On the bitter end… of Downton Abbey

[Spoiler alert: this post reveals the big secrets of the series’ end, which has not yet been broadcast in North America. Avert your eyes as necessary.]

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Many of you may not be surprised to know that I’ve long been a fan – in a love-hate-but-still-must-watch kind of way – of Downton Abbey. (If you read my October post about being seduced by Poldark and Outlander, you’ll have worked out as much.) I know there are loads of problems with the show, and that I am a Bad Academic for falling for it as early as I did; one of my theatre history colleagues, the dear and brilliant Bridget Escolme (Bridget! Where is my guest post?), reminds all and sundry on a regular basis that Downton is particularly egregious for misrepresenting class politics in England in the early 20th century. No, friends, rich people did not, in fact, treat their servants quite so nicely. But it does make for great television.

What Downton has been generally good at, however, is bold and interesting female characters. For me, the show has often captured something of the spirit of the fin-de-siecle New Woman: outspoken, with a willingness to question norms and boxes, as well as an urge to take real risks. (Caveat here: the boldest women on the series are typically those with the most cultural and political privilege. That such is broadly historically accurate makes it no less worth marking.) Like many, I mourned bitterly the loss of Sybil, the renegade youngest Lady Crawley (played by Jessica Brown Findlay, who reportedly left the show rather than get too comfortable in the role). Sybil somehow embodied the coming force of modernity in a nutshell. Refusing to compromise on her own happiness she married the (not-socially-appropriate) man she loved, the chauffeur Tom, and encouraged one of the estate’s maids to dream of better things and then make those dreams a reality. (The maid returns, in an unexpected and fascinating way, in the final season.) Sybil’s death in childbirth struck me as gratuitous and unsympathetic, turning one of the show’s most powerful political voices into just another maternal statistic, but it did not prevent the series from going on to reimagine Lady Mary, the doyenne in waiting, as the estate’s proper agent, while Lady Edith, the middle child, took over her late boyfriend’s magazine and turned it into a proto-feminist success.

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Nor did Sybil’s death halt the momentum of what I think of as the show’s real reason for being: the progressive plot lines that feature the staff, buoyed by their unbelievable relationships with the upstairs folks. As the series progressed it was Daisy and Mr Molesley who became the “downstairs” stars, with Daisy in particular standing up for class rights loudly in the final season. Thomas Barrow, the “evil” under butler, also became an increasingly interesting, if annoyingly pitiable, character in the role of the queer man unable to break free of the holier-than-thou shackles of service culture. (Frankly, I think Thomas B should get his own spinoff; I want to watch THAT show. Rob James-Collier deserves it.)

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Clearly, I have spent far too much time thinking about Downton Abbey. And so it was that I tuned in eagerly, if a bit bashfully, to the final series on ITV this fall. (North Americans: Santa comes in January.) What exactly was I hoping for? Don’t get me wrong here. I know the extreme limits of Downton – after all, it’s sexy history on sale in the era of late modern neoliberal capitalism, the ultimate austerity diversion. When Daisy raised her budding communist fist against The Man early in the season, I was both disappointed and totally not shocked that she a) was completely unsuccessful in moving anyone to her cause, and b) ended up being “saved” by the grace of Lady Grantham. At series’ end, though, Daisy passes her exams with flying colours – and can look into a future that, maybe, holds something better than service to the Crawleys in the big house. Mrs Patmore’s bed and breakfast is up and running, though she continues as the Downton cook; the sentimentality on which the show thrives would never envision such a stalwart abandoning the fams. But I like to imagine that she works out for herself, not too far into the World Beyond Series’ End, that running a small business is way more satisfying than running Downton’s kitchen.

Then, however, there’s Edith.

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“Poor Old Edith” is a bit of a meme now; it’s famous for being Lord Grantham’s typical paean to his middle child, and it returns handfuls of times through the series. It’s a joke, too – insofar as Edith is framed as the ugly-duckling sister who is neither ugly (Laura Carmichael is absolutely stunning, both in costume and not) nor helpless or hopeless; in fact, while Sybil is being ostentatiously outspoken Edith chips quietly away at the patriarchy. As the blogger known as superfluousbananas puts it, aptly:

Hey, Robert.“Poor old Edith” has…

–Written newspaper columns

– Nursed soldiers

– Run a women’s magazine

– Learned to drive

– Raised a daughter in secret

– Put up with an older sister who constantly demeans her

– Been jilted at the altar, lost her lover to Nazi Germany, and had her younger sister and brother-in-law die, but still opens her heart to love.

I think we can stop calling her “poor old Edith”.

Downton has beat Edith up a bit, but still she survives. Quite a lot like Thomas Barrow, in fact – except she’s not a staff member, but a Lady Crawley. And, given the show’s relentless insistence on the aristocratic Crawleys’ own survival despite the changing social and economic times, I expected Edith, finally at series’ end, to achieve some measure of happiness. Maybe some sexual fulfilment. The things that a strong, independent, culturally powerful woman, writer, publisher, and mom should be able to hope for.

Ah, hope. So what does Edith actually get in Downton‘s twilight showing? She gets dumped by Bertie, the man who professes to love and adore her early in the season when he meets the “real” Edith – the working Edith – on the street in London. His problem? Edith has not revealed to him that Marigold, her “ward”, is actually her daughter by her previous, long-term boyfriend Michael Gregson, who was killed off – for being a bit of a rebel (Julian Fellowes, I sense a disturbing pattern here). Edith and Bertie go quite some distance down the road before Lady Mary – insert shocked emoji here! – decides that breakfast is the time to tell on Edith and Marigold. Bertie still loves Edith, but can’t get over the betrayal; worse still, Edith accepts this version of events. Never mind that she can be completely forgiven for imagining, circa 1925, that her partner-to-be might struggle to come to terms with a child out of wedlock; never mind that she was simply protecting her interests in the same way any man born of aristocracy would do in her place. Bertie calls her out for hypocrisy and lack of faith, and Edith acquiesces. Inside, I slowly start to die.

Am I surprised by any of this? Intellectually, of course not. Downton Abbey follows a well-worn soap-operatic script, and both Edith and Mary (who is rewarded for her betrayal of her sister with a new race-car driver husband) fit character types from that script to a T. But here’s the thing: Downton Abbey may be a historical soap opera about fading post-war aristocratic glory on the surface, but beneath that very thin veneer it’s about us, living shell-shocked lives in 2015. It’s a celebration of wealth and privilege at a time when so few enjoy either. It’s a pretence to care about the futures and livelihoods of those who serve at a time when more and more of us work in service jobs – with a requisite smile – and hate it terribly. It’s a world in which women who push too hard against the barricades don’t get the things they really want – though they do get to be venerated as survivors. Our final glimpse of Edith telescopes her playing with the Downton children, looking strangely upbeat about a future now beyond the frame, confined to fans’ hopes, longings, imaginations.

Here lies Downton‘s real emotional power, I suspect: it seduces audiences, week after week, to look to it for impossible hope, directing toward it our yearning, our craving, for something better. It grants and withholds, the former less and the latter more, so that we keep believing something better will yet come, against the odds. For Daisy, for Mrs Patmore, for Thomas Barrow; for Edith; for us.

So here’s where I say, again, that if a feminist, a teacher, and a scholar like me can get pulled so completely into this kind of seduction it speaks volumes about the astonishing power of cultural products like Downton Abbey to turn even the smart and the cynical into hopers and believers, to our own collective detriment. We live in a political and economic moment when so many of us are so very vulnerable to narratives of futurity, of deferred hope. Does Edith deserve to lose her happiness? Of course not, but… there’s one more Christmas special coming, right? Surely Bertie will return. Thomas survived his suicide attempt; his job looks safe now. Surely he’ll eventually succeed Mr Carson as butler, the job he’s always wanted! And Daisy? Her future lies in store. She’s smart enough, and tenacious. She’ll be ok on her own.

Somehow, we keep believing.

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In frustration,

Kim

 

 

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On #DestinationTheatre (a field trip report)

One thing I’ll say about my life as an academic: it involves a lot of travel, and plenty of that travel is a real pleasure. Two weeks ago I was in London, England, at the school where I used to work, Queen Mary University of London. I was there with my colleague from Western’s new Theatre Studies program, MJ Kidnie, and our student Caitlin Austin. Our mission: to meet with a long list of theatre and performance people, from my gang at QM to folks at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Shakespeare Institute and the RSC, with whom we might partner as we build our new experiential learning course, Destination Theatre.

We spent the week in meetings, but we also had a barnstorming time wandering the city with Caity and seeing it through her eyes as though for the first time. (Both MJ and I have lived in London before.) We saw an awful lot of theatre – imagine going to the theatre for work! – from a stunning, gutting, critically acclaimed production of The Oresteia trilogy in the West End, to a gorgeous, moving play about dementia cutting through a family (The Father), to a raunchy, modish Measure for Measure at the always-hopping Young Vic. Above all, though, we laboured as a team: meeting and tweeting (@westernuTheatre) and story boarding, all in the service of imagining what our new course will look like once all the glittering potential is harnessed and the inspiring pieces are slotted into place.

MJ with the London Eye

MJ with the London Eye

Eventually, in winter 2017, Destination Theatre will have its first full outing: 25 students from across the university plus two instructors will jet over to Britain for two full weeks of theatre, workshops, artists’ talks, guest visits to some of the coolest back stages around, and seminars with some of the best performance scholars in country. Their experience will be all the more memorable because of Caity’s contributions during our recent reconnaissance journey; her student’s-eye view proved invaluable to the work of imagining this course’s future shape. She saw things we two mid-career teachers simply could not, and that seeing shifted our thinking in key ways.

Caity at Shakespeare's Globe

Caity at Shakespeare’s Globe

How did we come to bring a student with us to London to help us plan a course? Back in April MJ and I won a grant from Western’s International Curriculum Fund to support journeys to London and New York in order to create partnerships for Destination Theatre. Sometime in late summer, as we were reaching out to colleagues and pricing flights, I got an email from Caity about her upcoming course load. Going into senior year she was a credit short for her Theatre Studies major, and there were no courses on offer that she hadn’t already taken. We started hunting around for alternatives – in media studies, in sociology, you name it – that might fit. She did a load of legwork and presented us with options.

While this was happening, I remembered that Caity would graduate the year before Destination Theatre’s first journey abroad, and that she had been crestfallen last autumn when she found that out. I also remembered what a reliable, thoughtful, mature student (and incredibly hard worker) she was. I talked to MJ: instead of “taking” (or, rather, missing her chance to take) Destination Theatre, could Caity help us to build Destination Theatre? We hatched a plan for a reading course in which Caity would split her time between test-driving some of the readings and assessments we had in the works for DT, and doing internship labour for us. As part of the latter she would join us on the London planning leg, consult with us from her vantage point as a senior undergraduate, and then write a final report for the Theatre Studies Committee. And, of course, in the process she would experience her own London theatre “intensive”, helping us to spot must-haves as well as also-rans for the first cohort in 2017.

We floated the reading course idea to Caity; she was excited and keen – even though the course would without question prove more work for her than an ordinary half-credit. Armed with her enthusiastic interest and commitment to the task, we approached our undergraduate studies chair to formalise the arrangement.

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon...

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon…

I won’t lie: despite our faith in Caity and the great-on-paper plan for the work she would do for us in London, MJ and I were a bit skeptical about outcomes. We weren’t sure, going into the journey, that Caity would really be able to tell us anything we would not see for ourselves. After all, course planning is a large part of our jobs, and we are both quite good at it.

Caity, however, quickly proved us wrong.

...and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

…and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was an outstanding secretary and third eye in all of our meetings with potential UK partners, a consummate professional as well as a genial participant. Most importantly, however, she consistently reminded us about the crucial differences between what students (and their parents!) will want from the Destination Theatre experience, and what we might value as teachers and administrators. For example: MJ and I focused a lot on costs, and assessed potential student housing with an eye to making the trip as cheap as possible for participants. But Caity reminded us that the cheapest option wouldn’t necessarily be the most attractive one for students: she bet that both students and parents or guardians would prefer to pay a few pounds more per night for secure, on-campus housing at Queen Mary, which would allow students to stay right next door to the spaces they would use for classes while in London.

She also reminded us that students will want to see as much theatre as possible while on the trip, but will also want to be tourists: for many of them, this will be their first journey to the UK. Old Londoners like MJ and me tend to disdain stuff like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Eye (the huge ferris wheel on the South Bank), and of course many university professors have bad allergies to anything that smacks of mass entertainment. But Caity was keen, and thoughtfully so: they might be tacky, sure, she told us – but that does not make tourist attractions less valuable for our purposes. Touristy things, she noted, are as big a part of the experience package we are building as any show is; they will be key to how Destination Theatre exposes students to a new, global city and its hugely diverse theatrical culture.

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In the spring I’m off to New York City to plan the second iteration of Destination Theatre. Caity’s “dry run” will be over by then, and I know I will miss having her along for the ride. Luckily, she spent part of the summer of 2015 in NYC on a short course at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and she knows Manhattan’s theatrical ropes pretty well. You can guarantee I’ll be grilling her for tips before I get on the plane.

 

Still learning all kinds of stuff from students,

Kim

PS: stay tuned for a post by Caity on her experience – coming soon!

Fret less, teach better – and feel better (is it really that easy?)

So it finally happened: I had my first epic fail of the term. Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud were on the roster in Performance Theory this week, and on Tuesday our job was to get some preliminary definitions of their main stuff (“Epic Theatre” and “Theatre of Cruelty”, for those of you who are not already theatre geeks) on the table. We did a brainstorming exercise at the white board, which went fairly well. Then, according to my prep, we were supposed to do this:

Debrief.

Usually, I like a nice debrief. We talk about what we’ve been discussing/writing/sharing on our own/in groups/in pairs, and exciting new insights emerge. I jump around and get exercised about the groovy things the students have discovered; we laugh at my shenanigans, and then we learn.

This week, however, when I looked toward the white board the temperature inside my body suddenly rose a couple of degrees. It may have been that southwestern Ontario is unseasonably warm this week, and the building in which I work is ill equipped to handle autumnal climate fluctuations; or perhaps I had finally succumbed to a combination of Prof Flu and Plane Flu (I was in the UK last week; more on that in my next post). Anyway, the result was the same: blank of blanks.

Somehow, we got through Artaud. But I left Brecht – Brecht! My hero! – on the floor. A big, flat, dialectical dud in the middle of the sweaty room.

Class ended with me asking the students (all of whom are always so game to just go with what comes out of my mouth at any given moment – bless!) to free-write for two minutes in response to the Brecht reading they’d completed. I then ran away to my office and cowered behind the recycling bin for a bit, weeping. The pressure immediately to dive into my prep for Thursday and re-write ALL OF IT was overwhelming. But I resisted.

I’ve written before on the blog about epic classroom fails, and about the power of just throwing the damn prep away in order to improvise in the moment. I’ve also been concerned recently with “prep creep,” and with it my looming anxiety that I’m spending too much of my (increasingly precious) work time on prep. All of this occurred to me as I cringed at the memory of Tuesday afternoon.

There was a time when I would absolutely, without question, have gone home and rewritten the heck out of Thursday’s prep – anything to give myself the impression that I was “ready” to “fix” the problems that had arisen on Tuesday. Instead, this week – mindful of my crazy workload, of the power of prep creep, and of the fact that much of what went wrong on Tuesday had exactly nothing to do with my preparedness, and everything to do with what I was feeling (exhausted; a bit sick) – I simply said: fuck it.

I reminded myself: Thursday’s class is already pretty well planned. I’m going to forget about this one, bad day; I’m going to go back on Thursday and regroup; I’m going to do a version of what I’ve already planned, and it’s going to be Just Fine.

And here’s the shocker: it WAS fine!

I arrived to class Thursday afternoon and asked the students to share what they’d written at the end of Tuesday’s class. There was some really good material on offer, and we chatted for a bit about the ins and outs of Brecht’s theory. Then, I turned back to my prep, which called for us to watch two very different performances…

(Buffy is SO BRECHT. No, really.)

(Societas Raffaello Sanzio… freaking everybody out, but in a good way)

… and then to connect them to Brecht and Artaud, respectively. The students responded to the performances with enthusiasm, disquiet, and real verve. I trusted myself in the moment to make the connections I already knew were there, and to speak with passion about two theatre practitioners with whose work I’m well familiar. In short, I trusted the students, and I trusted me too. I glanced a few times at my prep document (of course I did!) but mostly I went off-piste, letting the students’ reactions guide our discussion. And it was absolutely fine. It was more than fine, in fact: we had a terrific class.

Prep is the thief of time: it is necessary, of course – but it’s also so, so easy to delude ourselves, on really bad days, into thinking that more and more prep will make a better and better class next time out. But will it? Is that “better” class really better for the students in the room, or does it just appear to be better from the perspective of the struggling teacher who strives to regain control over his or her feelings about the class, about how things are going?

This week I decided to wing it: partly out of desperation, and partly out of a small confidence that I knew my stuff well enough to get away with winging it. In the process, I realised that I need to trust myself more, full stop. The prep is there as a fail-safe, a backup, but let’s face it: I’m well trained in this work, and I need to be confident that I can communicate it to students – and have compelling conversations with them about it! – without a whole bunch of paperwork, and anxiety, getting in the way.

Why it’s taken so long for me to absorb this fundamental truth I have no idea; I chalk it up to the power of imposter syndrome. But truly, it’s been such a relief to realise, this week, that I did NOT need to do more work to salvage the class; all I needed to do was show up, be present and committed, and bring what I already had on hand to the table.

Gratefully!

Kim