A Dab of Dickens and a Touch of Twain
Posted 30 May 2008 in Books by Catriona
I have so far failed abysmally in locating Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, but in my futile search I did come across another book that I bought months ago, read, put away carefully, decided to blog about, and completely failed to relocate: Elliot Engel’s A Dab of Dickens and a Touch of Twain.
This is a collection of biographical readings of authors ranging chronologically from Chaucer to Robert Frost. Despite the early debates about my Leavisite tendencies—and the fact that I found the book buried under fictionalised biographies of Lady Caroline Lamb and Byron’s other troublesome woman, Annabella Milbanke—this is not my usual reading material.
Certainly, I think biographical material is important to literary analysis—since I believe strongly that the conditions of production have a direct influence on the works produced—but I prefer to obtain this material from direct sources—letters, receipts, contracts, and so forth—as and when it is necessary to my work. When I read biographies, I want them to be about someone fun and unrelated to my research, such as courtesans. (Ah, Harriette Wilson—publish and be damned, indeed.)
But I picked this up at a secondhand store when I’d taken my car in to Woolloongabba at the crack of dawn for a service, and thought it would be as well to wait to collect it. (Note to self: that was a mistake.) I was bored and over-caffeinated, and thought this would do well to pass the time.
I know nothing of Elliott Engel, although I understand he works at an American university. More importantly from the perspective of this post, he give “popular” lectures on literature, from which these pieces were derived.
That word “popular” is always a problematic one when it’s applied in this type of context, and I have taken it directly from the blurbs in the front of the book: here, I think we can take it to mean simply “lectures given outside the academy.” I don’t propose to speculate about the types of audiences that such lectures would draw, because I don’t think it’s at all relevant—there is no reason why literary analysis should be deemed the sole province of the academy.
But it does mean that these pieces are almost entirely without referencing—barring an extremely short list of biographies at the end, which troubles me slightly, because I disagree with Engel’s contention that “one fine biography is all you’ll need for each author” (347). But then, as I say, these are not academic pieces: they’re narratives.
And Engel is, as he says, “a proud member of the school of biographical literary criticism and [has] always been truant from the Freudian, Marxist, deconstructionist, poststructuralist, and other literary schools that seem to concentrate on illuminating the supposed genius of the critic while all too often ignoring and distorting the real genius of the famous writer” (xii).
There’s much with which I could dispute in this passage, but I’ll settle for suggesting that working from a single biography might well lead to as many patterns of distortions as any poststructuralist or deconstructionist reading.
(It also seems to me a little disingenuous to apply these potentially exclusionary academic terms in a non-academic text, but that’s another point I don’t want to address in detail.)
From my own perspective, it also seems that biographical readings that ignore the perspectives offered by Marxist-based criticism run the risk of being readings divorced entirely from any awareness of the socio-economic climate in which the works were produced.
But then, this is a book that centres on the Western canon. It does include some women writers whose addition to the canon is more recent than, for example, that of Chaucer or Shakespeare, but even then the women are fairly conventional choices: Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson. It makes a nod towards including more “popular” writers—to use that problematic term again—but even here it makes a conventional choice, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Generally, however, the authors are the names you would anticipate in this type of book: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence.
And that’s fine and, really, the book’s fine—except that it gave me an odd feeling that behind the text was an exclusive and exclusionary method.
I couldn’t put my finger on why—until I came to the following passage in the section on Shakespeare, describing the behaviour of the relatively impoverished “groundlings” standing in the cheapest spaces at the foot of the stage:
But when the play would begin, the groundlings, an unsophisticated lot, would become so excited and so caught up in the action that their mouths would hang open; they would be gaping up at the actors, slack-jawed, watching the play unfold. This rapt attention was not what bothered the actors, but when the play became exciting and suspenseful, as in the early fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet, the groundlings would start to salivate. The saliva would drip down their chins and eventually fall onto the stage, where it made this little rivulet at the actors’ feet. (34)
This is a grotesque image.
It is also, Engel tells us, the origin of the term “break a leg,” which he translates, in the fictional voice of an imagined actor, as “Perform so the groundlings become so enthralled that they slobber on the stage; may you slip in it and break your leg” (34).
This seems an improbable and mean-spirited expression of good will, even for a more brutish age. It is also in direct contradiction to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which suggests—albeit via the speculative phrase “is said to relate”—that it arose as black humour after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and John Wilkes Booth’s subsequent breaking of his leg as he leapt onto the stage to escape.
Brewer’s version seems far more plausible to me.
Engel cites in support of his argument an anonymous actor’s diary—which, given his minimalist bibliography, is impossible for the reader to verify for themselves—which allegedly reads “I feared when it was time for me to give my soliloquy and step to the edge of the stage, I was in grave danger of slipping in the drool left by the groundlings” (34).
But I can’t be the only one who suspects that this anonymous actor was indulging in hyperbole, perhaps tempered by a distaste for the patrons occupying the cheap seats.
This image of drooling groundlings bothers me in ways that I can’t quite articulate. But first and foremost, it seems so improbable—even assuming that it is possible to “gape up” at the actors and yet drool to such an extent that the players’ limbs are at risk, without somehow drowning in the process.
These standing seats, Engel tells us, cost a penny, compared to four pennies for an actual seat. But a penny is a lot of money to the vast majority of the working population in Shakespearean England.
So Engel’s image has us imagining a large number of audience members willing to regularly pay a relatively high fee to see linguistically and artistically complicated plays that, apparently, they are too unsophisticated to comprehend. So unsophisticated, in fact, that they lose all control over their salivation.
If all they want is the unsophisticated violence of the fight scenes, surely they could obtain that at any nearby tavern—with a greater probability of gore—and get drunk at the same time?
And why assume that poverty automatically translates into a grotesque, slavering inability to interpret the primary form of entertainment of the times?
Elizabethan theatre is not my field, and I know no more about it than any other B.Arts graduate who enjoys reading Shakespeare for pleasure.
But this passage does suggest to me something concrete about the dangers of relying too uncritically on biographical material at the expense of an understanding of the socio-economic factors of the time, their influence on the modes of production of a text, and the ability of the common reader to interpret the texts presented for their amusement.