Thursday, November 15, 2012

3 usages: The Browning Versions of Agamemnon

The Browning Version adapts the myth of Agamemnon’s murder, placing that epic disaster in the approachable details of a life that could actually be mine or yours.

British 20th-century playwrite Terence Rattigan crafted a brief but moving drama of a nearly washed-up classics teacher in a fully dysfunctional marriage. Its title refers to Robert Browning’s 1877 English translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Arguably the greatest drama among Greek tragedies, the Agamemnon sets thematic background for this modern play; but Aeschylus’ poetic text operates within the play quite effectively. Crocker-Harris teaches his pupils to read the great classic. His most malleable student, Taplow, receives unanticipated mentorship in a tutorial where we learn just how intimately the Greek text has grown into the mentor’s emotional fibres. Taplow manifests philia late in the play, when he procures a precious copy of the Browning Agamemnon translation as a retirement gift.

Two particular passages from Aeschylus function: Taplow’s recitation of Ag. 1400 against “the Crock’s” corrections, and then the maturing pupil’s tender fly-leaf inscription of Ag. 951-52.

The retiring schoolmaster becomes an Agamemnon himself: academic heroism in the past, awards and accomplishments no longer coming. He is murdered figuratively by a treacherous wife, her eyes and heart given actively to a junior member of the faculty. Long has the husband known her adultery, but she hasn’t assassinated his character until a bitter moment at the heart of this play.

Nicholas Farrell plays Mr. Crocker-Harris in Rattigan's
The Browning Version
, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2012
The Browning Version premiered in 1948 and has enjoyed moderate theatrical success over the years. London’s 2012 season enjoyed a production at the Harold Pinter Theatre starring Nicholas Farrell and Anna Chancelor as Mr. and Mrs. Crocker-Harris. Aside from a handful of BYU myth students and my daughter, I was by far the youngest member of the audience; yet all, I dare say, came away quite moved. Reviews are linked on the OGCMA slide

Taplow faces "the Himmler of the Lower Fifth" in Asquith's
adaptation The Browning Version.
Anthony Asquith adapted The Browning Version into a feature-length film (Javelin Films, 1951; re-released Criterion 2005) doubling its length by adding a handful of scenes that frame and augment. Its success is due not solely to a brilliant performance by the inimitable Michael Redgrave. One invention ensconces the evanescent Crocker-Harris in a pedagogical empire, a schoolroom where he habitually dresses down his disinterested young scholars. This is his last day on the job. Nobody cares — save, perhaps, the viewer — that teaching in this room ceased long ago. On the chalkboard the Crock has written in Greek Ag. 414-19, a highly poetic lament over the enervation of a once great man: “And, through desire of one across the main, / A ghost will seem within the house to reign. / And hateful to the husband is the grace / Of well-shaped statues; for — in place of eyes / Those blanks — all Aphrodite dies.” (Browning) On the wall near the classroom window Nike fastens her sandal. Even she, one of Athens’ most familiar but most shapely icons, seems to have lost all allure for the dusty classicist.

M. Figgis, dir.;
Paramount 1994
As gracefully as Asquith incorporates Aeschylus’ text into his Browning Version’s added scene, with commensurate awkwardness Mike Figgis’s 1994 Paramount remake of Asquith’s film misses its mark. Crocker-Harris's replacement, played by Julian Sands, paces between the schoolboys and a chalkboard upon which the teacher has abandoned some notes on an unrelated lecture on the Peloponnesian War .  Unrelated to the plot? Likely yes.  Such questionable shortcomings notwithstanding, Figgis’s film is a keeper. Finney is nothing short of remarkable as Crocker-Harris. And the lovely Greta Scacchi delivers a gorgeously repulsive performance as Mrs. Crocker-Harris. The film’s R-rating makes it rather less accessible than Rattigan’s play, even if the adultery that underpins Millie’s character could be considered naturally at home in a film. In 1951 Asquith was willing to leave some things unseen and unheard.

Julian Sands as Tom Gilbert observes Crocker Harris in Figgis'
Browning Version
    Rattigan's play: 2012 production
    Asquith's film: 1951
    Figgis' film: 1994

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