Source: John Updike, Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 843
Text: I went to the movies pretty intensely from about 1938, when I was six years old, to 1954, when I graduated from college. My moviegoing has fallen off since, as my willing suspension of disbelief becomes more and more grudging. Of the many movies I did see in my youth, however, I received an ultimate impression – a moral ideal, we may say – of debonair grace, whether it was Fred Astaire gliding in white tie and tails across a stage of lovelies, or Errol Flynn leading a band of merry men through Sherwood Forest with that little half-smile beneath his mustache, or George Sanders drawling a riposte in his role as the Saint. In my own clumsy way I have tried all my life to be similarly debonair. Also I got an impression of a world where everything works out for the best and even small flaws in character are punished with a hideous rigor. And also, of course, of sex, symbolized by beautiful round-armed women taking baths in champagne or being threatened, in Roman or Biblical contexts, by murder or conversion. When one reads, nowadays, of how much actual sex was being pursued and accomplished by the makers of those movies, their delicately honed symbolizations seem almost hypocrisy – but the message got through, to us adolescents out there, and the eroticization of America is (in large part) a cinematic achievement. The Eros is still there, but I do miss in contemporary movies the debonairness, the what Hemingway called grace under pressure, a certain masculine economy and understatement in the design of those films, now all gone to scatter and rumpus in the fight with television for the lowest denominator.
Comments: John Updike (1932-2009) was an American novelist and critic. This untitled memoir of his cinemagoing was written in August 1979 in reply to a query from George Christy, editor of The Hollywood Reporter Annual, who wanted to know “how Hollywood has influenced you, your work, your artistic vision”.
Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52
Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.
Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.
At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”
That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.
All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.
It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.
Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.
Source: Damon Runyon, ‘Damon Runyon Finds Some Foreign-Made Pictures Make Him Forget His Patriotism’, The Miami Herald, 7 January 1939, p. 6
Text: As a cash customer of the movies, we are such a rooter for the American pictures as opposed to the foreign-made films that the latter have to be even better than stupendous or colossal to win a decision from us over the home growns. The best we usually give them is a draw. We are 100 per cent patriotic to Sam Goldwyn.
We sometimes think the seats may prejudice us to some extent against the foreigners. The seats in some of those hideaway side street theaters where the foreigners generally show in New York are harder than a politician’s heart. Against those seats a picture has to be practically a miracle to gain our grudging approval.
The larger theaters where the American pictures are shown have nice soft-cushioned seats. The way we like to look at a picture is to slump down in one of those seats until our head is slightly below the level of the back of the seat. That puts us reclining on our spinal column, a most restful attitude, indeed.
Then with our knees propped against the seat in front of us and our sack of candy in our lap, we can really enjoy the screen proceedings. You try propping your knees against the back of a seat in one of the hard-seat theaters and you will get your shin bones all skinned up. Besides the occupant of the seat in front of you is thrown out of plumb by the pushing at his back, and sometimes he, or she, as the case may be, gets right stuffy about the matter.
Thus figuring in the discomfort we generally have two strikes called on a foreign film before it even starts unraveling. Add to that our patriotism to Sam Goldwyn, you can see that we are a dead tough audience. en we go out admitting that the foreigner was a fair picture it must have been a regular lily.
On several occasions during the past semester after seeing a foreign picture in a hard-seat theater we realized that we were thinking, not of the hard seats, but of the picture. It was a symptom that alarmed us. It indicated that the picture must have had many points of excellence to act as an anesthesia to our memory of those seats.
We saw some of the pictures a second time to teat this reaction, and all the while the films were unwinding we forced ourself to keep repeating “Remember old Sam,” that our patriotism might remain flaming throughout the display. The result was the same as before. We not only forgot our discomfort in the hard seats, but there were periods when we could not keep Sam in mind.
We have decided that they must have been good Pictures—so good, in fact, that we are wondering if it is not a portent of some nature to Hollywood. When those foreign picture makers can smack us cash customers between the eyes with at least half a dozen good pictures in a season, it may be time for Hollywood to investigate and see what makes them tick.
“Pygmalion,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “The Citadel,” “The Beachcomber,” “To the Victor,” “Grand Illusion,” “Pearls of the Crown,” “Carnet De Bal” and “Professor Mamlock” are among the foreigners and some of our fellow cash customers say that five of them are entitled to place among the 10 best pictures of the year. We are not so sure of that, but we are sure that “Pygmalion” and “Grand Illusion” are as good as any pictures we saw during 1938, if not better.
As we have said before, Hollywood still has a pretty neat answer to a number of these pictures, which is they will not make a white quarter in this country. They are just artistic triumphs and artistic triumphs are no good for the bankroll. However, we are wondering what is going to happen if those foreign picture makers eventually hit the combination of popular American appeal with the artistic excellence they have already attained?
We are told that most of the foreign pictures lack the technical perfection of the Hollywood pictures, but we have been inquiring around among our fellow cash customers and we find that few of them pay much attention to technique if the picture has a good story, well told. The strength of the foreigners, as we gather from the cash customers, is story, and, of course, direction of story.
Comments: Damon Runyon (1880-1946) was an American journalist and short-story writer, best known for the musical adaptation of his stories, Guys and Dolls. The films he mentions are Pygmalion (UK 1938), The Lady Vanishes (UK 1938), The Citadel (UK 1938), Vessel of Wrath (UK 1938), Owd Bob (UK 1938), La Grande Illusion (France 1937), Les Perles de la couronne (France 1937), Un carnet de bal (France 1937) and Professor Mamlock (USSR 1938). My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for bringing this piece to my attention.
Source: James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976), included in Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 479
Text: Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.
I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath the water.
I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.
I don’t remember the film. A child is far too self-centered to relate to any dilemma which does not, somehow, relate to him – to his own evolving dilemma. The child escapes into what we would like his situation to be, and I certainly did not wish to be a fleeing fugitive on a moving train; and, also, with quite another part of my mind, I was aware that Joan Crawford was a white lady. Yet, I remember being sent to the store sometime later, and a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford, was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful – she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile – that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and others in the store who knew my mother’s little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not even embarrassed. Which was rare for me.
Comments: James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American essayist, novelist and social commentator. His memories of the film Dance, Fools, Dance (USA 1931) come at the start of his long essay on film and race, The Devil Finds Work (1976). His childhood was spent in Harlem, New York City.
Source: Ruth Bryan Owen, Leaves from a Greenland Diary (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935), pp. 162-164
Text: Julianehaab has been out in boats and kayaks all day, circling around the ship, and when the Danes and the principal Greenlanders and their wives came on board, for a moving picture show this evening, all the rest of Julianehaab was grinning genially through the portholes and feeling equally a part of the unprecedented festival.
I wondered what the Greenlanders, who were having their first experience with moving pictures, must have thought. Even if the first film, a drama of the covered wagon days in the West may have been a little incomprehensible to people who have never seen horses or a wagon, the antics of Mickey Mouse were well within the range of everyone’s understanding. One Eskimo nudged his wife so violently at Mickey’s vagaries that he almost pushed her off the slippery bench. Certainly Mickey Mouse never had more rapt attention or more whole-hearted appreciation!
There were Bestyrrer Ipsen and his wife and Landsfoged Svane on the front seat, of course; and there were Walsoe and Froken Sabroe, the school-teacher, and the telegraph operator and his wife and children, and the young clergyman who is heading the Julianehaab high school of 24 pupils. And there were Pavia, in his white anorak, and the Eskimo village councilmen and their wives.
After the movie show, they all came into the wardroom for coffee and cakes and music from the big electric gramophone. All of the blaze of electric lights was actually there in their harbor, close to their candles and blubber-lamps. The big searchlight of the Champlain played around over the hills, picking out here a little red painted house and there a boatload of Greenlanders who screamed with amusement as the blinding light fell upon them. All the shining brass and gleaming paint of the ship, all the leather and silver in the wardroom, all of the bit of America, for that incredible hour in their harbor, was being absorbed, along with the coffee and cakes.
Comments: Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) was an American politician. In 1933 she became the first women to be appointed a US ambassador, when President Franklin Roosevelt assigned her to Denmark and Iceland. Greenland had been owned by Denmark since 1814. Owen had been a filmmaker herself, writing and directing a self-funded feature film, Once Upon a Time aka Scheherazade (1922), an ambitious undertaking for an amateur. which gained some distribution through the Society for Visual Education.
Source: Sir Walter Citrine, I Search for Truth in Russia (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1937), pp. 238-239
Text: In the evening we went to a cinema to see the film “Three Comrades”. The seating accommodation was hard, but not really uncomfortable. The audience were patient and enjoyed themselves. The film concerned the machinations of certain directors of factories who tried to steal material from one another’s works, in order to fulfil the Plan, and the exposure of a Communist Party secretary who favoured them because of personal gifts. The heroine was a member of the Party whose capacity for invective must have been immense, judging by her volubility and facial expressions. The secretary got his deserts, the directors were discredited, and all ended unhappily. The film broke twice and took some five minutes to patch up, during which the audience stamped and clapped their hands in a manner reminiscent of the early days of the British films.
Comments: Walter Citrine (1887-1983) was a British trade unionist. He was a General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress and president of the International Federation of Trade Unions. He visited the Soviet Union on a number of occasions. This account comes from a diary entry for 11 October 1935 in the city of Kislovodsk. The film he saw was Tri Tovarishcha (USSR 1935), directed by Semyon Timoshenko.
Our eunuch dreams, all seedless in the light,
Of light and love the tempers of the heart,
Whack their boys’ limbs,
And, winding-footed in their shawl and sheet,
Groom the dark brides, the widows of the night
Fold in their arms.
The shades of girls, all flavoured from their shrouds,
When sunlight goes are sundered from the worm,
The bones of men, the broken in their beds,
By midnight pulleys that unhouse the tomb.
In this our age the gunman and his moll
Two one-dimensional ghosts, love on a reel,
Strange to our solid eye,
And speak their midnight nothings as they swell;
When cameras shut they hurry to their hole
down in the yard of day.
They dance between their arclamps and our skull,
Impose their shots, showing the nights away;
We watch the show of shadows kiss or kill
Flavoured of celluloid give love the lie.
Which is the world? Of our two sleepings, which
Shall fall awake when cures and their itch
Raise up this red-eyed earth?
Pack off the shapes of daylight and their starch,
The sunny gentlemen, the Welshing rich,
Or drive the night-geared forth.
The photograph is married to the eye,
Grafts on its bride one-sided skins of truth;
The dream has sucked the sleeper of his faith
That shrouded men might marrow as they fly.
This is the world; the lying likeness of
Our strips of stuff that tatter as we move
Loving and being loth;
The dream that kicks the buried from their sack
And lets their trash be honoured as the quick.
This is the world. Have faith.
For we shall be a shouter like the cock,
Blowing the old dead back; our shots shall smack
The image from the plates;
And we shall be fit fellows for a life,
And who remains shall flower as they love,
Praise to our faring hearts.
Comments: Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet. ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’ was included in his first published collection of poems, in 1934. He later scripted films for the Ministry of Information. The phrase ‘The Dream That Kicks’ has been used for a book on cinema by Michael Chanan and a 1986 television history of Welsh cinema.
Source: ‘A Japanese Cinema’, New Zealand Herald, 25 March 1933, supplement p. 10
Text: A JAPANESE CINEMA
ENTHUSIASM OF AUDIENCE
NO KISSES IN FILMS
An interesting description of a visit to a Japanese cinema theatre is given by an English traveller in a recent issue of “Film Weekly.” Flaming banners and photographs of Japanese film stars denoted that this was the place I sought, (he wrote). I paid my money and entered, my progress to the seat being accompanied by deep bows from the daintily clad and elaborately coiffured usherettes. Next came a coy little lady bearing an ash tray and matches and a cushion for my greater comfort. By my side were two giggling little dolls, who every now and again cast surreptitious and demure glances in my direction.
The programme was nearing the end of the “comic,” in which two Oriental prototypes of Laurel and Hardy were competing for the affections of a lovely geisha. The audience literally screamed with merriment as, while they were indulging in mirthful altercation, another competitor stole her away under their very noses.
Let, no one talk to me of inscrutable, unsmiling Japanese. They form the most responsive and vocal audiences in the world. If they are amused they laugh – and they are easily amused – and their laugh is not just a refined gurgle, but a whole-hearted roar. If they are thrilled, an audible shiver runs through the audience.
A newsreel with a Japanese commentary showed the exploits of the representatives of the Land of the Rising Sun in the Olympic Games. This was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. The whole aim of Japanese pictures seems to be the glorification of Japan and things Japanese. Never was there a country so intensely nationalistic.
The feature picture was the synchronised version of Ben-Hut, from which, as the kiss in Japan is looked upon as a most disgusting affair, most of the love scenes had been eliminated. Ben-Hur’s caresses were left to the imagination. Every time the lovers showed signs of offending the Japanese moral code by coming to gags, the referee. in the form of a quick fade-out, would order them to break away, whilst the two coy maidens on my left would cover their faces with opened fingers and give a shocked “chi-chi.”
I soon tired of transatlantic Romans, and wandered forth into the gaily bannered streets in search of more film fare. I entered a second “shinema” for the modest sum of 10 sen, about 11⁄2d. All the seats being full, I stood at the back and watched a thrilling drama of the Shanghai conflict. Japan is passing through a period of intense chauvinism, and it is perhaps natural that such a proud and self-reliant nation should mirror its military prowess upon the screen. An elocutionist who commented on the story was much in evidence, in spite of lengthy Japanese captions. The story, if indeed it can be dignified by that, name, was of the slightest. The main theme was the heroism of the soldiers of Nippon.
We then went back to the days of sho-guns and samurai in an historical drama. Our worthy elocutionist, had obviously exhausted himself in his previous effort, and the complicated story slowly unfolded itself to a rapidly dwindling audience. With no English captions to guide me, the picture was almost totally incomprehensible, but I gathered that it dealt with the adventures of a lovely “Broken Blossom,” whose heart still retained its snow-white purity in spite of her sinister environment, a theme very dear to the Japanese mind.
Her handsome lover, sword in hand, after encountering incredible opposition, effects her escape, but dies in her arms. Then the story goes off at another angle with an entirely different set of characters.
Comments: This article was originally published in the British film journal Film Weekly. The silent film Ben-Hur (USA 1925) was reissued in 1931 with a music score and sound effects.
Source: Thomas Baird, ‘Television’, World Film News, vol. 3 no. 4 (August 1938), p. 188
Text: An American visitor to this country, when asked what he thought of the Derby, guessed that it had come to stay. Something of the same might be said about television; the fact is that television is no longer merely experimental; it is an amazingly accomplished fact.
It is true, of course, that television must remain experimental so long as it is limited by the money the Department has to spend, and as it is expensive listening hours must be, for the time at least, limited. It is also true that television sets are expensive and we must not expect to find one in every back parlour just yet. But the same was true of gramophones and wireless sets and is still true in a degree of home film projectors. But one experience of an outside broadcast by television is quite sufficient to convince anyone that television has come to stay.
I can remember, it must have been about 1922, hearing a man say, when listening to a crystal set, that he did not believe for a moment that the B.B.C. were so foolish as to have an orchestra in the studio. He was convinced that when the announcer told us that we were to hear a Symphony Orchestra that an engineer merely played a gramophone record. He failed to appreciate that the playing of a gramophone record did not detract from the miracle of radio but, if anything, added to it. The B.B.C. have since proved this. The significant fact is that radio is a means of mass communication and that while the old gramophone filled the homes of individuals, the gramophone by radio filled the homes of the nation. It will therefore be no detraction from the marvel of television if the B.B.C. make use of film, and indeed I hope they will make more and more use of film. If they did little more than carry the already considerable mass of documentary, instructional and travel films to the millions of people whom these films normally pass by, they will have done something worthy of achievement.
But already they are doing much more than this. Radio in general, in spite of the arty and crafty hokum which has surrounded a number of programmes, continues to be significant for two reasons. One is that it is the most universal means of mass communication, and second there is its immediacy. Radio can report within the split second; so, too, can television. The most exciting broadcasts have been the outside ones such as The Derby, The Trooping of the Colour and The Boat Race. While the mass communication of these programmes might be limited to merely thousands of sets, the immediacy was electric. Newsreels seemed historical records the day after one had seen the Derby by television. The Test Match broadcast indeed made most newsreels look pretty silly. Here, with no time lag, was a brilliant account of the excitement of the game, and the amount of detail picked up by the carefully handled cameras was magnificent. The television camera cannot make a cut in the film sense but the quick mix from bowler to batsman was an indication that television had something of its own to offer. All this is merely a confirmation of something that radio has demonstrated again and again. The biggest listening audiences, I believe, are for the King’s speech on Christmas Day and for the nine o’clock broadcast of football pools results from non-B.B.C. stations. Research figures are reputed to show that there is a very large audience for the news bulletin, the weather forecast and for any major sport event. This seems to indicate that the public do rely on radio in the first place as a news agency in the widest sense of the word. In spite, therefore, of the enthusiasms of some for the Foundations of Music and the Experimental Drama hour, I remain convinced that the very stuff of radio can be made out of its ability to tell all the people all about everything all the time — and no fooling. Television, even in its present form, does this admirably with an immediacy and an intimacy denied to any other medium. It would be well if the television department concentrated on this signal service in their near developments.
The version of Julius Caesar broadcast on Sunday, 24th July, illustrated this point admirably. There were three points of interest in the production:
(1) It was a play which we all knew.
(2) It was done in modern dress.
(3) It introduced the penumbrascope.
It is a great play. As it is written it depends chiefly on the actors and the words. On or off the stage the same criterion applies to the speeches. If they are well spoken half the battle is won. Most of the actors did well, but as usual, Caesar himself proved the most difficult part and as usual was the least satisfying. So much for the criticism which must obtain in any presentation. What had Television to offer that the stage had not? Mr. Dallas Bower, who claims some affinity with the cinema, was able to add a point or two. He dubbed the soliloquies, which was a good idea, but he did not make the distinction between the oratorical soliloquies and the subjective ones. His technique was successful so long as it represented the sub-conscious prompting of the mind in Cassius and Brutus but it failed when applied to the soliloquies which served as Chorus. Mark Antony informed the audience of the progress of his plan through sealed lips.
The super-imposed ghost, the rioting scenes and the war scenes taken from film were the kind of things we expect Television to produce, and the standard offered by film must be, if not the criterion, then the objective.
There was nothing significantly televisual in the modern dress approach but it was a good idea and worked out as well as the text would allow, though why Brutus and Cassius did not use their six-shooters on Caesar I cannot imagine.
The penumbrascope, on the other hand, suggests great possibilities. Space and depth are difficult in a small studio and these limits bind the scope of any production. The penumbrascope which produces a shadow cyclorama does not yet give scale to the small studio but it does produce a method of quick change of scene in close-up and mid-shot. It can change mood with increased facility and I fancy it is less expensive than scenery. It needs to be worked out with more regard for the general lighting scheme and it would probably show up better with simpler foreground lighting.
There were times when the stage seemed very crowded and I wondered why Mr. Bower did not raise one of his cameras to a higher angle after the fashion that the newsreel camera oversees a procession. A wider angle of incidence of the cameras would improve the difficult mix from close-up to long shot.
I can imagine that their Drama will require to invest itself with something of this spirit if it is to be anything different from the stage or from the cinema. On the grounds of mass communication I can see no reason why television should not broadcast films or broadcast stage plays. I think they are perfectly justified to spread these two media in a fashion which is within its power only. In these cases the test of quality beyond technicalities must obviously be the test supplied normally to the stage and to films. Already we have had evidence of this. Well-written stage plays televise well: badly-written stage plays are equally bad on the air.
When we come up against something like D.H. Monro’s version of a Russian Ballet rehearsal, we have got something which is bringing alive this peculiar quality with a spontaneity and immediacy which belongs lo television. This production eavesdropped on reality. It was television doing its own peculiar job and therefore television at its own very best.
Comments: Thomas Baird was a British film journalist and documentary film executive, who worked for the Ministry of Information in the 1940s as its non-theatrical film supervisor. He wrote a monthly column for World Film News on the new medium of television. Dallas Bower, one of the pioneering creative figures of British television drama, directed and produced a 110-minute production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in modern-dress (reflecting Nazi Germany), broadcast by the BBC on 24 July 1938. Ernest Milton played Caesar. Penumbrascope was a form of shadow projection. Direct cuts between shots were not possible with television studio technology at this time; instead there would be a transitional ‘mix’ between shots which could take between two and four seconds.
Source: Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu (London: Faber, 2000 [orig. pub. 1945). pp. 44-52
Text: It is towards the hour of seven that, mellowed by the excellent wine of “The Partridge’, we cross the little cobbled square by the Church of the Saint, and seek our way through the alleys and fents of the Venetian town (the women touching hands as they talk on the balconies over our heads) to where the shadow-play is to be shown. In a little sunken garden by the Italian school the lights and the grumble of a crowd had already marked the place. A prodigious trade in ginger-beer and sweets is being carried on with the schoolchildren and the peasants who sit crammed into the small arena before the dazzling white screen upon which our hero is to appear. Two violins and a drum keep up a squalling sort of overture, punctuated by the giggles of the children and the pop of ginger beer bottles. (Important note. Ginger beer, first pop of ginger beer bottles. (Important note. Ginger beer, first imported by the British during their occupation of the Ionian Islands, has never lost its hold over the Corcyrean public. In places such as the Canoni tavern it may even be bought in those small stone bottles which we remember from our childhood, and which are quite as aesthetically beautiful as the ancient Greek lamp-bowls with which the museum is crammed.)
Our seats are right in front, where the orchestra can scrape away under our noses, and the sales of ginger beer increase noticeably owing to Ivan Zarian who persuades his father to buy us a bottle each. N. prefers nougat while Nimiec has found a paper-bag full of pea-nuts. Thus equipped we are prepared for the spectacle of Karaghiosis, whose Greek is sure to baffle us however much his antics amuse.
Presently the acetylene lamps on the hedge are extinguished, and the rows of eager faces are lit only by the light of the brilliant screen with its scarlet dado. The actors are taking up their dispositions, for now and then a shadow crosses the light, and the little peasant children cry out excitedly, hoping that it heralds the appearance of their hero. But the orchestra is still driving on with the awkward monotony of a squeaking shoe. I catch a glimpse of Father Nicholas at the end of a row, and seeing us smiling at him he feels called noon to make some little gesture which will put him, as it were, on the same plane as ourselves. He pushes aside the ginger-beer hawker, blows his nose loudly in a red handkerchief, and bawls to the tavern-keeper across the road in superior accents: ‘Hey there, Niko – a submarine for my grandson if you please.’ ‘A submarine’ is a charming fantasy; Nicholas’ little grandson would much rather have a ginger beer but he is too experienced and tactful a child to interrupt the old boy. He sits vaguely smiling while the waiter darts across to them from the tavern with the ‘submarine’ – which consists of a spoonful of white mastic in a glass of water. Nothing more or less. The procedure is simple. You eat the mastic and drink the water to take the sweetness out of your mouth. While the child is doing this, and while Father Nicholas is looking around him, pleased at having caused a little extra trouble, and at having been original, the orchestra gives a final squeal and dies out. Now expectancy reaches its maximum intensity, for the familiar noise of sticks being rattled together sounds from behind the screen. This is a sign for the play to begin.
The crowd draws a sharp breath of familiarity and pleasure as the crapulous figure of Hadjiavatis lurches on to the screen, cocking an enormous eyebrow and muttering a few introductory remarks. ‘It is Hadjiavatis,’ cry the small children in the front row with piercing excitement, while Father Nicholas remarks audibly to the row behind him: ‘It is the rogue Hadjiavatis.’ But even his gruffness cannot disguise the affection in his tones, for Hadjiavatis is beloved for his utter imbecility. He is to Karaghiosis what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes – his butt and ‘feed’ at the same time. At the appearance of Hadjiavatis the orchestra strikes up a little jig – his signature tune – completely drowning his monologue, whereupon he gives an indignant shake of his whole body, commands it to be silent, and recommences his groans and exclamations. Apparently everything is rather gloomy. Nothing is right with him. He is poor, he thickening of his speech indicates that he is now full of a sense of warmth and well-being.
From now on the play becomes a surrealist fantasia. Their rise to fame is meteoric and is accomplished by the unblushing cunning of the hero, with Hadjiavatis suffering here and there for his errors of judgement. Almost nothing is too fantastic to present, and I can see from the glowing face of Father Nicholas that what our surrealist friends might call ‘the triumph over causality’ is considerably older than Breton – and indeed is an integral part of all peasant art. The succession of figures on the dazzling screen glow with a kind of brittle life of their own; the voices (whose volume and pitch betray their human origin) crackle and spark with a kind of suppressed hysteria. All Greece is in this scene; the market-place, the row of Turkish figures, the wonderful power and elasticity of thought and verbal felicity; the tenderness and vulgarity of Karaghiosis; and all indicated with so little of the landscape to which I had hoped to be a guide. Karaghiosis, whose humour is cast in a townsman’s mould, is still surrounded by memories of the day when he and his kind were mad, violent clansmen in the hills around Olympus: or scattered colonies across the Black Sea, still tenaciously holding to an optative mood and a pronunciation which Piraeus has forgotten or only remembers as a joke. On this little dazzling screen you have the whole laic mystery of Greece which has been so long dormant in the mountains and islands – in the groves and valleys of the archipelago. You have the spirit and the unconquerable adaptability of the Greek who has penetrated with the leaven of his mercuric irony and humour into every quarter of the globe.
By now we have met a number of characters who are to become familiar in the immortal Karaghiosis cycle of plays. There is Gnio-Gnio, a lunatic figure in a top hat and cutaway coat, whose singing Zante accent is a joy to listen to. There are the Salonika Jews, each tiny and clad in a shapeless sack-like robe, out of which they speak shrill and clever, hands firmly folded in front of them. There is even an unusual figure called ‘The Lord’ who is dressed in what Father Nicholas must imagine to be the conventional English fashion – in a tail-coat, buttonhole, spats, and a topper. There is also the appalling Stavrakas of Piraeus whose vanity and vulgarity make him justly the object of little children’s derision. There is the Grand Vizier, a most sympathetic figure, and of imposing size – not to mention the Cadi, who orders beatings with a cool impersonal air of detachment.
The drama reaches its peak with a faked election, in which Karaghiosis, in order to win, manages to resurrect all the corpses in the local cemeteries, who pass in a grisly single-file across the stage to the polling booth to vote for the hero.
And now, with abrupt suddenness Karaghiosis appears to recite a short epilogue and while the applause is still deafening us, the screen goes out and we are in darkness. The orchestra has long since packed up, and we stumble yawning from the garden in the darkness, pressed all about by the eager bodies of the children …
Comments: Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) was a British novelist and travel writer. He lived with his family on the Greek island of Corfu between 1934 and 1941, when the island fell to Nazi Germany and he fled to Egypt. Prospero’s Cell is an artfully composed memoir of his time on Corfu. Karaghiosis, or Karagiozis, is a figure from Greek folk-lore who features in both Turkish and Greek shadow-puppet theatre. My thanks to Artemis Willis for bringing this account to my attention.