21 May 2006

A Bright Particular Star

This evening I saw the play "A Bright Particular Star" by Ron Reed, in its world premiere at Pacific Theatre in Vancouver. (PT is a wonderful theater company run by Christians which does excellent, thought-provoking plays; not all about religious themes, but always making you think about ultimate things and generating great discussions afterwards).

The play is about author George MacDonald (the one who was such an influence on C.S. Lewis) and his family, particularly his daughter Lilia and her struggle between wanting to be an actress yet wanting to serve the Lord and please her father. MacDonald's personality is complex. He loves Lilia and sees her acting as a gift from God, and believes that she should do what makes her heart light, because she can neither increase nor decrease God's pleasure in her by what she does. However he seems unduly influenced by Victorian Christian society around him, which says that it isn't proper for a Christian to act in plays unless they are morality plays like "Pilgrim's Progress." He himself seems incapable of living his own belief that one can serve the Lord and not be doing specifically "Christian" work; he can't seem to write a novel without padding it with sermons. In some ways he seems to know this and desire for his daughter to be free from this constriction, and yet he waffles back and forth between forbidding her to act in secular theater and freeing her to follow her heart.

Lilia is a complex character as well. She wants more than anything to be an actress, and (rather like Eric Liddel with his running) she feels God's pleasure when she does so. Yet she questions whether her own sense of what God wants her to do is reliable, since so many people seem to give her flack about it. On top of all this, she is in love with a young man who is wealthy but fickle; his enthusiastic support for her acting goes only so far. As soon as he realises he will lose his inheritence if he marries a woman who insists on performing Shakespeare instead of serving the poor like a good Christian woman, he changes his mind. She is faced with losing his love and a comfortable life if she follows her true calling. I won't give away the ending, in case this play ever hits the big time and you get a chance to see it.

Here's an excerpt from a review of the play by Tim Anderson:

"A BRIGHT PARTICULAR STAR is a play well-named. This historical drama about the family of Christian literary giant George MacDonald can also be seen as an apologia for Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, who present its premiere. The play focuses on George’s daughter Lilia, whose love for truth – both scriptural and aesthetic, takes her to the boundary places of righteous Victorian society.

"Playwright Ron Reed’s gift for multi-threaded dialogue shines throughout, where unintentional confessions flow from misunderstandings and assumptions. A measure of his accomplishment is how much is left unsaid yet remains ever-present – rare is the script that writes silence so well.

"In a genre where there is ample temptation to do tedious explication and scene-setting, every witticism and crafted clumsiness advances the story. Firmly grounded in the period’s cultural context where bombast and sophistication lie closely together, we are introduced to a number of the influential persons who traveled in the MacDonald circle, including Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll. Appropriately, however, it is the shadow of Wm. Shakespeare that looms most large. The playwright’s interweaving of Shakespearean texts provides a play-within-the-play motif that is more than a riff on the Bard’s favored trick. It is a light hand that ably handles texts of such heft and uses them to provide both gravitas and illumination for these breathing characters.

[omitting some descriptions of the acting performance by this particular cast]

"Crowning all these performances is Rebecca de Boer’s Lilia, who embodies her character with a spirit of humility and wounded determination. Lilia’s preternatural talent is made all the more precious by the self-doubting vessel into which it has been poured. De Boer’s Lilia captures the pre-Raphaelite ideal of a young woman who at last touches beauty and, after being praised, is told not to partake of it. But against such banal powers of darkness Lilia’s star power is in her devotion to light itself, wherever it is found.

"Appropriate to the theme of faith and the arts, A Bright Particular Star is “safe” for Christians – there are no egregious sins committed on stage, only the mildest of cursing, and there are real and significant consequences for moral lapses. But what I imagine George McDonald would like most about this play is the lack of safety Reed provides for fusty self-satisfied religion, the deft manner in which he addresses those who would be kill-joys for Christ.

"Only someone who has been blessed by the overly safe environment of the faithful can understand the sugary daggers of well-intentioned betrayal that go on there in the name of the gospel. But for those who long to live that gospel in a world with the texture of art, they will find in this tender story a place where creativity and sacrifice kiss. A child of such provenance can only shine."


Iambic Admonit said...

This is brilliant! Your post is well-written and timely; the review is succinct, with beautiful description and lovely diction; and the play sounds as if it were written for our discussions! I hope it does make the big stages, for I am longing to see it. I am delighted by the tension you describe, between the desire for expressive creativity and the "conservative" or "Victorian" fear of the stage. However, I would not relegate such concerns to past ages. Such worries are alive and well--or alive and ill, depending on how you think about it. Indeed, I long to act, I have a craving in me to "do theatre," especially Shakespeare, but have decided not to pursue such an activity outside of a Christian context, such as a Christian community theatre troupe or company. Why? Well, because I will not curse, or kiss, etc. on stage. And any "secular" actor needs to do those things. What do you think?

Rosie Perera said...

Read: Started Dakota by Kathleen Norris.

Wow, excellent topic of discussion, and very timely. Just the other night I was thinking of posting something on "the conflict between moralism and aestheticism" which James C. Schaap (professor of English at [Reformed, Christian] Dordt College) mentions in "Singing and Preaching: Christians in Writing."

Even Christian theatre troupes will sometimes put on plays that require a kiss on stage. "A Bright Particular Star" portrayed Lilia MacDonald and Charlie Granet de la Rue growing fond of each other and eventually becoming betrothed to each other. There was a kiss (while the lights were going out). I couldn't tell whether the actors really did it or not, but it appeared they did. It was not offensive, as it was very appropriate to the story. I can certainly understand not wanting to play-act a kiss. It could feel sinful, or disloyal to one's spouse, or at the very least disgusting to kiss someone you do not love sexually. But Pacific Theatre is enough on the cutting edge of difficult-themed plays that they do sometimes have smoking, cursing, and kissing on stage. These acts are never gratuitous, but contribute to the story. One would have to excise a huge amount of really amazing literature by Christians (some of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, for example) if one were going to avoid all semblance of immorality in art. Christians are often more horrified by PG-rated scenes depicted in art which are milder than what the Biblical stories contain. Rapes, incest, Onan spilling his semen on the ground, etc. Did you know that most English translations of the Bible obscure the very earthy, or you might even say crude, Hebrew words for things? The Hebrew word for "male" used in 1 Sam 25:34 is literally "pisser-against-the-wall" and the King James Version doesn't mince words.

How about this highly debated question: Is nudity in art always obscene? Manet's "Olympia" and "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" caused quite a scandal when they were first shown in public, but they are now considered to be among the greatest works of art. Michelangelo's "David" is arguably the greatest sculpture ever made, but it shows the man after God's own heart with anatomically correct genitals in all their glory. Or what about Rembrandt's "Bathsheba at her Bath," a faithful representation of a scene from Scripture by a Christian painter, with a nude woman in it? What about all the Renaissance paintings that portray baby Jesus with uncovered genitals, making the point that his humanity was full-orbed, including the capacity for sexual expression (though we believe, contrary to The Da Vinci Code, that he did not act on any of those feelings, whether he had them or not). While I'm sure there are many Christians who would feel squirmy viewing any of the above-mentioned works of art, I don't find them a temptation, nor do I consider them obscene. So when does nudity in art become pornography? Is it a sliding scale, depending on the viewer? Does it depend on the intent of the artist? Should we as Christians avoid nudity in art, even if it doesn't bother us personally, out of concern for the "weaker brother" (Rom. 14)?

Incidentally, I have taken many photography classes, but I've drawn the line in the sand and refused to take any class that would have us photographing nude models. I have seen a few subtle and sensitively done photos of women's bodies that revealed unclothed curves and only mere hints of what was hidden behind an arm or a shadow. There was beauty there, and no sense that the women were being exploited. Nevertheless, I personally would feel uncomfortable in a studio setting with a person who was naked, even if that person were very professional about it.

Picasso wrote, "Art is never pure, we should keep it far away from the innocent ignorant. We should never let people approach. Yes, art is dangerous. If it is pure it is not art." Do you agree or disagree?

K Jeffrey Johnson said...

“A Bright Particular Star.” I have not seen the play – and being a continent away, will not likely get the chance. But I did have the privilege of seeing one of the early drafts read through, and at that point saw the brilliance of Rebecca de Boer’s Lilia, and of Ron Reed’s fine writing. I look forward to reading the script soon.

It is good to read Rosie’s response – and it has obviously brought up some very difficult and important dialogue. Dialogue over issues which, just as in MacDonald’s day, are difficult to extract from the tight weaving of culture around faith. But there are three things, as a George MacDonald scholar, I MUST point out!!
It is tragic to me that the play has conveyed to Rosie that: 1) MacDonald “seems unduly influenced by Victorian Christian society around him, which says that it isn't proper for a Christian to act in plays unless they are morality plays like ‘Pilgrim's Progress.’” 2) “He himself seems incapable of living his own belief that one can serve the Lord and not be doing specifically ‘Christian’ work;” 3) “he can't seem to write a novel without padding it with sermons.”
These points are tragic to me, because they are three things which I, and many other MacDonald scholars I know, would point out as exactly opposite to the truth about MacDonald – they are actually three ways in which he challenged the Christian culture, and ‘acceptable’ culture around him.
I’ll try to clarify briefly:
1) MacDonald was a Non-Conformist – both technically, as far as his faith, and very much so as far as how he and his family lived their lives. They were considered Bohemian by the proper culture around them – bizarre for exactly how little they were influenced by the cultural expectations which surrounded them – and thus acceptable amongst the artists and actors of the day (many of whom were not Christian, but who felt accepted by the MacDonalds none-the-less – in fact, this was a significant area of the MacDonald family ministry). Some people would not “be seen” with the MacDonalds precisely because they performed theatre. So first it must be noted how massively counter-cultural it was to even present “Christian theatre” – and herein also must be noted the brilliance of such performance. If you recall that for the general Christian populace, as well as simply within the rules of “good society,” theatre was something to be shunned, what more brilliant tactic to come up with than to chose the one text which, during that time and the century before was second only to the Bible in its sanctity to ALL (protestant) Christians – regardless of class – and to turn that into a play. It truly threw some people into a conundrum – “theatre is bad” but “Pilgrim’s Progress is holy.” I could (like each of these points), explore this further – but it would take too much space! But GMD chose this play to perform, not at all because he would not perform anything not ‘Christian’ or not ‘morality plays’ (though he gets accolade in the National Biography for assisting in bringing theatre back into the Church), but because he knew that this Pilgrim’s Progress story, honoured by Christians for good reason, would be possibly the only place that many potential theatre-goers could start. How on earth would people consider going to see Midsummer Night’s Dream, if they could not see Pilgrim’s Progress on stage? Let alone Peter Pan (Barrie, by the way, was a MacDonald fan). GMD was changing opinion the most effective way: slowly. But the family none-the-less performed plenty of other, arguably ‘frivolous’ plays!! Even as form of ‘intentional ministry.’ At their picnics for various societal outcasts (intentionally mixing poor, widowed, homeless, orphans with actors, painters, poets, authors, and even princesses! we’re talking seriously counter-cultural here) they would also perform plays like ‘Beauty & the Beast,’ ‘Cinderella,’ and the like. They also turn a story by Emil Zola, L’Assomir, into a play – Zola was a grungier, earthier, French Dickens. Many Brits found his novels uncouth and dirty. But MacDonald loved -- just like Pacific Theatre! – stories that were True, that would make people think…just as much as he loved helping people to laugh and dream. And he felt passionately that any story that had Good in it, had God’s Good in it, for, as he writes, “Is not all the good in us in His image?” – a story definitely did not need any explicit Christian references. Indeed, it needn’t even be written by a Christian. He makes this very clear in his novels as well as in his discussion of poetry.
2) which folds over into point two – MacDonald is forever showing his characters that any good they do is for God. Indeed, I doubt he wrote a ‘realistic’ novel in which there is not at least one character who thinks that he/she is doing God’s work, because it appears specifically “Christian,” and in the course of the story it is shown that he/she is actually not doing God’s work at all, while simultaneously there is another character in the story who needs to be shown that the non-explicitly “Christian” work that they are doing (and doing well), is indeed profoundly Christian, precisely because they are doing it well, before God – be it shoemaking (a favourite example), studying, or even in being a bed-bound invalid.
3) “he can't seem to write a novel without padding it with sermons” – again, we have an ironic contextual misunderstanding here. Not on Rosie’s part, on the part of this implication given by the play. MacDonald wrote what we call ‘realistic novels’ -- many of them -- as was expected of a novelist of his time (remember, even ‘novels’ were still novel ie, a new and unusual form, in the beginning of the 19th century). This ‘realistic’ style, the most normal genre of literature of the day, was a format in which the story was filled with musings on the part of the author – and if the author was a Christian, as most still were, also full of sermons (indeed, even those who had given up their faith still often included sermons!) This style was not only an accepted manner of writing, it was the expected, and, importantly, the Desired form of writing. That not so many books of this style of novel are read today may be deceiving as regards how all-pervasive the form was…but of course, it is a form which does not appeal to the usual contemporary reader, so this is not the type of 19th century novel that later eras read…but don’t let the siphoning contemporary (and secular) taste get confused with factual representation! (anachronistic conclusions of this sort are all too prevalent). [To remind you of how different that day and age was, even MacDonald’s novels full of sermons would have been considered far too ‘secular’ by some parents, to be allowed for a Sunday afternoon reading – they were allowed on weekdays only. ] MacDonald enjoyed writing this type of expected genre of literature, for he was, after all, a pastor. But he also loved something else, which was completely unorthodox. He loved fantastical stories. Stories that did not have explicit sermons or philosophizing. The first novel he wrote – his first choice, his first such self-exposure – was one of these: Phantastes. The book that, I was taught in my secular University course, should be considered the Grandfather of all modern fantasy literature. And, not surprisingly when you recall what people were reading at the time, no one knew what to do with it. Not only did it not have sermons or explications within it – it was simply unrealistic. It was another six years before he published anything else – let alone anything ‘fantastical.’ His next novel was his first ‘realistic novel’ – one with sermons in it – and it set off his career. His next fantasy work was for children, The Princess and the Goblin. Still unusual, but for children. He didn’t try another book like Phantastes, until almost the end of his life. Not because he didn’t love the fantastic – he did, so much that he constantly slips it even into his sermon-filled novels. But the reading public wasn’t ready for it – which meant that the publishers would not publish it. Lilith, once he wrote it, he thought was an inspirational gift from God. He could not not write it. But while publishers and the reading public were wrestling with the concept of this pastor writing stories that were not realistic novels with sermons in them, MacDonald refused to accept that such things should not be published at all. He believed deeply in the truth conveying power of stories – that they did not always need exposition. (This is why he is famous in the world of MacDonald literary criticism for refusing to explain what stories mean. I have recently read a novel where he points out that sometimes Christ explained the stories he told – and sometimes he did not. Obviously MacDonald was quite comfortable with this two-fold method, ) And so, when some unrealistic, un-sermoned stories, such as The Light Princess, were considered unworthy of publication, he subversively slipped them into the centre of a ‘realistic novel’! Indeed, Adela Cathcart, a ‘realistic novel’ in which the characters tell different stories, of widely ranging styles, to a languishing patient (the storytelling indeed being exactly what returns health to the girl – definitely not sermons!) is wonderful for understanding just how much MacDonald values stories for their very story-ness. And it is the pastor in the story who argues with the rich societal lady that a story can be profoundly Good, even if she sees nothing Christian in it at all. And that a story which is simply good, is simply that: Good.

I hope that this has not been too long to read. But if you have read through it all, you will understand why I find tragic three of the points that play conveyed to Rosie. While it is good that the play makes clear these things are not good, it is tragic that someone who fought so hard against them – imperfect as he, a human, was – in the face of not just societal, but financial cost, is erroneously charged. Charged with the very things which he abhorred. If it weren’t for his parental struggles over exposing his own daughter to the all too veritable dangers of the stage at that time, I think there would be no other figure in history better suited to be the ‘patron saint’ of Pacific Theatre! This struggle of a truth-seeking parent, to take the risk of exposing their child to the very dangers he/she extols others for facing, is the gift of the play as it was in the form I saw it. My mother, keen to support, in all manners, the missionaries who work amongst drug-smugglers and prostitutes in Colombia, was none too keen when I expressed my intention in joining them. “Missionaries are needed in France, too, you know.” The struggle GMD had, in facing ‘letting-go’ of his daughter into the acting profession, is one parents continue to face. Ironically, if Pacific Theatre had existed back then, I don’t think MacDonald would have struggled one whit. But, perhaps even more ironically, Pacific Theatre is exactly the type of venue his own work insisted that Christians must enable. That he and his family created. One could indeed argue, that of this too George MacDonald could be called Grandfather.

Rosie Perera said...

Speaking of The Da Vinci Code, for those who are concerned about the flap over it, Byron Borger, of Hearts & Minds Books, has posted an excellent response to the book/movie.

Rosie Perera said...

Thanks, Kirstin, for your long and thoughtful reply. The quote about not being able to write a novel without putting a sermon in it is definitely in the play (I might be paraphrasing it though). But I seem to recall it's in the mouth of a character who is making a snide remark in the midst of a minor tiff (can't remember whether it was Greville or Mark Twain). So it's not to be taken as what the playwright believes about MacDonald. The other two points might have been my own misunderstanding. The play definitely got across the idea that he was revolutionary for his time, but there seemed to be a hint that he was not quite as free from the Victorian mores around him as he knew in his heart he wanted to be, when he forbad Lilia to act in the theatre outside their own family productions. (Is that parental intervention true from his life, or is it an artistic extrapolation?) Perhaps I exaggerated the tension that was present in GMD's mind, but I do think the play was trying to portray that he wrestled with these things when it came to his relationship with his daughter. I think I might like to see the play again, now that I've read your comments on MacDonald. I'd probably see different things in it now.

K Jeffrey Johnson said...

Rosie -- just very briefly on Lilia and acting, as it is definitely a 'human interest' feature -- as well as a rather central one. Yes, this was an issue. But the deatils of eactly how or why are largely up to speculation. No one has yet turned up any documents of MacDonald himself writing about it, nor, perhaps most importantly, of Lilia doing so. There are some writings of hers in an archive that I certainly hope to go through more carefully at some point.

The main source of information for the contention is what is written by Greville (the younger brother), in his biography "George MacDonald and His Wife." Ironically, Greville admits that he himself was never a fan of the family theatre productions, and seems to have been the least involved, even being the one person who *was* embarrassed by the social censure recieved from some sectors of 'good society.' Although there were plenty of newspapers which raved about the family performances (and, some which did not!), as well as famous literary and art critics, Greville himself did not think highly of them. Though, when one remembers that this was a family affair, with no pretentions of professionalism, with homemade sets and costumes, and friends standing in last minute for sick actors, one cannot be too surprised at such a response from a sensitive teenage boy with a tedency to be worried about reputation!

But back to Lilia -- Greville tells us:"At Bude, Miss Cushman, the great American tragedienne, had told my parents such terrible things of the stage, and repeated them even more dismally when we met her again in the States in 1873, that they could not consent to their daughter becoming an actress. Mrs Lewis too had had her share in this final decision that robbed the world of a genius – though she must have known of this girl that hell itself could not have smirched her whiteness." GMAW 385

First, we need to remember that this perspective of Greville's is that of someone a young teen at the time, looking back on the life of his saintly, and now prematurely dead, sister. Then it needs to be very clearly recognized that by 'becoming an actess' Greville meant choosing acting as a professional career. Lilia was already well-recognized as 'an actress,' not only by their social spheres in England and Italy, but also in tiny towns and villages all over Scotland and the North. Then we need to remember what 'becoming an actress,' professionally, meant in that day and age. It was still, by many, considered the equivalent of choosing to become a prostitue. And -- factually -- for some actresses it demanded similar costs. Remember, the MacDonald family was ostracized for even being friends with actors and actresses -- let alone for 'putting their children on the stage.' (and certainly those befriended thespians felt encouraged and supported by MacDonald -- not just those already established, but those such as the eventually famous Johnston-Forbes, who were still only dreaming themselves). But what 'Miss Cushman' (who struggled, rightly or wrongly, with having the reputation of being a lesbian) and 'Mrs Lewis' (aka Kate Terry) worried about on Lilia's behalf -- and thus led her parents to worry -- was many of the same challenges that would face, say, a young Hollywood star today. Parents and friends don't have to believe that a child will succumb to the temptations of drugs, sex, and hedonism (all of which existed a-plenty even then), to none-the-less worry about them being surrounded by such things.

Kate Terry, claimed by many to be one of the best actresses to ever walk a British stage, gave up her career when she married her husband. Kate was practically worshipped by Lilia (Yale has an album with a bunch of the photos she acquired of Terry, and friends were ever teasing her of her passion), and undoubtedly had a strong influence upon Lilia. Although many have mourned that it seems that Kate (or her husband) felt that Kate could not be both married and be an actress, once again, contextualization helps. Just as with many celebrities today (and that's what acting stars were back then), maintaining long-term relationships along with their career was quite a feat. Kate's acting sister Ellen Terry, who did try to marry and have family, alongside her career, managed to be a very successful actress, but not so successful on the relationship end of things...three husbands, a couple of partners, children caught up in the mess of it. Kate had chosen family life -- and community-level theatrical endeavours -- instead. Such examples must have made the very family-minded, very ministry-minded (she was constantly giving time to caring for the poor, lonely, sick) Lilia pause for thought. Perhaps she realized that she could change just as many lives, and be as true to her love and gift of acting, by carrying on in small family-style productions that people of all classes and walks of life could see -- rather than just the professional stage which excluded not only all who couldn't pay, but also anyone who did not live in the big cities, and, many who might feel ok venturing to see a play in a little safe venue but could not cross the strictures of their Christian culture to go see Shakespeare in one of the 'worldly' city theatres. Who knows. Such speculation seems to jive well with the letters I have read, as well as with the thought MacDonald himself exudes in his stories and essays and sermons. But it, like the play's proposals, remain but speculation.

We do know, by reading the letters, that George and Louisa had a very close relationship with their eldest daughter Lilia, and her letters indicate that she loved and respected them deeply -- throughout her life. George writes of how his own father never denied him anything he ever asked for, and indicates how much of a positive influence that was on him. Perhaps the MacDonald parents, like my mother's indication that France was safer yet also in need, tried to tell Lilia that they thought there were other -- albeit 'safer' -- options. Perhaps they did say 'no' outright, and then realized that it was her decision and apologized -- MacDonald has fathers do this in novels more than once. Perhaps their evident but unspoken hope that she did not choose this path, heightened by two famous actresses (and family friends) being vocal about their own advice, was enough to make Greville believe that the decision was not truly Lilia's own, when actually it was. All speculation. All possibilities. All fodder for stories of the struggles of parenting well, of family relationships, of discerning how to use one's gifts...and ultimately, of trusting God.

(hah -- so much for brief....and yet, historically, it is!)

Anonymous said...

sorry -- that'd be 'Robertson-Forbes,' not 'Johnston-Forbes' (Johnston was his first name!)

Iambic Admonit said...


Thank you for your comments! You have provided very valuable insights, and I thank you. I do hope you will frequently bring your learning and perspicuity to these discussions. I found the clarifications about MacDonald quite exciting. And your article is excellent. I especially loved the way that he (and you, in expressing it) put culture into the conundrum of “theatre is bad” but “Pilgrim’s Progress is holy.” That’s great! Even now I know people who use seemingly “secular” forms of art—such as theatrical performances that don’t have any superficial connection with the Gospel, or Ballroom dancing—as ministry to all sorts of people who won’t walk into the church, maybe, but who would go to see a play or to dance.

On another note, we here have talked before (and will talk again) about how fantasy can show forth truth—universal truths, general-revelation truths, insights into nature and human character, etc. I wonder how this fits with the above discussion about art being theologically orthodox? How can fantasy present correct doctrine or not? I have some theories on that, but would love to hear what other readers think.

Phantastes is a brilliant, scintillating, glorious, startling book. Small, sharp, multitudinous, fresh, and beautiful. No wonder it rattled C. S. Lewis’s atheism! I have a much harder time understanding Lilith. Perhaps you can offer some advice?