Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Awards 2010

My second novel won a Colly!  Second prize went to a play by Glenville Lovell, an accomplished novelist and playwright whose works have won first prize, third prize (twice!) and a commendation in previous years.  Third prize was awarded to a collection of short stories by Heather Barker, my classmate from last year’s Masterclass in Fiction Writing led by Dr George Lamming (who gave the feature address at the awards ceremony).  Dr Lance Bannister’s work was given the Prime Minister’s Award.

The Crucible: what’s in a name?

Reading a play and seeing a play are two different things. I read The Crucible at school, and liked it well enough then, but years later I was part of an amateur bilingual production in a small theatre in Wales, and the acting in some of the scenes was so brilliant that my scant knowledge of Welsh was no impediment.

Two scenes will always stay with me. The first takes place in the courtroom, where Mary Warren is trying to tell the truth and the other girls are pretending that she is one who is in league with the devil. Eventually, their hysterical behaviour wears her down into once more half-believing that the lies and play they engage in is in fact reality, and she abandons the loneliness of truth for the comfort of a collective lie. Manon Wyn Williams, who played Mary Warren, was heart-rendingly good. I saw her perform this scene in Welsh during a dress rehearsal and was so harrowed by the experience that I was unable to watch her do it again.

The second scene is at the end, when John Proctor (played with passion and creativity by Gwion Gwilym) reluctantly decides to sign a confession that will mean freedom for himself, but condemnation to those remaining accused who refuse to admit to a lie. However, at the last minute, he balks at having the signed document made public:

PROCTOR: I have three children – how may I teach them to walk like men in the world, and I sold my friends?

DANFORTH: You have not sold your friends –

PROCTOR: Beguile me not! I blacken all of them when this is nailed to the church the very day they hang for silence!

Tell them I confessed myself; say Proctor broke his knees and wept like a woman; say what you will, but my name cannot –

DANFORTH [with suspicion]: It is the same, is it not? If I report it or you sign to it?

PROCTOR [he knows it is insane]: No, it is not the same! What others say and what I sign to is not the same!

DANFORTH: Why? Do you mean to deny this confession when you are free?

PROCTOR: I mean to deny nothing!

DANFORTH: Then explain to me, Mr Proctor, why you will not let –

PROCTOR [with a cry of his soul]: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

John Proctor sees his soul as a negotiable thing that may be given up and lost, a measure perhaps of grace or integrity. But his name is more; it is the very stamp of his reality, the one thing that must stand for truth. If it does not, it means his destruction – not in a literal, physical sense, but a destruction no less real for all that.

The power of the name is a serious matter in both myth and everyday life. Formerly, in less literate, more oral societies, it was one’s word or spoken oath that counted; now we rely on the tangible evidence in the form of the written name. Even that writing is something unique – your name written by you in a distinctive manner that no-one could or should imitate.

In stories, the act of changing a name can be as significant as becoming an entirely new person, and heroes and villains keep their true names secret so that no-one will gain power over them. In real life, changing your name can be an important undertaking involving bureaucracy or rituals or both, and knowing a person’s name allows you to wield Google and Facebook without mercy, as job applicants and employees have discovered to great detriment.

The girls of Salem claimed to have seen witches signing their names in Satan’s book, a parallel of the Christian belief that the names of the redeemed are written in the book of life.  The name of God has immeasurable power, perhaps even equivalent to God, according to both Christian and non-Christian belief systems.  To sign your name to something is to give it some part of your presence, your essence, and this can endure to death and beyond.  No-one gives a child an infamous name, but the names of saints, heroes and respected ancestors are assigned to people and places and entities and inventions, thus achieving a form of immortality.

To make, and keep, a name for yourself is to take responsibility for the continuous creation of your very being.

Cyrano de Bergerac

I have been with folk tales and myths for too long, and you will start to think that is the only thing I read.  I assure you that is not the case, and for proof I present one of my favourite plays in any language, Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand.

Written two years before the turn of the century (from 19th to 20th, that is), Cyrano is presented as a homage to a past age, even for his time the epitome of a dying breed of chevaliers.  The historical Cyrano, on which this character is loosely based, lived in early 1600s, just around the time that Miyamoto Musashi made his transition from samurai to sage and wrote The Book of Five Rings.

The fictional Cyrano is a samurai type of hero.  At one time he literally quotes poetry while he dispatching an opponent with his rapier, like a man wielding a haiku and a katana with simultaneous ease.  He cares nothing for money, everything for honour.  You have to admire a man who responds to a nobleman’s sneer about his lack of gloves by remarking that in truth he only has one left from a very old pair, having left the other glove in someone’s face (for those who don’t know, or have forgotten, the way to challenge someone to a duel in those simpler times was to smack them in the face with a glove).  And yet, though he possesses such courage, such conviction, such panache, he is unable to tell the woman he loves how he feels about her.  Instead, he helps her get the man that she does love by giving Christian, a handsome but thick-headed young cadet, the right words to woo her by.

The central theme of the play and all subsequent plays and movies derived from it (for example, Roxanne and The Truth about Cats and Dogs) is that external beauty and internal worth will always be in competition, and that the former is more likely to win though we may root for the latter.  However, there is a line in the play that belies this simplistic analysis.  There is no doubt that Christian is a good sort, courageous, dependable and honourable.  However, he is severely deficient when it comes to eloquence.  When he at last discovers that Roxane no longer loves him merely because he is handsome but because of the beautiful words that he writes, and that Cyrano loves Roxane, he is indignant and insists that Roxane should be told, that it is unfair for him to stand in the way of Cyrano’s happiness just because he has the good looks and Cyrano doesn’t.  Then Cyrano returns that it would be just as unfair for him to stand in the way of Christian’s happiness simply because he has the gift of expressing what Christian perhaps feels but is incapable of saying.  Suddenly, Christian no longer looks like the more fortunate man.  If he has an advantage in his physical beauty, he certainly has a disadvantage in his intellectual deficiencies, and while both beauty and intelligence in one person would be perfect, Roxane is more likely to desire the soul than the shell.  Sometimes the superficially beautiful are not to be envied, but pitied, for they too can say with Christian, ‘I want to be loved for myself, or not at all’ (… je veux être aimé moi-même, ou pas de tout!).

Cyrano de Bergerac is not only about love, but about friendship, and the code of honour between two men who love the same woman.  In fact, it is more about honour than it is about love, for honour requires sacrifice of the self’s desires to the greater benefit of the beloved friend, country, or sweetheart.  It says something that Cyrano is able to carry the cross of sacrifice not like a burden of victimhood unchosen, but as a soldier who chooses battle with honour and pride.  There is no happy ending, at least not in the Hollywood sense, but the dénouement is somehow bittersweet, as if there could have been no other way for it to unfold without fully celebrating the beautiful soul that was Cyrano’s.

It’s all about the panache.