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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

“Had he the motive and the cue for passion That I have?”

The conversation has continued in Janeites regarding Tom Bertram and his father's billiard table, thanks to some excellent comments there by Derrick Leigh, in quotes below:

“Arnie's post seems on cue to me, because as he was writing it, I was watching the actress Jane Horrocks exploring her Lancashire family roots on TV. Among the family mysteries was a great uncle Ernest Cunliffe, who emigrated to Australia. He was stated to be the black sheep of the family, because his occupation was 'billiard marker' a man who arranges matches, refreshments, betting and referees. This would not have gone down well with the strict Methodist and temperance aspirations of the family. "A bit of a cad" was the verdict from an expert on billiards history, and this reflects the long-held image of the game as an amusement to pass the time of idle wastrels.”

Sounds like a bookie to me, and indeed Tom Bertram would have known all about billiard markers in the course of his many escapades with games of chance.

“On the subject of slavery, there were tears on learning of the death of a 3-year old sibling in the Manchester 'cotton famine' of the 1860's. The US civil war ended raw cotton imports to Lancashire for four years, causing mass unemployment, starvation, and a large increase in deaths from disease. The Lancashire workers, however, held mass meetings and voted to continue support for Lincoln's efforts to put an end to slavery. After the civil war Lincoln sent a statue of himself to Manchester, and it still holds pride of place in the city.”

Unsung (at least in the U.S.) heroes of the (American) Civil War, thanks for teaching us some important American history!

“Arnie, I'm actually a little surprised that you didn't mention another symbolic connection between the billiard table and the other theme of MP that has been bandied about. The most important part of the table is the baize cloth that provides its playing surface, green to represent the lawns of other pursuits such as croquet.”

You are so right, Derrick, thanks! Elissa and I bandied about that green baize cloth in passing, without stopping to consider that it was there in the text for much more than just its green color.

Look here at the passages in MP which refer to the green baize. Even before I reread them, I realized that you had led me to the answer to my questions about why Tom speaks so venomously about an inanimate object like the billiard table, and also why Sir Thomas also specifically notes its absence—read on, gentle reader, for that one answer to both of those questions!:

"We must have a curtain," said Tom Bertram; "a few yards of green baize for a curtain, and perhaps that may be enough."….An enormous roll of green baize had arrived from Northampton, and been cut out by Mrs Norris (with a saving by her good management of full three-quarters of a yard), and was actually forming into a curtain by the housemaids, and still the play was wanting; and as two or three days passed away in this manner, Edmund began almost to hope that none might ever be found…..

Note that even after commandeering the enormous roll of green baize which had arrived from Northampton (and I wonder now whether Tom himself had previously and VERY quietly ordered it, as soon as he returned from Antigua, having already formed the plan to propose the theatricals BEFORE he stated it aloud, pretending it was “the thought of the moment”), there was still insufficient green baize to fulfill all theatrical requirements. Hmm….. “Edmund began almost to hope that none might ever be found” Hmm…. As usual, Edmund the wuss just THINKS things, he truly never acts, not out of principle but out of a lack of courage and decisiveness.

That’s when I realized that OF COURSE! The shortfall of green baize is made up out of the green baize cloth ALREADY INSTALLED ON THE BILLIARD TABLE!!!! When Tom says the billiard table is vile and he cannot stand it any longer, he means it—because he completely dismantles it, and turns it into curtains and, for good measure, also cannibalizes the table’s wood structure for scaffolding, props, etc for the show!

And as you say, Derrick, the symbolism of these actions speaks very loudly, once we tune our ears to the proper frequency, so as to hear it---the billiard table symbolizes the status quo of Sir Thomas’s colonial and familial empire (and, as Sales puts in his book, also King George III’s colonial empire), where human beings, whether African slaves or young women, or even male heirs who don’t want to take orders, are bought and sold like commodities. And therefore the DISMANTLING of that billiard table, for use in a play which ITSELF thematically symbolizes the humbling of an arrogant, unrepentant old sinner (Waldenheim), is the ultimate act of rebellion, not merely destroying the status quo, but enacting the reasons WHY that dismantling is a moral imperative.

What a complete reversal of the conventional understanding of the “impropriety” of Lovers Vows (actually based on Kotzebue’s The Natural Son), and its racy sexual subtext. JA is vividly demonstrating that the misdemeanors of romantic flirtation are as nothing next to the gross felonies of powerful men like Baron Wildenhaim (and, by inference, Sir Thomas and King George III)!

The play is INDEED the thing to catch the conscience of “the king”—and so it’s hardly a surprise when the “king” returns, and, like Claudius, puts an immediate stop to the disturbing performance which exposes his longstanding, secret sins under the bright lights of the chandeliers (no electric lighting back then!) of Sir Thomas’s own billiard room, the space which previously had, as JA so acutely observed at Godmersham, been an exclusive bastion of male privilege. Tom Bertram has indeed had his moment of glory in telling truths which had previously been more than a little disguised.

And, as usual, JA cannot resist a couple of ironic, epilogical moments. First we have Mrs. Norris, the “slave designated by the master to lord it over the other slaves”, scavenging the remains of the “carcass” of the billiard table for her own private purposes, like a “capo” at a concentration camp skimming off largesse as “compensation” for “services rendered”:

“The curtain, over which she had presided with such talent and such success, went off with her to her cottage, where she happened to be particularly in want of green baize.”

And then we have the master himself taking some special personal satisfaction in the complete and utter annihilation of all traces of the slave revolt, symbolized by the cannibalization of both the wood and the green baize from his beloved billiard table, which his early arrival had so fortuitously aborted:

“he had also set the carpenter to work in pulling down what had been so lately put up in the billiard-room, and given the scene-painter his dismissal long enough to justify the pleasing belief of his being then at least as far off as Northampton.”

Indeed, the “scenes” from the past and present which Sir Thomas at all costs wished to prevent from being enacted and “seen” had to be exiled far, far, far away from Mansfield Park—if this debris could not be conveniently sent to Antigua, at least as far away as the big town whence came the additional green baize which symbolized the insurrection.

“There is another symbolism of the cloth. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was customary to separate the servants' quarters in a staffed house by means of a door which was lined with green baize to provide some sound insulation. Thus the phrase 'the green baize door' became synonymous for the partition between the servants and their masters. There's even a book titled 'Behind the green baize door'
on the subject.”

YES! And of course, as you obviously were aware in mentioning that wonderful detail, Derrick, we have the EXPLICIT statement by Tom that “my father’s room will be AN EXCELLENT GREENROOM. It seems to join the billiard–room on purpose.” Could there be any greater poetic justice than to turn the master’s most private space into a room, just beyond “the green baize door”, where the “servants” (recall the famous discussion in Hamlet about the low social status of actors, as being worthy of being whipp’d, etc.) will wait for their “cues”!

Cheers,
Arnie
sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com

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