March 8, 2013


The most recent television pantasmagoria of the English aristocracy is a version of Ford Madox Ford's great novel PARADE'S END. I don't own a television so it will be a while before I actually watch the series, but I discovered that the script by Tom Stoppard is available in book form, and I read the opening scenes. These give me no reason to think that Stoppard, clever as he is, has been able to find a way to translate the novel's effects to the screen. I would have thought the book was unfilmable. Of course, the opening scenes of the miniseries do almost exactly what the novel itself does not--introduces characters quickly, in costume, having them say a few characteristic things. Sylvia, the very powerful wife, is introduced in flagrante, practically being raped by an officer lover she has just decided to dump. Here in fairness to Ford it must be said that the way he chooses to introduce Sylvia is much more interesting. She has just left the lover behind and is in the company of her formidable mother, Mrs. Satterthwaite, and the family priest (so one sees, from inside, which is the vantage from which Ford always presents things, that this is an old Catholic family. They have their own priest! Sylvia is called into the room and into being by her mother. This is what we see: "Immensely tall, slight and slow in her movements Sylvia Tietjens wore her reddish, very fair hair in great bandeaux right down over her ears. Her very oval, regular face had an expression of virginal lack of interest such as used to be worn by fashionable Paris courtesans a decade before that time. Sylvia Tietjens considered that, being priviliged to go everywhere where one went and to have all men at her feet, she had no need to change her expression or infuse into it the greater animation that marked the more common beauties of the early twentieth century. She moved slowly from the door and sat languidly on the sofa against the wall." There follows a typical conversation. Like everything in this book, it begins in media res. That is to say, the three participants are all privy to a certain piece of information, contained in a telegram in this case, that the reader has not yet been exposed to. The information in the telegram, when it is revealed, is the words ACCEPT RESUMPTION YOKE. Sylvia Tietjens and her mother know the meaning of these words, but the priest, Father Consett, does not. However, the telegram goes on much longer than this, laying out the conditions for the resumption of the marriage Sylvia has recently and on a whim abandoned. With this single item, this telegram, we see the way Ford's favorite device, progression d'effet, works. There are many more to come. An object, an image, an event becomes the central motif in a section of the novel, or in a different way, a phrase is repeated as in music: "So do...and some do not." Each time the narrative swirls around the image or phrase, its meaning changes--that's the "progression." Ford's use of the device is entirely dramatic. It seems odd to me that television requires the characters to be introduced in the crude way that this teleplay introduces them, rather like little moving cameos of Tietjens (large, formal, somewhat pompous or at least correct), Macmaster (beard), Tietjens's older brother (disapproving), and Sylvia (kissing deeply, garment torn by her lover) are introduced in the teleplay. It is we who are coarse, not the medium. Ford's novel is dramatic; this television version is merely sensational.

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