1. Sherlock Holmes was originally going to be called Sherrinford. The name was altered to Sherlock, possibly because of a cricketer who bore the name. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Holmes (of course), was a fan of cricket and the name ‘Sherlock’ appears to have stuck in his memory. Doyle was also a keen cricketer himself, and between 1899 and 1907 he played ten first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club – quite fitting, since Baker Street is situated in Marylebone district of London. For more on the creation of Holmes, see the detailed ‘Introduction’ in The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes.
2. The first Sherlock Holmes novel was something of a flop. The detective made his debut in the novel A Study in Scarlet (1887), written by a twenty-seven-year-old Doyle in just three weeks. Famously, Doyle was inspired by a real-life lecturer of his at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Joseph Bell, who could diagnose patients simply by looking at them when they walked into his surgery; the other important influence on the creation of Sherlock Holmes was Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Doyle wrote the book while he was running a struggling doctor’s surgery down in Portsmouth. The novel was rejected by many publishers and eventually published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual (named after the husband of Mrs Beeton, of the book of cookery and household management). It didn’t sell well, and more or less sank without trace.
3. The second Sherlock Holmes novel was the result of a dinner party with Oscar Wilde. One person who had admired the first novel was the editor Joseph Stoddart, who edited Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. He convinced Doyle, at a dinner party in 1889, to write a second novel featuring the detective, for serialisation in the magazine. Wilde, who was also present, also agreed to write a novel for the magazine – his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared in 1890, the same year as The Sign of the Four, Doyle’s novel.
4. Sherlock Holmes didn’t wear a deerstalker. Much. The famous image of Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat is a product of the celebrated images which accompanied the short stories, which appeared in the Strand magazine from 1891. It is when the stories began to appear that Sherlock Holmes became a worldwide sensation. Sidney Paget, who drew the illustrations, had Holmes wearing a deerstalker when the detective went into the country to investigate mysteries at country houses and in small rural villages, but most people think of the detective as always donning the hat when off to investigate a case.
5. Sherlock Holmes is the most-filmed fictional character. According to IDMB, Holmes has appeared in 226 films and been played by dozens of different actors since the advent of cinema in the late nineteenth century.
6. Sherlock Holmes is not the most-filmed fictional character. That is, not if you include non-humans (or partial humans). Dracula has been filmed more times than the great sleuth, at 239 times, but since Dracula is part-man, part-vampire, Holmes is the most-filmed fully human character.
7. Sherlock Holmes didn’t make deductions. At least, not most of the time. Instead, and if we want to be technically accurate, he used the logical process known as abduction. The difference between deductive and abductive reasoning is that the latter is based more on inference from observation, where the conclusion drawn may not always necessarily be true. However, in deduction, the conclusion drawn from the available data is always necessarily true. But then again, since Holmes’s reasoning always seems t0 be correct, perhaps it is deduction after all!
8. Holmes never says ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. Not in the ‘canon’ of original Conan Doyle novels and stories. Holmes says ‘Elementary!’ and ‘my dear Watson’ at various points, but the idea of putting them together was a later meme, which possibly arose because it neatly conveys Holmes’s effortless superiority to his ‘dear’ friend and foil. The first recorded use of this exact phrase is actually in a P. G. Wodehouse novel of 1915, Psmith, Journalist.
9. The Sherlock Holmes Museum both is and isn’t at 221B Baker Street. Although the museum in London bears the official address ’221B’, in line with the celebrated address from the stories, the museum’s building lies between 237 and 241 Baker Street, making it physically – if not officially – at number 239.
10. There’s more to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than Sherlock Holmes. Much more, in fact. Among other achievements, his legal campaigning led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. He was knighted for his journalistic work during the Second Boer War, not for his achievements in fiction, law, or medicine. We owe the word ‘grimpen’ to him (from Grimpen Mire, in The Hound of the Baskervilles). He wrote historical novels (such as The White Company and Sir Nigel, set during the fourteenth century) which he prized more highly than his detective fiction. Winston Churchill agreed, and was a devoted fan of the historical novels. Doyle also wrote science fiction romances, such as The Lost World (1912), which would inspire Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and, subsequently, Steven Spielberg’s film (the sequel to the novel and film being named, in homage to Doyle, The Lost World). Doyle also took up legal causes himself: read Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur and George for his most famous real-life case.
By Alexander Atkins, and posted last year on his excellent blog http://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com/ for the Dickens bicentenary. The image below was designed by him to mark the occasion
This 200th article on Bookshelf is dedicated to my teacher, mentor, and dear friend, Tom A., who taught me how to understand the human condition and the world through the lens of literature, and cultivated a lifelong love affair with books.
Since February 7, 2012 marked the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the Dickens Bicentennial has been celebrated with enthralling exhibits, lectures, and festivals celebrating the legendary author’s life and work. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which owns the largest collection of Dickens manuscripts and letters in the U.S., introduced “Charles Dickens at 200.” The New York Public Library, home of the Berg Collection of Literature with an extensive Dickens collection, recently opened “Charles Dickens: The Key to Character.” Across the pond, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which owns the largest collection of manuscripts, letters, first editions, illustrations and photographs, displayed various exhibits focusing on Victorian life, and the life and novels of the author. The Museum of London developed the “Dickens in London” that exhibited rare manuscripts, photographs, and objects in a setting that recreated the sights and sounds of Victorian London. Also within the past year, four major novels based on Dickens’s life and three new biographies have been published. The BBC, which has developed most of the major novels into miniseries and movies, has developed compelling new productions of the most popular novels.
All of this Dickensmania underscores the enduring value of the Dickens canon — realize that his books have never been out of print — and has initiated numerous articles and discussions, in and outside the academe, about why Dickens is still relevant. Indeed, the celebration of the Dickens Bicentennial begs the question: why read Dickens?
Among literary critics and English professors there is no middle ground: either you love Dickens or you hate him. Despite these polarized inclinations, there is an unequivocal agreement that Dickens had an amazingly fertile imagination and was an absolutlely brilliant storyteller. Dickens had a cinematic style that enabled him to develop vivid characters and settings that leaped fully-formed from the page. In short, reading a Dickens novel is like watching a film. And Dickens — like another literary genius, Mark Twain — had a great ear for spoken language and dialect: each character has a colorful, distinct voice and presence. Moreover, Dickens, like other Victorian writers (Hardy, Thackeray, and Trollope, to name a few) had an expansive vocabulary. To read Dickens — and generally you need a dictionary by your side — you fully experience the richness, depth, and sheer beauty of the English language. One of the most obvious reason that Dickens endures is how his work, particularly the Christmas Books, influenced and changed our perceptions of Christmas. Watching Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol, whether on screen or stage, is a cherished annual Christmas tradition around the world. And finally, Dickens is regarded by many critics as one of the most influential authors in the pantheon of literature, joining such luminaries as Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes.
During the Dickens Bicentennial many Dickens scholars have weighed in on the question of the year — why read Dickens? Perhaps one of the most insightful and thoughtful answers comes from Jon Varese, currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a research assistant at The Dickens Project: “We read Dickens not just because he was a man of his own times, but because he was a man for our times as well. We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences… These are all wonderful reasons to read Dickens. But these are not exactly the reasons why I read Dickens. My search for a [definitive] answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came from a high school student, whose essay I was reviewing for a writing contest. “We need to read Dickens’s novels,” she wrote, “because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.”
“What truly gives Charles Dickens his immortality is neither the life he lived nor the commercial genius that spurred enormous sales of his works [perhaps as much as $68 million in today's dollars]. His immortality rests on the inimitable characters he created in his novels,” writes Elliot Engel, who has taught literature at the University of North Carolina, and North Caroline State University, and is President of the Dickens Fellowship of North Carolina. Engel elaborates: “He doesn’t give you realistic characters. Instead, Dickens makes sure that his characters, rather than being real people, are walking, talking, living, breathing personifications of a universal feeling. Scrooge represents stinginess in everything he does… Tiny Tim represents the victory of benevolence over handicap… Ultimately, [Dickens's] characters will live forever because they never lived in the first place.” Engel makes an apt comparison to the Bard: “[Dickens's] characters represent unchanging human emotion and feeling. In this way, his characters are similar to Shakespeare’s because they are timeless. Like Shakespeare, Dickens bursts through the age in which he lives… Dickens remains today as great a novelist as Shakespeare was a dramatist.”
Jonathan Yardley, a book critic and columnist for the Washington Post, dismisses the criticism that Dickens’s characters lacked depth: “I’ve believed in his characters all my life… I find myself very emotionally engaged when I read Dickens, and that doesn’t happen unless I care about the characters. Sure, David Copperfield can seem too perfect and priggish… but melodrama was part of Dickens’s arsenal. He wanted people to feel strongly. And the various fictive techniques and characterizations he used were not idly chosen.” Once again the comparison of Dickens to Shakespeare is compelling: “The world changes, but people don’t,” Yardlye continues. “Dickens’s understanding of human character is as pertinent now as then; you can find in public and private life types who exactly fit the Dickensian mold. Shakespeare understood everything! There are a lot of things Dickens doesn’t understand. Dickens was not given the gift of subtlety; he was prolix. He probably oversimplified things; he was guilty of sentimentality and melodrama and so forth, but he did have that same visceral sense of Homo Sapiens.”
It is clear that characterization is central to the Dickens canon. In a recent interview, Dr. William Moeck, curator of “Charles Dickens: The Key to Character” on exhibition at the New York Public Library, notes Dickens’s mastery of melodrama and his remarkable visual style: “[Dickens] continues to make us laugh and continues to make us cry, often on the same page. Although that melodrama may not be to everyone’s taste, the philosopher George Santayana nailed it when he said that although Dickens’s taste is sometimes wanting, no one can deny his genius… [The] reason why Dickens has continued to be powerful is because of the visualizable quality of his way of drawing characters, and that has made him a natural for cinematography. Early screenwriters said they were influenced by Dickens because they found in his novels such pre-cinematic techniques as panning, close-ups, montage, and parallel plotting. Since we live in a visually oriented culture, I think that’s probably his power. He speaks to our mind’s eye.”
Radhika Jones, executive editor of Time magazine and former managing editor of The Paris Review, focuses on Dickens’s theatricality and masterful use of language: “Dickens had trained to be an actor, and the aural quality of language was always on his mind. [His novels] were often read aloud among families and communities, and eventually Dickens performed scenes himself, in his series of wildly popular theatrical reading tours. This strategy broadened his audience, primed them and motivated them. And it shaped his style. All those characters with funny names and verbal tics and signature accents — their words beg to be spoken. Even his most complex sentences have a natural rhythm to them. They work out loud and on the page.”
Michael Feingold, writing in the Village Voice about Simon Callow’s recent biography, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, recognizes not only Dickens’s theatricality, but also his enormous reach and influence: “Dickens’s creativity, merging with his trauma-powered drive for success, gave his art unexampled reach: he went everywhere and noted everything he saw. Casting his net so widely over his own time, he ensnared his successors: Without Dickens, you wouldn’t have Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Kafka, all of whom cherished him… His innate theatricality drove his novels onto the stage; some were pirated even before he’d finished writing them.”
This theme of reach and influence is echoed by Peter Ackroyd, who wrote the most definitive and comprehensive biography in recent times about Dickens. Ackroyd notes: “In Dickens’s work — in Dickens’s life itself — there is the unmistakable urge to encompass everything. In this he is a part of his period, the man exemplifying the spirit of his time in his energetic pursuit of some complete vision of the world. The intricacy, the complexity, the momentum, the evolution, the very length of his narratives indicate as much, so great a concern for the central human progress of the world, and yet such a longing for transcendence also. Charles Dickens was the last of the great eighteenth-century novelists and the first of the great symbolic novelists, and in the crushing equilibrium between these two forces dwells the real strength of his art.”
Author John Irving correctly identifies Dickens’s “abiding faith in the innocence and magic of children” that explains why his work still appeals to new generations of readers. “Dickens believed that his own imagination — in fact, his overall well-being — depended on the contact he kept with his childhood. Furthermore, his popularity with his fellow Victorians, which is reflected in the ongoing interest of young readers today, is rooted in Dickens’s remarkable ability for rendering realistically what many adults condescendingly call fantasy.”
Biographer Fred Kaplan, who has written a highly-regarded biography of Dickens, shared a very illuminating story of when Henry James and Dickens met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1867. Although terribly brief, their encounter was an epiphany in James’s life. He observed Dickens alone in a room and noted his aura of authority and discipline; James described the famous author’s look as a “merciless, military gaze.” Kaplan explains: “[James] realized that Dickens could get maximum amount of life out of the smallest experience. That, combined with his talent, was conducive to the creation of great art… James learned that the great artist has to use his energy in the most disciplined and ruthless way.” Like Shakespeare, Dickens had the instinctive ability to placing humanity under a microscope — meticulously probing, dissecting, distilling, analyzing – to collect the fodder for his life’s work.
For further reading:
The Friendly Dickens by Norrie Epstein, Viking (1998). A Dab of Dickens & A Touch of Twain by Elliot Engel, Pocket Books (2002). A Christmas Carol and Other Stories by Charles Dickens with an Introduction by John Irving, Modern Library (1995). Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the Worldby Simon Callow, Vintage (2012). The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued his Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford, Crown (2008). Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan, Morrow (1988). Charles Dickens by Michael Slater, Yale (2009). Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist by Robert Douglas-Fairhust, Harvard University Press (2011). Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, Harper Collins (1990). The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated Edition by John Forster, Sterling (2011). Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012by Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, Insight Editions (2011).
Our previous post, on ‘Ten Words We Got from Literature’ (see http://interestingliterature.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/ten-words-we-got-from-literature/), was so popular with readers that we have decided to write a sequel. We had several great suggestions from readers which we’ve incorporated into this list. As with the previous post, we’re interested only in words which have a definite origin in a literary work. We’re not so interested in cases where the earliest citation of a word probably already in common use (as is often the case with words attributed to Shakespeare) is found in a work of novel, play, or poem. So, here are ten more words which we can say, with some certainty, originated in works of literature. Enjoy.
1. Nerd. From a 1950 book by Dr Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo. In the poem, a nerd is one of the imaginary animals the narrator claims he will collect for his zoo. The word is first used to mean ‘geek’ shortly afterwards, later in the 1950s.
2. Trilby. As in the hat. In 1895, George du Maurier – grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier – published his novel Trilby, about bohemian Paris in the 1850s. The most famous characters in the novel are Trilby – the heroine – and Svengali, the magician and hypnotist. From this novel we got the name for the trilby hat (which was first worn in the stage productions of the novel, but doesn’t feature in the novel itself) and the term ‘svengali’, meaning a person who controls or manipulates another.
3. Mentor. This one is from ancient Greece, and the work of Homer – specifically, The Odyssey, the epic poem which recounts the adventures of Odysseus (so this same work also gives us the word ‘odyssey’, meaning an adventure). Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan Wars, because of many mishaps and digressions (we’d heartily recommend reading this poem, which reads like an early fantasy novel and was used as the framework for one of the great novels of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses). In Odysseus’ absence, the character of Mentor advised Telemachus, Odysseus’ son – hence the modern connotation of the word of ‘mentor’ as ‘adviser’.
4. Stentorian. This is also from Homer, but this time, it’s from his other epic poem, The Iliad. Stentor was a herald in the Greek army during the Trojan Wars, and had a loud, thundering voice. Consequently, he gave his name to the adjective ‘stentorian’, meaning ‘loud and thundering’ (of a voice). Simple, really. And a great word.
5. Malapropism. From Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. The word ‘malapropos’ is found in print from 1630 with the sense of ‘in an inopportune, inappropriate, or awkward manner’, hence Mrs Malaprop’s name, and the meaning of ‘malapropism’, namely the use of an incorrect word in place of a word of similar sound, e.g. ‘pineapple’ for ‘pinnacle’ in ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness’. In 2005 the New Scientist reported an amusing literature-related example of someone uttering a malapropism in place of the word ‘malapropism’ itself: an office worker had described a colleague as ‘a vast suppository of information’ (instead of ‘repository’), and, upon learning his mistake, the worker is said to have apologised for his ‘Miss-Marple-ism’ (instead of ‘malapropism’). Malapropisms are reasonably famous (or infamous), but what is less well known is that a malapropism is alternatively known as a ‘Dogberryism’, after an earlier literary character with this characteristic: namely, Dogberry, the chief of police in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and the one who (inadvertently) manages to resolve the confusion generated by villain Don John’s evil scheme. ‘Dogberryism’ is attested by the OED from 1836.
6. Syphilis. This word had its origin in a 1530 poem written by an Italian physician and poet, Girolamo Fracastoro. The poem recounts how Syphilus, a shepherd boy, is afflicted with the disease (which was commonly known at the time as ‘the French disease’).
7. Pamphlet. Pamphlets have a long literary history, with Daniel Defoe being a prolific pamphleteer, but what most people probably aren’t aware of is the fact that ‘pamphlet’ is itself a word derived from a literary work: the word comes from a comic love poem dating from the fourteenth century and written in Latin. The poem, ‘Pamphilus; or, Concerning Love’, somehow became associated with unbound booklets (we say ‘somehow’, because the word’s modern political connotations didn’t emerge until the seventeenth century). The name Pamphilus is actually from the Greek meaning ‘friend of everyone’ or ‘lover of all’.
8. Gargantuan. This word, denoting something very large, is from French writer Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, a long work full of bawdy and scatological references written in the sixteenth century. Gargantua, in Rabelais’ novel, is born calling for ale, and with an erection a yard long.
9. Serendipity. Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, coined the word ‘serendipity’ in the eighteenth century. It means the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. He coined the word in a letter of 1754, when recounting the ‘silly fairy tale’ (‘fairy tale’ is another term he is credited with inventing) of ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ (Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka).We have written about Walpole previously, and in more detail, here: http://interestingliterature.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/origins-of-gothic-literature/
10. Robot. The word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word is taken from the Czech for ‘drudge’ or ‘slave’. However, contrary to popular belief, Čapek did not coin the word. Or rather, Karel Čapek didn’t. The playwright was searching for a word to call the androids which featured in his play and was dissatisfied with labori (from the Latin for ‘work’). He sought advice from his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with inventing the spin-off word ‘robotic’ – Asimov famously formulated the Three Laws of Robotics.
To coincide with the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, we thought we’d offer some interesting facts about the author who wrote this masterpiece of the ‘Jazz Age’.
(Above: composite picture of Fitzgerald, pictured right, with Ernest Hemingway.) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald – he was named after Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the lyrics to the patriotic American song ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and a distant relation of the family. (He was also the first cousin of Mary Surratt, a woman hanged in 1865 for conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.) Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota in 1896, and completed just four novels: This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender is the Night (1934; the title of which was borrowed from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’). A fifth novel was left unfinished at his death: for many years this was known as The Last Tycoon, though it is more properly known by the full title The Love of the Last Tycoon, in keeping with Fitzgerald’s preferred choice of title.
While in Paris with his wife, Zelda, in the 1920s, Fitzgerald became friends with numerous other writers, most notably Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway considered Zelda ‘insane’ (she would be hospitalised for schizophrenia in the 1930s) and a bad influence on Fitzgerald: Hemingway thought she encouraged her husband to drink when he should have been working. Zelda returned the compliment by describing Hemingway’s early novel The Sun Also Rises, which she hated, as being about three things: ‘bullfighting, bull-slinging, and bullshitting’.
Fitzgerald coined the term ‘Jazz Age’ himself, to describe 1920s America and the setting for The Great Gatsby (the ‘action’ of which takes place during 1922). Among the many working titles Fitzgerald considered for the novel were Gatsby, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, On the Road to West Egg, Trimalchio in West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover (what a title!) and the title Fitzgerald almost insisted on at the last minute: Under the Red, White and Blue, which carries patriotic echoes of the song written by his distant relation and namesake. (However, he requested this change too late, so the former title stuck.) The Great Gatsby was first filmed in 1926, just one year after the novel was published, in a silent movie adaptation of the stage version. Although it is now the novel he is best remembered for, and is undoubtedly his masterpiece, his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was his bestselling book during his lifetime.
The Great Gatsby is a short novel, and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate (and veteran of WWI) who takes a house on Long Island next door to the mysterious eponymous millionaire, Jay Gatsby, known for throwing parties. We’re not here to offer spoilers for those who’ve yet to read the novel (or see the film), so we won’t say more than this. Suffice to say that the novel’s evocation of 1920s America, a time of prohibition, cocktails, and the ‘American Dream’, has helped to ensure its place among the great American novels of the twentieth century, or, indeed, any century.
The actress Sigourney Weaver took her ‘stage’ name from Sigourney Howard, a minor character in The Great Gatsby. Before then, the name was rare – in fact, it still is – but Weaver’s adopting of the name has helped it to become a more popular girls’ name in the last thirty years.
Despite his talent for prose, Fitzgerald was reportedly a bad speller who spelt his friend’s name as ‘Earnest Hemminway’ and could not spell ‘definite’ correctly (instead falling into the common trap of spelling it ‘definate’).
Towards the end of the 1930s, Fitzgerald began writing for Hollywood, although he considered such work degrading to someone who wished to write novels first and foremost. (However, much of his income in these later years came from sales of short stories.) Perhaps his most famous achievement in the film world was his work on the classic 1939 film Gone with the Wind – although, unfortunately, his contribution to the script was never actually filmed. During these final years, he drank bottles of Coca-Cola by the case, in an effort to stave off alcoholism.
A year later, at the age of just 44, he died, four days before Christmas. It is now believed that he suffered from a form of tuberculosis, although this was thought at one stage to have been a cover for his heavy drinking during the 1920s. However, he died of a heart attack – he had suffered two attacks earlier in his life, but this third was to kill him. At his funeral service, the American wit Dorothy Parker is supposed to have murmured, ‘the poor son-of-a-bitch’ (a quotation from The Great Gatsby).
The Great Gatsby has been called a ‘Great American novel’, and the Modern Library Publishing House has stated that it is the second greatest novel of the twentieth century, behind James Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this new film will become the definitive adaptation of this classic novel remains to be seen.
Fitzgerald is credited, in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the first citations of the words T-shirt, daiquiri (a cocktail containing rum and lime, named after a region of Cuba), stinko (slang meaning ‘of a very low standard’), and even wicked (as in ‘excellent’ or ‘remarkable’). With the exception of stinko (which comes from a letter of 1924), all of these early uses of these words are found in Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. Perhaps this earlier novel deserves more recognition?
Tragedy begins in ancient Greece, of course, and the first great tragedies were staged as part of a huge festival known as the City Dionysia. Thousands of Greek citizens – Greek men, that is, for no women were allowed – would gather in the vast amphitheatre to watch a trilogy of tragic plays, such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Going to the theatre in ancient Greece was, socially speaking, closer to attending a football match than a modern-day theatre.
Because audiences were so vast, actors wore masks which symbolised their particular character, so even those sitting towards the back of the amphitheatre could tell who was who. In Latin, the word for such a mask was persona, which is to this day why we talk about adopting a persona whenever we become someone else – we are, metaphorically if not literally, putting on a mask. This is also the reason why the list of characters in a play is known as the ‘Dramatis Personae’. The Romans were the first civilisation we know of to allow women to act in plays. Although women would not be allowed on the English stage until after the Restoration in 1660, the Romans got there first. In Roman plays, the colour of characters’ robes would often signify their role, so a yellow robe signified that a character was a woman, a purple robe that he was a young man, a white robe an old man, and so on. However, the Romans are more celebrated for their comedies – witness the very different styles of Terence and Plautus – than for their tragedies.
The City Dionysia in Greece possibly grew out of earlier fertility festivals where plays would be performed, and a goat would be ritually sacrificed to the god of wine, fertility, and crops, Dionysus – the idea was that the sacrificial goat would rid the city-state of its sins, much like the later Judeo-Christian concept of the scapegoat. Tragedy, then, was designed to have a sort of purging effect upon the community – and this is even encoded within the word tragedy itself, which probably comes from the Greek for ‘goat song’.
However, tragedy is, perhaps surprisingly, not the earliest of all literary genres. Nor is comedy: instead, a third genre of drama, known as the satyr play, is thought by some critics (such as Oscar Brockett in his History of Theatre) to have been the first of all literary genres, from which comedy and tragedy both eventually developed. Satyr plays were bawdy satires or burlesques which featured actors sporting large strap-on penises – the phallus being a popular symbol of fertility and virility, linked with the god Dionysus. Only one satyr play survives in its entirety: written by the great tragedian Euripides, Cyclops centres on the incident from the story of Odysseus when the Greek hero found himself a prisoner in the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed monster (we won’t make a phallus joke here).
One of the most celebrated tragedies of ancient Greece was Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ play about the Theban king who unwittingly had killed his father and married his mother. This story gave Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, the idea for his ‘Oedipus complex’, where every male child harbours an unconscious desire to do what Oedipus did. The child has to repress this, but is often only partly successful (Hamlet, for instance, doesn’t fully manage it, according to Freud’s reading of Shakespeare’s play).
In terms of genre, tragedy requires a tragic hero (and usually it is a man): one who is usually tempted to perform a deed (frequently, though not always, a murder), after which the hero’s fortunes eventually suffer a decline, ending with his death (or her death, as in the case of Antigone - though whether Antigone is the tragic ‘hero’ of Sophocles’ play remains a moot point). When viewed this way, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not really the tragedy of Julius Caesar at all: he is merely the character who is killed by the real tragic hero of the play, Brutus. It would be like calling the story of Macbeth Duncan, after the victim. Brutus is the one who is tempted to perform a murder (of Caesar himself), after which event his fortunes suffer a catastrophe (or ‘downturn’), eventually ending in his death near the end of the play.
(Sarah Bernhardt, the first ever Hamlet on film, 1900.)
More recently, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created the definitive tragic heroine of modern theatre, Hedda Gabler, in his 1890 play of that name. Hedda has been called ‘the female Hamlet’, because it is the ‘Holy Grail’ role which actresses want to take on. Recently, star of the West End (and many television dramas and comedies) Sheridan Smith offered her interpretation of Hedda. Hedda is the ‘female Hamlet’ in other ways, too: like Hamlet, she is uncomfortable with femininity, both in herself and others (she dislikes the feminine qualities of her husband, such as his fondness for slippers and his clucking aunts), and, like Hamlet, she is ‘haunted’ by the ‘ghost’ of her father (whose presence looms large in the play, and whose portrait hangs in the living room throughout).
And while we’re on the subject of women and Hamlet, it’s worth noting that the first ever Hamlet recorded on film was a woman, Sarah Bernhardt, in 1900. The first radio Hamlet was probably a woman, too – Eve Donne, in 1923. Since the seventeenth century a whole host of actresses have been attracted to the role of the Danish Prince. Tony Howard, author of the excellent Women as Hamlet and a professor at the University of Warwick, has even stated that the best Hamlet he has ever seen was played by a woman. You can see him talking about women playing Hamlet here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbBPo9m6Ux8
In 1949, US playwright Arthur Miller wrote ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’, an essay in which he justified the concept of having an ordinary person as the central character of a tragic play. This was something of a revolution, since many tragic heroes prior to this had been exceptional people, princes or kings, and Miller’s decision to take an ordinary salesman as his central figure was viewed by some as inappropriate for the subject of tragedy. He wrote his essay in response to hostile reviews which his play Death of a Salesman had received.
Horace Walpole, inventor of the Gothic novel, once opined that ‘The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.’ More recently, Mel Brooks said: ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.’