Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Theatre
It’s been a long day. It’s been a long day partly because I spent a lot of it out and about, taking photos, of which the above is just one. But it was still a long day.
I hear a lot of complaints from my fellow Londoners, to the effect that the Shard is all very nice and tall and pointy and everything, but that it doesn’t look finished. That weird top. It ought to be a smooth, single point. Instead, well, look at it. It looks like someone shot the original top off of it with a giant catapult.
But although this strange and “unfinished” top may make the Shard look less conventionally pretty, it does make that top very recognisable. You only need to see the very top of that weird top peaking out above something else nearer, and you know at once what you are looking at. And I more and more find myself believing, about architecture in London, recognisable trumps pretty. (I more and more feel this way about the entirety of the Walkie-Talkie.)
I am in the habit of denouncing the notion that science is a precondition for technology (and therefore needs to be paid for by the government). The tendency is for technological gadgetry to lead science, and often to correct science, by defying it and proving with its success that the relevant science needs to be redone.
But there is another even more direct way in which technology leads science. Here is yet another excerpt from Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (pp. 73-77). Click on the illustration, which I found here and which is the illustration in the book at that point in the text, to get it properly visible:
The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff – people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint – and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff. Why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn’t a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining. A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. As Priestley once wrote of Newton, “[he] had very little knowledge of air, so he had few doubts concerning it.”
So the question is: Where did the doubts come from? Why did the problem of air become visible at that specific point in time? Why were Priestley, Boyle, and Black able to see the question clearly enough to begin trying to answer it? There were 800 million human beings on the planet in 1770, every single one of them utterly dependent on air. Why Priestley, Boyle, and Black over everyone else?
One way to answer that question is through the lens of technological history. They were able to explore the problem because they had new tools. The air pumps designed by Otto von Guericke and Boyle (the latter in collaboration with his assistant, Robert Hooke, in the mid-1600s) were as essential to Priestley’s lab in Leeds as the electrical machines had been to his Warrington investigations. It was almost impossible to do experiments without being able to move air around in a controlled manner, just as it was impossible to explore electricity without a reliable means of generating it.
In a way, the air pump had enabled the entire field of pneumatic chemistry in the seventeenth century by showing, indirectly, that there was something to study in the first place. If air was simply the empty space between things, what was there to investigate? But the air pump allowed you to remove all the air from a confined space, and thus create a vacuum, which behaved markedly differently from common air, even though air and absence of air were visually indistinguishable. Bells wouldn’t ring in a vacuum, and candles were extinguished. Von Guericke discovered that a metal sphere composed of two parts would seal tightly shut if you evacuated the air between them. Thus the air pump not only helped justify the study of air itself, but also enabled one of the great spectacles of early Enlightenment science.
The following engraving shows the legendary demonstration of the Magdeburg Sphere, which von Guericke presented before Ferdinand III to much amazement: two eight-horse teams attempt – and, spectacularly, fail – to separate the two hemispheres that have been sealed together by the force of a vacuum.
When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn’t allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see; but it did allow you to see it indirectly in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower. Priestley was two centuries too early to see the molecules bouncing off one another in his beer glasses. But he had another, equally important, technological breakthrough at his disposal: he could measure those molecules, or at least the gas they collectively formed. He had thermometers that could register changes in temperature (plus, crucially, a standard unit for describing those changes). And he had scales for measuring changes in weight that were a thousand times more accurate than the scales da Vinci built three centuries earlier.
This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black’s discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of “magnesia alba,” and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process - a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.
Do you want your clothes theatrically drycleaned? Here is the enterprise you’ve been looking for:
Throughout our 50 years’ experience within the dry cleaning industry we have gained a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the effects that various solvents on different types of fabrics, paints, stage bloods, beading, sequins and trimmings allowing us the achieve the very best results for our wardrobe departments.
Van photoed by me in Tottenham Court Road last September, just minutes before I photoed this old American car. I am becoming increasingly interested in photoing vehicles. It’s not just taxis, and the vans don’t even have to be white.
As you can perhaps tell, today, it is nearly tomorrow. I have been doing a lot less of that lately, but today I did.
It is already hours into tomorrow, so to speak, and I am tired, but with a daily posting run to keep going. Which means shoving up any old damn thing before I go to bed.
Here we go:
Once again, my trusty I Just Like It! directory has come to my rescue. Although, it does need replenishing somewhat.
This photo was taken nine years ago, almost to the day, on the South Bank, in the vicinity of the Wheel, where characters of this sort are constantly to be seen posing for photos and hoping for cash.
So, what were these particular two characters saying to each other? You decide, if you care. I doubt anyone will, but maybe someone will not only think of something but actually add a comment to that effect.
I think the tall guy in black is saying: How much for your shoes?
The German conductor Herbert von Karajan probably did more to popularise classical music after WW2 that any other single person. His LPs and then his CDs and DVDs sold in their millions. I have many Karajan CDs myself. So, the question of whether he was any sort of Nazi and if so what sort remains a hot topic.
Playwright Ronald Harwood, author of a play about Wilhelm Furtwängler, was recently interviewed on BBC4 TV. During this, Harwood mentioned, in contemptuous passing, that Karajan was obviously a Nazi. Furtwängler was interesting because it wasn’t clear, hence that play. Karajan? Not interesting, because clearly he was. He hired a Jewish secretary after the war. What more do you need to know?
Well, I for one needed to know a bit more than only that, so I did some googling and came across this by Peter Alward, former vice-president of EMI Classics:
I first met Karajan in 1976, and we remained friends up to his death. He was one of EMI’s flagship artists in the late 70s and early 80s; most of his operatic work was for us, his symphonic work for Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, he cultivated the cult of the maestro - he was a shrewd businessman and recognised his market worth. He was not slow in coming forward and speaking his mind, but no conductor is a shrinking violet. I feel he was misunderstood. There was the glamorous image - the jet-set lifestyle - but this was all a defence. He was really very shy, a simple man with simple tastes. I vehemently oppose the theory that he was a Nazi. He was an opportunist. I’m Jewish, and if I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent a minute in his company.
Opportunist sounds about right to me. Karajan, like all conductors, needed power, over an orchestra. Needing this sort of power, he had to avoid antagonising whoever the politicians were, the ones with the more regular sort of power. But he did not care about politics for its own sake, merely as a means to the end of his music making.
Trouble is, you can surely say the same for a great many other servants of the Third Reich. I bet plenty of rocket, airplane, tank, bomb and ship designers were equally opportunistic, and equally free of any positive desire to be Nazis. But whoever happened to be Germany’s politicians, these people would have served them. All they cared about was rockets, airplanes, tanks, bombs and ships. Classical music was not as important to the Nazi regime as armaments were, but it was quite important. Karajan did help.
The most interesting titbit I learned from this little burst of Karajan-googling was that apparently his second wife, Anita, whom he married in 1942, was burdened with a Jewish grandfather. But hKarajan wasn’t merely “burdened” thus. He burdened himself. Wikipedia:
On 22 October 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Karajan married Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman).
Just marrying a quarter-Jewess, before that was dodgy, is one thing. Being a celeb and marrying a famous heiress with a famously rich and half-Jewish dad, and doing all that in 1942, is something else again. That’s more than just hiring an entirely Jewish secretary after the war.
When I read about such people and about such times, I don’t feel inclined to condemn. I merely wonder how I might have behaved, or misbehaved, had I been confronted by such pressures and such temptations.
It’s been a very bad last few days here at BMdotcom. First there was the domain name fiasco, and then last night and into this morning there was another interruption, caused by a power cut in a totally different part of London to me, which was in its turn caused by all that rain we had recently. And then the interruption was prolonged by the mishandling of this power cut by my rather creeky and out-of-date version of Expression Engine. The two events were unrelated. I think there’s a Macbeth quote that deals with this kind of thing. One of those plays about a king for whom things are starting to go badly wrong. But rest assured that there is no sign that BMdotcom is about to be dethroned permanently.
So anyway, here is one of those photo-postings made quick and easy by my “I just like them!” directory.
I just like this, taken in 2007:
And I just like this, taken a month ago:
That second one was already edited and ready to post, with its new name, but I don’t believe I ever got around to actually displaying it. If I did, well, take another look.
I do not promise more substantial stuff tomorrow, but I do hope for it.
Last month, on the 22nd (thank you my camera), a friend took me to see a show consisting, in the first half, of improvised comedy, and in the second half of pre-written sketch comedy. This was at a venue called the Proud Archivist (thank you me for photoing the sign saying that).
The core skill of the performers who were performing that night was improvisation, and it showed, part two being a rather severe disappointment after the often considerable excellence of part one. The sort of sketches they did in part two needed to be done with detached and unrealistic faithfulness to the text, Footlights/Monty Python style, almost like you are reading the lesson in church, not “realistically”, as these performers tried to do. But all it sounded like was that they had forgotten the damn words. (I heard later that they included some improvisation in some of the sketches. That was when this dire effect was at its most severe, or so I presume.)
But best of all, which as far as I was concerned made the entire expedition totally worthwhile, was the extraordinary light outside, for a few fleeting minutes during the interval, outside being where I went during the interval.
Here are two of the photos I took from just outside the Proud Archivist, next to the canal, during that interval:
Okay, what was photoed there is nothing out of the ordinary, with the second picture just being a close-up selection from the bigger picture displayed in the first. But the light! Photography is light, and that is light! Or, it was. Do you at least get a hint of what it was like actually to have been there, then? Hope so.
A friend of mine has a young daughter who is a very promising ballerina. Young and very promising ballerinas tend to find themselves being guided from time to time by quite significant ballet persons, and I have urged my friend to pass on to any significant ballet persons he meets that they ought to do a ballet based on the antics of us digital photographers.
If any significant ballet persons ask what sort of thing that might involve, I suggest they be shown pictures like these, which I took between 2006 and 2007:
Click on any of those pictures and you’ll see that what they’re all about is the big bodily contortions that digital photographers do, mostly just to get their cameras at the right height. But, there is also the matter of the fun and games the people being photoed often get up to. They do lots of more self-conscious posing.
Quite a few of these pictures have been posted on the www by me before, mostly on this blog. But the idea of this posting is to gather together a biggish collection of such pictures, all in one place, for the ballet persons to say: “Wow! Yes! We’ll do it! Pay the crazy blogger double whatever he asks to let us look through his entire photo archive!”
There’s a whole other clutch of pictures showing digital photographers and their hands and fingers. They wave their fingers about, just to keep their fingers out of the pictures. Ballet people would like that too. In the absence of more pictures here, they could just walk over Westminster Bridge and watch the photographers doing it. Because, provided they are only using small cameras, the photographers do this all the time.
Me being me, there is no category here for “dancing”. So, “sculpture” will have to do, as in humans making sculptures of themselves.
And that’s not to even mention the whole selfie thing, and the amazing human sculpture making that that can involve.
I need to get out less, and this weather is not helping.
Tomorrow, the weather will be helping very much:
This is perfect. My life today, in the last few days, and for the last few weeks, has been one mad social whirl after another, my contented solitude being having been violated seemingly every other evening and sometimes more often even than that, which is all fun and all that, but I find that an evening out puts a blight on creativity for the entire day, because what if I start something, want to finish it, but then don’t have time to, because I have a social whirl to attend and to get ready for and to find my way to and to find out about finding my way to? Last night I whirled out to watch theatrical stuff in an unfamiliar and transportationally complicated part of town with a theatrical friend. Tonight, I face another social whirl, to meet Perry II. Every time I go out I take photos, but because of all this going out I have no time to show them to you people or not with the sort of insightful commentary that I want to attach to them without which what’s the point? - They’re just pictures.
So tomorrow (a day during which I have nothing else planned), I will stay in all day, and try (although I promise nothing) to do here a mammoth day of catch-up blogging, showing you a tiny fraction of the pictures I have been taking lately, all properly explained, and anything else I’ve been meaning to put here for some time that I decide to put here tomorrow, in not one, not two, but many postings.
We shall see.
Last night I went awandering along the river, as I so often do, and outside that excellent (even though it’s fake) Globe Theatre, I saw all this:
As you can see, I concentrated on the guy with the very, very complicated camera. And I post pictures of him here, entirely recognisable ones, because, frankly, what he was doing was performing in public, just like the people he was filming or videoing or photoing or whatever it was that he was doing, “digital filming” being my preferred guess. He was smiling (1.3 - top row right). He was part of it. And there was a big crowd watching all this. He reminded me a bit of the guy who fronted this excellent TV show. But the funny thing is, because he was clearly enjoying himself so much, I can’t tell if this guy is a Real Photographer, or an amateur much like me, who has merely hired a Real Camera.
The event, according to snatches of conversation that I happened to hear, was some kind of charity do. The queue contained many rich-looking couples dressed to the nines. And the camera man was busily immortalising everything.
What go me posting all these pictures, just like old times here, was partly the sheer pleasure involved in doing something really complicated with Glorious Godot, so fast and so solid (such a contrast with wade through sewage little Judas). And partly it was picture 3.3, middle row on the right. I love that pose, like he’s crapping by the roadside when on a really awkward holiday in an awkward country, except that obviously he’s not doing that. So, what is he doing? The fact that we cannot see his camera means it all needs explaining, and I thought, well, better put in another picture to show what he was actually doing, and then I couldn’t choose, and then I thought … this will be easy with Godot and there you go.
I still have lots of catching up to do, so what shall I do tonight? I know I’ll go to a Barbecue at Chateau Samizdata. Which they invited me to. I didn’t just ring up and say I was coming round and would be using their barbecue.
I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:
In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte. The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words. Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763. He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world. He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.
Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera. By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.
The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments. They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem. Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being. He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature. He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.
Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri. The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians. Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning. But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding. And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.
Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration. Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods. He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words. But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.
Goddaughter 2 is a student at the Royal College of Music, where a fellow student of hers is a certain Edward Jowle. This evening, GD2 and I both greatly enjoyed the Grosvenor Light Opera Company’s production of Ruddigore, in which Edward performed the pivotal role of Sir Despard Murgatroyd. It was great, as was Edward in it. The duets Edward did with Dauntless (Jack Roberts) and later with Mad Margaret aka Lady Murgatroyd (Laura Burgoyne) were two of the evening’s highlights. I already know Edward a bit, so I was never going to tell him afterwards that he had been anything other than terrific. But the thing is, he actually was terrific. It was a quite small stage and a quite small audience, but his total command of both were nevertheless very impressive.
I also thought that director Vicky Simon did a fine job. Not everyone in the caste sang like a present or future pro, the way Edward and Jack Roberts did, or as the lady who sang the part of Dame Hannah (Charlotte Collier) did. Not everyone seemed perfectly cast. But everyone did as well as you could imagine them doing, and every moment was entertaining and absorbing, wherever you looked.
I love Gilbert and Sullivan, but Ruddigore is one of the less famous ones and I was seeing it on a stage for the first time. Beyond sensing that a reasonably happy ending would eventually be contrived, I had little idea of what was going to happen until it did. But it is a very strange show, as well as very funny. And the contrived happy ending is indeed rather contrived. But, having been outshone for a century and more by the likes of The Mikado and The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of the Guard, perhaps Ruddigore is an opera whose time has come. Ancestral oil paintings are very old school. But when the people in them come to life and the stage is suddenly filled with zombies, you could be watching a stage musical written just a few months ago.
Sadly, tonight’s performance was the last of the very short run that this production was getting. Unless, that is, you fancy a trip to Harrogate in early August, where it will apparently be given one more outing, competing for a prize with a dozen other G&S shows.
There will surely, however, be further opportunities to see and hear the likes of Jack Roberts and Edward Jowle in dramatic action. And although there is no point in me now recommending that you see this Ruddigore, when GLOC announces its G&S show for next year I will be recommending that, sight unseen.
One of my happier fancies here at this blog has been a category of photos called: I just like it! And I just like this:
The point being that the sort of things that I write about here, and investigate, and then photograph very purposefully and self-consciously, often begin just as things that I like. When I trawl through the photo-archives, I find things that I thought I only started noticing quite recently cropping up casually, years back.
So, what do I like about the above picture? It certainly isn’t how well those leaves have come out. (Although in my opinion out-of-control light in a photo at least tells you that it was very sunny.) Do I think the RSC is GENIUS? Only a bit. No, I think what I like is the way that the advert is about as pompous as it is possible for an advert to be, yet life goes on right next to it and indifferent to it. Or maybe not. Maybe something else completely.
It’s the top of one of those open top double-decker buses, by the way. And below that, the advert is for a show called Matilda.
While half-watching the rugby yesterday I was also half-rootling-around in my photo archives, and I came across a photo of a carpet. I had put it in a special separate directory, on its own, but then forgotten about it. It had a rather interesting message to impart.
Click on this …:
… to get the bigger carpet.
But whose carpet was this? This is where the internet comes in. I googled “true hearts and warm hands” and immediately learned that this is the motto of the Worshipful Company of Glovers. Turning to images, I found no other pictures of the actual carpet, but scroll down to the “Glover’s window” here. The same graphics as on the carpet.
As for my picture, I took it on November 6th 2006, at an event organised by the Globalisation Institute, now long gone. The event was attended by, among others, the Prime Minister. Most of the pictures I took, including those I took of the Prime Minister, were very bad, because my camera was no good in poor indoor light, such as prevailed that evening, somewhere in the City of London.
Did you know that Shakespeare’s father was a glover? If you didn’t you do now.
Pride of place in David Thompson’s ephemera today, and pride of place this Friday at Bmdotcom, goes to the cat who changed her mind. She stepped out, with just the one paw. She pawsed. Paw cold cat! She pawed cold water on the original plan and retreated back into the warm.
In other cat news: Why cats like to hide in boxes. It’s because they like to hide. They’re not good at conflict resolution.
So rather than work things out, cats are more inclined to simply run away from their problems or avoid them altogether. A box, in this sense, can often represent a safe zone, a place where sources of anxiety, hostility, and unwanted attention simply disappear.
I’m not the only one doing frightful cat puns. Belfast Telegraph headline:
Why Cats is still not feline its age after thirty years in the limelight
Cats take centre stage at Perth’s first internet cat video festival
More cat news from Oz, this time transport related. Brisbane Times headline:
Uber delivers cats on demand with UberKittens
Finally, the New York Times reports on work by Professor Matthew Ehrlich on the history of media coverage of cats. From the Ehrlich’s abstract:
This article critically examines the Times’ cat tales in the context of the cultural history of journalism and the academic study of human–animal relations, also known as anthrozoology. Trends and themes in the coverage indicate that cats have been used and portrayed as commodities, heroes, villains, victims, women’s best friends, and urban symbols. The stories demonstrate how and why animal news should be taken seriously by journalism scholars. Not only does it offer insight into our evolving relationships with animals, it also provides a provocative means of thinking about where journalism has been and where it is heading.
Critically examines? He just wants to get lots of internet mentions. This is mere academic postmoggyism.
Time to stop.