Did you ever wonder whether the majority of dramas, operas, and novels could or would have been avoided if the persons the drama evolves about just would talk to each other?
Well, Ot(h)ello and Desdemona do talk, but as he won’t believe any of it, to no avail, so probably — not in every case. Still, means of communication and communication habits have a great impact concerning the way we handle problems.
I’m in love with the internet I have to say, but when I have time, I still write letters in ink, with a quill. A real one which means one from a bird. You have to dip the quill into the inkpot at almost every word, and you take care as you are not as swift as with a keyboard or even a pen, and there is almost no way of correcting or erasing what you wrote.
Even in the most isolated places nowadays there is access to the internet — it may be censored at times, or the connection is slow, or fizzy, but still. In past times, the times all those lovely historic dramas take place, there was no internet, no cell, not even a decent mail service. Your world was narrowed in on the persons surrounding you — when you travelled, you became only a memory for those you left behind.
Nowadays, the internet provides help and suggestions for every problem, from gardening to sexuality and love. It comes as a huge relief at times to see you are not the only one who ever had a problem that for you seems unique, unsolvable and all-engulfing. And — it is anonymous, or can be, if you chose. Apart from German politicians no one really wants to enforce the use of the real name instead of a nick on the internet.
My own youth would have been happier in total, had I been able to get to know to other persons apart from my every-day encounters. I won’t say “real life” here, as the persons I got acquainted with via the internet — one having become a close friend in the meantime — are just as real as I am. But this is digressing I just find — back to dramas, and not my petty ones, but the ones worth writing novels and operas about: At least a part of the drama mostly arises from speechlessness, the incapability of people saying the right thing at the right time, or to tell each other what they feel.
Picking a not so random example: Melville’s Billy Budd, adapted as an opera by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto by Edward Morgan Forster. (Yes, the guy who wrote “A Room With A View” and “Maurice”.)
The cast of Billy Budd is an unhappy threesome.
Billy Budd, a handsome sailor — Very handsome, in fact. The person who makes people reconsider their former sexual orientation — on top of it “good”, bordering on Jesus-like qualities, innocent in every way that counts. He has a tiny flaw though — he stutters when put under stress. Not before long, as the drama is set on a warship, this is bound to happen.
John Claggart, the “villain,” Master-At-Arms, (imagine head of the police on board a ship,) a mysterious figure, despises and adores Billy, the two inseperably spun together — he cannot even touch him, while he doesn’t show any reluctance to physically touch or punish others of the crew. A sadist, and a tormented man.
And finally: Captain Edward Fairfax Vere. German wikipedia notes the name having as much of the latin “vero” in it, as of “to veere”, and in fact, he has both traits. He doesn’t lie — but he is not honest, at least not to himself. A literate, a humanist, but he lacks the qualities Nelson has — Melville mentions Nelson, and thus, puts him in correlation and provokes a comparison in the reader, who is bound to end up with perceiving what Cpt. Vere is lacking.
If Billy is good and Claggart is evil, Vere leaves this black and white scheme — he is gray, as he has both sides to him. The moment he beholds Billy Budd, he instantly falls for him — and it seems to be mutual, too. If this is allegoric, metaphoric, platonic or simply — love? depends on the staging and the perception. The love that dares not speak its name at least plays a part in it — Melville frequently leaves the “subtexty” level, especially when he describes Claggart’s attitude. His choice of words is at times close to scandalous. Example:
“The ship at noon, going large before the wind, was rolling on her course, and he, below at dinner and engaged in some sportful talk with the members of his mess, chanced in a sudden lurch to spill the entire contents of his soup-pan upon the new scrubbed deck. Claggart, the Master-at-arms, official rattan in hand, happened to be passing along the battery in a bay of which the mess was lodged, and the greasy liquid streamed just across his path. Stepping over it, he was proceeding on his way without comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the circumstances, when he happened to observe who it was that had done the spilling. His countenance changed. Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it too!” And with that passed on. Not noted by Billy, as not coming within his view, was the involuntary smile, or rather grimace, that accompanied Claggart’s equivocal words. Aridly it drew down the thin corners of his shapely mouth. But everybody taking his remark as meant for humourous, and at which therefore as coming from a superior they were bound to laugh “with counterfeited glee,” acted accordingly; and Billy tickled, it may be, by the allusion to his being the handsome sailor, merrily joined in; then addressing his messmates exclaimed, “There now, who says that Jimmy Legs is down on me!”
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Chapter 10
Drama ensues. Claggart is determined to destroy Billy, and sets up a plot. He forges evidence against him, aided by the Novice, a poor under-age he frequently has the sh*t beaten out of, thus subduing him terminally to his will. So Billy ends up with French money in his pocket — not a good thing to have at the time. Claggart reports to Vere.
Now that is where the ambivalence of Vere’s character starts to show. First he talks to Billy, alone. Britten cannot resist and writes an almost Verdian pseudo-love duet. “I can be your coxswain, I will do anything…” Billy assures him. Vere wouldn’t, however. He doesn’t even warn Billy beforehand, even if he is convinced of his innocence. He just calls Claggart in, who accuses Billy of treason.
The rest is canon — Billy of course, fails to give an answer — shocked out of his wits, stuttering, and at a loss with words, hitting Claggart. A well-placed punch against the forehead, causing an aneurysma maybe. Claggart drops dead.
Vere has nothing better to say than “Fated boy, what have you done?” There are no witnesses. Vere now even sets up a summary court in a haste, instead of just preparing a courts-martial. And, Vere stays silent throughout the trial, so no one speaks in Billy’s favour. He is convicted, and hanged. The biggest cheek of all occurs however right after the verdict is pronounced. Vere tells Billy, in person, in a separate room where Billy had been put to await his sentence. Now Vere begs Billy for forgiveness; he says so, or else we wouldn’t know, before he enters, as neither Melville, nor Britten follow behind those tightly shut doors. The music tells us — he is forgiven. Still, the forgiveness he is granted doesn’t end his suffering. In Melville’s case, he continues to suffer until his untimely end in a battle, where he is wounded, heavily drugged and ends up seeing Billy who he could never get out of his mind. In Britten’s case, he is doomed to suffer almost eternally — Britten and Forster make him an old man, or an ageless figure, claiming that what happened was “centuries ago.”
Soooooooo, …. What would have happened, if there had been facebook?
Google? Could this drama — ending up with one person dead and quite surprised, the other dead and quite at ease, surprisingly, the third dead and in part-agony, or alive and in severe agony — have been avoided? Maybe. It surely would have turned out differently. Maybe Vere would even have found his balls in time — meaning BEFORE calling Claggart in, or BEFORE summoning a summary court in a haste, allowing a facebook group to form gathering “likes” for a petition to the King of England to free Billy and to pardon him.
In my humble opinion, it would already have provided a great help to Cpt. Vere would he just have taken one simple facebook quiz, helping him to get to terms with his crush-of-ages on Billy.