(a racy tale of a manipulative and exploitative relationship, with cross-dressing, starring Speech as Trilby, Writing as Svengali)
Trilby by George du Maurier – grandfather of Daphne – has the rare distinction of giving two new words to the English language, one for a type of hat, the other a sort of person. It was a bestseller in its day (the original naughty nineties, towards the close of Victoria’s reign) and was adapted for the stage; it tells, among other things, how the masterful musician and hypnotist Svengali transforms the tone-deaf artist’s model Trilby O’Ferrall into a hugely successful diva by dint of his mesmeric power.
The trilby hat was made popular in early stage productions of the work, while ‘svengali’ has come to mean (according to Chambers) ‘a person who exerts total mental control over another, usually for evil purposes’ though it is now more loosely used (by the popular press) to describe the sort of showbiz starmaker-manager who is deemed to exert an unhealthy degree of control over his (usually female) star.
I have been trying for some time to find a succinct way of expressing the impact that the invention of writing has had on language, and hence on thought, and it occurs to me that the Trilby-Svengali tale works admirably, though it is better to suppose Trilby a chorus girl rather than a model.
Let us suppose, then, a fin-de-siecle theatre (probably in Montmartre, not far from the Moulin Rouge) – it is called the Theatre of Expression (or le Theatre de l’Expression, if you want) and it has a rather distinctive approach in that it has no star performers – all its entertainment is provided by a multi-talented chorus line of charming soubrettes: Speech, Song, Gesture, Dance, Art, Sculpture, Music, who work together with great skill, interweaving and overlapping their talents, to general delight and widespread appreciation.
Then one day a scrawny young lad comes to the stage door and begs to be taken on in any capacity: his name is Writing, and he doesn’t look like much, but he cherishes vast and secret ambition. Since he has no obvious talent, he is given a range of menial tasks that no-one else wants to do, like making lists and inventories and keeping records (this because the charming soubrettes have no formal education and can neither read nor write).
It might be thought that this lack of education would inhibit the women of the chorus, but far from it – they feel no need to write or plan their routines, preferring to give full scope to their creativity by improvising, though of course they have a whole range of standard routines that they know instinctively because they use them often and they are in any case vividly memorable (in contrast to the dreary lists that Writing has to compile).
To distract himself from this drudgery, Writing takes to noting down the contribution made by Speech, with whom he is rather smitten, though she is by no means the most outstanding member of the troupe. She is flattered by his attention, then fascinated (though a lttle disturbed) when he is able to recite some of her routines, but laughs outright when he suggests he should write them all down and give them permanent form – what would be the point of that? she asks.
Nonetheless, Writing has conceived a plan, and being a stubborn sort of fellow (his chief virtue is staying-power), is determined to push it through. He lays siege to Speech, flattering her with his attentions, and whispering in her ear that she is the real star of the show, that the others are just bit players that depend on her, and if he had his way he’d give her the prominence she deserves. Speech pays little heed at first – she is a gregarious sort and enjoys the company of her friends and how well they all work together – but Writing is nothing if not persistent.
And courting Speech is not all that he is up to: taking advantage of the chorusgirls’ trusting nature and lack of formal education, he uses his position as scribe and secretary for the company to take more and more of the business of the theatre into his hands. Then he proposes marriage to Speech, promising her that if she agrees, he will make her a star. Her head is turned, and she agrees. To mark the partnership, Writing invents a new name for them both – henceforward, they will be Mr & Mrs Language, in complete union, despite their opposite natures (he is solitary, aloof and independent, she outgoing and gregarious).
However, it is a far-from-equal partnership: it is Writing, Mr Language, who calls all the shots. He will no longer allow Speech to improvise her own routines; she must follow what he lays down for her. Transcribing what she says has enabled him to analyse it closely, and he has a range of improvements he wants her to make – he has had to decide on a standardised spelling, so he insists she tailor her pronunciation to it and that she heed the system of punctuation he has invented, as well as the formal grammar he has drawn up, ‘correcting’ what he sees as faults in her natural delivery – he is particularly concerned to eliminate ambiguity and faults of logic (a notion he has invented, but which he claims to be the ‘guiding spirit’ that Speech has hitherto followed imperfectly, but now, as Mrs Language, she must employ with conscious diligence).
Not content with dictating to his wife, he lays down the law for the rest of the company: he is in control now, and there are going to be changes. For a start, the Theatre will now be known as the Theatre of Language, and Mrs L is to be the star turn – the rest will have to be content with subordinate and supporting roles. Also, there is to be no more of this improvisation – now everyone must submit their routines to Writing beforehand, and he will knock them into shape. And he would prefer to deal with them individually, so there is to be no more overlapping, no more spontaneous concerted behaviour; everything must be orchestrated by him. For some time now he has been troubled by the rather vulgar and emotional nature of the entertainments they put on, and has decided that henceforth they will take a more intellectual, cerebral approach.
In a bizarre turn of events, Writing takes to dressing in his wife’s clothes and doing his own turns on stage, though he lacks her natural gift and has to read everything from a script. The theatre ceases to be the joyous, spontaneous place of old; the atmosphere is oppressive, and all the players feel undervalued and imposed upon, unable to do anything without Mr Language’s official approval. From time to time, they persuade Speech to slip away from her husband and join them for a night out, where for a little while it is like old times, as they reprise the old routines (and invent new ones) for anyone who will listen, in the pavement cafes and even in the street.
After one such night they return in the early hours to find that the locks have been changed, and that the theatre has been closed. In response to their furious knocking, Mr Language appears (wearing one of his wife’s best frocks) and tells them that he has decided that live performance is too dangerously anarchic and open to interpretation and must be strictly controlled; to that end, he has turned the theatre into an academy, to educate the general public. Only when he is satisfied that they have a proper understanding and a true appreciation of the performances will they resume, under strict supervision. Of course if the women wish to wander the wide world they can do as they like, but if they want to live respectably with a roof over their heads, they better do as he says.