James and Sean continue their voyage into the distant history of sound recording. This time we cover the years 1894 and 1895, a time of popular unrest, great literature, and a burgeoning wax cylinder market, with at least two songs bound to be familiar to listeners in 2018. Also, as ever, plenty of Americans with moustaches, middle initials and banjos.
Sir Frederic Leighton – Flaming June
George William Joy – The Bayswater Omnibus
Edvard Munch – Madonna
Thomas Eakins – Portrait of Maud Cook
Paul Cézanne – The Basket of Apples
Valentin Serov – Portrait of Countess Varvara Musina-Pushkina
Aubrey Beardsley – Venus Between Terminal Gods
Edgar Degas – After the Bath, Woman drying herself
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Portrait of Oscar Wilde
Juan Luna – Tampuhan
Marianne Stokes – St. Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor
Vardges Sureniants – Desecrated Shrine
Winslow Homer – Cannon Rock
Walter Osborne – In a Dublin Park, Light and Shade
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat
Annabelle Serpentine Dance
Repas de bébé
Barque sortant du port
La Charcuterie mécanique
Démolition d’un mur
Cordeliers’ Square in Lyon
The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory
If obsessively uncovering secrets through ancient sound is our job here, then this is very much on-topic. It’s not exactly an obscure occult text, but The Lost Stradivarius is a great ghost story anyway, Falkner pitching it at a sweet spot somewhere between The Great God Pan and the works of M. R. James. It’s a long short story or perhaps a short novella, in any case worth an hour or so of your time.
The Lost Stradivarius
The Lost Stradivarius (free text at Project Gutenberg)
The Lost Stradivarius (free audio at Librivox)
Looking back at people looking forward never fails to fascinate – in order to judge predictions, of course, but also because of what these stories tell us about the cutting edge of thought and values at the time. On the whole The Time Machine works well from this sort of perspective, the predictions are far too far into the future to be judged, and the concepts do seem at least modern in a pre-war sort of way. As a work of literature, it starts well, sags quite a bit in the middle (or perhaps the reveal about the morlocks was shocking at some point – it isn’t now), then gets its act together again at the end.
Time travel was not an original concept, but H. G. Wells coined the term “time machine” and his concept of a sort of fourth dimensional vehicle is still the one we tend to go to when we create these kinds of stories. The ideas of The Time Machine are still everywhere, but generally not unmediated – the film adaptations have all been pretty terrible.
The Time Machine
The Time Machine (Full Text at archive.org)
The Time Machine (Audiobook at Librivox)
Is there anyone out there who is unaware of The Importance of Being Earnest? If so then hello! The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s final, most well-known play – like his earlier comedies it is largely concerned with switched identities, sparring witticisms, and situations deliberated convoluted for comic effect. It’s still wonderful and very funny 122 year later, though certain thesps have done their best to ruin it by treating it as a restoration farce.
As a work it has proved a mixed blessing for Wilde. Its lightness compared to earlier and later works has contributed to his unfair reputation as a aesthetic fop with nothing to say beyond a few bon mots, and the play’s original run at St James’s Theatre coincided with the escalating feud with The Marquess of Queensbury, which would lead to his imprisonment just fifteen weeks after the play opened. Without it, however, how much of his work would ever be performed today? Probably not a great deal.
Here are a few of the many screen adaptations.
The first one, from 1952, is naturally the best, as it features Dame Edith Evans, the definitive Lady Bracknell. This is part one, further parts can be found on YouTube.
The second is from 1986, has Paul McGann, and looks shoddily shot in the way much British TV of the 80s does (this is not necessarily a bad thing)
The third is more recent, stars Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench, and is as much of a luvvie indulgence piece as you might imagine. Only Judy Dench really puts her own stamp on it.
If you were surprised to find that Thomas Edison reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb” wasn’t the first thing in the first mix, you may also recollect that sound film started in 1927 with The Jazz Singer. But here we are 32 years earlier, and what do you know, here’s the first example of someone combining moving pictures with recorded sound.
Of course this makes sense when you think about it. If you’ve got a gramophone and an experimental film camera around, why not try using them at the same time? William Kennedy Dixon, one of the more important people in the invention of film, had two men dance while another played the violin, with a fourth man making a brief appearance in the final seconds.
Vito Russo posited that this was the first piece of gay cinema, but I’m afraid that’s probably just wishful thinking – these were different times, when it was also quite common for men to dance with men without any homosexual overtones. It’s also not a good example of either dancing or violin playing, of course.
What I do find fascinating about the clip, though, it is the picture it gives of Edison’s Black Maria Studio, especially the gigantic recording horn, suspended on a wire from the ceiling. The ugliness of the work uniforms the men wear is also very interesting – a reminder that the photos we rely on for a sense of the Victorian age are usually their Sunday best, and not a real representation of everyday life
So here it is then, sound and vision, married together as awkwardly as two studio workers forced to dance a waltz.