A Life and Death Matter

Historically, death masks were used to remember those who had passed away, or to create likenesses in portraits. Life masks are their slightly less macabre twin, and they both close an interpretive gap in physical memory.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I first set foot in Keats House in Hampstead, London almost exactly a year ago, I had long been fascinated by death masks – but life masks would prove to bring a whole other thrill.

Posthumous portrait of the poet John Keats by William Hilton. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder why the distinction between the two holds any significance whatsoever. One type of mask is taken from a deceased subject’s face, while the other involves the living individual. What’s the big difference?

From an interpretive standpoint, the fact that historical figures posed for life masks while living and breathing – that they perhaps might have made a remark just before the cast was taken – is staggering. The result, while it may seem trifling at the time, becomes an unrivaled connection to the subject after they have died. A life mask of a historical figure preserves their face in its tangible and living form beyond a photograph or painting, allowing us to interact with it.

Let’s give these abstract notions some context. I first came across the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his work while studying British literature in undergrad. I quickly came to love Romantic poetry, in which nature, emotion, and the metaphysical take centre stage, and Keats’ 1820 Ode on a Grecian Urn (in which the speaker marvels at the beauty of an artifact in the British Museum) captures everything I love about museums and literature.

Keats House in Hampstead Heath, London, where the poet lived from 1818-1820. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

So there I stood in Keats House, ready to connect with my favourite poet in a long awaited moment of fulfillment. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. For one thing, the house’s interpretation was excellent – I had expected a rather dated presentation of the Romantic poet’s life, but the displays are new, appealing, and most importantly, emotionally evocative. Sensory elements are manifold as we’re given opportunities to visualize Keats’ presence and listen to audio of a first-person interpreter reading his poems and personal writings. And most strikingly, there are masks.

On the ground floor is Keats’ life mask. As a forever fangirl of the poet who lived there from 1818 to 1820, I was instantly drawn to it. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because it sounds irredeemably creepy.) My strange urge to interact with the mask was validated (thank God, I’m not crazy after all!) when I read the label next to it: please touch.

John Keats’ life mask on display at Keats House, next to a label encouraging visitors to touch.
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

And that was how I ended up in Keats’ house touching his face. To further justify my museum nerdiness + mild infatuation, I can only describe the experience as unique and surreal.

With a life mask, you can engage with those who’ve predeceased you, whether you feel the contours of their face or just look. It’s so rare to find this kind of connection with individuals who died before photography gathered steam. Maybe Keats House really knew their audience, but it truly surpassed trying to picture someone’s face based on portraits: here was the unembellished truth of what Keats really looked like. Since no photographs of him exist, the mask is an invaluable instrument of truth.

Upstairs was a much more sobering reality, but affecting all the same. The lighthearted yet poignant discovery of the life mask was replaced by a sombre shift: here, behind glass, was Keats’ death mask. Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. The difference in his face was noticeable. His once robust features were gaunt and thinner, a mark of the illness that claimed his life; and like the life mask, coming face to face with Keats was unparalleled in significance. It’s appropriate that this iteration was inaccessible by touch, for obvious ethical reasons. No one needs to touch a death mask, unless they’re a collections manager! Regardless, I was glad for the rare privilege of seeing both a life and death mask of the same person, however grim the comparison.

Keats’ death mask (behind glass, as seen in my reflection).
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Life and death masks offer an indisputable connection to the subject of both. The concept is like a goldmine as far as historical and biographical interpretation goes. In front of us is the objective image of a person’s likeness, almost as if they were before our eyes. One thing’s for sure: when looking at Keats’ life mask, I felt as mesmerized as the speaker looking at the Grecian urn in the British Museum. I hope to see more life (and death) masks of public figures in the future, because their immersive value is inimitable.

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)

You Can’t Repeat the Past

Why, of course you can! Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) demonstrates that while it may seem unorthodox to decide against a by-the-book 1920s soundtrack, the choice to incorporate contemporary artists worked.

By Serena Ypelaar

When a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby got the green light (pun intended), I was over the moon. High School Me was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, despite never being assigned to read it (or perhaps that’s why I actually liked it: it wasn’t just schoolwork).

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Photo: The Gentleman’s Journal

Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire was to play narrator Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan was Daisy; matches made in heaven, basically. But one thing I just wasn’t sure about was the soundtrack. When I saw a couple of early trailers for the film, I was mildly indignant. Eager as I was, I was a purist and had expected authentic 1920s music to furnish the lavish Baz Luhrmann film. But that’s the understanding I lacked: I hadn’t seen Moulin Rouge or any of Luhrmann’s other films at that time, so his style was unknown to me. What do you mean, they’re using modern music in such a sacred film, one rooted so inextricably in the Jazz Age? I was positively affronted. How would that ever work?

But then came May, and I saw the movie. And it worked; by God, did it ever work. I don’t know how, but I finally understood the vision and appreciated the 1920s flair added to each track, as produced by Jay-Z. Joining him were Kanye West, Beyoncé and André 3000, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am, Fergie, Gotye, Sia, Florence + the Machine,
Emeli Sandé, Bryan Ferry, The xx, and Jack White. In other words, a gilded lineup if I ever saw (or heard) one.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) in New York. Photo: Pinterest

Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” is achingly wistful; The xx’s “Together” is languid and romantic. On the flip side, Fergie and will.i.am’s tracks brought the party to life, and Jay-Z, Kanye, and Beyoncé capture the enigmatic allure of both Gatsby and New York City. Jay-Z and Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” overlaid a city montage so memorably that I picture the scene whenever I hear the track.

The soundtrack is used (in conjunction with original novel quotes) to great effect at Gatsby’s party, seen here.

As seen through Nick’s eyes, Gatsby’s party is a perfect example of the soundtrack at play. In my reading of the novel, Fitzgerald knew exactly the right balance to strike between well-placed pithiness and sprawlingly eloquent description. The film soundtrack is the perfect complement: opulence, combined with Fitzgerald’s judicious prose, creates a picture of how the party might look and sound.

The Buchanans, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom (Joel Edgerton). Photo: Pinterest

Surrendering my preconceived notions was easy once swept up by the film in its totality. I appreciate how the soundtrack was able to unseat my stubborn misgivings, and I think creatively, it was a phenomenal success. When I imagine the alternative, my originally preferred 1920s jazz, I can admit that the film might then have come across as static compared to this adaptation, which lies fluidly between Fitzgerald’s era and ours. It’s a bridge to audiences, who can relate to these familiar musicians in a setting that may be largely unfamiliar. In less capable hands, it could have been a disaster. But elements of each song nod to the novel, from Florence’s “green light” in “Over the Love” to Gatsby’s ultimate fate, tacitly referenced in will.i.am’s “Bang Bang”. Interspersed with Craig Armstrong’s alternately bubbly and haunting score, the soundtrack represents all the warring interests and desires of the film, looping backstory into the ominous plot progression.

Some people didn’t even like this film. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby is staunchly faithful to the source material as far as the screenplay goes. The characters spoke many lines verbatim from the book, which warmed my purist heart; the costumes were wonderfully executed. Any liberality had to be assigned elsewhere, and I’m actually glad it was the music. This soundtrack might not have thrived with a direct repeat of past music. Instead, it acknowledges history and moves forward with it to inform something new, which the misguided Gatsby failed to do as he tried to reconstruct the past.

Gatsby (DiCaprio) reaches for the green light across the bay, obsessed with getting back to Daisy as if nothing had changed. Photo: Odyssey

This soundtrack will always be relevant to me as a reminder that our fixation on what things should be isn’t always what’s best – there are so many new and daring possibilities out there.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Though Shakespeare has been dead for over 400 years, modern renditions of his plays are still alive and well. BBC’s The Hollow Crown adapts Shakespeare’s history plays, which prompt us to examine the Bard as not only playwright, but historical interpreter.

By Serena Ypelaar

As we approach William Shakespeare’s 455th birthday – thought to be April 23, the same day as his death – one can’t deny his unparalleled legacy. Shakespeare is still studied in schools worldwide. His words and idioms still pervade the English language. And people are still adapting his works on stage and screen.

As a self-professed Shakespeare devotee, I’ve seen several productions, personal highlights being Hamlet at the Globe Theatre in London; Colm Feore in Macbeth at the Stratford Festival in Ontario; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare in High Park. I have yet to see King Lear and Richard III (my favourites) on stage, but thanks to Shakespeare’s robust canon, we’re also blessed with film and television adaptations – like The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown. Photo: BBC

Most of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays are his comedies and tragedies. When I first heard about The Hollow Crown, which adapts Shakespeare’s tetralogies, I knew I had to see it. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons, Tom Sturridge, Sophie Okonedo, and Dame Judi Dench, The Hollow Crown covers Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V in the first cycle; and Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III in the second cycle.

Shakespeare’s history plays don’t receive as much appreciation, but they’re fascinating because they demonstrate the playwright in action as a historical interpreter. Taking historical events and condensing them into dramatic plays is a sensitive act of storytelling, albeit heavily influenced by reigning powers at the time. Shakespeare composed his plays during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and his work thus appealed to Tudor and then Stuart sensibilities. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare furthered the Tudor Myth, which essentially comprises propaganda that glorified the Tudors and sought to legitimize their claim to the throne – which meant historical figures like Richard III, the Plantagenet king slain by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) were heavily vilified. Shakespeare’s contribution is Richard III, a play depicting Richard as deformed and mercilessly evil.* 

The Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West), Henry VI (Tom Sturridge), Queen Margaret (Sophie Okonedo), and the Duke of Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) in The Hollow Crown’s adaptation of Henry VI. Photo: Robert Viglasky

Since Shakespeare’s history plays were political tools used to flatter and curry favour with kings and queens, their content is open to discussion. However, to those unfamiliar with early English monarchs, the plays can also familiarize audiences with important histories. I admittedly never could get Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI straight (so many Henrys!), but after watching The Hollow Crown, I’ve grasped enough of an overview to launch further research (of the Wikipedia variety for casual learning). Much of my medieval history knowledge has therefore been shaped by Shakespeare, for better or for worse.

Like any historical adaptation, it’s important to understand the changes Shakespeare made for the sake of drama (and political appeasement). A completely accurate account may not make for the best entertainment, especially on an Elizabethan or Jacobean stage. All the same, I admire how Shakespeare’s tetralogies are all interwoven. In The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, for instance, we see the future King Richard III witnessing his father Richard of York’s death at the hands of the Lancastrians; revenge is a major theme in the plays, which The Hollow Crown illustrates well. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.
Photo: Robert Viglasky

As a screen adaptation, the delivery differs from stage productions, but the performances are so excellent that the production is still effective. Most notably, Benedict Cumberbatch’s monologues as the dastardly Richard III gave me chills. In typical Shakespearean asides which break the fourth wall, Richard’s eye contact with the viewer fosters an unsettling connection, even through a television screen. Likewise, Tom Sturridge’s depiction of both compassion and weakness as Henry VI demonstrated complexity in a sympathetic way, and so I felt – from the comfort of my sofa – swept up into the dramatic interpretation of dynastic conflicts from centuries past.

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s plays transcend entertainment because they are prominent accounts of history. Like any historian’s account of events, the Bard’s plays continue to inform our remembrance of English political history. The Hollow Crown is a reminder of this phenomenon and the weight that the legendary playwright’s voice carries. That leaves Shakespeare as not only a dramatist, but a historical interpreter shaping contemporary perceptions of history – both in the late 16th and early 17th century, but also as long as his plays continue to be performed and read.

*During the Book History and Print Culture part of my master’s degree I specialized in Richard III and how Shakespeare’s portrayal influences public memory of the Yorkist king, and I’ll be writing about him in detail in the future.

Diversity, Dramaturgy, and Broadway Musicals

Revisiting the classics with diversity in mind isn’t just a moral and artistic imperative, but a strategy for giving them new life.

By Jenny Lee

Gentle reader, we are both on the internet in 2019, so I assume you too have absorbed a lot of essays about Why It Is Important to Have Representative Media. This is so true and  well-trodden that I must glide over it and write this essay about something else entirely.

I’ve been thinking about how diversity helps us reframe and reimagine older cultural works, written in even more exclusionary times and places, and also I have been thinking about the Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of The Music Man (directed by Donna Feore).  

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Music Man and do not have a Theatre Kid™ in your life to explain it, I am here to help. It is a Broadway musical about a con man called Harold Hill who rocks up in River City, Iowa, intending to sell uniforms and equipment for a boys’ marching band before skipping town. Imagine Footloose, if Kevin Bacon wanted to sell you a tuba instead of spreading the joy of dance.

music man .jpg
Daren A. Herbert and company in The Music Man, Stratford Festival 2018. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Harold promptly falls in love with the town’s librarian, Marian (I know!), which gives him a reason to stay in town – except that he lacks the requisite musical skill to teach River City’s new boys’ band to play, and the townspeople inevitably find him out.  

In the Stratford production, this was the moment at which the production rose from charmingly classic to vividly contemporary. As the people of River City discover the con and start grimly looking for tar and feathers with which to enact justice on a captive, terrified Harold Hill, played by Daren A. Herbert, you remember that The Music Man’s quaint Main Street U.S.A. set is a recreation of the American Midwest in 1912, and Herbert’s version of Hill – unlike, say, Matthew Broderick’s – is a black man explicitly living in a time and place where lynching is an extremely concrete reality.

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Matthew Broderick and his white privilege starring as Harold Hill in the 2003 TV version. Also, yes, every single production of this musical looks like this. Photo: AP Photo/ABC, Rafy

Suddenly, this anodyne mid-century musical has much higher stakes, and resonates more deeply with a 21st-century audience – and not a word of the script has been changed. It’s an absurdly effective dramaturgical decision, and it works because of, not in spite of, the diversity of the cast.

Often, diverse casting has little effect on the interpretation of the text. Twelfth Night, for example, is set outside of real-world geography and history, and so a modern audience (ideally) shelves their ideas about race at the door, and this is fine. The Music Man is fixed in its time and setting and doesn’t have this luxury, but it has the advantage of a built-in context that much of its audience will understand. (This is why so many productions of Shakespeare are ‘set’ in 1942 Paris, 1920s New Orleans, or whatever: it’s an easy way to help your audience interpret what’s happening using pre-existing knowledge, and also justifies cool costumes.) The fear is heightened, but if you don’t know anything about Progressive-era race relations, the script still works as written. 

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You may have heard of this other musical which uses the racial diversity of its cast to underscore a historical and political point … Photo: Joan Marcus

These choices make worn-out texts feel more interesting, closer to reality, and ultimately better. Rather than rendering performers’ identities and experiences abstract, asking the audience to believe they don’t matter, thoughtful and diverse theatre-making can make race, gender, disability, or sexuality central to the audience’s understanding of an old cultural text, revealing secrets we never knew it was keeping.

Unfinished Austen: Sanditon

Sanditon is one of two novels Jane Austen never finished. Since her death, this fragment of writing has undergone a long journey of alternate interpretations. For better or for worse, everyone who interacts with Sanditon must make their own interpretive choices.

By Sadie MacDonald

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen fan in possession of six full-length novels must be in want of even more Austen stories.

Luckily for us greedy fans, more writing is available! There are several works of juvenilia as well as unfinished fragments The Watsons and Sanditon. Today I’ll focus on Sanditon, which you can read online. As an unfinished novel, it’s been subject to a lot of interpretation and conjecture over time.

First, Sanditon‘s publishing history: it wasn’t a given that it would be widely shared with readers. Jane Austen was a private person who cared deeply about her work, heavily revising manuscripts before publishing them anonymously. After Austen died, her sister Cassandra safeguarded her writing by destroying some of Jane’s letters and preserving unpublished manuscripts, which were distributed among family members after Cassandra’s death. Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included extracts of Sanditon in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871. Some of the Austen family had doubts about publishing Jane’s unfinished works, but Austen-Leigh felt that the public should read them. R.W. Chapman published the full text for the first time in 1925. There are pressing questions here regarding the ethics of publishing posthumously, which is beyond the scope of this post (fortunately, Serena will discuss this topic in an upcoming article!).

janeaustencassandrawatercolour
A watercolour of Jane Austen painted by her sister Cassandra in 1804. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sanditon tells the story of the Parker family and their speculative attempts to make the titular seaside town a resort destination for tourists. The Parkers invite Charlotte Heywood to experience Sanditon’s charms for herself. The sensible, wry Charlotte meets many characters who vary in ridiculousness. Lady Denham, for example, is a rude, tightfisted gentlewoman who delights in having her relatives compete for her favour. There’s also Mr. Parker’s three hypochondriac siblings, who have teeth pulled on the merest suspicion of gum issues, and his charming unmarried brother, Sidney Parker. The stage is set – but the story didn’t have the chance to play out.

Austen started writing Sanditon in the last months of her life, but she was forced to abandon it when she became too ill. The fragment consists of twelve chapters, ending abruptly after Charlotte compares the portraits of Lady Denham’s deceased husbands: one has a “whole-length portrait” over the mantelpiece, while the other gets an inconspicuous miniature. It’s an innocuous moment to end on – but it’s fitting for Austen’s career to end with a witty observation. What little we have of Sanditon is tantalizing, and Austen presents it with characteristic irony and snideness. Sanditon is most intriguing, however, for what we don’t get to see, and for what we must interpret ourselves.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of Sanditon, Margaret Drabble notes that “one cannot predict with any certainty the ways in which the plot would have developed.” The biggest questions surround the speculative venture; Mr. Parker’s naïvety left me pessimistic about its success. There’s also Sidney Parker to consider – is he another rakish red herring of a love interest like Wickham and Willoughby, a jovial beau like Mr. Tilney, or something else entirely? One interesting character, discussed but not seen, is Miss Lambe, “a young West Indian of large fortune” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto,* chilly and tender” and the “most important and precious” charge of her guardian. Austen novels can be insular, as they focus on the rural English upper-class; Mansfield Park is one exception, as it mentions that the Bertrams acquired their wealth through slave plantations. Sanditon could have been another chance to broaden horizons.

Unsurprisingly, others have tried to finish Sanditon. Some adaptations have questionable literary merits, but the blanks must be filled in. Prominent continuations include Marie Dobbs’s 1975 version and an attempted completion by Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy. There is also an upcoming television series. What choices will it make?

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The attribution of Marie Dobbs’s continuation makes reference to how Sense and Sensibility was originally promoted as “A New Novel by a Lady.” Photo: Amazon

We all must guess when it comes to Sanditon. By necessity, reading it is an exercise in making one’s own interpretations. In many respects this is nerve-wracking and unsatisfying. Can our own imaginations match up to Austen’s? Should they? Sanditon, perhaps, can be seen as a gift: a Jane Austen story we can make our own.

*The archaic term “mulatto” refers to people of mixed Black and white heritage and came into use during the period of Trans-Atlantic slavery. Considered offensive to English-speakers today, it is not a word that should be used casually in 2019!

A Wee Auld Dirge for Auld Robbie Burns

Thes Robbie Burns Day invites us tae ponder th’ continued timelessness ay his works. Burns’ use ay th’ Scottish vernacular (employed thus) illustrates exactly hoo his poems an’ ballads shood be performed alood.

By Serena Ypelaar

If you’re scratching your head at the text above, I’m sure you aren’t alone. For the sake of clarity, here’s what I wrote, in what you might call “plain English”:

This Robbie Burns day invites us to ponder the continued timelessness of his works. Burns’ use of the Scottish vernacular illustrates exactly how his poems and ballads should be performed aloud.

Today is indeed Robbie Burns Day, and what better time to pay homage to Scotland’s national poet than on his 260th birthday?

Born 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, Robert Burns was a tenant farmer like his father, and was (unlike many poets of his day) not particularly wealthy. His works have hence been lauded as relatable portrayals of Scottish farm life, illustrating class, regional experience, religion, and traditional culture.

“Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787”, painted by Alexander Nasmyth and held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Photo: Wikimedia

A “dirge”, as referred to in my title, is a lament for someone who has died. In this case, though Burns is gone, we aren’t lamenting him so much as celebrating his legacy.

I’ve been looking forward to this post, as Burns’ works speak so decisively in and of themselves, but also because his writing style lends itself perfectly to The Mindful Rambler’s mission. Exercising his own interpretive power, Burns writes in the Scottish vernacular, meaning he has spelled his words exactly as pronounced. He is known for a number of songs – you might know “Auld Lang Syne” from your New Year’s traditions – that, when performed, reflect the Scottish dialect. In writing this way, Burns has cemented the dialect into his texts, and therefore preserves his Scottish identity while also sharing it with the world.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, here are a few lines from Burns’ poem A Winter Night:

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!

That, in the merry months o’ spring,

Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o’ thee?

Whare wilt thou cow’r thy chittering wing

An’ close thy e’e?

Robbie Burns, “A Winter Night”, lines 19-24

As you can see, Burns has written the dialect straight into the poem, influencing how we read and interpret it.

I’ll be the first to admit – I tried to read Diana Gabaldon’s romance novel Outlander (an admission in itself) and put the book down for this very reason – the Scottish dialect. Apart from reaching page 178 and feeling that not much had yet happened, I also found it extraordinarily tiring to read the characters’ dialogue as written out in the vernacular, so I quit. (For those who haven’t read/attempted to read Outlander, think Hagrid’s dialogue in Harry Potter, except almost every character speaks that way.)

Nevertheless, in Burns’ short and much more digestible poems, I can appreciate the beauty of writing out the dialect so literally – Burns does half of the interpretive work for us. Instead of trying to envision a Scotsman and how he may sound uttering the words, we get his voice given straight to us. The Scottish vernacular is interwoven with the text itself, and we find ourselves transported into the shoes of the Scottish speaker.

“Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” (1787) by Robert Burns. The volume was first printed and issued in 1786. Photo: Futuremuseum

Burns was a lyrical poet as well, setting some of his poems to music but also writing words for Scottish folk melodies. His methods involved considering how songs would be sung before developing the lyrics. As a lyricist too, he therefore gave the pronunciation of his words the same consideration he would have us give them, as prompted by his literary style.

During my undergrad, my favourite British literature prof went the full mile and read a couple of Burns’ poems to us out loud, in the Scottish vernacular. It’s a participatory action that I think needs to be done to appreciate the extent of Burns’ literary voice and the conviction with which he proclaimed his identity. While it’s not always clear exactly what Burns is saying, one thing is irrefutable: who better for Scotland to have as its national poet than auld Robbie Burns?

Long Story Short, You Can’t Control Everything

Though storytelling is highly personal, it thrives on human interaction and the sharing of experiences, making storytelling and interpretation inherently collaborative processes.

By Serena Ypelaar

“You can’t control what others think, but you can control what you put out there.”

This idea is something a lot of people carry around, and it has a special relevance when we think of how we’re surrounded by stories. As we enter a brand new year of The Mindful Rambler, I’d like to reframe the discussion on storytelling and interpretation – and the methods of both processes – which we’ve been examining here on the blog.

In telling a story, whether it’s for entertainment, healing, documentation, critical analysis, or otherwise, there’s always a lot of pressure around how it will be received. Will people like it? Will they get it? Will they take from it the information you’re hoping to impart?

Shakespeare definitely distilled some information down when he wrote his history plays, inciting a multitude of different interpretations.
Photo: Giphy

I experience that pressure whenever I write something. Anything I write can be interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted, and the truth is that my writing won’t exist entirely under my control once it’s out there. Every person who hears a story brings their own unique experience to it, creating something new. Two people who read the same book, for example, might see it in completely different ways, meaning that the result – the experience of storytelling – actually becomes a hybridization, a meeting place between the “teller” and the “listener”. Storytelling is the act of bringing one’s story, through words, images, sound, and other sensory outputs, into being outside of one’s self.

To avoid delving too far into the abstract, I’ll use an example. If someone is describing a place while telling a story, they’ll describe it as best they can noting features they feel are important to the story or of personal value to them. The person listening to the story will then construct their own interpretation of the event, incorporating their past experiences, feelings, biases, and assumptions. In short, the story is changed by the listener’s reception of it. Every single person hearing that story will have a different conceptualization of it, and a different understanding.

It’s the same with novel writing. Writers describe a character, for instance, and we, the readers, each construct a mental image of that person (and then get angry when the film casting doesn’t match that). I don’t know how many people I heard, back in middle school, ranting about how they definitely, totally did not picture Robert Pattinson when they dreamed up Twilight’s Edward Cullen in their heads. There are also race-based biases toward literary characters which often become clear when a person of colour is cast as a character many assumed would be white (like the vampire Laurent from the same franchise), racial prejudices becoming evident with readers’ indignation.

As demonstrated by their reaction to Edi Gathegi being cast as Laurent, Twilight‘s preteen fanbase did not want a diverse cast for the 2009 film adaptation… and, according to director Catherine Hardwicke, neither did the author (Stephenie Meyer) herself.

Irrespective of a story and its content, creators must become comfortable with the notion that each person who hears their story is going to see something different. There’s no way a storyteller can construct their tale in a way that guarantees uniform interpretation. Attempting to do so can result in over-describing something and alienating readers by unconsciously (or consciously) trying to harness control over their perceptions. It’s possible to use photographs to aid a visual picture, for instance, but these will still foster further imaginings on the part of the listener. Gaps in information will be filled independently – so the point is not to describe every single thing that is within you, but rather what is important to the story. That’s how we get such engaging stories, whether in literature, history, entertainment, art, memoir, or otherwise. Allow the listener to meet you halfway, and together you can share the experience while expressing trust in another person.

Maybe that’s why storytelling is so important to us – on an instinctual level, it allows us to connect with each other and find common ground.