Monday, February 9, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Differential Equations" (on Lily Blau's The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll)

differential equations
by Douglas Messerli

Lily Blau (developed in collaboration with Sydney Gallas) The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll / Pasadena, California, The Theatre at Boston Court / the performance I saw was on Sunday, February 8, 2015

 It has long been known that certain pages of the private journals of Charles Ludwidge Dodgson were excised from the year 1863. One page was apparently removed by Dodgson himself, perhaps feeling that he had expressed something too awkwardly or emphatically; another missing page was been accounted for by his habit of mis-numbering the pages of his journals. Yet the pages of June 27-29 of 1863 were clearly razored out, and soon after that date it appears that his formerly close relations with the Liddell family, whose daughters, particularly Alice, he photographed, came to an end. It is also presumed that the Alice of his great book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, were based on Alice Liddell—although there is much evidence to the contrary—and, since his death, rumors have consistently arisen that, whether consummated or not, Dodgson had had a pedophilic relationship with the young girl. In fact, it may have been his nieces who later removed the pages from his journal, as they and other family members attempted to wipe away nearly all evidence of Dodgson’s relationships with women, including older women, feeling it might color the popularity of his pseudonymous publications under the name of Lewis Carroll, in which they also had a financial stake.
     Several works of fiction, film, and drama have dealt with various aspects of the life of this professor of mathematics at Oxford, including the oddly metaphoric work by John Logan, based on the fact that, at the age of 80, Alice Liddell Hargreaves met Peter Llewellyn Davies, the latter the inspiration for James Barrie’s young Peter Pan; the play obviously deals with two children whom, for the adults surrounding them, unintentionally became symbols for youth, beauty, and, love.
     Yet none of the theories surrounding Liddell and Dodgson’s relationship has ever been established, and there appears to be other evidence that he might have been attracted to Alice’s older sister or that he was courting the girls’ governess at the time of the rupture between him and the Liddells. The break in social intercourse may even have had more to do with university politics and his lack of support for Dean Henry Liddell than with his relationship with the Liddell children. The fact that he gave up photography in the same year of Alice’s marriage to the cricket-player, Ronald Hargreaves, also may have nothing at all to do with his relationship to the girl.
      Yet clearly, his photographs, if nothing else, reveal a fondness for the young Liddell daughter, and there are clearly many links, direct and indirect, that connect the Alice of his stories with the child whom he photographed. Is it necessarily shocking or perverse to believe that he simply did find Alice quite attractive and even contemplated, in a day in which youthful marriages were not uncommon, proposing marriage to her?
     The new play by Lily Blau at Pasadena’s The Theatre at Boston Court, in various ways, explores all the possible alternatives without dismissing any of them. And that, in turn, is what elevates this work from a simple piece of gossipy sleuthing to a drama that, inevitably, given what we know to be the themes of Dodgson’s Lewis Carroll works, transforms it into a mediation on the uncertainty of all knowledge, particularly within an age in which surety was seen as a necessity for adult action. The British Victorians were necessarily confident—even smug—in their acquisitions of colonies, explorations of new territories, and belief in their societal invincibleness.
     Dodgson, as least as performed by the memorable actor, Leo Marks, was anything but confident. A man who stuttered in front of most adults; a mathematician who was perceived by many to be a superior intellect to those such as this play’s M. Lapin, who held higher positions in his department; the son of a minister, who himself preached, despite his obvious difficulties, about personal sin; and, self-evidently, a natural skeptic who was graced, nonetheless, with humility, the Dodgson of Blau’s play seems happier at the children’s table where he mightn’t be expected to show a Victorian stiff upper lip.
     The Dodgson of this play clearly is delighted by Alice (Corryn Cummins), and is desperately in love with her;  apparently, he has done nothing to shame himself—except, of course, in his own imagination. But there, to use Shakespeare’s old saw, “lies the rub.” Even if he has done nothing wrong, how can he expect to get away with his sinful thoughts, plagued by his religiousity, his fear of being “found out” as a social fraud, and his terror—at least in this telling—of breaking with the conformities of his social position? Certainly, an Oxford professor might feel perfectly free to express a certain amount of eccentricities: Dodgson could “play” with photography, tinker with toys, write up imagined tales, create linguistically tongue-tying poems (which, oddly enough, The Missing Pages does not really explore, despite Dodgson’s inability to speak straightforwardly), even, on occasion, buy his young pupils presents, including a bright blue dress which he awards Alice so that she might match the girl in his story books; but there were limits that even differential calculus might demonstrate to him. As differential equations made clear, for example, “the derivative of the momentum of a body equals the force applied to the body.” Accordingly, whenever Alice moved toward him, he moved further into the distance. But what he had not accounted for is that, as she grew older, Alice might apply a force to his body that could not equal his resistance. 
     Indeed, some sources, as I have suggested, hint that his relationship with the Liddells was ended by the indignant parents when it became clear that Alice had fallen in love with Dodgson, or, perhaps, after Dodgson determined he could no longer resist, he asked for her hand in marriage.
     In Blau’s play these dilemmas are melodramatized through warnings of his fellow professor, Lapin (Jeff Marlow), co-conspiring with the white rabbit of his tale. Mrs. Liddell (Erica Hanrahan-Ball), catching up her visitor with a mother’s insight every time he might even imagine stealing a kiss or, more terrifyingly, conjure up an image of actual rape, becomes the Red Queen demanding his head be chopped off.

    Blau’s play, which supposedly occurs on the day when Alice has planned a visit to Dodgson for one last photograph before she marries Hargreaves, is a sad one, not only because it calls up all the quandaries of reality and imagination that, no matter how he actually lived his life, Dodgson surely faced, but because it finally reveals that his great failure in life was not doing some dreadful deed, but doing nothing. Alice gently faults him not for becoming a gray-haired old man, but for refusing to become the rather young and dashing man who unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) courted her as a child, and with whom she fell in love. Like Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice—whose crime is not that he lusts after the love of another of his own sex, but that he concentrates that unrealizable love upon the visage of a boy—Dodgson’s failure was not that he fell in love with a bright young girl, but that he did not reasonably act upon it. If he truly loved her, mightn’t he have simply waited for a few years to her to have become a woman and proposed the marriage she also sought? Or did he, her parents horrified by the ilmplications ?Or did he refuse her, after all, because he was a pedophile who could love only girls of a certain age? 
    The playwright proffers no answer, but hints at it through the apparent emptiness of Dodgson’s life. In the end, after giving up even his hobby, he has little life left as Dodgson, having become a literary figure, instead, for all times, dying as a nonexistent being (Lewis Carroll) who expressed sorrow for having written his books, a man who looked perhaps too deeply into a world which existed, as brilliant as it was, only in his imagination.

Los Angeles, February 9, 2015

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