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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7.2 (2001) 265-284

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Conjuring The Tempest
Derek Jarman and the Spectacle of Redemption

Jim Ellis

In Dancing Ledge Derek Jarman explains his motivations for filming Shakespeare's play, saying, "The concept of forgiveness in The Tempest attracted me; it's a rare enough quality and almost absent in our world. To know who your enemies are, but to accept them for what they are, befriend them, and plan for a happier future is something we sorely need." 1 It should be quickly pointed out that Jarman was not generally known for making sunny and optimistic films. The film that preceded The Tempest (1979) was the punk apocalypse Jubilee (1977), and among his next films would be the even more apocalyptic The Last of England (1987), a flat-out indictment of the contemporary English nation. 2 Filming a version of The Tempest that emphasized forgiveness did not necessarily mean, then, that Jarman had capitulated to the Whig view of history, or of Shakespeare. Indeed, except for one spectacular scene near the conclusion, the film is quite dark, both literally and metaphorically. The film is shot in a gloomy country house, with the lighting kept low in order to "let the shadows invade." 3 Prospero is not an aging, benign patriarch but a virile, vaguely sadistic magician; Ariel is not his cheery, ethereal sidekick but a morose and timid slave. Which is to say Jarman's interest in forgiveness means that the film articulates a possible version of the nation, a happier future, while remembering its unhappy present. It does this primarily by intervening in the production of its past. 4

Jarman's version of The Tempest is notable for a number of things: his unusual and controversial casting choices, especially with respect to race; his radical paring down and rearrangement of the text, following William S. Burroughs's cut-up technique; and the penultimate scene of the film, which moves the masque out of act 4 and makes it the climax of the drama. These three elements of the film are, I argue, related to the film's critique of contemporary English society. The masque form in particular is crucial to Jarman's project. As David Bevington and [End Page 265] Peter Holbrook point out, "as 'the most inherently topical of all seventeenth-century art forms,' the masque was unavoidably and consciously political." 5 Although frequently dismissed as frivolous (as, indeed, were Jarman's films), 6 the masque was an art form that aimed directly at intervening in the production or reproduction of the community. As such the masque was crucially involved in the establishment of cultural difference, so that it is not surprising that many masques featured cultural others who were positioned as threats to order or as disorder itself, such as Africans, Gypsies, or masterless men. Jarman's version of The Tempest takes up these crucial aspects of the masque in order to comment on both The Tempest's cultural history and the current state of England. His aim, as with the early modern masque, is to create through spectacle the grounds for a new community.

Performing the Early Modern Body

In Performing Nostalgia Susan Bennett begins her discussion of productions of The Tempest by noting that "no Western text has played a more visible role in the representation and reconstruction of the colonial body than Shakespeare's The Tempest." She argues that in spite of the intense scrutiny the text has recently received, critics have been less than attentive to "the intervention of the performing body" in the performance text. 7 In the case of a historical text this intervention can work in a number of ways, both to resist the text, as Bennett points out, but also (perhaps unconsciously) to dehistoricize it. Recent studies of early modern culture have emphasized that the body is a historically and culturally constructed artifact, but this awareness has not been fully extended to consider what happens when an actor embodies a historical text. There is...


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