Sunday, 22 January 2012

Bloodied Hearts & 1950s Underwear - Emma Darwin

When hanging out with my historical fictioneering friends, I sometimes feel a bit inferior. So many of them spent their student years reading Defoe, Joyce and Greene, or Clarendon, Elton and Schama, at least when the pubs were closed. I've dipped into both myself, a little, but I got my degree by pretending to be a tree.

The theatre, like any performing art, is devoted to tradition in a way that written arts don't have to be, so in the Department of Drama at the University of Birmingham our trees were rooted in the soil of this classic Stanislavskian exercise. Mind you, quite how the experience of being a silver birch or a cork oak helped Stanislavski's actors to play Uncle Vanya I've never been sure, although perhaps it was more fruitful when it came to rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard. But the more I write, teach and blog about fiction, the more I realise just what a good grounding a Drama degree is for a historical novelist.

I wouldn't dream of suggesting that just because we set our novels in the past, they're all about heaving bosoms. But when you've had to wear full, period costume for anything from Hamlet to Strindberg's Easter, you discover that the only way to breathe is indeed for your bosom to heave. Corsets work better than a Wonderbra for showing off your assets, but at the cost of 90% of your lung capacity. Racing up the spiral green room staircase to make your entrance through the audience, or running into the arms of your stage lover, shows you exactly why all those heroines keep fainting: sheer lack of oxygen.

Directors need to know this stuff, but so do novelists. Then there was Wardrobe. I not only know how to wear a corset, I've made one. And a straitjacket (Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty). I've realised how much sewing it takes to make a bodice, how much cloth to make a skirt and the petticoats beneath, and just how much mending it takes when you tread on the hem (A Doll's House). Even  a twentieth century show should have not just clothes but underwear actually from the period; fabrics have changed and so have erotic tastes in breasts, bottoms, waists, shoulders and makeup. And that goes for men as well as women, as I must remember now I'm writing a novel set between the wars. And have you tried getting out of a too-low sofa wearing high heels, a 1950s roll-on, and not much else? I have, because in Albee's The American Dream they switched sofas between the last dress rehearsal and the first night. Now, which of my characters shall I do that to?

Stage Management? I know how to research period weapons (Peer Gynt) and nurses' uniforms (Testament of Youth). I know that hiring real scaffolding for a Constructivist set (Meyerhold) brings in more dust than you'd thought existed in the whole of the West Midlands. I also learnt that if you fling a bloody heart to the ground it bounces, and reduces the entire cast of The Duchess of Malfi to giggles.

Some of what I learnt is useful for any novelist. There's Pinter: what's between the words spoken is as important as the words, so how do you make that happen in your reader's head? There's learning Shakespeare by heart and speaking it, to develop your ear for how character-in-action is embodied in the sound and rhythm of words. And it's useful for an author: after all those years of acting, I'm not too fazed at an event when the sound system goes down or the coffee machine starts up.

I also learnt that I wasn't much of an actor myself. Years later, as a beginner-writer, I came across the bizarre suggestion that you should "cut all adverbs". This is the bastard, tyrannical offspring off a good regime: fiction is built of character-in-action, so keep looking for the perfect verb for that action and don't settle for a bland one spiced up with an adverb. At which point, I had... well, I was going to say a lightbulb moment, but it was more of an olive-oil-and-wick-lamp moment, which sent me back to my undergraduate copy of Aristotle's Poetics:
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse...if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.
He's talking about theatre, and Tragedy (Comedy got lost, and lost again in The Name of the Rose), but it could just as well be a snarky TLS fiction review, couldn't it? Action - actors - act-ors... I remembered working on Stanislavski's idea of "intentions", from An Actor Prepares, where for each speech you have to decide what the character is trying to do, in speaking it. Not, "he's in love with her", "she's furious with him", "they're bored"; your idea must be expressed as a verb: "to seduce", "to scold", "to destroy". As Aristotle says, there's no point in having a crystal-clear idea of your character and their thoughts and emotions, if you don't know exactly what that makes them do. It's all in finding the right verb.

Of course, we historical fictioneers have a particular relationship to this basic truth about narrative; we write about the foreign land of the past, and it's too easy for us to get caught up in the "qualities", the "diction and thought", of that foreigness. But it's how our characters act in their Then that makes the connection with our own Now. We wouldn't whoop at a bear-baiting, or happily die for our faith. But if I start thinking, "to cheer on the team", or "to save my soul" I begin to get it, and so can write it. And what about locking up a sister so she can't run away with her lover? Is that "to protect", "to control", "to possess" or "to prevent evil"? Now there's a story...

14 comments:

catdownunder said...

There was a fascinating book on costume in our local library. I borrowed it for a young friend when she had to have a costume for a school play. We spent rather a lot of time looking at it and thinking how very uncomfortable many things must have been. She also wanted to know "How did people keep warm without jumpers and cardigans and things?" There are definitely things to be said for living "now" rather than "then".

H.M. Castor said...

This is a brilliant, brilliant post. I love the comparison of acting & writing, & your discussion of action & Aristotle speaks *precisely* to what I am grappling with with my WIP right now. You knew, didn't you - somehow, magically - that this was exactly what I needed to read this morning?! Thank you!

Rebecca Brown said...

Absolutely loved this. Going to print it out for future reference I think!

Thank you :)

The Virtual Victorian said...

Great post, Emma - and I really agree that novelists need to have a degree of 'acting' wit - to really get into the minds and bodies of the characters they create.

Emma Darwin said...

Glad everyone enjoyed it!

Cat, I have lots of costume books on my shelves - and the most-used is probably the History of Underwear. My chief amazement is how HOT they must all have been. Gwen Raverat in her memoir says she looks back on photographs of her and her siblings in a sunny Cambridge summer in the 1890s, and sees them all in thick black stockings and boots and petticoates and long sleeves and pinafores and hats, and wants to cry for her younger self.

Harriet - glad to oblige! I think it's a very useful parallel, and use it a lot in teaching. It's all in the verbs...

Rebecca, you're welcome.

Victorian - I suspect that if you wired one of us up when we're deep in a scene, the physiological traces of brain and body would be very similar to those of an actor acting a similar scene... And both would have definite similarities to the trace of a person actually experiencing it. That's how metaphors work, of course: an imagined object causes the same, though slighter, physiological response as the real thing, in the reader. But that's another post...

adele said...

One of the best posts so far on History Girls and that's saying something but I do so so agree as an ex-actress myself! The clothes are vital: how they make you walk, sit, stand, BE! Fantastic!

Emma Darwin said...

I think it was Beryl Reid who said that her work on a part always started with the shoes...

Book Maven said...

I had a tutor at Cambridge - the late Harold Mason - who was very exercised about a book called The Girl with the Swansdown Seat. It was by Cyril Pearl and discussed Victorian women's dress and underclothes.

I wonder if Emma knows it?

Fascinating post!

Jan Jones said...

Loved this, Emma, and yes, I agree. Until you have 'walked the walk' from the skin out, you can't BE the person that you are writing. I always write best when I am inside a character. The moment I slide away it turns lifeless and clockwork. Coppélia instead of Swanhilda.

Oh, and getting up off a low sofa? Ditto high heels, sixties mini, and an open-topped sports car...

Leslie Wilson said...

A very good post, and especially the last bit, which I found very helpful and worth remembering. I must also print it out and put it up in my study where I can see it.

Fiz said...

My daughter is finishing her drama degree and now they have to provide their won costumes. The sturm and drang that was caused by finding one self coloured dress was amazing! Of course everything is vile "1960's" patterns, but even so!

Fiz said...

"own", not "won"!

Emma Darwin said...

Book Maven - I don't know that (although it does remind me of the gloriously awful cover of the Russian Mathematics of Love!)

Jan - I always think of Rousseau, who thought that women were physically incapable of running, because he'd never seen a woman run. Didn't occur to him it might be the corsets and skirts!

Leslie - glad to be useful!

Fiz - oh, I remember that stage. But you realise how different the real period clothes are in substance - cut - when you actually handle and wear them.

Catherine Johnson said...

Wonderful post Emma. I think writing is just another form of pretending - and what we are all trying to do is pretend as hard as we can. And agree about costumes too, the cloth the cut it is so important!
xc