Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Pam Gems' "Stanley": Book Review

This dramatic presentation of the English artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1957) published in 1996 premiered with Anthony Sher in the title role, and it must have been rewarding to watch. (It won a Tony nomination in 1997.) For, in the written form here I review, Gems places Spencer within the tumult of his very tangled relationships with his wife Hilda and his lesbian lover (a long story, thus this play) Patricia and her partner Dorothy. Add his teacher Henry (Tonks), his contemporary Augustus (John), and his agent Dudley (Tooth) among a few others and you learn about the career and personality of quite a figure, a standout even by village characters of this island.

While resisting strenuously the eccentric label, with his canvas toted around his beloved Cookham in a pram, his horned-rimmed circular frames, and his bowl haircut, Spencer courted comparisons. His spiritually intricate, erotically charged, and/or boldly distorted visionary paintings invited acclaim or notoriety. Gems incorporates a lot of biographical material with enough skill, for a short play, not to feel like it's a history lesson. Still, having finished Kenneth Pople's big biography before reading this play, I was glad I had learned about the painter beforehand, for the speed with which much of the expository dialogue flies by demands attention (the one caution I'd share with fellow readers of this rather than viewers or students of Spencer), and perhaps on stage some relationships were clearer.

"I love being in a room and emanating 'Stanley' qualities, throwing out nice bits of me for people to pick up..." (38) So he complains to Hilda, who resists his ministrations and begins to retreat from him while Patricia, back in the village, gloms on to Stanley. Smitten, he buys her extravagances, painting landscapes to pay his way and hers rather than his own personal visions.

In Gems' dramatization, which seems to accord with what is known, Patricia leads him on. Even after he divorces Hilda, leaves his daughters, and marries Patricia, she pushes him off and in turn eggs him on. She assures him that "I'll get them for you...you shall have women, as many women as you want..." (45) While more of a procurer here than in real life perhaps, her connivance does dominate.

Henry, as Stanley later dithers while Hilda declines his return and Patricia wears him out as she retreats from him while still milking him, chastises Stanley: "You court simplicity like a dog after a b[---]ch." (66) His oddity fails to win him as many admirers around him as his fame might bring him. He tries to paint more explicit paintings of both women in his life, but his reputation appears tainted.

In the end, Patricia too divorces him even as she rushes to claim the title of Lady when Sir Stanley is knighted. Hilda goes crazy and then dies (nicely portayed in the latter state by Gems' stage direction). Patricia puts him down: "Everything you paint is deformed...lunatic...all gazing at the world with imbecile stares...Me decked out in all the finery you forced upon me..." (79) She proves sour stuff.

By contrast, the penultimate scenes rescue this downbeat tone with Dorothy, who had also labored long as a painter in Patricia's shadow; their paintings were shown only under the latter's name. Dorothy tells a journalist after the knighthood how "there is a sort of unique human clumsiness about his work--it is deliberate, of course. He paints people trapped, as it were, in their own flesh, pinned down to this earth, and yet they seek to soar and he makes that seem very possible." (85)

Stanley has the last word. In his apotheosis, still madly writing away to Hilda as he had long after their divorce and her death, he insists on the rightness of his righteousness. "God blessed me with a great talent and a great love. Now I'm alone to get on with the work. Sorrow and sadness is not me." (88) He remains the best judge of his work. He looks down at his canvas: "Beautifully done." Packing up, off he goes with his pram, down the streets of Cookham, to his home, amidst his lifelong home.
(Amazon US 1-25-14)

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