The George Orwell Challenge – In Defence of the Novel (1936)

You can read In Defence of the Novel online here.

New English WeeklyIn the same month that Orwell published his essay Bookshop Memories, in which he drew on his own experiences working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead, he also wrote this essay, In Defence of the Novel, which was published in two parts in the New English Weekly magazine, on 12th and 19th November 1936.

Bookshop Memories is a very personal, and rather snobbish, account of his opinions of the bookselling trade. He’s quick to criticise and condemn those who want to read books that he simply finds beneath him, alighting on his bête noir Ethel M Dell for particular derision, even though she sold in massive numbers, so was obviously pleasing some people somewhere.

In Defence of the Novel takes his critical view of bookselling one stage further, by attributing what he calls the “extremely low” “prestige of the novel” to hack reviewers praising poor quality writing to the nines. As a result, he argues, “if you write novels you automatically command a less intelligent public than you would command if you had chosen some other form.” He doesn’t believe that the novel is “a contemptible form of art” but believes “to salvage it you have got to persuade intelligent people to take it seriously.”

Old BooksIt’s a curious opinion to blame what he perceives to be the novel’s poor reputation on the industry’s reviewers, rather than the quality of the writing itself. However, he quotes from the previous week’s edition of the Sunday Times, “if you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” There’s no denying – that’s a trashy piece of reviewing! As Orwell also points out, “novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing. It must make it so difficult to choose a book at the library, and you must feel so guilty when you fail to shriek with delight.”

Equating the quality of a novel with the quality of its reviews sounds nonsensical. However, Orwell examines the problem closer and explains that reviewers themselves won’t get published or paid if they describe a book as a load of tripe – and reviewers have mouths to feed just as writers do. It’s the commercial structure of needing a good review to sell a book (and to sell advertising) that by necessity brings the quality down. Obviously, all publishers want their books to sell, so all publishers want good reviews. But Orwell points out that “even if there were no question of bribery, direct or indirect, there can be no such thing as good novel criticism so long as it is assumed that every novel is worth reviewing.” As a result, Orwell questions whether it might “be possible to devise a system, perhaps quite a rigid one, of grading novels into classes A, B, C, and so forth, so that whether a reviewer praised or damned a book, you would at least know how seriously he meant it to be taken.”

What is surprising to the reader of today is that Orwell should have this opinion of the novel; because from our perspective, there’s nothing particularly wrong with 1930s novel writing. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, Scott Fitzgerald – not to mention Orwell himself – were all writing memorable and highly regarded novels that have stood the test of time. Maybe when you’re operating within a system, like Orwell was, it’s sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees and take a pessimistic view of the future. Here’s the conclusion to the essay:

George Orwell“Various people have prophesied that the novel is doomed to disappear in the near future. I do not believe that it will disappear, for reasons which would take too long to set forth but which are fairly obvious. It is much likelier, if the best literary brains cannot be induced to return to it, to survive in some perfunctory, despised and hopelessly degenerate form, like modern tomb-stones, or the Punch and Judy Show.”

To be honest, it’s an appalling over-reaction on Orwell’s part. Whilst there may be a glimmer of truth in his argument, he takes it too far. “Look for instance at the fourpenny novelettes that you see piled up on any cheap stationer’s counter. These things are the decadent offspring of the novel, bearing the same relation to Manon Lescaut and David Copperfield as the lap-dog bears to the wolf.” That may be true, but it in no way prevents future Lescauts or Copperfields being written. Counterbalancing the Ethel M Dell books of his time are Brave New World, Rebecca, The Hobbit; it’s easy to produce a list of stand-out 1930s novels for yourself.

Nevertheless, it’s an Orwell essay, and as usual demands that you pay attention and listen to his argument. The Road to Wigan PierWritten with clarity and authority, it’s an entertaining read and it’s always fun to admire him communicate his beliefs – even if you might not agree with him! By the way, a few months ago I read an article in The Stage that complained that over-enthusiastic reviews for a play that doesn’t deserve them can be as harmful as a bad review – so maybe Orwell was right all along!

Next in my George Orwell Challenge is The Road to Wigan Pier, a full-length non-fiction book about the bleak living conditions of working class people in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and an examination of the British attitude to socialism. I remember enjoying this book thoroughly when I read it in my early 20s and I look forward to reading it again soon – and I hope you read it too!

Review – Dara Ó Briain – So Where Were We? Milton Keynes Theatre, 6th November 2022

So Where Were WeAs only the cognoscenti know, there’s no finer place to be than Milton Keynes on a Sunday night in November – and a total sell-out appearance of one of Ireland’s finest, Dara Ó Briain, on his So Where Were We tour, which would have been a good name for those early days post-lockdown but seems a trifle anachronistic now. I  was surprised to discover it’s been seven years since we saw DOB live, with his Crowd Tickler show; although, to be honest, I was even more surprised to discover it’s been over five years since we’ve been to the Milton Keynes Theatre. Fortunately I had remembered that you need to sit in either Row A or Row E for maximum comfort, and that hasn’t changed.

Dara O'BriainA giant in comedy, in more ways than one, Mr Ó B wanders ungainly onto the stage and you’re instantly cocooned in his warm Irish garrulousness. He roams from subject to subject with a seeming lack of focus but it couldn’t be further from the truth. He knows exactly how his show is structured, and by the end of the show, you need both fingers and toes to count the number of callbacks he’s established.

DOBMuch of this is achieved, of course, by his connection with the front row, with whom he spends several blissful comedy minutes, discovering their jobs and other personal nuggets. Last night’s front row offered a high level of intelligence, including a data analyst for Kärcher (and his mum, who knew Mrs Kärcher), a supercomputer programmer, and someone who works for Red Bull Formula One. To say Dara was impressed was an understatement. Naturally, by the end of the show, he had worked up a hilarious scenario where all these people intertwined. The comic agility of his brain is amazing!

Dara O'BriainOther things we discovered during the show were the difference between a walking stick and a cane, how a staid Irishman reacts at the offer of a sexy massage, and how Mrs Ó Briain gains his attention when she doesn’t want to disturb the children. However, a large part of the second half of the show is devoted to one extended subject and monologue – and it’s an important, personal account by Mr Ó B, so I won’t offer any spoilers. Suffice to say he turns a serious quest into a comedy thread; plenty to laugh at, but also lots of amazing revelations to take your breath away. Fortunately, he ends on a very high note – it could have been alarmingly serious in other, less gifted, hands.

Dara O BAt almost 2 hours 40 minutes, including an interval, we got great value out of Mr Ó B. Supremely entertaining as always, but showing a slightly more serious side than in previous shows, this is an evening of sheer enjoyment. His tour continues into 2023 – but you’d better get your skates on, as he sells out rapidly!

Review – John Gabriel Borkman, Bridge Theatre, London, 2nd November 2022

John Gabriel BorkmanI’ve always been a sucker for a bit of Ibsen. Ever since we read Ghosts at school, I’ve always admired the grim grit of miserable 19th century Norwegian life that only Ibsen really seems to get. John Gabriel Borkman is one of his later plays, and was new to me, so I was curious to see if he’d cheered up at all in later life. Not a bit of it – I’m pleased to say. You don’t watch Ibsen for the lolz.

JGBNicholas Hytner brings us a brand new JGB, with a fresh translation by Charlotte Barslund then moulded into a new version by Lucinda Coxon. Comparing it with the original, there isn’t really a lot that’s changed. The role of Mrs Borkman’s maid has been dropped, which gives it a more contemporary feel; she has been replaced by Gunhild’s use of a mobile phone, poor thing, which I presume is the main reason why this new version is presented in the here and now, rather than 1896. Otherwise, I can’t see how presenting the play in a modern setting gives any other insights – more on some staging details later.

Gunhild and ErhartThere’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating story with two central, timeless, themes. First – the humiliation of the fallen hero. The John Gabriel Borkman of the title was once a “great” man; a banker, respected, wealthy, influential – but a fraud, who swindled people left right and centre, including his own friends. Unsurprisingly, he was sent to prison for five years, to return home to the hostile and unforgiving arms of his wife, Gunhild. As a result, he has spent the last three years pacing around the upstairs room of their house, doing hardly anything, seeing hardly anyone. An unmitigated failure.

EllaThis deadlock is broken by the arrival of Gunhild’s sister, Ella, who owns the property as all Borkman’s assets were seized. Gunhild and Ella haven’t seen each other in eight years; Gunhild’s animosity towards her sister is palpable. It emerges that young Erhart Borkman has been seeing an older woman in the town, Fanny Wilton; this introduces the second timeless theme – the desire of the older generation to control the lives of the younger generation. Gunhild is an overprotective mother and Ella a besotted aunt; and when JGB decides he also wants to take Erhart away and start a new life together, there’s only one possible outcome for all this delusion.

CastAnna Fleischle has designed a very classy set. Cool greys and blues straight out of the Dulux colour chart suggest an atmospheric Oslo winter but also create poverty out of what was once obviously opulence. Very nicely done indeed. James Farncombe’s inventive lighting enhances the set design and brings additional drama to the theatrical highlights. In the loft sits a grand piano, on which young Frida Foldal plays Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, the only remnant of artistry left in the building.

FridaBut there are a couple of odd staging choices. The sound effect representing JGB pacing upstairs at the beginning of the play doesn’t sound like footsteps at all – they are more like a muffled drum beat.  The programme tells us the setting is “outside Oslo”, so why does Gunhild drink Barr’s cola? Nothing against Barr’s cola, of course, but one would have thought that the factories of Forfar are a long way from Oslo. Does she swap to Irn-Bru at the weekends? And we’re clearly in the 21st century, with mobile phones, a flat-screen tv and so on –  so why is Ella dressed as an 1890s drudge?

ErhartThere’s also an accidentally amusing moment when Fanny announces that Frida is joining Erhart and herself on the journey to Rome, saying “Frida’s waiting in the car”; when she’s clearly still upstairs putting away her sheet music. Perhaps the production is peppered with these deliberately disconcerting aspects as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt; or maybe, as I suspect, I can’t help but think that a few things weren’t properly thought through. Another of my pet hates – Ibsen has left us a beautifully structured four act play but there’s still no interval – 1 hour 45 minutes all the way through. When you get to my age you really do value a break in between!

BorkmanThere’s no doubt that you witness an acting masterclass. Simon Russell Beale is superb as the disgraced Borkman. A complex, riveting performance, you can see the charisma in the character, his ability to fool both himself and others, his loss of focus and his absolute selfishness. Sir Simon uses every note of his terrific voice to try to galvanise others, to convince himself, and to show his total sense of failure. He’s brilliant. Clare Higgins is also superb as the strident Gunhild; a loud, complaining, stifling characterisation that works perfectly. Lia Williams is terrific as the quieter, more reasoning Ella, resolute against her ill-health and hoping against hope that Erhart might take pity on her – but also completely accepting and understanding the reality of his situation.

VilhelmThere’s excellent support from the rest of the cast, including the always entertaining Michael Simkins as JGB’s friend Vilhelm Foldal, putting up with being treated like dirt by everyone who knows him, but always with a little optimism held back for the future. Ony Uhiara’s Fanny Wilton is a woman who knows what she wants and is out to get it; I liked how her voice and costume set her apart from the traditional respectability of the other characters.

Enjoyable, and very well acted, but with some odd production decisions. Great to see that Ibsen isn’t going away any time soon!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Crucible, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 26th October 2022

The CrucibleYou don’t need me to introduce Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to you, gentle reader – if you do, where have you been all your life? Justifiably a contender for the best play of the 20th century, this 1953 allegory linking the Salem Witch Trials of 17th century Massachusetts with McCarthyism, where the Committee for Un-American Activities was trying to sniff out communists, is the stuff of legend. It’s powerful, it’s accurate, and it’s timeless; even more so than ever today. As I was watching it, ProctorI realised how seamlessly it fits into today’s politics; in a post-Brexit world, where Remoaners are blamed for a condition of the state’s own making. Yes, I know that’s political statement – but it’s a political play.

Director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin have taken a very bold staging decision. Heavy rain lashes down around the perimeter of the stage, from the moment the audience starts entering the auditorium. It’s a stunning image, which continues up until the play starts, then resumes for the interval and at other scene change moments. Abigail and HaleIn years to come, this staging feat is what this production will be remembered for. However, even without the rain effect, this is still a superb production, with great staging, terrific performances, and a feeling of more relevance than ever before.

The interrogatorsThat’s why I question the decision to impose the rain on the production. The unfortunate theatregoers in the front row have to spend the entire performance (three hours including the interval) in rain ponchos. I can only assume they’re really uncomfortable, squeaky and splashy, probably sweaty, their programmes, coats, jumpers, bags etc getting soaked, and impossible to enjoy their interval Merlot, all in the cause of art. It also starts to smell a bit, as the play progresses. Personally I think putting the public through this special kind of hell comes under the heading of dissing the audience, one of my pet hates. My other problem with it is that it doesn’t even enhance our understanding of what the play’s all about. This is a play that’s riddled with substance in every line. But the rain effect is pure theatricality – style over substance – completely the reverse, imho, of what Miller intended. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of the rain!

Proctor and Mary WarrenAnd it’s a shame because every other aspect of this production is tremendous. The full Olivier stage is used to great effect, whether it’s overwhelming you with rows and rows of pews or recreating the court of law. The ensemble of young women who (apparently) see the devil at every angle are genuinely terrifying in their collective fervour, as transfixed in the presence of evil as you could possibly imagine. Their minutely choreographed mass hypnosis is extraordinary to witness.

Ensemble of young womenAll the performances are superb; perhaps the standouts are Brendan Cowell’s dignified, powerful and unbending John Proctor, Nick Fletcher’s vicious Rev Parris, Erin Doherty’s insolent and aggressive Abigail Williams, Matthew Marsh’s authoritarian Deputy Governor Danforth, and Karl Johnson’s plucky and brave Giles Corey. Eileen Walsh gives an excellent performance as the reserved Elizabeth Proctor, Fisayo Akinade is also excellent as the voice of reason Rev John Hale, and there’s great support from Tilly Tremayne as Rebecca Nurse, Alastair Parker as Thomas Putnam, Henry Everett as Judge Hawthorne and Nathan Amzi as Ezekiel Cheever.

Giles CoreyPerhaps the most impressive aspect to the play – and this production – is its ability to stir up a sense of true injustice in the audience. As I was watching it, I was fuming at the way all the decent people were being sacrificed on the altar of downright lies, and duped by those too stupid to recognise the truth and by those who allowed themselves to be swayed by their own bias. If they come gunning for you, remember to be like Giles Corey and insist on more weight. It is immeasurably powerful. Powerful enough, fortunately, to survive the whim of a design gimmick and still come out with five stars!

Production photos by Johan PerssonFive Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Mirror Crack’d, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st October 2022

The Mirror Crack'd““Bugger!” cried Miss Jane Marple, as the pain in her leg prevented her from reaching the telephone on time” is a line that you won’t find anywhere in the oeuvres of Dame Agatha Christie, but it is the opening gambit in Rachel Wagstaff’s endearing new adaptation of the Queen of Crime’s 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, currently thrilling us at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday 5th November.

Katherine of AragonIn a nutshell: American movie star Marina Gregg has bought Miss Marple’s friend Dolly Bantry’s old home Gossington Hall, and Marina is making a new movie Katherine of Aragon at a nearby film studio directed by her loving husband Jason Rudd. Unfortunately, at a drinks reception for local dignitaries, the neighbourhood St John’s Ambulance Chair, Heather Leigh, drops down dead, apparently poisoned by her Strawberry Daquiri. But was Heather the intended victim? And whodunit? Don’t think I’m spoiling it for you, by the way – all this comes out in the first couple of minutes!

Marina and JasonThe Mirror Crack’d, as it is now usually called, lends itself to adaptations like a duck to water. Perhaps most memorably, it became a glossy American movie with Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the 1980s, a film which has survived the test of time rather well. As a result, I think many in the audience already knew whodunit; I did, mainly because it wasn’t long ago that I wrote about the book in my Agatha Christie Challenge. The fact that it’s still a remarkably entertaining show is a testament to the creativity of this production.

Miss MarpleAs you can guess from that opening line, the adaptation isn’t 100% faithful to the original book, which has heaps more red herrings, an additional murder and extra suspects; but then something has to be omitted when you distil a 200 page novel into two-and-a-quarter hours (including interval) of stage fun. There are quite a lot of liberties for the Christie purist to come to terms with, including a whole re-writing of two of the original roles, as well as presenting a much more up-to-date Jane Marple who’s not averse to showing her emotions and dropping the odd expletive. But Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation is cunning, creative, pacey, fluid and tremendously rewarding. It’s also remarkably funny in a way that I certainly didn’t expect.

Jane MarpleIn most Miss Marple books, the wily old lady sits at home with her knitting and thinks out the solution to a crime, whilst her friends bring her nuggets of information to chew on. Appropriately, this adaptation concentrates on Miss Marple at home, whilst she (and we) see the accounts she hears of the crime being acted out in front of her. It’s a very clever staging that stays true to the essence of the character and books, whilst still bringing the whole drama very much to life.

Miss MOf course there are some scenes at the studios where Miss Marple attends, seemingly as the guest of Inspector Craddock – Chief Inspector Craddock as he would like to be known, or Dermot, as she mainly knows him, having looked after him as a child after his mother died young. Much is made of the personal relationship between Dermot and Jane, and it works rather well, being a source of both high emotion, as when he finally becomes able to talk about his grief, and a source of comedy because Miss M has a tendency to treat him like a child. “I know how to make a cup of tea!” he yells, as he storms off to the kitchen, whilst Miss Marple quietly takes over his investigations. There’s a very funny scene where Craddock interrogates Marina whilst Miss Marple is just sitting in a corner pretending to be much older and battier than she really is – but of course she’s dissecting every word she hears.

Miss M and CraddockAdrian Linford has created an intriguing stage design for the production; basically a revolving corridor with doors at either end and glass panels along the side, that swivels into place at slightly different angles, effectively suggesting all the various internal locations of the story. A very significant part of the production involves Max Pappenheim’s sound design and compositions, which eerily surge as the characters’ individual dramas unfold before Miss Marple’s eyes. The music certainly adds to the tension and atmosphere.

Marina and JaneSusie Blake felt like an intriguing casting choice for the role of Miss Marple and I wasn’t entirely sure whether I could see her in the role. I needn’t have worried – she’s superb. She conveys all the character’s kindness and supportiveness, but also shows her devastating quick-wittedness and incisive mind. It’s a terrific central performance; the whole show revolves around her. Sophie Ward is also excellent as Marina, combining a superstar’s rather patronising sufferance of the public with an understatedly vicious aloofness when she’s had enough of you.

Marple and CherryOliver Boot is superb as Craddock, the butt of many of the jokes, balancing a nicely underplayed superiority against being the foil to Miss Marple’s more expert sleuthing prowess. Joe McFadden is excellent as the bad-tempered but earnest Jason Rudd, and Veronica Roberts is hugely entertaining as Dolly Bantry; gossipy, a bit stuck-up, but very supportive to her friend. Jules Melvin gives us a very hearty and brusque Heather, and I really enjoyed Mara Allen’s light touch of comedy as Miss Marple’s housekeeper Cherry. But everyone puts in a solid and enjoyable performance.

CastThere’s a moment at the beginning of Act Two where Craddock loses his temper with Miss Marple; and I’ve rarely seen an audience so rapid to intervene to their heroine’s defence! That’s a sign that we were really engaged with the play. There’s a lovely running gag with one of the characters desperate to be interviewed by Craddock but always being turned away in favour of a more interesting suspect. And if you’re from Croydon, prepare to have your hometown taken in vain!

MarinaMany years ago we saw the Agatha Christie Company present a stage version of The Hollow. Mrs Chrisparkle hated it so much that she vowed never again to see a Christie stage adaptation! I’m delighted to report that The Mirror Crack’d has turned her into a Christie aficionado once again. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by this production, but we were both shocked at how thoroughly enjoyable the whole thing is!

Production photos by Ali Wright

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!