The Mrs Warren quotation

Felicity Kendal, in a still from the 2010 production of Mrs Warren’s Profession

There’s a fairly famous quote by George Bernard Shaw that I came across recently. It is:

The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.

In the recent occurrence, the person quoting it was obviously approving and gave the source as “Mrs Warren.”

The quote is actually from Shaw’s 1893 play Mrs Warren’s Profession and is said by the character of Vivie, not Mrs Warren herself. Most of the rest of the scene following the quote is a repudiation of the sentiment expressed.

Let’s unpack it a little more:

The quote is famous and I first heard it during a speech at my high school graduation. I assume the speaker had gone through a book of quotations and picked it as fitting the message he wanted to convey. These days you would search for quotations online.

Sometimes a slightly longer version is given:

People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.

It was years after my high school graduation that I was in a theatre in London’s West End, watching a production of the play, and was astonished to hear the quote word for word. I hadn’t realised till then that it was by Shaw, hadn’t realised that it was from a play, and definitely hadn’t realised that it was expressing a character’s view and wasn’t necessarily Shaw’s opinion at all.

As it happens, what the character Vivie says in full is:

Everybody has some choice, mother. The poorest girl alive may not be able to choose between being Queen of England or Principal of Newnham; but she can choose between ragpicking and flowerselling, according to her taste. People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.

If you read or better still, watch the play, by this part of the scene you will have already learnt details about the character. She is a young woman and has grown up wealthy. She is also highly intelligent, having achieved equivalent grades to the third wrangler at Cambridge. That’s an obscure reference these days but it refers to the third highest scorer in the undergraduate maths degree at Cambridge. More than 125 years after the play was written it remains a benchmark for formidable intellectual achievement. Philippa Fawcett had achieved a higher mark than the first wrangler in 1890 and this is presumably where Shaw got the idea for the reference.

But like I said, the rest of the scene argues against what the character has just stated. The title of the play is “Mrs Warren’s Profession” and the reason for this title is the hidden scandal of how Mrs Warren makes a living: she is a former prostitute and now a brothel owner. The wealthy and middle-aged Mrs Warren was only able to climb out of poverty, to find or make the circumstances she wanted, by turning to this disreputable trade.

It’s not exactly the stuff of stirring quotations.

Of course, Shaw also explored wealth and class in his more famous play Pygmalion, which was adapted into the even more famous and popular musical My Fair Lady, the musical rather missing the point of the play. But in both plays, Shaw comes from a recognisably leftist position that the world is unfair to the poor and disadvantaged. In other words, his own opinion is presumably the opposite of the famous quotation.

One can easily reject Shaw’s views and to a certain extent one absolutely should. He was an anti-Semite and held other unpleasant beliefs. You can also argue quite convincingly that opportunities for women have improved somewhat since 1893. Nonetheless, given the context of the play, it really isn’t the best inspirational quotation.

The Melancholy Roman

How to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse

Ecce Homo before and after. From

Back in 2012, in the north eastern Spanish town of Borja, a local woman volunteered to restore a church’s Ecce Homo painting. The result was so bad it made headlines around the world.

In this case the notoriety was unexpectedly rewarded. The messed-up painting became a tourist attraction in its own right and the church started charging admission fees. In almost a definition of chutzpah, the woman responsible suggested that she should get a share of the income generated.

More recently, last month the restoration of a wooden statue in the town of Estella, in a different part of Spain, left it looking cartoonish. Bright colours were used and the statue’s face now resembled Tintin.

There is clearly a restorations problem in Spain.

I move on to the (English) National Theatre’s 2010 production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard. I saw and enjoyed this play, the scale of the sets being particularly memorable. But amidst all the critical praise for the production there was a dissenting voice. A critic named John Morrison wrote on his blog that the production wasn’t really Bulgakov’s work at all. Bulgakov had written The White Guard as a novel and had adapted it into a play called The Days of the Turbins. This was the play the National Theatre was staging but Morrison said there’d been too many changes for it to really be the same piece.

For example, there was a scene where a badly wounded soldier was taken behind the lines to get medical help. When I saw it, another soldier deliberately shot the wounded man, killing him instantly.

According to Morrison, in the original play the injured soldier wasn’t shot but was cared for and given medical help. In other words, the actual story had been changed in the National Theatre production.

Which gets me to the Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent production of The House of Bernarda Alba.

I originally saw this play in London in 2005, at the same National Theatre I mentioned above and indeed, on the same stage.

At the time I had a Monday-Friday job and went to the theatre nearly every weekend. I often bought tickets at the half price outlet in Leicester Square and would see shows on spec. Plays I discovered this way include Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff, The Constant Wife by Somerset Maughan, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh. Also on that list was The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca.

A year later I was studying in Granada, Spain. One day one of the teachers wrote “La Casa de Bernarda Alba” on the board and I slowly realised that it was the same Lorca play I’d seen. “La Case de” translates as “The House of.”

I learned that Lorca had been a poet. He’d also been gay, politically outspoken, and had been murdered near the outset of the Spanish Civil War. A combination of that and the brilliance of his writing means that he remains the most famous Spanish playwright of the 20th century. The House of Bernarda Alba is his final work and is considered his masterpiece. He never saw it produced.

All this history I learned in Granada and after and left me wanting to see it again. I was delighted when I discovered that the Melbourne Theatre Company would be staging a production.

Alas, the promotional material said it was “adapted by Patricia Cornelius after Federico García Lorca” and this made me nervous. Adaptations are nothing new and indeed, the production I saw in London in 2005 had been translated by David Hare. But I was uneasy because the publicity notes said that the setting of the play had been moved from Andalucía to Western Australia and I couldn’t see a reason for the change.

This is not to say that Patricia Cornelius is a bad playwright. Just the opposite, for she has a good reputation. But you mess with the classics at your peril.

So I went to the theatre and I sat down to watch the play. And it rapidly became clear that some changes had been made. Some of the characters had vanished completely.

Perhaps that was for budgetary reasons. After all, actors are expensive. But I also noticed that whole scenes had been rewritten and I think that at least one scene was repositioned so that it came earlier in the play.

The result of all these changes was that some of the power had been lost. To me, the play I saw wasn’t quite The House of Bernarda Alba.

Casting my mind back to The White Guard and those botched Spanish art restorations, I concluded that the Melbourne Theatre Company had unfortunately pulled off the same trick. They’d managed to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

The Melancholy Roman

“Ink” and other things

Image result for ink play london

‘And every fair from fair sometimes declines, by chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d.’ (from Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare)

I went to see the play “Ink” on Monday night. It tells the story of The Sun newspaper and its transition from staid broadsheet to populist tabloid.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine The Sun as a staid broadsheet and indeed, hard to imagine the paper’s rise as heroic. Full credit, then, to playwright James Graham. It’s a seriously good play. The second half isn’t as good as the first but overall it’s a solid production. And it’s quite funny in places.

There are several other things worth saying. Some of the reviews have emphasised Bertie Carvel’s portrayal of Rupert Murdoch. This rather overshadows the fact that while Murdoch is a prominent character at the start of the play, he steps back and then the story is about how editor Larry Lamb remade the paper. Richard Coyle, playing Lamb, is in almost every scene.

Still, Murdoch’s character is the one who starts the whole plot rolling and as far as I know that’s historically accurate. Carvel plays him well.

I can’t vouch for the overall accuracy of the play. It’s implied that Stefanie Khan, the original topless page 3 girl, was renamed Stephanie Rahn as a deliberate editorial decision. Wikipedia suggests it was done literally by mistake. Now, I’m not one to necessarily trust in the verities of Wikipedia but on the other hand, the play implies at one stage that the famous “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline appeared in The Sun.

That headline actually appeared in the New York Post and it was on 15 April 1983 that it appeared, rather than the 1969-1970 era of the play. Sure, by 1983 the New York Post had become a Murdoch paper but it’s still inaccurate.

The famous headline, taken from the newspaper’s website.

Now, the background for “Ink” is that when Murdoch bought The Sun, Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror was the biggest selling newspaper in Britain. Murdoch thought the British market needed an overhaul and that the Daily Mirror was vulnerable. History has shown that he was right. Heck, there wouldn’t have been a play otherwise.

Murdoch’s contention, in the play at least, is that the Establishment is too comfortable and needs a shake-up. He says there’s untapped potential in the market and that if the Establishment isn’t interested, someone should take it on. And at this point, perhaps 22 or 23 minutes into the play, I found myself agreeing.

And then it occurred to me: that explains Donald Trump. Forget about narratives about left-behind people and liberal elites. That stuff may be true. But from what I’ve read, people voted for Trump because they thought he’d mix things up. They wanted someone to rouse and reinvigorate the nation and to challenge vested interests. Hillary Clinton offered technocratic competence and I respect that. But Trump offered the possibility of something more.

A bit more about that famous headline:

The Melancholy Roman