Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Self Improvement

September 11th, 2009 · 3 Comments

In the play Pitmen Painters, two of the most profound lines, for me, were “stop being scared of the world” and “the mystery of being alive”. Now as a I reflect on the play as a whole, I’m unable to remember the context in which they were said however, for some reason they have remained in my thoughts through out this entire day.

yesterday in a nutshell
- wake up
- breakfast
-gym
- lunch
- The Globe Theater
- cook dinner (burn chicken)
- email banter, fight, crap
- Pitmen Painters
- watch this space rehearsal

today in a nutshell
-wake up
- research
- lunch
- walking tour
- research

I compared these past two days, and all I can think about was, when we first arrived in London. We spent every day exploring. We stumbled upon museums, buildings, and cafes all of which seemed to be waiting for us. Now, are we allowed to say we are familiar with the city, and just stop?

Why are we here? How will this experience benefit our lives? What will we take from living in this strange city? What is the purpose?

After I saw the play Pitmen Painters, I was undoubtedly blown away by the creative and emotional connection I experienced, through the performers. Not only did I enjoy the acting and the humor, but I felt the message was incredible. Past the drama, and past the humor, I felt as though their was a consistent theme of self-improvement. I thought it was beautiful how they depicted the closed and simple life of a miner, and how easily a life can be influenced with simple encouragement. These men lived a hard and terrible life, but because of the sharing of knowledge, they were able to observe creativity, and let it improve their mental state of being.

These men stopped being afraid of the world. Do I have the ability to do this? I want to, but can I? Do you need to live in a time of oppression or discomfort in order to realize your due for self improvement?

Tags: Patsy · Uncategorized

A Marxist View of the Pitmen Painters

September 11th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Yesterday we all went to the Pitmen Painters at the National Theater. I greatly enjoyed the show however I found it sad, yet sadly true. The story is about five Pitmen who are able to take an art appreciation class thanks to the WEA (workers education association). Their teacher, Mr Lyons, soon realizes that the Pitmen know nothing about art and decides to have them learn through painting their own works. As the Pitmen progress they catch the eye of heiress  and art enthusiast Helen Sutherland. Helen buys some of their paintings and is at first astounded by the honesty in their works. She also attempts to pay Oliver, one of the pitmen, a weekly wage so he can paint without the interference of his pitmen work. Eventually Helen grows bored with Oliver’s work and moves on.

Helen claims that she and Oliver met across the boundaries of class, but I really find this to be untrue. I think that Helen only appreciated the Pitmen’s art because it was a commodity for her. She wanted to OWN Oliver and his work like she would any other commodity. And just like with any other commodity she soon grows bored with him and moves on to other more trendy things.

During the scene of the Pitmen’s first art show everyone, including Lyons, is refering to the Pitmen as Pitmen who can paint, rather than as individual artists. The only reason the Pitmen became popular was because they were working class not because they were talented (though they were). Lyons was selling the work of these working class men by making the fact that they were working class a commodity, and therefore made them a novelty. In a way, he advertised them like monkeys in a cage at the zoo or as some sort of side show act “come see the Pitmen Painters! Have you ever seen anything like them? See the working class does have talent! Unbelievable! Anyone can paint!” And of course the public gets tired of the same circus act and they move on. So, the Pitmen are left the way they were before. Lyons left them, Helen left them, and their popularity left them.

I also feel that Lyons used the Pitmen for his own gain, almost like “look what I got these monkeys to do! I could teach anyone, why don’t you hire me?” At one point in the play Oliver asks Lyons “why can’t I live like this? Why couldn’t this be me?” he also says “we are both mediocre artists, why can I be in the place you are?” (Note: not direct quotations, but something very similar) And the reason is of course class. The bourgeoisie is forever exploiting the proletariat, and the proletariat is forever being held down by the bourgeoisie. It is only after the painting class that Oliver is finally able to eliminate his false consciousness and see what was going on the whole time, just to be put back in the same place he was before when Lyons says “well if you want the world to change, you will have to change it.” I love Marxism but I don’t think that the proletariat has the resources to overthrow the bourgeoisie, because part of what makes the proletariat the proletariat is their false consciousness and their inability to get past the glass ceiling. In order for the proletariat to aquire such knowledge would be for them to rise into the bourgeo themselves, which would not stop the problem but rather perpetuate it. This is would be impossible in a place like Britain in the 1930s, where and when the class devisions where so impossibly strong, and as they still are to some extent.

Tags: Rebecca

Shakespeare and Hall: A Look at Rural England

September 11th, 2009 · No Comments

Having viewed both Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Mr. Lee Hall’s new play, The Pitmen Painters within three hours of each other it is hard not to compare the two. At first glance they seem wildly different. Shakespeare’s comedy is about courtiers pretending to be poor, while Pitmen focuses on members of the lower class themselves. One is set in 17th century France, and the other in World War II England, and not any England, but in Ashington, a small suburb of Newcastle in the dreary northern region of Northumberland. One focuses on the trials and tribulations of Love, while the other is a poignant look at stereotypes and one’s duty to oneself.

In short, they are describing two very different types of England. Yes, As You Like It is set in France, but that was simply Shakespeare’s way around censorship laws. He describes an idealistic England, filled with courtly love and beautiful scenery. He portrays the rural working class as idiots without a whole brain between them. Indeed, that is the way Shakespeare usually describes the lower classes. His plays usually feature courtiers of some kind, and the poor are usually treated as comic relief, if not with outright contempt. This is rather ironic considering his audience was mostly the working class of London, though since his patronage came from the court, perhaps not entirely surprising.

It is almost the exact opposite with Hall. He chooses to glorify the common man, while members of the upper class come off looking silly, or just plain sad. I took the character of Mr. Lyon as rather a fool. He couldn’t really see art until he saw it through the eyes of the uneducated pitmen, and when he left to be a professor he lost any sense of artistic discernment, or even humanity, that he had left. He became a shell of a man creating mediocre art. It seemed to me that he learned nothing from his time in Ashington, except that he could never see things as clearly as Oliver, so he ran away and hid behind his books. The pitmen, on the other hand, are the ones that can truly understand the meaning of art. These men who stopped school at ten, who spend day upon day deep in the ground outshone someone who spent his life studying art. Mr. Hall breaks down the stereotypes of modern England. As with Billy Elliot, the underprivileged prove themselves to be more than just hard laborers and thugs. A lot of Hall’s own history went into the writing of his two most well known plays. He was from a small mining town in Northumberland. Instead of wanting to paint or dance, he wanted to write, something that was frowned upon. He overcame the judgments of his friends and family, and the challenges set forth by society, and he is now a successful playwright. Like the author, the pitmen become a huge success, despite the hardships that accompany the journey.

I think it was very eye-opening to have viewed these two shows back to back as I did. Though they are divided by stretches of time and different subject matters, it was interesting to see the ways different playwrights interpret English life. Shakespeare’s portrayal of rural life as happy-go-lucky is a stark contrast to the gloom of Hall’s mining town. They were both excellently done performances, and as such they left me considering the way in which I perceive English culture as a whole.

Tags: Campbell

A Ride through the Park

September 11th, 2009 · No Comments

This past Monday I had the opportunity to go horseback riding in Hyde Park. And honestly, this experience was a lifesaver to me. Back home I hardly go three days without at least spending some time in a barn or riding my horse. Those hours spent on and around the horses are a source of stress relief. So these past weeks here without opportunities to go riding or spend an hour or two in a barn, have been hard. It’s caused me to find new ways to relieve stress. Museums are new form of stress relief as well as aimless walks through the parks of London. Yet, when Monday came around and I found myself with the chance to go riding, I was ecstatic. It was an amazing feeling being back on horse, even if it was only for an hour. This ride though, was even more special than I expected it to be. It was actually a learning experience about the park and riding in England.
In respect to the ride as a learning experience, it provided a new way to look at the park for me. I had been in Hyde Park numerous times before that doing research for my walking tour. But Hyde Park from the back of horse is completely different and as such it was eye opening. From the back of a horse, Hyde Park becomes completely removed from the city. Even walking by the road while riding, it felt as though I was in the middle of woodland and not London. For me, it felt as though I had the opportunity to experience Hyde Park as it was meant to be experienced by earlier generations. It was a way to return to the past of Hyde Park. This feeling helped me better understand the origins of Hyde Park and it even helped me with understanding my research on the early history of the park. Moreover, this experience was also a chance to experience riding in another country. I have been riding for over ten years and therefore am pretty knowledgeable about riding in the States. Also, I have had opportunities to train with English trainers, but had never ridden outside of the country before. I was not expecting there to be many differences since I had ridden in the English style, which is obviously the style used here. Yet again though, I was surprised by this country. There is a difference in the vocabulary used in respect to both riding style, riding equipment and even with the horse. It was humbling in one way. It showed me that I can always learn, even if it is something that I feel very confident in concerning my knowledge and experience. Even though, it was humbling and different the fact that I could connect with another rider from England through our shared love of riding was an amazing experience. It proved to me that it doesn’t matter what your culture is, if you share a love for something it helps you overcome different vocabularies and viewpoints.
I feel that this is the one experience that will stay with me the longest from London. Firstly due to my great love for horses and riding, but also because it was the first moment that I truly connected with a Londoner over something we both loved. It was a moment that I shared with a fellow rider, without considering our different nationalities. It was something more than exploring the city with fellow Americans and that made it a very unique moment of connection.

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Tags: Kimberly · Uncategorized

Dress Rehearsal after a Play

September 11th, 2009 · No Comments

Pitmen Painters proved not only to be an enjoyable play, but another opportunity to enjoy Watch this Space at the National Theatre. From previous experiences at Watch This Space, I had come to expect music, dance and acting from the performances I had seen. Last night though, it was a complete surprise what they had performing in the green area. This weekend’s performance is La Roué de la Mort: La Trilogie du Temps. As the website states, “For Thames Festival weekend, we have one of the most jaw-dropping spectacles we’ve ever seen. On a remarkable structure of a counterweighted cylindrical wheel which pivots around a 10m wide central axis, a trilogy of narratives weave a dramatic episodic spectacle through time.” It is a three part presentation on time and how it can affect humanity. How it’s presented is through amazing acrobatics and gymnastics. When we exited the theatre we found ourselves gaping at this large spinning wheel. We actually described as an overly large, unusually constructed hamster wheel. As to what it would be used for, we had no idea. Then we understood as the performers came up to the wheel and began spinning it and doing crazy gymnastics on and through it. We were all amazed to the point of being incapable of speech. It wasn’t something we would expect from an area sponsored by the National Theatre.
To me, it was another example of how the performing arts here receive more support from the state. And I find myself jealous of the opportunities that it provides for British citizens. They have the ability to find free performances of groups that we would have to pay dearly for back home. This is the one aspect of London and Britain as an entity that I have come to admire and even envy. Even though, I do not participate in the arts anymore, it is still something I love. There is nothing better than seeing a good play, concert, opera, et cetera. But back home, it costs money to enjoy this. Here, there are numerous opportunities for free concerts, plays, and other types of performing arts. Not only are they free, but they are guaranteed to happen. They aren’t scheduled and then canceled due to a lack of interest. There is an interest here for them. That is something that I envy. It also speaks wonderfully of how the British view and support the arts. They don’t limit performances to only music or drama, but include other forms such as the one being featured this weekend or the one for next weekend, which is called “Spin Cycle” and includes the washing of dirty linen and bicycle dances. I can honestly say that Watch This Space and London’s appreciation of the performing arts is the one aspect I will miss the most when we leave for Norwich.

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Tags: Kimberly · Uncategorized

Umbrella Creativity: A Shared Description of Both The UK Premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Violin Concerto No.2, “Fiddler on the Shore” and The Sir John Soane Museum

September 11th, 2009 · 1 Comment

The beauty hit us.

Like waves against

the stones of the shore upon which the fiddler, the architect, played.

It gave way to

                  whimsical

      terror

                  and with each turn

of a page or corner,

we discovered that

only a new anguished horror awaited us.

Variably, precision melted,

moaned away

into            l     e        g          a             t                o                       s      l       u           r             s

of

terse

vibrations

and

amorphous design. The crashing dissonance           hit us,

poured over us and into our eyes and ears,

unwinding         the         tendrils

of muscle which control

                                          perception and jamming

the cogs

       which regulate a finely-tuned, mechanical reality.

                                   Amidst the breakdown stood a man.        He stood

alone, crazed and removed

and moving

       erratically, creating

buildings and music and life in the midst of chaos.

This sound, this place, is chaos.

Can sound not be

[a place]

? We were told that art is. How can you argue that

this is not art?

Tags: Anya · Museums

A Museum of One’s Own

September 11th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Though a far cry from the traditional set up of a museum as everything is held in a man’s house, the Sir John Soane Museum showcases aspects of the British identity quite well. In fact, the museum’s success in its portrayal of the British identity might be attributed to the fact that it is in Sir John Soane’s house. The placement demands that attention be paid to the man and the object rather than just the objects on display. The objects he collected are incredible- beautiful, intricate, and plentiful. Still, one would find difficulty leaving the house without considering how the objects, the man, and Britain all tie together.

Sir John Soane

Sir John Soane

Sir John Soane, an architect most famous for his work on the exterior of the Bank of England, understood the importance of inheritance in the British social set up. The son of a mason, he was in good company for improving his skills in the building trade. If he was content with being just another mason or even just another architect though, I wouldn’t have anything to write about in this post; that is, his collection, his museum, his legacy, his influence- none of this would be possible. His social stature needed to improve. Sir John Sloane lived and worked during the Georgian era, a time known as the “Age of Aristocracy” in which the British aristocracy enjoyed a level of prominence in society. While wars of independence and revolutions for social equality raged in other lands, the English social scene continued to favor the upper classes that the others were rebelling against. Understanding the importance that his social stature had in such a society, Sir John Soane married into money in 1784. This marriage gave him the social status that enabled him to reach a more elite class of customers and, as a result, be involved with more impressive and monumental projects. His talent alone was noteworthy. Before he married, he had already won many awards in architecture, traveled to Italy to perfect his craft, and had began compiling images for a publication that would come out in 1788. I don’t mean to belittle his talent at all. Still, it wasn’t until after his marriage that he started to design more major projects including his most famous work on the Bank of England. There has to be a link between the wealth and stature he acquired in his marriage and the timing of his more famous works. Yes, he was good but you have to be great to be sought after to work on such large-scale projects as the Bank of England. Why was he sought after for such projects? I would argue that the answer lies in the fact that people of a certain social circle knew his name because of his social status in London.

Soane’s displaying his possessions to the public can be seen then as a key portrayal of the British identity. He was able to collect all of these remarkable objects because he was wealthy and influential enough to even be considered as a possible owner in the first place. His social climbing, in my opinion, played a major part in getting him to that status. Let’s remember that Sir John Soane didn’t just display these impressive objects in a building (something he could have easily crafted given his profession). He displayed everything in his house and, in doing so, put his house and himself on display as well. His life became part of the exhibit. So truly his life must be considered as much as any of the objects in the museum upon reflection. The statues were beautiful but does anyone need that many? Short answer: no. Sir John Soane seemed to think differently though. For this reason, his seems to have an understanding of the importance of showing off one’s social status in the English society. He needed people to understand just how well off he was. What better way to accomplish such a thing than to display impressive object after impressive object in the context of your home ?

Outside of Sir John Soane's home

Outside of Sir John Soane's home

Interestingly enough, the museum has been and continues to be free of charge to the public as was declared by Sir John Soane the way it should be. This fare gives every person the same opportunity to visit the museum as the next. Was this a way in which to thwart the social fixtures that seemed to consume his society? Or was it a way to show off on the most massive scale possible? I’m not sure. But this college student certainly appreciated the fee.  But no matter what the cost was to get into the museum, I think its impossible to only call it that. It’s more than a museum. It’s a portrayal of a man’s life and the society he tried so hard to impress.

Tags: Audrey · Museums

The Will and Courage to Change Yourself

September 11th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Let me begin by saying that Pitmen Painters was the best play I have seen thus far.  It seemed to me that almost everyone enjoyed the play quite a bit.  Pitmen Painters was full of passion, philosophy and humor.  However, it was the passion and philosophy which truly captured me during the play.

The socialist overtones were quite apparent throughout the play, but I’m not entirely sure if it was a glorification of socialism.  It’s true that Oliver turned down the stipend and instead decided to continue working in the mine; an obvious case of promoting the proletariat.  However, what comes of his actions?  Instead of having a much different life, Oliver (and the rest of the miners) doesn’t seem to grow, either artistically, which Helen points out, or personally.  The miners latch on to the socialist movement hoping for change, but that change never came as was pointed out by the projector screen at the end of the play.

So what is there to show for in the end?  Quite a bit in my opinion.  The play was not a promotion of socialism, art or even the Pitmen Painters.  It was both a warning and revelation about change.  The play wanted to make clear to the viewer that a person cannot expect to latch on to an ideology and expect to be saved.  Ideologies are merely abstract concepts of the world at a particular moment in time.  They cannot be true because the world (and us as human beings) is constantly in flux.  True change, personal rebirth, transcending yourself or whatever you want to call it can only come from within and without the help of false idols or flawed ideologies.  To say that Oliver would have sold out by accepting the stipend is simply not true.

In the end, each of the Pitmen Painters sold out by rejecting the opportunity for personal change.  Oliver, the rest of the miners and the dentist all decided to join the socialist movement, placing the opportunity for change in someone else’s hands.  The unemployed man decided to join the war effort not because he really wanted to, but because he was convinced by recruiters that it could fulfill something missing in his life (probably the “honor” of having a job at last and being part of something “important/larger than oneself”).  In both cases, each character, instead of looking within themselves to find what they truly wanted from life, decided to look outwards for something they thought could fill that meaning.  Though their lives were tragic and their dreams left unfulfilled, the play and the characters in it is a message to the viewers that change is possible only if you have the will and courage to make it so.

Tags: Andrew F

The Moon Under Water—Certainly My Favorite Pub

September 11th, 2009 · No Comments

Reading George Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water” I was almost getting giddy at the prospect of such a pub existing.  Now I have not spent much time in the pubs here in London not being a huge fan of pub food, excessive drinking, and loud music—however I have made an effort to visit a few pubs and have specifically noted their “atmosphere” to use Orwell’s term.

To be completely frank I had no real interest in discussing this topic until I met up with friends a couple of nights ago at The Sports Café off of Piccadilly Circus.  Prior to this experience I had felt most of the pubs I ventured into were fairly similar. The food offerings were all about the same: pies, jacket potatoes, a burger, the crowd was similar: middle aged men in suits at lunch and after work, with a handful of older gentlemen creeping in the corners, and the music was undistinguishable pop music in every locale.  Depending on how close the pub was to London proper I found there were more men in work clothes.  At the pubs closer to a college I tended to find a mixed clientele of young college students and middle-aged men.  However, in every pub almost all of the pub-goers were British. That was until I went to The Sports Café.

I wasn’t even halfway into the door when I found myself surrounded by young college aged (or younger) people and (get ready for it..) American accents! It was so loud I could barely hear myself thinking, a combination of the music volume and the stereotypical loud American voices.  I never even saw a food menu, I’m not sure if this was because they didn’t serve food or because food had stopped serving by this hour, but either way I would assume that a place like this would serve chicken fingers, burgers, pizza, and fries (not even chips).  I recognized almost every song that came on the blaring stereo, and additionally recognized half a dozen people at the bar (most of whom I had never met before, but also happened to be Dickinson students).

Now I don’t think George Orwell was looking for the first pub I described, but I also don’t think he would have imagined a place like the later that I visited.  I have come to realize that pub life is a huge part of the British culture, and I am trying to appreciate it for what it is, but none of the places I have visited have been a place where I would want to spend extended periods of time, or return to.  But, if I ever find The Moon Under Water where the atmosphere is just right with good food, no music (okay well my perfect pub would have some music), families in the back garden, and a friendly staff I could certainly spend some time there. But I’m still looking.

Tags: Amanda

The Pitmen Painters and Existentialist Thought

September 11th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Philosophy post! Prepare for pretentiousness, big words, and most importantly, bullshit! I’m only kidding of course. Yesterday’s play, The Pitmen Painters raised some important questions about personal identity. In fact, the entire first act was dedicated to that theme. The miners are faced with an important challenge to their working class identities. When the wealthy heiress Helen Sutherland offers Oliver Kilbourne a weekly stipend for painting, he declines after much deliberation, hollering on about how a miner absolutely cannot be an artist. He is a pitman through and through and that will never change. His identity does not extend any further than his career.

Oliver is a perfect example of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of mauvaise foi, translated as bad faith. Sartre realized that humans tend to define themselves as per a list of finite list of descriptors, such as profession, sexual orientation, actions committed in the past, etc. His most famous example is the infamous waiter. This particular waiter wakes up every morning and thinks about waiting tables. He goes to work and is in his element, focusing primarily on his job and considering everything else to be either peripheral or in some way related to working in a restaurant. He is more waiter than human. Sartre considers such a person to be lying to himself, because human identity absolutely cannot be isolated into one overarching trait.

Oliver is in bad faith, at least throughout act one. There really isn’t much more to his shallow existence beyond his job as a pitman. He considers Helen to be part of “Them,” the upper class of Britain who might as well belong to a different nation. The two classes are worlds apart. Oliver and crew can’t even fathom pursuing a career in something as lofty as painting, a profession stereotypically associated with those who actually have time to paint, namely the upper class.

I apologize, but some technical jargon is necessary at this juncture. A key concept in existentialism is undefined nature of humanity. There are two important ideas to be understood here: facticity and transcendence. Facticity is past actions or social roles, or what most people attempt to use as fodder for definition. If I killed a man last week, the murder is part of my facticity. Transcendence is what a person is yet to become, an infinitely open space to be filled with future facticity. Sartre famously writes in the god-awfully long Being and Nothingness, “I am what I am not and I am not what I am.” Read that one a few times. To be what one is not is not as contradictory as it seems. The nothingness represents the freedom all people possess to make choices and live dignified lives. Do not become too deeply ingrained in your past; it does not define you.

The Ashington Group initially disagree with everything Sartre said. A pitman you’re born a pitman you’ll die, and you’ll never be anything more. As the men become more and more well known in the art world, they insist on remaining “non-professional” artists and keep their dismal jobs down in the mines. I believe that the group, especially Oliver, conquer their bad faith. They finally realize the crucial balance of facticity and transcendence. Their art remains based on working-class life and pitman culture, but they learn to embrace the future instead of gluing themselves to their past.

Tags: Andrew B