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.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

By Jen Cadwallader, Randolph-Macon College

graveyard-book-coverOne of the challenges facing any instructor of Victorian literature is helping students see how studying the concerns and values of the past helps them better understand their lives in the present. This same preoccupation engages Neil Gaiman in The Graveyard Book (2008), where Nobody “Bod” Owens must learn to negotiate between the values of the graveyard, where he is raised by ghosts long dead, and the contemporary world of the living, with which he must interact. Adaptation in multiple senses thus becomes a central focus of the novel. More specifically, The Graveyard Book adapts – although “resurrects” might be more fitting – the Mowgli stories from Rudyard Kipling’s two Jungle Books (1894, 1895). Major characters such as Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan are recognizable in Gaiman’s Bod, Silas, Miss Lupescu, and the man Jack; readers of both works will see similarities between a number of minor characters as well. Gaiman’s episodic structure (each chapter is a story about Bod set roughly two years after the previous one) recalls the format of Kipling’s Jungle Books, though not all of Kipling’s stories focus on Mowgli. A difficulty in pairing The Graveyard Book with the Jungle Books are the number of stories in Kipling’s collections, some of which have not held up as well as others. Faculty interested in the stories most closely related to The Graveyard Book might want to limit the assigned readings to “Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” “Tiger! Tiger!,” “Letting in the Jungle,” and “The King’s Ankus.”

TJunglebookCoverhe Graveyard Book, which won both the Carnegie and the Newbery Medals (notably the first novel to do so), is a richly layered narrative with much material for stimulating discussion. In addition to the issues of continuity and temporality that Gaiman’s novel raises through its juxtaposition of the past and present, the dead and living, pairing it with Kipling’s work may help students reflect on the nature of the Victorian bildungsroman. Kipling’s Mowgli famously helped inspire the creation of the Cub Scouts and embodies the “romanticized child” of the late-Victorian era. Bod’s journey toward adulthood reimagines the qualities of masculinity and innocence inherent in Victorian concepts of childhood. Alternatively, faculty may be interested in focusing on the Jungle Books’ participation in the boys’ adventure genre, with its stress on nationalism and empire. The Graveyard Book, as scholars have noted, steers clear of less palatable imperialistic ideology while still providing ample material for discussions of identity and community and cultural exchange.

Questions for Discussion

In The Graveyard Book, Bod is granted the “Freedom of the Graveyard.” How does this compare to the “Law of the Jungle” in Kipling’s stories? How do the behaviors associated with Gaiman’s “Freedom” and Kipling’s “Law” reflect shifting cultural perceptions of childhood?

Gaiman transforms the Indian jungle into a neglected graveyard and instead of wild animals peoples his novel with ghosts, ghouls, vampires and werewolves. How do both settings capture their eras’ ideas of fantasy worlds or spaces outside of their readers’ day-to-day lives?

Much contemporary debate on child-rearing focuses on the dangers of childhood: should children be allowed the freedoms of earlier generations, or do they need to be more protected in a world that has grown more dangerous? Should children be exposed to the idea of these dangers, or should we “sanitize” the material we place before them? The first sentence of The Graveyard Book – “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife” – which stands alone on a page illustrated by Dave McKean, immediately invites discussion of this controversy. Looking particularly at Bod and Scarlett’s adventures with the Sleer (and her parents’ reactions) how else does Gaiman challenge contemporary notions of what is suitable for children? Do Mowgli’s adventures reflect any of the same concerns about childhood?

Both Mowgli and Bod must make places for themselves in the world outside the jungle and graveyard. How do both protagonists navigate this transition? What particular values from their upbringings help them critically examine the societies they enter?

Further Reading

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton, 1985.

McBratney, John. “Imperial Subjects, Imperial Space in Kipling’s Jungle Book.” Victorian Studies 35.3 (1992): 277-293.

McStotts, Christine. “The Jungle, the Graveyard, and the Feral Child: Imitating and Transforming Kipling Beyond Pastiche.” Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics, and Other Works. Ed. Tara Prescott. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 65-82.

Randall, Don. Kipling’s Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Robertson, Christine. “‘I want to be like you:’ Riffs on Kipling in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.2 (2011): 164-189.