Looking Ahead a Little and Behind a Lot

George Bernard Shaw.

Photo pinched from Readprint.com .

I have three books on the go currently. Almost done a volume of Sherlock Holmes stories; a third of the way through a James Thurber anthology (his own, The Thurber Carnival first published in 1931); and starting in on the second act of G B Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra.

I love the interplay of the timely and timeless in my reading. I enjoy, for example, how Holmes is presented using the most up-to-date equipment: steamboats, the telegraph, a gazeteer (don’t ask) , trains that hurtle through the English countryside at 53 1/2  miles per hour. Thurber’s technology, though a bare thirty years later, seems much closer to our own era than to Conan Doyle’s: the car, the telephone, the airplane, mentioned with little blasé shrugs.

Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra was written in 1901, the same year in which Queen Victoria died, and contemporary with the Sherlock Holmes stories. While Shaw was careful to avoid anachronisms in this play, he did skewer turn-of-the-century England in his stage directions.

I’d like you to think of an upper middle-class, late Victorian drawing room. Think of the upholstery. The wallpaper. The table cloths, doilies, antimacassars, cushions, chair and chesterfield skirts, drapes, tassels. The fresh flowers, automata, carved mantelpiece clocks, pre-Raphaelite prints, looking-glasses, cut-glass decanters, taxidermia. Picturing it? Good. Here’s a bit of Shaw’s social commentary, in the guise of setting, from the beginning of Act II of Caesar and Cleopatra. Enjoy!

  • Alexandria. A hall on the first floor of the Palace, ending in a loggia approached by two steps. Through the arches of the loggia the Mediterranean can be seen, bright in the morning sun. The clean lofty walls, painted with a procession of the Egyptian theocracy, presented in profile as flat ornament, and the absence of mirrors, sham perspectives, stuffy upholstery and textiles, make the place handsome, wholesome, simple and cool, or, as a rich English manufacturer would express it, poor, bare, ridiculous and unhomely. For Tottenham Court Road civilization is to this Egyptian civilization as glass bead and tattoo civilization is to Tottenham Court Road.

I’m intrigued by the play so far. Good thing, too, because in a week or so I’ll be accompanying E.g. and her longtime friend Gilda down to Stratford (Ontario) to see Christopher Plummer take the role of Caesar himself. Gilda lives ‘wa-a-ay over in Saint John, New Brunswick, so whenever she manages to visit, she wants to go to Stratford. She’s a sensible woman.

4 Responses to Looking Ahead a Little and Behind a Lot

  1. jamesviscosi says:

    Ooh, Christopher Plummer — that should be a good show!

  2. goodbear says:

    wish i could go to the play with you!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I’m impressed with anyone who can read more than one thing at a time. I wish I could do that – and fast! So many books! So little time!

    I haven’t read any Shaw since college and clearly I need to get back to it. I sometimes get bogged down with plays – in my head I’m too busy blocking and casting that I lose myself in that and forget what I’m reading.

    Enjoy the play – I saw Christopher Plummer in My Fair Lady many, many, many years ago and he was wonderful… no surprise there.

  4. lavenderbay says:

    That’s what I’ve been told, James. After reading Act I, I can picture the man who played Captain Von Trapp doing Caesar’s role quite handily. (Not sure if he’ll be strumming a six-string and crooning “Anubis” , though. )

    Well hey, Goodbear, if people drive all the way from California just to see the St Jacobs market…

    Usually I only do one book at a time, Elizabeth, and I subvocalize all the way. It makes me a good proofreader/editor, and my literature essays have usually stuck to one major point with several dozen close-reading examples to back it up — I never used secondary sources unless absolutely required to!
    Ontario’s Stratford Theatre is a major must-see for an Ontario vacation. I got to go each year on high school bus trips, and have returned a few times in my adult years. I’ve only seen Shakespeare so far, though, which is Stratford’s main focus. There is also the Shaw theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which specializes in… you guessed it!
    Shaw’s original play, “Pygmalion”, actually has Eliza Doolittle choosing Freddy and dumping that grumpy old professor; I always preferred this version to “My Fair Lady”. But hey, if it’s Mr. Plummer, it could be the Red Green Duct Tape Forever movie, and it would still be great.

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