Behind the Cover Art
Photo Credit: Sarah Johnston
It is the start of a new school year. It may not be considered normal quite yet, but we’ve been given the opportunity for community that we have been missing for so long. Our St. Andrews dance team pictured here is finally able to be together, as are the other clubs and communities within our school. Things are looking up for the whole world. Plays and musicals are filling their seats again, museums are bringing in new exhibits, and cinemas have new films to premiere. Life is opening up just a little more every day and for that we are thankful.
Letter from the Editors
Welcome back to a brand new year at Calliope Arts Journal, and our 10th Issue! Over the last few months we have been growing the Calliope team, welcoming 6 new writers and 2 deputy editors. We’ve spent that time getting geared up to bring you more content as the world re-opens. As arts are coming back to life in person, creativity and expression have never been more important. We aim to provide an opportunity for our writers to celebrate and explore the very best of the arts, and for our readers to indulge in this. Through theatre, literature, film, fashion and music, the arts shape our everyday lives and make social statements on the aesthetic beauty that these genres produce.
Humans have had a relationship with art since time began. From prehistoric cave drawings to contemporary sculpture, art is inherent in our existence, regardless of culture or background. We all appreciate art in different ways, and we hope this journal gives both writers and readers the opportunity to immerse themselves in this. We can’t wait to see what the next year holds for us, and we hope you enjoy the 10th issue of Calliope Arts journal!
Ella Crowsley and Isabelle Molinari
The Little Mermaid (1989) and Rusalochka (1968)
Caroline Nicholson compares two different animated firms telling the story of the little mermaid artistically, as well as examining how the culture of the Cold War affected the production of each.
This November marks 32 years since the initial release of Walt Disney Studios’ animated feature The Little Mermaid. Its characters, songs, and storyline played a big role in reviving Disney animation after a period of decline in the 1970s and 1980s, and are what make it a popular movie to this day. It is not the only adaptation of the famous story by Hans Christian Andersen, however. Another animated version, Rusalochka, was made decades before Disney’s version by the Soviet film company Soyuzmultifilm. Although both films retell the same story, they reflect considerably different artistic choices. Rusalochka’s strict adherence to the original story, unique art style, and beautiful score distinguish it from its American counterpart, while at the same time rendering it a worthy competitor.
Rusalochka is a much more accurate retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s original story of the little mermaid who wanted to be human than Disney’s version is. Most notably, Rusalochka ends the story the way the author intended, with the heroine choosing to die to save the life of her prince. As a result of sticking so closely to the original story, Rusalochka is a little less than half an hour long. The Disney version of the story is much longer, largely because of the added-in characters and songs. Because of the sad ending and lack of humorous characters—such as Disney’s Sebastian the crab and Scuttle the seagull—Rusalochka strikes a much more melancholy tone. The emphasis is on the endless sacrifices the heroine makes for her prince, making the story a tender fable about the beauty of selfless love. This moral message is diluted in the Disney version because of the numerous comedic elements that it includes. Even so, at the end of the Disney version, the heroine is rewarded for her love and devotion to her prince by receiving a pair of legs magically from her father King Triton, reflecting the capitalist ideal that hard work and loyalty should be rewarded. In contrast, capitalist ideals are blatantly condemned in Rusalochka. Indeed, the film opens with a scene of tourists visiting Denmark, fighting over merchandise, eventually being distracted by a tour guide who tells them the story of the little mermaid. As the tour guide speaks, we can see a babushka-clad fish who tells the “correct” version of the story, giving the strong impression that people who are not from communist Russia or the Eastern bloc are materialistic and greedy and that they cannot be trusted. In this way, Rusalochka can be perceived not only as a beautiful artistic rendering of a sad love story but also as a reflection of a major world conflict that touched several facets of culture.
One other element of Rusalochka that makes it distinct from the Disney version is that it employs an extremely different art style. In Rusalochka, the characters and backgrounds are all extremely flattened, reflecting the popular styles of the 1950s and 1960s. The characters in particular bear similarities to the simplistic, stylized characters we often see on playing cards made during this era. Further, the seafoam that rolls across the top of the sea is conveyed through paper cut-out curlicues. On the other hand, many costumes that the characters wore were reminiscent of those worn in the Middle Ages and Elizabethan era. This combination of 20th century styles and medieval styles provides a beautiful juxtaposition. Furthermore, the colors were very effectively used. In the underwater scenes, the heroine and her sisters were depicted in pale blue, ethereal colors, making them look like angels. The scenes on land were frequently depicted in bright, warm colors, making it feel like a completely different world. In contrast, the Disney version combined warm and cool colors in different ways both in the sea scenes and the land scenes. The main heroine’s bright red hair in particular brought a consistent warmth to the whole film, helping to craft an image of her as a sympathetic American teenager, in contrast to the waifish, mythical heroine of the Russian version. Furthermore, in the Disney version, the characters are rounded and three-dimensional, and the backgrounds—particularly the effects in the sea—are extremely realistic. These decisions seem to showcase the company’s artistic ability and, by extension, the capitalist ideals the film seems to promote. This should be seen in the context of many years of struggles at Walt Disney Studios, during which the movies released were of generally poor quality, and of great uncertainty and fear throughout the United States during The Cold War.
One particularly unique feature of Rusalochka was the way it employed music. The music for the Russian film was steeped in Europe’s proud musical tradition. Much of the score was reminiscent of famous Russian composers, like Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and there was a brief segment where Bach’s ‘Toccata in Fugue’ was played. Furthermore, the heroine’s singing voice was performed by Viktoriya Ivanova, who had operatic experience. Once more, these choices seem to imply a superiority on the Soviet Union’s part, suggesting that it would carry forth Europe’s internationally renowned classical music tradition with honor and dignity. The music for the Disney film sets a very different tone. The music for The Little Mermaid was written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who had a great deal of experience writing music for American Broadway theater. As a result, their score for The Little Mermaid adhered in many ways to the American Broadway tradition, including a song for the heroine to sing about her deepest wishes and big bold numbers sung by large groups. The songs were clearly designed to help progress the plot, whereas in Rusalochka most of the music was meant to be in the background. The only song that was sung by a main character in Rusalochka was the song the heroine sang to the prince after she saved him, which was haunting and in a minor key, unlike Disney’s musical counterpart “Part of Your World”, which was in a major key and full of hope. In this way, Disney celebrates its own traditions of Broadway style music, which stem from films as early as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Both Rusalochka and The Little Mermaid can be seen as assertions of cultural pride by the studios that made them. In the heat of the Cold War, almost every film, book, or piece of music that was released by the Soviet Union or the capitalist West presented that culture’s values in a favorable light. Both cultures managed to create compelling and moving works of art in regards to Rusalochka and The Little Mermaid. In spite of the different endings and cultural messages the two films convey, they both touch us and inspire us, which is perhaps one of the most important functions art can perform regardless of time period or culture.
Is graphic art an effective medium for teaching us about history? Reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Annabel Bartsch looks into how graphic novels can be an effective medium for the retelling of historical events, and what we can learn from Marjane Satrapi’s novel Persepolis.
Like many, I went into this book knowing nothing about conflicts in the Middle East, specifically Iran and Iraq, other than the ‘subtle’ allusions Western news stations and tabloids like to draw upon, especially in recent years because of the insurgence of attacks by the so-called Islamic state. Therefore, I was eager to debunk my mind from the stereotypes and headlines that never really told me the whole story or taught me the histories of Iran or Iraq, by reading this memoir. However, there were initially doubts at the back of my mind about whether the graphic art style could effectively, and most importantly appropriately, convey the events of Iran’s history. The reason for this is because of its inevitable visual depictions of war and what influence this could have upon a reader, regardless of whether it was a conscious or unconscious consideration of the author. This was a debate I had actively engaged in when participating in the Lessons from Auschwitz project executed by the Holocaust Educational Trust in secondary school, regarding the photography remnants of the Holocaust. On the one hand, what was emphasized in the charity’s ethos is that the current and future generations shouldn’t be allowed to be distanced from the Holocaust and therefore allowed to erase it from public discourse on history and in this way, photography could benefit. On the other hand, the charity’s main aim was to highlight the damage of the overexposure of people to the atrocities committed in the Holocaust through photography of victims. Their main reason behind this was not just the desensitisation to the victims but the disrespect and degradation of these mediums upon the victims because one could argue that it depicts the victims as the Nazis wanted them to be perceived, without dignity and almost not human, which takes away from history’s purpose of putting faces to the dehumanizing statistics and actions of the Nazis. Subsequently, I hoped that Satrapi’s depictions of war and events in Iran through illustration wouldn’t depersonalize or dehumanize the people ultimately caught up in it.
Having now read Persepolis, I would argue that this was a largely misplaced fear. Perhaps this is because it is a first-hand experience of events in Iran unfolding and therefore the reader is unable to separate themselves from the up-close and personal; it follows Marjane Satrapi’s childhood into early adulthood, around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978, through the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), concluding in 1994 with the country still reeling from the effects of years of brutal conflict and internal tensions. Nor can it be said that it remains purely factual, instead inserting Iran’s religious, social, gender and political beliefs under the microscope for scrutiny, with Satrapi’s own views at the forefront. On top of this, Satrapi does not shy away from the gruesome reality of war and its repercussions in the increasingly repressive nature of the government in Iran. In one particularly harrowing chapter called ‘The Heroes,’ Satrapi delves deep into personal accounts of torture and executions at the hands of the government due to ‘political incorrectness,’ which certainly earns it the title of a graphic novel, with the added shock for the reader that these characters represent people the author closely interacted with and had relationships with. One could argue that these images could have this effect of romanticizing or overindulging in the more brutalized aspects of Iranian history, due to the lengths Satrapi has to go to illustrate these images, however personally I perceived it as concerned with showing the reality of the war to a largely Western readership that only sees the details second hand or the effects of the conflicts in the form of mass immigration, in order to validate and cement the experiences of Iranians as hardships worthy of support and empathetic outpouring, rather than the status quo scepticism known to be reserved by the West for the Middle East because of continually perpetuated stereotypes surrounding terrorism, Islamism and repressive governments in the Middle East without separating the individual from those institutions. Furthermore, by labelling the segment ‘The Heroes,’ Satrapi clearly illustrates that her intention is not to dehumanize or disrespect the experiences she exposes but to commemorate and celebrate their lives and contributions to change in Iran.
Therefore, I would argue that graphic art is an effective medium for teaching us history because it puts the individual at the forefront where a history textbook or collection of a historian’s essays will always fail to. In Persepolis, we are confronted with a diverse range of Iranians all of whom are individuals with different experiences and views of Iran’s history. This includes both the older generation in the form of Satrapi’s grandmother and parents as well as the young, now leading, generation pertaining to Satrapi, which even goes as far as to break down the myths surrounding each generation belonging to the same level of liberalism. Satrapi’s entire family is depicted as liberal minded, yet other hosts of characters of all ages may have conservatively and orthodox minded and this is highlighted in drawings in which these groups can be marked by the varying different wearing of the veil by women and different appearances of facial hair by men, taking just a couple of examples. Furthermore, the graphic art style allowed me to properly visualize events in Iran’s history with the author’s illustrations, expanding upon the rather lacking meaningful representation of these events in Western media. As a result of this I believe that this form of history presents more opportunities than limitations, especially in regards to the education of young people, with visual learning becoming more mainstream. Although it does depend upon the integrity of the author’s historical research, as well as art, if done correctly like Marjane Satrapi, the possibilities for the teaching of history could be significantly broadened.
Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’: Comedy or Tragedy
Fiona McNevin delves into the humour and heartbreak present in Chekhov’s play ‘The Seagull’ and takes a closer look at how the play straddles the genres of comedy and tragedy.
Image: The Center at West Park
I am currently studying in Yaroslavl, Russia as part of my degree, and I recently saw a production of ‘The Seagull’ at the Volkhov Theatre as part of the 21st International Volkhov Festival. When you think of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, a light-hearted comedy probably isn’t what springs to mind. Instead, the famous work is often regarded as a tragic play providing intimate insight into the frailty of human nature and relationships.
It’s easy to think of the genres of comedy and tragedy as polar opposites. Though there are exceptions, if you choose to watch a comedy you could easily expect to be safe from needing tissues. At first glance, you would be justified in categorising ‘The Seagull’ purely as a tragedy, although it might also interest you to know that Chekov subtitled his early play as ‘A Comedy in Four Acts’. I have always been intrigued by this decision, as the play is full of depression, destruction and heartbreak, ending in the ultimate tragedy - the suicide of a principal character.
It is probably important to understand the plot of the play in order to understand where the humour comes in. ‘The Seagull’ follows the Nikolaev family on their summer estate, set at the end of the 19th century. Everyone seems dissatisfied with their lives, and no one achieves their goals by the end of the play. The estate is owned by Sorin, a retired civil servant, and managed by Shamrayev. Shamrayev’s daughter Masha loves Sorin’s nephew Konstantin, although he is completely in love with his neighbour Nina, who flirts with him but does not seem to hold the same level of affection. A young teacher Medvedenko is in love with Masha but is ignored by her. Konstantin’s mother Irina (and Sorin’s sister) is a famous actress and brings her lover Trigorin to the estate along with her and her son. A few other characters are also involved but those mentioned above are the most important for a basic understanding of the play. By Act 2, Nina has fallen out of love with Konstantin, and in love with Trigorin, causing trouble for Irina and breaking Konstantin’s heart in the process. By Act 4, Masha has married Medvedenko despite still being hopelessly in love with Konstantin. Nina was abandoned by Trigorin and ultimately everyone is unhappy. Confused yet? I’ve left a lot out and paraphrased four acts in a few sentences, and yet it’s already possible to understand how Chekhov intended the play as a comedy – the characters are messy and miserable and all mixed together whether by love, by blood, or purely by proximity of where they live. The drama of the situation that Chekhov has created is humorous, as it is too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
The production I saw was brilliant, with a talented cast and a refreshingly simple set which allowed the audience to fully engage with the actors. Interestingly, however, what stood out to me the most was just how much the audience laughed during the play. The comedy was highlighted by the tragedy and vice versa. Sometimes we were laughing at a character, such as the audience’s collective and inevitable chuckle at the melodrama of the unhappy Masha declaring she wears black because she is “in mourning for [her] life”. At other times, we were laughing alongside the characters, caught up in the young lovers’ infectious energy or enjoying the tipsy jokes of the retired Sorin. Granted, the audience became more solemn as the play progressed and the relationships started to break down, but the play’s element of comedy was nonetheless quite obvious. In fact, the shocked murmurings and hushed tones during the sadder scenes only served to highlight the lightness of the comedic moments.
Of course, certain productions will accentuate the humorous aspects to a greater or lesser extent respectively, yet there is an innate comedic quality to be found within Chekov’s lines even as the play’s tragic events unfold. The characters create their own misfortune, and fumble their opportunities to rectify their lives, all the while drowning themselves in their misery and lamenting their failures both loudly and frequently. It is not a comedy in the sense of providing humour through slapstick, romantic comedy or even word play, but rather it is a tragicomedy - the ridiculousness of the tragedy creates the comedy, rendering the play almost unclassifiable in either genre.
For example, let’s look at the character of Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina. She is selfish and self-obsessed, mocks her son cruelly and constantly needs to be the centre of attention. In short, she’s a diva. Chekhov imbues her character with a comedic quality due to the melodramatic approach Irina takes to every scene she appears in. She is full of laughable contradictions which demonstrate her lack of morals and selfish nature to the audience. She brags about her success as an actress and yet is extremely tight with money, refusing to help her ill brother or her unhappy son; she frequently references her youthful beauty yet is tragically insecure in her relationship with Trigorin due to her age; she loves her son but treats him horribly and mocks his playwriting publicly. The audience is forced to laugh at her, not out of joyful amusement, but out of shock at her ridiculous nature and pathetic character.
In my opinion, it is too simplistic to refer to ‘The Seagull’ as simply a tragedy or a comedy. Chekhov’s drama flirts skilfully with both genres, never committing to one. My favourite interpretations are those that allow the humorous aspects to peek through, whilst retaining the integrity of the tragic events that occur throughout the play. ‘The Seagull’ should make the audience both laugh and tear up…and leave feeling a sense of relief that they don’t have to meet any of the characters in real life!
The Rise of Media Consumption: Has Netflix Killed Anticipation?
Katie Norris looks into the declining attention span of today’s generations, and why popular apps and streaming services like Netflix may be to blame.
Image: Ollie Hoff for Polygon
Since the launch of Netflix’s online streaming service in the United States in 2010, the world of cinema has never quite been the same. All of a sudden we can access films and TV shows from the comfort of home for only a small price each month. We say goodbye to traffic jams, overpriced snacks and rowdy teenagers in the back row, as Netflix introduces a personalised cinematic world at our very fingertips.
However, since the growth in Netflix’s popularity, with a gain of 36 million subscribers in 2020 alone, there has been a simultaneous increase in the release of Netflix Originals. Since early 2013 success, with the release of Emmy nominated House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix has since placed a particular focus on the release of their own originally produced films and shows. CEO David Wells even said ‘the company is not opposed to spending $20 million per hour of Original content’ demonstrating just how dedicated the platform is to the consistent release. Whilst it is unquestionable that these Originals have brought Netflix huge renown, as evident by the success of Laura Dern who won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in Marriage Story at the Oscars in 2017, I contend that in more recent years such mass release has led to an unhealthy appetite for new entertainment, resulting in the loss of anticipation.
In September 2021 alone, the release of Sex Education and Squid Game has dominated social media discussions. Yet just as quickly as they rise, they fall, and the hype disappears, leaving viewers hungry for the next ‘big thing’. This consumer culture, fuelled by the need for instant gratification, is pervasive and Netflix plays a crucial role in its maintenance.
In contrast to the traditional weekly airing of episodes that leaves viewers balancing on a precipice, Netflix’s decision to expel series in bulk feeds our greedy desires to binge entire seasons in one sitting, killing our ability to eagerly anticipate what comes next. Netflix is moulding a youth who lack the attention span and patience to engage with cinema for more than a fortnight. Consequently, the platform has forged an omniscient generation who no longer have to fantasise, create, and imagine plot lines for themselves and instead refuse to relinquish that control by binge watching.
It is not simply the mass release of episodes which fuels our cinematic greed, it is also the sheer number of titles Netflix produces. January and February of this year alone gave us three top 10 shows: Ginny and Georgia, Behind Her Eyes, and Lupin, with the latter being viewed by 76 million subscribers—one of the biggest raw view counts Netflix has seen. More astonishing is that this figure is topped only by 2 other series, Bridgerton and The Witcher, both of which were released only one month prior to Lupin.
Perhaps the success of Tiktok, launched in 2016, has similarly played its part in this excessive consumption of media. In 2020, a letter to shareholders tied to Netflix’s second-quarter earnings report name checked Tiktok as a serious competitor for the first time—a spot usually saved for services such as Amazon and Hulu. Creators on Tiktok have up to 3 minutes to provide enough amusement for viewers to like, share and follow, which only hinders our ability to anticipate and be patient even more. Certainly, I have found myself getting frustrated when videos lean towards that three minute mark, feeling somehow slighted by the audacity of having to wait for the climax of the video. If this is the world which Netflix is up against, is it any wonder it has become a battery farm for content?
In part, this just highlights the changing nature of media consumption, as the public strives for instantaneous entertainment over the slow release anticipation of the past. However, as a result, we have become a society of excess. By binge watching series, and following Netflix’s trail of Originals as diligently as Hansel and Gretel in the woods, we risk a similar fate of losing our lives to a sickly, but cinematic, gluttony—a not so happy ever after.
Star Casting – the Highs and Lows of the Celebrity on Stage
Isy Platt dives into the casting of celebrities in new plays, debating whether or not A-list casting is the way forward.
Image: British Theater
Are we going through a phase of A-list theatre productions?
In September it was announced that Daniel Craig would be starring in a new production of Macbeth on Broadway, opposite Oscar-nominated Ruth Negga as Lady Macbeth. It’s the latest in a long line of notable theatre productions, both in the West End and Broadway across the pond, to use big-name casting as a way to distinguish itself, to draw in the crowds, and ensure their production is the one provoking the hype and the buzz. Examples include James McAvoy’s Cyrano de Bergerac and the called-off 4000 Miles with Timothée Chalamet, David Mamet’s American Buffalo with Laurence Fishburn, Sam Rockwell, and Darren Criss, or the upcoming The Glass Menagerie with Amy Adams. It feels almost overwhelming – there’s suddenly so much seemingly good-quality theatre to choose from, that we want to see but can’t, due to either geographical limitations or the steep, steep ticket prices.
But is A-list casting a guarantee of success, critically and commercially? Instinctively, yes, as for the theatres and companies staging productions, it’s a guarantee of financial return. They may take a monetary hit in getting the star on board, but profits are promised through promotion and ticket sales. And post-pandemic (if we can say that yet), it seems to be the model being followed by most in order to recoup lost revenue from the last 18 months with the lights off and the stalls empty. I wrote an article in June on theatre streaming, and whether it would colour how we consume theatre in the future. A few months down the road, alternative modes of viewing doesn’t seem to have affected the rush of audiences back into the aisles. The question will be whether this first burst of enthusiasm will die down as the winter months set in and to what extent the first flow of eager theatregoers continue to come back for more.
Aside from this, could the paying public be put off by A-list casting? There’s a preconception that an unexpected or jarring casting could compromise the production in some way – as seen in the initial reaction to the announcement of Danny Dyer in the series of Pinter shorts in 2019. But, as with all film, theatre, television, radio, even advertisements – the cast is not the be-all and end-all. They do play a notable and visibly significant role, but it would be wrong to assume that on their own they dictate the success of a production. I am still, 3 years later, recovering from the National Theatre’s Macbeth in 2018, in which Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff gave as good a performance as they could in a production fundamentally flawed by its artistic and directorial approach.
Theatre is often perceived as a higher art form than film or television, the greatest way in which an actor can demonstrate or show off their talent to their adoring fanbase. And granted, theatre isn’t easy. Performing the same role seven or eight times a week for up to three months isn’t for the faint-hearted; even the very act of signing up for it seems to garner plenty of praise for the brave Hollywood star putting their pen to the contract.
The model of celebrity theatre has its downsides. When the crowds are drawn by the big names to the bigger theatres with the bigger budget productions, the footfall to smaller spaces with the inability to create that same buzz decreases. Going forwards, endless A-list theatre should not be the exclusively done thing, for that very reason. But ultimately, actors are always hired on their merits, for their talent and not solely their fame and ability to get bums on seats. We’ll have to wait and see when the reviews pour in next year whether Craig’s Macbeth will match up to his previous Broadway appearances, but I have faith. Not only in the production, but the theatre world itself to get back on its feet for good.
Liminality after Lockdown: Reading Static Spaces
Freya Miller explores the liminal space within literature and paintings to help us look into the liminal space created by 18 months of lockdown.
Image: New York Times
A difficult concept to pin down across disciplines, liminality can present itself more as a feeling than a notion to analyse, but seeing the world at a complete stop over lockdown has given many an idea of how stillness in a moving world feels. Liminality can be explained as a transition across borders or occupying an indefinite place between those borders. All forms of art touch upon this when they look at the human condition as changes in space engender analysis of changing persons.
Often novels make use of liminality in order to explain descent into madness. By holding their protagonists between two boundaries, they are denied development, knowledge, and peace. Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and The Yellow Wallpaper all make use of liminality in this way. The boundaries in Hamlet are concerned with knowledge and familial roles. When Claudius hastily marries Gertrude, grief, confusion, and madness consume the young Hamlet. His distrust of those once close to him is caused, in part, by his liminal existence in loss due to his own obsession with conspiracy. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the young woman is kept in a physical liminal space to ‘cure’ her anxiety. Trapped in that space she begins to ‘see’ another woman in the walls, slowly, as madness consumes her, she becomes the woman trapped in the walls. The concluding madness to her confinement may not be our collective experience in lockdown, however not knowing whether her illness is legitimate or a result of her ‘cure’ places the reader in a position of liminality. Wuthering Heights explores the experience of existing between social spaces. Cathy’s non-choice of suitors damages those around her, namely Heathcliff. He makes transitions from obscurity to inheriting the Earnshaw fortune, he perpetually exists liminally, loving Cathy without true resolution, having fortune without cause. This is first represented in his cruelty to the Earnshaws, then his withdrawal from society and refusal to eat. Then, rumours of his ghost, with Cathy, on the moors places them both in the liminal space between life and death, not accepted into heaven or hell arguably because their characters don’t belong.
Tristessa, by Jack Keroac places his readers in a position of liminality in the ways he explores his narrative. Kerouac builds a picture of drug-fuelled life in Mexico City, where travellers’ relationships are transient. He explores the saintly and the profane meditatively-- it’s this form of meditating on a period of time wherein unfamiliar cultures and religions come to bear on his life which offers the quality of liminality.
Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings are notable for the way in which they ask us to exist in a liminal space. Putting your focus between the artist’s and your own, with large-scale canvases covering your vision, is comparable to meditation. Rothko painted on untreated, unvarnished canvas, which made his brushstrokes bleed across the surface. The paintings draw the eye across these subtle patterns-- the size of the canvasses mean that time spent looking deeply into them draws the focus. The Rothko Chapel brought together three of his triptychs and Black Paintings, in a space which is at once gallery, conference space, and spiritual building. Creating static space in this chapel asked a fast-moving world to stop and exist.
Lockdown created a similar liminal space. Not knowing a definite end, many of us would recognise the situations of in-betweenness that these writers and artists explore. Most of the works mentioned provide a sympathetic understanding of the effects of being held in a liminal space, if not being read as cautionary tales on the effects of isolation. Reading Rothko’s paintings, and Kerouac’s Tristessa, however, offers meditation and introspection as positive ways in which to experience and remember this collective trauma.
Broadchurch and the Legacy of Tragedy
Rebecca West examines the legacy of Greek Tragedy on modern crime shows and the need for art that unsettles us.
Image: PA Times Online
Last term, I decided to try a genre of television of which I had no previous experience. A fan of both Olivia Coleman and David Tennant, the BBC series Broadchurch caught my fancy. Sceptical about whether I would enjoy a crime programme – I usually either stick to films or light television – I was pleasantly surprised. The subtlety of emotion and relationships, excellent cinematography, and a perfect blend of light and heavy moments make this programme thoroughly enjoyable.
This watching-through of Broadchurch happened to coincide with my studying of Oedipus Rex, the second of Sophocles’ Theban plays and a masterpiece of Greek tragedy. Although an unorthodox pairing, Greek tragedies and the crime genre have more in common than you would think. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that instead of merely sharing characteristics, the crime genre seems to occupy in modern culture the place that Greek tragedies occupied in their contemporary society.
Armed with Aristotle’s Poetics, the handy guide for all things tragedy, it’s easy to find similarities in formal characteristics between these two. Firstly, we see in both a ‘tight’ plot design, with every action having a consequence and every condition a reason. Aristotle calls plot ‘the soul of a tragedy,’ as it shows character and evokes emotional interest, effects heightened in a tight plot. For example, in Oedipus Rex, as Oedipus’ future is prophesied his past is revealed, and we realise that he was paradoxically doomed before the action of the play even begins. Broadchurch is likewise concerned with unveiling of the past – the murder that is committed before the titles of the first episode. Secondly, in both, there is a sense of hamartia or ‘tragic flaw:’ Oedipus causes his own downfall, unknowingly implicating every other character; the protagonists of Broadchurch are thrown into chaos by their honourable attempt to unveil the killer. Thirdly, the events of each of these works inspire pity and fear, or katharsis, in the mind of the audience. Again, Aristotle says that this effect should be produced by the plot, which ‘ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.’ Both tragedies and crime programmes work to create great tension and suspense which, at each ‘great reveal’ doesn’t exactly provide relief. The positioning of the killer in the society and Oedipus’ familial positioning must be known, but it is precisely these that cause the tragedy of these two works.
Fundamentally underpinning these works is an examination of cause-and-effect. The maze-like tightness of the plot creates complex questions which multiply, rather than lessen, as the truth is revealed. In this, these two works have a similar effect on the audience. Simon Critchley of The White Review wrote that the ancient tragedies present us with ‘a series of constitutive moral ambiguities that we cannot easily resolve, and we don’t know how to judge.’ People, it seems, have always enjoyed making and engaging with art that unsettles, confuses and encourages us to think – the legacy of tragedy.