Monday, 29 June 2009

Oppression by any other name does not smell sweet

It is funny how often thoughts and events follow each other. All of a sudden, variations on a theme occur. I offer the following:

Over the weekend I neglected more mundane activities and read a new book by Sarah Dunant, called Sacred Hearts. I like her historical novels: she does her research, and it reads well - you want to know what happens. It is set in Ferrara, in 1570, in a convent, just at the time that the Council of Trent had passed decrees reforming the Catholic Church. Some of these decrees related to stricter discipline and far greater enclosure of convents - grills, no visitors, invisibility, etcetera. For centuries women had been forced to go into convents, as dowries were (apparently) so high there was little chance of the women being able to marry. The story is that of a young girl in love, who is put into the convent by her family against her will, and her struggles to escape. Most of the characters are sympathetically drawn, and the convent environment and internal and external pressures and politics convincing. The book, and its characters, recognise that their society is full of young women forced into convent life against their will, and that generally there is no escape.

Read the correspondence between Galileo and his illegitimate daughter in the convent. He had a long relationship with the mother, and there were three children. Both girls were sent to a convent when they were very young. Galileo - and presumably other men at universities, did not marry. Illegitimacy of daughters meant that their chances of marriage were very low. So off to the convents with them. In Venetian society the men married late, to conserve the family wealth. The surplus females - read most of them - were shunted off to convents. And there was an extensive prostitution industry. Because men have such strong 'urges'.

Often I go to an opera study group. Today our speaker discussed Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, aka as Romeo and Juliet. This is not based on Shakespeare's version of the play, and has some significant plot differences. There is a rather nasty and violent feud between a couple of families in the city. Poor Juliet, the daughter of one of the families, i Capuleti, is being given in matrimony by her rather unpleasant father to a man not of her choosing, and is helpless to do anything about it. She loves the bloke from the enemy family, Romeo. Naturally the opera ends tragically, with the deaths of both lovers. It is a very sad and romantic story.

It seems that Opera Australia is doing a modern version of this opera. There is a recording of another performance which is set in the 20th century, with lots of men all toting guns. Notwithstanding this, they stick to the script, which has a lot of mentions of swords. (Not guns.) I was a bit perplexed about why some bright spark producer/director would want to do this opera in a modern setting, as though forcing females to marry against their will was somehow justifiable, even glamorous, despite the fact that in this day and age, our western civilisation has at last recognised the autonomy of women and given them legal rights. I asked why, and whether the production was to be set in a tribal African or conservative Islamic state. Our speaker did not know the reason - or perhaps chose not to say, merely muttering something about modern designers' wishes and ideas. I think that often such producers lack any sense of of knowledge of history. Sometimes a modern setting can work - and others simply do not. For example, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is based on the ancien regime's abhorrent practice of the droit de seigneur - the lord of the estate is entitled to deflower the bride of his tenants. First bite of the cherry! This does not work in a modern setting - nor should it try to do so.

Why would you do a modern version of a story in which one of the fundamental problems is lack of choice or consent of the female - where she is seen, and legally is, the property of the nearest male relative? Why would they want to pretend it was modern? Why is this ugly situation being prettied up? What is the sub-text here? Pretty damn weird, I reckon.

A letter in today's Sydney Morning Herald commenting on the Rugby League players' various sex scandals suggests that "every player should be required to wear an NRL-approved burqa-equivalent off field, and be accompanied by a female relative in public. This would protect players from predatory attacks by women and maintain the honour of the NRL and the great game of rugby league. No longer would players be the victim of sex-crazed women unable to resist the allure of uncovered meat. No more would shame be brought to the men, who we know are dedicated to the game and their families. They can walk the streets anonymously protected by women relatives, happy in the knowledge that it is for their own good and the honour of the game."

Good thinking. I'd go along with that. I have had enough of males flaunting their hairy chests and arms, not to mention their tight jeans, as they walk beside burqa clad or veiled female family members. The letter made me cheer up a bit, and laugh, but in my more sober and sometimes depressed moments I remember that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.


Anonymous said...

As a Catholic, woman, and feminist, I have problems with the whole concept of holy orders for women. I know nuns have been able to do more active work over the last century or so, but prior to that it seems to have been all about the cloistered life, shutting women up in convents to do domestic work only, as if fit for nothing else. Men in the holy orders got to do all the fun stuff like reading Scripture and writing commentaries and saying Mass. I might have considered the priesthood had it been an available option, but taking the veil has never appealed to me as a vocation. But enough about my theological grudges...

I too am over this fashion for producing period plays in modern settings. It's often done without any thought, apparently on the basis that it will make it easier for audiences to relate. Why are they putting on the play then if they don't think audiences can relate without modernising the setting?! I will say that I think Baz Luhrmann managed to modernise okay with his Romeo and Juliet film, or at least with the nice touch of guns named 'Rapier', etc -- but let's not get into all the other issues like how almost no one in that movie can say their lines properly!

Pam said...

As another coincidence, I turned on the radio briefly today when I was brushing my teeth and there was a play on about a young woman, clearly in a historical setting (and in Italy, I think) who had been sent to a convent against her will and was complaining bitterly to an older nun about it, and about how she'd rather be at home. And I wondered vaguely if this happened a lot.

Thank you for answering my question.

And yes, I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Such thoughts! I am looking forward to reading some thought provoking prose over my 2 week break. It really is food for the soul, I think.

meggie said...

I really enjoyed this thoughtful post. The letter you quoted made me laugh too.

Pam said...

Actually, my "play" was a dramatisation of Sarah Dunant's book. I heard the next bit the next day. Very coincidental.

Happy Birthday for yesterday! We're nearly twins, though possibly not quite in years. I trust you're older since you're a granny and I (sigh) am not.