Travellers: a short story reblogged

Caspar_David_Friedrich_023Caspar David Friedrich, Kreidefelsen auf Rügen, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen c. 1818. Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur. Image: WGA

Last February, we visited the island of Ruegen on the morning after a great storm. The usually calm Baltic had raged for a day and a night, trees were torn out of the cliffs, and firefighters in the state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern had been called out two hundred times.

Next morning, the coast looked pure and innocent, the sand beaches, white rock, and grey sea as unruffled as two hundred years ago when Friedrich had painted his view of the chalk cliffs, jagged as canines, snapping at the inverted blue triangle of water, while three deranged travellers tottered, elegantly, on the lips of the maw.

The only signs that violence had been committed were the wounds left in the cliff face, and the broken limbs of trees. The sea whispered indifferently. We took photographs.

One day, a few weeks after our trip, I caught up with myself, nine months into my term, time to have a baby instead of bearing sorrow like a malignant tumour.

You reach a time when you realize you’ve stopped falling in the chasm and you should drag yourself up to peer over the edge for everyone else’s sake, if not your own.

Even the dreams have quietened down. There was one last night that took me somewhere new, not into the turbulent darkness of a bottomless well, or boxed up in a suffocating, windowless room, but outside into the sunlight of a boundless landscape.

I was looking for her; I’d lost her. In my dreams I was always losing her. It was my fault. We were supposed to be doing a roleplay job together as simulated patients in a hospital, and she’d gone missing. It was unlike her to miss a job.

She must have left the building to go out for a walk, and I panicked because she was supposed to be under medical supervision, though she did not know, or at least admit to me, how ill she was, and I would have died rather than let her find out.

After a frantic search through dressing rooms rigged in crowded corridors and on staircases blocked by actors putting on their makeup, and, on landings further down, by wounded soldiers being evacuated in the middle of a war. They were real soldiers, not actors, or, if they were, very good actors, because of the pain in their eyes as they shared jokes and smoked their cigarettes.

I ran until I reached the auditorium of a shabby Victorian theatre, dusty and ashen with disuse. It was a cavernous husk, where no human voice would speak again, so I knew she would not be there.

I ran to the first exit I could find, and opened a door expecting to see the concrete paths and dejected trees of the hospital grounds. They weren’t there. The world had shifted on its axis. In front of me was Richmond Park, on a bright summer’s day, packed with people having picnics under a cloudless blue sky.

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In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Mrs Siddons, ? as Mrs Haller in 'The Stranger' c.1796-8 by Sir Thomas Lawrence 1769-1830Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller by Thomas Lawrence, 1796-8 oil on canvas
© Tate Gallery London.

The painting was bequeathed to the Tate in 1868 by Mrs Siddons youngest child, Cecilia.

PART FOUR – In Spite Of

Sarah Siddons had to bear the worst tragedy that can befall a mother, the death of a child, five times. Two of her children died in infancy, an expected mortality rate for the time, but she gave the impression that only pouring grief into acting enabled her to endure the losses of two grown up daughters, one of them aged nineteen, the other twenty-seven, and of her eldest son when he was forty. “I can at least upon the stage give a full vent to the heart which, in spite of my best endeavours, swells with its weight almost to bursting.” They were killed by lung disease, victims of a genetic predisposition, as strong in the Kembles as acting. Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

PART ONE – A Celebrity’s Tragedy

2006AV2988Sarah Siddons, oil on canvas c 1784, attributed to William Hamilton (or Thomas Beech).
© Victoria and Albert Museum.

Siddons dominated the female tragic roles on the English stage for over 30 years. Her stately performances in the most immediate of art forms articulated the eighteenth century’s ideal of the sublime, and her representations of the classical passions, in combination with her outwardly virtuous private life, won over audiences as diverse as George III, who appointed her Reader to his family, his son the Prince Regent, with whom he never agreed about anything else, and Lord Byron, who admired her more than any other actor, male or female, worth more than Cooke, Kemble and Kean all put together.

Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for grand pathos, was a fan.

Going to see her act was like an ecumenical religious event. Hazlitt said she was a goddess, Tragedy personified. By the time she died in 1831, she had outlived two kings, her friend, the portraitist Lawrence, the poet Byron, her brother and fellow-actor John Philip Kemble, her upstaged and discarded husband William Siddons, and, worse than anything that a mother should endure, five of their children, but not her reputation.

The mystique of the Tragic Muse had been preserved, but only just. Even before her formal retirement in 1812, something had gone wrong. “She was no longer the same….” complained Hazlitt of her inaudibility and disproportionate emphases. She kept making ill-advised and distressing comebacks: “her voice appeared to have lost its brilliancy”; “….she laboured her delivery most anxiously as if she feared her power of expression was gone” (Robinson).

She had gone from goddess to joke. Continue reading