Monday, December 22, 2014

Violet – an opera by Roger Scruton

March 3, 2013

  • Information
  • Libretto

Violet your name; inviolate your heart.

Jessica Douglas-Home’s biography of her great aunt, Violet Gordon- Woodhouse, tells two related stories: that of a woman who altered every life that she encountered, and that of the society in which she moved. In Violet’s world high culture, eccentric life-style, and aristocratic manners achieved a never-to-be-repeated synthesis. And when that world was swept away by the First World War, a part of the English soul was lost.

Only in England could Violet have existed: she was a product of the gentry class, who was incomplete without a country house, and who found solace in the old-fashioned men who owned them. At the same time she belonged to the Bohemian culture of Edwardian and Georgian England – a culture that combined urban wit with pastoral yearnings, cheeky satire with Anglican solemnity, and English rootedness with an eager appropriation of foreign ideas. Yet Violet’s charm depended on her not-quite English appearance, her lively Mediterranean manner, her scholarly Germanic taste for early music and authentic instruments, and her astonishing ability to attract every man who appealed to her, and to retain him in a very unEnglish ménage. Nor was it only men who fell for her: the composer Dame Ethel Smyth was one of several women (the writer Radclyffe Hall was another) whose erotic impulses were awakened by Violet. Ethel loved Violet for her eager confidences, her girlish manners, her graceful movements and her burning oriental eyes. And Violet had the knack of shining those eyes into every heart that attracted her, cancelling the image of her rivals.


Yet Violet had a secret, and one that could not, in that age of innocence, be brought into the open. She recoiled from passion, and wished for all her unions to be chaste. So great was the force of her personality that she persuaded Gordon Woodhouse, heir to a fortune made from the wine of Marsala, to accept an unconsummated marriage. Achieving the security that she needed, Violet began to surround herself with attachments that verged on the erotic and always – or almost always – avoided it. First came Gordon’s close friend Bill Barrington, heir to the Barrington title, then Denis Tollemache, the boy who adored her as the embodiment of art and high culture, and finally Max Labouchère, scion of a political family and man of the world. Violet’s ménage à cinq with these men, into which she welcomed the many others who found her irresistible, depended on a strict regime of chastity. Yet passion lurked in the wings: that of Ethel for Violet, of Gordon for Bill, of Bill for Violet and finally – because Violet too was human – of Violet for Bill.

Violet’s love of life did not avert her own incipient tragedy, which reflected the greater tragedy of her country. She was framed not to have a child but to be one. Her posture belonged to the collective failure of will, whereby England entered the twentieth century with its soul averted from the future. Just as Violet, alighting like some enchanted butterfly on man after man, spirited away the will to reproduce from each of them, so did England, entering the First World War, throw its own prospects away, sacrificing its youth in the trenches. Violet’s lovers were caught up in the storm: Denis was captured and imprisoned after his battalion had been almost entirely destroyed, Bill was posted for the duration of the war to India, and Max was killed.

Violet’s erotic complexities were mirrored in her musical career. She began as a pianist in the Lisztian tradition, appealing to Edwardian taste by producing huge emotions from a fragile child-like frame. But she discovered her niche when Arnold Dolmetsch included her in his campaign for early music. She mastered the harpsichord, dulcimer, clavichord and lute; studied the early English music that was beginning to attract the attention of contemporary composers; and finally launched herself as the leading exponent of the repertoire that we now know as Baroque. She joined Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams in the propagation of English folk-songs; she welcomed the early modernists and the music of the Ballet Russe; she became a leading performer of chamber music and a willing apprentice to the Spanish cellist Rubiò, whose love she incited in her usual way. Yet it was the Early Music movement that shaped her career. In it she perceived an avenue out of modern life into a realm of chaste emotions, where no-one insisted, and no-one was harmed.


Violet’s life was remarkable in another way. Although she studied hard and was constantly improving her skills, she also lived recklessly, not only by dancing constantly on the edge of passion, but also by spending whatever money she could on pleasing herself, her lovers and her friends. She and Gordon bought the manor house of Armscote in Gloucestershire, where she devoted his fortune to hospitality and expensive clothes. She maintained Bill, Max and Denis in style. And whenever she and her men peered into the coffers and found, to their astonishment, that they were empty, some new nest-egg would be unearthed and promptly squandered.

Witnessing the destruction from afar Gordon’s maiden sisters decided to save the remainder of the Woodhouse fortune by cutting Gordon and Violet from their will. But the charmed life continued, and by an extraordinary stroke of fortune, the two Misses Woodhouse were murdered by their Butler before they had finally signed and sealed their will. Gordon found himself heir to Burghill Court in Worcestershire, and it is to this house that Violet repaired with her men. By now, however, the Great War had taken its toll. Max had been killed in action while Denis, who had been captured by the Germans and spent the war years in a German prison, came home frail and helpless. Denis died and Violet moved with her husband and Bill, by now her lover in every sense of the word, to another country house, Nether Lypiatt. Here she too died, leaving Bill and Gordon to eke out their remaining days, with Gordon in the role that he had perhaps always wanted: that of Lady Barrington.

Violet reflected, in her life and art, the mood of an epoch. She was fascinated by forgotten art and music, forgotten customs, disappearing folkways, and a rural way of life already destroyed by industrialisation and the expanding markets on which she and her class depended. In the face of impending catastrophe she sought a timeless perfection, a freezing of the moment, averting her gaze from the coming destruction and from those human glories which are earned through suffering. Violet, like the England that she loved, was recoiling from the future and investing emotional energy in an irrecoverable past.

I decided to tell the story through Jessica’s eyes, as she conjures her great aunt’s spirit from the debris of Nether Lypiatt. Jessica enters the dream that Violet created – the dream of a life fixed forever in the ‘perfect tense’, where love means purity and passion stops at the garden gate. As the story unfolds, Jessica begins to understand Violet’s success, in freezing her world in a tense of her own choosing. And she also observes the price of this success as the magic dwindles and the childlike innocence is lost. Released from the dream at last, Jessica is able to take heart from her great aunt’s valiant refusal of the present, and to return with a new self-confidence to the business of living in the now.

I have retained the principal outlines of the story, and tried to give a truthful picture of the extraordinary domestic situation that Violet was able to create and to manage, and of the loss that she was unable to avert. Her four ‘husbands’ were not exactly as I describe them (for example, it was Denis, not Max, who was the real musician), but I have tried to represent the variety of emotional attachments that they prompted and endured, and to display the real impact of the First World War on their milieu.

I have used two English folksongs, ‘God Made a Trance’ (no. 362 in Cecil Sharp’s collection), which was sung in the pub at Armscote by a lady who went by the odd name of Mrs Reservoir Butler, and ‘The Truth Sent from Above’ (no. 364 in Sharp). The first appears at the end of the Prologue, and also in other places where the image of Armscote is pertinent, while the second is a kind of motto for Bill Barrington, summarizing his very English style. At crucial moments I have quoted the actual words used by the characters – in particular the touching letter, the last that he wrote, sent to Violet from the trenches by Max Labouchère.

The music contains allusions to Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Mozart, and also to the final cadence from Tristan und Isolde. I also quote from Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘March of the Women’, composed as an anthem for the suffragettes. Although the music is tonal (with atonal episodes), it does not imitate early music in the way that the incomparable Tchaikovsky imitates Mozart in The Queen of Spades, but merely tries to invoke Violet’s feelings towards the art that brought her solace and which helped her to keep her balance on the prolonged emotional tightrope that she had woven.

Contents
Dramatis Personae
  • Auctioneer bass *
  • Auctioneer’s assistant tenor **
  • Jessica Gwynne, great niece of Violet, and heir to her house soprano
  • Violet Gordon-Woodhouse soprano
  • Gordon Woodhouse, husband to Violet tenor
  • Miss Woodhouse 1, sister to Gordon soprano
  • Miss Woodhouse II, sister to Gordon mezzo-soprano
  • Bill (Viscount) Barrington, friend of Gordon baritone
  • The Hon. Denis Tollemache, at first a schoolboy soprano
  • Max Labouchère, man about town counter-tenor
  • Houghton, butler to the Misses Woodhouse tenor **.
  • Butler to Violet tenor **
  • Dame Ethel Smyth, composer bass *
  • Chorus
Cast
    Violet Joana Seara
    Gordon Woodhouse Oliver Kuusik
    Max Labouchere Iestyn Morris
    Bill Barrington David Stout
    Ethel Smythe Edmund Connolly*
    Denis Tollemache Celeste Lazarenko
    Jessica Lenia Safiropoulou
    Butler Gareth John
    Auctioneer David Stout*
    Auctioneer’s assistant Verity Parker
    The Misses WoodhouseHelen Evora
    Director Tess Gibb
    Conductor Clive Timms

Violet

 

Prologue

(Seventies. A large country house, Nether Lypiatt, with the accumulated objets d’art et de vertu from a life that has for many years been over, but which has had no sequel; it is evening, and an auctioneer and his staff are busy valuing the contents prior to the auction that is to take place next day.)
Auctioneer
Three jackets, one embroidered, hunting diary, rocking horse, tooled leather gun-case. Ten pounds.
Assistant
Lot 246, ten pounds.
Auctioneer
Parasol, white appliqué lacework on black silk, ebony shaft, handle tipped with mother-of-pearl. Ten similar. Twelve pounds.
Assistant
Lot 247, twelve pounds.
Auctioneer
Fifteen dresses by Poiret, silk, satin, etc., style ballet russe; ten pairs of snake-skin shoes, pair brocaded evening slippers with gold inlay and pearl-set tassles. Wow! What would you say Charles?
Assistant
I’d say two hundred pounds.
Auctioneer
And now the instruments: two harpsichords, three lutes, theorbo, serpent, clavichord and dulcimer: where are they?
Assistant
In there Mr Harrison, in the haunted room.
Auctioneer
The haunted room?
Assistant
Sometimes they say, you can hear her playing: slow music on the harpsichord, pinching the ear like frost. Someone in the garden glimpsed her at the window. And last night, on the lawn outside, a large white horse…
Auctioneer
What nonsense: where’s the key?
Assistant
It isn’t locked. But we must wait to enter. They belonged to his aunt, Mrs Gordon Woodhouse.
She appended to her will,
A little codicil,
To say her nephew Gwynne,
Was not to sell a thing,
But keep them for his daughter.
Auctioneer
For Miss Gwynne. I see. And is she here?
(Enter Jessica left. She is in travelling clothes, with a duffle bag.)
Assistant
She’s due right now. In fact this must be her.
Auctioneer
Miss Gwynne, John Harrison. How pleased I am to meet you. We’ve covered all the rooms, or almost all, and bless me! What a house! What furniture! What exquisite taste your father had…
Jessica
Not his taste, but my Great-Aunt Violet’s. Taste was her life.
Auctioneer
Ah, Violet Gordon Woodhouse: the great musician. I never knew her, though she was the talk of hereabouts, she and Mr Gordon and Lord Bill.
Jessica
She is still here, filling the place. It was why my father wanted to move. To live with Violet, he said, you must belong to her. Even when she is dead; especially when she is dead.
Auctioneer
(embarrassed) Well yes, that might be so.
But to those who pass it in their rounds,
As I do, this house has been
A tranquil haven, elegant, serene -
A little piece of England, such as I
Would love to…
Jessica
(impatiently)Yes, yes. It’s not the house I object to – it is all this waste, this débris – objects which once had a soul, and have a soul no longer.
Auctioneer
Oh, don’t say that, Miss Gwynne.
In fact I’ve seldom seen
A house and contents so in tune:
I think of Sitwells and Sassoon,
Witty evenings, wistful days,
Urban style and country ways…
Jessica
Oh dear, I need to be alone.
Auctioneer
Of course.
Jessica
This is her room, the crystal cell
Floating above the sea of trouble,
Filled with the things I’m not to sell,
Unless I choose to burst her bubble.
Auctioneer
(to assistant) Have we finished?
Assistant
Yes, finished, Mr Harrison.
Auctioneer
So then I’ll leave you here, Miss Gwynne.
The sale begins tomorrow; nine o’clock.
Jessica
Tomorrow, then, at nine.
(Exeunt Auctioneer and staff.)
This passion that has ruined life for me:
Teach me your remedy!
Violet your name, inviolate your heart,
Give me, oh give your healing art!
(Jessica enters the room. Inner curtain rises to reveal a desk, chair, couch, various instruments, all in a shaft of afternoon sunlight. The rear of the stage is dark, with the outlines of a harpsichord just visible. There are books, diaries, some frameless pictures stacked against the wall, and an old mahogany cabinet full of papers. The whole has the air of an abandoned shrine, with votive offerings to a forgotten god. Jessica looks around, then sits at the desk, idly opening drawers. She takes out a diary, from which a letter falls. She opens it and begins to read.)
My darling sister,
I’ve tried to please Papa. I’ve gone round and round his scheme in my head and in my heart. And it will not do, Dot, it will not do. Lord Gage is kind, considerate and wealthy. He loves me, in the way that people love, who live alone in splendid mansions. He is even musical, and the other day said some not entirely stupid things about Mozart. He will make some woman happy. But not me, Dot, not me. To marry, just think of it: to lie beside a man, this man, Papa’s friend, and then to do the thing that doctors write about and children giggle over – honestly, Dot, I cannot bear to think of it …
(The harpsichord has begun to sound from the back of the room. Jessica turns on a light to read, and Violet becomes visible, studying her own hands as they play. After a while she rises and comes forward fully into the light.)
Violet
Of course I did not marry him. I married none of them.
I married all of them: they married me.
To everyone who loved me I belonged, and yet
Their arms around me closed on air.
Jessica
Aunt Violet…
Violet
But let it not have been in vain,
The joy that bound us, and the pain,
The distillation into sound
Of the many loves I found:
Christabel and Adelina,
Gordon, Denis, Ethel, Max
And darling Bill: who was the tax
I paid for all my thrills,
And this you’ll see. The keys and quills
Lie here around: pluck the strings
And still they’ll sound. Read my things
And you’ll remember. Show it mattered:
Show our friendship wasn’t scattered
But stays like music in the air
The air of England, where we were.
(The lights dim, as Violet retreats to her instruments, and Jessica is still visible at the desk, turning over the pages. The curtain falls, and an intermezzo plays from the orchestra, with a prominent piano part, becoming more and more florid and virtuoso, until the piano takes over.)

 

ACT ONE

 
Scene 1

(The intermezzo comes to a stop with two piano chords fortissimo, as the curtain rises again to show a drawing room full of well-dressed Edwardian people. Violet is leaning back from the piano, her hands raised after the final chords, an ecstatic but winsome expression on her face. The audience bursts into applause. Denis, a schoolboy of sixteen with soprano voice, stands slightly apart from them, appalled at their presence.)
Chorus
Quite exceptional! Rare talent! And such looks! You’d almost say she wasn’t English, a je ne sais quoi in her features, those lustrous eyes, that sultry oriental mouth, so exquisite, so tiny – and such rhythm! She must have Spanish blood.
Denis
If I could touch her! If I could only speak to her alone!
The Misses Woodhouse
So good of you, dear Violet, to invite us up to town, to hear your lovely playing, and to meet such dazzling people, such a treat…
Violet
But my dears, you had to come – dear Gordon’s sisters must be here when the new piano’s launched!
The Misses Woodhouse
And such delicious cakes, we’ll ask your mother’s cook to give the recipe – our dear Mrs Gawthrop…
Chorus
(drowning out the Misses Woodhouse as Violet circulates) I thought the Schumann quite superb, and then the nocturne by Liszt – it must have been Liszt! How did you get your fingers – oh, those tiny fingers, those child-like ivory fingers! – around the Liszt?
Denis
A nocturne by Liszt! Such philistines! The joy, the sweetness, the sheer love in Chopin – wasted on them! If only she would notice what I feel!
(Gordon steps forward from the crowd, leading Bill by the arm. He turns first to the Misses Woodhouse.)
Gordon
May I introduce to you a new neighbour of ours in the country, Ella? My friend Mr Barrington.
(Bill and the Misses Woodhouse bow to each other, as Gordon turns to Violet.)
And Bill, this is Violet Gwynne. Miss Gwynne – Bill Barrington.
(Violet and Bill shake hands. She holds his hand for a moment and looks into his eyes. Something passes between them. Then she turns away to talk with other guests.)
Violet
Ah, Sir James, how very kind, and Mrs Knighton…
Bill
(Soliloquizes) In woods and fields, the weather blowing,
A dog beside me and a gun in hand –
How often I have dreamed of such a woman,
So self-contained, so decorous, so poised.
Gordon
(To Bill, confiding)Such magnetic beauty, such enchantment,
And such depths of personality. She would grace any salon, Bill.
She would justify everything, Bill, everything! I want her, Bill.
Chorus
How marvellous your playing, Miss Gwynne, such warmth,
such eloquence, such technique!
Violet
(commanding silence)Thank you friends, although the credit is
theirs – the masters of harmony and the human heart. But let me
share my thoughts with you.
I love those great romantic works,
There’s no denying it.
But I love the classics more:
For depth and thought and soulfulness
Great Bach has no compare. And as for Schubert,
Schubert makes nothing happen; he lives
In a place of his own, where griefs
And joys lie down together and agree
To die to this world, to awaken
Into memory.
The Misses Woodhouse
How beautiful!
Denis
To die to this world, to awaken
Into memory: remembering only her!
Gordon
(To Bill) She’s got it all, Bill, got it all!
Chorus
She’s got it all!
Bill
Yes, a woman to admire!
Denis
If I could show my love,
My love so pure!
Violet
(To herself): Music is the food of love,
To them the food of lust:
False vows and greedy kisses -
Dust to dust!
(Collecting herself, aloud):
Music makes unsensual sense:
Voices lead and follow,
Not touching, but intense -

 

This the masters show us
In songs that by-pass lips,
Cadenzas full of frenzy
Contained in fingertips.
Chorus
(fading) Music makes unsensual sense …
Violet
(To Gordon, whom she has enticed away) What instrument
Can gather threads
Of sentiment
And not stretch them
Into kitsch?

 

My fingers itch
To show you …
(She moves to the harpsichord, as Gordon comes forward and the crowd recedes. Bill lingers behind, though Violet smiles at him as she plays. The inner curtain falls on the scene, leaving Violet and Gordon alone at the front of the stage. Violet continues to play as Gordon addresses her.)
Gordon
I so agree, Miss Gwynne, I so agree.
Love should be like music:
Not worldly but – but true and free,
Free, I mean, from all this, all this …

 

I mean, take you and me;
That is, take me – my love, my high esteem,
My need, yes need for you, my dream,
My …
Violet
Once there was a violet,
Crushed beneath his heel,
Because she could not feel,
Could not …
Gordon
My darling, don’t explain …
Violet
Das arme Veilchen …
Gordon
Es war ein herzigs Veilchen!

 

You know, I’m just the same.
I want only to adore you from afar,
To care for you, to fetch and carry,
To be your slave, in short – to marry
On any terms you choose.
(As Gordon pours out his feelings, Violet sits at the harpsichord, improvising a fugue in response to his words.)
All these years since I flunked my tripos and came down from Cambridge what have I done? Dabbled in the family business, lounged in fashionable salons, motored from one shooting party to the next, become every inch the eligible bachelor, by which they mean someone who is eligible to be a bachelor for ever. Meanwhile I have yearned in my heart for only one thing: the sparkling, cultured, lovely woman who would make it all worthwhile. To whom I could give all that I own. And now I have met her. Don’t refuse.
(Violet looks at him, long and hard.)
Violet
Dear Gordon, I accept,
So take my hand
And kiss it – this I’ll stand,
But…
Gordon
Yes, I know,
The rest we must forego.
Violet and Gordon
The love that we were seeking, we have found.
A love of spirits – heaven bound.
(They retreat behind the curtain.)

 

Scene 2.

(The curtain rises to reveal the interior of a country house, Armscote. It is morning, and light streams in from French windows Right. Gordon and Violet separate. Gordon walks across to the couch and settles down with a newspaper. Violet goes to the piano, where she makes notes on an open score, fingering an awkward passage. Enter Bill in a fluster.)
Bill
Gordon, I must speak with you –
(Observing Violet he falls silent. She looks at him, plays a few intimate chords, and quickly leaves.)
I must leave at once.
Gordon
My dear chap, you have only just arrived.
Bill
I’m in love with your wife.
Gordon
Yes, yes, so am I. But what does she feel?
Bill
What does she feel? How should I know?
Gordon
Oh, little signs, smiles, nods, that kind of thing.
Bill
I say, you don’t seriously mean…
Gordon
I don’t mean anything – only
Violet is no ordinary person.
That is why we love her.
(Enter Violet, with troubled gestures.)
Violet
Gordon, dear, you must prevent this thing.
Gordon
What thing?
Violet
Why – Bill…
Bill
Don’t worry, I’ll prevent it. I’m leaving now.
Violet
But that’s exactly what you must prevent, dear Gordon.
Bill loves me – that is plain. And so he should:
Love freely given, chaste and pure, is good
And we can all enjoy it. And in my way
I love him too: what harm in that?
Gordon
No harm at all, my darling.
Bill
Violet!
Violet
(serenely)
Muddles come from self-indulgence;
Happiness means self-control.
Strict counterpoint resolves in cadence,
As note meets note, so soul meets soul.

 

So off you go my dears, and sort it out.
I’ll stay here and practice.

 

And when you’ve finished, Gordon dear, please send to Madame
Lucile for the dresses I ordered. I can wear them this weekend, to
celebrate our new arrangement.
(Bill and Gordon go out, arm in arm, through the French windows, while Violet sits again at the piano and works at the score.)

 

Scene 3.

(Violet remains dreaming at the piano, while the two Misses Woodhouse appear at the back of the stage.)
The Misses Woodhouse
My dear, what’s going on?
Two men now living with her?
Of course, they’re friends: but still…
Two men! Ah well,
We mustn’t judge, no, mustn’t judge…
(The two Misses Woodhouse disappear, and the spotlight is again on Violet, dreaming at the piano, smiling to herself.)

 

Scene 4.

(Enter Butler.)
Butler
Miss Ethel Smyth.
(Ethel (not yet a dame) sweeps past him dressed in masculine tweeds and riding boots, her face half covered by a trilby.)
Ethel
Two days ago we had a date:
The Savoy at four – I waited there till eight.
And here I find you, settled with your mate,
Subdued at last to woman’s grim estate.
How could you? Oh you tease! You cad!
You wayward sylph, delicious slut, you bad,
Bad girl….
Violet
Dear Ethel, simmer down;
I was unavoidably called away from town.
In marriage some things change.
Ethel
Some things cannot change. This love
I feel, this cauterizing passion. Like Sappho,
I love delicacy, and for me
Love has the beauty and splendour
Of the Sun…
Violet
Ethel please, we mustn’t let…
Ethel
No, we mustn’t let our feelings out.
They writhe and slurp inside the belly,
They squeal and squelch like pigs in jelly,
They cry aloud for sticky kisses,
And tumble out in dreadful messes…
(Violet moves over to the harpsichord and plays frostily.)
Violet
I’m growing tired of Richard Strauss;
Cool Scarlatti fills this house:
Ancient music, clear as amber…
Ethel
And once you let me – you remember –
On that sunlit afternoon, when those tender
Lips were raised to mine and…
(Enter Max, in motoring costume, beaming.)
Violet
Max, darling! Just in time!
Max
I’ve found you out at last!
Ethel
Bother! Who is this?
Violet
Why, this is Max, my mentor:
You’ll love him, Ethel, he’s a charmer.
Come here, my pet, and I’ll embrace you.
Max
Tookees, I was passing, had to kiss you!
(They embrace facetiously as Ethel storms out, and then disengage, laughing.)
Who was that preposterous old hag?
Violet
Now Max, don’t be unkind. She is a genius,
A bit too late romantic,
But all the same, the best composer of our sex.
Max
Not your sex, surely?
Violet
Max, you know you mustn’t talk like that.
How can I love you if you are not pure?
Max
Sorry, Tookees, sorry. Oh this room!
So haunting, so enchanting!
Such innocent excess!

 

And in this choc-à-bloc
Chocolate box
A sweet lacuna,

 

A scented corner,
Where a ballerina,
Twirls and trips
On fingertips.

 

Violet, you’re like a line
From Mallarmé
Whose syllables
Infallible
Disarm me!
Violet
Oh Max: you know so much,
And what you know is just a little out of date.
(She sits at the piano.)
Listen to this: I worked it out today.
A theme with all twelve notes, none repeated.
The music of the future:
Let’s see what we can do with it.
(Max takes off his motoring jacket, rolls up his sleeves and sits beside her at the piano. They improvise together to Violet’s theme, each with delighted exclamations as some new corner is turned from Debussy, to Strauss, to Wagner, etc. Gordon and Bill come in, still arm in arm, from the garden, and sit down to listen, nodding appreciatively but clearly not understanding a thing. As the improvisation ends, and Violet and Max embrace impetuously like children, the butler enters.)
Butler
Dinner is served, madam.
Violet
Darling Max, do stay for dinner. Oh and longer. Stay forever.
Gordon
(rising and coming forward) Yes, do old man.
Bill
Do stay: it would be so delightful.
Violet, Gordon, Max and Bill
The fruit of knowledge was forbidden
But not the fruit of love.
All jealousy must now be hidden
Beyond the stars above.
(As they sing their quartet Denis enters, in school uniform. He discreetly adds his voice to make a quintet. As the music ends Violet turns to him crossly:)
Violet
Denis, you wicked boy, why are you here?
Denis
I ran away, to be with you.
Violet
(seats the others at table and rings for the butler:) You have such a sweet, bold way with you, dear boy.
Denis
Mrs Woodhouse! I couldn’t stay away,
Although I promised.
In my wilderness
You are the flower.
In my darkness
You are the light.
Violet
You foolish boy.
Denis
I’ll not trouble you.
Just let me stay,
And dream, and hear you play.
Violet
Well join us, and we’ll discuss it.
(To the butler, as he enters) Leporello, un’ altra cena!
(Enter Ethel, pushing impatiently past the Butler.)
Ethel
Ferma un po’!
All
(satirically) Non si pasce di cibo mortale
Chi si pasce di cibo celeste!
The Misses Woodhouse (appearing at the back): It’s a scandal, quite a
scandal!
Violet
Denis, you angel! You angel, yes you angel!
(They all laugh, as the music bustles quickly to an end.)

 

ACT TWO

 

Scene 1.

(Armscote, the country house. Violet is practising the harpsichord in another room. Gordon in the drawing room, reading a newspaper, dressed for the city. From the window a view over English countryside. Bill enters from the garden, dressed in country clothes.)
Gordon
You’re working hard this morning.
Going well, I hope.
Bill
Yes, and this garden will be hers,
Will be ours, Gordon.
(Bill makes himself comfortable.)
So much I’ve learned from her, but most of all
That art and music, poetry and thought
Are nothing if detached from love and loyalty.
And love and loyalty for me mean land. It is this land
That shaped us, Gordon, that we too must shape,
This soil in which our ancestors
Lie buried. And now that we – or I at least – am gardening
It comes alive for me, as never in my days
Before the rootedness of all we mean and do.
Gordon
You’re right of course, dear Bill.
But don’t forget:
what made our country great
Was not the land. It was the sea – that vast expanse
We conquered, taking law and trade,
Faith, morals, truth and simple engineering
To places which had never known these gifts,
Braving all for Empire’s sake. And now, I fear,
The storm clouds gather.
(Enter Max, in arty clothes, as though preparing for a trip to town.)
Max
Bill and Gordon, have you heard?
Lady Anderton – it’s too absurd -
Is leaving her rich husband, by degrees,
For a young fellow in blue dungarees
A fashionable artist whom she met
(You won’t believe this) through our Violet.
Apparently his greatest claim to fame
Is painting bloated carcases of game
In which Sir James’s face is clearly seen
Crawling with hidden life à la Soutine…
Gordon
How odd, dear Max, the stories that you find
Another side to Violet, I suppose, and one
That Bill and I don’t know…
(Enter Denis, in boating hat and blue blazer, holding a volume of verse.)
Denis
Gordon, Bill, Max – I’ve made a wonderful discovery: The Testament of Beauty by Robert Bridges; not a discovery really. I mean Violet introduced the book to me, explained the symbols, apparently she knows the man. Man I say, but god would be more true. These lines like arteries, ideas pumped along them by the beating heart, I want to shout the words aloud…
Max
Denis, if it were not for Violet’s high opinion, I would think you quite absurd.
Denis
I am absurd; that’s why I love her. She makes absurdity into a free choice, a way of life, a style, an offering to her.
Max
There, you’ve hit on it. She blesses us, and in return we give ourselves to her.
Denis, Bill, Gordon, Max
With Violet I am myself, wholly free, wholly me,
Her love is constant, undemanding, pure.
How firm and true is this our
four-branched tree,
In which our little song-bird sings,
And flits from me to you and you to me.
(Enter Ethel, in another masculine costume and another feminine tantrum.)
Ethel
Poppycock! Violet, I’ll have you know,
Is not a little songbird, but every bit as human as
– as human – well, as me.
Where is she anyway?
(Enter Violet.)
Your men, my dear, are quite ridiculous.
They belong to a vanished age; I think it’s time
I took you for a trip into the present tense.
Violet
The present tense – what does it mean, except
This fairy-tale called passion?
All that’s rotten in the world of fashion,
All in art that’s overblown and gross –
For instance, Ethel, Skryabin and Strauss –
Is due to passion. We live serene,
Bill, Gordon, Denis, Max and I.
And into these old instruments
I summon voices that sang once
And sing again. Together then we visit
A time of beauty: softened, deep, exquisite.
Ours is the perfect tense!
Bill, Gordon, Denis, Max
Ours is the perfect tense!
Ethel
Scrumptious tart, delicious vagabond!
Violet
These dear friends I entertain
With the chaste authentic sound
Of Farnaby, John Dowland,
Thomas Morley and John Bull;
Of Gibbons, Byrd and Robert Johnson:
England’s ancient school.
Measured by the standards of that time
Our sublimated loves become sublime.
Their tense was perfect, like their instruments.
Bill, Gordon, Denis, Max
Their tense was perfect, like their instruments.
Ethel
Their women too were instruments, mere slaves!
Violet
(ignoring her) My friends, the beauty that the masters knew
Was made by faith, and faith runs dry.
A war will come in which our youth will die,
This country that we love will yield her best
When once the flag of passion is unfurled;
And afterwards the unheroic rest
Will wander wretched through our ruined world.
Bill, Gordon, Denis, Max and Ethel
(subdued) And afterwards the unheroic rest
Will wander wretched through our ruined world.
(Violet comes forward to sit at the harpsichord, Bill slowly following her. The curtain falls on the others, leaving Bill and Violet alone at the front of the stage. Violet plays a sarabande, but the orchestra constantly interrupts with jagged, disordered and passion-soaked chords. Bill approaches her, and she shudders at his touch.)
Bill
Your hands caress the past,
Which is your refuge.
My hands possess the present
Which is you.
Violet
Ah Bill, your love waters in me
The tree of life. I am your garden, Bill,
Whose flower and fruit are music.
Bill
And kisses too.
(She rises and turns to him. The music becomes more and more disordered as their lips approach, until the noises of battle are heard, and the stage is plunged in darkness. The curtain rises to reveal:)

 

Scene 2.

(At the front, a violent clash, Denis in officer’s uniform rallies his shattered band. They fall around him: as the Germans surround him his pistol jams and he is taken prisoner.)
Voice of Violet
(distraught) Denis, ah Denis: the battalion wiped out;
no survivors!
And Bill, my refuge, posted to India, among those eligible
daughters and wanting an heir, the next Lord Barrington.
The horror! Our world in ruins!
Ah, Denis, who loved only me!
(The smoke clears to reveal Max in an army tent, writing a letter. The stage props throughout the next two scenes should be both jagged battle- débris and, when righted, beautiful old furniture.)
Max
Darling Tookees – Thank God, the news came today that Denis was not killed, but taken prisoner: brave as always, courting Death, though Death avoids him. You can sleep now my dearest.
Oh, and Tookees: we go up tonight.
It is an almost perfect day, with bright, hot sun.
What a day for a Sunday walk at Armscote.
What happiness you have brought into our lives.
And God, how I love you. Max.
P.S. We have lost three quarters of our men.
I’ve nothing left save the clothes I stand up in.
Please ask Gordon to send me an auto razor,
And a pair of corderoys from Cordings.
(The curtain falls. Sounds of battle. The curtain rises to reveal Houghton, running from the battle, his hands over his ears, with an expression of horror on his face. Max comes forward, snatches Houghton’s gun from him, and rushes forward into the fray. He is shot and lies fatally wounded, as a German ambulance patrol lifts him on to a stretcher. He is set down on a camp table. In the background Bill, Gordon and Violet appear.)
Tookees! Darling! So beautiful, so serious, so gay!
(He dies.)
Violet
Max, my darling!
Bill and Gordon
Goodbye old man, goodbye …
Violet
My Max, forever mine!
(Curtain falls to more smoke and gunfire, as the sinister war music resumes. Curtain then rises to:)

 

Scene 3

(The smoke clears to reveal the table on which Max died, now a breakfast table, where the two Misses Woodhouse sit at Burghill Court. They are served by Houghton, the butler, who stumbles drunkenly. Elements of the battlefield are still visible, Max’s body dragged to one side.)
The Misses Woodhouse
And now it comes to light: four
husbands, and two with foreign names! And that horrible female,
not just a composer but a suffragette! They say she has foreign
blood herself: oriental, Asian, a half-caste, half hindoo! No
wonder sister left the house to us, and not to Gordon!
(Houghton knocks a plate to the floor.)
Miss Woodhouse 1
(starting up) Houghton, this is too much!
Miss Woodhouse 2
You’ve been drinking Houghton, don’t deny it.
The Misses Woodhouse
We warned you, Houghton.
Houghton
Yes ma’am. It’s my nerves ma’am, can’t forget it ma’am: the noise, the screams, the…
The Misses Woodhouse
You will leave this house at once,
Houghton. James will drive you to the station.
Houghton
That’s not fair ma’am.
Miss Woodhouse 1
Don’t argue, Houghton.
(Houghton goes out, swaying, and staring fixedly in front of him.)
Miss Woodhouse 2
Good riddance!
The Misses Woodhouse
And to think we were taken in by her. So full of charm, so enchanting, making us believe that nobody was more dear to her than us. And oh so beautifully dressed: how did she afford those clothes, those jewels, those houses – and those men? Spend, spend, spend – and borrowing against our legacy! Well, we have cut her off. Serves her right. Just our signatures needed and she’s done for. Where is that will?
(They extract the will from a piece of furniture/battle débris. They are about to sign it when Houghton enters with a cooking pot on his head and a blunderbuss. He shoots them dead and goes out laughing. More smoke and battle noise as the curtain falls.)

 

Scene 4.

(The curtain rises to reveal smoke clearing away, the bodies being removed, the débris being turned over and set up as furniture, to form the hallway of a grand country house. Bill, Gordon and Violet stumble in to their inheritance. Denis follows: he has a moustache, is somewhat bent and clearly not in good health. His is a mute part now, so that the audience will not be surprised by the soprano voice.)
Violet
Darling Gordon, Darling Denis – Bill,
This will be our home – the perfect setting:
No matter, Gordon, that your sisters
Wished to cheat you of your property:
We need it, and that’s that.
A piece of country rescued
From the present tense.
We’ll have concerts, theatres, soirées,
And Bill will run the farm, and plant
The garden. And I’ll build
A Palladian Temple
In memory of Max;
Poor Max! Dear Max!
Bill
Yes. Poor Max. But the garden
Will be a monument;
And we’ll make the place
So beautiful, dear Violet.
Violet
An avenue of chestnuts there,
And here herbaceous borders,
With lavender on dry-stone walls,
Rock plants, thyme, snapdragons, –
And whatever else you will
My dear, whatever else you will.
Bill
We’ll make the place
So beautiful…
Gordon
We’ll revive our old society,
Invite our special friends,
The Sitwells, Arthur Waley, Pound and Eliot
For our own variety
Of strenuous weekends.

 

And you will practise every day,
Hold court to famous men,
And in the evening
Sometimes read to Denis here,
The poets that he loves.
(Denis smiles and nods. As they sing out their several dreams, Denis and Gordon wander into the interior of the house, and the curtain falls, concealing them. Violet is left alone with Bill.)
Violet
How this world disgusts me, Bill,
This new world made by scandal
And by Freud.

 

This world of lust
And eager passions,
Handfuls of dust
In childish fashions…

 

I practised to avoid it,
And I failed…
Bill
Your failure, dearest Violet,
Is success for me: at last
I have a present, better than the past.
(As they kiss passionately, the light changes to reveal Jessica, still reading at the desk. Violet and Bill are cloaked by darkness, as romantic music swamps the stage, obliterating the baroque continuo. After a moment, Violet is revealed again, sitting at the harpsichord, which she is closing sadly.)
Violet
Yes, I practised, hour upon hour,
And yes, the great men came: Stravinsky,
Bartok, Picasso and Diaghilev.
Dear Delius even wrote a piece for me.
But the wounds began to grow:
Max, and then poor Denis, dying,
Loving only me
For half a century.
And then the other wound,
The wound I thought would never open
The raw wound of desire.
I wanted him, I wanted Bill,
And so my magic left me,
I was dragged into the present tense,
This life of sweet illusions
Lost its innocence.
Jessica
(turning) Not so, dear Aunt,
That perfect tense you longed for
You achieved. You made
A moment of beauty
Which leaves no children
To betray it. You took
Your world into yourself,
And absconded with it
Into silence. So rest now,
Be at peace.
Violet
(goes across to a couch, stage right):
I join you Max and Denis;
Farewell dear Bill and Gordon,
Do not grieve.
(Bill and Gordon enter and silently place violets on her corpse. Jessica takes a pressed violet from the book she holds and adds it to the bouquet. The scene dwindles to darkness.)

 

EPILOGUE.

(Lights suddenly flood the stage. It is morning, with Jessica asleep on the couch where Violet’s corpse had been. She starts awake as the Auctioneer enters.)
Auctioneer
Miss Gwynne, hard at work I see. So this is the haunted room. Look! A Dolmetsch harpsichord! A Goff! A Chickering spinet!
Jessica
So, sell them. I’ll keep
Only these papers, and perhaps the lute.
Auctioneer
And what of your great-aunt’s wishes?
Jessica
She wished for many things, but most of all
To live her life as though remembering it.
She robbed what she loved of its future tense,
And here her loves remain,
Old instruments that she alone could play
And now stand silent.
Auctioneer
And when will you be moving in, Miss Gwynne?
Jessica
Never. I shall leave today. The house can be sold.
Chorus of Ghosts
Take us with you, Jessica.
Auctioneer
Sad for us, Miss Gwynne, when a little piece of England loses its rightful owner.
Jessica
Was my aunt the rightful owner, She who lived in the past?
This house deserves a present tense To be itself at last.
Chorus of Ghosts
Take us with you, Jessica.
Voice of Violet
Remember me!
(Curtain.)



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