Monday, 26 June 2017

Book of Mormon - A Question of Faith

After seeing Cats I thought that I had seen all of the musicals that I wanted to see (with maybe the exception of Jesus Christ Superstar, though I don't really have any huge desire to see Phantom on the Opera, though some Gilbert and Sullivan might be a goer). However, one day last year I discovered that they were advertising The Book of Mormon on the trams, and a part of me suspected that it was coming to Melbourne. Well, it was, but ironically they had started advertising the musical a year in advance, which quite surprised me because I didn't expect that it would need such a long period of advertising, that is until I asked a friend who pointed out that the show is incredibly popular, and you simply can't walk into the theatre and buy your tickets because the shows end up being booked months in advance. As it turned out this was the case here in Australia - well, not quite, but the show that I saw had sold out.

One thing that I should point out is that this is not your typical musical. If you are familiar with the works of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in particular South Park, then you will basically be prepared for what is to come in The Book of Mormon. An anecdote I was told was that in New York an elderly couple decided to go and see it because it had won a Tony award, and any musical that won a Tony must be good. You can probably imagine their shock when the expletives started coming out thick and fast. However, the story ended up well because they decided to stay until the end and ended up quite enjoying it.

When I was thinking about writing this I wanted to make a statement as to how I am not bagging the Mormon religion, until I realised that I don't actually need to apologise. Stone and Parker aren't at all apologetic in the way that this musical turned out, and its popularity goes to show: one can be offensive, and yet still succeed. In a sense what this musical does is that it brings in a group of people who normally wouldn't see a musical, simply because it was produced by the creators of South Park. However, it has the potential to then open up the audience to the possibility of actually going and seeing other musicals as well.

I think about my own life and how I have developed as a human. When I was a teenager I would have never thought of going and seeing a play, nor going to an art gallery simply to look at pictures. However, these many years later, I find myself regularly attending Stage on Screen, and traveling halfway around the world to see a performance of Shakespeare. In fact in 2013 I traveled to London simply so I could see Les Miserables, namely because if I didn't, and the performance ended, I would forever regret it. It reminds me of another friend who told me how he was also changing. He said that when he was younger all he drank was beer, and would never even think of drinking wine, however he had suddenly found himself putting aside the beer for the wine. Mind you, he was also Irish, so there is a big class distinction between drinkers of beer and drinkers of wine. In a sense, like me, he had realised that with education he had found that he had become cultured.

Anyway, without further ado, I shall give you a brief synopsis of the musical, and then look at some of the themes: Organised Religion, Cross Cultural Evangelism, and a question of faith.

The Musical

The book of Mormon is about two Mormons, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who have finished their training and are preparing to go on their two years of mission work. Price is the star pupil and has this dream of going to Orlando, however Cunningham is the one who has simply scrapped through and has a tendency of making things up. When the destinations are read out, and the missionaries are paired, they discover that they aren't going to Orlando but rather heading out to Uganda, in the heart of Africa. In a way this is a shock to the system as Price had his heart set on Orlando, and the fact that it is a playground in Florida. However Cunningham, who looks up to Price, sees it as a dream come true.

When they arrive, not surprisingly, they discover that they are in what is effectively a hell hole. The people live in poverty, are ravaged by disease and violence, and the other Mormons there have had absolutely no luck whatsoever. However Cunningham, who is a little ignorant, decides that he will give it ago, especially since one of the villagers is really keen on hearing what they have to say. However, Price, the one who is best placed to share the message, decides to head back home, so Cunningham is left to do this best. The problem is that he quickly discovers that the message that he has been taught simply does not gel with the locals, so he decides to do something that he has been warned not to do - make stuff up, and suddenly discovers that the Africans are flocking to him to be baptised.

The news of their success quickly reaches Mormon Headquarters and they decide to send the President to Africa to see first hand the success. However, Cunningham quickly realises that he has done something naughty so does his best to keep the converts out of sight. That, unfortunately, is easier said than done, and the converts come out to perform a play that they had produced in honour of the Mormons and the story of Joseph Smith, which turns out to be my favourite song of the show - Joseph Smith, American Moses. To say that the President is horrified is an understatement, but this is where Stone and Parker's moral comes to the fore (and that is one of the problems with their work - they tend to end it on some rather blunt moralising).

An American Religion

Parker and Stone give us a good idea of the background of the religion, and to suggest that they make it sound a little ridiculous is quite an understatement. Mind you, growing up in around Christians, there was always this idea that Mormonism was somewhat ridiculous. Actually, a friend of mine suggested that the reason Mormonism came about was that the United States was never mentioned in the Bible, and as such Joseph Smith decided that to make it more American, that he would add another volume that included the United States. Honestly, I don't know what happened that day, and really don't want to speculate.

The story goes that two Jewish tribes traveled to the United States and established a colony. Over the centuries they warred against each other, however the Angel Mormon appeared and gave them a new testament to encourage them to live in peace. These were the golden tablets that are referred to. However, they eventually died out (and the tablets were handed down to another named Moroni), and the plates were buried, which centuries later were uncovered by Joseph Smith. Apparently he had a vision where the angel Moroni appeared and told him where the tablets where, however he couldn't show them to anybody so had to copy them down (using a special pair of glasses that he had to give back afterwards).

Smith then attempted to establish his religion where he was said to have found the tablets, but due to huge opposition ended up traveling across the United States to establish a colony in Utah, though he didn't survive the journey. The journey itself was rough, and they faced opposition not only as they traveled, but also when they attempted to establish themselves in Utah, which eventually led to the Mormon Wars. However, they survived and are said to be one of the fastest growing religions in the world.

Crossing Cultures

This is where the problems begin to arise. Parker and Stone constantly refer to Mormonism as being an American religion. Even Joseph Smith is protrayed as this handsome Aryan male which is reflective of the true American. In fact there is a point where Cunningham is reading directly from the book and discovers that is says that some of the Jews were cursed with black skin, which doesn't go down all that well when you are preaching to Africans. They even raised the issue that it wasn't until recently, when one of the Presidents had another vision, that African-Americans were actually allowed to join the faith.

I have written a previous post on Cross Cultural Evangelism, however I will probably touch on a number of things here as well, since this seems to be one of the themes of the play. Unlike Christianity, which began in the Middle East and has spread across the world, and broken down cultural boundaries, Mormonism seems to have a lot of difficultly in this regards. This probably has a lot to do with it being an American Religion. The thing is that the religion arose in the United States, and came about during a time of White Supremacy. Sure, many have claimed that Christianity is also White Man's religion, but the thing is that this is because we have adapted it to our culture.

What Cunningham did to deal with the cultural differences is that he changed the stories, which was needed due to the strict nature of Mormonism, however this is not always the case with religions. Take Buddhism for instance, which managed to insert itself into both Indian and Chinese cultures. Also, the fact that Christianity has grown so fast, and continues to grow in places such as China and India is also a testament to that - and nobody has changed anything. However, the problem is that Christianity is still seen as 'White Man's Religion', namely because it was brought to the region by White Men who expect people to follow it the way that white men do.

Before I continue, I'll share another anecdote. When I was in France I was wandering along the shopping Mall in Amiens and saw a Mormon attempting to approach people to talk to them, however all he was doing was asking them if they spoke English. Seriously, this simply does not work like that - he is in France, they speak French, and they actually get quite offended, and rightfully so, if you come along and start demanding that they speak English. The thing with Missionaries is that they don't go out into the world to force people to speak English, but rather to share a message, and in that way they should make an attempt, and a pretty good one at that, of learning the local language (as well as translating the Bible into said language, and even going as far as creating a written language if there isn't one). I still remember meeting some missionaries in Greece who didn't seem to think that it was necessary to know how to speak Greek.

Organised Religion

So, thus I come to my next topic, and that is the idea of origanised religion. In fact one of the things that I have come to learn in my years wandering around the planet is that people don't necessarily hate religion, nor do they necessarily hate God - they hate origanised religion. The thing is that it is the boogey man of faith, and rightfully so, where the church ceases to be a community and begins to be a corporate structure, and the problem with corporate structures is that they become inflexible. One pastor suggested that the thing with Christianity is that there is an inflexible core, but you need to be willing to be flexible around the edges so as to meet people where they are at.

The thing is that organised religion is inflexible to the point that it is either their way or the highway. In a way the whole bloody mess that came out from the Reformation was simply due to the church refusing to be flexible with regards to their doctrine, and this is understandable - the people at the top had a lot of power - religion is power - and that by not only allowing people to read the Bible in their own language, but to also have direct access to God, undermined this. We see this in the Gospels where Jesus is regularly chastising the church leaders of his day - they were barring access to God, and dishing out salvation how they saw fit.

The one thing that people desire is certainty, and certainty after death. In fact people want to be saved, even though they say otherwise. Death is the great unknown, and what organised religion does is that it entraps people by offering one aspect of what they need to do to be saved - and it is always a question of what they have to do. Once they have the power of people's salvation, they can then imprison them, and in effect control them. However, they fear change, and they fear it a lot, which is why you see these culture wars being waged across not just the United States, but Australia as well.

So What is Religion?

I have heard time and time again that the difference between Christianity and Religion is that religion is what we must do and Christianity is what has been done. Yes, that is true in essence because the core of the Christian message is that Christ died for our sins, meaning that somebody else has suffered the punished which is due to us. Our sins burden us down and create a barrier between us and God, however Christ's death has broken down that barrier meaning that we do not have to earn salvation, because under our own steam salvation simply cannot be earnt - we simply are not good enough because even one sin is enough to create that barrier.

However, I still think that that definition is nothing more than semantics. Whether they like it or not Christianity is still a religion. I remember sitting at the University Tavern with a group of friends trying to explain that and they simply laughed - why, because in their mind Christianity is a religion. The thing is that a religion answers three basic questions of existence: where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going when we die, and in the end Christianity gives a pretty good answer to those questions. In fact, in my opinion, it is the only religion that gives a satisfactory answer to those three questions.

This is where the point of the Book of Mormon comes to the fore. You see, Price and Cunningham went to Africa to preach Mormonism, but it because pretty obvious that is wasn't going to work, so Cunningham changed the story. All of a sudden the people responded, and responded in bulk. The crux was that it didn't matter what they believed, but rather that they believed in something, and what Cunningham did was that he gave them something to believe in. This is one of the flaws of the modern Evangelical movement. We aren't giving them something to believe in, but rather giving them something to believe that maybe, just maybe, life will be better on this Earth.

The Africans realised that life wasn't going to be better, but what Elder Cunningham did was that he gave them something to make life a bit more tolerable. They were never going to leave their village, and they were going to suffer the ravages of living in poverty - The Book of Mormon did a brilliant job in exploring the problems facing the Africans. The thing was that Mormonism in that form simply did not address the issue of the Aids epidemic, violent warlords, or grinding poverty. However, the message the Cunningham gave them was a message of hope, to rise above this, and to actually have faith that while life may never get any better, but it is is a journey, and a journey that we can take either living in despair and fear, or living in contentment and being able to appreciate what we do have, not what we don't.

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Bok of Mormon - A Question of Faith by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The History of Talking - Communications Museum

There certainly were quite a few museums along that stretch of road on the southern bank of the Mainz, and it was always going to be a bit of a toss up as to which ones we would end up visiting. As I suggested previously I was somewhat glad that the World Cultures Museum was closed because, well, the more I thought about it the more I realised that I wasn't particularly interested in seeing a museum focused on world cultures - I personally prefer to experience them first hand as opposed to in a museum, though I have written a post on Australian Aboriginals since there was a room dedicated to them at the Museum of South Australia.

So, after visiting the Film Museum, we still had a little bit of time left over so we decided to go and check out the Museum of Communications. Mind you, I didn't actually ask if we were allowed to take photos inside (as I generally do), though nobody came and told me off so I must admit that that did turn out to be a good thing. However, there were some interesting parts of the museums, which included a display containing messages in bottles, an exhibition on the history of advertising, and the main section of the museum itself which explored communication from the time we would send letters to each other (and before) up to the modern age of the internet.

The advertising exhibit deserves a post of its own, but I probably should say something on the messages in the bottles before moving on to the museum proper, however I must post the photo of the sheep sculptures in the entrance because, honestly, they're cool.

Message in a Bottle

All of the sudden I have this song going through my head by the Police, that is the band as opposed to the law enforcement agency, a link to which you will find here (isn't it great that you can now find pretty much any and every video clip on Youtube). Anyway, enough of the Police because this is a post on communication as opposed to the classic rock of my youth (not that I was actually a huge fan of The Police, though I did quite like Sting in Dune). Anyway, the museum has a technical section, an art section, and a section for temporary exhibitions. The advertising exhibition appeared to be the temporary section, while the art section were the messages in bottles. In fact it seems as if any and every sort of bottle (and message) was represented.

The thing is that as a form of communication the message in a bottle is incredibly unreliable and unpredictable. Sure, the bottle floats, but the currents and waves tend to have this unpredictable nature which means that the message could land up anywhere and everywhere, and the bigger the island you are stranded on, the more likely that your bottle will simply be pushed back to land. Sure, currents do tend be quite predictable, but the problem with messages and bottles is getting them far enough out into the ocean that the currents will take hold. Then, once they are happily drifting about the place, then comes the problem of the bottle actually getting somewhere important, and if and when it does, the person who discovers it being able to work out where it actually came from.

So, the message in the bottle is pretty impractical, though I do remember playing around with them when I was much younger (and even tried throwing them off jetties). There is still something quite romantic about them though. Sure, they float, and the contents tend to remain dry, but they seem to relate more to the story of the person stranded on the island looking for anyway of letting the outside know that they are there. However, they aren't entirely caught up in the realm of fiction, since the Ancient Greek Theophrastus used them in his experiments to prove that the Atlantic was connected to the Mediterranean. Further, there have actually been some messages in bottles found in real life.

The Written Word

Writing goes back centuries, and can even be considered to have been around the time when the cavemen painted pictures on the walls of their caves. The thing is that while it might be suggested that this isn't writing in the traditional sense, it is an early form of writing and these pictures eventually developed into pictograms, which slowly turned into the alphabet that we know of today. For instance, it has been suggested that the modern A was originally the head of an ox. One thing to note is that our modern alphabet had its routes in the Middle East, where is came from Phonecia to Greece where it morphed into the Greek Alphabet, and then over to Rome where it became the Latin Alphabet that we know today.

The interesting thing about pictograms is that while they may have first represented the objects that were drawn, they eventually came to represent sounds - this is what the role of an alphabet: to capture sounds that are made by the speaker and place symbols representing those sounds on paper - an alphabet is effectively just a series of sounds that when placed in a certain order become words, which in turn represent objects, actions, and ideas. What I found interesting is that when I am learning a new language the first thing we always do is learn the alphabet, and the sounds that the letters make - which is why I have come to realise that French isn't actually as hard as I thought it was.

So, we now have the written word, but what was it used for? Well, the earliest examples that we have are actually commercial documents such as contracts and stock lists. It wasn't until sometime later that people began to write stories and record their mythologies. In that sense the earliest of these we have are those of the Mesopotamians. The other aspects of writing was as a memorial to those who have died, in particular kings. In fact the Egyptians used writing as a form of propoganda, just like we use billboards today, to confront the people with the reality of the land.

As we moved into the modern world, and with the invention of the printing press, we see the ability to read expand across society, and the creation of newspapers, and of course books. However, the next step in our journey through the history of communication comes with the letter.

Le Poste

Okay, since this is a German Museum, the exhibition involves the Budespost (or the German Postal service), but the use of letters being sent about the place goes back a lot earlier than the modern era. For instance, we have a series of letters written by Plato, as well as Cicero, and of course the Apostle Paul. The thing with letters is that they were generally written to a specific person, or a group of people, though some of them seem to take the form of being a shorter form of literature. In fact, if we look at the letters that have come down to us from the ancient time they aren't the type of letters that are written to specific people, but rather they contain some discussion of philosophy and theology (though Cicero's letters do tend to be quite personal in nature).

However there is always the issue of getting the letter from the sender to the receiver. That isn't an issue in a small town like Athens because you just go and hand it to the person, but then again if you where to do that you might as well just deliver the message verbally. However, if it were over long distances then you would need to send somebody to deliver them, and in the Roman times it was usually by slaves. Mind you, when Paul sent his letters he tended not to use slaves, but he did need personal messengers.

However, as literature grew among the middle classes, so did the need for a specialised postal service. No doubt the original postal services were private, and you would always have to pay a fee for the service (which is where the concept of the stamp came from - it was proof that the fee for delivery had been paid). However, as the state expanded, so did the need for a centralised postal service. Thus, this is why we see government run postal services across Europe, and even in places like the United States. Mind you, the traditional postal services are beginning to struggle with the rise of delivery services, and while the need to write letters has begun to die, the need to send parcels has become much more prevalent.

By the way, here is an excellent video on how the post office made America.

Along the Wire

The modern telegraph, a system of sending messages along a wire using electrical pulses, was invented by the Russian Baron Pavel Schilling in 1832. In a sense this was the beginning of the end of the humble letter because now messages could be sent vast distances at the speed of light. In fact, the modern fax machine was invented around this time which enabled letters to be sent much, much faster than by normal post. The other thing was that prior to that messages were sent using the Optical Semaphore System, which while being sent in code, did have the chance of being deciphered.

Interestingly the telegraph was still used well into the twentieth century despite the invention of the telephone, but one of the reasons for this was that it the receiver didn't need to be present when the message was sent. However, the idea was that the sender would go to a telegraph station in one city, send the message to a telegraph station in another city, and the message would then go by 'snail mail' to the receiver, which was when the telegraph arrived at the receiver's door. This also was similar to the way Morse Code worked.

Bell's Invention

Where the telegraph would sent messages along a wire, the telephone sent sounds. The thing with the early telephone was that they could only be sent where there were wires connected, though in later stages wireless techology allowed people in remote areas to be reached through the use of satellite systems. Sure, these days pretty much everybody has a mobile phone, and in fact many of us have our own pocket computers that we not only carry around with us, but also incessantly stare into.

One of the things about the museum was that it was very interactive, and this included the telephones. They actually had on old switchboard set up where if you wanted to make a call you would contact the board, give the person the details of who you wanted to contact, and they would connect the two lines. Of course, the further the distance, the more connections that needed to be made. They also had a more modern, mechanical, switchboard, and some telephones - you would call one of the phones, watch the switchboard do its stuff, and then the other phone would ring.

Telephones have come a huge way since the days of Alexander Graham Bell, and the manual switchboard - everything is controlled by computers, and you also have the ability to have conference calls. These days you even have a concept known as Voice Over IP, which is where your phone is connected to the computer, and is actually its own computer (as one person said, you could even hack into the phone and play space invaders on it). You even have what are called 'soft phones', which is a computer program that makes and receives phone calls (in fact your smart phone has soft phones programmed into it).

Das Radio

I was initially going to write about the radio before I touched on the telephone, but the thing is that the telephone was invented prior to the radio, namely because the radio works on a wireless system while the early telephones, and telegraphs, needed wires to be able to transmit their information. The radio appeared in late 1894, and was invented by Marconi (and was called the Marconiscope). The idea had its basis in the ideas of the electromagnetic spectrum, and being able to send sounds along these waves (initially called Hertz waves, after the person who discovered them, but are know known as radio waves).

The thing with radio was that it allowed communication across a broader field and without the need for wires. Further, you not only had radios that only received and interpreted signals, but also two way radios where you could communicate both ways. I remember as a kid that we would have little two way radios that we played with as toys, and the electronics that actually go into creating a standard radio is actually pretty simple - in fact it was so simple that I was able to build one from the electronics kits that I would get as a kid.

Radio was also one of the first forms of mass entertainment, and the rise of the radio also coincided with the rise of the rock (or pop) star. Suddenly artists had the ability to reach many, many more people than previously, and news could also be transmitted much quicker. I still remember as a kid listening to the radio, both the news and the pop songs. The question that I raise though is whether radio stations still exist, because I would have thought that they would have been killed by the mobile phone. Sure, they still have their fans, but I suspect that the younger generation have drifted away towards music on demand.

Video Killed the Radio Star

I remember that one hit wonder as a kid, but what the song is about is how the rise of the television was the beginning of the end of the radio station. Sure, television has been around for decades, since before the 1940s, though wasn't being produced on a commercial scale until the 1950s. I remember my geography teacher telling me that as a kid he went on board an American warship that had docked in Adelaide and on board where televisions, but they only had static as there was no transmission available. However, the rise of the television is generally seen as the end of the golden age of Hollywood, and also the beginning of the end of the cinema.

What is interesting is that cable television appeared after broadcast television, though one of the reasons for that was because wireless transmission was already available that they worked on that principle as opposed to developing cable. However, cable came about due to necessity, namely because not everybody was in a position to be able to access the broadcasts. I remember when I was young we were spending the school holidays out in the middle of the bush, about 110 km away from the nearest town. The farm had a huge aerial which the university students had built to hopefully pick up the broadcast, but the thing was that it didn't. I still remember standing at the farm, looking at the tower, and wondering why they had built it in the gully as opposed to putting it on the hill and running a cable down.

However, one of the main reasons that radio did last much longer was because radio had one advantage - it was portable. It meant that people could carry it on their person and listen to it, where as there was no way you could do that to a television. Okay, down the track we did eventually have portable televisions, but it seemed as if they never really took off, probably because the battery power was too demanding. The thing that was always working against the radio, as well as television, is that they work on the principle of push - we watch, and listen to, what they want us to when they want us to. However, the digital age has resulted in pull technology, which means we watch and listen to what we want to when we want to.

The final section was the internet (and computers), but I have probably said enough already so I will wind it up here (and if you are interested you can go here for the post on the history of film, here for classic computers, and here for he rise of the internet).

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The History of Talking - Communications Museum by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 12 June 2017

Saint Joan - Europe's Turning Point

It seems as if there is a resurgence of interest in the plays of George Bernard Shaw, though when I say resurgence I am referring to having seen three plays of his over the past three years, which is significant because I pretty much haven't seen any of his plays previously. That probably has a lot to do with not actually knowing about him, or having any appreciation of his work prior to purchasing a copy of Pygmalion and proceeding to read it. The other problem is that the lack of options when it comes to theatre in Australia, but then again it does teach me to keep my eyes open. However, the stage on screen series that are now being played at various cinemas around Australia helps a lot as well. So, when I discovered that Saint Joan was going to be one of the films shown I took the day off work, made my way down to the Palace Brighton Bay, and began to treat myself to another play that I am not expecting to see again any time soon.

The first thing that stood out with this version, which was performed in London's Donmar Theatre, was that it was done in modern dress, that is that the bulk of the actors were men in suits. Actually, being a play about Jean d'Arc (as her name is spelt in French) pretty much the only female actor in the play is the one playing Jean. Also, they had a TV screen at the back of the stage which would show regular stock market reports as well as some other images. Also, the only major prop was a large table like what one would see in a board room, and a number of chairs around it, though the stage would be rotating throughout the performance. The reason that it was done this way, as was explained by the director, was that she was trying to help us understand that Bernard Shaw wasn't just writing to the people of his era, but also to ours, and the best way to do this would be to use a modern setting.

The problem is that when Bernard Shaw crafted the play he wasn't using a modern setting - rather he was using the original setting of the story of Jean d'Arc: medieval France. However, what we don't get in the play, or at least those of us who do have the opportunity to see it live, meaning that we don't get one of those brochures, or have the opportunity to purchase one of those programs at the entrance, is Bernard Shaw's own commentary on the piece. A friend of mine suggests that directors who do this with plays (using modern costume) are not only treating the audience as if they are idiots, but are attempting to clearly spell out how the play relates to us now. A part of me is actually starting to agree with him, and did find Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet an abomination. Mind you, I still appreciated Ralph Fienne's Coriolanus namely because of all the machine guns (Shakespeare with machine guns and modern military vehicles is always fun), though that was on screen as opposed to being on stage.

However, it seems as if Shaw might have considered his audience to be idiots anyway because with a number of his plays he would write a preface, and sometimes an afterword as well, that basically explained what he was trying to get at with the production. This probably had a lot to do with people having completely misinterpreted his plays (as was the case with Man and Superman) and simply seeing them as mindless comedies. Mind you, this is Victorian England we are talking about, and I have never considered the theatre going public at that time to be all that intellectual. These days there seems to be a split between the avant-garde and the upperclass, though you generally wouldn't get members of the modern aristocracy attending a play at the Donmar, which generally falls into the category of the avant-garde.

Jean's France

I'm not sure how much background I need to go into namely because I'm sure we all have heard of Joan of Arc. I would point you to another post that I wrote about her after visiting the Joan of Arc Museum in Rouen but the problem is that I haven't got anywhere near to actually writing about that museum (and considering the amount of stuff that I have set down to actually write I'm not sure how long it will be before I actually get to poor Jean. One thing that I will mention is that Rouen, the city where Jean was imprisoned and executed, has a tour where you can visit all of the Jean d'Arc sites, including the tower where she was imprisoned (or more specifically the tower which happens to be the only remaining part of the castle where she was imprisoned), and the town square where she was burnt, upon which has been built a church.

Anyway, the play is set during the Hundred Years War, which was a war between England and France that lasted something like 125 years, though theoretically the war lasted quite some time longer, and was more a series of skirmishes, a couple of set piece battles, and a long period of occupancy by the English over large parts of France, than a sustained conflict that lasted all that time. In a sense it was more like a cold war which heated up occasionally, than an actual war.

So, France had just suffered a number of humiliating defeats and her territory had been reduced dramatically. In fact France didn't even have a king, and the heir to the throne, the Dauphin, was having his legitimacy challenged. Pretty much every thing looked incredibly bleak, and it was as if the French were looking at annihilation as a country to be dominated by the English and the neighbouring Burgundians. Then, all of a sudden, a girl from a village in Lorraine appears on the scene claiming to have been sent by God, and that if she were to be given an army then she would defeat the English, liberate the French, and see the king crowned in Rheims.

Jean's Story

The play pretty much follows the story of Jean d'Arc from when she first appeared on the scene requesting an audience with the king through to her trial and then on to her execution, and eventually beatification (that is being made a saint). I'm not necessarily going to say that the play is faithful to the story, namely because there is only so much that you can squeeze into a small space in a building. Okay, modern technology does allow for greater scopes, but the director of a theatrical production is limited, as are the writers. For instance, Jean was captured by the Burgundians and then handed over to the English, which doesn't seem to be raised in the play, but then again I don't believe Shaw considered this to be necessary.

Anyway, the play begins with Jean appearing before one of the local lords, which was pretty gutsy in and of itself because not only was she a peasant girl, but she was also a woman. As I have mentioned, she is the only female character in the play, which means that she is a lonely female in what is effectively a male dominated world. Anyway, after persistent badgering, she is finally allowed to see the king, and is then given an army and successfully defeats the English at the Battle of Orleans, and then proceeds to see the King crowned at the Cathedral at Rheims. However this is where her luck seems to run out because she wants to press her advantage and once again meets resistance.

In fact this seems to be a story of Jean's life - resistance and overcoming resistance. In a sense she may have defeated the English once, but that was it because nobody, except her of course, wanted to press the advantage. However, for Jean to give up now would be a betrayal of her character. So, she leads an army to capture Paris, but loses and she herself is captured and handed over the the English, whose capital is in Rouen. It is here that she is put on trial, convicted of heresy, and sentenced to death.

However, after the war is concluded, and after she is well and truly dead, they decide to have a retrial (which is the subject of the Museum in Rouen) where she is found not guilty and exonerated of all crimes. Centuries later she is then canonised, which is the subject of the end of the play. In relation to her innocence though, Shaw, through the mouth of the Inquisitor, says it the best:
Oh, quite innocent. What does she know of the Church and the Law? She did not understand a word we were saying. It is the ignorant who suffer.
The thing is that Jean's existence basically challenged the status quo, which was why she had to be put to death. This wasn't a question of the English vs the French, this was a question that had the potential to shake the entire European order than had been established for centuries. Well, not quite because these ideas were beginning to filter out of Italy through the Renaissance movement, but what we have here was a peasant girl from a back water province in France moving in to the courts of the powerful. In a sense she rose above her gender and class to make an impact upon the world. One of the reasons that the director set the play in what looked like a modern boardroom was because this was what Jean was doing - she was like the ordinary person barging into the world of the captains and industry and turning everything upside down.

However, let us look at the world that Jean was ushering in.

Jean's Challenge

Beginning of Protestantism

It was going to be another hundred years before Martin Luther would nail his protests against the Catholic Church to the doors of the Wurtemberg Cathedral, however he wasn't the first person to begin agitating against the domination of the Catholic Church, and neither was Jean, but like Luther, Jean did have an impact, and a pretty significant one at that. For instance one of the reasons that she was executed, on the charge of heresy, was the claim that she spoke directly to God. To Christians for the modern era this doesn't seem to be all that striking, and moreso we would probably write her off as being mentally ill, since people who run around claiming to hear voices in their head are generally considered mad (I believe that is a symptom of schizophrenia).

However what Jean was doing by claiming to be hearing God's voice was that she was challenging the authority of the Church, something that would come back again and again to haunt them. The thing was that the Church saw themselves as the guardians of religion, and the defender of doctrine. They took this role so that any old person couldn't simply come along and start either a new religion, or reinterpret Christian religion. The problem was that the church had reached a point where you couldn't question it, or its beliefs, for to do so would result in you being considered disruptive. The other thing was that the church set itself up as an arbitrator between you, the normal person, and God - being a normal person you were simply not worthy of approaching God, therefore you needed the priest to do that in your stead.

The problem is that this completely overturns the original purpose of Christ. The thing about Jesus was that he came to do away with priests and organised religion, so that everybody could have a direct relationship with God, not just the ordained priests. The thing is that nobody, not even the priests, are worthy to approach God, so we needed God to send somebody who was worthy to approach him on our behalf - and that was Christ. The problem is that human nature meant that sooner, rather than later, churches would once again interpose themselves between God and ourselves.

What Jean did was that she challenged the authority of the church. Here was a peasant girl appearing and making claims that God spoke to her. This was outrageous - not only was she a peasant, and a girl, but she was also illiterate. The problem was that when she prophesied these prophecies came true, which challenged the church even more. The thing is that they couldn't simply have anybody come along and start sprouting the word of God - only the church was allowed to do that, just like they couldn't have just about anybody read, and interpret, the Bible - if they did, the church would become obsolete.

The problem was that its obsolescence was inevitable.

Beginning of Nationalism

Nationalism is a funny thing because there are claims that it didn't come about until the 19th century when people stopped seeing themselves as subjects to a king but rather as members of a nation. I'm inclined to argue that the roots of nationalism were earlier than that, and while the 19th Century saw a shift away from monarchies towards republics and democracies, people in earlier times did have a concept of belonging to what could be considered a nation. In fact that sense of belonging to a people group goes back to the ancient times where groups of people who spoke the same language and held the same belief systems saw themselves as better that anybody who didn't - and isn't this basically what nationalism is all about.

One of the ideas that is explored in Saint Joan is this idea of nationalism, and Shaw suggests that around this time people began raise this idea of identifying themselves based on the language that they spoke and the land in which they lived. In fact there was even this idea that this land was rightfully theirs and that the foreign invader, that is the English, should be banished back to the island from which they came. Mind you, this doesn't take into account the history of England, which was conquered by the Normans and ruled from Rouen by the Normans for at least a century. Yet Jean is an illiterate peasant girl so she was no doubt history was something that she was not going to be all that familiar with.

However the church saw the rise of this national identity as a threat. Basically Western Europe was ruled from Rome, with the Pope as the emperor. Sure, he claimed to only be God's representative on Earth, but God is king in Heaven, and is the King of King and Lord of Lords, so if God's representative says something, then it is expected to be obeyed because to refuse to obey the Pope is tantamount to refusing to obey God. This is where nationalism becomes a danger - it undermines the authority of the church, in that the church ceases to be a universal church and instead becomes a national church. This means that the power of the church, and the pope, is subsumed to that of the earthly King.

This is why Jean was a danger because she was raising an army of the French to fight for France. This was no longer a petty question of quarrels between nobles, and became a question of a people, of a nation, being invaded by another nation. When people were the subjects of kings, if a king were to change then the identity of the people were to change. Take a look at some of Shakespeare's plays and you will note that the characters are named after the regions in which they rule - that is their identity, and the region's identity is based upon that of it's ruler. When Jean crowned the king, it was not a question of him regaining his authority, but rather the nation taking over the role that used to be filled by the church.

Beginning of Feminism

I have mentioned this a few times previously, but it is important to note that Jean d'Arc is a peasant women. These to descriptors are incredibly important, one I will raise now, and the first I will raise shortly. The thing with Jean is that she was a woman in a man's world. This was very clear throughout the play since she is the only female character - all of the other characters are male. Okay, while she may not have been the first women thrust into a man's world, she was a significant one, and one that shook the foundations of gender inequality.

However, unlike figures such as Queen Elizabeth, Jean wasn't thrust into this world, she thrust herself into the centre of a realm that was dominated by males. Well, there would be women with medieval armies, but they wouldn't be doing the fighting, and they certainly wouldn't be in command. At best they might be cooks and such, at worst they would be abused by the soldiers and be treated as little more than spoils of war. Yet Jean was not only able to enter this world, but she was able to do so with the respect of the men that came under her command - it was as if she was living a charmed life in that regard.

The interesting thing is how one of her charges was wearing men's clothes. This is something that goes back to the Old Testament law that forbade cross dressing. What is interesting is that in the modern world there are clothes that are distinctly feminine and then there are clothes that are worn by men. Okay, you generally don't see women wearing suits, and there are pants that are made for women, and clothes that are made for men, but while it is a common site to see women in trousers, you don't see men wearing dresses.

However, back in those days there was work that was considered feminine and work that was considered masculine. For instance the women raised children and the men went to war. Women dressed in one way and men dressed in another. Women had certain styles of hair, men had another. However Jean challenged those roles by cutting her hear, wearing trousers, and riding a horse into war. In a sense what she was saying was that this gender gap is artificial - it is a construct that is not natural, and that anything that a male can do a woman can do as well.

It sort of reminds me of this idea of the job snob. In a sense "woman's work" sounds like the statement of a job snob, the person who is too proud to work in certain industries, such as hospitality and cleaning. Mind you, I can appreciate the difficulties of working in hospitality, but the suggestion that a certain type of work as being woman's work is the suggestion that there are jobs that are beneath the person making the statement. In a way what Jean is doing is that she is challenging this mentality, and stating that she should have the right to do any job that she would want to do.

Mind you, it is interesting to note that I still don't see all that many women in the manual trades, or working on construction sites. In a sense, while it is reasonable that women be given the same opportunities as men are, promotion should still be based on merit, not just to create a gender balance. In a way, this seems to have more to do with giving women more of an opportunity to work in some of the more prestigious roles than to, in reality, balance out the gender inequalities in some industries. Mind you, I can probably understand why some women wouldn't want to work on a construction site.

Death of Aristocracy

I'm not really sure whether Jean making her presence felt was important or not, but the directors seemed to think so, particularly since each of the scenes were set in what was effectively a board room of some investment firm. In a way these parts of the world are inhabited by the movers and the shakers, and while we might get a fleeting glance inside one, we are rarely ever invited in to participate. In a sense these places are where decisions are made that affect hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. Sure, things have changed dramatically since Jean's time in that these roles are open to anybody, but in reality they are not.

The thing with Jean was that she barged into the board room, or into the courts of the lords and the kings. These were places where you were invited, and if the lord didn't want to see you, then you weren't going to be seen. Sure, you may be able to go in there and plead your case before the Lord, but the lord held the ultimate say. However there was no chance of a peasant becoming an aristocrat, and there was definitely no chance that they would be given an army to lead.

However, he we have Jean, barging into the world of the aristocrats, and showing them up in not only leading an army, but leading an army to victory. All of the sudden we have this person, this peasant, that is inspiring the troops. In fact even at the start of the play we are being told how she is inspiring the troops in the lord's castle. The thing is that this is dangerous as an inspirational person can lead people away from the legitimate ruler, and in fact challenge the ruler's rule. In this world the peasant has their place, and they should know their place, and their place is not in the courts of the kings, dukes, and the rulers, and certainly not at the head of an army.

Jean's Legacy

She certainly has left us with a legacy, especially if a wander around Rouen, or even France as a whole, is to demonstrate. In fact the Jean d'Arc Museum has a whole display on her legacy, and in fact she is regularly invoked by politicians of all stripes to inspire the people. Not only is she a saint, but she is a national hero of France, claimed by both the left and the right. She inspires women, the weak, the marginalised, and the oppressed, to rise up, to take charge, and go against standard opinion to prove that the accepted way is not the only way.

Sure, she only won one major battle, and her life was snuffed out before it had even began, but even before the flames had begun to die the French were mobilised, the king inspired, and the English then on the run. Sure, the war still had a while to run, but it ended with a French victory, with the English being sent back back across the channel to their miserable island. In fact, upon losing the war the English were then plunged into civil war.

Sure, she didn't start the feminist movement, or the protestant movement, or even the nationalist movement. Neither did she bring about the downfall of the monarchies or break apart the aristocracy, but seeds were sown, and the people inspired, and the movement out of a medieval age ruled by the church, with advancement based on family ties and when you were born, had begun.

Creative Commons License

Saint Joan - Europe's Turning Point by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 5 June 2017

Vincent Van Gogh - The Life of an Artist

We were fortunate enough to have an exhibition of some of the works of Vincent Van Gogh come to the NGV this year, which has made me expedite my post on my visit to the museum that is dedicated to his works - the main reason being that I really can't write a post about the exhibition at the NGV (the National Gallery of Victoria, which in my opinion is by far the best art gallery in Australia) without first writing a post about my experience at the titular museum in Amsterdam. The problem was that you aren't actually allowed to take photos in the museum, the main reason being that because he is such a popular artist the museum is going to be crowded and if everybody were to stop to take photos of the paintings then it is basically going to ruin it for everybody. Fortunately the museum actually have posted all of their paintings on the web, so even though I left my notebook in my bag, I am fortunate enough to be able to simply go to their website and use that, as well as the notes I made on my mobile phone, as inspiration for this post.

When I was in Amsterdam (and I have to admit that Amsterdam is by far one of my favourite cities, up there with Paris, London, Melbourne, and Hong Kong) I also ended up being there during Gay Pride Week, which meant that the city was absolutely packed. Fortunately I was able to cut the huge line waiting to get into the museum, but that didn't mean that maneuvering through the crowds was any less easier. The other thing that I should mention is that the staff at the museum have eyes like hawks because as soon as you raise a camera (or a mobile phone) to take a picture they are suddenly standing behind you politely requesting that you don't take photos. However, as I've mentioned, it has nothing to do with them not wanting people to take the images outside of the museum, but rather to enable people to flow through much better (and further, photos of paintings tend to be of a much worse quality anyway), since I was able to download, and post, the following paint directly from their website (as long as I don't make money from it).

The Museum 

I probably should say a few words on the museum (as well as providing a link) before moving on to Van Gogh himself (though I am probably going to focus more on his art than upon his life - you can always find out about his life from Wikipedia). When Van Gogh died from a self inflicted gun shot wound, his works passed on to his brother, then onto his brother's widow. Interestingly, two days before he died, an article appeared (I believe by Emile Bernard, a painter and an art critic) praising the works of Van Gogh, however Van Gogh never saw this article before taking his life.

His brother Theo died six months later, and his widow Joanna van Gogh-Berger, took possession of his artwork and began an incredible marketing exhibition in an attempt to promote his as an artist. Mind you, it was at this time that the fame that seemed to be so fleeting during his life was starting gain traction. Of the artwork that wasn't sold, it was put on display in the Stedelijk Musuem (though it still remained in the possession of the Van Gogh estate).

In 1963 the government of the Netherlands decided to establish a museum dedicated entirely to Van Gogh and his life, though the museum wasn't completed until 1973. The museum has since gone through numerous periods of rennovations. Security at the museum is incredibly tight, and in fact not only do you go through your standard metal detectors, but you also have a photo taken of you when you enter (which is why they insist on you removing hats and sunglasses). Interestingly, in 1991, numerous paintings were stolen from the museum, and even though they were recovered a short time after, a couple of them were severely damaged. As it turned out it was an inside job.
Anyway, this post isn't so much on the museum, though I probably could have easily posted this on my travel blog. Another thing that I have since discovered is that not only are all of the works on display on the museum's website, but pretty much all of the text in the museum is there as well, so it didn't matter all that much that I didn't get an opportunity to take any photos. However, even though you can pretty much learn all about Van Gogh and view the paintings simply by going to the website, there still is something magical about actually visiting the museum.

Early Life

Van Gogh grew up in the town of Nuenen in the Netherlands to a father who was a pastor of the local church. He was a bit of a loner, preferring to be home schooled than actually attending proper schools. This probably had a lot to do with his mother being a very family orientated person. While they weren't wealthy, they were comfortable with the church providing the family for most of their needs. As an artist, Van Gogh began at an early age through drawing, something that was encouraged by his mother. Van Gogh was actually a deeply unhappy child, which is probably quite reflective of the serious mental illness that was to plague his adult years. For a time he worked for the art dealers Goupil & Cie, and this actually seemed to fulfil him for a time, and he made a pretty decent amount of money as well. However that wasn't to last and he eventually found himself back in the Netherlands were decided to become a pastor, however this didn't work out either. It was when he lodged with a miner in 1880 and began producing works of art based on the ordinary life about him that he was encouraged to become an artist.

Jules Breton - Peasant Girl with Hoe
This actually didn't go down all that well with his parents, who viewed this idea as not just as a sign of failure, but also as a sign that maybe their eldest was lazy (it seems that a lot of people want to become writers and artists because they view this as an easy road to riches). However, Van Gogh's brother Theo actively encouraged him, and even agreed to financially support him. However this time with his family didn't last all that long because he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos, who was also a widow. She basically didn't want anything to do with him, and he was eventually forced to move out following a row.

It was then that he moved to the Hague where we lived with his cousin Mauve, who was also an artist (and an established one at that). He also received his first commissioned works from an uncle who requested that he paint a number scenes in and around the Hague. However, never being too far from controversy, he met a woman named Sien Hoondrik, who was not only a single mother, but also a former prostitute. She became both a model and his lover - needless to say that his parents didn't approve. However, this relation didn't work out and Van Gogh eventually broke up with her and then moved back in with his parents.

Anton Mauve - Donkey Stand at the Beach

Bridge and Houses on the Corner of Herengracht-Prinsessegracht

It was here where Van Gogh painted 'The Potato Eaters' - not one of his most famous works (since the really famous ones aren't actually in the museum), but one of his earlier works which began to establish his ability as an artist. However, this wasn't to take on as it was too dark and dreary for the Paris Art Market, who preferred bright colours. However, this painting certainly shows a very dark and gritty early period, a period when he was still finding his way, and a time where most of his money was spent on art materials. He spent most of this time in the studio out the back of his parent's house, but then made the decision that he needed to learn more, a lot more, and left home for Antwerp, never to return.

Coming on his own

While there was a lot in Antwerp, it wasn't really all that much to Vincent's taste. The thing was that despite the availability of models and churches, the artistic community was way too conservative, and Van Gogh really didn't want to go down the conservative path - he didn't want to follow the pack, he wanted to break out on his own and develop his own unique style. As such he pretty soon packed his bags and made his way to Paris, which at the time was the centre of the artistic community.

His brother Theo was working in Paris at the time for the art dealers Goupil, though Theo was a little put out with his older brother turning up unannounced. However, he used the opportunity to introduce Van Gogh to the community that had been built up around the area of Montmatre, and here he met the likes of Monet. However, true to himself, he didn't follow the path of the impressionists, which had pretty much because the standard form of art of the day, but instead moved over to the new generation of artists - later to become known as the post impressionists. Here was was influenced by the likes of Emile Bernard and Paul Gaugin.

The Hill of Montematre
Before I go on, even though I was supposed to say much more about his art than his life, it seems as if I am spending more time on his life. However, looking at the painting above, we see a much different version of Montematre than what I saw when I was in Paris recently. Mind you, Paris in the 21st century is what you would consider to be a sprawl, and the city has sprawled out over Montematre and beyond. Yet in Van Gogh's day it seemed as it still retained much of its rural character. Mind you, a visit to Montematre is amazing as you suddenly discover that you are surrounded by the art of the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, and you even find artists out on the streets, painting as well as attempting to sell their works.

It was in Paris that Van Gogh moved away from the dark and gritty paintings of his earlier days to the bright and colourful paintings of his that we know and love. In Paris he began to develop his style of small brush strokes, and also natural paintings, either of the country scenes, still lifes, and the hustle and bustle of the city. His brother had access to a lot of Japanese wood carvings, and this also inspired Van Gogh. In fact he painted quite a lot of paintings using the traditional Japanese method (since Japanese art was incredibly popular at the time). However, he didn't use models namely because in Paris they were pretty expensive. In the end though, Van Gogh wasn't a city person, and decided to leave Paris and caught a train to Arles in the South of France.

View of Paris

Boulevard de Clichy
The next painting is an example of his Japanese artwork, something that I never realised that he did until I visited the museum. I have to admit that this is a side of Van Gogh that was quite surprising, though in many cases it was the colours that really stand out, and what Van Gogh has become famous for.

Courtesan (after Eisen)


It was here in Arles that Van Gogh painted some of his most famous paintings, and really came to his own as an artist. He rented a house which is known as 'The Yellow House' and the plan was to establish a community of artists in the south. However Van Gogh was not one of the most sociable of people, and the only artist to actually make the trek (at Van Gogh's, and in turn his brother's, expense) was Paul Gaugun. However, this didn't work out, and while at first they were able to collaborate, their differing styles, and Van Gogh's character, quickly led to a falling out, which concluded with the incident that Van Gogh is famous for - cutting off his ear. After being threatened Gaugun eventually left and returned to Paris.

The Harvest
The thing with Van Gogh was that he was plagued by mental illness for most of his life, so this didn't really work all that well with him being able to collaborate. The other thing was that the two artists had two different styles - Gaugan preferred to paint from memory while Van Gogh painted by sitting en plein air (which basically means outdoors). It was from this point this his mental health deteriorated drastically, and he spent a lot of the time in the asylum at Saint-remy. However, they were kind enough to not only allow him to paint, but to also be provided with materials. In his last few months, at the advice of his doctor, he painted literally a painting a day abd spent the last few months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village just outside of Paris. However, the catalyst for his suicide was when his brother advised that he was no longer able to support him financially. A few days later he shot himself.

Fishing Boats on the Beach

I will basically leave it here, particularly since Van Gogh's metal health, and death, is a topic all of its own (and in fact the museum had an exhibition dedicated to Van Gogh's mental health and his last years). However, it is undeniable that Van Gogh is seen as one of the greatest artist of the Fin-de-Siecle, and his art and exhibitions attract hordes of people. Even the recent exhibition at the NGV was a testimony to that. In a way, one can probably thank his sister-in-law who tirelessly went about promoting his art so that in the end his life, and his death, would not be in vain.

I will finish this post with a picture of probably one of his most famous works - Starry Night. It turned out that I wasn't able to see this painting namely because it happens to be in New York. What was interesting was that while I was at the pub the other night, I overheard a conversation on this exact painting, and the person was saying that when he was at the MoMA, he saw people crowded around the painting and was wondering what the big deal was - that is until he got to see it, and left amazed. In a way it differs so much from the Mona Lisa, which also attracts the hordes, but in the end is just another painting among many other paintings - yet the work of Van Gogh has the ability to leave you breathless.

Creative Commons License

Vincent Van Gogh - The Life of an Artist by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. The images of the paintings of Van Gogh are used with the permission of the Van Gogh museum on the grounds that the purpose is not commercial. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me