Troelus a Chresyd: ‘Putting old wine into new bottles’

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 dywedyd yn 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

[1] 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).

[2]  Wilfred R. Prest The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts 1590-1640 (London: Longman Group, London, 1972) 33, 36, 37.

The Canterbury Pilgrims and the US entry into the Great War

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.

costume design canterbury pilgrims


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.[1] 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.[2] The only English words universally recognized by the audience were in Act Two, when the German-accented “Vife of Bat” cried “Shud upp-phh!”[3] 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.

CanterburyPilgrimsOperaProgram

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.”[9] 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.”[10] Offstage, Robert Leonhardt, the German baritone singing the role of the Knight, also fainted but was revived in time to join the final chorus.[11]

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.

[1]. The opera had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on March 8, 1917.

[2]. Irving Kolodin, The Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1966: A Candid History (New York: Knopf, 1966), 309–13.

[3]. 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.

[4]. 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).

[5]. Woodrow Wilson, “War Message,” in War Messages, Senate Doc. No. 5 (Washington, D.C.: 65th Congress, 1st Session, 1917), http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/1917/wilswarm.html.

[6]. Scrapbook clipping, New York Herald, April 8, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers.”

[7]. Correspondence, PM to RdK, July 19, 1915, “Percy MacKaye Papers”.

[8]. Quaintance Eaton, The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1967 (New York: Meredith Press, 1968), 194–95.

[9]. Percy MacKaye, lyricist, and Reginald deKoven, composer, The Canterbury Pilgrims, An Opera in Four Acts (Cincinnati and New York: John Church Company, 1916), 54.

[10]. 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”).

[11]. Eaton, The Miracle of the Met, 193–95.

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

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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

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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]