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photo credit unknown (BBC)

photo by Kevin Berne

My weekend was full of cultchah. After multiple attempts, I got hold of episodes 4-6 of the BBC Pride and Prejudice (the one starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) and enjoyed it over popcorn yesterday in a blessedly empty house. Well. Wow. A very faithful production, and yet so startlingly relevant and fresh that I kept pausing the DVD to check the book. “Did she really write that?”–“Yep, she did”–hit “play” again. Actually, I think it is less despite its adherence to Austen than because of it that the production works so well. Is there a better novelist in the English language? I hadn’t read the book since high school, and re-read it in preparation for watching the screen version, laughing and shaking my head in wonder all the way. It’s a classic in the best sense of the word.

It does occur to me, though, how vital it is to teach this book to 10th graders as a bit of an anthropological expedition. They just can’t understand the characters without knowing some basic facts about the culture. That a gentlewoman of the time had no acceptable way to “earn a living” except to have money from her father, brother, or husband. If you don’t get this, you’ll think the Bennet girls are just gold-diggers. That a woman who “lived in sin” would never be able to marry a gentleman (i.e., have access to a steady income), nor would her sisters. If you don’t get this, you will think the family is overreacting to Lydia’s running off with Wickham. (Lydia is so stupendously stupid that she doesn’t even know Wickham has been forced to marry her–and yet she’s believable. Austen knows how to situate her people at the absolute edge between character and caricature without tipping them over it. Good acting by Julie Sawalha, too.) These cultural differences are a reason to read the book in high school, not a reason to avoid it, but I’m not sure that even as a bright, literature-loving teenager, I fully understood that reading even fairly recent English literature is all about entering into a culture very different from one’s own.

We watched a lot of movies in high school English class; I suspected it was the teacher’s attempt to stave off burnout, since she’d show us movies of books we weren’t even reading, such as Billy Budd and The Heiress (movie version of Washington Square ). To judge from her comments, maybe her real motivation was to ogle Terence Stamp and Montgomery Clift–or maybe she was just trying to keep us interested. I’m not blaming her. Hell, Colin Firth was a major reason that I hunted down this version, and not just because the man is a superb actor. And as I said, I re-read the book in order to do justice to the movie, so Ms. N. might have had the right approach. Though I’ve never followed up American Lit by reading Billy Budd or Washington Square . . .

Earlier in the weekend we saw another period drama / comedy of manners, from a different period, when we caught the second-to-last performance of the new musical Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin’s books about 1970s San Francisco. I am not much of a musical lover, but Joy is, and we had heard raves from a couple of people we know well, so off we went, and it was really fun.

Contrary to what I usually say, my problem with musicals is not that they’re unrealistic. I don’t require the arts to be literal-minded; a friend once explained her dislike of the Marx Brothers (whom I love) by complaining about how unrealistic it was that Harpo always just happened to have the perfect prop in his impossibly spacious pockets, and I realized that what she found most improbable, I found most funny. And as Joy says, sure, people don’t burst into singing and dancing in real life, but wouldn’t it be great if they did? No, what I don’t like about musicals is how actor-y the actors are. So many don’t seem to be able to just sing, dance, speak; they have to add a little fillip of “Look at me, I’m Singing! I’m Dancing! I’m Acting!” that ruins the moment. (Preachers are prone to the same problem, undermining their own words with a layer of self-consciousness. I can be listening to a great sermon and then lose my concentration entirely because the minister has slid from speaking into Speaking. The voice takes on just the tiniest, most innocent kind of falseness, and that falseness detracts from the truth in the words. And believe me, I’ve used that voice myself, mea culpa.) The Tales of the City cast avoided this trap on the whole–though the one who slipped most often was the star of the show, the only actor I’d actually heard of, and who’s won a gazillion Tonys and such: Judy Kaye, who played Mrs. Madrigal. She was excellent overall, though.

I liked it. Fun music, great set, some of Maupin’s funniest lines, spot-on casting (Joy didn’t think this was true in every case, but we agreed that Wesley Taylor, pictured above, was the perfect Michael Tolliver), and yes, as one would hope for a musical set in the 1970s, a scene on roller skates–sadly brief. We wondered whether it will be tried anywhere else, and if it will travel well if so. The books are popular outside San Francisco, so maybe it will be a hit.


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