Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

The Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, has died at the age of
88. She was educated at Howard and Cornell Universities​, going on to work as an academic, critic and
activist as well as one of the most influential novelists of her own and subsequent
generations. For her writing, she won the Pulitzer Prize
for Literature in 1988​
and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison’s
body of work is concerned with how the unvoiced, the silent and the invisible of history
bear witness to and give testimony about their
suffering and oppression.

This leads us to consider how
subsequent generations incorporate the memory of their ancestor’s suffering
into their own histories and how they make sense of the present with those
histories in mind.

Morrison’s
best known novel is Beloved, published in 1987.

That Beloved has at
least two presents prompts the reader to consider how the past acts on the
present and how the traumatic events experienced
in one can be both supressed and revealed by memory in the
other.  

Throughout the novel, Sethe struggles
with memory as a site upon which the horrors of slavery must be both ‘beaten
back’ and negotiated in the present. 

The horrors of slavery are inscribed upon
the bodies of slaves, and so their corporeal, bodily presence in the
world stands as its own testament to their suffering. 

The beating that Sethe receives for
sending her children to safety, the tree that is inscribed on her back by the
whip, is a physical manifestation of the scars of slavery. Many other physical
scars – including where the saw cut Beloved’s throat – manifest themselves in
this narrative. 

But it is the mental and emotional
scars that are Morrison’s primary concern and the capacity of the tramautised
individual and community to come to terms with brutality
and suffering. 

A book about slavery read by millions
of people, studied on a majority of English degrees across the world, puts
slavery at the centre of a cultural debate in a way that politicians and
campaigners had not been able to.

It does so by humanising the suffering
that had affected so many millions of people. The novel tracks the individual
experience of an institution that was industrial in its scale, economic in its
organisation and supported by federal legislation 

The novel itself emerged from a
fragment of history that Morrison encountered while researching a book of blacks on
record – in print, song, newspapers, photographs – a sort of informal history. 

She found newspaper accounts of Margaret
Garner who
killed her child to prevent her being returned to slavery by vigilante slave
hunters. The event was immortalised in Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s
1867 painting, The Modern Medea.

The book is almost symmetrical, balanced around the
revelation of the incident at the very centre of the narrative – the
infanticide  

Morriosn doesn’t use partial revelations, hints and subtle
developments as conventional aspects of literary suspense, though. Instead, she
uses these evasions to signal both the unimaginable sadness of the event and
the nature of Sethe’s subsequent relation to it – she can neither
forget what she has done to her child, but neither can she bring herself
to recall it. Memory must be a battle between supressing and memorialising. 

There is another motivation to this structure of repetitions
and developments. One of the ways in which the slaves communicate with each
other is through song. Owners and overseers see these songs as the rhythms of
work and a sign of a happy slave population, but they are radical challenges to
the authority of the oppressor, carrying messages of potential escape as well
of support for those who can bear their condition no longer.

Slave spirituals, as the songs became known, have a pattern
of repetitions and developments, of call and response. It has become a
signature for expression and representation in African American culture. You
find the cadences of call and response everywhere in black American culture;
from gospel and blues, to preaching, to the rhetoric of black political leaders.

Morrison did a great deal to raise the voice of African
Americans through difficult times, but her presence at Obama’s inauguration
demonstrated how influential her own has been in giving voice to the unvoiced.
Her novels remain as a lasting testament to her influence and genius. 

A standing ovation for a musical tale of industrial strife and brass bands

The New Vic Theatre in North Staffordshire has a proud tradition of politically and socially engaged drama that reflects the lives of the communities it serves. Under its founding artistic director, Peter Cheeseman, the theatre has created a series of original productions which both documented and dramatised the industrial struggles of the area. The Knotty, their first documentary theatre production, traced the lives of railwaymen on line which served the 6 towns of the Potteries. Later documentary plays, employing what became known as the Stoke Method, sent the cast out into the community to interview people directly involved in the events being portrayed. I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire recorded the lives of the Roses of Swynnerton working in a local munitions factory in WW2. The Fight for Shelton Bar, perhaps the most innovative documentary, traced the battle between British Steel and the workers over the future of a steel works in the city as it happened, with updates from the unions committee at the end of each show. The struggles over the mining industry in the area were portrayed in Nice Girls, the account of 4 women occupying Trentham Colliery a decade after the strike of 1984. More recently, Maxine Peake’s Queens of the Coal Age dramatised similar events in the Lancashire coalfield.

The Vic’s current production is a stage version of the hit 1994 film, Brassed Off. A decade after the strike, the miners of Grimley face an existential threat to the their livelihoods and their community as the Coal Board offer them £23000 each to accept closure now, or take a lesser payout later on. At the same time, the colliery band are on the verge of their greatest achievement ever, with the chance to play in the National Finals at the Royal Albert Hall. But can you have a colliery band without a colliery? The play traces the effects of community divisions and poverty on real people in an environment that they can neither predict nor control, as well as the solidarity and identity that music and community can generate.

Images courtesy of the New Vic

Director Conrad Nelson expertly blends the cast with the amazing TCTC brass band and community actors. The cast is so strong that its is impossible to pick one out for particular praise. I remember The Daily Mail describing the film as (something along the lines of) over-sentimental, anti-Thatcher propaganda – now that’s the sort of thing that gets an audience on their feet round here.

English Graduate Launches His New Play

Staffs Uni English graduate, Ed Hilton, is launching his
play, Pit Boy to Prime Minister, at the New Vic Theatre on May 25th.

The play follows the life of Staffordshire miner, Joseph
Cook, who left Silverdale for Australia in 1885. After working in mining there,
he became involved in Labour Party politics and progressed from the New South
Wales State Assembly to become Prime Minister of Australia in 1913.

Ed is seen here with Malcolm Henson from North Staffordshire Press and the script.

Ed graduated from Staffs in 2017 before going on to do a Masters at Keele. Once his play has been realised on the stage, Ed intends to go in to teaching where his background in both English and Creative Writing will help to enthuse a whole new generation of literature scholars.

Our warmest congratulations go to Ed.

Alumni news

English graduate, Jack Hawkins, recently met Bret Easton Ellis at the book tour to promote his new novel, White. Jack got his taste for BEE reading American Psycho on the Contemporary American Fiction module.

Jack writes: “I’m enjoying White. It’s part memoir, part diatribe against political correctness, safe spaces and the ‘cult of likability’. His perspectives on film and writing American Psycho are interesting, too. A lot of it has been taken from his Patreon podcast.

There’s a great article in The Guardian about the publication of the recent book. It’s interesteing to read about the circles Ellis was moving in during the 1980s. He knew Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) and Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) – all great writers and books.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/28/bret-easton-ellis-millennials-white-interview

Let us know your news.

The Big Read

Students from Stoke on Trent high schools visited the university to celebrate their entries to the Sentinel Big Read competition. All year 9 pupils in the city received a book of cartoons inspired by childhood reads, and the Big Read competition continued the theme.

Pupils visiting the uni for the presentation of prizes took part in Masterclasses from Comic Arts and Creative Writing. Thanks to 2nd year students Jordan and Romisa who helped the pupils create characters for new stories.

Congratulations to everyone who took part, was nominated or won a prize.

Read more here https://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/news/stoke-on-trent-news/meet-prize-winning-comic-strip-2745293

2nd Year Trip to Gladstone Pottery Museum

Students on the Victorian literature module visited the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton to learn about Dickensian working conditions and the pottery industry of Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns. A guided tour from one of the museum’s experts helped contextualise child labour, working conditions, labour organisation and how pottery workers were paid, along with many other things. This picture shows students outside one of the distinctive bottle ovens which feature across Stoke’s cityscape.

Many thanks to the School of Creative Arts and Engineering for financially supporting the trip.

Much Ado about World War 2

Northern Broadside’s Much Ado  About Nothing, which we saw last week as part of the Shakespeare module, transplants the action to WW2 England. Beatrice becomes a land girl, in wellies and sensible tweed, while Benedick is in the uniform of the RAF. Robin Simpson and Isobel Middleton in these roles absolutely steal the show, but they are wonderfully supported by a cast which brings the play to life. Alongside the verbal jousting between the will-they-won’t they central characters which characterises Shakepeare’s romantic comedies, there are delightful interludes of big band jazz, barber shop quartets, dancing and camp comedy.

The Guardian, in a 4 star (out of 5) review, describes how the company make ‘dynamic use of the in-the-round space and, for all the Dad’s Army daftness, venture boldly into the play’s darker corners of treachery and deceit’.

picture courtesy of Northern Broadsides

Harry Potter Visit

Students on the Children’s Literature module visited the Warner Bros. Studios for a tour of the Harry Potter studios near glamorous Watford. For students who are studying the Harry Potter novels as set texts, this trip was an enchanting and enlightening addition to their research and interest in the work of J.K. Rowling.
 
“I was on a train going from Manchester to London, looking out of the window at cows and I just thought “boy doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes off to wizard school”. This now-famous quotation from Rowling’s interview with Stephen Fry at the Albert Hall, 2003 is neatly paraphrased above the entrance to the exhibition and immediately situates the importance of the author and text as the foundation of this entire franchise. A display showing the creative process of adaptation, from novel to screenplay, is also emphasized in creative statements from the screenwriters and directors of the feature films. It was an invaluable insight into the creative and technical processes involved in adapting an imaginative work of literature to visual mediums– a memorable and magical experience which brings the study of literature to life.”

New Claybody Production

It was fantastic to be back at the old Spode factory for some ‘site specific’ or ‘found space’ drama. In Hot Lane, Claybody Theatre and English and Creative Writing Honorary Doctor, Deborah McAndrew, develop many of the characters we met in last year’s Dirty Laundry. The play is billed as ‘passion and betrayal in the six towns’ and it traces how the mundane lives of an industrial community contain as much drama as you find anywhere. Set in the 1950s, the drama explores how the war disrupted moral codes and how the intervening years have introduced technological innovation, but very little social progress for women. The local colour and a palpable sense of the time are created by dance hall scenes brought vividly to life by community dancers. The simple design moves us seamlessly between the domestic spaces of the pottery owner and the homes of ordinary pottery workers.

Angela Bain superbly reprises her role as community matriarch, Frances from Dirty Laundry, as does Philip Wright as Pottery owner, Richard Wareham, which is not to diminish the excellent performances of the whole cast. The Potteries accent is hard to master unless you are born to it, but the whole cast transport the audience to 1950s Burslem with ease (Philip Wright, some-time ago, told me that he’d learned the accent from watching videos of Port Vale’s Tom Pop – now there’s a Stoke accent). The students who accompanied us had a great time and were taken with the atmosphere of live theatre. Early next year, we will be visiting the New Vic for Broadsides’, Much Ado.. (directed by Claybody’s Conrad Nelson).

Deborah tells me that she is considering a prequel: this is box-setting at a very gentle pace!

Contrasting Nights at the theatre

The New Vic’s recent show, Table, was first staged at the National in 2013 and had its regional debut here.

It was one of the best evenings of theatre I have been privileged to be part of in some time. The table of the title is made by a carpenter in Lichfield at the end of the 19th century to mark his marriage. The table is then a mute centre-piece and witness to the joys, clashes and changing social and moral shifts in the family over the next 6 generations. There is humour and lust, as well as crisis and despair in Tanya Ronder’s script. The enduring message is that we are shaped and fight against both our family and the invisible social forces which seek to regulate our behaviour – moral codes, religion, the previous generation. The narrative is not linear, and the play is carefully choreographed to slip backwards and forwards in time and between Lichfield, London, Herefordshire and Africa.

The cast were excellent and the energy they put in to their performances deserved a fuller house. It is disappointing that more interesting and challenging theatre at the Vic does not receive the attention it deserves from an otherwise loyal audience.

In contrast to the intense seriousness of Table is the current production, Astley’s Astounding Adventures. Staged to mark the 250th anniversary of the founder of the modern circus, Newcastle Under Lyme’s own Philip Astley (he was the originator of the 42 foot ring with clowns, jugglers, acrobats and trick riders we know today), it is part of a programme of events and circuses around the area (my favourite so far was Circolumbia – South American hip-hop circus!).

This production is a joyous celebration of a working-class lad’s rise through the military ranks to become a circus impresario. The entertainment moves at a breathless pace. The central characters live, love and perform amazing circus stunts while maintaining excellent North Staffs accents (I’ve lived here 25 years and I still can’t do it) – sometimes while upside down. There is juggling, acrobatics, trapeze and that dangling from curtains thing. The circus in this play is genuine circus, not the faint impression of circus that theatre usually resorts to. I won’t tell you how they convey the horses and trick riding – you’ll have to find out for yourselves. The whole thing is accompanied by a little orchestra.

Astley’s is not exactly Beckett, but it is a great night out.

So, two contrasting but equally rewarding evenings.

The autumn season at the Vic has many promising productions, which we will be organising trips to.

images courtesy of the New Vic theatre