The Tale of Januarie: Translingualism and Anxietie, Sexuality and Time

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

Tale of Januarie Chaucer Guildhall January
Photo courtesy of David Wallace

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 Tale of Januarie Guardianunderstandably, 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thrice Translations

Front of the King's Theatre, Haymarket, London

At Penn Humanities Forum’s 28 February 2017 seminar, Lily Kass asked us to consider what happens when a text is translated across multiple languages, multiple genres, and multiple cultures, landing back in the source culture in an intermediary genre but in still another language.  Such is the back history of Da Ponte and Antonio Sacchini’s late 1790s’s opera, Evelina; or, the triumph of the English over the Romans. Although the opera’s roots are in William Mason’s 1749 closet drama, Caractacus, a Dramatic Poem: Written on the Model of the Ancient Greek Tragedy—and though it goes through a couple of generic and linguistic transformations in France—when the opera returns to London it dressed as an Italian opera with an Italian libretto based on the French, not the English text.  Moreover, when the text returns to London nearly half a century later, it appears in an entirely different political environment, necessitating us to recognized another generic translation.

Akin to a game of telephone, the series of translations ostensibly maintain the basic thrust of Mason’s lines through the series of translations. Yet, because the musical score requires adjustments be made as the text moves across languages, change is introduced. Sometimes, however, changes appear for no discernible reason, and we’re left to speculate what sort of effect the word choices would have on the audience.

Chaucer and WWI

flying-with-chaucer
Hall’s  Flying with Chaucer (1930), a memoir of his war experience as a pilot and prisoner.

When The Great War ended 98 years ago, James Norman Hall (who would eventually co-write with  Mutiny on the Bounty) walked out of a German prisoner of war camp with a copy of The Canterbury Tales in hand. As we mark this anniversary, it seems fitting to consider how the war shaped Chaucer’s global reception.

 

The years before the war mark the move from antiquarian appreciation of Chaucer to philological and historicist scholarship written by men affiliated with universities in England and the US.

Because the war confirmed England’s role on the global stage, the war and its pro-English colonization aftermath propelled Chaucer’s worldwide dissemination.  Notably, Chaucer was beginning to be transmitted via non-Anglophone translations, a phenomenon propelled by the Treat of Versailles and its creation of international consortia that promoted and recorded translations, as evidenced in the the Translation Index begun within a decade after the end of the war.

In the States, we find evidence in the early 1920s that Chaucer’s readership was expanding through such institutional innovations as Chautauqua Institutes, Women’s Colleges, and Women’s Clubs.  And though Chaucer remained primarily within institutions of higher education, adaptations for younger readers began to appear frequently, a sign parents and teachers were preparing the groundwork for the children’s later college education.

Wales Book of the Year in 2015: English language poetry shortlist

catryn-williams-at-y-chwarel

In a bit of belated news, one of our favorite Global Chaucers, Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, was short-listed for the Roland Mathias poetry award as part of the 2015 Wales Book of the Year selections (English language category).  Agbabi’s Welsh heritage adds another interesting dimension to her fabulous adaptation of The Canterbury Tales. (Thanks to Jackie Burek for the tip!)

(Image: Catryn Williams, “At y Chwarel”)

 

Refugee Tales: ebook available now!

by JONATHAN HSY

refugee-cover-400dpi
Cover of Refugee Tales (forthcoming from Comma Press, 2016).

Refugee Tales is now available for purchase as an e-book (or pre-order a hard copy)!

This collection includes the contributions by Patience Agbabi (former Poet Laureate of Canterbury and author of Chaucerian remix Telling Tales), as well as other artists and storytellers from varied backgrounds. (We’ve mentioned Agbabi’s work throughout various blog posts, and you can read more about the “Refugee Tales” project here; see also my related posting on the global refugee crisis at In The Middle.)

Refugee Tales is a multi-voiced collection that conveys “the frighteningly common experiences of Europe’s new underclass – its refugees. … Presenting their accounts anonymously, as modern day counterparts to the pilgrims’ stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, this book offers rare, intimate glimpses into otherwise untold suffering” (read more on the Comma Press website).

I’ve already acquired the e-book and can already say that the poetry and stories in this book are at once beautiful, provocative, and moving.

Note all profits from this book go to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help for Refugees.

Note there are many events happening in July 2016 (before and throughout the New Chaucer Society Congress in London) relating to the Refugee Tales project; see event listing here (note the forum and various scheduled legs of the walk, a “reverse” pilgrimage along the route from Canterbury to Westminster).

Upcoming events of interest:

Friday, 8 July 2016: Presentations from Refugee Tales at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Ali Smith,”The Detainees Tale”; David Herd, “The Prologue;” and Patience Agbabi, “The Refugee’s Tale.” [Book tickets here – SOLD OUT as of 10 June]

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: Reading by Patience Agbabi coinciding with the New Chaucer Society Congress in London; she will deliver an interactive reading entitled “Herkne and Rede” drawing from Telling Tales that explores poetry performance as dynamic adaptation. [This is a public event. Scroll to the end of this schedule; more info will be forthcoming on this blog]

The Refugee Tales Walk

DSCF2129_lonewalkerTaking a cue from Chaucer’s band of pilgrims,  participants in Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s Refugee Tales Walk are midway through their 9-day walk on the North Downs Way from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury. Along the way, writers, musicians and other artists will share tales inspired by the migrants and refugees: The General Prologue, The Migrant’s Tale, The Chaplain’s Tale, The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale, The Arriver’s Tale, The Lorry Driver’s Tale, The Visitor’s Tale, The Detainee’s Tale, The Interpreter’s Tale, The Appellant’s Tale, The Counsellor’s Tale, The Dependent’s Tale, The Friend’s Tale, The Deportee’s Tale, The Lawyer’s Tale, The Refuge’s Tale, The Ex-Detainee’s Tale, and a Reprise of the Tales.

Photos and journal entries provide the rest of us an opportunity to share in the events.

Thanks to Dan Kline for alerting us to this deeply moving project.

See also, the Times Higher Education article.

Teaching the Wife of Bath through Adaptation

by JONATHAN HSY

Reading Agbabi and Breeze
Reading Agbabi and Watching Breeze

Here on the Global Chaucers blog we’ve addressed how Chaucerian material moves across time and space, and the variety of voices featured in this venue have explored academic research methods, translation studies, artistic creation, and online community. In this posting, I offer some thoughts on how the Global Chaucers project can shape undergraduate teaching.

A few weeks ago (in my introductory survey of literature of the early British Isles), we spent our class session discussing modern-day adaptations of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue (WBP) and Wife of Bath’s Tale (WBT). Here was the assignment posted on the course blog:

This week we discussed the description of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue as well as her entire performance. Before our next class, please view these short online videos (modern-day adaptations of the Wife of Bath’s performance). As you watch these adaptations, consider these questions: 1. How does each performance invite you to re-consider aspects of Chaucer’s original? 2. Which adaptation is your favorite?

The Wife of Bath’s Tale (1998): animation by Joanna Quinn. Modern English rendition with intriguing visuals.

The Loathly Lady (2009): words by Prof. Wendy Steiner, music by Paul Richards. Very loose comic opera (musical) adaptation of the WBT.

The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market” (2009): poem by Jean “Binta” Breeze. Modernization of the WBP heavily influenced by Jamaican varieties of English, filmed by the poet herself on site in London (more info on this poet here).

The Wife of Bafa” (2013): spoken word adaptation of WBP by Patience Agbabi (London poet of Nigerian ancestry); note also the text of the poem and the poet’s reflections on her composition process. Note: This performance closely follows the text published in Ababi’s Transformatrix (2000); a new version of this work interspersing the WBT itself appears in Agbabi’s Telling Tales (2014).

[OPTIONAL] The Lover’s Confession: Three Tales by John Gower (2014): Machinima adaptations of three of Gower’s Confessio tales. Producer/director Prof. Sarah Higley recorded these cyber-performances live using avatar-actors in Second Life. If you wish, you can go directly to The Tale of Florent (2014), which is Gower’s analogue to the WBT (you can also read the original Middle English text of Gower’s version).

We read and discussed both WBT and WBP (in that order) before moving on to these adaptations. The questions I posed before class were deliberately open-ended, and we opened our discussion by considering the animated version of the WBT by Joanna Quinn. Since the basic elements of the plot remain unchanged, our conversation quickly started to consider what the new visual medium adds to the story. Students immediately noted that the axe- and sword-wielding Queen (and silent reaction shots from the women assembled at court, including the unnamed maiden whose rape launches the story) all work to foreground the importance of female agency throughout this story. The toggling from stop-action animation (for the pilgrimage frame narrative) to a fluid style of drawing (for the tale itself) suggest the Chaucerian work’s concurrent layers of fictionality.

Our conversation about these adaptations became especially lively when we started to compare the reinventions of WBP by Jean “Binta” Breeze and Patience Agbabi. While these interpretations are quite distinct, approaching these two videos as a pair helped us to think more creatively about the performance context of Chaucer’s WBP itself. In Agbabi’s work, students picked up on the comic delivery of this piece as well as its new cultural context: this Nigerian immigrant, named Mrs. Alice Ebi Bafa, reveals much about her life just as she seeks to sell her wares. Equal parts autobiography and sales pitch, this dramatic conceit draws out the economic discourses used throughout the Wife of Bath’s portrait and prologue. At the same time, the audible laughter in response to Agbabi’s performance speak back to the Wife of Bath’s claim that her “entente nys but for to pleye.”

Our discussion concluded with Breeze’s performance of her own version of the WBP in a variety of English influenced by Jamaican oral traditions; the nonstandard spelling in the printed text suggest an oral quality and the performance captures rhythms and cadences of speech that evoke a broader Jamaican diaspora. The site of this performance–Brixton Market, which has been for generations the center of a diverse Afro-Caribbean immigrant community (the so-called “soul of Black Britain“)–provides a new cultural setting for a monologue about sex and marriage. The narrator delivers her performance as she moves through the physical space of the market, passing by produce stands and busy shoppers. Serendipitous reaction shots (note the passing woman’s disapproving and/or amused glance at the speaker at 1:01) suggest the disruptive qualities of the Wife of Bath character. She performs in a way that conspicuously thwarts the rhythms of everyday life and perceived norms of social behavior. The conspicuous headdress she wears resonates with the garments worn by the Chaucerian Wife of Bath but here the clothing also serves as a clear marker of ethnic difference (or, to put it another way, ethnic belonging).

Screenshot from Breeze performance
A passerby reacts to Breeze’s interpretation of the Wife of Bath.

One issue that came up in our discussion was whether Breeze’s revision of the Wife of Bath replaces the problematic medieval Alisoun with new kind of modern cultural stereotype (one of the students remarked that this kind of performance is not too far from the “sassy black woman” archetype described in this encyclopedia of popular media tropes). Another student in class who happens to come from a family of Jamaican ancestry chimed in to observe that the dress and style of speech in Breeze’s performance seemed culturally appropriate (insofar as features of her pronunciation, grammar, and intonation were concerned). Through these student reactions to Breeze’s performance, a new overarching question had emerged. Does such an adaptation risk substituting one set of (medieval misogynist) tropes with a contemporary (sexualized) ethnic stereotype?

Brixton Market panorama
Thinking about space: Brixton Market [photo taken March 2014].
Discussing the unintended consequences of Breeze’s performance in Brixton Market also gave our class an opportunity to consider some of this work’s possible connections to the broader context of life in Washington, D.C. (where my institution is located). Brixton Market, known as the “soul of Black Britain,” has recently been rebranded as “Brixton Village” with shops that once sold African and Caribbean groceries or textiles increasingly replaced by trendy hip(ster) bars and restaurants. The panoramic photo above (which I took during a visit to Brixton Market earlier this year) offers some indication of how this market has changed since the time Breeze filmed her video. In the photo above, a traditional produce shop with colorful awning (center) stands next door to a stylish new artisanal cheese shop/bar (left). In a conversation with some students after class, we ended up talking about a similar process of “gentrification” occurring in historically black and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods within in D.C., and local blogs are increasingly voicing concern over whether the historical character of these neighborhoods can be preserved as they continues to change. By “updating” the medieval Wife of Bath by transplanting her to Brixton Market, Breeze’s recorded performance had posited yet another unanticipated question. What does it mean for an ethnically marked voice to embody the authentic character or spirit of a given place? How does the word “gentrification” take us back to the discussions of gentillesse and urban identity explored in the Wife of Bath’s performance?

In the end, no clear “favorite” emerged from the discussion of these videos (indeed, students recognized that these works had disparate audiences and motivations). What emerges most strongly from conversations like this how adaptations can reacquaint us with well-known works of the past. In addition to showcasing features of texts that we have forgotten, ignored, or dismissed (as Candace notes so well in her earlier posting on translations), adaptations can challenge our received readings of texts we think we know well.

I encourage members of the Global Chaucers community (or anyone who happens to come by this site!) to consider integrating postmedieval adaptations when you teach Chaucer. Thinking across time and media does more than show how historically-distant texts might be “relevant” to contemporary audiences. Such a process has the capacity to make us more mindful of how profoundly our readings of medieval texts are actively shaped by the social environment of our own time and place. Bridging the gap between the present and the past isn’t just about making the medieval seem familiar (or, as undergrads in the US are wont to say, “relatable”); a cross-temporal approach also requires the capacity to disrupt our thinking about the present, to move us outside of our own comfort zones and customary frames of reference.

Further Reading:

Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy, “Global Chaucer,” in Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, ed. Gail Ashton (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2015).

Kathleen Forni, Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2013), Ch. 4, “The Canterbury Pilgrimage and African Diaspora” (with particular interest in diasporic and postcolonial renditions).

David Wallace, “New Chaucer Topographies,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 3-19.

Michelle R. Warren, “‘The Last Syllable of Modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean,” postmedieval 6.1 (2015), forthcoming.

Michelle R. Warren, “Book Review Essay: Classicism, Medievalism, and the Postcolonial,” Exemplaria 24, 3 (Fall 2012): 282-92.