In recent weeks I’ve been listening to audio dramas on BBC Radio 4. Besides The Once and Future King (which I blogged about at length), there was also Good Omens, based on the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel about the childhood of the Antichrist, and War and Peace, based on the Tolstoy novel.
(My starting point for discovering the BBC’s audio drama is their Drama of the Week podcast which, every Friday, makes available some drama the BBC has broadcast on either BBC Radio 3 or BBC Radio 4 in the week previous. Not everything is interesting or a keeper, but there have been some gems over the years I’ve subscribed that are worth keeping.)
Over the last week, I listened to The History of Titus Groan, based on Mervyn Peake’s novels about Titus Groan and the earldom of Gormenghast. Brian Sibley, the adapter of the novels (and who also adapted The Once and Future King), wrote on Facebook after Christmas that BBC Radio 4 Extra would be rebroadcasting this production from 2011 the week after New Year’s, and I decided I would give Titus Groan a try.
My first exposure to the world Gormenghast was the BBC series from about fifteen years ago with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Steerpike and Neve McIntosh as Lady Fuschia. I later picked up a single volume of the three books (and I’m given to understand there’s a fourth) and read through that maybe a decade ago. That said, the story is only vaguely clear in my mind. Gormenghast is an ancient gothic castle, ruled over by the 76th hereditary earl. Time basically stopped there, and things are done as they’ve been done for generations. The place runs on ritual, and anything that ritual doesn’t cover is strange and weird and dangerous. Titus is the 77th Earl, born at the beginning of the story, and Titus fits awkwardly into the world of Gormenghast’s ritual, ultimately running away from his home and his Earldom in his teenage years. The BBC series ends here, but Peake’s story carries on; Titus finds himself into a modern world of strange science and industry, a place where no one has ever heard of Gormenghast, where he is pursued by mysterious people for unknown reasons, and where Titus’ sanity is often questioned, even by those who claim to love him.
This story, as well as material from Titus Awakes, the fourth book by Peake’s widow Maeve Gilmore, is adapted across six episodes. The first book, Titus Groan, spans the first two episodes. Gormenghast covers episodes three and four, Titus Alone comprises episode five and half of episode six, and Titus Awakes is the final half of the final episode. Sibley utilizes a framing device — a conversation between Titus and an Artist in the Artist’s studio — to structure the story; their conversation allows Sibley to bring in descriptions and prose from Peake’s text.
The first episode, to be honest, didn’t quite hook me, but the BBC television series wasn’t inspiring in its first hour, either. The story throws a lot of strange, even grotesque characters at you and expects you to make sense of who these people are, how they relate, and what they want. Once the drama gets rolling though, because it feels like the plot doesn’t kick in until episode two, The History of Titus Groan picks up momentum and becomes compelling. The story of Steerpike’s machinations — a kitchen boy who rises in power and importance in Gormenghast — carries the first four episodes, and Titus’ growth and maturation holds the final two.
Overall, this was strange, surrealistic, hallucinatory, and very worthwhile.
I want to elaborate on some thoughts that The History of Titus Groan raised that aren’t really pertinent to the review proper.
The Artist, played by David Warner, lives on an island “in the shape of a dolphin.” The first episode begins with the meeting of Titus Groan and the Artist, and narrative thread of the framing device leads to how Titus’ journey takes him from birth to his meeting with the Artist on the island’s jetty in the final minutes of the final episode:
The boat casts anchor, and I am at sea once more. Eventually, the mist lifts and I see it. The small island…
…in the shape of a dolphin…
…with its inlets, caves, and rocks. I am already experiencing a sense of isolation from the world. At the same time, I am overwhelmed by a sense that my arrival is awaited, expected, that this is a place where things incomplete find completion.
The half-told story. The unfinished drawing.
The jetty is dotted with figures.
Standing on the jetty, I scan the deck of the boat.
Suddenly, my eyes focus on…
A realization, I am no longer alone.
And here we are, artist and subject.
I know now that I am at one with the man on the jetty.
And I with the man on the boat.
“There is nowhere else.” Those were my mother’s parting words. “You will tread a circle. There is not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home.” And now, here, those words have come true. The road has led me home. The circle is complete.
Hold still, Titus. I must sketch you. Now. Before the moment passes.
The final half of the sixth episode, “Titus Alive,” is based, I presume, on Maeve Gilmore’s Titus Awakes, the fourth novel (which I’ve not read). What happens there is this: Titus, after a number of adventures following his escape from his Earldom, find a job as a caretaker at a nursing home where one of the patients under his care, now aged and suffering from dementia, was once an artist and writer. (The nature of his writing isn’t said, but he published books and the artist’s wife recites nonsense poetry that the artist had written for their children.) This patient is never named, but he appears to be the same Artist that Titus will meet on the jetty in episode one — the artist-patient is also played by David Warner; though he has “seen” everything else that Titus describes clearly, he cannot see the nursing home clearly but he can see the wife clearly; and he knows how to complete the nonsense rhyme. And the implication seems to be that the artist is none other than Peake himself (which would make the wife Maeve Gilmore).
If the artists are the same, then there seems to be something of a temporal problem — Titus first meets the Artist when he’s aged and infirm in the nursing home near the end of his life then meets him on the island when he’s younger, while the Artist first meets Titus on the island after Titus has already cared for him in the nursing home.
So what’s going on? Several possibilities suggest themselves.
Titus is mad and none of this, even the Artist himself, is real. This is a question that the characters raise throughout, especially once Titus escapes from Gormenghast — is there any reality to the boy’s fever dreams?
Another possibility is there’s time or dimensional travel. Episode five raises that possibility that Gormenghast is in a different world, since Gormenghast appears to be nowhere on any map and no character has ever heard of it. Like Brigadoon, it may exist outside of normal conceptions of space and time.
Or, Titus is a figment of the Artist’s imagination. As I said, there’s the sense that the Artist is none other than Peake, which would make the conversation Titus and the Artist engage in a conversation between the creation and the creator.
However, I’m going to raise another possibility, one that feels intuitively right to me. Titus and the Artist are the memory and idealized self-perception of the same person, specifically of the Artist (more specifically, of Mervyn Peake) as the elderly dementia patient.
Return to the nursing home. The artist says this: “I can no longer clearly see the people or places on your journey. I have nothing more to go on than unformed thoughts and unconnected words.” Titus desribes it as “a formidable, and strangely familiar, stronghold.”
Dementia robs memories of context and meaning. New memories are difficult to form, and even more difficult to retain. I witnessed this with my grandmother; she suffered and declined from dementia for a decade before her body finally wore out. she existed physically in the real world, but her mental world was very different. The memories she had she held intensely until they were gone, and what filled the space left behind was so strange and hallucinatory as to seem schizophrenic and almost unbelievable. She saw lakes where the clothesline stood, invisible flying squirrels lept from tree to tree, she sat on Presidential commissions and dined with Alexander the Great. And she was utterly frightening in her moments of lucidity, where something connected in her damaged psyche and she became momentarily aware of who she was.
How does this relate to The History of Titus Groan? Memory through the prism of dementia answers the problems the story raises very well. Gormenghast and its environs become the shattered fragments of childhood memory rendered in a surrealistic fashion because connecting memories and context are lost. Childhood is already confusing to a child because it appears to run on baffling and arbitrary rules and rituals, and an adult, suffering from dementia, may well find the memories of childhood distorted and inexplicable. Steerpike and the sisters Cora and Clarice become an invented and tragic past to fill in the gaps of youthful memory. The tutors and doctors of youth, already seen through a child’s eye in memories, are warped into grotesqueries as fragments are given shape. Even the adults, such as Juno and Cheeta, operate less as people than as inexplicable forces acting in Titus’ life. The one exception is the artist’s wife who feels like a real human being; if my theory is correct, then she should, as the Artist would have many more years of memories, as an adult, from which to make a mental portrait of her that acts and behaves human.
What does this mean for the framing device? What is that exactly?
I suspect that the Artist and his island is a memory that the artist/Peake returns to time and again. It’s and very probably a dwindling memory. This may be all of his art that he remembers. It’s a happy memory. Titus would be part an idealized portrait of the Artist in his youth and part the Artist’s way of making sense of his own past. He has these memories, like pieces of a puzzle, but he is missing so many of them, and Titus’ understanding of Gormenghast and his life is his way of making a complete picture.
And the caretaker in the nursing home? There was one, but he wasn’t Titus Groan. He may have reminded the artist of himself in youth, and he mapped his vision of Titus onto the caretaker and so Titus did the things for the artist that the real caretaker did.
Did Peake or Sibley intend an interpretation like that? No, I doubt it. Yet it makes intuitive sense to me. I “see” how this works.
I think that may be the point. So much of this is dreamlike and elegiac that it’s up to the listener to figure out how this works.
As for those other recent audio dramas…
The Once and Future King I wrote about at length, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Good Omens was great fun, but the final episode (which runs double the length of the previous five) has too much material for a single-length episode but not enough to fill two, resulting in a drawn out and somewhat useless final fifteen minutes.
War and Peace, ten hours long, was a bit of a waste. A lot of time and effort went into making it, there were some good performances, but it wasn’t very engaging and I didn’t find many of the characters especially appealling.