Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Arabian Nights and Marina Warner

I'm a few days behind on this--playing catch up after being sick--but here's Do the tales of the Arabian Nights have resonance for audiences today? Marina Warner warms to the RSC's production of Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, found at The Guardian. (The best newspaper for fairy tale related articles. Someone there shares our interests!)

Here's a passage from the article, but you have to click through to read it all:

The first translation of One Thousand and One Nights into English, under the title Arabian Nights' Entertainments, instantly sparked a craze when it appeared at the beginning of the 18th century, and set the tone for the stories' successful entrance into the history of drama and performance. The first Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp was performed at Drury Lane in London in the 1780s, with designs by Philippe de Loutherbourg, the artist who a few years before had created a fabulous Oriental mise-en-scène for William Beckford's 21st birthday party, which combined séance, orgy, gothic ruins and private theatricals. This inspired Beckford's original Arabian Nights fantasy, the novel Vathek, which is bathed, like the party, in what he recalled was "a strange, necromantic light". Since those days of heady dreams, shows such as Aladdin or Ali Baba have taken an ever more, and more rudely, comic turn. Their bawdy rough-and-tumble does reflect a strain of the multilayered Nights stories; but it's still the case that the traditional panto gives a false sense of the stories, missing the riches of their poetry, enchanted atmosphere, protean originality and endlessly ingenious narrative logic.

The book's earliest readers in France belonged to a courtly world that hardly distinguished between performance and ordinary round, so stylised and ornamented was the royal day at Versailles or in noblemen and women's hotels particuliers, where the first exclamations of delight greeted the fantastic tales of One Thousand and One Nights. But very quickly, the book's storytelling devices were taken over by other voices placed at different, dissenting angles to power: Elizabeth Inchbald and Frances Sheridan put on Oriental disguise to satirise sexual hypocrisy and social conventions; Voltaire, Addison and Swift also found they could use the mode to mock and attack their targets. In the theatre especially, the sheer abundance of the plots of the Nights opened up possibilities: the book presented magical twists and turns that intrinsically lent themselves to high-spirited performance and to technical experiment. The history of the Nights on the stage is consequently intertwined with some brilliant early stagecraft for transformation scenes, flying machines, conjuring illusions, innovatory limelight and other effects (in Islington in the 1890s, the genies in Aladdin were called after the new gases, Paraffin, Benzoline and Colza).

And once again, if you haven't read From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner, well, you really must.

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