Poor ghostly Agnes…


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fantasma-donna“Why don’t you write us something about a local ghost story?” I was asked back in June.

And why not indeed… Only, when I set about researching, I found that my unimaginative hometown only has one official ghost.

Agnese Visconti was one of the many daughters of the Prince of Milan. Plain, sickly and waspish, she was married off very young to handsome Francesco Gonzaga, only son and heir to the de facto Lord of Mantova. It wasn’t what you’d call a happy marriage – but then nobody expected it to be – and it produced only one daughter.

Then Agnese’s father was murdered by an ambitious nephew, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and things went truly downhill. Agnese decided she wanted revenge, and began working with her exiled brother to get back Milan… Continue reading

Windows on the past


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WoundedCavalierBWFor some reason, The Hessian Renegades put me in mind of William Shakespeare Burton’s The Wounded Cavalier.

Burton, who bore the names he bore because of the Bard, was an English painter in the XIXth Century, and the Wounded Cavalier is perhaps his most famous work. My friend Marina shakes her head and sniggers whenever either author or painting are mentioned – by me, usually – because, she says, how can I like such an ugly painting?

Actually, it had its fans, back in the day – Ruskin being an especially vocal one. “Masterly”, he called it… Yes, well. I won’t be the one to deny that, whatever Ruskin had to say, TWC is a stagey affair, both stiff and sentimental… Continue reading

The Voice of Things


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English: Kipling the British writer

Kipling wrote a good deal of poems in which the narrating “I” or “we” belongs to inanimate objects. Ships, places, pieces of equipment, mechanical parts… They come to life to describe the joys and strains of their “jobs”, history as seen through their “eyes”.

Whenever I read one of these poems, I can’t help thinking of those Japanese legends where an object takes on some sort of life by long association with and use by human beings… A concept I’ve always found highly poetic.

I wonder if Kipling knew of this legends… Continue reading

Silent 1776


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BiographThere is something about these very early Biograph silent movies… Stories compressed in ten or twenty minutes, the transition in progress from stage to screen, an endearing amount of unreality and naïvety…

Take for instance The Hessian Renegades, from 1909 – with a very young Mary Pickford already showing much promise in one of D.W. Griffith’s earliest efforts: Continue reading

Hollywood, Elizabeth, and name-dropping


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elizabeth-(1998)-large-pictureBWLast week I watched Elizabeth for the first time – and was more than a little bewildered by the script.

At one point, there is this scene in which Father John Ballard, SJ, lands in England,  met by a bunch of Catholic conspirators – among whom he immediately spots out a very young Thomas Elyot. Recognising him as an agent of the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, Father Ballard proceeds without further ado to kill the lad with his bare hands. Bad, bad Catholics! And in fact all Catholics are very, very evil in this film, made ruthless by fanaticism and/or a lust for power – whereas the occasional ruthless Protestant is just protecting Queen and country… Continue reading

History Will Be Kind is out!


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History will be kind to me because I intend to write it,

Churchillsaid Winston Churchill… and write it he did. Authors of historical fiction usually go about “writing history” with more modest ambitions – or do they? Just look at Walter Scott or Charles Dickens… And I know Dickens was no historical novelist, properly speaking, but there is no denying that A Tale of Two Cities did much to shape the common perception of the French Revolution…

So perhaps this is it: we do not so much write history as tell it – and in telling it, we can shape the way it will be understood and perceived.

When Kipling said that if history were told in the form of stories it would never be forgotten, perhaps he did not mean that stories should take over the job of telling history. Perhaps he was stressing the responsibility that goes with the job of telling history in the form of stories… little_princess_fullpage

Just think of Sara Crewe telling dull Ermengarde about the French Revolution, and the severed head of the Princesse de Lamballe being carried over the crowd, stuck on a pike… “The princess was young and beautiful…” Sara tells a gaping Ermengarde – who won’t easily forget her history after that. A shame that Mme de Lamballe was 43 when she met her gruesome death – an age that no little girl would call “young”… So Ermengarde will always remember a picturesque fiction. It may not be very important, provided she remembers the French Revolution, but what Dickens’ rather biased portrayal of the same period?

And yes – stories are not history, and vice versa. It would be most unfair to blame a novelist for “making things up” or “making things more dramatic”, but Ermengarde’s Princesse still raises interesting questions about the fiction and the perception of history.

Anhistory-kind-sml-2BWd History Will Be Kind, The Copperfield Review’s first anthology, provides an interesting exercise in “telling history”. A rich collection of historical short stories, poems and essays, it explores a range of historical periods, characters and events – from Empress Maud to Alexander the Great, from the Third Crusade to 1914 Mexico – and Kit Marlowe, of course. My own very young Kit Marlowe who, in Gentleman in Velvet, learns a hard lesson about consequences and prices to be paid.

On the whole, it is a little history of the world told through story, as well as an exploration of many ways in which “we” tell these stories…

You can find History Will Be Kind in e-book and paperback format here:





All else apart, and seeing the time of the year, wouldn’t it make a nice Christmas present for lovers of history and stories?

Deadly Sins and Stolen Cups


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Faust123One thing that we noticed while reading Faustus with the Paper Stage, was that perhaps a three-part reading doesn’t suit every play – and this is true of the 1616 B Text of Faustus.

Faustus, with its mix of great power, fear and comedy, is a very Elizabethan kind of thing. When you split it in three, you have a strong beginning, in which a disillusioned  scholar sells his soul to the devil, a potent ending in which said scholar pays the price of his arrogance, and in between… In between one is left with a string of comic scenes that, without the bitter irony of the premise and the fearful shadow of the ending, are at risk of falling more than a little flat. Continue reading

Theatre Logic…


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One goes to theatre for two nights in a row (more or less), and has a couple of good chats with a director, an artistic director and one’s favourite actor, and gets home with a bagful of ideas, requests and good news…

Therefore one is in a very effervescent mood, theatre-wise – but also a bit terrified at the quantity of things to be done, translated, adapted, modified, rewritten, thought about, organised…

Dancing between euphoria and overwhelm is beginning to look like the natural condition of the playwright. Oh well – it’s not as though I didn’t like it. And perhaps it is euphoria, overwhelm and nonsense, after all.

Oh, you’ll get to know – just not yet, because part of this is still more than a little in the air, and I’m not superstitious, you know, but when it comes to theatre… well. Let’s not jinx it, shall we?

So, meanwhile, as the title promised – theatre logic:


(Exit left – trippingly…)

Swashathon! Ruperts of Hentzau


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swashathon-zendaBWThis post is part of the Swashathon!, “a wild and adventurous event featuring the finest swashbucklers in the history of cinema”, hosted by Fritzi Kramer’s wonderful Movies Silently to celebrate the movie début of Douglas Fairbanks – right 100 years ago.

Shall we begin?

Young Rupert, who looked a dare-devil, and could not have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three, took the lead, and made us the neatest speech, wherein my devoted subject and loving brother Michael of Strelsau, prayed me to pardon him for not paying his addresses in person, and, further, for not putting his Castle at my disposal; the reason for both of these apparent derelictions being that he and several of his servants lay sick of scarlet fever, and were in a very sad, and also a very infectious state. So declared young Rupert with an insolent smile on his curling upper lip and a toss of his thick hair—he was a handsome villain, and the gossip ran that many a lady had troubled her heart for him already.

Thus enter stage Rupert of Hentzau, in Chapter Twelve of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner Of Zenda – after which he walks away with the book and never returns it. Why, the sequel is even called “Rupert of Hentzau”…

RupertIt is a pet theory of mine that Hope’s intentions for Rupert may have gone a bit overboard. Unlike the hero Rudolf Rassendyll and his Ruritanian friends, the boy does not behave as a gentleman should – but, unlike them, he is certainly never boring. Charming, reckless, and with the moral compass of a coat-hanger, Rupert is easily the best character in the book- and in the sequel as well. While both narrators (Rassendlyll himself and his friend Fritz) take pains to inform us that he is a cheat, a liar, a womanizer and a murderer, that his wicked ways have broken his poor mother’s heart, and that he is evil in every possible way, they also spend a lot of words rhapsodising over young Rupert’s cleverness, charm, reckless bravery, beauty, superior horsemanship & swordmanship…  Why, even his enemies can’t help liking the young rogue.

It follows that, when bringing this story and its sequel to the screen, the casting of Rupert is a rather crucial choice. Between 1913 and 1964 he was played by Walter Hale, Gerald Ames, Ramon Novarro, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and James Mason, Farley Granger and Peter Wyngarde – but since all the silent versions before 1922 are either lost or buried in the Library of Congress, and old TV series are not terribly easy to come by, I’ll have to confine myself to only three Ruperts.RupertRN2

Let’s begin with Ramon Novarro in the 1922 Ingram version. Novarro is 23 – just the right age – and one gets the sense that his Rupert, with his monocle, goatee, walking stick, cigarettes, and dandyish ways, is trying to appear older. He manages to look older and more sophisticated than Fritz von Tarlenheim – but often young Hentzau comes across as a mischievous boy masquerading to fit in a world of older men. Then again, the masquerade is far from innocent, and Novarro’s Rupert likes his mischief to be of the lethal variety. He smirks, he blows clouds of smoke, he quizzes duller people (that is, everyone else) through his monocle, he cocks an eyebrow to the camera, he delivers drugged wine, he knifes obnoxious princes in the ribs – all with a nice air of urbane and amused arrogance. This Rupert clearly enjoys himself a good deal.

There is nothing to clash with the man in the book. Ingram, Mary O’Hara and Novarro get Rupert nearly right. Nearly- but nearly, as Rassendyll tells Rupert during the duel in the last chapter of the sequel, isn’t quite.

Rupert3Fast forward fifteen years, then, to John Cromwell’s 1937 The Prisoner of Zenda, with 28-year-old Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Rupert. A tighter script helps, but Fairbanks is truly wonderful. His Rupert is a charming, devil-may-care young fellow with a ready laugh and a readier knife – and he is quite mad. Under the smooth insolence and the sunny smiles, this Rupert is dangerous. And yet one can’t help liking him as he cheerfully betrays whomever happens to be in the way, manipulates enemies and friends, duels with great flair and resents Rassendyll’s slights… For my money, this is Rupert of Hentzau.

What about James Mason, then? Alas… Let me say RupertJMfirst that I like James Mason – but I’m afraid Rupert was not his cup of tea.  All else apart, in 1952 he was 44 – twice the character’s age – and looked older. Too old, too staid, and far too grim. Oh, he is intense, he is dangerous – but where is the boyish, laughing charm? Where is the mad light in the eyes? Mason’s Rupert plots and threatens with the general allure of a Prussian junker… How can we believe that his enemies like him despite themselves? The fact that the movie is an almost scene-by-scene remake of the 1937 version doesn’t help, either. I remember once discussing this movie with a friend, and trying to decide what other actor might have made a better Rupert in 1952… You know, we drew a blank – and I still cannot think of anyone*, but this doesn’t make me like Mason better in the role, although I’ll admit it was hard to measure up to Douglas Fairbanks.

So, to recap, Novarro provides the charm, but not enough threat, while Mason delivers the wrong sort of charm-less menace – but Fairbanks is quite perfect: charming, boyish, dangerous, mad. The Rupert. So very perfect, in fact, that I have to end on a note of regret: producer David O. Selznick meant to go ahead, and make “Rupert of Hentzau” as well, with the same cast, but the idea was later discarded. Isn’t it a pity that we’ll never see Doug duel and grin his way through the rest of Rupert’s story?

And don’t forget to visit the Swashathon! page on Movies Silently, to find links to the other great entries.


* Can you? I’m curious…



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