Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Jeffrey C. Kessler, Indiana University

If Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray distilled an aesthetic attitude of the 1890s, the 1945 adaptation of the novel aspired to capture its own aesthetic of the silver-screen. According to The New York Times, that aspiration failed. At times the film feels rather melodramatic with heavy orchestral music guiding viewers’ emotions, and a narrator diminishing most of the film’s subtelty. Some of the silver screen’s classic actors are featured in Dorian Gray, including George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, Angela Lansbury as Sybil Vane, Peter Lawford as Basil Hallward, and Donna Reed as Hallward’s niece Gladys. Despite what The New York Times reviewer called the film’s “mawkish pomposity,” the film adaptation merits further attention on both aesthetic and historical grounds.

Directed by Albert Lewin, the film translates much of the original novel, though incorporating a more orientalist tone and adding a second love interest for Dorian. Reed’s character deviates from the original plot. She embodies an angel-in-the-house-like purity absent from the novel. Gladys begins the film as a child in Basil’s studio and remains in the background of the film until she grows up to be of marriageable age during the time when Dorian has become most dissolute. Towards the end of the film Dorian enters into a triangulated romantic competition between Gladys and her suitor. In fact, at the end of the film, Dorian considers repentance for the sake of Gladys in order to restore him into her graces and redeem his soul.

By including Gladys as a romantic interest for Dorian, the film washes over much of the homoeroticism of Wilde’s original novel. Instead of changing some of the suggestive dialogue or attempting to portray the sexually suggestive passages of the novel, the film affirms heterosexual norms with this change in the plot. Dorian loves not just one woman, but a second one. Even when his soul is most corrupted, he finds the possibility of redemption through heterosexual marriage.

The film may be best remembered for commissioning two original paintings to represent Dorian’s transformation: the portrait by Henrique Medina (1908-1988) showing Dorian’s original beauty and the portrait by Ivan Albright (1897-1983) showing Dorian’s corrupted soul. The film recreates the fateful painting of Dorian with particular cinematic effect. The painting appears in full Technicolor in an otherwise black-and-white film, overwhelming the viewer and literally coloring Dorian’s key moments of realization into aesthetic brilliance. One can’t help but hear Lord Henry’s words: “Sin is the only real color-element left in modern life” (31).

The paintings provide both the film’s grandest cinematic effect and its highest aesthetic ambition. While Medina’s portrait of the handsome Dorian is a remarkable work, I’ll focus on Albright’s painting of Dorian’s corrupted soul, which is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago with a number of other Albright paintings. In the film, the painting comes as a shock to the viewer with its iridescent and swirling colors infecting both Dorian’s dress and the entire painting’s atmosphere. Dorian’s dissolution manifests itself not only in his physical decrepitude but also throughout the painting’s background. Albright places on the table in the painting the knife Dorian used to kill Basil, the same knife that Dorian uses at the end of the film to destroy the painting, and, as a result, himself.

While Albright’s painting is an original twentieth-century work of art, Lewin fills the film with allusions to the nineteenth century. In the film, Dorian quotes Wilde’s poem “The Sphinx” in a playful rhyme, Basil reads Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), and the film begins with an excerpt from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám (1859).

Although the film may be imperfect, if at times heavy-handed, it offers both students and critics a chance to think through some of Wilde’s own meditations about the critic and artist. Lewin translates the novel into a new form of art that emerges from its own moment, using technological advances in film and Technicolor as part of the film’s reimagining of Dorian. The Albright portrait is a genuine work of art in line with Albright’s other work (see his “Into the World Came a Soul Called Ida” and “That Which I Should Have Done”). Lewin’s Dorian Gray is not one work of art but a collection of different moments and attempts. If, as Wilde suggests, it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors, this film still has a lot to show viewers.

Questions for discussion

Take some time and look at the painting by Henrique Medina, showing the youthful Dorian. How does it convey Dorian’s beauty?

Now take some time to look at the Albright painting. How does the portrait attempt to convey the corrupted soul of Dorian? What passages from the novel might have inspired Albright? What individual details contribute to this effect?

In the Preface to Dorian Gray Wilde writes that “The Critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impressions of beautiful things.” How does the film translate the novel? Can a film be a work of criticism? Is beauty something we value as students and critics?

Also in Preface, Wilde writes: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” Albright’s painting of Dorian is ugly, and intentionally so. Does this contradict Wilde’s definition of the artist? Can there be an aesthetics of ugliness? How so?

The film contains many allusions to Victorian literature and culture. Are they just toss-away references to the nineteenth century? Look up one of the allusions above and think about how they might resonate with other ideas in the novel or film.

Read Bosley Crowther’s review from The New York Times. Is Crowther fair to the adaptation? What does he seem to value in a film?

Works Cited and Further Reading

Albright, Ivan. Picture of Dorian Gray. Art Institute of Chicago, 1944. Oil on Canvas.

Alexander, Jonathan. “Dorian Gray In The Twentieth Century: The Politics And Pedagogy Of Filming Oscar Wilde’s Novel.” Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde. 75-82. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

Crowther, Bosley. “‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Film Version of Wilde Novel, With Hatfield and Sanders, Opens at Capitol Theatre.” The New York Times. March 2, 1945.

Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1987. Print.

Hannon, Patrice. “Aesthetic Criticism, Useless Art.” Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde. Ed. Regina Gagnier. New York: Macmillan, 1991. pg. 186-201. Print.

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dir. Albert Lewin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945. Film.

Ross, Alex. “Deceptive Picture.” The New Yorker, August 8, 2011.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.

von Hagen, Kirsten. “A Picture Is A Picture Is A Picture: Filmic Transformations Of Oscar Wilde’s Novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray.” Old Age and Ageing in British and American Culture and Literature. 107-119. Münster, Germany: LIT, 2004.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations

By Chris Dickinson, Baylor University

Over shots of Florida’s Gulf Coast, an adult Finn (Alfonso Cuarón’s version of Pip, played by Ethan Hawke) tells us, “I won’t tell the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it” (Cuarón). Such a statement in the opening scene of Cuarón’s 1998 film lets viewers know that Mitch Glazer’s screenplay presents a fantasy about Great Expectations rather than a strict re-telling of Dickens’s novel. The changes to setting and narrative are immense: Florida’s impoverished pre-Katrina Gulf Coast (the opening shots of which are particularly striking) replaces England’s marshlands, New York replaces London, and a funded art exhibition by an unknown benefactor replaces Pip’s original “Expectations.” Despite all these “cosmetic” changes, the most profound changes in the film come in terms of character. For instance, Finn is an artist rather than a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Lustig (the Magwitch character, played by Robert DeNiro) is an Italian mobster.

Estella, played by the 26-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, is particularly changed, though she retains the name. Cuarón believes that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex” (Katz 97), and Estella is more sexualized in Cuarón’s film than in the Dickens original. Yet this focus on the sexualized body of Estella is not simply the result of setting the adaptation in 1990s America. To begin with, this focus is not just added to the narrative but replaces the original dynamic between Pip and Estella. As Pamela Katz states, “Glazer’s screenplay focused almost exclusively on the theme of unrequited love. Tugging quite forcefully on this single thematic thread, he transformed (or updated?) it into the very requited form of erotic obsession” (97). Pip’s unrequited yearning becomes, in Cuarón’s film, Finn’s psychological obsession to posses Estella’s body.

The focus on Estella’s physical body begins early in the film and continues throughout, from when the young Estella kisses Finn at the water-fountain in the decayed mansion belonging to Densmore (Cuarón’s Miss Havisham, played by Anne Bancroft), to when the teenaged Estella sexually teases Finn by allowing him to caress her leg after a formal dress dinner, to when their kiss is repeated once the two are in New York, to the afternoon in which Estella poses nude for Finn’s painting (a scene often mocked as campy), to the night in which the two finally experience sexual consummation.

The focus on Estella’s sexualized body comes at the cost of other narrative elements from Dickens’s original. Katz mentions that Cuarón wished to incorporate into the film the same class-consciousness that permeates Dickens’s novel. She is also surprised to find out that originally, Estella was meant to be a successful career-woman. Demands from the script and studio caused both of these elements to be removed from the final film.

Dickens is a product of the age in which he wrote. The attempt to bring Estella’s character into the 21st century is fraught with peril, and is the cause of much of the film’s disjointed feeling. Ultimately, the film brings the validity of “contemporizations” of classic texts as a whole into question, and because of this, challenges directors, screen-writers, and adaptation theorists to do the same.

Questions for Discussion:

Does this adaptation’s “sexualizing” of Estella harm the quality of the film as a whole, or does it help in situating the film in its contemporary setting and context? If the latter, how is this achieved?

Do you agree with Cuarón’s assertion that “it is impossible to make a contemporary film of a book about young people in love without sex”? If so, does this mean that any contemporization of a novel or play should sexualize its female characters as Cuarón’s film does? Why or why not?

Cuarón was unable to imbue this film with the same feeling of class-consciousness that is so powerfully evident in Dickens’s original novel. However, what are some ways in which a film set in 21st-century America might convey the same anxieties about class that were present in 19th-century England? What might a director do to illustrate these anxieties?

Further Reading:

Great Expectations. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Twentieth Century Fox, 1998. Film.

Katz, Pamela. “Directing Dickens: Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations.” Dickens on Screen. Ed. John Glavin. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 95-103. Print.

McFarlane, Brian. Screen Adaptations: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Text and Film. 2008. Ed. Imelda Whelehan. London: Methuen Drama, 2008. Print.

 

Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market

by Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Louisiana State University

Though Christina Rossetti’s powerful 1859 narrative poem Goblin Market might seem an unlikely source for a Broadway hit, Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon’s Goblin Market opened at New York’s tiny Vineyard Theater on October 17, 1985, starring Terri Klausner and Ann Morrison, to such good reviews that six months later it moved to Circle in the Square (a larger venue in Manhattan) for a successful run. A chamber opera requiring only two singer-actresses and a four-piece orchestra, Goblin Market has enjoyed continual production in both regional and college theaters. Most of the lyrics come almost directly from Rossetti’s luscious and memorable verse. The result is a captivating entertainment that—depending on directorial choices—works for a range of ages. Rossetti’s poem has generated a wide variety of interpretations: a Victorian children’s fairy tale, a metaphor for sexual desire, a Christian allegory, a saga of addiction and recovery, a story of sisterly affection, a representation of incest, a portrayal of prostitution’s ruthless market economy, a psychological investigation into the divided self, a portrayal of anorexia, and a feminist glorification of Sisterhood (with a capital S). In addition to being a work of theater that succeeds on its own, Pen and Harmon’s adaptation to the musical stage provides yet another way to examine Rossetti’s work.

The play is framed by a flashback. Dressed in mourning, the adult Lizzie and Laura return to their girlhood home, entering their old nursery to remember what may be a childhood game or may be something more. Once the frame is established and they have removed their black crinolines to reveal white petticoats and pantaloons, the drama follows the poem’s plot closely: Laura succumbs to the goblins’ tempting fruits and nearly dies; virtuous Lizzie saves her sister by bravely tricking the goblins into yielding the antidote without actually eating the forbidden fruit. Each actress speaks or sings her poetic character’s lines. But because there are only two actresses, each girl also plays the goblins in turn.

The play eliminates most lines that are typically used to support lesbian interpretations of the poem, such as “eat me, drink me, suck my juices / squeezed from goblin fruits for you” (lines 468-9). Unlike the poem, Lizzie brings back the physical fruit to Laura so that no live actors lick juice from the skin of another. But the possibility of a homosexual reading is reinstated through cross-gender performance. When Lizzie plays the goblins, they seduce Laura. Laura in turn plays the goblins throughout their violent assault of Lizzie.

The show’s readily available cast album and libretto work well for class discussion. Among the selections most useful for teaching is “Here They Come,” which is Pen and Harmon’s rendering of the poem’s metaphorical rape scene (lines 340-446): the women chant in disorienting counterpoint, harshly repeating the word “bite” as they rise to a feverish crescendo for an intense experience of how music can fortify poetry. Another song is “The Sisters,” a cheerful tune by Rossetti’s contemporary Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The duet supplies the poem’s sense of the girls’ striking similarity, replacing lines often cited to back a lesbian reading of the poem (“Golden head by golden head, / Like two pigeons in one nest /. . . Cheek to cheek and breast to breast / Locked together in one nest” (184-198)) with words translated from Brahms: they are “like as like can be, / As eggs are like each other, . . . / Or one star like another, / You can’t tell her from me.” For four verses of the song, the girls sing in harmonious thirds emphasizing their supportive relationship, with Lizzie taking the higher vocal line. In the last verse, the girls’ voices become progressively discordant as they sing new words, “Now who is the loveliest one? / I am, I am, I am, I am, I am!,” with Laura repeatedly trying to get the upper hand as she grabs the higher note. The concluding “I” is sung only one note apart, gratingly. Rossetti’s poem is not often interpreted as about sibling rivalry, but this song humorously helps us to consider that possibility.

Listening to cuts from the show pairs well with looking at illustrations of the poem (beginning with the original wood cuts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti’s brother) to compare visual and musical adaptations with Rossetti’s words.

Discussion Questions:

What is effect of framing the fantasy of Rossetti’s poem in a realistic setting in which grown women return to their childhood home after a funeral? How does providing the sense of an adult world outside the magical nursery space where goblins sell fruit change the how we interpret the story?

In much of the show, Pen and Harmon set Rossetti’s poetry to music almost exactly as Rossetti wrote it, while manipulating the words through repetition, as in “Here They Come.” How does musical embellishment serve as an interpretation of the poem, affecting our understanding of the poetry? In what ways do performance and staging also operate as an interpretation?

Pen and Harmon have written or interpolated some songs that are not based on Rossetti’s poetry. One example is “The Sisters,” emphasizing the girls’ sibling rivalry. How does the addition of these lyrics change our understanding of Lizzie and Laura’s characters? How does it affect their relationship? In what ways does it alter the meaning of the whole poem/play?

Further Reading:

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2002.

Pen, Polly and Peggy Harmon. Goblin Market. Dramatists Play Service. 1985.

Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems. Ed. Betty S. Flowers. London and New York: Penguin, 2001.

Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. “Performing Goblin Market.” Essays on Transgressive Readings:  Reading over the Lines. Ed. Georgia Johnston. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter:  The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997: 121-143.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible

EligibleMary Bennet and the Difficulties of Narrating Spinsterhood

by Shannon Draucker, Boston University

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is the latest retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It takes place in present-day Cincinnati and features Mrs. Bennet as a Women’s League busybody, Kitty and Lydia as CrossFit devotees, and Chip Bingley as a reality television star. Jane is a forty-year-old yoga instructor trying to get pregnant via IVF, and Liz engages in a ten-year affair with the married Jasper Wick (the counterpart to Austen’s Mr. Wickham). Eligible has already elicited impassioned responses from Michiko Kakutani, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other critics, and I focus here on a minor yet puzzling character from both novels: the plain, withdrawn, and bookish Bennet sister, Mary.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mary does little but study, read, and futilely attempt to impress unwitting audiences with her mediocre piano skills. As Alex Woloch has argued, Mary serves largely as a foil to Elizabeth in Austen’s novel (71). In Sittenfeld’s novel, on the other hand, Mary occupies an expanded role that exposes the enduring difficulties of narrating those who refuse traditional marriage plots. Sittenfeld’s Mary is a thirty-year-old misanthrope who lives at home and chronically pursues online master’s degrees. While her sisters all marry or enter serious relationships, Mary bitterly refuses to pursue marriage. Her rejection of the marriage plot is consistent with her feminist rhetoric about the sexism of reality television shows such as “Eligible” (a thinly-veiled reference to “The Bachelor”) and the silliness of her sisters’ “elaborate fitness rituals and fakely scented lotions,” but this resistance grants her an awkward presence in the novel (487). While Jane deals with a surprise pregnancy and Liz enjoys “hate sex” with Darcy, the narrative explicitly refuses Mary any such dramatic storyline. Her family members speculate about her sexual orientation (Kitty and Lydia repeatedly tease her about being a lesbian), but we soon learn that Mary prefers to avoid all relationships. Though readers are briefly enticed by the prospect that Mary has a “secret,” this plotline ends with a flagrantly mundane resolution: she’s merely participating in a weekly bowling league.

Yet, the very awkwardness of Mary’s storyline in Eligible renders it worthy of attention. The minor role of the spinster sister–relegated to the piano bench and destined to remain at home after her sisters marry–likely sits more comfortably with readers of Austen’s novel, which offers a bitter critique of the limited options available to unwedded women in the nineteenth century. Mary’s uncomfortable presence in Eligible is more jarring. Surely we could imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century? But the end of the novel—in which Sittenfeld surprises readers with an entire chapter devoted to Mary—leaves us with a frustratingly brief glimpse into the story of a woman with distinctive feminist views, sexual desires, and approaches to personal fulfillment. We learn that Mary cares little for relationships, prefers her own company, and is “capable of satisfying her own [sexual] desires” (487).  The final sentences of the novel depict Mary as she scores a strike in her bowling league: “All the pins fell.  And when they did it was so, so satisfying… Her sisters, she thought, could have their crushes and courtships, their histrionics and reconciliations. For Mary, this was heaven” (487). What Eligible ultimately reminds us, then, is that women like Mary exist and often have the most exciting subjectivities of all – but we must learn how to narrate them.

Questions for Discussion

How does Sittenfeld “modernize” the other relationships in the novel?  What can these changes tell us about our present cultural moment?  For example, students might consider Lydia’s marriage to the transgender CrossFit trainer Ham in conversation with contemporary debates about transgender rights

How does Sittenfeld absorb and adapt Austen’s tone?  How might we reconcile her simultaneous use of terms like “suitor” and “courtship” with her inclusion of modern-day colloquial language from text messages and emails (such as Liz’s SMS exclamation to Charlotte, “Cousin Willie just kissed me eek!!!!!!” (127)).

How do Sittenfeld’s frank discussions of sexuality in Eligible alter Austen’s storyline?  How does Austen, in comparison, figure passion and desire?

Can you think of other books, films, or shows that imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century?

Further Reading

Brown, Julia Prewitt. “Review: The Feminist Depreciation of Austen: A Polemical Reading.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 23:3 (Spring 1990): 303-313.

Burgan, Mary. “Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Victorian Studies 30:1 (Autumn 1986): 51-76.

Corbett, Mary Jean. Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Dow, Gillian and Clare Hanson, eds. Uses of Austen: Jane’s Afterlives. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

Horwitz, Barbara Jane. Jane Austen and the Question of Women’s Education. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.

Sadoff, Dianne F. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 818-837.

Troost, Linda and Sayre Greenfield, eds. Jane Austen in Hollywood. 1998. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Wells, Juliette. Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination. London: Continuum, 2011.

Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.