and in creating videos of students reciting passages from the Parliament of Fowls with present-day English translations in closed captioning.
Think about going beyond your college into the community. For Spring 2018, Washington College is planning an event that brings together high school teachers with our community to think about Chaucer in relation to the brilliant YA lit retelling of the Canterbury Tales by Kim Zarins, Sometimes We Tell the Truth. This event will give us an opportunity to bring together our LGBTQIA student groups as well as our secondary ed community with lovers of poetry and medieval studies. Kim has graciously agreed to come and do a reading and craft talk, and the Education department is collaborating with us on a workshop with high school teachers to help them craft more in-depth lesson plans and relate Chaucer to contemporary issues.
Include other medievalists, faculty, and even emeritus faculty with a love of Chaucer! Our beloved emeritus faculty Bennett Lamond, who taught Chaucer for decades at Washington College starting back in 1965, read at our Multilingual Chaucer event. He gave a hilarious, spirited reading of “To Rosamunde,” likening it to the Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Get students involved in their own retellings and rewritings of Chaucer. David Wallace’s undergraduate Chaucer course at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2014 held an event in which students debuted both their own readings of Chaucer in the original Middle English as well as inspired, irreverent translations into present-day English.
Direct your event to increase opportunities for outreach on your campus. Are there other departments or programs with which you want to collaborate? How can Chaucer connect to other time periods and topics? Maybe you want to celebrate Chaucer’s influence on later art and media with your Media Studies or Art History departments. Perhaps you want to work with your Gender Studies department on an event that looks at gender roles in Chaucer, or with Comparative Literature or Modern Languages scholars on an event that highlights translation.
Advertise! We had co-sponsors who also helped to publicize the event, including the Global Education Office, Department of English, Department of Modern Languages, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Poetry Club, and Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society). Their efforts, along with our posters, tweets, and announcements, ensured a good turnout for the event.
Use social media for collaboration, connections and archiving. This international holiday was created and promoted through social media, so it’s important to create records, post pictures and videos, and tweet, blog or Facebook with the hashtag #WhanThatAprilleDay17 (please note the spelling).
Of course, all of these reflections come from the perspective of a medievalist working in English, who teaches Chaucer. Although “Whan That Aprille Day” started from a Chaucer parody account and remains Middle English heavy, its goal is wide and universal, and it offers possibilities for global and multilingual exchange, just as Chaucer himself makes in his poetry. In the words of @LeVostreGC, “we hope that the connections, affinities, and joys of this made-up linguistic holiday will widely overflow their initial medieval English context.”
We are delighted to co-publish with In the Middle David Wallace’s witty and perceptive analysis of The Tale of Januarie, an opera in Middle English recently premiered at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. –Jonathan and Candace
by David Wallace
The Tale of Januarie
Music by Julian Philips, libretto by Stephen Plaice, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, 27 February to 6 March 2017
Middle English is the surprise star turn of this opera. Librettist Stephen Plaice, shortly before the final public performance, spoke of the liberating effect of writing in a medium with greater flexibility and plasticity than modern English can muster. Variation of stress, word order, and spelling multiply expressive options, and final -e proves more singable, with sicknesse working better than blunt sickness. Having feared that Middle English would be academic and dry, Plaice found it quite the opposite: “a treat!” Having now moved on to write a libretto based on a Conrad novel, he misses the fizz, so he says, of medieval language. Working with Middle English, Plaice says, makes modern English seem “deadening”: an interesting word choice, bumping Middle English from the “dead language” column. Composer Julian Philips agrees: Middle proves simply more singable than modern English. Consonants are hard to vocalize; sicknesse or herte move us closer to Italian, the chief language of opera and of opera training. Also, says our composer, Middle English renders “familiar” English strange-yet-familiar; each word must be newly weighed, for expressive possibilities, with no “default” position. And clearly different rhythmic-linguistic strains flow close to the surface of Middle English: Frenchified elements, suggesting courtliness and “triplety feel,” pitch themselves against Germanic bluntness (“bulles ballokes by yow”).
The work that became The Tale of Januarie began as part of a taught MA at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, developing from chamber piece to full-blown, fully-produced opera (with excellent staging and lighting, and phenomenally energetic playing from the pit). It was supported by the “Cross-Language Dynamics” project, led by the University of Manchester and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Setting Middle English in this “translingual strand” provoked much discussion, leading to gradual realization of its aptness for opera. Lovers of this medium are well attuned to hearing languages they do not speak; opera puts meaning over by relying not just upon words sung, but also by combining sonic, scenic, visual, and bodily elements. One audience member compared experiencing The Tale of Januarie to “listening to something in a foreign language that you know quite well.”
Composer and librettist, and later director and designers, had nine months to research and develop the project, from first inklings to opening night. Much of what followed depended upon the varied talents available locally, at Guildhall. Both Philips and Plaice had studied Chaucer at school, and fortunately both had been “set” the Merchant’s Tale. Composer Philips followed the melodic lines of Middle English while borrowing, he says, from Machaut’s Ballades, and from secular songs. He also experimented with Pythagorean tuning, a mode especially associated with Pluto’s on stage entourage of courtly musicians, one of whom, Elisabeth Flett, proved doubly adroit at bagpipes and medieval fiddle. Librettist Plaice remembers being long ago enchanted by the sound of Chaucerian Middle English as committed to vinyl by Oxford don, and theatrical impresario, Nevill Coghill. But on turning to Coghill’s Penguin translation, first published in 1951 and still going strong, he was disappointed: “the music,” he said, “has gone out of it.” In attempting to put music back in, Plaice was led not only to borrow, bend, and adapt Chaucerian lines but also to essay Middle English, Middle English-ish, composition. In what follows I consider first this liberation of the librettist, and then his difficulties– which are not so much his difficulties, but those of Everyman, in anxious times.
Both composer and librettist became increasingly aware, in developing The Tale of Januarie, of their work resonating strangely with, but often against, an ever more alienating present. Philips, in working through the time of “Brexit horror,” found solace in celebrating multilingual English, “as if writing an opera in two or three languages at the same time.” Plaice found uncanny historical resonance in the folly of January’s vanity building project: “we’re going to build A WALL!” The huge wall on stage, erected to create a private space for Januarie and May, fails (like every wall since Hadrian’s, or China’s, or the Great Hedge of India) to exclude, building only the illusion of an isolated, self-sufficient place. Januarie‘s final stage direction is “the TOWNSFOLK are demolishing the wall again.”
Plaice’s jouissance in composing Middle English expresses itself chiefly through street cries, wassailing songs, and in ditties sung by Proserpina and her attendant nymphs. His lines are generally shorter than standard Chaucerian, and his chief source of inspiration or encouragement here, Plaice says, are those songs sung in Shakespearean comedies. The apotheosis of such writing comes “In the Privy” (Act 2 scene 3), where May seeks to enjoy
Sweet pees of the privee
the onlie place I kan sit alone.
The Middle English-like alliterating of the first line works nicely here, and place in the second begs for a second syllable, just before the caesura. It is upon this eminence, her privy-throne, that May reads her letter from Damyan, ignoring Januarie’s off-stage cries, and then sings “an aria of revenge on her former employer” (stage direction), Maistresse Wellow:
Well, now I am wed
With a lover in store,
I’m richer than yow,
Far richer mor.
So Maistresse Wellow
bulles ballokes by yow,
go boyle, go frie,
you’re not werth a cow.
At this point of the opera, seated beneath the canopy of her outhouse “privee,” May dominates the stage and directs events. The very next scene, however, brings her down– and this is perhaps where the librettist’s difficulties begin, too. The scene, called “Back in the Bedroom,” sees aged Januarie demanding sexual compliance from youthful May, his new wife:
Stonde and strepe on the bedde!
In the preestes bok the rubriche seye –
a wyf shul shewe her buxomness alwey . . .
May resists, Januarie becomes more peremptory (“Strepe naked!”), and Proserpina is outraged:
A wyf is not a pepe and se!
May finally begins to comply, removing her clothes, Pluto arrives and does nothing, Proserpina strikes Januarie blind: end of Act 2.
Theatrical tension towards the end of Act 2 stems from the fact that in standing and stripping on the bed, at Januarie’s command, May would expose herself to the entire theatre. Act 1 had concluded with the wedding night, in which Januarie performs his “trespace” upon May in private:
stage direction: He closes the curtains on the four-poster bed. Noises from within.
Such “noises” are comically augmented by the pit, with much use of squeaky toys. And this, as May boasts to Maistresse Wellow, is a union to which she, May, has consented. Januarie is at fault in the second scene because May does not consent again— and here a gulf opens between medieval and modern understandings of the marriage contract. Or, we might rather say, differences between legal assumptions extending from the Middle Ages to the 1970s (with marital rape not recognized as a crime in all fifty states of the USA until 1993) and the present. In the Middle Ages, au contraire, consent is effectively given once only, at the wedding, as each party contracts “the marriage debt.” After that, says Chaucer’s most famous exponent of this concept, the wife no longer possesses control of her own body, nor the husband:
I have the power durynge al my lyf!
Upon his propre body, and noght he.
(Wife of Bath’s Tale, 3.158-9)
For the librettist of The Tale of Januarie issues of consent loom, topically and understandably, large. The final day of performance, the day of public discussion, saw England’s only significant liberal newspaper, The Guardian, lead with the headline “‘Epidemic of sex harassment in universities” (with the further headline “Resistance is female: The new wave of protest” top left, a feature in the G2 section). Campus sexual harassment, as The Guardian detailed throughout the week, and as most everybody knows, mostly involves older men forcing themselves upon younger women, Januarie coercing May. In 2017, then, Januarie must be stopped in his tracks, called out, and punished through imposition of a disability: blindness.
Campus rape, consent, and sexual harassment are still issues that campus authorities struggle to see as individual stories to be heard; when the librettist or indeed academics of my generation were at college, as undergraduates, this was much more so. The enhanced isolation and punishment of Januarie is thus understandable, albeit (I would suggest) somewhat panicked. Panic perhaps stems from the fact that all six core members of this production team (director, designer, lighting designer, conductor, composer, and librettist) are men. And it must be said that presentation of sexuality in this production is notably, egregiously, penis-driven. When the curtain first rises Priapus is seen on stage, pushing a heavy wooden wheelbarrow. This barrow, it turns out, transports his own gigantic phallus– at first, and generally thereafter, covered with sacking, but eventually unveiled by Proserpina’s nymphs. Said nymphs have much fun at the beginning of Act 3 in provoking Priapus. He wheels hopelessly after them, but their joint chorus of disapprobation is
Somme seyen ye, we seyen ne,
That has nought to do with love!
(emphasis added in the singing)
Priapus is referenced in the Merchant’s Tale, but only as a descriptor of gardens (4.2034-7). His only other appearance in Chaucer comes in The Parliament of Fowls (a text from which the librettist sources some textual material):
The god Priapus saw I, as I wente,
Withinne the temple in sovereyn place stonde,
In swich aray as whan the asse hym shente
With cri by nighte, and with his sceptre in honed. (253-6)
Priapus does momentarily enjoy the spotlight here, “in sovereyn place,” albeit disabled by his giant stiffie. But it is worth noting that “the temple” housing him is that of Venus; later in the poem, Chaucer walks out into a pleasant, grassy domain to find another female deity, Nature, governing matters of sexual attraction and reproduction. In The Tale of Januarie, however, anxiety about the penis couples with rule and narration by the penis (and I’ll stick with penis, rather than phallus, since it is palpably and pinkly there, on stage, in the wheelbarrow). For strangely, Priapus (who more often speaks than sings) is the tale’s narrator, from the start:
stage direction: PRIAPUS wheels his barrow into the foreground and addresses the audience.
PRIAPUS spoken: Whilom ther was dwellinge in Lumbardye
A worthy knyght . . .
So whereas we might say that a poem such as the Parliament is structured by successive and diverse visions of all-encompassing female sexuality, Januarie seems rather driven by anxieties arising from the penis, the phallus, Priapus (the last of the characters to leave the stage, “with his empty wheelbarrow”).
As in The Merchant’s Tale, Januarie has his sight restored by Pluto just in time to see May’s “struggle” with Damyan upon the pear tree; as in Chaucer, some new form of understanding is then negotiated between husband and wife. But for The Tale of Januarie, this is not the end, and a “Finale” is appended to Act IV. Librettist and composer thought Chaucer’s tale, so they said, to be somehow “unfinished.” The logic governing their additive ending might be compared with that of Robert Henryson, in his Testament of Cresseid: the protagonist found guilty of sexual crimes should not get off so lightly. The final scene, described as “Autumn,” begins with townfolk and rustics celebrating the fruitful season. Pluto, borrowing a scythe from a grass-cutter, suddenly becomes Death (with exact visual modelling upon Death in Bergman’s Seventh Seal). Januarie negotiates with Pluto-Death for extra time: “An half-yeere?” Pluto refuses all bids for extended life: not even a day’s leave will be granted:
JANUARIE: Oon deye.
PLUTO: Noon deye.
JANUARIE: Noone deye!
PLUTO: Noone deye.
JANUARIE: Then I must leet heer for alweye?
Januarie then attempts to approach May, who is heavily pregnant. Pluto and Proserpina debate (yea and nay) whether Januarie should retain the comforting illusion of human legacy, fruit of his sexual labor. Having exclaimed “An blood heir. An fader I am!” as his parting words, Januarie descends to the underworld with Pluto and Proserpina (herself, of course, subjected to perennial raptus). This last scene gathers up some of the theatrical memory of Henry IV, Part II, where the new monarch, in the presence of his rehabilitated Lord Chief Justice, casts off Falstaff. Sir John, however, retains some hope of social rehabilitation; Januarie has none.
In Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, judgements passed by the tutelary deities pertain to all men and women. Or at least, all women: Pluto merely capitulates (“I yeve it up!” 4.2312) when faced down by Proserpina’s feminist decree:
Now by my moodres sires soule I swere
That I shal yeven hire suffisant answere,
And alle wommen after, for hir sake. (4.2265-7)
The Pluto of The Tale of Januarie, unlike his Chaucerian counterpart, overrides the will of his wife, evolving into one of those lurking ducal or despotic figures familiar from Shakespeare: Vincentio in Measure for Measure, for example. While Proserpina and her nymphs frolic at the beginning of Act 3, Pluto “is some distance off, watching, but uninvolved” (stage direction). The judgement delivered upon Januarie at the end of his contemporary Tale, his repudiation and isolation, seems especially harsh when compared to the inclusive Chaucerian ethos of “alle wommen,” and all men under women. Centuries of post-Shakespearean theatre helped shape this end, riding the deep current of a non-negotiable, post-Reformation divide between the society of the elect and those condemned to darkness. But Januarie’s final isolating of Januarie as a man who fails to seek a woman’s sexual consent also symptomatizes the anxieties of a male-authored, male-produced text of our own time. Issues of consent concern all men, not just a few individual, isolable malefactors, and “alle women” also.
The Tale of Januarie achieves something always to be hoped for in this kind of contact experiment: that the earlier text, erupting into the present, should expose contemporary anxieties and blindspots. Additionally, while necessarily working through certain intermediary Shakespearean conventions, The Tale of Januarie effects conjunctures between past and present that speak to remarkable continuities over time: what is funny then can be funny now; a privy is still a place for private reading. The most obvious sign of such continuity is the prop that dominates the stage, from first to last: the giant tree. For the Middle Ages, of course, the tree is the most fraught and fruitful of symbols, connecting the garden of Eden, and its apples, to the tree of the cross. And for the most iconic of modernist productions, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the tree (first without, and then later with leaves) is the one indispensable feature of stage design. The tree of Januarie is first seen bare, as the play opens; by play’s end it is full of fruit. It thus marks the duration of drama, but also queer continuity with the time and language of Middle English, dialoguing with this Tale. Priapus has the play’s last word:
The pere hath ripen on its tree.
Thus endeth heere the Tale of Januarie.
This ending is especially poignant since, so far as I can find out, no video trace remains of this extraordinary, sometimes ferocious, collaboration of musicians, actors, singers, and designers. Women did not script or direct The Tale of Januarie, but made their mark on stage through full-blooded portrayals of May and Proserpina, of market women Friuli, Ravizza, and Signore Farina, as maidservants Rosina, Julietta, and Laura, and as nymphs Nightshade, Flycap, and Mandrake.
All this, while lingering in the mind, is gone like smoke.
with thanks for quick and crucial responses from Crystal Bartolovich, Carissa Harris, Robin Kirkpatrick, Clare Lees, and Elaine Nixon; and with further thanks to Candace Barrington and J.J. Cohen.
On Monday, 8 March 2016, Medievalists at the University of Chicago hosted a discussion on the ways we can resist the appropriation of the Middle Ages by the political right. Follow this link for Carly Boxer’s very useful storification of the event. It includes not only the event’s twitter conversation, but also links to the readings.
Back in November 2016, I received a delightful parcel from my cousin, Shanna Buck, who regularly shuttles between Pampa, Texas, and Budapest, Hungary. Inside were copies of of Szenczi Miklós’ 1961 translation, Canterbury Mesék, and Júlia Képes’ 1986 translation, Troilus és Cressida! What a treat!
Although the outside windchill is 10 degrees F, the opening lines of the Prológus intially put me in a hopeful, springtime spirit:
Ha édes záporait április
a szomjas földre önti, lenne friss,
hadd kortyolhasson a mohó gyökér,
s virág serkenjen: sárga, kék, fehér;
ha Zephyrus fuvalma édesen
szétkóborol erdökön, réteken
s bont új rügyet; ha már a zsenge nap
a Kos felén tul víg eröre kap….
As I looked more closely, though, I gathered that my sense of hope was my own projection, not what the Hungarian text conveyed. Let me explain.
Without any knowledge of Hungarian, it is clear that the translation marks each of Chaucer’s “What that…” clauses with “Ha,” a word that Google Translate equates with English “If” and only “If.” When I translate the passage into French, I get the same: “Si” and not “Quand.” This conditional, “Ha,” transforms Chaucer’s “Whan” from a marker of seasonal events that regularly and cyclically happen to a marker of events that might happen. Moreover, there’s something about “édes” (which Google Translate translates as “sweet” when it stands along) that marks “áprilles” with a first-person possessive, “my” when it is returned to the entire line. In this translation, Miklós seems to be taking possession (and responsibility) of springtime events that may not happen–or at least seemed they might not ever happen in 1961 Hungary.
Of course, this is all conjectural. I’m relying not on my knowledge of Hungarian but on Google Translate, a resource of variable reliability. It’s also unclear to me how many other translators were involved in the project; perhaps as many as another ten “Fordította” contributed to the translation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Canterbury Mesék and Troilus és Cressida can tell us a great deal about medieval and English literature’s reception in the Hungarian People’s Republic (1949-1989). I’m eager to get started on this work.