Selma

Given the ongoing racial tension in America, it’s clear that the events of Selma are as relevant today as ever. Much has been made of the fact that it has taken half a century for such a film to be produced, and that the Oscars were significantly lacking not only in nominations for this film but for any non-white actor. But I can’t help feeling that not only is this a more important film than Birdman, it will be remembered long after many of the nominated films are forgotten as a much-needed reminder that America, and the world, still has a long way to go when it comes to racial and social inequality.

While criticisms have been levelled at Selma for its portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson and perceived historical inaccuracies, it brings to the fore the supremely complicated racial situation in ‘60s America and hints at the historical context of these events while documenting the roots of modern tensions.

Johnson must negotiate the political system and deep-rooted institutionalised racism while balancing his conscience with popular American and world opinion. It is his role to represent all American people but also to prevent dangerous civil unrest. The failure of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prevent de facto segregation and grant access to voter registration demonstrates the complexity of overcoming the visceral and reactionary fear and hatred of many Southern communities and officials towards African American communities.

David Oyelowo’s performance dominates the film; the gravitas and oratorical skill of an iconic leader blend with the humanity of a man burdened with the responsibility of being the voice of the disenfranchised as they fight the system.

When looking at historical events such as these it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing human progress to be inevitable. Selma highlights the passion, bravery and determination of those who campaigned coupled with the political skill of those who led the movement as integral to the progress that has been made in America since the events of the film.

It is also easy to look at these events with a moral superiority and the belief that they belong to a distant past, but events such as the shooting of Michael Brown (in 2014) should remind us that this history has a legacy and that the fight for racial equality continues.

Bearing this in mind I’m delighted that Selma did win an Oscar with Best Original Song going to Glory; not only because it is powerfully moving and the perfect ending to the film but because in their acceptance speech John Legend and Common so eloquently expressed the importance and relevance of this film in the modern world.

John Legend:

“We say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today then were under slavery in 1850. We are with you, we see you, we love you and march on”.

Blue Stockings

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 Blue Stockings at the Globe focusses on the fight of a small but determined group of female Cambridge students, fighting for the right to graduate. In a break with the worryingly common response to Blue Stockings – disbelief that women could be treated so appallingly – I was genuinely surprised at quite how surprised even some well-educated people were at the position of women in the nineteenth century. I realise as a History graduate I’ve probably had access to a wider range of periods and topics than the standard Tudors, Victorians and World Wars that seem perennially prescribed by the National Curriculum. Yet I was still taken aback that people found the depictions in the play such a revelation.

 Jessica Swale’s play at the Globe is therefore hugely important in raising awareness of not just the plight of Cambridge students but of social inequality in general. While I’m glad that the general consensus is so vociferously against the misogynistic views of the nineteenth-century establishment, with audience boos, cheers and catcalling in the yard, the play should spark a serious debate about social inequality and its continued effects on our society. And from a historical standpoint, this means taking a step back from the initial outrage at these offensive views.

It’s anachronistic to impose contemporary moral standards onto a past society. While it can seem particularly distasteful to hear vehement misogyny in such a relatively recent period, it is surely more useful – and fairer on those we are judging – to try and understand these views within the context of their time. The play is set in 1896 – Victorian society and law had very different ideas about morality and the structure of society.  In 1831 a 14 year old boy was executed for murder, and in 1833 a nine year old was sentenced to death for housebreaking – although this was later reprieved under public pressure. Slavery was not abolished in Britain until 1833 and public executions continued until 1868.

 The position of women in general society puts the challenges women faced at Cambridge, serious as they are, into perspective. It was not until 1870 that women were allowed to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that wives possessed a legal identity; previously courts didn’t recognize a wife as a separate legal entity to her husband.

 The play briefly touches on the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the complex political implications of political involvement on those campaigning for smaller victories. It was a long fight, and women didn’t receive the vote until 1918. Even then this was only for those over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications – it was not until 1928 that women received equal voting rights to men. Yet perhaps more surprisingly, and often overlooked, until 1918 forty per cent of adult males were also disenfranchised.

 There was clearly a large element of self-interest in the barring of female students from graduating, as with the withholding of universal suffrage and the amalgamation of a wife’s legal identity with that of her husband. The views these men espouse can seem ridiculous to our modern sensibilities, and were certainly often received with laughter by the audience of Blue Stockings, but it’s important to remember that many men (and women) will have genuinely believed that the mental taxation of study could be not only mentally but also physically damaging to women. If you believe this, and that women’s collective vocation is to be mothers and wives, then you probably think that you’re doing them a favour by discouraging them from studying.

And access to education has not always been seen as a right. Compulsory education was not introduced in Britain until 1880, and then only for children of five to ten years – and it was ineffectively enforced. The women with the education, talent and resources to make it to Cambridge were still privileged in comparison to the majority of the population.

 The general disparity in education continued well into the Twentieth Century, as the play’s final scene points out. Before the Second World War less than 2% of 18-year olds went to University. Oxford and Cambridge were still very much finishing schools for gentlemen. In 1939 women constituted less than a quarter of the university student population, a proportion which remained fairly stable until the late 1960s, when it began slowly to rise – real change did not begin until the 1970s.

And it’s also important to point out that the play is set in Cambridge, traditionally a bastion of the British Establishment. Conditions were better elsewhere in the country: if the women in Blue Stockings had wished, they could have graduated from the University of London, which in 1878 became the first UK University to admit women to its degrees. In 1881 two women obtained a BSc, by 1895 over 10 per cent of the graduates were women and by 1900 the proportion had increased to 30 per cent. As is the case today, not all universities were the same, and the situation in Cambridge, and the views of its inhabitants, do not necessarily reflect the country as a whole. In any society there will always be thinkers ahead of their time and those clinging desperately to the past, and the social elite that populated Cambridge have always tended towards conservatism.

Jessica Swale only alludes to some of the more violent protests against the bluestockings, which in real life included burning effigies of the female students. While the outright misogyny found in Blue Stockings is thankfully unacceptable in contemporary Britain, the example of Malala Yousafzai (to whom Blue Stockings is dedicated) serves as a reminder that for some the fight for a right to an education continues.

Closer to home, with the introduction of £9000 tuition fees, it seems as if the economic educational divide will grow. And it’s not just financial restrictions that affect your experience of university. Laura Wade’s Posh may be set in Oxford, but it demonstrates the rigid social hierarchy that still supports the upper echelons of our society. The play’s popularity demonstrates that our interest in the educational elite is as strong as ever.

And it seems that discrimination, of a subtler sort, is still hampering access to a Cambridge education – earlier this year it was reported that people applying to study medicine at Cambridge with three A*s at A-level are more than 20% more likely to be given an offer if they are white than if they are from an ethnic minority. On a personal note, studying History at University the majority of my peers were female. Looking at my tutors, the majority of teaching staff (and the vast majority of the older tutors) were men. It seems that in academia, as in so many areas of life, historical institutional sexism has left a noticeable legacy.

And the pay gap between men and women persists, with female law graduates, for instance, earning 28% less than men at the start of their careers.  Sitting in the audience at the Globe it is easy to feel smug, and to deride the ‘villains’ of Blue Stockings as antiquated relics of another era. But perhaps we should take a minute to look at our own society before we condemn theirs.

Are English (and History) students getting a rotten deal?

UCL English undergraduate Mirren Gidda has drawn attention to the lack of contact hours on her course, but with 8.5 hours a week she shouldn’t complain – in my final year studying History I had only 4 hours of contact time a week, and one semester in second year I had a 5 day weekend. Attendance at lectures wasn’t even compulsory. I realise that both English and History involve a lot of reading, and therefore a lot of personal study, but with tuition fees at £9000 students may start to balk at committing to what can seem like a glorified library membership. I agree with Gidda that the format of these courses needs to be more widely acknowledged, and made clear to potential students.

Like Gidda, I also appreciate the importance of quality teaching over the number of hours taught. Yet while I received some excellent teaching from some inspirational tutors I also attended some dire lectures, which may explain the lack of student attendance to these non-compulsory contact hours (especially when they were scheduled at 9am on Friday morning). The feeling of isolation from the department (and the culture of working at home in your pyjamas) that such a focus on personal study generates may also explain the reluctance people felt at having to drag themselves into campus for one hour of lectures. I really enjoyed my course, and took advantage of the many extra-curricular opportunities that University offers. But with the rise of online courses I can see Universities struggling to justify charging such high fees for so little tangible content.

Shakespeare: staging the world

The Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition, coming to an end this month at the British Museum, is an intriguing look at Tudor Britain. The exhibition is grouped by theme, relating artefacts to Shakespeare’s work – although some of these links are rather tenuous, and it is only the first section that is wholly about Shakespeare.

The exhibition does give an intriguing insight into life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the concerns of the people living at this time. It also looks at changing ideals during this period, for example the ideas of nation and kingship forged by previous kings and the way that the modern preoccupation with the monarchy and succession were played out on stage through historical figures from Richard II to Cleopatra.

There is also a fascinating look at Venice during this period, and having studied Venice in depth at University it was nice to see some artefacts in person, from ducats to chopines (high platform shoes). It took me two and a half hours to get around the exhibition, and by the end my attention did start to wander. But my main gripe (with an otherwise excellent exhibition) is the recordings of actors reciting extracts of Shakespeare, loudly and enthusiastically, which were played on a loop in the middle of the exhibits. They were very good, but at certain points you could hear two or three at a time while you were trying to concentrate on reading the text that accompanies the exhibits.

Apart from this, the exhibition proves a very interesting summary of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century life in Britain. The connections made to Shakespeare’s works not only demonstrate the relevance of his works but ground them in reality and locate them within the ideas and influences of the time.

55 Days

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At the start of Howard Brenton’s 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre I wondered if I would be able to pay attention through the play, which at times is quite hard work – one lady in the front row didn’t seem to face that dilemma, sleeping her way through the first half. But as the play continues your perseverance pays off, and the play is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Starting the play in 1648, as the Army purges Parliament of those supporting the King, is an interesting choice, and meant that I felt a lot more sympathetic towards Charles I than I would have done otherwise. We hear from Cromwell and the rebel army of the tyrannical acts that Charles I has committed, driving them to their drastic action, but we don’t see them – and I still ended up feeling slightly sorry for the king.

I found myself feeling equally sympathetic for both Cromwell and Charles I; Brenton highlights the similarities between the two, suggesting that Cromwell was fighting for a future he struggled to imagine, while Charles was fighting for a past that was a fantasy. The play captures the feeling that both men are out of their time; Brenton says that he is ‘drawn to stories which are about the future breaking out too early.’

The play is full of conflicting voices; John Cooke, the prosecution lawyer, is a moderating influence, reminding us of the constitutional validity of Charles’ argument as he refuses to recognise Parliament’s court, despite the usual sympathy for Cromwell’s cause. It is an example of the play’s ability to highlight the complexity of the situation as a new world is created.

I felt that the best moments occurred during the court scenes, with some of Charles’ ‘eerily graceful’ lines lifted by Brenton from a nineteenth-century transcript of the court proceedings, and allowed Mark Gatiss to fully get into his stride. Brenton hopes that focussing on the climax of the struggle means that there is a clear action sequence; ‘people dragging themselves towards a thing that few of them ever dreamt they would do, or, in Cromwell’s case, never wanted to do, at least not until the very last moment’. There is a striking moment when a Parliamentarian goes to kiss Cromwell’s hand and he recoils; we feel that he is wary of the consequences of Parliament’s actions.

The cast is strong, and in the programme Brenton describes what he believes is the power of theatre; an actor on stage ‘says “I am your king”… everyone in the room knows he’s not, then suddenly, more powerful than any camera, the imagination takes over… and he really is’. This is certainly true of Gatiss, who is a real presence on stage, and commands your attention. He is regal from head to toe as he surveys those around him. Douglas Henshall is also excellent as a confused but imposing Cromwell.

Yet despite its virtues this play is certainly not for those without an interest in the history; it is at times dense and carries an overloading of information, but if you can stick with it it is definitely worth it.

Not So Stiff Upper Lip

Having written a chapter of my dissertation on the cult of sensibility and its effects on attitudes to the theatre, watching the first part of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain was rather like having an impromptu revision session. Hislop traces the changing attitude of the English towards their feelings – from the cult of sensibility that emphasised the nobility of emotion to an increasingly reserved ideal of stoicism and refined opinion. These changes affected contemporary tastes for a wide range of entertainments, from theatre to the rise in popularity of pleasure gardens. Hislop visits the excellent Johann Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy; Zoffany’s portraits demonstrate the increasing emotional involvement of eighteenth-century portraits.

The cult of sensibility and fine emotion allowed the public to demonstrate their morality and virtue. It was accepted that everybody was capable of emotion, but those higher in society cultivated their feelings, and there was an almost competitive element to the displays of emotion that the elites experienced in response to theatrical performances in a bid to assert their superiority and understanding of the play’s deep sentiment. These displays could be almost pantomimic, with ladies falling into hysterical outbursts that were as much about demonstrating their emotional capacity to others as about any deep personal response to the play.

The cult of sensibility dominated eighteenth-century society while it lasted, but it was fleeting, and it increasingly came to be replaced by the ideal of politeness. While it was still acceptable to show feeling in response to the theatre, moderation and manly composure became predominant. Excessive displays of emotion became more and more associated with femininity and a lack of control. Hislop looks at James Boswell’s diary as an example of a man attempting to balance the holding in of coarser feelings with the letting out of refined opinions. Boswell identified the need to put up a public façade to hide his emotions– yet I would say that sensibility had equally been about creating a public façade.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft urges women to stoicism, to fight against the ideas of ‘femininity’ that they have been taught. Women were thought to be enslaved to feeling and not rational – a tendency exacerbated by ‘feminine’ pastimes such as reading novels. As sensibility fell out of fashion emotional displays were increasingly felt to be a feminine weakness.

The move away from sensibility was catalysed by the fear of social breakdown that accompanied the onset of the French Revolution. This was perpetuated by Britain’s imperial expansion and the Industrial Revolution – both of these factors expanded Britain’s ambitions and created a new moral seriousness in the country. Zoffany’s work reflected this change, as he abandoned his old subjects in favour of depictions of the Revolution – his later work is hellish, showing the mob gone wild and the normal order of society turned on its head. Excessive emotion was becoming increasingly linked with radical politics in the public consciousness.

Until now I had never really considered the marked difference that exists between the sensibility of the eighteenth century and the stoicism and reserve of British imperial culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – another area that I studied in detail. Hislop identifies the lasting impacts of the French and Industrial Revolutions as well as British imperialism as creating the beginnings of the idea of the stiff upper lip that has come to define the British. The next episode of Hislop’s documentary promises to explore how the Victorians entrenched the stiff upper lip as a national characteristic.

Treasures of Ancient Rome

Treasures of Ancient Rome is an excellent new BBC4 series examining the changing styles of Roman art and its uses. Roman art is an understudied area, and presenter Alastair Sooke is seeking to debunk the myth that the Romans’ art was unoriginal and uninspiring and to raise the profile of art of this period. The art included in this broad category is varied, with widespread influences and geographical locations.

Sooke’s documentary groups the art into 3 programmes; how the Romans pioneered warts ‘n’ all realism, the artistic legacy of Rome’s emperors, and art during the fall of the Roman Empire. The realistic style of early Roman art gives us a unique insight into how these Romans looked and how they wanted to be perceived – as wise and experienced, including wrinkles and receding hairlines. It was not until the Emperor Augustus that Roman art sought to portray people as charismatic, youthful and handsome.

The second episode focuses on the patronage of emperors and their use of art as a status symbol and as a means of propaganda. We see the wide geographical spread of Roman art and the variety of locations where it was found; Sooke explores the remains of the pleasure palace of Emperor Claudius (now submerged underwater), the cave where Tiberius held wild parties and the Pantheon in Rome. Next week, we will see the art that flourished throughout the Empire in places such as Libya and Egypt. The series really gives a sense of the scale of the Roman Empire and the extent of its influence on the ancient world.

Throughout the series Sooke also watches modern artists recreate art using Roman techniques, giving us a clear idea of the way that this art was made. It is fascinating to see how these ancient pieces of art were formed from marble, bronze, or even egg yolk and pigment. Both the ancient and modern art provide for a visually dynamic and interesting series.

Sooke’s has an obvious passion for the subject and he is always engaging; he’s a natural communicator. As in his 2010 series Modern Masters he has the ability to make everything interesting through his enthusiasm and intelligent presentation. Sooke’s excellent presentation, and a wide and interesting subject matter, make this series thoroughly engaging.