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Tennyson eludes the clutches of this biography

Tennyson: to Strive, to Seek, to Find - review.

Tennyson: to Strive, to Seek, to Find
John Batchelor
Chatto & Windus, 448pp, £25

Alfred Tennyson did not approve of biographies. “The desiring of anecdotes and the acquaintance with the lives of great men,” he told the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron in 1862, “[treats] them like pigs to be ripped open for the public.” For a poet who wrote that “words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within”, describing the inner life of a writer was more than just an invasion of privacy – it was a task nearly impossible to accomplish.

This has not stopped many lives of this Victorian poet laureate from being written. From his son Hallam’s memoir in 1897 (which included the caveat that though his father “disliked the notion of a long, formal biography . . . he wished that, if I deemed it better, the incidents of his life should be given . . . to preclude the chance of further and inauthentic biographies”) to the seminal critical study of his work, Tennyson by Christopher Ricks, different aspects of the poet’s life and his work continue to hold a certain interest for both critics and readers.

John Batchelor, an academic at Newcastle University, is the latest to try to capture the reasons why this shy, difficult and occasionally garrulous poet wrote as well as he did. Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire in 1809. By the time he was 41, he had written most of his poetic masterpieces, including In Memoriam A H H, “Ulysses” and “The Princess”. He would go on to write other great poems (“Maud”, “Tithonus”) but, from 1850, much of his life would be taken up with official duties and official poems as poet laureate for Queen Victoria.

Batchelor presents a scholarly, conventional, cradle-to-the-grave narrative of Tennyson. It traces his early life growing up in Lincolnshire, his time as a student at Cambridge, his reaction to the death, aged 22, of his closest friend Arthur Hallam (the “A H H ” in In Memoriam A H H), to his realisation, aged 65 (when he briefly attempted to become a playwright), that he was now a “national monument”, creatively stunted by mass public adoration.

Attentive to contextual details, Batchelor’s prose often reads like a who’s who of Victorian public figures. He evokes the houses Tennyson lived in, the people he dined with, and the various editions his poetry went through and the prices they attracted. Archives are namechecked and differing drafts of Tennyson’s poems are intimately described with all their doodles, revisions and annotations.

All of this makes Tennyson: To Strive, To Seek, To Find a learned but dry read. Among such thorough descriptions, certain anecdotes stand out: Tennyson carried In Memoriam A H H around with him for 17 years in what was, in effect, a “butcher’s account book” and he composed as he walked.

Yet these details – including the revelation that Walt Whitman and Tennyson exchanged photos with one another and that Tennyson was pleased with the “rough outward man W W not altogether unlike what I had pictured him in my fancy” – are not necessarily ones that cannot be found anywhere else.

This is disappointing. Batchelor prefaces his biography with the claim that it “presents an Alfred Tennyson who is stronger, more selfreliant, more businesslike, tougher and more centrally Victorian than previous biographies have displayed”. Yet the Tennyson who emerges – one who is “thin-skinned” and “surprisingly susceptible to easy flattery” and who required his wife, Emily, to sort out his financial details and social life up to the point at which she had a breakdown – is in many ways none of these things. Instead, he is depicted as reclusive and self-obsessed. At these moments, it is not hard to see why Tennyson demanded that so many of his papers were destroyed after his death and that his son’s official record came first.

Perhaps because of this scarce documentation, Batchelor resorts instead to meditations on Tennyson’s “exotic good looks”, repeatedly evoking, with certain nuances, the description of Tennyson as “well over six feet, broadchested, with a mysterious Spanish swarthiness and strikingly opulent dark curling hair, which he grew long”.

Tennyson’s attractiveness may have been legendary, as Batchelor claims, or integral to his image of himself as a poet, which in turn “became increasingly indistinguishable from his private self”. But over a dozen references to it add little to this biography.

What makes Tennyson’s life worth reading about – his work – is neglected in favour of these contextual descriptions in Batchelor’s book. Poems are paraphrased rather than looked at closely and scare quotes frequently appear in Batchelor’s occasional attempts at analysis (“It is hard to get a ‘handle’ on ‘The Princess’”). Focusing instead on Tennyson’s reasons for writing – his attitude to female sexuality or his love of Arthurian legends – Batchelor’s biography sadly obscures the work.

Tennyson’s skill as a poet – his ability to capture in a lyric phrase the impossibility of expressing grief or an old man’s woe in a poem written in his early twenties – is one of the reasons why, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he is still widely read today. Batchelor’s book is a useful reminder of what makes Tennyson a brilliant poet: it points the reader back in the direction of the poems. As a biography, however, it has failed to capture – or even to attempt to uncover – the man.

Emma Hogan is poetry critic for the Economist and was a judge of the 2012 Forward Prizes for Poetry

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.