We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Kiss Me Kate_ and clearing weather · 12 August 08

Dear Friends,

I continue my journal entries about our time away in a restored Victorian house near Glimmerglass opera theatre and Cooperstown, New York. The weather is clearing and sun coming out in fitful but strong gleams. So today (thank you Tom) we will set off once again to Cooperstown, this time to find a good bookstore and explore the center of this small city. Tonight we go to see Bellini’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: I Capuleti e i Montecchi. As tomorrow is our one night with no opera, we will spend much of the day at the Arkell Museum, which we’ve discovered (via the Glimmerglass book and internet access) is a large splendid permanent exhibition place. It features American art, particularly Wyeth, and there is a large show of Winslow Homer on right now (watercolors). And in the evening our one meal out, via the landlord’s advice a nearby Italian restaurant: an old 19th century house (Richfield Springs, the town we are in was a spa) turned into a sort of palazzo-cum restaurant.

To day I want to talk about Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, book by Bella Spewak, directed by Paulus at Glimmerglass last night. I enjoyed it: it was very well done and was consciously meant to be great fun. It also had some revealing elements (the sort not openly discussed usually) not in Shakespeare.

The scenes dramatized strong violence in a contained way—continually. In the lecture beforehand (this are marvelous, by a young woman voice coach), the lecturer told us early versions of the musical (perhaps the movie too) toned down or eliminated altogether Kate’s “I Hate Men”; if so, I, for one, would have found this Petrurchio’s outright violence to Kate hard to take: he spanks her so hard she can’t sit down; in the production, it was presented as justifiable revenge. But her “Hate” is not directed at anyone; she hurls a whip but not at any particular man. She throws a knife at the penis of a male doll. Hers is a rousing song, which includes lines like how sex is great, but afterwards the man is free, and women get stuck with the baby. The lecturer said this was thought very controversial to sing! Common sense known to all?

The musical had many vignettes of different kinds of love relationships and the Bianca character was revealing in her overt hypocrisies: the very young actress doing it (just 20 or so) was superb as a dancer and comedienne. As with Shakspeare’s Bianco (only more explicitly) her love of reading is shown as pious tripe, here made improbable (in Shakespeare she likes her tutor). I really enjoyed her long song and dance number “Oh, I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion, I’m always true to you, darling, in my way”: the vignettes pictured by the lyrics are about how she has sex with men who offer wealth, glamor, connections, fun.

Biana/Lois Lane (Courtney Romano) and Lucentio/Bill Calhoun (David Larsen)

Still she does love her Lucentio and if only he would “behave” would be his “slave” too. He grudingly (in this still) accepts this situation.

Others included quarrelling numbers between Kate and Petruchio, haunting love music echoed by each, but also songs about betrayal and vexed competition. This competition was about how a year ago they were divorced and how she wants to be treated as a leading independent actress, and he wants to be free to do what he wants (not necessarily sexual) with her following him about. Will she chose her new rich Southern gentleman (and be bored to death with respectability and loneliness in a vast house) or fun being Petruchio (Graham’s partner on his terms).

Only one haunting song was about love as such (the sort that dominate in the modern My Fair Lady as in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to your Face”); most of the pieces were ironic and except for “I Hate Men” and “I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion” addressed to men. For example, “Brush up your Shakespeare” brought down the house as the two male comedian-gangsters were very good, but the song was all about domination and advice to me: “Brush up your Shakespeare and they’ll all kowtow” is the refrain.

Curiously (or maybe revealingly of the 1940s), explicit sex was evaded. Three years ago at Kennedy Center the RSC did Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed . The way Kate tames Petruchio (in this 1611 Part Two) is to herself deny him sex, and get the other women to join in. Hardly any violence in the Fletcher play though; rather maneuvring trickery by all. Yes Porter wrote a song where Petruchio remembers having women in all Italian ports while he goes to bed after he has married Kate and brought her home and bullied (starved), and hit her and thrown her about. He is going to sleep alone as she won’t let him in. But really the sex here is added: it’s stage business. We see her shut the door and we see him making his bed. In the story he wins by domineering and her sudden unexplained caving in. The submissive speech in Shakespeare is made shorter, but the sentiments left intact. Women applauded “I hate men” and I heard afterwards behind me one man reacting uncomfortabley to “I hate men” with a “I hate women too” (jocularly said natch), but there wa no applause or any overt reaction to the submissive speech, only relief (a little later) when after the mildest memory of Bianca being indignant (in Shakespeare she protests and shows she won’t imitate Kate), we move into the final brief number, “KIss Me Kate.”

This musical is an instance of what Jeanine Basinger talks about in her A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women (1930s to 80s): she argues that movies made visible to women as a group, made conversible to their minds, how they felt about how their societies treated them, and offered advice on what to do about this. Although written by a basically gay man (Porter was married but until paralyzed had many affairs with men) and a Jewish woman songwriter and now directed by a woman, this musical spoke only twice for women. The rest of it was speaking to men.

Shakespeare’s frame is so often omitted and was omitted here. Christopher Sly half-drunk sits down to watch a group of very artificial comedia del arte performers. So in Shakespeare the whole thing is displaced as exaggeration and caricature. The text is corrupt as we lack the closing frame which in the opening is prepared for. I have seen The Taming of the Shrew done in these Italian costumes. The emphasis in Shakespeare is not violence, but money. Shakespeare’s Petruchio has come to wive it weathily in Padua. Gremio and his sidekick are there for money, only they are not willing to take Kate: they prefer Bianca who seems more compliant but the father says the older daughter must be married first. Thus they help Petruchio. The comic dialogues are about contradictions in logic and perception of the world, and if sexual relationships and love as a topic are there, it’s by implication and much more in the Bianca story. It’s Fletcher who makes love relationships central and presents sex as the very thing men and women are fighting about: on what terms it will be had by both.

This modern musical has injected a contemporary debate about how far women should be independent of men not in Shakespeare. What strikes me as important today is the overt violence—partly because in the Giulio Cesare in Egitto, we saw the same extra violence inflicted on the Cornelia character, a virtuous widow with only a son (played overtly by a young woman as a woman & terrorist) to protect her.

Now off to lunch and the Cooperstown bookstore with the Admiral and Yvette (who has torn herself away from the Olympics and her blanket on the couch, it being cool here in NY).


Posted by: Jim

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  1. P.S. Dear Tom, We found the bookshop! Thank you. We spent about an hour there, and by chance shortly before another Trollopian had been there. In the fiction place where there should have been Trollope books & in the non-fiction place, where there should have been non-fiction books on Trollope: great gaps! I did buy an older but not collectible (not important) three volume set of Can You Forgive Her? as that’s what was left. Jim found a good book on opera (desire, disease and death in), Quennell and others; I found one on 18th century art and Viola Meynell's memoir of her poet aunt, Alice; even Yvette found a book for heself.

    We were not the only people in the store. While we were there, two other people came in and I heard one say, “So you’re still here” with great satisfaction. We were directed there by another bookstore owner who did at least have some books not on baseball (about a wall of them), several of which were anti-Walmart books.

    These were not the only oases in this otherwise baseball fan world: we reached a lovely lake in a park; the lake had legends attached through the writing of James Fennimore Cooper. There is a tour boat on weekends. The town was once a 19th century spa and has some older large homes of interest. We stopped in a “stagecoach” cafe, which offered espressos and real cream soda (from a fountain).

    Further, not everyone is here for baseball mania and illusions. The bookstore owner asked us if we had heard of his store from the “opera tours.” We said no, and I told him your name and he remembered you.

    But there was nothing remotely resembling a sensible store for womens’ clothes. The only apparel was for those women who wanted to garb themselves as women baseball fans. So I shall give over any hopes of swimming on Thursday (when we’ll try the state park).

    Elinor    Aug 12, 4:10pm    #
  2. From Kathy:

    “Dear Ellen,

    Your trip sounds idyllic and I’ve certainly enjoyed your family’s blog.”

    Yet I yearn to be home and at work I love. I say I’m a homebody; the Admiral says I’m no lotus-eater.

    Elinor    Aug 14, 11:06am    #
  3. From Leslie:

    “I’m about halfway through the chapter “Duality” and enjoying this book very much. Basinger is funny! I frequently find myself laughing out loud. I think women’s films are too generally defined in her intro to qualify as a genre, perhaps (depends on how you define the term “genre,” of course), but she has fascinating things to say about every film she discusses. Like the best cultural critics, she acknowledges that many aspects of these films are absurd, but shows how they’re doing serious things nevertheless. Thanks to whoever originally suggested this book. I’m enjoying it enormously and it’s giving me new ways to talk about popular films intelligently.

    Elinor    Aug 14, 11:48am    #
  4. To Leslie:

    “On Basinger's A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, yes she is so fruitful and useful. I have to reread that first chapter and go on, but I do remember that logically she can leave something to be desired. Films are not logical, and they have no long history which everyone agrees on so definitions of subgenres are hazy. Further many males do not want to admit there is an ongoing genre of the woman’s film. I was reading a student text (still very much assigned) where the author says there are no longer women’s films; they seem to have died around 1970! Of course what happened was a different vision of what makes for a strong woman and many new types of women hitherto not seen as heroines or sympathetic minor characters entered the public stage.

    My blog on Kiss Me Kate develops some Basinger's approach to show how this 1940s musical does and does not speak to women today. Its original book is by a woman, the composer, Porter, was homosexual, and the director of the Glimmerglass version a woman, and still I would say it’s a man’s musical which speaks to men and which women have to pay alert attention to in order to find what it has to say to them. Most disturbing was the accepted level of violence wreaked on Kate.” and yet her submissive speech at the end (demanding no compromise on his part, no promises of amended behavior).

    Elinor    Aug 14, 11:50am    #
  5. From Elissa:

    “Kindly forgive fractionated writing format: Opera performed in wooded backgrounds sounds intriguing. We were slammed by a fierce T-storm and pelted with peach-sized [yes!] hail and fierce tornadic-like winds last week, so my home now needs a new roof, slate & Belgium block front entry, shubbery, etc. – in short, a mess. An expensive mess that the insurance company is lagging its feet about settling …

    On movies – Did you mean the Katherine Greyson/Cole Porter film of Kiss Me Kate? As everyone, I loved the clever “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”; another great number that is not often mentioned is that wonderful fast-tapping dancing scene of Ann Miller – she was the greatest of female dancers – certainly the equal of Astaire in technique. She is a curious case – I think the kind of cheap sensuality she projected actually hampered her in getting the “good girl” starring roles she craved. About the best melding after Kiss Me was the role she played in Easter Parade with Astaire, Judy Garland, and Peter Lawford. But I found when reseeing the Kiss Me Kate movie recently that I really resented the position Kate is put in by Petruchio – especially the slapping around! In the modern/frame of the story, it is she who has the power over him [and that is paralleled somewhat in the Ann Miller subplot]. A curious shift over the centuries. But there is a nastiness of feeling here underneath all the clever lines and good music.

    Must go now – swamped with work.
    All the best, Elissa”
    Elinor    Aug 19, 5:14am    #

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