Amidst a fairly busy schedule in Turkey this week, managed to occupy a day off with a trip into the mountains above Antalya to the abandoned city of Termessos. It’s power and wealth derived from controlling the only local pass through the mountains – but its construction, so high and so elaborate (temples, theatre, agora, civic buildings, many houses etc), must have been an astonishing feat of engineering and endurance. Read more
The Word is God
One of the most intriguing developments has been the way that the media has taken up the cause – Radio 4 had a day of readings last Sunday with famous actors doing their bit (you can get them as a podcast here). And then Shakespeare’s Globe is going to have cover-to-cover readings of the KJV over the Easter weekend. And this is all great. The word will go out and not return empty, whoever reads it and for whatever purpose.
But as I pointed out in my thought at our Prayer Gathering on Tuesday, all is not exactly as it might seem. Initially, I was quite impressed that the Globe’s effort is called ‘The Word is God‘. But then you realise that, in fact, their whole season carries that banner – and it is a season that also includes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Much Ado etc, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn. It’s a clever punning title. For it is not actually claiming these words have inspiration in the theological sense. Merely that there is a profound glory to the language. It seems that it is following the old Romantic notions of extolling the power of language, and indeed all human creativity, to lift us to some higher place. So in fact, it’s arguable that the season’s title is making language (even the language of a famous biblical translation) into some sort of idol.
But this reflects the argument given by the BBC and others for giving what the National Secular Society whinges as ‘unfair religious privilege’. The defence is the language. The beauty and influence of the language. And that’s it. And fair enough at one level. There is something genuinely wonderful about Elizabethan and Jacobean English.
And so, while we have reasons to cheer at the 400th celebrations, we mustn’t get carried away. I was very struck by Wycliffe Bible Translators boss Eddie Arthur (on his Kouya Chronicle) pointing out a number of what he calls Authorised Myths (part 1 here and a follow up here). Here he clarifies a few misconceptions about the King James. Most notable amongst a number of really helpful points are these:
- it is not the first translation into English
- it is not necessarily the best (ie most accurate) translation
- it is not necessarily the most culturally valuable translation
- english speakers are not necessarily as important as we like to think we are.
Now be clear – this is not to devalue the KJV or to underestimate the influence it most certainly has had – it is merely to put it into some sort of perspective. For if the Bible is truly living and active and a double edged sword, then it doesn’t necessarily matter what translation one uses, as long as it is faithful and readable.
So it was very refreshing to hear Rhidian Brook bringing some sense to the airwaves in his Radio 4 Thought for the Day. It’s worth listening to in full (it’s only about 90 seconds). But here’s an excerpt:
We need to be careful that by paying homage to the literary excellence and influence of The King James Bible we don’t become like the Pharisees, getting lost in the wordy woods and missing the tree altogether. Like the little girl who, after being read the story of the feeding of the five thousand, asked if is was true and her Father said “perhaps, but don’t you think it’s a nice story?” To which she replied: “Yes, but it’s a much better story if it’s true.”
Throughout the last few weeks, I’ve kept on being reminded of something Eugene Peterson wrote five years ago in his excellent Eat This Book. In his chapter explaining his philosophy behind his contemporary version, The Message, he notes:
But despite and in contrast to the pioneering and language-renewing colloquial translations of Luther in German and Tyndale in English, the King James translation with its smooth, majestic sonorities – an English least representative of the kind of language in which the Bible was first spoken and heart and written – continues after nearly four hundred years to be the most frequently purchased and widely distributed translation in the English-speaking world. The King James translators used Tyndale’s text as their baseline, taking over approximately three-quarters of its essentially unchanged. But what they did with that plagiarized text amounted to a violation of it – they put lace cuffs on Tyndale’s sentences. To use my earlier phrase, they ‘desecrated upward.’ They skillfully and thoroughly shifted the tone of the language from the roughness of Tyndale’s plowboy to the smooth speech of the royal court. Most of the translators, after all, were part of the ‘old boy’ network of King James, many of them bishops who lived in a comfortable and protected life among the elite of the age. Adam Nicholson, author of a thorough study of the King James translators and an extravagant of their work, is also explicit that
the King James Bible… is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever… These scholars were not putting the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Bible are just as much English pushed towards the condition of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into English. It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishman would have written… Tyndale had produced a simple and plain man’s translation to be slapped in the face of the medieval church and its power-protective elite… [He was] looking for immediacy and clarity in scripture which would shake off the thick and heavy layers of medieval scholasticism and centuries of accumulated dust.
Eat This Book, (p161-162) – my emphasis
Now I’m not wanting to be churlish. 2011 presents us with many many opportunities. BibleFresh is a fantastic initiative – and we are doing a whole series of things throughout the year to make the most of it at All Souls. But let’s be realistic – thankful for what we should rightly be thankful for, and discerning about what we should be discerning about.
Richard Eyre’s anthology of interviews with various thesps and drama types (Taking Theatre) has been a fun book to dip into – the perfect filler for 5 minute slots (e.g.when people are late for a meeting). Lots of gems inside, but I particularly enjoyed this paragraph from playwright Alan Ayckbourn:
One of the things about being English – and I’m only aware of this because my plays have been translated into so many languages – is we have the most wonderful language for drama. I went to see Norman Conquests in German, and I said: ‘What’s the difference?’ The translator said: ‘We just find ourselves frustratedly using the same word where you’ve always chosen a different one.’ The first line in Relatively Speaking is a man saying: ‘I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade.’ Which describes his class. And the way he speaks shows a certain antagonism between him and his wife, a sort of distance. When the Americans try to Americanise it, they came up with the equivalent, which is: ‘This marmalade’s a freak out.’ Which said nothing. It’s the same language, sort of. But I think it’s the selection of words that’s English.
Then beyond that, there’s the way we behave to each other. We are a very oblique nation. I like that. I mean that feeling that you can go home, and it’s only when you’re on the bus you realise you’ve been insulted. [laughs] Or snubbed. And one explores the displacement activity that goes on. I don’t think any character in my play has ever said, ‘I love you’ directly to anyone. They’ve always been building a cupboard, or something, at the time, you know, and they’ve said it. Usually misheard the first time. There’s a feeling of indirection in a lot of our drama. My own Relatively Speaking is based on mistaken identities, which wouldn’t exist in some cultures. Somebody comes in and says: ‘Hello.’ And you think: ‘I don’t know who you are.’ But you don’t say, as an American might: ‘Who are you?’ You just carry on, hoping you’ll recognise them, and getting deeper and deeper into something. That’s very English.
Not only does it help overseas visitors or immigrants to England – rather like Kate Fox’s superlative Watching the English – it also briefly exposes how malleable and fiendish the nuances of the English language can be. I, for one, know how absurdly reluctant I am to ask the simple question ‘Who are you?’!
Having been with Rachel to see the recent London revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia a couple of weeks ago, I’ve hardly been able to stop thinking about it. When it first came out in 1992/3, first at the National and then transferred to the West End, I couldn’t get enough of it then and saw it twice. And our recent opportunity only deepened my reverence for its wit, artistry and profundity. A particular thrill was to see Stoppard’s son, Ed, play the part of the modern day Coverly, Valentine. While the play manages to encompass an almost cosmic range of ideas and concepts (and for the sake of the plot has to indulge in moments of didactic exposition), it never loses sight of the fact that it’s meant to be theatre – and theatre is, first and foremost, a spectacle meant to be enjoyed.
Stoppard has himself said that things came together with this play. He’s had the reputation of being primarily a writer of ideas, and that sometimes his characters have suffered the indignity of being merely vehicles for these ideas. (Although with a play like Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead, the whole point is that the two protagonists are indistinguishable bit-part characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) But not so with Arcadia.
I think [Arcadia’s] the first time I’ve got both right, the ideas and the plot. I think Arcadia is probably where all that was leading. It’s lost the comic songs and the parodies [of his previous play Travesties], but it’s a similar combination of larking about and trying to deliver some kind of thesis. (Fleming, Modern Theatre Guide p2)
The play is set in one room in a typical English Stately Home (Sidley Park) in two parallel universes:
- in the 18th Century during the rise of the Romantics’ reaction (as personified by sometime Sidley Park visitor, Lord Byron) against the austere and pure classicism of the previous generation
- in the present day, as two different scholars (Hannah & Bernard) try in their different ways to figure out what happened at Sidley Park all those years before.
The same aristocratic family (the Coverlys) occupies the house in both eras, and it seems that the younger members of the family are geniuses (like Thomasina in 18thC & Valentine in the present). Thomasina unwittingly pre-empts various 20th Century scientific discoveries and commonplaces, and she may even have solved Fermat’s last theorem!
Arcadia has everything.
- Genuine, laugh-out-loud hilarity (from the very first lines)
- Poignancy and humanity, especially between Thomasina and her tutor Septimus.
- Brilliant articulation of sometimes impenetrable concepts (like Fractals & iterated algorithms, Chaos Theory, 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, Classicism & Romanticism). These are not necessarily the things one expects from a play!
- It is about worldviews – and therefore deals with things that really matter. Which is presumably why one gets the feeling that the playing around with the concepts just mentioned is no merely idle intellectual exercise (although it is done in a very witty and light-handed way – who could forget Thomasina’s anachronistic grappling with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics by reference to the behaviour of the jam in her rice pudding!?)
- One major concern of the play is epistemology, which is a key issue of postmodernity – how do we know what we know. This is illustrated brilliantly by Hannah & Bernard and their interactions with Valentine. Another issue is the relationship between determinism and free will. There is an inevitability to what happens in the play – especially because the modern day characters know what will happen to their 18thC counterparts, and therefore as the play unfolds, so do we. This dramatic irony brings a real sense of tragedy as we witness the development of Thomasina and Septimus.
- There is a wonderful structural symmetry but also ingenious theatrical devices, like the confusion of time and space in Scene 7, where all the main characters occupy the same stage, performing a merry waltz (metaphorically and literally) around one another. To confuse things further, the modern day characters are dressed to the nines for a fancy dress ball – in 18thC costume.
Some Favourite Arcadia lines
Here are a few of my favourite moments (the photo is taken from the recent London revival – Hannah (Samantha Bond), Valentine (Ed Stoppard), Chloe (Lucy Griffiths) & Bernard (Neil Person) credit: photostage.co.uk :
THOMASINA: Septimus, do you think God is a Newtonian?
SEPTIMUS: An Etonian? Almost certainly I’m afraid. We must ask your brother [Augustus, about to start at Eton] to make it his first enquiry. (p5)
LADY CROOM (the Coverly Chatelaine) to her brother: Do not dabble in paradox, Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit.(p11)
LADY CROOM (complaining about her husband’s determination to replace the classical style landscape of Sidley Park with a more rustic, Romantic vista): But Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged – in short, it is nature as God intended, and I can say with the painter, ‘Et in Arcadia ego!’ Here I am in Arcadia,’ Thomasina
THOMASINA (reacting to her mother’s mistranslation of the Latin): Yes mama, if you would have it so. (p12)
VALENTINE:… There was someone, forget his name, 1820s, who pointed out that from Newton’s laws you could predict efverything to come – i mean you’d need a computer as big as the universe but the formula would exist.
CHLOE: But it doesn’t work, does it?
VALENTINE: No. It turns out the maths is different.
CHLOE: No, it’s all because of sex.
CHLOE: That’s what I think. The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it’s trying to be, but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren’t supposed to be in that part of the plan.
VALENTINE: Ah. The attraction that Newton left out. All the way back to the apple in the garden. (p73-74)
SEPTIMUS: Peace! Peace until a quarter to twelve. It is intolerable for a tutor to have his thoughts interrupted by his pupils.
AUGUSTUS COVERLY: But you are not my tutor, sir. I am visiting your lesson by my free will.
SEPTIMUS: If you are so determined, my lord. (p80)
LADY CROOM to Thomasina: We must have you married before you are educated beyond eligibility. (p84)
Some useful Arcadia follow up
Of course the best thing is to see it! It works best where it is intended: on stage. But failing that, as well as checking out the sparkling script here and John Fleming’s reasonably helpful theatre guide (see right: I enjoyed it but as it’s more of a school text book, its insights were helpful but all too brief), here are some useful resources for follow up (nicked from the back of the Fleming book).
- Excellent study guide: Arcadia Study Guide (L Opitz)
- On the maths of the play: Chaos, Fractals & Arcadia (R. Devaney)
- A School guide: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (S Moss)
- Photos from original productions as well as this 2009 revival: Arcadia on Stage
I also remember enjoying, ages ago, Mel Gussow’s Conversations with Stoppard, which took place over a number of years. Particularly good in that book are the discussions on God and why Stoppard has no truck with atheism. I might post about that one day…