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Lost in translation

Migrant bodies and uncanny skin

Lisa Mullen

The 1946 exhibition of artefacts from the newly excavated Sutton Hoo ship burial presented the grave-goods as the cenotaph of a chieftain whose body was missing. New questions arose for a generation scarred by the absence of those killed in the war: if the residual charisma of long-buried objects could even fill in for an absent king, what kind of power might be invoked by the objects of modernity, which surrounded and interpellated the post-war consumer?

While the Sutton Hoo hoard evoked the pharoahic glamour of status and wealth, exhibitions mounted in the early 1950s by Barbara Jones and the Independent Group challenged the verticality of aesthetic systems of taste and value. Jones’s 1951 exhibition of popular art, Black Eyes and Lemonade at the Whitechapel Gallery, brought mass-produced objects – sweets, retail packaging, souvenirs, kitsch – together with unsettling one-offs like taxidermy specimens and tattooing patterns, into the space of art.

Skin is also made uncanny in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which a mid-century post-colonial gothic emerges via the hypervisibility of newly arrived people of colour. A new sense of home and what it means to belong in a city is also elaborated in the work of the Independent Group, and in Lorenza Mazzetti’s film Together.

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Introduction

‘The world of things’: an introduction to mid- century gothic

Lisa Mullen

The introduction begins with a sketch of the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank, describing how this politically disputed and semantically overdetermined space was emblematic of the mid-century decade which produced it. A playground of ideas and disruptive potential, it told stories about unruly objects that modelled a kind of categorical recalcitrance by which subjects, too, might reassert their autonomy within the overwhelming discourses of commodification and reification which prevailed in mass culture.

T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), is cited as an example of the stagnant schema of cultural hierarchy which mid-century gothic opposed, and which this book will dismantle. A discussion of the dialogical relationship between gothicism and modernity situates the book in relation to Freud’s Unheimlich, Lukács’s concept of reification, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s defense of enchantment in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. This section lays out the principal qualities of mid-century gothic: the troubling agency, and the uncanny intimacy, of the objects of modernity. These ideas are then put into practice in a radical reading of Marghanita Laski’s sentimental 1949 novel Little Boy Lost.

Finally, the introduction asks: how would the norms of society be redrawn by the upheavals of the post-war moment? Would value and authenticity lose their meaning? Would codes become illegible? Would objects break free of the present and begin to bleed history?

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Conclusion

Beyond the mid-century

Lisa Mullen

What became of mid-century gothic? As the 1950s progressed, its warnings about alien objects capable of infiltrating and intervening in the human realm were soon drowned out by the normative bellow of advertising and mass culture, and a new appetite for distracting pleasures took hold. An early example of this attitude can be seen in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954). Jim Dixon’s epiphanic yet tautological realisation that ‘nice things are nicer than nasty ones’ marks the moment when this turn begins in British literature. Non-commodities like rubble, junk and bombs recede from view; Dixon’s proto-countercultural rebellion is expressed in terms of a restless need for hedonic fulfillment which was arguably less subversive than the mid-century’s emergent critique of consumer desire.

Dixon is the archetype of a generation unhaunted by postwar trauma, and his insistence on grasping the available pleasures of the now is traced through Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.

Contemporary culture is increasingly alert to the power of autonomous digital objects, and uncanny agency and alien intimacy continue to focus our anxiety wherever the animate and inanimate become intermixed or interchangeable.

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Bombs, prosthetics and madness

The painful nearness of things

Lisa Mullen

The final chapter demonstrates how atomic technology resonated with anxieties about objects and intimacy, and follows this motif through various narratives about prosthetics and explosives. This completes a thematic cycle which began in the first chapter of the book, where we saw how bombs created new ecosystems of undead animation, and left behind object-witnesses and rubble that told human stories; this final chapter shows how old bomb-narratives were overturned by the spectre of nuclear war. In films including Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949), the Boulting brothers’ Seven Days To Noon (1950), and Michael Anderson’s The Dam Busters (1955); as well as C.P. Snow’s novel The New Men (1954) and Marghanita Laski’s play The Offshore Island (1954), bombs leave no ruins behind them; their ambiguous materiality is entirely eerie.

The Small Back Room exemplifies the parallels that can be drawn between the bomb-object and the prosthetic, and traces how, in the atomic age, the spectrality of the dematerialized body succumbs to the penetrative incursions of radiation. The chapter examines how blankness, absence and obliteration characterized atomic culture, replacing the silent and non-reproductive human with an uncanny technological entity.

The chapter ends by looking forward to the afterlife of the atomic uncanny, in both Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964).

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Alisa Manninen

In England, the tragedy of state has offered a means to debate forms of government and the representation of the nation, addressing topics such as the origins of Britain, its division into kingdoms, conflict that erupts into civil war, and the state as a body politic that sickens due to the moral corruption of the court. The tragedy of state exposes the weaknesses of society, yet it also stages the dream of a cure for the nation. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is in many ways strongly connected to the conventions of the tragedy of state, but this chapter discusses how its interest in the presence of the supernatural leads to a questioning of what is natural or unnatural in the state of Scotland: endangered by both human fallibility and a climate of internal decay, it is caught in a cycle of treason that frustrates efforts at national regeneration.

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She-tragedy

Lust, luxury and empire in John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The False One

Domenico Lovascio

This chapter examines John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The False One with special reference to its treatment of Cleopatra, who gradually emerges as a deuteragonist of Julius Caesar. Through Cleopatra’s prominence, the play develops concerns central to the socio-political and cultural debate under King James I. Gender preoccupations and the link between effeminacy and luxury are especially important, in that they turn out to be the pivot around which the whole play ultimately revolves. In particular, the playwrights’ foray into this connection enables the expression of scepticism about the pursuit of profit as the primary driving force of colonial ventures. In its unusual deployment of she-tragedy as a venue for the exploration and criticism of contemporary (masculine) political manoeuvring, its high-spirited and pungent appropriation of Roman history, and its freshly composite characterisation of Cleopatra as an actively decisive force in determining Caesar’s path of temptation, fall and regeneration, The False One proves to be one of the most captivating plays dealing with ancient Rome written in early modern England, as well as far more entertaining and politically relevant than often assumed.

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Satiric tragedy

The Revenger’s Tragedy

Gabriel A. Rieger

In satiric tragedy folly, vice and corruption are exposed and subjected to rhetorical attack. This chapter traces the origins of satiric tragedy in the tradition of English verse satire, itself rooted in Roman satire. This rich and vital tradition ended abruptly on 1 June, 1599 with the Bishops’ Ban, when the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered an end to the production of verse satire and the confiscation and destruction of specific extant works, including works by John Marston and Thomas Middleton, authors who went on to produce some of the most notable examples of satiric drama. Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy testifies to this origin and exemplifies the reflexive nature of the genre, i.e. its condemnation reflects upon the satirist even as it is deployed against its targets. The satirist must possess an intimate knowledge of vice in order to condemn it, and yet he must retain at least the appearance of integrity. This tension is particularly pronounced in The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which Vindice disguises himself as a bawd and works towards the ruin of his own family in the pursuit of his vengeance. The chapter examines satiric tragedy as a locus for social and institutional subversion.

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Roman tragedy

The case of Jonson’s Sejanus

John E. Curran, Jr

This chapter examines Jonson’s Sejanus as exemplifying the tension generally distinguishing Renaissance English tragedies on Roman subjects: that between the accurate dramatic reconstruction of history and the building up of decorous stateliness and didacticism. Arguments from Roman history intensified the imperatives of historiography along with those of instruction and grandeur, and these imperatives tended to come into conflict. Three features Jonson and other dramatists imagined as characteristic of the Roman mind include a pronounced sense of national identity and history, a preoccupation with forms and processes of government, and a reliance on Stoic moral philosophy. The chapter also touches on Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies, Lodge’s Wounds of Civil War, Massinger’s Roman Actor, and the anonymous Statelie Tragedie of Claudius Tiberius Nero.

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Revenge tragedy

Henry Chettle’s The Tragedy of Hoffman

Derek Dunne

This chapter focuses on the enduring popularity of revenge tragedy on the early modern stage, examining the social, political and theatrical conditions that led to the genre’s development. Rather than seeing the representation of revenge onstage as indicative of a vengeful population, the chapter argues that these tragedies offer subtle and sophisticated commentaries on their historical moment.

Revenge tragedies are most often studied in terms of metatheatricality and intertextuality, but this fails to appreciate the genre as politically charged and socially inflected. The chapter demonstrates that far from being an isolated figure, the revenger is a radical agent of communal political action in the works of Kyd, Marston, Chettle and Middleton. The chapter’s case study focuses on the critically neglected Tragedy of Hoffman, which sees the intersection of discourses of piracy, insurrection and legitimacy on the early modern stage. Characters systematically subvert traditional binaries: lawful duke/convicted pirate; virtuous mother/villainous son; pious forgiveness/sinful rebellion. The text also playfully negotiates its relationship with Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the figure of Prince Jerome. By combining intertextual critique with radical politics, Chettle’s play offers a useful model for the re-examination of the revenge genre more widely.

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Daniel Cadman, Andrew Duxfield and Lisa Hopkins

Introduces the concept of the volume and provides brief outlines of the essays.