We went to see The Crucible at the Olivier. It’s a great production, with strong performances from all the cast. The stage was surrounded by a sheet of artificial rain which was used like a curtain – I’m not really sure why. Very effective use was made of the deeper part of the stage, which would occasionally be lit to show a little scene, someone approaching, or the accusing girls in niches like saints.
What did strike me was that although it is unquestionably deserving of its place as a classic drama, the play would get some criticism if presented to a modern writer’s workshop. It opens with a big slab of straightforward exposition, just spoken direct to the audience: all of that would probably be deleted by a current editor. One of the best episodes in the story is how Giles Corey refuses to plead and chooses to be crushed to death, knowing that this way his estate will pass to his sons, whereas if he were convicted of witchcraft it would be confiscated. Miller throws that away, having it merely described in brief. (He wishes, of course, to focus on John Proctor’s agonising over whether to provide a false confession that will save his life.)
Some of the force of the play is arguably lost because on Miller’s account there really was some witch stuff going on: some of the girls did dance naked, help conjure the dead, and drink (chicken) blood. At the close Tituba and Sarah Good are shown eagerly waiting for the Devil to come and take them. So it seems the authorities are sort of right about the crime, merely pinning the blame on the wrong people.
Finally, things are wrapped up with another slice of exposition – what happened afterwards? It dissipates some of the impact of the deaths, especially Proctor’s, if we go on to hear about remarriages and compensation.
Whatever you think of that, it’s a great play with many memorable passages, and this is a great production.
A selection of writing competitions I might enter during the coming month.
First, a few with deadlines on 1 November.
Globe Soup’s historical fiction challenge is interesting. £12 buys you a ticket, the colour of which determines the period in which the story (up to 4,000 words) must be set. Top prize is £1,000. Got my entry in already!
The Caledonia Novel Award is back. They want twenty pages of your novel plus a synopsis. Entry is £25 and you could win £1,500.
The. Commonwealth Short Story prize is free to enter, but offers £2,500 for regional winners and a grand prize of £5,000. You must be a citizen of a Commonwealth country: entries may be in English or in Bengali, Chinese, French, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portuguese, Samoan, Tamil or Turkish.
F(r)iction magazine wants stories between 1,001 (not 1,000, please!) and 7,500 words: it costs $15 to enter and top prize is $1,000.
For the Nilsen First Novel prize, you need to send your complete ms. It’s $25 to enter and the prize is $2,000. Novellas and collections of linked short stories can also be entered.
The John Steinbeck Award from Reed magazine wants stories up to 5,000 words: for an entry fee of $20 you could win $1,000.
Then we have a number of competitions with later deadlines.
The current Liar’s League contest closes on 6 November and is free to enter. Winning stories will be read by an actor in the Phoenix pub, where the author will get free beer all night (this is the London event – I believe there are similar ones in other cities). Ken Towl, my esteemed colleague in a couple of writing groups, has won this three times, but is selflessly keen to encourage more competitors to have a go. This time round stories should be festive and on the theme of ‘hopes and fears’.
The Writer magazine wants up to 2,000 words: entry is $30, top prize $1,000 and the closing date is 8 November.
The Neilma Sidney prize allows up to 3,000 words on the subject of travel. Entry is $12 and first prize $5,000 (Australian dollars, I presume). The deadline is 14 November.
A Smokelong is a story of 1,500 words, just a bit longer than flash: however, the Smokelong Quarterly currently wants flash stories (no more than 1,000 words). Entry fees are a bit complex, but it’s basically $14: top prize is $2,500 and the deadline is 15 November.
The Barry Hannah Prize, from the Yalobusha Review, has an entry fee of $5 and a prize of $500. Entries can be up to 4,000 words and must be on the theme ‘Departures and Arrivals’: they want fiction that pushes the boundaries or is experimental in content or form. The deadline is 18 November.
Those sturdy folk the Wenlock Olympians are running their event again. £5 to enter, a prize of £150, up to 2,500 words, and a deadline of 23 November.
The rest all have a deadline of 30 November.
Banbury Writer’s Café want up to 1,500 words (a smokelong?): it’s free to enter and you could win £50. Entries must be inspired by one of the picture prompts they provide.
The Plaza Prizes actually specify that they want smokelongs. £14 for your first entry then £7 for extra goes: the prize is £1,000.
While we’re going short, let’s go really micro with Doug Weller’s Six Word Wonder contest. Free to enter, the form encourages multiple attempts, and you can win $100. Six words, no fee, win $100.
Finally, I’m dreaming of a green Christmas. The EcoSanta contest wants tales (1000 words) of St Nick going ecological. £5 to enter, win £100.
If you get somewhere with one of these, let me know!
I went to see the ‘Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies’ at the British Museum, a Chinese scroll so delicate it is only on display for a few weeks. It may be as old as the fifth century, and the text is from the third. Many of the episodes depict exemplary Empresses: in this picture Lady Feng, the Emperor’s consort, bravely shields the Emperor from an escaped bear, which luckily is killed just in time by two guards, an incident which occurred in 38 BC.
The scroll originally had twelve panels: the first three are lost. There is a twelfth-century drawing which includes the missing bits: unfortunately we can see from comparing the surviving panels that the copy is not totally accurate. It probably gives a good idea of what is missing, but might also be a later reconstruction of panels that were already lost even back then. The depth of history in the thing is breathtaking.
The British Museum bought the scroll from Captain Clarence Johnson, discreetly passing over how he acquired it: it seems clear that in fact he helped himself to it during the Boxer Rebellion.
I went to see the sculpture exhibition in Regent’s Park. It’s worth a look: most of the pieces are a bit jokey (in a good way), but Sim and the Yellow Glass Birds is quite poignant. I liked the fake park signs: I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see one on the cover of a philosophical text one day.
We saw a performance of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, with selected music by Purcell, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Rory Kinnear did an excellent delivery of the poem, while the music came from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, memorably including a theorbo, a kind of gigantic lute.
In some ways it was an odd combination, as the poem is obviously not contemporary with Purcell. It worked pretty well, though: perhaps it helped that Coleridge’s poem is self-consciously archaic in manner – something that made it an uncomfortable inclusion in the Lyrical Ballads when first published, as that was supposed to demonstrate poetry in ordinary language. The content of the Rime doesn’t really bear much examination, but it is full of powerful images and phrases, which explains its enduring popularity.