REVIEW Essay

Dante’s Creative Personality and Wayne McGregor’s Ballet, The Dante Project (2021)

By Elena Vassilieva

“L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” – Dante. On the photo: Edward Watson after his glorious performance. The image was taken by E.V. during the livestream from the Royal Opera House on 20 December 2021, © The ROH.

In 2014 Wayne McGregor turned to Thomas Adès, kindly asking him to write music for his new ballet. The British composer, haunted since childhood by the prodigious gruesomeness of the Divine Comedy’s imagery, must have thought then that it was his best chance to get rid of the fright he had acquired from reading the great poem in the young age, but also to bury those striking impressions inside the score for McGregor’s three-act ballet. He also must have believed that, after 30 years of creating “the poetry of the foot,”* the world-renowned choreographer wouldn’t fail to do justice to Dante who died on 14 September 1321. Adès’ logic didn’t mislead him, as Wayne McGregor had also been very much impressed by Dante’s poem, although it wasn’t the fright that moved him most deeply, but the beauty of Dante’s poetical word, which he initially feared not to be able to translate into the language of dance, but that natural fear lived one moment only; Dante’s overwhelming aesthetics and his creative genius commanded every single dance move in the new ballet triumphantly, leaving no trace of that conundrum the choreographer had in the very beginning.

There are others beside Wayne McGregor and Thomas Adès who are pivotal in the creation of the ballet: Tacita Dean was appointed as a set and costume designer, Lucy Carter and her assistant, Simon Bennison, as light designers, Uzma Hameed as a dramaturg, McGregor’s all-time collaborators. The ballet, somewhat drily called The Dante Project, a co-production with the Paris Opera Ballet (L.A. Philharmonic, a co-commissioner of Adès’ score), premiered on 14 October 2021 and was generously shown by the Royal Opera House to the audiences across the globe in December 2021. The world premiere was a very special and memorable event for several reasons. Firstly, the ballet lovers had already been aware of the tremendous success of the Inferno, performed by the Royal Ballet in July of 2019 in Los Angeles, and were eager to see all three parts of the new work, especially after the pandemic interruption. Secondly, the tragic consequences of the pandemic reminded us harshly how thin the line between life and death is, in fact, and how important it is, as was the case in the Classical Antiquity and then especially in the Middle Ages, not to forget the motto, memento mori, and do the right thing while here on Earth. Thirdly, it was an immensely courageous and significant most recent artistic creation that commemorated 7th centennial of Dante’s death.

Dante’s poem is not just a pleasing and at once repelling all senses colossal piece of artistry and a lengthy exposition of human nature that is prone to mistakes and flaws per se, but it is also a monument to a creative personality, whose role was fulfilled in the Divine Comedy with such an authority and wisdom by Virgil, whom Dante addresses affectionately as “my true Guide, my sweet Friend, my sweet Father, my Master, my good Master, my prompt Master, My Lord, My Leader, My wise Leader, My Virgil.” One can really feel the love and such an endless admiration Dante had for the Roman poet. The regrettable to Dante fact that both poets lived in different historical epochs and couldn’t possibly have arranged a meeting, was overcome in the reality of his poem, and Dante cherished and appreciated every second of it.

At the same time, it is also a monument to a woman, the beloved woman, Beatrice, who was neither Dante’s wife nor his lover, yet, she is the one who had captured his imagination ever since he had first seen her as a 9-year-old child. There are many scholarly speculations among Dantists on why Dante chose to place Beatrice and not anyone else on the very top of that otherworldly reality which he created according to the Christian code of ethics, but, alas, there isn’t one definitive answer to it. Some believe that it was just Amour Courtois which was a common thing in the upper classes in the Middle Ages, just think of all the troubadours who were writing the most dazzling poetry lines for their Dames of heart. But most of them stayed on the very surface of that highly coded pursuit. In fact, this much that the code and the codex itself ultimately mattered more than the essence of the relationship, e.g. the true feelings or the lack of them. Therefore, such strictly coded relationships often seemed to be driven by a game-like ardour rather than a deep-rooted feeling.

Although I agree that Dante might have been influenced by this cultural tradition indeed, for he mentions the French troubadour, Bertran de Born, in Inferno (Canto XXVIII), and it might well be a proof of that, but, in my view, Dante’s poetic explorations are much more captivating and fervent than those of the troubadours. He shares with us a profoundly touching experience of his life-long spiritual attachment to the woman he happened to see just twice, without selfishly reducing her, say, to a mere object of temporary fondness. Instead, he idealises, even deifies, and immortalises her, because she had had such an enormous power over him and had been an irreplaceable source of inspiration and creative energy throughout his life, and not only for writing poetry, but also for making him resilient and giving his life a higher purpose.

His everyday was far from being ordinary and was marked by turbulent political upheavals in his native Firenze where, in 1302, his property was seized, and he was condemned to death by fire, shall he ever be caught there. These circumstances forced him into exile, entirely separating him from his family, and Beatrice, the mistress of his soul, kept his spirits and hopes high. So in this context, Dante may be regarded even as one of the very first feminists who believed that it is crucial for an artist to have that special female presence in his life, which doesn’t have to be necessarily physical, but, rather, metaphysical. Eventually, as a wanderer throughout Italy, he could survive without his fortune, but he would hardly have done so without Beatrice’s spiritual guidance and support. It is thus the book that offers an incredible insight into man’s struggles and solace within the two realities, the one on the Earth, and the other one someplace else, depending on man’s deeds. In both realities, eternal dichotomies such as God and Satan, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, love and hatred, kindness and hostility, suffering and blissfulness, are central for Dante’s universe.

That’s true that his narrative is perceived foremost as theological, but it is by far not limited to it. On the contrary, Dante’s critique of the societal norms of that time is rather audacious and admirable, e.g. it is hard to miss his sympathy for the Florentine poet and philosopher, Brunetto Latini, whom Dante and Virgil encounter in the Seventh Circle of the Inferno (Canto XV) and who was sent there for just being a homosexual. The unfairness of Latini’s and his companion’s punishment leave Dante deeply disappointed and dismayed: “Ah, had I all my wish, […], you would not yet be banished from the world in which you were a radiance among men…” Latini himself says that it is hard to fathom for him why he and his troop (“all clerks, great scholars, and of great renown, by one same crime on earth defiled”), condemned and punished that unfairly and severely. He adds that, luckily, his life continues in his book, Livre dou Tresor: “I would say more but there across the sand a new smoke rises and new people come, and I must run to be with my own band. Remember my Treasure, in which I shall live on: I ask no more.” And Dante fully agrees with him. Moreover, he is grateful to Latini for teaching him the art of becoming eternal, meaning his creative pursuits. To Dante, Ser Brunetto remains dignified and victorious even in the Seventh Circle. Another of the many instances of his harsh critique is the scene in the Purgatorio (Canto XVI) where Dante and Virgil are moving “through that foul and acrid air” and one of the spirits, Marco Lombardo, complains about growing corruption and loss of spirituality in the circles of the Church.

These two examples throw light on Dante’s personality with his sentiments, viewpoints, and judgement. To many readers, he is first of all a prophetic poet, but I would also stress that, besides being a creator and a visionary, he is a remarkably compassionate and tolerant human being. Neither judgmental nor pious, he impresses us with his humanism, which is so much ahead of the medieval Zeitgeist. Dante is more congenial to a Renaissance man rather than to a man of the late Middle Ages, no wonder that he had chosen Virgil as his guide. With his humane values, sound ethics, and utter interest in man, the Italian poet appears to us surprisingly contemporary as for his worldviews, and that is what Wayne McGregor highlighted in his ballet so astonishingly well. He reconstructed the poet’s creative personality in such a beautiful and sensible way for us. To show Dante as a human being and not only to concentrate on the picturesque narrative of his poem is one of the strongest intentions in the ballet, in my view. And it turned out to be immensely advantageous to the conceptual side of The Dante Project. I could even forgive the dryness of the ballet title, as it shifts the focus to Dante’s personality and his inner life with all its struggles and hopes. The ballet does paint a very fair and colourful psychological portrait of the Italian poet genius, and this is doubtless a huge achievement by all those who had worked on it.

The first act, the Inferno with its nine circles, is the most spectacular one. Everything in this act is spellbinding: the music, deep and dark, had clearly inspired the intricacy and complexity of the choreographic movements, complimented by the austerity and elegance of Tacita Dean’s setting and costumes, and Lucy Carter’s and Simon Bennison’s very fine lighting design. The dancers seem to live in every movement and move, each playing his or her part superbly. One really delights in the usual sophistication of McGregor’s choreographic style. Edward Watson (Dante) and Gary Avis (Virgil) have a great rapport with each other while interpreting the Divine Comedy’s most glorious literary friendship on stage so movingly. Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball portray the adulterous lovers (Inferno, Canto V), expressing the Divine Comedy’s passions so convincingly, one wishes their pas de deux lasted longer. Calvin Richardson’s Ulysses is adventurous in his sublime confidence and worldliness, as is his sharp wit, in the Inferno (Canto XXVI). Ulysses’ vivid and garlanded storytelling doesn’t escape Wayne McGregor’s notice. A very curious and unexpected dialogue between Dante and Satan (Fumi Kaneko) captivates one’s mind the minute we see them converse, and even more so, because Satan is being portrayed here as an attractive and dangerous female seductress, but Satan’s charms hold no allure for Dante.

The second act, the Purgatorio, surprises the audience with its postmodern touch and rather interesting musical and geographical solutions. The mountain of Purgatory is said to be located in the middle of the ocean in the Southern Hemisphere, just the opposite of Jerusalem, which is in the center of the Northern Hemisphere; Thomas Adès unites both geographical locations on stage: while Dante is reminiscing on his life during his Purgatory journey, psalms are being sung in Hebrew in the Adès Synagogue in Jerusalem. Tacita Dean also finds an unordinary way to connect Dante’s personality to our everyday, placing the picture of an enormous jacaranda tree on a car-jammed L.A. street that serves as a background for the ballet scenes of the second act. Lucy Carter uses the symbolism of illuminating the jacaranda tree in different colours, from greenish-yellow to violet or purple. The musical canvas has a folkloric base. Nearly in all its entirety the second act consists of the group dances typical of festive occasions.

Two scenes stood out here in particular. The first one when both poets reach the Garden of Eden (Canto XXVII) and Virgil has to leave Dante, as Beatrice is there to guide him further on; and when the two pilgrims say goodbye to each other, the farewell truly breaks one’s heart, Edward Watson and Gary Avis presented the painful moment so well. The second scene with Dante, who is, finally, able to see Beatrice, will make the audience recall it again and again, as Edward Watson and Sarah Lamb, while on their journey high up, to the Paradiso, made the pas de deux unforgettable. They both looked as if not only did their bodies dance but also their souls in this love scene. “Now be celestial!” Wayne McGregor commanded like a god during rehearsals, and such they truly were. That gorgeous is the choreography and its fulfillment in this scene. Tacita Dean thought of a traditional red gown for Dante and of a gauzy, spring-like dress for Beatrice, emphasising will, desire, and love of Dante’s, a newcomer to the Garden of Eden, and purity, grace, and repose of his beloved. The role of Dante was extremely difficult to dance and act, it required so many skills from the dancer: stamina, knowledge, emotional intelligence, and incredible technique, given how complicated McGregor’s dance vocabulary and stylistic are. Clearly, it’s hard to cast a better artist than Edward Watson for this role, which he danced with such vividness and brilliance. It’s a pity that it was his swan song because of his retirement, and his presence on stage will be missed greatly in the future.

I had imagined the third act, the Paradiso, to be the most striking one, but after having seen the ballet, I would still prefer the Inferno. As for the musical qualities, it seemed to me that music wasn’t leading the choreography in the third act; it was too autonomous, and, therefore, quite difficult to follow choreographically. Of course, it is an enormous challenge to create something we don’t really know what it is. All we know it must be a certain state of being, say, a bliss, but what exactly is that bliss, we are left speculating. It is hard to compose the paradisaical blissfulness and the purity of the spirits on a musical canvas, anyway. But one assumes, nonetheless, that a musical bliss should lift up the soul of man who is still here, on Earth, offering him something that would make him believe that he is in Paradise, whatever the latter might be. Alas, a rare living composer has been granted that gift. However, Tacita Dean and Lucy Carter did a magnificent job of (re)creating the image of the Paradise. I admired a great deal their choice of colours and hues and geometrical patterns. They both concentrated on the Light of the Paradiso, and that was the secret of their extremely successful setting. The elegant pearly white costumes reminded me of Frederick Ashton’s contemplative serenity of his classic, Monotones II, choreographed to the music by Erik Satie, Gymnopédies. Wayne McGregor accentuated the euphoria of the Paradiso in his choreography, and it was as complex as the Inferno, but for all the Royal Ballet artists it seemed to be a breeze. They made it look as if their bodies were happily dissolving in this Heaven on stage.

Thus, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Dante Project team presented a creative piece of an extraordinary beauty and effort to the world. On 26 December 2021, on Instagram, Wayne McGregor said that “[c]oming back into the Royal Opera House to create, produce and perform a huge new 3 Act Ballet (after such covid havoc) was a massive challenge. All of the teams, across the house had to dig deep, working insanely hard to pull this off. Together we achieved so much and are very grateful for the reminder that each and everyone plays their individual part to manifest the whole. Collaboration at the heart of all that we do.”

It was a joy to see how carefully and sensibly Dante’s genius was treated in this work. The team’s decision to place his personality rather than the narrative of his poem in the foreground seems to be more challenging, but most appropriate. Not only aesthetic pleasure one finds in this work, but also solace and hope that unfavourable personal circumstances can eventually be overcome (just think of Dante’s life!), and so can the collective tragic circumstances that have recently sadly affected every single one of us. This makes all of us, not only the ballet lovers, appreciate this ballet greatly. Congratulations to the Dante Project team on such a brilliant work and many thanks to the Royal Opera House for the livestream of the ballet!  

Excerpts from the following editions of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri were cited here: The Carlyle-Wicksteed Translation. The Modern Library, 1932; Random House, 1944, p. 83. And The Divine Comedy, translated by John Ciardi. New American Library, 1954, pp. 122f; 1957, p. 420. *John Dryden (1664): The Rival Ladies.

Written on the night before Good Friday, 2022, in the Sky Control Room, on Cape Cod. Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.

Essay Review

Wagner and the Secret of Success of the Australian “Walküre“

Notes on Die Walküre premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne on 9 February 2022

By Elena Vassilieva

Die Götter machen auch Fehler und deswegen leiden… Ach, übrigens – was hat für Sie mehr wert: Tugend oder Reichtum? – Words by Elena Vassilieva. The image was taken from the livestream of the opera from Her Majesty’s Theatre, © Melbourne Opera.

On 14 January 1870, King Ludwig II of Bavaria wrote to his beloved composer that Das Rheingold and Die Walküre might be onstage in Munich that year. Indeed, despite the King’s doubts, on 26 June 1870, Die Walküre had the world premiere at the National Theatre in Munich, leaving Wagner in a gloomy mood. Wagner, that Master of the Masters on Earth, was notorious for his capriciousness and rigorousness as for the production of his own works. He was very particular about how his music dramas should be mounted, and every single detail mattered to him a good deal. And if something in the production happened not to coincide with his fancy, he would fall into the bleakness of utter despair at once. He dreaded to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Therefore, every time, when as a spectator, I have a chance and privilege to participate in an event honouring the glorious heritage of Wagner’s, I keep this fact in mind and always play an imaginary guessing game during the event, wondering whether the Master himself would have loved the spectacle or not? And, suppose, he loved it, what would his words be? And if he didn’t, what would he be saying, then? But that’s a rather silly game, of course, pursued by the naïve and unwary mind of mine.

The skeptical Wagnerian in me would probably argue that it makes no sense at all to play such futile games, as it’s all about interpretation and reception of Wagner’s work, which, naturally, largely depends on the will, desire, and talent of those who are preparing the masterpiece for the audience. By no means it’s about his, a priori assumed, approval or disapproval. For goodness’ sake, and alas, the great man isn’t here anymore as a man of flesh and blood for more than a century, that same Wagnerian in me would rage. Why should it still matter what he would have thought or said? In any case, we can only speculate about his possible reaction, based on his writings. I don’t know, I would still disagree. It just matters to me, perhaps, because, like everyone else who loves him dearly, I know perfectly well how much he cared for the nuanced precision of the articulation of his artistic ideas. When one is working on his operatic masterpieces, one had better be mindful of that fact, in order not to upset his spirit. For this very reason, until now I had never uttered a word, not in exhaustive detail, anyway, on any production of his gems, fearing the responsibility of the whole endeavour, although I consider myself fortunate enough to have been able to see his work performed on the most interesting, old and young, stages.

One may remember how disappointed and crestfallen Wagner was after he had read an article about his music by Hector Berlioz, where the latter praised the German titan, but made a costly mistake ascribing to Wagner the notion of la musique de l’avenir in the sense of school in music, which Wagner denied harshly and offendedly, as he believed the term didn’t mirror his philosophy at all. On the contrary, it was misleading and misconstruing his very ideas of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1849), which, for this reason, he regretted having published at all. Besides, he complained that the notion of la musique de l’avenir was not his invention, but Professor Bischoff’s, a music critic from Cologne and Ferdinand Hiller’s friend. The outrage led Wagner to dedicate many hours of his time to a thorough and exasperated letter to Berlioz in February 1860, in which he had not only scolded the French composer for being inaccurate and even gullible, while using the phrase coined by Bischoff, but also for lacking artistic understanding of the conceptual side of Wagner’s works and his artistic vision. He feared his texts could really be grasped only if read in original, which might have prevented Berlioz from the accurate and full comprehension of Wagnerian aesthetics. In his letter, Wagner tried to explain to Berlioz what his concepts were based upon. He had a great admiration for Berlioz, especially after a closer encounter in London in 1855 where Wagner had some concerts at the Philharmonic Society. One of them even included the Queen Victoria in the audience, who thought highly of his music and made an entry of the occasion in her diary.

Wagner said personal unhappy circumstances and his creative quest for a most wholesome and rounded art led him to the key concepts of his Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, a manifest of the philosophical ideas based on the inevitable and necessary interdependence of life and art. On the other hand, Wagner was tremendously bothered by the triviality and lack of depth of the performed pieces at the opera houses throughout the Old World at that time. He believed the theatres had distanced themselves from the genuine art that, like the classical Greek tragedies, is supposed to overwhelm (erschüttern) the audience on so many levels and make theatregoers want to connect to this art and consequently reflect on it on their own, without the help of critics. Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, or das Gesamtkunstwerk, should not be lowered and degraded by the artist to the trivial mentality and frivolous taste of the “Publikums großer Städte” (read bourgeoisie), he insisted, but instead be desirous and desirable, even by the above mentioned audience, cultivating a taste for a much finer and deeper art than the one this audience is used to.

He desperately wanted to avoid the superficial quality of the artistic piece. Therefore, the seeming simplicity of such a multifaceted Gesamtkunstwerk would appeal not only to a connoisseur of music, but also to an inexperienced spectator or even a simpleton without repelling and leaving the latter in need of a translator or a critic. The emotional and intellectual Erschütterung of the audience by the Gesamtkunstwerk’s aesthetics, so much relatable to any man’s life experience, can only be achieved through the synthesis of different arts, as he wrote it in the letter to Berlioz, “so frug ich mich auch, welches die Mittel zur Hervorbringung jener außerordentlichen Wirkungen waren, und ich erkannte, daß sie eben in der Vereinigung aller Künste zu dem einzig waren, großen Kunstwerke lagen.“ Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, obviously, was very important for him. The main purpose of his famous letter was to be understood by Berlioz the way he meant it, but by everyone else as well, as the context suggests.

I often, therefore, wonder if a performing success of Wagner’s work depends much on the prioritising of his immense desire to be interpreted the way he imagined it? It may well be the case with the most recent Australian production of Die Walküre which turned out to be victorious just because they seemed to have followed closely the Master’s script. Contrary to what Wagner’s music dramas may seem to require, say, grandeur and opulence of space, of décor and of costumes, Her Majesty’s Theatre’s modest size accommodated the opera so well that not for a second the audience missed the larger spatial scale of the setting. The proportions seemed to be just right, whether it’s the material and symbolic centrality of the giant ash tree in the opera, or the magical place where the gorgeous Valkyries dwell and fear no one but their powerful and yet vulnerable father, a victim of self-inflicted curse. The set designer (Andrew Bailey) even thought of a very clever trick to make the Valkyries look as if they were really riding, bravely crossing the stormy sky to and fro. Luckily, the real horses were left in their stables, but the ones they used so splendidly, featuring the two lovely sway pole performers, Emily Ryan and Ashlee Grunberg, not only made the space appear much larger, but also very multidimensional, where realism and magic blend so harmoniously.

‘Less is more’ seemed to prevail in the style of the Australian Walküre. I didn’t notice any unnecessary or superfluous details in the ornamental stylistics of the production. Every single thing seemed to justify the music and libretto of the opera. The lighting design (Rob Sowinski) was very smart, stressing the symbolism of the few main colours in the opera: the dark blue along with the imagined pitch black with the contrasting paleness of the characters’ faces and the red flame in the end. The only thing that might have been avoided, and whose absence wouldn’t have been noticed, was the occasional neon light thrown on the sword, Nothung, on the ash tree; the neon was a tiny drop of tackiness to my eyes. The costumes, designed by Harriet Oxley with great care and love for the libretto, accentuated the characters’ main traits, yet did not seem to overburden and weigh the opera singers down. For instance, Fricka’s fanciful dress reflected her attractiveness behind which wickedness was hiding. The Valkyries’ dresses were tremendously handsome with the right amount of gold and silver not to be considered gaudy or tacky, let alone the most charming headpieces. In fact, the costumes and accessories in the production, slightly reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite style, were so elegant that I would love to wear them as a spectator to Wagner’s event myself if I could. No doubt, the decorative part of the production, aside to the plot, must have inspired the singers’ acting which was such a convincing and organic affair that it moved one to tears (speaking from my own experience), be it the first act when the twins (Lee Abrahmsen and Bradley Daley) exchange tender glances with each other and share love at first sight, or the second act where Wotan (Warwick Fyfe) and Fricka (the marvellous Sarah Sweeting) have their fateful argument, or the scenes with Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s (Zara Barrett) tumultuous personal matters in the second and third acts. Those were very memorable moments.

It is a well-known fact that Wagner was a passionate perfectionist to the degree of being a rather intense and trying person at times, and he certainly knew how to move passions in his masterpieces as well. The subtle and romantic eroticism is another significant attribute of his music dramas, which certainly wasn’t overlooked in this production, but fulfilled with superb acting, both dramatic and vocal. The love duet, Sieglinde (Lee Abrahmsen) and Siegmund (Bradley Daley), excelled at it. Lee Abrahmsen effortlessly repeated her dazzling success of the last year’s Rheingold. The ease and beautiful crystal-clear freshness of her vocal style, complimented so nicely by Bradley Daley’s very attractive nervous sensibility, was great pleasure to watch. Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding, that insufferable exemplar of Wagnerian machohood, was portrayed very skillfully and brightly by Steven Gallop; he added so much dramatic energy to it. Wotan (Warwick Fyfe) and Brünnhilde (Zara Barrett), both immensely strong and perspicacious performers, impressed the operagoers a great deal, breaking their hearts with their remarkable vocal dialogue. The brilliance of the famous Ride of Valkyries (Walkürenritt) will stay with the audience long after they had left the theatre. Everything in this scene seemed to excite the spectator’s imagination to no end. Brünnhilde and the eight Valkyries (Rosamund Illing, Eleanor Greenwood, Jordan Kahler, Olivia Cranwell, Naomi Flatman, Caroline Vercoe, Sally-Anne Russell, and Dimity Shepherd), that captivating troop of the most sprightful warrior maidens, brilliantly showcased their mythological qualities with such an awe-inspiring singing and acting. The orchestra, led so gracefully and expertly by Maestro Anthony Negus, who today, after so many years of engagement with the German composer, probably knows every whim of Wagner’s as well as his own, did carry Die Walküre on their wings unfailingly and securely, producing an astonishingly genuine dramatic soundscape. The chosen tempo throughout this tempestuous and passionate music drama seemed highly suitable and desirable, keeping the operatic tension on stage appropriately high, yet, under control. Energising everyone, the singers and the audience alike, the orchestra played breathlessly from beginning to end.

Given his utter strictness, one is left guessing, of course, whether Wagner would have been as pleased as I, member of the lucky audience, was. On the other hand, his passionate nature might have been tremendously satisfied and thrilled, as this production was by no means short of delivering human emotions so tastefully wrapped in the right attire of the sound and spectacle. Besides, the opera seems to have been produced according to his precious ideas of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, keeping his heritage as much intact as possible, and that is the key for a successful performance of his masterpieces, in my – some would argue rather conservative – view. Also, it is a laudable, heroic even, achievement by Melbourne Opera to manage to raise funds for the production of the opera independently, from private sponsors, in such challenging times (Henkell Brothers, Lady Potter, Dr Alastair Jackson, The Ian Potter Foundation, The Angior Family Foundation, The Robert Salzer Foundation, The Sylvia Fisher Fund, Dr Douglas and Mrs Monica Mitchell, Roy Morgan). Thus, Wagner’s opera in Melbourne, with Suzanne Chaundy as a director and Greg Hocking as a producer and with all Australian cast, crew and creative team, is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a truly moving piece of art, but also a formidable team of talented and enthusiastic people.

One thing is certain: the audience left home wanting more. Luckily, we have something to look forward to in the future. Siegfried will already be onstage in September this year. And as Lady Primrose Potter, Melbourne Opera’s patron-in-chief and one of the principal sponsors, said, there are plans for three full Ring Cycles for March and April 2023. This is a marvel that would lure a whole lot of Wagnerians to Australia. For those who are unable to travel, I hope a livestream will be graciously offered by Melbourne Opera to the audiences around the globe, just like last (the spectacular Das Rheingold) and this year, for which we all are very grateful.

An excerpt from Wagner’s letter to Hector Berlioz from February 1860 was cited here from Wagner, R. (1871) Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, Leipzig, E.W. Fritzsch, p. 118.

Written on the windy night of Saturday, 12 March 2022, in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.

Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.    

The England’s Odyssey and the Dazzling Triumph of Australia

Reminiscing the Ashes 2021-22 from the spectator’s point of view.

By Elena Vassilieva

“Oh, the Ashes, you always lure and you always break hearts!” – The super wolf blood Moon, 21 January 2019. Image and words by Elena Vassilieva

Many cricket lovers might still be sitting and ruminating on what exactly prevented England from performing as well as during the Ashes on their home soil in 2019, when they found themselves as fit as their Australian rivals, or maybe even slightly better? This time, the quest to regain the Ashes turned out to be a series of unfortunate events for England, alas. It started when the English cricketers declared an interest in bringing their families along. Australia, unattainable to the rest of the world, allowing only very few Australians at a time to return to the continent, miraculously (and thank God!) had granted entry to the British cricketers and their families. Briefly, it became a matter of debate and controversy. I wonder whether the wives had ever been in the ‘should I stay or should I go’ quandary? In retrospect, it must have been helpful for the cricketers to have their loved ones nearby to console them, but I fear it was also very difficult for the wives to see their husbands suffer like never before. On the other hand, had they decided to stay at home, they would’ve been a true Penelope and her friends, praying and waiting impatiently for their husbands to return, no matter with the trophy in their hands or without. Perhaps it would’ve been even better this way, as their other halves would have concentrated solely on the series with no concerns for their families because of the constant threat of the virus, but with a stronger motivation to win the Ashes instead. Of course, it’s a private matter and it should stay private, after all, it was the cricketers’ own decision. All things considered, it went exactly the way, mitgegangen – mitgefangen (think of the then coach Silverwood); under the circumstances, the support Penelope and her female friends might have provided was invaluable. But had I been a Penelope, I would have refused to join Odysseus on his journey, out of fear to distract my beloved husband from already a difficult task. But I’m not the Penelope, so the worry is not mine, and thus irrelevant.

Once settled in Australia, it had been decided, as if by the one and only voice (Vox populi? Vox Dei? Guess whose?), that the best bowlers in the team, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, should be omitted in the first test. Whether they might have been saved for the later matches because of the injuries, wasn’t entirely clear. But the fact that in Melbourne, Jimmy fought like a tiger who had been kept in a cage for too long made it clear that he definitely should have been selected for the game already in the earlier test. Although Jimmy Anderson appeared at the very right moment of urgency, particularly at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, even his magic couldn’t spare England from losing the test. Stuart Broad felt sorrow about not having been able to influence the course of the game as much as he could or would have, had he been engaged in the game from the very beginning. “We’ve got a couple of caged tigers coming into this [Sydney] match, Ben being one of them and Stuart Broad is another,” the then assistant coach Graham Thorpe said. Eventually, Broad was able to apply all the preserved energy and impatience of his, flying over the field like a very dangerous osprey, handsomely supported by Jimmy Anderson, known as the King of Swing and the Burnley Express. It was a delight to see their elegant synchronicity.

The next unfortunate event came when the then head coach, Chris Silverwood, and his family had tested COVID-19-positive and were immediately sent into isolation in Melbourne, leaving the burden of logistics and tactics on the shoulders of Graham Thorpe and the captain. Thus England test captain was multitasking, very often taking a role of a coach and helping his teammates prepare for the next two tests, in Sydney and Hobart. I don’t think he or anyone else in the team had ever experienced anything of the sort, one blow after another, something that was completely out of their control, as if what they had been through at home during the pandemic weren’t enough, the circumstance that severely and fatally impaired their training, preparation and mindset for the series. For instance, the fast bowler Jofra Archer couldn’t join the expedition because of the injury, and everyone fondly remembers his swiftness and the diamond-cut precision of his throw in the last Ashes in England. He was as dangerous and unpredictable then, as he could have been here, and, of course, he was much missed during this Ashes.

Quite a few England cricketers came to Australia whilst still recovering from injuries and pandemic-induced maladies, yet hoping fully to contribute, even if it would cost them dearly in the end. Despite it, they managed to make a notable and respectable contribution. Think of Ben Stokes, who fought heroically, completely forgetting himself, despite his knee and badly strained side, in Sydney. “People will have seen me rubbing my knee from time to time when I was in the field, but rest assured I’m fine,” he said to The Mirror. No wonder the England skipper regards him as a superhero, which he is indeed. That fellow with the Hercules’ physique is always fun to watch, even when he’s just standing there and wondering how on earth the Kookaburra ball had just touched the stumps, but missed to upset the bails, while the astonished Steve Smith and David Warner had been inspecting the stumps, in case the bails had been glued onto them? Eventually, everyone decided it was Fortuna who had played a lovely trick on Ben that day in Sydney, lifting up his and his mates’ spirits. Think of Jonny Bairstow and his right thumb, that fellow had showcased a majestic century to such astonishment that many began to wonder whether his specialty shouldn’t be batting from now on? Think of Jos Buttler and his broken left index finger, Buttler had been in such an excruciating pain and with worries about his future before heading home after his devastating injury. And I’m not mentioning England captain here, as this topic deserves its own chapter. For now, one thing only: The captain had been there for his teammates, rain or shine, always the first to board the ship and the last to leave it.   

But despite all the misfortune and dark mood, England stoically continued to play, often engaging in truly beautiful and sparkling moments of joy with their rivals during the tests. At one point, Stuart Broad daringly confronted the roaming about FoxSports camera, then ran to the deep end and dived in, as if turning the pitch into the pool and making the stadium roar with laughter. The lustrous and agile Marnus Labuschagne, who is ordinarily focused to a T, decided to try a new idea of his, some intricate pas de chat, right in the middle of his batting, bringing himself out this way. Or when Steve Smith with a solemn expression on his face and a concentration of a gladiator did strike a pose, as if warning his opponent: “Now, you dare to slay me, you really do!”, cheering everyone up. Interestingly, the Kookaburra ball had been immensely attracted to Joe Root’s lower body this Ashes. He even was reported to have had a minor injury in his abdominal, yet was there to fight soon afterwards. And he really had to guard himself vigilantly, as the red ball kept flying into the forbidden zone. Mark Wood did his best to play breathlessly, driving the usually inaccessible Marnus Labuschagne three times, the seasoned Steve Smith twice and the canny tough cookie David Warner once out of the field. Wood impressed everyone in Hobart with a haul of the 6 wickets.

Not surprising at all that their strong opponents greatly appreciated England’s courage, persistence, healthy self-esteem, and unselfishness. “They’ve sacrificed quite a lot to come over here. Two weeks of quarantine, time away from families, some restrictions on what they can do, opposed to pre-pandemic. They’ve had some positive cases, the coach being away from this game, it’s been really tough for them. We are really thankful they are out here as part of the series.” The Australia new captain, Pat Cummins, commented after the game. I don’t think Australia could’ve dreamt of a more suitable captain than Cummins. The optimism and pragmatism of his response to any situation on the field is quite astonishing, and so are his ardour and firmness as leader. Not to say that the England captain is no good, on the contrary, as good as it gets: rational, resourceful, liberal, thoughtful, and sanguine. He is a dreamboat for any team. Throughout the years, Joe Root has established himself as an excellent and generous leader. During this Ashes, he had to endure so much criticism on top of everything else, yet remained faithful to himself and his teammates. Not everyone would be able to withstand such a storm of viciousness without being crushed, it requires enormous will and strength of character not to. But he had handled the difficult situation with pride and dignity. Judging by his actions, his motto seems to be “Here to help!” which means placing the needs of others before those of his own. At times, it might be too dangerous for such a generous personality, as it may easily distract him from the very priorities of his. Shall he decide to add some toughness of steel to his captain’s armoury, that would do, and it wouldn’t turn him overnight into a despotic beast, whose shadow is lurking in the minds of those who ruthlessly shredded Joe Root for his captaincy during the Ashes.

I wish all those who are given a voice in the media had kept silent, at least till the end of the series, in order not to demoralise and dispirit the team even more than they already had been by misfortune. Clearly, the critics are thirsty for a despot, an autocrat, a big macho tough guy-ruler, who, naturally, despises democracy, as if there were no other way of winning the next game. But that cruel captain wouldn’t do for the England cricketers or be the right man for me, the spectator. The England test players are too individualistic, they require a dialogue, a collaboration, not a monologue or slavery with orders given to them. On the other hand, the head coach might have been delegated too much power at the moment. That needs urgent reforming, so that he isn’t the only one to blame for the wrong selection of players or any other awkward moves on and off the field. He too needs good collaborators with clarity of their minds and positive attitudes. The appropriate work ethic in times of the pandemic should also be sought desperately. Australia may be a source of inspiration in that regard.   

And now back to the very beginning of the series of the unfortunate events. The preferred batting upon the toss win in Brisbane, is another thing, that was perceived by all the experts as a serious mistake, given the external conditions (e.g. heat and humidity about to kill) that appeared to be disagreeable to England. And thus it didn’t do at all, causing a chain reaction for the future events which prevented England from playing the game the way they did play in the 2019 Ashes, for example, and having as a result Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the most prestigious and legendary arenas in the world, their final coup de grâce. Filled with so many Australian cricket lovers, the MCG sounded like a great hive of bees with the deafening noise. One can only imagine psychological hardship of playing there as a visitor. Supported by the thousands of their fans, Australia took over the field almost immediately, bringing onto the field, as if straight out of the magical chest, some really frightful game changers, terminators, if you will, e.g. the debutant, Scott Boland, who must have meticulously studied the technique of the England cricketers, including their finest batsman. In fact, so much that Joe Root must have been on his mind even when Boland was sleeping like an angel after a hard day of training. This impressive and intimidating his aggression had been. He did attack his opponents, one after another, Bairstow, Root, Wood, and Robinson, with the might of Polyphemus who stood in the Odysseus’ and his men’s way. Even the usually very collected, sensible and steely, with the light footfall of his and with the air of the divine unreachableness around himself, Joe Root seemed to have been taken off guard. He also seemed to have been depleted of his mellow and well-balanced, pulsating and inspiring energy, as if he were battling insomnia, when not on the field, and that, sadly, affected his game, not allowing him to play fully to his capacity and known brilliance. He, nevertheless, played solidly well, and towards the end of the series, especially in Hobart, he had definitely found the right key how to respond to Boland’s bold attack and how to resist his almost cyclopean aggression. No doubt, Joe is going to work hard on that in the meantime.

After all, Boland is not as much a threat technically as psychologically. His style of bowling is very heavy, yet precise, and it seems as if he were throwing a cannon ball at his opponent. But once Joe goes through his routine with Boland strategically, the tactical moves will come on their own, and Joe Root’s air of magnificence will reign over the wicket and the field again in the future. It will be a pleasure to see them fight again. Amazing is how quickly Root had grasped Boland, that seemed certainly to have shaken Scott’s confidence in Hobart; at least, the England captain had tested the waters before the end of the series, and his memory won’t fail him to practice the defense in a proper fashion until it’s polished to become a reflex, let’s name it the Boland reflex for the next Ashes. Usman Khawaja, another very strong and interesting Australia player, straight out of the magical chest, made it look so easy to bat two centuries for his team. He looked as if he came there not out of necessity but out of idleness. He seemed to have surprised even himself. He and Joe Root had shared pleasant and funny moments together, when Root was in a really playful sort of mood, bowling the rockets. To his credit, Khawaja, even if not sure whether he would be selected for the Ashes, did his homework diligently, and it didn’t fail to pay off.

The new Australia cricketers must have staggered England quite a bit. But in turn Australia old-timers, e.g. Pat Cummins, Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, and Nathan Lyon, must have been equally startled by the difference of England’s preparedness and armoury for the game, compared to the Ashes two years ago, when England appeared to be, in my view, more confident than Australia, both technically and psychologically. Unlike this time, when not only the new skillful players had been put on display by Australia, but also how quickly they retained the Ashes, practically in the middle of the series, despite all the sincere efforts of resistance from the English side. Playing in the Ashes in Australia must be for England teams at all times quite a traumatic experience anyway, let alone in time of trouble, the pandemic. By no means am I an expert in the game of cricket and therefore have no right to give any advice on the matter, but as a spectator I believe the path to victory lies not only in a great deal of tiresome drilling with the red ball and in rejuvenating the traditional side of the cricket game in England, especially with the younger players, as it was suggested by the England captain and some other experts as well, but also with the focus on a mental readiness, which should eliminate any Angst of failure and any anxiety of error. A thorough and close examination of all the strategic tricks of their opponents and spending more time together as a team are the basic elements required for success which the pandemic has obviously prohibited them from practicing more intensely. On the other hand, I’m quite puzzled and amazed how on earth Australia were able to do all this, as they too had many months of restrictions for the very same reason? How wonderful it would be to see both teams equally fit, splendid and victorious again. The good news is that England exhibited their ability and talent to be competitive and zealous, they just seem to be in need of more confidence, togetherness, steadiness, and somehow find a way to have uninterrupted and focused training and haptic experience with the traditional red ball before the next Ashes, the finest form of cricket game that has ever existed. It’s very soon, and all I can say: “Godspeed, my dearest cricketers! There is no time to lose. Per aspera ad astra!”

Written on Sunday, January 30, 2022, the day of the snow storm, in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.

Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

REVIEW Essay

Three Fictitious Days in the Life

On the “Spencer” film

By Elena Vassilieva

“C’est un conte vrai.” “Non, c’est un vrai conte.” “Vous êtes dans le vrai.” Image* and words by Elena Vassilieva.

The closest movie theatre where you could watch Spencer, a new cinematic opus about Princess Diana, was on Martha’s Vineyard. So on Sunday, the 14th of November, despite my utter aversion to any kind of biopics, I decided to head to the MV Film Society in Vineyard Haven and give it a shot. Who knows, the film might be good enough and worthy of my time, I thought. After all, Kristen Stewart said she was able to grasp Diana’s spirit, which should put both women in a favourable position, or so it seemed after reading an interview with the actress in the LA Times earlier this autumn.

Whilst on the boat, I couldn’t help but reminisce my frequent trips to Edgartown, to the Charlotte Inn, in the fall of 2020. The unique place I got so curious about from reading up in the island’s newspapers on the owners of the hotel, Gery and Paula Conover. The couple, almost religiously devoted to the Charlotte Inn, their chef-d’oeuvre and baby-like project for decades, had been an inspiration for a light-hearted movie, A Godwink Christmas, themselves. Little did I know whilst relishing the authenticity of the Edwardian style furnishings at the Charlotte Inn that Princess Diana was once a guest on the premises and their youngest son, Tim, was assisting the Princess with her daytime activities on the island while she was visiting her good friends, the Brazilian ambassador and his wife, Paulo-Tarso and Lucia Flecha de Lima, in the summer of 1994. Neither Gery and Paula Conover nor Tim had mentioned that fact to me, not even once. Had they done so, it would have been very much out of their characters of true New Englanders, reserved, of quiet disposition, yet, kind, friendly, and hard-working. I found out about the Princess Diana’s visit to the hotel’s restaurant from the book about the Charlotte Inn, but there was just one sentence stating the fact.

Cut off from the world and travelling in 2020, having cancelled all trips, including to England and Australia, I seemed to think the island nearby was a blessing-like. The hotel has staff from all over the globe: the chef at their well-liked restaurant comes from France, the maids are from Eastern Europe, I even met Kevin, a Melburnian, there who looks after the Inn’s antique furniture. After learning about Princess Diana’s vacation on the island, I wondered whether she was happy there? I didn’t dare to ask the Conovers about it, because I knew they would say nothing about their acquaintance with the Princess. But I found one public account going back to August of 2017 when Mr Conover was asked by the local NPR station to share his reminiscences of Princess Diana. Reluctantly, he kindly agreed to be interviewed by Marilyn Schairer. (The radio station wasn’t as lucky with their son, Tim, I’m afraid.) Gery Conover didn’t say much, just how memorable that encounter was when he was giving an excursion around the island to the Princess on his 1923 classic yacht. “It was just a nice experience chatting with her. […] [She was] just really nice in every way. Just very natural, and not at all pretentious. I guess the most significant thing is that she told Tim she had never had such a vacation, where the paparazzi were not always there, and wanted to do a little kind of a thank you party for him at the Inn, which was also very nice.” I did eventually ask the Conovers about their perception of A Godwink Christmas that was based on their personal story. They both were disappointed that some facts were misrepresented in order to satisfy the moviegoer and to justify the commercial interests of the production. For instance, nearly the entire film was shot in Canada, not Martha’s Vineyard, and Gery and Paula met on the island in the summer, not around Christmas, as it was stated in the film.

The moment I had disembarked from the boat that chilly November afternoon, I wondered whether the director, Pablo Larraín, and the script writer, Steven Knight, had done justice to Princess Diana and had sheltered her private persona in the film, given how much she suffered from the round-the-clock paparazzi and media surveillance throughout her life? Or, rather, had Larraín and Knight twisted or exaggerated the facts to the advantage of the conceptual side and the commercial success of the picture? Had they put pressure on the viewer about the complexities of her public and private life? And had Kristen Stewart, an American actress, who had blindly and audaciously, without even reading the script first, agreed to play the role of the Princess, had done a good acting job indeed, as she herself and Larraín believed she did, according to their interviews?

After the film, on my way back from the island, I had leafed through every scene one more time and had come to the conclusion that, sadly, once again Princess Diana fell victim to the professional people’s unscrupulous and brazenly arbitrary interpretation of her life and highly inaccurate depiction of her personality. Right after the first scene, I found myself repelled by the character Larraín, Knight, and Stewart created: a confused, frustrated, and upset woman who gets lost while driving, she swears and moments later enters a sort of cantina and asks for help. She looks depressingly disoriented and distressed. And the character remains in this state of self-destructive alienation and horrid Selbstentfremdung throughout the film. A striking contrast to this is the scene with the military men bringing none other than Christmas food provisions for the Queen’s family to her Sandringham House. The Queen’s character here is also far removed from reality: a woman, who is very conscious of her good looks and her social standing, basks in this glory of hers and with scorn and superiority of a bourgeois dame (!) looks down on Diana, who happens to compliment her dress rather than her speech. Now, think of the real Queen: would she ever be like this? I think not. She may seem reserved and deceptively aloof occasionally, but never self-important, haughty or snobbish like a bourgeois who only yesterday was promoted to a higher social rank and was still thoroughly enjoying this happening. On the contrary, she would probably be calmly compassionate, considerate, and very realistic, at worst, she would say to Diana, as she once did, “But what can I do? Charles is hopeless.” The romantic Diana perceived it at the time as a very tepid compassion, by the way, but that’s the Queen, who would doubtless prefer the bitter truth to the sweet lie, no matter what. Why would she give false hope to Diana, anyway?

The other characters from the Queen’s company, except for Prince Charles and the children, are just secondary and props-like, they have no significance in the film, whatsoever, and Diana barely interacts with them. For all that the intensity of Diana’s interaction with the servants and ordinary people is really striking. From the very beginning, she startles them with her unrestricted willingness to share her unhappiness and frustration. Most of them act well, and Major Alistair Gregory, played by Timothy Spall with ease and aptness, is perhaps the most sympathetic and interesting character in the movie. But even his company didn’t seem to have inspired Kristen Stewart with a vision of freedom from Diana’s persona. Had she freed herself from a burden of Diana’s personality, she might have done a much better job. The figure of Princess Diana may thus have prevented her from developing a deeper and more persuasive portrayal by imposing constraints on her acting. And the further into the movie, the farther the character is moving away from the real Diana. You see here a narcissistic, self-obsessed, cold, and repulsive woman who isn’t even that interested in her own children, let alone anyone else around her. Is that supposed to be the Princess Diana, who had “smothered [her sons] in love” (Prince William), who had great admiration and respect for the Queen, who adored Prince Philip and Princess Anne, let alone all the strangers she had inspired and embraced through her charities? Also, the stark Marxian social stratification in the film with the characters divided into two categories, quasi-Machiavellian villains and their prey, is too simplistic a view. The real Diana, smart and observant, grew up at the Park House, which is on the premises of the Sandringham Estate. By no means was she an outsider or a stranger to the Royal Family, and she knew very well from the very beginning all the peripeteias of her future life as a Royal member. It’s preposterous therefore, as the film quite explicitly does, to blame the Establishment for Diana’s eventual unhappiness. They didn’t insist that Diana had a proper protection after her divorce, and this is the only thing the Establishment could have been scorned for.   

It’s largely because of the Freudian construction of the main character that one is reluctant to draw any serious parallels between the movie character and the real and historical figure of Diana. Most Freudian constructs are destined to fail miserably, and they are known for their limits and dangers because Freud predominantly considered only two factors for his analysis of personality: childhood of a person and her sexual propensity. Spencer is flooded with so many obvious psychoanalytical objects that it’s hard to miss the coerciveness of their symbolism for the viewer. There are Chanel suits and bags, Porsche, pearls, a book about Anne Boleyn, a wire fence, and even a plier (at none other place than inside the antique drawer in one of the bedrooms at the Queen’s Sandringham House!), and what not. Overall, too much, just too much for one movie. On top of this, Kristen Stewart played rather unconvincingly, in my view, right from the start. In the scene at the cantina, she appeared mimicking Diana’s manners and her discoursive style too hard, looking rather awkward and helpless in the role. Clad in Chanel and despite her own attractive frame, Ms Stewart comes across as rough, irascible, and utterly unrefined throughout the film, which Princess Diana had never managed to be. Not even in the darkest moments of her life, when she was overwhelmed by the pressures of being constantly in the public eye. Although the real Diana struggled to hide her emotions, nonetheless, she had never been the way she was portrayed in the film, not in public, anyway, and I doubt very much, in private either, definitely not a conspicuously selfish character, like the one in the movie, she was. Had I accidentally seen a fragment from Spencer without prior knowledge that the main personage was supposed to be Diana, I would have never guessed that this laborious portrayal was that of her very persona.

Some would argue that if it’s a fictional account of the Princess, then it’s futile and senseless to even try to compare the real Princess to the played one, let alone to attempt to contest the intentions of the whole movie project. But I still strongly disagree with such a take on this. Yes, it’s a piece of fiction, indeed, but it’s based on the life story of the real person, the movie character has the name of that person, and not by coincidence. It’s also true that the person happened to be a public, historical figure, “a world icon,” as the director said himself. But nevertheless shouldn’t there be deployed at least minimal ethical filters and moral limitations as to what extent it is permissible to select the facts from this person’s biography and interpret them loosely, let alone misinterpret them, so that the viewer like myself isn’t left in total bewilderment and disbelief? To what extent the factual ground may be tackled and reinvented as the creators please in order to support the film’s main idea? In Spencer it is all about the social awareness of mental health, seemingly, if not this, what else, then? But it’s done at the cost of the one who isn’t here anymore to defend herself, and, clearly, the real Diana was no more mentally unstable than anyone of us who is in the midst of personal disillusionment and disappointment at how certain cultural things in our society function and how easily they may drive one to eating disorders, loneliness, and isolation. As for Diana, it got to the point in her life that she didn’t know whom she could turn to and trust anymore. Way too many pretended to be her friends, breaking the rules of basic civility in the end, when it comes to taking advantage of this “friendship” and capitalising shamelessly on it. But given the circumstances, such as the perpetual media’s attention, paparazzi’s hunting, and betrayal by many people, the trustful Diana had to deal with, it’s quite astonishing that she showed so much strength and grace and appeared to maintain more sanity than most of those who had been put under the similar pressures.

Oddly, instead of stressing this fact, the Spencer biopic highlights her eating disorder, which was the thing of the past for her, anyway, when she had disclosed it to the public, and yet, Larraín cynically dares to make a statement about the Princess Diana’s mental health in the film and his interviews. Besides, it’s not as if Diana lived centuries ago that no one remembers anymore what she was like in real life, and therefore we need another (alas, quite unscrupulous and bigoted!) opinion on her very private terrain, her soul. Diana had impeccable manners and a natural tact, but at times she could indeed spill the beans and let the cat out of the bag in such an unexpected way that one would be baffled for a long, long time, asking oneself why she would do something like this? But then, one would realise that she was young, inexperienced, sincere, and perhaps motivated by the desire to be heard, but one would never think she was self-indulgently wicked, narcissistic or mentally ill, as the biopic chooses to portray her. Very emotional – yes, but self-centred and mentally unhealthy? – Give me a break, Mr Larraín and Mr Knight!

Even during that infamous BBC interview with the disgraceful Martin Bashir when she might/must have been pressured somehow psychologically, she didn’t utter anything that would be offensive to the others. That’s my pure speculation, of course, as for the psychological pressuring, but it’s not impossible, the way Bashir tricked her into the interview, he could well have arranged that too, so that the Princess would feel very uninhibited to say whatever he pleased to hear from her; I’m not accusing him, as there is no proof, I’m just saying he had been capable of it, given the recently surfaced facts about how the interview was organised and obtained by him; however, any psychological pressure is very hard to proof. But the surprising smoothness of Princess Diana’s discourse during the interview despite the harshness of the discussed topics makes one want to know whether she hadn’t been indeed pressured, as she shared very private things about herself, which, normally, she would have never done, not in public. However, she told the truth, critiquing herself in the environment she was, not the environment itself, all of which, alas, backfired when her statements were taken out of context, then greedily expropriated and appropriated, and consequently used as a trump card by professionals in the journalism, biography, and cinema business.

Yes, she had showed her resentment, but you could still feel the love, care, and appreciation she had for Prince Charles, for instance. I found nothing of the sort in the movie. The Larraín’s Diana is a fictional character that has little to do with the real Princess Diana, despite the director’s disingenuous claims that he isn’t “chasing controversy,” he is “just trying to chase something that feels real,” in his own words. Then he continues in his interview with “The Independent”: “I think the movie does a proper depiction of Diana’s internal distress. And that’s what I care about. An eating disorder is never just an eating disorder. It’s a consequence of a mental health problem.” – Qui vous a constitué juge, Mr Larraín? The film focuses on the eating disorder, which was candidly acknowledged by the Princess herself, but Larraín forgets that she also said that she had successfully fought it. It’s unfair that those who might not know much about her (the younger viewers, for example) may believe that she was like that in real life. To me, it’s an unforgivable distortion of the facts when a public figure gets treatment like this in a creative piece. What a shame that the Spencer creators are no better than the paparazzi who stalked the Princess to the death.

“Princess Diana was like a Greek tragic character,” Pablo Larraín commented in that same interview in “The Independent,” priding himself on having done the deed. Is it why he decided to make a biopic rather than simply a film about an unknown princess? Had he done the latter, he wouldn’t have disclosed his poor ethical skills to his audience, of course. Diana endeared herself even more to people by disclosing her malady back then, making it clear that one has nothing to be ashamed of if one happens to be overcome by something like this, one just has to fight it instead of struggling in silence. Ethically, that differs a great deal from what the creators of Spencer did. It was her life and she had every right to make public whatever she thought would help her and the others. But do the movie creators have such right, especially for such a dubious portrayal of the Princess? I also wonder whether we are witnessing in the film not so much the awareness of mental health as that of potential commercial success? In that regard, Princess Diana is, no doubt, a hot ticket for such endeavours. If so, Larraín certainly wouldn’t be the first or the last one to capitalise on this, it’s a cultural machine of propagating certain social values and at the same time taking advantage of others.

The persistent commercialisation of Princess Diana’s persona or any other similar public figure who generates profit and has influence isn’t new, and it’s sad that people in cinema seem not to shy away from such an exploitative practice. Tragic is certainly not Diana, she transcended the tragic death by leaving her love for people and by becoming a beloved historical figure, tragic are the ethics and morals of the contemporary popular and celebrity culture and hence our society in general. Mentally unstable is not Diana, either, it’s our culture and society where utter desperation for celebrity status, fame, and profit, gained dishonestly at the cost of other people’s privacy and well-being, determine the “health” of its members. Alas, Pablo Larraín and Steven Knight have contributed to this with their own work ethic and moral standards, which all fall short of those of the Princess Diana. “It makes you feel dirty,” my librarian friend said when we had discussed the movie, and it certainly does.

And the last thing, my dear moviegoer, if you would like to see a film about a princess, you shall watch William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) again and again, and, unlike Spencer (2021), it will not bring you into a state of mental discomfort, on the contrary, it will do good to you and those around you.

*Image: photographed are the books, “Princess” by © Robert Lacey, © NYTimes Books, 1982 and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, © Random House, 1944.

(Written on Sunday, November 22, 2021 in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

THE CULTURAL ICON

La chevelure de Bérénice

Or the eternally inspiring power of Brigitte Bardot.

By Elena Vassilieva

“Approchez, que je vous embrasse.” – C’est ici que l’espérance nourrit l’amour. Image (the photo of Brigitte Bardot used in the readymade is by © Douglas Kirkland; the Cheetah fur is fake!) and words by Elena Vassilieva.

Recently, when I had been on the hunt for documentaries on Brigitte Bardot at the local library, the search engine delivered me a curious title that caught my eye at once. The book was called In an Elevator with Brigitte Bardot (2007) and was written by a Cape Codder, Michael Lee. Once, as a teenager, by the greatest stroke of luck, he rode with the French actress in an elevator at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. He doesn’t say when exactly, but he mentions that Brigitte Bardot was wearing a leopard coat then. So maybe it was in the 60s when leopard print coats became very popular? The memory of that brief (25 floors!) encounter hadn’t been revealed by him to the public for 40 years until one day, at the neighbourhood cocktail party in his house, while joining a company of the New Year’s resolutionists, he hesitatingly declared: “Well, ah, I’m going to give up Brigitte Bardot”. Naturally, his neighbours had a puzzled look on their faces, the minute he said that, as if he were a lunatic: “Give up on Brigitte Bardot?” One hardly has to be a madman or a stalker who finally came to his senses to say something like this, as the force of her aesthetic powers has been superior and ubiquitous throughout the years. Not only male minds and hearts she has held captive, but also those of women, children, and the elderly.

Many cinema appreciators would probably recall the film “Dear Brigitte” (1965) with James Stewart, Brigitte Bardot playing a cameo role there, and a child actor Billy Mumy, who was left in awe of the actress saying that he will never forget the lucky occasion of meeting her and seeing first-hand how not only otherworldly beautiful she was, but also very kind and warm. I have never met Brigitte Bardot in person, but I remember how my Grandmother took me to a department store on my 6th birthday, and there I saw one doll that took my fancy at once. Made in Germany and named Brigitte, she looked just like Brigitte Bardot about whom I had little knowledge at the time, but my Grandmother was overjoyed to buy this doll for me. I still have Brigitte, and she gladdens my heart every time I catch a glimpse of her. Another grandmother, a relative of my friends, was over the moon when her granddaughter of the kindergarten age resembled the French star with her long blond hair and her irresistible loveliness so much that she could have easily been Brigitte Bardot’s twin. “This is our little Brigitte Bardot,” the girl’s grandmother playfully introduced her to others. Alas, to her huge disappointment, later, when the granddaughter grew up, Brigitte Bardot seemed to have left her for good, the girl’s appearance was taken over by her own nature instead. But even if she had retained Brigitte Bardot’s striking looks, she would have lacked the singularity and the very essence of Bardot’s personality. If her animals could talk human languages, they would reveal to us too that their dueña has charmed every single one of them in the Animal Kingdom. Especially now, since she has been for decades such a fearless and persistent advocate of the animals’ rights. Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle-series is a must-read in my household, and every time I read it to one of my very young relatives, Brigitte Bardot comes to mind, surrounded by her family of animals.

In his essay, Michael Lee reminds us that his fondness for the French actress was by no means such an out of the ordinary thing, because utter obsession with her was more than just a personal circumstance of one particular man, it was a cultural trend, if not craze, that had universal quality to it, sort of “a generational secret”: every American [and not American!] man who was born between 1943 and 1955, he writes, “has at one time or another been locked into a mental affaire d’amour with Brigitte Bardot”. And while he doesn’t disclose many details of the conversation with his guests that day, he shares, self-deprecatingly, his feelings with the reader how Brigitte Bardot, the Golden Goddess, in his words, had been burning his heart and occupying his thoughts for decades. Although based on strong and intense emotions, infatuation is a fleeting thing that lasts only a short period of time, particularly if one thinks of male preoccupation and adoration of woman’s flesh. What precisely was it, then? His wife thinks his “teenage crush with Brigitte Bardot is cute”, but he disagrees with her firmly: “Puppies are cute, not my relationship with Ms. Bardot”. Of course, it’s very audacious to call one’s obsession a relationship without quotation marks, if there is only one person in this game, as any relationship, by definition, presupposes the other, who exists not only on an imaginary level, but who also communicates with that other person in real life. However, it’s forgivable, since he implies it himself that it’s only his flights of fancy which aren’t transgressive or harmful, on the contrary, he finds them very satisfying, otherwise his feelings wouldn’t have lasted for 40 (!) years. As for his wife’s choice of words, the adjective ‘cute’ is a very tricky one, in the American social and cultural context at least, it may often contain pejorative undertones of judgementalism or even hypocrisy, according to my personal observations.

Obviously, it must have been much more than just an obsessive desire for Brigitte Bardot’s physique. It wouldn’t be completely wrong to assert that although he idolises and worships her persona, to his credit, he manages not to objectify her at all. His unceasing admiration for her had given him much more than only aesthetic pleasure and the phantasmagoria of the erotic dreamscape. And it’s hard to explain, why an ordinary person, who might have been in the same physical space with him, had been unable to do the same. Brigitte Bardot had been influencing him, a perfect stranger, so powerfully from a distance, from her unreachable to others space that was perceived by her admirers as sacred, untouchable, and hopeful, which was absolutely essential to them in order to feed their imagination and love, whatever love is, speaking with Prince Charles. That space was observed by them through the cultural lens of her movies, posters, and photographs. To most, that was the only way to get a glimpse of this alluring space of hers. The first row at the St George college’s movie theatre seemed to bring him closer to his heroine’s space, yet the physical obstacle of the movie screen made Brigitte Bardot an unattainable love aim, but simultaneously a highly desirable ideal. And even when, finally, he decided to abandon his idee fixe, surprisingly, he gave the impression of being not quite ready to part with it. Moreover, his own resolution saddened him a great deal, as if he were about to lose something very important, which had become a significant and necessary part of his existence. Even if the short accidental meeting in the elevator didn’t entirely change his life, and despite its randomness, it most likely made him feel special and chosen, the very sensation might have kept him afloat, above the monotonous greyness and tediousness of the everyday. It might have even given him indeed the strength to overcome difficulties in life. And, best of all, it inspired him to write the collection of essays.

La beauté qui le captive. Brigitte Bardot in Cannes, 1956. The photo by © Edward Quinn from his book “Stars, Stars, Stars off the Screen” (1997).

Brigitte Bardot had interested him prior to that momentous ‘togetherness’ in the elevator, since he was eagerly following all her artistic endeavours. Although her image depended on a movie role she was playing, there isn’t a single film where she would come across as false, vulgar or uninspiring, even when she had to play anti-heroines, such as Dominique Marceau in La Vérité (1960) by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jeanne in Don Juan ou Si Don Juan était une femme… (1973) by Roger Vadim. And she played them superbly, without sacrificing her personal space. But the fact that he didn’t expect, let alone plan, to see her in person at the moment when the elevator door opened must have had a tremendously large effect on his teenage self. The sudden appearance of his idol out of nowhere neared a dreamlike experience, which transferred him into a state of spellbinding and disorienting trance to the point that he lost his ability to speak or to think for the entire ride. Brigitte Bardot blinded him with her smile and deafened him with her warm and kind ‘Hello’, and those were the only things she explicitly and deliberately did. He, on the other hand, was unable to return civility and politeness in the elevator until they were brought down to the lobby, and when the actress was about to step out of the elevator and disappear, in the last moment, he dared to transgress that sacred space of hers by timidly touching the sleeve of her coat, but found a way to rehabilitate himself discursively: “Ms. Bardot. Thanks. Thanks for everything. Everything. Thanks for everything.” Brigitte Bardot didn’t say a thing to this, she just smiled at him and left. He didn’t follow her, but returned to the confinement of the elevator space instead and, thinking she might have given him wings, was transposed straight back to heaven, figuratively speaking, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if the brevity of this memorable elevator ride equaled timelessness to Mr Lee. Isn’t it truly amazing what two polite, but very sincere smiles and one ‘Hello’, uttered by the Golden Goddess, can do to the mere mortal?  

Brigitte Bardot’s inspirational powers will always be forceful: men will sigh and groan and fantasise the wildest things known and unknown on Earth, aside to writing songs about her and dreaming about encountering someone who would have at least her hair; women will always envy her and her hair, some lovingly, some rancorously, but everyone would agree that as a cultural icon she is par excellence, unmatchable and unreachable. She will always be longed equally as much by men as by women. Men will make their women have her hairdo, women will be desperate for the Brigitte Bardot look. But there will always be the one and only Brigitte Bardot, no matter how hard women continue their efforts to emulate her. She herself has never tried to imitate anyone, and she has never envied anyone, speaking only well of the men and women with whom she worked in the past. She will always lure and seduce people with her most exquisite beauty that has the power to melt the stars, along with the brilliance of her authentic persona, and with the straightforwardness of her strong and bright personality.

Brigitte Bardot’s hair, just like la chevelure de Bérénice, has become the entity in its own right, destined to be as legendary as her whole artistic persona. That topic deserves another round of musings, which I shall pursue in the future. Besides having Brigitte the doll, given to me by my dearest Grandmother, I have the Brigitte Bardot boots, almost identical to the ones she wore when she was performing the Harley-Davidson song, and I must say they are awfully unsuitable for a motorcycle ride. I also own a similar fake cheetah jacket from the Moon landing epoch when she wore her cheetah print coat, but neither the boots nor the coat will ever make me look like she does, not in the slightest degree, and that isn’t tragic at all. But in case I must ever make a New Year’s resolution using Mr Lee’s exact words, it would sound only like this: Well, I’m not going to give up Brigitte Bardot! Why should I, if she inspires me so much for the good of mankind? And I’m endlessly grateful to her for this.  

(Written on Cape Cod, in the Sky Control Room on the windy night/morning of Tuesday, September 28, 2021.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

REVIEW

The Foibles of the American ‘Prince’

Or the faux pas of the HBO Max series “The Prince”.

By Elena Vassilieva

“S’il vous plaît soyez bon prince !” “Oui, ma princesse !” Image and words by Elena Vassilieva

On 29 July this year, the HBO Max aired The Prince, a new series about a royal family. I’m deliberately using minuscule letters in a phrase ‘a royal family’, so that it’s clear from the start that this animated series has nothing to do with The Royal Family of the House of Windsor. Of course, Gary Janetti, the creator of the series, might have had them in mind while writing the script, as he had brazenly appropriated their names, and it may delude one in the first few seconds as if it were simply a cartoonish take on the Royals. However, any cartoon, particularly a satirical one, is based on good, solid humour and fine, substantial wit, and at least a vague resemblance to the reality that is being spoofed. But none of this you will find in The Prince, an idle fantasy that isn’t bright and sparkling, but rather dull and utterly unfunny.

Besides, it seems to rely heavily on the creator’s background, his own life philosophy, behavioural modes, ethical codes, and preferences rather than those of the Royal Family members’. Also, it’s so conspicuously un-British, in spite of the involvement of a bunch of the UK actors (Alan Cumming, Orlando Bloom, Frances de la Tour, Iwan Rheon, Lucy Punch, Dan Stevens, Sophie Turner) in the series, that one is left guessing why Mr Janetti hadn’t chosen one of the fabled American families, say, the Kardashians, these relentless publicity slaves, or even one of the crews of the White House (Donald Trump would do, but so would Joe Biden), instead of bothering with the House of Windsor? The utter un-Britishness of the discourse and manners of the supposed royal characters are so striking a fact here that one can’t possibly take this creation seriously, and even less so as a comic piece. The mode of the contemporary American popular culture, whose hegemony on the global scene is hardly deniable and whose social dress code of the ubiquitous and infectious ‘look at me’ and ‘gimme’ self-exposure, combined with the urge for everything royal, are very oppressive in The Prince, ad nauseam, indeed. And if there had ever been the spirit of the British monarchy in the creator’s mind in the phase of conceiving the series, it got quickly evaporated in the process of its preparations for the audience. I would be afraid to call it even a translation, possibly, “lost in translation” would be a better phrase in this context. Please forgive me the banality of this comparison.

Even Prince Harry, whose every article of value has been contaminated by Meghan Markle’s system of values, wouldn’t say things in real life the way he is uttering them in the cartoon. For instance, in the episode where he is sharing matter-of-factly, yet in a lazily detached fashion, his astonishment of how unlike all the palaces he had ever been to the dwelling in LA is. It does sound flat, doesn’t it? And it’s a factual inaccuracy, as Harry, clearly, is fond of his new home, but it’s also a psychological distortion of reality, because he is very proud of their beautiful house, and he stated that himself in the infamous Oprah-interview, unless the creator knows something we don’t know yet. Regrettably, the series is filled with such truly sad discordances throughout: the cartoon’s characters, very American in every imaginable way, absurdly, have the real British Royal names; the children, e.g., Prince George and Princess Charlotte, sound as if they were teenagers already, on top of the fact that it’s rather tacky, vicious even, and done in poor taste, having presented the children of that young age as very unlikeable and spoilt characters, who in true life are nothing of the sort, on the contrary, they are as good-hearted and lovely as any child of their age. If it’s an animated satirical film, naturally, the characters are allowed, in fact, supposed to have some features of exaggerated proportions, but they ought to be truthful to the nature of those who are being portrayed, they can’t be forged and reimagined as the creator pleases. If the latter is the case, it’s not a satirical or even comedic enterprise anymore. All of the heroes of The Prince without exception are ill-conceived, in my view, and don’t therefore meet that criterion.

One also is puzzled, for what audience precisely the series is being made? Since it fails to release comedic effect and a crystal clear concept of the series seems to be absent as well, it can’t possibly excite imagination of any adult who possesses at least minimal intellectual curiosity, and, at the same time, it’s way too nasty and unenticing for a child, even a teenager. Though the music (by a British composer Rupert Gregson-Williams), which might be here the only thing that deserves a round of applause, suggests the younger generations of viewers. Perhaps the cartoon was thought to suit someone who is consumed by any royal topic and who would be triggered to watch it, once he hears the word ‘prince’, sort of the Pavlov’s dog bell reflex? Maybe the writers (Gary Janetti, Alain Bala, and Tom McDonald) just tried to offer their, strictly American, view of the royal everyday where the nuances got carefully filtered through the American mentality of a typical well-to-do middle-class man, a bourgeois, and a prince-wannabe? But for the lack of the appropriate circumstances, this can happen only on the very primitive level of the creator’s imagination, of course. Not surprising is hence that the only characters that are being spared from the creator’s repugnant vision are the bourgeois members of the Royal Family, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, for instance. Janetti’s sympathetic attitude to the women could be explained through his capability of grasping their mentality, because they share the same or similar social background (and a bourgeois mindset).

I also have difficulty to define the series as for its genre. It doesn’t appear to be a comedy because it isn’t funny. Acidic as it is, it lacks all the sharp, fair points and all the right angles of the societal peripeteias to be regarded as a good satire. Travesty would probably be the closest notion that would do justice to the series. Willingly or unwillingly, the Royals have been the centre of attention and a magnet for creative minds continuously throughout the centuries, but until now, the discourse had probably never been instilled with so much unforgivable balderdash, if not to say rubbish, and tastelessness. The latest pop-cultural ‘royal’ endeavours, such as The Crown and this HBO Max series The Prince, confirm and exemplify it so poignantly. One only wonders which one of the innumerous Royal commentators and experts has consulted The Prince?

(Written on Sunday, 22 August 2021, the day of the hurricane Henri, here, on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

COMMENTARY

Fervour for EVs? Care for Earth and the Environment? Or Merely a Preposterous and Petty Political Game by President Biden?

Some speculations on why and how Tesla wasn’t invited to the party.  

By Elena Vassilieva

“Ladies and gentlemen, this exhibit is not only a valuable piece of American heritage, it’s also the mistress and plaything of our president,” said the tour guide. Photo and words by © Elena Vassilieva.

– Hello, the White House?

– Yes. Who’s speaking?

– This is Cadi of GM! Is Mr. President in? Calling to ask why for Pete’s sake Tesla isn’t going to party with us?

– One moment, please.

– Hello! Hello! Sir, are you there? What do you have against Tesla?

– Cadi, I’m sorry, Mr. President is spaced out. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion. Goodby!

(From the telephone conversation.)

Last night, just before going to bed, I had read that Tesla was excluded from the meeting of the major American carmakers held at the White House under the topical umbrella of EV and environment on 5 August 2021. How so, I thought, that doesn’t make sense at all? Tesla is the largest manufacturer of EVs on this planet, besides, it’s an American brand, despite being a relatively young one, it’s reputable and very well-liked. I stayed up late in search of the clue, but learned very little, except that the Tesla’s CEO himself hadn’t had the foggiest idea there was going to be a gathering in Washington, D.C., and he genuinely seemed as much taken by surprise as everyone else. “Yeah, seems odd that Tesla wasn’t invited,” he responded on Twitter. You couldn’t mistake his perplexity for anything else here, even if you wanted to. However, it appeared that the environmental issues (the very reason for the meeting?) might have been of purely symbolic significance for the White House staff, or better to say, pro forma, unlike the political underpinnings, which might have been exactly the answer to this awkward and nonsensical riddle. After all, the problem of unions and unionisation at the automakers’ factories could have been discussed thoroughly with the Tesla representatives during the meeting, if that, of course, was indeed the issue and reason why Tesla was excluded from the list of the participants. In fact, it would have been a very good opportunity for the automobile giants to compare notes on both topics: how to be sustainable and local as for the production of EVs, and what it’s like to allow unions on their premises. Tesla has an impeccable record as a leading manufacturer of EVs, but Ford and GM, the iconic brands of the American automobile heritage, have a long experience with unions. And what had happened instead?

President Biden (on a whim?) decided he can go ahead and play a bad boy who is still at elementary school, say, first or second grade, not yet fully out of the lying stage where mischief is an irresistible lure. For the occasion, he transformed his staffers into a gang of reckless schoolkids, sort of the characters from that awful “Captain Underpants” series, while being very pleased with himself.

“La Boum!” He said.

“La Boum? Dancing, Mr. President, or what?” Someone asked him shyly, in utter surprise, as Captain, that is, President, wasn’t known by any means as an eloquent French speaker, let alone a Napoleon-like strategist.

“Party, my friend, party, and yes, dancing, too, afterwards!” The Captain was bursting with pride, like a peacock, then he lifted his forefinger, pointing at first at the one who dared to ask the question, then he got up, snapped his fingers, swung around, and said: “Let the honor students [Tesla, i.e.] break their heads guessing why they were left out from being invited to the party of the year. And may the true American car brands shine again, like in the far glorious past.”

The gang seemed to be playing a ‘smart’ game with the rules all too familiar to the members of their exclusive circle: “You all know the rules, my friends: a) Pretend you know more than you know; b) don’t feel belittled because of the hard facts under any circumstances, even if reality threatens to eliminate you as a political player in the long run, in the future, say, in 4 years; c) don’t be intimidated by the army of Musk’s fanboys and fangirls; d) don’t forget that Tesla has no PR-team, unlike everyone else, ha-ha, so there shouldn’t be much outburst or uproar at all; e) remember we are doing the right thing, friends, we are bulli…, shh, punishing the ones who excel at what they are doing, who are the best and who deliver the product all right, but who are uncompromising arrogant EV-tossers, I mean, we need to teach Tesla a lesson, they have to obey our rules of maneuvering and double standards, I mean high ethical standards of course.”

“But Mr. President, they are better than anyone else out there, in the field. They are popular. They are sustaining California, I know that first-hand. You can’t toss them like a coin in the air,” Kamala Harris argued sheepishly.

“Never mind, Kamala, forget about that for now. The rules are the rules,” disagreed the Captain and was ready to move on to the next point.

But inside the gang, there seemed to arise a small commotion, confusion, and disagreement nearly on every letter and issue discussed. “And what about me, Captain?” asked the secretary of transportation, fidgeting in his chair.

“What about you, Pete boy?”

“I, I, I mean suppose I’m being asked why we haven’t invited them? They aren’t invisible, you know. You can’t just ignore their presence on Earth, for Christ’s sake.” The transportation secretary tried to gain self-control and defend himself.

“Now, my boy, what did I just say: The rules! Repeat the rules, it’s under the letter b) Don’t let the facts fool or doubt yourself, don’t let the facts equivocate you! And why on earth are you talking about Earth? Who said anything about Earth?”

“Who? I thought you did, just minutes ago, Captain. Have you forgotten? ‘Isn’t it all about Earth and the environment? Let them assume that’s why we are having this grand party,’ you said.” Someone in the background reasoned.

“Who said that? Me? And which side are you on, anyway?” The annoyed Captain jumped from his chair and searched for the guilty one, then pointed his finger at her. “Don’t think, my friend, act, and don’t repeat what I said ages ago, I might have forgotten it or changed my mind ever since!”

“Shall I say then directly they don’t obey our rules? Or what?” Buttigieg interrupted the Captain again, still visibly preoccupied about what to say if journalists ask him about the party.

“You aren’t that stupid, Buttigieg, engage the gray stuff in your brain, and rehearse if you don’t want to lose your goddamn chair. And let me be clear: subject yourself to the rules and act! And let’s not talk about it anymore.” Solemnly concluded the Captain, in anticipation of having his favourite toy after these tedious preparations for the party.

“Act how? I’ll be the first one to be bombarded with all kind of questions,” ventured to ask the flame-haired woman who looked boisterous, but rather frustrated.

“Here we go again,” said the Captain impatiently. “Who is it?”

Someone, who sat closer to the Captain, whispered: “Jen Psaki! It’s Jen Psaki.”

“Is it you, Jen? Isn’t it your job to throw as much powder in the public eye as possible? Speaking of which, do you wear face powder? You are our PR-woman and you have no idea how to handle the powder, I mean the press? You must be kidding me. Wear your face powder! For best results, American brand, Estée Lauder.” The Captain was annoyed to no end, but on the other hand, seemed quite boosted with his own sudden energy of a 1st grader, and the idea to invite only the ‘good guys’ brought enormous satisfaction to him.

“So it’s all about the game, not Earth, then?” asked the woman matter-of-factly who had been criticised minutes before for stating that the party’s theme was Earth and care for it through the high production of EVs. It didn’t make much sense to her, but she didn’t want to be excluded from the mob of the Captain’s and agreed to play along, even if it went against the grain of her opinion, making Tesla an outsider for no good reason at all.   

On the day of the party, both the White House Press Secretary and the Secretary of Transportation, of course, were asked why Tesla wasn’t on the list of guests. How could they have not? Mr Buttigieg, to his credit, did rehearse his response diligently, but, nonetheless, was caught off guard in the first moment and said candidly: “I’m not sure.” For this tiny and very significant part of his reply he might have gotten reprimanded harshly by his boss. The rest of his message was well-rehearsed and probably taken from the depository of his political speeches, and one can hardly find any news in that piece. Reading between the lines would only corroborate what had happened during the preparations for the meeting, which I had the (dis)pleasure to describe above.

Thus, Pete Buttigieg said on CNBC: “I’m not sure, but what I know is you’re seeing so many leaders in industry. You’ve got newer companies and you’ve got legacy companies that are both saying we’ve gotta move in this direction. The industry structure obviously is complex, and partly what’s exciting is to see some of the oldest and more traditional names in U.S. auto manufacturers and some of the newest companies on the scene all acting in terms of the very core of their business to go electric.”

If Mr Buttigieg is talking here about EVs in particular, then how many leaders are there in the industry in America? And who is the leader of the leaders then? How many newer companies are as successful as Tesla? How many of the legacy companies are as successful as Tesla? Mr Buttigieg, I would gladly grade your work with F. Anyone who had done at least a minimal research on the topic would disagree tremendously with every single sentence, except the first one, in that paragraph of yours above. Your statement, as airy as a bubble, completely lacks a factual support, which almost makes one suspect that the tedious preparations for the party had been conducted, God knows where, anyway, not on this planet. Very few would doubt indeed that the auto industry is complex, but why make it even more complex by excluding the leading company in the industry, the very American young company, that fact would definitely baffle many. Why politicise it even more than it already is?

Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, was less candid than the Transportation Secretary, but as much confused as he, as to how to explain the absurdity of this political move: “Well, we, of course, welcome the efforts of all automakers who recognize the potential of an electric vehicle future and support efforts that will help reach the President’s goal. And certainly, Tesla is one of those companies. Today, it’s the three largest employers of the United Auto Workers and the UAW president who will stand with President Biden as he announces this ambitious new target, but I would not expect this is the last time we talk about clean cars, the move toward electric vehicles, and we look forward to having a range of partners in that effort.”

How odd that the President would set a goal, encouraging the economic activity of certain companies and discouraging the other, the company that is streets ahead of any other American carmaker and way above the level of simply ‘recognising the potential of an EV future and supporting efforts.’ The fact that Tesla is the leading EV manufacturer makes one wonder whether Ms Psaki would have looked much better if she told the truth right away and upfront, instead, she boldly implied that the political motive is behind the exclusion of Tesla from the gathering. Moreover, when asked during the press briefing about it, she flirtatiously stated: “I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.” Hmm, what kind of answer is this? Oh, I see, that was the move of throwing powder in the eye of the public. Now it’s clear. And mea culpa, I forgot that it’s La Boum à la President Biden, who tweeted with the energy and in a show-off manner of a 1st grader: “The future of the auto industry is electric – and made in America.” Now, Mr Biden, where are the majority of the EVs being made right now? On the Moon or Mars perhaps? Not yet. And by which company are they made? By the very one you had so brazenly and shamelessly excluded to invite to your party.

Everyone has his preferences for any product, let alone for the product one ‘marries’ for life, and Biden’s product is clearly the one made by the legacy carmakers, but who gives him as the President of the United States the right to exclude the young and successful American company? I hope this is not a strategy of “taking care” of the branch of the tree Biden is sitting on right now? It’s never a good idea to play against your own self, anyway, even a 1st grader knows it. What goes around comes around. No doubt that many would agree with the Tesla’s CEO who rightly perceived this absurd action as a sabotage (Note: another French word!). One also wishes the legacy carmakers stood up for their fellow Tesla, instead of just placating their pride, inflated by the unfairness of the President. See, for instance, Jim Fairley’s message, CEO of Ford Motor Company, tweeted on 5 August 2021: “Today is an important day in the fight against climate change and @Ford is proud to be part of it.” One also truly hopes the environment and Earth are the main incentives for their action. But isn’t Tesla Motors exactly the company that is ahead of anyone else in this regard? Besides, no matter, Democratic or Republican, isn’t it the President’s job to ensure that things are done without favouritism and discrimination, but with tact and reason instead? Or perhaps it’s not the age of reason for some? Or it might be a case of self-trapping in delusion of grandeur. Time will tell, of course.

Voila all the pieces of the puzzle of La Boum à la President Biden have been put together now. – Le voilà bien loti !

P.S. The most embarrassing thing in the whole story for me personally is that President Biden got votes of my personal circle, and I encouraged them to vote for him. He wasn’t my first choice, however, I hoped Mr Bloomberg would be at the wheel, as I respect him on many levels, including his attention to the planet, but, alas, he came too late to the party.

(Written on 6 August 2021, in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.

OPINION

Not Diana, the Princess of Wales, We Had Known, and It’s Hard Lines on Us

Notes on the Diana-statue unveiled on 1 July 2021 in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace

By Elena Vassilieva

Rosa est pulchra. Sequor te. Iuvo te. © Elena Vassilieva; Photo by Richard Young from “Princess” by © Robert Lacey and © Michael Rand, NYTimes Books (1982).

“Omnes ita perterriti erant, ut nemo resistere auderet. Alle waren so erschreckt, daß niemand Widerstand zu leisten wagte.” – August Waldeck (1891)

The ancient secret to a triumphantly successful sculpture is hidden in time, space, and divine afflatus. While I was catching glimpses of the first Royal Family-commissioned statue of the Princess Diana, I couldn’t stop wondering, why some artists are capable of curving quasi-fetishistic pieces that would be looked at with adoration and veneration, whereas others, although having skills, reputation, and accolades, are nonetheless losing the game? I realised that those breathless ones, who sculpt their pieces with zeal and love, forgetting themselves, must possess the power of turning lifeless material into something that would transcend the boundaries of its own space and influence a human being in such a profound way that the latter would believe indeed the statue empowers him with strength, gives him hope, and galvanizes him into action.

For instance, I still remember when I had stepped inside the garden of the Rodin Museum in Paris for the first time. It was in the morning, after the rain, and all the statues were covered with raindrops, the place was filled with the aroma of roses; I was instantly spellbound and couldn’t leave the garden for a very long time. All the statues there seemed to breath and exude that mysterious something that is called inspiration which brings you utter joy. I thought I would burst into a thousand pieces, that overwhelmed I was by the whole splendor of Rodin at that particular moment. A similar effect I had been expecting from the Diana-statue in the Sunken Garden at her home, while contemplating my future visits there.

High expectations? Not at all. When one thinks that it is Diana, the supernal woman with the air of being once the Roman goddess, from whose image a statue was made, say, of the Diana of Versailles, Diane a la biche, at the Louvre. All of a sudden, magically, she seemed to have stepped down from the pedestal, and then began to live among us. The Roman goddess in appearance and a rather bashful, humble young woman in her demeanour, she started captivating hearts even before she became the Princess of Wales, but when she did, everyone thought that she adorned the title and not the other way around. Now, who would dare to be called the Princess of Wales again? The Duchess of Cornwall, an intelligent woman, turned the title down quite adamantly, kudos to her for this! Perhaps, in one hundred years there will be someone in the House of Windsor who would resemble Diana and will be given the title again.

And perhaps, one day, there will be a sculptor who will be able to capture Diana’s spirit and her unforgettable beauty that was so generously supported by her kind, bright, conscientious, honest, passionate, effervescent, and romantic nature. The nature that is similar to that of goddess in classical mythology: to be a god or goddess but be devoid of the sanctimonious saintliness, in the sense of uprightness and self-righteousness (in classical culture, I find it difficult to name at least one god or goddess, let alone simple mortals, who would have it), little wonder, she had such a strong and complex personality of a perfectionist. The way, for example, she greeted the Italians in flawless and accent-free Italian, while on honeymoon on board the legendary Royal Yacht Britannia in the summer of 1981, reveals a lot about her character, her sense of duty, and her attitude towards the people. One can easily see that she made her best effort preparing this excellent greeting speech in the language of the people she was visiting. One can also guess that when she loved, she loved wholeheartedly and passionately, expecting reciprocity. Another important thing that manifested, I dare say, in her nature of a goddess, was her intolerance to any kind of betrayal, especially by those who were/are brazen enough to claim they knew her that well they were/are allowed, to this day, to judge her public and particularly her private life, be it her former best friend or employee, e.g., the butler, equerry, biographer, or journalist as if desperate to diminish her persona and to steal a piece of the glory and love she has received from the people all around the globe, not knowing that this way they only belittle themselves. There was no dissonance between the external and internal side of her personality, and if there were, then her beauty would’ve been fleeting. But it wasn’t the case.

Depiction of her face and body in the statue in an exact, realistic, manner, as the Princes might have wished, is a task that is per se relatively easy, given that Diana is a classical beauty, and therefore any idealisation of her image is superfluous. One just must go to Paris and spend days and nights at the Louvre, with the Diana of Versailles, copying her boldly; afterwards, one may want to add some refinement and the finishing touches that would make the Princess of Wales recognisable. There is no other way to do it if the precise physical likeness to the Princess Diana is sought, and if the artistic style of sculpting should be realism (naturalism), and if the sculptor doesn’t want to stumble. When one was born with divine looks, one can’t possibly be deprived of them, for the simplest reason that looks are a fact, the truth. Remember what Gertrude Stein once famously said: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose?” This fact matters a great deal here. Every single part of her figure should be studied carefully in order to avoid postmodern kitsch and the effect of “the Diana in name only.” For any experienced and classically trained artist with good logical, spatial, and mathematical skills, it shouldn’t be very difficult to do it at all, particularly because of the initial striking resemblance between the two Dianas. Also, the Princess Diana as a statue shouldn’t be necessarily wearing what she wore in real life, even if the Princes insisted (they aren’t sculptors, after all, and how I wish they were!). Instead selecting an attire that would mirror her spirit and accentuate her personality would be much wiser. Her real clothes are not going to make the statue look like Diana, anyway, if the “it” that brings her back to us sculpturally isn’t there. No doubt, it’s the luxury to know an artist you could trust blindly, only then he can be given full creative freedom, and only then you are going to delight in his creation. But if one has no luxury of the sort at one’s disposal, then the commissioner ought to guide the artist through the process with his approval or disapproval of what is going on in the studio. It’s worth being vigilant to ensure that the artistic vision doesn’t divorce from the commissioner’s vision.

Of course, there are many other ways how the Princess could be portrayed. I shall take the liberty of imagining at least one of them, which might be a marble sculpture of the Princess, inspired by her image on the photo, taken superbly by Richard Young, when Diana and the Prince of Wales were on their summer voyage on Britannia in 1981. It may have also been one of the happiest moments of her life, because she radiates as much happiness there as later, when she is in the company of her beloved Princes, William and Harry. On that photograph, she wears an oversized white blazer and a triple strand pearl choker with a turquoise and pearl flower clasp, a present from the Spencer family on her 18th birthday (see the photo above). It’s hard to say what time of the day it is, but the exquisite airiness of her face has that fragile freshness of the morning and reflects her grace with such an elegant ease. The colours, including the light, are not only gorgeously right here, they are also incredibly harmonious with her whole being, creating an impression of the unity between the Princess and Nature, the space around her, that is. The composition and perspective are so successful that there is the fluidity of the contours and lines between the space of the Princess’ figure and the surroundings. And one thing one simply can’t miss here is the poetic nature of the Princess and the fineness of the moment. Should the sculptor decide that the Diana’s blazer in this marble statue shall be a line diffused into the pedestal, that will do, but should s/he think that the legs are necessary, that’ll do, too. But only if those will be the Princess Diana’s legs, not someone else’s. I would give preference to the first version, simply out of fear that the sculptor won’t be able to curve her legs in a proper fashion. In the end, it doesn’t matter at all which version it is, the sculpture just ought to entrance the spectator and give him aesthetic pleasure.

The statue in the Sunken Garden is executed in the style of realism, yet, it is not the Princess Diana. I don’t know who it is. It does remind me a little of one of the faces Mr Rank-Broadley had sculpted in the past, and did it very well, splendidly, in fact, but the handsome face of the Opening the Lock Gate’s character has little to do with Diana. And whose idea was it to politicise the sculpture by adding children who aren’t her sons? Diana’s personality needn’t be squeezed into any ideological frame and be peppered with the momentous messages of political correctness, for she was, still is, the epitome of kindness and compassion herself. Who would forget her as one of the most public-spirited human beings who ever walked on this planet? As a result, the sculptural ensemble is so inept in its composition, so intimidating in its nearly Herculean size and proportions, and the overt political editing/messaging only adds to its absolute soullessness and sad detachment, all of which is upsetting to a viewer like myself. And had the Princes decided not to unveil the statue on her birthday this year, the world wouldn’t have lost anything, on the contrary, we would’ve been still nursing hopes for THE statue of Diana, the one that would do justice to her. On that note, did I interpret it correctly, Earl Spencer, that you might have been as baffled as many of us upon seeing the unveiled statue in the Sunken Garden? There was a moment on one of the photos where you looked as if you just had a bite of the sourest apple you had ever tasted. Or was it just a wink caused by the sun?

One may wonder who is going to venture to sculpt the Princess Diana next? George Herbert Tyson Smith would have been best, of course, given his deep interest in ancient Egyptian and Romano-Greek culture. Alas, he is on the other side. Nigel Boonham perhaps then? He created a fairly good bust of the Princess and got her gracious approval despite the fact that he aged her mercilessly, in my view. Lesley Pover, a very interesting and fine artist, got Diana’s bones and bashfulness quite well, but lacked the desired likeness. Tom Murphy, a very thoughtful and skillful sculptor with such a sparkling enthusiasm, he might give it a try, since he has already been experimenting with a few Diana-sculptures. Besides, his Above Us Only Sky-John Lennon-statue (2002) at the Liverpool airport is such a successful work that it had received high praise from Her Majesty the Queen and Yoko Ono. If Mr Murphy could repeat this triumph of his with the Princess as well, that would be a dream come true. However, other talented sculptors may also reside and create outside of Great Britain.

P.S. Oh, but I still have to come and see all the flowers in the Sunken Garden redesigned by Pip Morrison.

(Written on 9 July 2021 in my white clover garden on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.

OPINION

To Be or Not to Be a Famous Person in the Wax Museum at School?

Can there be a place for a moneyed celebrity with questionable work ethic in the Living Wax Museum’s inventory?

By Elena Vassilieva

“And may we, like the clock, Keep a face clean and bright, With hands ever ready To do what is right.” (From The Real Mother Goose, 1916; © Rand McNally & Company) Image: “What grade are you in?” “Kindergarten.” “Lucky you! My folks said once our boy is a 3rd grader, he’ll be officially out of his lying stage.” © By Elena Vassilieva

The other day, a 3rd grader and my dearest relative, excitingly shared the news with me about the Living Wax Museum, his new project at school. “It’s about a famous person who has a great influence on people. I’ll need to prepare a costume, three props, and a speech about his life. When I deliver the speech, I must pretend that I’m that person.” Naturally, I was very happy about the enthusiasm of the boy who made me take a look at the list of all the influential people the children were given. This year, he said, it included celebrated personalities from all over the world, not only from Massachusetts as in the past. The 3rd grade teachers at the Mullen-Hall School in Falmouth were allowed to use their discretion in adding the names. And they did a very good job enriching the list with 66 names.

I was glad that they haven’t forgotten the pillar of the pillars, William Shakespeare, the Ritz loving Ernest Hemingway, and the advocate of the unfortunate, Louisa May Alcott, among the authors, but was surprised not to see there the beloved J. K. Rowling. Perhaps, the evil fighting Harry Potter is out of fashion nowadays? The list of scientists appeared to be very well-balanced: Marie Curie and Rachel Carson are standing here hand in hand with Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. And who would dare to disagree with such an excellent pairing? Equally smart was the list of the chosen U.S. Presidents, which included Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Bush the first, Barack Obama, and JFK. The happy memories of the economic well-being of America during the Clinton’s presidency were preferred not to be recalled, very likely, the Monika Lewinsky scandal was considered a highly sensitive material for the young brains, and, taking the age of the Wax Museum’s participants into account, it was probably the right decision. Never mind Clinton’s new book with James Patterson, “The President’s Daughter” (2021), that had just been published. The second Bush and Donald Trump were both happily omitted.

The category of the Firsts has Bill Gates’ name in it, with the remark: one of the Microsoft founders “that became the richest man in the world.” But for some reason, the extraordinarily popular and brilliant engineering mind, Elon Musk, who, according to the Forbes, is richer than Bill Gates at the moment, was left out. The fact that Mr Musk, a fellow of the Royal Society, very active with his space projects and Tesla, which makes him a good caretaker of our planet, doesn’t seem to be enough to win a spot on the list, alas. The British would be delighted to see John Lennon on the list, but Sir Paul McCartney isn’t among the chosen ones, although he is in his finest and busiest creative mode, having recently, in December 2020, released his new outstanding album, “McCartney III,” a cookbook (2021) with his daughters, Mary and Stella, in memory of Linda McCartney, children’s book, “Hey Grandude!” (2019), and another one along with a memoire, “The Lyrics 1956 to the Present,” underway. Despite their artistic differences, John Lennon and Paul McCartney are unthinkable and unimaginable without each other as creative personalities, especially in their early years, hence it seems rather odd that they aren’t mentioned here at the same time. Martin Luther King Jr is rightfully on top of the list of all the activists along with Sojouner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and…Oprah Winfrey!

Frankly, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I saw Oprah’s name on this expansive list. Why is she there? What kind of activism is she promoting? No doubt, it is very easy to assemble her costume. Just find a pair of funky round glasses, a cashmere sweater in the girls’ favourite pink or purple hues, combat boots, and voila you are Oprah Winfrey. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, sort of her homemade puppets-friends, would make tremendously good props (stiff cardboard and construction paper would do to replicate these two). Then, all a child would need is to interview them, making sure the ‘waxed’ Ms Oprah encourages her puppets-interviewees to tell all the untruths, then indulges in them profusely, and gasps here and there for a larger effect.

But joking aside, it is the most serious thing that makes me wonder how on earth the status of the moneyed celebrity with rather questionable ideals and beliefs (say, hypocrisy and mercenariness in the name of social awareness) that she is propagating to the society can make her eligible for the public school’s Living Wax Museum? How can such a celebrity inspire our children in a positive way and be a worthy role model if she, so brazenly, in broad daylight, encourages (or shall I say extracts?) lies from those whose memory is unreliable and who conspire against their own family? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to recommend only those personalities whose moral compass is in good working order, especially to the children of that young age? And why not consider someone local, too? For instance, I would rather see the name of Emma (née Moore) Barrow on the list, who started her teaching career in 1935 in Alabama, and then, in 1959, became the first black teacher and principal here, at the Woods Hole School. She ardently advocated women’s and civil rights, especially the right for education for everyone, and fiercely fought against racial and gender discrimination. Emma Barrow believed that a woman shouldn’t be discriminated and denied a job if she chooses to bring up her children without nannies and, after they’ve grown up, return to work. The woman who spent 50 years of service in education and was given the 1985 Human Relation’s Award, one would think, surely deserves a spot on the Living Wax Museum’s list at the very school where she taught. I had the honour of meeting Mrs Barrow, and she was one of the most beautiful and loved people on Cape Cod, not only because of her intelligence, but also because of her genuine kindness and her utter dislike of hypocrisy and lies.

According to Dr Forster Cline and Jim Fay (1990, 2006), “most children, from kindergarten through about the second grade, go through a lying stage,” so why should the 3rd graders then, fresh out of their “lying stage,” be introduced to those social role models who have integrity problems? Yes, of course, there is also parental guidance, and one can count on their control and their own social filters as to which personality from the list to choose, but in a child’s school life, a teacher is automatically assigned a very special role and granted authority to guide him. After all, the child spends most of his day at school. An 8- or 9-year-old would probably think that everything that is being told and mentioned by his teacher should be regarded doubtlessly as right and correct. In fact, the child may agree with his teacher rather than with his parent, with as simple an argument as this: “My teacher said so, therefore it must be true.”

Isn’t it the Wax Museum’s main idea not only to broaden children’s horizon and stimulate their intellectual and creative curiosity, but also and, foremost, to give them the right direction as for their social awareness and responsibility? This way children will form a very strong sense of right and wrong, which will help them, when they are teenagers, resist all the ill-informed influences, generated by social media, and other social upheavals, much more successfully. So it’s worth thinking twice, in my view, who may and who may not be on such a list. On June 11, the First Lady, Dr Gill Biden, whilst with the Duchess of Cambridge at the roundtable, at the Connor Downs Academy in Cornwall, England, said that “early childhood education is so important to lay the foundation for all of our students.” It’s hard not to agree with her on that, and I hope this message won’t just stay in the realm of political rhetoric but, first and foremost, will resonate in a classroom.   

(Written on 21 June 2021 in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.)

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.

The Books and the Duchesses of the House of Windsor

Books for sale! Books for sale! Or the Royal case of assorted goods.

By Elena Vassilieva

Image: The Honeymooning Couple: “What are you in the mood to do next, honey?” “I just feel like whining again.” “Me, too.” © Elena Vassilieva

All those, who are interested in Royal affairs, have been offered so much food for thought lately by some of the duchesses of the House of Windsor that I don’t know where to begin. The hard-working women had to transform themselves, even if temporarily, into true Cinderellas, probably sacrificing their beauty sleep, matcha cocktails, tea with homemade cookies, and God knows what else, in order to add a check on the list of their deeds and to dazzle millions of their loyal social media followers and fans with… the books. Yes, the duchesses nowadays seem to be quite preoccupied with the books, no, not reading, but writing them. I wish they did read first, at least the books, written by their Royal predecessors and relatives, say, HRH Prince of Wales, before taking a daring journey into little-known waters. Had they read, some of them would have known better as for the quality standards set up by their family members.

Of course, some are weathered in the business already, Sarah Ferguson, for instance, as she has so many books of various genres in her collection. The Duchess of York is conquering a new genre now. She is busying herself with royal historical romances. “Her Heart for a Compass” will see the light in a couple of months. But I wonder whether her “The Enchanted Oak Tree” (2020) had inspired the Duchess of Sussex to produce her aspirational, but ill-fitting “The Bench?” There will be more on her book later.

Firstly, a few words about “Hold Still,” a book, curated by the Duchess of Cambridge, who, being the most conservative out of the three duchesses, chose the safest road, taking on a role more of an organiser and curator rather than a creator in a joint venture project with the National Portrait Gallery. Also, “Hold Still” is not a work of fiction or art, but a photo documentary, “[a] Portrait of Our Nation in 2020,” filled with the moments wonderfully captured by the people of diverse background during the pandemic. Conceptually, the book is a reflection of the ordinary people’s emotions and circumstances at that or this instant during the challenging year. To her credit, the Duchess had also interviewed them, showcasing organisational skills of a businesswoman. No wonder that the book turned out to be a solid and soul-stirring photo album. Another notable and laudable fact is that the proceeds from the sales will go to charities. The only disappointing and very puzzling thing is the title. Why would anyone think of the title that had already been taken? The same title belongs to Sally Mann’s memoir book with photographs (2015). I know that musicians steal titles from each other occasionally, often from their commercially more successful fellows, presumably, to draw attention, and although I cringe every time I see it, I can understand them. But the Duchess of Cambridge’s project isn’t seeking commercial success. Instead, the book’s social message, to document how people cope and support each other in hard times, is the main purpose of this endeavour. So it’s hard to follow the logic and logistics behind such a rushed and inexplicable decision, especially when one considers the seriousness of the project’s theme. Of course, there is no copyright for titles, but, nevertheless, there shall be nearly a natural desire to avoid the sameness at any cost. After all, the prospect of earning a reputation of copycats, God forbid, is quite daunting.

Now, back to the duchess who, unlike her sister-in-law, is as unpredictable as a loose cannon, and exhibits the most erratic and contradictory behaviour to the degree that at times it seems that ‘that woman’ is driven entirely by her impulses. Her drive to compete and overshadow the other duchess, to daze the public and to make profit is so strong and overwhelming that I wouldn’t be surprised if she hasn’t been able to sleep well at all lately. There is also much ado about her noble title, which she doesn’t want to lose, after all, it’s her ‘Pushmi-Pullyi’ that opens the doors for her to all kind of lucrative enterprises, but also a sacred cow (thanks so much for reminding me of this, YRH Prince Philip!) that shelters her, at least, on her home soil from dire straits of criticism. In a frenzy, during her many PR actions, Ms Markle often forgets that shamelessly using her Royal title and displaying it like the ‘Pushmi-Pullyi’ in a circus for self-advertising purposes requires certain social obligations as for her behavioural style in public, even when under American sky. It’s about time that she gets reprimanded by the Firm’s “grey men in suits” whom she mistrusts and despises so much as she had admitted herself in the interview with her friend Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps, it isn’t a bad idea either to ask her for the royalties for exploiting the Royal title, which adorns her opus and which is, in my view, the only extraordinary and remarkable thing in the whole book.  

The Bench” is written for children of age 3-7, according to Ms Markel, but its social messages are so aggressively promulgated here that the book doesn’t come across as a children’s book at all. She says one of the main ideas of the book is “inclusivity,” and that is, no doubt, an honourable idea, but this is exactly where the book as a children’s book becomes fatally flawed. The author proclaims equality and the feministic stance of the father, but she fails so miserably to include the main reader, a child, that is, for whom the book was made for. The book doesn’t seem to excite the child’s imagination at all, nor does it awaken his curiosity. And since it lacks humour, imaginativeness, and playfulness, the key features that define a good children’s book, I doubt it will circulate for a long time, if at all. Although the illustrator made efforts to revive it, the lack of the literary input from the author leaves the book very disengaging and non-organic.

As a side note, today, in my archive, I’ve found some silly poems by Fiona Trumbull, a relative of mine, who was 7 years old when she wrote it at school. I’d like to cite one of her poems here in order to illustrate what kind of rhymes a child of this age finds fanciful, even if it’s only a case of one particular child. And although Fiona isn’t a little girl anymore, she’s a teenager now, her lovely rhymes still make me laugh.

The Bees

Do bees wish they were trees?

Do they want to jiggle like keys?

Do they want to be green like leaves?

Do they hate to be yellow?

Do they have a nice fellow?

Have you noticed the colours, sounds, and even a tiny bit of philosophy and social critique in her poem? I wish Ms Markle took a field trip to school in order to learn how to write for children and what exactly children of that age prefer, if she had failed to read the most inspiring Scottish tale “The Old Man of Lochnagar” (1980) by the Prince of Wales. The tale that has withstood the test of time.

While she offers a catalogue of different benches and fathers with their children in the book, one bench remains in focus, the one Ms Markle had gifted to Prince Harry and their son, with a very daring inscription-poem: “This is your bench/ Where life will begin/ For you and our son/ Our baby, our kin.” It’s hard to miss her self-importance, resentfulness, and an instructive tone of a prophecy-monger here. ‘Where life will begin’: might it be that she implies her Prince had no life before they had met? Most likely. Given that Harry hadn’t had the foggiest idea that he was a poor prisoner, trapped inside the House of Windsor, until his saviour, Meghan Markle, arrived on the scene, falling from the sky, out of the blue. And thus, beyond the shadow of a doubt, Prince Harry got the surprise of his life. We all heard that in the Oprah-interview. Now we also know that many statements from those friendly conversations contained numerous inaccuracies and lies. Hence, everything that had happened to Prince Harry before his ‘saviour’ appeared shall be erased? That, too, we had displeasure to witness in one of his other public faux-pas-moves. In any event, Ms Markle is taking a lot of risky responsibility on her shoulders. It’s her nearly maniacal desire to emaciate the Prince’s memory of everything that doesn’t have to do with her and give him instead tabula rasa. There is something deeply and frighteningly Shakespearean in this strategy of hers, remember how some of the heroes in “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” woke up and had no clue how on earth they were able to change overnight that much that they couldn’t recognise themselves? Therefore, the Prince’s past shall be deleted and replaced with everything that refers to ‘our kin,’ Ms Markle probably decided. Out of all words to use such a heavily loaded word ‘kin’ can only be dictated by resentfulness towards Harry’s former home. She is saying that she is giving him a new home where she will be the ruler and Commander-in-Chief and where Harry will be a liberated, happy-go-lucky father-babysitter and occasionally a businessman. Luckily, the ‘Pushmi-Pullyi’ won’t let the Duke and Duchess dine with Duke Humphrey too often.

The striking oddity of this poem upsets and unsettles the reader’s humour (at least mine) because benches are usually given in memory of those who had already departed for the other side. And that subconscious association is so unwelcome and incongruous in this children’s book. However, the bench in the poem symbolises their departure from the Royal Household. In the heaviness of the word ‘kin,’ she inserts all her expectations and ideals, e.g., of their cloudless and dazzling future as a family that ought, in her view, to overshadow all other Royal family members and thus incite their jealousy, a sort of vengeful and spiteful move. And although this deeply personal matter becomes public good, thanks to their own relentless publicity efforts, the conspicuous impudence of this whole enterprise finds its roots in utter hypocrisy on so many levels.

How else to explain the contradicting behaviour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex when they show their bitterness and utter displeasure about the Royal Family and the Firm, accusing them of many things that have never occurred, and yet, they aren’t shy to take advantage of their Royal affiliation and benefit handsomely from it? Frankly, how many writers who submit such a low-quality work would get published? The only answer is no one, I sincerely hope. Of course, now every other writer must think he is a genius, after having read this awkward piece. The fact that by publishing the work of such a substandard quality the publisher automatically lowers literary standards and devalues the work by other writers, and that is quite disturbing. Many aspiring children’s writers would probably find such practice appalling and very exclusive. So much for the inclusivity the Duchess of Sussex is trying to preach. But most importantly, why shall we let our children read books written by the people who, instead of introducing literary work of outstanding merits to us, bring double standards and exhibit unscrupulous behaviour? The people who let their phantasy go wild in their interviews and have no single ounce of phantasy in their work of fiction. Yes, most certainly, we are blessed with the freedom of speech here, and anyone can utter whatever s/he pleases, but it doesn’t mean that it gives them the (moral) right to make us witness how they follow their gold-digging instincts so blatantly, at the expense of others, in front of our children, in such an aggressive way. The hypocritical neutrality of some of the media and even support (e.g., I was appalled by the NPR piece on “The Bench”) for her project is disheartening, as if the whole thing weren’t about children, culture, and our society in general. Are you telling me, Ms Markle, that the snow is black, the grass is blue, and that this is all true? It reminds me of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen where the little child perplexedly gasps right in the midst of the bogus praises from the crowd: “But he hasn’t got anything on.”

(Written on 25th June 2021 in the Sky Control Room on Cape Cod.)

“The Bee” by Fiona Trumbull was cited here with her permission.

Copyright © 2021 by Elena Vassilieva. All rights reserved.