Mar 18

Introducing Streaky Bacon

Like many teachers, I often use adaptations in my literature classes: paintings of Tennyson’s poems help students identify the visual details he builds into them; Playboy‘s publication of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” makes the poem’s sexuality graphically clear; David Lean’s Oliver Twist, with Alec Guinness’s prosthetic nose, transfers the text’s anti-Semitism into a different medium; Disney’s Frozen, based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, shows how texts from the past can become twenty-first century cultural sensations. An adaptation can help students see a text in a new way, or prove the continued relevance of texts from a seemingly distant past. And in the field of adaptation studies, scholars are asking questions far more interesting than, “is this adaptation faithful to the original?”

But where does one find these adaptations? Some I remembered from my own student days; some I learned about in conversations with colleagues; others I saw mentioned in an editor’s introduction, or just stumbled onto. This ad hoc discovery is fine, but it would be nice to have something more centralized. It would also be nice to have a place to share newly discovered adaptations, and how they connect to undergraduate teaching or to research questions in literary studies.

Last summer I broached this topic with three colleagues in Victorian studies: Victoria Ford Smith, Annie Swafford, and Carrie Sickmann Han. We began a project that we’re excited to launch today: Streaky Bacon, a curated website that collects short essays about adaptations of Victorian texts. Over the past few months we’ve put together an advisory board of top scholars, collected a dozen or so essays that model a variety of approaches to adaptation, and written an introductory essay that theorizes the project.

The site will be a resource for teachers and scholars of Victorian literature. Check us out, and if you have an adaptation that’s not covered yet, send us a submission!

 

Feb 22

Corporate Periodization, INCS conference preview

The Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies conference is March 10-13, in Asheville, NC, and I’ll be presenting part of my current book project about the Victorians and the Walt Disney Company. The paper argues that literary and corporate periodization are analogous, each stemming from particular institutional objectives, and demonstrates the analogy by examining the history of the Walt Disney Company.

In fitting the paper to its necessary length I wrote two sections that don’t fit exactly into the argument, and I decided to post them here as a preview of (or complement to) the paper. The first part explores the imagined contrast between making art and making money. The second very briefly identifies different periods in the management of the Lyceum Theater, which I see as a historical example of the kind of periodization I’m claiming for Disney.

Making Art and Making Money

The imagined corporate ethos is encapsulated in an internal memo written by Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005. The memo is famous enough that it has become a meme:

We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective. - Michael Eisner

I first encountered this memo in Henry Giroux’s The Mouse That Roared. Giroux argues that Disney is a cultural icon, but its profit-centered motivation makes it a threat to Democratic values (Giroux 25). For those who value making art, history, and statements over making money, Eisner’s memo raises eyebrows. And it’s easy to imagine a corporate executive spouting claims like this. It’s a too-perfect encapsulation of the neoliberal values we fear are encroaching into the university.

But the next sentence of the memo changes things a bit, at least for me. And it tends to be left out of the memes. Here is the slightly extended version:

We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, to make some significant statement. (Stewart 23; Eisner)

Eisner is a corporate CEO, and clear about his priorities. But he is also aware of the kind of company he’s leading. In his 1998 memoir he doubles down on the idea, and claims to be riffing on Woody Allen’s claim that “if show business weren’t a business, it would have been called ‘show show’” (Eisner).

It’s the contrast between these different values that interests me most, and the way they are too often framed as a zero-sum game. Professors are often caricatured as being out of touch, as if our only objective is to teach students and produce research. And I don’t necessarily disagree that that is our objective as faculty. But imagine a university president adapting Eisner’s words:

We have no obligation to make money. To make art, to study history, to make statements is our only objective. But to make art, study history, and make significant statements it is sometimes necessary to make money.

I don’t think that statement is a slippery slope that leads all universities to become like Corinthian Colleges. To insist on a contrast between universities and corporations is to insist on different priorities. It doesn’t mean we remove ourselves entirely from the financial system. When we push for state or federal funding, for student loan reform, for alumni donations, or for higher wages for contingent faculty, we recognize that universities do need to be funded. My paper takes seriously the shared motivations among academics, artists, and corporations.

The Lyceum Theater

The division between corporate and academic ethos is less stark than news coverage makes it out to be. But it nonetheless exists, and does affect the moves we make in our own scholarship. In her book on Gilbert and Sullivan, for example, Carolyn Williams argues that

Genre formation is not only an aesthetic and historical, but also an economic, process, and genre was important to Gilbert and Sullivan’s effort to carve out their own market niche. They distinguished their productions from other theatrical fare through their genre parody and their particular treatments of gender. Their success at capital accumulation supported unusually high production values, which led, in turn, to further capital growth. (Williams 5)

That’s an insightful point, recognizing the link between profit and aesthetics. Williams then emphasizes that capital accumulation “does not reduce the aesthetic dimension of their success” (6). Even when acknowledging the link, she recognizes the need to guard against a backlash that would insist on a divide between art and the marketplace. In arguing that English departments and the Walt Disney Company follow similar institutional drives to periodize, I aim to further bridge that divide.

Theater scholars tend to be especially attuned to financial questions: Williams is just one example, and Shakespeare critics have long been invested in learning about his financial involvement in his companies. For my purposes, the Lyceum Theatre provides an index to theatrical trends, and its operational history demonstrates how an institutional brand can turn a profit by keeping up with the rhythms of popular culture. Built by the Society of Artists in 1772, the Lyceum hosted a variety of exhibitions in the late eighteenth century, including “astronomical demonstrations, air balloons, waxworks, ‘philosophical fireworks,’ boxing matches, circuses, programs  of humorous recitations, and concerts”  (Altick 54). The site took advantage of fads like waxworks and tableaux vivants as they emerged: Madame Tussaud began her British career at the Lyceum in 1802 (Altick 333) and William Dimond’s The Peasant Boy (1811) featured one of the earliest tableaux (Altick 342).

After hosting operas and fairy extravaganzas around mid-century, the Lyceum later came to be associated with Henry Irving, and especially with Shakespeare: Irving’s 1874 Hamlet has been called “one of the most influential and talked about theatrical roles in the latter part of the nineteenth century” (Young 3). As these examples demonstrate, the Lyceum shifted its strategy to keep up with popular culture, its different stages analogous to literary periods. Today, I would suggest, the Lyceum continues its Victorian legacy: since 1999 it has hosted Disney’s The Lion King, an adaptation of Hamlet that takes combines two distinct trends of twentieth-century pop culture: the animated musical and the Broadway musical.

In the INCS paper, and in the book towards which these arguments are building, I continue developing these analogies to explore how a global media corporation can helps us understand Victorian culture and its reception.

Works Cited

Nov 04

Translating, Performing, and Exhibiting Alice

This month is the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I’ve written two recent posts about the Alice books (on Google and in Disney’s 1951 cartoon), which have been close to my heart for a long time now. In college I wrote my math thesis about Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Oxford don who wrote the Alice books under his more famous pseudonym. Researching that thesis led me to claims like, “Lewis Carroll invented children’s literature.” Curiosity and skepticism about those claims spurred my interest in graduate studies, and in many ways led to my forthcoming book The Legacy of the Moral Tale (which has only a few pages about Alice).

The sesquicentennial has been a big deal. Scholars, fans, and collectors have been celebrating the books’ un-birthday for most of the year, especially in New York City. I was there for a brief trip last weekend, and had a chance to visit two fantastic exhibits about Alice.

Alice Translation Exhibit ProgramThrough November 21st the Grolier Club is hosting “Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece.” Curated by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, the exhibit includes materials from their book of the same title. It is housed in a single room on the ground floor, below a 360° library on the second floor. The first few cases cover Carroll himself (including his letters, photographs, and mathematics), translations during his lifetime, and theories of translation. The latter display was a nice touch, giving some theoretical background to the choices made and comparing Alice in Wonderland to Pilgrim’s Progress, the only English novel that exists in more translations than Alice. The case includes example translations from chapter 7, “A Mad Tea Party,” which includes Carroll’s parody of Jane Taylor’s “The Star.” They  include a a copy of Taylor’s Rhymes for the Nursery, and explain some of the challenges to translating the poem in particular and Alice in Wonderland in general.

The rest of the exhibit is organized by geography or language group, with cases focusing on Great Britain and Ireland, Spanish (the language with the most translated editions), Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa. A final case focuses on Disney’s books (even the company has lost count of how many there are). Also included throughout the exhibit are translations in shorthand, braille, computer code, and experimental alphabets. In the corner of the room, a television is set up showing clips of multimedia translations, including a Japanese version of Disney’s 1951 Alice, a preview for their 2010 film subtitled in Arabic, Svankmajer’s experimental Czech film (1988), and the video game American McGee’s Alice, dubbed (if I recall) in German.

The Grolier Club has a formal, exclusive feel. Only one other couple was present when my wife and I visited, and the room was silent. The “Alice Live” exhibit, held at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, was a different world entirely. The library branch is located at Lincoln Center, which when we visited (on Halloween) was hosting kids’ a trick-or-treating party. We navigated a crowd of superheroes and princesses (and one elaborate Little Red Riding Hood family, complete with a wolfish grandmother in a wheeled bed), many of whom made their way into the exhibit, which includes a scavenger hunt to find images in the displays. Costumed children raced to complete it.

Alice Performance ExhibitThe exhibit was no less interesting for that additional madness which, frankly, added to the “performance” aspects on which the exhibition focused. At the front of the exhibit are materials related to Dodgson, including his games for children, his fondness for theater and friendships with actresses, and his collaboration with Henry Savile Clarke.

On the NYPL blog Charles Lovett, curator of the exhibit and author of Alice on Stage (1989), describes his personal history collecting Alice-related items, especially theatrical memorabilia, and gives a good overview of the exhibit. One of the highlights not mentioned  is a series of photographs of actresses who have played Alice, from Phoebe Carlo and Isa Bowman (who starred in Clarke’s production in 1886 and 1888, respectively), through Vivian Tobin (in the first Broadway production, 1915), Josephine Hutchinson (who starred in Eva Le Gallienne’s 1932 production), Meryl Streep (who played Alice in 1981), and ballerina Janessa Touchet (from 2015).

Le Gallienne’s play, revived in 1947 and again in 1982, with Le Gallienne playing the White Queen each time, features prominently in the exhibit, but it includes not just famous mainstays like Clarke’s and Le Gallienne’s adaptations but also Andre Gregory’s 1970s play (the result, the exhibit tells us, of two years of improvisation and experimentation) and dozens of musicals, puppet shows, and dances. One image even documents an underwater Alice in Wonderland, performed by the Weeki Wachee mermaids. (Not mentioned in the exhibit but evident in this video: the show adopts one of the mermaids’ signature tricks, drinking a bottle of coke underwater).

Overall I found “Alice Live” rather overwhelming. Even the most extensive coverage of a performance was limited to a description, a few pictures, and (at best) a short video. The Grolier Club, in my view, had the slightly easier task: they convey a lot about a translation with just a page and a short description, and the theoretical background was a nice touch. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about the performances, and learned about several I hadn’t known about. If you find yourself in New York in the next couple months, both exhibits are well worth the time.