I just finished a highly important and enjoyable book, two virtues that do not all that often appear in tandem. It is The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Subtitled “A History of Proper English,” it is by far the best history of the English language, excitingly and amusingly told in part though striking quotations and entertaining anecdotes. It is based on extensive research, and references a vast number of impressive sources, proving in equal measure history and usage guidebook, as Publishers Weekly rightly observed. Also a splendid example of how to write informatively and wittily on a subject that should be of interest to everyone involved with the English language—by, for instance, speaking and writing it—and indispensable to anyone professionally engaged with it.
Among the innumerable fascinating data I gleaned from it, I single out here the admirable pages about censorship, which succinctly but thoroughly adduce scary and ludicrous specimens of censorship as well as taboo. (The chapter that comprises them is drolly entitles “Unholy Shit.”) That Hitchings is also a theater critic for the London Evening Standard further endears him to me. It may even induce me to seek out his earlier books.
Hitchings discusses Thomas Bowdler, whose The Family Shakespeare (1818) was a popular edition of Shakespeare’s plays that “omitted any words that ‘cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’—stripping away anything sexual, yet retaining the violence.” A slight compensation for his extensive impoverishments is Bowdler’s one posthumous contribution to the English language, the verb “bowdlerize.” One review of the work accused Bowdler of having “castrated, cauterized and phlebotomized” Shakespeare, which got me thinking about, among other things, castration.
I perceive it as a cruel and unusual punishment, even when it is mandatorily imposed on pedophiles. These, currently very much in the limelight, what with certain low practices in institutions of higher learning, should sternly be punished. That should involve jail sentences and, afterward, preemptive measures such as electronic and other surveillance, housing restrictions, and so forth. But not castration, however much it may have formerly done for young boys’ singing voice. It is not even surefire protection against misdeeds, as it does not wholly eliminate the libido, and can prevent only penetration, but not molestation.
This brings me to the story of Abelard and Heloise, and the dreadful emasculation of the excellent man by the hired thugs of the vicious Canon Fulbert, who incorrectly believed that his niece, Heloise, had somehow been ruined by Abelard, her loving and beloved teacher (and secret husband), a great and noble philosopher and theologian.
Their story has been treated in various works of literature and theater, one of the latter, Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” performed on Broadway by Keith Michell and Diana Rigg in 1971. I quote from my review, as reprinted in Uneasy Stages.
The play is billed as “inspired by” Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard though “inspired” is hardly a word I would use in this context. All I remember of that dryish book by a fine scholar and translator but unwieldy novelist is the character of Gilles de Vannes, modeled on Miss Waddell’s beloved teacher George Saintsbury . . . the only character in the [Millar] play who has any life. Abelard and Heloise have fired the imaginations of such diverse writers as Alexander Pope and George Moore, and there are respectable but uninspired plays on the subject by Roger Vailland and James Forsyth. To these Millar’s work may be appended as the last and least.
For Millar does not convey anything to us: neither life in the Middle Ages nor the conflict of God and Eros during the heyday of the Church; neither Abelard the great dialectician and teacher, nor Abelard the masterly poet. But perhaps one could bypass all these in favor of the tragic love story (and castration is arguably more tragic than death, if only one had the language, the poetry, the fervor. But if you write lines like [here I skip three incriminating samples of dialogue], you are not fit to write a play about these lovers—at best perhaps, about the Windsors or Onassises.
The production contained a most discreet (not to say castrated) nude scene, showing the lovers only on a darkened stage, briefly, and in profile, but sufficient to elicit from me that Ms. Rigg “is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This remark has fueled comments, amused but mostly disapproving, in numerous publications, notably in Ms. Rigg’s delightful book about negative criticism, No Turn Unstoned. In it, the charming and highly literate actress observes, “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn’t read the review.”
I now regret having written this, but at least I incurred a slight punishment. Absolutely everyone who quotes my line has it wrongly “a brick mausoleum,” whether derived from Ms. Rigg or from any of several anthologies of quotations that incorrectly include it. Now “brick mausoleum,” besides denying me the alliteration in B, makes no sense. A basilica is an early form of Christian church built on an ancient Roman model, and much simpler, chaster, narrower than the later cathedrals, and definitely devoid of anything like a flying buttress. A takeoff on the expression “built like a brick shithouse” for a bosomy woman, it has appropriately some relevance to medieval architecture, but none whatever to a mausoleum. Unfortunately, the wits or wiseacres who misquote me know nothing about a basilica, not even the word. Oh well, grander people have been misquoted in the prints: Marie Antoinette never said that thing about eating cake, and Voltaire never said that thing about fighting to the death for someone’s right to disagree with him.
One other play involving castration, a just slightly better one (play, that is, not castration) is Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth.” The hero, Chance, has seduced the ingénue, Heavenly, and caused an abortion that left her sterile. He evinces what Kenneth Tynan has called “an obscure awareness” that he must let himself be castrated by the henchmen of Heavenly’s father, a beastly Southern political boss, by way of expiation of his guilt. Moreover, as Tynan writes, he “begs us, in parting, to understand him, and to recognize ourselves in him.”
“For my part,” Tynan continues, “I recognized nothing but a special, rarefied situation that had been carried to extremes of cruelty with a total disregard for probability, human relevance, and the laws of dramatic structure.” And he goes on to make pertinent, perceptive comments, including wonder about why the action begins on Easter Sunday: “Is castration to be equaled with resurrection?”
Well, come to think of it, I can recall another play of sorts, where it is equaled with redemption, two kinds of it no less. In Yugoslavia in my high-school days, religious instruction was compulsory. One day when the instructor was late, I improvised a little miracle play, based on a picture from one of my father’s books with the caption “Saint Origen castrating himself for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom.” (Note: not Tennessee Williams’s Heavenly,)
So, for my playlet, I picked the prettiest girl in the class and had her kneel before me as I brandished a ruler representing a cutlass, and, turning my rapt gaze at the ceiling, loudly proclaimed, “I castrate myself for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The pretty blonde was supposed to supplicate me not to do it. Just then the instructor arrived, and, though I am not quite sure about Origen (it seems the Catholic church has revoked his sainthood), I was barred from further religious instruction, which I hailed as a most welcome redemption.
That may have been the only time in dramatic and religious history when castration, even if only mimed, has proved beneficial.