18 July 2009

report on the Perelandra Colloquium (#2)

Tour of Oxford
The leader of the tour (whose name I failed to record!) was extremely knowledgeable—and also agile! She took us on the high-speed walking tour of the Inklings’ Oxford. Everywhere we went, she asked trivia questions about the Inklings, and we all competed (in a semi-friendly manner!) to answer fastest.
The tour began, of course, at the ‘Bird & Baby’ pub. While we stood there, packed tightly together and jostled by passing pedestrians, she pointed to “important” spots in the distance (such as the hospital where CW died & CSL spent his last illness—I’m a bit of a skeptic about the whole ‘now-this-is-the-toilet-that-J.R.R.Tolkien-used-when-he-lectured-here-about-medieval-sound-changes’ kind of tour! I mean, does it really matter? And yet, I enjoy it all the same, and mock myself for enjoying it). She showed us the Pusey House, where the Oxford CSL society meets on Tuesday evenings during term time (good to remember). She pointed out the Ashmolean Museum and the Randolph Hotel on opposite sides of the street: two excellent examples of, respectively, NeoClassical and NeoGothic Architecture. (The Ashmolean is closed for repairs until Nov., so I could not go in and do my little research about the invention of the second hand I had wanted to do in relation to Renaissance poetry.) She told us something I had not known; Neville Coghill founded the Burton/Taylor Theatre (with funds from those two illustrious celebrities) and the Shakespeare in the Park series, which is still popular and pleasant today. Very nice.
As we walked along the beloved and cram-packed Cornmarket Street, she pointed out to us a building about which I was told nothing during my Shakespeare term at Lincoln: there’s a store called the Republic, and it’s in the lower story of a building maintained since the 16th century. Apparently Shakespeare stayed in the upper rooms in 1603 when he came to Oxford to perform Hamlet! Very cool. I wonder if that’s verified?
We stopped at The Mitre, where CSL took CW out to dinner to celebrate CW’s first lecture at Oxford, and where CSL met T.S. Eliot for the first time (not a congenial meeting, by all accounts). Later, G & I had dinner there with two colleagues.
We passed St. Mary’s church (the one from the top of which I took photos of the 360° view of Oxford), where CSL gave his “Weight of Glory” sermon, and where CW’s Seed of Adam play was first performed. We passed “Univ”—University College, where CSL was an undergraduate (stairway 12, room 5, in case you ever get to visit!).
The tour officially ended at the Eastgate Hotel (which contains part of the old city wall), where CSL & Joy first met, for lunch, one fateful day. Down the street a little ways is one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s homes (he moved a lot).
However, several of us asked her where CW’s grave was, so she took us there. It’s really perfect. The church adjoining the graveyard is a simply beautiful work of glory in stone: old, simple, full of character. The churchyard is wild and wonderful: entered via a little gate next to an overgrown topiary (Nikolay thought it was in the shape of a hen; “A hen!” I asked, “A hen??!? I thought it was a phoenix!), meandered through on little soft paths; full of wildflowers and weeds, calm and contemplation.
I was very moved by the sight of his grave—more so than by CSL’s, or by Yeats’, or any other (except Christ’s, His two graves, actually [Holy Sepulchre & Garden Tomb], but that’s in a whole other category). I think my emotion was evoked by combination of factors. First, out of all the authors whom I love, I think I would have liked best to meet Charles Williams. He is a mystery, a magic. He is invariable described as a saint or an angel. He was interesting, fun, talkative, creative, and ridiculously humble and loving, by all accounts. He had inimitable charisma. Everyone loved and/or idolized him—especially younger women (maybe it’s good I can’t meet him!).
Second, his death was a shocking tragedy, and I felt its force when I read CSL’s letters. Do you know the story? Williams worked for Oxford University Press in London when he & CSL got to know one another through letters. In 1939, the Press evacuated to Oxford (to escape the bombing). CSL & CW immediately developed such a close, intense friendship that, reportedly, Tolkien was jealous. CW became the person whom CSL loved and admired the most, I would say. Anyway, CW (of course) became an essential member of the Inklings. One Tuesday, CW was in hospital for something, nothing anyone thought was serious, and CSL stopped by on his way to a meeting of the Inklings to say hello and to lend him a book. The hospital informed Jack that Williams had died. He walked on to the meeting in a state of bewildered shock to tell the rest of their friends. Lewis wrote later that Williams transformed the idea of death for him: brought the reality of the afterlife home to him as a solid, inescapable reality by the powerful sense of his living presence. He wrote to Barfield, “what the idea of death has done to him is nothing to what he has done to the idea of death.”
Finally, Williams such a thorough-going supernaturalist, with dabblings in magic, that I just tingled to think what it is like for him in Heaven now. Not that Heaven will be any better for him than for anyone else, but that somehow he belongs there more than most others; that he spent his earthly life living in Heaven already, and that (counter intuitively) he therefore lived more fully on this earth than most of us boring human beings. He was intensely alive—his vitality is palpable in every line of his writing and in every line anyone else has written about him—and thus he was more fully in Heaven than most people.


Well, the highlight of the entire weekend was meant to be the ‘Opera.’ This was on Friday night, in the beautiful Sheldonian theatre. Sadly, it was a very poor performance. First of all, it wasn’t an opera: it was a concert piece. There were no costumes (the Lady didn’t even wear a green gown; she wore purple), sets, props, or action. The soloists stood at music stands, the chorus sat behind the orchestra. So, all right (how could you stage a story in which all the characters are in the nude, anyway?), but that was rather a big bit of false advertising. If it’s a dramatic concert piece, fine, just call it that. Then the music was not operatic. It was show music—Broadway or film score music. Again, fine, just don’t call it a genre it isn’t. Some of the music was very pretty; there were even a couple of moments that were memorable. It just wasn’t timeless. It was faddish, dated, transitory. Everything CSL’s writing isn’t. Secondly, the musicians (except the soloists) were amateurs, which is OK, they just weren’t fantastic. The French horn player was terrible, but then again, they often have a hard time hitting the right notes. I remember what the Boston Symphony was like before they got James Sommerville!
There was one beautiful moment: the libretto added a song for an eldil, and this was sung by a boy soprano. That was a really good choice. The unearthly timbre, the clear tones, the unique sound of the boy soprano’s voice gave just the right impression for an angelic messenger. And it emphasized the sexlessness of the being: Mars was infinitely masculine, but not a bit male. So the immature voice of the pre-pubescent boy was the perfect was to depict this aurally. The only problem was that the boy they chose was not a very good singer. He had different timbres in different parts of his range, and his pitch was not great! He swooped a little bit and couldn’t sustain a pitch on a longer note. Sigh.
Then the libretto committed that most unpardonable of sins; it was cheesy. I do not understand the almost universal infiltration of cheese into the arts; it is driving me crazy. I think I will have to go on a one-woman campaign against the cheesy. It offends me much more than all of the supposed immorality in the arts; perhaps this is a moral flaw on my part, but I would rather have sexual jokes, if they fit the character, and a little violence, if it illuminates the themes, than any cheesiness whatsoever. We didn’t need the narrator in the Perelandra ‘opera’; he was corny and unnecessary. We didn’t need to start the show with causal, un-funny jokes between ‘Lewis’ and ‘Humphrey.’
Finally, the ‘opera’ had one enormous, inexplicable omission. What is the most musical moment of the entire book? What chapter is, really, the purpose and meaning of the entire text? The Great Dance, of course. And the concert left his out altogether. That was very odd. Of course, since the music was not great, I was glad they didn’t butcher it. It would take some other composer besides Donald Swann to write the flawless, complex counterpoint needed for that section. The Great Dance would be best set as a fugue for many voice, with at least two (really good) boy sopranos on two of the melodies, the soloists on others, the chorus on others, and select orchestral soloists on yet others. It would take a modern Bach, really. When I find one, maybe I’ll ask him!
So I apologize that this is such a negative review; it’s just honest. I have too much musical training to forgive the sins of poor pitch and show tunes; I have too much literary training to forgive the horrors of the Cheesy and the Corny. I would have thought better of the Oxford CS Lewis society; I would have thought better of Lewis, who read and approved the libretto! But then maybe he didn’t see its final version, or maybe it read better on the page than it sounded with the fluffy music to which it was set.
It was great idea, however, making a concert ‘opera’ of Perelandra. I shudder to think what will happen when the movie-makers get their hands on it. What blasphemies will we endure then?

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