Freshwater

This post was contributed by Roisin Lynch, an intern at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Virginia Woolf wrote her little-known and only play Freshwater in 1923, and revised it in 1935 for a single performance by her family and friends in her sister Vanessa Bell’s art studio in Bloomsbury.

Freshwater is a comedy, poking good-natured fun at Woolf’s great aunt, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the artistic and moral sensibilities of her Victorian set. In the Cameron’s home at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (played by Woolf’s brother, Adrian Stephen, in 1935) lurks about the house reciting Maud at every opportunity, while Julia Cameron (played by Vanessa Bell) searches in vain to find a policeman with manly enough calves to play Galahad in one of her Arthurian photographs. The plot centres on Ellen Terry (Woolf’s niece, Angelica Bell), the sixteen year old wife of George Frederic Watts (Duncan Grant). Bored by life as a model for her elderly husband’s paintings, at the end of the play she escapes – wearing trousers, no less – to the dissolute freedom of a life in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

As part of a series of events during Arts Week, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of English gave a lively and enjoyable rehearsed reading of the play in the beautiful Keynes library in the School of Art’s buildings in Gordon Square, once home to Woolf herself. The performance was enthusiastically received by the audience, in particular the various props – a copy of Maud, a helpfully annotated picture of a leg, a small model omnibus – held up by Professor Hilary Fraser to embellish the reading, and the very special guest appearance at the end of the play by Queen Victoria herself.

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Mrs Birkbeck’s Album and Reception

This post was contributed by Lynette Spencer, an alumna of Birkbeck’s BA French Studies (2001) and MA Modern French Studies (2003).

It was a memorable evening at the Alumni event ‘Mrs Birkbeck’s Album’ held on 17th May in the beautifully restored Keynes Library at 43, Gordon Square.

The first part of the presentation by Patrizia di Bello consisted of a fascinating insight into the background, culture and history associated with the contents of the album. Inside are manuscripts, poems, songs, pictures and paintings by famous people of the period.  Having such entries was considered prestigious and also formed a part of the social interaction at that time.

The second part by Philip Payne, Director of the Library and Media Services, explained the process of digitization of the album (prior to the restoration) which can now be read on-line, with the facility to turn the pages as if reading a book.

Finally, we were given an in-depth account by Angela Craft (Conservator in Special Collections Team at Senate House) of the restoration of the album, the decisions that needed to be negotiated and made, the materials to be used, all of which involved a delicate balancing act.

One of the highlights of the evening was to personally experience the original album and other items, being able to view and read the contents on display at the event.

The presenters and the Alumni staff organised a most original as well as enlightening event where alumni members were also thanked for contributing towards the restoration through their library membership fees.  I must say, in may ways I prefer this more creative form of ‘blog’ to its present day counterpart!

 

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Cross Dressing in Silent Film: Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man! (Ich mochte kein Mann sein!, Germany, 1918)

This post was contributed by Rosalyn Croek, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Cultural Studies

Birkbeck Arts Week 2012 was a chocolate box of assorted events for an arts enthusiast to pick from, a platform for students and tutors across the arts courses to engage in a more open setting, tutors expressing the very latest research through a particular theme or object for their session.  At the close of the week, this event doubled as good old-fashioned Friday night entertainment, wine and a silent comedy screening which resounded to much laughter in the room at 43 Gordon Square.

Silke Arnold-de Simine introduced the film, this event in part a launch for the book she has co-written with Christine Mielke on cross dressing in German film comedies from 1912 to 2012.  The book is only available in German but others can consult a chapter Silke wrote in the most recent Blackwell’s Companion to German cinema, about Weimar cross-dressing comedies and their Hollywood remakes. Did you know Some Like It Hot has a German original?

Ernst Lubitsch’s I Don’t Want to Be a Man! (Ich mochte kein Mann sein!, Germany, 1918), centres on tomboy Ossi who enjoys poker, smoking, and drinking, shunning the delicacy expected of her and mocking the authority figures of her uncle, her strict and corseted governess, and new male guardian Dr Kersten.  Her preferred activities denied to her as a female, she decides to dress up as a man, making for a humorous scene when she is fitted out for a tailcoat at the shop.  Her disguise is actually completely successful; she revels in female attention and in a twist drinks with Dr Kersten at a nightclub – with the two sharing a kiss. The comedy owes much to Ossi’s ‘physical and exuberant acting style’.

Director Ernst Lubitsch went to Hollywood, Silke explained, but star actress and producer of cross dressing cinema in her own right, Ossi Oswalda, real name Oswalda Stäglich, sadly died in poverty in Prague. 

Silke explained the mechanism of cross-dressing comedy in film and prior to that popular theatre by asking us to think of familiar film Mrs Doubtfire (1993), where, as well as gender, variables age, class and nationality are also changed.  ‘The comedy stems from the accumulated and exaggerated discrepancies between appearance and behaviour, on the one hand, and the allegedly authentic identity on the other hand’.  She continued, ‘stories centring around disguise and mistaken identity can be seen as playfully countering anxieties concerning the successful fulfilment of social roles and mobile identities.  They can equally be geared to subvert or to provide symbolic reassurance, questioning or confirming the boundaries of social conformity’.

Nowadays, Silke reminded, we are more accustomed to men cross dressing as women but in the early twentieth century, women cross dressing as men was also prevalent, roles played by Weimar stars like Asta Nielsen and Elisabeth Bergner.  Men dressing as women was considered problematically associated with homosexuality, but women dressing as men was more socially acceptable and even becoming quotidian as women had taken over some men’s jobs during World War 1. That social change could feel threatening to men however, particularly to already-defeated German men, and thus well a time at which ‘I don’t Want to Be a Man’ might ring true – certainly Ossi learns that being a man has its difficulties. Silke also highlighted an alternative interpretation, centring on Magnus Hirschfeld’s widely-accepted contemporary theory The Third Sex, that ‘I don’t want to be a man’ could be read as ‘I don’t want to be a heterosexual’.

The film, Silke closed, was a success with critics and cinemagoers at the time, and was certainly successful with us too.

Charleys Tanten und Astas Enkel. Hundert Jahre Crossdressing in deutschen Filmkomödien (1912-2012). Trier: WVT (Filmgeschichte International. Ed. by Uli Jung)

Cross-dressing and National Stereotypes: The German-Hollywood Connection. In: Companion to German Cinema. Ed. by Terri Ginsberg and Andrea Mensch. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell 2012, pp. 379-404.

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Loose Muse: Four Women Poets

This post was contributed by Emily Best, who will be starting an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck this September.

A week before the Orange Prize winner is announced, the debate rages on about whether there is a “canon” of women writers. Last week in a little room at 43 Gordon Square four lady wordsmiths made their case in favour. Loose Muse is a collective run by Agnes Meadows and runs London’s only all-female writing open mic night at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. It’s not just poetry: women writers of all genres and experience can take part. Last week’s event was a showcase for some of the finest she-poets in the capital to showcase their work amongst a small audience, discuss their poetry and open up the floor.

The event opened with Kate McLoughlin, whose poetry collections Plums is a response to William Carlos Williams’ great American fridge-note-poem This is Just to Say. Kate’s fifty-eight variations on a reply to Williams, which also allude to Picasso’s reimagining of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, explore the variances and nuances of domestic interaction. Kate moves beautifully and sensitively from flippant to epic, on occasion nearing parody, engaging wholly with Williams’ poem (and in turn addressing the critical tradition that surrounds it) but at the same time reclaiming what Williams leaves unsaid and open-ended. I couldn’t help thinking as I listened, is that what these women are doing? What so many people do? Establishing a new tradition; a new canon; picking up where others have left off.

Following Kate was Agnes Meadows herself. I immediately warmed to Agnes – a force of energy in the room, inspiring and welcoming. As she talked of Poetry Café and the work of Loose Muse I knew that in front of me was a woman genuinely committed to the promotion of women poets. I was very happy to discover that her poetry had the same enthusiasm as she did for the project. Reading from  At Damascus Gate on Good Friday, This One is for You and Woman, Agnes went from recounting the fear of sleeping through bombs in Palestine in They’re Bombing the Port again at Gaza to the pain of watching a sibling get your man in Juliet’s Sister. The passion and sensitivity in these poems tell of a woman who has lived and of a poet who feels and writes to the tips of her fingers.

In a complete change of pace, Sally Blackmore came next. Sally had to give up work five years ago and, wanting to use the time usefully, started writing and painting and took a creative writing course at the Open University. Her son, who is in the army, recently got sent to Afghanistan and Sally found that her new-found gift provided a tool for dealing with this. To begin with, I couldn’t believe that Sally had only been writing for five years. The first poem she read, Soldier, had a bittersweet wariness and grace to it that seemed borne of a mind that had always worked in verse. Here was a woman who took pain and fear in her hand like a proverbial nettle and refigured them as something good.

The final poet on the bill was Camilla Reeve. Again, Camilla brought a different energy to the room. Though Camilla has an aura of earnest seriousness about her, her poetry had a lyrical, tender and humorous quality that reminded me a little of Jake Thackray. Where Kate had acrobatic wit and Agnes had exuberance Camilla, like Sally, had contained dignity. Winter Angel was a particular favourite and, on further research, I discovered Dark Bird Turning and fell a little bit in love. Camilla’s poetry concerns itself with trajectories of emotion and the rudiments of relationships between people and places and things. It is entirely and only what it needs to be.

In a nice epilogue to the event, the floor opened up to poets in the audience. Somewhat ironically the two volunteers were both men and I was intrigued to see how this would work. Criton Tomazos read some extracts of what he announced to be nonsense poetry – Unspecified Space-Time was my favourite – playful, witty and at once hesitant and determined in a style reminiscent of Cummings. Criton was followed by Marcin Gozdzik who writes all his poems on a smartphone, each one lasting precisely the length of his tube journey. In his poems that seemed to concern themselves mostly with his being a bad boyfriend, Marcin was affectionate and self-effacing with a detached irony. These two gentlemen, bravely standing in a room of confident women poets whose womanliness defined their union, proved that there is a voice to be welcomed no matter how many chromosomes you have. More importantly though, they demonstrated what the four women proved, each in their own way – every voice is there to be reclaimed and used as necessary and at a time when women are still fighting for those voices, reclamation is as important as ever.

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